May 20th 2162. Sol system. 19:32. Terran standard time. Venus, Restricted zone.
Bullets traced plumes of dust and sand along the scorched earth. The sun was baking down on them, roasting them in their own armor. Even within the shielded biodomes the sun still felt scorching. Despite being a relative cold exercise, it being only fifty-five degrees Celsius, they had still not acclimatized themselves entirely to the weather. And being shot at didn't exactly help.
"you'd think that they would get tired of kicking our ass after day three, but nooo, they thought that we didn't get the message so we have to do this another two days."
"Ohh shut yer mouth. At least ya don't have to lug around a goddamn LMG. This thing weight a shitload-an'-a-half."
"And you think this radio is a walk in the park? I mean, is it really necessary to bring this with us? The line is only three kilometers wide. We can use our internal com to signal each other."
Erik rolled his eyes under his helmet. The recruits were grumbling and complaining all around him. He didn't understand where they had the energy from. But then again, every recruit in history had complained about every training exercise they'd ever been on. Or so, his centurion had told him. As he recalled, he hadn't complained nearly half as much when he had been a recruit.
Having completed his eight month optio training course a year ago, he had been given command of thirty hopeful recruits who wished to join the Imperial legions. Training was hard, and by the time they had reached 'Hell month' the number had fallen to eighteen. Once the four-week exercise was completed, that number would have dwindled to five.
This was day eleven of the thirty day exercise. They had already spent four days on Earth, fighting in the woodlands of Eastern Russia, and three days fighting in the Tundra-warfare-domes on Pluto. This was the culmination of a year's intense training. Those who completed 'Hell month' would be inducted into the legions twelfth regiment, where they would remain until they had completed the fifth year of training.
"Quit your whining recruits and pull yourselves together. We don't want mewling infants in the legions, we want fighting men and women, so this is the last time I hear anything other than 'Sir, yes sir'. Is that understood!"
They all immediately responded with a roaring 'sir yes sir'.
"Now, we are going to take that hill, we are going to fight and we are going to win. Erikson, Maudur, Cho, Covering fire, the rest of you ready to move!"
He didn't wait for them to acknowledge his order. He ran down along the line and as soon as he heard the sound of Gladius rifles opening up nearby, he jumped from his cover and sprinted towards the hill where the enemy was entrenched.
In truth, he didn't blame them for their bleak outlook. They weren't meant to win this after all, they were meant to be taught obedience, calmness under fire, and to keep fighting against impossible odds.
'The hill' as it was called, was actually a fortress, with redoubts, towers, ditches, gun emplacements and artillery platforms, it was a wonder of modern siege craft. Placed on a large, red hill in several tiers, with the lowest tier being encircled in a five meter high permacrete wall, 'the hill' was a tough nut to crack.
Every year, tens of thousands of legionnaires, and thousands of exhausted, hopeful recruits, would storm the fortress. Using tanks, APC and sheer bloody-mindedness, they would batter the walls and its defenders for days. And every year they would be defeated.
It wasn't the fortress itself that was the great obstacle. It was its defenders. The castle was manned by almost ten-thousand Praetorians. A formidable force. But still, they were outnumbered by more than twenty-to-one, and so defeat for the defenders should have been inevitable, but always they prevailed, and always, the legions were defeated. It was another lesson that the recruits needed to learn. A fortress is only as strong as its defenders.
He ran as fast as he could, aiming for a large hole in the wall. He could see several other legionnaires clustered along the broken segment, huddling down behind huge blocks of permacrete, all the while being peppered with enemy machinegun fire. The area around the hill was an open No-mans-land, with the occasional slit-trench and foxhole for the attackers to seek refuge in. But the last few hundred meters to the wall the only cover to be found was a few hulls from some burned out APCs. Speed, was key.
His suit protected him from the worst of the heat, but the temperature was still unbearably hot and sweat poured down his brow. Most of his augmetics and many of the suits systems were unavailable to him. Because this was a simple exercise, he, along with all the legionnaires and praetorians, would have to rely on their skill and training. This made the game a bit more even, but not by much.
He hoped that the recruits could keep up, there was real potential in some of them, and he was sure that they would go on to make real fine legionnaires. If they had what it took.
Before he knew it, he slammed into cover besides the others. About eight seconds later, the rest of his group joined up.
He looked at the recruit nearest to him, Kanhols according to his nametag, who looked like he was about to throw up in his suit.
"Kean got hit almost at once Optio sir… Sara and Nicholas shortly after that… I think Akhar and Ingvad got hit too."
Kanhols spoke slowly, taking great gulps of air between every few words.
Erik turned towards the man on his right. The insignia on his shoulder identified him as a centurion of the second regiment of the 583rd Legion. The same legion as him.
"Sir, what are our orders?"
The centurion turned to face him, taking a second to read his rank, name and legion, and counting the number of effectives he had available.
"Those machineguns are cutting our men to pieces. We need to take them out and secure a foothold. The bastards have cut off our communications, so any heavy support is out of the question."
The centurion took another second to survey their surroundings. Erik followed his line of sight and saw that the nearest friendly unit was several hundred meters across open terrain. About a kilometer away, he could see several units of infantry huddle down behind a line of tanks, but it seemed that their advance had stopped completely.
"Looks like this is as good as it gets. I'll lead the assault, as soon as we reach the top, you and nine of your men break left and take out that MG nest."
He turned on his military issue multi-tool and made a few adjustments to the dials. A shimmering map shot out of the top and he pointed to a nearby section of the fortress.
"I'll take another nine men and hold the breach, cover your rear. The rest of the unit will provide covering fire. As soon as that MG is out of commission, you signal me and I'll have the rest of the Platoon up. Then, we head for the ordnance bunker here."
"Understod sir. I'll have my men ready in two minutes."
Erik turned around and signaled for the nearest recruits to come to him. He quickly relayed the orders he had just receive.
"God damnit! Why do I always get picked for these suicide missions?"
"Because you are a bullet magnet. Gives us real soldiers a chance to do our jobs. And besides, you volunteered for that last one."
"Yeah, but I didn't know that they had rocket-launchers did I. I know it's only dummy rounds, but man. That shit still hurts like hell."
He signaled the Centurion that his men were ready. A few seconds went by before the man yelled for everyone to haul ass and start fighting.
Erik had barely got to his feet before his position was showered with enemy fire. As he was sprinting up the steep incline of the hill he stuck the butt of his rifle under his armpit, and used his other hand for priming a grenade.
As soon as he cleared the crest he spotted his target. About thirty meter away was a sandbagged position where two purple-clad Praetorians were hastily reloading their large Leomund heavy-machine-gun. He lobbed the grenade towards them and it flew on an arch that would land it directly into their position. But one of them saw the grenade sailing through the air and quicker than he had thought was possible he alerted his comrade with a shout before they both jumped to safety.
The grenade exploded on impact, sending dozens of hard, paint-rubber-balls flying in each direction. He thought that they had both gotten away in time, but as his mad sprint brought him closer he saw that one of the Preatorians had blue color-markings all over his right leg.
He didn't have long to celebrate as his comrade got up onto his knees, holding a gun in each hand, and firing them at him. Erik just managed to throw himself to the ground in time, but he heard the thunk thunk, of a double impact and someone shouting in surprise and pain.
"God damn it I knew it, right on the same spot too."
He had to suppress a small bark of laughter when he heard that. But then the Preatorian got up and started running towards cover while firing at them. Erik leveled his Gladius and fired a string burst, but the Praetorian used his almost superhuman reflexes to duck and twist. Before he managed to hit him he disappeared in the clouds of dust and rubble.
Making sure that it wasn't just a ruse to make him come out of cover, Erik turned around and checked up on his squad. Three of them were lying on the ground, rifles on their chests, signaling that they had been hit and were 'dead'. The rest had found what cover they could and were securing the area.
He used the opportunity to survey the rest of the battlefield. From his position, it seemed that the Legions were making steady progress, further down along the wall he could see that there were other squads of legionnaires, similar to them, that had managed to capture segments of the wall. This concerned him, as the praetorians were usually a lot more fierce in a fight, and wouldn't leave their position so easily. He signaled the centurion that he had completed his assignment and that the coast was clear. He heard the man bark at the recruits still down the slope to get in position.
Maybe it's a trap.
The sound of several rifles and machineguns opening up right as the rest of the platoon had left the relative safety of the wall to rejoin them proved it.
Nope, defiantly a trap.
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 20:05. Terran standard time. Empire city, Head office of the imperial communications and Colonisation bureau.
His hands were sweating; it made steering his hover-car difficult. He wiped them on his suit for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening, but it did not make any difference. They still felt wet, dirty. Disgusting. He was sure that any minute he would be discovered. He was almost hoping that he would be stopped. Somebody, somewhere had realized what he was about to do. Had alerted the authorities. They had read one of his mails, heard him speaking to himself in his office, seen the change in him over the last few days. He felt sick. Not just from the anxiety, but also from the feeling of disgust by what he was about to do.
He sped along the long, broad roads of Empire city. On every corner was a monument, a statue, a fountain, a building that would remind him of how much humanity had accomplished, how much they had done in such a short time. How much he was about to betray.
As the car came to a halt at his personal parking space outside the enormous spire that was the heart of Imperial colonization, the Tower that was the office of the ICCB, he couldn't help but look around the almost-empty parking lot, searching for something out of place. Somebody in a long trench-coat, smoking a stick of tobacco and staring at him from under the brim of a large hat, or maybe wearing the black and gold of the Terran law enforcement. They would grab his shoulders and haul him into the back of sleek black hover-van, and no one would ever hear from him ever again.
But there was nothing. He recognized all the vehicles, and could put a face and name to all their owners. He could see the Red Audi Hornet 22C belonging to his colleague and old friend Kenneth Gelman, and the old battered Peugeot Firehawk avenger belonging to the receptionist, Michala Zeng. The ancient Ford Fotura 2 that was the pride of Nick Hems, and the clean, polished Hover-bike, that was Kenneth, the intern, would ever talk about. There were half a dozen other hover-cars there that evening, a far cry from the hundreds that would usually occupy every single lot on every single floor of the parking complex.
Jacque Hears was one of the most senior employees of the bureau, having been working there since twenty-one-twenty, when it had been called the imperial communications and extrasolar bodies research. Since then, he had steadily climbed through the ranks, being promoted to manager after two years, sub-director of communication three years after that, director shortly after. He was number five in the hierarchy, and privy to one of the best kept secrets in the Empire. That was why he was here that evening. That was why they had contacted him. And that was why his suitcase was a lot heavier than usual.
He locked the car behind him. A habit, since there was little point, but then again, there would be little point in leaving it unlocked as well. He took a deep breath to calm himself as he walked the seemingly endless route from the parking-lot, up the white marble stairs, and along between the statues that flanked the outer doors of the building.
The doors slid open with a slight hiss, and he was afforded the always breathtaking view of the enormous foyer.
Banners of every color adorned the walls and pillars, illuminated by pure, white light shining from lambs that was cleverly hidden so as to be almost invisible to the naked eye, red carpets covered the clean stone floors. The wall opposite the door was covered in watches. Each showed the time in each 'capitol' on every planet that humanity had colonized and now called home. A golden plaque, placed at eye-level, was placed beneath them all. At that distance it was impossible to make out the words, but Jacque did not need to read it to know what it said. He knew the words by heart.
"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things you have not dreamed of, Wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there, I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air. Up, up the long delirious, burning blue I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace, Where never lark or even eagle flew and, while with silent lifting mind I've trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the face of god."
On any other day it would have been uplifting, dispelling all weariness from his body and instilling him with renewed vigor. But not that day. He felt a lump catch in his throat, and he swallowed hard, blinking away a single tear. He walked right past Michala Zeng who greeted him in her light, cherry voice. Normally he would have greeted her back, but he did not acknowledge her and simply went straight to the elevators.
He selected the 111th floor and the elevator smoothly soared upwards. Through the glass window, he was able to see the foyer disappear underneath him, But still, the splendor of the building was visible wherever one looked. Banners, colonial crests, paintings and statues were on every floor, on every surface. It was like this in almost every government building he had ever been to. It was a constant reminder to everyone what it meant to be human. To be part of a race who had conquered the stars, who had made a home for themselves in an unforgiving galaxy. A race which despite wars, pandemics, catastrophes and cataclysms, had united, and together had made a permanent mark.
The elevator ground to a smooth, soundless halt. But before the door opened, the blue light of a scanner searched the small transport module. It took about six seconds before a female voice, without the slightest trace of originating from a VI, filled the room.
"Good evening Sub-director Hears, you are here outside normal working hours, please specify the purpose of your visit."
He cleared his throat before answering.
"I simply forgot my briefcase when I left the office earlier today. How silly of me."
It took less than three seconds, but to Hears, it seemed like hours before the VI replied.
"Access granted. Welcome to floor one-hundred-and-eleven. Storage, backup and maintenance."
He let out a breath he had been holding. To anyone unfamiliar with the procedures regarding the security of the 111th floor, this would have looked like a normal occurrence in such a large government office. In truth, from the beginning of the conversation, Hears life had been at risk. Had he not answered the VI with those exact words, a small amount of neuro-toxin would have been released into the air. The elevator would have been sealed, and the intruder would have died within seconds.
He steadied himself yet again, and walked down the long hallway. The 111th floor, looked almost exactly like all the other one-hundred-and-eighty floors in the building. If someone was able to make it this far there was only one small thing that, to an outsider, would mark this floor as special.
Door number six on the right, marked by the sign on it as being 'Room 257/T2, maintenance and data storage', was sealed with a gene-code-recognition lock. A very expensive, very precise gene-lock. It would draw a little drop of blood and skin from the individual who wished to enter, and would be able to identify even the smallest change in the unique gene-code. It could even detect if the gene sample had been contaminated, either because someone had genetically engineered themselves to resemble the person in question, or if they had forcefully removed the sample. There were only six people in the entire empire who was allowed to enter. And of those six, only Jacque Hears had been there within the last six months.
He pressed his finger to the pad, felt the small sting of the needle drawing the necessary amount of flesh and blood. It took a split second before the door slid open. He hurried inside, and closed it behind him.
The room he entered looked exactly as one would expect. There were about twelve data-banks along each wall, and an access terminal on the far wall. But he knew better.
He shakily crossed the room to the terminal, and punched in the twenty-digit code that would allowed him to open the secret door that was hidden behind data-bank six. It was more a hatch than a door, and he had to stoop to enter the hidden room that was the reason for the security systems. And the reason for him being here that evening.
Inside was one of the most closely guarded secrets of the human empire. One of the few sub-space-coordinate-backup devices in existence. Simply put, it was a data-bank of enormous size and complicity. Within it, was the coordinate, plotted course and gravity well of an uncountable number of stellar objects. Along with the flight course, the distance travelled and the weight and speed of every human ship currently in transit. Furthermore, it acted as a receiver for the hundreds of com-buoys that liked all of Terras colonies with the homeworld. Without it, it would be impossible to communicate to the scores of distant colonies of mankind. It probably held the calculations for hundreds of other things, but Hears only knew that it was crucial to the functioning of the empire.
Since every human ship, and the human communications network, utilized the sub-space technology to travel and send data, they all relied on the same basic information being accessible. Namely, where to go, how to get there, and how to avoid flying straight into a planet, or being distorted in the magnetic fields.
The primary Sub-space-coordinate-device, was locked safely away inside the Imperial palace, tended to by a cohort of functionaries, scientists and mathematicians. But since the palace was an obvious target for any foreign species to assault, they would need backups devices that could, at the least, make sure that every ship out there knew how to get home and could coordinate an assault.
Every SSCD some eight in total, were linked to all the other SSCDs, so that, if ever they were cut off from one another, one could update them all at once, and not have to think about which one had the most resent information. Of the eight devices, only two were not in highly secure military bases, and of those two, only one was on Earth. It was supposed to be a last ditch, in case every military emplacement were destroyed in the initial attack. They had to hide one in the most unlikely place possible, but still within reach of the armed forces, and outside of public access.
Usually, it was Hears job to make sure that the resent updates were integrated with this particular SSCD. It was his only job, and one of the reasons for his rapid climb in the corporate ladder. It required extensive background checks and several tests each year to make sure that he was a stable reliable man, and did not have contact with any criminal or terrorist organizations or used any kind of drugs that could make him unreliable.
He opened his briefcase, and withdrew a rather large spherical object. He knew it was a data device of some sort of data device. It was rather heavy and its smooth design and angles made it look disturbingly alien to him.
He hooked up the data-module to the SSCD and began uploading the data. He was shocked, but not entirely surprised, to see that the device held an unfathomable amount of information. The interface was alive with statistics, numbers and data being uploaded to the network.
It took almost an hour before the device was done.
Hears swallowed a mouthful of bile that threatened to burst from his lips. He wished that he was not such a coward. That he was a braver man. But he had to save his family.
It had been a week ago on that day. He had come home to his house, expecting to find his wife home from her work at the hospital, chatting to their two daughters who were to visit that evening. Instead, the house had been empty. On the table lay a datapad, blinking to show that there was a message recorded on it.
He turned it on, and it played the video recording. A recording that showed his wife, and his two daughters, held at gun-point. A voice, belonging to a man he could not see, told him to expect a package, and a call. If he did exactly what they told him to, they would release his family. If not, then both him, and his family, would die.
He had been a wreck. For the first time in years he had gotten blind drunk. He hadn't dared contact the authorities. He had missed two full days of work, something he had never done before, and he had cried. He had cried until he could cry no more. Then the package had arrived. And the call had come.
Now he was here. Doing something he knew was utterly wrong. But he had to do it. For the sake of his family.
Then, he typed in the code that would upload the data to the rest of the SSCDs. At exactly twenty-two-hundred, it would activate. He understood completely what that meant. Earth would be alone. It would be vulnerable. And then, something terrible would happen.
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 21:35. Terran standard time. Empire city, The Imperial palace, The Eastern briefing room.
"While his ideology is still fairly limited here on Earth, he has gained a lot more support in the outer colonies, and the cells in lower Asia and Easter Europe have grown significantly since last quarter. Some places with as much as four hundred percent!"
Augustus was paying as much attention as his exhausted mind would allow. But after nearly twelve hours of briefings, updates and statistics concerning the state of the Empire in the second Quarter of the year, his brain was filled to bursting with information. It seemed that around every corner, a new crisis was waiting, ready to pounce on the Empire as soon as he turned his back. It seemed that, despite their best efforts, the mines on Mars had again had a plummet in production, raising the price of needed minerals with nearly two-point-seven percent, the Republican movement was gaining momentum in the core-ward colonies, economic development had dropped below five percent for the first time in the last five years, the old 'Guardian' class battle- cruisers were badly in need of refitting, and to top it all off, a Human-supremacist movement was gaining momentum, threatening to harm the already tense Human-Council relations.
"And why did the intelligence service not pick up on this any sooner?"
He directed a disapproving look at Kathrina Le'Chaun, who quickly started typing on her multi-tool, bringing up several pictures of a large man shouting from an impromptu podium in front of a sizeable crowd.
"Well normally these movements tend to die out rather quickly, mostly from infighting or competition between rival groups. But this man, Simon Bolt, is not your average rabble-rouser."
She resumed typing, bringing up yet more images. This time showing a younger Man, holding a diploma.
"Born in Moscow in 2120, his father was an architect, his mother a lawyer, He graduated from Havard medical school in 2141, and then went on to found his own medical firm which he sold in 2145 for about five-point-two billion denarii, going on to travel the world for a few years. He joined the Legions but didn't make it, has written three books and earned a Pulitzer for his work on the Nairobi scandal in 2149. At some point between then and now he became feverently religious and joined the sect of 'Humanity ascendant'. Seems that he broke off to form his own splinter group, the fruits of which we see now. We estimate that he currently has about four million followers, primarily grouped here on Terra and the colonies of Medusa, Actvar, Collins world and Salvation."
Augustus waited before realizing that she was done. He sat up, with a quick look around at the other advisors to make sure nobody else had anything to add before asking.
"And why has this become a concern? There are countless such groups within the Empire, and as far as I see he is doing nothing outright illegal. Is he calling to war on other groups? Is he threatening to kill government officials?"
Simon Bolt was far from the only zealot who had risen to cause disruption within human society. He wasn't even the first that he himself had had to deal with in his short time as head of state. The only thing that concerned him was what this lunatic would do. Usually, they would target a specific group in their nearby community whom they would then prosecute. This ranged from verbal abuse to outright fighting. Luckily, these incidents had become increasingly rare and indeed, had almost seized to happen. That was, until they made first contact.
While most humans had been excited, albeit nervous, about their meeting with the Council species, a small number of people had called for immediate and unrelenting war against them. Different groups had different reasons, but mostly it all boiled down to 'Hit them before they hit us'. As the relations between the Council and the Empire turned increasingly hostile, these groups grew in size, and mass fights between those who opposed Alien interaction and those who would embrace their 'Galactic neighbors' became increasingly common.
"No my lord. At least, he isn't targeting humans. Not directly."
She pressed a button on her multi-tool, bringing up the previous picture of Bolt, and then played the recording it was apparently taken from. It showed Bolt, red face and gesturing vehemently towards the roaring crowd.
"… And while humanity stumbled on the edge of destruction, while we were at each other throats, while madmen threatened to destroy the very planet we call home. What did these so called 'peace makers' do? What did this 'Exalted assembly' these 'counselors' do? They stood by, and let us die. When unmentionable atrocities were committed, did they step in. did they prevent it? NO!"
He seemed to calm a bit. Taking a deep breath before continuing, the crowd were completely silent as they waited for their guru to continue.
"But despite all this. Despite being ignored. Despite having stared into the bottomless abyss of extinction. We clawed our way back. We rallied, we united. We rebuild. We prospered. We took to the stars and we realized that we were not alone. I speak not of the arrogant Council species who would condemn even their own to extermination. Those who would forsake their neighbors. I speak of the Old ones. They left their knowledge behind. They left their machines for all to benefit. But for us, their chosen ones, they left everything they knew. We are the heirs of their greatness."
He Boomed across the stadium where he talked. His voice, despite the recorder doing its best, was drowned out by the adulation of the crowd.
"We, who have accomplished more in a century, than the council species has accomplished in a millennia. We who took in a race of beggars and wanderers, forsaken by their erstwhile allies, abandoned to a slow death. Now, look at them."
At this he swept his hand out, apparently pointing at something or someone nearby, but outside the view of the recorder device.
"The Quarian people, our staunch friends, are now richer, healthier, stronger and have a brighter future than they had ever imagined. And why? Because we helped them. Because they saw the light. They saw humanity for what we truly are. We are the heirs to the throne. We are the true sons and daughters of the old ones. When all the myriad species of this galaxy have joined together behind us, behind our emperor, we will face a new age. A golden dawn."
More cheering ensued. He made a motion for silence with his hand which was only slowly obeyed. When silence had resumed, he raised his fist in the air.
"We are all soldiers in the galactic army of progress. All who denies our birthright are our enemies. Chief amongst these, are the Citadel council. Guilty of uncountable crimes. All who support them are guilty of the crime of compliance. No punishment is sufficient for this heresy. But if they repent, if they join us, al shall be forgiven. But until such a time, they are our enemies, and I call to war upon those who would…"
Le'chaun cut off the recording, sure that nobody needed to hear any more.
"Charming fellow isn't he. He continues for another half-an-hour. The gist of it is to start attacking Citadel citizens, be it in their space or ours." She said, her voice, as always, flat and emotionless. She looked at Augustus who sat deep in thought. This was absolutely the last thing he needed right now. An extremist group who were targeting Council officials could quite easily incite the already angry Citadel races to open war. While his ruse to undermine the Citadel councils foundation by peacefully eroding their support amongst the lesser races, trying to make them switch sides and join humanity's confederation, had been thwarted when they had been placed under siege by the 'security fleets' in orbit over their homeworlds, he still wished to resolve this conflict peacefully. However, if people like Bolt started inciting to violence against Citadel nationals, then this cold war could very well become very, very hot.
"So what do you propose we do with him?"
"Why not just kill him and have it over with?"
Everyone in the chamber turned their heads to look at the man who had spoken. Sitting in the chair usually reserved for the consul of the senate was a large brute of a man. Since Kiel apparently couldn't be bothered to attend the meeting himself he had sent his adjutant, senator Brown. Why the usually savvy politician would have picked a man who was so politically inept was beyond him. Throughout the meeting, his attention had been fleeting at best. Mostly he was reading messages on his multi-tool, else his attention lay outside the large windows, which were facing one of the gardens, and beyond that, the city.
"I beg your pardon!"
"Well if he is such a nuisance, then why not just remove the blighter?"
It took a moment for Augustus to collect himself, faced with Browns bluntness.
"Well, we do appreciate your input senator, but still, I would greatly appreciate it if we could avoid 'removing' him. While his beliefs and the views he is spreading are counterproductive, he still has a right to utter them."
But before he had the chance to continue, Brown got to his feet, looking at the timepiece on his wrist.
"Apologies sir, but I'm waiting for an important call, I'll be right back."
All in the room were struck speechless as the senator, not even waiting for the Emperors permission, got up and left the room.
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 21:45. Terran standard time. The alps, the Austrian side, Senator Kiels Summer residence.
Looking at the watch mounted on his wall once again, Kiel went over his house once more before the arrival of his guest. Everything had to be absolutely perfect.
He had already dismissed his servants for the day, along with any cleaners, gardeners or other such staff tending to the myriad of chores and task needed to keep his opulent house in top condition on a day to day basis. He would need none of them tonight and indeed, did not wish any of them to interrupt him this evening. And besides, he didn't want them to go off and tell the tabloids about his late night rendezvous with his fellow senator.
Seeing that everything was in perfect order, from the warm, flickering candles on every available surface in his house, to the simmering roast in his oven, made by his cook of course, to the clean, polished, panoramic windows that allowed him a magnificent view of the majestic Alps.
Of course, everything was usually in a state of near infinite perfection in all his houses wherever he chose to spend the night, but Kiel always made his servants put a little more effort into it when he was expecting guests. Especially, when it was miss Viola Shear. Chairman of the Republican party, and de facto leader of the republican faction within the senate.
Their relationship had begun some three months ago. In truth, he didn't know what had spurred the woman into making her advances on him, but he had certainly not objected to it. Indeed, she was quite lovely, intelligent, and, perhaps most importantly, she had a lot of powerful friends.
Their mutual support both inside and outside the senate had seen them both grow more influential over a short amount of time. Evidence to which was Violas meteoric rise within the ranks of her own party.
Come to think of it, she had probably gained more from their affair than he had. Somehow, she was always able to make him support her extensively in the senatorial votes. How she had acquired such influence over him was beyond his understanding. Most recently she had acquired his support regarding the proposition for rights to bear arms in the colonies. He did not understand what she had to gain from it, but she had pressured him to give the vote his backing, along with that of his supporters.
Why she cared about this upstart, Leo Nemak's proposal was beyond him. But, seeing how the value of the Spartan arms manufacturer rose after the vote, he assumed that it was for economic gain. Along with possible future favors from the other senator.
But all in all, for her being able to manipulate him such only showed how ambitious and clever she truly was. Both traits which he admired and found very attractive. Indeed, he himself had not been adverse to the odd romance in his own career as a lowly clerk within his own party. And now he was one of the most powerful men in the empire.
He snapped out of his reverie as he saw headlights lighting the dark path up to his house. He went over to the panoramic windows to have a clearer view of his driveway and was slightly surprised to see that the car coming was not the usual Rolls Royce Monarch that Viola usually piloted when she came to visit. The vehicle coming up his drive was a pitch black hovercar. It was big, and looked expensive, so he assumed that she had chosen to drive a more inconspicuous vehicle this evening.
He couldn't fault her. Their strength lay in their secrecy. The other senators, not knowing their intimate relationship with one another, were easier targets for political ambushes. A strategy that had served them well these last few months.
He dimmed the light slightly and poured out some wine into two crystal glasses waiting on the obsidian counter.
Expecting the doorbell to chime any second, he took the glasses in one hand and hurried towards the door, checking one last time that nothing were out of place.
He reached the door exactly two seconds before the bell chimed. Not wanting to look as if he had been waiting, he paused for another ten seconds, rehearsing his smile in a nearby mirror, before he opened.
"Evening my lovely…"
The words died on his lips as he saw that it was not Viola standing in the doorway, but rather to large men. Wearing sunglasses and leather gloves. Both of them dressed in rather plain clothes, covered by long coats that hung open from their shoulders.
His smile disappeared immediately, and he placed the two glasses on a nearby counter. Before he had a chance to demand to know who they were and what they wanted the man on the right said:
"Evening sir. Are you Senator Kiel?"
"Yes I bloody well am, now could you tell me why you are interrupting my dinner and why you are here unannounced, without an appointment."
He tried to keep calm, but in truth, he was getting nervous. He did not have any guards nearby, as he usually had when he was at home, since they had been dismissed along with the servants. He suddenly felt very vulnerable.
"If you don't' leave my property at once I shall have to call my guards and escort you away. Now if you wish to make an appointment…"
"There are no guards."
He was shocked into silence. The man on the left had been the one to utter the words.
"There are no guards here tonight Mr. Kiel. There are no guards. No servants. No cooks. You are alone."
His mouth moved. But failed to produce any words. Instead, in a desperate move, he tried slamming the door shut. But it wouldn't budge. He glanced down and saw that the man on the right had wedged his foot to the door, keeping it in place.
He started baking away from them. A myriad of thoughts ran through his head as he tried to make sense of what was happening. Who had sent them? Why were they after him? Why were they wearing gloves and sunglasses?
"I have money. I have friends. Name your price."
They slowly advanced after him. Taking slow heavy steps towards him. Each of them moved one of their hands under their coats.
"Whatever they gave you I'll pay double, TRIPPLE!"
His protest went unheard. He could see his own, sweat-soaked reflection in the reflective surfaces of their sunglasses. They withdrew their hands from the folds of their coats, each of them producing a small gun.
Kiel turned around, all reason fleeing his mind as he eyed the last route of escape. His windows.
He managed to get three steps before they opened fire.
After five seconds of an uninterrupted cascade of bullets, their guns ran empty. Not bothering to reload they simply turned around, and calmly walked back to the car. Gravel crunched under their boots as they trudged along the driveway, not the least bit worried about getting caught. After tonight, it wouldn't matter.
They got in the car and drove off. In the back, sitting with her legs crossed, going over her speech once again, was Viola Shear. She tried, and failed, to hide a smile.
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 21:52. Terran standard time. Empire city, Abbazia street nr. 832, the offices of Labtai comtec ltd.
They could see their target through their scopes. The Eastern briefing room of the Tyrants palace, some six hundred meters away, filled up much of their view. Jonathan Harris made a few more adjustments to the scope mounted on the rail, making sure to take into account the gap of wind resistance at such a distance. Just like he had been trained to do
They were on the twentieth floor of the large office building. Spread out amongst the many office cubicles and desks were about fifteen others, working in teams of three to get the large rocket-launchers in position.
Jonathan was nervous. On this, the eve of their most glorious victory, with the destruction of the emperor and his top officers imminent, he couldn't help but feel like every eye in the galaxy had turned to what he and his comrades were about to do.
Archal Nohamak was sitting by a table nearby, his ear plastered to a headset, staring stiffly at the radio system they had set up, waiting for the go ahead.
He still didn't know much of the plan. But he had understood that a few other cells had acquired some high-end experimental military tech. with it, they would be able to make a sustainable EMP that would affect the defense systems within the palace, disable their shields and cut off their communications.
He did not know how they had gotten their hands on such equipment, and he didn't bother to ask. He was just glad that they would be able to finale end the regime of the despot.
The radio made a beeping sound, and immediately Archal pressed the button. He sat in silence for about ten seconds before removing the earpiece.
"Alright, listen up everyone. Our informant has left the room. He confirms that the Tyrant and his cronies are all in position."
He looked around the room, seeing that all the launchers were ready to fire, he nodded. Taking the time to look each of his fellow freedom fighters in the eyes.
"It ends tonight."
He keyed in another frequency. Motioning for them all to get in position. They had not turned on any of the rocket or targeting systems, fearing that they might have detectors within the palace that would pick up the distinctive resonance or impulse or whatever they detected. He didn't know, but he was sure that they had something that could sense it.
They had to be quick. When the other teams turned on the devices, they would only have a short time before teams of legionnaires would be mobilized to neutralize the threat, and counter programs would be activated to combat the systems. But they wouldn't have the time.
Archal waited another few seconds before he evidently reached the leaders of the other cells.
"Activate the engines in twenty seconds."
He hung up the radio immediately after relaying the message. Not wanting to risk being detected.
He hurried over to the launcher operated by Jonathan.
His hands were sweating. The seconds felt like hours and he felt out of breath. He didn't know what to expect when the machines were turned on. But he had to be ready. He was counting the seconds in his head.
Suddenly, alarms blared throughout the palace, audible even at that distance. Small crackles ran across previously invisible shields as they were overloaded, and shut down.
"NOW EVERYONE. FIRE!"
Jonathan hurried. He turned on the targeting systems, and activated the warhead on the rocket. It was only another six seconds before it was ready to fire. But every inch of his body told him he was taking too long.
When it was ready. He fired. Almost simultaneously, the other four teams launched theirs. The pressure blew out every window on the floor, and he felt the huge pressure almost burst his eardrums.
He blinked away the dots forming before his eyes, somewhat disoriented by the backlash of the rockets being fired in such close proximity. He wanted to see the rockets impact on the side of the palace. He wanted to witness the second the Empire ended.
It felt like everything went in slow motion. They flew closer and closer to the palace, every nano-second bringing them just a few meters closer to their target, the afterburners tracing a white line across the distance.
They all impacted at almost the exact same time. Despite himself, he had to close his eyes to protect them from the powerful light. He felt the shockwave, somewhat reduced at that distance, but still powerful enough to slide the large pieces of glass even further back. It tore briefly and forcefully at his clothes, and he took a step back to steady himself.
When the shockwave had dissipated, he opened his eyes and witnessed the destruction that they had unleashed upon the seat of imperial power. It almost took his breath away.
Most of the briefing-rooms had been obliterated, huge gaping holes in the façade of the palace revealing the guttered and burnt rooms. Ruble and debris filled the plain outside the building, littering the gardens in huge chunks of rock and marble. As he watched, more of the eastern wing started to collapse, suddenly unable to support itself.
It was difficult to be sure, but he thought that he could see the charred remains of bodies in many of the rooms that were now opened to the elements.
Jonathan imagined the hellfire that had surged through the corridors, immolating any guards that had protected the tyrant. He imagined how, in the last second of life, they had known that they had been defeated, that they had known that their time was at an end.
Cheering broke out amongst the members of the cell. They had done it. They had killed the tyrant. He punched his fists into the air in sheer joy.
They could hear the sound of sporadic gunfire from different places in the city. Audible, even over the cacophony of sounds that usually filled the streets of the city at all hours of the day. They had played their part in the great revolution. Now the daunting task of subjugating the remaining Imperial strongholds in the city would begin. Their brothers and sister had already begun attacking the strongholds of their power. Army bases, airfields, police stations, armories and much more. Already, the volume and the rate of fire was growing. All around them they, he could already imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of his brothers and sisters storming the holdouts. It would be a long, bloody night. But come dawn, the Empire would be history. And the republic, would be born.
Suddenly, he spotted something odd. One of the doors in the palace that he assumed let to the hallways sprung open. A battered and blackened figure stumbled out into the open air and started to swing his arms madly.
Archal rushed over to one of the ramps, looking through their targeting systems. He touched the button to zoom in on the figure, still madly gesturing and yelling.
Jonathan was unable to hear what he was saying, the blast had left his ears ringing and the general noise of the city prevented any voices from carrying far.
However, the body language of Archal soon told him something was very wrong.
Archal rushed over to the radio, suddenly looking very distraught.
"Gather your weapons. All of you GATHER YOUR WEAPONS!"
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 23:58. Terran standard time. Empire city, The Senate.
The battle being fought at the palace was easily audible inside the senate. The rattle of gunfire, and the occasional explosion reverberated off the smooth marble walls. The senators, those who had dared the dangers of the city and had come to the meeting, were huddled in their seats, all eyes directed to the large screen that showed the burning palace, and the struggle of the imperial security forces.
Many of them were still in shock, unable to comprehend what was happening. Leo had been rudely woken by a servant who told him that an emergency meeting had been called in the senate. Already, a car was waiting for him outside of his hotel.
He had been spending his night in London, on a social visit to one of his business associates, and had certainly not expected that the senate would be called into session any time soon. It was only pure luck and foresight that he had packed his senatorial robes anyway. Looking around the half empty building, he could see that many had not been so fortunate.
Information was scarce. Nobody seemed able to contact the palace, or anywhere off-planet for that matter. They couldn't contact the naval bases on mars, or raise any of the legions, much less call upon the Praetorian guard to establish order. It was as if Earth had been cut off. None of their experts had been able to establish the cause, and they were dumbfounded. What was worse, judging from the destruction of the Palace, and the last reports of the emperor whereabouts, there was a high chance that the Emperor of humanity, the young Augustus… Was dead.
He had been shocked to discover this. Sure, the emperor had amassed a great many enemies over the years, but to actually kill him? He had not thought such a thing possible, let alone, in such a spectacular manner. There were all kinds of security protocols in place to prevent such a thing, back-up plans, contingencies and more. But it had happened none the less.
More than half the seats remained empty, either their occupants had been of-planet, or they had not dared enter the city, fearing for their lives. Personally, Leo felt much more secure here than anywhere else. Several squads of security forces were stationed outside, guarding the august assemble, alongside hundreds of line infantrymen, who had been scrambled from reserves to help quell the rebellion, and the building had already been swept for explosives, so there was no threat of such an attack.
But then again, he had a nagging feeling that the enemy was already inside the senate. He glanced at the rows were the republican party members were seated, noticing that not a single one of them were absent. While he did not believe that they had anything to do with the current uprising, he did not believe that they had been fully ignorant of it.
Watching his chronometer once again, the speaker shakily rose to his feet. The hour had struck midnight, and the meeting was called into session. They could not wait any longer for the remaining senators.
The speaker loudly banged his staff onto the marble floor, silencing the nervous murmurs.
"Upon this day, the twenty-first of May, twenty-one-sixty-two, the fifth year of the reign of Augustus Tiberius, son of Markus Tiberius, Emperor of mankind, defender of the realm, Regent of Terra and the Terran colonies, Lord of the Quarian vassalage, Supreme commander of the Terran armed forces, overlord of the forgeries of Mars, and the lord of the inner council. The senate is now called into session."
He wheezed as he paused to draw in a long breath, the traditional opening ceremony taxing the ancient man.
"On this day, the senate is called upon, as protectors of the people, to guide the human race through troubled times. We call upon the loyal servants, to once more steer us to the distant shore, and to guide us safely home. Does the senate answer the call?"
There was a loud murmur as the senators answered the greeting, as they had done a hundred times before. Many of them were anxious to begin, the burning palace a stark reminder as to why they had been assembled.
The speaker banged the staff against the marble floor again.
"The session has now begun. Who request the floor?"
At once Viola Shear, leader of the republicans, shot to her feet.
"Honored speaker, I request the floor."
As the speaker acknowledge her, she walked out onto the open floor and turned to face the gathered senators, her eyes briefly caught Leo's before she started talking.
"Honored senators. You can all see why we are assembled. The city is under attack. The heart of the empire is under siege."
At this the gathered men and women started to whisper amongst each other. Many were nervously glancing towards the screen, now showing live-feeds from several locations. Pictures of legionnaires fighting off waves of terrorists storming the palace, firing rockets and rifles and causing a huge amount of destruction.
The middle of the screen was still filled out by a video of the destroyed eastern wing of the palace, now burning in several places.
"We have no new reports concerning the condition of the emperor. But what little we know is this. The Emperor, along with his closest advisors, was having a meeting concerning the state of the empire. They were situated in the eastern wing, in Briefing room seven."
A large red ring formed on the screen. Encircling the now completely obliterated room. There was nothing left. The hallway, and much of the room on the opposing side of the briefing room, were heavily damaged. Gutted by fire and destruction. Sod blackened walls were visible, and devoid of almost anything that resembled furniture. Only piles of ash that had not yet been swept away by the breeze.
Even the floors above and below had been damaged. The walls and floors caving in to allow the senators a clear view of the decorations adorning these rooms.
"Although it pains me to say this. In all likelihood the Emperor, the young Augustus Tiberius. Is dead."
A voice quipped in from somewhere I the rear rows.
"Surely we cannot be certain of his majesty's demise before a formal inquiry and search has been conducted?"
All eyes turned once more to the screen. Leo could easily see that the only thing such a search would yield, would be a pile of ash that had previously been the emperor of mankind. Almost nothing remained of the occupants of the room. At least, nothing that was visible to them.
"And what would you have us do? Wait for days, weeks even, for a team of forensics to confirm what is visible to all? We are enveloped in a crisis now! We need leadership."
Complete silence, only broken by the sound of an explosion going off somewhere in the distance, filled the room. None said a word. None moved.
She let them all wait in silence for several seconds more before she continued.
"Which is why we must focus our attention on the future. With no clear heir to the throne, we must ensure the future of mankind. We must elect a steward to assume the position of temporary head of state."
At this the previously solemn assembly immediately changed into a group of screaming, yelling and cursing hooligans.
A senator, Leo recognized him as senator Mckillian, sprang up onto a vacant seat, pointing an accusing finger at the woman. His thick Irish brogue loaded with venom. His voice cutting through the mayhem.
"And I suppose you would nominate yourself! This treasonous talk is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Surely there are protocols to be adhered to. Certainly there are contingencies?"
All attention turned to the speaker who, realizing that he was suddenly the center of attention, straightened up, as much as his old back would allow, and addressed the gathering.
"I am afraid the honorable senator Shear is right."
His tone was solemn. As the most senior member of the senate, and as the speaker of the senate, it was his job to know every law, every protocol and every contingency available.
"Since we are unable to reach his esteemed majesty, and since he is currently unable to fulfill his role as the ruler of mankind. We have no choice but to elect a steward for the time being. The law is clear on this matter. Since emergency protocol is in effect, a steward can be elected by the senate, rather than the people."
Viola Shear was about to begin her speech again before the speaker continued.
"However! No steward of the realm can be elected from the ranks of those serving in the senate. The law is adamant on this point."
Making sure that the old man had finished, Senator Shear cleared her throat, and loudly declared.
"Which is why I nominate Ambassador Cunningham as the steward of the realm!"
Again, silence dominated the senate building. Leo was stunned speechless. He had not in his wildest imagination considered this possibility.
"Ambassador Cunningham is the most senior politician available. He has served the empire faithfully for years and has shown his loyalty on several occasions."
Another senator, Leo thought the voice belonged to senator Newman, yelled from his seat amongst the rows of the republicans.
"But he is on the citadel. And with all communications blocked by some unholy means we won't be able to contact him. We need a man who is available, who can assume the position soon."
Senator Shear held up her hand in a placating gesture.
"As luck would have it, I spoke with the esteemed ambassador yesterday. He was planning to come to Earth to discuss the diplomatic relations between the Empire and the council. He was scheduled to leave earlier this day. If he has not changed his plans then he should already be on his way and he will arrive in a matter of hours."
Leo's eyes narrowed. This all seemed too convenient. He had to speak out.
"And suppose that our beloved emperor is not dead? Suppose that he is merely wounded?"
Senator Shear turned her attention to the speaker. Looking expectantly at him.
"If his imperial majesty is alive an able to resume his position, then naturally the steward will step down and resume his previous responsibilities."
This seemed to calm some of the senators, but still there were murmurs in the corners. However, none rose to demand the floor and so the speaker called the assembly to order. The assembled senators once again turned their attention to him.
"A vote has been called for regarding the seat of steward of the empire. The first nominee is the esteemed ambassador Cunningham. Does anyone else wish to nominate a candidate?"
Leo racked his brain. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not think of another candidate who would have even the most remote chance of winning. All possible candidates were either off planet or dead, having been to the meeting with the emperor. It seemed that the rest of the senators had reached the same conclusion. None presented another candidate.
In the end, Liam Cunningham won, unopposed.
May 21th 2162. Alfdar system. 01:09. Terran standard time. Aboard the Turian dreadnought "Resilience"
General Spurius was standing in the briefing-room aboard his flagship, the "Resilience" taking a final look at the grand battle plan. Around him stood another seven generals, four Turian, two Asari, and one Salarian. Together, they were the military leaders of operation Rising Freedom. The council military operation that would see an end to human aggression and expansionism in one huge military operation.
As the leader of the joint-council military, he had planned dozens of contingencies along with generals and representatives of each of the major races in case of several scenarios involving Human/Council conflict. Based on intel obtained through reliable inside sources, he had devised plans that would see the humans defeated in a matter of days. No matter how they attacked or positioned themselves. Each scenario would ensure a quick victory, with minimal loss of life and an acceptable amount of collateral damage.
The briefing chamber on his flagship was purposefully buildt to be small and utilitarian. It would force each general to stand close together, and limit the number of people who could attend. This limited the number of questions asked, and therefore ensured that each briefing was short and to the point. Besides, it allowed for precious space to be used for gun-batteries and torpedo tubes, instead of wasting it on opulent briefing rooms and such nonsense.
He turned his attention on the nearest general, a comparatively young Turian by the name of Gnaeus Acturian. His was tall, by Turian standards, and had built up an impressive reputation as a brilliant leader, and a brutal adversary. Just the kind of man he needed to break the back of Human resistance.
"General Acturian, you will have the honor of leading battlegroup sledgehammer. Your task is to smash the human defenses in and around their core worlds allowing ground troops to safely conquer the Humans Core systems and open the route to their outlying border systems."
A red circle enveloped a cluster of stars, bordering the Attican traverse, and citadel space. Close to the galactic core.
"You are supported by General Auriana T'auna. Who will provide additional fleet support. These systems are the most heavily defended in human space, and the ground defense consists of several thousands of heavily equipped and well trained troops."
The Asari general nodded almost imperceptibly at the mention of her name. Where Acturian was brutal and hard, T'auna was soft and malleable. She would utilize the superior speed and mobility of her forces to bend around, encircle and distract enemy forces. A feinted retreat quickly became an all-out assault. More than one marauder fleet had learned that at their cost.
Although it had annoyed him that the council had insisted that this be a joint operation between all the council races, he had seen the merit of letting the Asari provide escort and transport, and the Salarians head recon and spec-ops. It would free up a larger chunk of the allocated Turian personal and ships for actual combat. Not that they needed any support at all, but in his book, there was no such thing as overkill.
He gestured to the two Turian generals on his left, one male and one female, while the hologram changed to focus on another cluster of star systems.
"General Galerius, General Numeria, to you befalls the honor of pacifying the human possessions surrounding their core planets. The human colonies are closely spaced and are able to mutually support each other. Expect large group of highly mobile strike forces to operate across the front line."
The Two Turians looked remarkably much alike. Despite having no blood-bond. They were both textbook generals. Reliable, smart and honorable. Exactly what he needed to take out the Humans outlying systems. The last thing he needed was some young glory seeking hot-shot risking the lives of his men by chasing after battles and glorious victories. He needed the systems taken down orderly and properly.
He turned to his right, looking at the remaining generals.
"General Furius, General D'Ruana, you are to contain the human within the established perimeter. While our intel suggest that the human do not have a large fleet, I will not risk a retaliation strike from some die-hard supporters on another of our planets."
Although he trusted the intel he had been provided, he still felt more secure with their flanks protected. And both general Furius and D'Ruana had earned several merits hunting pirates and brigands near the citadel and Terminus border, and so had experience with that sort of guerilla space battles.
He redirected his attention to the holoterminal, bringing up the file they had concerning human space capabilities. They had little in the way of real hands-on information, but he assumed that it originated from the STG. However, it was a lot more spotty than they usually supplied. And he did not like that.
"The human ships range in size from large cruiser to small frigates, we do not have any information regarding Dreadnoughts, there are reported sightings of at least one dreadnought sized ship. Numbers are unknown. At least a few hundred cruisers, and less than a thousand frigates."
He took a second to look his generals in the eyes, gauging their reactions to the news. They had all had access to highly classified information and pre-op intel, so the incredibly spotty reports would not come as a surprise to them. But he could still see that a few of them were concerned. He too did not feel the least bit comfortable with the way this mission was starting.
"I know this is not ideal circumstances, but whatever our spies have missed, I am sure that our superior arms can handle."
He knew that this was not a safe assumption to make, but with the huge resources of the united council races at his disposal, a few hundred cruisers would not make a significant difference. He would have liked to have waited a few more months, to gather the necessary knowledge and to take a more safe approach. But with the council breathing down his neck, pressuring him to make a quick, devastating campaign, there was not really a choice.
May 21th 2162. The Widow system. 02:12. Terran standard time. The citadel, Kithoi ward.
Small crowds had gathered in front of every public monitor as far as her eye could see. The normal hustle and bustle of the crowded streets on the ward had been replaced with an almost unearthly quiet. Everyone had stopped what they were doing to witness the atrocities unfurling in front of their very eyes.
"… Few survivors have thus far been located, scattered amongst the ruins of Viananon. While the rescue effort has only begun a few hours ago, sources, who wish to remain anonymous, comments that, and I quote, 'considering the ruthlessness and thoroughness of the attack, we do not expect to find many survivors'."
Heartrending images of bloody, bedraggled survivors clutching whatever few possessions they had managed to salvage from the ruins of their homes flashed across the screen. They all had the same look on their faces. Shock, disbelief, horror.
Spuria thought she could hear someone cry amongst the gathered near her, but they were all pressed so tightly together that she could not turn around to see who it was. She put it from her mind and returned her attention to the screen, now showing images of recordings from the planet. Recordings showing incontrovertible evidence of the perpetrators.
"… these recordings, taken from facilities on site, show images of what appears to be ships and soldiers belonging to the Human empire. Our own expert on human military, General Kaleintus, has this to say about the recordings."
The image changed, now focusing on an old Turian, lounging in a chair in a studio on somewhere on the Citadel.
"I have no doubt that these ships and soldiers are part of the human Legions, advanced first-strike units intended for spearheading assaults on military installations. I will not comment further on the implications of this, but I will say that the Council should take this very seriously."
"Damn right they should" someone shouted from somewhere in the crowd. They began pushing and shoving, and Spuria had to use all her strength not to be pushed out of the way. She forcibly pushed a Volus back when he tried to sneak around her by stepping on her toes. She would not stand for it. She elbowed her way back to the front to get a clear view of the screen.
"Quiet down, I can't hear what they are saying!"
The crowd settled down once again. Now, the screen showed the Asari councilor, giving a speech to the gathered press. A little sign up in the right corner showed that this was a live feed.
"… The unprovoked attack on a defenseless colony, the slaughter of its inhabitants, the base destruction of the infrastructure are all clear testimonies to the Humans ruthlessness, their cold-heartedness and their cruelty."
Spuria's mandibles twitched in agitation. She agreed completely with the Asari councilor. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see one or two others nodding in agreement, and more than one were shouting encouragements.
"… The council have called an emergency meeting with the military staff to discuss what may be done about the human problem. But we assure you that punitive actions will be taken against these barbarians. It has become clear to all that continued co-existence with the current human government is impossible. Their expansionism has continuously brought them at odds with the laws of the citadel. But this… This brutal genocide of peaceful citizens is far beyond anything we could have forseen. This is an act of wars. And the citadel will respond in kind."
The crowd erupted in cheers. If the humans wanted war, they would get war.
May 21th 2162. In transit to Sol. 02:40. Terran standard time. Mr. Cunninghams private leisure vessel.
Sitting comfortably in his black leather chair, drinking his last bottle of Chauvea 2149, Cunningham was watching the citadel news. He had to congratulate himself on a plan well executed. All the little pieces had neatly come together after long months of planning and scheming. It had cost him almost every bit of his wealth and influence, but in the end, he had managed to manipulate all the different groups against each other.
It had been difficult, extremely difficult, but in the end he had succeeded. Now he was on his way to Earth where he would be welcomed as the new steward. Furthermore, when his 'technicians' undid the damage done to Terran communication by the republican 'terrorist', Earth would discover that the treacherous Council had declared war on them, and that the attack was already well underway, with thousands dead, and many more wounded.
Finding itself in the middle of a war, the senate would have no choice but to grant him emergency powers. With no restrictions, and no one to stand in his way, he could lead a crushing retaliation war against the Council, and then force them to accept an embarrassing peace treaty that would see them relinquish many of their colonies, and much valuable tech.
From then on, it would be easy to get the Senate to pass the mantel of Emperor onto him. They would have no choice, he would be too popular, too powerful. With the adoration of the people as the savior of humanity, defender against the ravenous alien menace, he would be unstoppable.
Seeing Councilor Sadra T'Ilian on the screen brought forth a burst of harsh laughter. Of all the people he had had to deceive, she had proven the easiest target.
She had been so willing to believe his lies and promises. All he had to do was tell her what she wanted to hear. That humanity was weak, that the council was strong, that her assumptions had been right. That she hadn't failed.
Of course, he had had to divulge a little information, give up a few operations. In comparison, it had been a trivial price to pay. Besides, it had not taken much to convince the Councilor that he was indeed a traitor, looking for a way out.
The pilots voice sounded over the intercom, interrupting his train of thought.
"Sir, you might want to take a look at this."
He sounded nervous, and so Cunningham got up and quickly walked through the vessels different compartments until he reached the bridge.
Apart from him and the pilot, there were only a handful of personnel on the vessel, mostly technicians and servants. They were all bought and, at least to the extend a mercenary could be, loyal. He trusted that they could keep quiet. He only saw two of them on his trek from the sitting room up to the pilots chair.
The cockpit was very different from any of its counterparts on other human ships. It had had to be rebuild almost entirely, else it would also suffer under the effects of the virus installed by his agents back on Earth, and he would have been trapped on the Citadel.
It was cramped, it had to be, since the large databanks that housed the codes and matrixes required to counter the virus took up so much room. There wasn't much room anywhere else in the ship, and so they had been cramped into the bridge. Without them they could not travel through space. When they arrived at Earth, they would have to destroy it. No trace could remain that he had in any way been involved or prepared for what had happened on Earth.
"And what is it that requires my attention Mr. Shore?"
The pilot didn't say anything, he just pointed to a nearby monitor, showing a live news report from Empire City. He had spies on Earth. Spies who could transmit information on the evolving situation on Earth, using 'borrowed' technology from the Citadel. And some of them had seen fit to send this little snippet of information to him.
At first he didn't believe his eyes. But he could not deny what they were telling him.
The glass he was holding shattered into a thousand pieces as he gritted his teeth in anger.
"Change course. Head to the Ancone system."
May 20th 2162. Sol system. 21:55. Terran standard time. Empire city, The Imperial palace, The Eastern briefing room.
Dismissing the impolite senator from his mind, Augustus redirected his attention to the matter at hand. He cleared his throat drawing the attention of the rest of the gathered.
"So… Regarding Mr. Bolt. We should approach the matter with caution and…"
He saw movement near the back of the room and out of the corner of his eye he saw Michael, who had remained close at hand throughout the meeting. He was tapping a finger on his watch and sent Augustus a knowing look.
Augustus glanced at his own watch and understood his meaning. It had been almost twelve hours since he had last injected the stabilizers that were needed for his implants to function, and although his doctors promised that he would soon be able to go without, he found that he was able to concentrate better if he took it regularly. It ensured that the implants worked at full capacity and reduced stress and helped him keep calm and in control.
"… on second thought, perhaps we should hold a short brake. It will give us a chance to clear or minds and get some refreshments. We will reconvene in ten minutes."
He got up and, after a second of hesitation, the others did to. They got up and filled out the door one by one. Augustus was the first out of the door he immediately spotted Senator Brown at the end of the hall getting of his Multi-tool. He caught his eye and was puzzled to see an expression of shock on his face. The man briskly walked away while he started furiously typing on his multi-tool again.
Augustus wanted to race after him to discover what was wrong, but instead pushed it from his mind as Michael followed the others out of the Briefing room. He did not have the time now, and could always enquire later.
They walked down the hall at a brisk pace, heading towards his private chambers at the heart of the palace. He did not dare hide the drugs any other location for fear of being discovered. If someone found out that he relied on stress reducing chemical components to function, they might go to the senate, or worse, the tabloids. It would make him look weak. And at a time like this, he needed to look invincible.
When they reached the inner sanctum they wasted no time in finding the stabilizers. It was in a little bottle hidden away in a small vault behind a picture of his grandfather. He sloshed the thick orange liquids around trying to determine how long before he would have to contact his doctor again. He still had plenty left from the last refill, and wouldn't need to more for at least another two weeks.
Once he had injected the stabilizers he had Michael run a scan to see whether or not it was effective. A precaution he had started after the last drugs had started to wear off and he had had to switch to something stronger. Michael nodded and scribbled down a note in a little book he kept to make sure that the data was consistent.
They cleaned up and, after making sure that nothing was out of place, they travelled back to the Briefing room.
Turning the last corner they stopped in his tracks as he saw Senator Brown further down the hall, giving him a strange look before he, again, turned and walked the other way. He didn't have long to think about this before an alarm blared out, filling their ears with noise.
"What alarm is that, I don't recognize it?"
He turned to Michael who looked very concerned. His hand was tucked away underneath his jacket that Augustus couldn't see.
"The shields have shut down. We better get back to…"
He was cut off when Michael, looking out the window, suddenly launched himself at him, bowling him through a door.
He hit his head hard on the floor, biting his own tongue. He heard the sound of a door being slammed hard nearby and a moment later the entire building shook violently as it was racked by explosions. Augustus felt the air being stolen from his lungs as the temperature in the room suddenly surged to extreme heights. Black spots filled his vision and despite desperately clinging to consciousness, he passed out.
His mouth was filled with dust and the taste of copper. He coughed out a black gob of phlegm and when he opened his eyes, the whole room was spinning. He felt a hand on the side of his head, forcing it back a bit, before Michaels face came into view. He stared him into each eye for a few seconds before letting go.
"You have a mild concussion, take a deep breath and try to relax Augustus."
He tried to do as he was asked when suddenly his nose caught the scent of smoke and, as his senses started to return, he could hear a roaring fire somewhere and felt his skin prickle from the heat.
He quickly snapped his head around, regretting it immediately, and saw that he was in one of the smaller briefing rooms that were clustered near either end of the eastern wing.
He remembered hearing the sound of explosions and feeling a rush of unbearable heat wash over him. As his brain started to go through the scattered details of what had transpired he finale surmised that something had been detonated near where the meeting was being held. Piece by piece, he started to understand what had transpired.
He looked at Michael, holding a small, boxy pistol in one hand while he was dressing a nasty burn, that covered much of his left leg, with the other, using torn off pieces of his clothes.
Augustus felt a pang of guilt seeing how Michael had suffered at his expense. He knew that the ex-legionnaire, and his close friend, had probably saved his life.
But the man didn't show much pain, and quickly got to his feet looking around the room.
"How long was I out?"
He knew that it couldn't have been long, but he needed to know. His head still throbbed from the hard impact on the solid floor. But seeing the state that Michael Was in , and the door for that matter, he knew that he had gotten away cheaply.
"About three minutes. Apart from the concussion you seem to fine. Look Augustus son, we need to get out of here. Whoever fired those rockets might come looking for…"
Augustus was baffled. Someone had tried to assassinate him. Someone had fired rockets at him? Why, how, who?
Michael nodded, his expression somber.
"We better get to the nearest Barrack, we need to get you to safety."
"Can't we just wait here? The guards will be here any moment."
Michael shook his head.
"I cannot contact them. In fact, I cannot contact anyone. Whoever did this might be blocking our communications. No it is safer to move. If anyone comes looking, this will be the first place they will search. Be they guards or assassins."
Augustus saw the sense in that and got up slowly, steadying himself on an overturned table. He felt slightly dizzy, but he could walk.
"We go through the servant's quarters. The hallway is on fire and look like it can collapse any minute."
Augustus simply nodded. He was still in somewhat shocked after the revelation, and felt like he had lost all resemblance of control. How had it come to this?
Michael briskly walked over to the far wall and, with experience movement, found a door that was as good as invincible, blending almost completely with the wall.
He disappeared into the opening and Augustus followed a moment after. He had only rarely used these passages, usually reserved for the myriad of unseen servants who would carry out their day to day duties using these hidden passageways to keep out of the way. But Michael seemed to know them by heart. He led Augustus down one narrow passage after the other taking turns and navigating the labyrinth passages as if it was the easiest task ever performed. Augustus soon lost all semblance of direction and he could not tell where they were headed at all.
Suddenly, Michael stopped, holding up his hand and motioning for Augustus to stay put. They were standing a T-junction, the passage ahead of them splitting into two going opposite the one they were currently in. He could hear hushed voices speaking to each other down the one on the right. Michael crept closer and, peering around the corner. With slow movements he pulled back his head, and brought up his gun.
Now, Augustus could hear the voices more clearly, along with approaching footsteps.
"We take a right here, then left, then right again, then we should be under the southern ballroom. We can set up a forward base there and drive out the Tyrants guards…"
Michael apparently didn't need to hear any more. He turned the corner and fired seven shots in quick succession. The loud report of the gun reverberated down the narrow passages and made Augustus ears ring.
Hearing nothing further, he edged towards the corner and saw that Michael was reloading his weapon. Lying just six meters ahead of him was four bodies lying in a heap.
He edged closer to them and, trying to avoid the blood quickly spreading in a pool around them, crabbed what looked like a shotgun. While he was searching for more cartridges he noticed a symbol one of them wore on their right breast.
While republican dissidents had become an increasing concern on the border colonies, he had never in his wildest imagination thought that they would dare something like this. And how had they got into the palace.
"Augustus, we need to get moving. Someone might have heard that."
As if to underline his statement they heard more voices approaching them. It was difficult to tell in what direction they were originating, the sounds bounced off the walls and echoed down the passages, but Michael, taking point, lead him back the way they had come.
They took it slower now, searching every nook and cranny, turning every corner gun first. It felt like hours, but were probably only minutes, before Michael came to a halt in front of a door.
"This should be the kitchens in the Eastern part of the southern wing. If we are lucky, we might be able to make our way to the barrack from there."
They positioned themselves on each side of the door. Augustus nodded to Michael who, using his shoulder, barged through the door and turned right. Augustus was right on his tail, turning left.
There was no one in the kitchen. It had been deserted in a hurry. Kitchenware lay scattered across the room and several pots were burning on the stove.
They quickly moved on. Now came the most perilous part. To get to the Barracks, they had to out through the back entrance of the kitchens, leading out to a small balcony facing the gardens and the Parade grounds. From there it was a short fall to the gardens bellow and then a mad sprint to the nearest barrack, hidden away behind bushes and walls to ensure a peaceful, calm look.
Already Augustus could hear the sound of gunfire and explosions. It was close, almost right outside the door. The kitchen did not have any windows so they could only guess at what was going on. But Augustus had a pretty good picture. It had been too much to hope for a single dedicated cell to have launched such an audacious attack on him. How many there were he could not tell. But from the sound of it, the palace was under attack from a sizable force
"It is not safe here. We will go back through the servants passages and look for a better way."
Michael turned to leave but Augustus held up his hand.
"NO! We have to get out there. We have to contact the praetorians and the senate."
He looked at his chronometer. It had been almost an hour and a half since he had called a recces to the meeting.
"We need to get back out there. We need to seize control of the situation."
He could see that it did not sit well with the old man. But he had made up his mind.
He slowly opened the door to peer outside and gauge their cause off action. The sight before him made him gasp in horror, and he slammed the door open.
What had once been a beautiful garden was now a muddy battlefield. Bushes had been trampled by platoons of rebels and legionnaires. Dozens of civilian vehicles with improvised gun turrets and mounts littered the parade ground visible even from there. Craters, created by the impact of explosives, had replaced fountains and benches.
Bodies littered the ground. He could see the red-armored legionnaires accounted for many of the fallen, but many more were wearing a mish-mash of garments.
Rockets streamed across the sky, slamming into walls and cars, wreaking positions, and shattering glass
And behind all that, creating a dramatic backdrop to the brutal fight was Empire city, the jewel of the Empire.
And it was burning.