Captain Marcus Antonius stood stoically on the bridge of the Imperial Star Destroyer Brazen. His command of the last five years, hard fought for through years of blood, sweat, and tears. But this year had been the hardest.
He had started his Imperial career not long after Endor. Pressed into service in the dying days of Palpatine's Empire. He had seen the Empire fall to shambles, as men ripped it to parts for whatever piece they thought they could keep. He had managed to survive the years of Grand Admirals, Warlords, and would be Emperors. The long march back to galactic dominance, and the trials that the loyal were put through. But it had been reborn, rebuilt, stronger than the one before it. And yet in one year, everything had fallen apart. The leadership that brought this New Order together had all been captured, killed, or were missing in some distant corner of the galaxy. Without the mortar that held the Empire together, people eagerly tore at the walls.
Kaine. Drayson. Desaria. Kraken. Hyfe.
The Brazen had remained on station off Balmorra for too long. They were left to help shore up the system's defences, while the rest of the fleet engaged the Empire's enemies on the fringes of their now limited territory. It had been weeks now, with little word. In all the confusion of the past year, communications were becoming more and more sporadic. People of rank less and less common. Antonius had a growing fear that the rest of the 37th Fleet may have been destroyed, and that he may be a lone command.
The Captain cast a slow gaze across the bridge officers, all busying themselves with their duties. He had begun to notice the same realization dawning on his subordinates in the last couple of days. That gnawing discomfort and unease that he could read on all their faces.
"Sir?" Came a voice, cutting through his thoughts. Captain Antonius turned his gaze to the interruption.
"Yes Ensign?" He said expectantly to the junior officer, who gave him a quick salute at the acknowledgement.
"We received a transmission, sir." The young man said, nervously handing the Captain a datapad. "Encrypted to your code cylinders, sirs. It bore official authorization, for your eyes only."
"Thank-you, Ensign." Antonius idly dismissed the ensign and looked sternly at the datapad. Questions rolled through his mind as to whom it could be that sent it. The Fleet Commander wouldn't have gone through these many loops. Perhaps someone had finally taken the reigns of Imperial leadership and was going to start regrouping.
Antonius quickly ran his code cylinders through the encryption matrix, and after a minute the message was made available to him. He looked up as the message autodestructed, deleting any sign it had existed in the first place.
"Lieutenant Grimsby!" The Captain called towards the helm section, one man looking up from the huddled group of officers with a sharp salute. "Set course to the Fondor system. We have orders."
The escorting TIE Defenders pulled off as the shuttle was gently guided into the Star Destroyer's hangar by tractor beam. Captain Antonius and a honourguard of stormtroopers stood ready to greet their guest. The message had been sparse in details, and it was that which made the Captain so concerned. More than a few Imperial Officers had fallen during the years for being unprepared for the class of guests which they were sometimes demanded to entertain.
As the shuttle settled down, Antonius prepared for the worst.
Down the ramp came what appeared to be a very unassuming young woman. Very plain in appearance, with simple clothes that didn't denote any rank, she seemed to very casually walk down the ramp. But Antonius had felt it before he saw it. That creeping feeling as the hair began to stand up on the back of his neck. The lightsaber at her side just confirmed what he already knew.
"Good afternoon, Captain." The woman said curtly as she walked up to Antonius. He did the best he could to size the woman up, but it was impossible to know the might of a Forcer by sight alone.
"Morning, by the Brazen's chronometer, ma'am." Antonius corrected in as respectful a tone as he could manage. He saw a flash of quickly repressed anger across the woman's face, and made a mental note of it. He motioned for her to follow him across the hangar. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your pressence?"
"My Mistress works with the Supreme Commander, Wes Vos." She recited as they crossed the hangar, the stromtroopers standing to attention as they passed between their ranks. "I have been tasked with... evaluating you."
The Captain's jaw tensed at that. He had heard of Wes Vos and his SS before this point, of course. A sort of Moff who fashioned himself with the rank of Commander to differentiate himself from the more bureaucratic governor generals in the Empire. Supreme Commander was new to him, though that could just be self aggrandising. But Antonius had not heard of him having any Jedi; Corps, Sith, or otherwise, at his disposal.
"Things change, Captain Antonius." The young Dark Jedi had a small smile playing on her lips. "Some things, dramatically."
Unbidden memories popped to his mind from a lifetime ago, of the last time his thoughts were not his own. Swiftly, he forced those thoughts back to the dark recesses of his mind that they had resided in. The Captain forced composure upon himself and motioned for her to get in the turbolift before him.
"I have been loyal to the Empire through a great deal." Antonius said to her as the doors for the turbolift closed behind them. "Nor was I aware that Commander Wes Vos had jurisdiction over the 37th Fleet and the vessels in it."
"As I said." The woman said, casting him a very serious glare. "Things change."
"Indeed." The Captain said, as the turbolift lurched to motion. The woman seemed to be about to go into something, but Antonius cut her off. "I know all about loyalty, ma'am. I have seen the price of insubordination, not just on a personal level. I have seen how one being's disloyalty can stretch out and affect the lives of billions."
"So, what does Commander Vos want?" Antonius bluntly asked the Dark Jedi, apparently catching her off guard. Enough that she didn't have a retort prepared. "If he has taken command of the 37th, I have heard no word of it. And if he hasn't, I'd expect Admiral-"
"There is no more 37th Fleet." She responded, cutting the Captain off. She stared the Captain dead in the eyes as she continued. "You are all that's left. The Admrial took the fleet too close to Reaver space. That is the last anyone has heard of them."
"I see." Was all Antonius could muster. The faces of his peers flashed through his mind, and the thoughts of what had happened to them. Of how they all chose to die. He pushed those thoughts back as well, focusing on the task at hand. He could not give this Dark Jedi any leverage against him if he meant to survive this evaluation.
"The Supreme Commander wishes to bring you into his operations, but first must determine the readiness of your ship and crew." The Dark Jedi recited, again as if reading off some lines she had memorized. "So, I am to meet your senior staff. If they are up to it, I have a small task for you to do. If you succeed, you will be brought into his service."
"And should we fail?" The Captain asked with a raised eyebrow. He already knew the answer, but he wanted her to say it.
"Then you will be... relieved of your command." She said coyly, as the turbolift continued its long, twisting journey through the Star Destroyer.
The Brazen has been refit just a few years prior to this inspection. Though it wasn't one of the new ISD V's they reserved for command, or the IV's they started rolling to the lines, the Brazen was the finest of the third series of the iconic ships you would find in the fleet. With some of the adjustments of their own they had made over the years, they had a ship that could hold its own against most anything.
The Dark Jedi seemed distinctly bored throughout the experience of seeing it. She had seemed positively perplexed with ship operations, systems engineering, and fleet theory. The bored has crossed the border to frustration well before the tour was nearing its conclusion.
"Do you have any more systems and officers to show me?" She nearly growled as they made their way down yet another hall into yet another section. She was apparently trying her best to be diplomatic, but containing emotion was obviously not one of her strong suits. Antonius smiled thinly as the rounded a bend and made their way towards yet another of the identical T-Junctions within the vessel.
"Ah well, there is Ensign Reebo in auxiliary forward fire control. Ensign Fielding and his team in optics repair. Ensi-"
"Enough!" She roared, the air seeming to electrify around the young woman as the last strand of patience finally wore through. She turned, seething, to the Captain. "Are you trying to waste my time!?!"
Her focus bore into the Captain, and it took all his will not to flinch before it.
"A little." He admitted, stoking her fury. "If you are done with the tour, would you please stop wasting MY time on this evaluation and tell me what you really-"
Antonius felt the pressure clamp down on his neck much more quickly than he had expected. The sudden lack of air had caught him by surprise. She glared, focusing all of he built up rage and frustration against this one man.
And she never noticed the troopers who had been waiting behind the next junction until the stun blast hit her backside.
He expression twisted to one of absolute fury and for the briefest moment her grip intensified. Antonius became afraid she'd snap his neck. But as quick as it came, it passed. Her grip began to spasm like her muscles, slackening, until a second stun blast broke her hold all together.
He gasped in air as the troopers moved in on the prone Dark Jedi. And, rubbing his neck, he watched as they dragged her away towards the lifts for the detention block.
It was time to get answers.
Elana slowly regained conciousness, to find herself strapped... somewhere. She had been... Her mind lashed out at the thought of thinking. She grit her teeth, her thoughts deafened beneath all the... noise.
The door to the cell opened with a whoosh, and in stepped Antonius. The older man held a few datapads under one arm, and smiled warmly despite the setting.
"Good evening." He said to her politely, taking a seat on the bench that normally served as a bed. Elana began to realize she was on a wall. Attached... somehow. "We took the chance while you were unconscious to attach a neural inhibitor to you. We also supplied you with some drugs we normally save for full interrogations. Through drip, in case you find some way to call the Force to purge yourselves of them."
"Wh-What?" Was all Elana could manage to mutter.
"Do not worry. I do not intend to harm you." Antonius said, as he took one of the datapads to give it a quick look over. "Consider yourself under... evaluation."
"Why?" Elana demanded as forcefully as she could manage.
"Where should I begin?" Antonius said, his head snapping from his datapad to look into Elana's drug addled eyes. "You come aboard my ship under false pretences, threatening me AND my crew with an authority unrecognized by any official channel."
He tosses one datapad to the ground, and lifts up another. His tone intensifying. "Then you say I am under the command of a Supreme Commander, when the only one to have ever held that title is Simon Kaine who is... Force only knows where in the galaxy. This implies YOUR Supreme Commander has apparently granted himself this title without authorization from any of our various Emperors."
He tosses down another, looking at the other he brought with him. His gaze never leaving Elana's. His voice was practically booming at this point, nearly deafening to Elana's frazzled senses. "Fleet traffic on either side has implied the SS hasn't responded to orders from either Kraken or Gevel. And I can tell that since he sent a Dark Jedi for this test of his, that he has obviously chosen to oppose Emperor Gevel and his support of the Dominion's Anti-Forcer policy."
Tossing the last datapad to the ground with the others, he stood to his full height. He struck a rather imposing figure, as most who knew to cast their authority in the Empire did. "I will not be threatened. Nor lied to. Not aboard the Brazen."
Elana silently glared daggers at him. She was trying her best to get a handle on her senses, but they remained hazy. The best she could do was try to groggily keep up.
"Now. Let us begin again." The Captain said, his tone softening back to its more polite, curt tone. He settled back down to his previous seat. "I am Captain Marcus Antonius, commander of the Imperial Star Destroyer Brazen, element within the third flotilla of the thirty-seventh fleet. And you are?"
Captain Antonius sighed as Elana continued to just glare silently at him. She refused to give him any sort of satisfaction. She swore the Lade Skygge would find her, and his kill this arrogant fool. Or... would she? She had failed her Mistress and been taken prisoner. Lady Skygge had become... much harder to predict since Illum.
She ground her teeth as the neural inhibitor sent another jolt of obfuscating pain and numbness through her mind.
"One Emperor demands that I hand you over to the Dominion. I have no idea what they will do to you, and what will become of you in their hands." Captain Antonius said, lifting one hand. He slowly raised the other, measuring the balance of both hands. "And on this hand, the other would likely hand you over to whatever scraps are left of the Jedi Corps. Likely full interrogation to get any information of worth out of you."
He lowered both his hands, giving Elana an appraising look. "If I had a better, third option? I would take it under due consideration. But I need to know the details of this third option. What this third option would ask of me. What its goals are. And why this third option chose to send you to me."
"Now, I'm going to turn down this neural inhibitor so you have a chance to consider MY offer." The captain said, as he reached up besides Elana's face and slowly twisted... something. Slowly, Elana could feel her thoughts returning near their normal speed. She even felt her perception of the Force reawakening, but it felt numb. Like a limb she'd have awkward slept on, or looking through foggy glass.
"I will not negotiate, or make this decision with a knife to my neck. Any more trouble from your end, and I will cast this third option aside without another though." Captain Antonius promised her as her eyes began to clear.
"Now, Dark Jedi, tell me-"
"Elana." She muttered to the Captain, realizing now fully the compromised position she was in. "My name is Elana...."
The senior officers of every sector was standing in ranks in the pilot concourse. Normally, this sort of meeting would happen in the war room, but there wasn't enough room for all the staff from every section and every shift. It was very rare to have this many of the officers together unless a ship was being commissioned or decommissioned.
Captain Antonius made his way to the lecturn, looking out to the men and women under his command. The burden of his responsibility never felt quite so heav as when he stood before them all and could see their faces, and never as heavy as it did today.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the Brazen. I am sure most of you know why I've called this meeting of all the command elements aboard this vessel." He began, acknowledging how quick rumours and news spread on any ship. "We have been approached by a representative of one Supreme Commander Wes Vos, claiming to represent the will of the Empire. As you all know, we also have a call from Emperor Park Kraken for all able bodied Imperials to report to him at Vladet. We also have Emperor Hyfe's designated successor, Theren Gevel, who is dictating his commands with Dominion backing."
"Our hand has been forced." Antonius said, banging his fist against the lectern for emphasis. The officers didn't sort to murmuring, but they each looked to one another in turn to try and gauge the thoughts of the other. Concerns of whom would side with whom. "At present, we have a Dark Jedi locked in the detention block, loyal to Wes Vos, who had come to force us to his side. Her master will come looking for her. And whatever we do with this woman shall be the declaration of loyalty of this ship and her crew."
"This is, however, a decision I cannot make on the behalf of any of you. This is a decision outside of the chain of command, as it will redefine who sits at the top of it. Each of you must make a decision of where you stand. I will not, and CAN not, force any man or woman aboard this ship to an act they view as treasonous. Every officer, and every crewer, will be given this ONE chance to decide whom they support." Touching a couple keys on the lectern, the briefing monitor sparked to life to show the best nearby choice. "Denon is a nominally neutral planet, and you would be able to book transport from there to anywhere you would so choose in the galaxy. I will allow ANY one who disagrees with the side this vessel chooses to disembark. From there, you may make your way to whichever faction you so choose. You will not be stopped, and I promise safe passage to the surface. From there, it will be up to those who choose to leave to broker passage. I will ensure all pay due to those parties is given to them before departure."
Even disciplined Imperial Officers could hold their peace no more, and the room erupted into arguments. People accusing, challenging, or simply trying to find like minds. But no quickly had it started, then Antonius ended it with a slam of his fist against the lectern.
"I will not have loyalty to me sway your loyalty of Empire." Antonius continued as if the outburst had never even happened. "There is a distinct possibility I may lose the Brazen for even allowing this. As such, I will state my decision LAST. No depending on me to make this decision for you."
"Each of you must think carefully on this, and inform your subordinates to do the same. Everyone on this ship has ONE DAY starting NOW to decide where their loyalties lie."
"Dismissed!" Antonius called, years of drill eliciting a salute as they turned and began to leave. As they began to file out towards different corridors and turbolifts, one of the officers made their way to the podium. A thickset middle aged human woman who gave the Captain a quick salute.
"Captain." The woman began, looking distinctly unhappy. "So, you actually did it?"
"Against conventional wisdom, and the advice of some of my senior command officers." Antonius said, giving the woman a thin half smile. She was Lieutenant Commander Wallis, his second in command. The two had served together on and off on different vessels over the years. She had been transferred over as his XO a year back.
"Gevel and Kraken will have you killed as an example to other fleet officers waiting on the side line." She said, giving him a serious look. "And if Vos doesn't kill you for attacking his Sith Messenger? Her Master will."
"Someone had to take responsibility. And we aren't in the position to strike out on our own." Antonius said, with a sigh. His mind was still raked with doubt, but he had to make the best decision he could. "No, this is the only way to keep the crew safe. We don't have to worry about this Dark Jedi roving the halls, causing trouble, and if we make a decision to go to one of the others it will give us something to present. Even then, it relies on Emperors being forgiving and merciful. Not a trait often found in people who take that station."
"I have accepted that either way this plays out, I will likely have to pay for it with my life."
"You know I've always wanted command of a Star Destroyer." Wallis said, her brow furrowed. "Though I never wanted to get it like this."
"It isn't all it's cracked up to be, Lieutenant Commander." Antonius said with a sigh. "No, not at all."
Captain Antonius had decided this matter had to be handled personally. With a whoosh of compressed air, the door to the Dark Jedi's cell opened. She looked more aware than the last time, but no less incensed. He walked up to her without showing any attention to her ill-meaning gazes, and began to under her restraints.
"Good morning." He said as he undid the first arm restraint. He didn't know if it was the drugs or the shock, but Elana just stared at him in disbelief. He just kept going one to the next, as casually as another man would take down laundry. "We just finished off loading the officers and crewers who wanted to swear loyalty to Gevel or Kraken. Lucky for you, most of the staff, including myself, are more interested in the alternatives. Kraken has few friends in the Fleet, none of us knowing the next time we'll find one of his body doubles in a crater. And Gevel has obviously sided with the enemy, assuming that actually IS Gevel and not some clone. My staff and I figure-"
She didn't even bother reaching out with the Force this time. With the last restraint off, she moved with inhuman speed and strength to wrap a hand around Antonius' throat. Her eyes blazed with hatred.
"You left me chained to a wall for three days." She growled into his ear as she squeezed her grip tighter. "Give me one good reason not to snap your neck like a dry twig."
"The- The-" Antonius tried to cough out, but couldn't get more than a sputtering through her grip. Elana slackened her grip slightly, obviously interested to hear the man's excuse. "The crew of the Brazen. They've sworn nothing yet, and I do not think they'd take kindly to you murdering me in the Brig. And then you'd have to fight your way out."
"The Force is a powerful tool. If I must." She growled, Antonius noticing his feet no longer touched the floor despite the height he had on this woman.
"Bravado. If you were that powerful you wouldn't have had to use that much focus to choke me in the first place." Antonius spat out between forced breaths. "And even if you could, I doubt your Mistress or Vos would take well to the casualties."
Elana kept her gazed locked with Antonius' as she processed the situation and her position. The effects of the neural dampener and drugs gone from her eyes. With a sound half groan and half yell, she released the Captain.
"You WILL pay for this." Elana promised, turning her back on the Captain as he recomposed himself. "Maybe not today, but some day."
"I do not doubt it." Antonius said, with one last cough to clear his aching throat. He opened the cell door, and motioned graciously for her to follow him. She pushed past him, obviously having had her fill of Antonius' company.
"ISD Brazen, this is transport Omega One." Antonius said into the comm unit of the Lambda class shuttle. "We are heading out."
"Acknowledged Omega One. We look forward to your return." Wallis' voice came in reply.
"I can't believe we are going without that Star Destroyer." Elana said, her facing showing how annoyed she was with the whole situation. Antonius didn't feel particular good about it either, feeling exposed. But he had to. If Wes Vos was serious, and wasn't just another of a hundred other Warlods before him, he would bring the Brazen in. If not? Then he would be in Wes' clutches with or without the Brazen. Wherever Wes chose for this meeting. It wouldn't matter if the Brzen was a kilometre away, or a thousand lightyears. He would be dead long before the Brazen could do anything to stop it.
With the push of a lever, and a swell of pseudomotion, the shuttle and its passengers were off to meet Supreme Commander Wes Vos.