[Unsteady Ground] Fiction Thread

Prelude

Consul’s Office, Taldryan Clan Headquarters
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
37 ABY

“You really think the membership will get involved with this?” Augur Rian Taldrya, Consul of Clan Taldryan, rubbed a hand over his chin as he studied the datapad he held. On it was a proposal for a radical reorganisation of the Clan’s activities.

The Zeltron across the desk shrugged. “Why not? It’s all things they would’ve done anyway. We’re just asking them to do it in ways that benefit the Clan instead of putting their personal projects first,” said the newly-minted Proconsul, Adept Seraine “Erinyes” Ténama.

“Yes, several of them seem to be doing that already. Speaking of which, why did I receive a requisition form from Nihlus that said you’d authorised him buying a Baleen-class freighter for research purposes?” Rian raised his eyebrows.

Erinyes raised a hand to object. “Okay, first of all, I told Nihlus that SRI would get that freighter, not that he’d have it as a personal ship. Second, it’s not like we don’t have the credits to spare for it, and we need his technical expertise.”

Rian stared flatly at the Proconsul for a moment, then shook his head. “Next time you want to promise something like that, ask me first, or it’s coming out of your booze budget.” Erinyes started to sputter in protest, but her response was cut mercifully short by an electronic chime from Rian’s office door. “Come in.”

The door slid open, revealing a towering Twi’lek man, and a diminutive Near-Human woman, both wearing grave expressions. “There’s a problem,” said the woman—Ektrosis’ Quaestor, Cymbre Kall, now also known as Taldryan’s Archpriestess.

“Uh oh. They’re agreeing on something,” Erinyes stage-whispered, with a melodramatic sideways glance at Rian. The Consul’s expression remained neutral, but a glimmer of humour crossed his eyes.

Vodo Biask Taldrya, newly-titled Spymaster of Taldryan, shook his head. “We’re serious, Erin.”

“Is it about the reorganisation? Erinyes and I were just discussing that,” Rian said.

“No, it’s about a vision I had yesterday.” Cymbre took the other chair across from Rian. “A fleet of capital ships arrived over Chyron. I couldn’t see many details, but the models looked very similar to the Collective fleets we fought recently, so I asked Vodo if he’d heard anything,” she said.

“I talked to some of my contacts,” Vodo continued. “A reliable local source told me that certain associates of the Ky’Lian Family have been getting an influx of credits from mysterious donors over the last few months, and Ness’arin passed on a report about Collective agents holding secret meetings on Bespin. The asset they were seen with didn’t show up in any of the databases we have access to, and gave the Inquisitorius the slip on Isde Naha.”

Rian frowned. “Isde Naha is the closest hyperlane junction to the Caelus System. Do you think the Collective is planning an attack?”

Vodo shrugged. “I don’t believe in coincidences, but I’m not as convinced as Cym is. Probably best to hold off on sounding the alarm until we can verify those reports ourselves. Maybe ask SRI to trace any comm signals between Isde Naha and Caelus.”

“My visions might not be as detailed as Vodo’s reports, but I’ve never known them to be wrong,” Cymbre said. “And it wasn’t as though the Collective wasn’t already a threat. This just confirms that they’re a more pressing danger than we thought.”

Rian’s brow furrowed. “Now that you mention it, I might have another lead. A young man I spoke with during one of our outreach clinics in the Junkyard Sector asked me how to enlist in the Taldryan military. His older sister works for TEAD Technologies, and that she had her apartment vandalised by a neighbourhood gang for ‘collaborating’ with Taldryan. It sounded strange at the time, but now I think we need to investigate that gang.”

“And when we find them, we should make an example out of them. People won’t support us if they think they’ll get their windows smashed in for it,” Erinyes added.

“That’s a little premature, Erin. If they really are working with the Collective, they could have some useful intel. We might even be able to flip them as double agents,” Vodo suggested.

Rian saw the Proconsul open her mouth to argue with the Spymaster, and raised a hand to cut her off. “One thing at a time. Vodo, work on finding that gang in the Junkyard Sector, and send the information you got from the Inquisitorius to SRI. Erinyes and Cymbre can start preparing for a possible military engagement with the Collective based on the information in Cymbre’s visions. Understood?” Three nods came in response to the Consul’s question. “Good. Dismissed.”

Unidentified Location
Isde Naha, Isde Naha System
37 ABY

Virax Sahnah, director of Capital Enterprises’ operations in the Javin Oversector, sighed and tossed her datapad on to her desk. A month ago, she’d had twenty-five covert cells operating in the Caelus System, monitoring Clan Taldryan’s activities and expanding the Collective’s influence among the upper echelons of Caelus society. Now, somehow, Taldryan had uncovered over half of those cells, capturing and slaughtering them in nearly equal measure. Some of the Collective agents had managed to get away before the Dark Jedi tightened the net—Sahnah would always think of Taldryan as “Dark Jedi”, no matter what they called themselves nowadays—but with even the survivors being forced to flee the system, her operations on Chyron were in shambles.

After a moment’s pause, Sahnah retrieved the datapad and scrolled back through the report—one she’d written herself, earlier that day—until she found the paragraph she was looking for. The whereabouts of all known Taldryan field operatives were accounted for during Taldryan’s counter-intelligence operations, raising the possibility of involvement from previously unknown assets, or increased cooperation between the Brotherhood’s factions in disrupting our operations, independent of orders from the Dark Council. Further investigation is required to assess the extent of the threat.

Sahnah’s desk terminal bleated to notify her of an incoming transmission. When she answered it, a late-middle-aged Duros appeared on the screen: Vice Admiral Jad Kressim, commander of Battle Group Scargill, and Sahnah’s Liberation Front counterpart. “Virax.” Kressim nodded, and Sahnah thought she detected a hint of a smile on his features, but the expression faded before she could be sure. “I just read the report about what happened on Chyron. How did they compromise our network?”

“We’re working on finding that out. For now, we have to assume the Tallies know everything our personnel on Chyron knew about our operations. They sure didn’t hesitate to peel heads open back in the old days.” Sahnah suppressed a shudder at the memory of her time in the Taldryan Intelligence Division. She still occasionally had nightmares about the “interrogation” sessions she witnessed. “We’re going to have to move the timetable up, or all of our work is going to go to waste. I assume you’re calling because you’ve been tasked to help,” she said.

“We’re moving in your direction.” Kressim frowned. “You’re not launching a full-scale invasion of Caelus, are you?”

“You say that like you haven’t already planned it.” Sahnah smiled thinly. “But no. If we bring the fleet in, Taldryan’s puppet government will claim that the move is ‘unprovoked aggression’ and kill any support we would’ve had among the population.”

“But you have a plan.” The Duros raised a brow-ridge.

“As a matter of fact, I do.” Sahnah’s smile broadened. “When the Tallies overthrew the syndicate that used to control Caelus, they installed an elected government in its place. Some members of the Caelus Council aren’t as friendly with Taldryan as Chancellor Ky’Lian is, though. They’ve been pushing the view that Taldryan’s presence makes the Caelus System a target for the Collective.”

Kressim nodded slowly. “With how Taldryan performed at Lyra Colony, the Caelus Council must have doubts about whether Taldryan’s navy can protect them from a Collective attack. Knowing Taldryan’s fleet composition, I wouldn’t be confident if I were them, either.”

“By putting your battle group in Isde Naha, we’ll give Taldryan’s enemies a reason to step up their pressure against Chancellor Ky’Lian. If she stays loyal to Taldryan, the Caelus Council can say she’s placing their citizens in danger and vote to remove her from office.” Sahnah’s smile turned smug.

“I see. Scargill’s presence will also prevent any allies Taldryan might have from reaching Caelus in time to assist them in an engagement,” Kressim said, then frowned at something off-screen. “I’ve got another call I have to take. I’ll let you know when we’re on station in Isde Naha.”

“Talk again soon.” Sahnah killed the transmission and got back to work.

Consul’s Office, Taldryan Clan Headquarters
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
37 ABY

“Are you sure you got them all?” Rian arched a brow at the heads of Taldryan’s intelligence networks.

Justinios, still visibly wearied after his recent kidnapping, shrugged in response. “You can never really be sure about that kind of thing. My techs know how to spot hidden transmissions, and the electronic warfare suite on that freighter Nihlus requisitioned has cracked every cipher they’ve used so far, but they’re bound to have backup channels. It wouldn’t really be a covert network if finding one cell led to finding every other cell, would it?”

“For that matter, how did they infiltrate Caelus so thoroughly in the first place?” Rian said, eyeing the Twi’lek in the other chair across from him.

Vodo shrugged. “I don’t have any sources inside the Collective, and neither did the SRI field operatives I got when you and Erinyes reorganised everything. Either way, the important part right now is figuring out what the Collective’s up to. We took the messages Justinios decrypted and asked Quejo and Arvalis to interrogate the prisoners about them. They’re still working, but we found out that the Collective’s been getting their hooks into top political and military leaders—including the Caelus Council.”

Rian frowned. “And Ceyra’s– er, Chancellor Ky’Lian’s head of security. It sounds like the Collective is trying to stage a coup.”

“A coup would make it far too easy to portray the Collective and their sympathisers in the Caelus Council as tyrants seizing power against the people’s will,” Justinios pointed out. “On the other hand, a no-confidence vote that resulted in the election of a new, pro-Collective Chancellor would shift the balance of power against Taldryan while maintaining the appearance of independence. All it would take is convincing the citizens of Caelus that Chancellor Ky’Lian’s close association with Taldryan will ultimately be to their detriment,” the Aleena mused.

“That fits,” Vodo said, picking up Justinios’ train of thought without missing a beat. “If the Collective gets their own lackey into the Chancellor’s seat, the only way we could stop them from switching sides is by staging our own coup.”

“Except then we’d look like the tyrants the Collective keeps saying we are,” Rian said, brow furrowing deeper.

“Exactly! So much for letting the Caelus government stay independent saving us trouble.” Justinios cackled, but glares from the other two men made him cut the display off with a cough.

Rian shook his head at his former deputy. “How are we going to handle this? Could we stage a pre-emptive strike against the Collective to cut off support to their sympathisers?”

Vodo shrugged again. “You’d have to ask the military. It’s probably not a good idea in a broader sense, though. If we leave any evidence that it was us behind the attack, they could use that to turn the Caelus government against us.”

“Yes, yes! If they say, ‘we have no quarrel with the people of Caelus, but we have to defend ourselves against Taldryan,’ they could easily make it seem as though the only reason Caelan citizens are in danger is because of our presence. Which, of course, would be completely accurate.” Justinios paused for a beat and frowned as realisation dawned. “I can’t condone potentially putting innocent people in harm’s way just to attack the Collective, even if it were guaranteed to succeed. I’d rather pack up and move to draw the threat away.”

“Easy for you to say. You live on a ship,” Vodo snorted.

The Aleena puffed his chest out triumphantly. “And situations like this are perfect demonstrations of the benefits of mobile lodging!”

“Alright, you’ve made your point.” Rian rubbed the bridge of his nose. “So, we need a way to disrupt the Collective’s operations without them thinking that it was us who did it.”

“Ideally, not only that it wasn’t us, but that it was someone else. Otherwise they’ll assume that any inconvenient mishap was somehow our responsibility,” Justinios said.

The room fell silent for a moment as the three men considered their options. Eventually, Rian was the first to speak. “What about going to the other Clans?”

Vodo straightened in his chair, scowling. “You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?” Justinios tapped his chin as he mused aloud. “Our military situation becomes increasingly untenable as time progresses, and as you yourself pointed out, the political ramifications of seizing the only tactical option available to us would undermine Taldryan’s relationship with Chancellor Ky’Lian, perhaps even convincing the Caelus Council to side with the Collective. Our current circumstances are substantially similar to those which led us to cooperate with Odan-Urr during the evacuation of our former home systems.”

“Asking them for help a second time is just going to give Odan-Urr more leverage over us,” Vodo said. “We’re better off going to Vizsla if we need outside help. At least we know they’ll treat it like any other business arrangement.”

“If it’s a business deal you want, tell them we can arrange a discount on Clouzon-36 in exchange for their help,” Rian said. “Any Clan, not just those two. If the Collective is willing to turn its full strength on us, we need all the allies we can get. Vodo, make the arrangements. Justinios, keep working on those transmiss–”

A warble from the Consul’s desk terminal—and another from Justinios’ commlink, to Rian’s surprise—cut off the rest of the sentence. Rian quirked an eyebrow when he saw the Dark Council encryption on the message, and smiled as he scanned its contents. “I take that back. Congratulations on your new job, Justinios.”

“Aw, thanks, boss. Guess that’ll be Nihlus’ problem now!” the Aleena cackled. Beside him, even the normally-impassive Vodo offered something like a smile, both in congratulations and at the thought of Nihlus’ reaction to being saddled with extra work.

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Council President’s Office, Caelus Council Building
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
37 ABY

Gazing through his window at the mob in the streets below, Council President Kain Eriston wondered if he’d made the worst mistake of his life.

Eriston wasn’t a rebellious sort by nature; a staunch Imperial upbringing and a long career in the Imperial Navy had thoroughly relieved him of any insurgent tendencies. For all that, though, he couldn’t deny the protestors outside the Caelus Council building were there at his invitation. Mere weeks earlier, an anonymous informant had leaked a sensational dossier to the Caelan news media, claiming to know “the truth about Taldryan”. Within hours of the release, rumours had begun to spread like wildfire: that Taldryan’s migration to the Caelus System was the result of their former home being destroyed in a war that Taldryan themselves started, that Taldryan had participated in a brutal assault against a neutral planet called Nancora, and that they’d supported their allies in the so-called Iron Navy in another treacherous attack, this one against a in the Lyra-3K-a System.

At first, Eriston had assumed the stories were being spread by malcontents, maybe the remnants of the Ky’Lian Cartel that Taldryan had evicted from the Caelus System. A week after the first dossier leaked to the public, a second one showed up on Eriston’s private message terminal, and this one offered concrete evidence that Taldryan was responsible for everything the anonymous informant claimed. Worse, the informant revealed that the former inhabitants of Nancora had gathered a fleet to strike at the Brotherhood and its allies, including Taldryan. The hardened veterans of the Collective were just as ruthless towards the Brotherhood’s sympathisers as they were towards the Brotherhood themselves, the informant warned. To Eriston, the implication was clear: if he didn’t find a way to separate the Caelus Council from Taldryan, the citizens of Caelus would end up becoming victims in a war they never wanted.

Eriston tried to take his concerns to the Chancellor, only to have them dismissed as a smear campaign orchestrated by Taldryan’s enemies. The Chancellor had probably intended for that to be reassuring, but the fact that she’d known about Taldryan’s involvement in these events and had chosen not to tell Eriston—her deputy and successor on the Caelus Council—left the Council President even more unnerved than before.

For weeks, Eriston wrestled with his Imperial-issued sense of duty and loyalty, torn by the prospect of having to turn on Chancellor Ky’Lian to prevent the Caelus System from being endangered by Taldryan’s presence. In the end, it was another message from the anonymous informant—this one containing graphic footage of people identified by Caelus Security as anti-Taldryan agitators, being slaughtered by menacing figures with lightsabers—that hardened Eriston’s resolve to speak out. A standard hour before his speech, the same recordings Eriston had seen went public, and immediately spread like wildfire. The local news networks seemed particularly fascinated by one clip of a hooded figure cleaving a helpless opponent in twain with an emerald-bladed lightsaber, followed quickly by using the Force to electrocute a second and strangle a third. It had been the perfect accelerant to add to the sparks Eriston struck by demanding that Taldryan answer for their duplicity.

That had been two weeks ago, and tensions had only grown since then. Caelan society seemed split down the middle, with Chancellor Ky’Lian and her Taldryan allies squaring off against Eriston and his Caelan patriots. It hadn’t taken long for each side to begin holding rallies, or for those rallies to turn into protests, complete with propaganda posters that championed each side of the conflict. The Chancellor had steadfastly refused any suggestion that her supporters in Taldryan would do more harm than good to the Caelus System, citing how the Clan had provided food donations and medical care to the least fortunate citizens of Chyron. For a brief moment, it looked like public opinion was shifting in Taldryan’s favour… until a Caelus Security contact informed the Council that a Collective battle group had arrived in the Isde Naha System, the nearest hyperlane junction to Caelus. At nearly the same time, Eriston received one last message from his anonymous informant, who had finally identified herself as a Devaronian woman named Virax Sahnah. Sahnah offered Eriston a deal: remove Chancellor Ky’Lian and throw support behind the Collective, and Sahnah would do everything in her power to ensure that the citizens of Caelus were kept out of harm’s way.

It was this message that Eriston had left open on his desk terminal when he went to stare out his office window, a habit he’d carried over from his days in the Imperial Navy—though Chyron’s smog-choked skyline would never compare to the view from the bridge of a Star Destroyer. Looking down at his supporters in the streets, Eriston couldn’t help but chuckle at the irony of a lifelong Imperial loyalist becoming the leader of his own rebellion. The galaxy had changed a lot since the Empire’s fall, though. Maybe it was finally time for him to do the same.

His mind finally made up, Eriston left his office to betray his leader. He could only hope that, in the end, his actions would be for the greater good.

Strategic Briefing Room, Taldryan Clan Headquarters
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
37 ABY

Adept Seraine “Erinyes” Ténama, Proconsul of Taldryan, was having a terrible day. This one wasn’t like the last couple of terrible days she’d had, though, where she’d run out of her favourite tsiraki or had to stop her apprentice’s raven from trying to peck off pieces of her astromech droid’s dome. No, this terrible day involved scrambling to ensure Taldryan’s survival.

The tension in the briefing room was palpable as Erinyes stepped inside and nodded to the array of Taldryan military officers who’d risen to greet her. “It’s about to get exciting, people,” the Adept said as she sat at the head of the table. “The Caelus Council just passed a motion to suspend Chancellor Ky’Lian pending investigations into her involvement with Taldryan’s alleged criminal acts, and I assume that that Collective battle group in Isde Naha is meant to prevent us from getting too uppity while they do it. I want options for preventing this from turning into a shooting war, and options for how to win it if it does anyway.”

Major General Jom Terek, head of Taldryan’s military intelligence division, rose a few seats down the table. “Ma’am, we’ve just been informed that Chancellor Ky’Lian plans to stay at her private residence on Elysia until the Council’s investigation is complete. Security at that site is far less stringent than at her official residence. I’d suggest sending a clandestine unit to augment it in case the Collective tries to stage an assassination.”

The Adept frowned. “Why a clandestine unit?”

“We can’t confirm that any Taldryan personnel operating openly won’t be detained by the Caelus Defence Force, and any of our people resisting arrest would give Eriston’s faction the legal high ground,” Terek explained.

“That’s… a better reason than I was hoping you’d have.” Erinyes sighed. “What are our other options?”

The major general took his seat, and a woman in a Taldryan Navy uniform stood in his place. “Iosan Fueling Station is both the primary logistics base for the Caelus Patrol Fleet and the staging point for most of their starfighter assets,” Commodore Kytana Rethalie said. “We have reason to believe that the station superintendent has links to the Collective. Bringing the station under our control would give us far more flexibility to operate in-system, or failing that, prevent the Caelus Patrol Fleet from interdicting us.”

“I assume we’d need to keep that operation clandestine too,” Erinyes said, prompting a nod from the commodore. “How feasible is it to carry out both of these operations?”

“Difficult at best. The CPF’s sensor coverage in-system severely limits our ability to deploy and supply our forces without being detected,” Rethalie said.

“Of course it does.” Erinyes turned to Taldryan’s top uniformed officer, War Marshall Lee Starr. “Is there a ‘better’ of these options?”

Starr shook his head. “Controlling the fuel station will make it easier for us to move our personnel in and out of the system, but having the CDF’s support will give the Collective a hell of a headache if they try to land troops anywhere. Which one of those is ‘better’ is up to you and the Consul to decide.”

“I’ll let you know what he says, then.” Erinyes rose from her chair, and the officers around the table followed suit. “Get a message out through the Inquisitorius network; let the other Clans know that the deals we’ve been talking about are on the table, effective right now. And if that Wight kid from Vizsla is one of the takers, tell him to kill the cameras next time, so he doesn’t end up on the news again.”

Secure Conference Room, Iosan Fueling Station
Iosan (moon of Perune) orbit, Caelus System
37 ABY

Lieutenant Colonel Lon Osul, head of the Liberation Front’s covert operations team in the Caelus System, slammed an anvil-like fist into the conference table with an audible crack . “What do you mean we’ve lost another squad?”

“Ambushed by Taldryan forces at their safehouse the same night they landed on Chyron,” said Major Rodsu Ijaaz, Osul’s deputy. “The intel team confirmed it via a source inside Caelus Security.”

“That ‘source inside Caelus Security’ was the one who arranged the safehouse in the first place.” Osul narrowed his eyes.

“That was before we tried to assassinate Chancellor Ky’Lian. I guess the intel team underestimated how loyal the CSF is to Ky’Lian personally.” Ijaaz didn’t bother to the disdain in his tone. He’d warned the egghead analysts at Capital Enterprises time and again that the Chancellor had a strong relationship with the people of Caelus, and each time, they’d told him to keep his nose out of their business.

Osul clenched his fist again, but forced himself to take a deep breath and stopped short of clobbering the table a second time. “What’s our next step?”

“We need another way to hit Taldryan without anyone knowing we’re supporting Eriston. If people find out that he has outside help, it gives Ky’Lian the chance to say that Eriston’s our puppet, and might even spark a civil war between the CSF and Eriston’s supporters,” Ijaaz said.

“Ironic, considering he is our puppet.” Osul fell silent as an idea began to take shape in his mind.

Ijaaz held back a sigh. He’d seen Osul’s thoughtful expression before, usually right before he came up with a crazy plan. “What are you thinking, boss?” The Zabrak had never been one for formal ranks even after he joined the Liberation Front.

“Maybe a little uprising’s exactly what we need. It’d keep Caelus Security off our backs while we deal with Taldryan,” Osul mused aloud.

Ijaaz’s brow-ridges shot up. “A civil war could lead to an enormous number of casualties. More than we can justify to provide cover for our operations.”

Osul shrugged. “Our objective is to destroy Taldryan, not make nice with the people of Caelus—especially not ones who collaborate with Force-users.” The Weequay tapped a few keys on his desk terminal, and a holo-projected map of Chyron’s Taldryan Sector appeared in the air between the two men. “Give me options for capturing their headquarters,” Osul said, pointing at a marker representing the Taldryan Citadel.

“Hitting them hard and fast is probably our best option,” Ijaaz said after a moment’s thought. “We don’t have the partisan presence in that sector to hide a slow build-up of troops, especially cyborgs with the Collective emblem branded into their foreheads. The main difficulty will be dealing with Taldryan’s ground forces. Their dedicated security units only reach battalion strength, but they have three regiment-strength formations in the area, plus static defences. Unless…”

“Unless?” Osul steepled his fingers together, waiting.

“If we go ahead with stoking civil unrest, it’s likely that Taldryan will deploy their troops to help the CSF maintain order in other areas of Chyron. That should thin out their presence on the ground enough to let our troops punch through and capture the Taldryan Citadel,” Ijaaz said.

Osul nodded. “Good. Contact our partisans on Chyron and have them prepare to escalate the anti-Taldryan protests. I’ll clear our plans with Kressim.”

Consul’s Office, Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
37 ABY

Erinyes breezed through the door into Rian’s office without so much as waiting for the Consul to answer the door chime. “Would you like the good news or the bad news first?”

“I just got confirmation that Ceyra’s arrived safely on Elysia, so I assume that’s the good news.” Rian slouched back in his chair.

“It’s like you’ve been paying attention or something.” Erinyes smirked as she sat down. “Word of the attempt on the Chancellor’s life has spread through Caelus Security, and it seems the entire CSF is rallying to support her. They’ve already promised to step up their surveillance against suspected Collective cells, and a number of personnel who were known to be Eriston supporters have been quietly shuffled out of leadership positions.”

The Consul nodded his satisfaction. “It’s nice to know they still have our backs. What’s the bad news?”

“We got word from one of Vodo’s sources on Iosan Fueling Station that a number of unidentified ships have been moving in and out of the wing normally reserved for the Caelus Patrol Fleet, including multiple flights of U-55 orbital loadlifters.”

“Troop transports.” Rian sighed.

Erinyes nodded. “Probably. Nav data says they came in from Isde Naha, where the Collective fleet’s been sitting. With both the station administrator and the Caelus Patrol Fleet being loyal to Eriston, it’s a safe bet that the Collective is using the fuel station as a staging point of some kind.”

“Do we have any idea what their intentions are?” The Consul furrowed his brow.

“Nothing definite. Besides the fact that having an enemy controlling the nearest fuel station severely limits our navy’s operations, SRI’s best guess is that the Collective is going to try to force the Caelus government to align with them by taking control of the refineries on Iosan,” Erinyes said.

Rian’s frown deepened. “Not to mention having a large number of troops within a relatively short distance of Chyron.”

“That too. If people on Caelus start turning against them, they can always land a strike force in the swamps and slog through until they reach the Taldryan Sector. Or just bombard us from orbit,” Erinyes noted sourly.

“If the people of Caelus do turn away from the Collective, it’s a sign that all the energy we’ve spent on making Taldryan a part the community has paid off. Maybe I’ll spend more time doing that after this is over–” A bleat from Rian’s desk terminal drowned out the rest of the sentence. The Consul frowned and jabbed a button on the control panel. “Go ahead.”

“Consul, it’s Captain Eisahn at Joint Ops,” the woman on the other end of the transmission said. “Our duty officer just received a message from Caelus Security requesting assistance in maintaining order during public protests. How should we respond?”

“Stand by.” Rian jabbed another button to mute the transmission, then looked to Erinyes. “Thoughts?”

The Adept shrugged and retrieved her flask of tsiraki from her belt. “I wouldn’t,” she said, followed by a swig of alcohol.

“Because it places our troops at unnecessary risk and weakens our defences against the Collective? Oh, and because the Caelus government is supposed to be independent.” Rian offered a tired smile.

“Exactly. And you want to do it to show the people of Caelus that we’re willing to look out for them instead of leaving them twisting in the wind when it suits us, while also treating them as trusted allies instead of puppets. This is what, the fourth time this week we’ve had this argument?” Erinyes sighed. “If you’re going to send our troops in, we should at least limit them to protecting Taldryan supporters only, and make it publicly known that they’re authorised to use force to defend themselves. If the Collective’s lackeys want to show up at a pro-Taldryan rally throw rocks at our people, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves when they get shot.”

Rian nodded, then un-muted the transmission. “Captain, tell Caelus Security that we’ll provide limited security assistance, at officially-sanctioned gatherings of Taldryan supporters and with the understanding that our personnel will defend themselves if attacked.”

Battle Group Commander’s Cabin, Collective Dreadnaught Durga
Isde Naha, Isde Naha System
38 ABY

Vice Admiral Jad Kressim, commander of the Collective’s Battle Group Scargill, paced in front of his office viewport. Every so often, he would look through the transparisteel pane and into the star-spangled abyss. One of those pinpoints of light was the Caelus System, where a company of Collective troops was poised to invade Clan Taldryan’s homeworld. When the time came, he would join his subordinates on the bridge to monitor the vanguard’s progress. For now, the Duros was stuck inside his office, resolutely ignoring the terminal full of datawork that sat on his desk.

Kressim wasn’t a worrier by nature, but this operation was wearing on his nerves. He’d sent Colonel Osul’s request up the chain of command, and gotten an enthusiastic response from Oligard at the idea of weakening Taldryan by starting a civil war in the Caelus System. The Lord Superior hadn’t quite come out and said “to Chaos with the Caelans”, but Kressim had served under Oligard long enough to read past the text and into the data stream, as it were.

It was that callous disregard for casualties that bothered Kressim, the Duros realised as he retrieved the mug of caf sitting on his desk. Every warrior learned that some collateral damage was unavoidable, but it seemed to Kressim that Oligard was willing to accept any level of civilian losses in the Caelus System as long as Taldryan was destroyed. Oligard had even ordered Kressim to enter the system and provide orbital bombardment support when Osul’s team began their assault. The Lord Superior’s ruthlessness had struck Kressim as being remarkably similar to the Dark Jedi who had led Taldryan during the years that Kressim served in their navy.

The parallels between Oligard and the former leaders of Taldryan were still rattling around in the Duros’ mind, making it almost impossible to focus on his tedious, routine duties. Kressim had defected to the Collective because Oligard had promised to liberate normal, innocent people from the threat of self-serving Force-users like Taldryan. They were supposed to be the “good guys”, but how could they claim the moral high ground when Oligard was content to glass the entire Taldryan Sector of Chyron and all the civilians within? A few years ago, it would’ve been my family under those guns, Kressim thought.

The door chime sounded from across the room and pierced Kressim’s reverie. “Come in,” he said absently, still facing the window. The office door slid open, and Kressim briefly heard footsteps before it closed again.

“Sir, Colonel Osul’s team has made planetfall on Chyron,” the yeoman reported. “They expect to be in position to begin the assault in four hours.”

Kressim nodded, finally turning to the junior officer. “What about the Caelus military?”

“The Caelus Patrol Fleet has stationed two Raider I-class corvettes in support of the Golan platform orbiting Chyron, but their operations are otherwise normal. We’ve been advised that Council President Eriston plans to relocate to the Golan platform for the duration of the uprising,” the yeoman said.

“And the battle group?” Kressim took another sip of caf.

“Ready to jump to lightspeed on your order, sir.”

A beat of silence passed as the Duros considered his options one final time. Oligard’s willingness to let the ends justify the means turned his stomach, but Kressim couldn’t deny that the tactic was effective. At least Oligard being a ruthless bastard meant that there would be less ruthless bastards in the galaxy, not more. “The order is given, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”

“Aye aye, sir.” The yeoman snapped to attention, then made a crisp about-face and exited the office.

Kressim sank into his desk chair and sighed as he rubbed a hand over his head. With his immediate worry gone, he needed something else to occupy his mind, and the datawork needed to be done eventually. As the Duros called up the first of the battle group efficiency reports, he felt the Durga ’s deck plates vibrated, and the stars elongated to lines outside his office window.

Strategic Operations Centre, Taldryan Citadel
Chyron (moon of Perune), Caelus System
38 ABY

The assembled senior members of Taldryan barely had time to rise from their seats before Rian barked his first order. “Report.”

Battlemaster Nihlus Vexrii began his explanation while the rest of the room took their seats. “COMINT picked up a coded transmission coming from the swamps outside the Taldryan Sector. It was too short to trace its exact point of origin, but it used a frequency that the Inquisitorius identified as commonly employed by Collective special ops teams. A few minutes later, the Collective battle group in Isde Naha disappeared from our scans, probably into hyperspace.”

“How long before they arrive here?” Rian looked to the commander of the Taldryan Navy.

“Best estimate is three hours, minimum.”

The Consul’s expression turned grave. “Evacuate as many non-essential personnel as you can, and get the rest into bombardment shelters. Start deploying our forces in defensive positions.”

“Our forces will be stretched pretty thin unless we recall the units assisting the CSF, and any redeployment will likely be spotted by Collective assets,” the general warned.

“How many will we need to recall to defend the Taldryan Sector?”

“All of them, sir.”

Rian spat a curse. “Advise Caelus Security. We can’t help it if the Collective spots our movements. What are our options for dealing with the Collective fleet?”

“Relatively few. The strength of the Collective battle group leaves our capital ships heavily out-gunned. Our current plan is to ambush the Collective at the edge of the system, using the Orthanc ’s gravity well generators to pull their fleet out of hyperspace. Director Vexrii’s staff have been assisting us in retrofitting several First Order TIEs with high-yield proximity explosives,” the naval officer explained.

“You’re turning them into suicide bombers? ” Rian’s eyebrows shot up.

“Our pilots won’t be aboard,” Nihlus said. “We’ve rigged a dozen R3 droids into the Orthanc’s comms systems to pilot the TIEs remotely. When the Collective fleet lands, we send the TIEs at them like seeker mines. Four Lancers can’t possibly shoot down seventy-two fighters without being overwhelmed, so the remote-piloted TIEs are effectively seeker mines. That leaves our first-line fighters—the TIE Defenders and SF models—to engage the Collective fighter screen and disable their Dreadnaughts with ion cannons and mag-pulse launchers.”

“How will we prevent the Caelus Patrol Fleet from joining the battle?” The Consul frowned as he mulled over the plan.

“That’s a job for our core members and auxiliaries from outside the Clan,” said War Marshall Lee Starr, professional head of Taldryan’s military. “The best chance we have of stopping the CPF from interfering is taking out their chain of command.”

“How?”

“We have intel that Council President Eriston is holed up aboard the Golan platform orbiting Chyron. A small strike force should be capable of evading their sensors long enough to land and capture both Eriston and the CPF’s commanders. The rest won’t have a choice but to accept Chancellor Ky’Lian’s orders to stand down.”

Rian nodded. “Go ahead with your plans for the Collective fleet. Contact Ektrosis and Tavros with orders to start assembling a strike team, and forward the request to the other Clans. Maybe the ones who helped us so far will be willing to step up again. Is there anything else?” The Consul rose from his chair.

“Yeah, I quit,” Nihlus said, taking his superior’s cue and standing.

Rian paused for a moment, wondering what the Battlemaster was really thinking behind his opaque black mask, then shot Nihlus a dirty look and turned to leave.