Space Opera (Act One)

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Xanthe D'Achernar ducked, and thrust an armoured fist up into the air. The titanium dagger fell harmlessly to the ground and she spun around, searching for the perpetrator even as her guards rushed forward to protect her.

"That was too close for comfort, Matris," murmured Janna. Her chief guard gave Xanthe her proper title. Xanthe watched dispassionately as two of her women wrestled another to the ground. She was wriggling like an eel-fish in their grasp, but that wasn't going to save her as one of the guards shot a needle into her neck.

"At least they didn't send a male this time," Xanthe remarked in dry tones. "The Orionists have learnt something, after all these years." Her guards picked up the now unconscious woman between them, and took her away to be interrogated.

Xanthe examined the armour on her left wrist, checking for damage. Her sky-red hair was tied back in a long plait down her back, tucked inside the golden suit which covered her from head to toe. Only her face was open to the air for this short walk to the Senate. She should have been safe enough, in the middle of the Ruling Sector, but she was too experienced to take even the slightest risk. There was a price to pay for being the Matriarch's eldest daughter and heir. She didn't leave her personal quarters without her body armour.

"I suppose these assassination attempts are a small price to pay. Better than whole planets going to war at any rate." Xanthe shuddered as she remembered her visit to the molten ruins of what had one been the most populated planet of Acamar.

She had also seen the ruined worlds of Saiph, in Orion, before their two constellations had been on this current Verge of War. The visits were a rite of passage for all leaders - Orionist and Eridani alike - intended to impress upon them the devastating consequences of uncontolled war, in graphic detail.

Janna snorted. "It's barbaric, if you ask me! I thought we were supposed to be a civilised society? Surely we have advanced beyond these physical attacks on each other after all these years?"

"On the plus side," smiled Xanthe, "At least this current conflict has stopped Mother trying to marry me off to Prince Argos. He might be King Mykel's heir, but he's too much of an arrogant chauvinist for my liking. When we first met, he had the nerve to say I looked bigger than he had expected from the holo-vids." She looked down with pride at her well-toned body, almost two metres of it. She was all muscle, painfully acquired through years of combat training and physical exercise.

Bethe, Xanthe's youngest sister, suppressed a sigh of envy. No matter how hard she applied herself, she was still going to be the smallest in the family.

"He's handsome enough, though," murmured Bethe, a trifle wistfully. She rather liked big, strong men, with black hair and dark eyes.

"Handsome is as handsome speaks," retorted Xanthe drily. "In any case, as long as we are on the Verge of War, the whole issue is immaterial."

A small dot flashed in the upper right quadrant of her vision. Xanthe straightened. "Something's happened," she said, already striding forward. "We're wanted in the Senate, now. Both of us."

~~~

General Shu'Tok smiled in grim satisfaction as he watched the silver specks on his display converge on their unsuspecting targets. Each speck represented a Warstar Ship, carrying weapons and seasoned fighters, fresh from their conquest of the Pleiades .

An hour later, the primary planets of both Bellatrix and Mu were under attack. Loud explosions took out key installations and fighters streamed down from the skies.

~~~

After the initial shock, Orion and Eridanus reacted swiftly, activating defence procedures and putting their battle fleets on the highest alert. Their first instinct was to blame each other. Urgent councils were called, and top military strategists from both Constellations discussed the previously unthinkable possibility of full scale war between them.

In Rigella, the King brought his family together in the communication chamber, presenting a united front to their people. He made a stirring speech, assuring all Orionists that Eridanus would pay dearly for their treacherous attack.

In Achernar, the Matriarch addressed the Senate, her daughters at her side, reassuring the Eridanis that they were well prepared to defend themselves against the Orionists' aggression.

Then the first detailed reports of the attacks came in. The report described ships that no-one had seen before in this part of the galaxy. Huge black spaceships that were twice the size of anything either Orion or Eridanus possessed.

Disbelieving, the King and Matriarch watched and listened as the data streamed in. It appeared they were both under attack by a third party. Could they trust the evidence before them? Or was it a clever trick? The air was thick with theories and strategies as their advisors considered the new facts. Although more than one person was unconvinced that the ships came from outside their quadrant, they were soon over-ruled as the first images of the invaders came in. They were not quite human. Their fighters were half machine.

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