Yang Yizhen's hands trembled in transcendent anticipation as he waited for the door of the transport to grant him access to the Dragon's Court. The trip had only taken a few hours - nothing at all to an enlightened scholar and bureaucrat who knew how best to use his time - but he had found himself far too eager to concentrate on his rituals. When he found himself too engaged to meditate or compose poetry, he had busied himself by carefully smoothing and adjusting the folds of his robe, gauging his appearance in the distorted reflection offered by the recently polished interior of the transport. It was foolish vanity, but who could possibly blame him for this momentary weakness? After all, how often did a fourth ring bureaucrat receive a summons to the Court - and from the hand of the Celestial Empress herself, no less? This visit had the potential to define his life and status as nothing else could, and none would fault him for paying special attention to the details of his appearance.
At last, the door chirped its readiness and slid open, revealing the Great Hall that ringed the perimeter of the Court. As befitting his humble status, Yang Yizhen had never been allowed to travel any deeper into the Court than this, but even this outer area was filled with wonders of its own. The light within was as true as that of a star - the result of a stable artificial sun, one of the Taiyang Empire's many famous scientific achievements. The radiance fell gently upon the ancestral decor, the masterfully shaped sculptures of mythical beasts and the murals depicting the epic 7,000-year history of their enduring culture. And then there were the noble servants - the imperial guards standing at the ready with their Huolong powered armor and Gauss rifles, the inner ring bureaucrats hustling from chamber to chamber with their faces lost behind their analytical devices, the famous state composers and poets working their artistic magic.
This visit has a distinctly different feel, one that in many ways eclipsed the usual spectacle. There was a deference in everyone he encountered, an unspoken understanding of his purpose and presence. He never needed speak a word - the guards at each door stepped aside to offer him passage. They even kept their heads low, as did the bureaucrats who couldn't help but pause and stare at the new arrival. Yang Yizhen wondered if this was envy, and even allowed himself a mere moment to bask in self-congratulation.
At last, the doors of the Inner Court opened for Yang Yizhen, and he was at last standing in the glorious presence of the Empress. For a mid-level bureaucrat, the imperial family may as well have been a collective of gods, so seldom were they seen. Beyond that, though, he had never set his eyes upon the Empress in all her glory. Photographing Emperors had long been taboo, so those outside of the court only knew of their rules through the depictions of courtly artists and poets. They were masters of their art to be sure, but he could now see that none of them were capable of capturing the grandeur of the woman who set the stars in motion. She disappeared within her elaborate robes, face barely visible behind the veil of the imperial crown, but what Yang Yizhen could see was radiant beyond his dreams.
At once Yang Yizhen fell to his hands and knees and tapped his forehead against the shimmering floor. "Great Heir to the Dragon, I have come as you requested. You have but to issue a command, and no sooner-"
A firm blow to his temple knocked the rest of the sentence loose from Yang Yizhen's tongue. Falling instinctively to one side, he lifted his hands a moment too late to fend off the next blow, which struck him in the abdomen. He scrambled to his feet, nearly pitching forward onto his face as he struggled to retain his balance.
"Assailants! I shall protect you, my Empress!" Yang Yizhen spit forth the words a moment before another blow struck him below the knee, sending him back to the ground. He got only an impression of the attacker - an enormous man wielding a ceremonial battle staff of some sort. The attacker brought his weapon down onto Yang Yizhen's prostrate form again and again as the victim waved his arms ineffectually to protect himself. "My Empress, save me!"
The Empress's hand appeared from behind her robes. "That will be enough, General."
The attack ended in a flash, the savage tip of the staff stopping a whisper from Yang Yizhen's face. With the beating coming to a halt, he could at last make out the identity of the assailant - General Hong, Commander of the Center, a man so enveloped in glory that Yang Yizhen would have been honored were he not in such pain. Drawing himself to a sitting position, he saw the Empress with her hand outstretched.
"Thank you, my Empress." Yang Yizhen resumed kowtowing as though the beating had never happened. "You have but to issue a command, and no sooner have your mighty words sundered the air-"
"Silence, you imbecile." The Empress turned an accusing finger at Yang Yizhen. "You do not have the honor to speak such perfumed words after your failure."
Yang Yizhen froze, eyes locked fast on the imperial finger slicing the air in his direction. "...My Empress?"
"You have failed," said the Empress, the steel in her words growing sharp. "You have failed, and now we are all doomed."
The words of the Empress were a mental torture that Yang Yizhen had never dared imagine. He had been called a failure many times and endured it in his own fashion, but to hear such a cutting comment from the highest authority he would ever know was a special blow, one that lanced through his soul and left a wound that blotted out the pain of his beating. For a moment, the universe as he knew it turned on its head.
"You had one job - just one!" There was unalloyed fury in the eyes of the Empress, so intense that it smoldered through her beaded veil. "And in this one task, this one critically important task which was your sole charge, you proved yourself truly and totally incompetent!"
"I...failed?" Scalding tears welled in Yang Yizhen's eyes. "My Empress, my wisdom is as a speck in the void of the universe compared to yours, and I simply cannot fathom how I have failed the empire!"
"Enough of your poetry! And stand up, dog!" General Hong seized Yang Yizhen by the skin of his neck and rudely yanked him to his feet. "You'll answer the questions you're asked and still your tongue otherwise. Can you comprehend this, or shall I break your jaw to ensure your silence?"
"I shall restrain myself, sir," whimpered Yang Yizhen.
The Empress folded her hands before her, each bony knuckle a grim dagger pointed at Yang Yizhen. "What was your task, bureaucrat?"
Yang Yizhen swallowed hard, readying himself for the thrashing that he was sure would come at any second. "To secure the glorious scientific programs of the Taiyang Empire."
The Empress nodded, shifting her imperial crown slightly down on her brow. "And what program in particular?"
"In particular..." Yang Yizhen willed his tongue to form the words. "...In particular, I was tasked with safeguarding Reflected Antithesis, keystone project of the imperial extraspatial physics program."
"Part of your duties included the vetting and approval of scholars from outside of the imperial program." The Empress waited for one of her numerous attendants to reposition her crown before resuming. "Were you thorough in this charge?"
"I was most thorough, my Empress," said Yang Yizhen, hoping that she could not detect the uncertainty behind his words.
"Did you approve a researcher by the name of Reginald Izmik?" said the Empress.
Yang Yizhen eyed General Hong before speaking. "...I will have to consult my records to be positive, but if your Highness maintains that I approved a man by the name of Reginald Izmik, then it is surely fact."
The Empress turned her gaze to General Hong. "Please, enlighten him as to the nature of Mr. Izmik."
"Gladly, my Empress." General Hong spun Yang Yizhen around with a blow to the shoulder and then grabbed him by the front of his robe, bringing the slight man a few whiskers from his howling maw. "You let a thief into our program, you mud-crawling worm! Izmik was no scholar, and further he was not even Reginald Izmik! We've not yet gleaned his true identity, but while we knock our heads against the walls, he's absconded with the full remaining project budget. That's 426 billion credits, gone in a flash! And that's not the worst of it!"
"Not...the worst?" Yang Yizhen reeled from the verbal assault and the sheer scope of the crime.
General Hong shook his head. "No. The worst is that he stole...it. The project prototype."
"You have no comprehension of what this means, do you?" said the Empress. "This is the culmination of Taiyang science, the project that would have uplifted our court beyond these other petty empires and the moribund Exterran Federation and returned us to our proper perch in the ancestral heavens. But I'll not waste my time trying to fill your empty skull with the physics that make it possible. Do you have any reckoning of what the Reflected Antithesis project was meant to accomplish?"
"Surely, my empress." Yang Yizhen's dry tongue rolled in his mouth as he tried to find the words to express his limited knowledge. "It is a microcosm, an effort to command matter at its most basic phases."
The Empress dipped her head slightly. "And do you have any reckoning as to how much power that this entails? How dangerous this project could be if used by someone without the means to command it?"
General Hong pulled Yang Yizhen even closer, his boiling breath clouding around the two of them. "That thing is in a triple-sealed containment case. It's the only reason we're still alive now."
"Then fortune favors us, for no thief could open such a vessel." Yang Yizhen cringed as the words struck the walls and returned to him. "...Am I wrong?"
"You'd best hope not," said the Empress. "If this Izmik manages to open the case and activate the prototype without the proper understanding, then he could trigger a release of energy untold in the history of our species. The Disaster that destroyed the homeworld and nearly wiped out our glorious civilization would be as a squib compared to the catastrophe that he would invoke."
"I'll not let that happen, my Empress." Yang Yizhen eased out of General Hong's grasp and fell to his knees. "On my life and my honor, I shall return with the thief and the prototype."
"And so you will. This is your new task, bureaucrat. But this time..." The Empress drifted toward Yang Yizhen, each step thudding heavily in his chest. "...Should you fail this time, then you'd best pray that the demise of the species comes long, long before I again rest my hands upon you."
Yang Yizhen quaked uncontrollably, sweat spilling out into a glistening ring beneath him. "Of course, your Highness."
The Empress dismissed the assembled company with a flick of her hand. "General Hong will explain your new privileges and duties. And also, General....do remind the boy of the consequences of failure."
A savage smile graced General Hong's lips as he rested a hand on Yang Yizhen's shoulder. "With pleasure, my Empress."