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The Crucible Campaign: The Past as Prologue

The strength of a nation is often tied up within its self-respect. It isn't merely enough to point at some part of a map and say that here is a country, simply because a confluence of forces, economic or geographic or otherwise, is responsible for bringing together disparate groups of unrelated persons somehow. As the Last Emperor of the Third Imperium was apt to say, history isn't hydraulics, and humanity isn't just a passive recipient of the forces that bat them around. For a community to exist, it becomes important to say WHY it exists. To put down into some kind of congruent form the themes of first principle that drive it from a definite beginning, establish the rules of conduct, and creates an objective end, either in the teleological or historical sense, around which its citizens and sympathizers may direct and order all of their efforts. And usually it is in the form of a national narrative, a story that is told and retold in both nonfiction and propaganda, that says "we are a people dedicated to _______, so that we may ________. We exist to bring about a richer world and happiness for all." Of course not all narratives are create equal, and some are not worthy of respect, and even fewer still are the dregs of despair or misery for those who partake of it, and those who must suffer them.

The narrative of the Commonwealth of Deneb is one that has been fired and cast under the most excruciating of circumstances. It is a descendant of the narrative that once drove the Regency of Deneb, and one that descends from the best attributes of the Third Imperium. Both of those states suffered fiery self-destruction from the hands of self-deluded leaders and the credulous populations that followed them over the cliff into oblivion. There exists a significant difference, however, between the Regency's destruction and that of her parent, the Imperium, in that the former was able to foster the birth of a more mature child, whereas the former was nearly destroyed in total, and there but by the grace of the Lord went we.

The Fall of the Third Imperium

The Third Imperium was an aging giant by the time that Strephon Alkhalikoi had ascended the Iridium Throne, and as he matured into his role, he soon discovered all too well how an empire of even such immensity and strength was only as strong as the willingness of its partisans to uphold. During the previous centuries of his dynasty's reign, his predecessors had centralized the empire around a rigid bureaucracy in spite of the limitations this imposed upon decision making. This turned a massive state, encompassing more than 11,000 worlds, into an awkward and clumsy marionette, as the various local governments hung limply while the communications of vital decisions spent a long time being transmitted up and down the strings. While this gave the emperor significant power, it frustrated and defeated the initiative of his own citizens, who had to spend enormous periods in waiting for official decisions before engaging in projects they considered vital to their own welfare. And when decisions were received they often contained evidence of the tone deafness that distance created between both those who are in the immediate proximity of a problem or opportunity, and those who were insulated from it by parsecs of time lag. No matter how well intended the emperor, his relative inability to receive timely information and produce an accurate or at least fair dispensation was clearly beginning to suffocate the economy and culture of the Imperium.

Before the Imperial Civil Wars of the period between 589 and 622, there existed power viceroys known as Archdukes that had limited monarcial power. With these powers they could act in the name of the emperor, and would pursue policies that hewed as close to possible to the monarch's position. After the ascension of Arbellatra Alkhalikoi, these were severely limited in their power as the new empress consolidated her hold over the fractious nobility,, and eventually they were abolished. But as it turned out this actually compounded the difficulty of her successors in ruling the Imperium. Strephon decided that the only way to resuscitate the Imperium was to partially decentralize decision-making by restoring the power of the Archdukes. But Strephon made one error that rendered this laudable decision incoherent. The whole point of partial decentralism was to make the Imperial government more responsive while still hewing to the law and the word of the emperor. The Archdukes were their own persons, and yet they still had to uphold the honor and perogatives of their offices and remain loyal in both letter and spirit to the emperor and the Imperium. But Strephon wasn't satisfied with just a simple degree of reorganisation, and he became enamored of the reform policy of the Duke of Ilelish, Dulinor Astra Ilethian. By appointing Dulinor to the Archduke of Ilelish Domain, Strephon was in effect validating his reform ideas; but by concentrating such radical reformism to just ONE archduke, instead of encouraging gradual reforms at all levels of Imperial government under the authority of every Archduke, he had inadvertently laid the seed for the Final War. For as it turned out much of the Imperial government and bureaucracy resisted Dulinor's advances, and he became sufficiently frustrated to betray the emperor under the old precedent of Succession by Right of Assassination.

The death of "Strephon" (the real one having been secretly away from Capitol at the time of the attempt) and the real deaths of the Empress and the Crown Princess shattered the fragile consensus of the Imperial government. Dulinor retreated back to his domain and began raising fleets and armies for his eventual conquest of Sylea and the Iridium Throne. With this blade of massive popular insurrection hanging over the heads of the more conservative nobility, their elevation of Lucan, Strephon's nephew, onto the throne over the implicit reservations of the Moot can be seen in the light of expedience. But Lucan was both incompetent and maniacal, and whatever remained extant of the Imperium was destroyed by his madness and callousness. As he brusquely recalled fleets from frontier sectors to deal with the rebellion, oftentimes in areas adjacent to other enemies of the Imperium, the disorder of alien invasion destroyed the loyalties of local populations and caused more than a few outlying nobles secede from the Imperium in order to save their realms from sack and conquest.

But what really magnified the collapse of the empire wasn't the incoherence of the emperor, nor the gall of Dulinor, nor even the insanity of Lucan. It was the fact that no sane voice cried out with the voice of universal reason. Everyone seemed to have a petty parochial or personal reason for what they did, but that was exactly how they had been trained to think by decades and centuries of obedience to the emperor and his government. There never existed, except in the person of the emperor, any constituency with an eye on the big picture. Everyone simply accepted that the emperor WAS the empire, and they had to simply accept that fact. When Dulinor and Lucan, both of whom had a legitimate claim to the throne, started to act like churlish children, it set a bad example for everyone. If Lucan and Dulinor are acting as if the rest of the empire can take a flying leap, then there existed no reason anymore for the nobles and bureaucrats at the local levels to accept the existence of the empire. So nobles like Brzk and Craig and Margaret and many others would reach a point where they could no longer bear the spectacle and each would make their own beeline for the fire exits. And as the bigger levels of government collapsed, the supporting substrata at the subsector and planetary level would eventually make the same decision of progressive abandonment, as these successor nobles burned themselves out.

The only region that did not accept this progression was the Domain of Deneb. But that was almost as much by accident as design. Deneb was very different than the rest of the Imperium largely because of its isolation and distance from Capitol. Its settlement was the Imperium in a microcosm, and it had an informal tradition of self-rule that had been first set down during the Civil War. When Lucan withdrew the Corridor Sector Fleet, the Domain was cut off from the rest of the Imperium by subsequent Vargr invasions of Corridor. Thereafter its unity was severely tested by invasions from several quarters, and a growing sense of helplessness as the Final War escalated to the level of genocide and ecocide. The linchpin of unity during those dark years was the "Archduke" of Deneb, Norris Aledon, who refused to abandon the empire for many reasons. Norris was able to rally the Domain to its ramparts, and managed to defeat or stem the tide of Aslan and Vargr invasions. With a well-organised bureaucracy to support him, he could keep the fractious regions of the Domain behind him. After sending an force recon mission to Usdiki to meet with the "Real" Strephon, the Archduke received official recognition in more ways than one. The emperor not only confirmed his appointment, but sent along his only son, Avery, as a means of demonstrating that the Domain was the true inheritor of the Imperium and its principles.

Three years later Dulinor released the AI Virus during his bungled final attack upon Capitol, and what remained of interstellar society in the core of the Imperium quickly succumbed to the contagion's assault on war ravaged data networks. As the virus consumed these sectors, emergency notification was sent to Deneb from Usdiki, and the Domain Navy and Scout Service quickly mobilised to seal off the Domain's borders from infection. With the Imperium now all but dead but in name, Norris had to act quickly to establish a new government. After securing the cooperation of the Zhodani Consulate and other Spinward states behind the Great Rift against the spread of Virus, the Archduke established himself as the Regent of the Regency of Deneb in IY 1132.

The Regency of Deneb

By taking such decisive action, Norris established in fact what Strephon had hinted at: the new state was the legal heir to the Imperium. In spite of the darkness of war, the people had stayed steadfast to the principles of the Imperium. Norris himself took these alleged principles and the bravery and example of his people to wend together the icon of the "Flame". According to him, the Flame was the beacon of timeless and transcendental values that would guide them through the night of Virus and back into the light of the promised land of a new Imperium. Using these motifs, Norris rammed through a number of necessary reforms, including the emancipation and legalization of psionics, and the first experiments in civil democratic society on an interstellar scale. Within a few decades the Regent had managed to create a fair semblance of a civil society, and a good deal of benefit in the form of prosperity and relative internal peace.

At the outset Norris had intended for the Regency to become the seed for a better functioning Imperium. But the Regency instead became an awkward child with a palpable sense of what was lost, and Norris could do little but use the preexisting culture as a foundation for resistance to Virus. The 3I was a self-destructive ramshackle empire, but no one, under the circumstances, would dare admit that with their public face. And in the years after Norris's death, the public's attitude became one of blind self-importance, a survivor's guilt, that mislead them into supporting a dead empire's perogatives, even in spite of themselves and the wisdom that Norris and his contemporaries had conveyed to them. Against this necrophilia was the inconsistency and incompleteness of the First Regent's vision, and a great question about its reality. The reforms he had enacted, no matter how laudable or necessary, changed the nature of the nation in a fundamental way from its predecessor. In other cases there existed a clear expediency that had trumped ideals, as in the case of the fait accompli worlds where human populations had to suffer Aslan or Vargr rulers, often in spite of the same democratic reforms Norris had trumpeted. In other cases the Flame motif seemed to put forward a moral vision that seemed unattainable, and this conflicted with the rhetorical expectations of that vision. The containment of Virus also trapped the Regency's emotional and spiritual maturity, for as long as the state and its people were locked in a deathmatch with the Vampire Fleets and their menace, there existed no time to consider a competing narrative that would act as a creative outlet. The Regency only existed for the day that it ceased to be and became a new Imperium, without any other exception.

The lifting of the Quarantine in NE 2 shattered this fragile consensus after the bloody war against the Vampires that held Corridor Sector, and hardened into something worse after the level of destruction present in the Wilds became widely known in the Regency Safe. The dream of imperial restoration shattered when it touched reality, and many reactionary minded factions abandoned the government, and the threadbareness of Regency culture in regards to an existence without that dream disappointed liberals and more mainstream conservatives alike. Into this vacuum stepped the worst of opportunists, hypocrites and outright criminals. In the last years of Caranda's realm, these fulminated against what they termed Norris's perfidy, and cried out childishly for the recreation of the Imperium. A new movement of reactionaries, called the Purifiers began to emerge out of the older Anti-Virus lunatic fringe, and eventually welded together older nobles disenfranchised by democratic reforms, objectivist corporate leaders and other leftovers that had long derided or opposed any changes contrary to their own interests. Unlike previous reactionary political parties, the Purifiers no longer pretended that the Imperium could be restored to its previous grandeur. Instead these nobles and their partisans trumped a kind of radical nationalism that argued for the creation of an new Imperium on this side of the Rift, at the expense of other neighboring states, preferably and especially the ramshackle Zhodani Consulate.

Caranda and his government were composed of a different vision, the one that Norris had always given shrift, but had oftentimes been obscured by his political expediency and personal contradictions. They created a countermovement called the New Liberation, who also rejected the twaddle of reverence for a dead empire, and put forward a vision of a new democratic republican style of government. With the Regents blessing, the Regency government promoted a new constitution known as the Mora Accords that would aggressively and decisively establish a new commonwealth around a semi-decentralized federation of member states, a bill of rights for all sentients, and promote a new national narrative built around the best elements of the Flame motif and more traditional or folk narratives that were now commonplace. Caranda was able to enshrine a great many of these principles into law, but resistance at the national level meant that most of these were instituted at the grassroots level within local and communal governments.

The two movements clashed throughout the teens and early twenties. Caranda's support came mainly from those regions of the Regency that had been greatly neglected by both the Imperium and the Regency, principally the rimward half of Deneb Sector, the Thinrim and certain backwater areas of the Spinward Marches. The Purifiers were based mainly on the coreward and trailing frontiers of the Regency, though they had significant support in most of the Spinward Marches, the Midway region of Deneb and even some areas of Corridor. This conflict did not terribly impede the Regency government, for in spite of all of their vitriol, the Purifiers did not have more than twenty percent of the Regency's population behind them, and they were checked at the national and subsector level by a number of more mainstream conservative factions that allied with Caranda's Liberationists for the sake of continuity in government and civil order. But the assassination of Caranda by a deranged Zhodani refugee in NE 19 shocked the Regency, and upended the nervous alliance between these factions. It also removed the one person that had championed both unity and liberty under excruciating circumstances.

With Caranda's death the post of Regent passed to Lunion Subsector Governor Lemat Arthurian; Arthurian would act in the stead of his young daughter, Reina, until her majority. The new "Regent's Regent" was secretly an ambitious and duplicitious demagogue. After years of posing as a conservative and playing off the various sides against one another with various bureaucratic and legislative maneuvers, Arthurian steadily came out for the Purifier faction, and championed their aggressions towards the crumbling Zhodani Consulate. As Caranda had been assassinated by a Zhodani, he had the perfect scapegoat. Here, he told a public bruised and weary, was evidence of the renewed aggressions of a hated enemy that had shown their perfidy time and again in the past through their wars of aggression? Were they not now in a state of advanced decay, while the cultic Dawn Heralders, were subverting its foundations? This was a threat that could not be ignored, and an opportunity that must be seized at once. But Arthurian was a highly gifted politician without one lick of military sense, and his oratory, aimed as it was at the hearts of both the passionate and the wavering, obscured the utter inattainability of his objectives. But Arthurian appealed over the heads of common sense towards the galleries of self-pity that had descended upon the Regency. By adroitly tapping into these passions, Arthurian eventually created an inexorable war will, and by the early NE 30s the public and the government were emotionally insistent upon creating a war with the Zhodani. But the war that followed was a Children's Crusade, lacking logistics or intelligence or even common military sense.

Though there existed a considerable caucus, even a plurality of Denebians that opposed the war and/or the Black Regent, thinking him just a couple of watch ticks from insanity, they lacked the passion and the organization to successfully oppose the fever of war, and Arthurian's subsequent dictatorial actions caused many of them to go into exile or fade into the background. Only a few principled conservatives who harbored a secret dissidence despite their positions of power within the Regency government, aided by the Black Regent's monomania which made anything outside of his obsessions be tended to with a degree of halfbaked administration that proceeded only through the motions, kept the New Liberation movement from being dispersed completely. Eventually a larger number of mainstream conservatives that remained in the government and the military quickly became disillusioned with the war and the Black Regent's readily apparent incompetence, and it is only through their timely intervention that we Commoners stand free today, rather than under a Zhodani yoke worse than anything that the Imperials could have imagined in their hysterical Frontier War-era propaganda. And it was a damn close thing.