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 Post subject: The Rift, Part Two: Unity, Broken PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:10pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire


Part Two: Unity, Broken


Chapter Twenty Nine

A long, sleek form passed silently through empty space; the Republica was on the move. Dozens of gashes and patches of blackened hull plate adorned the cruiser, a testament to the desperate battle the ship had recently survived. A faint aura of blue light trailed the ship, generated by half a dozen tubular thrusters arrayed at its rear. The energy emitting from the drives was far less than the powerful Mon Calamari vessel was capable of producing, just enough to inch the ship through the interstellar blackness. The Republica was hiding, prey in a very dangerous game.

Captain Imal Ryceed stared out of her vessel’s bridge viewport nervously, her large, amphibian eyes fixated on a huge rocky object that filled the light cruiser’s screen. Around her, human and Mon Calamari officers monitored sensor stations and engineering readouts in silence, some occasionally trading anxious glances with each other. One of them, a human Lieutenant named Botrates, began to yawn, but swiftly stifled the sound with his hand. His eyes flitted over his fellow officers, and he hoped embarrassedly that none of them had noted the unprofessional behavior. However, the others were feeling similarly stressed and exhausted, so none of them paid Botrates any heed.

Ryceed, however, did notice, but instead of rebuking the officer as she might have done under more normal circumstances, she just sighed, flexing her jointed fingers as they lay folded on the small of her back. They were all tired; no one had gotten any real rest in the several days since the Republica had escaped the battlefield that was the Sullust system. The Imperial ambush there had devastated the rebel fleet, and only two warships and a smattering of smaller vessels had escaped. Admiral Ackbar and his command ship were gone; the Mon Calamari had sacrificed his life to buy time for the Republica’s escape, as well as for the Redemption, the frigate that carried what remained of the Alliance High Command.

After pausing to retrieve the fighters and escape craft that had managed to slip away with them into hyperspace, the Redemption and Republica split up. The frigate, carrying Mon Mothma, General Madine, and General Rieekan, and escorted by the few remaining Alliance corvettes and gunships, as well as Wedge Antilles’ Rouge Squadron, was to make to make for the rendezvous point, a distant point in the Outer Rim. Ryceed’s ship was to move to the same system, but by a different route. Since the rebel fleet had been routed, imperial patrols and interdictor checkpoints had formed a nearly impassible net over several sectors known to be hotbeds of resistance, hoping to crush the Alliance while it was still reeling from the recent defeat. Because of this, it had been difficult for the Mon Calamari cruiser to travel, forced to use obsolete hyperspace lanes and travel through uninhabited star systems.

Despite the best efforts of Captain Ryceed and her crew, the Republica, upon reverting from hyperspace to navigate around a system populated by several large gas giants and a late-stage sun, had finally been pinned. The tactical officers detected two Imperial Star Destroyers already in system, most likely hoping to catch any smugglers or rebels who dared to use the system for cover, and the Republica had been forced to hide in-between a small asteroidal moon and its host gas planet, narrowly avoiding the notice of the imperial craft. The rebel ship was trapped in the mass shadow of the planet, and the patrolling imperial forces were inadvertently keeping the ship from venturing out into a clear jump area.

Ryceed, anxious to break the deathly silence that had settled upon the bridge, unfolded her slender, webbed hands from her back and turned from the viewport. “What is the status of those imperial destroyers?” the slim and neat captain asked, her normally smooth voice cracked and tired. A Mon Calamari standing at the primary sensor station double-checked the readouts before him before answering. “No change sir,” he wheezed in reply. Ryceed smiled slightly. Traditional military discipline was sometimes absent among the volunteer ranks of the Alliance, so she appreciated it when someone appropriately acknowledged her rank. “The Star Destroyers are still blocking the most direct escape vectors. The enemy craft are covering each possible hyperspace inversion and reversion point with a sensor net, and with the amount of gravimetric distortion in this system, our choices are very limited,” the officer concluded. Ryceed walked up next to him and looked at the readout for herself. “Have you been able to determine the pattern of their sensor scans?”

Another officer spoke up, and Ryceed turned to him. “They’re patrol pattern is fairly straightforward, moving to each likely jump coordinate every fifteen minutes, and employing their passive scanners to sweep the rest of the system for strong signals,” the man said wearily. “The active nature of this system’s star has reduced some of they’re sensor accuracy and range, but it has also cut off a large number of exit paths available too us. Even with only two destroyers, given our current location, the Republica will almost certainly be detected and cut off before we leave the mass shadow of the star and this gas giant.” The captain sighed and ran her right hand over her bare, orange-hued scalp contemplatively. “It seems that our only choice is to remain hidden until a hole in the sensor net can be located. Keep the ship on minimal running power, and inform me of any new developments.”
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The Republica’s starboard docking bay was abuzz with activity, as fighter pilots, technicians, and droids worked to ready the various craft in the hangar for combat. The atmosphere aboard ship had been tense over the last few days, its crew left with nothing to do save brood upon the devastating loss that had killed so many comrades might very well have been a death blow for the rebel cause all together. However, now that they had something to do, moods were brightening somewhat, and the sound of starship preparation was complemented with the low rumble of pre-battle banter.

From an open entry hatch, Commander William Riker watched the display of rebel resilience and spirit. He, like the rest of the Federation crew, was in a fairly dower mood. Considering the tremendous losses they had sustained over the last few weeks, the Enterprise destroyed, most of its crew likely in an imperial gulag, the death of Doctor Beverly Crusher was especially damaging to moral. The captain seemed to be taking it especially badly, and had been extremely reclusive and distant since they escaped the Home One. Of course, there wasn’t much that any of them could do; with the attempts at contacting the Federation on most likely permanent hold, they were little more than baggage. None the less, Major Truul had made endeavored to make special accommodations for them, and thus the Enterprise’s former crew and the other guests were allowed free reign over the non-sensitive areas of the ship.

And So Riker was leaning against the hangar doorway unobstructed, watching a little R2 astromech unit scurry along the crowded flight deck. It accidentally rammed into a mechanics tool kit and sent its contents spilling onto the deck. The tech cast a furious look onto the diminutive droid and began to shout insults, but as soon as the first words left his mouth, the droid was already rolling away, whistling something akin to a hasty apology. Riker stifled a laugh at the spectacle, and it occurred to him that even the simple mechanic robots had an easier time interacting with humans than Data did, and he was the most advanced cybernetic life form ever created in the Federation’s history.

As Riker mused, his eyes wandered around the large chamber until they fell upon the other side of the open hatch. There stood the young Jedi Knight Jacen Solo, who also seemed to be taking in the sights. Young Jacen was of this galaxy, but not this time, for him it was all history. It must be a very strange feeling, Riker decided, living and even shaping one’s own past.

The commander was about to speak to the man, but he first noticed that Jacen was staring fixatedly at one point in the chamber beyond, and so Riker followed his gaze. It fell upon a battered, gray vessel, so badly carbon-scored and patched with replacement parts that it looked barely flyable. On top of the ship, a tall, hairy humanoid, a Wookiee if Riker recalled the name correctly, was hunched over a piece of the hull that had been melted away by laser fire, and was welding a new armor plate in place over it, his eyes shielded by large, black goggles. Next to the ship’s landing struts stood two other figures, human, a man and a woman. The man, dressed in a black vest, was fiddling the hydraulics power cable on one of the struts, while the woman, dressed in a white Rebel Fleet uniform, looked on.

With the rumble of machinery and conversation all around them, Riker couldn’t make out what either figure was saying, but he was sure they were talking. The woman in white folded her arms and stepped closer to the man, but he continued working, evidently ignoring her. She shook her head and said something else, but the man seemed to still be ignoring her for the most part. The woman, frustrated, took another step closer, and unfolded her arms, gesticulating slightly when she spoke again. At this, the man froze, and then slammed the tool he was using into the starship’s landing gear, creating a clang heard even over the racket of the flight deck. The man growled something and then turned away, and the woman faltered slightly, almost stepping away. Instead, she moved forward again, putting her arm around the man’s shoulders slowly. At first he began to recoil, but when she did not let go, he slumped, and accepted the embrace. The two figures were in each others arms for a few moments, and then they were apart again, back to work on the rickety starship.

Riker glanced back at Jacen, who was still watching the two. “Do you know them?” Riker asked, moving closer. Jacen looked up, seemingly startled, and a faint redness crept into his cheeks. “Oh, well…” he paused, seemingly considering whether or not he should respond. Riker noted that the man looked very uncomfortable with the subject, and was about to retract the query when Jacen replied. “Actually, I do. They’re…my parents.” This gave Riker pause. The woman looked hardly twenty five, and the man not much older. How could they be the late teenage knight’s parents? Then the obvious donned on the commander.

Jacen turned back to view his parents again, but they were gone, either inside the ship or hidden among the crowd. Sighing, Jacen straightened up, nodded at Riker in a distant manner, and walked off down the hallway, immersed in his own thoughts. Riker looked after him and considered following, but decided against it. The man had just as many problems as the rest of them did, cut off from home, suffering from the loss of one he cared about, and Riker felt he had no right to interfere. The Federation officer turned back to the flight deck and began scanning it again. After all, there was little else for him to do at the moment.
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Captain Ryceed stared incredulously at the holo-projector before her, or rather the space above it. There, displayed in flickering bluish strands of code, a female figure floated, staring back obstinately. “What?” the image asked in a somewhat haughty female voice. “It’s a perfectly valid plan. It’s either that, or we stay her until those imperial cruisers leave. Are you willing to risk waiting?” Imal Ryceed didn’t enjoy being talked down to, especially not by a droid, or computer, or what ever the AI Cortana was, and if it wasn’t for her orders, she would have turned of the projector right then and there. However, before the Republica had split off from the other rebel warship, orders had come through from Mon Mothma herself that these strange, extra-dimensional visitors were to be given quarters and even some diplomatic privileges, and were to be well taken care of. In addition, it was stated than if any of them had useful information or expertise on a matter of significance and wished to consult Ryceed, she would be obligated to listen.

Ryceed grudgingly complied, but she tried to keep the last part of the order away from her charges; the last thing she wanted was advice from some random extra-galactic, diplomatic privileges or not. However, the final stipulation had somehow managed to find its way into the notice of Cortana, and ever since then, she had been delving into the non-secure portions of the Republica’s computer network (Ryceed suspected that Cortana might be attempting to bend the “non-essential” clause in the arrangement.)

“So let me see if I understand this,” the Captain intoned slowly. “You want me to take my ship through a star.” Cortana’s representation rolled its eyes and sighed. “You know what I said captain,” she replied. Then the projection disappeared, replaced with a field of holographic stars. Other officers moved closer, interested in the antics of the brash AI. Few organic crewmen aboard the ship could talk the way Cortana did to Ryceed without earning a few weeks trash compactor maintenance duty.

From the starfield blossomed a small representation of the star system they were currently trapped in, a backwater known only by its survey designation BT-556072, complete with models of five gas giants, the primary, the two destroyers, and the Republica. Cortana’s voice wafted over the projector’s speakers again, and the model began to rotate slowly. “We are here, hemmed in by the gravitation forces of these two planets, as well as the outlier effects of the primary,” Cortana began, highlighting each of the subjects in turn with a blue light. “These are the Imperial Star Destroyers. I will accelerate their patrol pattern.” The two blips that were the enemy ships began to pirouette around the star, weaving a seemingly erratic course, one ship always on the other side of the sun from the other. “Now, due to the compromising nature of the gravitic forces in the area, and the impressive sensor capabilities of those ships, any run for a jump position on this side of the system will be detected by one of the destroyers, and we will be overtaken and destroyed.” As Cortana drawled on, the representation played out her words, the tiny blip that was the rebel vessel making a break for the edge of the system, and being blown into pixels by a pursuing destroyer.” Ryceed ran a hand through her hair again.

“Even though that course of action is doomed to end in failure, we still have a way out of here,” Cortana continued. “If, in approximately seven minutes, when the orbital position of the planet we are orbiting is right, the ship moves at full speed towards the primary, the planet behind us will be enough to temporarily block us from the Star Destroyer’s sensors. Then, instead of breaking off to the side, a move that would easily be detected, the Republica alters its course slightly; it can pass through the star’s corona here.” The blip, regenerated after its previous attempt, followed the AI’s instructions, and began to skirt the outer layer of the star. “I realize this is an unorthodox and dangerous maneuver, but from what I know of your shielding and heat dissipation systems, which are quite impressive, this ship will be able to hold together.”

“Now, the hard part’s over. By cutting straight across system, and angling down in orientation forty degrees after the star is passed, we can skirt under the second destroyer’s passive scanning field and from there, and the ship can simply cruise into a safe jump position.”

Her speech over, Cortana’s map disappeared and her blue form grew again in its place. “Well captain, there you have it,” Cortana said smugly. Ryceed’s eyes narrowed at the projection’s persistently disrespectful behavior, but her plan did seem to make sense. “Can you confirm her estimations?” the Captain asked Commander Gavplek, one of her second-in-commands. The human man, who also served as the ship’s chief tactical officer nodded slowly, as if still thinking over what Cortana had said. “I believe it can be done,” he replied. “As long as we navigate around any potential flares and stay at a sufficient altitude, the shields will hold.” Ryceed paused to consider again, and Cortana spoke up. “Six minutes until the orientation. The window won’t last very long,” she warned, trying to add a touch of respect back into her tone. The captain shot another hard look at the projection. As much as see loathed being upstaged in front of her command crew, remaining in the system any longer was not an option. “Make ready.”
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Five and a half minutes later, the Republica shot like a torpedo out of its hiding place, its sublight drives blazing incandescent blue. As the long craft approached the target star, one of the imperial destroyers picked up a power spike in system. It altered course, and was soon navigating past the sensor barrier of the nearby gas giant. However, by that time, the rebel ship had already plunged into the star’s incinerating corona. Superheated gas lashed against the Mon Calamari cruiser’s shields, but they held, dissipating most of the obliterating heat. However, some of the energy was seeping through, and the ship’s outer hull began to glow, surface blisters beginning to warp. A strip of durasteel plate began to peel away from the hull, curling backwards like a sheet of molten parchment paper.

At last, as the shields were beginning to overload, the cruiser burst from the cover of the star and angled down, out of sight of the destroyer that was occupied far above. Ryceed slumped into her command chair slightly with relief, and then caught herself. “Damage report.” The rest of the bridge crew was also relieved, and the response was surprisingly cheerful in tone. “Moderate damage to the section B-4 and C-4 ablative armor plate. No casualties or other significant damage.” The captain nodded, and glanced at the increasingly smug Cortana. “Your welcome,” the projection prompted, and Ryceed inclined her head slightly towards her, a sign of grudging respect. “All right, renter the rendezvous point into the navicomputer and set course for the closest jump position, speed…” she never finished her sentence. From one of the ancillary sensor stations, the one controlling the ship’s passive scanners, a Devaronian crewman spoke up. “Sir, I’m picking up another power source in our immediate vicinity.”

The Captain leaned forward in her command seat warily. “One of the destroyers?” The red-skinned man altered some of his controls. “No, it’s not showing up as any known type of power source. However, it’s definitely artificial; the emissions are far too regular for a natural phenomenon.” Another sensor officer checked his own readings. “I believe I have localized the source, fifteen thousand kilometers off the port bow.” Ryceed swiveled back to the viewport, which was now showing empty starfield, the star was far behind and above the Republica now. “Show me.”

The forward center panel switched from one starfield scene to another, the second with the system they had just escaped as a distant backdrop. “Increase.” The viewport zoomed forward, and what was once an impossibly distant speck now filled the screen. The Captain, along with everyone else on the bridge looked at the drifting object in fascination. “Nothing on file for that Captain,” an officer said, answering her next question before she even asked it. From her projector platform, Cortana looked on as well, although she augmented her sight with a direct linkup to the visual scanner that was showing the organic crew the object. She sifted through her vast memory banks and swiftly compiled the appropriate information, applied it to the situation, and reached a conclusion. “Do you know what this is Cortana?” asked Ryceed, her attention split between the object and the hologram. The AI nodded. “Care to enlighten us then?”

Cortana paused for a moment before responding. “I think Captain Picard should take a look at this. He may be in a better position to answer than I.”

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:10pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire


Chapter Thirty


It was morning in the Imperial City. Sunlight, reflected and amplified by orbital mirrors to compensate for Coruscant’s distance from its primary, made the towers and skyscrapers of the endless metropolis glow and glisten. Steady streams of aircars, transports, and patrol vehicles wound their away between and over monolithic structures of durasteel and chromium, casting tiny shadows over their gunmetal and ivory surfaces. Seen from above, it was a breathtakingly beautiful scene for nearly any humanoid. However, beauty is often lost on the Dark Lord of the Sith.

From an open balcony a thousand stories above Coruscant’s long obscured surface, Darth Vader looked out upon the grand city, his personal throne world. Everything that was within the cyborg’s view was fully within his power, if he wished for a tower that had stood for millennia to be demolished, or the inhabitants of an entire urban sector to be uprooted and executed, it would be done. He was the Emperor, and his power was absolute, like Palpatine’s had been before him. As the Sith lord looked out over his domain however, his mind was not on conquest or power, it was instead focused inward.

Over only a few short days, Vader had achieved two goals that had been his foremost motivations for years, even decades; he had destroyed Palpatine, the vile entity that had twisted and dominated the dark lord since even before his coronation to his Sith rank, and he had delivered a crippling blow to the traitorous Rebel Alliance, and their ability to resist the order and peace the Empire would instill with Palpatine gone was now all but eliminated. The sympathizer worlds of Sullust and Mon Calamari had swiftly been dealt with, Sullust had been rendered uninhabitable by orbital bombardment, and every single Mon Calamari warship, transport, space dock, as well as several of their most heavily populated reef cities had been swiftly eliminated as well, insurance that the amphibious people would never again oppose the Empire.

And yet, even with all these great successes, Darth Vader was still tormented by uncertainty, emptiness, and even guilt. The immolation of the two alien home systems had given him no satisfaction or relief, not even the sense that he was promoting order in the galaxy. This absence was a new phenomenon, while he was still under Palpatine’s domination, acts of destruction and oppression had induced feelings of control and righteousness in him, the feeling that he was acting naturally, through the true nature of the force. But now that the Emperor’s influence had evaporated, much of the hatred, contempt, and bloodlust that had driven Vader had begun to dissolve as well, allowing older motivators and feelings to well up, bring with them more forgotten memories, like the ones he had seen on the rebel flagship. However, even with all these doubts and conflicts becoming more and more pronounced in his mind, something else was occupying the Dark Lord’s focus.

Darth Vader abruptly turned away from the magnificent view that the high balcony afforded him and retreated into the secluded corridors of the Imperial Palace, his long black cape fluttering gently out from behind him. The armored being moved quickly down a broad hallway sheathed in rare Korriban obsidian, and slipped into a turbolift hidden in the wall. As soon as it’s doors slid shut, the small lift pod plummeted straight down into the bowels of the immense structure, a controlled fall at the rate of a dozen floors a second. After only a few moments in the dimly-light mobile coffin, Vader felt the lift gently slow and come to a stop, immediately followed by the low hiss of doors sliding open again. Darth Vader stepped out into a new passage, this one made of dull, gray durasteel.

On either side of the doorway stood motionless a red-robed Imperial Guardsman, a force pike in his hand. The elite defenders of the late Emperor had immediately shifted their role to become Vader’s elite guards after the fabricated “rebel bombing” that had killed the Emperor reached their ears. They submitted to him now without hesitation, and the change in regime did not seem to be interfering with their duties, but Darth Vader was still wary of them; individuals who had worked so closely with Palpatine for so long could not be entirely trusted.

Brushing past the faceless sentries, the sith lord walked down the hallway until he came to a new set of doors, this one also flanked by guardsmen. He paused before the plain metal double doors and stared at them, his progress suddenly stayed. There was something in his mind that was reluctant to let him see what was beyond those doors, telling him to forget the chamber and continue on past. Vader pondered the notion for a moment and then cast it off, but the act of hesitation still bothered him. The dark lord was not well known for succumbing to doubt, and especially not fear, and thus allowing such instincts to slow him now was unacceptable. Darth Vader hooked his thumbs reflectively onto his belt and moved forward, stepping into the chamber beyond as its door slid swiftly opened to receive him.

The room was dark, light only by a few glow panels set in the ceiling, their intensity levels at minimum. Low desks and terminals covered in medical equipment and sensory devices lined the walls, and mechanical armatures hung from the roof panels, folded and inactive. A lone 5-1B medical droid stood at the rear of the chamber, clad in polished black casing and operating a medical monitor, typing in commands in an eerily regular pattern. As Vader approached, it looked up silently and stepped away from the terminal, snapping into readiness mode. “Leave,” the dark lord commanded, his low voice resonating throughout the room. The droid gave no sign of respect or acknowledgement, instead simply turning to door and marching out, its hydraulic legs whirring softly as it moved.

Once the artificial being had left and the doors had closed behind it, Vader turned back to where the droid had been standing, next to the large device that dominated the rear of the room. The machine, a tall, cylindrical tube of glass recessed in the wall, was a bacta tank; a medical device used the galaxy over to pull patients back from the brink of death. In the dim room, the two illumination panels that light up the clear pillar cast the healing fluid it contained in a red hue, an eerie counterpoint to the darkness that filled the room. Vader, however, did not notice the vibrant liquid, or the slowly flashing bio monitors that skirted the clear structure; he was instead focused on the figure the device held.

The naked body beyond the thick glass was damaged, covered in small cuts and patches of burned and dead skin, but the microorganisms that inhabited the medical soup that the body was suspended in were quickly sealing the wounds and healing the abrasions; none of the injuries were significantly dangerous to warrant the body’s long emersion in the fluid. Instead, the serious damage was internal; it’s only evident outward symptom was the abnormal yellow coloration of the being’s skin. But for the moment, Darth Vader was blocking out all of the visible signs of damage, looking up into the limp figure’s face. He looked upon the features of his only son.
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Luke Skywalker, General and hero of the Rebel Alliance, destroyer of the Death Star, last of the Jedi Order stood alone, a tiny speck in the Star Destroyer Indenture’s cavernous landing bay. Luke was crouched by his captured fighter, lightsaber hilt clenched in his right hand and a holdout blaster in his left as he scanned the huge chamber for signs of opposition. There were none. Aside from his astromech Artoo Deetoo, who still sat in the X-wings droid slot, monitoring the situation unfolding around him nervously, the bay was totally vacant of activity, the emptiness only broken by evenly spaced shuttle craft that lined the hangar’s walls.

“Are you picking up any life readings nearby Artoo?” Luke asked, edging along the side of his fighter. The astromech rotated its head section to face Luke and whistled plaintively. The young Jedi nodded, his eyes now fixed on one of the entry hatches to the bay, still sealed with a blast door. “It’s strange that they evacuated the bay. I would have expected imperial troops to have stormed in here the instant we were brought down.” Artoo twittered in agreement. Luke began to scan the walls and high ceiling for potential threats. “If they wanted to take us, we’d be dead or unconscious by now. Maybe there’s something wrong with the ship. See if you can determine if the tractor beam projectors are still operational. Maybe we can still get out of here.”

The little droid continued to scan the chamber and Luke waited in silence, the grip on his weapons loosening slightly. After a moment, Artoo buzzed again, his voice a warning. In response, Luke glanced directly above them, and saw what had caught Artoo attention. One of the bay’s dedicated turbolaser turrets was pointed directly down at the X-Wing and its crew, twin firing tubes trained on Luke’s head. For a moment, the rebel flinched and fell backwards away from the captured fighter, but the turret did not fire, instead simply altering its orientation to follow its target.

Luke regained his balance and cautiously walked back to his ship, eyes still fixed on the rotating gun emplacement. “Well, it looks like were not going to get out of here that easily,” he sighed. Exasperated, he leaned against the fighter’s cold hull and looked back over the room, his mind still racing to find a way out of the trap that had closed around him. His eyes fell on the huge opening in the middle of the chamber’s floor, the entry point that docking ships had to pass through, a clear window into the stellar space beyond, only separated from the Star Destroyer’s atmosphere by a bluish environmental shield. Through this barrier, Luke could make out huge shapes in the distance, Imperial cruisers in the foreground and the brownish orb of Sullust beyond.

As he watched, two of the distant ships moved closer to the planets, eventually disappearing from view against the massive back drop, but their objective was clear. After only a moment, flashes of green sprang to life from where the pair of destroyers were now positioned; standard imperial policy in action. Even from the tremendous distance, Luke could make out huge explosions of energy and vaporized rock as rain of turbolaser bolts plummeted downward from orbit, slicing easily through dozens of meters of arid ground and rock, immolating the first of Sullust’s subterranean cities. It was a display of power and vengeance; no world could openly defy the Empire and hope to continue its existence for long.

Soon, rivulets of fire began to spider their way outwards from the bombardment point, lines along which the planet’s crust itself was cracking, and Luke turned away, shivering. He could feel pain, the cries of the millions on the planet below that were dying every minute, incinerated by the continuing Imperial attack. Deep within him, a blazing point of anger began to grow, and Luke’s mind began to blur, a thousand thoughts flashing into it. He saw the Rebel fleet in flames, he saw emerald bolts extinguishing city after city, he saw dark glove reaching out, offering great and terrible power, and destruction. From the point of anger within him, hatred began to push forward, and Luke felt his grip tighten on his saber hilt, fingers both real and mechanical pulsing with arcane energy.

But then the young man closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply. The rage and anger receded rapidly, as if extinguished by a sudden wind. Luke Skywalker was a Jedi, the last of the Jedi, and he would control his emotions. Anger was the path to the dark side, Master Yoda had told him, and giving into it would lead him down a path his father had already tread, one that Luke had already refused to follow. The Empire would be brought to justice for what it had done, the Alliance still existed, Luke was sure of it. He would have felt his sister die if it had been completely destroyed. The image of Princess Leia, the calm compassionate sibling he had only just learned he had, flickered into his consciousness and Luke felt the last of his anger drain away. He would survive this day, there was still hope.

Then Luke felt a sudden draft, and his heart stopped for a moment. Vader was coming. Luke felt fear now; he had not expected the confrontation to come so soon, he was not ready. Then the Jedi steadied himself, remembering the teachings of his old masters. Luke knew he could find the good in Vader, he had felt even during their last duel, and he could stimulate it in Vader. He knew his father could be turned back to the light, despite what Master Obi-wan had said back on Dagobah. With the dark side’s hold on Darth Vader broken, Luke knew that they could together defeat the Emperor and bring an end to the tyrannical rule of the Empire. He just had to hold onto hope, and believe in the force.

Artoo let out a series of warning moans, and Luke turned to one of the docking bay’s main entryways, set in a wall only a few dozen meters from his X-Wing. “I can sense him too,” he muttered, holstering his blaster and moving slowly forward. “Find some place to hide Artoo. This could get dangerous.” Behind him, the astromech said buzzed worriedly. “Don’t worry, I can handle this,” Luke replied, and then under his breath muttered “I wont fail again.” The little droid made a few more plaintive noises, but he quickly silenced himself, and a moment latter Luke heard the clatter of metal on metal as Artoo extracted himself from the X-Wing’s socket and carefully guided himself onto the deck plate below the fighter’s outstretched wing.

As the faint whir of the droid’s motorized feet fainted away, the door before Luke slid open, and a lone figure stepped into the chamber. His grip on the lightsaber in his right hand tightening, Luke stared the figure straight in the eyes, still trying to calm himself. “Father,” he said softly, more to himself than the dark lord now standing mere meters away. Nevertheless, Darth Vader heard the words. “So, you have accepted the truth.” It was not a question, more like a statement of victory. Before replying, Luke looked over his father carefully, opening up all his Jedi abilities to try and scan him. Something felt different since their last meeting. Then, the dark lord had seemed almost absolutely dark, with only the slightest spark of humanity and individuality left, and he had exuded an aura of pain and malevolence that seemed somehow separate from the dark lord himself. Now, however, the aura was almost completely absent, and while the dark was still overwhelming in Vader, there was something strange about it, conflicted.

Luke was heartened by this change, and he pressed forward. “I have accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” Darth Vader shifted his weight imperceptibly. “That name means nothing to me now,” he replied, intoning deeply, almost angrily. However, even as Vader spoke those words. Luke could sense a change in him, a slight increase in the energy he was dedicating towards the control of his emotions. “I sense conflict in you even now father. There is still good in you, let it out,” Luke persisted, lowering his inactive saber into a less threatening position.

Vader paused before replying, considering his son’s words. When he spoke again, the words his suit’s vocabulator emitted powerful and definite, but Luke still was certain there was underlying doubt as well. “No, there is no conflict within me. The dark side is the only path to order, the light to which you cling is an illusion, one perpetuated by Obi-wan Kenobi and his deceptions.” Vader took a few steps forward. “Join me Luke, and together we can quash the last vestiges of this pitiful and destructive rebellion and at last bring peace and order to the galaxy.”

Luke shook his head sadly. He had never expected this to be easy, but he had hoped it would be. “I will never turn father, you must know that. Search your feelings, you know that what your doing, what you’ve become isn’t right. This is the Emperor’s doing, not your will. Cast off his domination, you can still save yourself from the dark side.”

Vader stared at Luke for a long moment in silence. Something was wrong, Luke thought, his father almost seemed…surprised. “The Emperor is dead Luke, I have slain him.” The young Jedi stood motionless, the words resounding through his mind. How could this be, if the Emperor was dead, then why was Vader still under the sway of the dark side. Could he have been wrong, was his father so far gone he would uphold Palpatine’s dark reign even after his death? No, there was conflict in Vader, he was sure of it. He just needed more time, or a catalyst of some sort to cast of the dark mantle.

“The insane old fool needed to be destroyed, he wanted nothing save to grow in his own power until all life in this galaxy was bent to his will absolutely,” Vader continued. “But I have eliminated that blemish upon the universe, and now the Empire is mine, and I can put it to its true purpose. Come Luke, join me, and together with the aid of the dark side the galaxy shall never again know conflict or turmoil, only happy obedience to us, and the new order of the Sith we shall create. Our Empire shall be one of peace, and justice.”

As he listened, the sick feeling of frustration and growing rage blossomed within Luke. “Peace! Justice!” he blurted out, throwing his free arm back at the entry void in the floor, beyond which the Imperial fleet continued to pummel the defenseless Sullust. “You call that justice? If this kind of slaughter is what your new empire will be built upon, then it will be no better than Palpatine’s!”

Vader looked out at the dying world, and for a moment Luke thought he saw a twitch in Vader’s gloved hands, a sign of uncertainty. But the lapse was over as soon as it had begun, and Vader turned back to face Luke. “They are traitors Luke. I do not wish suffering or death upon my subjects, but if they attempt to undermine the stability of this civilization, to lend aid to the terrorist rebel scum, then they must be punished. A warning must be given so that other worlds do not foolishly cast their lot in with traitors, and seal the fate of their inhabitants.”

Luke was both horrified and frightened now. Even with Palpatine destroyed, the dark side still lived on strong within his father’s heart. The Jedi’s hope was beginning to fade. A tear forming in his eye, Luke stepped even closer to his father. “This is wrong! You have to find the good that is still in you! I know the part of you that is still my father is strong enough to cast of the poison of the dark side. Please, you must turn father. While you still can.”

At this, Vader began to stalk forward, and Luke involuntarily stumbled backwards. “You still do not understand. The path of the dark side is the only one to peace, my son.” From Vader’s clenched right fist a beam of crimson shot forth. “Join me Luke. I do not wish to destroy you.”

Then it had come to an end. His options had run out, and Luke was now left with very few options. Vader now seemed irredeemable, consumed by the dark side and Palpatine’s corruption. The will of the last of the Jedi began to falter. Perhaps there was no other way. If his father was so resolute in his support of the dark side, is it possible that he saw what Yoda and Obi-wan could not, or would not? This was Luke’s test, a choice from which there was no escape; there were only two paths, and he had to take one, the light, or the dark.

Luke’s gaze moved from Vader’s nightmare mask to his own hands, where his lightsaber still lay clenched, and then back again. Then suddenly, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders, he straightened, and an emerald blade appeared in his hand. He had made his choice. Vader nodded slowly, accepting this bitter failure, and then he lunged forward, red blade poised to strike.
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A low beep resounded through the dark medical chamber. Startled by the sound, Darth Vader looked up from his silent reverie. “What is it?” he asked sharply, the voice directed at a small panel set in the ceiling above. “Lord Vader, the Star Destroyer Torrent has just entered the system. Captain Coloth is requesting clearance to send a shuttle to the place. He says you are expecting him,” the calm, crisp voice of an Imperial officer responded over the comm. Vader cast his gaze back down to the bacta tank, in which Luke Skywalker still hung motionless. Behind his oppressive mask and life support gear, the dark lord let out a sorrowful sigh, and his right hand moved slowly to touch the glass barrier. “My lord?” the voice prompted again, this time somewhat nervous.

Vader’s hand froze midway to the medical capsule, and he locked his son’s expressionless face with one last long gaze. Then, as if forgetting him entirely, Darth Vader spun around and proceeded towards the exit. “Transmit the landing clearance. Inform the Captain that I await his arrival, and that of his passenger.” The communications officer offered recognition of the order, but Vader had already left the chamber, leaving it just as cold and lifeless as it had been when he had entered.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:11pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Thirty One

“That’s a Federation vessel,” Jean-Luc Picard said, his voice hushed, almost disbelieving. The captain stood next to Imal Ryceed’s command chair. Staring fixedly out the viewport at the object he had been summoned to see. Behind him, Commander Riker, Data, and Geordi La’ Forge stood intermingled with the Republica’s crew, each of them just as surprised and relieved as their captain.

Only a few dozen kilometers off the rebel ship’s bow, the Federation ship drifted, motionless and silent. The cause of this inactivity was immediately apparent; the ship’s hull was lacerated by huge gashes of melted hull plate and pocked with numerous gaping breaches. One of the craft’s nacelles’, a characteristic feature of nearly every Starfleet vessel, was completely absent, the support pylon that had once connected it to the ship now only a tattered amalgam of corroded metal. The top of the ship’s saucer section was also shorn away revealing blackened compartments several decks below the outer hull.

“The damage to the ship is extensive, but I believe I can still identify it accurately,” Data said, looking at a sensor display over the shoulder of a Mon Calamari crewman. “It is a Steamrunner-class, a long range combat vessel. I am unable to determine the ship’s designation; there is too much damage to the forward hull.” Picard looked away from the viewport. “Combat vessel?” he said, somewhat confused. The Federation wasn’t in the habit of making dedicated combat vessels, and he wasn’t aware of any in service. Geordi moved over to the data display Data was looking at and checked it himself, much to the chagrin of the officer still seated at it.

“Yes, I remember hearing about those during our last stopover at Deep Space Twelve. Apparently, it’s a prototype anti-Borg ship.” Geordi paused to stroke his chin, his optical visor shifting back to look out the main viewport. “I didn’t think they had tested anything space worthy yet though.”

Commander Riker was still looking at the wreck intently. “I wonder what could have caused that damage.” The man blinked, clearing his head, and he suddenly he remembered the situation they were all still in. “Or more importantly, how it got here. Mr. Data, are you picking up any disturbances like the one we encountered at the wormhole in the vicinity of that ship?” At that, the android leaned down to the sensor station’s control terminal, forcing the attending crewman not back away, now very irritated.

Before he could bring up the pertinent information however, Captain Ryceed rose from her seat and fixed a glare upon Picard. “This is all quite fascinating, but if you hadn’t noticed, there are two Imperial Star Destroyers in this system, and they very well may locate us at any moment,” she said haughtily. “It would appear that that ship is damaged far beyond repair, and I doubt that there are any survivors left on it. I apologizes for unconvincing you, but we have a schedule to keep. Helm, record these coordinates in the navicomputer and enter the predetermined jump vector into the drive system. Engage as soon as the hyperdrive is primed.”

As Ryceed began to wade amongst her bridge crew, making sure her ship was ready to jump; Riker and Picard stood back, and exchanged worried glances. Both of them knew that abandoning the Federation ship could very well insure that the crew never saw home again. Ryceed would most likely not relent, she did have a crew of her own to protect after all, but the pair had to try. Resolute, William Riker put on his infamous roguish smile and approached the stern woman.

“Captain, surely you can delay our departure long enough to send a brief survey mission over to that ship, or at least take a more detailed sensor sweep of the immediate area.” Ryceed turned slowly to face Riker and scanned his expectant face. “Please?” the Commander continued, his teeth visible in a handsome grin. The captain’s eyes narrowed and her head moved imperceptibly, inching toward Riker’s face. After a moment of looking him over, she withdrew her neck and pushed past him. “Sorry commander, I have my orders,” Ryceed said, her voice showing signs of exasperation and exhaustion.

Riker shook his head as she passed, and glanced again at Picard, who was tugging on his uniform tunic, an indication of the state of his nerves. “Captain, there may still be survivors on that ship. Without a more detailed sensor scan or search by an away team, we could be leaving men and women to their deaths,” he pleaded. At this, Ryceed whirled on the bald man and opened her mouth, ready to berate him for consistently interfering, but before she could form a syllable, a blue image flickered to life behind her.

“He has a point Captain,” Cortana said, looking down on the group from the elevated holographic projector she was using. “With all of the distortion in this system from its star, the Republica’s sensors are having a difficult time penetrating far beyond the ship’s outer hull, but I believe there are indications that life support is still functional in sections of its interior. I predict it would be feasible to dispatch a shuttle to the ship and have a boarding team investigate it in a sort enough time to not seriously endanger this vessel. And I must remind you Captain; your orders do dictate that you are to consider the recommendations of your passengers. The information gathered from that ship could be very valuable to the rebellion.” She glanced at Picard. “Isn’t that right captain?”

Picard smiled slightly in gratitude, and then nodded. “Yes, if my crew can gather enough information from that vessel’s computer to locate the wormhole it emerged from, I believe that your High Council would be quite gratified.” Ryceed cast glares at both Picard and the AI construct and looked like she was going to object, but instead she flopped onto the bridge command chair and stared out at the subject of their argument. “Very well,” she sighed at last. “Picard, you may take a shuttle over to that ship and investigate. I’m giving you one hour starting now to do what you need to do over there and get back. When that time span has elapsed, this ship is leaving, whether you’re back or not,” she said, rubbing her eyes wearily. Picard thanked her quickly and walked quickly towards the bridge turbolift, towards which Data and Geordi were already heading.

Riker moved to follow his companions, but he paused long enough to shoot Cortana a thankful grin, which she replied to with a wink. “Oh, commander,” she added as Riker began to move again. “I believe the Master Chief has been anxious to get out of his quarters. I think he would appreciate it if you asked him to go along.”

“I think I can get the captain to agree to that,” Riker replied, waving in recognition as he stepped into the open lift cavity where the others waited impatiently.
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A low clang resounded through the battered Steamrunner’s interior as the small rebel shuttle attached itself to the ship’s hull. The Federation ship’s small docking bay was caved in and completely obstructed, so the shuttle’s pilot had opted to set his ship down in one of the huge gashes the covered the vessel. The tear that the ship now rested in ran for several dozen meters along the saucer section’s port side, and stretched two decks into the craft’s inner workings. The rebel ship powered down its drive engines, and engaged it’s forward and after floodlights, bringing an expanse of charred metal and corroded walkways into view.

From the small, almost tubular shuttle’s rear hull plate, an egress hatch hissed open, and a cloud of flash-frozen atmosphere spilled out into the desolate, airless chasm. Following the cloud, four figures, clad in gray survival suits and magnetized boots stepped onto the cold, lifeless hulk. They were followed by another being, encased in drab green armor, which jumped out from the shuttle’s air lock just as the hatch began to seal itself. One of the gray-suited beings leaned forward slightly, listening to a transmission being picked up by his atmosphere suit’s helmet. “You’ve got twenty seven minutes before I’m lifting off commander,” the shuttle’s pilot was saying over the comm. “You’d better do what you’ve got to do quickly.”

William Riker acknowledged the message, and then turned to his small team, who were inspecting their surroundings with both interest and anxiety. Behind tinted face panels, Riker could see Lt. Commanders Data and Worf, as well as medical officer Ogawa waiting for orders. The captain had also wanted to come, but the shuttle they had been provided with was very compact, and in any event, Riker had been adamant in his insistence that the commanding officer should not accompany away teams into potentially dangerous situations, and the drifting, half destroyed ship certainly qualified. Standing behind the Federation officers, the Master Chief stood alert, his sealed armor providing him with oxygen and protection from the vacuum around them.

“Alright, you know what we need to do here,” Riker said over a comm to his comrades. “Find an operational computer terminal to download recent sensor logs and command entries, and try to locate any survivors.” Data withdrew a tricorder from his suit’s belt, one of the few they had left, and began to scan their surroundings. “Energy readings would seem to indicate that the engineering section may still have computer power and atmospheric containment. I believe we should begin our search there,” he said, adjusting a few knobs on the scanning device. Riker nodded and glanced at the chronometer set on his suit’s wrist. “Let’s get going.”

Data guided the group towards a sealed doorway on the other side of the shuttle, partially illuminated by its floodlights. After picking their way over the blasted and ruptured deck of what had once been a series of Jeffries tubes, the team halted at the partially blackened door, which seemed to be still in working order. However, when Data approached the entry point, the sliding door remained fixed, apparently robbed of its sensing ability. Unperturbed, the android cleared a piece of sheet metal away from the side of the door in search of the manual control pad, but found instead only a mangled hunk of melted wiring. “It would appear that this door is too damaged to be opened by conventional means,” Data commented. The android then moved towards the fused hatch, intent on prying it open, but found that the Master Chief was already standing there.

The soldier set his armored fingers to the thin crack that separated the door sections and pulled outward, his muscles flexing underneath his enclosed body glove. The metal warped and dented quickly around his fingers, but surprisingly, the door did not budge, evidently fused closed by what ever force had torn the hole that they were now standing in. After a moment, the Chief stepped back, shifted his weight slightly, and kicked. Firm as it might have been, the barrier was unable to absorb the energy of the cyborg’s speeding foot, and the twin door sections clattered inwards, propelled onto the deck plate beyond. The titan stepped back from the now unobstructed and gestured to the others to enter. Riker nodded to the silent man, slightly mildly amused by the soldier’s direct approach.

The team filed slowly into the dark corridor beyond, and Worf and Data each ignited palm lamps they had brought with them, illuminating the long, empty space. The ship’s normally bright and sterile walls were now dark and foreboding, the computer interfaces and lighting strips that lined them cracked and unlit. “What could have done this?” Riker asked quietly to himself, keeping pace directly behind Data as he stared down a side hallway, blocked off by reams of power cable that dangled from its shattered ceiling.

Worf, who was walking behind the dower and silent Nurse Ogawa and just ahead of Master Chief, shifted his light source onto the commander’s back. “From what I saw of the hull damage, I would guess that this ship was attacked by a vessel employing phasers of some sort, although without closer analysis, I cannot be sure of what type,” he said. Riker pondered the information; most of the species in the Alpha and Beta quadrants used phasers, but he couldn’t imagine any of them attacking a Federation vessel, especially with the brutality that the massive damage indicated. As of the Enterprise’s departure, the Federation was on fairly good terms with all the major powers that surrounded it, and Riker couldn’t imagine any fringe group taking on a Starfleet vessel of this size.

Suddenly, an all but forgotten memory, one unaccountably driven to the back of his mind over the last few weeks came to the surface; the Columbus. It was a Federation ship that had driven the Enterprise and he crew into the distant and hostile galaxy they were now in, and there seemed to be no explanation for their attack. The strange creature’s that had boarded during the attack also seemed beyond explanation; perhaps the crew had been infected somehow by interstellar parasites that had mutated them, or perhaps they had encountered a strange new alien life form that had commandeered the ship, both occurrences were not without precedent. Still, neither felt right to Riker, and he suddenly felt cold, new, unsettling theories about the ship’s attackers coalescing in his mind.

At the end of the hallway, the group again halted, this time facing a turbolift access hatch. Tentatively, Commander Data tapped the door’s control interface, and to the team’s mild surprise, the obstruction slid open, revealing a small lift cabin, lit dimly by a flickering ceiling panel. Riker inspected the compartment; it appeared to be stable enough, but it was quite small, only able to comfortably accommodate four people unencumbered by survival gear. However, time was too short to search for another operational lift, so Riker stepped aside and beckoned to the Master Chief, easily the largest of the group. “After you.”
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The lift ride was long and unsettling; the weight of four humanoids and a cyborg that weighed half a ton did little to ease the strain on the already damaged compartment, and the sounds of it creaking as it hurtled through the battered innards of the Steamrunner help convey the weakness to its passengers. Finally, the lift came to a stop and the five team members spilled out into the hallway, eager to be off the potential death trap.

They found themselves in a hallway adjacent to main engineering. This deep into the vessel, the damage was not as severe as it had been closer to the bridge and weapons systems, but the signs of battle were still quite evident. Signs of a very different kind of battle. As soon as she had exited the turbolift, Ogawa gasped audibly and nearly fell back into the lift, shocked by what she saw. Half a dozen bodies lay stretched out across the floor, each in various states of mutilation. The walls were covered in scrapes and phaser burns, and a large section of the hallway several meters to their right had been blown away, mangled wiring visible under ruptured deck plate.

Master Chief swiftly tore a blaster pistol from his belt and switched of its safety, using it to cover both ends of the hall. Worf, even though he lacked a weapon, also sprang to attention moving to put himself between the rest of the group and any possible attackers who might be lying in wait. Riker knelt beside one of the bodies that was lying near his feet, the corpse of a human female. She was almost unrecognizable, covered in vicious gashes and sickly burn marks, most of them focused around her face and neck. What little undamaged skin that remained on her had begun to take on a greenish, rotted complexion; apparently there was still oxygen in this part of the ship.

“Commander.” Data’s voice directed him to another corpse, lying across the walkway. After taking one last mournful look at the dead woman, Riker rose and turned to the object the Lt. Commander wanted him to look at. Roughly the size and shape of a large dog, the creature that lay crumpled before him was quite unlike anything he had ever seen, and yet was strangely familiar. It was covered in a slick, reddish hide that was thick and scabrous and drenched with a liquid of some sort, perhaps its own blood, or the blood of another. It had a long, angular head adorned with two large tusks and tiny black eyes, and its forelegs were each tipped by a single, knife-like claw more than a foot long. The cause of the creature’s death was also apparent; it sported a gapping hole its chest, most likely cut by a hand phaser.

After examining the hideous creature briefly, Riker glanced at Data. “Can you identify this thing?” he asked over the comm. “I do not believe so commander,” he replied. “There is no species in my memory banks that matches the physical proportions of the organism.” Riker nodded nonplused and looked back at the creature, over which officer Ogawa was now standing, her tricorder moving back and forth over it. He noticed her gloved hands were shaking as she worked. “Are you alright?” Riker asked her, moving closer. Unsteadily, she closed the scanning device and turned to the commanding officer. He could see was quivering slightly behind the survival suit’s mask.

“I’m alright sir,” she gulped. “But…” She paused, trying to regain her composure. Riker was not surprised that she would be unnerved; Onigawa and others of her rank typically stayed on duty in the Enterprise’s medbay, and likely had never seen the more gruesome spectacles away teams sometimes encountered in person. Still, she seemed to be reacting to more than just the carnage around them. “The readings I’m picking up from this creature are very similar to the one’s that were recorded from a boarder we captured before the Enterprise was evacuated. I can’t be sure without more advanced equipment, but it looks like whatever those things on the Columbus were, they didn’t die with it.” Data gestured to the area down the hall that had been gutted by an explosion. “The type of damage is very similar to the kind left by those boarders who exploded in their effort to cripple the Enterprise.”

The secret dread that had been growing in Riker since they encountered the Federation vessel came back anew, stronger and more persistent than before. The things that had destroyed his ship and ensured capture or death for most of her crew had spread, and he feared what damage they might have caused, how far they might have spread.

“Sir.” Commander Worf said over the comm, catching Riker’s attention. “There are eight casualties the immediate area, all Federation personnel, all dead.” Grimly, the Klingon glanced down at the dog-sized creature. “I also located ten more of those things. They seemed to have entered the passageway through a hole cut through the ceiling several meters down. None of them appear to be alive either.” Prompted by the tactical officer’s words, Data activated his tricorder once again. “There are definitely life readings emanating from this deck, approximately thirty meters down that adjoining hallway. However, I am unable to determine the species or number of the organisms.”

Riker checked his chronometer. “Alright, we have nineteen minutes until our ride leaves. Commander Data and I will locate an operational computer hub and collect as much information as possible.” Data immediately activated a wall schematic of the ship and began to assess it. As he was doing so, Riker turned to the others. “Worf, I want you to take Onigawa and the Chief to investigate the life readings. Be careful, we don’t know if any of these things are still alive. Contact me if you locate any survivors or run into trouble. We meet back here in twelve.”
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Blaster in hand, the Master Chief lead the group of there down the hallway indicated to them by Data, past walls scuffed with phaser marks and the occasional spatter of blood, with evenly spaced sealed doorways every few meters. Behind him, Onigawa tried to ignore the body she had just stepped over, that of an Andorian man who seemed to have had his right arm torn out of its socket. She glanced back at Worf, who had taken off his helmet and was holding it at his side while he sniffed the stale and pungent air, alert for possible threats. “So, you don’t talk much, do you,” Ogawa asked over the helmet comm, directing her words towards the soldier in front of her in an attempt to take her mind of the grim scene around them.

“I speak when I need to,” was his response, and then a definite silence, as if he was telling her and this is not one of those times. The woman gulped and quietly looked back at the tricorder in her hand. “We should turn left at that intersection up there.” The soldier nod almost imperceptibly and quickly covered the last few meters to the point where their hallway ran into another. His weapon rose to the ready, he glanced quickly down both sides of the passage as the other two made their way to his position. “Anything?” Worf asked, sliding up along side the Spartan. The Chief shook his head and slowly swung out into the hallway, his Bryar side arm flashing from side to side with elegant precision.

“There?” the Chief asked, gesturing at a large doorway which bore the label ‘Main Engineering’ next to it in block lettering. Beyond its double sliding doors, which lay slightly ajar, only blackness was visible. Onigawa rechecked her readings and shook her head, pointing instead to a doorway to the right of engineering and on the other side of the hall. “That should be one of the coolant intake conduit junctions for the warp core,” Worf commented. “It would seem whatever’s in there had to put up a fight to get in.” Strewn around the closed doorway, nearly a dozen federation crewmen and alien beasts lay dead, sporting a variety of burns, cuts, and gashes; some of them looked like they had been chewed on after death. Worf and Master Chief took the scene in stride, but Ogawa had to hold onto the wall for a moment to recover from it.

Picking their way over the battlefield, the group at last came to the door, and not surprisingly, found it locked. Worf examined the barrier, which was scored dozens of claw marks, and then tried the control panel to no avail. Master Chief moved up along side him and began to prepare to open the door ‘manually’, but Worf stopped him. “No, that door is likely far stronger than the others we have encountered. Federation coolant junctions are designed with blast doors that can contain potential leaks and overloads. In any event, it would be unwise to make more noise than necessary, in case any of these creatures are still nearby.” The Chief stared at him from behind his opaque visor. “Then what do you propose?”

Worf considered for a moment, and then care fully pried the control panel in front of him off the wall, revealing a mass of wiring and optic cable. Then the Klingon punched his hand into the opening, dug around for a moment, and then ripped a large section of the electronic mass out from the wall. After a second, the door retracted to the side with a soft hiss, and the Chief brought his weapon to bear on the room beyond.

The center of the room was dominated by large junction that connected four gray and blue tubes that emerged from the floor and ceiling and two of the room’s walls. The conduits were quiet and unlit; the core was obviously offline. Aside from the junction, the chamber appeared to be empty, save for a control station set in a nearby wall, and a few supply crates that lined far side. Cautiously, the Chief entered the room with his blaster at the ready, and tried to maneuver around the central column so he could have a view of the entire chamber. Suddenly, out of the corner of his unnaturally acute eye, he spotted movement from behind the supply crates, and the glint of metal. Acting on instinct and decades of combat training, the soldier jumped to the side, seeking cover behind the inactive junction, and a fraction of a second later, the red beam of a phaser swept through the air, blackening the wall behind where the Chief had just been standing.

Not stopping to allow the attacker to get off another shot, the Spartan rolled out from behind the central column and fired two blaster bolts at the crates. One of the energy bolts impacted a tubular crate harmlessly, but the other hit the attacker’s weapon head on, causing him to cry out and drop the smoking phaser. In a flash, the Chief was over the conduit between him and the crates, across the small room, and on top of the assailant, pinning him to the far wall. Worf was close behind, moving to aid the Chief while Ogawa stayed a safe distance away from the fray.

Arms and legs constricted under the Chief’s immense weight, a wiry, gaunt woman, dressed in a tattered gold uniform struggled in vain to reach a second hand phaser lying just out of reach. Her eyes were wide open and bloodshot, staring at Master Chief’s black face plate fixedly, her face quivering with fear. Worf rushed up along side the pair and tried to calm the woman down. “Its all right, we’ve come to rescue you. Those things can’t get to you know.” The survivor didn’t not seem to hear Worf, or even notice he was there, her whole attention fixed on the Chief’s blank helmet, on which a distorted version of her own haggard face was reflected. She mouthed wordlessly, her eyes windows to her inner pain and fear. The Chief shifted his weight, removing some of the pressure that crushed the woman in place, and moved his left hand slowly towards the back of his neck, where his helmet seal was located. Before he could reach it however, the woman let out one final wordless cry, and slummed down, her limbs now limp and lifeless.

“Ensign Ogawa,” Worf called gruffly, setting down his helmet as he helped prop the unconscious survivor up against the wall. The medical officer approached slowly and nervously, but when she saw that the attacker was human, she broke into a run, pulling her tricorder free of its holster. Crouching beside the woman, she ran the scanner over her body worriedly and inspected some of the deeper cuts that she sported all over her body, especially on her left arm. “Her life signs are weak, and some of those cuts may be infected, but she should survive if we can get her back to the ship,” the nurse said, then opened a large pocket set in the side of her atmospheric suite. “This survival gear should hold enough oxygen for us to get her through the breached section of the ship and to the shuttle.” Out of the pocket came a large piece of folded white fabric, which Ogawa proceeded to unfurl into a large body suit, complete with a flexible translucent visor.

As the nurse worked to slip the woman into the suit, Worf searched the survivor’s hiding place, and picked up the two phasers. The one the Master Chief had shot was useless, but the other was in working order, so Worf clipped it to his atmosphere suit, insurance against any surprises they might encounter on they’re way back to the turbolift. Then the Lt. Commander placed back on his head and tapped into the comm unit. “Commander Riker, we have located a survivor in one of the chambers adjacent to main engineering.” After a moment, Riker’s voice crackled over the link. “Good, Data and I have located a computer terminal and our downloading as much information as we can from it. Seven minutes until we rendezvous back at the lift; if you don’t locate anyone else soon, head back, we’ll catch up.”

“Confirmed,” Worf responded, and switched off the comm link. “Ensign, are you picking up any other life readings in this area?” Ogawa, who was sealing the survivor’s helmet to the suit, looked up and checked her tricorder. After a moment she frowned. “I’m not sure sir. There are strong signals emanating from Main Engineering, but…” she paused adjusting a few controls. “But what?” Master Chief prompted, moving closer to the doorway, blaster in hand. Suddenly, Ogawa looked up in horror. “I don’t think there human.”

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:11pm
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Thirty Two

Deep with in the interior of the battle scarred Mon Calamari cruiser Republica, Protoss High Templar Tassadar sat in deep meditation. Perched upon a supply crate nestled within one of the ship’s large cargo bays, the weary being focused all his extensive energies on recovery, and introspection. The confrontation with the human known as Darth Vader, even though it had happened nearly a week previous, had left him drained both physically and mentally, and recuperation had been slow. The twisted entity possessed powers great and powerful, different than anything he had ever encountered before, and perhaps surpassing even his own psionic abilities. If he had not been able to muster the final blast of energy that had delayed the fight, Vader would have most likely broken through his defenses.

The existence of creatures that could wield this strange new power, the “Force” as he had heard the young Jacen Solo describe it, was troubling; it defied the principles and knowledge set down by the Order of the Templar over the millennia of the Protoss Empire’s existence. Tassadar had always been the most opened-minded of the Protoss Conclave, learning the forbidden ways of the Dark Templar, and eventually even splitting with the Conclave and its Judicators when the tides of war with the hated Zerg demanded it. Even so, the idea that humans could attain such power made him uneasy, it reminded him of…her.

As his thoughts wandered the stars and his body regenerated, the Templar became aware of a familiar sensation, nearby and growing in intensity. It sickened him. It was like a quiet scraping in the back of his skull, a feeling he knew all too well. His mind switched focus, folding back in towards himself, searching for the source of the disturbance. Vaguely, he could see the blasted hull of a disk-like starship, the movement of beings inside it. Suddenly, a torrent of twisted thought and emotion hit him, and Tassadar’s deep eyes shot open.

The Zerg were near, and they were hungry.
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“How much longer Data?” Commander Riker asked, calling over his shoulder as he worked at a wall-mounted computer terminal, illuminated by the sputtering light fixture that hung above. Behind him, Data too worked at an interface, bypassing corrupted circuits and fragmented data in the Steamrunner’s main computer, each file and bit of information he recovered quickly copied by a data jack that sat plugged into the damaged network.

“The Cornwall’s computer database has been heavily corrupted, and there are several firewalls in place here that I have never encountered before,” the android replied, using the ship’s proper name, information he had gleaned from analysis of its navigational logs. “However, I believe that I can access most of the pertinent information available in the ship’s scientific and navigational logs within the next three minutes.” Riker grunted in acknowledgement and returned his attention to the search he had tasked himself with, accessing the most recent of the ship’s active duty logs. He had to know what had happened to the ship, what had driven the Cornwall through the wormhole and killed her crew.

The Commander entered a series of manual commands, the computer interface’s voice response unit was offline, and attempted to gain access to her operational status and command logs over the week before her warp core had gone offline. Most of the information was inaccessible; Riker wasn’t in a very good position to locate the data anyways, working from a secondary maintenance terminal was hampering his efforts, and he had never been as adept at computer operation as some of the others in his crew. However, after bypassing a few dead end network pathways, he finally brought up the main log chronicling the period he wanted to investigate. The stardates on most of the log entries were obviously showing up incorrectly, listing random dates years in the future, and some files were not tagged at all, but Riker was able to open up a file, fairly recent, and play it.

A small display panel set into the terminal flickered to life with a burst of static, the random blur quickly fading away replaced by the image of a Vulcan male, perhaps as old as Riker himself. “Captain Koltopek of USS Cornwall recording, stardate 53…” the image burst into static momentarily, and then recovered at diminished visual clarity. “…reports that we are still unable to contact Starbase Twenty Two, or the Sigma Aberon colony. It is possible that they have been taken and if that is the case, than it is likely the subspace communications network in this region is already down. Nevertheless, I am attempting to contact Admiral Colti; if the second fleet is still operational, they may require the Cornwall and the Endurance to rendezvous to aid in a…” the log cut out in another burst of static, leaving Riker to ponder what he had just seen. The recording had not been clear, and as was Vulcan custom the Captain showed no sign of emotion, but even the small fragment he had heard suggested something big was happening in Federation space.

Riker glanced back at Data, who was still working diligently, then at his wrist chronometer, and then turned back to the log entries. He cycled down, trying each one in turn, finding most corrupted beyond comprehension. Finally he came to the last entry and accessed it, and to his surprise, the display panel lit up. Through the sheen of static that disrupted the picture, the commander could make out a figure illuminated by red emergency lights. Over the speaker a klaxon blared and crewmen shouted back and forth, nearly drowning out the log’s subject. “Acting Captain Travers,” the figure said over the encroaching static. “We are fleeing the Ereldel system…most of the fleet gone, we still don’t know what they did to…of the Endurance is unknown, Ops thinks they didn’t make to warp.”

The figure paused; wiping his face free of some grime that Riker could not make out, but he guessed was blood. “We’ll make for the nebula in sector 88-43; we might lose them if we can get in there. If this recording ever makes its way back…that this crew has served with skill and loyalty far beyond what any commanding officer could hope for, and I am glad to have served…” The man again paused, looking off-screen this time. “What? Where?” Seal off those decks, we have to give Engineering more time! Alert every non essential crewman, prepare to repel boarders.”

With that, the log blinked out, and the computer’s entry memory ended, culminating the list of mostly useless logs with a note indicating that main power had gone offline. Riker sighed, the sensation of dread growing ever stronger within him. “Alright Data, take what you’ve got, we have to get off this ship. Our departure window is disappearing fast,” the commander said as he sealed his atmosphere suit’s helmet back in place. Before he could continue however, Riker heard a loud clunk from behind him, accompanied by a series of odd hisses. Startled, Riker whirled around and immediately recoiled in surprise; Data was kneeling upon the floor, pinning a mass of red and purple against the floor.

From his vantage point, Riker could see that the mass was in fact one of the creatures that his team had discovered littering the hallway around the turbolift, but this one was very much alive. Thrown on its back, the dog-sized beast thrashed widely, hissing loudly as its huge clawed forelegs lash about aimlessly, their upper sections constricted by Data’s hands. His face a mask of concentration, the android slowly focused his weight on the creature, bending its forelegs down towards its slick carapace, and the creature began to hiss and screech more loudly. At last, with one final push, Data compressed the thing’s legs into its chest, and with a sickening crunch, the being went limp.

Gapping slightly, Riker rushed forward to help the officer to his feet. “What happened?” he asked quickly as Data collected the data jack from the computer terminal he had been operating. “While you were completing the analysis of the terminal, I noticed that this creature was moving towards us from that corridor at a rapid rate.” Data nodded to the hallway directly across from their work station, its distant end shadowed in the darkness of failed emergency lighting. “It lunged at you, so I took the most logical course of action, and intercepted it before it could reach you.” Riker gulped and glanced down at the beast again, his danger senses now blaring. “Thanks Data. I think now would be a good time to leave.”

The two officers set off at a run down the passageway from which they had come, a hall only a few dozen meters from the turbolift bank. As they ran, Riker tapped into his helmet’s comm and tried to raise Worf, but before he had time to say anything, he found himself shoved into the wall as Data wheeled around and placed himself behind his commanding officer. From the direction they had just come, two more creatures were speeding forward, all four legs tearing at the floor as they propelled themselves towards their targets, jabbering with animalistic glee. One of them leaped forward towards Data, and he intercepted it in midair, his fist meeting its neck with a loud wet thud. However, the other being pushed forward as well and dove at the android even as its comrade fell to the floor motionless.

Its mandibles snapping ferociously, the beast knocked Data to the floor, and it proceeded to try and tear off the target’s head with its huge claws. A few feet from the fray, Riker sat back helpless for a moment as Data attempted to tear off the attacker, and then his gaze fell on the tattered corpse of a Federation security man draped out across the floor, a phaser rifle still clutched in his hands. Stumbling forward, Riker pried the weapon from the dead man’s grasp and rolled onto his back, desperately aiming towards Data and his attacker.

The creature was still on top of the android, scything its huge claws downwards at Data’s head. The Lt. Commander evaded as best he could, twisting his neck from side to side as he tried to gain purchase on the beast’s thrashing body. One of the claws cut too close, and a foot of sharpened bone sliced through Data’s clear visor, scraping his left cheek, and then withdrawing, wrenching the ruined helmet away with it. The creature arched its back and raised its claws to strike again, but before it could act, a pulse of red energy tore into its side and set the thing spinning onto the floor. It writhed for a moment, hissing and squealing as it clawed at the floor, and then fell silent.

Riker rushed over Data, and for the second time helped him to his feet. “Are you alright?” The android put one hand to his cheek, which was now missing a large chunk of synthetic gray flesh, revealing a slivery layer studded with blinking lights beneath. “The damage is only superficial, it should not impede my operation to any great extent,” Data responded coolly, inspecting his damaged helmet, which now sported a gapping hole in the visor. Such a loss might prove fatal for a human in this situation, but Data could survive exposure to hard vacuum, so the trip back to the shuttle would not be a problem. However, if the creature had struck only a few more inches to the left, Data was quite sure his cognitive and ambulatory functions would have been stalled, permanently. “I believe it is my turn to thank you.”

Riker nodded quickly and scanned the hallway behind and in front of them warily, his gun held at the ready. “Call us even. Come on, let’s get out of here.”

The pair tore down the battle scarred passage, navigating their way around exposed wiring and heaps of decomposing bodies, increasingly aware of the growing din that was forming all around them; the sound of a thousand tiny feet scraping deck plates. Swinging around a bend in the path, Riker and Data at last arrived back at the turbolift bank. Mercifully, the hall was vacant of any living specimens of the strange alien things, but the commander didn’t count on it staying that way. Before they continued on, Data inspected a wall panel and tapped in a few commands, triggering a large blast door to fall into place between them and passage they had just exited. It was a stroke of good fortune, but it wouldn’t last for long; on their way though the upper decks, the team had spotted blast doors like this one torn into pieces, and Riker could now guess what had destroyed them.

The lift that had carried them before stood ready, its doors still open, but Riker noticed that the rest of the team was not there waiting for him, and they had defiantly not already gone ahead. As Data secured their escape route, Riker again tried to raise Worf over the helmet’s comm unit. However his hails went unanswered, as did the ones directed at Ensign Ogawa and the Master Chief. Sighing in exasperation, Riker hefted his rifle and called to Data. “Commander Worf and his team aren’t responding, were going to have to go after them.” Data nodded, and after a moment of searching the floor, scooped up a blood stained hand phaser that lay discarded in the middle of the morbid battlefield. “Commander, I must remind you that we have only nine minutes and twenty one seconds before the shuttle departs, and the journey back to it from the upper levels will take at least three.”

“Then we’ll have to do this fast,” Riker replied, glancing around for any new signs of opposition. “Let’s go.”
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One pulse. And then two more. The creature slumped to the deck plate, its small head scored with three smoking fist-sized holes. Before it had even finished its death twitches though, it was engulfed by a wave of its brethren, clattering heedlessly over the body, all focused on what lay beyond. Several more beasts fell a mere meter beyond where the first fatality lay, but the rest pushed on forward, ignoring the losses and the red bolts hiss past their scabrous hides.

Master Chief ceased the hail of deadly fire for a moment to slam his only spare cartridge he had into his blaster pistol, his legs still propelling him away from the surging horde of alien creatures. Keeping pace alongside him, Lt. Commander Worf continued to lay down fire, the phaser he had requisitioned from the survivors’ hiding place sending beast after beast to the floor with controlled beams of crimson energy. The Chief appreciated the help the Klingon was providing, and the two warriors had been able to keep their small group ahead of the wave of attacking creatures, but both were running low on ammunition, and the enemy were moving more quickly than they were, slowed as they were by the tight passages. The Chief had is own impediment; just ahead of the two men, Ensign Ogawa pushed forward as quickly as she could, forced to bear the load of the unconscious survivor limp in her arms over her arm. The officer was performing admirably under the circumstances, but she simply could not move fast enough, and even now she was slowing, adrenaline powered muscles quickly giving way under the load.

His pistol loaded, Master Chief snapped off a few more shots before shouting to Worf over the din that the hunting pack was making. “Give me your weapon and take the survivor. I can hold them back while you shift the weight.” Worf glanced at the man’s opaque face plate, his frown visible even behind his suit’s visor. The Chief knew men and women like the Lt. Commander; they disliked letting off the guns when there was an enemy still alive in sight. He could respect the feeling, but he hoped that the officer could see that they had to move more or the alien horde would overwhelm them.

After a few more pulses from his weapon, Worf nodded and grunted over the comm, “Catch.” With his free hand, the spartan plucked the phaser out of the air as it flew, and brought both weapons to bear on their pursuers as Worf accelerated to catch up with Ogawa. Master Chief pulsed the phaser’s control stud, and nearly lost the weapon as it belched its deadly wave of energy; it was slightly better designed than the side arms the soldier had seen on the Enterprise, but the thing was still an ergonomic nightmare, he was surprised that security officers didn’t kill themselves when they tried to use them. Adjusting his grip for the weapon’s unusual sleek shape, the Chief slowed his running rate slightly as Worf shifted the survivor to more evenly distribute the weight between himself and Ogawa.

Three more beasts fell under a hail of well aimed pulses and beams, but more simply took there place, joining with the main force from side passages, holes in the ceiling, and the doors that lined the walls. As soon as the four of them had left the coolant chamber, they had been swarmed by the first of the beings, who had apparently come from the darkened Main Engineering. Master Chief guessed that the hisses and shrieks the creatures were making were calling more of their kin to join the hunt, a signal that living prey had been found. They’re behavior was very similar to that of the accursed Flood, although the Spartan was thankful that at least these creatures went down far more easily than the parasitic bastards.

The Federation officers and their motionless charge turned down a side corridor and the Chief followed close behind, his weapons pulsing as they rapidly ran out of power. “We are almost to the lift,” Worf called out from ahead. Mentally, the Chief counted his ammo; the pistol in his hand had only four shots left, and the phaser most likely would not last any longer, its power cell indicator flashing a dangerously low number in red. Behind him, the creatures kept on coming, slashing at the walls, the floor, and each other with clawed feet to get at their selected prey. The closest were a mere dozen meters from the Chief, and they probably would be far closer if the beings didn’t periodically jam the hallway with the sheer weight of their numbers, stalling the horde until the ones farther back could leap over the stalled leaders. They weren’t very smart, the Chief noted as he picked off one of them, but they made up for it with sheer numbers and persistence unshaken by mounting casualties.

Without warning, one of the shadowed doors between the Chief and the others exploded open, revealing a mass of flesh and living armor which burst forth into the hall, nearly knocking the spartan off his feet and causing his shields to flicker slightly. The Chief quickly regained his footing and tried to aim his guns at the new threat, but before he could, a blow like the impact of a small tank smashed against his chest, almost completely draining his shields and sending him flying a meter down the hall. Just barely to keep on his feet, the soldier, noting that the phaser had slipped from his grasp, opened up on the thing. As the bolts found they’re marks at points along the thing’s head and torso, the Chief caught a good look at it; a humanoid mass of reddish scales and sinew, one of the creatures that had attacked the Enterprise, to great effect. It was smaller than the creatures he had seen on the Federation flagship, but was horrific and menacing nonetheless. Suddenly, as the being reeled from the blaster wounds, Master Chief remembered just how the boarders had inflicted the most damage on the ship, and flung himself as far away as he could, leaping to cover the still fleeing Federation officers.

An instant later, a huge explosion rocked the area and chunks of superheated flesh and metal rammed into the Chief’s already weakened shielding. Staggering, the soldier pushed forward, feeling a burning sensation spread over his back. The three in front of him had been mostly shielded from the blast, but a few fragments of shrapnel had apparently penetrated his shielding and the body glove under his armor plating. As he urged the somewhat dazed Worf and Ogawa forward, he fervently hoped that the medical officer had something with her that could seal the hole long enough for him to pass through the breached part of the ship.

The flood of alien creatures, halted momentarily by the other creature’s detonation, were on the move again, swarming over hole that the blast had made, as eager as ever to set upon their fleeing prey. Emboldened even further by the lack of fire from the Chief’s now empty blaster, they surged forth hungrily, rapidly overtaking the bedraggled rescue team. Even as the hallway they were in ended and the turbolifts were in sight, the foremost of the creatures leapt at the Spartan’s back with mindless glee. Unfortunately for the creature, a thin ribbon of red energy swept over its body, and the thing found that half its head was missing.

Standing at the end of the passage, Riker and Data stood, they’re weapons spitting out covering fire upon the rushing force. As Worf and the others came within arm’s reach, the commander flipped a switch on his rifle, and the weapon’s pulses intensified dramatically in speed, shredding the hunting animals as they came too close, and giving the one’s behind them momentary pause. Taking advantage of the lull, Data and the Chief urged the others into the waiting compartment, Riker behind them, his weapon still spraying fire on the packed wall of hissing death.

As the commander backed into the packed lift, a bellow resounded down the hallway, and another of the humanoids came into view. This one was large than the first, its huge clawed arms smashing aside lesser creatures as it strode towards the turbolift, tiny, obscured eyes fixed on its inhabitants. “I think now would be a good time to leave,” Worf said earnestly, his eyes fixed on the lumbering monstrosity. Data punched the inner door control, and the barrier slid shut just as the beast reached the lift bank. With a loud bang, the thing bashed its fists against the doors, leaving two huge dents in the metal, but before it could strike again, the lift shot upwards, leaving Engineering behind.

After he had caught his breath, Riker glanced over at Worf, who was propping the unconscious survivor against the wall, and grinned jokingly. “Why Mr. Worf, you actually sounded a little frightened back there.” The Klingon glared at him. “No sir, I…” He was cut off as a tremendous explosion erupted from far below them, sending shockwaves though the lift tunnel and forcing the compartment’s inhabitants into the walls roughly. “I was simply stating the course of action I found most reasonable considering the situation. Was there a flaw in my reasoning?” Riker glanced at the floor unnerved and then shook his head in silence.
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The gardens that lay in the north western quadrant of the Imperial Palace were a truly anachronistic thing indeed, a patch of life and greenery amid a sea of cold machinery and durasteel. There was no doubt that the late Palpatine was quite twisted and insane behind his outer façade of cold control, and his whims were quite often very erratic, as evidenced by the patch of vibrant beauty that Darth Vader now walked through, deep in thought. In the fading light of Coruscant’s distant sun, the odd colorations and forms of various plants from a dozen alien worlds melded into a living tapestry. Of course the elegant beauty of the place was completely lost on the dark lord, but somehow being surrounded by life helped his thoughts flow more clearly, something he was in dire need of after the chaotic events of the last few weeks.

As he walked down a trim cobblestone path, Vader reflected on the meeting that had occurred earlier in the day, deep within the fortress of steel that towered above him. He had debriefed Captain Meterin Coloth in person relating to his encounter with the wormhole, and the crew of this USS Enterprise. It was certainly not common procedure for the ruler of the Galactic Empire to personally conference with a lowly Star Destroyer captain, but Vader had taken a special interest in the unique situation, especially after encountering several of the beings who were supposedly extra-galactic in origin. Vader flexed his right hand slowly, recalling the strange reptilian creature that had beaten him off the bridge during the destruction of the rebellion at Sullust. Not destruction, he reminded himself, a few rebel ships had escaped the fray, but most of its leadership and its fleet had been wiped from the face of the galaxy, as had the rebel forces that remained in the Mon Calamari system. There were survivors, but they would soon be eliminated, and the galaxy, his galaxy would at last be at peace.

According to the Captain’s report, the rift that the Enterprise had emerged from had collapsed not long after the capture of the Federation ship’s crew. The thousand or so prisoners Coloth had taken were now enroot to a secret Ubiqtorate detention facility where they would be more thoroughly interrogated and held until a further use was determined for them. A notable exception from those incarcerated was the ship’s command staff, who with the aid of a squad of rebel terrorists had escaped the ship before Vader’s arrival. The dark lord had considered executing the captain for his failure and the loss of information that it would bring, but he had decided against it. With the rift now gone, any knowledge garnered from the prisoners would most likely have been useless, the loss had not been too great. It was a shame though, Vader reflected, if the portal had remained open, it might have meant a whole knew domain for the Empire to dominate, a place in need of Vader’s brand of order, and the teachings of the Sith.

There had been another attendant at the briefing, and although she had not spoken at all throughout, she had garnered far more of Vader’s interest. Aayla Secura was powerful in the force, more so than he had first suspected. She was also progressing down the true path, away from the weakness of the Old Jedi, far more quickly than he had anticipated. There was a deep darkness in her that could be set free, if she could harness it, Aayla Secura would make a formidable Lady of the Sith indeed. A worthy apprentice.

At that thought, a chill ran down his spin, and Vader paused, his mind shifting towards different matters almost as if by its own volition. He thought again of the medical chamber buried deep within the palace, his son floating between life and death in a bacta tank. An image of the man’s face drifted into his thoughts, lifeless and tallow, and suddenly felt an emotion he was quite unaccustomed to well up from deep within his cold heart. Regret.
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With a hiss and electrical clatter, two blades of energy met at the center, on blood red, the other bright green. As the pair strained and pushed against one another, their combined luminescence cast the figures wielding them in an eerie glow. Nightmare mask enhanced by the contrasting energies before him, Darth Vader stared down at his son, who looked back, his face set with concentration and sorrow. Luke Skywalker’s grip tightened on his saber hilt and he pushed forward, hoping that the ebony titan would give ground. However, Vader stood there immovable, his right fist clenched around the red weapon, while the other hung at his side at the ready.

The two stood there like that for a long moment, staring into each other’s eyes. Their gaze was a duel in itself, the clash of two irreconcilable beliefs, the strife between a father and son long at long and terrible odds. Neither would give ground, there was only defeat or victory, and were both determined to gain the latter. After what seemed like a century, Luke’s arms finally began to buckle, and he was forced to break his saber free of Vader’s, stepping back to gain better footing. Vader saw the move, broke his saber free at the same instant, and lunged in too strike again.

Hammer blow after hammer blow, the red blade came down again on Luke, and each time he deflected and parried, trying to push back at his father, but with each strike he fell back even further. As he desperately intercepted each slash and jab, the young Jedi’s resolve began to flicker. He was too powerful; only seconds into the fight Luke was already giving ground. Maybe he hadn’t been ready, perhaps Vader and the Dark Side that drove him were more powerful, greater than anything Luke could hope to achieve. Sweat began to bead on the man’s forehead, and he fell back even further.

Then, in the back of his mind, he felt a comforting presence; he could feel the force flowing through him anew. A gentle hand brushed against him, and he could feel the fatigue in his limbs melt away, muscles and tendons alive with the warmth and strength of the force. Perhaps Master Obi-wan and Yoda were still with him. Reinvigorated and with new hope, Luke switched his tactics.

As Vader brought his saber down again, instead of falling back to meet it, the Jedi ducked and evade the blow, bringing his saber around to attack the sith’s undefended side. Taking the new move in stride, Vader brought his blade down to block his flank, pulling it in closer too him. Luke now pressed forward lunging while the dark lord was off balance, sending his blade high at Vader’s head. Again, he easily parried, but it cost his position, and Darth Vader was forced to step back. Luke continued the assault, his weapon humming as he swung the blade at his opponent again and again, high and low, forcing Bader to adjust to every attack. As if only now feeling the threat his son posed, Vader’s movements became suddenly more focused and increased in speed, and Luke’s advanced was slowed, but he still had the upper hand, for now.

The combatants continued the deadly dance, weapons thrumming with energy as they met again and again. The two moved out into the open center of the docking bay, trading advances and retreats, each testing their opponent for weaknesses and looking for missteps. As he parried a horizontal chop from his son, Vader spied a large supply crate lying against the wall a dozen meters away, and with the smallest nod of the head and a simple thought, the heavy object hurtled towards Luke. His senses alert for such attacks, Vader had used them during their previous combat on Bespin, the young Jedi anticipated the attack, and leapt into the air just as the crate slammed into the deck plate below him, screeching as it skidded along the floor.

Angling his flight with the force, Luke’s jump propelled him several meters into the air, and with a well timed flip, he landed behind his father, saber ready to begin the attack anew. However, the sith had sensed the move from his son, and was already turned to face him, and so they’re duel continued without pause.

“I can feel the power of the force surging within you Luke,” Vader intoned as Luke deftly avoided one of his lunges. “Let it flow freely, feel the darkness that lies underneath and take hold of it. It will give you far greater power than you can possibly imagine, and clarity of mind.”

“I know what the dark side has to offer, and I know what it shall do if I take that power,” Luke responded, dodging to the side as Vader tried to force him up against the hull of a dormant shuttle. “The dark side destroys all who touch it, corrupts them until all they can feel is anger and hatred. It is not the path to clarity and peace, only chaos and death lie down that road.” As he spoke, Luke’s offensive picked up momentum, his own words giving him new faith.

“Your mind is still polluted by the teachings of that old fool. Think Luke, they would have you destroy your own father; topple an Empire that has at last brought order to a decaying galaxy. What kind of truth is that? What peace can this conflict bring? The so called light of the force is a lie, something pulled over your eyes by slaves to the old order, desperate to keep their own power even at the cost of the destruction of us all.” Vader’s blade sliced into Luke’s, and once more they were locked, tying father and son together once more. “Think my son, what are you feelings telling you? This blind devotion to a failed order is wrong, it will destroy you. Embrace the darkness Luke; you know it is the only true path.”

As he stood locked in combat in mortal combat there, Luke’s resolve began to wane again. The little voice in the back of his head that had been there since he had learned of his true parentage emerged, whispering to him that perhaps Vader was right. Yoda and Obi-wan had sent him to destroy his father at all costs, that didn’t seem to be enlightened, the path to peace and wisdom. They were so adamant that Anakin could not be turned; perhaps they were afraid of what Luke might see if he tried, perhaps his father really had discovered the true will of the force. Luke’s saber dipped lower as he felt the surety that had strengthen him before fade, the demons of confusion and conflict taking there place.

Behind his bleak mask, Vader smiled. He too could feel the conflict in his son. Perhaps it was yet possible to turn him, Obi-wan’s poison had to taken hold fully. There was no desire in Vader to destroy his son. Darth Vader prepared to speak again, to push Luke further down the dark path, but suddenly Luke burst into motion, wrenching his blade free of the lock and bring it up to attack again. Vader could feel the seeds of anger and doubt spreading their roots quickly through his mind. As Vader moved his own weapon to intercept the blow, he reflected that perhaps this was a better method than talk after anyways. Luke had to taste the power the dark side could offer before he would fully be ready to take his place by Vader’s side.
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“My Lord?”

The sith looked up to find himself still in the garden, now standing at the edge of the plot of greenery, staring out over a windy precipice that was the edge of the palace rampart down at the city far below. Vader was irritated with himself; once again he had allowed his mind to wander away, unchecked by his meditations. He should be focused on driving away the doubt and contemplation that had cropped up since the destruction of the Emperor, not encouraging it. This was no way for a lord of the Sith to behave, it was weak, almost Jedi-like.

From behind, he heard the nervous rustling of clothing and turned; Aayla Secura stood there, watching him uncomfortably from a respectful distance. “What is it?” he asked, his voice brooding. The Twi’lek woman straightened sharply and lowered her gaze. “You had informed me to meet you hear at sunset. I am eager to begin my training.” Vader could feel that she was afraid of him. This was satisfactory, fear was key to control, if an underling did not fear and respect their master, they were susceptible to doubt, insubordination, and treachery. He also felt ambition from her, and latent power. These things were also gratifying; if molded properly, she would make a fine sith indeed. And then there was anger, he was glad to see it had not faded when they had destroy the Emperor, without anger and the need for vengeance, a sith would be weak, without purpose. Her anger was undirected with Palpatine now gone, Vader needed to give her an outlet to allow it to grow.

His cap buffeting in the mild wind, Vader began to march toward her, his hand moving to the saber at his side. If she was to become one with the dark, she would need to know how to fight as a sith. However, before he had gone a meter, he paused, his senses alerting him towards the palace. Something was amiss. Aayla looked on in confusion as her new master stared past her.

“There is an intruder in this place, nearby,” Vader said, more to himself than to his apprentice. It was barely imperceptible to him, but he could detect a being nearby, full of hatred and malice. Directed at him. The being was not strong in the force, but he could feel it with the intruder none the less. He probed deeper, trying to locate the creature, but it was difficult; whatever it was, it was skilled at shielding its thoughts. However, as he tried to trace the being, he was able to make out one thought, too strong in its mind to hide.


You will kill Darth Vader.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:11pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire

Chapter Thirty Three


Even before the small rebel shuttle had set down in the Republica’s main landing bay, the dim starfield beyond the chamber’s entry port surged into a blur of bright streaks and then was replaced by a deep swirling blackness; they were at last in the safety of hyperspace again. As the ship’s hatch popped open and Riker stepped out, still in his survival suit, he could see that there were several people waiting for him there.

“Will,” Captain Picard said, stepping forward. “Were you able to obtain any information from the computer core?” With a hiss of pressurized oxygen, Riker removed his helmet and nodded. “Yes sir. And we located a survivor.” Out from the shuttle hatch, two more pressure-suited figures emerged, carrying between them an unconscious woman in a tattered Starfleet uniform. As they set her down on a nearby crate, the last two figures exited the ship, the Master Chief, and Ensign Ogawa, who tore off her helmet and rushed to the woman’s side, her tricorder out.

Jacen Solo, who had been standing with Picard along with a few other Federation crewmen, furrowed his brow and moved up along side the battered survivor. Even without Ogawa’s tricorder he could tell that she was starved, dehydrated, and emotionally damaged. Trying to ease her tortured mind through subtle force suggestion, he waved a passing mechanic over. “Contact the Medical bay, this woman needs immediate medical attention.” As the man ran off to transmit the message, the nurse sent Jacen an applicative nod and the two of them turned their attention back to the woman.

“Captain, I will require access to this ships computer systems to repair and compile the information we downloaded into a useable form,” Data said, handing Picard a pair of datapads. He glanced at them and nodded. “Yes, I’ll see if I can arrange something with Captain Ryceed.” Picard gave the electronic pads back to the android and turned to Riker, who had completely shed his atmosphere suit by now. “Did you discover what happened over there? Any clues to who or what did this?” Riker, Worf, and the Chief exchanged weary glances.

“Well sir, we had an encounter with the beings that disabled the ship,” the Commander began. “Vicious, animal-like things; there were dozens of them in the Engineering section, probably throughout the rest of the ship as well. After we collected what we could of the navigational memory and flight logs and Worf and the others located their survivor, they rushed us en mass, I’m sure we’d all be dead if we hadn't been able to get into one of the functioning turbolifts. From what I could gather from the Captain’s Log, the ship was attacked and boarded by this force, and then drifted through the wormhole after the crew had been wiped out.”

Picard stroked his chin thoughtfully. “This is disturbing. Were you able to pin point the wormhole’s position?” Riker shook his head. “There wasn’t time. However, Data hopes that the information is somewhere among the memory files we were able to download.”

“Captain, I believe that those thing were the same creatures that invaded the Enterprise.” This was from Master Chief, who had been standing silently up until that point, surreptitiously fingering a few patches of what looked like medical sealant along his lower back. Mildly surprised that he had spoken, Picard looked at the opaque faceplate intently. “Why do you say that?”

Riker frowned, reminded of his dark suspicions, and spoke up in the cyborg’s stead. “As we were fleeing the boarders on the Cornwall, several humanoid beings identical the ones that contributed to the Enterprise’s destruction pursued us. One of them detonated in the same way as was reported before, injuring Master Chief and nearly killing Worf and Ensign Ogawa.”

Riker watched as the Captain processed the news, and the veiled concern growing on his face suggested he had reached the same conclusion he had. The commander leaned in a bit closer, trying to obscure is his voice slightly. “Jean-Luc, from what few Log entries I watched, I believe there is a strong possibility that a serious situation has developed in the Alpha Quadrant during our absence. On top of that, the dates on some of those entries might…” Riker’s worried exposition was cut short as several new figures hurried towards them across the hangar deck.

Two medics, one human and the other a short, fan-eared Chandra-Fan, as well as a squat medical droid hurried past them and began to move the unconscious woman onto a hover stretcher. Walking jerkily behind them, a weary-looking Tassadar halted in front of Picard and the others. “I am gratified to see that you survived,” the Templar intoned physically, usually commanding voice tinged with continued exhaustion. “Tell me what you saw, I must confirm my depleted senses.”

Somewhat bewildered by the alien’s behavior, Riker repeated what he had told Picard moments ago, adding a more detailed description of their attackers at Tassadar’s request. When he had finished, the alien stood a moment in silence, and he faltered slightly, tipping over as though he was about to fall. Picard and Worf moved to steady him, but the Templar waved them off. “It is nothing, I am still weary.” He sighed. “Well, I am certain now. Commander, those creatures on that vessel were the Zerg, though how they arrived there, I do not know.”

The Starfleet officers looked at him quizzically. “The Zerg?” Picard asked. Tassadar stared at the man silently, as if lost in thought, and then shook his sizeable head. “No, not her, I am still too weak. We should continue this later, somewhere more private.” Picard was eager to hear what had so visibly disturbed the Templar, but he was right, and besides, the middle of a crowded hangar deck was no place for a debriefing or conference.

“Alright, we should be able to use one of the secondary conference chambers on deck nine, when it is convenient for you,” he said, gesturing diplomatically to Tassadar. The alien acknowledged the arrangement and moved slowly off, back to quiet meditation. Picard noticed that the Medics had already departed with the survivor, Jacen and Ogawa with them. “Mr. Data, Commander, lets see if we can gain access to the ship’s computer,” the Captain continued genially. “Mr. Worf, perhaps you and Master Chief should follow the others to sick bay. You seem a bit worse for wear.”

The group broke apart, setting off for different hatches and turbolifts as the mechanics and pilots who had watched the unusual gathering returned to their duties. As they dispersed, no paid any notice to a small, whitish box that perched in an alcove of one of the magnetic field regulators that protruded from the floor around the ship entry port. No one paid any notice as the tiny light on its otherwise featureless face stopped blinking, now instead glowing a solid, unchanging blue.
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Rays of solar light, dimmed by photogenic cells impregnated into the transparisteel through which they passed illuminated a man’s stern and clean-shave face with a gentle glow. Slowly, a smile crept across the man’s lips, his eyes glinting as he stared aimlessly into the blackness of empty space. “Have they jumped?”

Behind him, a younger, dark-skinned man snapped to attention. “Yes sir, only a few moments ago.” The man at the viewport nodded slowly. “Are we receiving the tracking signal?” The officer replied in the affirmative, and the man’s smile broadened, a feral grin. “Very good. Lieutenant, instruct the Broad Sword to investigate the area where the rebel vessel held position before entering hyperspace. Have her captain hold position there until I relay further orders.” The other man responded with a quick, respectful bow and proceeded to a nearby communications station.

The older man remained at the viewport, absorbing the soft stellar glow, elation swelling within him, anticipation for what would come, what his actions this day would earn him. With a lazy hand gesture, another junior officer approached and bowed briefly. “Order the helm to move us out of the star’s distortion field. Then relay a message to sector control in the Karasee system. Tell them,” he paused, relishing the words. “The hunt is over.”
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You can’t do this. He’s too powerful, you’re too weak. It’s not too late to get away. You must flee!

Trembling, the woman tried to suppress the seditious thoughts, and realigned her eye with the weapon’s sight. Magnified a dozen times and sharpened to crystal clarity, a single figure dominated the circular lens in front of the woman’s eye. Gulping to clear a knot that had formed in her throat, she cycled through the streamlined sight’s view modes, making certain that conditions were optimal, that the shot was clear. Infrared, thermal, magnetic, electronic, all registered the path as being clear; there was no doubt, it was the ideal shot. Normally, the woman would have squeezed the firing stud on the long, smooth sniper rifle she had propped up in front of her without hesitation, but this time, her mind was in conflict, killer instincts clouded.

Despite the cooling breeze that brushed her long mane of luxurious red hair, beads of sweat were still forming on her bare forehead. An empty feeling in her gut reminded the woman of what she had felt but a week before, a horrible, wrenching explosion, setting fire to her being. For a sort while, she had been adrift in a sea of agony, but the feeling she had been left with when the pain had passed was far worse. There was emptiness, a lack of control, of direction, of confidence. The only thing that had kept her going, the sole anchor to her past life was a simple command, burned into her consciousness.

You will kill Darth Vader.

Trying to calm herself with slow, rhythmic breathing, she closed her eyes, opened them again, and then focused her mind on the objective. Voices of reason, of self-preservation still intruded on her focus, but she ignored them, the order, the last order of a great man, must be carried out. The target was moving now, the opportunity would disappear in a few moments, it was now or never. Using what concentration she could still muster to steady her trigger finger, she fired.

An angled projectile hurtled from the rifle’s bore and crossed the long distance from the attacker to her target in only a fraction of a second. Not even the most advanced combat droid in existence could dodge or even detect the bullet before it impacted, and certainly no mere organic. However, this target was not bound by the limitations imposed by simple technology and biology; the force was with him. Even before the deadly round had traveled a meter, the figure had sensed the danger it posed, and with nearly incomprehensible speed, turned to face it and raised a gloved hand.

The projectile surged through the dusk air unopposed until it was inches from the kill, but then it halted. The tiny sensor buried in the projectile’s nose sensed the loss of momentum, waited for the estimated milliseconds necessary for armor penetration, and then triggered its own tiny detonator. However, during the minute period of time that it took for this procedure to occur, the bullet had been propelled by an invisible force a dozen meters away, out into the abyss above the vast Coruscant cityscape. Several grams of baridium ignited, and for a brief moment, a vibrant, orb-like blossom of explosive energy hung in the dim sky, and then faded.

The woman cursed violently, and rather than attempt another futile shot, quickly disassembled the rifle, shoved it into a large pocket on the back of her slender black bodysuit. Dropping silently down from her now compromised vantage point onto an empty walkway below, she set off quickly, alert for guards and security sensors, a cold chill settling in her gut. The single order still rang in her mind, ordering her to go back, attack the figure, the Dark Lord of the Sith, again. To terminate his miserable existence. No, she thought furiously, now is not the time. There are other ways, other times. Right now, escape is paramount; nothing else can be accomplished today.

It was a foolish plan, the woman reflected as she pried open a service hatch set to one side of the walkway and slipped through it, into one of the main power regulation nexuses that dotted the interior of the outer ramparts of the Imperial Palace. Perhaps before the horrible feeling, the sensation of Emperor Palpatine’s death, when she could still wield the force and help guide the projectiles from that weapon, perhaps then, the desperate plan might have worked, but now it was an ineffectual gesture. She would have to think of another method of attack, something Vader could not foresee, but she would find a way. That traitorous abomination would be destroyed. He had robbed her of her life, of her livelihood, her purpose in life, the only man she had ever really known, and most of all; he had robbed her of the force.

Mara Jade, assassin and Emperor’s Hand, slipped over a series of pulsing power conduits slipped down a crawlway hidden by a false monitor panel, guided by knowledge of secret routes earned from being in the Emperor’s highest confidence. Pausing to gather her bearings, she climbed down a narrow, wall-mounted ladder and located a hatch on the lower floor, one that would lead into the inhabited portions of the grand palace, frequented by guards, stormtroopers, and techs. From there, it was only a short run to a secondary landing bay, from which she could commandeer an escape vessel and fade away into the crowded sky lanes of the city beyond.

Drawing a blaster pistol from a hip holster, Mara placed an ear to the hatch, and sure it was clear, slipped out into the hall beyond. The passage was vacant, brightly lit, and constructed in the same spartan, metallic style as the inner workings of imperial warships. Mara knew she would have to navigate the place quickly to avoid detection, and raced off, her padded boots making little sound on the bare durasteel floor.

From around a bend in the hall, she could hear the rhythmic footsteps of imperial stormtroopers, no doubt now on alert. Thinking quickly, the assassin tried one doorway, found it sealed, and then tried the next. It slid open easily, and Mara ducked inside just as the glistening white helmet of an imperial soldier came into view. Inside the chamber, a small monitoring station, a lone brown-clad officer was rising from his chair in alarm, hand fumbling for his sidearm and mouth open, beginning a call for help. Mara surged into motion, crossing the room in the blink of an eye and impacting the man’s stomach with an elbow. He staggered and gasp, his cry cut short, but before he could back away or pull his pistol loose, Mara delivered several more blows, knocking away the weapon and throwing the officer off balance in a single, fluid motion. With a final hammer blow to the jaw, she knocked the man to the floor, motionless. The struggle took only six seconds.

The rest of the journey to the hangar was uneventful; Mara ran into no other guards and was able to easily disable the security cams in her path with codes she had been given while in service of the late Emperor. She was uneasy; the escape was going too well, it had to be a trap. Perhaps she should double back, exit the palace through the waste removal systems far below. No, she reassured herself, it was too late for that, and besides, no one knew about the shortcut though the power nexus, she had discovered it for herself. Even Vader was not powerful enough to track her accurately from this distance, she thought, feeling a measure of confidence return.

Mara Jade soon reached an intersection, one of the paths leading to the landing bay and escape. However, she took the other; Mara knew that the palace would be in lockdown right now, and all the hangar doors would be sealed. She found the flight control room door nearby unlocked, and made short work of the techs guarding, laying them out cold before they even noticed her presence. Pulling one of the unconscious men off a control panel that sat beneath a viewport that overlooked the bay, she entered a few hurried commands into the security control computer, and found that it was indeed in lock down.

Racking her memory, Mara tried one bypass code, and then another, the hairs on the back of her neck raising in warning as the seconds ticked by. At last, one of the codes worked, and the noise of machinery rumbled from the chamber below as the hangar blast door raised, revealing the towers of the Imperial City below, glinting with the last rays of a setting sun. Smiling slightly, Mara backed away from the control room viewport and pulsed three blaster bolts into with her pistol. The thin transparisteel shattered easily, and the lithe woman sprang onto a thin ledge that ran under the shattered pane. Holstering her weapon, Mara glanced around the bay below; empty save for a pair of small, parked cargo skiffs. Satisfied it was clear, she grabbed a tubular power casing that ran the height of the wall and slid nimbly down, falling the last meter and hitting the ground running.

Crossing the hangar deck in mere seconds, she halted at the nearest skiff and began to furiously enter a code into its locking interface. After a few tries, there was a satisfying click from within the small cockpit section, and the entry hatch swung open. Now smiling broadly, Mara stooped and moved to enter the cockpit…then froze. Her danger sense, with the force or without, had just begun to blare madly, and she pivoted were she crouched, blaster pistol in hand again.

Striding through the entryway she had bypassed was none other than the Dark Lord of the Sith himself, her quarry. She faltered in shock and horror for a moment; how could she have been tracked so quickly? How could he have cornered her so easily? The moment of shock passed though, and her hunter’s instincts took over. Her pistol lit up three times in quick succession, and the trio of crimson bolts raced at the menacing black giant, how made no attempt to evade them. Instead, he simply held out his right hand, and the bolts splashed harmlessly off it, deadly force transmuted into harmless puffs of heat. Mara took the failure in stride, squeezing off a few more shots as she jumped up and flipped over the blunt nose of the skiff, seeking some cover there.

Darth Vader easily intercepted the new blasts with his palms and moved forward, gesturing at a fuel line that hung above the parked skiff. Immediately, the cable sprang to life, ripping from the wall and plummeting down onto the far side of the vehicle, a jet of foul-smelling liquid coming with it. However, Mara was no long there, instead she was edging swiftly along the far wall, diving behind empty cargo boxes as she aimed for the next skiff. Vader continued forward, not even bothering to increase the rate of his stride.

From one of the pockets of her bodysuit, Mara pulled three large orbs, priming two and tossing them at the Sith lord with unerring accuracy. With a bat of the dark cyborg’s hand, the two devices altered their paths, rocketing into the ceiling and detonating there with tremendous force, enough to cause the floor plating to rumble and leave a ten meter wide maw in the metal far above. “You underestimate me Mara Jade,” Vader said calmly.

Mara however was not listening; in fact, she seemed to have disappeared entirely, replaced by a cloud of white smoke that was belching from the third orb, which was spinning idly on the floor. With a wave of his hand the cloud dispersed, but the woman was still nowhere to be seen. Now Vader reached out with his feelings, could sense her still very nearby, afraid, desperate to get away. Pacing over to where the gas grenade had been dropped, Vader stared at the closest wall, where he noted a shadow flight from view inside a maintenance crawl space, its hatch cast roughly aside on the deck plate. “I tire of this,” Vader said to himself in a weary monotone, and with a flick of a gauntleted wrist, the struggling Mara Jade found herself being dragged back out into the open, left leg caught in an invisible grip.

Desperately, she tore a small vibroblade free from a sleeve inside one boot and threw it at his masked visage; he smacked the weapon out of the air with ease. His right hand formed a loose fist, and Mara was dragged into the air, floating by her neck a meter off the deck plate. She gasped and pried at her throat as it began to close off, her legs flailing madly in the air. Vader walked back to the center of the bay, floating her along with him in this state, saying nothing as her oxygen-deprived brain began to fade. After a few more agonizing seconds, the vise around her neck disappeared, and she tumbled unceremoniously to the hard floor.

Gasping for air, Mara propped herself up, vision clearing enough to see that there were others there now, several armed stormtroopers and Imperial Guardsmen, as well as a female Twi’lek who stared at her curiously. “I expected more from one of Palpatine’s hands,” Vader rumbled from behind her. “The conniving fool sent you to kill me? A futile attempt, from a delusional and insane old man.” Mara glared at the Dark Lord with hatred, trying to move against him, press the attack, but she found herself pinned to the floor, helpless. “You will pay for what you’ve done Vader,” she spat. “There are others, still loyal to our Emperor and what he believed in. They will reveal you, show the Empire what you truly are, a usurper to a throne you do not deserve, and eventually, they will find a way to kill you.”

Darth Vader glared down at her. “Foolish girl, it does not matter what the subjects of the Empire know, it does not matter if discover that I removed power from that insane creature’s grip personally. All that matters is that this Empire is whole again, the cancer clouding its true purpose removed, replaced by a strong leader, one who the people of this galaxy will obey absolutely. I have crushed the rebellion, and soon this domain will know order once more, the order of the Sith resurrected, untainted by Palpatine’s greed and paranoia. No Jade, this new order cannot be stopped, not by you, or any who would cling to the ways of an emperor now mercifully dead.”

He paused again, stooping down towards her. A single powerful hand grabbed her already bruised neck and wrenched her upright, so that she now stared straight into Vader’s masked eyes. “You will help me seek out those who would attempt to undo what I have done, give me the names of Palpatine’s most loyal confidantes. And then you will divulge all of the secrets that the old man imparted to you during your service. He knew of abilities, places, things that could prove to be of value to my new order, and I sense that he may have implanted some of that knowledge in you, whether you know of it or not.” Vader pulled her even closer, and Mara could clearly hear his deep, raspy breathing, not breaking rhythm even as he spoke. “And then, if you do all of what I have asked, then perhaps you shall live. I sense potential in you, talents Palpatine did not taint. Consider this my words Mara Jade, for they are your only path to absolution. Do not follow them, and you will die.”

With that, Darth Vader released her and gestured to one of the nearby stormtroopers. “Disarm her and move her to a holding cell.” The trooper and his subordinates moved to comply, and the Twi’lek, her eyes still fixed curiously on Mara, walked over to the Dark Lord.

Mara Jade watched helplessly as the white armored soldiers approached, blasters all aimed squarely at her head. As one trooper undid a pair of shackles from his belt, Mara watched Vader as the Twi’lek woman plied him with quiet inquiries. Pure hatred and fury curled her upper lip, but within despair was growing quickly, she had failed her master, and now she was the prisoner of the one she had tried to destroy. She would not let that monstrosity rip any of the Emperor’s secrets from her mind, would rather die. It was with that thought that she remembered one last weapon she had brought along, an implement of last resort. As the stormtrooper began to shackle one wrist, the other contorted, triggering a small, flimsy panel to slide into her palm. Adorned by a single red button, when triggered, the device would set off the permacrete detonators she had stowed in the soles of her boots. Their combined force would vaporize every solid object within twelve meters. She had this one last trail to go through, one last chance to fulfill her goal.

As the trooper moved for her other hand, Mara closed her eyes, took one last draft of cool city air, and moved her middle finger over the small, red button. It was over.

Mara Jade’s corpse fell to the floor in a heap of cauterized flesh. A slash that had swept from here abdomen, across her chest and severed her trigger arm had been the assassin’s undoing, and the deliverer of this final failure stood over her, breathing heavily. The stormtroopers and guardsmen stood back in disbelief and shock as Aayla Secura stared down at her kill in mild shock, blue lightsaber still glowing in her hands. Darth Vader stepped up alongside her and glared down on what could have been an invaluable resource of information. “Explain,” he ordered the Twi’lek coldly. Aayla deactivated her saber and looked at her master, eyes betraying a mix of exhilaration and fear. “I…I apologize my lord, but I sensed that she was a danger to us. Look at her palm, a detonator.”

Vader did not spare a glance at the severed limb, instead focusing on his apprentice. Neither spoke for a long, foreboding moment. “You did well,” Vader said at last, his low voice revealing no emotion. Aayla looked up, surprised. She had expected a rage, punishment for depriving Lord Vader of his prize. “However, you must learn that a killing blow is not always necessary, even if the dark side tells you it is right to take that life. To disarm and inspire fear and obedience in a foe can far more useful. Rage, fury, passion, instinct. All these are strong sources of power, but without control and focus, they can destroy what you hope to achieve along with an enemy. This is your first lesson. Remember it well.”

Darth Vader stalked off without another word, pondering his own message as Aayla remained behind, contemplating her first cold-blooded kill. Lord Vader was right, she could have simply cut off the woman’s arm to the same effect, and still have left the information Jade carried intact, but something had compelled her to take that life, and she had done so. And now, as she looked down at the once living being, a warmth began to ripple through her, permeating her very being with a strange new emotion, completely alien. The lust for blood and power. The very thing that a lifetime of Jedi training had screamed against, fought to suppress, was taking root within her, feeding the fire of the dark side that now burned within her heart. And it was glorious.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:16pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire


Chapter Thirty Four

The Arbiter moved steadily through the brightly lit, even hallways that dominated the Rebel starship’s center section, glad to be stretching his powerful leg muscles. For the last week, he had cloistered himself in the quarters he had been given, a small chamber that had belonged to an Umbaran Lieutenant killed at Sullust. He had not hidden himself away out of disgust for the humans that dominated the star cruiser as others of his species might do, but rather to try and come to terms with what had occurred since his awakening in the sick bay of the Enterprise not so long ago.

He had had to come to terms with many things since his arrival; the Covenant teachings and propaganda about humans that turned out to be far from the truth, the strong possibility that the holy Prophets were intentionally lying to their subjects and all that that entailed, and the underlying frustration at his sudden inability to try and save his own galaxy and way of life, the possibility that if he ever was able to return home, he might find it destroyed, destroyed by the foolishness of those he once revered. This last issue was the most dire and troubling, but the chaos that followed his arrival had not allowed much time for reflection on what was occurring around the Forerunner artifact from which he had been torn. Since the Republica had fled the destruction of its fleet, the Arbiter had nothing to do but reflect.

The idea of joining the others as they too waited for the long, relatively quiet trip to be over has occurred to him, but he wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea, not yet. The humans and humanoids he had fought alongside over the last few weeks had earned his admiration and even respect, and his inability to save the woman Crusher had disturbed him more than he had expected it would, but still, the idea of trying to socialize with them, know them better, went against a lifetime of zealous hatred and prejudice, parts of himself that would take a long time to fully repress.

However, this occasion was different. He had been relayed a message that the Enterprise survivors and even some rebel personnel were going to discuss what had been found on a derelict starship before the last jump into hyperspace, and what it meant for their attempts to locate a new wormhole, a discussion he had been invited to. The message had not been specific, and the Arbiter was left to wonder what type of vessel it was, and what relevant information it could possibly contain.

As he made his way to the small conference chamber that had been approved for the meeting, the Arbiter was relieved to see that none of the Alliance soldiers and crewers who moved through the passages around spared more than a passing glance in his direction. He did not wish to participate in a conversation with a curious passerby, although he did take interest in what seemed to be a general shift in attitude among them, a change that was almost palpable in the air. Before the Imperial attack, the Rebels he saw had been enthusiastic, eager to strike a blow to their enemy that it might never recover from. Now though, every pilot and marine had a dower expression and the air of a defeated soul. Even their oddly-shaped automatons seemed subdued. Of course, he could be misinterpreting their behavior, the Elite reflected, he was not yet very good at relating with humans, or even accurately telling them apart all the time, but he had been around soldiers all his life, and he knew the shame and hopelessness that defeat could bring. He had experienced it personally more than once, and he still bore the scars under his reflective armor.

The Arbiter paused at a turbolift bank, and checked his bearings mentally. The design of the ship, while more familiar than the Federation vessel he had been on briefly, was still quite dissimilar from the Covenant warship layout he was used to and he had not become acclimated to it yet. After a few moments of trying to check the deck and section indicators that were mounted next to the lift control panel, conveniently not in a script he could read, the Arbiter reluctantly began searching the hallway for someone who might direct him to the appropriate part of the ship.

One crewman, a young-looking male human caught his eye as he approached the same bank of turbolifts the Arbiter was standing near. Making sure that the Federation Universal Translator tucked into a side compartment of his armor was functioning, the Arbiter moved into his path. “Where is the deck nine, section four conference chamber?” he asked the startled human bluntly. The man stared up at the warrior and gulped; it occurred to the Elite that this human looked familiar. “Um, on deck nine,” the man responded, grinning uneasily. The Arbiter stared at him, unblinking and stonily serious.

The man’s smile quickly faded, and his voice began to waver slightly. “Ah, well yes, you wouldn’t know where that is after all. Sorry.” Swiftly, he moved around the Elite’s imposing figure and opened the turbolift door. “Here, I’ll guide you there. I’m heading in that direction anyways.” Stooping, the Arbiter entered the small platform with the human, who then typed a few commands into the inner interface.

As the mobile compartment disengaged from its magnetic holding claps and shot through the Republica’s inner workings, the two occupants were silent. Staring down at the human next to him out of the corner of his eye, the Arbiter suddenly remembered who the man was; Flitch, one of the Rebels who had been part of Major Truul’s infiltration team on the Imperial Star Destroyer Torrent. He seemed to have changed since the rout at Sullust, at least to the Arbiter’s eyes. Outwardly, he carried the small resigned, defeated air that pervaded the ship’s crew, but there was something more to this one, more deeply ingrained emotion. Tainted as they were by eventual failure and disgrace, his years as a Covenant fleetlord had given him experience dealing with lesser officers, and he had paid more attention to those under his command than most in such a lofty position. To know the motivations and motives of one’s soldiers is to know how to make them follow orders without question.

The turbolift at last came to a stop and Flitch directed the Arbiter out of the compartment and down an empty hallway. “Pretty empty down here,” the soldier commented. “Not really surprising, not many people would be using any of the briefing or conference rooms at a time like this. Nothing to plan until we rendezvous with command again, if command even makes it.”

Empty small talk, the Arbiter noted silently, he is talking to disguise nervousness. But what was he nervous about? It could not be the Elite’s imposing presence; they had met before and fought alongside one another before. It could be general agitation caused by the uncertain future of the Rebellion; it was only natural that Flitch would be as uneasy as the rest of the crew. Still, something felt different about that man.

“Alright, the conference chamber is through there,” Flitch said, indicating to a tan-colored door at one side of the intersection the spread out from the end of the passage. “Glad I could be of assistance.” The Arbiter dipped his head marginally in a show of gratitude, but before he had completed even that simple gesture, the man was off, pacing quickly down an adjoining passage. The Elite looked the door over, but did not move toward it, instead turning to watch the human as he moved past a pair of off duty flight mechanics.

Instinct told the Arbiter that he should follow the man. It might not be proper procedure or even wise considering their tenuous situation to stalk a Rebel soldier, but he had not survived so long in the service of the Prophets by ignoring gut. The meeting could wait.

The two mechanics turned off the passage through a side door, leaving the area empty, save the Arbiter and his fast moving prey, which was almost to the end of the corridor. Running as swiftly as he could without alert Flitch, he halved the distance between them in only a few seconds and was a mere arm length away when the human reached the end of the hall and turned to the right. The Arbiter paused; if this man truly was hiding something, he might be more wary of pursuit than an average man. Finding the hidden switch inlaid in his reflective armor, the Arbiter scanned the area for potential witnesses and obvious security recorders and prepared to activate his personal cloak.

“Oh, hello.” Reginald Barclay said, steadying himself after his sudden halt. The Starfleet officer had emerged from around the corner Flitch had turned and almost collided with the three meter giant. The Arbiter swiftly withdrew his hand from the hidden switch and glared at Barclay in annoyance. “Sorry about that, almost running into you I mean,” the man continued. “I’m still having some trouble with this ships layout, and the computer panels and directional indicators around this place are hard to read, they give you a headache. I suppose it’s from being designed by the Mon Calamari, with their oddly positioned eyes.”

As Barclay prattled on, the Arbiter maneuvered past him and looked down the right hallway. Flitch had disappeared, and trying to find him again would be fairly useless. He turned back to Barclay, who was still talking, and let out a brief sigh. The human may have saved his life, and was certainly more competent than he had suspected when they had first met, but he was still very annoying. “So, I suppose your heading for the Captain’s conference. I was order to be there as well, but I can’t seem to locate it. The layout on the Enterprise was much more efficient.”

The Arbiter had found both starships’ designs equally alien and relatively inefficient, but he didn’t care to continue the conversation, instead gesturing down the hallway towards the intersection. “The chamber is down there. Follow.” The warrior set off without another word, mildly irritated, leaving Barclay wondering what he had done to earn such a stiff response.
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By the time the two arrived, most of those who had been invited were already assembled, arrayed in the large bank of chairs that formed a multi-rowed semi-circle around a raised speaking platform at the back of the room. Like many of the rooms on the ship, the small conference chamber was of a smooth and scalloped shape, brightly lit and focused around a deactivated display screen at hung above the central podium. Most of the people in attendance had a vested interest in what would be discussed, the half dozen or so remaining members of the Enterprise’s crew, Jacen Solo, and Tassadar, but with them were also a few of the Republica’s own complement. While she had allowed the requisitioning of one of the ship’s few meeting areas, Captain Ryceed had not been inclined to allow her passengers a completely private conference, and thus had authorized any off-duty officer who wished access to the meeting. Captain Picard, defacto leader of the small group, had agreed; the information that was to be relayed would hopefully reach Alliance ears anyways.

As the rest of the assemblage conversed quietly, Lt. Commander Data, Geordi La’Forge, and Commander Riker clustered around a computer station in a corner of the room, evidently making final checks on the information they had been able to salvage from the derelict ship’s computer. Captain Picard and Tassadar were across the chamber on the large podium talking to one another in hushed tones, the latter seated crossed-legged on the floor, his head nodding shakily as broadcasted his thoughts in the form of words.

The Arbiter, managing to extricate himself from Barclay, moved off to the gently curved back wall of the chamber and located a spot that he could lean against; his lanky Elite musculature made sitting in Mon Calamari-style chairs extremely uncomfortable. Looking to his left, he noted to his mild surprise that the Master Chief was present also, similarly ensconced only a few meters away, his ever present armor reflecting the light of the room dully. Who would think, the Elite mused silently, that he would have not hesitated to kill the human given the opportunity only a week short months ago. This creature, who had lead the team of human survivors that had infiltrated his command ship, fought his way to the bridge, and bested him in personal combat following the destruction of the first Halo station. He had nearly been killed that day, shoved unceremoniously into an escape pod and forced to watch from the depths of space, bleeding and battered, as his ship, the Ascendant Justice, was hijacked and used against its own fleet. He had vowed to himself that day that he would not rest until the human’s severed head lay in his hands, but circumstances had dictated otherwise. Stripped of his rank and very name for the colossal failure and forced into the death sentence that was being an Arbiter, and then finding himself thrust back with the very cause of his dishonor, made allies by cruel fate.

There was a force still inside him, one he had been repressing for weeks, a little voice that resided along with the repressed teaching of the traitorous Prophets, that still called out for vengeance, for him to seize the human’s, the Demon’s, neck and pry his wretched head free of its foundation. It was his right as a warrior, and the will of the Prophets. And why stop with just the one human; there was a ship full of them within his grasp, waiting to wash away his failure with their blood! The Arbiter’s eyes began to cloud with red and his jaw mandibles quivered with anticipation, rows of teeth eager to split human flesh. Slowly, almost involuntarily, his right hand edged toward the plasma hilt that hung from his waist, and he could almost see the triangle of blue flame bursting to life, carving a swath of holy vengeance before him from which none could escape. The heretics and non-believers would fall and with their deaths, he would be absolved.

No.

There was no absolution for him, and slowly, he realized he did not really wish for it. The Prophets had betrayed him; their very Covenant was built upon lies and half-truths. Their will no longer held any sway for with him, and no matter how hard the part of him that still believed in all that he once been resisted, no matter how much his baser instincts fought to break free, he would oppose them. And he would win. All that mattered now was for him to return to his own galaxy, save his people from the destruction that the Prophet’s treachery and blind faith would bring. His hand fell from the inactive blade.

The Master Chief had been and was still doing what he had no doubt been trained and bred to do, oppose the annihilation of his species, and the Arbiter would harbor no grudge for one with such an honorable goal. Their motives were one in the same.

The chamber’s entry door slid open, and Major Besteen Truul entered, looking weary and strained. Undoubtedly much of the difficult job of holding the ship’s dower crew together was in part on the charismatic officer’s shoulders, and yet he still found time to aid in the quest of those who had caused him so much trouble and loss. Slipping in just after the Major was another man, younger and better groomed, but similarly drained. It took the Arbiter’s untrained eye for human face a few moments to realize that the man was Flitch, who he had been tailing only minutes before. Not revealing any outward sign of surprise or unusual interest, the Elite watched the man carefully as he stopped to talk with Truul, take a datapad from him, salute and then exit. He appeared to be serving as the Major’s aide, hardly surprising considering the depleted crew strength and their past experience together. This might explain why Flitch had been behaving strangely before, out of his element in his current capacity but still, something about his demeanor was strange.

As Truul took a seat at the rear of the small chamber, Captain Picard straightened his worn uniform and approached the main platform’s oratory stand, apparently satisfied with the size of assembled crowd. Taking their cue, the three officers at the computer terminal gathered their data discs and pads and joined the Captain and Tassadar on the platform.

“As most of you know, before our last jump into hyperspace, the Republica’s command crew located a derelict ship adrift near our position. A Starfleet vessel.” At this, several of the attendees began to whisper excitedly. Picard paused, allowing the conversation to die off before continuing. “With Captain Ryceed’s approval, Commander Riker and a small away team docked with the ship and were able to retrieve several pertinent sensor and ship’s logs from its computer. From those files, they were able to determine the location and composition of the wormhole the ship used to travel here. I believe Mr. Data and Commander La’Forge have discovered several specifics about the anomaly that may help us use it to return to our respective home galaxies.”

The captain moved to the side, allowing Data to take a place at the main podium. “After repairing and accessing the navigational logs that Commander Riker’s team was able to recover from the Cornwall, I compared the starship’s flight pattern with the stellar imaging recorder built into the Cornwall’s passive scanning array.” The android inserted a small disc into a receptacle mounted onto the speaking stand, and the large display behind the speakers lit up, revealing a simplified starfield, crisscrossed by multicolored lines of digits that indicated trajectory, speed, and location for the tiny representation of a Starfleet Steamrunner-class vessel. “Twenty five hours, four minutes before being picked up by the Republica’s sensors, the star pattern displayed by the imaging logs changed drastically, altering from a configuration documented in the Parideian Cluster, Milky Way Galaxy, to the stellar configuration correspondent to the star system where the Cornwall was located. It is highly probable that is the point at which the starship passed through the wormhole.” The computer-generated Cornwall moved about a foot across the screen before suddenly disappearing. The entire image collapsed in on itself, closing on the point where the starship had disappeared, and then blossoming out along with the ship, the starfield in the background now completely different.

Geordi stepped up alongside Data. “The ship’s propulsion systems seem to have been knocked out either before or during the wormhole transit, but it still had sufficient inertia to be propelled a significant distance away from the exit point. Lt. Commander Data and I were able to extrapolate back from the Cornwall’s position when we located it, and using its heading and speed, we have a pretty good idea where the wormhole is.” This news sent a whisper of relief through those in attendance.

“Most of the scanning information from the transit through the wormhole was corrupted beyond usage,” Data continued. “However, from what we do know, it appears that this anomaly is much more stable than the one the Enterprise used to first come to this galaxy, and possibly much larger in dimension. It is highly likely that it is still in existence and will remain in that state for a relatively long period of time, but we lack the data necessary to make an accurate estimation.”

From the middle of the rows of seats, a weak voice wavered, cutting the android off. “Um, sirs? What about the energy feedback that the…uh, Enterprise received when it went through last time?” This was from Lieutenant Barclay, who was perched on the edge of his seat, looking surprisingly nervous. “How can we use the wormhole if it overloads the reactor of whatever ship is sent through it?”

Data took the question impassively. “During its passage through the wormhole, the Enterprise did receive critical damage to its warp core, but the boarders from the Columbus played a large part in the ship’s destruction. If the containment systems had been operating at full efficiency, unimpeded by the previous sabotage, it is possible that the damage to the warp core would not have been as severe. However,” The display changed once again, erasing the starfield and replacing it with a representation of a Mon Calamari Liberation-class star cruiser. The scalloped, grayish vessel was covered in a bright-hued field; a depiction of the starship’s shielding system. “The shielding technology employed by the Mon Calamari and the Galactic Empire surpasses the Federation equivalent by an order of magnitude or more. This should provide more protection for passage through the wormhole, and the hypermatter fusion reactors used by this galaxy’s civilizations should reduce the possibility of a core overload.”

Silently, Picard reflected how odd it was that only now that the enormous differences in technology used by this galaxy’s inhabitants was coming to their notice. The past weeks had been too hectic and confused to allow for any serious study of the alien hardware, but even a basic overview of Mon Calamari technology limited access to the computer systems had provided his science team revealed that they were centuries, millennia beyond the Federation, even the Borg. The thought filled Picard with a strange mix of emotion; on the one hand, he was relating with species whose technology and culture could prove to be the greatest boon humanity had seen since Zephrin Cochrane had activated the first warp drive, but on the other, he was looking at a force that could crush every power in the Alpha Quadrant effortlessly if it was turned to conquest, something the Empire seemed quite good at. Even the fundamental principles of this galaxy’s energy production and superluminal drive systems had been nearly beyond Data’s very comprehension. Yes, this technology was perhaps too advanced to find its way into Milky Way, even if its bearers were benevolent in nature. Still, he had a duty to his crew; he would see them home. Whatever problems that might develop afterwards would simply have to be confronted if and when they came.

“Still, there is a danger.” Geordi was speaking again. “The damage the wormhole inflicts seems to stem from redirection of the ship’s radiant energy from its engines, sensors, and shields back against it, something that even this ship’s defenses couldn’t fully repel.”

“That’s where I come in.” The audience, overwhelmed by the deluge of information that was being fed to them, was startled by the new voice, feminine and coolly confident, that seemed to be piping in over the room’s intercom. In a burst of static, a female figure, glowing bluish-purple, appeared on the display screen. “For those of you who have not met her, this is Cortana, a highly advanced Artificial Intelligence construct,” Commander Riker said, glancing sideways at the being’s chosen image.

“Highly advanced? You really know how to flatter a girl,” the construct shot back, playfully rolling her eyes. “Now, the wormhole. Working with Lt. Commander Data, I believe that I have discovered a way to safely traverse the anomaly. The phenomenon actually seems similar in nature the Slipspace drive used by the civilizations of my galaxy, and early UNSC scientists had to combat the energy feedback phenomenon to make our faster than light drives usable. It was discovered that certain low-band frequencies, broadcasted constantly during entry and exit of spatial rifts could help repel the feedback and even direct the in-transit starship more accurately. Our vessels do not employ energy shields, but the principle could still be applied by altering the intensity and diameter of the defensive screen in tune with the frequency. Such a pattern would effectively repulse any damaging discharges, and, if I’m right, even direct the wormhole’s exit coordinates.”

Deep within the Arbiter, a flicker of hope began to grow. He was no engineer, but he had been around Slipspace drives long enough to know that what the computer construct said was true. And, if he understood her implication correctly, there was still hope that he could return to the Covenant and save it from the destruction that the Prophets would bring upon it.

Data and the others paused the briefing, allowing those in attendance to mull over what had been said. While the oration by the android and A.I. was somewhat more technical than was warranted for the discussion, most understood that they new findings meant that perhaps there was a new hope, a chance to get home. Deanna Troi however, who was seat in the front row, seemed more concerned and distracted than optimistic.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But you said that the Cornwall was found derelict. Was there anyone onboard? I do remember feeling something…strange from outside the ship before we jumped into hyperspace.”

Picard sighed grimly and Riker frowned, nodding his head slowly. “We did encounter a single human survivor in the Engineering section. She’s recovering from exhaustion and a few minor injuries in the medical ward.” Jacen Solo arched an eyebrow. “But there were others there?” He frowned in concentration, as if trying to pull the answer from thin air. “A hostile force?” Riker nodded again in recognition.

“Yes. Animal-like things, dozens of them. They swarmed us as we were uploading the sensor logs, and my team barely escaped alive. From what little we could recover from the captain’s log, they were responsible for damaging the ship and killing most of her crew.” The commander exchanged a dour with the captain. “We also believe that the creatures that were on that ship are affiliated with the ones that captured the Columbus and destroyed the Enterprise.” Not surprisingly, this news sent a collective shiver through those who had been on the Starfleet flagship when it had died, and even the few bored Alliance officers in attendance edged forward in their seats, suddenly intrigued.

“Tassadar here has offered to enlighten us on what he believes these creatures may be,” Picard concluded, and he and the others stepped aside, revealing the tall, scaly alien, who was seated on the platform, propped up against the gently curving wall. Dark, orb-like eyes scanned the assemblage once, their reptilian pupils altering in shape and color as he prepared to speak.

“They are known to my people as the Zerg. Since the very beginnings of the Protoss Empire, they have plagued the galaxy, enveloping entire galactic sectors and spreading their influence over a thousand worlds. They are a pestilent race, existing only to consume living matter and assimilate it into their unholy swarm. Dozens of species have been absorbed in this fashion, forming new and terrible warriors, driven only by hunger and animalistic rage. The Zerg do not use technology, instead shaping the beings of the swarm into unimaginable and hideous forms that can fulfill any need. When they attack, no stratagem or intellect is used, they simply throw themselves wave after wave at the defenders until they break them down, and consume them. There can be no negotiation or treaty with them, not even surrender."

"Lesser Zerg, those that populate they’re near limitless horde, are thoughtless, brutal beasts, but there are higher forms, the ruthless Celebrates, and above them, the Overmind. For millennia untold this abomination has controlled the Swarm’s actions, his twisted and arcane intellect guiding them towards his ultimate goal. He will not rest until all other life is extinguished or absorbed, and only the Zerg remain."

"Since its formation, the Protoss Empire and the Order of the Templar have sought to stop this perversion and his Swarm, but such a foe is not easily defeated; he is as devious as his forces are strong. The Zerg and they’re master are resilient as well, and whenever one of their infested worlds burns under the bombardment of our fleets, the menace infects another. Still, the Protoss are strong, and we have held them at bay for many centuries, but the arrival of Terrans, humans, at the fringes of our space upset the balance. The Order and the fleet under my command attempted to keep the Swarm away from the newcomers, but internal strife among them made our efforts fruitless. The Overmind played them against us and assimilated many of their worlds and soldiers, so that when I was at last able to strike a truce with the humans, the Swarm was already overwhelming our defenses and befouling Aiur, our homeworld, with they’re presence. Even the Overmind himself was able to transplant himself onto the battlefields of my home and gloat over his impending victory. In last defense of my race, I attempted to fly one of our battlecruisers into the Overmind’s maw and strike it down once and for all by focusing my full psionic energy upon its malevolent heart.”

The High Templar’s commanding voice paused, and he looked away from the enraptured audience. “However, before my assault was complete, I was torn from Aiur, and found myself in this galaxy. I had hope that the impact of my flagship and the energy I had imbued into its hull would have been enough to destroy it and throw the Zerg into disarray, but perhaps I was mistaken.” After a moment of silence, Tassadar raised his head again, this time looking directly into Captain Picard’s eyes. “We can only hope that the Zerg presence in your galaxy is isolated and newly seeded. If that is so, there is yet hope for your people, but if this blight is allowed to take root, I fear that neither you nor I nor any other mortal force can save them.”

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:16pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire


Chapter Thirty Five

After the briefing had concluded and those assembled had dispersed, Jacen Solo found himself left with little to do but wait until the Republica reached the Alliance rendezvous point, estimated, barring the need for further evasion, to occur in early the next morning ship time. Most of the passengers had gone to their quarters to rest after the eventful day, and most of the crew was off duty as well, the cruiser having shifted into night watch an hour earlier. The young Jedi was not tired however, and after pausing in his quarters briefly to stow his lightsaber and eat a nutrient bar he had taken from the galley earlier, found himself wandering the empty, spartan halls of the ship’s crew section, strolling down random passages and slipping in and out of turbolifts. As he walked, his mind wandered, mulling over the information given at the conference and allowing his Force empowered senses to drift through the decks of the starship, picking up the general mood of the resting crew and the random snippet of thought or voice.

He could sense a wide variety species: human, Mon Calamari, Bothan, Sullustan, and their faint Force presence lent him a feeling of familiarity, the feeling of being home. And yet, he knew, he wasn’t home. Like the others, he was out of time and place, trapped for the moment in a world he didn’t belong, and in his case, it was even worse. Picard and his crew were simply in the wrong galaxy, an unknown and alien world, but Jacen was out of time, in a place he knew all to well, from the stories that his parents and other veterans of the Galactic Civil war who had raised him. But it was different now; events were not unfolding as they should have. The Emperor was not supposed to have been destroyed yet, the Alliance fleet should not have been routed at Sullust, Lando…

The man slammed his fist against a bare metal wall, overwhelmed by sudden emotion. Lando wasn’t supposed to have died. He had learned of the General’s death not long after the Republica had fled, and the news had convinced him to stay away from his father for the time being. Han took the loss of friend hard; Jacen had seen that first hand after Chewie had died.

Of course, the loyal Wookiee wasn’t dead in this place. He was still Han Solo’s best friend and copilot, freedom fighter and mediator to the tensions that often flared up between the Corellian and his future wife, Leia.

Oblivious to the empty hallway around him, Jacen slammed the other arm into the blank bulkhead and forced his forehead against the cool metal. No, Chewie was dead. He died at Sernpidal, in his world, the real world. This was a different place, a different reality, it couldn’t really be his past. Jacen Solo was the same, but everything else was different. No, the Alliance had never been routed, they had defeated the Empire at Endor, Palpatine had died on the second Death Star at the hands of his uncle and grandfather, Lando and Admiral Ackbar were still alive, Chewie was dead.

Anakin was dead.

Hot tears began to pour down Jacen’s cheeks, and he didn’t know why. Anakin, his brother, was still alive. He had been alive when Jacen had been torn from his… the real universe. Anakin wasn’t, couldn’t be dead. How could he even know such a thing? The Jedi attempted to focus on the thought, trace it to its source, but the image of his brother’s face, the usually boyish and happy visage pale and lifeless, quickly faded into the mist. Then another picture began to form, the smooth curve of a feminine chin, graceful nose, slender lekku…

Jacen wrenched his head away from the wall and furiously rubbed his tear-stained face. No more. He wouldn’t give in to the emotions further delving down this path of memory might bring, it was not the Jedi way. Reflection was essential to the life of a Jedi, but this was not the time, he was still trapped in this strange, alien galaxy, and it was alien; he might not be able to resist the dark emotions he was feeling again on the verge of conscious thought without the guidance of one more experienced in the ways of the Force. Whatever the circumstances of this unexpected sojourn and the conflict he had been embroiled in before it had Forced him to become, he was still a mere apprentice, and he wished for the wise and gentle guidance of Master Luke more than ever.

Withdrawing the wayward tendrils of his consciousness and sealing himself off from the multitude of beings onboard the ship, Jacen straightened his worn jumpsuit and resumed his solitary walk, trying to focus again on what he had learned at the briefing. He had to remain patient and collected until Picard and the others were able to return to the wormhole, and hopefully, send them all home. He was a Jedi, he could work through this.

After a few more minutes of aimless travel, Jacen recognized a wider hallway, and for no particular reason, turned down it. Even though he could not decipher the script that adorned blandly colored plaques and markers around the door which was placed prominently in one wall, he remembered the configuration; this was the ship’s primary Medbay. He had come to the place earlier that very day, helping the medics transport the Cornwall’s lone survivor from the hangar deck. He had left as soon as the doctors moved her to an analysis table, not wanting to be in the way, and had all but forgotten about the incident, but being back here made him oddly curious about the patient who was likely still in the facility. Considering briefly, Jacen decided he had nothing better to do at the moment, and approached the large, ovoid door, which slid open silently.

Beyond it was a short hallway complete with a small reception table, a computer terminal, and several door ways that must have lead to decontamination chambers and changing rooms. A thin transparisteel partition separated the room from the circular nexus of the complex, a dimly lit chamber filled with clean plastoid tables, equipment receptacles, and dormant medical droids. As Jacen took a few steps into the reception area, silver protocol appeared from out of nowhere and stepped into his path. “Greetings sir,” it said in an artificially friendly voice. “I am afraid that most of the medical staff is off duty right now. Do you require emergency attention?”

Jacen shook his head. “No, I’m fine.”

“Is there another who is in need of the medical staff then? I could dispatch an emergency team to any point on this ship if needed.”

Again Jacen replied in the negative. The droid was perplexed, inclining its reflective head slightly to get a better look at the out of place human. “Then, if I may ask, what are you doing here sir? It is well past the last duty shift, and maintenance is not scheduled to make their rounds through her for another forty six minutes.”

Why am I here, he wondered silently. His mind had seemed to have unconsciously propelled him to the spot, and now that he was here, he wasn’t quite sure what to do. There was that sense of curiosity about the survivor, but surely she was asleep now, even if the doctors had been able to bring her around again. What purpose was there and going to see her right now?

“I was wondering about one of the patients that arrived here today, a human woman, rescued from a derelict starship before we jumped into hyperspace,” he asked, trying to look over the droid’s shoulder.

“I am unfamiliar with the circumstances of her injury, but there was one woman brought in today that you may be referring to. She was treated for a variety of minor dermal injuries and given stimulants to alleviate a neurochemical imbalanced caused by stress and exhaustion. Her condition was stabilized and she is now resting in the main recovery ward. If you wish to see her or any other of our patients, you will have to await regular visiting hours, which begin at 8:00 hours.”

Jacen thanked the droid and swiftly exited, sensing that it was becoming annoyed at the breach of protocol. When the thick doors sealed themselves behind him, Jacen sighed and looked over the empty passageways around him absently. Perhaps he should try and get some sleep now, even if the walk hadn’t tired him out as he had hoped it would. Trying to remember the path he had taken to get there, the man set off, his mind still lingering on the woman in the recovery ward. Why was he so curious about her? He had only seen her for a few minutes while he had walked with the medics; she was young, perhaps a few years older than himself, of slight build, with frayed brown hair and soft features that had shown through the grim and dried blood that had obscured her face. In fact, despite her injuries and tattered condition, she had actually been quite attractive, looking very much like Tenel Ka, one of the Jedi students he had once trained with.

He felt his cheeks begin to warm, and immediately banished the thought. He didn’t even know her, and now was hardly the time to allow his hormones to get the better of him. All the same, thinking about her had cheered him up after the sense of emptiness his strange vision had brought on previously.

Rounding a corner, Jacen noted someone else in the hallway heading towards him, a woman dressed in a white Alliance uniform, with her hands tucked behind her back and head down, evidently thinking. Assuming she was just another crewer, Jacen continued to walk down the hall until the two had nearly crossed paths. Then, as she looked up to brush a few strands of russet hair from her face, he got a good look at her face. It was Leia Organa.

Jacen faltered, not sure of what he should do. He was still unsure as to how to deal with being around his mother and father as they had once had been, and despite his conviction that this world was not his own, he could not bring himself to think of them as entirely different people. Of course, if they were really his parents, interacting with them might be an exceedingly bad and perhaps even dangerous idea, but he couldn’t help but feel that they might be able to provide him comfort or guidance in this ordeal, as they always had done before.

“Are you alright?” Jacen froze, and saw that Leia had stopped, and was now looking up at him, curious as to why had suddenly paused near her. Jacen desperately cast around his head for some response. “I, ah, its nothing. I’m fine,” he mumbled, but Leia was still looking him over, taking in his worn dark tunic, which was devoid of any military insignia, and lingering over his face. “You look familiar. Have we met before?” she asked curiously. Jacen gulped, tried to hide it, and then shook his head. “I…I don’t believe so.”

“Strange,” Leia noted, and then shook away the thought, smiling brightly and extending a hand. “I am Leia Organa, of the Alliance High Council.” Trying to look natural while surreptitiously turning his face away from her, Jacen extend his own and shook hers. Without letting go, she maneuvered to face him again and stared even more closely. “Are you sure we haven’t met before?” Jacen shook his head again, more vigorously this time. “I’m sorry, but no. I don’t think I’ve even seen in passing you before.” As soon as the words left his limps, Jacen wished he could take them back, and cursed his own inborn honesty and the difficulty with lying that entailed. A wry grin crossed Leia’s face. “Your not part of the Alliance are you? Are you one of the refugees from Sullust?”

Jacen was drawing a complete blank on facades he could put up to deflect her line of questioning, so he decided to change tactics. He would simply tell the truth. In moderation.

“Actually, I’m a guest on this ship, along with several others brought here by an Alliance agent. We met with the High Council just before the Imperial attack. I don’t recall seeing you there though.” Leia frowned. “No, I only arrived at the fleet a few hours before the ambush. I didn’t have much time to speak with the Council before we had to evacuate.” She sighed, and looked off into space sadly. “I don’t even know if there will even be a Council anymore when we reach the rendezvous point. We lost so much, so many good people…” she drifted off, sadness etched deeply into her soft face.

Jacen fidgeted uncomfortably as he looked at a side of his mother he was very familiar with, one that had dominated her ever since the Yuuzhan Vong invaded. The Rebels had thought that winning the war against the Empire would bring peace to the galaxy, but it didn’t, and the struggle would continue to rage for decades, only the players changed. Even more good people would be lost in the years to come.

Leia noticed that the young man was uncomfortable, and grinned, trying to lighten the mood. “So, you said that you spoke with the Council. Is there anything I should know, or can help you with?” Jacen considered. It would be difficult to explain mission of the Enterprise crew without revealing his own origins, but his mother was a part of the High Council, and if he was able to convince her that returning to the portal might aid the Alliance in its struggle, requisitioning a ship for the task would be far easier.

Jacen launched into a brief recounting of the circumstances leading up to his presence onboard the Republica and Captain Picard’s proposal to the Council, as well as its uncertain reaction. He was careful to avoid any detailed descriptions of the origins of those who had found their way to the Rebel fleet, especially himself, and thus the tale was shorter and less coherent than he had hoped it would be, but Leia did not seem to notice many the jumps and discrepancies. After he had finished, she stood silently in thought, allowing Jacen to regain some composure. “That was quite an extraordinary tale,” she said at last. “I can see how the Council might have been skeptical. However, if it is true, contact with this United Federation of Planets might provide the Alliance with resources and sanctuary we are in dire need of. When we rendezvous with the rest of the Fleet, I will attempt to bring this back to the Council’s notice, but I can’t promise anything. As you know, recent events have strained our resources considerably, perhaps past the breaking point.”

“I understand, and anything you can do to help us would be greatly appreciated,” Jacen said, relieved that she had not pushed for more details. However, Leia was still looking at him very curiously and he almost felt as though she was trying to tap into his mind. His mother, while strong in the Force, had always been too distracted by politics and war to ever fully train and exploit her innate abilities, but she still was able to use it to a limited extent, especially when it came to reading the emotions of her children. Jacen was sure that at this point in time, she was completely unaware of her own gift and would not be able to use it to probe him at all, but he was still very uneasy, afraid to let any damaging foreknowledge of her future slip to the forefront of his mind.

So absorbed were they in this unconscious fencing match that neither noticed that another person was approaching them until a voice rang down the hallway. “What are you doing out here this late Leia? Is everything all right?” It was a powerful voice, tinged heavily by a Corellian accent and years of inhaling leaking coolant fumes. Han Solo, dressed in his trademark worn vest and pilot’s leggings walked up behind Leia and placed a concerned hand on her shoulder. Beads of sweat began to form on Jacen’s forehead, dealing with his mother alone had been hard enough, and Han was far more likely to press him for details if their conversation started up again.

Leia took his hand in her own, and turned back to smile up at the gruff smuggler turned general. “I’m fine Han. My meeting with Captain Ryceed took a little longer than I expected, that’s all.”

Satisfied, Han turned a suspicious gaze upon the young Jedi, who attempting to look as unassuming as possible and failing miserably. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. “You don’t look like a crewman.” Leia rolled her eyes in mild exasperation and sent an apologetic smile Jacen’s way. “He’s a guest of the Council’s Han. His group got trapped here when the Imperials attacked.” The older man’s stretched lips into a tight line, and Jacen flinched, knowing that the general was still deeply scarred by Lando’s death.

Rather than lash out though, Han narrowed his eyes and looked Jacen over just as Leia had done. “You look familiar kid. Kind of remind me of a guy I met the last time we were on Ord Cestus. What’s your name?”

“I…uh…” Jacen stammered uneasily. “I’m Jacen.” Han cocked an eyebrow. “Jacen eh? Heh, I like the sound of that, got a nice ring to it. Where are ya from Jacen?”

Before the Jedi had time to think of an appropriately ambiguous answer though, Leia grabbed Han’s arm and began to drag him away. “Alright, that’s enough. No need to interrogate the poor man at this hour. Lets get back to our quarters.” Han resisted at first, but gave up without much of a fight, sighing and shaking his head. As she guided the man away, Leia called over her shoulder. “It’s been nice to meet you Jacen. I’ll let you know what the Council has to say when I see them.”

When the younger versions of his mother and father had disappeared from view, Jacen slumped into a nearby wall, exhausted. He sincerely hoped he wouldn’t have to do that again. Still, it was nice to talk to them again, even if they were different than the people he remembered. Not too different though, he reflected as Han’s subdued behavior came to mind. He had seen that before. For all his bravado and legendary toughness, the loss of friends hit him just as hard as it would anyone, perhaps more so. And that was one trait he had passed on to his son.

Now very tired, Jacen righted himself and set off for his quarters, leaving the hall as empty and quiet as it had been a few minutes before.
-----------------------------------------------------------

Darth Vader’s crimson blade emitted a piercing hiss as it cleaved easily through the docking chamber’s durasteel wall, leaving in its wake a wide swath of glowing molten metal. Molecules supercharged by the energy blade, flecks of the boiling wall spewed out, spattering against the Dark Lord’s armored carapace harmlessly and dousing the surrounding floor with a searing rain. Luke, who had only barely ducked beneath the powerful cut in time, ignored the burning pain as a few droplets burned through his flight suit, and rolled away from the scarred wall and flipping up backwards to right himself. He had little time to regain his balance however; Darth Vader and his lightsaber lunged through the air in a heat beat, impacting Luke’s own blade with the force of a cargo hauler and driving him back even further.

Too drained now to effectively parry or deflect Vader’s brutal strikes, Luke was forced to block each one as it came, his arms bearing the brunt of each blow. Vader was to powerful, and did not seem to tire even as the two combatants battled back and forth around the immense docking bay over and over again. Every nerve in the Jedi’s body cried out in anguish, and Luke could not calm them with the techniques Yoda had taught him, his every once of will and force energy was needed to keep Vader’s energy blade from cleaving away an arm or leg. There was no place to run or hide here, no cliff to try to force Vader over, or alley to try and disappear into as there had been during their last meeting. It was only father and son now, a battle of two uncompromising opponents, and whatever outcome would see the end of the conflict, it would not be a draw.

The young Jedi sensed that Vader was pushing him up against a support pylon, and ducked around Vader’s side, saber raised up high to block the inevitable reprisal. However, instead of bring his blade down against Luke’s, Vader’s free hand quivered slightly and the younger man was thrown back, rolling along the hard metal floor several times before regaining control. Not bothering to wipe the trickle of blood that began to pour down from the corner of his mouth, Luke propped himself up on one arm and used the other to fling his blade at Vader’s unguarded legs. Anticipating the take but unable to deflect it, Vader leapt two meters into the air, allowing the green disc of energy to fly harmlessly underneath, and landing just in time to see it arc back into Luke’s out-stretched hand.

“You have learned much since our last encounter,” Vader praised darkly, stalking towards Luke without breaking step, but the other blocked out the empty words, instead focusing on his opponent and his surroundings, searching for a way out, a bit of high ground. Out of the corner of his eye, something caught his notice, but before he could register it fully, the Dark Lord was upon him again, red blade slashing inexorably forward. Luke strained against the blows, but this time he attempted to guide each strike so that Vader would push him closer to what he had seen. Ducking under a horizontal chop, Luke brought himself around the near invincible titan, and for a fleeting second before Vader maneuvered to face him again, Luke could see clearly what had caught his attention.

That was it!

Yes, maybe, just maybe, if he could move a few dozen meters down the hangar deck, to the far wall. Luke let his reaction time slip slightly, allowing Vader more time to aim and execute his hacking attacks. The Sith took the posture change in stride focusing his energy into individual, precision aimed slices and cuts rather than brutal, erratic flurries and jabs. Yes, Luke thought, think I’m weakening, push me back. As he continued to block and stumble backwards, the Jedi could feel the icy tendrils of Vader’s consciousness try to invade his own, searching for the source of Luke’s change in defense. Strengthening his mental walls as much as possible, he was able to stave of the incursion, but the effort exhausted him further. This last gambit had to work; he wouldn’t have the strength for another. The white, energizing glow of the light was fading fast from his perception, and nothing his old masters had taught him could rescue him now that he had been pushed so far. No, it was this, or failure, and whatever that would bring.

For the first time since the start of the fight, Luke forged forward, jabbing at his father’s chest plate and sweeping up under one of the cyborg’s powerful swipes. Burning energy nicked the material and Vader faltered, forced to pull back to a defensive posture. “There is still some fight left in you I see. You will make a powerful apprentice indeed.” Luke grinned grimly, and pressed forward again, but this time. Bader was ready, and set against Luke’s strikes with his own weapon, and forced them back towards the attacker, peeling away the Jedi’s offense as if it were skin of a muja fruit. Immediately, Luke was back on the defensive, loosing ground with each blow. Good.

After a few more exchanges of blows and a failed Force push on Luke’s part, he sensed they were nearing the wall he had chosen, one studded with large protrusions of machinery and conduits that extend up into the ceiling and branched into the floor. Allowing the Force to be his eyes, he made a mental picture of the surrounding area, and then gritted his teeth, bracing himself for what was to come.

Two more slashes, and they were at the wall, and ominous edifice that sloped up slightly into the armored ceiling high above. Moving to intercept a new flurry of savage blows, Luke’s back knocked against the hard surface, and knocked off guard, he let his saber dip slightly. The opening was only there for a moment, but Vader saw it, thrust forward, bringing his bulk within inches of Luke’s bloodied face. Moving faster than the eye could see, a gauntleted fist smashed into the side of the Jedi’s skull, and Luke went flying to the side, rolling uncontrollably for several long meters and finally coming to a halt, propped limply against the frame of an opening in the wall, a very large opening.

Struggling to retain consciousness as the resounding concussion still bounced around his skull, Luke found himself in a doorway perhaps two and a half meters wide, and twice that tall, one that lead into a long, closed hallway. At the end of the expanse, blue white energy coursed up and down a sheer wall along bits of exposed cable and between jutting power regulators. The huge arcs of energy twisted their way from a glowing pool on the floor along the wall and up into many waiting ports and mouths that fed pipes and conduits; this was the power distribution nexus for the entire deck.

Seemingly unaware of the sight behind him, Luke half stumbled, half crawled into the hallway, but Vader was approaching quickly, covering the distance between them in an eye blink. However, before the armored combatant could reach his quarry, Luke clenched his fist, and huge coil of cable came free from the surrounding wall, lashing down upon the Sith Lord, electrical energy sparking from its ruptured end. Caught off guard, Vader was only able to partially slow the snake-like coil, and was thrown back, letting loose a cry of anger and surprise. Luke did not pause to relish the small victory, instead dragging himself further away from the doorway until he reached a protruding control console and was able to drag his battered body upright. By that time, Vader had also recovered, and was striding forward, seemingly unscathed save for a large dent on his right shoulder plate, lightsaber poised to strike. Luke waited motionless, saber hanging limply from one hand as the dark lord casually tossed the detached cable aside with the flick of his wrist and then continued forward. Then, finally, Vader crossed the hallway’s threshold.

Even through the pain and turmoil in his body and heart, Luke couldn’t help a sad smile as he watched the Sith approach. “I’m sorry father,” he whispered, and then plunged his right hand into the open face of the control panel, artificial flesh and tendons of the fake hand Darth Vader had forced him to wear smashing through thin glass and plunging deep into the wring below. For a moment nothing moved saved the sparks that leapt up from the ruined console, and then with a titanic creak, thirty tons of durasteel crashed down upon the dark lord’s head. Luke got one last look at the dark robed man before the thick, solid containment blast door of the power nexus pushed him from view.

Luke gasped a sigh of resigned relief. The gambit had worked, and Darth Vader was now under clamped under enough weight to set an AT-AT off balance. Sorrow began to overtake him almost immediately however; he had not wished to destroy his father, but in that moment, his will to survive had taken hold, and he had reached out at his only possibility, the last possibility. He could have saved the man, Anakin, he knew there still was good within him, there had to be. Slowly withdrawing his artificial hand, now marred by a dozen deep cuts and revealing cold mechanical wiring underneath in some places, Luke collapsed to the floor, out of both exhaustion and grief. Tears began to stream from his eyes as he stared at the impassible, three meter thick blast door, and he absently released the grip on his lightsaber, which obediently retracted and fell silent.

Then Luke felt it. Faint at first, but then blossoming exponentially, the Jedi could sense a powerful presence in the Force nearby, his father. Luke’s heart jumped nearly into his throat; he was alive! His brash action had not doomed a redeemable man, his father. But the Jedi’s elation was short lived, as the presence in the Force continued to grow, swelling up far past what Luke had felt from Vader during their duel, doubling and then tripling to the extent that Luke almost had to close off his senses for fear of overload. And then, from deep within the solid block of durasteel that blocked Luke off from the hangar deck, a deep roar began to resound, basic and overwhelming, a sound the made the entire star destroyer resonate with power and made the air itself tremble. Slowly, impossibly, the block began to rise, screeching against its own massive weight and the grooves and gears that had guided it in its fall. Machinery in the ceiling above began to stress and snap, and the block rose even faster, now bulging out into the wall of the hallway itself, tearing a path in the metal. Finally, with a terrific roar, the entire assemblage tore free of its constraints, flying backwards out onto the flight deck, where it impacted and screeched along the polished floor for a dozen meters before coming to rest against a parked shuttle craft. And there, in the place the block had once occupied, a lone figure stood. His armor was bent and cracked in places, and his long flowing cap was torn, but Darth Vader was whole, burning with pure, dark emotion.

Luke gaped in shock and horror, stumbling back away from the shattered console and fumbling for his saber’s ignition control. “So, there is still emotion within you that Kenobi was not able to drive away. I felt your fear, your desperation, your anger Luke. Remember how good it felt to give into those impulses, how right it was. The Dark Side can give you that feeling and clarity again, and so much more.” A twisted sort of pride rang in Vader’s electronically distorted voice as he leapt out of a large depression that had appeared in the hard metal floor, easily a meter deep at its center point. Landing with a muffled thud, the dark lord moved towards Luke again, this time with a noticeable limp, but still very much mobile.

The battered Jedi tried to escape the unstoppable force, stumbling blindly backwards down the hallway, the thrumming sound of the power junction growing ever louder. Amid his confusion and pain, the little voice he had attempted to repress earlier reemerged, and could not help but again consider his father’s offer. It was now obvious that it would be impossible to defeat him in this contest; perhaps he should submit, join the Sith lord and learn the ways of the dark side. Yoda and Obi-Wan had taught him well, surely he would be able to repress the evil and selfish emotions that would attempt to consume him, and use his newly gained power to at last redeem his father. After all, if Anakin Skywalker was still alive deep with Darth Vader’s soulless brooding heart even after all this time, Luke could survive corruption long enough to formulate a new plan.

Even as he pondered this question, Yoda’s teachings warring against logic and self preservation, Vader came within striking range and easily smashed through Luke’s faltering and distracted defensive stance, sending his lightsaber spinning away. The silver hilt clanged against a tall regulator cone that was fixed amid a river of pure electrical energy and fell to the floor near the sea of arcing bolts and rivulets of charge that flowed around the floor adjoining the distribution wall. Disarmed and without hope of salvation, Luke stumbled further back, now only a few strides from the low pit that collected the pulsing waves of energy, and fell onto knees no longer able to support his weight. Through raw and tearing eyes, Luke stared up at Darth Vader who now stood only an arm span away, his red blade inches from the Jedi’s forehead.

“This is your last chance my son. Join me and bring order to the galaxy, or join the old fool in the emptiness of death.” The words were cold and absolute; these were truly Luke’s only options. As he stared up at his father’s emotionless nightmare mask, the last of the young Jedi’s resolve and discipline began to dissolve. There was no other way.

Without any warning, a piercing, angry whistle drowned out the sound of the power nexus and Vader’s own artificial breathing. Taken off guard, the dark lord spun to identify the noise, and was instantly hit by a wave coursing blue energy, which wrapped around his limbs and discharged against his ebony helmet, causing it to glow ghostly white. The towering cyborg stumbled back a few foot steps, and there, lightning still pouring from several apertures arrayed out from his tubular body, stood a little blue and white astromech droid. “R2,” Luke managed to mumble, so completely astonished that all thought of his impending fall to the darkness was banished. Blatting and whistling in rage and determination, the droid rolled forward, the energy wave intensifying to the point where Luke could barely look directly at it.

However, instead of succumbing to the increasing voltage, Darth Vader began to straighten himself, and the coursing serpent tongues of searing power ebbed down away from his torso and head, focusing in on his forearms and then hands, now free of their lightsaber hilt, dropped during the initial onslaught. The astromech did not relent, wailing with more emotion and determination than Luke had ever seen come from a droid, and intensified the blast further, bringing its own internal systems to the brink of failure. He did not care, protecting Luke was all that mattered, even if it meant facing an opponent he could not possibly defeat and still cared for, even after all these years.

As his own armor began to glow with a translucent light, Vader let loose a deafening roar, and the energy he had collected in his hands blasted back at R2-D2. The little droid was motionless for one moment as the energy began to lick its worn hull, let out a mournful sigh, and then rocketed backwards, its wheeled legs tearing away from the burning chassis. Blackened and scarred beyond recognition, the pieces of what had once been Luke Skywalker’s faithful servant and loyal friend landed in the deformed doorway, now little more than the more debris left behind in the wake of the combatant’s struggle.

No words could fully describe what the young Jedi felt in that moment; it was as if the pure sorrow and revulsion at seeing his friend being obliterated for nothing more than trying to save the life of his master had taken the form of a cleansing wave and wiped away all Luke’s hope, all of his desperate plans, Yoda and Obi-Wan’s teachings, his very will for living. All that was left was rage, rage at the monster that towered over him still. Anakin still lived one with in that twisted thing, but there was no hope of saving what little of the man remained, the evil was too dominate and pervading. And if Luke succumbed, he too would become like that thing, a entity of pure malevolence, without a single scrap of humanity or chance of redemption.

Drawing not on the light or the dark, Luke somehow found the strength to rise to his feet and look upon the Dark Lord as he casually summoned his lightsaber back into a gloved hand. “You have failed, my father,” Luke whispered icily. “I will never turn. You have shown me to what depths the Dark Side will truly lead.”

Vader’s opaque eyes looked down upon the man, who despite his many injuries, was standing taller and more resolutely than ever before. “Perhaps I was wrong after all,” he intoned simply, and then raising and igniting his crimson blade in a single motion, aimed a slash at Luke’s exposed legs. Mere inches from the torn flight suit however, the beam halted as if impacting some invisible wall and Vader glared back at his son’s grim, determined face. Luke’s eyes were fixed upon his fathers mask, and his hands were outstretched, contorted strangely, beckoning at the Sith’s straining blade. Grunting with exasperation, Darth Vader withdrew and then attacked again, this time forcing his weapon downward towards Luke’s forehead in a horizontal chop. Again, the red beam ground to a halt in midair, although this time the Jedi’s focus wavered, allowing the deadly thing to press forward a few more inches.

Luke felt Vader’s surprise through the force, and then something else; at last, the Dark Lord had smashed his internal defenses, and was probing his deepest, most secreted thoughts. “You have done well to hide her from me so long, my son, but I am afraid your failure is now complete. Obi-Wan may have blocked you fully from the true path, but I suspect that Leia will be more receptive to my teachings. You will not join me, but perhaps she will.” Luke felt as though Vader had just driven a lightsaber through his heart. Why did you tell me Ben? Why! Now Vader knew of the sister Luke had only just discovered he had, and without training Luke had been given, she would be consumed by the dark.

An arcane bellow ripped from the shattered man’s gut, and Vader’s saber flew back, almost decapitating him. The Dark Lord put up his other arm to deflect the blast, but he was forced away nevertheless, caught up in a torrent of raw Force energy. Luke did not know where this power had originated, but he no longer cared. Vader had to be stopped, whatever the cost. Palms rigid and angled at the cyborg, Luke slowly, and then more surely, began to take steps away from the surging cauldron of energy that lay behind, newly born wind rustling his hair and tattered clothes. Darth Vader faltered further, and Luke pressed, tightening his control over the torrent and using it to lash his foe, pounding him with coils of invisible force and overwhelming power. Beyond the wave, the Jedi could feel his father weakening fast, as if the new onslaught had taxed his energy reserves beyond the breaking point.

For the first time truly desperate, Vader pushed back, lending his own energies to the storm, and forcing Luke to loose ground again. Lip beginning to bleed between clenched teeth, the Jedi gathered up more of the knots of power and sent them again at the Dark Lord, but this time he was ready, and reflected them back, making Luke again step back to remain balanced. As this assault continued, neither combatant noticed the small silver hilt lying at the very edge of the expanse of electrified deck plate. Neither noticed as Luke’s failing efforts brought him closer to it. Neither noticed as his left boot came down upon its smooth, rounded surface. Then it was too late.

Suddenly falling backwards over the discarded lightsaber, Luke was unable to resist a new wave of invisible energy, and to his disbelief, felt an arc of lightning shoot up past his head, and then another, and then another. His body was consumed by a violent river of bluish light, and the pain that flamed across his body quickly gave way to numbness, and the darkness set on.
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Deep within the Imperial Palace, in the quiet solitude of a simple medical chamber, Darth Vader looked upon the barely living remains of his only son. In the darkness, his synthetic breath was quickened and irregular, reverberating softly though the liquid that sustained the Jedi’s immobile form. There, on that Star Destroyer, he had not acted quickly enough, he had been too slow and pulling his son from the nexus’s deadly embrace, and he had all but died for it, his mind now trapped in a coma the greatest physicians in the Empire could not remedy. Luke had not been felled in combat, or even chosen the path of noble sacrifice; he had succumbed to an accident. There, in that narrow hallway, Vader’s ambitions and plots had been forgotten, the dark side’s icy grip had weakened; a twisted man had held his broken son in his arms. There, on the cold, metal floor, for the first time in two decades, Darth Vader had wept.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:17pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire


Chapter Thirty Six


“Realspace reversion in ten seconds,” a comm officer reported from a crew station on the Republica’s bridge, his voice noticeably tinged by anxiety. Captain Ryceed nodded and rose from her command chair, careful to hide her own apprehension. They had been out of contact with the Rebellion for nearly a week, and she had no idea what might await the Republica at the Alliance redoubt. Assuming the Imperials hadn’t caught up with them, the command frigate Redemption, what was left of Rogue Squadron, and the few transports and gunships that had escaped Sullust would be awaiting them, but the hope was that there would be a greater force in waiting. The Imperial ambush had been premature, and there were still Alliance fleet assets elsewhere preparing to jump. Hopefully, the Redemption had been able to stop them from rendezvousing at Sullust and diverted the remaining fleet here. They may have lost the flagship and a large portion of the Sullust battle group, but the fleet elements from Mon Calamari and Arbra would still make the Alliance a viable military threat.

“Initiating reversion.”

Beyond the bridge’s armored viewport, the roiling darkness of hyperspace shimmered and then gave way to a vast field of stars, unbroken by planetary bodies or nebulae; the Alliance fall back position was fixed in the rarely-traveled emptiness between Hutt Space and the Brak sector, near an old deep-space observation station that had been converted into a Alliance supply depot, abandoned during the height of the Old Republic thousands of years ago.

“Are you picking up any Alliance signals?” Ryceed asked expectantly, probing the empty space beyond with narrowed eyes. The gesture was futile, even relatively close starships would be too far off to see without the optical enhancers built into the view port’s transparisteel sheath locked onto a target, but the captain persisted nonetheless. She had fought in more than one battle where her ship had literally jumped in on top of an enemy cruiser, and her experience told her that she might well be doing that now. Considering how close they had come to detection the previous day, it was possible that the remainder of the fleet had been ambushed or followed, and the only thing awaiting them here was the deadly green flame of a Star Destroyer’s broadside.

“Yes sir,” Ryceed’s executive officer replied, analyzing a sensor readout. “Several. Directly forward, 35 degrees above our axis.” Ryceed smiled slightly. At least it wasn’t a trap.

“Alter our heading towards the signals and get me a tight band transmission to the Redemption when we are in range.” As the XO acknowledged the order and moved off to oversee the bridge crew, the captain called up the ship’s imagining sensors on one of her command terminals and observed as the helm brought the Alliance fleet into view. They were only a few pinpricks of light at first, virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding stars, but as the cruiser changed course, and sped forward, the view quickly sharpened, viewscreen automatically focusing on and enlarging the center of the group of ships.

Ryceed’s eyes widened and she grabbed a nearby guard rail, squeezing it hard to regain focus. There, displayed before her, was the shattered hull of what had once been a MC-80 Star Cruiser, the mightiest weapon in the Rebel Starfleet. Now instead of a majestic, almost organic-looking hull adorned with its characteristic systems bulges, the ship was charred wreck, listing starboard lazily in the deathly quiet of space. Illuminated by its few functioning running lights, the cruiser’s hull was almost uniformly covered in huge swaths of black carbon burns, and sported numerous vast gashes, one of which nearly bisected the wreck, exposing two dozen decks to space. It looked like the carcass of a huge stellar monster of legend; it’s slowly rotting ribs jutting out into the cold vacuum. A single ion drive remained functioning, pulsing blue light wearily as it attempted to keep the vessel from spinning end over end into the blackness.

As the image began to pan back, revealing more of the fleet, other officers took notice, pausing to gape in horror at the image on the captain’s screen. There were six large ships in total, two MC-80s, a pair of smaller Mon Calamari vessels, a light cruiser and modified carrier, a retrofitted Lanowar Assault Cruiser, and finally the medical frigate Redemption. Every ship without exception seemed to have suffered damage, but the MC-80s had taken the worst of it, the second only in somewhat better repair than the drifting hulk it was holding position next to. Dozens of pinpricks, fighters, shuttles, and repair tugs of all designations darted around them, docking with the various ships or angling in towards the 500 meter half-wheel space station that lay in the midst of the motley assortment of ships.

“By the Force,” Commander Gavplek, Ryceed’s XO, whispered unbelievingly. “That’s the Camaas. Wasn’t she stationed at Mon Calamari?” Ryceed nodded, running one hand shakily through her short hair. The drifting wreck was indeed that ship; she was fast friends its commander, a Rodian named Gredic Farr. They had trained together in the Chandrilan Flight Academy, from which both had been recruited to join the Alliance. Looking at the burned hulk was beginning to turn her stomach in revulsion, and there was a spark of new fear coursing up her spine. If the Camaas was here, where was the rest of the Mon Calamari fleet division? There were nearly two dozen capital ships being held in reserve there. The sickened sensation spread into her chest.

Caught up in the devastation of what was to have been their only reinforcements, which had been expanded onto the main viewer just off the forward view port, the bridge crew barely noticed as one of the turbolifts at the rear of the chamber opened and Leia Organa, Han Solo, and C-3PO stepped out. “Oh dear,” the protocol droid mumbled, pausing almost as soon as he was out of the door, optical receptors attracted to the overhead sensor display. Han and Leia as well stopped and exchanged grim looks.

“Captain,” the princess called formally, climbing up to the raised command platform in a few quick strides. Snapping her head away from the spectacle, Ryceed offered a smart, if slightly delayed salute. “Ma’am.” Leia motioned for the captain to be at ease; she technically didn’t outrank the captain, but as a member of Mon Mothma’s High Council, she received preferential treatment from Alliance officers, especially the younger ones, who were generally highly enamored of the heroes of Yavin Four. Leia didn’t like the special consideration, but as a former galactic senator, she was used to it.

Leia gestured to the display screen. “Do you know what happened here?” Captain Ryceed frowned, and the shot a glare at a nearby communications officer. “Have you been able to get a tight beam to the Redemption yet?” The crewer punched a few digits into his consol, and then looked up. “Aye sir, the connection has been made. And it looks like there’s someone on the other end waiting. Holofeed.”

“Put it through.”

The holographic projector Cortana had occupied the previous day sparked to life and the shimmering image of a woman came into view, her face heavily lined and hair disheveled. Ryceed snapped another stiff salute and Leia gave a small conciliatory bow.

“Captain Imal Ryceed, I am relieved to see that you and your crew have arrived safely,” Mon Mothma said wearily. It was plain that she had not slept in days.

“As are we, Supreme Commander,” the captain replied, dropping her salute at a respectful speed, still at attention. Mon Mothma’s actual title was rarely used in the Alliance Hierarchy, but Ryceed was unusually formal for a Rebel officer, even a captain.

Mon Mothma’s projection turned to the princess. “And I am quite relieved to see you here at last Leia. Things have been going very badly here.” She looked as though she was going to continue, but the woman trailed of, staring sadly at nothing in particular. Leia stepped forward, her face earnest. “What happened here? Where is the rest of the fleet?” The Chief of State shook her head slowly. “This is it, everyone who made it here. The Imperial fleet launched a concerted attack on Mon Calamari before the fleet could jump away. Most of it was destroyed defending the planet, and only Captain Halder, Kre’fey and Farr’s ships were able to escape after it was clear the planet was lost.” Ryceed felt a lump forming in her throat at the mention of Farr’s name, but she held her tongue, and Mon Mothma continued.

“The battle group that the Council called in from Arbra sent back a recognition code when we called them here, but they should have arrived here yesterday, even if they took the longest and most secreted route. General Madine fears that they too have been ambushed and wiped out. The rest of the ships here are stragglers from Denlly 2 and Cerea, the only two other bases we were able to reach safely. We are trying to contact some of the raider squadrons in more distant sectors, but too much hyperwave activity from our remaining ships risks Imperial detection. It hardly matters though; most of our military forces were already at either Sullust or Mon Calamari. This may be all we have left.”

Leia listened in horror, but was able disguise her shock with a deep frown. This was hardly unexpected, but news of what might very well be the death knell of the Rebellion was still hard to bear. “What of the evacuees from Sullust? Have you been able to contact them? From Mon Calamari?” Mon Mothma shook her head solemnly. “As far as we know, no one outside of the three warships I mentioned escaped the surprise attack there. As for the Sullustans, it is highly likely that all of their ships were destroyed or captured soon after they jumped. Without our battleships to guide and defend them, there was little hope they would be able to flee for long. The few scouts we have dispatched indicate that this new Imperial operation is massive; two thousand reserve Star Destroyers have been activated in this quadrant alone. Lord Vader is pressing the advantage, and any sign or even the faintest clue of rebel activity is being investigated ruthlessly. I fear that we will not receive…” she halted, putting up a hand. “That is enough for now. This can be discussed later, with the Council. I have arranged a meeting to take place onboard the observation station at eleven hundred hours.”

Leia nodded, trying to look reassuring. “I’ll be there.” Mon Mothma smiled weakly. “Thank you Leia. I’m not sure how much longer I could have lasted without you here.”

The Supreme Commander turned back to Captain Ryceed. “Captain, I’m sure your ship requires supplies and repairs. Our resources are limited, but there is enough fuel and ammunition stored on this station for you to requisition what is needed. Ah, and there is a considerable number of wounded from the other ships here, and we have not been able treat and bed them all. If there is space in your own medical facilities, it is requested that you take on some of our more critical cases.”

“Certainly, Supreme Commander. I will send shuttles to the station for them at once.” Mon Mothma gave a tired look of recognition, and then squeezed shut and then opened her eyes, as if trying to stay awake. “Ah yes, Captain. Neild Farr of the Camaas is one of the patients I’ll have you take aboard. He suffered several injuries during the retreat, but he is in stable condition now.” Ryceed felt a small portion of the weight on her chest evaporate. How did she remember, or even know that the two were friends, especially at a time like this? Admiration for the woman growing, allowed a small smile. “That’s…good news. Thank you Ma’am.”

Looking more drained now than she had even minutes before, Mon Mothma reached for something out of the projector’s view, probably the control stud, but before she could end the transmission, the woman looked up again. “General Solo?”

Surprised, Leia and Ryceed looked over to find Han Solo standing between them, trying to look precise and military. “Chief of State, I was wondering if I could ask if General Skywalker is with your fleet group here.” Leia felt a shiver run down her spine. Yes, this had been bothering both of them since Sullust. Luke hadn’t arrived in the fleet before the Imperial attack, and neither had heard mention of him during the battle or retreat.

Mon Mothma shook her head. “I’m sorry, but no. We had hoped he had docked with the Republica before we evacuated. Did you make contact before or during the battle?”

“No Ma’am, that’s the thing. If he didn’t rendezvous with your squadron, then he must not have been involved in the battle at all. When Leia… Princess Organa and I left Tatooine; Luke said he had to stop off some place before he met back up with the fleet. If he got there after we escaped…” There was no need to finish the thought. Even a pilot of Luke’s caliber couldn’t fight off Darth Vader and a fleet of Star Destroyers and Interdictors by himself.

Mon Mothma sighed, sounding increasingly haggard. “This is very troubling news. General Skywalker was a great asset to us, and I know both of you are very close to him. I will instruct our deep range patrols to keep an eye out for distress signals or snub fighter hyperspace signatures from the Sullust system, but I can’t promise anything. I am very sorry.”

Leia accepted the news and thanked Mon Mothma with a calm and even demeanor, but as she and Han rode the turbolift away from the bridge, Leia lost her composure and fell against the gruff Corellian for support. She wasn’t sure if either of them could withstand another loss like this.
----------------------------------------------------------

The Shuttles that had been dispatched from the Republica were given special clearance by Mon Mothma herself, and thus were able to bypass the motley collection of light freighters, Gallofree transports, and what few other support craft were left in the fleet, all waiting in long cues for docking privileges at the supply station’s two operational ports. Most of the smaller ships in the fleet were in varying states of undersupply and disrepair, and there were thousands of crewmen in fleet remnant in need of medical attention. The sickbay facilities on the larger starships, even the medical frigate, could not handle the strain, and thus a makeshift hospital had been set up in the facility’s main computer lab. It was a dangerous situation; there would be little time to evacuate the station if the Imperial fleet located them, and the facility was unarmed, but it had to be done. Risk or not, Mon Mothma had made it clear that every wounded Alliance soldier still able to be saved would be, she could not bear anymore blood on her hands, and massive die-offs amongst the personnel would be devastating for already weakened moral.

After the three boxy starships had landed in the crowded and noisy shuttle landing bay, the Republica’s chief physician and his team rushed off to the makeshift hospital area, while the other crewmen began to load much needed starship components and fuel onto their ships. Almost a dozen others had accompanied the crewers, come to see the High Council and discuss Captain Picard’s proposal. Leia Organa, with C-3PO in tow, had departed immediately for Mon Mothma’s temporary quarters, taking Major Truul and his aide with her. As one of the more senior and experienced infantry commanders left in the fleet, he would likely need to be close by if and when the Council called for a general command meeting to debate their options.

Left in the bay was Captain Picard himself, Commander Riker, Data, the Master Chief, with Cortana stored in his armor, and inexplicably, the Arbiter. The towering warrior, generally reclusive since the Battle of Sullust, had simply asked to accompany the small Federation delegation, but had not given the reason why. There had been little reason to refuse the request, at the very least he might decide to assist the Alliance crewmen load the shuttles, but there was something about him that was suspicious. Both Riker and the Spartan had kept a very close eye on the Elite during the short transit, but he had seemed to be behaving normal enough, for him, and was now causally watching Leia and Truul as they made their way through the crowd and disappeared through a doorway off the dock.

The Federation officers, instructed by Leia Organa, who was being surprisingly helpful for a person none of them had even seen before a few days ago, to stay on the station until she could arrange a new hearing for their cause, slowly drifted out of the throng of binary load lifters and harried Rebel officers and towards a relatively empty hallway. “I wonder how long we’ll have to wait here,” Riker said idly, propped up against a wall as he watched the Republica’s shuttles lift off, bearing new supplies and patients in need of surgery and bacta emersion.

“As long as it takes, number one,” Picard responded sternly. “This is a trying time for them, and we mustn’t impose more than we need too, at least not yet.”

The commander took the admonition with a grim nod, but another spoke up. “Perhaps it would be wise to try and speed up proceedings.” This from the AI construct Cortana, who spoke through the Master Chief’s own comm unit. “As you say yourself, the Alliance has a lot on its hands right now. If we just wait quietly, we might have to sit here until that wormhole collapses. The sooner we make our case again, the less likely it is we will be forgotten.”

Picard shook his head. “I assure you, I will not allow them to forget us. However, we must remember that the Alliance doesn’t have to do anything for us; we must convince them that it is in their best interest to give us a ship that can traverse that rift. If our entreaties are too forceful or hasty, we may lose any support we might have left among them, and will be sent back to the Republica, perhaps even imprisoned.”

Data nodded thoughtfully. “You should seriously consider Captain Picard’s warning. He is quite experienced with a wide variety of diplomatic and political situations, and has been involved in the construction of numerous successful treaties and compacts, including the Ceasefire implemented to end the Tejan/Oxygeen war, the Sheliak Compromise of Stardate…”

“Thank you Data, that’s enough,” the Captain said with a reassuring gesture, a bemused smile creasing his lips. The android quickly silenced itself, casting an inquisitive look at the Captain before straightening up and resuming his curious observation of the numerous Alliance officers who skirted around the small group as they passed.

The conversation had lulled for no more than fifteen seconds before the green cyborg spoke up again, this time in his own voice. “Where is the Elite?”

Caught off guard by the question, the others hurriedly looked to the area where the Arbiter had been standing before, against the wall a few feet behind Riker, only minutes before. Sure enough though, the spot was vacant, and there was no sign of the eight-foot titan.

“What the?” Riker mumbled, glancing down at both ends of the hallway to no avail.

“He was there exactly three minutes, nineteen seconds ago, the last time my vision passed over that area,” Data noted, almost incredulously. “I do not see how he could have evaded our notice when he left. Disguising such a body mass, even in a crowd such as this, would be extremely difficult.”

“Never underestimate one of them,” the Master Chief said darkly, shifting his weight into a more alert position for combat. “I once saw a single Elite cut down a squad of seven men in five seconds, just with his plasma blade. And the Arbiter is no ordinary foot soldier.” The Chief had developed a grudging respect for the alien over the last few weeks, but he still was perfectly willing to accept that it might turn on them again. Still, if the Arbiter did intend on escape or subterfuge, why would he do it now? The Elite had been left mostly to his own devices for days on the Republica, and had made no hostile moves. It didn’t add up.

“Whatever he’s doing, we have to find him, and fast,” Picard warned. “Even benign observation of this station’s inner workings without permission could be perceived as a threat, and we are on uncertain footing as it is.”

“If he’s intent on not being found, were probably not going to find him, at least not until he makes some offensive move,” Cortana noted. “His armor has a stealth system integrated into it that can disrupt most motion, thermal, and electrical scanners, as well as deflect light. The Chief’s motion sensor system wouldn’t be able to accurately pin point him, even without the number of people around us, and I doubt even Alliance internal sensors could pick him up, at least not without a concerted effort.”

Picard shook his head. “No, we can’t let the Alliance know unless absolutely necessary. Is there any other way we might be able to locate him?”

The AI paused, considering. “Well, he probably knows about just as little about the layout of this station as we do, so he can’t have gotten too far in here. It would help if I could guess at his motives, but if he’s trying to avoid detection, open, out of the way spaces would be my best bet, with low lighting.”

“Covenant personal cloaking shields create a visible ripple effect in good light, but in the dark, they are virtually impossible to see,” the Master Chief explained.

Picard frowned, deep in thought. There was little chance that spreading out to look for the Arbiter would succeed, and it might not even be necessary; after all, he had given no indication of hostile motives. Still, there was a danger, and even if the Elite meant no harm, if an Alliance marine discovered a member of Picard’s party operating under cloak in a secure portion of the station, his credibility, and their chances of getting home, would be forever lost. Silently, Picard dammed the foolish creature. They had been so close to another hearing before the council; why would he jeopardize that opportunity now?

“Alright, we’ll have to at least try and find him. Commander, I want you to stay here, just in case Leia Organa summons us before I return. Stall her and raise us on your comm. It should still function in here.” Picard’s own insignia chip had been seized during his time aboard the Torrent, but he had been able to requisition one from Lieutenant Jossa before they departed. “Commander Data, Chief, come with me. I think it would be best to begin our search from the docking bay. We might at least get a sense were he might have been able to head without alerting attention.”


The search, however, did not last very long. Almost as soon as Picard and his team had exited the hallway and waded back into the crowd of crewers and droids who hurried feverishly though the bay, loading and unloading shuttles and fightercraft, the Master Chief halted, staring incredulously at a large stack of ration containers that were being loaded into a waiting Calamarian transport. “You have got to be kidding me.”

Surprised by the soldier’s incredulous words, the Captain and Data both turned towards the spot, where, among a crew of burly humans and a lone wookiee who were focused on hefting the large tubes into the ship’s waiting maw, a tall, bluish gray creature stood, grappling with a metal box nearly his own size. “I believe our search is at and end,” Data commented, triggering an annoyed lance from his superior.

“What are you doing here?” Picard asked caustically after navigating his way though the tightly packed rows of crates and busy droids. Not even bothering to turn to face the human, the Arbiter braced himself against the weight of his charge, at least four hundred pounds of pastisteel and compressed food stuffs, and staggered over to the transports cargo hatch. With a low grunt, he raised the container up to neck height, and then shoved it onto the waiting deck of the transport, where it was quickly tagged and shoved into the ship’s main hold my grateful Alliance pilots. The Arbiter then flexed his smooth, toned muscles, sighed, and turned to the group.

“I have little patience for idle waiting. When it became apparent that the High Council was not going to grant us an audience immediately, I decided to assist the soldiers out her with their recovery. I trust I did nothing to endanger or inconvenience you.” The Elite’s response was formal and monotonous, but Picard could swear there was a hint of annoyance behind the words. Secretly, he felt the same; there had been far too much waiting since they had rendezvoused with the Alliance fleet. He longed to be back in command of a starship, to decide when and how things would be done. And, of course, he longed to be back home, no longer a wear passenger in a strange land, set amidst a conflict he could only begin to understand or appreciate. Picard was certain that the Arbiter shared mutual desires.

Nevertheless, they were still only unwilling visitors, unneeded baggage, and unless Picard could convince someone that they could offer something of value in return for passage back to the wormhole, they would remain leaves in the wind.

“No…no, it’s alright,” Picard said, shaking his head. “I would simply appreciate it if in the future you make your actions known to one of us before moving off elsewhere. We wouldn’t want there to be a misunderstanding of your motives on the part of the Alliance.”

The Arbiter fixed Picard in gaze with his large, golden eyes, and the human suddenly became very aware of just how small he was compared to the warrior. “I shall endeavor to comply with your request, Captain.” He placed special emphasis on the final word. Picard grew increasingly uneasy. The Elite had been reserved and compliant in the past, but he certainly was not one to be crossed, by friend or foe.

An uncomfortable silence hung over the group for a long moment, the Federation captain and former Covenant ship master locked in a contest of wills. Then, barely indistinguishable over the racket of the docking bay, Picard noticed the badge on his chest was chirping. Ending the uncomfortable moment with a grudging nod, he looked away and slapped the communication device. “Commander?”

“Captain, Major Truul has informed me that the Council will meet with us now. He says time is limited.”

Picard acknowledged the message and then turned to Data and the Chief. “We should go.”

As the two moved off to rejoin Riker in the far hallway, Picard turned back to the Elite, who still had him fixed in a penetrating stare. “I trust you want to accompany us.” The Arbiter inclined his head passively and strode off after Data and the cyborg, leaving Picard alone standing next to the transport, very glad to be out of his gaze.

“I’m not buying his story,” the Master Chief said, after making sure his external comm was off.

“Me neither,” Cortana agreed, using the optical sensors impregnated throughout the super soldier’s armor to monitor the Elite. “I can buy that he’s not a xenophobic zealot intent on killing you when your back is turned anymore, but I have a hard time picturing any high and mighty Elite lugging around cargo simply because they were bored. He’s up to something. You’ll be keeping an eye on him too?”

“And a gun sight, when I’m able.”
Cortana could never tell when the Chief was being sarcastic, but he rarely was.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------

“If we are to act at all, we must do it soon!” The tall man slapped his open palm on the dark Dathomiri Pine table to emphasize his point. The gaunt and preoccupied faces observed him from around the huge wooden disc, unmoved by the display. “With each day that passes, Vader’s grip upon the Empire strengthens, and more of our contacts turn on us, flee, or disappear outright! We must to consolidate, reassert our authority as the rightful heirs of Palpatine’s power; as the only ones who can lawfully chose a new Emperor. If we…”

“You will speak of his Imperial highness with the proper respect,” Sate Pestage said icily, his voice little more than a whisper. The Grand Vizier, chief among Palpatine’s most trusted advisors, sat stiffly on a narrow, metallic chair, his arms draped limply on its control-studded supports. Dressed in a luxurious burgundy robe and large, domed hat that denoted his high status, Pestage looked very small and frail, as if his master’s death had crushed what little life was left in his dry bones. However, dark, beady eyes told a completely different story; the Vizier was still very alert, and very dangerous.

An uncomfortable silence filled the large chamber, and the speaker, his momentum robed, bowed in supplication. “I apologize, Grand Vizier; you know I meant no disrespect our majesty. The past few days have been trying for us all; I am afraid I have been too busy attempting to ensure the Empire’s future and our place in it. The effort has distracted me from paying proper respect to our fallen master.” The acid in the man’s tone was palpable. Pestage said nothing in response, only acknowledging the obvious condescension in the councilor’s words by narrowing his eyes on him, further furrowing an already crevassed brow.

Sure that no more objections were forthcoming from the Grand Vizier, the speaker sat lightly in a the large, splendid chair behind him and launched into another impassioned speech, regaling those assembled with a myriad of warnings, foreboding statistics, and half formed plans; everyone in the chamber had heard the dialogue before, and doubtless would again. The man went by the name of Ars Dagnor, who, like most of those listening, had been part of Palpatine’s inner circle of advisors. A tallow-skinned and pasty human of slight stature, Ars was surprisingly charismatic for his physical appearance, a skill that the late Emperor had employed more than once, both in private negotiation and to spread the propaganda that helped keep the vast multitudes of Imperial citizens in line.

Arrayed around the large table were six other men of similar ilk, all advisors and confidants of the Emperor, now with their position of power and influence in danger. None of them labored under the illusion that the new ruler of the Galactic Empire would take them on as his own staff, and some of the inner circle had even fled after Palpatine’s death, disappearing to one of the numerous retreat worlds and redoubts Palpatine had developed during his reign. Two in particular, Savuud Thimram and Gwellib Ap-Llewft, both minor Force users honed under the Emperor’s dark tutelage, had expressed a fear for their own lives before slipping away; Darth Vader’s seemingly ingrained resentment and anger towards most Force-users had only been barely contained and directed by Palpatine, and no one knew what he would do to those under the Empire’s sanction now that he was left to his own devices.

Most had stayed however, unwilling to relinquish the power they held and confident that with their contacts and influence, Vader might be undermined and subverted, perhaps even removed entirely. Dagnor was the chief advocate of this course, and the advisors Gam Rothwall and Janus Greejatus firmly with him, but the other four, Kren Blista-Vance, Hixa Torenvom, the ever silent Sim Aloo, and finally Sate Pestage himself were more doubtful, unsure of what course to take.

“But wouldn’t assassinating Vader at a time like this be risking a major upset in the military hierarchy?” Ars Dagnor cast annoyed glare at the portly Torenvom, angered at having one of his long-winded plots to eliminate the Dark Lord of the Sith interrupted.

“Of course it would mean upsetting the hierarchy Hixa. What else would you call the summary replacement of a head of state?”
Greejatus snickered.

Fleshy cheeks reddening slightly, the counselor pressed angrily forward. “You know what I meant Ars. Vader’s mobilization of our reserve fleets to finally eliminate the Rebellion has stretched our Forces out more than they have been for decades, and there are rumors that some of the lesser powers are taking advantage of it. I have received reports from one of my contacts near Bakura that the local holonet has lost contact with several of the colony worlds closest to Wild Space. The local Moff has voiced his fears that there may be a hostile force at work.”

Ars Dagnor let loose a loud, obnoxious sigh, and then shook his condescendingly. “You of all people Hixa should know that there is no power in this galaxy, alien or rebel, that could pose any serious threat to the Empire. The admiralty is well trained and loyal enough to operate effectively under any adverse circumstance, even a change in Emperor.”

“And what if civil war breaks out? Have you considered that?” Sate Pestage said softly, his calm tone and body language disguising his growing distain for the pompous blowhard across the table. “For all of our contacts and supposed influence, many in the military and government may chose to side with Vader if we make a move against him. You are correct, my friend, no external foe can threaten us, but we can easily tear ourselves apart.”

“And what exactly,” Ars responded slowly, his voice bearing the same acidic quality it had born during their previous exchange, “makes you believe that anyone would choose to follow Darth Vader, the night terror, murder of friend and foe alike, relic of the traitorous Jedi Order, over the closest friends and confidants of the late, benevolent Emperor? Propaganda proves its usefulness once again; Vader is seen by the unthinking masses as a mindless killer, a terror weapon to be used against those who violated the will and trust of the Emperor. All of Lord Palpatine’s more…questionable policies can be attributed to him, and the Emperor’s legacy can be left pristine and pure. Most in the higher echelons of power don’t even know that our Lord could wield the Force. He, and by extension us, are without fault or flaw. Supplanting Vader is more likely to earn us a place in the Week of Celebration than a civil war.”

“Besides, who ever said that anyone would have an opportunity to ally with him against us?” Greejatus intoned with a sickening grin. “If our glorious master could have been done in by filthy Rebel assassins, I’m sure we could think up an appropriate and expeditious fate for our supposed successor.”

“Please Greejatus, you don’t actually believe the official version of our Emperor’s demise, do you?” Blista-Vance scoffed, rolling his bloodshot eyes in contempt. “The Grand Vizier was forced to concoct that story himself; we all know who was really responsible.”

“Nevertheless, disposing of Vader will not be difficult when we decide upon the appropriate moment,” Ars Dagnor countered before anyone else could add to the increasingly heated discussion. “If anything, the Clone Wars and the subsequent Purge showed us that those who wield the Force are far from invincible. Darth Vader will die, and soon. I can promise this, and that we will be accepted with open arms as the saviors of the Empire after the deed is done.”

Pestage slumped back into his chair, disgusted with Dagnor’s arrogance and disregard for reason. It was becoming increasingly obvious, that for all his bluster, there was little the man would actually be able to accomplish if the discussed coup was ever to be implemented. It was best perhaps to cut their losses and run; Sate had been gifted a sizable portion of space by the Emperor for his loyal service, the multi-system Citruic Hegemony in which he could comfortably retire. And even if that place was rendered untenable, there were other worlds to which he could flee, secret places, places that even some of those around him now did not know of.

One of the circular chamber’s two doors slid silently open behind Sate Pestage, and a lone Stormtrooper captain entered, careful not to disrupt the proceedings. Ars paid him little heed, and began to converse in hushed tones with Greejatus, who was seated next to him. The soldier, commander of Sate’s personal guard, leaned down next to his ear and whispered something imperceptible. The vizier listened intently, his eyes slowly widening with shock as the trooper continued to relay the message. When he had finished and snapped back to attention, Pestage was bolt upright in his seat, swiftly gathering the few flimsi-sheets and datapads he had brought with him up from the table and sweeping them into the folds of his robe. The others looked on in bewilderment.

“Going somewhere, Grand Vizier?” Dagnor asked curiously as Pestage rose from his place at the table.

“I’m leaving Coruscant Ars, now. If any of you value your lives, I suggest you do the same. There is very little time.” He cast imploring looks at the two of his colleagues who might still see reason and inevitability; Dagnor and his cronies were beyond hope. With only a moment of hesitation, the silent Sim Aloo rose and took a place at Pestage’s side, but Hixa, after exchanging a nervous look with Ars, shook his head, double chin wobbling with the effort.

Sighing resignedly, Sate turned away from the table and began to make his way for the exit, Aloo and the Stormtrooper in tow. Before he made it out of the room however, a voice behind made him freeze.

“So it has come to this. Our grand vizier turning tail and running from certain victory like some xenu coward. How shameful, I never could understand what Palpatine ever saw in you. What has caused you to reveal your true colors at last, I wonder? Has Vader bought you out? Found an alien wench who will take even you to bed?”

A wave of fury washed over the Grand Vizier, but he was able to suppress it, allowing this to be his only response: “You will find out soon enough Ars. You will find out soon enough.” With that, not even bothering to turn to deliver the final message, Sate stalked out of the chamber, the door snapping silently shut after he and his companions had passed from view.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:18pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Thirty Seven


Jean-Luc Picard’s tone was even and calm, not a hint of his ever-present weariness or anxiety at the importance of the short speech he was wrapping up evident in his voice. His audience, a small group of the Alliance’s highest remaining officials, sat in a semi-circle around him, some of them listening intently to the man, while others tapped distractedly at datapads which contained increasingly dour casualty figures and supply reports from the fleet. Picard to ignore the blatant sign of disinterest and forged on, eloquently explaining his crew’s situation, the benefits that could be gained by all in a venture back to the wormhole, and the limited resources necessary to facilitate such an expedition.

Mon Mothma’s Advisory Council and Picard’s small delegation were crammed into a small, sparsely furnished chamber that was serving as Mon Mothma’s temporary headquarters. A former computer maintenance shop, it was located just off the make-shift hospital area and the occasional shout of a medic or moan of pain reverberated through the walls as foot traffic rushed by the room’s sealed door.

Attempting to keep his presentation brief, Picard succinctly recapped the argument he had just made, and then fell silent, watching those around him carefully, their leader most of all. Along with Mon Mothma, who’s faded red hair seemed to have noticeably grayed since they had last met, Princess Leia, Generals Rieekan and Crix Madine, Major Nay’far, a silver-haired female Bothan who was one of the few individuals to have been able to rendezvous with the fleet since the Republica’s arrival, and the acting commander of the Alliance starfleet Captain Ajun Halder all sat in uneasy silence, mulling the captain’s words. Truul was also in attendance, standing at stiff attention behind Mon Mothma’s seat and trying to look as formal as possible.

“Thank you captain,” Mon Mothma said at last. “Please, sit.” Picard complied, coming to rest in metal chair alongside Commander Riker, who had so far been silent, allowing the captain to fully exercise his diplomatic skill. Behind them, Data, the Master Chief, and the Arbiter stood against the wall each watching the proceeding with rapt and very personal interest. “I apologize our original hearing of your cause was cut short, but it was unfortunate necessity, as you are well aware I’m sure.” The woman’s voice was tired and cracked, and heavily tinged with resentment. Picard hoped that the feeling didn’t have anything to do with him or his party; such ill feeling would complicate matters.

“It has come to my attention that you and your crew assisted our forces at Sullust with unusual and unexpected valor, and for that I am grateful. Certainly, the Home One’s bridge crew, Commander Truul’s squad, and perhaps the entire fleet owe you all a debt of gratitude.” The captain noticed that Truul was suppressing a satisfied grin behind the Supreme Commander’s back, and he offered the man a fractional nod of gratitude, but he couldn’t help but notice that Mon Mothma’s expression had not brightened at all when she had thanked him, a foreboding sign.

“However…” Picard’s pulse quickened. He had known the word was coming.

“However, it would not be wise to devote any resources to your proposed expedition and envoy, especially not now.” Nay’far finished Mon Mothma’s reluctant verdict. The Bothan was not looking at either of them, but rather seemed absorbed in a statistical analysis of the star fighter complement of the fleet remnant that played cross the pad that rested on her palms. “We need all functional personnel and material consolidated here, and diverting any force could be suicidal. My contacts in the Spynet indicate that if the Imperial fleets in this sector continue their current pattern of search and expansion, this facility may be discovered in short order. Frankly, we weren’t equipped to handle a full Star Destroyer task force at full strength, and with the fleet in its current state, our chances are significantly lessened.”

A single drop of sweat formed on Picard’s brow. This was what he had fear might occur, and for all his skill with words and compromise, he didn’t know if there was anything he could do if the Rebel leadership was dead set against providing him resources. From the Bothan’s absolute tone, it seemed as though she was confident that the rest of the council would agree with her assessment. Perhaps the effort was doomed from the start.

“Major, if I may ask, given our current state, would temporarily losing a single starship, even one of our cruisers, significantly alter out chances if the Empire ever finds us here?” Surprised at the question, the woman looked up from her datapad and into Leia Organa’s intense eyes.

“Well… it would all depend upon the circumstances of a potential attack, but that’s beside the point. To split up what little we have now could only be destructive in the long run.”

“But your discounting the benefit that might be gained by following the captain’s suggestion,” Leia pressed, edging forward in her seat. “If we can get a diplomatic envoy into Federation territory and broker an arrangement with them, the Alliance could gain something we could never hope to earn in this galaxy, especially now; a truly safe haven, and an established government that could freely lend us aid. Frankly, we need all the assistance we can get now.”

The Bothan officer was clearly taken aback by Leia’s opposition, and Picard began to hope that his earlier sense of the general feeling of the councilors had been in error. After taking a moment to collect her thoughts, Nay’far put aside the pad and stared directly at the human’s intent face. “I had hoped it would not come to this, but there are other reasons why I do not support leading our resources to this fool’s errand. This ‘wormhole’ they discovered sounds far more unstable and unpredictable than the captain would seem to want us to believe. And even if it is stable, how are we to control its path? Even the members in Picard’s team here come from several disparate galaxies and time lines. And even if they have found some way to guide whatever ship we send through to the appropriate time and place, what if the wormhole was to collapse or relocate while whatever ambassadors and ships are still on the other side? A brief expedition to meet with this Federation might have been acceptable, but it sounds as though it may well be a one-way trip for whoever accompanies the envoy.”

Before Leia or anyone else had time to respond, the Bothan turned her gaze upon Picard. “And forgive me for saying this, but I have my doubts about his true motivations here. If I and those I command were to be trapped in some alien universe with only a slim chance of ever returning home, I would do anything to try and make sure that chance was exploited. Have you ever considered Princess that these men may not be who they claim to be? Oh, I have no doubt they are honorable enough and wouldn’t lead us into the hands of a hostile force, their actions have demonstrated that, but this benevolent and wealthy Federation anxious to ally itself with like-minded cultures seems a bit convenient, don’t you think?”

Will Riker’s jaw dropped in anger, and he began to rise, a forceful objection forming on his lips, but Picard extend a hand to stop his number one, shaking his head significantly. Slowly, the commander sat back down, glaring at the Bothan, who returned the look in kind.

“Though I believe that the Major’s suspicions may be overstated, her concerns are legitimate,” Mon Mothma asserted calmly, casting a stern glance in the woman’s direction. “I am willing to believe you on the Federation’s existence, you have earned that much, but the issue of the wormhole’s stability is more troublesome. Could you provide us any assurance that you could regulate and maintain the anomaly if you were to return to it?”

“Commander Data and Cortana are continuing to work on ways to effectively control the wormhole from what data we were able to retrieve about it,” Picard said, gesturing to the two artificial life forms.

Data took a step forward. “We believe that the phenomenon is controllable, perhaps even to a degree more than adequate to address the concerns Major Nay’far has raised. It is impossible to ascertain the likelihood of success without having direct sensor contact with the anomaly, but Cortana and I have hypothesized that an Alliance starship, with minor modifications to its deflector and EM arrays, could strengthen and direct the course of the wormhole. Then, it is a simple matter of calibrating the arrays to a setting identical those sensed by the derelict Federation vessel before reversion into this galactic plane.”

Picard thanked the android with a silent gesture, and he stepped back against the wall in silence. Despite its long-winded and complex nature, Data’s speech seemed to have had the desired effect; Mon Mothma still looked worn and dour, but some of the regret that had creased her face was dissipating. Nay’far still looked incredulous though. “Who would you propose we send on this mission? Can we really afford to lose any of our key personnel at a time like this? And what of the ship they would commandeer?”

“I can solve part of that at least,” Captain Halder said. “If we are attacked here in by any force of significant number, it will hardly matter if one of our lighter capital ships is absent. Perhaps the Republica; her drive’s are in better working condition than either Arrot Dar or the Redemption, and she’s the only one I’d trust to make it back through the Imperial probing lanes.”

“The Republica! You would throw away one of our last line star cruisers on this venture?” The Bothan gaped at the acting Admiral in shock.

“Major.” Crix Madine intoned significantly. “Calm yourself.”

Her hair bristling with anger and embarrassment, Nay’far cast desperate looks at each of the council members, and then offered a small, formal bow to her commanding officer. “I’m sorry General, I overstepped my bounds.” With that, the Bothan slumped into her seat, silent, but still glaring resentfully at the others in the chamber.

Clearing her throat, Leia Organa rose slowly. “If you will allow me, I would like to fill the roll of ambassador to the Federation. This is an opportunity that cannot be passed up or thrown away, and I intend to see it through.” Mon Mothma looked inquisitively at the young woman, deflated at the prospect of her departure, but after a few moments o thoughts, she nodded in consent. “Alright, I will authorize the expedition. Captain Halder, brief Captain Ryceed of her new mission. As of her return, Leia Organa will have complete authority over the mission and executive authority onboard ship. See to it that the Republica is fully re-supplied and restocked with fightercraft, and ready for departure by tomorrow morning.” Halder saluted and exited the chamber for the crowded passage beyond. After a few hushed words with Mon Mothma, Rieekan, Madine, and Nay’far left as well, the latter still carrying an air of defeat and apprehension.

“Major Truul, you have had more experience than any of us with the Captain and his crew. I trust you have no objection to being leading Princess Organa’s security detail and serving as an envoy between her and our guests?” Truul grinned and snapped a stiff salute. “It would be my honor sir.”

Mon Mothma looked over at Picard. “If the appointment is alright with you of course Captain.” Picard smiled and nodded appreciatively. “Of course, I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to the job.”

As Truul left to authorize his own transfer and assemble a security team and Picard and the other followed, eager to return to the Republica and inform the rest of their group of the outcome of the negotiations, Mon Mothma at last turned back to Leia and took her hands. “Are you sure you want to go through with this? I could find someone else to fill the post.”

Leia smiled and shook her head. “No, I want to go. I… well, I’ve just got a feeling about this.”

“A good one I hope.”

Leia nodded, but deep down, she wasn’t so sure. She still did not know why she had been so compelled to support Picard in his cause. Certainly, it held much promise, and perhaps even salvation for the Rebel cause, but something else was motivating her. Her thoughts drifted back to the night before, to her conversation with the man named Jacen. There had been something about him, and she was strangely driven to ensure his request to help Picard would be fulfilled. Odd.

“Well, good luck Leia. The hopes and dreams of our cause, and the lives of every free being in this galaxy may very well rest on your shoulders. May the Force be with you.”

“And you as well,” Leia replied with sincere conviction. The two women, so alike in cause and history, embraced briefly in friendship, and then they parted, each to strive for the same goal, along very different paths.
------------------------------------------------

There was a flash of transient light, a blur of motion, and then nothingness. The Republica was gone again, one less battle scarred hulk to crowd the supply depot’s docking vectors and sap its waning stores, but nevertheless, one person in particular was sad to see it go. Iask, captain of the small transport vessel Coral Iris, stared regretfully out at the empty space that had berthed the light cruiser only minutes before. The Mon Calamari had been lost amid the jumble of confused Alliance regulations and disorganized communications while waiting for re-supply, and had only just discovered that the starship that bore his former saviors and allies had arrived at all, and had filed a request to board the ship too late to catch it before an abrupt and unscheduled departure. It was a shame, he reflected as graceful fingers swept over the transport’s command console, triggering the main drives to awaken from their diagnostic cycle and prepare for usage. He might never see Riker or Jacen and the others again. In Iask’s lonely line of work, one rarely kept friends for long.

After the Mon Cal’s astromech R2-E4 rolled onto the small bridge and tootled brightly, which Iask interpreted as an affirmation that the docking ports were sealed and engines in working order, the Coral Iris hummed to life, engaging its maneuvering thrusters and disengaging from narrow supply pylon Iask had managed to commandeer for his temporary use. The drives arrayed along the small starship’s tail fin lit up with blue fire and the vessel slowly moved away from the old space station, careful to avoid the traffic still bustling around its main docking ports.

With his ship repaired and restocked as much as it could be with limited resources left at hand, and the Republica gone again on some unknown mission, Iask say no reason to remain with the fleet. Certainly, he had no love for the Empire, but he was no fighter, and his ship would likely not hold up well if thrust into another combat situation. Really, that was all that mattered; the Coral Iris was his life, and he wouldn’t put it in harms way again. Remaining with the Alliance definitely contradicted that goal.

“Engaging ion drives,” the pilot mumbled to himself, a habit he had picked up after years of lonely hyperspace hauls along the Hydian Way. Interfaced with the main computer, E4 reported that a safe hyperspace course back to Ord Mantell would be plotted in the nav computer by the time he cleared the Fleet. Iask would have liked to have returned to his homeworld to recuperate after the harrowing voyage, but from the scattered rumors he had picked up from Alliance crewers and comm officers, the watery planet was not the safest place to go at the moment. Deep inside his gut, a dire concern for his people was hawing away at him; for all he knew, the world was just a hunk of molten slag now. In any event, Ord Mantell, where he got most of his contracts, would be safer for the moment.

The transport’s ion drives increased in output, and the ship began to accelerate from the tattered fleet, gliding gracefully between two of the most heavily damaged Alliance capital ships, each covered with construction droids and space-suited engineers. Even as his right eye monitored his flight controls, Iask’s left orb took in one of the vessels, and he sighed softly, sickened at the sight of one of the graceful, almost organic starships in such a damaged state. If he were another of his race, the sight might have compelled him to stay, to take up arms against the oppressive Empire, but he was too reclusive and stuck in his ways. All he needed was his vessel, his home. Idealistic crusades were for the young and ship-less.

As the Coral Iris passed out of the outermost reaches of the fleet assemblage, and E4 began feeding him hyperspace coordinates, the ship’s sensor suite picked three blips, breaking off from the Alliance fleet to and rapidly gaining on him. Opening his mouth slightly in a Mon Calamari frown, Iask tapped his subspace transceiver.

“Alliance ships, this is the Coral Iris. Is there a problem?”

The bridge’s comm crackled to life with a human man’s voice, unsurprisingly tired and hoarse. “Coral Iris, this Lieutenant Celchu of Rogue Squadron. I’m sorry, but you don’t have clearance to leave the fleet staging area at this time. Command thinks it’s too risky to have too much hyperspace traffic leading away from here. You’ll have to disengage and return to the station.”

Iask’s frown deepened, and his fingers hovered over the acceleration dial, but he did not slow his ship. “There must be some mistake Lieutenant. I cleared this departure with Fleet control only an hour ago.” This was true, but as soon as he said it, the captain knew it would hardly matter; with the state of disarray everything was in at the moment, it wouldn’t surprise him if the High Council’s moratorium on departures hadn’t reached the makeshift flight coordination center by the time he had asked for approval.

“That’s a negative Iris; our orders are straight from the top. Disengage, and head back to the fleet, we’ll escort you.”

Predictable. Well, there wasn’t much he could do now but comply; his ship might be fast for it’s design, but there were A-Wings among that squad, and he wasn’t about to negate their speed advantage with any hostile action. Shaking his large head wearily, Iask grasped the navigation controls, and pulled his craft into a gradual 180 degree turn; at last bring his cockpit back in view of the Fleet and his escorts. The starfighters, two stubby A-Wings and an X-Wing, raced past and came about, forming a loose triangle directly behind the transport. Such a precaution wasn’t really necessary, but he supposed that the fighter pilots were always on edge these days, and with good reason.

The four ships made a slow arc back towards the dilapidated fleet, giving Iask time to admire the Coral Iris’ own acceleration ability; they were millions of kilometers still from the fringes of the fleet. All that could be seen were the dim silhouettes of the large cruisers in the fleet against the starfield, hanging quietly in the emptiness around the old observatory station, the space between them filled with a hundred tiny sparks; fighters and shuttles all. At this distance, beyond sight of the scars and hull breaches, the Rebel force was really quite calming, attractive in its own way.

The Mon Calamari’s skull smashed against his control terminal, jarring his mind away from reality and skewing his vision as the world roared and spun around him. Thrown back against his high-back seat by centrifugal force, Iask could barely hear his droid’s panicked whistles over the warning clangs and proximity sirens that were resounding around the small chamber. Struggling to regain coherence, Iask grabbed the controls blindly and tried to reach the stabilizer controls, which were blinking furiously. As the ship spun and the inertial compensator’s built into the hull attempted unsuccessfully to regulate the sudden pressure, his hands were shoved away violently, but he persisted, at last grasping the controls and counteracting the turbulent dive his vessel had gone into.

The Iris took over the attitude correction, firing emergency barking thrusters automatically to aid its pilot, and finally the spinning stopped. Still light-headed, Iask felt something warm on his bony cheek; greenish blood that was trickling from his jaw onto his simple pilot’s tunic.

“E4, are you alright?” he called, still in a daze. A squawking, grumpy reply greeted his ear nodes, but it was a reply nonetheless.

At last clearing the bile that had risen into his throat, the captain started to ascertain what had happened. The incident had knocked out his sensors and shielding systems, but everything else seemed to be in working order. Smacking the transceiver on again, Iask called out. “Lieutenant? Rogue Squadron? Are you alright?”

Through his viewport, the Mon Cal’s keen eyes spied the glow of two of the fighters a half a kilometer away, each correcting their own orientations.

“We’re operational Iris,” Celchu confirmed a moment latter, an alarm still noticeable clanging in the background. “Rouge seven, did you get a read on…”
“Emperor’s Black Bones!”

With that exclamation, the comm line went silent, leaving Iask bewildered by the sudden exclamation of shock. Then, as his sensors began to come back online, his own proximity detector began to shine in warning, and he hurriedly glanced at his transponder display to see the source of the disturbance. A tiny Imperial emblem glowed red on the display.

Something visible out of his viewport drew Iask’s attention away from the ominous sensor indicator. Directly above his small vessel, no more than a few dozen ship lengths away stretched the massive triangular belly of an Imperial-Class Star Destroyer, studded with turbolasers and Ion cannons of all classes. The mighty warship’s huge bank of Ion drives belched a cone of energy into the blackness that tore at cosmos; Iask absently reflected that he must have been on the fringe of the ship’s drive wash. A few degrees of orientation starboard and the transport would have been atomized by the pulsing engines.

More tiny insignias began to appear on his display, each accompanied by a class descriptor. Star Destroyers, anti-fighter Lancer frigates, Interdictors, Carracks, communications vessels, and Tie Fighters. Hundreds of Tie Fighters.

Horrified attention split between the readout and the real force emerging silently from hyperspace in an entrapping circle around the ragtag Alliance fleet, Iask barely noticed as his comm crackled to life again.

“All Rebel vessels, this is the Imperial Star Destroyer Abolition. You will stand down and surrender you fleet immediately. This is your only warning. Comply, or be annihilated.”
--------------------------------------------------

A thousand light-years away, Jacen Solo stared into the swirling blackness of hyperspace. Seated cross-legged on his small bunk, he allowed the flow beyond his viewport to lull him into a meditative state, centering his own thoughts and easing the tempest of uncertainty that still raged within.
There is no emotion; there is peace.
There is no ignorance; there is knowledge.
There is no passion; there is serenity.
There is no death; there is the Force.

What will be will be. So is the way of the Force.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:18pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
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.

“Halt.”

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.

“Well?”

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.”

“How reassuring.”
----------------------------------------------

“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.

“My lord?”

“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.
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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.”
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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.”

“Structural damage?”

“None reported.”

“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.”

“Show me.”

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.

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by Noble Ire


Chapter Thirty Nine


The Holy Covenant was built upon hierarchy, and without uncompromising adherence to it, its vast empire would have collapsed long ago. As often was the case with systems built upon conquest and obedience, none of the Covenant’s power could have been won without the thankless servitude and sacrifice of countless trillions of lesser workers and soldiers; the Unngoy, Kig-yar, Drinol, and Yanme’e all had labored at the lowest levels of society for thousands of years, so long that most would not have it any other way. Above them, barely, came the Lekgolo, warriors of titanic strength and epic endurance, and the Huragok, the engineers who maintained the Covenant’s mighty fleets and kept the huge military state from collapsing under its own logistical weight. Then came the Jiralhanae, the newest client species of the Covenant and the rarest, who served as the personal servants of the highest level of the empire.

Finally, near the top of this interstellar societal pyramid, sat the Sangheili, a founding partner of the Covenant, and the motivators of the Covenant military, driven by an unparalleled sense of honor and devotion to whatever task they would set upon. Only one race, so mighty and divine in the eyes of those that they ruled that they were only known by their self-given title, was elevated beyond these great soldiers. The Prophets, as they were called, first partner in the foundation of the Covenant, were the force that united and inspired the entire unstoppable machine. They were the conduit for the will of the gods, the Forerunners, a species so ancient that only a few relics and cryptic glyphs scattered throughout the galaxy still remained of them. At the Covenant’s founding, the earliest Prophets told of a place beyond space and time where these mighty beings still resided, waiting to accept all those who worshiped them into eternal paradise, salvation from the cruel reality of existence.

The design of Covenant warships mirrored this strict hierarchy. Within elegantly curved hulls of meters-thick amethyst-hued metal, Unngoy and Kig-yar crewers toiled in cramped work areas, manning massive plasma turrets and operating unimportant substations. Further inward, Huragok maintained delicate power matrices and tended the slipspace drives that could push the starships beyond the limitations of light and realspace, a little closer to the gods perhaps, as the technology necessary for the devices had been reverently salvaged from ancient Forerunner wrecks.

Then, at the very heart of the vast vessels, was the overbridge, domain of the Sangheili and those Prophets who would choose to grace the ships with their presence. From this chamber, the Ship Master and his staff had enough power at their disposal to obliterate all life on the surface of a planet, or hunt a heretic across the galactic disk. The heart of one vessel in particular, one of the mightiest warships the Covenant had constructed since its conception, served the same function, but the one who occupied it elevated the space to a place of far greater importance.

Tall and imposing even for the giants that made up his race, Teno ‘Falanamee, stood in calm reflection to one side of the circular command platform that hovered on anti-gravity beams meters above the small communications pit and the basin-like floor surrounding it. Though his posture exuded control and intensity, his dress was not what one would expect of a Ship Master of his status. Rather than the customary golden armor others of his station flaunted while on duty, he wore simple, jet-black armor, similar to that worn by the most elite of the Sangheili Special Operations forces. When being observed by a Prophet, he would wear the normal uniform out of respect, but the simpler garb was always donned for battle.

This small deviation from the norm was indicative of ‘Falanamee’s personality and command style. While just as strict and aggressive as his fellow Ship Masters, he was far more willing to relate with and listen to his underlings, and avoided suicidal and unnecessarily costly tactics in battle whenever possible, reluctant to sacrifice even Unggoy, lowliest of all Covenant species. This unusual loyalty to his men had made ‘Falanamee very popular among his crew, and their efficiency rating in battle was markedly higher than any other in the entire Covenant starfleet. The Sangheili on the High Council, ruling body of the Covenant, had taken notice of his success in the field, and had given him command of Particular Justice, a large and prestigious group of warships lead by some of the best officers in the fleet. At his elevation ceremony, the High Prophet of Truth himself, greatest of all of the Hierarchs, had deemed him “One of our greatest instruments.”

Since even before his first command, Teno ‘Falanamee had fought, as most Sangheili had, in the Covenant’s newest great crusade, one in a long line of conquests the Prophets had decreed over the ages. Most of the client members of the Covenant had been assimilated by these crusades, as their typical purpose was to, “join the peoples of the galaxy together for their own salvation, so that we might all better prepare for the predestined great journey into cleansed bliss”, in the words of a High Prophet of millennia past.

This war, however, was different. Rather than subdue and indoctrinate the newly discovered species, the prophets had decreed upon first contact that the beings were a blight upon the galaxy, and would have to be cleansed for salvation ever to occur. Such was the will of the gods, they said, and could not be denied. The subjects of the Prophet’s ire, known as Humans, possessed technology vastly inferior to the Covenant’s, and most had predicted the slaughter would be brief. The slight, hairless mammals, however, had proved to be staunch and ingenious foes, hiding their worlds from the overwhelming Covenant fleet through a myriad of restrictive protocols and fighting fiercely when located. The war had raged on for eleven time units, thirty years by the human calendar, and doubt in the effectiveness and purpose of their quest had begun to grow among the Covenant’s ranks. Why are we slaughtering these humans who have proved themselves so worthy in battle, some Sangheili had begun to ask, and the doubt had grown from there. A slew of assassinations of lesser Prophets and their staunchest followers, and a spreading breakaway heretical movement had begun to question the validity of the Prophets, and undermined the hierarchy that had existed for uncounted generations. The slight improvement in human firepower over time and rumors of unstoppable warriors being integrated into their ranks had not helped ease tensions.

Thus, when a spy probe had at last located the world known as Reach, suspected center of all human military operations, the hierarchs had summoned a fleet of hundreds of capital ships to obliterate the world, a blow that would hopefully crush all remaining human resistance and stem the tide of descent within the hierarchy. ‘Falanamee, his reputation increased by several very successful campaigns during the long war, had been dispatched to command the Particular Justice in their role during the battle. The assault had been surprisingly costly, and a lucky strike by a small human attack cruiser had managed to destroy the Blessed Fire, flagship of the attack force. ‘Falanamee had assumed command of the massed fleet, but by that time most of the human fleet was shattered, and the remaining fighting was centered around a single human space station, which was suspected to hold data on the location of the human homeworld, and thus could not be destroyed, yet.

The towering Sangheili stared up into the glimmering hologram of the embattled world that filled the cavernous space above the command platform, noting the black patches beginning to spread across its surface. As was customary after human resistance around one of their worlds was quashed, the victorious fleet would turn its landmasses into sheets of glass and boil its oceans into nothingness from orbit. He was careful not to let the emotion become evident to any of his subordinates, but inwardly, he sighed. He believed in the Prophets, and would follow the word of the gods to his dying breath, but the needless slaughter of so many of these beings was beginning to wear upon him, and had been doing so for several years, since he had been ordered to bombard a heavily-populated human world completely devoid of any means of resistance. Such an action went against his personal warrior’s ethic, especially considering how valiantly the beings fought even against impossible odds. They would make fine additions to the Covenant, if circumstances were different.

Still, he would not think of openly defying the Prophet’s edict, and they had said this must be done. It might not make sense to him or any other warrior, but the motives of Forerunners and their instruments were surely beyond his comprehension.

Speaking of which…

He heard the quite clack of armored boots on the polished metal floor and turned, his eyes met by the prideful stare of a subordinate, Hiph ‘Netanimee. The younger Sangheili, of a more muscular build than the Ship Master, dipped his arched head in respect, allowing the soft light of the hologram above them to glint off of his white helm.

“Report.”

“Excellency, the Gentle Fate is beaming us a communications order. It is of the highest urgency.”

‘Falanamee nodded and waved the commander away with a four-fingered hand, turning to a smaller, dormant holographic generator that sat slightly off from the main one. ‘Netanimee quickly walked over to the edge of the floating disc and motioned to a Sangheili major standing at attention below, who in turn relayed the confirmation to the four Huragok who worked diligently in the communications pit. A moment later, the holographic generator sparked to life, swiftly drawing a figure out of pulses of light in the space above it. The Ship Master knelt.

A diminutive, long-necked creature with a triangular head came into view, huge, almost reptilian eyes not betraying any emotion as he looked through the projector. He was dressed in expansive, crimson robes and was seated in a high-backed hover chair, common for his kind, who were generally physically fragile. The voice that emerged from his thin, wrinkled lips was surprisingly deep.

“The battle goes well, Teno ‘Falanamee?”

“Yes, noble one. The human fleet should be utterly defeated in moments, and the bombardment of their world has begun.”

“Good, good.”

‘Falanamee could tell that the alien, who went by the title Prophet of Benefaction, was concerned about something. Despite the fact that the Prophet’s ship was observing the battle from well outside the planetary system (it wouldn’t do for one of the Hierarchs own lieutenants to be put in harms way unnecessarily), it sported a sensor system superior to even his flagship’s, and it would not surprise him if the Prophet had seen an element of the waning conflict he had not.

“My vessel has detected a lone human ship leaving the system. It seems to have slipped though your battle net, and is on the verge of escaping into the void.”

“You would have me pursue it?”

The Prophet raised a thin eyebrow at the question. “Of course. The cleansing of this place must be complete. No humans who fought here can be allowed to escape. Such is the will of the Hierarchs.”

“Then it shall be done, noble one.”

“The Council will hear of your actions on this day, Ship Master. You have done a great service for the Covenant, and your fidelity will not soon be forgotten.”

“I live and die for the Great Journey and its harbingers.”

The Prophet nodded in solidarity, and his image faded into nothingness. Rising from his position of supplication, ‘Falanamee glanced back at the battle map, which now registered no functioning human craft save one, its coordinates transmitted to the flagship along the same frequency as the Prophet’s command. It was a relatively small, ugly-looking vessel, even by human design standards, but it was moving unusually fast, streaking from the defeated world like a rider-less steed. The Ship Master’s immediate battle group was the closest unit to it of the massed fleet, made up of his warship and a small collection of support craft, including several squadrons of agile fighterships the humans called seraphs.

“‘Netanimee, alert our combat cluster. We are to engage that fleeing human vessel. Follow it into the void if necessary. Then inform the master of the Ark Crusade that he has taken command of the armada and to await further instruction from the noble Prophet when the immolation of that world is complete.”

“Shall I summon more ships?”

“They will not be needed. Humans may be clever prey, but even they cannot deny the power of this ship and its crew. Our hunt will be brief.”
---------------------------------------------------------------------

The millisecond Cortana had reviewed her analysis program’s results, she launched into action, not bothering to even take a cursory scan of the Republica’s new quardinants before beginning to bypass the firewalls and cut-offs that segmented the starship’s computer system. Her artificial mind processed and reprocessed the information she had deciphered as her consciousness flitted through subsystems and low-power connection circuits, trying to extrapolate outcomes and make links to other data she held in her formidable memory. One thing had been instantly clear however; she would have to act fast, or the Republica and everyone on it would be killed.

Finding herself at last in a more directly networked system, power distribution monitoring, she jumped into the processor of a maintenance terminal, and the branched out again, attempting to locate another system network, reactor output control. The firewalls here were far stiffer than they had been in the less vital systems she had traversed, but the infiltration software wired into her cortex allowed the AI to ward them off temporarily. She doubted she would be able to do so again, considering the adaptive nature of the ship’s programming, but there was no time to waste worrying about such an unlikely eventuality.

After a few moments of searching, Cortana located her target, a minor offshoot of the hypermatter reactor system, secondary flow regulation.

Yes, this is place. Now if I could only figure out what he did in here…

Unsurprisingly, the selected interface’s activity logs for the last few hours had been carefully erased, but Cortana had encountered that trick before, and swiftly began to scan files not directly related to the terminal’s primary function, but still shared its subsection of memory space. There were always footprints when files were erased, especially in a hasty manner, as the ones she was looking for had been. Nevertheless, there seemed to be no evidence of any imprinting on the adjacent software she was searching. Perhaps Alliance technology was efficient enough to disperse even those tiny bits of irrelevant code.

Running through all of the decoding procedures and hacking protocols she had at her disposal, Cortana attempted formulate another strategy, and all the while the nagging chronometer in the back of her mind counted on, the danger increasing with each passing digit. Focusing every byte of processing power on the problem, the AI ran through dozens of procedures in seconds, discarding each one as it dead-ended. The digital equivalent of a profanity began to cycle through her thought processes, growing more prominent and rapid as each operation failed.

Then, purely by accident, Cortana stumbled upon the answer, a small bit of encoding so unimportant and dissimilar in UNSC computer systems that she had overlooked it at first. Another thing that was different here.

I’m really starting to hate this ship.

Fully aware that there was no time to mope, she pressed forward, rapidly pouring over the recovered logs. Most were regular systems maintenance, pass code encryptions, things of that nature, but a few of the most recent logged commands did not deal with power flow systems at all, but rather with the reactor itself.

Cortana accessed one of the commands in particular, more involved than the rest, and suddenly found here attention dragged to a completely different terminal via some kind of hacked remote interface. Normally, the system, hypermatter injection control, would be heavily fire-walled, but the link-up seemed to have bypassed the security entirely. Alien design or not, Cortana immediately noticed something in the system was slightly out of place, and applied the information to her growing file on the subject.

The Chief is going to love this one.
--------------------------------------------------------

“A bomb?” Captain Ryceed stared into Cortana’s glimmering eyes, seemingly trying to decide whether or not the AI was joking, or simply being obnoxious. She had just lead her crew and ship away from certain destruction, and been one of the first beings of her galaxy to actually traverse a wormhole, accomplishments impressive even for a Alliance captain, and now this interloper in her computer was telling her that there was an infiltrator among her crew, and an explosive buried with the Republica’s innards. Imal would have truly thought it some cruel joke and ordered the AI at last extricated from her systems, but when the Master Chief had briefly informed the command staff that they had somehow stumbled upon his homeworld and galaxy, Cortana had barely even paused to inspect the holographic globe floating in the middle of the bridge. The being was serious.

It took a moment for the Captain to respond, and when she did, it was with her furrowed brow and most of her faced covered by a slightly trembling hand. The posture drew worried glances from the upper levels of her command crew; the woman was obviously exhausted and out of her element, a circumstance which made Ryceed notoriously unpredictable and irrational.

“Alright, I’m listening.”

Cortana nodded and her image morphed into a rough cross-section of one of the starship’s interior decks, very near the Republica’s large hypermatter annihilation reactor. “I believe that the device is somewhere in here, most likely planted on one of the coolant pylons that periodically pump super-cooled gas into the shell surrounding the reactant chamber.” A section of the deck beyond the crewed passageways, directly under the core sphere, lit up, glowing with special emphasis around three tube-like structures that jutted up into the reactor several decks above. “If I’m right, the next time one of these injector pumps locks into place to deliver its payload, in eleven minutes, the device will detonate. The damage would be catastrophic.”

“We should deactivate the system immediately,” Gavplek warned, checking the chronometer inlaid in a nearby terminal anxiously.

Ryceed nodded in agreement, but she looked concerned. “Commander Hessun, what effect would shutting down those injectors have on our operational status?” The officer in question, chief of the ship’s maintenance corps moved over quickly to assess the data Cortana was displaying.

“We’d have to send the reactor into low-level stasis cycle while those pylons are offline, sir. The risk of overloading the regulation systems without a steady supply of that coolant is too great. In any event, there’s too much static charge in the injector chamber to perform a search when the reactor is at full strength, even for droids.” The abnormally pale Mon Calamari’s skin tone and raspy voice served to enhance his aura of anxiety. “Switching over to the reserve generators, life support and the deflectors could stay online, but we’d lose the weapons and most of our maneuvering power.”

Ryceed continued to scrutinize the projection for a while longer, and then looked up at the globe that was the newly discovered planet, wreathed in brightly-indicated starships of unknown design, its landmasses now gaining a distinctly unnatural, blackened appearance.

“Captain,” Cortana’s voice urged.

“Are those starships hostile?”

“Very.” The Chief’s resonate voice garnered the attention of all those near him, as it always did. “As we speak, the Covenant are killing billions of defenseless civilians trapped on that planet.”

Cortana reappeared, shooting the Spartan a sour look, but her annoyance at his lack of diplomatic skill was blunted somewhat by the bombardment of Reach unfolding before her eyes, again. No, there’s nothing we can do for them. Especially not now. “Captain, were running out of time. I do not believe that the Covenant fleet has detected our presence, and if we wait here too much longer, all they’ll ever find is a cloud of gaseous debris.”

Glanced from one hologram to the other, and shook her head sighing. “Alright, do it. Commander, how long will it take to get back main power when the system can be reactivated?”

The pale Mon Calamari, who was already reaching for a wall comm to relay the order, diverted to a nearby operations computer. “Two minutes and twenty seconds, sir.”

Ryceed acknowledged the data and Hessun rushed to contact the core. “Cortana, before we dispatch anyone to the suspect system, I want to know just how you came across this information.”

Cortana did not pause before responding. “I analyzed a visual recording given to me by the Arbiter a few minutes ago.” Standing back from the main group of officers and ambassadors, but listening no less intently, Major Truul’s eyebrows rose in alarm. “It shows one of your officers, one Lieutenant Flitch, planting an explosive device in a computer room onboard the Alliance supply station. I simply followed up my suspicion that he would likely attempt something similar here by searching recent computer activity near…”

“Wait, what’s all this now?” Major Truul was now standing in the midst of the group, glaring at Cortana sharply. “Flitch is no Imperial. There’s no way. If that’s what your source is saying, I wouldn’t trust it.”

“I’m afraid it’s true, unless you can explain why he hacked into the core power regulation computer using stolen access codes, or what he was doing here.” She disappeared again, replaced by a two-dimensional image, somewhat blurry and jerky, but viewable nonetheless. On it, a young man in an Alliance uniform walked quickly down a narrow hallway and slipped into a side door. The image followed him quickly, its bearer slipping in through the door before it had time to close. Now illuminated only by the soft light of computer display, the officer quickly crossed the empty, dark room, and placed a case on top of a data file storage cabinet. The figure worked quickly, loosening a wall panel with a powered lever, then inserting a largish, square object into the hole. He tapped it a few times, and a series of digits appeared on its side surface, almost obscured by the man’s body. He tapped a few more commands, and then covered the digits with a lid, sealing the entire thing into the wall. He quickly slipped his prying implement back into the case, and turned, at which point the projection halted. There, even in the relative darkness, the lieutenant’s soft features were very clear, although this time, they had a distinctly hard edge about them.

“I can only guess at how the Arbiter obtained this, or why he waited so long to show it to us, but the recording is authentic and unmodified.” Cortana’s voice was urgent. “Now please, we must act quickly.”

Truul’s lips tightened into a skull-like grimace, and he unclipped the communicator from his belt, his eyes still fixed on the projected face. “Security control, this is Major Truul. Alert all armed personnel that Lieutenant Flitch, of my staff, is to be detained by any means necessary. Warn them that he’s likely armed.” The man paused, his face a mask. “If he resists, give them authorization to use lethal force. Flitch is not to get off this ship, under any circumstances.”

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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Forty


Keep mobile. Be erratic. Finger on the trigger.

Flitch repeated these words of wisdom from his training over and over again in his mind in an attempt to keep focused. The long hallways of the Rebel starship now felt uncomfortably narrow; almost closing in on him. Some of the crewmen he passed eyed him surreptitiously, more out of casual curiosity than suspicion, but the distinction meant nothing to the infiltrator right now; any inquiry could mean the death of him. He hugged the case in the crook of his arm closer, making sure that its access flap was unbound.

As far as Flitch knew, he had not yet been discovered, despite the brutish alien’s assault, but as he made his way towards the main hangar deck, the hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle with anxiety. Certainly, it was a natural reaction for a man in his situation, especially for one largely inexperienced with this kind of operation, but he knew intuitively that it was more than that. The Ubiqtorate taught its operatives to trust their instincts, even when logic indicated otherwise. Of course, imperial training was generally focused enough to make the two one and the same.

Footsteps.

Barely thinking, Flitch turned into a side hall, walking a few meters more before ducking behind a pillar of protruding conduit housing. His left hand reached out for the access flap of his container, and he waited, listening intently. After a few moments, the footfalls became louder, and for a brief second, Flitch caught a snippet of a hushed conversation. The man speaking sounded concerned about something, but the operative couldn’t pick out enough of the words to derive any meaning from them. Determined to confirm his suspicions, Flitch moved from his hiding spot as soon as the pedestrians had passed, catching a glimpse of their backs before they disappeared beyond a turbolift door. Two Rebel marines, their holsters empty and backs squared with purpose.

Withdrawing again from the main hall, Flitch gritted his teeth, considering options. They were on to him now, that was almost certain, but it was unlikely they knew where he was, or he would be in custody already. Avoiding monitored portions of the ship and sticking to service access ways might shake them for a time, but he would have to move quickly before the hangar was locked down and his only method of escape was removed from him. Not to mention the explosive that would be detonating in a scant few minutes. Still, Flitch had made sure he had an Idiot’s Array up his sleeve before implementing the final stage of his mission. Now all he had to do was hurry.

Glancing around to make sure he was still unobserved, Flitch groped around in a side panel of his case and removed a small rectangle of plastoid, adorned with several unremarkable buttons.

“Ignition one,” he whispered, and depressed the first control.
----------------------------------------------------------------------

Despite the size of the Republica, the tremors caused by the explosion were quite noticeable on the bridge, nearly causing several of those still standing around the holographic projector to fall to the deck plate.

“Report.”

Captain Ryceed leapt from her seat when the blast reverberated through her bridge, but she nevertheless tried to keep her voice and composure calm. A flurry of comm signals and internal sensor scans later, an Operations officer turned to report.

“There was an explosion on deck thirty, section D two. Several casualties, no fatalities reported so far. Security is clearing the area.”

“What happened?” Gavplek asked.

“The traitor,” Worf growled from his place by Captain Picard.

The operations officer paused to listen to another update over his comm line, and then nodded. “Yes, it looks like an explosive went off near the armory on that deck. However, it seems like the device didn’t have the desired effect. None of the munitions went off, and there were no hull breaches, just some structural damage to the hallway on deck thirty one, directly below.”

“He messed up,” Ryceed noted, turning to Major Truul, who was listening to the report with the same stony-faced expression he had used to order his subordinate’s capture. “We have to find him before he can set off anymore of these things. Get a scanning team up here too search my bridge for any of these bombs.”

Truul saluted stiffly. “ Yes, Ma’am.” He paused a moment. “Sir, permission to leave the bridge and lead the search of the ship for Flitch. It’s my fault he’s here right now, and I’m not going to let my mistake endanger this mission.”

The captain nodded in consent, and Truul made for the turbolift bank, almost at a run.

“Perhaps we should go with him,” Riker suggested to Picard as they watched the man step into the lift. “It’s our duty to help these people now. Besides, I don’t like just standing here, doing nothing.” The commander had considered asking to do this before, when the Master Chief, at Cortana’s request, had left with the Mon Calamari engineer to investigate the reactor bomb, and now the situation seemed all the more urgent.

“No, we mustn’t interfere without their requesting it.” Picard looked unhappy with his own words, but he remained firm. “The Republica has its own security force. We would simply be an impediment to their efforts.”

“I wouldn’t recommend leaving the bridge right now for any reason,” Leia Organa warned, looking away from the tense duty stations. “This is probably the safest place on the Republica at the moment, assuming of course they don’t find anything.” She eyed the small crew of humanoids and droids who had just entered the chamber, hauling a variety of portable scanners and monitoring devices.

“Oh dear,” the princess’s golden protocol droid intoned quietly, nudging closer to his master.

Picard seemed similarly agitated, but Leia sensed it was for a different reason. “I’m sure the others of your group are perfectly safe. Crew quarters wouldn’t be very high on the target list of a fleeing saboteur.”

Picard cocked an eyebrow and smiled slightly. “I hope your right, Councilor Organa. If I may say, you have quite the knack for empathy. I try not to let my worries show in situations like this. I had thought I was somewhat good at it.”

The young woman blushed slightly. “I’m sorry, that was presumptuous of me. I’ve just had a lot of time to gauge people’s emotions in my service of the Alliance, and it comes in handy in my line of work. Oh, and you can call me Leia if you wish. I never liked the title much. The same with princess really.” The last thought was accompanied by a bemused smile that the woman gave to no one in particular, at least not anyone present at the moment.

Before Picard could reply, one of the nearby crewers shouted out a warning. “Captain, we have a problem.”

Ryceed was behind the woman in a flash, looking over her shoulder. “Another explosion?”

“No, sir. One of the unidentified starships around that planet has broken high orbit and is on a rough intercept course for our position. Estimated ETA, nine minutes.”
----------------------------------------------------------------------

“Excellency, the Maintainer has detected something worthy of your notice.”

Teno ‘Falanamee tore his eyes from the projection of the human ship that was flowering from a secondary holographic device and turned to Hiph ‘Netanimee, who stood at sharp attention, as always.

“Indeed?”

Though he did not allow his voice to show it, the Ship Master was curious as to what news the Maintainer had deemed important enough to convey. The artificial mind, a meticulously duplicated copy of a computer program the Huragok had designed under special sanction of the Prophets several thousand years ago, the Maintainer dwelt within the hulls of most Covenant warships. They were generally tasked with regulating automatic systems and tending passive scanning arrays, and it was rare for one to actually volunteer information of any relevance, especially during combat. The mind inhabiting ‘Falanamee’s flagship was especially quiet; he could only recall ever actually speaking with it a handful of times. The Ship Master had always suspected that there might have been a replication defect in the holy program, but he had never had good reason to risk bring the problem up with a Prophet. To question such an old technology without a blatantly obvious reason verged on heresy.

“The holy mind has discovered an anomaly in the space between the human’s world and this system’s gas giant. It is emitting an energy signature unlike anything the mind has ever witnessed.”

“Unlike anything it has ever witnessed?” ‘Falanamee asked curiously. That was most unusual. From what the Ship Master understood of them, the artificial minds spent most of their sleepless existences analyzing and reanalyzing every bit of information in their consciousness. Though not as comprehensive as Huragok implementation repositories or the Hierarchs’ personal archives, Maintainers held virtually every scrap of navigational and technical information the Covenant had ever accumulated. If something truly new had been discovered, it would most certainly be deserving of notice.

“Show it to me.”

Its control display lightly nudged by the Sangheili commander, another holographic projector sprang to life, this one slowly filling the air with a glimmering outline. It was long, almost tubular, but with gracefully rounded edges. As the image increased in definition, the Ship Master noted that the object looked a great deal like some of the smaller vessels in the Covenant armada.

“The Maintainer is positive that it is not a human starship; its design is quite unlike their hideous constructs,” ‘Netanimee continued.

“Is it positive?” the Ship Master asked as the silhouette began to fill in, revealing large ovoid bulges and dark scars dotting its hull. “The humans have exhibited quite a talent for stealing our designs and technology. Could this not be another such aberration?”

The commander paused, his mandibles contorting into an uncomfortable frown. “Excellency, there is more. That object is emitting power levels beyond any warship in our armada, even this one. It appears to have just lowered its output for some unknown reason, but it is quite beyond the capability of any of our vessels that small.”

Now ‘Falanamee was intrigued. He had never personally encountered such an occurrence, and could not think of any protocol in his training relating to the encountering a non-Covenant vessel more powerful than his own. Such a thing was unheard of, and had been so since before the current age.

“Has the object made any hostile move or attempted to communicate?”

The commander glanced over at the two other intendant Sangheili officers permitted on the command dais with the Ship Master, who returned the look with a negative gesture. “No, Excellency.”

Pausing only a moment longer to inspect the unknown construct, which was now quite clearly defined, ‘Falanamee turned his attention back to the human vessel, still surging towards the boundaries of the conquered star system. “Instruct the Angelic Fury and Ankh Reaver to investigate. We have a more pressing duty to attend to. Transmit the object’s coordinates to the holy Prophet’s vessel as well. I’m sure he will take great interest in this discovery.”

‘Netanimee saluted and turned away, but before he could carry out his orders, one of the other intendants accosted him and quietly delievered a new message. Frowning, the commander turned back to his master, who was still watching him carefully.

“Excellency, the Prophet of Benefaction is demanding your audience once more. It would seem he already is aware of the Maintainer’s discovery.”

The Ship Master allowed himself to close both eyes at once, the greatest display of exasperation he would allow himself in public view, and then nodded stoically.

“I take it your sensors have discovered what mine have, Ship Master.” When the Prophet appeared before a supplicant ‘Falanamee moments later, he looked considerably more alert than he had when they had last spoken.

“Yes, noble one. I have dispatched two of my finest warships to investigate the object. I had intended on alerting you as well, but your attentiveness has made that unnecessary.”

The Prophet crocked a large eyebrow and leaned forward slightly, bringing his features into sharper definition. “Very good. However, more of a reception is required. I would have you break off your pursuit and rendezvous with my vessel at the artifact’s position.”

‘Falanamee looked up, startled. “Break off the pursuit, high one? You would allow these humans to escape divine justice?”

“You question my orders, Ship Master?”

The Sangheili chose his next words carefully. “I would never dream of such insolence, noble one. I simply do not see why my vessel’s presence at the investigation of that object is necessary, especially if such a course correction allows these fugitives to escape.”

An uncomfortable silence filled the air, the two leaders staring at each other through the void of space. Behind ‘Falanamee, one of his officers shifted uncomfortably. At last, the Prophet leaned back in his hover throne, a thin smile creasing his lips.

“Your question is a prudent one, Ship Master. What I would expect from one of your esteemed rank. However, my order stands. It is my belief that the artifact we have discovered is of Forerunner construction. What is more, it appears to be in very good repair. Perhaps even… inhabitable.”

Now the Ship Master was genuinely astonished. To find an intact Forerunner artifact was a momentous occasion, but not one without precedent. But to even suggest one was found with living beings inside it… Was the Prophet suggesting that the gods had returned to the mortal plane?

With a wave of his slender hand, the Prophet warded off any further inquiry. “I cannot relay why I suspect such an event has occurred, not until I am certain. However, your presence is required when contact is established. We must show proper respect.”

“Of course, noble one.”

When hologram faded, ‘Falanamee shook his head slowly, looking from the new artifact to the fleeing human vessel and back again. Something about this change in plans raged against his warrior’s intuition, and he certainly did not think that the Prophet’s suspicions were justified, but he was committed. Letting the human ship go would do no great harm, and deep down, he did not loathe the failure. Eradicating the sentients was his duty, and one he would carry out loyally, but it gave him no pleasure.

“Change course to rendezvous with that construct. Reduce power to the plasma installations. Gods’ gift, we will not need them.”
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Five minutes left.

Flitch looked both ways down the hallway, and seeing only a few turned backs, dove across into the open door across the way. He immediately sealed the door and crossed the small service junction, prying loose a panel from the metal floor. This revealed a long, dark tube, descending down at least ten meters, lit only by a few dim wall mounts. The infiltrator smiled with satisfaction; this vertical access way, designed for use if the turbolift grid was offline, would bring him directly under where he needed to be. Hooking his case onto a flap of hi uniform, he slid into the hole, grabbing the protruding rungs that jutted out below.

After a few cramped, dark moments, he was at the bottom; his feet perched directly above a sealed blast door. Locating the corresponding access panel, he tapped a prominent command key, and the barrier slid away, revealing the rest of the ladder rungs, and the deck plate beneath. However, there was another, unexpected, object in his narrow field of vision below. The domed, orange head of a Mon Calamari almost completely filled the opening, bobbing slightly as the crewman repaired an electrical junction set between two of the lower rungs. Apparently, he had not heard the plug unseal itself a mere meter above him.

Flitch considered his options quickly. He couldn’t go back, there was no guarantee there would be another way to the hangar he could use, and time was short anyway. There was nothing for it but to continue on. Hopefully the oblivious alien wouldn’t prove too much of a challenge.

Hooking his case on one of the hand rungs, the human braced himself, and then dropped directly onto the Alliance crewer. Flitch felt his right foot impact the amphibian’s skull, but rather than deliver a debilitating concussion as he had hoped, the blow slid of the alien’s smooth head and both sentients tumbled to the floor. Hard.

Flitch was the first to try to rise, but the Mon Cal began to flail immediately, obviously disoriented, but still dangerous. The Imperial agent fell upon him again, slamming the alien back to the deck and smothering his lipless mouth. His large, finned arms began to pound on the assailant’s sides, but Flitch gritted his teeth and drove his elbows down, pinning the crewer more tightly to the cold deck. The Mon Calamari did not relent, thrashing and kicking as its huge eyes bulged out even larger, desperately searching the room for something that could help him. Feeling the larger being beginning to overcome the shock of its assault, Flitch again threw himself down upon the alien, lunging forward to grab its scaly neck. With a quick motion, he jerked sideways, and with a raspy gasp, the alien stopped moving.

Breathing heavily, he rolled off the crewer and scrabbled to his feet, quickly scanning his new surroundings. The room he was in, identical to the one above, was empty save for himself and the defeated Rebel. Flitch glanced back down at the immobile form and nudged it with his foot. The Mon Calamari was dead. The Imperial exhaled a long sigh, and then stepped over the body, plucking his case from where he had deposited it. Remorse was one of the first things that had been trained out of him.

Not bothering to make any effort to hide the corpse, Flitch deactivated the small chamber’s light panel, and listening at the door to make sure the way was clear, slipped out. The narrow hallway, a service passage, was vacant, obstructed only by a single deactivated astromech that was propped up to one side of the walkway. Pausing a moment to regain his bearings, the infiltrator set off again, careful to avoid the passages around him he knew to be constantly monitored. Though his stealthy route was unimpeded and devoid of unexpected complications, Flitch could tell time was running out, and he was beginning to fall behind.

At last he came to a doorway he clearly recognized, one that lead to the main inhabited area on the deck below level one he needed to reach. That meant that his tedious escape was almost at an end, although one of the most difficult parts still lay ahead. He would have to cross through several main, inhabited corridors to reach the vertical crawlway that would bring him to the flight deck. Once there, he could slip behind whatever guards the Alliance had posted there, detonate the last of his devices, which would ensure an unimpeded departure, and coast away. After a brief display of pyrotechnics, it would be a simple matter to relay a pickup code to the nearest Imperial base. Flitch wasn’t entirely sure where the Republica was at the moment, he had been absorbed in preparations for since departure, but he was sure that the data on Rebel and sympathizer activities he had accumulated would prove him worthy of a speedy retrieval, no matter where he was. His instructors had always noted his single-minded focus on a mission as a potential weakness, but it seemed to have worked in his favor this time; what did it matter where the Rebel vessel was going? It would be wreckage in a few minutes anyways.

Sure that his case was firmly secured at his side, Flitch removed a blank datapad from his pocket, positioned it before him in manner that indicated enthrallment, and allowed the automatic door to open.

There was surprisingly little foot traffic in the hallway, one that ran severed as a junction for several major duty stations, and a junior officer barracks. As he walked along, seemingly absorbed with the nonexistent data the pad possessed, Flitch theorized that it was likely due to him. Though he had heard no ship-wide alert, the recent explosion and increased presence of armed marines was likely to raise suspicions amongst the crew, and if confronted, Flitch suspected the soldiers had been instructed to warn crewers of the threat. Walking out in the open in such an environment was extremely risky, but Flitch hoped that his face was not particularly well known to most of the cruiser’s crew, and he had taken the time to swap his uniform for that of a low-level technician. Who would suspect an oblivious-looking tech wandering through a heavily traveled area, absorbed with some unimportant scrap of data?

A minute and several turns later, Flitch was still, at least seemingly, unnoticed. He suspected the surveillance cameras he had passed would identify him if given a few more moments, but by the time they did, he would be well away from the supernova that would engulf them. Still closely inspecting the blank pad, Flitch made one final turn, to the side passage that would bring him to the appropriate access way.

Smoothly, without even showing that he had looked up at all, the infiltrator ducked behind an extruding computer bank. Though he had only caught sight of them in his peripheral vision as he turned the corner, he had instantly recognized the uniform and weapon of the Rebel marine. His heart pounded and he stuck his right hand into the case at his side, preparing himself for the attack. It never came.

The marine he had seen, accompanied by a pair of nervously chattering techs, turned the corner, apparently not noticing the pedestrian who they had been behind was no longer in evidence, and continued on, pausing just beyond Flitch’s range of vision. They began to talk, and the infiltrator shrunk into the shadows as much as he could, wedging himself behind an exposed bit of power casing.

“This is the place.”

“Why would he plant one here? It’s just a computer junction.”

“Yes, a computer junction that networks fire control commands for most of the turbolaser banks on this side of the ship. If there was a detonation near this thing, it would take half an hour to reroute all of the weapons emplacements.”

“Here, help me get this open.”

“Well, I guess that makes sense. Still, if he intended on blowing up the ship anyways, why would he bother with some fire control computer?”

“Backup plan maybe, who knows? All that matters is that it’s a potential target. You know the Major’s orders.”

“Well, even if we find one here. I’d rather be taking care of it up here than down under the core. I had third shift down there a few weeks ago. Kind of creepy.”

“Whatever. I’m just glad they found the one down there so quickly. I’ve got a score to settle with those Imperial bastards before they send me to the Seven Hells.”

At this point, Flitch stopped listening. It was all he could do to stop himself from screaming out loud in frustration. The culmination of his operation was ruined! He couldn’t comprehend how the Rebels had located the core device, there was no beacon or activation transmitter on it; he had made sure of that. And they couldn’t have retraced his steps from the regulation computer so quickly, not even Imperial descrambler droids could break down the barriers he had put up so quickly.

No, there was no time to mull the failure. He still had to get off the ship; the information he had stolen still had value. There was still a way for him off the cruiser, assuming of course the diversions he had put in place did their jobs.

From the sound of it, the trio of Rebels had moved to the other side of the terminal, and taking advantage of their diverted attentions, Flitch stepped back out into the hallway, trying to look as inconspicuous as before. He passed the crewers without incident, and focused himself intently on the doorway beyond which the service ladder lay.

“Excuse me.”

Flitch froze, ready to break into a fighting run.

“I’m quite sorry, but I think I’m lost. Its kind of embarrassing actually, I have been onboard this ship for a week, but… well…”

The infiltrator’s heart began to slow again; he knew that voice. Sure enough, standing awkwardly behind him, was Reginald Barclay, the fidgety man he had helped rescue from the Torrent as part of his cover operation. A small smile creased Flitch’s stress-drained lips.

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. Where do you need to go?”

Barclay returned the smile uneasily. “Oh, thanks. I’ve been trying to find the diplomatic quarters. Captain’s orders.”

Flitch nodded, and pointed down the hall, away from where the scanning team still worked. “There’s a turbolift bank that way. It can get you to deck twelve. I can show you if you like.”

“That would be… um, appreciated. I haven’t quite gotten my head around your numbers.” He blushed a bit. “You know, you look very familiar. Lieutenant, I think?”

“No, just an ensign. Unfortunately.”

“Ah, sorry. You just looked familiar.”

“No problem. I’m sure I ‘d have remembered someone like you if we’d met before.”

“Why do you say that?”

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:20pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Forty One


Commander Hessun’s huge, dark eyes twitched and swirled as he peered through the dim light at some lettering stenciled on the cold, durasteel wall. “Here we are. The injector hub should be just beyond this bulkhead.”

The Mon Calamari gestured to a smallish hatch set against the gray wall, studded with a variety of clamps and locking mechanisms.

“I’m surprised anyone could even get in there. The static fields that keep the injectors in there running are pretty self-sufficient, and I’ve never had to do maintenance on any of the system. I didn’t think anyone had been down here since the Republica had its last refit.”

“I’m positive the activation code was beamed into that chamber,” Cortana replied, sharing the Chief’s eyes as he looked down at the pale engineer. “It is certainly a good hiding place though; the ship’s internal sensors don’t seem to be able to take any clear readings of any of the systems in there.”

Hessun nodded his bulbous head. “It’s those generators I mentioned. They boost durability of the injector pistons nearly eighty percent, but picking up on any problems to do develop can be tricky. My crews have been having problems with the static field that replaced the one in the primary tractor grid when we last hit space dock. Lower intensity, but its still gumming up diagnostics all over the deck. The field messes with the neural programs of most of our tech droids too. Whatever we have to do on the other side of this blast door were going to have to do by hand.”

Webbed fingers punched a few commands into a small wall panel, and the claps lining the hatch’s perimeter popped up, revealing hand grips. “Mind helping me with this?”

Hessun braced himself against the wall and reached to grab the grips on one side of the plug, but he stepped away in mild surprise as the Master Chief, his dull armor blotting out the dim emergency lights set above them, clapped his gauntleted hands on both sides of the door and pulled. The entire hunk of five inch thick metal came free in a single, smooth motion, and was deposited lightly onto the deck like an empty knapsack.

“Heavy.” The Chief glanced down at is handiwork. “Looks like battle-grade plating.”

One eye fixed on the armored humanoid and the other goggling at the solid hunk of durasteel that would have drained him to move only a few inches, even with the support of the pressurized hinges set at its base, the Mon Calamari was an unintentionally comedic sight. “Um… yes, quite heavy. That blast door is designed to withstand a catastrophic plasma detonation of several kilotons.”

The chamber beyond the plug was almost pitch-black, lit only by a faint shroud of phosphorescence from above. A low, rhythmic pounding, one that the pair could hear faintly since they arrived on the deck, was now very clear, and the syncopated vibration was beginning to make the Spartan’s teeth chatter. He tapped a control on his helm, and a beam of light pierced the blackness. The way lit by the Chief’s spotlight, the Alliance officer ducked through the entry point, quickly followed by the human himself, who easily slipped through opening despite his bulkier gear.

The room was circular, perhaps one hundred and twenty five feet from one side to the other, with a ceiling that bulged down into the center, thirty feet from the polished floor at its lowest point. Both the odd glow and vibration seemed to be emanating from the bowled ceiling, which sported several slits along its sides, each lit by a soft, white aura. The chamber itself was largely empty, save for a dozen thick tubes, which emerged from the floor at evenly-spaced intervals in a circle around the room’s center and lanced diagonally into the gunmetal ceiling.

As the Chief was taking this all in, he noted an odd sound, like static, building up in his ears. The Mon Calamari, who was inspecting a metal band that ran around the closest of the pylons, seemed unaffected. “Cortana?”

There was silence for a moment, and then the static grew louder. “Sorry Chief. The fi… …erator seems to be inte…ng our link. I’ll try to cut d… on the static, but I …n’t be able to communicate until you leave this are… The Comm…r should be ab… to help you locate the bomb. It should be… one of the pylons. I’m shunting into the b..idge system now. Good luck.”

An icy sensation bloomed at the base of the Chief’s skull, and he felt Cortana’s consciousness leave him. The hole she left was a bit uncomfortable, but he was used to her comings and goings by now, and shrugged it off.

The static was largely gone now, and the Spartan could think more clearly. He noticed the engineer was waving him over.

“When the injectors are online, these pistons pump up and down from the coolant tanks to the main reactor, directly above,” Hessun said, patting the metallic band he had been inspecting. “Even though any detonation in this room could disastrous, the most damaging place would be up right on the core’s outer casing, where the injector passes through. Place an active detpack at the point where the external piston meets the shell casing, and you could easily activate the charge with the force of the injector itself. I’m guessing what were looking for is up there, somewhere.” The Mon Calamari pointed up at the tops of the thick pylons, where they intersected with the side of the bowl, some fifty feet straight up.

The Master Chief followed the engineer’s finger, and then appraised the dormant piping, smooth save for a few protruding patches of added casing. Sloped at nearly ninety degrees, the pylons would not make for an easy assent.

“No handholds. Typical.”
---------------------------------------------------------------------

In less than a second, Cortana was back in the Alliance vessel’s main computer, absorbing every byte of sensor data the ship had accumulated since she diverted her attention to the search for Flitch’s explosive. What she discovered was not reassuring. Finding the projector she had been using previously engaged with some other program, she flitted over to a secondary holographic tub and booted up her image, almost forgetting to reestablish an audio linkup in her haste.

“What’s your plan, captain? How do we proceed?”

Ryceed, who was hunched forward in her command seat, brow creased in thought, didn’t bother looking up at the shimmering figure.

“There isn’t much we can do at the moment, I’m sure you realize that. Until the bomb is neutralized and the core back up to full power, were stuck here. I suppose it’s too much too hope for that your friend was exaggerating when he gave me the threat analysis of our visitors out there.” The Republica’s medium range Com-Scan had locked onto a pair of very large, shell-hulled starships, approaching their position at a prodigious rate.

Cortana sighed. “Unfortunately, he was correct. The Covenant consists entirely of brutal, genocidal zealots, bent on the eradication of the human race, for a reason none of us can fathom. I doubt the fact that you and your people are not from this galaxy will make much difference to them when they come knocking. Hopefully the Republica will prove more resistant to their weaponry than the typical UNSC starship, but I can’t guarantee anything, not without seeing the effect of their plasma against your deflectors.”

“You may get your wish, very soon.” Ryceed blew out a long breath, rubbed the spider webs brought on by a week without restful sleep from her eyes and rose wearily, then glanced at her first officer. “Do we have anymore data on those ships?”

Commander Gavplek finished relaying an order to a pair of ensigns who were working the primary sensors, and then turned, frowning. “Some, sir. The vessels are obviously warships, each sporting at least a dozen probable weapons emplacements of unknown design.”

“Highly energetic plasma ejectors, employing a mobile electromagnetic sheath to encase and guide the projectile clouds they fire,” the AI interjected.

“The larger of the vessels, three point three kilometers long, has some sort of deflector field encasing its hull,” the commander continued. “The field is making it difficult for our sensors to get any clear reading on the ship’s power output or internal systems. The smaller ship, at one and a half kilometers, lacks the field, although I suspect it is capable of generating one as well. Scanners have been able to penetrate its hull, but its systems are too alien to easily identify. Both vessels appear to be using some sort of ion drive, but seem to lack hyperdrive networks.”

“Covenant vessels use an advanced variation of UNSC Shaw Fujikawa Slipspace Drive. It’s substantially slower than your FTL technology, but more precise.”

Ryceed had turned her attention back towards one of the holographic displays around her, which sported a three dimension representation of the larger of the two craft. “Have you been able to determine if their weapons are primed for firing?”

“Not yet, captain. We can’t do that until we at least know how their power systems work.”

The image of Cortana flickered as she interfaced with main scanner control, where the two ensigns were still attempting to analyze and penetrate the sensory shell around the cores of both ships. A moment later, the flickering stopped.

“Odd.” Cortana looked perplexed. “Neither ship has its plasma generators primed. Reigning Covenant tactics always seem to involve obliterating a target as soon as possible. Why would they be approaching us like this? Were almost in firing range as it is.”

The ensigns looked down at their interfaces, fruitlessly trying to see what the AI had amidst their confused and undecipherable readings.

As the Alliance command staff and the AI ponder the question, Captain Picard, who had been listening to the conversation with great interest, suddenly stepped forward, inspecting the Covenant warships more closely. “Cortana, do UNSC starships share any design elements with the Republica? Even just superficially?”

Not knowing what the human was getting at, Cortana thought for a moment. “Not really. Mon Calamari design is far smoother and more organic-looking than any Earth-made vessel, even civilian ones. Actually, this ship has more in common, at least superficially, with a Covenant capital ship than a…” She paused.

Ryceed looked up at her, irritated. “Than what? What else has gone wrong?”

“Nothing. Its just that… maybe… No, it couldn’t be.”

“What?”

The AI looked over the inquisitive faces of the ship’s crew and passengers absently, her artificial mind tackling a new, and unexpected, idea. “Well, I don’t know too much about Covenant theology, no one does, but they do worship a highly advanced race of aliens that disappeared from our galaxy hundreds of thousands of years ago. They’re called the Forerunners, and all Covenant technology is based upon artifacts and designs salvaged from their abandoned installations, strewn across the galaxy.”

“Now, this galaxy isn’t as diverse as your own, probably due to Covenant’s dominion over most of it, and locating a starship that is not readily identifiable as either human or Covenant is virtually unheard of. As I said, Covenant technology, and thus ship design, is at least vaguely similar to ancient Forerunner starships. The Republica not only looks like one of their own vessels, but its power capacity also far exceeds that of any CCS-class cruiser. I don’t believe I’m actually even thinking about this, but…”

“Cortana,” Commander Riker too stepped forward, his mouth slightly agape. “Are you saying that the inhabitants of those ships think we are their gods?”

There was a lengthy pause, the eyes of all those in earshot fixed squarely on the projection. At last, Cortana grinned.

“You know what, Commander? That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Ryceed’s eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you planning now? My ship is in no state to be used as the centerpiece of some sort of gambit, especially not one based on the completely unsupported theory that these sapients think that we are their gods.”

“From the looks of things, Captain, we don’t have much of a choice. As you say, the Republica is in no state to fight, and even if your deflectors can hold them off for awhile, I don’t want to risk seeing what will happen when they call for reinforcements. At the very least, I can buy some time for the Chief to dispose of the bomb so we can reactivate the drives and get out of here.”

She turned to Data and La’Forge, who were both still seated at the make-shift wormhole control nexus. “Have you been able to figure out why we ended up here instead of your dimensional plane?”

“Lt. Commander La’Forge and I are still analyzing the data you dumped into the core on your experience guiding the ship. However, I believe we have made significant inroads, and I am preparing a new control program for your use, should the Republica attempt to reenter the wormhole. It should be ready in approximately ten minutes.”

“I’m not sure if I can stall them for that long, but I will try.” Cortana turned back to Ryceed, who was looking increasingly irate. “Captain, I’ll need complete access to your communications and hyperwave system, as well as main ion control.”

The woman gritted her teeth. “This is my ship, Cortana. You may have more knowledge of our circumstances than the rest of us, and you may still have access to the ship’s computer systems, but that does not mean that I will allow you to pursue any fantastical plan you dream up, regardless of the risk it poses to the two thousand Alliance soldiers! I demand that you at least detail your plan adequately to me.”

Cortana shook her head, and gestured to the main viewscreen, on which both ships were clearly visible, and still approaching. “There isn’t any time, captain. We cannot fight, and we cannot simply sit here and let them pick us apart. It my may not be the best of alternatives or assured to work, but my plan is all we have.”

“I will not accept this. You cannot…”

“Captain.” The voice that rang out from behind them was not particularly loud or impassioned, but it was clear, and undeniable. Leia Organa walked up to Ryceed and placed a hand on her shoulder, her posture stern, and at the same time understanding. Their eyes met. “We have to trust her. There is no time. Please.”

Ryceed stared at the councilor, trying to reassert her authority to the woman, but something in those eyes struck a cord, and she began to reconsider. Whether she liked it or not, Cortana was right; there weren’t any other options. Certainly, she had gotten them into this situation, but the AI had also guided the Republica away from destruction at the hands of the Imperial task force.

The woman sighed resignedly. “Very well. You may do what you think is needed to keep this ship and its crew intact.” Before Cortana could reply though, Ryceed’s posture stiffened again. “Remember though, this is still my ship. If I find that you’re doing anything more than what is necessary to safeguard the mission and the crew, or if you cause undue harm to them, I will purge you from the Republica’s systems myself.”

“Believe me, captain. If I fail or overstep my bounds now, the Covenant will be perfectly happy to fulfill your promise for you.”
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The two majestic capital ships, now side by side, at last came to a stop, using the hundreds of retro thrusters dotting their hulls to eliminate their forward velocity. Their target, far smaller and less impressive than either ship, made no move in response, its weapons systems and com-lines silent. The cloud of fighters and gunships surrounding the largest vessel bunched up in tight formations around their carrier, silently awaiting orders.

From his command platform, Teno ‘Falanamee too awaited orders, arms folded tightly behind his arched back. It was only proper to allow the Prophet to make first contact as he saw fit, especially if his suspicions about the immobile starship’s origins were true.

“Lower the defensive screens. We must make our intent clear.”

The order was swiftly carried out, and a faint shimmering ran across the hull of his might ship, visible crest of the dissipating energy field.

If the whitish, carbon-scored vessel did indeed contain who the Prophet had theorized it would, the ship master mused, this would truly be a momentous day in the history of the Covenant. The day, in fact, that the Covenant’s entire existence had lead up to. If the Forerunner’s, or their servants were indeed suspended before them, and they chose to reveal themselves to the Covenant’s impromptu emissaries, salvation would truly be at hand. There would be no more need for the endless war, no more need for civil unrest, and the species of the holy union would transcend the known plane into paradise. ‘Falanamee was not nearly as religious as some of his brethren, but the prospect appealed to even him greatly.

However, there was something about the situation that kept him from being overly elated. Part of him simply couldn’t believe that a part of dogma had become, or could become, reality. The Great Journey, and even the Forerunners, had always seemed beyond mortal comprehension, a driving force and motivation, rather than a reachable goal. Of course, such thoughts were heresy.

Whatever the source of his unease, he did not have long to ponder, as he was soon alerted to an incoming communiqué from the Prophet of Benefaction’s cruiser.

“The artifact has sent you no sign or message, I assume?”

“No, noble one.”

The vaguely serpentine creature displayed in the projection nodded sagely. “Very well. We have presented ourselves to them, and they have made no objection. You have noted the probe?”

‘Falanamee glanced at his second, who nodded in confirmation.

“Indeed. The object has scanned our vessel. The technique was quite unlike any our Maintainer has every recorded.”

The Prophet allowed his thin lips to retract into a smile. “As I suspected, they truly are beyond us. Now, I believe it is my duty to offer some humble inquisition. The artifact and its inhabitants have made no move; their intention for us is clear.”

So that’s it, the ship master thought, he wants to be the one to make first contact. Surely, such a role would earn him great honor and personal validation, but it really is the ordained role of the Hierarchs.

“Noble one, perhaps we should inform High Charity of this occurrence before continuing further. Surely the high ones would wish to know immediately.”

The Prophet crooked a thin eyebrow and sank back into his throne, his smile fading. “Nonsense. Those aboard the artifact may wait for us now, but if we wait for the Hierach’s arrival, they may take offense at our lack of attention. No, we must make contact now. I assure you, soon, the whole Covenant shall know of what has happened here.”

The projection pivoted, now facing the motionless starship. “I will ply, but it would be proper to send your image as well. What could be better, representatives of the two great races united in welcoming our gods.”

‘Falanamee made no objection, and motioned to ‘Netanimee to link his own holo signal with the Prophet’s transmitter. He was becoming more and more weary as the situation lengthened, but there was little he could do to defy the word of the Prophets, even a mere functionary like Benefaction.

The ship master prepared to kneel, as was customary upon meeting a superior in such a communication, but before he could do so, the Prophet became distracted, momentarily disappearing from the Sangheili’s bridge. Upon his return a moment later, the sickly grin had returned. “It seems the artifact and its inhabitants have seen fit to bring their word to us after all. It seems we are adequate recipients of the honor.”

“Excellency, we are receiving a transmission as well. The Huragok are attempting to translate it into a form our displays we can process as I speak.”

‘Falanamee offered a small nod to his subordinate, and positioned himself to face the main projector array, which was flickering with bands of static as the technicians hurriedly filtered it into the system. As the display began to solidify, he knelt in respectful prostration, and the other three Sangheili on the command platform followed suit. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted that the Prophet was doubled over on his floating platform; a position usually reserved for the audience of the Hierarchs. So he truly believes…

At last, the static cleared, leaving it its place a flat, glowing white disc. On its surface was lightly imprinted a graceful, simple form, like that of an avian with wings outstretched. Slowly, it began to spin, and with each revolution, flecks of black and gray appeared on its surface. Soon, two thin bands of darkness encircled the disc, parallel and vertical. They began to rotate the object in concert with each other, but the disc itself became motionless.

For a while, it simply floated there, slowly circled by its two bands. Finally, a thin, awed voice broke the silence, that of the Prophet. “Your attention honors us, radiant one. Tell us, are you of the gods? The Forerunners?”

‘Falanamee heard the sharp intake of breath from a member of his staff; all were undoubtedly enraptured by what they were witnessing. The ship master, however, remained unimpressed. He knew that he should feel awed and joyful, but something was still nagging him. This felt… wrong.

The object did not break its silence, and the Prophet seemed to suddenly be growing uncomfortable. Why did it not respond? Then the voice came.

It was soft, yet so deep and powerful that it resonated throughout the entire overbridge dome. “That name is not familiar. Gods? Perhaps. What are you?”

The Prophet seemed under whelmed by the response, but pushed on nonetheless. “We are of the Holy Covenant. We live by the word of the gods, those who left this plane so long ago.”

Again, the object paused, although the silence was shorter this time. “This place? Yes, we were once of this place. You are those we left behind?”

“You are the gods!” The Prophet had raised himself from his prostrate position, forgetting decorum in the face of his elation. “Our empire exists to please and serve you. What is your whim? What may we do to prove our worthiness to accompany you into paradise?”

“Paradise?”

“Yes, the existence beyond the Great Journey. Your living conduits, the Hierarchs, they have told us of how you will reward all of the true believers.”

There was a pause. “These… Hierarchs. What do they say of us?”

The Prophet of Benefaction at once launched into a version of holy Covenant dogma, but ‘Falanamee was no longer listening. Something about the last statement seemed odd to him. Not the content, although it was unusual that the Forerunners would not know of their greatest servants, but more than that, there had been some kind of distortion in the voice. None of the others assembled seem to have noticed, but there was crackle behind the words, familiar somehow.

When the Prophet had finished his explanation, there was another pause, this one longer than the first. The emptiness persisted, and at last, the Prophet was forced to speak up, sounding confused. “Have I displeased you, great ones?”

“No. You have spoken adequately. We are intrigued by this Covenant. Speak of it more.”

Again, the Prophet launched into a lengthy, prideful speech, unfazed by the question. ‘Falanamee, however, ignored him, lost in thought. Where had he heard the sound before? It was quite distinctive, quite alien. It had been a long while ago, on the battlefield perhaps. It was static; another transmission perhaps? Images flitted through his brain, intangible and unreadable.

The work station of one of the intendant Sangheili, abandoned by its enraptured controller, began to light up, alert forms scrawling across its elevated surface. A two dimensional energy display flickered into reality, and began to rise prodigiously. Though command was occupied by the transmission, the Huragok below still faithfully received new data from the sensor array and transmitted it upwards, even if no one was disposed to pay it any heed. There was something out there, beyond the god’s starship. Something that had not been there a moment before.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:21pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Forty Two

Blasted energy sink. The damn thing had been acting up since the escape from the Hoth system, and despite all efforts to fix it, firing the upper quad cannon always triggered its quick degeneration and eventual overload. No matter how many times he gutted the system and replaced it, the problem came back. Perhaps the old girl was trying to tell him something.

Han Solo, face smeared with grease and eyes obscured by bulky goggles, blew out a long sigh and settled back on his haunches to survey the docking bay below. His place on the upper hull of the Millennium Falcon afforded the smuggler turned general a good view of the Republica’s main flight deck, although at the moment there wasn’t much to see, just a few astromechs and nervous-looking mechanics hovering around some of the Alliance fightercraft that lined the chamber’s walls. Normally, the area would be far more lively, but Han had gathered from some commotion among the crew nearby that the ship had been on alert since it had exited that… whatever that thing that had made him black out was. Given his security clearance, Han probably could have ascertained what exactly was going on simply by patching in with ship’s operations via his com link, but at the moment, the Corellian wasn’t in much of a mood to care about anything but his old, battered freighter. Thinking about much else still brought up bad feelings, humiliating feelings, and Han didn’t feel like being humiliated, even just to himself, at the moment.

Turning his attention back to the open panel beneath his feet, the man rummaged through a gear case next to him and removed a pair of wide radiator fins, tarnished and dinged, but still very much usable. He placed the first of them in the opening and shoved it into the slot left vacant by the part he had just removed. When he attempted to seal the fin into place however, the tool he was holding simply fizzled, doing nothing more than spraying a fine mist of sparks over his already dirty pants. Han stared incredulously at the thin, tubular implement for a moment before he realized that it was, in fact, not an electromagnetic sealer. Growling, he tossed the unneeded hydrospanner aside rose to his feet.

“Chewie, toss me the mag wrench!” he called out over the side of his starship, down to an unseen assistant. A brief moment later, another tube, boxier than the first, sailed up from below, smacking into Han’s chest and landing awkwardly on the crook of his left elbow. The man let out a grunt of thanks to the Wookiee below before hunching down to return to his work. However, before he thumbed the ignition switch on the device, Han looked back up, sliding the goggles obscuring his vision onto his forehead. Two men, one of them in an unusually flamboyant uniform, had just entered the docking bay, and had paused to close and seal the entry bulkhead. Han wasn’t too knowledgeable of Alliance shipboard procedure, but on Imperial warships, only security could lock down an entry point with prior notice or emergency. And the pair below definitely weren’t security.

As they started to move again, Han noticed that one of them, a tech (by the look of his uniform) holding a non-descript case in one hand, was walking very close behind the other man, careful not to let his arms stray far from the small of the leading man’s back. Though he wasn’t speaking, and was too far off for Han to get a good look at his face, the leading man seemed quite uncomfortable and stiff.

Movement in his peripheral vision caught Han’s attention, and he glanced over towards the shielded exit port, beyond which space looked as empty and cold as always. Several humanoids, most probably marines or security by the look of them, had suddenly appeared near the port, and were quietly weaving through the scattered elements of the Republica’s fighter complement towards the other new arrivals. Eyes narrowing, Han cast off his goggles, tapped his belt to make sure his holster was occupied, and climbed down the Falcon’s side, dropping the last meter. Chewbacca, who had been reattaching a plate of armor to the starship’s docking ramp, looked up in mild surprise, mouthing a question.

“Something’s going on,” Han replied, nodding across the docking bay. “And I don’t think we want to miss out on it.”

The shaggy Wookiee looked nonplused, but put aside his welding tool anyways and moved alongside his human companion, hunter’s eyes carefully appraising the large chamber.

Han in the lead, his right hand hovering over his hip holster, the two rounded a nearby Y-Wing, which brought them out into the relatively clear liftoff lane that dominated the bay’s center. Across the chamber, the suspicious pair were quickly skirting along a crate-strewn wall, both looking extremely nervous. The suddenly apparent marines, at least five of them now were surreptitiously forming a cordon near the atmosphere shielded exit portal, careful to stay behind the various starfighter hulks to obscure themselves from view.

Chewbacca growled in warning.

“I see ‘em, Chewie,” Hand replied, not taking his eyes off the listless pair. “Whatever this is, it’s big.”

The two distant men rounded a pile of empty fuel casings, and the paused, the one in the rear drawing even closer to the oddly-dressed one. He seemed to whisper something in the others ear, and then, with a jerk, they were off again, this time headed towards Gallofree light passenger hopper, a small, unarmed shuttle equipped with a famously reliable hyperdrive. Han had scavenged parts out of them for the Falcon before, and he knew the model fairly well; if one was attempting a hasty escape, the little craft would serve quite well.

The two humans, now moving almost at a run, were almost to their target shuttle when the previously sealed bulkhead sprang open with a loud squeal and a dozen armed soldiers poured into the landing area, their weapons drawn and ready to fire. As the few techs who were still tending to the fighters sprang out of the way in agitated bewilderment, one of the soldiers, a middle-aged man with a knotted ponytail rushed up to the front of the squad, his own rifle quickly coming to bear on the nervous humans. On the other side of the bay, the other marines took this as a signal, and stepped out in the open in front of the fugitive pair, their own blasters ready to fire. The supposed technician took action immediately, dropping his case and grabbing the man in front of him by the neck, roughly pulling him up against a nearby supply crate, a blaster pistol now apparent in his hand.

The gruff leader of the reinforcements came to a halt ten meters from the cornered pair, his troopers fanning out around him, their weapons still primed. “Stand down, Flitch,” the ponytail human said, pain and resentment etched in his voice. “You’re outnumbered and surrounded. We’ve been tracking you for the last few minutes; you didn’ have a chance of getting out here. Now, lay down your blaster and let that man go, or my men will open fire.”

Flitch backed closer to the wall and jammed his pistol into the other man’s back. The oddly uniformed man let out a small whimper, and looked as though he was about to faint. “Come on, Major. You wouldn’t shoot one of your own men.” Flitch’s words were surprisingly icy and sharp, coming from such a young, smooth face, although the cold look in his eyes hardly made the tone surprising.

“Don’t bother, Imperial. The only reason my men didn’t shoot ya as soon as you were spotted is because you have intelligence that may be useful, and the captain would rather not make the maintenance droids peel your corpse off the deck. Still, that won’t stop ‘em for long if you don’t lay down your weapon, now. They’ve been anxious for a bit of vengeance since Sullust.” The major was right; every one of the Alliance security officers was ready to perforate the infiltrator with particle beams the instant the order was given.

Upon hearing the man’s identity, Han Solo whipped his DL-44 from its holster and moved swiftly to join the ranks of the security officers. He wasn’t about to allow any blasted Imp spy to escape, especially since he probably held information on the crew, and Leia. Besides, the Corellian still had a small debt to settle for an old friend…

Flitch’s gaze flashed from rifle muzzle to blaster barrel, from hardened Rebel face to face, and his jaw contorted into a tight grin. “I know what you all are. Filthy, bleeding-hearted, xeno-loving cowards. Sure, you’ll fight the Empire from the shadows, nipping at our heels, but when it comes down to it, you don’t have what it takes. I know you won’t shoot me now, not with this sniveling excuse for a man in front of me. One twitch of my finger, and what few guts he has will be spattered across your shirt.” At this, the hostage squirmed, but Flitch jammed his weapon’s barrel deeper into his back, and the resistance stopped.

“You see, that’s what really separates us from one another, Truul. I’ve seen how you work; for all your bravado and cunning, you’re still just like the rest of them, you can’t do what needs to be done to really get the job done, whatever it may be. That’s why the Empire controls this galaxy, and your pitiful Rebel Alliance is so inconsequential, a weak collection of sentimental old fools and traitors, too weak to live up to the Imperial name. We have what it takes to rule, and you don’t. It’s that simple. And it’s why you won’t kill me now. People like you can’t stomach collateral damage.”

Truul laughed, mirthless and bitter. “I don’t know what I ever saw in ya. Heck, I don’t know what in the Imps saw in you for that matter; can’t even make a stand without trying to comfort yourself with Imperial jabber and nonsense.” He leveled his blaster at the infiltrator’s head, sending fresh quakes through his hostage. “Not very perceptive either. Hostage or not, if you don’t drop that pistol right now, I’ll take off your head ‘m self.”

The two glared at each other for a long moment, and beads of sweat began to form on Truul’s brow. His lower lip quavering, the Imperial weakened his grip on the pistol fractionally. “Perhaps you’re a bit stronger than I had thought. Still, I wonder, are your convictions as steadfast as Charen’s were? If not, I’m afraid your bluster is a bit hollow.”

Truul was momentarily perplexed by the message, and before the infiltrator’s implication dawned on him, Flitch kicked lightly at the case lying at his feet. The impact knocked open its top flap, and a remote panel tumbled into view. “You were always slow.”

He stepped on the device.
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Far beyond the confines of the crowded bridge, another explosion rocked the battered Mon Calamari warship, jarring everyone present from their amazed audience to Cortana’s dangerous deception.

“Report!” Ryceed demanded, clenching her teeth angrily.

Sensor and operations officers feverishly received and applied reports from across the ship’s monitoring grid, but in the brief moment it took them to collect and deliver the data, the captain realized that something had gone very wrong, again. The two Covenant warships had not fired upon them; they sat in the space beyond the Republica’s bow, still enthralled with the AIs attempt at godhood. Flitch must have struck again, or worse.

“Sir,” one of the sensor officers called out, his voice wavering slightly. “I’m picking up three contacts to starboard; an Imperial Star Destroyer and two frigates.”

Ryceed’s eyes widen in shock, and she shot an angered glance at Data and the other Federation officers. “How could they have followed us?”

Before Data or any of the others could respond, however, Ryceed had turned her attention away from them, and was furiously drawing projectors away from the alien fleet and towards new arrivals.

“Shield status!” Commander Gavplek demanded, moving to coordinate the command crew against the renewed threat.

“Holding at sixty percent capacity, commander. The first shots from the destroyer must have been underpowered from the transition through the wormhole. It looks like they’re ships suffered some damage from the passage, but they’re still operational.”

“I’m picking up a power spike from the destroyer’s forward batteries.”

Another explosion rocked the hull, this one more powerful than the first.

“We have to get out of here. The Republica can’t withstand that kind of firepower for long in her current state.” Gavplek watched with mounting concern as tactical displays lit up with more contacts, the Star Destroyer’s fighter complement.

Ryceed nodded, and turned to the projector Cortana’s image had previously occupied, which now generated a hastily modified version of the Rebel Alliance crest, torn from the warship’s communications computer to serve as an avatar for the “Forerunners”. “Cortana!”

The image flickered for a moment, but did not disappear, and the captain could still discern the voice Cortana had concocted below the din of battle. Not willing to allow her any time to finish the game, Ryceed jabbed a few com controls, and the image abruptly disappeared. A moment later, Cortana glimmered into view, looking irritated and concerned. “I just lost my connection. What’s going...?” She paused, reacting to something Ryceed could see. “Oh. Imperial entanglements again.”

“I need full power back now! Get your man out of there, with that bomb.”

Not wasting time with a reply, Cortana closed her eyes and reached out through the ship’s systems once more, quietly hoping that things were not going as badly for the Chief as they usually did in situations like this.
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Perfect.

Evidently, the Spartan super soldier reflected as he hung a dozen meters in the air by his fingertips, he had overreached a little bit. While inspecting the third of the injector pylons, he must have been careless, and loosened the grip on the column with his legs in an attempt to get a good look at the far side. Of course, he hadn’t been anticipating the tremor that disrupted his half-ton balance and sent him over the curve of the pillar, nearly to the floor below, but that wasn’t a good enough excuse. Nevertheless, he was in a situation now, and agonizing over how he got there would do no one any good, least of all him.

Ironically, the mishap had yielded unexpected results, as his spot light now rested upon a small, boxy object sealed to the column that the Chief was reasonably certain did not belong there.

Though the devices was easily within reach, he was now faced with a dilemma; he could try for the likely bomb and achieve his objective with efficiency and speed, but doing so would mean that he would have to support his entire half-ton weight with a single hand. The fall, should he lose his grip, would probably not kill the Spartan, but it would be extremely unpleasant, and he wasn’t sure how quickly he could recover from it. Irregardless, it would extend the length of his mission markedly, and time was of the essence now. There was nothing for it.

Inhaling deeply, the Spartan tightened the grip of his left hand. Enhanced bone and titanium servomotors strained, but the durasteel did not give way. Gritting his teeth and cursing the progression of armor technology, the Chief closed his eyes and tried again, pumping his left arm for all it was worth. With a brittle creak, small grooves formed on the pylon’s surface. Again, the Chief strained, and the deformations deepened. After a few more seconds of effort, there was a clear, hand-shaped indentation in the tubing, deep, but not deep enough to compromise the tube’s integrity.

Struck with the odd feeling that time was running out fast than it had been moments before, the Chief decided to test his hand hold, and slowly loosened his right grip. The Spartan swayed slightly as his bulk readjusted, and grunted to cope with the sudden, massive weight on his left arm, but he felt solid, and immediately turned his attention to the box.

It was only slightly larger than his hand, rectangular and featureless, save for two, small lights that blink a soft blue on one side. Careful to upset his balance, the Chief tapped on the device, testing for a control panel, but found none. Not eager to tempt fate anymore, the Spartan braced himself yet again, and attempted to call out for Hessun, who was still somewhere below, investigating the lower area of the chamber. However, as soon as he attempted to for, the first word, the Chief realized just how precariously he hung from the pylon. Even the small movement of his center mass required for him to place his lips near his helmet’s voice amplifier was met bay an uncomfortable creaking sound from the hand hold he had formed. Determined, the Spartan tried again, but this time, he felt his left hand actually slipped a millimeter.

Before he could formulate another possible course however, a sensation erupted in his brain, like cold fire, and his focus began to faze in and out momentarily. Cortana was coming. He attempted to brace himself for the usual sensory progression that heralded her returned, but he felt that the initial shock had already unsettled his grip again, and this time it wasn’t just by a millimeter.

As he felt himself begin to fall, time slowed down, as it often did in combat situations. Though his mind was clouded by Cortana’s insertion process, he could still think clearly enough to know he had two options. Fall with the device, and risk detonating it, or fall without it, and risk taking the time to remount the removal attempt. He was prepared to go with the later option, to reduce the chance of detonation, but in the last instant before he slipped off entirely, an emotion manifested itself, harbinger of the AI’s coming. Urgency.

An indeterminate amount of time later, probably not very long, the Master Chief was able to will his eyes open, and was met by the concerned (he presumed, Mon Calamari weren’t the easiest species to read) face of Commander Hessun. “Are you… alive?”

Shaking his head to clear it of post-fall static, he hefted himself up onto his knees, and a wave of pain swept over him. Decades of intensive training allowed him to immediately shunt away most of its effects, but enough irritation remained to make it clear that he was probably bleeding somewhere under his suit. A normal man’s body would have been shattered, a fact that likely had triggered the alien’s consternation, but the Chief was largely unscathed, he hoped, and was able to rise to his full height with only a certain amount of numbness.

“More or less.”

Feeling some weight, he glanced down at his right hand, in which rested the rectangular object, thankfully still completely intact. “I’ve found the infiltrator’s explosive.”

Hessun inspected it briefly, confirmed it was indeed what they were looking for, and placed it in a padded and armored satchel he had been carrying with him for just such a task.

As the Chief stretched his fingers to ensure that they were still functional, he noted the odd static in the back of his head, and felt Cortana’s presence. The maintenance field was still distorting her connection, but her intent was quite clear. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I have a feeling your captain will be needing this reactor pretty soon.”
-----------------------------------------------------------

“He’s found it.”

Ryceed offered a hasty nod to the again manifested AI and turned to her XO. “Restart the reactor core immediately. Dump every joule we’ve got into the shields, and get our sublights back online. We’ve got to get out of here, now.”

“You’ll have full power in two minutes, Captain.”

“One minute. We won’t last long this close to that destroyer, and the Republica certainly can’t fighter her off, not now.” To compound her point, another series of detonations rattled the bridge as a wave of TIE Bombers made their first pass over the ventral hull.

“Sir, if we do that, the damage to the hypermatter reactor could be…”

The captain cut him off with a slashing gesture. “There’s no time! We can worry about repairs later, just do it!”

Gavplek moved comply, the concern on his face erased by another explosion against the deflectors that nearly knocked him off his feet.

Ryceed wasted no time in turning to the wormhole station, where the Federation and Alliance crews still worked feverishly, typing in long strands of code and watching accelerated projections flash across vid screens.

“Can we go back through?”

Geordi ducked past a human lieutenant to assess a new stream of code that one of Data’s computer models was generating. “Three minutes, captain. We almost have it.”

Picard, still close to the action, perked up at the mention of the wormhole, his previous concerns surfacing. If the Imperial ships had somehow managed to follow them through the first time, what would stop them from doing it again? “Data, what about…”

New warning klaxons rang across the bridge, and a sensor officer called for the captain’s attention. “Sir, were picking up energy spikes from the alien vessels!”

“Angle reserve deflector power forward! Brace for impact!”

“No, sir!” The officer looked up and out the main view port in astonishment. “They’re not targeting us.”
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Across the hulls of the sleek, turquoise starships, bulbous nodules turned their emitters towards forward and began to emanate a bright glow, one that quickly swelled and focused into the barrels at their fronts. Then, all in concert, the nodules released the charge, huge clouds of voluminous purple flame that hurtled through space, spreading long strands of superheated plasma in their wake. Though they moved at a rate slower than turbolaser bolts, the dense clouds moved quickly and inexorably, finding their marks with unerring precision. The first of the shots passed close to the Republica’s battered nose, exciting it’s already excited energy barrier, but clearing it with dozens of meters to spare. Instead, the blasts swept directly into several squadrons of Imperial starfighters, washing over them like a tsunami. The outlying flyers were able to spin away and regroup, but half a dozen, distracted by their original prey, were taken unawares, and evaporated into the cosmic nothingness, leaving behind nothing but their component molecules.

Another group of plasma fireballs hurtled towards the largest Imperial vessel, the Star Destroyer, which was still focusing its assault upon the Alliance warship. The first shot missed, grazing its knife-like forward tip, but another three slammed directly into the destroyer’s terraced face, sending sheaths of white light across its bow as the ship’s shields absorbed the blow. As the residual plasma discharge cleared, the destroyer remained, its defenses unbroken, but the fire from its turbolasers faltered as the bridge crew frantically analyzed the new threat. The pair of Covenant vessels allowed it no time for inaction, however, and began to move forward, new clouds forming in the barrels of its heavy guns, and smaller emplacements coming alive with bursts of silver light that cut through space, rippling across the hull shields of the Lancers and harrying the remaining TIEs, which were now engaging wing after wing of Seraph fighters, pilots eager for combat. Around far off Reach, the vast Covenant armada began to rocket out of orbit at full burn, summoned by the colorful heralds of battle.

Recovering from its surprise, the crew of the wedge-shaped battle cruiser began to come about, away from its former prey, angled nose coming to bear on the offending alien warships. As turbolaser gunners took in their new targets and primed their weapons, TIEs and Seraphs began to erupt into brilliant fireballs as they exchanged energy fire across and around the adjacent Mon Calamari ship’s hull. Targeted by three of the H-shaped fighters, a Seraph lost one wing, and then another under a hail of green bolts, and careened towards the light cruiser’s imposing form, its pilot incinerated by the attack.
-------------------------------------------------------------

The expected explosion, a wall of flame and light to end all pain and thought, did not come. Flitch, who had closed his eyes and gritted his teeth in anticipation of the final blast, was the most surprised of any of those opposed in the hangar bay. Feeling no pain, none of the nothingness he expected to follow it, the infiltrator snapped open his eyes in time to see the marines to see the marines recover similarly. Pausing only a moment to ensure that he still had hands, and a weapon in them, Truul aimed his blaster barrel past the hostage’s head, picking the Imperial’s sweaty forehead as his target, and tensed his trigger finger, willing it to pull.

Then the detonation came.

There was no fireball or rain of burning shrapnel, however, simply a bright light and a concussion that knocked everyone not leaning on something for support to the floor. The bay’s energy shield flickered as melting particles of starfighter armor bounced off the outer deflector. Dazed, but still on his feet, thanks in part to his awkward hostage, Flitch was able to collect his wits fast enough to see that everyone around him was on the floor, reeling from the impact. Barely thinking, the infiltrator gave his case gave his case two more precise kicks and then broke off in a half run, still dragging the stunned man with him.

First to recover, Han Solo hauled himself up on the form of one of the struggling security officers and took aim at the fleeing man with his blaster pistol. He squeezed off a shot, and a wall plate several meters ahead of Flitch exploded outward, spewing hot shrapnel.

Han lined up another shot, but was interrupted by the wail of his Wookiee companion, who was pointing frantically at the discarded carrying case. Another object was now in view alongside the detonator control, larger and boxier, and sporting a single, flashing blue light. Truul, scrambling to his feet, saw it too.

“Scatter!”

The nearby marines complied without missing a beat, throwing themselves behind landed starfighters and supply crates, any cover they could find. Han felt a pair of powerful hands grab his shoulders and yank him behind the nose of an A-Wing an instant before the box exploded, turning the floor around it into a puddle of melted durasteel.

As the thick, acrid cloud of melted metal began to clear, a loud whine filled the hangar, drawing Han’s attention to the nearby passenger hopper, whose docking ramp was already closing.

“Stop that ship!”

A dozen blaster rifles and pistols opened up at once, smacking into the shuttle’s worn hull, but only a few of them managed to scorch it before a shimmering veil appeared over its surface, absorbing some of the fire and reflecting the rest into nearby bulkheads. Despite the obstacle, Truul’s soldiers continued firing, but the shuttle lifted onto its repulsors without impediment, and the sort vessel began to maneuver up and over the other parked ships, pointing its stubby nose towards the energy field and space beyond. With surge of thrust from its boosters, the vessel rocketed away, passing through immaterial barrier without pause and heading into deep space.

Eye’s still fixed on the quickly disappearing ship, Truul screamed into his comlink. “Bridge, I need a tractor lock or weapons fire on that shuttle now!”

“Were a bit busy up here right now, Major.”

Busy? The Imperial bastard was getting away! Truul was about to scream back into the link when he, for the first time, noticed that the shuttle was not the only ship visible beyond the permeable field.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The first of the Star Destroyer’s new wave of emerald bolts cut through space like a storm of glowing meteors. The first two of them went wide, but other hit their mark, cutting into the smaller of the Covenant vessels with blinding energy. Shimmering energy fields appeared to repel the blow, but as soon as they met the incoming force, they melted away, overwhelmed by raw power. Unimpeded, the green blades cut into the hull, sending huge gouts of flame and tarnished metal into space. One of the bolts managed to punch all the way though a thinner section of the ship, spewing a geyser of unexpended energy out the other side.

Unperturbed, the pair of ships kept up their own fire, focusing on the closer of the Lancer frigates, which was beginning to pick off Seraphs with its numerous anti-fighter batteries. Six plasma torpedoes impacted it nearly simultaneously, causing its shields to surge and weaken, but leaving the ship intact. Even as the Star Destroyer launched another hail of turbolaser shots, the smaller Covenant ship fired more torpedoes at the Lancer. The second ship, however, paused, its heavier weapons momentarily silenced. Then, from its curved bow, a pinprick of white light erupted into view for a millisecond before surging forward at impossible speed, reaching the frigate almost instantly. The beam, less than a millimeter across but extremely brilliant vide against the starship’s weakened deflectors for a single second, and then pierced them, plunging into the ship’s forward most point, just below the slanted bridge section. Finding its target, the beam wrenched upwards, slicing through dozens of meters of durasteel and then up out of the ship, dissipating as it hit the shield wall again. It its wake, the weapon had left a blackened line that bisected the full length of the ship, from its center line to upper hull. The frigate’s sublight engines began to pulse erratically and its weapons batteries ceased. A moment later, explosions erupted from every hole in the craft’s armor plating; its core had been compromised.

As fire belched forth from its tender vessel, engulfing the frigate entirely in an obliterating explosion, the Star Destroyer let loose a new volley, this one fiercer, an avenging blow. Miniature suns erupted across the smaller Covenant ship’s hull, burning away tons of hardened armor and machinery in seconds. Again, it returned fire, but this time only with a single turret, as the rest were being engulfed by rifts and explosions that were racing across the starship’s once beautiful surface.

The larger vessel, spewing dozens of point lasers and torpedoes at the destroyer, moved to cover its comrade, but the rate at which the ship was losing mass into space indicated it would not maintain structural integrity for long. As a new wave of turbolasers plied the void, intent on finishing the kill, beyond the dueling colossi, the tubular drives of the Republica began to come to life, blue light surging from them once more.
--------------------------------------------------------------

From the tinted cockpit viewport of his commandeered shuttle, Flitch stared in confusion and awe as the Imperial Star Destroyer and the opposing vessels, ones quite unlike he had ever seen before, traded volleys of blistering energy. He felt a small prick of pride within his chest as a turbolaser bolt punched into one of the enemy ships, already heavily damaged, and it exploded with terrific force, causing the photo-sensitive cells in the transparisteel screen to darken. His reverie was short-lived however, as the sensors picked up dozens of fightercraft trying to outmaneuver each other in a deadly dance close by. Not eager to have his mission culminate with the accidental destruction of his escape shuttle by a random particle beam, the infiltrator set course for the Imperial warship and its Lancer escort, extremely convenient safe harbors.

As he tried to remember the recognition and docking codes he had buried in his memory so long ago, Flitch spared a glance towards his unwilling passenger, who was in a miserable heap against the rear wall of the cockpit, shivering. The Imperial agent flicked the barrel of his pistol at him. “That’s right; you stay there like a good boy. I’m sure we can find you a nice cell, warm on that Star Destroyer when we arrive. There’s always room for Rebel collaborators.”

The hostage stared up at his captor hopelessly, and nudged closer to the wall in a vain attempt to put some space between them. Fitch snickered and turned his attention back to the navigation display, but as he began to reprogram the ship’s passive transponder with an Imperial code, a shiver ran down his spine. There, in the hallway that leads to the cargo hold, something hadn’t been right about the air. It was… shimmering.

Hiss.

Flitch spun away from the controls and ducked at the same time, blaster in hand. An instant later, the interface he had been using exploded, slashed through by a long triangle of pulsating energy. Rolling onto the floor, the human raised his weapon and fired two shots into the nothingness from which the scythe emanated. One of the blasts harmlessly scorched the wall, but another was stopped by something beyond sight. Like a ripple on the surface of a calm pond, the empty space gave way to a tall, humanoid form, hunched over and bearing down on him, energy blade raised high.

Flitch scrambled away again, towards the hallway, just in time to avoid the cut that dug a deep gouge in the floor plate. Another shot, and the rippling form became clear at last, a towering mass of sinew, dark flesh, and armor. It took the hit in its chest plate, but continued forward totally unfazed, lunging to strike again. Flitch felt a searing pain slash his right leg, but rolled away again, firing at where had been a moment before. The red bolt impacted the alien’s right forearm, and the energy blade clattered to the floor, but there seemed to be no real damage done, as the attacker whirled gracefully around and lunged forward again, huge fists like hammers.

Frantically, Flitch began to scrambled down the hall, firing his weapon three times in quick succession. Whether it was nerves failing him, or an unerring skill on the part of his attacker at interpreting his body language, all three of the shots missed, and the alien charged unimpeded. Knowing he had about a second before the thing reached him, and with nowhere left to run, Flitch manage to squeeze of a fourth shot, the weapon’s muzzle now only two meters from the attacker. The red bolt hit impacted just above the left eye, slicing through some unseen barrier and burning into the creature’s silver skull cap. Roaring in rage and pain, the alien brought both fist to bear upon his target, and Flitch flew backwards into a sealed doorway with bone-cracking force. He slumped into a heap against the wall, his fading, blood-filled vision noting the creature looming over him one last time before the world slipped into blackness.

Breathing heavily, the Arbiter stared down at the human, his hands still balled up, prepared to crush the infiltrator into pulp. Instinct told him that it was the right, and justified thing to do, and had the man still been conscious, he almost certainly would have stained the floor with human blood, but looking down on the prone form, something stayed his hands. Arms trembling, he slowly disengaged his fists and brought the shaking finger to his face, as if searching them for the source of his restraint. Finding no answer, and feeling a pain rising on his brow, the Arbiter blew out a long sigh, and turned from the defeated foe.

Removing his helm, the Sangheili was able to full discern how much damage the last colt had done, and how close it ha come to killing him. The cap was nearly cloven in two, and his brow likely held the same appearance, if messier. The scar would likely be permanent.

Casting aside the useless bit of metal, the Arbiter stalked back into the cockpit, where the hostage, Reginald Barclay, still sat, looking up at his savoir in amazement. The human tried to form worlds, but the alien by passed him with no more a cursory glance to ensure his enacted state and moved on, leaving Barclay with silence.

The navigational controls were ruined, and the ship had already lost attitude control, drifting dead and rudderless in the blackness. They weren’t going anywhere on their own power. However, none of this bother the Arbiter at the moment, not had it even intruded upon his thoughts, for he was wholly transfixed upon a shape far beyond the confines of the shuttle, distant but recognizable through the viewport. The remaining Covenant starship, lit by its own weapons fire, and that of the Star Destroyer it was locked in combat with.

“Ascendant Justice.” The alien’s mandibles quivered with nameless emotion. “My old ship.”
------------------------------------------------------------------

Teno ‘Falanamee watched impassively as the white lance of energy ran across the enemy vessel’s hull, leaving no mark other than the shimmering of an impenetrable barrier. This foe was beyond them. From the moment the enemy’s weapon had passed through their shields as if they were nothing, Teno had known that he, and his crew, would die on this field of battle. The Prophet, so brash in ordering the defense of the supposed god’s artifact, had doomed them to that fate, and he had already paid his share.

As green bolts pierced the hull of the mightiest ship in the Covenant armada as if it were spider webbing and concussions rocked even the heart of the warship, the Ship Master could at least feel pride in his crew. Not one of them had abandoned their stations, and Hiph ‘Netanimee stood at attention, awaiting orders as always. No doubt all of them felt they were dieing for their gods, a fate worthy of any warrior. Who knew, perhaps they were; through his remaining sensor projections, ‘Falanamee could see that the sleek ship the Prophet had ordered him to protect was moving quickly away from the battle, and had just spiked in energy output. As he watched it glide through space, an explosion nearby sent a huge chunk of the over bridge’s ceiling crashing to the floor, crushing a pair of hapless Sangheili guards. The lights and projectors around him began to fail, but power lasted long enough for the image of the distant starship to brighten for a moment, and then disappear into the void, completely gone from view.

I hope it was worth it.

Another blast erupted, even closer, and all of the remaining lights ceased to function, throwing the chamber’s inhabitants into complete darkness. Without sight, ‘Falanamee could hear the rumble of his ship collapsing on itself all the clearer, the nervous breathing of his subordinates, the faint static left in a still functioning audio transceiver by the destruction of its corresponding system somewhere else on the ship.

Transceiver…

The sound that had played in the background during the “God’s” transmission. Whenever a UNSC vessel was destroyed, and its transmitters survived in the wreckage, they would always simply broadcast static, a simple repetition of the code signal all human vessels used to communicate over. The sound and the static were one and the same. There had been humans onboard that ship.

In the darkness, a single voice rang out, a low, raspy laugh. It started as a soft chuckle, but quickly blossomed, soon filling the whole chamber with cold mirth. Soon, the noise melded with the symphony of destruction around it, and then there was no sound at all.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:26pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
by Noble Ire



Chapter Forty Three


Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and de facto ruler of the Galactic Empire, stood on the bridge of the Star Destroyer Torrent, stoically looking out into the abyss of hyperspace. He was deep in thought, as he had been his every spare moment since the late emperor’s fall. For the last several hours, since the start of his impromptu voyage from Coruscant, Vader had been attempting to focus on the premonition that had summoned him from the core to a distant part of the Outer Rim. It had been an indistinct wisp of intuition at best, but the name of a system, some uninhabited waste far off any major hyperspace route, had firmly entrenched itself in his mind, and with it the sense that something of great significance was occurring there, or would occur soon. He had attempted to delve into the premonition, follow it back to its source, but he had been unable to do so, the only clue was the system’s unimpressive designation.

Of course, it was distinctly possible that this inability to probe the Force further on the matter was due to the conflict that still roiled deep within him, clouding his thoughts and perception. The harder he suppressed the feelings and indistinct memories, the more persistently they intruded upon his meditations and waking thoughts. Fragments of almost alien emotions, snippets of long-shadowed recollections, faces of those he had cherished, in a life that had ended long ago.

But had it ended, really?

Vader crushed the consideration before it had time to form. No, Anakin Skywalker, for better or worse, was dead; he had killed the Jedi himself, on that day on Coruscant so long ago.

Even with those ancient recollections conquered for the moment, new worries and a tingling of doubt began to intrude again upon his solemn countenance. Executions that he had undertaken, old and recent, began to wear upon him, as they never had before. The gasping, pitiful form of one Captain Needa, slumped on the cold deck at Vader’s feet, and for what? Falling victim to a clever bluff from a particularly obnoxious rebel? Was such a failure really worth the price Vader had made him pay? Failure was something to be scorned to be sure, but had he not himself failed far too often over the years? Was not every day, every minute he had allowed himself to submit to that wicked, wrinkled demon a failure in of itself?

Failure…

The blank visage of his only son, immersed completely in bacta, crossed the dark lord’s crowded mind now, dispelling other worries as if they were trifles. That Luke even now stood on the brink of life and eternal nothingness, rather than standing at Vader’s side on the Star Destroyer’s bridge, was a greater failure than any he could contemplate. Half a decade of fevered searching, of dire plotting, of desperate, secret hope, all for naught. Even the news that he possessed a second child, a daughter out among the stars, could not assuage his anguish deep inside. For the longest time, Vader had wondered if he still had any conscience left in his burned and blackened heart, and now he knew that he did, there was no greater wish in the Sith’s being than to see it dispelled forever, if only to relieve the pain it poured upon him.

And yet, through it all, there was one glimmer, one undertaking that did not carve away at his craven soul. She stood in silence behind him on the cold deck, awaiting orders, her inner thoughts her own. This former Jedi knight, Aayla Secura, one he had long thought dead in the great purges, had been his salvation. At first, he sought to use her as merely a tool, a weapon Palpatine would predict or prepare for, and she had served to that end superbly. But when he picked her wounded form up from the throne room’s chamber when the battle had been won, he had felt something more from her; there was darkness, a need for control and power that could be harnessed and shaped, something he would never have expected from a vanguard of the old order. Nevertheless, it was there, and he had latched onto it, expending his energies in an effort to make an adequate minion, and more, out of the Twi’lek. It was that effort, perhaps more than anything else that had kept him sane since his son’s fall.

Still, there was something in this new apprentice of his that was not right. She hid something, a secret so deep and wrenching that not even the vast changes she had undergone in the short period since their first fateful duel could force it to the surface. She had told him of her origins, of the wormhole and the starship Enterprise, but there was more to the tale, Vader knew it. Aayla would tell him in time, and for the moment, he would allow her to do it of her own volition. But he would know the full story, and there was nothing the woman could do to keep it from him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

A time later, the bow of the Torrent again shore through the cold void of realspace, angling into the system Lord Vader had instructed her captain to bring him to. Designated Rim 2101-831-5400 by the Imperial Navigational Authority, the star system was quite unremarkable, save for the hyperspace-disrupting gravitational effects of its primary. As his ship slipped past one of the system’s ancient gas giants, Captain Meterin Coloth wondered silently if any Imperial officer had even been within light years of the desolate collection of worthless gas and rock. He certainly had not wished to be the first, but Darth Vader had “requested” the usage of his Star Destroyer, and no sane man would refuse him.

As he surreptitiously watched the Sith Lord and his Twi’lek servant from across the warship’s bridge, Coloth wondered if there was some malevolent force in the universe piling difficulty upon difficulty onto his shoulders for its own twisted pleasure. He had been perfectly happy in his patrol duties along the Mid Rim, the master of his own ship and his own schedule, only being forced to second string at formal functions, which he rarely attended anyways. Politicians didn’t sit well with him, and admirals even less.

But here he was, playing chauffer to the most powerful being in the galaxy, his command usurped and his own performance under continued scrutiny. Ever since the fiasco with that damned Enterprise, her pompous captain, and those infernal infiltrators, his nearly impeccable military record had been tarnished, and he had been recalled indefinitely to the core. True, the escape of the alien ship’s command crew was not directly his fault, and he had safely turned the thousand odd lesser crew over to Imperial Intelligence, but the incident had not reflected well on his command, or his crew. It still might not have been so bad, but after his debriefing with Lord Vader, the new imperial leader seemed to have taken a liking to Coloth. Either that or this was all part of some elaborate punishment. Even being in the same room with the Force wizard was extremely unsettling, and Coloth had never been one to be intimidated by his superiors.

The captain was roused from his brooding by an approaching lieutenant. “What is it?”

The younger officer snapped to attention. “Sir, Communications is registering several Imperial transponder codes further in-system, below the solar plane.”

The captain raised an eyebrow. “Our ships? The recent operation to choke off all of the Rebel’s remaining bases and covert routes was high priority, but why would any sector command authorize the placements of warships here? I doubt even the Rebels have ever heard of this system.”

The lieutenant had no answer.

“You’ve found something, captain?”

Coloth hadn’t even had the slightest inkling that Vader had moved from his observation point across the bridge, but the ominous mechanical breathing that now emanated from over his shoulder made it clear that Vader’s skills were not limited to intimidation and brute force.

“Yes, Lord Vader,” the captain said, turning to the armored cyborg without trying to look distressed. “Imperial warships have been detected towards the interior of the system.” He nodded meaningfully to lieutenant, who was similarly attempting to maintain his cool.

“The ships have been identified as the HIMS Broadsword, Paramount, and Carida 34, sir. They appear to be holding position nearly a million kilometers below this system’s primary.”

“Set course at maximum velocity.”

The officer offered a deep bow in response to the Sith’s order, and sparing a glance for confirmation from his direct superior, which was immediately granted, moved off to relay the course change.

When he had gone, Coloth spared a glance back at the dark lord, who had turned his attention back to the main viewport at the front of the bridge, now framing the remote system’s slowly dying star.

“If I may ask, my Lord, did you know that there were other Imperial ships in this system before our arrival?”

For nearly a minute, Vader did not respond, or make any indication he had even heard the man, and Coloth’s heart began to throb with uncomfortable nervousness. At last however, he inclined his head, as if in thought. “The Broadsword is one of Admiral Durnstga’s ships. It was likely part of the task force that routed the remnant of the Rebel fleet yesterday.”

Coloth was genuinely surprised. “Routed? I did not hear anything about such a victory over fleet channels.”

Vader pivoted his nightmarish mask in the captain’s direction. “The information has not yet reached official channels.”

There was an air of finality in his tone that snuffed out any further inquiries on the subject Coloth might have had, and when Vader paced away, back to his former observation position and his silently waiting servant, the captain did not follow. Whether he intended it or not, and Coloth very much suspected he did, Vader’s manner was quite effective at quashing curiosity and banter, to the point where it even disrupted typical military decorum. That part, at least, the captain didn’t mind initially, but as his time with the dark lord wore on, he found himself wishing more and more for a pompous admiral or chatty dignitary to look after instead.

After what seemed like an eternity of sublight travel, the Torrent at last entered imagining and hailing range of the other Imperial vessels, the effective range of both reduced by the proximity of the star. However, when the starship’s comm officers signaled the Broadsword, Imperial-II class Star Destroyer and presumed leader of the task force, they received only static in return.

“Give me a visual.” Meterin Coloth a stood with his arms crossed behind his back, trying to maintain an aura of control, despite the fact that Lord Vader stood close at his side, watching every move from behind his opaque visor plates.

The center section of the viewport flashed from displaying the starfield beyond to an image of the three imperial vessels, the warship in question flanked by a Victory-class destroyer and a Lancer frigate. But there was more in the image than a simple sampling of the Imperial starfleet; a huge field of debris surrounded the group like the rings of a gas giant. Blast-scoured hunks of reddish metal and metallic skeletons of unknown design intermingled with more familiar gray and black armor, with the smashed hull of an Imperial frigate quite obvious amidst the wreckage. The surviving ships also showed signs of battle, each covered in numerous patches of vaporized metal; the Broadsword’s terraced face was marred by several huge gashes that had been chewed through a dozen interior decks.

Coloth and his command crew were in awe; the volume of wreckage encircling the ships and the massive battle scars on the capital vessels were signs of a conflict that had rarely been seen since the Clone Wars, nearly a quarter century ago. Vader seemed relatively unfazed, although he had dropped his gloved hands to his sides from their previously crossed posture.

“Sir,” an officer in the crew pit below reported. “The Broadsword has sustained significant damage to their bridge section, as well as their main transmission array. It is impossible for them to respond to our hails.” That much was obvious; from the amount of scarring on the destroyer’s command tower, Coloth would be surprised if any of the bridge crew were still alive.

“Try to contract the Paramount and Carida. See if we can ascertain what happened here.” Coloth turned to an attending officer. “Commander Cebbe, inform the medical stations of our situation, and tell them to prepare for rescue operations.”

As the bridge officers hurried to execute their duties, Darth Vader and Aayla Secura observed the scene of destruction in silence, mulling over its meaning. Both could feel uncounted numbers of confused and injured humans on the surviving ships and in the wreckage, as well as a few life forces not so readily identifiable. But more than that, there was something else about the scene; something that did not belong.

“Master, do you sense it?” Aayla ventured at last, stepping forward a few paces. “A disturbance in the Force, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.”

Vader did not respond, but he too felt the strange sensation, as if a thousand possible futures were colliding in the space around them, and at their center, a point of searing clarity, where the life energies of more beings than a single reality could possibly hold converged. It was a window, a rift between what was and what should be. This is the place. This is what I felt.

“Sir, we’ve made contact with both vessels, and they are requesting medical assistance and aid in recovering escape pods from the wreckage field.”

Coloth nodded. “Lieutenant Defruen, I want you to take command of the relief effort. Use as much of the shuttle complement as is necessary, and make sure the medical staff is ready to accept wounded.”

“Sir, the captain of the Paramount is also requesting a communication with you, immediately.”

“Put it through.” This order came not from the captain, but from Vader himself, who was already making for the holonet comm station at the rear of the bridge, his Twi’lek in tow. Coloth gritted his teeth in irritation and followed close behind.

In the alcove, which housed the main holo-projection suite, the image of a balding human with a short beard shimmered to life. “Captain, I am grateful for any assistance…” The man trailed off when he noticed that it was not Coloth or any other Imperial captain in the projector’s field of vision, but rather a three-meter giant, cloaked in black. “Lord… Lord Vader! I am honored.”

“Dispense with the pleasantries, captain. I want to know what happened here.”

The officer on the other vessel gulped, and then nodded to someone out of the image. “I have Commander Barden with me, executive officer of the Broadsword. He would be better able to explain our situation, my lord.”

As Vader waited in silence, the captain disappeared and was replaced by a younger man, his right eye covered with a bacta patch. He offered a nod of respect to the Sith lord, an effort that clearly pained him.

“Tell me, commander.”

“Well, Lord Vader, after we received orders from Fleet Command to begin sweeping the back hyperspace lanes for any suspicious activity, the Abolition and the Broadsword, under the command of Admiral Durnstga and my superior, Captain Telbain, respectively, broke from our main fleet group to pursue a hyperspace ghost we had detected passing through the fringes of Hutt space, we tracked it to this system, and managed to make contact with an Imperial agent onboard before it escaped.”

Barden broke off for a moment, stifling a series of coughs that racked his diaphragm.

“I apologize, Lord Vader. The agent activated a hyperwave homing beacon, which would reveal the location of the ship’s destination, and the hidden Rebel rendezvous point. The admiral left the system to join an assault group and lead the attack, but he left Captain Telbain behind, to investigate an object that the Rebels had scanned before escaping, and to intercept any Rebel forces that managed to flee his assault. The object turned out to be a derelict vessel of unknown design, no life signs registering. We were about to mount a search of the ship when we received reinforcement from a small task force sent by Admiral Durnstga, and were instructed to prepare an ambush for any unidentified starships entering the system. One, a Mon Calamari warship matching the one we had tracked escaping the system earlier, appeared, and we attempted to destroy it.

“Unfortunately, the starship was able to elude the task force, by usage of some kind of anomaly that removed it completely from local space. Determined not to lose them, Captain Telbain took the Broadsword and two Lancer-class frigates through the anomaly as well, despite its unknown nature. After incurring minor damage from some kind of energy feedback against our deflector screens, the strike force emerged in a star system that did not register on our navigational charts. Locating the Rebel cruiser, the captain ordered an attack, but before the ship could be destroyed, a pair of alien vessels of unknown construction or origin opened fire on our ships. Despite that fact that their weapons technology was markedly inferior to our own, they managed to destroy one of the escorting frigates, and covered the Rebel ship long enough for it to escape back through the anomaly.”

“The Broadsword destroyed the hostile vessels, but we were quickly overtaken by numerous enemy reinforcements, hundreds of ships, many of them more massive than our own. Captain Telbain ordered us to remain and fight, and we managed to destroy eight enemy capital ships before the second frigate was lost with all hands. At that point, a withdrawal was ordered through the anomaly, but a large portion of the alien fleet pursued. After returning to this system, we coordinated with the Paramount and the remaining Lancer, and destroyed more than a dozen alien vessels as they came through the anomaly. However, before they stopped sending ships through, one managed to break through the kill zone and collided with the Broadsword. Most of its bridge crew was killed, including the captain. I was lucky to escape alive.”

Vader considered the report in silence, and then looked back at the commander, who appeared to be breathing very heavily now. “What of the Rebel ship?”

“The Paramount never recorded it coming back through, lord. It must have either been destroyed during transit, or exited at another point,” the officer replied, wheezing with every breath.

“And the derelict?”

“Destroyed by crossfire during the battle, lord.”

Darth Vader stayed motionless a moment longer, and then turned from the projector. “You did well to survive the incompetence of your captain, Commander. See to it that you receive proper medical attention.”

“Th… thank you, lord.”

As Vader walked back out onto the bridge, he found himself again deep in thought. No, the Rebel ship hadn’t been destroyed; he knew that much to be true. But beyond that, his foresight failed to pierce the shadows of the future, or even the growing chaos of the present. This anomaly, this rift, had to be of the same type that had brought Aayla and the Enterprise into this realm. In a way, it was responsible for all that had occurred in the last few weeks; his liberation, and his new torment. And here it was again, beckoning him into an unknown and hostile reality, and beyond that, a lone Rebel vessel, one he sensed held some great importance. But again, he could not be sure. The clouds around his inner eye were too thick, and the ravages of doubt still assaulted his senses from the deep recesses of his mind.

Perhaps some small diversion was necessary to clear away the struggle within him and open the Force up to him again as it once had been, so long ago. This alien race provided the perfect opportunity, and were he to spearhead a campaign into their territory, the benefits would be threefold. Not only would it allow him to taste combat again and clear his mind of worries and the clouds of confusion, he could spread order, true order, to both the peoples of the alien realm, and to his own. He knew that many in the Empire still doubted their new ruler and his motives; unifying the people against a new common threat, alien aggressors from a foreign galaxy, was the perfect way to erase Palpatine’s decadence in favor of order, Vader’s order, and eventual peace. A true peace, one without the corruption that had marred all of his life. Still, a new doubt surfaced in his mind; this sort of machination was a plan that Palpatine might indulge in, and had many times in the past.

He may have been a corrupt madman, but Palpatine did know how to control the hearts and minds of the people. Such manipulation was necessary for rule, no matter how distasteful. It is not his way, it is the way of the Sith. And I am still Sith.

Nevertheless, there were elements of Palpatine’s legacy that yet needed to be fully erased. Some of his supporters, politicians, soldiers, and the Force adepts that he had bent to his will, would never swear allegiance to Vader’s new order, and might even seek to undermine it. That could not be allowed.

“Aayla,” he rumbled.

“Yes, my lord?”

“I have a task for you. It will be invaluable to your training.”

“I shall complete it, without fail. What would you have me do?”

“Travel to the Ziost system. There, you will find another attempting to immerse them self in the teachings of the Dark Side. You will confront them, and determine were their allegiances lie: with Palpatine’s order, or mine. If their disloyalty is evident, you are to destroy them. If they submit to me, you are to take them with you back to Coruscant. There, in the Palace Library, you will find a directory, which contains the locations of all of all of Palpatine’s hidden fortress worlds and covert contacts. Investigate each, and determine the loyalties of those you find. When this task is complete, await my return on Coruscant, and see to it that the provisional government follows my instructions, as I will have delievered to them from time to time.”

Aayla bowed. “It shall be done, my lord.”

With that, Vader turned away. “Do not falter, apprentice. This is your greatest test. Succeed, and you may one day know the full power of the Sith, and the order it can bring. Fail and you die. There are no compromises.”

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-08-19 02:28pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
End Part Two

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