THE END OF THE BEGINNING




For every inevitable end there is a beginning. That beginning always has a single man that makes a choice to change what is.

Sometimes, however, that change is not a choice but is instead a gift given by God for him to do what must be done.

-Ta´rian Matriarch 'Ancient Teachings'

The Balance Of Judgement


HMS Excalibur - Orbiting the Rock of Braal - Kule System

300 years prior

"I am going to have to ask a difficult thing of you." VonGrippen stood uneasily under the windows of his stateroom, the brilliant hues of blues, and shimmering white gold light from the Kule's dying star lit his face, and played with the shadows.

"Dare I ask?" Commander Maguire, the Excalibur's Captain and the old man's right hand through thick and thin stared at his old friend.

The collection of men and women gathered in the stateroom had served through the thick of the Apilon Rift campaign. Struggling to free that lost sector of space from the Gorean plague that buried it. They had followed their leader, through the heart of that war, and into many campaigns afterwards. All veterans, all earning their own particular honours fighting for the Imperial cause and the Falcon Banner that hung silently in the corner of the room.

There was a bond of trust that they shared, earned on the battle fields, at the very edge of human civilization. It bred an understanding; they knew what they fought for, not pledged to the ideology, but to the ideals that founded it. The Empire that should have been, rather than the Empire that was.

The Admiral wore green - an army uniform that he customary reserved for his field duty. Without mark or rank, he needed neither; there was only the one Imperial Warlord. A man gifted with the trust of the Immortal Emperor to act as his sword, carrying out his justice when called upon to do so. At least that had been before the transcendence.

A new echo stirred; the shadowed spectre of darkness that spread through the hearts and minds of the citizenry. A rigid intolerance that shattered the ideal utopian dream that men like VonGrippen had struggled so hard to find.

It had been the news of what the Templar had done to the so called holy lands that had brought them together then, standing in the shadow of a lost world after a quest to find that which should not be found... the truth.

"There are beginnings and there are endings," VonGrippen's customary cryptic nature showed through as he chose his words with care, "and faced with what we have come to learn I can't see any alternative to the way we must proceed."

Doctor Williams cleared his throat. The colonial had been a reluctant addition to VonGrippen's coterie, but circumstances had plunged him into a tight allegiance with the man that offered him some kind of protection from the Templar's perverse sense of justice. "We have to look at some kind of permanent solution to the... Bishop problem," he said, sounding uneasy.

VonGrippen turned his head, his aged eyes weighing heavily, feeling for the young man's plight. The Empire wide ban on the Islamic faith had been pressed through the Imperial Senate, overriding any objections it had cleared the Highlord Council at a point where Bishop Lamont had waited until those that would object were off world, or otherwise indisposed. It was legislation designed at curbing the rise in Muslim fundamentalist violence against the proliferation of the Imperial Religion... But none had been prepared for the news that the Templar Commander, Kardiac Aul'Jakaram had unloaded his nuclear arsenal upon the entire middle Eastern region, wiping millions of people, as well as the problem, off of the face of the Earth.

"You cannot change the hearts and minds of men, and you cannot stamp out an idea," VonGrippen replied calmly. "We can't begin an uprising against the Bishops, there are too many, even amongst our own forces, loyal to them. Any such war would drag on, grinding down resolve and do nothing to eradicate the problem. You," he nodded to the Doctor, "are testament and living proof that using a hammer to crush men's resolve does nothing but drive that resolve underground. There is only one way to halt this... jihad..."

"And how, pray tell, do you propose that?" Williams demanded, crossing his arms.

"You turn your back to it and walk away," VonGrippen replied, limping around his desk, the simple wooden cane clicking as he walked, his grey hair falling forward across his face, framing his eyes.

"You are asking us to do nothing?" Williams sneered, shaking his head. "What, we just allow them to get away with it?"

Maguire uncurled his legs from where he sat on one of the low couches, "Let him speak," he remarked. "This has something to do with what you saw on Peligia?"

"Oh wonderful," Williams snorted derisively, "not only are you advocating inaction, your basis is some hallucination you had on a lost world. Forgive me if I don't rush to oblige you."

"The information on Peligia is accurate," Lieutenant Commander Neang stood to one side of the Admiral's desk, she alone wore uniform insignias, marking her allegiance to the House of Chow and its Sino-Russian Alliance. Her richly accented voice matched her exotic features as she interjected her thoughts on the matter. "I, of all of us, have been waiting for some indication that the visions the Warlord experienced were nothing more than flighted fantasies. However, as yet, all evidence points to them being true."

"The oracle was specific." VonGrippen squared his shoulders as he looked at his crew members. "We must allow the Empire to fall, and its destruction from its own ambitions will seal the fate of the Bishops, and assure Kardiac's demise."

"But what about us?" Lieutenant Commander Walczak tilted his baseball cap back from his forehead. "What happens to us when the Empire collapses?" He stood up, sticking his hands into his pockets and rolling on the balls of his feet, chewing on his lip as he considered how to say what was on his mind. "Look, if we just walk away, and the Empire does collapse, people are going to be pretty pissed with us. We let it happen; we would be abandoning all of them. They're going to come after us, no matter where we go."

VonGrippen shook his head, glancing back towards the great stern windows, at the fog clouds shielding a massively dark shape floating in the mists. An ancient device recalibrated for Kule masters, the failed experiment that was to protect their world. The immense Propylon system.

"We're going far beyond their reach," he said evenly, "far beyond any of their reaches... Polian, Imperial, Templar or Gorean..." he rested back against his desk tiredly, "I need to make preparations, and I must contact the Polian Ambassador."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Maguire warned, the American standing along with the others, "what with the sabre rattling, I doubt the Polians will be readily willing to communicate with humanity at all."

"I still maintain some pull," VonGrippen responded absently as he rooted around on his desk, through the piles of papers, "especially after the Ukio incident. The Polians hate debts, the concept is... alien to them. I took care to maintain one with them, it is time I used it." He looked up at the crew members shuffling from the room, returning to their duty stations, the Excalibur was due on a long range tour of the outer sectors, inspecting the defence outposts on the frontier. A chance for the entire crew to forget their ordeal in the Rift.

"Yes, but..." Maguire pressed, "Ben warned you about dealing with the Polians."

VonGrippen drew rigid for a moment, stiffening at the mention of his friend. He felt the pang of regret at the loss, the wisdom of the man had been inspirational, especially after the loss of Kathryn. But after his death, VonGrippen had felt the bitter hole of isolation.

"He also advised I seek Peligia in the first place," VonGrippen reminded him. "Two years and we found it. I have five years until the supposed end of the Empire... I don't have time to find an alternate solution. I need the Polians' help..."

"Peligia's changed you," Maguire observed, "you're not as... alive as you once were."

VonGrippen heaved a long sigh, looking up at his friend, "I don't pretend that any of this has been easy. They say that knowing your own fate is akin to death. You lose any chance of escape, you're doomed to follow a set course, and your free will is gone. I can't put this burden on you, or the others... it wouldn't be fair. All I need from you is your trust that I'm doing what I know is right."

Maguire scratched the grey wingtips at his temples, "I've known you what, thirty some odd years now? Fought with you, bled alongside you, I cried at the frost queen's funeral," he glanced up at the picture of VonGrippen's wife upon a shelf, "I trusted you through all of that."

VonGrippen nodded in satisfaction, closing the light on his desk and flipping his laptop closed, looking at Maguire. "We'll figure this out. I for one am going to sleep."

Maguire excused himself as VonGrippen sealed the doors to his stateroom, limping painfully across the deck to the doors that led to his bedroom, pausing as he did to look at the sleeping form curled up in his bed.

Edward had been a blessing, especially to a lonely old man lost in his own sense of duty. Swept up by crusade after damnable crusade, it had been a relief to the old man to find something else to focus upon. He leaned his head against the doorframe, feeling the emotions the boy stirred in him, finding the warmth of a smile there.

How long had it been? Six odd years since he'd first met his son's son. Dressed inappropriately for the rains on Geldan, thrust into his Grandfather's reticent hands by his Grandmother. The shadow of his father's death hanging over the scene, a reminder of why Katharine couldn't shoulder the responsibility for the boy. The designs of the Imperial court, and his great uncle's ambitions, would have consumed Edward like they had his father. VonGrippen had been the safest guardian for him, setting him to be raised aboard an Imperial ship of the line, by a man he'd never met.

Edward was twelve, on his way to becoming a man. He rolled in the bed, thrusting his arms out in an awkward way that always made his Grandfather wonder how it was comfortable. To VonGrippen the odd angles of arms versus legs looked downright painful, and yet Edward slept soundly.

It had taken time, and patience, but an understanding had grown between the boy and the man. That understanding in turn had grown into a love that tied them both firmly together amidst first the loss of the boy's father, then his grandmother only two years before.

Two years, two years of digging through dusty archives, of rooting through cellars at the Imperial museum. Expeditions to far flung alien worlds, all for a quest a dying man had sent them on. A quest to regain that which was gone.

It had taken that time, that trek, for the old man to realize what was truly important. It wasn't what was gone, but rather what remained. The boy had taught him that. Peligia's secrets remained there, and VonGrippen's burden had come of a vow to himself to ensure that the boy would have a future.

"For you," VonGrippen murmured quietly, remembering his vow before the Peligian Oracle, his oath that above all else, Edward would be safe. He closed his eyes and turned away, heading back towards the couches where he normally slept. He'd grown used to it, not really ready to send Edward off to a separate cabin. He was too fond of having the youth close on hand. At least that way he could keep an eye on the precocious adolescent.

He'd just had enough time to sit down when the alarms had him on his feet again, striding out onto the bridge of his ship, watching the well oiled command crew of his flagship issuing orders to the taskforce assembled around the strike cruiser.

Another war had come to call, and the collection of warships entering the Kule system drew VonGrippen's attention as he readied himself for battle.

Tempus III - Polian Front

Five Years Later

A very different man stood in the dim sunlight before the fortress, it was little more than a base for resupply converted to his particular needs. The construction of the classified research facility had taken two years, a near crippling budget from the Imperial treasury, and a construction team of the very best Ta´rian engineers. But it was finally complete.

The silvery, man-made island glittered in the middle of the lake; around it a tent city of his elite Templar Guard had been erected. Imperial Mechs stood on each of the compass points guarding the outpost while in the sky one of his best Aegis cruisers hovered overhead.

It was a place of endings, a contingency plan to ensure, should anything go wrong with the battle at the Skyella Nebula on the morrow, that the Polian species would. The Type-9 warhead was the pinnacle of Imperial weapons technology - the zero-point bomb that would harness the very essence of hyperspace itself and unleashed it upon a world in a cataclysmic fire that was worthy of the great God Emperor himself.

Kardiac Aul'Jakaram swung the baton to tap under his chin, a sardonic smile upon his face as he surveyed what his hand had wrought in the name of his god. It was a worthwhile endeavour, and he was pleased with what had come of it.

He moved down the double rows of troops assembled for his inspection. Great praetorian battle armours, Imperial shock troops interspersed with his Templar. Pristine in their field uniforms, they were fresh from victories across the entire coreward front. He revelled in their display; his generals had assured him that the troops would be ready for the invasion of Arcanis, the Polian homeworld that lay just a few short jumps away from their current position. And Kardiac eagerly awaited the final hurdle that stood between the Empire and its dominance of known space.

With VonGrippen besting the Gorean in the Apilon Rift five years before, and the total routing of the Polian fleets, the two elder races had been removed, effectively, from contention. And like in any pride of lions, humanity was on the eve of its final ascension to the master race.

The roaring engines of the F-120 fighter squadron, in perfect formation, flew overhead. The Black Knights of VMA-23 offered tributary to the man that had risen from obscurity amidst the ranks of the Templar to gain prestige amongst the Bishops' council as Lamont's right hand. One of their own, he was the youngest son of Kardiac Strathcona, the former head of the Bishops' council, and the former Highlord of the house Kardiac.

He entered the facility, descending the stairs from the upper levels escorted by the facility designers and several of his top advisors. He ignored their idle chatter, they were ignorant of the designs he had for the facility, and the weapon that was being constructed there. It was the key, and he wasn't about to waste his time being distracted from his goal.

They were akin to poetry, a circle of six weapons arrayed around the heavily shielded lab undergoing their final test sequences, the first prototype already being prepared for its journey to the HMS Lion's Pride, Kardiac's personal flagship. It was fitting that the weapon that was to end the war be privy to the battle that would decide if it was to be used.

He danced his fingers along the casing, tucking the shard of Peligian crystal under his arm as he walked into the ring of death. Six worlds would be rent asunder by the weapons. A prophecy of doom from an angel of death, they were to be his fiery swords as he expelled entire races from paradise. He enjoyed the image that cast in his mind, and he laughed aloud.

"Tomorrow, at the Skyella Nebula," he stated to his men, "there shall be a trial, and I shall preside as judge, jury and executioner."

He extended his baton to one of his Templar, "return this to Earth, to my apartments in Rome. Guard it with your life." He commented, returning his hand to the casing of the torpedoes as he leaned in to check its smoothness, resting his cheek against the cold surface.

"I hear the future's end," he murmured caressing it, "and you will be the herald of the end of time for those that killed mine..."

Bridge - HMS Excalibur - Geo-synchronous orbit over Earth

Day after Skyella

"Our orders are specific." Captain Maguire stood before the command chair, his arms folded. The aging Captain of the Excalibur seemed uneasy, aware of the old man before him.

Faith, an odd word, one that had led the Empire to its greatest heights, and now to the eve of an even greater darkness, hung in the air. Alexander Richard VonGrippen, the first, and the last, Warlord of the Immortal Emperor, stood with his hand resting upon the black wool great coat braced about the shoulders of the Excalibur's command chair. Faith had called them to the eve of battle, and faith was what VonGrippen was asking of the men and women about him.

"This isn't about orders from Lamont and the Bishop's council," Commander Walczak stood off to one side, keeping his voice low so that the crew wouldn't over hear him disagreeing with the Captain, "we're VonGrippens, we take orders from..."

The old man raised his hand, stilling the arguments. "Orders are irrelevant at this juncture." VonGrippen looked about him at his men. "It is rare for a man to come face to face with the reality of his choices before he has made them. But Peligia..."

"Peligia," Maguire rolled his eyes, "and again we return to a myth... Forgive me if I don't kowtow to you're delusional prophetic visions, my lord, but you are asking me to betray the Empire."

VonGrippen limped forward, the wooden cane that supported his weight ringing on the deck plates, ominous and foreboding, "I have given forty years to this Empire," he snarled, his grey hair falling across his burning eyes, "Forty years of blood that stains my hands. Your hands. The deck you stand upon." He raised the cane and pointed with it out of the huge observation windows and the shimmering blue green orb of Earth, the crown-jewel of the Empire. The tip of the cane pointing to the dark black scar near to the equator, the mark of the Emperor's will, where Lamont's wardog Kardiac, had eradicated the last bastion of resistance against the Imperial religion. The Middle-East was now a vast desert of glass, reflecting the Empire's dark heart.

Maguire's eyes hardened as he stared at what VonGrippen had gestured towards, shaking his head as he looked back. "We cannot change that now, but with the defeat at Skyella... Kardiac's forces are finished. We could appeal to Chancellor Rikard; have the Imperial Council over turn the Bishop's control..."

"You are advocating more war..." VonGrippen lowered his cane, turning away from the view out of the window. "The chancellery doesn't hold the political power necessary to remove Lamont. And with much of the Highlord council scattered due to the war..."

Maguire glanced about him, stepping in closer to avoid anyone overhearing him. "You have special ties to the House of Chow... Could you not..."

"My ties to the house of Chow ended once the General died during the Apilon Rift Campaign. We will find no assistance there." VonGrippen shook his head. "I have considered all the avenues available to us. As long as Kardiac remains alive, there is a risk of a continuation of his war. Lamont has ordered me to turn control of the home fleets over to Kardiac's control. I have witnessed that future, and as dark as the one I propose will be, it is nothing compared to that."

Maguire shook his head in return. "I am not convinced, there has to be another solution. Something not seen in a drug educed haze on some world no one can prove exists..."

"Five years," VonGrippen replied, "Five years since the Oracle gave me this prediction. And in those five years I have come to realize that all we have sacrificed, all that we have given to the Empire has only enabled a darkness to take root... one that will grow and fester. This Empire, this religion, was born of a lie, and now it must drown in it. I will not lift a hand against my brothers, but I will not be responsible for saving their madness. My orders stand Captain, bring the Excalibur about, and stand ready to depart. Signal to all House VonGrippen and Red Guard assets that we will execute the Fire Plan."

"It's time to torch the house," Commander Walczak agreed, touching Maguire on the shoulder.

Maguire's shoulders sank. "I'll have to try and stop you..." he warned quietly.

VonGrippen gestured to the Kaynin guards, who lifted their Pulse Rifles. "Then you can do me one last favour. Escort my grandson back to the Imperial Court; file your report about my betrayal... And we will part here."

"Admiral," Maguire gritted his teeth, "the next time we meet..."

"There won't be a next time, Captain," VonGrippen responded. "You're one hell of an officer, but there isn't enough firepower left in the Empire to stop me. Besides, I need someone to care for the heir to the Empire. And as the events of the next few days will unfold, he will need your help."

"To survive?" Maguire asked.

"To die," VonGrippen replied, motioning for the guards to take their former CO away.

Imperial Palace - London - Earth

One month after Skyella

Edward hurried through the chaos that was the Palace on the eve of disaster. Desperation was everywhere, interspersed with disbelief that such a disaster could ever befall them. Few recognized the Prince, fewer cared. All that consumed them were their own desperate bids for survival. The collapse of the Empire was already complete, long before the great barrier shield that protected the Human homeworld from the fury of the Amsus war fleet could fail.

His tunic hung open; there was little point to protocol at the end. His rank was honourary anyway; it wouldn't have held much sway with its Striking Falcons on his shoulders. With the betrayal of the Warlord, the few VonGrippens that remained within the Imperial borders struggled to survive retribution. Many people blamed the VonGrippens, rightly, for the fate that was sweeping down upon them. Edward couldn't blame them; the betrayal had left them all bereft of hope.

He drew back allowing a swarm of young Morvanor troops, young Americans pressed into service by an emergency draft enacted by the Imperial Chancellor and the last remaining original member of the Highlord Council. Morvanor knew that the war was lost; they had nothing left to defend themselves with. VonGrippen had robbed them of any capacity to fight back and the troops that remained were little more than a token force, a final desperate act of men struggling to retake control in the wake of utter disaster.

Edward shuddered, pressing onwards through the crowds, pausing on one of the high crystalline bridges that spanned the great nexus in the heart of the palace, watching the Chancellor and a pair of praetorian guards sweep past on one of the levitation blocks, sweeping down towards the ascension chamber. The undisputed leader of the Empire now, in the aftermath. The Chancellor, despite all his ambitions, now ruled only ashes. Edward shook his head as he ran onwards, taking the stairs two at a time, skidding to a halt before the massive hall, where the final trio, the last Highlords, stood.

Lord Morvanor was an ancient creature, wire rimmed glasses and a waiflike academic appearance. His dominion over the Americas had seen him remain on Earth, trapped there, with the people he had nurtured and protected throughout forty years of Imperial rule. A wizened man who appeared strong even though he knew, as they all did, that it was over.

The Highlady Neang, leader of the House of Chow, was similarly bound by her duty to remain. The younger woman wore a TAC-link and listened intently to her headset. A matriarch in her own right, her military training had her co-ordinating the pitiful ground defences mustered by the remnants of the Imperial armies. She too wasn't about to admit defeat, but the haunted look in her eyes let Edward know she anticipated it.

"What of the Archduke Francesco?" Lord Tolwin, head of house Windsor, and the last member of the final triumvirate, asked, "We could send a message to the HMS Asimov, have them attempt to get a message through to House von Karin..."

Morvanor's eyes drifted around the empty chamber, looking towards the young Prince, warming as they settled there, before he looked at the recently appointed Highlord of the Windsors. "It would never reach Karin in time, and all it would serve is to draw the Amsus after our Apilon assets. For the moment the survival, any survival of the Empire, any hope of its rebirth, lies in securing Eisenhower and fortifying. Von Karin can't risk abandoning that for a futile attack on the Amsus. General Simin controls too much of our skies, a collection of pirates and privateers have little hope in the face of that kind of firepower."

Tolwin nodded his head. "We have a collection of scattered ships, I'll send a general signal warning them to stay away from the capital."

Morvanor clapped the other man on the shoulder as he walked across the chamber, offering a salute as he stood before the young Prince, "Your Highness, your transport is waiting. If you hope to survive, you should get to it."

Edward allowed himself to be led by the octogenarian, walking down through the broad halls. The ornate carvings of victories on the walls, the marble floors contrasted against the rich velvet curtains and tapestries that made the Imperial Archology so beautiful. Here and there, barricades had been set up from overturned furniture, the youths behind the makeshift fortifications gripping Pulse Rifles, having no idea what to expect from the Amsus troopers. Children with guns, willing to die for a lost cause.

Edward glanced at Morvanor again, pushing his black hair away from his sparkling blue eyes as he opened his mouth to say something.

Morvanor read the look, and shook his head, "some things can go unsaid." He motioned out of a set of great doors to where an Imperial corvette was preparing its engines for launch, the tilt boosters arrayed ready to thrust the ship skywards and away from the doomed palace. "This place is the past, and you are the hope for a brighter tomorrow." He chuckled. "Not that you would know, but I helped your great-uncle campaign under that slogan. A brighter tomorrow..." the old man looked up at the hail of nuclear fire raining down on the barrier shield over their heads. "It certainly is brighter."

Holding back a moment, Edward swallowed, feeling a rush of emotion as he realized he would never see the old man again. Never set foot in the Imperial Palace, nor stand in the great hall looking up at the crystal dome. He licked his lips and tried to speak, the knot of emotion shifting upwards as his eyes began to burn.

"You have to hurry," Morvanor said, looking towards the corvette that bore the markings of his house, and back towards the boy, "if it counts, I don't believe your grandfather would betray us. I've known him a very long time, seen him out-fight, out-think, and out-manoeuvre enemies far more creative than the Amsus. Whatever his plan is, I have little choice but to believe that."

Edward nodded his head, running up the ramp into the heavily armed craft, helped aboard by Captain Maguire; they turned as the ship lifted off of the high platform, swinging around and away from the high council spire. He gripped a rail as Morvanor soldiers worked the doors, looking out at their Highlord, the last knight of the Empire, who stood while the sky burned, an honour guard over the dead.

The Corvette angled upwards, preparing its jumpdrives, the delicate vanes sliding from their cowlings as the hatch slid shut, closing the boy who would be king inside. Captain Maguire sprinted for the bridge as the crew sounded the all clear to jump.

The barrier shield above them flickered and faded as the nuclear missiles from the Amsus warfleet roared down from above, as the corvette shuddered and jumped away as the Empire received a mortal death stroke.

Battleship Vengeance- Geo-synchronous Orbit over London - Earth

Hours later

Enarbrem Sul'Rikard, the former Chancellor of the Terran Empire strode through the decks of his flagship, the only Amsus vessel to possess a name, the Vengeance.

He was flanked by a pair of his honour guard, Amsus Inquisitors born from his labs and cultivated to be the perfect terror weapons. Symbols of the new order that was to be born that day. Walking into the bridge of his command ship, he took his place before the holographic field, watching the end of Earth. The Palace was gone, wiped away.

Now the invasion had begun. Amsus troops overrunning New York, Beijing and moving in to circle Moscow. Raptors deploying troops to crush the remainder of the Imperial resistance while Battle cruisers moving into station overtop of dense population centres, demanding the surrender of city after city. With the destruction of the capital, the capacity of the Empire to surrender was removed. It suited Rikard, it was cleaner to exact an excruciatingly slow eradication of human will, and it left no doubts as to the strength of will that the Amsus possessed.

Rikard scanned the displays, watching the tally marks of Imperial officials that were accounted for. Morvanor, Tolwin, Neang were all dead in the destruction of the palace. Both the Imperial Warlords were conspicuously absent, Kardiac retreating to one of his innumerous boltholes, a psychopath, like a trapdoor spider, laying in wait until something stumbled upon him. And VonGrippen...

Folding his arms, the former chancellor offered a scowl. Where was VonGrippen? He would have thought putting the torch to Earth would have drawn the old Admiral out of hiding. That, and the mounting bodies on the funeral pyre, would have called the heroic knight to battle. And yet he remained conspicuously absent.

That meant Rikard had little recourse but to up the ante.

"Find me Edward," he barked, resting the flats of his palms upon the holographic situation table.

"Master," Inquisitor Thalak stepped forward to Rikard's side, "Edward VonGrippen was in the palace..."

Rikard looked towards the tally that was scrolling past the names of the dead, Marius, the Emperor's son was accounted for, as were an assortment of House Windsor royals, and he watched Prince Edward's name climbing up the list. A dark scowl began to form upon the Chancellors face as he drew in upon himself, feeling through the folds of energies around him.

There was the well of suffering beneath him, Earth in pain, humanity falling into chains... he stretched out, pouring more of his genetically enhanced, Peligian augmented essence into his search. He was attuned to the universe around him, sensing through the murk he tried to find one spark of life. He had tried and failed to locate VonGrippen, somehow the warlord had found a way to shield himself from the senses of the GN-1. But then that was no surprise, VonGrippen was unusually inventive, that had been why he had been chosen as the template of the GN-3. Edward, however, didn't have his Grandfathers resources, nor the time to escape. The Chancellor smiled as he locked onto the small craft running the Amsus blockade as it tried to slip by undetected, no doubt trying to spirit the young Prince to the Apilon Rift, and von Karin's resistance.

The GN-3 was far too valuable to permit escape.

"He is here." Rikard walked around the situation table pointing to the star charts that tracked the advances of the Amsus warfleet across the sector, tapping the system that held the lost corvette.

Across the bridge, a large form clanked forward, the lack plates of his environment suit, hissed and slid as they retracted to permit him to walk forward. The heavy wooden staff clanked down on the deck, the visored helm tilting to the side as his ornate horns swung to one side. A demonic image, straight from the depths of human mythology, speaking in a voice that echoed like water poured from an extreme height.

Rikard paused, looking back at the Polian representative that was to become a constant companion. "I am aware of the conditions to our bargain, Ra," he said, rounding on the alien being that had come to witness the end of the Empire, "And Edward will stand trial, like the others, for the crimes against your species... however do not forget my side of it. I want the engram crystal."

Pachyeus-Ra's visor glinted as it reflected the lights playing across the holographic display. He gave careful pause before he answered, his voice cold as he gave his assent to Rikard's terms.

Nodding his head Rikard turned back to the displays, "Kardiac?" he demanded looking about him at his fleet marshals.

One of the Inquisitors answered, dutifully, "nothing since he signalled the surrender of the Imperial forces. But our reports place a token force of Templar at his disposal. The Orion's have already secured Keppe and his monastery there. He has no recourse to fight."

"Oh never underestimate Kardiac's capacity to find a recourse to war," Rikard answered flippantly. "He will resurface, in time. The one to worry about is VonGrippen, he is the true threat."

Tribunal-Paris, France - Earth

Three Months After

Edward shivered in the brilliant light fixed upon him. Facing the crowds of silent people, the ranks of Amsus guards and the trio of Inquisitors that were present at his trial. He was alone, the last of the Imperial bloodline after they had executed Prince Marius the morning before. The soil of Earth was soaked with noble blood, and it seemed that there was no better place for the trial than in Paris.

Edward knew he'd be dead come morning. There was a calm realization that had settled in, he knew he was going to die, but that wasn't a defeat. His grandfather wouldn't abandon him, he remembered so many lectures, so many warnings and promises that whatever was to come, he had to have faith.

The thought didn't calm him in that moment though. They had forced him into an Imperial uniform, the model of the oppressive dictator, the highest ranking member of the nobility that had survived the fall. He was standing trial for Kardiac's crimes, standing trial for his grandfather's betrayal, and for his great uncle's Empire.

He maintained his cool composure, he was better than they were. Each of the Amsus possessed constructed minds that had subverted humanity in their own ignorance. They would face defeat through their own stagnation. They had won a war through chance, and yet, wholly unprepared for what was to come next, they were adapting their massive codex of laws and regulations in an effort to control a population that thrived on individuality and spontaneity. The Amsus were doomed the moment they donned the mantle and took up the sceptre.

"How do you plead?" demanded the lead Inquisitor, Thalak.

Edward's eyes snapped up to look at the Inquisitor, "I will stop you," he said calmly.

"And how would you propose that?" Thalak returned, supremely smug in his emotionless manner that was really little more than a veneer.

"I'm going to die," Edward said quietly, "and that's enough."

HMS Lex Talionis- Yeji Sola

One Year After

It had never been activated. The great liquid computer core of the Lex Talionis stood before him, the great doors separating it from the main bridge standing open as he rested a hand upon them. It was the supreme pinnacle of human creation, a gift of life that had been given by humanity in the name of the Immortal Emperor, and Kardiac had forged into his sword.

The small satellite computers were completing their synaptic mapping, studying his form and his mannerisms as they strove to record every facet of the Imperial Warlord. Ensuring his own form of immortality for the coming darkness.

"I urge you to reconsider." The Templar behind him, Ryan Lamont, the son of the Bishop Lamont who had died in the final days of the Empire, was one of his most loyal followers. But even a Lamont, as devoutly faithful and true as they were, could show signs of weakness in the darkest of times.

"Peter once denounced Christ three times," Kardiac quoted as he turned from the computer core, fidgeting with his hand and wishing that he had brought the Peligian crystal shard with him. The baton offered him solace in those moments when his own doubts crept in on him, a strength of will that he could have used in that time.

"I have made no move to denounce anyone," Lamont answered, "merely tried to point out to you that we can still do some good with this ship. There are factions, resistance movements out there that are craving your leadership. We could turn the Amsus out easily..."

"The human race ceased to deserve its existence the moment it surrendered its will to fight," Kardiac bit back, waving a hand absently. "I have more important tasks ahead for this ship than to waste it saving mewling children who gave up too easily."

"Your Eminence," Lamont pressed, the younger man reaching out to touch Kardiac's shoulder, imploring him again to change his mind, "would the Emperor not best be served by freeing his people?"

Kardiac glanced at the hand, and then up at his friend, reaching up to pat the hand reverently, "I share your fears Lamont, I can sense the doubt in you. But you have to trust me that I know what the Emperor's will is. He spoke to me, and in so doing acts through me. I am his Templar, as you are mine. We long ago pledged ourselves to his cause, do you remember you induction on the steps of the river Ikor? Do you not recall the oaths you swore to me? To him and to the Empire?"

"I remember them, Eminence," Lamont reiterated, reaching up to stroke the stylized Templar's cross that hung about his neck on his dog tags, "as I remember you then. And the you of then would have crusaded tirelessly for the purity of the species, and the freedom of species that we need to evolve."

Kardiac shrugged off the hand, shaking his head as he mounted the steps to his wooden throne, sitting down in it and rotating back to his un-obscured view of the panoramic lights beyond. "It was the Emperor's will that I come here, it was his will that I build this ship, and it is his will that I will follow. He commands the destruction of Arcanis..."

"And you obey," Lamont nodded, knowing the rhetoric inside and out. The blind loyalty, the raging fanaticism that would, until his task was complete, consume the man. It had driven him, causing him to burn entire worlds, eradicating any and all that stood between him and his divine duty.

"I obey," Kardiac responded. "Your father understood, and I expect that you do as well." Kardiac folded his arms as he sank into the warm folds of his great coat, the blue lapels turned inwards, the coat giving him the visage of shadows enveloping his lean form, the lines on his youthful face adding to his countenance of death.

"It is my duty then to warn you." Lamont shifted his hand to rest on the Polian style shard weapon at his side, the only thing proven to penetrate the damnable force shields the Polian warriors wore. "Your loyal troops are not going to accept your rhetoric for much longer. You must change your mind."

"You threaten me, Lamont?" Kardiac asked, turning in his chair. "Have you no concept of the onus set upon us? Upon me? You think me merely a delusional madman with nothing further to contribute, except perhaps to the end of mankind?"

Kardiac smiled a chilling smile as he noticed Lamont start. "Yes, I know all too well the thoughts that run through the minds of those that serve me. And I assure you I have taken steps to guarantee the loyalty of those servants."

"You ask us for faith, and you are unwilling to show that faith in us?" Lamont asked, the edge of tension in the room palpable between them.

"Faith is more than a simple belief, it is an existence," Kardiac's hand reached out into the holographic web of controls that sprang up at his bidding before his chair. "Return to the men and tell them that I will ask nothing further of them. That they have done enough for me, we shall depart on the morrow."

"And our destination?" Lamont asked pointedly.

"Allow me time to reflect upon it," Kardiac answered, accessing commands that linked the Lex Talionis across to the construction station, "but I can assure you that there will be satisfaction that steps will be taken to resolve the moral issue of the Templars."

Lamont smiled as he bowed, "by your command, Your Eminence."

As he left, Kardiac's shoulders sank and his head rested back against the hard wood of the chair. The Emperor had warned him that there would come a time when his hounds would fail him, and all that would be left was a single sword.

He watched the security monitors as he walked down to his situation table, pulling the logbook across to him, producing a pen with a flourish as he spun it through his fingers he made an annotation in his log, recording the obituaries formally. Looking up again as the secondary computers tracked Lamont to the main hatch, shaking his head as he scrawled his words. Finishing with a dramatic click of his pen, sighing as he returned to his chair.

"And lo I cast down a final sacrifice, my God, for thee," he tapped the controls and executed the final commands, "In sure and certain hope of resurrection into eternal life." Kardiac stared meaningfully across to where the computer core sat dark and silent. "Through our lord and God, I commend to the Almighty our souls, and I commit our bodies to the depths of space, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust." He initiated the controls, watching as along the space station emergency overrides slid back the venting panels, opening the station to the darkest depths of space as the hatch to the pocket battleship swung closed and pressurized.

He sat again in his chair, setting the timer to reactivate the AI computer core. He had no use for the Templar once the computer engaged. On the security monitors they were dying. The explosive decompression had killed most, and for those that had found shelter a fate of suffocation and freezing would reach them inevitably.

The clicking caused the warlord to draw pause. An audible vibration that sounded familiar to a man who had served on the Polian front lines. But Kardiac struggled to remember the sound walking down from his dais and kneeling to try to find what ever the device was that was making the noise. It moved in the dark recesses of the shadowy bridge, crawling away on spindly crystalline legs it scuttled out of sight.

Kardiac's hand went to his sidearm. Drawing the hand-crafted pulse pistol he crept after it, wondering where it was, and why it was there. He spared a look towards the security monitors, to the men who clung resolutely to a futile existence. Had they done it? He searched a moment for Lamont, finding him when the camera's cycled through to the hatch cameras, the Templar sitting cross-legged in a meditative pose while others about him hammered uselessly on the hatch. A smile on his face that spoke volumes to the Warlord.

"Polian mine," Kardiac murmured, drawing back, keeping his pistol up as he gritted his teeth, looking for an avenue to escape.

The small white dome cautiously stepped out into the open, rotating and flexing its legs as it stared back at the Imperial warlord that had wrought such chaos upon its masters. Bobbing from side to side, ready to pounce at a moments warning if Kardiac tried to gun it down.

"I have survived your kind before," Kardiac said, looking across the bridge to where the activation controls for the ship's AI waited. All he had to do was activate it and the ship would do the rest, complete its manifest destiny by eradicating the Polians once and for all.

"You will not succeed," Kardiac warned, taking a hesitant step towards the dais, flinching as the device hopped to the right as well, bounding up to one of the consoles and wiggling again warningly.

Lamont, it had to be Lamont's doing. Kardiac's realization that his most loyal hound had betrayed him cut the man deeply. He shifted his grip on the pistol, gritting his teeth. If he took the risk and shot the mine correctly he would at least be alive, and all he had to do was make it to the controls.

The mine pounced, arcing through the air as Kardiac reacted. Years of Templar martial training, combined with his own fanatical need to be in top form allowed him to react, the pistol bucking in his hand as he fired, throwing himself down to the deck as the mine spun away crashing to the deck a few meters away.

Kardiac smiled as he rolled up to his elbows, sighting in again to fire, knowing that the next shot would end the weapons pitiful assassination attempt.

The weapon had other ideas as it trembled, its smooth dome spiking as it shivered and shattered. The mine vaporized into a fine silvery gas that quickly disappeared into nothing.

Kardiac frowned, picking himself up as he stared at where it was, sliding his pistol away into its holster, feeling the first pang in the back of his throat. A tensing of his chest that caused the mighty warrior to wheeze and gasp, clutching at his throat as he shuddered to one knee.

Poison gas.

Kardiac's baleful eyes turned again to the monitor, towards Lamont's calm composure. Cursing as he tried to force himself upright, he merely had to make it to the activation controls. Each step felt like he was lifting lead weights, his throat closing as his vision blurred, struggling towards the steps as he fought his way up them. Collapsing at the foot of his chair it took a monumental force of will to get him seated, his voice a ragged gasp as he tried to stretch out his fingers to reach the button.

"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord," Kardiac murmured, pushing himself upright as he tried again to find the strength to reach the actuator, "They rest from their labours, and their works..." he coughed again, feeling the darkness closing in on him, "will follow them..."

The final scream of frustration was never heard as his hand fell back, unable to reach its goal, and death settled over the shipyards of Yeji-Sola as three hundred years came and went.

THE END