“Now's not a good time, Hurm.” Delegate Karada barely glanced from the datapad in her hand, paying her lieutenant just enough attention to confirm it was indeed his face atop the distinct uniform of the Phaeda Reform Union's security branch.
“There's someone here to see you, Commander.”
There was something about the way he said “commander” that gave her pause, an . . . insincerity in his tone. It caught her attention, for sure, but she set the datapad aside for another reason.
She was a quicker draw than Hurm, and they both knew it. “I'm busy. You should go, and take your mystery friend with you, before you regret it.”
“I took the liberty of neutralizing Hargrave's bugs,” he continued, ignoring the very obvious threat. “His encryption's been compromised and we've intercepted the signal, feeding his listening post common background noise so he won't expect anything. For the next half hour or so, this room belongs to you again.”
This was very decidedly not right. Hurm never talked like this, and the tech required to pull off what he just said . . . they simply didn't have it. Not to mention, if Hurm had decided to go rogue, it wouldn't play out like this. It was like he wasn't himself. Even the way he held himself, now that she was really looking, was wrong.
The door slid open and an Iridonian woman walked in.
“And who in the nine Corellian hells are you?” Karada demanded, stepping up the threat in her tone and demeanor. It wasn't good to be outnumbered in a secluded location, and she was pretty sure Hurm couldn't be trusted at this point.
Movement from Hurm caught her attention, drawing her focus from the newcomer. His whole face rippled like disturbed water, its color darkened and the bones beneath shifted noticeably, until she was looking at the face of an entirely different person altogether. A stranger. A nobody. “We mean you no harm, Delegate Karada,” Not Hurm said in a new, softer voice.
“Gods below,” she whispered, unable to hide her shock. Then she suddenly realized: “What did you do with Hurm?”
“My name is Nitin Cass,” the Iridonian said, ignoring Karada's reaction. “Do you know who I am?”
And suddenly it all made sense. Karada was on her feet with her blaster drawn and leveled at Not Hurm's chest faster than the flicker of recognition reached her own face. “I swear to every god and devil for a thousand worlds, if you killed Hurm for some gods-damned scheme at mutiny, Hargrave'll only find out about it when the pieces
of you start showing up around this city!”
The Iridonian smirked at the threat, apparently unconcerned with the blaster pointed at her henchman or the building full of fighters Karada had on-hand to make her threat a reality. “Mutinies are what illegitimate parties do to legally established authorities.” Very deliberately so as not to spook Karada, Nitin Cass reached into a vest pocket and withdrew a folded piece of flimsiplast. “We're just here for the mutineer.”
“Your chief of security is alive and safe,” Not Hurm added, feet shuffling awkwardly as he/she/it spoke. “There was no . . . permanent damage.” Somehow his assurance only served to infuriate her further.
Nitin Cass coughed quietly to regain Karada's attention. “We're not here for you. We're not here for your people. We're here to put Luke Hargrave in chains, and take him away from this place. Take this.” She shook the piece of flimsi in her hand.
Karada was shaking her head before the other woman was finished speaking. “Not gonna happen. It's that simple. Maybe you've got a plan. Maybe you've got cards I haven't seen. Maybe things here aren't at all as they seem.” She pointed the gun back and forth from one of them to the other a few times for emphasis. “But I'll die before I help you drench this planet in blood.”
Nitin unfolded the flimsi and started reading. “'The High Court of the Galactic Cooperative of Free States does hereby issue this writ of amnesty to Karada of Phaeda; Delegate of the Phaeda Reform Union, female Klatooinian, aged forty-seven years, genetic sequence attached for identification purposes; for past crimes committed while in collusion with the now defunct Cavrilhu Pirates outlaw organization. All official records of these crimes are to be sealed and classified, all copies destroyed upon procurement or identification. It is the determination of this Court that the pursuit of Delegate Karada for these crimes would constitute a grave miscarriage of justice, as the consequences to the residents of Phaeda of depriving them of the Delegate's continued service would be, in our estimation, unconscionable.'” Nitin walked forward and presented the flimsi to Karada. “Congratulations, you're a free woman . . . just as soon as Hargrave is neutralized and his records destroyed.”
Karada snatched the flimsi from the Iridonian's hand, reluctant to read it herself for the distraction it would cause.
“I'm not some mid-level lackey of Hargrave's looking for a power grab,” Nitin said. “I'm an operative of the Onyxian Commonwealth, deployed under the authority of the Galactic Coalition's House of Representatives. I am here to disarm and detain a war criminal, and convey him to a Commonwealth detention center where he will be held until such time as he is tried for his crimes, not least among which will be the various murders, extortions, and acts of enslavement which he has committed here, against your people.”
“So that's it?” Karada asked, unimpressed. “You give me a pass on my foul history and promise me you'll punish the man I hate for the reasons I hate him, and you think I'll just come along for the ride? You think I'll risk the lives of my men, the survival of this Union, on your word because you – what – have a Coalition name badge now? I don't play that easy, 'operative'.”
Nitnin smiled gleefully. She seemed to be genuinely enjoying Karada's angst. “Oh, yeah, and we're going to make your dreams come true.”
The door slid open again and a ghastly, skeletal figure stepped through.
“Pondor Gryyg,” Karada said, venom dripping from the words.
“How would you like to rule a planet with me,” he deadpanned.
Phaedacomm, Outer Phaeda System
He had a name, but he found it easiest not to think about that. His time among the citizens of the Commonwealth had changed him, undoubtedly, and he knew not altogether for the better. He just hoped that, in time, the evil he did to his own people might come to be seen as the price paid for a greater good.
It was the sort of thinking he could only manage due to his years among the Onyxians. Somewhere deep within himself, he knew the truth, that his people would never forgive him for this. But if he were to become the sole object of their scorn, then perhaps the Onyxians might yet succeed at reconciliation with them.
And he would pay any price to see the yoke of the Empire cast from Lao-mon and the Shi'ido return to the Coalition of their own free will.
Any price. His thumbs subsumed into his wrist and the shackles slid free without further effort, and when he raised his hands to point them at the surprised guards, each was holding a small blaster of nonstandard design. A double tap from each took out the first two guards, then a single shot from each ended the third. He dropped the spent hold-out blasters immediately and turned to his only surviving captor, raising his hands as a sign of surrender even as a piece of flimsiplast began to snake out of his forearm.
“I am an operative of the Onyxian Council,” the Shi'ido assassin/spy said immediately to the Onyxian commander. “I am here to neutralize Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave and secure the safety of Councilor Strota and his associates. This document authorizes me to detain Admiral Hargrave for the crime of treason against the Onyxian Commonwealth. Under the authorities granted to me by the Council and confirmed in this document, I am ordering you to assist me in this capacity.”
“You're a Shi'ido; you could just as easily be an Imperial assassin as anything else.” The commander had his blaster trained squarely on the shapeshifter's head. Unflinching and intensely focused, it seemed unlikely that he would be convinced.
“I have documentation to confirm my authenticity,” the Shi'ido persisted.
“Yeah, and last I checked the Empire owns the presses that used to print that authenticity. Besides, you just killed three Onyxian officers. I don't care what you're here for; you're going to pay for that.”
“You're here for your skill, Commander. They were here for their loyalty.” That seemed to strike a nerve of some kind inside the Onyxian, but it was clear that the assassin wasn't going to be talking his way out of this mess.
“We caught you red-handed, and now you're grasping at straws to salvage your Op,” the captain shot back.
The Shi'ido had had enough of this. The muscles of his left arm expanded and engorged, his forearm stretching to twice and then three times its previous length. When the captain fired his blaster, the Shi'ido's neck shifted to the right, displacing his right shoulder and pulling his head clear of the line of fire. He brought his left arm down like a whip, the powerful muscles at its base sending a ripple of kinetic energy down its length, which bent and curled in a manner that would be impossible for any creature with a true endoskeleton. The arm stretched further as it shot out toward the Onyxian, its fingers lengthening as well; he had the captian's entire forearm in a constrictive grip before the officer could fire a second shot.
His whole body stretched forward as his arm retracted to a standard humanoid length, pulling his legs after him at a rate faster than he could have run, closing the distance between the captain and the spy in a fraction of a second.
“You caught me because we ensured you would,” the Shi'ido said, tightening his grip on the captain's wrist and arm until his fingers spasmed open and he dropped his blaster. “You caught me so this could happen. So I could be in a room, alone, with you, in a quiet corner of this installation, where no one would find the bodies for hours, and where you wouldn't be missed for just as long. These men died so I could meet you, Commander Pickett. I'll have you out of that uniform and back to your people in six hours' time.”
That changed his mind. “How did you . . .”
“You're name is one on a very short list, commander. A list compiled by Coalition Intelligence, the Onyxian Council, the Cooperative Council of Internal Affairs . . . and Delegate Karada herself.” The inhuman grip on the commander's arm slackened and then withdrew, the Shi'ido shifting its hand back to human proportions.
He had this man now. There was no question about it. “Can you steal that one's face?” Pickett asked, pointing to one of the dead soldiers. When he looked back to the Shi'ido, he was already wearing it. It, and an exact copy of the man's uniform. “Right, well, you're Lieutenant Gabe Bracken now. Don't talk much . . . wait, can you do his voice?”
“I heard enough of it on the way in to do alright,” he said in a perfect copy of the dead man's voice. “I'm not all clear on his dialect though, so best not be putting me in too many intimate spots.”
Pickett nodded approvingly. “Good enough to fool his mother, I'd say. Right, so what's the plan?”
“We need to secure Councilor Strota and gain access to one of this station's communications arrays,” Not Bracken said, crouching over the real Lieutenant Bracken's body and taking his blaster, the only part of the uniform the Shi'ido couldn't replicate with his abilities. “The most expedient and safe means of doing so will be to contact naval Captain Gage in -”
“Gage was reassigned two days ago to the Victory
. He's no longer on-station.”
“Colonel Eberhardt in logistics, then. He can -”
“Placed in command of a forward recruiting station inside the Occupation Zone four days ago,” Pickett offered again.
Not Bracken frowned. “There's a Commander Fallow, captain of the Bird of Prey Ironside
, assigned to rotating patrol duty. She and her ship should be docked for leave.”
Pickett shook his head. “The whole patrol division has been reorganized. Commander Fallow and the Ironside
, I believe, are out of system serving escort duty for a scouting task force near the Occupation Zone.”
“This can't be a coincidence,” Not Bracken said, his frustration growing. “Have there been many of these kinds of reassignments lately?”
“A fair number,” Pickett confirmed. “Hargrave's pitched it as preparation for the big push into the Occupation Zone, but . . .”
“But it sounds more like he's quietly cleaning house, moving everyone he can't trust away from his base of operations.”
“Everyone he can afford to, anyway,” Pickett noted. “Okay, so fill me in.” He got an inquisitive look from Not Bracken. “You need Strota, right? But what for? Where do you need him, and for how long. I can help you put a plan together, but we're running out of time, and I need to know what pieces I've got to work with before I can do that.”
“The Onyxian Fleet has been reconstituted from vessels and crews previously integrated into the Cooperative Navy. It is waiting nearby for confirmation that Councilor Strota is safe and in position to address the rebel fleet. When they have that, they'll hyperjump in-system. We have the rebel comm frequencies and handshakes. We've got everything we need to address every bridge crew of Hargrave's fleet simultaneously, and with Strota at a comm station, we'll have fully two-thirds of the Onyxian Council, backed by the power of the true Onyxian Navy, stripping Hargrave of his command and declaring his treason.”
“You need Strota to make the play legitimate,” Pickett mused.
“But it's more than that,” Not Bracken said. “We need Strota because he's the real deal. He put the Rebellion together in the first place. He's one of them
, not some Cooperative lackey, not some opportunistic sellout. The fleet knows him, they know what he's given up for the Commonwealth. His voice will make them believe
us, and that's the only way this works. We're putting the Commonwealth back together today, here, both civil and military, but we need Strota to do it.”
Pickett stood in silence for longer than Not Bracken felt comfortable with, but then a broad grin crept slowly across his face and he started for the door. “Right, follow my lead. I've got a plan.”
Pickett was a special case. Most of the men and women under Hargrave's command were either dutiful Onyxian citizens fighting for the restoration of their true nation, or conscripts from Phaeda put into unfamiliar uniforms and made to salute officers whose authority they didn't recognize. Pickett was neither. Or he was both, depending on one's point of view.
He was ex-Onyxian special operations. When the Empire invaded, he made a break for it, couldn't handle watching his nation burn and running into the arms of the government that had sold it out. He didn't have much of a plan, but Phaeda was sort of “on the way” to the Cooperative that he wouldn't be going to, so it seemed like as good a place as any to stop over and make that plan. That's when he ran into a few of the Phaeda Reform Union's thugs, and found them, peculiarly, less thuggish than he'd expected. With nowhere else to go and a wealth of experience that would be of use to their sort, he found himself inside the odd machinery of the Reform Union pretty quickly, his skills earning him weekly meetings with Delegate Karada in no time.
Then Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave came to Phaeda, and all of that changed. He strong-armed the most powerful factions on-world into a sort of involuntary partnership, and the Reform Union, being the largest and best-organized of those groups, quickly became Hargrave's chief source of new “recruits”. It didn't take long for him to realize the Union had an ex-Onyxian officer in its ranks, and then Commander Pickett was “reactivated”, just like that. Karada didn't have a choice; Hargrave would have killed her and pieced out her organization to her competitors without a second thought.
Well, now it was payback time. Between himself and Not Bracken's memorized list of Coalition/Onyxian/Reform Union contacts and sympathizers, it had been nothing to put together a nice little prisoner escort squad of enlisted and NCOs. They were the sort of “little people” that a man like Hargrave couldn't be bothered to sort through, but nevertheless it was on their backs that he was building his would-be empire. A quick face-change and Not Lieutenant Bracken was suddenly Not Colonel Grimm, the head of station security who he'd briefly met when he'd been “caught” with some high-end listening devices and slicing gear while coming onto the station with a wave of new conscripts.
A clothes change and pair of stun cuffs for one of the privates, and the little band of mutineers/counter-mutineers was suddenly a high priority escort for a very dangerous individual. They walked through the security checkpoints with barely a glance from Not Colonel Grimm, the guards at the stations were so afraid of the colonel's wrath. That is, until they got to the last checkpoint on their route.
“Swipe your access card and enter your password, and you're clear, Colonel,” the Praetorian Guardsman said. “We'll take the prisoner from here,” he added to the sergeant leading the squad of Onyxian soldiers.
“Right, of course,” Not Grimm began as if he was moving to comply, then turned on the Guardsman, his whole body contorting impossibly, wrapping around the Guardsman and immobilizing him as the rest of the squad sprayed the Guardsman's compatriots with stun bolts.
“We're clear,” Not Grimm said into a commlink after he'd untangled himself from the Guardsman, now wearing the stun cuffs previously used on their fake captive.
A minute later the call came in from the first checkpoint to the Guardsman's commlink. Not Grimm snatched it up and answered in its owner's voice. “Go ahead, checkpoint A-7”
“Sir, we've got a maintenance crew here, saying they got a call about a faulty door panel. We don't have anything on the schedule here, please advise.”
“Roger that, A-7. We called it in half an hour ago. Waive them through.”
And it was that simple. A few minutes later, a four man team with a fusion cutter was dismantling the durasteel door that sealed off Hargrave's political prisoners from the millions of people who still thought they were serving the true and legitimate Onyxian Commonwealth.
It would have been a hopeless cause, trying to cut through the main blast door of a prison's maximum security wing with a hand torch, but Phaedacomm wasn't a prison. It was a communications outpost, thousands of years old and modified and expanded periodically over all of that time, but a civilian communications station nonetheless. The “interrogation room” was converted from an outdated medical quarantine facility. The “detention section” was long-term storage, its security systems and blast doors designed to keep nosy workers and unscrupulous guests from poking their heads where they shouldn't. And the Operations center . . . well, that was a docked Bakura-
class Star Destroyer, but they'd be getting to that soon enough.
The door hit the ground with a resounding thud, and the mutineers fanned out to search the individual cells, all of them knowing by now who they were looking for.
“Found him!” one of the privates shouted excitedly. “Gods be praised.”
“You doubted me, private?” Commander Pickett said, sounding more like an accusation than a question.
“Let's just say I was prepared to shoot you if it turned our you were lying,” the private answered.
“Good enough,” he said, stepping over to inspect the door. “Oh, well this could be a problem.”
“What is it,” Not Grimm asked, joining him as the rest of the team gathered around.
“Looks like Hargrave's wired up some kind of security trigger to these doors. We open them, he's going to know.”
“What about the main door?”
Pickett shook his head. “These cells are new; Hargrave had them built here. The main door is part of the existing station. We should be fine . . . for the next couple of minutes.”
Everyone shifted uncomfortably, not sure what he meant but clearly picking up on his tone.
“There are three dead officers in the interrogation room, a squad of Praetorian Guardsmen stunned and restrained outside, one broken door, and – oh, yeah, right – we're stuck behind five layers of guarded force field checkpoints. We're going to be found out, and soon.”
Apparently unconcerned, Not Grimm pressed a button on the door control. “Councilor Strota, is this comm unit two-way? I need to hear your voice. Just start talking.” He released the button and looked back to Pickett. “We open the door and the alarm sounds, right?” He smiled, now wearing the face of Councilor Strota. “Sounds like a perfect diversion to me.”
He couldn't tell the alerts apart at this point. One was a security breach, from the detention center. One was an environmental alarm, from damage to one of Phaedacomm's magcon fields. There was another one for unauthorized undocking, and . . .
“Admiral, you're needed on the bridge.”
“Not now, captain,” Admiral Hargrave snapped, trying to listen to a half-dozen channels worth of chatter at once. His internal security force was culled from the best in the fleet. Totally loyal to him, they understood their duty here.
“Admiral, it's imperative that -”
“I said not now!” he shouted, flipping to another set of channels. Three dead from the magcon failure, trying to board a shuttle and escape. Four captured in the lower spire, none of them of any consequence. There, there it was: Councilor Strota in the port antenna array, stunned and alive, out of sight, secure. Everything was fine; everything would be fine. The rest would work itself out. He was safe. No one had exposed him.
“Admiral, I must insist.”
“Yes, yes!” Hargrave roared, a new pep in his step, confident that his internal security could sweep up this prison break nonsense with no more trouble. “What is it now?” he asked, stepping out of his cabin and onto the bridge.
“Admiral, we just received notice from Phaedacomm control that an unscheduled transmission was made ten minutes ago.”
“So?” Hargrave said, unimpressed. “Probably just one of the rabble making a ruckus before he got caught.”
“Admiral, the message was transmitted before the breakout occurred.”
Mildly interesting, he had to admit.
“And what's more, the transmission's destination was only light minutes away.”
Well that was peculiar. “The escape attempt had outside assistance?” the admiral asked. “Maybe they were planning a rendezvous after stealing the shuttles? No matter; re-task one of the patrol groups to make a sweep of the area. We'll just go and have a little look-ssss . . . Sithspawn.” He spoke the word more with a sense of awe than anything else. He had to know, in that moment, that it was over. That he'd lost. That all he'd worked for all of this time had just come crumbling to dust around him.
But even so, the titanic figure of the Dauntless
-class Command Ship Pathfinder
, flagship of the Onyxian Commonwealth Navy, was a sight that demanded awe of any viewer. Not to mention the whole fleet of Star Destroyers, Birds of Prey, and the like that reverted around it within the next handful of seconds.
The comm systems of Hargrave's own ship awoke, unbidden, and he heard the address along with every other Onyxian captain in-system. The main holoprojector powered up and displayed seven figures belonging to various Commonwealth species. “I am acting Consul of the Onyxian Commonwealth, Dean Doran” the human in the center said, “and we are the Commonwealth Council. We come to you now, with the authority of the Onyxian government and the backing of the true Commonwealth fleet, to extend to you this last chance at reconciliation.
“Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave, through countless acts of extortion, murder, bribery, and unlawful imprisonment, has deceived the officers and enlisted persons under his command, to the end of preventing the success of this Commonwealth in reestablishing its rightful government and reclaiming its lost worlds, for the cause of retaining the personal power that such a course would lose him.”
“Lies,” Hargrave railed, storming for the comm station. “Turn it off! Shut it down!”
The aft doors opened, and Councilor Strota stepped onto the bridge of the star destroyer in the disheveled robes he'd been wearing for days now.
“Not possible,” Hargrave whispered, even as the miniature Dean Doran continued his meticulous exposition on the vice admiral's evils.
“Everything the Consul has said is true,” Strota said, leveling a finger at the admiral. Doran had just noted the unlawful imprisonment of Councilor Strota. “That as well,” he added. “Someone arrest this man.”
The ship's captain needed no further convincing. His blaster was in hand and pointed at the admiral in the blink of an eye. “Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave, under naval regulations of the Armed Forces of the Onyxian Commonwealth, I am relieving you of your command and placing you under arrest for the crime of . . . treason.” He had just heard Dean Doran say the word, and that seemed good enough for him. “Guards, take him into custody.”
“Not possible!” Hargrave shouted again, spittle flying from his mouth as he fought futilely against the stronger arms of the two guards now hauling him away.
“I think you should address the fleet, Councilor,” the captain suggested once the screaming Hargrave was off the bridge.
Not Strota nodded slowly, the features of the human councilor melting away slowly until only the vaguest pale, noseless, wide-mouthed face with deeply set eyes stared back at the captain. “You should re-dock with Phaedacomm and dispatch a trusted squad to the main antenna arrays. Councilor Strota was to take refuge there, and I have no doubt that the former admiral's secret police have found him by now. With luck, he is alive and there has been no . . . permanent damage.” Not Anyone Else took a step toward the communications station and the captain put a restraining hand on his arm.
It was clear that he didn't know what to make of the situation. He'd just arrested his own commander under orders given by a man wearing his leader's face. This man, before him now. This man who was not his leader. “I can't let you lie to them.”
“Trust me,” the unmasked Shi'ido said simply.
Still uncertain, still shaken, the captain removed his hand and stepped away.
The Shi'ido waived the comm officer aside and took his seat, fiddling with the controls for a moment and whispering quietly to someone on the other end of the line. Soon, however, Dean Doran faltered in his ongoing declaration.
“What?” the little image of Dean Doran said, incredulous. “He said he's . . . that's not possible.” The whole of the fleet, poised on the brink of battle with itself, was watching one half of a conversation between a disgraced politician and . . . no one knew who else.
Despite his protestations, however, a hologram-within-a-hologram soon appeared on the bridge of every Onyxian ship in the system, as the holographic head and upper torso of the Shi'ido was beamed to the Council meeting, and then that meeting beamed to the ships.
And then there he was, addressing the Onyxian people. His people. “Vice Admiral Hargrave has been stripped of his command and arrested for his crimes. Councilor Strota, unfortunately, is not here; he has been captured by individuals loyal to the vice admiral and his condition is not known. But I am here.
“My name is Shree, and I am the Commonwealth Councilor from Sh'shuun.” If the reaction from the crew of the ship were any indication, that was a surprising revelation indeed. “Not since the fall of Onyx have I worn my own face, so ashamed have I been of what our leadership brought upon you all. I have hidden in the shadows, fleeing from the responsibility of my station, afraid of the consequences should I act again on your behalf.
“I have been aware of this great effort to restore our Commonwealth for some time now, and I have known that by the letter of the law, my voice and vote could be the determining factor. Yet I did not step forward, but no longer for fear. This moment belongs by right to Councilor Strota, not because you voted for him long ago under circumstances any of us can scarcely recall now, but because you followed him, freely and fervently, even when the goal seemed impossible and destruction inevitable.
“Consul Doran, I will not stand with you again until Councilor Strota is standing by my side, or his people demand it of me. Either our great Commonwealth will be reborn in whole, or not at all. I will not be a party to some sham, for the sake of convenience. This is what you, citizens of the Onyxian Commonwealth, have earned for yourselves. It is what Luke Hargrave sought to take from you, and it is what I cannot masquerade into making a reality.”
One Week Later
“So I almost shot an Onyxian Councilor in the head, huh?” Karada was amused by the thought of it.
“You almost tried to shoot an Onyxian councilor in the head,” Nitin Cass corrected. “And none of us knew who he was at the time, if it's any consolation.”
“Consolation? Hell, it's amazing. If I've got half the fight in me a year from now that I had last week, I'll be amazed. The man took down a warlord by himself, then conjured up the speech-making mojo to keep everyone from killing themselves long enough to remake a country! He's a damned inspiration, that's what he is.”
“You're not doing so badly yourself, Triumvir,” Nitin pointed out.
She shook her head, not liking the word. “I'm sticking with Delegate, but thanks.” It was a weird sort of setup, with Karada and Pondor each holding one-third power to authorize global legislation, and the remaining one-third vote split among the leaders of smaller organizations, weighted according to the territories they controlled. It shouldn't be much of a problem, since she and Pondor almost never agreed on anything, and most legal authority was devolved to local groups anyway. It was a strange sort of lightly regulated anarchy, with a spritz of Emergency Powers for the world-endangering tight spots.
“How are your people liking their new forward command base?” Karada asked after a moment of silence.
“I'm surprised you agreed to it,” Nitin admitted. “I thought you'd at least throw up enough of a fuss to make the Cooperative agree pay to lease it or something.”
Karada shook her head, pouring herself a glass of ale from Hargrave's looted stock. “I've got everything I could want here; greed gets in my own way at this point. You just keep all of your folks on your side of the system, and we'll get along fine.”
“All of us?” Nitin asked, pouting.
Karada smirked. “Special exceptions have been known to be made.”
“Still,” Nitin perked up, “it'll be a shame if we get ourselves into trouble and that fine communications station of yours gets blown up. You really think you can hold this planet together if it loses its only connection to HoloNet porn?” Nitin laughed at her own joke. It was almost charming. Almost.
“The Cooperative's 'upgrading',” she raised her hands up and wiggled them about in a display of faux excitement, “our infrastructure. Phaedacomm will be redundant in a few months, or so they say. Personally, I think it's an excuse to free the station up for turning it into some kind of listening post.”
“Well of course, I wouldn't be able to confirm or deny anything of that sort,” Nitin said in a formal, disengaged tone. “But how about that Cooperative, huh?” She had perked up again, signaling a change in topic. “Have they started trying to worm their way into your schemes yet?”
Karada shrugged, offering Nitin a glass of ale again. She refused. “This oversight deal of theirs looks pretty good actually. Solid, I'd say. No fishy language, no clever loopholes. Plus, everybody around here's so used to spying on each other that it's unlikely they'd be able to pull off any unfair deals without the rest of us learning about it. But it sounds like you're already having some trouble with them.”
Nitin messed up her face a little, shrugged. “It's paperwork, mostly. Formalities. But I'll tell you, they're going to be wishing Hargrave had
killed Strota in a few months. He was all for the reconciliation plan, sure, but as a stepping stone to totally restored Onyxian autonomy. I don't think he's crazy enough to want to pull us out of the Coalition or anything, but he definitely isn't liking the Cooperative getting to nose around in all of our business.”
“They don't have any real power though, right? They're just, what was it, 'observers'?”
Nitin nodded, finally relenting and accepting a glass from the Delegate. “Yeah. Basically, they get to write down anything any of us ever say in any official meetings, ever, and then tell Coalition High Command what they think about it. And they're everywhere
, hundreds of them, poking around, double-checking ID, complaining about 'improper integration of command-chain structures' and whatnot. I mean, we're putting a country back together, here, and without the benefit of its actual planets; we're going to misplace some slips of flimsi along the way!”
“How long, then? Until you go get your planets back?” It sounded like just another question, but this one mattered to Karada. She'd just won unity for Phaeda, her world. She'd just begun the great project of making it a place worthy of its people. That sort of stuff mattered to her.
“The treaty gives the Coalition sixty days, and that was eight days ago. So, fifty-two days. Fifty-two days with no independent military action on the part of the Commonwealth. By then, either the Coalition has started joint operations, or we start without them.”
“A lot can happen in two months,” Karada warned.
“We're using the time to coordinate with rebel cells inside the Occupation Zone. We can't bring them into the fold unless they go inactive, which none of them are willing to do, but we can still lay the groundwork. Basically, High Command doesn't want us shooting at Imperials; that'd be an act of war none of us can really afford right now. But they know Onyxians aren't going to stop fighting for their homeworlds, especially the ones who never left. I think the Prime Minister's looking for a political solution; it sounds crazy to me, but a lot's changed these last few months. Stranger things, right?” Nitin raised her glass.
Karada met the gesture and they both downed their glasses of ale. She poured them both another glass. “Just think, a week ago I almost shot you in the head for breaking into my office.”
“I know,” Nitin said, nodding. “It would've been a shame to have had to kill you.”
“If I recall, I was the one with the blaster pointed at you. You think that highly of yourself, do you?”
Nitin shrugged, then nodded. “I think that personal shield I was wearing might have helped, yeah. Plus, I hear Shi'ido aren't as easy to kill as they look. Something about their organs not ever being where you expect them to be, brain included.”
“Really?” Karada asked, eyes widening with her curiosity.
“That's what I hear,” she said, throwing back her glass. “And I'll tell you something else, you don't want to go hand-to-hand with one of those fella's. Maybe
if you're some kind of spider-bug-thing and you've got six hands or something, but even then I wouldn't risk it. I've heard stories
And so it continued, on into the night. Two could-have-been enemies, separated by culture, age, and upbringing, tied together only by the delicate strands of Cooperative woven into the fabric of galactic civilization. They were neither of them true believers, each with an agenda all their own, certain to come into conflict again in the future, but tied together by those strings nonetheless.
The galaxy, as always, was changing. Worlds were sure to burn in the months and years to come. But that day, right then, in that room, hope was alive and well; and whether either of them were willing to admit it or not, their hopes hung firmly from those Cooperative strands.
Even with its capital lost, its leader dead, its highest Council of government broken and scattered across the galaxy, the Cooperative lived on to do its good deeds. And in light of that, there was hope enough for this and every world.