The Rift, Part Three: Past Frontiers

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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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The Rift, Part Three: Past Frontiers

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-01-23 06:26pm

Part Three: Past Frontiers

Chapter Forty Four

For as long as she could remember, darkness had frightened her, kept her up at night with visions of demons and stalkers creeping in the black, just beyond sight. But now…

Now, darkness was a welcome reprieve. It hid the horror, the horror that had overwhelmed her every logical thought. Without light, she could not see the terror all around, and what it had wrought. In the light, she could see the bodies, the desecrated and defiled remains of the creatures that had once been friends and collogues. Thinking, breathing beings, now grotesque refuse, mockeries of their former selves.

One after another, they had flashed by, propped against bulkheads and sprawled out across the blood-stained floor, each one starring up at her listlessly as she ran past. It was an endless parade of horror, broken only by brief flickers of relief, a few seconds of darkness as the illumination above faded. But then she would cross into a new place, and the scene would return, cast in fresh, brutal light. And all the while, those terrible sounds, that whine and scrabble, increased and flowed over her senses, inescapable no matter how fast she fled from them.

And still, she ran. To stop, and be lost in the horror, would mean only death; she knew that, and so did those who fled with her, each of them mere shadow, overwhelmed by a myriad of dark emotions and fears. Still, they were alive, beacons in the growing chaos, and none would part with any other without being compelled to do so by death itself.

But that time came. The party of shadows could not outrun the terror all around, and its agents soon came to rein them in. There were dozens, and more, that fell upon them, rending flesh with bloody claws and gnashing teeth. Some fought back, filling the air with beams of energy and the desperate chorus of battle, but to little avail; they all fell. All save her.

Even as the demon beasts forged forward to taste her blood, an unknown hand found her and cast her into a pit of emptiness, sealing her from the slaughter with the close of a thick door. All she could do was shiver in the flickering, empty light, and listen as the last of the shadows were engulfed by sinew and terrible consciousness. Then they sought to devour her as well, but the final act of her nameless savior had granted her respite, and at long last they left, in search of other prey. She did not know how long she shivered, cold and alone, listening to the sounds of a weary, dying ship all around her, more time than a mind could easily bear. When, at last, the door was pried open and she saw a twisted visage in the doorway, she knew her turn had come, and the expected blackness had followed soon after.

But… why can I still feel? Still think? How can I still be alive?

At long last, the woman opened her eyes to an alien ship, in unknown company. Her vision was bleary, but she could make out the soft outline of a gently-curved, whitish ceiling above her, illuminated by the warm glow of a small light fixture, and felt oddly fresh and clean, lying on a soft mattress with a light blanket over her. Slowly, tentatively, she rose from a soft head rest to a sitting position, lifting her right hand to her eyes to clear them and gain her bearings. As the objects around her solidified, it became very clear that this was not a core junction on the Cornwall, the ship that had nearly engulfed her so.

“Are you alright?”

The soft, compassionate voice guided her attention to one side of the small room, where a young man clad in black sat on a low couch, watching her quietly. He was lean and cleanly handsome, and though he was clearly still in his late teens, there were lines under his brown eyes that testified to unusual experience and hardship.

She glanced down at her own white gowned body, and found that the scrapes and cuts that had been all over her arms and hands when she had last been conscious were all but gone.

“I’m…fine?” she said in bewilderment. “What happened? Where am I?”

The young man rose slowly, smiling. “You are in a recovery room onboard the Alliance star cruiser Republica. I am Jacen Solo, a… passenger myself. From what I understand, some of my friends and the crew located you in the wreck of a starship, and brought you here for recovery. You’ve been unconscious ever since, more than two days I think.”

She starred at him in puzzlement. “Alliance? Is that part of the Federation? I’ve never heard of it.”

“No, I’m afraid not. But there are a few from the Federation here, and I am sure they are quite happy to see that you recovered so well.”

What was going on? Federation personnel on this vessel, of design she had never seen before? Certainly, the small recovery room was a poor sampling, but its curves were strange, almost organic; far different from any Human or Klingon design, especially on a warship.


Her heart skipped a beat. “What about those creatures? The Zerg? How did I escape them? Was anyone else rescued?”

Jacen frowned uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, no. The boarding team only found you alive, and they were forced to leave soon after. Apparently, the beings that attacked you were still lying in wait in the ship’s depths. They barely made it out alive.”

Laura looked away and clenched the blanket that lay on her lap with white knuckles. She was the only one. All the others, Pell, Harper, Morris, they were all gone. It wasn’t fair; why was she the only one? They couldn’t all be gone, not after all that had happened…

As tears began to wind down from green eyes onto her cheeks, a warm weight fell softly onto her shoulders. Still adrift in waves of regret and confusion, she glanced upwards, and saw that Jacen was standing over her now, hands resting on her comfortingly. Through her sorrow, the woman felt a spring of calm and comfort rise up from deep within her and wash away the ache of empty guilt and quickly-resurfacing terror. He smiled, and weakly, she smiled back. The woman couldn’t be sure what it was about the thin, calm man that comforted her so, but just looking into his eyes was enough to set her mind free of dark and confused memories, for the moment at least.

“Laura. I’m Laura.”

And with that, she fell back onto the head rest, enrobed in dreamless sleep.

“At last report, sir, the crew sustained fourteen casualties, mostly minor injuries and broken bones; there was a case of severe plasma shock from one of the gunnery officers in port turbolaser section, but the medical staff reports Lieutenant Groug as being in stable condition. There were no fatalities.”


“More severe, sir. External scarring compromised the hull on decks nine through eleven during transit, exposing several of the engineering reserve duty areas to vacuum. We’ve got two teams working on repairing the breach, but supplies are limited. There was also extensive damage to the turbolaser and anti-fighter batteries all over the port sector; engineering thinks they might be able to salvage a few of them, but the rest will need to be replaced entirely.”

“How many weapons do I actually have left?”

“Two medium turbolasers, two light, one of the forward ion cannons, and eleven anti-fighter turrets. Hessun thinks his teams might be able to scrape together another turbolaser battery, but he’s doubtful. At the moment, though, the tactical operations units are more occupied with getting the targeting arrays back online; they went down with the rest of the sensor array, and have been more difficult to get back up again. Most of the damage from the core surge wound up in their control nexus.”

“The hyperdrive seems to have been undamaged, but the cold-start we initiated with the hypermatter reactor has reduced the amount of power that can be safely pumped into the deflectors and sublights. You’ve got fifty percent on both right now, and Hessun hopes he can get them up to seventy in a few hours.”

Captain Ryceed bit her lip to prevent a weary sigh from emanating forth, and took the exceedingly long report Commander Gavplek was holding out to her. “Alright. See what you can do about getting those deflectors back up more quickly, and then get some rest; I’ll probably need you again soon, very soon more than likely. Put Crenly on watch, and have her report to me directly if any activity, any activity at all, is detected in our vicinity, especially from that wormhole.”

Gavplek saluted, somewhat less crisply than usual, and walked off to his duties, leaving Ryceed in the recessed alcove of the bridge that served as her field briefing office. She feigned scanning the report, and then tossed the bulky pad aside, turning her attention to the glimmering projection that watched her pensively.

“Was it really necessary for you to do this much damage to my ship, Cortana?” the captain asked wearily. “You did so well last time.”

The projection frowned. “I apologize, captain. Commander Data still didn’t have the entry procedure fully initialized when we managed to escape, and I decided that I might try and disrupt the anomaly was we passed through to impede any pursuers. The energy feedback increased beyond what I had anticipated when I did so, and an unavoidable amount of damage was incurred. As I already explained…”

“What do you mean, disrupt the anomaly?”

Councilor Organa’s question was clearly pointed, and no one in earshot missed her meaning; with sensors down and the ship barely functional, they were all trapped in unknown territory, and if the wormhole were to fall apart, they would remain so for a very long time.

Cortana shook her head. “No… well, I didn’t mean disrupt entirely. The pathway still remains; all I did was scramble the ambient quardinants of the directional strands between the wormhole openings, covering our tracks so to speak. At least… I hope that’s what I did.”

Ryceed cupped her forehead in one hand. “What do you mean, you hope that’s what you did?”

Near the small room’s entrance, where he stood alongside Geordi, Picard, and Riker, Lt. Commander Data took a small step forward. “Captain, I believe that Cortana meant to indicate that the anomaly and it’s method of operation are almost completely unknown. The information gathered from the last two passages will provide a more extensive insight into the wormhole’s workings, but analysis will take time. It is prudent to consider all possible repercussions until more definitive data is available.”

Ryceed glanced from one to the other, and then turned away towards a far wall, shaking her head and mumbling something about ‘droids’. “Alright, alright, never mind. The Republica did survive the passage at least, which I suppose is more than could be said if we had stuck around that battleground much longer.” The woman turned back to the shimmering AI, who was at the moment no more than half a meter high, sprouting from a comm panel on the alcove’s main tactical display. “I suppose we do owe that to you. That was quite a bluff you pulled off.”

Cortana raised an eyebrow. “I’m flattered.”

Ryceed looked at the image a moment longer, smirked slightly, and then turned her attention back to a display on the wall, which showed local space, or what little of it the Republica could make out with its damaged sensor arrays; mercifully vacant and peaceful. For a long moment, all of those assembled around her watched the stars blink lazily on the 2D display, and reflected on what they had all been through in only last few hours, how narrowly they had avoided destruction.

“I don’t think anyone will object if I call a recess to this little conference,” Ryceed said at last. “Frankly, I wouldn’t mind some R&R myself. I’ll have someone alert you all if the situation escalates again. Councilor Organa?”

The stately woman uncrossed her arms and nodded in agreement, then turned to Picard. “Well, Captain, this has been a most… interesting day. I hope to see you and your men again soon, hopefully in light of better news.”

“As do I, Council… Leia. With any luck, we’re already on the Federation’s doorstep, and we don’t even know it.”

The small party moved out together onto the main section of the bridge and made for the turbolift banks, conversing quietly and grumbling about sore feet. Suddenly, Picard stopped and turned to Ryceed, face once again furrowed with concern. “Captain, has there been any news of the saboteur? Has the major made any progress?”

Ryceed, too tired to retain any air of composure much longer, blew out a long sigh. “Yes, it had almost slipped my mind. Flitch managed to commandeer a shuttle and escape during the confusion before we escaped the firefight, injuring several of my marines in the process.”

Riker, and the others, halted as well, looking back in surprise. “How did he manage that?” the Commander asked. “From what I’ve seen of this ship and her crew, I wouldn’t think anyone could escape your security forces for long, especially not with someone like Truul leading them. Did he have help?”

Ryceed shook her head. “The details were vague, but I believe there was mention of a hostage.”

“A hostage?”

“I’m ‘fraid so, commander.”

Unannounced from one of the newly-arrived lifts emerged a disgruntled-looking Major Truul, sporting several hastily-applied bandages on his left cheek, beneath which a patchwork of small burns and shrapnel pockmarks were plainly visible. With him was an equally gruff Corellian, who stalked onto the bridge with an oddly aloof air.

“Master Solo,” See-Threepio, who had been attempting to attract as little attention as possible, said, emerging from behind his mistress.

“Han.” Leia rushed to his side, but the weary look in his eyes, fresher than it had been for days, stopped her before she could embrace him. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

Truul answered in his stead. “We lost the Imperial, and he took one of yours with ‘m, captain. Too lucky, too fast.”

Picard looked at the officer askance. “One of mine?”

The depths of stellar space are not commonly known for activity and variety, vast spheres of it rarely playing host to anything more than a few scattered atoms of hydrogen or fragments of wayward rock. A being might float forever through the blackness and never encounter a single other semblance of physicality; such is the nature of a void.

However, not all of space is similarly empty. One patch in particular, deep within a system of many names, held more than its fair share of matter. Fragments of metal and ceramic composite, circuitry and frozen coolant, some the size of a pebble, others as large as asteroids, drifted and coalesced with one another aimlessly, a silent dance for the dead; this place was a tomb. Amidst the cosmic detritus other bodies tumbled as well, countless corpses of various sizes and complexions, burned and frozen all.

And yet, not all that populated the massive graveyard was dead. Dozens of forms, dwarfed by even some of the smaller sheets of blasted metal, flitted through the haze of debris, latching onto the largest of the hulks, and then moving on again. One of these shapes, stubby and not unlike a giant beetle, passed between two colossal amalgamations of perforated metal, its purplish hull blending well against the larger bodies as it agilely avoided a charred lump of corroded magnetic coils that drifted in the small ship’s path.

Bearing no indication of its method of propulsion save for a faint blue glimmer that emanated from a pair of recessed, rear nodes, the vessel emerged from a particularly dense cloud of wreckage, and angled away from the main body of the waste, its stubby prow now direct towards a smaller collection of debris off from the main drift.

Diving through a cloud of drifting shrapnel, the ship began to slow, and an intense beam of white light shot from under its nose. The glowing cylinder swept across shape after darkened shape, illuminating bare metal ribs, smashed disks of machinery once meters wide, and even a few bodies, lacerated and seared beyond all recognition. However, the vessel did not pause to investigate any of the remnants of battle, instead moving further in, searching for something in the haze. Rounding a huge slab of battle armor, which sported a puncture nearly wide enough for it to traverse through, the stubby flyer, gleaming softly in the light reflected off the plating around it, turned its attention to a fragment of wreckage, surprisingly intact compared to the debris around it.

However, its relatively pristine condition was not the only distinction that attracted the probing ship; its angled and boxy form was in stark contrast to the other waste in the surrounding area, which was predominately smooth and sculpted, if badly deformed by the ravages of battle. The brilliant beam swung onto the derelict and proceeded to illuminate its every angle in turn; oddly narrow external hatches, weapons apertures of exotic design, a wide, open viewport that allowed little light to pass visibly through its tinted surface.

After its survey was finished, the probing ship pushed forward without hesitation and came close alongside the supposed wreck, orienting its curved belly to be parallel with the vessel’s aft compartment. On a trio of mounts arrayed around its flat keel, which usually sported an equal number of large weapons systems, a grid of gently-glowing devices hummed to life, seizing the hulk with invisible tendrils of magnetic energy. The two metal forms hugged still closer together, and began to spin slowly through space in concert, inseparably bound.

Directly in at the center of the three projectors, a thick plate drew back, revealing the vessel’s own entry hatch. From its circular perimeter a veil of coruscating energy pierced the vacuum and locked onto the other ship’s dull white hull, then surged with electrical energy. The docking hatch, caught in the field, lit with overwhelming energy, and then blasted inward, muffled noise indicating that there was still atmosphere within.

With a loud thump, a figure tumbled from the glowing field and landed on a slightly down-slanted deck plate that lined the interior of the derelict. Waving his lanky arms to steady himself, the being began to fumble hurriedly for something hooked onto its small waist. Before it could remove the object, however, another, similar figure tumbled from the connecting beam, directly on top of the first. Squirming and squealing, the two fell to the floor and rolled across the small chamber into a bulkhead wall, their stubby limbs intertwined.

“Off!” one of them managed, smacking the other with balled fists until he managed to roll away and scramble to his feet. The other creature followed suit, breathing heavily and leaning against the wall for support as he righted himself.

“Do you always have to stand right there?” it muttered, fumbling in the dark for a similar object clipped to the bulky outfit was wearing.

“Quit yapping. It’s your fault for not waiting longer.” The figure that had arrived first at last managed to locate the thing he was looking for, and ignited it. A bluish light erupted from the creatures hand and threw the pair into shadowy sight; each was short, perhaps five feet tall, and stocky, their large chests and bone-spurred forelimbs an odd contrast too small waists. Above their scaly blue skin each wore an armored orange vest, with a large triangular tank sprouting from the back; connected to this container were several cords that ran over the armor and into bulky mouthpieces that obscured the creature’s rounded and hairless faces. Between this mask and the metal skull cap that protected their heads, a pair of beady black eyes scanned the shadows and each other.

The second creature jabbed his right hand, in which he held a small, circular weapon with a pair of luminescent green nubs on the business end, towards the hole where the airlock had once been. “It’s not my fault. He pushed me in!” The speaker’s dialect was high-pitched and plaintive, more fragmented and brief than language it spoke usually allowed for.

The other grumbled something unintelligible under his mask, either about his comrade or a crewer on the waiting ship, or perhaps just the world in general. “Shut up Migaw, let’s just finish this quick.”

Though the other grumbled in response, there was no further argument, and the pair both began to scan the interior of the derelict, each holding a light source and one of the oddly-shaped weapons. The gravity generator onboard was malfunctioning, making traversing the deck like climbing up and down a slope, but the ship’s compartments were small and few, and it didn’t take long for the searchers to inspect every section and computer consol.

Laying down his light emitter, the alien named Migaw removed a wall panel from one wall with his burly, four-fingered hands. After making a cursory inspection of the metallic cables and boxy circuit regulators within, he turned to his comrade, who was picking at the shattered remains of a control panel at the bow of the ship.

“This isn’t one of ours, Cakap. I’ve never seen thingies like the thingies in here before.”

The other made a high, coughing noise that might have been a laugh. “You think, genius? The look of this place should have been enough of a clue, even for you.” He paced past the one looking at the wall panel and began to scan the narrow, spartan hallway beyond them. “The Prophets would never let one of their holy vessels look this ugly.” He paused, and looked back at the other searcher. “Of course, they did let you take assignment in the armada. I guess looks aren’t everything.”

Casting the wall panel aside, the Migaw scooped up his light and waddled after the other, again grumbling under his breath.

The hallway was barely wide enough to accommodate them, but it was mercifully short, with only two more doors branching off of it. The first they found locked, which, after a minute of aimless mashing and subsequent destruction of the keypad beside it, they figured was best left sealed. The second was much more responsive, and opened automatically, but beyond it lay only a darkened chamber full of unknowable machinery and displays that shown with symbols neither knew how to decipher.

“Looks like no one was on it at all,” Cakap offered. “Let’s go, if they want anyone to take a closer look, they can get another crew. We’ve been out here forever.”

The two turned to leave, but the second searcher spotted something out of the corner of his beady eye, almost invisible in the darkness. “What’s this?”

He crouched onto his stocky haunches and cast his light on the thing he had seen, a spot on the wall near the door they had just exited. There, several splotches of reddish black adorned the otherwise clean surface. Cakap crouched down next to his comrade, and took a look for himself. After a moment, he shot a sideways glance at the other, the gesture requiring him turn his entire head. “How do you see these things? It’s not natural.”

Migaw ignored him, and continued poking at the spot with a leathery finger. “It looks like blood, but not our blood. It’s red, I think.”

“Red blood?”

Neither of them had ever seen any species that did not belong to the Holy Covenant, the body to which every member of their race belonged, and those of many others, but he had heard tales of others; one in particular, the Humans. They were abominations, sickly pale, red-blooded creatures, godless and weak, but in groups, they were brutal and destructive, taking special care to exterminate every being that believed in the Prophets and followed their wisdom. No wonder they were marked for annihilation. But then there were other, more secret tales of Humans that were not so weak, that could kill entire armies with just a stare…

The once abrasive Cakap began to shiver with fear, and backed away from the spot, taking in the hard lines of the derelict with growing agitation. This ship was definitely not of the Covenant, and he had a feeling he knew who it did belong to.

“What’s wrong?” Migaw asked, twisting his body ungracefully to look up at him.

“We must go now. Everything’s done here.” Cakap grabbed the tank on his comrade’s back and yanked him roughly to his flat feet. The other made to complain again, but suddenly a clanking, thudding sound met their ear nodules, seemingly come from all around. The two peered through the gloom for its source, but saw only the unnaturally straight lines of the craft’s interior.


Cakap, grasp still tight on his companion’s armor, made for the entry hatch without another word, trying not to look into the shadows that loomed everywhere on the ship, each more foreboding by the last. With strength that belied his stature, he shoved Migaw into the glowing field that connected the two ships, and then jumped in after him, weapon feverishly clenched in his free fist. An invisible force clamped onto the pair and shot them up through the immaterial tube, through the void to safety.

Finding himself sprawled on a familiar, faintly purplish landing pad, the searcher who had taken charge scrambled to his clubby feet and rushed back to the disk in the floor that still was connected to the derelict beyond. Locating the blue projection on a nearby wall that controlled the exit port, he smacked a few shimmering command keys, and an iris began to close over the opening, triggering the energy bridge to being to fade. When the breach finally sealed with a hiss, the creature slumped against a smoothly-curved bulkhead and sucked a great, relieved gulp of cool atmosphere from the mask on his face.

After taking a moment to acclimate himself to the faint, tinted light coming from the low, vaulted ceiling, Cakap glanced around the vessel’s main compartment with satisfaction. It was arrow-shaped, with the tip ending at the now-sealed departure lift. To either side were recessed compartments, usually stacked with war material, and between them was a large main area, where soldiers might assemble before battle. But now, it was empty, recovery missions rarely required many troops, and now there was just a crew of four; he and his comrade, along with a pilot and a system’s operator, who he assumed were still up at the front of the vessel, beyond the assembly area.

Finally shedding the fear that had overtaken him on the derelict, he moved back to Migaw, who still stood where he had landed. “I might have saved you life back there; when we get back, you owe me half your food ration.”

The comment was in jest of course, as he usually managed take most of the Migaw’s provisions covertly anyways, but he was still surprised when the comment garnered no response. “What’s wrong with you?”

Shakily, the other raised his right hand and pointed into the darkened assembly area, towards the back wall where the door to the cockpit was set. At first, there was nothing in evidence hidden between the blue shimmer of the room’s shelled walls, but as the two approached, three prone forms became apparent.

Though a sense of agitation began to seep back into his mind, Cakap moved slowly closer, until he could make out the bodies more clearly. The first, sprawled out in the middle of the chamber, was instantly recognizable; it was a lanky, beak-mouthed creature of the Kig-Yar species, not much taller than either of the companions, with a feather-like crest sticking out of its otherwise smooth skin, the vessel’s operation’s controller. It’s huge, pink eyes were lolling open lazily, but the slow heaving of its narrow chest indicated it was still breathing.

Beyond it, closer to the door, lay a much larger being, a meter and a half tall, covered in crimson armor and a dark body suit; one of the Sangheili, and pilot of the ship. Upon realizing this, Migaw dropped his weapon, fingers numbing with confusion.

Before the implications of the alien’s prone state could fully sink in, though, the pair’s attention was attracted to the last of the group, propped up against the far wall. Even in the dark, they could clearly see he was different than the others, smaller than the pilot but larger than the Kig-Yar, dressed not in armor but rather some kind of fabric. Its skin was pale and smooth, and on its head was a thick growth of hair; a creature quite unlike anything either had ever seen before.

Though his mind was slow and perpetually clouded, a product of millennia of genetic engineering, Cakap could still manage to make some connections, and his mind latched onto the blood they had found minutes before, Human blood. Could this creature…

He began to back away from his scene, desperately clawing for his weapon before remembering he had left it on the landing pad. His comrade turned back towards him, visibly pained even through his large mask.

“Wha… what is going on?”

With a faint hum, the door at the end of the assembly area slid open, and there, cast into shadow by the brighter lighting of the cockpit, stood a massive figure, larger even than the immobile Sangheili at his feet. With a clank, it stepped forward into the chamber, and raised a huge hand towards them.

Simultaneously, the pair of searchers fell back onto their atmosphere tanks, yelping mindlessly in fear. Wriggling and struggling, Cakap managed to heave himself onto his side and began to crawl away, leaving his comrade to roll on the floor, barking in desperation.

The figure shook its shadowed head in exasperation. “Unggoy.”

And with that, it lunged forward, fist raised high.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2006-08-25 12:00am, edited 2 times in total.
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-02-06 06:29pm

Chapter Forty Five

At the very root of the titanic, forest-clad mountain, which jutted from the dry valley around it like a single, jagged tooth, a lone gate was carved into the ominous edifice of gray stone. Sheltered from the harsh, tearing winds of the outside world by towering bulwarks of rock on its either side, the durasteel barrier that spanned the meters-tall entryway was as dark and impenetrable as it had been the day it was forged. Judging by the archaic symbols and serrated patterns that were etched deep into its surface, the object was ancient, older perhaps than any artificial structure on the entire planet. Yet, for all its age, it looked studier than a Star Dreadnaught’s hull plate and more resilient than a Gen’dai’s pelt. Truly, it was a masterpiece of a civilization whose ways were long lost to the chaotic flow of time, perhaps for the best.

Whether not the lone figure that stood before it was awed by the monument was impossible to tell under its heavy, obscuring cloak, but it did stare at the ancient obstruction for a long while, seemingly oblivious to the icy winds that tore over and between the bulwarks, filling the air with arcane wails and moans. However, as ferocious as the gust might get, the figure’s robe was completely immobile, standing against the wind as if not even the slightest gust was harrying it.

At last, the body moved, gliding along the ground right to the titanic gate’s base. It raised a right arm, and a fold of the cloak fell away, revealing a single hand, gauntleted in a long, ebony glove, unornamented and made of a material that seemed not to absorb or reflect light, but devour it, marking its own presence by the very absence of illumination. This five-fingered void slowly pressed itself against the barrier, its palm resting upon the heart of a vast, jagged mark shaped like a whirling vortex, far larger than any of the others that were cut deep into the door.

Without the slightest hesitation, the vast obstruction fell back further into its carved recess, and then slid to one side, all the while in complete silence, offering no noise to contest the howling of the wind. Beyond it, a void comparable to the one on the figure’s hand gaped like the maw of a ravenous beast, the penumbra unbroken by a single flicker of sickly light. The lone being plunged into it without faltering even for a moment.

By the time the gate closed soundlessly behind, the figure was already far adrift in the impenetrable dark, but moved along without any indication of fear or indecision. The smooth, polished path it walked was clear of any obstruction, but it was winding and erratic, each bend in the walls dominated by a yawning opening, onto new paths, long stairs, narrow walkways, and open chasms. It would have been so easy to stray down one of these false trails, a single misstep sometimes was all that was necessary, but the figure kept to the main hall, seemingly oblivious to these deceivers.

After an eternity in this perilous maze, the darkness began to recede. There was no open flame of glowing fixture that might have been the cause of the growing illumination, but it was there nonetheless, a shallow, cold light, but a light nonetheless. Soon, the false passages were plainly viewable outlines in set into the walls, and soon after that, they disappeared entirely, leaving only the one path.

Presently, the winding hall straightened and widened, swelling into a vast, rectangular cavern that stretched so far upwards that it’s top was lost in shadow. Its walls were lined with enormous pillars of gray rock, wrapped with band after band of heavily engraved durasteel, every meter a new tapestry of some ancient battle, forgotten warlord, or cryptic incantation. At the chamber’s center was a raised ziggurat of a platform, hewn of a strange, black metal flecked with red gems, each of which seemed to exude bloodied light. At its peak, a single person sat cross-legged, dressed in black and covered in silver armor, toped with triangular head warp that obscured its wearer’s face. All of it save the eyes, which were closed. But they were not unaware.

“Why have you come here?” The cross-legged being’s voice was cold and almost mechanical, yet possessed a fire that could not be ignored, and a very human hatred. “I sense malice, hatred, fear in you; dark energy. Have you come to test yourself, to kill me? Or is this some new test I must undergo?”

The robed figured continued forward in silence until it had reached the very bottom of the narrow steps that lead to the ziggurat’s top. “Palpatine is dead,” it said at last, voice oddly warped by some unknown force.

The armored warrior’s eyes flashed open and last, and it looked down upon the intruder with bloodshot eyes. “So, that is what I felt. Yes, it makes sense, only a being of such great power could release such energy in his passing.” The eyes closed again, and the figure leaned back where it sat; under its tight wrappings and reflective plates, the creature still bore the shape of a female. “And what of Lord Vader?”

“He lives, and prospers,” the robed one replied. “Slaying the Emperor has given him great power, greater power than before.”

High above, the woman in black rose from her seated position slowly, straightening a Mynock-winged cape that fell down her back. Though she made no hostility physically, the intruder could sense that the warrior was bristling with new sensation, dangerously so.

“And what,” she asked slowly. “Is your part in this?”

“I helped Lord Vader defeat and destroy Palpatine.”

A distorted sound emerged from the place the woman’s mouth must have been; perhaps a chuckle, perhaps a growl. “And his new apprentice, I would assume. It becomes clear; this is not a test for me, but one for you. I suppose I would make an effective target for such an exercise, although I think Lord Vader might be underestimating my powers. I have learned much since he sent me to this forsaken world to train, and I believe you will find me more than a match.”

The shrouded figure shook its head. “No, I do not seek to kill you, not yet at least. The Dark Lord has stated that I might find you loyal to him, more than most others. There are many left in his new Empire that will stand against him, against the new order. I am tasked with seeking out and eliminating them before their poison can spread. If you are still loyal to him, then you would make a valuable ally.”

The woman above considered. “I once swore fealty to Palpatine, it is true, but Vader was the one who made me what I am today.” She clenched one fist, and stared up into the darkened ceiling. “I was once a soldier of the Empire, tasked with infiltrating the Rebel ranks and destroying them from within. But that accursed Skywalker found me out, and left me for dead. Lord Vader saved me form that fate, had my shattered body rebuilt, and enhanced my talents with the Force. I am reborn a greater being by his hand; I will be forever loyal to him, as far as the Dark Side will take me.”

The woman began to walk forward, leaving the crest of the monument and lowering herself step by step, all the while watching the intruder, who still stood below in silence. “But you. I sense much conflict in you; too much. You claim to be of the Dark Lord’s tutelage? Of his favor? I do not sense such things in you.”

A long, silvery hilt few into her right hand, with a long bundle of shimmering wire attached at one end. “It is not complete, my new weapon, but it should be more than enough to expose you as a deceiver. You do not have to power to face me; you are not of Vader’s training.”

In less than half a second, the scene changed entirely. The dark warrior’s weapon flicked outwards, extending the spool of wire into the air, which burst with pulsing light as it unfurled. Then she leapt downward with inhuman speed, almost disappearing from view as she lunged for her prey. Before, the robed figure leapt backwards with similar agility and quickness, conjuring a lightsaber hilt from under its robes and igniting it in a blur of bluish-white.

The dark warrior landed where the other had stood, hunched low in a predatory position, flicking the strange whip of light back and forth before her. “Even your blade speaks of your lie. It bears no markings of the Sith or the Dark Side, and I can feel that it is not even your own, you are nor comfortable with that weapon. I assure you, I am quite familiar with my own.”

In another blur of motion, she sprang forward again, the stand of her whip arcing around behind her, prepared to slash through the robe-wearer’s immobile form. It was at that moment that the other warrior looked up, and the shadow of its cloak fell from its eyes.

Impossibly, the lunging combatant halted mid strike and sprang backwards, landing in a defensive posture, bewildered. The intruder’s hood was pushed back completely now; under it were the smooth features of an attractive, blue Twi’lek woman, a face that could have belonged to countless thousands of brothel girls and courtiers of her kind across the galaxy. But this Twi’lek was different, in her eyes burned a pure, searing energy that almost made the other woman recoil on impulse. That power, pure power. It can’t be. It’s not possible…

Suddenly, the lightwhip ceased its deadly dance and glow and coiled as if by its own volition in its owner’s hand. The Twi’lek’s blade lowered as well, but it remained lit.

“I was mistaken,” the dark woman said at last, after trying to comprehend what she had just felt. “I was misguided by my initial feelings; I can see now why Vader would favor you.” She shook her head slowly, and turned back to look at the ziggurat. “If it is our lord’s wish, I will accompany you on this purge. I trust you have a ship?”

The lightsaber withdrew into its casing, and vanished back under the cloak. “I did, and it is standing by.” The Twi’lek turned back towards the winding corridor and replaced her hood. “We should leave now.”

The dark warrior nodded, and turned to follow. “I will not regret leaving this place. Tell me before we go, though, what should I call you? I am Lumiya.”

The robed woman paused again, but did not turn. “I am Aayla, but that name means nothing. All you need know of me is that I am the Dark Lord’s apprentice, and I shall share in his legacy.”

“You’re sure you feel all right? Frankly, I would prefer it if you stayed in the Med facility until we’ve been able to recheck your neural and immune system patterns again. You were unconscious for an unusually long period.”

The Human named Laura watched curiously as the Mon Calamari Chief Physician as his bulbous eyes swiveled independently, looking her over for any physical signs of infirmity. She couldn’t help but do the same to him, and was attempting unsuccessfully to bit back a bemused smile as she did so; something about the exotic amphibian alien with its unusual eyes, stiff jowls, and sleek skin peaked an academic interest in her that had been forced into dormancy for a long time.

“No, I’m fine. I feel much better now.” As she began to gesticulate to emphasize her point, the woman swayed on her feat unsteadily, causing both the doctor and Jacen Solo, who was standing close beside her to move forward in concern. She waved them off. “I’m okay, really. I’ve just been off my feet for a long time. A little walk would do me some good.”

Jacen turned to the Mon Calamari. “I promise you she’ll be back here in less than an hour so that the tests can be completed. If anything goes wrong, I’ll contact this department immediately.”

The doctor swiveled his eyes from one Human to another, then back again, until he turned away and waved a finned hand at them. “Your word, then. No more than an hour.” After that, he seemed to forget about them, switching his attention to the numerous droids and medical techs who were attending to more than a dozen lightly injured crewmen.

The pair of Humans exited the Medical chamber and found themselves in the brightly lit hallway beyond, populated by a handful of passing technicians and a lone R5 unit. The scooting droid caught the woman’s attention, but Jacen directed her down the other side of the narrow path, and they set off, the young Jedi lagging slightly behind his charge, watching for any sign of waning strength. Indeed, the woman had a weary bearing, one he had seen on many people who had suffered great loss recently. However, while his Force senses confirmed this unease and sadness emanating from, other feelings had begun to obscure them; positive emotions like curiosity, which piqued every time they passed a new crewmember or computer interface.

Jacen was impressed by this; from what he had heard of Commander Riker’s recovery operation, and could sense on the periphery of her consciousness, she had undergone ordeals well beyond what one would expect from her relatively young age and smooth complexion, and yet she seemed to be able to cope with it, even in a new and unknown environment, in very alien company. She didn’t even seem to be uncomfortable wearing the simple, brown tunic and pants the medics had provided out on the deck of what was plainly a war ship. And she wore the outfit rather well, he also noted…

“Which way?”

Laura’s assertive voice startled Jacen from a daydream he hadn’t realized he had been slipping into, and forced him to focus hard on suppressing the blush that was spreading across his face as he regained his bearings. Control…

He directed her to a turbolift directly before them, and, finding it empty, set it to quardinants nearer to the port exterior of the ship. The doors before them hissed to a close, and the transport sped off, leaving them in silence once again. Jacen fidgeted nervously.

“So… you never told me your full name.”

“Martin. Laura Martin,” she replied, brushing a wisp of russet hair from her similarly-hued eyes. She glanced up at Jacen’s curious face, and then looked away absently, sighing. “Ensign Laura Martin.”

The young Jedi sensed a tendril of sorrowful regret probing for purchase on the fringes of her consciousness. He cast about for something to say, hoping that conversation might put her at ease again, but she spoke again first, her attention now caught by a circular device affixed to the man’s belt.

“Is that a universal translator?”

Jacen glanced down at it as well, having completely forgotten it was there. “Yes, it is. One of the ones the Federation onboard managed to bring with them.”

Laura looked him over quizzically. “But, is it on? I mean, why would you need one when talking to me? You’re Human.”

Jacen nodded. “Yes, I am. However… well, I think there are others who could explain it better.” At that moment, the lift slid to a halt, and the door opened onto a new passageway. “I’d like to say it was a funny story, but it really isn’t.”

Laura exited the tube, and Jacen followed soon after, pausing just long enough to blow out a long breath.

He guided his charge to the right and down a long hallway until they came to an unassuming door marked with symbols Laura couldn’t read. Before she could inquire as to their meaning, however, Jacen spoke up again.

“You’re sure you feel all right?” he asked, worry evident in his tone. “We can always do this later.”

Laura smiled softly, and shook her head. “No, I feel fine. Besides, I want to know what’s going on here; I doubt I could get anymore rest while I’m still in the dark.”

With that confirmation, the young Jedi stepped forward, triggering the barrier to slid away, and the two entered the chamber beyond. It was a small and even cozy space, well furnished and well lit; perhaps an officer’s lounge of some sort. Three figures populated its center; two Humans seated around a small, round table, and a very tall, very alien being standing against a wall behind them, draped in a dark cloak. All of their eyes locked onto Laura as she entered, and she paused, suddenly uncomfortable.

The Humans, a bald man in a slightly frayed and quite outdated Starfleet uniform and a woman with long, dark hair rose from their seats and approached her, smiling.

“Greetings,” the man said warmly, extending a hand. “I am Captain Jean Luc Picard. This is my ship’s counselor, Deanna Troi, and,” he nodded at the back wall “he is High Templar Tassadar, a Protoss.”

“I am heartened to see you have recovered.” As the being spoke, Laura shivered involuntarily. It felt almost as if it wasn’t speaking at all, but rather implanting thoughts into her mind. She knew of numerous telepathic species, but few were strong enough to emote with such clarity and power at first meeting. However, this momentary discomfort was quickly shunted aside as she returned Captain Picard’s handshake, and fully assimilated what he had said.

“Ensign Laura Martin, sir,” she said as cheerfully as she could manage, carefully studying his lined features. “Sir, if I may ask, did you say Jean-Luc Picard? Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise-D?”

Frowning slightly, Picard nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Is something wrong?”

Laura shifted uncomfortably, and Jacen felt an odd emotion begin to exude from her; very intense curiosity, perhaps even awe. From the expression on Deanna Troi’s face, he could tell she was sensing something too.

“Well, sir, I don’t think so. I mean, don’t you know? You’ve been missing in action for a very long time. No one ever expected to ever see you or your crew again after the search came up negative.”

“A long time?” Deanna asked. “The Enterprise couldn’t have disappeared from Federation space more than two weeks ago.”

Picard nodded slowly in agreement, consternation plain on his face. “Yes, I would have expected that the search was still ongoing. I’m surprised the Admiralty would give up on me so quickly…” he trailed off suddenly, recalling what Will Riker had briefed him on after the mission to the Cornwall, the anomalous log time stamps. But those were errors caused by the scuttling of the ship. They had to have been.

The ensign looked uneasily from one officer to another, and then shot a glance at Jacen, who was listening with equal interest. “Sir, your ship and all her crew vanished on Stardate 45792, more than seven years ago.”
The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
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"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-02-21 02:37am

Chapter Forty Six

“Have you been able to reestablish contact Starfleet Command yet, ensign?” Captain Koltopek asked calmly, rounding the bridge’s primary tactical consol and coming to a stop behind the communications control, where the tall Human man was frowning at the display in front of him.

“No sir, not yet, but I am picking up a great deal of comm noise from sector zero-zero-one. There might be a signal from Command somewhere in there, but I’m having a hard time clearing away the interference.”

As the sandy-haired man continued to recheck the signals scrolling across his screen, the Vulcan strolled away and sat lightly in his command seat, next to which the ship’s second officer was staring intently out at the streaking stars beyond the bridge’s large viewscreen. She offered a nod of recognition to her superior, but it was obvious that she was preoccupied with her own thoughts.

“Something troubles you, Commander?” Koltopek offered in the annoyingly banal tone his kind was known for.

Rebecca Sutton leaned back into her seat, sighing. “Well sir, I’m still somewhat nervous about this whole situation. I mean, communication with Earth goes down occasionally, but it’s generally due to a transmitter malfunction or some stellar disturbance around one of the relay stations. Contact always gets restored almost immediately, the signal is rerouted and the problem fixed. We haven’t been able to hail Utopia Planitia or Starfleet Command for hours. And on top of that, we haven’t come within hailing range of a single other starship since we changed course, and unless I’m very much mistaken, there should have been at least three patrol craft along our course towards Earth by now.”

Koltopek considered her words. “You are correct in that both circumstances are irregular. However, we are taking steps to determine why these anomalies have occurred, namely the diversion of the Cornwall from her normal patrol route to the Sol system. What additional course of action do you recommend?”

After staring out into the starry darkness for a long moment, the Commander sighed again. “I think we should go to yellow alert.”

The captain raised a quizzical eyebrow. “You think there is a possibility that the cause of these disturbances poses a risk to the Cornwall?”

“We have to be open to that possibility, sir.”

Without further questioning, the Koltopek nodded to the tactical officer standing behind them, who immediately triggered several oft-used controls. The lights on the bridge dimmed slightly, burnished yellow by threat-alert panels along the walls. Another tactical display on the rear wall of the bridge showed a representation of the Steamrunner-class vessel as an invisible field of energy enveloped it entirely.

Nearby, one of half a dozen quietly working officers, Ensign Laura Martin earnestly scanned her sensor display, which was cycling through all the passive scans of nearby stars the Cornwall had taken over the last few weeks. She had seen the same data dozens of times before that day, and thus the remarkably similar parade of stellar distortion output graphs normally failed to hold her interest. However, the conversation that had just occurred behind her kept her alert; the unease she felt about the situation made the statistics a welcome distraction. The captain and the commander knew what they were doing, and they were probably just chasing a false-alarm anyways.

In spite of her focus on the screen, however, Laura’s mind couldn’t help but wander back to the incident that had prompted their change of course. It had occurred only a little over three hours ago; near the end of her previous shift on the bridge, Captain Koltopek had been in contact with Admiral Thomas Henry at Starfleet command on Earth regarding the escort of a significant diplomatic envoy to the capitol planet from one of the outlying systems of the Federation when they had lost contact. Attempts to reestablish communications had proved fruitless, and Main Comm had determined there had been a disruption on the transmitting end. At Commander Sutton’s suggestion, the Captain had ordered a change in course for earth to investigate; unusual initiative from a Vulcan, but Koltopek was known for being a bit more flexible on regulations and procedure than others of his kind.

The cutoff was almost certainly nothing, and the Cornwall would likely be back on patrol duty by the end of the day, but Laura was still nervous. Earth, the political, military, and symbolic center of the United Federation of Planets had long been an unassailable bastion of order in the Alpha quadrant, until it saw two attacks in only the last few years; an incursion by a Borg cube intent on assimilating the world, which had only been repelled at enormous cost and with no small measure of luck, and then the Breen raid during the waning days of the Dominion War which almost destroyed Starfleet Command. Even with the Dominion defeated and the Borg quiet ever since, she, and many other Starfleet officers who had family on the green-blue globe, was always on edge when news of it came their way. The circumstances surrounding this particular event were all the more ominous.

After another half hour of uncomfortable waiting, the Comm and Helm officers began to pick up on more distinct signals emanating from the Sol system. Signal traffic was normal from a world so heavily populated and central to the Federation, but the volume was unusually high, and oddly scattered. Moreover, many of the individual transmissions the Cornwall attempted to analyze were oddly garbled, or simply played static, as if the transmitting end had simply stop functioning properly. Even the clearer signals yielded few answers; one, identified as originating from the Miranda-class USS Fellowship, simply showed an empty bridge, bathed in a faintly-yellow light similar to the one that now lit the Cornwall’s own command center. Despite the increasingly eerie nature of the portents before them, Koltopek remained clam, ordering the helm to maintain their course and speed, and continue hailing installations and known vessels in the system. There were no responses.

Finally, the red-shirted helmsman turned to the command officers. “We’re approaching lunar orbit, sir.”

“Reduce to impulse, Ensign.”

Even before the ship had fully decelerated and the viewscreen zeroed in on the Human homeworld, Laura knew her fears were terribly prescient. Eclipsed by the Moon to their right, set against Earth’s inviting green and blue surface, a battle raged. Or rather, it seemed, a slaughter. But there were no silvery Breen ships in the midst of the fray, or swarms of Dominion beetle-fighters, or even massive Borg war machines. No, every combatant had been forged from the same mold; in Earth’s high orbit, fratricide of the highest order was underway.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds of starships spat ribbons of red phaser-fire and volleys of torpedoes at each other through the void, weaving between tumbling wrecks of other vessels, already claimed by the melee. State-of-the-art Sovereign cruisers tore through obsolete Constellation-class ships, Galaxy-class vessels exchanged broadsides, Intrepid-class scouts cut through defenseless orbital space platforms. There seemed to be no sense, no order to the carnage, each starship spun and attacked like a feral beast, desperate to outlive the other.

The bridge crew of the Cornwall looked on in awed horror as the colossal Earth Spacedock, once nexus of all space traffic in the system, began to explode from the inside, nuclear fire rupturing it’s mushroom-cap, then spreading across it surface, engulfing the five-kilometer long installation and numerous starships battling nearby in a titanic fireball.

“Battle stations.”

The Vulcan captain’s clear order roused the crew from their dazed stupor, and they quickly prepped the ship for combat, priming weapons systems and activating EMC capacitors. Still, none of the others were able tear their eyes from the spectacle outside; it was virtually beyond imagining. How could the Federation have erupted into full-fledge civil war over night?

“Tactical assessment, Lieutenant Commander Simmons,” Koltopek prompted.

“Yes… yes, sir,” the man behind him responded, distracting himself with the task at hand. “It looks like there are fire fights like this one going on all over the system; Utopia Planitia, Jupiter orbit, numerous quadrants around Earth and the Moon. At least two hundred ships are engaged right now, although judging by the debris I’m reading, at least a hundred more have already been destroyed or disabled.” He gulped. “Sir, I’m also reading significant damage to areas of Earth’s surface.”

Commander Sutton looked up at him in horror. “Where?”

“There’s a lot of distortion from the fighting, but… it looks like San Francisco and Paris, along with at least five other cities, have been completely destroyed.”

Laura had to grab her terminal to keep from collapsing onto the deck. Starfleet Command, the Academy, Federation HQ… gone? So many good people… But what about…? No, it can’t be. Not them. Not there.

She felt a firm hand on her shoulder, and looked up to see another ensign, a Bajoran woman named Pell, trying to prop her up. Her face was a mask of determination, but a single tear, forming over a cheek, broke the façade. Laura tried to smile up at her, but found herself unable to do so. She had no comfort to give right now; none of them did.

Below, the commander was equally shaken, but years of command training didn’t allow her to show it. “Are any of those ships targeting us?”

Tactical shook his head, racing over the readings that were flooding his screen. “I don’t believe so, sir. Were outside of the general area of the battle, and most of the combatants don’t seem to be looking for new targets. They’re just fighting to survive.”

“Prepare for evasive maneuvers,” Koltopek ordered, leaning forward in his seat attentively. “Ensign, have you been able to clear through that comm interference? Can you get a hold of anyone out there?”

The officer, clearly still dazed, immediately set to his task, his fingers visibly shaking. “I’m still unable to isolate any individual signals, but were close enough for anyone who’s listening to hear us.”

“Put me on general hailing frequency.”

The captain stood as the comm officer rushed to comply.

“This is Captain Koltopek of the USS Cornwall. All operable, friendly vessels, please advise me of the situation. What is going on here?”

The only reply over the line was static. However, in the distance, three starships, a Galaxy and two Akira-classes, all suffering visible and significant damage, began to veer away from the desperate battle and towards the transmitting ship. As they began to form together in a loose, erratic squadron, an embattled shuttlecraft succumbed to a phaser hit and smashed directly into the Galaxy’s wide saucer section, overwhelming its weakened shields. And still the ship pushed onward, ignoring the massive hull-breaches that were peeling away its hull.

“Are they transmitting?” Sutton asked slowly, watching the trio of beaten ships as they pushed through waves of crimson energy and volleys of errant torpedoes inexorably.

“No, sir. Wait…”

“I’m getting something too…” Tactical reported. “They’re priming weapons!”

“Evasive pattern Epsilon Inverse.”

The Steamrunner abruptly jerked into motion, using its main engines to guide it downward relative to its last position, and then triggered a dozen emergency thrusters on it starboard side, causing the ship to spin back, away from the fight and the attacking vessels. A moment later, a trio of burning beams of energy swept the space where the Cornwall had just been, one of them glancing the edge of its shield bubble. The protective field glimmered against the blackness of space as it absorbed the blow.

“Shall I return fire, sir?” Tactical asked, clearly torn on the issue. Not even the most rigorous training courses at Starfleet Academy fully prepared its graduates for the prospect of fighting their own. Even combat exercises that pitted Federation ships against one another were generally only half-hearted. The fact that no one even knew why this chaos was occurring only heightened the tension.

“No. Divert weapons power to the shields and impulse engines. Helm, change course to 456-mark-32-mark-561 and engage at maximum impulse. When were at the minimum safe Warp distance from Sol, jump to Warp Eight, same vector.”

The commander glanced at her superior in confusion. “We’re retreating?”

“We have no other option. Without more intelligence on the situation, entering combat here would be unwise.”

Sutton looked as though she wanted to disagree, but she said nothing more. However, it was all Laura could do to restrain herself from speaking out; there were still billions of people down on Earth’s surface. Whatever was going on, someone had to stand up to safeguard them, and it seemed like the Cornwall had the only sane and capable crew left in the sector. The Steamrunner had been modified for combat during the Dominion War; while not as powerful as an Akira on even footing, surely it could blow past the badly-damaged pursuing vessels without taking too many hits. There were still innocent people down there…

The bridge rocked with a powerful concussion, nearly knocking the command officers back into their seats. On the rear wall, several display panels blinked dangerously as their internal compensators tried to disperse the excess energy that had been reflected into their circuits by the impact outside.

“Phaser hit on our port nacelle from one of the pursuers, Captain! Rear shields holding at eighty-two percent. They’re overtaking us.”

“Divert reserve power to the engines,” Koltopek ordered calmly.

“It isn’t working, sir. They must be overloading their Warp cores to do it, but were still loosing ground.” The ship rocked again as another phaser beam raked across the Cornwall’s rear quadrant. “They’ll have a clear firing solution with photon torpedoes in fifteen seconds. We won’t be able to take many volleys, not from that many ships!”

“We have to return fire,” Sutton said with icy determination, joining the tactical officer at his post. “If we take out the lead ship’s engines, we might make reduce their attack potential enough to escape.”

The lieutenant commander shook his head slowly. “Those ships are quite badly damaged. A direct hit on their engine nacelles could destroy any one of them.” Another blast rocked the ship. “Shields at seventy percent!”

“Engineering reports damage to the secondary plasma feed!” the helmsman shouted. “We can’t keep up impulse like this much longer!”

Koltopek starred at the main viewscreen, which now displayed an aft image of the pursuing vessels, each streaming towards them with animalistic doggedness, glowing with red fire each time they gathered enough energy to get off a phaser blast. They seemed not to care about hitting vital systems or slowing their prey; they just wanted to kill it.

“Sir, I’m picking up two more ships approaching from lunar orbit! They’re right on top of us!”

At last, the captain broke his silence. “Evasives. Fire a full spread of photon torpedoes at the pursuing ships on my mark. Break up their formation. Mar…”

Before the Vulcan could finish his order, however, the silvery dorsal hull of a Sovereign, warship by necessity, flashed cross the viewscreen, followed closely by an older but no less dangerous Cheyenne-class, two of its Warp pylons lifeless and battered virtually beyond recognition. As the latter angled to engage the pair of feral Akiras, the Sovereign dived through a hail of phaser blasts from the larger ship and unleashed its own armament, a pair of blue-hued missiles that punched through the Galaxy’s forward shields and cut into its hull, tearing massive shafts hundreds of meters deep in the scarred form. As it began to reel to one side from the blow, the sovereign executed a rapid turn, placing it over the opposing ship’s rear section, and unleashed a beam of burnished red from its oval command section. The ribbon of energy sliced the Galaxy from stem to stern, separating the hull into two pieces as it etched its way across the prone ship. Finally, the beam bisected the ship’s very heart; the attacker barely escaped the shrapnel discharged when what remained of the ship annihilated itself less than a second later.

As the second vessel blew away one of the Akira’s warp nacelles with a well-placed torpedo, causing its companion to stagger away from the marauding new-comer, the Sovereign pulled along side the Cornwall, making plain even to the naked eye that it was in a condition little better than the ship it had just destroyed; nearly twenty meters of it’s forward superstructure were simply absent, leaving support beams jutting into hard vacuum and a dozen decks swept clean by hard vacuum. The phaser strip it had used to finish off its last opponent was closest to the gapping wound, and seemed to not have escaped undamaged; even as the bridge crew looked on, one emitter after another began to erupt with uncontainable geysers of electricity.

“Sir, we’re being hailed,” the comm officer reported. “Their identification beacon appears to be damaged, but I believe it’s the USS Bucharest.”


The viewscreen shifted from the external view of the starship to its main bridge, sheathed thickly with static. There, bathed in the red light of a combat alert, stood a blue-skinned Andorian with a hastily-bandaged head-stalk that drooped unnaturally over his wide brow. “This is acting Commander Tereni of the Bucharest. What is your status?” His image disappeared in a haze of distortion as he spoke, and then emerged again.

“This is Captain Koltopek of the Cornwall. We are fully operational, thanks to your timely intervention. Why are the Starfleet vessels in this system engaging each other?”

“I’m not entirely certain what’s going on either, Captain. About forty minutes ago, we lost contact with Starfleet Command, and started getting distress calls from starships and space stations across the system. Then our security chief reported an intruder alert in the main cargo bay, and we started loosing contact with the lower decks by the dozen. Before Captain Jameson could get confirmation on what was going on down there, these… things, animals stormed the bridge through the turbolift shaft and killed most of the bridge crew. The security detail, myself, and a few of the others were able to drive them off and seal the bridge, but the Captain didn’t make it.”

“The crew was able to isolate engineering and medical too, but we had to lock off the rest of the ship. I think most of the crew is dead; we had to vent several decks into space. That slowed them down, but… but I think some of the creatures are still alive.”

Commander Tereni stopped, clutching his head and shaking it slowly.

“Commander?” Sutton inquired as gently as she could manage.

He looked up at last; it was clear that there was blood seeping out from somewhere beneath his white mane. “I’m sorry… I think I have a concussion, I don’t know. Um, it looks like a lot of other ships were attacked similarly, and got taken over. They started to fire on other ships at random, and on Earth too. They destroyed Command before anyone could be evacuated. The council too, I think. The last half hour has been nothing but mayhem; we’ve been trying to contact any ships and crews that survived. Trying to get them out of the system, there’s something blocking long-range communications, I think they got to the relay hubs. We need to warn everyone away from Earth.”

“Put all security teams on full boarding alert,” Koltopek ordered. “Place tactical groups in all essential areas, and get all non-essential crew into shelter zones. I want all Jeffery’s Tubes sealed, as well as non-vital turboshafts.” As Sutton moved to carry out the orders, Koltopek turned back to the Bucharest’s beleaguered commander. “I am ordering my vessel out of the system. I suggest that you and your escort follow us out. There is nothing more we can do here right now.”

Tereni shook his head. “No, we lost Warp drive fighting off some of the ships that got taken over. No time to fix it, we’ve got to keep fighting here. I’ll send the Steadfast with you, she’s still…”

Somewhere off-screen, an officer shouted. “Sir, the Steadfast has picked up heavy pursuit!”

Tereni gritted his teeth. “They’re branching out more. We can’t hold out against much more. Captain, get out of here. Warn as many as you can away, the other survivors are rendezvousing at… Sigma 35…”

The image burst again into static as the Bucharest began to vector away from the other ship, its battered nose pointed towards the Cheyenne that had been on its wing. It had managed to destroy the pair of marauders, but its success had attracted more feral attackers, half a dozen ships of various classes and in various states of disrepair were bearing down upon it from just over the lunar horizon. Just as the first torpedoes began to split the icy blackness, Koltopek turned from the screen, his face still impassive, if tinged with a deep weariness.

“His orders are sound. We must stop any more vessels from coming here. Earth is lost.”

Laura paused and blew out a long sigh. Despite generally being comfortable talking with people, even complete strangers, recounting the events of nearly a decade, especially the most recent ones, was quite taxing. She was beginning to wish she had taken Jacen’s advice and postponed the meeting, but her audience was hanging on her every word; it would be wrong to deprive them of the rest of the dark tale. Nevertheless, the brief respite seemed to be needed; she didn’t need to be a telepath to know that Picard and Troi were having some difficulty taking in what she had just related. One could hardly blame them, Laura wouldn’t have believed it herself if she hadn’t seen the Federation capital collapse into chaos in person.

When it became clear neither officer was willing or perhaps even able to venture a question, Laura took a breath and pushed onward. “After we regrouped with the few ships that managed to escape the system, it didn’t take long to figure out that what happened around Earth was not an isolated incident. Vulcan, Betazed, Tellar, Andoria, all of them were overtaken in the same way, simultaneously and without warning. And it wasn’t just the Federation either, the Klingons lost Qo’nos and Ty’gokor, the Cardassians…”

She stopped again, kneading her soft tunic with balled fists almost involuntarily as she looked away from her listeners. Jacen moved closer to where she sat and knelt down next to her, laying a hand on her shoulder. He gave a comforting nod, which she slowly returned with a weak smile, and then turned back to the audience. “The three months since then have been utter confusion. Starfleet lost most of its best admirals on that day, and the whole Federation Council. Chancellor Gowron was killed defending his capitol, I’ve heard. Admiral Nechayev tried to gather what forces she could and retake Earth from whatever it was that had seized it, but they were crushed; something had tipped them off to the attack, and they were ready in force, drawing in rebellious ships from all over the quadrant. The Admiral’s ship barely survived the retreat, but it did get some orbital pictures of the planet, I’ve seen them; everyone has.”

“There was this slick, some kind of purple filth that was growing over huge parts of the globe, all over the place. It looked alive, covering and devouring whole cities, and people. Some of the ships that escaped takeover by those creatures did autopsies on the invaders. Some were completely alien, unlike we’d ever encountered. Others… well, one of my friends was part of the first medical team to look at them. He told me some were Humans, or Vulcans, or other species, twisted and corrupted, turned into animals filled with explosive liquid and venom. Living bombs.”

“These things didn’t stop with those first planets, though. They kept on jumping from one world to the next, using their stolen ships to destroy what forces we cold muster in their defense, and then planting seeds, like huge gobs of flesh, on the planets, which started growing the living slick. Even when a task force managed to take back a planet, it surface was already being devoured by the stuff; most of the colonists were dead, and there were creatures there even more twisted than the ones they used on us in space. The admiral in charge burned the place from orbit; I can’t really blame him.”

“What fleets the Federation has left were gathered at Deep Space Nine, the last I heard, along with some remnants of the Klingon and Cardassian fleets. No one knows what happened to the Romulans, they’re hasn’t been any contact beyond the Neutral Zone since the first attack, and no one’s had the resources to launch a mission into their space.”

“The Cornwall was part of the Second Fleet, dispatched to evacuate the Sigma Aberon colony before it could be taken, but we were ambushed en-route. Those creatures attacked us with our own ships again, but this time there were other things too, like missiles with wings. Thousands of them, coming at our shields and overwhelming them with sheer numbers. Captain Koltopek and Commander Sutton were killed when the bridge breached. Travers took control from the secondary command center and got us into warp, but they followed, and managed to board the ship. They killed most of the crew before we contained them, but they still managed to disable the engines. By the time we lost power, I was one of the few survivors. Someone pushed me into that junction room, where I was when your officers rescued me.”

When Laura at last finished her account, the small room remained silent for a long while. In the time Jacen Solo had known Captain Picard, he had only know him to loose composure once, when he had seen Beverly Crusher’s broken body in that shuttle’s hold, and now he seemed close to collapse again, simply staring over Laura’s shoulder at nothing. Deanna Troi was also speechless, caught between disbelief and unmitigated horror, without even the slightest hope that might have been found in the possibility that the story was false; even her limited telepathic senses could clearly discern every word the ensign had spoken was true.

It was Tassadar, who had listened to the account in a motionless, almost meditative state throughout, who finally broke the silence, his powerful “voice” unusually dark. “The creatures that did this to your worlds are known as the Zerg. They are well known to me and my kin, and it is my sworn duty to protect civilization, Protoss and otherwise, from their pestilence. I shall not detail again their abominable nature, Picard can relate it to you if he wishes, but I would ask of you one question; have you heard of or seen any binding force behind their growth? A master who guides their destruction and assimilation of your worlds?”

Laura thought for a moment. “Officially, command doesn’t seem to know who or what is behind the expansion of these things, these Zerg. There is a greater intellect there, but all of the creatures we’ve captured are mindless, like predatory animals.”

Tassadar peered at her with his huge, unblinking eyes, never breaking contact with her own. It was as though he was sifting through her thoughts, and she suspected very much that that was precisely what he was doing. Not wanting the alien to probe deeper, she continued, more hurriedly now.

“Still, there are rumors floating around in the fleet. Some say that a few of the survivors who managed to escape Earth in a shuttlecraft before it fell saw someone standing amidst that spreading purple slick, untouched by the creatures that seemed to sprout out of it. They say it had the shape of a Human woman, but was mutated, covered in huge spines and scales. Some have even said she spoke in words that the Universal Translator the evacuees had with them could understand, issuing commands to the horrors that swept the land. She called herself, they say, ‘Queen of Blades’.”

The title meant nothing to the others, but Tassadar’s eyes flexed widely and shown with an indescribable color when he heard it. Rising slowly from his meditative posture, the templar intoned one word and one word only, seemingly oblivious to the stares of the others.

The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
Posts: 5938
Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-03-13 09:49pm

Chapter Forty Seven

Reginald Barclay looked nervously at the large device cradled in his dirty, outstretched palms, a slight twitch of his lower lip accentuating the exhausted bewilderment in his eyes. It looked like a pair of elongated, blue shells, connected together by an enormous handgrip, and tapered on the sides and back with short fins, some of them obscuring a bright greenish glow that emanated from the interior of the object. Between the forward tips of each shell, a pair of teeth sprouted, angled at one another and bearing stripes of the same eerie glow.

“Um… what is it, exactly?”

By virtue of the charred wound on his head, now bandaged hastily with some sort of dark-colored cloth, and his generally alien features, the Arbiter’s reaction was not readily readable, but the way in which his massive shoulders slumped slightly suggested mounting exasperation.

Lower mandibles tightening upward, the Sangheili warrior placed a massive hand on the device, rotated it, and then placed the human’s outstretched right hand on its central handle column. He then let go, causing Barclay to sway forward unsteadily as he corrected for its significant weight, quickly supporting the object with his left. The Arbiter then indicated to a wide panel on the handle’s interior side with a long finger.

“This is a plasma rifle, favored sidearm of the Covenant foot soldier. It is designed for usage by those of my kind, but I believe it will serve you adequately. Operation is simple; target an opponent between the nodules at the rifle’s front, and depress this trigger. If you depress it too long, it will overheat, and become unusable for several seconds.” His yellowish eyes passed over the human’s exposed, fleshy hands. “I do not recommend firing more than a few bursts at a time in your case.”

Barclay, attention torn between the alien’s deadly-serious face, and the weapon in his hands, nodded slowly.

From the small cockpit of the small salvager they were standing in, the Arbiter, who had to hunch down in the enclosed space, pointed into the hold beyond, where five more figures lay, all seemingly unconscious. One, the Imperial infiltrator supposedly named Flitch, remained propped against an adjacent bulkhead, badly beaten, but still breathing. Nearby, a trio of creatures, two stocky, reptilian beings in bulky atmospheric gear, and a sickly-thin, bird-like alien were similarly laid up, piled unceremoniously in a small alcove. The Arbiter had identified them as Unngoy and Kig-Yar respectively.

The final member of the ship’s captured complement was a being of the Arbiter’s own species, nearly as tall and muscular, and dressed in angular, crimson and black plating, unlike the other’s elegantly-forged silver encrusting. Lying at the center of the small assembly hall, its thick wrists and ankles were bound by shackles that were silted with the same glow that emerged from Barclay’s weapon.

“Keep watch on them, and alert me if any of them awake.”

With that, the warrior stooped back deeper into small cockpit, leaving Barclay alone in the badly-lit chamber, nervously trying to figure out how to hold the bulky weapon without accidentally discharging it. After a long few minutes in which neither of them spoke, only the shallow breathing of the captives and the low hum emitted from the machinery buried in the deck below providing life to the eerie stillness of the craft, the Starfleet officer, began to slowly back into the smaller room, feelings of unease and bewilderment mounting.

Seated on the large, oddly back-sloping pilot’s chair, the Arbiter was monitoring the various gauges and panels mounted before his with focused interest. Despite the fact that he had served on starships for more than a decade, Barclay couldn’t decipher what was being shown; the raised, glowing holographic displays and chains of sprawling, irregular text were well beyond his experience. He did, however, recognize the flat disk that currently held the Arbiter’s attention, a 2D representation of local space, showing the wreckage left by the rapid arrival and retreat of Imperial forces, and beyond it…

“How many more ships are out there?” Barclay asked, lowering his weapon slowly and leaning in for a closer look.

Without looking up, the alien touched a segment of the immaterial field, and it ballooned upward, now showing the area in form. There were at least two dozen small, bluish blips in the immediate vicinity of the map’s center, where Barclay assumed they were, passing through clouds of tiny black marks. Well beyond the sphere that held most of the debris, three more blips floated in the void, these ones far larger, bearing long, contoured shapes. Further still, at the very edge of the hologram’s reach, a blur of blue clotted the void, far larger than any of the other icons.

“I cannot be sure; this vessel’s long-range scanning equipment is limited. There are twenty-four other salvage craft in this debris field, along with at least half a dozen Seraph fightercraft. The three warships beyond this cluster are likely their base platforms.” He paused, adeptly tapping controls beneath his large hands to magnify the blur on the edge of his display. The forms were still indistinct, and lined with static, but it was clear there were a great many of them, most apparently larger than the symbols that represented the salvage carriers. “That is what remains of the Covenant battle fleet that was instructed to destroy and occupy this system. Their battle with the Imperial Star Destroyer was highly costly, but there are probably still several hundreds capital ships still deployed here.”

Barclay looked at the tall, focused alien in surprise. “You know why these ships are here?” He had gathered that they were in the Arbiter’s own galaxy now, but he hadn’t known that he could actually identify the place and time. Of course, if the warrior had mentioned it, the engineer might not have heard; he wasn’t quite feeling himself yet, for obvious reasons. Flitch’s kidnapping, the battle on the transport, his rough and hurried subsequent extraction from the vessel, it was all largely a blur. All he had been able to definitively gather from the Arbiter was that they were now stranded in a potentially hostile world, most likely without hope of reinforcement. Barclay had experienced such perilous adventures before, many times in fact, but such experience had little bearing now; as he had learned many times before, holodeck excursion generally tended to pale in the face of hard reality.

The Arbiter did not reply for a long moment, instead turning his attention to the small wall panels that showed the space beyond the craft’s hull, drifts of distant stars blocked by the shadowed hulls of charred debris and the occasional pinprick of a passing searcher. When he at last spoke again, his voice was not as strong and assured as it usually; if Barclay didn’t know any better, he would have said it rang with regret.

“In this galaxy, I and my forebears have long been part of a great alliance of many species, the Holy Covenant. Guided by the Prophets (he emphasized the word with clear emotion of a type which the human could not identify), we spread across the stars, dominating others and absorbing them into out whole, until nearly every world belonged to us. It was our goal, preached by the Prophets, to unite all of the children of the Gods, our Forerunners, and then locate the sacred relics with which we could rejoin them in paradise.”

“But that changed when we discovered your people, the humans. The Prophets ordered their complete extermination, not adoption into our compact as we had always done before, for reasons known only to them. I was their loyal servant, and I complied; our fleets swept over the worlds of humankind like a plague, killing all we saw, hunting them until only a few remained. When our probes located this system, from which the last human warriors organized their resistance, I was one of many shipmasters dispatched to deal them a fatal blow, a strike that would expose their heart, leave their homeworld bear. And we did our job, all too well; that fleet out there is clustered around the human’s fortress, no doubt wiping away the last traces of life there.”

Again silence hung in the small chamber, the Arbiter having returned his attention the displays, leaving the human behind him to grapple with the information. He had known little of the Arbiter’s kind and past before now, only a few quips that Geordi La’forge had relayed about how the stoic Master Chief had initially mistrusted him, but beyond that, he was simply another alien warrior, stranded as they all were on a strange and aimless voyage. He had fought alongside them all against the Imperials, Barclay had even saved the warrior’s life, he recalled dimly; now he was supposed to believe that this creature was a mortal enemy of humanity, and had probably killed many with his own hands. Images of the skill with which Arbiter had dispatched the Stormtroopers on the Home One crawled slowly back into his mind…

“The captives?”

The Arbiter’s voice roused Barclay from his morbid reverie, causing him to raise his weapon fractionally towards the alien before he was able to stop himself. No, whatever this being had done before, he was an ally now, the only one he had right now. Besides, Barclay was an engineer, and not a particularly brave or even self-secure one at that; he would be no match for the muscular, trained soldier if he ever started to revert to his old ways. There was no choice but to trust.

Gulping to ride himself of apprehension, unsuccessfully, Barclay glanced back into the silent hold. “Um… they’re all still asleep… knocked out. No one’s moving. It’s all right.”

The Arbiter inclined his long, bare skull marginally in recognition, and turned his attention fully back to monitoring the distant ships.

Now even more unsettled by the quiet, Barclay spoke up again. “So, what do we do now?”

That was a question that the Sangheili had been wrestling since he had witnessed the Covenant armada do battle with the marauding Star Destroyer, a conflict whose ample detritus had fortunately given him some respite to choose his own path, deflecting immediate detection by the multitude of warships in the system. Now that an operable medium of transport, be it a short-range one, was at his disposal, the soldier had to begin planning out the future, and what repercussions his actions might have. Though somewhat overwhelmed by sudden realization he was once again in a world he knew, the Arbiter had been able recognize the flagship Ascendant Justice before it had been destroyed, and realize what the event meant. In his past, the chain of events that had lead to contact with the human’s Enterprise, that warship had not fallen in this system; it had pursued the Pillar of Autumn to the holy relic, to the Halo installation, and to his own disgrace.

But now, all of that had changed. The ship’s commander, Teno ‘Falanamee, the being he had once been, was dead, long before he could be cast down and raised up anew, the process that had birthed the Arbiter himself. And yet, in spite of the death, he still remained, and now stood in a position unlike any even the Gods had held. He was in a position to change anything, and everything.

There was still a voice, the little base urge that had tormented him while on the Mon Calamari vessel, that now sang with joy; this was an opportunity to fall back within the ranks of the Covenant. He would be saved of the disgrace that the failure around Halo had given him, it would be simple to remerge, say that he had escaped the destruction of his flagship. The loss would still be a troublesome, but it would not compare to what he had faced on the other path, he could redeem himself in the eyes of the High Council. He would have respect again, a warship at his control, master of his own honor and destiny, and not the disposable enforcer the mantle of the Arbiter had made him, a puppet of authority.

But, that voice held little sway with him now; he had conquered it long ago. There was too much to forgive, too much to forget. The warrior could not disregard the honor, the goodness, the right to live, he had seen in the humans these past weeks. More importantly, he could not forget that great betrayal, the one that had forever changed his world.

Memory of that dark hour rushed back to him: that cold, misty chamber, bodies of slain soldiers and war machines littering its ancient floor. In his role as fist of the Prophets, he had been dispatched to a newly found relic of their Gods, another Halo, to prevent a human strike force, among them the man that had caused him such disgrace, from destroying the structure, and to retrieve an artifact that would allow for the ring to be activated, heralding the prophesized reunion with the Forerunners. He had not questioned the quest, it was his duty, his lone purpose in life now, and as such he had fought through the ancient fortress where the artifact was housed with reckless abandon, slaughtering robotic defenders, and darker creatures as well, roused by the melee.

With the help of numerous loyal Sangheili warriors, he had at last made it to the heart of the protected vault, only to find the humans had reached the prize first. He dispatched them with relative ease, and seeing no need to slay his defeated foes, picked the artifact from their prone bodies, his mission a success.

But it did not end there. The accursed beast Tartarus, favored minion of the Prophet Hierarchs, had arrived, relieving him of the relic, and unleashing his Jiralhanae brutes to gather up the unconscious humans. And then, leaving the Arbiter no time to even smart from the robbing of both prizes of his conquest, Tartarus had revealed his true intent; he planned to eliminate the Sangheili from their long-cherished post as the executors of the Covenant, and install his own race in their place. Then, in the moment before the giant cast him into a pit at the center of the chamber, he revealed that this treachery, the downfall and subjugation of the ancient warrior race, would be executed with the High Prophet’s sanction.

The betrayal was absolute; the Sangheili were a founding member of the Covenant, they had lead its armies to victory after victory for millennia uncounted, and yet the Prophet Hierarchs would cravenly replace their ancient role with the legions of the Jiralhanae, savage, dishonorable trolls who feasted upon the flesh of the fallen, even that of their own allies.

No, the Arbiter would never serve the Prophets again. He had vowed that even as he lay nearly broken at the bottom of that great pit, his life spared only by the intervention of an abomination that dwelt at the core of the Halo, a beast from a time when the Forerunners themselves roamed the galaxy. In that dark place, he had learned more of the great treachery; the great ring, supposed bringer of salvation for all believers, was really a weapon of terrible power, and its activation would wipe away all life in the galaxy. Even the basic tenants of the Covenant faith were a lie, and the Prophets knew it. What they could gain by such an act of complete extermination he did not know, but he knew that their machinations had to be stopped.

And now, he had an unexpected and unparalleled opportunity to save his kind, and those who might still be loyal to them, from the Prophets and their minions. Yes, that had to be his goal now. It was all that mattered.

Still, there were other matters to be considered. He alone might be able to rejoin the armada, claim that he had escaped the annihilation of his flagship, and meld back into the war machine, in a position to undermine the Prophets from within, but he was burdened with an additional charge, Barclay. Certainly, the creature was of no great significance, and an earlier him might have simply slain or abandoned the human, but that was a path he no longer followed, nor wished to rejoin. No, Barclay had proved himself to be brave enough when needed, if annoyingly talkative and nervous most of the time, and the Arbiter did, after all, owe him his life. No matter how it might waylay his new purpose, the human could not be sacrificed out of hand.

Then there was Flitch. A spy and traitor, the warrior felt little attachment to the man, and would not be so adverse to casting off the burden he represented. Nevertheless, the crumpled form was a reminder of a far greater threat; if he was right, that damnable wormhole at the center of the debris field remained open. If the human Empire chose to return in force, they would be a threat greater even than the Prophets…

Barclay shifted on his feet nervously, unsure what the alien’s long silence meant. He had finally worked up the courage to try and ask his question again when the Arbiter leaned forward and looked over at the human.

“Ships like this one are not equipped for long-range travel. Our first move must be to dock with one of those carrier ships. The other salvagers should be breaking off soon, and I can use this vessel’s logs to determine which squadron it is tasked with.” With a few key strokes, many of the displays disappeared or recessed into the hull, and a dual control stick rose between the Sangheili’s legs. Taking hold of it, the Arbiter eased the ship into motion, its docking claps disengaging from the derelict Alliance shuttle outside almost silently. Slowly at first, then far more rapidly, the ship accelerated into space, skirting around huge chunks of wreckage, the pilot’s skill in the role rapidly becoming apparent.

As he watched the ravaged chunks of metal race by, a new concern occurred to the human. “Won’t they… the people on the command ship be somewhat annoyed that we commandeered one of their ships and knocked out its crew?”

“Standing armada policy on hostile boarders and thieves is to shoot on sight.”

Barclay clutched his rifle tighter. “Oh.”

“Sir, deep-range sensors are picking up an anomaly in relative sector four point three.”

Putting aside a readout on the continuing repairs of the Republica being overseen by her XO, who was at the moment in the ship’s primary sublight drive control center, Captain Ryceed leaned forward in her control seat, focused on the Mon Calamari lieutenant who was offering the report.

“Are you sure it isn’t simply another glitch? The deep-range systems haven’t been fully recalibrated yet.”

“No sir, Sensor Control has checked and rechecked it,” the salmon-skinned officer replied. “There is definitely something out there, although we are still unable to identify it.”

Ryceed nodded. “Very well. Sector four isn’t in the vicinity of the wormhole; it must be natives.” She turned to the bridge’s tactical station. “Do we have deflector screens back?”

“At seventy two percent, Captain.”

“Be ready to engage them, full coverage, on my mark. I want weapons control standing by as well, and a squadron of alert interceptors ready for launch.”

Ryceed turned back to her ship’s main viewscreen, which simply showed the placid, empty starfield beyond. The Republica had been immobile, its internal resources completed dedicated to repairs, for several hours now, and even though they were moving along quickly considering the impressive amount of damage the emergency transit had inflicted, the cruiser was still hardly in fighting shape. On top of that, the captain and her crew still had no idea where the ship lay; the long-range sensors had only recently begun coming online, and without them attempting to match up local space with known stellar configurations was next to impossible, even for the android Data, who still sat at the makeshift wormhole station that had been rigged up near Communication Control. The white-skinned being was now watching her intently, roused from his continued study of the invisible vortex’s nature. None of his comrades were on the bridge, likely still resting from the events of the previous day, but Ryceed secretly suspected Cortana was still watching her from the bridge security monitors above.

“May I be of assistance, Captain,” Data asked evenly, fixing her in his cool, feline gaze.

Ryceed considered. “I think my bridge crew is quite capable of this, thank you. However, if you wish, you may observe their readings. I suppose it is possible you might be more familiar with them than my regular staff.”

The android nodded, and then swiftly moved to the main sensor station, where the Mon Calamari Lieutenant and several others worked, attempting to clear the interference from their new readings. After another two minutes of tense silence, the static began to clear.

“Sir, we’ve locked on to it. The anomaly appears to be a starship of some kind, moving at approximately 2,500c, on a direct course with the Republica. It should be in weapons range in two minutes, twenty seconds.”

The captain frowned. A ship moving only several thousand times past the speed of light? Even civilian vessels moved orders of magnitude faster.

“Is its hyperdrive damaged?”

Checking his screens again, the officer shook his head. “No, sir. The object appears to be enveloped in some sort of realspace disruption; if it was simply using a faulty hyper unit, we would be reading a massive tachyon contrail behind it.”

Data, who seemed to be taking in the information displayed on the numerous terminals before him despite the fact they were in basic, leaned in closer, over the shoulder of an attending ensign.

“May I?”

The woman backed away from her input panel, eyeing the machine curiously. The service and protocol droids that filled out the ship’s ranks were rarely so bold.

With surprising ease, Data began to manipulate the screens, bringing up new readings and perspectives on the approaching anomaly, translating much of the text into the Federation common script, and even pulling up old sensor scans of the derelict vessel they had located near the wormhole’s mouth. Before Ryceed could question him, though, the android turned back to her, the expression on his artificial face changed somehow, almost relieved.

“Captain, I believe that ship is encased in a Warp bubble.”

Ryceed frowned; she had heard the term used once or twice by some of the Starfleet crewers, but it meant little to here. “And that means what?”

“Unless I am greatly in error, that ship was constructed in the Alpha Quadrant of my home galaxy, most likely by the Federation or the Klingon Empire, considering the harmonic frequency of its shell.”

“Well, it would seem that we’re finally where we are supposed to be,” Ryceed said, with no small sense of relief. Nevertheless, she was not looking forward to a first contact situation; diplomacy was not one of her strongest suites. “I want Councilor Organa up here immediately, and Captain Picard as well. Tell them that we’ve picked up a…”

Suddenly, a vacant display screen on the woman’s right lit up with a familiar bluish light. “No need, Captain,” Cortana reported cheerfully. “I’ve already alerted them. The ambassadors should be on the bridge within a few minutes.”

Ryceed glared at the AI’s representation. “Thank you very much, Cortana. However, as of this moment, my crew is still perfectly capable of executing such a task in the future. If an opening appears, you shall certainly be the first to know, but until then, I prefer it if you attempted to restrain yourself while tapping into my bridge surveillance system. You may be under Councilor Organa’s protection, but that won’t prevent me from initiating extra computer security counter-measures should I feel that the need has arisen. And I assure you, the programmers in my crew are more than up to the task.”

Cortana frowned, although Ryceed couldn’t tell if it was from honest consternation, or if she was being mocked. Considering their recent conversations, the later was the more likely prospect. “As you wish, Captain.” With that, the image dissolved into a haze of blue static, and then nothingness.

Sighing deeply, Ryceed sank into her command chair and glared out into space. I’ll take on a battalion of Stormtroopers with just a sporting blaster and half a box of death sticks gladly, but if I have to play nanny droid to this AI for another solar day…

“Why isn’t that blasted ship here yet?” she snapped at the lieutenant, who disregard her tone automatically. Captain Ryceed was easy to rile up, but she generally didn’t lash out in any significant or dangerous manner. Generally.

“Its just reverting to realspace now, sir. Two thousand clicks directly forward.”

With a nod from Ryceed, numerous tactical displays focused in on the targeted starship, as did the electronic cells in the main viewport, magnifying the starship to visual size. Though inexperienced with Federation designs, Ryceed immediately recognized the vessel’s unusual, sleek and polished white hull, a wide saucer mounted upon a low-slung, with a pair of long, exposed nacelles jutting behind, like those of a Y-wing starfighter.


“I believe it is a Galaxy-class starship, Captain. The one of the most advanced starship class in Starfleet,” the android replied, watching the approaching vessel with keen interest.

“Not, I think, anymore, Mr. Data.”

Ryceed and the machine turned to see Captain Picard mounting the low dais on which the command portion of the bridge sat, Commander Riker, Deanna Troi, Leia Organa, and C-3PO close behind. By the turbolift bank from which they had all entered, Major Truul took up a sentry position alongside the regular bridge marines, staring at the deck somberly.

“Captain?” Data asked, unsure what his superior was implying, but Picard held up a hand, a clear indication that he would fill the android in later. Data fell silent, positronic brain already switching gears.

The captain continued forward, staring at the distant ship with something akin to an awed grin on his face, stopping only when he reached Ryceed’s seat.

“You recognize it, Picard?”

“It can’t be sure,” he replied, still seemingly overcome by emotion. “But…” the markings on the forward disc of the craft at last became clear, unintelligible to Ryceed “ah, yes. The Magellan. I knew it.”

“That’s Gehirn’s ship, isn’t it?” Riker offered from behind them, his voice equally overcome by awed relief.

“There’s only one way to find out, number one.” Picard turned back to Ryceed. “Can you open up a communications frequency. Try…” he broke off, recalling his earlier realization of the technological sophistication of Alliance hardware compared to his own. “Try a frequency lower than the one you likely usually use.”

The Republica’s captain, along with Leia Organa, raised an eyebrow at the suggestion, but she nodded to the comms command officer, and he immediately began bombarding the opposing ship with hyperwave and subspace frequencies, attempting to find one that both ships could harness. As soon as he began doing so, the Magellan stopped cold, barely within the cruiser’s effective weapons range.

“What is it doing?” Ryceed asked Picard cautiously.

Picard frowned. “Are you scanning it?”

She nodded. “We have been for the last few minutes. The ship didn’t respond before now.”

“Well, I suggest you stop. If what I’ve heard is correct, that ship’s captain might not take well to any perceived threats, your probes included.”

Increasingly wary, but still compliant, Ryceed wordless confirmed the order. A moment later, the comm controller’s receiver panel began to crackle. “I think I’ve got something, sir,” he called out. “I’m trying to lock to down the right signal. It looks like they’ve opened up both an audio and visual line.”

“Link them both to my personal receiver,” Ryceed ordered, sitting back in her command alcove and directing her view towards a 2D display fixed near the bridge’s low ceiling. The others followed her gaze.

After a moment, the screen winked on, revealing a colorless haze amidst which a human form was vaguely visible. Gradually, the blob focused and cleared slightly, at last revealing a middle-aged human woman standing in the middle of an expansive, scallop-shaped chamber. Reflective phantoms continued to race across the image, and the whole thing had an unnaturally bluish tinge, but it was stable enough to show the woman in detail. She was tall, with short, blonde hair, and a worn face. The uniform she wore was similar in color and design to ones in which Riker and Picard were still draped, but it was darker, more formal, more military.

Satisfied that the image was as clears as it was going to get, Ryceed began to speak. “This is Captain Ryceed, commanding the cruiser Republica, of the Alliance to restore the Republic. My ship is carrying ambassadors from our Supreme Council; they wish to make contact your command structure.”

In response, the other woman frowned, and cast a glance to someone out of the image’s clear view, saying something soft and unintelligible. After apparently receiving some reply, she looked up again. “I am Captain Lena Gehirn of the United Federation of Planets starship USS Magellan. Our universal translator is having difficulty identifying the language you are speaking. If you can understand what I am saying, please attempt to adjust your own.”

Ryceed stared at the other captain for a moment, and then turned to Picard and the others. “I assume you can understand what she is saying?”

“Of course, Captain,” C-3PO piped up from the middle of the group, nudging his way forward with obvious eagerness. “I have familiarized with the language that the humans of the this galaxy use, and I would be more than happy to serve as a liaison for you. I am quite experienced in the capacity.”

Before the golden protocol droid could move far, however, Leia laid a hand on his shoulder, causing him to halt, bewildered. “No, C-3PO. I think Jean-Luc should do it.”

Expressionless as his mask of a face was, the droid began to exude an aura of disappointment, but stepped back nonetheless. “As you wish, Mistress Organa.”

Stopping only to offer an appreciative nod to Leia, Picard moved alongside Ryceed’s seat, within full view of the screen above. “I’m afraid the captain doesn’t have a ship to ship universal translator at her disposal. However, my personal one still appears to be in good repair; I’ll be happy to serve as an intermediary.”

Gehirn’s blue eyes were first attracted to Picard’s warn uniform, but before she had time to inquire about it, the remaining static cleared momentarily, and she got a good look at his face. A second later, the woman’s jaw dropped.

“Picard?” she managed, still gaping in disbelief. “Captain Jean-Luc Picard? But… how? You… the Enterprise, disappeared years ago, a decade. We all thought you were dead.”

The bald man grinned. “Yes, I’ve heard my absence has been unexpectedly… extended, but I assure you, I am still very much alive.”

Gehirn let out a short, although not joyless laugh. “Well, this is certainly not what I expected when we detected anomalous energy readings in this sector. I had thought it might be another…” she tapered off, her smile fading considerably. Behind Picard, Deanna fidgeted, her expression similarly changing from one of relief to sadness.

“Well, lets not get ahead of ourselves,” she continued at last. “I see you still haven’t lost that dramatic flair you so fond of showing off at the academy. That’s quite a ship you’ve got there; Lieutenant Morgan is having a hard time even scanning past its superstructure. So, what happened to the Enterprise? It’s not like you to travel on any other ship but your own.”

Now Picard’s grin began to fade. “The Enterprise… was lost a long time ago.”

“Lost? And her crew?”

Picard sighed, demons of memory he had been trying to restrain for weeks suddenly clawing at his heart. “Only Commander Riker, myself, and eight… seven other members of the Enterprise’s crew are onboard the Republica.”

“What of the rest?” Gehirn pressed, her concern increasing. “were they all…”

Picard shook his head. “I will be perfectly happy to explain what has happened to us, as well as other, more current matters, but I do not think this is the appropriate venue.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Ryceed said simply, clearly uncomfortable being forced to sit in on the reunion.

Gehirn eyed the other woman again, and then gave a Picard a quick nod. “Of course. If you wish, I can have my ready room prepped for you and… whoever else cares to come onboard immediately. Before that, though, I do have to ask, where exactly...”

The question remained unanswered, however, as the Federation starship’s bridge was suddenly doused with red light, and a klaxon began blaring in the background. Startled, Gehirn was distracted again as another woman, presumably her first officer, came into view and whispered something hurriedly into her ear.

“How far are we at maximum warp?” she responded immediately, her demeanor instantly stern and focused.

“Four hours, sir,” the second woman responded. “We might be too late.”

Exchanging worried glances with his own first, Picard attempted to regain Gehirn’s attention. “Captain, what’s going on?”

The woman looked even more worn now, all traces of good humor vanished. All that remained was the face of a human slowly being crushed by hopelessness. “We’ve just received a distress beacon from the Bajor system. Deep Space Nine and the fleet are being overrun.”

For those of you who are interested, or are wondering why this update was so delayed, I'm working on an original work, set in my own Scifi universe. Check it out: Sindelin: Light Without Shadow
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-04-02 10:08pm

Chapter Forty Eight

Though relatively modest in size, none of them more than a kilometer in length, the half dozen warships were nonetheless an impressive spectacle, gliding swiftly through space in a tight, diamond formation. At the center of this group moved the greatest of the vessels, a massive, pointed shell, reminiscent in its form of a bottom-dwelling sea predator, withdrawn into its carapace in anticipation of approaching prey. Across its surface were scattered dozens of emplacements of various size and function; ion cannons, laser turrets, tractor beam projectors.

The five ships that hung in space nearby were similarly shaped and adorned, near replicas of their host, albeit in miniature. And further out still swarmed a mass of tiny craft, flitting under and around the bows and curved hulls of their charges, forming up, break off, and rejoining one another with near-impossible coordination. Each was a tiny pyramid, each tip bearing a formidable turret fully capable of tearing apart any starship of similar size that was caught unawares by them.

This was the arm of the Ssi-Ruuvi Imperium, one of many fleets that enforced the homeworld’s edicts and ambitions. Out beyond the farthest reaches of the Galactic Empire, deep in the legendary and virtually impassable vastness known as Wild Space at the fringe of the cosmic disk, the Imperium held absolute sway over dozens of systems. Born of the fierce reptilian Ssi-Ruu and their submissive P’w’eck slaves, this conglomeration had for eons held absolute dominion over their star cluster, subjugating all those who resided there. To drive the war machines that made this conquest possible, the lizards had long developed a terrible and arcane technology; Entechment, a process through which the life energies of slaves and captives could be drained from the corporeal forms and be bottled up, a power source of great potential with which flowed through the cores of every one of their warships.

But the process left its victims lifeless husks, and eventually the Elders of the homeworld knew that a new source of slaves was required to maintain their fleets. Almost as a gift from the Gods, a being from beyond the worlds they knew, the ruler of a vast empire that encompassed stars beyond number, came forth with a proposition; in exchange for a sample of their entechment technology, he would allow the fleets of the Imperium to come to some of the fringe worlds of this mighty empire and harvest them, a crop of billions of vital, sapient lives. The Elders eagerly agreed, but before the bargain could be finalized, this mighty leader was destroyed, and negotiations ceased.

However, the Imperium had already staked its fortunes upon this new hunting ground, and would not be dissuaded. Surely, if the leader of such a great nation were to fall, it would collapse around him; who would notice the absence of the inhabitants of a few unimportant worlds in the ensuing chaos? And so the new conquest had begun, the essence batteries that drove the Ssi-Ruu horde filling once more, energized with alien lives, human lives.

The invasion had not gone according to plan.

Though seemingly motionless in the supreme vastness of interplanetary space, the Ssi-Ruuvi warships were accelerating as fast as their drives were able, dozens of small aft tubes burning with a fiery light. Similarly mobile, the mass of fighters that swarmed over their hosts now moved not in simple flight patterns or practice maneuvers; they waited to defend against a threat, one that might very well overwhelm them.

The source of this peril soon became evident. From both above and below the travel plane of the speeding vessels erupted a hail of emerald lances, each pulsing with a raging power that could smote mountain peaks. The larger of the vessels met the sudden barrage with an invisible barrier that sprang to life across their hulls, catching and dissipating the focused jets of ruination before they could unleash their full power, but the fields of the smaller ships could not cope with the onslaught. One, and then another were bisected once, and then again by the harrying beams, whose passage triggered a fireball within each of the afflicted ship’s hearts. In concert, the pair erupted with atomic fire, annihilated themselves, and then cast their remaining, charred components to the stellar winds, causing the escorting fightercraft to scramble into evasive maneuvers.

Then came a new wave of destruction, this time in the form of a hundred black and gray vessels not much larger than the multitude of pyramids they plunged into headlong. Flat-winged TIE fighters and their fast, angled Interceptor kin shredded the outmaneuvered defenders like parchment, choking the sky with glistening laces of energy. Certainly, the pyramid fighters were more heavily armed, and sported shielding and armor that the attackers did not, but the droid brain that drove each could not adapt to the changing combat situation quickly enough, and by the time the survivors had regrouped, nearly a third of their number was nothing more than scattered detritus. Nevertheless, they spiraled back into a fierce counterattack, the anti-fighter guns of the larger ships adding to their potency, but it was already too late; the TIE squadrons had pulled back, and in their place forged the true hunters of the pack.

The four Imperial Star Destroyers shrugged off the incoming fire as if it was merely a display of colorful sparks, and unleashed another terrible volley, like the one that had immolated the two escorting vessels moments before.

The battle was short and unremarkable. Ssi-Ruuvi warships were designed to capture their prey for entechment, not destroy it, and when faced with a truly worthy foe, they could do nothing but flee and hope that their swarms of droid fighters could slow their pursuers. In this instance, their gambit had failed.

Standing on the bridge of the Star Destroyer Fi with his arms crossed loosely at his back, Grand Admiral Peccati Syn looked out into space absently as the embers of the alien command ship faded into the blackness, the last of its escorts pitted in hopeless sorties against wing after wing of victorious TIEs. A tactically-minded and skilled man, Syn was typically fascinated by the carnage that his ships unleashed upon the foes of the Empire, but this time victory was simply too easy; besides, there were other, more pressing matters on his mind.

When the last of his squadron’s fightercraft had withdrawn from the battlefield, the Grand Admiral sighed and turned slowly to a subordinate, who waited at stiff attention.

“Grand Admiral, the last of the alien invaders have been cleared from Cattamascar and the surrounding systems,” the officer reported. “The battle group your squadron just defeated was the last of the major resistance. Vice Admiral Corcaka believes that there may be scattered pockets of resistance on the planet, and has dispatched several divisions to rout them and secure the surviving population centers.”

Receiving no noticeable recognition from his superior, the man continued. “Initial reports from joint elements of the 12th fleet indicate losses were minimal; several squadrons of attack fighters, a few support craft, and the Lancer frigate Mandor 67, which was garrisoned around Cattamascar when it was taken. Civilian casualties are more severe; the invasion force that attempted to take Bakura was intercepted before it could begin targeting population centers, but the aliens did have access to the occupied planetary system, and several colonies on a nearby moon, for several days. Early reports indicate at least two million civilians were executed or herded into slave ships of some sort. Vice Admiral Corcaka has been attempting to ascertain the destination and objective of these vessels, but…”

At last, Syn waved a dismissive hand, and the officer fell silent. “Enough. These figures are of no concern to me. When the home base of these invaders has been located, you may alert me. Until then, I shall be in my chambers.” He paused for emphasis, and glared into the officer’s eyes intensely. “Let nothing else disturb me.”

The subordinate delievered a smart salute, trying to keep his unease at the Grand Admiral’s order from becoming evident. Such orders were to be taken quite seriously in the Imperial Starfleet, especially from a Grand Admiral. They had authority at their disposal for punishing failure that well surpassed that of a mere captain or commander. “As you command, Grand Admiral.”

Beneath his stark-white uniform, bold rank plate, and twin golden epaulets, all marks of his high station, Peccati Syn was an ugly, corpulent man with a thin cap of blonde-white hair and a perpetually foul expression, but he nevertheless command respect from all who passed by on his short journey to the quarters he called home, buried deep with the durasteel titan that had long been the instrument of his will. Through moderate skill, the right connection, and a devotion to Emperor Palpatine’s New Order that was beyond fanatical, Syn had begged and bullied his way through the ranks, finally currying his supreme master’s favor, and becoming one of the first Grand Admirals, an elite core which acted as the penultimate authority over the unstoppable Imperial war machine.

There was another element of his regalia as well, not of his station, but even more telling of his psyche; a golden talisman that hung on a chain below his waggling chin, an artifact of a long repressed and largely extinct religion. It spoke of the man’s dedication and devotion, his unerring belief in whatever cause he chose to cling to, a trait that Palpatine had found most useful in his servants. And since the Galactic Republic’s fall, the object of Syn’s fidelity, his very reason for existing, had been that one man and his mission of ‘safe and secure society’ for the galaxy at large.

And then, even as he grew ever more powerful, the Emperor had fallen, slain by the insidious rebel threat, or so the media said.

In that instant, less than a standard month ago, Syn’s life had changed. He had never even considered in his darkest meditations that Palpatine, victor of the Clone Wars, savior of the galaxy, eliminator of the weak and corrupt, could die. It had shaken his core, and left him casting about for something new to believe in. This quest had consumed him for days and days on end, and the unease in the Imperial Center barely registered in his consciousness.

Darth Vader assuming the mantle of supreme ruler, the terrorist attack that left much of the old Emperor’s inner circle dead. And then further upset; the Dark Lord of the Sith had set off on some great new crusade, taking with him many of the Empire’s brightest commanders and a large chunk of the reserve starfleet. Who was in direct command of the Empire in his absence was unclear; some said COMPNOR, others the Central Committee of Grand Moffs, or even the cold-hearted Director of Imperial Intelligence Ysanne Isard. There had even been whispers that a new Imperial Senate was to be created. However, as of yet, the Empire had not devolved into disarray; Vader was still out there, ready to crush any rebellion now that the infamous Rebel Alliance had been all but obliterated, and there was much talk in hidden circles that he had had more than a passive role in the late Emperor’s fall.

But all these thing had seemed mere obstructions to Syn’s search, and when word had reached the core worlds that a hitherto unknown alien force was attacking border worlds along the Unknown Regions, the Grand Admiral had taken a large element of his command and struck off for the region without receiving orders from anyone; a new campaign might clear his head, or at the very least, remove him from the distractions of galactic politics. Alas, the menace had proved far too easily quashed, giving him barely any time for contemplation. Hopefully the alien’s homeworld would take some time to locate.

Syn’s chambers were spacious, but surprisingly barren, a testament to his own pious devotion. A few pieces of furniture, a handful of computer interface, each carved from cold, ebony metal. And of course there were the tapestries, ancient works, depicting battles and rituals on worlds laid to waste in millennia past and mighty warlords almost completely forgotten with the passage of eons. And of course, there was the towering statue of the Palpatine, the true Dark Lord of the Sith, that dominated the center of the chamber, three meters high and carved with immaculate detail, capturing all of the being’s vast power and terrible presence. Syn was one of the few that knew of Palpatine’s true nature, his power in the Force, but rather than disregard or revile it as most in the Empire now did, he had embraced it. Though he could not touch the mystical energy field, it consumed his passions; the Dark Side was all, and Palpatine was the Dark Side. Or so he had thought.

Pausing a moment to marvel at the towering form with a mixture of sorrow, confusion, and regret, Syn maneuvered himself around its base and towards his sleeping chambers, fingering the emblem around his neck as he ponder whether or not a brief nap could ease his mind. However, before he had traveled another dozen pace, Syn stopped short. There had been another shape behind the larger statue, one that he had never had placed there.

Whirling around and almost tipping over in the process, the Grand Admiral fumbled desperately for the holdout blaster tucked neatly near his waist. “Who are you?”

Shadowed by the massive edifice of wrought stone and metal, a figure did indeed stand, tall and motionless, its head and limbs enveloped in a long, black cloak. Even as Syn attempted to jerk his weapon from its holster, it revealed a single, gloved hand and raised it in calm supplication. “Calm yourself, Grand Admiral. I come under Lord Darth Vader’s sanction.”

At these words, though he did not fully believe them, Syn faltered, his pudgy hand falling away from the weapon at his side. Instead, he gaped at the form as it advanced closer put of the shadow, still impenetrably obscured.

“Darth… Darth Vader?” he gulped at length. “Why does he send you hear? Who are you?”

“A messenger, and a servant, nothing more,” it replied, voice soft, yet impenetrable and seemingly unmarked by gender or ascent. “I am here on your ship as the enforcer of his will.”

“And what does he wish?” Syn asked carefully. “Surely these aliens are of no interest to one such as him. They are weak and cowardly.”

“No, the Ssi-Ruu do not concern our lord,” it replied. “You seem to have taken care of them quite efficiently on your own, in any event.”

The Grand Admiral peered at the figure even more closely. “Ssi-Ruu? I have heard of no name for them. How do you…”

“It is of no importance,” came the reply suddenly, with a trace more emotion. “I am interested in far more personal and pressing concerns. Namely, your loyalties.”

Syn straightened up instantly. “My loyalties lie with the Empire.”

Though he could not see its face, the man knew that the figure peered at him carefully from its cover for a long moment as he stood tall with conviction, his sense of indignation, and below it an odd worry, rising. Syn was not easily cowed, but this intruder’s very presence seemed to be wearing on his composure badly.

“That much is clear,” the figure pressed, taking another step forward. “But it is not enough. Do you serve the new Empire, Lord Vader’s Empire, or Palpatine’s?”

Syn took a step back in response, bewildered. “What… what do you mean? I serve the Empire…”

In an instant, the figure was upon the man, and though he nearly matched it in height, it now seemed to tower above him, exuding an aura of indomitable power, and plain malice. Syn wavered, but before he could move fully, the gloved hand shot from its covering and grabbed the officer’s white collar tightly, pulling him close.

“Enough. You will answer, or you will die. Are you still committed to Palpatine and his ways?”

The dark maw that still lingered under the cloaked being’s hood stared down upon Syn’s quivering face, filling his vision and his thoughts. What did this… thing want? It spoke of being the new emperor’s servant, yet there was something, a hint of duplicity in its words, noticeable even through their obvious distortion. Syn was no Force user, and never could hope to be one, but he had been around them, dark mages of great power. And he knew this creature was one of such capability.

But if that was true, why did it ask for the information it desired. Palpatine and his minions could tear information from the minds of their subjects as easily as Syn could activate a data reader. It wanted him to the inquisition answer under his own willpower. But why? What did it want to hear?

Feeling the grip upon his tunic grow even more inescapable, the Grand Admiral at last managed to summon words. “No! Palpatine is dead. I owe no loyalty to him anymore. Lord Vader is my master now, our master.”

After a moment of motionless silence in which the figure seemed to regard him again carefully, the grip faded away, and Syn fell back under his own power.

“As you say,” it breathed, softly, and without perceptible emotion, turning its back on him.

As it began to pace away, Syn rubbed his throat reflexively, breathing heavily has he attempted to recover from the encounter. Relief flooded through his veins, but the dark presence the messenger exuded still prevented him from feeling any semblance of ease. Thus, when the figure paused again just as it passed the base of the massive statue, the man was instantly uneasy once more.

“A shame,” it said plainly. “I would have thought a Grand Admiral’s skills would have been more diverse.” From its side, a beam of blue light split the air with a piercing hiss. “You lie poorly.”

Syn’s eyes bulged and he stumbled backwards, disbelieving. But I…

A nearby maintenance sensor recorded the discharge of iron-rich vaporized liquid in the Grand Admiral’s quarters. The anomaly was logged and a cleaning droid was designated for cleanup during the next upkeep cycle. Sensing no other disturbances, the sensor returned to standby mode. All was well.

A lone Lambda-class shuttlecraft raced away from the quartet of dormant star destroyers, scything quickly through the cosmic emptiness before at last breaking with the physical coil and fading into the endlessness of hyperspace. At the small vessel’s helm, a robed figure checked the readings and navigational gauges before it one last time, and satisfied, leaned back into its seat in silence. After absorbing the soft glow of the dim running lights that illuminated the cramped cockpit for a moment longer, it at last reached up, and in a deft motion, removed the hood that obscured its brow.

“It is done, then?” Lumiya asked almost mechanically, seated in the co-navigator’s chair.

The Twi’lek pilot nodded once, allowing her lekku to sling freely from the base of her skull.

“He would not submit?”

There was no response.

Fixing her eyes keenly on her companion, the armored cyborg shifted her weight softly, meaningfully. “What happened back there? What really happened?”

The blue-skinned alien did not meet her eyes, instead staring forward, motionless.

“It is of no consequence; I did not deem him trustworthy, and I executed my pledged duty.” Her eyes slid shut, and she moved back even further upon the headrest. “Call up the file. There is still much work to be done.”

Lumiya did not break her unblinking, probing gaze. “Of course.”

Like all carriers of its class, the August Judgment’s port and starboard sides were pocked by numerous large cavities, each one a portal into a three-tiered docking bay, where shuttles, scouts, and starfighters berthed on repulsor tethers side by side. Illuminated by an ethereal glow from the surrounding, softly scalloped bulkheads, these areas were typically hives of activity, crews being loaded and off-loaded, ammunition and fuel being piped and carried in from the mains and dozen broad passages that opened onto the vast, open space, vessels moving back and forth through the permeable energy shield that served as the barrier with the icy blackness of space beyond. This day was no different; the carrier had been tasked with recovery and salvage of the fleet elements obliterated by the impossibly powerfully alien attackers that had vanished many time parts earlier, and with it all of the warships tasked with pursuing it.

As the first Phantom transport retrofits, modified for just such a duty, began to return with salvage and survivors, hundreds of crewers prepared themselves for the onslaught. Stocky Unngoy readied their dense muscles for the wearying task of offloading whatever material the searchers might have deign appropriate to bring back. Others waited with personal hoverlifts, prepared to ferry the wounded to waiting medical areas. With them waited the globular, tentacled Huragok, each eager for equipment to repair, transports to refuel and restock. So too lingered armored Sangheili and towering Lekgolo, supervisors and enforcers of the operation. Both warrior races, they would have much preferred to be back on the battlefield, hunting humans or crushing heretics, but there was always menial work to be done on the side; it was the way of thing. There would be time for glory later.

The atmosphere fields hummed, and sets of brilliant guide lights erupted all across the waiting bays, each welcoming the approaching transports back to their berths. And so, one by one, the beetle-like ships passed into the gapping maw, slowing to a crawl, and alighted on invisible moorings with barely a sound. Then, a dozen circular hatch iris opened at once with a hiss of pressurized air, and the rush began. Few, save one preoccupied Sangheili dock master, noticed that one of the waiting ports remained vacant, its guiding lights still blinking in anticipation. But there were other matters to attend to; a single missing shuttle could wait. It was probably simply running behind, and the pilot would be disciplined accordingly.

Slowly, Migaw began to come too. His head still rang with a dull concussion, but the blow that had put him down had been glancing, designed to immobilize, not kill or even badly injure, and his thick skull had been able to absorb most of the impact. Nevertheless, the Unggoy did not relish the experience; it took what felt like and eternity for his eyes to begin to work again, much less move his weary limbs.

Upon fully cognizing that he was in fact still alive, and momentarily gagging on the breath tube that was still lodged into his mouth, the soldier began to cast about for what was going on. He and Cakap had just returned to their transport from the derelict that had frightened the other so, there had been something about food rations, he had seen the bodies of the rest of the crew collapsed on the floor, the strange dorm that was with them. Then a new figure had appeared from the cockpit…

Though not the most intelligent of his kind, and still coping with a tremor that ran between his ear nodules, Migaw could still put two and two together. The ship had been hijacked, and its crew immobilized (an element of the events that confused him greatly; virtually all those who were brazen or vicious enough to attack Holy Covenant vessel weren’t likely to leave survivors).

Presently, a pair of voices intruded on his confused consciousness, and Migaw finally had some motivation to try and rouse himself. Looking about from where he lay prone on his stomach, the Unngoy deduced that he had been shoved into one of the storage compartments that flanked the main assembly bay at the rear of the transport. Beside him lay a body he assumed to be Cakap’s by the tank on its back, breathing shallowly, but evidently still unconscious. Probably for the best, he contemplated sourly, Cakap didn’t do well in situations where tact or subtly were required.

Slowly, he raised his head over the obstruction, giving him a clear view of the main disembarkation area, which was obscured slightly by a shimmering veil that sprang from the storage alcove’s entrance bulkhead; a confining field. At the center of the room beyond, a drop door gapped open, a purplish light emanating from below. Beside it stood two beings, one obviously a Sangheili, who seemed to be bearing armor identical to that worn by the ship’s pilot, although a distinctive scar on one side of his face clearly distinguished him. The other was far shorter and slighter of build, and though he was partially obscured by the darkness inside the ship, Migaw was quite sure he had never seen a being quite like him.

Could it be a…

The two were engaged in some sort of discussion, apparently oblivious to their new spectator. They spoke softly, but the rounded, almost bowl-like shape of the chamber propelled their voices to his ears. Nevertheless, the discourse was unintelligible.

“You’re sure we’re safe here?” the shorter one said in a timid voice, using words Migaw had never heard before.

“I cannot be certain,” the Sangheili intoned in response. “However, if I executed the maneuver away from the primary return path undetected, this shuttle should remain unfound for at least a few days. The ancillary dorsal fins in warships of this class are marred by a sensor shadow all along their anterior sides. It would take an active scan or a terminal flyby to locate us, assuming reactor output is kept to a minimum.”

The smaller being nodded slowly, and then glanced to the side, towards another one of the cargo areas. “So, what’s your plan now?”

The other hefted its skullcap, which had been cradled in its huge hands, onto its wounded scalp and fastened it to the bodysuit that lay below. “To get both you and I into a position of security, I must take on the mantle of ship master of the Covenant armada once more. When my place has been assured and suspicion dissuaded, I will hopefully be able to arrange an incident that will distract ship’s security long enough to get both you and… him” the Sangheili jerked its head towards one end of the assembly area, where another body lay motionless “to get onto a deep-range craft and escape the system. From there, you should be able to use data I can provide you on likely military patrol route used by the humans of this galaxy. You should be able to find safety with them.” The figure looked away, slouching slightly. “For the moment, at least.”

The shorter figure was motionless. “The humans… of this galaxy? But the wormhole… the crew…”

The Sangheili suddenly straightened, made sure its reflective shoulder plates were properly attached, and then stepped closer to the drop door, past his frozen companion. “I should be able to contact you again before the times comes, but if not, be ready to act on my signal. And be wary of Flitch, he will slay you if given the opportunity, no doubt. If the traitor tried, do not hesitate to kill him.” The warrior glanced around the small chamber one last time. “The same goes for the crew of this vessel. Unarmed and imprisoned they may be, but do not underestimate them. They are all Covenant warriors, and will kill you if they can, both for locking them away, and simply for what you are.”

Now at the very brim of the glowing hole, the Sangheili turned his long, narrow head back to the side a last time, a large, yellow eye fixed on the other. Without a word, it nodded once, deliberately and with respect.

Then the figure was gone, leaping into the pit without hesitation.

I hope you enjoyed this latest chapter. :)
If you will recall, I posted a while back that I would like a proof-reader for The Rift. The need was satisfied for a while, but the person who was doing it had to stop, so I'm looking for someone else. I know a few of you showed interest before. Any takers?
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Post by Noble Ire » 2006-04-24 03:23pm

Chapter Forty Nine

I can feel it, even now. Their anger, their malice, their hunger, all swell in anticipation. Only blood will sate their desires. The time has come at last. It starts all over again.

“Commander, geosynchronous orbit over Dahkur has been achieved.”

The deck plates of Deep Space Nine’s spartan bridge pit groaned and shook slightly underfoot as the stars outside of its main viewport slowed to an infinitesimal crawl. A few more tremors rocked the huge space station as its maneuvering thrusters reoriented it with the planet below, drifting on a lazy course around its yellow primary. Set at the center of the interior ring of the huge, circular space station, the bridge was now afforded an elliptical sliver of the blue-green world through its viewport, seemingly set ablaze by the system’s distant star as it seemed to pass behind the body, heralding night below.

Perhaps the final night it would ever see, the station’s commander reflected with a mix of bitterness and deep apprehension.

Kira Nerys, a native of the planet Bajor beyond, was not as religious as some of her people, but the significance of omens and portents were not lost upon her. The sight of the waning sun and the weary creaking of the vessel beneath her feet, though both quite normal occurrences, this day bore deeper meaning; they spoke of death.

Weaving between the trio of angled pylons that gave the station its distinctive, imposing form, a squadron of comparatively modest-sized warships swept past the viewscreen, vectoring out into the deep space beyond the planet and its silent protector, each priming its own array of weaponry. A triad of green, bird-like attack ships, a long, balled-headed central pylon flanked by down sloping wings, Klingon Birds-of-Prey, followed close behind their leader, a far more streamlined and compact vessel, which glinted white in the starlight. The Defiant, first of a long line of warships the United Federation of Planets had been forced to produce by a nearly endless series of dire conflicts, forged swiftly ahead, like a knight leading his vassals into battle on a mighty steed.

But the battle they forged into headlong was completely unlike those of old. There was no honor out there amidst the void, just chaos and desperate hopelessness. At one time, the force the squadron moved to reinforce would a crowning achievement of galactic diplomacy and unity; Federation cruisers and retrofits, Klingon attack vessels and battleships, Cardassian escort craft, even a handful of domed Ferengi marauders, all fighting as one. Now, though, the significance of this remarkable concord was completely forgotten; death took the allied and opposed with equal prejudice.

To one inexperienced in the conflict in which thousands upon thousands of lives were currently drowning, the forces that were overwhelming the unlikely associates would appear to actually be their compatriots; virtually every member of the horde that was bearing down upon Bajor had found its birth in the shipyards and foundries of one of the allies, and still bore embalms and marks of allegiance. But Kira Nerys knew better; what lay at the hearts of those ships were not human, or Klingon, or Cardassian, or Bajoran. No, they were not even deserving of the comparison. Creatures that bent the captured machines they inhabited to aims as abominable as their own were not worthy of a name befitting sentients. They were beasts, nothing more.

“What’s the status on the evacuation of the city?” Kira demanded, glancing away from the large viewport. Behind her, a dozen Starfleet and Bajoran Militia officers worked various interfaces and displays, feverishly preparing the station’s defenses and coordinating communications for the embattled fleet that was, for the moment, holding the invading force just beyond Bajor’s outer orbital perimeter. However, nearly half an hour of intense combat with a numerically superior force had begun to wear down the system’s weary defenders, and after that line was broken, Deep Space Nine would be the planet’s final shield.

“About half the evac fleet has taken off and is heading out-system,” a Bajoran officer replied. “The other group should be ready for liftoff in ten minutes. The rest of the population is being lead into the northern hills for the old Cardassian orbital shelters. Colonel Chechea reports that panic is widespread, but the operation is moving along as well as can be expected. The city should be mostly vacant within an hour.”

Kira gritted her teeth. Those transports, assuming they could even be defended long enough to escape to warp, held perhaps four thousand people. Countless millions more of her brothers and sisters below were trapped, forced to seek shelter in a handful of old shelters and hidden bases leftover from the Dominion War and the long Cardassian occupation of the planet that had preceded it. If the fleet and her station fell, such fortifications would be worthless. Bajor and its people would die, and with them would die the last hopes of the quadrant and its people.

“Is Kai Ungtae on one of those ships?” Kira asked at last.

The Bajoran shook his head, a weak grin crossing his lips. “You know he would never leave the homeworld at a time like this. At last report, he was still leading the Vedek Assembly in their prayer to the Prophets”.

Kira nodded reluctantly. The Vedek was the spiritual leader of the Bajoran people; she supposed it was all he could do to stay with his people in such a time, even doing so almost ensured his destruction. Of course, what point would his position have if all of his followers perished? It was better to stay on and grant at least some small hope to those who fought above and waited in terrible anticipation in fortified caverns below.

But it was just that, a small hope. The Prophets, enigmatic beings of great power who formed the basis of Bajoran theology and had protected the world from total domination by the Dominion a scant year before, seemed to have abandoned their children, withdrawing into the artificial wormhole that the previous invaders had been forced back through. These gods had protected them in the past from annihilation, but each of those events was foretold by the ancient texts and artifacts that formed the cores of temples across the globe; if the Prophets had not foreseen this new and most terrible threat, one that had already engulfed world after world, perhaps they could do nothing to stop it.

“Commander!” a cry suddenly broke the nervous hum of the control chamber, just as alert klaxons began to chime above. “Beta Wing reports a small enemy force has broken through the fallback line! They’re heading directly for us!”

Kira snapped from the observation window, allowing the tension of impending combat to force the almost overwhelming dread of defeat from her mind. “Full alert stations! Get me a fix on the attackers, and increase shield strength to maximum.”

The others immediately stepped up the execution of their respective duties, perhaps equally eager to ride themselves of the encroaching shadow, a blast door lowering over the main viewport and seemingly isolating them from worries beyond the one at hand.

She glanced at her second in command, a Bajoran woman of around her age. “Are there any evacuation craft in our immediate vicinity.”

The officer nodded. “Yes sir. The Nobel just departed dock one with the last of the station’s civilian population.”

“Can she get back within the station’s shield radius before the attackers are in firing range?”

The officer checked a sensor station quickly. “Yes, I think so.”

“The give the order,” Kira said as calmly as she could. Without any remaining escort craft available, letting the shuttle try to escape on its own would be damning its crew to death if the approaching attack force decided to alter its objectives. Hopefully they’d be able to release them before another major attack assailed the station.

“I’ve got a clear lock,” the tactical officer announced. “A Galaxy-class and what looks like an Andorian heavy freighter, both significantly damaged.”

Kira frowned at the tactical display. Why would they bother with such a minimal force? The aliens were brutish and often suicidal in battle, but they weren’t stupid, and though the tide of battle was turning in their favor, their numbers were not quite so overwhelming that they could waste a vessel like the Galaxy in a useless probing strike. And then there was the freighter, which was barely armed at all…

“Photon torpedoes, full spread!” she ordered suddenly, urgently. “Take that freighter out!”

The human officer at tactical frowned up at her. “Sir, the ship is still out of optimal range. I can’t guarantee all of the…”


Emerging from the gray, armored exterior of the docking pylon closest to the approaching vessels, a pair of boxy weapons emplacements kicked in rapid succession, firing six golden bolts of brilliant luminescence into deep space. Crossing dozens of kilometers in seconds, the first chain of three torpedoes arced harmlessly past the long, spiraling freighter, but the next trio impacted its nose cone directly, sheering through weakened deflector shielding and tattered armor plate. Two tore all the way through the ship, exiting its aft side before detonating an instant later, while the third exploded inside the stricken ship, tearing away a huge portion of its dorsal hull.

The concussion sent the remnants of the ship spinning to the side, narrowly missing its escort before finally succumbing to its own overloading reactor and streaking the darkness with rivulets of molten duranium.

“Are you picking up any activity in the wreckage?” Kira demanded as soon as the display indicated the target had been destroyed.

The human officer shook his head, still confused. “Nothing sir, Just debris.”

“The Galaxy is returning fire!” another called out. “Brace!”

A second later, a stream of torpedoes and prolonged phaser bursts erupted from the curved bow of the still-charging capital ship, crossing the ever diminishing gap between itself and the station in moments. The first volley was intercepted harmlessly by the translucent sphere of the station’s deflector, but a second round of fire caused the barrier to flicker, if only slightly.

Deep Space Nine’s command section shuddered slightly from the recoil of the attack on the installation’s shield generators, but none of the half dozen status displays around the room reported any significant damage.

“They must have burned out half their phaser emitters with that second full power volley,” Kira’s second commented.

“They don’t intend on ever having to repair them,” Kira muttered. She had never faced the invading creatures in direct combat before, but she had heard battle accounts from a dozen Federation and Klingon commanders. The aliens seemed to care absolutely nothing for their own lives, and if they saw the advantage for a tactical gain by doing so, a ship and its crew would sacrifice themselves in a moment. “Forward phasers, target its impulse engines. Get another torpedo spread on it too. The things on that ship want to get here pretty badly, and I don’t intend on letting them.”

The second attacker withstood the station’s counterattack better than its companion, but the final burst of one grid tore through its forward deflector shield, and cut a shallow gash that spanned its entire saucer section. Undaunted, the warship pressed on, unloading another torrent of crimson torpedoes, which smashed the target’s energy barrier in rapid succession, sending stronger tremors through the facility beyond. And again the station’s pylons lit up with weapons fire, and now that their prey was so close, almost to the point of dashing itself on the shield bubble, few of the blasts missed. With a sparking, chaotic pulse of raw energy, the Galaxy-class detonated, showering the barrier with tiny fragments in a final defiant gesture.

Breathing a small sigh of relief along with her crew and sure that no more alien-controlled ships had broken the distant, bloody line, the commander had just enough time to turn her attention back to the Nobel, which had been spared the ravages of the last incursion, and was now waiting nervously just outside the station’s protective globe. However, she was forced to delegate its redirection to her second as she was summoned to a priority comm station, and informed of a signal from the embattled fleet.


Alynna Nechayev, typically drawn face made even gaunter by the strife and loss she had to endure over the last few months, watching superiors, friends, and comrades die one after another until she had found herself at the head of the scattered and desperate remnants of Starfleet, stared back at Commander Kira, attempting to retain some composure even as the bridge of her flagship, the Sovereign-class Versailles, bulked and groaned around her.

“Commander, I’ve just lost most of Omega wing and my right flank to enemy reinforcements.” She paused as another impact shook the viewscreen image and sent showers of sparks racing along the tactical panels at the rear of her bridge. Her executive officer yelled an unintelligible order beyond view. “General K’Nera has ordered his remaining forces to begin to break off and make for rendezvous point RGN, and I intend to withdraw as well.”

Kira stared at the screen, bile rising in her throat. “Admiral, you can’t withdraw. Without the allied fleet here, Deep Space Nine and Bajor will be overrun. There are still millions of civilians down there!”

Nechayev stared back, unblinking and absolutely serious. “I understand the repercussions of this withdrawal all to well, Commander, but we simply cannot hold. The enemy numbers are too great, and if we do not withdraw soon, my ships will be surrounded and utterly destroyed. We were not prepared to face them here, not yet.”

Kira moved to speak out again, but the Admiral stopped her with a wave of her hand. “There is nothing I can do, Kira. There is still fight left in the fleet, and if we can bring it to them on our terms, we may still have strength of arms to break their hold on the quadrant. If we stay and fall in a heroic last stand here and now, and we will fall, this alien plague will sweep across every world from here to the Founder homeworld, and the war will truly be lost. There is no other option.”

Kira grabbed the sides of the display, and the fire in her eyes spoke of a mounting rage and sorrow that was screaming to be released, to destroy the cowardly Admiral where she sat. But the Bajoran said nothing. What could she say? The human was completely, undeniably correct. Bajor could not be traded for the lives of every sentient being within ten thousand light-years.

“We’ll try to hold them long enough for you to evacuate as much of the crew as you can from…”

“No.” Kira’s voice returned to her at last. “I will not abandon my homeworld, and neither will my crew. I will relay your order to the Federation crew on station, but I cannot…”

The view of the Versailles’s suddenly burst into static.

“Admiral? Admiral!” The commander lunged at a passing comm officer. “Why have we lost contact?”

Before he could respond, however, the image reappeared, heavily distorted, but viewable. “Commander, the helm just picked up something strange on long range scanners at the edge of the system, but our sensor array is damaged,” the image flickered out, and then in again. “… you confirm? Repeat, coordinates zero-nine-eight-eight, can you confirm anomaly?”

Kira glanced at her own comm officer, who was already programming the coordinates into his tracker. “Affirmative. Interference from the battle is heavy, but I am picking up some sort of supra-spatial anomaly. Possibly tachyonic. Wait, yes, there’s definitely something there. A physical mass, possibly two.”

The commander peered at the sensor display intently. Given their circumstances, such an occurrence shouldn’t rate very high on her list of priorities, but there was something about this anomaly that just felt… odd.

“Sir, I’m also picking up something strange, just outside our deflector grid…”

“Are you positive, ensign?” Captain Gehirn asked, seemingly dumbstruck as she stared out at the starfield that lay beyond the Magellan’s smooth hull, deceptively serene and motionless. “Absolutely positive?”

Seated at the helm before her, the ensign at the helm nodded slowly, evidently equally disbelieving of the information he conveyed. “Yes, sir. There’s no doubt; we’re just outside of the Bajor planetary system.”

When Picard had suggested that the captain of the alien vessel Republica might expedite their journey back to the now embattled stronghold system, Gehirn had been dubious, but had nevertheless transmitted an astrological route map to the planet to the Republica, and allowed the larger ship to seize her own an some sort of tractor field, despite the protests of her tactical officer. He had doubted that the ship could get them to the battlefield any faster than the Magellan’s own top-of-the-line warp drive, and for a few brief moments at the start of their piggyback jump into “Hyperspace”, as Picard had called it, she had begun to doubt her own acquiescence to the proposal. And yet, here they were, barely a half an hour later, right at doom’s doorstep.

Recovering from her own shock, Gehirn fell back into her previous, battle-ready mood. “Get me a status report on the allied fleet and the planet, and see if you can contact Admiral Nechayev. I also want Picard back on that screen, now.”

“Sir, I’m having trouble reestablishing contact with the Republica. The energy barrier around the vessel seems to have strengthened astronomically.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed, suspicion rising once more. “Onscreen.”

The tubular cruiser blinked onto the screen, its dented and scarred hull only vaguely tinted by a scant reflective quality, the only sign that some sort of energy barrier existed. And yet the tactical analysis of the vessel indicated the field was mind-bogglingly powerful, quite unlike anything any member of the bridge crew had ever seen before.

“Sir, it’s moving.”

Sure enough, jets of burning, bluish light had begun to issue from the massive tubes that protruded from its aft hull, and the whole vessel was soon moving away from the Magellan at an impressive clip.

“Where is it going?” Gehirn demanded.

“I can’t be sure, sir,” the helm replied “but the sensor grid is detecting a very large number of vessels in close proximity to Bajor, along with a lot of phaser fire. I believe that the Republica may be moving to engage the hostile fleet.”

“COM-scan registers approximately four hundred contacts, Captain,” a lieutenant reported, feeding the information to an upright, 2-dimenisonal display on which groups of starships were beginning to appear in relation to the huge opaque mass that represented the planet Gehirn had called Bajor. “Most appear to roughly similar in design to the Magellan, although there are also at least three other distinct structural patterns throughout the group. However, they all appear to be using the same low-yield weaponry and antimatter core systems.”

Ryceed regarded the chart thoughtfully, her hands folded loosely behind her uniformed back. “So, Picard, which are our targets?”

The Starfleet captain, along with Councilor Organa, and the rest of the “ambassadorial” delegation regarded her with surprise and even confusion. Upon arrival in the system, when the Republica’s sensors had confirmed a Federation fleet was under attack nearby, Commander Riker had made a comment about wishing to aide them. Without further prompting, despite all the caution and reservations about their mission she had shown over the last few days, Ryceed had jumped on the idea, and ordered her ship to forge forward into the thick of the battle. Perhaps, Picard reflected, the opportunity to take control of a battle situation after so many retreats, defeats, and desperate flights had been too tempting an opportunity for the Alliance captain to ignore. Indeed, he knew how she felt; there were few things left to him in the galaxy that Picard wouldn’t have traded for his old command chair at that moment.

Nevertheless, he was at somewhat at a loss as to the answer to Ryceed’s question. If the officer they had rescued from the Cornwall was correct in her account of the Zerg power grab, differentiating between stolen and allied vessels might be difficult. “I’m afraid I’m not entirely certain, Captain. I think perhaps we should attempt to reestablish contact with Captain Gehirn. Starfleet has probably developed some system of identifying the seized ships at range.”

A sudden sensation in the back of Picard’s mind that made the thin hairs on his neck stand on end, all too familiar, directed his attention to the turbolift bank at the rear of the bridge. Issuing smoothly and silently from the main tube, draped as ever in his long, dark cloak, Tassadar stooped into view, and his very presence seemed to attract the notice of everyone nearby. Seemingly oblivious to the two dozen pairs of eyes now fixed on him, he brushed past the marines guarding the entry shafts, whom Major Truul held back with a silent hand motion, and swiftly mounted the low terraced steps to the command area.

His posture was as cool and unreadable as always, but those who had been around the Protoss before noticed that the nebulous pattern that typically glazed his glassy eyes was now supremely focused, each pupil now a roughly serrated slit. Tassadar at last halted before Captain Ryceed, whom had never even seen the alien before, even if she had heard mention of him spending most of their journey in one of the supply bays, and thus was cowed slightly by his imposing size and ominous presence.

“You wish to engage the Zerg?” he asked her, filling the chamber with his impressively powerful ‘voice’. Quickly overcoming the oddity of his evidently psychic speech, Ryceed glanced at Picard, who nodded calmly, broadcasting what he hoped was an affirmation of the alien’s status and authority on the subject.

Craning her neck up so to look him squarely in the eyes, which was in itself an unsettling experience, Ryceed cleared her throat. “If you mean the entities occupying the ships attacking this world’s defensive fleet, then yes. Can you identify them?”

The high templar looked past her to the bridge’s main viewport, which now bore the magnified images of a dozen distant dogfights, ships of all forms engaged in a confused and vicious melee. He watched the individual drama of each play out for a few long moments; a ship bursting into flames and then shattered from an unseen attacker, another lobbing glowing missiles at a pair of greenish ships that attempted in vain to avoid the blasts, packs of ships that wove amongst one another with reckless abandon, angling off whenever they targeted another vessel that had been separated from its respective squadron or task force. Once or twice a minute, one of the vessels in the macabre play would flare into an incandescent star, and then fade into nothingness, spreading what remained of the lives within to the stars.

At last, Tassadar deflated slightly from his full height and looked back down at Ryceed; a Protoss nod of sorts. “I shall guide your weapons as best I can. Does the artificial mind Cortana still reside within your vessel’s computer core? I require its assistance.”

“Right here, big guy.” Cortana flickered into view on a vacant display screen. “What do you need?”

They die. We grow. The Queen’s will be done.

Deep within the artificial shell of the mechanical beast, forged by puny creatures that called themselves Klingons, now slaves in their own machine, a mind lay open, riveted. Hideous and glorious, a mound of livid convulsing flesh, its physical tendrils stretched throughout the possessed vessel feeding constantly on the biomass of lesser servants, provide for its sole usage. Other beings shambled erratically through the iron titans corroded bowels, endlessly maintaining the shell and the consciousness it housed, never resting, never sleeping. Still more stood at panels and controls that gave the ship guidance and direction, some virtually fused to their charges by grasping strands of scaled flesh, awaiting orders with animalistic eagerness. But not one of them thought, or felt any emotion save the most base of desires. There was only driving force there, one mind for all.

But for all its power, its ultimate will and authority over spawn innumerable, it was but a servant itself. Though supremely clever and driven in its own right, there was a far greater force always just at the edge of its being, inescapable and privy to its every machination and motivation. The Queen. She was all, the mother of the great swarm and all its children; it existed to serve her and make her every dream an immutable element of reality. And this shipboard mind was one of her most cherished minions, a direct executor of her will, one whom was born with both intellect and a will to command; it was a Cerebrate, immortal and unstoppable.

As both gift and method of its vital service, the Cerebrate was granted the control of a brood of its own mindless, inherently loyal slaves, and on this day it had bent them to the favored pursuit of the swarm; slaughter. Through the eyes of its children, the mind watched with satisfaction as an insurmountable tide smashed against the pitiful adversaries the Queen had tasked it to destroy in endless hammer blows of energy, metal, and flesh. Using mechanical beasts seized from their now besieged creators, the Cerebrate, directly reaching into a thousand minds, slowly wore away at line after lines, formation after formation of enemies, relishing the dying flash of each vessel. Even if it had not been bred to be incapable of defying the Queen’s will, it would have hunted these pitiful nonetheless; be it by some twisted aspect of its genetics, or a simple glorious depravity of its personality, the mind enjoyed war, and reveled in the dying breaths of every single sentient that died within the range of its comprehension. And range was long.

Of course, the mind’s reaction to the deaths of its own servants was somewhat different. Each time one of the ships under its dominion succumbed to desperate enemy weapons fire, it felt the very slightest pang of psychic release somewhere in the endless roles and knots of its neural cord, but was only most minor of annoyances, and quite easy to ignore. The minions on each ship were unthinking, easily replaceable tools, nothing more; they were bred and mutated to serve and die unquestioningly. It mattered not how many had to be sacrificed to crush those who opposed the swarm. In any event, there were plenty more to replace those who fell; as with most engagements in which servants of the Queen fought, the odds were thoroughly one-sided.

A new wave of absences flickered into the Cerebrate’s notice, registering in faster succession than was normal. However, the mind was untroubled by the loss, and was more focused on another area of the battle, where his horde was close to encircling an impressive number of holdouts. With barely a thought, it sent a new wave of minions to replace those who had been erased from the battlefield, and returned to plotting the target squadron’s imminent extermination. However, mere moments after the reinforcements reached their new assigned positions, they too disappeared. This still was not unusual enough by itself to attract the Cerebrate’s full attentions, but something new accompanied the losses this time.

There was another great mind at work in this star system now.

Forgetting its previous pursuit, the Cerebrate turned its full gaze to the sector of the battle where he felt the emerging presence. It was on a far fringe, and few enemy vessels remained functioning within the area, but though the eyes of one its minions on a nearby ship, he saw new vessel plowing through the wreckage previous duels and assaults had left drifting in its path. It was of a completely alien design, an elongated oval of grayish metal, larger than most of the combatants already assembled, and evidently already bearing many scars of battle.

As the mind watched, a pair of vessels under its command broke from their pursuits of another ship and angled for the large ship, each unleashing a torrent of deadly beams and pinpoints of light. The onslaught, sufficient to give pause to even the greatest of warships immersed in the fray, impacted their target unperturbed by any extended energy field, and unleashed an explosion of impressive magnitude, one bright enough to give the observing creature to squint its eyes slightly. However, when the discharged distortion faded away into the night moments later, the segment of hull the attack had stricken seemed completely unharmed, the only sign of any effect at all being a faint flicker of bluish white over the target area.

A moment later, without pausing in its course deeper into the fray, nodules and turrets along the thing’s hull trained on the harrowing vessels and unleashed their own pulses of brilliant light. The mind had a brief moment to marvel at their form and movement, quite unlike any weapons the swarm or its enemies employed, before the long bolts found their way to the other ships, striking with pinpoint accuracy.

Both exploded instantly.

Had the Cerebrate been spawned with eyes, they would have bulged. The two attackers had been among the most powerful hulks at its disposal, and yet each had been obliterated completely by a single shot from the new comer. Not even the titanic vessel the mind had chosen for itself possessed such great power.

Its original targets forgotten, the mind suddenly bent its total focus on the marauding ship, which continued to bat aside any opposition with contemptuous ease, and seized the primitive pilots of nearly a hundred of his ships, forcibly focusing them on the new threat. As one, vessels of all sizes and class broke from previous engagements and rocketed full tilt through space, leaving their former opponents bewildered and alone in unexpectedly vacant space. The first wave of this new assault met the starship as it entered the lunar orbital ring of the planet below.

It was a slaughter. Even as scores of ships emptied their full armament upon the metal beast, it moved on unperturbed, absorbing each blow as though it were a wayward micrometeoroid, and returning the onslaught a thousand fold, methodically destroying squadron after squadron with precise blows. It appeared that many of the weapons arrayed on its hull were inoperable, or simply not engaged, and thus the return fire was not sufficient in volume to combat all of its attackers at once, but considering the effectiveness of each strike, and the comparable uselessness of the Cerebrate’s assault, it hardly mattered.

A new sensation had begun to take hold of the mind’s thoughts; fear. The terrible feeling was brought on not only by the seeming impotence of the swarm against this new threat, but also the growing power and focus of the Cerebrate could sense emanating from the ship’s core. This opposing mind seemed to be able to target and devastate each successive target without pause or misfire; indeed, even in hotspots where near-identical combatants were locked in mortal combat mere ship lengths apart, the foreign mind seemed able to locate brood-held vessels without any effort at all, guiding barrages of annihilating strikes with nary a miss or impact on a defender’s hull.

And now the Celebrate came to realize there was an even more basic cause of his fear. The attacker’s unbreakable stride was taking it straight into the heart of the mind’s swarm; it was seeking out the heart of its enemies.

Now the Cerebrate’s priorities changed completely. Completely abandoning all thoughts of his previous tactics and ambitions during the earlier part of the engagement, it drew all of the ships it could into a vast wall before its command ship, a barrier of a hundred thousand lives arrayed against the approaching assassin.

The ship met the forward face of this wall in moments, so besieged by torpedoes and phaser bursts that it was nothing more than a vague outline in the blinding storm. The barrier collapsed inwards immediately, the warships that had not been directly in its path and thus survived unscathed now desperately trying to halt it from the rear as still more ships beyond formed into a loose knot, suddenly the front line.

By now, the Cerebrate’s own ship was in motion, veering away from the rapidly-disintegrating bulwark at full speed, its pilots now filled with their central mind’s terror as it continued to mount with each failed defense. Escape had become the Cerebrate’s sole ambition now, and it bent its crew toward the task of readying his vessel for warp flight with an eagerness and furious need unprecedented through its entire preceding existence.

And low, the stalling tactic at least seemed to be bearing fruit; motivated by their master’s terror, the remnants of the mind’s vanguard had begun dashing their vessels full speed against the attacker’s blunt nose. The bluish light that seemed to render the craft impervious to damage at last began to flicker more noticeably under the renewed assault, and be it by actual damage, or the simple opposing inertia imparted by the kamikaze attacks, the attacker slowed in its advance. Perhaps, the mind considered, this offending thing was not quite as invincible as had first been suspected.

Then an explosion split space, not one engulfing a defending ship, but rather far closer. One of the slaves manning a control station on the vessel’s command bridge moaned. The swarm flagship was under attack. The Cerebrate was in deadly danger.

Whatever semblance of confidence that had renewed itself amidst the controller’s cluttered thoughts evaporated instantly, and it began to search desperately for the new harasser.

Seven small, almost inconsequential flecks of metal raced into the mind’s direct field of notice, surging forward from the chaos that still raged far aft of the command ship. The Cerebrate was about to disregard them as fragments of debris and continue its search, but a flurry of bolts and sparks of burning light erupting from them dragged his attention back. A second later, a large number of the multicolored cloud disappeared into a protruding section of his mechanical shell, losing only a few of its number to the ship’s shield bubble before it gave way, and the pylon was enveloped in a massive cloud of expanding flame and charred detritus.

As the tiny squadron surged forward for another attack, a flurry of green and golden bolts from the fleeing titan forced them to break formation. This apparent fear for their own safety once again inspired some hope in the Cerebrate; if these vessels could be harmed by those weapons, then they might be held off long enough for the command ship to escape the gravitic shadow of the rapidly receding planet that still blocked the mind escape. Only a few more moments…

A new series of detonations against the metal shell’s deflector shields, this time impacting its forward section. Confused, the Cerebrate cast its attention to the source of the attack; none of the tiny harrying craft could have angled a weapon to strike that part of its ship. An instant later, the mind’s puzzlement dissolved.

The Cerebrate and his broods may have forgotten the previous battle, but the weary defenders of the world they had sought to engulf had not.

As the forward section of the fleeing Negh’Var-class battleship evaporated under the combined assault of a dozen Starfleet and Klingon warships, a cheer swept the Republica’s bridge. Though the battle had been a veritable slaughter, the sheer volume of opposition the ship had faced pursing the Zerg flagship had been highly unsettling, and towards the end of the pursuit, the waves of suicide attacks had actually begun to deplete the cruiser’s deflector field, and inflicted minor damage to some of the ship’s shield generators. Nevertheless, the sheer disparity in firepower between the Mon Calamari ship and their opponents was not lost on any of the crew, especially not Captain Ryceed and the Federation officers, although true repercussions of the realization had yet to sink in.

Still, such a bold attack would not have been possible without the aid of Cortana and Tassadar. With Ryceed’s grudging permission, the former had taken full control of the ship’s active sensors and FoF tagging systems, and the Protoss instructed Ryceed to have her ship plunge straight into the thick of the melee around Bajor. When she had instructed her crew to do as much, the templar had collapsed into some sort of meditative posture on the deck before the main viewport, and had started listing coordinates relative to the ship’s bow as they moved into the battle, each of which Cortana applied to a warship battling around them. Ryceed’s gunners could then begin to pick off Zerg-infested ships without risk of accidentally destroying those still controlled by thinking crews.

It was all everyone else on the bridge could do to stand in awe of Tassadar’s cold, methodical precision, and when he had directed the captain to lock in course to pursue a ship at the very heart of the enemy’s fleet, the flagship, she had complied immediately. Considering the exponential increase in resistance this had triggered, it seemed that the Protoss’ hunch, or whatever it was, had been correct.

“Captain, a large number of the defending warships have broken of pursuit,” an officer announced, quickly settling back into the conflict at hand.

“Their squad formations appear to be breaking apart as well, sir. Some even appear to have stopped functioning altogether,” another confirmed, plainly puzzled.

Ryceed frowned. “They’re abandoning ship?”

“No.” Tassadar had not yet moved from his meditative position. “When the Zerg Celebrate on that ship was killed, its control over the broods here disappeared. Without direction, the drones piloting those vessels are nothing more than animals.”

“Sir, General Solo is requesting permission to continue the attack,” a communications officer called from a bank of transceiver panels. When the Celebrate’s final assault had reached its fiercest, Ryceed had been forced to order the sublight drives to slow in order to reduce the possibility of increased damage from the kamikaze attacks. Already prepped for flight, the Millennium Falcon and the cruiser’s complement of A-Wings had been launched to prevent the flagship from escaping, although they’re efforts had been made somewhat irrelevant due to the timely arrival of a remnant of the Bajoran defense fleet.

“Permission granted,” Ryceed replied, walking over to a holographic display of the surrounding area, on which a handful of the tagged ships still appeared to be fighting, although they’re maneuvers had become highly erratic and barrages random, occasional striking their own ships. “Launch squadrons one and two to assist them. Instruct General Solo to target those ships that seem to be flying erratically. They might still be able to do some damage.”

“Captain.” Councilor Organa’s attention was fixed on the main viewport, which still was trained on the location of the Zerg battleship, now drifting debris, beyond which the dozen victorious starships hung in space, apparently still deciding how to react to the newcomers. “Perhaps we should attempt communications with the local fleet now. I’m certain they are most appreciative of our assistance here, but I doubt ignoring them will preserve our welcome long.”

Picard nodded in agreement. “Yes, we should reestablish contact with the Magellan as soon as possible. Captain Gehirn ought to serve as an effective intermediary between us and the Federation fleet.”

As the humans behind him busied themselves with the resolution of the battle, Tassadar slowly rose, allowing his limbs to stretch and hang loose for a moment. The detection of the Zerg minds on those ships had not been difficult, the terrible psionic impression they left on his mind even from great range was unmistakable, but the effort had drained him. Evidently, even after so long, he had not fully recovered from the encounter his with that dark-clad human on the bridge of the Alliance flagship. This lingering weariness, whose source was seemingly completely unable to identify, persisted to occupy and disturb the Protoss’ mind. It was as if the well of psionic energy all of his people could call upon for strength, high templar especially, was somehow blocked, and only a trickle of the invigorating power he was used to could reach him.

Determined to find the root of the strange weakness before it stymied his energy further, Tassadar began to turn from the viewport and was about to make for the calm, quiet emptiness of the ship’s storage bays when a distant object, just barely visible through the thick transparisteel window, caught his slowly-fluctuating eye. A mere silhouette against the darkening green of the world beyond, he was able to make out a spindly form, evidently in orbit, circular and bisected by a trio of long pylons. In the sea of starships and scattered detritus around Bajor, such a sight would not normally have held his notice, but he felt something more from it now, strange. There was the vaguest hint of sentient thought emanating from the construction, virtually imperceptible at this range, but with it too was something that did not belong. A raw, thoughtless, animalistic presence.

Even with their master dead, it seemed that the Zerg had one last hunting ground open to them yet.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-01-10 11:03pm, edited 3 times in total.
The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
"May fortune favor you, for your goals are the goals of the world." - Ancient Chall valediction

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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Post by Noble Ire » 2006-05-01 03:15pm

Since I couldn't locate a canon vessel that exactly fit my meeds, I created one, to which the Republica belongs. I haven't given many specifics on it as of yet, although I suppose I can now:

Liberation-class Light Cruiser

Length: 500 meters long
Armament: 14 Turbolasers (equiv. to Imperial medium), 10 Light Turbolasers, 4 Ion Cannons, 24 Anti-Fighter Laser Batteries
Fighter complement: 2 squadrons (4 B-Wings, 8 Y-Wings, 12 X-Wings in the Republica's case), 6 A-Wing Interceptors

Retrofitted from a line of Mon Calamari long-range merchant vessels, the Liberation-class was designed as a support ship for the far heavier and better armed Star Cruisers that made up the bulk of the Mon Calamari fleet. It is faster, both at Sublight and Hyper speeds, than most others cruisers its size, and sports an array of weaponry designed for tackling Imperial TIE squadrons and support ships, although it sacrifices system redundancy and shield strength to do so. Because these vessels were among the few frequented by non-Calamari before their modification for combat, the control systems and duty stations are generally better suited to human usage than those of most other classes, and as such are often captained by human or near-human command officers.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-11-07 01:36pm, edited 1 time in total.
The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
"May fortune favor you, for your goals are the goals of the world." - Ancient Chall valediction

User avatar
Noble Ire
The Arbiter
Posts: 5938
Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-05-17 04:20pm

Chapter Fifty

Uneasy, confused dreams shattered by a sudden sound, Reginald Barclay awoke from his fitful slumber with a violent start.

It took him a moment to clear away the cobwebs of sleep and fully adapt to his surroundings and remember the unfortunate circumstances that had heralded them, but even before his eyes readjusted to the light in the chamber beyond his eyelids, the man was struck by an all too familiar feeling. Intense, unshakable nervousness.

He had messed something important up. Badly.

Motivated by sudden dread, Barclay quickly focused on his immediate situation; he was propped up against the smooth, gently-contoured wall in the assembly area which the Arbiter had managed to capture, his limbs arrayed lazily around him as if he had dozed off and flopped down where he stood. Considering what he had been through those last few hours, it was not an unlikely possibility.

He, along with the whole interior of the vessel, was bathed in a low, hazy light, just strong enough so that he could make out the circular form of the cargo chamber beyond, which was further illuminated by the silvery sheer of several energy fields, which blocked off, Barclay remembered, makeshift alcove holding cells for the ship’s crew. He couldn’t make out any movement beyond the screen that was in his line of sight; perhaps they were all still unconscious.

Or perhaps they’re just waiting.

Shivering at the thought, Barclay turned his attention back to the small assembly hall… and immediately jerked backward, fumbling at the deck plate around him in a panic. Just across the narrow corridor, and one shallow recess to the left, Flitch, Imperial Infiltrator and originator of Barclay’s current plight, sat hunched, and very much awake. His slightly sunken, cold eyes trained on his supposed warden, Flitch gently cradled his right hand in his other, the tips of a few of its fingers a livid, unnatural red. Directly below them, clapping his legs to the deck plate via a hastily inserted bolt, a pair of large, very solid cuffs wrapped around his ankles, joined by a bright arc of bluish light. Evidently, his attempt to remove the binds had been met with a rather unwelcome and unpleasant deterrent.

At last laying hold of the claw-like plasma rifle that was propped up next to him, Barclay shakily took the weapon in both hands and raised it at his prisoner unsteadily, fingers positioned rather near its firing stud. Flitch’s eyes flickered to the weapon momentarily, but he turned his attention just as quickly back to the face of its wielder, suppressing any hint of concern that might weaken his, sharp, bitter expression.

After a long, tenuous silence, the Imperial at last let out a sigh of disgust. “So are you going to shoot me, or just hold that thing there until your twitching fingers do it for you?”

Barclay gritted his teeth, and tried to think over the thunderous beating of his heart. It’s alright, Reginald. You didn’t doze off for too long. He’s still restrained. Besides, you’ve got the gun; you’re the one in control.

Still staring at his captive in anxiety, Barclay lowered the rifle as smoothly as he could, both because of his own attempts to sooth himself were beginning to calm his frazzled nerves, and because his arms were beginning to whine with stress at their extended, weight-bearing posture. When the weapon, still clasped firmly in the Federation officer’s white-knuckled hands, reached floor level, Barclay finally summoned enough courage to clear his throat of phlegm and form words with his dry tongue.

“How long have you been awake?” The question did not sound as commanding as he hoped it would, but it was a start.

Flitch let out a humorless snicker. “Quite a keeper that brute set for me. Can’t even handle a simple guard job without nodding off.”

Barclay recognized the evasive nature of Flitch’s reply, but he didn’t really feel like pressing further; obviously, the spy had not been awake for long, as the burns on his fingers and the low sound that had awoken the other (an utterance of pain, Barclay presumed) suggested that he had just begun to try the plasma binders the Arbiter had placed on him before departing for weaknesses. He was still bolted to the floor and well out of reach of his former hostage, no harm had been done. Besides, Barclay didn’t particularly feel like lingering over the topic of his sudden exhaustion any longer than necessary; he had been little more than worry to his comrades since their whole dangerous and confused voyage had begun, and the whole affair was completely beyond his experience. If he was barely in his element on a peaceful day in the Enterprise’s Main Engineering, how could he be expected to cope with being captured, shot at, forced to shoot, shoved in and out of battles, and kidnapped, over and over again with very little rest between each new occurrence. And now his bewilderment had nearly gotten himself killed. Again.

Noting that Flitch was still sneering at him definitely, Barclay cast about once more for something authoritative to say. “Um… don’t try to get out of those cuffs again. After what you did to me and those officers in the docking bay, I wouldn't hesitate to shoot you.”

Flitch snorted in contempt. “I doubt if you have what it takes to kill a man, at all. You and your Federation friends always struck me as mewling, Caamasi-babe weaklings.”

“You’d be surprised,” Barclay replied softly, rather bewildered by his own words. But yes, he remembered all too clearly, the fingers that clutched his weapon were not clean of Imperial blood.

The infiltrator raised an eyebrow at the comment, but did not reply, shaking his head and lying back against his bulkhead instead. Still anxious, but feeling more in control than he had a minute before, Barclay mimicked the movement, keeping his weapon close at his side.

“Actually, I’m rather surprised that I’m alive right now at all,” Flitch remarked at length, his head now leaning on the palms of his hands as he lay back, staring at the low glow of the illumination panels above. “After our last encounter, I would have figured that alien would have killed as soon as he had the opportunity. His species seemed like a rather savage one.”

Flitch craned his neck slightly and glanced around. “Where is that xeno anyways? And where are we? I would have figured you and your brutish friend would have been all too eager to return to your Rebel conspirators with your prize.”

Flitch didn’t strike Barclay as the particularly talkative type, especially not in his situation, but as long as he was talking, he couldn’t actively be trying to get free. Hopefully.

“The navigation systems of the shuttle you stole were destroyed during the struggle, and we were stranded in the middle of the battle between those alien ships and the Star Destroyer. I can only guess that the Republica fled through the wormhole when it had an opportunity. After that…”

Flitch sat up abruptly, a sudden, dark emotion playing across his face. “What do you mean, ‘fled through the wormhole’?” he demanded. “The Rebel ship couldn’t have gotten past the intercept coordinates to the anomaly. I saw the blockading destroyer myself.”

Barclay frowned. “Of course were reached it. How else would we be stranded in this galaxy, and come into contact with that Covenant… those alien warships?”

It hit the infiltrator all in an instant; the strange, distorted mental lapse while he had been making the final preparations for his escape, the tension of the crew… How could he have been so focused on the deception to have let that that was so obvious escape him? And now, he was…

“This… this is one of the alien ships?” he managed.

Barclay nodded slowly. “The Arbiter managed to commandeer one of their scouts and bring us onboard to hide. Apparently, the natives of this galaxy don’t particular like humans. He’s off somewhere now trying to arrange out escape from the fleet, I think.”

His mouth drawn into a half-sneer, Flitch turned away, grappling with what he had heard. Stranded? Here? With this cowardly Rebel sympathizer and the alien brute, trapped in a galaxy far removed from civilization, real human civilization. Surely, if the Empire still held force in this place, they would have discovered him by now. Perhaps it would have been better to have died from that blow that had laid him low before.

With Flitch still coming to grips with the situation he had forced himself into, the tedious conversation came to abrupt end, and Barclay was left once more to combat a mixture of tiredness, fear and boredom. Feeling the tendrils of unbidden sleep return to the edge of his mind, the Federation officer rose slowly, weapon still in hand, and paced out into the larger holding chamber, thinking that he might at least stretch his legs while he waited for word from the Arbiter.

It was then that Barclay realized his nap had not been nearly as harmless as he had first hoped. Rather than sealed shut, as it had set itself automatically after the alien warrior’s departure, the access iris in the middle of the chamber was open once more, revealing the soft glow of the anti-gravity beam that the ship still projected upon to its far larger host craft, a light that had been barely noticeable from where Barclay had been sitting before.

Now too in full view were the two cargo alcoves that flanked the whole, converted to serve as cells. One, still obscured by a curtain of shimmering light, still held within two prone figures, large and small, the Sangheili and Kig-Yar, the Arbiter had called them. But the other…

The other was completely vacant. No immaterial sheen blocked its entry point, and the two squat Unggoy that it was supposed to house were equally absent. In their place, a scattering of electronic circuits and wires, piled on top of a small metal plate, lay near a similarly-shaped hole in the smooth bulkhead, within which a few broken cords sizzled with intermittent light.

Flustered, Barclay glanced back at Flitch, who sat where he had been bolted before, still brooding in silence. The spy could not have done this; the aliens had done it themselves while the humans slept.

A small voice in the back of Barclay’s mind spoke up; Well, at least they didn’t kill you while you slept.

The sentiment would have been more comforting if he didn’t suspect it was a mere stay of execution.

Without breaking his stride, the Arbiter attempted to adjust the large, golden poltroon of armor that rested on his left shoulder, no easy feat considering its size and weight. A swift tug and shove pushed it into more appropriate alignment with the rest of his equally radiant outfit, but its weight still felt alien upon the Sangheili’s back. Indeed, the entire costume, a jet-black bodysuit overlaid by plate after plate of reflective gold armor, topped with a tri-finned helm, felt exceedingly uncomfortable. Even when he had still served with honor in the ranks of the Covenant Armada as a shipmaster, he had preferred only to wear the garb of his station when it was required of him; the dark armor of a special operation soldier was far more comfortable and functional. Unfortunately, on this occasion, such a display would most certainly be required, especially since the spare dress had been explicitly offered to him on the ship commander’s orders.

Flanked by a pair of Sangheili troopers, impressive specimens decked out in black and dark gray raiment, the garb of a shipmaster’s personal guard, the Arbiter marched down the wide, axial corridor that connected the core of the carrier August Judgment to the outer levels of the warship, moving with the overwhelming presence and refined grace expected of one of his station. As the small procession passed, lesser Sangheili and any other soldier within view paused to offer their respects to the visiting master, nodding or bowing, depending on their rank and race. There was a time when he had been exhilarated by this sort of reverence; now it disturbed him. He had lived life, albeit for only a short time, amongst the lowest, most expendable levels of society, and he had experienced all too harshly the tribulations the rank and file had to endure. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to try and stop such behavior now; appearances were essential, all of this was mere pretense.

Arriving at the set of double, rectangular doors that heralded the entry into the very heart of the vessel, the two escorts each moved to one side of one of the doors, unspeaking and at perfect attention, energy swords proudly displayed upon their hip notches and plasma rifles in their hands. One of them nodded to the Arbiter, and he approached the wide, reddish door, which slid open silently in anticipation of his entry.

The chamber beyond was significantly smaller than the one the warrior was used to in his old flagship, natural for a ship that was only half the size, and as such the required attendants were far more densely packed. Red and black armored soldiers stood at even intervals along the softly-glowing walls, while others patrolled the narrow crew pit below the room’s characteristic, raised command dais. Above this area, where several Huragok and even a few insectoid Yanme’e worked under heavy observation, the ship’s commander and his highest officers, dressed in gold and silver respectively, waited, oblivious for the moment to the holographic displays that hung in the air all around them.

Directed by an unusually tall major, the Arbiter crossed the chamber with the same refinement and authority he had displayed in the exterior hall, mounting the steep ramp that lead up to the command platform in a few easy strides. The sight awaiting him at the top was an expected, though not pleasant one.

Galo ‘Nefaaleme, adorned in a manner almost identical to his guest, offered him a deep nodding bow, one which the Arbiter returned, careful not to dip quite as far as the first had. Technically, as the executor of a major expeditionary task force (even if it had been largely annihilated), he outranked the head shipmaster of this carrier group and its escort, but the distinction was minimal, at least officially, and ‘Nefaaleme more than made up for his lower rank with an infamously disarming presence, and more importantly, with his connections amongst the higher tiers of the Sangheili hierarchy, more than likely all the way up to the Sangheili ranks of the High Council. The Arbiter had worked with him before, when both were still mid-level ship’s adjuncts, and hated every moment of the experience. He suspected the feeling was mutual.

“My greetings, Shipmaster Teno ‘Falanamee,” he said smoothly, carefully raising his arched neck and leveling his eyes with the other warrior. “I am gratified to find you still within this realm, as are, I’m sure, the Hierarchs. I hear that you are among their favored instruments; no doubt they would have been frustrated by your death.”

“My life is for Prophets and their way, Shipmaster Galo ‘Nefaaleme,” the Arbiter replied, carefully returning the greeting. “You have sent word, then?”

‘Nefaaleme made a sweeping gesture towards a nearby holo-panel. “A priority probe was dispatched to High Charity as soon as the medical observes confirmed your identity and condition.”

“And the local armada executor?”

The carrier’s master pursed his upper mandibles slightly into a frown. “As the Blessed Fire and your own flagship were destroyed during the battle, with their masters, as far as was known at the time, of course, slain in combat, along with the highest ranking Prophet in observation of the subjugation of this system, there was some dispute as to whom would assume control of the forces in this area. As of this moment, all fleets have been instructed to hold position around the human world; the Hierarchs have dispatched another of their observers to re-delegate command, as well as to oversee some matter pertaining to the subjugated planet.”

The Arbiter listened impassively. Normally, as the ranking local officer he would have been able to reassume command of all the warships in the area immediately, but as he had lost his vessel and had been noted as killed in action, his status would have to be reaffirmed by a Prophet or member of the Council before he again could exercise command powers or assume control of a vessel like ‘Nefaaleme’s, barring the emergence of an imminent threat to the armada. No doubt the other shipmaster would remind him of this if he tried, and for the moment at least, the Arbiter was willing to play guest.

Noting the inquisitive stare now fixed upon him, the Arbiter spoke up once more. “Yes, our forces must have been thrown into disarray by the appearance of the hostile intruders, but I trust that the remaining humans in this system have been eliminated, and the second attack repelled.” Not giving the second time to respond, the Arbiter pushed easily past him and his attending officers, as to get a better view of the main holographic display, which was currently mimicking the star system and the Covenant fleet elements therein. “I wish casualty statistics from my command, the Fleet of Particular Justice, as well as figures on the readiness of the invasion force as a whole. We must be prepared for another incursion, especially if more holy Prophets are to arrive here soon.”

‘Nefaaleme remained where he stood, following his superior carefully with his gaze, perhaps a bit too carefully. No doubt he was eager to learn the specifics of what had transpired near the wormhole; what the hostile ships were, why the observing Prophet’s ship had been so close to the battle, and what had become of the warships that had been sent into the strange spatial rift after the invaders after they had been beaten back. Of course, the Arbiter had to avoid such inquiries as long as possible; although he had supposedly been commanding the vessel at the forefront of the incident, the version now standing on the August Judgment’s overbridge had been elsewhere engaged during that period. What little he knew of what had happened had been extrapolated from snippets of broadband communications amongst the recovery fleet during his time onboard the captured salvage ship.

“At once, shipmaster.” The reply to the request was overtly calm and dutiful, but the Arbiter could tell that ‘Nefaaleme’s curiosity was beginning to overcome his interest in the current status of the surrounding battle fleet.

Once an attendant had been dispatched to call up the required information, the carrier’s master turned his attention back to the other gold-draped commander, moving up alongside him as he continued to inspect the positioning of each individual task force in the planetary system. Allowing the Arbiter only a moment’s further contemplation, he raised his throaty voice once more. “I must admit a certain curiosity to the circumstances surrounding your arrival onboard my vessel, shipmaster. If you would permit me a few questions?”

It was not the inquiry the Arbiter had feared, fortunately, but there was still something in the other’s tone that he found somewhat unsettling, a timber that spoke of motive beyond mere curiosity. Nevertheless, he motioned for the warrior to continue, attention still fixed upon the floating images above.

“How did you escape the Ascendant Justice before its destruction?” The question was straight-forward and expected, but the shipmaster’s tone still wore on the Arbiter’s mind. “Surely, you did not abandon your flagship while it still was capable of combat?”

So that was it; Galo ‘Nefaaleme suspected him of cowardice. For any soldier, especially the commander of a battleship, to flee from his post unordered, even in the face of insurmountable odds, was an ultimate act of dishonor, and beyond that, heresy. And heresy was punishable by death, something the Arbiter knew all too well. Still, he had faced such a fate before, and feared it little; however, there were more lives at stake now than his own, and he would not fail either Barclay or his people. Not again.

His fabrication had to be both impressive and unimpeachable.

Turning his head fractionally towards ‘Nefaaleme, although not enough to fully reveal the distinct stiffening of his expression, the Arbiter delievered his answer as easily as he could manage. “After the intruder’s largest warship began to breach my flagship’s defensive fields and hull, I quickly lost contact with most weapons and propulsion control. A few moments later, an uncontrolled hull breach on the same level as the Ascendant Justice’s overbridge placed my command crew and me in immanent danger of decompression. As such, I issued the order for those warriors with more ceremonial armor equipped to don atmosphere-sealed gear, as I did myself. It was quite clear that our strike force was outmatched, and reinforcement would not be able to lend aid in time to save my flagship and its crew, but nevertheless I issued orders for all stations to remain active and at battle readiness; were it the will of the god’s that we die in combat there, I would not deny them. To order a retreat would have sullied the memory of the noble Prophet who died at the enemy’s hand. And indeed, most of my warriors did embark upon the Great Journey, fighting and dying for the word of the gods.”

“But you did not. How?”

“I cannot say. When the bridge chamber was finally breached, I must have been knocked unconscious, and when I awoke, I found myself lodged in one of the bridge’s ancillary evacuation pods, my atmosphere suit suffering from a breach.” He inclined his sloped forehead slightly, bringing more clearly into the view the large, raw gash across his upper jaw and scalp that still marred and accentuated his predatory features. “I can only cite divine influence in this salvation; it would have been my wish to perish in battle with my ship, but it seems the Forerunners have designs for me yet. I bear this scar as a mark of duty, and a reminder of their grace.”

‘Nefaaleme bowed slightly in solidarity with the religious affirmation. He seemed impressed with his superior’s piety; hopefully, that perceived common faith would cloud whatever doubts he yet held.

“After repairing the helm of my survival armor, I interfaced with the pod’s maneuvering systems and managed to guide it out of the heavier area of debris from my vessel, and upon locating a derelict transport vessel that had also been blown free, I transferred over and flew it to one of the August Judgment’s landing decks amid one of the returning salvage squadrons. I then reported to a duty major, submitted to a DNA scan and medical analysis, and reported here.” The Arbiter carefully glossed over the details of this last portion of his tale, especially those related to the medical assessment; he had merely allowed the attending orderly to confirm his identify with a DNA sample and sterilize the wound on his head, but had slipped away before any further tests could be undertaken. Though he was biologically and officially Teno ‘Falanamee, divergent experiences and his rebirth in heresy and betrayal had left very physical remnants; the brand of the Heretic that was burned onto his chest could not be seen by anyone, or the lie and all the lives that likely lay upon it might very well fall upon doom in an instant.

The second shipmaster had listened to the remainder of the Arbiter’s report with his features impassive, although his tensed posture showed clear interest. “A remarkable tale and one I’m sure the Council will be quite eager to hear from you in person.”

He inclined his jaw in agreement. As the commanding officer during the later part of the invasion, it would fall upon him to detail the subjugation of the human world Reach, as well as the bizarre and unheralded battle that had occurred on the system’s outskirts. And indeed, a journey to the capitol city of the Covenant featured prominently within his still-fermenting plans for the future of his race, if it were to have one at all.

Suspicions evidently satiated for the moment, ‘Nefaaleme turned his focus to the fleet diagrams around them, and the two had begun to assess the status of the armada in earnest when the aide that had been dispatched to retrieve the tactical information the Arbiter had requested returned, offering a respectful bow to both of his superiors.

“You have the data?” the carrier’s master demanded half-hazardly.

“Yes, Shipmaster,” the Sangheili replied, rising. “You can now access it at your digression from the main terminal.”

‘Nefaaleme motioned for the attendant to return to his other duties, but he did not budge. “What else is there?”

“Excellency, the ventral guard commander has issued a report stating that his forces have located and captured a pair of…” he paused for a fraction of a second, unsure. “…humans.”

‘Nefaaleme fixed again up his attendant, this time with rapt attention, as did the Arbiter. “Humans? On my ship?”

“Yes, Excellency. He reported that they apparently commandeered one of our salvage craft, disabled its crew, and then attached it to a sensor-null spot on the August Judgment’s hull. Several of the crewers managed to escape and reported the intrusion.”

“Are they still alive?”

The Arbiter’s question earned him a glance from the other shipmaster, but apparently it had crossed his mind as well. “Well?”

“They are, Excellencies. There was evidently little resistance when they were discovered, and the guard commander had them taken to the primary holding deck. He said that he would have had them summarily executed, as is customary, but that the unusual circumstances of this intrusion warranted your attention before any further action was taken.”

The shipmaster considered. “His prudence is noted. Nevertheless, have the commander continue with his proper duties; terminate and dispose of the mongrels. I will not have them sully this warship with their presence any longer than in necessary.”


The Arbiter step forward, away from the holographic grid display, his focus now clearly on the attendant’s message. ‘Nefaaleme looked at him again, this time nearly glaring.

“Shipmaster, surely you don’t intend on allowing these beings to live? It is the will of the Prophets that all of their kind be eradicated on sight.”

“I have reason to believe that humans may have been involved with the vessels that assaulted and destroyed my flagship. If these humans hold any knowledge on the builders and intent of the interlopers, then I intend to tear it from them before they meet their rightful termination, in the interest of the Covenant.” As he spoke, the Arbiter assumed his full, impressive height and locked feline eyes with ‘Nefaaleme, causing him to fall back almost imperceptivity. “If I must answer for my decision, I will do so later, before the Council and the Hierarchs. The real authorities.”

It was clear the other shipmaster still held strong misgivings on allowing his prisoners to live, but he knew enough to realize that the procedure was technically allowed within fleet law, and wise enough to know not to defy the direct order of his superior, and moreover, a warrior of this ‘Falanamee’s renown. Slowly, he confirmed acknowledged the countermand to his officer.

“Very well. Come, let us begin immediately. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one of their kind still drawing breath.”
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2006-05-17 09:18pm, edited 1 time in total.
The Rift
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-06-17 11:50am

Chapter Fifty One

“I’ve got a seal,” the Alliance pilot called back over his shoulder. “It’s a rough fit, but it should hold atmosphere.”

Acknowledging the information with a nod, Major Truul, decked out in full body armor and a reinforced blast helmet, turned to the other occupants of the shuttle’s passenger cabin. “All right, you all know what to do. We breach the airlock grid, secure the holding area beyond, and wait for reinforcements. Simple, no heroics. Got it?”

Response came in the form of seven silent nods from the squad of similarly dressed Alliance troopers who were packed into the space, their hands resting tentatively on the stocks of a variety of blaster rifles and flechette casters. Though each was serving as a security marine aboard the Republica, and as such saw little direct combat, most were veterans of innumerable insurgent actions and sabotage campaigns, just as ready for combat as the most seasoned Imperial Stormtrooper. Nevertheless, there was obvious tension in their eyes; most barely understood just how far from home the Republica’s newest assignment had taken them, and the prospect of charging into this new galaxy to confront any enemy they had never even heard of before their rushed and truncated mission briefing was none too appealing. Truul knew how they felt, but he also knew they had to job to do, and he would rather face the Dark Lord of the Sith himself than fail at it. Failure still hung heavily on the man’s mind.

“Are your soldiers ready, Major?” Lt. Commander Worf asked from the small ship’s main hatch, voice tinged with anticipation. He, and Aleen Jossa, sole remained of the Enterprise’s security force, stood at the ready, both equipped with borrowed gear and armament identical to Alliance detachment’s own. E-11 blaster rifle hooked to her waist, the latter was scanning the docking bulkhead beyond the shuttle’s hatch with her tricorder and attempting to find the frequency with which she could simulate a docked Federation ship and trigger the sealed compartment to open.

Truul looked towards the final two members of the boarding team, conspicuous in the crowd of white and tan uniforms. The Master Chief gave a nod to the implied question and shouldered his own requisitioned weapon. “Ready.”

Beside him, dressed as ever in a long, dark cloak which concealed bulky plates of armor beneath, the high templar Tassadar rose slowly, attempting to conceal his own overwhelming weariness. “I cannot feel any minds beyond that door. We had best enter before the marauders find their way to this part of the station.”

Satisfied, Truul readjusted his thick helm and turned back to the waiting Klingon. “Ready when you are.”

The operation had been flung together on the spur of the moment; almost immediately after the Zerg mind overseeing their attack had fallen, Tassadar had declared that somehow, an unknown number of marauders had managed to board the heart of the Bajor system’s modest interplanetary network, Deep Space Nine, and were now roaming through it, mindless beast with no object other than to feed. After establishing contact with the Federation Admiral in charge of the allied fleets, and offering a hasty explanation as to whys and how’s of the Republica’s unexpected appearance, captains Picard, Ryceed, and Gehirn had convinced Nechayev to turn her attention away from the floundering Zerg war machines and towards the distant station. Unexplained comm silence and a handful of large, ragged holes in the station’s perimeter hull were all that were needed to convince her to something was amiss.

Recognizing that every act of good will on the Alliance’s part would help in any future negotiations that might occur between the ambassadors and the Federation, whatever was left of it at least, and that said talks were unlikely to even be considered as long as the main base in the system was still in enemy hands, Councilor Organa had almost immediately proposed that her security attaché and a select group of Alliance soldiers assist in whatever recovery operation the admiral had in mind. Tassadar and the Master Chief had volunteered to come along, and Picard had assigned his remaining security personnel to Major Truul’s group as liaisons with whatever Federation force they would rendezvous with. Twenty minutes later, they were all crammed into one of the Republica’s shuttlecraft, tasked with clearing a beachhead for crew from the surrounding warships.

With a dull rumble, the airlock at last accepted Jossa’s tricorder code and rolled away into thick walls beyond view. Truul and his troopers poured out into the short, vacant hallway beyond a moment later in two precise rows, weapons at the ready and scanning every square centimeter of the new chamber for hostile contacts. When it was established that the room was indeed empty, the squad moved forward once again, taking positions just behind the next set of blast doors, which lead into the main disembarkation area. With a signal from Truul, Worf and Jossa moved quickly up from the entry hatch and set to work on the barrier, Tassadar and the Master Chief close behind. Another few swipes of the scanner, and the blockage again faded away, this time revealing a larger chamber, with hallways leading away to either side. The area, again completely vacant, was lit only by a single dull, flickering emergency light set in the metallic ceiling.

Quickly swiping shadowed recesses with glow lamps, Truul’s team fanned out across the chamber, finally forming two groups, each one guarding an entry points into the area. Though deeply shadowed, both adjoining hallwas were also vacant as far as the eye could see. “Room is secure, Major,” one of the troopers reported at last.

Nodding, Truul pulled a cylindrical comlink from a flap of his chest armor. “Pilot, the boarding area is clear. Detach to allow vessels from the fleet to disembark their own troops. Stick close though; if things fall apart in here, I want a way out, and quick.”

The reply did not come immediately. “Major,” the pilot said over the line at last, “I’m not picking up any other vessels converging on this location. There are a few larger ships close by, but they’re just sitting there.”

Puzzled, Truul glanced at Worf. “Didn’t the Captain say some your friends would be joining us on this little operation?”

“Of course,” the Klingon replied. “However, since the station’s shielding systems were disabled when the Zerg boarded, there will be no need for any others to arrive here on shuttlecraft.”

The major stared at him, clearly nonplused.

Grunting in mild annoyance, Worf slapped the combadge affixed to his broad chest. “Lt. Commander Worf to Versailles. Docking port two is clear. You may begin transport.”

“Affirmative, insertion team.”


Truul’s question was answered seconds later as a low hum of ambiguous origin filled the room and several indistinct columns of bluish light appeared from the empty air that hung over an empty section of deck plate. Startled, the Alliance marines snapped their weapons into firing positions and trained them on the bizarre anomalies. Their commander also reached for his sidearm, but noticing that neither the Federation officers nor the other members of his team seemed particularly agitated, he faltered. A moment later, the shimmering had vanished, and in place each column stood a man or woman in a loose black bodysuit, each with a blocky phaser rifle or hand device in hand.

It took a moment for Truul to overcome his shock at their seemingly magical appearance, although only a moment. In his time wandering the galaxy before he had joined up with the resistance, the Corellian had seen a great many strange and impossible things, and it took a great deal to impress him. At least outwardly.

“I’ve never been able to understand how that is supposed to work,” the Master Chief commented quietly over his internal com line, watching the arrivals from a corner, his oversized repeater rifle resting easily in gauntleted hands.

Hidden somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Cortana sighed half-hazardly. “Don’t bother trying. While we were still on the Enterprise, I downloaded the technical specifications for their personnel transporters and I’ve been looking them over off and on ever since. As far as I can tell, they are designed to convert the mass of whomever steps on a transporter pad into a mass of infinitesimal particles, record their former body structure, then fling it across space using some sort of carrier wave, which puts the pieces back together at the end of the line. Of course, I can’t understand why it works, but it obviously does.”


While Truul was evidently ready to wait for an explanation as to the methods behind the sudden arrival of his reinforcements until the mission’s completion, he did see it fit to voice another, more pressing question on the subject of their new comrades.

“Worf, I thought they were sending us soldiers, not…”

“They look techs just pulled off maintenance rounds,” one of the Alliance troopers put in tactlessly. Truul shot him a biting look, but he couldn’t really disagree. Compared to the heavy gear and armor of his own squad, the flimsy bodysuits and sparse belt clips of the Federation personnel seemed woefully insufficient.

Worf made a growling sound that might have been a sigh. “There are certain… cultural differences that I should have informed you and your men of before the beginning of this operation.”

Truul raised an eyebrow. “Looks like it.”

Her patience at last exhausted, one of the newly-arrived Federation personnel, a tall woman bearing a red band on the shoulders of her black jumpsuit, stepped forward to gain the attention of Truul’s squad. “I am Commander Anna Slovach of the Federation Starship Versailles. Who is in command here?”

Sizing her up with a critical eye, Truul stepped forward as well. “That’d be me.” Ignoring the fact that she was significantly taller than he was, and had him caught in a hard, humorless stare, the Alliance soldier immediately turned his attention away again, instead focusing on Slovach’s unit, which consisted of eleven other men and women of various humanoid species. Some bore grim, war-weary glares similar to their commander’s, although the others, invigorated by recent victory or simply by the chance to face their foes on open ground, were looking over the rebel soldiers and their towering companions with nervous curiosity. “So, this is all you’ve brought to clear the station?”

“Two more teams are still preparing to beam over,” Slovach replied. “When the key areas of Deep Space Nine have been retaken, the admiral will send over more away teams to clear the remained of the station.”

“It does not seem wise to attempt an operation like this with so few personnel,” Worf ventured, stepping forward to join the two leaders.

Upon seeing him, Slovach seemed to loosen up slightly. “Lt. Commander Worf, I presume? I was told you’d be here to liaise with our new… allies.” She frowned. “I’m afraid Admiral Nechayev can’t spare anymore security units right now. Retaking the derelict enemy warships in the system before they destroy each other takes priority over reclaiming this station. We’re just here to establish a foothold and search for survivors of the incursion, if there are any.”

Truul grumbled something about getting more troops from the Republica, but shook his head, and at last turned his full attention to the commander. “So, what is your plan? I’ve been instructed to follow your orders, as long as they don’t place my men at unneeded risk.” He placed special emphasis, matching Slovach’s hard look with his own suspicious glare. Obviously, neither was particularly comfortable placing the lives of their soldiers in the hands of the other.

As the two continued their stare-down, the Federation commander’s combadge chirped. “The second wave is ready for transport, Commander.”

Grudgingly breaking away from Truul’s glare, the woman slapped the pendant on her chest and issued a brief acknowledgement. A moment later, an empty section of the entry chamber showed bright with the radiance of ten immaterial transport columns, these ones crimson rather than the last wave’s blue. When the smolder had cleared, an equal number of broad-shouldered aliens with rough, ridged foreheads and frayed manes of black hair stood on the deck, each poised for sudden combat. Klingons.

“At least they have armor,” Cortana commented quietly.

Sure that no clawed beasts were amassed to spring upon him as he appeared, the foremost Klingon holstered his angled disruptor pistol and marched forward proudly. “Slovach! I am heartened to see you again, especially on a day such as this. You must send my regards to Nechayev; her fleets fought with skill befitting of Klingon warriors!” Without waiting for a response, he turned toward Truul and his company. “And these are heroes of the day, I presume. My comrades and I were all prepared to die gloriously in battle around this world today, and herald the end of our Empire with the blood of a thousand of those vermin and their stolen ships, but I don’t begrudge you for the victory. We live to fight another day!”

Catching sight of Worf, the alien’s toothy grin broadened. “Ah! I should have known that there was a Klingon amongst such great warriors! I am Torgor, Son of Grawgesh, Captain of the Vol’Racha, and last of my great line.”

“I am Worf, Son of Mogh,” the security chief replied with vigor. “I am glad to see that the warriors of the Empire fight on, even in this dark time.” Though he had had lived most of his life away from his own people, news that the Zerg expansion had lain waste to the Klingon Empire had struck at him deeply.

Torgor’s smile faltered. “Son of Mogh? You are of Kurn’s family?”

“Kurn is my brother.”

“He told me that his brother was dead, vanished in the line of duty on a Starfleet vessel.”

Worf nodded slowly. “It is a long story, but I am alive, and I have returned. Tell me, what has become of him.”

“He was commanding the first wing of the Homeworld Defensive Squadron when Qo’nos fell. I hear that his ship was one of the last to be destroyed by the invaders, and when all of its weapons were burned away, Kurn dove straight into the heart of an enemy battleship rather than flee or be taken alive. He died gloriously, along with so many other great warriors.”

Worf’s normally focused and collected visage wavered. Kurn had been one of the last of his family line, and a vital connection to their long dead father. Now…

“Kurn was a skilled warrior and am unforgettable ally, Worf. I, and all who fought alongside him, will bear his memory to death and the Gates of Sto-Vo-Kor. He has brought great honor, to you, and his nephew.”

Remorse suddenly replaced with a new hope, Worf stared hard into the unflinching Klingon Captain’s eyes. “My son? He is still alive?”

Suddenly, from a corner of the room, Tassadar straightened and rose to his full height, causing the Klingon soldiers to reach for their weapons in alarm and their Starfleet counterparts to look on in awe at the Templar’s true, impressive scale. “The Zerg have sensed our presence. We must move quickly, or be trapped here and overwhelmed.”

“The Zerg?” Torgor demanded, wincing slightly at the alien’s penetrating, telepathic voice.

Truul swept up the rifle he had kept cradled on his hip during the brief summit, and the rest of the Alliance team followed suit. “You know, the nasty critters we’re here to kill. All right, there’s time for introductions later. Let’s have your plan, Slovach, and quick. I didn’t come here to stand around and chat.”

Barely conscious and so badly beaten that neither could even open their eyes with any degree of control, Barclay and Flitch were shoved roughly up against a smooth, cold wall and shackled in place by heavy bolts that enveloped the better part of their forearms. Blurry, but nonetheless distinctly hostile figures crowded around them, testing the restraints and violently shaking already bruised limbs to ensure that they could not be removed without outside assistance. When the tormentors were satisfied, they withdrew from the abbreviated perimeter of vision that swelled eye lids afforded, their passage capped by the flickering into existence of a pale, shimmering field that further obscured all forward sight. Dimly, Barclay realized the wall was a force field of the same sort that he had used to confine the Covenant crew of their commandeered transport.

Of course, more pressing matters quickly pushed the realization from his mind; namely, the raging torrent of pain that engulfed nearly his entire body. When the Covenant unit had at last located and stormed the human’s hiding place, Barclay had been too overwhelmed by the sight of a fully armored and mobile Sangheili warrior bearing down upon him to resist capture, and Flitch, still bound, had not been in any state to fight back. Now, however, a part of Barclay’s mind was screaming at him through the pain, the familiar voice of shame and could-have-been’s. If he had had the will to fight back, at all, perhaps the alien soldiers would have just killed him outright, quickly and painlessly; as it was, their captors had not taken great care to ensure the comfort of their charges, and even the slightest shove from a titan of Sangheili stature, or a slap from one of the wiry, bird-like Kig-Yar, caused tender human flesh to abrade and distend quite painfully.

No. Though the pain was great, greater indeed than any he could remember ever experiencing, he would not give in. Not yet. This place, this alien ship, so far from the galaxy he had been born in and the people he knew, would not become his grave. He just had to have faith; things always seemed to work out somehow, no matter how badly he managed to aggravate the situation in the process.

Barclay’s unwilling companion didn’t seem to be taking their circumstances quite as well. Locking onto the sound of his haggard breathing and heaving his mind from the throbbing mire that had nearly consumed it, Barclay attempted to turn towards the other human, and promptly suspended the effort, a welt on his neck sending a jolt up and down his spine. Gritting his teeth, at least one of which was missing, the prisoner ventured another avenue of communication.

“Are you…?” The short syllables were quickly followed by a series of sharp gasps; even speaking required surprising effort.

In response, Flitch spat onto the polished floor, a significant amount of blood suspended in his phlegm.

Unsure what the wordless retort implied, Barclay slowed his breathing and attempted to form words once more, but before he could speak, Flitch’s body jerked violently, and the infiltrator wrenched his head up. “Blast you, damned fool! Can’t you keep silent?”

The engineer swallowed his weak attempt at communication and shrank back into the shell of solitary anguish the Covenant soldiers had so graciously provided. Comfort from adversity certainly could be found in sharing the burden with another, but Flitch again seemed to flat out refuse the potential benefits of anything that smacked of alliance with his former captive, any shred of pragmatism engulfed by self-centered anguish, or regret. Perhaps the ultimate failure of his mission had hurt the Imperial far more personally than any beating ever could.

Neither had an opportunity to reflect too deeply on their personal laminations, however. After a brief, silent period which could not have persisted for more than ten minutes, though it seemed an eternity longer to Barclay, both men perceived noise and movement from beyond the shimmering barrier, now more distinct and vibrant. A moment later, the field vanished, leaving two figures in its place, backlit and impossible to discern clearly.

“How pitiful they are,” one of them growled. “It is easy to see why the Gods hold theses humans in such contempt. Weak, primitive, purposeless creatures.”

He turned to the other. “I assume you can speak their tongue?”

It shrugged, causing angular head and long neck to bob slightly; a Sangheili nod.

“I loathe the sound of it; animalistic, as they are. Even the squeals of the Unggoy at least bear the traces of enlightenment.” The speaker seemed to shudder. “Nevertheless, it is the edict of the Prophets that their chief servants know the language of the enemy. Their infinite wisdom reveals itself once more.”

The other remained silent.

With a single long stride, the first of the figures brought itself into full view, a towering mass of gray sinew encased in a shell of polished, angled gold. It’s tiny, feline eyes, almost invisible under the yoke of its large skullcap, stared down on the human prisoners with unrestrained malice, and it’s each breath, emanating from an exposed maw flanked by toothy jaws, blasted them with hot air and the lingering stench of concentrated sweat.

“Human!” it bellowed, grabbing Flitch’s tattered tunic with a four-fingered hand and jerking him forward on his restraints. “Where did your kind get those vile warships from? What sacred relic did they desecrate and plunder?”

Flitch glared at the interrogator and grimaced as he was wrenched up against his bonds, but said nothing.

After waiting only a moment for a response, the Sangheili growled again and slammed Flitch back against the bulkhead, then turned his attention to Barclay. “Answer me! Those vessels were well beyond the scope of your primitive designs. Tell me where you stole them from!”

Slowly-clearing vision engulfed by the alien warrior’s snarling visage, Barclay tried to gulp away the bile of fear and injury rising in his throat, but the obstruction remained. Weakly, he mouthed something, but no sound emerged; even if the man was in a state to reply coherently, he would not have known what to say. Self preservation, duty, blind fear, and simple of ignorance of the situation he had been cast muddled his thoughts hopelessly.

Recognizing that this human was equally unwilling or unable to cooperate, the Sangheili contracted its jaws together in anger and, with a lightening motion, brought the backside of one hand across the man’s jaw. Though the assault was relatively restrained, a backhand to the face from a being capable of pulverizing bone with a single squeeze was nevertheless quite overwhelming. Barclay’s world exploded into a coruscating rainbow of impossible colors and virtually unbearable anguish. However, as a testament to the warrior’s experience as a tormentor, he remained unmercifully conscious.

Increasingly irritated with his victims, the Sangheili stepped back. “Pitiful, but hardly unexpected,” he said, flexing broad shoulders pensively. “I have dealt with humans of this sort before; though their flesh is weak and their bodies frail, they do seem to possess a surprising ability to keep secrets to themselves… for a time, at least. Their minds fair far worse under more focused assault.”

He turned once more to the silent companion. “Is there any other need you have for these creatures now? I can ensure that they survive a more proper interrogation; though the electrodes the processors use are typically fatal to their kind, I’m sure they can be modified temporarily. I apologize for the necessary delay, but I assure you, when we question them again, extracting the information you seek will be all too easy. I’ve seen it all before; no human manages to summon the dignity of a warrior in the face of death. They will speak, if only to end their own suffering with the death that so justly awaits them.”


The sudden reply caught the interrogator off guard, as made obvious by the contraction of his eyes into piercing slits. The word captured the attention of the humans as well, although neither could identify exactly why. Though the accented, alien voice was very much like that of the first to their ears, there was nonetheless something distinct about it, something familiar.


The other Sangheili, dressed in the same armor as his comrade, stepped closer to the prisoners, as if to inspect them better. “No. These creatures are too valuable and fragile to risk in such an interrogation. We cannot allow the information they hold to be lost through overeager examination. When I travel to High Charity to address the Hierarchs, I shall take them with me. The facilities there are better designed for delicate extraction.”

The first stared at him, no doubt furious. To challenge the competency of any component of a warrior’s command was to insult that warrior himself. “Ship master, my warriors have a great deal of experience with humans, and just how little it takes to kill them. I assure you, they’re skills are more than adequate. Certainly, you do not wish to befoul the blessed air of our holy capitol with their stench unnecessarily?”

The second glared back, unflinching. “This is my judgment. You will not defy it.”

Provoked by the abrupt dismissal, the interrogator balled his massive hands into fists and stepped closer to the commander, clearly seething with self-righteous anger. “I will not be cowed this way, not on my own warship! I may have graciously taken you aboard, honored your exemplary record, and given you a place at my side, but you have no real authority over me now, and no right to countermand my orders so! These humans live now because I chose to entertain your request to maintain them, and for no other reason!”

Casting off the air of quiet interest he had borne before, the other rose to his full, impressive stature, amplified all the more by his ostentatious garb. “Do not think just because my command has been lost in battle that I lack teeth, or the will to use them, ‘Nefaaleme. My station may need reaffirmation and divine sanction, but my judgment still holds sway with the High Council, and I know that they will agree with me on this matter. Challenge me on this there, if you think it in the best interest of the Covenant, but do not stand against me here and now.”

Normally, such an ultimatum, especially intoned as darkly as the speaker had managed, would have given even a ship master pause, but ‘Nefaaleme did not seem diffused at all; indeed, the retort seemed to have increased his rage further. There was more to his temper than mere indignation at a perceived subversion of his authority, as serious as the infraction was.

“But this is not the thinking of a warrior! By all that is holy, these vermin should already be dead! How do you know that they even possess anything of value, or that that value outweighs the shame I must bear for each moment they remain alive upon my vessel? I had heard that you had become a warrior of great decisiveness and valor since our training together, but I fear now that there is still some weakness within your heart. I do not see how the Prophets could have missed it! They could not have; perhaps you lost your nerve when you saw your flagship in flames, and your thinking is still clouded by that lapse. Indeed, perhaps that is how you yet live. How you survived such a failure had puzzled me, but now I think I may know. Tell me, ‘Falanamee, did you abandon the fight before the battle was truly done? Does your cowardice still haunt your thoughts?”

The sword hilt at Falanamee’s side ignited and slicing through the air before ‘Nefaaleme’s last word had even escaped his exposed maw, but the other ship master was expecting the assault, and deftly unhooked his own weapon to counter the blow. He had know that impugning a Sangheili warrior’s courage could be met only with an act of physical retribution, a duel to maintain the honor of the attacker, and yet he had persisted anyways. Truly, his unease with ‘Falanamee ran deep.

Impacting one another, the two triangles of blue energy discharged a nova of heat and convulsing plasma, a beacon that cut through the haze that still clouded the eyesight of the prisoners. They could now see the chamber beyond their cell; a long, high rectangle flanked by numerous other imprisoning alcoves, each vacant. At one end of the room, opposite a raise computer control terminal, two tall warriors flanked the only exit, each transfixed by the confrontation before them. Neither one moved to interfere, however; honor duels were an indelible and crucial part of Sangheili society, and in any event, both combatants were among the elite of their race. To stand between them was to invite the removal of any number of body parts.

The two blades did not remain locked for long. Quickly determining that he could not withstand his larger opponent with strength alone, ‘Nefaaleme disengaged and ducked to ‘Falanamee’s left, swapping his hilt from hand to hand and angling it up to strike under the warrior’s extended arms. Sensing the threat, the other warrior spun to the left, leaving ‘Nefaaleme to stubble to a halt and pivot himself back towards the threat on open ground. However, the ship master had no time to attempt another feign; ‘Falanamee was on top of him, blade swooping to decapitate its prey.

A swift duck left the plasma sword swinging through empty space, but ‘Nefaaleme could not escape the powerful kick that the blow had distracted from. Golden armor clanging against golden armor, he fell back, smacking into smooth bulkhead with a loud grunt. His opponent off-balance, ‘Falanamee pushed forward once more, this time angling his raised weapon down for a slash across the chest. Seeing the flash of the blade, ‘Nefaaleme wrenched his own weapon upward with a wrenching motion, trusting that the deadly field would stop the impending strike. It did, but only barely; though they were nearly as tough as temper metal, the bones in the ship master’s blade hand began to creak under the strain of the blow.

Knowing he could not remain on the defensive for long, ‘Nefaaleme lurched forward, focusing all his strength into his huge, muscular legs. Though ‘Falanamee was more brawny than his opponent, the difference was not great, and he knew that his stance had become untenable. Kneeling slightly first to help deflect the force of the other warrior’s lunge, he jump backward, but this time, ‘Nefaaleme was faster. With his free hand, he latched onto the other Sangheili’s thigh plate and pulled himself forward, using his enemy’s own mass as an anchor for another attack with his sword, this time aimed at ‘Falanamee’s exposed legs.

Breaking free of the other’s grasp, ‘Falanamee jerked away to the side, nearly falling to the deck plate in an attempt to avoid the blow. He was nearly successful; the quick evasion had preserved his legs, but a small section of armor and bodysuit was gone, replaced by a frayed and smoking gash that revealed dark skin beneath. Growling in frustration, the warrior ignored the near-miss, lunging forward again, this time with his weapon pointed straight at ‘Nefaaleme’s center mass.

Swapping his sword back into his right hand with lightening speed, the other ship master met the attack expertly, deflecting the attack with a swift parry. Hissing, ‘Falanamee’s blade gashed the deck viciously, but its owner brought it up again immediately, orienting it to block ‘Nefaaleme’s counterattack. As he diffused the force of the blow, the Sangheili caught sight of another threat on the periphery of his vision. Twisting away from his opponent’s blade, he jerked his burning scythe to the left and up in a single, fluid motion.

‘Nefaaleme desperately swung his left arm out of its original course, intended to deliver a hammer blow to the side of ‘Falanamee’s skull, and managed to escape losing the limb, but the maneuver had once again thrown his off-balance. Recognizing the opening, ‘Falanamee launched himself forward, smacking headlong into his opponent and driving him back against the cell block wall. With his free arm, he pinned ‘Nefaaleme’s weapon hand to the hard surface and then pushed. The other let out a cry of pain and rage, and pushed back with his whole body, but ‘Falanamee’s superior strength and footing overwhelmed the offensive force. Realizing that the effort was in vain, the ship master switched tactics, trying instead to slide to the side and escape the other’s press that way. Feeling his prey begin to slip away, ‘Falanamee compressed his jaws tightly and slammed his angular head into the side of ‘Nefaaleme’s outstretched neck. Gasping, the latter both was forced to halt his evasive struggle and released the hilt still clutched in his battered fist, sending it clattering uselessly to the deck below. A smash with an armored forearm sent the rest of him to the ground.

‘Falanamee drew back, breathing heavily but otherwise un injured, and glared down at his opponent as he struggled to shove his back up against the smooth bulkhead. Bringing the twin, flaming tips of his blade within centimeters of ‘Nefaaleme’s neck, ‘Falanamee kicked the ship master’s deactivated weapon away from his limp grasp.

Broad chest heaving, the defeated warrior weakly raised his head and glowered at the victor defiantly. “Run me through, then,” he managed. “It is our way.”

The muscles in ‘Falanamee’s sword arm tensed and it drew back marginally, but nevertheless the soldier hesitated, staring back at the rebellious officer. As they exchanged deathly, battle-tinted looks, the prison chamber’s heavy door dilated into the surrounding walls and a lightly armored intendant stepped inwards. The Sangheili immediately froze, caught off guard by the scene before him, but said nothing, noting that the flanking guards were not interfering.

“Report,” ‘Falanamee commanded, without breaking his gaze with the defeated combatant.

Shaking off his bewilderment, the intendant straightened his shoulders decorously. “Excellency, the overbridge reports that the unidentified interlopers that destroyed the Ascendant Justice have returned, in great numbers. The group commanders are awaiting Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme’s orders.”

‘Falanamee did not acknowledge the information, but he did, after a moment’s thought, step back from the prone warrior lying before him and lower his weapon. “You are correct, ‘Nefaaleme, it is my right to slay you for your insolence and your failure. However, unlike you, I will not allow my own desires to interfere with what is best for the Covenant and its warriors. We shall return to the command chamber, and you shall lead your soldiers, whether you are worthy of the honor or not. Only when the intruders are vanquished will we resolve this, not before.”

‘Nefaaleme began to snarl, but, thinking better of it, decided instead to heave himself onto sore feet, and lope slowly towards the open doorway. ‘Falanamee moved to follow him, but not before sparing one last glance towards the captives, who yet looked on in confusion. His vision mostly recovered now, Barclay’s eyes caught sight of something beneath the rim of the warrior’s skull cap, a scar, bold and fresh, etched across the side of his visage. He gasped, hit by a sudden realization, and the greater confusion it entailed.

“Remove the humans from those bonds and keep them confined in that cell. I shall return, and until I do, make sure no harm comes to them.” The guards acknowledged the command with a salute, and the Arbiter was gone.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2006-06-25 09:01pm, edited 1 time in total.
The Rift
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-07-14 10:06pm

Chapter Fifty Two

With a guttural grunt, the creature bent its stocky rear legs and leapt, scrabbled for purchase on the smooth, polished with vicious claws, and began to pace slowly along the narrow walkway it made. Swinging its toothy head from side to side, the beast scoured the recycled air for scent of prey, every sinewy tendon in the predator’s body tightening each time a new smell crossed its path. A meter below, still confined to the hard deck plate, two of its kin followed along, the chitinous plates on their backs creaking with each step. Like the canine beings their breed had been spawned from so long ago, each bore the gaunt frame and highly tuned sense of a pack hunter, and as the leader above followed an errant strand of sensation one way or the other, those below turned their skull-like visage in syncopation, slavering at the possibility of a new kill.

Spying an object that its primitive brain could not readily identify, the lead creature perked up. It hefted its meter-long frame onto its back legs again, and probed at the thing with a stubby, clawed foreleg. The small, shiny item did not attempt to flee or attack as the predator approached. The lack of response would have normally caused the beast to disregard it and move on, but there was an odd aura about it, some faint odor that impelled it move closer.

Then, as it shoved its spiky snout right up to the object, a blurry image appeared on the curiosity’s surface; a toothy face, staring back menacingly. Startled, the beast drew back with a high-pitched yelp and smacked the offending image with the heel of its outstretched claws. The object gave way immediately, tipping over the side of the raised platform and falling to the deck below, where it shattered into dozen of reflective pieces and unleashed a small wave of dark, acrid liquid. Surprised by the ease of its victory, but again attracted by the aroma the kill had produced, the hunter leapt down after it, the pair of followers in tow.

“Tellarite ale,” the late bottle’s owner whispered mournfully as he watched the trio of creatures sticking their snouts into the sticky puddle that was beginning to seep into the grooves between the deck plates. “You can’t get it anywhere anymore. Nineteen bars of gold-pressed Latinum when I bought it, and worth ever slip, too. Its Probably worth twice that now.”

From a shadowy alcove behind the low staircase under which the reminiscing bartender was now sheltered, a pair of arms appeared and clamped onto him. Finding purchase over his mouth and around his chest, they jerked back, dragging the little man further into the ink blackness, away from the dim lights of the bar and the marauding predators within. Responding badly, as was his custom, he began to flail about in the dark and even considered biting own on the hand that now covered his set of yellowed, beetle teeth, before the movement ceased.

“Calm down, Quark!” a female voice hissed from somewhere behind him. “And keep quiet!” she added as an afterthought.

Although his heart still raced, the diminutive Ferengi stopped moving, and as he did so, the hands restraining him relaxed.

Taking a moment to collect himself, Quark twisted around in the narrow alcove he had been dragged into and attempted to make out his new companion, to little avail. However, where his eyes failed him, the sensitive, fan-like ears that adorned his bald, orange head did not. “Dax? Ezri, is that you?”

“Who else would I be?” she replied, an unusual bite in her tone. Deep Space Nine’s counselor and science officer, she was typically easy-going, but in stressful situations, the Trill swiftly adopted an abrupt and even nervous personality. “Why are you even still here? I thought all the civilians on the station had been evacuated.”

Quark adopted a disarming, pointy grin, a course of habit that was not dissuaded by the darkness that enveloped them both. “Oh, were they? I must have missed the announcement.” He could tell that Ezri was not convinced. “Uh… listen, I’ve owned this bar through a Cardassian occupation, three invasions, more bizarre phenomena and malfunctions than I can count, and a plague of tribbles. I wouldn’t be worth the Latinum I intend to sell my remains for if I abandoned it to a few bugs. I don’t intend to give Odo the satisfaction of being right about the spineless cowardice he always oh so loudly, and fallaciously I might add, attributed to me.” The Ferengi gulped, surprised at his own words. “Um, I would appreciate it if you didn’t spread that last part around. Being perceived as a spineless coward is good for business.”

“My lips are sealed,” Ezri replied quietly, her mood softened somewhat by Quark’s banter.

Settling against one of the alcove’s slanted walls, Quark crossed his arms pensively. “Although, I didn’t really count on the bugs managing to make it onto the station, at least not yet. What happened?”

“As we were evacuating the last of the transports, a few enemy ships broke through the defensive fleet’s line and made a suicide run on the station. The shuttle was recalled to safety under our shield, and the Commander managed to destroy the attacking ships, but apparently there were some sort of pods onboard that burst out when their carriers exploded. A few managed to make it through the shield while the shuttle was in transit, and latched onto the hull. Those ‘bugs’ were inside. I was with a detachment sent to secure the transport when it docked again, but we were attacked before we reached the docking ring. A few of us managed to escape into maintenance conduits, but the creatures were already breaching those too. I managed to lose the ones that were tailing me, but I’ve been unable to established contact with Ops.”

“They must have knocked out all of the internal communications somehow,” Quark speculated. “I overheard the security team that was down here saying that their communicators had stopped working just before they were overrun by those things.”

“What happened to them?” Ezri asked earnestly. “Did you see Julian with them?” Doctor Bashir, whose office was on the other side of the station’s central promenade from Quark’s bar, disliked leaving his medical facilities when battle promised an influx of patients.

“Yeah, he was there. The security officers held off the first wave of those things, and the Doctor was helping one of the wounded to the sickbay when more of them attacked, bigger ones that slithered down from the upper level. A lot of the officers were cut down pretty quickly, but I think a few made it back to the medbay with Bashir. They’re probably still holed up there, although I’m not sure of that. I only managed to hide back here before those things began overturning my establishment, looking for more victims.

Ezri frowned. “I had heard that their sense of smell is very acute. Why haven’t they noticed you? Or me for that matter?”

Quark grinned once again. “Most of the people who have lived on the station for a long time seem to get used to it, but to newcomers, the aroma of my establishment and its wares can be somewhat… distracting. How else do you think I make such a profit at the gambling tables? Few are lucky while properly intoxicated.”

“I always thought you just rigged the games.”

The Ferengi straightened his back in indignation. “Such an accusation! I’ll have you know that…”

Before Quark could complete his defense, however, he found Ezri’s hand once more over his mouth.

“Quiet!” she hissed fervently, now a visible silhouette in the darkness.

Complying without comment, Quark’s sensitive ears immediately picked up what the Federation officer must have heard. Claws. The scrabbling echo of serrated chitin and bone on metal, echoing from the deeper darkness from which Ezri must have emerged. The reverberation sounded as though it was coming across a great distance, but in the complex maintenance crawlspaces that crisscrossed the space station, such perceptions could be deceptive.

As the hidden pair listened, the sound began to fade, then abruptly grew stronger again, then ceased entirely. Placing the expansive lobs of one ear against a bulkhead, Quark scanned intently for any inkling of the sound. After more than a minute of utter silence, he withdrew and turned back to Ezri, an uneasy grin barely visible in the dark. “False alarm.”

Immediately, the sound returned, now far louder and more distinct than before, and clearly emanating from somewhere beyond the Trill officer. Not bothering to even shoot the Ferengi and enraged glare, Ezri Dax drew a hand phaser from her hip and pivoted to face the hidden access way. “Do you have a phaser?”

Nervously, Quark patted his vest, checking each of its secret pockets and purse loops in quick succession.

“I wondered where that pouch had gone…”


He gulped, and continued his search, at last laying a hand on a smooth handle, buried in a padded underarm sleeve. “Ah yes, I knew I still had this on me. Uh, perhaps it’s best if you didn’t mention this to the commander. Strictly speaking, hold-out disruptors aren’t legal under Bajoran law.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” Ezri replied through gritted teeth. As she spoke, the clattered of spike swelled and became even more discordant. “There’s more than one.”

Quark couldn’t disagree.

Glancing from the darkness before her, to the dim light of the bar, to her companion, and back, Ezri rose from her crouched position, and began to back towards the light. “We’ve got to get out of here. I don’t think we can hold more than one of those things in here.”

“Are you crazy?” Quark gaped, but backed away alongside her nonetheless. “There are more of them out in the open! If we leave this alcove, we’ll be cut into pieces before we reach the Dabo tables!”

She glanced at the man, fear evident in her own eyes. “It’s either that or die in here, right now. We don’t have many options.”

Above the clatter of hurried footfalls, a ravenous hissing sound filled the air like a miasma. Even though the blackness of the small access tunnel, an inkling of rapid movement began to emerge, a hurtling specter of knives and slavering jaws.

Biting a yellowing nail pensively, Quark at last pushed himself to his feet. “The access hatch should be right by the exit. I’m not sure if it’ll hold them, though.”

“It’s better than nothing. Come on.”

Squeezing out of the angular tube and into the sheltered area below the bar staircase, the two worked quickly, hefting the metallic hatch Quark had removed when first attempting to hide, and affixing it to the small portal. The thing was sturdy enough, but the Trill and the Ferengi had both heard enough of their hunters to know that it would not be enough. Escape was their only chance. And to do that, they would have to face the same threat they had just waylaid, if ever so briefly.

“Uh, Quark? Not that I’m complaining, but I thought you said that there were more of them out here?”

Making sure that the self-sealing bolts on the obstruction were as tight as they were going to get, the barkeeper turned with his disruptor drawn, ready to point out the foes Ezri has somehow missed, but to his surprise, the bar seemed to be empty. There was the ruined remains of that expensive flask of ale, and another row of shattered bottles the creatures had evidently also seen fit to inspect, but, at least from their hidden vantage point, the perpetrators were no where to be seen.

“I don’t like this,” Ezri whispered, phaser clutched tightly in one fist.

Quark had similar misgivings, but he knew better than to pass up an opportunity such as this over a vague feeling. After all, that was one of the sacrosanct Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: Never let intuition interfere when profit is staring you right in the face. Or was it the other way around? It didn’t really matter; they were probably both in there somewhere.

“As you said, we don’t have many options right now, and if you don’t mind, I’d prefer the one whose teeth are not immediately apparent.” Hearing no descent from the counselor, he glance up, between the narrow slots of the stairway. “We should make for the second level. There’s a hidden panel in the rear wall of holo-suite two that connects with an unused maintenance conduit. We might be able to make it to one of the escape pods that way.”

Ezri raised an eyebrow.

“What? I like to approach my line of work well prepared, and my clientele isn’t always of the most diplomatic breed,” Quark said dismissively, rising to his feet. “Now, if you don’t have any objections…”

A muffled scratching from the other side of the access hatch ensured that she didn’t.

Weapons at the ready, the two slowly emerged from the stairway’s shadow, and worked their way around to its mouth as quietly as they could, scanning every visible centimeter of the establishment for a potential threat. Reaching the front of the stair without incident, and spying no movement on the open deck above, they ascended with all due haste, unconsciously vying to be the first off the compromised level as they ran. Quark managed to come out first, but as he flew up the last handful of bare steps and came within sight of the upper floor, the Ferengi suddenly wished had been slightly slower.

With a sharp inhalation of breath, he tumbled backwards down the stairs, falling a meter before impacting Ezri, a collision that nearly sent both tumbling to the floor below. Steadying herself and pushing Quark back firmly onto a metal step, the Federation officer started to demand why he had fallen back, but her question died before the syllable even formed in her throat. On the deck plate above, fully blocking the stairway’s exit, lay the gaping maw of one of the creatures that had been prowling through bar a few minutes previous. Raising her weapon instinctively, Ezri almost squeezed off a shot, but something about the vacant look in the vacant, beady eyes that framed the beast’s toothy sneer of a mouth gave her pause. They were too vacant. The thing was dead.

“What are you…?” Quark managed squeakily, but the Trill pushed past him, mounting the last few steps so as to get a better view of the beast. It was one of the smaller hunters, as most of the boarders had been, lacking the armor and bulk that some of its cousins bore, but nonetheless highly dangerous. They were weak, usually felled by a few phaser blasts, but the things also had claws sharper than the best Klingon Bat’leth, and where one was, a hundred more were likely close behind. Ezri had only encountered them in person once before, in the ambush only an hour previous, but that, and the stories that had filtered to the station each time a Federation world fell, were more than enough to convince her of the danger that they posed. And these were among the lowliest of minions the unknown enemy wielded.

“Well, it’s dead all right.” Seeing that his companion had not been torn into shreds when she pushed past him, Quark had at last summoned the courage to follow. “That’s a pretty impressive wound.” He referred to the blackened and gory hole that dominated most of the dead creature’s upturned flank. “Most weapons that powerful would have just disintegrated the thing. I wonder what killed it.”


Startled by Ezri’s sudden shout, the Ferengi spun away from the corpse, and came face to face with a massive figure, emerging from an archway that opened onto the central Promenade’s upper level. It was a mass of drab green and black, marred by an occasional patch of charring or a splotch of yellowy gore. In its hands was clutched a huge, angular weapon that smelled of burning ozone. The creature’s head was masked by an opaque faceplate, which cast a reflection of Quark’s orange face back at him, distorting and shadowing it.

Seized by an urgent fear, the Ferengi fell on his back, nearly tumbling again down the staircase, and brought his tiny disruptor to bear on the sudden target. A gnarled finger depressed the trigger.

The weapon whirred, coughed, sputtered, and died, the glowing power cell visible in its grip dulling noticeably. Quark only had a moment to gape in horror at the malfunctioning article and breathe a short curse on the Tzenkenthi merchant he had purchased it from before the intruder loped across the room, deftly removed the weapon from his outstretched hand, and kneeled across his chest, effectively immobilizing the man. In the same motion, the armored humanoid brought its sizeable weapon to its waist and trained it on Ezri’s chest, a mere meter away.

“Drop it,” it demanded clearly, in a deep, masculine voice. Now looking down the barrel of the attacker’s weapon, Ezri had no choice but to comply. Her hand phaser clattered uselessly to the deck.

“Wait!” From the Promenade, a pair of Klingons and a human woman appeared, with them a handful of other Klingon warriors and oddly-unformed soldiers visible at the archway, their weapons drawn. One, dressed in an off-white combat suit moved to intercept the towering mass of armor. “They’re Starfleet officers… at least, she is.” Catching sight of Quark, still reeling and pinned to the deck, the Klingon frowned in distaste.

“Ferengi,” the other warrior spat. “What are you still doing here?”

“Suffocating, at the moment,” Quark replied, trying to push away the knee that still lay on his chest to no avail. “Now, would you mind ordering this beast off of me?”

“He’s with me,” Ezri put in as calmly as she could manage.

Slowly, the armored humanoid rose, shouldering his firearm and allowing the Ferengi space to pick himself up. “I wouldn’t recommend trying to pull a gun on my again, and if you do, at least try to find one that works.”

As Quark muttered something unintelligible under his breath, the woman approached Ezri. “Sorry about this. We’re part of the team Admiral Nechayev dispatched to secure the station and rescue any survivors. I’m Aleen Jossa, they’re Lt. Commander Worf and Captain Torgor. And the big one’s called the Master Chief. I don’t think he’s ever told anyone his real name, if he even has one.”

Ezri nodded, gratefully accepting her fallen sidearm. “I’m Lieutenant Ezri Dax. “I was separated from a security team when the station was boarded, and I’ve been trying to evade them in the maintenance conduits ever since. I ran into Quark, the owner of this establishment, hiding on the lower floor, and we were making for a potential escape route when you ran into us.”

Gaze attracted by movement in the hall beyond, Ezri watched as armored soldiers materialized and began to file onto Quark’s balcony level. “I recognize the Klingons, but I’ve never seen any Starfleet combat uniforms like that. And I haven’t seen armor like his since Military History in the Academy.” She gestured to the Master Chief, who, along with the lead Klingons, was listening to a report from one of Torgor’s subordinates. “New reinforcements?”

Jossa smiled faintly. “In a manner of speaking. It’s a very long story, but I’ll be very glad to fill you in when we get out of here. I’m just glad to see a familiar face; there aren’t very many Trill where we’ve been.”

Ezri was puzzled by the comment, but didn’t have time to question the woman any further, as the others had just completed their short briefing.

“The upper level of this section is secure for the moment,” Worf said, approaching Ezri once more. “Are there any other survivors you know of nearby?”

She nodded. “Yes. Quark thinks a few personnel managed to get to Sickbay, on the lower level of the Promenade. If they did, they should still be barricaded inside.”

Worf shot a suspicious glance in the Ferengi’s direction, but apparently accepted the information, and turned to the rest of his squad. “Let’s move then. We should have the Engineering section secured before Major Truul and Commander Slovach reach Ops. Medbay should be on the way to the core access block.”

“I’ll take point,” the Master Chief offered, moving towards the stairs back down to the main deck. “Tabren, Obra, Decid. You’re with me.”

The trio of helmeted soldiers, presumably humans, moved to follow him, checking their weapons as they went.

“Come, my brothers!” Torgor roared with sudden exuberance. “Let us follow them into the depths, and trade the blood of our people for the ichor of the beasts!”

As Worf moved to join the rest of his squad as they pounded down the narrow metal access way, Ezri stopped him.

“What is it?”

“I’m sorry, but have we met somewhere before?” she replied, almost timidly.

“Not that I can recall. Why, do you remember me?”

Ezri frowned. “No, not really. It’s just that… you seem familiar somehow.”

The two stared at one another for a long moment, alone together on the cold deck plate. Worf’s mouth tightened. There is something… her face…

Ezri felt her eyes suddenly begin to water, but she did not know why. It is as if I’ve heard his voice, simply felt his presence before. But how…
A Klingon bellow echoed up from below, a war cry. “Their warriors have come at last!” A jarring hiss and several fleshy pops followed, almost immediately drowned out by the chorus of a dozen different energy weapons firing in concert.

The moment cut short, the lonely pair reluctantly broke their gaze and piled off down the stairs, into the heart of battle.

“Still no contacts, Major,” a voice crackled over Truul Besteen’s comlink. “There haven’t been any signs of movement since your teams left.”

“Keep your guard up. We’ve run into two groups of the things already, and they seem ta drop in out of nowhere. Most of ‘em aren’t too dangerous at a distance, but Commander Slovach already almost lost a man who let one of the little ones get too close. And tell the Starfleet man with you to not bother much with his tricorder. Something’s making ours give bad readings on them.”

The soldier on the other end of the line, one of two left to guard the shuttle’s docking hatch, gave his acknowledgement, and Truul signed off. “Still no sign of ‘em on the docking ring,” the major reported turning back to the rest of his team, camping for the moment in a sizeable hall intersection. “He all right?”

The officer nodded at the blue-skinned Andorian who was seated at the center of the group, cradling his left arm as another Starfleet officer placed a temporary seal on the large gash that still bled onto his black uniform. Checking with the attending officer, Commander Slovach nodded. “Crewman Shenar is ready to move out again. We should continue on to Ops before those… Zerg attack again.”

Truul nodded. “I’m with ya. Still, I don’t like moving through corridors like these with so many men, especially considering how good these things seem to be at jumping out of no where and picking us off.”

Under Slovach’s orders, the insertion team had been split into three, one to secure the Engineering section and try and restore power, one to reestablish contact with one of the station’s evacuation shuttles that was still docked and unresponsive to hails, and the last to make their way to Ops and retake systems that might aide in expelling any remaining boarders. Each was to pick up any survivors they found along the way and tag them for transport out. When the vital systems had been secured, the nearby fleet would begin to beam in all the armed officers they could spare to neutralize the Zerg intruders. It was a sound plan, but had been hampered by two unanticipated factors.

Firstly, the boarders had somehow managed to knock out power to most of the primary systems and even some of the core ones, among them lighting, which rendered ambient illumination an uncertain factor, varying from compartment to compartment and deck to deck. The tampering had also disrupted station-based communications and shutdown most of Deep Space Nine’s lifts. One of Slovach officers, familiar with the station’s layout, had suggested that they attempt to reach Ops, difficult to reach without functioning turbolifts, via the power and repair conduits that ran throughout the construct. However, prying off a maintenance hatch had given them their first encounter with the Zerg. There were only three; smallish, canine creatures, and they were easily eliminated, but the attack made it clear that they had already made their way into the tunnel network. That, combined with the fact that none of the lighting in the things seemed to be functional (the creatures seemed to have gone to great pains to smash every independently-powered fixture they came across), and their restrictive size, had invalidated the idea, and made locating a functioning lift, or one that could be jury-rigged to function, a priority.

The second impediment had been the almost total lack of life they encountered. Rather than a battlefield, as Slovach had expected, with the station’s crew holding the intruders back from critical systems and mounting their own counterattacks, they had found nothing, not even bodies, beyond the occasional trail of blood into a darkened compartment, and the attackers themselves. Certainly, most of the station had been evacuated during the battle, but there should still be more than one hundred Starfleet and Bajoran Militia onboard. The squad’s tricorders detected life in abundance throughout the station, but something of indeterminate origin was interfering with their accuracy, rending them unable to pinpoint life signs, or tell if what they picked up was humanoid or Zerg.

“Still, it strikes me as kinda odd that they only hit us twice so far,” Truul continued, hefting his rifle towards the long hallway down which another group had attacked out of a seemingly vacant living compartment, wounding the Starfleet crewman. We’re not exactly being stealthy, and if they really wanted, I bet these things could make us work for our creds.” The mannerism was lost on everyone save the Alliance marine Truul had assigned to the group, but his meaning was obvious.

“Their minds no longer possess the capacity for thought,” the imposing Tassadar rumbled, rising from a corner of the formation and pulling his dark cloak about him tighter. “Without their master, they are mere animals, incapable of strategy or coordination. They gather in small packs and act on their basest impulses without reservation. Kill, destroy, desecrate. Slaughter consumes their minds.” He paused, casting his hypnotic eyes to the ceiling pensively. “Nevertheless, there is something odd about the behavior of the creatures here. I have seen no evidence that any have turned on their own to feed their thirst for carnage, as they invariably without a will to drive them. More than that, I do not sense the primal confusion and terror that their abandonment should have set free. These Zerg lack coordination, and yet, there is something… focused about them.”

“We must be cautious. Something has altered this brood, and I know not what it is.”

Pulling back together in a tight formation, the squad continued on through the eerie, empty passageways, continuing their search. Following a station schematic in one of Slovach’s tricorders, they had nearly circumnavigated the central disk, checking each potential turbolift without success. It was a time-consuming process, but both Commander and Major agreed that it was the only safe course of action; the access conduits were paths of last resort only.

After a few more nervous minutes of silent navigation through endless dark corridors, they came upon one of the last unchecked lift banks, this one not far from the station’s central Promenade. A pair of Starfleet technicians popped the interface for one of the chambers open and began rooting through the mess of wire within, searching for active wires and enacted terminal jacks. After only a few moments of rewiring and a sweep with a device Truul did not recognize, the lights in their section of the hallway intensified to their maximum luminosity, and a nearby wall terminal flickered on, displaying a variety of polite supplications in numerous scripts, each indicating that it was offline.

“The power distribution node in this module still seems to still have access to a small amount of reserve power,” one of the technicians reported confidently. “If we can override the emergency lockout on this turbolift and recall one of its cabs from the Operations level, you should be able to get a few trips out of it.”

“Good work,” Slovach replied. “Do you have access to any other systems?”

Stepping aside to allow his comrade to continue their repairs, the tech shook his head. “No, sir. I have power here now, but without the main computer, everything has to be done manually, which pretty much limits us to this lift. I can’t even be sure what triggered the lockdown.”

The commander frowned. “Wouldn’t the commanding officer have initiated the lockdown after the station was breached?”

“It looks like she did, Commander, but the turbolift’s operational log indicates that the lockdown was rescinded about half an hour after it was ordered, and then reactivated a few minutes later. All those orders should have come from Ops, but I’m not sure about the last two? Why would the commander release the security lockdown during the middle of an incursion, and then reinitiate it again?”

Truul’s subordinate adjusted her blast helmet nervously. “I’ve got a bad…”

The Major’s comlink chirped suddenly, cutting the soldier off.

“Truul here.”

“Major, this is Lieutenant Elbran. We’ve reached the docked shuttle.”


“The ship appears to be functional, sir, but the crew and passengers…”


“They’re dead, sir. All of them. It looks like a few Zerg got in through the boarding hatch. They were packed in so tightly… We killed of the creatures that were inside. They were… eating the remains. Seven Hells…”

Somehow, the chilling silence that had been following the detachment since it set out seemed to deepen even further. “Keep yourself together, Elbran,” Truul ordered stonily. “See if you can lock down the ship, and then get back to the insertion shuttle. Tell the pilot to prep for departure. We’re getting out of here.”

Deactivating the device, he nodded in the female Alliance soldier’s direction. “See if you can raise Worf’s team. If they’re close to the Engineering section, tell them to reactivate the core if they can, seal the compartment, and then head back to the shuttle.”

“My orders were to hold that section, and the bridge, until the Admiral could dispatch more security forces to retake the station,” Slovach interjected.

Truul stared at her. “We don’t have enough manpower to hold this wreck, Commander. You counted on us reinforcing the station’s crew; it’s looking more and more like they’re all dead, and I’m not going to keep my soldiers here, on unknown ground, facing an enemy of unknown numbers and strength, any longer than I have to. You and your Klingon friends down there can stay in this graveyard if you want, but I suggest you transport, or whatever it is you all do, back to your ships until your Admiral decides she can commit more troops to this operation.”

“Sir,” the female soldier put in, holding the headset built into her helmet up to one ear. “Worf is reporting that they have located seven survivors in the medical section, and another two on the central Promenade. However, he reports that there appears to be a… resonator malfunction of some sort within the core interfering with their communications with the ships of the fleet. He’s left the survivors under guard in the Medbay until they can be transported, and is approaching the Engineering section.”

“Has he encountered any resistance?” Truul demanded.

“Yes, sir. Several contacts, but no friendly casualties so far.”

Slovach slapped the combadge on her chest. “Versailles, come in. Versailles!”

“If there is a resonator malfunction in the core, the interference it emits would probably be more intense closer to the center of the station, and would disrupt long-range communication,” the technician commented. “We should be able to reach the fleet from the docking ring or one of the outer pylons, but we would have to move out there to be transported safely.”

“All right, we can get out of here together.” Truul stepped towards the tech still elbow deep in the wall interface. “Lock that thing down again. We’re leaving.”

“We are not!” Commander Slovach interjected again, growing increasingly irritated. “These men are under my command, and they will stay until we complete our objective. I appreciate your assistance, Major, but I will not have you subverting my command! Retreat if you wish, but we’re staying.”

Abruptly, the blast doors to the lift opened into an empty shaft, and a loud whirr echoed down from several decks above. “Lockdown bypass complete,” the seconds tech declared with satisfaction, seemingly oblivious to the debate raging behind him.

All eyes now trained on the vacant space, conversation ceased and all below waited in nervous silence as the whirr increased in volume, foretelling the lift cab’s arrival. In a flash of motion and with a mechanical sigh, it locked into place.

Every inch, from floor to wall to handrail, was smeared with blood.

No one spoke, moved, or even breathed for a long moment. As the situation aboard the station had continually worsened, every one of them had had held a suspicion deep down that the command section might have been compromised, Deep Space Nine truly lost, but being confronted with an omen such as this wrenched the inkling to the surface and replaced it with the cold grip of fact. Even Truul, who had no attachment to the station and the people that it held, couldn’t help his heart jumping in his chest. He had served a long time with the Rebellion, and had seen some of the worst atrocities that the Imperial Moffs and bloodthirsty commanders could commit. He did not wish such brutality on any sentient, except, perhaps, those who bore the Imperial emblem with pride. And then, even they did not treat their victims with such animalistic cruelty.

“We’re moving out soldier. Now.” Truul shouldered his blaster rifle and began to walk back down the dark hallway, his subordinate in tow. “I suggest you all come with me, but I won’t force ya. Coming, Templar?”

“Something yet breathes up there,” the Protoss intoned, more to himself than any of the others.

Truul paused. “The creatures, you mean?”

“No, I sense a thinking being. The emanation is weak, strangled, but it is there nonetheless. But it is fading.”

“One of the crew?” Slovach asked hopefully.

“I do not know.”

The commander considered for a moment, and then stepped forward, delicately placing her feet on the slick, gory interior of the lift. “If there is a chance anyone is still alive up there, I’m going to try and find them. It is my duty as a Starfleet officer. And a human being,” she added, pointedly. “Duvor, grab your medical pack come with me. You too, Hill. The rest of you, guard this junction and await my orders. If I don’t report back in ten minutes, make your way back to the docking ring and transport out of here.”

Reluctant, but firm in their obligation to their superior, the two crewmen she had mentioned stepped in the turbolift cab. After them, to her surprise, stooped Tassadar, who took up a majority of the remained of the small space. “You don’t need to endanger yourself…”

“I have duties of my own, Commander,” the Protoss replied solemnly. “I am obligated to fight the Zerg wherever they reveal themselves, and save any from them who can be saved. And I feel that there is something up there that I must see. Someone I must save.”

He turned to Truul. “Do what you must, Major, but I cannot leave this place yet.”

Truul gritted his teeth in frustration. He owed the alien nothing personally; they had never fought alongside one another, had never conversed onboard the Republica. Tassadar was no soldier of the Rebellion, and likely did not hate the Empire has he did. And yet, Truul had heard reports and rumors, that the templar had fought the Dark Lord of the Sith himself to defend Admiral Ackbar and the Home One at Sullust. The thought of any one being standing up to Vader and winning, especially since the Jedi Purge was ridiculous, but of course, so were a great many of the things that had occurred since he happened across a hapless Starfleet engineer and his hover tank of a companion in the bowels of that Star Destroyer, but a week ago. And then there was his performance on the bridge of the Republica…

Of course, in the end, Tassadar’s value to the Rebellion or whatever respect he might warrant for his skill were irrelevant. Captain Ryceed had placed the alien, and all of his compatriots, under Truul’s care. And he wasn’t about to abandon that duty.

With a last weary expulsion of breath, the Major paced back to the rest of the squad and edged into the turbolift with the others. “Guard this area with the rest, soldier. We won’t be long. We’d better not be.”

Despite the macabre nature of their conveyance, the brief assent in the turbolift was surprisingly mundane. Its power restored, the platform worked smoothly and without undue noise, depositing it’s passengers at the rear of the large, circular Ops chamber in under a minute. Their destination, however, bore little resemblance to anything that could be considered normal.

The lack of corpses that Truul had noticed on the trip to the turbolift was more than rectified; every deck panel, every low step, every crew pit, every control terminal, was draped with a mangled form. Human, Bajoran, Vulcan, even Klingon. And there were Zerg, mountains of them. Most were of the same canine variety that they had encountered before, but others were larger, laid heavy with, thick, slimy carapaces and jutting claws. Others looked like monstrous, crested snakes, with huge bony jaws and meter long blades at the tip of each narrow arm. And handful were even more hideous, humanoids that looked like they had been grown rather than born, covered in purplish insectoid protrusions, muscled limbs by some foul liquid.

The stench of death was almost unbearable, and omnipresent. Nothing lived in there.

Slovach and her officers were apparently at a loss for words; one of them looked like he was only barely summoning the resolve not throw up. Truul took the sight, and the smell, better, but not by much; he had seen the sights of massacres and battlefields before, but few had looked like this. Blasters were messy weapons, but they generally allowed their targets the dignity of remaining intact. Claws and teeth afforded no such privilege.

“How…?” Slovach managed at last, stepping tentatively off the lift cab. “How could so many have gotten in here?”

“See for yourself.” Truul, already stepping gingerly into the heart of the bloody room, indicated to several points in the wall. There were three small squares onto emptiness, each with mangled fragments of bulkhead still hanging pitifully from them. “I guess they overestimated the ability of metal to hold ‘em back. The bigger ones probably came in through the lift when the lockout was released.”

Glancing down at what might have been a human, a fragment of claw still impaling his chest, Truul turned back to the others. “Make your search quick, Commander. If these things did this once, they’ll probably come back here again, and I doubt we have the numbers to hold them.”

Slovach and her men fanned out, scanning each corner of the room with their tricorders, trying to avoid staring at the carnage all around them. As they worked, Tassadar, drifted slowly across the chamber, finally halting at the main viewport, still sealed by a blast covering. Looking back over the battlefield, he head and lowered his issued a whispered incantation, passing the blessings of ancient Protoss heroes onto the dead. The words would mean little to one of another race, and few of his kind would have bothered, but Tassadar had seen too much war and death over his long life to care about the distinction. They died in battle, in defense of their beliefs and their kin. Nothing else mattered.

As he finished completed the quiet prayer and began to raise his head, one shimmering eye spied something at his feet. It was a humanoid corpse, ravaged and bloody like all the rest, and yet, there was something different about it. Pulling his cloak up, Tassadar bent a reverse knee and placed his own head next to that of the body. Closing each eye and summoning arcane energy from deep within, an imperceptible psionic aura radiated from him, intersecting the corpse with probing tendrils.

“What are you doing?” Major Truul inquired, kneeling down next to him, still keeping one eye on the open access conduits.

Tassadar was silent for a moment, and then raised his head once, more turning both eyes onto the human. They had reverted to their normal black, but gray shadows still flickered erratically under the glossy surface. “There is something about this being that is not right.”

Truul looked at the body again. “I don’t see anything.”

“There may be no visible mark. It is difficult to explain to one who does not have psionic energy flowing through their body and mind, as I do. You may not be sense it, but this soul has been defiled on more than just the physical plane. It is as if some dark energy tried in impose itself on this one’s mind. The method was a clumsy one, and it seems he died before the ritual could be completed, but that it could be attempted at all bodes ill. No Zerg sort of the Overmind, the foul master of these things, should possess the psionic presence to directly impose its will on one that is not of the Brood. And even he was never wholly successful, to my knowledge.”

Truul inspected to corpse even more closely. He still couldn’t see anything.

“For a time, when I was still amongst my own people, I sought the teachings of a Protoss sect long rejected by the majority of the Empire, banished into the cold blackness for their practices and abilities. They too harness and wield the base energies present within each of my kind, but their method is a subtler one, emphasizing the power of stealth and mental focus. Some of their greatest warriors, giving themselves wholly over to their arcane power and combining with another of similar focus and strength, can even use their psionic ability to dominate the minds of other thinking creatures, Protoss, Zerg, or Terran. Your kind. I feel the remnants of such an imposition on this dead mind.”

“Could there be other Protoss here, in this galaxy?” Truul ventured, oddly captivated by the Templar’s musings.

“No. I would have sensed some sign of their presence, especially if one had passed by this station. And none of my people would willingly work with these creatures, it violates our very purpose. The Protoss Empire exists to spread order, and these things breed only chaos. Or… that is at least how it once was.” Tassadar seemed to actually flinch, some distant memory momentarily disrupting his focus.

“But that is of no relevance. One of these twisted creatures was able to carry this dark energy within itself, and impose it on another, no matter how clumsily. But I do not know how such a thing is possible. For the Zerg to evolve so quickly, and to such an extent. If I am right, I fear that she may know possess a power and a swarm greater even than that of her old master. Greater than me, Greater than all of us.”

Truul was about to inquire as to who exactly “she” was when a shout rang across the chamber. “We’ve found someone!”

The broad stairway to the station commander’s ready room was littered with just as many bodies as the rest of the room, but once Tassadar and Truul entered the office, the carnage abruptly stopped.
“The doors were sealed from the inside, and we just managed to pry them open,” Slovach commented, guiding them towards a large desk at the rear of the spartan room, behind which the other two crewmen were crouched.

One of them looked up from his work. “She’s alive, sir, but in pretty bad shape. Massive internal injuries and blood loss. If we don’t get her to a medical facility soon, she’ll die.”

The other stepped closer, indicating to a small terminal set in the table. “It looks like she managed to reroute several of the primary functions to this computer, but I’m not sure what she was trying to do. The log indicates that she sent the core into standby mode and tried to cut secondary power from most of the critical systems, like the turbolifts and lighting systems. It also looks like she overloaded the resonator that’s disrupting our communications.”

Puzzling over the quandary for a moment, Slovach turned her attention to the unconscious form sprawled face-first on the floor, dressed one of the simple uniforms of the Bajoran Militia. Her limbs and back were covered in numerous gashes and puncture wounds, including one that was oozing with some sort of purplish puss. Delicately, the man with the medical tricorder moved her onto her back.

Commander Slovach’s expression softened slightly. “It is her. Commander Nerys survived.”

Truul looked at her war-weary yet still young, ridge-nosed face for a moment in concern, but his attention was quickly diverted. Standing next to him, Tassadar had suddenly reeled backward, one hand clutching his head as if to shield it from sudden assault. His eyes were clamped shut.

“What happened? What is it?” Truul ventured, moving to support the Protoss.

“It’s… I am drained. This expedition has been taxing, and I have not yet fully recovered from the slaying of the Celebrate. If you still wish to depart, I will go with you now.”

Unsatisfied with the reply, but unwilling to press the matter, Truul turned back to Slovach. “We’ve found your survivor. Me and my soldiers are heading back. Now. Do you still want to try and hold this graveyard?”

Taking another long look at the station commander, Slovach shook her head. “No, I think you were right. We can’t hold the station, or even Ops, right now, with these numbers. Duvor, can you shut down the resonator that’s interfering with communications?”

The crewman punched in a few commands. “I just did, sir.”

“All right. Truul, contact the other units and tell them to activate their subspace tracers and prepare for immediate beam-out.”

“Sir, I don’t think we can risk transporting Commander Nerys,” the attending crewman put in. “Her life signs are too weak.”

“So we’ll take her back on our insertion shuttle,” Truul said, strapping his weapon over a shoulder and pulling some emergency medical implements from his own gear. “Do what you want, but I’m not getting in one of the transporter things, and I doubt any of my men would particularly like the idea either. You there, help me raise her. Then see if you can finds something flat to put her on.”

Slovach glared at the Major as he pushed past her and carefully grabbed the limp form’s legs, but managed to shake off her annoyance at the man’s attitudes. “All right. We walk.”
The Rift
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim

Post by Noble Ire » 2006-08-26 02:24pm

Chapter Fifty Three

With a tug, the dark side adept Lumiya completed her thick, black head wrap, obscuring her face entirely, save for two intense, probing eyes. The ritual of removing and replacing the headdress was a tedious one, but essential for tending the irreparably scarred flesh beneath. For a time after the incident which had given her those wounds along with a host of others that had nearly killed her, the woman could barely stand to look at her own visage in a mirror as she treated necrotized skin; it reminded her too much of the failure that had ravaged her so. However, as time passed and she had become more accustomed to the cyborg parts that had been implanted to restore her body’s abilities, she began to view the procedure as an opportunity, an image with which she could push herself further, and draw upon the dark energies that raged within.

Lumiya was a creature of a singular purpose. After her life as an Imperial spy had been cut short by the perception of rebel Luke Skywalker, she had devoted herself totally to the study of the Dark Side, both to please Darth Vader, who had rebuilt and retrained her after the catastrophic failure, and to convince herself that she still held value. With Vader’s tutelage and the arcane Sith resources of the late Emperor, her power had increased greatly in only a short time, and her tainted past faded further and further out of mind. Sent to the ancient Sith world Ziost to meditate upon the nuances of the Dark Side, Lumiya continued her training diligently and even constructed a lightwhip, a weapon scarcely seen in the galaxy since the fall of the ancient Sith Empire. Ever more confident in her swelling power and knowledge, she had even begun to think of herself as a Dark Lady of the Sith, capable of standing abreast of even the likes of Vader and Palpatine.

But then the Emperor had died. Though unfailingly loyal to him, Lumiya had nonetheless felt far more kinship with his apprentice, and thus when she learned that Vader had assumed control of the Empire, she was not at all distressed. However, ever since the Imperial leadership had suffered its great upset, her connection the Force seemed distorted, a taint unrelated to her growing dominion over the energy field. Though she could still touch it easily and her skill in combat had not dulled, meditation on the Dark Side’s infinite power no longer left her exhilarated, as it always had before. The pain, fear, anger, and hate of others, essential sustenance for one who bent the Force to their will, seemed muted, as if the carnal energy of each emotion was drained before it reached her.

She had hoped that Darth Vader would be able to find the root of this sudden dullness and expunge it, but he had disappeared before she could even leave Ziost, leading a fleet toward some unknown end into blackness so distant that she could no longer even feel his lingering presence. Instead, she had been placed in the company of the Sith Lord’s Twi’lek servant Aayla, one whom she had never even heard of before she intruded upon Lumiya’s studies. She had been impressed by the woman’s presence in the Force, and thus joined in her crusade of inquisition with little complaint, hoping that the alien might rejuvenate her connection to the Dark Side by osmosis. Instead, the disturbing absence had only grown, and was now even beginning to interfere with simple feats of Force perception.

Nevertheless, the Twi’lek’s mission was a directive of Lord Vader, and she was obligated to take part in it, no matter what misgivings she held. In the short time since the Sith Lord had vanished, Lumiya and her brooding compatriot had crisscrossed the Galaxy in the Twi’lek’s shuttle, tracking down each name on a list of individuals Vader’s new apprentice produced for their use. On it were listed men and women from every sector of Imperial society: local politicians, stormtrooper officers, COMPNOR executives, Imperial Guardsmen, star destroyer captains, Moffs, admirals, and even some of the Emperor’s former inner circle. Those that still lived, in any event.

Most of the time, Aayla would simply observe the person in question from afar, or meet with them briefly under deceptive pretenses; few even knew that she was an agent of Vader’s. Others, however, quickly fell victim to her blade: Grand Admiral Syn, advisors Xandel Carvius and Burr Nolyds, Force adept guardsman Carnor Jax, a handful of other influential captains and administrators, all slain quietly and in cold blood. Lumiya had never actually witnessed the executions, and had only unleashed her lightwhip once, to dispatch the bodyguards of an offending admiral, but she had no doubt that they occurred. The Twi’lek bore an aura of death that was undeniable.

All the alien would say on the purpose of this covert purge was that it was on the direct order of Lord Vader, and intended to remove any individuals that might weaken or seek to subvert the Sith Lord’s new authority. However, Lumiya was unsure as to how exactly Aayla identified who on the list was loyal and who was not. When asked, the Twi’lek simply refused to say anything at all. Indeed, when they were not discussing the next target, the woman kept completely to herself, deflecting all attempts at conversation and repelling every mental probe Lumiya sent her way. This secretive behavior had quickly begun to wear on Lumiya, and recently she had found herself questioning their entire endeavor. More than the alien’s hidden methods and motive, the targets they sought out worried her. She couldn’t quite place the root of her apprehension, but there was something odd about the list all the same.

Nevertheless, be it because of their efforts, or the ever-present threat of Vader’s return, the Empire continued to function effectively even without Palpatine at its head. A few prominent officials, including Grand Vizier Sate Pestage, had vanished in the wake of the “terrorist” strikes that had decapitated the Empire and then wiped out most of his closest advisors, but by and large, the ruling groups had taken the changes in stride. Vader had left little in the way of instruction on the restructuring of the Empire’s upper levels, which had depended almost entirely on Palpatine and his staff for direction previously, but a few ambitious and enterprising officials had taken the initiative nonetheless. Grand Moff Disra had convened an emergency Committee of the Grand Moffs on Coruscant, which could serve as a provisional legislative body. Lord Crueya Vandron, who had been subjected to one of Aayla’s longest interrogations, ensured the confused populace that the Imperial infrastructure was as robust as ever. The Grand Admirals and Imperial Intelligence quelled riots and silenced defectors encouraged by the Emperor’s death. The Rebel Alliance might have posed a problem to stability, but a pair of successive defeats at the hands of the newly-crowned imperator had effectively crushed the insurgent movement, or so the Imperial news service so gleefully reported.

The latest target on the pair’s list had taken them to Deep Space Checkpoint C-4401, a small Imperial security station positioned along the Byss Run, a little-traveled and highly secure hyperspace lane that plunged straight into the heart of the galactic core. Aayla had instructed Lumiya to locate the station’s commander and probe his mind for any potentially rebellious thoughts, and then had departed on the Lambda shuttlecraft before the other dark jedi could protest, on the pretense of “checking on a feeling”. The station commander ended up being completely unremarkable, a diligent and loyal man with no ambitions beyond an early retirement, and so Lumiya had nothing to do but wait for the Twi’lek’s return.

In the two days since, she had focused, with little success, on returning clarity of the Force to her mind, and determining what her companion might be up to. Aayla’s apparent destination, the planet Byss of the Beshqek system, did not appear on the file of potential targets. Lumiya recalled one of the Emperor’s advisors mentioning the name once in a whispered conversation, but beyond that, she knew little of it. According to the station’s databank, it was an unremarkable, urbanized world, host to an Imperial prison colony and a fleet staging yard. Still, Lumiya noted that the entirety of traffic that passed by the security station seemed to be heading directly for the planet, and much of the cargo ships were carrying highly sensitive and classified cargos. Heavily-armed escort vessels were common.

And what was more, even with her perception weakened, the adept could sense a strong presence in the Force somewhere relatively nearby in the galactic void. She could not be sure, but the sensation was similar to the aura of dark power she had felt while on Ziost, or while visiting the Sith graveworld Korriban. Perhaps Aayla had “been checking on a feeling,” after all.

As Lumiya finished dressing, a sudden premonition sparked into her mind. Aayla had returned. Wasting no time, the warrior retrieved her lightwhip and exited the small room she had been given, blowing past Imperial crewmen in the halls beyond who had been instructed to remain out of their guest’s way. The Twi’lek carried pass codes that ensured them both unfettered access to all Imperial facilities and computers, and immunity from most regulations. The exemptions had proved quite useful, save when Aayla decided that a ranking officer had failed her loyalty test.

The shuttle was waiting in the main docking bay, prepped for departure, and the blue Twi’lek was still seated in the pilot’s seat when Lumiya climbed onboard. Before she was even to the cockpit, the vessel was on the move again, rocketing through the bay atmospheric shield and angling off through space, away from the densely packed stars of the Core. Now used to her companion’s abrupt and unilateral manner, Lumiya took her seat and watched as the starfield outside surged towards the main viewport, and then vanished into the void of hyperspace.

“The commander was beyond suspicion. I sensed no danger from him,” the cyborg said at last. “Of course, I suspect you already knew that.” As soon as Aayla stranded her on the station, Lumiya had realized that her mission had most likely been a diversion, one that would allow the other to proceed to another destination alone.

The Twi’lek did not reply, instead calling up her target file and scanning past those who had already been cleared or neutralized.

“You found what you were looking for?” Lumiya pressed.


Beneath her wrap, the human snarled soundlessly. She had managed to retain her composure since their mission had begun, but it was becoming more and more difficult for her to tolerate Aayla’s obstinate and dismissive attitude towards her. And the disciples of the Sith were not known for patience with obstinacy. “And what, exactly, did you find?”

Aayla turned sharply in her seat, suddenly radiating barely-contained fury. Her cold eyes reached out like supernovas, questing to annihilate all in their path. “Do you doubt? Do you think I am acting for any goal other than the empowerment of our master?”

Lumiya was taken aback by the ferocity of the response. “I never said…”

“Then do not presume to question me! Lord Vader tasked me with this mission! You are here because he believes that you can assist me in achieving his ends, and no other reason! It is my choice to decide how to proceed, and you have no authority to question me. Do it again, and I will kill you!”

Normally, such an order from anyone but her master would have immediately incited Lumiya to attack, even in the confines of the shuttlecraft, and she did indeed reach momentarily for her weapon’s hilt, but something stopped her. Indignation and dark rage bubbled within her, demanding blood to appease the insult the alien had inflicted, but another force, the same that had halted her back on Ziost, stayed the cyborg’s hand. Now, however, she truly understood what the emotion was. Neither obligation nor restraint nor curiosity had stayed the assault. No, this was fear. Simple, unmitigated fear.

The two were frozen for a long while, one rending the air with her burning aura as the other sat transfixed, paralyzed by the overwhelming emotion. Finally, the latter submitted, dropping her weapon hand and slumping back, resigned to subservience for the moment. There was a power within the Twi’lek that was to be reckoned with, but Lumiya would never submit to it, not truly. The incident would only serve to feed her anger and suspicion, and the Dark Side flourished upon such things.

From his appointed quarters onboard the August Judgment, the Arbiter looked on as countless millions died. The slaughter was not live, of course; instead a recording projected into the center of his spacious apartment, but its impact was undiminished. Warships of the Holy Covenant, among the mightiest weapons forged since the disappearance of the Forerunners, ignited by the dozens, obscured simulated stars with their death throes. Again and again, the dwindling armada formed and reformed, charging through the void with weapons blazing, incited by the fall of their comrades. And again and again, the vengeful hammer would shatter, shredded by spears of livid green light. Each vessel fought valiantly nonetheless, and it would have been a truly glorious conflict, save for one fact. The Covenant did not lose.

At length, the projection focused in on a single besieged group of vessels, the last of the defenders left in place. A pair of titanic assault carriers launched volleys of blistering plasma in every direction, while a swarm of smaller ships formed a shell around them, engaging any attacker who came close with reckless abandon. To any known foe, the sight of such firepower alone would have alone been reason enough to rethink any advance. But the opponents they faced now were well beyond being impressed by the defiant fusillade.

Like a poisoned blade, an Imperial Star Destroyer sliced into the outer perimeter of the defensive shell and immediately set its own brand of toxin to work. Dozens of energetic bolts streamed from the multitude of orderly notches on its broad surface, each one converting a careening starfighter or attack ship into a cloud of super-heated debris. Those that survived had only moments to reflect upon the annihilation of their companions before death came for them as well, this time in the form of a black and gunmetal wave; TIE fighters in number beyond counting.

With the lesser prey deftly vanquished, the triangular hunter turned its focus onto the pair of steadfast battleships. With their own fates now clear, the ships rent space with their drives and pushed forward, intent on embracing the attacker in their own destruction. Though it knew of the danger that now bore down upon it immediately, the destroyer did not turn away or even halt the doomed marauders with its guns; it waited. Hope swept though the crews of the Covenant ships. The enemy had faltered in the face of their selfless act, and now they could at least lend some meaning to their deaths. But it was not so.

As turbolaser bolts, unleashed by half a dozen other Imperial cruisers beyond the direct sphere of the melee, dashed the hopeless charge and sent the last remaining warrior ships plowing into one another far from their intended prey, the Arbiter’s fists slowly clenched. This engagement had played out identically to numerous others, as he knew it would, but the Sangheili had watched nonetheless. His kinsmen, brave and true warriors, good beings all, had just died in vast numbers in a hopeless fight, and honoring their sacrifice by bearing witness to it was the least he could do.

The August Judgment had only narrowly escaped the massacre itself. The battle group commanded by ‘Nefaaleme had managed to surround an outlying group of Imperial ships, and then cripple one of the smaller star destroyers and its escort ships. The firefight had yielded relatively limited casualties, but by the time ‘Nefaaleme could turn his attention to the larger battle the Covenant armada was already collapsing. Though it outnumbered the twenty large star destroyers by more than four times, and vastly more by tonnage, the sheer firepower and neigh invulnerable shielding of the extra-galactic human warships more than made up for their numerical disadvantage. Even the smaller Imperial ships could stand up to Covenant warships nearly a dozen times their size, and though the Seraph wings were a closer match for the enemy’s fightercraft, the sheer number of TIE fighters deployed had swiftly overwhelmed them.

The decision to call for a retreat had been a difficult one for the August Judgment’s ship master, even after the Imperial fleet had breached the Covenant lines so far that they were bombarding ground teams on what remained of the captured world’s surface. Admitting defeat, though a completely valid tactical decision, was a mark on the Sangheili's personal honor, which was already tarnished by his recent failed challenge. Nevertheless, the warrior had managed to restrain himself and issued a general withdraw, and then lead his group out of the system before they attracted the attention of the victors. Very few others followed suit.

After pausing briefly to beam an alert message to the nearest communications repeater station, which would hopefully reach the reinforcements still heading for the overrun system before it was too late, the August Judgment and its escorts had set course for the heart of the Holy Covenant Empire, straining their slipstream drives to their limits. ‘Nefaaleme was determined to relay the magnitude of this new threat face to face with the High Council, and for once the Arbiter was in complete agreement with his decision. If there was anything that could be done to stop the impending betrayal by the Prophets and their lackeys, the Arbiter knew that the capital High Charity was where it had to be undertaken. However, he had yet to figure out just what exactly had to be done, and how the unexpected arrival of the Galactic Empire would factor into his plan.

For the moment, though, there were more pressing matters that had to be attended to. The trip would take at least a week, perhaps more, depending upon where the mobile capital currently lay in space, and though he had been cowed to some degree, ‘Nefaaleme was still a threat as long as he remained onboard the carrier. If the ship master were to discover even an inkling of duplicity on his superior’s part, the Arbiter’s mission, his life, and the lives of his human charges could all be placed in jeopardy.

The warrior was confident that he could keep ‘Nefaaleme occupied with matters of honor and fleet politics until they arrived at High Charity, but there were still holes in his cover story that needed filling. The non-existent transport he had supposedly piloted in would have to somehow appear, and the records of the vehicle that he had actually arrived upon might need subtle alteration. The Arbiter was confident that Ship Master and Supreme Commander Teno ‘Falanamee could convince a Huragok technician to carry out the tasks; if given a challenging enough technical task, the single-minded alien probably wouldn’t even wonder why it was doing what it had been ordered to do. However, there were a few other loose ends that might prove more difficult to tie up.

The August Judgment’s secondary Unggoy warren was a low hall barely over ten meters long, dimly lit, choked with methane fog, and quite cold. Most intelligent species would have been applaud to learn that the space was where a population of nearly one hundred workers and guards slept, ate, and spent their off-hours, scarce as they were. To the chamber’s inhabitants, however, the warren was quite cozy, reminiscent of the breeding pits where their kind was birthed in pods of dozens.

After countless generations of being on the very bottom wrung of a war-like and authoritarian society, Unggoy needs were by necessity few. They slept curled up in small alcoves with their comrades and relations. Their sanitation facilities were communal and basic, explaining the pervasive odor that mixed into the methane haze. Nutrients were ingested via tube-squeezed pastes and sticky liquids, affectionately nicknamed ‘food nipples’.

At the moment, a tangled knot of the latter amenities were being dispensed from automated hatches in the ceiling. Since the first feeding period serviced all Unggoy of the barrack regardless of their shift, status, or position, the chamber was as packed as it ever got, with stocky reptiliods standing shoulder to shoulder and closer to receive their allotted share of nutrition for the morning. Dense packets of sturdy muscle, the creatures required an impressive amount of food and enjoyed every ounce of it, even the tasteless goop that constituted a majority of their diets. After gathering up their rations, each would plop down next to or on top of pod mates and coworkers and chat squeakily about their mundane lives and simple dreams.

Today, the crowd around crewers Migaw and Cakap was unusually large. To beings who spent most of their short lives in the bowels of a warship, attending to the same monotonous duties day after day, anything new or unexpected was seized upon, and the pair’s tale was truly unique.

“So after these guys, these intruders, after they leave the cargo bay, I start looking around for some way out of the alcove,” Migaw was recounting, conveying his story with excessive gesticulation. “We hadn’t picked up much stuff on the mission, so it was pretty empty. Just me and the energy field blocking the door, oh, and this lump, still asleep on the deck.”

“I got hit too, you know,” Cakap retorted. “It’s not my fault your skull's thicker than mine.”

Migaw waved a stubby paw at him dismissively. “Anyways, after I looked around a little bit more, I found an old charge siphon jammed in a ventilation grate. One of those really old ones, you know, two prongs. It still had the static gel coating on the handle. It wasn’t working, but the points were still sharp, so I took it over to the patch behind where the field control was and I pried at the plate until it gave a bit, and then I dug through some of the ancillary monitor wiring until I found the cargo bay field feed. After that, it wasn’t hard to cut the power to the energy wall, drag this useless sack of bone to the main hatch, jack it, and get out of there.”

“You didn’t try to get the Sangheili out with you?” one of the Unggoy’s comrades asked. He already knew the answer, as Migaw had already related the tale twice, but he, like the rest of the audience, was thoroughly enjoying himself, and was eager to extend the conversation.

“You know the elite, always so bossy and loud,” Migaw replied eagerly. “She probably would have had us attack those humans unarmed if I’d got her out. Besides, she was still out when I got free, and I didn’t really feel like dragging her along too. And I did get her free in the end; who do you think was the one who lead the guard commander back to the ship?”

Cakap hit Migaw in the shoulder. “You didn’t lead him back, you beak face. I saw it. All you did was come up to him groveling and whining, and blubber all about the mean heretics who attacked you.”

The Unggoy paused to take a draft of his nutrient tube, and then leaned back onto the bony side of a sleeping pod mate before continuing. “In fact, I would believe the rest of the story, either. I bet the humans just figured that you were too worthless to be bothered with and tossed you in a corner. You can’t cut a power line like you said you did, and if you did, the flow would have fried those little eyes of yours right out of your thick skull.”

Migaw threw up his lanky arms, nearly hitting three members of his audience. “As I said, the siphon still had its gel coat. And I wouldn’t talk about worthless. What did you do in all this, aside from taking a nap?”

Cakap shot his companion an indignant look. “If I hadn’t gotten off that derelict when I did, they would have flown off without us, and you’d be sucking vacuum right now.”

Migaw let loose a loud, barking laugh. “All you did was get scared, sleepyhead. I was the one who actually had to work to save our heads.”

As the two continued to bicker, the crowd shared a few more moments of merriment, and then began to disperse, workers sensing that their brief feeding period was coming to a close. After the area around Migaw and Cakap had cleared somewhat, another Unggoy was able to push his way through, his rounded mouth clenched in irritation.

“You two, there’s a Sangheili outside the hatch who wants to see you, and she doesn’t seem very happy, even for them.”

The companions stopped fighting and glanced at each other nervously. There was only one Sangheili who would want to see them off-duty.

“You’d better hurry up. I don’t think long-legs will get happier if you keep her waiting. Besides, she’s blocking the door.”

Grudgingly, Migaw and Cakap worked their way through the crowd to the entrance of the warren, located their uniforms, and hastily put the bulky, armored garments on. After making sure their methane tanks were full and their breath masks operational, the two exchanged another look and then stepped into the airlock and the ship beyond.

Though female Sangheili were marginally smaller and less muscular than their male counter parts, compared to Unggoy their stature was no less imposing. Adding to her distinct advantage in size, the withering glare that Deau ‘Mefasee met her subordinates with as soon as they stepped out into the main hallway stopped made them immediately drop their heads in supplication. As a female, the Sangheili was relegated to the lowest levels of society, forced to serve as a lowly transport pilot, as evidence by her blue novice’s armor, but among the Unggoy, she was held absolute authority.

“You left me to the humans?” she rumbled. “You left me unconscious in that infernal cargo bay while you saved your own worthless hides?”

Shakily, Cakap tried to look up, but immediately looked down again, tensing for an impending blow. “It was not my fault, Excellency. I... I was unconscious as well. It was Migaw who decided to flee.”

Migaw shivered, feeling his commander’s icy stare pass onto his quivering skull. After swearing mortal revenge upon his companion silently, he found his voice. “I throw myself upon your mercy, Excellency. I did not wish to leave you, but I could not risk alerting the humans of my escape by stopping to free you. I thought it was best to get help immediately.”

The toe of ‘Mefasee’s boot nudged Cakap’s methane tank. “And yet you paused to burden yourself with him?”

Migaw attempted to bow further, causing him to bump his head on the metal deck plate. “I was not thinking clearly, Excellency. I feared that they might kill him if I left Cakap alone. I am deeply sorry for delaying your rescue because of it.”

“We will accept punishment for our failure without complaint, great one,” Cakap put in miserably.

The Sangheili was silent for a few moments, and though neither dared to look up, both knew that she was fuming. Most of the time, the pilot was relatively easygoing, for one of her kind, and seemed to tolerate the lesser races of the Covenant more than her male counterparts, but she also had a foul temper. Her punishments rarely involved much physical damage, but they were nonetheless loathsome. The last time Grink, an avian Kig-Yar their ship’s operations chief, had got on the Sangheili’s bad side, she had given him a atmosphere tank and made him live in the secondary Unggoy warren for a dozen duty cycles. Grink, like most of his kind, disdained their stocky, reptilian counterparts; there was, of course, also the matter of the cold. The two didn’t even want to imagine what she would do to them.

Finally, she sighed, exasperated. “Get up, you two. Grovel on your own time.” Her voice was clear tinged with anger still, but it was no longer overtly hostile.

Relieved, if confused, by the sudden change, Migaw and Cakap rose to their flat feet, although they retained their subservient postures.

Waiting until both of them met her yellow eyes, ‘Mefasee continued. “All right. Migaw, you reported that there was a Sangheili with the humans who commandeered my ship. The one who knocked both of you out.” She raised a hand to the back of her head, and then with drew it swiftly. “The one who struck me from behind.”

Migaw nodded nervously. “Yes, Excellency. I saw him before he hit me, and then talking with one of the humans after I recovered. He took your uniform.”

“Yes, I know,” the female Sangheili said bitterly. “But this attacker was not on found onboard my ship when it was recaptured.”

“No, Excellency. Just as I reported, after I saw him talking with the human, he used the main hatch to leave and board the August Judgment. I assume he was a heretic, in league with the humans. Maybe he wanted a better ship. Has he been found?”
‘Mefasee clenched a fist and stared off down one hallway. “Not yet. The Guard is searching the ship for stowaways, but I have not been allowed to assist in the search. Officially.”

“Tell me Migaw, did you see anything about this coward, aside from his uniform? Anything that might help distinguish him?”

The Unggoy considered for a moment, and then was hit by a sudden memory. “Yes, I remember. He had a very big scar on one side of his face.”

‘Mefasee leaned closer. “A great many male warriors bear scars from combat on this ship. Can you tell me anything more about what it looked like? Where was it on his face?”

Migaw thought again, trying to jog his memory until something else jogged it for him. “I… I believe it looked like that, Excellency.” He pointed a bony finger to the passageway behind his master.

She twisted around to see a tall Sangheili warrior striding towards her from the open iris of a blast door, the gold of his helm nearly disguising a deep gash above his left eye.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-01-11 03:34pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Noble Ire
The Arbiter
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Post by Noble Ire » 2006-10-17 07:43pm

Chapter Fifty Four

The main observation lounge of the USS Versailles, flagship of what remained of Starfleet, had seen better days. Signs of its former elegance and the characteristic creature comforts of Federation starships were still in evidence: comfortable, high-backed chairs still flanked the room’s long, central chamber; a thin, pastel carpet clung to the cold floor plates; one side of the lounge still opened onto space through an expansive, unarmored viewport, but the evidence of wear was far more conspicuous. Nearly half of the long window was obscured by a slab of duranium, bolted on to succor an all-too-recent wound. The interior wall, originally designed with a display alcove for trophies, artifacts, and remembrances, had been replaced with a more sturdy metal plate, extra insurance against the possibility of another hull breach. High along the shadowed walls, fingers of carbonized scouring spidered to and from light panels and computer lines, tokens of deep, omnipresent weariness.

Nevertheless, the chamber still functioned, even if the lighting would fluctuate from time to time as newly-repaired systems deep within the bowels of the starship were reactivated, and no one had objected when it had been chosen as the site of the proceedings underway within.

It was quite obvious that Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev was a formidable woman from the moment she had stepped into the room. Though physically gaunt and frail-looking, an image heightened by the shadow of gray that tinged her short, blonde hair, the Starfleet officer possessed a presence that demanded respect. Her stiff posture spoke too of the weight of authority that both kept her alert and wore on her resolve. Though reddened by lack of sleep and worry, her keen eyes still managed to convey a distinct sense of drive and purpose as she carefully scanned each of the others assembled before her.

Seated next to the admiral at the conference table that dominated the center of the room, Captain Picard had just finished a long and extraordinary tale. Indeed, were it not for the outcome of the recent battle, and the presence of many of the key figures of the captain’s report, the woman would probably not have believed it. Given the circumstances, however, and the gratitude she personally felt for the simple fact that her ship, her fleet, and the planet below were still intact, she was more amenable to the explanation.

“The Zerg?” she put in after reflecting on all she had learned.

Picard nodded. “Yes. High Templar Tassadar seems to know a great deal about the creatures. He supplied their name.”

Nechayev focused on the being in question, who was ensconced in the opposite corner of the room. He had remained largely motionless over the course of the meeting, but his strange, glistening eyes never strayed far from the admiral.

“Well, we have something to call them now. It’s more than our intelligence agents have been able to gather, at least.” She shook her head wearily. “Fighting creatures that attack and consume without thought or complex motive is something completely beyond my experience. At least the Dominion would speak with us before they attacked. Even the Borg gave their ultimatum. Not these things, though. They just eat and destroy.”

“Do not be deceived.” As it always did at first, Tassadar’s penetrating ‘voice’ came as a surprise to the human. “The minions of the swarm may care for nothing but carnage, but there are greater minds that drive them all. Think of them merely as beasts, and what remains of your people will not survive the horde’s next onslaught.”

Grudgingly, Nechayev nodded in agreement. “Yes, we determined as much not long after the first attacks. No unthinking animals could coordinate as they do, or commandeer our starships so efficiently. We simply have been unable to understand how they behave as they do. Perhaps you can provide more information on their organization and motives?”

“I am tasked with purging the Zerg wherever it may take root. I will assist as I can, but my knowledge alone will not be enough for you to turn the tide. That time passed long ago.”

“Nonetheless, any continued aid, and your efforts in the defense of Bajor, are greatly appreciated, by myself, and the fleet.”

With that, she turned her attention to the others assembled at the long table. Alongside Riker and Data, who had accompanied their captain off of the Republica, Councilor Leia Organa, Major Truul and one of his marines, C-3PO, and, to everyone’s surprise, Captain Ryceed were seated in silent anticipation.

“And I offer you all my sincerest thanks as well, on behalf of the United Federation of Planets itself. Were it not for the intervention of the Republica, I doubt that any sentient in this system would still be left alive.”

Ryceed stirred in her seat and looked as though she was about to speak, but Leia acted first, receiving the commendation with an appreciative nod.

“As a representative of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, I accept your thanks. It is our mandate to protect the lives and liberties of sentient beings of all kinds from the touch of tyranny, and though the threat you face is far different from the sort we are used to, we were obligated and willing to offer any assistance we could. Besides, from what I have heard from Captain Picard and his crew, the United Federation of Planets is devoted to many of the ideals that the Alliance stands for. Helping your nation survive and flourish, as far from our home as it is, only furthers our own goals.”

“Well, whatever your reasons, your assistance has not only saved this fleet and Bajor, but prolonged the survival of a half dozen sovereign powers and their people. And that is what we are fighting for, our very right to exist.” Nechayev frowned to herself and folded her hands on front of her. “That brings me to the chief purpose of this assembly. Captain Picard’s account was not clear on exactly why you, Councilor Organa, and the Republica are here. It sounds as though you have your own war to fight, and I find it hard to believe that the people of your galaxy so altruistic as to give up a resource of the likes of your vessel simply to escort a few wayward officers home.”

Leia smiled diplomatically. “Your assessment is quite correct, Admiral. In fact, some among the Alliance’s leadership did object to our traveling here, but in the end it was decided that the resources offered by a new galaxy, hidden from the Empire and populated by potential allies, were too precious to pass up.”

“I’m sure it is obvious to you know that, even if it were inclined to do so, the Federation currently lacks the infrastructure and technology to be able to directly assist the Alliance against any force that could pose a serious threat to you.”

Ryceed fidgeted in her seat again; the action was obvious enough to draw a veiled glare from Leia before she continued.

“I realize that, and I appreciate your frankness. Nevertheless, I am still of the opinion that this galaxy is a potential boon for the Alliance. It may be the safe haven we need now more than ever, assuming of course that the wormhole that connects our two realms remains stable, or can be modified to do so. And if the Alliance was to relocate some of its operations here, it would be advantageous to have allies who are knowledgeable of the area and its inhabitants available for support and consultation. From what I have seen and heard, the Federation would be an ideal candidate.”

“Quite honestly, Councilor, right now the Federation is effectively limited to this cubic light year of space. In the past three months, we have lost more than sixty percent of our worlds, and the rest are completely at the mercy of the Zerg. Bajor, the warships in orbit, and the civilian refugee fleet we have spread out nearby are the sum assets of the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Cardassian Union. Any other vessels have either fled into the wilds of space or refused to leave their worlds, set upon defending them to the end. There has been no contact with the Romulans since the invasion began, and we can only assume they’re facing the same fate that we are. We are friendless and alone in a hostile wasteland, on the brink of total extermination; not an ally I would choose.”

Riker and Picard glanced at each other gravely; both had hoped that the reports of the Federation’s state they had heard from Ensign Martin and Captain Gehirn were exaggerations, but hearing the dire news from the very head of Starfleet made the conclusions unavoidable. Still, Picard was secretly impressed by the way in which Nechayev had spoken. Rather than be justifiably hopeless at the prospect of annihilation by a horde of pitiless monstrosities, she seemed hardened to the idea, and talked of it as if it were a parameter in a training simulation, simple and unavoidable. As his second in command would no doubt put it, they had all been dealt a hand, and she knew they had to play it, no matter the odds against them.

Leia seemed to stare off into empty space for a moment before answering the Admiral’s blunt statement, but when she spoke again, her words were still steady. “There is no denying that the threat that you face is a mortal one, and you are correct, a dead ally is not one at all. Since the survival of the Federation and the stability of this galaxy are of significant concern to the Alliance, pending the establishment of a more extensive presence here, I am willing to offer, on behalf of the Alliance High Council and all affiliated cells, military assistance in dealing with the Zerg threat.”

This time Leia could not prevent Ryceed from speaking up. “Forgive me, Councilor, but I must voice my strong misgivings on such an offer. I don’t mean to belittle your struggle Admiral, but we’ve got our own war to worry about, and I don’t think we can afford to devote any material or personnel to extended action here. The original concept behind our mission was a sound one, but no one expected to find Picard’s galaxy in a state of open war, no matter the opponent. I simply don’t see how risking more of our ships and crews to come here and fight is a viable option.”

Many officials of Leia’s standing, among them most of the members of the High Council, would have been severely taken aback by such an outburst from a mere captain, especially during sensitive negotiations, but she seemed unperturbed. Ryceed’s discomfort with her assignment had been plain from the beginning; perhaps the diplomat had been anticipating just such an incident.

“When I offered military assistance, it was not my intent to travel back through the wormhole to gather it,” Leia Organa responded coolly, fixing the captain squarely in her gaze.

Ryceed’s mouth fell open. “You expect the Republica to fight this war alone? You know the condition of my ship full-well; she’s badly damaged, down to well under fifty percent combat efficiency, and her crew has been engaged in four separate battles in the last week alone. We’re in no shape to conduct a freighter raid, much less topple a galactic power.”

“The Republica preformed beyond all expectations against the Zerg fleet, despite its condition,” Leia pressed, clearly undaunted. “You had to fight through hundreds of hostile targets to clear a path to the enemy command vessel, and yet your ship, to my knowledge, only received minimal damage. How many of their warships were destroyed, even with the Republica’s offensive capability limited? Thirty? Forty?”

“The technological disparity between our galaxy and this one are more than substantial. I don’t know how large a force the Zerg command, or how extensive their dominion is, but if they are limited to the technology of this civilization, a single light cruiser may be all that is needed to tip the tide of the war in the favor of the Federation and her allies. Is my assessment correct, Admiral Nechayev?”

The older woman nodded slowly. “Our intelligence on the true scope of the Zerg threat is spotty at best, but considering the level of effectiveness that your vessel had against the hostile fleet, I believe that you may be right. I’m having my tactical department run some simulations on what impact the Republica might have on the outcome of future engagements right now, in fact. Obviously, we don’t know much about the actual capabilities of your ship, or how it does what it does at all, but from what we all saw it do in action, its safe to say that the results will be positive, at the very least.”

She paused for a moment and looked out the chamber’s viewport. Beyond the transparent aluminum plate, the distant sparks and baubles that were the waning vestiges of once great armadas silently picked over the remnants of a costly victory. When Nechayev spoke again, her voice was somber. “Quite frankly, Councilor Organa, that ship may be last hope we have left. Even if we’d somehow survived this last assault without your assistance, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The Zerg lost a great many ships here today, but they control many more, far more than we have left. And our efforts to scuttle as many space docks and shipyards as we could before being forced to evacuate each successive system have only been partially successful; if they figure out how to build more of our ships, they can easily replace their losses. We can’t.”

“If things keep going as they have been, if those creatures keep spreading to world after world and hunting down anyone who manages to escape, there won’t be a single remnant of the Federation left in a year’s time. Damn it all, there won’t be an Alpha or a Beta Quadrant left. We’ve tried… I’ve tried to stop them, but their first strike was too effective, and their expansion too quick. Right now, our only options are to flee or die fighting. Personally, I think the end result of both will be the same.”

“I can’t promise you much an ally here if you help us fight, Councilor, but I can promise you that there won’t be one at all if you don’t.”

Though the Republica had served as a warship for much of its operational life, like most Mon Calamari vessels, it had been a civilian ship before the amphibian race had been compelled to take up arms against the specter of Imperial domination. Numerous refits had removed or obscured many of its original amenities to make room for weaponry and added armor, but a few remained intact even in the face of military considerations, evidence of the perpetual Calamarinian longing for a lasting peace. Most notable among the relics were several sets of broad, transparisteel viewports that lined the corridors that ran along the perimeter of the ship, concentrated mainly around the characteristic bulges that protruded from the warship’s midsection.

Jacen Solo stood quietly at one such window, his hands folded behind his back. For the first time since the battle, the hallway in which they stood was relatively quiet. What minimal repairs that had been needed were largely completed and most of the crew was on a much needed rest shift. This quietude was complemented by the soft glow of Bajor’s looming disk, and together they actually made the weary warship seem rather peaceful. Normally, the young jedi would use such moments to meditate or collect his thoughts, but on this occasion something was keeping him from focusing inward. Of course, he couldn’t say he particularly minded the distraction.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Laura Martin asked, leaning her elbows against the transparent barrier as she stared out at the blue-green orb. “I never really appreciated views like these before, but I guess being away from them for a long time can change your perspective. I haven’t had a chance to just stop and look out at a planet for months… it feels like longer. It’s been too chaotic to do anything but worry about my duties. And try not to think about… well, things.”

Sensing that the woman was growing agitated by the dark memories she still grappled with, Jacen broke the uncomfortable silence that followed her comment. For a reason he couldn’t quite place, speaking to her was harder than it should have been, but he managed nonetheless. “I’m enjoying the view, too.”

“…err, of the planet, I mean,” he added quickly, grimacing slightly. Focus Jacen. Laura didn’t seem to notice him falter. “It reminds me of home. Well, one of my homes, at least. I spent a lot of time on a world like this one, Yavin Four, when I was younger. Of course, I suppose I spent just as much time on Coruscant too, my parents live there. It doesn’t look much like this though. More metal.” The man bit his lip, realizing that he had begun to ramble.

Laura turned to face him, curious. “What do you mean?”

“Well, Coruscant is all one big city. From orbit, it’s just a mass of black and gray, with a lot of lights running throughout. It’s still quite a sight, though, especially if you get up close. The cityscape is really something, and at dawn all of the towers light up beautifully. I still prefer more natural planets, though. The sheer crush of activity on a world like Coruscant can be overwhelming sometimes.”

“The entire planet is covered by a city?” Laura questioned, amazement creeping into her soft features. “That’s incredible. It must have taken thousands of years to cover encompass an entire world.”

Jacen smiled. “Tens of thousands actually, at the very least. No one’s really certain exactly how old Coruscant is, but it’s been the galactic capital for twenty five thousand years, and it was nearly as crowded back then.”

“Amazing.” Laura cleared away a few strands of brown hair that had fallen across her face and grinned dreamily. “I’d love to see a place like that. There isn’t any world like that in this galaxy, at least not any that I’ve heard of.”

“I’d like to show it to you. Of course, I’d just like to see it again at all, myself. It seems like years since I’ve been there, or any place really familiar for that matter. Then again, I suppose it isn’t going to change any time soon.”

Suddenly, an unheralded burst of vision flashed through Jacen’s mind; a might globe of metal, wreathed with flickering embers and pockmarked with thousands of roiling craters of black; his mother, older, as she should have been, her faced stained with tears; his brother Anakin, bloody and engulfed in a terrible, burning aura; the black, nightmare mask that his grandfather had born most of his life; a towering monolith, carved against the darkened sky; the face of Aayla Secura, her eyes cold and shadowed. The images flowed together in a stream of overwhelming sensation, until the jedi could see nothing but an icy torrent swiftly rising inside of his skull, drowning out all conscious thought…

“Jacen? Are you all right?”

The man felt the warmth of a hand on his shoulder, and abruptly the vision evaporated, leaving only the empty hallway and the viewport on which he was leaning, breathing heavily. Shaking his head from side to side to clear it, Jacen regained his bearings, and noticed that the young ensign he had been talking with was now standing less than a meter away, her arm on his, a concerned look upon her face. A warming sensation spread across Jacen’s face and he stepped back nervously, allowing Laura’s hand to slip away.

“I’m fine,” he said at last, both trying to make sense of what had just occurred and attempting to put it out of his mind. “I’m just a bit tired.”

Laura knew little about the Force or the Jedi beyond the fact that Jacen had mentioned that he was one and possessed certain abilities that most humans did not, but he could sense that she knew that there was more to his disorientation than simple weariness. She was anything if not perceptive, and Jacen had no doubt that she might begin to make the connection eventually if allowed to do so. Analyzing the recent visions and sensations he had been experiencing of late too deeply was not something the jedi felt he was ready for, especially not if prompted to do so by another.

“So, where are you from?”

Laura frowned, evidently noting the hasty change of subject, but she went along with it nonetheless. “A little city called Portland. It’s on Earth. The human homeworld… well, in this galaxy, at least. I don’t suppose that there’s a place by the same name where you’re from?”

Jacen shook his head. “If there is, I’ve never heard of it. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. There are still thousands of unexplored star systems out there, and our historians really don’t know where humanity came from before it started colonizing planets like Coruscant. And if a parallel world did exist somewhere, we probably wouldn’t call it the same thing. Earth is a rather… odd name.”

Laura smirked. “You’re not the first to make that comment. Even after hundreds of years of interstellar contact and civilization, I still run into the occasional Andorian or Ferengi who makes fun of the name. And they do have a point; naming one’s home after dirt doesn’t really do it much justice, especially in our case. You know, I’ve visited a fair number of planets since I joined Starfleet, and they’re all quite amazing in their own way, but I’ve never encountered one as diverse or beautiful as Earth. Even just in my hometown. I’ve never felt as peaceful as I do when I’m sitting on the beach there at sunset, the water lit by the last rays of sunlight, the waves gentle lapping the breakers and soft sand.”

The young woman trailed off, her smile replaced by a look of profound loss. She turned back to the viewport and gently placed a palm on its cool surface, Bajor’s soft glow glinting in her eyes. “I suppose I’ll never be able to sit on that sand again. There were several big power stations near Portland, and it would have been one of the first targets of the invasion. And even if it wasn’t… well, I doubt that any place there is the same anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Jacen began hurriedly, his shoulders drooping noticeably. “I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s all right. This is just something we all have to live with.” She looked back at Jacen and tried to banish the shadows from her face. “I can’t really say I’ve come to terms with it, or ever will, but I’ve lost too much to be consumed by each memory and each needless death. We all have. You have too, I guess. All we can really do is appreciate what we still have left.”

Jacen stared back at the woman for a long time, no longer embarrassed by the reddening of his cheeks. At last, he nodded and smiled back. “I suppose you’re right.”

What’s going on?

Darkness enclosed on all sides. There was no light, no substance, no sound, no motion. She floated upon the null. And yet, there was something out there, far beyond reach. Indistinct, a specter of a specter, a faint crackle in the back of the mind. Slowly, the sensation grew, blocking out memories and scattered thoughts that vainly tried to impose themselves on the empty plane. Then, it became a whisper. Many whispers.

“At last…” Faint, almost imperceptible.

Who are you?

“Major?” Stronger, a male voice, confident.

Where am I?

“Answer me, Kira.” Another male voice, kind and concerned.

What has happened?

“Come on, Nerys. Wake up.” Yet another, desperate, helpless, loving.

Where are you?

“That’s it, my daughter. Awaken.” A female voice this time, wise and patient.

Why won’t you answer?

“There, you see? Even a Bajoran can do it eventually.” A deeper tone, cruel and mocking.

There were shapes now, fleeting images. Circles… no, faces. Each was different, each was speaking. They were all so strange, pale and distant, but she knew them all. Benjamin Sisko; leader, friend; willingly lost to the void for the good of all. Bareil Antos; friend, lover; torn away by the injustice of the world. Odo; lover, comrade; separated by the bonds of duty and family. Kai Opaka; comrade, mother, role model; exiled by fate, so far away. Gul Dukat; monster, madman, motivation; destroyed, like so many others.

They were all part of her.

They were all gone.

What is this?

“Hurry up, Major. We haven’t got all day.”

More shapes. Disks. There was the gentle orb of home. There, the vaulted arms of Deep Space Nine. Then, other things. Sacred icons. Rank insignia. Morning rations. A sleeping child.

Why are you showing me these things?

“You disappoint me, Nerys. You were far cleverer once.”

There, beyond all the others, there was another shape. Growing, covering everything else. A claw? A hand? A mouth?

In its shadow, another image appeared like a beacon shrouded in fog. The Celestial Temple, the Bajoran Wormhole. A shimmering, energetic orb set like a jewel in space. It was the gateway to the Prophets, the protectors of her people. Living gods who had always guided and empowered her. They were the avatars of her very being; all that she was, soldier, officer, lover, friend, stemmed from their distant, all-knowing touch.

Then, in an instant, all of it was consumed by the shapeless maw. All that she was vanished into the blackness. She was alone. And yet, the chorus of whispers grew ever louder, ever clearer, ever more unified.

What do you want from me?

“Now, now Kira. All in good time.”

The voice was familiar. It sounded the same as she remembered, smooth and confident. But it was not calming. There was no balm in the words, only cold fingers of ice and darkness. They slashed at her, tearing soundlessly into her flesh, spearing her chest with invisible barbs. But there was no pain, no blood, not even any release. She looked down, as if seeing her body for the first time. There, carved into her slender torso was a gaping, ragged gash that pierced skin and bone, leaving her most vital of organs laid bear to the deep.

And yet, she saw no heart. There was only a blank space, as empty as the limitless chasm all around her.

I am dead. I must be dead.


Then why are you here? Why do you not give me peace?

“Peace? Silly girl, why should there be peace?”

The holy writings said…

“Holy?” This voice was new. Clearer than the rest. Penetrating. “There is nothing holy about this place. As you said, you are dead; there is only death here.”

Then why can I still hear you?

“Death is not quiet, not this death. A silent passing would not serve.”


“Why, yes. Surely you did not think all this was for your amusement? No, no. You must fulfill your purpose before you fade into nothingness.”

My purpose?

“In good time. When the moment comes, you will act as needed.”

But I am dead…

A sharp laugh echoed from nowhere at all. “You will find soon enough, Nerys, that in your world and mine, the dead can do a great many things.”

Upon a medical bed within the depths of the Mon Calamari warship, a limp, bandaged form quivered to life, thrashed momentarily beneath sterile coverings, and then collapsed back into motionlessness once more. Had its lips not been sealed by a healing brace, the spasm would have been a scream.
Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-01-11 03:34pm, edited 1 time in total.
The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
"May fortune favor you, for your goals are the goals of the world." - Ancient Chall valediction

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