In the Halls of the Phoenix

The past few weeks had been eventful to say the least. The goal of generations of Kings and Queens of Macedon had finally been completed. The Greek and Balkan lands were reunified under a single dynasty. Their dynasty. From Istria to Kurdistan the Hellenic Gods reigned and the future of the Athenian Federation was as grand as it was exciting. After singlehandedly uniting an empire, the young Empress could be forgiven for taking a few days to take it all in. If anyone knew Athanasia however they knew she wasn’t going to do that anytime soon. As she was sitting in her chambers, considering her next moves she heard a door open followed by the sound of metal.

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As she turned she saw the head of her personal guard. The Amazon Alexia. While essentially royalty herself (The Amazonian Free State was ruled by the population at large but they still had a symbolic line of Warrior Queens that assumed control in times of war), the Warrior Princess had pledged her loyalty to Athanasia almost a decade ago. Ever since she was the fiercest fighter in Athens. A hundred men would barely delay her.

“Your Imperial Majesty, forgive me for interrupting”

Athanasia smiled. “Alexia I told you this, my rank might have improved but as long as we’re alone nothing has changed between us. Just Athanasia is more than fine.”

“Of course, sorry. I wanted to inform you that the preparations for the religious coronation are complete. The temple will be the most secure place in the world” Alexia continued.

With a nod Athanasia stood up and approached her friend and guard. “I have no doubt about it. Please join me. I am meeting with the War Council and would like your input”

Alexia nodded as she followed her Empress to the Council Chambers. The War Council was composed of the heads of each of the branches of the Hellenic Forces, the heads of the Foreign and Military Intelligence Agencies, the Magistrate of Defence, the Magistrate of Foreign Affairs and the Chief Magistrate. The heavy integration of all elements of warfare had been key in the early successes of Macedon and even a major reason her own countrymen had lost in the Macedonian-Amazonian War of 2088.

As soon as Athanasia walked into the room everyone stood up and saluted. Even without her station and despite her young age, the Empress was highly respected by military and civilian command alike. Propaganda had been designed to create an image of a Greek goddess returned to Earth, but very little of it had been needed to convince the population.

“Stand down” She said as she took her seat at the round table in the centre, followed immediately by Alexia taking one of the few remaining seats. “Tell me something good” Athanasia added.

“Your Imperial Majesty, as you requested we did a strategic analysis of Europe. A more in depth report will be sent to your office. However to summarize. The rise of new governments provides us with both opportunities and major threats. The Kingdoms of Finland and Italy as well as the Polish Commonwealth seem harmless and possibly allied potential. The People’s Republic of the Netherlands is difficult to predict. They recently elected a communist government and appear intent on a policy of neutrality so likely they will not pose any threat either. The largest risk comes from the Kingdom of France. After decades of civil war the Kingdom has recently come together behind their new Queen. Jeanne Thérèse. This was however not a peaceful unification and our agents in country have reported a wide range of war crimes. Perhaps most notably the use of artillery against large parts of Paris. Their government form is highly feudal and the size of their armies strongly implies an intent to expand. Considering their location on the Mediterranean and the likelihood of overlapping expansion plans, they pose the largest threat to our security.” The Head of her Foreign Intelligence Agency outlined. They clearly had done their work.

Athanasia nodded as she listened. “Personally I was horrified when I saw the images from Paris, France is definitely a threat but likely one in the long term. As long as Italy stands in between us. Has any thought been given to our next operation?”

It was the head of the Hellenic Navy, speaking on behalf of all five branches, that would take the lead now.

“Your Imperial Majesty. Based on the size of our forces, likely resistance, likely political impact and potential for improving our strategic position we have formulated two plans in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Operation Pharaoh and Operation Apostle. Operation Pharaoh involves a naval and air strike against Malta followed by a Marine and paratrooper invasion of Valetta. The goal is to rapidly take down their defences and occupy their largest population centre as well as the centre of government. We expect that as their command and control collapses the country will implode and surrender. This plan would take four to five days at the most. Operation Apostle is an air and naval bombardment of Lebanon. Followed by a ground invasion from the North and East by the Hellenic Army and a naval blockade by the Hellenic Navy. Much like with Malta the goal of the initial strike is to incapacite their defences and logistics while clearing the way for the Hellenic Army to move from all sides and take their population centres. The naval blockade and likely lack of support from Israel will mean that Lebanon is cut off from reinforcements entirely.” the Admiral spoke.

Before Athanasia could ask a question, the Magistrate of Foreign Affairs took over. “Both plans carry with them significant political risks. Lebanon is the larger country and our earlier invasion of Syria has already turned the Arab world against us. Invading Lebanon could incite a significant retalliation. It also increases the risk of Islamic terrorism within our borders. The Arab world is however far from unified, and it is unlikely they could pose a major resistance. Israel has historically been in conflict with Lebanon so is more likely to choose our side than theirs. Especially after we formally recognized their full claims to their land. Malta carries the larger political risk. Europe is much more organized than the Middle East and annexing it would almost certainly anger the Italians. It could also incite more general fears among our European neighbours that we have further invasion plans for the continent. At the same time Italy also has to take into account the French soldiers on their border. Fears of a two front war make it less likely that they would interfere with our plans. Ideally the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would like to see neither plan executed. But if we must then we prefer Apostle.” She spoke.

Athanasia nodded before turning to the person sitting next to her. Ariadne had been a childhood friend and in many ways even an older sister to her. When she agreed to be her Magistrate of Defence it was probably the most ecstatic Athanasia had been in weeks. “Aria, what do you think?”

“I agree with the Magistrate of Foreign Affairs, your Majesty. Apostle is the more complicated plan but all risks are well accounted for. Pharaoh would be easier if all goes as planned but if Italy retalliates it would heavily strain our forces.” She responded.

“Really?” Everyone was shocked when they suddenly heard the sound coming from Alexia. She had remained silent so far and while the others tolerated her presence they didn’t expect a guard to speak up on matters of state and the military. “Your Imperial Majesty. You have never backed down from a fight because it might become difficult. If you had you would still be in Aegea. Our first major move on the international scene will show the world just who we are as a people. Who we are as a country. Who you are as an Empress. We want to send a clear message. The Athenian Federation will be the next superpower. By invading Malta first we send a clear message.”

While everyone was aghast, Athanasia smiled. This was why she liked having Alexia around. The hot Amazonian blood always delivered.

“Thank you all for your advice, but the Colonel of the Guard is correct. We have never taken the careful path. Lebanon too will one day be part of the Federation, but for now our focus is Malta. Begin preparations for Operation Pharaoh. And establish diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Italy to smooth any issues over.”

If there was one thing Athanasia didn’t expect today, it was being called back to the War Council quite so soon. But alas, it seemed this world waited on no one. Escorted by Alexia once again she walked into the War Room, visibly tired after the long day of politicking she had had. “At ease” she said absentmindedly to the men and women that once again saluted her. “What’s going on?”

“Your Imperial Majesty. It appears the Germans took your announcement even worse than we thought they would” the Magistrate of Foreign Affairs started. “The German Ministry of Internal Affairs has declared anyone with Athenian lineage undesirable and has ordered for their immediate arrest. According to our analysts they are preparing to place our people in prisons and camps. There has also been rioting by Germans in which Athenians have gotten hurt and their property has been damaged or destroyed. While we have no reports of fatalities yet, our information is not direct and not current. It appears our worst fears are accurate and we fear they may try to kill our people.”

It was as if they had thrown a bucket of cold water over her. Her fatigue, her absentmindedness, they were both gone in an instant. “Who do the Germans think they are? I want options for a full retalliatory move.” She said, as she looked around the table she saw concern on everyone’s faces.

“Your Imperial Majesty, we assumed you would and Hellenic Forces Joint Command has prepared three strike options for you. Operation: Papagos, Operation: Tzivas and Operation: Kartalis. Operation: Papagos is a contained and surgical strike. The Hellenic Air Force will use B-2 bombers to strike at the Chancellor’s Office, the Imperial Ministry of the Interior, the headquarters of the Imperial Police, the headquarters of the German armed forces and all major airbases of the German Air Force. These strikes will be supported by destroyers of the Hellenic Navy placed in the North Sea. The goal will be to decapitate the German government and create a power vacuum where we can free our people using special forces. Operation: Tzivas involves the same air strike with the addition of strikes against German barracks. A fighter force will be sent into Germany to establish a no-fly zone and the Hellenic Navy will blockade all their ports to cut it off from maritime trade. Operation: Kartalis is a plan for total war. The opening move will be much like Tzivas. If we can secure permission from Poland, France or the Netherlands the Hellenic Army will deploy 300,000 soldiers to launch an invasion of Germany. The goal will be to rapidly take population centres and secure our citizens. If we cannot obtain permission there will be a smaller but still large Marine landing. To allow for a quick strike the Hellenic Air Force and Navy will be authorized to attack all military and government infrastructure as well as the German powergrid. After the invasion is complete the government and military leadership will be arrested and transported to Athens for trial or to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Each of these plans will require us to pospone Operation: Pharaoh for now.” Ariadne replied. She gave Athanasia much to think about. Her blood was boiling so Kartalis had the most appeal, however she couldn’t help but feel for the innocent Germans who would almost certainly be collateral. The Hellenic Forces were good but under total war they too wouldn’t be able to avoid killing thousands of innocents.

“Have the Ministry of Foreign Affairs send an ultimatum to Germany. Either they release all Athenians they have arrested and submit to an ICC investigation or we will consider their actions as an act of war against the Athenian Federation. Prepare all three operations. I will decide tomorrow morning which one we go with if they refuse. Are our nuclear weapons ready for use?” Athanasia said.

“We have just completed the final efforts on our triad, your Imperial Majesty. At your command you will have access to our full arsenal” The head of the Hellenic Air Force replied.

Athanasia nodded. “Very well, I am going to get some sleep. I recommend all of you do the same. Tomorrow is going to be a long day” She concluded the meeting as she got up and walked out.

After getting to her chambers she would rush through the ceremony and drop herself on her bed as soon as she could. Tonight she would sleep alone. If she could get any sleep that was with the fate of her people on her mind.

As predicted her time had mostly been spent twisting and turning in her bed. She had a feeling something terrible had happened. When she heard a knock on her door she dreaded what it was about now. “Come in” She said as she put on a robe next to her bed so she’d at least look somewhat decent.

In came her Chief Magistrate followed by her personal guard. “Your Imperial Majesty, my apologies for disturbing your sleep but something terrible has happened.” She said as she gave Athanasia a tablet. When Athanasia looked at her she could see the brunette was fighting to hold back tears.

As she looked at the footage her expression moved from shock to horror to anger and finally sadness. “They are inhuman” She commented. With tears in her eyes she would issue the most important orders of her still young reign. “Inform the Magistrate of Defence we will initiate Operation Kartalis. I will be declaring a state of emergency and a state of war on all channels in 30 minutes.”

Avra nodded. “It will be done, your Imperial Majesty.”

30 minutes later every channel; radio, tv, internet and VR/AR, would show the Empress using an emergency override on Federation broadcasting systems.

"My citizens,

Less than an hour ago our people in Berlin have learned of a great atrocity committed against the people of the Federation. After illegally detaining our people, the German regime has murdered two hundred Athenian men, women and children. The spirits of these innocents call out for the only acceptable action we can take in response. The destruction of the German state. The Germans have sought to use our people as a bargaining chip to prevent rightful indignation at their barbarous regime. We do not negotiate with terrorists. As such as Empress of the Athenian Federation I do hereby declare a state of war against the Greater German Empire and call upon all civilized nations to do the same.

Effective immediately the Athenian Federation is under a state of emergency. The machines that have fuelled our growth will now fuel our rightful vengeance. Every victim of these genocidal maniacs will be avenged in the blood of the nazis.

To the criminal Rudolf Schmidt. Surrender now and beg for our mercy, for our soldiers will have none as they storm your home."

The halls of the Imperial Palace had been busy once the war with Germany started but by now it seemed the disasters would keep following each other. 20.5 million dead citizens, 34 million wounded citizens and 100 million displaced citizens. It was the greatest logistical challenge in the history of the Athenian Federation or any of its founding states. Luckily the Ministry of Emergency Management was handling it well and that was one job not on Athanasia’s plate. Hers was going to be at least as important however.

As she looked over the list of names of the dead, as she had been doing for the past few days, she heard a knock on the door. She sighed as she put the tablet down. She still had 20 million left and several hundred thousand ago she had already started forgetting them. But she felt a duty to those who had died to read their names at least once. As they said, a single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. She could not let these people be a statistic.

“What is it?” She yelled, she had ordered her guards to leave her alone a while ago and hadn’t seen her wives and husbands in days.

“Your Imperial Majesty, it is me. Admiral Andreas has arrived and they are waiting for you in the War Council” Alexia spoke. She was worried, her job was the protection of the Empress of course. However in recent years she had gone really attached to her as a friend. And she could sense her friend was struggling.

Athanasia sighed. “I’ll be out in a minute”

Admiral Thanos Andreas for his part was more than happy to wait as long as needed. Using trajectory information and data from the object itself as well as data from the millions of systems that had all recorded data, the Hellenic Space Force had no doubts about their conclusion. He knew the data was right but he still couldn’t believe it and he wasn’t sure how he was going to convince the Empress. While he was not the head of the Space Force, his role as Commander, Earth Sphere Command still made him a key player and as such his head was very loose if the Empress thought they were making it up.

When the Empress walked in he joined the others at the table in standing up and saluting.

“At ease” Athanasia spoke, she was wearing an elegant blue suit and did her best to look at her best, but Thanos could see she was tired. He couldn’t blame her either. “Admiral Andreas, I hope you have come here to inform us why your Command failed to perform its duty and let 20.5 million people die”

Thanos gulped. “Of course, Your Imperial Majesty, Generals, Admirals. Over the past few days the Hellenic Space Force has recquisitioned all available data and investigated the object that caused the impact which we have given the provisional designation UAO-BU-0001. The object is a metal sphere of a material or composite that we do not know. We have attempted to identify it but all our computers have failed to do so. We have however measured electromagnetic activity showing that it is not only non-natural but also likely a device of some kind. This proves beyond any doubt that it was in fact designed by another party”

Before he could finish, he was interrupted by the Army presence at the War Council. “Another party? The Germans? How could they make something like this?”

“Please General, if you would let me finish I will be able to answer your question. We have also managed to conclude beyond a doubt that this object was not made by any nation on this planet. The material is beyond any present on this planet and none of the asteroids mined so far in the solar system has contained anything like it. Furthermore, the electro-magnetic activity detected implies a level of power production that simply does not exist on this planet. This proves beyond a doubt that UAO-BU-0001 is of intelligent design and of alien origin. It has been sent by an intelligent species beyond the solar system. The only things we do not know are what the purpose of the device are and whether they intended to use it as a weapon or if the impact was accidental.” Thanos concluded his briefing, mentally readying himself for the questions sure to follow.

At first the entire room fell silent until the earlier General began laughing. “Aliens? Accidental? What have you been smoking in Ancyra? You expect us to believe this?”

“Hold your tongue Dimitris, we have expected alien life to exist for centuries and our recent activities would almost certainly be perceptible by some kind of alien life. And Earth Sphere Defence has the most advanced computers on this planet. If they say it’s not human, then it’s not human.” Fleet Admiral Argyris Stavros, head of the Hellenic Space Force, replied to his Army colleague.

Athanasia needed a minute to process but once she had she looked up at Thanos. “Admiral, is there any chance your analysis is wrong and it somehow is a natural object?”

“Your Imperial Majesty, we are not working with an exact science. So nothing is impossible. However probability states that if an object could be created naturally that has this chemical composition and energy output, we would have detected it in the past 150 years of active space exploration or even the centuries of astronomy prior” Thanos replied.

Athanasia rubbed her forehead. “We need to tell the people and the world. If their intentions are peaceful, the public deserves to know alien life is real. And if they are hostile, the world needs to prepare for future attacks or any other deaths will be on us.”

“Your Imperial Majesty, if I may. If we tell the public we would almost certainly cause widespread chaos and possibly even rebellion against the crown. It would be safer if we kept the data classified. For now.” Ariadne spoke in response, echoing what many at the table were thinking.

Support came from an unexpected angle as Avra spoke up. “The Empress is correct, when she ascended to the crown she promised the people a new era of transparency and enlightened rule. The people deserve to know, however the people must also be protected against them. I suggest we take 48 hours. During this time the Hellenic Army and all Imperial, regional and local police forces can be mobilized and positioned to engage in riot control while the speechwriters can prepare a text least likely to incite open rebellion.”

Athanasia nodded at her Chief Magistrate. “Very well, make it so. Admiral Andreas. Where is the object currently and what are you planning to do with it?”

“Right now it is at HSB Ancyra under research. Due to fears of the electromagnetic output and because we cannot rule out it is an explosive with even greater destruction potential we plan to transport it to HSB Antarctica once it goes operational next week. While the facility is primarily intended as a tracking station, it has full research facilities and a detonation there would have minimal casualties.” Thanos responded.

“Very well. I expect you behind me in two days when I hold the Press Conference”

Alexia was looking at her friend and charge as she worked at her desk. For the past hour she had been standing guard in the office. Ever since the press conference the Empress’ mood had changed. She was still clearly sad and worried but it seemed knowing more about what happened and knowing that the greatest challenge was still ahead left her with renewed purpose.

“Captain, this is Sergeant Hoxha, I have news about the Emperor Consort. Can we meet in your office?” Alexia heard through her earpiece.

Alexia was a bit surprised at the request, usually a guard would want something like this reported directly to the Empress. If nothing else than to get the credit for when the next round of promotions came up.

“Your Imperial Majesty, one of my guards wishes to discuss something with me. Would you object if I left my post for now?” She asked as she made a few steps to the Empress’ desk.

“Go ahead Alexia, no one is going to do anything to me here and if they did I’m sure Jacob and Konstandin can handle it” Athanasia replied with a smile.

Alexia simply nodded before pressing her earpiece. “Meet me in my Office, Guard” She said as she began walking there. As she arrived she could already see Guard Hoxha as well as some people wearing Imperial Police uniforms. This was bad news.

“Come inside” She said as she opened the door to let the female guard and two police officers in before stepping inside herself and sitting down behind her desk. Obviously the office was smaller than the Empress’, but it was still large enough and offered a nice view. “Guard Hoxha, Officers, what news have you?”

For a moment none of the three dared to speak. “Did someone take your tongues?” Alexia added to coax them into talking.

“Captain” Dafina Hoxha started, she could see the tall black haired woman sweat. In the five years since the 31 year old joined the Imperial Guard Alexia had never seen her sweat. And her reluctance to speak was incredibly uncommon for someone who came from the precursor to the Army Special Purposes Force. “As you requested we have been looking for His Majesty in all the hospitals and other possible locations near Shumen. Because we couldn’t find him we have asked the Signals Intelligence Division to backtrace the car’s GALILEO data. For some reason at the moment of the impact the car was not in Shumen but 10 km to the west of Dobrich. We suspected there was some kind of malfunction in the data, however we have been able to verify it using the data feed the car sent to the Imperial Guard as well as a drone flying overhead which recorded His Majesty in the backseat.” She paused again, sweating even more now. “Captain, at the time of the impact Emperor Consort Giorgos was within the zone of destruction and died.”

Alexia rubbed her forehead as she heard the conclusion. This was the last thing Athanasia needed. If there was anything she cared more about than her country it was her family. She loved all her wives and husbands equally and combined with the rest this news was going to devastate her.

“Thank you Guard, you did your job well. I will notify the Empress of her findings. Take the rest of the day off” She said absent-mindedly, her focus now was on how the hell she was going to tell this to the Empress.

“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am.” Hoxha said before she and the police officers turned around and walked out again.

After thinking it over for a few minutes Alexia sighed and stood up to walk back to the Empress’ office.

Once inside the office she first turned towards the other guards in the room. “Guards, leave the room and make sure no one gets inside for any reason. We are not to be disturbed until further notice.” Alexia ordered, this already caught Athanasia’s attention.

“What’s going on Alexia?”

Alexia waited until the guards were outside before she would reply. She didn’t want them to see Athanasia in an emotionally vulnerable state. Once they were outside she walked towards Athanasia and grabbed a chair so she could sit next to her at the same height.

“Athanasia, the Guard with which I spoke was Hoxha. The one I tasked with finding Giorgos.”

“Ah yes the black haired former operator. Did she find him? How is he doing”

Alexia sighed, she was going to have to rip this band-aid off, she had thought it over but there was no other way. “She did find him yes. For some reason his car was not where it was supposed to be but 70 km to the Northeast according to GALILEO data and a patrol drone that recorded his car and him in the back. There is no easy way to say this Athanasia but Giorgos died in the Impact”

In an instant all hope and purpose disappeared from Athanasia’s face. “No… No… He can’t be dead… He was supposed to be in Shumen and most people in Shumen survived. The data must be wrong” Athanasia struggled to pronounce as she began tearing up.

“I wish it was Athanasia, but Hoxha and the Imperial Police checked all the data to verify it and could find no trace of him anywhere near Shumen. I know you loved him but he is gone.”

In perhaps the fastest shift from the denial stage, Athanasia instead began crying. Defying all forms of professionalism and even some rules Alexia put her hands around Athanasia to comfort her. “I know Athanasia, just let it all out. I’m here for you”

They sat there for what felt like seconds but in reality had been close to an hour. “Alexia did… Did he suffer?” She finally asked as she let go of her guard whose uniform was soaked in tears.

“No. At 10km from the impact he would have died instantly by the shockwave. It was quick, before he even realized what was happening” Alexia replied, seeing her friend in this state was heartbreaking.

Athanasia nodded as she got up to try and get some water from the nearby tray. “Be careful” Alexia tried to warn but before she even got the words out Athanasia collapsed onto the ground. Stress of the last few days and the emotions of the past hour becoming too much. The sound alerted the guards outside who were in within seconds.

“Call the medical service, Phoenix down!” Alexia ordered loudly as she kneeled besides her and turned her on her side to protect her aiways.