Chapter 1: Rio Durant

12:7:24 (23.5 BBY)

Sluis Van

In the calm skies over Sluissi City, everything looked normal. Uneventful. An outside observer would have never known that the planet's political system was in turmoil—Save for the out-of-place Nu-Class Judicial transport flying over the Sluissi Congregate building on its way to the Electoral Commission.

"Green three to Molar Leader, we are four minutes from the landing zone, over," Rio Durant reported into the radio. The shaggy blue-grey furred Ardennian sat in the pilot seat of the transport, looking through the transparisteel cockpit window to the greenish cityscape below.

"I read you loud and clear," a human voice spoke in a staticky voice through the radio. The Ardennian knew the voice was that of Fadan Thanó, leader of Election Monitoring Team Molar. Thanó continued with one of his usual eccentric replies. "Visual on you at…fifty-two degrees, five—"

—Rio sighed, shaking his head. That Nabooian idiot… Not again.

The co-pilot, Demi Meratos, giggled uncontrollably. "Thanó always talks like he's flying a ship," she noted in amazement.

Demi Meratos was just two months out of the Academy. She was human with dark skin, frizzy jet-black hair, and was tall—At least tall from an Ardennian's point of view. Much to the Ardennian's annoyance, everything was still new to her. Sometimes, he would wonder whether he too once found the social quirks of the Judicials he flew around all so interesting.

When Rio Durant graduated from the Judicial Academy, he hoped to become a Special Taskforce Pilot for the Judicial Fleet, flying a Z-95 with Reaper Squadron. Instead, the Ardennian ended up assigned to the 37th Election Monitoring Battalion, flying a hulking Nu-Class transport. In times of particularly contested elections, the Senate would send Judicial forces in to validate and certify the results. After seven monotonous years of flying election monitoring teams around, Rio had finally been promoted from co-pilot to pilot after one of their battalion's previous pilots retired.

Still, in spite of his dissatisfaction with his assignment, the Ardennian was a chatterbox. "So, do you think we'll certify the results if it turns out Candobar Inglet won?" Rio asked, lowering the altitude of the Nu-Class as it hovered in place over a green-windowed skyscraper.

"Are you kidding?" Meratos snorted incredulously, looking away from the cockpit window, directly at the Ardennian. "Sir, respectfully, we wouldn't lie! We're Judicials! That would be… Illegal. Not to mention so unethical. Planets trust us."

Rio sighed, frowning sadly at her naiveté. Thousands of sectors had seceded from the Galactic Republic, with many declaring their alignment with Count Dooku's Confederacy of Independent Systems. There is no way those election certifiers would allow a pro-secession Khedive to be elected leader of the Sluissi Presidency.

"Yeah, you're right," Rio lied, rubbing his eyes tiredly with his upper two hands, lower two hands still gripping the control column. "Still, whatever happens will be, as always, monotonous and boring."

"All of this is far more interesting than the academy," Meratos reassured in a dreamy voice. "On one planet, you know, wishing someone to live through interesting times is a curse."

"Oh yeah," Rio grunted with a smile, carefully lowering the Nu-Class onto a hoverpad on the roof of the Electoral Commission building. "Which planet?"

"I forgot, sir," Meratos admitted, blushing slightly.

As the rear hatch opened, hot humid air spilled into the transport. The smell of deodorant and sunscreen wafted off the six human Judicials stepping inside.

"Permission to come aboard," Thanó said in his formal Nabooian accent. He was pale, lanky, red-haired and, like Rio Durant and all Judicials, wore a dark blue uniform. Somehow, despite working indoors the entire day counting ballots, the human was now sunburnt and as red as a Devaronian.

"Permission granted," Rio grunted, humouring him like always did. "You know sir, being sunburned can be a court martial-able offense."

"Oh, it's nothing, Durant. Let's get back to base," Thanó huffed, wiping the sweat from his forehead as he sat into a jump-seat. A few of the Judicials on his team snickered.

Rio shook his head, muttering under his breath. It would be a court martial if we were in a Judicial combat unit. That sunburn will feel like something tomorrow, human. "All right Meratos—"

"—Sorry sir, prepping for take-off…" Meratos stammered, nervously flicking several switches up, then typing on the terminal in front of her. "Done."

"Green three to Cresh Base," the Ardennian said into the radio transceiver. "We are oscar mike, ETA eleven minutes, over."

"Understood," a female Bothan voice growled into the transceiver. "Land in spot 7. We may need extra space around spot five."

Rio's dark round eyes opened in shock. He did not expect Knol Ven'nari, the Bothan Jedi Master in charge of their mission, to answer. "Copy that, Master," Rio said politely. "Over and out."

"Well, that was weird," Meratos muttered.

"Yeah," Rio agreed, accelerating the Nu-Class to the maximum allowed speed in the airspace of Sluissi City. "A little weird. Okay, so…" he asked, yelling back to the passenger compartment, "anything I should know about regarding what happened at the Electoral Commission?"

"Nothing much," Thanó answered in his posh Nabooian accent. "Just the results, which were already reported, were certified."

"You… You…" Rio paused, working over the meaning of Thanó's confusing double-passive voice. "You certified Candobar Inglet's win!" he gasped in shock, nearly losing of the transport's controls.

"Yes, well it is what happened. He actually won, fairly."

"We found no evidence of fraud," Tendil, a blonde-haired human female, added, pipping up from the rearmost jump-seat.

Are you guys high on spice? The Ardennian took a deep breath, speaking as calmly as he could. "Does Master Ven'nari know? Did she see it?"

"I know how to do my job, pilot," Thanó hissed angrily.

"Sorry, sir," Rio stammered. "I am just…" Very concerned that another planet just went to the Separatists, with Techno Union forces already here... "Just curious."

"Apology accepted," Thanó sighed. The human ran his hands through his sweaty hair. "In any case, what's done is done. We're going to back to Coruscant now."

The Ardennian paused for a moment."Yeah!" he said with a cheery smile, realising their deployment to this mucky jungle was soon coming to an end. If there were anything good with Sluis Van leaving the Republic, it was that he would never have to set foot on this world again.