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  1. #11
    Alpha Legion HQ, Wolves Haven, Altoris


    Attention all soldiers of the Imperium!

    This is your Archistrategos speaking. It is with great displeasure that I make this announcement, since complaints of various unbecoming misbehaviour by Sidh troops have been brought to my attention recently. Pillage, profiteering, drunken and disorderly behaviour, vandalism, even sexual assault are among the infractions reported. In light of these reports, I sternly remind you, my co-militants, that the Commonwealth of Altoris is our ally, and we are here as liberators, not conquerors - so has been decreed by Her Divine Majesty the Empress herself, and I will uphold that decree to the letter.

    For this reason, I hereby announce that the penalties for all forms of abuse and mistreatment of allied civilians will be upgraded, effective immediately. All offenses punishable by flogging and solitary confinement shall now carry double the number of lashes and days as penalty. Offenses against person of allied civilians shall henceforth be punishable by light self-penitence in case of ordinary assault, and by hard self-penitence in cases of rape or murder. Units whose troops are court-martialed for aforementioned offenses shall be confined to their barracks until further notice. Troops who attempt to prevent lawful detention of misbehaving comrades by lawful authorities, Sidh or Commonwealth, or otherwise interfere with legal proceedings shall suffer 50 lashes, a month in solitary confinement and forfeiture of a month's pay, and shall compensate for any damages at their own expense. Repeated offenses will be punished with reassignment to penal legions.


    Due to the current unacceptable situation of allied authorities attempting to exercise their jurisdiction over Imperial troops, I have made arrangements to have MilSec detachments embedded in Commonwealth military police patrols. Civil police patrols will also be joined by Urban Security troops shortly. I have also reached an agreement with the Commonwealth government that any future Sidh offenders will be tried exclusively under Imperial law. Make no mistake, however - any Sidh whose actions tarnish the image of the Imperium and discredit our mission here will be punished to the maximum extent of the Imperial law, and I will personally see to it.

    Ave Imperator, and have a good day!

    ---


    "This announcement is to be broadcast thrice a day in all Imperial military bases and outposts, and distributed to other strategoi for the information of their men as well," Drax lectured, pacing about his office after finishing the recording, "Once that is done, I want you to contact Greyhem immediately and arrange a meeting between our MilSec and their MP commanders as soon as possible, so that we can arrange the embedment of MilSec troops in the MP patrols by the end of the week."

    "Understood, sir," D'Anna affirmed, dutifully writing down what the strategos demanded, "Have you also made arrangements for an Urban Security force to be deployed here on Altoris?"

    "No," Drax spoke, "But people outside this room don't know it. I trust that you will see to such a force being requisitioned promptly. Naturally, I want them all given a crash course in Commonwealth law and culture while they are en route, so they can get to patrolling as soon as they arrive without upsetting the cultural sensibilities of our allies."

    "I never realized you ever cared about the cultural sensibilities of the humans so much, archistrategos," D'Anna stated with a slight smile.

    "No, and I still don't care," Drax grumbled, "However, Her Majesty's orders about the conduct expected of our troops have been very clear from the very beginning, and I'll be damned before I let even a single complaint about the conduct of my men reach her ears! Speaking of unbecoming conduct, what's the status on that rape case?"

    "The offender at least had the decency to die like a proper Sidh," D'Anna explained, sounding rather impressed with the individual especially given her personal disdain for rapists, "He managed to piss off the entire Commonwealth court-martial convened to judge him by refusing to even stand up before it or to acknowledge its authority, calling the judges a bunch of useless cunt-borns not worth a single drop of the Sidh blood shed for them during this war, and the whole proceeding a farce. Said he has no regrets as to what he'd done, and since the sentence was already decided, told them to just get it over with. The chap further irritated the court by falling asleep as the witnesses were questioned and his death sentence was pronounced, and when asked if he had a last statement, shocked them again."

    "Sounds like my kind of guy..." Drax chuckled with satisfaction, "What did he say?"

    "He just said: "Finally...Let's get it over with!" It seemed as if he was almost longing for death," D'Anna spoke.

    "I don't pretend to know what went on in that lad's head, but we both know how it is. Sometimes they just break down and start doing all sorts of mad shit that will get them killed," Drax grumbled. The old strategos had been at war for centuries, being intimately familiar with just about every aspect of its horror and ugliness. Even battle-hardened veterans losing their grip at some point was an all too familiar sight to him.

    "I trust that he faced the firing squad like a true Sidh must, upright and looking his executioners straight in the eye," he said.

    "That's the real funny thing - the Commonwealth never got their desired show of justice," D'Anna chuckled, "These humans and their strange desire for ceremony and formalities, they took him back to the lockup to wait until morning to be shot at dawn, as is their custom. Even asked what he wanted for a last meal within reason, and if he had any other last wishes."

    "From what you're telling me, I'm almost inclined to say the bastard was lucky that our allies were so insistent on trying them," Drax stated, "We would have just dragged him straight to the scaffold to undergo self-penitence on empty stomach. So what did he ask for?"

    "Just the usual Imperial Army MRE. Said that since he'd been living on theses for the past few years, there was no point in starting otherwise now. And asked for a paper and pencil," D'Anna said, "Said he wanted to write a letter to his commanding officer."

    "And?" Drax queried, having the feeling this would end interestingly.

    "Ate his meal and wrote a letter. From what I heard, it said: "The honour of our unit is intact. The cunt-borns will never get their show. Ave Imperator!" And once he was done, he killed himself with the pencil, hammered it right into his own brain through one of his nostrils with a single punch. I bet, sir, that you will get a piece of mind from the Prime Minister over this when you next meet," D'Anna recounted the remainder of the incident, "As for our miscreant hero, his remains were transferred to our nearest casualty processing station, and are probably incinerated and awaiting delivery back home by now."

    "Even though his actions have caused me a great deal of inconvenience, I must say I'm impressed with that guy. What was his name again? Whose boy was he anyway?" Drax chuckled, evidently satisfied at such an outcome.

    "I think it was Cato or something. Delta Legion," D'Anna stated, "One of Coriolanus's boys."

    "Well, I guess old Cor has taught his men well then," Drax grinned, "Where it comes to proper Sidh dignity at least. Their discipline could use some improvement though."

    D'Anna grinned in response, it being a cruel, predatory grin rather than the subtle smile she reserved for people she liked.


    ---

    Colline Fleurs
    Archonal estate


    The reception had been rather tiresome, even though the Empress had requested that it be kept brief and minimalistic in terms of scale and pomp, evidently being weary of being met with huge crowds jubilantly roaring their adulations wherever she went. Still, protocol required at least the minimum share of the formalities to be met, and so the ceremony had still dragged on for well over two hours.

    "From what I have seen of this world so far, it seems like a beautiful place. I am not surprised you chose this locale as your residence, Lady Elizabeth."

    "It wasn't so much my choice, Your Majesty. I happened to own a sizable estate here already before the Persean Annexation, so after your generous promotion to my current office, it was simply the most logical choice between several."

    "I suppose you were in luck then that Colline Fleurs elected to surrender peacefully and was spared the ravages of the war."

    "I have heard that it was first occupied by none other than Arcadius Drax and his Alpha Legion themselves. From what I know of their reputation, it was fortunate that the planet surrendered without a shot."

    "It sure is. Archistrategos Drax isn't a man of scruple where it comes to his choice of methods, something I do not necessarily approve of, but he does produce results."

    "Sometimes I wonder, Your Majesty, how a benevolent ruler such as yourself even tolerates men like Drax with their reputation for bestial atrocities. People do call him Butcher of a Thousand Worlds for a reason, do they not?"

    "Oh, spare me the flattery, Lady Elizabeth... I may be the ruler of this quite sizable realm that calls itself Imperium, and as far as I know, my subjects like me well enough, but I'm hardly trying to feign benevolence. I just do whatever it takes for my people not to have to wake up guessing if they're going to be slaughtered by their human cousins or enslaved by their reptilian neighbors today. And sometimes producing those results takes getting some truly reprehensible things done, which in turn requires men with the stomach for such matters. Archistrategos Drax is just such a man. Besides, for all the things that he's done to further our common cause, he isn't such a bad person once you get to know him. Which I am sure you will once we get to Altoris."

    "I've always had mixed feelings about him, Your Majesty. I have never met the man in person, and his reputation is frankly such that I am not sure whether I'd even want to, but at the same time I know better than most that first impressions based on hearsay can be misleading. My husband would have a thing or two to say about that..."

    "Oh, I'm sure you long to meet him deeply, Lady Elizabeth. Five years apart is a lot of time even for Sidhae."

    ---

    The sizable convoy finally rolled to a halt in the courtyard of the Archonal estate, two modified Warhound APCs in Imperial Guard colours being followed by a heavily-armored luxury limousine with the Empress's personal device, itself resembling a military APC more than a VIP armored car, followed by a similar white limousine featuring the regalia of an archon, and concluding with another two Warhounds. A flight of four Valkyrie gunships that had flown escort to the convoy immediately spread out, circling in a defensive perimeter around the chateau.

    The Warhounds dropped their ramps, decuries of towering Imperial Guardsmen immediately disembarking and forming a discreet perimeter without as much as saying a word, frightening the present human servants despite the latter being informed about the pending arrival. Truth be told, even most Sidhae found intimidating the sheer size and inhuman power that radiated from these royal guards.

    Finally, two of the guards opened the doors for the limousines, with the Empress and Elizabeth exitting the black limousine side by side, and a visibly-displeased Ayana and a couple of Elizabeth's lesser retainers leaving the white one. Without a word, twelve of the Empress's towering black-armored guardians fell in formation around her and Elizabeth, as the two walked off to the chateau, the servants lining up along the path to humbly bow down before their queen and their mistress at her side.

    Once inside the chateau, the Empress's usual honour guard dispersed at her subtle gesture, evidently going to check the interior for potential threats as was their usual protocol, the retainers who had followed in tow also finally entering the lobby room.

    "Aunt Empress, it's not fair!" Ayana was the first to speak out, "Why can't I ride in the same limousine with you like mother can?!"

    "Ayana!" Elizabeth was about to scold her daughter for such impolite outburst, but backed down at a subtle gesture from the Empress.

    "Because it does not yet befit your status, dear child," the Empress explained calmly, "Surely your good mother here has taught you of the importance of displaying marks of status that people of our rank must."

    "But it's just not fair!" Ayana protested, "I am the first pureblooded Sidh born naturally in centuries, and the daughter of an archoness and a strategos of the Imperium of Sidhae! How am I of any lesser status than mother?!"

    "Ayana...!" Elizabeth was shooting daggers at her daughter with her eyes by now.

    "Does being the child of an archoness and a strategos make you an archoness or a stratega?" the Empress never lost her patience.

    "Um... no," Ayana grumbled.

    "Does being born of two purebred Sidhae make you a Sidh before your conversion?" the Empress continued.

    "No, it does not..." the girl admitted resignedly.

    "Well, then you have answered your own question, dear goddaughter. You may be the dearest living thing for me personally, but your mother still outranks you in both age and status socially, and the good people of this planet care first and foremost about that. By granting you equal privilege to your mother, I would undermine her authority in their eyes, and by extent my own, because I have granted her that authority."

    "I understand, Aunt Empress... I apologize for my earlier outburst," Ayana stated defeatedly, "May I be excused?"

    "Yes, you may, Ayana," Empress dismissed her with a smile.

    As the girl fell from sight, Elizabeth turned to her sovereign with a surprise.

    "I never realized Your Majesty could be so good with teenagers. If I had had to handle this myself, we'd be having another shouting match and the rest of the day on silent treatment by now," she spoke.

    "Sometimes all it takes is guiding the young one to realize her folly by herself. It is how my dear father raised me," the Empress stated.

    "I have often wondered about Your Majesty's childhood and your great father, but dare not ask of you to tell more," Elizabeth said, the two walking towards the chateau's elaborate guest room.

    "Believe me, Lady Elizabeth, what you would hear would be much less than what you expect," the Empress sighed, "I suppose I can indulge your curiosity after dinner in a more private setting."

    The conversation was interrupted by the entry of a gruff middle-aged Sidh clearly of a long military background, accompanied by a young boy no older than 10. Both were clad in camouflage overalls, covered in dirt and grime, and both had glowing smiles on their faces. Were it not for their markedly different appearances, one could easily mistake the two for father and son just returned from an adventurous journey. The man was of stocky build and had a swarthy complexion but blonde, almost white hair, arranged in a military buzz cut, a huge horseshoe mustache adorning his scarred face that sported an Aquila tattoo under his left eye. The boy in turn had raven-black hair, still ruffled and holding a few leafs and twigs from his latest adventure, and a lighter skin tone. His distinct purple eyes immediately revealed him for a son of Elizabeth's.

    "Mom...!" the boy exclaimed excitedly before taking note of the other strangers present, including the familiar black-robed figure whose portrait gazed upon his family from the wall of their dining room and who sometimes came to visit. An instant later, the boy's back straightened, his heels snapping together and clenched fist bearing down on his chest with a loud thump before his hand extended in a salute rendered so well that even the harshest drill instructor would find no flaw in it.

    "Ave Imperator!" young Hamilkar Blackwater-Malkar, the 8-year-old son of Elizabeth, saluted his Empress, his private tutor Tiberius Focht doing the same behind him.

    "Ave," the Empress responded with a smile, "I see that my favourite god-child has grown greatly since we least met!"

    "Your Majesty, requesting permission to call you Auntie Empress!" the boy seriously stated.

    "Granted," the Empress laughed, "I see that you have been taught well by your tutor..."

    "Focht. Optius Prime Tiberius Focht, retired, at Your Majesty's service," the wizened instructor introduced himself with a light bow, "Apologies for our improper appearance, Your Majesty! We have just returned from an exercise and were not expecting your arrival so soon."

    "It must have been quite an exercise," the Empress smiled, taking note of the dirt covering the clothes of the two.

    "It sure was, Aunty Empress! Mr. Focht taught me how to hunt, and today I bagged my first arlock! Mr. Focht said it's a pretty big one too!" young Hamilkar excitedly recounted his latest adventure.

    "Really?" the Empress smiled.

    "As true as we stand here, Your Majesty," Focht confirmed with no small amount of pride about his student on his face, "I had it delivered to the kitchen, so that it can be served to Your Majesty and Lady Archoness at the dinner, should it please you so."

    "By all means," the Empress agreed, "It seems, Lady Elizabeth, that your efforts in raising a son are starting to pay off, you having won yourself a provider should your family fall down on its luck some day."

    "I sure have," Elizabeth said, outwardly delighted, but the part about falling down on their luck making her careful again. Was the Empress subtly reminding her that her current wealth and power depended solely on her continued good grace, or was she simply being paranoid?

    "Since I gather that the said arlock will take some time to cook, and our brave hunters evidently need some time to clean themselves up, Lady Elizabeth, how about a tour around your beautiful home?" the Empress stated, clearly giving an order even if it sounded merely as a polite request, "You are truly blessed to be in the possession of such an estate, and I'd love to see every bit of it!"

    "By all means, Your Majesty," Elizabeth humbly responded, "If you would follow me, please..."

    ---

    Firebase Kappa-One-Six
    Alerton

    Alice stepped back, coughing and struggling to suppress the reflex to vomit as the flames fanned up the indescribably-vile stench of the burning mix of excrement and diesel fuel. Her team of assistants, assigned to the literal "shit duty" for various disciplinary infractions, fared little better, being denied the use of their enclosed helmets as an additional touch of cruelty by the sanitation officer.

    "Those damn new guys better be her soon..." she grumbled to herself, remembering the promise of her centurion.

    "Hey, Alice! What kind of a name is "Vaughnaught" anyway?" one of the men on her team taunted her in jest, "Is that some kind of a ship back in your old home, like a dreadnought?"

    "Fuck off, Draco!" she snapped back, "I might as well ask whether your parents were obsessed with old FSA adventure novels, "Guiscard"!"

    "I'm a born Sidh, dumbass!" the speaker chuckled, "I ain't got no parents!"

    "Well, that's too bad! If you did, they'd at least have taught you why taking an APC out to town for a joyride to impress the local ladies with is a bad idea!" Alice stung at Draco's reason of being in her outfit of "crap burners", "Besides, don't forget that I'm still in charge here, and they might give you another week of glorious shit-burning if I complain about your attitude!"

    "Yeah, yeah... Keep on pulling rank, Private! Oh, wait, you're technically not even fully Private yet!"

    "And neither are you, smart-ass! Now get back to work, that shit ain't gonna burn itself!"

    ---

    Some two hours later, as the oil drums that served as waste disposal containers had burned clean and were scrubbed of any remaining excrement, the group loaded them back in the truck and started their drive back to the firebase. Sitting next to the driver, the man with the strange combination of Draco Guiscard for a name, Alice couldn't help but wonder if enlisting in the Sidh military hadn't been a mistake. She could have just joined the new Human Auxiliary, being granted her old rank and her previous years of combat being taken into account, where here she was just another grunt, treated just like every other raw recruit.

    As the truck reached the checkpoint at the edge of the firebase, one of the men manning it went up to the truck and called out her name.

    "I'm her," Alice responded, "What's the matter?"

    "Your centurion wants to see you as soon as you get back," the soldier explained, "Something to do with the new arrivals, I gathered."

    "I see," Alice briefly nodded. Perhaps this was her lucky day.

  2. #12
    Altmark

    Viktoria sighed as the stim auto-injected into neck. The small pack was a mixture of medical items meant to be a stop-gap treatment for soldier wounded, but not badly enough to not fight. It included a blood coagulant to slow bleeding, pain killers, adrenaline, and a few other choice chemicals and drugs that kept a soldier alert and fighting until they could be properly treated for their injuries when danger had passed. Normally such a measure wasn't enough to combat Vik's withdraw symptoms, but the mixture was good enough to put her mind in a slightly hazy state of relaxation, one of the other drugs inside to calm the mind and nerves to keep it focused as well as active. Viktoria had, however, found that using it with another of her choice withdraw symptom battling drugs, it put her into a slight trance, on the verge of sleepiness that she found very soothing. With the other drug already coursing through her, she trudged back to the bed in her sparse housing quarters and laid down on it, stretching out. She had finally gone back to the Sidhe base after about a week of keeping herself away out of shame. The new guys looked at her with suspicion and wonder, the old guys treated her no different. Cobar was fine, though he had a fair few bruises, and grumbled about 'the new guys thinking we have a very rough and tumble sex life'.



    As Vik's eyes became half lidded, the recent visit to Cobar had stirred some memories she would rather forget, and it seemed she was about to relive an old memory of their first meeting, not all that long ago, all things considered.


    -Four Years, three months into the Skargh War-


    Viktoria Atkinson, Commander of Elite Storm Trooper Detachment Alpha-Six, curled her hands into fists, straightened them out again, and repeated the process several times as her second in command, a towering, broad, and powerfully built woman named Herdis, lifted a Commonwealth officer several feet off the ground with one arm. The other women of her unit probably wanted to do more. Herdis' voice bellowed over the whir of engines warming up.


    “What the fuck do you mean we can't board yet? Unless you haven't noticed, runt, we're the last unit slated for evac, and this is the last evac ship!” Herdis said and gave the man a few shakes. She was a higher rank then him, so he couldn't even threaten her with disciplinary action, but his eyes were wide and he seemed more shocked and afraid then outraged. He stammered for a bit before Herdis grabbed the front of his uniform with her other hand. “Spit. It. Out.” She growled, her helmet amplifying and distorting her voice a little. The officer nodded and held up a data-slate like a shield.


    “Most of the second company, Thirteenth Heavy Dragoons didn't make it back to base. We have more room now, and command has sent us a quickly drawn together priority list. Basically any wounded who will recover and NCO's and up.” He said, voice shaking and stammering a little bit.


    Herdis growled and dropped the man in annoyance. That was when Vik stepped in. “You heard the man, ladies. We have less then two hours before this planet is gone, and I'm sure as hell not being on it when it does. Alpha, you go grab half the number of Commonwealth troops, Bravo and I will grab some of the Sidh. Double time, ladies!” She shouted above a sudden rise of machine gun and artillery fire.


    The base was situated on a tall hill, with a cliff face at the rear of it, and the fields before the base were covered in Skargh, dead and alive, as they surged against the walls. The poor bastards on defense had basically no chance of escape, but there was one ship preped and waiting for them at one of the closer in landing spaces. When the time came they would have to make a mad sprint for the ship and hope it wasn't shot down by Skargh fire as it took off, but the navy boys in orbit had done a good job of clearing out any dangerous artillery positions, but it only took a second of bad luck for that to change. Personally Viktoria felt worse for the thousands of wounded Commonwealth and Imperium troops being left behind. They were the ones who were on the bottom of the priority list, the ones that even if they did recover they wouldn't be able to fight again. She felt sorry for them because the Skargh would break in and have the run of the base for at least an hour before the planet was turned into molten glass. And she had seen enough of what the Skargh did to the living.


    Her squad thundered through the nearly deserted halls. The lights shimmered as an explosion shook the air outside, but they remained on. She saw a group of Commonwealth officers, cleanly shaven, uniforms in order. They were checking their service pistols and each had a large jug of what she figured was a strong alcohol. She knew instantly what they were going to do. They were going to go into the wards, offer their countrymen a strong drink and a bullet. The suicide rate of Commonwealth officers was a good measure of how badly the war was going, but Viktoria had to admire their ability to do what they did. Send a million men and women to horrible deaths in a pointless assault to draw in the enemy reserves to allow other breakthroughs to occur? Not an issue. Offer a few hundred of your wounded countrymen a shot of whiskey and a shot to the head? No problem. But it was a kindness. There were no medical staff left to administer some drug overdose to allow them all to just slip away. The doctors and nurses had been the first to be evacuated. And there were still millions of soldiers, and tens of millions of civilians, left on the planet.


    Viktoria felt a little bit of selfish happiness knowing the fact that Altmark formations had been being evacuated across the front lines as the Skargh had finally managed to reach Altmark territory, and high command wasn't going to let that go unchallenged. Not to mention that everyone was preparing for the major battles to come, the ones for the capital planets of Altmark and Altoris. Because even destroying a few planets full of Skargh was only going to slow them down for a bit.


    She rushed by the officers as they split up and started heading towards the different wards. She heard the slow gunshots echoing out of the rooms as she rushed down the hall, pushing a cart out of the way. They reached one of the Sidhe wards that her HUD displayed as having a few priority marks. She slammed through the door, causing every eye to snap on her. “Grab the priorities and move it!” She ordered her squad. They fanned out as she walked over to the first marked priority. She checked the medical read out.

    “Cobar?” She asked, and he looked at her with a hard look. “I'm staying with my men.” He said and curled his fingers around the metal arm rests on the bed meant to keep people from rolling over, obviously intending to be a stubborn asshole. “I don't have time for this.” Viktoria muttered, raised her rifle up, and smacked him in the head with the butt. His head rocked back and he slumped as he was knocked unconscious, his grip holding for another second before his fingers uncurled. She grabbed him and slung him over her shoulders as her squad started to usher through the door with Sidhe over their shoulders. Herdis was the only one without someone, as she was generally slated to cover the squad with her heavy weapons. She looked back at the room, still dozens of Sidhe confined to their beds.

    Herdis didn't ask for permission as she deftly plucked Viktorias sidearm from her holster and took a few thudding steps towards the nearest two Sidhe. She handed one Viktorias sidearm, and another her own sidearm, as well as a belt of unused grenades, enough to see them all off if they formed groups. The two Sidhe looked up at her and nodded their thanks as Herdis turned and returned to Viktoria, escorting her commander and her load back towards the evac ship. “I figured the Commonwealth officers wouldn't shoot them, and that they wouldn't want to be killed by 'mere' humans anyway.” Herdis said in way of explanation as they thundered down the hall Viktoria understood that all to well.


    They went the rest of the way in silence and found Alpha was there before them, having their priority marks already loaded and were helping their sisters get the Sidh loaded. Once they were all aboard, Vik made sure everyone in her unit got aboard and then went aboard herself, the officer from before sealing the airlock and secondary door behind her. “We're set for take off in sixty seconds. Strap in or grab a hold of something solid.” He said. Viktoria did so, making sure the thing she grabbed was secured before trusting it. The engines roared and she felt the lurch as it lifted, and then the almost jarring force as it quickly made for space. They were slated to dock with a Commonwealth heavy cruiser before making the jump to Altmark space with a battle-group the Commonwealth navy was deploying there to assist the Altmark navy and Imperial navy elements already there, but not before they would witness the destruction of the planet below, a few of the battleships equipped with energy weapons slated to assist in its destruction.


    It was two hours and thirteen minutes later when Vik looked out one of the viewing windows in a non-essential part of the ship. A Commonwealth battle-cruiser fired the first volley, the streaks of the missiles racing down and dispersing. It was obvious to Vik that they were nukes, it wouldn't make sense to fire anything else. And judging by the explosions and mushroom clouds that formed once they detonated, they must have been at least in the 150-200 megaton range. Once those went off the rest of the fleet opened fire. That was all Vik cared to see, so she turned her back and went back to her quarters, determined that no Altmark world would share the same fate.


    Altoris, Wolves Haven



    William O'Conner had been busy since his meeting with Drax, and the revelation that his conversion was halted for the foreseeable future. That hadn't bother him half as much as he thought it would have after he had the time to think on the situation. What bothered him more was that he was, as Drax had said, going to be tasked with forming a permanent human Auxiliary force to serve the Imperium. He had always figured the Auxiliary was a one and done deal, to be disbanded and forgotten once the war with the FSA, then the Skargh, was done and over with. The Imperium didn't like humans, they tolerated them at best. The Sidh officers he served with had never even seemed to believe the Commonwealth was their ally, and that they were simply the middleman to form bonds with their genetic kin in Altmark. Sure, some officers and soldiers that he had spoken too respected the Commonwealth, though grudgingly, such as Drax, but O'Conner was pretty certain that if it hadn't been for the direct orders from the Empress that the Imperial forces would have pounced on the Commonwealth and become an occupying force, doing as their heart desired to the scraps of the Commonwealth that remained. It hadn't been the first time O'Conner had been disgusted by his 'comrades' in arms, and he doubted it would be the last.


    O'Conner shook the thoughts from his head. Maybe he didn't even want the conversion, truth be told. He had wanted it originally so Kristanna wouldn't face the stigma of dating a lowly human, and he felt like a bastard for now wavering in his decision, but she wouldn't have any trouble finding some Sidh lad if she didn't want to stick with him, and he being human had never seemed to bother her, or the few whispers behind her back. Of course they had been on a frontier world, where the stigmas were less entrenched, as everyone needed to work together to survive, but how badly would she suffer if she came to stay with him in the Persean Expanse? He shook the thoughts again. He had to focus.


    He walked down the orderly, neat rows of temporary housing where the Auxiliary had set up its camp. Rows upon rows of wooden bunk houses had replaced the vast field of tents and pre-fab structures there had been before. The Sidhe had taken the pre-fab structures for the medical facilities, and few people would complain about that. There were plenty of Auxiliary troopers being treated there. He was walking with a cane again, the pain in his leg acting up from where a Sidh bolt thrower had punched a fist sized chunk out of his leg fifteen years ago. He hated the sign of weakness it presented to the Sidhe, but it was better the hobbling and falling over like he was drunk. He had spent the last few days taking careful observations of his soldiers, from enlisted to officer. Most of the Auxiliary here would be going on to conversions or going back home, their service done, and they all thought the Auxiliary was just waiting to be axed. But if he was going to build a whole new arm of the Imperium military he would need a core of solid NCOs and officers. He had a list of excellent NCOs and officers to pick from, but he knew well enough that a good war-time soldier didn't automatically make a good peace-time officer, and vice versa of course. The thrill of combat or the stress of it could and would make or break a person, and while all of his officers and NCOs were good war time soldiers, he had to make sure the general busy-work and boredom of peace time wouldn't bring out unsavory characters from them.


    The walk was both to be seen by his soldiers, touch base with them a bit, and also to get part of his physical therapy done for the day. He might have been up and about, but his doctor had ordered him to light duties and minimal physical activity until she said otherwise, and he wasn't going to argue with a Sidh doctor. O'Conner made his way back to the headquarters for the Auxiliary, thankful he had decided on an office on the ground floor. There were no guards at the door, but it was locked. A quick security card scan and the door clicked as it unlocked and O'Conner walked in, looking down to make sure the unit mat was in perfect condition as he stepped around it.


    “Well, it's not as big an office as I thought a colonel would have.” A voice said. O'Conner stopped in his tracks and looked up. Sitting on his desk was a woman, a beaming smile on her lips. O'Conner was surprised at her being there, but he did know her.


    “Kristanna?” He asked in utter amazement. The woman smiled and slid off his desk, her boots thudding on the floor. She took three strides, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him. He was happy to return the kiss and share in the embrace for awhile. The kiss ended and the two simply hugged each other. It had been over five years since they had seen each other, and while they had sent messages back and forth, they hadn't even been able to secure a vid-chat except one time after the FSA had surrendered. “I missed you.” The woman whispered, stepping back. She didn't have tears in her eyes, that wouldn't be much like her, but she was beaming.


    Kristanna was a pretty woman, not a traffic stopped like Lady Blackwater was. She was average height for a Sidh, a few inches taller then O'Conner, with auburn hair cut short and brilliant green eyes. She filled out her Urban Security uniform nicely, though he knew she was powerfully built as well as easy on the eyes. She grinned and walked back, plopping down on the desk once again. O'Conner smiled and walked up, still just amazed she was there before her.


    “I missed you too of course, but what are you doing here? I doubt you got a leave pass long enough, or even the permission, to come here?” He said bewildered. Kristanna just chuckled a little and shook her head. “Official duties. A few months back there was a request made to Urban Security for volunteers to potentially be brought in to help maintain order. My friend in sector command forwarded it to me, and I signed up. Thanks to my experience with dealing with humans, I was eventually selected to be part of a forward team sent in to set things up, and so here I am.” She said with a smile.


    William nodded, it made sense after all. “So you'll be working with the Altoris police?” He asked, walking around his desk. Kristanna nodded and turned to follow him. He reached a cabinet and opened a drawer, pulling out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He set them down on the desk and began to fill the cups. He was beyond happy that she was here, of course, but he wasn't looking forward to telling her the news.


    “So I need to tell you something right off the bat.” He said, handing her a filled glass. She took a sip and looked at him, waiting. “My conversion has been put on hold. Potentially permanently. Drax said I've been selected to form a permanent human Auxiliary force, and clearly they want a human to lead it, probably so there is less culture clash.” He said, a bit quickly, watching Kristanna as he said it. She didn't bat an eye as she continued to sip at her drink. Finally she set down the empty glass after downing the last quarter.


    “Do you really think I care about that, William?” She asked with a soft smile. She slid off the desk again and wrapped her arms around him. “If I was some core world bitch, sure. But I didn't fall for what you would become, I fell for you because of who you are. Would you being Sidh be nice? Sure, but I don't care enough about it for to be a breaking point. You're mine, and that's that.” She said with a wink. “And I'll just have to settle for my man being the founder of a new branch of the Imperium armed forces.” She said, and leaned down for another kiss. An immense weight had been lifted off his shoulders, that was for sure.


    Kristanna pulled away and grinned, pulling out her NCOs beret. “Now, I have to get going, but I'm sure I can manage to snag a nice apartment half way between here and Wolves Haven, and then we can catch up better.” She grinned. “But don't think that means anything other then just catching up. I checked your medical records, and I'll be damned if I'm going to send you back to the hospital over a celebratory night.” She said. O'Conner grinned and waved as she walked out.


    Wolves Haven Metropolitan Police Headquarters, four hours later



    Originally Kristanna had been a bit nervous when she and some of her boys from the frontier world station had been suddenly called up for a transfer. It hadn't been until they were on the transport they had been briefed on where they were being sent and why. She had a bit more knowledge of the Commonwealth then just about any Urban Security officer, or most other Sidhe for that matter, because William had told her about it and she liked hearing about it. It sounded like the complete opposite of the Federation of Mankind, or the humans who for some reason decided to keep living in the slums of the Imperium whom she had originally policed over. Now among them she could certainly tell that they were indeed different then the humans of the Federation, but they clearly didn't trust the Imperium. They were polite, but too polite, clearly forcing it.


    Some of her peers had been annoyed by that. The Imperium has just sacrificed tens of millions of its soldiers to save this Commonwealth, in their mind the humans should all but worship the Sidhe, but Kristanna knew it hadn't been out of kindness that the Imperium fought here. It was always better to fight an enemy away from your territory, to let someone else take the damage and killing blows. In this war the Commonwealth of Altoris had been the sacrificial slab of armor for the Imperium, and it would be again in the future most likely, or at least a bump on the road, and the people of the Commonwealth damned well knew it. Fifteen years ago the Imperium had invaded, and committed horrendous things to the citizens of the Commonwealth. A little over five years ago the Imperium had launched a full scale invasion against the Free States Alliance and done even worse things to even more people, even if by the Imperium's standards those atrocities were exceptionally light, and many of those responsible had been severely punished.


    For all that they differed from the Federation, the humans of the Commonwealth viewed the Imperium and the Sidhe as little better then the Skargh. It certainly hurt, but she wasn't blind enough to not see the Imperium in all its glory and brutality. It didn't hurt because humans were judging them either, it hurt mostly because they were right. She would never apologize for it, survival was all that mattered in the end, and the Imperium would survive. She just wished the humans wouldn't be so overly polite about everything, and were truthful to their faces, but then it didn't take much for a Sidhe, especially those in the military, to be set off by humans. The Commonwealth was playing its cards smart and not trying to provoke an instance that would end badly for them, considering the vast amounts of military personnel and equipment still in their territory. They would hate the Imperium later.


    She passed a group of Commonwealth officers, their conversation dying as she drew near, and resumed when she was down the hall. The officers of the Commonwealth, or at least Altoris and Wolves Haven were well dressed. They wore red overcoats with blue and white trimmings, a white collard under shirt, with black pants and shinned black shoes that looked like dress shoes but she could tell they were made for comfort and for being able to run in them. Inside they had no hats on, but once outside most wore helmets that reminded Kristanna of the British Bobbies of Old Earth, a mix between a helmet and a top hat. They were uniformly charcoal black. She reached a large conference room and slipped in, a meeting underway between the Commonwealth police, captains and chiefs, and the ranking officials of the Urban Security detachment. An older human, the insignia pinned to his collar making him out to be a commissioner, looked up at her with a slight frown. She was late, but her own superiors had wanted her to hand deliver a message to Imperium command on Altoris, and she had been given permission to make a short visit to William as well.


    “As I was saying, we have concerns about your officers patrolling with ours in their powered armor. If Urban Security is as...over zealous in their tasks as your counterparts, I'll have more reports of citizens being killed and their limbs ripped off then I would like.” The elder commissioner said, his voice powerful and carrying the authority of his station. “Too put it bluntly, I do not trust your officers to allow our officers to do their jobs without trying to take over. Your people are being brought in the help police your fellow Sidhe, not our citizens.”


    The commander of the detachment didn't take offense or make a snide remark, he simply nodded. “I understand your concern, commissioner, and I will be sure to express to my officers the very sentiments you share. We are, as you said, here to police our own people, though we will be glad to assist your patrols in any manner you may request.” He said quite gracefully. The commissioner was taken back for a moment by the apparent lack of gruffness and bile, but he quickly cleared the expression from his face.


    “I know you've had a quick breakdown of our laws and general culture, but Captain Smithson here will put together a briefing that will be a bit more in-depth for when your contingent arrives in full. It will still be merely a summery. Until then, I think it would be best for your current group to rotate between our main patrols to get the lads used to them. You have a list of the precincts, and I've taken the liberty of marking those that deal with uncooperative Sidhe with greater regularity. I think it would be best to start at those locations.” The human commissioner said, and the meeting disbanded after a few more words.


    Kristanna was happy that they were supposed to be hands off with the humans unless requested by those they were patrolling with. Dealing with humans while in power armor was always a difficult and fragile task, at least when Urban Security were bothering to try and arrest or restrain a human instead of just killing them or beating them senseless and leaving them in the streets as a message. She didn't have to worry about cracking a Sidhe's skull open with a hit from her rifle butt or by cracking them over the head with the heavy stun batons she personally liked to employ. Not that she would be worried if she did, either. Any Sidhe who warranted that reaction would clearly be breaking the commands of the Empress herself, and she would have far less mercy with a Sidhe doing that then she would have with some human who was simply drunk and angry.

  3. #13
    Parliament Building
    Wolves Haven, Altoris




    Had this been a Sidh politician, Drax would probably have challenged him to a duel of honour an hour ago, or more likely just literally hammered the man into the floor with his armored fists. Sadly, this Monroe guy happened to be the head of state of the Imperium's so-called "allies". Why the Empress had decided not to press the current advantage and simply take over what was left of this sorry excuse of an interstellar power, eluded the Archistrategos, but he wasn't in the habit of second-guessing his superiors. If the Empress had decided on something, then it was evidently for the best, and for the past 400 years, her decisions were yet to prove ill-informed.

    The Prime Minister sure had balls, for a human anyway, Drax would give him that much, and neither was he in the habit of sugarcoating his opinions, another thing that the grizzled old strategos could respect. Yet the uppity little prick could be so stubborn and irritating, just like his whole kind. He would constantly second-guess Drax's strategic decisions during the war, question his authority now, and generally be a thorn in the ass. Drax had never attempted to infringe on Monroe's authority over Commonwealth civilians beyond where their presence directly affected his ability to wage war, in no small part because he regarded civilians as little more than an obstacle along the way to his objectives, or an expendable resource at the very best, and consequently saw career politicians as best in handling them. Drax likewise expected the impudent Commonwealther to stay out of military matters, something that the Prime Minister didn't always do if the military plans contradicted his sensibilities.

    "Look, Prime Minister, I have already gone out of my way to appease your demand to discipline my men more severely for crimes against person of Commonwealth citizens! What you are asking goes beyond any and all sense!" Drax barked, his thunderous growl echoing in the Prime Minister's office where they would hold their meetings every other day.

    "If you cannot or rather will not control your force of depraved savages, general, then I see no other option but to have them all confined to their bases! I am already going out of my way by refusing to order any miscreant Sidhae to be summarily shot like many would no doubt want it!" Monroe shouted back, presenting an image of himself as equal of Drax even though the latter was almost three times his size in his bulky armor suit, "Maybe that would finally remind them that they are here at my request rather than the imperialist ambition of the likes of yourself!"

    "Correction, Prime minister!" Drax snapped back, "They are here by the generous grace of Her Majesty the Empress rather than any merit of yours! You bargained for as many of the toughest, meanest battle-hardened killers that the Imperium had to offer, and we delivered, the very best of the bunch, I might add. Surely you didn't expect them to be as timid and obedient as your usual uniformed lap-dogs!"

    "Dogs are actually the word I was going to use, general," Monroe stung with venom, deliberately emphasizing general and revelling in how much this intentional misranking irritated Drax, "Dogs are put down if they become rabid, so I strongly suggest you keep your rabid attack dogs on a tight leash!"

    "Bah! I'm curious to see how you intend to accomplish that with your present forces!" Drax scoffed. Monroe was about to sting something back, when D'Anna, who had silently stood behind Drax for the duration of their altercation, finally felt necessary to intervene.

    "Gentlemen, please!" she stepped between her towering commander and the fuming Prime Minister, "Can we keep this constructive?! Your bickering is getting us nowhere!"

    "Bickering?!" Monroe shouted, "No disrespect, miss, but I don't consider protesting the maltreatment of my citizens bickering!"

    "And you are right, Prime Minister, but please consider also that we have adopted quite harsh measures in response to the complaints of your good citizens," D'Anna said before turning to Drax, "I also implore you, Archistrategos, to try and see things from Mr. Monroe's perspective. Please understand that he is dealing with a lot of pressure right now and may have worded his concerns more harshly than was due."

    "That's supposed to be an excuse?" Drax grumbled, "I have an entire theater of war to run, yet you don't hear me complaining!"

    D'Anna politely omitted her opinions about her mentor's style of expressing himself with the tender softness of a thunder hammer.

    "As for your harsh measures, Archistrategos," Monroe continued, using Drax's proper title now that the tempers had been cooled by D'Anna's intervention a bit, "I must also ask of you to stop further traumatizing the victims of your troops' misconduct by forcing them to partake in their punishment that is frankly so barbarous as to be more befitting to the Skargh!"

    "You mean stop having them decide the extent of self-penitence?" Drax spoke with genuine surprise, "But who else will decide whether their grievance is satisfied then?"

    "I don't know, the law, maybe?! You Sidhae claim to be the epitome of civilization in this galaxy - figure it out!" Monroe became impatient again, "But this forcing of Commonwealth citizens to partake in your barbarities must stop immediately!"

    "Prime Minister, as Imperial subjects the Sidhae guilty of misconduct against your citizens are tried according to Imperial laws, and the current form of Imperial law effective under my authority is very clear where it comes to self-penitence," Drax explained sternly, "Only the victim, being the directly-aggrieved party, or the victim's closest next-of-kin in case of murder or other circumstances that prevent the victim's direct participation, is entitled to decide the extent of self-penitence and absolve or condemn the convict as he or she sees fit. To have someone else do it in the victim's stead would defeat the very purpose of self-penitence, the offender atoning before the victim through self-inflicted suffering at the victim's command. Our laws might be simpler and harsher than yours, but they are still called laws for a reason, and even I cannot change them at a whim."

    "Well, then at least find a way to observe your laws without further terrifying my people," Monroe argued, "It is bad enough that you force the victims to confront their tormentors face to face again, there's no need to also make them watch the convicts flay and dismember themselves!"

    "Look, Prime Minister, this debate will lead us nowhere," Drax grumbled, "If you have a problem with your citizens getting involved with us upholding our own laws, then we should involve legal experts from both sides to resolve such disputable cases in a manner satisfactory to both sides rather than spend half a day arguing between ourselves about it!"

    "That might just be the first sensible thing I've heard of you today, Archistrategos!" Monroe stung, "If you agree to do likewise, I will have a team of jurists assembled by the end of the week to start work on resolving the... certain incompatibilities of our legal systems. In the meantime, however, I ask that you suspend any further acts of self-penitence that may be forthcoming at least until the issue is formally resolved."

    "We have an agreement on that," Drax grumbled with relief, "Now, unless you intend to also argue with me about the weather, Prime Minister..."

    "Oh, how kind of you to remind me, Archistrategos," Monroe said with an almost malicious delight, "Before you take your leave, I also want to discuss those certain monstrosities your men are setting up and floating into our atmosphere..."

    "Seriously?!" Drax growled, "Those monstrosities, as you fancy to call them, are the only reason your whole damn homeworld hasn't frozen solid down to subtropical latitudes yet! And here I was thinking your sort would be above such base ignorance..."

    "Archistrategos, I understand that these devices of yours alter atmosphere and stabilize weather by means of dispersing chemicals among other things. As you are surely aware, the trust in your people or their motives isn't exactly at their best with the civilian population, to put it mildly. For example, who's to say you are not adding some infectious, sterilizing or mind-control agents to our atmosphere with those devices?"

    "Prime Minister, I think you are quite aware that if it was our goal to subjugate what remains your nation and people, we would need no such elaborate and time-consuming schemes to do so! Moreover, I think you know me and my methods well enough to understand that if I was here to conquer your country, you'd know it!" Drax barked, "As for the conspiracy theories pertaining to our atmospheric stabilizers, I care not for the ignorant superstitions of your rabble! If they were my people, I'd simply declare any further dissemination of such ill-founded rumors and malcontent sedition, and have a few dozen most active proponents publicly executed as an example to demonstrate my seriousness about the matter. But since they are your people, as you have amply tried to impress upon me, you handle them as you see fit!"

    "Gentlemen, please..." D'Anna intervened again, "Let's not choose volume over reason again!"

    "Archistrategos, I do not necessarily agree with the conspiracy theories and gossip of my subjects," Monroe stated, "What I am trying to say is that they are concerned about the weather control devices your people are deploying, being ignorant on their purpose and function. Try putting yourself in their shoes - would it not concern you if aliens your Imperium allied with for some reason started to deploy machines of unknown purpose into the atmosphere of your homeworld? What I'm asking of you is to issue a public statement explaining the exact nature and purpose of these machines to dispel their concerns, ideally also share their technology with our scientists for their review, so that they can independently validate its beneficial nature and reassure the more skeptical of our citizens."

    "That would only reaffirm their belief that there is in fact a conspiracy, and you are trying to cover it up in cahoots with me," Drax objected, "Trust me, Prime Minister, I've had to deal with the boundless ignorance of the unenlightened human mind for longer than your Commonwealth has even existed - I'm quite familiar with it's workings. The only way to deal with such conspiracy theories is to ignore them, show the rabble that when their betters will care about their opinions, they will be sure to ask them. And, obviously, to eliminate any seditious proponents of such ideas if these opinions ever start to become a problem."

    "Archistrategos, in spite of what you might think you know about human psychology, I am still the Prime Minister of this country, which means I know my people better than you," Monroe argued, "They will respond better to a formal public announcement that will dispel their concerns!"

    "Whatever," Drax shrugged, "The terraforming technology used in those atmospheric stabilizers is propriety, however. You will have to discuss the disclosure of it's workings and principles with the company that manufactures them. I don't see them being too forthcoming about revealing their trade secrets, though they might be persuaded to sell you a manufacturing license for the right price. Given the current state of your economy and industries, however, I find that unlikely."

    "I will nonetheless consider that if you would kindly provide me with the appropriate contacts, Archistrategos," Monroe said more calmly, "Also, you could still issue a public statement giving at least a vague explanation of how the atmosphere stabilizing technology works and reassuring of its safety to dispel the concerns of my citizens. For all their distrust of the Sidhae, the lot of them still regard you in particular as an authority whom all Sidhae obey. I will in turn issue a statement that the atmospheric stabilizers are being deployed with full consent and approval of the Commonwealth government, and should be no grounds for concern. Any further dissent and fearmongering on this matter should be silenced after your terraforming company and our scientists hopefully agree on sharing the technology and are able to explain it to the populace."

    "I will see what I can do. I make no promises," Drax reluctantly nodded, evidently not finding overly appealing the idea of comforting ignorant humans.


    ---


    Firebase Kappa-One-Six
    Alerton



    "Welcome to the Commonwealth of Altoris and your new century! I am centurion Avitus, your commanding officer, and the men and women to my left will be your new decurions. Due to manpower shortages, the command has deemed it fit to transfer the bunch of you second-year rooks to reinforce our contingent here on Alerton. If I had anything to say about it, you wouldn't even be let near this place before completing your third year, but since the brass believes otherwise, who am I to argue... For the aforementioned manpower shortages, some of your new team leaders will be acting decurions, second and third-year servicemen with only marginally more experience than you. You will, however, show them all the deference and obedience you would show to a full decurion!"

    The grizzled centurion paced in front of the ranks of the reinforcements, evidently leaving no small amount of impression upon the new troops with his scarred appearance and the number of gilded decorations welded on or carved into his dress armor that he had bothered to put on for the occasion.

    "Now, the lot of you might feel you've missed the war and your chance to kick ass and make names, but I assure you, that is not the case!" Avitus continued, "Even while the war may be officially over, this place is still a de-facto warzone, with numerous Skargh holdouts in control of sizable territories. They might not have their usual numbers or supplies anymore, but that don't make them any less of a threat, so you will exercise all the caution due in a warzone! I have assigned you to my most experienced decurions, who have served throughout this war, and some of whom have served with the Commonwealth military even before. You will listen to their advice, for it will serve to keep you alive! Am I understood?!"

    "Aye, sir!" the new guys barked in unison.

    "Good," Avitus nodded, "The roster is on the wall, get acquainted with it and report to your assigned decury immediately! Dismissed!"

    ---

    Alice was among the handful of decurions standing near the roster posted on the barrack wall, waiting for her troops to report in to her. They could have just called out each new guy from the list, but for some reason, the centurion wanted the men to find their own way to their new decury. Evidently it had something to do with the whole FNG thing, nobody telling the new guys nothing and leaving them to figure everything out on their own, or die trying.

    "Acting decurion Alice... Vaughn.. Vaughnaught?" a handsome young lad with blonde hair and glittering sapphire eyes approached her, struggling to pronounce her name, another young swarthy chap of raven-black hair keeping his company.

    "Yes," she nodded curtly.

    "Private Decius Cale, reporting for duty!" the youngster snapped a perfectly-rendered salute.

    "Private Caio Salthrax, reporting for duty!" his buddy added.

    "At ease," Alice nodded, "Where are you two from?"

    "Denerar, ma'am," Cale was the first to speak. Alice mentally ran through her rather modest knowledge of the Imperium's geography before pinpointing their origin to the forge world of Denerar, home of some of the biggest shipyards in the Imperium and also some of the most extensive industrial facilities that spanned continents.

    "You any good with tech?" she asked, having learned that forge-worlders tended to have a natural affinity for technology, making them excellent mechanics, programmers and hackers.

    "I have a degree in industrial engineering, ma'am!" Salthrax informed.

    "And I used to work in demolitions before enlisting, ma'am!" Cale added.

    "Have you completed any specialist training courses?"

    "We both have completed the basic familiarization courses with all standard-issue Imperial and some of the more common Commonwealth weaponry, ma'am, but haven't been assigned a permanent specialty yet," Cale explained, "I, and I think I can speak for my friend Private Salthrax too, hope we will receive more permanent assignments under your leadership!"

    "Stick around, do your jobs well, and you just might," Alice shrugged, "For future reference, you may use my name, it's "ma'am" only when I give orders. I'm not into this whole Imperial Army business for much longer than you are, so I guess it would make no sense in having you call me "dec" or "boss".

    "Understood, ma'am... I mean, Alice... boss..." the young recruits seemed confused, "So, you are one of those acting-decurion converts the centurion spoke about?"

    "I sure am," Alice smiled, "Used to be a Sergeant in the FSA military before the Imperium decided to take over. Got taken prisoner, around the time of the Skargh war figured I might as well take up the offer to convert and join the Emperor's host. So here I am."

    "We hope to learn much from you, acting decurion Vaughn... Vaughnaught... ma'am!" Cale stated with the unbridled enthusiasm that was so characteristc of young Sidhae.

    "Alright, if there's nothing more you want to discuss, feel free to pick a spot in the barracks and get to know the other guys," Alice dismissed them, "The chow and lights out is at the usual time here, the morning roll call is at 0615, I expect you to be ready by then."

    "Why did we have to get some dumb-ass second-year acting dec..." Alice overheard Salthrax complain to his friend at half-voice as they left, the latter evidently thinking he was out of her earshot.

    "Shut up, Caio!" his buddy scolded him, "Didn't you hear her? She used to serve with the humans before converting, which means she knows a thing or two about war!"

    "What good is that, if we are here because the humans failed to defend their own country from the Skargh?"

    "Dunno... Either way, it don't matter - we're here to earn our citizenship, remember!"

    Alice frowned but said nothing. Another group of rooks were headed her way, ready to report for duty, and she prepared to deliver them the same line. She wasn't concerned about the discipline of her new unit - the new lads were fresh from the boot camp, and moreover, they were Sidhae, discipline was their second name. What concerned her more was earning the respect of her new troops, the one thing Alice having learned about Sidhae in the past few years was their capacity for obeying people they resented as persons. She determined there and then to not be one of those commanders who was deferred to solely because of one's rank, but to command the earnest loyalty and respect of her men.

    ---

    Harlech Grove district
    Wolves Haven, Altoris


    Harlech Grove wasn't the hardest-hit district of Wolves Haven, but it by no means suggested that the area had gotten through the fighting lightly. Most of the buildings were ruined to some extent, most utilities were cut, and help wasn't forthcoming anytime soon, the rebuilding efforts being focused on the downtown districts.

    "Where are you going, mom?"

    "To get food, baby girl."

    "I want to go with you!"

    "No, you can't."

    "But why, mom?!"

    "Because it's dangerous outside. And because I need you for a very important job - to look after your little brothers."

    "Can't Mrs. Talbot look after them?"

    "No, because it is improper to ask favours of Mrs. Talbot every time your brothers need to be looked after when I have you, a big girl, at home. I want you to look after them while I am away. Besides, what if your father comes back when I'm away?"

    "Dad won't come back..."

    "Margareth Collinsworth, you will not speak such things of your father, am I understood?!"

    "But why? It's true..."

    "Enough!"

    "Yes, mother..."

    ---

    Mary Collinsworth, a seamstress aged 35 and a mother of three, wasn't a sensitive woman by any standard, but the mere suggestion that her husband Edward, a factory worker, might have been killed in action, was enough to send her into barely-contained rage.

    Edward had enlisted shortly after the outset of the Skargh war, leaving behind his wife, a daughter of 10, and two miscreant twin boys of 5 years of age. Ever since, his communication with his family had been rather sporadic - given the limited capacity of comms traffic in this region of space, even Sidh strategoi had very limited bandwith and time allocated for private communication, let alone lowly Commonwealth civilians. That being said, the Commonwealth authorities had done an admirable job in setting up an interstellar mail system. Still, the letters had become ever more scarcer and sporadic as the situation on all fronts deteriorated and more and more mail ships were getting intercepted and shot out of the sky by the Skargh. For over a year now, there had been no news from Edward Collinsworth, or for that matter, anyone else from 115th Altoris Fusiliers where he had served. Despite the overwhelming likelihood of her husband having met an inglorious end and resting in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Commonwealth, Mary firmly refused to believe it and continued to pester the responsible agencies about his fate. Most probably in vain, given the current situation where entire army corps remained unaccounted for, the fate of an individual infantryman being of absolutely no consequence to anyone. Still, she refused to believe it and persisted with the stubbornness that did credit to her entire people.

    ---

    The Harlech Grove district laid on the outskirts of Wolves Haven, consequently receiving little attention from the authorities. While the police did make the occasional show, they too were decimated by war, and did not have much in the way of regular presence. Consequently, various unsavoury characters would exploit this, preying on their weaker compatriots. The only force currently capable of enforcing any semblance of order were the Sidh troops occupying some three city blocks in Harlech Grove, heavily fortified and turned into near-unassailable strongholds. Since they lacked the authority and the interest to police native residents, however, their power didn't extend beyond the immediate surroundings of their compounds, and criminals would have a largely free rein outside the direct line of sight of the Sidh bases. Consequently, local residents had taken law enforcement in their own hands, assembling into "neighborhood watches" of armed vigilantes who were often hardly better than the criminals themselves, unemployed young men with checkered pasts serving as self-appointed "community protectors". As a recent incident where a man suspected of looting was necklaced, only to turn out a reputable resident of the community looking for a memento from his ruined home, the neighborhood watches were often ineffective and overzealous at enforcing their interpretation of law and order.

    Mary pulled up the collar of her somewhat worn fur coat, a wedding gift from her missing husband. It was close to freezing outside despite this being late summer. The disc of Altoris's sun shined dimly through the bleak haze that now perpetually shrouded the sky, making even midday as dark as a heavily-overcast day. She shuddered to think that according to all forecasts, the worst was only to come as the autumn approached, and things wouldn't improve for the next couple years. People were already starving now - for all the efforts that the authorities and the Sidhae expended in relieving the struggling citizens and refugees, there were still many whom the aid never reached, and it wasn't for the lack of trying either. Every place still inhabitable was crowded with millions of refugees, native and off-worlder alike - even the mighty Imperium with the might of their logistical system that was nothing short of miraculous simply couldn't reach all of them in time.

    "Spare some bread, ma'am?" a raspy, weak voice groaned from the sidewalk. Mary turned to the speaker startled, seeing a gaunt, emaciated man clad in rags lying helplessly in the rubble of a ruined building on what used to be the sidewalk, his eyes mad with hunger. His hand reached out for her in despair, Mary stepping away from him cautiously - it wasn't unheard for villainous individuals to feign helplesness and beg for aid these days, only to assail and rob those who responded to their plight.

    "I have none..." she muttered, the feverish shine in the man's eyes attesting to the earnesty of his plight.

    "Please... Spare some bread... Ma'am... Ma'am?" the man muttered, reaching out towards Mary in vain as she hastily retreated.

    "I promise I will bring you some if I find any," she said from afar, half in effort to calm her own guilty consciousness about leaving the man where he lied.

    Such sights of despair were becoming increasingly common lately, Mary thought, seeing another gaunt body of a woman lying lifelessly in the middle of the street, people going about on their business without paying the corpse any heed. As she went past, her eyes caught a glimpse of a dead baby clutched in the starved woman's hands. Mary looked away quickly, never having been able to bear the sight of dead children despite all the horrors of war witnessed in the past year. It reminded her of her own brood too much. A group of men with their faces just as grey and bleak as the sky were working a crane near a trench dug in the street, pulling lengths of pipe from a Sidh army truck, evidently working to repair the utilities, likewise paying the dead woman no heed. Mary shifted her attention to them in an attempted distraction. All the construction companies had been contracted by the Sidhae, and were mostly busy repairing the more important downtown districts, and constructing the colossal war memorial that was all the talk these days, but some spare materials and labour would drift the way of the poorer districts as well. The local Sidh commanders, haughty and arrogant as they were, generally made every effort to build goodwill and friendship with the natives and would consequently arrange for occasional favours like deliveries of construction materials for vital utilities. Sewage pipes were clearly one such vital utility, the residents being fed up with the stench of excrement coming from the ruins where everyone was forced to dump their chamberpots in the absence of proper sanitation.

    Noticing the upward gazes of bywalkers, Mary looked to the sky and saw one of the colossal Sidh aerostats drift overhead. Transparent and trailing lengths of piping from it's underside, the machine resembled a giant jellyfish, the body of the aerostat itself easily being the size of a city block, it's total length from top to the end of it's trailing tentacles easily exceeding a mile. The Sidhae said these machines were atmosphere stabilizers, meant to fix the weather, or at least keep it from getting any worse. Of course, rumors out in town were wild as to their true purpose - the conspiracies ranged from hijacking control of the weather in order to pressure the government into submission to dispersing chemical mind control agents in order to subjugate the populace. Personally, Mary didn't gave much credit to these theories. One only needed to look out the window to realize that the Sidhae needed no such elaborate schemes to take over if they ever fancied to, there often being more Sidh military than native civilians out in the streets. Besides, from what she had seen of them thus far, the Sidhae didn't strike her as ones for elaborate schemes to begin with - their typical problem-solving methodology usually involved liberal amounts of firepower along with a casual disregard for collateral damage.

    As Mary walked on, she noticed a group of men further down the street, examining a Sidh propaganda poster that wasn't there the last time she had visited this street. It depicted the Sidh emperor in all his shining glory and splendor reaching out towards a group of civilians, an elderly couple and a young woman with a baby on her arms and two bigger children, a boy and a girl, next to her. All were wearing what the Sidhae evidently considered to be typical Commonwealth attire - and as far as Mary could tell, they weren't too far off, save for the civilians seeming a bit rustic in their dress.

    Citizens of Altoris - the Emperor protects you too!

    The Imperium is your friend! Do not hesitate to report any misconduct by our troops to the nearest Sidh officer or Military Security patrol!


    A longer text in Sidh language was found underneath the slogan, evidently reminding any Sidh readers to behave or else. Although people were grumbling about miscreant Sidhae, and as always, rumours and exaggerations of their mistreatment of civilians were running wild, few of them could be confirmed or held much substance. By and large, Sidh misbehaviour seemed to be limited to excessive drinking, brawling (mostly among themselves) and harassment of women that didn't go beyond words for most of the time. If anything, to Mary at least, the majority of them seemed rather reserved, keeping mostly to themselves and ignoring the natives entirely, viewing them with the same indifference as they'd view wildlife. That said, she still preferred to avoid them, because frankly, she found the hulking armored brutes of of men and women that spoke an alien tongue with a metallic rasp from inside their helmets scary.

    She took a left turn, recoiling in terror as she almost bumped into two bloody lifeless bodies, a man and a woman, swinging on ropes from a lamp post.

    "Looter" - read a placard around the man's neck, crudely scrawled in what appeared to be his own blood. The woman lacked such a placard, but could reasonably be presumed to have been caught stealing alongside the man and consequently lynched by a mob of vigilantes. Mary sighed - a lot of decent folk had gone astray lately because of the war, and even more lost their civility over the same. Whoever had said that chaos and anarchy is never more than a few missed meals away was probably right, she thought. Wasn't the worst way to go, she pondered, sneaking a fearful glance at the corpses before going her own way - the Sidhae would probably have done way worse if the two had been caught stealing on their premises. They had already acquired quite a bit of infamy for brutalizing those who dared to try steal from their supply stores - such individuals were usually found out on the streets in the morning, beaten beyond human semblance with every limb broken in multiple places, tied to improvised crosses with their offense carved on their bare chest. Sidh guards made a point of maiming but not killing any captured thieves, pumping them full of various stims if necessary to keep them alive at least long enough to be taken down by their compatriots, so that their death could then be blamed on incompetent medical care rather than their brutality. This didn't contribute to the Sidh popularity, and furthermore only marginally deterred any future thieves, as people desperate and destitute enough to take their chances were in no shortage these days.

    A few blocks further, Mary finally reached the block-long queue waiting for their daily rations at the local aid distribution station.

    The station itself, sited in what used to be a small park that was now fenced off by concrete barriers, sandbags and coils upon coils of razor wire, worked like a clockwork. A patrol of Sidh troops received all the comers, scanning their ration cards. Those who came for the first time and had none were immediately directed to another line, where they were scanned again and issued one before having to return back to the end of the line. Those who had their cards would be admitted through a narrow entrance leading up to the distribution window, where they would be given their due rations and unceremoniously ushered back out. The queue and especially the small distribution point area was under constant supervision from a pair of autogun turrets and two guard towers with armed guards. The guards entered no debates or compromises with the citizens - anyone expressing discontent with the size or quality of his rations, claimed to need more than was his allocated due, or otherwise started trouble would be unceremoniously expelled and was lucky if the guards also let him keep his rations. Though such mode of operation understandably caused some agitation among the destitutes waiting in line, the guards weren't bothered in the least. Although Mary wasn't overly enthusiastic about the Sidhae watching her compatriots like hardened criminals, she could see reason in it - lives depended on the supplies being distributed quickly and efficiently, and the Sidhae were anything but inefficient in whatever they did, even if their efficiency often came at the cost of humanity. They, for example had no problem in expelling a woman with two children from the line despite the protests of onlookers, because she had started to stall the line by attempting to bargain for more than was her due for her other two children - quite possibly a lie spun in hopes to secure a little extra for her two kids, but one that most could at least sympathize with. To her own horror, Mary found herself actually sympathizing with the soldiers - who was that woman to presume she deserved more than anyone lese in the line!

    She wasn't alone in such opinions. A week ago, Mary had seen a different woman lynched by a mob not far from here. It had initially assembled in the defense of her, a lass no older than 25 being savagely beaten by a Sidh patrol after being caught, two of her accomplices already lying unconscious. Sensing a riot on their hands, the Sidh officer had proclaimed:

    "Good citizens! This woman seems to be of the opinion that she is better and more deserving than the rest of you! In her selfishness, she has stolen rations meant for you, taken more than is her rightful due at someone else's - at your - expense! I now commit her to your fair judgement for her crime!"

    Swayed by his words, the initially sympathetic crowd set upon the poor woman as the Sidh tossed her into the mob. On her way back from the aid station, she had seen the woman lie on the street bloody and barely conscious, and had little reason to doubt that she had perished soon afterwards.

    The line moved forwards agonizingly slowly, Mary beginning to shiver in the chilling breeze. Small flakes of ash began to fall from the sky that now seemed to be in perpetual twilight. Further down the line, a fight broke out as a man coming from the distribution point tripped over loose rubble and fell, scattering his ration packs on the ground, several opportunistic individuals immediately rushing from the line to seize them, and the man defending his rightful share before the group was swiftly dispersed by a nearby Sidh patrol with a thunderous shot in the air and a few well-placed swings of stun stick. The thieves still managed to make it off with the better part of his rations even if the price for it was bruised backs that would be sore well into the next week, the robbed man begging the guards to be allowed back in the line only to be shoved away and driven off at gunpoint. It was perhaps cruel, but righteous - with so many starving mouths waiting to be fed, nobody was entitled to second helpings for any reason, however legitimate. Mary sighed, seeing that nobody in the line raised a finger to help the poor man who would now have to return home empty-handed - truly it was right that sympathy, civility and basic decency were only a few missed meals away from extinction. Then again, with three hungry children waiting at home, she couldn't tell herself with a straight face that she would have helped the man.

    Finally her turn came. Mary tried her best not to show how intimidated she was by the imposing Sidh guard checking the ration cards, his kind seemingly having a natural talent for domineering.

    "Ration card, now!" the guard curtly demanded from his armored heights. Striving to act with the dignity of a slightly-offended lady, Mary drew her purse and produced the demanded article. The guard scanned it and, after establishing its validity, gestured her towards the distribution window, an armored opening in an otherwise solid metal wall through which the supplies were handed to the recipients.

    "Four times seven makes twenty-eight, plus a childcare package," a Sidhwoman on a screen next to the window informed, a robotic arm swiftly placing a box of 28 MREs - the Collinsworth family's weekly ration - on the counter along with another smaller box containing various childcare articles, mainly hygiene products and food supplements for children.

    "I can't fit it all in my bag..." Mary uttered, struggling to place everything in her handbag despite having taken the very biggest.

    "Move along!" another guard curtly commanded, unceremoniously pushing her towards the exit.

    "But I..." she was about to protest, but the guard was predictably unmoved.

    "Either take it or leave it, but move along!" he barked, and Mary deemed it more prudent not to argue. Grabbing the childcare package under her arm and taking extra care not to drop it, she made her way back on the street.

    ---

    It was getting late already, the sky becoming even darker and the air getting even colder. With the damaged climate and weather, it was hard to tell what time of the day it was now. Perhaps it was still early for pub crawls, but that didn't seem to deter drinkers from flocking to their favoured establishments. In such dark times, many a man would turn to drink, so all sorts of pubs and bars were unsurprisingly among the first establishments to be brought back into operation. These establishments subsisted mainly on a Sidh clientele. The Sidh troops drank like crazy and paid for it generously, evidently celebrating that they were still alive. The parties would frequently get rowdy as alcohol loosened inhibitions and heated passions in the battle-hardened men of whom many already had hair-trigger tempers even when sober. Violent brawls especially between different branches of service would break out constantly, MilSec patrols promptly rushing to the scene and breaking up the fights, dispensing summary beatings as necessary. Any humans present were admittedly ignored for most part, being of no interest to Sidhae trying to settle their scores. Still, the local residents had much come to prefer to drink at home because of them - nobody really felt like getting caught in a fight between a dozen or more half-ton power-armored brutes even by accident.

    The second thing after alcohol on Sidh mind while off-duty was sex. Cathouses and individual call girls were making fortunes these days as the companionship-thirsty Sidh troops readily would spend their pay for their services - and in truth, there was little else besides alcohol and sex worth spending it on here. Given the sheer number of Sidh troops present, however, the sex workers of Altoris were far too few to meet the demand, so many consequently turned their eyes towards civilian womenfolk - often much to the chagrin of their husbands and fathers. Many would offer food and other rationed commodities in exchange of sexual favours. It was perhaps for this reason that rapes were a rarity - given the ever-spreading starvation, finding willing participants in such deals was rather easy. Still, the regular verbal harassment was a bit annoying - even if most of it was said in Sidh, the meaning and intentions were still pretty obvious.

    Mary happened to run into just one such company of Sidhae on her way home, a merrily-drunk decury wandering about, loudly bawling off-tune songs in their native tongue, and looking for new places to continue with their carousing.

    Even though the company seemed rather good-spirited, their black armor alone triggered alarms in Mary's head. It was the mark of the Imperium's elite legions, which had accumulated a rather unsavoury reputation with their brutality during the FSA war. There were enough veterans of that war, former Commonwealth "volunteers", in Harlech Grove who could attest to that from first-hand experience. Reprisal massacres of civilians, summary executions of prisoners, use of human shields and other barbarities that went against every principle of civilized warfare - none of that was off the book to their sort. Admittedly, they had demonstrated equally-zealous commitment to defending Altorisian civilian neighborhoods when the Skargh had been here, never yielding one step to the alien menace despite all odds. Mary supposed it took other barbarians to effectively fight an enemy as ruthless and barbarous as the Skargh, but that naturally didn't mean she wanted to have any business with the said barbarians. She crossed the street to the opposing side well in advance, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.

    Her efforts were frustrated, however, when a shout from the jolly group, enunciated in heavily-accented English and clearly directed at her, signified that she had caught their attention.

    "Hey! You there, redhead!" one of the Sidhae, a burly man with chiseled features, shouted, "Do you wanna see the inside of a tank?!"

    "Thank you, sir, but no..." Mary replied uneasily, trying her best not to sound too blunt in hopes not to offend the Sidh. "Seeing the inside of a tank" that was nowhere nearby to be seen was a rather common pick-up line of the Sidhae.

    "Oh, come on..." the Sidh was disappointed, "I'll make it worth your while!"

    "Great..." Mary thought to herself as the Sidhae crossed the street and surrounded her. All of them were clad in armor, each tall and strong enough to probably snap her spine with a flick of a wrist if he so fancied.

    "Look, gentlemen, I don't mean to be rude..." she spoke.

    "Gentlemen?" the big Sidh chuckled, "Hey, Freya, she thinks you're a man! You've ever been mistaken for a man before?"

    "No," the group's only woman, a statuesque blonde with icy blue eyes reminiscent of the valkyries of legend, replied. "Have you?"

    The group burst in thunderous laughter. "Ouuuch... Shots fired!" someone exclaimed. Mary had picked up a little Sidh over the past few years, having a vague idea of what the group was speaking about, and tried to use the moment of distraction to slip away, but to no avail.

    "So, how about that tank, eh?" the big Sidh stood in her way, "We've got us a whole stash of goodies in our transport, and I don't mean none of this MRE shit you've got there either, but the real thing! Come with us, I'm sure the boys will throw in something on their own as well."

    "I'm sorry, but my husband is waiting for me home," Mary replied, trying to sound as stern as possible, "He's a Commonwealth officer, he wouldn't be happy at all if our allies were found to be holding up his wife!"

    "Now, now..." another Sidh, a shorter swarthy lad with a pencil mustache, leaned in towards her, "I grew up on an agri-world, which means I can smell grox-shit from a mile away, and right now you're reeking like a whole ton of it, lassie! If you got hubbie waitin' for you back home, how come you ain't wearing your wedding ring on the finger, but round your neck? And if your man's such a big-shot officer, how come you're comin' home from the direction of that aid center with a bagful of aid MREs?"

    "Yeah! Besides, we've been around for a while, we know a thing or two about this place - namely that the Commonwealth brass would rather lose battles than promote somebody from this dump to an officer rank," the big guy added, the most insulting thing about his statement being that it was true.

    "Hey, maybe she just doesn't like men!" a third Sidh suggested, "Maybe she's a carpet muncher?"

    "Freya, you're into girls too!" the big Sidh laughed, "Maybe you can try your luck with this one?"

    "Yeah," the one with the mustache added, "And I'll throw you in a whole crate of amasec if you arrange for a threesome with me!"

    "Screw you, Melkart," Freya snapped back at him, "I'd rather bang a Skargh than you, and I sure as hell ain't sharing pussy with you!"

    With that, she turned her attentions to a terrified Mary much to the delight of everyone else.

    "Don't mind those brutes, baby," she purred seductively in Mary's ear, squeezing her trembling shoulders in her armored hands gently, "I'll be extra gentle if you've never been with a woman before."

    Mary tensed up in fear - the armored gauntlets massaging her shoulders could just as easily move to crushing her shoulders and twisting off her limbs within an eyeblink.

    "Please... No..." she whimpered.

    "What's the matter?" Freya purred, her hands running lower over Mary's breasts and down to her waist, "You really do have a husband at home? Well, you know what they say on Altmark - it ain't cheating if you do it with a girl..."

    "Please... Just let me go..." Mary whispered in terror, tears streaming down her cheeks as she fully expected to be raped or worse.

    "Alright, alright..." the big Sidh stepped aside, "Your loss! Emperor's blood, what a dour and miserable bunch these natives are..."

    "I'd like to see the smile on your face after your homeworld was reduced to this!" the short one argued as the group moved on. Mary didn't stick around to hear the rest their conversation, running off as fast as she could, and not stopping until almost at the doorstep of her home.

    Only after spending a few minutes panting and catching her breath did she regain her composure and realized much to her chagrin that her childcare package was missing, evidently her having left it behind at where the Sidhae had surrounded her. It was a serious loss, but at least it wasn't the food. Mary straightened out her jacket, wiped away any marks of tears, and was about to go in her stairwell, when a heavy armored hand laid down on her shoulder.

    The scream of terror died in her mouth as another armored hand laid down over her mouth and she was firmly spun around. If Mary had expected to see a rapist, however, she was mistaken. It was the blonde Sidhwoman named Freya.

    "Don't scream, you will wake everybody up," she spoke quietly, "You forgot this!"

    Mary was surprised to see the childcare package in her hand.

    "The guys made you by other things, but I made you by this," Freya explained, "Only single mothers are eligible for these. I work in the aid center."

    "Thank you...?" Mary wasn't sure how to respond after being let go, retrieving her package with a degree of distrust.

    "Here," Freya added, reaching in one of the pockets of her tactical vest, and producing several tins of evidently well-prepared native fish, "For your troubles."

    "Thank you..." Mary repeated, the Sidhwoman nodding and snapping around on her heel before walking off into the darkness.

  4. #14
    Altoris, Brownstone District of Wolves Haven

    Wolves Haven Metropolitan Police Force patrol sector B-2



    Kristanna was still unsure of how to feel about these Commonwealth officers. They were slow to trust, and seemed offset by her presence, but she could hardly blame them. She was covered in power armor, from a different culture they had no doubt come to dislike over the past several years and months. They viewed her kind as aggressive, disrespectful, and little better then an invading force. One of the more friendly ones, almost overly friendly, had joyfully showed her the metal nightsticks they had taken to using on her fellow Sidh. They were quite heavy and with a few good blows to the head they could cause serious damage even to a Sidh. She had simply commented on how effective they were.



    Kristanna kept looking around at her surroundings, rather delighted in the design of the homes. As the name of the district implied, they were all built with a brownstone of some sort, with small but finely maintained yards. The female officer on the foot patrol, a woman by the name of Agatha, had informed her that the back yards were larger, and that this district was considered middle-class, though the war hadn't left it entirely untouched, even if it got off lightly compared to others. The piles of rubble had been cleared off the wide avenue, stacked neatly where the houses it had come from had once been. The cobblestone street was torn up a bit, with makeshift repairs made with PSP matting, but it was obvious that this district had either gotten a lot of attention from the government or the inhabitants were extra motivated and organized themselves for the clean up. The number of thin humans out sweeping the sidewalks indicated that the latter was most likely. It was for this exact reason that the Brownstone District was so popular with just about everyone who was off duty or looking for a good time. It pubs and other establishments were open, now running twenty-four hours a day. It was also the closest in-tact district to the main Sidhe encampments outside the city.


    Kristanna couldn't help but smile as they came upon a strip of businesses, all with signs stating 'No persons in armor permitted' being a clear indication that the Sidh troopers were outstaying their welcome in the district, like they seemed to be doing everywhere. She didn't feel indignant towards the humans, like she imagined most Sidh would. After all the Imperium helped defend them, was helping them rebuild, and was helping feed them. But at the same time the soldiers of the Imperium rarely tried to act civil, or hide their disdain and indifference for humans. Rather then doing all this and being happy when the citizens and government were thankful it seemed many of her kind were expecting gratitude simply for being here. She imagined the humans saw the Sidhe as thinking their sacrifices in the war to be more meaningful then the losses the Commonwealth itself endured, and for anyone that would be grating when your nation was reduced to...this.


    “Well, looks like someone can't read!” The head officer said as he stopped, looking into one of the pubs. Inside was a armored Sidh officer, seemingly angry as she talked to a human that Kristanna figured was the owner. The head officer, a average sized man by the name of Jacob Hunter, looked back at Kristanna. “You're an exception to the rule, lass, with me. The rest of you make sure none of her buddies comes in.” He said, gesturing to a group of Sidh troopers who were sulking about. Jacob walked in and Kristanna followed. Neither the Sidh military officer or the owner noticed them, and they were able to overhear some of the conversation.


    'This is fucking bullshit. We've coming here since the week it opened after we beat the Skargh off the planet!” The female Sidh said in a raised tone, her armored fingers curling ever so slightly. Kristanna placed her hands on the heavy duty stun baton on her hip, specially designed to give power armored troopers a nice jolt.


    “Aye, and you've been a fairly good lot for most of that time, but in the past weeks you've all gotten quite a bit rowdy. Fights every night, insults thrown out to everyone and anyone. You've driven off all of my normal customers, and no matter how well you pay, that hurts my income. If I don't do something about it, I'll lose those customers forever, and you lot aren't going to be here until my dying days! Not to mention the furniture you've all broken...” The owner, a squat and heavyset man with the lines of aging on his face, replied with no meekness, but he wasn't raising his voice.


    “Just buy new furniture, we pay well enou...” The officer tried to say but the owner cut her off with a raised voice, but not a yell.


    “They don't bloody make new furniture! I can't just go down to the store and buy a new set! Hell, I can't even scavenge timber from somewhere because of the troopers found me they'd arrest me for looting and probably have me shot! And buying it off citizens will cost me a leg and an arm.” The man said with a sigh.


    Before they said anything else Jacob cleared his throat. Both turned to look in their direction, and Kristanna had the satisfaction of seeing the Sidh officer look genuinely surprised and instantly humbled. She knew she was in the wrong here, but she wouldn't have worried about human officers coming to do something about it. Urban Security in their power armor was a different story.


    “Anything the matter here?” Jacob said and walked forward, one hand resting on his own baton. Kristanna stepped after him. The owner didn't seem worried, and neither did the Sidh, though the woman lacked the air of arrogance and indifference now.


    “Just business, Mister Hunter. The lieutenant here isn't happy with the new policy of no power armor.” The owner said, shaking his head a little. He was clearly not happy about losing a bunch of paying customers, but them if he didn't do something about the temporary, well paying ones, he would lose his normal customers. The Sidh looked at Kristanna.


    “You know what it's like, going from living in your armor and then having to walk around without it. You feel powerless, weak.” She said, trying to appeal to her comrade in nationality. Kristanna just shook her head. “Urban Security doesn't live in our armor like the military does. Personally, I think most of our people could do with the humbling experience of being vulnerable. It builds a decent character.” Kristanna replied, seeing the officer frown in defeat, but perhaps also in thought. It was no secret that the constant wearing of powered armor did imprint a feeling of near demigod-hood and very easily made the wearer become detached, uncaring, and arrogant. Especially towards humans. Kristanna had felt that way for years, and she wouldn't deny it, but Urban Security was still a different beast compared to the military arms.


    “Look.” The owner spoke up while shaking his head. “I've heard how you lot can imprint on a place after awhile, don't know if its true or not, but I can't be having you tear the place up any more. You can come here without the armor, and you should know by now that none of my regulars are going to give you trouble one way or another, hell half of them just want to drink themselves to death. But if you don't want to come in without, I can serve you out back in the yard or out front.”


    The lieutenant looked down at the man with a frown, clearly not liking the idea of being treated as little more then second class citizens, having to be served away from other customers, but there were few options otherwise. No doubt all the other pubs and bars were already 'claimed' by other units and branches of the military, and no doubt it would be a bloody business to 'invade' these claimed areas. The military could be so territorial at times. The woman gave a stiff nod. “I'll inform my troops and let them decide.” She said, turning on her heel and walking out of the pub. Officer Hunter gave one more look at the pub owner, who simply nodded and returned to tidying up his building. Hunter stood there for a second longer before calmly walking towards the door again to rejoin the rest of the patrol. Kristanna watched as the Sidh squad walked away, some clearly more angry then others, but they kept their cool, no doubt thanks to their officer and the presence of Urban Security. Kristanna made a mental note to suggest a heavy Urban Security presence in this sector in the coming days, until the soldiers got used to the new situation and calmed themselves or moved on. Of course more was riding on these new policies then just pub furniture and long standing customers. If this turned out well for the humans here, other business owners would be more likely to adapt the policy themselves. Of course there were always those more then happy to make a killing in money or other things by not presenting this option to their Sidh patrons, happily welcoming the armored warriors. She wondered if there would be any resentment between the two camps of business owners, and she imagined there would be once the lines were properly drawn. With that in mind she was sure to take note and remember the names of every business that had the signs outside their shops, and those that didn't, putting together a mental map of potential flash-point issues, not just between humans, but also between Sidh in their power armor who might cause fights to those who decided to go without. There were plenty of insults a solider could throw at their fellows, and even more so when those were aimed at soldiers complying with human rules.


    -


    Altoris, Wolves Haven

    'The Grenadiers Post' officers club



    Colonel Robert Oakland removed his peaked cap and tucked it under his left elbow in one swift, well practiced motion as his Batman held the heavy door to the officers club open for him. He nodded his thanks. “You're free to enjoy yourself, Raymond.” He said as a means of dismissing his assistant. The corporal smiled and nodded before heading towards the section of the converted manor reserved for the NCO and junior officer assistants that higher ranking officers such as himself were warranted.


    The Grenadiers Post was not just an officers club, it was -the- officers club, serving the Commonwealth High Command and a select legion of other officers. One had to be invited into the ranks of its registry to set foot on the grounds and even offering temporary or one time invitations was a meticulous affair. Oakland had received his invitation eleven years ago as a captain, and it had been the most profound moment of his life, let alone his career. For a mere lieutenant to be invited into the club was a clear sign of his future in the army, and he had been right in assuming so. Not even the birth of his children had brought such profound awe, and he was not what one would consider an uncaring father either.


    His perfectly polished shoes snapped softly against the polished redwood floors. As was a custom for every member of the club to do, Oakland went to the far wall of the reception room, heading towards the left of the wall. On the wall were the finest paintings and portraits depicting the history of the Altoris and Commonwealth armies. Battles, generals, flags encased and preserved in glass damaged by battle. Weapons, medals, and minor personal effects from the heroes of the past were all on display. He worked from the left and to the right taking a few seconds per display. He stopped for nearly a minute near the end of the row, the section depicted to battles all to fresh in Oakland's mind. Draitous. He had been a seasoned second lieutenant when the Imperium had invaded, had been there on the front when their domination mechs had come down. He took two slow steps to his right and took a quite but deep breath. The painting before him depicted the Battle of Iron Forge. He had been there, in the second wave in the assault on the besieged city. He had come close to death during the first assault when the Imperium had deployed its scarab beetle like swarms, saved only by a mere ten meters, but he hadn't been saved of the images of soldiers being picked apart by them, seemingly melting into piles of flesh, bone, and uniforms. He had been in the first wave of the second assault, once the swarms had been neutralized. The Commonwealth soldiers had crashed into the Sidhe positions possessed with a burning rage and desire for revenge and had cut a bloody swath through the lines of defense. Inside the city had been no better, with countless atrocities being wrought upon the civilian population, and even prisoners of war, at the hands of the Imperium.


    Oakland had only been spared the incineration of the city thanks to injury. The perfectly cleaned glass of the picture frame reflected his face back to him. He had been a handsome man once, and at least half his face remained so. The other half had been badly burned by the detonation of a flamethrower tank that had been the reason for his evacuation, half his body being so badly burned it was charred. Commonwealth medical technology had saved him, and cosmetic surgery could have restored his looks, but he had kept the burn scars as a reminder of what had happened that day, and during the campaign in total. And, he thought bitterly to himself, for the past fifteen years. Too say Oakland hated the Imperium and the Sidhe would be an understatement. He despised them, loathed them. He would gladly kill every single one of them if he had the chance too. He had not taken the invasion of the FSA well, and had advocated for a full declaration of war against the Imperium. His outspokenness had caught the attention of General Sir Richard Greyhem, a man he respected to no end, and Oakland had happy ended up leading a unit of volunteers against the Imperium in the FSA war. He had been less then thrilled when he had been recalled, and on the verge of rage when he had heard the Commonwealth was under attack, first thinking it was the Imperium. But it turned out to be the Skargh, and he had been deployed to the front lines once again. When word came down that the Imperium was to be their ally he had been crushed. It had been, and still was, the greatest betrayal of Commonwealth soldiers and civilians that there had ever been.


    He had come to realize it was necessary though. Without the Imperium the Commonwealth would have been lost. “The enemy of my enemy is not my friend, they are a problem for later...” Oakland muttered as he turned from the wall and headed towards one of the large ornate staircases heading up to the second floor. The slight din of voices carried down the stairs as he quickly ascended them, careful not to step to harshly on the wooden steps. The second floor was comprised of mostly one large room with hardwood floors but with several large rugs rolled out. During certain occasions the rugs would be rolled up and clear space for dancing though such occasions were far in between. Robert looked around and saw a smattering of officers gathered in conversation groups. Rank wasn't supposed to apply within the club but there was always the hesitation to just enter into an ongoing conversation between generals and admirals. Instead Robert found a group of men and women more akin to his rank and mingled into the conversation, catching the tail end of a relaxed debate about the Imperium and it's vast number of troops still in Commonwealth territory.


    “It's simply because their fleet is tied up with our supply missions, you see? We have barely got a flotilla left standing, and that's civilian and military ships combined. We've lined up production for dozens of bulk transports, nothing fancy, to help alleviate the burden. Once they can start tasking their ships away from that, we'll see a rapid decline in the number of Sidh troops on our planets. They have plenty of other wars to fight in, or so I've been lead to believe.” A naval officer with the fresh rank pins of a captain said as he swirled a dark drink slowly in his glass. He looked bored, like a school master repeating the same thing he had said twenty times already.


    Robert grunted. “The sooner the better. These louts would wipe us out in a heartbeat if their Empress so commanded. Even with orders to be civil they've caused widespread disturbance, not to mention more serious crimes. Like that rapist who offed himself. Bastard had the gall to be disgusted by the fact he was to be executed by humans.” He said, gaining the attention of the group as they turned to look at him as he spoke. “Make no mistake, my fellows, any civil, nice, or well meaning Sidh you've encountered is a rare exception to the whole lot of them. Draitous showed us the real Imperium, even if it has been conveniently pushed aside for the moment. And we're still even waiting on the financial restitution to be paid out! You can believe that after this war they'll be breaking themselves out of that agreement as they put their boots on our throat.” Robert finished, keeping his anger in check for the most part, but it was hard to not have a hard, bitter tone when speaking on this subject. The officers around him nodded in agreement, and a few went wide eyed as the whole group righted up. Robert was about to turn around to see who was coming over when a voice he knew well called out softly.


    “Oakland! Good to see you, lad.” General Sir Richard Greyhem said as he walked to the group. Robert spun around and was about to snap off a salute when he remembered where he was. He clicked his heels instead. “General, sir!” Oakland said. He respected Greyhem immensely, it was hard to find anyone in the Commonwealth who didn't. The fact it had been Greyhems idea to seek aid from the Imperium didn't lower that esteem, in fact it only helped to grow it. A man who had matched the Imperium in combat, had seen what they were and how they acted, was intelligent enough to know what he was getting into when bargaining with the Imperium. There had been no better person for the task, really.


    Greyhem had a small smile as he waved his hand dismissively. “Not in the club, Oakland, you know that.” The rather average looking man said as he looked at the group of officers. “Walk with me, if you'd please?” Greyhem asked and turned towards one of the side hallways. Oakland nodded. No ranks or not, you didn't turn down a request that seemed more like an order from such a man as Greyhem. The two walked, Oakland behind and to the left of Greyhem, but neither spoke until they had passed by the open double doors.


    “I'll be blunt, Oakland.” Greyhem said, coming to a stop before a large window and turning to face Robert smartly. “I agree with what you've said to your fellows back there, we can't trust the Imperium as far as I could throw Drax, which is not at all. But I would appreciate it, on behalf of the government and general staff, if you were a bit more...subtle in your opinions.” Greyhem said. Oakland was surprised briefly, trying to wonder why Greyhem would see fault with his line of reasoning after the man had just admitted he agreed. And the Sidhe certainly didn't care about the opinions of humans. Did Greyhem suspect some sort of scheme? Or a coup? The idea drained the blood from his face slightly.


    “Sir, I assure you nothing ill was, or is, in the works. I had forgotten the state of our officers corps, how impressionable some of the younger and less experienced officers may be. I think I can speak on behalf of all of us when I say we have the utmost respect for yourself, high command, and of course the Prime Minister and his government.” Oakland said hurriedly. Greyhem actually smirked a little.


    “I'm not worried about a coup, Oakland, if that's what you're worried about. You won't have internal affairs paying your home a visit tonight.” Greyhem said jokingly, but it was a possibility. Problem officers were quickly drummed out, and especially trouble officers had a tendency to vanish. Oakland knew most were simply drummed out and forced to relocate to less populated and less influential areas, limiting any schemes they may have, but he wasn't foolish enough to think that none of them were offed.


    “The main concern we have is that you and your fellows will be the high command in a few decades. Make no mistake that the Commonwealth needs the Imperium for a long time to come, Oakland. Our experts expect at least half a decade before we can be considered self sufficient again, and a considerably longer time before we reach the levels of strength we had before this whole mess. If the Skargh decide to have another go, oh I don't know, in the next fifty years, we won't survive. And if in that time our government or military high command comes to adopt an openly anti-Imperium sentiment, they won't help us again. I know the military shouldn't play politics like that, but that's the reality. As officers we are obligated to sacrifice anything of ourselves for the nation. By all means don't hide your opinions, but do not let them become obstacles to common sense. The Empress likes us well enough because we are open with our opinions and don't tailor ourselves to form to others, but allowing your emotions to blind you won't save the Commonwealth.” Greyhem finished his little lecture. Oakland took in every word of it, nodding as the general finished.


    “I...I do understand, general. I suppose I hadn't thought in the long term. We've just been going day to day for so long now that I...well I suppose I stopped seeing a future past the misery, sir. And I never thought to assume I would be on the high command, of course.” Oakland said. Had it just been something nice Greyhem had thrown in? Or was he potentially slated for a spot in high command?


    “You have the potential, Oakland. You proved yourself these past five years, and for a decade before that. Keep you wits about you, and your emotions in check, and you'll be on your way.” Greyhem nodded and gave him a pat on the shoulder before walking past Oakland back to the main room. Oakland thought on the brief conversation for a few more minutes before he returned himself, easily falling back in with his talking group. He could see the curiosity on their faces, but he would keep what Greyhem had said to himself for now. He would have to see if he could manage to do as Greyhem had said, keep his emotions in check in regards to the Sidhe. At least he hadn't said he had to come to like or respect them.




    Office of Prime Minister Monroe, Parliament building, Wolves Haven, Altoris



    Alexandra knew business, and she also prided herself on being able to read people as easily as a data-pad. The human Prime Minister was not hard to read at all. She was reclining back in one of his comfy chairs, one leg crossed over her thigh. She was actually relieved that the humans eyes had only found her abundantly on display cleavage twice. Some humans, and Sidh as well, could be easily swayed by a bit of skin tight clothing or a toss in the bed or two, but Monroe didn't seem to be one of them. It spoke to his character and Alexandra was already starting to like him.


    “So you want government authorization to do business? That seems a bit redundant.” Monroe said, voice reserved in suspicion. Alexandra had been going crazy sitting around and waiting to get things moving, and so she had decided to get them moving on her own. It had taken a bit of wrangling to get a meeting with the prime minister but she was already sure it would pay off.


    “Redundant for the moment, yes. The Imperium is a bit silly with its regulations on businesses and wealth. I could give you the whole run down, but I'd rather not waste time. Too a businesswoman like me the Commonwealth is an uncharted playground. Token monopoly controls, barely any restrictions beyond those of common sense. It's the closest thing to a promised land that I can think of. But if I invest and build up, and them later on there is some government that decides it was done illegally, then that's no good. A valid and legitimate document giving me permission to do business within the Commonwealth, signed by a prime minister, would dispel my fears immensely.” Alexandra said smoothly, wearing a winning smile. Monroe sat back in his chair in thought. It was clear that he was thinking about a swarm of Sidh businesses coming into the Commonwealth and taking over the economy. It was a legitimate concern in some respects, Alexandra knew that certain businesses and even the government wasn't above such tactics. But she had to get her foot in the door so she could throw it open for herself and then slam the door on the face of her future competition. And for that to happen, it was clear that sacrifices were going to be needed.


    “I would also be willing to consider renouncing my allegiance to the Imperium and becoming a citizen of the Commonwealth.” She added, as if it had been a second thought, a trivial matter. The widening of Monroe's eyes told it it had the effect she wanted. “Not immediately of course, if I did that most of my contacts in the Imperium would decide they don't owe me the favors they do. But once I'm established and I've called in or traded away my favors, I would be willing to become a citizen.” She said. Monroe was quite for a few minutes before he leaned forward.“And just what was it you said you could provide? Exactly, if you will.” He said, pulling out a pen and a fresh sheet of paper. Alexandra smiled like a wolf.



    Twenty minutes later Alexandra walked down the front steps of the Parliament building as if she owned it, with a physical copy of their agreement tucked in her pocket. There were multiple other physical copies, as well as a copy uploaded to the Commonwealth data-net. She spotted her towering body guard and sauntered over to her. “Helena my dear, I am simply too good at what I do.” She said with a grin, taking out the agreement and showing her friend. The woman seemed unimpressed. “I thought you would have done it quicker.” She said in a tone that sounded serious though Alexandra knew it was one of the rare times that Helena was humoring her. The bodyguards own fortunes rested with Alexandra's after all, and if Alexandra played this right she would have fortunes aplenty.

  5. #15
    A few miles outside Wolves Haven


    Before the war, Wolves Haven used to be surrounded by extensive suburban districts, parks, farmland and forests. Most of that was gone now, ruins criscrossed with derelict trench lines, bunkers and blastered moonscapes of shellholes and churned-up mud. Sizable areas were covered by Sidh encampments, the air constantly abuzz with the roar of dropship engines as they ran supplies and materiel from and back up to orbit with clockwork precision.

    Getting to any location beyond walking distance in or around the city was very problematic these days. With fuel being rationed tightly and reserved exclusively for heating, power generation and reconstruction or military uses, simply driving somewhere by car was pretty much out of the question. Even top government officials weren't exempt, being restricted to use their cars for official duties only, and very few citizens had a functional car left in any case, most being turned over for recycling into weapons during the war, when the fuel rationing had made them largely useless to their owners. Furthermore, most major roads were closed down to civilian traffic, with the Sidh military running an endless stream of supplies from their ad-hoc spaceports to every location where their troops made home or where rebuilding efforts were ongoing. Any hapless fool from outside who managed to mingle into the traffic would be mercilessly run off the road if his presence impeded the progress of the supply trucks - the deliveries had to run like clockwork. The same fate befell any trucks that broke down, roadsides often being littered by their wrecks, looted and partly dismantled by scavenging locals. The Sidh authorities didn't seem to mind - writing off a lost truck and cargo and commissioning a new one was easier than dealing with the consequences of the gridlock that recovery efforts of a single damaged truck would cause. Obviously, the Sidhae tried their best to fix and recover any damaged cargo trucks when and where possible, but if repairing or recovering the vehicle proved impossible with means available on hand, the drivers would simply call in a delivery failure and hitch a ride on the next passing truck back to base.

    In this patent absence of civilian traffic, hitching rides on army vehicles became the only viable option for civilians to travel further than their feet would carry them. People of importance could obviously rely on Sidh or Commonwealth armed forces lending them use of their air transports for official business, but ordinary folk had to resort to improvisation and luck. The latter was important, because only around a third of all trucks in the Sidh transport fleet were even manned - usually, only the lead and the last truck in the convoy would be manned, each crewed by three men on longer runs, who took turns driving, monitoring automated trucks in their half of the convoy, and resting. Most of the trucks especially on the shorter and more repetitive runs were driven by AIs that obviously abided by the regulations to the letter and stopped for nobody. Sidh drivers, on the other hand, could be reasoned and bargained with, and would often allow civilians to hitch a ride despite it being against regulations. Quite a few of them were also human, members of the Human Auxiliary appointed to the tedious but necessary task of running supplies. Sidh MilSec usually looked the other way and made no effort to eject any hitchhikers seen aboard army vehicles, recognizing their predicament.

    Today, Mary Collinsworth was taking her chances to hitch a ride. Her neighbors had obviously warned her against such attempts, virtually assuring her that any such effort will end up in her being abducted and gang-raped by sex-starved Sidh truckers or worse. In her usual fashion, Mary paid them no heed, recognizing that in all probability the Sidh truckers had more important things to pay attention to than molesting her. If anything, her rather modest looks would probably work against her today, it being an established fact that men tended to pick up young attractive females more often than others.

    Mary's quest today was no different from the usual routine - to go about the authorities and ask if there was any word on the whereabouts her husband. Her persistence had annoyed local officials enough for her to no longer be welcome in Harlech Grove's casualty notification office, so she would now stray further and see if the Sidh authorities could dig anything up. After asking a couple Sidhae met on the street, Mary was directed to Casualty Recovery and Processing Station C-7, the closest to her locale.

    She had been standing out on the roadside for some two hours now, the army trucks speeding past without paying her any heed. Most were of the unmanned variety, lacking a cockpit. The last trucker, a reasonably-pleasant young chap, had driven her from the city to here before having to take a turn. Mary still had a few more miles to cover, but so far, nobody headed that way was forthcoming, most traffic turning towards the Sidh military compound nearby.

    Mary buried her face deeper in the collar of her fur coat as the cold breeze swept by. It was getting colder by the day, the mud under her feet still being frozen stiff an hour before noon. She saw another of those giant Sidh aerostats rise to the sky, still in the process of inflation, far in the distance, and wondered how many would be necessary for the coming winter to be stopped.

    An army truck finally roared to a halt near her.

    "Where you headed, lassie?" the driver, a wizened, heavily-scarred Sidh, rolled down the window.

    "Would you happen to be headed somewhere close to Casualty Recovery and Processing Station C-7, good sir?" Mary politely asked, not sure whether to take offense at the driver's casual tone and him calling her "lassie", a name that nobody had called her since her marriage at the age of 23.

    "C-7?!" the driver seemed unpleasantly surprised, "Not sure why in Emperor's holy name a pretty thing like you would ever want to go THERE, but guess that ain't none of my business... I just happen to be headed to C-7, so hop right in, lass!"

    Mary got in the truck, it taking her some effort to get up in the high cockpit. The truck felt very spacious, clearly being designed to be driven by men in powered armor. The driver had none, however, being clad in ordinary dark-grey overalls and a field cap. His face was criscrossed with deep old scars, one of them twisting his expression in a perpetual grin. The man kept the stub of a large cigar in the grinning corner of his mouth, half-smoking and half-munching it, and occasionally letting loose a juicy brown spit through the open window on his side. Mary cringed whenever he did that, trying to suppress her cough - Edward's smoking pipe had been bad enough, but this tobacco or whatever this Sidh was smoking reeked simply terrible.

    "Not fond of the smoke much, are you, lassie?" the driver chuckled, noticing her discomfort, "Don't worry, just roll down the window with that button over there, we ain't going far."

    "I... I thought you Sidhae didn't smoke..." Mary mentioned, almost gasping for breath as she opened the window.

    "Well, war's the place to pick'em up if you ain't got no bad habits yet," the driver explained with a chuckle, "Ain't the worst habit to have neither if you ask me."

    Mary noticed that his entire left arm was prosthetic, the cybernetic limb moving with comparable dexterity and finesse as the real thing. She also noticed a small gilded icon of the Sidh Emperor hanging from the rear-view display. She had always been a bit curious about the Sidh religion, especially in light of the general irreligiousity of her own folk. For her, it certainly seemed strange to have such an advanced species believe in religious superstitions. Then again, many of her own people had turned to religion for comfort lately as well.

    "Is that your Emperor?" she asked, pointing at the image while striving to breathe outside the window as much as possible.

    "That He is, missy," the driver grinned, "Why yer askin'?"

    "Just curious. The lot of you Sidh-folk seem to be very dedicated to him."

    "Well, lassie, you human-folk might not give much about Him, but His Word is what keeps us all goin' through bad times," the driver spoke, "A lot of you humans believe in all sorta silly self-contradictin' legends and gods, mosta'em made up by a few greedy an' power-hungry folk to keep the rest of you in line, but nobody finds that strange. Why would it be strange then for us to pay our respects to a real man who started our kind and way'a life? Tellin' the truth, He's done more for His folk and the rest of Mankind too in His life without no prayers or even a simple thanks said to Him than any god has in entire history."

    "For Mankind?" Mary seemed surprised, "I thought you Sidhae didn't like humans much."

    "Wasn't always that way," the driver spoke, "Used to get along with them alright back in the Emperor's day - until they helped our traitors see Him to the grave. Since then, it's been pretty much piss and shit between us, excuse me language."

    "But why treat all humans like dirt because of some bad apples?" Mary asked.

    "You'd be better off askin' that to the brass callin' the shots, lassie," the Sidh shrugged, "I just drive trucks for a livin'."

    "But it's not just the leaders from what I hear and see, it's the ordinary people also," Mary objected, "Well, at least ordinary soldiers... Can't say I've seen many Sidhae other than soldiers..."

    "See, lassie, most ordinary Sidh-folk don't give a rat's ass about humans either way. Most ain't never even seen one and most probably never will, so they ain't got no axe to grind against Mankind whatsoever," the driver explained, "As for the Army and Navy folk, that's a different story. You don't usually grow much liking for folks you only see tryin' to shoot you, or you tryin' to shoot 'em. If you ask me, we Sidh-folk can be every bit as bad as humans, we're just too damn proud to ever admit it."

    Mary nodded in acknowledgement, deciding it was best to change the subject.

    "So, have you partaken in many battles, good sir?" she asked after a while just to keep conversation.

    "Hey, lassie," the driver grinned, pointing at his marred face, "I didn't get me scars brawlin' over a spilt drink in a bar! I've been with the 235th for some 20 years now, wherever the legion's gone in this time, I've gone too."

    "Did you fight on Draitous?" Mary asked. The 235th Mechanized legion was a household name in the Commonwealth since Draitous, mostly known simply as "Malkar's legion", along with a whole bunch of less flattering nicknames.

    "Yeah," the driver smirked, evidently not too fond of the memories, "That whole operation was a fuck-up from day one, folks doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons... But whatever your gov'ment's been tellin' you about Draitous, don't believe a word of it. Things went to piss and shit quickly, but not for the reasons I've been hearing human-folk here say like they knew anything."

    "I prefer to make my own observations rather than base them on hearsay," Mary stated. There used to be a few veterans of Draitous in her neighborhood before the Skargh war. All of them were unusually quiet, spending most of their time drinking themselves silly in pubs and never speaking of their experiences.

    "Good for you, lassie!" the driver acknowledged, "Not many a human, or even Sidh-folk can say that of themselves these days!"

    Mary had nothing to object to that, so the drive continued in silence for a while. Finally, the driver announced their arrival.

    "Well, here it is, the one and only C-7, lassie! Whoever it is you're lookin' for, hope you got a strong stomach. And good luck!"

    "Thank you, good sir," Mary said. For all his rough language and mannerisms, the gruff Sidh driver seemed likeable and easy to relate to, lacking the air of haughtiness and arrogance typical to his kind. The conversation with the trucker had Mary wondering what the ordinary Sidh people were like, and if her own preconceptions about Sidhae were justified - like most Commonwealthers, she had only seen and interacted with Sidhae of a particular social class and occupation thus far.

    The "casualty recovery and processing station" turned out to be a rather large factory-like facility constructed of prefab modules, unguarded as far as Mary could tell. She had imagined this would be some sort of military hospital, but the installation seemed to be anything but one, medical transports also being patently absent. Several smoke-stacks belched thick foul-smelling black smoke from the place. The first thing about the whole place that caught Mary's attention was the overpowering stench of death. The sickening, choking, sweetish stench was all too familiar for those living downtown, where multitudes of corpses laid buried underneath the ruins, only announcing their presence through foul odor. Here, however, the smell was simply overwhelming, forcing her to retch. She hastily covered her mouth and nose with a handkerchief, though it did little to diminish the odor.

    Not sure where to go, Mary cautiously opened the door of what appeared to be the main entrance, hoping no power-armored guards would pounce on her and eject her from the premises after a violent beating or worse.

    "You here to look for your man, ma'am?" a Sidh in a lab coat with a face as bleak and grim as the sky announced himself.

    "Uh... Yes, good sir... I was told it could be possible to find my husband through here..." Mary spoke insecurely.

    "That is a possibility indeed. I won't lie to you, ma'am, however - with you being a native, the chances are slim," the Sidh informed her.

    "What does that have to do with my being a native?" Mary was unsure what to make of it.

    "See, we keep a centralized DNA database of all our citizens on a data cloud," the man explained, pointing at the bar-code tattoo on his right wrist that Mary knew the Sidhae called a codex, "Whatever requires personal identification is tied to our codex, which is basically our serial number keyed to certain genetic markers unique in every individual. Long story short, we can identify even a small fragment of Sidh remains with ease as long as these markers can be detected, provided we have the right equipment and access to CABAL network - which is pretty much anywhere within range of a Sidh communication array. The Commonwealth, however, didn't have a centralized nationwide DNA database encompassing all citizens, separate databases being kept by the military, various institutions and private establishments and only keeping records of their employees and customers. All that data was stored on physical servers, and most of them were destroyed during the war. Consequently, we're having great difficulty with identifying any human casualties unless they happen to have their documents, dog tags or something of the sort on them."

    "Can't you just ask for their names?" Mary asked, still confused about the nature of the facility she was in.

    "Ask them?" the Sidh employee laughed, "We'd sure love that! Unfortunately, our customers aren't the most talkative bunch. They call this place a "recovery and processing station" for a reason.

    "Oh..." Mary uttered, slightly embarassed, "I was somehow under the impression that this was a kind of hospital or information center..."

    "Many think that before they come. The stench usually rectifies their misconceptions before they enter."

    "So you deal exclusively with body identification?" Mary asked.

    "Yup. Mostly with the ones that are too rotten and/or mutilated to be ID-ed otherwise," the Sidh affirmed, "I'd show you, but it's really not a pretty sight, and stinks even worse than here."

    "I want to see it," Mary declared, herself unsure if that was a good idea

    "You sure?" the Sidh asked, "A lot of our own folk ain't got the stomach for it..."

    "I want to see it," Mary repeated firmly.

    "Suit yourself..." the Sidh shrugged, gesturing for her to follow, "Just try not to puke anywhere near the DNA samplers, it might contaminate the specimens."

    ---

    The casualty recovery and processing station was really little more than an automated corpse-sorting facility. Trucks carrying containers with biohazard markings arrived in numbers every day, dumping body bags with decomposed remains collected at the city on a conveyor belt. The bones and rotting flesh were then sampled and sorted through for potential identifiers by robot arms, and checked against a DNA database. Any identified remains were bagged and placed on a separate conveyor for processing and eventual return home or to their next-of-kin. The rest were unceremoniously dumped in a massive boiling vat to be rendered down to bare bones for their eventual interment in the massive ossuary being built downtown.

    The Sidh in charge led Mary to a dressing room, where she was required to leave behind her coat in a locker and put on a lab coat and face mask. Afterwards, she was led to the main casualty sorting room.

    While the name could indeed pass for a triage facility to the uninformed, the sorting room was actually exactly that - a place lined with numerous conveyors, robotic arms meticulously sorting and examining the remains on them. The stench was overpowering even despite the whole facility being refrigerated. Remains identified as Sidh were immediately placed on a separate conveyor, and if recognized from previous scans, also put in separate bags. Those recognized as "Commonwealth" were simply dumped with assorted remains unless additional identifiers were present - not because of any bigotry on the Sidh part, but rather because of a lack of a centralized DNA database for Commonwealth troops and civilians as the employee accompanying Mary had explained.

    "The remains of our boys go on those two conveyors," the casualty processor explained, "The humans in turn go on those other two. The big one is for unidentified remains. The better part of the poor sods brought here aren't even military, having neither dog tags nor any documents on them, so they all go to rendering."

    "You render them down?!" Mary felt shocked and revolted, already struggling to suppress her urge to retch and trying her best not to look too long at the hideous remains on the conveyors.

    "Got to clean the bones somehow," the facility worker shrugged, "Guys in the memorial complex obviously won't take any with bits of rotting flesh still attached, and boiling them down is faster and cleaner than scraping them. Throw in some bleach, and those bones come out of the vat as white and neat as they'll ever be. Besides, it yields us plenty of fat to be further processed into useful things, such as soap."

    The Sidh explained it to Mary in such a casual and self-evident manner that she couldn't even feel sincerely disgusted about what was being done with human remains here. This was the fabled Sidh pragmatism in practice - even the dead were treated as just another resource, recycled and reused, and from how at least this man treated his grisly work, there wasn't even anything inhuman about it. After all, wasn't recycling what happened to bodies buried and left to decompose naturally anyway? Mary had heard the Sidhae treated their own dead much the same way, with the difference that their bones would be incinerated and ashes made into synthetic diamonds afterwards.

    "I understand that you register the DNA of all delivered casualties for future reference," Mary spoke, trying her best to suppress her gag reflex, "Would the genetic sample from remains processed by another facility be available for reference in all others?"

    "Yes," the Sidh confirmed, "If an unidentified casualty's next of kin were to inquire about his fate and provide a genetic sample, we would be able to compare it against the entire CRAP register."

    "A what register?" Mary chuckled.

    "CRAP. For Casualty Recovery And Processing," the employee grinned, "I know, sounds silly in your language, but that's what it's called."

    "Oh, I see. So, how do I provide a genetic sample?" Mary asked.

    "You will first have to fill a form describing the missing person you are looking for, which I understand is your husband in your case," the Sidh spoke, "Spare no detail when you are filling it, as it will help our system narrow down search paramaters. Ideally, you should also provide a picture, since our tools also take biometric scans and can reconstruct the appearance of better-preserved remains. I'll give you the genetic sample test on the way out, it is very simple and easy to use. All you have to do is swab the inside of the cheek to a close relative of your husband, preferably a child or a sibling of his, and seal it inside the vial. Then you hand it all over to us, wait, and pray for the best."

    "How long it would take?" Mary asked.

    "Depends. If your husband has already been found, we'd know it on the same day. If not... Well, then we'd know only when he was found and processed, which might be the next day, the next month, next year, or never at all. I won't lie to you, ma'am, the chances of your husband being on the register are very slim. Populations of entire planets have gone missing during this war and remain unaccounted for as of now, most remains especially from the hardest-hit worlds will never be found, and the casualty recovery process has only just begun. It might take decades before someone eventually finds your husband, and that's presuming he will even be found. Besides, there's the possibility that your husband is still alive."

    "I want to be sure nonetheless," Mary said sternly, "I know he must be alive somewhere, but I want to be sure. Maybe his unit is just stuck somewhere, or he's been taken prisoner..."

    "Ma'am, I don't mean to be rude, but if there's a possibility that your husband may have been taken prisoner, then you better pray that he dies soon," the Sidh stated bluntly, "If you've seen what the Skargh do to people out in the battlefield, you can get a vague idea of what treatment can their prisoners expect as their slaves."

    Mary gave the grisly piles of decomposed flesh and bone on the conveyors one last sight of fearful revulsion before leaving the processing room. The facility supervisor guided her to the reception office, where visitors would fill their request forms. There were a few other Commonwealth women and a couple Sidhae already present. One figure struck Mary as familiar.

    "Hey, pretty..." a familiar voice purred, "Didn't expect to see you here of all places."

    Mary recognized the speaker immediately as the Sidhwoman named Freya. Clad in her powered armor as usual, she towered over almost two heads' lengths above Mary when standing. Mary hadn't examined her much during their last encounter, and now looked at her closer for the first time. Although the heavy armor concealed much of her body, it was most probable that Freya was tall and athletic like all of her kind. She kept her blonde hair combed back and tied in a short ponytail, the sides of her head shaved, with the right side sporting an elaborate tattoo that ran down to her cheek along the jaw line. The pattern didn't mean much to a Commonwealther, Mary presuming it was some form of traditional Sidh ornamentation, but a fellow Sidh or a Federation human would have readily recognized the ornament as Celtic or Norse. Freya gazed back at Mary with light-blue eyes that appeared ice-cold and very expressive at the same time, endowed with that certain inhuman shine that all of her kind shared, though the latter was not immediately obvious in the well-lit room unless one looked at her eyes from a certain angle.

    "Looking for somebody?" Freya stated, her voice betraying sympathy and compassion. Her voice was a pleasant alto, slightly purring, sufficiently expressive but not overly affectionate. She spoke Commonwealth English with the distinct, inimitable accent characteristic of her people, yet it was different from that spoken by the majority of Sidhae, signifying she was likely from a world that maintained it's own distinct dialect of Sidh.

    "Uh... yes..." Mary stated, not sure how to respond.

    "I'm looking for a friend of mine as well," Freya stated, "But it don't seem like they will have any word of her anytime soon. So here I am..."

    Although the towering Sidhwoman looked scary with her inhumanly glowing eyes, Mary saw that there was quite a bit of sadness in them. Evidently the Sidhae did care about other people after all - maybe not anyone other than their own, but still somebody. Mary figured that despite their constant rough-and-tough manner, personal losses hurt Sidhae all the same as ordinary humans. Perhaps not a surprising discovery in itself, but certainly something worth noting, given how badly they were portrayed in the popular media.

    "You are a long way from home, pretty," Freya spoke, "I am stationed not far from here. I could drive you home and back here tomorrow if you want, so you don't have to go hitching rides all the way."

    "Uh... I suppose you could..." Mary spoke, unsure how to respond, "I hope it won't be too much of an inconvenience..."

    "Don't you worry about that, babe," Freya smiled at her in a way that made Mary slightly uncomfortable. During their last run-in, her comrades had off-handedly mentioned her as having certain inclinations towards the female sex.

    Mary sat down to fill the form. The questions consisted mostly of information pertaining to the missing person, including a detailed physical description.

    "Hey, babe," she heard Freya's voice after a while as she tried to recall every specific trait of her Edward, "I can drive you back to town when you're done if you want."

    "Uh... Yes, please... If that wouldn't be too inconvenient..." Mary responded unsurely.

    "I'll be waiting outside then," the tall Sidhwoman smiled.

    ---

    Half an hour later, Mary was sitting in an armored car next to Freya as the latter drove back towards the city.

    "So, uh... Freya, is it? Who were you looking for if you don't mind me asking?" she spoke.

    "A friend," the Sidhwoman answered briefly.

    "Anyone special?"

    "Yes. I know that she's gone. I just want to know if she's been found. We agreed to take custody of each other's diamond, whoever died first," Freya sighed, visibly saddened.

    "Diamond?" Mary was confused.

    "When a Sidh falls in battle, his remains are incinerated and made into a diamond," Freya explained, "It is usually sent home to be interred in the Halls of Eternal Glory. If that Sidh has expressed such desire in his last will, however, that diamond may instead be entrusted to a friend for safekeeping. Soldiers usually graft them into their armor, so that their fallen friends may fight alongside them and partake in the glory of battle even in death. Me and Etain had just such an agreement, that whoever lived longer would take care of the other's diamond."

    "Etain..." Mary said thoughtfully, "So, your friends were right the other day in saying that you are into girls?"

    "It's a bit of an... acquired taste, actually," Freya smiled, "I've had no luck with men in my life, so I figured nobody would know a woman's needs and desires better than another woman."

    Mary wasn't sure what to make of it, having never met anyone who would openly acknowledge such preferences, especially if they were not his or her natural inclinations. Her society might not have been particularly repressive where it came to sexual preferences, but they were certainly never brought up or discussed in polite company either. Mary was aware that such a thing was common among Altmarkers, given the general shortage of men in their society, and assumed that relaxed inhibitions in this matter must evidently be natural among Sidhae as well, seeing how they were said to be kin with them.

    "I met Etain during a stay in a field hospital shortly after we were deployed to the Commonwealth," Freya explained, "At first it was just walks and conversations while we recovered, but you know how it works, one thing leading to another... And then Dernholm happened."

    "I'm sorry..." Mary expressed her condolences. Dernholm was a household name these days, since the Skargh encircled and wiped out five Commonwealth field armies and two Sidh legions almost entirely in the second year of the war, a decisive defeat that opened the breach in Commonwealth defenses and allowed the Skargh to embark on their steamroll towards Altoris and Altmark from the periphery worlds where they had initially been contained. Few veterans especially among the Commonwealth survivors of Dernholm were willing to even mention that name, it being one of the most embarassing moments of the whole war, complacency, incompetence and arrogance of the old-guard Commonwealth officers preventing effective cooperation with the Sidh expeditionary forces. Most embarassingly, in the end it was the Sidhae who turned out to be the only effective defenders of Dernholm, sacrificing themselves to buy time for civilian evacuations, millions owing their lives to them.

    "Don't be," Freya said much to her surprise, "I know she died well, in the field of battle atop a heap of dead enemies, like every proper Sidh hopes to."

    "You seem to be very warlike people to find such an end to your lives desirable," Mary stated.

    "Humans say that war brings out the very worst in people, and perhaps they are right," Freya spoke, "We however believe that war also brings out the very best. The Emperor, praised be His name, has said that it is easy to speak of high virtues and moral principles, of love, friendship and brotherhood in times of peace and plenty, but it is only through hardship and struggle that these things can truly be put to the test and proven. We believe it is only the fires of war that can truly separate diamonds from dirt, that only under mortal danger does one show his true character. Bonds made in peacetime are fleeting, but those forged in war last for a lifetime, however short it may be at times. To be a Sidh is to embody that very best that only mortal struggle can bring out and test, as is to die living by those ideals."

    "Tell me about your husband," Freya spoke after Mary paused to reflect on her words.

    "What can I say... My Edward is slender and quite tall, perhaps not quite as tall as you or your friends. He has dark hair, charming green eyes and takes great pride in his mustache which he used to keep very carefully. Before the war he used to work in a machine parts factory. He loves his children very much, and I am sure he will come home eventually," Mary said.

    "What is it like to have children?" Freya suddenly asked.

    "Well... It's kind of hard to explain..." Mary spoke, unsure how to best word her thoughts, "It is certainly a lot of trouble, especially when they are little."

    "Then why have them?"

    "Because it is also so much joy. For example, picture yourself as the drill instructor to a young recruit who doesn't know first thing about war. It is your duty to train and teach him to become a fine soldier, and it is only through your efforts that he will succeed or fail. It is difficult, and you will feel frustrated and angry a lot of times, but you will also feel immense pride when your recruit starts to show progress, and even greater pride when you eventually see him exceed your own mastery and earn acclaim, so you can proudly announce for the whole world that it was you who trained this man."

    "I think I understand," Freya nodded after pausing to reflect, "You humans enjoy raising your progeny by yourselves for the rewarding experience of seeing them grow and succeed."

    "Yes, and for many other things too. Such as companionship, and to have somebody to care for us when we grow old," Mary explained.

    "But why are there so many humans who neglect their parents then?"

    "Well, I suppose not every parent does a good job at raising his children, much like not every drill instructor does a good job training his recruits."

    "Drill instructors have to meet certain standards, and follow a certain training program," Freya objected, "Or they are relieved of their duties as unfit for them."

    "In a way, so do parents. They have more leeway and liberty at setting the standards and the program, but the idea is still much the same," Mary said.

    "But not every soldier is fit to become a drill instructor. One is first examined, then trained, and only then may he take to training recruits. Parents need no certification, anyone being allowed to become one," Freya argued.

    "I suppose in some cases I would agree with you," Mary chuckled, "But most of the time we manage somehow."

    "I think that is one of the main differences between our kinds," Freya pointed out, "We always seek out perfection, while you settle down for "managing somehow"."

    "Can't say that's gone too badly for us so far," Mary countered.

    "What about this war?" Freya asked, her voice showing no scorn or arrogance about the matter.

    "You have a point there, Freya," Mary said, "But parenting is not the same as fighting a war. The only real enemy you have to fight as a parent is your own flaws, weaknesses and bad habits, so that your child has the best example to learn from."

    "I have never met any children," Freya stated, "Well, not up close and personally, anyway. Humans with children seem to be especially afraid of us. For a reason, I guess... And as for our own, we don't really get to see them at all."

    "How do you grow your children?" Mary was curious, "I understand that "grow" is the right word, yes?"

    "We have facilities called progenitories for that," Freya explained, "The progenitors extract genetic samples from men and women, and combine those with the desired traits, add some new ones on their own, and then plant the resulting embryos in progeny vats. When they grow sufficiently, they are plugged into virtual reality and gradually augmented. The faulty ones are discarded, while those that make the cut live on to be activated. Young Sidhae are a lot like human children, very curious about everything. I reckon I have a whole bunch of them."

    "Wait, how?" Mary seemed confused.

    "Genetically, I mean. I have donated my genes a few times, which probably makes me the gene-mother of a couple hundred Sidhae by now," Freya explained, "I know, it can get a bit confusing to an outsider."

    "Sounds like quite a number," Mary seemed impressed, "With such numbers, guess it is no wonder you have handed over childcare to science and technology."

    Time passed unnoticably in conversation, and before long, Mary realized they were back in Harlech Grove.

    "No need to drive me all the way to doorstep, the street's dug up anyway," she said, "These crossroads will do just fine."

    "Suit yourself, babe," Freya smiled, "Be here tomorrow at 1000, don't keep me waiting!"

    "Thank you," Mary said, unsure what to make of the Sidhwoman's smiles and pet names.

    ---

    Downtown Wolves Haven
    General HQ of the Sidh expeditionary force


    Malkar sat in his office, reviewing the latest reports on the progress of the memorial complex and on the preparations for the upcoming triumph ceremony. Although everything had been going like clockwork so far, with the Empress's arrival just days away, there were still way too many things that could possibly go wrong.

    The Sidh high command had picked a rather inconspicuous office building that used to house an interstellar trade and logistics center before the war, but was originally built as a military compound centuries ago during the war that saw Altmark integrated into the Commonwealth. The building was sturdy, reinforced against attack, had both office space and hangars that could accomodate large numbers of vehicles and equipment, it was surrounded by high-rise buildings that shielded it against most artillery attacks, and was inconspicuous and unlikely to attract attention. Furthermore, the skyscrapers provided excellent defensive positions, any enemy having to fight their way through dozens of them from any direction before reaching this building, like the Skargh had attempted during the battle for Wolves Haven. It was also in close proximity to the Commonwealth government buildings.

    With Drax being away at his legion's main encampment on this continent just outside the city, and other strategoi likewise being absent, having gone off on inspection tours around the bases of their legions, Malkar remained the only strategos currently present in Wolves Haven, and was thus technically in command of the entire General HQ. Being too preoccupied with making the preparations for the triumph ceremony, however, he had relegated that duty to one of his tagmatarchs, a very ambitious man just like himself. The said tagmatarch was overjoyed to take the duty of running the General HQ even for just a few days off Malkar's hands, seeing how well such an appointment would reflect on his career record, and Malkar had little reason to be concerned, as this man had a vested interest in making sure everything went by the numbers. With that taken care of, the strategos could now devote himself fully to what he did best - organizing pompous displays that would advance the glory of the Imperium. And his own along with it, obviously.

    Although reading through every single report was a mind-numbingly boring and tedious duty, Malkar made a point of doing it. For all his personal flaws and weaknesses, the one virtue that Malkar had in spades was diligence. He had always wanted to be a man of fame and renown, to stand above his fellow Sidh, and was also keenly aware of the effort it took to attain fame and glory. Consequently, he had never shied away from hard assignments, carrying out boring and thankless ones with equal diligence to dangerous and glorious ones, and had consequently built himself a reputation as a man that gets things done - just the kind of reputation one needed to be considered for the mantle of strategos. A few well-timed and well-advertised victories, a few favours from other senior officers, and here he was - one of an elite of only a few thousand Sidhae privileged with the title of strategos and all the fame and influence that came along with it. Another reason why Malkar took this particular job so seriously was Drax. Although they had maintained a decent professional relationship throughout the war out of necessity, personally the two men resented each other and had maintained a fierce rivalry before the war, one that would no doubt be rekindled now that circumstances no longer forced them to overlook their differences. Although Drax was still technically Malkar's superior, Malkar wanted to make sure that the credit for organizing the most spectacular and awesome triumph ceremony in the Imperium's history would go to him first and foremost, and deny that foul-tempered old grouch of an archistrategos the pleasure to gloat at Malkar's achievment as being anything less than perfect. Hence, nothing could be left to chance, and Malkar deliberately pushed himself hard to see to it.

    The direct neural interface with an assistant AI was a helpful feature, letting one read through piles of documents and reports at speeds comparable to a computer, to perform thousands of different tasks simultaneously and somehow be able to make sense of them all, but even for someone with the willpower of a Sidh strategos the task was very draining. Malkar had been going at it for two hours now, and felt close to his tremendous mental limits. The pounding headache and critical temperature warning indicated it was time to take a break before his brain burned out - figuratively and literally. Malkar struggled to pore through another few hundred reports, when his AI assistant interrupted him.

    "You have an incoming call, strategos!" the machine informed in a pleasant but distinctly electronic female voice, "Shall I put it through?" While many other strategoi preferred living secretaries over AIs, Malkar had deliberately chosen an AI assistant, in no small part to avoid the temptations that the constant close proximity of attractive female could bring out in a seasoned womanizer like him. Although Elizabeth had rather expressly stated once that she recognized that men have their needs, and whatever he did on campaign was none of her concern as long as she didn't have to hear about it, Malkar felt that his wife's promise to overlook any temporary dallies alone did not suffice to absolve him of the command to be faithful that the Empress had given him, and so had taken precautions. There were, after all, plenty of pretty women around to distract eyes and mind as it was without further having one constantly parade before his eyes while at work.

    "Who is it?" Malkar grumbled, displeased at the interruption.

    "A Miss Alexandra Invictus, freelance business startup agent and representative of the Chamber of Commerce," the AI explained.

    "Save and terminate current session and put her through," Malkar ordered before removing the cable from the primary interface port in the back of his head. An instant later, the holo-display on his desk flickered and displayed a familiar visage of the buxom blonde woman he had met a week ago during an inspection of the memorial construction site.

    "Good afternoon, strategos," she enunciated affectionately, "I trust that you remember who I am, if your assistant hasn't informed you already."

    "Yes, I remember you, Miss Invictus. How can I help you?" Malkar said.

    "As you are surely aware, I am here to conduct business. Today I even secured an express permission to do so from Prime Minister Monroe himself. Alas, I would need sizable orbital facilities to bring in the first supplies necessary to set up, and the only ones currently in operation happen to be operated by the military."

    "And you want me to order some docking space set aside for your use?" Malkar asked. Although the idea of this civilian conducting her own deals with the Commonwealth government without consulting the military first didn't sit well with him, Malkar knew enough to understand that the current situation was only temporary, and it would happen sooner or later, so this lass with her grandious business plans could as well be the first.

    "If it wouldn't be too much of a burden," Alexandra sounded almost humble, "Naturally, I could just have my ships wait in line for weeks until they get a docking clearance, but that wouldn't be too conductive for business, would it?"

    "Miss Invictus, surely you must realize that the current orbital facilities are labelled "military" for a reason," Malkar argued, "Those orbital docks are already working way over their designed capacity just to keep our troops supplied and the natives fed just enough for them not to start rioting. Civilian contractors are welcome to dock there as well, but you are yet to give me a single reason why I should grant your ships a priority docking clearance."

    "Well, for starters, I could considerably expand your supply train by transferring my ships to your logistics command as private contractors after they have been unloaded," Alexandra stated, "They could take some pressure off of your supply problem, and allow you to re-allocate some of the military's ships to other, more pressing tasks."

    "Alright, you have me interested. What kind of ships are we talking, and how many?" Malkar said.

    "12 Solaris-class universal light freighters, and 6 Ulthor-class bulk freighters," Alexandra stated, "And once I get set up, I could arrange for more to be sent this way."

    "That is some serious cargo capacity," Malkar agreed. Currently, with all the civilians and refugees to feed largely at the Imperium's expense, the supply situation was such that even most non-essential warships were assigned to supply runs, leaving the Sidh battlefleets seriously depleted of their escort vessels and vulnerable, should the Skargh decide to have another go, so Alexandra's offer of 18 dedicated cargo ships was something to be taken into serious consideration

    "Furthermore, I could arrange for an additional orbital dock to be towed in from the Imperium. It is not big, only able to accomodate 20 medium-size ships, and it would take at least 18 weeks to tow it here, but I think it would still provide a welcome relief to your current shortage of docking space. Furthermore, it is modular and could be expanded in the future once I can secure additional modules to be purchased or built and delivered here," Alexandra added.

    "Your offer is very tempting. However, since I am not in supreme command, it is not my decision alone to make," Malkar said, "I will, however, certainly bring the matter up with collegues and superiors, and if they approve, you might just get your priority clearance."

    "I am sure your fellow commanders will see sense in my proposition," Alexandra stated, very pleased, "If you would like to discuss the details of my offer, I propose we meet personally. Over a dinner, maybe?"

    "I am unfortunately indisposed for the coming two days," Malkar grinned, immediately noticing the woman's subtly-flirtatious tone, "How about Thursday at Pierrot's, 1900 hours sharp? I will make the necessary reservations."

    "Agreed," Alexandra purred, "I eagerly look forward to it!"

    "Until Thursday, then! Malkar out!"

    After ending the call, the bluish holographic avatar of the AI assistant continued to linger on Malkar's desk.

    "Strategos, voice and body language analysis of Miss Invictus indicates an 85% probability of a seduction attempt during your meeting."

    "You have a talent for stating the obvious, Dillie," Malkar grinned, his many decades of womanizing having made him an expert at decyphering female expressions and intents, "I want you to find all available information on Alexandra Invictus, her career, personality and reputation. If I am to make any serious alterations to the current logistics protocol on the request of a civilian, she better be able to do everything she says she can and more."

    "Affirmative, compiling available information now. A full report should be available after the next long-range transmission in 5 hours," the AI informed, "In the meanwhile, shall I make reservations for you and Miss Invictus at Pierrot's?"

    "Do it. Also, inform the administration that it is I who will be attending, and specifically request that we are personally attended by Mr. Pierrot himself. He will be paid a premium fee for his services, of course," Malkar instructed.

    ---

    Wolves Haven, Altoris
    Ramsbridge District


    "Come all ye bereaved, destitute and hopeless! Come all ye who have sacrificed and lost everything! Come all who now feel there is nothing left in this world for ye - come and soothe thy pain in His Word! Let the Word guide you away from the pain and suffering of this world, and towards a better destiny!"

    Standing majestically atop a pile of rubble, thus spoke a red-robed Word Bearer to his congregation on the street corner. The aquila-tipped staff of office that the preacher held in his right hand had a copy of the Word mounted on it, always open to the page he was quoting as was the custom, so that any disbeliever could approach and read for himself that the Word Bearer spoke verily. A pair of servo-skulls fitted with loudspeakers hovered over the preacher, amplifying his sermon for the audience.

    "Ave Imperator!" the congregation that consisted mostly of Sidh soldiers exclaimed as they made the customary Aquila sign.

    Preachers of the Word were a common sight in the streets these days. In these dark times, many turned to religion for comfort, so Word Bearers had their hands full ministering to the spiritual needs of the masses of Sidh military across the Commonwealth. However, the sermons of the red-robed preachers had also began to attract a native audience as well, something that the local authorities found rather disconcerting. Despite the general irreligiousity of the Commonwealth populace, religious freedom was still enshrined in the constitution, so nothing could be legally done to stop their activities as long as the Word Bearers did not break any laws, and they made a point of obeying them. The police consequently resorted to harassing the preachers with legal technicalities, and even that became harder and harder to accomplish as they grew better and better informed about all the nuances of Commonwealth law. Besides, the local residents were oftentimes far from interested in having the streetside preachers removed, as they often operated aid stations that were more informal and friendly than the official aid stations operated by the Sidh military. Demands of the local authorities to remove them were ignored on grounds of the Word Bearers not having broken any laws, and attempts of some locales to combat the preachers by issuing ordinances requiring a costly evangelical permit failed equally miserably, all Word Bearers accumulating the necessary funds and applying for permits the very next day, there again being no valid legal reason to deny them these permits.

    While the preacher spoke, a group of his red-robed acolytes were busy distributing aid packages. Several human volunteers worked alongside them.

    Anthony Oakland, a slender and pale 17-year-old boy, was one of these volunteers. A patriotic young man prevented from enlistment by being underage, he had sought out different ways to do his part and serve his country and volunteered for humanitarian aid distribution. However, the Commonwealth own aid stations were few and far between, and had little of their own to distribute in any case, being supplied mostly by the Imperial military. Imperial military aid stations in turn were abundant, but usually did not accept volunteers, which left young Anthony with the privately-operated Sidh stations.

    This particular station ended up as his choice for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was it's remoteness from home. Anthony had his reasons to seek a distant Sidh aid station.

    "Tony, go and bring me another five boxes of MRE's, please," one of the Sidh acolytes going by the name of Brother Amalric instructed him.

    "Right away," the boy nodded and went behind the ruin, where the Word Bearers had set up a small camp, complete with a supply truck that arrived three times a day to deliver the much-needed basic commodities to the local residents.

    Anthony approached the truck, another acolyte inside the truck ready to hand him whatever was necessary.

    "Five boxes of MREs," he said, reaching up to retrieve the requested items.

    "Here you go, Tony," the acolyte, a gorgeous raven-haired girl with olive-brown skin and very expressive dark-brown eyes spoke as she handed him five boxes.

    "So, this is your first week here. Do you like it so far?" the Sidh girl asked.

    "My old man would kill me if he knew I was here..." Anthony sighed as he arranged the boxes on his shoulder.

    "That bad, huh...?" the girl said with some compassion.

    "And that's actually an understatement," Anthony said, "I wouldn't be surprised if he came over here with a gun for you all as well if he learned I'm running with you folks."

    "That is regrettable," the girl stated, "Surely he must realize that we are here to help."

    "Knowing my pa, if he was drowning and a Sidh reached out to help him, he'd rather drown and chew off his own arm while at it than accept help from a Sidh," Anthony explained, "He hates you lot like the plague. Must be because he used to serve on Draitous."

    "Do you hate us?" the acolyte asked with a mix of sadness and curiosity.

    "Obviously not," Anthony said, "Why would I work with you otherwise?"

    "For your people. One does not have to like someone in order to work with them if it is for the better of his own people."

    "You have a point, Savitri. Something even my father could perhaps come to accept. But I am not my father. I do this because I want to, and it is my choice, not his or anybody else's to make."

    "I speak His Word - the power to choose for oneself is the only real freedom a man has," acolyte Savitri quoted.

    "Ave Imperator... Am I supposed to say that as an outsider?" Anthony responded as he had observe the Sidhae do, unsure whether it was appropriate.

    "We welcome all who wish to hear His Word," Savitri smiled humbly.

    "I better get going before Brother Amalric tears me a new one," Tony said as he turned to leave, "Talk to you later!"

    As Anthony returned, Brother Amalric gave him a frown over his delay, but said nothing, as their leader, Brother Malachiel, was still saying his sermon and answering to the occasional question that came mostly from the human attendants. Humans came by for various reasons. Most just came and went for the aid packages, some seemed to take genuine interest, while others came to harass the preachers. The Word Bearers were equipped to deal with all three kinds of people. Currently, Brother Malachiel was debating with a man apparently of the third kind.

    "I understand that you believe you have been obliged by your Emperor to spread your ways to all of Mankind. But what gives you the right to do so, to impose your ways upon others?!" the man argued.

    "Let me answer you with a parable, human brother," Malachiel spoke, "The exalted Emperor once called a government meeting over a pressing matter, and found it in discord. The ministers, the governors and the strategoi argued ceaselessly and could come to no agreement, and having grown tired of it, the Emperor declared the meeting over and announced that the matter will be resolved in his way and his way alone. Some of the officials present were very upset, and asked him the same question that you ask now - "What gives you the right to decide in our stead, to impose your way upon us?!" Do you know what the Emperor answered?"

    Pausing for a second after the rhetorical question, Malachiel continued.

    "The exalted Emperor said: "I have had enough with you! Let him who thinks he can do a better job than me sit on my throne and call himself Emperor from here on!" Thus challenged, nobody dared to take Him up on His words, so the Emperor repeated His challenge. Nobody responded, so he repeated his words for the third time, and to the same effect. With all of his ministers, governors and generals standing in awkward silence, he turned towards the outspoken malcontents and said: "See now for yourselves by what right I rule and impose my will!" For you see, human brother, the right to rule and impose one's will derives from one's courage to take charge and assume responsibility for one's decisions. The great Emperor had what His malcontent subjects did not - the courage to lead and be held accountable for the results, and by that right alone He would rule them all."

    As the debate continued, Anthony made a mental note to take this example to heart. In the past week, he had heard a lot of things worth memorizing from these Sidhae. His father thought them inhuman monsters, and maybe the ones he had fought back in his day had indeed been ones, but these Sidhae were anything but that. What Anthony saw in them was people who had given up all the luxuries and comforts that they no doubt enjoyed back home in order to be here and help his people, to provide them with means of survival and with words of comfort and encouragement, and as far as he was concerned, that was an example worth following.

    The line of people coming for aid packages gradually dispersed as it grew dark, the congregation of worshippers likewise dispersing, only a handful of Sidhae staying behind in the improvised chapel, a large tent with an altar dedicated to the Emperor, in order to pray and meditate. The acolytes would assemble there for their evening prayers and meditation, while the human volunteers were dismissed until the next morning.

    "Will you come tomorrow?" acolyte Savitri asked on her way to the chapel. She and the other Word Bearers had been asking the same question every evening to all volunteers - their participation here was entirely voluntary, so it paid to ask if they could be relied on to appear the next day and plan tomorrow's work accordingly.

    "I will," Anthony smiled, content with the day's work and the new things he had learned.

  6. #16
    50 miles from Wolves Haven, Altoris



    Alexandra Invictus had not been sitting idle in the days since her conversation with Strategos Malkar. She had never been one for sitting around and waiting, always a go-getter, and this situation was no exception. She was still waiting on word of approval in regards to her request and bargain, though she had already told her employed captains to start loading and making their way to Altoris, betting that the Imperial military wouldn't pass on the possibility of freeing up their combat ships, and even if they did she could divert to some other space port under Commonwealth control. She had Prime Minister Monroe's number and knew she could easily get more out of him. He put on a good show of the typical stiff upper lip Commonwealth citizen, but he was a man drowning in an ocean of issues with the only previous option to take the iron gloved hand of the Imperium to keep him from going under. She intended to offer a silk gloved hand as alternative. Of course she wasn't idiotic enough to think she could replace the Imperiums own efforts in the Commonwealth, she was prideful and at times arrogant, but she was not blinded by thoughts of her own grandeur. The Imperium did want to rebuild the Commonwealth, they wanted a buffer zone between the Skargh and the Persian expanse, a battleground that didn't see the Imperiums own worlds ravaged, and a pool of non-Imperial bodies to throw at the Skargh to limit their own losses as well. But they wouldn't do this freely and everyone knew it, and for all Monroe had at his disposal, which was barely anything, and for all the Empress might like the Commonwealth, they were still just human. But if with Alexandra backing him he might have a chance to maneuver better in the negotiations. She might have been a near no-body in the grand scheme of the Imperium, but Alexandra knew enough about the influencers, power brokers, and the landscape of the Imperiums political workings and to a lesser extent in the military. But that would all be for later, at the moment she was dedicated to establishing herself, and that brought her to the middle of seemingly nowhere with a modest size workforce.



    Alexandra smiled as she walked through the preliminary construction sites as the construction crews worked diligently and professionally. Almost starving and these people still took pride in their work, and with the offer of extra pay and extra rations, they were all to eager to move to this work camp. She had had to do some extra wrangling to arrange the release of materials and rations from the Commonwealth reserves, but the benefits would quickly make up for the losses. She stopped beside Helena, her towering enforcer not having much to do and simply keeping an eye on things, and leaned against her, crossing her arms under her bosom and grinning like a cat.

    “Let Malkar make his grand parade square, wasting time and resources. In a month this valley will be more lauded then any silly little parade could hope for.” She said. Helena replied with a small grunt. “You're playing with fire on this one, I think.” She said simply. Alexandra chuckled and shook her head.


    “Skirting Imperial law is entirely acceptable as long as there is a net-benefit to the Imperium, even breaking it can be forgiven at times if the benefit is large enough, but this little endeavor firmly falls in the iffy area of skirting around some little known laws that I am all to familiar with, mainly because I've done it before once or twice.” She said and pushed off the towering woman, walking ahead and motioning for Helena too follow. Thudding footsteps indicated that she was following.


    “The Commonwealths agricultural technology isn't exactly bad, but it's not well suited to the conditions they now find themselves. Their previous wars never left the ground and air so polluted that they could barely grow anything, their wars were about taking ground and using it. Fast growing industrial greenhouses, vat grown edible algae, all were secondary thoughts. We have some of that tech back on the ship and can build some stop-gap pieces as well, and technically so long as the tech is handled by Sidh only, we aren't breaking any laws. The crew can scrap a few bits from the ship, throw it together with locally produced industrial goods, then we make the crew into foreman's in charge of human teams and start growing. In a few weeks we'll have tens of thousands of pounds of food being produced every week.” Alexandra said, though Helena was intelligent enough to have figured out the plan.


    “And once your shipments get in, it'll jump to millions of tons in a few months, and you'll establish such facilities on every Commonwealth world, I imagine? It's not the worst plan, if the military doesn't shoot it down.” Helena said, nodding slightly. Alexandra scoffed.


    “Why would they shoot it down? It would save the Imperium billions. And free up immense amounts of resources. They would be idiots to do that.” She said bitterly. Helena raised a brow and gave a small grin of her own.


    “You know how politics work. Some pen pusher somewhere will make a big deal out of it for some reason or other, maybe a valid reason. And the military would be even less enthusiastic about it, Drax especially.” Helena said, stopping too look around at the large swath of constructions sites. “At the very least he might try to take control of the operation and kick you to the proverbial curb, and he had the authority to do so. You may want to get the Commonwealth military involved. He had little authority over them now that the war is over, and if he tries to muscle in through intimidation, well, Monroe will be the bulldog that everyone knows him to be.” She said idly. Alexandra frowned but realized it was a good idea, and she doubted the Commonwealth military would try to take control of the operation, as it would cause issues with the Imperium.


    “I guess I'll need to talk to Monroe then.” Alexandra said. It wasn't too much of an issue, Monroe seemed to always have time for a meeting with her now, and not because she was nice to look at. Her plan of being the silk glove over the iron gauntlet of the Imperium was working already, and Monroe was happy enough to work with a Sidh citizen trading favors rather then a Sidh Strategoes making demands and threats. “I'll see him before my dinner with Malkar. Sidra should be here soon with some of the crew, then we can head back to Wolves Haven to get that sorted.”


    “Careful of your games with Malkar. He is married to the Archoness of the Persian expanse you know.” Helena warned. Alexandra rolled her eyes. “I'm just leading him on to get the most I can out of him, Helena. I know well enough to not get into anything serious with a strategoes. Dinner won't hurt anything.” Alexandra said with a grin.


    300 miles north of Wolves Haven, Greyhem family estate



    The Greyhem family estate was less so an estate and more like a solitary group of buildings on the verge of woodland on one side and wide open fields on all others. The staff car pulled along the long driveway and Greyhem couldn't help but smile. He hadn't really had much chance to take some time off over the past several years, and as a rankling officer in the Commonwealth he never really did, but it would be nice to at least have a change of scenery and return to the comfort of nostalgia of his childhood home. While his father and family had been fairly well off thanks to the large farm, Richard would never really consider that they were part of the landed elite of the Commonwealth, with sprawling country manners and large amounts of tenants renting and working the land. While they had had a dozen or so tenants much of the land was worked by the family. His father had friends and connections in high places, which is how Richard had been able to attend the officers academy, though his own success had seen him rise in rank rather then those connections.



    Richard had had a new home built on the land of course, larger then that he had grown up in, but not what most would consider a manor of any sort. For all his rank and prestige he did rather enjoy the more simple things in life. Of course with the weather being what it was after the invasion the fields were mostly barren, though he had yet to dismiss any of his working hands. He couldn't quite bare the thought of the men and women he knew as hard and loyal workers, people his wife and children had become friends with, being sent off to the large labor pools and work camps, surviving on meager daily rations. Not that they would be sitting around doing nothing, they themselves wouldn't accept that, so Richard's wife had set them to work on projects of her whim. The staff car pulled to a stop at the front of the house, the gravel driveway crunching under the tires and then Greyhems boots as he opened the door and stepped out. He grabbed his briefcase and gently closed the door, waving the driver off. The man wouldn't be leaving of course, simply parking. His driver and Batman were two people were never left his immediate area. Bodyguards and assistants both, they fell firmly in the area of being friends, each having been in his service in their roles for over a decade now.


    Richard walked up the front steps and before he reached the top the door swung open, revealing his wife standing there. He smiled as he walked into the foyer, set his briefcase down and hung up his coat, and then finally embraced his wife. He had visited home often enough since the end of the war, but it had always just been quick stops and then it was back to command. But now he was going to be home for an entire week. They pulled away from the embrace and Richard smiled at his wife. “Morgan.” He said with a smile, simply happy that he could. So many people had lost so much that he would never not be immensely grateful for his luck. Morgan was a modest woman, she had sharp features and she kept herself well-maintained. She had been born into Altoris high society, pampered and sheltered, but she had adapted strikingly well to her new life after they had married. She still carried herself with the grace and ease of her upbringing of course, and it would be impossible to not know her social station, but she was humble and content with her life.


    Morgan smiled back and looked him up and down. “Richard, go get out of your uniform and put on some working clothes. We're going to survey the grounds.” She said, lip curling into a bit of a smirk. That was Morgan all over. Richard simply bowed his head, but couldn't help but grin. Ten minutes later they were walking arm in arm along a worn path that went around the edge of the main property. They walked in silence, Richard just happy to take in the sights, sounds, and smells. There was a tinge of bitterness in the air, thanks to the war of course, but it wasn't so bad this far away from where the front line had been. Strong air currents in the atmosphere kept this region relatively ash free, though the temperature effects were noticeable.


    “The children won't be able to make it home this week, I'm afraid. Far to engrossed in their work.” Morgan said, but Richard could tell she was proud of them. They had never exempted their children from hard-work, and had always pushed them to do their utmost when it came to whatever task they were doing, be it studying or digging a ditch. Their eldest son Robert, had followed Richards steps and joined the army, now a captain in the engineer corps due to his own merit. Richard was sure to never allow nepotism when he could avoid it. Beatrice, their second eldest, was a surgeon. She had been working more or less non-stop since the war started and probably needed a break far more then most. Their third child, Amelia, had joined the Commonwealth navy and thankfully had served in the Altmark detachment during the final stages of the war, under the command of Grand Admiral Creed by extension, but none the less in the safer region of war. Their youngest, William, hadn't quite decided on his path yet and mostly spent the war years volunteering wherever he could. He was the most adventurous of the bunch and once everything was more or less settled, Richard wondered what he would do. Probably go off and want to explore the Imperium or some such nonsense like that.


    “Well, that's okay. I could do with the peace and quite. Besides, we've the animals to tend too.” Richard said with a chuckle. They continued in silence again for a few minutes. “It's bad.” Morgan said, a statement more then a fact. Richard took a deep breath and nodded, patting Morgans hand. “Very. But we'll see to it. Monroe barely gets a full nights sleep each night, always working late and waking up early to work even more. The Imperium is, well...I don't trust Drax, but I think we can trust the Empress to be honest in whatever she says when these damned negotiations start. And Drax wouldn't dare go against the Empress' word. Supposedly none of them would, but there have been enough I'd like to put in front of a firing line to make me a bit doubtful. I suppose those have all been mentally broken or intoxicated though.” Richard said with a sigh. Morgan listened intently, she wasn't a trophy wife nor an idiot.


    “And the Empress...well I won't say likes you, but at least appreciates you honesty, yes? You said so after your meeting with her five years ago.” Morgan asked. Richard nodded. “I believe so. I doubt she has many meetings with people who don't try to sugar-coat their words. I speak my mind fully, as you well know.” He said, making Morgan laugh.


    “Oh, that's one of the reasons I married you Richard. The night you told my brother off is still one of my fondest memories.” Morgan said with a smile. “But if that is the case, tell the Empress how it is. She isn't stupid, she'll want some sort of buffer between her newly acquired territory and those other damned aliens, and that means us I suppose. So she has to bend to us, at least a little, or its her own territory they'll be blowing up next time.”


    Richard chuckled. “Oh yes, I'll be sure to pass that onto Monroe, what with more Imperium soldiers in our territory then our own. I'm sure it'll go over wonderfully.” He said, though there was some truth to what Morgan had said. A rebuilt Commonwealth could be a valuable shield against future Skargh invasions, though the thought made Richard despair a fair amount, or they could be annexed and become a thorn in the sides of Imperial authorities. The Imperium had gotten lucky in their annexing of the FSA in that in most regards the Imperium was a better overlord then the FSA government had been, and the vast majority of people were living better lives now. It would not be the same in the Commonwealth, what was left of it anyway.


    “But we shall see. I've not been selected for the negotiation team, being military and all that, but I know Monroe is going to be asking for my input on most everything, we can't risk a potentially divided government. Apparently a decent portion of the parliament think the military should be handling everything, so if Monroe does something the military disagrees with those Mps will cause a ruckus, and I will not have the Commonwealth turn into a military junta. Those mps will have to be voted out, which means Monroe needs to open elections sooner then he would like. Still too much room for fear mongering populism, or for the Imperium to influence any elections of course.” Richard said, frowning a bit.


    “Hmm.” Was all Morgan replied with and then pat his hand. “And that will be the last we talk about that for the week, darling. Now come on, the lads are widening the stream and I think they could use another set of hands for a shovel.” Morgan said, leading Richard down a side path towards the wide but currently gentle stream, one of many that were on the grounds. Richard shook his head but happily accepted that he would be doing some honest hard labor for the day as they approached a gathering of men in work-clothes.


    -Wolves Haven, Ramsbridge District, Altoris-



    Colonel Robert Oakland frowned as he looked up at the long and wide crack running up the entire height of a building. He was being toured through Ramsbridge, a sad necessity to gauge which districts would get the limited amount of manpower and resources to help rebuild. Ramsbridge was nearly at the top of the list, not because it was particularly ruined, in fact the relatively light damage in the district was a boon in its favor. The engineers could come in and in a few weeks the district would be set-right and then they could move on to the more damaged segments.



    “I've noticed a lot of these cracks. I would imagine its the foundations, yes?” Oakland asked as he turned to the civilian engineer who was leading him on the tour. The man nodded. “A fair few foundations are damaged, along with the utility tunnels. Thankfully not the sewers though, we did some renovations here before the war that held up. It's one of the main reasons there's been an influx of citizens coming here. They've crammed ten or more people to a house for the time being. If we're going to keep housing people, we need to square the district away. I've got a few crews ready to come in, but we need army manpower and resources.” The man said.


    Oakland nodded. “So just some muscle? I think we can manage that, not like the bulk of the combat troops are doing much. Not promising anything of course, but I think command will be happy for a morale boost if we get this place back to what it was.” Oakland said. He shook hands with the engineer and exchanged a few pleasantries before departing. He could have had a staff car, but he had opted to walk, there were other things the resources could go to. There weren't many people milling about, most either off to work or waiting at aid-stations. Turning down one of the main streets Oakland saw a decent sized crowd formed at the next corner. Curious, he made his way towards the gathering only to see and hear the preaching Sidh Word Bearer standing atop a platform. He groaned in annoyance, but ever since his meeting with Greyhem he had been doing his best to keep his anger in check. Besides, he didn't have the mental energy to be angry every day when most of the city and Commonwealth needed to be rebuilt. There were a few off duty Sidh near the front of the group, and most of the Commonwealth citizens didn't seem all that taken in by the preacher, more so it seemed like they were listening out of politeness. He spotted the Sidh trucks and the supplies being pulled out and it clicked. They were mostly hear for the food and supplies, and it would be exceptionally rude to just take a handout and leave.


    Oakland was about to turn and leave when he heard the gathered Sidh say 'Ave Imperator!' in unison, but one voice caught his attention. He walked to the left a bit and spotted something that did set his blood boiling. There near the front of the group, load of supplies in his hand, was his youngest son. Robert blinked a few times and tried very hard to make it seem like it hadn't happened, that he hadn't heard his son utter that vile phrase, that his son wasn't handing out supplies at a Word Bearers aid-post. But then the boy saw him as well, his face drained of color and he dropped the supplies in his arms.


    “Anthony Oakland!” Robert bellowed in a tone reserved for the middle of battle, silencing the preacher and causing a few people near him to jump. All eyes turned towards him before Anthony took off. Robert didn't run after him, instead he followed after him at his best parade quick march, murmurs following him as he past by. His son didn't run far, merely back to one of the trucks to try and hide. The Sidh eyed him in a warning manner, and one female in particular was glaring at him, but none moved to stop him. Robert stopped as he towered over his son, who was crying his eyes out. He didn't strike his son, he found that physically attacking your own child was the show of the weakest sort of man, but that didn't mean he didn't yell. Thankfully he kept his tone relativity calm.


    “What the hell are you doing here?!” Robert said, knowing his face was flushed with anger. “What the hell are you thinking?!” He demanded, feeling himself shaking with anger. While Anthony was crying a miniature flood Robert noted he wasn't sobbing and part of him was proud of that. Anthony righted himself up a little and looked up at his father, though he didn't meet his gaze. “I'm helping! I'm handing out food and supplies!” Anthony said, and while it was true it was only a half answer.


    “You could do that at dozens of other aid-stations! What are you doing at this one?” Robert countered, though he could hear the preacher starting to talk again, mannered enough to leave this family dispute as that, though Robert was aware that one or two Sidh were standing a few meters away, close enough for them to intervene quickly if it came to violence. When his son didn't answer and looked down Robert continued. “These people would crucify us as soon as they would look at us if their government even so much as hinted they didn't care what happened to us! Do you have any idea how vile they are when they haven't been told to play nice?!” His son didn't respond, didn't even move. Robert felt his fingers curling and uncurling in an effort to calm himself, but this was just one step to far. “But if you want to throw in with them, so be it. A few days off on your own should set you right. Don't bother returning home until you remember who you are!” Oakland said, banishing his son. He turned and stalked away, the female from before giving him another death glare before she moved in towards Anthony.


    Robert didn't hesitate, didn't turn back and change his mind. Maybe he would have, but he wasn't going to back down in front of a Sidh, not while he still had any self-respect. His wife was going to let him have it though, that was for sure.


    -Central District, Wolves Haven, Altoris-



    The Central District of Wolves Haven was a pleasant area with grand and beautiful buildings lining the wide avenues. Flowers, plants, and trees lined the avenues and there was plenty of open green spaces, parks and walking paths. It was one of the oldest districts and had weathered the war well. The wide avenues were rubble and rubbish free, and the traffic was light as more optimal routes to the more needy districts had been established. The Grand Regal Hotel was certainly one of the finer buildings as well, its long history of famous, wealthy, and influential clients had made it one of the most stunning buildings in Wolves Haven. Now it housed foreigners of a different kind. Sidh with business in the city and the ability to pay for rooms, or those who had been quartered there by the Commonwealth military, and then those who had been invited to stay. Kristanna fell into the last group, and upon seeing the suite of rooms they were offering her she had accepted happily. Apparently she was now an influential Sidh, a thought that amused her, but she treated everyone she met with a smile and respect.



    Kristanna snapped her eyes open as her internal alarm clock woke her, groaning as she stretched, amazed at just how well rested she felt. These fine cotton sheets apparently did wonders. She could already tell that William wasn't next to her, he had done his best to not wake her when he got up and went to the couch, but she was a Sidh after all. She smiled a bit. They weren't fighting, he just wasn't used to such a spacious and comfortable bed yet. She pulled the sheet off of her and sat up, going through her morning stretches before heading in to take a shower, a hot shower at that. After a four minute shower, an over indulgence of her usual three minute one, Kristanna was out and slipping into the body-glove suit she wore under her armor. She took in a deep breath as the suit clasped around her, a second skin by this point. She walked into the large living room and found William still sleeping. She smiled and bent over him to give him a kiss on the forehead before righting up and looking him over. The man needed a break, especially now that he was supposed to be leading the effort to build a full scale auxiliary force. A nice vacation away for a few weeks would do him a world of good. She made a mental note to force it on him if he refused.


    Kritanna then went to one of the other rooms, an office of sorts. This suite of rooms was more supposed to be an apartment then a hotel room. The office had been retrofitted a bit, making way for some Imperium tech and of course a station for her power-armor. She quickly checked her messages, just the regular reports from the patrol teams, before she stepped into the opened back of her armor. She keyed a mental trigger and the suit back curled up and closed her in to the armored embrace. While Urban Security wasn't as obsessed with their armor as the military was, she wouldn't deny that it was wonderful to have. She stepped out of the station and opted to use the outside stairs to head down, opening a sliding door and stepping out on the roof. Like much of the Central District it was more or less a park, with real grass and lines of small trees in planets tastefully placed around. She walked down the path heading towards the service-stairs and fire-escape, she had tested the strength of the steel before walking down them of course, and made her way down to the back ally. From there it was a decent length walk towards the police headquarters she worked out of.


    She met 'her' team of Commonwealth officers outside, all looking fresh and grinning. Kristanna had just missed a joke. “Morning ma'am!” They said as she approached. They had finally loosened up around Kristanna once they had seen that she wasn't going to let her own kind get away with even the most minor of infractions. While Officer Jacob was still technically in charge, they all seemed happy enough to follow her lead, and Jacob even seemed content to allow her to take charge, possibly to observe how Urban Security operated.


    “Good morning officers.” Kristanna replied back with a smile. “Seems we'll be doing a heavy patrol of Ramsbridge today. Nothing too unruly going on, just making a strong presence to keep it that way.” Kristanna read off the orders the Wolves Haven PD had forwarded to her. Her officers nodded and they set off. With various district police buildings having been taken over as hospitals or army barracks all officers operated out of consolidated 'Over-district' buildings, large administration and storage buildings. Ramsbridge wasn't too far off from their current area, and on the way they linked up with two other patrols. Pleasantries were exchanged as they formed into one large group as they crossed a bridge into Ramsbridge District. It was still fairly early so there was a steady stream of civilians going every which way. They gave polite nods and greetings, though Kristanna imagined they were more directed at the human officers then her and the few other Sidh in the group. They were nearing a large intersection where the group would split into their respective patrols, a few human officers at the front stopped at a half standing wall, looking at some posters.


    Kristanna recognized them easily enough, more or less propaganda posters both in Altorisian and Sidh, and judging by the message it was placed there by Word Bearers. “Buncha rubbish.” One officer scoffed and then reached up and ripped the poster from the wall and bunched it into a ball. Kristanna was slightly taken aback, seeing the Emperors Word treated like that, even if it was just a poster. She could tell the other Sidh were bristling even worse then she. She watched as a few officers tore down every poster, bunched them into balls, and went off to find a trash bin. She looked down at officer Jacob beside her.


    “That seems unnecessary.” She said, keeping her tone neutral. Jacob looked up at her, then at the wall, and shrugged. “Can't be hanging posters without a permit. A lot of these Word Bearer types don't have one, so we just rip any we see down. If we find a lot that does have a permit, we'll tell them to keep the posters within a two or three block radius of where they preach or whatever.” He explained. Kristanna nodded, understanding that well enough. The large group split into their patrols and it wasn't long before Kristanna could hear the Emperors Word being spoken. The patrol turned a corner and spotted the Word Bearer and his aid-station. Jacob sighed and rolled his neck. “Right, lets go check.” He said and took the lead.


    They approached the gathering swiftly, Jacob moving people out of his way before the crowd parted for them. The Sidh near the front gave the officers suspicious looks but did not stand in the way once they spotted her. The Word Bearer finally stopped after finishing a segment of His Word and turned his gaze down at Kristanna and then to officer Jacob.


    “Welcome, officers! Have you come to hear His Word?” The Word Bearer said in a loud but welcoming tone. “We would be honored to have you!” He added, gesturing to the crowd. Jacob looked around at the crowd and then up to the Bearer. “Actually we've come to see if you've a permit, and if not to send you off.” He said, clearly expecting to see them off. The Bearer nodded and gestured to the orderly trucks and group of tents in the lot behind his podium. “Brother Amalric will be able to help you in that regard, officer.” He said. Jacob nodded and signaled his people to stay where they were, in a loose half circle around the crowd. Kristanna followed him behind the podium, hearing the Word Bearer resume speaking, though it was more conversational then preaching.


    A red-robed man met them by a table. “Officers.” He said with a polite nod. “I heard the reason you are here. Give me just a moment and I will show you our permit.” He said, flipping through some folders. Kristanna looked around the station, it wasn't much. Two trucks full of supplies, a few tents to shelter against any rain or ash fall, and no doubt just to take breaks in. She spotted one quite dejected looking human boy, late teens if she had to guess, organizing some crates. A raven haired Sidh was helping him, looking concerned and seemingly reassuring the boy. Her curiosity was peaked but a triumphant 'Aha!' brought her attention back to Brother Amalric. The man handed officer Jacob a series of papers, which he looked over quite thoroughly. Jacob frowned but nodded after a minute, handing the papers back.


    “Everything checks out. Keep your posters to two blocks in any direction, and don't block the road.” Jacob said gruffly, robbed of his chance to drive off another pesky preacher no doubt. He nodded to Amalric, who bowed his head in gratitude. The pair of them returned to the rest of the group who looked disappointed as well. “Right, they're legal. Lets get moving.” Jacob said and began heading down the street again.

  7. #17
    Aboard the Dies Irae, Empress's personal dreadnought
    En route to Altoris, ETA 4 days


    To say that Sidh dreadnoughts, and the Empress's personal dreadnought in particular, resembled cathedrals in space would be to say nothing at all. The spaceborne colossus the size of a decent-sized city was shining in gold, bristling with Gothic spires and pointed arches as well as titanic gun turrets. Gilded angels the size of skyscrapers sang hymns of Imperial glory, and terrifying demons held more giant guns concealed in their maws. Heroes of legends old and new lined the sides of the ship, each reminding the awed onlookers of a particular virtue or heroic feat to take example of. The sloped, heavily reinforced prow of the gargantuan ship featured a gargantuan angelic figure as the figurehead. Strongly resembling the Emperor's visage, the angel's features were twisted in a wrathful scowl as it held a sword raised in judgement. Just under it's feet jutted out the foremost part of the ship, the muzzle of the massive World-breaker particle lance that ran almost the entire length of the 32-kilometer-long ship inside its armored hull. A weapon of ungodly power, the World-breaker was mighty enough to do exactly what its name suggested - burn through planetary crust and crack an entire world open. Being large enough to be easily seen on the ground from low orbit, the prow of Dies Irae - the Judgement Day - would signal the impending Emperor's wrath upon those about to be judged below as it turned nose towards the planet before unleashing the fury of its World-breaker, the sword-wielding angel of vengeance above their heads being the last thing that those who had invited it would see.

    Fortunately, the angel of vengeance was very rarely unleashed these days, his main purpose now being to herald the arrival of his mistress, the Empress of Sidhae. Wherever the Emperor's name was praised, the appearance of this telltale figurehead was greeted by ecstatic crowds chanting fanatic praises to their queen, the weapon upon which the angel was standing now serving merely as a stern reminder of the Empress's might.

    At 400 years of age, the ancient dreadnought had seen a lot of battles in its day. Even though it now served a largely-ceremonial role as a ludicrously-expensive personal yacht and a statement of power and glory, it was still fit for battle, constantly overhauled, modernized and upgraded with the latest tech, so much so that the original outer armored hull was pretty much the only original component that remained. Although this mighty titan was capable of facing down entire battlefleets on its own, with such an august passenger as the Empress aboard, no chances were taken, so an escort group of several battleships, each accompanied by several cruisers and a picket of destroyers and stealthers, accompanied it wherever it went. Even though the Imperium's battleships were easily 8 kilometers long, they appeared tiny next to the titanic dreadnought, resembling mere minnows next to a shark. There was little wonder that 20 years back the Commonwealth Navy had prudently decided to halt hostilities in orbit of Draitous upon the arrival of a similar ship, the thickness of whose prow armor exceed the entire hull length of many Commonwealth ships, and whose energy shields radiated the power of a small star.

    Inside the dreadnought was as lavishly-ornate and opulent as its exterior, at least in the areas accessible by guests. Every inch of this ship was designed to convey Imperial grandeur and might as well as serve a practical martial purpose. Vast halls large enough to accomodate the greatest Old Terran cathedrals whole were lined with statues, reliefs and stained glass images of legends and heroes old and new, each recounting an episode of Imperial history and of histories before it. From the heights of the Hall of Martyrs, the giant hallowed hall where the Empress would hold formal receptions, the visages of Imperium's greatest heroes and martyrs looked down upon visitors, each stained-glass image being almost the size of a football field. There was Lady Murasaki, her gentle hands holding a small cross and a rose as a subtle hint at the instruments of her martyrdom. There was centurion Longinus in baroque parade armor, a rose held to his chest likewise alluding to his fate. There was Tyra Miraborg at the helm of her starfighter, a Skargh dreadnought looming in the distance as a reminder of her act of self-sacrifice. From heroes of older day, there was an American marine being lofted to the heavens by valkyries above a Middle-Eastern city, his hands still clenching a grenade to his chest and a Medal of Honour subtly adorning the collar of his field uniform. There was a group of young German boys, some of them already decorated with Iron Crosses despite tender age, engaged in a fierce bayonet battle with Soviet troops in the streets of Breslau. There was a young British lieutenant leading a his men over the top at the Somme. From even older ages, there was Giordano Bruno, standing defiantly atop the blazing stake and pointing towards heaven in an affirmation of God knowing his truth, Socrates, who laid dying amidst his mourning disciples with an empty cup of poison dropping from his hand, and arrow-pierced Leonidas amidst his dying 300, unleashing his final defiant roar against the enemy with his spear held high, a roaring lion superimposed on his image to signify exactly what the Spartan king was attempting to say. These and many other heroes and martyrs lined the walls of the hallowed reception hall.

    It was here that the Empress was sitting on her throne, with her god-daughter Ayana at her feet. The throne itself was a rather modest Gothic-styled redwood chair on an elevated podium, it's only conspicuous parts being the massive guilded Aquila spreading its wings as an aegis over it, and the armrests and foot rest of human and Skargh skulls, fashioned as a grim reminder of the fate of those who dared to challenge the Empress. Two of the Empress's bodyguards stood discreetly away some distance to the sides of the throne, not so much indicating her vigilance even against someone as trusted and beloved as her goddaughter as upholding their own oath to never be more than 50 paces away from their mistress.

    Right now, their services seemed entirely unnecessary, as Ayana and the Empress were thoroughly amused, throwing treats to her pet synth-cats and watching them race after and fight over them. One was a fluffy white Persian, the other being a slender, thoroughly black creature of unspecified breed. Although appearing as ordinary house cats, both creatures were actually synthetics, with the intelligence of a small child, limited capability of human speech and an array of deadly blades concealed within their bodies for additional protection to their mistress. Unless triggered to their more intelligent and vicious side, however, both normally acted as entirely ordinary house cats, save for their occasional verbal expressions that tended to startle visitors unfamiliar with the synth technology.

    "Aunt Empress, will I have to attend the parade we are going to?" Ayana asked with some degree of concern.

    "Yes, Ayana, you will," the Empress answered in her usual gentle tone, "You are old enough to start learning the things that will be required of you as a young Sidh lady."

    "Aunty, you sound just like my mother," Ayana protested. Despite being her mother, Lady Elizabeth had never really shown much affection for her children as they grew up, perhaps being too preoccupied with her duties, and perhaps simply being incapable of true emotional attachment to begin with. As of late, Ayana felt especially attached and at ease with her godmother the Empress, a feeling that was apparently mutual. The Empress never tried to force her will upon her with shouting and sanctions like mother did, somehow having a way with words of simply saying or asking something in a manner that defeated all defiance and objection. The Empress in turn seemed at ease with her, because she posed no threat to her status or authority, liking her simply for who she was rather than what she was.

    "Your mother only wants what's best for you, Ayana," the Empress said, "Even if it might not seem that way to you now. You would do well to listen more to her."

    "I know, Aunty," Ayana sighed, "But sometimes she can be so irritating and uptight! She never lets me have any fun!"

    "Maybe that's because she doesn't want you to make the mistakes she made at your age," the Empress mentioned, petting her cats as they ran back to her, milling around her feet to attract her attention.

    "Like what?" Ayana grumbled, "Her childhood was even more boring than mine! Believe me, I have asked."

    "Would you believe if I told you I felt much the same way about my father when I was your age?" the Empress said, handing Ayana the pack of treats that the cats were attentively observing.

    "I don't know... What was your father like?" the girl asked, throwing a treat down the hall. The two cats immediately raced after it, shoving each other to the side in hopes to beat the other to it.

    "People might praise him as a demi-god these days," the Empress spoke, her voice indicating mild disapproval, "And the textbooks might glorify him as such. He did know how to make a show indeed, but in private, he was actually rather humble and soft-spoken. He was strict with me, but never unfair, and had his way of getting me to obey without ever raising his voice even at times when I didn't want to. He always pushed me to study even if I wanted to go out and have fun like you do. At your age, I hated being his daughter especially because all the boys were too scared of him to ask me out, and all the girls were likewise either shy around me, or tried to kiss up to curry my favour, so I had no real friends."

    "You wanted to date with boys?!" Ayana exclaimed in disbelief, being accustomed to viewing the Empress partly the same way as her subjects did.

    "Yes, and for the record I did manage to sneak out on occasion, as you are no doubt managing yourself," the Empress stated with a sly grin, "I trust that you can keep an important state secret like that?"

    "I cross my heart and hope to die," Ayana affirmed with a smile, "So how did you deal with it, Aunty?"

    "Oh, believe me, I didn't have half the time you do to even think about it. When I wasn't studying, father always had me attend public events with him. I was upset I couldn't stand at his side, but had to stand afar with cadets and junior officers, much like you were upset back at your mother's manor when we did not let you ride in the same limousine as us. I wanted to be there, by his side, next to all those heroes and strategoi. Only much later I realized why he had done that."

    "Why?"

    "Because I hadn't earned the right to stand next to him yet. As my father, he loved me none the less for that, but as my Emperor, he had to assert his status to the people. They would have thought less of him if he had let me, a young girl green behind the ears, to stand by him - because such is not the Sidh way, in which merit comes before blood. He did not do it because he thought me lesser than him, but because he wanted me to show and prove my worth without his name contributing to it. A Sidh isn't born, but made by himself. Your mother is doing the same thing now."

    "I know," Ayana sighed, "Still, it can be so frustrating at times. For example, I wanted to go to a party with Lucille and the other noble kids rather than go to this parade."

    "From what your mother tells me, this Lucille and her friends sound like a bad company," the Empress stated.

    "She always says that! But they are so awesome and popular! How am I to be this great future Sidh lady that mother wants me to be, if I don't start making powerful friends now?" Ayana protested.

    "Ayana, the sign of a great leader is not popularity, but rather quite the opposite," the Empress smiled.

    "How? You are a great leader, and very popular with your people too!" the girl countered.

    "Am I?" the Empress chuckled, "The better part of those same folks who chant praises to my name and bow down to my image in public when everything is fine also call me the stupid gold-wreathed Aedunite cunt when things do not go to their liking in private. Don't look so shocked - I know plenty of cuss-words too! And yet, all these same people defer to my words in times of hardship, not because they would like or approve of them, nor because they would be punished for doing otherwise, but because they know me for my deeds rather than words. They know that I can get the job done, that no matter how unpopular my decisions might seem at first, I make them for a reason. My point, Ayana, is that one's quality as a leader is not measured by his popularity as a leader in times of peace and plenty, but rather by one's ability to get things done in times of hardship. This Lucille - she is no doubt liked by many now that her parents are wealthy nobles and she can sponsor her little circle of sycophants. But would she be treated the same way if her parents were ordinary peasants? How many of her so-called friends would as much as spit on her, until she asserted herself as worthy of their obeissance?"

    "Your father was the reason the Sidh people chose you as their empress too, Aunty," Ayana argued.

    "Perhaps," the Empress acknowledged, "Yet it's something I have never been proud of, and the reason I have always strived to prove myself against, to demonstrate that they chose rightly not because of who my father was, but because of who I am. My father evidently anticipated that happening, and so made sure I would become an heir worthy of his legacy. Only when I first sat down on this here throne with his crown on my head did I realize for what purpose had all his strict lessons and long hours spent watching boring meetings been. Your mother wants the same thing for you - that when time comes for you to assume your place in Sidh society, you are ready for it and carry yourself worthily of the names of your parents."

    "But what if I don't want to be everything that mother and father want me to be?!" Ayana protested, "What if I want to go my own way? You have told me you wanted to be an artist when you were young, Aunty - why didn't you?"

    "Being able to do what we want is unfortunately a rare luxury, dear child," the Empress sighed, "Even if your life affords you that luxury when the time comes, it still benefits to know and be ready to do what is right rather than what you please. That is another simple truth of the Sidh way."

    "I understand..." Ayana reluctantly sighed, unable to argue her point with someone 600 years her senior, "Aunt Empress, can we go for a walk? You have personally met most of them, so I'd like to hear more about all these heroes on the walls from you."

    "Of course, dear child," the ruler of the Sidhae smiled, standing up and commanding her cats to her side, "Let us walk..."

    ---

    Hildagard, 2nd moon of Altmark
    20 km outside Rykke


    "We're getting close! Once I throw the net, you spear him!"

    "Got it..."

    "Do you? You seem a bit aloof today."

    "I said, I got it!"

    "Alright then..."

    ---

    Altmark was one of those rare terrestrial worlds blessed with a habitable moon. Although mountainous and frigid, Hildagard had an atmosphere of sufficient pressure and oxygen to maintain Terran life, and the valleys between mountain ranges could also support modest habitats. Being too unpopulated and too cold for Skargh tastes, Hildagard had seen very limited action during the war, the aliens mostly focusing on Altmark proper.

    After Viktoria having off-handedly mentioned Hildagard and its native environs, Cobar had suggested visiting the place sometime, in no small part because the moon was said to be inhabited by direwolves. Cobar had been surprised to learn that these mighty predators also resided in the realms of Altmark, though for a learned Imperial historian that hardly came as a surprise, direwolves having been genetically engineered around the same time the future Altmarkers were. An amateur hunter himself, Cobar had always wanted to get a direwolf pelt to brag over his parade armor with, and both he and Vic desperately needed some off-time anyway - him to escape the tedium of peacetime garrison life, and her to distract herself from her grudging stim addiction. On top of that, the environment was harsh and the mountains tough to climb - just the challenge a proper Sidh needed for decent recreation.

    Both had therefore requested a leave and, after currying a few favours, obtained a shuttle ride to Hildagard. Both Cobar's men and Viktoria's girls had cheerfully seen them off on their "honeymoon", fully convinced the two embarked on their trip as a couple. Viktoria had frowned at the girls' wish for them to "come back three", an euphemism for pregnancy tending to result from such trips. Sure enough, the local Sidh brass was getting concerned with soldiers resigning their contracts to stay with their native sweethearts who had begotten their children, and Altmark command was likewise advising against "careless dallies" with "allied troops", if only because of the contaminated environment that could harm the resultant children. Cobar, however, had accepted similar jokes from his lads with his usual nonchalant stoicism.

    Viktoria found herself often comparing him to other types of Sidhae she had encountered. Malkar's 235th Mechanized, a diverse bunch of regulars, largely shared only the immense pride in being Sidh warriors. The Alpha Legion had struck her with their seething, barely contained berserker rage that patently manifest itself on the battlefield. The few civilian Sidhae she had met were overall the most relatable bunch, save for their universal haughtiness, that subtle (and oftentimes not-so-subtle) arrogance that seemed to characterize their entire race. Cobar, overall, struck her as the most emotionless Sidh yet. Sure, the rest weren't much good at expressing their feelings as well, but Cobar seemed to lack any profound feelings whatsoever, always speaking in the same casual, matter-of-factly manner. Which was good in a way - at least he and his sort didn't try to feign sympathy nor go easy on her over her own weaknesses.

    ---

    Now, however, a task was at hand. After several days of tracking through the mountains and climbing to seemingly-inaccessible places, the pair had track down a solitary direwolf. These mighty beasts could easily grow the size of a horse, dwarfing their Pleistocene Terran predecessors, their jaws giving even armored Sidhae a pause. The lone wolves were all the more dangerous because of the strength and viciousness required to survive on their own, signified by their snow-white rather than grey coat. Cobar had insisted on tracking the wolves unarmored and with nothing but a spear and a large combat knife to offer proper sport. In Sidh eyes, hunting with guns was at best a practice for obtaining food, for harvesting animals too large or too wild to be farmed, only the danger of melee combat face to face with the wild beast being considered proper sport. Although reserved about the risks from the reputation of the direwolves, Viktoria had accepted the challenge - mortal danger surely served as a good distraction from her grudging addiction.

    "I heard your archistrategos keeps two of these things as pets," she mentioned as they were stalking through the snow towards the retreating wolf about to be cornered on a mountain ridge.

    "Suits him right, if you ask me," Cobar stated, "Now focus on the wolf. If I miss, you and your knife is gonna be the only thing standing between us and him."

    The two spread out, stalking closer to the wolf that was cornered on a cliff ridge in deep snow. The mighty beast, easily the size of a large horse, snarled out viciously as it turned to face its pursuers. Cobar gazed into its fearsome eyes with his own that glowed brightly like those of a vicious predator, readying his spear for the blow, while Viktoria prepared the throwing net to trap the creature with. The primal thrill of the hunt had seized them both, ringing in their blood back to ages immemorable, when their distant ancestors had likewise faced this wolf's genetic predecessors in the frozen wastes of Terra's last Ice Age.

    Gnashing its teeth, the wolf lashed out, Cobar narrowly dodging the strike and answering with his own. The spear cut into the beast's shoulder, the blood beginning to flow and staining the wolf's white pelt and the snow beneath its feet red. The wolf howled in pain and rage, seizing the metal shaft of the spear and thrashing it wildly, but Cobar held on firmly. At this point, Viktoria threw her net, the raging beast ensnaring itself in it just as it yanked the spear out of Cobar's grip, tossing him to one side and the spear to the other, just at Viktoria's feet. She grabbed it and aimed for the beast's heart as it thrashed and howled within the net.

    "Kill it!" Cobar shouted, struggling up to his feet.

    Viktoria raised the spear, but her hand froze.

    ---

    Acadia, Commonwealth industrial world
    four years and five months in the Skargh War

    The skies of Acadia were almost black with all the soot and smoke billowing from the numberless fires ignited by weeks-long orbital bombardment. Every factory, every mine, every inch of the once-bustling industrial planet was now contested by the warring sides. The only sources of light were the flames, the explosions, and the occasional distant nuclear flash. The atmosphere that was thick with ash and soot eerily distorted the distant blasts of nuclear missiles incoming from orbit or elsewhere on the world, twisting into eery grinding rumble as the mushroom clouds rose through the pitch-black sky, becoming barely visible as their fires grew dim.

    The Sidh propaganda films fancied to show their own progress during the Reconquest Wars as the unstoppable ride of a robotic horseman of Apocalypse, blowing a trumpet of doom and trailing a huge banner of flame behind itself. Right now, the same was largely true with the Skargh, them being the proverbial horseman whose steel hoofs crushed world after world, and the flames of whose banner engulfed them afterwards.

    In spite of that, a Sidh counter-invasion had just begun. With Sidh battlefleets at least temporarily seizing aerospace superiority in orbit above, the numberless transports disgorged even more numberless dropships and drop pods that lit up the sky in the fabled Steel Rain - the seemingly never-ending tide of Imperial forces from space that would overwhelm and crush all enemies of the divine Emperor. The Skargh would obviously not let such invaders disembark unchallenged, and their anti-aircraft fire was ravaging the sky, with metal and bodies raining from the heavens constantly.

    Among this maelstrom of incoming reinforcements and violence, an indistinct Thunderhawk dropship roared through upper atmosphere.

    "THIRTY SECONDS!" the co-pilot shouted to the men in the main bay, a mix of Sidhae, Altmarkers and humans. Some where sitting in their seats resignedly, some were quietly praying fervently, and still others were cheering the oncoming battle.

    "Emperor's blood, the Divine Retribution is hit!" the pilot cried out as he saw a massive Sidh battlecruiser disintegrate in the sky above, broken in two by Skargh fire from planetside. A number of other ships were already drifting in orbit destroyed, their remains belching flames as the oxygen escaped from them and they began their descent towards destruction planetside.

    "Emperor have mercy..." several Sidh troops Aquila-signed.

    "Prepare your souls, sisters!" an Altmarker officer spoke to her troops in the meanwhile, "Fight well, and if you should fall today, know that the Goddess will welcome you in Her embrace!"

    "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name! Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!" the Commonwealth troops prayed with no particular individual to guide them.

    "Lo, there do I see my father! Lo, there do I see my mother! Lo, there do I see my sisters and brothers! Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning! Lo, they call upon me, they bid me to take my place in the Halls of Eternal Glory, where the brave may live forever!" the Sidh troops too joined the prayer with words of their own, humbly holding their hands in the Aquila sign as the ship began to shake violently from nearby anti-air fire.

    The Thunderhawk shook violently, the interior of the drop bay growing visibly warmer as the ship heated up during re-entry. Several other ships outside were destroyed by anti-air fire, before the craft finally touched down roughly. An instant later, several whistles rang through the air - one blown by the Altmark officer, one by that of the human auxiliary, and the inspiring synthesized trumpet-call produced by the Sidh decurion.

    The front ramp of the dropship burst open, the two boltgun turrets on the sides of the ship designed specifically for the purpose roaring to provide suppressive fire. The massively-armored Sidhae and their Altmark sisters had already lined up in the front, the ordinary human troops amassing behind them. Altmarkers burst out first, cutting down any nearby Skargh with well-aimed rapid fire, a pair of hulking Sidhae carrying massive belt-fed boltguns stepping up next and starting to bombard their positions with high-explosive smart rounds. In the meantime, human troops rushed outside and assumed positions on the flanks. As soon as the drop bay was empty, the Thunderhawk lifted off, leaving behind a group of humans with mechanized trolleys as "ammo runts".

    The ship had landed almost square on the top of Skargh positions, some of the vile xenos immediately emerging from their trenches to attack as soon as the suppressing barrage was over. These braves were immediately torn to pieces by the incessant Sidh gun barrage that spread out and came back together to cross itself. As soon as it spread out, Altmarkers rushed in to clear the trenches with pistols, blades and sharpened entrenching spades. At one point, the Sidh gunners ran out of ammunition, the humans behind them immediately taking point and cutting down any emerging Skargh with well-aimed railgun fire while the ammo runts replaced the massive barrel-like ammunition bins on the Sidh backs.

    A group of Skargh emerged from their nearby trench, and in their characteristic manner immediately charged, but not mindlessly. Their shots were carefully thought-out, one taking down one of the Sidh gunners and the other knocking the second gunner on his backside. The few Skargh rushing first were quick to behead the Sidh and Altmark troops in between that got in the way. The ones able to dodge their blows would get locked into mortal struggle immediately afterwards, flashing blades and roars of fury signifying the ongoing battle. The human marksmen on point, however, were quick to cut down any advancing Skargh, and pin down those still fighting, where they could be finished off by their opponents who expected just such a thing to happen.

    "UP!" a voice roared in Sidh got everyone back to their feet. The Altmarkers locked in struggle with the few remaining Skargh finished their rivals off, while new Sidhae assumed the positions of the fallen, taking up their boltguns and ammo bins.

    "ADVANCE!" a decurion by the name of Cobar bellowed. Viktoria recognized him from among those her troops had rescued prioritarily a month back.

    The Sidhae formed a professional line, gunning down any emergent Skargh with a speedy efficiency. Altmarkers followed the offensive whenever there was a pause in fire, the humans covering their advance with well-aimed fire. The blasts cut down many a raging Skargh, but the eyes of one alien struck Viktoria in particular as the creature glanced at her just before being gunned down. It was not the usual glance of rage and murder, but rather one of... tiredness, resignation.

    ---

    As Viktoria aimed her spear, she saw that same glance in the captured wolf's eyes, and her hand froze in the middle of the throw.

    "Come on! Kill it!" Cobar urged her on as the wolf thrashed and howled.

    "I... I cant..." she muttered tearfully, "Please... No more... No more killing..."

    The wolf finally thrashed loose of its restraints and broke off with an angry howl, not even attempting to engage its hunters before taking off in the wildland.

    "Well, I guess this is the wolf's lucky day..." Cobar remarked with a tinge of venom.

    For a moment, Viktoria felt like exploding, but calmed herself. Cobar had no way of knowing how she had felt about the matter.

    "I... I guess so..." she muttered.

    "Easy there, girl," he spoke as if having guessed her thoughts, "You just felt sorry for the wolfie, and there's no shame in that."

    Viktoria took a few deep breaths to calm down.

    "Would you have spared that wolf in my place?" she finally asked.

    "No," Cobar answered indifferently, "But that don't mean you have to be like me."

    ---

    Altoris, Wolves Haven
    Ramsbridge District


    "I'm sorry your father reacted like this," Savitri tried to calm Anthony, "You should go home and apologize if that pleases him."

    "No," Anthony said firmly after wiping away his tears, "Dad would only think less of me if I did. Since I have nowhere to go, I am staying with you, and if I get shot for that at some point, then so be it - it is to my father's count rather than mine."

    "Nobody will shoot you!" Savitri stated firmly, "Not while I can help it!"

    The swarthy girl seemed to be somewhat protective of him, one could even say "interested" in him, judging by the degree of protectiveness she exercised about him, Anthony thought. Indeed, such level of care of one particular individual wasn't uncommon for young Sidhae like Savitri.

    "My father fought your people to the best of his ability back on Draitous," he argued, "I am his son, and I will work together with you to help my people, to the death if I have to! I am sure father will understand eventually. And if he doesn't, then it is his own problem!"

    "You speak well, young brother," the raspy voice of Brother Malachiel came to be heard, "Surely will your father come to learn the benefits of the Word when he sees his own son recognize them. And if not, surely will you enlighten others of those benefits through your own deeds!

    Brother. That was the word that Anthony hadn't heard in all this time. The Sidhae spoke to him as an equal.

    "Brother Malachiel, since I have nowhere to go, I will help you tomorrow and the day after that," he exclaimed, "And I will learn the ways of the holy Word to convince my father that you are not all like he speaks you to be!"

    "Are you certain?" Savitri hurried to question him, "The holy Word is not a commitment to be taken lightly..."

    "My father expects my commitment to falter," Anthony spoke, "I will make his falter in turn. I will prove to him that I am his son, as strong in will as he is, and will do what I feel is right, whether he likes it or not."

    ---

    Thalassa Prime, Imperial hive world
    15 years before the Skargh War


    "Steady!!! Advance! And... One! Two! One! Two!"

    The roar of the mob became ever louder as bottles and various objects crashed against the shields and helmets of the Urban Security troops without effect. The massive 30-millimeter shields of tungsten carbide composite were enough to stop even .50 armor-piercing depleted uranium bullets, each weighing over 100 kilograms, so a rioting human kicking it would barely even be noticed, and the interlocking shields provided for a wall of defense truly impervious to any but the most violent of actions.

    The furious kicks and punches of the raging human mob on the other side of the shields proved entirely ineffective as they expended themselves against the solid wall of tungsten carbide. With every step, Urban Security regained ground, brutal swings of stun sticks emphasizing their presence. Bones shattered under the impact, and electric jolts knocked out even the most capable individuals, but the Security troops were unmoved, pacing forwards with the same grim determination. Some injured humans whined below as they were crushed under the armored sabatons of the UrbSec phalanx, but none paid them any heed.

    "Resistence is futile! Return to your homes!, a loudspeaker announced.

    "Another day at work, huh..." a young chap chuckled, covering behind his shield under a bombardment of rocks and half-bricks.

    "Shut it and pay attention," Kristanna barked, "First century, form wedge!"

    The men under her command complied immediately, kicking and bashing through the raging human crowd to form a solid wedge. More skulls and bones were broken in the process, but typically for Sidh UrbSec operations, nobody cared.

    "Forward - MARCH!" Kristanna commanded.
    "HA-OOH!" her men responded enthusiastically, a fearsome bash on their shields in unison signifying their their commitment. The stun sticks discharged electric arcs against the shields with an intimidating crack for additional effect that prompted the rioters to recoil back.

    "And ONE! TWO! ONE! TWO!" she barked to keep the pace as the men kept pacing forth, bashing on their shields with stun sticks as they did.

    "HA-OOH!" the men responded, shoving aside the intervening humans as a few rioters ran into their shields with full force, only to find that they would barely even budge to their weight.

    A wave of stun-sticks came down with a violent electric crash, breaking bone and knocking out rioters where they stood. The rest stepped back only to renew their pressure, to little avail as the impervious wave of armored Sidhae continued their slow march forwards. Drones hovering overhead kept peppering the mob with pepper gas balls, further encouraging dispersal. Still, the mob was too vast, for all those who had learned their lesson and dispersed, a dozen were taking their place.

    ---

    Such was the daily reality for Urban Security units assigned to police human ghettos. One would think the humans ought to have been grateful for being assigned their very own reservations where they would be left largely alone to live however they pleased after being conquered, neither required nor expected to partake in the society of their conquerors that they no doubt resented. Yet they weren't - perhaps understandably, having been conquered and restricted to certain areas, after all. Still, as far as the average Sidh was concerned, they could at least have had the decency to appreciate what they had, seeing how their Sidh betters could have easily enslaved or just exterminated them if only they had wanted to. Yet such notions were apparently alien to the typical human, who seemed to relish in every opportunity and excuse to riot, vandalize and cause every other conceivable sort of violent mischief. Furthermore, had the humans rioted as a united front against their oppressors, it would have been at least a tad bit understandable to their Sidh masters - yet they rarely if ever did, fighting each other at least as often as the Sidhae. Unsurprisingly, such incidents only further served to reinforce the already-common stereotypes of humans as barbarous, uncouth brutes hopelessly stuck in their self-destructive ways, obsolete in every way compared to their Sidh betters, and doomed to inevitable slow extinction, dangerous and violent creatures fond of acting like violent degenerate apes and hence to be treated as such, contained and isolated from proper civilized society to protect it from being dragged down by them back into the cesspool of their wretched existence.

    Back during the Reconquest Wars that had seen the formation of most human ghettos of the Imperium, there had been a lot of debate over what to do with the subjugated humans, opinions ranging from wholesale extermination to expatriation back to the Federation where they belonged. Quite a few on both sides of the spectrum had objected to the formation of the ghettos for their own reasons, both sides arguing that they would inevitably become constantly-festering sores in the Imperium's flesh, full of disloyal and violently-resistant savages ready to stab the Sidhae in their backs at the first rumor of a Federal liberation fleet operating nearby. After much deliberation, however, the ghetto option had been adopted reluctantly - while being disloyal and violent barbarians, the humans could certainly not be allowed to roam free to the detriment of proper Sidh society, they were still kin to the Sidh-kind and a potential source of converts, not some random xenos filth to be exterminated at whim.

    With a few strokes of pen, the fate of untold billions had been decided, for better or worse, and the decision would have its costs, the chief of them being untold cohorts of Urban Security being dedicated to policing the ghettos, as the humans themselves rarely seemed capable or interested in maintaining proper order on their own, the worst and basest of their midst almost always rising to the top to prey on the weak. As far as the Sidh authorities were concerned, it was none of their business - the humans were, after all, granted the freedom to live however they pleased within their reservations, and if they were content with being terrorized and exploited by the worst scum that their species had to offer, then it was their own problem. Thing was, these worst scum were rarely content with keeping their operations contained within the ghettos, and their worst excesses also tended to rile up the more general population. So once their mischief started to affect the Sidh society outside the ghetto walls, Urban Security had to step in and remind its occupants of their proper place.

    Such was the case now. A Sidh would think a guard was fully within his powers to shoot an uncooperative and riotous individual throwing a fit in his checkpoint upon being ordered to a search - especially after that individual was post-humously found to carry illegal drugs. The humans, however, didn't seem to share that opinion, even though the lot of them were readily killing each other for less, and the discovery of drugs on the body was merely evidence of a set-up to them. Why would a Sidh even bother to further plant drugs on the corpse of a human who had already been shot completely legally for chimping out in a security checkpoint was a question none of them bothered to ask. Even if some were aggravated over the man's death that they wrongly perceived as unjustified and unreasonable, for most of the mob this incident was just a convenient excuse to riot, vandalize and generally indulge their basest primate urges. The humans especially on recently conquered worlds would often riot in the mistaken opinion that their animalistic behaviour would be tolerated by the authorities, dispersal being limited to water cannons and tear gas. They would quickly learn the gravity of error in such thinking, however, as Urban Security had no qualms or restritcitons to use lethal force if less-lethal force did not suffice, the troops quite often just waiting for an excuse to give the "rampaging apes" a proper harsh lesson in humility and obedience. Being humans, and the basest sort of their kind at that, the ghetto-dwellers rarely remembered these lessons for long, however, requiring almost constant beatings and other harsh reminders to stay within more or less acceptable behaviour.

    ---

    "Boss, I think there's folks with guns there!"

    "What?!"

    "Folks with guns, two o'clock!"

    "Gimme that..."

    Kristanna snatched the magnoculum from the hands of one of her men, and indeed saw what he warned about. A group of rioting humans indeed seemed like holding up on something, most probably illicit firearms.

    Frankly this whole riot had been a mistake. A human had gotten a bit too bold in the checkpoint, leading a Sidh to get a bit too bold with his firearm. The dry aftermath was a dead human, a shocked Sidh guard, and a whole bunch of enraged humans embarked on a riot. As far as Kristanna was concerned, her duty was to put that riot down with minimum casualties on both sides.

    So far the job had gone well, any rioters being crushed without mercy as was the normal practice. Kristanna felt a bit guilty about trampling screaming women and childen under her armored heels, but dismissed any such reservations as weakness on her part.

    "And... HEAVE! HEAVE! HEAVE!"

    Upon every "heave" the Sidh troops bashed any oncoming humans aside violently, a wall of impermeable shields planting into their faces every time, and a hail of stun-sticks landing on any hapless fool who still dared to be in place when that happened.

    "Boss, they've got guns!" the young chap spearheading the dispersal behind his shield shouted.

    Kristanna's gaze immediately grew sharp. "Guns" and "contraband" where the two key-words that got her listening. She eyed the waving human ranks to get a glimpse of the forbidden articles, as even a single confirmed sight would have meant weapons-free.

    She gazed tightly against the rampaging mob, and in a matter of minutes seemed to spot what she was looking for. A group of humans, hiding something elongated and metallic under the lenghts of their robes. Were those guns...? Or were they not? Or were they? They couldn't be... Right?

    "They've got guns, boss! Your call!"

    "Are you positive?!"

    "Damn sure I am positive!"

    "Check again!"

    "Fuck again! Make the call, boss!"

    "Fuck... Open fire!"

    Human bodies were so frail. They had a peculiar tendency to disintegrate at the least opportune moments. It almost took the glory out of crushing them. Men, women and children alike were disintegrating into red slush under sustained fire, the loudspeakers blaring some glorious tune from Old Terran history, presumably Wagner that every member of the brass seemed to have a boner for. Here, a young woman's face twisted in a grimace of rage twisted into an expression of pain and horror as a grazing shot chipped away a portion of her skull, the piece of bone with a long tuft of blonde hair still attached to it flying off as its owner fell to the ground, her brains spilling out on the pavement. There, a boy no older then fifteen was engulfed in fire as the Molotov cocktail he was about to throw at UrbSec shattered at his feet where it had fallen along with his severed hand, cut clean off by a boltgun shell. A screaming woman was crawling on the ground trying to hold her intestines spilling liberally from her belly torn open by a shell before being trampled to death by the panicking mob. Several men and women literally exploded as torrents of bolt-shells and particle beams tore into them, spraying those around with boiling blood, gore and bone fragments flying at dangerous velocities. A number jumped to their deaths over the edge of the skyway in an effort to avoid Sidh gunfire and being trampled by the panicked crowd. The survivors dispersed, screaming in terror. Several live grenades fired into the fleeing mob for additional incentive kicked up dirt, red mist and severed body parts with their blasts.

    "Cease fire! Cease fire, Emperor damn it!" Kristanna roared into the chaos of gunfire. After some hesitation, it died down, revealing a field of ravaged, dismembered bodies. Given the damage state of many, their number was difficult to assess, but a quick preliminary count that Kristanna ran with her augmented reality helmet cam revealed at least 130 casualties, and at least the same number of wounded, who were writhing and crawling amidst the dead crying and moaning. The Sidh troops were quick to enter the field without command to put the mortally-wounded rioters out of their misery with bayonets, or simply a stomp of their armored heels, letting the less-badly wounded run off unimpeded, helping each other if they felt inclined to. Humans would probably interpret this as another atrocity on their part, but for them, it was an act of mercy, and one that these rioting scum barely deserved were it not for their lenience at that. The ghettos rarely had anything resembling an ambulance service, the ill and the injured being largely at the mercy of their friends and allies who would see them to one of the ghetto's privately-practicing doctors. In the light of events that had just transpired, it was highly doubtful any human would dare to approach anywhere near this skybridge until after the UrbSec had left, meaning that most of the critically-wounded would have died in agony by then, and given the low standards of medical care typical for the ghettos, even those who would be rescued were likely to die later.

    "What the fuck is going on!?" a wrathful voice of the city's UrbSec chief erupted from Kristanna's tacticom. He had evidently observed the whole incident from the surveillance feeds.

    "Sir, the human riot has been contained succesfuly!" Kristanna reported confusedly.

    "Successfuly?! You call slaughtering the better part of them an Emperor-damn bloody success?! I want you in my office immediately!"

    ---

    "What's wrong?" O'Conner asked, sensing his lover writhe in her bed uncomfortably.

    "It's nothing, love..." Kristanna lied, still half-asleep.

    "Don't bullshit me, Kris!" he argued, "What is it?"

    "Flashbacks," Kristanna sighed defeatedly, "I've told you about them. There are things I'm not proud about having done."

    "As do I. Don't let them get to you," her lover spoke, "The bad things you might have done do not define who you are!"

    Kristanna tried to nurse herself back to sleep, but the merciful sleep did not come, only more fear and doubt. Ever since that day, she had started to doubt her instincts, her old commander at least being kind enough to transfer her to some remote backwater world at the first opportunity. That said, she had no regrets - she had met her beloved man there. Sure, he might have been human, but her only regrets were that he would age before her. Which, frankly, was something that could be remedied with sufficient persuasion.

    "Love," she spoke out, unsure how to best address her concerns, "I am afraid of losing you."

    "Kris, you know what the Archistrategos said about it," O'Conner sighed, getting what his beloved was speaking of, "If it was up to me, I would..."

    A kiss on his lips interrupted his monologue.

    "Love, I do not ask what you cannot attain right now," she spoke, "But your rank and station gives you certain privileges. Ask of Drax what is rightfully yours - the right to be with your beloved without fear of old age. If he refuses, I will love you none the less, but if he doesn't, I will not have to watch you grow old and feeble like I do now!"

    "I will, my love!" O'Conner spoke, the thought pestering his mind relentlessly anyway for some time now even if reason and experience told him that Drax would most probably just tear him a new one for asking, "I don't want you to get your hopes up, though. Drax is a hard man to talk about such things to."

    ---

    Firebase Kappa-One-Six
    Alerton

    "Morrecus, what is the status of men in the century desiring a re-deployment outside Commonwealth theater of action?"

    "115%, ma'am! Most troops cite the lack of combat action and forced interactions with inferior species as the main reasons."

    "It was actually a rhetorical question, Morrecus, but thank you nonetheless."

    Hecate sighed. She was none too fond of helping these humans either, not even because she'd particularly despise them beyond the normal Sidh supremacist sentiment, but precisely because it felt so... unnatural. For the young and inexperienced boys and girls fresh from the boot camp that currently made up most of her century, it was largely a matter of indoctrination, the lot of them having the idea of humans and aliens as inferior scum drummed into their heads ceaselessly every day during their training. Hecate had noted that these learned prejudices tended to vane somewhat after they spent some time socializing with humans if only for duty reasons. For her, it was more of a contradiction to decades-old habits - for most of her life, Hecate had been accustomed to viewing humans only through the sights of her energy rifle, this war being the first time she had fought on the same side as them. Temporary alliances of convenience was something she was familiar with and understood, just as she understood these alliances being dissolved as soon as the common threat was over, both parties turning on each other with no hard feelings, it being the natural way of things. However, this war was over, and the Imperium showed no signs of turning on the Commonwealth, even if the latter somewhat expected it. The battle-hardened warriors of the Imperium were now expected to help them in every way possible, from rebuilding, clearing unexploded ordnance and distributing aid to providing psychological counseling to traumatized refugees. Since recently, Hecate hadn't even known psychological counseling even was a thing in the Imperium, the closest thing to psychological treatment that Alpha Legionnaires like her would normally get being a week or two of wild partying, binge drinking and brawling with anyone that wasn't an Alpha Legionnaire before being herded back on the troop ship bound for some other battlefield. Consequently, a relatively-peaceful life with no actual fighting and helping human refugees rather than using them as human shields or mine tramplers like she was accustomed to felt profoundly unnatural, and it tormented Hecate to no end.

    As for Morrecus, this kid just seemed to be born to annoy her. As if him following her like a lost puppy and constantly pestering her with stupid questions wasn't enough, his accent made "ma'am" sound like "mom", and being a good little soldier, he would never address Hecate by anything else than the officially-perscribed form of address. Hecate had already berated her new assistant over the matter repeatedly, to no avail as he could evidently not help it. She had therefore resigned herself to humbly accepting the torment that the holy Emperor had evidently reserved for her to test her resolve.

    "Look, Morrecus, you don't have to always call me "ma'am" , understand?" Hecate spoke cautiously.

    "Don't I, ma'am?" young Morrecus responded.

    "I... I feel kind of constrained by all this formality... Maybe you could do with calling me "ma'am" only when I give an order!" Hecate spoke, unsure just what excuse to give the lad.

    "Uh... Aye, ma'am!"

    Hecate sighed. The lad was perhaps not entirely hopeless, but pretty damn close.

    "I hear and obey, ma'am... " Morrecus responded ever cheerfully.

    Hecate's cheek twitched angrily.

    "Morrecus, you do not have to call me ma'am every time someone comes in for a hunt or a simple inspection," she trie to explain, referring to officers who would frequent her station for inspections out of a lack of anything better to do, or simply to procure vehicles from her unit for hunting trips. Morrecus seemed to be particularly high-strung and by-the-book in their presence - perhaps not a bad trait in itself, given the effort he put into being the model soldier.

    "But I do, ma'am! Otherwise, your superiors will think I'm undisciplined and punish you for it, and that means you will have to punish me in turn!"

    Hecate sighed. There was no point in arguing with the boy. She was still baffled at how irritating this one chap managed to be without even deliberately tried.
    Morrecus, on the other hand, seemed entirely unfazed by her constant grouchiness, berating of him and her throwing occasional tempers, accepting them with a stoicism worthy of the best Sidhae. As his commanding officer, Hecate was the voice and will of the Emperor himself to the boy if his conduct was any measure to go by, and for all his inexperience and other flaws, his unquestioning loyalty and obedience was admirable. Still, he was yet to display one quality desired of a true Alpha Legionnaire - to be able to question his commander if the latter was about to make a bad call, and to disobey his orders if necessary to avert disaster.

    "Morrecus, I want you to properly document the dialect these humans are speaking in," Hecate finally spoke, short of ideas of how to get rid of him even for a moment, the chap following her with the persistence of a lost dog, "And write down the complaints they have come here with while you're at it!"

    "Yes, ma'am," came the usual answer that made her cringe. Moments later, Morrecus could be seen turning to the human refugees who had assembled at the engineering century's station with their usual complaints about broken water pumps and piplelines, minefields and unexploded munitions, and starting to pester them with his enthusiastic questions about their language. Whatever they answered was none of Hecate's concern, as long as she was rid of the humans and their nonsense, and most importantly, of Morrecus.
    Last edited by CyberWar; August 20th, 2018 at 07:27 PM.

  8. #18
    Operation Zone Bravo Two, Alerton, Commonwealth of Altoris

    205th Heavy Infantry Division 'The Black Hats'




    General Sannvi Rajha of the 205th Heavy Infantry Division slowly crawled up the loose soil to the peak of the ridge. She was supposed to stick to the HQ and the more safe areas in the zone, being a high ranking officers and all, but it was hard to shake off the common routine of being in the shit with her soldiers. She had never been a grunt, but even as a junior officer she had always tried to share the same hardships as her soldiers. It had instilled an almost tribal like loyalty in them towards her that continued even now that she was in command of an entire division, but she was a proven winner and go-getter, even against the Skargh. She had a natural charisma that people found hard to ignore. At the moment she was doing her own recon, because first hand recon was the most useful. It wasn't that she didn't trust her officers in the field to report back accurate information, but she wanted to see what her troopers would be fighting and dying over. The Skargh holdouts on Alerton was the largest concentration of the bastards left in the Commonwealth and a handful of battered divisions and elements of the Imperium forces had been left to deal with them. There wasn't the logistical capacity to support many more units on campaign so they weren't going to utterly overwhelm the Skargh with half the army. But that was fine with Sannvi. It meant her boys and girls were getting full rations while the rest of the Commonwealth was kept just above starving levels, and the added danger of death didn't seem all that bad in comparison. Plenty of people were looking to die anyway, but after they killed some more of the Skargh.



    Rajha reached the crest of the ridge and kept low. She was pretty far off from the main encampment but that was no reason to be a dumb-ass. She brought a pair of digital binoculars up to her eyes and started observing. She heard someone coming up behind her and motioned her to come up. Erica Wollard was a pretty, if average, looking woman, but she was also competent and a hell of a shot, and had been Sannvi's batman and assistant for almost two decades. The other woman stopped a little further down from Heather and pulled out the leather bound map before coming up to be level with Heather, though kept her head down under the crest of the hill. Rajha held out her hand and was handed a pencil. She spent a few more minutes observing and taking in the Skargh positions before she lowered down under the crest and looked at the map, starting to jot down and draw out the positions she had observed.


    “They sure have gotten arrogant, sitting out in the open like that.” Erica said, scowling in annoyance. “I suppose they realized we can't really throw artillery at them like we used to, we don't really have the supply lines for it.” The tanned skin woman said as she watched Sannvi jot down positions.


    “They've tilled some fields even.” Sannvi said. “Which means either they are shit at hiding minefields, or they're planning on growing crops, so they are planning on holding out for some time still. Cheeky fuckers.” She said. The assault she was planning was going to be fairly heavy handed. A quick artillery barrage to suppress the Skargh and take out any heavy equipment, followed with a slow and steady advance of tanks with the infantry following. It would get down to bloody close in fighting quickly enough as the Skargh probably had tunnels and dugouts, so bayonets would win the day. Rajha nodded as she finished marking positions on the map, took one last look through her binoculars, and then started moving down the hill, Erica moving down with her. Down at the bottom, formed into a half circle, was two platoons of soldiers that were for her defense. It was a bit excessive in her mind, but then considering how possible an ambush from the Skargh was, it made sense. There was also the Imperium to deal with. Obviously it wasn't a war or anything, but now that the two armies were under their own commands again, the Sidhe again tried to strong arm the Commonwealth military. The overall Sidhe commander on this world was a real pain in the ass, and Rajha would love to strangle the bitch.


    Strategoes Aurelia Valerius was certainly an accomplished officer, and her armored and mechanized forces during the war had cost the Skargh substantial losses. But like most Sidhe she was arrogant, haughty even, and seemed to view humans as little more then vermin, or at the best as weak children and nothing more. She was confrontational, outspoken of just about any Commonwealth battle-plan, and its officers of course. For these reasons cooperation between Imperium and Commonwealth forces on Alerton was entirely up to the whims of individual, company sized units. Units sharing the same sector would usually work together in some fashion, but Rajha couldn't get Aurelia to release any of her large unit formations for combined efforts unless she herself was given complete command of the operation, and several of Rajha's officers and units had played cannon fodder for Sidhe units during the war and were not eager to do so again. Rajha wasn't sure if that was what Aurelia had ever intended, in fact for all the woman's attitude problems towards humans Rajha knew she was not one to throw any unit away like so many other Sidhe officers were happy to do.


    The small convoy of APCs were mounted and rolled out as Rajha was chewing over the idea of bringing Aurelia into the fold of this new offensive, wondering if it would be worth the humiliation of it all. The myriad of issues between Imperial and Commonwealth authority being reported from Altoris and elsewhere made her lean towards keeping it strictly a Commonwealth operation, to show the folks back home that their army could get things done without the Imperium. The Strategoes would be infuriated of course, but Rajha was actually looking forward to the look on the woman's face. She was looking over the map again when a voice from the front of the AFV called back to her.


    “Ma'am, we're picking up a Sidhe distress signal. Sounds like one of their patrols is under heavy attack. I believe we are the closest unit that can provide assistance.” The commander of the vehicle said, crouching down and looking out of the turret basket at her. He seemed conflicted. On one hand an allied force was under attack, but on the other they were escorting a general. The convoy commander didn't want to abandoned their allies, but didn't want to risk Rajha's life either. Luckily for him it wasn't his call. Sannvi frowned but nodded. “Lets divert and assist.” She said, tucking the map into Erica's satchel. The commander nodded and vanished back up into to turret basket, relaying the command. The engine whined as it was given more power and Sannvi felt it accelerate. She would stick back from the front of course, she wasn't stupid enough to charge forward and put herself in the line of fire, not with the importance of her rank, and not with her subordinates wholly ill-prepared to assume command over an entire division. She did check her weapons and armor though, joining in with the infantry squad around her and Wollard.


    Firebase Kappa-One-Six, Patrol Echo-Three



    Alice peered out of the view port on the commanders hatch of the Warhound APC as it steadily moved down the weather blasted concrete road, either side of the road being clear for hundreds of meters other then the occasional civilian building. Most of those were boarded up or just rubble at this point, but a few still had civilians milling about. Most of those ragged looking civilians gave the Warhound a wave as it passed by. Alice heard one of her rookies, Aventi, mutter something as he looked out the opened weapons slot. Aventi liked to run his mouth and didn't much like humans, though that wasn't much of a surprise coming from a Sidhe. But he didn't mind Alice one bit. She thought it was a rather odd distinction to make, but she supposed he saw her as just another Sidhe. She decided to not to ask what he had said, there really wasn't any point. It wasn't her job to change his view on humans, only to make sure he followed orders and didn't frag a bunch of civvies, after all word had it that the Commonwealth was done with allowing the Sidhe commit crimes against its civilians and had made the Imperium start cracking down on its troops, otherwise the Commonwealth would, and Drax would not want his soldiers being prosecuted under human law.


    “Caio, updated patrol route uploaded. Command wants us to take a look at that mine and refining center it seems.” Alice said as the updated patrol route pinged in her heads-up display. She sent it to Caio, who was driving the Warhound, and heard an acknowledgment back. The Warhound's engine groaned as Caio brought it down to a lower gear for the upcoming turn and then gracefully veered onto the well word dirt road that lead off towards the sprawling refining center and mine. From what Alice understood it had been a very rich mine, as the refinery right next door suggested, but there simply wasn't enough people to work it, or even a need for it at the moment. Not to mention the danger of the Skargh of course. She was surprised the Skargh didn't move into the mines and fortify the industrial complex, it's what she wold have done in their stead, but the Skargh were sticking to their current holdouts. That didn't mean they didn't like sending out raiding parties and setting up ambushes of course.


    Speaking of ambushes, Alice spotted movement to the left of the road, up a small incline. She could have easily dismissed it as wild life of some kind, but years of fighting the Commonwealth and then serving beside them gave her a pretty good memory of their weapons characteristics from just about any angle. “STOP AND DISMOUNT!” Alice yelled, bracing herself as Caio slammed on the brakes and the squad stormed out of the Warhound. It was gratifying that no one stopped to question her orders this time. Alice had just stormed out the back hatch when the snap of thunder from the AT-37B echoed across the sky. She tensed her muscles, expecting to be thrown like a rag-doll as the APC exploded, but it seemed the Skargh weren't used to the Commonwealth anti-tank gun and had fired a super penetrating round, the shell having punched clear through both sides of the Warhound and slammed into the field on the other side, sending up a cloud of dirt. That's when the small arms fire picked up.


    Her squad took whatever cover it could find, a tree stump, a collection of large rocks. Alice spotted three of her section covering behind the Warhound. “Get away from there!” She yelled and waved them away. There was a second of hesitation before they started moving away, using the Warhound to shield them. They found a small drainage ditch, cursing as the landed in the stagnant puddle of industrial waste, and just in time as well. The AT-37B fired again, this time with the proper round for dealing with an APC, and the Warhound exploded like an over pressurized can. Shrapnel from the APC went flying, and thankfully Alice only heard a few shouts of rage or annoyance, and only one string of screams. Her HUD showed Aventi's vitals going all over the place. A closer inspection showed that his armor had been shredded by first sized fragments of the APC. Alice looked over to where he was and grimaced a bit. He had virtually no cover and the Skargh fire was getting more intense around him. There was no saving him at this point, even if they got him to cover his wounds would kill him. If they had transport or were closer to base there might have been a chance at saving him, but those weren't options. She keyed a direct com-line to the squad medic. “You know what to do.” She said, and saw the medic, taking cover behind the stump of a tree, look to Alice and then to Aventi. She nodded and brought her rifle up and fired a single round, hitting Aventi cleanly in the head, silencing his screams.


    The anti-tank gun fired again but went pretty wide, but she wouldn't trust the Skargh to keep fucking up. Alice crawled to the burning wreckage of the APC and glanced around the back side of it, spotting the gun emplacement. It was a lot closer then it needed to be, that was for sure. Taking two high explosive grenades from one of her armors satchels, Alice primed the first and did some quick math. She had been a grenadier in her previous life, and grenades were an old friend no matter who made them. She took a few steps back from the ruined APC, took a short run up, and hefted the grenade, sending it sailing through the air. She didn't wait for it to land before she sent the second. There was the unmistakable shouts of alarm from the Skargh as the first and then the second landed in their ranks, giving them less then a second for them to try and throw them away. One explosion shook the sky, and Alice peeked out from behind the APC again, smirking as she saw the anti-tank gun turned into scrap metal. There was plenty of gore from where it's alien crew had been as well.


    The rest of the Skargh simply picked up the fire again, pinning Alice and her squad down and effectively cementing them in place. Her squad got return shots off when they could, but Skargh weapons fire dominated the field. If the roles were reversed she would be sending a flanking element to set up on the exposed squad and wipe them out. Alice took in the positions of her team and did a quick view of their side of the road. Flat and open, a few clusters of trees a few hundred meters back, but she wasn't going to risk her squad to make a break for that cover, not with the level of Skargh fire as it was. Alice made a mental note to bring smoke grenades next time she went on patrol and cursed herself for not bringing any this time.


    “Cale and Salthrax, I want you to cover the left flank. Brutus, you and I will cover the right. I'm expecting a flanking force, so keep your eyes peeled.” Alice ordered, and double checked her coms log. Her armor had sent out a distress signal when the Warhound had been destroyed, and it had been received. She should have checked sooner but taking out the AT gun had been the top priority. Small arms and heavier caliber fire was bad enough, but being shelled by a direct fire weapon would have seen the squad wiped out far quicker. Now they just had to keep their heads down and wait for the cavalry to arrive, because she couldn't see anyway to advance on the Skargh positions without being turned into confetti paper. The firing eventually died down to pot-shots and the occasional suppressing fire whenever one of her troopers moved a bit, but the Skargh weren't bugging out. Either they didn't think the squad was getting reinforcements, they were expecting reinforcements of their own, or they were just biding their time and saving ammo. Alice was betting on the third.


    It was only a handful of minutes, though it felt like hours, before Alice could heard the grinding of engines on the air. It didn't sound like any Imperium vehicle, and she had received no radio traffic. Could it be Skargh? She didn't like the thought of it, and while it didn't sound like a Skargh vehicle the aliens had been looting everything they could.


    “Squad leader! Convoy of vehicles coming down the road!” Salthrax suddenly said. Alice turned and walked along the Warhounds husk to look down the road. Salthrax was pointing and Alice followed his finger, a smile coming to her lips. A convoy of ten Commonwealth Vixen infantry fighting vehicles were rolling down the road and she could see dismounted infantry as well. The Vixen was an eight wheeled, turreted vehicle that came in several variations. These mostly seemed to be the B variant, forty millimeter auto-cannons facing the Skargh positions. She saw a few were larger caliber guns as well, but they veered off from the convoy and were steadily rolling towards the squads positions. The line of IFV's opened fire and Alice watched with a savage glee as the Skargh position was turned into mulch under the combined fire of eight auto-cannons. The crack of Commonwealth rifles and automatic weapons joined in. A series of grenades boomed and everything died down, Alice watching a platoon of Commonwealth infantry storm the Skargh position. They didn't come under any fire so either the Skargh were dead or those who had survived that hellish storm were running with their tails between their legs.


    The two IFVs who had broken off towards Alice and her squad came to a stop and the infantry dismounted as the other eight and their infantry started up towards the mine and refinery. Alice rallied her squad and cautiously moved towards the Commonwealth troops. She was surprised to see the insignia of a general one on of them, but looking at the womans face Alice recalled her from her briefings. She didn't salute of course, she wasn't sure if that would even be proper now that the commands were independent again. “Thank you for the assistance, ma'am.” Alice said with a nod. The general nodded back.


    “We tried to radio ahead but it seems like the Skargh are blocking most comm signals in this area. You're lucky your distress signal was able to punch through.” The general, Rajha her name tag identified her as, said. “We'll take you back to your base while my men clear the area. I'm guessing their jammer is up in that refinery.” Rajha said. Alice was about to protest, about to say that her squad could continue with the patrol, but the general cut her off. “If you want you can keep some of your squad here, but you have injured soldiers, and a body to take back. Get them loaded up and lets move.”


    Alice nodded and turned, seeing Cale and Salthrax already pulling Aventi's body over. They loaded him into the second Vixen and then returned to the squad. “Cassia, Brutus, Decuis, Caio, and myself will stay here and lend a hand. The rest of you mount up on the Vixens. They'll take you back to the firebase. Inform Centurian Avitus of what happened and that the Skargh have a signals jammer. Hopefully we'll find it and knock it out before you get back so I can inform him myself, but that complex is very large. Get yourselves looked over and seen to even though your injuries are minor, I don't want any of you lazy fuckers getting time off because you get a bad case of the sniffles.” She said in a lighthearted tone, and she was glad to get a round of laughs in reply.


    “Avitus will probably send out a larger force, so you'll probably be coming back soon enough. And if the Commonwealthers give you orders, follow them. They just saved our asses and that one over there is a general, so don't piss her off.” Alice said in a more serious tone. Those heading back in the Vixens gave nods of understanding and Alice gestured them towards the IFVs. She watched them mount up and then turned to the remained of her squad. “Alright, lets go!” She said and turned towards the Commonwealth formation heading up the gentle slope of the hill and up towards the refinery.

    Pierrot's, Wolves Haven, Altoris



    Alexandra steeped up and out of the vehicle she had managed to wrangle out of the Commonwealth government, nodding at the chauffeur who did an admirable job of not eyeing her up. Maybe Helena's hulking form just to the left of him was the reason why. Alexandra wasn't modest about her looks, she was a stunning beauty and she knew it, another weapon in her personal arsenal. And when she took the time to really dress herself up? There were few that she knew of who could resist at least one up and down look of her. A little bit of make-up, and a fine black dress that reached her shins, with a slit on the left leg that could reveal quite a bit of thigh if she wanted it too. Her cleavage was on modest display, though the dress hugged her form, and thus her chest, like a glove. She wasn't much one few jewelry, though she did have an exceptional collection of some of the finest made jewelry, and so only a necklace wrapped around her neck. All in all, she was more stunning then usual.


    Pierrot's was one of the most exclusive restaurants on Altoris, probably in the entire Commonwealth even before the war, and often hosted the highest levels of the branches of the government and even the military on occasion. The clientele had dwindled a fair bit since the war had started, and even the number of competitive businesses had as well. Walking inside the finely maintained brick building was a stunning contrast to the city outside. The building still had all of its original, hand-made master crafted furniture, all from a solid and dark wood, and thick curtains and drapes were tastefully placed. Seating areas along the back wall were built like cubicles, as if the word did them justice, and a drape could be pulled across to give the guests privacy. The serving staff were dressed in fine suits, as were the bouncers though Alexandra could see the shoulder holsters under their coats. They were a bit too bulky to be firearms, so she figured probably some sort of stun-guns, and the wearers were obviously not used to them, so they were likely a recent addition thanks to the Sidhe. She grinned to herself at that, knowing that even the Sidhe who could manage, or even wanted, to have a meal here could be just as brash, brutish, and aggressive as the grunts in the streets.


    Alexandra could all but feel Helena taking in the place, noting escape routes, likely places of ambush, the usual motions of someone tasked with guarding another. The towering woman wasn't in her armor but that only made her slightly less intimidating. An older man with a balding head and a stylish mustache approached Alexandra with a smile. “Welcome to Pierrot's! I am Mister Pierrot and I will be seeing to your needs tonight, Miss Invictus.” The man said with a slight bow of his head. Alexandra bowed her head as well. “Thank you, Mister Pierrot.” So she was expected and Malkar had made an apt enough of a description of her, or had pointed her out when she walked in. Pierrot motioned for her to follow and she did, Helena following after her. He lead them to one of the back corner areas, a place where one had a view of the front door and most of the dining area, but was in a spot where no one could really sneak up on the occupants. Malkar was there already of course, and Alexandra was surprised to find him out of his power armor, but then fancy restaurants like this would have very strict rules on that. Malkar looked Alexandra up and down, not even trying to be sly, though Alexandra was doing the same to him. He was fit, though that didn't exactly surprise her, and all in all he was your average Sidhe solider, just with some gray hair and less hideous scars, more a show of skill then cowardice. Personally she had never understood the fascination her people had with scars. They said it was a show of someones worth in battle, but she had always seen it more as a show of failure. Her body was almost entirely scar free, and while she had worked logistics in her service, she had also seen her fair share of combat and come out of each engagement with barely a scratch.


    “Strategoes.” Alexandra said and invited herself to sit. Malkar nodded. “Miss Invictus.” He replied, giving a glance at Helena as she took up a position outside the booth. His eyes drifted back to Alexandra and pinned her own. “I hear you've been visiting Prime Minister Monroe quite a bit.” He asked, an eyebrow raising slightly. Alexandra just smiled. “His permission is required for a little project I'm working on is all, and requires a decent amount of cooperation as well.” She replied simply. In truth she had been following Helena's idea and getting the Commonwealth army involved in her vat operation, under the guise of 'guarding against looters' of course, and even now Monroe was getting a battalion shipped out to the valley to set up. They weren't taking over the operation, just guarding it. Drax would not be happy when word finally reached him, and it would fairly soon she was sure, but who could tell with Malkar? He would probably be annoyed but also see the brilliance behind it. He had a more political mind.


    Malkar gave a slight shrug. “You won't find yourself on Drax's list of favorite civilians. He and Monroe can't stand one another.” He said, a signs of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. Before Alexandra could reply, Mister Pierrot came with a bottle of wine. He gave them a basic history of the type, something from Altmark, so no doubt he figured since the Altmarkers liked it their genetic kin would as well. And he wasn't wrong, Alexandra was actually surprised at how good the stuff was. She made a mental note of the name on the bottle. Pierrot took their orders after they gave a quick scan to the menu, and then left them.


    “I doubt Drax would consider me one of his favorites even if we were the last two beings in the galaxy.” Alexandra said with a smile as she leaned back in her chair. “I worked logistics during my service, I don't have a scar longer then three inches, and I'm a greedy bitch with little regard for our rigid and brutish society.” She said. Malkar looked at her, clearly analyzing what she had said and making mental notes for later.


    “No, with an attitude like that I don't image he would, nor would most of our kind.” Malkar said finally, nodding slightly. They descended into small talk then, some fresh bread being brought to them, still warm, as they waited. Good meals took time, after all. It was about a half an hour before Malkar's attention suddenly turned to the front door, his posture changing in an instant, and a muttered “Ah hell.” Escaped his lips. Alexandra looked over and understood in an instant. Standing in the foyer, her grace and power all but radiating off of her, was Elizabeth Blackwater, Archoness of the Persian Expanse, former Commonwealth socialite, and wife of Strategoes Malkar. Alexandra downed the rest of the wine in her glass and poured another as the elegant woman began towards them, being escorted by Mister Pierrot, the two seemingly engaged in friendly conversation. No doubt Elizabeth had been a regular here. Alexandra could hear laughter coming from the woman and she had to admit, for the first time in a long time, she was outclassed. Of course this wasn't all bad, if she could make a good impression on Elizabeth Blackwater things could really start to change.


    Elizabeth stopped at the partially draped entrance, her eyes looking over Malkar and Alexandra, piercing them both. She didn't seem angry, more bemused and curious. “Husband.” Elizabeth said and invited herself to sit down, right next to Alexandra, looking the other woman over. “And...Alexandra Invictus, if my memory serves? Curios.” Blackwater said, grinning like a predatory feline.
    Last edited by Seg; September 11th, 2018 at 03:53 PM.

  9. #19
    Wolves Haven, Altoris
    Downtown

    Elizabeth had various reasons to meet her husband sooner than the scheduled arrival. Primarily it was the desire to get acquainted with the upcoming triumph parade plans and get prepared accordingly - as an archoness who would appear in the Empress's retinue, she would have to make a spectacular show of herself. Naturally, seeing her husband after five years of separation was her second reason - for all their tempestous relationship, she was still attracted to him, and hoped to steal a night of privacy with him before all the parades, receptions and public appearances that were bound to come would leave no time for that.

    Elizabeth had consequently asked the Empress for permission to take a shuttle and go to Altoris while the Empress held a meeting with her admirals aboard her dreadnought in the outskirts of the system. Favourably disposed, Her Majesty had granted her request, and the archoness had left for the capital of Commonwealth alone, with only a handful of crewmen, servants and bodyguards, arriving unannounced and without much pomp.

    It had been almost 20 years since she had last seen Altoris, her reputation already questionable as an FSA sympathizer back then. Given the autonomous status of Altmark, people like Elizabeth had been given more leeway than most where it came to the civil war between the Commonwealth and FSA secessionists, being allowed to conduct business and act as a sort of informal middlemen on both sides of the frontline as long as that business did not involve supplying arms, intel or strategic resources to either side. Still, the fact that she had chosen to reside on the FSA side of the front alone had marked her in the eyes of many Commonwealthers. After the Sidh invasion of Draitous and her affair with Malkar, she had been declared a traitor for good, even now being protected from arrest and trial only by diplomatic immunity.

    The current wretched state of Wolves Haven almost brought tears to the Archoness's eyes. Some of her favourite youth memories revolved around the city, her studies in Argyle Tawington State University right after her military service. Best times of her life well away from the ever-quarreling scheming and backstabbing mockery of a family that she had loathed to call her own. Now this city was mostly reduced to ruin and starvation, just like the whole of once-verdant Altoris was looking equally bleak and ugly from orbit, surrounded in a perpetual greyish haze, with ash-grey land and dirty-brown oceans in place of the former blue and green.

    The soldiers at security checkpoints knew who she was, having seen her face on the media, and did not give Elizabeth a hard time. She had asked some of them for directions to her husband, and was pointed to the Imperial expeditionary force headquarters downtown. After asking around and only encountering one very satisfied tagmatarch who pointed her to an upscale-restaurant called Pierrot's, Elizabeth headed there with mixed feelings about the coming meeting.

    From Malkar's choice of establishment to hold a "personal meeting" in, it was clear that the other party to this meeting was most likely an attractive member of the opposite sex - Elizabeth certainly couldn't conceive somebody like Drax or her husband's other usual collegues and superiors agreeing to meet up in an upscale French restaurant. Although Elizabeth had stated that she didn't care about any of Malkar's potential casual flings on campaign as long as she didn't have to hear about them, and Malkar had likewise stated he had no problem with her satisfying her needs on the same conditions, she still felt a bit jealous and betrayed. Even though she trusted that her husband wouldn't make such a lapse in judgement as to actually cheat on her and break the Empress's explicit command on the eve before her arrival, even the idea of him simply flirting with another woman in a romantic setting felt like a betrayal of trust.

    That being said, Elizabeth was determined not to make a scene - both because it would have been grossly indiscreet and unbecoming of her status, and because she was smart enough to get all of her facts straight before making any accusations or judgement. Unless she could provide actual evidence of her husband cheating, levelling unfounded accusations in adultery would only make Elizabeth look hysterical, paranoid and unable to control her emotions, and likely lead the Empress to question the prudence in appointing her to a prominent office.

    For this reason, Elizabeth decided to first find out who this woman was. Since her husband had chosen the most upscale joint in the city to take his date to, it was certainly no serving wench or lowly secretary. Such low-class dallies would need no impressing with expensive meal and wine, and Malkar would never risk being seen in public with such low-class companions anyway. From this she deduced that it was probably somebody important enough to have direct business with top-tier officials and commanders. Since Malkar wouldn't be so indiscreet as to openly dally with one of the few female strategoi present on Altoris, and most of them were too old for his tastes, it was likely a civilian. With all the major Commonwealth government offices being filled by men, that left the likeliest culprit to be one of the prominent Sidh civilians arrived to make business here, so that left Elizabeth with a rather narrow group of candidates - as they all had to pass through her realm on their way to the Commonwealth, she would invariably come to know their names. Knowing Malkar's tastes in women, the culprit's identity could be narrowed down even further, so by the time Elizabeth arrived at Pierrot's, she already had a pretty good idea of whom to expect sitting next to Malkar without even having to ask.

    Her educated guesswork proved justified as she entered Pierrot's, immediately sighting Malkar enjoying wine in candlelight with a buxom blonde in rather revealing attire. Elizabeth recognized the woman as Alexandra Invictus, a somewhat successful business farmer, and also a woman of rather questionable personal repute.

    "Good evening, madame, and welcome to my humble establishment! Pierrot, at your service!" the restaurant's chef and owner who was returning to the kitchen took note of the new obviously-high class patron and made a point to greet her personally.

    "Lady Elizabeth Blackwater-Malkar," Elizabeth extended a hand, which the chef graciously kissed, "I had a seat reserved with my husband, strategos Malkar for this evening, but there seems to have been some misunderstanding, as it appears to be already taken."

    Chef Pierrot was all too familiar with situations like this, a jealous wife arriving to catch her husband sharing a romantic dinner with his mistress. Since the involved parties did not always carry themselves like people of their class and status should in such instances, he was none too keen on having his restaurant destroyed in an altercation between two jealous Sidhwomen, and made his best effort to resolve the situation discreetly.

    "Oh, my sincerest apologies, Lady Malkar..." Pierrot spoke, his natural French accent making him sound even more sincerely apologetic than he actually was, "It has been a most regrettable mistake, and I promise to do everything in my power to make up for this dreadful oversight of mine. Would it be too much to ask of you to resolve this misunderstanding... discreetly?"

    "Oh, no worries, Mr. Pierrot," Elizabeth reassured him, recognizing the man's concerns, "It was an honest mistake, and I have no intentions of... indiscretion about it. Your fine establishment has a reputation to maintain, after all!"

    With that, she proceeded to the table where Malkar and Alexandra where seated at, Pierrot quickly appointing a waiter to tend to them for the duration of his absence.

    "Husband," she announced herself, eyeing her potential competitor with a feline gaze, "And... Alexandra Invictus, if my memory serves. Curious!"

    To Malkar's credit, not a muscle moved in his face over this sudden interruption.

    "It is a pleasure to see you again, dear wife," he said nonchalantly, "Waiter, please inform Mr. Pierrot that another meal for Lady Malkar will be required of him."

    "Right away, sir," the nearby waiter bowed slightly, "What would Lady Malkar have?"

    "A lute-fish fillet in truffle sauce and a glass of Altmark Riesling, please," Elizabeth said from memory of her previous visits to this establishment.

    "Apologies, my lady, but due to certain recent events, we have been unable to replenish our lute-fish stocks," the waiter apologized.

    "Well, in that case inform Mr. Pierrot I trust in his mastery and would like him to surprise me. As long as it is a good match with Altmark Riesling," Elizabeth smiled and turned to Malkar, "I see that you have been keeping yourself busy here, love."

    "Oh, as a matter of fact I have," Malkar answered with the same enviable nonchalance, "Miss Invictus here has great plans for the future of the Commonwealth. We were just about going to discuss that in detail."

    "Surely a beautiful place like this serves better to facilitate constructive dialogue than a military base," Elizabeth remarked with an enigmatic smile.

    "It is certainly a pleasure to meet you in person, Archoness," Alexandra stated, trying her best to hide her feeling of awkwardness in the situation, "I trust that you would like to enjoy your re-union in some privacy..."

    "Oh, no, no, no... By all means, you are welcome to stay, Miss Invictus!" Elizabeth retorted, "It is I who had no intentions to interrupt such... important business talks. Besides... it is a pleasure to have such a refined and attractive young woman as yourself to accompany us!"

    At that moment, Alexandra could have sworn Elizabeth gave her a playful wink.

    "Now that this little matter is settled," Malkar remarked dryly, adjusting the tie of his dress uniform, "Shall we continue with the aforementioned business discussion?"

    "Of course..." Alexandra was quick to hide her confusion and embarassment, trying her best to maintain a cool and professional face, "So, as I was saying before, Prime Minister happily approved my plans of setting up a permanent biotech factory complex that would generate sufficient food for 25 million people for the coming years of zero agricultural output. The components for this factory are currently en-route from the Imperium, and I will honour my pledge to release the delivering cargo ships to indefinite military use if only you could arrange for priority docking clearance for any future shipments of mine."

    "Biotech?" Elizabeth seemed genuinely curious, "Isn't agricultural biotechnology on the proliferation-restricted list?"

    "It is," Alexandra stated, not sure what to make of Elizabeth's sudden interest, "I do not intend to fully share it with the Commonwealth, however. The sensitive areas of biotech plants would be staffed exclusively by Sidhae, the natives only being employed in non-vital roles."

    "Still, wouldn't you need the approval of Imperial Chamber of Commerce for an enterprise like that?" Elizabeth spoke with a seeming friendly interest, "The nearest ICC sector branch is located in Persean Expanse, in my domain, and I make a point of knowing everybody of note who applies for a license of commerce there. And I don't recall seeing you there anytime, dear..."

    "Well, as it happens, Lady Malkar," Alexandra admitted, "That is because I haven't yet applied for the licence. You know how long the Imperial bureaucracy can take to process all these requests. I for one find it easier to apologize later than to ask for permission and be beaten to this untapped treasure trove. Besides, it is not like the ICC knows about it - I can always apply for the license after setting up my operation."

    "True," Elizabeth grinned predatorily, "But aren't you afraid that they might find out, Miss Invictus? Not every official shares your... liberal take of Imperial laws, you know..."

    This had Alexandra get real cautious, as she only now realized that the Archoness was making a veiled threat. Alexandra realized that Elizabeth could destroy her dream of taking Commonwealth markets by the storm in any number of ways, and that didn't even have to involve targeted pirate attacks and sabotage of her shipping - all it would take for the Archoness to bring her down would be a simple mention of her operation to the ICC, and she would at best end up embroiled in years of lawsuits and counter-lawsuits, during which her commerce license would be suspended indefinitely. Hell, the Archoness could end her dreams even by simply having her ships subjected to excessive inspection and bureaucracy, stalling them potentially for weeks while competitors would be allowed through unimpeded. Although Alexandra did not know much about Elizabeth, it was clear from her manner alone that she wasn't one who would tolerate another woman making real or perceived advances on her husband, or ever forget such a personal slight. Right about now, she regretted ever having agreed to a dinner in an informal setting with Malkar, but decided to do her best to salvage the situation.

    "Lady Malkar," she spoke aloud, "I might not be the most shining example of clean and legitimate business practice, there is truth to that. However, surely a patriot like yourself can see the benefit in bypassing the bureaucracy on occasions like this. An operation like mine would certainly reduce the logistical burden and overhead costs of the military greatly, something that your good husband strategos Malkar has already admitted would be appreciated by the high command. Also, I know you have made significant personal business investments both in the Commonwealth and Persean Expanse, through which my supply chains go. Perhaps we could come to a mutually-beneficial agreement, if you perhaps could assist in certain legal technicalities remaining overlooked."

    Elizabeth looked at Alexandra with that same undecypherable smile. This woman clearly wasn't stupid and had gotten the hint quickly enough, nor were her ideas and proposals faulty - Elizabeth herself had skirted law for her business interests on more occasions than she cared to remember, and proposing the same thing had in fact occurred to her already by the time Alexandra had detailed her business scheme. As far as Elizabeth was concerned, she would accept - but not before that sly bitch sitting before her with every curve on display like a whore would have been taught the error in laying an eye on her husband.

    "It would depend strongly on how much benefit there was in it for me," Elizabeth announced out loud.

    "Oh, I assure you, Lady Malkar, the benefits you would reap if we were to come to a mutual understanding would be tremendous. I know you own majority shares in Bioprodukt and INGen - perhaps a 10-year exclusive contract to supply parts and technologies for my future biotech enterprises would interest you?"

    "Any planetary governor who knows how to do graft could embezzle enough to buy out those companies long before the expiration of those 10 years," Elizabeth shrugged, "I am an Archoness, and I have a reputation to maintain."

    "You also own shares in many of the Expanse's private shipyards. Perhaps an exclusive 10-year contract for all new ships of my enterprises to be purchased there on top of the standing offer could sway you?" Alexandra proposed.

    "At premium rates, maybe," Elizabeth still didn't look convinced, "These days, the Expanse's shipyards can barely keep up with the demand. The military, the private merchants like yourself, every human businessman and their cousin are looking to get ships and make their fortunes in the rebuilding effort, and let's be honest, dear - I don't see you as the highest-paying of them for quite some time still. That being said, I might consider that for a 15% share in your current, and all your future enterprises."

    "Emperor's blood..." Alexandra groaned, "You really are looking to rob me bare, Archoness!"

    "I used to be one of the Top 5 wealthiest oligarchs in the Commonwealth before the circumstances I met my dear husband hereresulted in their expropriation. I want them back, but in my current circumstances I cannot legally reclaim them," Elizabeth spoke sternly, "You, however, can help me to restore my former possessions at least in part, and in return I can use my influence to see that you get your license, and to help you resolve any future... legal technicalities that might need solving because of your bold way of conducting business."

    "If you put it like that, Lady Malkar..." Alexandra spoke uncertainly, busy calculating the expenses of Elizabeth's demand versus potential gains that having her favour could bring.

    "Don't make haste to answer yet, dear," Elizabeth spoke, and Alexandra could have sworn she winked at her playfully again, "I will be here for some time, and I too wish to work out the details of our mutual cooperation before making a final agreement."

    During this conversation, Malkar said nothing, apparently being preoccupied with thinking. He always had admired Elizabeth of her enviable ability to extract something for her benefit even from the most hopeless situations, and her stock only rose in his eyes now that instead of wasting energy on throwing a jealous fit like most women would have, she was instead treating this incident as opportunity to take her revenge and rob this poor businesswoman bare over completely legitimate legal issues. He had no doubt he would get a piece of Elizabeth's mind in private later, but that was irrelevant - right now, he felt truly proud to be married to such a woman even against his will. She carried herself like a true Sidh should in a situation where even many Sidhae would not.

    The conversation was interrupted by Pierrot who arrived with a retinue of three waiters carrying the meals, the chef visibly relieved to see that the wife and the mistress seemed to be getting along rather well.

    "The dinner is served!" he announced, and proceeded to describe each meal in detail, using elaborate terminology partly in his native French. Malkar, being the least-literate in French and haute cuisine, was quietly happy about having ordered a relatively simple meal of well-done arlock steak andfresh greens, the latter formerly commonplace in every kitchen, but now an exclusive rarity. Alexandra concealed her comparable unfamiliarity with the high culture of the region by using her rough grasp of Fed-human high cuisine which had vague equivalents to her requested scallop soup, only Elizabeth being truly in her element, commenting on the meal in fancy terms and being pleasantly surprised by Pierrot's skillful substitution of lute-fish with rock panzershark fillet imported from the Imperium.

    The meal was temporarily interrupted by a commotion at the door, where a group of passing locals shouted their displeasure at "alien fat cats gorging themselves on fancy foods while the common people starve", but the situation was quickly resolved as the bodyguards of both Malkar and Elizabeth, Alexandra's companion Helena and the establishment's bouncers got in the way, their intimidating appearance being persuasive enough to drive them off without further argument.

    "See for yourself, Lady Malkar, how difficult the circumstances are for the common people here these days," Alexandra used the incident as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of her mission, "If they do not get their food soon and in sufficient amounts, who knows what may happen..."

    "It would certainly be helpful to our cause," Malkar agreed, deliberately looking at Elizabeth, "People here might acknowledge us being their allies for the time being, but they haven't forgotten Draitous or the FSA campaign. We need to set up local food production facilities as soon as possible, and even with all our ongoing efforts, the current estimates of military analysts predict a 20% loss of the surviving Commonwealth population to starvation alone in the next 5 years. Add disease and violent clashes over dwindling resources to that, and we are looking at a 35% figure in the very best case."

    "I am aware of that, dear husband," she grinned, "Just as I am aware that this would no doubt help you portray yourself as one of the saviors of Commonwealth and no doubt contribute to your chances of getting your own archonship in the future. Which is entirely fine with me. I am, however, more concerned with the intentions of our new business partner here."

    "Rest assured, Lady Malkar, my intentions are just as patriotic and noble as yours - to save the starving and destitute, to improve the Imperium's public image, and to make a fortune in doing so, obviously," Alexandra quickly mentioned, feeling a bit uncomfortable as Elizabeth's piercing gaze seemed to be focused exclusively on her for quite some time now, and she could almost feel it run over her neck and shoulders before stopping at her voluptuous breasts. Getting attention from women as well as men was not exactly a new thing to Alexandra, but a woman gazing at her like that in the presence of her husband was something new, and it felt rather unsettling.

    "Of course," Elizabeth smiled, "I have no reason to doubt your patriotic intentions, Miss Invictus. Rather, I have doubts about your certain other intentions of a private nature..."

    "Here we go..." Malkar muttered almost inaudibly.

    "Lady Malkar, I assure you that whatever my initial motivations may have been, there hasn't been anything inappropriate going on between me and your husband," Alexandra immediately picked up the hint.

    "I believe you," Elizabeth smiled enigmatically, "My dear husband may have a weakness for... such attractive curves, but I know he knows better than to act out on his impulses. I am still, however, not certain whether you have the same self-discipline and moral fibre to resist your own urges - if not necessarily now, then certainly at some later time when your influence and fame may rival mine."

    "Lady Malkar, I have already agreed to entrust my future business and reputation to your discretion about certain legal technicalities as a way of apology for my certain... indiscretion, which truly did not go beyond standards of acceptable behaviour," Alexandra protested, "What more could you possibly want?!"

    "Well," Elizabeth purred, staring the younger woman down intently, "I was thinking about extracting some... advance payment as proof of your honest intentions..."

    And she rubbed her leg against Alexandra's under the table, making her almost spit out a mouthful of her scallop soup in surprise. Even Malkar in his usual stoicism raised an eyebrow slightly, not having expected such a suggestion from his wife of all people.

    "I... I... uh... I will... take your offer into... serious consideration, Lady Malkar..." Alexandra's face was now a deep hue of red, her not knowing what to make of it all.

    "Of course... I will be waiting - eagerly, if I might add," Elizabeth grinned in satisfaction.

    The rest of the dinner commenced without further incident, Alexandra being unusually quiet and Elizabeth smiling triumphantly, while Malkar ordered a bottle of extra-old Qadessian to take along, knowing his wife too was fond of this liquor and hoping to make some amends with it. Ever the gentleman, Malkar offered to drive Alexandra home while also insisting on dismissing Elizabeth's attendants to have the rest of the evening in privacy with his wife. The result was another 30 minutes of Elizabeth intently staring at an embarassed Alexandra with a sly grin of a seductress on her face, and a cryptic goodbye from her at the hotel, asking for her to "think quickly", while Malkar tried his best to ignore it, and his two bodyguards resorted to lowering their helmet face-plates to conceal their grins.

    After letting Alexandra off, Malkar made a brief stop at the headquarters, informing his substitute tagmatarch that his tenure would continue at least until late tomorrow morning much to his delight, and that he was not to be disturbed unless it was the Prime Minister or Drax looking for him. The private residences of the Sidh general staff were located in the nearby high-rises that surrounded the headquarters building, each housing no more than one strategos as a precaution, should any of the buildings be targeted during the war. Although the commanders also had smaller, more spartan quarters inside the HQ itself as well as at the encampments of their respective legions, after repelling the invasion of Altoris, many had taken the liberty to requisition relatively intact luxury apartments in the surrounding buildings as a small measure of comfort. Malkar was obviously among the first, with his superior and rival Drax being among the few who chose to retain their original spartan accomodations as a sign of solidarity with their men.

    ---

    "I will give you that, dear wife, I didn't imagine you'd have it in you..." Malkar remarked once the doors had closed behind them.

    "I was born and raised on Altmark," Elizabeth chuckled, "Three hundred and twenty sixteen-year-old girls with raging hormones locked in a boarding school and not a single man younger than 60 within fifty clicks - who do you think we fucked?"

    "I had almost forgotten you could be sarcastic too," Malkar grinned, taking off his dress jacket and putting it on a hanger, "Believe it or not, I've missed you."

    "You haven't changed a bit either, love," Elizabeth spoke, removing the bottle of exquisite Qadessian from the take-along bag and helping herself to a glass, "Same old lecherous prick chasing after every skirt you see."

    "You know I can't resist a pair of tits like that when I see one," Malkar shrugged indifferently, taking and filling a glass of his own, "But you don't have to worry about her if that's what you are upset about."

    "How can I know for sure?" Elizabeth insisted, "When you went to war, I promised I would look the other way, if only I didn't have to hear about it later - and yet here I am, having to dine with one of your dallies and pretend everything is fine!"

    "Dear wife, if you think I am the kind of man who will forget his obligations and fuck the first woman with a nice rack to show some selfish interest in him that comes around, then I have nothing more to say to you!" Malkar snapped back at her, visibly offended, "Yes, I like that woman in a certain way, and yes, I would probably fuck her were the circumstances in favour of it. But that don't change who you are to me! By the will of the Empress, and also by my will and your own, you are my wife, and the mother of my two children, the first pureblood Sidhae born naturally in five centuries. If you really think I am going to give all that away just for a few hours of questionable carnal pleasures, then I truly have nothing more to say to you!"

    For all her wish to see otherwise, Elizabeth could sense no deception in Malkar's words, and she was anything if not excellent at sensing deception. Then it struck her that perhaps the strategos did love her in his own way - a harsh, rough, Sidh way, perhaps - but love her after all. She had always thought of their marriage as a matter of expedience, arranged by the Empress for her own ends, with them being but mute participants brought together by a moment of imprudence and now used by a supreme power. After their children had been born, Malkar had spent most of the time away on campaigns, and Elizabeth had long thought that he deliberately avoided his new family as an embarassment in the eyes of his compatriots. And yet, Hamilkar and Ayana alike seemed to be the happiest on those rare occasions when their father was at home. He never shouted at his children like Elizabeth often did, never threw tempers, and for all his absence seemed to be the more level-headed and sensible parent of them both.

    "I believe you, husband," Elizabeth finally said, downing her glass of Qadessian in a gulp and embracing him, "I believe you!"

    "Just out of curiosity," Malkar spoke in his usual nonchalant tone as he returned her embrace, "Did you ever..."

    "No, not once. Wanted to, and had plenty of opportunity as well, but no!" Elizabeth exclaimed, looking in her husband's lightly-glowing cyborg eyes, always finding it fascinating to observe how the micro-motors in the false irises focused and refocused the lenses with mechanical precision.

    "Good to know, but I was actually referring to your certain... interest in Miss Invictus," Malkar grinned, visibly pleased about the news.

    "As to that, I will leave that as something for you to think and wonder about, my love," Elizabeth purred, biting his earlobe gently, "Right now you have more pressing issues than my same-sex fantasies to deal with. Such as making up for the last five years of absence..."

    As she pushed Malkar down on the bed, the strategos was content with that explanation - all things considered, it could have ended up way worse.

    ---

    Wolves Haven, Altoris
    Ramsbridge District


    Anthony hadn't expected the life of a Sidh acolyte to be easy or comfortable, but the actual discomfort of living as one was surprising. As the son of a colonel who could expect to be reasonably well-off even in the direst of times, Anthony was accustomed to a warm shower and meal waiting for him at home after a day's work at the aid station, and a comfortable stay in warm bed until the next morning. Now all of that was gone.

    Brother Malachiel made a point of not treating him and the handful of other new human acolytes any differently than he would treat any Sidh under him. The schedule of a Word Bearer was very strict indeed - at precisely 0500 every morning, sleeping acolytes were bid to rise, any hesitant ones being roused by a bucket of icy water and blows of staff. After 15 minutes dedicated to dressing and personal hygiene, all done with ice-cold water, the acolytes would exercise for an hour much like in army boot camps and then proceed to have very simple, modest breakfasts - usually bland Imperial Army MREs rather than the eggs and bacon or anything of the sort that Anthony was accustomed to. After that, it was 30 minutes of prayer and meditation, before proceeding with the day's work of distributing aid, Word Bearers taking turns between distributing it to the needy and going to the nearby military compound to retrieve what was shipped in from off-world. At 1400, a brief recess was taken for an equally simple lunch, and then work would continue until 1800. After that, it was another 30 minutes of prayer and meditation, an hour and a half of lecture and study in the tenets of the Word and other relevant matters, and dinner at 2000. After dinner, the Word Bearers would spend another hour meditating and praying, and in the end have an hour of free time for themselves - something that Brother Malachiel called an almost unforgivable luxury, only retained for the benefit of those still new to the harsh ways of the Word Bearers. At 2200, it was strictly lights-out, except for those who were designated to stand guard over night - and woe unto those who dared to fall asleep during their watches. These wretches would suffer the full brunt of Brother Malachiel's staff on their backs, and spend the next day doing penance in various uncomfortable stress positions. Every second day, prayers and meditation were replaced with martial arts training, Brother Malachiel pointing out that there was no room for the weak and the feeble in the Emperor's service.

    Anthony found this life miserable, but a number of things kept him from quitting, even though nobody was kept here against his wishes. The first and foremost was, obviously, his natural in-born spite. His own father had banished him for the simple crime of associating with the Sidhae, evidently hoping him to run home begging to be taken back a few days later - but being a true son of his father, Anthony would rather freeze or starve to death than accept such indignity. He had developed a decent rapport with the Sidhae, so not wanting to appear like a craven weakling human and reaffirm their negative views of humanity was another reason. But perhaps the main reason was Savitri.

    On the same day that Anthony had made the commitment to become an acolyte, Brother Malachiel had decreed that Savitri was to take responsibility for the new acolyte and instruct him in the Sidh ways. The girl had seemed confused at first, arguing that she was too young and inexperienced for such a responsible task, but Malachiel remained adamant. Thereafter, Savitri had taken to her new duties with utmost seriousness, and kept bumping him up vigorously minutes before morning wake-up call or whenever he fell asleep during prayers, meditations and lectures out of exhaustion. She was always there, encouraging him when he did well, and shaking him up whenever his resolve was about to falter.

    During the brief moments of free time, Savitri insisted on instructing Anthony, now known as Young Brother Anthonius, in the Sidh language, and his proficiency with it had improved considerably as a result. She would insist on conversing in Sidh only, although Anthony would still get plenty of chance to speak in his native language during aid distribution.

    Being a healthy young man, Anthony naturally couldn't help but feel a certain degree of physical attraction towards the Sidh girl who apparently was only a few years older than him. Savitri, however, seemed to avert her gaze whenever he looked at her with that certain interest, and always avoided the subject. Anthony as well was not comfortable bringing the matter up, convinced that such thoughts were improper for an aspiring bearer of the holy Word.

    On occasion, Brother Malachiel and the senior brothers and sisters would practice self-flagellation as a form of meditation. Anthony and other new acolytes were not required to partake, not being deemed mentally and physically ready for such ordeals yet, but it was made clear that they too would have to undertake flagellation before they could become proper Word Bearers.

    "A true Sidh does not fear pain - he embraces it, savours it, revels in it!" Brother Malachiel lectured, "The reason why the Sidhae are so successful is first and foremost in their appreciation of pain and suffering, the two quintessential elements of mortal existence. Learn to master them and embrace them, and you shall master all of your fears and desires - and in doing so become true Sidhae, true disciples of His Word!"

    For all the hardship of the lifestyle, Anthony felt somewhat relieved. There were times when he felt like almost dying and wanted to quit, but the mere thought of expressions of disdain that the faces of his new friends, especially Savitri, would show, the jeering and gloating his father and siblings would no doubt subject him to, was enough to dissuade him and reinforce his resolve. What made him feel relieved was the freedom of privilege and entitlement that his accustomed upper-class life had brought. He now felt just as good as these Sidhae, who probably had comfortable warm homes far away beneath the distant stars that they so often sang about, yet had chosen not to be there and help those in need. Even if some of their kind were monsters like his father always warned about, these ones certainly weren't.

    Another thing that made Anthony felt appreciated was receiving the same harsh treatment as everyone else in this religious order. He was no longer the little Tony who just tagged along and was merely tolerated because of his volunteering to help out. He was now Brother Anthonius - perhaps just a Young Brother - but a Brother nonetheless, a brother to people who were known for being very picky about those they would consider their equals.

    For now, despite his best efforts at meditation, the Emperor speaking to him like he seemed to do with other brethern seemed to elude him. Anthony had spoken to Brother Malachiel about the matter, but he had reassured him that this was normal. The Emperor, a being of such high status and power, would not speak to just anybody just like a mortal king would not - one had to attract his attention and prove his worthiness first.

    "When you first hear His words in your mind, young brother, know that it is just your mind speaking. And yet, remember that it is also Him who uses your mind to speak through to you," Malachiel had advised, and Anthony still struggled to grasp the meaning.

    Sometimes he did have his doubts about this whole business, and confided his concerns to Savitri. The girl always reassured him and remained adamant that in time his doubts would be alleviated just like her own once were.

    ---

    Anthony was sitting on a block of rubble, fiddling with his MRE pack, and observing Savitri doing the same. His eyes were captivated by the Sidh girl's olive-brown fingers undoing the packaging with almost inhuman dexterity.

    "Savitri?" he spoke.

    "Yes," the girl spoke, her voice betraying her usual humility and seriousness. She always sounded slightly sad to Anthony's ears.

    "Are Word Bearers allowed to be in love?" he asked, not sure what prompted such a question in the first place.

    "Those who preach the Holy Word should have no other passions to distract them," Savitri answered seriously, and Anthony wondered what is it that makes her so outstandingly beautiful - not just merely attractive, but beautiful in a sad and noble sense of way.

    "But the Emperor, praise His name, too had passions to distract him. Such as the Unknown Mother, and their love-child, the exalted Empress," he argued.

    "I wouldn't know the answer to such things," Savitri averted her gaze humbly, a wave of her raven-black wavy hair covering her cheek as she turned away, "You would be better off asking Brother Malachiel."

    "But I want to ask you," Anthony did not relent, "He did, after all, appoint you to be my instructor in the Sidh faith."

    "And yet I do not know the answer to your question," Savitri said, again appearing slightly sad, "As I said, ask Brother Malachiel..."

    The arrival of another group of refugees seeking aid packages interrupted their meal. Such were the chapter's rules - their own needs could wait when there were others in greater need.

  10. #20
    Wolves Haven, Altoris
    The Great War Memorial


    If anybody had doubted anything good could have come of the Sidh efforts to erect a grand war memorial, all those doubts were alleviated now. Even though the site was still a work in progress, all the main elements were finished within a timespan nobody in the Commonwealth had even thought possible. A vast area of what had once been city-scape was now an open parade ground, paved with massive slabs of vitrocrete capable of carrying even superheavy mechwalkers without budging. A collossal arch of triumph now towered over the surrounding landscape, and both sides of the giant parade ground that could host an entire Imperial legion were flanked by massive ossuaries, where the remains of the defenders of Wolves Haven were placed on display to demonstrate the horrors of war and an example of selfless sacrifice to all visitors. The ossuaries were only filled with the remains of unidentified soldiers and civilians, any identified ones being returned to relatives for burial, or entombed within a separate section of the ossuary under a name if they had none.

    The centerpiece of the memorial complex was no doubt the arch of triumph, a 300-meter-high edifice wide enough for two superheavy walkers to march through abreast with plenty of room to spare. Although the Sidh architects had done their best to respect the local cultural sensibilities and depict the Commonwealth in the most favourable and positive light possible, it was still clear from the artwork to which side this monument was actually dedicated. Shackled humans reeled under the whips of Skargh conquerors and raised their chained hands towards armored Sidh liberators in request to free them. Heroically-nude human heroes battling the vile aliens were welcomed by the Emperor himself, towering over them in all his glory - the particular scene being a personal touch from Malkar who had overseen the entire project. Scantily-clad valkyries elevated the souls of untold heroes from blazing battlefields to the heavens, where a gold-wreathed Emperor awaited and welcomed them all. Fleets of Sidh ships battered and rammed into Skargh fleets about to overwhelm Commonwealth forces, entire worlds burned and cracked apart under their firepower. Next to the arch of triumph, a series of massive statues depicting the heroes of the war lined the main entry road. There was the Empress and Prime Minister Monroe, each looking regal yet rather modest in their humble attire. There was Arcadius Drax, wielding his favoured thunder hammer, and Hanno Malkar himself, looking as smug and confident as ever, there was the grandmotherly Aurelia Creed, the proud and vicious Mercred Kanto with his cruel aquiline gaze, there was a modest and patient Sir Richard Greyhem, and a number of other Sidh and Commonwealth commanders. Along with the generals stood statues of common soldiers famed for great feats of valor. There was Dana Kallistri, who rammed the bridge of a Skargh dreadnought with her starfighter in a suicide attack, immitating the sacrifice of Tyra Miraborg back in the Age of War and buying the combined Sidh and Commonwealth fleets enough time to evacuate. There was Charles Tawington, a descendant of Argyle Tawington himself, who lived up to the reputation of his fabled ancestor and sacrificed his life along with his company of volunteers to hold back the Skargh while a Sidh field hospital evacuated from Dawnsbridge, one of the doomed worlds annihilated under Omega Protocol. There was Cassius Falkenheim, an Alpha Legion veteran who had single-handedly fought off a Skargh horde in a narrow mountain pass on Bronswick II while a wounded Altmark general was evacuated, calling down an orbital strike on his position after being wounded and incapacitated. Him and many more heroes of the war stood memorialized there. Perhaps the most controversial images of this hall of fame were a handful of statues dedicated to exceptionally-brave Skargh, as the Sidhae would never deny credit and praise to a worthy foe. To signify their defeated status, these characters were featured locked in struggle with other Sidh or Commonwealth heroes, not necessarily from the same battle.

    At the far end of the complex closest to downtown stood a massive stand designed to accomodate a hundred thousand viewers, with a central elevated podium for ranking state dignitaries. The opposing end across the parade ground which stood almost two miles across in every direction featured a massive superhighway with 25 lanes in each direction, the intended new central street of Wolves Haven. It was built to such scale for a reason, large and strong enough to accomodate the largest of Imperium's military vehicles for future parades that the Sidh commanders no doubt intended to hold here.

    Today that the grand parade of triumph was to be held, the citizens of Wolves Haven could enjoy a rare shine of sunlight, something that had been missing patently since some time in the war. The Sidh military had anchored a massive circle of atmospheric-processor aerostats in some 50 clicks radius around Wolves Haven, so that the air over the city was purified of dust, ash and soot, letting the so-rare beams of sunlight to reach the surface again. The Sidhae certainly didn't want the natives to miss the planned naval fly-over in a display of Imperial naval might, and the residents were told to take their time and enjoy it as this would be the only sunlight they would see for the next 5 years - the atmospheric processors could not be kept moored in one place for long if they were to carry out their function of cleansing the Altorisian atmosphere properly.

    For the past week, the pubs, dives and brothels of Wolves Haven had seen an alarmingly-sharp drop in patronage as the resident Sidh troops were all called up to drill mercilessly for the coming parade. The event would, after all, be visited by the Empress herself, so nothing would be left to chance. This drop was received with mixed feelings - on one hand, it meant a bit of relief from incessant drunken brawls and a return of the usual old customers, but on the other it meant a sharp drop in revenue as the Sidhae were generous spenders.

    Now a massive war-host of these troops from assorted legions were assembled on the colossal super-highway just outside the parade ground, with residents of Wolves Haven assembling in scores to witness the most spectacular display of military might seen in their side of the Universe yet.

    Inside the Arch of Triumph, the path of the parade to come was guarded by two rows of Jotunn-class superheavy mechwalkers, each towering over 100 meters high and bearing an individual name much like ships in space would. Each walker bore a titanic war-hammer, the signature weapon of their class, along with a plethora of arm and shoulder-mounted guns and missile batteries. These titans were to serve as a guard of honour for the upcoming parade.

    ---

    Mary Collinsworth and her children had arrived to witness the spectacle hours before start to assume the best places, finding an elevated spot near one of the ossuaries. Although very distant from the center, the civilians like them had been told there would be mobile holo-displays in place so that everyone could witness the ongoings in high definition.

    "Mom, are those the Sidh walkers?" William Collinsworth, one of her two twin sons, asked as he pointed towards the titanic mechs looming in the distance near the arch of triumph.

    "I think so," Mary answered, "See those hammers? They are evidently the same ones they showed at the cinema when we were last there."

    Although her children kept her preoccupied with questions, Mary was busy thinking. First thing on her mind was obviously Edward. After forwarding her childrens' genetic material to the casualty processing station, she was soon afterwards informed by an automated messaging system that no genetic match of her husband had been recovered in Commonwealth space so far, so that gave her a faint glint of hope - if only so faint, seeing how entire worlds remained unaccounted for so far.

    "Ladies and gentlemen, the National Anthem of the Commonwealth of Altoris!" an announcement on the loudspeakers interrupted her train of thought and conversation with her children, signifying that the parade was about to begin.

    As the first tunes of the anthem began to play, William and his brother Arnold froze at attention with their little hands held in salute. The clever boys had observed soldiers do that whenever the anthem was played, and evidently didn't take off their hats as was the custom for civilian men in the chilling weather, using this trick to excuse themselves. Mary noticed a couple older onlooking men grin at the display benevolently.

    "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of our friends and allies, the Imperium of Sidhae!" the invisible announcer proclaimed as soon as the Commonwealth anthem was through. A few voices in the crowd booed and whistled, prompting angry stares from the Sidh spectators, though these were a distinct minority and quickly piped down.

    Mary felt a chill through her spine as the present Sidhae began to chant the words of their anthem in perfect unison upon the first tunes. Although she was nowhere near proficient in Sidh, she had picked up some Sidh over the years of living next to them, and had a vague idea of what they were singing about. It was no peaceful anthem, but a war-song about their ever-lasting march forwards and the Emperor himself protecting them beneath the distant stars. Traditionally played on organ, it sounded as more of a religious hymn than a national anthem in a traditional sense.

    After the national anthems, it was Prime Minister Monroe's turn to deliver his speech.

    "Citizens of the Commonwealth," he began, the massive Sidh loudspeakers blaring his words to the furthest corners of the titanic parade ground, "Today we finally celebrate the long-awaited triumph over the alien menace that nearly brought our great nation to the brink of destruction. In the past five years, we have all sacrificed beyond what any of us could have thought possible. Know that I speak verily, for I myself have lost two sons to this war. It is today that we can finally celebrate victory, and commemorate our sacrifice, as can our Sidh allies."

    "War is said to be the greatest equalizer, levelling all the differences between people of different race and creed," Monroe continued after a brief pause, "And nowhere have these words been attested more than in our alliance with the Sidh people. 20 years ago, they were our enemies, and many still remain bitter about the unfortunate events of those days. Yet today we stand together, Sidh commanders and dignitaries standing by my very side at this moment, having bested a foul alien menace the likes of which our nation has never known before. Today, we stand together in an affirmation of our friendship, and of our hope for a better future together."

    A few discontent voices began to boo and whistle again, but were drowned out by a wave of cheers. Mary for one wasn't certain if those cheers were meant to be sincere, or simply shouted to avoid displeasing the Sidh dignitaries - for all their presumable accords of friendship, Mary knew that her fellow citizens were terrified of them. As was she, for that matter.

    "On this glorious day, the head of state of our allies herself has honoured us with her presence, and will be joining us shortly," Monroe continued, "Let us welcome and thank our victorious troops, and our fine and valorous allies! The commander of today's grand parade is our favourite war hero, General Sir Richard Greyhem! May the parade begin!"

    "Fine and valorous allies my ass!" Mary heard a nearby man, a gentleman in his late 40's grumble, "Were it not for these alien bastards and their old quarrels, the lizards probably wouldn't even have taken notice of us!"

    The loudspeakers began to blare a Commonwealth military march, the quality of the record and playback being admirable. The familiar voice of Sir Richard Greyhem issued a corresponding order: "Parade - begin!"

    Large holo-displays arranged along the sides of the parade ground began to display the ongoings within as promised, everyone being able to see the first units marching through the titanic arch of triumph. With a thunderous metallic clang, the honour guard of mechwalkers froze at attention.

    The first to enter parade grounds was General Greyhem, marching alone with his sabre held high as the leader of the parade, followed by a box of honour guard surrounding the national flag of the Commonwealth. After them followed a black-armored box of titanic Imperial Guardsmen carrying the Aquila Standard, the sheer size of these men compared to their native peers striking awe in onlookers. The Sidhae had made no effort to have one of their own lead the parade, both out of political concerns and because by Sidh custom the most important individuals and units always arrived the last, "fashionably late", so to speak.

    The first to follow them was a large formation of 1st Altorisian Guard, traditionally the garrison of Wolves Haven and the honour guard of all Altorisian dignitaries, but since recently also a tried and true combat division. Their parade uniforms resembled those of the Metropolitan Police, except their helmets, trousers and boots were white. After them followed the 1st Altmark Stormtroopers, the hulking Sidh gene-kin women being clad in powered armor of latest design, sporting their traditional skull-painted stahlhelms and gas-masks, and looking by all means an even match to their Sidh kindred.

    A succession of Commonwealth and Sidh units arrived, each having a large aerostat platform hovering over it and projecting a four-way holo-screen for everyone to see what marched underneath. Swarms of servo-skulls hovering on the sides made sure every bit of the parade was captured on camera from all angles. Although the announcer declared the arrival of each unit and gave a brief description of their combat activities during the war, most names thus far meant little to the average onlooker, as the most important and valorous units were to arrive near the end anyway. The regular Commonwealth and Altmark standards waved from their staves alongside the vertically-hung Imperial banners with legionary Aquilas mounted at the top. The Sidh troops were notably wearing their parade armor, lacking a camouflage pattern and being decorated even more richly and prominently than usual, with Aquilas, skulls, wings and other traditional Sidh patterns shining in gold and silver on them.

    Each division would arrive with it's own armored and mechanized branch independently, as was the Sidh way, rather than after the arrival of all infantry forces like was usual in the Commonwealth. The arrival of ICBM carriers and especially the superheavy artillery pieces prompted special excitement among the Commonwealth citizens, as these titanic guns had given even the Sidhae a pause back during the FSA campaign, and were capable of shelling the Skargh from half a continent away, likewise able to strike ships in low orbit when cranked to full power. Admittedly, there was no less awe of the perfectly-aligned formations of Sidh Battlemasters and Warhounds that arrived and stopped still in perfect formation, or of their mechwalkers that ranged in sizes from barely thrice the size of the largest powered armor suits to the towering 120-meter colossi that stood as honour guard near the arch of triumph.

    Finally the units of note began to enter the parade grounds, all marching through the Arch of Triumph draped with Commonwealth and Imperial banners made from enough cloth to dress an entire city.

    "And behold, here enters the notorious 235th Mechanized Legion with its commander, Strategos Hanno Malkar at the lead! This legion has attracted some infamy during the unfortunate events of the first contact with the Imperium on Draitous 20 years ago, but has since redeemed its unsavoury reputation as one of the most stalwart champions in the defense of our freedom!"

    "Redeemed my ass... What they did on Draitous can never be forgiven or forgotten!" the grizzled old veteran near Mary grumbled again.

    The aerostat platform hovering over Malkar's 235th in the meantimed displayed an opulent platform in the rough shape of an Imperial battleship being pushed forwards by a group of Skargh slaves, whose mere presence elicited angry boos and shouts from the crowd. Asides from their slave collars, these prisoners were in no way bound or chained, their spirit of resistence being utterly quashed by the shame of defeat and captivity. Malkar himself sat proudly atop of this platform, clad in his finest regalia and shining in gold almost like the Emperor himself.

    Ayana Malkar was observing this parade from the ranks of cadets, assembled near the main stage between the important dignitaries and the barrier separating them from the common spectators. Their ranks composed mainly of the sons and daughters of important politicians and dignitaries that were assigned to the privileged seats in the main stand next to the heads of state. Having been explained the reasons of her being relegated to such unimportant place, she had made no protest, and simply observed her father enter the grounds in front of his legion with immense pride, hoping to be like him once. She hadn't even met her father yet, having arrived just this morning, but was utmost excited about their pending reunion.

    Next came Aurelia Creed, seated atop a similar immitation of a supercarrier, but this structure was pushed by her own men, Sidh marines who showed evident pride in their task. A massive formation of marines and sailors followed behind them. Ayana took note of the elderly Grand Admiral, having heard many tales of her exploits from her parents, and quietly determined to serve her time in the Navy under her if possible when her time to do her duty would come. Obviously, Ayana's first desired place of service was her father's legion, though Malkar himself was adamant that his daughter would not serve in his own legion, as to avoid any implications of nepotism or preferential treatment.

    After them arrived Mercred Kanto and the Sigma Legion. This commander had a reputation of a connoisseur of arts and cuisine, and also for his bizarre sadistic inclinations. Those who visited his command dreadnought, Cerberus, were welcomed to the "Hall of Suffering" - the ship's grand assembly hall, whose lavish decorations were dedicated solely to the subjects of torture and pain. Enemies feared and loathed Kanto almost as much as Drax for his proclivity to implement various wicked and bizarre tortures upon captured enemies, although in this respect he was way less systematic and methodical than Drax. Kanto arrived on a throne carried by a group of Skargh slaves that he took the liberty to whip on occasion simply for the show of it. There wasn't much cheering from the Commonwealth audience to him, since this man was known to treat humans with almost equal brutality to the enemy. That said, the Sidhae still received him warmly, commenting on the awe and obedience of his slaves, and his display of numerous Skargh skulls upon which his throne was seated that Sidh spectators knew to hardly match the number of human skulls in his possession, kept from display for obvious political reasons.

    Much to everybody's surprise, the unit that followed was not some Sidh elite legion, but rather a parade group from the Human Auxiliary Legions led by a colonel named O'Conner that nobody seem to know. A few knew he had defected after being taken prisoner on Draitous, and called him a traitor, but to most his name meant nothing besides sounding oddly familiar amidst the largely-alien Sidh names. In keeping with their wartime duties, the human troops were accompanied by an impressive array of artillery and engineering vehicles.

    As one of the last arrived Arcadius Drax. Unlike his peers, he came not atop an elaborate mount tended by servants and slaves, but standing on the turret of a simple Battlemaster tank, surrounded by his own soldiers. His two pet direwolves Fenrir and Garm sat attentively at his feet, the towering colossus of Drax standing above them and holding their leashes. The Sidh spectators cheered thunderously at his appearance, many of the Commonwealthers joining in, because for all his haughtiness and brashness, many recognized him as their saviour, the only man to stand between them and certain death during the war. His loyal Alpha Legion marched behind him, the thunderous clang of the steps of the legion's power-armored giants radiating inhuman strength and power. All clad in the massive Paladin armor suits rather than the more common Templar armor worn by the regular legions, Alphas and other elites stood two heads' lengths above even their fellow Sidhae, and almost twice the height of native humans. Between the legion and its commander walked a long procession carrying trophy racks featuring many triumph wreaths, flags taken in battle and other trophies - said to be only a small fraction of Drax's true collection - in order to display their owner's martial prowess.

    "And we have received reports of the Empress of Sidhae just arriving, so she and her retainers should be joining us shortly!" the announcer proclaimed.

    And indeed, after some minutes it took for the arriving units to assume their places in the parade ground, the Imperial fanfare blared at deafening volume by Gjallarhorns mounted on the largest mechwalkers in the mech formations announced the coming arrival of the Sidh sovereign.

    In terms of music, the Sidhae had indeed treated this event as a dead-serious religious procession rather than a glorious parade. A sombre tune played on organ announced the arrival of the Empress, everyone present getting more attentive to catch a glimpse of her. The aerostats hovering above each formation were adorned with skulls, an ornament that the Sidhae seemed so obsessively fond of that it had become something of a running gag among the Commonwealth folk. Everyone in formation looked equally sombre even through their enclosed helmets.

    Finally, as the last of Sidh formations assumed their position in the parade grounds, a small box consisting of the Empress and her honour guard of twelve towering Imperial Guardsmen could be seen marching through the arch of triumph, a holographic Aquila projected overhead signifying their location and leaving no doubt as to who was being escorted there . The Empress appeared downright tiny next to her titanic guardians, but from her manner and gaze alone it was obvious who was in charge there, her emerald eyes radiating such unbreakable will and confidence that any onlooker felt little wonder as to why a good part of the galaxy bent to her every whim and command.

    It took quite a while for the Empress to make her way across the parade ground to the stand of dignitaries, every unit in her path snapping at attention as she did. The towering mechwalkers rendered a thunderous Imperial salute, extending their hammers in raised hands over her path in an awe-inspiring move. She merely acknowledged the presence of each legion and division with a polite nod towards them as she went by their colours, her expression otherwise completely nonchalant.

    Behind the Empress trailed a delegation of dignitaries flanked by smaller honour guards, Lady Elizabeth Malkar being among them. Most of the dignitaries, being former soldiers, wore their parade armor and decorations, Elizabeth alone having nothing to boast. Yet she stood proud in her plain black silk dress with archonal regalia that immitated the Empress's own sense of fashion, embracing her unique civilian-archon status and ignoring both the occasional low brows from Sidhae and outright jeering and name-calling heard from some Commonwealthers and especially Altmarkers.

    Finally, the Empress arrived at the podium where the Prime Minister and other Commonwealth officials awaited. Without saying a word, she climbed up in the company of her bodyguards, and assumed a position next to the Prime Minister. Politicians would normally make wide fake smiles as they shook hands and exchanged the customary flatteries, but the Empress seemed to be none for such nonsense, merely exchanging a brief handshake with the Prime Minister without her face ever changing expression. Finally she assumed the podium to speak.

    "My fine warriors and good citizens," she announced, "and esteemed friends and allies! It is my privilege to stand here today and pay my respects to you all. After five years of untold carnage and sacrifice, we finally stand victorious, but at what price? Tens of millions of you, and hundreds of millions of our human friends, have had to lay down their lives for this day to come. Hundreds of millions more remain unaccounted for, slain by the vile xenos foe, or taken away into slavery worse than death. Most will probably never be found and given a final resting place. Entire worlds have been burnt to ashes, entire battlefleets reduced to dust and debris. But for all these losses and horrors, we have prevailed. It is to all those unsung heroes that this grand memorial we stand here to day is dedicated to."

    Briefly pausing to let her words settle in, she continued.

    "Our nations haven't always seen eye to eye, and in some respects still don't. But the greatest friendships are never forged in peace, but in the fires of war, and after five years of fighting side by side against a common foe, our peoples have grown closer than anyone would have thought possible before. We have both shed our blood over the same soil. When the future generations ask what all those billions of lives and entire worlds sacrificed were for, you will be there to answer and tell them what it was for. Many young folk will grow up and admire this memorial, wondering what great heroes must have been the men and women entombed within to merit such a grand monument. But you, my compatriots and my allies, who stand here today - you will be there to attest better. You will be there to attest, that the finest monuments of heroism seen in this war are not the grand tombs and edifices built after the war, but a simple rusty rifle stuck into the ground in some nameless jungle with a helmet and a pair of dog tags on it, the lone burnt-out hull of a tank half-buried in desert sand, the remains of an aerospace fighter scattered across the seafloor in ocean abyss, the battered hulk of a starship drifting perpetually in the void of space above some distant world. These are the monuments your fallen brethren have built for themselves, and through your words they will in time become the most revered and sacrosanct of all memorials. And should the day come when some misguided revisionists dare to ask whether it was worth it, you will be able to stand there and say: "Yes, it was!"

    Empress's speech was welcomed by a thunderous applause from all audiences. After waiting for the applause to subside slightly, she continued.

    "In remembering the fallen heroes, this memorial was constructed. But so too we must not forget about the living champions and heroes that made this victory possible. Let us honour and reward them now!"

    "Strategos Hanno Malkar Harradicus of Clan Katara," the Empress called out.

    "Here, Your Majesty!" Malkar enthusiastically responded, all the cameras and drones being focused on him.

    "Come forth!"

    "Aye, Your Majesty!"

    The Skargh captives placed a ladder in front of his vehicle of triumph for Malkar to climb down, and he approached the Empress, dwarfing her in his massive gilded armor suit with singing angels and screaming eagles. Ayana struggled against tears of pride flowing from her eyes as she witnessed her father bend the knee before their divine Empress, who placed a golden laurel wreath of a triumphator upon his head while two of her Imperial Guard retainers removed his crimson cloak of a strategos, and replaced it with crimson-and-gold one of an Archistrategos. Barely able to contain tears of pride himself, Malkar stood by the Empress's side in silence at her beckon.

    "Aurelia Steinhilde Creed of Clan Ohthor!" the Empress called out.

    "Here, Your Majesty!" the elderly voice of Grand Admiral Creed echoed across the parade ground, captured and amplified manyfold by the ubiquitous servo-skulls hovering about, ensuring that no word uttered by those of importance was missed or misheard by the audience.

    "Come forth!"

    "Aye, Your Majesty!"

    The old admiral walked to the Empress without haste, also wearing a lavishly-ornate armor suit she would only put on for occasions like these. Her armor, an old Mk.III Crusader whose modernized variants were still used widely in the Navy, was richly decorated mainly in Norse and Celtic motifs. As she kneeled before the Empress, the golden wreath of a triumphator found rest in her elderly white hair as well.

    After the Empress called out Mercred Kanto, whose Skargh slaves formed living stairs for their master to step down from his hights, and also awarded him with the triumphator's wreath, the next call came as a complete surprise.

    "Colonel William O'Conner!"

    "Here, Your Majesty!"

    "Step forth!"

    The onlooking crowd was abuzz to see the unassuming human colonel who looked downright tiny next to the titanic Sidh strategoi and common soldiers to step up to the Empress, the only Sidh of comparable size present given her lack of powered armor. He was awarded a golden laurel wreath to everyone's surprise, an award reserved for Sidh commanders, but what came next caused an even greater stir among the spectators.

    "Colonel William O'Conner, in light of your faithful service, I hereby reward you with the rank of Strategos and bestow upon you command of the Human Auxiliary Legion to the Imperium," the Empress spoke, "Do you accept this honour?"

    "I accept, Your Majesty!" O'Conner responded, keenly aware that the Empress did not intend to take "no" for an answer.

    "Human Auxiliary Legion, do you accept William O'Conner as your strategos?" the Empress turned to the human soldiers assembled in the parade grounds.

    "Axios! Axios! Axios!" the men shouted, apparently made aware and instructed of proper Sidh protocol beforehand. The tradition did not suggest any semblance of democracy within the Sidh military, but was rather intended as a public gauge the promoted officer's reputation - if his legion chose to withhold axios upon his appointment as their strategos, it would be a lifetime disgrace and make his further advancement unlikely, as it clearly showed his troops did not trust or respect him, and only obeyed his command because it was their duty.

    "Wear with pride, serve with honour," the Empress instructed as she handed him an ornate energy sword while two of her bodyguards draped him in the crimson mantle of a strategos. "May this seal our covenant," she finally said and stepped ahead to kiss O'Conner, as was the custom upon promotion of a new strategos.

    "Ave Imperator!" the new strategos stood straight, stepped aside and turned to render salute to the onlooking troops.

    "HA-OOH! HA-OOH! HA-OOH!" the entirety of Sidh troops present pounded their armored chests twice in affirmation of the new strategos' status and their recognition of it. The response among the human spectators was less enthusiastic, as many would come to recall O'Conner's circumstances of joining the Imperium as a defecting POW, and even words of abuse like "traitor" were uttered here and there. The hate reserved for him was somewhat mitigated by the HAL's stalwart defense of civilian population centers during the war, O'Conner having gone out of his way and risked his rank to persuade Drax to let him protect civilians that would have otherwise been abandoned to their fate.

    Finally, Arcadius Drax himself was summoned, many people only now realizing that he didn't have a Clan name. Ever proud in his accomplishments, he had long left such trivialities behind, feeling no clan was worthy to call him their own. As his tank stopped, he was carried down to the footsteps of the Empress's podium by his own jubilant men in a stark contrast to the overt displays of power and dominance shown by the other commanders. His direwolves remained seated on the tank.

    As the hulking archistrategos knelt before his Empress, it turned out that even so it was hard for her to reach his head to place the triumph wreath on. Drax discreetly reached out with his huge armored hand, forming a step with his palm for the Empress to use, sparing her from embarassment and no doubt even further increasing his esteem in the eyes of his queen and peers by doing so. Instead of being awarded the usual gilded olive wreath of a triumphator, Drax instead received a simple grass wreath woven from the grasses from the battlefields of Altoris, made by his own men - the sign of highest esteem for a general since the days of ancient Rome.

    "In recognition for your supreme command over this lengthy and difficult campaign, and for the pivotal role of your actions in saving our allies from certain destruction, I hereby bestow upon you, archistrategos Arcadius Martellus Drax, the corona graminea!" the Empress proclaimed, "May your deeds always serve as an example and inspiration to all who hear of them!"

    It wasn't often that Drax showed any emotion besides anger or frustration, but this time, those close enough to see his face could swear they could see the faintest glint of a satisfied grin creep on his otherwise perpetually stone-cold and grizzled face.

    The Empress proceeded to award about a dozen other strategoi and lesser officers of sufficient merit with lesser awards, these people assuming a lesser position of honour a few steps beneath her and the main triumphators who were allowed to stand on equal footing with her and the Prime Minister. Once she was done, the Prime Minister took over, dispensing highest state awards to Commonwealth commanders like Greyhem, Steiner, Chadda and others. Yet while these commanders no doubt invited the greatest cheers and applause from the human spectators, the glory of their achievements was still somewhat overshadowed by the Sidh presence. For all their efforts to grant their allies an equal part in this parade, even now it was clearly and patently evident which side the event was really meant to lionize, the Commonwealth's leader and his generals appearing small and puny next to the hulking Sidhae, their troops looking equally feeble next to the ranks of armored titans that were their allies.

    Even though the Empress looked like a child next to her towering companions as well, and a very modestly dressed child at that, the strategoi and admirals shining in gold while her only jewelry was a golden olive wreath, the crown of the Sidh emperors. Yet for all her diminutive size and modesty, it was immediately obvious from but one glance who was the real giantess there. The Empress radiated an almost oppressive aura of absolute confidence and iron will, carrying herself not like someone who merely wanted to be seen as a demi-goddess, or even believed herself to be one, but as someone who knew her divinity as an irrefutable fact. Even the mightiest and proudest Sidh lords and ladies behaved themselves almost like intimidated schoolchildren around a stern and severe headmistress in the Empress's presence. Even Drax whom everyone among the present Sidh and Commonwealth dignitaries knew to be very blunt and straightforward in speech and manners was acting unusually courteously.

    Finally, after the awards were dispensed, it was time for the naval flyover.

    In the previous weeks, the Sidh terraformer and planetary engineer teams had worked day an night to deploy a perimeter of atmosphere-processor aerostats in a wide circle around Wolves Haven, so that the sky would be clear at least for the duration of the Empress's visit, and everyone could be awed by witnessing the spectacular flyover. Now the ground itself began to shake as formations of aerospace fighters and bombers began to approach, progressively larger ships following them higher up in the skies. A flight of Commonwealth fighters led the entire flyover, piloted by the country's finest aces. A large Aquila-shaped formation of Sidh fighters followed, and after that came scores of mostly-Sidh fighters, bombers and gunships. Especially notable were the chevron-shaped Striga stealth bombers whose engines emitted an eerie spine-chilling howl at lower altitudes, and the blocky Thunderhawk gunships. Further above flew heavy dropships and planetary assault carriers, roughly the size of 21st century seaborne aircraft carriers. Even higher, space frigates, destroyers and light cruisers that dwarfed all the aforementioned would make their approach. Although the Commonwealth Navy had made their best effort to make their ships look presentable, camera feeds from high-altitude drones recording the flyover close-up showed that a number of ships were still visibly battered and coarsely patched up. Fortunately, Commonwealth brass needed not worry about embarassign themselves by parading damaged ships, as fresh battle damage only increased their esteem in Sidh eyes, a demonstrable proof of valor. What native onlookers probably found more embarassing was the small number and much smaller size of their ships - for every Commonwealth ship, there seemed to be at least 5 Imperial ships, and what was classified as a light cruiser by local measure barely passed for a destroyer by Sidh standards.

    Finally, spectators could view the parade of capital ships in low orbit. Led by the sole surviving Commonwealth battlecruiser Indomitable under Admiral Chadda, the capital ship formation consisted mainly of Sidh battleships and battlecruisers, which were huge enough to be easily seen in some detail from the ground. Yet even these eight-kilometer giants were dwarfed by the city-sized titans that were the Dies Irae, Fenrir and Hel, the star dreadnoughts of the Empress and Archistrategos Drax, and Grand Admiral Creed's supercarrier flagship. The ionized engine exhaust from all the ships left a trail of spectacular auroral displays in the wake of the naval parade as the planet's magnetic field trapped the charged particles and brought them in contact with ionosphere. These auroras would persist for another hour or so.

    As soon as the ships were gone from sight, the military orchestra began to play a more upbeat marching tune, and one by one, the units assembled on the parade ground began to leave in the same order they had arrived. Triumphators returned to the vehicles of their arrival, riding them out of the parade grounds along with their units like they had arrived. They would be joining the Empress and other dignitaries shortly afterwards.

    ---

    As the last units were marching out of the parade ground, the crowds began to disperse, discussing wildly their impressions. The Empress, the Prime Minister and their respective retainers proceeded to inspect the ossuaries and other sites of note in the memorial. Today was a day of celebration - the Commonwealth was finally free from alien invaders. Tomorrow, however, would come with more questions than answers - such as what the future relationship between them and the Imperium would be.

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