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Carter Bay, Florida, Terra
One week before the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Timemark 1329.7

"Whaddya mean what do I want you to do with 'em?! They came to my son's house!" Anna knew she was screaming, and she knew she sounded like an old woman when she screamed, but for once in her life she didn't care. She'd tried for weeks to reach Basil after the fighting in Freedom City during the Communion incursion; and only now, pacing back and forth so fast she was burning through yet another bedroom rug, had she finally gotten ahold of her old friend. "They tried to kill my grandson! They tried to put their filthy stinking hands on my little baby granddaughter! I want them dead! I want their whole goddamned organization dead and buried in a goddamned hole in the ground!" Basil let her rant, like a good friend should, knowing what Clock Queen was like in a righteous temper. When she was finished, Basil broke in gently. 


"I'll do whatever is in my power to help you, my dear Anna." His voice was warm and soothing, the perfect veteran musician's calm, even tones. "I am not soley responsible for composing their fate, but I think I can persuade even their backers to dance to my tune for a while. But the question remains, Anna, what will you do for me in return?" His tone was serious, but almost apologetic, the same way he might have asked for repayment on money she'd borrowed from him back in the day - which now that she thought about it had happened more than once. "Certain things have never been tolerated in our organization - but of course we're talking about a third party. If I'm to move against them, I need to be sure that you can move with me the next time I need a favor." 


Anna put her head against the wall, palm flat against the bright green wallpaper of her retirement bungalow, and thought about her old friend's words, even as not for the first time recently she felt a great wave of unaccustomed fatigue. "Listen, Basil, I...I promised my boy I wouldn't get back in the League, and I meant it. It's important to him - and you know nothing's more important to me than family." She opened her eyes and caught sight of herself in the mirror across the hall. Jeez - look at me! Eighty years old, and she looked like a healthy woman in her fifties - a woman who was going to spend a long, long life right here in this bungalow if she chased Basil away right now. He'd better be right about the white noise blocking the line here. "But a deal's a deal. If you need a favor, a real favor...gimmie a call. I'm yours." 

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Coalition Victory Station
Two weeks after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1329.9


Amara Val-Ren stood quietly inside a section of what had once been the mothership of Communion forces, looking about at the workers from dozens of worlds who were busy clearing out and refurbishing the interior of the vessel.  The young Naram had been part of the Coalition council when the decision had been made to try to attack the mothership and destroy the central control for the Communion forces.  The risky plan had worked and the other Communion forces had all but ceased to function, allowing Coalition forces to deal with them with relative ease. 


Thus had the Communion's incursion into the galaxy been halted, but the invasion would have lasting effects on this region of space.  Multiple worlds had been destroyed, turned into wormholes as part of the Communion's plan to create a network of them throughout the galaxy.  Dozens of other worlds had been converted into Computonium, with great loss of life as a result.  All the major space powers in the region had been weakened, some significantly.  But, at the same time, the threat of the Communion had served to bring together powers and worlds with long histories of mistrust and conflict, uniting them to overcome the common threat.   


The Praetorians had played their part in the conflict, with members taking part in many of the key battles against the Communion.   After the Communion had been defeated and the Coalition leaders had first met here near the remains the mothership, Paradigm had pledged the Praetorians' assistance to all those that might wish to accept their aid.  With Amara having had the opportunity to get to know the Elder Stark Knight A'Lan Koor during the Incursion, an alliance between the Praetorians and the Star Knights naturally followed. 


But even as the threat of the Communion was gone, there was still so much to be done.  Billions of beings had been displaced by the conflict, creating tension and problems on hundreds of worlds which had accepted the refugees.  Pirates who had helped fight against the Communion were now returning to their former activities, with others how had been part of the conflict also choosing that route.  The Praetorians were assisting in dealing with many of these problems, but the group needed a base of operations. 


"This should more than meet our needs."  Amara stated as she looked out at the section of the station being refurbished and the glanced back to Elite and Traveller.  There had been some debate among the Praetorians about where they could possibly establish a new headquarters, with some wanting a location that was more remote.  But CoVic Station provided a number of benefits.  It was located in neutral space, and was quickly becoming a symbol of the cooperation that had saved the galaxy from the Communion, with so many of those that had worked together against that thread establishing embassies on the station.  This provided easy communication between the Praetorians and representatives of the governments they were offering assistance to.  The station was also located near one of the wormholes that was part of the network the Communion had been establishing, providing rapid travel to many parts of the galaxy. 


Amara gave her two old friends a small smile, feeling confident that this was the correct decision.  Although so many of them were still coming to terms with the fact that nearly all they had known was long, long gone, the Praetorians now had a continued purpose, and soon would have a new home.  "We should start making the necessary arrangements."

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Two weeks after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1329.9


"They want to do what?" Maria Montoya had heard plenty of impossible, even irresponsible, things in her time as a Star Knight - especially in the past few months, when it seemed like the entire universe had come crashing down around their ears. But she still had to pause to make sure she'd heard this one right...


"They've already started offering up land rights to the converted worlds," said A'Lan Koor. "Once the chaos ended, the worlds of the Khanate that had remained unmolested somehow found time to figure out who had what right to where, and figured out it came down to who could get there first and keep the others off the longest. And, with no central authority to speak of at this time..."


"You'd think they'd try to sell something safer. Like sweating dynamite. I don't suppose they even care it's their fellow citizens they might be breaking down for scrap?"


"That may be a fringe benefit. Many of these worlds didn't like each other under the best of times, and with the Khan out of power and most of his advisors... indisposed, anarchy reigns. Most of these worlds are self-sufficient, but others remained dependent on the Khanate's largesse. And there's been a horrendous demand for computronium on the black markets. Much fabled, always in short supply, and now some force has taken care to litter it across the galaxy. Some want it for research, others want it for... well..."


"I get the idea." Maria fought back a shudder; the idea of someone else trying to make their own Communion in a petri dish did not fill her with confidence. "So. We came together to drive this thing off, and now everyone's trying to knife each other for a percentage. Sounds like business as usual."


"Your sarcasm is noted," said Koor. He looked out at the main concourse - the new cadets were gathering, led into formation by Jarella. They were a motley bunch, even more so than usual - but Mentor had judged each one worthy of taking up the mantle, ready to plunge into the chaos. "But you are right. It is as it always has been. But we cannot allow ourselves to rest on victory, or surrender in the face of madness. We will do as we always have - make sure the galaxy remains at peace."


"Yeah," said Maria, watching the cadets enter parade stance with remarkable accuracy for a first go. "Or as close to it as possible."

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Lor Prison Transport Just Reward
Two weeks after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1329.9


"--nder attack! They've disabled the engines, with a --zzzkk-- pulse, we think; sensors are --kkzzh-- too. Comms barely --zzhk-- help! Repeat, we nee--"


The signal finally cut out as the Khanate loyalists stormed the bridge. Kalin Keem grunted in muted satisfaction as she direction a squad of her soldiers in their varied custom or pilfered gear to secure the weapons lockers next. The burst had been meant to take out communications along with the engines and sensors but they'd chosen the spot for their ambush well. Even in a worst case scenario they had more than enough time before any Lor friendly ship received the signal and came rushing to the rescue. They might have used a stronger disruptor but Keem had been uninterested in taking life support offline or accidentally opening all of the prison transport's cells. They were there for one reason only.


"Sir! We've found him!" a pale blue soldier with thick, white whiskers announced excitedly, skidding to a halt and making a sloppy attempt at a salute. "He's in their infirmary, we've already dispatched the guards!"


Keem narrowed her eyes, long grey coat flapping about her ankles as she followed her subordinate back the way he'd come at a brisk pace. "The infirmary? What have they been doing to him?"


The whiskered man shrugged. "Can't say I'm any doctor, sir, but looks like they were just trying to keep him alive, is all. Well, you'll see for yourself!"


And she did, as they passed through a door flanked by more of her party, laser burns scoring the hallway walls. There, strapped to a table with heavy restraints and hooked up to life support machines was Kinan Khan. The Lor had evidently done their best to remove as much of his Communion cybernetics as they could, the technology riddling the Zultasian's frame rendered inoperable by the Coalition victory. Too much of his original biology had been scooped out and discarded to take all of the nanite-built enhancements out, however, leaving the mighty conqueror an imposing form trapped in a lifeless coma.


Keem's eyes flicked to the life support machines keeping Star-Khan's heart beating and remembered a day from her childhood, many, many years before, when her world had been dragged screaming and burning under the banner of the Khanate. She remembered the lessons in strength and rule she's absorbed to reach her current position and rank, harsh lessons that had meant the end of many a rival who had learned them less well. It would have been an easy thing to cut the air tubes with her knife, to destroy the medical equipment with a single shot from her pistol...


"What do we do, sir?"


With one final pause, Keem barked, "What do you think, soldier? Gather all of this together and get the Khan back to the ship. All debts repaid." The quote hung in the air as her men hurried about their work and Kalin Keem considered her options.

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Aleph Station; Edge of the Sol System
One month after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1330.3

It was not, by all means, the most luxurious of stations. It was a sight better than the ISS - Daedalus had put a lot of effort into it, even if it had effectively been a month's effort. The other members of the League had helped with construction where they could, and Maria had managed to secure some materials from Citadel that would aid with monitoring and reception of signals from the wormhole.

The wormhole. It wasn't the first time Daedalus had flown through one - you didn't get to be this old without diving into the weird stuff - but they usually came in two flavors of his end: unstable and far too close for comfort, or stable and reasonably far from home. But here one was, right on the solar system's doorstep. The Lor, the Grue, the Khanate... they were just the start of the species who'd shown an interest in this system. Soon, there would be others, curious about where this network led and why the Communion had been so eager to lay waste for it. And they'd wonder about what lurked on all those planets between here and the blue one...

"You're on edge."

Daedalus tried very hard not to jump as he felt Pseudo enter the back of his head. He was used to the telepathic signals of his Grue team mate, but this time, he'd been caught somewhat off guard. "Is it really that obvious?"

"Yes. And if it helps, this is an occasion for nervousness. There are tales of the first time species tried making established contact with the Unity, and... you likely do not wish to hear the details. But there were spikes of fear - I felt them as I explored the Endless Memory."

"This isn't first contact. We know what's out there."

"You know what's out there. The others of Earth..."

"Like we're going to turn into a tourist destination."

"No. Not yet. But there will be... interest."

Daedalus looked out across the void, his eyes falling on vague ripples against the velvet tapestry of night - an indication of the gateway that led to anywhere and everywhere else. "Well," he said, "let's give them something worth talking about." 

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Coalition Victory Station
One month after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1330.3


"You look like you have something to say, Guardsman." Ambassador Diena Th'emme raised her voice just enough to be heard clearly over the clamour of construction in the corridors of the station as members of a dozen different species worked hurriedly to convert existing superstructure into living space, store fronts and - most relevant to the imperiously poised Lor politician - embassies. Th'emme's rich magenta pantsuit was in stark contrast to the utilitarian overalls of the workers rushing about, only her tall, black riding boots more obviously striding the line between fashion and practicality.


The man a half step behind her and to the left stopped compulsively adjusting the epaulet on his newly issued uniform armor to snap to attention as he was addressed. "Ma'am, no, ma'am! Simply... adapting to our surroundings." Athletically built but tall and thin by Lor standards, the green haired solider probably wasn't more then ten years older than her daughter, the Ambassador guessed. True to his word his eyes scanned the corridor in steady sweeps, not nervously per se but with distinct military efficiency.


Th'emme sighed and turned to face him. "We're on the frontier, not the heart of the Republic. You'll find I appreciate candor over decorum, Guardsman...?"


The young man paused briefly, stance shifting to something less stiff but more defensive. "Jilinson-08, ma'am. I realize clones are rarely assigned to--"


The Ambassador scoffed before he could finish the thought. "We're all Lor here. Mh. All sentients, rather," she amended, looking about them contemplatively before resuming her quick pace and prompting Jilinson-08 to hurry to catch up. "That will take some getting used to. It's the little things that are telling about a language, eh? Now, you have some thoughts about this posting, clearly."


Settling into a long stride to keep pace with the tall woman, Jilinson-08 let out a short breath through his nose before admitting, "I can almost understand the refugees desperate for quarters, ma'am, but an embassy? I was on Garron-9, walked on a whole world turned into... parts, I suppose. Moving into the enemy's hollowed out husk seems like submitting a requisition for trouble."


"You could also look at it as the site of a glorious triumph, achieved through unprecedented galactic unity," Th'emme reminded him with a thin smile. "The station has plenty of room for displaced settlers, yes, but it's also genuinely neutral territory with immense significance to every thinking being alive today. The Grue Individuality and several Khanate splinter governments have already sent representatives here, with more arriving. If true, lasting peace is to have any--"


"BLADE!" her bodyguard shouted abruptly, one hand gripping the Ambassador's shoulder and pulling her downward with the other arm stretched outright. In the span of a blink a small plasma pistol had popped out of Jilinson-08's uniform sleeve, into his hand and discharged with an angry thump of superheated air. Across the corridor a stumpy worker covered in shaggy fur toppled to the deck plating mid step, a pair of wicked looking serrated knives clattering out of his hands and sliding toward the Lor.


With a click the quick-draw mechanism that had produced the holdout pistol concealed it back up the clone's sleeve. "Coraxite daggers," he explained, reaching to help Th'emme back up to her feet and finding her already upright again. "Bounty hunter I worked with on Garron-9 had a set. Oxidizes in artificial atmospheres, produces a particular scent."


"Do they, now?" Th'emme commented calmly, fixing her tidy blonde hair before stepping over to the dispatched assassin and looking him over. "That pistol isn't standard issue so far as I know. I seem to recall the Jilinson series having a reputation for keen following of regulation, arguably to a fault." She arched an eyebrow at her guardsman.


He simply shrugged. "The value of unorthodox tactics was impressed upon me sufficiently well during the incursion, ma'am. I've also been told that this is the frontier, not the heart of the Republic."


The Ambassador's lips quirked into a genuine smile at that if only for a moment. "Wise words. I've known many clones to prefer a nickname or call sign to their batch registration. We'll likely be stationed here for some time; is there something you'd prefer I call you?"


"That's something I'm still working on, ma'am. I'd be open to suggestions, so long as it's anything, anything but 'Jibby'."

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Coalition Victory Station
One month after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1330.3


"What a mole-slug nest," Inqué decided judiciously, planting magenta hands on the hips of his synthleather pants and looking out at the docking bay with a mixture of derision and dismay. Shaking his head emphatically to send feathered white hair bouncing back and forth he turned to the middle-aged Zultasian walking down the ship's cargo ramp. "I was better off on that miserable little dust ball, Noz!"


The older man sauntered forward and took a deep breath of the space station's artificial atmosphere, nodding shallowly in mild approval. "Come on, now, mate. Peasant uprising's no place for two delicate soul like us, eh? Not once we secured our cut of the venerable Sheriff's hoarded supplies anyway." As if in response a combination of assorted sentients and cargo hauler automatons began following him down the ramp, lugging a number of sizable crates of varying materials, all looking the worse for wear between sand erosion and the occasional laser burn. "A fresh start is just what you need to put that spring back in your step."


Looking unconvinced, Inqué took a few steps forward, hastily hopping to his left to avoid a flurry of metal shavings falling from the height ceiling. All around them ships of every size from one person shuttles to colony transports were unloading refugees and other unwanted individuals with whatever they'd been able to carry with them. "These... people pool enough credit for a stiff drink between them, I think. Even if they could, we have barely bottles enough to keep dust off a shelf. How am I to run a bar here, I ask you?!" he wailed, placing a dramatic hand to the bare chest exposed by his artfully undone tunic.


"I'm thinking we'll do alright," Noz replied calmly, gesturing with a gloved hand for one of the robots to put down a sizable metal crate next to him and entering a code in its locking mechanism. The lid slid open with a hiss, just enough to offer the distraught bartender a look inside.


Inqué paused, eyes flicking between the contents and the Zultasian's face. "This box seems to be full of crime."


Throwing an arm over his business partner's shoulders Noz corrected, "I prefer to think of it as full of extra-judicial opportunity."


"Well, that does sound much more respectable, yes," the magenta man agreed, placated. "I am going to need a very fine sign for my bar, Noz. The old one was terribly shabby, it never sat well with me."


Chuckling, the older man kicked some stubborn sand from his well worn boots and led them deeper into the gutted station to scout out the prime real estate before it was all claimed. "Knew you'd come around, mate. Reckon we're gonna fell right at home here."

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NML Cygni
One month after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1330.3

Lelak sat on his throne, watching as his Children bowed before him. What a war it had been - what a lovely war! Using the old wormhole network activated by the Isopterans he had flitted from star to star, harrying the Isopterans like a lion among jackals. But now the war was over - the Isopterans were defeated, the Galaxy was spared, and it was time to begin anew. Shaking his head, he rose from his throne and began walking among his gathered disciples. "My Children! So long have we waited for this day!" His cape fluttered behind him, a legacy of his psionic powers rather than any wind on the airless rock that was his new home - the last stronghold of the Masters. "I have gathered you here from across the Cosmos!" His gray hand touched backs, hair, limbs, as he spoke, marking each champion with his favor. "Lor! Gruen! Za'aki! Terran! All of you have lived your lives knowing that you were destined for something greater than your so-called peers!" He raised a grey fist to the red-rimmed sky above, the stars that were his heritage, his birthright, accompaniment to his speech. "You dreamed of becoming something other than what the society of your birth intended! You aspired to something greater!" 

They cheered, the Children of the Masters, and Lelak felt joy swell in his breast. So many had resisted his scans, so many had resisted the Teaching Machines that had shown them their true heritage - but now, when he looked around, he saw nothing but the joyous rapture of a people who had found each other. Outcasts, mutants, freaks in worlds that shunned them unthinkingly, his Children were now all his. He joined them in their cheer - "More! More! More! More!" and turned as he resumed the short walk back to his throne, dust crunching beneath his boots, his keen senses detecting the vibrations even in the airless environment. 

"Yes, you want more!" He sat on his throne with a flourish and declared, "And more you shall have! The blood of the Masters flowed in your veins after a million years of change! Even as I uplifted you all to your true heritage, so too will you uplift the galaxy - and then the UNIVERSE!" They cheered again, and with a wave he summoned the four mightiest of his Children to his side. "But first, we must build our strength. Scattered across the Galaxy are the artifacts and treasures that are our birthright. We will gather them here, in the last of the old places, and use them to build the weapons that will let us retake all that we have lost!" He raised a grey-skinned fist clad in golden gauntlets and declared, "VICTORY WILL BE OURS!" In Lelak's mind, the cries of "Victory!" rent the EM spectrum near the star, spreading like waves before vanishing in the vast dust cloud around the tremendous super-giant. 

But they will hear it again out there, he mused, looking up at those stars again. Soon enough. 

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Cygnus Arm; Researcher's Log
Two months after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1330.7

Now that I have returned to my primary research vessel, I have cleaned all traces of nanite technology from my system. My experience as a puppet of the so-called Communion has taught me a valuable lesson. I must not allow myself to become caught up in my work; the researcher must not be allowed to become the subject. It will be the work of decades to counteract the damage that I did to the observed systems and restore them to their natural post-Communion state - but this is the unglamorous life of a scientist. 

Crouched low in the absolute darkness of its vessel, surrounded by the glowing touchscreens and displays that showed the reactor core slowly powering up, the 'hooked horror' that had attacked the Arecibo telescope on Terra spread out the long, jagged chains that made up most of its polyalloyed body. As it continued to intone its log in grating, slithering tones like wet steel sliding against wet steel, gradually red, iron-rich liquid poured over its metallic body in a glistening, slithering organic mass. 

My research will continue. The galaxy has changed so much - changed so delightfully! The Lor Republic has fallen, the Star Knights are broken, so many planets that I can now study in the kind of detail once reserved for the Outer Rim! Yes, these will be good years, despite the indignities I have so recently suffered! 

The creature laughed, a strange sound now that that organic fluid had poured over its cybernetic body entirely, transforming it into what at first looked like a bladed, mawed cybernetic octopus before it began rearranging itself. Long chained limbs began wrapping themselves together and around each other; shrinking in size and number but gaining infinitely in power. It began to rise, slowly, the multi-limbed creature first becoming a quadruped, then a biped. 

But even the scene of my recent...embarrassment has its potential. I had no idea that there were so many powerful beings on Terra! I will have to return there and commence studies as soon as possible - first the insignificant bipedal population, and then the powerful beings that control the planet. Not since the old world have I seen a place with so many mighty defenders - who knows what mysteries lie beneath their skin, inside their muscles, their nerves, their brains, in the very ichor of their eyes! I think, though, that my investigations there should take place under cover of native life. 

Four limbs sprouted digits - five on each, and a head arose from the central mass. A keratin mass erupted from the head, a dark brown-red like the congealing organic mass that covered the body - its outer layer hardening and browning to something the color of earth. Humanoid, female, Terran. It caught sight of its reflected face in a polished surface on the bridge and cocked its head, meeting those ridiculously few eyes. And vocal communication by atmospheric vibrations. Hm! 


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Beta Librae
Three months after the Battle of Kesteven 79; Lor Time Mark 1331.1

"The Curator will not aid us," said the azure one, its head downcast. "He informed me that he 'had enough Star Knights' and needed no further allies - and had no further aid to give. That circuit must be considered closed." Idly it traced patterns in the dirt, the face of a long-lost artwork from what had once been its home planet. "It appears we are running out of options." 

"Where is the crimson one?" asked the salmon one with concern in its transmitted voice, its armor tinted strange hues by the blue-green light of the star overhead. The dead world they'd chosen as their stronghold had a surface temperature hot enough to melt iron in the sun and was cold enough to hold water ice in the shade. "It is the last of us to remain in the gateway network.

"He was injured gravely on Terra and so was the last of us to depart. Crimson chose to travel far," said the obsidian one gravely. "When we were rejected by Mentor-

"Not just rejected! Declared so many rogue machines to be destroyed!" shouted the saffron one, smashing its boot against the soil so hard it cracked a rock underfoot. "As if we were nothing but infected shells for the organic beings we once carried!

Obsidian was, evidently, used to these outbursts, and so remained in its lotus position on the ground. "Crimson believed that there was wisdom to be found in the outer reaches of the old gateway network - species and creatures not yet known to the galactic powers. We will remain here until its return." 

Organic beings might have continued to argue, but alone on the rock the machines continued their debate. Little had changed. Azure continued to advocate for galactic flight - to take what they had and begin a new settlement somewhere beyond the Cygnus Arm. Salmon wanted to continue their mission, to show the galaxy that they were still a kind of knight - albeit much changed. Saffron called for war, for an outright alliance with one of the new groups of galactic freebooters both for protection and "revenge against the organics and their allies who have abandoned us!" And Obsidian, ever the peacemaker, continued the debate among its peers. 

The crimson one arrived on the seventh day, appearing through a localized wormhole nearby. The other armors waited for it patiently, for all that Salmon remained curious about why Crimson's comms were so quiet. But the quiet didn't last long - Crimson landed in the broad circle made by its peers and spoke right away. 

"My friends. I have found, in the depths of the Galaxy, the final tool to complete our mission." It folded its hands and opened its visual receptors - which glowed impossibly, malignantly white. "I bring with me...THE LIGHT OF TRUTH!

For a moment, as the light washed over them all, Salmon felt, deep in its circuits, what its bearer would have called fear. And then there were only the silent stars overhead, and the eerie blue-green glow of Beta Librae casting shadows on its sole planet. And five machines - that were no longer alone. 

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