Drained by war and stagnating under more than a century of nepotism and office seeking, the Empire is in a fragile condition. Long dead political creeds are finding new voices. Restless aristocrats are conspiring for the crown. Secret societies plan a new galactic order, each in their own image. The Earthly Imperium is rapidly approaching an inflection point; a time when the deed of one individual at the right moment could change history and define the future.
Superintendence was a practical solution to the criminal scandals that characterised the early Empire. A mere policeman apprehending an aristocrat has long been unthinkable. How then to control the mischievous tendencies of the nobility? The answer turned out to be information.
Commissars are the masters of superintendence; the doctrine of information gathering and blackmail that enabled the first Emperor to control his noble subordinates. Commissars collected secrets and used them directly in the interests of the Emperor. A nobleman might care little for the threat of arrest, but his family secrets were another matter. The release of these could undermine his social standing.
Every monarch since has expanded the commissars. Their duties have grown from policing the aristocracy to directing and controlling society on a grand scale. No factory, school or ship is complete without one. Their authority is unquestioned, their powers unlimited. Commissars wishing to make a point have been known to exercise their power of summary execution. However, dead men tell no tales and tales are the currency of the Commissar. Unless pressed, or lied to, they are much more likely to offer clemency, even immunity. That is, if you will only tell them everything. Starting at the beginning.
The absence of civil society has caused secret societies to proliferate. Some are little more than drinking clubs, enabling subjects to let off steam without spousely supervision. Others have more complex agendas. The least harmful societies are tolerated. A few are encouraged, if their interests currently align with the Empire. Others are vigorously suppressed.
Of the outlaws, the Cult of Horus is the most notorious. Imperial news sheets revel in describing, or more likely inventing, the bizarre rites they perform during their dark worship of long forgotten Gods. In contrast, a media blackout applies to the Black Hand. This terrorist group seeks to topple the aristocracy by violence, carrying out assassinations and sabotage. However, neither are as despised as the Aetherians. The Aetherians revere the Lonely Ones, seeing in them beings vastly superior to men. In the Imperial press they are traitors of the worst sort; perverse alien lovers who seek to betray the human race. Only in their most private thoughts would any citizen sympathise with their wish to end the war.
It is impossible to understate the prevalence of secret societies. They are the secret guilds of the Empire; a way to find friends in unfriendly places and aid in a crisis.
Planet Aquarius was a much needed success for the Imperial Exploration Program. In contrast to the dusty and airless mineral worlds that are the lot of many colonists, Aquarius is a paradise. Marginally smaller than Earth, and with a somewhat hotter climate, Aquarius is still being explored. It is a world of oceans and plains, fungal forests and steaming pestiferous swamps.
While the soil is thin, the air is clean and breathable and many native foodstuffs are edible. Indeed, some are a little too edible. A quirk of the ecosystem means much of the native flora has unusual properties; they are by turns and to varying degrees addictive, hallucinogenic and aphrodisiac. The least harmful are subject to an Imperial monopoly. Others are illegal to harvest or export, though smuggling is rife.
Aquarius Colony has grown rapidly, attracting colonists from every corner of the Empire. For many it is a chance to begin again. This air of freedom seems to make anything possible. As a result the colony is a hotbed of unrest, with a flowering independence movement. Distant from Earth and with a garrison sympathetic to their aims, the Planetary Governor is in a difficult spot. The movement is growing bolder. A march is planned. There has been no political march in the Empire since before the Interglobal Wars.
The Riga is the lead ship of the new Europa Class Exploration Cruiser. This class, which represents an enormous investment of resources, marks a change of tactics for the Empire. They are at once the most expensive and advanced ships the Imperial Navy has built, but they are not warships. Their stated purpose is to explore the borders of the Empire, but their real purpose is to scour the galaxy for clues regarding the whereabouts or nature of the Lonely Ones. There is no time to lose.
The economic strain of the war is eroding the fabric of the Empire. The pact between the aristocrats and the Empress is creaking. A desire for new and more effective leadership is growing, if not yet voiced. The Royal Family is heavily invested in the success of the Europa Class, not least because the Imperial Naval Architect is his royal highness, the Crown Prince. If it should fail, matters could take a very dark turn.
To ensure the success of the shakedown cruise, Lord Montreux is in personal command. The mission is simple: to visit Aquarius Colony, deliver supplies and transport a xenological expedition to System Gliese 892 where a probe has detected alien ruins. The system is known. It is one of the old naval battlefields of the war. The war moved on, but the scavengers did not. Such systems can be dangerous places..