Piqus VII was an unremarkable world by any measures of significance. Located at the outer edge of the Krellonian Star Alliance, it was far removed from the center of power and culture of the core worlds. It had been settled by Krellonians nearly two hundred years earlier, at the very height of the expansionist wave that had driven the people of Krellon to spread their sphere of influence over their neighboring systems. It had been an unbreakable devotion to a divine destiny which had fueled their drive to conquer the stars and which had ultimately resulted in the creation of an empire forged by brutal conquest and the enslavement of races considered inferior and requiring the steady yet firm guidance of a people preordained to rule the galaxy by the Infallible Creator.
That religious fervor had of course long since passed and in fact considered an archaic byproduct of a past age by most present-day Krellonians. Slavery, too, had been abolished and its mere existence once upon a time was but a historic blemish best left forgotten least it evoked a sense of guilt and shame within the descendants of those who had allowed those atrocities to be perpetrated.
And Piqus VII which had once been a prosperous outpost of the Star Alliance, thanks to the mineral abundance of the system’s asteroid belt which helped sustain a resource hungry empire, had also become part of the past when those rich deposits had finally been exhausted after decades of unrelenting extraction efforts.
The planet’s generally inhospitable surface had never made it an attractive prospect for anything other than a massive ore-refining operation and the inevitable growth of industrial and commercial interests which came with a prosperity firmly linked to the local mining trade.
Once that had dried-up, many had left to seek their fortunes elsewhere rather than stay behind on a diminishing and bleak world without much of a future. What remained were a handful of crumbling population centers, made up of a very small amount of influential families who had accumulated their wealth through their old industries, a sizeable but increasingly poor class of administrator, and a much larger number of Outlanders, Krellonian subject races, former slaves who had eventually become the cheap labor force toiling in mines.
For most, leaving Piqus was an unaffordable impossibility, even if work was hard to come by these days. Piqus had always been a far-flung corner outpost of the Star Alliance. Travelling towards the core worlds was expansive and leaving the Alliance altogether was almost impossible. Beyond the Piqus system, the galaxy opened up into the star-jammed region of the Amargosa Diaspora, a stellar nursery so dense, it made navigation not just difficult but outright dangerous. And somewhere beyond all those bright stars was the home of another empire few within Krellon space knew or cared much about. A place called the Federation.
Garla looked out of the viewport of her personal yacht to take in the dull, brownish-red planet her ship was approaching and not without a tinge of dread. After all, as far as she was concerned, Piqus VII epitomized everything that was wrong with the Krellon Star Alliance, and as a woman who greatly cared for her people and their future, she found it difficult not to look at this world without appreciating the nearly insurmountable problems they were all facing.
It took only a moment for a sense of swelling hope to replace her dreary concerns. Things were going to change, and soon. After much hard work, they had now finally entered into the final and most crucial stages of making the most radically sweeping changes to the very fabric of Krellonian society and which would promise to forever alter her people's destiny for the better.
It was the very reason she had come to this backwater world, far removed from the prying eyes of the ineffective government and military forces on the homeworld. This then was the perfect place to make those dreams she had chased since childhood finally into reality.
Her reverie of a more glorious and perfect future was interrupted by the sound of an incoming message from the computer console in her quarters.
She tore herself away from the viewport and swiftly walked over to the console to learn who was trying to contact her now. She frowned when she identified the sender.
It was one of those very same ineffective government officials she had tried to leave behind in the capital. As a Sentinel of the Eye of Krellon, the most powerful security and intelligence agency within the Alliance, she had far-reaching authority and autonomy in all her work and was mostly free to tend to her business with very limited oversight. But it also meant that as much as she may have despised the current policies of her government after all was said and done, she was still beholden to them. Along with the Star Navy, the Eye was the principal instrument of government power and influence in the Alliance, and as such, she was obligated to answer enquires of any member of the Central Council promptly and with little delay.
Garla canceled the incoming message.
She was in no mood to speak to that particular councilmember and she could always justify her actions later by claiming interference or a system failure. It was unlikely that Yorlo would believe any of this but it was even less likely that her estranged husband would make a formal complaint that his wife wouldn't take his calls or go as far as involving the paramount—the leader of the council, and de facto ruler of the Star Alliance—directly.
Another warning sound alerted her to their impending descend into Piqus VII’s atmosphere and Garla sat down in her chair and strapped herself in. She had made this trip more than enough times to know that the strong gales sweeping across the surface of her destination at this time of year would make for a turbulent approach.
Her interstellar corvette crewed by three loyal Eye officers bounced and rocked predictably as it raced towards the planet's capital and the most populous city surrounded by the cold and dull tundra of the Southern hemisphere.
Glancing back out of the viewport, Garla watched as the clouds gave way to the sight of the city below with its modest skyline at its center and the sprawl of old habitats and large, mostly abandoned industrial zones surrounding it.
Her ship was heading straight for one of those skyscrapers at the city’s center, not the tallest—that would have been too conspicuous for a regional headquarter of the Eye—and she could see the large and sharply angled glass roof of the building parting to reveal the landing bay ensconced within it just before the sight dropped out of view.
The ship landed with a thud and Garla had released the constraints and jumped out of her chair the moment she had felt the touchdown. She grabbed her already prepared briefcase and hurried towards the exit ramp to finally set foot on Piqus after her two-week journey from the homeworld, thankful to finally be breathing non-recycled air again, even if it was much cooler than she was comfortable with.
She observed for a moment as the deck crew quickly approached her ship to secure the vessel, unload any cargo and promptly refuel it in case a speedy departure was called for. Above her, the darkly tinted, synthetic-glass roof sealed tightly once more to safely hide the innards of this secretive facility.
Like was the case in many places within the Alliance, the more menial and laborious tasks were performed by Outlanders. The deck crew looking after her ship was made up of three green-scaled reptilian Zel, two, large-bodied and dark-furred ursine Buoth and a petite, humanoid Kridrip while the officer in charge was a bulky, middle-aged Krellonian who from all appearances didn’t believe in exposing himself to much physical exercise.
He also, Garla noticed, didn’t seem to believe that his workers were performing their tasks with enough motivation.
“I want this ship fully secured and prepared for lift-off on the double. No more of that poky Outlander pace you have been passing off for work around here lately. It’s no trouble at all for me to replace every last one of you with a crew that actually knows the meaning of hard work, do you read me?”
His little speech seemed to spur on his small troop but also made one of the Zel noticeably nervous and in his haste to attach a refueling conduit, it slipped out of his three-clawed hand, causing liquid fuel to spill onto the deck.
"Infallible Creator, preserve me," the supervisor fumed as he waddled over to the fuel control station to engage the shut-off valve. "How did I end up with the most useless bunch of Outties this side of the Galactic Divide?" Once the fuel leak was contained, he hurried over to the still startled Zel and harshly yanked him backward with enough force that he went flying onto the deck. The supervisor didn't afford him a second look and instead took in the sight of the spill. "Look what a mess you've made. This will all be deducted from your pay. And you remain here until every last drop of this has been cleaned up."
Garla joined the supervisor by his side and the rotund man glanced up at her, startled for a moment that she had managed to approach him without him even noticing. “Sentinel, I am so very sorry for this. It’s these rotten Outlanders. Some of them are damn-near useless with those moronic claws they have for hands.”
She looked back at the Zel who was slowly being helped up by his fellow reptilians and then nodded. "Would it not help avoid these kinds of incidents if you were to assign them tasks more befitting their skill sets?"
He snorted a laugh at that. “What skill sets? One is worse than the other.”
"I see. If your workers are not sufficiently qualified for this work, perhaps you should consider hiring a different workforce."
The supervisor considered her for a moment, clearly not used to a high-ranking sentinel such as Garla to concern herself with such low-level personnel decisions. “It would be challenging to find qualified Krellonian workers at the pay that we can offer. There is also the matter of the quotas we need to fill to employ Outties.”
Garla nodded. “I understand.”
He looked back at the spill and Garla followed suit. “It’s a real mess but it is what it is.”
“For now, yes,” she almost whispered.
He aimed her a quizzical look, clearly not having fully perceived her words.
Garla waved him off and then made to walk away. Then, as if she had remembered something, she turned back to the supervisor. “What is your name?”
“Veetu,” she repeated and nodded. “You realize of course that it is a criminal offense to physically assault an Outlander?” She didn’t give him an opportunity to respond and instead bestowed him with a look so steely, he couldn’t suppress an involuntary gulp. “I ever hear you laying a hand on another worker again, I will ensure you will never work for a government agency ever again.”
She promptly turned on her heel and strode away before he even had a chance to think about a possible reply to this.
Another Kridrip, almost a full head shorter then Garla and with delicately braided long hair and large eyes, came rushing through the heavy doors of the landing deck even while Garla was heading towards her.
Clutching a data padd in both hands as if his life depended on what it contained, he surveyed the scene of the stunned supervisor next to the fuel leak surrounded by the Outlander deck crew for just the briefest of moments before he glanced towards Garla striding towards him, offering her an exasperated look. “My sincerest apologies for the delay, Sentinel, I’ve been held up by unexpected developments.”
Garla simply shrugged, took the slate off of him in passing and continued through the now open exit without so much as slowing down. “That’s quite alright, Tenn.”
“I hope you had a … uh … pleasant journey,” he said, still seemingly distracted by whatever commotion had transpired before his arrival but recovered quickly enough to follow her through the doors and into the elevator.
“As pleasant as one can be cooped up in a small ship for days on end,” she said as she glanced over the padd Tenn had passed her.
He nodded as he entered their destination into the control panel following which the lift immediately began its descent. "Is there anything that I should know regarding the landing bay crew?"
Garla shook her head. “Just a case of an overzealous supervisor, nothing to worry about,” she said and then looked up at her assistant. “You mentioned an unexpected development. What is it? I don’t see anything in my brief.”
“Yes,” he said. “I was only just informed so I have not yet been able to update it, I’m afraid. Chief Administrator Chella arrived a short while ago and insists on speaking with you.”
Garla sighed. “Speaking of overzealous supervisors. Must be something in the atmosphere here. What does she want?”
The doors of the lift opened to deposit them on the floor Garla’s office was located on.
Tenn followed her closely. "She didn't declare her intentions to me, however, there have been some … concerns in the city and beyond over the last few weeks. I wouldn't be surprised if she wishes to discuss those."
It wasn’t a very long walk to her office where Garla deposited her briefcase on her large desk. “Security concerns?”
This came as a surprise to her.
“I have advised Administrator Chella that you would not be available to see visitors today but she was quite insistent to speak with you. If you wish I can have her removed from the building.”
Garla smirked at the thought. “As tempting as that may sound, forcefully removing a planetary administrator from a central government facility may invite the wrong kind of attention.”
“Of course. I shall see her in then. Also, you have an urgent message from Councilmember—“
She nodded. “He can wait. He may have significantly more clout within the halls of power, but he’s less likely to appear uninvited on our doorstep if we let him stew a little. Anything else before I meet with Chella?”
“You asked to get a personal status update from the site supervisors at the facility. All three of them have since arrived and are waiting to meet you in person.”
“Very good,” she said as she took a seat behind her desk. “I’ll meet with them once I’m done with Chella. Considering how far behind schedule we have fallen, they have much explaining to do.”
“Indeed,” Tenn said with a sharp nod and then left to fetch her guest.
Garla contemplated the unexpected meeting for a moment. Chella was a typical local leader, high-strung and over-preoccupied with issues she had no immediate control over. As a sentinel working for the Eye, Garla wasn't required to involve local officials in any decisions or projects she was involved in even if said projects were situated within their jurisdiction. She had found it helpful in the past to try and keep on good terms with the locals but the latitude she was willing to extend only went so far. The project was far too important to be endangered because of a mid-level politician who was sore about somebody else playing in her pond.
“Chief Administrator,” Garla greeted the woman as she was shown into her office, maintaining an easy smile which was meant to communicate to the other woman that the moment she had stepped into this building she had surrendered all the control she would have taken for granted outside those walls. The slightly pained expression on the administrators’ face seemed to indicate that she understood this. “Welcome. I must say, however, I was not aware that I had made my travel arrangements public knowledge,” Garla added.
Chella walked up to her desk and offered a nod in greeting. “I like to keep track of the arrival of important officials to Piqus wherever I can.”
"I see," said Garla and stood to be at eye level with the other woman. They were both about the same age—for Garla it was a matter of professional pride to know everything there was to know about a possible political adversary—but thanks to Garla's strict fitness regimen, she was clearly in much better shape and could pass far more easily as a woman a decade younger than she truly was, whereas Chella very much looked her middle-age. Perhaps her much lighter skin and her entirely hairless head, both common characteristics for Krellonians who had grown up on Piqus, attributed to this, as well as the fact that Chella had borne a child whereas Garla had not. "If I were a paranoid person, I would fear that you are keeping track of my movements," she said. And of course she was a paranoid person, had to be, considering her occupation, and she was pretty certain that Chela was doing exactly as she had suggested.
“I am a busy person. I have far more important matters to concern myself with.”
“So I would hope. I take it one of those matters has brought you to my office today.”
She nodded. “There is a growing concern that Piqus has been targeted by an Outlander terrorist attack.”
This was news to her and a very serious accusation. “What kind of an attack?”
"A biological attack. There has been an outbreak of a yet to be identified illness in this city which has been spreading quickly."
“And what makes you think it is an attack?”
Chella allowed herself a minuscule smile, clearly not because she enjoyed the news she was sharing but more likely because she seemed to possess information a Sentinel of the Eye, a spymaster for all intense and purpose, had not yet learned. The administrator was clearly relishing the feeling of momentary superiority this afforded her. "So far only Krellonians have been affected by this illness. There hasn't been a single reported case of an Outlander contracting whatever this is. My investigators are fairly certain it is a targeted attack, likely using an artificially engineered virus of sorts."
“But you have no evidence of this?”
She shook her head.
“Then perhaps, Chief Administrator, it is to early to jump to such conclusions. The physiology of all the Outlander races is significantly different to our own. It even varies a great degree amongst the Outlanders themselves. It may be that they are just immune to this illness.”
"It is possible but Outlander unrest is at an all-time high on Piqus. It stands to reason that this is just the latest in a long string of terrorist activity orchestrated by their ringleaders."
Garla wanted to argue that perhaps the systematic violence perpetrated by Chella's own security forces against Outlanders was part of the problem. But even she had to admit that the matter went much deeper than that. Racial tensions had been a problem for the Alliance for centuries and it had only been getting worse over the last few decades. A real change was needed and soon before the tinderbox which was the fragile state of Alliance society would finally explode and put them all on a path they would not be able to turn back from.
It was no longer even a hypothetical concern. Garla had seen it happen and was determined to do whatever was necessary to avoid it.
“There have also been rumors,” Chella continued when Garla kept her thoughts to herself, “that whatever activities the Eye is involved in on Piqus may have contributed to the spread of this illness.”
Garla shot the other woman a look sharp enough it could have cut steel. It had the intended effect and Chella lost her composure for a brief moment. "I sincerely hope that such rumors are not propagated in any way through your office, Chief Administrator."
Chella took on an air of surprise. Garla couldn’t tell if it was honest or put on. “Of course not. I would never suggest such a thing. I understand that the Eye’s primary concern is the wellbeing of the Krellonian people.”
“Of the entire Alliance,” Garla corrected.
Chella nodded as if that was one and the same. “If you were able to cooperate with my investigators by sharing some of the details—“
“Thank you for bringing this situation to my attention,” Garla said sharply and sat back down, avoiding eye contact. “You can rest assured that I will be looking into this further. May the Infallible Creator bless the remainder of your day.”
The other woman remained glued to the spot for a moment longer, as if not entirely sure, or perhaps not able to believe that she had been dismissed so brusquely, considering her station. “And … yours as well, Sentinel,” she finally said before heading out the door.
Tenn appeared in her stead just moments after she had left.
Garla spoke even while she continued to look contemplatively into the distance. “This health situation. How come I am only learning about this now?”
“It has been kept pretty quiet by the administrator’s office. It has only become news over the last few hours and while you were still in transit.”
Garla shook her head. “That’s not good enough. We should have known about this at the same time the administrator did. In fact, we should have known before.”
“You are correct, of course, my apologies, Sentinel.”
She looked up at him. "It's hardly your fault Tenn, you are my assistant, not an agent working for the Eye. But clearly, the people in this building have not been doing their jobs properly while I was gone. Somebody will have to answer for that. I'll deal with that later."
“Understood. Do you wish to see the facility supervisors now?”
“Yes.” But before her assistant could leave the office again, she called after him. “Tenn?”
He stopped and turned to regard her once more.
“How many Outlanders work in this building?”
He needed to consider this for only a moment. “About one-hundred and fifty.”
She nodded slowly as she processed this. “I want you to draft a proposal to reduce that number by eighty percent before the end of the day. All non-critical Outlander personnel are to be put on furlough until further notice.”
To his credit, he didn't hesitate. "Yes, Sentinel."
She looked up at him. “Put yourself down as critical personnel.”
“I’ll meet with the supervisors now.”
As Tenn left to organize her next meeting, Garla quietly considered what she had learned so far and the more she thought about it, the more furious it made her. She had worked too long and too hard for her plans to be undone at this juncture by a group of angry Outlanders who had decided to pick this time to vent their frustrations over the injustices they were exposed to within Piqus society.
Garla could emphasize with their plight but did not condone their behavior. Not all Krellonians held on to age-old racial views that Outlanders were inferior and did not deserve the same rights as Krellonians. A blanket attack—if that was indeed what had caused this latest crisis—was entirely unacceptable and unforgivable. It was also the last thing that she could afford considering other more recent setbacks.
Tenn returned with three Krellonian supervisors, all three clearly locals considering their shaven heads and the pale color of their skin. She recognized two of them from previous meetings right in this building or from visits to the facilities where they worked. The third man she hadn't met before in person and she was a little startled by his appearance. He looked even paler than the other two except for his nose which was clearly inflamed and his bloodshot eyes were evidence that he had not slept well in quite some time.
She stood. “I need answers. The latest reports show that we are way behind schedule even after we have ramped up production. This is simply not good enough.”
The most senior or the three spoke up first. “We’ve encountered difficulties since we lost the secondary facility. A single site simply cannot make up for the loss.”
But Garla shook her head. “This was already discussed. We adjusted our production figures following the incident and I was assured that we would be able to meet the new demand and make up for the shortfall by deploying more personnel.”
The second supervisor spoke next. “Personnel has been the problem.”
“How so?” Garla said.
The third man shook with a nasty cough. "Apologies, Sentinel. I am Reetu Denur, I am in charge of personnel at the facility."
She nodded, she knew his name.
"Fewer and fewer people have been showing up for work over the last two weeks. At first, we thought it was merely related to a seasonal condition but we now fear that—" he had to stop himself when another coughing fit forced him to pull out a handkerchief.
The first supervisor took over. "We've been heavily relying on Outlanders to pick up the slack but we don't have nearly enough in place and considering the high-security clearance the work requires, it is unlikely we can make up the shortfall in a quick enough manner by relying on new personnel."
“Nor should we attempt it,” said the second supervisor. “Not with those rumors going around that the Outlanders are to blame for this.”
Garla had to agree. It was not a chance she was willing to take.
Reetu’s coughing fit didn’t seem to end which was beginning to grate on her nerves. “For the Creator’s sake, go and get some medicine.”
He looked up at her in embarrassment and nodded quickly. “My … apologies, yet again, Sentinel,” he managed to croak between coughs and then headed for the exit. He managed two steps before he collapsed right onto the carpet.
“By the Creator, not him too,” said the first supervisor who quickly knelt next to the fallen man to look him over.
“What is happening?” asked Garla but made no move to step away from behind her desk.
“It’s that illness,” said the second supervisor. “It’s been impossible to tell who has it and who just shows the symptoms.”
Tenn who Garla hadn’t even noticed leaving the room returned suddenly with another man she recognized as one of the physicians that worked for the Eye.
“Step away from that man,” the doctor practically barked at the supervisor kneeling next to the now motionless Reetu on the floor. “I need everyone to leave this room straight away.”
It was only now that Garla noticed that the physician was wearing a mask and rubber gloves. “What is it?”
The man looked up at her. “It has only just been confirmed, Sentinel. Whatever it is we are dealing with here is not just deadly. It’s highly contagious as well.”
The two other men quickly stepped away from their ailing colleague.
“Then that man needs to be isolated straight away,” said Garla.
But the doctor shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s much worse than that. Word has just reached us from the Chief Administrator’s office.”
Garla threw him a quizzical look, not fully comprehending what he was getting at.
“A planet-wide quarantine is now in effect.”