by Noble Ire
Chapter Thirty Eight
Almost time now. Less than an hour more and he would at last be off this blasted ship and safely in Imperial hands again. So he longed to be away from the headache inducing curves of the Mon Calamari vessel, and the multitude of traitorous, anarchist scum that inhabited it. Just a little while longer, he could wait. Besides, there was still one thing left to de done before he could arrange for departure. It would be a delicate and crucial procedure, but a necessary one; nothing he hadn’t done a dozen times before on this damnable assignment.
With practiced ease and familiarity, only imperceptibly tinged by nervousness he thought, the man walked calmly down the long bright hallways that lead to his destination, paying only as much attention as was necessary to those who he passed. Don’t give them any reason to look at you, and they won’t. Unconsciously, he pressed the plain carrying case he held at his side closer, making sure it would not be jostled by the oblivious passersby.
The man made his way quickly down the narrow passage, and entered a turbo shaft, which delievered him to deck seven, in a section very near the ship’s center. Emboldened by the decrease in foot traffic farther away from the crew sections, his footfalls quickened and became more definite, and rounding a corner, his objective was brought into view. At last, almost there.
He noted a small group of armed Alliance marines, absorbed in a loud conversation on some mundane topic, were approaching down a side passage. The man realized that the group would cross paths with him just before he could reach his objective. Stay calm; there is no reason for any of them to even notice you. Just don’t run or break stride. A moment later, they were arms length apart, the soldiers laughing uproariously at some joke one of their fellows had just told. As they walked past, one turned her gaze towards him, and the man almost froze in fear, but she simply offered a small gesture of greeting and sped away with the rest of her comrades. The man wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but that would look suspicious right there in the hall. Besides, his goal was mere footsteps away.
A pair of thin doors slid open, revealing a small, empty room, its walls lined with computer screens and blinking displays. An energy monitoring room, just off Main Engineering and the hypermatter reactor that drove the starship; it would suite his purposes perfectly. Sparing what he hoped looked like an innocuous glance back at the passageway, the man slipped inside, waited for the doors to close behind him, and then set to work. Pausing only to lock the door, the man moved over to the nearest computer terminal and placed his carrying case on top of it. Seating himself on the terminal’s adjoining bench, the man immediately set to work, energizing the computer interface and imputing a variety of pass codes.
Finding the security measures easily passable with the codes and rank clearance he had accumulated, the infiltrator located and drew up the required section of the ship’s computer network. A few more key strokes brought him to a specific subsystem, not particularly vital, but perfectly suited to his goal. Taking in a deep breath to try and steady his trembling hands, the man began to input one strand of memorized code after another, each a simply logarithmic pattern. Apart, they were harmless, static in the network, but if entered in just the right order they could dramatically impact the subsystem he was targeting.
The word boomed into the man’s thoughts, causing them to briefly degenerate into a state of chaos and confusion. The lapse was brief, and within milliseconds, his training kicked in. He’s too close. Start the innocent routine.
Allowing his right hand to tap a few more keys, an action that yielded an expected and satisfying beep from the computer, the man spun around on his seat, his expression one of mild surprise. Before he could utter a single word though, a huge hand reached down and latched onto the fabric of his tunic and then wrenched upward, dragging him helpless into the air.
A blasted of hot, moist air hit him in the face and he sputtered, disoriented by the violent action. A frightening visage hovered directly before his eyes; four stiff, gray mandibles covered in sharp teeth, covering a fleshy, gaping mouth. Above the creature’s formidable jaws two small, narrowed eyes glared into his own, unblinking.
“Wha...what is the meaning of this?”
“Do not bandy words with me, human. I want to know what you were doing with that computer. Where is the device?”
Gulping as the hems of his uniform began to etch into his back, the man tried to think of some warning or explanation that would convince this creature to release him. Then all he would need was to get to the case…
Turning his gaze away from the human, the assailant looked over the terminal that he had been using, and the small container on top of it caught his eye. “What is that? Tell me.”
Desperate for a way out, the man allowed his own fear, amplified for effect, to filter into his voice. “I’m sorry sir, there seems to have been some sort of understanding. I was just performing some routine system checks for my superiors. I was certain that I followed all the proper procedures logging in and...”
“The case,” the alien repeated, his voice deep and menacing.
Behind them, the click of several boots impacting the deck plating diverted the man’s attention the doorway. Several armed marines, the very ones he had passed in the hallway, were quickly filing into the room, their blaster pistols drawn. Behind them, the door’s control was sparking profusely; the alien must have broken the hall-side interface to gain entry.
“Drop him and back against that wall!” one of them, a dark-skinned man without his blast helmet on ordered, his side arm pointing squarely at the assailant’s back. The other soldiers fanned out into the room, keeping their weapons trained on the tall, gray-skinned alien. Growling in contempt, he loosened his grip and the man tumbled to the floor, but did not move away.
“Against the wall with your hands up!” the marine ordered again, emphasizing his point with a flick of his pistol.
This time the alien moved, not towards the wall, but instead towards the soldier, his hands falling to his sides. Easily two feet shorter than the being, the marine also took a step back, intimidated by the mountain of toned sinew and reflective armor plating. With the attacker distracted, one of the other soldiers grabbed the infiltrator and pulled him into the protection provided by the circle of marines. “Are you all right, sir?” one of them, the woman from before, asked, her weapon still pointed at the alien. Already factoring this unexpected circumstance into his plans, the man nodded, rising to his feet.
“Thanks. I’m not sure what happened. It just attacked.”
One of the other soldiers leaned in close to their commander’s ear and whispered something urgently. Nodding, he turned his attention back to the alien, who stood in the center of the room staring back at him. “You’re the Arbiter, right? One of those visitors everyone was talking about?”
The alien made no motion of dissent.
“Mind explaining what you were doing then? You might have some diplomatic leeway from the Council, but that doesn’t mean you can smash entry locks and assault our officers without a very good reason.”
After glaring for a moment longer, the Arbiter flexed his mandibles in irritation. “There is no time for this. That man is a traitor, an infiltrator sent here by your enemies. He plans on disabling or destroying this vessel.”
The marine sergeant looked incredulous, and cast a skeptical glance at the frazzled man, dressed in the uniform of a Lieutenant. “Him? Lt. Flitch, correct? One of Major Truul’s men.”
The man nodded in recognition, keeping a wary eye on the Arbiter, who had turned his gaze back on him. “Yes, that’s right. I was just in here looking for the officer on duty. Major Truul wanted to know about an energy sub-system in one of men’s duty areas, and since I have the clearance to check from here, I did so. Then he attacked me, for no reason I can think of.”
The Arbiter growled darkly. “You’re lying. If you are performing a simple network search, what do you need with that case?” He indicated to the inconspicuous, flexiplast container with a jerk of his long neck.
The sergeant frowned. “Dillik, bring me that.” The marine, a tall Mon Calamari, edged around the Arbiter and grabbed the case with his free hand. No one noticed Flitch sway slightly as the soldier picked up the container.
“What’s going one here?”
Standing in the hallway beyond the small room was Major Truul himself, flanked by a pale-skinned humanoid and a towering, battle-armored man, both Flitch instantly recognized as being other ‘visitors’, as the soldier had referred to them. His pulse quickened and he began to edge away from the marines who currently were surrounding him.
The marine sergeant offered a nod in salute, keeping his weapon fixed on the Arbiter. “Sir. This Arbiter was just apprehended assaulting your one of your Lieutenants. He claims that Lt. Flitch is an Imperial infiltrator.”
The gruff man’s eyes widened in shock and he looked from the alien to his man in alarm and confusion, then focusing back on the Arbiter. “I’ve fought alongside ya before, and I’m inclined to trust your judgment, but you’d better have some goof proof that my man is a traitor. I don’t take kindly to unprovoked assaults on the officers under me.”
“I’ve been watching him for days. Flitch has entered several sensitive areas both on this ship and the Alliance supply station to interfaced with their computer systems. Have you not noticed any suspicious behavior on his part?”
Truul frowned, stroking his stubbly chin. “Nothing comes to mind. And I ordered him to gain access the supply station’s computer. I needed locate a few officers in fleet before we left again.” He sighed, shaking his head. “Really, if that’s all you got, I think you might be overreacting. Not surprising really, considering all we’ve been though lately.”
The sergeant nodded towards the Mon Cal soldier. “Check the case.” Holstering his sidearm, the man opened the container’s electrical clamp and quickly flipped through the contents. “There’s not much in here, sir. Just a few datapads, some flimsies, and a vox recorder.”
“All things I need for my regular work,” Flitch said sourly, now standing a few steps away from the marine line, back next to his computer terminal. “I intended on working on logging and finalizing the new transfers to Major Truul’s guard unit in my quarters after I was finished here.”
“I did ask him to do that, and I did need him to talk to Ensign Teeri about the power substation in my soldier’s barracks,” Truul confirmed, and then noticed that the officer how normally operated the power station was not present. “Where is Teeri anyhow?”
“I’m not sure, sir. He wasn’t here when I arrived.”
The Arbiter’s eyes narrowed.
“Anyways, I think this may have all been a misunderstanding. Unless, of course, you have some other evidence,” Truul’s tone was skeptical.
“Yes, I would like to know if you have any other grievances with me so that I might clear them up now. Forgive me for saying so, but I am far to busy to be assaulted on duty again today.”
The Arbiter issued another low snarl, but stopped suddenly, fixated on Flitch’s right hand, which now hovered over the command board, index finger close to the glowing ‘execute’ key.
Balling his huge hands into fists, the Elite glared into Flitch’s eyes, which stared back in mocking victory. Turning away suddenly, the Arbiter ducked down and marched toward the exit, the sergeant and his troops making way for the fuming warrior by Truul’s command.
“Sergeant, I want you and your troops to escort him to his quarters and see that he stays there for a few hours. Needs time to cool down.”
“What if he resists?”
“Make sure that he doesn’t have to,” the Major said significantly. “I don’t want to have to deal with an internal confrontation with one of my charges on this mission, especially not so early on.”
The marines filed off down the hall after the towering alien, Dillik pausing to hand Flitch back his case. With them gone, Truul turned to Lt. Commander Data and the Master Chief, who had watched the exchange in silence. “I’ve got to have a word with Flitch. Sit tight, and we can continue our conversation in a moment.”
When the major had disappeared into the room and used the interior control to close the door behind him, Cortana spoke up, whispering to the Chief through his helmet’s interior comm.
“He gets more and more suspicious by the hour, doesn’t he?”
“Do you think he’s a threat to the mission?”
“I still don’t want to jump to any conclusions… but it’s starting to seem more and more likely. He is an Elite after all, and it’s possible that he’s never really been on our side at all.”
“It appears I have found something.” The Master Chief turned to see Data crouched on the deck, picking something off the metal floor delicately.
“What is it?” the Chief asked over the open comm.
“I noticed the Arbiter surreptitiously drop this object in the hallway before he departed. He may have intended for us to locate it.” The android walked back over to the Chief and held the thing up; a tiny, square chip studded with regular golden nods. “I believe it is a memory storage device of some kind, most likely corresponding to the technology employed by the Alliance or Empire.”
“But why would he leave it for us, whatever it is?” Cortana asked, using the sensors built into the Spartan’s suit to inspect the chip more closely.
Before Data had time to stipulate a hypothesis however, a voice rang out over the ship’s intercom. “Counselor Organa and all ambassadors to the command bridge. Hyperspace emersion in ten minutes.”
“Ambassadors? Well, I suppose they had to give us a tag of some sort eventually. It’s better than ‘the visitors’ at least,” Cortana commented, still inspecting the small device.
Major Truul emerged from the power monitoring room and rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Well, it’s about time. I suppose I should be getting you all to the bridge.”
The human started off down the main hall and the others followed, but they hung back, still inspecting the chip.
“Perhaps you can access whatever’s inside,” Data suggested.
“I’m still not too familiar with all of their technology, but I ought to be able to handle a simple record file. Chief, plug that into the scanning slot above my own matrix.”
Carefully, the Spartan took the chip into his own gauntleted fingers, but hesitated before placing in the slot that hidden on the left side of his helmet. “Are you sure we want this in our heads? We don’t know what he could have put on it.”
Cortana let out a little laugh. “Please, I’ve dealt with Covenant viruses before. At the most, you’ll feel a slight burning sensation in the back of your head as I reduce any intruder into binary code segments.”
“What about Ysanne Issard?” Gam Rothwall suggested, placing his glass of fine Muun port gently on the table. “She has always seemed quite eager for ways she can elevate her status.”
Ars Dagnor, seated next to Gam at the large dining table, tapped his lips with a silken napkin and leaned back in his luxurious chair, shaking his head slowly. “It’s too great a risk. She certainly would be willing to hear us out, especially if some reward was offered up front, but as you say, she craves power too much to be trusted. If Vader ever found out, she could easily be turned against us by a generous counter-offer. Our new eminence (the word rolled off his tongue with obvious contempt) may be a brute, but he isn’t stupid, and his skill with the Force will make stealing away high-ranking officials difficult.”
Nodding in agreement, Rothwall sighed, and then began poking at the succulent cut of meat that had been prepared for him, deep in thought. He and Dagnor, as well as Janus Greejatus and Hixa Torenvom were seated in a spacious private dining room, located on the top floor of Menarai, the most exclusive restaurant in the Imperial Center. The circular chamber sported a 240 degree view of the city below, skyscrapers and traffic lanes lit brightly against the night sky as they spread out in all directions. Fixed atop Monument Park, the only exposed mountain peak left on the entire planet, the restaurant sported the finest views anywhere in the galactic core. That, and it’s isolation from the unworthy masses, made it a favored place of relaxation and indulgence among the Coruscanti elite.
The only remaining member of the Ruling Council not present, Kren Blista-Vance, had protested against meeting in such a public venue, but Dagnor, defacto leader of the group, had ignored the concern. His private chamber there was one of the most secure places on the planet, fitted with security measurers even the late Black Sun entrepreneur and crime lord Prince Xizor could not buy. Besides, he had noted, it would be better for them to be seen in public, unafraid of Vader’s rule, before any coup was staged. The people would hardly look up to those they perceived as cowards.
“Have you tried to Crueya yet?” Hixa Torenvom asked, helping himself to a platter of rare Kaminoan shellfish, one of the many delicacies that were heaped unto beautiful obsidian plates and containers.
Ars stroked his smooth chin reflectively. “I have. He seemed quite open to the idea of aiding us, and COMPNOR’s support would certainly go a long way in solidifying our control.” COMPNOR, under Lord Crueya Vandron, was the agency that supervised the massive bureaucracy galactic government needed to remain effective, and was a key intelligence and logistics resource for every Imperial politician, Moff, and Admiral. “However, both he and I share the concern that open dissent from such a significant and core-ward agency would be sure to quickly be noticed and investigated by Vader and those loyal to him. For now, the support he can provide is strictly non-material.”
“I do wish to alert you all to one significant success though. Only hours ago, I was able to secure the support Grand Admiral Grazre.”
“Totl Grazre! The commander of the Core defense fleet?” Rothwall nearly knocked over his glass of pale liquid as he stood in surprise.
Ars Dagnor grinned. “We all knew that I had connections. I suppose I must have simply neglected to tell you all about this one.”
Rothwall was grinning now too. “I can just imagine Vader’s mood when he discovers half a dozen destroyers drawing a firing solution on his shuttle.” He swept the glass off the table once more, spilling some of its contents on the dark, velvety tablecloth. “A toast! To the resurrection of the old Empire, and our new place in it!”
“Indeed, indeed,” Janus Greejatus wheezed in agreement, taking up his own challis.
“Now, now, the battle is not yet won… but I suppose libation of victory now could do nothing to hurt us.”
The four conspirators raised their glasses and drained them, backlit by passing traffic and floodlights from the park below.
As a humanoid serves droid hummed around the table, refilling each of their drinks, the private chamber’s door comm chimed, and a pair of armored stormtroopers entered, bowing slightly before taking up places on either side of the door. A moment later, a tall, thin man entered, dressed in a sweeping, black robe. Though he was unusually pale, his gaunt features were easily recognizable.
“Ah, Kren, I am glad to see you have come,” Ars Dagnor said smoothly, opening his arms in greeting. “We had thought you were too paranoid to join us here. I am glad to have been mistaken.”
He motioned to the server droid. “Coruscanti testril I think, the house’s finest. A full bottle for our honored friend.” As the droid hurried over to a wall-mounted dispensing slot, Blista-Vance stepped away from the door, still silent, and another figure entered. All four seated men stopped in their merriment to inspect the newcomer.
She was tall and slim, curved in a way that made females of her species renown galaxy-wide. The Twi’lek’s long lekku, a brilliant blue like the rest of her well formed body, were draped seductively down her front, trembling only slightly as she walked. She wore silky dress, similar in color to Blista-Vance’s own robe; so much fabric was absent from the chest and waist areas that a few of the men in attendance wondered secretly if the garment was held up by a repulsor hidden somewhere on her form. A long, black glove covered her right arm, drawn up nearly to her exposed shoulder. The woman bore a mild, submissive smile on her face, and flowed gracefully to Kren’s side, placing an arm around his waist.
The older man said nothing, instead walking to a vacant chair and draining a goblet of some green liquor before sitting.
Ars raised an eyebrow. “A new acquisition? I suppose that might explain why you were late.”
Greejatus chuckled, his beady eyes still probing the beautiful Twi’lek.
“Her name is Aayla,” Kren said simply, filling his glass again with intoxicating liquid. “Pay her no mind.”
Ars spared another glance at the striking specimen, and then turned his attention back on the final Council member. “So, have you done as I asked?”
Not bothering to even look up from his drink, the pale man nodded. “Jerjerrod has informed me that the construction effort around the Sanctuary Moon is ongoing, and at the current rate of progress, it will be completed in less than three months. The test firing on a local asteroid was successful, but its primary weapon still has to be calibrated before it is fully operational.”
Ars took a bite out a small wedge of fruit. “Excellent. By the time the weapon is completed, our control of the galaxy should be well established. With battle station like that under our command, no upstart admiral or Sith Lord will ever challenge the rightful heirs of the new order ever again.”
Standing just behind Kren’s chair, the Twi’lek allowed her smile to broaden. Blista-Vance gulped down another glass and leaned back in his chair, his hands noticeably trembling.
“Are you alright?” Hixa asked, staring at the gaunt man over a plate of fluffy pastries.
Before he could respond though, the Twi’lek behind him shifted position, bringing her arms down to her sides. “Personally, I’d be more concerned about myself than him. Of course, in a few moments, I suppose it won’t make much of a difference.”
Hixa sputtered, dropping the utensil he was holding in alarm. “What did she…”
“Thank you Kren, you’ve been most helpful. Unfortunately, Lord Vader seems to dislike traitors intensely, and I’m afraid we’re going to have to go back on our little bargain.” The woman’s voice was so soft that the others around the table had to lean closer to hear clearly, but a sort of dark pleasure was quite evident in it.
Kren Blista-Vance shook his head slowly and gritted his teeth, closing his eyes as he did so. “Sithspit.”
A beam of blue light erupted through the chair’s back and impaled the old man’s heart, incinerating it instantly. A blast of air and vaporized blood escaped his lips and his head lolled on its shoulders, his face a mask of resigned defeat.
The other at the table, however, did not that the incident so well. Hixa fell backwards out of his chair, food and drink spilling onto his round belly as he tried to scramble away, and the other three shot up from their places, momentarily unsure what to do, Kren’s death still not registering in their stunned brains. Aayla did not wait for the moment to sink in though, instead bringing her lightsaber clear up through the top of the chair, nearly decapitating the deceased Councilor. She then flipped sideways with superhuman speed and agility, landing easily on her feet a few meters way, where Hixa Torenvom was trying to drag his body away across the richly-carpeted floor. The woman grinned down him, her saber humming gently as she held it less than a meter above his heaving chest.
“W…” Before the sputtering man could even finish a single word, the blade sang, neatly removing the man’s head from its confining neck without even singeing the carpet.
By now, both Greejatus and Rothwall had uncovered holdout blasters from their cloaks and were backing toward the nearest window, Ars hunched between them, he too fumbling for a weapon hidden in his robes. Rothwall fired three shots at Aayla as she brought her weapon up from the killing stroke, but before he had even seen the red bolts cross the room, they scattered away from the assassin in all directions, two scorching the ceiling and the third impacting a vase of white flowers, which exploded spectacularly. Gaping, Rothwall pulled the trigger again, and the Twi’lek almost lazily moved her weapon to intercept the incinerating bolt. It hit the blue blade and recoiled back, directly into the Councilor’s open mouth. Gore and burned bone splashed against the expansive windows as the smoking corpse fell to the floor.
By this time, Ars Dagnor had located his own weapon, a contraband and especially nasty make of disruptor pistol, and without even bothering to glance at his fallen conspirator’s body, opened up. The first green silver pulse missed Aayla entirely, smashing an entire ten meter pane of glass and impacting the security shield in place outside, which rippled and glowed as it diffused the energy. The next shot was better aimed, but it only served to incinerate carpeting and atomize a large chunk of the metal floor beneath, as Aayla was already in the air again, leaping over the wide dining table with ease.
Sending a shot from Janus into the floor harmlessly even before she had reached the ground again, the Twi’lek spun, angling her weapon so it would decapitate Greejatus in a single blow. Before she could make contact though, the chamber’s lone door slid open and several stormtroopers rushed in, E-11 blaster rifles already raised. Without even looking in their direction, Aayla altered her stance mid-strike and threw her saber sideways rather than following through. The twirling sword halved the first two soldiers before they had even located the source of the disturbance and sliced the gun arm off a third.
Years of discipline allowing them to ignore the gruesome deaths of their comrades, the other three troopers opened fire, pulsing a dozen shots at Aayla in under two seconds. Temporarily without her weapon, which was still twirling through the air, she was forced to leap away from her prey, using the dining table as cover. Huge chunks of hand-carved wood combusted under the sustained Imperial firepower, but what was left of the object heaved suddenly into the air, confusing the soldiers and making their shots erratic. Before they could correct for the sudden change in topography however, the heavy fixture rocketed towards them, crushing one of the troopers against the wall with a sickening thud.
The remaining two rolled sideways avoid the missile and reestablish visual contact with their target, but they found she was already between them, her glowing weapon back in hand. With two deft strokes, she cut both troopers in two.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed that Ars and Janus were rushing for a small computer console set into one of the benches that lined the curving wall. One of the dead soldier’s blasters flew into her free hand, and barely stopping to aim, she pulled the trigger. A fireball engulfed Janus Greejatus’ back and he screamed, falling to the floor with a cloud of ash and blistering smoke issuing from the deadly wound.
Ars tumbled to the floor, thrown off balance by the near hit, and before he could even raise his head, the sound of Aayla’s breath, only slightly labored from the exertion, filtered into his ears. He felt warm fingers wrap around his chin and jerk it up, bringing the woman’s beautiful face into view, no more than a hand length away from his own. The same half grin still graced her lips, and a patch of residue on her left cheek, blood spray, only served to accentuate her striking features. Ars attempted to bring his blaster to her stomach, but it flew out of his hands and clattered uselessly onto the floor, out of reach.
“If you’re going to kill me, do it now,” he spat, trying to retain some sense of control.
“It is not her place to kill you.”
Aayla’s saber snapped off and she let go off Dagnor’s head, leaving him to fall back to the ground as she stood and moved to the side, revealing the doorway at the far side of the room and the figure that now filled it.
“Vader,” Ars managed, hefting himself onto his knees.
The Dark Lord of the Sith paced across the room, ignoring the bodies strewn around him and the stench of cauterized flesh that filled the air. When he reached Aayla, who had her head bowed in respect, he paused, looking her over reflectively. “You have done well, my apprentice.”
“They were traitors and fools, my lord. I had no qualm about culling them from your Empire.”
Darth Vader turned his focus now to Ars Dagnor, who was slowly rising onto his haunches.
“I had always suspected you and your allies would need to be disposed of. You were always too close to the Emperor.”
To Aayla’s surprise, the sniveling little man actually began to laugh. A weak, hacking rasp, but a laugh nonetheless. “Didn’t have the stomach to do it yourself though, did you Vader? I can tell, killing the Emperor took the nerve out of you. He always was the true power, the one who gave you your ability and will, and without him, your nothing but a feeble man in a life support suit, trying to fill a far more worthy being’s place.”
Vader’s right hand shot out from under his cape and gloved fingers wrapped around Dagnor’s neck, hauling him into the air. Gasping for air, the man clawed uselessly at the iron grip as Vader pulled him close to his nightmare mask. “Where is the rest of the Privy Council? Where is Sate Pestage?”
Ars mouthed something desperately, saliva bubbling from his mouth as he tried in vain to suck oxygen into his quickly starving lungs. Vader’s grip tightened and the helpless man began to squirm even more violently, kicking Vader’s armored torso weakly. After a few more long seconds, the Sith lord relaxed his grip, and Ars fell backwards, hitting his head hard against the curved window that overlooked the vast city below.
“You have but this one opportunity,” Vader said darkly, looking down on the gasping creature. “Reveal the location of the rest of the Council, or I will tear the information from your mind.”
Ars Dagnor slid down the window, coming to rest on the carpeted floor, his limbs splayed out uselessly on the sill and the bench next to him. “Pestage…”
Vader looked down upon the pitiful creature, seemingly uncaring as to the course by which he would receive the required data.
“Pestage,” Ars repeated, pausing to cough up a large clot of blood. “Pestage may have been a coward…” He paused, gasping for breath, and then stared up at Vader’s mask. “But you are a fool!”
Right arm draped against the low bench, Ars was in reach of the console he had ran for a minute before. A single finger punched at one of the keys, and the object began to beep shrilly. Even before the sound met the beaten Councilor’s ears though, Vader had turned away, his Force-aided senses alerting him to a sudden danger. Ars Dagnor’s eyes widened as the sound cut off, and his body disappeared in a ball of light and fire. A resounding explosion rocked the room, and indeed the entire facility, knocking over food trays and sending the clientele diving under their tables and booths.
Vader and his young servant had not been in the radius of the blast however. Aayla Secura, disoriented by the explosion, wiped soot from her eyes and discovered she was on the other side of the room, looking at Darth Vader’s metallic chest plate. He had saved her from the Councilor’s last bit of venom, a bomb that was meant to ensure that whoever was capable of bringing down the great Ars Dagnor would not last to relish his victory. Obviously, the device’s designers had not anticipated that the intended target would be a Sith.
“Thank you, my lord,” she managed, regaining her balance. “I am not worthy of your action. It was my carelessness that allowed him to even reach that device. You should have left…”
A sudden wave of annoyance from the cyborg told Aayla it would be best if she became silent. She stepped away and glanced over at what had once been Dagnor’s dining chamber. The suicide explosive had carved a very large hole out of the chamber, and much of it was exposed to the open air. The rest of the room had been shredded by shrapnel from the blast; it was only Vader’s armored suit and his adeptness with the Force that had saved her from ending up like the serving droid which lay next to her, decapitated and oozing dark coolant from every joint.
Turning her attention back to Darth Vader, Aayla noticed that he was staring up into the sky through one of the shattered windows, his hands folded in front of him.
“Something is occurring, something of great importance.”
The woman stared quizzically at her master as he continued to probe the heavens, as is if searching for a star that was beyond his ability to perceive. Though his mental barriers were as effective as always, she could sense could sense some conflict in him, but on what she could not tell. At last, he turned towards her, his rhythmic breathing echoing eerily in the blasted shell of a room.
“I am needed elsewhere. Come.”
With that, he stalked past her and exited the chamber, where his personal squad of storm troopers waited, clearing bodies out of the passageway and sealing the area off against further intrusion. Aayla did not follow immediately, instead looking up into the hazy darkness, searching for any sign of what her master had sensed. She found nothing amiss. It was of little importance though; her master had set a course, and she would follow, wherever they ended up.
By the time Truul, Data, and the Chief reached the command bridge, Leia Organa, her protocol droid, and most of the remaining members of the Enterprise’s crew were already assembled quietly watching the main viewport from the lower level of the chamber. Captain Ryceed seemed to be trying to ignore them, and was engaged in a whispered conversation with her XO.
“Data,” Commander Riker said in greeting as the three latecomers joined the group. When the android had come a little closer, the commander leaned in close and whispered into his ear. “Are your calculations finished?”
Noting the human’s conspiratorial tone, Data lowered his own voice. “Yes Commander. Cortana and I believe that we should be able to manipulate the wormhole as soon as we arrive. I will, however, require direct access to the ship’s deflector, transmission, and tractor beam controls.”
Riker nodded. “The captain and Geordi have already worked something out with Ryceed. There’s a station prepared for you over there.” He indicated to a large bank of control consoles, at which the dark-skinned engineer and a pair of Alliance technicians were already at work.
“I’d better interface directly with the main computer system,” Cortana, who had evidently been listening in on their conversation, said, and then used the transmitter built into the Chief’s armor to beam her consciousness into ship itself.
“Ready to disengage hyperdrive,” a helmsman called, and all conversation on the deck ceased.
“Do it,” Captain Ryceed ordered, settling into her command chair. She had no particular desire to come back to the desolate system they were approaching, but she would be damned if her apprehension interfered with her composure.
In a surge of pseudo motion, the light cruiser spat from the hyperspace tachyon realm and into realspace, an endless void only broken by system’s distant star, a glowing ember which hung high above their plane of entry. Except, this void was not quite as empty as they had left it.
“I’m picking up Imperial warships to aft!” one of the bridge officers yelled, alarmed and desperately rechecking is original readings. Ryceed gritted her teeth and slammed a fist onto her chair control pad.
“Battle stations! Deflectors to maximum, double aft!”
Mere seconds later, a shockwave blasted through the bridge and warning klaxons began to blare plaintively.
“One of their tracking shots, we were able to get deflectors up in time. No damage.”
Ryceed tapped a few commands into her panel, and swiveled her seat towards the chamber’s main holographic display. “Get me a read on those ships now!” The space in front of her flickered to life with multicolored flecks of light, which rapidly coalesced into four distinctive forms; an Imperial-class Star Destroyer flanked by a smaller Victory-class and a trio of Lancer frigates. As she looked on, dozens of new contacts, TIE fighters and gunboats, began to register, pouring out of the two larger ship’s holds.
“Open fire, all rear batteries! Target the forward Lancer.”
As comm officers rushed to relay the order and the Republica’s Chief weapons control officer began to coordinate the jets of deadly energy that began to pulse from the cruiser’s hull, another turbolaser blast rocked the ship, nearly knocking Leia Organa over as she climbed the short stairway to the main command area.
“How did they now we would be here?” she asked breathlessly.
“Not a clue. Why don’t you try asking your friends down there?” Ryceed said hurriedly, and then turned her attention back to the hologram, which was showing the first wave of fighters wash up against the cruiser’s point defense guns.
Leia glanced down at Captain Picard and his officers, who were watching the battle unfold on various viewscreens and tactical display with concern. The situation did seem awfully suspicious. But no, she disregarded the thought almost immediately. She had a feeling about these people, they wouldn’t have turned the fate of the Alliance and their own hopes at returning home over to the Empire. Still, it seemed very unlikely that the Imperials could have detected or anticipated them like this without some assistance…
“Captain, fighter squadrons are standing by. Do I give the launch order?”
Ryceed considered Commander Gavplek’s question. Under more even circumstances, such an action would be a given; allowing TIE fighters to harass the ship unopposed would be suicidal, but they were vastly out numbered now, and given her previous experience with the unstable gravitic nature of this star system, it was likely her only avenue of escape was cut off. Her only normal avenue at least.
She put a hand, telling her XO to delay the question for a moment, and stood. “Captain Picard.”
The bald man looked up at her, his face drawn with concern.
“Have your men finalized the wormhole procedure?”
Riker gave a nod in the affirmative when Picard looked in his direction. “It’s ready. But can your ship make it to the coordinates before they catch up to us?”
Ryceed smiled proudly. “Captain, you haven’t seen half of what my ship and her crew can do.” She caught Gavplek’s attention again. “Tell the squadron leaders to stay put. Were heading for the wormhole. Make sure we get there in one piece.” Though he was deeply disturbed by the overwhelming numbers of the enemy, Gavplek had been in enough engagements to know that when she had an objective selected, there was no force, Imperial or otherwise, that could stand in her way. He offered a quick salute, and then turned to the rest of the crew, who were busy coordinating fire and compiling damage estimates from the last turbolaser blast that had struck the ship.
“Were making a straight burn for the wormhole. Helm, increase power to the main drives, even if you have to siphon off energy from the weapons, but keep the deflectors at optimal. Fire control, focus on laying down a flak perimeter around our rear quadrant. The Imperials know we can’t do any real damage to them, and there’s no point in trying, but let them know that if they get to close, their ship’s are going to lose a few of those pretty points.”
A luck series of shots from the Republica’s rear turbolaser grid breached the shields of the forward most frigate, send gouts of flame roaring across it port side and sending it on a down spin, out of formation. The small victory seemed to encourage the Alliance crew, but the other four warships pressed forward, intensifying their own firepower to make up for the damaged pursuer.
“I’m locking the estimated coordinates of the wormhole into the navigational computer,” Cortana, who had appeared above the secondary hologram tub, reported easily. The Mon Cal cruiser’s ion drives flared as terawatts of reserve power poured into them, and the sleek ship rapidly began to put distance between itself and the encroaching strike force. The four capital ships that still remained in the battle quickly compensated, dumping their own reserves into vast, coruscating engines, and the gap began to close again. The void between the ships was filled with streams of green and red bolts with enough power to devastate small cities, with squadrons of TIEs flitting around volleys and continually igniting the Republica’s weakening deflector screens with pinpricks of fire.
At Data’s jury-rigged command station, Geordi La’Forge nervously checked the power readings from the core. “The program is ready, but if this rate of power consumption keeps up, we might not have enough juice left to maintain the correct modulation in the deflector network.”
“We should reach the wormhole in two minutes, thirty one seconds,” Data noted, taking in several tactical and energy displays at once. “Assuming there is not an exponential increase in Imperial firepower within that period, there will be enough power left to perform a directed trans-galactic transference.”
“I hope your right.” The engineer had no wish to return to a holding cell or be vaporized by the Imperial assault, but exploding in the wormhole due to uncontrollable feedback overload was equally as undesirable.
As the rest of the Federation officers watched the running battle with silent apprehension, a sudden thought struck Picard. If Data was right, that wormhole was a pathway directly into Federation territory. If the Empire knew about such a conduit, they might be able to send ships through as well, and Picard had seen just what the warships of the galaxy could do.
He made is way quickly over to the Data and looked at the information flashing across his screen. It was largely gibberish to human eyes, the android had programmed his station to transmit at a rate many times its normal rate, but the captain did notice a marked increase in the number of figures that appeared on the display when a sensor officer reported that the anomaly was within active scanning range. He hoped the increase was a good thing.
“Is there a problem, Captain?” Geordi asked, noticing his superior’s presence.
“I’m not entirely certain. Tell me, do you know if more than one ship at a time can travel through the wormhole?”
Data stopped scanning the screen for a moment, focusing his positronic brain on the quandary. “If you are referring to the pursuing Imperial starships, than I believe that it would be impossible for them to enter the anomaly after us without knowing its exact dimensions or how we were able to manipulate it. It is unknown if they are even aware of its existence.”
“So they couldn’t simply follow us through?”
“I do not believe so. Judging by the data that is current known about the wormhole, it appears to latch on individually to each object that enters it. Without employing the deflector control Cortana and I have postulated will guide a ship to the correct spatial and dimensional coordinates, any pursuing starship would be deposited randomly at some other entry point, as the Enterprise was, or destroyed outright by the feedback present during the transit period.”
Picard nodded and glanced back at the tactical hologram, which showed the distance between the Republica and her assailants was continuing to diminish. “I suppose we have no safer course of action.”
Another blast rocked the ship, and several warning alarms began to blare. “Were losing deflector strength in grid twenty four, captain,” Gavplek warned, his eyes locked on a representation of the Republica displayed on one of the tactical screens. Several of its rear sections were glowing red.
“Time to the wormhole?”
“Twenty seconds,” Cortana replied, watching Ryceed intently from her pedestal. The woman glared back, ignoring the next thermonuclear explosion that rocked her ship.
“You’re sure that you can pull this off? I’d rather go down fighting than be stranded in some distant backwater or deposited in a star.”
Cortana replied only with a wink, and then turned her attention to Data and his team. “Are all the systems prepared?”
“Affirmative. I am shunting deflector control and all other required protocols to the systems you can directly interface. I recommend you begin the sequence in exactly fifteen point seven seconds.”
Cortana took one last look around the bridge; Ryceed’s distrust, Picard’s nervous anticipation, and the Chief’s calm and trusting patience. She could still feel his confidence and faith in her abilities through their neural link, and they encouraged her. She wouldn’t let him down, let any of them down. After all, how hard could navigating an uncharted spatial anomaly of unknown origin with a margin of error less than half a second long be? It’s not like she’d never done such a thing before.
“Alright, we’re going in. Wish me luck.”
The odd thing about Alliance computer systems, Cortana reflected, was that even though they had more space and processing power than anything she’d ever encountered before, they were oddly confining, probably be design. Every system and subsystem was separated from one another, and it was difficult to access more than one of them at a time. It probably made incursion by hostile virus programs or infiltration algorithms far more difficult, a prudent safety measure, but it also served to slow Cortana’s processing ability and reaction time to a level significantly below what she was accustom to on a UNSC starship. It was good then that Data had had the presence of mind to manually connect all the systems Cortana would need into a temporary nexus; the anticipated maneuver would be impossible otherwise.
Using the Republica’s sensors, she could see in every direction; the Imperial strike force, the clouds of TIE fighters pelting the engine block with blistering green hail, the unnamed star system’s distant primary. The one thing she could not actually perceive was the wormhole they were barreling towards, it was virtually invisible to all but the most aggressive and specific of scans, but she new exactly where it was, and where she needed to be. The Cornwall’s data banks had told here that much.
A few seconds later, a significantly extended period to the AI now that she was fully cut off from the outside world, the bow of the Mon Calamari starship plunged into the unknown abyss, and Cortana set to work.
At first, there was nothingness, no readings from any of the ship’s active or passive scanners, no pressures or discharge from the deflector perimeter. Then, slowly, like an itch spreading up one’s arm, the lashing discharges started. Something, out there in the abyss, was grabbing at every joule of energy that was diffused beyond the hull of the ship and turning it back inward, distorting the shields and disrupting the sensors. One stray vein of energy bypassed the shields entirely and lanced directly into one of the starship’s power supply lines. Cortana felt the fire control computer for an ion cannon on deck five overload.
I hope no one was using that.
One of her own subsystems, a chronometer logarithm, alerted her to the time; Data’s countdown was up. Cortana reached out, expanding her consciousness into all of the scanners and sensor arrays that were still operational. She was looking for some pattern, an underlying root of the attacks that could be identified, and harnessed.
There it was.
A clear loop of discharges and pulses emerged, stable yet complex. Oddly so in fact. She would have expected any pattern in the phenomenon to be erratic and difficult to harness, yet this one was very clear, almost screaming to be found.
Cortana switched her attentions, seizing control of the deflector shield network. A very fine adjustment to the power output for the system, and a resonance began to emerge in the invisible barrier. As the vibration began to grow and fluctuate, the AI began to bombard the shield with tractor beam micro-pulses, driving the ship’s own pattern to match the one she could feel in the void around her. For a moment, the patterns met and then fluctuated apart, but Cortana seized the initiative, varying the micro-pulses more quickly. The patterns came back in line.
Now there was only one more step; apply the frequency recorded at the beginning of the Cornwall’s journey to the Republica’s deflector array. Something in the back of her mind told Cortana that she was running out of time, the energy feedback was becoming more and more intense. With renewed urgency, she pulsed the tractor beam generators and shield emitters, slowly at first, and then more quickly as the deflector began to align.
She winced as one of the sensor arrays overloaded, and a full quadrant of the ship was blocked from view. What remained though was beginning to pick up something very interesting. Rather than remain a solid frequency, or taper off into a thousand disparate stands, the ambient pattern began to break into exactly four distinct and stable pieces. Cortana was amazed, for she had never seen a natural phenomenon behave in such an orderly and logical manner before.
Her fascinated inspection of the unique series was cut short however, as the ambient frequency began to change, pulsing in syncopation with the deflector system. A tremor ran through the ship, and Cortana sensed one of the four strands becoming more prominent, it’s frequency ringing in accord with the Republica’s. She felt the ship jolt again, the pattern began to distort, the energy discharges coalescing into a wall of light...
And then it was over, the charged void began to vanish, replaced by the familiar blackness of deep space. Sum time in transit: seven seconds.
Before the AI had anytime to really begin to appreciate her success, or start assessing the damage the ship had suffered, something else, one of her own subsystems again, distracted her. Cortana had almost forgotten about the fragment of her consciousness she had assigned to analyze the Arbiter’s data chip, which was still nestled in the Chief’s helmet. The task was noted as being completed, and curious, the AI accessed the results.
It took her .45 seconds to realize something was horribly wrong.
“Transit is complete, captain.”
The helmsman was somewhat amazed at the sound of his own voice, as was everyone within earshot. The last few seconds had been so remarkably strange, that it was odd to discern anything that seemed familiar. At first, it had seemed like everyone had passed out, but all of them to a one had then witnessed a lightshow of impossible colors and pulses, an experienced that seemed to have transcended time and conscious reality itself. And now that everyone was firmly back in control of their mental faculties, it seemed that no one had collapsed or moved in any way. Even Data seemed to have been effected similarly.
“Fascinating,” the android stated simply, rising from his seat and looking around the chamber in what almost appeared to be a state of amusement.
Ryceed was the first to fully recover, rushing over to one of the ship’s status readouts. “Damage report.”
“Minor damage to main ion control and the hyperdrive motivators,” Gavplek reported. “There also seems to be some sort of feedback in our sensor array, but Comm is already filtering out the static.”
“And the Imperials?”
“Sensors aren’t picking up any enemy transponders in our immediate vicinity,” a Mon Calamari lieutenant reported, still working to factor out the static that was clouding his instruments.
At last, the slightest of smiles crossed Ryceed’s face, and she turned to Picard and Leia, who had climbed to the command deck beside her. “Well, it looks like your droids did it Picard. I suppose I owe them both a debt of gratitude.”
Picard smiled gratefully. “I’ll pass that long. Now, shall we figure out where exactly that wormhole deposited us?”
“Captain.” The same lieutenant spoke up again. “I’m picking up new power readings. A lot of them.”
The color drained out of Ryceed’s face and she was at the officer’s side in an instant. “I thought you said none of the enemy warship followed us though the anomaly.”
“No sir, not Imperial,” the officer replied, indicating to a sensor display. “They’re not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and there’s nothing on file that matches up. The power sources definitely aren’t hypermatter fusion or solar ionization based.”
Leia drifted over now, as did Captain Picard. “One of your ships perhaps?” she suggested.
Picard looked at the figures and power ratings scrolling across the screen, then shook his head. “It doesn’t look familiar, and if I’m reading the energy scaling chart correctly, those kind of levels are far beyond any ship in Starfleet.”
“Sir, the long range imaging scanners just came online. We appear to be in the middle of a star system; four planets, one of them a gas giant, main-sequence star. I’m picking up a lot of activity around the second planet in the system. Dozens… no, hundreds of contacts. There’s also a lot of energy being thrown around out there, it looks like a battle.”
The main holographic display morphed into the form of a tiny blue and green planet, wreathed in uncounted miniscule dots and flecks of color. Ryceed shot a sharp glance at the sensor officer, and he rushed to magnify the image. After a few moments, the glimmering display shifted again, and the planet increased in size one hundred fold. The tiny dots that encircled it also increased in clarity, taking the shape of tiny, brick-like structures and larger vessels that looked oddly like shelled sea creatures.
It was not these forms however, or the power readings that began to feed more clearly across the sensor screens and projections, that caught the Master Chief’s attention. From his place in on the lower level of the bridge, the Spartan stared up at the globe itself, his eyes absorbing the shape of its continents and the deep blue of its vast oceans. He could even make out cities, tiny splotches of gray along rivers and coasts; there were other splotches as well, swaths of brown and black that seemed to be spreading across the planet even as he watched. The Master Chief had seen this planet before, and he knew it well.
A planet named Reach.