The Command Room was one of several such structures dotted throughout the Azguard Union, with huge, sweeping display screens stretched across the curved walls of the domed room, holographic information superimposed over the tactical displays, and rings of technical stations filling the sloped floor beneath the screens.
“Again,” Regrad ordered from his perch at the top and back of the room, where a substantial holotable gave the Azguardian commander and his senior staff access to all of the data on-hand.
“We've maxed out the field effect, Sir,” the Frozian sensor technician said.
“Then call in more ships,” Regrad ordered, squeezing the headrest of his chair. He was standing beside it, as had become his custom of late, too anxious, perhaps, to sit still in the seat that was reserved for him.
“Uhh, there are no more interdictors in-system, Sir,” the technician said, double-checking his logs to make sure he was right.
“Then requisition some from the defense force at Kamino!”
“A requisition for forces from Kamino, given standard transit times, multilateral authorization protocols for -”
“See if the southern patrols have any available, then!”
“Regrad,” the familiar voice of Oracle intruded gently into his rage. “You've done all that you can. Either the network will hold, or it won't, and we can't know that until we need it.”
Regrad allowed himself to fall into his seat, all of his tensed muscles relaxing reflexively.
It was true, of course. The Integrated Defense Grid required continuous communication between the four planets of the Azguard Union. To achieve this, a network of hyperwave transceivers was devised, each powerful enough to overcome any localized communications jamming effect. Unfortunately, that left the network vulnerable to hyperspace interdictor effects, so a wacky group of Azguard engineers had come up with a rather ridiculous scheme: re-engineer the hyperspace-tunneling Renova technology of the Freedom-class Vlyx to work with a hyperwave signal. Early tests were positive, but the Azguard weren't sure how the system would hold up to the Dominion's gravity-warping technologies.
“We have contingencies,” Regrad said aloud, seemingly to reassure himself.
“I'm going to release the interdictors to return to their standard deployment,” Oracle said.
“Alright,” Regrad conceded, his rage subsiding as he seemed to ponder something for a moment. “Fetch me the production reports from the shipyards.”
“And the foundries on Hurok.”
“And the latest orbital deployment configuration for Hephastus. You reworked Hephastus, right?”
“I didn't 'rework' anything, Regrad.” Oracle adopted that admonishing tone it had developed to deal with Regrad when he got like this. “There's a plan in place,” Oracle reassured, its voice softening slightly, “and I advanced the plan as resources became available. And yes, Hephastus received an updated deployment scheme when the latest batch of defense platforms came online.”
“Any update from the Cooperative? Our special request?”
“Guardian Prime has agreed to contain itself within its home system,” Oracle said. “The self-replicating foundry deployed to Pammant was one-of-a-kind and that agreement seems to prevent the creation of any more.”
“So 'no', then?”
“Not 'no',” Oracle corrected. “More like: not yet. We may be able to negotiate for access to the technology, without Guardian Prime's involvement.”
“They build the most sophisticated artificial intelligence in the galaxy,” Regrad grumbled, “and then scare themselves into not letting it help them. I'll never understand humans.”
“It's not just the humans,” Oracle noted.
“Yeah, but it's always mostly the humans,” Regrad replied, seeming to forget how grumpy he was for a moment. “The Azguards have been -”
“Contacts,” Oracle reported, its voice deeper than usual and nearly monotone. “System periphery, Sector G-14, plane of the ecliptic plus or minus ten degrees.”
Regrad sat up, fully alert. “Watchtowers sound off,” he ordered.
“Watchtower seven, all green,” the slightly garbled voice of a far-off Azguard technician reported.
“Watchtower eleven, all green,” another reported in.
“Watchtower three, all green,” another said.
They reported in rapid succession, all with the same update, each successive report bringing Regrad's fear nearer and nearer to certainty.
“It's not the Furen,” Regrad said.
“It's not the Furen,” Oracle confirmed. “Request permission to activate Citadel Protocol.”
There were lights, and sirens, and flashing bulletins. The big projectors at the front of the command center switched to a tactical display of the Azguard System, quickly zooming in on the unidentified pinpricks at the edge of Azguardian detection range, more and more appearing as the Integrated Defense Grid focused its most powerful sensors on that narrow slice of space.
“Oracle disengaged,” the voice said, slightly masculine now. “Citadel online. All local forces on full alert. Transmitting alert to all Coalition regional and provincial commands. Assessing threat for optimal deployment of Defense Grid.”
“Why are they that far out?” Regrad asked. “They appeared right over Coruscant.”
“I don't have confirmation of the threat's identity, Regrad.”
“You know, I know, and they know what they are. Why are they there and not here?”
“They may be selecting targets,” Oracle suggested.
“It could be a reconnaissance force,” the sensor technician suggested.
Regrad looked back at the tactical display and the ever increasing number of contacts blooming out of control. “It's not a reconnaissance force.”
* * *
“Give me two minutes,” Admiral Blakeley said, heading for the hatch to the CIC again.
“Sir?” the captain said, incredulous. “We're under attack!”
“Not yet,” Blakeley replied, palming the door open. “Two minutes!” he shouted, and the door shut behind him.
“Alright!” he yelled into the empty room. “Show yourself!” He fumbled in a pocket, producing a small, milky white crystal etched with tiny, indecipherable glyphs. “You knew they were coming, didn't you?” Seconds passed, the old man standing alone in a room built for the battle to come. “Answer me!”
“The future is always in motion,” a familiar voice said from behind him. “Though sometimes,” he turned as the Fallanassi leader continued, “it's more in motion than others.”
“You wanted this, didn't you?” he asked, his disgust clear in his tone. “You talk of peace and forswear violence, but here I am, by your design, aboard the most powerful warship in the Coalition, moments from the bloodiest battle I'll ever see.”
“I didn't ask you there to fight,” Akanah Norand Goss Pell reassured him. “And you chose to bring a warship with you.”
Blakeley bristled, dissatisfied with how this confrontation was playing out.
“You know why you're here,” she said, cool and calm as ever.
Blakeley sighed, the weight of all these secrets and double-talk pressing down on him even as the Dominion fleet bore down on the system he was here to protect.
But he wasn't here to protect Azguard, was he? He was here to protect something much more important. “Every reference to the Great River has been wiped from the Azguard information network.”
Blakeley nodded. “They have a Guardian.”
“I am aware,” she replied.
“What? How?” He shook his head; he could feel his own heart pounding with every wasted second. “Never mind. What's important, is that their Guardian ensured that all knowledge of the Great River was purged from the Azguard network, and then I purged the knowledge of its actions from its memory. I'm now the only source of information on the River in-system, so I've either got to win this battle, or die bloody.”
“Can you win?” She was clearly uncomfortable even asking the question.
Blakeley smiled bitterly, fiddling with the crystal in his hand. “You should go; I have a lot of violence to do.” He threw the crystal on the ground and stomped, crushing it to powder.
The Force projection of the Fallanassi leader smiled kindly, the crushed crystal having no effect on her presence. “I can't offer one of my people's blessings, Admiral, but I can offer one of yours:
“May the Force be with you.” And then she was gone.
Blakeley rushed for the door and palmed it open, the command staff flooding in immediately. “Captain,” Blakeley said through the open door, “we're in your hands.”
* * *
“Incoming message,” Citadel announced.
“I'm a little busy,” Regrad muttered, huddling over the holotable with the makeshift team he'd cobbled together from on-duty officers. The permanent command crew would be here soon enough, but he wasn't waiting for them to get to work.
“It's Admiral Blakeley,” Citadel announced, the hologram of the admiral materializing a fraction of a second later.
“Admiral,” Regrad acknowledged, surprised but too busy to let that stop him.
“High Lord Regrad -”
“Regrad,” he bit out, gesturing at one bit of information on the display, getting a nod from a junior officer.
“Regrad,” Blakeley started again, “given my unexpected presence in-system, and your -”
“Are you seeing this?” Regrad gestured at a small holographic projection near the edge of the table, and light blinked on to indicate that Citadel had transmitted the data to the Admiral's ship.
“Yes,” Blakeley acknowledged, looking off to the side. “Most unusual.” He didn't seem interested. “As I was saying, whether you appreciate the title or not, you are High Lord of Azguard, and I -”
“You received the new targeting specs for the Galaxy Guns?” Regrad cut him off again, glancing up from the holotable to reinforce that he was expecting an answer.
“Even if they divert to Hurok, I think we can get firing solutions on them before they're in range of the planet. Do your boys agree?”
“We could retask the nearest Watchtowers -”
The leader of the Azgaurd Union looked up at the hologram of the Supereme Commander of the Coalition, a fire in his eyes that many had thought long dead.
The blue-white image of the human stranger didn't flinch. “I'm offering you command.”
“These are your worlds, Regrad, and you're far more familiar with the prepared defense strategy. Hell, I'm not even supposed to be here! The Coalition is moving to join Azguard's planetary defense fleet. We're prepared to serve, Sir.”
It hadn't even occurred to Regrad that he might not be commanding the defense of Azguard. But Jonathan Blakeley was the Supreme Commander of Coalition Forces, the highest ranking military officer in the entire Coalition, stationed aboard the flagship of the Coalition Navy . . . of course overall command fell to him.
“Citadel was built to defend these worlds, Admiral. I trust it to do so. And I trust you to command it in doing so.”
Blakeley nodded. “Very well.”
“And I have somewhere I need to be,” Regrad said, before walking away from the holotable, his hodgepodge command team, and the new defender of Azguard.
* * *
“What the hell was that?” Blakeley asked, looking around for anyone who might have a clue.
“I have an idea,” Citadel answered, “but we don't have time to get into it now. Orders, Sir?”
Blakeley's eyes bulged at the sudden realization that he was the man in charge again. “There's too much we don't know,” he admitted, taking one last glance at the newest results of the scans of the fleet. “I'm trusting Regrad on this one, which I guess means I'm trusting you. Implement the generalized defense scheme.”
“Should I include the planetary defense fleets?”
“Absolutely,” Blakeley said, then thumbed the comm control to the ship's captain. “These Azguard Home Fleet ships: how familiar with them are you?”
“I helped test them,” the captain replied, in that gruff and short way that overtook him when battle began.
“When the Coalition attaches to the Azguard planetary fleet, I'm transferring fleet command to you. Can you handle that?”
The Azguard had built their own defense fleet using custom designs not seen elsewhere in the galaxy. They'd taken Kamino from the Empire without them even realizing it was an Azguard-led attack. Only Issk's betrayal had revealed that the ships were Azguardian in origin. Regardless, Blakeley wasn't as familiar with the ships' specifications as he'd like to be and putting the vessels closest to him under the command of someone he'd come to trust might make it a little easier to manage all the piece once the battle began.
“The scout squadron is ready,” Citadel announced.
Blakeley took a deep breath and allowed himself one, long sigh. This was it. This was when it began. “Launch.”
* * *
The Azguard System is home to six inhabited worlds. Four of those worlds, Azguard, Hurok, Hephastus, and Krakken IV, have formed a unified government under the banner of the Coalition and administrate the major operations of the solar system. The last two worlds, Rendzokain and Graks, are inhabited by the Furen, an ancient offshoot of the Azguard species bent on the conquest of their ancestral homeworld and the destruction of Azguardian society. The recent success of the Azguard Union has isolated the two worlds of the Furen and stifled their interplanetary ambitions, and a network of Azguardian Watchtowers administrated by the Oracle Guardian now monitor the space around their worlds to ensure that any act of aggression by the Furen will be detected early and countered forcefully.
But the Watchtowers were only the beginning of this new, unified government's designs. The four worlds of the Azguard Union had adopted a unified system defense strategy, combining their martial capacity and organizing it under the watchful eye of the Oracle Guardian. Now, with a suspected and soon to be verified Dominion warfleet bearing down from the edge of the system, that defense strategy would be put to the test.
And so, the free people of the Azguard System prepared themselves for the battle to come. Each of the four worlds had its own small defense fleet, but to bolster those defenses the Azguard had developed a new integrated orbital defense system, administrated by Oracle in peacetime and commanded by its alter ego Citadel in the event of battle. Taking some design inspiration from the Cooperative, the Azguard Union had combined the manufacturing capacity of its shipyards with the smaller-scale production provided by ground-based factories.
A network of defense platforms now orbited each of the four worlds, the largest comparable to the galaxy-renowned Golan Defense Platforms. Most were far smaller, however, assembled on the surface or using excess production space within the orbital shipyards. But the Azguard orbital defense stations were unlike their galactic-standard counterparts in one key respect:
They had hyperdrives.
Key to the founding of the Azguard Union was the commitment to the equality of all members who were subject to that new governing authority. It required, among other things, an equal commitment to the defense of any world within the Azguard Union. To achieve that end without constructing defense installations that would be wasted in the event of a targeted attack against a single world, the Oracle Guardian was devised.
By pooling the sensor data from the Azgaurd System's entire defense network, a real-time precision model of the entire system could be maintained for targeted hyperspace jumps. In the event of a targeted attack, the defenses of untargeted worlds would be able to redeploy and reinforce besieged worlds.
It was an ingenious scheme. Unfortunately, it was a scheme that did not anticipate the arrival of a hostile alien warfleet equipped with a new and unidentified form of faster-than-light travel. Without knowing the technical limitations of the Dominion hyperdrive-alternative, Oracle – and, indeed, the entire Coalition High Command – could not know if it was safe to strip any world of the Azguard Union of its defenses.
It was, for now, a waiting game. But while the orbital defenses of the Azguard Union waited, its ground defenses moved into action . . .
Whether by coincidence or design, the small, frozen world of Hurok was the nearest member of the Azguard Union to the advancing hostile fleet. Until the composition and organization of that fleet could be confirmed, Oracle's protocols assumed the fleet was arrayed in alignment with the planet Azguard, making Azguardian North the “up” direction for the unidentified fleet, and movement toward Azguard “forward” movement for that fleet. Under that rubric, Hurok was far ahead and to the fleet's starboard, its counter-clockwise orbit having moved it about one-third of the way from being directly between the fleet and the system's star, and reaching its outermost position beside the star. Already, a squadron of Kris fighters was scrambling from an orbital installation with orders to buzz the fleet and ascertain its identity.
But Hurok itself is a rather peculiar world. For starters: it comes in layers.
The surface is a barren, frozen wasteland, so naturally the Azguard had decided to settle it. This seemed like a damn fool idea to anyone who might have heard about it at the time, but in typical Azguardian fashion, it ended up working out great for them. Because deep underground, in a great cavernous network that runs across the entire planet, where the heat radiating out from the core is not too hot, and not too cold, and not even too tepid, there exists a Paradise where the Frozian people have come to rebuild their dying civilization.
And it's beneath that Paradise where the Frozian people discovered a roiling, molten Hell . . . chock full of metals and minerals perfect for supplying the Azguardian war machine. “Vertical integration” is a figurative term that finds literal application on Hurok, where raw metals are extracted from the Hell layer, processed in the Paradise layer, shipped up through the Tepid Layer via massive vertical transport shafts, to arrive at the surface where they're used in industrial manufacture of military components, including starship parts that are then shipped into orbit and used by the Azguardian shipyards there to build new warships and defense satellites.
That was all running in reverse at the moment, though. The work crews on the shipyards were being evacuated to the surface, where all noncombatants were being shuttled down to the Paradise Layer through the transport shafts. Once the surface evacuation was completed, the planet's defense forces would organize to protect the surface infrastructure, with the shafts designated as fall-back points. If their defense of the surface failed, they would retreat below, sealing the shafts behind themselves and establishing new defensive lines at the bottom of each shaft.
The factories were quiet. The foundries were cooling down. The magma pumps were reversing their flows, emptying their storage tanks by pushing their bounty pack down into the Hell Layer. The shipyards were altering their orbits, dropping down into the upper atmosphere, to be protected by the world's Shield of Faith once it was activated.
And the Shield of Faith would be activated. Sequestered away in a rather small chamber of the Paradise Layer, a grizzled Azguardian warrior-priest rested his hand on the crystal that would activate the Shield and envelope the world in its protective Force barrier. And, as a dutiful warrior, he awaited only the order to proceed.
The planet of Hephastus occupies the outer orbit of the Azguard System. Its current location was to the fleet's port side, near the leftmost position in its orbit. In its current position, it was only slightly closer to the fleet than the system's star. If they were willing to wait a few decades, Hephastus would actually pass rather close to the fleet's current position.
Much had changed for the people of Hephastus since the Union of the Vrakken and the Azguard. Much would change still, if their two peoples survived the battle to come, and that Union was allowed to endure.
For the time being, though, the defenders of Hephastus would find their strength in tradition. In ten thousand villages and towns across the whole of the world, the war horns sounded, and the people scattered. In the forests, and the woods, and the tall grasses, the Vrakken of Hephastus found refuge. As they had done for millennia before first contact with outsiders, this semi-nomadic people turned, at a moment's notice, from settled townsfolk to free ranging nomads. They carried with them only the bare necessities of survival, and the spark of hope that at the battle's end, they would return to what remained of their homes, and begin again the work of transforming their world.
The towns and villages were not the only places abandoned, however. The garrisons of Vrakken's defenders were also emptied, of both equipment and warriors. They, too, slinked into the untamed wilds that dominated the world, using their own, local knowledge of the environment to conceal themselves, and await their attackers.
Only the great Vrakken City stood unmoved by the call of the war horns. Home to the vast majority of offworld settlers, the Azguard and Vrakken defenders of the city took up rather standard defensive positions at the city's periphery. A great energy shield raised overhead, blocking off the the threat of bombardment from space. The civilians of the city took shelter in their homes, awaiting the bloodshed to come.
And nestled deep in the heart of Vrakken City, in a subterranean chamber carved from the living rock, an inactive Shield of Faith sat ready, its attendant whispering a quiet prayer to the spirits of Vrakken lore, awaiting the order to activate the device and encircle the world in a barrier as strong as the people's will.
Krakken IV had the closest orbit to Azguard. At the moment, however, it was on the other side of the system's star. Krakken IV hadn't been so lucky as to fall directly behind the star from the perspective of the advancing fleet, but it was by far for the attackers the most distant world of the Azguard Union. Even so, the defenders of Krakken IV took their duties quite seriously.
The Kraz had a habit of building their cities as fortresses. Massive, underground fortresses. A history, going back to time immemorial, of inter-party warfare, tends to do that to a people. The Kraz had learned, recently, to unite against the threat of invaders, but cities are built over decades and centuries, and their newfound internal peace had not yet exerted much influence on Kraz city planning standards.
The only exceptions, really, were the new Azguard sectors of cities.The Kraz were a rather diminutive species by galactic standards, and the Azguard were rather large by galactic standards, so when Azguards started moving to Krakken IV, the only real options were to shove them off into uninhabited and inhospitable regions of the world, or allow them to build more spacious additions to existing Kraz cities.
The Azguards and Kraz had mutually agreed that the latter option was preferable. Those embiggened sectors of Kraz cities, built on or near the surface, represented something of a weak point in traditional Kraz defensive strategy, though, so the Azguard Union had come up with a rather ingenious solution to the problem.
In the event of an attack, the Big Folk would be evacuated to fortified bunkers, and the Kraz would seal off access to the Azguard Sectors, creating a secondary defensive position within the smaller pathways of their indigenous city structures. Anyone coming to Krakken IV and wanting to deal with the Kraz would have to deal with them on their own terms.
Krakken IV, like all other worlds of the Azguard Union, has a Shield of Faith, dutifully attended and ready to be activated at a moment's notice.
Azguard itself had recently moved past the rightmost position possible in its orbit, from the perspective of the advancing fleet. If the aggressors had been kind enough to wait one Azguardian season, they might have arrived just in time for the planet to be obscured by its sun. The position put it somewhat close to in-line with Hurok, but the vastness of solar-system-scale space maneuvering meant that the advancing fleet could move directly for Azguard while staying far out of range of Hurok's defense systems.
Since their arrival on the galactic scene, the people of Azguard have implemented a policy of universal military service. Every able-bodied Azguard is trained in basic combat and expected to maintain a minimal acceptable level of physical fitness. The unfit, whether through the advancement of age, physical malady, or previous injury, are tasked with special duties in the event of an attack on the homeworld. Whenever possible, those who cannot fight are tasked with maintaining the basic societal functions necessary to empower those who can. And so, the people of Azgaurd readied themselves for war.
The defenders of Azguard were organized into three rough categories: a “reserve” force commanded by reactivated retirees and veterans past their prime, who formed local defense forces for the towns, villages, and minor cities of the world; a primary force, who would muster at the various regional garrisons and defense installations arrayed around Azguard, awaiting the call to deploy to a location of conflict once the invaders arrived; and an elite, veteran force of on-world warriors, who were dispatched to locations of vital import or other likely targets of attackers. These forces were deployed to Coalition High Command, the Azguardian military command, major industrial zones or population centers before the battle began. They were to dig in and await the coming bloodshed.
And of course, in a special chamber in the capital city, under meters of duracrete and other blast-resistant materials, rested a Shield of Faith, awaiting its activation.