Four years before, the Second Homeworld War had ended in resounding defeat for Makaan’s Vaygr and their Imperial Taiidan allies. Once more, the bitterness of loss was the Empire’s only reward for backing a tyrant. All was not the same as in the previous time however. The Taiidan Empire was no longer at war with itself, divided by internal strife. The thirty-four inhabited star systems still under their banner would remain so without conflict from their traditional enemies, their estranged sister nation, the Republic of Taiidan, and the Hiigaran Empire. After the defeat of Makaan, the Empire’s Chancellor and Ruling Council of Lords had moved quickly to secure non-aggression pacts with these powerful, long-term hostile nations. All Taiidani support was withdrawn from the Vaygr outside Imperial borders. The Vaygr were offered to leave, or remain as citizens of the Empire. Surprisingly, some chose to remain, but most abandoned the Empire, moving on to the still contested zones outside Imperial borders, but respecting their former ally’s neutrality.
The Imperials had been changed by Makaan and his horde of Vaygr crusaders. The Chancellor had been the leader of the Imperial faction seeking alliance with the Vaygr. Makaan had accepted, however he would not have a weak ally divided by internal politics and strife. Under dissembling guise, Makaan had asked the man who would become Chancellor, Warlord Sako Ek, for a list of the most competent within the Imperial Taiidan hierarchy. More importantly, he wanted people Ek felt he might trust. Without Ek’s realisation of the Lord Vaygr’s intentions, Ek did as requested. Makaan then perpetrated what the surprised loyalist faction called the Great Purge. All men of power within the Imperium that might oppose the coming changes were killed, including their entire households. It was a familiar return to the pogroms of the Reisstiu regimes, but Makaan did not continue the bloodbath. Having made his point, and with no one left to oppose, Ek was installed as Chancellor and given charge of the Imperium.
Sako Ek was an interesting choice for a ruler; he didn’t want the job, but he loved his nation. He took it because of duty to his people. To build a secure future, he moved quickly to create the Council of Lords, an assembly of Imperial Taiidani men and women of skill and experience chosen from the pool of talent that Makaan had spared by Ek’s own list. More importantly, these were like minded individuals, not in love with power for itself. This new governing body was perhaps the first competent management the Imperium had seen in millennium. They used skill and intelligence to solve issues instead of bribery, treachery, or brute force, although the Council could use these at need if required.
The new style of ruler ship had a profound impact on the psyche of the Taiidani people as well. To one chronicler of the time it was as if “...our entire people awoke from a vile dream...” Although the people were once again on the losing side to the Hiigarans, their morale was not crushed worse than had a single skirmish been lost. After long decades of internal struggle, they were now no longer at war with their own people. They were heartened and strengthened by this. They lacked one thing to make them truly happy however. The Imperial Throne lay vacant, and this could not be quickly solved. Solved it must be however, lest civil war threaten again.
Even had the Imperial Gene banks survived the First Homeworld War, none would ever wish a return to the decadence and madness of the Reisstiu line. Few but the most rabidly insane or stupidly academic would go that route in speculation. Reisstiu I had been an Admiral in the First Imperium’s frontier naval forces before luck saw him declared defacto Emperor of the Second Imperium. It is doubtful that any would-be warlord could ever follow in his footsteps, but certainly not under the present circumstances.
Although the Chancellor and the Lords were doing well so far, their nation still chose the empire designation, and to the Taiidan, that meant an Imperial personage at the head of state, as living symbol of their way of life. While the government was respected and admired by their people, without a dynastic presence the nation was an anachronism clinging to a lost tradition.
Chancellor Ek or any of the higher born Lords might have made a successful bid for rule at this point. All felt that the public would have a poor reaction to this however, as they were too familiar to their people. Respected as individual Lords for their work, they would not command that same respect as final keeper of authority. The chancellor flatly refused the idea of himself as Emperor. He also pointed out that a civil war would be the probable outcome if any of them were designated for the throne. Their rise to power had been through the brute application of a Makaan’s naked fist. Even though they’d done much to gain the goodwill and trust of their people, they would all be forever tainted by this fact. The Heir Designate would never safely come from their ranks. It was not a problem easily solved.
Sako Ek, Chancellor of the Taiidan Empire leaned ahead slightly in his shabby but comfortable seat at the head of the Council of Lord’s private conference table. He glanced quickly around the room, noting the security tell-tales by the door remained green, and then returned his attention once more to the speaker. Zengar Joz, Councillor of State Information was completing his report on the projected future status of the Imperial Taiidani civil stability.
“In conclusion, it is beyond doubt, without an Imperial Personage installed as head of state, the Empire will fracture and begin to disintegrate in no later than ten years. More than likely eight,” he ended.
“You concur with these figures Joz?” The question came from Raek Han, Councillor of Resources.
“I do Lord Han. I was personally involved in the final compilation. Our people are united at the moment, but too much of the old regimes’ legacies remain in our social fabric. We can suppress the first few uprisings without much bloodshed, but sooner or later some lunatic will try to become the reincarnation of Reisstiu. At that point, if we don’t have our own candidate primed for the throne or better yet in place, all the progress we’ve worked so long and hard for our people will be for nothing,” he finished.
“This leaves us in a rather difficult position my Lords and ladies,” spoke the Chancellor. “We have worked too long and sacrificed too much for our people to have them self-destruct now. They have a need, and we swore to meet their needs. No one of us can fill the position of Emperor. We all know this. But filled it must be,” Ek sighed and passed a hand over his eyes,” Does anyone have a solution to contribute?”
Looks passed around the scarred table. In some councils these would have been attempts to avoid responsibility, searches for a way to avoid the issues. These people gathered here unlike any council in Taiidan recent history had genuine care for their people. They were looking to their fellows for guidance and inspiration to handle the monumental task they now faced.
One hand hesitantly raised in the silence. It was Lady Ganna, Councillor of Interior. “Lord Sako, would our people accept a clone from a Taiidan Imperial line?”
“I believe so. Lord Joz?” he passed the question on.
“The reports suggest the people would, however the Reisstiu line is thankfully extinct. Unfortunately, the Ancient Hiigarans saw to it that our original ruling dynasty and its entire genetic repository was also obliterated when they bombed Imperial city here on Taiidan itself more than four thousand years ago. We have none suitable, and this is common knowledge.”
Lady Ganna spoke again, “That is not entirely accurate my Lord. There is one source of genetic material that has survived since our Empire’s very founding.”
“Explain Ganna,”said Ek, forgetting the honorific. To those that knew him well, this was indication of his excitement.
“Empress Taiidanna,” she said, and as the words were spoken a collective intake of breath went around the table, followed by shocked looks.
Everyone began to babble at once, but the slap of the Chancellor’s hand on the battered tabletop silenced them immediately. “Lady Ganna, you realize you are suggesting we disturb the gravesite of the foundress of our nation, a site that not even the Reisstiu lunatics would dare molest, though their jealousy was legendary?” he replied to her.
“With all respect to the departed my Lord Chancellor, I don’t think we have any other choice. No other Taiidani Imperial line exists. If the legends are true about her, I think she might even approve,” said Ganna, “By all accounts the Empress cared deeply about her people.”
“You have a point Lady Ganna,” sighed the Chancellor wearily. It was not a happy one, yet it was valid he reflected, “Very well, does anyone have any other suggestions?” Although there were hopeful looks, there were no takers. “I guess we have little choice. This council session and all events pertaining to it are to be sworn to top secrecy.” Ek glared meaningfully around the table. None present looked away whatever reservations they may be feeling. Satisfied, he spoke again, “I don’t need to remind you all that this could be both the salvation and the destruction of our race. Of utmost importance, the public must not know the origins of our Imperial Candidate before it is fait accompli. Now, how do we accomplish our task?”
This time Lady Karstar of Mining spoke up, “I believe I may have the answer. Our industry has come up with a new pinpoint accurate PDA that can be used to tunnel up to her corpse from underground. I visited the tomb with my parents as a child, and while the Empress’ body lies where she was slain, with a deep coating of crysteel covering her, the body itself remains on plain rock. With slight modification, I believe we can extract a sample right under the noses of the tourists with none the wiser”.
“That may indeed be workable to extract a sample. There is another issue to consider however. The remains appear to be well preserved by the ancient crysteel pour. Physical looks are one thing however. We have no idea however if any sample we can gather will be viable,” this time it was Councillor of Trade, Lord Mountfax.
Lord MacBreigh of Technology and Science spoke at this. All listened, for the large, heavily muscled researcher seldom voiced an opinion, “I know of one scientist who can create a viable clone for us. Make sure the sample collected is from the Empress’ cranial tissue.”
As that seemed to be all the laconic man would say, the Chancellor addressed MacBreigh, “Lord Mac, you’ll have to elaborate a bit for us. Who is this scientist?”
MacBreigh sighed, “You won’t like it Lord Sako, but she’s the best geneticist anywhere. Doctor Hern Aerx.”
For the second time a babble of voices broke out around the table, and once again Sako Ek slapped the table for silence. “Mac, you realise what you are saying? Some of the worst excesses of the Beast Experimental Program have been laid directly at her door. Had it not been for her service in perfecting the so called ‘anti-virus’ she would have been executed long ago for war crimes... against her own people!”
“You forget Lord Sako, that she had a gun to her family’s head. Warlord Lubrak murdered almost her entire family one at a time before her eyes until she agreed to do his bidding. Only her youngest daughter survived that tragedy. After Makaan executed Lubrak and my people recovered Aerx,” continued MacBreigh, “it took us almost three years just to put her mind back together. She still has her talents, and there is none that could do a better job for us.”
“Your compassion does you credit Mac, but do you truly believe our people can trust her with this?” questioned the Chancellor, “Is there no one else?”
“None we could pull off other projects in our required time frame without arousing suspicion,” he spoke without hesitation, “We still have some Republican intelligence penetration that hasn’t been rooted out, and the gods only know how they’d react if they got wind of this. No Lord Sako, only Aerx has been insulated enough to avoid notice.”
“Very well Lord MacBreigh,” sighed the Chancellor, “it appears there is little choice in the face of your arguments. Hern Aerx will be assigned the project. See to it she has everything she needs. As for the rest of the details, I will leave to Mining and Interior to handle obtaining the sample in secrecy. This meeting is adjourned.” So saying, he stood and made the ancient Imperial salute. As the Chancellor left, the other gathered Councillors of Taiidan followed suit in silence, many troubles turning their thoughts inward.
The space station floated in the emptiness of the Great Wastelands, far from any inhabited star system. None suspected its existence here, far from civilization and the Great Trade Routes. This suited its chief occupant just fine. Hern Aerx knew that secrecy was absolutely vital to her mission here. The best kept secrets were the ones no one knew about. Aside from the Ruling Council, very few knew of this ancient Imperial science outpost.
Aerx’s thoughts turned towards the reason she was here. The cloned woman from the founding days of the Imperium lay peacefully within her somnol-learning cocoon. She checked the read outs and noted that the sleep teaching process was nearing completion. Thousands of years of Taiidani and galactic knowledge had been taught to the clone in the space of a few short years. It would soon be time to deliver the Council their new hope.
Creation of Empress Taiidana’s clone had not been easy. There had been serious deterioration of the genetic matrix in almost all of the samples she had been provided. She truly believed in this cause however. For once her rulers had asked for her talents, not demanded or attempted coercion. For someone with her past, that was precious.
In the end she’d had no choice but to use the knowledge and genetic information she’d been forced to gather during the Cataclysm War to repair the genetic code of the Empress. While Aerx hated everything about that time, she also realised that here was a chance to redeem the evils of that time and use it for good.
The new clone would be almost a goddess among the Taiidan. She would not die of old age, she would remain young and vibrant for as long as she lived. She would be immune to disease, and heal rapidly of any damage. There were quite a few other abilities the new Empress-to-be would have as well. Aerx hoped the Ruling Council and its Chancellor would understand, but once she’d been had to open the forbidden box, she had decided to put every possible advantage she could into her new creation.
The clone would not however be the hungry vile entity that had been called the Beast. No, this clone would not have the ability to subvert other organisms to her own twisted design. Absent would be the insatiable hunger to devour all other life. Instead she would be totally devoted to her people’s future.
Aerx was extremely careful. She’d only used Beast samples that she’d managed to secretly obtain from the Naggarok during the ill-fated Taiidani repair mission on that evil ship. These pure samples she’d secreted and kept safely hidden, plotting revenge on her masters. This revenge became unnecessary when Makaan had those murderous wretches shot.
In a way, it was fitting that the ultimate cause of so much death and destruction would become a chance at a peaceful future for her war weary nation. Although she had suffered at its hands, she still loved the Empire, and she wanted it to rise from its ashen shell.
Hern gazed thoughtfully at the readouts, noting the sleep programming had completed while she’d been contemplating. She rose from her utilitarian office chair and stepped over to the clone’s teaching pod. Working with quick, deft movements, she unhooked the monitors and activated the stimulant delivery system to wake the clone. As the medication took hold, crystal blue eyes so like her youngest daughter’s opened, looking drowsily about before focusing on Aerx. A sleepy voice, muscles unused to forming speech asked the scientist, “Who am I?”
“You are Taiidara,” replied Aerx,”Daughter of Taiidanna.”
“What is this place? Who are you?” were Taiidara’s next words.
“I am Hern Aerx, your surrogate mother if you will. As for this place, you and I are alone on Space Research Station 129 Gamma, in an uncharted location within the Great Wastelands. The purpose of all you see around you has been to bring your life song into being. You are the Taiidani people’s last hope against the darkness which threatens to destroy us all,” answered Hern.
“I see. I can feel information in my mind, but it is as if I were reading it from a screen, not from my own experience. I know things, but how?” asked the clone.
“You’ve been sleep programmed. There has been no time to properly provide you the training I would have preferred child,” sighed Hern, “Of the three years since your creation began, two have been spent in this way to arm you with the needed knowledge. There is real urgency.”
Taiidara digested this for a few minutes, and then as if suddenly being told she was the messiah of an empire were an everyday occurrence, she shrugged her shoulders and asked, “What must I do?”
“I do not know Taiidara,” said Hern, “that will be for the Ruling Council and the Chancellor of our people to decide. My part has been fulfilled now with your awakening. Soon a ship will arrive to take you before them. I have something important to tell you now, so attend my words.”
“You will have many special gifts that the rest of Taiidan does not. I have placed these within your memory so they will be at your command as you need them. I caution you however, do not use these gifts unless you must, as it will frighten those without them. Always the strange provokes fear. Use your knowledge and talents wisely, and for the good of our people.”
Sensing her creator was seeking reassurance, Taiidara replied, “I will do so, mother,” and she smiled, perfect even white teeth framed by fine pink lips. Hern couldn’t help but smile back, sensing the earnest sincerity of the innocent before her.
“Come with me then child,” she said as a chime sounded, “Your transport has arrived.” Hern rose and left the room, heading for the docking bay, the tall red haired woman in tow.
When they reached the hangar, a single woman stood beside the transport shuttle that she’d arrived in, her nondescript pilot’s uniform and helmet disguising most of her features. “Lady Aerx,” she said, “your message said there’d be a passenger to take off this trip. Is this her?”
“It is indeed Lieutenant,” answered Hern, “This is lady Taiidara. Treat her with utmost care and respect. You are to take her directly to the Ruling Council’s landing field at Imperial City on Taiidan. You will be met enroute by an escort. They have been contacted and are on their way as we speak.”
“It shall be as you command lady,” replied the pilot, “This way if you please Lady Taiidara.”
Without another word, just a final wave of her hand, Taiidara followed the pilot into the waiting shuttle. Once she was belted in to the vacant co-pilot’s seat, the small vessel lifted off and exited through the outer force screen of the docking bay. Orienting itself on the escort’s beacon, the pilot set course for rendezvous with her protection and the tiny ship rocketed off into the endless dark.
Behind them, Aerx had seated herself at the control center for the station, its machinery humming quietly in the background. Her eyes were fixed on the station’s sensor plot, showing the shuttle and a circular marker line. When the ship passed the outer radius of the marker, she flipped a panel up. Concealed within was a large red button.
“Well,” she said to herself, “I can’t let this research fall into anyone else’s hands. The succession must be uncontested.” She looked at a holoportrait of her family, all she’d had left except her daughter Janna. “I hope you understand, my precious one,” she said aloud, then hit the button.
The shuttle was suddenly lit from behind by an enormous flash, and the sensors reported large pieces of debris hurtling outwards from where the station had once been. The pilot exclaimed in shock, but Taiidara could only stare at her repeater display, realising what the scientist had done. She did not know why, but she knew with certainty that her creator had died with the station. A search of the mangled debris proved this to be so. The shuttle and its escort then formed up and continued on their mission. After a time travelling in hyperspace, they approached Taiidan Prime, quietly entering the traffic pattern for the Council’s private landing field.
The transport vessel touched down softly at the landing pad in the hazy light of dawn. The Ruling Council’s private spaceport was abandoned at this hour except for a small side party waiting at a safe distance from the shuttle’s thruster exhaust zone. Taiidara waited patiently for the airlock to open and the shuttle’s landing stairs to unfold before disembarking. While her still awakening mind was contemplating what her future would hold, subconsciously something told her she was on the threshold of momentous events. Strangely she felt no apprehension, only excitement at the prospect.
The boarding steps finished deploying, and the hatch smoothly opened into the cloudy morning of Taiidan Prime. Below her on the conmac surface, the people of her welcoming committee stood expectantly by as the coppery-haired clone descended to meet them. One of the little group stepped forward, a dark haired young woman who could easily pass for Hern Aerx’s twin. She addressed Taiidara, “Welcome to Imperial City, Lady Taiidara. I am Janna Aerx. I’ve been assigned to assist you.” With a concerned expression forming on her face, she continued, “Your pardon Milady, but where is Hern Aerx, my mother? She was supposed to arrive with you. Is she well?” she asked.
A surge of compassion spread over Taiidara’s sharply planed features as she replied, “Your mother did not board the shuttle. As we departed, the station exploded. I’m sorry, but we found no survivors. The operations recorder indicated your mother had initiated the self-destruct sequence. We found no body in the debris. The pilot feels that your mother’s life song has ended.” She finished, sadness plainly written on her features.
Janna fell to her knees mouth agape, but no sound coming forth. Tears began streaming from her stricken blue eyes.
Having little experience with strong emotion, but instinctually knowing that another person was hurting, Taiidara stepped forward, wrapping her arms around the young woman. Tears began to flow from her own eyes as she concentrated on Janna’s emotions, somehow drawing the edge of the young woman’s pain to herself.
The rest of the side-party and Councillor MacBreigh curiously noted the effect Taiidara’s embrace had on Janna. The young woman’s tears slowed to a stop, and in moments Taiidara was assisting her to her feet. It was as if Janna’s grief had been eased away. In moments, she had regained her composure.
“Thank you Lady,” she said, “I don’t know what you’ve done, but my heart is more at ease.” One could see her grief was not erased, but her features now carried the shock and hurt as though the sharpness of the painful news had been weeks in the past.
“I don’t know myself sister,” replied Taiidara, “It appears that our mother has given me some unusual gifts.” Both women laughed weakly at this, and knew they were destined for true friendship.
“Lady, thank you. We should get to the rest of the introductions now that I’ve regained my stability. Councillor MacBreigh, I think it’s best if you continue from here Milord,” she said, gesturing to the big, gruff looking Counsellor.
“Yes well,” he began, still a bit bemused by the scene he’d just witnessed, “Do you wish to be excused from your duties Lady Aerx? I’m sure you’ll want some time to absorb this terrible news,” he addressed his subordinate.
“Thank you Lord Mac, but I will be alright now,” she replied with certainty. “I know my mother would want me to be available to follow where her work leads,” she explained at her superior’s surprised look. “My new sister comforts me by her presence. How could I not do the same?” she finished.
“As you wish Janna,” he said gently, “Your mother will be missed by those who knew her.”
“Lady Taiidara,” MacBreigh addressed his newly arrived guest, “This is the team who will help get you up to speed on the Empire’s current situation. You’ve already met Lady Janna, I dare say quite remarkably so,” he said with the barest trace of wryness, “Her task is to assist you with our scientific and technological state of affairs.” Taiidara once again looked at Aerx in acknowledgement.
“To my left is Lieutenant Commander Kochim N’Treyu,” he indicated a short, dapper, brown-haired man in Imperial Navy dress uniform. “He’ll be assisting you with getting up to speed on the military.” The little man bobbed a quick bow. “Please call me Kochim, milady,” he requested respectfully in an astonishingly deep voice.
“Pleased to meet you, Kochim,” she responded, to which the officer bowed once more.
“This is Lady Errin Delaveax,” stated the Councillor, indicating a thin, raptor-faced blond to his right. “Her job is to review the political side of affairs and assist you with any administrative questions you may have.” The strong-boned woman smiled, transforming her harsh face into a surprisingly pretty visage. “Welcome to the Capitol milady,” she said, with a brief but firm grip of Taiidara’s hand, “I’m looking forward to working together,” she finished in her low but clear voice.
“I believe we will get along well, Lady Errin,” replied Taiidara with an answering smile.
“Last but not least is Jarad Moret, to help you with inter-personnel and social issues,” said MacBreigh, nodding towards the final member of the welcoming committee. The small, chubby woman grinned impishly, large hazel eyes sparkling with mischievous delight, as though Taiidara were a new playmate. Under the black-haired, cherubic woman’s surface enthusiasm, Taiidara detected a healthy intellect and inquisitive nature. “Milady,” said the little woman. “I’m happy to be at your service.”
“Thank you Jarad,” said Taiidara with a gentle squeeze of the proffered hand. “Let’s hope you still feel that way after you get to know me,” she said with a touch of humour.
“This is all well and fine Milord, they seem like good people,” she said, turning back to MacBreigh, “but I must confess I don’t know what this is all about. I’ve been created from the DNA of another person, but I have not been told more than my progenitor’s name, or why it was necessary to create me from that person’s genetic material in the first place. While I am grateful for being alive, I can’t help but be concerned as to just why I’ve had an obviously huge effort put forth to bring me into being. I don’t know what my purpose is and already you’ve given me a staff! Why? Who am I supposed to be?” she asked, showing some slight exasperation at her circumstances.
“All will be revealed in time Lady Taiidara,” he said, without the air of mystery others might have imparted that simple statement. “You will be brought before the Ruling Council once you have been properly prepared,” he paused, “I can tell you this: although you have been created at the Imperial Council’s orders, you will be given a choice in your destiny,” he said in firm tones. “Please remain patient,” he requested. Then, with a courtly bow he said, “I must leave now. Please go with these people. They do not know your purpose yet either, but will see to it that you can make an informed decision when the time comes.”
Bowing once more, MacBreigh turned and entered the port facility. As his hand-picked team led Taiidara away to another entrance, his thoughts were troubled. The significance of what the Empress-clone had done to ease the younger Aerx’s grief at her mother’s apparent suicide was foremost in his thoughts. What other ‘unusual gifts’ might Taiidara have tucked away? And more importantly, why had Aerx killed herself? These and other questions needed answers, but only time would reveal them.
For now, he needed to speak with the Chancellor to prepare his old friend for the controversy that might erupt should his preparation team discover Taiidara to be a poor choice to lead the Empire. Her apparent enhanced abilities aside, he did not believe this would turn out to be the case. It would seriously complicate the issue however. It was likely Taiidara would have to prove she was a worthy choice in the Council’s eyes once her abilities became known to them. What that could entail, he tried not to contemplate. “Damn-it Hern! What were you thinking?” he silently railed at the dead scientist.
With a sigh, he cut off that line of thought, knowing that she’d likely had only the best interests of their beloved Empire at heart. Whatever she thought those best interests were however might not be initially clear, but as the friend he’d become to her, he trusted her intentions. It was her method of accomplishing them that he was ultimately worried about.
He paused in his stride long enough to fish out his hand com before he continued on his way toward the Chancellor’s private office. Speaking into the pick-up, he initiated its voice activated call directory. A few seconds later, the acknowledgement tone sounded. “Ek here,” said the Chancellor’s voice, “What is it Lord Mac?”
With an irritated grunt, MacBreigh responded, “She’s here Milord. We need to talk.”
While others might have been put off by MacBreigh’s terse reply, Sako Ek had long been acquainted with his chief researcher’s short sentences. There was fondness in the slightly weary sounding reply, “I’ll have Kask clear my schedule. Come on up” he finished, cutting the link.
Thoughts once again turning towards his deceased colleague, MacBreigh continued on his way to meet with his Chancellor.
Lord MacBreigh soon reached the entrance to the Chancellor’s office. The new House of Government had been built with ease of getting around in mind. Although the landing pad was almost a kilometre away from his current location within the sprawling edifice, a single trip through the maglev elevator system had deposited him only a short corridor away in only a few minutes.
As he reached the open doorway, the wizened gnome of a secretary raised his head from a data pad he’d been perusing on his desk. “Go right in Milord,” he said, “His Lordship is ready to see you.”
MacBreigh suppressed an involuntary shudder at the tooth-jarring pitch of the gnarled little man’s voice. Surprising himself, he even managed a reply, “Thank you Kask,” then crossed to the inner doors, entering and closing them behind himself. With a heavy sigh, he turned to face his host, scarcely noting the various mementos and trophies from the Chancellor’s days as a 'mere' Imperial Warlord which lined the sparse shelves on the office walls.
Lord Sako had risen behind his desk at his guest’s entrance. Gesturing to a comfortable looking seat, he silently bade his friend to be seated before once more sinking back into his own chair. MacBreigh regarded Ek for a moment across the old wooden desk. “He’s aged these last few years,” thought the Councillor. The Chancellor’s once dark hair had almost entirely changed to iron grey. Deep lines from care and too much responsibility now creased the strong features. It was Sako’s eyes which held the greatest sign of change however. Their piercing sharpness had become overlain with an almost tangible weariness of spirit.
The Chancellor smiled, divining the direction his childhood friend’s thoughts had taken. “I’m not quite ready for the breakers yet Mac,” he said, chuckling at the guilty look that flashed across his friend’s face.
MacBreigh smiled sheepishly as he saw Sako’s strength of will reassert itself, banishing much of the careworn image, making him doubt almost that he’d seen his friend’s weariness. “Sorry Sako,” he said, “Was it that obvious?”
“Well, you could have sent an Empire-wide hypercom,” he teased MacBreigh. “I take it you’ve come to see your long-suffering boss for more than just an inquiry into my retirement plans?” he asked in more serious tones, leaning back in his high-backed chair.
“I wish it were nothing more than that old friend,” Mac replied in his mellow baritone, “We have a serious problem.”
Ek inclined his body forward at MacBreigh’s words. With an effort, he stifled an urge to try and shake more words out of the big man in front of him. “Would you please care to provide more details Milord?” he asked with a slightly impatient tone in his voice.
Seeming not to notice, MacBreigh leaned back thoughtfully, absently stroking his bristling auburn beard.
“I’ve never been very good with words Sako,” he began, “so I’ll just have to put it bluntly. The clone appears to have been modified to an indeterminate extent.” He regarded the Chancellor pensively for a moment, noting Ek’s slightly puzzled expression before continuing, “I don’t know to what extent yet. So far, all I’ve seen her do was to calm a grieving woman via some sort of empathic link when she touched the other girl. What concerns me is that it is most likely not the only... modification,” he finished unhappily.
The Chancellor’s expression had become thoughtful during the report. Now he questioned his chief scientist, “Why can’t we just ask Doctor Aerx about the changes?”
Passing a hand over his eyes, MacBreigh sighed before answering. “We can’t,” he said, “She committed suicide once Taiidara was safely away from the station. She detonated the scuttling charges as soon as the shuttle was out of the blast radius. If I know Hern, there will be nothing left worth examining. I reviewed the pilot’s report on the way over here. The wreckage recorded after the blast seems to support that conclusion.”
“Hmm, well let’s consider this for a moment Mac,” said lord Sako thoughtfully, “I don’t know that these modifications, whatever they may be, are all that bad for our purposes.”
Caught off guard by the Chancellor’s remark, MacBreigh blurted, “What? The Council is going to have a collective stroke when they discover the clone has been modified!”
“Calmly, Mac, calmly,” said Ek, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “I doubt Aerx would have killed herself if she’d intended nasty events to befall the Empire. I fail to see much entertainment value in being a mad scientist if you aren’t around to enjoy the chaos when your creation’s fuse is lit.
No, more than likely that strong sense of patriotism you’ve described her having was the cause of her actions. I think perhaps she did not want to risk her work being used against the Empire. The only way she could be sure to prevent that was to destroy all of the required information she’d had on hand, including what she’d amassed in her own mind,” he ended solemnly.
Nodding in agreement, Lord MacBreigh found himself sighing heavily once more. “That is my own assessment old friend. It still leaves the little matter of informing the Council that their nice, shiny, new heir-designate was built with an unknown number of extra options,” he pointed out. “They're still going to burst a gasket when they get wind of the situation,” he said grumpily.
“Well in that case, there’s nothing simpler Mac,” said the Chancellor, sporting an impish expression MacBreigh remembered only too well from their childhood days.
That look had always signified the impending start of one of Sako’s legendary misadventures. This didn’t bother MacBreigh so much. It was the unfortunate tendency his friend had of dragging him along for the ride, willing or not that irked his nerves. He swore he could still hear the ringing in his ears from the last bawling out they’d gotten by Sako’s father the evening he’d discovered the boys’ nocturnal forays in his favourite sky car as teenagers.
It was that thought which made him realise what the Cancellor was implying they do to avoid the inevitable Council battles that would follow if word about Taiidara’s abilities reached their ears.
“You can’t mean...” spluttered the hulking scientist incredulously.
“Absolutely Mac, we simply don’t tell them,” said the Chancellor, with a boyish grin on his face.
MacBreigh looked stubborn for a moment as he pondered what his friend was proposing. Then a longsuffering look appeared on the big man’s face. Sako knew that expression of old meant he’d get MacBreigh’s cooperation.
“Well, it could work in the short term, but you realise they will find out eventually,” commented the scientist grumpily.
“Of course they will,” said Ek, “but by the time they do, if we play our markers right, the clone will already have passed their challenge, or declined the honour.”
MacBreigh’s eyes had widened at the word ‘challenge’. Having noticed his friend’s expression, Sako continued, “Don’t look so surprised Mac. You know as well as I do, the Council will never just accept anyone whose lineage passed through Hern Aerx’ hands without some form of proof of her worthiness. They’re good people, but they need reassurance in this case.”
“I don’t have to like it Sako,” stated the Councillor gruffly. “Hern was a colleague, and also a friend. Having her honour called into doubt is just... wrong.”
“I understand Mac,” assured the Chancellor, “Truth to tell, it irritates my own sensibilities. I’ve never known you to make a bad judgement call when it comes to reading personalities. I’m afraid there’s just too many woes in Aerx’ past history for others to be so accepting. It may not be fair, but so is demanding our peers accept unconditionally the candidate under the present circumstances,” he paused, looking at MacBreigh until the big man conceded with a short, jerky nod.
“Good,” he resumed, “We need to move quickly to prevent any leaks. The last thing we need is any surprises before everything is ready. Right now, you and I, the clone, her orientation team, and perhaps the pilot are in the know. Can I assume you’ve taken steps to keep things below the radar for the time being?”
“I did,” replied MacBreigh. “The pilot has been sent to Taiidara’s suite with hush orders, and the others have also been appraised to keep silent. They’re all good people. Incidentally, the clone’s name seems to have been chosen. She calls herself Taiidara. Another of Lady Aerx’s touches, no doubt,” he smiled sadly, “she was always a traditionalist at heart.”
“Well, at least the name sounds fitting enough Mac,” commented Ek. “It sounds like things should be alright for the time being. Just monitor the situation and keep me appraised of any updates,” he said, ushering his friend to the door.
“Will do Sako,” said MacBreigh, with a clasp of his friend’s hand, “It’s been an unsettling morning,” he said with a lopsided smile, and walked out of the Chancellor’s sanctum, mind already turning toward the completion of Taiidara’s next stage of development. Behind him, the Chancellor quietly returned to his chair and the never finished day to day business of running the Empire.