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1  1:09am 20/12/13        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
The Fall of Varn.


It was still fresh in the mind of every Cooperative citizen, a looming shadow of things to come. The Cooperative was reeling from that blow, its hard-won unity threatening to splinter once again. Continuity of government protocols were being implemented, of course, but in the heart of the Cooperative, the Quelii Sector, there was no guarantee that those protocols would be enough.


There was too much pain locked away inside these people. Years of loss and betrayal had worn on them, and now what?


Varn is lost, the Executor is dead, the Grand Council of the Cooperative is broken and scattered. What scrap of hope is left on these or any other worlds?






Redridge, Quelii
Governor's Estate


A hodgepodge of Quelii Sector Combine, Ryn Fleet, Varn Defense Force, and Praetorian Guard warships held station in orbit, a clear sign of this moment's severity. The Varn refugee fleet that they guarded was busily being broken up and distributed throughout the Cooperative and other accommodating Coalition worlds, everyone involved desperate to disperse this inviting target before their enemies returned.


The planetary governor, Dagos Soto, had called a meeting of the Cooperative's leaders in-system, the outcome of which each of them was dreading. Vekkis Nost, newly released from imprisonment as the need for his sham trial had evaporated in the face of a Cree'Ar invasion, had been conscripted to represent his people's interests as no formal leader could easily be found among the disorganized mass of evacuees.


Dagos Soto would expel the Cooperative refugees from his system. Vekkis was sure of it. He could see it in the would-be Imperial's eyes: that hunger to kick the weak while they were down. Vekkis readied himself as best he could, still shaken and disoriented from the madness of these past days. He had been integral to Quelii's admission into the Cooperative and the formation of the Quelii Sector Combine which resulted from that deal, but that felt a lifetime away now, and he was sure he had no strength left to fight Soto in a battle of political maneuvering.


“Do you remember the promise that I made to you?” The old Imperial from a bygone era began, his voice burdened with the weight of this moment, seemed barely a shade of his former self.


It was not what Vekkis had expected.


“It is time to put aside our differences,” he continued, pulling out a chair beside himself. The action clearly signaled something important, because half a dozen figures entered the room from Soto's side and joined him.


Included among them was Nitin Cass, who accepted his offered seat. Nitin Cass, the young Iridonian woman who had become the face of the Onyxian Relocation effort before betraying the Cooperative to join the Onyxian Rebellion, a single act that had threatened to undo all of the Cooperative's efforts for her people. She was a traitor in the eyes of every loyal Cooperative citizen, and the sight of her sitting at Dagos Soto's right hand sickened Vekkis. This was not what he had expected; it was far, far worse.


“It's good to see you, Nitin,” someone spoke from Vekkis' left, and he looked down the table a few bodies to see Traan Shi, the Togruta Chief Ambassador and one of the most respected members of the Cooperative government. Haggard and disheveled, his address nevertheless seemed sincere, only adding to Vekkis' confusion and dread.


The Varn native struggled to form the necessary Basic words with his quivering lips, but someone else beat him to it, a Ryn official Vekkis didn't even recognize: “What's all of this about, Governor? Ambassador?”


“We've been pursuing Onyxian Reunification since the Referendum,” Traan said, slouching more and more with each word spoken. “I didn't think we were getting anywhere.”


“Things have changed,” Nitin said, her words chosen carefully, but her tone sincere and compassionate. “Did you get us what you promised?”


Traan's tired gaze drifted to Governor Soto, and the man frowned, but nodded. “I have just received word from Prime Minister Pro Moon. In light of recent events and the mounting threats to the Coalition's safety, he has determined Reconciliation to be in all of our best interests. For all infractions short of war crimes, he is offering amnesty to former citizens of the Onyxian Commonwealth who have violated Coalition law in the conscientious pursuit of the Commonwealth's restoration, and has committed all available means to see the restoration of the Onyxian Commonwealth as a formally recognized and law-abiding autonomous entity.”


“Did you get us what you promised?” Traan now asked of Nitin.


Vekkis watched as Nitin's dark brown skin turned a few shades paler, and he feared the whole endeavor was about to be lost. “There's a problem with that, ambassador, and I'm afraid neither of us can solve it on our own.”






Derapha, Phaeda
Delegate's Office


They called her the “Delegate”, the one selected to represent them, but that was not what she had become. They called her endeavor the Phaeda Reform Union, but union was not truly their goal, and any hope of reform had long been lost. They called her the “Commander”, but she had been made powerless to command even her own militia.


Delegate Karada had wanted more for her world, for her people. She was by no means an idealist, and she certainly had more blood on her hands than even these rough streets warranted, but she was honest, and she had a goal worth achieving.


At least, she had been honest, once. She had had a goal, once.


“Is there a problem, Delegate?”


The Klatooinian Delegate turned slowly away from her highrise view of Derapha's brutal streets, careful to erase any trace of regret or introspection before facing her guest.


Guest? More like captor, really.


Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave was sneering despite Karada's efforts, her very existence evidently enough to warrant his derision. Her eyes lingered, yet again, on the rank insignia pinned to his uniform, that false symbol of authority belonging to a nation dead and gone.


“What do you need today, Admiral?”


He had insisted she call him “admiral”, that she respect the fictitious uniform he wore. It was all so tired and self-absorbed.


“There was a problem with last week's shipment,” he said, a warning edge in his tone.


“If you would stop conscripting from my new recruits,” she began, turning away and heading for the bottle of lum ale on her desk, “maybe I'd have the manpower to ensure their safety.”


“This wasn't a hit from one of your competitors,” the admiral said, his warning tone becoming more aggressive. “This was an inside job; one of your people stole from me.”


Karada stopped halfway through pouring herself a glass. She wanted so badly to bludgeon the damned fool with that bottle until she broke it over his head, then keep hitting until the jagged shards of glass splayed him open and loosed the last drop of his life's blood on her floor. And she could have done it, too.


But the fleet of rebel Onyxian warships hiding at the edge of the solar system would not take kindly to their leader's execution, assassination, murder . . . whatever. Karada couldn't do that to her people, expose them to that kind of retribution because of her own petty desire for revenge. She was a bad leader and had already failed every one of her scant ideals, but she was still a leader. She was still responsible for her people's lives.


“What would you have me do?” she asked, continuing to pour the glass of ale.


“Did you hear me?” he raged. “You have thieves in your ranks!”


“I heard,” she said, turning back to face him and taking a healthy gulp from the crystal glass.


“Root them out!” he demanded.


“So when the bodies of a half-dozen of your plants and informants turn up along with the other riffraff I cull from my ranks, what are you going to say then?”


“What?” The surprise and indignation kind of bled together, Hargrave caught so off-guard that he could barely muster feigning offense.


“You've got supply run safety,” she held up one finger, “conscripting from my recruits,” she held up a second finger, “and worming your way into my organization when you think I'm not looking,” she held up a third finger and then dropped it almost immediately. “Pick two, because I just can't make all three happen. I don't have that kind of manpower.” She took another swig from the glass and thought absently about breaking this over his face, too, then making him eat the shards.


“You're going to regret this!” the admiral shouted, jabbing a finger at her as if “pointing” was some fate-sealing expression of imminent doom.


“I have been for months now . . . boss.”


Hargrave sneered at her insolence, infuriated that she wouldn't rise to meet his fervor. Apparently having run out of places for his rage to go, he turned for the door and stormed out. “Fix this or it's your head!” he shouted.


But Karada couldn't let him go without another jab. “We could have done this together, remember that? 'Mutually beneficial collaboration' and whatnot? But you couldn't handle passing up that kind of control. You couldn't handle having an ally instead of a stooge. I could be running this world right now if you had just backed me instead of playing all of us little people off against each other while you dreamed of wars you'll never have the balls to fight.”


She took one last drink of her ale then slammed the glass back on her desk. “I am weary of this boot on my neck. Just let me do my work.” Hargrave had turned back toward her, murder in his eyes. “Let. Me. Do. My. Work.”


“Cross me and I will destroy you more completely than any turbolaser barrage could ever manage.” The door opened. He disappeared. The door closed.


Karada spun around and hurled her desk against the floor-to-ceiling plasteel window, a reverberating thud sounding as the faux hardwood bounced against the shatterproof material. He could do it. She knew he could.


He could ruin her. He could ruin her just like her last band of shadow masters could have.


When the Cooperative dismantled the Cavrilhu Pirates in the Quelii Sector, she thought that leash was broken and discarded. But it had only changed hands. Luke Hargrave knew her darkest secrets, far more than enough to pull down every last brick of what she'd built here.


She couldn't let that happen. For herself, for the people who still trusted her, she had to soldier on. The Reform Union would never be what she had hoped, but it was still a hell of a lot more than any of them had ever had before. If it took servicing a fake Onyxian and his very real war fleet to keep that alive, then that was her burden to bear, and she'd bear it with only the occasional flipped desk and wasted bottle as protest.
2  5:08pm 20/12/13        
But They're So Cryptic Who Would Know
A year.
 
It had been a full year since the attack on Courscant. A year since the Reavers had first appeared. A year since the galaxy had fallen apart.
 
But the galaxy's denizens were nothing if not resilient.
 
Already, the Empire had established a new headquarters. The Coalition had fallen apart and reformed. Despite the Reavers and the Cree'Ar, things were almost beginning to feel like normal.
 
Or at least as normal as things could feel with blaster bolts whizzing past.
 
Jaeriel ducked back behind the low wall she was using for cover, a wall that was constantly getting lower as E-web bolts chipped away at it. "Stang," she swore, wiping blood from her forehead where a piece of shrapnel had grazed her. She added, "What in the kriffing hells is going on out there?"
 
As she spoke, an armored body tumbled over the wall next to her, landing adroitly on its feet before scrambling to a position next to Jaeriel. She reacted quickly, drawing her sidearm in a flash, but before she shot her mind registered the Onyxian colors on the armor and she held her fire. "Curse it all," she said, "a little kriffing warning would be nice!"
 
The armored figure tapped its helmet. "You know," it said, "helmets are wonderful things. HUD, comms, lots of information."
 
Jaeriel nudged her with an elbow. "Shut the kriff up," she said. "You want to get me my kriffing helmet, Amanda, you're more than welcome to go for it." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "It's on the other side of the kriffing wall."
 
A short chuckle came from the armored woman. "I think I'll let it be." The E-Web stopped chattering, and Amanda popped up and sent a few bolts heading in that direction. It started again, and she dropped back behind cover. "So, boss, what's the plan?"
 
Jaeriel considered the situation. They'd dropped in to Generis without difficulty two weeks earlier on a tip that General Abano Sallaros was hiding on the planet. He was rumored to have been one of the architects of the disastrous Onyxian assault on Bilbringi that had caused Jaeriel and her team to desert the Onyxian military, just prior to its collapse and takeover by the Empire. As such, he was one of those who represented the worst the Commonwealth had to offer, which was a perfect reason for Jaeriel and her team to end his existence.
 
The first hiccup had come when Cynthia Dmitrius, their resident tech expert, had sliced into the Imperial records and discovered that the General had taken a job as an intelligence officer for the local Imperial garrison. Apparently, despite his record, the Imperials permitted him to defect and had assigned him the task of hunting down Onyxian rebels. According to the records Cynthia downloaded, he was doing an excellent job.
 
The new information meant two things. First, that Jaeriel now had another reason to kill him. Second, that to do so she would have to break into the Imperial headquarters.
 
Over the next few days, her team developed a plan to infiltrate the compound, which had been rebuilt since the assault by the Palestar Crusade. A direct, frontal assault was out of the question; with only the six of them, there was no way they would even make it past the front gate. Over the walls wouldn't work, either; they didn't have the vehicles or the manpower to take the compound completely.
 
Which left infiltration. Jacqueline Stone, their infiltration expert, had agreed to enter the Imperial compound disguised as an Imperial officer, a role she had taken many times before. She would enter the General's work room, surreptitiously plant a small gas canister, set to release a form of cyanide upon comm signal, and a small bug that would ensure the General was in the room when the canister was set off. She would then return to her assigned post, at which point Cynthia would hack Imperial security and create a lockdown. Jacqueline's post would be unlocked, and she would quickly make her way to the entrance, where Alana Vluptuer and Mika Lau would be standing by with a speeder. Jaeriel would be in a sniper position, ready to cover the retreat if anything went wrong, and Amanda Bates, their assault specialist, would be nearby ready to lend a hand if needed.
 
Jacqueline got into the compound without a hitch. She made it into the General's office, planted the devices, and was on her way back to her post before something went wrong. An Imperial patrol walking the rooftops spotted the tip of Jaeriel's sniper rifle sticking out of her blind. They'd alerted the base, which went into lockdown early. A squad of troopers had landed on Jaeriel's roof and opened fire. Jaeriel had to scramble for cover; all that had been available was the wall. The troopers had rushed her position, only to have several of them fall to withering fire from Jaeriel and Amanda, who had rushed to her commander's aid.
 
Now Jacqueline was stuck in the compound, she and Amanda were stuck on the rooftop, and the other three were still waiting for the prearranged signals to complete the mission. "Amanda, relay orders to Cynthia," she began. The other nodded. "I want Jacqueline to head for the entrance; she'll know best how to do it. Once she's at the compound gate, have Mika and Alana pick her up. Tell them to get to the ship. If we're not there by the time they are, tell them to skedaddle. We'll make our own way out. Tell Cynthia to shut down and meet them there."
 
Amanda nodded. "Orders relayed. And what about us?"
 
Jaeriel smiled. "Ready to run?"
 
***
 
The speeder slammed to a stop. Jacqueline, Alana, and Mika darted up the ramp into the modified Corellian YU-410 freighter. While Jacqueline powered up the engines, Alana and Mika each headed to a turret. Less than a minute later, Cynthia drove her speeder bike straight into the open cargo bay and made her way to the communications center. "Jacqueline, do we have a status for Jaeriel and Amanda?" she called.
 
"No," came the reply. "But we're not leaving without them. If I get powered up before they get here, I'll do a flyover."
 
Cynthia strapped in and grabbed the comm headset. "O1, O4, you read?"
 
A moment later, Amanda's voice came over the comm. "O6, this is O4. We're out from under fire, but pursuit is hot. Recommend you take off."
 
Cynthia spun and began working. "Keep your comm on, O4. Alright, I've got a fix on your location. We're going to do an extraction."
 
The sound of blaster fire filled the headset. A moment later, Amanda responded, "Too hot, O6. Scramble. We'll get ourselves out."
 
"Like heck you will," Cynthia shot back. "Jacqueline!" she shouted, "Bring her around to 4-8-3. Quick extraction. Mika, Alana, get ready to shoot!"
 
The freighter leapt off the platform, engines firing and obliterating the escape speeder. Within moments the Corellian ship was over the city, heading for Jaeriel and Amanda's location. Swooping low, Jacqueline buzzed the Imperial pursuers as the turrets began to chatter. Jacqueline set the freighter down almost on top of Jaeriel and Amanda, who ran into the cargo bay even as the doors closed and the freighter blasted for space.
 
Jaeriel wasted no time. Jogging to Cynthia's station, she flopped in the seat next to her. "Lockdown procedures still initiated?" she asked. Cynthia nodded. "Then the General's still in his office, yes? Confirm it." A moment later, Cynthia nodded again. "Alright," Jaeriel said. "Do it."
 
With the press of a button, the gas canister opened, filling the General's office with odorless, colorless gas. Within moments, two thumps were heard over the comm, then slight twitching sounds, then nothing. Jaeriel smiled. "Mission accomplished."
 
Making her way to the cockpit, Jaeriel saw Amanda had already taken over co-pilot duties. She claimed the navigator's seat and began running hyperspace calculations.
 
"Imperial fighters," Amanda proclaimed. "Coming on fast."
 
"How close?" Jaeriel asked.
 
"Two minutes," came the reply.
 
"We'll be out of the gravity well in less than that. Prepare for a jump to hyperspace."
 
Just as the fighters came in range, the stars flickered and the Corellian freighter disappeared into the void.
 
***
 
After several more jumps, and certain that they were not pursued, Jaeriel's team finally relaxed. Out of their armor and now in civilian clothes, they gathered in the main living quarters and celebrated another successful mission. Then Jaeriel addressed them. "Of the three architects of the Bilbringi debacle, one is dead. Joren Logan's whereabouts are still unknown. And, if the information Amanda got from her brother is correct, we finally have a location for Admiral Hargrave. So, if we are in agreement, our next target is set. He's on Phaeda; he's declared himself a warlord and taken that planet for his own. He's also taken over part of the Resistance movement.
 
"I know we don't want to kill Onyxians if we can help it. Most of them had no idea what their government was doing. But anyone who works for Hargrave can be considered an enemy. He's a vile creature, if the reports are true, and since Bilbringi he's only grown more vile. Those who work for him are either slaves or as vile as he is. Either way, the best thing we can do for them is end their misery.
 
"So, rest tonight. Tomorrow, we begin planning how to take down a warlord."
3  1:46am 29/12/13        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
In hindsight, the Onyxian Rebellion was dead before it had even begun. The Imperial war machine was designed to crush opposing war fleets and planetary defenses. Political justifications aside, that was the reason Prime Minister Regrad had agreed to the Imperial Occupation of the Onyxian Commonwealth's worlds: the Coalition simply wasn't in a position to defend the member state against invasion.


The deal had saved the bulk of the Onyxian military, bolstering the strength of other Coalition provincial militaries even as it cost one of the Coalition's strongest member states. But the idea of the Onyxian Rebellion – that a breakaway fraction of one of those province's military could pose a genuine threat to the Empire's aims for their Occupation Zone – was simply ludicrous.


At least, it had been at the time.


The galaxy has changed much since then. The forces of the Palestar Crusade and Galactic Empire have ground against each other time and time again, using the Occupied Worlds of the Onyxian Commonwealth as playing boards for their life-and-death games. Emperor Hyfe and the Empire's First Fleet have disappeared, the product of Cree'Ar schemes. Lupercus Darksword and his Diktat forces have abandoned the Empire and show no signs of returning. The Battle of Coruscant dealt significant damage to several of the Empire's major fleets. Bhindi Drayson and her Protectorate capital have vanished due to causes unknown. Ongoing battles of attrition against both freedom fighters and defectors continue to wear on the Imperial war machine.


Now, the lost warships of the Onyxian Rebellion may not be so inconsequential after all.


And yet the Rebellion lingers at Phaeda. Vice Admiral Luke Hargrave, the highest ranking military officer to have joined the Rebellion, has instituted a sort of martial law over what was to be the rebirth of the Onyxian Commonwealth, using his power as commander of the Onyxian Fleet to dictate the operations of the whole Rebellion. And it cannot be denied that the Rebellion has been busy, though not at all busy about the business of rebellions.


Now it is time for that to change. If Onyx is to rise again, its people must first rid themselves of impostors and traitors.


On Phaeda, the Rebellion will end and the Commonwealth will begin again.






Chinesti, Phaeda
Phaeda Spaceport


The few hundred creatures who shuffled off of the newly arrived Botajef AA-9 Freighter-Liner looked very much like they belonged on this world. Some had that look of broken surrender, others of toughness and thuggery, still more a kind of passive indifference to their own existence. But this was Phaeda, so every one of them looked unpleasant.


The fact that a vessel designed for transporting thirty thousand sapients at a time counted barely one percent of that as patrons this past trip was surely not lost on any one of them, or any of the dock workers or port officials who might have taken notice of the large vessel's arrival. On a planet like Phaeda, though, this was how smuggling was done: out in the open, with only the barest film of respectability as cover.


As the cluster of new arrivals moved away from the transport, it dispersed quickly, dissolving into the general bustle of the planet's primary spaceport. Here and there little clumps held together for longer, each one a pack of new arrivals who just happened to be heading for the same location. One such group made its way to a shuttle-speeder bound for Derapha, the up-and-coming rival to Phaeda's de facto capital.


An unassuming pair from that group stuck close together even after boarding, in their naïve hope checking a few of the passenger cabins as they shuffled toward the less comfortable mass-seating near the back. One cabin door slid open to reveal a single unoccupied seat blocked by a bundle of passenger luggage, a rather large and fit Trandoshan sitting beside it, resting one protective and warning hand on the bundle of personal effects.


The Zabrak of the pair punched her human companion, getting his attention as she stepped halfway into the cabin. The Trandoshan snarled menacingly, but she squeezed further into the tight space as her traveling partner crammed himself in as well, closing the door behind himself.


“Special delivery for an angry offworlder,” she said, pulling a bottle of brownish liquid from her traveling bag and holding it out to the Trandoshan.


“I'll take that,” a Givin in the corner said, snatching the bottle from the Zabrak's hand.


In the time it took Nitin Cass to process the Givin's intrusion and return her attention to the Trandoshan, he was gone. The Shi'ido shapeshifter had abandoned its disguise, stretching upward and growing thinner as it changed itself into a snake and wound itself through the support bars of the overhead racks, wrapping itself around the cabin and freeing up a seat.


Ethan Vang pulled the stack of bags and boxes onto the floor, opening the larger ones – which turned out to be empty – and putting the smaller ones inside of them, until he was left with a single piece of luggage laying down in the center of the cabin. He and Nitin took the two seats, using the luggage as a foot rest.


The Givin uncorked the bottle and tasted the contents, verifying that these two were indeed the ones he had been waiting for. “I suppose we should get down to business.”


Nitin nodded slowly, taking a moment to size up the other inhabitants of the cabin. She recognized two of the others immediately, a middle-aged human and a Gran who had been covered in her mission briefing. The Shi'ido was almost certainly one of the individuals from a very small list Coalition Intelligence had assembled, and for the time being she would have to hope that her Gran and human counterparts had vetted him or her properly. That just left one other human, certainly the Givin's associate. All things considered, it was the best she could have hoped for.


It meant the Rebellion was fracturing, but so far, only the people on her side realized that fact. “The Quelii Accord was signed three days ago by Traan Shi of the Galactic Cooperative of Free States and Dean Doran, Interim Consul of the Onyxian Commonwealth,” she began, pushing down the excitement that welled up inside of her as she said the words out loud. “In it the Cooperative acknowledges the Onyxian Commonwealth as an allied nation under occupation and invasion by foreign powers, and commits itself to the restoration and defense of that nation's rightful ruling government until such time as the citizens and territories of that Commonwealth are able to operate as an independent entity. Co-signatories of the Accord are five of the twelve active members of the Onyxian Council at the time of the Occupation, and two additional supporting Councilors are being extracted from the Occupation Zone by Coalition Intelligence operatives, so they may sign their names to the Accord as well.”


“Then you have nothing,” the familiar human said, sounding hurt more than anything else.


“Prime Minister Pro Moon has brought a measure to the floor of the Coalition House of Representatives to formally acknowledge the validity of the Accord and restore the Onyxian Commonwealth's representation in the House,” she said eagerly.


“You're here for the eighth Councilor,” the human said quietly. The comment prompted a glance from the Givin, and he accommodated the Phaeda native's ignorance. “Commonwealth law requires a minimum of eight Councilors for major legislative action, even under the most dire of circumstances. Establishing a genuine continuity of government requires that we reassemble at least two-thirds of the original twelve-person Onyxian Council. And a genuine continuity of government is the only hope we have of uniting all Onyxians under a single banner again. Anything short of that will be seen for the sham that it is.”


“I'm more concerned about Dean Doran,” the Gran spoke up, clearly disgusted with the human. “Reestablishing the Onyxian Commonwealth only to hand it over to Joren Logan's puppet is the surest way of seeing history repeat itself in the most horrifying manner imaginable.”


Nitin had anticipated the objection. She just hoped she could overcome it. “Commonwealth Law requires the reconvened Onyxian Council's first order of business to be the restoration of the Council to a full twelve members. Immediately following that, Dean Doran will step down as Consul of the Onyxian Commonwealth.”


“How can you be sure?” the Gran asked.


“Because it's the only way we can keep this new coalition together,” Ethan answered, cutting in. “And he knows it, too. For all his faults, Doran is not an evil man, and he couldn't live with being the one person who undid all of our efforts at reunification. Dean Doran is toxic, everybody knows it, but we have to work together on this if we're going to make it count.”


“Alright then,” the Givin piped up again, “let's get ourselves back on track. Who is this eighth Councilor, where is he, and why don't you have him already?”


“Councilor Strota of Generis,” the familiar human offered. “An early leader of the Onyxian Rebellion, he ended up being one of the people who made reconciling with the Cooperative possible, but we've lost our line of communication with him and from what information we can get, it seems that Vice Admiral Hargrave has put him and the other civil leaders of the Onyxian Rebellion into lockdown.”


Nitin glanced to Ethan, who jumped back in. “And so we're all clear: Vice Admiral Hargrave is a problem. The Cooperative courts want him for war crimes, and it's our job to bring him in. There will be no deals made with him. Coalition Intelligence is working on a plan to extract Strota and neutralize Hargrave, but they're having trouble making inroads into the core of Hargrave's organization. Both are absolutely vital, because we can't have Hargrave and his supporters breaking away when the reconstituted Onyxian Council makes its public call for Reunification.


“So that's what we're here for. We're confident that Hargrave doesn't yet know that the civil branch of the Onyxian Rebellion has reconciled with the Cooperative, but his increased security measures of late are a clear sign that he suspects the Cooperative is moving against him. We need to reestablish contact with elements of his organization who are sympathetic to our cause, enlist the help of Phaedan groups who want Hargrave gone, and piece together a plan to break Hargrave's hold over the fleet and extract Councilor Strota.


“These are good people, they really are, but they're following the wrong man, and he'd sooner see them killed by their would-be allies than give up the power he's seized for himself. We can put the Onyxian Commonwealth back together, we can sweep out the last vestiges of Joren Logan's regime, and we can intervene to end the Palestar Crusade's campaign of atrocities across the Occupation Zone.”


“That's all well and good,” the Givin said gravely, “but this planet is my home. Phaeda has never been a pleasant place to live, but Luke Hargrave has only made it worse. Now you tell me that you want to bring your problems here, to bloody up our streets so you can keep yours clean. So I ask you this: why shouldn't I make a deal with Hargrave right now and hand over Praetorian Guardsman Ethan Vang, the Coalition's lap dog,” he glared at Ethan, “Nitin Cass, the traitor to her own people's Rebellion,” he shifted his gaze to her, “and two of the Coalition's best-placed spies inside his ranks,” he glanced at the Gran and human in turn, “as well as that admittedly phenomenal but nonetheless unsettling creature,” he looked up at the Shi'ido coiled around the top of the cabin, “who might very well be anyone at any time?”


Nitin smiled happily, a reaction to the threat that their Givin contact had certainly not been expecting. “Tell me, Pondag Gryyg, captain of the Free Phaedan Guard,” she let the revelation that she, too, knew more than a little about him linger for a moment and then continued, “what are your feelings toward Delegate Karada of the Phaeda Reform Union?”


She could see understanding dawn as she stared into his large, ghastly black eyes, and was relieved to hear him chuckle lightly. “I should have known that you would be cleverer than I would've expected.” It was high praise, coming from a Givin.
4  1:08am 22/09/14        
Is dead. Would rather not be.
Derapha, Phaeda
Delegate's Office


“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
Interrogation Room


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-class Earthforger. 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.”


“Yes, sir.”


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
Derapha, Phaeda
Delegate's Office


“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.