Claudia was born to the obscenely wealthy and enormously powerful jal Rus family, the daughter of the current head of the House – although not by his wife. Lady jal Rus was struck down in the prime of her life due to the complications of childbirth, leaving behind her husband, the young and driven Peregrine jal Rus (IV), and a son, Alexander jal Rus, the heir upon which all hopes were pinned. Celibacy is not a trait which sits well with most, and Peregrine was no different; while he vowed never to marry again, out of respect for his dead wife, he soon took a string of mistresses – a charming wealthy socialite in Paradigm, perfect to appear on his arm at grand parties and soirees, a businesswoman in Oracle, both using the other for release and nothing more, others. Claudia’s mother was the Paradigm socialite, Lady Oriana, and one of the reasons she’s recognized at all as a jal Rus; her mother had been a fixture in Rus Palace for several years, known to all the high officials of the Admiralty, and it was therefore impossible to hide her pregnancy by shipping her off Paradigm with no warning, since that would spark a round of questions and comments that Peregrine, at a crucial stage in his career, could hardly afford.
Thus it is that Claudia formally bears the name jal Rus, legally a member of that family with all its entitlements, partly to avoid a greater scandal and also to be a spare, of sorts, for her half-brother, if anything happened to him.
Unlike with other noble births, however, it was not shouted from the rooftops, as the arrivals of her half-brother had been, merely quietly gazetted with a minimum of fuss. In part to downplay the whole affair, Claudia was shipped off to House Rus’ country seat at a young age, the very wellspring of jal Rus power and influence.
The repository of their power is the enormous city of Oracle, the furthest of the Admiralty cities and with a formidable Admiralty defence force. Oracle is far from the capital of Paradigm, and even further from Blackdown, but their influence is considerable in the Admiralty even so – Rus Palace stands in the very centre of the most prestigious district on Paradigm, and many of their number have become Admirals in the fleet with seats on the Admiralty Board itself, or have held other high-ranking positions down the ages.
Paranoid House Rus was the driving force behind the en-masse transportation of mancers beyond the fringe of human civilisation – as defined by the Admiralty, anyway. They provided the ships and the escort, and monitored the situation carefully, as much for their own gain as that of the Admiralty, wanting to pre-empt any change in the status quo as well as contain the disaster which had utterly destroyed one of the oldest cities in the Admiralty. The children were agents of the unknown abstract, House Rus argued, they had to be marginalized and studied both for their own protection and for the protection of the Admiralty and all who depended on it. After much debate, the Admiralty Board agreed with Mordecai jal Rus, the head of the family at that time, and the mass exile was begun. When this was successfully completed, he was rewarded with a promotion to Admiral – from there, it was some deft political manoeuvring and a few bribes in the right hands to a seat on the Admiralty Board itself, the government body that executed the executive will on behalf of the Admiral of the Fleet Entire, a move which catapulted the rising House Rus to even greater heights of power and prestige.
It was his son, Markham jal Rus and his wife, Liliana, who spearheaded the development of Oracle, the farthest city under the Admiralty aegis that House Rus uses as power base and refuge. Whilst on the very frontier of Admiralty protection, the formidable protective flotilla, as well as the millions of Admiralty marks lavished on Oracle city, mean that it is considered as safe as – or even safer than – any inner-sphere city. It has large shipyards for the maintenance and construction of Admiralty defence fleets and a grand trading port under heavy fleet guard.
Normally, such a monumental development under one House would never have been allowed, but since Mordecai jal Rus was a powerful Board Admiral at the time of the Grand Plan of House Rus, and further riding high on the exile of the mancers, magnanimity and some shrewd backroom political manoeuvring saw the project given the go-ahead, enshrined in law.
Since then, House Rus has jealously defended its claim to Oracle alone, despite many challenges from others wanting to settle its large island.
The House wasn’t as active in the enslavement of the Abyssers as it was in the mancer crisis; that generation were businessmen, more concerned with making marks than with politics, although they did allow the Admiralty to use Oracle as a forward staging base, contingent on no more challenges over the Rus irregularities and on improvements to the island’s defences, both of which were duly agreed. For a time after the victory in the war, Oracle was the largest slave-market on the planet, House Rus being quick to capitalise on the many prisoners of war held in its catacombs. The trade in Abysser flesh made them stupendously wealthy, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and they learned much from captured Abysser ships, too.
With this near-limitless fortune behind them, even after the flow of Abyssers dried up, Rus scions moved into the highest echelons of business, politics and the military. Admirals, Generals, magnates and statesmen all issued forth from the pearl doors of Rus Palace, movers and shakers in the Admiralty world.
Claudia, however, was cut from a decidedly different cloth to these worthies, pillars of the community who knew what was expected of them and went out to do their duty by House and Admiralty.
Indeed, rather than being sober, serious, virtuous and accomplished, Claudia was something of a tomboy in her youth, revelling in the rolling hills and forests of the Oracle estates, spending her days evading her guards and clambering through trees, or else piloting a tiny runabout down to the hustle and bustle of the shipyards and docks, where she would watch the engineers and shipwrights go about their business with great interest, mismatched eyes wide and drinking everything in. With her mother far off and with no real desire for contact, she was unrestrained for much of her childhood, with her father, at the time an Admiral on the Board, spending much of his time on Paradigm. She quickly grew uncontrollable, away from any stabilizing influences, so much so that nannies and governesses resigned in droves after trying to curb her wild ways – an exercise in futility, many called it.
Unsurprisingly, when her father retired from active service and returned to Oracle, Claudia jal Rus was nothing like the well brought-up young lady she should have been. Naturally, when he attempted to set matters in hand once and for all, she continually disagreed with the stern old solon, over everything from proper pursuits for a young lady to a marriage match with a neighbouring powerful house. Her indomitable will and stubbornness was a Rus trait, certainly, and led her into many conflicts with her father. About the only thing they didn’t clash on was her interest in ships and aeronautics, which her father encouraged as a most proper pursuit for a jal Rus, perhaps hoping to groom her for a career as an officer in the Admiralty when she was older – and also as a way to show that the girl had come good at last, improving the prospects for marrying a minor embarrassment off when the time came.
Even with this common ground, however, her father was quietly despairing of her – no suitor would take her as she was, a wild tomboy with leaves in her hair, grubby from clambering trees and tinkering with machines in the dockyards, and so when she expressed a serious interest in following in her ancestors’ footsteps into the Admiralty, her father agreed with something of a sigh of relief, thinking that she’d come to her senses and was about to knuckle down to some serious – and Rus-approved – things at last. Most jal Rus had gone into the military, after all, and he thought it would at least knock some sense into her, being in command and responsible for others.
Of course, she didn’t actually go along with her sire’s automatic ideal; she enrolled in the engineering programme, rather than the officer training corps, following on from her youthful experiences with making her own machines and building elaborate hideaways to secrete herself away from her increasingly-exasperated family and a string of suitors. When Lord Rus himself heard of her disobedience, his servants feared for his life, so apoplectic was he, beside himself with fury that, even in this, his wayward bastard daughter found a way to defy him.
A period of great and chilly silence descended between Claudia and the rest of her house, even when her clear affinity for her chosen profession was demonstrated; slightly over half her teachers admired and respected her, for her innovation and skill, whilst the others detested her for her unorthodox methods of making things work – even so, she passed out as valedictorian of the engineering academy early, having shot ahead of her contemporaries even though her discipline and obedience were somewhat lacking. Contact with her family was only re-established, in a limited and chilly way, at this point, given her clear skill and the admiring reports Lord Rus received about her.
Temperamentally suited to engineering work, she applied for – and won – a commission aboard the good ship Calvados, a light destroyer in the Admiralty’s Dark Fleet. Whilst here, she got into several disagreements with the Chief Engineer, chafing at what she saw as needless restrictions and adherence to thousand-year-old protocol. Needless to say, Claudia was reprimanded several times for being just shy of insubordination (which would have resulted in a one-way walk in front of a firing squad), despite being as civil as she knew how – Admiralty training didn’t go entirely to waste in that regard.
Maverick Rus, as she became known, was rapidly garnering a reputation for being unruly – only the influence of her name kept her from being cashiered, or worse. She did briefly serve with distinction, however – aboard the Sylvana, but that part of her record is usually overlooked, considering its connection with the now-infamous Ironhammer Disaster.
The groundwork for the catastrophe was laid, unknowing, years earlier, all thanks to a friendship which had grown up between a younger-than-usual engineering trainee and a confident officer candidate by the name of Aria jal Eth. The young officer had been with Claudia as her talent with aeronautical engines flowered under the guidance of the engineering instructors, half of whom appreciated her unusual genius, and half who hated her guts for it. The two of them were close, although there was a several-year age gap; women were rare in the officer corps and even rarer down in the engine rooms, and so naturally they formed a shared bond of camaraderie and circumstance, swapping tales of misdemeanours and triumphs alike, often spending the night at one another’s room, relaxing and unwinding.
Naturally, the student rumour mill quickly ground into overdrive; two of the best and brightest young people in the world (for those were the only sort who were accepted into the Admiralty, after all), both of them young women in the prime of their lives, but who spent almost every waking moment together. It was a small leap from ‘waking’ to ‘sleeping’ as well, with all that that implied. Aria, unusually, whenever this was mentioned by a particularly daring colleague, tended to simply smile and shrug, perhaps knowing that outright denial would prove nothing; Claudia was a little more unpredictable in her responses. There were investigations, of course, worry from some of the noble families, but no conclusive evidence was ever found; the two were simply ‘close friends’, young women who had bonded together in a challenging environment to help one another succeed in their chosen careers.
The Sylvana was Commander Aria jal Eth’s first full-scale command, having served aboard cruisers and frigates as an executive officer and commanded smaller picket ships in her own right; a patrol frigate was the suitable command for a young up-and-coming officer who had demonstrated skill and tact in the execution of her duties thus far in her career. At around the time that Aria jal Eth received command of the Sylvana, Claudia had graduated with full honours from the engineering academy – and was the ticking time-bomb, so to speak, in a grand game of pass-the-parcel in the fleet. Captains wanted solid, dependable, reliable from their engineers, not upstart innovation and argument from a junior officer.
It was perhaps for this reason, as well as a fortunate combination of circumstances, that led the Admiralty, in its wisdom, to approve the assignment of Claudia jal Rus, Junior Engineer (1st Class), to the engineering staff of the Sylvana when the captain of that frigate suggested it, arguing that talent couldn’t be lost to the Admiralty, no matter how prickly the exterior might be.
Reports from the subsequent Inquiry Board, interviewing surviving crewmembers, show that Claudia and Aria were immediately noted to be ‘very close’, almost as soon as she stepped onto her new assignment. It is believed that jal Rus exploited the indulgence she gained as an old friend – and perhaps more – of the ship’s captain to make unauthorised changes to ship-critical systems, particularly the paling energy system, over the objections of the Chief Engineer – he later confessed to being professionally interested in what she was doing, but thought that for the safety of the ship those tests should be run in a laboratory somewhere, not on an airfaring vessel mid-tour where any number of things could go wrong.
Ultimately, Claudia’s great experiment somehow did go catastrophically wrong – and whilst the ship was taking part in the grand Centennial Fleet Review, no less, alongside the most decorated flagships in the entire Admiralty and thousands of lesser vessels. The paling of the Sylvana became a weapon, of sorts, a boiling charivari of chaotic energies that blasted outwards from the frigate, destabilising the palings of all the vessels around it and causing horrendous damage. Worst-hit was the closest ship, the Dark Fleet flagship Ironhammer.
The inquiry subsequently determined that the feedback from the paling systems aboard the Ironhammer had all but destroyed its engineering deck, flash-frying the crew and cracking open the valentin engines in their armoured housings, rendering it unable to maintain lift. Toxic valentin fumes flooded the engineering deck, whilst fires raged throughout the lower parts of the ship, fuelled by the vast stores of flammable liquids in the engine rooms.
Other ships couldn’t get close to the suddenly-stricken Ironhammer, moving erratically as her engines strained and belching black smoke from her lower decks, for fear of being swatted from the sky by the continual motion. Members of the watching crowds tried to get away, fearing that the dreadnaught would come crashing down on Paradigm itself; hundreds died in the mad stampedes for the exits. Through a combination of heroism and sheer luck, the helmsman of the Ironhammer managed to turn the vast dreadnaught aside from the largest of the crowds, instead ploughing into one of the fleet dockyards, tearing through most of the facility before coming to a halt, embedded deep in Paradigm’s glittering side, a sullen wound that bled fire and smoke for weeks as teams picked through the ruins, trying to put out the blazes and find survivors.
This is not to say that the Sylvana had no problems – the backlash they experienced sent the ship reeling, nearly dashing it against a larger cruiser, and many of their problems were similar to that of other ships affected, initially diverting suspicion from the frigate. However, as the inquiry progressed, eyewitness reports pinpointed the ship as the originator for some kind of pulse that caused all the damage – the entire crew of the frigate were hauled up before the Inquiry board to testify. Further adding to the case against Claudia were the testimonies of the captain and the Chief Engineer, both made independently but almost simultaneously.
Claudia, in her holding cell, was only alerted to the danger by a message from her captain – a furious and yet also sad letter that held a strong hint of ‘goodbye’ – and the only reason for that would have been a firing squad.
Escape was difficult, but Claudia was ingenious and had had time to idly plan for contingencies. A medical problem wouldn’t have helped; the guards would have sent for a medical team rather than opening her cell to check.
Fortunately, they liked to jeer – and more – at the jal Rus, brought low and revealed for the murderess she was, which gave her an opening. Swift action saw the electrification of her cell door, shocking the guard in the act of opening it, long enough for her to stun him more heavily and make good her escape from the brig. Stealing the uniform of the guard and carefully locking her cell behind her helped in the first part of the escape, and she was out of the detention centre, such as it was, before the first alarms began sounding. A dockyard barber took care of bleaching her hair and eyebrows a striking shade of platinum-blonde without batting an eyelid, used to odd requests, and she had passage to Oracle booked within the hour.
Her only hope to avoid a bullet in the brain was now to get her shocked and horrified body out beyond Admiralty control, to the frontier of a thousand bedtime horror stories. Anything was better than ignominious death at the hands of a firing squad – even being torn to pieces by a sky-monster. And since she’d just murdered over a thousand people, she ought to fit right in.
Passage to the frontier was difficult to get, of course, given the near-constant Admiralty patrols and the high alert they now had for her – the Butcher of the Fleet, Shipkiller and a hundred other, less-repeatable names. Even smugglers – she’d found only one, plying a dangerous route between Admiralty and Frontier Cloudsea – were nearly grounded, thanks to all the patrols, and day on day Oracle was getting more and more dangerous for her.
Nearly all her money, a stash of gold and gems wrought into fine jewellery, went on securing passage at any cost out of Oracle and into the badlands of the frontier when the first artist’s impressions of her began arriving in the city. Not even the network of friends and acquaintances on Oracle, people who’d known her from infancy and stood steadfastly behind her, could help against that, beyond applying pressure on that lone smuggler to go and take her with him.
Fortunately for Claudia, the smuggler’s fast custom freighter managed to evade Admiralty patrols and escape into the frontier, letting her vanish into the wilds and beyond Admiralty reach.
The frontier seemed the perfect place for her to quietly disappear; engineers would always be in-demand, surely, to fix anything from farm equipment to water purifiers, and if she was good at what she did – but not too good – people wouldn’t pry too much.
In Blackdown, she decided to settle, after not having seen any Admiralty ships pass by for a week or more. Her remaining money got her a modest little workshop, really little more than a shed, on the outskirts of town; a new face was always the subject of discussion and debate, of course, but she kept herself to herself and was generally very close-lipped about her past, and almost completely clueless about frontier life. After a few attempts to probe, most gave up, writing her off as another crazy girl on the frontier, broken by some experience or other. She didn’t advertise much, not wanting to draw attention or to explain where she acquired her skills as an engineer, but as she got back on her feet and learned that life on the frontier was, in reality, not unending hell, word quietly got around that the busty girl who drifted around town was pretty good with machines. She worked on farming equipment, engines and the occasional furnace, living frugally, a skill she’d had to learn when cut off from the Rus fortunes, scrimping and saving for more and better equipment – and a better shed. Junior Engineer (1st Class) the Lady jal Rus became plain old Claudia Donovan, a decent engineer – if a little inexperienced, by the standards of the older engineers, and one who was always tinkering with the stuff she was brought, even when it worked perfectly well.
Her skills as an engineer saw her co-opted into the militia after a time, keeping the defense turrets and picket ships in operation, despite their age and unreliability in general. She was initially unwilling to help, perhaps because she feared she might encounter Admiralty personnel who could see past the voice and the haircut and all the other myriad points of disguise, but the persistent efforts of the militia commander finally got her to give in, mostly to stop being pestered. The militia was a good move for the standoffish and withdrawn Claudia Donovan; rather than nursing her drinks alone in the pub after work, she was slowly pulled into a wider group, becoming steadily more attached to Blackdown and its people, and they, in turn, to her.