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The Vau Arrival (5006-5007)
The Lantern of Sainte Vargo had proven its effectiveness as a weapon against the Dark at the Battle of Prophet's Crossing, of that there was no doubt. Yet Rees Catalfan had promised that his forces were merely the vanguard of the Children of the Void. If that was more than boastful hyperbole, the army of darkness might yet rise again to threaten Vargo. If and when that day came, they might just need the Lantern once more. If it still existed, it had to be found. No one knew where to even begin looking for it.
Winter yielded to spring, as Vargo endured the next month without threats from rampaging barbarians or nefarious antinomists. Preparations to elect a new Protector had to be delayed until the Hazat Prince chose a new Keyholder to succeed Duke Alvaro. It appeared that a replacement might also be required for Baroun Arjoun al-Malik, who had returned to his homeworld of Aylon for reasons of health. Rumor had it that his condition had taken a turn for the worse, and that he would remain there on his personal estates.
For Field Marshal Valencia, on the other hand, it was a very busy month. Baron Shiraku Ichiro Li-Halan, lord of Xing Yuan, had issued a pronouncement that freed all of his serfs. In the wake of this startling decree, rumors began circulating that all the serf contracts on Vargo were invalid. Riots and armed insurrections broke out across the Triumvirate as serfs demanded their freedom, and the weakened forces of the VDF were preoccupied with restoring order as they chased rebels through the countryside, often fruitlessly.
The situation took a turn for the worse on April 2nd, when Vice Marshal Ching of the Vargo AeroSpace Defense Force reported to the faction leaders that a huge Kurgan fleet had come through the jumpgate, bound for Vargo. This armada included enough troop transports to carry 15,000 soldiers, and they were accompanied by several capital ships and smaller escorts. If these troops were allowed to reach Vargo, the weakened VDF would be overwhelmed in short order. All the sacrifices that had been made would be in vain.
Enter the Armada
The frigates and gunboats of the VASDF, joined by the Imperial fighter squadron from Highport Station, accelerated out to meet the Kurgans in battle halfway between Vargo and the jumpgate. As confident and cocky as Wheelers can be, the Charioteers hoped their consummate skill and secret combat techniques might yet win the day over the Caliph's superior numbers. The Known Worlders back on Vargo waited anxiously for word of the outcome as days went by. A week later, two battered gunboats returned to Vargo.
The news those gunboats carried was not good. The VASDF had inflicted heavy casualties on the Kurgan escorts, indeed, but it had been all but obliterated in the process. Four troop transports had been destroyed, taking out thousands of the Caliph's soldiers with them. Yet 11,000 troops were still bound for Vargo, guarded by a heavy cruiser, a frigate, and an escort carrier--and now there was nothing standing between them and the planet. Not even the defenses of Highport Station would last long against such force.
The next five days passed in anxious waiting, as Field Marshal Valencia made what preparations he could for the defense of Vargo. It was not clear whether the Kurgans would land the troops at Lerado and attack the Triumvirate later, or attempt a direct assault at Vargo City immediately while the VDF was still weakened. If the latter, the Triumvirate government would have to flee to the countryside, perhaps to Fort Paloma or Port Lewellyn, and mount a guerrilla war in the hopes that reinforcements would eventually arrive from offworld.
On the 13th of April, 5006, the Kurgan fleet finally arrived in Vargo orbit. The Charioteer merchant craft had fled, leaving Highport Station to face the enemy alone. The only other craft in orbit was the enigmatic Vau warship that was almost always there. Eyewitnesses aboard the station reported what happened next. As the Kurgan ships deployed to bombard Highport Station into oblivion, the Vau ship suddenly came about and opened fire with its plasma weapons. Within five minutes, the entire Kurgan armada was destroyed.
The Vau Interdiction
The motives behind the Vau intervention were not immediately clear, but the inhabitants of the Triumvirate were grateful nonetheless. Once again, the Known Worlders had apparently been snatched from the jaws of certain defeat at the hands of an implacable enemy. As debris from the Kurgan fleet burned up in Vargo's atmosphere, creating a spectacular meteor shower, the Known Worlders pondered just what the Vau's actions might portend. Their questions were answered by a broadcast from the Vau the next day.
"The fruits of human greed and perfidy have upset the Architects' plan on Vargo," an inscrutable Mandarin pronounced on their viewscreens, in a transmission picked up across the planet by everyone equipped to receive it. "The auguries inform us that what has been done, must be undone. For this reason, the Hegemony shall allow humankind five years to repair the damage they have done. If the balance has not been restored by the end of that span, we shall eradicate all human life from the face of Vargo."
"Be it further known," the Mandarin continued in the same cold, emotionless monotone, "that the Hegemony shall no longer tolerate human interference in the destiny of those whom the Architects have touched, and to whom Vargo truly belongs. Henceforth, no human may settle permanently within any area of Vargo where dwell the Pakti, nor may any human intervene in their affairs. Any human who violates this proscription shall be punished severely."
"In order to protect the Pakti as required by our duty to the Architects," concluded the Mandarin, sounding like a bored instructor from the Academy Interatta lecturing his students, "and to minimize the imbalance that humans have wrought upon Vargo, we shall henceforth restrict the importation of arms and military forces to this world. Any warship of a size greater than a frigate that enters the system shall be destroyed, as shall vessels transporting troops. Let all who hear these words heed the will of the Architects."
Facing the Facts
The Known Worlders on Vargo reacted to this pronouncement with a mixture of consternation and outrage. Who were these 'Architects' of which the Vau spoke? In what way had humanity upset their plan, and why should humankind give a damn anyway? By what right did the Vau threaten to wipe humankind from the face of Vargo?! The faction leaders were beset with angry demands that they respond to the Vau decree with force. They had no forces with which to respond, even were they foolish enough to consider such action.
As word of the Vau pronouncement spread, fresh rioting broke out in Vargo City and other urban centers across the Triumvirate. Presumably, the same was true in Kurgan- and Vargen-held areas across the planet, for the broadcast had been general and apparently applied to all humans regardless of affiliation. Field Marshal Valencia took what steps he could to restore order, but sympathized with the despair behind the public unrest. The human inhabitants of Vargo had been handed a death sentence, and had five years left to live.
Unless, of course, someone could figure out what humanity had done to upset these enigmatic Architects, and find a way to fix the problem. Chancellor Howe tried to raise the Vau via squawker, asking them to clarify their pronouncement. He had communicated with them before in this manner. This time his queries were met with silence. It seemed that no help would be coming from that quarter. He drafted urgent requests for assistance sent to various authorities offworld, and asked the leaders of the various factions to do the same.
In response to these requests, the leaders of the noble houses received sympathy and vague promises of support from their superiors offworld. The guild heads were informed that experts at the Academy Interatta would give the problem their full attention and get back to them when they reached a consensus. The leaders of the sects were told that the Holy Synod itself would consider the vexing question of Vargo and the hubris of the impious Vau when it next convened on Holy terra, and issue a suitable edict.
Circling the Wagons
The subtext behind these discouraging assurances from offworld was plain to read: the leadership of the Known Worlds factions was giving up on Vargo as a lost cause. No one was foolish enough to challenge the Vau militarily (aside from a few diehard religious fanatics and human supremcists), and nobody cared to invest any more time or resources in a world where humanity faced certain extinction at the end of five years. When it came to solving the Vau problem, the Known Worlders on Vargo would be on their own.
The only ray of light in these dark times was a missive from the Emperor himself. Alexius promised to contact the Vau embassy on the throneworld and see if a diplomatic solution was possible. In the meantime, he would send Questing Knights and the Imperial Eye to Vargo, to help investigate the problem and find a solution. Time would tell whether or not the Emperor lived up to this promise. Meanwhile, the Chancellor and the Primate met to discuss the crisis, and immediately began to butt heads, to no one’s surprise.
Obviously, resolving the Vau crisis took precedence over all other matters of Church or state. If the 'balance' could not be restored within five years, nothing else the Triumvirs accomplished would matter anyway. Thus, investigating and solving the problem posed by the Vau must be the first priority of the Triumvirate. The Chancellor and the Primate were in agreement on that question. Just how to approach the problem was the point of contention that arose between the Avestite and Engineer leaders.
The nature of the 'imbalance' humankind had spawned was not yet clear: it might be spiritual, or material, or both. The Chancellor asserted that efforts both theological and scientific must be applied with equal vigor to understand the problem and discover a solution to it. They could not afford to ignore any potential avenue. Primate Icarus vehemently disagreed, arguing that the crisis was clearly occult in nature, perhaps fabricated by the Vau themselves--and thus theology held the solution to the crisis.
Emerging from their first meeting without finding any common ground, the two surviving Triumvirs went back to the various faction leaders in each sphere to plead their respective cases for a unified effort. Whichever approach the Known Worlders decided to adopt, it was likely that the technical expertise of the Merchant League and the occult lore of the Church would be required to implement the massive effort, and the resources and leadership of the Houses would be needed to finance and organize the operation.
The two Triumvirs encountered a lukewarm response from the faction leaders. Months of war and chaos had devastated the ranks of the nobility, savaged the profit margins of the guilds, and spawned a crisis of faith among the clergy. The will to take on this new crisis was sorely lacking. A few Known Worlders answered the Triumvirs' call to arms, but many others were making plans to flee the planet. An atmosphere of despair and fatalism preoccupied the rest, taking their cue from their leaders offworld.
As the Triumvirs struggled to implement their competing plans for Vargo's salvation, the repercussions of the Vau pronouncement continued to ripple across the planet. On May 2nd, 5006, a man calling himself Alonzo Mercedes assumed the title of Senator, claiming to be the only legitimate heir to the legacy of House Mercedes. His claim was heartily endorsed by the Taigen Synod of the Vargen Church, and he was backed by a confederation of landholders who lived along the upper valleys of the Santiam River.
The new, so-called Senator Mercedes declared that it had been the actions of greedy, warmongering offworlders and their corrupt Church that had earned the wrath of the Vau and brought Vargo to the brink of ruin. Claiming to possess secret knowledge essential to resolving the Vau crisis, he pledged to save Vargo from destruction and invited the rest of the planet's indigenous population to join him in that righteous cause, driving the offworlders from Vargo once and for all so that the old order could be restored.
Few outside the Upper River Confederation heeded Senator Alonzo's invitation. Many of the other Vargen landholders, disillusioned with Mercedes leadership, decided to go their own way rather than submit once again to the whims of an unknown Senator. Two of the native governments that emerged from these defections were the 'Storm Coast,' a loose alliance of local lords along the northwest coast, and the 'Okar Free State,' a trade federation that seemed to enjoy the patronage of the Brother Battle.
Closer to home, a startling pronouncement came from the city of Doura along the western coat, on May 27th. A local landholder styling himself 'Captain General' Sharls Manuel Imandura proclaimed that his family was descended from Emanuel Huevo Iman, the great Hazat general who had orchestrated the overthrow of the Chauki and was later canonized as Saint Emanuel. Sharls claimed that the Mercedes, and the Hazat themselves, had concealed the fact of this ancestry from his family for a thousand years.
The self-proclaimed Captain General soundly rejected the leadership of the Mercedes, yet also repudiated any affiliation with the local Hazat on Vargo, calling on other Imandura across the planet to follow suit. Until such time as Prince Juan recognized his family's claim, the Imandura in what had been Doura province, and what was now called the Captaincy of Doura, would follow their own path, independent of treacherous Mercedes and offworlders alike. He certainly sounded bullheaded enough to be a Hazat.
The Imandura proclamation had unforeseen consequences for the Triumvirate. Duke Alvaro's loyal knights and levies, left demoralized and aimless after his death at Prophet's Crossing, responded to the Captain General's pronouncement with predictable Hazat impetuosity. 31 Hazat knights defected to the Imandura and pledged to win justice for their cause. These knights took with them over a thousand veteran Hazat and Vargen troops, rifles, ammunition, and two platoons of Cx-Omega scout tanks.
Last of the Triumvirs
This Hazat defection struck a serious blow to the VDF, already weakened by the losses it had suffered fighting the Kurgans and Rees Catalfan's dark horde. The VDF was diminished further as the other houses, fearing for the security of their own lands, withdrew their levies and brought them home. Field Marshal Valencia threw up his hands in disgust and tendered his resignation. If the Triumvirate needed his help, let it hire his Muster mercenaries--and pay dearly for the privilege. Altruism be damned.
In the midst of this chaos, the Triumvirate was robbed of yet another leader. On June 17th, 5006, a bomb detonated in the Agora as Chancellor Howe was inspecting newly-installed security devices intended to prevent terrorist attacks. The Chancellor was killed, along with 7 Engineer personnel and 25 Vargens. 77 innocent bystanders were also wounded in the blast. A few days later, a terrorist group calling itself the Shining Light claimed responsibility for the explosion, hailing the act as a great victory for the Vargen people.
The last of the original Triumvirs was gone, and with his passing an era seemed to come to an end. For all the enmity the original Triumvirs had earned for themselves among their peers, the Triumvirate had enjoyed relatively security during most of their reign; none of the Known Worlders’ enemies had succeeded in breaching its defenses. Now, as darkness loomed on the horizon, the only authority in the Triumvirate was a fire-breathing Avestite whose fanaticism might spark a war with the Vau. The future seemed grim indeed.
The Vau proclamation had swept across Vargo like wildfire, leaving a radically altered map in its wake. Vargo now bore little resemblance to the lost world that the factions of the Empire had discovered in 4994, then tried to conquer, then struggled to defend against cruel enemies seeking to rain destruction upon all they held dear. All that the Known Worlders had fought to build, the homes they had carved for themselves on Vargo, the fragile trust they had earned among a few Vargens, these things were under threat of destruction.
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