New reports came in throughout the day, each bleaker than the last. Imperial fleets appearing in the skies over dozens of worlds, troops landing on the ground and quickly overwhelming the local forces, cities falling and death tolls rising rapidly. In their circle, the Executive Council listened to message after message from across the Neutral Expanse telling of the ever-worsening situation, and begging the Confederacy for aid.
“Our forces cannot stand against the armies of the Imperium”, claimed one.
“Tens of thousands are already dead and many more have been displaced”, stated another.
The contents of the reports were shocking even by the low standards of the Imperium: word of rape and torture at the hands of Imperial soldiers, mass executions of civilians, and towns and cities pounded into rubble by artillery fire. So much suffering, all of it unnecessary. Not since the final turbulent days of the Collective had the galaxy seen such bloodshed. And as the reports continued to arrive, the ones responsible were unusually silent. There had been plenty of word from the Neutral Expanse but not a peep from Freedom for All. Not a single statement to condemn the actions of the Imperium, or show sorrow for the suffering of the citizens of the Neutral Expanse, or even an acknowledgment that the events that set all this in motion were their doing. All attempts to get in contact with the group and its leaders went unanswered. As far as Satrisella was concerned, the blood of the thousands dead so far and the millions more that would surely follow was on their hands. When she heard the news of the attack on the Imperial City, whatever sympathy she had left for Freedom for All and their cause died in a heartbeat. Their mission had been to bring an end to the tyranny of the Imperium but, through their own arrogance and stubbornness, they’d unleashed pain and suffering unlike anything the galaxy had seen in decades. This was their doing, and, when the time came for them to face the consequences, Satrisella knew she would shed no tears.
“This is all the Confederacy’s fault”! snapped Tybor Holoda Rebluh, leader of the Iringroat-held Bor’entia. “They brought the Imperium down upon us, and now they’re just going to leave us all to die. I look forward to the day they come for you next. Mark my words, Executive Council, your day is coming. My only regret is that I will likely not be alive to see it”. Satrisella’s blood boiled. This is not their fault. They were trying to prevent this from happening. Now, thanks to Freedom for All, it was highly unlikely Nero would listen to anything they had to say, and yet, whenever someone from the Free States cast their blame for the terrors befalling them, the names Haema Irmit Cemma and Martas Sevanota were nowhere to be heard.
The latest report was from none other than the Governor of Jindosta. Hovar Sevten glittered a celestial blue at the centre of the council’s circle as he relayed dark words. “Imperial troops are rapidly closing in on the capital. Most major cities have already surrendered but the death toll continues to rise. Reports are coming in from all over the planet of Imperial troops murdering captured soldiers and civilians in makeshift death camps. There’s been word of entire towns and villages massacred and women being taken alive. Our forces are holding off the Imperial advance as best they can, but soon they will reach Capital House, and then Jindosta will fall. We have no hope of standing against the Imperium. So I ask the Executive Council, now in our gravest time of need, to send help before many millions more perish”.
The Governor’s image froze in place before disappearing. It was just a message, likely hastily recorded and sent out before the last lines of communication were cut. By the time the council was able to view it, Jindosta had likely fallen, the Governor and his staff dead. Part of Satrisella had to admire him for remaining with his people, despite the pointlessness of it. Pointless to sacrifice yourself when there is no gain to be had, better to escape and find a solution, no matter how unlikely. But, despite the Governor’s pleas, it seemed futile sending forces to fight over a world, and many others like it, now firmly in the hands of the Imperium. The invaders would be well entrenched and any attempt to force them back would be extremely costly and unlikely to succeed. They would be sending men and women to their deaths as well as risking the lives of everyone throughout the Confederacy by effectively declaring war on the Imperium.
“They don’t stand a chance if we don’t help them”, said General Stell. “We need to move now before the Imperium can dig themselves in”.
“Weren’t you listening”? Uhrun replied with his usual dismissiveness. “They already have. And besides, defending the Free States from small scouting parties and fighting a war for them are two different things entirely. You of all people should know that, General”.
“We wouldn’t need to fight a war for them if we’d sent help when the Governor asked for it, Chancellor. If we heeded his warning, we could have formed a defensive fleet that could have deterred Nero from invading. This situation could have been avoided altogether”.
“Even if we did that, it wouldn’t have mattered”, Tussek lamented. “The Imperium would have broken through eventually. Their fleets are simply too big for our forces to handle, even when combined with those of the Free States”.
“We can’t just leave them to suffer. You heard the reports. They’ve already started murdering civilians by the thousands and many more will die if we do nothing”.
“We all share your concerns, General”, Satrisella said in the hope of dampening some of the emotions flying around the V-space. “But the Confederacy doesn’t have the forces necessary to challenge the Imperium. This is a battle that we simply cannot win”.
“And what if we were in their position? Wouldn’t you turn to your allies if you needed help”?
“They are not our allies”! Uhrun snapped. “They turned their backs on us a long time ago. Some of them are as bad as the Imperium. Why should we come to their aid now? They’ve done nothing for us. We should just let Nero have the Expanse. It’s been nothing but a burden on the shoulders of the Confederacy since day one”.
“You really think he’s going to stop when he has the Expanse? We all know the Imperator. We know it’s the galaxy he wants, and more. Once the Free States have fallen, the Imperium will come for us, sooner or later, unless we face them now”.
“Whether we go to war now or later makes no difference”, said Tussek. “Until Chancellor Calsen returns with the support of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten, if she indeed returns, we have no hope of standing against Nero’s forces”. General Stell may be a formidable tactician, but Chancellor Kel’jung was the number one person Satrisella trusted when it came to anything military-related, given he belonged to a civilization and culture based solely around military service. Volhollon were soldiers from birth; if their leader said a war couldn’t be won, then it couldn’t be won.
“I stand with Chancellor Kel’jung. Without the aid of the Aq Quhn Ran Asten, any attempt to drive the Imperium from the Neutral Expanse is out of the question”. Personally, even with their aid, Satrisella was more than happy to leave the Expanse to the Imperium. She rarely agreed with Uhrun, but this was one of those rare occasions where he was correct. The Expanse had always been more of a burden than an ally. Allies help each other, but it always seemed like the Confederacy had been helping the Free States while they took them for granted. If giving up the Expanse was what kept them out of a war with Nero, Satrisella was all for it.
“So we’re just going to leave them to die”?
“We cannot afford to jeopardize the Confederacy, General. If we attack the Imperium now, we risk everything”.
“That doesn’t justify abandoning our own people”.
“They’re not our people”!
“They carry our blood in their veins. They may live under different flags and within different territories but they still belong to our respective species. That makes them our people, and I cannot in good conscience leave them to suffer at the hands of the Imperium”.
“Whether they deserve our help or not is not the issue”, Kamrack pointed out. “The threat posed by the Imperium is insurmountable. Their forces are too strong and too many”. It was a surprise to see the Rylukan Chancellor take her side. Satrisella had expected him to be all for helping the Free States out.
“Any good tactician knows numbers alone do not determine the outcome of a battle. The armies and fleets of the Imperium are strong and many but they are not without weakness. They have advanced weapons and machines but, in some areas, their technology is almost primitive compared to ours. There are so many vulnerabilities that can be exploited, so many weaknesses to take advantage of. That is what a good strategist does”.
The meeting descended into heated argument. The General stuck to his guns, imploring the others not to be intimidated by the Imperium. The council, Uhrun and Tussek in particular, refused to be swayed. Satrisella kept out of it. She had no interest in fighting to have her voice heard. She was just surprised to see Uhrun and the Vice-Chancellor agreeing with one another. So engrossed they were in their bickering, they all failed to notice the figure occupying the spot where the image of Governor Sevten once stood.
Satrisella was the first to notice. She thought her mind was playing tricks on her. The nothingness of the V-space had a habit of doing that. Then she realized, to her horror, that this wasn’t the case. One by one, the others fell silent as they noticed the individual standing before them, a guest who needed no introduction, and one who was most certainly not welcome there.
“Imperator”? It was impossible to hide her shock. Their V-space was one of the Executive Council’s most protected elements. Barely anyone but them had access to it. With so many delicate and secret matters discussed there, the thought of the Imperium having access was disturbing to the least.
“Oh please, do not stop on my account. I was rather enjoying your debate”. The Imperator Nero appeared to smile beneath his mask. “So this is where you hold your little gatherings. I must admit I am rather disappointed. I expected something warmer and brighter. This is just depressing, though I suppose that would be quite apt given the situation you have found yourselves in”.
“How are you accessing this V-space”? Uhrun demanded.
The Imperator acknowledged the Iringroat Chancellor with a glance from the corner of his eye. “You people should be more careful with whom you entrust your secrets. It seems the Jindostan government is rather lax in their securing of their communication networks”.
“You’re on Jindosta”? Tussek asked.
Again, the Imperator responded with a glance in the Volhollon leader’s direction, as if merely being addressed by a member of an alien species was a great dishonour. “That is not important. What is is what I am here to tell you”.
“What do you want, Nero”? Satrisella had no patience for games.
The Imperator snarled, insulted at being addressed with his name rather than his self-appointed title, by a non-Haelqen no less, as was Satrisella’s intent. “No doubt you are all very much aware of my occupation of the Neutral Expanse, as I am also sure you are aware of the brazen and shameful attack on my Imperial City. The former is motivated by the latter, and now I am here to tell you what is going to happen next if I do not receive what I want”.
“What is it that you…” Kamrack began to ask.
“A dozen worlds have already surrendered, and tens of thousands are dead. Many more will follow suit in the coming days, and soon the Neutral Expanse will fall. It was my hope that this would persuade you to meet my demands but it seems the Confederacy does not value its friends, or its promises. Once I have the Expanse, my fleets will come for you. Whether you meet us in the Expanse or wait for us to come to you makes no difference. We will make short work of your little border defence array and then world after world will fall until your Confederacy is no more. Your cities will burn and your people will suffer and die, unless you deliver to me Cemma and Sevanota”.
Silence followed. “That’s what this is all about”?! Kamrack exclaimed. “All of this just for them”?
“Freedom for all haven’t even claimed responsibility for the attack on your capital”, Tussek said, as if that would make a difference. “What evidence do you have that they are responsible”?
“We know they are responsible, and I will not allow them to escape justice any longer, nor will I allow you to protect them. Either you hand over those filthy animals or there will be war. Make your choice”.
“It’s not as simple as that”, Satrisella said. “We can’t just hand people over to be tortured and killed because you ask, no matter what they have done and especially since you have no proof to support your accusations. Do you have any idea of the chaos that would unleash within our government and society”?
“I am sure it will be nothing compared to the chaos unleashed when my fleets cross your border and begin raining fire and death upon your worlds, and, in any case, I care not for your excuses. Give me Cemma and Sevanota or suffer the wrath of the Imperium. And mark my words, that is a promise, and I honour my promises. You have three days to comply”.
The Imperator disappeared, the council left again in silence.
“What are we going to do”? Bidhuun moaned.
“I say we hand them over”, The Vice-Chancellor said.
“It’s not that simple”, Kamrack told the foolish little man. “This is a very difficult situation”.
“I don’t see what’s so difficult about it. The Imperium is going to kill us all if we don’t give them the bastards, so let’s give them to them”. As much as she despised him, Satrisella had to agree, though, as Kamrack said, it wasn’t that simple.
“Freedom for All holds significant support throughout the Confederacy”, Hade stated. “Your proposed course of action carries with it severe ramifications that must be considered before a decision can be made”.
“The outcry from the public would be catastrophic”. Kamrack rubbed his neck. “So many people support their missions in the Imperium. They would feel betrayed by their own government if we handed them over. I should also point out that, so far, Freedom for All has not issued any statements claiming responsibility for the attack”.
“Where’s your head at”? Uhrun asked. “Of course it was them. The fact they haven’t taken credit means nothing. Cemma and Sevanota have probably realized they’ve gone too far and now they’re keeping their heads down”.
“Regardless”, Tussek said. “Handing them over would surely push the rest of the group to even more extreme measures”.
“Not to mention that we’d need the approval of the Assembly first”, Kamrack continued. “Most of whom support Freedom for All and their mission. They would never approve of us handing our own citizens over to Nero”.
The Vice-Chancellor snorted. “And I suppose you lot would never dream of going behind the Assembly’s back”.
“Sometimes it is necessary to keep the Assembly in the dark for the good of the Confederacy. If the wrong knowledge were to reach the wrong people, it could mean catastrophe”.
“Let’s stay focused on the matter at hand”, Satrisella said. Just because they couldn’t see the Imperator didn’t mean he wasn’t listening. “We need to decide quickly how we are going to handle this. Personally, I believe the best course of action is to give Nero what he wants. Better to sacrifice two lives than risk trillions”. Two lives that had become far more trouble than they were worth.
“You would allow one of your own to suffer at the hands of the Imperium”? Judging by his tone, Chancellor Bidhunn didn’t approve.
“I either give up one of my own or risk every life in the Confederacy”. To Satrisella, the choice was obvious.
Bidhunn looked to Uhrun. “Would you do the same? Would you let one of your own suffer like that if it would save the Confederacy”?
“Of course I would. I’m the chancellor of a sovereignty. I have a responsibility to all of my people, not just one. Cemma’s actions have threatened everything, not just in my sovereignty but all of our sovereignties. Were it not for the Assembly, I would have handed them over the moment this whole thing started”.
Tussek sighed. “But that’s just it. We have to convince the Assembly. I’m not sure if such a thing is even possible”.
“We have to try”, Satrisella said. “It’s our only option”.
“And what about the public”?
Uhrun waved a dismissive hand. “The public will get over it, like they always do. They’ll be angry for a couple weeks, there’ll be some rioting, and then they’ll find something else to occupy their short attention spans. The people have always been fickle, no matter which species they belong to, whether they live under this empire or that empire”.
“And Freedom for All? I doubt they’ll take kindly to this”.
“They won’t be a problem either. Groups like this never stay relevant for long. People will lose interest as soon as some other group starts making noise on the net. And besides, they won’t dare do a thing when they see what happens to their leaders”.
“You seem rather calm about handing one of your own over to be tortured and murdered, Chancellor Suhyur”. Clearly, General Stell was not in favour of the proposed course.
“I’ve no sympathy for those who jeopardize the safety of the Confederacy and cause the deaths of thousands over dewy-eyed idealism. I hate the Imperium for what it has done to my kin, but I recognize that there are serious consequences to challenging them and that I have other people who I need to think about, things Cemma and Sevanota seem to have paid no mind to whatsoever”. Satrisella couldn’t agree more.
“I still don’t know”, Kamrack said. “This is a terrible thing we propose to do”.
“Of course it is. But it’s not about what we want. It’s about what we have to do, for the good of the Confederacy. If you’re not prepared to make difficult decisions then you made a very bad one when choosing which profession to go into”.
“But what if the Assembly refuses”? Bidhunn asked. “What do we do then”?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”, Satrisella answered. “Let us vote on this now. We need to move quickly “.
“What’s there to vote about”? the Vice-Chancellor cut in. “We already know what needs to be done. Let’s just get it over with”.
“We still need to observe the proper protocols, Vice-Chancellor. There may be some who do not agree with this course of action, and all opinions are taken into account on the Executive Council. The council will now vote on the decision to hand over Heama Irmit Cemma and Martas Sevanota to the Imperium in exchange for an end to Imperial aggression against the Confederacy”.
One by one, the council cast its votes. Satrisella went first, followed by Uhrun. Everyone voted in favour, some willingly, some grudgingly. It was indeed a terrible thing they intended to do. If they managed to convince the Assembly to side with them, Cemma and Sevanota had a horrific fate awaiting them. Then there was the can of worms that would be opened when the public learned of what they had done. The outrage would burn throughout the Confederacy like so many cities in the Neutral Expanse, the public feeling betrayed by their own government, not to mention paranoid at the thought that someone could be so easily handed over to die slowly and painfully whenever the Imperium asked. But this was what needed to be done. It was times like this when Satrisella regretted her choice of career. She’d been forced to make more than a few hard decisions in her life, but there were some decisions no one should ever have to make.
“The Executive Council votes in favour of handing over the leaders of Freedom for All to the Imperium. We shall take the matter to the Assembly and plead our case. It’s the only way to save the Confederacy from destruction. Before I call this meeting to a close, there is one more issue that must be discussed, immediately. As I am sure we all realize, this V-space is no longer secure”.
“And I wonder who we have to thank for that”. Uhrun shot the humans a look.
“It was necessary to provide Governor Sevten with access”, General Stell replied. “The council needed to hear what he had to say”.
“And in doing so you’ve compromised the security of our fastest and most convenient means of communication. Who knows how much sensitive information we may have handed over to the Imperium thanks to your negligence? They could be listening to us right now”.
“Nero may already know about . . . the truth regarding Chancellor Calsen”, Tussek added. “He could know about everything we plan”.
“Nothing specific regarding Chancellor Calsen had been discussed here since Governor Sevten was given access”.
“It makes no difference”, Uhrun shot back. “If Nero so much as suspects something, it could push him to move forward with his invasion, regardless of whether or not we give him what he wants. You just might get the war you’ve been itching for, General”.
“I don’t want a war, Chancellor. I want a war as much as anyone here. I just want to help our friends in need, something it seems you know nothing about”.
“The Confederacy helps those who deserve it. Nothing in this galaxy is free, General. You’d do well to remember that”.
“That’s not the point”, Kamrack thankfully intervened before another argument could start. “We need to discuss what is to be done about this. There are no other safe methods of communication save for meeting face to face, which, for obvious reasons, is out of the question”.
“There’s only one thing we can do”, Tussek said. “We have to set up a new V-space and keep the details of it to ourselves this time”. He eyed the General.
Uhrun moaned. “It could take days to get a new one set up”.
“And what are we supposed to do in the meantime”? Bidhunn rumbled.
“We’ll establish a new V-space as soon as possible”, Satrisella said. “In the meantime, we shall limit our meetings here to only when it is absolutely essential and take care not to divulge any information that could jeopardize the work of this council”. Not a great solution but it was the best they could hope for. Most of the council was shaken by the appearance of their uninvited guest but Satrisella was only thankful Nero had been foolish enough to reveal himself when he did. Had he remained in the shadows, the situation could have been a lot worse. The fact the Imperator’s pride and arrogance won over his common sense was a blessing in disguise.
The meeting came to a nervous close. Satrisella headed straight for her chamber. She lay down in her pod and stared at the lid but made no attempt to depart the galaxy for the realm of dreams. Too many thoughts danced in her head for sleep to be a possibility, so much to consider. The all-consuming war they’d worked hard to prevent loomed larger than ever, the Neutral Expanse was on the verge of collapse, and now they were planning to hand over two of their own citizens to face one of the worst fates imaginable. It shouldn’t have mattered to her. Her people were ruled by sense, not emotions. Mind, not heart. They would have handed millions over to die if it meant their people would survive. She would have done it, or so she thought. Now that the time had come, all Satrisella could think about was how the blood of Cemma and Sevanota would be on their hands as much as the Imperium’s, no matter how many times she told herself they’d brought it on themselves. She’d do anything to protect her people, but how far did that go? There had to be a limit to what anyone, regardless of species, could live with. No creature deserves to suffer like that, no matter what they had done. That wasn’t the way things were done in the Confederacy, nor should it be anywhere else. It reminded her how cold and brutal a place the galaxy truly was, its beauty and wonder a mask to hide the ugliness beneath.
As she stared at the roof of her pod, Satrisella Heruun experienced the same feeling she’d felt many times, but stronger. More than ever, she regretted what she’d done with her life. Maybe’s the life of one of the most important politicians in the galaxy wasn’t meant for her. She always knew there would be difficult decisions to make, and she thought she had what it took to make them. She was Treen. But things had changed for her people, so much time spent mixing with the other species, diluted by their primitiveness. They were changing, and so was she. Maybe she was becoming human.
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