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Into the Unknown Regions

Chapter Text

“Half our forces? Half of the Imperials sent to this point were lost in transit?” Rae Sloane shook her head, trying to keep the fury out of her voice. “How is this possible?”

“Different ships were lost to different causes, Grand Admiral. Some were captured by the New Republic, and went down fighting valiantly. Some plotted their hyperspace jumps incorrectly, and crashed into asteroids, planets, or stars. And still others…” the droid giving the report paused, searching its memory reserves. “Still others have been lost to causes unknown, but cannot be expected to make it onto this ship. We have waited too long for them already. I fear worse fates have befallen them.”

Sloane took out her blaster and shot, sending the droid scorched and scampering. She may be angry, but she preferred rage to fear. She didn’t want to accept the droid’s report to be true.

The admiral, alongside Hux and his orphans, had arrived aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Dreadnought Eclipse roughly fifteen standard cycles ago. Though all ships that had received the transmission were expected to arrive within three cycles of each other, only the Imperialis and five others had. The total number of beings on the Eclipse numbered slightly less than a thousand, not including droids and including what was left of the original crew.

Of those who remained, Sloane quickly discovered that she outranked all of them, and had worked to establish her authority in the quickest way possible. Her success didn’t make her nearly as happy as it should have. A third of the people weren’t even soldiers, and some didn’t know what they were doing here. What was the point of being in command if all one rules is a sandpile? Sloane had hoped more would show with the coming cycles, and had ordered everyone to give them as much time as they could possibly spare. But now, that time was running out.

The food provisions on the Eclipse were far greater than they had been on the Imperialis , especially nearing the end of their journey, but even they were not infinite. Nor were their fuel reserves, for that matter. The location of the rendezvous point had been chosen for its relative accessibility into the Unknown Regions from the rest of the galaxy, not necessarily for its proximity to vital resources. If the ship remained stationary for much longer, they would not have what they needed to make it to their intended destination.

It was time to make a choice. Four of the six ships, Sloane knew, had no way of making it. Their end was known. But even still: two ships remained unaccounted for. Two ships with a confirmed crew of at least a hundred each. With numbers so small, every person mattered.

But how long could she be expected to wait for them? Was she truly waiting for the final stragglers to arrive, or was there something more? Something deeper to her motivations?

When they left, Sloane knew, there would be no going back. Either the Empire was reborn in this motley crew, or they would never have the power needed to retake their homelands. The systems that were rightfully theirs. And despite millenia upon millenia of recorded history, knowledge of the Unknown Regions remained scarce at best. In part because it was hard to get to, but also because of the few who entered, even fewer were known to have come back.

And then there were those who had come from the Unknown Regions, such as Grand Admiral Thrawn. For all Sloane had heard of the once great grand admiral, his origins were seen as a dirty secret due to his species. So naturally, she knew very little about them. Only that he was of a species he called Chiss, and that his home planet was called Csilla, located on the border to the Unknown Regions. It was thanks to him the Empire knew anything at all about navigating the dangerous sector of space.

It would have been useful to have Thrawn here, Sloane thought. He knew more about what they were about to face than anyone in the Empire had. And his language… it had begun the process of being input into Imperial translator droids, but the process had not been finished. Only the most basic of phrases could be translated.

Sloane had little hope of ever seeing him again. All that was known of his current whereabouts was that he wasn’t here. Sloane could only assume he had died or been captured, though the latter was unlikely.

“Grand Admiral,” Hux entered her personal quarters without waiting for an invitation. “The time you have specified to wait is over. What is our next move?”

Was this all they were going to get? How was she supposed to build a new Empire with this ?

“I want every advantage for when we enter the Unknown Regions proper. Our loss of crew members is most unfortunate, but we cannot continue to wait for them. Our odds are poor as things stand.”

Hux snorted, a derisive sound. “Your thinking is limited. You think a small force of fighters and poor resources isn’t enough to take over a galaxy? We just watched such an event come to pass. Or did you forget how we ended up here?”

“Are you implying that we should act like filthy rebels?” Sloane bristled at the implications, though she knew them to be true.

“I’m implying we should do what’s effective. If the Empire is to be reborn, we need to let go of what was holding it back in the first place.”

This wasn’t the first time Hux had made such a claim. The principles were sound, but he used them to justify his army of orphaned children. Sloane knew the other crew members were as disgusted with the practice as she was, but she refused to let them be sent back or even killed. They knew too much, and the Empire needed every person they could get. No matter the circumstances.

And in spite of everything, Sloane knew that Hux was right. It was the time to seek the most effective course of action, regardless of precedent, procedure, or protocol. New battlefields called for new tactics.

“We must depart.”

A curt nod. “I thought so. Do you want me to inform the pilot?”

“I will do it myself, Hux. Stay out of where you don’t belong.”

Both exited Sloane’s quarters, then Sloane took off alone. She was careful to walk with purpose, though she felt her pace of her heart quickening. She ignored every acknowledgement that other people made of her as she crossed the ship to the cockpit.

The pilot of the Eclipse was an older man named Graven. True to his name, he was a haggard soul who spoke little and responded slowly to any command. He was one of the few who had been on the original crew of his ship. When asked what had happened to the rest, his response was never specific and his eyes were always haunted. They hadn’t been out here very long, sent out shortly before the Emperor's death. What could have happened to cause so much loss of life?

He grunted when he noticed her presence. “Is it time?”

Sloane nodded. “I’m afraid we can wait no longer. Plot the course for our first destination.”

“...” Graven didn’t move.

“What are you waiting for? It’s time to leave.”

“...You sure this is the best place for us to be traveling to? These people know we’re coming?”

Sloane didn’t answer his question. “We can’t remain here, pilot. Nor is there a place for us back in our homes. Our only path now… is forward. Towards our new destiny.”

Graven sighed and began preparations. As he did so, Sloane reached over to the comm link, transmitting a message for all the crew to hear. She cleared her throat, then began the announcement.

“Members of the Galactic Empire. We have given our comrades all the time we can spare, and they have not arrived. For the sake of those of us who remain, we are beginning course for entry into the Unknown Regions proper. Our first destination will be Csilla, home of the Chiss.

“As we go forth, our path will remain uncertain. Despite that, I am sure of one, very important thing. No matter what we encounter in the Unknown Regions, we will thrive. These systems will submit to the Empire, and through them, we shall gain our power back. We have not abandoned our galaxy to disorder forever. One day, soon in the future, I am confident we will be strong enough to take it back from those who wish for anarchy and disunion. We will save them, even as they crumble in on themselves, just as the Old Republic once did. We will bring them legitimate rule, legitimate order, and legitimate peace.

“And today, as we take our first leap together into hyperspace, we will take our first step towards righting the wrongs we have suffered. This is our first step… towards the future!”

“We ready?” Graven asked after the comm link was turned off.

Sloane nodded, sharply and only once. “Begin the jump into hyperspace.”

Graven pulled the lever, and the lights went black.


 

Armitage Hux had been listening to the grand admiral when the lights went out. He looked around, waiting a moment to see if they would come back on. They did not.

“What’s going on?” One of his father’s soldiers asked him, but his tone was so rude and informal that Armitage didn’t honor it with a reply. He only silenced him, then left the room to search about the ship.

Outside, Armitage heard his father cursing and quickly ducked the other way. He had no interest in facing the man now, no matter what the grand admiral had promised him.

Still, he couldn’t help but overhear: “...again?! What is causing these blackouts?”

“We can’t be certain, sir, but the ships data is indicative of a radiation blast of some kind. It seems to be of a variety comparable to a planet’s anti-spacecraft defense system, meant to shut a ship down temporarily so that it can be shot down by fighters. But there’s something about it that’s been odd…”

“Been? You mean it’s been happening on this ship, too? Despite everything the Eclipse is equipped with to prevent it?”

“Yes, sir. But what makes it different from similar blasts is that both the intervals and direction of origin appear to be random. Not to mention, nothing seems to happen after the ship is hit. If it really were a planet’s defense system, or even something similar to act against intruders, one would expect forces to attack us while our system is inoperational.”

“But no one ever comes,” his father finished, a thoughtful tone to his voice.

Armitage imagined the other man nodding as he continued. “Instead, the power always comes back after a few minutes, and everything after that acts normal. Whatever this is, I don’t think it’s meant to be hitting us. Or if it is, whoever’s sending it out may not know we’re being effected. I don’t think these systems are being operated by sentient beings. Maybe they were once, but not anymore.”

Armitage didn’t understand what they were talking about. Was the second man a mechanic of some kind? And what kind of radiation could make a ship stop working?

He didn’t care what the adults said. This plan sucked. He didn’t want to travel to the Unknown Regions. As far as he knew, there was nothing there but savage, untamed planets filled with strange, uncivilized beasts. When he had been born on Arkanis, people around him bragged that the Empire was the strongest, greatest power in the galaxy. How could all of that have disappeared? How were they supposed to get it back?

The more the boy knew, the less likely it all seemed. He felt like the odds of the Empire’s revival were slimming with each passing cycle. And he knew he wasn’t the only one, even if none of the adults respected him enough to admit it. The only people on the ship who listened to him were his father’s soldiers, and even then he was secondary.

Armitage wanted to go home. He wanted to live with his mother again. If she was still alive, that is.

But most of all, he wanted to turn around. More than anything else in the galaxy.

Chapter Text

It was no use. They’d held out hope for years, but no help was coming. They were going to lose this fight. This war. This planet.

Der’tuam’namandra fell back with her squadron as the enemy approached. They shot at the advancing foes, to no avail. Even the blasts that hit only inconvenienced them as they fell back and rose again, looking even more black and deformed than before. She privately wondered if ripping their limbs apart would stop them. Probably not.

The Chiss Ascendancy had tried everything. They’d tried defeating them in a direct battle, only to lose soldiers needlessly. They’d tried quarantining the enemy camps away from their villages, only to watch as the enemies found escapes from their prisons. They’d even tried freezing them out on the ice of Csilla, only to realize that their enemy was resistant to such tricks. With everything so far failing, Der’tuam’namandra wasn’t optimistic about their newest plan in the slightest. Especially considering the role she was supposed to play in it.

Still, none of them had been caught yet, which was the closest to victory one could hope for. If one were caught by the enemy, they had no chance of survival. The Chiss had learned that the hard way.

Just the thought of being caught made the soldier’s feet run faster. She didn’t want to be around when the enemy got close. Scared as she was, she didn’t even look to see if they were giving chase, despite the plan relying on just such a thing.

Their predetermined line was in sight. Once the squadron made it past that line, it would be over.

Der’tuam’namandra was almost there. Taking a chance, she took a look back.

It was a mistake.

A rotting hand. Once blue, now covered in black. The stench of sweet rot assaulted her senses. She threw her weight forward, trying to throw it off. Trying to dislodge its grip.

It worked, but to no effect. Escape was not an option. Not now that she’d been touched.

One touch was all the enemy needed to take you. If you didn’t die now, you would die later of its slow, painful infection. All you could do was kill yourself now in the hopes you took no one else with you.

So the soldier made the sacrifice, grabbing her attacker and throwing the two of them into the snow.

As Der’tuam’namandra fell, she looked up to the Csillan sky. She couldn’t pass the line now. Not with what she would become later on.

Ascendancy ships circled high above, almost out of sight. Their flight had been dead silent, hidden in the clouds for most of their trip. She only knew their ships were there from being told earlier.

Above even them, a ship she’d never seen.  Something black and large. It was nothing a Chiss would ever be found or seen on.

Der’tuam’namandra felt her lips move, asking a question she didn’t know the answer to. Beside her, her attacker grunted, trying to gain the upper hand against her.

The soldier struggled to keep it from overtaking her out of instinct, knowing in her head that it no longer mattered. She cringed as the black covered her hands, too thick to feel like blood.

Above her, the cold turned to heat. Der’tuam’namandra looked up, wanting to see for herself. Would the plan the Aristocra had made bring fruition this time? Or were her people doomed for yet another failure?

Whatever the result, the Chiss female knew she would not live to see it. So she fell back on top of the enemy. The one that had marked her for death.

Explosions rang out all around her. As the winter turned to hellscape, she couldn’t help but smile.

And with that smile, she felt a delusional euphoria. A dying delirium as the sky rained fire.


 

After a few false starts, the Eclipse was finally in sight of the planet Csilla, home of the Chiss and origin of Grand Admiral Thrawn. And despite her best assurances, Sloane was beginning to have second thoughts.

They were going to send down a communication before landing, but what if the ship was received poorly? As Graven has so eloquently pointed out, these people hadn’t been warned of their coming. The plan to land here had been created on the ship, not laid out for them like fleeing to the Eclipse had been.

But they could only follow orders for so long before their trail of clues ended. If the Empire was to survive, they needed a living, breathing emperor to guide them, not the ghost of Palpatine. And as far as Sloane was concerned, she was the best suited individual to act as that leader.

“That’s it, correct? The icy one ahead?”

Graven shrugged. “If our accounts are correct? Probably.”

“The Chiss as a people don’t know our language, right? The translator droids aren’t versed in it, as far as I know.”

“Thrawn himself had an interpreter. How are we to communicate with them?” Imperials on the ship asked. Based on the way they were dressed, it could be assumed they had been wealthy merchants once. Or perhaps bankers.

“Information about the Chiss and their language was being uploaded into the Imperial database as soon as Thrawn became an admiral and colonization was greenlighted as a possibility. However, much of the information was taken from Thrawn himself, and the man stayed busy. The information in the archive is marked as incomplete.” One of the Imperial scientists Sloane didn’t know the name of responded. “Our protocol droid does know some of their language, but only the simplest of phrases. Anything we wish to say must be watered down, and I doubt the translations will be perfect.”

“It’s better than going in with nothing. If Thrawn was a typical example of his kind, the Chiss are great warriors. Clever, resourceful, proud. Intensely loyal to one another. The kind of peoples the Empire would have been proud to accept in their ranks, if only we’d had less prejudice.”

That wasn’t received well. Even among the last of the Empire, old habits were proving hard to let go of. Sloane waited for the murmurs to die down before she continued. “I have no concerns about setting up a meeting with them. Our ship needs to refuel before it makes any more hyperspace jumps.”

No one disagreed with her last statement. Constant restarts had used up more fuel than the remnants had accounted for, and though it was announced as a precautionary measure, the first round of rationing hadn’t exactly gone flawlessly. Sloane was so used to dealing with military individuals and leaders that she had forgotten the ease of life and lack of discipline so commonly possessed by civilians, as at least half the ship’s inhabitants were. When one woman had announced her pregnancy, Sloane had to resist ordering her court marshalled. Why would anyone have a child in these conditions?

The grand admiral waited for the deck to clear of non-essential personnel before turning to the resident protocol droid. It was an RA-7 model, and an unpleasant one at that. More than usual, even. Sloane detested its attitude from the moment she’d boarded. “AP-9. We are sending out a comm link to the planet surface now. Be ready to deliver the prepared message.”

“I have it. It’s short enough, so don’t repeat it. But… to string together a more eloquent message, I can switch to Sy Bisti. That is the trade language that Eli Vanto used when he encountered the late grand admiral. The Chiss would understand it fine, and I wouldn’t have to speak like a simpleton.”

“...No. I don’t want to assume too much. The Empire, as it stands, has encountered very few of this people, and only been well acquainted with one. It is better, I believe, to address them in the language we are sure they speak.”

A sigh. “Very well, Grand Admiral. I will recite when prompted.”

Not wanting to engage AP-9 further, Sloane turned to Graven’s co-pilot, Marawan. “Open the comm channel and attempt to contact the surface.”

“Yes, Grand Admiral.”

She couldn’t imagine their communication technology was all that different from the Empire’s. After all, how many different ways could one transmit a radio signal?

Sloane watched as Marawan fiddled with the equipment, waiting in silence to hear something on the other end of the line.

Nothing. There was no indication that their signal was even reaching the surface. However, there was also nothing suggesting it was being blocked, even though interference was abundant. It seemed there was some sort of commotion happening on the planet surface. A battle of some kind?

“Get closer to the planet’s surface. I want to see what’s going on.”

“Yes, Grand Admiral.”

As the Eclipse inched closer to the planet and its atmosphere, their scanners and observation deck were able to make out other ships hovering over the planet, raining bombs down onto the ground below. Sloane’s suspicions were confirmed when the area was scanned for lifeforms.

It was a battle. A battle Sloane knew nothing about, and something she had no desire to enter the fray of anytime soon.

“It seems we’ve arrived at a bad time,” Graven noted. “Should we turn back and look for fuel elsewhere?”

“Where else will we go? Where else do we know much of anything about the lifeforms and their capabilities but this planet? Even our limited knowledge of the Chiss is more than we have on most of this region of space.”

“But Grand Admiral! We can’t involve ourselves in their war. The peoplewho were brought to us are weary from fighting our own battles. They will not be eager to intervene in a foreign conflict.” Moden Canady, the closest she had to a second in command, spoke out.

He wasn’t wrong, but Sloane wasn’t about to admit it. They needed a way in if their ship was to last much longer. “However… if we were to enter the fray on the side of the Chiss, swaying the battle in their favor, they would be in our debt. They might give us more than fuel if we were their cause for victory.”

“We know nothing about this dispute! For all we know, the Chiss are on the brink of extinction by a much stronger enemy. If we were to anger whoever they are fighting, we would become their target. I am not convinced we are prepared to deal with such an eventuality.”

Reasonable as his argument may have seemed, Sloane would not concede. She felt she had no other options to explore. At least, none that were safe. “You’re right when you say we know nothing about this situation. But whoever those ships belong to, they must use some form of fuel to run them. They have what we need, and we have to find a way to get it.”

“So what are you proposing?”

The admiral thought about it for a second, noticing how all eyes were on her. “We need information about what’s happening on the ground. We send a team of soldiers down with the droid and have them report back.”

“Down into a battle? I don’t operate in those conditions!” AP-9 protested.

“Shut him off until landing if you have to. But we need to not draw the attention of whoever it is the Chiss are fighting. I am prepared to approve a single squadron of fully trained troops for a reconnaissance mission. Do we have any probe droids that could assist the effort?”

“No, Grand Admiral.”

“Very well. We will have to ensure our communications between the ground and the ship remain open at all times.”

“Who will you send to lead them, Grand Admiral?”

Sloane looked Canady in the eye. “You’re the one who arrived with almost two hundred men, Captain. Who do you recommend?”

He was silent for a minute, giving the question a considerable amount of thought. “Send Lieutenant  Kalvnik down with a half dozen men. He’s done similar missions in the past, and is better than most at working with local forces.”

Sloane nodded, accepting his assessment. “Let them know their mission, then send them down in an escape pod. Make sure they understand that they are to report back on everything.”

“Yes, Grand Admiral.”

“And take the droid with you.”

“Understood, Grand Admiral.”

“Take! Pah. I will walk on my own, if you agree to leave my power on.”

Sloane watched as the two exited the deck, wishing she knew more about what she was getting them all into. At the same time, she also hesitated to seek the truth.

What lay at the heart of this dispute, and where did that leave the Empire and their plans? If the Empire were standing in all its former glory, Sloane would not have been so tentative. She would have had confidence in their ability to face down any enemy.

But here, in this position of weakness, that confidence was shattered. Healing their wounds would not only deal with external damage.

Sloane snapped herself out of it. They hadn’t fled to the Unknown Regions to mourn losses, or lick their wounds.

They’d come here for revival. To become bigger and stronger than ever before. To finally be an unmovable force not a force in the galaxy could deny.

And it would begin here. On this planet, with this crew.

Of that, she was sure.


 

Lieutenant Chris Kalvnik stood at attention as Vice Admiral Canady relayed his orders, wondering how long it would be before he could get on with the mission already.  It was a simple job, one that didn’t require this much explanation. They could have been done with this whole thing in half the time.

Not that he would say that, of course.

“The grand admiral thinks six men plus you and the droid will be appropriate for the job. You may choose who goes on your mission with you from all adult soldiers on this ship. Your orders are solely to observe and make contact with the Chiss to learn of their situation. You are not authorized to participate in any battle that may be raging on the planet surface. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, I get it.” The vice admiral raised an eyebrow at his tone, forcing Kalvnik to correct himself. “Yessir. You... don’t have to specify adults, sir. I wasn’t gonna nab on of Hux’s brats.”

Canady had to put effort into maintaining a neutral expression.“I... didn’t imagine you would. Just make sure you’re in contact with the ship at all times, and be careful out there. Our attempts to call ahead haven’t been successful, and the Chiss appear to be in a war of some kind. We don’t know how who’s fighting whom, or how they might react to seeing you.”

“Thrawn was a Chiss, right?” Kalvnik had never met or served under the guy, but he was well known throughout the Imperial military. “Would it be helpful to mention him?”

“Perhaps. You can even show them his image, if you’d like.” The vice admiral tossed him a few comm links, then a holo-projector. “Do not lose these.”

“Can we take blasters?”
Canady thought about it for a minute. “Your orders are to not fight, but I won’t stop you. We don’t know what’s down there, and we’d be worse off for losing you.” He paused, as if trying to remember something. “Don’t forget to take the appropriate attire, as well. Our scans suggest Csilla is a cold, icy planet.”

“Yessir. I take my leave at your command.”

Canady nodded. “Gather your men and get on with it.”

Kalvnik saluted, then waltzed out the door. He drove a hand over his messy blonde hair, then scowled at the stubble collecting on his chin. He was letting himself go.

Canady hadn’t been a vice admiral when their crew had arrived on the Eclipse , but he’d quickly made himself into one. Best the lieutenant understood matters, he and the grand admiral knew each other from somewhere. The grand admiral was a cautious, callous woman, but she trusted Canady, as did most who knew him.

Kalvnik didn’t know much about either person, but he had no choice but to go with what other people were saying. Most people seemed to be here on reputation, anyways, and all he had left to vouch for him were his men.

He burst into the mess hall, gesturing at his five cadets and their corporal to gather before him. Kalvnik was one of the lucky soldiers in that he hadn’t lost all his men in the Empire’s fall. Just a good number of them.

They’d been serving out on Ryloth when it happened. Everything had been going relatively well until the battle of Endor. Then a few months later, the Twi’leks decided they were gonna have an uprising. He and the other soldiers had held out for as long as they could, but it was no use. Day after day, they became more and more desperate to keep order… until one day, he snapped.

Kalvnik saw the writing on the wall in the nick of time. And when all he’d foreseen came to pass, any kindness Kalvnik had shown the Twi’leks previously in his time there became meaningless, and they slaughtered his company in the dark of the night as revenge for everything the Empire had done to them. It had been a humiliating retreat, one they’d barely lived to see the end of.

They’d joined up with Kanady on his ship after fleeing the system, only running into him by chance. For them, their choice was between going off into the Unknown Regions with a bunch of delusional fools who thought the Empire would rise again... or be put on trial by the New Republic for war crimes, a trial they would undoubtedly lose. To the seven of them, the choice had been clear.

“Come on, men. We’ve been assigned our first mission.”

“Yes, finally!” Kevin Gordon, the youngest of the group, cheered. “We getting off the ship?”

Kalvnik nodded, sharply and only once. “We’ve been assigned a recon mission on Csilla’s surface. They’ve observed a battle going on, and want us to figure out exactly what’s going on down there. We’re to look around, talk to some Chiss, and report back.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s all. No fighting. The orders are from the grand admiral herself.”

Viveen Grey, the corporal and second in command, rolled her eyes. “Grand admiral. She was a vice admiral before Endor’s Death Star blew up, and just played politics from there. She was elevated too far too fast, and her leadership shows it.”

Kalvnik didn’t want to hear it again. “Regardless, I was instructed to get six more men for the job. That’s enough for all of us to go together. Then we meet up with the protocol droid, get our equipment, and head down to the surface.” He pulled the comm links out of his pocket, counting them for the first time. Sure enough, there were enough that everyone got one. “Put these on, and don’t lose or remove them under any circumstances.”

“Yes, Lieutenant.”

It was at that moment Kalvnik realized they were being watched. Mostly by other soldiers in the mess hall, but a few civilians were scattered in there as well. He grunted in their direction, encouraging them to get back to their own business.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know anyone else on this ship, but ever since Ryloth, he’d been jumpy. He was careful not to reveal much to anyone else, and his men all knew to do the same.

So it was with a cautious eye that each left the mess hall. Irrational as it was, Kalvnik wanted no one following them when they entered the armory.

He didn’t want to be betrayed again.

Chapter Text

As soon as the team was geared up, they made their way to the designated escape pod, where AP-9 was waiting for them.

“Finally. You were supposed to have arrived for landing approximately six and a half standard minutes ago!”

“Then we have time to make up. Let’s go.”

“Do each of you remember your mission?”

“You don’t need to repeat it,” Grey interrupted the officer before he could go into it again. “And besides, we’ll be in contact the whole time. If one of us, through some memory disorder yet to be discovered, did actually forget, you can just tell us again.”
“Why did Canady pick you?” The captain (best Kalvnik could guess) grumbled. Kalvnik was about to about to reply when the man continued. “Feh. Doesn’t matter. Just do your job.”

The escape pod opened, and the eight of them all went inside and (with the exception of AP-9) took a seat. They watched as the door closed on them. Before anyone could say more, the pod disconnected from the Eclipse .

They weren’t so much flying as falling. As the surface of Csilla came closer, Kalvnik allowed himself to be curious about what they would face there.

Was the Unknown Regions really having a war of their own? If so, what was the scale of it? Would it explain the random power outages they’d had on the way here? Who was winning, and what side would the Empire end up on? Were they ready to fight another war, so soon after the last?

All these thoughts and more were silenced as the planet atmosphere pushed against their craft, followed minutes later by a harsh landing.

They were here. And it was cold .


 

The Aristocra was in shambles. Chiss were screaming and shouting all around each other, no single voice being heard above the clamor of everyone else.

They had to try something new. Everyone agreed on that. It was what that was the issue. It seemed every time the Chiss as a people were about to come to a conclusion, a new voice entered the mix and threw it all into disarray. And with that, they were right back where they started: nowhere.

“So what do you suggest, General? We take our ships, pour our fuel down, and light every area we see an enemy on fire?”

“I don’t see what’s wrong with that!”

“We don’t have enough fuel for half of what you’re suggesting! Not without mining in enemy territory. And how would we make sure the fire doesn’t turn back on our people? Ridding us of them does no good if we’re all dead!”

It had been like this ever since the last battle ended. Casualties had been lower than before, and Ari’nitan’colgrana had wrongfully believed that may be cause for celebration. Unfortunately, a small victory (or less than an absolute loss, as the pessimistics saw it) had done nothing to turn the tide of slow extinction. It seemed a new village was being abandoned every month, even as the survivors closed their doors to refugees.

No one wanted to be infected. Even the Chiss who seemed healthy were treated with suspicion if they even so much as mentioned encountering the plague. And everyone knew that when the plague took hold, friends became enemies, and lovers murderers. Fear had been rampant for years on end, and showed no sign of abating.

It was that very same fear that kept them from coming together as a people. They would be stronger if they knew who to trust. But until the blue changed to black, it was impossible to be certain if someone was your enemy.

“Enough!” She called out, waiting for silence. After a minute, they seemed to comply. “I think we can take this idea a step forward… if you’ll hear me out.”

“Yes, Arin?” Her father, a member of the Aristocra counsel, turned to her. “What is it?”

“I do believe we can use fire against this disease. But small amounts aren’t enough. We would have to entrap them in a large blaze... but we would also have to keep it centered in one area.”

“And how would we do that?

Arin had to consider it. “What if we lured them into an area we knew we could seal off? Perhaps the Crater to our southwest?”

“We have runners catch their attention and lead them to the blast zone, then our ships can sneak up on them from above and bomb them.” The general, a mid-aged male Chiss, expanded upon her idea. “We haven’t tried it yet. And at this rate, that’s a good enough reason to give it a shot.”

Cheers came, tired and scattered amongst murmurs of resignation. Winter was getting harsher this year, and the fighting had made food stores light. No one wanted to go out and hunt in these times unless they were desperate.

“This is madness! Nothing is going to be able to stop them!” A tear filled cry. “Don’t you see? This is our destiny. Our punishment from above for whatever our sins may be.”

“We never should have looked to the outside world. This curse comes from outside Csilla, and when it is through, Csilla will not remain. Only the menace that torments our souls.”

Chaos once again. Arin groaned, wishing she could be doing something useful with her time. Anything was better than listening to crowds bicker.


 

“Will you two stop bickering? I’m trying to focus, here.”

“Focus on what? All I see is snow and ice!” Grey shivered in spite of her cloak. The cloaks had been a last minute decision, meant to hide their weapons. “Marawan, are you sure this is the correct way?”

“According to our visuals, you all are headed in the correct direction. You should reach a village of some kind any minute now.”

“A village of some kind, huh?” Kalvnik worked hard to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. “Got anything more specific than that? Heat scans? Signs of a struggle?”

“Nope, the ship’s been moved too far away for that. You’re the eyes and ears down there.” And with that, Kalvnik’s communication was disconnected. While it had been important to establish they could, indeed, get a signal down at the surface, the call itself hadn’t done much to help them.

“I’m confused. Why are we keeping in touch with the ship if they can’t do anything for us?”

“These comm links aren’t for us, nerfherder. We’re wearing them for the ship’s benefit,” Marx Dunn, a tall, brutish soldier answered Gordon. “They get to wait nice and cozy up there while we trudge through this winter wonderland by ourselves.”

“Guys, shut up. I think I see something.”

They all went silent at Kalvnik’s request, squinting through their headgear towards where he pointed. “What is that?”

“I would think it’s the village we were told of.” AP-9 began to walk up to it, only for Kavlnik to stop him.

“Wait. We have no idea what or who is in there. First, we need to scout the perimeter. Make sure there’s nothing that can endanger us before rushing into battle. So unless you secretly moonlight as a battle droid, lay off.”

“Hmph.”

“You heard the lieutenant. Two groups of two should go around the settlement from each direction and report back with what they see. If you don’t call in in a few minutes, we come after you.”

“Yes, Corporal!” Kalvnik, Grey, Gordon, and AP-9 watched as the rest of their group filed out. They didn’t want anyone to go off alone just yet, but Kalvnik wondered if they should even be splitting up at all.

It was probably nothing. Just a few big bonfires that got the bigwigs nervous and required a team of soldiers to confirm as harmless.

But as the time ticked on, Kalvnik couldn’t help but to become nervous. It was midday. He and his men weren’t far from the village entrance at all, and yet it was silent. Eerily so. The last time Kalvnik had seen a settlement of sentient beings so quiet…

His eyes lost focus, memories flashing back to his final days on Ryloth. One minute, the village was so quiet, so peaceful. Kalvnik thought the insurgents had abandoned it. The next…

There was fire. Kalvnik was watching with a mad glee as the flames spread everywhere, engulfing buildings and lives indiscriminately as each turned to ash. It would be the last time those tail-headed bastards thought to lead him into a trap. They’d thought he would be an easy mark, thought he would be soft on them no matter what trick they pulled.

Well, it wasn’t true. None of it was true. They would pay dearly for the mistake they made in thinking he could be used as a pawn.

A cold wind poured over Kalvnik, cooling his fever dream. His comm link beeped. “What is it? Have you found anything?”

“We have. You might want to take a look at it, Lieutenant.”

“It,” Kalvnik repeated. “What is ‘it’? And where are you?”

The cadet gave the other groups directions to find them. When they did, everyone recoiled in shock. The stench of rot overwhelmed their senses, followed by a strange sweet.

Were Chiss not supposed to be blue skinned? And solid?


 

“I’m sorry, go over it again. You found what, exactly?”

“It’s a de-a body of some kind,” Kalvnik leaned in, not wanting to get too close to it. “I think it used to be a Chiss.”

“You think so? Why the uncertainty, Lieutenant?”

“It looks like it’s been dead a while. And the body doesn’t look like… wait.” Kalvnik got out his holo-projector, pulling up an image of Thrawn. “It doesn’t look at all like Thrawn. It’s all black and… I think it’s dissolving.”

“Do you think it may just be decomposing?” Gordon asked, reaching over with a gloved hand to-

“Don’t touch it!” Kalvnik snapped. Gordon pulled his hand back almost reflexively, clearly shocked. “We don’t know what it died of! For all we know, it’s diseased.”

“Can you send over an image of the body in question?” A new voice rang in from over the comm link. It was Canady himself. “Have you found any more bodies like this one?”

“No sir,” Corporal Grey spoke up through her own link. They were all connected in to this call. “We saw fit to report after finding this one, and we still haven’t entered the village proper.”

“But no signs of life?”

“No sir. It’s possible the entire village is dead.”

“Hmm…” Everyone (even the droid, who had been inconsolable upon the discovery of the body) was silent as the vice admiral considered their options. “This doesn’t bode well for our plans. You said it looked like they died of disease?”

“That was my first thought,” Kalvnik confirmed. “Unless this is an unusual scavenger bacteria that goes after corpses, I think the black is from an infection of some kind.”

“Of course, we don’t actually know anything,” AP-9 had to chime in. “This is all baseless conjecture.”

“Well, operate on the side of caution. I agree with the lieutenant in that you shouldn’t try and touch it. If it is some foreign disease, I don’t want any of you getting sick with it. We probably don’t have treatment for it.”

“Yessir. We will gather visuals of the body and scan the village for lifeforms. When that’s done, we will report back with whatever we’ve found.”

“Good job, soldier. Here’s to hoping we can find some live Chiss soon.” And with that, Canady ended their second call to the Eclipse since landing on Csilla .

Kalvnik’s men all turned to him. “You heard me. Scan the area in groups of two. The droid and I will be here, gathering visual evidence for further examination. I don’t want anyone going off by themselves, you hear?”

They saluted. “Yes sir!”

The lieutenant watched them file out, then turned back to the corpse at hand. He tried not to think about what he was doing as he took out the visual scanner. His goal was to create a holographic image for the ship to look over long after he got sick to his stomach from it.

“Here, AP-9. You get in close.” He tossed the device to the droid.

“Me? What do you think I can do? I’m a protocol droid, in case you forgot!”

The soldier grit his teeth. “Exactly. You’re a droid . Which means organic diseases can’t harm you. I don’t want to catch whatever this guy had.”

A snort. Who even programmed this thing? “If you even can as a human.”

“I don’t know. Chiss seem pretty humanoid to me. We probably have a more similar makeup than you think.” Why was he wasting his time with this junkmetal? “Will you just take the scans and send them back to the ship?”

“Fine,” AP-9 conceded. Kalvnik watched as the droid flipped the rotting corpse onto its back, cringing as the torso came apart and black goo gushed out. The smell was getting worse by the minute. Kalvnik could only hope the bile rising in his throat was out of disgust, and not anything more.

He may not have been a stranger to dead bodies, but this was no fallen soldier. This wasn’t the work of a blaster shot or an air bomb. This was something else. Something unknown. Something capable of reducing a sentient body to slime.

And whatever it was that had happened to this Chiss, Kalvnik would do everything in his power to prevent it from happening to him or his men. They’d been through too much just to die out here.

That was when he noticed. The way the gunk splashed on the snow… it didn’t remain stationary. Even if one assumed the fluid were somewhat warm and causing the snow to melt, it shouldn’t be flowing the way it was.

It almost looked like it was headed for him. But that was crazy, right? What kind of-

“Get back!” Kalvnik’s instincts trumped his reason, and he fired his blaster into the ground towards the black liquid.

AP-9’s head shot up. “What are you doing? I’m trying to take scans over here!”

“The liquid… it looked like it was coming at me.” Kalvnik knew exactly how crazy he sounded. He fired twice more into the snow for good measure. “Just... finish your job quickly. I want to get away from here.”

AP-9 fixed him with a stare, then shook his mechanical head. Must have thought he was losing his grip.

And maybe he was. Kalvnik had seen some shit in his time as an Imperial soldier. Things he wouldn’t repeat to anyone. But despite that, he wasn’t about to doubt his senses. Not with how many times they’d saved his sorry ass in a battle.

He made a call to his men. “Found anything?”

Gar’an, a tall, lean fellow, was the first to respond. “Just more bodies, sir. Some are a bit less black than the one we found together, and look like they were stabbed to death or had their limbs ripped apart. Some are just piles of slime. We’re documenting the evidence as I speak, sir.”

“Well, don’t get close to the black liquid, whatever it is. I don’t want to see a single drop on any of you. AP-9 is already getting close-up scans of a body, so it isn’t necessary for any of you to do so.”

Kalvnik hadn’t always been this cautious. Before his time on Ryloth, he was as reckless as an enemy rebel, and in constant trouble because of it. But after his time on that planet, Kalvnik had felt his mind turn in on itself, internalizing every thought until he constantly overthought everything. It made him feel better to think it was just part of getting old (even though he was barely thirty-five), but that didn’t stop him from giving everything a third glance.

“AP-9. Are the scans finished?”

“...They are. Sending them back to the Eclipse now.” As soon as the droid got out of the way, Kalvnik fired another round of shots into the black goo, which he swore had gotten closer since he last looked.

“Okay, men. AP-9 and I are done here. We’ll be waiting at the front entrance to the village for you all to finish. I want everyone fully inspected by a partner after they leave the area.”

“Do you really think it’s that bad, Lieutenant?”

“Whatever it was, Dunn, it wiped out at least an entire village of Chiss. Plagues and wars are a debilitating combination, and not something I wish on even the worst of Imperials.”

“Yes sir, We are making our way back, now.”

After Kalvnik got two more variations of that response, he ended the call, cocking his head for the droid to follow. It scoffed, but complied.

At the rendezvous point, Kalvnik watched as each of his men looked each other over for signs of the infection. They all appeared to be clean, allowing Kalvnik a small relief.

“Grey. Check me for any signs of the Chiss disease.”

“Yessir,” she replied, cool grey eyes sweeping him over front and back. He complied when she told him to lift his cloak, appreciating the amount of thoroughness she put into every job.

“Everyone seems to be clean, sir. Should we call the ship again?”

“I suppose it’s time, yes.” He made the call himself, somewhat surprised that Canady was the first one to pick up.

“Vice Admiral. Did you receive the transmissions we made?”

The middle aged man swallowed. “I did, Lieutenant. The crew and I were reviewing then before you called. Do you believe that infection wiped out every Chiss in the village?”

“It’s not clear if they all died of it, but it seems obvious that they were all infected at some stage. If we could, we would take a sample back to ship with us, but unfortunately, we lack the materials.”

“That’s fine, though I’m sure our scientists on board with disagree.” In a stroke of unimaginable luck, most of the Empire’s top scientists had been able and willing to reach the Eclipse on time. “We’ll show them the evidence you collected and see what the medics aboard can tell us. In the meantime, show the utmost levels of caution. Look for signs of life.”

No shit. Kalvnik resisted the urge to hang up in a rage. “Will we have navigational assistance from the ship in searching for other settlements?”

“Yes, you will. And while it may not seem like it where you are, our initial scans did pick up signs of a battle when we first arrived. Look for signs of firebombing and you should find it.”

Chapter Text

 

“You found what?” The scout flinched as he was snapped at, trying to avoid the flying spit of his commander.

“Radio signals, sir. Not ours, but something else’s,” Krav’kenitt’itaawn reported. “I noticed them while the ship was scanning, but they were at a frequency our ships are not equipped to receive. We’re no longer alone on this planet, Commander.”

“Tch,” his commander swore before continuing. “We haven’t had Csilla to ourselves for years, Kenitt. Not since those idiots thought we could live beyond our means.”

Kenitt felt an old rage rise up in his chest. When times had been good, there had been a faction of Chiss hellbent on leaving the Aristocra’s policy of solitude behind, thinking they were strong enough to conquer the whole galaxy. Thousands of Chiss were swayed by a their lies, and set out into a hostile galaxy. Only a small fraction returned after their resounding failure.

But they didn’t have the decency to return alone. No, they had to bring… him. It.

Mnggal-Mnggal, they called it now. Double death , as it were. Because not only did it kill your body, but also your soul. Your loyalty. Your sanity. Once it killed you, it took over your body and attacked your kin. Even if you died uninfected, it could take your corpse. Those who committed suicide spared only themselves. Bodies had to be burned or at least dismembered.

There was panic. Chaos. Left and right, the Chiss were abandoned by their own. Those that had claimed they would find help outside Csilla had done so as a ruse to leave their world behind. That was the only explanation that existed.

“Do you think it has something to do with the ship we saw overhead a half-cycle ago? Can you track where the signals are coming from on the surface side?”

“Perhaps it does. And yes, Commander. We will do so.” Kenitt wasn’t sure what to think of the ship some of his compatriots had claimed they saw. He hadn’t seen it himself, nor had he ever seen a ship the Chiss hadn’t made.

“Good.” His red eyes looked ragged, tired out from the constant battle that survival had become. The commander’s once-vibrant blue skin was greying and beginning to sag. But at least it wasn’t blackening, and nor was Kenitt’s.

Every day, Kenitt had to remind himself to be grateful for the dubious gift of health. He knew he was luckier than most, but what good was it? Why be thankful for not dying when it meant everyone else died around him? So long as his body was not used against others, he was fine with reaching an end to his suffering.

There was no hope left for the Chiss people. Anyone who thought otherwise was deluding themselves. They were on the path to certain extinction. Their only choice was whether to take it fast or slow.

It was with this cheerful demeanor that Kenitt set out on his mission, already wishing it to be over.


 

“I don’t think this is the right way.”

“Trust me when I say it is!” Their navigator insisted. “You’re really close to another settlement.”

“Is this another town of corpses?” Gordon looked queasy.

“I don’t think so. We’re too far out to scan for sure, but our telescopes are picking up movement in places your team isn’t. Most likely Chiss.”

“This is where you come in, AP-9,” Kalvnik reminded the droid, who grunted.

“We should use Sy Bisti. I know far more of that language. Our conversations will be far more meaningful.”

“Assuming more Chiss than just Thrawn knew it, is the Grand Admiral’s view. She doesn’t want to risk a misunderstanding or incident of any kind.” They were reminded from the team aboard the ship.

This was quite the departure from previous Imperial policies when they reached new worlds, but if there was one area that Kalvnik could agree with the Grand Admiral in, it was that the Empire no longer had the strength and confidence it once possessed. That didn’t mean they should show weakness, but they did have to be realistic. And a little more humble.

“We may not be in contact with you when you make the first encounter, but do try to keep us updated. The Grand Admiral will be interested to know how things proceed. Don’t be surprised if she’s on the line for your next check in. You might even-” And before anything else could be said, the call went to static.

“Woah, what happened?”

“Did we just lose signal?”

“Is that not obvious?” Grey snarled at the two men, hand going below her cloak as they looked around.

The team of Imperials didn’t notice anything at first, but then came a rapidly descending… cloud?

It was followed by a large shadow falling over them. The team all looked up simultaneously, then gasped.

Above them was a large, sleek ship, colored a cold, matte grey that blended well with the Csillan clouds. It didn’t have the propellers necessary for space travel, but seemed quite adept at making fast and silent trips over the planet surface.

“It’s a stealth ship!” Mikhail, the only party member with any real flight training, cried out. “Watch out!”

Out of instinct, the group of eight scattered. Even AP-9 wanted out of the way. Kalvnik and his men searched for cover, only to realize there was none.

How long had they been following them? Who were they?

It was just before the group was out of earshot from each other that Kalvnik realized. “Wait. They aren’t shooting! Stand down. I repeat, stand down. Do not draw your blasters just yet.”

That got everyone to stop. They stood still in the knee deep snowdrift as the ship descended, making sure they were close together. They wanted to have each other’s backs if a fight broke out.

So maybe Kalvnik’s team wasn’t the best for what boiled down to a diplomatic mission. Nothing could be done about it now.

Time stood still as the first few Chiss descended from the ship. They were, surprisingly, outnumbered by the group of humans. That was far less than the size of the ship suggested.

Now these creatures looked more like the Chiss Kalvnik had expected. The three males looked almost exactly like Thrawn’s holo-image. The two females were a bit more slight, with a figure not unlike a human woman’s. Had it not been for the blue skin and red eyes, Kalvnik might have thought they were.

They stopped about five feet away from Kalvnik’s group, weapons in their hand and distrust in their eyes. They looked ready for an excuse to fight.

The lieutenant kept a neutral face as he spoke. “Your turn, AP-9. Greet them.”

The group of Imperials went silent as AP-9’s voice box contorted into a complex patterns of syllables, seemingly with no space between words. In his mind, Kalvnik knew the message was supposed to be: “Hello, Chiss of Csilla. We are humans of the Galactic Empire, here in peace.” But to him, the two languages sounded nothing alike.

They could only hope AP-9’s data was accurate. And sufficient for the task.

Kalvnik’s observed the group’s facial expressions carefully as the droid spoke. The initial surprise was to be expected, but what was the look they shared with each other afterwards? Fear? Concern? Restraint?

They spoke in their twisted language, sounding just like how AP-9 had. It was a short message, one that Kalvnik waited until the end of to ask for a translation. “What did they say?”

The protocol droid paused. “They said that we should… We should…” It shook its head. “I don’t know what was said after that.”

“Tell them you only understand simple words, and to speak clearly.” Grey suggested. They could only assume AP-9 took her advice.

What sounded like a snort came from the Chiss side. It was at times like these that Kalvnik wish he knew a language other than Galactic Basic. But he’d been raised in an Imperial household, one that considered the skill useless.

Basic was the language of the galaxy. Just… not this portion of the galaxy.

This reply was just as short, but it came slower and more enunciated. All heads turned to AP-9 for a translation.

His words were grim. “‘Leave Csilla now. You are not wanted. You will die here.’”

“Cheery,” Grey noted. “Ask them what’s been going on on Csilla. Tell them we saw fighting.”

AP-9 went back to speaking their language without another comment. The Chiss looked irritated with their question, glancing among each other and shaking their head. They argued amongst themselves for a moment, then turned back to the Imperial squad. The male who seemed to be their leader spoke.

AP-9 translated the reply as thus: “‘Many years we fight our enemy. Fire kill them, but they kill twice and more fast. We call it…’ I don’t know what this word means, but they call it ‘Mnggal-Mnggal’.”

“Mnggal-Mnggal.” So that was the Chiss’s adversary’s name. It felt weird on the lieutenant’s tongue. “So... they’re losing their fight. Ask-”

Before Kalvnik could finish his query, the leader spoke again, this time more harshly. His men had their hands poised at their sides in a gesture he knew all too well.

“‘You stupid humans! You bring enemies with-’”

Shots rang out before the droid could finish his translation. At first, Kalvnik thought they might have been firing at them, but none of the shots hit. He and his men were too close for all of them to miss.

Then he turned around.

“Holy shit,” Kalvnik pulled out his blaster as well, falling back as his men got into formation aside the Chiss.

Their enemy? More Chiss. Blackened Chiss, not unlike the corpses they’d seen in the village. They didn’t have weapons, and approached the group at a stunted pace. Despite this, the scouting party seemed terrified. After a minute, Kalvnik realized why.

Both Imperial blasters and Chiss guns were firing on these intruders, yet none that fell in the snow remained there. How could that be?

One by one, they all rose again. Injured and dripping black goo, but advancing all the same. One even used its blood (goo? Liquid?) from a shot to the arm to flail at its adversaries, hitting a blue Chiss female in the face. She fell to the ground slowly, seemingly paralyzed.

Kalvnik instinctively ran over to help her, but was stopped by the leader he’d been talking to earlier. As the female cried out in anguish, she shouted in the Chiss language, a dire cry the human wished he could understand.

The Imperials were so lost. They just kept firing at the advancing foes, growing increasingly frustrated with the act’s unrewarding nature.

Crying out incomprehensibly, the Chiss raced back onto their ship, using their guns to stall the approaching adversary. After a few shouts at AP-9 (who had been utterly useless in the skirmish), the droid finally translated the Chiss’s words.

“‘You are not safe. Come with us or die.’”

Kalvnik looked back at the black-stained Chiss. She had lunged after one of the bodies, wrestling with it in the snow. Was that common policy among this species? The lieutenant thought he saw the liquid sliding toward her mouth. Almost as if it had a mind of its own.

But that was crazy, right? There were no more sentient diseases in the galaxy. They’d been long since exterminated.

“What do we do, sir?” Gordon asked, arms shaking. His eyes kept going to the Chiss ship, but he wasn’t about to move without orders.

“...Get on. We have no choice. We don’t know a thing about what we’re up against.”

His men still looked confused, but they obeyed. As the ship doors closed, he and the Chiss leader locked eyes, each recognizing the other as the one running the show. At least, from where things on the ground were concerned.

The lieutenant gave a nod of acknowledgement. “Lieutenant Chris Kalvnik, at your service.”

The leader was silent, watching Kalvnik’s body language for an indication of what the man said. After a minute, the male replied, his phrase as short as Kalvnik’s.

“Krav’kenitt’itaawn.”


 Kenitt watched the strange beings as they languished inside his scouting ship, conversing among each other in their outsider language.

They had introduced themselves as humans. History spoke of limited encounters with such creatures, but Kenitt still hadn’t been sure of what to expect. The one that knew their language seemed to be made of metal, like a complex machine. And their weapons, while not too different from Chiss guns, had a sleek compactness to them that Kenitt envied. Wherever this Galactic Empire was, it had good resources.

Galactic Empire… did that mean they ruled the whole galaxy? They certainly didn’t rule Csilla, and as far as Kenitt knew, no Chiss had ever encountered them on their journey off-planet. How could one claim to rule the whole galaxy if they had never been seen in this part of it? How big was the galaxy, anyway?

The man with yellow hair had said something to him after boarding the ship. Lutenchris’kalvnik, it sounded like. Kenitt had assumed it was the man’s name. So humans named themselves the same way Chiss did?

Next to Lutenchris was a female human, the only one among them. She seemed to be touching a device on her ear, the thing that had been putting out the radio waves before. It must be a communications device of some kind. Was she talking to the rest of her empire?

Her face grew increasingly angry, then the fiddling stopped. No luck, then. Something about this ship cut off their radio, he guessed.

Kenitt turned away, looking at his three remaining warriors. Two flew the ship, while the other was like him: sitting about and waiting. Thinking about their next move. They had caught the intruders, as requested. The Chiss didn’t know what was to be done with them. That was for the Aristocra to decide. But for now, he supposed there was no harm in leaving them to rest.

The humans looked tired, but not ravaged. It was clear they had never faced Mnggal-Mnggal before, but how could that be? Kenitt thought Mnggal-Mnggal was everywhere.

He walked up to the complex machine human, phrasing his words carefully. “You have not seen Mnggal-Mnggal before?”

Kenitt waited as the machine human translated his message to their language. The Chiss thought his question had been simple, but it required a full minute of discussion. It seemed especially ridiculous when they finally gave their answer.

“No. Tell us about Mnggal-Mnggal?”

What was Kenitt to say? Did their machine possess the ability to understand half of the danger they were now in? If this Empire had come here without knowing the danger, perhaps the disease wasn’t as widespread as the Aristocra seemed to believe.

Or maybe these people were just like the Chiss: setting out into the galaxy proper for the first time with their sights on conquest. Well, they were in for a treat.

Kenitt did his best to relay as much, pausing only when the machine didn’t understand. If these humans knew a place Mnggal-Mnggal hadn’t touched, they should flee back to it as soon as they could. Why they weren’t listening to his warning was a puzzle he could not piece together. Not until Lutenchris finally said:

“‘We cannot go home. You not the only to lose your war.’”

The pursuit of something greater, only to be met with failure. Facing an insidious enemy you don’t suspect, only for it to topple you at the last second. Such was the simple fate of those with ambition.

That, Kenitt could understand.

Chapter Text

Kalvnik shifted his weight across two feet, struggling with rising impatience. He and his crew had been stashed away on a Chiss ship for at least several hours, and no attempts to contact the Eclipse had ended in success. He suspected it was something about the ship. Not that asking about it had done any good. Either something was getting lost in translation, or the Chiss wanted them to be cut off from everyone else.

He liked to believe if the Chiss were going to kill them, they would have done so already. Or at the very least, left them with the diseased of their kind. According to them, anyone whose body was touched by the disease had no chance of recovery. Mnggal-Mnggal would take control of you even as it caused your insides to rot, forcing you to attack your own kind until there was nothing left but decay. And from the way the Chiss talked, the disease wasn't native to Csilla, but brought back by soldiers after a failed conquest. Judging by what AP-9 had translated, it was as though they believed it was everywhere.

This information was helpful, and the Grand Admiral deserved to know it right away. Kalvnik and his team would have to try again when they got off the ship. But for now, they were trapped.

"If you organics are done with your pointless sulking, I have news about where we're being taken."

"Spill," Grey spoke before Kalvnik had the chance.

"They are bringing us to their governing body, the Aristocra, who saw us the same time we saw their battle. This scouting party does not know what their rulers will do with us, but they seem to believe we'll be sent away."

That did them no good. They'd come here with the hopes of finding more than just bad news. It had been their hope that the Chiss could trade with them for resources (or at the very least, that they could be stolen from easily). The Empire knew the Chiss were too tough, and their Imperial resources too limited, to try and subjugate them, but this disease seemed to have severely weakened the supposedly proud Chiss, and with good reason.

Kalvnik could only imagine what being infected must be like. He would do whatever it took to keep him and his men from succumbing to such a fate.

"Do we have a choice in the matter?" he finally asked.

If a droid could roll their eyes, he had a feeling AP-9 would have. "Does it look like we do?"

"I merely think the Grand Admiral should be informed of what's happening, here. Perhaps she would want to meet the Chiss governing body herself, and negotiate with them about what can be done here. We weren't sent here to handle such matters."

"And we'll tell the Grand Admiral that the second we're off this ship," Grey assured him. "You heard what our navigator said: don't be surprised if she's on the line the next time we call. After everything, I'd think she wants some answers from us."


"What are you doing down there? I demand answers," Sloane shouted into her comm link the second a connection was established. "Last we saw, you were fighting Chiss, and running off with more. Start there, Lieutenant."

"The Chiss we were fighting were diseased, Grand Admiral. Csilla is struggling with a plague that causes its victims to become aggressive as they die. The plague isn't native to the planet, but the Chiss are convinced it's everywhere in this sector of space. Had the scouting party not taken us in their ship, we probably wouldn't have been able to fight the sick Chiss off." Kalvnik's report was muffled, but direct. Was he not alone while reporting? "But right now, they're taking us to their governing body. The scouts are saying they have no idea what will happen to us. We're set to appear before them at any minute."

A plague? The impression Sloane had of the conflict had been civil war at first, simply because they hadn't seen any spacecraft or other sentients besides Chiss. This would explain the corpses Kalvnik's crew had discovered.

This was dangerous. The scientists weren't done with their preliminary analysis yet, so she had no idea if the Chiss plague could harm humans. If it could, they were in serious trouble. They had barely survived war. She wasn't about to let the last vestiges of the Empire fall to disease on her watch. They had to get ahead of the issue before it got out of hand. Or anyone else found out about it.

But they couldn't just leave Csilla now. They still needed resources, and planetary scans had indicated large reserves of oil on the planet. They weren't likely to get much food from the ice planet, plague or no, but they needed that fuel. If Sloane could sit down with this governing body and get their soldiers back, maybe she could also get her hands on what the Empire needed to keep going.

"I'm coming down there. We will track your location and meet with this governing body. Your mission, as it stands, is nearly complete. Once you are aboard the Eclipse, debrief with Vice Admiral Canady. Leave AP-9 with me."

"Yes, Grand Admiral. We look forward to your arrival. We-" the lieutenant was cut off by shouting. No way those words were Basic. "-have to go."

Sloane stood right away, ready to call for a guard when Brendol Hux stopped her in her tracks. "How long have you been here?"

"This fine scientist was waiting to tell you of his discoveries while you were on the comm link. We were… conversing." As usual, Brendol's response gave Sloane nothing but a rise out of her. For the first time, her eyes landed on the unassuming middle-aged man in a labcoat.

"Josef Sieve, Grand Admiral," the scientist offered by way of introduction. He held his hand out to shake, which Sloane squeezed, making him wince. She really defined poised aggression nowadays.

"You weren't thinking of going down to Csilla's surface by yourself, now were you?" Brendol had an agenda in mind with these questions. Sloane could sense it.

She refused to play into it. "Of course not. That would be nonsense. I will naturally be taking a guard along. A grown one."

The redhead chuckled. "That's not what I was after. Are you sure you should be speaking for all Imperials in front of foreign governments, Grand Admiral?"

"Am I not the leader most qualified for the position, Hux?" Surely he wasn't implying he should be brought along for the trip.

"It's just that… some individuals on this ship would be more comfortable if the Empire remained more just than a military organization. I was discussing the matter with some civilians of former prominence-" Those merchants from earlier, Sloane thought. "-and they haven't been comfortable with your leadership thus far."

"And just what are you implying? Why would a military man be concerned about a lack of civilian leadership?"

"Oh, I'm not. I just figured you would want threats of mutiny to be the last thing on your mind at this critical juncture."

The nerve of this Hux! Whatever his game was, Sloane wasn't about to play. She did not have time for this. "Who said there was any concern about mutiny on this ship?"

"No one. I just think some people would be comforted by the inclusion of non-military officials in decisions and talks going forward." From that statement on, Sloane came to the conclusion that this wasn't about Brendol. No doubt he received some form of benefit from the situation, but really, he was just here to jockey for somebody.

And Sloane was determined to subvert him. She wasn't about to let anyone get away with questioning her leadership. ...But she also wasn't about to project an image of outrage or insecurity. That would only make the prophecy self-fulfilling.

So Sloane pretended to consider his request, though she was determined to circumvent the core of it. "What sort of civilian would have any interest in visiting a potentially hostile alien planet in unknown space?" She wanted him to name his nominee so they could get to the heart of this matter.

"...well, the scientists would," Sieve spoke out, interrupting Sloane and Brendol's banter. The small man's presence was so unassuming, Sloane had almost forgotten he was there.

So had Brendol, it seemed. He shook his head. "You researchers and your need for discoveries. I admire it, but I would never do it."

It was in that moment a thought occurred to the grand admiral. This was perfect. "Fine. If the non-soldiers of our ship are feeling idle enough to consider suicide, I will implement tasks beyond what their current roles entail to ensure they keep their minds occupied. I will start by inviting our Imperial researchers on a first person tour of Csilla. We can go together to collect different types of information."

Brendol didn't look as surprised as Sloane had been hoping for, but he always had a good poker face. "Well. Whatever you insist, Grand Admiral."

Sieve looked positively giddy at the prospect. "Oh, no doubt my colleagues are far too fearful. Our initial studies pose a grim analysis, indeed. But how will our knowledge ever advance without those who are poised to take risks, hm? How will Imperial technology remain light years ahead of all others if we-"

"Agreed." She hoped she didn't regret her choice. "I will discuss new jobs for some of the ship's occupants at a later time. Until then, Mr. Sieve will come with me."

Sloane walked with purpose towards the designated soldiers' barracks, intent on picking a guard. She was so confident in what she just did that she missed the look shared behind her.


Arin stared blankly into the eyes of the dark female human before her. Even without a language barrier between them, there was no way the Chiss were comprehending what was being said.

Sure, there were parts that made sense. "I am the Empire leader", "Thank you for returning my soldiers", and "Your disease be very frightening". But after that, when the white suited woman began asking for oil? Had she not been listening to anything the Aristocra had said? Could she not understand them, as they could not her?

Arin had heard the scouting party's report. She knew Kenitt personally. She even agreed with him about the potential that these humans presented to the Ascendancy as an organization… if they could shake off the chains of resignation. Arin was more hopeful than anyone in that regard. But working with the humans required a mutual understanding, and it was that very task that was proving difficult.

Her father repeated himself, simplifying his language for the occasion. "We have no oil for you. We need ours. Mnggal Mnggal has the rest."

The machine companion turned to the woman calling herself Ra'slone, translating what Arin's father had said into slow, drawn out syllables. Ra'slone snapped something back, shocking her male human companion. He too was dressed in white, though only with a thin outer cloth. Surrounding them were ten humans in white armor, their guns sleeker than anything Arin had seen before. The two central humans seemed to argue for a brief moment. The woman had the last word, however, so Arin guessed she had won.

The machine let out something akin to a sigh, then turned back to the Aristocra. "We will help you fight Mnggal Mnggal if you let us take oil from Csilla. Help us, and you will be our ally as we…" the machine trailed off, thinking. "As we take the galaxy for ourselves."

Outraged whispers took to the air as soon as the last words were said. Almost everyone in the Aristocra scoffed upon hearing the humans' request. "You pitiful humans will not take the galaxy. The Chiss are the galaxy's proudest warriors. We were stronger than your kind will ever be, and even we were brought to our knees. You too will go extinct, along with your Empire. That is our fate. It is your fate as well."

"That is not true!" Arin spoke up for the first time this meeting. "You saw what happened in our last battle! Fire works against Mnggal Mnggal! The Empire has ships. According to this leader, they have people. If we fought with allies, we could burn Mnggal Mnggal off the face of our planet."

"Ari'nitan'colgrana! It is not your place to speak." She was silenced immediately. "Only members of the counsel may address our guests directly."

Arin slumped in her chair, fuming. Why was she even here, then? Still, she listened from then on out.

"It is true your warriors are great," the machine was back to translating. This time, it held a sort of circular device in its hand. "We in the Empire once knew a Chiss. May you see… Mitth'raw'nuruodo."

A blue projection of a Chiss spouted from the circular device. When the Aristocra recognized who it was, their voices only became angrier.

"The traitor wears your clothing?! He abandoned us for your Empire, and for what? Where is he now?"

Arin, for her part, was fascinated by the image. She knew the story of Mitth'raw'nuruodo all too well. He had been a proud Chiss warrior who had set out searching for allies in the early days of Mnggal Mnggal's infection. But after going years without so much as contacting his home planet, and as conditions on Csilla continued to deteriorate, the Aristocra gave up hope for his return. They declared him a traitor who had fled their cause for safer skies.

Which is why Arin made sure she was listening when the machine continued to speak. "Thrawn served the Empire well, and wanted to return to Csilla one day. But he was caught up in a war of our own, and is believed to be dead in battle. It is his cause that we know your language, and that we are here. We believe you can fight as he did. He joined us. Will you not?"

"He abandoned us!" Several Chiss insisted. "He left to fight your battles while we faced our slow death."

Arin didn't quite agree. In a way, hadn't Thrawn done exactly what they'd wanted him to? Sure, he'd taken a long time, but better late than never. So long as the Chiss were not extinct, there was hope for their future. So long as the Chiss believed that, they could continue to fight on.

At its core, this was hope. A hope the Aristocra had forgotten how to see. But perhaps the Empire had not.

The Chiss female was beginning to like Ra'slone. But it was not Ra'slone who responded to their allegations, but the man. "Every disease has a cure, Chiss people. I will find it and study it and ensure it can infect no more."

For the first time in forever, the Aristocra laughed as one. "Mnggal Mnggal is more than a mere disease! It is a curse of the darkness, brought about by the magic of legend and the master who wields it."

"Tell me, dumb human: when is the last time you have seen a mere plague turn a whole planet to slime? When the Ascendancy first saw Mnggal Mnggal, it was on Mugg Fallow. Mugg Fallow was once a paradise. Now it is a sea of black."

"Go now, humans of Empire. We will hear no more of your boasts. Be grateful you may leave with your lives intact, and bother us no more."

Now Ra'slone was angry. She stepped in front of the machine, knocking the projection of Thrawn to the ground. Her words came loud, faster than the humans had spoken before. It was a struggle for her translating machine to keep up with what she was saying. "Dumb? You call us humans idiots, while you sit here ripe for hunting kill? Some strong warriors you are, if you will let an invader have your planet without so great as opposition. Would you rather die off than have hope? I have offered you a chance to burn your enemy away, all for oil in return.

"While you laugh and argue, your people die off. Being the last to die will not keep you Chiss from going extinct. You as government fails you. I am sorry to everyone ruled."

The man was stuttering, bumbling with words no Chiss could hear. He didn't seem to have any authority, so why was he here? That was one thing Arin did not understand.

Ra'slone did not wait for a response from the Aristocra. Instead, she turned her back to the congregation, guards circling them in tight formation as they marched out of the city center.

Just as Arin suspected, the Aristocra erupted into another round of chaos after the humans left. She used the disorder as cover to slip away to where the humans had gone.

Maybe Kenitt's friends were right, even if he himself was hesitant. Maybe it was time for the Aristocra to end, and for the survivors who wished to live to rebel. Before now, the idea of civil war had always been squashed. It was seen as a suicidal idea, a way to only make things worse. But the introduction of humans to the mix had given the talk ammunition, enough that Arin believed the movement would happen with or without her support.

She didn't want to be seen as a remnant of the old order. She had already lost her mother to the disease, and her father to himself. She had to catch the humans as allies before her rivals did. If she brought them to the Chiss still willing to fight, it would guarantee her power over the new day.

And if she failed? At least she could die saying she did something. That was more than some of her comrades could say.

"Wait!" She nearly ran into an armored guard on her approach. It pointed its gun at her, and she threw her hands up. "I come in peace, Empire. I want to say-"

Ra'slone was still angry in the voice. Not that it came through in the translation. "What do you want to say?"

"There are Chiss who agree with you. Chiss who will leave the Aristocra to join you. Give me a chance. I can bring them to you."

Pause. Murmurs. Then finally, a reply.

"Take us to them."