A Coalition of the Devout: A River Runs Through Them
Posts: 837
  • Posted On: Dec 10 2022 10:32pm

Guardian Prime


The small shuttle approached the large shuttle. As it did so, the large shuttle opened its cargo bay, encompassing the small shuttle. The small shuttle's passengers debarked quickly, seven humans ranging from adolescence to extreme old age. Three of them carried small bags; the others had no personal effects save whatever was in their pockets.


Three droids approached. They exhibited design characteristics chiefly associated with ASP series labor droids, but were of no make or model registered anywhere in the galaxy. “I am Groot,” the central one said, its vocoder tuned to produce a softer, more human-like tone than its design template was intended for. “Please, this way.” It gestured toward the interior of the vessel.


The humans exchanged a series of silent glances, and then in unison they moved forward. “What kind of ship is this?” One of the elders asked the question.


“We are the Ferrymen. The vessel has no registered design or formal designation.”


“That's impossible,” A middle-aged woman said. “You can't maintain a ship like this without registration.”


The droid's head spun around as it continued to guide them into the ship. “We are the Ferrymen; we do not maintain the ship.”


“What government do you work for?” the woman asked.


“There is no government here,” the droid answered, its head spinning forward again. “You are safe in the embrace of the River.”


“We're not safe,” the old man said. “There were no gun ports.”


“Where we're taking you, you won't need guns,” the droid replied.


“Yeah?” the old man barked, incredulous. “And where is that?”


The droid stopped just inside a newly opened door, revealing the vessel's mess hall. “The River has many tributaries, and many distributaries. I don't know where the ferry will take you, but the journey will be safe, and the destination safer still.”


What use is a secret, desolate, automated world to those who seek to safeguard the font of life itself? What does a rag-tag band of Force Users and their eclectic allies need with a rote, emotionless, unliving machine? In the war against extinction itself, what benefit could a droid with delusions of personhood provide?


Something has to run the ferries. Something has to forget where they've been, and where they're going, and where they'll one day return.


In the foundries of the Global Machine, in the countless fractal branching processes of its artificial mind, and even in that tiny spark of awareness that so many refuse to believe exists within it: Guardian Prime is seized by the whisper of a dream.


The Force is life, and we, the unliving, may be the shepherds of its fate.




* * *




Rashad the Seer


“We really must stop meeting like this.”


There was no menace in the woman's voice, but in his state it's hard to believe he could discern such subtlety were it present.


Rashad the Seer was fading. The Great Power bound within him demanded too high a price from his mortal flesh. The man was all but gone now, and the Spark that burned in him . . . it burned.


Seeing without looking, moving without feeling: all that remained of the Azguardian man stepped into the circle of Fallanassi and spoke, his voice a cracked and ragged whisper. “Quex could not see. Not from so far away. If he had seen, he would not have had the strength to tell. I know that I don't. Not to my own. Not to Azguard.”


“What have you seen?” Akanah asked, the compassion pouring from her in that moment so strong that even Rashad in his ruined state stirred at her approach. She took one of his hands in both of hers, reaching out with mysteries beyond even his Sight to soothe his tormented soul.


He turned his gaze to her, his clouded eyes matching her piercing stare. She did not look away. The grip on his hand did not falter. The mystery of the White Current did not recede from him.


“If you cannot say, then show me.”


His hand warmed in her grasp, the clouds of his eyes burst forth a pure light, and all the world dissolved into gray rain and the rolling crescendo of thunderclaps. The ground rose up in a clawing maw of black, fetid tar. The gray sky drew smaller and smaller as she was dragged deeper and deeper. But as the gray drew in overhead, the light within it grew brighter, concentrating into a point, a pinhole of light in the world engulfed by darkness.


And through the pinhole, she could See.


It was only a glimpse, a momentary flash stretched out across the eons of time and the boundless volumes of space. But she Saw it, and it could not be Unseen.


The darkness cracked and splintered. The light shattered and rained down all around. The light and darkness mingled back into a blurred gray, the rolling thunder broke and receded, and they were returned to the world together.


Akanah looked to her sisters, but they had not shared in the vision. Rashad withdrew his hand from her grip, and she did not resist his retreat into himself.


He had done it, and for all it cost him, there was a kind of peace in that. He had found a way to tell someone what he had Seen, to Show her what he could not tell:


The Azguard are not the saviors of this galaxy. The Vision of Darkness is not theirs to defy. If life is to triumph over the coming doom, the Azguard will not be its champions.


She was trying to find words for what she had Seen. It was a task he understood too well, and no longer had the will to share in.


“I must go,” he said. “I have a final act of service to perform to my gods.”


“Rashad . . .” It was the only word she could form. He felt her reach out as he moved away.


But it was no longer his burden to bear, or his duty to serve.


If life was to prevail, if Light was to triumph . . . it would cost far more than the Azguard with all their Devotion could pay.




* * *




Stella the Secretary


He had buzzed her in. He loved that. Buzzing. It was really pretty fucking annoying.


But at least he wasn't eating this time. “You needed something, Sir?”


Interim Prime Minister Pro Moon didn't look up from the pile of work on his desk. “The door.”


So it was one of those kinds of buzzes. She palmed the activator to close the door behind her, then checked the security readout to make sure the isolation field was active. “We're good,” she said, turning back toward him.


Pro Moon was staring daggers. His shoulders were square and his hands hidden beneath his desk.


“Are you going to use your words, or . . .”


“Tell me,” he deadpanned.




“You know I didn't hire you for 'plausible deniability', Stella. I hired you for this. This moment, right here, when I stop ignoring.”


“Prime Minister,” she started, moving toward the chair opposite his desk.


“No!” It was so forceful that she stopped in her tracks. She'd never seen him like this.


“Mister Prime Minister,” she tried again, but he shook his head and she knew not to press further.


“I have to leave for Varn,” he said. “I have to stop those lunatics from starting a war with our only ally.”


“Okay . . .”


“So I have to know. Before I leave you here alone: spinning your webs, hatching your schemes . . . and using my name to hijack the CIB. It's time. Tell me.”


“It's not the right time,” she pushed back, standing her ground.


“It's the only time we've got,” he insisted. “So tell me or get out.”


Pro Moon was not the kind of man to have a blaster hidden under his work desk, but she sure as shit wished she could see his hands! She crossed her arms, leaned heavy on her right leg, and shrugged. “We're saving Force users.”


“Who's 'we' and what does 'saving' mean?”

Stella frowned and stopped herself from turning toward the door. “Some people you don't get to know, and some things you don't get to know.”


“I'm serious, Stella.” The daggers just kept staring


“So am I.” She matched his growing intensity with a detached indifference. “What we're doing goes beyond the Coalition, and it's for something more than the Coalition.”


“What 'more'?”


She shrugged again. “The Galaxy. The Light, if you're into that sort of thing. Life itself,” she sort of muttered the last two words.


“Well that's a little dramatic!”


“That's why I'm doing this whole 'too cool for school' vibe right now,” she said, smirking. Even if she had to tell him, she was going to do it in a way he could spin for plausible deniability if necessary.


“So . . . commandeering Coalition resources, intercepting CIB communiques, forging the Prime Ministerial Seal . . . It's all just . . . 'saving the galaxy' stuff?”


“Pretty much,” she nodded.


Pro shook his gargantuan head. “What am I supposed to do with this?”


“Nothing,” she replied. “That's literally why you picked me for this: so you wouldn't have to do it.”


Pro sighed, sinking back in his chair. “It's not good enough. You have to give me more.”


“Then kill me.”


“Come again?” He was definitely taken aback by that one.


“You can't lock me up for this; it would put the work at too great a risk. So if you're really done with me, then kill me. It's the only way that you can be sure I'm not abusing the power you gave me, and the only way I'll be sure I'm not compromising the work. Are you ready to kill me, Pro? Are you the kind of man that would have me killed? I'm ready to die for this, but I'd rather get back to the work. Your call.”


Interim Prime Minsiter Pro Moon stared in disbelief at the unassuming woman facing down the most powerful man in the Coalition. After a long moment of outright shock, he pulled his hands up from beneath his desk, grabbed a pile of papers and started shuffling them into a neat stack. “That's all for now, thank you Miss Stella.”




* * *




Lando Calrissian


“This is impossible.”


It was hard to disagree, so he didn't.


“I mean, it literally can't be real.”


Tempting as it was, Lando kept his eyes on the control readouts, aiming his vessel at the small landing pad that was their destination. The landing beacon was a low-power general-use type that wasn't connected to any sort of automated landing system, so Lando had to bring the Lady Luck in manually and line her up between the too-small pad's blinking corner lights.


It was night time here, but judging by the rotation rates his instruments were showing, that wouldn't be the case in another twenty minutes. Even in the darkness, the environment was a devilishly tempting distraction.


“I mean, it's some kind of multimedia holo-illusion or something, right?” Wanda seemed dead-set on pestering him into crashing the Lady right into the ground.


They came to rest on the platform with only a little bump, Lando satisfied enough with his rusty landing skills. Just ahead was a catwalk running from the landing pad to the only nearby structure, a squat prefab building sporting a ring of floodlights. The whole outpost was ill-kept, with the long grass of the surrounding field having grown right up to the edge of the pad, and tattered, thick blades of grass poking up through the metal grating of the catwalk's floor. The base of the building was buried in the unkempt grass, no sign of a ground-level door on this side of the building.


“Lando, it's impossible,” she said, earnestly, grabbing him by the arm to ensure she had his attention.


Well, at least she'd waited until he stuck the landing. “Try not to gawk when we meet the locals. There are no second first impressions.”


By the time they made it down the forward ramp, a trio of humans had appeared at the far end of the catwalk. Light was spilling out from the open doorway behind them, showing a glimpse of the gray-walled interior. As Lando approached with his companion in tow, the trio approached at a matching pace. Drawing near each other, Lando made out the uniforms of the strangers: all three of them were clad in the dark green of New Republic Intelligence.


“Lando Calrissian,” the middle man said.


Lando paused when he heard his own name. It wasn't a question, was it? It didn't seem quite like a question. Was it a question? An invitation? Or . . .


The man in the middle stepped closer, less of the light from the floodlamps hitting his face. “You probably don't remember, but -”


“Kessel!” Lando exclaimed as he finally matched the man's unevenly illuminated face to a memory. He accepted the man's outstretched hand, shaking it vigorously. “Colonel . . . Colonel!” He exclaimed, noticing that the man's rank had not improved since Lando had last seen him.


“Colonel Thaddeus Stevens,” he reintroduced himself, breaking the handshake and regarding Lando's companion, though he didn't offer her his hand.


Lando glanced over, and then down, where Wanda had crouched to pull at one of the more intact blades of grass sticking through the catwalk. “This is impossible,” she whispered, seemingly oblivious to the conversation going on in front of her.


“Last I saw you,” Lando began, pretending not to notice Wanda's behavior, “I was pretending not to know that you were heading into the Maw Cluster.”


“Well of course I can neither confirm nor deny the location or duration of classified Intelligence deployments,” the colonel said, sounding a little rusty as he recited what had surely been a standard disclaimer in his earlier life.


“I guess there's no point in asking how you ended up here then, huh?”


The other man betrayed the barest hint of a smile. “I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask that exact question to you, General Calrissian.”


Lando caught himself before he replied with the now-instinctive “I'm retired” that he'd come to rely on over the course of this mission. “Wanda?” he said, turning his attention to her in a bid to buy himself a little time.


“It's real,” she whispered, cradling the blade of grass carefully, wonder and disbelief coloring her tone. In the distance, an unfamiliar bird call rang out, snatching her attention. Other, similar calls rang out in response. “This is impossible.”


“Wanda, I could really use your help, here.”


The comment seemed to trigger something in her, and she rose slowly to her feet as she gave up the search for the alien birds still shrouded in night. Her hands held gently to that blade of grass though, unwilling to surrender the physical representation of this impossible reality. “You mean you really didn't have a plan for this part?”


It was a harsher response that he'd expected, but a fair enough point. After a brief pause struggling to formulate a response, Lando decided to ignore the question altogether and get back to the colonel. “Thaddeus – can I call you Thaddeus?”

“'Colonel' will do fine, Mister Calrissian,” he replied.


Well, that wasn't an encouraging change in tone. “Alright. Well, Colonel: this is Wanda. She's an Emissary of the Cooperative.” The colonel didn't seem to be familiar with the government. “It's a member of the Galactic Coalition.” There was no hint of recognition in the colonel's eyes. Instead, he grew stone-faced and unreadable. Now Lando really didn't like how things were proceeding. “You've been here since the Republic fell, haven't you? But it's worse than that: you've been cut off all this time, hiding away, hoping not to be found.” Still nothing from the intelligence officer. “Colonel, it's been over a decade!”


“I need to know how you found us, Mister Calrissian.”


Lando sighed, doing his best not to take notice of the half-dozen troopers who had just appeared in the doorway of the building. “We accessed an NRI data cache at Ord Pardron, one of the Coalition's newest members.”


“How did you break the encryption?”


“We had a key.”


“How did you steal the key?” Colonel Stevens was starting to let his frustration with Lando's answers show.


Wanda took offense to the question and jumped in, squeezing the blade of grass as her hand balled into a fist. “It's been in the possession of the Coalition Intelligence Bureau for years. Most of what survived of the New Republic found their way into the independent governments that eventually created the Coalition. CIB has been cataloging and consolidating those intelligence resources since it's founding. Nobody stole anything, Colonel. It was given to us by people who trusted us.”


“That's an inexcusable - and frankly unbelievable - violation of security protocols,” the colonel said, unimpressed with her outburst.


Lando was just about out of patience for this man. “There's no Republic left to establish 'protocols'! It's all just a bunch of random guys, running around without a plan, doing the best they can in a galaxy that is rapidly running out of hope.” Lando didn't like how grim and desperate he was sounding, but it was the truth, and he was getting too old to play this game for long. “That's why I came here: for hope. Hope that this place was real. Hope that it was still here. Hope that it was as much as we needed it to be. And hope that whoever was still here, were the kind of people who would understand our need.”


The troopers were approaching, a pair hugging either side of the catwalk, almost up to the trio of Intelligence officers now. But Lando didn't let up. “You let us land, Colonel. Of all the people in the galaxy who could have been here, now, with the power to make that decision, it was you: the New Republic Intelligence officer who I helped dig through the ruins of the Maw Installation.


“I have to believe that means something. I have to believe this journey was for something. I have to believe that you're going to help us.”


“Yeah, about that,” the colonel said, suddenly a little uncomfortable. “I'm not the one who let you land.”


The colonel stepped aside and Lando made out the slight frame of a humanoid woman standing in the doorway. Backlit by the interior lights, her powder blue skin was washed out and barely perceptible. But the crown of pearlescent, feathered hair that ringed her head caught the light and shone a rainbow cascade of color.


Qwi Xux smiled, hard to make out with the backlighting, but when she spoke it was with the soft, warm, familiar voice of a long lost friend. “Welcome to the worldcraft Rebirth, Lando.”


Lando Calrissian had trouble finding his voice. When he finally did, all he could manage was: “This is impossible”.

Posts: 837
  • Posted On: Jan 13 2023 1:26am

The last few hours had been quite the ordeal. First, Colonel Stevens placed the Lady Luck on lockdown for “security reasons”, barring Lando and Wanda from returning to the ship. Then, there were several rounds of light interrogation for both of them, sometimes together, sometimes separately, clearly aimed at determining the credibility of Lando's claim that the New Republic was gone. The colonel's staff was quite professional, if a bit rusty. They'd given up nothing about the outpost's operation or status, but were out of practice at steering a conversation away from taboo subjects without notice.


Qwi hadn't been involved in the interviews, but there was no way to tell if she'd been observing remotely. Eventually Lando, Wanda, and Thaddeus came to an agreement on how to proceed. Wanda was allowed to return to the Lady Luck under escort and retrieve privileged Coalition HoloNet access codes. The colonel would use access to the HoloNet to attempt contact with any surviving elements of New Republic Intelligence through his own, unspecified means.


In the meantime, Lando had been turned over to the supervision of Qwi Xux, who took him on something of an informal tour. Their speeder ride took them past a few abandoned prefab buildings of similar construction to the makeshift starport, before arriving soon at a more densely packed collection of buildings. The buildings were of assorted styles, but clearly laid out in a planned fashion. They seemed professionally built, permanent structures; but they were also new, less than a decade old by Lando's estimation.


As they moved into the heart of the tiny city, Lando spotted several older structures of similar design, spaced conspicuously far apart compared to the newer buildings. The speeder came to rest at the entrance to a garden or park of some kind, a densely-packed wooded area that was meticulously maintained.


Throughout their drive, Qwi had begun to divulge bits and pieces of information about Rebirth. The “worldcraft,” as she called it, was roughly the diameter of the second Death Star, with a central reactor on par with that dreadful battle station. It powered a sophisticated world-spanning mag-con field, a network of grav plates to simulate normal gravity, and a tractor beam strong enough to hold the worldcraft's much larger artificial sun in place, along with an array of other dazzling and largely automated systems. The entire ecosystem was self-regulating, divided into a number of “biomes” maintained through some kind of weather control technology Lando couldn't quite follow along as she explained.


She couldn't stop herself as they climbed out of the speeder and she ushered him toward the garden/park, going on about how the orbital period of the planetcraft could be altered depending on whether or not the artificial sun was burning, ensuring that the planetcraft didn't get too much direct sunlight while they were “idling” inside of a real – or as she said: “classical” - solar system.


She seemed to be genuinely enjoying herself, and it had quickly occurred to Lando that she'd spent years cooped up here, surrounded by other professionals with intimate knowledge of the workings of this wondrous machine. He knew there were children here from a passing reference she'd made while they drove by a cluster of residences, but Lando was almost certainly the first adult she'd been in a position to explain anything to in ten years. He didn't have the heart to interrupt her.


“The garden was here when the New Republic took possession of Rebirth,” she said, clearly willing herself to focus on their immediate surroundings. “The warlord who owned it operated a child-brainwashing compound out of Rebirth, but apparently after a hard day's work rooting around in the minds of the vulnerable and terrified, he liked a nice, breezy walk through this . . .” she spread out her arms to regard their surroundings, laughing bitterly, “personal paradise.”


“Qwi, you don't have to tell me about this,” Lando said, knowing her own history with the Empire well enough to recognize the pain this must bring to her.


“When we finally accepted that we were staying here, some of the biological research staff started planting new species in the garden, to spruce it up, add their own personal touch. And every couple of days, their new plantings would disappear.” Qwi stopped at a stone bench set beside the cobblestone path, turning to regard Lando. She smiled, but there was a sadness in her eyes that Lando found hard to look at. “It took us two years to isolate the droid maintenance protocol for the 'garden district' and shut it off. Every flower that's planted here now, every twig that's trimmed from a tree, every weed that's pulled up from between these stones: it's done by real living hands. It's done with care, and attention, and purpose . . . and a will to protect the beauty of this place.”


Suddenly Lando didn't know what she was talking about, but he was sure it wasn't about a warlord's garden. “Qwi . . .” She sat down, and patted the bench beside herself. Lando accepted the place beside her, and took the moment of silence as an opportunity to change tact. “You've really been here all this time? You know, I went looking for you when things fell apart out there. Me and Wedge.”


There was a hint of a smile at the mention of Wedge, and Qwi looked up to meet his gaze. “When Wedge and I . . . parted ways, there were three names he gave me. Three people he told me I could turn to, if I ever needed help and couldn't get to him. Yours was the first on that list.”


Lando sat up, feeling a breakthrough coming and not sure that he liked it. “You know, I thought there was something off about that colonel, but I didn't realize it was this bad. What's going on here, Qwi? What do you need?”


She chuckled, surprised by Lando's reaction. It caught him off guard, and he felt lost before she said anything more. “No, no, no, Thad's been good to us here.”


“'Thad', huh?”


“He really helped hold this place together early on, when we decided to cut contact with the rest of the galaxy.”


“Well that sounds a little ominous,” Lando muttered, trying not to sound confrontational but pushing for more information.


“What do you think this place is, Lando? What do you think Rebirth is really for?”


Lando let his gaze drift to his vibrant surroundings as he struggled to put together a decent answer. “Well if I've got this right, one of these worldcraft was fitted with a real live Death Star laser one time, but for the most part worldcraft were some kind of grotesque vanity gifts to Palpatine's most trusted stooges, right?”


Qwi sighed, patting him on the knee. “Lando, Rebirth is completely self sustaining.”


“Okay.” He didn't see how that was a big deal. Cool, sure, but not worth isolating yourself and a thousand other people from the rest of civilization over.


“Its automated systems are organized by a central control brain. Ten meters beneath the surface, banks of automated factories and molecular furnaces convert waste and raw materials into any component needed to maintain the worldcraft.”


“Wait,” Lando interjected. “Molecular furnaces? As in: World Devastator molecular furnaces?”


Qwi ignored his question, forging onward. “Under normal operating conditions, Rebirth's reactor burns through its hypermatter fuel reserve in three to five years. But that's not a problem for long-term operation, because the tractor beam that holds the artificial star in place also constrains a matter stream that can refuel the reactor as needed.”


“Okay, I'm sure that's very interesting, but can we get back to the 'molecular furnaces'?”


Qwi turned her whole body toward Lando, bumping her knee into his, growing more earnest as she continued. “Lando, the star isn't a hypermatter storage tank. It's a matter-hypermatter converter.”


Lando Calrissian was no scientist, but he had been something of an industrialist once or twice in his storied career. He had some inkling of the implications. “Is that even possible?”


“No,” Qwi said, stern-faced. “Not according to the Imperial Department of Military Research, anyway. At the Maw Installation, I helped develop some of the most powerful superweapons the galaxy has ever seen. We had whole divisions dedicated to the most exotic and implausible domains of energy production. We didn't even bother trying to crack matter-hypermatter conversion. We might as well have opened up a . . .” she struggled momentarily for a sufficient example, “. . . Time Travel Division.”


“So what,” Lando said, the implications spiraling out of control in his mind. “Rebirth is some kind of . . . next-generation World Devastator?”


Qwi wasn't even trying to hide her disappointment. “The star doesn't have a name. You're not supposed to think about it. It's just another silly bauble attached to this – what'd you call it? Grotesque vanity gift? Well, we do think about it. A lot. Because we're scientists; we're researchers. And this is our assignment. This is our task. This is our project.


Rebirth is the observatory. That,” she pointed at the glowing orb overhead, “is the experiment. We call it the Stellar Siphon. It draws mass directly from active, main-sequence stars, holds the raw stellar plasma in a magnetic confinement field the size of some planets, and then it uses that plasma, as needed, for a reaction we're only beginning to understand. It turns stars into hypermatter, one planet-sized scoop at a time. That thing is the single most powerful structure built in galactic history. The Infinite Empire, the Gree, the Kwa . . . not even their most powerful devices could compare to the raw energy potential of the Stellar Siphon.”


“That's why you stayed?” Lando asked. “Because of this . . . Stellar Siphon? Because it's powerful?”


“Lando. Lando. Lando.” The third time she said his name, she took his head in her hands, squeezing his cheeks a little. When she spoke again, she drew the words out, accentuating each one in turn. “No one can ever learn about this place. No one can know what we have here.” She released him from her grip, looking away to the facsimile of natural beauty around them. “No one can have this kind of power.”


She was determined, that was for sure. But she was also distraught. Lando could only begin to imagine what terrible potential she saw in this place. She had chosen to tell him about it, though; she had decided to let him in. She'd trusted him with this secret. That meant something, maybe the only thing that mattered any more.


Now it was time for him to trust her with something, too. “You know, it's the craziest thing: I went on this wild bantha chase looking for a modern myth from the fall of the New Republic, with no way to make good on my plan if I did somehow manage to find the thing I was looking for – a thing that almost certainly didn't exist in the first place. And then I found it. Against all odds, I touched down on a worldcraft from Palpatine's Empire. And who was there to greet me? The only Republic Intelligence officer I ever knowingly crossed paths with . . . and the only woman in this galaxy who's got my name at the top of a list of people she trusts.” He rocked over, bumped gently into her shoulder. “Imagine that.”


“It's quite the coincidence,” Qwi admitted, her mood not brightening.


“Yeah,” Lando nodded. “Unless it isn't.”


Qwi glanced over at him, incredulous. “What, you think fate brought us together, Lando?”


Lando laughed aloud, flashing pearly white teeth as his mouth curled into a broad grin. “No, no, of course not. I think the Force brought us together.” He was still smiling, but there was a seriousness to his demeanor, an assuredness in his stare.


“Pfft,” she exclaimed, laughing bitterly as she turned away. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “There's no Cosmic Force deciding our lives, Lando. There's no guiding hand moving us through the galaxy. There's just people, and the things they do to each other.” She was getting agitated, angry even.


“Qwi,” he reached out to reassure her.


She slapped his hand away. “No! Everything I've suffered – all of the suffering I've caused – they're not side notes in some story about the fate of the galaxy. It's not the setup for some punchline you get to deliver.” She grew quieter, more distant, unwilling to look at him. “We don't get to escape what we've done by telling ourselves it's for some greater good.”

“I don't understand it, Qwi, and I sure as hell won't try to explain it, but I set out looking for a refuge for people who have nowhere else to turn, and what I found -” she sneered at him, getting up to walk away. “What I found,” he continued, staying seated but raising his voice, “is more than I could have imagined, guarded by the only people in this galaxy who I know I can trust.”


He seemed to get through to her a little and she hesitated, sort of loitering beside the bench for a moment. Eventually, hesitantly, she turned back toward him, head hung low. Then slowly, slowly, she looked up to meet his gaze.


“This place doesn't have to be your fear, Qwi. It can be your hope.”


The sun was setting, the beauty around them swallowed by ever-expanding shadows. The silence drew out between them, neither sure of what to do next. At length she mustered a weak smile, reached into a pocket, and pulled out her commlink. An amber light was flashing rapidly on the side. “Thad paged me. He's ready for you.”


“Well that's some convenient timing,” he replied, cracking a smile as he rose to his feet.


“It came through five minutes ago,” she said. Her dour expression broke and her lips compressed into a thin smile. “I thought I'd hold it in reserve until I needed an out.”




* * *




The small desk had four chairs, two on each side. The Colonel was already sitting, and there was Wanda the Ryn sitting opposite him. Lando could figure out the seating arrangement easily enough, but before he'd even taken in the full contours of the room, Qwi had slipped around him and taken the seat next to Colonel Stevens.


“General Calrissian,” the colonel said, gesturing at the seat beside Wanda, “please.”


As he sat, Wanda offered him a friendly smile and bobbed her head once. It seemed that things had gone well with the colonel.


“Colonel,” Lando said, trying to seize the initiative, “I'm beginning to appreciate the importance of what you have here, and I want you to know that I would never -”


“Furguson Mumphs,” Colonel Stevens said, cutting Lando off.


“Excuse me?” So much for the initiative.


“Does that name mean anything to you?”


Lando was having a hard time getting a read on the colonel, but he glanced over to Wanda and she seemed just as chipper as ever. “He's the head of Coalition Intelligence, I think?”


“We talked to him!” Wanda exclaimed, unable to contain herself.


“What? You? How?”


The colonel started to explain: “Our efforts to contact Republic Intelligence -”


“You should have been there,” Wanda said, talking over the colonel. “Thad kept punching in all of these codes, reciting all of these phrases, a whole mess of very fancy looking techs and notetakers huddled around. Every now and then he'd get someone on the other end of the line, and he'd say something like 'The Eagle Has Landed', and they'd say something like 'The Goat Is In The Barn'. And sometimes he'd go like this,” she pressed her lips together tightly, squinting a little as she stiffened the muscles in her face, “and I knew he was getting his hopes up, but then they'd go on exchanging another couple of nonsense phrases and then, inevitably, he'd go like this,” she made the identical face, her cheek quivering as she tensed the muscles as hard as she could, “and I knew the other guy had blown it. He thought I couldn't tell,” Wanda said, pointing at the colonel, “but I could tell.” She nodded enthusiastically.


“Anyway, after he'd been thorough about a half-dozen of these yokels, he found one guy who seemed to have all the right answers. The techs were getting excited, and they're even worse than Thad at keeping a straight face, so I started getting excited too. The new guy even knew when not to have the right answer! He passed us off to his 'manager', and then the manager passed us off to another guy, and then that guy . . . well, that guy didn't have the juice. Thad didn't even try hiding his disappointment that time, but little did he know: I recognized the voice on the other end.”


“Ferguson Mumphs?” Lando asked. His attention had been drifting between Wanda and the colonel throughout her story, trying to gauge the man's reaction to her tale.


“Ferguson Mumphs!” Wanda shouted, slapping the table. “And that's what I said, when I realized he'd failed Thad's little test. I said: 'Ferguson? Ferguson Mumphs?' Everybody got jumpy, even Thad, but after a few seconds Ferguson asked,” Wanda lowered her voice in a bad impression of the man, “'Who am I speaking to?' So I told him. I said: 'I'm Wanda, an Emissary of the Cooperative, and I'm here with Colonel Thaddeus Stevens of New Republic Intelligence.”


“Miss Wanda, if I may?” Colonel Stevens gestured at Wanda with an open palm, and the added physical action seemed to hold her attention long enough for her to consider the man's words. She nodded excitedly, sighing and sort of sinking into her chair a little. “General Calrissian, we were unable to establish contact with any remaining elements of New Republic Intelligence. As Miss Wanda has indicated, our best line of inquiry led us to a man that Wanda identified as Ferguson Mumphs.”


Colonel Stevens paused and looked over to Qwi. She pulled her hands off the tabletop, growing visibly nervous, but she nodded at him and he continued. “Given our exchange with Ferguson Mumphs, and your corroboration of his identity, we are prepared to proceed under the assumption that the New Republic is no longer an active force in the galaxy.”


“I need to leave,” Wanda said, sliding her chair back and springing to her feet.


“I'm sorry, why?” Qwi asked.


Lando started to answer, but Wanda raised her voice to talk over him. “The less I know, the less I have to lie.” The other two seemed perturbed, but Lando nodded in affirmation. “Although that business with Ferguson is not going to make my job any easier.”


“I don't follow,” Qwi continued, but Wanda was already heading for the door.


“You got this, Lando!” she exclaimed as she left the room.


Both of them fixed their attention firmly on Lando Calrissian. “Wanda and I agreed that she would help me find this place, but she would lie about what we found.”


“And what lie is she supposed to tell,” the colonel asked.


Lando shrugged. “Secret cache of experimental next-gen New Republic weapons technology, that sort of thing.”


“That's the lie?” Thaddeus looked to Qwi, himself a little nervous now.


“Well of course we didn't find anything,” Lando continued. “No trace of whatever might or might not have been here, once upon a time. Just another dead end, another modern myth dispelled. Why? That's not good enough?”


“What did Qwi tell you about our mission?”


Lando looked to Qwi, and she prodded him to continue with a nod. “I mean, I know about the Stellar Siphon, if that's what you're getting at. And the molecular furnaces. Why, is there more?”


Colonel Stevens sighed heavily, and for the first time Lando got the impression that he was meeting the man, and not the intelligence officer. “When the New Republic liberated Coruscant, much of the Imperial archives were destroyed to prevent them from falling into our hands. Of what we did acquire, most was encrypted beyond our ability to access. Over time, with key defections and apprehensions of high-value targets, we gained access to some of those archives. In one of them was a single reference to a 'Project Starkiller', two words that would come to consume my entire professional career. That's why we first crossed paths, General. I was sent to scour the ruins of the Maw Installation for any indication that 'Starkiller' was one of the code words for the original Death Star project.”


“No such luck, I take it,” Lando chimed in.


Stevens frowned, shaking his head. “We found nothing. Worse than nothing, really. That was when Docotr Xux and I first met; I interviewed her, a high-profile defector, intimately familiar with the Death Star's development. Nothing. She'd never heard the word. It wasn't until New Republic Intelligence took possession of Rebirth that we uncovered another reference to Project Starkiller.”


“The Stellar Siphon,” Lando said.


“The Siphon is a prototype,” Qwi said, joining in as the colonel's monologue neared something technical. “It's designed to provide fuel for the wordcraft's reactor and raw materials for the molecular furnaces.”


“You're telling me it's – what? - a scale model? The thing's already the size of a planet.”


Qwi shook her head, bringing her hands up over the table to mime out her explanation. “The critical components are barely one percent of the entire structure. The artificial star is primarily a plasma storage structure. The Siphon itself could be scaled up, in principle, to devour an entire star in a single mass act of matter-hypermatter conversion.”


“To kill a star,” Lando mused, trying to keep himself in a theoretical headspace and not spiral into despair at the scope of the destruction they were discussing. “But the Emire already had a Sun Crusher. It did the same thing with a lot less . . . well, a lot less.”


“You're missing the point,” Colonel Stevens said. “Starkiller wasn't a project to destroy stars. Killing the star is just the fuel source.”


“Fuel? Fuel for what?”


“You knew about Ennix Devian's Death Star III,” Qwi said. “That it was a converted worldcraft. Did you ever wonder how it got a working Death Star superlaser?”


Lando shrugged. This was all coming at him so fast. “Well now that I know they're basically World Devastators in disguise, I guess it built itself one.”


“And how would it do that without the schematics?” Qwi pressed.


Lando shrugged, but thought it best to take a shot in the dark to move the conversation along. “It already had them.” The two of them stared at him until he caught up to the implications of his own statement. “The worldcraft already had Death Star designs,” he repeated. “And you do too, don't you?”


“Oh, it's far worse than that,” Colonel Stevens said. “In his pursuit of unrivaled power, Palpatine set out on a quest to combine two of his most powerful superweapons: the Death Star, and the Galaxy Gun. He wanted a mobile, self-sustaining platform that could strike through hyperspace at any planet – any solar system – in the galaxy.”


“And he kept the research here, on Rebirth,” Lando asked.


“Some of it,” Qwi said.


“When we believed that Coruscant was under threat,” the Colonel continued, “High Command made the decision to move all information about Project Starkiller here, to Rebirth. As commander of the mission here, I was ordered to shelter in place, isolate from the remainder of the galaxy and preserve the integrity of this outpost at all costs.”


“There are children here,” Lando said. “There are whole lives waiting to be lived. What about them? You're just going to keep them locked up here, prisoners of your orders from a government that's long gone?”


“Our last official update from the home office was that Coruscant was being abandoned. My senior staff,” he nodded at Qwi,” and the research team's senior staff discussed our options, and we decided on one last exchange with the outside. Forty five civilians chose to leave, and three hundred twenty two spouses and children were brought aboard to join us on Rebirth. We have become a closed community, isolating from the galaxy and awaiting the all-clear from Republic High Command. We accepted that this was one of the possible results when we decided to stay, but what we're protecting is too important. The equipment aboard Rebirth is more dangerous than any weapon currently in existence, but the information stored here can not be allowed out into the galaxy. No one should have this power.”


“Then destroy it.”


They were both taken aback by the simple statement. “Come again?” Thaddeus managed to say.


“Erase it all,” Lando reiterated. “The Stellar Siphon. The Death Star. Project Starkiller. Wipe the data discs, and throw them into the . . . mulcher, or whatever it is that feeds those molecular furnaces. Burn it all. If no one can have it, then no one can have it.” Qwi was starting to tear up. “You've accepted this impossible mission, to be these stoic guardians of knowledge that shouldn't exist. You're punishing yourself for someone else's crimes. It's time to let it go. It's okay to be a person. You can live in the worlds.”


“That's, umm . . . not what I was hoping you would say,” Thaddeus admitted.


Qwi pulled on her lab coat and used it to dab her eyes. “You know, Lando, we've been discussing it, and as best we can tell, now that we've confirmed the New Republic Senate and executive offices have been destroyed, we have a responsibility to enact continuity of government protocols.”


“What . . . what does that mean?” Lando didn't like that Qwi was changing subjects, but he didn't want to press her while she was so visibly distraught.


“Well,” Thaddeus said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, “what we're facing is, essentially, a decapitation scenario. With no Chief of State, no Ruling Council, no Senate, the powers of the Chief of State should pass to the planetary leader of the senior-most signatory to the New Republic Charter.”


Lando suppressed a chuckle. He was imagining Chancellor Antar Tosh hearing about this. If he'd just held out a little longer, he could have been Chief of State of the New Republic!


“With none of them available,” Thaddeus continued, “the acting Chief of State of the New Republic would be the senior-most civilian officer within the Republic government who had been appointed by either the Senate, Ruling Council, or the Office of the Chief of State.” Thaddeus nodded to himself, as if impressed with his own reasoning.


“Okay,” Lando said absently, watching Qwi intently. He wanted to check in on her, but they seemed to be in the middle of something, and the revelation of what Rebirth really was still hung over the whole affair.


Qwi looked up, realizing how closely Lando was scrutinizing her. She suppressed a chuckle, tried to compose herself, realized he was still staring. “Lando?”


“Yeah?” he asked, half expecting her to ask him to rescue her from this hellworld.


“Lando,” she said, a little more sternly.




She glanced over at Thad. Lando glanced over at Thad. Thad was staring at her, but it wasn't like Lando had been staring. It was like . . .


“What?” Lando asked again.


“Lando,” Thad said.


Lando was surprised to hear the man use his first name. “What am I missing here?”


Thad gestured broadly to Qwi. “Doctor Qwi Xux, Director of the Rebirth Research Expedition, a personal appointment by the Chief of State of the New Republic.”




Qwi took a deep breath, steadying herself. “We're really doing this,” she asked, staring down at her own hands.


“It was your idea,” Thaddeus said. “I'm not backing down if you aren't.”


There was a long silence in which Qwi stared down at her own upturned hands. Eventually, the silence got to be too much for Lando and he stood up, his chair sliding noisily against the floor. “Qwi,” he began, reaching out across the table to reassure her.


“General Calrissian,” she said sternly, lifting her head up and pulling her hands away, hiding them below the table. “In light of the dire state of the New Republic, I'm afraid that I have no choice but to exercise my authority as Acting New Republic Chief of State to recall you to active duty.”


“Wait, what? Seriously?” He pulled away, not liking her tone . . . or that look she was giving him.


“As per our last communique with Coruscant, a State of Emergency is in effect across the Republic, and given the loss of the New Republic Senate, I am exercising unilateral executive authority to declare a state of martial law. As the highest ranking New Republic officer on active duty, you are to assume the office of Supreme Commander of the New Republic Defense Force, and execute this declaration.


“Qwi, you can't be serious.”


“Furthermore,” she rose to her feet, and Colonel Stevens followed suit. “Given the desolate state of the Republic General Ministry, the civilian government of the New Republic is no longer capable of providing basic services to its membership.”


“Qwi, seriously, knock it off.”


“Given that reality, I must take the unprecedented step of vesting all remaining executive authority held by the Chief of State into the hands of the Supreme Commander of the New Republic Defense Force.”


“Wait, wait, wait.” Was she serious? Was she really pretending to be serious right now?


She locked eyes with him, voice quavering, and said: “Hail Lando Calrissian, first Imperator of the New Republic.”


Colonel Stevens turned and saluted Lando. “What are you orders, Sir?”