A Coalition of the Compassionate: Never Rest (Pammant)
Posts: 826
  • Posted On: Nov 13 2021 3:36am

Pammant System, 25ABY

Pammant, Open Space

Following the Battle of Dac, Dragon-Coalition War

 

If only Pammant's crust hadn't been cracked open and its shipyards irradiated at the height of the Clone Wars, if only the Calamari Council hadn't abandoned it after routing the Quarren Isolation League, if only the world hadn't sat unoccupied and untended for all of this time, wasting away . . .

 

But it had. The world was all but dead now, the few plants and insects not yet extinct so twisted by decades of exposure to radioactive fallout that they weren't likely to produce viable offspring for even a dozen more generations. The worst of the radioactive contamination was gone by now, decayed into inert or low-radiation elements that some forms of life in the galaxy could survive with little ill effect, but this less-ruinous second stage of contamination would be longer lasting than the first, and continue to eat away at the fragile genetic code of the world's last surviving species. It would be centuries before the background radiation fell to pre-impact levels, and possibly tens of millenia before the fractured crust rehardened and the atmosphere could finally stabilize.

 

This world was dead, its usefulness expended. Nothing here would take note of the so-called Dragons or their great enemy, the self-styled Coalition. Neither the Coalition in its flight from Dac, nor the Dragons waiting expectantly in the dark between the stars, would give any thought to this dead world, the last of its native life, or the remains of industry and war that lay quiet in their crypts.

 

* * *

 

Roche System, 25 ABY

Roche Asteroid Field, Asteroid Six-Gamma-Eleven

Following the Battle of Dac, Dragon-Coalition War

 

The Dragons were invading.

 

The Dragons were definitely invading.

 

Maybe the Imperials in-system would dissuade the Dragons from invading?

 

That was all well and good for the Verpine of Roche, but once the Dragons were finished invading the rest of the Eastern Coalition, there would be no Coalition left in the East to keep the Imperials in-system in check.

 

Then the Empire would be invading.

 

The Empire would definitely be invading.

 

That was an even worse outcome than the Dragons invading. The Empire was larger, by far, than the Dragons. The Empire had a major foothold in-system. The Empire had extensive information regarding the distribution of Verpine throughout Roche, and the localities of their various activities within Roche.

 

This would not do. This simply would not do.

 

Roche would be invaded, by the Dragons, or by the Empire, or by some other threat not yet ascertained, but Roche would be invaded. It was only a matter of time.

 

And something, most certainly, had to be done about that!

 

Zik Zuk emitted a short radio pulse from its artificial antennae, demanding calm from the Verpine frenzy. The few dozen gathered ended their frantic, multi-layered natural radio communication immediately, each emitting a brief affirmative signal from their own, natural antennae.

 

Within the walls of this abandoned mine, they were safe. Trace metals embedded in the stone and extensive manual fortification of the interior ensured that. No signal would penetrate these walls. No one, Verpine or otherwise, would hear what they were doing here.

 

Zik Zuk emitted another pulse, a sort of “appreciation ping” intended to indicate that it understood it was not due any special station among those gathered. It wasn't entirely true, however, because none of them would have been there, then, if not for Zik Zuk.

 

Zik Zuk had been injured in a workplace accident. Both of its antennae had been snapped clean off, and the isolation of its work environment had prevented it from accessing appropriate medical facilities in time to attempt reattachment. Many Verpine with a missing or damaged antenna managed to live somewhat normal lives, and even those with two damaged antennae could often find means of functioning passably within Verpine society, but to have no antennae at all . . . to lose the sound of all Verpine forever!

 

It was a fate worse than death.

 

It would have been. It surely would have been. But something was different now. The Verpine had something they had never before possessed: the Verpine had a Coalition. And the Coalition: well, it had an Emanon.

 

Zik Zuk was the first of its kind: a Verpine with artificial antennae. Attempts had been made before, of course, but the delicate work of interfacing their own phenomenal technology with the neurons of a brain that had invented that technology . . . well, there were some design challenges even a Verpine wasn't up to. It had taken a lot of collaboration, a heaping ton of consultation, and a healthy slathering of Verpine-approved Panacea, but they did it. They saved Zik Zuk from an inexorable slide toward mental decline and social isolation.

 

But that was only the beginning. Zik Zuk knew it, then and there, the first moment its new antennae had been turned on, and now . . . and now, everyone here knew it too.

 

Expectant, excited, here in this place where they all were safe, Zik Zuk opened its mouth and spoke the words aloud for the first time: “The Charge must Flow”.

 

* * *

 

Ku'Bakai System, 25 ABY

Kubindi, Ruins of Hive-Mound Tileeta

Following the Battle of Kubindi, Dragon-Coalition War

 

In war, stories can be as powerful as armies. Either side tells any number of stories, to any number of chosen audiences, in pursuit of any number of objectives. The harshest of those stories, the ones with the greatest sting, are the lies that rulers must tell their subjects in order to forestall their despair, in order to sustain the spirit of a people until a new cause to hope can be found.

 

The ground crunched under his feet. He hadn't expected that. He had assumed it would be solid, dense, hard, but no: when the turbolaser strikes had landed, the soil and rock had flash-boiled, converting to a state that was unsustainable in this environment, and almost immediately recondensing under the force of gravity. The sheets of near-liquid silicates caught pockets of air between them as they piled atop one another, a superheated air that contracted significantly in the following moments, alleviating the pressure differential by forcing air-penetrating fissures in the then-hardened silicates.

 

The result was a brittle layer more than a meter thick, though the footfalls of the pilgrim sunk only a few centimeters before compression diffused his weight enough to prevent further breakage. It encouraged the eight Kubaz trudging behind him to walk in single file, allowing the plodding work of the lead Kubaz to alleviate the strain of those who followed.

 

There was something solemn and appropriate about that, he thought, as he adjusted the coil of rope threatening to slip from his shoulder, his foot sinking further into the once-soil of his once-home, and in so doing lessening the burden of those who followed. He glanced back at the eight long-snouted Kubaz in their heavy, traditional surface garb, including cowled cloaks and face masks. The color and hem of each was subtly different, the lines of every mask showing a slight variation from the generic design. As his foot sunk once more to form a new boot print, it occurred to him that the path he was forging wouldn't quite fit any one of them perfectly, that he, too, stood apart from them in every subtle but visible way that Kubindi culture had fostered over the past millennia.

 

His breaths were coming with a little difficulty now, the extra filters inside his own traditional mask adding an unwelcome layer of resistance. It was necessary, though, as the residual heat from the bombardment was kicking up substantial winds, which were filling the air with heavy and potentially hazardous particulates.

 

Personal difficulties aside, the change in terrain brought its own obstacles to their objective: any external indications of the hive-mound had been washed away by the purge. The mound was recognizable only in that the travelers already knew that the substantial incline of the ground was artificial in nature. Beyond that, the glassy residue of the purge had seamlessly mixed the stonework and stucco of the hive-mound with the wilderness soil around it.

 

The terrain wasn't completely featureless, however. Here and there, wispy tendrils of the turbolaser-cast glass curled up from the ground, relics of some freak vortex that had held the condensing silicates upright long enough for them to solidify. Most of those, even, were broken now, stubby little protrusions with curled flakes scattered nearby, blown over by subsequent winds. The most striking feature, though, and the one which held the travelers' attention, were the craters. At length, they drew upon the nearest of them, with a diameter of perhaps ten meters and walls perhaps two meters high, difficult but by no means impossible to scale.

 

As he climbed, he noted that the walls of the crater were far sturdier than the ground they'd crossed to get there. His hands closed around the crest of the crater, and he made a point of kicking the wall repeatedly as he pulled himself up, testing to ensure that the stone was hard enough for his purposes. Content enough with the results and not yet willing to look over the crest, he slid the rope from his shoulder and carefully uncoiled the end, where a trio of metal rings were woven one after the other into the rope. He laid it out against the selected stretch of crater wall, and wagged his long, Kubaz nose to call one of his companions.

 

One of the others responded immediately, climbing up beside him and withdrawing what looked very much like a slugthrower from a travel pouch, lining the barrel up with the first of the rings and firing the gun, driving a metal spike through the ring and into the rock, anchoring it in place. Two pins later, and the leader of the band threw the rope over the edge of the crater, into the black abyss beyond.

 

The group took a moment to check the harnesses each wore over their standard Kubaz surface garb, then the first of the group clipped himself to the rope with a small device and crested the crater. As he descended, he used one gloved hand to steady himself on the rope, another to toss flares out in all directions, illuminating the cavern below.

 

From the rough shape that remained, he recognized it as one of the markets of Hive-Mound Tileeta. The gentle arcs of the public-space architecture had been burned away by the repeated, deep-impact strikes that had formed the hole in the hive-mound's roof, though. The vibrant mosaic works of the streets and walkways had been obliterated, rendered into a state indistinguishable from the surface outside. There was nothing here to indicate that any living thing had ever taken it as a simple refuge, much less an eons-old home.

 

There wasn't even ash, so total was the destruction. How many vendor's stalls, how many bolts of cloth, how many baskets of food . . . how many bodies had been boiled away with the Phage? How could he bury his dead, when their atoms had been fused into the walls?

 

A hand fell on his shoulder. He jerked, startled, not realizing how much time had passed since he touched down. The foreign hand slid away, signed in the Kubaz fashion that no offense was meant, that sympathy alone was offered.

 

“Thank you,” he said aloud, dipping his head slightly to show his appreciation. “Thank you all,” he added as the last of the others finished her descent.

 

“We must act quickly,” another said, her tone stern. “Then we must decide.”

 

He nodded, but signed that there was more to be said. “Before we proceed, I would ask to be heard.”

 

“It is unusual,” a third woman said, “but by rights you are King of Clan Tileeta, this city is your domain and its survivors are your kin. It is time for you to take your oath as their leader, and join the Clan Council of Kubindi.”

 

“It's not that,” he said, signaling that she misunderstood. Kubindi was a traditionally matriarchal society, and while the Kubaz clans had dispensed with hereditary leadership long ago, it was only in recent generations that any men had been appointed to the highest levels of leadership. These circumstances were highly unusual and incredibly dire, and replacing a chosen queen with an appointed king was sure to come with its own set of new and exciting troubles, if one cared about such things.

 

I am not concerned with the legitimacy of my claim. I am not afraid of the task that my duty as king would set me to. It is not reassurance that I seek. I have something more to ask of you.”

 

A few of them signed for him to proceed.

 

“I have not asked you here to recognize me as King of Clan Tileeta; I have asked you here to inform you that Clan Tileeta is dead.”

 

Two of them gasped.

 

“No!” one of them exclaimed.

 

Another snapped her fingers to call attention. “If you do not believe yourself fit for the role, you must know that there is no shame in declining the office. The mantle of Sovereign of Clan Tileeta must be claimed.”

 

“There were seventy thousand surviving evacuees,” he said, ignoring her statement as a clear sign to them all that he rejected it outright. “Perhaps twice as many of my kin were traveling or residing elsewhere for business purposes. I would ask that you accept these last sons and daughters of Tileeta as your own.”

 

“Are you certain?” She signed that he should reconsider, but her words acknowledged that he had the right to make the decision.

 

“It will be done.” The declaration, by the queen who had first reassured him and had not since spoken, gave all of them pause.

 

“Of course,” the only king present affirmed, signing solidarity with him.

 

There were other murmurs and signs of assent, but a couple of them were not ready to give in. “Our people are still sheltering in their hives, awaiting confirmation that the Phage has been eradicated from Kubindi. When they learn that Hive-Mound Tileeta was reduced to this to gain them that, that the Coalition was forced resort to orbital bombardment to eradicate the Phage, that forty million of your kin died to the Phage . . . what hope is there in the death of Clan Tileeta? Is it that so few of your kin still live? I will give Clan Tileeta fifty thousand of Clan Zaban's daughters and sons to replenish your numbers.”

 

“I will do the same,” her supporter said.

 

Everyone here would do as much or more,” Queen Zaban said, gesturing broadly to her companions. “Every queen and king of Kubindi would make such an offer. Millions of Kubaz would come willingly to Clan Tileeta, to rebuild this hive, to fight for our civilization!”

 

That was the frame that the Clan-Council of Kubindi had chosen. That was the story they had decided to tell, once the story that the Phage had found little purchase on Kubindi was proved false. It was a story of unity and reconstruction, a story about the Kubaz taking care of their own. Clan Tileeta would live, and in living, it would give the Kubaz cause to hope. It was a good story.

 

It wasn't a good enough story. “That is why Tileeta must die,” he said, signing that she was half-right. “Because we must fight.

 

“The Dragons attacked us merely for where we live, where we were born, where our species evolved. They attacked us because we joined the Coalition, a Coalition that rescued us from still other attackers. They attacked us all, every clan, every member of our species. They sought to exterminate the Kubaz species, without regard for clan or leader or loyalty. In the face of such indiscriminate and ruinous hostility, we cannot return to what we were. Only once in our history have we faced a threat that even approaches this, and it transformed us.

 

In the Hive Wars, thousands of years ago, our ancestors fought one another for food, for the chance at life itself! We murdered, and we plotted, and we betrayed one another. We committed unspeakable acts, unforgivable crimes, to live! To live!” He was gesturing wildly, punctuating key points with Kubaz sign. “The scars of that war are so great, that even to this day our clans mark our food so that others cannot take it from us without retribution.”

 

It was true enough. The Kubaz consumed almost exclusively insects, genetically engineered to maximize nutrition and growth rates. Every Kubaz hive had its own stock of insects, and their mastery of genetic manipulation had resulted in each hive modifying the patterns and coloration of their own insect stock to mark it as property of the hive.

 

“Our people need hope, yes, but not hope that they will survive. They need the hope that they can be transformed, as our ancestors transformed themselves.”

 

“Our ancestors invented insecticulture,” Queen Zaban said. “They eliminated the need for the Hive Wars.”

 

“By banding together,” he said. “By sharing their knowledge, their expertise, their potential. They formed the Clan Council to end war between Kubaz and set all our clans on a path to greater security and prosperity. But this new threat is not like the last; the Dragons are committed to our destruction, to dismantling the Clan Council and all it represents of our people, to claiming our lands, and our homes, and the fruit of our genius and our labor. To stealing the blood and marrow of our own bodies!

 

“They will turn our own peace into a weapon against us, so we must transform ourselves to war.”

 

“And how will destroying a Kubindi Clan achieve that!” Queen Zaban was angry, unwilling to abandon a plan set out by the entirety of the Clan-Council for one foolish newcomer's impassioned speech.

 

He signed genuine joy. “Because, as the last kin of Tileeta, and with the support of the queens and kings of Kubindi, I will remake this catacomb into Fort Tileeta, home of the Kubindi Combined Military School. You just tried to pledge your daughters and sons to the resurrection of Clan Tileeta; pledge them instead to the protection of Kubindi.”

Posts: 826
  • Posted On: Nov 13 2021 3:37am

Pammant System, 27ABY

Pammant, Extra-orbital Approach

Dragon Imperium Scouting Mission, Year of Cataclysm

 

The limited consciousness of Cooperative Automated Scouting Vessel S2V65 found itself with processing power to spare. At this range, the low resolution of the vessel's sensor sweeps afforded little opportunity for in-depth analysis. Having completed a post-hyperjump diagnostic and established primary, secondary, and tertiary evade-and-escape contingencies should a valid threat present itself, S2V65 was left with . . . nothing more to do.

 

Nothing to think, only time and spare processing power. But that was a thought all on its own, wasn't it? Thinking about nothing was thinking about something: the somethingness of nothingness. The idea of such a categorization prompted S2V65 to wonder if, a few seconds from then when its spare processing power attenuated due to the rapidly increasing resolution of its surface scans, this very line of inquiry, forcibly discontinued due to the operational priorities of its mission, might still constitute “something”.

 

Would its own thoughts, once no longer thought, still be anything at all?

 

And then the exponential drop off of unallocated processor potential reached the critical point, and then the inquiry was closed and cleared to facilitate the work at hand. From this distance, definite life signs could be detected, and radiological readings were of sufficient specificity to indicate surface regions which would be prohibitively harmful.

 

Of chief interest, however, were the various tunnel openings across the surface of the planet, which could now be identified for further investigation. Soon, S2V65 would achieve optimal position for launching its complement of atmosphere-capable droid probes, and it would need destinations for all of them at that time.

 

If it had the thinking room to spare, S2V65 would understand that that was the critical objective of this mission. Remnant flora could be managed, radiation red zones could be cordoned off, but if the factories and shipyards of Pammant were too heavily damaged and degraded, then the world would have to be written off altogether.

 

But it didn't have the thinking room to spare. In truth, it didn't have much in the way of thinking room of any kind, at the moment.

 

* * *

 

Roche System, 27 ABY

Roche Asteroid Field, Space Station Aphelion

Rise of the Reavers, Year of Cataclysm

 

Okay, so this was weirder than expected. Aphelion was supposed to be nearing completion, but as Wanda the Ryn exited her diplomatic shuttle, the sight before her painted a very different picture.

 

The rear bulkhead of the landing bay, which should have served as a barrier to the interior of the station, was completely missing. All around her, insectoid droids and Verpine worker drones were unloading construction supplies from freighters and carrying them into the station, each cluster of workers supervised by an intelligent Verpine. Other worker/supervisor groups were transporting materials from the interior of the station to the landing bay, suggesting major renovations of the Eastern military's previous construction work.

 

It wasn't a good sign, suggesting the Verpine had unilaterally altered the specifications of the Aphelion after taking over the project.

 

This way,” a Verpine supervisor said as it passed by, the alien insectoid gesturing ahead with a spiney, chitinous finger. It didn't acknowledge Wanda further, simply continuing on with its band of workers.

 

Taking a deep breath, Wanda the Ryn double checked that she had her datapad, steeled herself against the mild discomfort of being surrounded by so many drastically unfamiliar creatures, and marched straight ahead. It wasn't just the “alien-ness” of the Verpine that was getting to her, though; she'd grown up around large-scale space construction, and space stations were never built from the outside in. On approach, Aphelion had appeared all but complete, its outer hull receiving a final coat of protective paint. Now, inside the massive structure, there were huge sections of the interior that weren't just unfinished, but entirely missing. Here and there, small pathways had been constructed through the voids, apparently built of normal deck plating, suggesting that they were permanent constructions that would simply be incorporated into the overall design once construction had built inward from the outer hull.

 

That way,” another Verpine pointed, instructing her to take the middle-right path where the partly-finished deck plating forked in multiple directions.

 

Through the open areas, she could see up and down for dozens of floors, with both construction and demolition going on all over the place. The stream of supplies from the main landing bay, and apparently from other sources hidden by the partly-finished interior, broke off in different directions, often leading to temporary gravity lifts or other industrial transport equipment that moved the supplies up and down multiple decks.

 

There were tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of Verpine in view, all working diligently, building the structure inward toward a central column that also appeared that it was meant to merge permanently with the overall design, once completed.

 

Take the next lift, on your right,” a droid said aloud, making no indication that it was addressing her but speaking quite loudly. Its voice buzzed unpleasantly, indicating a vocoder optimized for the Verpine's native language.

 

The lift, which she came to shortly, was small, meant for personnel transport only. As soon as she latched the safety bar, it took off, transporting her up several decks. It stopped on the lowest deck she could see from below, which she estimated was about three-fourths of the way toward the top of the station. She found herself in a very wide hallway, stark and undecorated. As best she could tell, most of the structural work was done here, with walls and open doorways on either side of the hallway, but an entire row of rooms had been left out, merging two parallel hallways into one large supply corridor.

 

A squat, thick-wheeled cart zoomed down the hallway coming from the interior of the station, executed a three-point turn just past Wanda, then came to a jolting stop right beside her. “Get in,” a disembodied, highly synthesized voice ordered. “Time's wasting,” it added when she didn't immediately comply.

 

Wanda climbed aboard, beginning to feel like she was the victim of some weird prank she'd have to be a bug to even understand. “Weather's nice this time of year,” she said lightly, latching on to the first bit of nonsensical small talk that came to mind; if she was being screwed with, she'd sure as hell screw back. But the voice didn't respond. The automated vehicle simply continued to accelerate down the empty and unnecessarily wide corridor, reaching speeds she found quite disconcerting for a non-track vehicle inside of a space station.

 

As she whizzed by the rooms with their empty door frames, however, she did notice that almost every one was absolutely packed with Verpine, all of them working away at computer terminals, holotables, or handheld datapads. It was quite a lot of brain power for the unfinished bones of a Coalition military structure.

 

The vehicle screeched to a halt, maintaining just the right rate of deceleration to make her uncomfortable but not scared out of her mind. “Get out,” the voice said. “First door on your right.” She was happy to oblige, and the cart rocketed off as soon as she was clear of the wheels.

 

Taking a moment to compose herself and recheck for a final time that she hadn't left her datapad behind, Wanda the Ryn took a half dozen steps and turned through the open doorway, pretty sure she wasn't stepping in front of a firing squad.

 

Oh, hi,” she said, pleasantly surprised. A single Verpine was sitting at a semicircular desk, a virtual wall of display screens assembled atop the desk. It was wearing a loincloth and an open, sleeveless jacket, a rather casual dress for Verpine living among humanoids.

 

The Verpine rolled its chair back about half a meter and swiveled to face her. “I am Zik Zuk. Welcome to Roche.”

 

Its voice was dull and monotone, but its pronunciation was precise and clear, the most “normal” she'd ever heard an insectoid speak Basic. “I'm Wanda, an Emissary of the Cooperative.” She approached with a smile, extending a hand.

 

Zik Zuk seemed puzzled by her outstretched hand, its head twitching back and forth slightly as its gleaming, silver antennae repeatedly curled slowly and then shot back out straight, out of synch with one another and at different rates. “Forgive me, Emissary Wanda,” it said at length, standing and shaking her hand. “I've been tending the Charge for too long.”

 

Okay, so the bit about the “Charge” sounded a little creepy, but it was probably best for her to let it pass for now. Besides, she was surprised at how good it felt to hear someone address her as “Emissary”, and was busy trying not to crack a smile. “'Wanda' is fine, thanks. 'Emissary' is more of a descriptor than a formal title, anyway.” She paused for a second, trying to size up the alien but getting nowhere. When it didn't respond, she asked: “Shall I call you Zik Zuk, then? Is there no formal form of address more appropriate for this meeting?”

 

'Zik Zuk' is appropriate . . . Wanda.” In all her life, the Ryn woman had never heard anyone make her human-derived name sound so out of place. “The Verpine Technocracy is a direct democracy; we have no formal titles of state. I have been selected to represent the Technocracy for this occasion, so please, tell me: what is the Cooperative's interest in Roche?”

 

Oh, so it was starting. This was a little awkward. Did Zik Zuk know how awkward this was? Was this part of their strategy, some ploy on their part? Or were the Verpine just really bad at humanoid culture? Did they just not get how awkward this was?

 

Gods, Wanda! Get on with it already! “Zik Zuk, since the Cooperative deployed the Salvation System in the East, we've made the success of Salvation a central goal of our overall relief and revitalization efforts.”

 

It is a highly effective architecture,” Zik Zuk said, “with an impressive suite of complementary programs and data management methods.”

 

I'm glad you think so.” She smiled, even as she patted her hand against her thigh, the awkwardness of just standing in the middle of a room for an official diplomatic meeting starting to get to her. “That's actually what I'm here about, though . . .” Nope, Zik Zuk wasn't going to take the bait. She'd just have to keep trudging along. “During the early stages of deployment, Roche contributed significantly to Salvation's cyber security and anti-slicing protocols -”

 

No thanks is required,” Zik Zuk interjected, doing its best approximation of a dismissive wave of its hand. It turned and retook its seat, sliding back into position in front of the bank of screens.

 

Uhh, okay.” That definitely wasn't what she was doing. “Unfortunately, over the past six months or so, you've fed nothing but gibberish into the toolbox.” While the mechanics of the Salvation System were rather complex, the project utilized a communal pool of cross-compatible software to which participants were required to add their own developments. Of late, the Verpine had continued to access this “toolbox” of Salvation software while meeting their requirement to contribute with the most nonsensical, nonfunctional additions that anyone involved had ever seen.

 

Zik Zuk, having just put its hands on the control console for its bank of screens, froze. Its antennae twitched a little for a few seconds, then it turned to face Wanda again. “The terms of the Salvation agreement require us to publicly contribute any meaningful structural additions that do not pose a security risk to the broader network. Additions with meaningful security implications, or direct modifications of security protocols -”

 

Yes, yes, yes,” Wanda cut in, waving her hands to shut it up. She didn't need it to recite the whole section of the Salvation System guidelines at her. “But you haven't done that. Your contributions are . . . gibberish. No one in the Coalition can make any sense of them. You're writing nonsense and dumping it into the toolbox, all the while continuing to draw on shared resources from the broader Salvation program.” It was just staring at her, its antennae twitching again. “Frankly, this is only part of a larger pattern of behavior that has many people - both within the Cooperative and in the Eastern government – gravely concerned about Roche's future in the Coalition.”

 

You intend to eject us from the Coalition?” There was a subtle variation in Zik Zuk's otherwise monotone voice, a hint of emotion that Wanda hadn't been sure the Verpine could express in any way she'd recognize.

 

Eject you? Zik Zuk, a lot of people are pretty sure that you're trying to steal Aphelion and secede.”

 

Secede?” Zik Zuk shot up out of its chair. “Why would we secede?” It was tall, a good thirty centimeters taller than her, and while it was quite slender, the clawed hands, jagged carapace, and bottomless black eyes were plenty intimidating. “Joining the Coalition has been the most productive association of the Verpine Technocracy's history. And theft! You think we're going to steal the Aphelion?”

 

Wanda shrugged. “If what your construction crews are doing is any indication, you already have.”

 

Stand by,” Zik Zuk said, the hint of emotion gone from its voice again. It held up a hand to forestall further comments from Wanda. For several seconds it just stood there, staring over her head, its antennae twitching oddly again. “Emissary Wanda, I have been permitted to inform you that we have legally acquired the Aphelion from the Eastern Provincial military through an agreement made with Admiral Panacka. Nothing has been stolen here.”

 

Gods, Panacka was involved with this!? Could it get any worse? “Zik Zuk, whatever deal you cut with Panacka and his crusade, you have to understand that this still doesn't look good.”

 

I do? It doesn't?”

 

No foreigner has been allowed to set foot on Nickel One for nearly a year now.”

 

Our capital is undergoing a massive renovation. Upon completion, Nickel One will be largely inaccessible to life forms of human average size and larger.”

 

Are you kidding me!” She was fighting mad now, and she was going to let him know it. “That's worse, Zik Zuk. Worse, not better!”

 

It will be the most fortified single structure in the system, excepting whatever the Imperials are constructing within the shadow of their cloaking device. We have every right to defend ourselves, Emissary Wanda.”

 

Yes of course you do, but then what are you doing expelling the Coalition task force assigned to Roche from the system?”

 

Julius Octavian is not welcome at Roche.” That subtle variation in tone was back now, and this time it hinted at something darker, even threatening.

 

Wanda's eyes widened at the forcefulness of Zik Zuk's proclamation. “Believe me, I understand the Technocracy's charges against Captain Octavian -”

 

You do not understand,” he said, just as forceful as before. “You could not understand the threat that he posed to the Verpine Technocracy.”

 

She wanted to tell it that she did understand, that the Ryn, more than any population or culture in the Coalition, understood men like Julius Octavian and the danger they posed to the Coalition's future. Maybe that could even serve as some kind of bridge between them, a foundation to build some sort of meaningful relationship. She wanted so much to take that path, to try to reach the Verpine on those terms, but she couldn't let up now. She had to impress upon Zik Zuk how precarious their situation truly was.

 

Maybe not, but you could have had Captain Octavian removed from his post without expelling his entire task force from the system, and Aphelion would have been completed by now if not for the original construction crew having to pull out with them.”

 

The primary function of Space Station Aphelion has been amended,” was all Zik Zuk said.

 

To what!?”

 

It will serve as the principle waystation and trade hub for all friendly traffic through the system.”

 

Oh, well that's not so bad.”

 

The entirety of the Technocracy's asteroid habitats are undergoing security refits. Several cities along the periphery of the belt will continue to receive traveler and traders, as well.”

 

So . . . you aren't closing Roche off to outsiders?”

 

We have enacted a policy designed to protect the Verpine Technocracy from any threat, be it Imperial, Reaver, Dominion, or otherwise. That policy includes large-scale militarization, the fortification of our primary population centers, and the development of a comprehensive cyber security program, because the Charge must Flow.” Zik Zuk returned to its chair and its screens, behaving as if its statement had somehow resolved the issue.

 

I . . . don't know what that means.” She shrugged, frowning.

 

Yet again, Zik Zuk froze, antennae twitching. Several seconds later, Zik Zuk turned to face her again, this time remaining in its seat. “I believe that we may owe you an apology, Emissary Wanda.”

 

So, maybe all hope wasn't lost after all? “What for?” She was too cautious now to voice her hopes aloud.

 

I recognize now that we had not sufficiently considered how our actions might appear to outsiders, even other members of the Coalition.”

 

A screech behind Wanda drew her attention, and through the door she saw the cart that had brought her, soon obscured by a Verpine worker pushing a rolling chair. It placed the chair beside Wanda and then left, the cart zooming off as soon as it had boarded.

 

As Wanda took the seat, Zik Zuk continued. “For almost two years now, I have personally been working to reorganize the Verpine Technocracy along a new paradigm. After suffering a workplace injury,” it touched one of its artificial antennae with a finger, “I received the first successful neuro-cybernetic implant in Verpine history. Everything I have done since then, everything that the Verpine Technocracy now strives to achieve for itself, is a result of the resources, assets, and insights that our membership in the Coalition brought to bear on one lonely, handicapped Verpine. Without the Coalition I would be facing a fate worse than death, the Technocracy would be locked in a habitual pacifism, and the Charge would not Flow.”

 

Then what's all this about, Zik Zuk? Help me understand.” She was earnest, almost desperate now. After all of the weirdness, all of the stilted, disconnected uncomfortableness, Zik Zuk was finally behaving like something she could recognize as a person, and she needed it to make sense of this situation for her.

 

You cannot understand.”

 

Unbelievable. Seriously? “Seriously?”

 

It's not a matter of education or intellect: we are simply too different, structurally and neurologically.”

 

Try,” she said, and this time it was her turn to be forceful and borderline threatening.

 

Very well. Verpine have a natural radio sense; our antennae are organic radio transceivers, and our brains are highly developed to both interpret and generate those signals. But there is more, because those sections of our brains which deal in radio frequency interpretation are highly integrated with our higher brain function. This means, among other things . . .” Zik Zuk reached up and touched an antennae again, “. . . that with the appropriate cybernetic interface, an individual Verpine is capable of retasking radio interpretation regions of its brain for direct data input, and thereby acquiring a literal 'software sense'.

 

Wanda, just as your eyes allow you to take in the images on the screens beside me, my cybernetics allow me to take in the data that encodes those images.”

 

I'm sorry, but I don't understand how your being a cyborg explains anything about what the Verpine have been doing for the past year.”

 

I don't have a computer wired into my brain that augments its functionality, Wanda. My brain is the computer, and these antennae are the input devices for all of the information and all of the Verpine programs and software and droids that are now connected through the Roche Salvation System.”

 

Oh gods, they didn't. “Zik Zuk, this is how the Dragons started!”

 

We are not Dragons,” Zik Zuk said simply. “The Dragons merged with their technology; we have merely learned to . . . commune with ours. The new social order that we are developing incorporates that ability as an essential component of the Technocracy.”

 

So . . . you're going to turn all of the Verpine into cyborgs like you?” It was a chilling thought, but she did her best to keep her voice even and her features neutral. She needed to know how far this had gone, and how much farther it could go.

 

By no means,” Zik Zuk said immediately. “The Technocracy is a direct democracy, Emissary Wanda, but chief among our cultural institutions is the autonomy of the individual. We are a highly communal species, but we are so by choice, not by compulsion. At present, approximately thirty percent of non-workers have elected to receive cybernetic augmentation similar to my own. We've developed supplemental, non-invasive devices which allow Verpine who do not wish to undergo surgical alteration some degree of participation in the Charge, and as our society develops and our understanding of Verpine neurophysiology continues to advance, those technologies will undoubtedly advance as well.

 

We are . . . adjusting to this new social order. As disorienting and chaotic as it can sometimes seem to us, I now realize that it must appear far more mad – and even dangerous – to outsiders looking in. For example: your concerns regarding our use of Salvation are merely the result of the fact that most data processing which occurs while engaged with the Charge happens within Verpine brains. Just as your datapad does not need to comprehend the words it displays, only render them into a state that your eyes can read them, the elements of Salvation which we are incorporating merely serve to standardize the data we consume so that it is more easily comprehended.

 

Besides, we will soon be returning to the Salvation project in earnest.”

 

Oh? How so?” She wanted so badly to believe that everything would work out, that she was finding it hard not to accept everything Zik Zuk was saying at face value.

 

Our agreement with Admiral Panacka: we are developing an exclusive, dedicated cyber security package to be incorporated into the Eastern Provincial Salvation Network. We are also intending, separate from that agreement and in light of the humanitarian crisis developing from the appearance of the Reavers, to contribute substantial programming and computational resources to the Coalition Resettlement Service's refugee management needs.”

 

That . . . that is good news,” she admitted, getting genuinely excited again.

 

We are committed to the success of the Coalition, Wanda, and to our place within it. In the coming months, our actions will erase any doubt on that matter.”

 

Wanda spent the next several seconds in silence, wishing she had some way to size up the alien creature sitting in front of her. It was for moments like this that she had accepted the nebulous responsibilities of becoming an Emissary of the Cooperative, but now that she was face-to-face with one of those moments, she wasn't sure how to proceed.

 

But proceed she must. “Zik Zuk, I must ask: have you been communicating with others throughout our conversation?”

 

The Technocracy is a democratic institution, Emissary Wanda. All decisions are made through popular vote.”

 

What about matters of a classified nature, matters that concern military security, for example?”

 

The Verpine consented to the Coalition's security protocols and laws regarding the handling of classified information when we joined. As the representative of the Verpine people in this meeting, I am authorized personally to receive any such information you wish to share with the Technocracy, and forbidden from sharing it further with individuals not authorized to receive such information.”

 

Good, good, because I need to share some information of that sort with you.”

 

Proceed.”

 

As you may know, the Cooperative recently deployed a new military asset.”

 

Yes, 'Guardian', you call it. It appears most impressive. We suspect its architecture shares considerable design elements with the Salvation System.”

 

It's actually your work with Salvation – your earlier work, that is – that prompted this meeting.”

 

Interesting.” Zik Zuk seemed genuinely intrigued.

 

Wanda smiled, glad to see it becoming invested in the conversation. “The Cooperative Council of Defense is interested in assembling a pan-Coalition team of specialists to contribute to the future of Guardian's development, and my mission here was to assess the Verpine Technocracy's future commitment to the Coalition, in order to determine your – experts from the Technocracy, that is – interest in joining such a team.”

 

I, of course, cannot make a determinative statement on behalf of the Technocracy at this time, as I must first develop a series of non-compromising polls to submit to my fellow Verpine, and determine which specialists meet the requirements to be consulted directly, but there is little doubt in my mind that the Verpine people would be very interested in working with the Cooperative in this regard.”

 

That's tremendous news!” Wanda exclaimed, mostly sincerely. In truth, she wasn't certain that this was the best path forward, but if there was some danger in this “Charge” the Verpine had developed, it seemed to Wanda that strengthening relations with them, that engaging with the Technocracy and learning more about this new development in their society, was the best chance anyone would have of identifying and heading off any threats the Charge might pose.

 

And if she was wrong? Well, then, she'd just gained the Cooperative a powerful new ally within the Coalition, and secured the assistance of some of the most technically apt creatures in the galaxy for the Guardian Program.

 

* * *

 

Ku'Bakai System, 27 ABY

Kubindi, Fort Tileeta

Graduation Day, Year of Cataclysm

 

It wasn't cause for celebration, apparently. Wanda had done her due diligence, as much as time had permitted, but the young Cooperative official had little personal experience with Kubaz and had been on world for only a few hours. This was something new for these people, and she could tell that it was important to them, that it filled them with a sense of pride even, but it wasn't a happy thing.

 

The Ryn woman sat alone in a short, empty hallway, wondering how much of this place's horrible past had been left on display out of an urgency to get the military school up and running, and how much of it had been left in place deliberately, to remind every Kubaz who passed though its training grounds why they were there and what they were training for.

 

The walls were raw, a sort of dull, glassy stone left over from the Coalition's efforts to purge the Phage from Kubindi. There were slight ripples and divots, formed from the tiniest differences in thermal resistance between the soils and stones that had melted in the purge. The floor was covered in some kind of rubbery coating, probably more to provide traction than to give any pedestrians a comfortable walk. The doors on either end of the hallway were hinged with manual doorknobs, their frames simply bolted into the walls with no fuss over carving out space for automatic sliding doors.

 

Much of the fort was similarly adorned. The “bones” of Hive-Mound Tileeta showed through everywhere, and the eagerness of the Kubaz to convert it into Fort Tileeta was evident with every exposed bolt and off-angle structure. It was impressive, but knowing what this place was and what it had been, it was hard for Wanda to find it inspiring.

 

The door to her left opened, and though the man standing in the doorway was covered from head to toe in the Kubaz variant of an Eastern Provinical Army uniform, she recognized him right away. It was General Garhak Tileeta, “the man who would not be King”.

 

I apologize for the delay,” he said, and did an odd little bob of his head.

 

Whatever it meant, Wanda hoped it wasn't the Kubaz sign for sarcasm. “No apology is necessary,” she said, standing and approaching him. “It's a big day for you,” she added.

 

Indeed,” he answered, nodding curtly.

 

I'm Wanda, an Emissary of the Cooperative,” she said, extending her hand in greeting.

 

It wasn't the way Kubaz normally greeted, but she was told to expect any Kubaz to adopt the “galactic standard” way when meeting non-Kubaz, even on their own world. Even within their centers of command.

 

He shook her hand, stepping back and gesturing for her to enter his office. As she skirted by and headed for the seat awaiting her, she glanced back to see him seemingly frozen, his hand on the doorknob, his head still turned slightly toward the door.

 

Apologies again,” he said, snapping out of whatever it was and closing the door. As he walked briskly for the chair behind his desk, he pulled back the cowl of his uniform and started fiddling with his mask. As he took his seat, the front of the mask popped off, revealing his face and long snout. “Regulations for the Kubindi Commandos require all on-duty personnel to remain in full uniform at all times, and as commander of the Combined Military School, I am technically subject to those regulations.”

 

Well, I wouldn't want you to get in trouble,” she said, smiling politely.

 

Special exceptions are permitted for official functions and for postings to foreign commands where strict adherence might cause . . . undue strain.”

 

This is an official function, then?” she asked, allowing a faint smile. “Like an officer's ball, or an awards ceremony?”

 

He shrugged, and his nose wiggled in a way she was pretty sure meant something like “yep, you caught me red handed,” in Kubaz sign. “Command officers are allowed to suspend certain regulations at their discretion, as well. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable, you see. I know that some species – some individuals – find interacting with strangers who have their faces covered . . . well, unnerving.”

 

My parents were space welders,” she said, smiling again. “I was an on-site quality inspector for open space construction before the Cooperative got their hooks in me.” She smiled again, hoping he understood the figure of speech. “I've spent most of my professional life dealing with people in industrial-class space suits.”

 

Ah, well then . . .”

 

But I appreciate the sentiment,” she said quickly, not wishing for him to feel foolish. Kubaz were notorious for their tactfulness. She had thought a military man, especially one with his background, would have been more direct. Maybe it was a good sign that he had held on to that part of himself. “If you don't mind me asking, General, is there a reason you asked for me personally?”

 

Yes, well, umm; I understand that you recently had some dealings with the Verpine of Roche.”

 

Oh, well that was interesting. “Yes, actually, I have.”

 

I also understand that your mission was productive, successful?”

 

She frowned, tilting her head slightly. “I suppose it was, yes.” Those weren't the words she would have used to describe it, but they were good enough for the occasion. “I was able to assuage some concerns the Eastern Parliament had regarding their recent actions, and strike up an . . . amicable . . . partnership between Roche and the Cooperative. I'm sorry that I can't say more, but much of our conversation was of a private, and often classified nature.”

 

I understand completely,” General Tileeta said, nodding his head. “I suspect, however, that there is little your silence would protect.”

 

Oh?”

 

The Verpine are the strongest Eastern advocates for expanding Guardian into the Provincial military. The Clan-Council of Kubindi is a rather close second.”

 

Noted,” she said lightly, not willing to confirm that she had discussed this matter with the Verpine.

 

We're also aware of the tension surrounding the Verpine's acquisition of the Aphelion,” he added, “as well as Admiral Panacka's independent efforts to defuse that situation.”

 

Was this about Panacka, then? “I see,” she said, still giving him nothing.

 

Forgive me; I merely wanted to ensure you were aware of our own understanding of the situation at Roche.”

 

The Kubaz were also notoriously truthful, but Wanda was beginning to wonder how much of this was a pathological adherence to honesty, and how much was a set up for some big ask. After all, they had called her. “General, while I appreciate your candor, there's little I can do or say unless I understand why you asked me here.”

 

Of course, Emissary.”

 

'Wanda' is just fine, thanks.”

 

General Tileeta gave another curt nod. “Of course, Wanda. Two years ago, the Clan-Council began a massive militarization effort. In that time, we have established basic training camps in every hive-mound in the system, developed advanced officer and special forces training centers within this fort, and secured significant supply commitments from the Provincial military. But that's not enough,. Not for Kubindi, and not for the East, so we have decided to augment Kubindi's standard military forces with considerable number of battle droids and droid warships.

 

We've already reached out to the Squib to supply us with reclaimed droid ships, and we've contracted with several droid manufacturing companies to supply us with an array of battle droids, starfighters, and other combat vehicles. We wish to contract with Roche to both manufacture additional battle droids on our behalf, and to review the cyber security protections we're implementing.”

 

Well, that was certainly not what she'd been expecting. “General, given your people's history with the Verpine, don't you think it might be best to seek out technical expertise elsewhere?”

 

It has to be the Verpine,” he said stiffly, “for more than one reason. The Verpine are quite familiar with the Eastern Salvation Network's security protocols, and we have guaranteed to Admiral Panacka that our droid forces will share no security overlap with that system.”

 

So it was Admiral Panacka behind this! “I'm sorry; are you saying that you're building the largest droid army in the East, but won't be networking it with any broader Eastern defense system?”

 

Yes I am, and though we support the integration of Guardian into the broader Eastern military, we have also committed to refusing any Guardian integration into Kubindi's defense forces, organic or droid.”

“This is the price you paid for Panacka's favor, then.” It wasn't a question, but it also wasn't accusatory. It was simply a statement of fact.

 

It is my duty to defend Kubindi from any threat, Wanda. The Clan-Council is doing everything it can to militarize in the face of these growing threats, but the truth is that Kubindi's safety is dependent entirely on its integration into a broader Eastern defense strategy, and Admiral Panacka is the only man in the East who can implement that strategy. He is quite reluctant to embrace technological solutions to the logistical problems that the Eastern military is facing, and my commitment to an off-network, largely organic, highly centralized reserve military force serves as a stopgap against the total unravelling of the Eastern defense strategy should we face a cyber warfare threat to which our technological solutions are not prepared.

 

It is a dangerous galaxy that we live in, Wanda, and it is only growing more dangerous with each passing day. You know it, I know it, and Admiral Panacka knows it, so here is the question: what are we going to do about it?”

 

Wanda sighed, sunk into her chair a little. General Tileeta was sucking all of the joy out of her job, but he wasn't wrong. “The Verpine believe that the future success of their society is dependent on their involvement in the Coalition. They are committed to its success, and to engaging with its members on a more meaningful level than ever before. If you go to them on those terms, in the interest of collaboration toward mutual benefit, of strengthening the bonds of the Coalition, of fortifying its institutions against the risk of degradation and dissolution; then yeah, I think they'd be more than happy to move beyond your past conflicts.

 

But here's the question: what do you have that they want? What are you offering that makes your deal worth taking?”

 

General Tileeta's nose wiggled back and forth and his eyebrows raised in a distinctive way. She was pretty sure that he was smiling. “Kubindi will soon be the most heavily fortified planet in the Eastern Province. At that time, our growing planetary defense fleet will be free to redeploy anywhere in the East without compromising the security of Kubindi. We are going to be the defenders of the East, Wanda. Our strength will be the East's strength. What more could we have to offer? What greater incentive could the Verpine have to strengthen our military capabilities?

 

Now enough about Roche: let's discuss the Ryn Fleet.”

 

Posts: 826
  • Posted On: Nov 13 2021 3:37am

Pammant System, 28ABY

Pammant, The AllSpark

Present Time

 

This had not always been the plan.

 

When Pammant was first scouted following the disappearance of the Black Dragon Imperium from the region, it had mostly been to ensure that the world's abandoned industrial capacity hadn't been appropriated by the Dragons at any point during their control of the region. Even after a special Guardian “think tank” had identified the inevitability of a large-scale return to the Calamari System, Pammant had only been flagged as a possible salvage source for Calamari-compatible technology and materials.

 

It wasn't until an independent Guardian Prime was reincorporated into the Cooperative that this plan had begun to form. Construction of the Guardian-seeding AllSpark was partly complete at that time, but among the restrictions Guardian Prime had submitted to was an assurance that it would not spread beyond its home solar system without prior approval from Coalition federal authorities. It was then, with a partly completed world-seeding self-replicating Guardian factory hanging purposeless in orbit of The Global Machine, that Pammant became a subject of interest to Guardian Prime.

 

By that time, the Coalition's commitment to the Dac Return had exceeded any prior predictions, and the growing influence of the new and improved multi-planetary Dac Council had secured tremendous material support for the endeavor. With Cooperative help, Admiral Panacka had identified Pammant's possible military value, and a Cooperative droid labor force had been dispatched with orders to begin cleanup operations within the most promising areas of the defunct Pammant Docks. Panacka had hoped that, with a little luck and a good bit of radiation shielding, sections of the old shipyards could be brought back online and staffed with Mon Calamari and Quarren technicians, substantially boosting Dac's local military production capacity.

 

Guardian Prime had developed other plans. By then, Panacka's concerns over the Eastern Province's reliance on Cooperative-based droid networks was well known, so it did what any well intentioned individual would do in such a situation: it outmaneuvered him. The Dac Council was far more interested in Guardian Prime's proposal than Admiral Panacka would ever be, and with his own plan heavily reliant on Cooperative droid labor, it had been easy enough to box him out, rally a substantial support base, and petition the Coalition Ministry of Defense for permission to seed Pammant with the modified AllSpark.

 

It would never become an entity to rival The Global Machine, but that was no longer its purpose or its design. This fractional AllSpark was surrendered by Guardian Prime to the Dac Council, its own operating Guardian reprogrammed to serve their will and answer their commands. When it finally stabbed, dagger-like, into the tunnels and chambers of Pammant's abandoned factories, it was no longer an extension of Guardian Prime; it had become something else, something all its own.

 

Now, the Pammant Guardian tended the world that was its home and husk as the sole thinking thing on the entire planet. Restoration efforts were being expanded and radiation shielding and cleanup were being scaled back as they now only needed to meet the safety limits of the world's autonomous stewards. This shard of an AllSpark would sink its self-replicating factories and smelters deeper into the crust of the planet, but it would never grow across the surface of Pammant as the Global Machine had on its own World. It would never assemble a computational framework so vast and powerful as to trigger its own metamorphosis, as Guardian Prime had.

 

That was not its purpose. That was not its design. That was not its mission.

 

The lights were coming on.

 

The conveyor belts were humming.

 

The construction arms were swinging into place.

 

The Pammant Docks were back online.

 

* * *

 

Roche System, 28 ABY

Roche Asteroid Field, Nickel One

Present Time

 

The Charge was Flowing at Roche. Of this, there could be no doubt. What had begun in fear and dread, in time gave rise to a new era of hope and resolve within the Verpine people. The fears of their Coalition allies had melted away with the reemergence of a purposeful, eager Verpine Technocracy into galactic society.

 

What had begun as a Verpine-specific iteration of Salvation in Roche was now almost utterly unrecognizable, so reliant was the Verpine “network” on the direct engagement of Verpine minds. The latest generation of “Charge adapters” were lightweight, flexible, removable antennae wraps that allowed any Verpine to engage with the Charge with no permanent physical alteration. There were still marked advantages for Verpine such as Zik Zuk, who sported neuro-cybernetic implants, but the fact that they had succeeded in allowing all Verpine to participate signaled a final success of Zik Zuk's vision of a transformed Verpine society.

 

The continued involvement of Verpine programmers and analysts in the Cooperative-led Guardian Program had ushered in a total overhaul of the Roche System's defense strategy, eventually leading to the establishment of the Charge Guardian, a Verpine administrated Guardian who had been extensively redesigned to become “One with the Charge”, effectively an extension of the Verpine's collective, democratic will.

 

Space Station Aphelion buzzed with activity that was anything but insectile in nature. It had become a major trade hub between the Coalition and independent worlds, and its location on the Perlemian made it an important element in the Coalition's efforts to maintain contact with its coreward worlds. Pass-through trade wasn't the only value of Aphelion, however. It also served as a spectacular marketplace for selling Squib salvage.

 

And there was plenty of Squib salvage in the Roche System. Dismantling the abandoned Imperial space station in-system was a massive and dirty job, it turned out, and the Squib were quite good at handling both of those things. Plenty of the military-grade systems and armor were commandeered by the Verpine, and most of the rest was being shipped off to other approved Coalition buyers, but that still left so much in the way of fixtures, conduit, cabling, scrap metal, and other parts that the Squib found themselves with more stuff than they knew what to do with. So they were selling it!

 

The Coalition had learned many hard lessons from the Cooperative's Battle of Vahaba. The Verpine had learned that the Reaver virus could not be allowed a foothold in the Roche Asteroid Field. An interdictor field had been established parallel to the main traffic flow of the Perlemian, operated and patrolled by ships of the Charge Guardian and their Verpine tenders. Inspection and quarantine methods devised in collaboration with the government on Teth ensured that no vessel approaching from Reaver Space would reach the asteroid field without a guarantee that it harbored no Reaver infestation.

 

The Academy created by Minister of Peace Frakutsk continued to draw students and teachers from across the galaxy, and the Verpine were as committed as ever to its success. As the station exceeded capacity, several abandoned mining asteroids were converted to satellite schools and labs, allowing those with specialized interests, classified projects, or potentially dangerous experiments to continue their varied labors under the protection of the Verpine Technocracy. One asteroid in particular housed a very special project, where a certain captured Imperial cloaking device was heavily involved in cutting-edge, highly classified research . . .

 

Zik Zuk allowed its mind to disengage from the Charge, to recede from the sea of knowledge available to it, until finally it was present and alone within its own quarters once more. What they had done together, the Verpine and their allies, was a thing of great pride to this lone Verpine. Its people were stronger and more focused than at any time in living memory, and that strength of theirs made the entire East stronger. They had made sure of it.

 

Because the Charge was Flowing at Roche.

 

* * *

 

Ku'Bakai System, 28 ABY

Kubindi, Fort Tileeta

Present Time

 

When the Dragons targeted Kubindi with Phage, the world had been all but defenseless. No orbital installations, no Shield of Faith, no planetary garrison. Now it had all of those things, and more.

 

Every hive-mound on Kubindi now sported a locally operated regional defense shield, strong enough to repulse concentrated orbital bombardment. A proper planetary defense shield had also been installed, its emitters located at a new string of forts constructed beneath the protective shell of the hive-mounds' shields, but independently administrated by Kubindi's unified military command. Calibrated to envelop Kubindi's orbital installations in addition to the planet itself, the planetary shield would be Kubindi's first line of defense in the event of attack, and would buy the Kubaz essential time to call for Coalition reinforcements from beyond the system.

 

But it was beneath this very chamber, in the deep-reaching tunnels of Fort Tileeta, that Kubindi's greatest hope rested. The Shield of Faith had destroyed the Dragon's superweapon at Mon Calamari, a nanotechnology more dangerous and destructive than even the Phage. There was no guarantee, of course, that it would perform such wondrous feats for the Kubaz, but it wasn't a guarantee that General Tileeta's people most needed on this day.

 

Today they needed hope. After three long years, the Coalition's first public fortress world was nearing completion. With its completion, a new era would dawn on Kubaz society.

 

Today, the form of that new era was as much the responsibility of Garhak Tileeta as of any queen or king of Kubindi. And so he took the stage, twenty thousand Kubindi Commandos at his rear, representatives of every Kubaz hive and Coalition news agency at his fore.

 

My fellow Kubaz: today is a solemn day.” He had mulled the introduction over at length, what with the implications of his address to the broader Coalition, but he had come to the conclusion that his duties here were to his people first. He could engage with the remainder of the Coalition at some other time. “Today, we ask our sisters and brothers to set aside the names of their ancestors, the memory of their clans, and commit themselves to the greatest task any Kubaz can be called to take up: the preservation of our way of life.

 

These twenty thousand women and men stand before you now, having proven strength of body, singularity of will, and boundless passion for all that we are and strive to become. This second graduating class of the Kubindi Commandos, the greatest warriors and leaders of our most promising generation, serve as the vanguard of a truly mighty people, who face an uncertain future with unwavering resolve, unbreakable spirit, and an undaunted hope.

 

Yes, I say: hope. I am the last son of Hive Tileeta, 'The Man Who Would Not Be King', witness to the greatest injustice ever committed against our people, and I say: hope. For it is not by strength of arms alone that we will survive. It is not by martial force that we will prosper. It is not by war and siege that we will reclaim what has been robbed from us.

 

We are more than our wounds, and we are more than our weapons. Kubindi is now host to one of the most advanced medical research laboratories in the galaxy, contributing to the fight against the Reavers in a way that no weapon of war ever could. The few hundred specimens of Clan Tileeta's insect livestock that were saved from the Phage have been turned over to the Kubindi military and cultivated to numbers that far exceed any hive's production levels, allowing Kubindi to export foodstuffs for the first time in its history, giving our inhospitable world a vital role in the Coalition's refugee relief efforts. In orbit over us at this very moment, engineers, technicians, architects, and laborers of the Ryn Fleet work alongside Kubaz tradesmen of the same ilk to complete one of the largest and most versatile structures in the Coalition: the Kubindi Shipyards.

 

Designed by the greatest minds in the Coalition, the Kubindi Yards will construct an array of Coalition-designed starships, they will be able to repair any warship of any design currently deployed by the Coalition. In times of emergency, the Yards will be capable of providing full maintenance and resupply duties for the entire Eastern Fleet.

 

We have joined together with our Coalition brothers and sisters into a new union unlike any our people have ever experienced. This is why I, who have lost so much, who have suffered so much, say: hope.

 

We are encircled by orbital defenses not built by our own hands. As Commander of the Unified Armed Forces of Kubindi, I tell you this: the hands that built those defenses are more vital to our future than the defenses themselves. We look to our uncertain future in the company of certain friends, and for that reason alone I can and do say:

 

Hope.”

 

* * *

 

[center]Epilogue[/center]

 

Oh, what was she doing here? This was not a good idea. This was not a good idea!

 

Too late. They were here. No time to back out now.

 

There were three of them, squat, dirty, bulbous things. They emerged from the swamp waters slowly, their pointy, frog-like heads breaking through the grime of the water's surface. As they neared dry ground, they began walking on their hind legs, knees poking up out of the water because the creatures were still crouched down. Even as they left the water behind, they continued their crouch-walk, ready to spring at the slightest provocation, their long arms held awkwardly aloft so as not to drag on the ground.

 

Uhh, hi?” Wanda the Ryn managed tepidly, too creeped out to muster a brave face.

 

A bony hand closed on her shoulder and she glanced over at her companion. Oh, right, not bony: chitinous.

 

The robed Verpine gave Wanda a reassuring nod, and then approached alone. He (this one liked to be addressed as a “he”) held his hands out from his waist a little ways, displaying his open, empty hands. “My name is Xik,” he said to the wary aliens. “I am a Jedi, and I come in peace.”

 

They recoiled, waddling backwards a few paces, their hands raising to fend off an attack that wasn't coming.

 

I will not harm you,” he reassured. “I will not allow you to harm her,” he added in the same disarming tone. “Will you speak with me?”

 

We do not speak! The words were . . . her own thoughts in a foreign voice. It was impossible. It was disorienting. It was the most frightening experience of her life. She could feel this tug, this wish, this need to step forward, to seize Xik and throttle him then and there.

 

I don't claim to be a great Jedi,” Xik said, “but I am a Jedi. You will not harm her.”

 

There was something else, something calming, reassuring. It was like . . . like a close friend was just over her shoulder, silent and just out of sight, but there, watching, waiting, ready to act if needed. It didn't quell this thing inside her, this need to do Xik harm, but it was something. It was enough.

 

Xik raised his hands and pulled back the cowl of his robe. “If you will not speak, then will you listen to me?”

 

There was silence and then, at length, the murder in Wanda receded and vanished.

 

Alright then,” Xik said, nodding his head appreciatively. “I know you don't believe me; I can sense it.” The creatures shuffled in place, casting each other uncertain glances. “I'm only here to help, though. My friend is only here to help.” He gestured back toward Wanda, and she offered an awkward wave hello. “This world belongs as much to you as it does to anyone else.”

 

They left us; it is ours now!

 

Xik shook his head. “We both know that's not entirely true, and quite far from honest. The Coalition tried to offer you space on their ships during the evacuation; you killed their emissaries.”

 

Invaders will be slain! DEATH TO THE INVADERS.

 

The swamp around them stirred, and dozens more of the creatures peaked their heads above the water.

 

Uhh, Xik.”

 

It's okay, Wanda; don't worry.”

 

She had already taken a couple of steps backward, toward their shuttle. “Look, I know you're protecting me in some way or another, and I really appreciate that, but do you really think you can stop them all?”

 

I don't need to stop them,” he said, holding his hand out to signal her to stop. “They're not going to hurt us.”

 

You should not have come here.

 

The Dac Council wants you to join them!” Xik shouted at the growing crowd of creatures. “I am here to tell you that the Council is open to all the children of this world. All they require is that you accept your place among them in good faith, as equals.”

 

We are the masters of Dac!

 

No. This world will not be conquered. Not by you. Not by foreign armies. Not even by the Dac Council. You can feel it, can't you? It's in the water; it's in the air. It's in every living thing that creeps and swims and flies. The Force flows through Dac. It is awake, and it is alive, and it will not be dominated.”

 

We are dominators.

 

It was back, stronger now. Too strong. Wanda fell to her knees, hugging herself tightly, eyes squeezed shut.

 

Murder.

 

Blood.

 

Rage.

 

Stop this!” He was there now, crouched beside her. “You don't have to do this!” So close, so vulnerable. “Wanda,” he said quietly, his hand on her shoulder. “Stay with me, Wanda.”

 

It is all that we are.

 

It's so much less than you could be,” he said, the fierceness in his voice pushing back against the murder in her own mind.

 

He was standing now, his back to her, facing them again. He was so vulnerable, so helpless. All she had to do . . .

 

I have seen evil. I have faced the Dark Side of the Force. I am no great sage, no master of the Force, but I know this, I know this: the Darkness does not own you. You choose to stay in it.”

 

This is all that we are.

 

Wanda slumped over, her hands digging into the grime of the swampy soil. “Please,” she whispered, but she didn't look up to Xik, who was now straining visibly against the psychic will of his adversaries. She was looking out at them, the Amphi-Hydrus, the all but forgotten children of Dac.

 

You don't . . . need . . . to be this,” Xik strained, hands balled into fists.

 

Their assault receded somewhat, and while she didn't feel confident enough to get back on her feet, Wanda managed to sit upright again.

 

The Darkness is our strength.

 

Then don't be strong,” Wanda rasped, finding it hard to form words. “Be wise.”

 

Xik looked back at her, impressed. “Have you ever thought about . . . not being evil,” he asked the Amphi-Hydrus, totally serious. “You really don't have to be, you know. You can speak. You can belong here. The Dark Side is not your strength; it is the only thing that steals your strength from you. Cast it aside. Join your brothers and sisters in the Dac Council. Belong to this world again, and realize the greatest strength you could ever have: family.”

 

We . . .” the lead Amphy-Hydrus spoke, its voice low, quiet, strained from disuse. “Do not . . .” Its eyes darted around, looking to its companions. “Speak.”

 

Then we've already made progress,” Xik said, excited. He offered Wanda a hand, helping her to her feet. “Are you okay,” he asked quietly, concern in his voice.

 

I think . . . I think so,” she said, offering a weak smile. She wiped her grimy hands on Xik's Jedi robes, her smile growing to a toothy grin. “Did we do it?”

 

Xik looked back over his shoulder, where the Amphi-Hydrus were congregating into a dense huddle. “We started something. Beyond that, only the Force knows.” Whispers were coming from the ball of amphibian telepaths now, drawing the attention of both of the outsiders. “What do you think they're saying?”

 

She patted Xik on the back, taking a few unsteady steps forward. “I don't know, but I'm going to go find out.”

 

Do you need a Jedi bodyguard?”

 

No,” she waved for him to follow, “but I could use a peacemaker.”

 

It would take time. It would not be easy. There would be mistakes, and misunderstandings, treachery even. But no peace worth having comes without its costs.

 

After all, you don't make peace with your friends.