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Lor Standard Date 1853.1 

WISE 0535−7500

 

The Lor don't know the moon's name - not yet. They know that the stellar body that Terrans call WISE 0535, too large for a planet and too small for a brown dwarf, was part of a star system in Delaztri days - a star system that went missing in the interregnum in the records between the fall of the Delaztri and the arrival of the first Lor starships. They know this moon, the size of a Lor-Van-sized planet, was inhabited in those days with cities, a spaceport, and a population in perhaps the millions. They're not sure yet; the layers of ice, first oxygen and atmospheric gases, then water ice, are thick enough that the Archaeological Service has been digging for months even to come this far, to the high upper stories of what had once been an arcology. They've found some interesting things. 

 

 

Pugio awoke to pain, and voices, and darkness, the sounds of vibration elsewhere. He faded in and out of consciousness. 

 

"Translator online, deciphering audio records." 

 

And darkness, and confinement, and _cold_. 

 

"Spaceship hangars are gold - not only does it give you access to their tech, it gives you their starmaps - and that gives you access to _more_ of their tech." 


He wasn't in his own craft, he was in something else, something dark and cold and confining, and then suddenly the rear of it was coming open. In the instant before light came streaming in and two envirosuited humanoids looked down at him, Pugio realized he was in the back of a medical evacuation shuttle - but what in all the hells had happened to it? 

 

 

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Suffice to say, this was a confusing turn of events. 

 

Puigo swung his head back and forth, taking in his environment and trying to remember where he might be.  His last memories were hazy, and as they started to slowly come into focus, they clashed with what he saw.  What happened to the Audacity?  What happened to the endless void of space in which he had spun uncontrollably?  This shuttle and the uniforms of the people in it were unfamiliar, and yet, to see anything at all had to be a good sign. 

 

He chirped and croaked from a mouth that seemed weirdly unaccustomed to speech.  When the translator in his uniform twisted his words around, Puigo was further concerned that the new language sounded different than any he had heard during his career--and it had been quite diverse already.

 

"What has happened? he asked, and tried to sit up.  "Where am I?"

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"Aagh!" screamed one of the suits, a noise that seemed familiar enough despite the different species. Puigo saw them both reflexively go for what had to be weapons at their sides; wait, no, one of them looked like a weapon - the other one was taking out a scanner? Their suits weren't quite the same color to his eyes, one was red and the other pink. 

 

"Hey, easy there, easy there!" said Pink, the one who hadn't called out. Puigo couldn't make out species or gender, just a mechanical voice that sounded like the artificial reproduction of organic species. "We're not your enemies, little guy." Red had stepped back, out of Puigo's line of sight, but he could hear the sound of quiet conversation. "It looks like you're in an environmental suit. Did...and you're really alive, wow!" said Pink. "Did you teleport in there?" 

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Now he was truly confused.  Puigo had just started to hope that these were fellow agents of the Empire who came to his rescue, when their odd reactions implied otherwise.  If they didn't bring him to this shuttle, then how did he get here?  And furthermore, the weapon at one of the creatures' side gave him pause.  Without knowing who or what these things were, he'd rather not have them armed.  Perhaps he would remedy that in a moment. 

 

Be patient.  There are too many unknowns here; I must learn more.  It is easier to escalate a situation than deescalate it, and for now, they seem relatively calm.

 

First, Puigo decided to help his situation by allowing them to learn.  "I do not teleport," he said flatly, and with that out of the way, laid down the strongest credentials he could imagine: "I am a law enforcement agent of the Delaztri Empire.  I require immediate transport to the nearest garrison, or better yet, to Delaz Prime.  Your time and fuel will be compensated; have no fear."

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"...are you a Praetorian?" asked Pink, sounding delighted to hear the news. Pink reached up and tapped the side of its head - and as Puigo watched, the opaque black eyeholes in the center of the head went transparent enough to show a humanoid underneath, her skin blue and slightly scaled, her eyes big and black. "That's...very interesting." Red had returned by now, and said something in what sounded like a military code to Pink, who nodded before replying to Puigo again. "The comm system in our craft is only for intrasystem use, I'm afraid, and it's not space-worthy. What I can do is take you to our base at the top of the atmosphere. Once there, we can get in touch with our superior and see what we can do." 

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At this, Puigo relaxed.  He still wasn't on familiar ground, and he had many questions, but at least their reaction was reasonable. 

 

"Correct," he nodded; his neck had to stretch up a bit to let his head bob.  "I am Puigo, of the Praetorians.  I serve under Daar Val-Ren, and if you can direct me to a stronger comm system, I will contact him."

 

His malleable limbs coiled under him, and he bounced to his "feet."  "Where, precisely, are we?" he repeated his earlier question. 

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"At the moment, you appear to be in the back of a medical evacuation shuttle," said Pink, still watching Puigo with fascination in her deep dark eyes. From the scales and big eyes, he took her for another species with aquatic roots, albeit a humanoid one. "I'll be able to tell you more once we have a chance to download the shuttle's memory core." As she spoke, she was scanning Puigo with a whirring, glowing device she'd taken from her belt. "I do advise you to keep your environmental suit on until we've had a chance to get you into our shuttle; conditions on this planet are hostile to all three of our forms of life. If you'll go with Cohors D-7, he'll take you to the roof where our shuttle is parked." 

 

The corridors of the building they were in weren't familiar to Puigo, but he could see the ice covering every surface, deep and old, and not water ice either. Peering through windows showed him what looked like the perfect black and glittering white of space-without-atmosphere above his head. 

 

"This way, sir," said D-7, his voice sounding rougher around the edges than his counterpart. "Just a short hop to the station from there." Roof access gave Puigo a different view; the building they were in protruded above a vast field of white and grey, a deep field of ice that stretched on for thousands of kilometers, as far as he could see. Other buildings were protruding from the ice sheet too, great monumental towers worn down by the passage of vast time, some knocked askew by some vast cataclysm. 

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Puigo didn't seem to hear them; he stared in awed confusion at the wasteland beyond the shuttle.  What happened here? he wondered.  And how am I a part of it?  If this is a medical shuttle, was I rescued?  But then what happened to the crew?  I need to see those logs from the memory core.  I need...I need to report.  If the war isn't yet fully won, then I have to get back to the fighting.

 

"I don't know how I came to be here," he said worriedly.  The alien's expressions were difficult to judge, especially as his clear face-mask reflected the glow of the ice, but he clearly seemed dazed, even as he nimbly followed D-7.  "I was...the last thing I remember, I was still in my own ship.  Where is it?  Where is the Audacity?"

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"Not really my area of expertise, sir," said D-7 with the blunt pragmatism that spoke "senior NCO" to Puigo's ear analogs. "I'm just here to make sure the scientists like Dr. Ariel," he cocked a thumb backwards to indicate Pink, "stay out of trouble. I know they've found plenty on this here moon - maybe your ship is under the ice." They took a small shuttle up to the Lor space station, one that looked decidedly different from the ones Puigo remembered from his knowledge of the nascent empire -  this one had a thin, narrow look of a knife made to cut through something solid, and an asymmetrical look more suited to a mobile vessel than a stationary base. It was clear that wherever they were seemed to have no star, which certainly explained the frozen hellscape below. 

 

Once inside, Puigo found himself escorted through rounded corridors by D-7 and several other armored guards to what was clearly a medical bay. The air here was warm and was actually air (unlike the icy hellscape below) and the humanoid crew friendly. "Hello," said a physician of a species that resembled what he'd seen of Dr. Ariel, short and stocky by humanoid standards, with big black eyes and faint scale patterns on her blue skin. "I'm Dr. Titania, and I am honored to meet you! If you'll go ahead and hop up on this biobed," she said, patting something that (as with most species) was cut for a bed for a species much larger and more ape-like than Puigo. "I'll go ahead and conduct a scan. It'll be difficult without a species baseline, but it should give us some idea of what happened to you."

 

 

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At first, Puigo hardly seemed to hear the doctor.  He became more and more trapped in his thoughts, which were increasingly worried.  The surprise of being alive should've occupied him entirely, and pleasantly so, but the details he saw that clashed with his memory were more concerning.  Why was the Lor station so different than what he expected?  Why were they here at all?  Why was he here?  Where even was here?

 

He looked at Dr. Titania a little hesitantly, but nonetheless climbed onto the examination table.  Puigo badly wanted answers, and if this scan could provide any, then he'd tolerate it.  "Very well--but afterward, I need to use your communication systems.  I have to report to my superiors as soon as possible."

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"Certainly, certainly," said Titania, giving him a humanoid reassuring smile. "Just as soon as we're sure that you're not in any danger from us, and that we're not in any danger from you, I'm sure my superiors will be happy to help." Up on the table, he couldn't fault her bedside manner - she was all friendly sociability as she asked Puigo serious questions about his health ranging from his age, his gender, and his general medical history (these the sort he might have been asked at any standard medical examination) to more pressing concerns - what were the most common sources of medical concerns for his species? did he have any abilities unusual for his species? Could he demonstrate his cognitive faculties by inscribing the name of his species and his planet of origin on this datapadd, please? 

 

 

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Puigo went along at first; he'd been through these kinds of examinations before, though always by Empire-sponsored physicians who knew more about his biology than he did.  He supposed it wasn't too odd that these strangers were less familiar.  But gradually, he came to realize just how little the Lor understood about him: absolutely nothing, it seemed.

 

They have no idea what I am, he thought.  Already confused and surprised by this entire ordeal, Puigo wasn't sure how to address its latest development.  He continued to answer the questions, increasingly and visibly unsure, not to mention impatient.  His flexible fingers twisted into knots in a nervous gesture rather like a human might wring their hands. 

 

By the time they finished, the little Praetorian couldn't keep suspicion out of his voice, even smoothed as it was by his translator.  "And now, the comm system?"

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The subsequent delay that brought was _almost_ enough to get Puigo to take action before he was joined again by a familiar face - almost. Free of her environmental suit, Dr. Ariel was short for a humanoid and pretty for one too (as far as Puigo's tastes could determine), with iridescent blue scales, the deep black eyes of a sea creature, and the suggestion of a bipedal posture that would have been as comfortable in the water as outside of it. She was joined by a new face, a pale-skinned humanoid male with bright green hair like a carefully tended mane, who introduced himself as "Captain Samran-342." The number seemed as part of his name as the words, but after the introduction and a welcome, he deferred to the scientist who had first met Puigo. She was in uniform now too, albeit less decorated than the Captain's. 

 

"Puigo, there's something we need to tell you, but before we do that, I need you to tell me something. As far as you can recall, what's the current date in the Delazatri calendar?" 

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Such an odd question did nothing to put the Praetorian at ease.  He looked between the captain and scientist for a moment, trying to decide whether to tell them at all--and then realizing that he wasn't entirely sure of the answer himself.

 

"...I lost track during the war, if I must be honest," he said slowly.  "I've been so busy, mission after mission.  The Communion is relentless, which is precisely why I must report to my superiors; our last battle seemed to be finally turning in our favor, but I couldn't see its end.  After I was shot down, my ship drifted for...a long time." 

 

He shook his head in agitation.  "How did I even come to be here?  What happened to me?"

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"We're not entirely sure what happened to you," admitted Dr. Ariel. "We're not even sure what happened to the world where we found you - it looks like it was displaced from its primary and cast adrift. We've only been excavating here for a few years." Ariel and Samran exchanged glances with each other, and then the captain spoke up, evidently trying to finish before Puigo could do the math. 

 

"The current date is-" He gave a figure 2000 years after the date Puigo had given. "I'm so sorry, Puigo. The empire you served, the people who founded it; they've all been gone from this Galaxy for nearly a tenth of its rotation. I'm sure you don't believe me," he added. "You're a pilot. If I show you the stellar data," he asked, gesturing to a smart wall that adjusted itself to reveal a map of the Milky Way galaxy centered around what had once been the territory of the Delaztri. 

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Samran-342 was right: Puigo didn't believe this. 

 

Oh, it made a kind of sense; he had to admit that, even in his frazzled state.  Even so, he could think of...perhaps not simpler explanations to his predicament, but certainly other possibilities.  To consider that everything he'd known and stood for was long gone was understandably horrifying, and his mind recoiled from it, just as his body leaned away from the Lor in shock. 

 

"...Star maps can be falsified," Puigo slowly hissed.  His tentacles were beginning to stretch out; whereas before he curled inward on himself with uncertainty, the captain's claim appeared to be making him bigger and more aggressive.  "You are trying to trick me.  You have done this--whatever this is.  Do the Lor think to take advantage of our glorious Empire's vulnerability?  Do you think you can finish what the Communion started?  Foolish aliens!  We're stronger than you realize!  And when the Delaztri learn of how you've abducted one of their agents, their wrath will shake the stars themselves!"

 

With that, he sprung through the air, increased his suit's anti-gravity features to full flight, and made a break for the door.

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The Lor handled this with great professionalism - there was no real word for it. Alarms blared and lights flashed, a eye-catching sequence of blue and yellow, and everywhere the station crew (though really, to Puigo's eye it was clear that this was a semi-permanently 'parked' mobile command headquarters) took shelter behind rapidly-closing vacuum seal doors. It wasn't long before Puigo found himself neatly contained in alternatingly blue-and-yellow branching corridors that went nowhere, behind doors that it would have taken him a blaster to cut through. 

 

"I'm sorry about this, pilot," said Samran's voice over the intercom. "I don't want to deploy counter-intruder measures against you. If you can stop and allow us to speak with you, I can tell you what we know about the fate of your empire - and what we can do for you here in the present in the new galactic order of things. You are not the only survivor." 

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Damn it! he thought once he realized he'd been trapped.  I don't have the tools to get out of here.  I could make them come and get me; my suit will protect against gas, and I've beaten obstacle courses simulating automated defenses before, so if I force the Lor to send a strike team in to subdue me, I could overpower them and use their entrance as an escape route.  If I succeed...

 

Puigo's head whipped back and forth desperately.  Even when the intercom delivered news, he remained suspicious.  Another lie, certainly, he thought, although less confident this time.  A deep, dark worry was building up inside him, whether or not he acknowledged it.  Maybe this can buy me time to think, at least.

 

"What survivors?!" he demanded.  "Tell me, then!"

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Puigo got the story - of how many of his fellow Praetorians had disappeared after the last great struggle with the Communion, been absent through the fall of their patron empire and the rise of the Lor, only to reemerge during the final great struggle with the Communion only a few years earlier. "Hundreds of billions died but they were finally defeated. The Praetorians who survived the war have been working closely with the Republic's government ever since. I can put you in touch with our government; I can even possibly find you another Praetorian," said Captain Samran on the intercom. "But I need you to trust me. What's it to be?" 

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"I...don't know if I can trust you," Puigo admitted, now stunned instead of defiant.  The tale he heard left him reeling, and while a large part of him continued to rail against it, he also felt sick and scared.  He slumped against the nearest wall, and his many limbs began to shrink again. 

 

"If you can bring me to another Praetorian, then...then I...I will listen."

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Time passed.

 

The Lor set Puigo up with his own room, providing furniture and food as he required. Their ability to provide species-specific materials for him was evidently fairly limited, but they were doing their best - by the end of his time there he had a place to eat, a place to sleep, and a library computer with a connection to the Galactic Information Network - albeit not a live one. From what he could tell of the current Galaxy they were somewhere isolated, at the edge of wild space and close by several nature preserves. He had the strong impression that this was indeed a remote military outpost, albeit one with a profound archaeological secret. The officers and scientists aboard ship were happy to offer him support, but generally kept their distance, asking after his welfare and other questions, but not "overburdening him with the state of Galactic affairs." 

 

Several local 'days' later - his vessel arrived. He and Captain Samran, along with some of the scientists he'd gotten to know, were waiting in the officer's lounge when the officers of the escort vessel Nimbus entered - and everyone leaped to attention. 

"Stand down, everyone, stand down." The older woman who entered the room, in the company of several other officers, was in what Puigo recognized as Lor civilian dress. "I'm just Defense Minister Frankan now, remember?" With a warm smile, she walked right up to Puigo and said, "Greetings, pilot. I'm Defense Minister Bucklin Frankan of the Imperial Star Navy. I'm here to take you to see your people.

 

 

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During the intermission, Puigo's mood didn't improve, but rather continued to deteriorate.  He still couldn't entirely believe what the Lor had told him, and the unknown elements of his situation piled on top of the immense distress he felt.  He hardly slept or ate; the alien's pale green skin became oily and cold as a result, under his ancient Delaztri suit, and he avoided company when possible.  Learning of his ship's condition was yet another blow.  At least the Audacity hadn't been entirely destroyed, but Puigo still felt like a dear friend was drifting between life and death in a hospital bed, while he looked on helplessly. 

 

When Frankan finally arrived, he uncoiled from his chair and looked up at her.  "Thank you, Minister," he croaked; Puigo's translator remained smooth, even as his natural voice betrayed how beaten and low he felt.  "If possible, I would like to bring my personal craft, the Audacity, with us.  It is a small vessel, if your ship has a hangar."

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"Certainly," said Frankan with a warm smile. "I'll be happy to make sure you're accommodated on the way - I'll make sure one of my aides personally sees to the transfer." She gave Puigo time to make whatever goodbyes he needed to make, then the Praetorian joined the party following the Minister into her personal vessel. The ship, evidently called the Arrow of Justice, was different than the base where Puigo had been staying these last few weeks; its bulkheads and floors almost mirror-bright, its crew spit-and-polish military in a style Puigo certainly recognized well enough. The cargo hold was more than big enough to accommodate Audacity; in fact, his ship seemed to be the only thing the vessel was carrying. 

 

The only exception among Frankan's escort was a young humanoid who seemed to be cut from the standard Lor cloth; dark-skinned and bald, with a short goatee and a leather outfit that looked more suitable for planetary operations rather than spaceborn. He stuck close to the Minister's side, especially when she and the Praetorian socialized; a common enough thing, since the minister's vessel wasn't terribly large and there seemed to be only one meeting room. 

 

"Hey, uh," said the aide, during one of those early meals - (The young man had been introduced as "Smith, a civilian adjutant") to Puigo. "I gotta question. Sorry if this is dumb," he said, glancing at his boss before he spoke. "The old empire that you guys worked for. What was that like?" 

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Puigo looked up at Smith and was silent for a long moment.  He was no happier aboard the Arrow of Justice than he'd been at the research station, and thus a poor conversationalist during Frankan's meals, usually only speaking when he had to, like now.  This particular question was especially difficult for the Puigo; he disliked hearing the "old empire" referred to as a thing of the past, let alone having to do so himself.  He forced the words largely to just play along.  In the back of his mind, he still held onto the possibility that maybe this was all a trick, and he was merely biding his time.  Soon, he'd know one way or another: the Lor would either present another Praetorian he recognized, who could confirm their awful stories, or they wouldn't, and Puigo would respond by fighting to the death.  The second option filled him with far less dread. 

 

"It w...was..." he struggled with his phrasing and the memories alike.  "...The Delaztri Empire was magnificent.  They brought peace and stability to the galaxy, and my fellow Praetorians were beacons of hope to all in need.  A thousand species from a thousand worlds worked together for the common good.  Our scientists created miracles; our soldiers fought with honor against the forces of tyranny and chaos, like the Communion."  Puigo's pink eyes squinted bitterly as he thought back on the war that cost him his proper place in time.  "I was very proud to have a small role in it all.  The Delaztri gave my people true sapience, uplifting us from simple animals.  In return, they didn't so much ask for loyalty, but rather, gave us purpose.  I don't know much about your universe today, but I fear it must be darker than the past, due to their absence."

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"We do okay," said Smith. He smiled thinly, an expression on his dark face that looked almost wolfish. "In this dimension, anyway. Some real bastards have come through space lately lately, but the Lor are the biggest, toughest people in these parts. My people helped 'em do it, which is why I'm here. You ever hear of a place called Earth?"  

 

"What was your purpose?" asked Frankan, seeming to take over the questioning from her aide. For his part, Smith rose to his feet and looked out the window, resting his hand against the made-transparent paneling as the ship cruised at high superluminal speeds. Puigo could make out the expression on the young man's face. He had not been in space much - but he seemed to like what he saw. He removed something from his belt that 

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