A Coalition of the Devout: The Engines of Destruction (Siskeen, Olanet, Kaer)
Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Nov 20 2021 1:38am

Siskeen System, 27 ABY

As the Cataclysm draws to its end . . .

 

A flash of light, a streak of relativistic motion, and there it was. The Azguard ship was of a design totally alien to the galaxy beyond its home system, though in truth its key components were scarcely distinguishable from those of a Lambda-class shuttle. The most striking distinction was virtual, not physical: the Azguardian AI that operated the vessel autonomously.

 

“What we got, HAL?” the ship's resident Azguard asked, pretending to look at the nearest display screen while she waited for the AI to consider the rather broad question.

 

HAL answered in that monotonous, vaguely masculine voice it had settled on recently. “There is substantial starship debris in orbit of Siskeen; initial scans indicate it dates to the end of the Clone Wars. I'm not picking up any navigation buoys, traffic beacons, hyperspace reversions, long-range communications, or major power sources in the vicinity, Undersecretary Gromp.”

 

“Well that doesn't sound good,” she mused, sinking into the pilot's chair and deciding to give the display a genuine look-over.

 

“I can't say whether its good or not, Ambassador, but it is most certainly unexpected.”

 

“Quit being so boring and tell me something interesting.”

 

“I've completed an initial scan of the surface, and I can't find any cities.”

 

The Azguard snarled, recoiling from the screen and its undesirable information.

 

“Problem?” a gruff voice asked from the cockpit entrance.

 

She glanced back, then remembered how short Kraz were and followed the door frame down until she finally spotted her. “Uhh, apparently Siskeen's abandoned, Toadie.”

 

“Not abandoned, Undersecretary,” HAL droned. “I am detecting significant humanoid life signs. There is simply no indication of civilization.”

 

“Huh,” Toadie huffed, climbing into the Azguard-sized copilot seat. “A whole planet regressed to what, the stone age?”

 

Oh, there's all sorts of metals and complex synthetics down there,” a new voice chimed in from the entrance, light and a little bit squeaky. “Probably whatever's left over after the Empire bombarded the planet.”

 

“The Empire's been here?” another newcomer asked, shouldering his way past the only Furen member of the Azguard government. “I better man the gunner's station.”

 

“Oh calm down, Ealarad,” the Furen exclaimed, following after him in an attempt to stop him from arming the weapons. “The Empire bombed this place almost fifty years ago, right as the Old Republic fell.”

 

“And they haven't rebuilt in all this time,” Gromp asked.

 

The last member of their squad cleared his throat at the cockpit entrance. “Care to join?” Tifford the Furen asked.

 

“This area seems quite occupied, thanks,” he said, his best effort at being polite. “I just overheard the conversation and thought I might point out that our records on this system are incomplete, and any number of things might have happened here between now and, well, five decades ago. And since the object of our primary concern isn't even on this planet, might we shuffle along to Olanet?”

 

He was looking at Gromp, the supposed leader of the group, so everyone else looked to her too. She shrugged and said, “Why not,” so they were off to stumble into the next unexpected mystery.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Flashback

 

The past (Really. Like, a “before my time” kind of thing), Krakken IV

 

From: Return to Krakken

 

Now the Kraz rejoiced! For they were free again from their enemy. And a new peace descended on Krakken IV, one that could never be taken away because it had been established by so many. And the cities were rebuilt, and medals were rewarded, including a special Krakken Service Cross given to all who participated in the Campaign to liberate the Kraz.

Then the Azguards, once again peaceful, once again joyful, once again Azguards, entered their ships and left for their homeworld once again.

This was the end of, hopefully, the last war Krakken IV would ever have to suffer ever again.

Command/end log/File completion/Krakken IV report/

 

 

 

Uhh. . . Actually . . .

 

 

 

Command/begin log/File startion/Krakken IV post-action report

 

The Kraz were happy, but they weren't that happy. Honestly, they were a little pissed. First off, the Azguard had just up and bailed on them, right in the middle of the Kraz figuring out some pretty nifty new toys from the technologically superior galactic society that the Azguard had exposed them to.

 

Then, the Azguard came back, pinkie-promised to be bestest friends all over again, rustled up some inter-factional violence among the Kraz, and then bolted back for home as soon as a new treaty was signed. Then they'd gotten Krakken IV invaded again, and made a whole mess of things “liberating” their “allies” from these “bad guys” (okay: the “bad guys” actually were “bad guys”, so we'll give them that one).

 

So what did the Kraz want?

 

“Merger?” The Azguard commander repeated the word as if she'd never heard it before.

 

“A Union,” the short Kraz said, standing his ground. “Two planets, two species, one nation.”

 

“That's out of the question,” the Azguard said.

 

Then you can eat the treaty,” the Kraz said.

 

Gromp snorted, trying to stop herself from laughing. The commander turned to her, staring daggers. “Scribe, fetch me a copy of the treaty.”

 

“Oh, you want me to feed it to you?” the Kraz asked.

 

Gromp smiled broadly, fetching the fancy scroll of paper from a nearby shelf.

 

The commander unfurled the treaty, clearing her throat before beginning. “Let it be known, to all who would hear, that on this day . . .” she started muttering, skipping sections as she looked for some of the juicy bits. “. . . by decree of the gods . . . under these eternal stars . . . by Yunos . . . IN PERPETUITY AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION” she laid into the words hard, then realized that was a clause about the presence of ketchup at future diplomatic events and pulled back again.

 

“Look,” she finally gave up, trying to toss the copy of the treaty at the Kraz, which only caught in the air and kind of . . . fluttered . . . a little bit. “We worked hard on this treaty! We used some of our biggest dictionaries!”

 

“We don't have dictionaries,” the Kraz said. “We believe that language is alive, and can't be trapped in books!”

 

“Really?” Gromp asked.

 

The Kraz winked at her.

 

What did that mean? Was that a Kraz thing? Did that mean “Yeah really,” or “no, not really”? Damn, there was no way to know! Unless . . .

 

“You know, sister . . .”

 

“You will call me commander!” the commander shouted, getting so worked up that she had to adjust her helmet to get it back square on her head. “This is serious business that we're doing here!”

 

“There is precedence for this kind of . . . Unification,” Gromp said, quickly adding “Commander!”

 

“Nonsense!”

 

“No, it's true. In the ancient war, there were instances where whole villages who had allied under the Vision of Darkness forsook their gods and turned to the Vision of Light. It is said that Yunos himself brought them into a Union of His Kin, merged them with the tribes who followed Him so that they both might become stronger from the union.”

 

“That doesn't count,” her sister-Commander snapped. “Those were Azguards! The Gods would never sanction such a thing with . . . with . . . with aliens!”

 

“The Gods are asleep, Prong,” Gromp said.

 

“Call me 'Commander'!”

 

They're still asleep, Commander. We can't ask them. The least we could do is ask High Lord Regrad.”

 

Commander Prong didn't seem to like that idea. Mostly, she didn't seem to like that it wasn't her idea. “Gah, fine!” And she stormed off to make the call.

 

“Thank you, Ma'am,” a voice said from nowhere.

 

“Oh!” Gromp exclaimed, brushing up against the Kraz's outstretched hand. He was so short, Gromp had forgotten to look down for him! “You're quite welcome, Sir,” Gromp exclaimed, shaking his hand.

 

“I'm a 'Ma'am' too, actually,” she said.

 

“Oh, sorry,” Gromp said, a little embarrassed.

 

“Oh don't worry, it happens all the time with you Azguards. My name's Toadie, by the way. Care for a glass?” she asked pouring some of Commander Prong's top-shelf Victory Sauce.

 

“Oh!” Gromp exclaimed, suddenly feeling naughty. “Well I really shouldn't, but, you know, in the name of peace and camaraderie, I suppose . . .”

 

“Sister, huh?”

 

“Yeah,” Gromp muttered.

 

“Don't get along?”

 

She shrugged, downing the whole glass in one go. “We get along fine. She's just better than me at everything.”

 

“You seemed to handle yourself just fine,” Toadie said, shaking the bottle to offer another glass.

 

Gromp smiled, shaking her head. “She's this brave, accomplished warrior, and I'm just a lowly scribe, writing out reports and stamping things with stamps. I've never even been in combat.”

 

“Combat's nothing to hope for, missy. Not even for those of us who are good at it.” She had just poured herself another glass. “Especially not those of us who are good at it.” She wiggled the glass a little (another weird Kraz thing, probably), and put the Victory Sauce right down the hatch. “You'll find your way. I suspect we all will, soon enough.”

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Nov 24 2021 11:22pm

Unflashback

 

It took a little while, but not that long because space ships are fast, so eventually our intrepid band of aliens moseyed their way on over to the other inhabited planet of the Siskeen System: Olanet.

 

“Well, at least they've got power,” Toadie remarked, but the team was pretty deflated by the sad state of the planet.

 

“No comm stations, no landing beacons, and nobody's replying to hails,” Gromp reported, the frustrated Azguard suddenly wishing she wasn't trapped at the front of the cockpit by the huddled bodies of the rest of her team. She really needed to get to the back and punch a training dummy!

 

“HAL,” Kay the Frozian piped up from the back of the group, “how about you make a loop of the planet and find us the biggest city you can? We'll just have to land and ask for directions, I guess.”

 

Tifford the Furen had another idea, though. “Or – or – we could scan for nerf life signs and head for the highest concentration. Landing in farmers' fields is a time-honored tradition among uninvited space travelers!”

 

“That's dumb,” Ealarad the Vrakken dismissed the suggestion. “Besides, you call nerf-tenders 'ranchers', not 'farmers'. It's a completely different thing.”

 

Actually,” Tifford countered, unwilling to be one-upped by a primitive, “'rancher' is a subset of 'farmer' among many occupational designation systems throughout the galaxy. If you would bother to read a book every once and a while -”

 

“If I may,” HAL interjected, “the largest city also appears to be proximate to the largest concentration of live nerfs below. Landing on the city's periphery would satisfy both proposals, correct?”

 

“Uhh, well . . .” Tifford grumbled.

 

“Yeah, let's do that,” Gromp said, happy to have someone (well, something I guess) else settle the dispute.

 

And that is how the quintet-plus-one-AI found themselves settling their ship into a cozy little berth in a rundown spaceport on the edge of a city with a name none of them had any way of learning. It was strange that the port had power, several berths were taken by much larger cargo ships, and there was quite a bit of activity carrying on throughout the complex, but there seemed to be no security or administrative staff anywhere around. No one had even answered their queries for landing directions!

 

“So where do we go from here?” Kay the Frozian asked.

 

“Yeah,” Ealarad the Vrakken piped up, “this wasn't in the handbook.”

 

“Uhh,” Gromp grunted, stalling for time. Just then, through the forward viewport, a pair of locals in dirty spaceport technician coveralls started brawling. “Let's go see what that's about!” And she darted for the exit.

 

The five aliens piled out of the back of the shuttle, watching the human and Deffel technicians slap-fight for several seconds. “Uhh, excuse me,” Gromp ventured, easing toward the two strangers. “My name is Gromp, and I'm Undersecretary of the Azguard Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Corps.”

 

“Be right with you!” the human shouted.

 

“No, I will!” the Deffel countered.

 

“Uhh,” Gromp stalled again, “we're here on behalf of the Galactic Coalition.”

 

“Great!” the Defel shouted, slapping awkwardly at his human rival's elbow before backing out of range of the inevitable counter-slap. “Be right with you.”

 

“Take us to your leader,” Toadie demanded, barring her fangs as she stepped out in front of Gromp.

 

The pair stopped immediately, clearly afraid. “Leader?” the human said. “I'm out!” And he ran off.

 

“Please, sir!” Gromp shouted at the Defel as he ran after his recent adversary.

 

“I'm a woman!” the Defel shouted back. “And leave me alone!”

 

Gromp huffed, disappointed in Toadie's aggression. “You scared them off. We're diplomats, remember?”

 

Toadie just shrugged, and started walking toward the landing bay's exit. “They were annoying me, and we've got work to do. No we know they weren't worth our time.”

 

The “work to do”, however, proved harder to find than anticipated. The five Coalition aliens wandered the spaceport for hours, trying to find anyone of authority: a security guard, a port administrator, directions to the city's mayor's office, anything or anyone who might conceivably be “in charge”. But as soon as any of them mentioned an interest in local leadership, everyone in earshot shut down, shuffled off, or quite plainly told them to go and screw themselves.

 

So the band of decreasingly merry adventurer-diplomats set out into the city, following the advice of Kay the Frozian, who was far more worldly than the other members of the team, being the only one of them to have grown up outside of the Azguard System. They found the first open hotel, they cornered the desk clerk, and then Gromp said: “I'll pay you for information on the city.”

 

The desk clerk, a male Gran with light blue skin, a stocky build, and a tarnished name tag that said “Zook”, was very interested in that. “What do you need, and what do you got?”

 

Gromp pulled out a stack of Coalition credits and said: “Where's the mayor?”

 

“Aww, shit no!” Zook exclaimed, dodging back behind the front desk and making a dash for the far end.

 

Ealarad and Toadie were too fast for Zook, though, and cut him off before he could make it to the door behind the front desk.

 

“We need answers,” Toadie warned, and Gromp waved the credits to regain Zook's attention.

 

“At least . . . at least pay me in something I can use,” Zook grumbled. “Those credits are worthless here.”

 

Tifford scoffed, but Kay pushed him gently aside and stepped forward, brandishing a gold bar. “Very well,” he said, setting the heavy block down on the front desk. “How's this?”

 

“You carry gold?” Gromp asked, surprised.

 

Kay, annoyed, explained the situation to his boss yet again. “We're on a diplomatic mission in unfamiliar territory. I converted half of our stipend to precious metals before we set out for just this reason.”

 

“Oh,” Gromp muttered, feeling like she'd fallen short yet again.

 

Zook, meanwhile, was busy trying to peek behind the wall of three meter tall aliens, clearly worried about something. “You know what,” he said, sliding the bar off of the desk and cradling it in both arms, “I think this will just about cover your room for the night.”

 

“We don't want a room,” Toadie barked from below.

 

“Please stay in all night,” he added, squeezing between Toadie and Ealarad to get to the employees only door that they were blocking. “The streets can get pretty dangerous after dark . . . especially around midnight.” Half way through the door he poked his head back to say: “Oh, and I hope you have more gold. It's exactly the sort of thing you'll need to do business in these parts. Kay thanks bye!”

 

And he was gone, a door key on a cumbersome wooden paddle now flying through the air at Gromp. “Room 319,” she read aloud, checking the key. “Well I guess we take the room, and hope we didn't just get played?”

 

“I suggest we go now,” Ealarad said, nodding toward the entrance where a few locals had started gathering. “We seem to be drawing attention for some reason.”

 

So the quintet shambled off to room 319, a run-down two-bed room with creaky furniture and a dirty refresher. They made what varying sorts of use of the refresher they could, then did a pretty good job of not getting along while they watched the chronometer and waited for midnight. Ealarad and Toadie took turns staring with grave concern out of the window. Kay and Tifford argued about everything from verb conjugation rules in certain Vrakken dialects to subspace field equations, and Gromp . . . well, Gromp mostly just felt in over her head. She was a paper pusher, a glorified clerk, not a . . . a . . . an ambassador. Sure, “Undersecretary” sounded important, unless you knew that the entire staff of the Azguard Foreign Ministry had numbered less than a hundred people only two months ago, and the Diplomatic Corps was an organization barely half as old as that!

 

She didn't know what she was doing. She couldn't know what she was doing. Maybe Azguard Central Command should have asked another Coalition member to lead this mission, someone with more experience at these sorts of things . . .

 

Then it happened: a knock at the door.

 

Everyone jumped in one big, collective startle. “He's fifteen minutes early!” Tifford whispered.

 

“Seventeen,” Kay corrected.

 

“Close enough,” Gromp said, composing herself before walking up to the door and squinting through the peephole. “Here we go.”

 

Zook the Gran desk clerk hurried through the door, pushing a dining cart with a single covered dish. “Close it, close it!” he ordered, jerking his head back to indicate the door.

 

Gromp closed the door and the quintet gathered around him, eager to learn what the mystery was so they could get to solving it.

 

Zook, though, he had other priorities. Uncovering the dish with a flourish, he revealed the gold bar they'd already payed him. “I'm gonna need two more of these.”

 

“Seriously,” Ealarad groaned, his red face turning even redder.

 

Kay slammed the gold bars onto the tray with a loud bang, towering over the bulky Gran and staring down at him with menacing, black beady eyes. “Talk,” was all he said.

 

“You guys are in so much trouble,” Zook said, sinking down onto the corner of the nearest bed. “You really have no idea what's going on here do you?”

 

Gromp finally had a chance to say aloud the line she'd been practicing for a week now: “We have come to your world as representatives of the Galactic Coalition, on a mission of peace to establish friendly dialogue with its leaders and foster a relationship of cooperation and mutual benefit.”

 

Zook started laughing, and was not a pleasant laugh. “You don't get it: there are no leaders! Not anymore. They're all dead!”

 

“Impossible,” Tifford said, incredulous.

 

“Oh, it took a while for them to get everyone.”

 

“Who's 'them'?” Ealarad asked.

 

“And there was a while there where people thought we could out-organize them, or outlast them, or something.”

 

“Who's 'them'?” Toadie asked.

 

“But no. No, they just kept killing, and we just kept dying.”

 

“Yeah,” Gromp said, “but who are 'they'?”

 

“I mean, Siskeen's been a dumpster fire for decades, but us? Olanet had a good thing going here for a while. We used to be the premier nerf-meat provider in the whole sector, you know?” He was looking up at them now, but they were not interested in this. “It started with the planetary governor. About a dozen in, nobody was willing to take the post anymore. And then the mayors started dropping.”

 

“Who killed them?” Gromp demanded, getting mad now. “Who was it?”
 

Zook shrugged. “We call them 'Shadows', on account of the shadowport they've got set up around Kaer, some old mining rig or something they work out of. We all hear stories, a guy like me hears a lot of stories, but they're real good at staying hidden, and anybody half-good at staying alive knows better than to ask questions.”

 

“Why though,” Tifford asked. “Why assassinate a whole planet's leadership?”

 

Zook shrugged again, dejected by having to consider the sad state of his home. “Scum and villains like to live in scum and villainy. The Shadows, they're not interested in controlling planets or building some sort of rogue government. They just want to win at whatever it is they do out there, and the Coalition sniffing around here isn't something they're going to like. You all should leave while you still can.”

 

Toadie jumped out of the window.

 

The quintet-minus-one rushed over to see what had happened, the four giants shoving against each other to see out of the window barely big enough for Toadie to have fit through. Down below, they saw Toadie atop a dark mass . . . then the blinking light just to the right of the window sill caught Gromp's attention.

 

Then a loud thud behind her made her turn around to see Ealarad atop Zook, now pinned to the floor right in front of the open door.

 

“Please!” the desk clerk cried. “I didn't do it. I didn't know!”

 

Glancing back down, Gromp saw Toadie roll over to reveal a humanoid dressed in black, unconscious or dead. “Clear out!” Toadie yelled, holding up a silver cylinder. “I'm pretty sure this is the trigger for that bomb!” He pointed up at them, and Gromp remembered the blinking light just centimeters from her head.

 

“Everybody out now!” she ordered, rushing to the exit and hoisting Zook onto his feet with one hand.

 

“My gold!” He cried.

 

“Leave it,” Gromp shouted, spittle flying as she dragged the Gran clerk into the hallway.

 

“P-p-pay me, or you'll never get offworld alive!”

 

Just then, the shock wave from a distant explosion rocked the room, and Kay stuck his head out of the window. He rushed over and scooped up the gold, then headed into the hallway. “It was the spaceport,” he said, gesturing toward the stairwell. “I believe our shuttle has been destroyed.”

 

“It wasn't me!” Zook screamed again, this time in response to Gromp shoving him toward the stairs.

 

“Don't even bother until she's calmed down,” Ealarad offered, rushing ahead to lead the group, checking to ensure that the doors ahead were closed and adjoining hallways were clear. “An Azguard in her state is not to be trifled with.”

 

They met Toadie on the ground floor, who looked to be in fairly good condition for someone who had just fallen three stories while tackling an assassin.

 

“There's a back door,” Zook offered, unprompted. “It's a staff entrance that leads to a back alley, connects to a street a block over.” Gromp growled at him, her clawed hand holding firmly to the collar of his clerk's uniform. But Zook didn't back down, not this time. “If you want to live ten minutes, we have to get out of this building. If you want to live an hour, we have to get out of this city. If you want to live a day, we have to get off this planet. Do you know how to do any of that? Because I know how to do all of it.”

 

And that, dear reader(s), is how four giants, a child-sized Rancor-man, and the now thoroughly disheveled three-eyed hotel clerk found themselves plodding through a field of nerf dung on their way to the largest meat curing facility any of the Azguard delegation had ever seen.

 

Rounding the corner of the nearest building, the group saw a lone YT-1300 freighter sitting in an empty nerf pen, its external lights shut off, its cockpit emitting a faint glow from systems set on stand-by.

 

“Shit,” Zook said, bringing a group to a halt. “There's usually more traffic.”

 

“It's three in the morning,” Kay noted.

 

“Some of the best business on the planet gets done at night,” Zook said, starting off again and heading for a smallish building on the far side of the freighter, where an open door spilled light into the central holding area.

 

A couple of minutes later, the quintet-plus-a-local filed through the door and into the lit hallway, where several small offices sprouted off in either side. Most were empty, their doors shut and lights off, but the sound of a ruckus was coming from ahead, near the end of the hallway. As they drew near, Gromp put a hand on Zook's shoulder and motioned for him to step back, taking the lead and signaling for Ealarad to step forward with her. Whatever was about to happen, the Azguard wasn't going to be caught by surprise.

 

“That's bullshit!” a feminine voice exclaimed ahead, breaking through the low-level and indistinct conversation that had caught the group's attention. “These prices are outrageous!”

 

“Times are tough,” came the gravelly, masculine reply. The group was close enough now to make out his words, and Gromp slowed her pace in order to get more of the conversation before announcing herself to the strangers. “And despite the shitty state of this planet, I'm still offering the highest quality meat in the sector.”

 

“There's no rating system for black market meat, Dumbo,” the woman shot back. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to move unregulated nerf jerky in bulk?”

 

“You're just going to dump it on Siskeen for war relics,” the man – Dumbo, apparently – shot back. “Don't give me this 'can't find a buyer' nonsense.”

 

“I can't make any money at these prices!” she said.

 

“We'll pay,” Gromp offered from the doorway, startling both of them. The woman was a Duros, standing over a chair, nearest to the door. With a nerf-hide jacket and a rather stereotypical spacer outfit, it was no wonder her hand was on her blaster before she'd even finished turning toward the newcomers.

 

The male was a Mon Calamari, wearing some sort of rubbery suit that probably helped keep his skin moist, sitting behind a desk in a swivel chair. His bulbous eyes tracked Gromp closely, and she couldn't see his hands beneath the desktop.

 

“We'll pay for your cargo to Siskeen, if you give us a ride.”

 

“And who exactly are you?” she asked, hand still on her holstered weapon.

 

The others had gathered behind Gromp now, none of them armed but most of them with a rather natural menacing demeanor. “We're just some folks looking for a ride,” Zook said from Gromp's left. She looked back at him and he shrugged. “What? I can't stay here either. Not after that business at the hotel.”

 

“I have no interest in your troubles,” The Duros woman said, turning back to the Mon Calamari. “Dumbo, I'll buy half now, make a run, and maybe we can work out some kind of barter for the other half with the haul I bring back.”

 

“Ten thousand Coalition credits,” Gromp said, stepping into the room and setting the credits on the table between them.

 

The Mon Cal eyed it for a second and then let out a rather unpleasant guffaw. “I can't do anything with those; hell, they'd probably get me killed!”

 

“And now that's a double pass on taking you with me,” the Duros said.

 

Gromp turned her head to the woman, fangs barred, wishing this could turn violent.

 

Bam! Kay dropped her three gold bars on the table. “Two for you,” he said, pointing to the Mon Cal. “One for her,” he added, pointing to the Duros.

 

“Hey, those are mine!” Zook whined.

 

Gromp wheeled on him, grabbing him by the throat and pushing him out of the office and into the hallway wall. “Do you want to die, little man?”

 

“When does she get nice again?” he asked no one in particular.

 

Gromp leaned in close, growling into his face. “This is me nice again. You almost got us killed, and now we're saving your ass. From now on you say 'thank you', 'please', and 'yes, Ma'am'. Do you understand?”
 

“Uhh, y-yes, Ma'am . . . Please don't hurt me.” She let him go and turned back to the Duros. “Thank you,” he added.

 

Gromp squared up opposite the Duros and said: “Do you want to get paid, or do you want to stand around here in our general vicinity until the people looking for us find you too?”

 

After a moment's silence, she cracked a big, fake smile and offered her hand. “Ramona De Maal. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

 

“Gromp,” she said, shaking Ramona's hand. “Undersecretary of the Azguardian Diplomatic Corps.”

 

“Well shit,” Ramona said, genuinely surprised. “Don't you figure we better be getting the hell out of here, Dumbo?”

 

Dumbo was already fiddling with a lock on a desk drawer, finally getting it open to fetch a commlink with one hand while dragging his two gold bars into it with another. “Boys, load up the jerkey batch. And be quick about it; our lives are on the line.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Half an hour later, they were ready to go. The cargo was onboard, the passengers were nice and settled in, and Ramona had finally coaxed the engines into ready status. About this time she popped her head into the leisure area from the cockpit. “Hey Gromp, you got any flight experience?” Ramona didn't have any crew, but she had assured them that she could fly the ship alone.

 

“I know how to crash a dropship so the assault force survives,” she replied. Ramona seemed disturbed. “Basic flight training was part of my officer qualifications for the Azguardian Galactic Military.”

 

“So you're a soldier and a diplomat?”

 

“We all are,” Ealarad said. “Well, except Kay, maybe.”

 

The Frozian bristled at the implication. “I volunteered for the reserves, thank you very much.”

 

“Azguard has a universal service policy,” Gromp explained to Ramona.

 

“Well, you mind helping me with takeoff?” she asked, but seemed less sure about the request now than when she first popped in to make it.

 

Gromp jumped to her feet . . . smashing her head into the ceiling. Human-sized constructs rarely afforded the three meter tall Azguard with the comfort or carefree environment to which they were accustomed.

 

The equally tall Ealarad rose as well, though he managed to avoid banging his head into anything.

 

Ramona held out a hand to stall the Vrakken warrior. “Just the Undersecretary will be fine, thanks.”

 

Gromp nodded and motioned for Ealarad to sit with her free hand (her other hand massaging her noggin). She followed Ramona to the cockpit, careful to crouch-crawl into the copilot's seat, which still required her to hunch to keep her head from banging into the overhead controls.

 

“You folks have no idea what's going on here, do you?” Ramona asked, flipping switches that didn't seem to be doing anything.

 

“Zook filled us in well enough,” Gromp said. “You folks seem to be in a pretty bad way.”

 

“Not me,” Ramona said, still flipping switches. “Ladybird here can take me anywhere I want to go.”

 

“Your ship seems to have had better days,” Gromp remarked, pushing a flashing button . . . which caused four more to start flashing. She flipped a switch, and a whole side board lit up with warnings.

 

“Dont' worry, that's normal,” Ramona reassured, twisting a knob that made half the lights go off, but triggered a squawking alarm. “Also normal,” she added, but sounded less sure of herself. “Look, I don't know much about you Azguards – I don't care much about your Coalition either, by the way – but you folks seem mostly okay and I make it a point not to try to get my passengers killed once I take them on as clients, so here's a little advice: get the hell out of this system and don't come back. Nothing good will come from your meddling, alright? There's a way that things happen in this system, and the only other ways for things to happen are worse than the way things are.

 

“You go rooting around in the shadows, and the shadows will root back.” The engines flared to life, Ladybird lifted off, and they were away.

 

“Azguards aren't good at looking the other way,” Gromp said, trying her darnedest to figure out the course and heading displays. “And we sure as hell don't respond kindly to our diplomats being assassinated.”

 

“You're not dead yet,” Ramona said. “Siskeen's a wreck, but ships stop by from time to time. If I can find someone to hand you off to, you should be able to make it out of the system without any trouble, and anybody leaving the system will probably take your money. Just . . . consider it, okay?”

 

Gromp shifted uncomfortably in her seat; they hadn't trained her for this. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, and she had no idea what to do about any of it. She sat stewing in her frustration for another moment before finally crawling for the exit. “Tifford can help you land if you need help when we get there.”

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Dec 9 2021 11:27pm

Flashback

 

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.

 

“Of course!”

 

“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!”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Unflashback

 

“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?”

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Dec 14 2021 3:44am

Flashback

 

Taken from Declaration:

 

For millennia The Dominion has opposed the will of tyrants. We defeated the Yuuzhan Vong. So shall we defeat the Jedi and the Sith.

I call on citizens everywhere to assist us in marching towards peace.

Entaro,

Artanis Daz’Da’Mar.

 

 

Azguard System, 27 ABY

Azguard, Central Command Tower

 

Gromp was your typical Azguard functionary: lighthearted, eager, more than a little naive . . . with a whole other half of her brain devoted to moments such as this.

 

This meant war! The Dominion meant to erase them from existence! To exterminate them!

 

The armies of Azguard would rise against this threat. The Darkness was coming; the Prophecy was at hand.

 

But there was no Dominion to slay within this room, this little corner office midway up the Azguardian government building. There were no enemies here. No war to fight, here.

 

“Undersecretary Gromp, do you understand?” The question jarred her from her blood lust, triggered that switch in her brain that returned her to dutiful desk clerk.

 

She set the datapad down gently, noting the claw marks she'd inadvertently etched into its sides. The words of Artanis Daz'Da'Mar still shined up at her in crimson red. “Of course, Sir. I'll shutter all activities and have my staff report for duty at the nearest AGM staging area.”

 

“No,” the holographic head swayed back and forth, “you don't understand. I'm expediting your mission and exempting you from normal oversight rules.”

 

“Sir? But this Dominion –“

 

“Cannot be defeated, not alone. They took Coruscant from this galaxy to show that they are strong, and we are weak. They're right.”

 

“But sir –“

 

“So go and make us strong, Undersecretary Gromp. As the Coalition has strengthened the Azguard Galactic Military, we must go out now and strengthen the Coalition.”

 

“Yes,” Gromp nodded along. “Yes sir, of course.”

 

“There is much work to do, and not enough time to do it.”

 

And so, the hologram of Prime Minister Regrad vanished, and Gromp, Undersecretary of the Azguardian Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Corps, set to work.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Soon After . . .

 

Taken from The Truth About The Azguard:

My name is Issk. I am formerly a soldier in The Galactic Coalition . . .

 

. . . Shortly before Coruscant collapsed for good, the surrender of the New Order at Kamino was formalized and the planet was officially transferred over to The Galactic Coalition. Fair trade for the Imperials, since the planet had just come under siege. But they were unaware, of course, as were most people, that the planet had come under siege from the Azguard . . .

 

. . . The Cree’Ar have long regarded, and still do regard, the Galactic Coalition as less of a legitimate government and more of a group of intergalactic terrorists . . .

 

. . . The following coordinates are the coordinates of Azguard, Hurok, Hephastus, and Kraken IV. They are the original colonies and the homeworld of the Azguard. You may verify my words there.

 

 

 

Hephastus, Council of a Thousand Tribes

 

Much had changed on this world since the Azguard first came to the Vrakken. Much had remained the same. This arena, this grand council, represented the best of all that had changed and all that had remained. Here, at the edge of Vrakken City, carved into the living rock of the Charred Mountain, a semicircle of tiered seats lay arrayed around a central circle.

 

There, before five thousand leaders of the Vrakken people, a lone Azguard stood exposed. “Tell us,” one of the Vrakken said, his voice amplified by Azguardian technology to drown out the sound of rustling leaves and the windswept awning overhead. “Tell us,” he repeated as he walked slowly down from his seat at the Council, stepping into the circle where the Azguard stood. “Has Issk of Azguard spoken the truth? Did the Azguard Home Defense Fleet besiege Kamino? Did you strike at the Empire of Man with the ships sworn to defend our home?”

 

“Yes,” Undersecretary Gromp answered simply, willing herself to view his stance, his gait, his glare as anything other than a threat, willing herself to be the diplomat and not the warrior that half her mind screamed for her to be. “The Prime Minister called on us, and we answered.”

 

“Six years!” The Vrakken shouted, turning away from her to address his own people. “For six years we have trained!” He raised his arms, eliciting shouts of agreement from his fellow leaders. “For six years we have learned your technology,” he continued turning, taking in the whole gathering, “we have learned your military strategy,” he kept turning, back until he was facing the Azguard, “we have learned your tactics, and weapons, and ships, and codes and signals and even, perhaps, your rage.”

 

He lowered his arms, approached to within striking distance, his large Vrakken build easily the match for an Azguard. “We have learned your failures and your defeats. We have learned your allies and your betrayers. We have learned your nobility, and we have learned your foolishness.

 

“But most of all,” he leaned in, whispered though the Azguardian amplifier was still active: “we have learned your histories.”

 

Gromp took a step back, studying the Vrakken's face for clues. He had seemed angry at first but now . . . now he seemed proud? “My people are not always right,” she admitted, “but we seek to do right always.”

 

“Kamino was a world taken from you,” he said evenly. “Taken from the Mon Calamari Republic. Invaded. Conquered. Enslaved. Whatever the cost, whatever the danger, your Prime Minister – our Prime Minister – could not allow that evil to go unchallenged forever. He could not leave his people abandoned to their captors.” The Vrakken chieftain laughed, glancing back at his own people. “Brave and foolish, indeed.

 

“Honorable,” he added, deathly serious. “Fearless? Reckless? Mad?”

 

“Devout,” Gromp offered, equally serious.

 

“We will no longer train and drill for wars that are not ours to fight,” the Vrakken said, stepping backward toward the edge of the circle, and toward the seat he had left vacant. “We will not count ourselves among you, yet be absent from every cause and war you embrace.”

 

“If your people wish –“

 

“We demand Union,” he said, stopping her from offering the thing she most feared. “We demand total incorporation into the Azguard military and government. Hephastus and its people must be of Azguard, and Azguard must be of us.”

 

“I . . . you . . .” Gromp was taken aback. This was not at all where she had expected the meeting to go.

 

The Council was chanting. In a hundred languages, in a thousand dialects, the Vrakken of Hephastus were calling her to them. They were calling all of Azguard to them.

 

“This is no simple thing you ask,” she warned.

 

“We demand,” the Vrakken repeated.

 

“If you do this – if we do this – it will cost you more than you have considered.”

 

“We thousand tribes stand as one,” he said, gesturing back at the other Vrakken. “For our people, you cannot be with us and among us, yet not of us. It is impossible. It is madness.

 

“We will join with you as the Kraz have joined with you. We share the same stars, Gromp of Azguard. We will share the blood of battle. We will share the Great Enemy. We will share oaths, and duties, and justice. We will share Fate!”

 

“We will share worlds?” Gromp asked. Without ten minutes' briefing, she already knew what Azguard Central Command would do with the fertile forests and rivers of this world, if given leave to do so.

 

“Worlds?” he asked.

 

“Your warriors are fierce and we are proud to welcome them into the Azguardian Galactic Military, but your numbers are small compared to the galaxy beyond our borders.”

 

“And?” the Vrakken prompted.

 

“And the fields we could plant on Hephastus would feed an army ten thousand times the size of any you could ever raise from your own numbers. That is the strength of our unity, Chief Ealarad: each doing what we can, so together we can do what we must.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Unflashback

 

“What if we offer you our lives,” it turned out, had not been the worst possible offer that the intrepid band of Coalition diplomats could have made. You see, dear reader(s), what none of our little septet had known at the time of their meeting with the City Council was . . . well, the City had a hyperwave transceiver. That meant, among other things, that they had received not only the Declaration of Artanis Daz'Da'Mar and his Dominion, but also the accusations of the traitorous Azguard, Issk, leveled against the Coalition generally, and the Azguard specifically.

 

Of course, the Council of the City were all very wise and very cautious folk, and were not prone to accept the internet HoloNet ravings of strange, far-off aliens without some measure of further consideration, so they had decided to see what the Azguard had to say for themselves before bringing up any other unpleasantness.

 

Tifford's scheme, actually, wasn't so great: flying Ladybird into the Kaer Orbital Station and going out in a blaze of glory to prove their goodwill while simultaneously destroying the shadowport didn't go over so well with anyone else. But it did set something in motion.

 

The City Council allowed Gromp to contact Azguard Central Command and tell them that it was not safe to send a rescue mission to retrieve them. And while Gromp and her companions were reporting in to their bosses, the City Council summoned their own.

 

It turned out, the seats of the City Council were something of a transient position, elected sort of on-the-fly by various subgroups within the community through methods not immediately clear to outsiders. Day-to-day interventions and surprise emergencies were handled by the Council of the day (or week, or whatever), but for big decisions – like whether or not to take these giant alien warmongers seriously – the City itself had to decide.

 

What's more: they weren't the only city. Not by a long shot. The City Council was careful not to reveal too many specifics to the Coalition team, but Gromp got the impression that this secret network of cities represented millions, perhaps more. Perhaps, even the majority of the planet's population.

 

In time, the City Council reconvened, and once again summoned the Azguard Diplomatic Expedition. “We are intrigued by your proposal,” one of the Council Members began without preamble. “What did your government have to say on the matter?”

 

“I've convinced them not to launch a rescue mission,” Gromp said, “but I was told that my mission here is diplomatic in nature, and not military. Unfortunately, they did not authorize us to proceed.”

 

“Most unfortunate,” another Council Member said, disappointed.

 

“They also didn't explicitly forbid us from intervening,” Kay said, managing to sound upbeat for once.

 

“Right,” Gromp agreed, “and fortunately for us, you guys were busy for quite a while, and Ramona likes to tell stories of her past exploits.”

 

Ramona was in the room off to the side. Apparently the City Council wanted her present in case they felt the need to question her further. “Oh hold on now; I'm not a part of this.”

 

“You've been to the Kaer shadowport,” Ealarad said, pointing a long, taloned finger at her. “You've done business there; you've seen its interior.”

 

“Look, look, look,” she said, stalling as she put her hands up in surrender. “Times are tough, I go where the business takes me, but you guys are talking about some kind of . . . some kind of assault, and I'm just a simple business woman.”

 

“So simple that you have warrants for your arrest out on three Coalition worlds,” Gromp said, a predatory smile creasing her face, “for smuggling. You've burned a lot of bridges, Miss De Maal. Do this for us, and you'll be handsomely rewarded.”

 

“What exactly are you proposing?” a Council Member asked.

 

“Ramona will fly to the shadowport, pretending to be an ordinary customer. When she lands, my colleagues and I will storm the command center and set the station to self-destruct.”

 

“The five of you?” the Council Member asked.

 

“Absolutely not!” Ramona yelled.

 

“We're very good at violence when we set our mind to it,” Gromp answered.

 

“Out of the question,” another Council Member said. “You do know what the Kaer platform is, don't you?”

 

“Some old abandoned space station, right?” Toadie asked. “Aren't there, like, thousands of those. Aren't they just sprinkled everywhere?”

 

“It's a droid factory, morons!” Ramona shouted. “They use it to manufacture black market assassin droids!”

 

“Oh,” Toadie said, shrugging. “I guess we'll have to run real fast.”

 

One of the Council Members cleared his throat to get their attention. “The five of you seriously intend to storm a battle droid manufacturing plant, alone, with no backup but the factory-standard laser cannon mounted on a sixty year old light freighter?”

 

They all nodded.

 

“Hell, no!” Ramona shouted.

 

The Council Member leaned forward in his seat, seemingly intrigued. “And what, pray tell, do you hope to gain from any of this?”

 

Gromp looked to her various companions for a few seconds, then shrugged and decided to be blunt. “We were hoping to salvage the droid factories on Olanet.”

 

“They are valuable to you, are they,” a Neimoidian Council Member asked.

 

Tifford shrugged. “We don't know. We haven't gotten a look at them yet.”

 

“And still you offer to help us,” another Council Member asked. “You'd throw yourselves into this . . . foolhardy charge.”

 

Gromp smiled again, fangs showing prominently. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but these Shadow assholes seem like the type who just plain need killing, and that is something that I am actually quite good at, what with being an Azguard and all. These people have bombed, sniped, poisoned, and just plain terrorized their way across two gods-damned planets for how many years? And who has stopped them? Who has challenged them? Who fought back? No. It's time somebody makes them bleed.”

 

“If you do this,” the old, crotchety Bith Council Member said, “retribution will fall hardest on Olanet, not us. We will not be a party to that.”

 

“That's fine,” Ealarad said. “Just stay out of our way. Let us go and do what we do best.”

 

The Council Members exchanged looks with one another, but they seemed to be in some kind of silent agreement. “We will not use others in that way. We cannot leave them to that fate.”

 

“Oh that's fine,” Gromp said, nonchalant. “The Azguard fleet can roll in after us, once we've taken out their leadership on the Kaer Orbital Platform. We'll kill the fish from its head.” There was uncomfortable shifting around her, and Gromp looked to her companions for support, bud didn't find any. “What, that's a thing that people say, right? That's like a normal, human-ish thing to say, yeah?”

 

“The sentiment holds,” the old Bith said, “if not the particular expression.”
 

“So we're good then?” Gromp asked, nodding her head in hopes of inspiring some agreement.

 

Ramona walked into the middle of the room, right between the City Council and the Coalition team, facing Gromp. “I'm. Not. Doing. This.”

 

“Twenty thousand Coalition credits, the rest of our mission stipend,” Gromp replied.

 

“Those are worthless to me,” Ramona replied.

 

“Only if your ship blows up,” Gromp said. “Besides, when the mission's done, these fine folks are going to appoint you the official diplomatic representative to Azguard, and no Coalition planet will have jurisdiction to arrest you, right guys?” Gromp looked over Ramona's head at the Council Members. “That's called 'diplomatic immunity'.”

 

The Council Members shared another round of glances, these seemingly less confident. “Well certainly she can serve as the representative of our city to Azguard,” one of them finally said.

 

“See, there you go!” Gromp exclaimed, stepping forward to pat Ramona on the shoulder. “A bag of cash, a fancy title, a sparkling clean crime report, and one grand adventure!”

 

“You're gonna get me killed,” Ramona whispered.

 

“We have conditions,” one of the Council Members said.

 

Apparently while Gromp was joking around with her new Duros friend (Yunos, please be a new friend!), the Council was actually doing a little bit of grown-up decision making. That was okay, though. “We have conditions” meant they wanted to see it happen, so it was definitely going to happen.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Switches were flipped. Buttons were pressed. Control sticks were yawed. The YT light freighter Ladybird, held together with spit and half-forgotten dreams, came to a squeaky stop in the only functional landing bay of the Kaer Orbital Platform. Before the lone Duros pilot had even gotten out of her chair, the cargo ramp was down and a puff of . . . why was there always a puff of something?

 

Anyway, the ramp was down, she was heading back for the crew ramp, and then . . . well, you know.

 

“For Azguard!” The lone Aguard shouted, running down the ramp with a force pike in one hand and a blaster carbine in the other. The maintenance droids tending the nearest other ships got it before the rest of the Azguardian squad had made it down after her. “For the Coalition!” Kay shouted as they charged straight ahead, their double layers of too-small combat armor stretched over their gargantuan frames, emblazoned with several arts-and-crafts versions of the Coalition insignia.

 

By the time the quintet had cut down the pair of mercenary guards at the only open corridor into the station, the rest of the assault squad had piled out of the ship. Some forty men and women of various species – Mon Calamari, Ryn, Aqualish, and such (all major populations within the Coalition) – followed right along, sporting a similar hodgepodge of combat armor with hastily etched Coalition emblems.

 

Running straight down the central corridor, they met little resistance, blasting any droid they saw and stunning anyone who didn't seem interested in a fight. Fifty meters down, they set up around a blast door that one of the Siskeen tag-alongs started working on, slicing into the control panel and trying to open it. At Kay's direction, they started piling up crates and containers that were strewn around the central corridor, forming a bit of a barricade in case of attack.

 

And of course, the attack did come. The first wave was a smattering of old Clone Wars battle droids, probably salvaged from the station's cargo holds when the bad guys moved in. They were cut down without much trouble; not even any of the red shirts took a hit!

 

They all realized the B1 charge was just a distraction right about the time a line of B2 droids appeared from the direction of the landing bay, spraying considerably more and slightly more accurate blaster bolts from their wrist mounted weapons. The group took cover, returning fire from small gaps in their makeshift barricade. These locals were fighters, but they weren't soldiers. They lacked the discipline, the unit cohesion necessary for a proper defensive deployment, but they would do for this fight, and Gromp was glad to have them along.

 

“Hey buddy,” Tifford asked of the doorman, “any chance you could pick up the pace a little?”
 

“Never worked under fire before,” the Mon Calamari said, typing away on his little pad.

 

“No worries, we'll just -”

 

Boom.

 

Their rear barricade, the one facing the interior of the station, exploded. Blaster fire poured through the smoke before any of them could make out what had happened. By the time Gromp got back to her feet, a half-dozen Siskeen fighters were dead around her. Her carbine was missing, blown out of her hands. They were still taking fire from the landing bay.

 

And then she saw them. She didn't know what they were, had certainly never heard the word “Necrotrooper” before, but she knew what they represented. She knew what they required.

 

Gromp charged into the smoke and blaster fire, claws extended, force pike humming. She'd been hit three times before she cut the first one in half, but she just kept going. Fang and claw and blade tore flesh and metal alike, shredding the lumbering, lethargic cyborgs even as more poured in to replace their number.

 

Then the loud, terrible shriek of metal-on-metal drowned out the sound of weapons fire, a huge crash sounded from the landing bay, and the corridor filled with light blaster cannon fire. The bolts streaked by Gromp, cutting down five cyborgs at a time, digging into the deck plating and pitting the bulkheads of the corridor. Even in her blood frenzy, Gromp knew to take cover and allow her friend Ramona – Mo – to cut the bastards down by the score.

 

Her back pressed against an overturned crate, blood seeping from a dozen wounds, Gromp watched as the dorsal light cannon of Ladybird – now low enough to fire down the corridor because Mo had broken off the forward landing struts with some unseen maneuver – continued to pour fire into the cybernetic army. An autocannon had dropped from the ventral surface of the ship and was churning away, firing at unseen enemies somewhere in the landing bay.

 

The door slid open and Kay directed the surviving attackers through, making their way closer to the station's command center and their ultimate goal. Gromp never could have imagined things going this way, never could have imagined these five weird critters from the edge of the galaxy would make one bit of difference to the lives of whole worlds. Never could have imagined a grumpy, self-absorbed spacer like Mo would have -

 

Ladybird exploded.

 

The last Siskeen fighter cleared the open door. Kay stood, three-fourths of the way through, staring back at her. “Go!” Gromp roared, pulling her only grenade from her belt and throwing it over her shoulder. It exploded and she turned, rushing into the abyss beyond, blade held high, her Coalition banner drenched in blood, roaring an ancient battle cry of her people.

 

Kay smashed the control pad once the door was shut behind him. There were fewer than twenty of them now, several wounded, but they had a mission to accomplish, and they had a map to follow. Ramona had been through this area several times and had drawn a crude diagram of the “restricted area”, beyond which lay the station's few operational droid construction facilities and its rerouted command center.

 

If they could just get there . . . if they could set the reactor to breach, kill the leadership of this damned organization and send these gods-damned cybernetic abominations to hell, then . . . then it would be worth it. It wouldn't matter that Gromp was dead. It wouldn't matter that Ladybird had been destroyed. It wouldn't matter that none of them were getting off this station alive.

 

They would win. They'd keep their word. They could still prove something here today. They could still do something good here, today.

 

The blast door twenty meters ahead slammed shut. They'd made it a couple hundred meters more into the two kilometer wide station, so close to their ultimate destination. But this was a trap. The blast door was just a few meters in front of a four-way intersection, meaning the enemies chasing them could lay down fire from a good distance while others moved in close from either side. There was no way they were getting through these doors in time. There was no way . . .

 

“Aww, damn,” Toadie muttered, standing in the doorway just in front of the blast door, staring into the darkness of an adjoining room.

 

“What do you have, Toadie?” Kay asked, familiar enough with the diminutive Kraz to read her grumbling for what it actually was: hope.

 

“I gotta take the Ugnaughts through the vents.” She pointed at the ventilation grate in the far corner of the room.

 

“Can you fit?”

 

“It's gonna be loud,” Toadie said, looking up at him.

 

“We'll make plenty of noise,” Ealarad said, stepping up beside Kay.

 

Tifford slinked over as well, nursing a wound to his left shoulder. “Eh, I've never been a very good soldier, but I can make one hell of a bad one.”

 

Kay nodded, his slightly disturbing, whiskered snout bobbing up and down, beady eyes locking on to each of them in turn. “Alright fellas!” he shouted, clapping his hands together in a really quite awkward display, given his extra set of elbows. “We jam these doors,” he said, pointing to the rooms on either side of the blast door, “put the wounded in the back, and put three men on each door. When they come from the side, we fire cross-ways, do our best to hold back anyone coming down the long hallway until then.”

 

He stepped out into the middle of the corridor, sizing up the two groups that were self-organizing for the task at hand. “We don't stop shooting until there's nothing left to shoot at.”

 

And then his head exploded.

 

Ealarad and Tifford returned fire, but nothing seemed to deter the cyborgs. They just marched straight ahead, taking several hits each to bring down, blasters firing constantly as they came. A couple of Siskeen fighters crammed in under each of the towering Coalition fighters, firing away as well. Every now and then, one of the others huddled back farther in the room would run up and poke around the trio hugging the edge of the door, getting off a few pot shots of their own before ducking back in.

 

It didn't matter though. The cyborgs were coming, and there was nothing they could do to stop it. The walls were melting in front of them, they were taking so much fire from their assailants. Eventually, on both sides, they had to fall back. Their last couple of grenades went out, doubtless felling another couple dozen of monstrous creatures each, but it wasn't enough. Nothing would be enough at this point.

 

Ealarad wasn't going to lie down, though. He signaled to Tifford on the other side and gave him a couple of standard Azguard military hand gestures, indicating his intentions.

 

“What?” the Furen shouted back, totally baffled.

 

Fortunately, “Azguard military hand gestures” derived from standard New Republic squad signing, which itself was derived from Old Republic squad signs, which were pretty damn ubiquitous throughout the galaxy, so the last surviving Ryn in the group patted Tifford on the shoulder and filled him in.

 

“Oh, okay!” Tifford shouted back, a hail of blaster fire still filling the space between them.

 

It was a damn fool plan, but Ealarad was going first, so that was something at least. The Vrakken warrior got together everyone from his side who could stand and they gathered at the slagged doorway. He counted down with this fingers so Tifford could see: three . . . two . . . one . . .

 

And he was away. Running out into the corridor, blaster roaring, Ealarad hugged the wall and tried for the intersecting hallway just meters away. Tifford and his people jumped out at the same time, trying for the same on their side of the corridor. Neither of them had any idea what they would find, but they were all seconds from dead anyway, so the least they could do is try to make this part hard for the bad guys.

 

Ealarad took a couple of hits before diving to the cover of the intersecting corridor's bulkheads . . . only to see blaster bolts fly overhead and cut into the backs of Tifford's people. He rolled over, returning fire, joined by the few others who had made it with him. More bolts whizzed overhead, now coming from Tifford's people.

 

It had been a squad of the cyborgs, dead now. The main group was still coming, though, seconds from rounding the corner and finishing them all. “Run!” he shouted, signaling for the end of the hallway, ordering the survivors to continue without him. His leg was wrecked; there was no point in him trying.

 

He dragged himself over to the bulkhead, put his back against it, and waited for the first of those assholes to poke its roboticized head around the corner.

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Jan 15 2022 10:50pm

Attention inhabitants of Olanet:

 

We are the Azguardian Galactic Military. Do not be alarmed. We are here to help. The Shadowport at the Kaer Orbital Platform has been neutralized. The orbital infrastructure of the planet Kaer is now under our jurisdiction. We are deploying peacekeeping forces to your planet to restore order and allow for the resumption of normal governmental and administrative functions.

 

Planetary traffic control and port authority functions will be managed by AGM vessels and officers until normal order is restored. If you have any questions or concerns, hospitality officers will be available to banish your doubt, and alleviate your concern.

 

A great Shadow has passed from your world. We are here only to usher in the dawn.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

“And why did you decide to destroy the command center, instead of pursuing the objective you'd been assigned?”

 

The lights were too bright. The interrogating officer was much too large. And her bruised ribs still ached. “The controls were too complicated,” Toadie said, rapping her clawed hands against the table between them. “We never could have figured out the safety overrides in time. Those damned cyborgs . . . there were just so many of them! And once one of the Ugnaughts saw the command and control rig, he said our best bet was to blow the thing. Apparently they use some similar stuff on Siskeen; repurposed droid control cores from the Clone Wars.”

 

Toadie shrugged, settling back in her chair with a bit of a wince: those damned ribs! “It worked. Those cyborgs had all been lobotomized; they just keeled right over once the control signal went dead. With the control room destroyed, the station's reactor went into safety mode, started powering down, so we headed back to the landing bay to make sure nobody got off of the station without our say-so.

 

“And well, you know the rest, I'd imagine.”

 

“So you consider the mission a success, then,” the Azguard asked.

 

“Absolutely,” Toadie said. “Look, I know you want to turn this into a failure somehow. We lost a lot of people; we had no idea what we were getting into; we enlisted local residents without authorization; on and on and on, I'm sure.

 

“But you didn't send us here to be diplomats: you sent us here to represent Azguard, and that's what we did. We saw an evil, we found allies against it, and we refused to turn away regardless of the odds. There was death and there was bloodshed, and it wasn't clean, and it wasn't pretty, and it wasn't nice . . . but it was necessary. It was necessary, and the work isn't done yet. These assholes have agents on Olanet, and if they can't get back at us then they'll take it out on the locals. So make sure they take it out on us, every day until we're done with them.”

 

The Azguard stood up and deactivated the recording device, the debriefing apparently over. “We're already there. Well done, soldier.”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Beep.

 

Beep.

 

Beep.

 

Beep.

 

He wasn't sure how long it had been going, how long he could remember it going. It was going though, so that meant he was alive, right?

 

Ealarad the Vrakken peeked open one eye, and found a familiar face staring back at him. “How bad is it?” His own voice was weaker than he'd expected, distant and strained.

 

The rogue Furen had his arm in a sling, a bandage situated awkwardly over his wounded shoulder. “Toadie made it, in better shape than the rest of us. Eleven others survived.”

 

“Gromp?”

 

Tifford shook his head, somber for the first time since Ealarad had met him. “The AGM recovered her body; she'll be buried with her people. Kay's going home too, but there aren't . . . there aren't protocols for a Frozian military service yet. It was supposed to be years before any of them saw combat.”

 

“It's not safe out here,” Ealarad said, forcing himself to sit upright in his hospital bed. “It's not going to be safe anywhere, soon.”

 

“Yeah,” Tifford agreed, trailing off for a moment before coming back, a spark of his old joviality back as well. “Let's go do something about that, yeah?”

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

“Ramona?” Ealarad balked, stunned to see her alive, on two feet, none the worse for wear. “How – what – how?

 

“You didn't tell him I'm alive!” she shouted, pounding her fist against the armrest of her chair.

 

“Oh, yeah,” Tifford mused, “I guess I did forget that, huh?”

 

They were back in the City Council chamber, the three surviving members of the Azguard delegation facing off against seven seated Siskeen locals. Except this wasn't the City Council. Not this time.

 

This time, the Council of Siskeen spoke for all the world, and among them sat Ramona De Maal.

 

“That's kind of a big thing to leave out!” Ealarad yelled, leaning heavily on his walking stick, his leg still in pretty rough shape. “And look at you!” he added, excited, turning his attention to Ramona.

 

“It's not that big of a deal,” she dismissed his praise. “This whole thing is sort of a temporary situation.”

 

“We cannot speak for the people of Siskeen,” a human member of the Council interjected. “We only seek knowledge and understanding on their behalf.”

 

“Well good, because I'm not sure that I still have a job,” Ealarad shot back, looking around for an empty chair. There wasn't one. It was kind of a dick move, leaving a half-crippled man standing awkwardly in the middle of a damp cave, but whatever; he'd been through worse. “Should I just go right into it, or do you want to ask us some questions to start this thing off?”

 

“What is your intention for the people of Olanet?” an Ugnaught asked, probably sounding more accusatory than he intended.

 

Probably.

 

Tifford scoffed. “Oh, so we're just skipping past the whole battle on a space station where, like, three fourths of your guys died?”

 

“Your government has already shared their understanding of events there,” Ramona said. “The Council is satisfied with their account, for now.”

 

Ealarad was confused. “Oh, so you're already in contact with the Azguard, then. Good. Mission accomplished, right?”

 

“They asked to deal with you,” Ramona said, pointing generally at the other Council Members. A couple of them coughed conspicuously and a few others stared her down. “We asked for you, I guess. Whatever.”

 

“Oh. Okay. Well, uh, things are still rather preliminary, but the Azguardian Galacitc Military has deployed to Olanet to restore order and facilitate the reconstitution of its governing bodies.”

 

“You've occupied the planet, then?” the Ugnaught asked.

 

“Well it's not an occupation,” Ealarad said. “There are some really murdery people around.”

 

“And you intend to murder them back, do you?”

 

“We intend to suffer the consequences of our intervention, to whatever extent we are able.”

 

“To what end,” a human Council Member asked.

 

“Didn't I say? So they can resume self-governance.”

 

“And owe you their freedom, I presume?” the Ugnaught asked again.

 

That damned Ugnaught! “Well . . .” Ealarad muttered, not quite sure what he was missing here. “I'm not an expert or anything, but I'm pretty sure that's not how freedom works.”

 

“So you just came by to vanquish our foes out of the kindness of your hearts?” a Neimoidian asked.

 

“Well originally, we came to your system to establish diplomatic ties and pursue the restoration and use of the Olanet droid factories.”

 

“So you'll take them as compensation, then?” The Ugnaught pressed. “For your liberatory services?”

 

“What – no. No! I mean, I've got to be honest: we probably aren't giving up Kaer at this point. But Olanet isn't ours. We aren't conquerors.”

 

“That's not what the Dominion would have us believe,” Ramona said.

 

“Seriously?” Oh shit, they knew about that? Eh, that wasn't so bad. “They call themselves 'the Dominion'. What do you think they're here for?”

 

“So you'll just pack up and go,” Ramona asked, “if we decide we don't want you here?”

 

“'Here' as in Siskeen, 'here'?” Tifford asked, seemingly confused.

 

“Of course,” Ealarad answered. “But the Azguardian Galactic Military will not be leaving the Siskeen System for quite some time. We have secured Kaer's orbital infrastructure and have begun repairing it for Coalition use, and we have an obligation to the people of Olanet now.”

 

“A people does not wish to be occupied,” the Ugnaught warned.

 

“Not an occupation, thanks, and I'm pretty sure they don't much like being terrorized, either.”

 

“Your plan will not work,” the human on the Council said.

 

“Well the Azguardian Union isn't in the habit of making its problems into other people's consequences.”

 

Ramona looked over to her Council companions and they shared a drawn-out sequence of whispers and nods. She turned back to the Azguardians-without-an-Azguard and said: “What if those other people volunteered?”

Posts: 827
  • Posted On: Jan 15 2022 10:51pm

Later, 28 ABY

 

Progress was slow, and filled with hardship. In the aftermath of the battle on the Kaer Orbital Platform, the people of Siskeen had stayed true to their word: they revealed the full extent of their reconstituted society to their sister planet, Olanet.

 

Historically, Olanet had been subservient to Siskeen, its relatively low population of nerf ranchers and the farmers who supplied those ranches with feed never developing either the population density or political clout to challenge Siskeen's dominance of their shared solar system. Following the Cone Wars, however, Olanet had been spared much of the fury that the Empire visited on Siskeen, leaving it all but an orphan in the system named for its “big sister”. After fifty years of relative peace and isolation, it's population had been completely unprepared for the terror that the Shadows visited upon them.

 

Now, Siskeen was in ascendance once more, but its people had been transformed by the decades of ruination and self-reliance that the Empire had forced upon them. A multispecies, egalitarian, anarcho-communal society of tight-knit subterranean cities, towns, and villages, the Siskeeners had no interest in reasserting their world as the sole power in the system. They did, however, very much want to see their system flourish again. That is how the current state of Olanet came to be.

 

The current government of the world was nonexistent. It was an entirely different sort of anarchy, one marked by bombed-out city halls and vacant, looted governor's mansions. The Azguard had intended to install functionaries from their own homeworlds into vacant local office, simultaneously daring local cells of these Shadows to attack the Azguard instead of the local populace, and setting a clear road map for Olanet's self governance: if the Olanetians wanted the Azguard gone, all they had to do was vote an Olanetian into office. It was by no means a perfect plan, and it was as likely to foment violence among the local population as it was to shield them from the violence of Shadow retribution, but it was the best the Azguard knew to do under such difficult circumstances.

 

The best the Azguard knew to do, but not the best Siskeen had to offer. Their new plan was to replace the Azguard functionaries with Siskeeners elected from their own local communities. The Azguard would still serve a peacekeeping role, but now under the authority and direction of a native to the Siskeen System. It would be the responsibility of each sponsor community on Siskeen to monitor the behavior of their sponsored official, and replace them should local tensions flare or, regrettably, they be killed in office.

 

In addition to performing whatever administrative and political duties the positions into which these Siskeeners were installed required, they would also identify influential and important people within the local communities, offering them opportunities to travel to Siskeen and tour their sponsor communities. It was hoped that, in time, the people of Siskeen and Olanet might rediscover their historic bonds, and work together toward the restoration of their home system.

 

In the months that followed, there was a great deal of turmoil. Bombings. Poisonings. Riots. Assassinations. But slowly, slowly, the efforts of the Azguard and Siskeeners bore fruit. A local farming community organized a mayoral campaign. A city citizen's militia started a petition for deputization. A starport's workers organized into a cooperative and voted in a port administrator.

 

Eventually, a coordinated effort within several of the planet's major population centers led to the appointment of an Olanetian to the governor's office of the planet's largest district. As Siskeeners were removed from office by natives, the Azguard security forces complied with the directives of their new, Olanetian administrators. Often, they were ordered to leave. Sometimes, their roles were restricted. Occasionally, the local official welcomed their continued peacekeeping efforts.

 

Assassinations decreased (though didn't vanish), the riots gave way to more peaceful protests (“more peaceful”, but not exactly “peaceful”), and sometimes, newly elected Olanetian officials began to ask the Siskeener's they were replacing to remain as consultants and advisers. Mayors and police chiefs often found themselves overwhelmed after the departure of Azguard peacekeepers, and sometimes asked for them to return in a diminished capacity. Newly organized local police and security forces began to receive training from Azguard and Siskeen security experts.

 

Progress was uneven, often contradictory, but the people of Olanet were rebuilding their society, even as the people of Siskeen rebuilt their world.

 

And the people of Siskeen were, finally, rebuilding. The deal they had arranged with the Azguard was fairly straightforward: in exchange for the right to salvage the war debris in orbit of Siskeen, the Azguards' allies, the Squib and Ugor, would provide Siskeen with the heavy machinery necessary to reprocess the ruins of their surface cities and the crashed wreckage of derelict ships into usable construction materials. Like so many war-torn worlds of the galaxy's history, the phenomenal machinery of the modern age turned the ruins of one civilization into the building blocks of another. If one were paying close attention, however, and were familiar with certain expected output graphs for the machinery in question, one might discover that not quite so much ferrocarbon and durasteel was being produced as one would expect, and perhaps one might even note that substantially more high-silicon ceramics were being produced than should be possible.

 

One familiar with the Siskeen (but not counted among their society) could only wonder what the inventive, industrious, wary society could be getting up to down in the bowels of their thrice-bombarded world . . .

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

More Later, (Actually . . . Now? “Now-ish”, let's say)

 

After all of that work, it was happening. The tension was palpable, and only growing. The lights were making Ealarad sweaty, and the sweat was making his neck itch, right . . . right at the seam of the collar on his dress uniform. There had been a whole bunch of bickering over whether or not it was “appropriate” for Ealarad and his newly-re-quintified team to even be present for the declaration, but the whole “they're the only reason we're even having elections” argument won out in the end.

 

Ealarad did his best to steer his team out of the spotlight, but Wye – Kay's widow and one of the two newest members of the team – was a great deal more sociable than her late husband and had a habit of getting herself pulled into high-level conversations with complete strangers. Then there was Prong – Gromp's (until recently) far more accomplished sister – who, as the only actual Azguard at the gathering, drew a great deal of attention simply by existing. The gnarly scar running across the right side of her face (how the hell did her eye survive that carnage?) also tended to draw some attention.

 

Ramona was here, too, but not with them. There was a fairly large delegation from Siskeen, composed both of people sent by their planet and individuals specifically invited for their roles during the regovernmentification of Olanet. They'd managed to exchange a few pleasantries earlier in the evening, but this wasn't about either of their groups, and things were coming to a head.

 

Voting was about to conclude on the far side of the planet. The first elected President of Olanet in ten years was about to be announced.

 

A bump against his right hand drew Ealarad's attention: it was Toadie, the short Kraz staring up at him with a big smile. “Whatever happens here, we did good. You did good.”

 

“This wasn't my mission,” Ealarad said, looking away uncomfortably.

 

“You did Gromp proud,” Tifford said, sidling up beside them. “Let's all agree: she won't be forgotten in all of this . . . unless it doesn't go our way.”

 

“Then we're definitely blaming it on you,” Toadie said, letting out an unpleasant chuckle.

 

“It's about to happen,” Prong said, somehow managing to appear from the crowd of beings a good meter shorter than her. “The elections board is double-checking the final tallies before making an official announcement.”

 

“Ooh, it's so exciting!” Wye exclaimed, stumble-walking over on those ridiculous Frozian legs. “Should I be nervous?” she asked, but didn't wait for an answer. “This is so exciting!”

 

And the room fell silent. Turea Dugoth stood alone at the podium at the front of the gathering. A pink-skinned female Devaronian with short-cropped light brown fur, her high-swept pointed ears, narrow cheeks and sharply-angled chin formed quite the striking face. She looked to her side, where the head of the blue-white hologram of a now-familiar human man appeared. The head of the elections board, who might just have beaten out both leading presidential candidates in total media hours thanks to near-constant bookings the past week, stared out at an expectant world and opened his mouth.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, citizens of Olanet all: the votes have been tallied and confirmed by unanimous acknowledgment of the Elections Board of Olanet. Your president, by simple majority, is Turea Dugoth . . .” The room erupted in cheers, drowning out the last few words of the elections official.

 

“Well done,” Prong said, leaning in close and speaking directly into Ealarad's ear. Toadie squeezed his hand. Tifford patted him on the shoulder. Wye gave both of the weirdest thumbs ups he'd ever seen.

 

The room died down and President Elect Dugoth launched into her acceptance speech. Ealarad tried to listen along, but he found it impossible to distance himself from his own feelings enough to focus on her words.

 

He'd wanted this, of course. He'd worked for it to the best of his abilities these past months. But . . . this wasn't his mission; this wasn't his team. He was supposed to be here to represent Hephastus to the broader galaxy, not speak on behalf of the entire Azguardian Union, not stand as a symbol of all that they were. He was a Vrakken warchief, not an interstellar ambassador . . .

 

“Now you know how she felt, huh?”

 

The voice caught him off guard, pulled him from his introspection. Ramona was staring up at him, waiting patiently for him to acknowledge her. “What's that?”

 

“Gromp didn't have the faintest idea of what she was doing either, you know?” The comment was lighthearted, but also sincere. “She just did it, because that's who she was. I think maybe that's who you are too.” She took a couple of steps forward and nudged Toadie out of the way, turning to face the President Elect along with them. “I'm going to have plenty of time to find out, though.”

 

“Oh? Are you accepting the posting to Azguard? Shall I call you 'ambassador'?” Ealarad grinned, venturing a glance down at her.

 

“Turea Dugoth will be President of Olanet within the week,” she said. “Day one: the factories you've worked so hard to refit will turn on and you Azguards will get your droid army. Day two: she'll recognize Azguard's ownership of Kaer's orbital and atmospheric stations, and you'll finally start shipping out the droids and tibanna gas you've been stockpiling all of this time. It'll go on like this for another week or so: traffic control concessions, trade incentives, requests for additional police equipment, and so on. Around day eleven, you're going to receive an official petition for Olanet's admittance into the Galactic Coalition.”

 

“That fast, huh?”

 

“That fast,” she said, matter-of-fact. “She built her campaign on Coalition membership, and now that she's president she's got to keep the ball rolling long enough for people to expect that the ball will keep rolling. That's the only way this new government of hers doesn't collapse in on itself.”

 

“That's not very optimistic of you, maybe-ambassador,” he chided.

 

“You have no idea how optimistic it is,” she said flatly. “Optimistic enough that Siskeen will beat their petition by a good four days.” The entire Azguardian delegation froze. Well, Wye gasped, then noticed everyone else had frozen, then did the same. “I'm not going to be an ambassador, Ealarad; I'm going to be a delegate to the Coalition House of Representatives . . . at least for a while.”

 

“We got a twofer!” Tifford exclaimed. “A threefer, if you count Kaer,” he muttered to himself.

 

“So what?” Toadie asked, seeming a little grumpy that even the outsider was taller than her. “You guys just like our win rate? Because it's not that good.”

 

“We wanted to wait and see how the election went,” Ramona said, “but we've seen what you've done here since your arrival, and we've dealt with other Coalition members to rebuild our own world.” She paused for a moment, watching Turea Dugoth continue her speech and smiling wistfully. “It's time for the Siskeen System to be united under one banner again, and however shit the HoloNet says you guys are at war, you're already here and . . . well, I guess you're the best option around.”

 

“High praise,” Prong said, a rare show of dour sarcasm from an Azguard.

 

“Hey!” Tifford shouted. “We put in the work, we get the reward.”

 

“Well, I'm just glad it all worked out!” Wye exclaimed.

 

“What are you guys good for, again?” Toadie asked, remembering that Siskeen was still mostly a pile of fifty year old rubble.

 

Ealarad just watched the future president of Olanet in silence, glad for the friends he'd made, the alliances struck, and – unfortunately, given the dire circumstances of these times – the engines of destruction they'd secured against the Coalition's enemies.

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

There is a particular corner of the Kaer Orbital Platform where “ordinary business” does not proceed. Instead, some rather unordinary business proceeds. Business involving, primarily, certain corpses of certain cybernetic soldiers.

 

“They're the same?” the hooded figure asked. The voice was feminine, just uncanny enough to rule out a short-statured human.

 

“There was additional cranial surgery in these specimens,” the doctor said. “Of a substantially inferior quality, might I add. The goal seemed to be to reduce cognitive function and increase docile behavior.”

 

“Wiring them into the droid control brain was after-market as well, yes?” the cloaked figure asked.

 

“Absolutely,” the doctor affirmed, turning the corpse's head to show a particular cybernetic implant. “Also of lower quality, but this was purely electronic, wired directly into a preexisting cybernetic interface.”

 

“Interesting. And the databases were wiped?”

 

“That's right. The station had some traffic logs, an incomplete inventory, and some left over station operations protocols, but all of the main data repositories were scrubbed.”

 

“Hmm. A shame.” And the figure turned to leave.

 

“Oh, there is one more thing though.” The creature paused, waiting for the doctor to proceed. “We counted up the corpses and compared it to that inventory. There wasn't an exact match, but the corpse total came in about two hundred short of an entry titled 'Necrotrooper'. It's not a sure thing, but, I mean . . .” he gestured at the cybernetic corpse on the table, though the stranger wasn't looking. “Right?”

 

The Gossam agent of the Coalition Intelligence Bureau nodded her head and started for the exit. “Well done, doctor. We'll be in touch.”