Chapter 1: Second Contact
Hard to believe a year had gone by already.
Fear seemed to be the only thing keeping the peace. Between the disaster that was Ba Sing Se and the widespread devastation during Sozin's Comet, everyone in the world had a reason to fear that such destruction could happen again. Such a possibility had united the world against a common threat, even though that threat had seemingly vanished from the face of the Earth. But that was no reason to get complacent, not when the threat could return just as suddenly as it had left. The world had to be ready, no matter what the stars would throw at them next.
The Fire Nation provided its technological advantage to the Earth Kingdom, which in turn provided the manpower and natural resources to fuel development. The Water Tribes provided healing services when experiments went wrong, and given the need for innovation that was quite often. In the middle of everything the Avatar and his allies tried to keep it all balanced, if only to prevent opposites from killing each other over misunderstandings. Cooperation between nations may be a work in progress, but it was better than the century of war.
Avatar Aang was constantly on the move, heading back and forth across the globe keeping tensions in check. His fourteenth birthday, technically his one hundred and fourteenth if one included the century on ice, had come and gone without notice. There was just so much work to be done that he simply didn't have the time to celebrate, this time he was heading for Ba Sing Se to check in on the reconstruction effort for the city. There were many other places Aang would rather be, but today the city demanded his attention.
Near the end of the war Ba Sing Se had been burned to the ground, among other things. The city's walls remained standing, though each had been breached at one point or another. The palace in the center had been spared, a lone island amid the destruction. Only a fraction of the evacuated population had returned so far, able to reside in the upper and middle rings with plenty of room to spare. Makeshift buildings were scatted across the terrain, along with small plots of land being used to grow crops in what used to be elegant lawns.
Riding on a sky bison Aang's arrival was impossible to miss, having Appa land right in front of the palace with a loud thud announcing his presence to those inside. There Aang took a moment to look back at the upper ring, noticing that the artificial mountain he made a year ago was gone. Earthbenders had put all that rock back into the ground, except for the materials they needed to mend the breach in the innermost wall. Now the terrain was mostly flat around that part of the upper ring, with only a slight discoloration in the wall marking the reconstructed part.
Inside the palace Aang walked to the throne room, repurposed for a general meeting area due to the Earth King still being abroad. Long Feng, the ruler of Ba Sing Se in all but name, was overlooking a large map of the city in the middle of the room. Green sand colored all of the upper ring and most of the middle ring, while spots of red sand in the lower ring marked Fire Nation settlements. Black sand covered areas that were currently uninhabitable, namely the long trench in the western Agrarian Zone and the sinkhole spanning the middle and lower rings.
On opposite sides of Long Feng were Katara and Chief Hakoda, the former representing Aang's interests while the latter provided Water Tribe support. But standing opposite from Long Feng was Azula, and Aang still had trouble getting over how bizarre that looked. She was there to keep Fire Nation forces in line, and as a safeguard to deter the paltry Earth Kingdom forces from retaliating out of spite. These very different people tried to keep the peace, but there was still tension between former enemies. It still surprised Aang that no one had died yet, that he knew of anyway.
"How are things here?" Aang asked while still walking up to the big map.
"We're almost ready to begin resettlement of the lower ring," Long Feng answered. He twiddled his fingers to move some of the green sand around. "We just need enough people to support the expansion. Not enough have returned from the exodus."
"Let me guess, you want the Avatar to tell them to come back here?" Aang speculated.
"More or less," Hakoda confirmed. His gaze was on the Agrarian Zone. "Farmers are what the city needs most. It can't heal on an empty stomach."
"It's too late to get them here for this year's season," Azula pointed out. "The soonest they would get here is right before the harvest, and wouldn't be of any use until spring to plant new crops."
"So were stuck on hold during the winter," Katara mused.
Azula glanced at her. "The other option is to import what the city needs, specifically goods from Fire Nation suppliers and merchants."
"Are the citizens okay with that?" Aang asked.
"I would appreciate it if you talked with them," Long Feng said. He glanced at Azula. "There are some people thinking that letting more of her people in would be the start of a Fire Nation takeover."
"I wish," Azula said. "There are already enough troops in the lower ring to do that. A few more noncombatants won't make a difference."
"Speaking of the troops," Aang said. "How are they getting along?"
"Fine, so far anyway," Katara answered. "They've had plenty of bandits to fight off instead of being tempted to fight the settlers."
"When will those bandits understand that we shouldn't be fighting each other?" Aang wondered aloud. "Don't they know there are bigger problem out there?"
"It's been over a year now," Azula said. "They might think he's never coming back."
"But we don't know where he went," Aang said. "And who knows what else is out there?"
Hard to believe a galactic standard year had gone by already.
Peace was beginning to crumble all across the empire. The Massacre at Yavin had emboldened the rebel forces, even if the one man responsible for it had never been seen again. The rebels were harassing imperial stations and outposts all across the galaxy, from the Outer Rim to the edges of the Neutral Zone. Even public opinion had shifted in the rebels' favor, in spite of all the propaganda favoring the empire. What had started as a petty insurgency from a few rogue senators was now becoming a real problem, which had to be put down as quickly as possible.
Even though the rebels were becoming a thorn in the empire's side, it was only a matter of time before they were crushed. Of greater concern was the individual that had destroyed the Death Star, who had the sheer raw power to destroy a planet singlehandedly. That kind of threat simply could not be tolerated, and every effort was being made to locate and destroy him. Once that was done it would be a simple matter to raze the unfortunate planet from orbit, and then watch him suffocate in a vacuum, the only way to be sure.
A tracking device had been planted on the threat's ship before he disappeared, though the device had long since ceased transmitting data, likely a result of it being found and destroyed. The last known coordinates had come from a star system right in the middle of the Neutral Zone, all but daring the empire to cross the border and risk all-out war at the worst possible time. Some finesse would be required to confirm the threat's presence in that system, just in case he had left for other empire's territory. Such a task could not be left up to chance.
Darth Vader was in command of a Star Destroyer, the Stalker, personally overseeing today's operation. He stood on the bridge observing the officers and crew at work in the lower pits, preparing the warship for a precise jump through hyperspace. Stealth would be a priority where they were going, hence all the precaution and only this one ship. The warship had to emerge at exactly the right spot, and having the Force at his command tipped the odds in his favor. Darth Vader patiently waited for the preparations to be complete, and then gave the order.
"Take us out."
The stars turned to streaks as the Stalker leapt into hyperspace, entering the blue void and traveling across the cosmos. The trip was a couple of hours, though the time seemed to fly by at a rapid pace. There was plenty of apprehension to spread around amongst the crew, and one didn't have to be Force sensitive to feel it. They were heading straight into the Neutral Zone, where they risked starting a war with another empire on the other side. Many of the bridge crewmen were on edge over this, though none voiced concerns where Darth Vader could hear them.
At the end of the hyperspace jump the Stalker returned to normal space, emerging dangerously close to a star and heading straight towards it. Reverse thrusters were engaged immediately, preventing the ship from plummeting into the star's gravity well. The star filled the view of space ahead of the ship, and the intense light would have blinded the forward sensors if they hadn't been shut down ahead of time. Despite the risk of damage to the ship so close to a star, this was where it was supposed to come out of hyperspace.
Quite pleased with the precise jump, Darth Vader turned to the captain of the Stalker. "You have an admirable crew Captain Zed."
"Thank you Lord Vader." Captain Akal Zed was always eager to please the empire, and he knew his crew would not fail him. "Bring the rear sensors online. Let's see the planet."
The main view screen above the front windows brought up the perspective from behind the ship, at first showing only distant stars that were dimmed by the nearby star's radiance. The view was magnified and a small terrestrial planet appeared, the near side completely lit by its sun. A single continent dominated most of the daytime hemisphere, was surrounded by vast oceans, had thick ice caps at the poles, and plenty of cloud cover obscuring the finer details. Behind the planet was a barren moon, unremarkable except for how large it was relative to its planet.
At first glance it looked like an ideal colony world. Captain Zed could already picture the vast civilization that would one day serve the empire. "Set course for the planet's night side."
The Stalker turned around and the main engines ignited, taking the ship away from the star at its best sub-light speed. For most of the journey the ship did not take the direct route to the planet, instead heading on a vector that kept the star between the ship and the far side of the border. That would block most passive scans from the other side, as the ship would be lost behind the glare of the star. When the ship reached the planet's orbit it made a sharp turn, then quickly got to the night side and was shrouded in the planet's shadow.
When they arrived Captain Zed looked at his superior. "Anything?"
Darth Vader looked at the planet through the window, sensing the native populace in the Force, and the absence of something greater. "He is not here."
That was all the confirmation Captain Zed needed. "Alright men, begin the calculations. We're heading out as soon as the hyperspace drive is ready."
"Wait," Darth Vader ordered, hold up one hand. He then seemed to be lost in a trance, but came out of it after a moment. "There is something strange about this world. It's presence in the Force is different, in a manner that I am not familiar."
Normally a skeptic regarding such a thing, Captain Zed knew better than to question it in front of Darth Vader. "I'll send a shuttle down to investigate."
It was a beautiful night in the Fire Nation, clear skies leaving the nearly full moon and the stars in a spectacular view of the heavens. A year ago a night sky like this would have been an inspiration for wondrous things, sparking the imagination of what might exist in the unknown. Now the stars in the night sky were seen with suspicion and fear, as there were dangers lurking in the unknown. On Earth the people were preparing for the next encounter, even if they could not know when it would come or what form it would take.
Most of the Fire Nation's capital city had been rebuilt since the battle during Sozin's Comet, when the vast majority of the city had been burned to the ground in a battle between royal siblings. The new palace was still under construction, this time being built right into the western caldera rim. It was scheduled to be complete in another year, and when finished the palace would more closely resemble a fortress. Only the ground floor was finished and occupied, the rest was a framework of tall spires attached to the wall of volcanic rock.
Near the northern edge of the caldera was the capital's research and development lab, Sokka's preferred location whenever he visited the capital. It was a large building with several underground levels, all divided into small rooms for different purposes. Sokka was currently in the third level, where the reverse engineering efforts were underway. Scientists here were attempting to understand the alien items acquired over a year ago, the first step to recreating them for humanity to use. Given the immense task at hand, very little progress had been made.
Sokka had just entered when he spotted one researcher at a table. "What have you got Chan?"
"Well…" Chan said, not bothering to turn around. "It appears to run on some form of electricity."
Although barely seventeen, Chan had shown potential in understanding the alien items. He had been the one to figure out that washing alien fabric in water ruined its elasticity, figuring that it had to be cleaned in a special way to avoid that. Unfortunately he hadn't been able to figure how to properly wash it, and all four sets of fabric had deteriorated into scraps several months ago. The armor, gloves, and boots that had come with the fabric remained intact, but had to be worn over normal clothes instead.
Right now Chan was examining one of the alien weapons Mai had secured, having the blaster on the table with a wire frame holding it at chest level. The side of the weapon was removed and the internal components exposed, most of them being wires and small glowing tubes. There was a dull hum coming from inside, just barely louder than a whisper. Next to the weapon were sketches of the weapon's interior, detailing all the pieces from all the different angles available. Besides Chan and Sokka, everyone was keeping their distance and outride avoiding the blaster's business end.
Sokka stood beside Chan and took a look. "Is that the power source?"
A finger was pointed a glowing red tube in the middle, and Chan nodded. "It has to be. Watch this."
Chan reached for the weapon and wrapped his fingers around the trigger, and checked the line of fire for safety's sake before he squeezed. The weapon fired an energy blast at a target, blasting a hole in a steel plate that was hanging on a wall. At the same time the red tube glowed brighter, and many of the wires glowed red with it. After the shot the red glow returned to the way it was before, as if waiting for another shot to be fired. Chan fired another shot and got the same results, the red tube glowing bright while firing.
"Neat," Sokka said. He leaned forward over the table and nearly buried his nose in the components while looking at them up close. "Any other insights?"
"I think we could build new ones… eventually," Chan said. He looked over some of the sketches on the table. "If we could figure out what those parts are made out of."
Sokka took a few steps back and then looked at Chan. "Do you have any idea how much time we will need to do it?"
Chan snorted and shrugged. "Not a clue. Could be only years, could be decades, could be centuries. I just don't know enough yet."
"None of us do," Sokka admitted. "Just keep working on it."
Just then a messenger arrived. "Sorry to intrude Sokka, but Ruon-Jian wants to see you immediately. He says it's very urgent."
"On my way," Sokka said.
Half a mile away, on the outer side of the caldera, was a brand new observatory. A large domed building stood just taller than the caldera rim, and a large telescope was sticking out of the top and pointed at the heavens. The top of the dome could turn and point the telescope at any place in the night sky, offering a better look at the northern stars. The observatory was the only kind of early warning system available, watching the stars for any unwanted visitors approaching, despite the long odds of anything being exactly where the telescope was pointed.
Inside the observatory Ruon-Jian was looking through the telescope, and when he heard the door open he turned towards it and saw Sokka. "We have a problem."
Sokka just closed the door and started walking towards Ruon-Jian. "What is it?"
Ruon-Jian stepped away from the telescope. "You had better see for yourself."
Sokka looked into the telescope, seeing a small portion of the night sky. The stars there were in full view, currently centered on the three in Noren's Belt. But there was something else inside the constellation, something that could not possibly be mistaken for another star. It was a vessel shaped like a long and thick triangle, but with a large tower sticking up at the rear end. It had to have been at least two miles long and half as wide at the rear, if his guesses could be relied upon without something to provide a sense of scale.
But there was one guess he could be certain of. "That's a ship."
"So I wasn't hallucinating," Ruon-Jian said.
Dread was written all over Sokka's face as he looked back. "We're not ready."
Captain Zed had just entered the Stalker's hangar, where the transport shuttles were docked alongside a compliment of Tie Fighters hanging from a long wall, as well as other vehicles needed to wage war. One of the shuttles was being prepared for launch, almost fully fueled and just about ready to go. Half a dozen stormtroopers were boarding the shuttle, a little bit of security just in case the locals were hostile. Captain Zed approached a young officer standing next to a console, looking at a display of the planet's night side.
"Ensign Arnet," Captain Zed said, stopping beside the ensign, holding his hands behind his back. "How long until you can depart?"
"Another ten minutes sir," Arnet answered. "Any new orders?"
"Yes," Captain Zed confirmed. "Lord Vader desires a change to the standard First Contact protocol. You will require different landing coordinates."
Arnet pointed at the display, specifically the largest island in the volcanic chain. "So I won't be approaching the largest urban center?"
"Not this time," Captain Zed said. He pointed at a settlement on the edge of the northern ice cap. "You're to make contact there."
"A small, isolated part of the planet," Arnet described. "Do you expect the locals to be more docile over there?"
"I don't know what to expect," Captain Zed admitted, not sure why Darth Vader wanted the first landing there. "Stay alert. Be ready for anything. Dismissed."
"Understood," Arnet acknowledged.
When the shuttle was ready for takeoff Arnet boarded it, heading for the cockpit as the entrance ramp was closed. He took a seat behind the pilot, informing him of the change in destination as the final preflight checks were completed. The hangar doors were opened and the shuttle took off, slowly passing through the atmospheric force fields and out of the hangar. In open space the shuttle's lower wings moved into flight position, the engines throttled to a full burn for speed, and the three winged craft flew down towards the planet.
During the flight Arnet got a good long look at the planet, examining the features present through the forward window. Although only the night side of the planet was in view, one could still make an educated guess about what they might find down there. A lack of artificial light from the surface implied that the locals were preindustrial, or at least before the mass production of electrical lighting. He expected a primitive culture to be waiting down there, one that would be easy to manipulate into serving the empire's needs.
Turbulent winds shook the shuttle when it hit atmosphere, and the ride through it was a bumpy one. Over the planet's northern pole the view was soon occupied by vast ice sheets, enormous fields of white passing by underneath as the shuttle flew down and then to the south. The shuttle was slowing down when it reached the end of the ice sheet, passing over the open ocean for the last few miles of its descent. Banking left turned the shuttle around to approach the glacial settlement, coming at it from the obvious front side.
"Take us down in that clearing," Arnet said, pointing at an open space in the middle of the settlement. "It's as good a spot as any."
The shuttle slowed to a casual pace as it passed into the settlement's airspace, passing over an ice wall that sheltered the settlement from the tides, which had to be a considerable and consistent problem here given the large moon. Forward motion stopped at the chosen landing site, and the shuttle gently descended toward it. The two lower wings folded up into their landing position, and the shuttle's landing gear was deployed. The shuttle touched down on the icy surface, facing a dense gathering of the locals.
"Quite the crowd out there," the pilot said, looking out the front window.
"Not very welcoming either," Arnet said, judging by the mixed expressions he saw out there. "Still, a good first impression can make all the difference."
To say the mood was tense would be an understatement.
Although the Northern Water Tribe had largely been spared from the devastation one year ago, the stories from the other nations had long since reached the ears of the tribe. When the foreign craft appeared in the night sky there had nearly been a widespread panic attack, stopped only by the actions of the tribe's leaders keeping the populace calm. But one wrong move could easily change that, especially as the foreign craft came in for a landing in the middle of the frozen city. Already there was a crowd forming, and the next few moments would be critical.
Standing in one of the ice palace's upper floors, Chief Arnook was watching through a window. "Well… at least it's being gentle this time."
At the next window over, the Fire Nation Ambassador Qin saw the same sight. "This isn't how it happened before?"
"Nothing like it," Arnook answered, remembering that rather violent arrival. "The last one crashed, this one is landing."
The crowd was quickly growing around the landing craft, most of the people gathering in front of it. There were looks of awe, looks of fear, looks of suspicion, all in wonder of what might be inside. Within the crowd was Prince Zuko, here to assist in keeping good relations between the tribe and the Fire Nation. Zuko stepped ahead of the crowd as the craft opened up, seeing a ramp open and make contact with the ice. His eyes narrowed while looking into the landed craft, waiting to see what might come out and what the occupants might do.
The first to appear from the craft looked human enough, albeit wearing a gray uniform Zuko was unfamiliar with. "Greetings," the officer said, putting his hands together. "I am Ensign Arnet, and I wish to welcome your world to the peace and prosperity of galactic civilization."
That statement sounded far too good to be true, and for Zuko that was all he needed. He clenched his left fist, swung it up, and hurled fire at Arnet, burning into his chest and knocking him down.
"Board that ship!" Zuko commanded. He spotted troops in white armor coming out of the craft, and heard the sound of waterbending behind him. "Take everything you can!"
Six troops had emerged from the ship, wielding strange weapons held with both hands. But the water from two dozen waterbenders was already in motion, many sets of hoses spraying directly at the troops. The strange weapons each got off a single shot before their wielders were hit with water, six green bolts going into the crowd while the troops were struck down. The water picked up the troops and hurled them into their craft, freezing into ice and binding them to the hull, stopping them from firing their weapons again.
The crowd then rushed towards the craft, trampling over the fallen yet still breathing body of Arnet. They ran up the ramp three at a time, the most it could accommodate at any time. In moments there were dozens of people inside, taking everything they could find that wasn't bolted down. They came out with another half dozen of the strange weapons, many smaller items that they couldn't identify, and packets containing something that felt like food. They also hauled out someone that appeared to be a pilot, kept alive for questioning.
Zuko walked up the ramp, and made his way to the front and the cockpit. He couldn't make heads or tails of the controls, so he didn't dare touch them yet. "Alright, let's see what we have here."