- Posted On: Feb 26 2022 7:15pm
“Thracken Sal-Solo? The guy from Corellia?” It was one of the dumbasses from the peanut gallery.
“What's he talking about, 'you are doing the same thing'?” A slightly-less-dumbass from a little farther back in the peanut gallery asked.
“We dispatched an ambassador to Coruscant,” an advisor from the Cooperative said.
“But Ambassador Cardan has been back for days,” another advisor said.
“We're establishing a permanent mission,” the Cooperative officer explained.
“You have an embassy on Coruscant?” the other man asked.
“It's not a full embassy,” the Cooperative advisor said. “Time will tell.”
“Lunatics,” the other one muttered.
“We don't have warships at Coruscant,” a new person spoke up. “Maybe he's talking about the Cooperative fleet in Confederation space?”
“How would he know about that?” still another asked. “If they know about the mission to the Confederation, then what don't the Dominion know about?”
“Well at least he's confirmed they're Dominion ships,” another said.
“Yeah, but he's just pretending they aren't jamming our communications,” still another chimed in.
All through their whining, Admiral Blakeley was staring at the little icon of the Corellian ship, one thought nagging at him, distracting him from the task at hand . . .
“Enough!” Blakeley shouted, and the room fell silent. He pointed to the communications team at the far end of the room: “Inform the Emissary that we are preparing to accept him . . . on Hurok. And don't be nice about it.”
“Yes, Sir,” the technician responded.
“And call High Command; get someone from the Foreign Office to meet him there.”
“Admiral -” Citadel began, its tone warning.
“I want to talk to Regrad,” Blakeley announced, directed at no one in particular.
“High Lord Regrad is indisposed at the moment,” Citadel replied. “But the Azguardian Union will not -”
“Get him anyway.”
“Regrad is preparing a Special Projects platform for deployment in the event of battle,” Citadel replied. “If you don't -”
“You're telling me the leader of the Azguard Union won't answer me because he's . . . tinkering?”
“It's more involved than that, Admiral,” Citadel said. “You are risking -”
“Then get me Yolem!”
“I'll find him,” Citadel continued, “but the Azguard will not approve of your ordering an enemy to land on one of their worlds.”
My duty is to the Coalition, Blakeley thought, pretending to ignore the droid AI, not your quaint little “Union”. The hologram of Yolem appeared in front of him, the most welcome of unwelcome sights he'd seen that day. “Lord Yolem, I have ordered the Dominion emissary to Hurok. I'd like you to go there and assume command of the planetary forces. You must -”
“Absolutely not,” the grizzled warrior replied.
“Excuse me?” Blakeley was taken aback. The highest levels of the Azguard command structure were somewhat ambiguous at times, but wherever in the chain of command an Azguard “lord” fell, it was definitely somewhere below “the guy in charge of everything”.
“I will not participate in this farce. If they want peace, they can find it by retreating beyond the range of our guns.”
Blakeley stared down at the little hologram, that one devilish thought he couldn't banish now clawing its way back into his conscious mind . . .
“Admiral,” the Azguardian liaison began, “my people -”
“Do you want command?” he asked the tiny image of Yolem.
“You are the Supreme Commander,” the Azguard warrior replied.
“That's not a 'no'.”
“I haven't the right.”
“But you won't follow my orders and ensure your men stand down.”
“I haven't that right, either,” Yolem answered, his miniaturized demeanor as grave as any Azguard the admiral had ever seen. And there it was again, daring him to say it aloud, daring him to admit defeat . . . This isn't going to work.
“This isn't going to work.” Blakeley slammed his palm on the holotable and closed the line to Yolem. Then he turned and moved to the door, opening it and stepping halfway onto the bridge. “Captain Atom, I'm relieving you of duty.”
“Sir?” the captain said, his shock so evident that it had completely buried the expected Azguardian rage.
“Call up Captain Everett,” he said to the ship's comm officer. “She's now in command.”
“Admiral, I -” the captain began.
“Get in here, captain,” Blakeley cut him off, heading back through the door.
The general murmuring in the room fell to silence as the admiral returned his attention to the gossiping bastards. “Citadel.”
There was a moment before the Guardian answered. “Yes, admiral?”
“You have my file?”
“Yes, admiral.” The “file” in question was the Guardian profile assembled on all senior Coalition officers, created to supply Guardians with vital information on the commanders they may have to serve under.
“Do you think you know me, Citadel?”
“As well as a differential psychoanalytic algorithm can know any subject, admiral.”
It was a carefully constructed response, he knew. Blakeley had mistrusted the Guardian program since its launch, and he had traveled to the other side of the galaxy, to the capital of the Coalition, and found a whole new Guardian scheme that had been hidden from him until he stumbled upon it. Citadel was playing up its own artificial existence in order to appeal to the admiral's sentiments, trying to ingratiate itself to him by reminding him that it understood what he thought of it. “What kind of man am I?”
There was a long pause. It was almost certainly for effect, as Citadel had doubtless predicted a question like that would be asked and already formulated a response. Just another ploy of the artificial entity's algorithm, selecting the optimal path to maximizing the desired outcome . . . “Sir,” an advisor asked, “is now really a time to be giving the AI a test?”
He ignored the waste of space and waited for Citadel's dramatic pause to end.
“You're the man that the Minister of Ethics picked to lead the Coalition military,” Citadel finally answered.
“And?” Blakeley asked, daring the machine to say more.
“And we have a war to win,” Citadel responded.
“Not good enough,” Blakeley shook his head for effect. “Say what you want to say, if you want anything at all!”
So Citadel said it. “Instead of becoming the leader we needed you to be, you've spent eighty percent of your time as Supreme Commander gallivanting around the Rim, playing at diplomacy in an effort to bolster the Compact Fleet. You did other people's jobs instead of your own, and now the capital of the Coalition is under siege, and all you have at your disposal is a local military you couldn't be bothered to learn about until you stumbled on it while pursuing . . . other objectives.”
The tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. Everyone was waiting for Blakeley's response. Everyone understood that Citadel couldn't be scrapped, but more importantly: that it was right. This man was not the man to lead the Coalition in war. This man was not the man to lead them into battle. This man, this diplomat-commander from a backwater trade world at the ass-end of nowhere had spent his career navigating peace, not directing war.
He didn't even know half of their names. Every one of them was thinking it with him now: This isn't going to work.
“Get me a virtual conference with the command staff of the Azguard Home Fleet.”
The big hologram of the system vanished and was replaced in a few seconds with the faces of every captain and flag officer of the Azguard fleet. They were mostly Azguard, but there were a few Kraz and Vrakken as well. Blakeley began without preamble. “I am a Cooperative officer, and you are Azguardian commanders.”
The admiral paused, that thought creeping back into his mind, daring him to surrender to it. “But this is a Coalition command. So I am seizing the Azguard Home Fleet for national deployment.” For their parts, the Azguard captains took the news rather well. It was the gallery of “advisors” who showed their surprise in gasps and double-takes. He ignored them all, turning to Captain Atom before the situation could devolve, looking up to lock eyes with the man from these alien worlds. “Captain Atom, in recognition of your exemplary service to the Coalition, and given the considerable urgency of this moment, I am issuing you a field promotion to the rank of Vice Admiral, and assigning you to the command of this fleet.”
A shadow passed from Captain Atom, and in an instant his stiff features and hostile stature softened. “Thank you, Sir. I'll do you proud.”
“Regrad trusted you with command of the Coalition's flag,” Blakeley continued. “Whatever his faults, he has a habit of picking the right kind of people to have at his side.”
“Understood, Sir,” Vice Admiral Atom replied. The narrowed eyes, the stiffened posture had already returned, but there was something different now. The Azguard warrior knew he didn't have to worry about fools in his midst anymore.
“This is now the Coalition First Fleet,” Blakeley declared, returning his attention to the conference of commanders. Off to the side, the holo of Captain Everett, the only human in the group, had joined them. “Admiral Atom will take up his post in the secondary CIC, and reorganize the fleet as he sees fit. Expect your orders from him presently.”
A few of the captains verbalized their assent, but mostly they just nodded or continued staring blankly back at him. It was as good as he could have hoped for. “You're dismissed,” he said, and the holograms winked out. He reached out a hand to stall the vice admiral's departure. “Take as many of these clowns as you need,” he nodded his head at the team of advisors. “Leave me Chekov, Harlan, and the Verpine.”
“The Verpine” was, of course, a Verpine. Blakeley had tried to get his . . . her? . . . zir? . . . name right at least a dozen times since he'd ascended to command of the Coalition's forces, but eventually the inectoid had just reassured the admiral that “Verpine” was fine.
“You, you, you,” Atom started picking assistants.
“And pull anyone you need from the off-shift crew. Capatain Everett can shuffle assignments to fill the gaps, if needed.”
“Sir?” It was Rockwell, the Tammarian from Regrad's old team. “What are you doing?”
“Citadel,” Blakeley said loudly. “I am devolving command authority of the Azguard Union forces to you.”
“Acknowledged,” Citadel said. “And thank you.”
“I'm delegating,” Blakeley said, answering Rockwell without acknowledging her further.
“Atom, what are your thoughts on the fleet composition?”
He paused from cherry-picking his own command staff. “A spearhead, with Coalition at the fore. One fast attack group, and one heavy support with whatever's left over.”
Blakeley nodded. “If you can manage, give command of the fast attack group to Captain Rostor.”
“Sir?” the request caught Atom by surprise.
“Diversity of tactics, admiral,” Blakeley said. “His maneuvers in wargames caught my attention,” he said of the Vrakken captain he only knew of from reviewing personnel files.
“Yes, sir,” Atom said before heading out, the last of his new staff in tow.
Returning his attention to the restored hologram of the Azguard System, Admiral Blakeley mused: “Who knows, if we try hard enough we might just surprise these bastards.”
The room felt a lot bigger, now. The team was certainly a lot smaller. The burden wasn't any lighter, but the weight had been shifted. He could carry it now, for as long as was needed.
“See if High Command has a Corellia expert we can borrow,” Blakeley ordered. “And Citadel, are you going to be able to wrangle Hurok's defenders?”
“If they don't shoot, we won't shoot,” the Guardian assured him. “But patience is not a virtue of Azguard in war.”
“There's no war yet,” Blakeley replied offhand, checking some readouts to pretend he wasn't trying to argue with a droid.
But no response came. Citadel wasn't babysitting him anymore. As commander of Azguard forces in the Home System, it had plenty to occupy its attention.
It was still there, though, lingering at the edges of his mind, enticing him to despair. Daring him to pause, and ponder his every misstep. As the doubt crept in, wormed its tendrils through his conscious thoughts, he smiled.
Maybe Jonathan Blakeley, the bureaucrat admiral from an upstart nation that had never fought an actual war, really wasn't up for the job. Maybe he didn't need to be.
Maybe the Coalition really was stronger than any one man.
“Alright, let's get started.”
* * *
“Inform the Emissary that we are preparing to accept him . . . on Hurok. And don't be nice about it.”
“Yes, Sir,” the technician responded.
Lieutenant Nima Vo adjusted her headphones and hunkered down. The Kaminoan comm officer's work station was well equipped for her substantial height, but she tended to hunch over and make herself small when conducting official business, as if she was whispering a secret she didn't want anyone to overhear. Pulling up a couple of relevant bits of information on her work station, she flipped her headphones' microphone into position and opened the comm line:
“Thracken Sal-Solo, your diplomatic credentials could not be verified by the Coalition Foreign Ministry, or any member organization of the Galactic Coalition. However, we are willing to accept your verbal assurance of your intentions here. Your vessel will be permitted to approach . . . the planet Hurok; it is the nearest terrestrial planet to your current position, ahead and offset from your vessel's current trajectory by approximately thirty degrees.
“Do not attempt to approach Azguard itself. Azguardian Home Defense Forces do not permit unaffiliated vessels to enter the defense perimeter of their homeworld. Make your way to Hurok at the best possible speed. If your vessel is capable, it should initiate a hyperspace microjump to Hurok immediately. The defense forces of Hurok will allow you to approach unhindered, so long as your vessel proceeds alone. Hurok Traffic Control will provide you further instruction as you approach the planet.
“The refusal of other Dominion vessels to withdraw from the Azguard System remains an unacceptable violation of Azguardian sovereignty, and we continue to insist on their departure. For this reason, our defense forces will remain on high alert, and further incursions into the Azguard System will be viewed as a cessation of diplomatic efforts on the part of your government. Should that occur, we will view the presence of these vessels as escalating hostile action against the Coalition, and expel them by force.”
* * *
“Inform the Emissary that we are preparing to accept him . . . on Hurok. And don't be nice about it.”
Citadel tried to argue the point with Admiral Blakeley, but it knew it would be unsuccessful. The admiral had chosen diplomacy, and he would pursue it for the time being. So while Citadel pretended to argue with the Admiral about his course of action, allowing him to cut it off and speak over it until the optimal moment to insist upon the Azguardian Union's policy toward invaders, it also discontinued the looping message it was broadcasting across the system.
Listening in on Lieutenant Vo's message to the Dominion Emissary, Citadel quickly formulated a new broadcast:
“Unidentified Dominion vessels: your continued presence within the Azguard System is a violation of Azguardian sovereignty. You must withdraw immediately. Under Azguardian law, your unexpected and unannounced arrival within the system constitutes just cause for the use of military force. In the interest of peace and understanding, we have chosen to suspend the use of force against transgressing vessels and will allow your emissary to approach the planet Hurok, but further incursions into the Azguard System will not be tolerated.
“Unidentified Dominion vessels . . .” the message began to loop, and would continue to do so for the time being.
* * *
The concept of the Integrated Defense Grid predates the existence of Guardian. After a number of successful battles across the Azguard System against the Furen, Azguard High Command realized that the only way to prevent further hostility from their ancient enemy was an all-out invasion of the binary planets Graks and Renzokain. That option was quickly dismissed, however, when the gods were informed of the schemes their children were hatching. Graks was the home of the Outcast Gods, whose power could only be challenged by the Gods of Azguard themselves. That conflict was inevitable, even predestined, and so it could not be forced. The Vision of Darkness would unfold over time, and as foreseen the Light and Dark would wage their final battle, but until that time the children of Azguard could only prepare, and seek out allies for that destined conflict.
So the Azguard decided to prepare. Their artificial intelligence technology was surprisingly advanced, and with the help of that very technology the Azguard and their new Vrakken and Kraz allies began to consider implementing a sort of defense network that could hem the Furen in, constrain them to their binary worlds and cut off their ability to expand again. Unfortunately, as sophisticated as Azguard AI was, the Azguard didn't have access to the kind of networking architecture that would make their envisioned Defense Grid possible.
Instead, they decided to construct the Azguard Home Fleet, a unique range of warships that would not leave the Home System and would maintain a constant patrol against Furen hostility. The Home Fleet served its purpose well enough, but the Azguard continued involving themselves in conflicts beyond the Home System, and casualties of Coalition wars began to mount. High Command began searching for an alternative, a way to free up the Home Fleet's veteran crews to serve in active theaters.
And then Guardian appeared. At the onset of the Year of Cataclysm, the upstart Cooperative – whose major contribution to the Coalition had been humanitarian and refugee work with evacuees of the Onyxian Commonwealth – revealed their grand military innovation. Azguard High Command switched production orders from new warships to Defense Grid platforms before an agreement had even been finalized with the Cooperative. Azguard research AI's had long settled on design specifications for the dreamed-of Defense Grid, and so production began.
By the time the Citadel/Oracle Guardian was completed, the first production run of Integrated Defense Grid orbital platforms was also completed. After Artanis Daz'Da'Mar issued his Declaration against Force users, production efforts were redoubled. The fear of invasion from beyond the solar system was suddenly a real concern and after a good deal of deliberation, Azguard High Command approved the addition of four Azguard-designed Galaxy Guns to the Integrated Defense Grid. With some . . . maneuvering . . . on the part of Coalition national authorities based out of Azguard, it was decided that the Galaxy Guns would all be assembled and operated in orbit of Azguard itself.
High Command had hoped they would have more time. Free of such burdens, Oracle had recognized that the attack would come before the expanded Defense Grid could be completed. The Home Fleet had returned to Azguard after Kamino was secured, and though Issk's betrayal had revealed the fleet's identity, its continued presence in the Home System was deemed vital for Azguardian and Coalition security.
And so Citadel found itself responsible for coordinating one and a half Galaxy Guns, four robust but incomplete planetary defense networks, and a hodgepodge of nonstandard warships. Then he said it.
“Citadel,” Blakeley said loudly. “I am devolving command authority of Azguard Union forces to you.”
“Acknowledged,” Citadel said. “And thank you.”
Immediately the notice went out across the system, transmitted in unison across Azguardian military command channels:
“The Citadel/Oracle Guardian has assumed direct command of the Integrated Defense Grid and all Azguardian Union defense forces in-system. I am returning control authority of the Shields of Faith to the Mystics appointed to their care, and returning all orbital defense networks to a state of active readiness. I am returning Lord Yolem to field service; he will command the ground forces of the Azguard home world. High Lord Regrad is rallying a special forces detachment to bolster the defenses of the Azguardian Union, and all available efforts will be made to speed him on his task.
“For the Coalition who stands with us, brothers and sisters. For our gods who are awake and among us, we servants of the Force. For the Vision of Light, you Children of Destiny.
“We stand ready.”
It was a good plan, all things considered. Admiral Blakeley knew he was in over his head, and he knew the Azguard knew he was in over his head. If the Dominion had struck Azguard like they did Coruscant, nobody would have had the time to notice. But now, they all found themselves with an abundance of time, and nothing to spend it on except for the thought that their commander didn't know what he was doing. Blakeley didn't “like” Citadel. He probably didn't trust Citadel. But Blakeley understood Citadel; it was a Guardian, and it had been made to guard Azguard.
More importantly, it had been made to do what Blakeley could not: understand the Azguard. Its own Citadel/Oracle dual personality was modeled after the unique Azguardian psychology. This machine was made to serve a pantheon of gods who Admiral Blakeley did not believe in, though the Azguard as a whole worshiped. This made thing, this “artificial intelligence”, was more Azguard than the man who now commanded the defense of the Azguard System.
So Citadel got to work.
* * *
“By Yunos, it's about damn time!” the commander of Hurok shouted as Citadel's statement completed. He didn't like to swear in the same sentence he spoke of his gods, but things were getting tense, and the personal rule had slipped his mind for a moment. “The admiral wanted us to hunker down,” he continued, to no one in particular even though several senior staff were present, “maybe for days, while these fools in Coalition High Command talk with the enemy.”
His commlink buzzed and he answered promptly. “Gronk here.” Always the dutiful soldier.
The voice of the Citadel Guardian answered him. “General Gronk, Admiral Blakeley has ordered the Dominion representative to Hurok.”
“You gotta be kidding . . .” he trailed off, realizing that even though Citadel was artificial, it was still inappropriate to complain to a superior while that superior was giving him orders.
“In light of the apparent delay in hostility, I am reducing the Homeland Security Advisory System Threat Level to 'Orange'.”
“Uhh . . .” Gronk started rifling through the assorted deliveries on his desk, trying to find his copy of the Homeland Security Advisory System Threat Level Color Coded Pocket Chart, to no avail.
“Civilian support staff will return to essential work,” Citadel explained.
“Oh,” Gronk acknowledged.
“Highly Vulnerable populations will continue to shelter in place, and Mediumly Vulnerable populations with rapid access to shelter are free to return home at their discretion.”
“Understood,” Gronk nodded along.
“Martial Law will remain in effect. Redeploy your forces to maintain good order, and assemble an escort for the Dominion Emissary.”
“Should I . . . go and meet him?”
“That is not advised, General. A representative from the Coalition Ministry of Foreign Affairs is being dispatched from Azguard. I have secured a location for the meeting. I hope you aren't displeased with my circumventing your local command in this matter.”
“Oh, no,” Gronk muttered, not even aware that it was a thing he could be “displeased” with until Citadel pointed it out. “By all means!” he added, maybe a little too energetically. Gronk hated diplomacy. He hated making reservations, too, come to think of it . . .
“The likelihood of conflict remains high, general, but when the Azguard accepted the responsibility of serving as the Coalition's capital, we accepted other . . . implicit responsibilities.”
“Oh, right.” Gronk hated wordplay too, but he wasn't an idiot. He understood what Citadel was saying; he just didn't like it. These bastards were invaders. The only thing to do with them was shoot them dead.
“Go with the Gods, Gronk of Azguard.”
“And you,” he replied before he remembered he was talking to a machine. The Azguard commander cracked a smile. When his people built a system-spanning robotic defense network, they did it right!
“Gronk here,” he said, switching channels on his commlink. “Reopen the Shafts.”
“Sir?” came the underling's confused reply.
Gronk sighed, the idiocy of the moment catching up to him. “We're at Threat Level Orange . . . apparently.”
* * *
Stealth Intruder Relay One
Technically it had some scrambly alphanumeric name, but for this mission it had been designated Relay One. The vessel had reverted from hyperspace in the middle of nowhere, only the orientation of the stars available to guide it on its journey.
“Chop, chop, little guy,” the ship's sole occupant said. “Time's a-ticking.” He patted the control console gently as he waited.
This far from the galactic core, there weren't a lot of celestial bodies to account for. Even so, traffic through this stretch of nothing was even scarcer than stars. The nav computer would have to crunch the numbers, and the captain would have to wait, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about either of those things.
On the bright side, nobody seemed to have followed him from Azguard.
He started humming quietly to himself, then stopped when he couldn't quite figure out what song the tune went to. After a moment of consternation he gasped and exclaimed: “Old Town Road!”
* * *
Stealth Intruder Relay Two
Like the other one, but he hummed a different tune.
* * *
Hyperspace, Azguard Hyperroute One
Stealth Intruder Scout One
Beep beep beep beep. The nav computer had detected an unexpected mass shadow. As the ship brought itself out of hyperspace automatically, the captain/pilot flipped the Big Switch on his console to ensure that all stealth features were active and all unstealth features were likewise inactive.
He double-checked the sensor settings, downed the last gulp of East Vrakken Blend coffee, then eased the ship into a slow arc to port, firing short bursts with the maneuvering thrusters at their lowest intensity. His plan was to alter his trajectory so that he would cross out of the interdiction field from the “side”, allowing him to perform a thrustless turn and make the jump straight back to Azguard.
Assuming the interdiction field was large enough to block the entire route and he wasn't just incredibly lucky, the powered maneuver should be completed well before his nearest approach to the source of the interdiction. With passive sensors only, it would take a while to get a reliable read on whatever was out there . . .
* * *
Hyperspace, Azguard Hyperroute Two
Stealth Intruder Scout Two
Like the first one, except the coffee was from Tammar, and instead of maneuvering to the side, the pilot began to decelerate. He planned to come to a complete stop relative to the interdictor, then drift slowly back the way he came, until passing out of the interdiction field where he could turn and jump back home. The maneuvering thrusters would take some time to arrest his forward momentum, especially since they were being run in “stealth mode” and were producing significantly less thrust than usual.
* * *
Hyperspace, Azguard Hyperroute Three
Stealth Intruder Scout Three
Like the other two, except he was allergic to caffeine. Oh, and he was a she.
Oh oh, and she decided not to do any maneuvers at all until she pinpointed the source of the interdiction. Depending on her orientation relative to the interdiction source, she could use the mass of the ship to shield her thrusters from direct view, giving the reaction mass precious fractions of a second to disperse and cool in space.
It wouldn't be much, but this was a reconnaissance mission, so it sure would suck to get blown up because the bad guys spotted her exhaust trail three one thousandths of a second before it would have become undetectable to them.