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Quote of the Week: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - Will Durant, American historian (1885-1981)


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 Post subject: The Rift, Part Four: Conflagration PostPosted: 2006-12-10 10:24pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Part Four: Conflagration


Chapter Fifty Five


High Charity.

Forged in ages long past by labors that exhausted whole worlds, the space station was an engineering triumph, a giant even amongst the leviathans that the Holy Covenant navigated through the stars. Once a lifeless moon, it had been painstakingly crafted and augmented until only the barest shell of the body remained recognizable. A mighty pylon extended kilometers into space from one end, bearing a multitude of spires and lattices upon which whole armadas could roost. The half that still bore the ancient moon’s shape was encrusted with monolithic juts of sculpted metal and precisely engineered entry chasms that cut deep into the station’s hollow interior, disgorging eerie, crystalline light into the frozen deep of space.

Propelled through space by colossal slipspace channels etched into its outer surface, the titan had alighted in orbit around Joyous Exultation, the Covenant colony world closest to the space which humanity occupied. Though the domain of the holy empire encompassed a vast number of stars and worlds throughout the heavens, the attentions of Covenant armada had been focused on that distant galactic arm for decades, and thus High Charity and the prefects it bore had lingered close by as well, orchestrating the prophesized extermination of the mammalian species and inspiring the limitless Covenant hordes with its presence. The war had gone on far longer than any of the Prophets had predicted, and human’s ingenuity and persistence in the face of overwhelming odds never seemed to waver, but there had never been any real danger to any of the Covenant’s inhabited worlds, much less its fortress capital.

Then, when their final victory had seemed at hand, all that had changed.

Clustered around the space station like a school of predatory fish, hundreds of warships of every size and class waited. They had been summoned from every corner of the empire and every probing campaign into human space. There assembled were the Covenant’s greatest warriors and commanders, their mightiest carriers and most prolific battleships. Such a gathering of force had been seen only a few times in the Covenant Hegemony’s long history, and only when the High Council perceived a truly fatal threat. This assembly was no different; the specter of doubt hung over every ship and warrior’s heart.

Deau ‘Mefasee looked out upon the mighty city that formed the heart of High Charity and sighed wearily. In the shadow of a mighty Forerunner relic, a majestic, triangular spire that stretched from the center of the metropolis towards the high, domed ceiling, millions of thinking beings of more than half a dozen species went about their varied works. All labored, in one way or another, for the Prophets and noble Sangheili who ruled from the temples and halls that were suspended along the walls of the great enclosed city.

Only a few cycles earlier, ‘Mefasee would have taken great pride in standing where she did, on the edge of one of the vast open walkways that connected the various structures of High Charity’s governmental citadel, but a few strides from the assemblage hall of the High Council and the Hierarchs themselves. After all, she was but a transport pilot with no connections or accolades to her name, and more than that, a female. To stand there as anything more than a faceless member of some zealous mob screaming for the damnation of a heretic or laying praises upon the Prophets was a great honor.

Now, though, she could not feel any appreciation for her position.

Savage laughter sounded from behind her. A pair of brutish Jiralhanae lumbered past down the wide, sculpted causeway on which ‘Mefasee stood, swinging well-worn blades about carelessly as they rumbled with mirth about some joke or brutal tale. They were nearly three meters in height, and easily more massive than the most muscular Sangheili. Their bodies, masses of scaly, gray skin and matted hair were almost naked save for bandoliers of ammunition, simple helms, and odd hanging trinkets of their tribe. Above rows of tusk-like teeth, beady red eyes set in simian faces raked the Sangheili with barely restrained contempt.

Deau ‘Mefasee had always disliked the violent, insular creatures, as all of her species did, but they had the favor of the Prophets, and despite the relative youth of their race within the Covenant’s fold, they were quickly filling every role that the Sangheili had once held alone. The High Prophet of Truth even kept a cadre of the animals for his personal use. Naturally, this had bred hostility between the two sects, who perceived each other as rivals for the Prophet’s attentions, but beyond a few isolated squabbles, the situation had never escalated. The Jiralhanae knew their place; the Sangheili were second in the Holy Covenant, as they had been since its inception.

But then she had met Teno ‘Falanamee. In hurried, secret council with the Supreme Commander, with only the two Unggoy under her command in audience, she had heard what could only be described as the highest heresy imaginable. He had told her of a plot by the Jiralhanae to completely usurp the place of the Sangheili, and cast them from the holy embrace of the Covenant. This, at least, she might believe. The savage creatures were undeniably ambitious.

But there had been more. The mighty warrior, honored tool of the empire and hero of a dozen campaigns, had told her that this plot bore the blessing of the Prophets themselves.

The pilot should have reported the heresy immediately after ‘Falanamee had released her. Every fiber of her being, an entire life of worshiping the Prophets as the anchors of civilization and the shepherds of paradise, told her that what she had herd was a lie, and that the Supreme Commander’s mind had been corrupted by some blow or secret poison. And yet, she had not told a soul. Three things stayed her tongue.

First, it would be her word against his. If he denied the accusation to any authority she might approach, doubt might be cast upon him, but the effort would most likely cost ‘Mefasee her life. Nevertheless, if she followed dogma, such a sacrifice was her holy duty, and it would earn her a place in paradise with the Forerunners.

Second, though ‘Falanamee had been vague about the method by which he had learned of this plot, as she mulled over what he had related, many parts of it did seem to make sense. The Jiralhanae were ever more prominent throughout the fleet, and Prophets and their pet brutes were oddly close. Some said that the Hierarchs valued the advice of the white-haired Jiralhanae chieftain Tartarus more than the wisdom of the Sangheili who sat upon the High Council. Then, there were the string of mysterious disappearances, councilors lost on routine pilgrimages to Forerunner monuments, unexplained explosions on the Sangheili homeworld. Still, none of it proved open betrayal, much less collusion by the leaders of the Covenant itself.

It had been the third reason that had kept her silent. Though his motives and experience with the alleged plot were still unclear, it was obvious that ‘Falanamee wanted what he knew kept secret, and for reasons beyond mere self-preservation. It would have been simple for him to dispose of a handful of lowly support personnel; the Fleet Master could have issued false transfer orders and had Cakap, Migaw, and she cast into a reprocessing conduit. Few would even notice the absence, much less question it.

Instead, he had spared them, and entrusted ‘Mefasee with knowledge that might imperil everything he hoped to accomplish. He had given her a chance. An opportunity to help save her people from a threat she had scarcely ever dreamed of. Whether or not the Prophet’s intent to break their ancient pact was real or the delusion of a wounded soldier, ‘Falanamee’s simple show of faith in her of all the Sangheili he could have approached had been enough to amend her to him. Warrior or not, she was honor-bound to reciprocate the act with her allegiance. For the moment, at least.

It was a better fate than being cut into pieces or strewn into space as a fountain of ionized particles, she told herself wearily. Of course, if the Supreme Commander’s heresy was detected, she’d find that road eventually anyways.

The pilot turned away from the magnificent view below and focused her attention on the elevated foyer that lead into the High Council’s convocation chamber. Hulking Sangheili warriors in the elaborate red and orange armor of the Hierarchs’ Honor Guard flanked the triumphal path, and packs of elite, heavily armored soldiers patrolled ancillary balconies and gravity lift pads. The holy court was in session.

Since attaching her to his personal staff, which had been completed depopulated during the engagement around the human world, and transferring to High Charity from the August Judgment more than two days previously, Teno ‘Falanamee had been within the hallowed halls of the High Prophets almost constantly. With him were the most renown warriors from every sector of the Covenant; the Prophets had been quick to assemble the cream of the Armada in the face of the new threat.

They were afraid, ‘Mefasee comprehended suddenly. The Prophets were actually afraid. Somehow, the realization disturbed her more than anything she had heard from the Supreme Commander.
-------------------------------------------------------

“I come with news, high ones.”

Debate within the council chambers quieted. Seated in ranks upon the terraced rises that lined each side of the hall, Sangheili on one and Prophets on the other, dozens of immaculately dressed councilors inspected the lone red-armored major as he made his way up the central concourse, careful to keep his head lowered in supplication. A crowd of esteemed warriors parted for the soldier, grateful for a pause in the tedious debate that had consumed the grand chamber before his arrival. The major did his best to resist honoring each of them as he passed; there were a few in attendance who demanded recognition even before the Fleet Masters, Blessed Zealots, and Supreme Commanders.

At last, the soldier mounted the low speaking dais near the head of the vaulted chamber and dropped to his knees, touching armored helm against the polished floor.

Before him, positioned in a raised arena that was somewhat removed from the rest of the room, were seated the three most powerful beings in the known universe. They were the Hierarchs, ordained by the gods themselves to deliver the message of the sacred prophesies onto the beings of the galaxy. They ruled their race, and half dozen others, with honeyed words, inspiring sermons, and merciless judgments. They were the Supreme Triad. The High Prophets.

The three regarded the Sangheili soldier before them a moment before speaking. Then one, seated upon an elegant and deviously armed levitating throne like his cohorts, floated forward a fraction, causing the gilding of his pointed crown and wing-like epaulets to glimmer in the ghostly illumination that pervaded the room. He raised one willowy hand and made a lazy sweeping gesture. This was the Prophet of Regret.

“You may continue.”

The major rose. “Excellencies, elements from the fleet of Immaculate Foresight have arrived in orbit. Their commander reports that his force has just received word that the staging yards of his fleet around Distant Morning have been attacked and their defensive forces routed. He intends to gather what ships remain at his disposal and retake the system.”

A murmur echoed through the assembly. Distant Morning was a jumping-off point for engagements throughout most of human space. It boasted three large and heavily armed docking facilities, and a perimeter fleet of at least a dozen capital ships.

One of the other Hierarchs moved forward. “Was the composition of the invading force relayed?” This was the Prophet of Mercy, an ancient even among his long-lived brethren. His bulbous head drooped upon its long neck and his skin was pale and flaky, but within his large eyes burned a passion and zeal undiminished by age.

“The telemetry of an observer drone that was positioned within the system indicates a group of three of the enemy’s blade-ships, Excellency. The device recorded well into the engagement with the vanguard fleet before it was ordered away. Of the fourteen cruisers and carriers that were stationed there, only five remained as of last contact. No enemy casualties were detected.”

Another murmur.

The major did his best to remain calm as the rulers around him became increasingly agitated. “The commander of Immaculate Foresight has rallied a full battle group about his battleship and has vowed to lay the intruders low for their infractions against the Holy Covenant.”

“Tell the commander to hold,” a reedy voice commanded, silencing all whispered conversations. The final member of the triad moved forward, fixing the Sangheili firmly in his piercing gaze. This was the Prophet of Truth, highest of the high. Though Mercy might have been more pious and Regret more aggressive, Truth was the unspoken leader of the three. His sheer force of will was unequalled, and his judgments were rarely challenged.

“We cannot afford to divide our forces until a stratagem has been devised for combating these invaders. I will not allow an entire battle group to destroy itself blindly for a system that is already lost. The commander will consolidate his forces here, and await further instructions.”

Once he was sure that the High prophet had finished relaying his order, the major supplicated himself once more and then moved from the chamber with all the speed that dignity allowed. Truth’s edict was time-sensitive, and the major knew all to well what would happen to him if the message arrived after the fleet master had already departed.

It did not take long for the suspended debate to renew after the messenger had left.

“Forgive my presumption, Excellency, but we must go on the offensive eventually. We cannot allow the warriors who fell during the incursion at the cleansed human fortress planet go unavenged, or stand idle as these attackers lay siege to our worlds.” The speaker was Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree, Admiral of the Holy Covenant Empire and Regent Command of the Combined Fleet of Righteous Purpose. He stood head and shoulders above the other officers who were assembled in the hall, and practically radiated physical strength and martial ability. “Their weapons are powerful, but we are more numerous, and our warriors will not submit to their assault. No foe has been able to withstand the might of the Covenant in our history, and this threat shall be crushed like all the others. The blessing of the gods flows through your words, and their strength flows through the Sangheili. We cannot lose if only we stand.”

Agreement rippled through his fellow soldiers and the Sangheili councilors, but not all of them seemed convinced.

“We have not yet established where these vessels have come from, or what their intent is,” an elder Ship Master near the back of the crowd put in. “Their technology is like that of the ancients. Perhaps they are their emissaries. We should at least attempt to establish communications with them. If even the slightest possibility exists that they have been sent by the Forerunners…”

“Why would emissaries of the gods devastate our fleets and set fire to our worlds?” another Ship Master demanded angrily.

The elder glared at the other. “The Flood are creations of the ancients, are they not? The hand of the Forerunners is not always a gentle one. Perhaps this is another test.”

Several Sangheili growled at the mention of the insidious parasites. Though inspection of certain Forerunner artifacts had unleashed outbreaks of the adaptive, intelligent pestilence, many could not believe that the Forerunners could have created such a sickness. The debate had little bearing on the trial that faced them all now, but the meeting had revealed more and more that dispute was rife throughout the Covenant leadership, even within the ranks of the Sangheili themselves.

The chamber began to devolve into a shouting match. Councilors screamed at one another across the aisle. Warriors found their hands searching for weapons. From the shadows, Jiralhanae guards and chieftains looked on in silence, relishing the discord.

“Enough!” Truth’s voice boomed forth once again, and quiet descended immediately. None dared defy the High Prophet, least of all when his orders were tinged with anger.

“I will hear no more talk of this threat being thrust upon us by the gods. Such banter is heresy. These vessels come not from the heavenly plane, but from the bosom of an enemy we know all too well.”

He tapped a control on his metallic armrest, and the center of the chamber shimmered to life with a large bubble of holographic light.

“This message was transmitted to one of the vessels that attempted to reinforce our armada when it was first beset by the intruders.”

The swirling vortex of light rapidly resolved into a 2D screen, modified by the holographic projector so that it could be seen clearly from every corner of the room. Tinged slightly be bluish static, the face of a human in flimsy, dark raiment appeared, and it began to speak, filling the council chamber with unintelligible words. Sounds of apprehension and dismay emanated from the ranks of the both the Prophets and Sangheili.

“The tongue the creature speaks is not like that used by others of their species, and our translation Oracles have not yet been able to decipher the meaning of the message, but it is plain that the being is a human. The ship that received and retransmitted this signal was able to verify that it did indeed come from one of the blade-ships before it attacked the intruders and was destroyed.”

For a few moments, no one in the assembly was able to respond to the revelation. The very idea that accursed humanity could harness technology that surpassed that of the Covenant had once been an unthinkable notion; how could this have changed so swiftly? Certainly, the vermin were adaptive and stubborn, but could they have really co-opted and improved weaponry stolen from the holy empire to such an extent? They had endowed some of their warriors, the hated, green-armored Demons, with thieved strength, but constructing a fleet of warships so vastly improved was an entirely dissimilar feat. Had they discovered and plundered a Forerunner relic of unprecedented power? Could the entire war have been a bizarre rouse, with the humans only now showing their true power?

“Why have you only showed us this now, High Prophet?” a voice questioned from the thick of the Sangheili warriors. Several parted to reveal a gold-helmed Fleet Master staring at the Hierarchs intently. “Surely this message did not just reach your notice. It was been days since our defeat at the human fortress world. Such intelligence is relevant to the matter we now discuss, is it not?”

Truth stared at the warrior coolly for a breath without responding, but he did not betray any outward signs of emotion. “My brothers and I required time to consult the holy texts and see if they spoke of the humans’ involvement in this threat. It would have been imprudent to rashly bring this to public notice before its ramifications could be studied.”

“And what did the texts say, Excellency?” the Ship Master pressed. A new wave of whispers washed over the crowd; such frank questioning of a Prophet’s motives, much less the motives of one of the Hierarchs themselves, was almost unheard of.

“There is no specific mention of the creatures that drive the war machines,” Truth replied without pausing, and then turned his attention to the rest of the assembly, raising his graceful hands to draw their notice. “Our original interpretation of the holy texts, as High Prophet Mercy’s sermon at the dawning of this invasion related, held firm. All that is stated within them is that a dark cloud will vie to consume our Holy Covenant, and that we shall rally together as in ancient strife to overcome it. Then nothing will stand in the way of our sacred duty to cleanse the galaxy until the impending arrival of the Great Journey. Our victory is preordained in this trial, and all we need do is find the right path to salvation. The gods have blessed our crusade.”

The High prophet’s keen, orb-like eyes drifted back onto the questioning warrior. “And truly, honored Fleet Master, what does it matter who we fight now? The remains of their warships will be cast into the depths of space and their homeworlds burned for their crimes against us, regardless of what beings inhabit them. If the threat and the human infestation are one in the same, then our task is all the more glorious. I presume this revelation does not diminish your desire for revenge against those who surprised and annihilated your fleet. You still wish a new command to hunt down the heretical invaders, I hope? You, like all the commanders here, are far too valued an instrument to be dulled by doubt.”

All eyes turned once again to the Fleet Master. Some had only now realized that the speaker was the former commander and sole survivor of the Ascendant Justice, mighty flagship of the fleet of Particular Justice. Rumors of his valiant defense of the Prophet who had been the first target of the new enemy and miraculous survival of the engagement, some said by divine intervention, had only increased the acclaim that the esteemed Sangheili held amongst his kin. Few were still surprised at the audacity of the display now.

For all his will, however, the warrior seemed to still know his place. “You speak with wisdom, High Prophet. I meant no disrespect by my inquiry.”

Truth’s thin lips drew back into a tight smile. “Of course not. Only simple soldiers follow orders mindlessly. It is the job of leaders to think and question, so as to better serve the great crusade to the fullest of their ability.”

The High Prophet waved his hand and the hologram above evaporated. He then directed a subtle nod at Regret, who came forward again.

“My bothers and I must consider all that has been said today, as must you all. We shall resume this session in half a unit, at which time the method of the invader’s absolute destruction will be determined.”
---------------------------------------------------

The great council chambers stood almost empty. Councilors had long since made their way back to the great city below and the Sangheili commanders shuttled back to their waiting ships. Even Regret and Mercy had retired to their private quarters, leaving only Truth in the hallowed space. Brushing the fleshy protrusions of his chin pensively, he sat in silence, reflecting upon the projection of a great, floating ring, similar to one that adorned the face of his crown. Its perimeter danced with flickering Forerunner hieroglyphics, and his great eyes followed each text strand with rapt fascination, as if he could see more in them that simple geometric shapes and symbols.

Deep, guttural breath abruptly sounded from behind the Prophet’s hovering throne, and Truth dismissed the holographic ring with a flick of his wrist, then turned to face the new arrival.

Before him kneeled Tartarus, chieftain of all Jiralhanae clans. Massive for even those of his mighty species, the creature’s slivery-white coat covered muscles and battle scars that might have given a titanic Lekgolo pause. Rather than a crimson plasma rifle or bladed grenade launcher, the favored weapons of the Jiralhanae shock trooper, the chieftain clutched in one fist the legendary Fist of Rukt, a crackling, electromagnetic battle hammer nearly as tall as he. Tartarus shunned any form of armor or personal shielding, and rather than a metal helm, a prominent mohawk of white hair dominated his scalp.

Truth admired his impressive servant for a moment. The hulking brute could best half a dozen skilled Sangheili warriors in close combat at once. Behind his bloodshot eyes simmered a savage intellect comparable with some of the finest tactical minds in the Covenant armada. He commanded uncounted legions of the best soldiers in the galaxy. Best of all, though, the Jiralhanae was absolutely loyal.

“Rise, Tartarus, and come forward. I have a task for you.”

The beast reassumed his full, impressive height and stalked forward, planting the handle of his mighty weapon against the polished deck and staring into his master’s eyes with supreme focus. Most Prophets found the Jiralhanae custom unnerving, but the High Prophet had grown to appreciate it. Only a creature that could look upon him with such bald openness could truly be trusted.

“You know of the Fleet Master Teno ‘Falanamee?”

Tartarus gave a sign of recognition.

“I want you to watch him. Send your most trusted agents to observe his actions, and record all he does outside of this chamber. A great struggle is coming, and I cannot have dissent splitting our ranks. Not yet.”

“I shall do as you command.”

The ghost of a smile passed over Truth’s visage. “I detect doubt in your words.”

Tartarus did not blanch at the suggestion, and his stare remained resolute. “Why not have me kill the Sangheili now? If he is a threat to your designs, he should not be allowed to live.”

“He yet has a purpose to serve. In any event, he is too prominent and renowned to slay openly. His disposal will have to be more… subtle.” The Prophet nodded to himself slowly. “Rest assured, Tartarus, I will not any being disrupt the genesis of a new Covenant and the continuation of our holy quest. If you wish it, when the time comes, you will be the one to take this commander’s life.”

Tartarus bore his sharpened tusks in satisfaction. “He will be a great challenge.”

Truth looked into the Jiralhanae’s eyes a moment longer, and then began to turn his throne away, making a dismissive gesture. “Go now. I must meet with the master of the August Judgment. Evidently, he wishes to speak with me of our friend Fleet Master, and his words may hold some value.”

Silently, Tartarus offered a nod of supplication and stalked out of the burnished chamber, his brutal features fixed with primal focus.



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


Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-01-11 04:36pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-01-02 05:30pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Fifty Six

Praetor Hiren scanned the main chamber of the Romulan Senate in silence, his bony hands folded beneath his chin. The high, circular space held within its walls the mind and soul of the Romulan Star Empire, the secretive power that had held a place of almost unrivaled martial strength within known reaches of the galaxy for centuries before the United Federation of Planet’s founding. Beneath elegant pillars and the giant gilded bird of prey that served as the assembly’s avatar, senators and military leaders forever debated, squabbling over every detail of every topic from foreign espionage to the vagaries of resource allocation. It was a tedious and often pointless affair, the praetor reflected, but Romulans had great patience for such things, and the greatest of his species were gathered there to ensure that the rest of the populace need never be diminished by ineffective leadership. He could always count on some verse of wisdom or fortuitous fragment of intelligence from one of the wizened, angular faces seated before him.

Or, at least, that was how things had once been. Now, many of those familiar faces were gone, their places in the ranks of low benches left empty like open wounds.

“…most recent reports from the Home Guard units stationed in the Dagenor and Pakli Segments indicate that the surviving elements of the invasion force have lost any semblance of cohesion, and are being swiftly exterminated. It appears that destroying the coordinating intelligence hidden in the OM2 dilithium mine on Remus has had the desired effect on the enemy, as the Tal Shiar predicted.”

Senator Cadea spoke with his characteristic clarity and purpose, but it was obvious to Hiren that the politician was distracted. As one of the older members of the assembly and a former admiral of the Romulan star fleet, Cadea had seen his share of conflicts, and this newest one was plainly bringing back old memories. This battle, however, was one quite unlike any the empire had experienced in its history; even the savage incursions of the Dominion only a few years previous had never struck so at the hearts of the Romulan people.

“Nevertheless, there is still some concern within the Home Guard and our intelligence services that the invaders might yet reassert themselves. I need not remind this assembly of the incident in the Unroth system, in which a similar brain creature was able to regenerate itself and resumed a campaign with its surviving minions after colonists had been allowed to return to their cities. The combat legions on Remus were quite thorough with their removal of the beast, but until the precise means by which it communicates and propagates itself are determined, there is still a threat.”

“I have been briefed of these developments, Senator,” Hiren said wearily. “We all have. Do you have anything new to raise in regards to the matter?”

“Yes, Praetor,” Cadea replied, undaunted by the weariness of his superior’s tone. “The forces on Remus are stepping up their sweeps of the caverns and shafts surrounding the one where this intellect was located to ensure that it does not reassert itself, but they are being impeded by the creatures that have managed to find their way into the deeper underground networks. Even without a central consciousness, many are still fierce fighters in close quarters, and the casualties among our patrols are beginning to mount. The only way to retain the operation’s viability is to push and hold back the beasts that are harassing our searchers. For that, more soldiers are required.”

“I realize that our active infantry units are stretched thin as it is, but I believe that the force deployed in the Pakli Segment can be reassigned to the planet’s mines without compromising the home system’s status significantly.”

“What?”

The cry rang out from one of the other delegates, and Hiren recognized the voice even before a senator rose from the ranks of her point-eared comrades. It was the stately Tal’aura, who represented the Pakli Segment, as well as the interests of a wide variety of social organizations throughout the empire. Hers was one of the provinces of Romulus that had borne the brunt of the incursion that had reached the soil of their homeworld less than a standard month previously, and still crawled with vestiges of the foreign horde. Though popular with the people, she possessed a contrary and stubborn nature which cause most of her colleagues see her in a rather dim light; it was wholly unsurprising that she would be the one to reignite debate in the somber chamber. The fact that her own constituents would be directly affected by the matter at hand made her outburst all the more expected.

“You would have us leave Pakli to those vermin? You cannot seriously suggest that we allow the invaders to continue to despoil Romulus, even as the hour of their extermination is at hand!”

“Please, Senator, this will only be a temporary redeployment.” Despite his relative seniority, Cadea was obviously unnerved by the firebrand of a woman who opposed him. Nevertheless, he had apparently anticipated such a rebuke. “The Fourth Battle Fleet is scheduled to return to Romulus for repair within a week. When they arrive, some of their soldiers can be dispatched to continue cleanup operations in the segment. Besides, the entire force need not be moved to Remus; more than enough infantry can be left behind to defend Pakli’s major cities.”

“And what of those who live outside the larger population centers?” Tal’aura growled. “Millions of Romulan citizens are still waiting in refugee camps across the system, yearning to return to what is left of their homes, and there are still pockets of survivors stranded in the Kesd’a Hills district. Who knows how many more could be devoured by these things if they are abandoned for another week?”

Cadea shook his head. “The risk posed by the enemy coordinator is too great to be ignored. Any further loss of civilian life is highly regrettable, but if the beasts that still lurk en mass in Romulus’ wilds regain a central drive after the general populace has returned, countless more will perish. This is the only prudent course of action, and even one of your… limited experiences should be able to recognize that.”

Inwardly, Praetor Hiren sighed. Cadea was definitely losing his tact, if he ever had any to begin with. Provoking Tal’aura, especially while she was in such a state, would bring productive discourse within the Senate to a grinding halt, but the senior senator simply didn’t seem to care anymore.

The past three months had been hard on them all. When Romulan spies within the Federation first reported the arrival of the nameless, brutal menace that was now the consuming focus of their deliberations, Hiren and his associates had watched the situation unfold carefully, but they had done nothing to intervene, even when as they received hundreds of desperate distress calls over the Neutral Zone. It was not the Romulan way to rush blindly to face a threat, especially one so sudden and bizarre. The decision had been an unpopular one; the Federation and Empire had been allies only years before against the Dominion, and elements of both the military and the general population disliked the thought of abandoning them to the savage parasites. Still, the Romulan armada was still recovering from previous conflicts, and as the true scope of the threat became apparent, the Senate resolved to cloister behind the borders of the Empire. No power could break such a line easily, and certainly not mere animals, vicious and prolific as they were.

After a time, all communication with the Federation, and the spies still imbedded within it, was lost. The Star Empire waited. The Klingons lost their homeworld. The Star Empire looked on, and a few even cheered at the downfall of their longtime foes. The Cardassians, the Ferengi, the Tzenkethi: all were consumed. The Star Empire did nothing but install more listening posts along the long-quiet Neutral Zone. World after world was engulfed by the sickening ichor, but the Romulans were untouched. Perhaps, some among the Senate began to speculate, the invaders knew that they would be unable to assail the mighty Romulan war machine, and did not ever intend on trying. After all, much of the initial chaos upon the Federation and its allies had been sowed by mind-controlled traitors and hidden nests of assassins; surely, the keen eyes of the Tal Shiar and the ever vigilant Romulan Armada could not be infiltrated so easily. Some hardliners even began to say that the galactic crucible was a good thing, a clearing-out of the lesser species in preparation for an unprecedented era of expansion and power.

And for a few short days, Hiren had almost begun to believe that himself.

Then, within a single day, the Star Empire was pushed to the brink of oblivion. On inner colony worlds where no foe had ever laid foot, massive armies of armored, clawed monstrosities burst forth, sweeping up citizens and soldiers alike in a nightmarish wave. Thick, black slime, spewed from the creatures’ living factories, crept across whole continents, consuming all native life and mutating them into new, twisted beasts of war. Squadron upon squadron of Romulan warbirds and battleships, each equipped with the finest cloaking devices in the galaxy and weaponry capable of laying waste to planetoids, were destroyed by a simultaneous onslaught of innumerable kamikaze ships. The enemy did not even employ the best of their thieved fleet; the bulk of the attacking force was made up of enslaved civilian vessels and science ships, loaded with volatile explosives and cast at the Romulan lines with utter abandonment.

In the confusion of that first week, a commandeered fleet had made its way to Romulus itself, and disgorged a terrible host upon the capital and its barren sister world of Remus. It was a testament to the skill and resolve of the soldiers of the armada that Hiren and most of his comrades had been spared at all. The invaders were eventually repelled from the home system, but the price in lives and war material had been catastrophic. Light-years away, a dozen worlds were still wracked with conflict, and a dozen more lay as burned ruins, scraped clean of life rather than allowed to live on as spawning grounds.

More egregious than all other losses, however, was the loss of Romulan pride. Despite all their preparations, their removal from the galaxy, their martial might, the invaders had effortlessly, almost contemptuously, brought them to their knees. They little better now than any of the other peoples of the galaxy, left adrift in a savage sea.

Praetor Hiren, seeing that Senator Tal’aura was about to launch into an enraged rebuke of Cadea, rose from his seat, drawing all attention to himself. “You wish me to push your proposal through for an immediate vote, do you not, Senator Cadea?”

“Yes, Praetor,” the senator replied, mildly surprised.

“It is a prudent request, and I shall carry it. And let it be known that I favor the proposal. The security of Romulus is vital to the future of our people, and if sacrifices must be made to preserve it, then we would be cowards to balk at them.”

The vote was conducted quickly, and resulted almost unanimously in favor of Cadea’s proposal. Despite all that had befallen the empire under his leadership, Hiren still maintained support throughout the ruling body, and when he had made his opinion on the vote clear, there was no real doubt as to its outcome. Tal’aura fumed silently from her seat, but she knew better than to press the matter. Romulan politics was an inherently perilous business, and defying the Praetor in a time of war was tantamount to suicide.

Before the Senate could move on to other matters, the hand-carved double doors to one side of the domed room swung open and a young Romulan officer entered. His left eye was cloudy and dead, surrounded by the green-tinted slash of a rough, barely healed scar. He was no doubt fresh from combat; the Senate Guard had seen its share of the fighting in the last month.

“The ambassadors from the United Federation of Planets have arrived and await an audience.”

Hiren grimaced. Several days ago, word had reached Romulus of a new message from Federation space, the first such communiqué since well before the invasion of Star Empire. Two facts about the news had caught the Praetor’s notice: first, rather than a plea for aid or request for asylum, the captain who relayed the message indicated that it regarded the reformation of the alliance between the Federation and the Star Empire, and a campaign against the invaders. Second, Starfleet had actually dispatched a fully-operational warship to the edge of the Neutral Zone, in hopes of immediately beginning negotiations.

Some of Hiren’s military advisors had suggested that they continue their platform of silence towards the rest of the galaxy, but others, shaken by recent events, had taken a more receptive stance, and Hiren had decided to side with them. If the invaders struck the Empire again, there was little chance that it could withstand the onslaught; any opportunity to change the course of the war had to be considered. Nevertheless, the Praetor doubted that any strategy that the Federation emissary might propose could be viable. The most current intelligence on the Federation and its allies showed a dwindling collection of ill-defended and far-removed worlds, little to no logistical capability, and a ragtag fleet that was both burdened with a mass of refugees and worn to breaking by ceaseless defeats and narrow escapes.

Still, he had dispatched a ship to the Neutral Zone with news that the Senate would agree to hear of this new plan, under the condition that it was delievered on Romulus itself. The captain of the vessel had agreed, and now it seemed that the Starfleet vessel arrived in near-record time.

As a murmur of curious conversation ran through the ranks of senators, Hiren bade the officer to allow the emissaries entry. With a nod, he exited, and was replaced a moment later by a trio of figures, flanked on either side by stony-faced Romulan guards.

As the group approached the center of the chamber, Hiren’s eyes focused on the lead individual, an older, bald human male who moved with practiced presence and decorum. His lined face and tempered bearing triggered a burst of memory in the Praetor, and the Romulan’s tight features loosened in surprise.

“Captain Jean-Luc Picard, of the USS Enterprise?”

“I’m flattered that you recognize me, Praetor Hiren,” Picard responded, his voice calm and respectful.

“Your diplomatic talents and martial ability are quite well known within the Star Empire, Captain, or at least they were in years past. Unless our intelligence services are very much mistaken, though, you, your ship, and all of its crew disappeared more than seven years ago. And I do not doubt the veracity of our data on your past whereabouts.”

Picard smiled. “And you should not. I have indeed been absent for the Alpha Quadrant for a very long time. The circumstances surrounding the displacement of myself and my crew are a complicated matter, but in the interests of mutual trust and disclosure, I would be more than happy to detail them for you and your intelligence agencies.”

Hiren leaned back marginally, a look of bemusement playing across his face. “I look forward to it.”

“Now, this body has been informed that you wish to negotiate in regards to an alliance between the Romulan Star Empire and the United Federation of Planets. I realize the necessity of keeping your intent vague in communiqué for risk of interception, but now that you are here, I believe that it is time for a full accounting of the Federation’s intent.”

Picard nodded. “Of course, Praetor. Let me begin by introducing my fellows.”

He indicated to the figure to his left, a pale, human-like creature dressed in an immaculate Starfleet uniform similar to the Captain’s. “This is Commander Data, my second-in-command for this envoy.”

The name triggered another flash of memory, and Hiren recalled a classified document on the commander he had seen in his days of government service before ascending to its highest echelons. Data was a Soong-type android, reputedly one of the most advanced artificial intelligences in existence. Were circumstances different, he might have spent an entire fleet to acquire the specimen and the unique technology that was encased within its chassis.

When Data had nodded formally to the Praetor and the Senate, Picard turned to the being to his other side, one that Hiren was quite sure that he had never seen before. It was also humanoid in shape, but its polished golden casing, stiff, methodical movements, and muted, expressionless face were all distinctly inorganic. The device clasped a small, knob-encrusted box in its hands delicately. Hiren suspected that it was some sort of information storage medium, although it was unusually large and faceted for such a device. Still, it could not be overtly dangerous; his guards would have made sure of that before allowing it into the chamber.

“And I am See-Threepio, human-cyborg relations,” the machine chirped eagerly, not waiting for the human’s introduction. “I bid you greetings and salutations, Praetor Hiren and august senators of the Romulan Star Empire, on behalf of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, and my master, Princess Leia Organa.”

Hiren frowned. “I am unfamiliar with the organization of which you speak. Do you mean of the alliance the Federation has created with the Klingon Empire? I had not expected that such a body would ordain royalty so quickly.”

“The Alliance of which he speaks does not include the Federation,” Picard explained, cutting in before See-Threepio could continue. The android seemed to deflate, despite the rigidity of his frame. “However, the two groups are affiliated nonetheless. Princess Organa has offered military support to the Federation and its allies against the Zerg, the invaders who have wrought so much destruction upon the galaxy these past few months.”

The Zerg? Hiren wondered if the Federation had simply invented a name for the parasites, or whether they were privy to intelligence that had not reached Romulan ears.

“You mentioned in you communiqué that the Federation wished to acquire a renewed military compact with the Romulan people, Captain,” Hiren said, putting aside his personal curiosity about Picard’s odd companion. “Moreover, you indicated that there were plans underway for a counterassault against these… Zerg, as you call them. It is known to this assembly that your Starfleet and the Klingon Imperial Navy have been vastly diminished in strength over the course of this war, and that with your every loss, the enemy grows stronger. The armada of the Star Empire is mighty, even after numerous incursions, but we cannot risk spreading it thin to mount a counterattack now. To do so would leave our worlds bear to assault and corruption.”

“It is undeniable that the repulsion and destruction of this menace is a necessity for the preservation of the Romulan people, but at this stage of the conflict, a direct military campaign would be suicidal. I do not see how the remnants of a handful of shattered fleets can supplement our armada sufficiently to lend such an effort the possibility of success. You must believe me, Captain, when I say that what has befallen the Federation is a great tragedy and injustice, but at this time, the Romulan Star Empire cannot afford to aid it militarily. The needs of my species must take precedence.”

Hiren had expected very visible signs of anger, or at the very least disappointment, even from a diplomat as experienced as Picard, but the human showed no indication of offense or resignation. Instead, he listened to the Praetor’s ultimatum calmly, and then asked See-Threepio for the device he carried.

“While I must admit that your assessment of the situation is largely correct, Praetor, there is a key aspect of our new campaign that you have overlooked, and understandably so. While Romulan assistance is crucial to the effort, the Federation does not expect the armada to form the core of our offensive force. You see, the aid the Alliance has provided to us is rather more significant than a few conventional warships or production facilities.”

“What are you implying, Captain?”

Picard smiled again, and then held up the knobbed device, on which crystalline holographic projectors and data ports were clearly visible. “Perhaps it would be best if you saw it for yourselves.”
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The jade-tinted globe that was the planet Coridan glinted gently in the radiance of its distant star. As one side of the world was cast into night by its inexorable rotation, the other basked in the glow of a new dawn. Wide oceans and forested mountain ranges caught the light and seemed to come to life. Fish swam, avians sang, tiny arboreal creatures emerged from their nightly hiding places. The only locales that remained quiet were the areas where nature no longer ruled: empty city streets, unlit high-rises, vacant mines and factories, and even these places could only seem peaceful under the morning sun.

As the planet moved its bulk further and darkness was drawn back further, a new site of activity was revealed, a mere speck upon the bosom of the world. There, nestled between an emerald sea and a scattering of isolated mountain peaks, a splotch of blackness lingered. But this was not a natural dark, the dark of nightly hunts and deep sleep. This dark was alien, life and death as one. This was the blackness of consumption. And it was spreading.

High above the globe, five vessels, tiny against the awakening mass, passed swiftly back from day back into night, their dim running lights and weary drives suddenly beacons away from the illumination of the far primary. When the continents and waterways below lost definition, the small group angled sharply away from their orbital trajectory, coming together in a loose formation and fixing as one on the only other significant landmark for hundreds of millions of kilometers; Coridan’s single, lifeless moon.

The formation was made up of a motley collection of vessels from several eras and as many different worlds. Two bore the distinctive disk and nacelles of Federation craft, of which only one, a heavily patched-up New Orleans-class frigate, was of a design that had been produced in decades. The others were cumbersome transports or mining ships, one of an old Vulcan make, and another that could have come from any number of shipyards, a determination made impossible by the number of spare parts and home-brewed alterations that held its hull together. The last was an ancient Tellarite freighter that could, and very well might have been, a museum piece for most of its lifespan.

This was the last fleet that Coridan, loyal member of the United Federation of Planets for more than a century, could muster. Onboard those tired ships were packed a few thousand citizens, the only of their planet who now had a chance to escape the blackness that had seeded their world. As it had before hundreds of times in hundreds of systems across half of the galaxy, the lethal division had begun; a few, a lucky few would drift off into the void on their crowded steeds, refugees in their own country. The rest would serve as fodder for the ravening minions that all now knew as “the Zerg”.

This time, however, the swarm seemed to be planning on an especially mighty brood, and it was not eager to allow even the smallest of morsels to escape its plate.

“There,” the junior grade lieutenant in charge of the New Orleans-classes’ active sensors reported nervously. “Emerging from that storm system above the Dussur Sea. I’m picking up strong life signs and heat signatures. A lot of them.”

“Onscreen,” acting captain Garis of the USS Hobbes ordered. Unease was palpable in the Trill’s voice. He become second-in-command of the battered ship only weeks before, after the previous officer to hold the position had been removed from duty due to extensive wounds he had sustained during an away mission to evacuate a scientific post that the Zerg had targeted for absorption. Now he had to lead the few remaining operable ships in the Coridan system away from the same tide; the Hobbes’ commanding officer, a native of the now-doomed globe, had removed himself from duty out of fear of a conflict of interest. It was Starfleet’s standing order to save all those who could be saved, and leave the rest; abandoning one’s people, one’s very family often enough, to the most terrible of deaths was not something every captain had been able to do over the last few months, and many a ship had been lost because of it.

A far view of the greenish world appeared before Garis. It showed one of the planet’s larger bodies of water, a dim mass in the darkness. Faint whorls and staggered lines were etched above it; storm systems and cloud strata. For a moment, the man could discern no detail in the image, nothing of concern for the fleeing fleet. Then, something, the slightest trace of motion, caught his eye.

“Magnify.”

The image complied, and in an instant the largest of the storm systems over the sea filled his viewscreen, rotating and undulating with cyclic winds and lashing precipitation, an occasional flash of static discharge arcing from one intemperate expanse of sky to next. As one of these lightning bolts tore through the distant atmosphere, a speck of matter, darker than the clouds at its back, appeared. It was soon followed by a dozen others like it. A hundred.

“Magnify,” the Trill breathed again.

This new image brought him straight into the swarm of dots, but now they had obvious, horrifying form. Each was an egg-like sac of flesh and sinew that pulsed and flexed with each beating of the two clawed, bat-like wings that framed its form. The faces of the creatures were angular cones of serrated teeth, encircling a maw that hung ever open to the void into which it rose. These were the scourges, entities that embodied the mystery and terror that were part and parcel of their horde; like most Zerg, they had no need for oxygen, and could fly into the coldest depths of space unhindered. Further, though their wings could physically find no purchase in the emptiness, they moved nonetheless, and at a prodigious, overwhelming rate. What research had been spared for the few specimens captured intact had no explanation for their method of locomotion; it was as though sheer force of will, their own or that of a greater power, allowed them to bend the laws of reality itself.

And their speed was not the most sinister of their capabilities.

“Cut our speed to half impulse,” Garis ordered at last. “I want us between the civilian ships and those creatures.”

“Captain, the Keep reports that she is unable to maintain her current speed,” the comm officer reported from her station. “She is dropping to point four four impulse.”

The Tellarite freighter was in no state to fly at all, Garis thought, almost angrily. It was a wonder it hadn’t exploded from the strain already, and it very likely still could, especially if any external impact stressed its hull more than it already was. What made the situation worse was the fact that it was his most important charge; certainly, the ship only had a few hundred refugees onboard as opposed to the thousands on the other vessels, but it held other cargo. The real reason Starfleet had spared any ships at all for Coridan’s evacuation was not humanitarian, but a strategic; the planet had once been a starship construction and dilithium mining nexus, and when both industries had dried up, a great deal of unused machinery and material was mothballed. Now the fleet was in desperate need of spare parts, and the Keep was packed with crates and crates of them, swiftly culled from abandoned warehouses and vaults across the planet.

The Hobbes’ acting captain momentarily wondered why the Federation hadn’t devoted more manpower to recover such badly-needed assets, but he didn’t have the time to dwell on what he lacked. The scourges were gaining on them quickly.

“Keep us behind that freighter! I don’t care if we have to crawl to do it!”

The frigate began to slow, reverse thrusters and inertial dampeners cutting its forward momentum. The other ships rocketed past, holding their course towards the world’s only moon.

“Bring us about!”

He glanced at his tactical officer, a Vulcan who looked positively serene standing at his weapons post. Garis wondered in passing if, deep down, the sentient’s lack of outward emotions was just a façade. Surely, even they had to feel something when facing down oblivion.

“Prep all weapons systems for combat. I don’t want a single one of those creatures to get past us, not as long as this hull still holds atmosphere and its phaser coils can siphon energy. Those ships have to get out of this system intact.” He paused, eyes flitting over the nighttime globe that still filled the viewscreen. “Every last one of them.”

The Vulcan nodded curtly. “Affirmative, sir.”

“Fire as soon as they enter range.”

Seconds later, lines of crimson energy arced around the frigate’s curved bow and burst forth in a series of three short, compact beams. Each found its own target, and a trio of the flighted beasts disassociated into their component atoms. Twin photon torpedo launchers roared to life, and two more encapsulations of energy tore through the void, straight into the heart of the pursuing formation. They detonated without impacting any particular target, and rank upon rank of the creatures vanished forever.

“Twenty five confirmed destroyed,” the tactical officer reported without a trace of satisfaction intruding upon his monotone. “The sensors detected at least one hundred and ten remaining.”

“Sir, a few of them are accelerating away from the main group, past us and towards the civilian ships!”

“Keep us between the fleet and those creatures!” Garis ordered the helmsman. “Tactical, use the phasers to pick off the ones that are getting past us. Save the rest of our photons for the main group.”

The Hobbes wheeled about again in pursuit of the breakaway attackers, but not before lobbing another set of torpedoes from its tubes. Their discharge of energy tore through the cloud of hostiles again, but the majority emerged from the conflagration unscathed and surged forward all the faster.

A series of shift slashes with the frigate’s phaser array were all that was required to keep the motley set of evac ships secure, but it had been forced to completely alter its firing vectors to accomplish the task; ships like the New Orleans-class were not intended to fight by themselves, and their blind spots were easily exploitable by even the dullest of foes.

“Sir, several of the creatures have broken from the main group. They’re charging our rear shields.”

“Brace for impact!”

Eight of the frontrunners, now flying almost parallel to the guardian vessel, abruptly folded their ominous wings and ploughed into the Hobbes’ aft section. Shimmering shields intercepted the suicide projectiles well before they hit, but rather than disintegrate or bounce off, as normal organisms would, they exploded with terrifying force. The offensive mechanism of the scourge was just as supernatural as their interstellar flight; though employing sacrificial fodder was a common enough tactic among the swarm, rarely did their minions detonate with enough force to shake mountains. By all accounts, this ferocity was impossible; no living thing could contain within its organs a power that could rival phaser blasts upon release. And yet, the warship’s shields still buckled and pulsed from the hit.

“Report!” the ship’s CO demanded, recovered from the tremor that had swept his vessel.

“Aft shields are holding.”

Another impact shook the bridge, and then another. An unused science station behind Garis exploded in a shower of sparks, and the bridge’s red-tinted lights dimmed momentarily.

“Shields have dropped to eighty two percent, Captain. The rear structural integrity fields are beginning to fluctuate. We may have to reduce our speed in order to avoid a breach.”

“No!” Garis shook his head. Slow now, and nothing could stop the deadly flock from swarming the civilian ships. Even now, some of the scourges were passing the Hobbes, making a run on the Keep, which was still lagging behind.

As a dozen of the beasts filled the corners of his viewscreen and another impact rocked the ship’s shields, Garis suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to survive this mission. It should have been obvious, he supposed, as soon as the Zerg decided to give chase. True, he could give the order to break off their running defense, to dump all power into the drives and surge to a point where his ship could find safely jump to warp. There was still time; scourges were powerful, but they still needed an overwhelming number of impacts to battered down the shields of a Starfleet warship, hits that could not be landed if he fled now.

Despite himself, Garis grinned.

“Lieutenant Commander Udak, how many photon torpedoes do we have left?”

“Three, sir,” the Vulcan responded calmly.

“What would happen if they were programmed to detonate in their tubes simultaneously with an unrestrained warp core breach?”

Udak preformed a few calculations as other members of the bridge crew looked on, understanding dawning on each of their faces. “The resultant blast would annihilate everything within an eleven kilometer radius of the core.”

Nodding slowly, Garis turned to his helmsman. “Do you think that you can put us right in the center of that formation, Ensign? Can you keep us there?”

The young human’s face hardened, but he nodded resolutely. “Yes, sir.”

The Trill smiled again. These engines, this crew, were far too good to be wasted on running. Silent for a moment, he turned to gaze at the swelling curve of Coridan’s moon through the viewport, framed by a constellation of striking stars. As he traced the crisp, dark horizon, just the hint of the sun’s light beyond it, he wished absently that he’d taken a poetry course during his time at Starfleet Academy. It’d have at least given him something profound to say.

He suppressed the thought. Perhaps some things were simply better left unsaid.

“Alright. Initiate core overload sequence, authorization…”

“Hold on, sir.” The communications officer was suddenly back at her controls. “I’m picking up an incoming transmission from just beyond the lunar terminus. Audio only.”

Garis peered at the viewscreen again. The constellation he had seen… was it moving?

“Patch it through.”

The bridge’s intercom crackled with static, but a voice emerged from it, loud, clear, and more than a little cocky.

“Looks like you boys have quite a pest problem. Hold tight; the exterminators are on their way.”

The distant specks that Garis had thought were stars swelled, took on definition. As the bulk of the Zerg swarm passed the Hobbes, the lights disappeared. Then, just as Commander Udak began to list the contacts registering on the frigate’s sensors, and the first scourges dove hungrily towards the Keep’s unprotected aft, space bloomed with fire.

The Hobbes had not been able to reach Bajor in time to participate in its last-ditch defense, but every remaining vestige of Starfleet and its allies had heard of the Alliance, whose mighty warship had almost single-handedly saved the system from being overrun. As his viewscreen focused on the source of the sudden cascade of weapons fire, Garis knew that it could only be of one origin.

Alliance starfighters of all classes and descriptions cut into the pursuing cloud like predatory fish falling upon a school of bottom feeders. X-Wings belched quartets of crimson energy from their four wing-mounted laser cannons; Y-Wings traced swaths of destruction through the demonic flock with their turrets; B-Wings lobbed volleys of blaster and laser shot from afar; A-Wings dove straight into the thicket of creatures at the head of their formation, spinning and juking to avoid hitting their targets as they laid into them with withering streams of charged particles.

Behind them roared the mottled-white disk of the Millennium Falcon, its top and belly-mounted quad turrets disintegrating any of the beast that had escaped the first pass. One of the Zerg spawn managed to throw itself into the freighter’s path and impact before the ship could change its course. A bloom of super-heated plasma and flaming entrails engulfed the Falcon, but it emerged unscathed, wobbling slightly to correct its course; the faint shimmer of its skin-tight deflector was the only sign anything had attempted to halt its progress.

“Captain, the Zerg force has diminished to seventy individuals, dropping at a rate of fifteen ever thirty seconds. At current rate, it should be completely eliminated within less than three minutes.”

Garis mutely acknowledged the Vulcan’s objective report, all but transfixed by the scene that was playing out before him. Now he understood how the fleet at Bajor had been able to withstand a full Zerg onslaught. Each of these fightercraft seemed to possess the firepower and speed of a Starfleet line warship, despite being less than a fortieth of their size. The Zerg force was disintegrating in a way he had never seen any of their elements fall apart before; if Garis did not know for a fact that the scourges were little more than muscled bags of gas and vestigial incisors, he would have said they were afraid.

Still, the day was not yet won. As the Hobbes strained to catch up with the running firefight, one flighted beast managed to reach the fleeing Tellarite freighter and ram itself into the ship’s graying top section. Its antiquated shields absorbed a majority of the blast, but the strain shorted them out completely. When another scourge launched its attack, there was nothing to prevent the creature from gouging a deep gash into the cargo hauler’s starboard sublight drive. The blocky vessel began to spin out of control, its engines dying.

“Sir, the Keep’s structural integrity is beginning to fail, and its drive and communications systems are offline. Another direct hit will likely knock out its remaining systems, or breach its core outright.”

Garis only had to ponder the tactical situation for a moment. There were still more than enough Zerg out there to tear his charge to pieces, and his vessel certainly couldn’t get within range before they could. “Put me on an open frequency.”

“All Alliance ships, the vessel at the rear of the civilian fleet has sustained heavy damage, and is under imminent threat of destruction. No more of the creatures can be allowed to reach its hull.”

“Since you asked so nicely…” It was the same smooth voice from before, both confident and surprisingly informal. “I think we can give them something else to take a bite out of.”

“Red Two, Three, form up on me. Green squad, see if you can catch up to the contacts angling starboard of that lagging freighter. The rest of you, take care of the stragglers.”

A flurry of vocal confirmations and clicks sounded over the audio feed. Almost as soon as they ceased, a gruff, bass moan sounded somewhere in the background.

“Yeah, I see them Chewie. Let’s just focus on these guys for now.”

The Millennium Falcon, a pair of X-Wings guarding its flanks, broke from the main plane of battle, its main drive burning with a burst of blue-white illumination. The formation shot forward, blazing guns tracking one cloud of attackers as another was intercepted by the blindingly-fast cone of half a dozen sleek A-Wings.

The Hobbes was almost in range of the main group of remaining scourges when the concerned voice of his scanning officer caught Garis’ attention. “Sir, I’m picking up more contacts rising from the planets surface.”

The Trill’s amazement was replaced by the unsettling coldness of battle.

“Show me.”

The viewscreen switched back to Coridan’s dark face and focused on the forbidding same storm system, which had continued to intensify over the course of the battle. Another visual enhancement gave the new contacts full definition. They were biological, not the captured machines that the Zerg favored in their campaign, larger than the scourges and far more complex, with obvious sensory organs and frills of huge, undulating spines. The swarm rarely used living behemoths such as these in open space combat, but Garis had seen briefings on their capabilities, and knew that they could be just as deadly as their smaller, suicidal brethren. For one, they did not did not need to touch their prey to hinder it.

“Bring us about and divert power to shields,” Garis ordered. “This fight isn’t over yet.”

The tusked mandibles of the dozen new fliers flexed and widened, preparing to disgorge some lethal projectile or pulsating spawn. The crew of Starfleet frigate braced for the inevitable impacts, the explosions, the soundless screeching of the Zerg’s abominations.

Then, one by one, the emerging foes erupted into globes of atomic fire, missiles annihilated before they could shoot forth. Sluggishly, a few of the creatures attempted to turn back, to find shelter in the turbulent atmosphere they had left behind, but each was consumed despite their efforts. In less than half a minute, the Garis’ viewscreen showed only Coridan’s fitfully slumbering form.

Bewildered, the captain glanced at his tactical officer and then ordered the ship’s sensors back upon the battleground around the lifeless moon. Could the Alliance fighters have done this as well, destroyed the enemy’s second wave so quickly, and from such a distance?

Mirrored sunlight flooded the bridge, shrouding the scene before him, but Garis swiftly discerned that the fortunes of his fleet had altered once more. The last of the Zerg scourges were gone, clouds of minute debris that shed easily from the deflectors of the victorious Alliance fightercraft as they formed a loose perimeter around the civilian convey. More surprisingly, though, several more vessels had appeared, just rounding the moon’s gentle curve. Two were obviously Starfleet, and another looked like a Cardassian Galor-class cruiser; these were hardly singular sights, even though Garis wished that they had arrived significantly earlier in the engagement. No, it was fourth form, between and larger than the others, that held his notice.

“Captain, I believe that it was the largest of those starships fired on the second Zerg force.” Udak sounded almost awkward.

Garis couldn’t blame him. Suddenly, he felt distinctly unneeded.
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For once, things were going smoothly, and had Imal Ryceed been a religious woman, she would have given thanks to her gods for that fact alone. After years of fighting a losing war against the Empire, and the bizarre series of perilous escapes that were the last few weeks, any victory, even a small one, was a more potent opiate to the captain and her crew than the most expensive Hutt narcotic.

From the bridge of the Republica, she watched with satisfaction as her turbolaser batteries obliterated the unsuspecting Zerg reinforcements. A few days ago, the ship’s heavy weapons were in such a state of disrepair that they couldn’t have accurately targeted ships at half the distance of the bloated, invertebrate creatures. The tireless efforts of her engineering teams, supplemented by a few groups of eager, if technologically unprepared, Starfleet crewers had given her a total of four, fully functional medium turbolasers, twice as many as were available at the engagement at Bajor. Bolstered too were the light cruiser’s lesser weapons systems, drives, and deflector arrays; the Republica was still operating at less than half of its optimal combat efficiency, the highest level available without a full refit from a shipyard of her native disk, but the improvement was still impressive.

Ryceed reminded herself to recommend both the ship’s executive officer and operations chief for accolades when this farce of a mission was over. Gavplek’s dedication and Hessun’s serene focus had probably done far more to hold the Republica together then her leadership; all she had done was allow Councilor Organa to drag the ship from one battle to the next. Ryceed was under orders to follow the councilor’s directives, and although she had voiced her reservations to the woman more than once, perhaps too much, she couldn’t help but feel as though the peril placed upon her crew was of her own making.

“All targets confirmed destroyed,” weapons control reported.

“Good.” Ryceed made her way from the bridge’s main viewport to the bank of fire control operators that occupied most of one wall of the chamber’s lower deck. “Maintain combat readiness stations for the time being. I want us to be ready if anymore of those things decide to show their ugly faces.”

“There’s also the infestation on Coridan,” Commander William Riker said, moving to Ryceed’s side. “We cannot leave the system until the immediate Zerg threat has been completely eliminated.”

The captain shot a look at the man. “Thank you, Commander. I do not require any further reminder of the Republica’s objectives here.”

Riker’s expression soured marginally and he yanked on the tunic of his brand new Starfleet uniform, but any response he might have given was cut short when a crewer at the Comm requested his attention.

When the man had left her presence, Ryceed let a small smile cross her stiff jaw. Riker was a smug, self-righteous bastard, but she was still beginning to like him. When he had first been assigned as the official Federation liaison to the Republica, the captain hadn’t exactly welcomed him with open arms, but once she had gotten over the bother of having another person on her bridge to report to, her qualms with the appointment had faded, if only marginally. Though he was intended to be constant reminder of the Federation’s interests and of the Alliance’s compact with them, she still outranked the commander, and he had demonstrated a willingness to follow her orders, even when he disagreed with them.

Besides, Riker have proved to be something of an asset over the last few days. The Republica had not spent all of the time since the victory at Bajor licking its wounds; though the strategists at the head of the compact Leia Organa had entered the ship into agreed that a major, concerted strike had to be made against the Zerg quickly, they nevertheless allowed for a brief respite during which the allies could marshal their forces. The Alliance cruiser had her two fighter squadrons had played a key role in that effort; as the bulk of the Starfleet and Klingon fleets were being repaired and diplomats being sent to the few intact military powers left within reach, Ryceed and Riker had been tasked with “putting out fires” on as many besieged worlds as possible.

With its vast speed and firepower advantages over its native counterparts, the Republica could accomplish missions that would have required far too many resources and far too much time to be undertaken otherwise. Guided by Riker and starmaps provided by Starfleet, the ship had rescued pockets of survivors on isolated worlds, smashed nascent Zerg “occupation” forces before they could take root, and escorted civilian convoys to the relative safety of Bajor and its surrounding systems. Finding one planet, the Klingon colony H’atoria already completely overrun with the suffocating Zerg creep, Ryceed had ordered the most heavily infested continent slagged from orbit. The operation had been nothing next to the Imperial Base Delta Zero bombardment, by which Star Destroyers could turn an inhabited planet into a molten ball of rock in less than a day, but the sight of a titanic firestorm of her own making race across H’atoria’s land and atmosphere had been one of the most unsettling things Ryceed had ever witnessed.

One of their other expeditions, a supply run on an abandoned ammunitions depot near the ravaged ruins of the planet Betazed, had seen their only significant encounter with opposition. As a Starfleet tanker was beaming up the last of munitions from the depot, hidden in the system’s asteroid belt, a swarm of Zerg vessels and warriors, an old mining ship they had somehow converted into a mass driver at its head, had ambushed the Republica and the cargo ship. Ryceed’s cruiser had easily shrugged off the attack, but the tanker and its fighter escort had been trapped against the asteroid when it spontaneously began to disintegrate. Riker had realized that the converted mining ship was using its gravitic fields and tractor beams to destabilize the rock, and the Republica destroyed it before the entire body shattered. They had lost the tanker and one of Ryceed’s pilots, but Riker’s quick thinking had saved the lives of half a dozen others.

She glanced at the man as he conversed with one of the Starfleet vessels they had brought with them to secure Coridan over a flat panel display. Riker also played a mean hand of Sabacc in the officer’s mess after evening meals; he said it reminded him of a game he used to play with the command staff back on his old ship.

“Captain.” Riker looked up from his screen. “One of the civilian freighters sustained heavy damage before we arrived. Her impulse engines and power systems have been compromised, and the captain’s decided to abandon ship. The Hobbes and our escorts have already begun transporting the crew to safety, but the cargo containers in the freighter’s hold cannot be beamed out. They are requesting that we take on the load and transport it back to Bajor.”

“Can’t the cargo simply be abandoned?” Ryceed asked. “The refugees we picked up from that Ferengi commerce platform have already filled our holds nearly to capacity.”

Riker shook his head. “The freighter, the Keep, is carrying dilithium re-crystallization equipment. It uses contained, directed gamma radiation to recharge the dilithium in the regulation centers of warp cores. That kind of machinery is hard to produce and difficult to transport; it has to be packed in large, heavy crates that are impossible to effectively scan or transport because of the radiation inside. The fleet has been looking for backup devices since the Zerg destroyed Starbase Montgomery a month ago. Without them, a third of the ships around Bajor will be unable to use their warp drives within a week.”

Reluctantly, Ryceed nodded. Riker was right, but the captain wasn’t happy about the prospect of another delay, even a brief one. She had just received word that all available ships were being called back to Bajor. The offensive was about to begin. Ryceed still didn’t think of the campaign against the Zerg as her war, but she wanted it to see it over as much as any Starfleet officer; when the last world was recaptured and final monstrosity blasted, she could finally go home. There was still a war to fight there, one far closer to her heart.

“Can the containers survive in open space?”

“They should be fully sealed,” Riker responded.

“See if you can get the Keep’s captain to dump her cargo before he evacuates it entirely. I’ll dispatch our shuttles and repair ships to gather them up. In the mean time, there’s still one thing we have to take care of.”

Ryceed turned her attention to the holographic representation of Coridan that filled the bridge’s main tactical projector. A small area on its surface, a strip of coastline on its northern southern hemisphere, was highlighted; the site of infection.

Soon, the spot would be a cratered ruin, and the planet would be safe. At least, safe until the Zerg decided to foul its landscape with another insidious seed.

Hopefully, if all went according to plan, they would never get the chance.



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


Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-03-16 10:42pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-01-12 11:38pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Fifty Seven

No warship of the Holy Covenant was entirely devoted to the arts of combat and destruction. Within the curved halls of every vessel, argent or amethyst, picket or dreadnaught, plasma cores, Seraph racks, and barracks vied with the trappings of religion. Holographic projections of the High Prophets emerged from hallway monitors; holy sermons blared periodically over the communications net, and worship services were regular parts of the daily cycle; the sacred script of the Forerunners was inscribed on every duty station and mess chamber wall. No where was this doctrinal reverence more evident than the Hall of Catechism, one of the few shipboard rooms close enough to a ship’s hull to sport an expansive viewport for contemplation of the heavens. The chambers were used for special religious observances, crew ceremonies, public discipline, and the reception of certain dignitaries; in the minds of many, the Hall was just as vital a part of a starship as its overbridge or reactor matrix.

And, installed alongside ornate iconography and dogmatic plaques, were the most intricate projection devices and recall circuitry available; the Halls made ideal map rooms.

The chambers of smaller vessels were often little larger than crew barracks, but heavier ships could sport massive, amphitheater-like spaces that rivaled the grand galleries of High Charity. Onboard the mightiest of the mighty, supercarriers like the Sublime Transcendence, their vaulted ceilings and panoramic viewports seemed to stretch on forever.

As he passed the pair of armored Lekgolo titans who guarded the room’s main entrance in brooding silence, Supreme Commander Teno ‘Falanamee, the title of Arbiter hidden beneath golden armor and mauve wrappings along with the scar that would forever tie him to his conflicted past, admired the adornment the vessel’s commander had chosen for the space. Whereas some ships focused solely on the Forerunners and their emissaries, the Supreme Commander found the history of the Sangheili equally as prevalent here. Far murals depicted scenes from the ancestral homeworld, as it was before the First Age of Reconciliation and the Covenant’s founding. Monolithic statues bore the likenesses of the greatest warriors in the holy empire’s history, each clutching a battle-worn weapon or booming out orders that had been given in millennia long past.

Standing at the far end of the great chamber was a figure whose stature was undiminished even in the midst of the awesome expanse; Imperial Admiral Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree. Menacing, regal, awe-inspiring, the Sangheili was all these things and more, and he wore his resplendent gold-silver armor with the ease of one who had earned it time and time again in the crucible of conflict. Before him was an unparalleled starscape, upon which the Combined Fleet of Righteous Purpose was poised in eager formation, the green and white face of a distant nebulae at its back. Behind him, filling the hall from floor to high ceiling, rotated a huge orb of glimmering, tinted light. Motes and bezels formed star systems and stellar phenomena, every component artfully incorporated to constitute a familiar set of a dozen spiraled arms and the void beyond; this was the galaxy in all its grandeur, the domain of the Covenant.

Teno ‘Falanamee halted before the perimeter of the great map and assumed a posture of respect, eyeing his superior’s turned back in anticipation. “I have come as summoned, Excellency.”

The Imperial Admiral drew up his broad shoulders and came about to face the one who had addressed him. His feline eyes inspected ‘Falanamee for a moment, and then he moved from his place before the grand viewport, forgoing the circular path that skirted the edge of the projection field and forging straight through the lattice of illumination. When he finally stopped, Wattinree was only a long stride from his visitor, but he still stood within the lit bubble, transient stars and worlds passing over his armor as the chamber’s projectors mimicked the gradual movement of the galactic disk.

“There is no need for that, Supreme Commander,” he rumbled, gesturing that ‘Falanamee should rise, as he did readily. “This is a time for action and focus, not empty pleasantries. Besides, I seem to recall that you have more of a talent for strife than decorum.”

“As you say, Admiral,” ‘Falanamee replied. Secretly, he was glad to find the warrior in a mood for such banter. The Sangheili had met the other a few times before, and he knew that if Wattinree was in a foul temper, topics of contention were best avoided, at risk of egregious personal injury. The Imperial Admiral was a skilled leader and fighter, charismatic, well known and highly respected the Covenant, but the fire that burned within him could scorch friend and foe alike if something disrupted his normally-measured demeanor.

Wattinree swirled a huge hand in the air next to him, and the stellar patterns reformed into the likeness of a collection of warships ‘Falanamee recognized as his own, the Fleet of Particular Justice, reformed and supplemented since the engagement at the human world Reach. The Admiral selected one ship in particular, a five and a half kilometer assault carrier, and it ballooned to a size sufficient to nestle upon his palm.

“I trust your new command meets your needs; the Sacrosanct, isn’t it? It is of the same class as the Ascendant Justice, and I believe that it has seen nearly as much combat as your old vessel. Still, you may find it rather limiting for a time; if I recall correctly, your former flagship sported some rather unorthodox enhancements.” His mandibles widened into a slight smile. “Carriers do not typically bear battleship-grade energy projectors. I can only imagine that that particular modification gave the blade-ship you faced alone some pause, despite your eventual defeat. Nevertheless, I expect that the Sacrosanct will serve.”

“It has functioned well under my command since the Council assigned it to me,” ‘Falanamee said. “The Sacrosanct’s crew has also preformed admirably, despite the removal of their old master.”

“Good.”

‘Falanamee paused a moment before continuing. “I have heard reports that Fleet Master ‘Kreasee fell in combat during the Combined Fleet of Benevolent Edict’s attempt to disrupt the enemy’s rally point in the Ichor Drift. Is this so?” ‘Kreasee, former commander of the Sacrosanct, had been among the first into battle after the Hierarchs had at last authorized a counterstrike against the human attackers.

Wattinree stared at the warrior gravely. “He fought nobly to the last. Accounts from the battle indicate that he rallied our forces after their flagship was destroyed, and dealt one of the foe blade-ships a killing blow before fire consumed him.”

‘Falanamee nodded in respect, and then aligned his eyes with the admiral’s once more. He was unsurprised that his superior did not mention that the entire combined fleet, nearly the size of Wattinree’s own, had been annihilated along with ‘Kreasee; that was a wound that the warriors of the Armada could only bear in silence. Many Sangheili had died on that day. Far too many.

After a moment of what might have been silent reflection, hidden mourning, or artfully contained rage, the Imperial Admiral turned to the bulk of the galactic replica and indicated for ‘Falanamee to come to his side.

“Now, let us come to your purpose here, Supreme Commander. Your martial abilities are well-renowned, and I would be remiss to ignore such an asset. The Council has tasked me with consolidating our offensive fleets and forging a new strategy to stem the advance of these infernal humans. Your experience and input would be most valued.”

Teno ‘Falanamee nodded gracefully. “Then let us begin.”

As the two officers worked, pouring over new intelligence reports, fleet statistics, and battle logs, ‘Falanamee kept one eye on the other, carefully watching his posture and monitoring his mannerisms for the slightest inflection. The war that confronted them was, of course, of great concern for the Sangheili, but another threat hung ever-present in his mind. His swift reinstatement to the Armada had done little to assuage his fears on the treachery of the Prophets and their minions, and the course of the conflict in the last few days had all but convinced him that the coup he had witnessed the start of would not be stalled by the sudden Imperial incursion. Though the Prophets had seemed to acquiesce to the demands of the Sangheili components of the Council, agreeing to an open campaign against the human menace, their compliance brought with it a price that Teno feared his comrades were too preoccupied to acknowledge.

The Supreme Commander could only hope that Wattinree’s mind was not similarly clouded.

After the pair had debated the distribution of reinforcements to the two mobile battle stations, the Unyielding Hierophant and the Harbinger of Dawn, both of which formed the heart of command and control for fleet operations within the galactic arm, the Imperial Admiral dispelled the miniature representations of warships arrayed around them with the wave of his hand and replaced them with a shimmering projection of High Charity that was as large as he was.

“I have received word that the capital has withdrawn towards the homeworlds, and has paused at Asphodel to take on more soldiers and accommodate repairs to its slipspace drives.”

“Asphodel is a Jiralhanae world,” ‘Falanamee said, allowing the faintest trace of a growl to accompany his words.

“It is.” If Wattinree had recognized the Supreme Commander’s inflective, he showed no sign of it. “While the vessel of the Hierarchs is being attended to, it will be unable to transition into slipspace, and will thus be vulnerable. I have been instructed to dispatch elements of the fleets of Remorseless Truth and Chaste Starlight to supplement their vanguard. The redeployments will weaken my cruiser cores around several key installations bordering human space, not significantly, but they will hinder offensive options along vectors distant from Joyous Exultation. I am still unfamiliar with the slipspace conditions in this sector of space. Which of these coordinates, by your experience, would be the best point from which to reform our main offensive network?”

Wattinree gestured to several coordinates set in the stars around them, but ‘Falanamee did not follow his movements.

“You will be continuing offensive operations while the Armada is weakened in this way?”

The Imperial Admiral turned his gaze back to the subordinate. “Our onslaught must not relent until the enemy has been pushed from the galactic plane. The High Prophets made that clear when they authorized a counterattack. I will not allow a temporary setback such as this to force us into retreat once more.”

“This is not a prudent course of action, Excellency,” ‘Falanamee pressed. “Even now, our forces are beginning to falter, and it will not be long until the enemy begins to actively seek out our installations and worlds. We could barely repel another concerted attack as it is. Spending more ships now on costly raids can only weaken us.”

“And what would you have me do, Supreme Commander?” For the first time, Wattinree’s tone was tinted with anger. “Hold our fleets back even as their warriors cry for battle? Wait here for the blade-ships of the humans to seek us out and overrun our lines?”

“You know that is not what I intend, Admiral,” ‘Falanamee replied, adding comparable heat to his tone. “My heart seeks vengeance and combat as much as any Sangheili’s, but this passion is tempered, as it must be. I know that victory is possible, in spite of the enemy’s might, but I too must acknowledge the true scope of the threat they pose. If we barrel into this foe blindly, it will tear our fleets asunder. Your experience and skill are great, Excellency; I know that you can see the truth in my words.”

Wattinree glared at ‘Falanamee for a long time in silence, and for all of his battle-hardened composure and genetic fortitude, the latter could not help to begin uneasy. To openly dispute the wisdom of a Prophet bordered on heresy; to speak to an Imperial Admiral in such a way could be suicidal.

“I cannot defy the Prophets on this matter.” The mighty warrior’s response came in the form of a growl, but ‘Falanamee could sense that the feeling behind the words was not resolute.

“The Prophets are not all knowing, Excellency. On matters of war, we Sangheili have always possessed the superior perspective, if only for our intimacy with battle. Even the most pious warrior would willingly follow your order over that of the Hierarchs, if only you were to give it.”

“You speak of heresy, ‘Falanamee.” Wattinree was suddenly very still. “I am no heretic. Do not make me suspect you of such a weakness.”

“If heresy is alive within the Covenant, it does not reside within you, or I, or any Sangheili.”

As words echoed through the chamber, ‘Falanamee saw Wattinree’s eyes widen and then narrow beneath his helm. The Imperial Admiral was no fool. The lesser fleet master might as well have openly defamed the Prophets; his meaning could have been no more clear.

“Guards.”

‘Falanamee tensed, and his weapon hand dipped imperceptivity towards his holstered sword hilt. The pair of Lekgolo at the main portal perked up at their master’s call, raising their massive fuel rod cannons and repositioning blade-edged shields.

“Leave us.”

The two glanced at each other, but they complied without comment, and lumbered out into the adjoining hallway without ceremony, the razor spikes on their backs creaking slightly as they walked.

When they were completely alone, ‘Falanamee dared to relax his hand. The Imperial Admiral had not immediately declared him an enemy of the Covenant, as he was obligated to do by sacred oath. How long the lapse would last, though, ‘Falanamee did not know. Wattinree was already staring at him with weighted expectation.

“You must have noticed by now how the High Prophets have chosen to fight this war. For decades, they have shown apathy towards the methods and organization of the Armada; we Sangheili have been given objectives, and it has been up to us to decide how best to achieve them. Now, however, the Prophets seem to take a great interest in our strategies. When, before this began, was the last time that the Hierarchs ordered specific fleets redeployed, much less specific elements of those fleets? When was the last time that they personally ordered battle groups not to withdraw from combat under any circumstance? You’ve seen the field reports from the Ichor Nebulae. That battle was lost as soon as the enemy summoned reinforcements, and yet the Combined Fleet of Benevolent Edict remained until every last cruiser had been shattered. They could have withdrawn honorably, and with minimal losses, had it not been for the directives from High Charity.”

“How many of our greatest warriors have met their ends these last few days? Admiral ‘Naqualee, Ship Master ‘Inanraree, killed throwing themselves upon the enemy simply because such sacrifice was demanded by the word of the gods or because of honor and tradition. What is honorable about dying uselessly and leaving the soldiers of the Covenant without guidance or motivation? Who are the Prophets to define our traditions for us, and chain us to strategies that were rendered obsolete as soon as the Ascendant Justice burst into flames?”

“What of Keda ‘Enifalee, the high zealot you sent to assault the source of the enemy’s monitoring drones? I know something of your martial style, enough to see that that order went against your better judgment. Attacking a potentially superior force with no intelligence on the target and a fleet as small as ‘Enifalee’s? His defeat was all but certain from the moment you relayed that command. But the blame for his death does not lie on your head; the Prophets ordered that folly. Your only fault was submitting to them.”

“The Hierarchs are bleeding us dry. Were a swift victory against the invaders their real aim, they would have been more cautious, more conservative. They would have continued the council in the capital, and allowed our warriors their say on strategy rather than filling them with religious fervor and sending them to their deaths. Has a single one of their species died since that first battle? Have their Jiralhanae pets suffered losses even approaching our own? Are the fleet elements that have been recalled to Asphodel, far from the front lines, not heavily crewed by the foul creatures?”

“We must not allow ourselves to be used like this any longer. We are not trinkets to be manipulated and then tossed away. I do not wish for this Covenant that has stood for so many generations to be torn asunder, but it is not I, or any Sangheili, who made the first tear. I do not know why the Prophets have betrayed us so, now, in our darkest hour, but surely you must see that they have. You must at least acknowledge the possibility, the suspicion of a threat. These machinations are not the first signs of treachery on the part of the Prophets, but if you resolve now to defy their sinister edicts, to do what is necessary to safeguard our people, then this corrosion at the very foundation of our civilization can be stopped before it consumes us all.”

His darkest fears laid bare, ‘Falanamee fell silent. He had said all that he could say, with all the passion and conviction that a warrior hardened by decades of battle and betrayal could muster. His ultimatum had both drained him and relieved some of the weight that lay upon his heart, but he dared not gasp for breath or relax his resolute posture. Wattinree had still not spoken.

The Imperial Admiral stared at his subordinate for a long time before moving again, and when he did at last break the statuesque pose, it was not to speak. He turned away from the Supreme Commander, slowly folded his long, muscular arms behind his back, and began to walk away, holographic light shedding from his armored bulk. When his commanding voice finally drifted back to ‘Falanamee, its tone was impossibly cold.

“You are right about one thing, at least, Supreme Commander. The Covenant has lost a great many fine leaders in this conflict, and we require those left more than ever now.”

“For that, and no other reason, I will allow you to leave this room alive.”

Wattinree paused, and then turned to look up at the statue of an ancient Sangheili general, his sword held aloft, rallying his forces towards glorious victory.

“I do not know what could have transpired to turn a warrior of your reputation and ability into a mouthpiece of poison. I do not want to know. I have heard enough of your words, your defamations, your heresy, and I will not suffer another utterance. You have dishonored yourself in a way that any true servant of the Covenant and our people could not even contemplate. They would sooner die. Moreover, you have done this here, in full view of our ancestors. You have done this on my ship.”

“You will leave now. You will return to the Sacrosanct, and you will ensure that your fleet is prepared for battle. When the time comes, you will lead them into combat with all the dedication and ability demanded by your station. And then, when the enemy is wiped from this galaxy and the Holy Covenant is once again secure, you will come to me, and I shall see if you have enough warrior’s spirit left within you to die with some dignity. Do not ever repeat what you have said in this place. Do not dishonor your name further, and do not befoul the hearts of those under your command. Defy me, and you’re death will be swift and utterly graceless.”

Then Wattinree was silent, alone against his vast starscape. ‘Falanamee reared back and clenched his powerful fists tight, but he knew that there was nothing more that could be done. He regarded the admiral a second longer, barely able to contain the anger and regret that had replaced his cautious resolve. Then, he turned for the chamber’s entryway.

The Lekgolo Wattinree had sent away gazed at the Supreme Commander as he marched past their posts outside the Hall of Catechism and off down the central walkway, head held as high as it had been when he had arrived. The pair exchanged an indecipherable look with hidden eyes as the Sangheili disappeared around a corner, and then solemnly trudged back to their former posts.

Almost as soon as the giants had gone, a far smaller, slighter figure appeared in the hall, slipping from behind one of the broad pillars that dominated the great chamber’s approach. It was a Kig-Yar, gaunt and avian, with a beak-like mouth that perpetually bore vicious teeth and wide, bloodshot eyes that ever scanned its world with paranoid keenness. Cautiously, the figure approached the sealed doorway, looked it over, and then peered down the empty way that ‘Falanamee had taken. Its narrow, gaping maw widened into a sneer.

Then, with a muffled squawk, the creature was gone.
-------------------------------------------------

With a faint hiss, the door of the tiny, stark cubicle slid shut. The world within its cool, metal frame was isolated from the rest of the universe, a bubble of stillness, tethered to reality only by the distant vibration of the Imperial shuttlecraft’s drives as it forged through the abyss of hyperspace.

The sole occupant of this space was motionless for a long moment, frozen just beyond the sealed doorframe. Aayla Secura did not spare the furnishings of the chamber the most fleeting of thoughts; it was a simple room, fitted with a low bed, a computer terminal, and a rudimentary refresher. Of course, even if it had been as vast and elaborate as a Neimoidian treasure vault, the Twi’lek would have paid it no heed. The conflagration of thoughts and emotions that burned within her mind consumed it too fully now for any purely material concern to penetrate easily. Even the unbridled exhaustion that weighed upon her limbs required some time to cajole her towards the sleeping quarter’s primary fixture, onto which she finally sank without a sound.

The woman who had once been a Jedi Knight was tired, more tired than she had been in all of the recollections that she could still summon from the turbulent umbra that hung over her mind. The last days, she could not clearly recall how many it had been, had seen the Twi’lek and her rancorous cohort flit from one side of the Empire to the other, reaping a bloody crop as they went. The list her master, Lord Vader, had guided her to had been a long one, a hundred and more souls on as many worlds, but she had worked swiftly, feverishly, tirelessly, finding each, judging their allegiances, and culling those she deemed to be disloyal or unfit. Her lethal crusade was a blur; with each passing hour she could remember less and less of the journey, the sequence of worlds she had visited, the methods she had used to detect and dispatch the unworthy. But that didn’t matter now. Her task was complete, the listed was finished, and now she could return to the Imperial Center and await Darth Vader’s return from his far battle front, content that she had faithfully executed his will.

But she did not feel any satisfaction, none of the confidence or focus that Vader’s attentions had given her, and certainly none of the peace that she had felt as a Jedi, in a life long past. Instead, her mind roiled with conflict and pain. These were things that the Dark Side flourished upon, that the Sith and their followers should relish, but she could draw nothing from them. They only pounded at her ceaselessly, weakening her body and her mind. Even her connection to the Force seemed to be choking under the poisonous cloud that had enveloped her essence.

Breathing raggedly, Aayla stripped away long, ebon mantle that had she had adopted in her service to the Dark Lord until her blue skin was bare to the bleak, artificial light of the cabin. When her overclothes had been discarded, the fingers of her left hand moved haltingly to the dark sheath in which her right arm was encased. Gritting her teeth, the woman seized the top of the long glove and peeled it down slowly, shivering as a new wave of pain swept over her. Vader’s medical staff had eliminated any physical means by which the wound that Palpatine had inflicted upon her, a scab of blackened, cracked flesh that covered the entire appendage, could render discomfort, but they had been unable to remedy its appearance, or the wave of torment and revulsion that swept over her every time she laid eyes upon it. The power of the Dark Side could not be undone by mortal means alone.

Aayla let the foulness of the mark upon her arm flow through her, attempting to embrace the feelings, funnel them into the engine of hate that churned in concert with the beating of her heart. When her task had still loomed unfinished, she had used the scar to supplement her strength; the memory of the foul creature that had scarred her, the tantalizing taste of the Force’s true power. Hate and lust had quenched what food and water could not.

Now, however, the intensity of the emotions that swept from the wound was overwhelming. The Twi’lek could no more draw strength from them than she could the hollow Jedi teachings that still occasionally echoed in the back of her mind. As she looked upon charred remains of what had once been smooth, lustrous skin, Aayla could feel the storm that raged within her head howl with new energy. Pain coursed down her spine, burning nerves and wreaking havoc with her already fragmented senses. Aayla wrenched the lip of the glove up, only barely stopping herself from reeling onto the floor.

There had been pain before. There had been a clouding of her thoughts. But this was new, this was different. No power could come from the torment that fought to engulf her now, no arcane knowledge or forgotten skill.

The Twi’lek clenched her hands together and ground them under her chin, hazel eyes darting aimlessly around the dim room, chasing phantoms that only she could see. She could feel the pain working its way into the farthest depths of her consciousnesses now, severing mental paths and obscuring those memories she could still perceive.

Desperately, Aayla cast about for an anchor, something with which she could drag herself back from this corrupting abyss. This was simply part of the process, she tried to convince herself, the genesis of the dark Jedi, the birth of a Sith. She just had to remember what she was doing this for, why she had acquiesced to the embrace of the Dark Side. It would give her power; it would give her clarity of purpose. It had given her the strength to avenge the destruction of her old life, and break free of the chains that the old masters of the Jedi Council had placed upon her. It would keep her safe in a world of chaos and death. It would let her live, and lend life to those she cared about. It would please Lord Vader, the man who had saved her, shown her the way.

But even as she drew in this list of virtues, strengths that the Dark Side would provide and needs that it would satiate, it evaporated before her fevered mind’s eye. It was all hollow, useless. What was power if she could only live in pain? What was clarity if she could only see the darkness that consumed her? Had felling Palpatine done anything for those he had slain decades before? Did her actions truly mean anything to Darth Vader? Should she have devoted herself to a man who was a shattered shell of the soul she had once known so long ago at all?

As this failed attempt at solace faded into the churning maw of the storm, voices and images welled up to replace it. But they were no heralds of peace. The cries of those she had damned and slain roared in her ears, the weeping, the guttural cries, the irrational begging and bargaining. Each came with a face, dead-eyed, some bloody, others deformed and scarred, all bearing tokens what she had wrought. And now she could no longer remember why she had slain them, why she had spared some of the treacherous and skewered the loyal. They were all foul, bloody creatures, but…

But so was she.

The thought slashed at her as though it were a blade, cutting her more deeply than it should any follower of the darkness.

Delirious with pain and fear, Aayla fell forward onto the metal floor, flailing about for something, anything that could stop the anguish that threatened to tear her mind and body apart.

Then, her unbound hand fell upon something cool. Familiar.

Peering through the tears and cold sweat that stained her face, Aayla could make out the bulky cylinder of her lightsaber, lying on the ground where it had fallen when she had removed her shroud. The storm within her abated, if only slightly, and she summoned the strength to pull the hilt closer.

It was not her sword, she remembered dimly; that blade had been destroyed in combat with the Emperor. Instead, this one had been a gift from Darth Vader, a sign of her bondage to him. He had told her that it had once belonged to Obi-Wan Kenobi, his old master, one he had slain, among the last of his ancient order. It was a sign of his triumph over the weakness that the Jedi had taught, and he had passed it on to her so that she might know power and control as the Sith lord did.

Now, though, as she ran a finger over the object’s smooth grips and knob-like controls, an entirely different effect manifested itself. Something stirred within her, something that had been nestled and hidden so deeply that the dark storm had not yet touched it. It put forth a tendril, and Aayla felt a fragment of focus return to her, and then an ounce of strength. Not the raw, uncaring power of the Dark Side, but the firm, vital warmth of another force, almost alien to her and yet wholly welcome.

She could see new faces now, not those of the slain, but of the living, the living as she remembered them, from so long ago. Obi-Wan’s smiling, bearded face, friendly, compassionate, staunch in the face of the grimmest foe. Masters Tholme and Plo Koon, who had taught her the ways of the galaxy and the Force. Kit Fisto, Mace Windu, wise old Yoda, comrades, guides, and guardians. Quinlan Vos, a mentor who rescued her from the darkness of a galaxy without friends and family, and saved her from the Dark Side’s touch in decades long past. They came to her now not as shades, ghosts of what she had lost, and she did not see them as oppressors or fools. They still bore light for her, survived in the tempest of her mind, despite the tumult that consumed all else.

Her lips quivering, Aayla Secura began to whisper, the lines of a mantra she had thought long forgotten flowing suddenly back to her.

“There… there is no… no emotion, there… is peace.”

“There is no…”

The words caught in her throat. She knew them still, she wished, she yearned to speak them, to summon the light that they might bring, the peace that still dwelt somewhere within her. And yet, no more would come. She gagged, lurching up, lightsaber still clasped in her left hand, but no movement could knock free the sudden barrier.

Then she felt it. The thing she should have felt long before, so long before. In the illumination of that one spark, that one cache of radiance that had somehow kept alight within her corrupted bosom, she could sense, she could see with all her senses what had stayed her tongue, and was now climbing from the depths of the storm.

Desperately, acting on some impulse she could not comprehend, perhaps a discarded fragment of duty or simple terror, she lifted Obi-Wan’s lightsaber to her forehead and pushed its conical energy emitter against her wet skin. Her finger twitched on the ignition key, as if struggling against invisible bonds to execute its final order, but it did not, could not depress the button. With the last of the strength that the light within her had provided, Aayla reached out through the Force, clawing for the control that her body could no longer reach. It was all that consumed her now; she wanted to end it. End everything. It was the only way.

The only way to stop it.
--------------------------------------------

Lumiya sat in the shuttle’s command position, smoothly configuring the ship’s drive systems for atmospheric approach and initiating a preliminary landing checklist. The communication’s display lit up with a transmission from Imperial Approach Control, and the dark Jedi swiftly relayed the codes that would exempt her ship from all normal vector controls, flight restrictions, and inspections. The stuffy officer on the other end of the line processed the information and gave Lumiya full clearance, and then quickly broke contract; any officer who had served in the Core Regions for very long knew that it was best not to waylay vessels with such high level clearance with bureaucratic jargon or empty pleasantries.

Her approach preparations completed and entry vector locked in, Lumiya leaned back wearily. The mission had been draining for her as well, all the more so as her companion grew more and more insular and hostile. Though she dared not speak them, the cyborg still held many reservations about Aayla and her campaign. The Twi’lek’s recent, unexplained expedition to the Beshqek system had only heightened Lumiya’s suspicion.

A cold wind suddenly cut through the woman, and startled, she turned in her seat to see Aayla enter the shuttle’s cockpit. Lumiya had felt always something strange when in the presence in the alien, but the aura had previously been faint and indistinct. As the black-robed assassin seated herself in the copilot’s chair, though, the ambiguous sensation that manifested itself was magnified significantly, and what skin Lumiya had left under her macabre cocoon crawled.

There was something else about Aayla that was different, as well, something that raised Lumiya’s hackles even more than the chilling aura. The Twi’lek was smiling, almost grinning, something that the human had not seen her do since their first execution.

“We’re nearly back, then,” Aayla said, still smiling. “Back home.”

Lumiya nodded slowly, unsure. “Yes. Home.”

Before them, the silvery disk of Coruscant glowed in the light of its cold, distant sun.



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


Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-01-13 02:20am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-02-07 01:48am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Fifty Eight


The skies above the blue-green world of Bajor swarmed with activity. Over the past decades, the once peaceful and isolated planet’s local space had been transformed into assembly ground and battlefield so many times that one great fleet or another had become a near-permanent fixture there. The Cardassian invaders who had ravaged the globe and propelled its people into the galactic spotlight; the Federation task force that had attempted to guide the world down the tumultuous path back to peace; the Starfleet, Klingon, Romulan, and Dominion fleets that had jockeyed for control of the crucial world throughout the course of their bloody war; the savage Zerg host that had thrown itself ravenously on its new prize and the battered defenders who had only prevailed by the kindest of providence. This long history of conflict was etched upon the very void that surrounded Bajor, and the multitudes of scarred and weary warships clustered around it seemed to have borne an equal share of that unforgiving legacy.

During the darkest days of their newest, most dire battle, the weight of that protracted hardship had been inescapable, bearing down upon each crewman and commander, pushing them to the edge of their collective will. Now, however, something was different. The change was subtle, hidden beneath battle-stressed hulls and faces worn white with strain, but it was there nonetheless, and all assembled could feel it.

Hope.

More than three hundred warships now congregated around the Bajoran homeworld, twice the number that had defended it only two weeks previously. Shuttles, repair ships, and tugs of every size and origin flitted between loose battle groups and regimented flotillas, ferrying fresh crews and busily effecting repairs or relaying vital supplies. Even the empty blackness was alive with energy; transporter grids on dozens of ships distributed personnel and material feverishly, stopping only when their capacitors required respite from the stress of constant use. At the center of this furious labyrinth of activity, a motley collection of space stations, most half-built skeletons or veritable artifacts, all freshly deposited and assembled in the system, overhauled the most badly damaged of the vessels and coordinated the hordes of support ships and engineering teams that seemed to be needed everywhere at once. Positioned alongside them, still aligned with the planet’s capital below, Deep Space Nine was the nerve center of the entire armada, drafted into service even as the last of its Zerg boarders were being hunted down.

The battle-hardened remnants of Starfleet and the Klingon Defense Force were no longer the sole guardians of the system. Though most had been destroyed or irrevocably damaged after the arrival of the unexpected Alliance reinforcements, dozens of warships captured in the first days of the war had been returned to their rightful fold, fully cleansed and crewed as best as the allied fleet could manage. Joining these holdouts were entirely new elements, scattered Federation and Klingon ships rallied from their far-flung redoubts by the promise of unified action and new hope for the future.

Admiral Nechayev had been sure not to limit her call to arms to traditional allies. The Swarm threatened all other life in the galaxy, and the unified efforts of more than two ravaged states would be required to stave it off. Scattered throughout the mighty battle fleet were finned Cardassian cruisers, crescent-shaped Ferengi marauders, flighty Tzenkethi raiders, and vessels from half a dozen other powers. Worlds that barely had a squadron of ships for planetary defense had sent all they possessed at the Federation’s call. Most knew that even an intact home guard would be worthless against the Zerg if this last allied push were to fail.

Even the Romulan Empire had acknowledged that fact. Many soldiers, human and Klingon alike, reviled the reclusive power for entrenching behind their borders as the rest of the quadrant burned, but even the most embittered officer could not help but be impressed by their contribution. Thirty top-of-the-line, cloaked-enabled warbirds with battle-tested crews and photon torpedoes to spare.

The irrepressible hopefulness that pervaded the armada was not caused by this bolstering of numbers and strength alone. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a renowned diplomat and seasoned veteran whose reputation had only grown after his mysterious disappearance almost a decade before, had returned the galaxy in its most egregious time of need. Though not the most decorated or experienced officer in Starfleet history, the man’s career had taken him to every corner of the Federation and beyond, where he had diffused hostile situations and defeated marauding foes beyond count. Every human knew of how he and his crew had stopped the first Borg attempt to assimilate Earth. Every Klingon remembered how he had arbitrated the succession of their Supreme Chancellery when their species had been on the brink of civil war. More than munitions, ships, and warm bodies, the Galaxy’s defenders needed heroes, and the measured Frenchman filled the role consummately.

Almost as important for morale as the Captain was his new command. The Enterprise had been born anew. After the last ship of the long, prestigious series vanished, the legendary name had been mothballed, and so it had remained until Picard and what was left of his crew reappeared, lacking their old vessel. Rather than dwell upon the loss of the ship, Admiral Nechayev had somehow been able to produce the USS Sanguine, a Sovereign-class cruiser that had managed to escape numerous contacts with Zerg forces virtually unscathed. Her captain had graciously stepped aside to allow Picard a new command and the vessel had been renamed the USS Enterprise-E with as much fanfare as could be mustered. A day after the ceremony, more than two thousand Bajorans and civilian refugees had petitioned to join the fleet.

All this, however, was inconsequential next to the blistered warship that formed the heart of the allied fleet. The one ship that had given life and resolve back to millions, and contained within its hull the power to change a galaxy.
---------------------------------------------------

The forward marine enlisted officer’s crew barracks onboard the Republica were almost completely vacant, bunks neatly made and personal gear stowed in small wall lockers. Though more intimate and somewhat better appointed than the sleeping quarters of the rank and file several decks below, the hall-like, semicircular chamber was still communal and militarily sparse.

Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, or simply the Chief, liked it that way. The Spartan had lived almost his entire life in similar environs, and he found comfort in being allowed to bunk with other soldiers, even if half of them were of species he’d never even imagined seeing, much less sharing a latrine with. After serving under him during the purge of Deep Space Nine, the ship’s trooper detail had taken to the artificially enhanced warrior, and he in turn had let down a few of the mental and physical barriers that he had kept in place since being torn from his world.

The Chief had even started walking about the ship in Alliance fatigues, his MJOLNIR Mark VI battle armor left powered down and stowed away to conserve its internal systems. Cortana would probably have something to say about this newfound penchant for ‘nakedness’, were she privy to it. Like many Spartans, who were feared as much as revered by much of the UNSC military establishment, John rarely removed his obscuring uniform before anyone other than his brothers and sisters in arms.

Of course, he and the AI had barely spoken since Bajor had been fully secured. Her tactical, technical, and communications skills made Cortana an indispensable asset to the fleet’s leadership, and she had apparently been more than willing to devote all of her considerable mental resources to their plans. Though he would barely even admit it to himself, the Chief was beginning to miss having the sarcastic, quick-witted intellect close at hand. After all, she was one of his last real links to home, and the two had served together in a more personal way than any other could claim, even his fellow Spartans.

Fortunately, he didn’t have very much free time to dwell on such feelings, either.

He stood before the open locker that was mounted next to his bunk, pawing through its meager contents. After removing his requisitioned uniform, folding it, and placing it in a large duffel that he had withdrawn from the locker along with a few other effects, the Chief turned to a large, locked cabinet at the rear of the chamber. Swiftly, he punched an eight digit code into the armored alcove’s interface panel, and pulled its door open. Inside, lying upon a wide shelf that normally housed emergency gear, ammunition, and spare clothing, the opaque, reflective bowl of his battle mask stared up at the Spartan.

As his eyes scanned the mirrored half-hemisphere and the angular, greenish helm upon which it was mounted, a chill of unease ran through him. Though he had been trained for decades to be a ruthless, uncompromising killing machine, John-117 was still a human being, even if he often attempted to suppress the feelings that that condition engendered, especially while in potentially hostile situations. His training told him that as long as he was so distantly removed from the UNSC, he operated under such circumstances, but over the last few days, his resolve in that regard had been waning. Even Spartans, the ultimate commandos, weren’t intended to be deployed alone, and as if on instinct, he had begun to think of the crew of the Republica and its allies as comrades just as close than any of the UNSC troopers with which he had served in the past. It was a perfectly logical adaptation, but something about the ease with which he had assimilated into a new military establishment, if only temporarily, made the Chief restless.

Then again, perhaps it was just hard to teach an old dog new tricks. And John was beginning to feel quite a lot like an old mutt.

With practiced ease, he removed each component of his scarred, dull-green armor, neatly stacked beneath his helm, and applied them to his limbs and torso. Reinforced plates fused with one another in an impenetrable mesh; crystalline under-layers warmed with new energy as they interfaced with the miniature fusion generator encased beneath the armor’s shoulder plates; hydrostatic gel flowed throughout the suit, covering the Chief’s bare skin in a comfortable, flexible sheath that would protect him from plasma burns and armor chaffing, seal open wounds, and even lock the wearer from the ravages of raw vacuum.

After flexing his hands in their Herculean gauntlets, the Chief took hold of his helm and lowered it over his pale, clean-shaven face. Seals and vents hissed as his armor, now a completely enclosed, self-sustaining system, pressurized and then equalized its internal environment with the ship’s. Filters thrummed to life, and the taste of doubly-sanitized and comfortingly familiar air met the Spartan’s lips. He braced for the icy stab at the base of his neck that would herald Cortana’s neural interface, frowned when no such feeling came, and then quickly busied himself with diagnostic screens that were appearing before his eyes. Life-support gauges, energy shield indicators, motion detectors, suit status monitors, targeting assistants, FOF HUD; all were in working order, a testament to the armor’s engineers.

Before closing the storage alcove, the Chief also withdrew a large, thick-gripped blaster pistol and tossed it experimentally from one hand to the other. It was an Imperial-made SoroSuub SSK-7, given to him by Major Truul before they had boarded the infested Bajoran space station. It had a slower fire rate than he was used to from sidearms, and an incompatibility in his armor’s software made remote targeting and ammunition checking with it impossible, but it still packed a powerful punch, and its unusually wide trigger guard was perfectly suited for the Chief’s gauntleted hand. Switching back to his right hand, he reflexively sighted along its traditional iron sight, and then slid it into a thigh holster.

Fully equipped, the Spartan brought a chronometer into view with a precise facial tick. The timepiece had been synchronized with the Republica’s clock, and the Chief was still getting used to the foreign system, but he was fairly certain that he was slightly ahead of schedule.

Unwilling to simply wait, he rummaged in his duffel and withdrew a palm-sized datapad. Although his digits were more than twice their normal diameter, he managed to access its interface with only a small amount of difficulty, and pulled up the first file in the computer’s database. A battle plan.

Allied Fleet Command, a provisional hierarchy set up by the political and military remnants of the United Federation of Planets, the Klingon Empire, the Bajoran Ministry, and a handful of other states, had presented its stratagem for a counter-campaign against the Zerg a day after Captain Picard had returned successful from Romulan Space. Before more than one hundred captains, army officers, and officials, the de facto leaders of the Allied force, Fleet Admiral Nechayev and General K’Nera, along with Princess Leia Organa and High Templar Tassadar, had outlined a relatively simple plan, one which they hoped to execute before the month was out. Against all odds, the Zerg queen and her minions had lost the initiative in their war, and Tassadar was emphatic that she not be allowed to regain it.

The massive fleet assembled around Bajor would break into several independent task forces, with a smaller division left to defend the planet and the hordes of refugees that were flowing into camps all across its surface. These strike groups would then begin to assault key strategic worlds and installations throughout the quadrant in simultaneous raids. Salvageable infrastructure, like intact Starbases, shipyards, and mining platforms, would be the priority, and emphasis would be placed on retaking and restarting their operation to further supplement the Allied fleet, which, despite its recent boon, was still outmatched by the thieved Zerg armada.

After these assets had been secured, the battle groups would begin to attack worlds known to be core hives for the Swarm, burning them from orbit to ensure that they could no longer provide the Zerg with fresh monstrosities. Undoubtedly, this would result in major confrontations with the opposing armada, a prospect that would normally mean casualties that the Allied fleet could not absorb.

That was where the Republica came in. Relying upon her swift hyperdrive, the light cruiser could jump from battle to battle, sewing enough chaos in the Zerg lines to turn the tide in favor of the Allied forces before jumping away again. Working with a team of Starfleet and Alliance analysts, Cortana projected that within only a few weeks, the Zerg military complex would be on the verge of collapse, and the retaking of key worlds like Ty’Gokor, Vulcan, and Earth could be conducted at AFCOM’s leisure.

That was not the end of the campaign, however. There were dozens of worlds throughout inhabited space that were infested, but still maintained populations of embattled survivors, or planets so vital for strategic or morale reasons that they could not simply be bombarded into submission. Ground forces would be required to rescue isolated civilian holdouts, reclaim population centers, and secure captured ships and installations. Although Zerg ground forces were largely composed of organically-armored, barely coordinated animals, the sentient brain creatures that controlled them telepathically, the Cerebrates, would have to be located and destroyed before each world could be fully secured. The Master Chief had thought that, even in their weakened states, the Federation and Klingon Empire could muster the armies necessary to hunt down these creatures and stave off the mindless drones that the death of each mind would yield. Certainly, there was no shortage of willing conscripts among the refugee population, untrained as they were.

When Cortana had suggested that he be appointed Chief Tactical Advisor to the AFCOM’s Personnel Combat division, a posting that would give him the brand-new rank of lieutenant general, and Command had readily agreed, the Chief had quickly discovered just how wrong he was.

After cursorily scanning the campaign outline, the Spartan brought up another file. A summary of Starfleet ground combat doctrine flashed before his eyes, complete with detailed statistics and annotations on every combat vehicle, personnel weapon, and support system in its arsenal. A similar compendium based on UNSC conventions would have taken months to read, and far longer to fully comprehend. The Chief had digested the volume in his hands in a single night’s study.

The Federation had relied on its fleets almost entirely for both defense and offense since Starfleet’s conception. Most of the foes that the power had faced over the course of its history had emphasized space power over atmospheric and terrestrial supremacy, and it had adapted its military similarly, to the point where they no longer even had a separate army command structure. Indeed, the Federation barely had an army at all; while the recent war with the Dominion had necessitated the training of a few divisions of dedicated group forces, the Federation still relied almost entirely on their fleet security officers for everything from infantry to shock troopers to military police. They were trained to fight in ship corridors, with low-powered hand phasers and little to no body armor. Mechanized units were virtually non-existent. Repurposed shuttlecraft, unarmed “hopper” atmospheric transports, a few poorly-designed scouting buggies; Starfleet depended almost entirely upon their transporters to move soldiers.

This final weakness in particular had hindered the Federation during the Zerg invasion. By some unknown means - Tassadar suspected that the “psionic” abilities of their brain creatures were to blame – the hordes that had fallen upon worlds were capable of disrupting transporter operation over wide swaths of land and space. Hundreds of thousands of civilians on Earth alone had been killed simply because the waiting evacuation ships suddenly found themselves unable to maintain cohesive molecular locks on their charges. Not only would any reclaiming army have to physically land on infested worlds, they would be unable to call upon orbiting vessels for point to point relocation or emergency recall.

The Klingon army was little better. It did possess a handful of armed and armored ground transports, but most had been lost during the initial stages of the invasion and the hopeless defense of their homeworld. Defense Force troopers also were more accustomed to wearing combat gear and armor, but their actual combat doctrine was atrocious. Onboard Deep Space Nine, the Chief had actually witnessed several warriors holster their disruptors and engage the maddened Zerg claw-creatures in close quarters with ungainly, bladed weapons that looked to be more ceremonial than purpose-made.

Shaking his head, the Chief dropped the datapad into his bag and closed his eyes.

He would have to completely rebuild AFCOM’s army, and he would have to do it in less time than a raw UNSC marine recruit had to go through basic training.

The presence the Republica and her trooper complement did provide some small consolation; a few of them had been stormtroopers or Imperial army officers with actual combat training and experience before they had defected, and the rest were still a cut above the average Starfleet security officer or Klingon grunt. He had already begun covertly selecting Alliance soldiers that he wanted transferred under his command to become instructors and squad leaders, assuming he could convince Major Truul and Captain Ryceed to part with them.

Then there was the issue of weaponry. The deficit in armor support couldn’t be helped, not on such short notice and with all of the Allied industrial facilities tied up refitting the fleet; the Chief could only hope that the reports of tank-like Zerg juggernauts and shuttle-sized scorpion creatures were exaggerations or anomalies.

Hand weapons were another matter. The energetic chain-reaction phasers and disrupters favored by his new soldiers were overly delicate, power-hungry, ergonomic nightmares, but they were reasonably effective against the flesh and bone of the smaller Zerg minions, and, most importantly, they were in relative abundance. The Master Chief would have preferred to outfit his new soldiers with more versatile and durable ballistic firearms, and he planned on having some designed and replicated as soon as the necessary facilities and engineers were available, but for now he could make due. Besides, there was the Republica’s arsenal of blasters and detonators, meager though it was, and they could always field-rig a photon torpedo or two if things came to that.

A door at one end of the curved chamber slid open and an Alliance officer entered, his short ponytail dangling from a thinning mane of brown hair.

The Master Chief jumped to attention, saluting the older man. “Major.”

Truul Besteen grinned. “I really ought to be saluting you. Lieutenant general, eh? Can’t say that I disagree with Allied Command’s decision.” He reached out to shake the super soldier’s hand, glanced at the vice-like gauntlets that encased it, and opted for a firm slap pat on the shoulder instead. “Still, this must put you in a real fix.”

The Chief eased his posture. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I can tell you what I’d feel like if the Feds drafted me into this military complex of theirs. I appreciate what they’re tryin’ to do, what they’re tryin’ to protect, and I’m more than happy to help ‘em do it, but I don’t think I’d take too well to taking a seat in their command hierarchy. Too stiff and artificial for my tastes, if you know what I mean. From what I’ve seen, the Feds are like Imps with the ‘murderous’ and ‘fluffy’ bits of their brains swapped. No offense, of course. They’re good guys, just too good. Their comfortable ships and classically-trained officers aren’t cut out for a war like this.”

He chuckled. “And that’s not even mentioning the Klingons.”

The Chief nodded. “This isn’t the sort of fighting force I’m used to, either. Still, they’ve managed to survive this long without our assistance. It’s my duty to make sure that they continue to do so, and with fewer casualties.”

“Well, better you than me. I had enough of instructors for a lifetime back in my Academy days, and I can’t say that I’d be too keen on becoming one myself.” Truul glanced at a wall-mounted chronometer. “Well, it’s about time we were going. I don’t want to keep Councilor Organa waiting, and I’ll bet your new students shouldn’t be left unsupervised for too long, either.”

The Chief took his bag in one hand and nodded towards the door. Dozens of new “students” were indeed waiting on Deep Space Nine, security officers and commanders from all over the fleet who had been selected to form the core of AFCOM’s ground forces. With the assistance of a set of holosuites repurposed from the local Ferengi merchant’s bar, the Chief hoped to give the soldiers a crash course in battlefield tactics, from combined arms to jungle warfare.

As the two exited the barracks, John allowed himself one last view of the tidy space. If only for a short while, the soldier had found a home away from home, and now he was leaving it, probably for good. For some reason, the thought was far more discouraging than the prospect of any of the trials yet to come.
---------------------------------------------

“Laura!”

The ensign halted, stepped out of the way of a weary-looking team of engineers, and peered back down the axial hallway for the source of the shout. With just enough grace to avoid tripping over his own feet, Jacen Solo skirted around a Mon Cal officer and closed the distance between them at a jog.

“Jacen!” The woman embraced the young Jedi warmly before he could even catch his breath. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“I heard that you’ve been reactivated,” he said, still locked in her arms.

“Yes, I just heard a few hours ago. I guess the doctor finally had enough of watching me for nervous ticks and muscle spasms.” Slowly Laura released the man, but she was still beaming. “I’ve been assigned to the Versailles. Admiral Nechayev’s flagship! They must really be short on able bodies.”

Finally able to breath again, Jacen looked the woman over with a practiced eye. With little else to do over the last few weeks, the knight had been spending most of his time in the Republica’s medbay. He wasn’t a skilled healer like some of the others of the Order, but he knew a few basics, and the Alliance medical staff had been inundated with injuries from the recent battles and the refugee ships that continued to find their way to Bajor. Although his skills with physical healing had proven fairly mediocre, Force and all, Jacen had discovered that he had a knack for relieving stress and linger pain when sedatives and analgesics could not. By reaching out through the Force and gently touching the minds of his patients, he could ease discomfort and help overcome the debilitating aftereffects of trauma.

In addition to making himself feel useful and keeping his abilities practiced, the work had allowed him to spend a great deal of time with Laura, and the two had grown quite close. As far as Jacen could tell, she had been able to come to terms with the horrors she had faced on the doomed ship Cornwall without any lasting mental damage. He was impressed by her resilience, but now that she was officially “recovered and recuperated”, he found himself almost wishing her progress had been slower.

“You look great,” he finally managed, meeting her gaze with only a trace of nervousness.

“I feel great. I had thought that putting this uniform back on would be hard, but now that I have…” She trailed off and looked down at her fresh tunic, black and gray with a gold trim. Delicately, she raised one hand to her collar and fingered the single copper pip that rested there. Laura’s smile faded slightly, and she looked back up at Jacen, suddenly serious. “I want to get back to the fight. I want to help, Jacen, just like you’ve been doing, just like all of my friends… all of my family have done. I have to.”

The Jedi nodded. “I understand. You must do what you feel is right, and the fleet needs all the strong, skilled officers it can get right now.” He looked into her eyes with a deep intensity, but he did not reach deeper with the fortifying hand of the Force. He didn’t need to. “And you are strong.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke, motionless, oblivious to the crewers who bustled past.

“Thank you,” Laura said at last. “Thank you for everything.”

Jacen felt as though he should say something in reply, but no words came. All he could do was look at her, and she at him.

“All Federation Personnel, the USS Versailles has taken up a holding position on our starboard side, and is preparing for transport. Those scheduled for the second shift rotation report immediately to Cargo Bay One for disembarkation.”

Neither of them responded to the announcement immediately, continuing their weighted silence for a few more precious moments. Then, finally, Laura straightened her uniform.

“Well, that’s my ship. I guess I should get going.”

“Good luck,” Jacen replied, as though startled. “I… we’ll see each other again. Soon.”

She smiled. “Count on it. And, how did you say it? May the Force be with you.”

They traded glances for another second, and then Laura turned away, hurrying down the hall to join the trickle of other officers as they made their way towards the departure point. Jacen watched her until she disappear through a far hatch, and then moved to the smooth bulkhead, wearily leaning against it and kneading his hands together. A wrenching sensation rose in his gut, and he found himself looking back at the empty door frame plaintively. A familiar burning lit his cheeks.

The wrenching sensation intensified, and a bead of sweat rolled past Jacen’s eye. There was something more to the feeling now, though, something different.

After a moment of confused recall, Jacen jumped to his feet, glanced at the hatch a final time, and then hurried in opposite direction down the hallway. He opened his senses, sliding back into the chorus of voices that was the warship’s crew, and noted uneasily that their melody was tinged by faint, dark cords.
-----------------------------------------------

“What in the Seven Hells is going on here?”

Truul stormed into the Republica’s main medbay, taking in the room with a few quick glances. Several of the analysis tables in the section’s central chamber were engaged, but the medical attendants and droids who attended them were not occupied with wounded from the fleet. Two humans, an Ishi Tib, and a Mon Calamari, all in Alliance uniforms, were being treated for a variety of contusions and breakages. Around them and in adjacent rooms of the medbay, patients were conversing nervously.

As Truul approached the wounded Mon Cal, the Master Chief took up a position on the inside of the sickbay’s door, hands at his hips, within easy reach of his sidearm. Scanning the room as the marine had done, he noted that the bed within a sequestered cubicle at the far side of the chamber seemed to have been damaged, and that several trays of medical equipment had had their contents tipped onto the floor.

The salmon-colored amphibian that Truul had singled out looked up from his table, and then shoed away the humanoid 2-1B that had been worrying over a sizeable gash on his sloped forehead. A small insignia on the breast of his loose, clean coat indicated that he was the ship’s chief physician.

“Major.”

“I noticed a crowd outside your door while I was on my way to the hangar deck,” Truul said. “What’s going on here?”

Gingerly, the doctor touched his freshly-sealed injury with a finned hand, and then swiveled his eyes towards the empty room that the Chief had noticed. “One of my patients, from the group that was transferred from the space station. Kira Nerys, I think her name was. Badly injured and prone to spasms for some reason I haven’t been able to determine. She was unconscious, and we had her under observation in one of the op rooms. I sent an orderly to check on her a few minutes ago, and when he got close, she suddenly woke up and tore through her restraints. Several of us tried to calm her down, but she wasn’t listening. She wanted to get out of the medbay badly, and none of us were able to stop her. I got this gash for my efforts.”

He shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it. A wiry, invalid sentient with a musculature not far from baseline human tearing through limb bindings and battering half a dozen healthy adults to the ground. And all of it without a word. Judging by the look in her eyes, I’m not sure she even knew where she was.”

“I was on guard duty here when the patient escaped.” A marine had appeared at the major’s side, his left arm in a splint. “I tried to subdue her, but she slammed me into a wall and ran out before I could recover.”

The man paused briefly. “And she stole my sidearm, sir.”

Truul glared at him, and then sighed. “So much for an on-time departure.”

“Alright, notify the XO of the situation. We’ve got an armed hostile loose aboard ship, and I recommend that we go to alert status. Then get me the Watch Captain; I want all available units on this immediately. We can’t let this woman get close to any other sensitive areas of the ship.”

“Major!”

Truul turned to the medbay’s entrance in time to see Jacen Solo skitter to a halt. Clutched in one of his hands was the silver hilt of a lightsaber.

“I think I know where she went.”
--------------------------------------------

Jacen lead Truul and the Chief to a turbolift and then ordered down into the bowels of the ship, far below habitation decks and frequently-trafficked walkways. Frustrated by the young Jedi’s lack of information on exactly where the runaway was beyond a general direction, Truul spent the short transit with his comlink shoved under his nose, attempting to coordinate with the Republica’s ranking security officer. The Master Chief waited in silence, apparently unconcerned about the delay in his transit to Deep Space Nine. As the lift reached its destination and its doors slid open, the soldier observed Jacen’s grip on his hilt tighten, and he drew his own weapon.

Truul also drew his sidearm and returned his comlink to its belt. “Deck Eight, section B. There’s nothing down here except systems ancillaries and power conduits. She must be lost.”

“Or hiding,” the Chief offered, stepping carefully into the cramped, empty hallway beyond. “We should proceed with caution.”

Jacen peered down one length of the access way and then the other, identical lengths low-roofed, cable ridden deck, considered, and then turned to the right. “This way.”

In addition to being cramped, the lower decks of the cruiser were both hot and noisy, separated from the ship’s internal network of energy conduits, fuel mains, and thermal collectors by only a few meters of wiring and durasteel plate. The grated floor beneath their boots clanked and echoed with each footfall even over the ambient din, making stealth next to impossible. Fortunately, the group didn’t travel far before a distant-sounding cacophony alerted them to a hatch, beyond which another dreary expanse stretched. The ranged sensors in the Chief’s suit were rendered ineffective by their proximity to so much high-energy machinery, but his well-honed hearing told him that the sounds were muffled explosions.

“Looks like you’re on to something, Solo. Alright, stay close, both of ya. And keep your weapons ready,” Truul said, wiping sweat from his brow before crossing the adjoining hatch’s threshold.

Not far down the passage, a pair of bodies came into view, sprawled on the deck next to a sealed hatch. One, an older human female, was dressed in technician’s overalls, and a belt of hydrospanner and other equipment lay discarded at her side; the other was a lanky Devonian in the fatigues of Truul’s marines. After scoping out the immediate area with his pistol, Truul knelt beside the soldier, felt for a pulse, and then delicately flipped him onto his back.

“Dead,” he said, rising from the body after closing its blank, staring eyes. The Devaronian’s chest was a mass of still-smoldering, carbonized flesh. “Heavy blaster hit at point blank range.”

“Here,” Jacen called from the woman’s side. “She’s still alive. I don’t think she’s badly hurt.”

As if responding to the man’s voice, the technician’s eyes fluttered open and attempted to roll onto her side. Jacen gently raised her up against the bulkhead wall, inspecting a large bump on the back of her neck as he did.

“Can you hear me?” he asked.

Slowly, she nodded, and then looked up at the Jedi. “Yes. Yes, I can hear you. I think I’m alright.” She tried to stand, faltered, and then fell back into Jacen’s waiting arms. “Well, mostly. Just let me rest for a moment.”

“Did a Bajoran woman do this to you?” Truul asked. “Thin, probably dressed in medical robes?”

The tech nodded. “Yes, she came just a few minutes ago, unless I’ve been out longer than I think I have. I was finishing up some maintenance in that junction room, just in that hatch, when she walked up and asked if the control circuits for the internal blast door network ran through there. It was a weird questioned, but I told her they did. Then, without a word, she made to go in. That struck me as even more odd, so I asked her what she was doing, and under whose authority. I guess that poor trooper on the floor over there happened by us while I was trying to stop her, and started demanding identification. The next thing I knew, there were blaster bolts flying through the air, and my spine tried to push its way into my skull.”

Jacen, Truul, and the Chief looked at the sealed hatch the tech had indicated in unison, just as a new bombardment of sound rang out from within. Unlike the last clatter, however, this one was immediately followed by a momentary flickering of the hall’s illumination and a noticeable change in pitch from one of the rumbling machines hidden in the plating below them.

The Chief cautiously approached the hatch, tried its handle and then tapped its access interface, all to no avail. “Locked.”

Truul’s comlink buzzed violently, and he lifted the device to his lips, keeping his gun hand trained on the closed door.

“Truul here.”

“I hope you’ve found our escapee, Major,” a dry, female voice said over the tiny speaker.

“We’re close, Captain,” Truul replied, apparently unsurprised by her knowledge and interest in the matter. “We’ve tracked her to junction room B-5 on Deck Eight, but she’s sealed herself inside. I’ve also got a dead marine down here, and a wounded crewer. A security detachment would be appreciated right now, and engineering detail if you can spare one. Our blasters aren’t going to be opening this hatch any time soon, and it sounds like she’s doing some damage in there too.”

“So we’ve noticed,” Ryceed replied. “Operations is reading power fluctuations throughout the internal monitoring and defense grids. Your support teams are on their way. Just hold your position, and keep me informed. Ryceed out.”

“You heard her,” Truul said, lowering his communicator again. “Let’s move them out of the line of fire.” He indicated to the two crewmen. The Chief moved to help the living tech to her feet, but Jacen still lingered at the hatch. His face focused, almost trance-like, he placed his palm against the solid metal barrier.

“Why is she doing this?” he asked, more to himself than the others.

Truul grabbed the dead marine’s shoulders and began to drag him out of the field of any potential fighting. “Who knows? She was on Deep Space Nine, and if I’m remembering names right, I was one of the ones who found her, right in the middle of the worst of it, barely alive. Surviving that kind of slaughter can leave all kinds of wounds that bacta can’t fix. She probably just snapped. I’ve seen it happen half a dozen times before, and for a lot less reason.”

Jacen shook his head. “No, I’ve felt breakdowns before. This is different, much deeper. I can feel her mind at work in there, but… there’s something wrong about it.” He paused, and then closed his eyes in concentration. “I can feel a darkness hanging over her, unlike any I’ve ever felt before. It’s powerful, like… like a hunger. Driving, forcing her to do something. I just can’t…”

His eyes shot open. “We have to get in there. Now.”

Truul eyed him incredulously, but he withdrew from his grisly work and moved to the Jedi’s side nonetheless. “Alright, alright. But I don’t think we can get through this hatch without the engineering teams. We’d need a trained slicer to bypass this lock electronically, and the hatch looks likes it pretty well reinforced.”

Jacen looked down at the weapon still clutched in his right hand.

Truul followed his gaze, and then stepped back. “Ah.”

With a hiss that resounded down the hallway, a pillar of green light erupted from Jacen’s clenched fist. He braced the weapon in both hands, set his feet, and then plunged the lightsaber’s blade straight into the seam between the hatch and its bulky frame. The durasteel around the beam of energy glowed red, then white hot. Jacen gritted his teeth as a wave of heated air washed over him from the boiling metal, and then began to pull his weapon down along the door’s right seam, leaving a fused, blackened trail in its wake. The cacophony beyond the bulkhead started anew, and the deck plates below their feet began to tremble perceptibly, but the young Jedi’s concentration remained unbroken.

When he had drawn a swath nearly a meter in length, Jacen stopped, peered intently at the door as though he could perceive its internal workings, and then plunged his blade even deeper into the metal, to the point where its projection cone was almost flush with the pool of molten material. The hatch around the blade now glowed hot enough to combust any flesh that touched it instantly, and yet Jacen stayed within arm’s reach, the heat shedding away from him in wavering sheets.

“Chief,” he grunted. “The seam.”

The Spartan moved behind the Jedi quickly and clamped onto melted line of metal with both hands. The alloy sizzled and distended beneath his armored fingers, but he held firm, and began to drag the hatch away from the wall. For a moment, it sat motionless, immovable even under their combined onslaught. Then, with a prolonged, wet rumble, a sliver of empty space appeared between the door and it’s mounting, then widened to a crack. Jacen exhaled sharply, withdrew his weapon in a single, smooth motion, and stepped away from the hatch just as the super soldier tore through the weakened locking mechanism and let the door swing open on its reinforced hinge.

Truul was ready with his weapon trained on the new opening, with the Chief close behind, but Jacen still managed to get through the entryway first, ducking through the frame with his lightsaber still activated.

The junction room ran parallel to the adjoining walkway, and was constructed in the same, low, hall-like design. Its walls were covered with diagnostic panels, fuse cores, and circuit boxes, but the devices were now all but unrecognizable, pitted, splintered, and melted along with a large portion of bulkheads upon which they were mounted. Cast in the bleak illumination of the chamber’s only remaining functional light fixture, a large hand blaster lay discarded on the floor, its barrel partially melted and poker hot. Nearby, flattened against the burned and sparking remnants of a control station, a woman stared at them with bloodshot eyes, her simple white garb torn and soiled.

“Stay where you are!” Truul ordered, leveling his pistol with the red-haired woman’s chest.

Jacen placed an arm across the Major field of fire. “Wait! Let me talk to her! She’s unarmed.”

“You heard the doc’s report, Solo. She’s just as dangerous with her hands as that blaster.” Truul grimaced as the Jedi walked past him, towards the stalk-still Bajoran. “Listen to me, blast it!”

“Kira,” Jacen said slowly, ignoring the older man. “We’re not here to hurt you. We just want to take you back to the medical bay, where you’ll be safe.”

The woman did not reply, and her face, contorted with pain or fear, remained unchanged. One hand closed reflexively over the burned, frayed remnants of a bundle of metallic wires that hung from the ruined terminal. Their jagged edges cut into her palm, and a trickle of blood began to drip onto the deck.

Jacen thumbed his lightsaber’s control stud, and then slowly lowered its inactivated hilt, spreading his own arms in a gesture of goodwill. “There are doctors on their way now. Just stay where you are. We don’t want to hurt you. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

Kira’s eyes suddenly met Jacen’s, and her cracked, bloodied lips opened. “Let? You won’t let? You can’t stop her.” The voice was small and fragile, barely more than a whisper.

“Jacen…”

The Jedi blocked out the Major’s warning once again. “Whoever she is, I won’t let her get you. It is my duty to protect people from darkness, like the one that hangs over you now. Trust me. I can save you from it. Just trust me.”

Kira shook her head. “No. No, you can’t. Nothing can stop her. Not when she’s close… so close.”

Tears welled in her eyes.

“But it doesn’t matter now. Its over. I’ve done it. No more.”

Kira let her arms fall to her sides. “I was weak. I couldn’t stop her. But I won’t let her have me any longer. Tell them… tell them that I broke free.”

She looked into Jacen’s eyes in silence for a moment longer, and then her gaze fell. In that instant, the Jedi felt a familiar, urgent pressure in the back of his mind, and his muscles tensed instinctively.

The Bajoran leapt from the wall and plunged straight towards Jacen. In her bloodied hand, a long, sharp piece of machinery she had wrenched from the wiring probed forward, aimed straight at his unprotected neck. The Chief fired a shot when she had crossed half the distance, but the luminescent bolt only grazed her shoulder, and she pushed onward, her speed undiminished. Before the either soldier could fire again, Kira was on top of Jacen, slashing at him all the strength her thin limbs could muster.

There was a flash and the sputter of evaporating blood.

Kira went limp, and her weapon clattered to the floor in a pool of deep red. She slumped against him, her face centimeters from his. The Jedi felt her last exhalation, saw her ridged nose twitch. The corners of her thin mouth crested into a smile. Then, as he looked on, life left the woman’s eyes.

Trembling, Jacen let his lightsaber die, and then guided Kira’s body to the deck, trying unsuccessfully to tear his gaze from the small hole that bisected her from sternum to spine. He laid the woman on her back, and then let himself fall into a sitting position next to her. Still shaking, he raised his hands before his face, and then clenched them. His eyes closed fast.

“You alright, Solo?” Truul was at his side, and the command in his voice was replaced by gruff comfort. “I don’t think she got ya.”

He placed a heavy hand on the Jedi’s shoulder. “I should have brought her down before she reached ya. I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s not that. I’m not hurt,” Jacen said, his eyes still closed.

“Alright. Just sit tight. I’ll go see what’s taking those support teams.” Truul glanced at the fallen Bajoran one last time, shook his head once, and then disappeared into the hall.

After the Major had gone, Jacen slowly pulled himself to his feet, slipped his lightsaber back into its loop, and finally opened his eyes. He turned his gaze briefly to the Chief, staring as though something else filled his field of vision, and the looked back at Kira’s body.

“She’s close,” he echoed at length, and then fell silent.



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


Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-02-08 12:53am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-03-16 09:18pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Fifty Nine


“All decks have reported in, sir,” the Operations officer said. “Re-supply is complete.”

Captain Jean-Luc Picard leaned back in his command chair. “Very good, Lieutenant. And Engineering?”

“Commander La Forge reports that the last core readjustment improved warp core efficiency by eight percent. We are now running at ninety seven percent capacity.”

Picard turned in his seat and looked up at the younger man. “Just ninety seven percent?”
The lieutenant’s expression faltered. “That’s what he reports, sir. If you require a higher efficiency level, I can raise the commander for you.”

Picard smiled slightly. “No, no, Lieutenant. Ninety seven percent is perfectly satisfactory. Keep me informed of any further developments.”

The man relaxed noticeably. “Aye, sir.”

Settling back into his chair, the captain allowed the smile to linger on his lips. Ninety seven percent operating efficiency was indeed fully satisfactory, and well above fleet regulations. He was simply surprised that his chief engineer had not yet conjured up some method or another of improving the rating by another half percent or so. Geordi always pushed himself and his crew to do the impossible, especially when the need was the greatest. Still, this was a new ship for them both, full of it own quirks and eccentricities that would need to be considered. Looking around his new bridge, Picard felt similarly awkward.

The Enterprise-E’s command bridge was an angular half-circle dominated by a horseshoe of raised control stations and officer’s posts, much like the analogous portion of his old command. Still, this new vessel was truly a ship of its time, and its interior was darker and more regimented, full of sleek metallic lines and black matte. The dimly-glowing emergency lights, the obvious armor-plating on the walls, the precisely refined Okudagram interfaces; this was a warship. For all its armament and all the battles it had seen, the Enterprise-D had been an explorer first and foremost, and its interior had been designed to ease the rigors of lengthy expeditions for its crew. Picard remembered its sloping ceilings, wide viewports, and brightly-colored furnishings with more than a little nostalgia, both for the ship itself, and the time of peace that it had represented.

There was another aspect of that lost ship that he could never allow himself to forget as well. Of its thousand-strong complement of crew and passengers, only a handful remained. The rest were dead, victims of the Zerg menace, or confined somewhere in a galaxy too far away, officers and their families imprisoned for no crime that he could comprehend. Picard glanced at the unfamiliar faces around him and silently reaffirmed the vow he had made what seemed like so long ago.

He would get them back. All of them.

Picard sighed to himself. There were other vows he had to uphold now, though. The lives of billions lay upon the imminent campaign, and he couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by what came after. But he would not forget.

The captain activated the personal interface mounted on the right armrest of his command chair and pulled up the Enterprise’s crew roster. Eight hundred officers and crew exactly, a full complement. With no small amount of chagrin, Picard noted that his was probably one of the only vessels in the Allied fleet with a full roster. Even with the recent influx of reinforcements and able recruits, there were simply too many positions to fill, and even many of the fleet’s command ships were running on barely more than half their normal complement. Picard disliked the idea of being so well crewed when he could easily distribute a few hundred of his more skilled subordinates to other vessels, but Admiral Nechayev had convinced him of the necessity of having the Enterprise as battle ready as possible. It wouldn’t do to have the Federation’s “returning hero” understaffed during their triumphant counterattack.

The politics of being one of the fleet’s figureheads was swiftly becoming tedious, especially for someone who had disliked even attending Admiralty functions in years past, but the position did have some advantages nonetheless. Although Commander Riker was onboard the Republica as the official Alliance liaison, the rest of the Enterprise’s old command staff had followed their captain. The newly-promoted Commander Data was ably meeting all expectations as his second-in-command, Geordi had seamlessly reintegrated into his role as Chief Engineer, and Deanna Troi was doing her best assess and mentally reinforce every member of the crew. Worf had also kept his post at Tactical, despite the urging of General K’Nera and Captain Torgor for him to take command of a ship of the Imperial Defense Force. The move had surprised Picard, but he suspected he knew the reason; Worf felt as he did about their lost crewmates, and he wanted to be sure of a part in their eventual rescue, a role induction into his people’s fleet might interdict.

Picard cast a surreptitious glance at the Klingon as he instructed a lieutenant on the finer points of quantum torpedo combat. Although he appeared to be as stern and collected as always in his yellow-black tunic, Picard knew that a part of the tactical officer yearned to wear the black leather and metal plate of the Klingon fleet. His only sign of solidarity with his people was the ceremonial baldric draped across his shoulder, an ever-present part of his uniform, but one he seemed now to bear with an extra apportionment of pride. The familiar sight seemed to soften the unfamiliar, hard lines of the command deck, and Picard returned to his crew list with the hint of a smile still on his lips.

A few minutes later, as Picard was reviewing the service records of his new section chiefs, the bridge turbolift behind him slid open. The first to emerge from it was Commander Data, three bronze pips glinting from his collar. After him, stooping through the opening to accommodate his height, came High Templar Tassadar, draped as ever in his long, dark cloak.

Picard rose from his command chair and moved to greet them. “Tassadar. An unexpected pleasure.” He bowed and the Protoss returned the gesture gracefully. The two had not had the opportunity to speak directly since Picard had returned from his mission to Romulus. “I thought you were on Deep Space Nine with the Strategic Assessment task force.”

“I was,” Tassadar replied. “And I shall return there shortly. However, before I do, we must speak. If you are to lead a fleet against the Zerg, then I must impart to you all I know of their tactics and deceptions. Even with the Alliance cruiser at your disposal, the Swarm’s tenacity cannot be discounted.”

“Tactical reports on known Zerg combat doctrine and behavior have been dispatched to every command officer in the fleet,” Data said. “These reports were prepared with your advisement, were they not?”

Tassadar turned his gently-undulating eyes on the android. “They were. However, inanimate media does not always adequately convey the full importance of information. I wish to emphasize certain elements of my experience, lest they be overlooked. I do not doubt you captain’s skill or perception, but far too many great warriors have fallen into the horde’s ravening maw, some older and more seasoned than even I. No others will meet the same fate blindly, if my experience is of any worth.”

“As always, Tassadar, your council is more than welcome,” Picard said. “May my command staff join us?”

“They may.”

“Very well, then.” Picard moved to tap the combadge on his chest, but the ensign at the conn turned to him from her post before he could raise his hand.

“Sir, I’m picking up unidentified warp signatures on the edge of the system, bearing 234-011-454.”

“Are any further reinforcements expected from that heading?” Picard asked.

Commander Data considered for a moment. “None have been noted in the arrival logs. However, they may have not transmitted their intensions to Allied Command, or ships from another approach vector may have been forced to readjust their course into the system.”

“Check the warp signatures against all known starship drives,” Picard ordered. There was a great deal of traffic throughout Bajor’s star system, but travel in and out had become increasingly limited as fleet preparations reached a fever pitch. “Could it be a long-range patrol?”

“Negative,” Worf reported from Tactical. “The starships are moving at warp eight point five, far faster than our standard patrols. Even if they were fleeing a Zerg force, they would have dispatched an alert transmission ahead of their arrival.”

“The ships are moving into our sensor range, Captain,” the helm officer relayed. “At their current speed, they’ll be inside the Denorios belt in two minutes. Sir, I’m reading dozens of separate signatures.”

Picard traded glances with his second, who then turned to Worf. “Yellow Alert.”

As the bridge lights dimmed and tinted with the elevated alert status, an officer spoke up from the comm. “Sir, Admiral Nechayev is hailing us.”

“Put her onscreen.”

The chamber’s main viewport flickered to life with the older woman’s visage. Picard noted that the Versailles’s bridge was at a similar state of readiness.

“I trust you’ve detected them as well, Captain,” Nechayev said.

“Yes, Admiral. The ships are unknown, then?”

“I just contacted K’Nera and the other fleet commanders, and none of them have heard of any more significant reinforcements headed our way, and certainly not in the numbers were reading from that group.”

“I suggest we bring the rest of the fleet to alert status,” Picard said.

“It’s been done. We’ll be ready for them when they come out of warp, whoever they are.”

“The Swarm.”

Everyone on the bridge turned their attention to Tassadar, who was suddenly standing quite still, his gaze fixed on something none of the others could see.

“You can sense the Zerg on the approaching vessels?” Nechayev asked.

“There is a mind at work there, but there is something closer as well.”

“Closer?” Picard pressed.

“Within the fleet,” Tassadar said. His pupils flickered with energy, and he drew back, as if in pain. “The Alliance cruiser.”

“We must reach Captain Ryceed. Now.”
-----------------------------------------------------

The shaggy, gray-tinged Wookiee in charge of the Republica’s main cargo bay scanned the small crowd of Starfleet and Bajoran personnel arrayed around him, sniffed loudly, and then began to say something in the growling-mumbling-howling dialect of his species. A heavily-patched silver TC-3 protocol droid situated nearby listened to the towering alien intently, and then translated for their audience in a reasonable approximation of English. Even the most basic of the Alliance ship’s collection of protocol droids had taken a strong dislike to the portable, automatic translators that the Federation and their allies favored, and attempted to bypass them whenever possible.

“Chief of the deck Dapaduuk requests your patience. He has been notified that the starship Versailles has interrupted its normal operations, and is unable to transport at this time. He will now contact Operations control to recheck the status of those of you who are scheduled to depart.”

“What’s going on?” a junior Starfleet engineer demanded. “Why can’t the Versailles transport us?”

The droid’s tinny voice duplicated the question in Dapaduuk’s tongue, and then reproduced his response. “I’m afraid that Dapaduuk does not privy to that knowledge. He was informed that the Starfleet vessel was forced to break from its expected course, and is no longer able to initiate matter-energy transportation. He was told nothing else. He gives his sincerest apologies, and will relay any further information as it becomes available.”

With that, the Wookiee grunted something to himself and returned to the crate of ration containers he had been inventorying before being interrupted. TC-3 remained in position, but its expressionless mask and obviously fatigued posture made the machine seem equally as distracted and inaccessible. The crowd of visiting technicians and officers, momentarily directionless, broke into small groups and shuffled to an out-of-the-way section of the expansive chamber. Out of place and with little else to do, they conversed with each other in quiet and nervous tones, occasionally casting furtive glances at their towering keeper, who, despite his assurances, didn’t seem particularly interested in getting to the bottom of the delay. Most of the Republica’s crew was reasonably amiable with the natives who came onboard, but there were always a few with whom relations were strained. This reticence and suspicion was especially common when the topic of transporters came up; few of the hard-bitten rebels had taken a liking to the idea of being rendered into their component atoms and shot through space, and none of them had yet volunteered to test the system. Even Councilor Organa opted to take a shuttle when she traveled to and from Deep Space Nine.

Lacking colleagues to talk with or delayed duty schedules to complain about, Laura Martin found a quiet patch of deck and propped herself up against a stack of large, heavy cargo containers that dominated half of one high wall. She found to her surprise that the notation tagged in block script on their faces was in Federation Standard, not the strange, geometric lettering that the Alliance used.

“Surplus Yard Coridan, Epsilon Section. Class II re-crystallization equipment, starship-grade,” one descriptive read. The ensign also recognized the numerals stamped on the corners of the crates; they indicated that the containers were made of a relatively dense, sensor resistant material used for protecting delicate machinery from radiation and other damaging factors. She vaguely recalled seeing a collection of similar boxes during a layover on Earth Spacedock shortly before the Zerg emergence.

Laura was absent-mindedly running a palm over the smooth, cool surface of one of the containers when a loud clang resonated throughout the chamber. Curious, she scanned the room to see if the small Alliance crew on duty in the cargo bay was moving any of their charges, but the handful of droids and aliens appeared to be searching the room for the origin of the sound as well. After a moment, the clang echoed again, and then a third time, and Laura was able to trace it to a crate identical to her own a few dozen meters away down the line. Something sounded from within the box again, and then from another next to it. Laura glanced at her companions, but they returned her nonplused look in kind.

When the noise returned, it was harsher and deeper, like something hard and sharp being scraped across the deck plate. When this sound became a continuous din, the Wookiee deck chief finally looked up from his work, and approached the line of containers. Before he had moved a meter, scraping and tearing noises began to resonate from more of the boxes, one after another, until each of the dozen, rancor-sized cubes was alive with an earsplitting racket. Something bashed violently against the inside of Laura’s crate and she stumbled back from it, instinctively reaching for her hand phaser. Finding it missing, she withdrew even further, and tried to encourage the others to do so as well.

The sealing clamps on the rightmost crate buckled and then snapped free, causing one side of the thick-walled container to slam flat onto the deck. Something within chattered and hissed. Then a dozen of them screeched.

Laura ran.
----------------------------------------------

“I need a status report,” Captain Ryceed said significantly. “Now!”

The trio of Operations coordinators worked their board furiously, collating comm transmissions and computer alerts from every centimeter of the light cruiser’s 500 meter bulk.

“Were still trying to bypass the damage to the internal monitoring grids, sir,” one of them reported, not taking the time to look up from her work. “But the junction room on deck eight is tied directly with two of the main diagnostic droid brains, and the other two are having a hard time picking up the slack. The damage we sustained to the slaved internal defenses has also shed onto the mainline comms for forward decks four and five. And we still can’t raise the main cargo bays or barracks.”

“I need internal communications reestablished,” Ryceed pushed. “We can’t have blackouts like this in the middle of a combat situation.”

“We’re trying, sir. All technical teams have been activated and are being dispatched to reroute key comm pathways, but it could still take some time to give you back full communications. I could try to temporarily switch the ship to a remote grid, but I don’t think that the ship’s computers could handle that volume of data directly for long. We’d have to cut back to essential communications only, and maintaining weapons coordination might be difficult.”

Ryceed turned to the bridge’s main holographic projector, a large circular pedestal mounted on the chamber’s lower level. Presently, it displayed the outermost anterior orbitals of Bajor’s planetary system, where the Allied fleet was rapidly forming a defensive line. As she watched, a squadron of frigates that the COM-scan interpreter identified as Defiant-class joined with an element of Romulan warbirds, and the two groups coalesced into a loose arrowhead formation, the frontline of the formative shell. The defense was an impressive one, already comprising more than fifty vessels, but it was also relatively uncoordinated; most of the fleet’s command ships, like the Versailles and the Enterprise, were on the other side of Bajor, along with the majority of the fleet. And many of those ships were in the middle of overhaul, re-supply, and repair; it would probably take half an hour to get the force up to full combat readiness.

The impending threat was not nearly as slow. Ninety vessels of every class and configuration had just dropped from warp, and were hurtling towards Bajor as fast as their drives would push them. The force was too small to have any hope of taking the planet, which meant that they had some other object in mind. It also meant, Ryceed realized as one of the ancillary tactical displays generated a facsimile of one of the lead ships, a patchwork of deep gashes, bizarre and half hazard repairs, and all too organic protrusions, that whatever Zerg mind was controlling the fleet didn’t expect to pull many of its minions from the fray alive. That made the commandeered craft all the more dangerous.

“No, we can’t afford any disruption to weapons control. Just get the mainline bypasses functional. I’ll send Commander Gavplek to coordinate the repair effort from the aft command station.”

The Republica’s captain caught her XO’s attention, and the two exchanged a few quick words. Acknowledging her orders, Gavplek located one of his lieutenants and the two hurried off for the bridge turbolift.

Next, Ryceed moved to the main Communications control, where Commander Riker and a few Alliance officers were staring at a flickering 2D linkup.

“Have you been able to raise Councilor Organa or Allied Command?”

A Sullustan comm officer shook his squat head. “We’re trying to bypass the planetary mass by linking with the planet’s satellite network, but there’s a great deal of interference due to the amount of traffic it’s had to accommodate. We should be able to contact Deep Space Nine in under a minute.”

“What’s the tactical situation?” Riker asked, turning to face Ryceed.

“It could be worse. The fleet should be able to meet the Zerg force on even footing by the time they reach us, and all the civilian ships on this side of the planet are being drawn behind the defensive line. Still, Picard, K’Nera, and Nechayev are still out of range, and most of the fleet with them.”

“What about the internal damage?”

“It’s being handled,” she said simply.

“Alright, then,” Riker said, tugging on his shirt reflexively. “We should move the Republica to the front of the defensive formation. She alone should be able to take the punch out of this incursion, and absorb most of the damage the Zerg might otherwise be able to do. Besides, the fleet needs a rallying point, at least until Captain Picard and the others arrive.”

“Agreed,” Ryceed replied without hesitation.

Riker stared at her, obviously surprised.

“What?” she asked, frowning. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, sir. Nothing at all.” Riker turned away, but Ryceed could swear she saw him grin as he did.

She suddenly felt flustered. Riker could be incredibly exasperating, but Ryceed was finding it more and more difficult to manifest much genuine annoyance within him, despite her best efforts.

You’re going soft, Imal. The Feds are getting to you.

“Alright, I want our squadrons in vacuum. Tell General Solo to take them to the head of the battle line and integrate with the Allied formation. The Republica will join him as soon as internal communications have been restored.”

The Captain’s orders were relayed, and within a minute twenty six pinpricks of light roared away from the cruiser’s lateral landing bay. The two squadrons of starfighters, with the Millennium Falcon at their head, were automatically etched into the light display that dominated the chamber, and she watched as the tiny, blue bezels swiftly closed the distance between themselves and the bulk of the defensive fleet. Beyond their loosely conical wall, on the very edge of the holographic projector’s imaging field, the first hostile blips began to appear.

“The Zerg force will be within weapons range of the Allied formation in forty five seconds,” a tactical officer reported.

Ryceed nodded in recognition, and then made for the short flight of stairs that would bring her down next to the display, where Riker now stood, assessing the situation with intense focus. However, before she had reached the top step, warning lights and signals rippled across several of her control boards, triggering a new flurry of activity amongst the command crew.

“Captain, I have Sergeant Kendic on one of the functioning comm lines,” the officer at the auxiliary Security post said loudly, his voice apprehensive. “He’s issuing a station one alert.”

Ryceed froze, and some of her subordinates began to murmur nervously. Station one was the ship’s highest state of readiness, only activated during times of pitched battle, when the threat of injury to the Republica and her crew was great. It was customary for a captain or executive officer to innate it for combat, or even a member of the technical crew if there was a significant enough internal failure, but it was very unusual for a member of the ship’s marine detachment to order it. Such a directive from the on-duty Watch Captain could only mean one thing: hostile boarders.

Ryceed seized the nearest comm stud. “I need confirmation, sergeant. What is your situation?”

“Zerg, sir,” a strained voice panted from over the line. “I started getting reports of hostiles on deck four, forward section just after the problems with internal security started. One of my teams just confirmed; we have Zerg onboard ship, and they’re spreading.”

Ryceed’s expression was stiff. “How many, Sergeant? Are they confined to deck four?”

“I don’t know, sir. Surveillance for that deck is down, as are all but a few of my men’s comlinks. I’ve got confirmed reports of at least seven of the creatures in lateral corridors 403 and 405, and unconfirmed contact on deck three.”

“Can you contain them?”

“I don’t even know where they’re coming from, sir! They just… appeared a few minutes ago and started spreading out, tearing into anyone they come across. I think they might be heading somewhere, but…”

“Can you contain them, Sergeant?” Ryceed repeated.

“I’ve dispatched all the troops I’ve got to the main transit points on deck four, and I’m trying to recall the ones I sent after Major Truul, but I can’t be sure some Zerg haven’t escaped further into the ship. Communications are a mess, and most of the automated defenses in this portion of the ship are still offline. Still, my men have been sealing blast doors wherever they can and setting up turrets at chokepoints. As long as there aren’t too many of these things, we should be…”

A burst of static interrupted Kendic’s assessment.

“Get him back!” Ryceed demanded.

“We’ve lost contact within one of the remote comm repeater nodes,” an officer reported, typing something furiously into his interface. “I’m trying to switch your link to an independent emergency channel.”

A moment later, the static cleared.

“Captain?”

“I’m here, Sergeant,” Ryceed said. “Something happened to another one of our comm nodes.”

“Sir, I just heard from one of my containment teams. The Zerg are doing more than just hunting down crewmen. They came across a conduit line for the starboard laser grid, completely trashed, and they’re not the only ones. Every junction box and power line the intruders come across, they attempt to destroy. And I think that some of them might be heading even deeper into the ship. We’re sealing off the turbolifts as fast as we can, but if they manage to get into even one of the tubes, they could reach Engineering, Medical, Life Support, and the Bridge in only a few minutes.”

Ryceed barely had time to take this in before a shout rang out from Tactical. “The enemy battle group is altering its approach vector!”

The comm stud still raised to her lipless mouth, Ryceed turned back to the battle display. The host of crimson stars that was the invading force, once a formless wave united only in common direction, was executing an eighty degree turn away from and over the Allied fleet and Bajor beyond. Its new heading placed the careening mass on a course that bisected the orbital path of the tiny, uninhabited moon Derna, and then angled it out of the system. A single point of light fell into their new path.

The Republica.



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


Last edited by Noble Ire on 2007-03-16 10:33pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-04-19 01:51am
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Sorry for the delay; this chapter took longer than expected, and ended up being the longest of the story so far. In fact, due to board limitations on post length, I've had to split it into two sections.

Chapter Sixty

Leaving the handful of marines and techs that had answered Truul’s call for backup to handle the damage and the wounded, the Major, Jacen, and the Master Chief were packed once again into a turbolift together, this time heading for deck one, and the bridge. When Truul had attempted to ascertain why less than half the number of reinforcements he had expected had actually arrived to secure the ruined junction room, his comlink had given out without reason, as had those of every other crewer in the vicinity. He had tried to raise the bridge on a remote, emergency channel, but that too had been overwhelmed by static and disrupted after only a few moments of contact. Truul could only assume that the damage Kira had done in her madness was more extensive than he had originally anticipated, and had somehow overloaded the ship’s comm repeaters.

“I knew I shoulda assigned independent comlinks to the crew when we came onboard,” he grumbled, more to himself than the others. “These spacers always depend too much on their ships. One blasted problem, and they can’t even talk to each other.”

The motile compartment began to slow, and Truul breathed out a sigh. “Ah well, taking this straight to the source should speed it up, in any event. I’m not to keen on being debriefed by remote, and we’ve got places to be.”

“This isn’t the command deck,” the Master Chief said. He couldn’t read the symbols displayed on the lift’s internal interface, but he had ridden in the compartment enough to develop a feel for it, with armor or without. They were stopping too quickly, too abruptly.

Truul glanced down at the control panel. “You’re right, we’re two decks short. I know I put this thing on an express track to the bridge. What’s…”

An instant before the lift came to a full stop, a flash of intuition hit Jacen, and he swept the lightsaber from his belt, igniting it in the same fluid motion.

“Back!” he yelled, just as the bowed door slid open.

A blast of rancid, wet air billowed into the small chamber, followed immediately by an equally gut-wrenching snarl. Filling the lift’s exit from deck to ceiling, a creature that was both animal and weapon leered at them with tiny, lidless red eyes. Reared up on its snake-like lower half, the beast “stood” nearly three meters in height, a ridged mass of thick, reddish-brown chitin and bony plate upon which were fixed a pair of long, scythe-tipped arms and a colossal, fanned skull. This head, more nightmare mask than living visage, was adorned by a protruding, detached jaw, dozens of uniform fangs less than a meter from Jacen’s bloodless face.

For an instant, the Jedi’s world froze. Each of his senses focused on the threat before him, and he could suddenly discern everything about the creature. He felt its damp breath, heard the grinding of its slung jaw as it flexed in anticipation, saw the muted hue of blood stained across one scimitar-like claw. He could see, too, beyond its predatory eyes, into the harsh, confusing chamber that was its mind. Jacen had encountered many strange animals on more worlds than he could recall, but he had never touched one that resonated in the Force so disconcertingly. Instinct, primal emotion, and basic desire all coalesced to drive the warrior beast, but they were but a shell, emissaries to the body, but ungoverned by it. Another power drove them, sheltered deep within the creature’s limited consciousness.

Hunger. Malice. All for one, and one alone.

The flash of clairvoyance dissipated before Jacen could even begin to process it, but it did leave him with a single, pivotal thought.

“Against the walls!”

Even as he uttered these words, Jacen began to brace himself, hunching closer to the lift’s floor and bring both his lightsaber and his free hand in front of him. As he did, the Zerg creature swelled up to an even greater height, puffing out its chest cavity with a whine of transient air and chitinous plate. Its massive head lifted to towards the ceiling, revealing a pair of hard, ribbed plates that covered most of its long torso. Above this armor, a fleshy sac bulged forth, inflated by the intake of atmosphere.

A dozen minute tears appeared in the reddish mass, and abruptly the air was filled with a barrage of bony spines. Polished white, covered in a membrane of mucus, and tipped with points finer than needles, the hail of organic missiles crossed the space between the Zerg and Jacen in a split second. Rather than tearing through the unarmored human like so much uncooked meat, however, most of the spines diverted course fractionally, as if caught by a powerful wind. The bolts whistled past the Jedi’s head and chest, narrowly missed Truul and the Chief, who were still reacting to Jacen’s sudden command, and impacted the car’s curved rear wall. Each hit with the report of a gunshot, and a few nearly perforated the metallic surface before coming to a halt, a testament to their lethal capacity.

Ignoring the pair of cuts on his left arm left by spines he hadn’t quite been able to deflect, Jacen lunged forward, bringing his saber hilt to his chest and then slashing horizontally at the attacking creature’s center mass. It reared back with incredible speed for its size, but was unable to completely evade the glowing pylon of green energy. A long scar of charred exoskeleton just below the creature’s spine sac provoked a piercing, clattering screech, but for all its rage, the animal’s thick covering seemed to have protected it from injury.

Jacen closed distance with the beast again, but was unable to raise his lightsaber for another slash before Zerg brought its own blades to bear, bring them across at the Jedi from both sides. Still confined by the turbolift aperture, Jacen could not dodge under the blows, so instead he went up; a Force-enhanced leap brought him level with the beast’s hard, left shoulder. Unable to recover from its failed death embrace quickly enough, the Zerg could do nothing but jerk back violently as Jacen slid over its armored torso, spun around as he fell towards the ground, and planted his lightsaber a patch of flesh exposed between its shoulder and neck plates.

The creature’s spiny tail leapt up to meet the falling Jedi, and its chinked underside slammed him into a nearby bulkhead before he could regain his footing. It swung about to face its incapacitated prey, but, as though it only then felt the narrow shaft of cauterization that slit it from flank to flank, reeled back onto its own tail with a muted scream. Then, with a few lazy swings at the empty air and a single grind of its powerful teeth, it collapsed and was still.

Blocked from view previously by the creature’s bulk, a pair of smaller beasts peered at their slain comrade apprehensively. Vaguely canine in form and size, they were burly masses of jagged plates and livid skin, each with a pair of odd, clawed appendages sprouting from their backs like overgrown spider legs. The two seemed to peer at each other for confirmation, their tiny eyes barely visible over faces filled with jaws even more terrible than those of the larger minion, and then they turned their focus in unison towards Jacen, who still lay against the fall wall, struggling for breath after the powerful blow.

The Zerg took a few tentative steps towards the human, and when he did not immediately leap up to rebuff them, they grew bolder and began to lope down the narrow hallway, their clawed antenna undulating in concert with their steps. Jacen watched them come, desperately forcing himself up against the wall and reaching out for his lightsaber, which had been knocked from his grip by the towering beast’s final blow. He found it, lying on the deck several meters away, beyond the lifeless Zerg corpse. Jacen reached out for it, felt it nudge towards his hand. The two quadrupeds were almost upon him. His weapon was too far.

As the leading creature tensed its haunches in preparation for the final leap, two lambent bolts alighted upon its midsection. The scaly surface lit with combustion, and the beast tumbled onto its side, momentum carrying the twitching form nearly another meter before it finally came to a stop. Its companion bayed in outrage, but it too was stricken by crimson energy, and fell to the deck with equal swiftness.

Looking ins the direction from which the blaster fire had come, Jacen stared at his own muted reflection, captured in the Master Chief’s rounded faceplate. The soldier held out a gauntleted hand, and the Jedi took it gratefully, pulling himself fully to his feet.

“Nice work,” the Chief commented, gently nudging one of the larger beast’s forelimbs with his boot.

“You too,” Jacen said, and then retrieved his lightsaber hilt from the scuffed floor.

“Hydralisk.” Truul joined them, his blaster still at the ready. “That’s what Tassadar called ‘em. Nasty creatures. A few of them nearly tore up a few of my boys on Deep Space Nine. This one’s bigger than those, though, and I never saw any of them move that fast.”

“The smaller Zerg are different as well,” the Chief noted. “They’re tougher and bulkier than any I’ve encountered before.”

“Well, I guess this would explain why I haven’t been able to raise anyone above decks for the last few minutes,” Truul said. “I’m willing to bet that this lot wasn’t all of ‘em.”

“How could they have gotten onboard?” Even as he voiced the question, Jacen reached out into to the surrounding ship, searching for minds and threads of activity that might answer it. He found only a clutter of rampant emotions, fear, confusion, and bitter determination intermixed with the unsettling, hollow presence that emanated from the Zerg.

“Haven’t a clue, but if they’re this far into the ship’s habitation section, the security detail probably isn’t having much luck sealing off the source. The damage that Bajoran inflicted to the internal system probably didn’t help. Whatever’s going on, the captain is going to need our help getting a handle on the situation. Looks like your Fed students will have to wait a little while longer, Chief.”

The Spartan checked the ammo indicator on his sidearm.

Truul nodded. “Alright, let’s see if we can’t hook up with some of the crew and get a picture of the tactical.”

It didn’t take very long for the eerie silence of the corridor, which Truul identified as being only several below the bridge, to be broken by the sound of combat. Coming around a turn, the trio found a few crew members hunched behind a large supply crate, directing the fire from a handful of pistols and rifles down the long hallway. At least ten of the smaller beasts, Zerglings, were tearing up the narrow space towards them, pining loudly as they leapt over abandoned barricades and shattered corpses, humanoid and quadruped alike. Behind them, a pair of Hydralisks seemed to be preoccupied with a forcefully exposed wall conduit, and were peppering it with a hail of razor spines.

A single Alliance marine stood out of cover in front of the oncoming pack, punching commands into a wall interface as the others covered her, picking off as many Zerglings as they could manage. She tapped a final key, and a thick blast door began to close across the hall. Squeezing off a few parting blast from her own sidearm, the marine retreated from the panel for the crate. Before she made it to cover, however, an explosion sounded from the hall, and the overhead lights began to flicker. Something heavy sounded from within one of the walls, and the blast door stalled. Cursing, the marine turned back for the control, but found her path blocked by a glowering monstrosity that had pulled itself through the barrier’s gap.

A blaster bolt from one of the crewers burned off several of its raised back scales, but the creature did not retreat from its intended victim. The marine aimed her weapon at the thing’s head, but a lightening strike from one of the Zerg’s bizarre dorsal appendages knocked the weapon from her hand. The second clawed limb swung at her chest, but before it could find its mark, the whole beast found itself skittering back across the deck for the stalled blast door. Snarling, the Zergling attempted to shake off the unseen attacker, but a volley of blaster bolts put an end to resistance before it crossed under the threshold.

As Truul raced forward and reactivated the lockdown protocol, Jacen dragged the wounded marine back to the waiting arms of the other crewers, one of whom had already produced an emergency medkit.

“Much appreciated,” she said as someone bound her injured hand and applied a local anesthetic. “I’m guessing that that thing didn’t just decide it wasn’t hungry anymore and turn back. You must be that Jedi I’ve been hearing about. We could have used more like Commander Skywalker back on Hoth, but I’m damn glad you’re here now, sir.”

Jacen smiled and nodded at the complement, but did not reply. The mention of the rout at Hoth made the Jedi remember that the woman he was speaking to was probably a grandmother in the world he knew, if she had survived the Galactic Civil War at all.

“Private.” Major Truul kneeled down next to them and scanned the soldier’s simple dressing. “You alright?”

“Yes, sir. They always told me I was a bad shot, anyways. This can only improve my aim.”

“Glad to hear it, because we might still need ya. Now, I want to know what’s going on here. Everything.”

The marine recounted everything that had happened in the last few minutes: the internal security failures, the sudden communications blackout, the Zerg outbreak, rumors of a battle raging outside the ship’s hull. Truul listened to it all in silence, his expression stony. The others kept close watch on the empty hallway behind them, and the sealed bulkhead, against which the sound of fevered scrabbling could still be heard.

When the soldier’s account was through, one of the crewers spoke up. “Major, before I got separated from my repair detail, we were working on one of the primary monitoring nodes on this deck. As far as I could tell, the intruders are doing their best to neutralize the Republica’s offensive capabilities. After they severed internal comms, we started seeing major fluctuations in the main deflector and laser power feeds. At the rate they were working, we might be dead in space by now.”

Truul nodded. “They’re planning something.”

“We should make for the main bridge,” the Master Chief said. “Command and control has to be preserved if an attempt to retake the ship is to be made, and they may still have some intact comm systems.”

“Right. The bridge is only a few decks up, anyways, although we’ll have to take the maintenance crawlways. I don’t want to get pinned in one of those cars with a Hydralisk breathing down my neck again. There should be an access conduit a few sections down this corridor.”

The group gathered itself up and began to make its way back down the left length of the isolated stretch. The Chief and Truul took point, with the crewers and the injured marine behind, and Jacen bringing up the rear.

“This is yours, I think,” Jacen said to the soldier, handing her the blaster that the Zergling had knocked from her grip. She grasped it in her left hand and sighted it experimentally.

“This’ll have to do. Thank you, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’. I don’t really deserve it. My name is…”

Jacen stopped abruptly, his eyes widening. He turned back and peered down the hallway, searching it for something.

“Sir?” the soldier asked.

“You said that the outbreak originated somewhere inside the ship. Where?”

“Well, as far as I know, no one is exactly sure, but I did hear the sergeant mention something about the main cargo bay during the last comm dispatch before the lines went dead.”

“The cargo bay…” Jacen whispered to himself, still staring off down the hall.

“Why, sir? What’s wrong?”

“Tell the Major that I’ll regroup with you as soon as I can. I need to check something.”

With that, the Jedi began to run back the way they had come, ignoring the soldier’s confused shouts and warnings. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Why had he been so distracted? As Jacen tore around a corner, he desperately hoped he could remember the way to the ship’s main hold. There was no time for wandering, if there was any time left at all.

---------------------------------------------------

The creature had no name. It had no identity, and no sense of self. It had those things once, but they were utterly forgotten, less than faded memories. It was an appendage now, a slave to another in every way that an organism could be enslaved. It was barely even a distinct entity, defined only by the sagging, unkempt boundary that was its skin.

To one foreign to the trials that it had endured, the thing, or any of the half dozen other beings that were attached to the bridge of a warship that had once too had a name, a history, a crew and captain, the creature might have appeared to be any number of things. It was undeniably alive, pulsating, twitching, breathing in the shallow, vestigial manner of something that really does not need to breathe, but beyond that, it bore little resemblance to any lifeform encountered in the collective experience of the peoples who had constructed the warship upon which it sat. It could have been a plant, for it never moved from the broken and dirty seat on which it was rooted by knotted strands of scaly flesh. Perhaps an insect; the sharp, russet protrusions that burst from its withered skin certainly had the appropriate quality. More than either, though, it bore the appearance of an animate corpse, a marionette that existed only by the bizarre providence of some greater power.

In truth, it was all these things, but in true function it was something else entirely, and that was all that mattered. It was a hand.

Without knowing why, or needing to know why, the thing raised its naked arms, heavily blistered but still separate from the bloated mass that its body had become, and placed them upon an adjacent interface. Neural impulses stimulated by a mind a thousand miles away moved fingers in a precise, almost mechanical fashion, a series of strokes and taps that meant nothing to the body that performed them. Other creatures nearby, bonded to the ship by grotesque chains of sinew and lack of will, carried out different motions on different interfaces, equally oblivious of their own hands. This soundless symphony fired conduits and triggered electrical signals throughout the warship’s artificial brain, uncorrupted but a slave all the same, and it in turn compelled devices interspersed throughout the hull to project an invisible bubble of energy around the mass of metal and flesh.

The creatures did not know that an instant after that shield was raised, a storm of phaser fire nearly brought it down again. The tremors that shook the vessel to its very core did not phase them. Another explosion overloaded an interface violently, lashing one organic instrument with a shower of burning sparks and jagged particulate; it simply bypassed the damaged circuits and continued on with its noiseless work, oblivious the lacerations that bloodied its already scarred features.

Another entity, seated before a tactical display, saw without seeing the large, vaguely tubular vessel that a previous course correction had aligned them with. The visual signal went unprocessed by the creature’s brain, but another mind did read it, and soon after the thing and its companions were set to their controls once more.

The warship, and dozens of others like it, moved closer to their target, some firing blindly at the host of more lively constructs that pursued them, others utterly focused on their prize. The larger starship remained still, as though waiting for the single-minded swarm to arrive. Its weapons blisters, capable of swatting any of the vessels arrayed against it in an instant, were silent. Its deflector shield generators, capable of withstanding any onslaught the foe ships could muster, were inactive. By all outward appearances, the vessel was dead, heartless and cold as its suitors truly were.

-----------------------------------------------

The beating of Laura’s heart filled her head. When she tried to think, the constant pounding shattered her concentration. When she tried to move, the booming only increased, and terror stayed her. She could not feel the cool metal around her, or taste the saltiness of her dry lips; all she could perceive was the deafening beat. That, and the scene that filled her vision.

A thin fog of acrid smoke filled the air, unmitigated by the meager efforts of atmospheric purifiers that flickered on and off with the cargo bay lights and the distant explosions that sent faint tremors across the gray deck. Small fires still burned unchecked where data terminals and maintenance accesses once stood, their exposed wiring sparking occasionally with undirected energy. The cloud stung Laura’s eyes and obscured her vision, but she did not care. What she saw could not be diminished by such an inconvenience.

The deck was littered with bodies. Between stacks of cargo containers and claw-gouged machinery, more than a dozen inert forms lay in various states of contortion and desecration. Some were draped over smashed droids or the bodies of their comrades, dispatched by deep slashes or lethal barbs. Others were virtually unrecognizable, heaps of bones and flesh mired in pools of smeared fluid. All, however, bore mementos of their final moments. Hands half-clasped upon weapons, bodies cut down mid-flight, faces drawn into masks of fear.

Laura had seen the scene before, and now all the deep, terrible feelings that the prior experience had inflicted upon her had returned, amplified all the more by the closeness of the carnage. Sheltered under the overturned wreck of a repulsor crane, which she had stumbled under more by instinct than conscious thought as the world around her dissolved into blood, she was a prisoner, alone with ice-cold dread that had become her mind. She had not seen one of the monstrosities for some time, how long she could not tell, but fear still confined her. Fear of both claws and teeth, and of the lifeless creatures that lay along the path to escape.

She would not leave the safety of the chance alcove, could not. Even if Laura was armed, and the demons that now crept through the Republica’s halls were somehow crippled, she could not summon the will to enter into the terrible place again alone. She would stay there, hidden, until the world around her turned to ash. It was all she could do.

A gasp of labored breath sounded close by, and Laura recoiled deeper into her ruined space. She clenched her teeth and wedged herself into a fetal position, waiting for the searing pain and ensuing darkness. She could almost feel the blood-sullied spears of bone slicing her skin and piercing her to the core.

The wheeze came again, faint and fading, almost imperceptible against the pounding within her chest. The sound still terrified Laura, but after the scythes of the hunting demons failed to rip her from her protective shell, she managed to open an eye and scan the space before her for its source. There was no Zerg beast there; the chamber still seemed devoid of life. Then she saw it, a body not three meters from the low, cluttered opening beyond which she was crouched. It was the Wookiee deck chief Dapaduuk, and his thickly-furred and blood-matted chest was rising and falling, if only slightly.

A ray of awe worked itself into Laura’s mind. She had seen the towering Alliance soldier beset by five of the invading creatures. Fearsome even without a weapon, the Wookiee’s huge paws had rent one of the smaller attackers nearly in two and stressed the bladed arm of a larger creature almost to breaking. Nevertheless, weight of numbers and the ferocity of the Zerg onslaught had overwhelmed him, and he had been brought to the floor by more than a dozen vicious slashes and rending bites. The sentient’s hide was virtual patchwork of open wounds, each of which was still hemorrhaging dark liquid. And yet, he was still alive.

A hiss and clatter of nailed feet echoed from one of the adjoining halls. Fear gripped Laura once again, and she began to retreat further into her hiding space, but just as she did, breath once more racked the Wookiee’s body, and his left arm twitched. The alien’s lips, gashed by a deep cut, drew back haltingly, and a low groan emanated from beneath broken rows of teeth.

Laura stared at the Wookiee for a long moment. She remembered the Cornwall, seeing friends and colleagues torn apart and left on the bloodied ground, dying and without hope. She remembered the fear, the confusion, the helplessness she had felt as each one died. She remembered her own flight, her feet and blind fortune snatching her from a fate that no other had escaped.

She remembered the distorted reflection of her own face in the face plate of one of her saviors, twisted so by fear and self pity that she thought a moment that it was one of the monsters that hounded her.

Slowly, cautiously, Laura crawled from the cover of the wrecked vehicle. On her hands and knees, ignoring the sticky wetness that soaked her palms and uniform, she moved the Dapaduuk’s side. Gingerly, she touched a massive, hairy shoulder.

“It’ll be alright,” she whispered. “I’ve got you.”

The Wookiee made an indecipherable noise and turned his battered head fractionally towards her.

“Quiet now. I’m going to have to move you. Hold on.”

Quickly assessing the considerable damage to the massive creature’s upper body, Laura positioned herself behind the Wookiee’s neck, propped its lolling head on her chest, and grasped him beneath each arm. Inhaling deeply, she tugged on the limp mass, found herself unable budge it a centimeter, repositioned, and tried again. This time, the Wookiee slid back with her fractionally, but as soon as she stopped to gasp for another breath, he loosed a guttural howl of pain. It was a weak cry, but loud enough to reverberate into every corner of the chamber and beyond. The footfalls in the hallway ceased.

Pushing down the wave of fear that tempted her to drop the wounded soldier and flee back into her dark cave, Laura strained once more against Dapaduuk’s impressive weight. He moved with her again briefly, and again a fevered cry escaped his lips.

Laura was about to whisper something, more to bolster her own resolve than silence the pained Wookiee, when a shadow leapt up suddenly on the deck before them. Looking up, she saw the forms of two slithering Hydralisks, backlit by a fallen floodlight, as they made their way into the hold. The beasts did not rear up and scan the chamber for prey or fall into covert, stalking movements; they saw their intended victims, and cared not if they were seen in turn. Mindless minions or no, instinct told them both that their next meal was to be an easy one.

Laura did not attempt to flee as they approached. The Zerg saw her now, and a bent pile of machinery would not keep them from their prize, even if she could reach the overturned repulsor pad before their jaws found her. She simply watched, and let the feeling drain from her limbs, resigned to the inevitable. Certainly, fear was still with her, but she found that next to the fear that had nearly kept her from reaching out to the Wookiee, the pain that this new terror inflicted was bearable. She had conquered one fear, only to find another that was unconquerable; perhaps, she thought ruefully as the twin predators moved closer, there was some small solace in that irony.

The Hydralisks closed past the range of their spine sacs, instead allowing their exposed jaws to fall open and raising their scimitar claws in anticipation. One gurgled joyfully and locked eyes with Laura, as though claiming her as its particular share of the find. She returned the cold gaze unflinchingly.

Fanning out on either side of the Wookiee and the human, the two Zerg coiled their hind sections and leaned close, until Laura could have reached out and touched her hunter had she had the energy or inclination. The Hydralisk was so enraptured by its target that it failed to notice the blur of motion that appeared at the entry hatch through which it had emerged, nor the flash of green light that accompanied it. This ignorance would likely have continued for some time, but a loud rush of warped air current managed to elicit the creature’s attention, and it turned its massive head towards the doorway in time to catch a glimpse of a flattened, lambent disk of green, just before it sailed smoothly into the beast’s sloped forehead.

It took the other Hydralisk only a second to sense that something was amiss, but in that time the blur had crossed the distance between them, and had already retrieved its glowing blade from the smoldering chasm that it had left in the first Zerg warrior. Before the slain creature could even fall onto the deck, the blur resolved into the form of a man dressed in black and leapt over Laura and her charge, directly on top of their remaining foe.

The Hydralisk unleashed a volley of spines before its attacker could reach the ground, but the man changed his trajectory in midair, deftly dodging the onslaught and landing behind it. The creature’s muscular tail whipped up to meet the human, but he vaulted over the strike and lunged at the Zerg’s undefended back. The lightsaber bit into dense chitin, but the Hydralisk managed to jerk to the side away from the blow, leaving behind a large chunk of its exoskeleton plate. Screeching, the beast slashed at the man with an enormous claw, almost toppling onto its back in order to do so.

A flash of illumination separated the talon blade from its arm. Another flash separated the Hydralisk from half of its skull.

As the second creature joined its companion on the plated floor, Jacen Solo straightened from his combat stance, keyed the pommel of his blade off, and then collapsed to one knee, breathing heavily. The engagement had lasted less than ten seconds.

Numbly, Laura stared at her savior, oblivious to the Wookiee’s weight upon her legs or the cool sweat that drenched her brow. She opened her mouth to speak, but a chorus of surprise, blind relief, lingering fear, and something else entirely echoing in her mind left her mute.

His breathing finally slowed, Jacen looked up at the woman, and then began to rise. The young Jedi winced visible, and a hand clapped onto his thigh, where a long sliver of red welled from under his black garb.

“Are… are you alright?” Laura tried to move towards him, but found herself still pinned by Dapaduuk’s bulk.

Jacen nodded quickly, and then raised his hand. The cut was still emblazoned wetly upon his skin, but the flow of blood was swiftly diminishing, thickening under the gentle caress of the Force.

“Don’t worry about me. Are you alright? I came as soon as I realized what was going on.”

“I’m not hurt.”

Jacen attempted to look around the room, but his eyes never quite left Laura’s gaze. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry I couldn’t get here any sooner. Are any of the others…?”

The feeling returning to her extremities, Laura was suddenly aware again of the Alliance crewer’s thick, warm blood upon her hands and uniform. “Yes. Yes, he’s still alive. He was wounded pretty badly, though. I’m not even sure how he’s still breathing.”

Tearing his gaze from the woman, Jacen moved quickly to the Wookiee’s outstretched form, which was still moving with occasional, haggard inhalations. He laid each hand gently upon the alien’s chest and peered at his scared face, reaching out for the pain-racked consciousness within. After a moment, he looked back at Laura, worry obvious on his face.

“We need to get him to a bacta tank. I might be able to keep him breathing for a little while longer, but he’s lost a lot of blood, and I’m not skilled enough to maintain him like this.”

“There’s a turbolift just outside the bay,” Laura said. “Could we get him to the medbay?”

Jacen shook his head. “The Zerg have gotten into the lift network, it’s not safe. And the medbay may have already been overrun, anyways. I’m sensing fighting all over the ship now.”

Nowhere safe. Nowhere to run.

Laura forcefully expelled the seditious thoughts from her mind. She had already come face to face with mortality on this ship and survived; the threat of more wouldn’t be enough to stop her now, or ever again. She would not be defeated by the savage specter without a fight, especially not in view of the man crouched before her.

“Well, we’ve got to get him out of this bay. I doubt that you managed to get here unnoticed.” Gritting her teeth, Laura attempted to lever the Wookiee up off of her, and then off of the bloodied deck. Jacen was at her side in an instant, and Dapaduuk’s weight was suddenly manageable. When they had managed to move and prop him up against the ruined vehicle under which Laura had sheltered, Jacen paused to give Laura time to breath, and the two caught each other’s eyes once more.

In a rush, all the feelings of regret and anxiety Jacen had felt following their last meeting came back to him. He remembered the frustration, the doubt; all the feelings that coming to know Laura Martin had sparked within him. He remembered affections from his life before they had crossed paths, some old, some achingly fresh. He felt the inevitable pain of parting, and knew he would have to brace himself for it again. Then, all in an instant, Jacen decided he would not need to.

Laura accepted the kiss without resistance or apprehension, as though she had expected for a long time. An eternal moment held them both, and no hesitation sullied the act, no doubt. The closeness of combat and death, the devastation all around, even the softly wheezing creature at their side, all were forgotten, taboo and inhibition cast away. Both had walked through the darkest corners of loss and the unforgiving jaws of war, and both had emerged alive, their strength found in the other. For the briefest and longest of moments, they were one.

Parting found them in the same macabre chamber, and neither hesitated to return to their dire work, but where weariness and worry still hung heavily in their features, despair was gone.

Together, the two lifted the taller, unconscious sapient to his feet, and Jacen gingerly grasped him around the broad chest. His muscles buckled under the weight, but an invisible hand joined them, and the Jedi found himself able to tote his living burden across the deck. Nevertheless, when a jarring tone resonated from the ceiling over the ambient drone of distant fighting and lesser warning sirens, the knight had to quickly refocus to keep from toppling onto the ground.

“What was that?” Laura asked, close at the Jedi’s side.

Jacen frowned, and then caught sight of a cracked wall display that hung lopsided from a gutted maintenance computer, exposed wiring simultaneously keeping it lit and suspending it above the hard deck plate.

“It’s an evacuation alert. Captain Ryceed just ordered all crewmembers to the escape pods. We’re abandoning the Republica.”

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A hub of brisk and earnest activity only minutes before, the command bridge of the Alliance cruiser now looked very much like the main cargo bay. The hatch that led to the adjacent turbolift bank lay in roughly-shorn pieces on the burned and scratched floor. Interfaces and displays all across the chamber’s lower deck bore debilitating damage from wild slashes, blunt force, and gouts of corroding acid. Smashed emitters and rapidly depleting power cells left the bridge lit only by dim emergency illuminators. A haze of smoke from stray weapons discharges and electrical fires, some of which still smoldered unchecked, choked eyes and lungs, as did the stench of burned flesh and fresh blood.

William Riker stood just above the scene of destruction, his right arm wrapped with a hasty tourniquet. His once pristine uniform was torn and soiled in places, and his forehead was covered in a sooty cement of sweat and airborne detritus. Wiping the filth from his eyes, the commander watched as a trio of Alliance marines mounted a portable E-Web blaster cannon on its bulky tripod, aiming it towards the exposed access way from the bridge’s interior balcony. Below, other soldiers and crewers were arrayed about the deck, the bodies of fallen comrades and heaps of lifeless Zerg at their feet. Moments before, they had been set upon the grisly work of searching the dead for ammunition and pushing the remains away from the center of the room. Now, however, all were motionless, eyes fixed up the Starfleet officer.

“I’ve relayed the order, sir, on all channels,” a lieutenant reported from a communications station. “With the internal systems as they are, I can’t be sure it’ll reach everyone aboard, but I’ve done my best.”

“The intercom is still offline?”

“You could use it, Commander, but there’s no guarantee that anyone outside of this room would hear you.”

Riker nodded in recognition, and then turned back to what remained of the Republica’s bridge crew. After taking a quick head-count, he could barely keep himself from cringing; barely two dozen beings stood before him, even with their numbers bolstered by the timely arrival of a squad of reinforcing marines and the handful of refugees that Major Truul and the Master Chief and somehow managed to spirit onto the command deck.

The onslaught had been sudden and brutal. With communications all but lost with the rest of the ship, Captain Ryceed had decided that there was no choice but to seal off the command level completely while the marines scattered throughout the ship desperately struggled to contain the encroaching intruders. However, even as she sent personnel to personally ensure that the level’s key corridors and entry points were locked down, reports began to flow in that Zerg had been spotted only one deck below, and confused readings from what remained of the cruiser’s senor net indicated that hostile warships were within transporter range of the floundering, defenseless vessel. Two minutes later, as the last of the Republica’s weaponry and monitoring gear went offline in a cascade of internal failures, the security detail posted by the bridge turbolift bank failed to report in.

Ryceed and her officers had managed to get heavy blast doors closed over the two main doors to the bridge, and were sealing the ingress from the lifts when they had appeared, sinuous claws and armored bulks turning back the durasteel barrier like it was made of foil. The marines tasked with defending the ship’s nervous system had opened up on the threat without hesitation, but there had simply been too many of them to stop. Riker, consumed a moment before with finding a way to reestablish contact with the Allied fleet, found himself in the middle of a ferocious melee. Only the timely arrival of a contingent of soldiers lead by Truul and his Spartan companion from a maintenance crawlway adjacent to the turbolifts had saved him the jaws of animalistic intruders.

Ryceed had not been so lucky. Even as the Zerg invaders were being mowed down by a sudden crisscross of blaster fire, a single Zergling had managed to bowl its way past the defenders and onto the second level, where it had set its single-minded malice on the Mon Calamari captain before being extinguished by a pair of expert shots from the Chief. She now lay a few paces behind Riker under the care of a frazzled medic as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Confirming the severity of the deep lacerations that rent her expressionless face and uniformed torso, the caretaker insisted that he needed to get her to a medical facility with all possible speed.

She had only managed one intelligible statement since the attack, uttered to Riker as he knelt next to her mangled form. Ryceed had fixed the human with both huge, glassy eyes, and said, “Don’t let them have it.” Riker had given his word, and the captain had slipped from waking.

Now the commander cleared his throat, and all eyes fell upon him. “I have given the order to abandon the Republica.”

A few murmured in dismay or disbelief. The rest were silent, watching.

“I realize that I am not your captain, or your executive officer, or part of this ship’s chain of command at all. I am not even an officer of the Alliance, and I have never claimed to be. By all rights, I shouldn’t have the authority to give the command I am giving now, and I understand fully if you are apprehensive about following it. The abandonment of one’s vessel is a hard burden to bear, and to do it without the leadership of a commander you know and trust is almost impossible. Nevertheless, I must ask you all; trust me in this, and believe that I know enough of your captain to do what she would do in my place. I too despise the thought of retreating in the face of the Zerg, giving up this fine ship, but I also know that there is no way we can win this fight. There is no point in sacrificing this crew in a hopeless last stand when the war can still be won, and you all returned to fronts nearer to your hearts.”

For a moment, no one spoke, until a human marine with a bandaged hand stepped forward from the small crowded, glancing meaningfully at her comrades as he did. “Commander Riker, I used to be an Imperial trooper, and I killed my share of good, honest sentients before I finally saw what the Empire was doing to our galaxy. This crew still accepted me, despite all of my crimes, because the Captain decided that there was something decent enough in me to let me on her ship. Most of us have only known Major Truul and the Chief for a few weeks, and we’d still fight for them and die alongside them if need be. At least, I would. I would because they’ve proven themselves able soldiers and competent commanders, and in a universe as twisted as this one, you’ve got to take all the men like that you can get.”

“Solid skill or the Captain’s confidence. If you’ve got one of those things on the Republica, your part of the family. From what I’ve heard, Commander, you’ve got both, and if that’s the truth, then I’d follow you straight to the gates of the Imperial Palace. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Rebel or a Fed or a blasted Hutt, for that matter. Of course, if you end up being a dud, my opinion might change a bit, but from the looks of things right now, I won’t be in much of a position to complain if you’re wrong about this.”

Truul walked up next to the woman and slapped her on the back. “Alright, Private, enough speeches. We haven’t got the time. You heard the Commander, we’ve got places to be.”

With that, the crew began preparing for evacuation as readily as though the order had been handed down by Mon Mothma herself. Clearing away a fallen Hydralisk corpse, a few ensigns began to manually decant one of the blast doors, while others armed themselves for the short trip to the bank of escape pods designed to serve the ship’s command crew. The rest readied the wounded for transportation or stood at watch by the other bridge apertures, fully conscious of the muffled sounds of sabotage and battle that resonated through the floor plates from below.

Disguising a relieved sigh with a cough, Riker turned to the operations officers still at their posts. “I assume that there are some self-destruct protocols still available to us.”

“Yes, sir. We still have an uplink with sublight control; it looks like the Zerg were trying to leave it intact. Locking the ion drives into an uncontrolled charge cycle should build up enough energy to flow back into the core and destabilize the hypermatter containment systems. If containment is lost like that, the ship will literally crack in half.”

“How long will that take?”

“No more than fifteen minutes.”

“Then get on it. I have a feeling that the Zerg aren’t going to hold off for that long.”

“Major!”

Truul hastened up the stairs to Riker. “Orders, Commander?”

“As soon as they get that door open, I want you and your soldiers to escort the wounded and the rest of the crew to the escape pods, and then launch yourselves out of here.”

“What about you?”

Riker tugged on his tunic. “I’ll stay here with a few officers to make sure that the self-destruct sequence is irreversible. After that, we’ll follow out of the ship. Try to remember and leave us a pod, if you can.”

Truul frowned, but nodded shortly. “Got it, Commander.”

As Truul directed two of his largest marines to conduct Captain Ryceed to safety, Riker turned back to Operations and watched as a pair of lieutenants overrode several of the security protocols of the cruiser’s navigational droid brain, and then directed it to appropriate all available power from the reactor for the massive tubular sublights at the rear of the vessel. Rather than divide the energy into individual apportionments for each drive, which could then produce the jets of energetic particles that propelled the warship through the void, however, they instructed the computer to pool what it diverted in the subsystem’s power distribution grid. Within a minute, a status display indicated that the distributing vanes were heating well beyond their design specifications, and the energy that continued to pour in found the system less and less conductive. It was only a matter of time before the wave of energetic potential had no place to go but back, into the reactor’s power feeds and inside the control systems that kept the tiny hypermatter star at the ship’s heart from spilling forth.

Just as the current within the distant chamber surpassed the local flow meter’s capacity to measure, several crewers shouted and pointed out the main viewport. Despite the battle that was obviously still raging outside of the ship, with the Republica’s sensors dead and imaging systems largely inoperative, the scene beyond the transparisteel plate had been fairly peaceful, a starfield trimmed by a silver of blue-green Bajor, occasionally etched with a distant flash of colored light or surge of motion. Now, however, several starships hung in space near enough that Riker could easily identify them as being Starfleet in origin. One of them, an Intrepid-class patrol ship, was so close that the commander could almost read the name and serial number stamped upon its silvery, oblong primary hull.

“Reinforcements?” an Alliance officer asked Riker.

Riker did not respond immediately. Instead, he moved closer to the panoramic viewport, straining his eyes at the distant form. The vessel, designed for speed and endurance, was of a new class, commissioned after the Enterprise-D had passed through the fateful rift, and as such the commander was relatively unfamiliar with its structure. Nevertheless, something about its streamlined surface rang false, some feature out-of-place on a Starfleet hull. The ship moved almost imperceptibly more proximate, and Riker’s seasoned eyes could suddenly see the flaw clearly.

Spaced along the ship’s surface, sprouting from almost every hatch and pore, irregular lumps sullied the Intrepid’s sleek veneer. It was still far too distant to know for sure, but Riker would have sworn upon his commission that the protrusions were organic in nature.

“Those are no reinforcements.” The Starfleet officer tore himself from the front of the bridge and swiftly returned to the upper level railing, beyond which the crew was already mostly assembled around the exit, which was already mostly unsealed. “Major!”

Truul looked up. “Yes, sir?”

“We need to get these people out of here now! The Zerg are within transporter range of the Republica, and this bridge.”

The marine nodded solemnly, and then amplified his gruff voice commandingly. “Alright, let’s get moving! Grab the wounded and line up at the hatch. I want us through the instant that barrier drops. Ulrand, Olesa, get on that gun and cover our backs!” The blast door creaked, and then disappeared into the ship’s bulkhead, revealing a darkened, empty passageway. “I’m taking point. Chief, you take the rear. Let’s move!”

The assembled group of officers and crew cued obediently before the hatchway and passed from view in groups of one or two, interspersed every so often by a wary marine or stretcher-bound casualty. After Captain Ryceed was carefully borne away, the Master Chief ushered the last few stragglers through the doorway, and then turned to Riker, who remained close by the operations station with the pair of soldiers and a steadfast Mon Calamari technician.

“Commander.” The Spartan withdrew an object from a slot on his girdle and tossed it lightly to the Starfleet officer. “Just in case.”

Riker looked at the thing carefully. It was a smooth, metallic ball roughly the size of his fist, adorned by a dark equatorial band, a few inactive lights, and a single, flat switch. The device was obviously of the Alliance’s galaxy, and its purpose was somewhat outside of Riker’s experience, but he had little difficulty identifying its nature.

The thought of the Chief’s implication chilled Riker’s blood, but he accepted its worth nonetheless. He offered a nod of thanks to the armored soldier; the Chief returned it, and then vanished himself beyond the bulkhead.

“Status?”

“The drive buildup still hasn’t initiated a significant feedback reaction,” the technician said without looking up from his controls. “There are too many redundancies and automatic regulators built into the system, and the computer network is too chaotic for me to shut many of them down. It’ll be another few minutes before were sure that an irreversible cascade has been initiated.”

“Anything you can do to speed it up,” Riker urged.

Seeing that the two remaining troopers were rechecking their mounted blaster, the commander picked up a pistol that had been left on an inactive holograph plate and checked its tiny ammunition display. As he attempted to interpret the foreign symbols, an out-of-place and yet completely familiar sound met his ears. Normally a harbinger of hope and aid, the artificial crackle nearly froze his heart. A transporter beam.

Spinning towards the source of the noise, Riker found himself face to face with a charging mass of claws, teeth, and armored flesh. Diving instinctively to his right, he felt more than heard the creature strike the bank of computers next to which he had been standing. Rolling onto his back and sliding desperately away, Riker watched as the Hydralisk struggled to prize its scythe-like claws from the sheets of ruined metal, sending showers of scrap machinery and sparks cascading to the deck as it howled. Once it had wrenched itself free, it turned once again towards the commander, locking him in its single-minded gaze.

Barely thinking, the man raised his weapon and fired twice. The first shot went wide, blowing a relay box mounted on the ceiling into blackened fragments. The second hit, impacting the base of the creature’s paddle-like skull fin, just above its eyes. The energy of the bolt shattered the bone, sundering organic armor that could have resisted any lesser blow. A look of deep malice still fixed on its angular visage, the creature shuddered, flailed its vicious limbs uselessly, and tumbled to the floor less than a meter from Riker.

Crawling away from the corpse in an adrenaline stupor, Riker made to call a warning out to his companions, but immediately saw that it was too late. Half a dozen other Hydralisks and a host of their smaller kin had appeared on the bridge, all around them. A few lay dead, victims of the quick response of Truul’s marines and their E-Web, but the rest were converging upon the trio of humanoids, flashing over ruined terminals and cluttered deck plates with almost supernatural speed. As Riker looked on, one of the snake-like warriors, blood-red frame bulkier than that of its russet cousins, effortlessly grappled over the upper-level railing and threw itself at the technician, who had remained at his post resolutely.

The Mon Calamari leveled a blaster at the attacker, but before he could fire, a sideswipe knocked him to the deck, lifeless. A corona of crimson splashed against the hunter’s arched back, but it seemed to barely feel the blow, and turned to face its new prey without pause. The marine who had shot the thing faltered momentarily, aghast that the monstrosity had survived the searing bolt, and then opened up on it again, his rifle coughing with added earnestness. The spray of charged gas set the Hydralisk aflame with small explosions, and small fragments of the creature rain from its skeletal form, but its advance did not cease. At last, blinded by a hit on its skull, the beast reared back, opened its chest cavity, and belched a hail of spines at the soldier, emptying its sac of projectiles before a blaster bolt found its way into the gap and ignited the Zerg a final time.

Stricken by several of the barbs, the trooper screamed and tumbled back over the railing, straight into the waiting jaws of a brace of Zerglings. The second Alliance marine barely had time to recognize that his comrade had fallen before he too was surrounded and overwhelmed by the claws and teeth of three more of the greater Hydralisks. Dragging himself to his feet, Riker attempted to stave off the feral creatures with volley after volley from his weapon, but they seemed to ignore him, even after two Zerglings joined the grim heap piled around them. Only when the other had been fully and unrecognizably dispatched did the marauders turn their attention again to the commander, who was now backed up against the bridge viewport, the very front of the compartment.

It took Riker a moment to notice that he had finally exhausted his blaster’s supply of ammunition; he depressed the pistol’s trigger again and again without thinking, barely aiming, intent on holding back the merciless host and nothing else. At last acceding to his disarmament, Riker let the blaster fall to the deck and placed both hands on the small orb which was still clasped tightly in his left fist. He contemplated its simple form, the single button trimmed by tiny lights. Mustering the last of his resolve, the Starfleet moved a thumb over the stud, and then looked up again at the ravenous sets of eyes now fixed firmly upon him, as if challenging them to come closer.

Then, to his bewilderment, Riker realized that they were not moving at him. The pack of beasts had stopped; the three towering Hydralisks and their lesser cohorts were less than six meters away, and still they did not show any sign of attacking. Instead, they sat in furtive silence, ever watching Riker, but seemingly restless, as if something had managed to distract them from their predatory impulses.

Footsteps sounded from the short stair on the bridge’s left side. Rather than the rapid, clanking clamor that the Zerg boarders produced as they propelled themselves on claws and spiked coils, these were slow, of a gait that had control and clear purpose.

The entity that stepped into view was physically smaller than the pair of towering Hydralisks that flanked her from a distance, but see completely captured the commander’s attention. In basic form, she was a woman; two meters in height, two arms, two legs, and a physique that could have made her a stunning beauty under different circumstances. Her torso and outer extremities were draped in a dark, burnished armor, which might have been artificial or grown of her own hide, and wherever the covering was absent, olive skin and sleek musculature flexed smoothly. Full, purple lips contrasted with lines and splotches of reddish discoloration that embellished her fine features, some of them traced down her chin like ribbons of long-dried blood.

Rather than hair, she bore a mane of segmented, brown spines that flowered out around her shoulders, their pointed ends swaying slightly with each step she took. Behind these growths, sprouting one from each shoulder blade, a pair of exposed bones jutted up above her head. Like the wings of some macabre angel, the appendages each sported a set of outstretched, enameled extensions, tipped with rending points that made the blades of her guardians appear worn and dull by comparison.

Riker watched her keen, yellow eyes fall upon him, and immediately had to steel himself to keep from losing his balance. Somehow, simply returning her gaze had sent a spasm of pain through his brain, and he was still attempting to clear his head when the being let her eyes fall away from him, focusing instead upon the head Mon Calamari technician who lay at her feet.

“A pity. This one could have been useful,” she said after prodding the body with a boot. Her voice was surprisingly soft and ordinary, but with it Riker could perceive a chorus of other sounds accompanying the words within his mind, guttural noises and echoing incantations. The strange voices were similar to those he felt when Tassadar communicated, but rather than the controlled and steadfast sensations that manifested themselves with the Protoss’ words, this creature’s telepathic emissions were almost indecipherable, a clatter of fractured feeling, tinged by an aura of dread that Riker suspected was his own.

“Ah well, this breed of warrior has always been a bit overeager in its lust for the hunt. That’s what really makes them superior to their lesser brethren I suppose, their drive, not their simple bulk. I must admit, the Protoss name for them, hunter-killer, I think it was, is quite appropriate. Still, they are quite sweet if you get to know them.”

The woman held her hand out to one of her formidable escorts, and it moved within range of her fingers, tinting its massive skull upwards obediently. She stroked its detached jaw affectionately, and then turned again to face Riker. The half-grin on her lips frightened him far more than any of the tensed, waiting monstrosities arrayed around her.

Two more creatures shambled onto the bridge’s upper level behind her. They were also obvious once humanoid, and still bore the rudimentary structure of their species, but otherwise were completely unrecognizable, amalgams of disjointed limbs, insectoid facial organs, and scabs of leathery, plated skin cast in all shades of purple and brown.

“There,” the woman said, inclining her head fractionally towards the control panel the deceased Alliance officer had been manning, but keeping her gaze locked onto the trapped human.

“These two will perform just as well as the other would have. And this saves me the time of having to break and reform the alien, even if I would have had to do so only temporarily. Still, I am getting quite good at it. Fully compromising and reshaping a human mind used to take me several hours, and even then, they tended to fall apart quite quickly. Now I can do it in only a few minutes, and I don’t even have to be present, as long as a suitable conduit is available. That’s how I broke the poor little soul that got me onto this fine vessel, in fact.”

She donned a look of mock consternation. “Still, I did feel her break free at the very end. Perhaps I should practice my technique a bit more.”

“What are you?” Riker said at last, finally managing to choke back the fear that the creature’s arrival had seeded within him.

She smiled again, and began to walk towards the man. Riker stood his ground as she approached, fixed less by courage than by the simple fact that he had nowhere left to run.

“That’s no way to introduce yourself, Commander,” she said irascibly. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about William Thomas Riker first? Wait, allow me; speak up if I’ve missed anything. You were born in 2335, on Earth, Alaska, I believe. You graduated eighth in your class from Starfleet Academy, with several commendations for tactical ingenuity on your record. You served on the Pegasus, Potemkin, and Hood exemplarily, and turned down your own command for a chance to serve on the flagship USS Enterprise-D as Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s first officer. Up until your disappearance in 2368, you were noted numerous times for distinction of service and competency under fire.”

“You also enjoy smooth jazz and card games, and have a taste for exotic women.”

“How…?” Riker began, and then clenched back his question. She was barely more than an arms length from him now, and he had barely even noticed her close the gap.

“How do I know all this?” she ventured. “You’re a clever boy, Will, you should have figured it as soon as I spoke. After all, I assume that that Protoss templar you’ve been ferrying about hasn’t kept mute for this whole time. Like him, and those lovely Betazed you seem to enjoy so much, I’m a telepath. Here, close enough that I can smell your sweat, I can read your mind as easily as I could order one of my warriors to bite that explosive you’re cradling out of your hands.”

Riker’s thoughts raced. He and Captain Picard had often used Deanna Troi’s empathic talents to get ahead in tense negotiations, but the commander had rarely been on the other side of a potentially hostile telepath. He only knew of one strategy that had any chance of circumventing their considerable advantage.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” he said. “Who are you?”

Kerrigan cocked her head at him, still grinning. “Alright, I’ll play along, Commander. As you’ve guessed, I was once a human, a telepathically-gifted human from an empire that impressed people like me into military service from birth, but a human nonetheless. When the Zerg showed up and started devouring our colonies, I fought against them, and, just like everyone else, I was eventually overwhelmed. But they didn’t kill me; no, the old master of the Swarm had different plans for this little Terran telepath.”

“The Overmind stuck me in an organic chrysalis and changed me. He killed the woman I was, spunky Sarah Kerrigan, and used what was left to make his newest pet. That mound of rotted flesh enhanced my psionic abilities and altered my DNA, giving me this body, extending its life indefinitely, and injecting me with a sliver of all the hate that had been building up inside him for however many thousands of years he had festered. When I popped out, I was the perfect killing machine, a loyal and efficient executor of the great eyeball’s divine will. Of course, that all changed when you friend Tassadar managed to land a battle carrier on him.”

“Free, and without direction, I found that the Overmind had been kind enough to leave me with only one real passion; to conquer. I’ve tried to change that, get back more of what I once was, but it’s never worked, and eventually I just gave up trying. I enjoy what I do, and I’m damn good at it. Queen of Blades, they call me, queen bitch of the universe. With the Overmind’s old swarms for my own, I subjugated every world from Tarsonis to Shakuras, and all the way to Terra. And now I’m here for an encore performance. The first of many, I expect.”

“But that’s enough about me. My minions should be almost done stabilizing this ship’s drives, and I don’t want you to go on too long thinking that you have any chance of delaying me beyond the point of no return, or killing me with that little ball you’re still holding. That would just be cruel.”

Beneath Riker’s hard, angered face, despair bubbled anew. He had known that this Zerg queen, this Kerrigan could not be distracted from her machinations so easily, but he had had to try. That was just the way the commander was. And now his efforts were truly for not.

Might as well try one more stupid maneuver…

Gritting his teeth, Riker raised the thermal detonator the Chief had given him and thumb the activator switch. A low, mounting whine emerged from beneath its alloy shell, and the lights around its perimeter shown bright.



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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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-04-19 01:57am
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“I think you might be underestimating the power of this little device, your highness. Then again, I’m not really sure. I haven’t ever seen one go off in person. I guess we’ll both find out in a few seconds.”

Kerrigan, Queen of Blades rolled her eyes. Riker barely saw the blur of motion out of the corner of his eye before one of the Zerglings was upon him. The force of the creature’s nearly knocked the man unconscious, and sent him tumbling to the deck, arms flopping out at his sides like a rag doll. Even as his brain began to process the pain inflicted by the blunt trauma, a gout of flame engulfed his right hand, and Riker wrenched himself into a fetal position violently, crying out. Gasping and retching from the pain, the man looked through tear-stained eyes to see that the hand was gone, nothing more than a fast-bleeding stump and a few crushed fragments of bone.

Moving with unparalleled focus, the Zergling bolted the fist and the blinking orb clutched within it in a single gulp. Then its tore past its master and the other boarders, leapt down the stairs and crossed the ruined deck in a blur. It hurtled through the ruined hatchway, and coming to one of the open lift shafts that the Zerg had compromised, threw itself into the pit without hesitation. An instant later, the dark chasm was filled with searing light and heat, which overwhelmed the shaft walls without resistance and shattered the surrounding decks with an expanding bubble of nuclear force. The shell of energy dissipated almost immediately, but everything that had with its path vanished with it, leaving a perfectly spherical void for a few moments before the undermined levels above and to either side collapsed, filling the space with debris.

“Look at the trouble you’ve caused,” Kerrigan chided, kneeling down beside Riker as he nursed the bloody stump. “Now I’ll have to have that repaired before I can do anything useful with this fine vessel. And to think, I was almost about to let you live.”

She sighed. “Don’t feel too bad. Men always like to indulge in pointless shows of resistance before the end. Perhaps it’s genetic. I wonder if the Overmind exploited the trait when he started turning Terrans into those living bombs…”

One of the infested humanoids shambled away from its controls, and Kerrigan broke off her musings. “Finished already?”

The infested creature made no audible noise, but the sardonic grin on the Zerg queen’s face disappeared as though the thing had spat in it. Hunched up against the viewport wall, Riker barely saw Kerrigan the bony limbs on her back move, but finely-cut pieces of the creature that slumped onto the deck were evidence enough of their speed and lethality.

When she turned back from the fresh kill, the Zerg monarch was stony-faced, every trace of dark humor and twisted humanity gone. Fury burned in her eyes, and Riker’s flesh was abruptly bathed in a new anguish. Beyond screaming, the man simply stared back at his attacker, his mind ravished and clouded, but unbroken. He could still perceive and think, and that seemed to make Kerrigan’s rage all the greater.

Rather than escalate her psionic assault, however, Kerrigan stepped back from the man and turned away, pacing back into the fold of her guardian horde.

“Have your ship, Commander. I do not need it to extinguish what remains of this galaxy and its pitiful inhabitants. Their suffering will be all the greater and my power will grow beyond reckoning. Know that you died for nothing, William Riker. Remember your failure while you can.”

A dozen columns of blue-white light illuminated the darkened chamber for a few brief seconds, and then Riker was alone.

Grunting against the pain that still consumed him and fighting through the numbness of his limbs that grew with the unabated ebbing of his blood from the terrible wound, the Starfleet officer pushed himself to his feet, stumbled a few meters, and then collapsed again. Now, however, he was close enough the ship’s operations display to see the lettering emblazoned prominently across its surface. He could not read the message, but its urgent warning was obvious.

Far below him, a new clamor rose to complement the sounds of battle that echoed through the hull from combats within and without. Lying upon his back, Riker grasped for images, memories, people he had known and loved, but the life was draining from him too quickly, and all that was past faded from his thoughts.

He reached out with remaining hand and his aimless fingers found purchase on the shoulder of the Mon Calamari technician, fallen by the post he had refused to give up as the Republica’s fate was sealed. Riker stared into the blank, alien eyes, and a small smile worked its way onto his draining face. He barely knew the sentient, and even those few memories were falling into darkness, but he knew that lying alongside the being made him feel oddly at piece.

“I will remember my failure,” he whispered at last, “if you remember his victory.”

---------------------------------------

“The Cruiser’s forward shields have failed, Captain,” Commander Worf reported from the Enterprise’s tactical station, training the sensors at his disposal on the infested Galor-class Cardassian warship that was the flagship’s current target. “I’m reading an energy spike in her warp core. They may be attempting another ramming attack.”

Picard stared sternly at the floundering, angular vessel through his ship’s main viewer as it spat a plasma torpedo from one of its few remaining projectors. The projectile, unguided by a targeting system that had been damaged earlier in the skirmish, sailed cleanly past the starboard hull, missing by nearly a dozen kilometers. Undaunted, the ship ignited its aft drives and began to close with the Sovereign-class, its hull buckling noticeably in places from unsealed and growing breaches.

“Target her bridge,” the captain ordered at last. “Just a phaser burst. That’s all that’s needed.”

A beam of crimson energy lanced out from the ship’s ventral surface. It struck the cruiser’s raised, forward compartment, liquefied unshielded armor in an instant, and bit deeply into the charging ship’s interior. Immediately, its sublight drives failed, and the Enterprise was able to easily glide past the ship as its internal reactors overloaded and ignited their fuel stores. The victor’s command crew watched the vanquished vessel dissolve into a supernova of plasma and minute debris for a few seconds before turning their attention back to the battle that still raged below them.

The Zerg raid had morphed into an Allied siege. The defensive fleet had managed to quickly recover from the abrupt and unexpected course-correction by the invading force, but they had been unable to stop them before the Republica had been completely encircled. Simultaneously, all communications with the Alliance cruiser had been lost, and her weapons and defensive systems had inexplicably deactivated soon after the Zerg encirclement had been completed. The fleet commanders had quickly reached the conclusion that something had occurred to compromise the ship’s crew, a supposition confirmed but not expanded upon by Tassadar, but every attempt to get close enough to the vessel to beam reinforcements through its thick, disruptive armor plating was rebuffed by a furious, suicidal onslaught from the Zerg marauders. They seemed completely focused on keeping the Allied fleet from their centerpiece, and aside from a few scattered squadrons of slower, trailing attackers like the Cardassian vessel the Enterprise had just diverted to keep off of a damaged Klingon bird of prey, only fired upon Allied ships that approached their cordon.

That cordon had managed to hold staunchly, despite the overwhelming numbers of the Bajoran force and the furious maneuvering of the Republica’s own fighter squadrons. Now, however, as Picard looked at the primary plane of battle from his ‘aerial’ vantage point, he began to see chinks in the orbiting vortex of ships.

“Cortana reports that the main Romulan task force has destroyed the last of the lagging warships,” Data said, looking up from his tactical display.

“Tell Commander Suran to move his ships to reinforce Admiral Nechayev’s right flank,” Picard said. “The Zerg formation there is beginning to weaken. We may be able to breach their line there soon.”

“Shall I notify General K’Nera to bring up his insertion wing?” Data asked.

Picard shook his head. “Not yet. His troop ships aren’t built for line combat, and Zerg could still consolidate their flank. The breach needs to be larger before we can risk sending in the boarding carriers. I don’t want to lose more ships today.

Moving in closer to the battle line, the Enterprise regrouped with its squadron of heavy-hitters, Galaxy and Cheyenne-classes with an accompanying Sovereign. After the ships’ captains had conferred to ensure that none had sustained any serious damage, the group wedged itself into the midst of the Allied force opposite Nechayev’s. Noting that a string of the more intact nearby Zerg ships were beginning to bunch a little too closely together, Picard had Worf prepare a spread of quantum torpedoes.

Before he could give the order to fire, however, one of the sensor officers caught his attention.

“Captain, I’m picking up at least thirty new ships detaching from the Republica’s hull.”

Picard turned to him. “Escape pods?”

“Affirmative, sir. Some of them are broadcasting broad-frequency distress signals. I’m also picking up several of the vessels already exiting the Zerg defensive perimeter. They must have been departing for some time already.”

“Are they being attacked?”

The officer checked his readings quickly. “I’m reading the debris from a few of them, sir, but most of the Zerg ships seem to be ignoring the pods.”

The captain frowned. Why would the perimeter ships simply be allowing the pods to escape? It would take little time or energy for the feral ships to destroy the tiny, vulnerable vessels, and mercy was not something that Picard had ever encountered in the invaders before, or ever expected to encounter. It was almost as though the mind or minds coordinating them were distracted.

“See if you can raise any of the escape ships,” he ordered.

A few moments later, a familiar voice crackled over the bridge’s speakers.

“This is Jacen Solo. I am carrying wounded and am in need of immediate assistance.”

Picard stood. “This is Captain Picard, Mr. Solo. The Zerg fleet is keeping us away from the Republica and your vessel, but they do not seem interested in the departing ships. Are you under fire?”

“No, Captain.”

“Then see if you can find a way outside of the Zerg perimeter, and I’ll dispatch a ship to recover you. Try to maneuver as far as possible away from the enemy warships.”

“I’ll try. They don’t seem that interested in this shuttle right now.”

“What’s the situation onboard?” Picard asked after having the position of Jacen’s vessel confirmed and ordering several ships to intercept it along with the other escape ships. “We lost contact with Captain Ryceed several minutes ago.”

“I’m not really sure, Captain,” Jacen replied. “A large number of Zerg somehow appeared onboard, and started disabling the ship’s systems. I was assisting Ensign Martin and a few crew members when the evacuation alert was sounded. I moved as many of the crew as I could find onto this shuttle and took off.”

“No word on the status of the command crew?”

“Major Truul was making for the bridge to reach Captain Ryceed, but we were… separated. I haven’t heard from him since.”

Picard glanced at the chair where Commander Data was seated. The android noted the concern evident on his captain’s face, and nodded. “I understand, sir. Should we attempt to breach the line here and move for the Republica’s command deck?”

Picard stared at the distant image of the oblong vessel, and then shook his head resignedly. “No, I won’t risk this or any other ship in the fleet for just one man. Commander Riker will hold the bridge with the captain, if they haven’t evacuated already. He knows what’s riding on that ship, but he also knows enough not to throw away his life if the vessel cannot be saved.”

Even as the Captain spoke the words, he knew that they were hollow. As good a leader and sensible a man as he was, Riker was also prone to heroics. He would throw down everything he had if there was even the slightest chance that his sacrifice would save a life or bring victory to those he cared about. Blind luck was the only thing that had saved him on several occasions while under Picard’s command, and the Captain knew all too well that luck never held out forever in war.

An unnerving echo reverberated through the bridge chamber, distracting Picard from his anxious thoughts. He turned to see Tassadar pace towards the viewport, his undulating pupils alive with energy.

“High Templar?”

“Anger,” he rumbled. “I sense fury from that ship that is beyond any human. There is another mind here, one I could not detect before.”

“The Cerebrate?” Worf ventured. Despite the Protoss’ best efforts, he had been unable to locate the mind coordinating the invasion force. He had only touched lesser adjuncts amidst the encroaching swarm; until now, the powerful, veiled presence that had first alerted the commanders to the Republica’s compromising had remained elusive.

Tassadar did not respond immediately, instead advancing to the large, flat viewscreen and placing a four-fingered hand upon it. As he did so, the rotating shell of starships surrounding the Alliance cruiser collapsed into a loose hemispheric ring. Then, before any of the vanguard of Allied ships could respond, the Zerg force splintered, surging for open space in every direction in groups of three and four.

“Will!” someone cried breathlessly from the rear of the bridge. Tearing himself from the bizarre maneuver, Picard looked back to see Counselor Deanna Troi standing in a turbolift aperture, frozen, with a look of pain and horror on her face.

Before anyone could move to aid her, an alarm attracted attention back to the viewport, but not to the scattering Zerg warships. Floating all but dead in space only a few moments before, the Republica seemed now to be sheathed in light. Illumination poured from its tubular drives and patches of brilliance began to break its smooth surface.

“I’m picking up a massive energy spike from the Republica!” an officer reported urgently.

Unblinking and transfixed, Picard stared at the ship as the rippling areas of light grew wider and more intense. Areas of plating and whole weapons blisters seemed to melt away into the blinding sheen of light. Instinctively, Picard raised a hand to shield his eyes from the glare, but before his hand reached his face, a star erupted before the command crew, tinted red, then orange, yellow, then white. Gradually, reluctantly, the globe of illumination fade into the muted starfield, and finally, space was dark once more.

The Republica was gone.

Behind Picard and Data, Deanna released an anguished exhalation, swayed, and fell roughly into the arms of a nearby crewman.

Tassadar was the first break the silence that descended upon the deck. “Rally, Picard. This fight is not yet done. Kerrigan is here.”

Slowly, Picard looked from the now-empty viewport to the Templar. “Kerrigan?”

Tassadar’s eyes blazed. “The Queen of Blades is the one I sensed. She came here to personally seize that vessel. Now she has been robbed of her prize, and flees with her vanguard. Come, Captain! Your commander has done his part. Now you must do yours. End this war now! Do not let her escape!”

Picard bristled at the sharp command, but after a moment he nodded shortly. “Helm, bring us about. Where is she?”

As the rest of the fleet attempted to intercept the far-flung remnants of the attack force, the Enterprise and its escorts bypassed easier targets and fell in behind a cluster of half a dozen fast Starfleet and Klingon ships, which were carefully positioned to cover the lone Intrepid at the center of their formation from any reprisal. A volley torpedoes and phaser bursts flashed after the fleeing vessels, shattering one of them and overloading the shields of another. The others surged onward without pause, intent upon the freedom beyond Bajor’s shadow.

Alerted by the flagship, the Millennium Falcon and a host of Alliance fighters streaked past the Enterprise and its cohorts, their lasers and missiles disrupting shield bubbles, pitting hulls, and rupturing warp nacelles. Clearing the escorts, the tenacious freighter at the head of the avenging squadron drove straight at the heart of the formation, its twin quad laser cannons belching flame. However, before a single one could strike the nimble vessel, it surged with sudden movement, and vanished from space in a streak of motion. Propelled between the stars by a different mechanism, the fighters could not follow.

The Enterprise, however, could not be so easily shaken. Flanked by a pair of older warships, it passed into warp as well, and quickly closed the gap with the Zerg-infested ship. The Intrepid fired a spray of torpedoes at its pursuers, but they absorbed the blasts, shaken, but able enough to return their own spread of fire.

A phaser beam glanced off the streamlined hull’s protective shield, and then another impacted it firmly, sending waves of destructive frequency pulsing across its immaterial surface. Surging ahead, the Enterprise pushed its drives to their limit, and gradually positioned the Intrepid-class within the range of its full firepower.

But the ship and the mind it bore were not defenseless. Resolving from the blurred darkness between the hunter and the hunted, a quartet of worn green hulls swarmed to their master’s aid. The cloaked Klingon and Romulan ships absorbed the full force of the Enterprise’s withering assault, and those that remained returned with their own weapons. Overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught, the flagship’s shields failed, and a disruptor pulse struck one drive, sending bands of lightning up and down the dimming nacelle and its pylon. The ship slowed, its crew scrambling to meet the unexpected threat. The secreted warships sensed weakness, but in their eagerness to destroy their master’s nemesis, failed to acknowledge the two silver combatants that lagged only slightly behind.

Tassadar barely noted the swift destruction of the last of Kerrigan’s escorts. The Queen herself was too distant now to catch, already approaching the limits of the Enterprise’s sensors. The Protoss, however, could still feel her chilling presence clearly, and she could feel him.

Do not fear, Tassadar. We yet shall meet. I have been looking forward to it for a long time.

Tassadar felt an old chill run through him. In Kerrigan’s distant voice, he could hear the malice of the Overmind, the ancient will of the swarm and the demon that had brought his own brand of extinction to the very homeworld of the Protoss.

I cannot forgive what you have become, Sarah Kerrigan, by your own will or not. You, like your old master, must be destroyed.

Then come for me, old one. You know where I await you. And do not think that your pet fleets and soldiers will be enough to defeat me. I am of the Swarm like no other your kind has ever faced, and by the Swarm, I will see your bloody quest ended.

The High Templar felt the sickening presence fade until he was once again alone, staring into the stars.

By Aiur, dark one, my quest will end.



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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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-05-05 09:57am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty One

The Victory I-class Star Destroyer moved slowly, seamlessly through space, it’s gradually curving course perfectly synchronized with the yellow globe that revolved a few hundred kilometers below. Carefully slotted into a geosynchronous orbit, the warship was both frozen and moving; although it hurtled through the void along with its vast counterpart, to an observer the surface far below, it was a fixed point, another star in the nighttime sky. And just as it could be watched by planet bound searcher or instrument, the nine hundred meter wedge of durasteel plating and machinery kept the world under a probing eye. Dozens of sensors and hundreds of men watched the planetary surface intently, scanning every square meter and tagging everything that moved for further observation and analysis.

Thermal imagers and tri-light scopes were not the only devices trained on the world. Nearly one hundred weapons emplacements dotted the ship’s broad, gray hull, and of them, only a few fixed missile tubes and turrets obstructed by the vessel’s own bulk were not oriented towards the distant, rolling dunes and rocky plains. A shuttle-sized turbolaser mounted high on the Victory’s starboard side, which was inclined steeply towards the curvature of the world, turned a few degrees on its mount, raised its primary firing shaft a meter, and then punched back, unleashing a lance of emerald light. The glistening beam was swiftly swallowed by the reflected light of the globe, and when the bolt fell expertly on its sighted target a moment later, the ruinous explosion was only perceptible by the beings that had designated the target.

As the destroyer continued on its appointed course, discharging another packet or two of supercharge particulate and energy every few minutes, it found itself in increasingly crowded space. Battle blasted hulks, must of them rendered into fragments smaller than a scout fighter, were coalescing slowly under the influence of the nearby planet’s gravitational pull. No longer possessing any motive force of their own, the bits of debris collected by the billion, forming loose bands that could stretch from one horizon to the other. In time, the orbital cloud would drift too close to its host, and atmospheric friction would ignite each particle. A storm of shooting stars would light up the sky, a modicum of beauty, paid for dearly in blood.

The ship’s crew paid the cloud little mind. A few guns turned to trace some of the larger pieces of debris, and one or two of them atomized several particularly obtrusive fragments, but the vessel’s navigators made no effort to avoid the rest. The ship’s skin-tight deflector shields were more than capable of shrugging off the tiny, relatively-slow moving scrap, and its captain was too focused on his current assignment to worry about such a trivial matter. A minute into the drifting field, any sensors that had been taken off the planet were returned, and the wreckage was forgotten.

As the pointed prow of the warship passed a kilometer above what had once been part of a massive holographic communications array, something within the derelict tangle of metal winked to life. A drum of muted violet just over two meters long, the object was unimpressive, save for the fact that it lacked the intense heat scoring that distorted and discolored most of the flotsam around it. Attached to a flattened piece of bulkhead twice its size by several of the long, pointed protuberances that covered it at regular intervals, the blunt-ended cylinder seemed to be equally dead, save for a tiny, reddish light on a control panel at its midsection that had just flashed on.

The Victory continued on deeper into the debris field, and as it moved past, other devices lit up. There were only a few at first, but as their lone lights began to glimmer on and off, other objects, not so close, also activated. Veiled in the thickest regions of wreckage, larger machines also cast out subtle signals of recognition. Soon, the massive wedge was completely surrounded by the things, dozens of them. Hundreds.

Then, in unison, they began to move. Detaching electromagnetic clamps and pushing past smaller bits of dross, minute drives mounted on each tip of the elongated devices flared, and the hidden multitude converged. Passive energy sensors attached to the Imperial warships hull detected minor fluctuations and radiation spikes; automated computer filters discounted them as background static. Proximity detectors picked up the first group of cylinders as the slowly approached the hull; their small, non-threatening size noted, attendant crewers quickly dismissed them. An outstretched sensing spike on one scraped the invisible energy barrier around the ship, powered just enough to ward off any wayward debris; the contact didn’t trigger the slightest of fluctuation.

The voluminous cloud of supercharged plasma that the first mine expelled as it cracked open caused a ripple of transparent blue to flow across the ventral hull forty meters in every direction. Twenty more explosives impacted and detonated in the next few seconds, illuminating patches on every side and surface of the vessel. Before the ship’s crew could do more than look up from their displays in confusion, a hundred more mines impacted the shielded mass, enveloping it in plasma residue and spastic waves of coherent energy. Unprepared for the onslaught, the defensive barrier began to fail.

Turbolasers quieted immediately, and technical crews desperately attempted to reroute all available power to the besieged deflector emitters. Already on the verge of shutdown, the main generator choked on the new influx of energy, faltered momentarily, and then sputtered off as the continuing bombardment disrupted each reparatory countermeasure and failsafe. Ancillary deflector systems scattered across the hull came to life a moment later, but the brief lapse had been long enough to allow several of the larger bombs to impact the ship unhindered. The Victory’s pristine plating was now pocked by several gapping chasms, and still the onslaught did not let up.

Onboard the warship’s bridge, the Imperial captain had just dispatched an urgent and confused distress signal, and was barking commands to the chiefs of his repair crews when one of the mightiest columns slammed into the base of his command tower. Lurching forward to avoid an ungraceful tumble back into a crowded crew pit, the man steadied himself on the edge of a forward diagnostic computer and happened to look out the main observation viewport as a blue wave of contained plasma washed over the bridge’s emergency energy screen. The searing discharge dissipated quickly, and so did the visible tint of the agitated shielding, revealing the scene around his vessel for a moment before another mine detonation obscured his view once more.

The captain called for a tactical display of the space surrounding the vessel, and in a few moments a subordinate directed him to a waiting terminal. The tiny, motile explosives were still dashing themselves upon his hull, but their numbers, at least of those that the ship’s sensors had identified, were waning. They, however, were no longer the only contacts shown.

Weaving through the surrounding debris field in tight formation, four full wings of Seraph starfighters bore down upon the wounded vessel. The fliers, each more than four times the size of an Imperial TIE, deftly juked past the remaining mines, and then reformed into a long column several ships wide that proceeded to angle straight at the destroyer’s central mass. Point defense guns and blasts from still-detonating booby traps shattered several of the vessels, but the rest moved even closer, racing up the ship’s sloping, pyramidal face with disarming speed. When they were within a hundred meters of the prominent command tower, they jerked upwards suddenly, and pulse lasers mounted within the forward teardrop tip of each stuttered, tracing lines of fire to the exposed bridge platform. Other plied the barrier with side-mounted plasma projectors, unleashed only meters from their target as the ships raced past.

The first wing found the deflectors still in place, as did the second. Oblivious to the simultaneous attack, the last of the mines detonated in front of the command deck, disintegrating or diverting much of the third wave before it could unleash its payload. The final formation, however, found the bridge exposed at last, undone by the suicidal attack. They did not hesitate, and rejoined their rapidly retreating comrades only after the out-thrust bridge cavity was nothing more than a molten cavern.

From the command platform of the flagship Sacrosanct, Supreme Commander Teno ‘Falanamee watched a holographic representation of the Imperial destroyer burn in space as atmosphere from unsealed compartments throughout its interior was blown towards hull breaches and fanned corrosive, artificial flames. The ship was not wholly dead; the sheer size of the vessel had prevented the core from being breached, and internal compartmentalization meant that much of its crew was probably still alive. Still, it was decapitated and badly lacerated, effectively removed from any further fighting. In a war against technology that surpassed even the works of the gods, it was a rare accomplishment.

A murmur of celebration escaped the split lips of the Sangheili officers assembled around ‘Falanamee, but their reaction was subdued, unusually so considering the overwhelming success of the stratagem. Nevertheless, he was unsurprised. A small, relatively bloodless victory could not make up for a war that had seen so many of their kind perish futilely.

The Supreme Commander had been greatly gratified by the composition of the officer corps of his new command. Following his near-disastrous failure with Admiral Wattinree, ‘Falanamee had feared that those under his command would get wind of their commander’s disfavor and seek to undermine him, perhaps in revenge for their old executive’s removal. Instead, the crew and the ship master under his command had been surprisingly quick to accept him, and had shown both loyalty and skill over the course of several engagements. What as more, most seemed to be intelligent, inquisitive officers, elevated for their skill in combat instead of their quickness to genuflect before the Prophets. In an empire that valued religious zeal and subservience as much as martial prowess, such a crew was as uncommon as the victory they had just won.

“A human support vessel destroyed, at the cost of only nine Seraphs,” ‘Falanamee commented, turning to the gold-armored Sangheili who stood in waiting beside him. “Hiding those mines within the wreckage of our own vessels was a rather… unorthodox maneuver, and unexpected enough to catch our target completely unawares. An impressive show of ingenuity, ship master.”

Ship Master Hewa ‘Adralee nodded shortly. “Thank you, Excellency. When we were alerted that the invaders intended to take Radiant Sanctum, I realized that their previous success in this system could be used against them. The Holy Armada has done little but face them in honorable, open combat since their arrival, and I suspected they would not anticipate such a tactic for us.”

“You do not consider this honorable combat?” ‘Falanamee asked.

‘Adralee considered for a moment, and then looked his commander squarely in the eyes. “It is true, deploying the mine field was a treacherous maneuver, and the human warship was slain with only minimal confrontation with our soldiers. Nevertheless, thousands of warriors and many of your vessels that might well have been destroyed in open combat still move and hold the will to fight. Their service in the conflict yet to come will be honorable enough.”

The Supreme Commander returned his subordinate’s gaze in silence, and then turned back to the huge holographic projection that dominated the center of the Sacrosanct’s overbridge. Internally, however, the warrior’s response had given him nearly as much satisfaction as the Victory’s destruction. ‘Adralee was young for a position as prestigious as the one he held, and had only directed a single naval skirmish before the outbreak of the Imperial invasion. Nevertheless, he displayed both sound tactical sense and a mind for strategy that seemed largely uncluttered by the various dictums of orthodoxy that often interfered with the creative growth of military minds within the Covenant. He was as pious as the next servant of the Prophets, of course, but there was more to the officer as well: the word of the gods colored his life, but beneath that, he was a solider first and foremost. A true Sangheili.

It was the right and privilege of one of his rank to take direct command of any vessel upon which he raised his flag, but ‘Falanamee was content to allow ‘Adralee to continue conducting his ship. That was fortunate, because the Imperial destroyer was not the only enemy ship that required his attention.

The reformed Fleet of Particular Justice was positioned in the shadow of Caad, one of the planet Radiant Sanctum’s two small moons. Tentatively, the Supreme Commander’s force was supposed to be in reserve and under a communication blackout, but in addition to orchestrating the Sacrosanct’s trap, situated in a narrow orbital band just above the world’s equator, he had taken the liberty of tapping into the planet’s satellite network, and was monitoring the conflict that was unfolding on the planet’s day side.

A day before, the combined fleet of Righteous Purpose under Imperial Admiral Wattinree had been dispatched in full to the planet. The fact that the system was involved in the conflict at all was a sign that things were proceeding poorly for the Covenant; although still positioned on in the outer reaches of the holy empire, it was far enough from UNSC space to have never even seen a full fleet of warships in the last half century. Its dry surface of sandy desert and rocky plains was dotted with cities and large settlements, most of them completely lacking any major military installations. In ages past, the world had been colonized after a few worn Forerunner monoliths had been uncover beneath its equatorial dunescape, and even now it hosted a sizeable population of minor Prophets. It was truly Covenant home soil, and now it was under threat.

Radiant Sanctum lacked any real strategic value, but the Galactic Empire had nevertheless decided to add it to their growing litany of conquered and devastated worlds. The planet’s meager defensive fleet had managed to drive off the initial expeditionary force at heavy cost, and ground forces had captured one of the intelligence-gathering automatons dispatched to the surface during the fighting. Huragok engineers had been able to isolate its memory core, and upon analysis, an AI had determined that there was a high likelihood that the Empire would return in force. Alerted of this, the High Prophets had instructed Wattinree to defend the planet at any cost, although they had not explained, at least to ‘Falanamee’s knowledge, why Radiant Sanctum was vital enough to risk compromising half of the fringeward defensive core.

The AI’s warning, at least, had been warranted. Two standard units before, four Imperial star destroyers, along with a dozen escort ships, had emerged on the planet’s lit side, swiftly destroying the handful of satellites, fueling stations, and transports that had been unlucky enough to fall within easy range of their turbolasers. They had then set up a blockade over several of the world’s largest population centers, and began to send their own large, armored transports down the gravity well. Before Wattinree was able to react, there were Imperial troops on three of the planet’s continents, with ships like the decapitated Victory burning them a path through waiting Covenant legions and weapons emplacements.

The Admiral had moved quickly to bring his force, positioned largely on the other side of the planet, to bear on the intruders, despite their vast, proven superiority. He split the combined fleet into two main halves, and dispatched each to engage the Imperials from the planet’s polar regions, hoping to lure the humans out of their formation. The Fleet of Particular Justice had been left in reserve, and ‘Falanamee had not protested. Indeed, he had not spoken to Wattinree more than was absolutely required since their meeting. Even in his projected visage, ‘Falanamee could sense the warrior’s unmitigated disgust for him, and he knew better than to tempt that distain a second time.

And so, the Sangheili and his ship masters had been forced to wait and watch as local space filled with the burning remains of their comrades. The combined fleet had successfully split the star destroyers and their escorts into two groups and completely enveloped both, as Wattinree had planned, but the Imperial technological advantage was simply too great to counteract. Aside from their loss in the mine field, the Imperial commander had only sustained two significant casualties, a Nebulon-B frigate that had succumbed to sheer, suicidal volume of fire from the northern wing, and an Acclamator assault ship that had been in the process of landing and disgorging its troops when a combined ground and orbital attack had managed to ground it. The thousands of Seraph fightercraft arrayed against the star destroyer’s attendant TIE squadrons had been more successful, but the fleet’s heavy hitters were still more or less untouched.

Covenant losses, of course, had been catastrophic.

Unable to watch Wattinree sacrifice cruiser after cruiser in useless flanking maneuvers and kamikaze runs, ‘Falanamee turned his attention to the displays that were tasked with the campaign on the planet below. The Empire had rarely engaged in large-scale ground combat, opting instead to slag targets of importance from orbit, but from the scattered reports that the Supreme Commander had heard, and his limited personal experience with the Imperial Stormtrooper Corps, he was not hopeful.

The legions tasked with defending the planetary capital and its other major cities fought with admirable ferocity and tenacity. Sheer weight of numbers and suicidal focus had enabled the planet’s defenders to hold their ground on several battlefields, particularly where orbital support was absent. Imperial foot soldiers, especially those who had advanced into urban theaters, were having a difficult time routing their zealous antagonists, but on the open plains and in the skies, Imperial technological preeminence was obvious once more. ‘Falanamee watched as a towering, quadruped war machine shrugged off the plasma artillery of a column of Wraith tanks and Scarab command walkers. Elsewhere, TIE fighters harried disintegrating squadrons of Banshee support fliers and shot down Covenant troop carriers in droves.

“Show me Pale Throne.”

One of the command officers linked with an automated observation drone in orbit around the planet, and within a few seconds, a hologram representing a sprawling metropolis resolved before the Supreme Commander. The world’s capital, a vast grid of ornate temples and monuments surrounded by several rings of crowded laborer domiciles and distribution facilities, was at the center of the battle; the larger concentration of Imperial warships hung heavily over the city, and thousands of Imperial infantry and armor were advancing through its outskirts. The area was also the command center of Covenant military operations in the system, meaning that the human battalions had to fight their way through a network of entrenched protectors and defensive positions, but the invaders were nevertheless slowly progressing towards the heart of the capital.

“It is odd that they have not abandoned their attempt there,” ‘Adralee said. “These humans have had to shed little blood for their gains since their arrival, and have often distained the opportunities for equal, honorable ground combat our warriors have offered. Why should their conquest of this world be any different?”

“A valid question,” ‘Falanamee replied. “Have you also noticed the behavior of their fleet? The Admiral has given them several opportunities to bypass his forward phalanx and target his command ships directly, but none of the vessels have broken from their positions in orbit above Pale Throne and Attendant 04, the resource transport hub on the southern continent. They could finish this contest swiftly with a more aggressive posture, and yet they remain fixed.”

‘Adralee peered at the planetary diagram above them carefully. “Yes. Yes, I see, Excellency.” He moved closer to the representation and gestured towards a particular section of the battle perimeter, which obediently magnified and centered itself before him. It displayed the pair of star destroyers and handful of support cruisers arrayed above the capital, completely enveloped by a bubble of enormous Covenant starships. “And look here. The blade-ships are oriented with its primary weapons directed towards the planet’s surface, not Imperial Admiral Wattinree’s host. They seem to be relying upon the lighter craft to engage our vessels.”

‘Falanamee nodded slowly, cursing himself silently for not noticing the abnormal configuration before. “The human warships are perfectly positioned to destroy any target in the capital, and still they rely upon their soldiers.”

A sudden thought hit him, and he turned to white-armored sub-commander. “Where have the human vessels been concentrating their fire upon Radiant Sanctum’s surface?”

The officer consulted briefly with his instruments and fellow controllers. “Excellency, most of their fire seems to be aimed at aircraft and launching space vessels.”

“Not on troop concentrations?” ‘Falanamee asked.

“Several legions of infantry have reported suffering heavy casualties to orbital fire, Excellency, and a Wraith division to the North of Pale Throne was destroyed a short while ago, but most of their weapons have focused on aerial targets, especially heavier transports. Their fightercraft also seems more focused on flighted targets than our warriors. The fleet has monitored several reports of fleeing transport vessels being forced to ground by human fire.”

“Forced to ground?” ‘Adralee interjected. “Not destroyed?”

“Yes, Ship Master. At least one unarmed currier vessel that took flight from Pale Throne was damaged and forced to land within occupied territory. Reports from the surface are increasingly scattered, however, and I was unable to confirm the fate of its crew.”

Why would they be attempting to take fleeing crews and civilians alive? The puzzle’s solution was self-evident: they wanted something, or someone, on the world alive and intact. The realization did little to clarify the situation, however. What would the Empire possibly want, especially on such a militarily inconsequential world? What would compel them to expend men and material so unnecessarily? Had their exploratory probes discovered something important nestled amidst the sandy dunes?

‘Falanamee walked swiftly across the overbridge’s command platform to a column of smoothly-sculpted metal and placed a large hand on its rounded cap. The cool surface hummed softly, and then began to warm. Light fixtures studding its sides flared with azure light, and a hazy, translucent form manifested itself before the Supreme Commander’s eyes.

Copied ritualistically a thousand times over from the first years of the Covenant’s existence, the Maintainers, or Oracles, within the nerve center of every major starship and installation were ancient artificial intelligences, often as inscrutable and enigmatic as the Forerunner on whose technology the program was based. Compounded point errors and minute copying mistakes over the millennia had robbed the intellects of many of their interactive properties, from conversational subroutines to personal avatars; the projected form that floated before the Sangheili appeared to be more a muted mass of tiny, lambent insects than anything meaningful, even if the hint of a face pinched its surface from time to time. Nevertheless, this particular AI was at least understandable, if cold and terse, and held an indispensable wealth of information at the tips of its immaterial tendrils.

“Maintainer.”

The flickering mass bubbled, and then a cold, hollow voice that seemed to come from the sloping dome above began to drawl. “Speak, Sangheili.”

“What importance does the planet Radiant Sanctum hold?”

“It is a world of the gods. The relics of the ancients have been found upon its surface, and by them, it is a holy place.”

“Nothing else?” ‘Falanamee pressed. “It has no other value?”

“There is nothing of greater value than the vestiges of the Forerunners.”

‘Falanamee growled, but decided upon a different tact. “Does Radiant Sanctum currently bear any thing or individual that an enemy of the Covenant might deem of significance?”

The mind paused for a moment. “Radiant Sanctum is of negligible military consequence.”

“Logistical importance, then. Economic. Political.”

“The world hosts three transportation and distribution hubs that coordinate the shipment of foodstuffs, raw material, and laborers for sixteen other planets in its sector. Six major agricultural complexes are located on its surface, which supply the planet and three adjacent colonial systems. The largest moon of the outer-system planet Arc contains a vanadium ore extractor, which feeds directly into distribution hub Attendant 04. The Deepening Cloister, located within planetary capital Pale Throne, contains the highest concentration of temples and Prophet sanctums in the sector. An automated interstellar positioning beacon…”

‘Falanamee stopped the intellect’s passionless droning. “Enough. Tell me more of the Deepening Cloister.”

“The Deepening Cloister is a complex of fifty eight religious structures commissioned with Radiant Sanctum’s colonization and formal consecration during the Eighth Age of Conversion. In addition to housing the Chambers of Edict for the planet, system, and local sector, the compound contains several dozen residences, retreats, temples, convocation halls, and monuments constructed specifically for the usage of Prophets tending or traveling through its region of the Holy Empire. Several High Councilors and adjuncts are known to the Hierarchs maintain asylums within the Deepening Cloister for retreat and communion while High Charity is positioned away from the galactic core.”

The AI’s drawl suddenly brought to mind for ‘Falanamee a bit of trivia that he had nearly forgotten between his recent confrontation and the ongoing struggle with the Galactic Empire. Before the Supreme Commander had broached his heretical knowledge to Wattinree, while the two had been discussing defensive strategies, Wattinree had mentioned that High Charity was undergoing refurbishment around the Jiralhanae world of Asphodel, and would be immobile for a short period of time. So quickly put aside before, the fact now stuck fast in ‘Falanamee’s mind.

Could they have found out?

“Maintainer, are any members of the High Council currently on Radiant Sanctum?”

The mind paused a moment again. “I do not possess that knowledge.”

Lost in thought, the Supreme Commander withdrew his hand from the Maintainer’s interface and moved slowly back to where ‘Adralee waited patiently, watching the distant battle with a keen eye.

“Excellency?” the ship master questioned, and then noticed the look of deep, tense contemplation on his superior’s scarred face. Taking his silence as answer enough, ‘Adralee turned back to the battle display without another word.

Below, the ferocity of the Imperial army’s assault increased, and in Pale Throne, human soldiers began to penetrate the ruined ranks of defensive placements and worker barracks, nothing between them now and the relatively untouched city center. In orbit, the combined fleet continued to wane, its ceaseless bombardment of the invaders rebuffed by deflector shields and storms of counter fire. ‘Adralee and his crew watched their controls with mounting frustration, which was gradually turning to anger. Why had the Imperial Admiral not allowed them to join their brothers in battle? Why, indeed, were they fighting and dying here at all? What could be worth the lives of so many Sangheili? Across the Fleet of Particular Justice, zealots and ship masters observed the slaughter fixatedly, tabulating mental lists as they watched soldiers they had served with for decades fall one after another to Imperial turbolasers.

At last, the silence of the flagship’s overbridge was broken by the call of a subordinate. “Supreme Commander, Admiral Wattinree demands communication with you.”

Brought back from his reverie, ‘Falanamee made a gesture of compliance, and in a few moments he stood before a full-size representation of the commanding warrior, his glowering visage tight in the Supreme Commander’s presence.

“What do you command, Excellency?” ‘Falanamee asked stiffly, genuflecting as was expected by custom.

“Human soldiers have trespassed upon the planetary capital. They will be dealt with soon, but several have seized the planet’s rector and his consorts. They have been placed onboard a small craft and are being flown out of the city and towards the intact, landed enemy warship three hundred units from Pale Throne. You are to move your fleet into the fighting, create an orbital perimeter, and then dispatch all the aerial units at your disposal to capture that vessel and reclaim the hostages. When you have succeeded, your fleet will focus their armaments upon the landed human craft and any nearby human forces. Is that understood?”

“I will obey, Excellency.” ‘Falanamee’s eyes rose to meet Wattinree’s in full, but his voice and manner did not change. “Who are these consorts, so that I may know that all have been reclaimed?”

Wattinree’s mandibles flayed outward slightly. “The rector is with a Prophet of the High Council. That is all that should concern you.”

“By your word, Excellency. I will not fail.”

“Be sure of it,” Wattinree sneered, and then ended the communication line. Before he disappeared, however, ‘Falanamee thought he caught a flicker of apprehension in the Admiral’s manner. The high officer may have utterly disdained his subordinate, but he was still wary of him.

Perhaps, ‘Falanamee reflected as he turned back to the command deck, with good reason.

“Shall I prepare the Sacrosanct for engagement, Supreme Commander?” ‘Adralee asked.

“Hold.”

The ship master looked at him in consternation. “Excellency?”

‘Falanamee stared back at the warrior, an odd look on his long face. He could tell that ‘Adralee had tensed at Wattinree’s words; decades of personal combat had given him a keen ability to read the postures of others, friend and foe alike. What mattered, however, was why he had tensed. Although a plan was still only half-formed in ‘Falanamee’s mind, he knew that the answer to that question might well decide far more than the next move in the battle.

“The fighting near Pale Throne is fierce, Ship Master,” ‘Falanamee said at last, choosing his words with extreme care. “You are prepared to die to fulfill this assignment?”

‘Adralee straightened and threw up his split chin. “I would throw down my life for the Holy Covenant in an instant, as would all of its warriors. My skill, my being is worth nothing if I do not give it fully in protection of the god’s legacy and the promise of the Great Journey.”

“I did not question your loyalty to the Covenant, or your bravery in the face of battle. I asked if you were willing to die for this objective. Will you sacrifice yourself and all of the warriors who fight for you to save these few Prophets?”

“If… if that is the edict of the Imperial Admiral and the design of the High Prophets.”

‘Falanamee drew closer to the ship master, until they stood barely a pace apart, eye to eye. “You faltered, Ship Master.”

“No, Excellency. My will is firm. The life of a single Prophet is worth more than all on this ship, if the Prophets have deigned it so.”

“We do not have time for evasion or deception,” ‘Falanamee growled, ignoring his words. “Speak with your mind and your heart. This is not the time to fall back upon old platitudes and worn traditions. Speak!”

The ship master bristled at the verbal onslaught, but it took him several moments to find his voice again. “I… do not believe that sacrificing the warriors of this fleet to save those Prophets is in the best interests of the Covenant.” The blasphemy of the words seemed to lash him as they left his gullet, but ‘Falanamee did not react in outrage, as he had feared. Within the Supreme Commander’s unblinking eyes, he instead expectation, and was seized by a new boldness. “I do not believe that Imperial Admiral Wattinree has been right to extinguish so many warships in the attempt to hold this system. I do not believe that the High Prophets were right to send this fleet here at all. We are warriors, proud and mighty Sangheili, not tools to be exhausted upon inconsequential fancies and replaced.”

“Why do you think that the Hierarchs have used us as such, ‘Adralee?” the Supreme Commander asked.

The sudden passion that had flared in the warrior faltered, and he seemed to deflate. “I do not know.”

‘Falanamee placed a firm hand on ‘Adralee’s right shoulder. He could see in the warrior the shock, the sudden despair of having an entire life’s work called into question. He had felt the same terrible uncertainty and fear not so long ago, as he plummeted towards death, betrayed by Tartarus on the orders of the Prophets themselves. It had not been easy to fight on, but ‘Falanamee could see strength in the younger warrior, power that would not be extinguished easily. He had the heart of an Arbiter.

“I do not know either, my friend, but I will find out why they have betrayed us. Will you come with me?”

‘Adralee slowly raised his eyes to meet the Supreme Commander’s once again. “What must I do?”

‘Falanamee squeezed the other’s armored shoulder, and then turned away to face the rest of the Sacrosanct’s command crew.

“You all have heard our words. Will you follow us to the source of this betrayal, wherever that course might take us?”

The Sangheili glanced at one another furtively, but one by one, they each pumped their chests in salute, and stood at attention before the Supreme Commander.

“Then charge the interstellar drives and prepare the ship for immediate departure. Instruct the other ship masters to do the same, and inform them that I will contact each as soon as we depart.”

“I will require the swiftest communication probe in your arsenal,” he added to the ship master. “Have it brought to my chambers immediately, and prepare to have the vessel brought back out of slipspace soon after we exit this system so that it can be dispatched.”

“It will be done, Excellency,” ‘Adralee replied. “What course should I set for the fleet’s departure?”

‘Falanamee considered briefly. He still had a chance to turn back, to follow Wattinree’s directive, to save the lesser Prophets from the hands of the Imperials, to die in battle, his heresy known only to a few. But he knew that he would not be the only one to perish. Even if, somehow, the Galactic Empire’s advance was turned back, he knew that his people would not survive conflict. The last edict of the Prophets had convinced him of that. There was only one option, and it involved in the greatest betrayal in the history of the Covenant. Many more soldiers, loyal and treacherous, would die because of the undertaking. But the Sangheili would survive.

“Take us to the Asphodel system,” he said at last. “To High Charity.”

----------------------------------------------------------

Lumiya watched intently as the computer screen before her generated a long sequence of text that stretched from the top of the sizeable display to the very bottom and beyond, reading each brief line as it passed. The list, introduced into the system by a copied datacard the Dark Jedi had inserted into one of its many inputs, bore the names of the dozens of sentients that Aayla had contacted and “evaluated” over the previous weeks. Many of the names were displayed in an unremarkable font, but more than a few bore a jarring red coloration. Those had been the individuals who had “failed” the Twi’lek’s test, whatever it was. As she confirmed that each man, woman, and alien had indeed been a destination on the other’s grim campaign, she could peripherally recall the death throes of the few she had played a role in dispatching, and a base satisfaction bubbled up in the back of her mind.

The feeling quickly subsided as the cyborg set about her self-assigned task.

Since their arrival on Coruscant, Lumiya and her companion had kept largely to the Imperial Palace. Aayla seemed unconcerned with the murmurings of confusion and unrest at her master’s recent ascension and sudden departure amongst the planet’s gentry and general populace, and had made no attempt to ensure that Lord Vader’s will was still being carried out by the weakened political establishment he had left in place. Indeed, Lumiya had barely seen her at all, save in passing; she prowled the palace’s expansive, well-appointed hallways and chambers night and day with a confident, contemplative air, or disappeared for hours at a time within the labyrinth of foreboding, cryptic passages that were buried deep beneath the monolithic, gray-green pyramid.

Lumiya had welcomed this reclusive behavior. The profound, nameless unease she felt in the other acolyte’s presence persisted, and she could only focus herself when the alien was separated by floors of polished rock and cortosis plate. Besides, with her status as aide to Vader’s direct subordinate, Lumiya found herself with almost unfettered access to the massive complex’s overwhelming number and variety of facilities. The three kilometer tall citadel and the dozens of adjacent structures hosted military and intelligence offices of every branch and service, exotic armories and holographic training rooms, breathtaking gardens and galleries of artifacts plundered from ten thousand worlds. Presently, she sat within one of the impressive libraries that were built into every residential floor, overflowing with manuscripts, texts, maps, and logs on every imaginable medium and subject.

Still, the luxurious accommodations and her respectful, almost reverent treatment by the staff had not been sufficient to take Lumiya’s mind fully off her discomfort. The more time she had had to reflect upon their bloody tour while wandering through the capital peak, the more she felt something with it was wrong. So, she had decided at last to put the palace’s extensive facilities, specifically its computer mainframe, to work.

Methodically, the Dark Jedi began to read the data files that the system held on each of the names on Aayla’s list, searching each for the smallest clue as to what might be bothering her. The tally was quite diverse, as she had known it would be; Moffs, admirals, soldiers, civilians, all listed one after another. Some of the enumerated jumped out at her immediately, like Imperial Intelligence Director Ysanne Isard, whose interrogation had been brief and ultimately bloodless, and Admiral Harrsk of the Imperial Starfleet, who had been far less successful in gaining Aayla’s vital favor. Other names were so obscure that Lumiya was surprised that Lord Vader even knew they existed, much less suspected them of treachery.

Cycling past a sectorial bureaucrat by the name of Disra who Aayla had eliminated for no reason Lumiya could discern, she selected another link, and was rewarded with the gaunt, severe profile of an older human male. The name next to the picture read Grand Vizier Sate Pestage. Vaguely recognizing the title, she scanned his personal profile and service record. Pestage had served under Palpatine long before his ascension to the Imperial throne, or indeed, to the office of Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic. He was a close and competent aide, tasked with everything from organizing his master’s daily schedule to making announcements on his behalf to orchestrating affairs of state that were below the Emperor’s attention. If anyone was to remain loyal to the old ruler after his death, Lumiya thought, it would be this man.

Pulling up the list again, Lumiya was intrigued to find that Pestage had not been one of those to fall to Aayla’s blade, despite his overt allegiance to Palpatine and his New Order. In fact, as she thought back on their crusade, she couldn’t recall him even being mentioned as a potential target.

A quick search on the official’s current status revealed that he had vanished from the Imperial Center a few days after Darth Vader’s ascension, taking a private shuttle and a few personal guards with him. The reasons behind his flight were unstated, but considering the fact that most of the Emperor’s Inner Circle was executed the following evening, Lumiya suspected that he was simply cagier than his former comrades.

The acolyte leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms in consternation. Pestage’s disappearance still didn’t explain why they hadn’t tried to track him down; several of the other marks on the list had made themselves scarce following the Imperial power shift. Full access to COMPNOR security reports and intelligence files from every corner of the Empire, combined with the Twi’lek’s uncanny Force perception, had made locating them a relatively simple task. A personage as high-profile as the Grand Vizier shouldn’t have been far more difficult to uncover.

Unable to glean anything further from the palace computer, Lumiya exited the library and began to pace through the complex’s wide corridors, lost in contemplation. The teachings of the Dark Side, aggression, emotion, action, were not fully compatible with deep meditation, but her solitary training on Ziost had cultivated in her a certain consideration that some of her more chaotic predecessors lacked. Nevertheless, the nature of Pestage’s disappearance and the larger mysteries surrounding it continued to elude her, and she wandered through the ornate hallways for some time, aimless and distracted.

Almost without noticing her progress, Lumiya descended from the Imperial Palace’s upper, private levels to the bulwarked sections that housed innumerable security and maintenance areas. Lower still, she passed by the street-level divisions; endless ranks of bureaucratic offices, cathedral-like audience halls, treasuries, and detainment facilities. Only when Lumiya had entered the sub-surface portion of the artificial mountain did she rouse herself from her contemplation and take stock of her surroundings.

“May I be of service, Lady Lumiya?” an army officer asked politely in a clipped, Coruscanti accent.

The cyborg found herself at one of the many checkpoints that guarded the lift systems into the Imperial Palace’s lower levels. The questioning soldier stood at attention behind his spartan desk, which bore controls for the biometric scanners, weapons detectors, and automated defense systems strategically placed around the small chamber. Two gray-uniformed troopers flanked the turbolift hatch at the far end of the room, rifles clipped to their belts and arms held stiffly at their backs. A casual scan of the three men revealed a mixture of curiosity and fear; the former feeling probably triggered by the sight of any visitor more exotic the standard fair of tight-lipped intelligence agents, bored bureaucrats, and expressionless droids.

Her cloaked appearance and reputation as a servant of Lord Vader’s explained the latter. Her powers were nothing next to that of her Sith Master or many of the Jedi that he had hunted down and slain, but she could still kill the trio of guards without a second thought, and they seemed to know it on an instinctual level.

“No,” she replied. “Simply allow me access to the lift.”

“Of course, my lady.” The officer tapped a few commands into his computer terminal, and the turbolift doors slid open. Lumiya advanced towards the exposed cubicle without another word, ignoring the salutes of the flanking guards as she passed.

“If you are looking Lord Vader’s apprentice, she passed through here less than half an hour ago. I believe she was headed for sublevel four.” The turbolift’s doors cut the soldier’s afterthought short, but the information still gave Lumiya pause. Sublevel four was one of the deepest and most secure sections of the complex, barred from her even when she had served as an Emperor’s Hand, one of Palpatine’s elite. What would Aayla be doing there?

With a quick command, the lift detached from its magnetic moorings and plummeted down its shaft, streaking past grids of armor plating designed to withstand orbital bombardments and hidden chambers that housed secrets privy only to the supreme ruler of the galaxy and his closest confidants. The trip lasted only a few seconds, but Lumiya began to sense the Twi’lek’s presence before the compartment even began to slow.

Now, though, the sensation was not merely unsettling. It chilled her to the core.

Pushing through the undefined warning signals that wailed in the back of her mind, Lumiya burst from the lift and made off down an empty corridor. The sublevel was a collection of crisscrossing, featureless passageways, lined by dozens of similarly uniform doorways, but the Dark Jedi did not hesitate as she turned down one corridor and then another. Aayla’s presence was a beacon, alluring and terrible in its strength.

When she came to a pair of non-descript metal doors at the end of one corridor, she paused, suddenly unsure of herself. Why was she seeking Aayla out? The two had avoided each other since their mission had been fulfilled. Why broach that distance now? Lumiya couldn’t even recall why she had chosen to continue on into the depths of the palace over the course of her rumination; it was as though she had been drawn there by there by something far behind her conscious comprehension.

Of course, that thing, the Dark Jedi realized, was the Force. But it was the duty of the Jedi to adhere to that mystical flow, not the followers of the Sith. They were the masters of the Force, shapers of their own destinies, not pawns of some abstract will.

Bristling at her own lack of focus, Lumiya turned from the doorway, intent upon returning to the more well-traveled areas of the facility. Before she could take a step, however, a new sensation grazed the edge of her perception. The presence was indistinct, clouded by Aayla’s own, but it only took her a few moments to recognize it for what it was.

The barrier slid away soundlessly, revealing a moderately-sized, barely lit room of a cold and practical style that she immediately identified as a treatment chamber. Cloaked in the shadows undiminished by the dim light, automated medical analysis equipment dominated the walls, their outlines ominous and imposing. Beyond a set of inactive mechanical armatures mounted in the ceiling, a bacta tank sat recessed at the center point of the back wall. Clearly illuminated by warm back-lights, the three-meter, transparent tube caught Lumiya’s attention immediately, and she knew the figure that was suspended within it before she even saw his scarred face.

“Skywalker.”

“You’ve met him?” Aayla stood nearby the tank, slowly typing commands into the device’s free-standing interface panel.

“Yes,” the cyborg said, moving closer to the floating, motionless form. “Before my training in the Dark Side, I served as an agent of Imperial Intelligence. After Grand Moff Tarkin failed to wipe out the Rebellion at Yavin, Lord Vader instructed me to infiltrate the Rebel Alliance and destroy it from within. Luke Skywalker discovered me, shot down my starfighter, and left me for dead. I survived, mutilated and forever confined by these wrappings and implants.” She stopped before the young Jedi’s damaged face, and starred at it in a mixture of rage and disgust.

“How did he get here?”

“Vader captured and confronted him during the rout of the rebel fleet at Sullust,” Aayla replied, not looking up from her work. “The two dueled, and Skywalker was mortally wounded.”

Lumiya turned to face the Twi’lek. “But then why is he still alive? This boy destroyed the Death Star. He killed millions of Imperial soldiers. He is the hope of the Rebellion, and has been enslaved by the teachings of the Jedi Order. Why would the Dark Lord save him from death, and hide him away here, on the Imperial Center?”

“Because he is Darth Vader’s son.”

Lumiya’s green eyes widened. “His son? How… Lord Vader never spoke of any offspring.”

“He was hidden,” Aayla explained, almost disinterestedly. “Stolen away from Palpatine at the dawn of his New Order. Even Vader did not know of his heir until they encountered one another at Yavin Four. He found his son an enemy of the Empire and pawn of the few Jedi who survived the Great Purge, and so Vader devoted himself to hunting the boy down. They fought twice, and Skywalker was defeated twice. Yet, Vader never slew him, or turned him from the Light.” A humorless sneer creased Aayla’s face. “Such is the power of love.”

Lumiya looked back at the man, her anger giving way to amazement. Not only had her master fathered a child, he had defied the Emperor’s fatal edict against the Jedi Order and spared his life. The Vader she knew was not subject to sentimentality or mercy. Skywalker must have great potential indeed to be spared and maintained even after all of his trespasses. Either that, or the Dark Lord truly did care…

She abandoned the idea quickly. No Sith as powerful and focused as Darth Vader would be flawed by such a weakness. Keeping an enemy alive, flesh and blood or no, with no reason beyond familial affection directly defied the teachings of the Sith. The only duty was to oneself. Others, servant and family alike, were ultimately tools for personal advancement, and nothing more.

Lord Vader had a sound reason for preserving Skywalker, and she would not attempt to second guess his methods. The wounded Jedi had fallen under the Sith’s protection, and she would honor that bond.

One of the diagnostic monitors mounted on the side of the bacta tank emitted a warning tone. The lights that defined the inert figure within began to dim, and the low hum of the machinery that continual cycled and filtered the bacterial solution in which Luke Skywalker was immersed quieted.

“What’s going on?” Lumiya asked, checking the human’s life sign readings, which were starting to fluctuate. “Why is the machine powering down?”

Aayla did not respond. Looking towards her, Lumiya found that the alien was still methodically tapping at the chamber’s control panel, apparently unconcerned by its immanent shutdown.

The Dark Jedi placed a hand warily upon the weapon affixed to her belt and took a step towards the Twi’lek. “Stop what you’re doing, Aayla. Step away from the interface.”

An invisible hand grasped hold of Lumiya’s torso and flung her back, sending the cyborg careening into a row of antitoxin dispensers. When she was a heap of metal and armorweave sprawled across the floor, the pressure dissipated; the sudden attack had not required Aayla to even look up from her work.

Regaining her breath and instinctively steeling her senses from combat, Lumiya grabbed hold of a dented container and pulled herself up onto one knee. She had neither expected nor anticipated blow, and even her Force-attuned martial senses had been unable to pick up on Aayla’s move before she was hurtling backwards across the medical room. The Twi’lek’s uncanny speed was unnerving, but Lumiya managed to retain her focus.

“Stop!” she growled. “Skywalker has been taken by my master, our master, and he will deal with him when and how he sees fit. I will not let you kill him.”

“Do not interfere.”

Lumiya felt a familiar tightness settle around her neck. Lord Vader had trained her to identify and combat dozens of different Force techniques, Jedi and Sith alike, and this was one of his favorites. Immediately, she threw up a mental barrier around her windpipe, gasping for breath as an unseen vice began to squeeze hard on her throat. Her free hand flew in Aayla’s direction, and a mental impulse activated a cybernetic implant in her wrist. Its palm ignited with sanguine flame, and a blaster bolt burst from it. The glowing lance angled at the Twi’lek’s chest, but the snap-hiss of a lightsaber blade filled the chamber, and the bolt burrowed harmlessly into the floor behind Aayla.

Lumiya’s weapon flew into her own hand as she leapt to her feet, and the lightwhip’s four metallic lashes uncoiled in the air around her. Each filament sheathed itself in coherent lightning, and the cyborg lunged, pulling back her hilt in preparation for a blow. Aayla watched her streak forward impassively until an instant before the cyborg reached her, and then ducked, allowing the energized strands to rake the empty air. Undeterred, Lumiya arrested her forward momentum and pirouetted around, her weapons snaking back with her in staggered bands.

Aayla rolled sideways towards the rear wall to avoid the attack, ignoring the heat of the lightwhip as it grazed one of her lekku. Planting her feet on the vertical surface, she pushed towards Lumiya low across the floor, slashing at the other’s legs with her blade. Lumiya leapt upwards, propelled herself behind the Twi’lek, and landed with arms and legs splayed, ready to lunge again. Aayla also regained her footing, but rather than press the offensive, she drew back a few steps, positioning her blue blade before her, firmly clasped in both hands. Less willing to give her attacker respite, Lumiya lifted her left palm and primed its blaster projector for another shot.

Aayla easily deflected the blast, sweeping her lightsaber horizontally to both plant the bolt in the wall and meet Lumiya’s new onslaught; an instant after she fired off her shot, the cyborg had come at Aayla from the right, her weapon a whirling vortex of energy. Blade and whip clashed momentarily, but the flexible strands deftly wrapped around the static sword and probed onward towards the alien’s unprotected side. However, before they reached their target, the filaments twitched and went flat, their guiding force distracted. Taking advantage of Lumiya’s aggressive push, Aayla had summoned several pieces of loose machinery from the walls behind her, and the objects were now pelting the cyborg form all sides. A bulky restraining assembly rapped her across the weapon’s hand, and her grip on the lightwhip loosened slightly.

The momentary weakness was all that Aayla required. Moving within arms length, she simultaneous slashed Lumiya across the hip and willed the hilt from her jarred hand with a blast of telekinetic energy. Grunting in pain, Lumiya attempted to move away from the other combatant, but Aayla latched onto her frayed cape and pulled it around the cyborg, making her stumble and forcing her to divert her mental resources to repel the invisible assault. Again, the Twi’lek took used her distraction to move closer, and Lumiya lashed out at her with a free leg, aiming high for her head. Aayla noted the incoming blow peripherally and ducked to avoid it, raising in place of her head the blue shaft of her lightsaber.

Separated from the lower half of her leg, Lumiya lost her balance completely and fell to the floor. The limb was largely prosthetic, but the shock of losing it in such a way shattered what remained of her concentration, and Aayla moved over her quarry unopposed. Dropping to her knees, the Twi’lek straddled the wounded cyborg and slid her lightsaber neatly into the gap between collarbone and chin.

Lumiya glanced at the glowing blade, and then shifted her gaze back to Aayla, who stared back without any sign of emotion visible on her face. She hadn’t even broken a sweat. Her eyes, which had shown with a cruel pleasure as she prepared herself for previous kills, burned with a different energy, one unlike any Lumiya had ever witnessed before. As she looked into them, the aura that had for so long unnerved her froze her heart.

“What are you?” Lumiya whispered.

Aayla’s mouth opened slightly, stopped, and then curved into a grim smile.

“Free.”

A swift downward thrust ensured that Aayla’s ruthless visage would be burned forever into Lumiya’s eyes.

The Twi’lek rose, deactivated and stowed her weapon, and moved casually back to the bacta tank’s control panel. A single index finger moved across the surface, purposefully pressing a final sequence of keys. In response, filter slits at the top and bottom of the tank revealed themselves, and jets of antibacterial protein poured into the solution, tinting the bluish liquid a sickly yellow. As the chamber filled with the substance, vital-sign monitors mounted on its side began to deviate more widely, and one even began to emit a plaintive warning peal. Aayla simply shut it off, along with every other devices attached to the cylinder, until only dim lights remained, casting Luke Skywalker’s expressionless face in deeper and deeper shadow as the yellowish coloration condensed and clouded the liquid.

Aayla watched the Jedi disappear into the fog for a long time, until the features of his battered, weary face were no longer discernable.

“And now, Skywalker, only your father remains,” she said quietly, running an ungloved hand over the smooth surface.

Then she reached for the master control once more, found the appropriate command, and depressed it. The tank’s lights faded to blackness, and shadow engulfed the lifeless form completely.



The Rift
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-06-07 09:23pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Two

Deep Space Nine’s large wardroom was quiet. The chamber was packed nearly to capacity with men and women of every species and uniform, but very few of them spoke, and what little conversation there was barely registered over the faint ambient hum of the space station and the collective breathing of two dozen sentients. Tension pervaded the space, on the faces of the attendees and in the very air itself; brief, grim glances were traded only sporadically, and even subtle fidgeting was carefully controlled as to not break the heavy silence. Each waited, both anxious for and terrified of the words that would inevitably intrude upon their muted gloom.

The Allied armada’s last champions were seated around the long, hexagonal table at the center of the room. Fleet Admiral Nechayev was positioned at one end, and General K’Nera faced her across the smooth expanse of metal. Between them, Captain Picard, Councilor Leia Organa, and High Templar Tassadar filled one side. On the other, backed by a bank of circular viewports, sat Shakaar Edon, First Minister of Bajor, Commander Suran, flag officer of the Romulan task force, and the Cardassian Legate Ekoor, de facto spokesman for the motley collection of vessels from Cardassia, Ferenginar, and a dozen other worlds that had thrown their lot in with the Federation and its allies against the Zerg.

Standing around them were the most prominent admirals, captains, and commanders of the Allied force who could be spared from patrol duties. Shoulder to shoulder with Leia’s ever-present protocol droid, Commander Gavplek stood stiff and distracted, one cheek covered with a bacta wrap, a token of his narrow escape from the Republica. With Captain Ryceed unconscious in Deep Space Nine’s sickbay, the human was the acting executive of what remained of the Alliance detachment. Truul and the Master Chief were rooted nearby, and Jacen Solo observed the proceedings from a far wall, removed and watchful as always. Even Han Solo and his wookiee copilot had found it necessary to leave the Millennium Falcon for the meeting, and waited behind the ranks of Allied officers, Han’s eyes fixed protectively on Councilor Organa.

Legate Ekoor glanced furtively at those seated around him, and then stiffened his scaled neck. “Well, what is to be done?”

Admiral Nechayev squeezed her interlocked fingers together until their thin knuckles shown white. “Our overarching campaign strategy must be reassessed.”

“Campaign strategy?” Commander Suran said loudly, furrowing his prominent eyebrows. “What campaign? Our only advantage against the Zerg has been lost. Without the Republica, this fleet has little hope of retaking a single occupied system, much less the entire Alpha Quadrant.

“And what would you have us do, Suran?” K’Nera growled. “Hole up around this world and wait for the Swarm to strip our flesh from our bones? Flee into deep space and abandon what is left of our peoples to death?”

“The Romulan Star Empire still stands, General, and it will not fall easily,” Suran said. “Perhaps, if we waited before throwing our lives away in a futile campaign, this Alliance could dispatch another emissary to the Senate on Romulus. I’m sure some accommodation for the transfer of refugees could be reached if a military force of this size was offered to supplement the Imperial Fleet…”

“I will not serve under the heel of your cowardly masters, Romulan,” K’Nera spat. “My soldiers will not wait idly around your worlds as Klingon Space is violated by the presence of the Zerg. They would rather die in battle, and I with them.”

“You needn’t tell us that, Klingon,” Suran said in disgust. “We all know how willing your people are to destroy themselves and anyone around them for the sake of your personal honor. Go then. Take your ships and dash them against the Swarm. The loss of your blustering cannot hinder the war effort greatly.”

K’Nera jerked upward out of his seat and slapped his hand onto the hilt of the dagger affixed to his waist, but before he could unsheathe it, Captain Picard was also on his feet.

“Enough! Sit down, General!” He turned an enflamed stare on the Romulan flag officer, who had also begun to move for the weapon ensconced on his person. “And you, Admiral! Calm yourself! I will not allow old feuds to tear this alliance apart! Remember what we -all of us- are fighting for. Think of how pointless these squabbles will become if the Zerg are the only other organisms left in the galaxy to observe them.”

Both aliens paused, and after an exchange of acid looks, settled back into relative, if somewhat superficial, repose.

When he was certain that the risk of open violence had passed, Picard continued. “Now, Suran, your concerns are warranted, and your offer of potential asylum is appreciated, but I do not believe that any of the officers and soldiers of this fleet would be willing to so completely abandon their homes. If they were, this fleet would have dispersed into the depths of space a long time ago.”

“The Captain is correct, Admiral,” Nechayev put in. “The Federation will not leave the Alpha Quadrant to the Zerg. Not while a single Starfleet vessel can still fire its weapons. We’ve already lost far too much to withdraw now.”

“I believe I speak for the people of Bajor when I say that we will continue to stand by and sustain this fleet as long as we can,” First Minister Edon said. “And our world remains open to those among you who cannot fight.”

Suran slid back in his chair, a frown etched deeply into his features, but he remained silent.

Admiral Nechayev offered a nod of thanks to the Bajoran, and then turned back to the other commanders. “Now, as I said, we must reconsider our strategy against the Zerg. Without the Republica, it will no longer be possible to retake and hold as many key worlds as we had initially hoped. Even considering their losses during the recent raid, the fleets controlled by the Swarm outmatch this armada by a significant margin, more than two to one. Their continued infrastructural advantage is another matter that must be considered. In time, they will be able to replace their casualties. At present, we cannot.”

“Then we must ensure that they are not given that time.” All eyes turned to Tassadar. “The Zerg have been thrown off-balance by the loss here. It will not take Kerrigan long to reform her designs and bolster her hordes, but right now, she is weak. We must strike the Swarm at its heart. We must kill its queen.”

Ekoor regarded the Protoss skeptically. “Without the Republica, this fleet lacks the firepower necessary to mount any major offensive against the Swarm. How can we hope to defeat its master?”

“The location of this Kerrigan isn’t even known, at least not to my intelligence agents,” Suran said.

Tassadar was silent for a moment, his piercing gaze not focused on any obvious target. “I know where she lurks. The human homeworld, where this infestation began.”

Ekoor remained unconvinced. “How could you know that?”

“During her flight, our minds touched, and for an instant, I could perceive her intent. Kerrigan is there.”

Noting the incredulity evident on the faces of several of those assembled, Picard raised his voice once more. “The High Templar’s insight and intuition have been more than reliable in the past. It has been his intelligence just as much as the assistance of the Alliance that has allowed us to resist the Zerg advance as well as we have since their arrival. If Tassadar believes that Kerrigan retreated to Earth, then I trust that we will find her there.”

“There is intelligence that would support Tassadar’s supposition,” Nechayev, raising her hands to her chin pensively. “As much as I dislike falling back on hearsay, there were rumors early in the war from the some of the survivors of Sol that an entity fitting the description of the Zerg Queen was sighted overseeing the seizure of Earth. It is possible that she is still using it as her headquarters.”

“My scouts did report an unusually high concentration of vessels around Sector 001 during their last foray near the region,” General K’Nera said, finally tearing his eyes from Suran. “The information is old, but it may still be valid.”

Ekoor nodded slowly. “Very well. Let us assume that Kerrigan is on Earth. We still must get to her, and as the General implied, she will probably have a large portion of her forces amassed for her defense, whether she expects an attack or not. Can we defeat the Swarm in an open engagement?”

“We can’t begin to predict that until we have more up to date information on the system,” Nechayev pointed out. “Kerrigan’s cumulative forces outnumber ours, but her fleets are still expanding into the outer territories of the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Her core vanguard may be relatively weak.”

“What force of arms she holds there now is irrelevant,” Tassadar said. “Just as we know that she is weakened, the Queen of Blades knows that the loss of the Republica has greatly weakened the armada here. She will draw in what broods she can to regenerate her main fleet, and then launch an overwhelming assault against this planet. If we tarry, her fortress will become unassailable, and this one will fall. We must strike now, no matter the odds that stand against us.”

The captains and commanders standing around the war council exchanged a flurry of earnest whispers. Their tones indicated uncertainty and no small amount of fear, but there was hope there as well. Many of them had given up on the prospect of victory as the Republica erupted into flame before their viewscreens. It was obvious that Tassadar’s proposal would demand a heavy toll, and he offered no illusions of certain or even likely success, but the plan was still something. After constant retreat and desperate, aimless fighting, many of the soldiers found the prospect of a last charge at the very heart of their foe far more palatable than yet another flight.

“We may have lost the Republica, but the Alliance will still honor its vow to stand alongside the free people of this galaxy,” Leia Organa said evenly, her face proud. The destruction of her escort craft and the loss of much of its crew had shaken her deeply, but she was far too practiced a diplomat to let that uncertainty show. “Our fighter squadrons are still operational, and their pilots will fulfill whatever roles that this assembly gives them.”

Han Solo crossed his arms and grimaced. “Always nice to be volunteered for suicide missions, isn’t it Chewie?”

The Wookiee replied with a half-hearted moan, and the human nodded. “Yeah, I know.” Both had thrown their lot in with the Alliance a long time ago, for all the peril and regulation that it engendered. If Leia believed that defeating these Zerg could help salvage the Rebellion, then he would give himself fully to the effort. Besides, the honorable rogue in him couldn’t feel anything but hatred for the ruthless and savage threat that the Swarm represented. And then there was the matter of the Republica itself. Even as a General of the Alliance to Restore the Republic, a respectable freedom-fighter and leader of men, Han wasn’t above payback.

Commander Gavplek was less enthusiastic. “Councilor Organa, I must remind you that without the Republica’s munitions and fuel stores, the effectiveness of its squadrons are greatly diminished. The flight commanders estimate that each fighter has enough consumables available for one, perhaps two engagements, but no more. Any long-range hyperspace jumps or extensive maneuvering will reduce their operational time even further.”

“That is all the more reason to engage Kerrigan as soon as possible,” Captain Picard replied, drawing attention back to him. “I can understand why some of you are reluctant to commit your warships and the lives of those under your command to such a risky strategy. Indeed, all of us should be. Nevertheless, the destruction of the Republica has deprived us of our best hope for victory. If we do not exploit what little of the initiative in this war we have left, its terms will return completely to the Zerg. If that happens, I am certain that no fortress or free world for a thousand light-years will be able to weather their onslaught. This is our last chance, and if we do not agree to take it now, it will be lost forever, and us with it.”

No one spoke for a moment. The Captain hadn’t said anything profoundly new, but he had given voice to the thoughts that already pervaded the room. The blunt and explicit finality of his words would have been enough to inspire despair in another assembly, but many of the observers had no room left for any more hopelessness. And in the absence of desperation, determination grew.

Fleet Admiral Nechayev blew out a long sigh, and then nodded slowly. “As I can see no other viable option, I am inclined to commit all of the resources at Starfleet’s disposal to Tassadar’s plan. I will not speak for the rest of you, however.”

“You will have every warship and warrior that the Klingon people can muster,” General K’Nera declared, raising his bearded chin proudly. “We will see Qo’nos avenged, no matter the cost.”

Ekoor glanced at each of the other leaders around him, and then he too nodded. “If both the Federation and the Klingon Empire are willing to take such a risk, then the rest of the fleet will follow them. You have my support.”

With Leia’s allegiance already known, all eyes turned once again on Suran. The Romulan was still glowering, and did not immediately speak. Instead, he fidgeted with the burnished pin of a predatory bird on the formal sash slung over his chest, deliberately ignoring the anticipatory crowd. One his lieutenants let his arms fall slowly to his sides, and it appeared as though he was about to prompt his superior when Suran let go of the ornament and rose abruptly from his chair.

“This strategy is both unnecessary and ill-advised, and I will not allow the vessels under my command to play any part in it. All Romulan assets associated with this fleet are hereby withdrawn, and the task force will return to the Star Empire as soon as I board my flagship.”

“Commander, wait…” Nechayev began, but the Romulan had already turned his back on the table. Flanked by his two subordinates, Suran made for the wardroom’s exit, ignoring the shocked looks and resentful whispers of the soldiers who reluctantly parted before him. When he reached the door, he paused and turned back to face the other flag officers.

“I implore you, reconsider. I… the Romulan people have no desire to see the Federation, or the Cardassian Union, or even the Klingon Empire vanquished. My fleet will remain in the Kazis system, near the Neutral Zone, for several days before I continue on to Romulus. I will await word there.”

Captain Picard stood slowly, and met his counterpart eye to eye. “You must understand, Suran, that if we join you, we will have been defeated. A kinder fall, perhaps, but in the end, the result would be the same.”

Suran’s lips quivered as though he was about to say something, but he remained silent, looked about the assembly one last time, and then stepped through the door, his officers close on his heels.

“Shouldn’t we try and stop him, Admiral?” a Starfleet captain asked, shaking off the shock of Suran’s sudden departure.

“No. Let him go. I doubt that we could do or say anything to change his mind, and I’m not prepared to keep the Romulans here by force. We will have to make due without their assistance.” Nechayev’s face was stiffly expressionless as she spoke, and a hint of pallor began to settle onto her features. The loss of thirty cloak-enabled line warships was not enough to completely undermine the viability of an armada of hundreds, but no matter what they found around Earth, the Admiral knew that even a slight reduction in the force’s overall strength could shift the tide of battle to the defender’s favor. Still, nothing could be done. Suran had made his decision.

Seeing that the others were similarly distracted by the abrupt abdication, Nechayev swiftly pulled herself together and brought them back to the business at hand. “We’ll need to dispatch a few ships before the main bulk of the fleet to gather what data we can on the composition and distribution of Earth’s defenses. It will take about forty hours at maximum warp to reach the Sol system, so we need to locate a captain willing to undertake the operation immediately.”

“I’ll go.” Han waded through the crowd to the tableside. “The Millennium Falcon is faster than any of the other starfighters in the Commander’s squadrons. Just give me navigational data on the route to Earth, and I can be in-system in a few hours. It’ll only take a few more hours to take a few long-range scans of the planet and its defenses, and I’ll be back here before your fleet is ready to get underway.”

He noticed the uneasy look on Leia Organa’s face. “Don’t worry, Councilor. Just reconnaissance, and then I’m out of there. I doubt that the Zerg have anything that can keep up with the Falcon, and Chewie wouldn’t let me stick around to cause any trouble by myself even if I wanted to.”

The Wookiee mumbled something wearily, and the General grinned. “See?”

“You’re assistance is greatly appreciated, General Solo,” Nechayev said formally, saving Leia from having to respond. “I’ll have the relevant astrometric data transmitted to your ship, and one of my officers will brief you on specific targets you should monitor.”

“Now, how soon can the fleet be fully prepped and outfitted for combat?”

“Cortana has been monitoring the operation of out shipyards and repair satellites,” Picard said, and then punched a key on the small interface inlaid on the table before him. “Cortana?”

A large display screen at one end of the wardroom flickered to life, and the artificial intelligence’s disembodied voice directed the attention of the Allied leaders to the figures and schematics flowing across its surface.

“If re-supply operations continue at their current rate, all functional warships should be fully rearmed and supplied by twenty-three hundred hours. However, it will take at least twenty-five more hours to effect repairs necessary to restore the combat effectiveness of fourteen ships damaged in the recent engagement with the Zerg, most of them from General K’nera’s Vor’cha attack cruiser squadron.” Small representations of the formidable, winged craft lined up on the display, each of them displayed with areas of their hulls marked with red, indicators of damage. “A further half dozen warships will not be functional for at least a week.”

“I recognize the urgency of the impending battle, but I would ask that we delay our departure long enough to allow my attack cruisers to join us in battle,” K’Nera said, carefully scanning the name of each temporarily incapacitated ship.

“Agreed,” Nechayev replied. “We will use the time to reorganize fleet structure for the assault and analyze the data Genera Solo will acquire. Major Truul, Master Chief, how quickly do you think that you can organize and supply a few companies of ground troops from our existing marine corps? If Kerrigan is our final objective, we may have need of them.”

Truul glanced at the Spartan next to him briefly and considered for a moment. “We’ll, ma’am, if you give me two days, I can give you about two thousand shock troopers. The Chief and I have already begun marking out units and selecting field officers. Still, we haven’t had any time to train any of your marines for the kind combat they’ll probably see on an infested planet, and we don’t have anything in the way of combined arms.”

“I understand, Major. Their existing training and equipment will have to suffice. Just give me as many infantry units as you can, as quickly as you can.”

The two saluted in unison. “Ma’am.”

Nechayev nodded and then took a deep breath before continuing. “Alright. I want this fleet ready to deploy in forty-eight hours. Squadron commanders, return to your ships and begin drilling your crews for combat operations. When General Solo returns, I’ll reconvene here with the fleet commanders to discuss our battle strategy. Let’s not waste time until then. We all know what’s at stake. Dismissed.”

The assembly dissolved into small groups of eagerly conversing officers who quickly made for the exit hatch and their waiting vessels. As Councilor Organa held a hurried conference with Gavplek, Truul, and Solo and the Bajoran First Minister took Nechayev aside to discuss matters of planetary defense, Picard remained seated, his attention focused on the interface upon which his right hand rested. His face impassive, the Captain keyed a sequence of commands. Without a word, the information Cortana had displayed on the chamber’s screen faded away. Picard punched in a final series of digits, glanced at the brief message that cycled across the interface’s tiny alphanumeric strip, and then lifted himself from his seat. As he moved to join his fellow commanders, his eyes flickered towards the wide viewport that lined the exterior wall, beyond which the minute forms of thirty starships began to ease into motion.
-----------------------------------------------

“Step aside, Jiralhanae. Your cohort is blocking the way.”

Five sets of beady, crimson eyes focused on the Sangheili who had spoken, a blue-armored soldier with a streamlined plasma carbine slung proudly at his side. Behind him, half a dozen other minor infantrymen stood, their hands resting on weapons or balled up before them. Each was of moderate build and stature, and the coloration of their uniforms indicated a lack of significant combat experience, but the slow wavering of their open jaws and stiff posture gave them a distinctly menacing appearance.

The five Jiralhanae grouped before them were far less uniform and military in appearance, but their sheer bulk and the animal aggression that oozed from their every pore more than made up for any apparent deficit. They wore a motley collection of simple cloths and heavy belts over their leathery flesh and coats of matted hair. None were armed, as embalms on their sparse clothing indicated that they were laborers, but their fingers and bulging arms were tensed with obscene strength.

The largest of the group stepped forward, positioning himself squarely in front of the lead Sangheili, so that the latter was forced to look up to face him.

“Are we in your way, noble Sangheili warriors?” the brute said, his tone obviously mocking even under a heavy accent. “Simple workers like we wouldn’t want to delay noble Sangheili warriors.”

“Then step aside,” the minor replied, his voice completely devoid of humor.

The Jiralhanae pantomimed thought, made a show of looking around, and then offered a fanged grin to the soldier. “We simple workers were just stopping here for a rest. The view is nice, isn’t it? We wouldn’t want to leave, not yet.” Something red dangled from one of the simian’s lower teeth, blown towards the Sangheili’s pristine helmet with each blast of rancid breath.

The soldier glared unblinking up at the impediment to his progress. “We are defending adepts of High Charity and warriors of the Hierarchs. We require passage. I will not ask again.”

His squad tensed, and the grips on their weapons tightened.

The Jiralhanae scanned the group, snorted, and then moved slowly to one side of the narrow walkway. His cohort reluctantly followed suit, and stared silently at the Sangheili as they began to march past. When the rest of the troop had moved through, the lead soldier cast one more razor glance at the hulking simian, muttered something under his breath, and began after the others.

Suddenly, the Jiralhanae reared back, his eyes blazing, and spat on the floor behind the departing warrior’s boot. He glanced back for the source of the movement, and upon seeing what the worker had done, halted with a shout. His carbine was off his hip in an instant, and by the time he leveled the long-barreled weapon at the offending brute, the other soldiers had their rifles at the ready, and were backing together in a hasty battle formation. The Jiralhanae, who still held both sides of the raised path, also tensed for combat, looming to their full heights and raising hammer-like fists.

“What is this?” a voice boomed from one end of the walkway.

Rapidly approaching from a nearby antigravity lift station, a wiry Sangheili was pointing an ornate, luminous pike four meters in length at the group. The warrior was of the Honor Guard, as the glowing mosaic of yellow fins and splayed plates adorning his black and deep burgundy armor clearly indicated. The sacred order had been tasked with the defense of the High prophets since the founding of the Covenant, and there were few honors greater for a Sangheili soldier than to be selected to serve amongst its exclusive ranks. The warriors were renowned both for their high status and their exceptional fighting skill; even alone and armed only with his ceremonial staff, this particular guardsman could probably slay half of both feuding parties before any of them even drew his blood.

Arriving at the now motionless assembly, the Honor Guard swiftly identified the leaders of each group and angled his weapon towards them threateningly. “Explain this discord. Now!”

The Sangheili minor immediately offered him a formal nod of supplication. “This work detail was impeding our progress to our duty station, Honor Guard.”

“Is this true?” the veteran Sangheili barked at the lead Jiralhanae.

The laborer appeared to size up the new arrival, but quickly decided against any rash action. The reputation of the Honor Guard crossed species, and they were among the few Sangheili who the Jiralhanae often made a show of respecting, even if many Sangheili suspected that they simply coveted the ancient and esteemed order for their own.

“We moved out of the way of these soldiers, like they asked,” he grunted in response.

“Then what is the problem, soldier?” the Honor Guard asked again.

The minor officer looked angrily at the taller alien beside him, and began to form a complaint, but stooped himself. It was true, the Jiralhanae had challenged his personal honor, but the insult was a lesser one, especially since it had not come from another Sangheili. The Honor Guard might understand, or he might be more concerned about brawl that had almost unfolded within sight of the Covenant’s most holy compounds. And Honor Guards took their duties very, very seriously.

“Nothing,” the blue-armored soldier replied at last. “We were just moving on.”

“Then get on with it. I won’t permit unrest within this city, especially not when it’s caused by High Charity’s own defenders.” The Honor Guard turned to the Jiralhanae. “And you. Move your squad along as well. I’m sure there’s work waiting for you.”

The laborer shot a hooded glare that the guardsman, but did not protest.

The aggregate dispersed in short order, and traffic gradually resumed along the high concourse. One of the trickle of military and civilians to cross it first, Deau ‘Mefasee hurried down the path, oblivious to the spectacular view of High Charity’s main city that stretched out below. She was in no particular rush to be anywhere, but the scene she had witnessed on the bridge had made her distinctly uncomfortable, and she felt a sudden impulse to escape the vast, crowded openness of the grand metropolis.

Antagonism between the Sangheili and the Jiralhanae was nothing new, but since the arrival of the marauding human fleet, it seemed that tensions were growing to a fever pitch. There were more and more reports of scuffles and brawls between the two factions every day, and although most of them were isolated to the city proper, incidents like the one she had just witnessed were occurring on High Charity’s exclusive upper levels as well, and even within the nearby guardian fleet. Such open discord was almost unheard of.

Before she had met Supreme Commander ‘Falanamee, she would have simply guessed that the mounting tensions were the result of the ongoing conflict, which, despite the assurances and legerdemain of the Prophets, was not flowing in the Holy Covenant’s favor. Indeed, that was likely part of the cause, but she knew there was more; fundamental and ominous change was afoot within the very capital of the empire. Although none of the orders were explicit, various edicts of the High Prophets had lead to a mounting prominence within the ranks of the Jiralhanae. Where they were once only laborers and silent bodyguards on High Charity, now more and more of its garrison was Jiralhanae as Sangheili-dominated units were transferred to the war front. The hulking beasts were also ascending to supervisory roles in civil works and administration as hundreds transferred onto the station from Asphodel, around which High Charity was positioned while its recently overexerted drives were overhauled.

Even among the ranks of the other species of the Covenant, there was change. The Kig-Yar, always determined to assert their superiority over the majority Unggoy, seemed to be inspired by the subtle upheaval in the higher echelons of society, and were becoming bolder, even to their traditional Sangheili masters. There were reports that the insectoid Yanme’e, ever insular and mysterious, were becoming even more inaccessible, even to the point of insubordination. The mammoth, neigh invulnerable Lekgolo showed signs of mounting paranoia.

At a time when the disparate races of the Covenant required solidarity and consistency most of all, their entire social order was being undone and remade, all by the dictum of the High Prophets, supposed keepers of the status quo. If ‘Mefasee had ever needed validation of the Supreme Commander’s heretical theories, she had it now.

The raised walkway connected two sectors of Ascendant Level, a network of suspended platforms, dome-mounted structures, and high towers. It was set between the skyscrapers of the city proper on the floor of High Charity’s massive internal cavern and the grid of structures positioned high above both, a place of monuments and gardens, the High Council Chambers, and the wide domain of the High Prophets. This middle area housed many of the space station’s administrative offices and the sanctums of the lesser Prophets, along with apartments and assembly areas for visiting fleet officers and other dignitaries. Through the influence of ‘Falanamee, she had been granted one such apartment, relatively far from the central nexuses of governmental, religious, and military activity, but close enough so that she could easily observe and report on significant developments for him, as he had instructed before his departure.

Stepping off the bridge, she traversed a busy promenade briefly before turning off into a walled side street. She moved swiftly, stopping occasionally to surreptitiously scan the path behind her, almost as by reflex. After a few more intersections, she came to a circular courtyard with a small, well-maintained garden at its center. The space was empty save for a single Huragok; the bulbous creature was completely absorbed in repairing a communications transceiver feed it had uncovered beneath a metallic cobblestone, and ignored ‘Mefasee as she hurried by.

Quickly ascending a wide, curving flight of steps to the second floor of the modest, reddish structure to her left, she found her room, keyed its biometric lock, and slipped inside.

A cursory inspection of the small space revealed that it was empty save for its requisite set of amenities and her spare personal effects, all of which had been untouched in her absence. Her status as a minor adjunct to the Supreme Commander, although providing a great deal of access to a wide variety of information, apparently had not made her a target of any obvious scrutiny. Still, the swift and lethal punishment that awaited those who defied the Prophets, even in private, had made her perpetually on edge. Nevertheless, she began to strip off the light-hued attendant’s uniform that her service had afforded her, relaxing marginally as she did.

‘Mefasee had removed the traditional, largely ceremonial metallic plates that most official Sangheili garments were adorned with and was undoing her simple bodysuit when she noticed that an indicator light on her room’s single communication alcove was illuminated. She moved to the holographic tank and activated it. Flowing hieroglyphic text informed her that a private communiqué awaited her review, one that had been transmitted to her terminal by an unspecified source just moments before she had returned. Intrigued, and more than a little wary, she keyed the recall routine.

The miniaturized form of Teno ‘Falanamee blossomed before her in a column of light, still dressed in the regalia of his office. His features were distorted by the projection’s small size and relatively poor quality, but ‘Mefasee could tell from his posture that he was extremely tense, far more so than he had been when they had first met aboard the August Judgment.

“I am returning to High Charity,” he began bluntly. “The time for action has come. There was no time to encrypt this message, so I cannot be more specific, but I know that you will understand my meaning.”

The Sangheili’s breathing quickened. She understood what he meant all too well: their private sedition was about to become extremely public. She had never doubted that were actions behind ‘Falanamee’s words, but she had not expected something so soon.

“There are two objectives you must complete before my arrival in half a cycle’s time. First, you must take a copy of the holographic stream encoded within this one and deliver it to city’s primary communication’s hub in the lower districts. Ask for the Monitor Principal there, and tell him that you bear a message from me. We have fought alongside one another in the past, and he will trust in my orders. Give him the stream and have him broadcast it on as many communications channels as he can, both on armada and internal frequencies.”

“Then, use the command codes I provided you to contact your Unggoy on the August Judgment. Tell them to stay as close to the captives as they can, to watch them carefully, and everyone who interrogates them. The two are not to come to harm, if there is anything in their power they can do to prevent it.”

“I must have this drone launched soon if it to reach you before I do, and I must warn you, there has been no time to enhance its stealth or security capacity. If it is discovered, you will be in great danger. The Hierarchs are watching me and all associated with me very carefully, and they will not hesitate to slain you or use you against me. I know that you will fulfill all that I have asked of you, and I must trust that you will defend yourself until my return, should the need arise.”

The recording muted momentarily, and ‘Mefasee could not tell if the silence was due to a glitch in the grainy recording, or an actual pause on the Supreme Commander’s part. When ‘Falanamee’s voice returned, it was clear and powerful, as though he stood before her himself.

“May our forefathers fight with you, Warrior, and their honor blaze your trail. Should one of us fall before the end of this, know that you have served the Sangheili well, and that you will always command this heretic’s respect.”

------------------------------------------------------

Well, that's part four. Endgame begins with the next chapter, and I hope to have The Rift complete by early this fall (ideally, I'd have it done before I go off to college in later August, but I'm not sure if I can manage the ten or so chapters left in that time frame). In any event, I'd like to thank everyone who has kept with the story up to this point. Your comments have really kept me going. :)



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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