A Coalition of the Devout: Echoes of a Republic (Ord Pardron)
Posts: 827
  • 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.

 

“Oh?”

 

“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.”

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Jan 30 2022 7:56pm

Hyperspace, Wild Space

 

“What's your interest in Ord Pardron?”

 

“Huh?” Glombong replied.

 

The question had caught him completely off-guard. His grades in “Small Talk” at the TARGET Academy had been middling at best, but he thought he'd been doing a pretty good job up until that very moment.

 

“You said you were sent to scout Ord Pardron for its possible military value,” Chancellor Tosh said. “But it has no military value to you now. So what is your interest in Ord Pardron, now that you know it's useless to you?”

 

“Oh, well I wouldn't call Ord Pardron useless, Chancellor!” Glom exclaimed. “But now that we know there are people there: we'd like to be friends!”

 

“Friends?” The Chancellor was unconvinced.

 

“Well, sure. We're very friendly. We'd like to be friends with just about anybody, as long as they're friendly too.”

 

“And you think we're friendly, do you?”

 

“Oh sure, sure,” Glom assured him.

 

“What makes you so sure?”

 

Glom let go of the ships controls, quit pretending he was doing anything useful there. Small talk was over. This was Serious Business. And Glombong of Azguard had scored top in his class in “Serious Business”. “The Coalition has reconstructed over ninety five percent of the New Republic's ship registry.”

 

“Okay . . .” the Chancellor intoned, seemingly unsure of what point the Azguard was making.

 

“The Republic-class Star Destroyer Excelsior and her last posting are in that registry.”

 

“I see,” Chancellor Tosh said, betraying nothing.

 

“So we know exactly what kind of people you are,” Glom said, then started pretending to work the ship's systems again.

 

It was a key principle of engaging in Serious Business: bait your counterpart into coming to you.

 

“And you think the mutiny of an entire capital ship's crew is . . . a positive attribute?” Tosh asked.

 

Glombong smiled. It was the best reaction he could have hoped for! “Our registry also includes the full roster of the convoy it was assigned to escort.”

 

“I see,” Tosh said, amused. He seemed to be enjoying the friendly trap that Glombong had laid for him.

 

“Those ships were logged as 'Lost: whereabouts unknown'. But I know. I know exactly where they are.”

 

“They're at Ord Pardron,” Tosh admitted. “You spotted some of them on your approach into the system.”

 

Glombog nodded, once again giving up on the pretense that the switches he was flipping were actually doing anything. “Excelsior was ordered to escort an evacuation convoy from a world that the Republic was abandoning, but the Republic was abandoning worlds so fast that the naval base her captain picked as their destination was abandoned by the time they arrived. Imagine that.”

 

“This is a fascinating story, Mr. Glombong.” The chancellor seemed genuinely intrigued.

 

“The base was abandoned, but the settlement wasn't, was it?” Glombong looked over to the human chancellor, and the man was just smiling back at him. “The crew of the Excelsior didn't mutiny, Chancellor. They didn't abandon their duty, or their honor, or whatever fancy word for basic decency that you want to wedge in here. They arrived to a little ball of rock in the middle of a galaxy falling apart, and what did they find? They found another little band of civilians, discarded by a Republic in its desperate attempt to preserve itself from an end that had already come.

 

“You are the Republic that that little Star Destroyer never stopped serving.”

 

“We make no lofty claims, Mister Glombong,” Chancellor Tosh said. “We just try to hold to the principles that once made the Republic great.”

 

Glombong was shaking his head. “Bullshit.”

 

“Excuse me?” Tosh seemed taken aback.

 

But Tactical Cursing was also a course at the TARGET Academy, and Glombog had audited that one. “You've got over a billion sentient beings crammed into that little system of yours. A whole solar system without a single habitable planet, and more people than you could fit on twenty convoys the size of the Excelsior's. You turned the light on, Chancellor. You turned the light on, and millions flocked to your Republic. Millions from worlds abandoned in the face of a resurgent Empire.

 

“You scraped, and you scrounged, and you sacrificed; you turned dead rocks into gardens of life. You never claimed greatness; you just went and did the work. And that's why we want to be friends, Chancellor. Because you're good people. Because you did the hard thing, for the right reason, for long enough that it hurt, and then you kept doing it.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Storm World BR-79, Wild Space

 

“And it's called a 'Watcher'?”

 

Gods, he was going to be in trouble. “Yep.”

 

“And there are nineteen more of them?”

 

“Yep.”

 

“And you used them to wall off the entire galactic arm of Wild Space from hyperspace traffic?”

 

“Not me personally, no. But yes.”

 

“And you're showing me this because you want me to think of your people as . . . good guys?”

 

“We aren't faultless,” Glombong said, eyes still fixed on the five hundred meter long black diamond in orbit of the unnamed planet. “When the Azguard ventured into the galaxy and discovered the power and terror of the Empire, we took drastic action to protect our homeworld from their wrath.”

 

“It's impressive. Disturbing, but impressive,” Chancellor Antar Tosh admitted, turning from the strange starship to regard his Azguard host. “Shouldn't this sort of thing be classified, or something?”

 

“Oh it is,” Glom admitted, finally looking away from the Watcher and meeting the chancellor's gaze. “But it shouldn't be. My people have made mistakes, Chancellor, starting with our choice to secret ourselves away in order to escape the retribution of the Empire. The choice seemed as clearly right then as I now see it was clearly wrong, but that doesn't change that it's the choice we made, and we will have to find a way forward through the consequences of that choice.”

 

“So you're not bad people, you just keep doing the wrong thing?”

 

It stung a little, sure, but Glombong was a professional. We're the Good Guys, No Really was a mandatory course at the TARGET Academy. “I said 'we aren't faultless', Chancellor, not 'we're bad at everything'.” He pulled the lever and they were off, back into the whorl of hyperspace.

 

They made casual conversation for the trip to Azguard, Glom expertly (probably not so expertly, but let's let him have his self-delusions) deflecting any questions of substance until the arrival in-system. They reverted to realspace above Azguard itself, their shuttle's defense systems registering multiple target locks before the starlines and compressed back into pinpricks.

 

“Not to worry,” Glom reassured, flicking switches and nudging the ship's controls to turn the shuttle leisurely away from the planet. “System security is on high alert since the betrayal of Issk. One moment.” He activated the ship's comm and rambled off a security clearance in the Azguard native language. For the chancellor's benefit, he continued in Basic. “This is TARGET Team Besh Seven Leader, Glombong, arriving along precleared trajectory with Chancellor Antar Tosh of Ord Pardron in company. Note that we will be deviating from standard approach and landing protocols.”

 

“What is the nature of your request to deviate from protocol, Team Leader Glombong?”

 

Glom looked over to the chancellor and tried for a convincing smile. “I'm giving the Chancellor a tour of the Azguard Union.”

 

“I'm sorry, Mister Glombing, but 'tourism' isn't listed as a valid cause to violate protocol. You'll have to land and acquire clearance from the Office of . . .”

 

“Excues me,” Glom barked, trying to keep his composure in front of the Chancellor, “but it wasn't a request. I'm a TARGET agent on official state business, and I'm telling you what I'm going to be doing, and if you have a problem with that . . . well, then, I guess you can take it up with the Foreign Minister, because I'm busy!”

 

He cut the comm, and the target lock alerts came back on immediately. “Don't worry,” he said nervously, smashing buttons to silence the alarms. “They won't shoot.”

 

“And how do you know that?” Chancellor Tosh asked, not at all reassured.

 

“Because then we'd be the bad guys.” Glom yanked hard on the controls and hit the accelerator, rocketing toward a pinprick of light that quickly grew into the shape of a . . . space station? “There! See?” Glom was gesturing with an open hand at the unidentified structure in front of them, the shuttle having come to a relative standstill.

 

“And what is that?”

 

“That's the thing targeting us! We're fine!”

 

“So it's a . . . customs port?”

 

“No, no!”

 

“Security outpost?”

 

“Don't be silly!”

 

“Interdictor station?”

 

“Seriously!?”

 

“Just tell me already!”

 

“Okay, right, so . . .” Glom was getting exited, really getting worked up at the prospect of this story. “So you heard Issk's broadcast, right, the one where he said we're awful and evil and everybody should hate us, right?”

 

“I . . . remember it differently.”

 

“Not important. What is important, is the other planets.”

 

“Other planets?”

 

Glom nodded eagerly. “Renzokain and Graks. The domain of the Furen, our ancient cousins and eternal enemies.”

 

“Oh great; so there's also a blood feud!”

 

“The Furen invaded Krakken twice, Chancellor; they tried to seize Hurok from us, and they almost executed a coup against the government on Azguard as well!”

 

“So they're the bad guys, then?”

 

“You're missing the point, Chancellor: we didn't attack them. We didn't invade their planet. We didn't swear to strangle their children in their cribs!”

 

“That got dark fast.”

 

“We built these,” Glom pointed to the station again.

 

“Space stations?”

 

“Orbital defense stations . . . with hyperdrives.” The chancellor was not impressed. “How do you defend four planets in a single solar system? How do you ensure that no planet appears weaker than the others, inviting attack from a watchful enemy? You build a multilayered orbital network of hardened military defense installations, and then you strap them all with hyperdrives so they can be anywhere in-system in a matter of seconds.”

 

“Anywhere such as, say, the Furen's homeworld?” he asked, suspicious.

 

The question caught Glom by surprise. “But they're defensive installations, Chancellor Tosh.”

 

“Like the 'Azguard Home Defense Fleet' defensively invaded Kamino?”

 

“Kamino was a Coalition world!” Glom exclaimed, his temper getting the better of him, that place in the corner of his mind growing, pushing outward, demanding to be let free. He tried to calm himself, to remind himself of his mission, to focus on the goal at hand. “If we wanted to conquer the Furen, or Kamino, or Coruscant, or Ord Pardron, we would have kept building warships for our fleets, not these lumbering, ponderous, armored boxes. Besides, what you're suggesting wouldn't even work.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“They have hyperdrives, yes, but they're not starships. They work as a networked system: interlocking fields of fire, overlapping shields, shareable targeting data. Interplanetary deployment is a fickle, precision operation.” He wasn't reassuring the Chancellor at all. “Gods, the one time I need Karnak!”

 

“I'd be happy to forward any technical specifications to my Minister of Defense and have him verify your claims,” Chancellor Tosh offered.

 

“Onward to Azguard, then,” he said, dejected, as he turned the shuttle away from the defense station and aimed for Azguard again.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ironium Seven, Ord Pardron System

 

“So . . . it's another mining settlement,” Karnak asked, long ago having run out of ways to feign interest.

 

“It's one of the smaller ones,” the guide noted, also displaying clear signs that he was no longer interested in pretending to be interested. “The population is around five thousand. These tunnels are through the low-yield portions of the 'roid; they're being dug to provide new residential space for expected immigrants.”

 

“Interesting,” Karnak said. It wasn't.

 

“We project the principle deposits to be depleted within the decade, so the locals have already started renovations to turn Ironium Seven into an asteroid wrangler; they'll scoop up smaller 'roids, process them for valuables, then spit the rubble back out into the belt.”

 

“Fascinating,” Yuffa said. It also wasn't, but she thought it was.

 

“When it's all said and done, Ironium Seven could support maybe . . . twenty-five, thirty thousand residents.”

 

“Hardly a large enough population to warrant the increased security requirements,” Karnak said in his typically adversarial tone.

 

“That's not really my department,” the guide replied.

 

“What I don't understand,” Karnak started, but a commotion in a nearby corridor caught the group's attention.

 

Just then, an Ord Pardron Naval officer rounded the corner, flush-faced and moving at a speedy jog. “Ah, there you are!” he exclaimed, picking up the pace until he skidded to a stop right in front of them. “How goes the tour? Good?”

 

Karnak thrust a datapad at the officer. “Abandoning three minor settlements would allow you to decommission seven sensor buoys and two security outposts with no net loss to overall defensibility.”

 

“Karnak, knock it off!” Yuffa exclaimed.

 

“And it would allow you to restructure your system patrols for a significant increase in -”

 

“Seriously!” Yuffa yelled, knocking the datapad out of the other Azguard's hand. He stared her down for several seconds, Karnak puffing out his chest even more than normal. Through gritted teeth, Yuffa whispered: “Stop recording their troop positions. You're making us look bad.”

 

The Ord Pardron officer cut in, breathing a little labored from the run to find them. “The Defense Minister requires your immediate presence.”

 

“Finally,” Karnak grunted, gesturing toward the discarded datapad and looking to his tour guide as if expecting him to fetch it. “I'm sure my companion will find the remainder of the tour quite enlightening.”

 

The officer held out a hand and shook his head to stop the guide from collecting the pad. “The Minister's orders were for both of you to accompany me,” the officer said, turning his attention to Yuffa.

 

It took Yuffa several seconds to notice the attention that had been turned on her. “Oh. Hi. Are the spinward and trailing sections of the belt composed of asteroids from separate precedent planetoids?”

 

“How . . .” the guide marveled, “. . . could you possibly know that?”

 

“They . . .” she looked around, “. . . uhh . . .” She tossed a tiny piece of Ironium Seven off to the side, then her eyes widened when she realized everyone had seen her, “. . . taste different.”

 

“You ate the space rocks!” Karnak railed, infuriated and embarrassed by how bad she was making all of Azguard look.

 

“No!” she exclaimed. “I just licked them!” Refusing to back down in the face of his withering stare, she added: “A scientist uses the tools she has available to her. That's science!

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Feb 10 2022 2:16am

Azguard, Unincorporated Zone AG-12

 

“You told our customs agent that you were a farmer. I guess you were serious”.

 

Glombong gestured broadly to the fields on either side of the stone-paved road they walked. “My family and their neighbors have worked this farmland for over a thousand years.”

 

“That long, huh?”

 

“War is both very new and very old to us, Chancellor. In the interim, though, my people knew only peace and contentment under the watchful guidance of our gods.”

 

“I'm curious to hear more about your gods. They seem very important to Azguard society, but, uh . . .” The Chancellor's inquiry trailed off as an approaching Azguard grew nearer. He was riding some sort of giant lizard-beast, which bore some sort of harness with a strange stunted tower sticking straight up off of it. The creature was pulling a hover cart loaded with crops, but that wasn't what had distracted the Chancellor.

 

“Glombong, my boy!” the old Azguard shouted, waving emphatically with both hands.

 

“Uncle Iroh!” Glom shouted back, matching both the energy and form of the exaggerated greeting.

 

“What brings you home so soon?” Iroh asked, pulling on a rope around the beast's neck and causing it to slow its approach. The beast huffed, its tail wagging wildly underneath the hover cart. “And who's your guest?”

 

“The Foreign Office didn't call ahead?” Glom asked.

 

“Bah, I've been out in the field all day.” The beast came to a stop just ahead and to the side of them, Uncle Iroh heaved himself down from the beast, and Chancellor Tosh noticed his right leg.

 

“This is Chancellor Antar Tosh of Ord Pardron,” Glom said. “I invited him here so he could get a glimpse of what Azguard life was like before we discovered the rest of the galaxy.”

 

“I lost it on Krakken,” Iroh offered, having noticed the Chancellor's interest in his simple prosthetic leg. “First Furen Invasion.”

 

“I'm sorry; I didn't mean to stare.”

 

“Stare away!” he shouted, hobbling over to embrace his nephew.

 

“It's just . . . I thought the Coalition would have provided you with something more . . . articulated.”

 

“Oh yeah, sure,” Iroh said, tottering backwards a few steps. “I probably could have gotten a hover tug to replace old Hrunting by now, too.” He was waddling over to the beast and started scratching it between its eyes. “But I like Hrunting, I like the twenty minute ride to town, and . . . well, I guess I've gotten used to this old fella' too.” He patted his right leg just above the prosthetic. “I'm too old for war now, and I get by in the field just fine. Shiny things for the sake of the shine don't have much appeal to us Azguards, Chancellor.”

 

“I can appreciate the sentiment,” Chancellor Tosh said, nodding along. “So, is this a typical farm on Azguard?” he asked, gesturing off to the side.

 

“Gods no,” Iroh grunted, clambering back onto his ride. “We started industrializing farmland before our first hyperspace capable ship was finished. Farms like this are tended by those too old to fight, by the injured who can't be fully restored with our modern medical marvels, and so forth. Villages like ours are small enough that these little farms can keep them stocked well enough.”

 

“But wouldn't industrialization increase crop yields here, too?” Tosh asked.

 

“Sure would,” Iroh agreed, taking the crude reins into his hands. “But then what would old men like me have left to do?” He stared down at the human man like he'd bested him in some battle of wits. “There's no food shortage, Chancellor. There's no land shortage. And there's no shortage of work, either. Besides, if we level the houses and bring in the droid harvesters, there won't be a farm left for Glombong to return to when the wars are over and we've finally won our peace.” He pulled on the reins and the beast started moving, its tail wagging furiously, its tower-harness creaking ponderously. “It's been good to meet you. Glom, tell your mother and your Aunt May that I'll be home late today.”

 

“Will do,” Glom acknowledged, before he started back toward his home.

 

Chancellor Tosh took a few seconds to ponder the encounter before starting after Glombong. Catching up to the Azguard, he asked: “Did you leave the speeder at the village specifically so we would run into someone on the walk?”

 

“Most definitely,” Glom nodded, then jogged off the road and up to the nearest crop plant, pulling off two of the vaguely corn-like pieces of produce. “Plus,” he added, handing one of them to the Chancellor, “trying to hand-pick Azguard Sweet Corn while moving anywhere over 20kph has a tendency to lose you a finger or two.” He bit into the raw plant, nodding to the Chancellor to try it as well.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Ord Pardron, Docking Bay 12, Zone 9

 

“Imperials!” Karnak raged, his whole body tensing at the sight of them.

 

The Ord Pardron naval officer grabbed his arm to restrain him, then immediately pulled it away when the massive alien turned on him with bloodlust in his eyes. “The Defense Minister has extended diplomatic protections to the Imperial envoy.”

 

“Fool!” Karnak spat.

 

“The Minister would like you to meet him.”

 

“Ooh, fun!” Yuffa exclaimed, making a beeline for the pair of humans.

 

Karnak huffed and chased after, his rage boiling over, every fiber of his being screaming for him to tear their heads off, the consequences barely a foggy apparition at the edges of his consciousness. “What have you done!” Karnak yelled, directing his fury at the Defense Minister.

 

“Ahh, Mister Karnak,” the Defense Minister began, a lighthearted amusement coloring his tone and features.

 

“You have invited vipers into your home!”

 

“Hello,” Yuffa said, waving jovially at the lone Imperial naval officer.

 

He ignored her and continued to stare rather deliberately at the Defense Minister. “The Emperor will be most interested to learn that there are Azguardians among you, Minister.”

 

The Minister's stern demeanor twisted into a sneer. “The Independent Republic of Ord Pardron is all too happy to welcome representatives of foreign governments . . . when they do not arrive in warships demanding the surrender of our sovereignty.”

 

Karnak was beginning to like the Minister. And for all the rage and compulsion driving him to tackle the Imperial and twist his head off his shoulders, the Azguard warrior had the presence of mind to realize the lone Imperial troop transport docked behind the Imperial hardly qualified as a “warship.” There was real danger here, danger that Karnak didn't fully know but the Minister surely did.

 

“Your nation is harboring terrorists, Minister; enemies of the Empire and fugitives from justice!”

 

“So you say,” the Minister replied, stern-faced and unreadable. “But the Republic of Ord Pardron does not surveil its citizens; we do not record their religious affiliations, nor do we consider such affiliations to be legitimate cause for the abridgment of their rights under Ord Pardron law.”

 

“The Jedi are not a religion!” the Imperial yelled. “They are enemies of the Empire!”

 

Karnak smiled, his boiling rage dropping to a simmer, his warrior's mind racing ahead to fill in missing information. “You're nothing but a Dominion lapdog.” His smile grew toothy and he barred his fangs. “A sniveling coward who crawls out from beneath your master's protection to venture into the galaxy they are afraid to travel.”

 

“Minister, I will not be spoken to in this manner, and not by a brute such as this!”

 

“Then cower and run!” Karnak yelled, stepping forward, puffing out his chest and stretching his fingers wide to showcase their claws.

 

“How dare you!” he exclaimed, but stumbled back a couple paces. “Minister, I warn you -”

 

“No,” the Minister cut him off. “I warn you: the Republic does not trade in flesh. If needed, every one of its citizens will be defended by the full force of its martial ability. The Azguard are here as guests of state, as are you, but any action taken against our sovereignty or the safety of our citizens will not be tolerated.”

 

“I warn you,” he pointed at the Minister, “Emperor Gevel will hear of this!”

 

Karnak laughed, startling the Imperial. “Then do not forget the name Karnak of Azguard. Do not forget to tell him that the Azguard Union stands ready to defend any world or people from the tyranny his puppet Empire or the Dominion it serves would visit upon them. Do not forget -”

 

“That's quite enough,” the Minster said, squeezing Karnak's arm to stop him.

 

Karnak was not amused, but when he turned his bloodthirsty stare on the human Defense Minister, he saw in the man's eyes a steely resolve that cut right through his own rage.

 

“You have one day!” the Imperial shouted. Karnak looked back to see him storming off toward his troop transport.

 

“A day until what?” Karnak asked, his rage subsiding.

 

The Minister kept staring ahead, watching the Imperial retreat. “He wants to meet the Chancellor.”

 

“Is the Chancellor returning from Azguard?”

 

The Minister broke from his long stare and started off at brisk walk. “I don't know. I'll have to update him on the situation.”

 

“We can help,” Karnak said, following after him.

 

“That won't be necessary,” the Mininster said, signaling to the Ord Pardron officer who had fetched Karnak and Yuffa for this meeting.

 

“You must prepare to defend yourselves,” Karnak warned.

 

“We are more than capable,” he replied, not looking back.
 

“The Empire will not concede without bloodshed.”

 

“That remains to be seen.”

 

Karnak grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around forcefully. “Do not underestimate them; they will kill you all to get what they want.”

 

He met Karnak's stare with that same steely resolve. “I'm leaving for the Excelsior immediately; she's been brought to full readiness and our defense forces are at full alert.”

 

“What forces do they have in system?” Karnak asked. The Minister pursed his lips and looked away, but Karnak kept pushing. “Minister!”

 

“A single light cruiser,” he offered, then turned and continued on his way.

 

“They might have more waiting to jump in.”

 

“I know.”

 

“We can help you.”

 

“Lieutenant!” he shouted, and the Ord Pardron officer stepped in front of the Azguards, holding up a hand to top the massive aliens from following the Defense Minister. As he reached the docking bay's exit, the Minister turned back to them and said: “The tour is canceled. Find them on-site lodging.” Then he was gone.

 

“This way, please,” the officer said, directing them toward a different exit.

 

“How long has the Empire been hunting your citizens?” Karnak asked, following along in the hopes that the officer would give up something worthwhile.

 

“As far as I know, they first contacted us just before the Dominion broadcast its Declaration.”

 

“This is the first time they've come here?”

 

“Oh yeah,” the officer said. “We got a little worked up when you guys showed up, what with being the first major government to send a representative since the fall of the New Republic, but the response to an Imperial Light Cruiser emerging from hyperspace triggered the largest defense response I've seen since joining . . . the largest I can remember, now that I think about it.”

 

“Do you know who they're hunting?” Yuffa asked. It may have been the first worthwhile question Karnak had ever heard out of her.

 

“I'm sorry, Ma'am, but that's a little beyond my purview.”

 

“You know, don't you?” Karnak pushed

 

He huffed out a painfully fake laugh. “The Republic of Ord Pardron doesn't track the religious affiliation of its citizens.”

 

Karnak sneered again. “Who is the Empire hunting here?”

 

“I . . . really can't say.”

 

“Then don't,” Karnak said. “Just lodge us next door to them.”

 

The officer stopped in his tracks, fiddling with something in his pocket while he turned slowly to regard the two Azguards.

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Feb 16 2022 11:32pm

With Glombong back at Azguard, that put Karnack in charge of the mission, which meant he got to designate and assign shifts for the reverse-stakeout. He got to assign shifts, that is, until he caught Yuffa sleeping only thirty minutes into hers. After that, he decided that he'd take the whole night shift, and just hoped that the Imperials wouldn't be stupid enough to try anything in the daytime.

 

Now that Yuffa didn't have the fate of a sweet little family of five hanging around her neck, though, she found she wasn't especially sleepy. She just lay in the bed of their third floor corner apartment, switching her attention between the HoloNet feed on her handheld display and the back of Karnak's head. He was sitting, diligent as ever, shifting his attention between the two windows that straddled the corner of the apartment complex.

 

When he realized that Yuffa wasn't sleeping, he started sharing bits of tactical info as he picked up on them, though Yuffa wasn't really listening. Apparently he'd spotted a couple of undercover folks who were watching the family, but he said they were probably Ord Pardron security and not Imperial spies, so that was nice.

 

Eventually, though, Yuffa decided it was time to go to sleep, so she put her glowy little screen away, gave the back of Karnak's head one last look, then closed her eyes an slipped not-so-seamlessly into an uncomfortable, disturbingly dream-filled sleep.

 

Right about the time the shadow-monster started eating the pumpkin-princess feet-first, Yuffa's own name, spoken in a rough whisper, dispelled both the monster and the princess and forced her back to consciousness. She opened her eyes just in time to see Karnak picking up a chair. “Call security, something's up,” he said, then threw the chair through the window and jumped out after it.

 

* * *

 

“You're literally going to give me a tour of your entire planet?”

 

Glombong finished another big slurp of the soup Aunt May had made, then made very deliberate use of the napkin before answering. “Not literally the entire planet, no, but I was hoping to show you 'a day in the life of an Azguard', if you will.”

 

“What do you think we're doing here, Glombong?”

 

The harsh tone of Chancellor Tosh caught him off guard. “What?”

 

The chancellor pushed back his chair and stood to his feet. “This isn't a social visit. I'm the Chancellor of a sovereign Republic, a foreign dignitary here on official business. You think soup, and sweet corn, and a chat with your kindly uncle are matters of state import?”

 

“I do, actually,” Glombong stood to match the Chancellor, his considerable frame dwarfing the human. There was a hardness to his stance and a menace in his eyes that the Chancellor hadn't seen before. “My job is to show you who we are, Chancellor.”

 

“I don't need you to show me who you are,” he said, not withering before the intimidating alien. “I already know full well who you are.” He rounded the corner of the table and headed for the door.

 

“And who do you think we are?” Glombong asked, allowing the human to leave but following quickly after him.

 

“Other than naive fools?” he asked without bothering to look back at the Azguard. “You're the ones who attacked the Emprie at Corellia. You're the ones who kept the Imperial News Service in business for the past decade. You're the ones who fought the Dragons when they walled off a quadrant of the galaxy and declared it their sovereign domain.

 

“You're the ones who kept the torch burning.”

 

“What?”

 

Glombong's heavy footfalls fell silent, and Chancellor Tosh turned to regard the Azguard representative. “You kept the Light alive. You picked up the pieces of another broken Republic and you . . . well, you tried. And you kept trying. The Empire beat you at Corellia. They beat you at Lorize. They beat you at Abregado-Rae. And they beat you at Bilbringi. And you kept trying. They took the Onyxian Commonwealth from you, and you took in billions who fled to escape them. They drove the Contegorians from you, and you . . . found a way to carry on without them.”

 

“I . . . I -”

 

“Soup is nice, Mr Glombong,” Tosh said, turning back around and resuming his trek to the speeder. “But we have work to do. There's a whole galaxy that other people have given up on, but not you. Not the Azguard: you'll keep fighting, whatever the cost, whatever the odds, for as long as you can. That means something. It's not everything, but it might just be enough.”

 

“How can you know that?” Glombong asked.

 

Tosh smiled, though the Azugard couldn't see his face. “We get INS out at Ord Pardron, Mr. Glombong. We know everything we need to know.”

 

“INS is Imperial propaganda!”

 

“Exactly!” He stopped again, turned back to Glombong, angry this time. “Do you think we don't remember what the Empire is? You're what, ten years into being a member of galactic society? You think none of us had a history until you showed up?”

 

“I – no – it's just . . .”

 

He started walking again. “The Mon Calamari remember just fine what the galaxy was like before you popped in. The Kashan remember. The Cereans remember. And the Bimm. And the Onyxians are getting a fresh course in what the Empire is!”

 

“Chancellor, please!”

 

“We remember, too, Mister Glombong. We remember every bit of it. And in Ord Pardron, especially, we remember when everyone gave up. We remember when the whole galaxy just hunched their shoulders and . . .” He stopped in place, breath coming more heavily than usual, not wanting turn back and face the alien this time. “We remember when the Republic couldn't keep the torch burning, and the whole galaxy just watched itself fall into darkness.

 

“You made the Empire your enemy, because you could see what it was even when you didn't have a memory of what it had been. You fought them because it was right, and you lost. Then you kept fighting them because it was still right, and then you lost again. You made all of the right enemies for all of the right reasons, so yeah: I know who you are alright. Come on.”

 

“Uhh, umm, where are we going?”

 

“I've got to get home and make the right enemy for the right reason, and I could use a friend to watch my back.”

 

* * *

 

By the time he hit the ground, the two undercover Ord Pardron officers were dead. He had jumped long, landing in the middle of the street below and transferring some of the momentum into a sprint for the far side of the street and the covered walkway that ran along it. The stonework looked sturdy enough to provide some cover from the blaster fire whizzing around. He returned unaimed fire as he ran, hoping to discourage the assailants from lining up too careful a shot.

 

From what he'd gathered, Ord Pardron security was competent enough, but from the number of blasters firing, Karnak was sure he wouldn't be able to hold out until backup arrived. He could cost the Imps a couple of minutes getting into the building, though, so at least the civilians had an outside chance of surviving the night. That would have to be enough.

 

He lobbed a concussion grenade around the corner of the stone pillar, ducking around the opposite side and picking a target as he ran for the next pillar. He made it just as the grenade detonated, and crouched low before poking his head back out and firing a quick burst of three shots just as the Imperial poked his head back up from his own cover.

 

He had two more grenades, but there was movement down the walkway, probably another squad of Imps moving in to flank him. It meant the attack was bigger than he's estimated. It meant he wouldn't even last as long as he'd hoped. It meant all that was left for him, was the glory of dying well.

 

He rushed out from his cover, ignoring the Imperials barricaded across the street, dashing down the walkway toward the clomping sound of boots on stonework. A grenade in one hand, blaster in the other, he rounded the gentle curve of the walkway and opened fire on the quartet of Stormtroopers.

 

The grenade was out of his hand before the first of them had reacted. By the time the second had brought his blaster up and taken aim, Karnak had put two bolts into the chest of the third.

 

The first shot buzzed just past his head. The second hit him off-center in the lower abdomen. It was okay, though, because he'd caught the last trooper in the shoulder, and with his offhand now back on the grip and helping to take proper aim, he dropped that one with a straight shot to the head.

 

The grenade went off and the shockwave hurled Karnack back into a stone pillar. He was up before the stars cleared form his eyes, the deathgrip on his blaster unbroken, rounding the pillar to face the other group of Imperials.

 

A hard crack, followed by a familiar gurgling sound drew Karnak's attention to his left, to the direction he'd come from. The blood frenzy was strong now, and he rushed ahead before making sense of the scene, gripping his blaster like a club.

 

“Yuffa?” he said, shocked as the Imperial trooper crumpled to the ground and revealed the half-crouching Azguard. Her claws were out, blood drenching her arm up to the elbow. Splatter and streaks of blood covered much of her face and tunic. Behind her, another three Imperials lay dead, their throats slit.

 

“Do you trust me?” she asked as she rose to her feet. Her voice sounded hollow, dull.

 

“What?” Karnak asked, suddenly very confused, and feeling quite disoriented.

 

She moved closer, lifting her clean hand to press it against his face. “Look at me,” she said, turning his head down slightly. “Look at me,” she repeated, as his eyes fixed on her. “Do you trust me?”

 

Of course. “Of course.”

 

“Find the civilians. Keep them safe.” And then she was gone.

 

Karnak rushed back down the street, angling across and straight for the apartment complex where the force-sensitive family lived. He'd forgotten about the first group of Imperials now, it never even occurring to him that he should look back at their barricaded position and see what had happened to them. He'd forgotten about the wound in his own abdomen, the fury and enticement of glorious death, the fear that his actions wouldn't be enough to save them.

 

He'd forgotten the words and actions of Yuffa, even the presence of the mild-mannered scientist whose training record showed marked deficits in hand-to-hand and close-quarters combat. In truth, in that moment, he'd forgotten everything he'd ever known.

 

Except for the civilians. Except that they had to be kept safe.

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Feb 19 2022 2:27am

Ord Pardron, Now

Chancellor's Office

 

Chancellor Antar Tosh was unsettled. He was supposed to be thirty meters away, elsewhere in the complex, celebrating with other functionaries and officials from Ord Pardron and Azguard. After all, it was a time for celebration. After all, Ord Pardron had been admitted into the Coalition. There were already representatives from the Coalition's various refugee and resettlement programs combing through Ord Pardron's databases, learning how the little asteroid society had managed to expand so quickly to accommodate its ballooning population. There wasn't much in the way of available space at Ord Pardron, but all their work in learning how to maximize habitat space was sure to pay off for others across the galaxy. It should have been a moment of hope and optimism for everyone involved.

 

But Antar Tosh was unsettled.

 

“You called?” the cloaked figure announced itself at the doorway.

 

Antar hadn't even heard the door open. “I suppose I should ask you for identification?”

 

“It's not that kind of a visit,” the operative of the Coalition Intelligence Bureau said. “There are official channels for those sorts of meetings, but you didn't use those channels, did you? So let's get to it.”

 

Antar gestured at the frozen holoimage hovering over his desk. It showed a still image from Ord Pardron's primary hangar bay, the Imperial troop transport that had delivered the Imperial representative framed squarely in the image.

 

“You identified the cause of the explosion?” the operative asked, drawing closer to the holo.

 

“We found . . . something,” he admitted, pressing a button that started playing the holo. “About five minutes before the ship exploded, there's . . . this.” The recording seemed to fritz out for a moment, with long, dark lines running across the entire image and parts of it distorting noticeably. Then the recording snapped back into focus and continued normally.

 

“A recording error?” the stranger asked.

 

Antar shook his head, fiddling with the controls to advance the recording again. “About three minutes later, it happens again . . . here.” Again, dark lines stretched across the screen and the image distorted unevenly. “The ship explodes two minutes later.”

 

“This sort of error is rare?” the stranger asked.

 

“They're the only two incidences in the entire record of Ord Pardron's surveillance database,” Antar said, a bit of accusation creeping into his tone.

 

“Why didn't you bring this to your new Azguard friends?” the operative asked.

 

“Because we were able to cancel out the distortion,” Antar said, punching another button on his desk. The holo played through the first segment of distortion, then rewound itself and played through again with most of it scrubbed, then rewound and played again with even more refinement. What remained, was one very distinct dark spot, of a conspicuously humanoid shape, very clearly walking up to the transport's access ramp and disappearing inside.

 

“What the hell was that?” the operative asked.

 

“Well,” Antar sighed, pulling up a holodisplay copied from Ord Pardron's security system. “According to our software, it's a shadow. A shadow with the right shape, body proportions, and gait profile of . . . an Azguard.”

 

The stranger shuffled in place, its face not clearly visible beneath its cowl. “You think an Azguard shadow climbed into an Imperial shuttle and blew it up?”

 

“On the way back from Azguard, Glombong told me that by cutting my trip short, I missed meeting his gods.”

 

“The Azguard do love to tell others about their gods,” the operative said, but without really saying anything.

 

“He told me that they are real, live, corporeal beings . . . of immense Force power.”

 

“That is a line they like to lean on when talking to skeptics,” the operative said, again not giving up much of anything.

 

“He told me that one of them is called Ishon, and he is the God of Shadow.”

 

“Well shit, you've got this whole thing figured out then, huh?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“What am I even here for?” He seemed to be getting annoyed.

 

“I'm the guy who just convinced my nation to join the Coalition, based on what I know about the Azguard. And here,” he pointed at the holo, “I've got Azguard gods blowing up Imperial ships on my docking bay.”

 

“The Imps tried to kidnap your people, Chancellor. From what I hear, a couple of Azguard volunteers saved a sweet little unsuspecting family.”

 

“It was just one of them, actually,” Antar corrected the stranger. “Miss Yuffa apparently slept through the whole thing. Rather remarkable, really . . .”

 

“So remarkable that you called me in instead of bringing this to them,” the stranger reiterated.

 

“I need to know that I haven't made a terrible mistake,” Antar admitted.

 

“Look, I'll admit that it seems like you've stumbled onto something here, so . . . how many people know about it?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“There's you,” the stranger held up a finger, “there's the security officer who first noticed it,” a second finger, “me, now,” a third finger. “Anyone else?”

 

“The officer's supervisor sent it straight to me,” the operative held up a fourth finger, “given the potential for an international incident.”

 

“That's it?” the operative asked, to which Antar nodded. “That's not so bad. So tell me: do you trust me?”

 

“What?” Antar asked, taken aback.

 

The operative moved around the desk, drawing closer to Antar. “Do you trust me, Antar?”

 

“I – I – I don't even know you.”

 

“I can't give you the answers you want, Antar. I can't satisfy your curiosity. But I can unburden you of it, and in doing so safeguard the lives of that sweet little family, and countless more like them.”

 

“Force sensitives?” Antar asked.

 

The operative pulled back her cowl, revealing herself to be a rather unassuming human. As she did so, her other hand moved toward the holoprojector and began working the controls to eject the datadisc with the recording on it. “Do you trust me?” she asked, and reached her other hand out toward Antar's face.

 

He felt her palm touch flat against his cheek, and didn't pull back. He knew, he knew that whatever was about to happen, it was best for his people, and for the most hunted innocents in the galaxy. Closing his eyes, bracing himself, he said: “Yes.”

 

“We are the River,” she said softly, gently. “The River runs through us.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

There are no temples to Ishon. Followers of the God of Shadow do not gather in the light.

 

A black candle burned before a silvered mirror. Yuffa the Azguard looked into the mirror, into the dark eyes of her dark reflection, and in them she found . . . peace.

 

The body of Yuffa the Azguard turned away from the candle and its light, and regarded the many shadows it cast into the dark room. “It has been done,” the voice whispered into the dark. “The family is safe. Those agents of the Dominion who are not dead have fled to tell their masters what was done here.”

 

What they know of what was done here.

 

“And they know only what you have willed them to know.”

 

Then sleep. Rest, my child, for tomorrow will soon dawn, and the Shadow will recede.

 

“There is much work to be done.”

 

But not now. Now, you must -

 

The door to Yuffa's quarters slid open, light from the hallway spilling in.

 

Glombong stepped through the door. “I knocked,” he said, regarding Yuffa, curled up beneath the covers in her bed. “A lot.”

 

“Sorry,” she groaned, stretching under the covers. “Long day.”

 

“You slept through the battle, and now you're sleeping through the celebration?”

 

“Oh,” she yawned sitting upright. “Is that today?”

 

“I came by to see if you wanted to come with me to pick up Karnak. He's getting out of the hospital in about half an hour and I don't want him wandering around unattended.”

 

Yuffa chuckled, checking under her covers to make sure she was wearing enough clothes to get out of bed with her boss hovering at the door. “He's not going to want to see me, no siree.”

 

“We all have our strengths,” Glombong said, inching back toward the door as Yuffa rolled out of bed. “His is killing Imperials . . . evidently. And yours,” he regarded her for a second. “Yours, well . . .”

 

“Sleeping?” she asked, digging through a drawer for something normal people would consider appropriate dress for the occasion.

 

“You're quite accomplished in your field,” Glombong said, not so convincingly, then ducked out through the door. “I'll just wait out here,” he added as the door closed on him.

 

Yuffa pulled out a crumpled tunic with a fun little Azguard water tribe design, and glanced over at the mirror wondering if she should try it on or just go for it.

 

A faint wisp of smoke curled from the charred wick of the candle. She wondered, briefly, if she'd forgotten to put the candle out before she went to bed, but shrugged and started changing.

 

There was so much to do, and so little time.