Azguard System, Hurok, 22 ABY
Kay and Wye were a cute old couple. Cute, that is, except for being horrifying. Horrifying, because . . . well, they were Frozians, a sort of hybrid between an ostrich and an alligator, except . . . you know, humanoid. And mammals. Look it's complicated, but they were weird looking, alright? They were weird looking, and they lived in a subterranean jungle society on the planet Hurok.
Not only that: they were scientists. A cute, weird-looking, old, subterranean-jungle-dwelling, scientist-couple who worked together, yay! And what were they doing today? Well, today, they were doing what they had done yesterday. And the day before that. And the day before that. And . . .
They were studying the effects of micromanipulating the electromagnetic containment field frequencies of individual shield emitters to generate localized increases in shield strength. It was all part of some classified, triple-top-secret Coalition military research neither one of them could be bothered to care about. All they knew, was that something was wrong here.
The numbers just didn't add up. They'd checked the EM field monitor a dozen times each now, carefully calibrated it to account for the planet's magnetic field, but something was interfering with their results. So, after the thousandth fouled result, the couple did the only thing they could think of, the last gasp of a dying science experiment, one final Hail Mary before they just gave up and moved on to something more interesting.
They put in a ticket with the Azguardian Office of Cartography and Natural Phenomenon.
And they even checked the box for “expedited assistance”.
* * *
Later, 23 ABY . . .
Look, the “assistance” had been “expedited” just fine, okay? The problem was: well, it was a problem.
The nice young Azguard lady (to be honest, neither Kay nor Wye had any idea how to tell an Azguard's age. The fangs gained a ring each year, or something?)
Anyway, the nice Azguard lady (actually she didn't seem too nice, but whatever) had come by with her fancy tripod and blinking, spinning gadgets, and had come to the conclusion that . . .
It was below them!
“Hang on,” you might say, “Isn't Hurok the planet with the different layers, that gets warmer as you move down?”
And to that I would say, “Yeah.”
But then you might say, “But hold on now: isn't the bottom layer a jungle, where the upright gecko-cats live because it's the only place in the galaxy where they can make babies?”
And again I'd say: “Yeah.”
And then you might say: “But the jungle layer is the bottom layer, right?”
And then I get to say: “That's what you thought, sucker!”
Because there was something down there. There was definitely something down there . . .
* * *
Later, 24 ABY . . .
It was official: the Hell Layer was real. Ground penetrating radar had detected a chamber way back in 23 ABY, and temperature probes suggested that the planet got real hot real quick, long before reaching the core, but now they had proof: now, they had dug a hole!
“We drilled it, actually,” Toadie said, really rather proud of herself.
Kay, Wye, and the Azguard (Gromp was her name, it turned out [weird name, right?]) just nodded along, more impressed with the data coming back from the lava-swimming droid they'd dropped down there to look around.
“So it's . . . a lava river?” Gromp asked, dubious.
“It's a lava ocean,” Kay corrected. “And those . . . those . . .”
“Are metal-bergs,” Wye said, rather excited.
“Metal-bergs?” Gromp asked.
“We can work on the name,” Toadie reassured her, apparently feeling left out.
“And what do we do with those?” Gromp asked.
“We . . .” Kay looked to his wife.
“. . . have some ideas,” Wye finished.
Gromp huffed and opened up her silver, metallic briefcase, pulling out a stack of papers. “Just . . . make sure to fill them out in triplicate this time, yeah?”
This Azguard lady sure didn't seem to like her job very much!
* * *
Later, (still) 24 ABY . . .
What was her title now? Tertiary Adjunct to Uni . . . no, that wasn't right.
It had something to do with filing files; she was sure about that.
“Hello again, good morning, how is everyone?” she said, making no effort to seem sincere. Gromp started unpacking her briefcase, taking up the entire end of the long conference table. Why was the table so long, anyway? There were only three of them.
“We have a proposal, on behalf of the entire Frozian population here.”
Gromp's eyes bulged, the thought of all of the paperwork just . . . ugh. “The whole population, huh?”
“It seems to us that the Azguard need the Hell Layer a lot more than we do.”
“Is that so?” she asked, still unpacking.
Wye leaned in, but the table was so long that Gromp barely noticed, and decided to pretend that she hadn't noticed at all. “You can mine it,” Wye said, giddy at the very notion.
Gromp stopped unpacking. “We can mine the Hell Layer?”
“Absolutely,” Kay said, rather dryly. “The molten state of the majority of the Hell Layer can be siphoned upward and separated out through various processes. The larger, uh,” he looked at his wife, who nodded him onward excitedly, “metal-bergs can potentially be tractored directly upward and into processing facilities once the major access shafts are carved.”
“We're just going to . . . suck the core dry?” Gromp asked, dubous.
“Oh heavens no!” Wye exclaimed. “The core is a condensed plasma. It'll outlive the sun!”
Gromp balked. They hadn't even invented paperwork for this yet.
“We will of course require something from you,” Kay said, rather sternly. “Something rather substantial.”
“You don't say,” Gromp said, but she knew he would say.
“Unification.” See? He did say.
Gromp wanted to say “What does the Azguardian Galactic Military need with giant bird-donkeys?” but she just managed to spin that into “Oh? Really?”
“We would require certain assurances the Azguard would commit – as a core project of our unified government – to expediting the recovery of the Frozian population to healthy, robust levels.”
“Is that all?” Gromp said, starting to pack up her briefcase. What a bunch of nut jobs!
“We would expect exemption from the mandatory, universal military service regimen of your government,” Kay continued, droning on.
“Though some of us beyond child-bearing age would of course volunteer as a sign of our good faith.”
“Naturally!” She snapped the clasps shut, ready to get out of here.
“Instead of military service, all Frozians not engaged in population rejuvenation efforts would be willing to serve the broader Azguardian Union in whatever technical capacities are deemed most beneficial, whether those positions be on Hurok or elsewhere.”
“Wait what now?” Dammit, she had to unpack her briefcase again! “'Whatever capacities', you say?”
“Serve us and we will serve you,” Kay said flatly.
“So you guys are just going to, like . . . join the team?”
“Yes,” Kay said.
“Absolutely!” Wye exclaimed.
“Well damn.” There definitely wasn't paperwork for this yet. “Aw shit! What about the Kraum?”
The two Frozians shared an odd look with one another. Apparently, neither of them had thought to consider that either. “Perhaps we should ask that odd fellow, the Furen?” Kay suggested.
Wye nodded vigorously. “Tifford, I think his name is. He seems nice enough.”
“Oh, you've met him?” Gromp asked.
“No,” Wye said. “He just seems nice.”
* * *
(Not much) Later, (yes, still) 24 ABY
“Huh? Oh, no, they wouldn't be interested in anything like that. Just let the Kraum be, and they'll stay out of your way.
“. . . Tunnels, you say?
“. . . More like 'shafts', you say? And how many are we talking about?
“. . . That many?
“. . . Hmm. Hmm, well . . . Hmm. You know: I think – now this is with sufficient convincing on my part, mind you – I think that I might just be able to convince the Kraum of something along those lines . . . for a price.
“. . . Oh, nothing so disreputable as that! No, no, no, by no means. You see: I'm teaching the Kraum to crochet.
“. . . Hmm.
“. . . Yes, that's right.
“. . . They do quite like it, yes, and unfortunately, the Tepid Layer supports scant few candidates for good yarn. With a sufficient commitment to supply – on an ongoing basis, of course – to supply the Kraum with ample yarn and crocheting needles, I think they would be quite happy to have you punching holes through the Tepid Layer for your absurd superhighway!
“. . . A sort of 'yarn-lease', yes. I do quite like that, yes!
“. . . Indeed! And you as well! Ta-ta now!”
* * *
“There” was a pile of rubble that had once been the capital city of Siskeen. On approach, a number of pathways that had been cleared through the rubble were clearly visible in the noonday sun. Ladybird landed on the outskirts of the rubble, sending a half-dozen locals scurrying for cover. Whoever these people were, it was clear they weren't too keen on outsiders.
“Alright, here's the deal,” Ramona said, matter-of-fact as she cut briskly through the leisure area and for the exit ramp. “Most ships that touch down here are either looters or slavers.” She opened up a storage compartment beside the ramp to reveal a trio of blaster rifles and a smattering of pistols. “I don't play that game, but the locals won't know that until I track down my contacts and buy us an escort.”
She started handing out the weapons, and Ealarad and Toadie took the two spare rifles. “Show your weapons off but try not to point them at anyone. Stay vigilant, and we should be fine.” She handed the least-crusty-looking blaster pistols out to the rest of the team, keeping her own shiny pistol strapped to her side. “If anything goes wrong, stay with me. There's no safe place for you to run to except for this ship, and I'm the only one who can open it once it's buttoned up. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and grumbled acknowledgment, except for Zook who seemed confused by the blaster now in his hands.
“Good, so here's how it's going to go: half a kilometer into the ruins, there's something of a marketplace. Locals trade basic salvage like datapads, tools, small arms with each other; they trade salvage like rare minerals, war memorabilia, and starship parts with outsiders. Once we get there, we're mostly safe. I'll take the lead, Gromp's at the rear.”
“I will be rearguard,” Ealarad said firmly.
Ramona shook her head and turned for the exit ramp. “Grom's in charge of you clowns, so she's responsible for making sure we don't get jumped from behind.” She looked over her shoulder for one last comment. “I've got food to trade and you need passage out of system. That's what we're here for; that's what we're doing. Any of you deviate from that plan, and you're on your own.”
The ramp lowered, and they were off. Ealarad and Toadie took up the left and right flanks, with Tifford, Kay, and Zook nestled in the middle. As they made their way into the ruins, it became clear that many people were living within the rubble, either in dug-out caverns or crudely constructed brick hovels.
They were from dozens of species, many from prominent supporters of the Confederacy of Independent Systems, but also from species common to the Outer Rim broadly. There was no way to gauge how many people actually lived here, as most they saw ducked into hiding immediately. Those few who stood their ground were mostly old, stern-faced types who had doubtless seen and survived countless horrors before.
“I don't get it,” Tifford said, his attention lingering for too long on an old human holding a broken pike lance. “How could anyone live like this?”
“After the Outer Rim Sieges at the end of the Clone Wars,” Zook started, “the planet was in pretty rough shape. The Imperial Fleet swung by at least three more times in the next twenty years to shoot at anything that looked interesting down here.”
“Stow it, stay on task!” Ramona shouted. “We're getting close.” There were all sorts of side paths and little tunnels dug into the wreckage, but Ramona seemed to know just where she was going. She kept them on-target and didn't stop for anything, once even climbing up a pile of rubble to avoid a broken cart on the main path. It was probably nothing, but it could have been something, and that decided it.
“Yeah, but . . .” Tifford started back, “that was like thirty years ago, right? Thirty years of . . . this?” He waved his hands around indistinctly, which got him an elbow from Ealarad.
“How about a little weapons discipline, Furen?” he growled, hazarding a warning glance.
“Sorry,” he said, pointing his blaster at the ground just in front of himself. “But it's a whole lot of nonsense.”
“Not now,” Gromp barked, doing her best to run forward and look over both shoulders all at the same time. “Almost there.”
And indeed they were. The “marketplace” was, as best Gromp could tell, a series of concentric circles that had been cleared out of the rubble, the cleared materials piled up around the edge of the outermost circle to form a high barrier that shielded the entire area. Various tarps and awnings dotted the area, covering individual “stalls” that were managed by small groups of locals. Like everything else they'd seen so far, the stalls were dug out of and piled up from the rubble of the city. There were no free standing buildings, no prefabricated structures, no primitive but finely crafted materials. Everything was refuse, turned to some semblance of sentient use.
Even here, Ramona seemed to know where she was going. She led them two rings in then headed right, past a half dozen stalls that all seemed like similar brands of trash. “Ramona, I've made a decision,” Gromp said, abandoning her rearguard position now that they were in the market. “I want to contact Azguard Central Command for instructions.”
“Out of the question,” she said, bringing the whole group to a halt. “There's not a transmitter on this planet that's powerful enough to reach out of the system, except maybe on a ship, which if we track down can take you safely away from here and well within range of your government's HoloNet.”
“I appreciate you looking out for us,” Gromp said, rather unappreciatively, “but I was sent here on a mission, I'm not just going to walk away from it.”
“Nothing you can do here will help us!” Ramona said, immediately regretting how loud she'd become as various locals took notice of her.
“If that's true, then you definitely need to get me to a transmitter, because standard Azguard procedure is to send a rescue mission in after a diplomatic envoy that doesn't report in on time.” Ramona's eyes widened in shock. “You're worried about the five of us stirring up trouble? How about half a dozen Azguardian warships dropping into the system and poking around in all the dark corners?”
“You can't . . . you can't do that.” From her tone alone, Ramona knew they could.
“I won't be doing anything, Ramona. My bosses will, unless you help me contact them.”
Looking around at the small crowd gathering around them, Ramona motioned them forward uneasily and continued looking for her contact. “Look, this is a big ask, okay? Let's find my guy, see what he can get us in the first place, and work it out from there, okay? And quickly, because I don't want your boss screwing this place up any more than it already is.
“Hey, Brawn!” she shouted, waving her arms wildly. “Brawn, hook me up, will ya?” A thin Neimoidian male took note of her flailing, beckoning her into his rubble-cave. “Long time no see, huh, buddy?” she said lightheartedly, hoping for a reciprocal response.
The blue-gray alien was rather severe, though Gromp couldn't tell if it was time or the harsh conditions that had creased and worn his face. “'Buddy'?” he said without a hint of warmth. “What are you doing here, Mo?”
“Mo?” Tifford asked, intrigued.
“Hard times, Brawn,” was her only answer, ignoring Tifford. “Look, I got cargo, and I got people looking for transport. Can you deal, or no?”
“No,” he said, then turned away and walked toward the back of his hovel.
“C'mon, man, I'm dying out here!” she pleaded, following after him. “I got enough nerf jerky to feed this town, and I got these . . . these . . . giants I can't seem to get rid of, my ship – my ship's falling apart on me!”
“Your ship?” he asked.
She shrugged, looking uncomfortable with the rhetorical question. “Look, you helped me out once and I promised I wouldn't bring my shit to your door again, but -”
“Once?” he said, sitting in a rickety old chair. “This isn't about that, Mo. Not debts, or trust, or any of that bullshit.”
“What then?” she asked, sounding nervous.
“When you get out, you stay out. Those are the rules.”
Ramona turned around, her bulbous eyes somehow even bulbousier. “Oh, shit!”
Gromp turned around as well, to find a dozen armed locals with weapons trained on them, blocking the exit.
“Shit shit shit shit shit!” Ramona continued.
“Come with us if you want to live,” said an Ubese from the front of the group, his or her voice muffled by their helmet.
“Shit,” Ramona swore one last time, before setting down her rifle and then unstrapping her pistol.
“What is this,” Ealarad asked, weapon at the ready.
“Sorry guys,” Ramona said, weaving between members of the group to surrender herself. “It's out of my hands now. If you want to live, you better put your guns down.”
“Who are these people?” Gromp asked, also still holding her weapon at the ready.
“Not here,” the Ubese said. “Come with us, now.”
A pair of the Ubese's companions stepped forward to confiscate the guns. Reluctantly, Gromp released her grip on the weapon, and the others followed suit.
“Are you sure about this, boss?” Tifford asked, uneasy at the turn of events.
“Not at all,” she said as the mixed band of aliens led them away, toward the edge of the market and then into the twisting pathways dug out of the ruined city.
They could probably take them, she considered, even now. Zook and Ramona would be useless – hell, they might have to fight Ramona the way this was shaping up – but Gromp and Tifford were born for war, and Ealarad and Toadie were natural predators. Even Kay, with his Azguard-sized build, could probably make a go at clobbering a couple of the little humanoids. Now that their captors were relaxed, confident that their disarmed prisoners were harmless, they had a shot.
But what about the locals? None of them had given Gromp's little gang any trouble so far, but if she started splitting heads open in front of them, there's no telling how things would go.
And then they were underground. Looking back over her shoulder, Gromp couldn't figure out quite how. They'd walked through a little tunnel dug through the ruins, like the group had done a half-dozen times on their way to the marketplace, but this one was different. Somehow, it seemed like just another path until they were in it, and now . . . now what?
The tunnel took a sharp turn and then they were in a chamber, a massive chamber held up by columns every dozen meters or so. The columns were made of a mix of materials, from hewn stone to recovered permacrete to durasteel, but all of them finely worked, all of them crafted with obvious skill.
“What the hell have you gotten us into?” Zook asked Ramona, simultaneously awe-inspired and enraged.
“No questions,” the Ubese barked back. “Not yet.”
“Well, so much for fighting our way out of this,” Gromp said aloud. “I've gotta see where this goes next.”
The whole area was dimly but adequately lit with overhead lights, strung together on long runs of power cables. Along the edges of the chamber, other tunnels ran out in all directions, light spilling in from many of them. As they moved further in, they started seeing buildings constructed around the pillars, reaching up three and four stories to the top of the dome, all of them built from surface salvage but of much finer quality.
Farther out, ringing the edge of the chamber, there were all sorts of . . . work stations. Furnaces and kilns melting down scrap, work benches and machinery repairing salvaged equipment, or even building new tools and gadgets from scratch! There was a whole society down here, a whole world of industry, and life, and vibrant productivity. These people were making their world anew, out of sight and sound of a galaxy that had sought to send them back to the stone age.
At length, they reached an edge of the chamber and a tunnel sloping downward. Their captors stopped there and the Ubese gestured to the dark tunnel ahead.
“Oh, so now we just wander into the scary cave alone?” Toadie asked, incredulous.
But that's exactly what Ramona did. “Come on, let's get this over with. You guys don't want them to drag you in here.”
“In here,” it turned out, was another small chamber where a dozen or so people sat in an arc arrayed so they all faced the group directly.
“Who the hell are you?” Toadie asked, unimpressed.
“We're the City Council,” a Twi'lek near the edge of the platform said.
“What do you want from us?” Gromp asked, unsure of how to proceed.
“What do you want from us?” A human near the middle asked.
“Well I . . . didn't know you existed until ten seconds ago, so . . . anything at all would be cool, I guess?”
“We don't take kindly to outsiders bringing their troubles here,” a Neimoidian member said.
“Look,” Ramona offered, stepping forward a little, “I was just trying to get them passage out of system.”
“We'll deal with you later, Miss De Maal,” another Neimoidian said.
“Oh shit, they know who you are?” Zook asked, seemingly making the best of the situation.
This was as good a time as any, she supposed, so Gromp put her best friendly face on, took a deep breath, and went for it: “I am Undersecretary Gromp, head of the Azguardian Diplomatic Corps, and I am here on behalf of Azguard and the Galactic Coalition in the name of peace.”
“Bwa-hahaha!” A Sullustan from the middle of the group started laughing. He followed it up with some gibberish nobody could understand.
“Eh, they're not so bad,” Zook said, shrugging. The fact that he could understand Sullustan got the Coalition group's attention, so he quickly added: “I'm not actually with them, by the way,” pointing to the Azguard group.
The human chimed back in now. “My fellow council member said, in none too pleasant terms, that the only thing the Coalition is good for is ending peace.”
It was the first moment since this mission began that Gromp knew what to do. It was invigorating. Empowering. It was Destiny. “You misunderstood: we aren't here for peace, generally. We're here for peace with you, and to do that we're going to fuck up your enemies.”
The room went deathly silent. The faint whisper of wind blowing through a tunnel system incomprehensibly large swelled to a roar in the pregnant pause that Gromp had caused.
“We have no enemies,” another human said plainly.
Hope fled from Gromp. She was so sure, so sure she understood, but now, with four simple words . . .
“Excuse me,” Kay cut in, his creepy giant chicken-horse visage catching everyone's attention. “I'm sure that this subterranean society that you have constructed is quite impressive. It stretches on for miles, yes? Perhaps more? The farms that we saw when coming in; they're under your control, yes?” No one answered, so Kay continued. “And the blast scoring where we set down, and on the way into the marketplace; that was explosive, yes? Newer, far newer than anything the Empire did here. Five years, maybe? They don't let you build on the surface, do they?”
“Who are 'they'?” the Neimoidian asked in a foe spooky voice.
“The Shadows who orbit Kaer,” Ealarad offered, picking up on Kay's line of thinking. “The same Shadows who reduced Olanet to chaos, who destroyed our shuttle and tried to murder us in our sleep.”
Gromp felt her confidence returning. She had been right all along! “I don't know you, council members. I can only imagine what your people have suffered and overcome. What you have lost. What faith and hope have cost you in the past. But I know this: evil unopposed will fester and it will grow, it will stretch out its tendrils into every nook and cranny of your society, every dark corner and forgotten room, until it has surrounded you. Until it has ensnared you. Until it has choked you of every source of sustenance, cut off every route of escape. If you do not fight them now, you will not be able to fight them when they come for you.”
Another member of the council stirred, an old, crotchety-looking Bith who was missing an arm. “Let me explain something to you . . . Undersecretary: if your ships come to this system, then these . . . Shadows, they will vanish into the night, and for decades to come they will visit death and ruin on any who show you kindness, who give you quarter, who offer you friendship or loyalty or simple goodwill. They will hound you and they will hound us, and nothing will grow or flourish in either of these worlds. They will kill and they will maim. They will salt the earth and they will boil the seas. Ten thousand warships could not stop them, because their methods are not the methods of war.
“Their spies and agents have infiltrated every corner of Olanet; they are why we offer no kindness to outsiders, why our communities are built deep and close, where friends are family and outsiders are threats.
“We will survive here because we are of no value to them, and we pose no threat to them. The people of Olanet will continue to suffer because some poor fool or another of them will always think that they can rebuild something of the world that was, and that is unacceptable.
“You have nothing to offer us but misery.”
There was another long silence, another long, painful stillness.
And then Tifford said: “What if we offer you our lives?”