The Chancellor of the Human Sovereignty hit the button on the console and the room melted away. One moment she was standing in the glass chamber in her meeting room at Capital House and the next she was in the middle of the void. Her translucent form shimmered against the dark. It didn’t matter how many times she came here, Marsa felt no less disquieted. The emptiness of the V-space always seemed disturbingly similar to how she imagined death to be like.
A virtual environment, the V-space was a popular choice for secure face-to-face communication between individuals across the galaxy. Capable of simulating any number of environments, the black void Marsa stood in was only the simplest form it could take though she would have preferred anything else. She hoped she wouldn’t be there very long.
Other images glistened not far from where she stood. As she joined them, Marsa felt their alien eyes analysing her. The council may be united but that didn’t mean its members were above seeking out and exploiting weakness within their ranks. She noticed a couple faces not normally present at their meetings: Haema Irmit Cemma and Martas Sevanota, the leaders of Freedom for All.
“So nice of you to join us, Chancellor Calsen”, said Uhrun Irguh Suhyur, the Chancellor of the Iringroat Sovereignty. He looked about the same as most members of his species though his most striking feature was the grey, stony material covering much of his face and hands. He glared at Marsa with his yellow suns for eyes. The Human Race never had a good relationship with their Iringroat neighbours, the memories of the Last War still fresh in the minds of many on both sides.
“I apologise for my lateness, Chancellors. The Imperator decided to enter and exit Warp Space directly above the station”. The time dilation brought about by the Imperial Leader’s grand entrance and exit meant that, while they each took only a couple minutes for those in the vicinity, a little over an hour had passed for the rest of the galaxy.
“It’s quite alright, Chancellor Calsen”, said Satrisella Heruun, the leader of the Treen Sovereignty. “Now that everyone is here, I call this meeting of the Executive Council to order”. While it had no official leader, Chancellor Heruun was considered the unofficial chairperson of the Executive Council while her species, known for their political shrewdness and scientific brilliance was considered the leading member of the Confederacy. Of the galaxy’s known species, the Treen were some of the most similar to humans, at least in appearance. They had the same body shape but were shorter and extremely thin and frail. The Chancellor’s skin was white as milk, contrasted by the veins and arteries plain to see beneath due to the black blood flowing through them. Her head was about twice the size of a human’s with two almond-shaped eyes coated in a black film that made her pupils almost invisible. Her nose, ears, and mouth were little more than slits. “Joining us are Haema Irmit Cemma and Martas Sevanota of Freedom for All”.
The so-called leaders of FFA stood with barely a gap between them. Cemma practically glowered at the council while his counterpart looked to the non-existent ground and shuffled his feet. Straight away, Marsa could tell who the real leader was. Cemma was Iringroat. Sevanota was a male Treen, gender betrayed by the dull grey of his skin as opposed to the snowy white of his female counterparts.
“I’m sure we are all eager to hear of the outcome of Chancellor Calsen’s meeting with the Imperator Nero”, Satrisella continued. Marsa wasn’t surprised in the least by the result of her visit to the Assemblage Station though still wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news to the others, especially their guests.
“What of our comrades”? Cemma demanded before she could get a word out.
Marsa overlooked the indiscretion, hoping to get the meeting over with as quickly as possible. “Nero refuses to release the prisoners unless he is first given the leaders of Freedom for All. That’s the only deal he will accept, a deal I refused to make on behalf of the council”.
“So you’ve failed us”.
“We did everything we could possibly have done”. Marsa wasn’t about to let herself be spoken to like that. “You were warned of the dangers of your actions and you didn’t listen”.
“But there must be something more you can do”, Sevanota said. “Some kind of legislation perhaps? The Treaty of Assemblage”?
“I suggest you acquire some basic knowledge of galactic politics before you come here and tell the Executive Council how to do its job”, Uhrun replied with the less-than-subtle air of superiority common to his species. “The Treaty of Assemblage is an agreement with the Imperium to formally recognize the existence of the Confederacy and its borders. Nothing more”.
“We don’t have anything resembling an extradition treaty with the Imperium”, Satrisella explained though Marsa failed to see the point. “Short of asking for your people to be returned, there’s nothing we can do”.
“If we had some of their people, it would be different”, Marsa added. “Perhaps then a deal could be made. But the fact is we don’t. The only thing Nero wants is you”.
The V-space was silent as Cemma continued his brooding. Marsa sized him up the first time she saw him: bad-tempered, impatient, and unreasonable, qualities that wouldn’t serve him well in any level of politics, let alone dealing with the Executive Council.
He lowered his gaze. “Not good enough”.
“I beg your pardon”? Marsa didn’t want to believe he was dumb enough to pick a fight with the Executive Council, but that seemed to be the case.
“Haema, please”, whispered Sevanota. From where she stood, it was clear to Marsa he held little to no sway in the group he co-founded.
“I said this is not good enough”! Cemma raged, ignoring his “friend”. “You are the Executive Council. You’re the leaders of the Confederacy. It is your duty to protect your citizens”.
Marsa was finding it difficult to hold back her annoyance. “We warned you repeatedly of the consequences of your actions. We do everything in our power to protect our citizens but we can’t do that when they’re operating outside our borders and breaking laws in the Imperium”.
“There are still options”.
“Rescue them. Send your fleets in”.
The suggestion stunned the council and confirmed another of Marsa’s suspicions: Haema Irmit Cemma was a moron with no understanding of the gravity of the situation. That only made him more dangerous.
“Are you insane”? Uhrun exclaimed, the rest of the council no doubt wondering the same.
“It can be done. The Confederacy has fought wars with the Imperium in the past”.
“Small conflicts that were ended quickly with negotiation because the Confederacy stood no chance of winning them. War with the Imperium would be disastrous for the Confederacy. It would be suicide. You are without a doubt the greatest imbecile I have encountered in my entire life”.
Satrisella intervened before Cemma could answer. “I stand in agreement with Chancellor Suhyur, as I am sure the rest of the council do. Any attempt to rescue your people, successful for not, would undoubtedly be seen by Nero as a declaration of war and be met with swift and severe retaliation. I am sorry but your people are lost. There is no hope of getting them back. All you can do now is keep the rest of your followers safe by putting an end to your activities in the Imperium”.
“We can’t do that”. With every word, the co-founder of FFA betrayed more of his true nature. All Marsa saw was a child incensed that he wasn’t getting his own way.
“The Imperial Navy is on high alert, Cemma”, Uhrun stressed. “They already captured one load of your people. They will capture more if you continue with this ridiculous strategy”.
“If we don’t continue then more will suffer. The mission of Freedom for All is to deliver all those from the oppression and tyranny of the Imperium. The Confederacy’s failure to do so means we are forced to take matters into our own hands”.
“The Imperial Navy is not to be trifled with”, said Tussek Kel’jung, leader of the Volhollon Sovereignty. “You will only send more people to their deaths”. Of all the species of the Confederacy, the Volhollon were best renowned for military prowess. Strong and hardy Suidae from the planet Sunkraljung, the crushing gravity of their homeworld had left them extremely short but also granted them unimaginable strength. Tussek was no exception, eyes like two bloody droplets and a pair of tusks protruding from his mouth. The Volhollon possessed the largest army in the Confederacy. In regard to military matters, Tussek’s word was valued above all others, almost sacred.
“In addition, your strategy defies any kind of logic”, the leader of the Chelk, known only as Hade, added. “The Non-Haelqen population in the Imperium numbers well into the quintillions. Your group consists of several hundred and possesses the resources to mount a mission into Imperial Space once a galactic standard week at the most. It would take you millennia to transport all those you call oppressed out of the Imperium and into the Confederacy, provided you survive that long”. The Chelk were by far the most bizarre member species of the Confederacy. They resembled tall jellyfish, domed heads atop a stalk of flesh and cartilage, brains plain to see swimming in their cloudy cerebral fluid. The Chelk were known most for their strangeness and intellect, as well as their cold manner of speech.
Cemma shook his head. “We cannot stand by and watch our brethren be abused and made to live in fear. We realize the hopelessness of our cause, but as long as we live and breathe we will rescue as many as possible. We have committed our lives to this and we will continue for as long as we can”. By that point, it was clear nothing would change his mind. By his own admission, he was aware of the hopelessness of his endeavour, and yet he kept fighting. Marsa had to admire that, even if he was an idiot. His mission was dangerous and idealistic, but his cause was a noble one that she supported. But, like the rest of the council, Marsa was very much aware that, as long as the Imperium stood, Freedom for All’s mission would never be accomplished.
“I believe I speak for the council when I strongly urge you to reconsider your course of action”.
“We cannot do that! Not while people suffer at the hands of the Imperium. We may not be able to save everybody but, as long as we live, we will save as many as we can, with your support or without it”.
With a motion that looked like the pushing of a button, Cemma’s image faded away, leaving only darkness where he once stood. Sevanota’s followed and the council was left in silence. Marsa felt uneasy, as she was certain the others did. There was a time when the Executive Council supported Freedom for All and even aided in their mission, but they drew the line when their actions began threatening to plunge the galaxy into all-out war. Something had to be done, though she wasn’t sure exactly what and, judging from the silence, neither were the others.
“At last”, said Uhrun. “There was only so much idiocy I could manage”.
“This is not good”. Even sitting, the leader of the Khuykrallic Sovereignty, the Dredglegg Bidhunn towered over his fellow councillors. The Khuykrallic were huge mammals from the frigid ice world, Serres, protected from its cold by their coats of shaggy fur. Bidhunn’s was light brown though turning grey with age. A pair of long mandibles extended from the sides of his mouth and his arms reached right to his feet. His kind had no need for clothes, but he was covered in an abundance of necklaces with dozens of multi-coloured beads and baubles attached.
“They need to be stopped”, said Kamrack Mahalahn, leader of the Rylukan Sovereignty, tall mammals, and natural apex hunters from the planet Ryaten. Rylukans came in a variety of skin colours, from blue to green to purple. Kamrack was light blue. He, too, was taller than most other members of the council. His other distinguishing features were his two pairs of muscular arms and sloping head at the end of a long neck.
“What can we do”? Bidhunn asked.
“Arrest them. Put an end to this madness”.
“They’ve broken no laws”, said Satrisella. “Not in the Confederacy at least, and they have the support of the Assembly. We’d need their approval before anything can be done, which isn’t likely”.
“Not to mention the people”, Uhrun added. “If the public so much as thought we were thinking about handing them over there would be hell to pay”.
Satrisella raised a thin twig of an arm. “In any case, there is a more pressing matter to discuss. We will decide what is to be done about Freedom for All at a later time. I am most eager to learn of the outcome of the other matter discussed at the Assemblage Station. Chancellor Calsen”?
Marsa hadn’t been looking forward to that either. “It went down about as well as expected. Nero has made it clear he has no interest in peaceful relations with the Confederacy”. They all knew the prisoner’s were a lost cause. Any pretence of getting them back was merely to get the Imperator in the same room, not that it mattered in the end.
“What did he have to say about the reports of his ships entering the Neutral Expanse”? Tussek asked.
“He claims they are there searching for terrorists active in the Imperium and refuses to recall them. It’s my belief that he intends to use the Treaty of Assemblage to force us to take military action against him, giving the Imperium a legitimate reason to declare war”.
“Then it is time to begin discussing alternative solutions to this problem”, Satrisella said. As if there were any; the Confederacy was trapped between a rock and a hard place.
“If we’ve learned anything in all our years of dealing with the Imperium, it’s that its leader cannot be reasoned with”, Kamrack said “How much longer are we going to kid ourselves into thinking there is any alternative to the inevitable? Nero has sought war with us for decades, and he’s going to get it, likely sooner rather than later”.
“The Assembly won’t allow themselves to seem weak in the face of the Imperium”. Bidhunn said, silently tapping his fist on the floor of wherever he was sitting. “They will go to war whether we support them or not”.
“War with the Imperium would bring about a crisis of unprecedented proportions”, Tussek said. “The combined weight of our forces simply isn’t enough to withstand the sheer might of the Imperial military in prolonged warfare”. Being the leader of a society where every citizen was a soldier first and everything else second, the situation was grave if Chancellor Kel’jung wasn’t confident in the odds of success. “There is only one option as far as I can see. The Confederacy needs an alliance if it is ever to survive”.
“And with whom do you propose we forge an alliance, Chancellor”? Uhrun asked. “I am at a loss to think of any suitable candidates”.
“Wouldn’t the Border Defence Array be enough to defend the Confederacy from the Imperium”? Tekk Dell Lodd of the Jukrillarian Sovereignty was the youngest and least experienced member of the Executive Council, and there was little doubt among his colleagues that he was merely a puppet with the leaders of the Jukrillarian merchant clans pulling the strings.
“The defence array would never withstand the force of the Imperial Navy”, Uhrun barked. “If, or rather when, the Imperium invades, we’ll be powerless to keep them out. Try using your brain before opening your mouth next time”. The Border Defence Array was the Confederacy’s answer to the Imperium’s aggression, a range of armed space stations positioned along the border, and little more than a very expensive bluff. As impressive as it was, it would have done little to keep the Imperial Navy out of Confederate Space. It wasn’t even complete.
Chancellor Lodd went quiet, dejected by the criticism. He didn’t command a great deal of respect on the council despite his intimidating appearance. His kind resembled a cross between a bird and a lizard. They stood on clawed feet with a pair of wings folded behind their backs and a long beak poking from a thin head. His skin was scaly like a lizard’s too, but, despite his imposing stature, blood-red eyes, and beak full of sharp teeth, the Jukrillarian Chancellor still didn’t hold much sway.
“The defence array might have limited success in repelling the Imperium”, Tussek said. “But it won’t keep them for out for long, which is why we need an alliance”.
“Well who do you suggest”? Uhrun asked. “The Expanse will have all but fallen by the time the Imperium reaches us, and good luck trying to get anyone from the FPR to help us. Everyone there hates us”.
With the Expanse and FPR ruled out, only one option remained. Marsa knew it, and so did the others though no one was willing to say it. She didn’t blame them. It was crazy, but she couldn’t think of anything else, and nobody was coming up with anything better.
“What about the Empire”?
Uhrun smirked. “Did you not hear what I just said”?
“The Aq Quhn Ran Asten might hate the Confederacy but they hate the Imperium too, perhaps even more so. They have the largest military in the galaxy, and the most advanced technology. We need them if we are to stand against the Imperium. If Nero knew we had an alliance with the Empire, it may even convince him to back off altogether. We could avoid a war completely”. It made perfect sense. The Aq Quhn Ran Asten Empire covered over a third of the galaxy and surpassed everyone else in terms of military might and technological prowess. But, like seemingly everything else, the situation with the Empire was anything but simple. Like the Imperium, the Aq Quhn Ran Asten were ruled by fanatical beliefs, and were hostile toward anything that crossed into their territory, Imperial or Confederate.
“The Empire is even more volatile than the Imperium, and far more dangerous”, Satrisella said. “If we approach them and it goes wrong, they could be the ones to annihilate us. They could declare war just for entering their territory”.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures”. Nobody could deny they were desperate. Marsa felt desperate just for considering what she proposed.
“The Confederacy possesses no lines of communication with the Empire”, Hade pointed out. “The only way to initiate contact would be to send someone to speak with their leaders in person. The risks involved with this are tremendous”.
“And who could we send”? Kamrack asked. “Never in the history of the Confederacy has a dialogue been opened with the Aq Quhn Ran Asten. I don’t believe it ever happened in the days of the Collective either. We have nobody with any experience in dealing with them”.
Marsa could see only one way. She gave herself no time to think about it. It would only help change her mind. “I’ll go”.
“You’ll go”? Uhrun replied, understandably sceptical.
“I’ll go to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld and speak with their leaders. They might be more receptive if one of us goes rather than sending a dignitary”.
“That is insane”, Kamrack said. “They could kill you as soon as you enter their territory”.
“I know it’s risky but we have to do something, and I don’t hear anyone suggesting anything better. I’ll go to their leaders and convince them to support us. With the Empire on our side, we’ll have a far better chance of overcoming the threat posed by the Imperium”.
“We would need the approval of the Assembly before we do this”, Satrisella said.
“We don’t have time for the Assembly! With FFA out there doing who knows what, Nero could declare war on us any day. This has to be done now”.
“They won’t like us going behind their backs”, Tussek said.
“We’ll deal with the fallout later. In fact, we can’t let anyone know about this, not until the time is right at least. We can’t risk word getting back to Nero. If he even suspects this, he’ll definitely declare war, perhaps even attempt to gain the Aq Quhn Ran Asten’s support for himself. It’s too dangerous to let the Assembly know about this”.
“But your absence will surely lead to questions from your own government, not to mention the public and the media”, said Bidhunn. “And who will lead your sovereignty in your stead”?
“I trust my cabinet. We’ll work on a cover story. That will hopefully give me enough time to get there and back before anyone starts asking questions. Vice-Chancellor Langton will have control over the Human Sovereignty in the meantime, and fill in for me here”. That was less than ideal. Marsa didn’t trust Nill as far as she could throw him. If only there were a way to keep him under control until she returned.
“How will you even get there”? Kamrack asked. “We don’t even know where their homeworld is”.
“Let me worry about that. I won’t use my personal ship. If anyone notices it’s missing it’ll invite questions. I’ll use a ship of my navy, a smaller vessel, something nobody will notice if it goes missing for a little while”.
The quiet returned to the V-space as the Executive Council contemplated Marsa’s proposal and its potentially dire consequences. The Empire worried the governments of the Confederacy even more than the Imperium, and was twice as capricious. Such a course could just as easily have been the Confederacy’s salvation as its doom.
Eventually, Chancellor Heruun broke the silence. “Very well. It seems this is the only option left open to us”.
“What if they demand something in return”? Bidhunn asked.
“We’ll give it to them”, Marsa answered.
“This is insane. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all”.
“I doubt anyone here does”, Satrisella said. “But it may be our only hope. Let us put the issue to a vote”. That was generally how decisions were finalized on the council, a unanimous vote meaning the issue would be taken to the Assembly though this time that would not be the case. “Those who approve of Chancellor Calsen’s proposal, cast your votes now”.
Nobody moved. For a moment, Marsa feared the worst. But then Chancellor Heruun raised a spindly hand, and the others, slowly but surely, followed suit. First Uhrun, then Tussek, then Tekk. Bidhuun and Kamrack were the last to raise their hands, always the most tentative. Hade didn’t raise a hand. It didn’t have any to raise but it nevertheless voiced its approval.
“Very well”, Satrisella said once all votes had been cast. “Since there are no objections, there will be no vote of disapproval”. Of course they were objections. Marsa knew it, for she had many of her own. She felt crazy to even consider what she was signing herself up for. There was so much nobody could be sure of. The Empire hated the Confederacy, but she was banking on the notion they hated the Imperium even more. Hopefully that would be enough to influence their leaders’ decision. “The issue is settled”, Heruun continued. “Chancellor Calsen will go to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld and propose an alliance with the Confederacy to their leaders, and the Assembly shall not be made aware for the time being. May she find success and return to us safely, for all our sakes”.
“Thank you, Chancellor”, Marsa said though she couldn’t be sure if her bid of good fortune was sincere. The council was full of snakes, and the Treen Chancellor was no exception. Her whole species were well known for their aloof nature, and their reduced capacity for compassion that bordered on the callous.
Usually, only matters concerning the whole Confederacy were discussed at the meetings of the Executive Council, and, at the current time, there was only one such matter. With nothing else to discuss, the others simply offered Marsa their own good wishes before Chancellor Heruun called the meeting to a close. One by one, the images of her fellow councillors disappeared until only she remained. When she got there, Marsa wanted to get out again as quickly as possible, but now that the meeting was over, she found she didn’t really mind the infinite silence and emptiness. She stayed where she was, not quite able to believe what she’d volunteered herself for. The fate of the Confederacy all but rested on her shoulders, and she may well have just signed her own death warrant. Truly, there was only one thing she could be certain of. She’d either made one of the greatest decisions of her life, or the absolute worst possible.