- Posted On: Jan 29 2022 2:10am
Azguard, 27 ABY
In the shadow of Issk's betrayal . . .
“Ooh, I packed you all lunches!” Freewater said, handing out brown paper bags to the three young Azguards.
“Now Karnak,” Yiffin said, pulling aside the nearest of the trio and lowering his voice, as if what he was about to say was deathly important and sensitive information. “Don't forget your recorder. You never know when you might say something that would make a good quote for the novelization!” He couldn't do it, though; he just couldn't keep himself under control.
“Do this right,” Shlump said to nobody in particular, “and they'll put your picture on the Wall of Achievement at TARGET HQ.” He nodded to himself, clearly thinking he'd just revealed something profound.
“Just try not to crash,” Frelgrin said to the team leader, deciding to keep it simple. “Crashing always complicates the mission.”
“Will do, Sir,” the tallest and thickest of the three said, before turning on his heel and jogging toward the waiting shuttle. “Come on, guys! Ord Pardron isn't going to survey itself!”
The other two ran after him, the short skinny one having a little trouble keeping her feet under her, the middle muscular one easily beating the team leader to the shuttle.
“Look at them go,” Yiffin mused.
“The damn fools didn't even pack sleeping bags!” Shlump chided, completely forgetting that these new Azguard shuttles were built with the foresight to include sleeping quarters.
“Well,” Frelgrin said wistfully, “at least they won't beat our success rate.”
“Sandwich?” Freewater asked, holding up what was decidedly not a sandwich. “I made extra.”
“Hey!” the short one yelled from the shuttle's ramp, staring back at them as she turned her lunch bag upside down and dumped its contents on the ground. “This isn't lunch; you packed me rocks, lug-head!”
Frelgrin, Shlump, and Yiffin burst into laughter, so many years of service together crystallizing in one, beautiful moment.
Freewater ate the rock.
* * *
Hyperspace, approaching the Ord Pardron System . . .
“This is exciting!” Yuffa was sitting in a passenger chair, rocking forward and back with nervous energy. “I'm excited. This is exciting, right?”
“It's just a survey mission, Professor,” Glombong said, fiddling with the controls in the copilot's seat even though Karnak had finished all of the copilot's pre-reversion safety checks as well. “TARGET sent all of the new graduates out on missions to scout abandoned military installations throughout the region. Since they graduated us early after that business with Issk -”
“Traitor!” Karnak yelled, punching the side of the pilot's console.
“Right,” Glombong said, not loving his security officer's short fuse, “Anyway, as I was saying -”
“Oh I get it, boss,” Yuffa said, still rocking away. “TARGET wants to make sure we're not total screw-ups before sending us out into the galaxy as representatives of the entire Azguardian Union.”
Karnak nodded, adjusting a last few controls before reversion. “It is an entirely appropriate decision, given the utter madness that Frelgrin's mission reports described.” Indeed, the exploits and misdeeds of Frelgrin's team were required reading at the TARGET Preparatory Academy, and despite that team's flawless success rate in recruiting worlds to join the Coalition, they got up to some pretty dumb shit.
“I know,” Yuffa said as Karnak pulled the lever and the shuttle reverted to realspace, “but I was just hoping -” an alarm started flashing in the center of the cockpit console. “Ooh, button!” she exclaimed, leaning forward and pushing the giant, flashing red button.
“Yuffa, no!” Glombong exclaimed, swatting her hand away. But it was too late.
“Attention Coalition vessel: you have entered the jurisdiction of the Independent Republic of Ord Pardron. You are to immediately decelerate to null velocity relative to the system primary, and await inspection by an ROPN customs and patrol vessel. State your intentions within our system now.”
Yuffa pushed the button down again and started talking: “Hi! I'm professor Yuffa from the Azguard General Archaeology Institute and -”
“No!” Glombong shouted, yanking her hand away and standing up to physically block her from the controls. “Go to your room,” he ordered, pointing back toward the rest of the shuttle. “Now.” As she shuffled off dejectedly, Glombong turned his attention to Karnak. “Comply with their orders.”
Resuming his seat, Glombong slapped his own face a few times, willing himself to stay focused and dedicated – in Azguard parlance: right-brained – for the task at hand. He reactivated the comm system and prayed to Herluey for guidance. “I am Glombong of Azguard, a representative of my people and the Coalition to which we belong . . .” There was no response. “It would be my great honor to open –“ movement from Karnak caught his attention and he turned off the comm.”What are you doing!?”
“A ship is approaching,” he said. “I'm preparing combat systems.”
“Don't do that!” Glombong shouted, slapping his shoulder several times. “It's a customs ship!”
“That's what they said,” Karnak replied, dubious.
“Leave the shields and weapons offline, that's an order.” He pointed a warning claw at the Azguard soldier. “Now let's see if I can salvage this situation.” Turning the comm back on, he said as quickly as possible, so no other shenanigans could disrupt him: “I'dverymuchliketomeetwithyouandopendiplomaticchannelsbetweenourtwogreatnationskthxbye.”
Now, all that was left was to see if they were about to be murdered by the inhabitants of this supposedly “abandoned” system.
* * *
“Honestly, we thought Ord Pardron was abandoned.” Glombong shrugged for emphasis, making an “oops” face just in case the shrug wasn't clear.
They were standing in the leisure room just outside of the cockpit, the starboard access hatch open with a pair of Republic of Ord Pardron troopers standing guard just inside of the docked customs ship.
“Came by to scavenge the corpse of the Republic war machine, I suppose,” the customs officer muttered absently, busy with a very close reading of Glombong's authorized orders from Azguardian Central Command.
Glombong didn't love the human's combination of dismissiveness and disgust, but the TARGET Academy had a whole class dedicated to studying the unpleasantness of customs officials, so he did his best to keep his cheery face on and deescalate the situation. “Our records showed that the Republic decommissioned the Ord Pardron base prior to its dissolution. Our orders, as you can see, were to inspect the installation and determine if it could be made operable.”
“Ord Pardron has had a civilian population for well over a century now,” the officer said. looking up from the datapad to ask Glombong: “What were you planning to do to them?”
“We . . .” Glombong stretched out the word, confused by the human's hostility. “We thought they had been evacuated when the base was decommissioned.”
The officer snorted unpleasantly, handing the datapad with Glombong's orders back to him. “Running low on military bases, were you? What, planning for another war?”
“Of course,” Karnak said from the corner where he stood, arms crossed, staring down the Ord Pardron troops. “Why aren't you?”
“What my associate means to say,” Glombong said, stepping over to block the officer's line of sight with Karnak, “is that we are living in very dangerous times, and as members of the Coalition, we have an obligation to pursue opportunities to strengthen the defensive capabilities of our allies.”
“No,” Karnak said, pushing off the bulkhead and taking a couple of steps toward the customs officer, “what I meant was -” the pair of Ord Pardron troops tensed, pulling their blasters up to a sort of half-ready position. “Please,” Karnak retorted, stopping and gesturing at the two of them. “You couldn't kill me with those before I crossed this room and pulled your hearts out with my bare hands, so be glad that this is a mission of peace, and I'm not the team leader.”
“Not helping,” Glombong said sternly, turning around to face the Azguard warrior and holding up a hand to ward him off. “I've got this.”
“I'll have you know,” Karnak continued, craning his considerable height around Glombong to continue addressing the customs officer, “that this 'Dominon' isn't going to pass you over forever. They didn't conquer Coruscant to prove how peaceful they are.”
“Not nearly so peaceful as you, I take it,” the officer said, glancing over at his troops, who moved through the access port to the interior of the Azguard ship.
“No, I am an Azguard warrior; I know what I am, and I know why I am here. I don't pretend to be something else, and that's why I'm the security officer for this TARGET mission team.”
“TARGET, huh?” That seemed to pique the officer's interest. “What's that mean?”
“Uhh,” Glombong muttered, turning his attention back to the human. “It's Azguardian. It would sound like gibberish to you.”
“It sounds like gibberish to me right now. What about you?” He nodded at Glombong. “What are you pretending to be, Mister Diplomat?”
Maybe it was the mounting tension between them, maybe it was the troopers moving into the ship – hell, maybe it was just Glombong's own brain giving up on him – but the question triggered something in him, something deep and primal, something uniquely Azguard. “My family have been farmers for thousands of years,” he said in a cold, firm voice. “In my childhood, I barely knew what the stars were, much less what worlds and nations dwelt amongst them. You've mistaken my kindness for deception, but you have it exactly backwards:
“The warrior is the lie we tell ourselves to survive this galaxy we were thrust into. The farmer is who I am, and this? This is what I must become to get back to him.”
The customs officer wasted no time. “Cute story.” He walked off toward the exit. “You'll receive a course for approach.” He turned back once he had cleared the hatch. “Do not deviate from it.” The pair of troops hopped through and the hatch closed.
“Of all the gods-forsaken bullshit!” Glombong went off, wheeling on Karnak. “You couldn't shut your mouth for five minutes while I tried to play nice and make friends?” Gods, it felt good to be his old self again!
“That was not the kind of human you make friends with, Glom.” He headed for the cockpit. “That's the kind you survive.” The cockpit door whooshed open and he stepped through. “Let's just hope the whole lot of them aren't like that.”
Another door whooshed somewhere back in the shuttle, and Yuffa's voice rang out: “You know, I tried one of Freewater's rocks – just a lick, of course – and, honestly, there was a little bit of a . . . wait a minute: did I miss something?”
* * *
If possible, the approach to Ord Pardron was more surprising than finding the system was still inhabited in the first place. As the Azguard shuttle moved further into the system, it became clear that this wasn't simply some abandoned colony playing at self-governance. There were dozens of outposts sprinkled throughout the asteroid belt that contained the Ord Pardron planetoid itself, and as the shuttle neared its destination, one of the largest artificial objects in the system came into sharp focus on the sensors: a Republic-class Star Destroyer, slowly orbiting around Ord Pardron's weak gravity well.
The vessel's engines were offline, many of its systems inactive, preventing an immediate identification. The closer they got, though, the clearer it became that the vessel was still in working condition. The paint job wasn't new, but had been well maintained, and though its transponder wasn't transmitting, their approach took them close enough to read the name painted on the hull: Excelsior.
The planetoid itself was much changed from historical records, with extensive surface construction clearly marking it as an inhabited object. When the Azguard team received final approach instructions, though, their course took them between the largest surface structures and into a great chasm in the asteroid, deep into its heart. The cavern was kilometers deep, with deck after deck of viewports bursting out of the living rock, lining the entire chamber with artificial lights.
Eventually, in the innermost region of the chamber, the shuttle found its destination and came to rest on a small landing pad, a magnetic containment dome separating the open structure from the vacuum of space. By the time the trio had straightened their bow ties, checked the laces on their fancy shoes, and fought over who would get to descend the ramp first, a small group of locals had gathered outside of their shuttle.
At the head of the group was a human man in stately robes, middle-aged with short-cut salt-and-pepper hair. He was smiling convincingly enough, and didn't appear intimidated by the Azguards' considerable size. Stepping forward, he offered his hand. “Hi. I'm Chancellor Antar Tosh.”
Glombong shook his hand, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Glombong of Azguard. Pleased to meet you.”
“And you must be Captain Karnak,” the Chancellor said, offering his hand to Karnak, which the Azguard warrior reluctantly accepted. “And you, Professor Yuffa,” he added, shaking her hand as well before returning his attention to Glombong. “Mister Glombong, welcome to Ord Pardron.”
“'Glom' is fine, if you prefer,” he said, pleasantly surprised by the warm, personal greeting.
“Don't mind them,” Chancellor Tosh said, gesturing dismissively at the other locals at his back. “We've never gotten Azguards in these parts.” He turned and gestured toward the heavy doors set into the living rock of Ord Pardron, walking toward them once the Azguard team started moving in that direction.
“My people aren't known for their wanderlust,” Glom said, graciously nodding at the other Ord Pardronians as he passed them. They were all dressed for the occasion, but Glom had no idea how to determine if any of them were considered important around here.
“I apologize for the stern greeting,” the Chancellor said, stepping through the doors and immediately turning to the left, where a long hallway disappeared into the distance. “I'm sure you can appreciate our caution, given recent accusations against your government.” he said it in the same light, pleasant tone, and continued walking along at the same leisurely pace.
“Completely unfounded, I assure you,” Glom was quick to say, a little more nervously than he would have liked.
“Oh?” The Chancellor stopped, turning an inquisitive stare on Glom. “So the Azguardian Galactic Military didn't invade Kamino?”
“We liberated Kamino,” Karnak said forcefully, stepping forward so he was directly behind Chancellor Tosh.
“Karnaaak,” Glom chided, flustered. “I've got this; there's no need to be so jumpy.”
“I'm not 'jumpy'; I'm focused.” He stared down the fidgety Glombong. “You could do with a little more focus.”
“Uh . . .” the Chancellor interjected, pointing back toward where they had entered, where Yuffa was carefully prying off a piece of Ord Pardron's exposed rock.
“Yuffa!” Glombong exclaimed.
She jumped back with a start, a chunk of the wall popping off and soaring through the air. She fumbled wildly, finally catching the little piece of rock. “Huh?” she asked, oblivious.
Chancellor Tosh was squeezing his fists down at his sides, clearly trying to remain composed. “We usually discourage . . . picking . . . at Ord Pardron itself, but given the circumstances –“ he looked to Glombong, his cheery voice straining to come through “– first contact and all, I'm sure it can be overlooked just this once. Shall we?”
And they were off again.
Glombong had no idea how this was going, but nobody had even tried to shoot anybody else yet, so it couldn't be too bad.
* * *
“Out of the question!” It was the Minister of Defense. Again.
Glom put his hand on Karnak's shoulder and forcibly stopped the Azguard warrior from rising out of his chair. “Completely understandable,” Glom said, faking a smile badly. “We meant no disrespect to . . . what I'm sure . . . is . . . a fine . . . fine, military tradition.”
“Chancellor, surely you won't let this stand!” the Defense Minister continued.
Chancellor Antar Tosh sat quietly for a moment, regarding a generic spot on the surface of the table between them. “I think I've had quite enough of this.”
“Chancellor . . .” Glom began, despondent.
“Take me to Azguard,” he added, meeting Glom's hopeless stare with one of steely resolve.
“Now that is out of the question!” Karnak roared.
“Absolutely not!” the Defense Minister shouted.
“I grow tired of this,” Chancellor Tosh said. “You want us to believe you when you tell us who you are, who you really are? Then show me.”
“I . . . uhh . . .” Glom was caught completely off-guard. As an Azguard, he was taught to protect the homeworld at all costs, to be willing to sacrifice his life and station in defense of his people and gods. As a TARGET team leader, though, he had been taught how to close a deal. “Absolutely.”
“Great,” Chancellor Tosh said, standing up and slapping the tabletop. “We leave in three hours.”
“Karnak and Yuffa won't be joining us,” Glom said, reacquiring the Chancellor's rapidly escaping attention.
“You want to see my home, Chancellor? We want to see yours.”
“Chancellor,” the Defense Minister cut in again, “I really must . . .”
“Besides,” Glom added, ignoring the exceedingly hostile functionary, “don't you want to see what these two get up to without me around to keep them in line?”
“Chancellor, it's not safe!”
“You can't handle two foreign dignitaries for the duration of a simple tour?” Chancellor Tosh asked, now clearly annoyed by his own minister.
“I meant it's not safe for you,” the minister said.
“Oh,” the Chancellor mused, pretending to take the concern seriously. “Well, if they kill me, then you'll know they're the bad guys. Win-win.”