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The Angel of the Contretemps

Orion in the Perseus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy? Why Orion? The Atlanteans were fixated on Orion, for good reason. Orion held unspeakable visual glory, which was one cause for Atlanteans to value this particular piece of stellar real estate. But Orion, as a gem in their imperial crown, possessed a practical function that far surpassed the aesthetic.

Orion was held to be Atlantean Crown Property chiefly because of the enormous ceremonial and philosophical role Orion played from time beyond reckoning. Atlantis without the Orion connection was unthinkable to them. Their royal line always included Orion as a sovereign possession, and Orion’s glory and vastness in turn embellished and undergirded the divine right of Atlantis’s reigning house. As long as Orion existed, the royal house of Atlantis would exist! Atlantis ruled the heavens and the earth, and Orion was thought sufficient proof that Atlantean power extended everywhere in the Universe, or, if not everywhere in actuality, at least to those portions that warranted Atlantean presence. Giving up Orion to anyone else was held to be giving up Atlantis proper to some new race or barbarian tribe! Never--never would they give up Orion! Just because the entrance, somehow, had been blocked for centuries against their patrols, that hardly meant they were relinquishing Orion to the interloper. If only they knew what the interloper was--that would have helped. Somehow his identity eluded them, try as they might to flush him out!

The gate to the Great Nebula was blocked, and without that gate it was useless to try another way, for there was no entering into Orion without high visibility, a visibility that frightened even the militarily-prepared Atlanteans.

If they had possessed their original forces, they would not have hesitated a moment to charge and force the gate or push in by another way. But cruel fate had robbed them of their greatest might when Atlantis--the motherland--broke up and sank into the ocean depths. Now they had to make do with the surviving fragments of a once unsurpassed armada of armored starships. One manned base remained to them adjacent to the Great Nebula, constructed in better times was difficult to keep going with a skeleton staff and limited resources. How long could they go on this way?

A decision had to be made fairly soon, whether to abandon the base and the claim to Orion, or attempt a frontal attack on the gate, utilizing the main force of their surviving fleet. With the changing of the imperial rule from Regency back to rule by less than born in the purple but still royal blooded members of the original reigning family, a change brought about by the incredible loss of the Crown Prince and his consort at the hands of certain barbarians on the home planet, the original agenda had to be modified somewhat drastically if they were ever to achieve their original objective of full restoration of Atlantis. Decades passed while the decision was given attention in the highest circles. The accession of Elektra, though held to be somewhat irregular by certain, ultra-orthodox commanders of royal blood themselves, was finally accepted as expedient. Someone had to rule! It might as well be the one who held chief claim to the royal line’s throne--if you overlooked her mother’s status as one of the lesser wives of the then reigning emperor.

Abandoning Mars was her first decision, in preparation for taking the throne to herself.

A commander of great strength of will and royal lineage, she swayed the others in the highest ranks to support her. And she had proven correct. The growth in science and engineering among the barbarians on earth had enabled them to put up crude rockets, that carried them to Mars and then beyond. It would have proved a great nuisance if the barbarians had come to Mars when they were still in occupation. Since the Atlanteans had no desire to interfere with the barbarians at this stage, preferring, due to their small numbers, to seek alternative means of establishing their former control over the planet, the barbarians were left free to fly here and there in the Solar System. What harm was that? The Atlanteans came and went as they pleased, regardless of human space exploration, and though the chiefs over the human space program knew about them, protocols and co-existence prevailed, whereby each side agreed not to meddle “unilaterally” in each other’s business.

Of course, the Atlanteans did not see it quite the way the humans did regarding these mutually advantageous protocols and procedures. They always claimed the prior and ineluctable right, the holding company property title itself, over Earth. It was just that they weren’t interested in exerting themselves in exercising that right--not for the moment, anyway. Human society was useful, in certain times and stages. But lately the numbers of this prolific, fast-breeding species were growing unmanageable--and the Atlanteans had tried, and failed, to reduce those numbers substantially for purposes of control. Now with the explosive growth in human science and engineering, much of it due to their own influence and the transfer of certain bits of Atlantean wisdom into human hands through various archival leaks, they chose to wait for a more auspicious time when it would clearly be to their advantage to step into Earth’s affairs on their own behalf.

If Earth was not quite ripe for that event at present, was Orion? Elektra, giving up Mars, was of the opinion they were giving up something relatively worthless for what the crown jewel--Orion and the Great Nebula. Freed from Mars, the Atlanteans could devote their energies and resources to attacking and capturing Orion, which somehow had slipped out of imperial control. Once installed in Orion, they could turn their attention back to little Earth. This was Elektra’s masterstroke of policy, and decade by decade her plan gained notable adherents in the chief councils. By the 1970’s, utilizing the human time system, she had won out with her plan, and it was only a question exactly when she would issue her command to attack.

House of Lord Qoqif, the military base lying off Orion’s gate at 0.60 pm. ubmus, Atlantean time, gleamed on the planetoid’s surface like a topaz embedded in the dull yellow sulphur-flow of an extinct volcano.

Plasma shipments from earth were few and far between, and that was about all the traffic that Qoqif received, decade after decade, century after century. When needed, staff was replenished from elsewhere, increasingly by foreign conscripts and slaves as the Atlantean birth rate continued to decline. Now with the release of the Martian colony’s personnel and resources, Qoqif could be revitalized. Springing into prominence and high strategic value, the base showed signs of life. Starships docked at the port, then unloaded, and returned to off-planet anchorage. Mars was soon empied of anything valuable. The fleet itself readied itself for action.

For hours after the engagement with the Enemy forces, the rebuff was so complete and shattering that the commander, Queen-elect Electra, was so stunned that she lay in her private stateroom and would see no one. What had happened to administer so severe and unexpected a blow, that three quarters of her fleet was destroyed and the rest—following her flagship—fled in “strategic retreat”?

Everything had gone as planned initially. They sped out from House of Lord Qoqif at the time she signaled to the captains of the starships, taking, it appeared, the Guardians of the Gateway of Orion by surprise. With little resistance easily swept aside they entered the grand Cavern. At least she had penetrated, while the main force of her fleet waited for her command to enter. But before she could issue the command, disaster fell on them—something that could not be explained happened. Crude, engineless, essentially powerless and manually-propelled craft manned by single pilots—it appeared to her sensors—with trajectories that linked them impossibly to Earth, intercepted the fleet in her rear. With incredible bursts of fire her fleet exploded and went up in flames before her eyes. The catastrophe was so great she thought for a moment she was seeing her homeland being destroyed once again before her eyes. The sight shook her too her knees. All she could do was take a brief glance at the strange installation gleaming ahead of her in the Cavern’s heart, something that looked like a bridge strung across the celestial chasm with brilliant blue lights, and it was time to return to the fragments of her fleet and lead a retreat.

Rage and fear almost paralyzed her thought processes as she struggled to rise to her feet and to maintain leadership in the face of the catastrophe. She managed, despite her own ship sustaining considerable damage due to collisions with flying debris from the doomed fleet. As she issued “retreat” to the surviving ships, she herself fled to save herself. As for the allied Nergulian slave fleet, which was just as shattered as hers, she gave them no instructions, thinking it was not worth the trouble.

Frantic, slap dash repairs were made in transit to a part of the Universe thought to be safe for the time it would take to do a thorough overhaul and restoration. As she lay in her stateroom, calming herself with sheer willpower, her mind was greatly exercised with the magnitude of her problem. How could Atlantis be saved from the wreckage of the battle—was everything lost? She could not tell. Ships followed her, but they were few, and some were burning. Would there be others? What possible chance was there that she might recoup their losses somehow? Would she be able to muster the resources and the personnel. The Nergul—could she lower her standards and admit them into her ships, when they were obviously an inferior species and meant only to serve Atlanteans as menials and allies? Would they be content to leave their status as it had been, or would they demand a share in the power and leadership of the Atlanteans? That would be impossible to concede them! Seeing her present weakness, coupled with an appeal for their help, might induce them to try to take advantage of the disaster and overthrow Atlantis. She realized that she must not risk it—the Nergul must remain subjects, with absolutely no power-sharing in the new arrangement that she must lead.

But how was she to replenish her ranks? With whom? Could she create enough hybrid Atlanteans to save the throne and the planned return? Yes, she decided, she must create enough new Atlanteans, with resort to hybridization. The animals most revered, the sacred beasts, would provide the DNA for the matches. She herself would set the example by taking a new body, hybridized or completely animal, for the new order of Atlantean society.

What animal would suit her? What beast was royal and hieratic enough? While she thought about it, she knew already what her choice would be.

The uraeus, the royal cobra, was the only animal noble enough to house her spirit. With a supreme act of will, she drew her body up off the couch. It was shattered with the latest shock of having to view the destruction of the royal fleet, she realized. She must seek another body quickly before the present one utterly collapsed. What kind would best suit a queen?

Later, in her new body, she greeted her remaining captains, and despite their woeful conditions, most bearing injuries and bad burns, they applauded her wildly. She kept certain features, such as her nose, mouth and chin, and her vocal ability—not willing to make a complete transfer over from one body to another. As for her eyes, they were the same as she had always had To defend herself, she had fangs, of course. But these were ceremonial, of course, since as commander she would have no need of self-defense—at least as long as her flagship existed.

But what about her fleet? Though she knew that Earth would never have anything to equal the fragments that reassembled under her control, she realized that the great reduction in her staff and personnel cast the whole colonization scheme into grave jeopardy. How could she return to Earth with so few? She could not possible govern an entire planet with a mere thousand Atlanteans and ten ships. This situation provided a tremendous challenge to her ingenuity. How was she going to reassert Atlantean power and hegemony with so little manpower and ships?

Days turned to weeks, then months in the Atlantean calendar, and she still could not think of the best way to fill the enormous gaps. It was too slow a process to rely on hybridization alone—she needed something else to supplement what she herself could produce. Could she capture humans, kill them, then use their bodies? Before she was content to drink their blood. But now she could see a vital use for both blood and bodies.

After giving the order for massive abductions, she felt she had at least succeeded in finding a solution. It would not be long before she had the thousands necessary to resume the takeover of Earth. As for Orion, that too returned to the realm of possibility.

Things were looking brighter! Elektra, as she glided easily about her stateroom or sat, her full length draped on the royal couch, was pleased. Anything was possible now. Her power crystals were still working well enough to power her latest plans, and who could seriously challenge her? If only she knew just how and what her human assailants had been in the battle for Orion, she might have felt wholly at peace. But the rockets with their human drones had vanished as quickly as they had attacked, self-destructing or perhaps returning to their bases. As for the Nergul, she had given them word that their own losses were their fault, not hers. She had expected them to keep adequate guard on their rear—which they obviously failed to do. She charged them with the serious jeopardy they had put her in—by allowing themselves to be attacked without giving her warning. If they had warned her of the incoming rockets, she might have dealt with them—as it was, they were responsible for the widespread damage to her fleet and whatever injuries they had sustained.

With these stiff reprimands she had sent the Nergulian commanders packing. What she required their services again, she told them, they would be notified.

After the interview, she was certain she was right in not divulging the true extent of the damage to her fleet. When the commanders asked about her fleet, she said that she had lost one, but she had another in reserve just as great. And she indicated to them that if they entertained any thought of insurrection against her rule, they would be punished severely, without prior notification.

“You are my slaves,” she told them. “You will do whatever I tell you to do. After failing me in the battle, you are fortunate to retain your lives together with your rank. When I think of a suitable punishment, you will be informed. “

Cowed and frightened, the Nergalian commanders were shown out of her presence. They passed massive rents in the flagships hull and infrastructure, which had been admirably concealed just for their visit.

How they hated and mistrusted the upstart queen! But they feared reprisals even more. And her terrible new body awed them. She had been only a woman previously, now she was a deadly uraeus, a great serpent taller than a man. They suspected that she was lying to them, and bluffing them with threats, but her new form confused them. Could so great a sorceress as this one be powerless to enforce her threats? Slaves in mentality since birth, even though they commanded slaves, they did not dare to test her authority. Instead, they returned to their own decimated fleet and feasted upon their own slaves—in a banquet that was meant to restore their fighting spirit. This was the Nergulian way—throw slaves in the cooking pot--and it had always worked before in dire circumstances to revive them. Licking their wounds, sated with Nergulian stew, they waited for Elektra’s directive and whatever form her punishment would take.

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