Delphine Descends: Chapter 1 excerpt

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High Commander Delphine von Dallas strode along the bridge of Zeus’s Rage, watching the planet engorge in the view of the pellucid hull like a sickly yellow cancer. She leaned, placing a hand on the cold alloy so it covered the yolky sphere entirely and imagined how the system would look if the planet weren’t there at all.

They’d been sent to defend this allied world, but Delphine had different plans. She didn’t intend to protect it at all. She intended to destroy it.

As the warship’s AI pilot eased them into geosynchronous orbit, Delphine watched the upper atmosphere dance with mustard swirls, barely noticing the bridge crew pour in from the resurgence chambers. When XO Hollenbeck arrived, he stood and saluted, breaking her reverie. She drilled her stare into his face and he quickly took his place at the flank of Captain Madaki. The Captain sat hunched over a glowing holoscreen as the crew commenced sector checks, waking the beast after four months of running on AI pilot through hard vacuum. He was going to be a problem.

More than three million souls resided on Furoris, and Delphine was going to kill every single one of them. Of course, there would be reprisal, outrage. The Imperial Congress would blame her and she would certainly face death. She thought about that for a moment, unsure of how it made her feel, and if it made her feel anything at all.

“High Commander, we’ve thrown out a knot of d-waves,” Captain Madaki said, hobbling towards her with infirm deliberation. Her men stood guard around her and he eyed them for a moment before she waved them to let him through. “We’re picking up nothing at all. Is it possible your intel was wrong?”

“No,” she said plainly, without taking her eyes off the planet, now as large as a dinner plate. “My intel was not wrong.”

“Your predictions had Mu Arae here two point four hours ahead of us.” He scrolled through statistics on the glowing deck he held in an age-shaking hand. “We should have awoken to a pelt of plasma fire. But nothing. I’ve set the ship to condition two while we reassess.”

Delphine turned her head from Furoris and stared down at the man from where she stood upon the command station platform. She was slight of build and not very tall – at floor level she would’ve just reached the man’s chin – so took the opportunity to impress her weighty glare down on him. “There is nothing to reassess,” she said. “My intel was not wrong.”

Madaki’s wire-brush moustache twitched on his upper lip, visibly nettled. He didn’t want to be there, that much was clear. He was old and worn, like a chewed-up boot that had spent too many years in the mouths of various dogs. He had served the Network loyally throughout his years and had the respect of all. But he had lost his fangs for the fight. Luckily, Delphine had fangs enough for the both of them.

“We’re picking something up,” an officer called out from the KAOS station. “A patch of vacuum only slightly warmer than AZ… barely a heat signature. We almost missed it. Large enough to be a warship, but the cloaking is beyond Mu Arae tech we’ve previously encountered. Washing it with every wave and array we have now, High Commander.” He paused, then looked up. “Nothing. We’re blind until it gets into eyeball range.”

“It’s moving?” Madaki asked.

“Yes, Captain. Below Tate speed at almost three kyles per second.”

“It’s them,” Delphine said unequivocally, turning to the Captain. “Set stations to condition one. Prepare the warheads.”

“Condition one,” Madaki ordered, but before the crew could break into action posts, the bones of Zeus’s Rage shuddered. A shockwave reverberated through the inertial spokes until it dissipated into a mere tremor beneath Delphine’s feet. They’d been hit.

For a moment, everyone was still.

Activate the—”

The command was sucked from Delphine’s throat as a flash eroded through the bridge and hard vacuum rushed in, pushing out the atmosphere in a torrent of brutal sound. She was wrenched from the command station but managed to latch onto one of her men, then onto the next station along, clawing at the controls and levers, tearing her nails to bloody splinters, as her legs dangled wildly towards the fresh tear in the hull.

The crew to the aft were pulled through the foot-wide breach and eviscerated in the seconds it took for the emergency Rosolov Field to register the atmospheric drop and seal the opening.

Delphine fell to the deck as atmosphere returned, gasping for air as emergency protocols redirected the ship’s oxygen to the bridge. For a moment she just lay there, staring face down at a faded scuff in the brushed metal deck panelling, wondering just how many times it was now that she’d narrowly escaped death.

One of her men helped her back to her feet and she assessed the damage. Perhaps half a dozen of the crew were lost. A few injured. A severed pair of legs twitched beneath the torn metal wound of the hull breach, the owner having been sliced in two by the auxiliary Rosolov Field as they were hurled out towards dead space.

Hollenbeck helped Madaki from where the old man had slid into the footwell of the comms station. It was a pity the Captain hadn’t been pushed into vacuum with the others.

“Activate weapons defence RF,” she commanded. “Now.”

The bridge crew scurried into action as the Zeus’s Rage trembled with another blow.

∆∆∆

Delphine sat in the conduit interview room on Hilda Prison Station, wrists locked to the steel table in front of her, when the hologram of Sar Palo Mi appeared, smiling.

“Good news?” she asked him. “Or are you currently at some tacky Second-Citizen party? By all means enjoy yourself, Mi. After all, we’re not all stuck in here.”

The room smelled of damp recycled air mixed with the faint rotting that arises when the filters aren’t changed as regularly as they should be, and the light overhead flickered as it glowered down. Still, at least she had room to stretch her legs here. Her cell was a two-metre by two-metre box, consisting of four grimy walls, lavatory functions and a steel shelf upon which to sleep. A ring of dull neon buzzed constantly, harsh and relentless. But she’d endured worse. At least they’d put her far from the screams of other prisoners. It also gave her ample opportunity to think.

“Actually, it is good news,” Mi said. “For me, that is. For you, well, that depends. I could have an added incentive in seeing you’re acquitted, which would benefit us both greatly, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

“Oh?” Delphine raised a curious eyebrow. “Is your fee not sufficient incentive?”

Mi was a renowned lawyer, notorious throughout the First-Citizens of the Imperial Network for his total lack of ethics and his extortionate fee. He lost on average only one in fifty cases he worked and could therefore command whatever sum he liked. Within reason, of course. He was as corrupt as the prison days were long, which meant he was predictable. And that’s exactly what she needed him to be, nice and predictable.

“My fee is fine for the average case…” he said, taking the seat opposite her. Of course, he wasn’t really there. He was sitting in another conduit room on Earth, millions of klicks away from where she sat, deep in the Hilda cluster of Sol’s asteroid belt. The conduit room wasn’t the most resplendent of locations, but it was secure. No one would hear them here.

“But this isn’t an average case?” Delphine said.

“Precisely.” Mi smiled. He was slim, Asian, with quick eyes and a fine quiff of dark hair, immaculately styled. He looked younger than his fifty-something years through obvious deoxy tweaking – the skin on his face was new, raw. His appfit suit was expensive. He cared about having nice things. And, like most Second-Citizens, he was obsessed with being granted Citizen Ascension.

He activated his handhelm and gestured for the holoscreen that emerged from his palm to move to the table between them. Headlines scrolled along the bottom, while in the main window Network Today presenter, Sar Duke Thomas, stood before an image of Delphine, the attempts of a scowl set over his amphibious-looking face, as he told the Imperial Network worlds all about her treacherous deeds. They were even blaming her for the Network’s most recent failure; Mu Arae had driven Network Military Forces from Leto after twenty years of occupation on the planet.

At least her picture was flattering.

Mi retrieved the holoscreen and it evaporated in his hand. “You get the idea. It’s all about you, dear.”

“Dear?” Delphine said, her voice even. “You forget to whom you speak, Sar. I am the High Commander of the Imperial Network’s Olympus Fleet and you will address me as such. Are we clear, dear?”

“Forgive me, High Commander,” Mi said, bowing low. “I mean no disrespect.”

All her necessities had been taken. Her handhelm had been disabled and her neuro-optic IN-screen lenses peeled painfully away from her eyeballs. Rough prison attire scraped like wire against her skin and she hadn’t washed in weeks; both her skin and her short, cropped dark hair were grimy with sweat and air-scrubber residue. But even as she sat in her disgraced state, she wouldn’t have her position questioned, especially by an insect like Mi. Not when she’d given up everything to get there.

“What I mean to say,” Mi continued, “is that the Network wants your blood, and the Imperial Congress is fully prepared to bottle-feed it to the Citizens like medicine. They intend to pin everything on you.”

Delphine waved a dismissive hand. “Are you going to get to your point any time soon?”

“Of course.” He grinned. “But if they were to know what I know, I’m afraid your case would be even more hopeless than it currently is. You see, High Commander, I know your secret.”

Delphine said nothing for a long moment, then reclined in her chair, allowing a smile to rise from the side of her mouth. “My secret?”

Mi leaned in. “You know, I’ve been wondering exactly how you’ve gotten away with it for so long. But now I’m actually really not at all surprised. Who would question a First-Citizen family like von Dallas? Not only that, but like you said, you’re High Commander of the Network’s Olympus Fleet. Who would even think it was a possibility?” He reclined smugly, mimicking her relaxed posture. “I have evidence that will destroy everything you’ve built for yourself. It will leave you markless, powerless, stripped of your Grade and your reputation beyond desiccation. You will most certainly be found guilty of all the crimes held against you and you will then be put to death.”

Delphine wasn’t smiling now. She stared at the man unblinkingly until he had no choice but to look away.

“Thee billion marks and Ascension to First-Citizen,” he said. “That will pay for my silence indefinitely and to convince the court to acquit you of all charges, despite the fact you’re clearly guilty.”

“I can think of at least a dozen less costly ways of paying for your silence,” Delphine said.

“Yes, I thought you might think so. So I’ve arranged for your secret to be revealed to the worlds before my body even grows cold, should I suffer a little accident, that is.”

Delphine grinned despite herself. She had to give him credit for his meticulousness. He really thought he had her. She then let out a long sigh and nodded. “You’ll have your money and I’ll do all I can with the Citizen Ascension. But you realise this all now hangs on you winning. If you lose, I’ll have no reason to want this secret of mine concealed.”

Mi smiled. “But you’ll also have no money or power to do anything about it.”

Delphine hardened her stare until it was steel. “Don’t under estimate me, Mi.”

He let out a deprecating laugh. “I wouldn’t dream of it, High Commander.”

“Good. Because if you fail, you’ll find it will not end well for you. Can I assume that you’ll now be working round the clock on my case? That is, after all, what I’m paying you for, is it not?”

“Absolutely, High Commander. I shall deliver you a sensational win, just wait.”

“Then, if we’re done here, I believe my assistant is waiting.”

“Yes, indeed. And thank you, High Commander. You’ve made the right decision.”

Delphine inclined her head slightly. “I always do.”

Sar Palo Mi bowed and his hologram dissipated.

Delphine’s wrists were sore from the magnetic restraints. She attempted to alleviate the pain by prising a finger into the non-existent space between the metal and skin, but failed and gave up with a curse as the hologram of a woman appeared, constructing itself from billions of cubic-pixels and standing soldier-like before her.

“Mercy,” Delphine said with a smile. “You’ll be pleased to know that everything is going according to the plan.”

“Mi found the evidence and did as you predicted?” Her expression was serious as always. Mercy was athletic, dark-skinned and kept her hair shaved to the scalp. Her eyes were grey stone and her mouth a delicate pink blossom sliced sharply in two.

“Of course. The greedy little man wanted to use what he found for his own benefit, regardless of what it means. Are the assets secured in their new homes?”

“They’ve been relocated as instructed, High Commander.”

“And my son?”

“Moved from Olympus Mons. He’s well protected at your Paris apartment. I made sure of it, personally.”

“Good. Have him brought to London for the Court Martial. Let the worlds remember I’m a mother.”

Delphine’s guts danced. There was nothing left to do but wait for it to begin. She peered down at the steel table and gave her reflection a vomitus look. “And have a room ready for me at the Tokyo Lux when it’s over. I’m going to need at least a week of spa treatments to wring the smell of this wretched station from me.”

Mercy nodded, the light dancing over her forehead.

“You’re doing brilliantly,” she said. “I want you to know that.”

“Thank you, High Commander. I will never let you down.”

“I know. Dismissed.”

Mercy saluted and her hologram shimmered out of existence.

Delphine turned her attention back to the dank conduit room. The marred bulkheads were scored with dark stains and despairing claw marks. She stared into the black vat of space through the small porthole window and the darkness stared back at her.

Things were about to get interesting.

DDadOUTNOW

∆∆∆

The Arae Army warship hovered over Furoris, a black pupil swimming in a yellow iris. Its target sensors were locked onto them, waiting for the moment to strike.

Zeus’s Rage’s Rosolov Field kept them protected at full weapons defence, but being so soon after Tate Drive spin-down, and almost three hours of the two warships hurling plasma across the battlespace, it was draining energycell allowance fast.

Delphine had moved the Rage out of high orbit and ordered maximum retaliation fire to the initial attack, but the enemy craft fended off their plasma pointers with minimal effort, having also shrouded itself in armour technology. The two ships were now at a stalemate.

Zeus’s Rage was unable to get a reading on the enemy’s shield status, so Delphine had no choice but to send out stealth drones. According to the readings, the Arae Army were also losing power. Slowly. Neither ship had the limitless energy capacity to remain shielded indefinitely. The first ship’s armour to fail would lose them the battle.

The Mu Arae warship’s main objective, however, wasn’t simply to destroy Zeus’s Rage. It had birthed a cloud of fighter vessels that now made their way to the surface of Furoris.

“We need to send our troops down at once,” Madaki said. “That is where the battle will be. Not up here, waiting. Without us to defend them, the people of Furoris will be slaughtered.”

“I don’t think so,” Delphine said, watching Arae Army fighter ships break into atmosphere, like a display of muzzle fire in the cloud formations. “The people of Furoris are prisoners.”

Madaki made a choking noise in the back of his throat. “They’re being re-educated.”

“They’re there against their will, and the Network put them there. How much persuading do you think they’ll need before deciding to fight with Mu Arae?”

“Surely they will see—”

“All they’ll see is an opportunity to get off that damned planet.”

Madaki stood by her side upon the command station and ran his fingers through his moustache. The man had captained the Zeus’s Rage for almost forty years. He had fought for the Network in the claiming of Hydra, Zeta Cancri and Leto and he was mercilessly loyal. Stupidly so. Delphine couldn’t quite make up her mind whether to admire or pity him.

“If we send troops down there now,” she went on, “we could very well be sending them to fight not only Arae Army troops, but the millions being re-educated. We’re not prepared for that. We will lose and we will be killed and the Network will suffer losses to its forces that will leave us more vulnerable than we’ve ever been before, while at the same time tripling the Arae Army in number.”

“With serfs,” the man said. “What threat is an army of serfs?”

She turned and raised an eyebrow. “Do you really want to find out?”

“So what do you suggest we do? Nothing? Might I remind the High Commander that as well as prisoners… those undergoing re-education… there are also the officers and guards and their families on that planet, all of whom are certified Citizens of the Imperial Network and are entitled to every right and protection that privilege brings.”

“Right you are, Captain,” Delphine conceded. “But there is also another complication of which you’re not aware.”

“And what is that?”

“I’m afraid the details are classified, but what I can tell you is that there is highly sensitive knowledge on Furoris. If the enemy got their hands on this it would be very bad for the Network. Very bad, indeed.”

Captain Madaki faced the dirty golden planet. The last of the fighters disappeared into the lower-atmosphere. “So where does that leave us, High Commander?”

“At this point there is only one thing we can do,” Delphine said. “We must destroy Furoris, and with it the enemy’s forces and the knowledge they cannot be allowed to possess.”

The man took in a sharp breath. He looked at her with confusion, as though it wasn’t a woman standing before him, but an unfathomable creature. For a moment there was silence. The crew were watching the exchange intently. “I’m afraid I cannot allow you to do that, High Commander,” he said at last, his eyes glazed and his voice thin.

“I understand completely, Captain,” she said with a smile, before nodding to her man standing beside them.

As Madaki turned, a spray of blood burst from his chest, speckling his face, his lapels and the shining war medals pinned to his breast. He looked down for a moment, his face taking on a mild surprise at the hollow crevice above his stomach, before falling from the command station platform onto the bridge deck. A pool of red spread out from underneath the man, snaking like small rivers into the crevices between the deck panelling.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Delphine said. Her guard lowered his weapon and stepped back into position with the others.

She turned to the crew. “XO Hollenbeck.” The younger man stood behind the first navigation station, staring wide-eyed at Captain Madaki’s body. “Congratulations, you’ve just been promoted. You’re the new Captain of Zeus’s Rage.”

The man gaped, unsure whether he was supposed to take up position in the Captain’s chair or attempt to arrest her. He turned his clammy stare to each of the bridge stations in turn, as if searching for the answer. But the officers just sat silently. It was his move.

When faced with a moral dilemma, militants would often do anything as long as the orders sounded authoritative in their conviction. Delphine had found that particular trait extremely helpful throughout her military career.

“Captain Hollenbeck,” Delphine said, stepping down from the command station and beginning across the bridge towards him. Her long dress trailed behind her in a wave of azure. “Prepare the warheads, then take us out eight-hundred klicks and deactivate the weapons RF.”

The new Captain paused, glanced at Madaki faced down upon the deck and said, “Yes, High Commander. Which warheads?”

“All of them.”

Again, Hollenbeck paused, but a firm stare from Delphine chased his limbs to action. He took to the Captain’s chair and ordered the ship to move out.

“And redirect cell energy to cloaking.”

“That will deplete our cells and leave us with only minutes of RF integrity, barely enough to get back to Earth.”

“I’m aware,” Delphine replied sternly.

To the enemy it would seem as though they were fleeing, knowing that Zeus’s Rage had little time remaining before Rosolov field failure. With the cells being occupied by cloaking, the warship would need the remaining field integrity for the journey back to Earth at Tate speed.

“Keep at a steady four-kyles, deactivate the RF and fire up the main thrusters,” Delphine ordered. “Spool Tate Drive. But we’re not going anywhere just yet. Have the warheads ready to fire upon my command. All at once.”

“But the enemy ship still has RF integrity,” Hollenbeck said, confused.

“Aim the warheads at Furoris,” she said casually, without turning her head.

There was a brief muttering among the crew, but no one moved.

Now,” she ordered.

Zeus’s Rage dropped its Rosolov field, feigning cell expiration mere minutes before it was actually due to die. The Mu Arae warship predictably washed them with a target array and readied an attack before they could flee out of weapons range and prepare the crew for fugue stasis entry.

“They’ve locked on to us,” a defence station officer announced.

“Warheads are primed and ready,” Hollenbeck said.

Fire,” Delphine commanded.

One-hundred and sixty Empress-class nuclear warheads targeted a single point on both hemispheres of Furoris just as the Arae Army fired upon Zeus’s Rage. The enemy’s plasma pointer, however, found the Network warship’s Rosolov field once again fully active, but by then there wasn’t time to intercept the cluster of warheads before they reached the planet.

“Main thrusters are ready,” Hollenbeck said, but Delphine could barely hear. She was transfixed.

As the warheads made impact with Furoris, a fiery bloom of death appeared – firstly as a small white spot that quickly turned red, like a gunshot wound through flesh. It then sent out a scorching plume high into the lower atmosphere, followed by sonic waves of fire and destruction that ripped over the surface, peeling away the planet’s skin and leaving everything it touched burned and dead.

The planet’s once-mustard surface charred to a bone-burned black.

“High Commander, we have to leave,” Hollenbeck said. His voice was trembling. “We have minutes until our RF goes red.”

“Just a moment,” Delphine said through her smile. “I’m watching the show.”

∆∆∆

With every Citizen of the Imperial Network watching, Sar Duke Thomas, famous and admired host of Network Today, the people’s most trusted news source, grinned his taught grin at the hovering camera drones as he began the news bulletin with his renowned opening words.

“Greetings, loyal Citizens of the great Imperial Network. I’m Duke Thomas, and here is the news on this fine day.”

Behind him the giant holoscreen set dissolved from the striking Network Emblem – a bold white N on a background of red, surrounded by thirteen stars to form a circle around it – to a majestic scene of Earth from upper orbit, half cloaked in shadow with the sun’s rays splintering over the curved horizon.

“This is a bulletin for all Citizens,” Duke Thomas continued, reading from the script revolving over his IN-screen lenses. “Today’s top story… High Commander Delphine von Dallas of the Imperial Network’s Olympus Fleet will be brought back to Earth from Hilda Prison Station today to face charges of treason, conspiracy and murder. Von Dallas was arrested following the abhorrent genocide of over three million souls… half of those being fellow Network Citizens, when she ordered the nuking of the re-education world, Furoris. During the ill-fated mission, which was assigned to defend the world from Mu Arae forces, von Dallas was also responsible for the brutal murder of Captain Foo Madaki, war hero of the Vega Fleet and loyal veteran of the Network Forces.”

Duke Thomas paused dramatically, as was his way, and attempted to set his face to a woeful expression; he had undergone so many deoxy tweaking procedures that his face had lost much of its flexibility, not to mention definition. His nose was a petit shallow mound with pin-prick nostrils, his lips barely there and his eyelids blinked maybe once or twice every few minutes, because he found he now struggled to get the tight flaps of skin to move fluidly over his watery eyeballs. But his face was magnificently ageless, featureless and smooth. When he smiled, he exposed a horror of perfect white teeth, and on his head sat a flawlessly groomed fop of violet hair.

“It has since been discovered,” he went on, “that the traitor von Dallas has been plotting with the rebel group, Caspian, in its deplorable attempts corrupt our peaceable worlds. Intelligence has also discovered that von Dallas was in fact responsible for concealing vital information, which if put into capable hands, could have thwarted the Arae Army’s craven and malicious attack on Leto. Luckily, due to the bravery of our own Network Forces stationed on the planet, we were able to react to devastate the enemy’s numbers before retreating to Zeta Cancri, where it is anticipated the Arae Army will next attempt to occupy in its futile efforts to usurp former Dark Zone planets. Our troops based on Leto and Zeta Cancri have now combined and more are on the way from the allied worlds of Argo and Hydra to help defend the planet. But fear not loyal Citizens. Naturally, the superiority of the Network Forces means victory is assured and plans are already being drawn up to re-take Leto.”

A holovid of Network troops bravely holding the front lines during the battle on Leto played behind. “Bravery Shines Above All Things” appeared in thick white lettering. Then “Enlist Now for automatic Citizen Ascension” scrolled across the bottom of the image.

“The severity of von Dallas’s treachery is so great that President Ackerman himself, in his magnanimousness, took time away from his busy schedule to make a rare public appearance at the mourning ceremony for the unfortunate Citizen’s lost on Furoris and the fallen troops on Leto. To listen to his rousing speech, press here.” Behind Duke Thomas an inset screen appeared in the top left of the holoscreen, then the main screen dissolved to show a deep-space mining vessel that shined gunmetal grey against hard vacuum.

“Intelligence has calculated that the loss of the serf commodity as a result of the re-education planet’s destruction will begin to affect Imperial Network Industries within three standard Earth years, if action is not taken. Panic buying has already seen serf prices rise by almost twenty percent. INI subsidiaries predicted to be most affected by the loss are the deep-space mining and excavation corps, foodkey production on Ly Gliese, the manufacturing hubs on Chiron and Eridanus and vessel construction on Mars Station. Divisions are attempting to mitigate the potential damage to the economy by investing in danny workdroids to replace serf workforces, which has also pushed up droid prices by five percent.

“Many Industry chiefs have rightfully called for the immediate execution of von Dallas, as have certain spoke factions of the Order of the Heavenly Bodies, who have labelled von Dallas God Killer for the destruction of Furoris. The Imperial Network, however, is taking steps to ensure serf trade continues and is already looking to establish a new world to re-educate out-laws and terrorists. To watch more on this after this bulletin, press here.” Another inset screen appeared on the holoscreen set behind Duke Thomas’s dark suit and once more the backdrop changed, this time showing various charts and graphs with ascending colorful lines and numbers. Duke had no idea what it meant.

“Finally, loyal Citizens,” he said, grinning at the camera drones, “here is your daily data. Quality of life throughout all Network worlds has risen by an average of two percent on last month and the birthrate has been steady enough that the Imperial Network will grant an extra two-hundred million child permits this year, so budding parents get your applications in quickly. Citizen Ascension has been gifted to fifty lucky Citizens, including Sar Ramone Dula for services to bravery during the battle on Leto, who will now join the ranks of Second-Citizen ascending from Third. Ma Mari Killn has also been granted Citizen Ascension for services to Industry. She is joining the ranks of Third-Citizens from Fourth.

“Also, let me remind you, loyal Citizens, that due to the von Dallas trial, this month’s traitor executions will not air this evening as usual, but have been moved to next week. To watch more on this, press here.” Another inset screen appeared and the backdrop returned to the Network emblem rippling in a light breeze.

Duke Thomas leaned forward onto the desk in front and smiled his most amiable smile. “I bid all my fellow Citizens good tidings. May your days be productive, your nights restful and your hearts ever devoted to our great worlds. Unity is freedom. Praise victory.”

∆∆∆

The journey back to Earth was brief, as all fugue stasis journeys were. On arrival, Delphine was whisked from the landing station at London’s Heathrow and bundled into a secure vehicle that waited outside. It lifted into the light roads that circled the city and within minutes she arrived at the Court of the Hand of Justice, crawling with uniformed Protectorate officers.

Official Network media drones swarmed around her with shining eyeball lenses when she exited, her hands still bound with magnetic restraints. But she had been cleaned and dressed in her own appfits; a dirty and mistreated woman in rags might evoke pity. And they wanted her to be every part the villain.

She said nothing as the drones attacked her with questions and accusations. Instead, she ascended the stone steps of the court silently, encircled by an aura of heavily armed guards and Protectorate.

The Imperial Network emblem adorned the courtroom, from mosaic-tiled floor to the carved vaulted ceiling. Banners draped from the stalls in flashes of red and even the guards, which stood in every corner, still as stone sentinels, were ornamented in intricate Network livery. The Hand of Justice himself sat in dark robes behind a heavy oak bench that towered over the court. His hooded eyes threw Delphine a sidelong glance as she entered, while a shard of light reflected off his bald, age-mottled scalp and onto a mighty N carved into the panelling behind. It smelled of pomp and oak wax.

She was pushed inside a glass cage raised in the centre of the courtroom. An alter ready for the slaughter. Her hands and feet locked automatically to the metal bench within. The pews were full to bursting with eager spectators; hundreds of First Citizens had come to gleefully watch the drama play out. She recognised many of their leering faces. Mercy sat among them in the lofty domes. Her son, August, sat next to her, looking down with those sad eyes of his.

A fatal pressure suffocated the murmuring in the stalls as the Hand of Justice raised his arms, and the trial for her life began.

Following a brief introduction, it was the Network’s Chief Prosecutor who spoke first.

“Millions dead,” he said. “Millions. But this trial isn’t just about the mass loss of life at your hands, High Commander von Dallas. This is not simply a trial for murder and genocide. Your nefarious deeds have cost the Network much, much more.”

Chief Network Prosecutor Blaine Cvee was as crooked as he was annoyingly handsome. She met him once at some Senator’s party and found they got on extremely well. He dealt with cases the Imperial Congress wanted resolved by any means necessary. The Hand of Justice and famed war veteran, Major Connelly Davis, however, was not so corruptible. He was a man of such high regard within the Network that any sentence passed by him would be deemed fair by all and questioned by no one.

Prosecutor Cvee placed his hands together in a gesture similar to prayer. “What I will prove to you, Sar Justice, beyond a doubt, is that not only is von Dallas a mass-murderer on the scale humanity has never seen before, but she is in fact a traitor to the Imperial Network, responsible for the Arae Army’s current occupation on Leto and that she conspired with Mu Arae to cripple our economy. And…” He thrust an accusing finger in her direction. “…That she was fully aware of the calamitous consequences her actions would have on us all.”

“Thank you, Sar Prosecutor,” the Hand of Justice said. Cvee bowed and took his seat at the facing bench. “I understand that the defence has an opening statement to make. Is this correct?”

“That’s right, Sar Justice,” Sar Palo Mi said, standing from his seat. “Were the actions of High Commander von Dallas the right ones? Perhaps not. But were they committed with the intention to cause harm to the Imperial Network worlds? Absolutely not. What I will prove to you, Sar Justice, is that her actions met the needs of orders given to her. She­—”

“I think I’ll take it from here,” Delphine interrupted suddenly.

The stalls began to mutter and Sar Palo Mi’s expression fell to confusion. He began rifling awkwardly through the note files on his handhelm. “Beg your pardon, Sar Justice.” He laughed as though embarrassed. “May I consult with my client?”

“That isn’t necessary,” Delphine said. “I have decided that I would like to make the opening statement myself. I believe that is allowed, Sar Justice?”

“Well, yes it is permitted,” the Hand of Justice replied, “but considering the gravity of the charges laid before you it is not advisable in this instance.”

“I thank you for your concern, Sar Justice. But you see, I am the only person in all of the Imperial Network worlds that can say what I’m about to say. No one else knows the truth of it.”

“I must insist I speak with my client, Sar Justice,” Mi urged.

“Your client has refused, Sar Defence,” the High Justice said irritably. “Please let us move on with the proceedings. You may continue, High Commander.”

The eager lenses of the hovering media drones closed in, ready to stream her every word to the hundred billion Imperial Network Citizens and all other souls that cared enough to sleaze the signal. Finally, the time had come. She took in a breath, lifted her head and began.

“Over twenty years ago, when the Network first launched its mass assault on the rebelling planet Leto, a little girl named Kathreen Martin was taken from her home by Network Forces…”

Delphine Descends is available now at Amazon.

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