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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”