[Originally written by Althena]
Prologue The ceiling lights snapped off at the touch of a button, and plunged the modest office in comfortable darkness. A moment later, the holo-projector in the middle of the room flickered to life, illuminating the two Chiss men seated behind an ornately carved wooden desk in fluttering prismatic hues. Two sets of scarlet eyes stared into the holo as it scrolled through the meta-data surrounding the file on display. Disembodied words labeled the file as a personal holo-vid project school teachers often assigned to their charges, typically meant to document the child's evolving career choices. "Chiral'the'nasvati," one of the Chiss began to read off his datapad, the heavy lines on his face that betray him as an elder of his people shrouded in the gloom. The image on the projector flashed from the title screen to a Chiss girl who would have passed for twelve years old in human terms. Her clothes were thick and fur-lined, which hinted at a cold environment, like Csilla's, but the gray sky behind her ran contrary to icy warrens that characterized the Chiss homeworld. In the apparent self-shot holovid, the girl's face quickly zoomed in close, filling the entire holo space. Bright-eyed, she chattered energetically into the holo-recorder, but silently, her words muted by the projector. After her speech, the girl gave a happy nod, apparently satisfied with her utterance then swung her recorder wide, revealing a landscape of endlessly blue ocean dotted by the occasional iceberg like frozen clouds in a clear, twilight sky. "Female, age six. Born on Rentor. Member of the Chiral family line and House Nasvati, a minor house based on Sposia with little political ambition," the older Chiss continued to read, "Professions include mostly instructors and medical staff. Youngest of four siblings-Rae'muirani, I trust there is a good reason as to why you've chosen to go over the entrance exams results for the third time this week." The Chiss named Rae'muirani leaned forward in his seat, the gesture causing the shifting light of the holo to glint off the Admiral's rank insignia on his breast. His hands were tucked under his clean-shaven chin as he watched as the girl caused the world in the holovid to spin with her acting as the anchor. He kept his attention on the display when he replied to his companion, "I want her among the next set of CEDF potentials." The elder shook his head incredulously, "This girl failed the entrance exam, and not by a margin that can be ignored." "Ignore the exam, Ta'vaneerin," the Admiral retorted sharply, "Have you scrutinized her tests prior to the exam?" Ta'vaneerin's brow dipped a fraction lower as he gave his companion a sidelong glance. The both knew quite well that the recruitment officials never dug deeper than the entrance examinations. To do so for every candidate would require resources far beyond the means allotted to the Chiss Academy's recruitment office. "I'm sure you have," he replied simply, in curt tones. "Her aptitude tests, reaction times, reasoning and logic, all of them are some of the best results I have ever seen at her age." Whether he noticed his companion's displeasure or chose to ignore it was unclear. "But the exam-" Rae'muirani waved a dismissive hand as he straightened in his seat. "Doctored," he rebutted quickly, nonchalantly, "or deliberately sabotaged. The reasons for which I neither know nor care." "Tread carefully, my friend," Ta'vaneerin warned and set the datapad down on the desk, "For someone to steer a child away from the Defense Force in such a manner. She could very well be a shadow child of one of the Ruling Houses. If so, this move will certainly make you some very powerful enemies." "I am aware of the potential consequences," the Admiral replied firmly. "I have made my decision. As Headmaster of the Academy, I am permitted this exercise of my position's authority." Ta'vaneerin sighed heavily, "I know that there's no dissuading you once you start to sound like that." He paused again, studying his friend's emotionless face. It was rare for him to use his authority so openly. The question, then became, why? Unable to find the answers in the other Chiss' intense but expressionless features, Ta'vaneerin turned his attention back to the holovid. The girl was now lying in the snow, facing skyward, the holo-recorder held up over her head. Her face was now more subdued as she continued her monologue, invisible words spilling from muted lips. "I'll make the call. For your sake, I hope you know what you are doing."
Chapter 1 Little iceberg planets floating out there in a sea of freezing cold nothing. Space was a lot like home, The'nasvati decided with a mental nod as she stared out the main viewport of the CEDF light cruiser Avalanche from her position at the helm. The Avalanche and her sister ships, the Nighthawk and the Dervish were positioned outside the planetary system of a brown dwarf marked as HI-1134998 on the star charts. The cruisers and their escort of twelve heavy starfighters made up the entirety of the Picket Force Six, which had spent the last six days tracking the movements of a Republic scout force that had stumbled too close to Ascendancy space. With the Republic forces on the run, PF6 chased the enemy fleet to the HI-1134998 system, which had been identified as the Republic's entry point into the sector. Then the familiar tenor of Crahsystor Sa'chauf's voice, the Force Commander of Picket Force Six, snapped the young officer's attention back to the somewhat cramped bridge of the Avalanche and her nine member bridge crew. "Stay sharp, Ensign," he said evenly, his voice not betraying any of the tension that the rest of the crew had been experiencing for the last hour of alert status. "Should be any minute now." The'nasvati collected her wits and reviewed the information at her console at a second's glance. Nothing new to report. "Yes, sir." As if on cue, the communications officer behind them, a young man around her age of 10 years reported in, his voice somewhat shrill from the suddenness of his shout. "Sir! Message from Fighter 8! Republic forces detected in Grid 1! Holding position above an asteroid field!" "They must have thought the substar's radiation would shield them from our scans," commented the Avalanche's first officer, Lieutenant Gunu'morimundo. "Sir!" the communications officer continued, "Fighter 8 has deployed their jump beacon...sir, Fighter 8 has been destroyed." The'nasvati glanced down at her instruments. The jump beacon had indeed been deployed. Nav-data began to flood her monitors as she began the computer's micro-jump calculations, mentally double-checking the numbers. The maneuver was rare outside of Ascendancy space due to the greater risk of collisions and the general inaccuracies of non-Chiss hyperdrives. But for the forces of the CEDF, micro-hyperspace jumps were a popular tactical choice. Jump calculations were almost complete when the Force Commander gave the order to begin preparations for a tactical jump. Eleven seconds later the nav-computer finalized the route, and after double-checking the numbers, The'nasvati transmitted the coordinates to the other ships in the task force. "Jump calculations locked in, sir. Hyperdrive at 100 percent charge and the board is green." "Sir, all ships standing by. Remaining scout fighters standing by," the comm officer added. "Begin jump. All hands to battle stations." The first officer then nodded and took over the comm, "Avalanche to all ships, all hands to battle stations! Jump on my mark. Three, two, one, mark!" The stars in the main viewport stretched into impossible beams of light and then the universe burst into a maelstrom of swirling radiance. The'nasvati felt the slight and familiar vertigo as the ship entered hyperspace and then almost immediate dropped back into normal space. In an instant, the three cruisers and her immediate escort of six heavy starfighters were upon the Republic force of four Thranta-class corvettes and six scout ships. The'nasvati checked her scanners, and saw that they have arrived above the enemy fleet when the first officer spoke, "Enemy corvettes in maser range, Crahsystor. The Dervish is activating her gravity well projector." "Alternate battery fire and split our firepower on the hangar bays of those capital ships. Have our fighters engage and destroy the enemy scout vessels." As the first officer began relaying orders, The'nasvati leveled out the Avalanche's flight path until it ran parallel with the enemy corvettes, bringing as many maser batteries to bear as possible. The ships' guns immediately began raining bolts down on the enemy's hangar bays, chewing through the few fighters that managed to clear the bay before turning the decks to charred slag. Without fighter support, the Republic's scout ships were easy prey for the heavily armed Chiss fighters, who were soon supported by the remaining starfighters that had been scouting other areas in the system. Within the first two minutes, it was clear that the Republic ships stood no chance. The'nasvati kept the Avalanche abreast with the enemy capital ships while the Chiss fighters chased down the last of the scout ships as they tried to escape from the Dervish's gravity well. She then noticed one of the corvettes breaking off from the formation, burning at full speed towards the asteroid field. "Sir!" she called over her shoulder, "One of the corvettes have broken off from the rest. I think it's going to try to ford the asteroid field." "Pursuit course, Ensign," the Crahsystor quickly ordered. "Lieutenant, have the Nighthawk provide cover fire as we break through their formation." The'nasvati steered the ship downward. She narrowly slipped passed one of the corvettes as it tried to ram the cruiser, the Avalanche's guns soundly bloodying them for the effort. The front viewport was a light show as sections of the enemy corvette detonated in a ball of heated gas and plasma and the cruiser's shields glimmered where pieces of debris struck the hull, sending rumbles and tremors throughout the ship. The'nasvati spared the scanners a glance as she dodged a large hunk of the corvette's engine cluster and saw that the fleeing ship had somehow widened the gap. "They must be overburning their thrusters," the first officer muttered over her shoulder. Then more loudly, "Enemy ship is out of weapons range." "Increase power to engines," the Crahsystor ordered. As the hum from the cruiser's thrusters intensified, The'nasvati vaguely noticed the Force Commander approach her. "Time on target." She looked down at her console display, her brow furrowing instantly, "Forty-five seconds, sir. Thirty-three before they reach the asteroid field." "Once they enter the field," the first officer dismissed, "They'll never make it back out." "We can't take that risk," Crahsystor Sa'chauf replied sternly, "If even one ship escapes back to Republic space, we risk exposing the Ascendancy to our enemies." "Then we'll send our fighters, while we circle around the field and cut them off." "ETA on fighters, Ensign." "At present speed, three minutes, assuming they don't encounter resistance from the surviving corvettes, sir." "They'll never make it in time," Lieutenant Gunu'morimundo muttered, his voice edged with equal part apprehension and resignation. The'nasvati felt a hand on her shoulder, "Can you get us through?" asked her Crahsystor. She broke her gaze away from the front viewport to her instruments. The asteroid field had been a proto-planet before the system's failed star's gravity tore it to pieces until it became what it was at present. Composition of the field was roughly forty percent dust and other particulates that the shields can handle, another twenty percent were larger objects capable of punching through the shields and the rest were objects that would obliterate the Avalanche on impact. That would give their ship very little room to maneuver. However, due to tidal forces from the brown dwarf, trajectories among objects would be more or less uniform, making the attempt somewhat less than suicidal. They should be able to squeeze through, she concluded. Probably. She swallowed and squared her shoulders to steady her nerves, then looked up from her monitors. "Yes, sir." "Then proceed, Ensign." The hand left her shoulder then, and she could feel the collective dread that had fallen over the bridge as the Force Commander gave the order, but they were professionals, and proceeded with their duties with a discipline that was to be expected from a Chiss crew. "Bridge to engineering," Lieutenant Gunu'morimundo ordered over the comm, "Give me every bit of power you can spare to the engines and maneuvering thrusters. Drain the reserve batteries if you have to. I want every drop of agility you can coax out of them at the helm in twenty seconds!" The rest of the first officer's preparations faded away from The'nasvati's notice as the roughly shaped rocks that filled the viewport continued to loom ever larger. The young ensign set her hands over the console. Her hands did not feel steady, the lives of everyone onboard were entrusted to her alone. She curled her fingers, feeling the nails dig into her flesh, then relaxed them. Now was not the time to fret. The'nasvati studied the scanner readouts, her mind seeking out the undulating tunnel hidden amid the tumbling boulders and planetoids. As almost an after thought, she raised the sensitivity of her controls as far as she was comfortable. This was a time for precision. The bridge was silent as the first asteroids hurtled by the viewports. A fraction of a degree here, a sharp blast of the maneuvering jets there. The'nasvati guided the Avalanche through the gauntlet of killing stone and metal with calculated bursts of engine power and maneuvering thrusters. The shields around the cruiser shimmered as dust and objects smashed into them, their impacts dulled but clearly felt by those on board. Had she split a fraction of her concentration, she would have noticed the first officer's grip on the edge of her console, his knuckles whitening rapidly under the deep blue of his skin. But the blip on the sensors representing the Republic corvette drew steadily closer. "Target is firing!" One of the other officers on the bridge called out, but The'nasvati barely noticed. "Do not return fire until we have a firing solution." the Crahsystor ordered, his concern mirroring hers. "Stray blasts could pulverize the ship in the resulting debris field." "Divert additional shield strength to the forward hemisphere!" the first officer added loudly. Unfortunately, their quarry was not nearly as cautious, its rear turrets blasting at the cruiser at will. One shot shattered a massive asteroid just as the Avalanche was upon it, sending chunks of rock at least half the ship's size towards them. Proximity alerts roared to life as The'nasvati slammed hard on the controls, pulling the cruiser into a climb. Using the ship's momentum, she fired the side thrusters, tipping the cruiser onto its side to provide the narrowest profile as the ship slipped between two colossal stone masses. Other sirens went off as the ship squeezed through the nearly impossible opening, its shields buckling and peeling away as the hull came mere meters from the asteroids. The'nasvati heard the various bridge officers call out their alerts, but she shut out their words. As the Avalanche cleared the near-miss, she straightened out, then fired the dorsal thrusters at the front of the ship, throwing the aft end of Avalanche up and out of the way of another ship-killing asteroid. Second danger cleared, she fired the dorsal jets at full power to bring the cruiser back on the Republic ship's tail. The enemy continued to return fire, its turbolasers scoring the cruiser's armor and melting exposed hull, but the Chiss gunnery crews held their fire, knowing to trust in their Crahsystor's judgement. The corvette's smaller profile also gave the Republic helmsman the edge in the chase, but in their desperation, they were making mistakes that were slowing their progress through the asteroid field. Mistakes that The'nasvati used to bring the corvette into the Avalanche's optimum firing range. "Gunnery control reports Target Locked, Crahsystor!" Lieutenant Gunu'morimundo shouted as both ships suddenly found themselves without obstruction between them. "Forward batteries, two volleys! Fire!" Crahsystor Sa'chauf ordered, his voice raised for the first time in the battle. Moments later, the front viewport was awash in a reddish brown glow as the Avalanche's forward maser batteries lit up the void. A dozen beams converged on the fleeing corvette. The first volley splashed against its shields sending ripples throughout the bubble of energy as it buckled. Then the second volley ripped through completely, boiling the delicate cones of the corvette's engine cluster. Seconds later an explosion blossomed from the damaged engines of the corvette. The force of the blast flipped the entire ship up and over. It flipped almost three hundred and sixty degrees when it collided with an asteroid. The boulder struck the corvette square in the neck, splitting the ship in half. Debris spilled from the exposed sections like pieces of a shattered bottle. Then the corvette's engines exploded in a ball of volatile gases and super-heated metal that consumed both halves of the dying ship. The'nasvati steered the Avalanche away from the explosion and the resulting wreckage as the more junior officers on the bridge let out exaltant cheers, which were then quickly silenced by the first officer. Her scanners were now showing only debris where the corvette had been. There were no shuttles, no escape pods. Their victory was complete, but she would only allow herself to breath a sigh of relief after the Avalanche had emerged safety on the other side of the asteroid field. Amid the renewed cheers of the crew, Lieutenant Gunu'morimundo among them, The'nasvati closed her eyes and released the breathe that had been stuck in her throat. Her body suddenly felt very heavy and she slumped into her chair. She barely noticed as Crahsystor Sa'chauf stopped beside her. "Well done, Ensign." The'nasvati could only smile weakly as she punched in a course to rendezvous with the rest of the Picket Force. "Thank you, sir."
Chapter 2 It had been a week since Picket Force Six's skirmish at HI-1134998. The Avalanche and her escort were docked at Stalwart Station, above the Chiss world of Kinoss. The fortress of Kinoss was one of two major military bases in Ascendancy space and acted as the main headquarters of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force with Stalwart Station as the rally point of the Fleet. Dozens of repair droids and engineers in EV-suits milled over the surface of the Avalanche's hull like insects in a hive, repairing damage caused by weapons fire and micro-asteroid impacts with typical Chiss efficiency. After less than four days in space-dock, the Avalanche will be back on patrol before the next local sunrise. Chiral'the'nasvati stood patiently outside the office of Admiral Rae'muirani, a member of the CEDF's Defense Hierarchy. The young ensign shifted her weight from one foot to another, feeling the pin pricks of blood flow in her calves and heels. Crahsystor Sa'chauf had gone inside to meet with the admiral before her and she thought it very unusual that she was asked to come along. She had known the Admiral since her days at the Chiss Academy, when he acted as its Headmaster, though she had not seen or heard from him since her commission to the Navy Officer Corps the previous year. The thought of seeing him again after so long made her nervous. The'nasvati tugged at the hem of her uniform's traditional black jacket, then checked her chrono. Her Crahsystor had been in there for almost an hour. What's going on? She looked up when the door slid open and Crahsystor Sa'chauf stepped out. He did not immediately look her way, instead staring at the opposite wall for a long moment as the door slid shut behind him. Her first thought was that his step was stiff, if only barely noticeable, and that his posture was a fraction too rigid. She had never seen him so uncomposed. The realization made her hold breath, as if even that minute action would snap the tension that was so evident in the Commander's bearing. Then as though he remembered that she was there, he turned to regard her, a brief smile on his lips that spoke of something she could not place. Resignation? Pity? She could not tell, but it gave her a bad feeling. "They're ready for you. Good luck in there, The'nasvati," he said simply, and cocked his head towards the door. She blinked once, "T-thank you, sir," was all she could say before he snapped a quick salute then set off down the hall. Not since she first joined the Avalanche's crew did the Crahsystor call her by her name. That on top of Sa'chauf's mannerisms had her on edge as she accessed the door controls and let herself into Admiral Rae'muirani's office. The Admiral's office was clean and sparsely decorated, much like his office had been back at the Academy. That one had a large window covering an entire wall that faced the brilliant white glaciers that dominated Csilla's surface. How often had she stared out that window with the Admiral, discussing everything from art to politics. Though the Admiral's interest in her tutelage caused her no end of problems with her peers, she never regretted the lessons she had learned there. The office here on Stalwart Station however lacked the structural weakness of a window. Instead, the walls were dotted with the occasional painting, many of which she recognized as being part of the Admiral's private collection that had hung from the walls at the Academy. The paintings were each illuminated by a ceiling lamp, which helped bathe the room in a soft and warm yellow glow that stood in sharp contrast with the sterile white lights beaming in from the open doorway. Admiral Rae'muirani's desk was at the center of the room. It was a large construct, with enough perimeter space to seat eight individuals around it rather comfortably. In the middle of the desk was an obvious holo-display, along with a personal computer terminal. A matching armchair made up the only other piece of furniture in the room. Admiral Rae'muirani was sitting behind his desk when she entered the room, his white uniform seemed to glow in the soft light. He was leaning forward against the desk with interlocked fingers tucked under his chin. It was a posture that he found comfortable, and one that The'nasvati remembered well. "Ensign The'nasvati," he said as she entered, his voice even and dispassionate. "Yes, sir," she replied, and snapped to attention. The door slid shut behind her, cutting off a majority of the room's lighting, though the gloom did nothing to dull the vision of a Chiss. "You called for me, sir?" "I did," the admiral replied, but did not elaborate. His crimson stare dipped for an instant from her to a spot in front of the desk, a subtle gesture that few would have understood as a request. But she knew, and so she crossed the room, stopping within a pace of the desk, just as he had wanted. A fleeting smile touched the elder Chiss' lips as he straightened in his seat and clasped his hands in front of him on the desk. "Crahsystor Sa'chauf told me of your stunt in the HI-1134998 asteroid field. You always were a talented pilot." "I only did my duty in protecting the Ascendancy, sir." Rae'muirani nodded in assent, "A necessary risk. And not one taken lightly, I trust." "It was not taken lightly, sir." He nodded again and she fought to suppress the smile that his approval had conjured, threatening to break the professional composure she had carefully cultured. He then rose from his seat and paced over to the rear of the office where the largest painting in the room hung. The admiral gestured to the space beside him with one hand, then clasped them both behind his back as he admired the piece while The'nasvati made her way to his side. The painting depicted a cut-away of the homeworld of their people, Csilla. It was snow covered landscape lined with mountain-glaciers to the sides, warrens of prismatic, crystalline ice below, and dazzling ribbons of lights in the skies above. A trail of tiny figures could be seen entering the underground ice caverns, depicting the begone time in Chiss history where the the cold forced their people below ground. A single figure stood at the rear of the refugees, its back turned against the cave entrance with arms raised high towards the heavens. Whether the figure was an outcast or a guide was left ambiguous. The painting was new to her. The oil paints used in its creation lacked the age of most of the others in the admiral's collection, and the artist's seal was unfamiliar. She would have guessed the piece to be newly commissioned. For many long minutes The'nasvati and the admiral simply stared at the painting without a word between them. She enjoyed moments like this, in companionable silence and quiet contemplation. Aside from the intellectual sparring, these times of reflection were what she treasured most from her meetings with the admiral. She allowed herself a small smile at the familiar feeling as she studied the work. "It's been a long time, sir," The'nasvati said to the painting, finally breaking the silence. She cast her eyes downward after speaking. She had never once tried to contact the Admiral after receiving her commission with the Defense Fleet, despite knowing that such an action would have been overstepping her authority. The knowledge still made her uncomfortable to be in his presence once more. "Yes it has," Rae'muirani likewise replied, warmth slowly creeping into the stoicism. The'nasvati held her tongue. She found the words, any words, unsuitable for what her thoughts were trying to convey. In time, Rae'muirani eased that burden for her when he asked abruptly, "Why did you join the Fleet over Special Services?" Whatever weight that was lifted when Rae'muirani spoke were promptly doubled when she processed his words. He always knew how to cut to the heart of the matter, but for once she wished he was not so proficient in doing so. "Your marks in squad tactics, urban combat, infiltration, espionage, among others were at the top of your class. These you earned through tireless effort and perseverance, as well as innate talent. With your abilities, you would have had any posting you wished in Special Services or the Defensive Intelligence Division. You would have been indispensable to the Ascendancy. Why did you choose to be just another ensign among hundreds in the Fleet?" "I..." The'nasvati felt her hands ball up into fists. Her arms went rigid and her shoulders raised up by a fraction. She felt like a child faced with a scolding. The admiral was not wrong. Under his mentorship, she excelled at the Academy, gathering a broad skill set in the process. Intelligence work was almost a forgone conclusion by the end of her training with the Expansionary Defense Fleet. Except, she realized, for the very reason why she could not stand before the man who had been her mentor for almost half her life. For fear of having to explain herself to him. And to face his disapproval. For a long time she stared down at the toes of her boots, not even able to face the painting in front of her. But the admiral was patient, and The'nasvati knew that she could do nothing but answer, truthfully for she knew that he would see through anything less. "I wanted to serve under you," she said first, feeling the heat on her face rising with every syllable. Those words allowed more to follow, and more after that. "I wanted to follow in your footsteps. To lead and protect our people. Everyone admire and respect you. As I do. I wanted that. I wanted to...to be great and stand at your side." She wanted to bite her tongue as the words rolled out, but she feared that she would never get the chance to put her thoughts to words. It was not until after the words stopped coming that she noticed that Rae'muirani had turned to face her. She raised her head slightly, if only to see his face, dreading the disappointment, but instead finding...regret? "Then this turn of events is partially my own doing," he said, his tone a subtle blend of wry and something else she could not place. She always had difficulty guessing the man's emotions. Many often wore masks to shield their thoughts from others. Admiral Rae'muirani wore his face as a mask, a carefully crafted persona that slipped only when it suited him, betraying only what he wished to betray. For all the analytical skills he had taught her, he was as unreadable to her as everyone else. "Sir?" "Aristoca Nuruodo and the Defense Hierarchy have selected you to be part of the Ascendancy's Imperial Offshoot Program," he explained, and turned back towards the painting, as though he did not wish to face her as he gave her the news. "They cited your skills and abilities make you an excellent fit in our ally's intelligence agency. Your heroics on board the Avalanche only reinforces their decision." He paused as a brief sigh escaped from him, "I was forced to abstain from the discussion due to our mutual familiarity, but objectively I agree with their assessment." The'nasvati tried to breath but her lungs refused and felt the strength drain from her legs. The Imperial Offshoot Program was part of the Ascendancy's obligations to their allies in the Sith Empire where skilled soldiers, scientists, and engineers were made into Imperial citizens, providing their talents and expertise to further the goals of the Empire in its war with the Republic. Most candidates are never expected to ever return to the Ascendancy. Her mouth was dry, and her mind was still reeling from the shock. When she spoke, it felt as though she were watching somebody else speaking, rather than herself, "I understand, sir." "Your shuttle leaves tomorrow morning. Your orders will be waiting for you on board." She wanted to refuse, to shout her anger and frustration back at his face. Exiled to an alien empire, to serve at their whims and die for their causes. What good would she do for her people there? She had studied the structure and operation of Imperial Intelligence during her time at the Academy. She would be nothing more than another expendable tool in their brutal machinations, to be discarded and forgotten when her usefulness comes to an end. To die a meaningless death in some far off corner of galaxy, forgotten and unmourned. That was the fate of those in Offshoot Program. The outrage boiled from her chest to her throat, but she could not do it, could not heap the blame on her mentor. So the only words that slipped from her mouth were both simple and subdued. "Yes, sir." "The," he said, his use of her given name shocked her. He was looking at her again, his features intense. They were slightly more emotive than she had ever seen on him. And when he spoke again, she could feel her heart pounding down to her stomach. "You are to become the aegis that shields our people from harm. Through your action and inaction, you keep our enemies blind to our homes and lives. Take heart in that even if you never see the lights of Csilla or the drifts of Rentor again, we will all remember you with pride." The elation from Rae'muirani's acknowledgment fought with the pit of despair of exile. When she could no longer look at her mentor, she turned away and back towards the painting. She suddenly felt like that lone figure, her back turned from her people. "Yes, sir." The two of them stood silently in front of the painting. The'nasvati studied it intently, examining every brush stroke, every subtle shade of color, etching every detail in her memory. These would be the only things she would take with her. Officers in the Defense Fleet gave up their houses in service to the Ascendancy. Offshoots paid greater prices. She lost track of how long she stood beside her mentor, in front of this painting by an unknown creator. This time, it was Rae'muirani who broke the silence, "It truly has been a long time," he said, his words mingled with a sigh. The'nasvati felt her nails digging into palms then. Her eyes burned and she could barely hear anything over the pounding in her ears. But she managed one very small smile. "Yes. Yes it has."
Chapter 3 Chiral'the'nasvati watched the sheets of water, rain, sloughed off the viewport of the land speeder in waves. Dark, pregnant clouds blanketed the sky in a thick, rolling shroud, weeping their contents unceasingly into the dense jungles that surrounded the speeder. Jagged forks of violet-white lightning danced across the world's ceiling, often times lashing at the surface with a savagery that bordered malevolence. Only the colossal spires jutting out from the jungle canopy like defiant spears kept the surface from being ravaged by the very heavens. It was never truly day on the Imperial homeworld of Dromund Kaas with the unending storms shrouding the planet in perpetual gloom. Even without the downpour, it would have been difficult to admire the planet's unnatural beauty as the speeder streaked down the slightly overgrown thoroughfare between the starport and the capital city. She squinted as another bolt snapped down on a nearby spire, the immense tower greedily swallowing its energy to feed the planet's massive power grid. She watched silently while the speeder's other occupants cursed and muttered amongst themselves. They were all human, soldiers by the look of them. Judging from the scruff marks on their armor when she first saw them at the starport, she knew that they were not fresh recruits, but were clearly not locals by the way they were chattering. They gawked at her as well at first. It was not often an Imperial ran into an 'alien' that was given more or less the same courtesy as they were. Normally she would have been amused by the attention, but her mind was elsewhere. One of them even tried to strike up a conversation, but quickly left her to her own devices after she showed no interest in talking. She did not give them a second glance when they disembarked at the outskirts of the city. This is Kaas City, she mused as the speeder lifted off and moved deeper into the city. The Capital of the Sith Empire was a sprawling urban heart that beat with a cold cadence. Monolithic citadels bearing sharp, angular spires defined the cityscape, each massive block separated by broad boulevards, expansive parade grounds, and deep ravines carved by centuries of unrelenting rain. Smaller alley ways and tunnels criss-crossed the blocks, bending and disappearing in seemingly random patterns that hinted at an even darker face behind the coldly efficient facade. And while Kaas City easily dwarfed the greatest of Chiss cities on Csilla in size and grandeur, it lacked the subtle elegance in simplicity of her homeworld. But even the largest of Kaas City's fortress-like blocks sat in the shadow of her destination, the Imperial Citadel, a silent master over his harsh domain. A short while later, the speeder sped over the great chasm that separated the Citadel and the city proper. There The'nasvati caught a glimpse of the city's true scope, with evidence of construction and habitation completely lining the walls of the gorge separating the city proper and the Citadel itself. As the speeder drew closer, it slowed and climbed skyward, eventually settling on one of the many covered landing pads that jutted out from the cliff-like structure of the Citadel. The'nasvati rose from her seat as the door swung open and exited the speeder. The canopy sheltered the landing pad from the torrential rain, but the wind and moisture still dominated the area. The Chiss shrugged off the moderate cold however, even as nearby personnel suffered in the elements. She spent a moment to gaze up at the towering structure, appreciating the colossal scope of the building that could not have been fully understood until one stood before it. She then shifted her weight slightly from one heel to the other, feeling the pressure of the datapad in her pocket. Her orders, and now her Imperial documentation were now on that little device. Her entire future reduced to a tiny slip of duraplast and circuitry. She stretched her shoulders, wringing the tension from her muscles then marched off the landing pad towards the Intelligence wing of the Citadel. She had time to lament on the shuttle out of Ascendancy space. Now she had to stand proudly, to be a face for her people, and she was determined to never tarnish the trust that has been placed on her, however unfairly. The interior of Imperial Intelligence Headquarters was sterility lit with the sharp, angular lines that she had come to expect of Imperial architecture. The main lobby was a modest space compared to openness of the exterior grounds. She suspected that few people made social visits here. A single operator attended the only desk in the room, flanked by a pair of soldiers. More guards were posted at each of the three connecting corridors, but her attention was one the uniformed officer sitting at the desk. "Identification," he droned, barely acknowledging her presence with a shift of his eyes. Only after she handed over her datapad did he look up. "So you're one of the new Chiss personnel. Welcome miss Cheeral'deh-" "Althena," she interjected smoothly between his syllables. "My core name is Althena, if you prefer." The man nodded stiffly, "Althena then." He scanned her datapad then uploaded something into it with a few touches of his console. Data then flowed down his holo screen like the rain outside for several moments, then he squinted at the screen before alternating his attention between her and the screen. A lump began to form in her stomach. The last thing she needed right now were errors in her documentation. This was not customs, it was the headquarters of Imperial Intelligence. A place with rumors in abundance of people meeting mysterious ends or outright disappear without a trace. "Is there a problem?" she asked, in a level and controlled tone practiced over years of espionage training. "ID says you're twelve?" Exasperation instantly overwhelmed concern at those words as she readied a barbed response, but another voice, one that carried authority, spoke before she did. "Chiss adolescence is half that of human standard, Lieutenant. I assure you that there is no mistake." Althena tracked the source of the voice to a middle aged man dressed sharply in an Imperial officer's uniform. His hair was dark and well-kept, and a short mustache adorned a face slightly creased by age and worry. And though his uniform was devoid of rank, the man at the desk visibly paled in the face of him. "Yes, sir," he stammered. The newcomer then turned his towards her and extended a gloved hand, "You must be miss Chiral'the'nasvati. Welcome to Dromund Kaas." he greeted her in a heavily accented Cheunh that took her by surprised. "It's a pleasure," she replied in kind and shook his hand, coloring her voice as someone who has been impressed before switching back to Basic. "I was not aware that anyone knew Cheunh." "I am in no way proficient," the man replied comfortably, "but I have learned enough thus far to be able to welcome our allies properly. You may call me Watcher One, I will be facilitating your orientation and training while you are here. Your profile suggests that you are highly capable. I look forward to seeing you in action." "I will do my best to meet your expectations, sir." "Very good," the Watcher said with a firm nod before glancing back at the desk operator, "I will take over from here, Lieutenant." "Yes, sir," the man at the desk said and handed the datapad back to her. Without looking back, Watcher One then marched down one of the corridors, his gait relaxed and his posture perfect. Althena spared the Lieutenant a glance, who looked markedly more relieved now that the Watcher was retreating, before following her superior. When she had caught up, the Watcher acknowledged her with a nod. They exchanged pleasantries as they traveled further into the bowels of Imperial Intelligence. Neither of them learned very much from one another, though Althena was certain he knew more about her than vice versa. The corridors that they traveled through all seemed identical, but the myriad of personnel that they encountered all seemed to know exactly where they were going. When Watcher One noticed her peering down adjacent hallways at the intersections, he assured her that it all would make sense with time. She was soon inclined to believe him. The general layout of the facility was elaborate but logical with progressively secretive operations placed deeper within the labyrinth of corridors, elevators, and bio-scan security check points. When they finally reached the command center of the Operations Division, they were near the deepest parts of the facility, trumped only by what Watcher One called the High Security Archives. The three tiered command center was abuzz with activity. At the lowest tier dozens of men and women stationed at consoles listened to the comings and goings of the entire galaxy and relayed that information to a countless number of agents. A smaller number of manned consoles, terminals, and holo-displays made up the second tier as research and analysis was being preformed, digesting the torrent of data streaming in. The highest tier seemed to be a command post centered around a large conference holo-terminal. Along the sides of the room were banks upon banks of super-computers, taking up almost all of the wall space. Watcher One led her up to the highest tier, to the entryway of another corridor. "Keeper will see you now," he told her. "It's not standard procedure, but being one of our first Chiss operatives, he wanted to get some face time with each recruit." Althena nodded, and guessed that the title represented the ranking official in the organization, "Understood, sir." She had doubted that raw recruits would be allowed to see Intelligence's inner-workings their first day there after they passed through their third check point. As she stepped into the hallway, she was absolute sure that any foul ups at this point and beyond would result in her termination. Can't have all those potential secrets being leaked by the washouts. She briefly wondered how many of her people had met exactly that fate. The walk to Keeper's office was short and uneventful, though she stayed alert, not knowing how Intelligence would try to test her. As the door slid open into the spacious office with spartan furnishings, she spied the tall shoulders of a man standing in front of a large desk. He was dressed in an Imperial uniform, and like Watcher One, carried no signs of rank. But unlike Watcher One's kindly demeanor, his features were long, stern, and hawkish. His gray hair was worn like a three-sided crown, and he had his gloved hands clasped behind his back; a stance that conjured the unbidden image of Admiral Rae'muirani. Althena snapped to attention upon entering, but it was Keeper who spoke first. "Miss Althena," he said curtly. "Reporting as ordered, sir." "Good," Keeper said simply before pivoting his waist to scoop up a datapad on his desk. "You come highly recommended, but all potential intelligence agents come highly recommended. Few live up to that expectation." "I will do my best, sir." "See that you do," he said, his voice very naturally grim to her ears. He then waved the datapad in his hand dismissively before tossing it back onto his desk. "Though our peoples have been allies for decades, your kind's candidacy to the ranks of Imperial Intelligence has been very recent. There are many in power who still do not wholly trust you, or your motives. Loyalty to the Empire being the key reason that has been cited. Your loyalties to the Ascendancy is without question. But what of your loyalties to the Empire? Will you selflessly bleed and die for us in their stead?" Althena hesitated. What was Keeper really asking? An expected response? Or perhaps something tied to cues in his tirade had she was to pick up on? Keeper stared at her as she considered her words carefully, measuring her worth just as she measured her options. "I am a loyal servant of the Chiss Ascendancy, sir. To that end, I will serve its allies with as much dedication as if I were serving the Ascendancy itself." "And should that relationship somehow change...?" Keeper commented pointedly, but soon waved a dismissive hand. "Your loyalties are not my primary concern, recruit. In the realm of espionage, incompetence often does more damage than disloyalty ever could. And it is my job to determine your level of competency. So long as you work to strengthen the Empire and weaken its enemies, I care little for where your loyalties really lie. Do you understand?" She paused to consider his words then nodded once, "I think I do, sir." An ashen brow above Keeper's eyes rose, "An honest answer. Sadly uncommon in this line of work," he mused. "Make no mistake, recruit. This isn't glamorous work. We're sanitation workers. We clean up after the military and the Sith and do the jobs no one else will. Without us though, the Empire falls apart. So we do whatever is necessary. Even if it's thankless and ugly. Do you think you can handle that?" She paused again. Was she truly ready for this life, however short it may be? This was not the choice she would have made. There was never a choice. But now it was all she had left, a burden she never wanted, and denied all the things she did. Was she ready, or even capable of pursuing it as though it were her one passion in life? Her thoughts went to the Admiral, and his words. The unmistakable trace of pride in his voice that he let slip through his shell. And she knew. "I will know in the end, sir." Keeper nodded, the barest hint of a smile touching his features so briefly that she wondered if it existed at all, "A practical answer. Again sadly uncommon." He then clasped his hands behind his back, slipping back into an air of command as easily as one would put on a coat. "From this day forward, you will operate under the designation, Vexx. Your training will begin tomorrow morning. For now, acclimatize yourself with the facility. Watcher One will see that you are settled in properly. You are dismissed." Althena replied with a sharp salute then performed a crisp about-face before marching out of Keeper's office. For a long moment she just stood there, alone in the corridor. Vexx. Althena Vexx. Just like that, she had become a member of the Sith Empire, for better or for worse. She closed her crimson eyes and breathed long, silent breathe. When they opened again, there was a spark of determination within them. Wherever this path may lead, it was the first day of her new life.
Chapter 4 Situated in the Outer Rim Territories was the human dominated world of Serenno. Rich in natural resources and capital, Serenno was home to a number of powerful galactic firms that ranged from agriculture to law. And as the crown jewel of a vast tract of space the Republic had ceded to the Empire at the end of the war, Serenno continued on business as usual. Due to Serenno's influence on the many worlds in the sector, the Empire had decided to run the planet with a light touch, allowing the current rulers, a consortium of nobles known as Counts, to conduct their business with little interference, so long as that business benefits the Empire. This arrangement allowed Serenno businesses to prosper, quickly absorbing the assets of organizations that clung to the Republic, and the Empire gained a powerful financial base from which to further its goals in the Outer Rim. But with the years of prosperity came corruption and discontent. A powerful Count named Tarcus rose to prominence among the people of Serenno. A charismatic man, he commanded the love of the general population with generous charity and grand public works. Out of public eye however, he chafed under Imperial tithes and sought to undermine his fellow Counts for greater wealth and power, secretly consorting with Republic agents and terrorist elements that challenged Imperial rule. Growing bolder with each act of rebellion, Count Tarcus' treason culminated in his recent clandestine funding of Pro-Republic militant groups. His beloved status among the people however, had made him untouchable, with Intelligence analysts predicting that moving against him would cause planet-wide public outrage and embolden the rebels to action. That is, until now. The celebration of the First Dawn, marking the completion of Serenno's solar cycle was a planet-wide affair, one steeped in the traditions of the planet's ancient culture. On this day, Count Tarcus hosted a grand dinner party at his mountain retreat. Tucked among picturesque alpine slopes near the planetary capital of Carannia, the mountain estate was a place of magnificent stonework and breathtaking vistas of the Serenno cityscape and the planet's heavily forested wilderness. Protective of his privacy, the Count's guest list consisted of a mere two dozen of his most trusted lieutenants, disciples, and confidants. Each were powerful figures in their own right from public officials to corporate and military leaders. Under heavy guard, the celebration began early in the evening as the party guests arrived and were carefully screened before being allowed onto the grounds. Politics and pleasantries flowed from the Count and his guests as liberally as the refreshments, which was soon followed by a grand feast in the estate's main hall. The main hall was covered in tapestries that hung from the ceiling to the floor. Each one depicted a scene from Serenno's robust mythology of deities from the world's ancient history. The woven paintings told the story of the world's creation and subsequent history as Serennians rose to power in their home system and beyond. Many of the tapestries were part of the Count's collection of antiquities and no two were identical. Swathed in hundreds of such hanging murals, the hall was partitioned into a main dining area ringed by adjacent corridors and side rooms. The Count's guests marveled at the creative decor as they made their way to the dining area, which consisted of several long tables arrayed in a 'U' shape on one side and facing a large space on the opposite end that had been cleared for the evening's entertainment. Men garbed in bright and colorful uniforms and carrying large drums materialized from between clever overlaps in the tapestries as the dinner guests settled into their seats, inviting cheers of delight then rapacious applause as the drummers began their performance. The powerful rumble of drums accompanied the appearance of an army of women dressed in traditional robes. Each one carried with them a tray of fine food and drink. Midst approving looks, the women, one for each guest, set their burdens on the table with elegant, graceful motions, before joining the guests, to ensure that no one was in want of attention, beverage, and conversation. Praise soon poured from the guests lips, to which the Count accepted with an almost jovial cheer at his place at the center of the 'U'. Through it all, the drummers continued their percussive performance, the lights in the hall dimming and brightening in step with the pulsating beats. More cheers erupted as the drummers ended their rhythms with a synchronous shout, then the lights dimmed once more, allowing them to retreat back behind the tapestries. In their place a troupe of costumed figures filed in to the stage. The lights then returned with renewed applause as the guests recognized the stylized costumes of Serenno's ancient mythological pantheon. Masked men and women dressed in full body costumes representing old gods began their dance, a performance that retold old creation myths that were currently all the rage on the planet. The dancers moved sensuously, their gestures deliberate and their steps measured. Artists of body and movement, the dance was as meaningful as the murals that surrounded them. Part way through the performance, the gods broke off from their dance and approached the guests in rousing fashion with cheer and energy. Dancers dressed as gods and goddesses of good fortune and the like greeted the diners with exaggerated pantomimes and signs of good luck for the coming solar cycle. As the train of dancers approached Count Tarcus however, his bodyguards stepped forward, interceding on his behalf with their hands on their blasters. But with a delighted chuckle the Count waved his guards off with good cheer, and allowed the dancers passage. The first of the gods reached forward across the table and tousled the Count's hair, drawing laughs from Tarcus, and cheers from his followers, who took the gesture as a sign of luck and blessing. A second pressed a gloved finger tip against the Count's forehead, and a third shook the man's hand with gusto, and so on. The train of deities bestowed their blessings on the Count to the delight of his guests until the last had passed through and had returned to the opposite end of the room. There their dance continued to unfold as the diners continued their feasting and merrymaking. And as the story drew to a close, a pair of goddesses stepped forward as the rest formed a chorus behind them. These two drew delicate and ornate swords from their costumes and began to dance anew, reenacting traditional martial patterns from times when Serrenians settled their differences through duels. Silence fell upon the gathering as the dance steadily rose in complexity, the sharp clash of steel exclaiming the building tempo of the twin goddesses being the only sounds in the room. As they fought, the other gods gestured amongst themselves, feigning marvel just as the guests did so in earnest. After the sword dance ended in a draw, the goddesses marched towards the Count, their weapons still in their hands. Stepping within striking distance, just on the other side of the table from where the Count was sitting, the pair halted as the Count's bodyguards started in their direction, but were again rebuffed by the Count, for he knew the next stage of the performance. Seated before the two armed dancers, he grinned with the pride of an orchestral conductor as they knelt down before him, their blades held in supplication. The Count then rose from his seat and commended their dance in magnanimous manner to fierce applause. The assembled pantheon of dancers bowed as the lights dimmed once more, allowing them to escape back behind the curtains along with the return of the drummers. Thunderous rumbles soon refilled the hall as the dancers quickly retreated to their dressing rooms at the outskirts of the tapestry maze. But one dancer lingered, surreptitiously slipping into an adjacent chamber filled with the furniture that had been moved to make room for the Count's dinner party decorations. The dancer quietly made their way to the far end of the room, near the outer edge of the tapestries and retrieved a discrete case from among the piled furniture. Setting the case on a nearby table, Agent Althena Vexx roughly removed the masked headdress of her dance costume, letting it drop on the floor. Her actions muted by the rumble of the drums, she opened the case, revealing a change of clothes, a pair of specialized goggles, and a pistol. The Chiss agent then paused a moment and listened, counting the beats and judging how far along the drummers are with their performance. Satisfied with her timing, she began to strip off her costume, leaving it in a discarded crumple on the floor. Clad in the simple attire of a Serreno servant, she lifted the pistol from the case and quickly checked it for any obvious malfunction. The pistol was a needler, an archaic weapon that utilized compressed gas to propel a solid, needle-like slug. Useless against all but the weakest of armor, the needler had fallen out of favor since the introduction of the blaster, but the design and construction of the needler has survived the millennia in the hands of assassins and hitmen thanks to its quieter shot noise and the lack of a bright, traceable bolt. As Althena loaded the weapon, she noted its mint finish. The pistol had been part of the newest shipment of weapons purchased by the militant groups the Count had financed, to be used as part of the terrorists' plots to assassinate key figures who were in support of greater Imperial sovereignty. During the mission's planning stages, she had appreciated the sense of irony in addition to the weapon's more practical applications. Lastly she placed the goggles over her eyes, taking a moment to adjust to the multispectrum display. The goggles had been tuned to detect trace amounts of neutronium-4, a rare compound that was incapable of sustaining itself for more than a very short period of time outside laboratory settings. The telltale chemical will have faded away long before investigators would think to look. She glanced down at her costume, noting the splotch of the unstable element at the end of a glove. Lifting her gaze, the goggles' scanners easily pierced through the layers of tapestries to the mark she had made on the Count's forehead. Althena breathed a long sigh as the deep vibrations of the drums continually reverberating around and through her. Her window of opportunity was fast approaching. She felt the sweat from the dancing trickle down her face. Intercepting the original dancer and assuming her place unnoticed had been a simple matter. Learning the routine in under a week however, had been both a trying and exhilarating experience, as she had to make sure that she played her part convincingly. As the drummers built towards a crescendo, the weight of what she was about to do finally pressed down on her mind. It was then that she realized that her hands trembled. For over a year, she had trained tirelessly with Imperial Intelligence. Most of the training had been redundant, thanks to her training at the Academy, save for Imperial specific operational procedures and the relearning of Imperial protocol. Countless simulations on top of field work supporting senor agents. But this was her first assassination. Death and killing were not new to her, but they were always impersonal affairs. The faceless destruction of an enemy starship, smoldering wreckage of simulation targets, or the sterile calculations of an air strike. These she had done dozens of times over. But never had she looked at the face of another living being and then murdered them. She closed her eyes against the drumming, letting her thoughts return to the peace she found back on Csilla, back at the Academy, back in Admiral Rae'muirani's office, and the painting they studied during her last day with her people. Whatever her concerns, the memory of those moments calmed her mind, and steadied her hand. They reminded her of her duty and that knowledge gave her strength. When her eyes opened once more, she instantly spotted the bright mark through the thickly woven veils. Her weapon hand raised slowly, firmly, any sign of hesitation evaporated, boiled away in the rapid babble of drums. She leveled her sights on the spot in her vision. It hovered there, intent on the performance, at the height of Count Tarcus' power, unaware that his life was about to end. The drummers reached their peak with a great shout, and the chamber fell to darkness as it had before. As the guest cheered, she squeezed the trigger, the resulting gasp of decompressed gas completely muffled by the celebration. She did not see the needle pierce the layers of tapestries between her and the Count. But she saw the dot snap backward, then droop forward with the finality of death and knew that the deed was done. Althena then tugged off her goggles and stuffed them in a pocket then headed straight to the rear of her partition and slipped out from under the tapestry. In moments she was marching down the servants' passage towards the service entrance, her equipment carefully discarded. By the time the lights returned to normal, and the nearest of the Count's guests made their horrifying realization, she had already exited the estate after dumping her weapon in a garbage chute so that it would be found. As the Count's bodyguards finally contained the panic that then ensued enough to sweep the grounds, she was already back in Carannia. And by the time the news of the Count's assassination had reach those in power, she was leaving orbit on a military shuttle. Onboard the Imperial transport Lambda, Agent Vexx watched from the cockpit as the ship entered hyperspace. "ETA to Dromund Kaas, pilot," she queried as she leaned against the entry bulkhead. "Two days, sir," the pilot responded professionally. "A secure terminal has been prepped in your quarters." Althena nodded and thanked the pilot before leaving the cockpit. The Lambda was a small, but speedy ship, and one that was not unfamiliar with Intelligence operations. Operating under a minimal crew, she found the ship to be comfortable spacious as she made her way to a small three meter by three meter room that was to be her quarters for the duration. She made note of the thin mattress atop of set of dressers placed under the room's sole viewport as she entered and dropped her goggles on the bunk, next to the holocomm that had been left there. Across from the bed was a small refresher station. Scooping up the holocomm, Althena set the device on refresher counter and activated the comm beacon. Moments later the holocomm blinked to life as the image of Watcher One materialized. "Establishing security protocols...Encryption algorithms active...Channel is stable. Status report, agent." "Mission accomplished, sir. No complications," Althena replied cleanly. Watcher One's face broke into a smile, "Good work, agent. We're already getting reports of the incident. With the clues you've left behind, the right parties will undoubtedly be implicated in the deed and our strike teams will ensure that said parties will not be able to say otherwise." The Watcher's stance then relaxed somewhat, "With this mission, you have passed your final test. You are now considered a fully-fledged agent of Imperial Intelligence along with all the rights and privileges of that position." his image then nodded with respect, "Congratulations." "Thank you, sir." "Report back to headquarters. Keeper will give your debriefing and reassignment in person." "Understood, sir." Watcher One's holo flickered as he reached for something out of view. "Your birthday passed while you were on assignment if I recall correctly." She raised confused brow, "Yes. That was the case. I'm not sure on the significance however..." "Well a birthday is customary celebrated on most human worlds," he paused briefly to clear his throat, "Often with gifts. With that in mind, I went and got you something. You'll find it at your dead drop in Kaas City." Althena felt her lips curl upward, "Charming, sir. But you do have access to my address." "Let's consider this the less unprofessional approach, agent," Watcher One replied with a chuckle. "I'll see you when you're planetside. Watcher One out." As the holo faded and the comm became silent, Althena flopped onto her bunk with a grunt. As the inactivity set in, the soreness from her exertions of the day made themselves fully known. Her limbs felt like clay, soft and useless, and burned like a week of close quarters combat training. Her head ached from dehydration so she blindly rummaged through the supply drawers underneath her bunk for a canteen, emptying its contents in a handful of gulps once it was discovered. She then idly brushed her goggles and emptied canteen into the open drawer to make room then laid there for a long time, staring at the swirling blue-white streaks of light on the other side of the viewport until exhaustion overwhelmed adrenaline, and sleep claimed her.
Chapter 5 A distant rumble pulled Althena's attention away from her reflection in the refresher station mirror and toward the view of the street outside her hotel room. She saw people from civilians in rough, patchwork clothing to fully armored Imperial soldiers barely flinch as the energy shields arching above them rippled with the impacts of resistance artillery fire. Stray shells struck the ruins outside the city defenses, sending light tremors into the habitable zones. The metal frame of her mirror rattled, as did several other large fixtures of her room that were clearly not firmly bolted into place. The barrages came every few hours, though nobody seemed to give the blasts and tremors a second's thought. Such was the shell shocked reality of Sobrik, capital of the Imperial Government on the war torn world of Balmorra and the location of her most recent assignment. Gaze shifting back to the mirror, Althena finished brushing her recently washed shoulder length hair, taking care to tuck any stray locks behind her ears before setting it all in place with a tasteful hairband of golden braids. Light cosmetics soon followed and when she was satisfied, the young Chiss agent turned to the gear laid out on the bed behind her. First on was a white bio-metric regulator suit, then a pair of steel capped combat boots. A tactical vest was next, followed by a belt. These were loaded with an assortment of devices she might need to utilize during her operation. Next on were her favorites, a pair of reinforced gloves, each equipped with built-in slicing equipment. After a quick gear check, she completed her outfit with a white armored duster, a sheathed vibroknife strapped to each shoulder. As she turned her attention to matters of armament, the holocomm sitting on the nightstand next to the bed made itself known with the dull beeps of an incoming transmission. At a touch, the comm flared to life and the image of a young woman with dark and cropped hair in an Imperial officer's uniform coalesced. "Establishing secure transmission...Security Algorithms initialized...Channel stable. Welcome to Balmorra, Agent. How was your flight?" "Watcher Two," Althena said mildly, "This is a surprise." "Not an unpleasant one I hope. I know that Watcher One has been your sole handler for over a year now." the Watcher replied in kind, though Althena got the feeling that the other woman did not care either way. "Watcher One is currently out on assignment so I will be your handler in the interim. How are your preparations going?" "On schedule," the agent reported and returned to her gear; a heavy blaster pistol, and a light precision blaster rifle with the barrel shortened enough to hide underneath her coat. "What's the situation?" "We have on reliable authority that Professor Edwinn Frey, a lead scientist from the Imperial Science Bureau's Weapons Division is planning to go rogue. He is currently located in a secret facility underneath the northern Sobrik ruins." "Rogue? What kind of research can give that kind of leverage?" She checked the charge on her blaster energy clips. "Top secret weapon designs. Bleeding edge hardware. We're not sure on the specifics, but Keeper and the Minister of Intelligence wants to preempt the problem before it gets out of hand. We need you to enter the base, slice into their mainframe, retrieve any and all research data, and bring back the Professor for questioning. Since this is one of our own facilities, you will be provided with all the proper clearances." "What about the science team and security personnel? How do they fit into this?" "This facility has been Professor Frey's private lab for over five years. The facility does not have any registered support staff. His previous breakthroughs within the Bureau regarding capital class reactors and turbolasers afforded him with enormous autonomy. It's a mistake that we will have to clean up. As for the troops stationed there," Watcher Two paused briefly, and when Althena glanced back in her direction she saw a look of distaste marring the Watcher's otherwise attractive features, "Their loyalty cannot be reliably confirmed, so they are to be considered expendable. They have not been informed of your visit." Althena's hands stopped halfway through the motions of loading her blaster with a fresh clip. She met Watcher Two's gaze for a breath before snapping the energy cell into place. "Understood," she replied evenly and holstered her pistol on her right hip. "How big is our window?" "Your access codes will be good for another three hours before the next security rotation. You can expect heavy droid presence in addition to security personnel. We don't know what other defenses the Professor might have installed, so stay alert. Watcher Two out." Althena waited for the holo to fade completely before she scooped up the comm and tucked it away in one of her vest pockets. She then secured her rifle under her duster and performed one last minute check before leaving the hotel. As she exited the building, the agent looked skyward at the glowing energy shield protecting the city from resistance attacks. The shelling had stopped for the time being and the city has returned to business as usual. She thought it rather fitting as she set out on her own mission, taking the time to hike north around the spaceport, bypassing Imperial check points to avoid notice. Once outside the protective dome of Sobrik's shield, Althena picked her way through the blasted ruins, avoiding Imperial patrols and unexploded ordinance along the way. By the time she reached the coordinates of the research lab, she still had forty two minutes left before her pass codes expired. Her entry point was a large service elevator tucked under the rubble of an old industrial complex. Folded, half-collapsed walls marked the graves of buildings gutted by bombs and fire, surrounded by debris strewn roads that had been cracked and cratered by walkers and artillery. As she weaved through the ruins, she found the place completely devoid of life. Nothing grew on the exposed, blasted earth and what few examples of wildlife that would scavenge here were long gone. Even the sounds of renewed resistance attacks on Sobrik seemed dull and subdued. There were no guards posted at the service entrance, most likely done to avoid attracting unwanted attention, but it was hardly unprotected. As Althena scouted the area from her vantage point tucked between two bombed out warehouses, she spotted the several signs of recent construction. Arrayed around the bunker that housed the elevator were four durasteel housings for automated blaster turrets. The housings, resembling squat footlockers were cleverly hidden amidst the rubble, but could not fool a trained eye such as hers. Settling in, she brought up her wrist computer and activated the her wireless slicing protocols. A few taps of her controls reset and looped the turret's sensor equipment, putting the defenses out of play long enough for her to make it passed the blasted roadway and into the overhang that sheltered the entrance from the aerial view. Activating the access pad by the door, she deftly keyed in the twelve digit security code then pressed her back against the wall beside the door as the elevator hummed to life. The door split open with a dull hiss a moment later. Once inside the elevator, she let the doors close and punched in her destination. As the elevator hummed and she felt the slight tug of motion, a cursory glance uncovered a maintenance panel, which quickly yielded to a prying hand. She then extended a computer spike attached to her computer and jacked it into the droid access port by the elevator door. Computer slicing was an effort of logic and information processing, bypassing or usurping a program's or droid brain's root processes and introducing the slicer's own commands. Having been trained to plot hyperspace calculations in her head, slicing into a security door was almost second nature even without any of her prepared infiltration programs. And by the time the elevator had descended as far as it would go, Althena had already piggybacked into the lab's security network; looping camera feeds, and marking her maps with locations of defensive systems and guard patrol routes, in particular, the two guards stationed just outside the elevator when it reached the lab. Althena darted out of the elevator as soon as the doors began to open, vibroknife in hand. In the time it took for the two guards to glance curiously in her direction, she had already analyzed the situation. Standard trooper armor lacks throat guard. Blade under the chin to stifle vocals and incapacitate. Sidestep and shield with body to delay blaster fire. Helmets designed to deflect blasters, insufficient against physical trauma; knife throw to visor plate. By the time the elevator doors were completely open, both guards were on the floor with mortal wounds and she released the breathe she did not realize that she had been holding. Then she kneed next to the first guard and quickly snapped his neck where he lay before yanking her knife out of the eye socket of the second. A quick wipe on the guard's armor cleaned the blade, then she tucked the weapon back in her shoulder sheathe. She drew her blaster rifle from under her coat, then worked her way down the corridor. Navigating with her wrist comp, she skipped over several doors along the way, moving with purpose towards the lab's computer mainframe. Her pace was brisk, and the automated turrets were no match for her slicing programs. They glared at her vainly in their virtual shackles as she passed them. The lab was eerily silent otherwise, she did not encounter any more guards save the initial two by the elevator. Even the security droids that would normally populate an Imperial installation were absent. Suspicious, the agent pressed onward, alert for any signs of ambush until she rounded a corner between her and her destination. And face to face with a squad of four soldiers. "There she is-!" the filtered voice of one of the troopers managed to shout before he took a blaster bolt in the visor plate. Althena spun back around the corner as blaster fire lit up the corridor and dropped to a knee. So much for doing this quietly, she thought with a mental sigh and tugged a small cylindrical device from her vest as the stench of charred metal and plastic filled the area. A quick squeeze with her thumb depressed the arming cap and the subsequent flick of her wrist sent the device into the fray. Althena waited for the inevitable blinding flash and thundering bang, then peeked out with her rifle. She squeezed the trigger twice and two more bodies clattered down on cold duraplast. "I surrender! I surren-!" the last guard's panicked stammers became his last words as her third shot found him. Althena stood and swept the corridor for any other dangers before proceeding, stepping around the bodies of the dead without misstep. She spared the men a regretful look before she keyed in the access code for the computer room. The door slid open at her command, and she immediately felt heavier, colder air waft over her. The room was minimally lit, to afford a lower ambient temperature, and the ventilation system kept the room in a dry chill. Columns of servers dominated the much of the extensive, though squat room, filling the space with the low, electrical hum of activity. On the far end of the room, visible between two rows of servers from her vantage point at the door, was a large computer terminal, its monitors blackened and unused. Before she stepped into the room, she checked her comp, the codes would have deactivated the room's security systems, but it did not hurt to double check. Satisfied with what she saw, she made her way through the grove of data, stopping in front of the terminal. She unfurled her computer spike once more and plugged it into the terminal, breathing life into the darkened monitors. She squinted at the sudden change in brightness but adapted quickly, and cast her database-pilfering nets for the research data she was sent to retrieve. While her wrist comp processed the task, she activated her personal holo-communicator and set it on the edge of the console. A few moments later the image of Watcher Two materialized. The Watcher raised a stalling hand while the security measures loaded, speaking only when it was ready. "Channel stable. What's your status, agent?" "I have access to the mainframe. Prepare for data transfer." "Understood, we're standing by." Her wrist computer blinked once as it linked with the holo-comm. As the programs fished up relevant data, it was immediately transmitted through the secure channel directly to one of headquarter's proxy servers for dissemination. Minutes ticked away, and occasionally Watcher Two would share any particularly interest bits of non-sensitive data that was being received with her, but stayed silent for the most part. As the information piled up however, the Watcher's eyes widened, heralding the grim seriousness in her voice that followed. "These records are detailing more than just Professor Frey's research. They also include his dealings with...," she stopped short, then inputted something on an unseen console. "Data transfer complete. You're cleared to purge the mainframe. I'll notify Keeper about this while you proceed with your mission. It is absolutely vital that you bring Frey back for questioning." Althena arched a brow, "Something I should know?" "Not yet. Just make sure you bring him back. I'll update you once I have something. Watcher Two out." The young Chiss sighed and stowed her holo-comm, muttering, "Right then." Working an operation without the whole picture always put her on edge. She then retracted her computer spike and wiped the system of all its data. Only Imperial Intelligence would have a copy of the Professor's research now. Then the room turned red and alarms blared. "Warning!" an computerized voice boomed over the intercom. "Unauthorized entry detected. All security personal are to report to their stations immediately." As the message repeated, Althena frowned. "It's always something..."
Chapter 6 Althena trekked through the halls of Professor Frey's lab cautiously, rifle tucked against her shoulder at the ready. The facility's automated alert announcement continued to drone on about an unauthorized entry into the laboratory and by now she was sure that it did not mean her. She had used authorized access codes. None of her activities so far should have triggered an alarm, so she quickly deduced that she was probably not alone in her invasion. And judging from the lack of concerted opposition, she suspected that the third party was deemed a significant threat. All of this just meant that her time table was suddenly much less forgiving. Then as if on cue, the lights in corridor she was traveling down snapped from sterile white to dull crimson just as it had in the computer room, and heavy blast doors began to fall from the ceiling in front of a distant intersection. The young agent broke into a sprint, dashing down the corridor for the door. The mechanism was slow, the system obviously designed to protect the facility from natural hazards such as fires and flooding, whilst giving any personnel time to escape. The door extended downward like a curtain and her escape sunk closer towards the floor even as the distance between them shrank. In mid-stride, she hurled her rifle through the disappearing gap. Then with her pulse beating in her ears, Althena lunged and rolled, and hit the floor hard within a pace of the blast door. The momentum of her run sent her in a skid, the side of her head brushing against the bottom of the door as she cleared the danger. Still laying on her back, heavy breathing her only companion, a hand went almost instinctively to her ruffled hair. And only hair. A panicked glance back revealed her hair band laying just on the other side of the still shrinking gap. A short and very unladylike curse escaped Althena's lips as she threw an arm back across the breach. Her fingers wrapped around the ornament even as her sleeves brushed against the closing door. Bracing her free hand against the door, she yanked herself away from the gap and out of danger just as the blast door reached the floor with a dull boom. Prize in hand, the agent pushed herself off the floor and into a sitting position then surveyed her surroundings. It may as well have been a prison cell. Every connecting corridor had been cut off by a set of blast doors and she surmised that the rest of the base had been summarily sealed off. Again, her thoughts went to the unknown invading force, and the panic that they must be sowing to have caused a full lock down. She scanned her patch of hallway as she set the hair band back on her head with a practiced hand, then scooped up her rifle from where it lay. A few clicks on her wrist computer revealed the location of a network connection jack behind a nearby wall and some prying with her vibroknife removed the paneling that obscured it from view. Slicing back into the security network, she found new protocols impending her progress. Someone else was in the system and was now actively trying to trace her signal. She responded with a series of spikes meant to overload her opponent's systems, then used the resulting lull to bypass the lockdown. The probe then returned and her computer beeped its own alarms as a security virus tried to disrupt her programs. She allowed herself a smirk as she worked to repel the attack, using a tracer worm developed by Imperial Intelligence. The blast door across from her hummed to life and began to ascend as her computer locked onto the physical location of her adversary, at the lab's prototype storage facility. "Got you," Althena murmured as she sliced into the lock down controls and sealed her opponent in, then flooded the network with garbage data. Navigating the base then became the simple matter of following the trail of doors she had opened. Unfortunately, whoever it was that had been opposing her quickly changed tactics, a wave of battle droids setting upon her as she reached the research wing of the facility. The entry corridor into the research wing was flanked by laboratories separated only by large transparaplast viewports. These were most likely the least sensitive facilities, meant to sate the appetites of visiting sponsors. These same viewports now allowed her to spot the squads of droids as they emerged from hiding in the labs moments before they sprung their trap. Althena spun and dove back behind the entryway as the transparaplast separating the labs shattered under a torrent of blaster fire like a river surging over a precipice. Angry bolts hissed passed her as she keyed in her computer's usurpation viruses. Her equipment then broadcast its virtual attack to the nearest droid, which immediately seized up and powered down with a satisfying clatter as it hit the floor. She then waited several moments are blaster fire seared the air around her, and the clank of metallic feet drew closer to her position. Six, droids. No. Seven, she calculated as she readied a fist sized canister from her tac-vest. Another touch of her wrist computer activated her emergency shield emitter. M9 class security droids. Lightly armored skeletal configuration, susceptible to sensor interference. Light carbines as principle armament. When she judged their positioning to be satisfactory, Althena flicked the canister through the doorway. A thick stream of greenish smoke spilled out of the cylinder as it left her hand and quickly filled the corridor. The smoke glittered with the telltale signs of electro-static chaff, meant to disrupt sensors and targeting systems along with standard vision. Under such cover, Althena darted into the room. The first droid was only three paces to her left. It managed to fire a shot, but it might as well have been striking a pixel in a field of static. She responded with a snap shot, which caught her target square in the power cells on the underside of its thoracic plate. By the time droid shuddered in the resulting power surge then collapsed into a boneless heap, she had already moved on to her next target. She then spun on her heel and dropped to a knee, then fired several shots into the murk. Electric snaps and mini-explosions vindicated her acts of marksmanship mere moments before more blaster fire lashed out in her direction. One bolt caught her in the shoulder, but the emergency shields absorbed the brunt of the blast. A hard roll to the left took her out of the way of a majority of the heat, but she knew that it would only be a matter of time before the smoke canister will have spent itself and the droids recover. Launching herself into a sprint, she crossed the smoke-filled hall. The gravelly shards of the shattered windows cracked beneath her boots as she dashed into the right side lab. Blaster fire followed her maneuver, her shields holding out just long enough for her to vault over a heavy table and into cover. She then leaned out from behind the table, lining up her shot even as she moved. She squeezed the trigger then quickly ducked back down, not needing to see the bolt striking a droid in its brain casing. Several moments and rifle shots later, the rest of the battle droids had joined their fellows as scrap metal and Althena rose from behind cover. The smoke screen had almost completely dissipated and the reek of charred circuitry slowly moved to replace it. Calm had returned to the lab save for the pulse red glow of the base alert. No more surprises awaited her as she resumed her infiltration. Whoever it was that was trying to stop her seemed to have moved on to other concerns. Without opposition, it did not take long for her to reach the prototype storage bay. Even the door into the facility yielded to her touch, thanks to her earlier slicing efforts. The storage facility was more like a hangar than a warehouse, complete with a starship refueling station on one side and a pair of doors leading to what she presumed to be a launch tunnel to the surface on the other. In addition to the door she used to enter, there were two other doors, one of them looked to be a heavy blast door meant for service droids. A grid of catwalks hung overhead, leading to several doorways into the rest of the base. Walkers and battle droids in various states of construction or deconstruction lined the walls, many of which she did not recognize, but were attached on harnesses like caged beasts or hung from racks like cuts of meat. But her attention was drawn towards a starship, the center piece of this collection of military hardware. Sleek and smooth curves characterized the ship's design, a far cry from the harsh, angular lines of a typical Imperial chassis. Flat in body and blade-like in shape, it resembled some sort of large sea creature. It sported large weapons pods on the ends of each of its two fins, with a set of oversized thrusters mounted on the aft edge between the pods and the central fuselage. A gleaming chrome finish formed the skin of the ship, lending it an artist's touch. Althena recognized the aesthetics and knew that the Ascendancy, or at the very least Chiss engineers had a hand in its design. It was a marvel of engineering and reminded her just how much she missed being at the helm of a starship. But she had priorities, one of which was currently hunched over the control console for the hangar doors. Garbed in the heavy coat of a field researcher, the man struggling with the hangar controls was a tall and wiry man with a oiled cap of brown hair. He wore uniform of the Science Bureau under the coat, which hung on his frame more akin to a clothes hanger rather than a body. Althena trained her rifle on the man, then cleared her throat to draw his attention. When the man turned, she noted that his face, though somewhat attractive, was weighted and shadowed by stress and insomnia. "Who are you!" he demanded hoarsely. She suspected that he was one of those people who tended to verbally vent their frustrations on inanimate objects. "Professor Edwinn Frey, I presume," she said pleasantly, at odds with her readied weapon. She had no trouble recognizing the professor from the profile Watcher Two had forwarded to her earlier, but it helps to be polite. "Imperial Intelligence would like to have a word with you." "Imperial Intell-," he repeated with a start, which was followed by his neck wagging in furious refusal. "Stay back! What do you want from me! I haven't done anything wrong!" She lowered her rifle a handful of degrees, but kept it ready, pointing it at his feet rather than his brow. "I'm not here to hurt you, Professor. But I am to bring you back to Dromund Kaas for questioning. Don't make this difficult for yourself." "Questioning? No! No," the panic bleeding into his voice and eyes as his gaze swung from her to the room around them. "People disappear when you want to talk. I know what your kind does to the Empire's citizens!" "You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide, Professor," she stated patiently and took a step forward. No obvious weapons. Signs of physical atrophy due to lack of strenuous activity. Close quarter techniques should prove effective. "I said stay back!" his voice cracked a little. "If all you wanted was to talk, then why did you attack my lab? Kill my guards?" "That's-" Althena started to explain when the heavy blast door burst inward with a deafening boom. The thick plates that made up the door flew into the hangar in front of a cloud of dust and sparks caused by whatever force that had ripped it from its moorings. A resoundingly low gong echoed throughout the room as the door crashed down on the durasteel floor, followed by a piercing shriek as momentum scrubbed it across the surface until friction and gravity took hold. The body of a very unfortunate guard was splattered against the door, and was now splayed out upon it like a macabre platter. A single figure then stepped through the newly made entrance with weighted paces, like some conquering hero. The figure appeared female from the way the silvery gray bodysuit she wore hugged her feminine curves like a second skin, reinforced only by armored plates on the shoulders and forearms. A pair of heavy wargreaves defended her legs from the knee downward, and her face was concealed behind a helmet of the same color and styling as the suit, a thin visor the only evidence of eyes. She wore an armored breastplate around her torso in similar fashion, which made the agent wonder if it afforded any real protection at all, but what attracted her attention most was the pair of lightsabers that hung from the woman's hips. "Unhand my prey," commanded the woman.