“THE POINT IS A MATTER OF SCALE, GENERAL HUX,” ZULT CALMLY REPLIED. “THE BIGGER THE SUPERWEAPON, THE MORE RESOURCES IT CONSUMES, THE MORE ATTENTION IT ATTRACTS, THE MORE LIKELY THE CHANCE FOR CATASTROPHIC FAILURE. SIMPLY PUT: LARGE PLANS CREATE LARGE PROBLEMS…”
The Star Destroyer Finalizer swept across the face of Ord Mantell, occasionally eclipsing the light from the star system’s sun and leaving an imposing dagger-shaped shadow across the planet’s surface. To those who looked up at the imposing shape crossing the sky, the Finalizer was a chilling reminder of times when the Imperial Galactic Empire once dominated thousands of systems. The Star Destroyer’s existence, among the first of a new Resurgent-class of warship built in the First Order’s secret orbital yards, was both a carefully-maintained secret and a flagrant violation of New Republic disarmament treaties signed after the Battle of Jakhu.
The Finalizer was the flagship of General Armitage Hux, among the leading military officers of the First Order’s High Command. His presence here at Ord Mantell was unmistakable: using strong-arm tactics to inflict doctrine and label refugees fleeing the Core as an intolerable menace. These were the same refugees displaced by the atrocity of the Starkiller Base superweapon—a monstrous planetoid that destroyed a chain of worlds, including the seat of the New Republic, Hosnian Prime.
Like most secret projects, Starkiller Base became known across the galaxy the moment it was fired. The Resistance sent a force to avenge the senseless slaughter of billions of beings. They destroyed the base, the weapon and the entire planetoid.
“An all too familiar-sounding outcome,” Agent Ephron Zult noted aloud as he waited in Hux’s private command briefing room aboard the Star Destroyer, rapping his metal fingers on the room’s conference tabletop. He refused to discuss important matters in public corridors aboard this gigantic ship, much less in the company of subordinates. He would talk to Hux alone.
The First Order was a disciplinarian’s delight. They evoked the “New Order”, Emperor Palpatine’s edicts over the subjects he once controlled. Built from the hatred of failed Imperial puppets forced to sign treaties of non-aggression with the New Republic, the First Order and its secret leadership quietly plotted, recruited thousands, rebuilt the stormtrooper legions, and launched starships like the Finalizer and superweapons like Starkiller Base to stab at the very heart of the Republic.
Despite their initial glorious success, the First Order’s plot spectacularly failed. Starkiller Base was destroyed along with thousands of trained personnel and costly equipment. The First Order and Hux were forced to beat a hasty retreat back to their secret outposts. They recently returned, striking at valuable targets across the galaxy and devouring their resources. Occupying important worlds like Ord Mantell was part of a newer, larger strategy. The Bright Jewel system was at the crossroads in the Mid Rim. Republic ships had to either cross this nexus or reroute their hyperspace routes along safer lines.
It was also worth noting that Starkiller Base was General Hux’s pride and joy. Its destruction remained, undoubtedly, a thorn in the man’s side.
“Don’t we all succumb to delusions of grandeur?” Zult smiled, noting how he was being made to wait for an audience with the general. This was such a tiresome tactic. His cybernetic implants could easily link into the ship’s bridge network. He bored himself reading unencrypted work orders and shift changes via his internal neural viewer. Such intrusions might be noticed by their security sniffers. Maybe then the general would finally show his face, before an impatient Zult did some real damage to this infernal flying isosceles triangle.
The entry door hushed open and Hux marched inside, followed by a pair of Naval troopers wearing their characteristic black uniforms and oversized black teardrop helmets. Did the general fear for his safety or were they here to show Zult the direct way off the ship…via an airlock?
“Agent Zult,” General Hux crossed the distance from the door to a seat at the center of the conference table, offering neither a hand to shake, a refreshment or an acknowledgement shared among peers. “What brings you aboard the Finalizer?”
“For the same reason you appear to be missing one of your shuttles,” Zult paused to give the Naval guards a look of disdain. “I believe I requested a private audience?”
“And so you have,” Hux ignored the two men standing at the door. “I assure you they are loyal.”
“I’m grateful for that assurance,” Zult mocked a smile. “I hope they don’t start laughing when I point out what a complete and utter clod you are.”
The color of Hux’s face switched from an impersonal pale to red dwarf.
“And I don’t enjoy being insulted by half a man. Allow me to oblige your paranoia.” General Hux slid his gaze to the Naval troopers. “Wait outside.”
The guards activated the door lock and exited. The door hissed closed.
“Any other insults you would like to hurl?” Hux rapped his fingertips on the conference table in much the same way as Zult had been doing earlier. Red-haired and stern, he could hardly tolerate Zult’s damaged physical appearance. Zult’s knowledge of Hux was thorough; the ill-begotten son of a high-ranking Imperial and a housemaid, young Hux admired Palpatine’s New Order and especially its obsession with human superiority. Physical imperfections brought about by disease or damage, like Zult’s injuries, were a sign of weakness. They repulsed the man. “I’m allowing this meeting to take place as a courtesy. As the lackey of a failed regime, you have no place in the First Order.”
“Of course, General. My apologies, from one lackey to another. While we’re busy measuring the luster of our boots, a valuable resource and several traitors were allowed to leave the planet on one of your shuttles. I thought you might like to know this.” Zult smiled again, mimicking the General’s words from before. “As a courtesy.”
Hux stopped rapping his fingers on the table top.
“I assume this is why you and your soldiers kept every single evacuation shuttle grounded for hours while the passengers were searched. It appears you were looking in the wrong place. Yes, a First Order shuttle with two bounty hunters and a Republic doctor left the planet hours ago, headed for this ship. They never arrived. The stormtroopers who accompanied them were found through their locater beacons. They had been ejected into space.”
“A high crime, among others.” Zult nodded, trying not recall the wild bantha chase Sully Tigereye had sent him on. Tigereye had planted the medical vials in the apartment on purpose, making Zult believe he, Doctor Ergo and Subject J829P were trying to board one of the medical shuttles to escape. It was a clever ruse. Tigereye delighted in tormenting him. “These traitors are former members of a mercenary group who called themselves the Red Moons. Traitors who supported the Republic. They stole a valuable resource. My resource.”
“Then it’s too late to do anything about it, isn’t it?” Hux gave the impression he was bored. “You lost a resource. I lost a shuttle and a squad. It’s seems we’re even.”
“Hardly, General Hux. My resource is far more valuable than a shuttle or a collection of trained soldiers.” Using one of the metal fingers of his replacement prosthetic hand, he traced a squeaky path on the table top in front of him—leaving a deep scratch in the finish. “Even more valuable than a certain superweapon slowly expanding into a ball of useless space dust.”
Zult caught the glare in Hux’s eyes. It was clear the general couldn’t stand him or his provocations.
“I would be careful, Zult. The First Order dislikes traitors…and executes them with great expediency. What is it that you want?”
“I wish to propose a new era of cooperation between our two parties.”
“You are being delusional. The Pentastar Alignment no longer exists,” Hux dismissed the suggestion with a wave of his hand. “Decorating soldiers with their symbols will not bring it back. I suggest another form of cooperation. Hand over whatever data you have regarding these traitors and your resource so they may be dealt with.”
“By you and the First Order?”
Indignant, Zult rose to his feet and paced the length of the long table, tired of sitting in the uncomfortable briefing room chair so he could stretch his carbon fiber-reinforced legs.
“Why would I entrust my hard work with you? The First Order spent countless years and cost building a machine that draws the raw power of a star, blending it with the dark energy of kyber crystals, so it may be unleashed upon your enemies. The design destroyed the seat of the Republic and murdered billions. What reward did you get for this accomplishment? Did this leave your enemies cowering in fear? No. A force of Resistance snubfighters found a weakness in your facility that initiated a chain reaction that…oh…wait just a second!” Zult paused, spinning about in a new direction. “Are we talking about Starkiller Base, or are we discussing the Death Star that Grand Moff Tarkin commissioned, or the even larger Death Star the Emperor himself built…only for him to die when it too was destroyed? I regret my memories are not as sharp as they once were.” He rapped the side of his metal-encased skull. “Which of the three are we talking about?”
Hux stormed to his own feet, leaning on the table with both hands.
“What is the point?”
“The point is a matter of scale, General.” Zult calmly replied. “The bigger the weapon, the more resources it consumes, the more attention it attracts, the more likely the chance for catastrophic failure. Simply put: large plans create large problems. You and your predecessors have been trying to wipe out the Republic, the Rebellion or the Resistance for decades now. Planet-destroyers are impractical, costly endeavors. As we speak, I know your scientists are hard at work on the next one.”
Hux stiffened, not liking what Zult knew about the First Order’s next plans.
“You have an alternative?”
“I have resources. Six of them. They are precise. Small in scale. No planetary stations. No massive construction projects. Nothing that requires the power of a sun.” Zult made a small gesture with the digits of his cybernetic hand. “They are an elegant solution, when you think about it.”
“And you say you lost one of these resources on Ord Mantell? That’s what these Republic traitors took?”
Zult nodded. “Help me and you will gain access to these resources.”
“There’s nothing new about political assassination, Zult. I have commandoes who can reduce the new Chancellor of the Republic to ash.”
Considering the last Chancellor of the Republic was killed after Starkiller Base’s superweapon annihilated Hosnian Prime and the rest of its inhabitants, Zult was surprised by the general’s reluctance.
“Then what are you waiting for?”
“The Republic has sent the new chancellor and the rest of the government into hiding,” Hux sneered. “They’re not fools.”
“Maybe that’s because you used a sledgehammer to kill a Tatooine sand flea?” Zult smiled. “This calls for precision, General. But only if you’re interested in getting results.”
“Which brings me back to my first question,” Hux had reached the limit of his patience, his voice rising both in anger and decibels. “What is it that you want? Or shall I have you escorted to the airlock door and spaced?”
“All I ask…” Zult waved a mechanical finger at the general. “Is your permission and proper clearances to enter the Jaemus system. While I’m asking, a shuttle with TIE fighter escorts will also do nicely.”
“How do you know about…?” Hux’s head tilted in curiosity, but he stopped himself. “Never mind. Your ability to gather information, despite the highest security protocols, is part of your reputation. You want to enter Jaemus? Why?”
“The resource that was stolen has been activated. Once triggered, it won’t stop. It will gather the necessary tools and information to find its target and eliminate it. What it requires to complete its mission can be found at Jaemus. I intend to follow, observe and guarantee success.”
Hux reflected on the theft of his military shuttle. Two bounty hunters and a doctor.
“I was under the impression your resource is a person.”
“It was. Once. Now it’s a weapon of my own design. A weapon that will relentlessly follow its programming. Since its unexpected activation, I am prepared to follow up with the five others. The result will be a strike of unbelievable precision that will bring the Republic to its knees and end the Resistance. All the First Order has to do is step in and take its rightful place as the undisputed authority of the galaxy.”
General Hux pursed his lips in contemplation. Zult could almost see Hux’s brain processing the possibilities. This was everything and more that the First Order desired. Hux’s own master, High Command and Supreme Leader Snoke, would be pleased.
“That is a very sizeable promise, Agent Zult.”
“One that I intend to deliver.”
“You’d better.” Hux leaned forward and pressed a switch on the communications hub built into his freshly-scratched conference table. “Lieutenant Ghart. Assign an armed shuttle and long-range TIE escort to Agent Ephron Zult. Give him the codes to enter the Jaemus combat zone.”
“Sir, I have no Agent Ephron Zult in the security registry.” a voice on the other end of the comm-channel questioned. “Who is Agent Zult assigned to?”
Looking across the table at the bemused agent who managed to get exactly what he wanted, Hux’s face noticeably pinched.
“The Pentastar Alignment, you fool.”