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 Post subject: The Rift, Part Five: The Rift PostPosted: 2007-07-15 12:25pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Part Five: The Rift

Chapter Sixty Three


The Chamber of Reflection sat imbedded in High Charity’s outermost armored shell, and served as the very edge of the Sanctum of the Hierarchs, the exclusive domain of the High Prophets and their favored elite. Like the rest of the sacrosanct complex of towers, high passageways, and bottomless vaults, the room was shaped and molded to the height of Covenant aesthetic sensibility. Its floor was tiled with curving panes of a substance that glowed with a ghostly emerald light, and finely-hewn wall struts arched along the walls and ceiling towards the center of the chamber, where they held up a projection tube that cast a pillar golden light to a low refraction dais set into the floor. The narrow supports framed a massive viewport that covered nearly a full half of the domed wall, beyond which Asphodel’s curvature was back-lit by its distant primary, oceans glinting in the dusk light.

The beautiful view was completely lost on the handful of individuals gathered there. The High Prophets of Regret, Mercy, and Truth sat motionless on their hovering thrones, clustered around the centrally pillar of illumination while the towering, white-haired Jiralhanae Tartarus stood to the side in watchful waiting.

After a long moment of silence, Truth leaned back against the padded reverse of his conveyance, and steepled his bony fingers.

“Play it again,” he said quietly.

“Again?” Mercy balked. “Have these heretical words not defiled this holy place enough?”

Truth did not turn to face the older Prophet, keeping his bulbous eyes locked on the beam of light.

“Play. It. Again.”

Mercy’s thin, dry lips tightened at Truth’s tone, but he passed a hand over one of the subtle holographic nodules that studded the armrests of his throne. In response, the illumination took on a bluish hue, and the almost life-sized form of a Sangheili in the regalia of a mighty and honored warrior resolved within the projector’s beam.

“Sangheili of the Holy Covenant, hear me!” the soldier began, his arms stretched wide and posture open and energetic.

“Brothers! I am Teno ‘Falanamee, Supreme Commander of the Fleet of Particular Justice and ship master of the Sacrosanct. I may not be known to all of you, but there are some among you who know of me and of my undying service to the Covenant. Look to them, and they will tell you that I am a warrior of honor and virtue. I have lead warriors into battle in space and on land, and fought in the very heart of each fray. I have slain uncounted hordes of foes and heretics with my own hands, and carried wounded comrades upon my back from the deadliest of peril. I have crushed all who would deny our great purpose, and burned their worlds to teach them the price of their defiance.”

“Through all of this, I have been loyal to the Prophets and believed with all my being that I would find salvation with the gods in the Great Journey when our sacred quest was done. That is the very basis of this Holy Covenant, and the dream for which every Sangheili warrior has fought and died since the First Age of Reconciliation. Without it, our great union is nothing, an empty shell. Without loyalty and honesty between the Prophets, shepherds of salvations, and the Sangheili, guardians of our great concord, our divine empire is a lie.”

“No Sangheili would ever break this compact, and our allegiance has never wavered. We have lived and we have died by the word of the Prophets for millennia, and all we have asked in return is that the Prophets give us respect and never cease their quest for the salvation of all.”

“We have not broken our great Covenant. But the Prophets have.”

‘Falanamee paused for a moment, as if to let the meaning of his words resonate through the still air. He spoke openly of the greatest heresy imaginable. The meaning was one that the most wrathful of heretics barely dared to whisper, and yet here a Supreme Commander of the Covenant Holy Armada stood, declaring it proudly on an open transmission. Had they not heard it before, one of the High Prophets surely would have gagged.

“I know what I must say is almost inconceivable, but believe in the honor of this warrior, I would not dare even think it did I not know its truth with all my heart. The Prophets have betrayed us. They have betrayed the Sangheili, and they have betrayed their own Covenant. Their promises of redemption have come to naught; rather than remain loyal to the Writ of Union, they have conspired in secret with their Jiralhanae minions to unseat us from our rightful place in this empire. They would replace us with mindless brutes who will serve them without question as the Prophets abuse the trust of the peoples of the Covenant for the sake of their own personal power. They would see the Sangheili enslaved, or wiped from the galaxy before we could even raise our arms in defiance!”

“Think, my brothers! Who has spilt blood the most in the war against the humans and their new weapons of conquest? Not the Jiralhanae. No, they have remained in safety around their worlds as our holy realm is consumed, sneering mongrels at the beckon call of the Prophets. They laugh as noble Sangheili warriors charge into battle by the millions, only to be slaughtered as the Hierarchs weaken our armies from within.”

“I do not know why the Prophets have betrayed us. Perhaps they have been consumed by greed and lust for power. Perhaps they have angered the gods, and fear the terrible retribution their impiety has provoked. Perhaps everything they have ever told the other peoples of this galaxy has been a lie, and now they seek to stave off discovery and just recompense. We will discover the root of their treachery in time, but for now, we must act.”

“To arms, my Sangheili brethren! The Covenant is broken, but we will not be destroyed with it. We must strike now, before the Prophets can further enact their vile plans! We must crush them and their minions before the corruption of betrayal allows this galaxy to be consumed by enemies from without and within! There is no more time for words! Go now, and save our people from the dark! May our forefathers fight with us!”

The image of the Sangheili floated silently in the projection beam for a moment, piercing each of the viewers with his unblinking stare. When the warrior finally dissolved back into a colorful snow of light, Mercy and Regret traded apprehensive looks and then turned their attention back to the impassive Truth, reluctant to interrupt his contemplation of the message again.

“How far has this transmission spread, Tartarus?” the High Prophet questioned at length, his tone even.

“It was broadcast on an open channel to every transceiver within communications range, noble Hierarch,” the Jiralhanae said, stepping forward. “Before your soldiers tracked down the transmitting comm hub and shut it down, the traitor’s message was repeated several times, and publically displayed at numerous locations within the lower and upper districts, as well as in several cities on Asphodel’s surface. There are also reports of sightings on at least twenty ships throughout the fleet.”

“And still, this heretic’s word spreads,” Regret said angrily. “Disabling the communications hub has not halted ‘Falanamee’s proclamation from being passed by whispers and shouts through the streets. Already, masses of Sangheili have formed at exchange hubs and oration chambers, demanding an answer from us. The faithful and doubting have taken up arms against one another, and their conflict threatens to explode into every corridor and concourse. The Sangheili of the High Council have convened without our summons and even now sit in the council chamber, demanding that we come forward and answer ‘Falanamee’s charges.”

“They would summon us?” Mercy scoffed. “They have not the right!”

“Whether or not they have the right no longer matters, Brother,” Truth said, laying his palms flat upon the armrests of his throne. “The rule of law cannot withstand Sangheili passion when it is enflamed.”

The Hierarch’s eyes drifted. “I had not anticipated that this fleet master would command the respect and admiration of his kind that he does; they would not revolt so easily on the behest of many other warriors. Perhaps I was wrong not to punish him for his failure at Reach.”

“Lamentation and reflection can come later, Brother,” Regret said. “But what must be done now? Surely, there must be a way to diffuse this situation. To mitigate the potency of the Supreme Commander’s words, or discredit them?”

Truth seemed to consider briefly, but his expressionless face quickly hardened with resolve. “No, the damage that ‘Falanamee has inflicted is too great. Even if we quell the storm today, the Sangheili will never truly trust us again. After all, what he says is the truth, although I do not know how he has discerned it. No, we must accelerate our plans. We must act now to cripple the power of the Elite.”

Regret’s head jerked back on its long neck in surprise. “Now? The Sangheili still control much of the armada, even the squadrons stationed here. They still fill the ranks of the Honor Guard. There are half a dozen armed Sangheili standing outside this very door!”

“They can be dealt with swiftly.” Truth turned to Tartarus. “Are you soldiers prepared?”

“Yes, Hierarch,” the chieftain replied. “I have cohort of Jiralhanae trailing every member of the Guard.”

“Good. It is unlikely that many will relinquish their posts now, even if your soldiers bear the force of my edict. Kill them, but only those who can be eliminated quickly and quietly.”

Tartarus’ eyes lit up with feral glee. “At once, my lord.”

“And what of the Council?” Regret demanded. “If they learn that what ‘Falanamee has claimed is true, they could rally an open rebellion with ease. Can Tartarus’ forces slaughter every single Sangheili in this system at once?”

“Their warriors are nothing next to ours,” Tartarus growled. “Sangheili blood would flow through the streets.”

“Open civil war?” Mercy choked. “Within High Charity itself? Unthinkable!”

“Mercy is correct,” Truth said, raising his hands to placate the others. “Warfare should be delayed as long as possible. Our loyal forces require more time to be fully prepared, and I will not allow the Sangheili to damage this holy place with their death throes. No, the semblance of peace should be maintained as long as it can be. The riots can be quelled without too much further bloodshed, and our hold on the fleet is in little danger, at least at the moment. Besides, not all Sangheili will be quick to pledge their lives to the Supreme Commander; we still have some allies among them.”

“The Council still demands an audience,” Regret pressed.

“And we will give them one. Tartarus, allow the Honor Guard near the Council Chambers to live, but mass as many of your troops as you deem necessary nearby, hidden. Have others block off the main entryways and exeunt to the level; allow no one in or out. If any councilor asks why, tell them that it is for their own security. We would not want any of them injured by a riotous mob.”

“When you have deployed your forces there, I want you to take a detachment and venture into the lower districts. Interrogate the director of the communications hub from which ‘Falanamee had his message broadcast, and track down the agent he used to initiate this heresy. I suspect you already know who it may be.”

Tartarus nodded once and straightened up, hefting his mighty war hammer.

“Bring her to me at the Council Chambers,” Truth continued. “Alive.”

A blast of steamy breath escaped Tartarus’ nostrils, but he said nothing.

“Now go.”

“And what of us?” Regret asked as the Jiralhanae loped hurriedly towards the door.

“You, Brother, will contact the ship master of the August Judgment. He will not place his faith in ‘Falanamee easily, and I believe he can still be trusted. He holds aboard his ship two prisoners, humans captured after the battle at Reach. Have him personally escort them to High Charity and brought to the Council chambers. They must arrive intact.”

“Mercy, gather the senior Prophet councilors within Far Tower Haven. They will be safe there. When both of your tasks are complete, travel to the Council Chambers and stall the Sangheili there. I will join you in good time.”

“Only the senior councilors?” Mercy questioned.

“Yes. We must not have it appear as though we fear Sangheili hostility. Do not worry; the rest will not be in any significant danger. If nowhere else on this station, we still control the Council Chambers.”

“And what will you do until you join us there?” Regret asked, obviously unhappy with the other’s plan, but all too clear upon where the true power within the Covenant lay.

“I expect that the Supreme Commander will not allow his heresy to spread untended for long,” Truth replied, turning back towards the central projector. “I do not wish him to arrive unwelcomed.”
----------------------------------------------------------------

Cakap was leaning on a curved bulkhead deep within the August Judgment, trying to look inconspicuous to the stream of crewers and officers walking by, when Migaw found him.

“Cakap? Cakap!” the second Unggoy called excitedly as he jogged towards his fellow as fast as his stubby legs would carry him.

Cakap jerked to attention when he heard his name being called, but relaxed when he saw Migaw skid to a halt next to him.

“Where have you been?”

Migaw took a deep drag on his breath mask to calm his pumping heart. When he had regained his breath, the crewer straightened up, but rather than reply, he cocked his head quizzically, peering at the corridor in which they were standing.

“Why are you out here?”

Cakap closed his eyes in exasperation. Concentration was not among his comrade’s boundless complement of skills, like eating, or tripping over his own feet.

“There was a fight on the hangar deck,” he replied. “Apparently, one of the big shot Sangheili said something nasty about the Prophets, and now everyone on the ship is arguing about whether or not he was right, or something like that. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out was really going on. Some of the guards were reaching for their rifles, and I don’t feel like getting zapped if somebody does something stupid. I’ve had enough of doctors for quite awhile.”

Migaw nodded in agreement. The pair had been ordered to the medical decks for examination after they escaped their commandeered recovery ship. Covenant physicians were undeniably efficient, but notoriously unconcerned for the comfort of their patients.

When it became evident that Migaw wasn’t going to volunteer the source of his previous excitement unprompted, Cakap blew out a sigh.

“So, why were you late for our duty shift?”

Migaw’s tiny eyes widened. “Oh! Right. Do you remember those humans who took our old ship? The ones that they captured?”

“Yes.”

“And ‘Mefasee? You know, our last commander?”

“Of course I remember her! We were reassigned less than a cycle set ago! What does she have to do with anything?”

“Well, I was still in the warren – I guess I overslept – and somebody told me that a Sangheili wanted to see me on the transceiver line. It was her. She told me to take you and find the humans. She wants us to watch them and make sure that no one does anything to them. That was it; she cut the transmission, and I came to find you.”

“Protect the humans?” Cakap balked. “Why would she want to us to do that?”

“Who knows?” Migaw shrugged. “She said it was important, though. She said it was the Supreme Commander’s orders. You know, that one who transferred her to the Prophet’s space station.”

Cakap noted the grimace on Migaw’s face when he mentioned the other Sangheili, even behind his breath mask. He almost instantly recalled the source of his comrade’s discomfort; the Supreme Commander, Teno ‘Falanamee, the one with the scarred face, had been with the humans who had captured their salvage transport, and had personally knocked both himself and Migaw out cold in the process.

His mind flew back to the only other time he had met the Sangheili, briefly before their reassignment and ‘Mefasee’s departure. He had taken the three of them into an empty storage chamber and talked with their old commander. Migaw and Cakap had been largely excluded from the conversation, aside from both being made to promise never to reveal the identity of their attacker, but the latter still remembered what the two had discussed. There had been a lot to do with the Prophets, and the Jiralhanae, too. It was dangerous talk, about betrayal and war and the lies that the Hierarchs were telling everyone. Heresy.

Unlike many of his kind, Cakap was not very religious. He paid respect to the Prophets, of course, and retained a peripheral understanding that the gods existed somewhere beyond the stars, but he was not particularly enthused about the prospect of throwing his life in the name of one or the other. The concept of the “Great Journey” had never made much sense to him, either. What’s the good of paradise if you’re dead? Instead, Cakap proudly thought of himself as something of a pragmatist.

Nevertheless, he understood the implications of heresy, especially of the scale that ‘Falanamee described. If the Prophets lied, then none of their sermons or their edicts could be trusted. If that happened, there would be no one to lead the Sangheili or the Jiralhanae, or any of the species under them. And if that happened…

Cakap suddenly realized why tensions on the hangar deck had been so high. The Supreme Commander must have openly announced his suspicions. The Unggoy looked fervently up and down the corridor. It was quiet and largely empty except for them, but Cakap was beginning to think it wouldn’t stay that way for long. War, a new war, was coming, and people like him had a way of being the first to die in them. He would need to pick a side before one was chosen for him, and the idea of being on the wrong side of ‘Falanamee’s fist again wasn’t that appealing.

“Cakap?” Migaw prodded.

The Unggoy sighed. “What level are the main prison blocks on?”

“You mean that you actually want to do what she asked?” Migaw sounded surprised a more than a little distressed. “I didn’t think that you would actually…”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Cakap said, cutting his companion off and hurrying towards the nearest lift nexus. Migaw watched him walk away for a few moments, glanced down the hallway in the opposite direction, and then opened his mouth to mount some protest. When it became apparent that Cakap wasn’t going to stop, however, he let out a small moan instead and waddled after the other, his atmosphere tank bobbing back and forth on his back furiously.

Despite the carrier’s impressive size, it didn’t take the pair very long to locate the prison block, a corridor lined one either side with large, no-descript hatches, located a short distance from the ship’s command center. Security was tight, and the guards patrolling the hallways were unusually tense, but Cakap and Migaw managed to bypass them without too much effort; one of the very few advantages of being on the very bottom of the Covenant social pyramid was the ability to simply blend into the background when one wasn’t doing something blatantly suspicious. Nevertheless, Cakap took care not to enter the corridor until a patrolling trio of Kig-Yar moved away down an adjoining passage.

It was obvious which chamber housed the humans; only one of the hatches was flanked by a pair of armed Sangheili Minors. Neither Unggoy had had much luck figuring out how exactly they were going to get to the human’s cells and watch them unnoticed when they actually found them, but it quickly became apparent that that would not be a problem. The egress was open, and it appeared as though a fairly large group of officers and soldiers was exiting the confinement chamber.

“Isn’t that the Ship Master?” Migaw asked nervously, pointing at the gold-armored Sangheili at the head of the group.

Cakap threw out an arm and pushed his companion and himself as far back against the corridor bulkhead as their methane tanks would permit. “What is he doing here?”

Galo ‘Nefaaleme, commanding officer of the August Judgment, paused in the middle of the corridor and turned back to watch as a contingent of Unggoy and Sangheili filed out after him. Cowering between two purple-hued special operations soldiers, part of the Ship Master’s personal guard, a pair of light-skinned humans limped along at the center of the group, their fabric garments badly tattered and their soft hides bruised and cut. Stooping to clear the opening, two Lekgolo brought up the rear, mutely covering the hallway with the massive fuel rod cannons embedded in their right arms.

With the ship master at its head, the group formed up and marched purposefully towards the exit of the block. None of them paid a second thought to the pair of crewers pressed up to one side of the corridor; even the fellow Unggoy in the procession ignored them, their attentions completely focused on their primate charges and the obviously agitated ‘Nefaaleme.

“Is the path to the port shuttlebay clear?” the ship master demanded of a silver-armored Sangheili at his side as he brushed past.

“It is, Excellency,” the officer replied. “There are still reports of disturbances across the primary decks, but they are swiftly being quelled. The Guard is executing your order to slay any crewmember found rousing unrest efficiently.”

“Good,” his superior said as his detail reached the main egress. “I won’t have my ship fall to rebellion while I’m on the holy city. Not because of him.”

When the others had passed from sight, Cakap glanced doubtfully at his companion, to which Migaw replied with a jerky, non-committal shrug. Cakap sighed deeply, wondering as he often did how the two could have been spawned from the same genetic pool and then half-heartedly set off for the exit.
--------------------------------------------------------

The combined forces of Asphodel’s defensive fleet and High Charity’s spaceborne guardians hung nervously in space, their communications arrays alive with hurried proclamations, outraged inquiries, and calls for order, all of them enmeshed with the rebellious declaration that still found its way further into the armada. Clustered about the world and its massive artificial satellite, Sangheili and Jiralhanae ship masters attempted to keep their agitated crews in line, doling out swift and brutal punishments to any who defied their millennia-old doctrines of discipline. The assemblage of warships in the system, one hundred and seventy capital ships and innumerable fighter and support craft, was relatively modest for an empire that stretched across the galaxy, its forces spread thin combating the new human aggression, but the firepower they bore was still sufficient to lay waste to an entire star system in hours. If a single rash or zealous commander decided to break the tentative quiet of space, every living thing within billion kilometers could be obliterated.

But the peace held, as uneasy as it was. The crews and commanders of the defensive fleet had been taught and trained from birth to adhere to the ancient chains of command and social order that gave the Covenant its foundation, and the conventions proved difficult to break. Doubt and anger simmered in a billion minds, but the bonds of tradition held them at bay.

The call to arms from the Prophet of Truth himself helped preserve this tenuous obedience. He declared that the Supreme Commander, the one who had preached such dire heresy, was hurtling towards their sacred capital, and that he was borne at the head of a war fleet. It was a portent of his true intent, Truth said; he would conquer High Charity and claim the Covenant for his own. ‘Falanamee’s claims of treason on the part of the Prophets were a mere pretense for his wanton aggression, and his words were empty and baseless. Some of the fleet masters doubted these accusations, but their instinct took over where their minds were unsure, and a mighty vanguard of warships formed to block the most likely invasion routes into Asphodel’s orbit.

The defense was a layered one. A core of carriers and kilometer-long frigates formed a shell around High Charity’s bulbous mass, while heavier cruisers and capital ships moved into a trio of loose bands some twenty thousand kilometers out. Arcing perimeters that emanated from the capital station, the three were positioned at angles “above”, parallel to, and “below” its orbital plane, with the planet’s mass used as the final segment of the grid. Thousands of Seraph fightercraft poured from their base vessels and filled the empty space between with sweeping patrol formations and nimble maneuvers.

It was a standard defensive arrangement, developed by the first Covenant admirals and drilled into the memory of each and every fleet officer. Nevertheless, the posture came together more slowly than it should have, and it was not without its kinks and gaps; many navigators and commanders were still distracted by the implications of the rogue Supreme Commander’s message, and even if they had not been, there was still the fact that nearly a third of the ships in the combined fleet were helmed by Jiralhanae. They were new appointments, elevated by the Prophets themselves “to assist in the elimination of the new human threat”, and many Sangheili were finding it difficult to interact with the simians as full equals.

Just as the Hierarch had predicted, even as the defenders finalized their transient ramparts, slipspace monitoring platforms and picket ships on the fringe of the star system detected a large number of vessels vectoring towards Asphodel at superluminal velocity. Signal probes hurtled in-system with the news just ahead of the impending fleet, and defenders primed their plasma banks and shield capacitors, waiting tensely for the first trans-dimensional disturbances to flare onto their tactical displays. High Charity’s powerful slipspace sensing arrays watched the hazy energy signals hurtle past the system’s outer planets, bypassing small colonies and outposts, its bearing undeniable. Finally, the fleet reached the open space between Asphodel’s large moon and the waiting vanguard…

For a split second, the void remained still.

Then, in a torrent of luminous, spherical pulses, the Fleet of Particular Justice spilled from the realm of the abstract into the real, sixty-five massive, polished hulls gleaming in the fast-fading light of their own emergence. They had not taken up position in opposition to one of the perimeter bands, or indeed even between them, as most of the waiting ship masters had anticipate. The Supreme Commander had brought his ships within nine thousand miles of the holy city, directly between High Charity’s two lines of defense.

A thousand pairs of eyes looked upon their holographic displays with surprise. Under different circumstances and with different warships, the move might have been the obvious one, bypassing the main line of defense and splitting it from the prize it was intended to protect. But the perimeter bands were still close to High Charity, almost within firing range, and the presence of three separate ship lines ensured that only a massively overwhelming number of enemy vessels could completely rob the station of its outer defenders. If anything, the ‘Falanamee’s fleet was in the worst position it could possibly be in; it was close to High Charity, true, but it could be enveloped from every side and firing vector within moments.

The apparent blunder gave some ships pause, but more experienced commanders amongst the combined fleet quickly adapted to the unexpected maneuver, and the trio of ship walls began to collapse in on the invading force. Wings of Seraph fighters skirted the perimeter of the newly-arrived battle group, their pilots observing carefully as the carriers within the Supreme Commander’s formation disgorged their own interceptor craft. As the Prophet’s soldiers closed in, the comparative disparity in firepower became quite obvious; little more than half its strength before the slaughter at Reach, the fleet was out-massed thrice by the defending armada. Despite its state of restoration, High Charity further tilted the odds from the rebellious force; even with its drives and shield grid down, its surface boasted thousands of independent plasma projectors, each of which was now aimed squarely at the new arrivals.

Elements of the Fleets of Far Clarity and Joyous Recompense were the first to reach Particular Justice, and swarmed the elliptical formation with dozens of frigates and light cruisers, which positioned themselves at every angle around the fleet, cutting off their every route of movement or escape. Behind, onboard their battlecruisers and hook-headed assault carriers, fleet masters and high zealots observed ‘Falanamee’s separatists carefully as their navigators positioned the command ships within firing range of the surrounded battle fleet. Many could have ordered their batteries to open fire immediately, but they hesitated. Some were reluctant to be the first to engage one of the Supreme Commander’s esteem and martial prowess. Others simply waited for him to make the first move.

It came swiftly, in the form of a wide-band broadcast from ‘Falanamee’s graceful flagship that found its way onto every operational transceiver and holographic feed from Asphodel’s surface to the most distant vanguard warship. Ship masters watched as a familiar Sangheili face resolved before them; pilots listened as they matched maneuvers with their opposing counterparts. Truth observed from his far throne.

“I am Teno ‘Falanamee, as you all must now surely know,” the Supreme Commander began. “Though I have come at the head of a battle fleet, crewed by warriors who will no longer stand the abuse and treachery that the Hierarchs have laid upon this galaxy, I am not here as a conqueror. I do not wish to fight you, my noble brothers, but I will if there is no other way to reach the High Prophets and end their corruption. I will not struggle for my convictions from afar, as they do. I, and all those who stand with me, will gladly give up our lives and our honor for the sake of the Sangheili and all those who still value the strength and unity that the Covenant once gave its people. We will bear your judgment, and face the wrath that the Prophet’s betrayal has brought upon us all.”

The transmission ended abruptly. All across the fleet, doubt and anger kindled anew, but the warships of High Charity were already in position. Their captains knew that if any of the Supreme Commander’s vessels attempted to breach the cordon, they would have to engage them, regardless of what they felt in their hearts. They were duty bound, if not to the Hierarchs, then to their crews.

Within the artificial planetoid’s armored bulk, Truth almost smiled. ‘Falanamee’s gambit had failed, and his heresy would soon be extinguished. Perhaps he had overestimated the tenacity of the Sangheili, after all.

A small holographic alert manifested itself in the air before him, subsidiary to the expansive representation of the space around High Charity, but defined by blaze of sudden luminosity. The Prophet banished the message with a hurried and distracted gesture, completely focused on his impending victory. The warning image did not return, but a few moments later, a Jiralhanae voice burst onto his ears from unseen speakers. Truth sneered in anger, and prepared to berate the officer for so insolently interrupting his reverie, but he stopped himself, only just catching the creature’s frantic tone. After listening to a few barked words, he pulled up the alert again and scanned it carefully.

Only then did he realize that the Supreme Commander’s promise of impending wrath was not mere bravado and metaphor. Before the High prophet, backed by the distant form of one of the system’s lifeless gas giants, the images of four, wedge-shaped warships shown in stark white and gray, their narrow prows aimed straight at the Holy Covenant’s heart.



The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-08-12 07:45pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Four


In the dark gap between two massive buildings, blocky and functional like most in the lowest of High Charity’s districts, Deau ‘Mefasee scrabbled for support against one slick, tarnished wall. Emerging from an adjoining alleyway, she stumbled a few steps and then caught hold of a protruding column of machinery-housing. The Sangheili leaned upon the tube-like structure for a moment, sucking deep, haggard breaths through her heaving mandibles, and then used it to pull herself back onto her feet. She glanced over her shoulder at the shadowed alley behind her, and finding it empty, allowed herself to take another few, slightly calmer drags of air. Noting that the modest, drab collection of metal plates she sported on her skin-tight bodysuit was sliding out of place, she took a few more moments to readjust an ill-fitting poltroon and chest plate. Silently cursing her inability to find a better-proportioned disguise, ‘Mefasee straightened up as best as she could and began to walk towards the “daylight” that illuminated the space beyond the narrow alley.

Taking another calming breath, she stepped out onto a large open concourse. A primary avenue that bisected the entire district, the space stretched off beyond view to left and right, a thirty-meter gap between the gigantic edifices of factory buildings, housing warrens, and bureaucratic offices, many of them dozens of stories high. The roadway of seamlessly-interlocking metal plates on which she stood was but the lowest level of the thoroughfare. Above her, partially blocking the artificial illumination that poured down from great strips and circles of white radiance that stretched across the massive dome a hundred kilometers overheard, raised roadways and suspended platforms connected the towering structures on either side. Above this network of crisscrossing walkways, a steady flow of air traffic, automated cargo haulers, smaller transport craft, and even the occasional armed patrol craft maneuvered through the artificial ravine.

‘Mefasee took momentary solace in the sheer enormity of her surroundings. There were few places better to hide in the strictly-regimented Covenant than the lowest level of a civilian population center, where the sheer crush of population and encroaching apparatus made each minute living being seem like just another part of the great, holy machine. Desperate to fully exploit her surroundings, the Sangheili again straightened her dull metallic raiment, that of a simple manufacturing laborer, and hurried towards the largest assemblage of sapients in view.

The crowd, nearly one hundred Sangheili, Unggoy, and Kig-Yar, most of them dressed in uniforms as dull and utilitarian as ‘Mefasee’s, was thronged around a circular dais that was raised two meters above street level. The bust of a nameless Prophet was affixed to its flat top, one of thousands of such icons and statues that adorned every street and level of the sacred city. The mass of workers was not paying homage to the carved face, however. Instead, their eyes were fixed upon a Sangheili who had climbed onto the platform and was addressing those assembled below in a booming, irate voice.

On the very edge of the crowd, ‘Mefasee could not clearly hear what he was saying over its collective murmuring and the occasional shout from a spectator closer to the center, but she still had a fairly good idea of what was being said nonetheless. She made her way along the perimeter of the slowly-growing throng, periodically glancing up and down the concourse for the best avenues of escape, should they be needed. Pushing through a small knot of avian Kig-Yar, she heard one of them whisper something unintelligible to a fellow, and looked back to see a skeletal, yellow-skinned alien loping out of the crowd, back in the direction from which she had come. She tracked the creature’s movement until her eyes fell upon the alley which she had just exited. As she watched, a bulky mass of sinew and matted hair stomped into view from the darkness, a vicious bayoneted grenade launcher clutched in its grayish hands.

A chill of fear pulsed down the Sangheili’s spine, and she immediately turned away from the open street. Her pursuers had managed to trace her, despite her best efforts to fade into the sprawling metropolis after she left the communications hub. She had known that pursuit was all but ensured due to the magnitude of the heresy she had just facilitated, the Supreme Commander had warned her of as much, but still she had hoped…

Any hopes of escape on foot ‘Mefasee might have had were dispelled as she heard the familiar buzz of a dropship settle in over her head. She could tell that the vessel was similar in make to the recovery ship she had once commanded, and she knew its alternative specifications all too well. ‘Mefasee pushed deeper into the crowd, trying not to imagine the insect-like craft settling in the air above a hundred meters away, its quartet of bottom-slung plasma cannons scanning the throng as Jiralhanae soldiers disgorged from its hold, their falls softened by the dropship’s shimmering gravity lift. Her only chance now was to blend in, just another common laborer among millions. Perhaps her pursuers didn’t know her face, or have her biometrics on file.

The laborers and overseers she pushed passed were thoroughly enthralled by the speaker and resisted little as she moved past them, and soon ‘Mefasee found herself at the front of the crowd, only a few meters from the bellowing Sangheili. He was a mid-level bureaucrat, by the look of his civilian dress, and the scarred stub that was his left arm explained why.

“And what of the High Council?” the speaker shouted, holding out his intact hand ominously. “They were summoned to their chambers by the Hierarchs before ‘Falanamee even arrived in this system. Why has there been no word from them since? Why are none allowed near the Council tier, or the Common Towers? Why do the Prophets keep our greatest leaders locked away as battle looms within view of this holy city? Is it because they fear what the Councilors will do if they are allowed to face ‘Falanamee openly? Do they fear that they might find some truth in his words?”

Murmurs of approval rippled through those below, mostly from the Sangheili, but a few Unggoy leant their chirpy voices to the chorus as well. The Kig-Yar were silent and uneasy.

“I am no heretic,” the Sangheili continued. “It is not heresy to demand the truth, no matter what some may say! Look at me! Look at my arm! I lost this arm defending our Holy Covenant from real heretics, mad traitors and worshippers of false gods. I lost the honor and glory of battle; I have spent countless cycles serving here, far from the fires of war, and for what? To preserve and sustain my people and my kin, and all those who are loyal to us. I am no heretic. If Teno ‘Falanamee labors as I do, as he says he does, then he is no heretic, either.”

As the mass of spectators roared with agreement, ‘Mefasee chanced a look over her shoulder. Plainly visible in the midst of a pack of skittish Unggoy, four Jiralhanae soldiers were scanning the assembly with keen, cruel eyes. The fugitive could not help but stare a moment at their leader in shock and dread. A massive, white-haired brute, easily twice the size of any Sangheili within view, with a metallic war hammer clutched in his right fist. She recognized his savage face and hulking frame in an instant, though she had seen him before only from a distance, and as his crimson stare met hers, she knew that the chieftain had done the same.

At random, she plunged back into the crowd, away from her pursuers. Over the clamor of the firebrand and his throng, she heard a loud bark and the thud of heavy footfalls. ‘Mefasee threw herself around an unusually heavy-set Sangheili and searched the street again desperately for a route of escape. She caught sight of the dropship still hovering off to her right, but the other side of the avenue was still empty save for a few curious pedestrians. Abandoning all pretense of evasion, she made for the rear of the crowd as fast as the press of bodies would permit. Her ill-fitting uniform jangled and slipped, but she ignored it. Just another handful of observers, and she would be in the open. The Sangheili prayed that the Jiralhanae would not dare to discharge their weapons in the thick of a riled mob.

The blow fell upon her broad back like the concussion of an artillery blast, and she felt herself sprawl irresistibly onto the smooth paving plates. Before she even brace for another blow, ‘Mefasee felt club-like hands latch onto her shoulders and yank upwards, pulling her back off the street. She began to struggle, but when she looked up, she saw the albino Jiralhanae peering down at her, holding one of the gently-pulsing gravity projectors imbedded into the head of his weapon centimeters from her face. He jabbed the weapon at her, and she fell still.

Tartarus rumbled at the pair of Jiralhanae holding her, and they began to tug her out of the crowd, back towards the waiting dropship. They had not moved more than a few meters, however, before the soldiers stopped, responding to the sound of shouting from behind. ‘Mefasee twisted against the iron grasps of her captors and looked back over her shoulder. Most of the crowd had moved back when the Jiralhanae had fallen upon their prey, but a few Sangheili had remained. ‘Mefasee recognized one of them as the worker who had been rallying the mass.

“What do you think you’re doing with her?” the veteran demanded, approaching Tartarus, who had also stopped.

“She is wanted for offenses committed against the Covenant, Sangheili,” the hulking chieftain growled. “It would not be wise to interfere. Your loyalties are already in question.” He jerked his head towards the now-vacant pedestal.

“Do not question my loyalties, Jiralhanae,” the other spat back, disregarding the size difference between them as he stalked close. “It is not your place. The guardians and enforcers of this city are still of my people. It is their duty to pursue and arrest. Let them take me, if they will, but I shall not allow you and your brutes to lay a hand on me, or that female. Release her.”

Tartarus glowered at him. “I have been directed by the Hierarchs themselves to seize her. Perhaps they no longer have faith in the Sangheili and your enforcers. What your people call loyalty may no longer satisfies them.” The white-haired soldier glanced at the dropship, and ‘Mefasee followed his gaze to see a quartet of armed Jiralhanae approaching. She also noticed that the crowd had begun to grow again, and that it was beginning to encircle her captors.

Tartarus noticed it, too. “Now, call off your mob and let me pass.”

“They are not my mob, Jiralhanae,” the one-armed warrior said dangerously. “I cannot control them, or stop them from doing what they feel they must. I warn you again, let the female go.”

Tartarus looked about him, scanning the ranks of Sangheili that were forming all around. His beady eyes met those of one of the soldiers holding ‘Mefasee for a moment, and the other grunted meaningfully. The chieftain turned back to the tense worker.

“Warn me? Of this rabble?”

He snorted a derisive laugh, and then brought his weapon to bear on the Sangheili firebrand in a rapid, fluid motion. The smaller figure stared at the broad head of the gravity hammer for a full half second before Tartarus squeezed a control stud and a halo of roiling bluish distortion burst from it. The pulse caught the Sangheili full in the face and chest, and he careened back into a group of other protestors, sending several of them to the street with the force of his fall. At the same moment, ‘Mefasee’s keepers lurched forward, bowling through the thin line of civilians that had formed in their path.

She attempted to kick one of the Jiralhanae off of her, but he ignored the blows, never breaking pace for the hovering dropship. As soon as they were free of the crowd, the four other Jiralhanae rushed past them in the opposite direction, evidently moving to assist their leader. ‘Mefasee could hear shouts of surprise and anger erupting from the assembled Sangheili, and then the low whump of the gravity hammer’s repulsor as it sent another member of the throng spinning away. She struggled to look back, but the Jiralhanae held her fast, and in a few moments, they had arrived under the waiting strike ship.

As she was shoved into the column of colorfully-pulsing energy that emanated from the underside of the craft to the street below and tugged irresistibly upwards, she heard the sudden report of a Jiralhanae firearm. Her gut clenched, and she tried not to envision a trickle of purple Sangheili blood flowing down the polished concourse. Then a new pair of unforgiving hands received her, and Teno ‘Falanamee and his grand designs seemed as far away as they had ever been.

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Almost as one, the war fleets assembled before High Charity detected the approach of the four blade-ships. Even as coordinators stationed on the holy city began to transmit urgent warnings to the defensive armada, hundreds of ship masters watched on holographic displays as the angular alien vessels moved further and further into the system, ignoring the outlying outposts and scattered picket ships that they passed. Their progress was not particularly swift, but it did not need to be. Every warrior of the Holy Covenant knew what the demon-craft were capable of.

For a few moments, the opposed fleets of Teno ‘Falanamee and the Hierarchs were still, their relative positions to one another locked as though nothing had interrupted their lethal contest of wills. Then, gradually at first, and then in a great flurry of divergent movement, the encircling flotilla began to fragment, all order lost. A trio of destroyers from the Fleet of Joyous Recompense broke off from the main group and forged into interplanetary space towards the new invaders, their commanders seized either by a fit of blind valor or the irresistible pull of vengeance for the fallen. A few others, mainly Jiralhanae-controlled ships, shot off in the opposite direction, seeking what little shelter there was to be had behind High Charity’s armored bulk.

The majority remained around ‘Falanamee’s fleet, but even they started to deviate from their firing positions as ship masters debated with zealots and fleet masters with admirals. High Charity, where Truth still sat transfixed upon his throne, was momentarily silent, and without its overriding authority questions of command and priority spread like a firestorm. There was little doubt that the not-so distant quartet of human vessels posed a vastly greater threat than the entirety of the Supreme Commander’s force, but most also agreed that it was out of the question to simply let him continue on to the capital. There were simply not enough warships at hand to meet both threats.

Despite all of this confusion, the chain of command quickly began to reassert itself, and the High Admiral placed in opposition to the Supreme Commander, a wizened and battle-harden veteran nearly half again ‘Falanamee’s age, was in the process of reigning in the commanders of the combined fleet when flare of boiling plasma lit the void. All eyes and all sensors slashed to the edge of the encompassing shell nearest to High Charity. Two volleys of roiling plasma torpedoes were passing each other in the space between the two forces. In that moment, no one could be certain who had fired first; all simply watched, frozen once more, as the deadly lines of light cut through the blackness, and then erupted onto the shimmering shields of two opposing cruisers.

With that, the battle began.

The surrounded vessels surged forward as one, unleashing a withering hail of plasma missiles and energy pulses at any and all ships in their path. The defenders responded in kind, but after the first volley, their cohesion began to waver. Finally forced to fire upon the Supreme Commander, some ship masters felt their loyalty to the Prophets slip away. The subsequent barrage was lessened somewhat as the guns of several vessels remained quiet. Within their hulls, new conflicts erupted, some wars of words and posturing, others open bloodshed as newly-minted separatists and loyalists fought for control of their ships with mutinies, counter-mutinies, and summary executions.

Abandoning those warships stricken by internal strife, High Charity’s vanguard moved quickly to pursue the now-motile oblong formation that was threatening to smash through the rear defensive line. As cruisers and assault carriers on both sides exchanged volleys of fire at rapidly decreasing ranges, a typhoon of Seraph fightercraft wove between the blasts. As their carrier commanders ordered them to engage, pilots found their tactical computers overwhelmed by the sheer volume of other identical craft arrayed against and alongside them. Transponder recognition protocols next to worthless in the swirling storm of pulse lasers and fractured hulls, and large-scale maneuvering was quickly abandoned in favor of ship-to-ship dog fighting. Isolated squadrons fought simply to keep their pilots together and alive. Casualties to friendly fire alone mounted into the hundreds with shocking speed, and the toll promised to grow even faster as the titanic furball moved into the thick of the contracting defensive line.

As massed fire shattered the defensive field of the sleek battlecruiser on the outermost port flank of ‘Falanamee’s formation, burning away meters of heavy armor in instants and sending the stricken vessel into a drunken spin, the rest of the force closed even closer to the rear defensive line, their weapons emplacements forging a road of brilliant illumination before them. With combatants mere dozens of kilometers apart now, the plasma projectors of the opposing fleet barely had to aim at all, and returned the fire with even greater ferocity. Several ships at the tip of the hurtling bullet were forced to veer off and fall back under the onslaught and one, hit head-on by the searing beam of a capital energy projector, disintegrated outright, its hull peeling back from its curved nose as its reactor ignited with the uncontainable infusion of power.

The rest of the mass pressed on undaunted, and within moments, the lead elements were skirting past their counterparts, scant kilometers apart. Furious broadsides rent a dozen ships on both sides into showers of burning fragments, but the separatist warships still moved forward, and what remained of the rear line was forced to flee. Colossal hulls wallowed up and down, left and right as fast as their drives could propel them, their crews left overwhelmed and disoriented by the ferocity of the onslaught. The survivors maneuvered to rejoin the rest of the pursuing vanguard force, and soon were lobbing fresh fusillades of blue fire at the Fleet of Particular Justice, but the damage was done. High Charity’s outer defensive line was broken.

The frigates and carriers assigned to the space station unleashed a new torrent of fire upon the approaching vessels, and a fresh force of fightercraft surged forward to harass and distract. High Charity, now directly threatened, also joined the battle; all across its surface, the jagged peaks of massive plasma projectors hummed with energy and spat burning comets of energetic particles the size of bulk transports into the void. The smallest and most maneuverable among the attackers were able to avoid the more devastating blasts, and largest were able to absorb the first volleys of these defensive guns, but many of the others could do nothing but burn in space as they were bisected by the massive projectiles.

And still, outnumbered and beset from both sides as it was, the fleet surged onward. Now ‘Falanamee’s flagship, the Sacrosanct, was at the head of the formation. A large swath of its smooth underside was blackened by the impact of concentrated volley of plasma bolts earlier in the battle, and smaller burns covered its wide aft section, but it fought as though it was fresh from the shipyard. A quartet of well-placed blasts from its main guns tore a large chunk from a frigate that had dared to approach the tip of the formation, no longer a blunt bullet but a focused cone of ships, aimed fixedly at the capital city’s bulbous cap.

Then, when Particular Justice had almost closed ranks with High Charity’s warship perimeter, it abruptly dispersed, vessels modest and massive alike breaking their advanced and spreading out in opposition to the defenders. Shots from the walls in front and behind went wide, and as the vanguard struggled to realign they firing arcs, each attacking vessel chose a target amongst the ranks of the final line and opened fire, igniting local space with the glare of weapons discharges, multi-gigaton explosions, and the angry flickering of energy shields. Taking advantage of the momentary distraction that the change of strategy had sewn, the Sacrosanct and an escort of two assault carrier and half a dozen destroyers and light cruisers, broke through the terminal barrier. Forests of point-defense weapons on High Charity’s curving bulk came to life, spraying the intruders with lethal fire, but before more than a few bolts could find their marks, a torrent of fightercraft poured through the gap after the larger vessels, enveloping them in a roiling cocoon that confused the space station’s gunners and drew off the lighter emplacements.

Before the ships of the combined fleet could turn their guns upon the breaching warships, dozens of troop carriers, dropships, and close-support aircraft hurtled from the cavernous hangar bays of the flagship and its companions. Pulse lasers from the station’s looming surfaces began to tear into them, but the emplacements were quickly silenced as ‘Falanamee’s ships opened fire on the capital for the first time. Under cover of the bombardment and the shield of flanking Seraphs, the detachment of landing craft rocketed towards High Charity’s hull, crossed the small distance to where its cap tapered off to meet the base of its massive, protuberant tail section, and disappeared over the lip. As the tiny vessels began to maneuver their way through the station’s last defenses and into its honeycombed outer crust, the warships that had delivered them turned back and rejoined their brothers in battle.

Hundreds of millions of kilometers away, still far too distant to directly observe the furious melee but aware of it nonetheless, four white hulls advanced.

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Neither Migaw nor Cakap had ever seen the inside of the High Council’s meeting chamber before, either in person or by proxy. Only the privileged elite were allowed within its gently-steepled, high walls, and the common masses only knew of what transpired within from the periodic proclamations given on the high terrace beyond the chamber’s well-guarded gates. As the pair were ushered in, impromptu and mercifully ignored parts of Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme’s escort, they were momentarily overwhelmed by the majesty of the place. Even from the shadowed corner where they stood, surrounded by towering Sangheili and Lekgolo, the sweeping rows of elevated benches, broad and immaculately polished wall supports, and seemingly limitless ceiling were awe-inspiring for creatures used to the cramped quarters of transports and carrier barracks.

For what was almost the first time in his life, Cakap wondered if the favor of the gods was actually with him. By some miracle, probably due to the ship master’s haste to travel down to the holy city with his charges, Migaw and he had managed attach themselves to guard surrounding the two human captives as it moved for the August Judgment’s prison block to one of its hangar bays, and from there onto a large, fast transport craft. After a brief journey, they had found themselves disembarked at one of the station’s private, high security ports and ushered hurriedly through the upper districts. Cakap had thought the elegant streets and gardens they passed seemed oddly vacant, but then again he had never been to the station before, and knew little of its inner workings.

They had only been challenged personally once, just before the group entered a sheltered passageway on the anterior side of the High Council’s tower complex. A Jiralhanae guard had evidently noticed that their uniforms were not those of marines or special ops, like the few other Unggoy in the escort, and had demanded they explain their presence. Migaw had nearly fainted and Cakap was barely able to stammer out a half-baked excuse involving the post of “human-tamer” or some other imagined position, but before the guard could inquire further, ‘Nefaaleme had used his authority to deflect him and gain the group entry into the structure. Distracted either by his eagerness to reach the Council Chambers or his diastase for the Jiralhanae, the ship master had not questioned them further, and neither had any of his protectors, each of whom was also to tense to notice a couple of lowly labors in their midst.

The company had finally arrived at their destination, Cakap gathered from the chamber’s busy and grand nature, and ‘Nefaaleme had disappeared behind the sloping partition that shadowed the humans and their guards from the rest of the hall. No one had told him exactly where they were, but he had decided that they must be at the Covenant’s very core because of the sheer number of robed Prophets and magnificently-armored Sangheili that stretched out before and above him. They were seated on the elevated platforms that lined both walls of the long chamber; forty silver-armored councilors or more packed the benches on one side, while a few dozen Prophet’s sat upon the other. Cakap noticed that their benches were not nearly as crowded, with several conspicuous gaps between the representatives. The wide nave between the stands was oddly empty, save for a few raised terminals and a crimson-inlaid walkway.

Curious to see what could illuminate such a space, Cakap looked towards the ceiling. From the uppermost tier of the gradually-narrowing roof, all but lost from sight, a gulf of brilliance poured white light down in a great, piercing drift. Migaw gazed at the sight in open awe, and for once Cakap could not begrudge his speechlessness. If ever there was a place made divine by its design alone, this was it.

An artificially-amplified voice emanating from somewhere behind the obstruction beyond which ‘Mefasee had disappeared, calling the Unggoy back from their momentary reverie. It was thin and dry, but undeniably commanding, with the characteristically overbearing and subtly dismissive tone of the most obnoxious and self-important Sangheili. Still, Cakap knew immediately that the speaker was not of the warrior caste, for he had heard the voice before. Every servant of the Covenant had. It was the High Prophet Regret, current constituent of the triumvirate that had dominated the Unggoy species for countless generations.

“Honored councilors, I can only assure you again, the Prophets would never pursue any course that would see the Sangheili unseated from their ancient role as our protectors and generals,” he was saying. “The friendship of our two peoples is the very foundation of the Holy Covenant. Without us, you would not know the will of the gods, and without you, we could not spread their gifts throughout the stars. Why would we upset this divine duality?”

“What of the Jiralhanae, Hierarch?” a Sangheili councilor asked stridently. “Teno ‘Falanamee speaks the truth when he says that many of their kind have been allowed to take on roles that the Sangheili alone have filled for millennia. They are allowed privilege and rank that no other client race of this union has ever even dared dream of. Hundreds of ships defending this very Council are no crewed largely by Jiralhanae. Some of them have claimed the rank of ship master!”

“The Jiralhanae are still newly of this covenant,” Regret replied calmly. “They have not yet been given a lasting place in it, and we are granting their kind an opportunity to prove their loyalty and demonstrate where they might be of the greatest use to us all. I will admit, they have taken well to the decks of the holy armada, and we have allowed them certain… extraordinary dispensations. Nevertheless, the Jiralhanae have never shown themselves nearly as capable or cunning as your own warriors. It is not the intent of the Hierarchs for your primacy in martial matters to be challenged. We would never allow it.”

“Remember the first canto of the Writ of Union, councilors!” This was a new voice, but familiar nonetheless. The High Prophet of Mercy’s high, wavering speech brought a lifetime of public sermons and affirmations to Cakap’s mind.

“So full of hate were our eyes
That none of us could see
Our war would yield countless dead
But never victory

So let us cast aside
And like discard our wrath
Thou, in faith, will keep us safe
Whilst we find the path”

“Prophet and Sangheili long ago learned the price of discord. It clouds us from our true path, distracts us from the wisdom of the gods. To deprive your people of their ancestral guardianship would only invite the chaos of the Ages of Conflict and Doubt, and strip us of all we learned of the gods and their devices.”

Many of the Sangheili councilors whispered to each other uncertainly after this proclamation, but not all were so easily swayed. Another near the back row stood to make himself heard.

“The Jiralhanae are not the only matter at hand. ‘Falanamee implied that there are other currents of change within our union of late, and that cannot be denied. You, noble Hierarchs, have taken a far greater role in the prosecution of war than any of your predecessors have in countless generations. It was by your word that the war against the humans was made one of annihilation rather than assimilation, as has always been our custom. Your directives have compelled specific fleets and forces of arms to move from system to system often since the arrival of the humans’ new warships, sometimes over the protest of our high admirals.”

A Sangheili closer to the front raised his voice in agreement. “The very social order of our homeworlds has been changing at your behest. Age-old centers of commerce and industry have become obsolete, and new ones have sprung up closer to the fringe. The Unggoy have been multiplying far faster than the needs of conquest have demanded. The Yanme’e have been allowed to grow more and more insular. The Kig-Yar, mercenaries and privateers, have been given prominent roles in the Armada, despite their questionable loyalties.”

A sharp laugh from across the chamber interrupted the speaker.

“Kig-Yar? Unggoy? Jiralhanae? Has it become Sangheili custom to obsess over the lower castes?” a Prophet councilor jeered. “What concern is it of ours how they arrange themselves, as long as they serve humbly and loyally? Do you see a Jiralhanae in silver armor seated next to you? A robed Kig-Yar next to me?”

Several of the other Prophets began to laugh as well. The Sangheili who had been interrupted glowered dangerously at them, but before he could speak again, Regret’s voice rose again.

“There is no need for such jibbing, councilors, not here of all places. Your concerns are valid, Councilor ‘Tadasee, as are yours, Councilor ‘Niglethee, but you must understand, this Covenant must adapt as it faces its final trials on the path to the Great Journey. The humans are but one obstacle that must be overcome before we are all to be saved, and to do that, we must sacrifice the security of some of the old traditions. Reflect upon what has been done, councilors, and you will see that it has all been for the betterment of the Covenant and its people, the Sangheili included. Do not let the vitriol of a heretic like Teno ‘Falanamee cloud your vision.”

“The traitor skilled wielder of both word and blade, but do not let him deceive you with either. His words are devoid of truth, and his might has atrophied with the taint of heresy. Come, look upon his favored agent, one who he has trusted above all others! A female of the lowliest clan!”

Something must have occurred that neither of the Unggoy could see, because the councilors began to murmur more loudly and rapidly than ever before. There was the sound of a body falling to the floor, and a then a low moan. Migaw perked up at the sound, but Cakap couldn’t quite place it.

“What is the meaning of this, Hierarch?” a councilor demanded. “Who is she?”

“This is Deau ‘Mefasee, once a transport pilot attached to the August Judgment. ‘Falanamee transferred her to his personal staff when he came to this city last, and then left her when he was dispatched to combat the humans. She is the one who planted the message that has spread discord and confusion throughout this system. Do not blame this pitiable creature for her crime; no doubt, ‘Falanamee’s corruption overcame her. She is just a portend of the traitor’s true nature. He knows what he preaches is false, and so he only places his trust in beings he can dominate absolutely.”

Migaw stared at Cakap, fright visible in his beady eyes. “Her!” he whispered urgently. “What should we do now?”

Cakap had no answer. He had never expected the Sangheili’s order to take them as far as it had. Now she was captured, and they were very far from the familiar warrens of their carrier, leaderless in a place they should have never dared venture.

“But this is not the height of his depravity. No, the blasphemer is not content merely to question the word of the gods, insight rebellion, and tyrannize the minds of the weak. Ship master, bring them forward.”

Ahead of Cakap and Migaw, one of ‘Nefaaleme’s guardians made a rapid hand gesture, and the entire company started forward. The two Unggoy could do nothing but follow as their group filed around the obstructing pylon. As they emerged from the shadows, Cakap could see that they had entered the chamber through a secreted entrance at its back left corner. Beside them, facing the empty nave from a raised circular dais, the thrones of Regret and Mercy floated in the middle of a ring. A ring of bright light, within which both were positioned, both defined them in the eerily-lit chamber, and seemed to separate them from it.

Below them, to one side of the rostrum, a well-groomed and unusually well armored Jiralhanae stood with his head bowed in customary respect for the assembly. At his feet, the prone and naked form of Deau ‘Mefasee lay sprawled. Her arms and legs were badly bruised, and she appeared to have slipped into unconsciousness. On the side closer to them, Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme stood, watching his soldiers and their charges enter view.

A silent signal made them halt again just outside of their shadowed alcove, and the pair of special operations marines moved back, parting the ranks of the other guards. Each seized one of the humans by a forearm and dragged them out of the group towards the dais. Another cue directed the rest to retreat back into the darkened space, but Cakap and Migaw lingered near the obscuring support’s lip, watching as the beings they had been tasked with guarding were dragged out of their reach.

“Eminent Councilors, Hierarchs, I am Galo ‘Nefaaleme, ship master of the fleet carrier August Judgment. I was at the human world Reach when the first blade-ships appeared. I watched the Ascendant Justice fall to the weapons of the enemy, and my ship recovered the Supreme Commander ‘Falanamee after the attackers were initially repelled. He was not the only being that found his way onto my ship that day, however.”

He gestured sharply to the two beleaguered humans now standing before him, each still held straight by the special operations soldiers. The councilors looked on in varying degrees of surprise, confusion, and indignation. Never before had humans been brought into non-military construct, much less the very chambers of the High Council. Had any but the Hierarchs themselves ordered it, the sacrilege would have been punishable by immediate and dishonorable execution for whoever had propagated it.

“These two creatures, presumably survivors of the battle, managed to commandeer one of my salvage craft and latch it onto the August Judgment’s hull in hopes of evading the eyes of the armada. They were quickly discovered nonetheless, and after a customary interrogation, I was prepared to put them to death. Before my order could be carried out, however, ‘Falanamee countermanded my authority. He demanded that the captives be spared and brought here for further interrogation, despite the fact that they had shown no sign of bearing any useful information. And then, when my vessel arrived here, he made no effort to inform this council or any other authority of their existence. He was content to let them sit in my holding bay, fed and sheltered from their rightful judgment.”

Regret moved forward, raising his hands, and ‘Nefaaleme fell obediently silent, although he looked fully prepared to say more.

“Is this a being who you would wish to ally yourselves with, friends? Consort of weak-minded females and protector of abominations in the eyes of the gods? Teno ‘Falanamee was once a great warrior, but some weakness in his heart has tainted him, and caused him to stray from the true path. Do not allow yourselves to stray as he did.”

The muttering of the Sangheili councilors was even louder now. Some still sat silently with their arms crossed, their faces impenetrable masks, but others peered from the disgraced pilot to the captured humans uneasily. The evidence of the Supreme Commander’s corruption could be fabrications, of course, but if it was true…

“Teno ‘Falanamee is dead.”

From the shadowed alcove on the opposite side of the rostrum the final member of the Covenant’s supreme triumvirate. The gold of his throne and his gilded crown glinted in the mystic light as he joined his fellows on the dais. A massive, white-haired Jiralhanae who had accompanied him in stopped a respectful distance away from the Prophets, and stood with arms akimbo. His raised upper lip revealed a row of vicious teeth in what could only have been a smirk.

“The heretic’s flagship, the Sacrosanct, has been destroyed,” the third hierarch continued before the suddenly still assembly. Even the other High Prophets stared at Truth in shock. “None escaped from the vessel’s death throes. I watched it burn to embers myself.”

“What are you saying?” one of the Sangheili councilors, ‘Niglethee, demanded, all decorum momentarily forgotten. “How could you know this? Teno ‘Falanamee’s should still be on the fringe of Covenant space.”

“The former Supreme Commander brought a rebellious fleet here, to this system, with the intention of conquering High Charity.”

“What?” another councilor roared, jumping from his bench. “Why were we not informed? It is our duty to lead the armada, especially if this city is threatened!”

“Do not concern yourself, honored councilor,” Truth said calmly. “Your warriors have acquitted themselves exemplarily against the traitors, and even as we speak, their remaining warships are being obliterated.”

“I shall say again, the heretic ‘Falanamee has fallen, and his apostasy will perish with him. There will be no schism of this Covenant, not this day, and not ever until the ending of this realm and our ascendance into the realm of the gods. Rejoice, friends, for the faithful have triumphed!”

The Council Chamber’s main door resounded with the thud of a heavy impact. The noise was so loud and unexpected that all eyes in the hall turned from the High Prophet simultaneously and fixed onto the entryway. The pair of ornately-armored Honor Guard who had been rooted to posts just out of sight on either side of the door moved cautiously towards it, their glowing ceremonial pikes at the ready. The clamorous sound did not repeat itself, but those in the chamber with keen ears could detect a very faint hiss from beyond the heavy, carved metal door, like the din of a welding torch.

Then there was a clank from somewhere within the barrier, and it drew back into the surrounding wall. With a wet thud, the body of a Jiralhanae soldier spilled into the chamber, its fur covered in thick blood that trailed from a large gash in its back. Its right hand still clutched a metallic shaft identical to the ones that the attending Honor Guard carried. The eyes of the guardians lingered on the corpse only momentarily before flashing back to the open aperture, where several figures now stood.

Over the slain Jiralhanae, backed by a squad of heavily-armed Sangheili in uniforms of all colors, Supreme Commander Teno ‘Falanamee stepped into the Council Chamber, a lit plasma sword blazing in his right hand.



The Rift
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-10-05 04:30pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Five


There was no clamor from the assembled councilors. No one expressed shock at seeing the warrior who had just been placed among the ranks of the dead. No one even recoiled at the presence of heretics in one of the holiest places of the Covenant, or the weapons they brandished so unashamedly. They simply watched, transfixed. No councilor, Sangheili and Prophet alike, dared to step between the Hierarchs and their nemesis.

Teno ‘Falanamee advanced another step, and then raised his free hand, a sign for his escorts. They obediently withdrew from the doorway back into the great hall’s antechamber, but they did not seal the door, or slacken the grip on their weapons. Satisfied, the Supreme Commander continued on slowly, his eyes fixed squarely upon Truth, who sat motionless at the end of the Council chamber.

The pair of Honor Guards flanking the breached entryway took a moment to react to the new arrival, but when they finally moved they did so swiftly, rushing past the intruder and blocking his path with their pikes and towering stature. The fine points of each weapon angled directly at ‘Falanamee’s long neck, but he did not flinch or fall back. Instead, he let his gaze meet each of theirs in turn. All three stood quite still, the thoughts and emotions of each warring silently.

“So, you’ve escaped judgment once again.” Truth’s voice echoed in the breathless space, cold but calm. “I failed to see your loss of favor with the gods when you were nearly slain at Reach. Rest assured, you will not escape your just fate again.”

“Nor shall you, Prophet,” ‘Falanamee replied, his voice measured in spite of the blades fixed less than a meter from his flesh. “The gods do not look kindly upon betrayers, and your treachery is greater than any this Covenant has ever known.”

“Treachery!” Regret stammered from behind Truth. “You have assaulted this holy city! You have incited rebellion with your lies! Even now, you stand in this hallowed chamber with a sword drawn in anger! And you accuse us of treachery?”

Truth held up a bony hand to silence him. “The magnitude of your heresy is self-evident, ‘Falanamee. Your claims have no foundation in fact, and your mind has been tainted by some poison of doubt or vainglory. It is a testament to the restraint of my brothers and I that you still live. Do not think, though, that we will continue to show this mercy if you trespass further.”

“Do not further defile this hall with your guile, Prophet,” ‘Falanamee said. “It is clear to all of us that you and you alone are the master of your machinations. Do not hide behind these others or any of your kind; they are slaves, subservient to your will. If you wish to challenge my words, at least find the courage to do so frankly.”

Regret and Mercy’s jaws fell open and they began to fidget upon their elevated seats, but neither seemed willing or able to respond to the charge. Murmurs shot through both council galleries. There had long been rumors that triumvirate had fallen under the domination of one of their number, in opposition to the ancient customs of the Covenant, but no one had ever voiced them before in a High Prophet’s presence, much less all three.

Truth’s face was a mask, but he spoke quickly and loudly to silence the whispered discussion. “Enough! There will be no more slurs spoken in this chamber by you, Teno ‘Falanamee! You are hereby stripped of your rank and all your rights as a warrior of this Covenant. Your actions have shown that you are nothing more than a heretic, and you shall meet a heretic’s end! Guards, take him from this place!”

‘Falanamee’s eyes returned to the two Honor Guards. Neither had moved to comply with Truth’s command. From beneath their great helms, they stared intently at the proclaimed heretic, as though trying to peer into his mind. He did not blink or falter under their combined stares, instead swelling to his full height and slackened his grip on the hilt of his energy sword. Its dual points flickered and vanished.

“Do what you will, brothers,” ‘Falanamee said. “This blade is not for either of you.”

Slowly, the guardians withdrew their pikes and stepped from the former Supreme Commander’s path. Truth’s thin lips quivered with fury, and the other Honor Guard at attention around the chamber shifted slightly, their minds cast into doubt by the actions of their comrades. Before the High Prophet could shout another order and test their resolve, however, weapons fire echoed from the antechamber.

One of the Sangheili standing outside the inner door barked an order to ‘Falanamee’s other escorts and they moved hurriedly from sight. The hiss and belch of plasma weaponry resounded again, followed by several muffled roars and indistinct shouts. There was a scuffling noise closer to the door, and then the colossal frame of Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree stooped through the opening, his gold and silver armor splattered with purple blood.

The Imperial Admiral clutched his own energy sword in one hand, and dragged a red-armored Sangheili major by the neck with the other. When the titan caught sight of ‘Falanamee, he cast the warrior in his grasp violently to one side, sending him into a protruding, sculpted support with a crunch of distressed metal.

“I gave you a chance to die with dignity, ‘Falanamee!” he rasped, stalking forward with powerful strides. “I gave you the chance to escape a dishonorable death, despite your heresy! Instead, you spit upon me and defile my generosity! You steal my soldiers, set brother against brother, and bring doom down upon us all!”

‘Falanamee did not retreat before the enraged Sangheili, but neither did he reply.

“Do not think I do not know what you have done!” Wattinree bellowed. “You realized what the Prophets of Radiant Sanctum knew, and yet you let the humans seize them! You lead the blade-ships here, to this holy place, and destroy all hopes opposition by turning our people against one another!”

“There are blade-ships here, in this system?” a Sangheili councilor demanded. “Why were we not informed of this, Hierarchs? What else has been kept from us?”

Wattinree ignored the speaker. He only had eyes for ‘Falanamee.
“I have done what I must to save our people, Admiral,” the former Supreme Commander said, quietly, but clearly. “The crimes of the Prophets must be addressed, and their power broken. This is the only way.”

“You are mad, heretic!” Wattinree boomed, stopping within arm’s length of the resolute warrior. “By your actions you have betrayed our people and this Covenant! Sangheili die uselessly outside these walls because of your treason! You no longer deserve even the air which you breathe, and I shall ensure that you take no more of it!”

With a mighty roar, he raised his glistening sword high into the air and brought it crashing down onto where ‘Falanamee stood. For all the speed and agility honed by decades of unending drills and merciless combat, it was all that the shamed officer could do to avoid the ferocious blow. The polished floor plates before Wattinree were rent into smoking fragments as the blade gouged them, and when the admiral wrenched his weapon back, the wrecked surface bled a fountain of sparks from a severed conduit beneath.

The Honor Guards backed swiftly out of Wattinree’s path, and ‘Falanamee had no place to move but back, up the Council chamber’s long nave. His sword burst to life only just in time to deflect a brutal chop that Wattinree aimed at him from the left, charging forward as he struck. ‘Falanamee regained his footing and managed to parry another swift blow, but found that the other Sangheili was again too close and fully before him. Nearly half-again as tall as his prey, Wattinree’s size and strength were almost unmatched by any save the greatest Lekgolo, and he knew it well. The giant brought his blade down upon his foe once more, placing all his incomparable might behind it.

‘Falanamee knew that he could not stop the blow, and could do nothing but jump back again, his energy sword raised and at the ready. Wattinree regained his balance quickly despite his massive bulk and pressed forward again, each of his slashes a killing blow. Against the blistering edge of the energy blade and the might of its wielder, ‘Falanamee’s energy shield and thin armor plating would be useless.

Knowing that he could not stay on the defensive forever and hope to survive, ‘Falanamee ducked under the next blow, and rather than fall back, he charged directly at his attacker, leveling his blade at the armored midriff. Wattinree side-stepped the lunge, and with the same surprising speed he had exploited before, seized hold ‘Falanamee’s forearm as the sword it held sailed past. The shield of the smaller fighter’s armor flared and crackled, its glassy surface strained under the imperial admiral’s iron grip. ‘Falanamee felt his feet slip along the floor as the massive hand interrupted his momentum and began to drag him into the air.

‘Falanamee knew that he was completely vulnerable to attack, and saw out of the corner of his eye the brilliant fangs of Wattinree’s blade, poised to impale his exposed flank. His left foot fell upon the raised heel of one of Wattinree’s boots, and he kicked off from it as hard as he could, simultaneously twisting his sword arm. The shield burst into a shower of sparks and Wattinree’s four fingers dug shallow gouges in the metal vambrace, but the giant lost his grip and ‘Falanamee tumbled free just as the sword probed the air where he had been momentarily suspended.

Wattinree wasted no time, and fell upon ‘Falanamee again even as he struggled to rise from the ground. As the admiral’s blade slashed down at his chest, he could do nothing but meet it full with his own sword. The two clashed violently, and ‘Falanamee’s arm began to buckle as Wattinree bent his full musculature into the blow. The defending duelist felt the bones in his arm creak under the strain. Wattinree sensed that his prey was weakening and leaned in further until he filled ‘Falanamee’s vision. The added weight was simply too much for the sword arm to withstand, and with a blinding pulse of pain he felt the bone in his forearm snap. As it did, however, he rolled out from under Wattinree, taking advantage of the fact that the admiral had sacrificed his own balance in his eagerness to slay the heretic.

As Wattinree recovered, ‘Falanamee rose to his feet, passing his sword from the shattered arm to the intact one as he did. He pressed the wounded limb to his chest, and the pain abated slightly, enough to allow him to think clearly once more. ‘Falanamee could now see how Wattinree had achieved his high rank, and why he had never been defeated in personal combat. His enormous size and strength were factors, but he was also oddly swift and agile, and his skill with the energy blade was painfully evident. Even if the two had been of the same build, ‘Falanamee was not certain he would be able to best the Imperial Admiral under normal circumstances.

But as the combatant turned towards him once again, ‘Falanamee could see that his broad chest was heaving beneath its ornate covering. They had been fighting for barely a minute, he had the clearly had the upper hand, and was completely uninjured, and yet Wattinree’s breaths were harsh and deep. One look at the eyes within his high helm told ‘Falanamee why. His foe was so consumed with fury, so intent upon destroying the heretic who had defied him that he was attacking recklessly, without thought of pacing himself. That made the glowering titan even more dangerous, certainly, but it also gave ‘Falanamee a faint glimmer of hope, absent since the Admiral had appeared in the Council chamber’s doorway.

Wattinree’s onslaught began again as fierce as it had been before, and ‘Falanamee was forced back into retreat. He could wield a blade nearly as well with his left hand as his right, but the loss of the latter had affected his balance, and parrying Wattinree’s was becoming swiftly more difficult and laborious. He attempted to turn the melee back up the admiral several times, scoring several glancing blows against his energy shield, but none were powerful enough to breach the barrier, and Wattinree responded to each attempt with three blows of his own.

Suddenly, ‘Falanamee felt his back run up against a ridged surface, one of the large holographic projection terminals that flanked the nave’s central walkway. Seeing his prey pinned, Wattinree drove his weapon straight at the other’s chest. ‘Falanamee spun from the column, his sword clattering against the attacker’s in a useless attempt to turn it away. As he tried to keep himself from falling to the floor, the Sangheili felt what was left of his armor’s shield shatter and in an instant a swath of flesh from his right shoulder all the way down his back burned with pain, its protective plate unable to repel Wattinree’s slash.

Grunting and biting against the growing agony of the wound, ‘Falanamee stumbled onto his hands and knees and crawled away from the terminal. With bleary eyes, he could see the Hierarchs and their court. In an instant, he took in ‘Mefasee’s prone form, Reginald Barclay’s terrified face. He saw Truth’s smirk, Tartarus’ sneer, and Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme’s face, oddly devoid of satisfaction at the downfall of his old adversary. He saw, too, as the pair of Honor Guards near the head of the chamber, close at hand now, stepped quickly back.

He rolled to the left, barely hearing Wattinree’s blade as it bit deeply into the polished plate where he had been an instant before. ‘Falanamee struggled to rise, but a swift kick sent him sprawling again. He tumbled hard into another of the raised terminals, and he felt his sword slip from his hand. He thrust his arm out feverishly, searching for it, but found nothing. A moment later, he felt a great weight slam into his sprawled left leg. ‘Falanamee groaned as the bone strained and cracked, and looked up to see Wattinree standing over him, two energy swords now in his hands.

“It is over, heretic,” he heaved, angling both blades at the trapped form of his enemy. “Know that the sons of the Sangheili will remember your name with nothing but distain, for you deserve nothing more.”

“And you…” ‘Falanamee gasped through the pain sweeping over him. “Know that you will be remembered as a great and proud warrior. A fool, but a great warrior nonetheless.”

Wattinree snarled savagely, and leaned low over the heretic, eyes wild and shot with blood. He drew his arms back, and then plunged each of the swords at ‘Falanamee’s heart.

The Sangheili watched the four glowing spikes fall for a split second, and then twisted his torso violently to the left, so that he slipped from the column against which he had been propped. The blades plunged deep into his right shoulder, boiling away golden armor and black bodysuit and settling into a mangled mess of flesh, blood, and bone. As one of the prongs burst from ‘Falanamee’s back, the two pairs of searing points crossed and momentarily locked together. Though blinded and breathless from the agony of the blow, ‘Falanamee threw his left arm up and caught hold of Wattinree’s wrist. His fingers locked tightly around the sheen of his energy shield, and he pulled with all his strength.

Expecting the dual stab to be a killing blow, Wattinree had allowed himself to overextend his center of gravity, and he was unable to resist the sudden pull on his left arm. With a startled rumble, he toppled over onto his side, nearly crushing ‘Falanamee under his enormous bulk. The two blades tore free from the smaller soldier’s shoulder and their prongs slid further into one another, locking them more fully. His hand still clasped tightly around Wattinree’s wrist, ‘Falanamee pushed towards the imperial admiral’s chest, and the swords moved back towards their wielder.

Supine and disoriented by the sudden fall, Wattinree didn’t notice that his arm was being pushed until he caught sight of the twin swords raised above his face. He tugged the right blade away, and it complied, but with it came the shimmering barbs of the left, now angled down before his split chin. Their tips slashed the surface of his shielding, and the barrier sputtered with a shower of arcing light.

His eyes flashed from the deadly points to his wrist to ‘Falanamee’s face, now spare centimeters from his own. The former Supreme Commander saw understanding dawn in them, and something else as well, but he could not wait to comprehend it. His grip tightened, and he threw his weight against Wattinree’s left arm.

Only one barb of crystalline light penetrated the Imperial Admiral’s shield and what lay beneath, but it was enough. Xytan ‘Jar Wattinree spluttered as the sword slid slowly into his long neck, thrashed slightly as simmering blood spat from the small gash, and then lay still.

Reluctantly, ‘Falanamee’s fingers released Wattinree’s limp wrist and let it fall onto the dead Sangheili’s chest. He stared at the body for a long, silent moment, and then slowly, laborious, pushed himself onto one knee, wincing as he pulled his fractured left leg across the ground. Pausing first to draw a deep draft of air through his open jaws, ‘Falanamee looked towards the Prophet’s dais.

The look on Truth’s face had transformed from satisfaction to rage, and perhaps, the Sangheili squinted through heavy eyes, fear. He seemed oblivious to the awed whispering that was slowly rising from those around him. Squaring his back and raising his bulbous head as high as he could, the High Prophet directed his throne to hover forward, away from the Hierarch’s isolated ring.

“Tartarus.”

The Jiralhanae chieftain, whose face had also lost its savage mirth, stepped forward to join his master, hefting his gravity hammer in both hands. ‘Falanamee was motionless as the two approached, still heaving from the gravity of his wounds.

The assembled councilors were still locked in breathless silence, but Truth would not have heard them even if they were shouting in unison. The full breadth of his intellect was fixed upon the wounded Sangheili, and his intent was clear.

“Your skill in combat has survived your heresy, I see,” he said slowly, halting several paces before ‘Falanamee. “But this victory will not save you. All you have done is rob this Covenant of another champion in its hour of need. For that alone you should die a sinner’s death, if you had not so fully earned such judgment by your other crimes.”

“Wattinree will not be the last to die this day, nor the most deserving,” ‘Falanamee managed through trembling jaws.

“Indeed.”

Truth nodded shortly to Tartarus, and the hulking albino stepped from his side, moving to face the kneeling Sangheili. The Jiralhanae towered above his prey, filling ‘Falanamee’s vision with a solid mass of white fur, rough hide, and the polished metal of the chieftain’s favored weapon. At the top of this mountain of flesh and mane, two crimson eyes glinted down at him.

Tartarus took his weapon into both hands and slowly aimed its massive head at the motionless ‘Falanamee. The Jiralhanae’s lips were drawn back in a jagged grimace, but he moved with obvious relish.

“You need that to kill me, Jiralhanae?” ‘Falanamee asked, his eyes not locked onto the weapon but the eyes of its wielder.

Tartarus snorted. “I would not sully my hands with the blood of a heretic like you.”

The hammerhead leveled at ‘Falanamee’s helmed forehead, now less than half a meter away. Tartarus’ toothy expression widened as he fingered the activation stud on his weapon’s haft. He had tested the hammer’s most powerful setting on the injured and vulnerable before, and it never failed to please him.

The Jiralhanae’s eyes wandered down to his weapon briefly, reveling in its blunt and murderous form, and then moved back to meet ‘Falanamee’s stare once more. Perhaps Tartarus had hoped that his glee would corrode the Sangheili’s resolve before his end, and his lips opened marginally in preparation for a final taunt. However, the words did not come.

Instead of hopelessness or terror, the look Tartarus saw upon the face of his prey was one of pure defiance. It conveyed a strength that belied ‘Falanamee’s battered condition, and indeed exceeded any that the Jiralhanae had ever seen in him. The being that stared at him was not merely a proud and charismatic warrior, a fighter and leader of soldiers. The brute looked instead upon a creature that had endured physical strain and mental torment that would have broken almost any other; a being that had been robbed of everything, and yet still fought and suffered for its fellows and its kind. Tartarus saw the heart of the Sangheili people, the avatar of their will, their honor, and their pride.

He looked into the eyes of the Arbiter.

“Do it!” Truth hissed at Tartarus’ back.

The chieftain had frozen, unable to break free from the crushing stare. His lips closed around his pointed teeth, and he fumbled for the hammer’s firing stud, but before he could find it, Teno ‘Falanamee’s left arm shot up and he laid hold on the weapon’s haft. As Tartarus looked on mutely, he jerked the hammerhead away from his face, and then slowly pulled himself up, using the hammer and the Jiralhanae’s own quivering brawn for support. His eye’s never left Tartarus’, and the latter was held fast by the power of his gaze.

“Were you not going to crush, Tartarus?” ‘Falanamee asked clearly in the silence. “Don’t you have the will to take me alone? Don’t you have the will to challenge the Sangheili? That is what you wanted, isn’t it? To take our place with your bare hands?”

‘Falanamee pushed himself laboriously to his full height and Tartarus fell back a step. Above, a Sangheili councilor murmured something, and then others joined him, their voices resonant and harsh in the still air. The red beads of Tartarus’ eyes sped towards them and traced erratically from face to face, their vision blurred by the turmoil in the Jiralhanae’s mind. He took another step back, and ‘Falanamee moved with him.

The Sangheili craned his neck closer, and moved his mandibles in a whisper.

“Fear suits you, animal.”

Tartarus’ savage face contorted violently with rage at the insult, but nameless terror still weighed upon him heavily. His crimson pupils twitched within their bonds, thrashing from ‘Falanamee to specters that no one else could see. Then, in a burst of motion, Tartarus attempted to tear his weapon from the Sangheili’s grasp. The violent exertion made ‘Falanamee stagger forward a few pained steps and his arm buckled visibly, but his hold did not break. Before Tartarus could try again, he leaned toward the weapon and then kicked off from one of the Jiralhanae’s trunk-like legs. The sudden movement propelled the hammer out of Tartarus’ clutches and swung it around ‘Falanamee’s back. Its head slammed into the floor and screeched against the smooth surface as haft swung, but the Sangheili warrior kept it under his control. Crouching, he turned the weapon away from himself and leveraged the hammerhead into the air, fixing its shaft under the armpit of his limp arm and guiding it with the other.

The chieftain found himself less than a meter from the head of his own prized maul. He stared at the weapon, his jaw quivering, half open, and then looked again at ‘Falanamee’s resolute visage. The sight consumed him; he did not see that the Sangheili’s legs were buckling, or that blood was flowing freely from the wounds on his back, or that the fingers of his left hand could not move towards the hammer’s firing stub, so occupied were they with the simple task of keeping the massive weapon aloft. In Tartarus’ eyes, his foe was indomitable.

The Jiralhanae took a halting step back, and then his contorted lips fell open as he unleashed a great roar.

As the terrible sound reverberated from the Council chamber’s high roof, Truth’s bulbous eyes bulged wide in horror, and his voice cracked.

“No! Tartarus, you fool!”

In unison, more than a dozen of the sealed doorways that lined every level of the chamber sprang open and a swarm of Jiralhanae shock troopers poured into the sacred space. Prophet and Sangheili councilors alike sprang to their feet in confusion and protest. Soldiers were a common sight within the Council chamber, but they were usually Sangheili, and few save the Honor Guard were normally permitted to bear non-ceremonial weaponry, firearms and explosive which jangled from troopers’ bandoliers and bulged from their fists. The Jiralhanae swiftly filed into the central nave and spread into the ranks of the councilors, aiming their armaments at any Sangheili nearby.

Below, the leader of the force that Tartarus’ signal had summoned paused, confused by the scene that was frozen before him. The officer had been informed that he would be called for only after the High Prophets and their kin had left, but they were still present, with several Sangheili soldiers close at hand. Jiralhanae made effective soldiers, but they were often reckless and indiscriminate in combat; the added variable of the Prophets could only slow them down. So the Jiralhanae lieutenant paused, unwilling to act with his masters so close, and his indecision crept easily through the ranks of his subordinates.

The few Honor Guards within the chamber came to their senses quickly and moved to rebuff the unannounced arrivals, but they were vastly outnumbered, and each one was swiftly surrounded by half a squad of the brutes. Before either could make the first move, however, one of the councilors, the Sangheili named ‘Tadasee, leapt onto his seat, his hands thrust into the air.

“’Falanamee was right!” he bellowed over the rising din. “The Prophets and the Jiralhanae have betrayed us! Defend yourselves, brothers! Do not allow yourselves to be taken as we have been deceived!”

The reaction was immediate. In the face of such an overt and unexpected threat, even those councilors who had opposed ‘Falanamee’s sedition could do nothing but unite in outrage. They all knew that Truth’s minion had summoned the Jiralhanae mob, and each could see the blackened barrels and glowing firing nodes of the weapons aimed squarely at them. What the Prophet’s intent was, whether the soldiers meant to kill or merely subdue, did not matter. The insult was inexcusably brazen, and the councilors were the proudest of their people. They rose up as one furious tide, and fell upon their would-be suppressors with fists and feet, undaunted by the firearms of the soldiers.

Truth watched as the Sangheili councilors unleashed themselves upon his soldiers. He had hoped fleetingly that he would retain control of the situation in spite of Tartarus’ premature summons of his troopers, but that hoped dissolved as a pair of heavily-armed Jiralhanae collapsed under a ferocious barrage of hammer blows without firing a single shot. They were caught off-guard, and the councilors were as skillful as they were proud. The crack of Jiralhanae sidearms began to rend the air, but Truth was already moving into the nearest cluster of unengaged soldiers.

“Deal with this,” he snarled at Tartarus as he angled towards the closest exit. “Don’t let any of them escape.”

The chieftain was still transfixed by ‘Falanamee, but he managed a slow nod. The Sangheili still held the hammer at Tartarus’ face, but the head had begun to dip, and his entire body was now trembling. As the Jiralhanae in the nave surrounded him, looking cautiously from their leader to the battered warrior, his strength finally gave out and he fell to his knees, Tartarus’ hammer dropping uselessly before him. The clatter of the weapon seemed to break ‘Falanamee’s hold over its master, and he straightened up, his toothy leer returning, if weaker than it was before.

Tartarus stooped to reclaim his weapon, and then regarded ‘Falanamee carefully. The former Supreme Commander kneeled with his right arm sprawled on one leg and his other flat on the floor for support. His breathing was loud and pained, and his golden armor was cracked and stained with dark blood. And yet he stared at Tartarus unblinkingly, still challenging even as he struggled with every breath.

The chieftain snorted nervously, shook himself, and then stepped back. He gestured to one of his lieutenants, and then turned away, fixing his attention on the melee above them. The indicated officer stepped up eagerly followed by two especially formidable creatures, each of them brandishing the bladed end of their grenade launchers. They drank in the sight of their bloodied victim and stalked forward ravenously, each eager to be the first to hew at ‘Falanamee’s flesh.

The lead soldier was an arm’s length from the Sangheili when something propelled him into the air and splattered his sinewy form across the nearest wall. In his place, the blue-armored bulk of one of Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme’s Lekgolo rooted itself to the floor, shadowing ‘Falanamee with its spiny, rolling form and beckoning to the startled Jiralhanae surrounding them with its outstretched shield arm, now splotched with gore. The giant’s brother was close behind and thundered into another pack of simian troopers with a sonorous bellow, flailing with armored limbs and barbed carapace as it trampled a luckless lieutenant under its massive feet.

Tartarus’ nostrils flared at the smell of the blood of his own kin, and he barked orders over the din of combat, his attention focused now upon the twin Lekgolo, one of which was barely a few strides from him. His soldiers complied quickly and drew back from the titans, priming grenades and shouldering their own projectile launchers. The Lekgolo did not pursue them, opting instead to shield the stationary ‘Falanamee, but they still cast out wildly with their arms at any Jiralhanae that was slow in withdrawing. The pair dared not use the powerful energy weapons imbedded into their right forearms at such close range, but the Jiralhanae within the nave no longer had a charge to protect, and eagerly prepared to bombard the former Supreme Commander and his guardians.

As Tartarus’ squads were still scrabbling into safe firing range, however, a smattering of plasma fire lit their outer flank, and several Jiralhanae fell to the floor, howling masses of burning flesh and hair. The rest of ‘Nefaaleme’s vanguard had joined the fight, and although most were occupied with the brutes that had moved to defend the High prophet’s dais, a handful of Sangheili had managed to turn their beam rifles on the elder chieftain’s massed force. The head of the chamber was a confused display of crisscrossing fire and rushing bodies, but even from where he kneeled, ‘Falanamee could see Regret and Mercy, both panic-stricken, drop from sight as their circular platform plummeted into the floor. Blast doors sealed the escape route almost immediately, but not before ‘Nefaaleme’s two personal guards could cast themselves into the breach with energy blades closed in their fists. A strangled noise echoed from the shaft, but it was fleeting and swiftly consumed by the continued roars and cracks closer by.

Dead councilors littered the Sangheili side of the upper tiers, but Jiralhanae lay slain around them in even greater numbers, and the surviving elite were finishing off the interlopers with brutal efficiency. Some had produced energy swords secreted in armor and under seats, and the rest bore weapons torn from Jiralhanae hands.

The Honor Guard on the opposite side of the hall had been slain within moments of ‘Tadasee’s call to arms, and the shock troopers there were now guiding frantic Prophet councilors through the upper exits. Seeing that their comrades on the other balcony had fared far worse, several Jiralhanae lobbed explosive rounds into the ranks of the surviving Sangheili councilors, shattering the energy shields and vulnerable bodies of a few and sending the rest scattering for cover. Most made for the unsealed exits behind them or the overhangs of the chamber’s towering support beams, but few of the warriors leapt down from the viewing platform, straight into the thick the other firefight. The sniping Jiralhanae turned their attention away from the enflamed councilors, figuring them dead, and were thus wholly unprepared when several scaled the curving wall below them moments later. Energy blades flashing and weaving, the vengeful elites tore through the troopers and leapt upon the remaining Prophets.

Millennia of pent-up bitterness and distrust exploded from the Sangheili, and their frail prey crumpled before them like leaves in a maelstrom.

Several squads of Jiralhanae reinforcements poured into the fray from a shadowed entryway only to be met immediately by a force of Sangheili from the chamber’s atrium. It was a ragtag group, composed of soldiers with perforated armor and unstaunched wounds, but they set into the Jiralhanae with fanatical eagerness. The unit was led by a red-armored major who had accompanied ‘Falanamee from the Sacrosanct and a towering Honor Guard who had lost helm but charged into the loyalist ranks undaunted, his bladed staff blazing in the haze of combat. Just minutes before, the two had directed troops against one another, but they fought now as brother and comrade, sectarian strife forgotten. Word of the Prophet’s betrayal had spread quickly.
--------------------------------------------------

Reginald Barclay had endured weeks of constant uncertainty, pain, and mortal terror with a degree of mental fortitude that had surprised even him. Back aboard the Enterprise, he had been the one that the other members of the engineering crew generally expected to fall apart in the face of every crisis, despite his substantial technical skill. Had he been asked a month before if he could have suffered through near-constant firefights, captivity, torture, and deprivation with his sanity intact, Barclay would have evaded the question with a nervous laugh. And yet he had done it, managing even to avoid an excessive amount of self-pity in the effort.

Even so, as the engineer watched a Jiralhanae soldier swing the blackened muzzle of its grenade launcher in his direction, he felt a pang of regret at the fact that he had not indulged a bit more in hopeless weeping while in his confinement cell.

A blow to the legs knocked Barclay off of his feet, and he felt himself roll a meter away from the lower dais where he and his fellow captive Flitch had been forgotten with Teno ‘Falanamee’s arrival. A moment later, a booming noise and concussion swept over him, and he felt the back of his tattered uniform crackle and singe. The explosive projectile had impacted a far wall, but he was still badly shaken by the blast.

Disoriented, Barclay lay on his back for a few seconds, but the burning radiance of plasma bolts registered in his blurry vision an arm’s length above him, and he forced himself into action. His head still swimming, the engineer rose onto his hands and knees and made for the closest cover he could perceive, one of the raised terminals that lined the sides of the chamber’s nave. He crawled towards it unsteadily, trying unsuccessfully to block out the boom of nearby explosions and the screams of the wounded.

Something rubbed against one of his legs, and Barclay looked back to see an Unggoy in scuffed orange armor crawling along behind him. Another in identical garb was struggling to support the naked, half-conscious Sangheili that the Jiralhanae had deposited alongside Barclay and Flitch. Seeing the Covenant aliens following him sent a fresh spike of fear through the human, but he noticed that none of them were aiming weapons in his direction, or seemed to be armed at all. Barclay’s eyes met with those of the closer Unggoy, and he suddenly realized that the creature must have been the thing that had just knocked him off of his feet.

The alien punched him in the leg with one of its bony fists and Barclay gulped, remembering that they were still out in the open. He started towards the relative safety of the terminal again, and soon was between it and the chamber’s lower wall. The two Unggoy and the Sangheili tumbled after him, barely shielded from the spray of blue and red fire that washed against the other side of the obstruction in sporadic volleys. The Unggoy laid the larger being on the ground near Barclay’s feet, and then looked nervously from the Sangheili to Barclay to each other. One barked something tentatively, and the pair moved to crouch at either side of the terminal, flinching at each near-miss.

Momentarily safe, Barclay forced himself to ignore the constant noise and movement all around them and thought back to the display of which he had been a part. His keepers aboard the carrier had never bothered to remove the small metal disk clipped inside the waist of his uniform, and although the universal translator occasionally flickered on and off from over-use and damage, it still worked well enough to give him an idea what the Prophets had been saying. The Sangheili was Deau ‘Mefasee, who Barclay realized must have commanded the transport that he and the Arbiter had commandeered.

The Sangheili stirred and slowly turned its head towards him. She appraised Barclay carefully, her eyes keen even through the bruises that covered its long face. She attempted to sit up, but stopped immediately, grunted something pained, and fell back to the ground. One of the Unggoy looked over at its larger charge uneasily, but was drawn back to the battle by a roar and a new series of weapon’s discharges.

“Are… are you all right?” Barclay stammered, holding the concealed translator as though willing it to work.

“I will live, human,” ‘Mefasee replied, and Barclay noticed that her tone lacked the derision and distain that most other of her species used when addressing him.

“Are these… um…” he continued, gesturing uncertainly towards the two Unggoy. “Do they serve you?”

“Better than I expected,” she muttered, wincing as she placed a large hand over a small gash on her abdomen.

“Why did they…”

A shout sounded from just beyond the terminal, cutting Barclay off. There was a noise like boiling water and bending metal, and a Sangheili in blue armor fell within sight of their hiding place, its chest as mass of twisted plating and pulverized flesh. As life drained from the soldier, a heaving bellow rent the air and resounding footfalls pounded away from them.

“We must get to better cover,” ‘Mefasee panted, forcing herself onto one knee. “There. That recess in the wall.” She nodded towards the large, darkened niche to the left of the High Prophet’s dais. It was less than a dozen meters away and appeared to be vacant, but the path there was completely open, populated only by the occasional corpse or scattering of shrapnel.

“Cross that?” One of the Unggoy stared at her in disbelief. “We’d be splattered. Migaw and I couldn’t make it on our own, and you and this thing are choicer targets. We don’t even have any weapons!”

‘Mefasee glared at him, and then leaned towards the fallen Sangheili. She wrenched a plasma rifle from his frozen grip and plucked a rounded, bluish orb from his belt. ‘Mefasee placed the sidearm in her right hand and tossed the orb to Cakap.

“You know how to use a grenade?”

“Ah… of course!” The Unggoy fingered the device gingerly, obviously terrified even behind his breath mask.

Seemingly oblivious to her own injuries and exposure, ‘Mefasee loped from cover first, crouched to keep her profile as small as possible and training her weapon in the direction of the heaviest fighting. Cajoled by the Sangheili’s force of will and the heightening peril of their position, the other three leapt after her almost simultaneously. Barclay’s longer legs made it easier for him to keep pace with ‘Mefasee, but the Unggoy waddled along so furiously that they more than compensated for their squat statures.

The focus of the fighting seemed to have shifted more towards the center of the chamber, and the group of escapees crossed most of it without being noticed. ‘Mefasee vanished into the shadowed haven first, and the Unggoy were quick to follow, each of them determinedly ignoring the bodies strewn across their path and the firefights close at hand. Barclay, however, was unable to completely block out the battle, and could not help but glance over his shoulder at a sudden uptick in the volume of the melee behind him. In the same moment his foot caught on the sprawled leg of a Jiralhanae shock trooper and he stumbled, only meters from the relative safety of the niche.

Barclay managed to prevent himself from falling flat on his face, but only just, and found himself on his side, lolled out near the Jiralhanae’s limp weapon’s arm. Overcome for a moment by the frantic beating of his heart, the human could do nothing but stare incredulously at the exposed crystalline spines of a Covenant needler rifle that lay discarded centimeters from his face. After a painfully long spell of helplessness, Barclay collected himself enough to push away from the ground.

Someone screamed nearby. The engineer recognized the sound immediately, even if the intonation of the voice was not entirely familiar to him. It was a human cry.

Barclay’s eyes fell on Flitch, who lay upon his back not a dozen meters away, flush against the curving slope of the Prophet’s dais. He appeared to have survived the on-going battle without any fresh injuries; Barclay guessed he must have found cover similar to their own in the confusion of the conflict’s first blows. Something must have forced him from that hiding place, and a snarl made the cause of his flight was quite plain. A Jiralhanae of relatively small stature but impressive musculature was stalking towards the human, its eyes wide and crazed. Its pelt was covered in a patchwork of deep gashes and muddy blood, and it had lost its sidearms, but the beast and its kin were brutally strong, as the rent and broken bodies of Sangheili strewn across the chamber showed. An unarmored human would be effortless prey for the creature, especially in its pain-maddened state.

An image flashed into Barclay’s head. A white hallway of the Alliance flagship. Dead stormtroopers crumpled around him. The Arbiter, wounded but triumphant. A single Imperial soldier, his blaster raised.

Barclay thrust his hand at the needler and wrapped his hand around its grip. It was of truly alien design, two metallic paddles covered in pinkish spines, centered on a rectangular muzzle, but its firing stud was positioned intuitively enough. He leveled the weapon at the approaching Jiralhanae, and then hesitated.

More images came. Flitch leading him at the point of a gun towards the Republica’s hangar. The Arbiter’s face, scarred by the man’s blaster bolt.

Barclay depressed the stud.

The weapon shuddered violently in his hands as it disgorged a stream of translucent, crystalline shards. Barclay’s aim was poor, and a dozen of the projectiles spattered off the floor behind the charging Jiralhanae, splintering into colorful puffs of smoke. A credit to the weapon’s designer, the rest of the shards compensated for their imprecise targeting, and zeroed in on the bulky simian. Guided by fundamental forces harnessed in a way that even Covenant engineers barely understood, the remaining barbs dug into the soldier’s exposed flesh, shredding its hide from waist to neck. The creature stumbled, howling but still quite alive. It turned its head towards Barclay, its mouth slack in a gaping snarl, but before it could move further, the weapon’s second unique function revealed itself. As one, the imbedded needler rounds glowed brightly and then exploded in bursts of plasmatic energy. The Jiralhanae was hurled backwards onto the floor, and was still.

Barclay stared at the dead soldier for a moment, remembering how the Imperial soldier had fallen the last time he had fired a weapon. He was numb, as he had been before, but feeling returned to him more quickly, and with it something else. Exhilaration. He had imposed his will upon another, destroyed a destroyer.

Or, perhaps, he had done the only thing he could, killed to save a life that might not even been worth saving. Barclay looked at the smoldering Jiralhanae corpse again, and the exhilaration evaporated. He allowed the spent needler to slip from his grasp.

Powerful hands closed about his shoulders and dragged him down. A moment later, a quartet of red plasma bolts lashed through the air above him.

“Move!”

With ‘Mefasee’s hiss came another sharp tug, and Barclay began to stumble backwards with her towards the dark recess. She let go, allowing Barclay to turn and run towards safety unimpeded. He peripherally noted the two Unggoy lifting Flitch to his feet and urging him onward, but he was too distracted to see the agent’s right hand subtly brush over Cakap’s hip as he was helped up. Even Cakap failed to notice that hand came away full.

The alcove was vacant and provided ample cover from errant gunfire. ‘Mefasee lagged at the edge, making sure that the humans made it into cover, but the Unggoy immediately made for the closest access hatch, a narrow doorway imbedded in the curving base of the wall.

“It’s locked!” Migaw groaned, pounding on door when it failed to open at his approach.

“Of course it’s locked,” Cakap replied. “It doesn’t look like the Jiralhanae want any of us to get out of here alive. Now, shove over.” He pushed past Migaw and started to inspect the frame. “Help me find the override circuit.”

Barclay and Flitch slid down against the wall next to one another, taking advantage of the opportunity to catch their breaths. The engineer glanced at his fellow escapee, unsure of what he should say to the man he whose life he had just saved, the same man who had kidnapped him and pushed him close to death, and who he had shared interminable days of confinement with in uneasy silence. Sensing his gaze, Flitch looked towards the engineer. His mouth twitched, but he turned his head away again swiftly, still silent.

‘Mefasee was still at the lip of the obscuring wall, peering outward. Barclay picked himself up and moved to join her. He only noticed as the field of battle came into view that the din of the conflict has died down. A few soldiers were still exchanging volleys from behind the seats and pillars of the upper balconies and the sounds of battle echoed unabated from beyond the gaping entryway, but the chamber’s main floor was all but empty. Amidst the mangled forms of the dead and wounded, only two figures remained standing. Tartarus was the first, his now-bloodied hammer discarded on the floor nearby, locked in single combat with the other, one of the Lekgolo who had rushed to ‘Falanamee’s aid. His brother lay lifeless in a pool of orange ichor at the very center of the hall, armor riddled with hundreds of plasma burns and impact marks.

The remaining Lekgolo reared up before Tartarus, shadowing even the massive albino. It unleashed a thunderous boom from deep within its armored shell, and then brought both its arms down upon the Jiralhanae’s head. Tartarus twisted sideways, avoiding the beast’s shield arm. The other slammed down on his shoulder, but the Jiralhanae had already braced himself for it. He grabbed to the limb and its mounted gun, ablating its impact and confusing the rampant Lekgolo. The armored being could tear through combat vehicles like they were nothing, but Tartarus still managed to keep hold of its arm. He trembled as he began to push against the trunk-like limb, but a smile was obvious on his face between choked grunts.

Unable to crush its target one-armed, the Lekgolo leveled its shield at Tartarus again and jabbed it at him, intent on sheering through the Jiralhanae’s tufted neck. Tartarus released his grip on his adversary’s gun arm with one hand, using it to grab onto the underside of the shield and guide it away, but he kept his hold on the first arm with the other. The Lekgolo found the barrel of its fuel rod cannon aimed at its own broad chest, and its other arm pushed uselessly out behind the Jiralhanae.

It’s armored-capped, eyeless head swiveled towards Tartarus’ face, now just half a meter away. It regarded him for a moment, and then pulled its shield inwards, hoping to crush the Jiralhanae. The chieftain blew out a contemptuous breath in response, and shoved his fingers into the exposed fire controls of the Lekgolo’s weapon.

A radiant jet of emerald fire burst from the cannon and washed over the titan’s left shoulder. Thick plating bubbled and melted away under the onslaught, and orange filaments of sinuous flesh beneath evaporated into the conflagration. The initial force of the blast had blown Tartarus clear of the Lekgolo, and he watched as it collapsed backwards, the base of its left arm and much of its chest missing. For his part, the Jiralhanae’s gleaming hair was badly singed, but he was otherwise intact, snarling grin and all.

Picking himself up, Tartarus turned his attention to a gold-armored figure propped against the far wall of the nave. Barclay realized immediately that it was the Arbiter, quite still, surrounded by the bodies of those who had died trying to protect him. A thrill of relief washed over the engineer when he saw the Sangheili raise his head slightly, but it vanished just as quickly. The Jiralhanae chieftain was approaching him slowly, cautiously, but his intent obvious.

“I overestimated you,” he growled. “You humiliated me in the face of the Prophets. You shamed me when you barely had the strength left to stand!”

One of the soldiers fallen at ‘Falanamee’s feet, the major who had lead reinforcements into the chamber, stirred and attempted to rise, blocking Tartarus’ path. The Jiralhanae kicked him aside contemptuously and continued towards his prey.

“But I see you as you really are once more. You are weak! An arrogant worm, just like the rest of your kind. Look about you, ‘Falanamee. Look upon the faces of the creatures that died to save you. They died for nothing. They will not be remembered long by you, and if any of your people survive the Prophet’s edict, these creatures will be known to them only as heretics and cowards. Disgrace and death is all that the Sangheili will know from this day!”

Tartarus stooped and lifted ‘Falanamee off of the floor by his cracked chest plate. He hung limply as the Jiralhanae pulled his face close to the former Supreme Commander’s own.

“And now it ends, heretic,” the chieftain said with cool relish. “Your death is the will of the gods, and I am their instrument!”

‘Falanamee’s eyes flickered away for a moment.

“Tools should not talk so much.”

With a yell, ‘Mefasee charged from her hiding place. She aimed her plasma rifle at the brute as she ran and opened fire. Tartarus’ eyes went wild for a moment, but he recovered from the surprise quickly. He turned to face the charging Sangheili and raised ‘Falanamee’s body in front of his own. She stopped shooting immediately, and her stride faltered. Tartarus barked a sharp laugh, and then flung ‘Falanamee’s immobile form at the female, lobbing him as easily as a sack of grain. The Sangheili hit one another hard, and both tumbled to the floor in a heap.

“Do you still think that I can be taken so easily?” Tartarus boomed. “I am Jiralhanae! I am greater than any of you! No warrior can match me! What force of arms could hope to bring me to my knees?”

There was a flash and a hiss at his feet. He looked down to see the major who he had kicked aside without a second thought. A lit plasma sword was now clutched in his hand.

Before the Jiralhanae could even utter a word, the blade scythed through his right leg just below the knee. Roaring with pain and rage, Tartarus fell to the floor on his other leg. He lashed out blindly, flattening the major once more and sending his weapon spinning away. Then the chieftain stared down at his right left, the end of which was now a smoking, bloody stump. He clutched at it howling, all else forgotten.

Tartarus barely noticed the lone, unarmored Sangheili limp forward, and place the muzzle of her rifle in his face. When he at last perceived the curved shape his voice failed him, and he looked up at the weapon’s bearer. There was no pity there, no uncertainty. Nothing to exploit or bully. For the second time that day, Tartarus was completely powerless.

A dozen blue flashes came in quick succession, and then another dozen. ‘Mefasee fired until her weapon began to glow hot and vent steam, and then let it fall from her blistered hand.

The clatter of metal on metal rose away into the steepled roof, and the chamber fell silent at last. On the seating platforms, councilors looked from their places of cover to see Jiralhanae slipping through newly unsealed doorways, their battle cries muted. The hatch that Cakap and Migaw had been probing unsuccessfully slid open of its own accord, but the two Unggoy had abandoned it, distracted by ‘Mefasee’s desperate charge. As the pair waddled cautiously from the recess, Barclay straightened up to follow, but before he could move more than a step, an arm wrapped tightly around his neck.

Barclay gagged against the hold and began to struggle, but another hand was thrust in front of his face, the blue orb of Cakap’s grenade grasped firmly in its fingers.

“Quietly, now,” Flitch whispered in his ear. “I hate to do this to you again, but I’d really rather not get reacquainted with your alien friends. Now, back towards that door. Not a sound. Let’s just hope this goes better than the last time, for your sake and mine.”
------------------------------------------------------



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 2007-10-05 04:34pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-10-05 04:33pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
“Supreme Commander?”

Teno ‘Falanamee awoke with a start, and found himself staring up into ‘Mefasee’s concerned face. He tried to move, but pains from what seemed like every portion of his body quickly dissuaded him from the attempt.

“What has happened?” he managed slowly. “Where is Tartarus?”

“Dead,” ‘Mefasee replied.

Their eyes met, and ‘Falanamee required no further explanation.

“And the rest? Where are the Prophets and their minions?”

“The Council chambers are secure for the moment, at least.”

‘Falanamee turned to see Galo ‘Nefaaleme standing above him. The ship master’s golden armor was streaked with plasma burns, but it still shone in the ethereal light. The look on his face was obscured from ‘Falanamee’s vantage point, but the officer’s tone was softer than it had been the last time they had exchanged words.

“You…” ‘Falanamee attempted to rise again, with the same pained result. As he fell back into ‘Mefasee’s arms, he noticed that much of his armor seemed to have been stripped away.

“Be careful, Excellency,” the pilot admonished. She tore a length of material from a discard cloak she had wrapped herself in and proceeded to tie it around one of the deep gashes on the warrior’s exposed side.

“Will he live?” ‘Nefaaleme asked.

“We believe that he will, Ship Master. The Supreme Commander has strength beyond any that I have ever seen.” This was from the red-armored major, who limped toward the small group over the debris-ridden floor, a sword hilt clasped proudly at his side. Following his progress, ‘Falanamee realized that there were others assembled around them. Nearly a dozen Sangheili, councilors, soldiers, Honor Guard and support crew, stood around them in a loose circle. He caught sight of a handful of Unggoy as well, lurking between the Sangheili’s legs. All were silent, staring intently, almost reverently.

Staring, ‘Falanamee realized, at him.

“He still needs treatment,” ‘Mefasee said firmly. “And soon. He has lost a great deal of blood.”

‘Nefaaleme looked hard at the pilot and ‘Falanamee thought he saw a hint of a sneer in his mandibles, but the expression passed quickly.

“We require safe passage to the landing platforms before we can leave this place,” he replied at last, directing his words at ‘Falanamee. “I led the cleansing of this tier myself, but the Jiralhanae still occupy most of the city, and we lack the numbers and the coordination to take it from them. Communications have been sporadic fighting broke out in the industrial districts.”

A soldier passed through the encircling ranks, his helmet cradled respectfully under one arm.

“Here, one of my officers from the lower tiers. I will return shortly.”

As the two soldiers drew aside and began to converse, ‘Falanamee turned his head back to ‘Mefasee.

“Are you hurt?”

“I have never felt better,” she replied without hesitation. ‘Falanamee could tell by the relaxed smile on her mandibles that she spoke with complete honesty.

“You did well,” he said after stopping a moment to catch his breath. “Better than I could have expected, from any of our people.”

“I was not alone. We would have both been killed were it not for ‘Tahamee.” She nodded at the major who had joined her at ‘Falanamee’s side. He offered the Supreme Commander a salute. “The Unggoy served admirably, as well. But you… you did what none of us could have done. You were right about the Prophets. You saved us all from them.”

‘Falanamee’s split chin drooped. “The cost was too great. Wattinree need not have died, nor any of our warriors above this station. None of us may yet survive what I have done.” He pushed himself upwards once more, and this time he found the strength to fight past the pain that welled up to meet him. “We must go. This station is not safe. Now, help me up.”

‘Mefasee and ‘Tahamee each grabbed an arm and guided him to his feet. ‘Falanamee steadied himself, and then glanced down at his chest, which was still partially covered by his torn bodysuit. He loosed an inaudible sigh of relief; the brand of his old heresy was still hidden. A time would come when he would not need to hide who he truly was and what he had been through from his people, but it was still too soon. He knew better than any that old prejudices did not die easily.

“What is the status of the ships in orbit?” he asked ‘Nefaaleme when he returned a few moments later.

“Word has reached the armada of the Prophet’s betrayal, and our ship masters have allied themselves with the Fleet of Particular Justice. Those commanded by the Jiralhanae are fleeing the system. The traitors Mercy and Regret are dead, slain by my own soldiers, but Truth has likely escaped the city. The fleet masters are divided on whether to pursue the vermin or to stay and defend High Charity.

‘Falanamee nodded slowly.

“The human ships.”

“Yes. The blade-ships have closed to just outside lunar orbit, and they have begun to engage our outermost fleet elements. They may begin bombarding High Charity at any time.”

“Who is in command of our forces?”

‘Nefaaleme gestured at a pair of dark and ornately clad Sangheili watching them. “The High Council still holds authority, despite the Prophet’s betrayal. However, communications disruptions here have made it difficult to connect those that still live with the fleet. The armada requires direction.”

The two councilors whispered to one another, and then one stepped forward to address ‘Falanamee. “Many of our brothers on the council are dead, and those who remain are scattered and embattled. We cannot rely upon consensus to guide us through this struggle. If you still have the strength, Supreme Commander, we will cede our authority to you for this fight. Your rank should never have been stripped, and you may claim it again in an instant. All you need do is command us.”

‘Falanamee looked from one councilor to the other, considering the offer carefully. Deep inside, he knew that he did not deserve the honor; he had brought the Empire down on the capitol of the Covenant, and killed thousands of his own people in the process. The only course he could advise now would likely mean the deaths of millions more. Looking at ‘Nefaaleme, he could see in the ship masters eyes the vestiges of distrust. Bitterness and weariness that was more justified than the warrior could know.

But ‘Nefaaleme would follow him, nonetheless. So would all the others assembled in the ruins of the council chamber. Justly or not, he was their hero. Their standard in a fight that could easily sweep them into oblivion. He was needed, and he could not let them down.

‘Falanamee gently shrugged ‘Tahamee and ‘Mefasee off and stood at the center of the group as erect as his injuries would permit.

“High Charity must be abandoned if any of us are to fight another day. Ship Master ‘Nefaaleme, have your soldiers spread the word throughout the city. Get as many of our people and those still loyal to us out before the blade-ships can block their escape. You and I must return to your ship and coordinate our withdrawal. The blade-ships cannot be repelled today, but if we can regroup, we will make our stand on our terms should they pursue us. Now, though, we have a Prophet to hunt.”

A roar of approval met ‘Falanamee’s ears, and the Sangheili immediately began to prepare for the road back to the landing platforms, and space beyond. As warriors searched the battlefield for weapons and ammunition and moved to secure the chamber’s exit corridors, ‘Falanamee took in the chamber one last time. His eyes passed from the Prophet’s dais to the bloodied rows of seats above, over Tartarus’ bulk and discarded hammer. He lingered on Imperial Admiral Wattinree’s crumpled form, and then turned back to those who still kept close to him.

The major was but a few paces away, keeping careful watch on the upper balconies with a pilfered carbine. Migaw and Cakap sat against one low wall, taking advantage of the lull to share a nutrient pack. And then there was ‘Mefasee, still at his side. She looked agitated, far more than she had been a few minutes before. Another quick scan of the hall told him why.

“Where are the humans?” he asked her in a quite tone, careful not to let any of the others overhear them.

Her jaws tightened and slackened compulsively. “I do not know, Ship Master. We guided them to cover beyond the nave after the battle broke out, but I have not seen them since I…” She trailed off, glancing quickly at Tartarus and then back at the other Sangheili. “After the last Jiralhanae fled, I went back to look for them, but they were gone. I can only guess that they escaped through one of the access hatches. Cakap thinks that one of them stole a grenade from him before they left.”

‘Falanamee looked at the shadowy alcove from which ‘Mefasee had emerged. There would be no point in searching it again, he knew. Barclay and Flitch were no doubt lost deep within the city’s upper tiers now, ducking between firefights and ruined monuments. The Imperial spy was unchained, and Barclay was once again his hapless shield. It was the Republica all over again, and this time the humans had been cast into an alien warzone which they would likely not escape.

“Come, Supreme Commander!” ‘Nefaaleme called from an exit on the opposite side of the chamber, where most of the Sangheili cohort had already assembled. “It is past time to leave!”

He could still pursue Flitch, ‘Falanamee considered. They might not have traveled far, and he knew High Charity better than either human. To let Barclay slip away was all but a death sentence and the Sangheili knew it. Had he come all this way, bled and killed so much, just to let the being he had charged himself to protect be killed by the foolishness of a xenophobic wretch?

‘Mefasee gazed up at him uncertainly. He regarded her bruised and wearied face in silence, and then clasped an arm around her shoulders. There were things with which a single being could not compete or compare. Not even an Arbiter could deny them.

“Come on,” he said with only a tinge of hesitation. “Help me after them.”

‘Tahamee moved quickly to take his other arm, and the three moved towards ‘Nefaaleme and the others across the deserted battlefield, Cakap and Migaw in tow.

You saved my life once, Reginald Barclay. Now you must save your own.



The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2007-12-05 04:49pm
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Six



“Mark.”

In almost perfect unison, the angular forms of five Alliance starfighters slipped from the tachyonic realm of hyperspace into the cold reality of interplanetary vacuum. The squadron was composed of three X-Wings and a pair of A-Wings, each spaced several kilometers from the next in a wide ring. The formation was not particularly battle-worthy under normal circumstances, but it was fast and easily-overlooked, and that was what mattered.

The blackness onto which the ships intruded was an endless sea of bright stars, broken only by the impressive bulk of an orange gas giant that loomed several hundred thousand kilometers directly before them. Numbed to view beyond his X-Wing’s transparent canopy by a hundred similar memories, the squadron leader and commander of the Republica’s remaining fighter complement busied himself with his controls. After acclimating his vessel to the gas giant’s gravity field and easing it into a stable orbit, he opened a line with the astromech unit mounted a few meters behind him on the fighter’s hull.

“R2, what I’m reading from this planet matches the profile of the Sol system’s fifth world you had transferred into the tactical core. Can you confirm our location?”

Bright-green text etched its way across one of the small displays next to the pilot’s control yoke as R2-E9 replied in the affirmative.

“Good. I wasn’t sure how the Fed charts would transfer into your systems. We jumped a little close for my tastes, especially for a dry run.” Torn Addel was a cautious man. Though some of his comrades jibed him for it, he valued careful consideration far more than valor and bravado; he was still alive after a decade of fighting, and many of the “hot-shots” he had flown were not. Still, bitterness from the loss of the Republica hung as heavily on him as it did on any who had called her home, and he had not protested his current duty, risky as it was.

He was silent for the next few minutes, carefully observing his X-Wing’s passive sensor array for any sign of activity on his side of Jupiter. Tiny representations of 23 other small craft, his four squadmates and the four other formations of Alliance fighters that had arrived along with them appeared on his displays, spaced across the gas giant’s imposing frame, but there was no other obvious movement or comm activity.

At last, Lt. Commander Addel flipped a switch on his interface, opening a low-power comm line to his command. Jupiter’s bulk would prevent the signal from being overheard by unwelcome ears, at least for a time. Hopefully, they wouldn’t have to wait long enough for that to happen.

“This is Green Leader. Squadron leaders, report.”

“This is Blue Leader. We’re all clear here. No contacts.”

The first reply came from Lt. Kaam, who piloted the Republica fighter wing’s last B-Wing and commanded an assault unit of heavier, slower Y-Wings as an accompaniment to Addel’s fast attack craft. Then each of the squad leaders repeated the message, as did each of his squadmates. There had been no problems with the transit. Hopefully, it was a sign of things to come.

“Alright, let’s get started.” Addel settled into his heavily-inclined seat and firmed his grip on his navigational yoke. “Initiate approach one. Keep your eyes open, and stay close in to the gravity well. We want to get a look at them and clear off before they even think about looking for us.”

The Lt. Commander depressed his acceleration controls and his fighter began to towards the gas giant’s gently-curving horizon. Little blazes of thrust pulsed around him, and his squadmates spread into a long, staggered line to his left and right. As they approached Jupiter, their formation adapted a slight curvature to match the planet’s own. In the distance, each other squad formed a similar strand and angled towards the same horizon, their sublights lit with just enough energy to accelerate them through Jupiter’s pull. As the gas giant’s endless storms and roiling clouds rolled past beneath them, Addel’s pilots kept their eyes on their long-range scopes, scanning for any sign of life.

A minute passed, and all Addel registered were Jupiter’s tiny, barren moons. It was a member of Blue squadron, which was sweeping across the planet’s southern hemisphere, who broke comm silence first.

“Green leader, we’ve got a contact. It just crossed the planetary perimeter.” Lt. Kaam gave the anomaly’s position and heading.

Addel’s astromech immediately focused in on the area, just above the planet’s southern pole.

“I see it,” Addel replied, his voice calm.

The target was small and fast, moving just as quickly as his fighter. It was hugging the gas giant tightly, and it took R2-E9 several seconds to capture its silhouette and scan for any obvious emissions or transponder frequencies. As it did, the Lt. Commander weighed his options; it was unlikely that his fighters would be able to avoid notice for very long with a ship on their side of the planet. He could send out a scatter signal and hope that the contact failed to detected any of the Alliance craft before they were able to find cover in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere or behind one of its ragtag collection of satellites, or he could engage and try to destroy it before it was able fire off an alert deeper into the system.

In the end, Addel was spared the choice.

“Hello, boys,” a familiar voice crackled over his comm unit. “Fancy meeting all of you here.” It was a broadband signal that hit the receiver of every fighter his side of the equatorial bulge almost at once.

Addel gritted his teeth. If the Zerg had anything within Jupiter’s orbital perimeter, they’d probably pick up the transmission in short order.

“General Solo,” he rumbled into his headset, keeping to a narrow-beam pulse. “I thought you were on recon in the system’s asteroid belt. And please, sir, switch to a secure channel.”

“I don’t think it matters much now, Lt. Commander,” Solo replied. The Millennium Falcon’s distinctive disk was now clearly etched on Addel’s display. “I diverted to check on a distress signal from one of this planet’s moons. We knew it’d probably be a trap so we kept our distance, but those bugs are smarter than I gave ‘em credit for. A bunch burst from what I thought was an asteroid before we got into the lunar perimeter and gave the Falcon’s deflectors a few slaps before I got away.”

Addel’s irritation cooled and immediately began probing the space behind the approaching freighter once more. “How many hostiles, sir?”

Before the General could respond, one of his wing mates pulsed the squadron leader. “Sir, I’ve got at least thirty new contacts on my scopes. Same heading as the last.”

The Alliance fightercraft, though small, were able strike craft even against Imperial targets. Armed and armored with the same technology as the Republica, they were a match for even the most advanced Starfleet warship. Still, they were vulnerable to concerted attack, and Addel wasn’t eager to endanger any of his pilots until he had to.

“All squads, form on me,” he ordered over his comm, abandoning the covert frequency. “Make for the insertion point.”

Two dozen sets of maneuvering thrusters flared, and Addel’s fighters executed hairpin, 180-degree turns, tearing them from their fight vectors and away from the ambush unit that was just registering on their sensors. The Millennium Falcon surged up from the planet to join them, its ventral and dorsal guns swiveled back in anticipation.

“Shouldn’t your fighters be engaging, Lt. Commander?” Solo asked over the comm. “The last I heard, it was your job to clear this orbital for the fleet.”

“There’s been a change of plans, General,” Addel said as he began to feed a new set of jump coordinates to his R2 unit. He glanced out of a side pane of his cockpit’s canopy as his fighter raced away from Jupiter’s massive frame, searching for the distant star that was the system’s primary.

“Admiral Nechayev decided to bring the fleet in hot.”

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

There was no great speech. No recitation of inspirational quotes and ancient platitudes. No conjuring of heroes of old wars and older victories. There had been oratory in previous battles of the war, cheers and battle cries. The prose did not carry the day, or even save their orators from destruction.

As the Allied fleet surged through space, captains sat in their wardrooms, reflecting on past campaigns and old commands. Old friends gathered together and shared stories of peaceful times. Soldiers cradled pictures of loved ones. Weary veterans stared out of dark viewports, remembering the fallen. Each spent those precious moments as they thought best. Each provided their own inspiration, their own will to fight.

No word or phrase could have done better.

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

The Enterprise and its task force were the first to drop from warp. Just outside lunar orbit, the ships were beyond the range of any of the stationary defenses that the Millennium Falcon had picked up on during its long-range reconnaissance runs, but still inside its vanguard perimeter, a direct threat to Earth itself.

The planet that filled the Enterprise’s main viewscreen was not the Earth that Picard or any of his crew knew. By chance, the world’s rotation had placed the European continent directly before them, its distinctive landmass and rough coastlines illuminated by Sol’s bright light. Instinctively, Picard focused on France, where he had been born and lived throughout his childhood. Its wide, green plains, rolling mountain peaks, and spidery flecks of gray cityscape had been a part of him ever since he had seen Earth from orbit for the first time.

The long, winding outline of its coast remained, but nothing else was the same. Deep, black scars were etched across its face from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel, and their own once-vibrant blues were now dark and clouded. Where Paris and Marseilles had stood for thousands of years, only ragged blotches of ash were visible. Even the lands that had escaped immolation seemed dead, their native vegetation shriveled from green to dusky brown. What could be seen of Normandy and Languedoc beneath dark sheets of sickly, storm-laden clouds was splotched with lustrous black. The dull hue extended out in veins and wide flows, engulfing valleys and choking rivers wherever it had spread.

Picard’s throat burned and clenched as the image washed over him, but the din of battle stations broke into his consciousness, and he pushed the dark mirror of his homeland from the front of his mind.

“Report, Lt. Hensley,” the Captain ordered, his voice as calm as he could manage.

The woman who had replaced Worf at Tactical inspected her displays with a practiced eye. “The planetary perimeter fleet is moving to engage us. They should be in weapons range in twenty-five seconds.”

Her voice quavered as she finished her report, with fear or anticipation Picard could not tell. Either way, he could not begrudge her the lapse. Still, he would have greatly preferred it if the words had been spoken in familiar Klingon baritone. The plan of attack drawn up back on Deep Space Nine had demanded that Worf be assigned elsewhere, and Picard had approved the transfer willingly, but he still wasn’t used to his absense. This Enterprise was a new ship with a different crew, and Picard still relished any ties with his old command that he could get. His brief glimpse of Earth had driven home just how distant peaceful days of diplomacy and exploration truly were. This was his hour of need, and yet so many of the friends and comrades who had stood alongside him then were gone.

But he remembered them, nonetheless.

“Show me,” Picard ordered.

The viewscreen focused on a portion of space above Africa. A solid wall of starships filled the image, rough ranks and clusters of vessels that nearly blotted out the planet’s ruined surface beyond. They were mostly Federation in design, but Klingon and Cardassian hulls were scattered throughout, their green and tan plating just as battered and ill-kept as the gray of the others. Several of the ships were missing entire decks and ran with their skeleton-like superstructures exposed; these were not ravaged by combat but torn from captured shipyards half-built, their habitation decks no longer required. The hulls of a handful of others were marred by corruption from within, livid growths that sprouted from structural seams and unused shuttle bays.

“The Zerg seem to be consolidating their equatorial line, Captain,” Commander Data reported from the seat next to Picard. “Battle groups Betazed and Ferenginar have detected the concentrations of warships positioned at either pole moving towards the main group. Battle group Qo’nos has engaged the forces around Luna.”

“And the fleets we bypassed at Io and Mars?” Picard asked.

“Still pursuing at maximum warp. They should close to combat range in thirty-one seconds.”

Picard nodded. The Zerg attacking from Luna and out-system were General K’Nera and Fleet Admiral Nechayev’s to deal with. It was his job to punch through the main enemy fleet, and he wasn’t about to let Kerrigan’s minions strike the first blow.

“Has the first wave closed within firing range?”

“Affirmative, sir,” Lt. Hensley replied, steeling herself. The rest of the bridge drew in a collective breath.

Picard stared at his screen, eyes fixed on the pair of Galaxy-class starships now at its center, their phaser banks bright with building charge.

“Target the leaders. Quantum torpedoes, full spread.”

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

Deep within the darkened battle bridge of the USS Troy, High Templar Tassadar stood alone, motionless. The starship’s small, secondary command facility was almost as quiet as he was, still save for the low rumble of the warp core several decks below. Red combat lights lining the chamber’s ceiling and walls and the flickering glow of portable viewscreens arrayed in a semicircle in front of the Protoss provided the only light. The two other beings in the room, Starfleet crewers manning comm stations behind the templar, nervously divided their attention between the screens, upon which the battle for Earth was quickly unfolding, and the silent alien, waiting for directives they could relay to the Galaxy-class’ primary bridge.

Tassadar could sense them in the back of his mind, and his glazed eyes perceived the real-time feeds from across the Allied fleet playing before him, but his recognition of both was little more than peripheral. The vast majority of his mental energy was focused on space itself, and the growing multitude of psionic energies flaring and flitting across it.

Tens of thousands of distant minds filled his consciousness, each a minute candle in the swirling dark. These sapients, humans, Klingons, Cardassians, Vulcans, Andorrans, and a dozen other species, transient things when perceived from the depths of Tassadar’s trance. Compared to the unbending will and burgeoning psionic energy of Protoss warriors, they were almost imperceptible, but he could still feel them, if only barely. Their thoughts and emotions sang to him, interwoven as they were distant: hope, defiance, anger, fear. Their unity of their intent brightened each candle in the templar’s mind’s eye, and he drew as much strength from their warmth as he could.

Against this chorus was a different kind of unity, one that drained Tassadar of much of that warmth even as he turned his mind towards it. There were individual consciousnesses there, too, billions of them, but they did not sing with coherent thought of their own. Most were hollow and cold, animated only by motes of hunger, fear, and rage. Each faded ember was controlled by tendrils of intent, strings of the puppets that the Zerg were. And every string has its master, a nexus of inscrutable will and constrained emotion that poured its entire being into the manipulation of its countless limbs. Tassadar could perceive nine of these creatures, beacons of corruption that glowered at him from embattled space and the pained world beyond.

But even the combined taint of these nine could not distract Tassadar from the one that held their own strings. She sat upon the earth of a continent that had once harbored endless expanses of fertile savanna and baking sands. Now the land was cold and deformed, and a single malevolence was fixed at its heart, waiting. The Queen of Blades could hide herself from Tassadar’s gaze if she wished, but now she made no attempt to disguise her power.

Kerrigan wanted him to come, and he was eager to oblige.

Drawing back from Kerrigan’s consuming presence, Tassadar considered the forces arrayed around him. The Allied Fleet was divided into six battle groups, each of them named for homeworld lost to the Zerg. Battle group Vulcan was its lance, already heavily engaged with the forward Zerg echelon. Picard and the Enterprise were at its head, and Tassadar focused briefly on a tactical display as his capital ship squadron tore through a cluster of corrupted Starfleet picket ships.

Groups Cardassia and Ferenginar flanked Vulcan, serving as support and ensuring that the main offensive line wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the Swarm’s superior numbers. At the moment, the Allied Fleet and Kerrigan’s vanguard line were evenly matched in terms of ships, but Tassadar knew that would not last. She had reinforcements surging in from the Sol system’s outer planets, fleets that the Allied commanders had been forced to bypass in order to draw main battle line at Earth’s proverbial doorstep. In sum, there were a little over 300 Allied starships engaged. Kerrigan’s home guard consisted half again that number, plus her orbital defenses and whatever else she was undoubtedly keeping from his notice.

Victory by simple force of arms was a virtual impossibility, and retreat was becoming more infeasible by the second. But there was still some small hope, and Tassadar needed Picard and the others to hold onto it as long as they could.

Nechayev and K’Nera commanded the rearguard and lunar flank respectively, Betazed and Qo’nos. They were already being beset by the superior numbers of Kerrigan’s perimeter fleets, and the templar knew that they would not be able to hold out very long. A spasm of recognition flashed across his mind, and he perceived the arrival of the Millennium Falcon and the Alliance fighter wing. Their firepower and skill would hold back the tide for a time, but they alone could not bring victory. That chance was lost with the Republica.

Finally, there was the battle group at the center of the Allied fleet, of which the Troy was an integral part. It was smaller than the rest, composed mainly of older vessels and those that had seen too many refits; they were sturdy ships, but dependent upon the support of the more able vessels that encircled them. Fortunately, their role was not one of fleet combat. For now, all they had to do was move slowly forward as the Enterprise and its fellows blazed them a trail. Battle Group Earth was waiting.

There was a resounding twang of psionic energy from deep within the Zerg front, and Tassadar knew that one of the Cerebrates imbedded within it had delivered a new order to its pawns. As it busied itself with the command, the high templar latched onto its psionic tendrils and followed them, reaching out for the mind at their core.

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

The Cerebrate’s telepathic command burst into the twisted thoughts of its enslaved crews and bloated ship-minds, and they complied with it without pause or question. Cargo doors and shuttlebays on dozens of ships throughout the Zerg crashed open, exposing their darkened bowels to hard vacuum. The abrupt decompression blew the cargo of those vessels that still retained atmosphere into space. Rather than emptying their holds, some especially damaged ships simply cracked open at their seams, bleeding disintegrating structural plate and ravaged corpses as their remains tumbled suicidally towards the Allied lines.

Each discharging vessel spilled dozens of fleshy globes into the void. Only a couple of meters in diameter and lacking any signs of electrical activity, most nearby Allied warships simply bypassed them, focused on the endless waves of Zerg combatants. A few more experienced captains, however, had seen the tactic before, and immediately ordered their batteries to destroy the drifting objects. Before the veterans could raise an alarm throughout the fleet, the orbs began to unfurl.

Scourges were of an old Zerg genetic stalk, a biological design that Kerrigan had inherited from the Swarm Overmind before her. Mottled gray ovals of hardened flesh, the creatures were monstrous embodiments of Zerg combat doctrine. Their open, toothy maws and bat-like atmospheric wings made them look almost comically out-of-place in interplanetary space, but once unfurled, they moved through the blackness with eerie speed, propelled by the raw willpower of their dark masters. The mindless things possessed no obvious weaponry, but those who had faced them before knew that the impression was deceptive; Scourges were weapons themselves, living missiles that did not stop until they buried themselves in the hull of an enemy vessel and ignited their own volatile innards. Each carried less destructive force than a Federation photon torpedo, but their velocity, accuracy, and numbers made up for what they lacked in power.

Thousands of the beasts took wing, flooding every theater of combat with shrill cries that deadened before they escaped their gaping jaws. Both forward and rear lines of the Allied formation were embroiled in chaotic close-range fighting, with Zerg warships closing within a few ship-lengths of their prey, and the Scourges dove between dueling vessels with suicidal abandon. Their targeting sensors and proximity alert grids confused by the volume of enemy fire and flash-cooled debris, most Allied warships were completely unprepared as the first wave of beasts fell upon them, dashing against perimeter shields and enflaming them with withering detonations.

Onboard the command ship of Battle Group Betazed, the Versailles, Fleet Admiral Nechayev watched as one of the Akira-class gunships flanking her reeled from ten Scourge impacts to its port side. Its shields shattered and hull rife with quickly-widening breaches, it listed violently to starboard and began to tumble onto its side. The ship’s warp nacelles flickered dangerously and then went dark.

The Mitterland’s captain had yell over warning klaxons on his bridge for Nechayev to hear him over their comm uplink. The main viewscreen didn’t show the man’s face; one of the impacts had knocked the gunship’s visual capability offline.

“We’ve lost attitude control, Admiral, and I can’t raise Engineering! My internal sensors hubs are offline, but I think most of my port sections are breached, and we might have lost the core, too! Power reserves are still up, but I’m not sure how long they’ll last!”

“You’re engines and your shields are gone, Captain,” Nechayev said earnestly. “You can’t do anything else for us now. Tell your crew to begin evacuation.”

There was a burst of static on the line.

“Say again, Admiral! I couldn’t…”

“Abandon ship!” she shouted. “Get yourself to an escape pod. Now!”

The captain hesitated, but only for a moment.

“Yes, sir.”

The line went dead. Nechayev turned to Commander Slovach.

“Tell the Magellan and her escorts to pick up as many of the Mitterland’s pods as they can. The Versailles and the rest of my squadron will support.”

Her second-in-command frowned. “Sir, if we pull those ships off the main line, the Zerg might be able to breach it.”

“I’m not leaving those men to die, Commander,” Nechayev growled, but the flash of dying Ferengi marauder little more than a kilometer before them gave her pause. She glanced back at the other woman and saw obvious consternation in her features.

“Tell them to grab as many survivors as they can in one pass, and then put them back on the line.”

Slovach nodded and moved off towards a Comm station. Nechayev watched her go, clutched the sides of her command chair. Stopping for survivors in the middle of a firefight was an amateur maneuver, and the mistake had shaken her. The sight of Earth had been as hard on the Admiral as it had been on Picard; seeing her homeworld all but dead had made the months of fighting and loss seem pointless. Too many sacrifices, so much blood on her hands, all for naught. She hadn’t let the strain show before, not like this, but it had been growing ever since her first attempt to retake Earth had failed disastrously. Despite the loss, Nechayev’s reputation and the simple attrition of the war had given her command of all that remained of the Federation and its people. She was a capable leader, and had been for decades, but the burden of all those lives and the civilization they carried with them was a great one. Too great.

And now she had bet the hopes and futures of them all on a single gambit. The plan had been formed by others, but she had approved it, and if it failed, it would be end of everything she held dear. All would be lost on her account.

Nechayev closed her eyes. This was the end. Either way, it would all be over soon. There was still one small hope, but whatever chance it had would be lost without her. She had to hold back the darkness just a little longer.

With a deep breath, she opened them again.

“What’s the status of the rest of the fleet?” Nechayev demanded, rising from her chair.

“Vulcan is still advancing and the Zerg battle wall is starting to thin, but Cardassia and Ferenginar are taking heavy losses. There are reports of damage from Scourge attacks from across the fleet, especially on the lunar flank. General K’Nera is ordering his support ships closer to his heavier vessels to keep off the Scourges, but they’ve already lost two heavy cruisers.”

Nechayev climbed from the bridge’s main deck to join the reporting officer at his Tactical station. She could see from his display that her own battle group was holding, but the bulk of the Zerg perimeter fleets had yet to arrive, and if the Scourges continued harass her squadrons, the enemy reinforcements would overwhelm them.

“How many Scourges did the Zerg deploy?” she asked.

“It’s difficult to be sure, sir. They’re moving in and out of the Zerg formations very quickly, and the volume of debris in orbit is making them difficult to track. Judging by the number of ships that released them, I’d estimate at least twelve hundred.”

More than a thousand homing missiles loose in the middle of the fray. Once targeted, several of the creatures could be destroyed with a single phaser burst, but they were supernaturally fast and their lack of obvious emissions made them difficult to localize. If left unchecked, the suicidal drones might gut the entire Allied fleet.

“K’Nera has the right idea,” Nechayev said, more to herself than the crewman. She turned to Slovach, who was still at the communications hub.

“Commander, tell the squadron leaders to consolidate their formations. Advise that they adopt intercept configuration Beta.”

It was a basic maneuver: the heavier ships of a squadron would pull behind the rest, and the forward ships would put up a phaser screen to intercept any incoming projectiles. The more powerful ships could then target enemy capital ships with their heavier weapons without having to divert any of their onboard resources to point defense. The configuration was an old one, considered somewhat obsolete before the arrival of the Zerg due to the lack of fightercraft and missileboats in the arsenals of most Alpha and Beta Quadrant powers, but it worked well all the same.

With the threat of the Scourges momentarily contained, Nechayev turned her attention back to the rear front of the Allied fleet. The ten capital ship squadrons of Betazed, some 50 vessels in total, were arrayed in three-tier wall configuration. The hexagon formed by the forward seven took the brunt of the enemy assault, while the other three squadrons provided support where it was needed. The wall had effectively repelled the first push of Zerg ships from Mars with only moderate losses, but the enemy fleet was reforming for another assault, and the second perimeter group from Io was beginning to drop out of warp to reinforce them.

A quick diagnostic of her battle group indicated that Nechayev’s own squadron was one of the most combat effective at her disposal, despite the loss of the Mitterland. As the reinforcing Zerg fleet swelled and accelerated through realspace towards her battle wall, Nechayev had the commander of a badly-beaten squadron of older Miranda and Excelsior-class vessels fall back to one of the supporting positions and moved her own group to the front.

As the sleeker but no-less scarred hulls of her Akira-class escorts exchanged places with the century-old hulls, the first crimson phaser beams and paired disruptor pulses slashed from the refreshed Zerg fleet. The return volley was delayed and far less multitudinous, but painfully accurate and calculated; each captain knew that they had to make each of their shots count twice that of their foes.

“Show me the core of their fleet,” Admiral Nechayev commanded, settling tentatively back into her seat.

The viewscreen winked to a wide starfield. The dozens of warships arrayed across it in tight knots and staggered lines were tiny but nevertheless distinguishable from the distant stellar formations that backed them, especially when one fired a torpedo or energy pulse at the Allied line. The deceptively-irregular wall of commandeered machinery flared with waves of flashes and glimmers as squadrons of ships unloaded their batteries and accepted incoming munitions with spherical energy shields.

Zerg-infested warships at the head of the throng were soon within effective weapons range of her wall, and Nechayev and her crew were distracted with their own group of belligerents when ships at the rear of the attacking force began to break from their assault trajectories and focus their weapons away from the battle line.

“Admiral, two Zerg ships in sector 19-F just lost warp containment!” Nechayev’s tactical officer reported excitedly. “They’re detonating.”

The flag officer didn’t bother asking whether or not it was one of her squadrons that had delivered the killing blows.

“It’s about time. Comm, see if you can raise the Millennium Falcon.”

A few moments later, Han Solo’s confident voice burst into the Versailles’s bridge. “Sorry we’re late, Admiral. We tried to avoid some old friends around Jupiter, but they couldn’t get enough of us.”

Even through the ship’s universal translator, the Corellian’s gruff accent and cocky tone were enough to raise Nechayev’s eyebrows and bring the ghost of a smile to her lips. The outcome of this battle had just as much impact on him as it did any Starfleet or Klingon crewman, but Solo still managed to maintain the air of hot-shot rookie on his first patrol.

“General, we need to make a breakthrough planet-side, and Vulcan is being stalled mid-orbit.” Nechayev consulted a tactical display, which indicated that the Allied front was now all but stalemated by the Zerg line. “I need your fighters to create a fracture that they can push against. Once you’re through, soften up the orbital defenses and cover Earth as it makes it approach. Vulcan, Cardassia, and Ferenginar can handle Kerrigan’s armada if you give them leverage, but they’re losing ships more quickly than they can sustain.”

It was true. The three forward groups had already suffered 30% attrition, and although they had taken even greater casualties, the Zerg weren’t showing any signs of giving way.

“We’ll give Picard the punch he needs, Admiral,” Solo said without hesitation. As if to add emphasis to his point, a hulking, Klingon-made battlecruiser at the center of the Zerg fleet erupted into a cloud of super-heated gas and debris, victim to one of the Millennium Falcon’s formidable concussion missiles. As the surrounding vessels scattered, the freighter barreled through the rapidly-expanding cloud, followed closely by the cadre of Alliance fightercraft.

There was a throaty bellow over the comm-line.

“I see ‘em, Chewie,” Han Solo grumbled to his copilot. “Get on the dorsal gun. I don’t want these things getting anywhere out hull, and I trust you a lot more with the quads than the guys we’ve got in there now.”

A flock of Scourges had descended upon the Alliance formation from the midst of the Zerg fleet, and the creatures were mobbing the Millennium Falcon and the lead X-Wings and A-Wings. The quad laser cannons mounted to the top and bottom of Solo’s ships sprung to life, pivoting on their mounts as they belched blazing death into the swarm and triggered waves of premature detonations. Careful fire from the other Alliance ships quickly cleared off the rest and they surged away from the remnants of the flock, barely singed but increasingly wary.

“Do you want me to lend you a couple of squadrons, Admiral?” the general asked as his ships approached the Allied rear line. “It looks like you could use them, especially if there are many more of those damned things hanging around.”

Nechayev considered Solo’s offer. The Alliance fighters were faster and more maneuverable than any ship in her arsenal, and they easily matched the durability and firepower of her own flagship. A dozen of the small vessels would bolster her line by a substantial margin. K’Nera’s embattled forces, too, might benefit from the presence of the squadrons.

But the admiral’s hesitation was brief. She knew what theirpriorities had to be.

“No, General. I want all of you on the front. We’ll hold them here as best we can without your support. Besides, the trail you blazed through their ranks has bought some more time, I think. With any luck, you hit the fleet’s cerebrate. If not… well, we will manage. Just get us that breakthrough, and soon.”

Nechayev could picture Solo’s grin. “May the Force be with you, Admiral.”

“Good hunting, General,” she replied.

With that, Nechayev raised a hand to order the comm officer to cut the line, but stopped herself, remembering a brief meeting she had had with Leia Organa before the Allied Fleet had left her on Deep Space Nine. The Alliance councilor had been eager to join them, but Nechayev and the other members of the Council had decided it was too much of a risk. Despite her combat experience and willingness to face the dangers of battle first-hand, she played no part in their plan of attack, and it was quite likely that any ship she was attached to would be lost in the fighting, if any survived at all.

Still, Nechayev was quite sure that Leia would have found her way into battle had the Millennium Falcon not departed before the rest of the fleet. Indeed, she was fairly certain that was one of the reasons why Solo had been so eager to take on the preliminary scouting mission.

“Oh, and General Solo.”

“Yes, Admiral?”

“Councilor Organa sends her regards.”

There was a pause. “Thank you, Admiral.”

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

Lt. Commander Addel’s squadrons burst into the heart of the Earth-ward fray with such ferocity and speed that the Zerg line lost ten ships before it was even able to target the new attackers. Functioning in tight squadrons that exploited their maneuverability and small profiles, the faster X-Wing and A-Wing squadrons dove into thickets of Zerg warships, weaving in and out and wreaking havoc not with blinding sprays of laser fire and torpedoes that cracked shielding with frightening efficiency. The first waves of return-fire sowed even more destruction throughout the ranks of the defenders as the darting vessels flew into the shadow of nearby corrupted warships, allowing them to absorb photon torpedoes and errant phaser fire. The other fighters hung back with the Allied line, but their heavier weapons increased the effectiveness of Battle Group Vulcan’s bombardment enormously.

Addel and a wingmate angled at a Galaxy-class that was attempting to evade the capital ship’s renewed onslaught. It lobbed a photon torpedo at them, but their powerful engines carried them past it before it detonated. Not missing a beat, its enslaved crew targeted a stutter-pattern of phaser blasts at Addel’s X-Wing, now scant kilometers away. Most went wide, but one impacted his deflectors directly. His instruments fluctuated widely as blinding light almost overcame his canopy’s photo-reactive cells, and R2-unit shrieked so loudly that Addel could feel the vibration through the back of his seat.

The Alliance pilot gritted his teeth against the receding glare. Through dazzled eyes, he could just make out his deflector gauge: the phaser blast had pushed the fighter’s defenses to their limit, but the ship was still intact.

Rechecking and adjusting his firing vectors as quickly as he could, Addel depressed the firing stubs he held under both thumbs. The quartet of laser cannons affixed to each of his fighter’s four wings spat crimson bolts of energy at the saucer-section of the offending vessel. Simultaneously, his wingman, who had bracketed the Galaxy, unleashed his own volley of fire. The assault flared the ship’s bubble shield into nothingness, and the fighter pair strafed its length, burning away huge chunks of armor plating and structural components with each hit. As they flew away, the Zerg ship was already tumbling dead through space, its hull venting charred biomass and frozen coolant from dozens of breaches.

“Are you alright, Lt. Commander?” his wingman asked as they maneuvered momentarily above the main plane of combat.

“The deflector took most of it,” Addel replied, checking his instruments to confirm that his ship was indeed still in fighting shape. “Watch those phaser projectors. They’re more accurate with them than they’ve been before.”

“It must be the coordinators, those cerebrates,” the other man said as they executed a 90-degree turn back towards the battle line. “Command said there would probably be a few deployed here.”

“More than a few,” Addel mumbled to himself. The Zerg were fighting far more effectively than the pilot had ever witnessed before. Rather than relying simply on suicide tactics and their overwhelming numbers, formations and individual ships were executing complicated maneuvers attack patterns. Even their gunners seemed to have acquired additional skill, as his still-cooling hull clearly showed.

But even this web of willpower had been unable to stop a breach from forming in the defensive line. It was a small gap, large enough for only a handful of ships to maneuver through comfortably, but the Allied fleet pounced upon it immediately. Most of the Alliance fightercraft poured through it in single mass, their sights set on the armed orbital facilities and weapons platforms Kerrigan had left intact above the planet’s surface. The crossfire was intense, and two fighters succumbed to the sheer volume of destructive energy laid against them during the transit, but the rest made it through largely unscathed. Before Kerrigan’s armada could seal the fissure, all that remained of Vulcan focused on the area, a solid cone of ships and withering firepower.

Occupied with yet another flock of Scourges, the Millennium Falcon was the last Alliance vessel to the breach, and was forced to weave through a concentration of Allied vessels to rejoin the battle. As it skirted the head of the pressing cone, the Enterprise opened a line to the freighter.

“Captain?” Han Solo prompted, his voice now more curt and serious. The first Alliance loses of the battle had not escaped his notice.

“General Solo, Zerg resistance has been more effective than we anticipated.” Picard also sounded strained. “My battle group will be able to open a path to Earth, but casualties are severe, and I’m not certain how long we’ll be able to hold this position.”

“We’re giving this all we’ve got, Picard,” Solo replied. “Addel’s fighters are tied up with the inner perimeter, and the Falcon can only be in so many places at once. There are too many Zerg contacts, and I don’t have the guns to take them all. Maybe if you could give me a ship worth hitting…”

“Yes, I know. The cerebrates. I just received a target profile from Group Earth. Tassadar thinks he’s located one of the main coordinators of the enemy fleet.”

A combat tag and a set of coordinates flashed into the Falcon’s computer. Solo looked them over quickly, and then turned his sensor towards the designated area. It was a patch of space below the main grid of combatants, occupied by a thick knot of warships. There were enough of them to pose a formidable threat, but not so much to warrant special notice. His tactical display matched the transmitted tag with a relatively small, sleek vessel at the center of the formation.

“That’s quite a nest of trouble, Picard. Think you can soften it up a bit?”

“Negative, General. I need all of my ships focused on that breach. You’ll have to handle them alone.” The captain’s tone softened momentarily. “Well, not quite alone. I suggest you take a look at the cerebrate’s squadron again. Picard out.”

Han stared at his silent comm-unit for a long moment, taken-aback.

“Hell of a time to be so damned cryptic,” he muttered at last, turning his attention back to the simplified sensor display. “No wonder they were losing so badly before we showed up.”

The Corellian was about to make another comment or two to himself when he noticed that the cerebrate’s vanguard was beginning to drift apart. There was no obvious threat to the group, and yet its component ships were slowly moving out of formation, as if engaging in prolonged, clumsy evasive maneuvers. Han stared at the scene in puzzlement for a while, unable to comprehend why the ships were scattering. A few even looked as they were sizing each up as potential threats. It was as though something was interfering with their sensors and communications systems.

Then Han remembered how the cohesion of the Zerg forces had collapsed after the death of the cerebrate at Bajor. Tassadar had tracked that mind, too, but it had been destroyed almost as soon as it was located. He had had little time to do anything but mark its presence. What if the Protoss templar’s abilities weren’t limited to perceiving the Zerg consciousnesses? Simple perception certainly hadn’t saved him from Darth Vader during the rout of Sullust.

Whatever the cause, Picard’s meaning was now clear enough, and there was an opening the General couldn’t refuse.

“Chewie, get back up here!” he called over his shoulder towards the gun well where the Wookiee copilot waited, and then took the ship into a sharp dive, straight for the disoriented and unsuspecting cerebrate.

Behind the Millennium Falcon, new etchings of lethal light and blinding conflagrations marked the blackness as the Allied fleet pressed forward with redoubled force. Earth was in reach, and the Allied stratagem was about to take shape.


Through the eyes of her servants, Kerrigan watched as the sixth battle group began to pour through the gap under a torrent of cover fire from the Allied front. As the ships approached Earth’s thermosphere, she settled back into a black throne, a thin smile on her stained lips.



The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-01-02 08:41pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Seven


The flight from the High Council Chamber had been quick and breathless. Numbed by the vicious melee from which he had barely escaped, Barclay was caught completely off-guard by Flitch’s bold bid for freedom. The grenade shoved beneath his chin had shaken Barclay enough for the Imperial agent to move him forcibly into the chamber’s network of claustrophobic ancillary passages, away from the victorious Sangheili. Barclay had quickly realized that his single, newly-rekindled hope for salvation was ebbing away as Flitch dragged him aimlessly down deserted corridors, but before he could mount the resolve to disregard the explosive and resist his kidnapper, the man pocketed the plasma grenade in favor of a blue-cased pistol pillaged from the fresh corpse of an Unggoy guard draped across their path. With a firearm at his throat and the threat of prowling soldiers through every doorway, Barclay could do nothing but wait and follow.

He didn’t have to wait long. Hurrying from the long corridor into a small chamber with a closed doorway on each wall, Flitch considered quickly and then tugged his captive towards the door straight ahead. It slid open smoothly at their approach, revealing an enclosed hall almost identical to the one they had just left. It, however, was not vacant: a single Jiralhanae stood in their path, its blackened hands clutching a long, jagged blade. Its scanty, plated uniform and scraggly fur were coated with a mingling of purple Sangheili blood and its own dark ichor. Turning from a mangled lump at its feet, presumably the soldier that had stained its coat, the alien’s eyes narrowed the humans and it raised its weapon, seemingly oblivious to the gun in Flitch’s hand.

Flitch stumbled back through the doorway, one arm still wrapped around Barclay’s neck as he brought his pistol to bear on the new threat with his other. The blood-maddened Jiralhanae stalked after them, and as it crossed the threshold, the human opened fire. The green pulse hit it on the side of the neck, burning away fur and charring the leathery skin beneath. The warrior brought its free hand up to the wound and unleashed a resounding bellow of anger and pain, but it did not stop or fall. Flitch did not fire off another shot until it was almost on top of them, but the quick burst was better aimed than his last. An animalistic roar still on its lips, the beast toppled down upon its prey, its right eye boiled neatly away.

The Jiralhanae’s bulk knocked them both into the curving wall of the intersection, and Flitch’s hold on Barclay faltered. In an instant, the engineer had freed himself of the arm and was scrabbling away over the Covenant soldier’s massive corpse. Not so easily caught unawares, Flitch grabbed hold of one of the man’s ankles and held him fast as he tried to free his pistol from beneath a limp, muscular arm. Desperately, Barclay kicked with his free leg and, more by luck than intent, planted his heel on Flitch’s nose. The man shouted angrily, but the shock of the blow allowed Barclay to shake free and make for the nearest doorway.

Barely keeping his balance as he tore through the opening, Barclay pelted back down a new corridor, his head swimming feverishly. As he rounded the first bend, he hoped fleetingly that the Imperial would forget him and flee down a different path, but before he could even slow to catch his breath, there was the muffled sound of heavy boots and unintelligible shouting from behind, followed immediately by lighter, faster footfalls closer at hand. Biting his lip, Barclay bent back into a full run.

He knew he had to get back to the Arbiter. That was his only chance. Even if Flitch didn’t kill him, then Barclay was still trapped in a hostile, alien construct, a universe away from any other friend or ally. Worse, the strife of the council chamber seemed to be spreading, and Barclay had no desire to be caught in the middle of a civil war. Again.

Conscious of the man a hallway behind, Barclay attempted to double back towards the corridor down which he had been forced. He saw no identifying markings or landmarks he could recognize, and so was forced to simply barreled through doorways and down short passages almost at random, hoping that his vague sense of where the main chamber had been would guide him. The web of halls was mercifully vacant, but sounds of conflict echoing from down side ways and recent burn marks on the polished walls kept him on edge. And still, footsteps clattered after him.

Barclay ran as hard as he could manage, longer than he had ever done before. With each new corridor and door, he searched for some familiar marking that would lead him back to the council chamber, but found only curving, alien walls and endless rows of alcoves and recessed ornaments. Once or twice, he saw the flash of a plasma discharge out of the corner of his eye, or heard an enraged battle cry, but he kept on past, certain that death awaited as surely from behind as it did in front. Each strange hall or brush with combat heightened the fear bubbling inside of him, and drove him on faster, but he could only keep up the pace for so long. He was no athlete, and weeks of confinement had done nothing to strengthen him.

Seeing what looked like an empty meeting room, dark save for a slit of hazy light that ran high along its back wall, Barclay ducked inside, his heart pounding dangerously. He search desperately for some control that might seal the door, and laid eyes upon a holographic pad adjacent the entryway with a caricature of an alien hand emblazoned upon it. Without thinking, he slapped the control, and a thin barrier of carved metal slid from the wall to close the gap. Barclay slumped against the wall, greedily sucking in air. When his lungs were full again, he fell silent, listening intently for any sound from the corridor beyond. Flitch’s light, deliberate footfalls were discernable almost immediately, and Barclay felt his heart race again. He cast about the dim room for a weapon or alternate means of escape, but it was empty save for a high, long table that filled its center.

Barclay pressed against the wall, his eyes locked on the closed door. As the footsteps came to the door, he balled his fists, suddenly determined to rush the other man as he came in. He would try to wrest the pistol from him, and then…

The steps sounded from just beyond the door and continued on without slowing. Barclay was motionless until the thumping echoes faded away, and then loosed a long, weary sigh.

Calmer, the engineer surveyed his surroundings more carefully. The room was as barren as it had seemed before: a table, a few of what might have been inactive holographic projectors mounted in each corner, and the strip of light the lined the top of the far wall. The final feature attracted his notice, and he slowly crossed the small chamber to inspect it more closely. Rather than a light fixture, as he had at first suspected, the thin band seemed to be venting hazy in illumination from somewhere else. Closer observation revealed vertical lines running down from either end of the strip: another door, slightly ajar.

As Barclay absently ran a finger down one of the fine slits, considering his next move, a new sound broke the room’s tense silence. His hair stood on end and he turned sharply towards the other door, but what he heard were not footsteps, and did not emanate from the corridor.

Voices. Distant and muffled, wafting in from the small gap above him. Something about the remote speakers caught Barclay’s notice, and he listened more closely. They were crisp and harsh, and quickly faded into the soft, airy echoing that also emerged through the crack. He couldn’t understand the words, but the tone was shockingly familiar. It was not the gruff, throaty vocalization of the Sangheili, or the savage growl of the Jiralhanae.

It was human.

The fact dawned on Barclay quickly, and barely believing it, he pressed up closer to the gap, straining for another distant sound. No voices emerged from the soft blanket of echoing wind he could now discern, but there was something else. The faint clip of boots on metal plate.

Joy and desperation mingled in Barclay’s mind, clouding caution and compelling him to act. He managed to restrain himself from pounding on the barrier and crying out, but immediately began searching for a way of opening the wide door further. It didn’t take him long to locate another pad like the one that had sealed the entryway, and he placed his palm on it without hesitation, his heart pounding.

The barrier moved in response, but to his horror, it rushed upwards, sealing the gap and throwing Barclay into darkness. Not knowing what else to do, he slammed the control again, and with a creak the wall section reversed, sliding down. Its progress this time was far rougher, and it slammed to a halt with a loud, pneumatic wheeze, nearly a meter of the opening left blocked. Barclay cringed at the sound, but he rushed to the new exit, and barely stopping to look beyond, clambered out.

He found himself in a narrow passageway, formed by the intersection of the edifice of the complex he had just exited and a darkly-covered slab of metal that arched from a point several meters above him to the polished floor. The slab blocked his view, but it wasn’t wide, and gave way a few meters to either side of him. Looking down, he could see that a large portion of the door and the surrounding wall was burned and distorted, no doubt the cause of its obstruction. He also noted that the sound of wind was far more obvious now, and the dusky illumination of the space gave Barclay the odd impression that he was outside.

Moving quietly to the right and peering around the obstruction, he realized why. Packed at the center of a dozen towering soldiers, Barclay had noticed little of his surroundings on the trip from the Covenant carrier’s transport to the council chamber, but now he fervently wished he had made more of an effort. Beyond the narrow tiered ledge upon which he stood, the vastness of High Charity stretched out before him.

Beneath the boundless sky of a dome and the ocean of white light that was its crowning star, a metropolis unlike any Barclay had ever seen sprawled outward in a great circle. Its mountainous skyscrapers emerged from a low sea gray fog, minute fingers of substance from his lofty vantage point, high upon a perimeter tower that dwarfed all the rest. Only one structure stood higher: a great silver monolith at the city’s center, rising up like the arm of a crystalline star.

In his time aboard the Enterprise, Barclay had seen the marvels of ancient, long-lost civilizations and been in the presence of beings of power and knowledge he could barely comprehend, and yet the great tower before him filled him with awe unlike any he had felt before. Lit by a cascade of ethereal radiance from the artificial star above, the imposing, outstretched pylons and delicate etchings of the monumental construct momentarily banished fear and desperation from his mind. For some reason beyond his comprehension, the tower reminded him of home.

The moment was short-lived. Movement and the flare of energy discharges in the air around the four mountainous pylons at the structure’s base pulled him back to reality. If the fighting had already spread so far, Barclay knew that no hiding place, especially not one so close to the epicenter of the violence, would be safe for long. Now that he could really appreciate the scale of the place, Barclay knew that there were probably billions of aliens on around him, each one a very real threat.

He scanned the narrow ledge of ornate metal that separated him from the kilometers-long drop to the city below. The platform stretched put hundreds of meters in either direction, hugging the curving inner wall of the massive city-structure. Off to the right beyond the long balcony, a great, polished column emerged from the perimeter barrier, and high on it Barclay could see an ornate, well-lit jut of metal that stretched out towards another tower, smaller and free-standing. He could just barely make out movement on each. As he looked on, the tiny form of a transport surged away from the inner platform, drawing a few ill-aimed lines of fire from the other tower as it sped off into the mist.

There was activity closer at hand, as well. Below Barclay’s sheltered vantage point, a set of smaller platforms jutted into the air like piers, each tipped with a rhythmically-blinking guide light. The one closest to him was empty, but he could see two others, each connected to the upper walkway on which he was standing by a broad flight of steps.

The platform immediately to Barclay’s right drew his notice first. It was dominated by a single, landed ship. A gray, rectangular box with a sloped cockpit and a pair of thin wings that were folded up alongside an angular, skyward fin, the vessel looked startlingly out of place on its sculpted, slightly lustrous dock. Moving closer, Barclay could see humanoid figures gathered around a docking ramp under its forward section, and others picking through what looked like the crashed remains of another Covenant transport on the farthest platform. All were clad from head to foot in obscuring white armor.

Barclay didn’t immediately recognize the ship, but the sight of the Imperial stormtroopers around it brought realization crashing down on him.

Suddenly, he remembered the exchange in the council chamber that had preceded its decent into chaos. The Sangheili who had dueled the Arbiter had mentioned the arrival of ‘human blade-ships’; he hadn’t made the connection before, but now it seemed obvious. Imperial ships had followed the Republica through the rift, and he had seen first-hand the aftermath of their battle with the Covenant armada.

Idiot!

Barclay stumbled back beneath the overhang. He could see a squad of Imperial soldiers making their way from the far platform towards the upper walkway. He had felt their pitiless, armored hands before. He remembered his short time on an Imperial Star Destroyer well, pressed into a tomb-like confinement. His escape from whatever had befallen the rest of the Enterprise’s crew had been simple providence, fortune he could not count on again. Going to them only meant more captivity and hopeless isolation. At that moment, braving the embattled alien metropolis suddenly seemed like the preferable option.

Barclay had backed almost to the obstructed door when he heard the thud of boots on the floor behind him. He spun about, only to feel the butt of plasma pistol crash down onto the side of his neck. He fell sideways into the overhang with a loud groan. Instinctively, he lashed out both hands, but a sharp knee to his stomach knocked the wind out of his lungs and he collapsed into a fetal position on the ground.

Gasping for air, he looked up at his attacker. Flitch stared back at him icily, his nose a bloody, crumpled mess. The man had his weapon aimed at Barclay’s face. The pistol began to hum, and a ball of bright green light accumulated on its projection node. The prone man squinted against the glare and attempted get up, but another harsh kick put a stop to the effort.

“Even after all the trouble you caused me,” Flitch hissed slowly. “Even after all of this. That damned aliened. That cell. This blasted place. All of that, and I still didn’t kill you when I had the chance. I dragged you along with me when I should have just shot you and been done with it.”

He shook his head, sneering.

“I guess I was thanking you for saving me back there. I was soft. But you were stupid. Too stupid to let me die when you had the chance, and stupid enough run when you could have tried to killed me. I’m not about to give you a third chance.”

“I never wanted to kill you,” Barclay said, his voice breaking. See saw the malice in Flitch’s eyes, and what resolve he had left melted away. “I just want to get home.”

A short laugh. “Well then. Consider this a parting present. A gift for my nose and this lovely trip.”

Flitch’s finger tightened on the pistol’s firing stud, and the green globe on its end swelled into a blinding fire. Barclay felt the heat of the weapon, and could barely see Flitch beyond its light. As the whine of the building charge reached a crescendo, he drew a deep breath.

One more bit of pain.

Barclay knew the voice, timid and acquiescent. It was part of who he was. Born of an introverted, cautious life aboard the Enterprise, it had stayed with him over all the trials since the passage through the anomaly. It had been there when he had escaped the Imperial warship, and when he had saved the Arbiter’s life on Home One. It had whispered resignation when Flitch had first abducted him and throughout the long days of confinement aboard the Covenant carrier. It had even been present during his most recent escapes, lurking as he rescued the Imperial agent and then subverted his betrayal.

Time and time again, he had managed to suppress the voice and the paralyzing fear that it heralded. But now, as he finally looked upon death’s face, it pushed through his resolve and compelled him to quietly accept his fate? Were his last thoughts to be ones of silent submission?

The idea filled him with revulsion.

A chorus of clicking and the rustle of movement sounded above the hum of plasma. Flitch swung around to face the source of the noise, switching targets as he did. Barclay opened his eyes, and through the residual glare of the weapon, he saw Flitch’s eyes widen with surprise.

In an instant, the engineer took the scene in. The primed gun. The blinding light of the plasma charge. Flitch’s momentary disorientation. Barclay knew what he had to do.

He braced himself against the overhang and swept at Flitch’s legs with his own. The impact caught the man completely by surprise, and as he struggled to maintain his balance, his finger slipped from the trigger of the pistol. The globe of green energy lashed out, straight towards the unexpected arrivals.

Flitch didn’t even have time to lower his gun. A salvo of crimson blaster bolts tore into him, incinerating unprotected flesh and blasting what remained into the half-opened door. The spent pistol clattered to the floor next to Barclay’s head. Motionless, he watched it lose its residual heat to the smoke-laden air as the stormtroopers Flitch had seen cautiously approached. Their footfalls stopped short of the overhang.

“Human,” a stormtrooper said aloud over his helmet speaker.

“What the hell?”

“There’s the weapon. A damned fool, whoever he was.”

A pair of armored legs crossed into Barclay’s station frame of view, and their owner squatted down next what was left of Flitch.

“What was he doing here?” the soldier mused.

“What were they doing here?” another corrected. “Check the other one.”

The crouching soldier turned to Barclay. The engineer looked up into the opaque eyes of his helmet.

“This one’s alive! Help me!”

Barclay repeated the soldier’s words in his head.

Still alive.

As plated gloves closed on his arms, he fully appreciated the truth of the statement. Against all odds, he had survived. And, just maybe, he would continue on a little longer. Perhaps fate was finally done toying with him, and if not, well, he wasn’t particularly inclined to believe in fate anyways.

Hoisted onto his feet, Reginald Barclay barely noticed that no little voice bubbled up to resist his new-found resolve.

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

Captain Meterin Coloth was in a poor mood. Though he had never voiced any complaint, the officers busy at their bridge stations around him knew the source of his ill-humor quite well.

“Sir.” Coloth’s chief tactical officer approached him, his voice respectfully low. “The last remnants of the enemy fleet have engaged their FTL drives and are fleeing the system. The Dominance and the Crucible are requesting permission to pursue.”

The captain shook his head.

“Request denied,” he said, his characteristic frown deepening. “Lord Vader wants all ships to hold here until the boarding teams have finished their reconnaissance of the construct.”

The two fleet officers shared a surreptitious towards the bank of viewports at the head of the Imperial Star Destroyer Torrent’s bridge. There, draped as ever in his heavy, black cape, the helmeted form of Darth Vader stared silently at the bulbous shape of the alien space station and the planet beyond.

It had been more than two long weeks since the Torrent, along with eight other star destroyers and a small fleet of support ships, had crossed through the rift that connected Imperial space with an uncharted and previously unknown galaxy, teeming with hostile aliens. Coloth had been given command of the expeditionary force, a special commission given by Lord Vader himself, in spite of his relatively low rank and recently marred record. Most of his peers would have been thrilled by the opportunity, but Coloth had always been content with the command of a single ship; he disliked the oversight and inter-ship politics that inevitably came with higher rank.

Moreover, little of the campaign he was now part of sat well with him. First, the galaxy Vader had taken them to was so distant from their native cluster that it didn’t correspond to any Imperial galactic table or star chart. For all Coloth knew, they weren’t even in the same universe; from what little the captain remembered from his dimensional physics course at the Academy, the wormhole they had traversed could have easily torn them from their own reality. The forces stationed near the rift’s exeunt kept close watch on the phenomenon and constantly transmitted assurances of its stability, but Coloth still disliked the idea that he could be trapped so far from home if something went wrong.

There was also the matter of their objective in the new stellar realm. Darth Vader had never been exactly clear as to why he had requisitioned a fleet to go through the rift, especially with the Empire as it was after the Emperor’s assassination. The Sith Lord had alluded to a couple of possibilities for their deployment: there was the Rebel cruiser that had escaped through the anomaly, and then the necessary retaliation for the attack on Imperial warships that had pursued the fleeing terrorist vessel into the alien’s territory.

Neither explanation made much sense, however. Reports from the ships that had initially pursued the Rebel ship indicated that it had disappeared into the anomaly again soon after its first transit, and only a small portion of the task force’s resources had been bent towards the analysis of the rift. The majority of the fleet had been bent to the task of hunting down and destroying the alien fleets and facilities that continued to resist the expeditionary force despite their massive technological inferiority. The beings were tenacious and unrepentant, and all attempts to communicate with them had failed, but the campaign against them was still massive overkill by Coloth’s standards. It was almost as though they were fighting the aliens simply for the sake of fighting them.

In any event, neither objective demanded the direct oversight of the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Starfleet and de facto ruler of the Galactic Empire.

That brought the matter to Vader himself. Naturally, the Dark Lord had attached himself to the Torrent after elevating her captain, and he had spent nearly all the time since the beginning of the campaign on her bridge, staring into the blackness of space or hovering over Coloth as he conducted everything from combat operations to simple shipboard affairs. Deep down, the captain was still convinced that Vader was punishing him for his failure with the captured Federation ship.

That was not to say that the Sith did nothing but observe the battles he initiated. Indeed, on several occasions, he had taken his personal starfighter into battle against the aliens, or command soldiers on the ground. It had been him, against Coloth’s recommendation, who had lead the strike force that captured several alien leaders and thus secured the location of their capital, just hours before.

Since his return, however, Darth Vader had brooded in silence before the Torrent’s viewports, content to let Coloth conduct the approach and seizure of the alien super structure without oversight. He had been unimpressed by the unexplained civil strife that had made their approach even easier than it would otherwise have been. Even when orbit around the construct had been achieved, he broke his silence only long enough order the alien capital boarded. After Coloth had dispatched several battalions of stormtroopers to survey the evacuating structure and secure any points of interest, Vader had turned back to silent contemplation.

For once, Coloth was free to conduct his command as he saw fit, and yet Vader’s brooding made him as uncomfortable as he had ever been.

As he waited for the insertion force to make its next report, the captain drew an after-action report from the battle that had won them the location of the alien capital, which was named High Charity according to the intelligence agents and translators who had interrogated a group of high-level bureaucrats seized at its conclusion. Like every other engagement of the brief campaign, the losses were vastly one-sided: well over one hundred alien capital ships destroyed to three on the Imperial side. Even so, it had been an unusually costly battle. On more than one occasion, Coloth had routed an entire planetary defense fleet without more than a handful of Imperial casualties.

He pulled up a representation of the vessel that had commanded the defenders during the last battle. It was a truly impressive ship, more than half a dozen times the length of the Torrent and many times the mass. Even considering its overly-aesthetic design – Coloth thought it looked more like a pleasure submarine than a warship – it should have totally outclassed any Imperial ship short of a star dreadnaught. And yet, he had seen ships of its class fall to a single star destroyer with minimal effort.

The aliens fought with cunning and, failing that, suicidal ferocity. They had an armada that might very well match the scale of the active Imperial Starfleet; squadrons of probe droids and extensive scouting efforts had only begun to gauge the scope of their empire. The very existence of the artificial world beyond the Torrent’s prow indicated that their civilization was both vast and ancient. And yet, simple statistics put their entire empire at the mercy of Coloth’s relatively tiny force.

Weapons yields. Deflector absorption capacities. FTL velocities. Coloth was too seasoned an officer to look unkindly on any combat advantage, but winning a war because of mere technological disparity still didn’t appeal to his sensibilities. He was eager to be done with the affair, accomplish whatever Vader wanted accomplished, and return home.

When another officer approached to notify him that the colonel insertion force was ready to make a progress report, he quickly directed the man to patch the army officer through to one of the holographic projectors at the rear of the bridge. He could have easily delegated the task, but Coloth was eager for distraction.

The projection alcove the captain had chosen linked with a troop transport landed deep within High Charity and produced the image of a middle-aged, prim-looking man in the gray of an army officer. Colonel Madora, attached to the Crucible, was a capable man, and had overseen the handful of planet-bound actions that Lord Vader had deemed necessary. More than any high-ranking officer deployed with the Dark Lord’s expeditionary force, Madora was in a position of challenge and danger. The technological disparity between the Empire and its foe was not nearly so great on the ground.

“Captain Coloth,” the colonel said, saluting.

“Colonel,” the Captain replied. “What’s the condition of your regiment?”

“Our landing and command points have been secured, and we haven’t faced any concerted attempt to repel or eliminate our transports. The intelligence you provided on the location of the alien’s leadership corresponds to several towers on the perimeter of the construct’s main chamber, and my men have successfully secured it. However, it was largely abandoned by the time they locked it down. We did take a few prisoners, and my techs are attempting a central information node or processing center as we speak.”

“Most of the remaining activity on the construct is focused on a tower structure in center of the internal city. Fighting around its base is intense, and most of the alien’s remaining aerial assets are focused on defending it. Fortunately, factions within their ranks seem determined to keep each other from occupying it, and I’ve managed to insert a few platoons into its upper sections through the confusion. My fighter squadrons and gunships are engaging the alien defenders, and it should be secure enough to reinforce within the hour.”

Coloth offered a short nod.

“Good. Have you identified any other areas heavy activity?”

“Yes, sir. There’s fighting all over the construct, and there are masses of non-combatants funneling towards the docking pylon at its base. Intel has also located what appear to be a network of computer nodes and energy exchanges, but occupying them with my current forces will be difficult. I’m continuing recon operations, but my regiment is stretched thin as it is. You’ve received scans of the city, sir?”

“Yes, colonel, I have.”

The images Coloth had seen reminded him distinctly of Coruscant. Even with its inhabitants trying to kill one another, resting control of a city like High Charity, much less the rest of the construct, would require more than the combined marine and army corps of the entire expeditionary force. To make matters worse, Coloth wasn’t even sure what his soldiers were supposed to be doing there.

And as Vader’s silence lengthened, the captain was beginning to wonder if the Sith Lord knew himself.

“Have your troops hold position. Consolidate your hold on the administrative towers and the central structure, and collect as much intelligence on the city and its inhabitants as you can. I’d like to know why these things suddenly started killing each other, and I’m sure my analyst would be happy with any other data you could provide on them. You will be transmitted further orders as soon as they are given.”

“Yes, sir.” Madora shifted noticeably. “There is one other matter that may interest you, Captain. While establishing a landing zone near the administrative complex, one of my forward squads encountered a pair of humans.”

“Humans?”

“Yes, sir. One of them fired on the squad and was killed, but the other is uninjured and in our custody.”

This was something Coloth had not expected. There was evidence of human habitation in the system that the anomaly opened into, but the aliens had been in the process of eliminating all traces of it when the first Imperial ships had arrived. A few probe droids had been dispatched to investigate the possibility of intact human worlds, but so far their search had been fruitless. Certainly, no member of the species had been sighted on any of the worlds Coloth had conquered.

“Have you been able to gather any information from him?”

“Not yet, sir. He had indicated that he was a prisoner of some sort, and that he escaped when the internal violence here began, but beyond that, he has been resistant to questioning. Unlike his companion, he was unarmed, but he was carrying this.”

Madora held up a palm-sized, metallic disk.

“My ship’s protocol droid seems to think it’s a translation device of some sort. I haven’t seen any of the aliens equipped with anything like it.”

Coloth, on the other hand, recognized the universal translator immediately.

“The Enterprise,” he breathed.

A shadow fell over the captain, and the hairs on the back stood on end.

“Lord Vader?”

The Sith Lord was standing directly behind Coloth. Turning to face him, Coloth wondered how he could have missed the approach of Vader’s rasping, rhythmic breath.

“What have they found?” he demanded without prelude.

“My lord, one of the boarding detachments has located a human onboard the alien construct. He appears to have been carrying a device similar to ones used by the captives the Torrent took on several weeks ago.”

“The Enterprise?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Darth Vader was silent for a moment save for the unceasing hiss of his artificial breath.

“Bring him here.”

“At once, Lord Vader.”

“When he arrives, have him escorted to my chambers.”

With that, the Sith stalked off the bridge. When his long cape had vanished behind a bulkhead, Coloth allowed himself a small sigh. He had hoped to never see a Federation crewman after he had unloaded the Enterprise’s remaining crew on Imperial Intelligence. They had been nothing but trouble for him, and Coloth suspected that bringing another back onboard would do little facilitate the return of his old, orderly life.

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

Lord Vader’s spartan quarters were only one deck below the Torrent’s bridge. Hastily constructed after he had moved his flag from the dry-docked Executor, the single, circular room was virtually identical to his old dwelling.

Its only defining feature was the black-plated meditation cubicle at its center. Within the atmospherically-controlled chamber, Vader was granted a brief respite from his life-sustaining armor, and he spent the scant hours he wasn’t prowling the Torrent’s command decks sealed inside, contemplating the turmoil that roiled beneath his dark mask.

Now, though, as he waited for the Federation captive to be transported from High Charity, the meditation chamber sat open and empty. Its master stood behind it, his attention focused on the only other fixture in the room, a small worktable fixed to the back wall.

Amidst a scattering of tools and spare parts, the badly blackened and fractured husk of an astromech droid lay in pieces on the tabletop. Fragments of its scored and uselessly melted chassis lay in a neat stack to one side of the work area. A few carefully removed utility arms bearing an assortment of hydrospanners and electrical jacks were assembled in a row next to a box of new components and mechanical parts. The only recognizable part of the droid, its squat, blue and white head section, sat at the center of the area. The dome had been repaired and cleaned with a steady and practiced hand, but the sensory bulbs that ringed it were as empty and lifeless as the rest of its scattered body.

As he had done a dozen times before, Darth Vader gently lifted the small copula up and turned it over in his gauntlet hands. He gazed down at its dominant, glassy visual sensor, its protruding holographic projection tube, each input slot and access panel. All were familiar to the Dark Lord, wrenchingly personal in a way that few other living beings could understand.

This was all that remained of R2-D2. This was the droid that had accompanied him on his first adventures, when he was just a small boy, freed from slavery for a place in the Jedi Order. This was the droid that had belonged to the woman who would be his wife, her belated wedding gift to him, and a companion through the trials of the Clone Wars. This was the droid that had found his way to Vader’s only son, and had tried to save Luke from his father’s blade. For that valiant act, Vader had destroyed him. He had obliterated his old friend in anger, barely giving the act a second thought. The little droid had not been the first such victim.

Vader turned the dome over, revealing a terrain of exposed electronics and delicate machinery. This was familiar terrain; a place the Dark Lord could lose himself. He picked up a soldering tool, and set to work.

Yet again, Vader’s hopes had come to nothing. The campaign against the alien civilization his fleet had found beyond the rift had failed to clear his mind of the specters that haunted it, or focus him for the daunting challenges that awaited him back in Imperial territory. For a time, commanding ships and soldiers in battle had distracted him from the ghosts that intruded upon his meditations, but the respite had been short-lived. Even returning to the cockpit of a starfighter had failed to drive away the shadows. The thrill of battle was muted, and no threat the aliens could pose had sparked emotion in him. No exhilaration, no anger, no fear. Compared to the terrors within his mask, fierce warriors and massed battle fleets were pale and transient.

No matter what he did, unheralded memories and repressed images came to him. Voices of the dead vied with the living, and more than once he had fallen silent during a consult with his subordinates and left for solitude without explanation, unable to discern what was real and what was not.

The last few days had been the worst. In place of the specters of slain friends and broken vows, two phantoms had begun to appear more and more frequently, swelling until they alone haunted him night and day.

The first was the face of his son. When the image came, Luke was as he had last seen him, clouded and cold, on the verge of an abyss that Darth Vader himself had created. This shadow was not a new one, but now as he looked on, his son’s eyes would open, but there would be nothing beneath their lids. Just a bottomless, inescapable void.

Then the second terror would come. From the silence, cackling. It was a laugh both humorless and terrible, muffled by great distance, but still potent enough to drive Vader to distraction, no matter how hard he fought to drive it from his mind.

Vader did not know what had brought on these new ghosts, or what they meant. He had meditated upon them for hours to no avail. He had even gone so far as to suppress the baser instincts of his Sith training in favor of the centering calm of half-forgotten Jedi mantras and focusing exercises, but the root of his new distress still eluded him.

And so he worked.

Vader had located an inactive R2 unit almost identical to his old companion; its headless frame stood next to the worktable, ready to accept a new droid brain. He had spent many long hours hunched over R2-D2’s processor carriage, cleaning and reassembling carbonized circuit nodes, replacing overloaded capacitors, and rewiring conductive filaments. Indeed, all that was left to be done was the installation a few key power transfer couplings and attachment the dome to its new chassis, but Vader continued to tinker and fine-tune.

He was reluctant to finish, for more than one reason.

An unseen comm unit pinged, and Darth Vader delicately laid the polished dome back on the table. With a flourish of his cape, he turned towards the room’s only door and manipulated its controls with a thought.

The gunmetal barrier slid away, and a pair of stormtroopers escorted an unimpressive man in a badly worn uniform into the room. One advanced and handed Vader the small metal disk that had been the captive’s only possession. Vader offered the soldier a slight nod, and men retreated without a word.

“You are a member of the Enterprise’s crew.”

It was a statement, not a question. The Sith Lord had known beyond a doubt as soon as the man had entered the room. There was something about his presence in the Force, a variance that could not be mistaken.

“What is your name?”

Vader could sense a great deal of fear in the man, and none of the force of will that he had felt during his brief meeting with the man’s captain.

“I’m Barclay… Lieutenant Reginald Barclay of the United Federation of Planets. And you… you must be Darth Vader.”

Vader was mildly surprised. There was an air of defiance in the response that he had not expected from what appeared to be a weak and tired man.

“You know of me?”

“Yes. Yes, I’ve heard of you, and what you can do. You’re a telepath. Why even bother asking me questions?”

Vader ignored the comment. “You know there is no point in resisting me. Good.”

He touched Barclay’s mind, and a series of images flowed from him. One, a bald, stern man was immediately recognizable.

“Where is Captain Picard?”

The man grimaced, although Vader could not tell exactly why.

“I don’t know. The last I saw the Captain, he was on an Alliance ship, the Republica. I was separated from it.”

He had to mean the Rebel vessel that had vanished through the spatial anomaly. His interest piqued, Vader probed deeper into Barclay’s mind, but he had difficulty seeing any deeper than immediate thoughts. Frustrated, he advanced, pushing harder, and the other man winced, bringing his hand to his forehead.

The effort only jumbled his perception further. He could only see a few dim images, and a few snippets of memory that erratically flowed into one another or faded without resolution. Either the man was stronger-willed than he had at first estimated, or his own focus was slipping. Unnerved by the prospect of such a weakness, he pushed still harder, and Barclay cried out in pain, falling to his knees.

Abruptly, Vader pulled back from the man’s mind. At last, he had found something. A fragment a memory, lacking context, but crystal clear. A young, dark-haired man. A name: Jacen Solo.

He seemed familiar, even though Vader could not place the name or the face.

“Who is Jacen Solo?”

Barclay looked up at his interrogator, one hand still clasped to his brow.

“The Enterprise found him. Transporter accident. He… he said he was a Jedi. From your universe, I think. He was with the captain.”

Darth Vader stared at Barclay, motionless. This new figure meant something to him, but he could not understand what. Through the Force he could perceive layers of meaning compounded upon the man, but something was stopping him from comprehending them. As he racked his brain, the ghostly laugh emerged suddenly from a drift of thought, and his marrow froze.

Vader turned away from Barclay.

“I will question you again later.”

With a wave of his hand, the door opened, and the waiting guards entered.

“Take him to the detention block. And ensure that I am not disturbed.”

When the others had gone, the Dark Lord resumed his work on R2-D2 immediately, barely aware of his surroundings as he picked up a waiting transfer coupling. His hands attached circuits and aligned power components swiftly and mechanically, working with a mind of their own, a mind untroubled by decades of war, betrayal, and darkness. The sum of Vader’s attention was focused on the young man he had seen in Barclay’s mind, and another within his armor was set free. He didn’t realize it when the last components had been installed and failed to notice reserve power begin to hum through the droid’s processor core. His legs and arms moved unbidden, positioning him before the incomplete R2 unit, and then placing the refurbished dome atop it. Magnetic clamps automatically locked it into place, and sparks flashed behind the droid’s polarized lenses.

Vader stepped back from the machine, suddenly conscious of his work. The completed droid hummed to life with the faint sounds of motivators and servomotors. Its head pivoted 180 degrees to the right and then to the left, and its holographic projector gave a few tentative twitches. A low whistle sounded from somewhere inside it, and the cylindrical body tilted back on its short legs. A third, wheeled foot emerged from a compartment at its base, and it inched forward along the smooth floor, turning right and left, and then backing into its original position. For the effort, it emitted a triumphant hoot.

R2-D2 was alive again.

Darth Vader reached out for the dome of his old friend, and the droid spun its sensory eye towards him, suddenly aware of movement. When it registered the towering form of the armored cyborg, R2-D2 squealed in surprise and put itself into reverse. Immediately, it slammed into the chambers wall and bounced back, head section twitching with fright and confusion.

The machine’s distress confirmed the quality of Vader’s labor. It still retained memory of its last active moments; naturally, it would be alarmed by his presence.

Slowly, Vader laid a glove on R2’s chassis, provoking another flurry of nervous spasms and pivots. A panel on the droids side popped open and an arc welder emerged, aimed at the Sith’s chest. The device jerked as the astromech attempted to activate it, only to find that some of its internal power supplies were not aligned. Vader had retained a healthy respect for the unit’s tenacity, and was pleased to see that that his precaution remained warranted.

Carefully, he pushed the panel closed, and held the droid tightly until it stopped tugging away.

“I won’t hurt you, R2.”

The words emerged slowly, strangled by uncertainty. He tried to sound gentle, reassuring, and found that he barely remembered how. He had had no occasion or desire to be either for more than two decades.

R2-D2’s primary sensor turned to face him, and it loosed an uncertain whistle.

“Don’t you recognize me?”

Vader saw the reflection of his nightmarish mask in the droid’s unblinking eye.

No. I suppose you wouldn’t.

R2 chirped a few times, and then whistled again, questioningly this time. Vader understood immediately: Where is my master?

“Luke isn’t here. He’s on Coruscant. I can bring you to him, but…”

The man trailed off.

Coruscant…

The fabric of the Force around him shuddered, and realization came. A hundred levels of understanding rushed in, and beyond them, the same resonance in the Force, uniting it all, leading… back.

Jacen Solo. The secret that Vader had sensed Aayla keeping from him during her training. He was the Jedi that Palpatine had sensed, so long ago.

Palpatine… The Dark Side…

The specters that had been haunting his every moment fell upon Vader, and blossomed into further understanding. He could barely comprehend the torrent of knowledge, connections he should have made, feelings he should have recognized…

And all of it led back to the Imperial Center. All of it led back to Aayla. All of it led back to his son.

Luke!

Vader leapt from R2 and spun towards his mediation chamber. He had been such a fool! Blinded by ambition and arrogance! Hot fury bubbled within his chest, but he ignored it, trying to focus on what had to be done. There was so little time!

He jabbed at a control panel within the chamber, and a far wall flickered to life with an image of the Torrent’s bridge. Captain Coloth moved into view, but Darth Vader cut him off before he could speak.

He was going back. Coruscant was waiting.



The Rift
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-02-23 10:47pm
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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 Eight


With eyes that were not their own, six minds watched as the fissure in the Zerg defensive line in orbit widened and Allied warships began to pour through. One, the greatest of them, was content to observe as dozens of Starfleet and Klingon hulls plunged into Earth’s gravity well, plowing through the crossfire from the array of armed satellites and space stations hanging in low orbit. The lesser five, however, did not have the same luxury. Each earthbound Cerebrate was rallying its mindless hordes from their brood caverns and noxious holes, ready to deploy them anywhere on the ruined globe at a moment’s notice.

All of Kerrigan’s Cerebrates were bred to think of themselves as their Queen’s favorite lieutenant – burdening powerful and valuable tools such as they with jealous compunction would not do – but of them all, the being named Boil had the greatest claim on the title. Positioned within the Queen’s own citadel, the pulsing mound of flesh and psionic essence was the principal commander of Kerrigan’s elite guard. A pair of other Cerebrates kilometers away boosted the level of coordination he could impose on his subordinates and were tasked with the defense of their own sectors, but he was the prime mover. With his consciousness bent to the task of securing the Queen of Blades and her fortress, the entire continent around him became a single, mighty rampart, manned by a host of the finest Zerg genetic stock.

When the defensive platforms above began to disintegrate under the assault of two dozen tiny fightercraft, the invader’s greatest weapons, Boil was unconcerned. He was eager for the pitiful creatures to intrude further. He wished for nothing more than a chance to serve.

The breakthrough had taken a heavy toll on the Allied formation, but two dozen ships had managed to penetrate Earth’s innermost orbital perimeter. The collection of heavily-battered vessels was focused on the quickly-growing landscape below them, pumping its energy reserves into shields that glowed brightly as they absorbed the heat and resistance of rapid atmospheric entry. It was obvious that large-scale bombardment was not on the mind of the approaching commander; his objective was landfall.

Boil was eager to see the frail beings that would disgorge from the ships meet the claws and teeth of his vanguards, but duty to his Queen prompted him to make the first move. An organic engine of war, Boil was only dimly aware of the perverted humor behind his given name, but he was instinctually compelled to seize tactical opportunity when it presented itself.

A chain of thoughts spread from the Cerebrate, passing through hardened rock and stone and worked its way into the minds of billions of lesser creatures. It was both rallying cry and coordinating impulse: Boil had concluded that the entirety of the approaching force was focused on the lands surrounding the Queen’s fortress. Half a globe away, warrens emptied. Zerg spawn poured into waiting, living transports, and the giant sacs of gas and flesh rose into the air, obscene flocks converging upon the expanse of desert and corrupted wilderness Kerrigan had made her home. Nearer spawning complexes excreted an even greater volume of ravening minions, and they stampeded over land-fouling creep and through lifeless soil, compelled forward by the Cerebrate’s alarm.

The impending reinforcements were a necessary usage of available forces, but Boil was confident that they would be unneeded. Overlords, lesser coordinating minds that served as field commanders of sorts, conduits of a Cerebrate’s will, were scattered across the lands surrounding the fortress. The psionic fields they generated had the side-effect of disrupting the matter-energy transporters the beings that had once thrived on Earth used so much. Boil had seen the havoc this wreaked amongst the human ranks first hand in his infancy, during the disastrous evacuation sparked by the Queen’s emergence. Now, the devices would not be able to deploy soldiers, either, so the invaders would be forced to land their vessels.

That gave Boil the chance to slaughter the interlopers before a single one could set foot on the planet’s surface.

The first Allied ships crossed into stratosphere hurtling over a blackened ocean for a few moments before they reached the western tip of the continent they called Africa. As soon as they did, hill-sized cysts bulging from the dark slime that covered the coastal areas exploded violently. Amidst fountains of gore, the organic constructs unleashed Boil’s first line of defense: thousands of Scourges like those still harassing the fleet in orbit. The flying beasts surged after the hurtling artificial forms, toothy maws clacking excitedly.

Weakened by the breakneck descent and the preceding battle, the first Allied ships were no match for the suicidal attackers. Under the precision guidance of one of Boil’s adjunct Cerebrates, the Scourges found their targets within seconds, bashing through failing shields and biting deeply into taxed hull plating. Half a dozen of the invaders simply disintegrated in mid-air or spun out, their maneuvering jets disabled. Now easy targets, the wounded ships were torn apart by other massive growths that dotted the landscape, ones which lobbed explosively-corrosive spores into their hulls as they passed overhead.

The remaining Allied vessels were scattered, staggered out across half of the continent, but they pressed on, and Boil set about bringing them down one by one. Perhaps, he reflected with a tinge of regret and disgust, the pitiful creatures wouldn’t require a single pack of Zerglings to dispose of.

Then something wrenched at his mind. It was a feeling unlike any he had felt in his short life. Another Cerebrate was crying out for aid. His brother was… afraid.

He switched the breadth of his attention towards the other, located a few hundred kilometers north of the Queen’s citadel. Almost as old as him, Welt was tasked primarily with overseeing the region’s air forces, the Scourges and other Zerg minions gifted with flight. Boil reached out, communing with the Cerebrate, and received a few flashed of thought. Explosions rocking the earth. Zerg flesh burning. The small, angular forms of starfighters surging through the lower atmosphere, their weapons alight.

Then, a scream, and silence.

Confused by the sudden absence of the other’s thoughts, Boil pulled back, commandeering the eyes of an Overlord positioned near the living complex that sheltered Welt. The image he was presented was distorted and shaky, and he could barely force the creature to turn towards the site of his brother’s post. Nevertheless, he perceived the organic construct, or rather the patch of desert where it had once lain. A column of black smoke rose from a deep scar in the land, and nothing else moved within Boil’s frame of vision. The bone shell of the other Cerebrate and the rooted creatures that had attended it were gone. A moment later, the image faded away: the Overlord had succumbed to injuries sustained during the attack.

Boil was still processing what he had just seen and felt when a voice crept into him, filling his mind completely and irresistibly.

Welt was careless. The Queen of Blades seemed completely unfazed by the sudden loss. He let the Alliance starfighters get too close. But do not concern yourself. We are safe from their weapons here, and I have told your other brother to tighten his defenses. Now, return to the battle. See if they have anything else to offer. I am waiting…

The overriding consciousness slipped away, and Boil was left feeling refreshed, unburdened by fear. If the Queen was unconcerned, then he had no cause for alarm. Welt’s loss was unexpected, but hardly devastating. His forces would fall easily under Boil’s sway until a new Cerebrate could be grown. Perhaps his Queen would even resurrect Welt with the spark of his brother she kept within herself. No organ of the Swarm truly died as long as the heart was still beating.

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

Lt. Commander Addel and more than half of his remaining fighters shot away from the remains of the Zerg coordinator, atmospheric flaps open and straining against the wind of a gathering storm system. The pilots scanned the darkening African sky for signs of the Scourges that had harassed them since they had followed Battle Group Earth into the planet’s lower atmosphere, but their work had granted them a momentary respite. Tassadar’s tip, a short-burst communiqué from one of the Starfleet ships containing a simple set of coordinates, had paid off.

The Scourges weren’t the only creatures affected by the loss of the Cerebrate. The Overlords that had been feeding its orders to lesser minions were disoriented and directionless, suddenly without the invisible, guiding hand that they were designed to depend upon. The surviving Cerebrates hurried to regain control of their conduits, but the disruption only needed to last for a few moments. The Overlord’s psionic broadcasts had subsided, and so had their interference on the transporters within the Allied ships.

At more than a dozen sites where holes in the curtain of disruption had appeared, some less than twenty kilometers from Kerrigan’s fortress, the glimmer of materialization beams shown behind rocky outcroppings and in sheltered depressions. The energy-matter transferences did not go unnoticed by Boil and his observers, and he immediately dispatched hundreds of warriors to scout each incursion site and prevent the expansion of the new arrivals. Only a handful of Allied vessels remained intact, most still moving rapidly towards the Queen’s citadel: the rest had fallen victim to the clouds of Scourges that still prowled the skies, forced to ground hundreds of kilometers away or destroyed outright. Boil delegated the task of tracking them to his remaining subordinate, and turned his attention to the transportation sites.

The field of vision of an Overlord attached to one of the fastest responding groups caught his attention. Below the bulbous, floating creature, he saw hundreds of sets of powerful legs pounding the barren ground. A sea of quadruped Zerglings rushed over exposed rocks and tore through dead vegetation with raised claws, and among them he perceived the powerful, serpentine forms of Hydralisks, their keen sense’s trained for the slightest hint of prey.

A few partially caved-in buildings, all that remained of a once-vibrant human settlement, came into view and Boil compelled his minions towards them: the ruins were ideal beachheads for the invaders.

The swarm of Zerg hurried down the wind-swept remnants of a roadway into the town, disregarding opportunities for stealth or cover in favor of speed and overwhelming numbers. As his horde closed within a few dozen meters of the first building, Boil expected the first lances of phaser fire to burst from roofs and windows, but the structures remained lifeless, still the graves they had been for months. Intrigued, he moved his Overlord closer, compelling it to navigate between the sagging wrecks of what had once been apartments and shops.

Rounding a vacant edifice, the Cerebrate finally found his targets: a dozen or more humans and Klingons standing beneath the graying awning of a little hotel. The hunting packs saw them too, and surged forward, some hissing or chattering with anticipation. Boil noted that the humanoids did not move to cover or open fire on the ravening creatures; they simply stared at their impending destruction, phaser rifles held at their hips. Fear had frozen them, perhaps, the Cerebrate mused. Pitiful creatures.

The lead Zerglings dove into their ranks, ready to taste hot blood and living flesh, and yet none moved an inch or made a sound. This gave Boil pause, and the Zerglings as well. They ground to a halt, peering up at their prospective victims with tiny eyes, glazed with uncertainty. One sniffed the air and backed away from the stolid soldiers. A Hydralisk moved through the ranks of the lesser warriors, stopped before a Starfleet officer, and swung at it with a scythe-like claw; a decapitating blow.

But the man’s head did not fall from its shoulders. Instead, a metallic clang resounded from him and he vanished in a spasm of horizontal static. In his place, the erect shaft of a photon torpedo stood affixed to the ground. The silvery chassis of a holographic projector, bisected by the Zerg’s blow, fell sparking from the weapon’s armored shell. A moment later, the other soldiers vanished, and in their place stood another pair of the devices. The impact seemed to have triggered something within the first, and a display on its side lit with a few blue numerals.

The numbers flashed twice. Deep within his protective cavern, Boil’s brain-mass twitched.

Fourteen points of light and heat swelled across the continent’s surface. Thousands of Zerg warriors died instantly, utterly obliterated by the photon blasts. Hundreds of Overlords and other greater beasts perished as well, momentarily blinding their masters and sending psionic feedback roiling across hundreds of kilometers. The uncounted hordes that had rushed to their Queen’s defense reeled, and their monarch sat up in her throne, her thin smile gone.

When the sky cleared of glare, Zerg alone occupied it. Battle Group Earth had landed.

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

The Master Chief stepped carefully from the hold of a shuttlecraft into the landing bay of the Excelsior-class Montgomery. The deck plate beneath his feet was at an incline, less than ten degrees, but still enough to require some attention to balance as he stepped away from the transport. The dim illumination of emergency lights above and the unusual orientation of the chamber – a sign of failing gravitational fields - was enough to tell the Chief that the ship had suffered quite a beating during its “landing”. The impact had been jarring even through the inertial dampeners of the shuttle, and he was willing to bet that the Montgomery would never fly again.

The bay seemed relatively intact: it had been completely stripped down before the Allied Fleet’s journey to the Sol system, and eight shuttlecraft had been carefully packed and secured into its relatively small area. One of the vessels had broken from its restraints during the landing, and was now leaning against a dented bulkhead with a fractured nacelle case, but the rest were in place and undamaged. They were all top-of-the line craft, short-range rectangular shuttles, hastily modified for added durability and firepower. These were the Chief’s warhorses, the armor and air support of Allied combined arms. They weren’t the Scorpion battle tanks or Pelican dropships of the UNSC Marine Corps, but they would do.

He hoped, at least.

The main hatches of the shuttles opened and Allied soldiers poured into the bay. The ten-man load out of each set about their pre-assigned duties, freeing their ships from crash bands and external inertial absorption units, checking them for damage, and checking the weapons and equipment each carried. It was noisy work, but the Chief noted little bravado or pre-battle chatter among them. Perhaps it was the jarring nature of their entry into the battle. Perhaps it was the knowledge that some had already lost friends and colleagues today, lost with those ships that didn’t reach ground.

Or perhaps it was the fact that, deep down, they didn’t think they were ready for the fight. Most were Starfleet security officers or Klingon soldiers, used to ship-to-ship combat exercises and small-scale urban actions; experienced Alliance marines were few and far between. Very few of them had ever fought Zerg face-to-face. Most of the battles of the war had been fought and lost in space, and few escaped the world-bound slaughters that inevitably followed. The Chief and Major Truul had prepared them as best they could, but they had had only a few days, mostly taken over with the formation of combat squads and rapid training of unit leaders.

The Chief could see that they all had to will to fight. But they lacked appropriate training. They lacked a tried-and-true command structure. They lacked real armor support, and weapons worthy of full-scale ground combat.

Will would have to be enough.

“Communications officer!” he called, moving away from the bustle that filled most of the chamber.

An Alliance marine turned from the door of his shuttle and hurried over.

“Sir?”

“Do we have a link with the other ships?”

“The Montgomery’s comm suite is busted, sir, but we’ve chained the systems of the shuttle group. There’s a lot of interference out there, but we’ve got responses from the Troy, Rhine, Butte, and Gla’Mach.”

“And the rest?”

More than half of the battle group had been composed of crewless decoy ships, programmed to cover the descent of those vessels that contained Allied ground troops, but there had still been over a dozen that had been intended to make landfall.

The soldier shook his head. “It’s possible that some were forced down beyond comm range. Our effective range with all the distortion the Zerg are putting out is less than fifty kilometers. As for the rest…”

The Chief didn’t need him to finish the sentence. Anticipated casualties for the first stage of the incursion had been high.

“Get me the Troy and the Gla’Mach.”

The communications officer hurried back to his shuttecraft, checked with a few soldiers inside and then turned back.

“I’m patching them to your comm line,” he called. “It’ll take a few more seconds, and I can’t guarantee how long I’ll be able to hold the signal.”

The Chief nodded, and then made for the bay’s outer wall, which was now open to the air outside. Climbing to its edge, he stepped past a group of Starfleet crewers and peered at the landscape beyond.

The gray-white aft sections of the Montgomery stretched out for a hundred meters below him. To either side, the pylons of the ship’s warp nacelles rose up, obscuring some of the view. The higher, on the left, seemed largely undamaged, but the right was badly mangled, its base ground into the scorched dirt. Its drive was partially broken free, and looked as though it was in danger of falling upon the outstretched branch of its support. The ship had evidently run up against a hill or rise, and its whole port side was pressed into the furrowed ground.

The African Savanna lay beyond. The Chief had never seen the place – the Africa of his Earth - outside of educational vids in his youth, but he knew what it should have looked like. Dry and rocky grassland, stretching from horizon to horizon, dotted with isolated lakes and the occasional village or town. He fleetingly pictured herds of endangered elephants and hunting prides of lions, romanticized visions that were probably far-fetched even on his industrialized world.

Whether the Federation’s version of Earth could once have upheld the fantasy before Kerrigan’s arrival, it certainly could not now. The roiling plains and rocky outcroppings were still visible beneath the darkening sky, but they were covered in a dark-purple sheen that choked out vegetation and blocked sand from view. The thick mat of slime, creep, as Tassadar had called it, enveloped virtually all the land in the Chief’s line of sight. The Montgomery’s landing had carved a long, broad furrow in the material, leaving charred earth and cast-up stones in its place, but it looked as though the substance was already beginning to probe the still-hot surface, eager to consume it once more.

The endless field of tainted, livid ooze was only broken by a single landmark. Almost directly in front of the Spartan, the gray hulk of a mountain filled the horizon. Through a haze that seemed to emanate from the creep itself, he could see its barren, vertical slopes and long, gradual peak. The natural monolith seemed relatively untouched by the dark mat that engulfed everything around it, but the Chief’s enhanced vision could perceive buildings or constructs of some kind rooted in its crags and beyond its steep slopes.

This was Mount Kilimanjaro, the greatest peak on the entire continent. And, if Tassadar was right, the seat of Kerrigan’s power. As the Master Chief stared at the imposing mass of rock, he couldn’t help but admire the audacity of the Zerg Queen’s choice. It was obvious, certainly, and subtly was often a far better defense than ramparts of stone, but it was still an intimidating obstacle for any attacker to even approach, much less overcome. And the Chief knew that the path there would be haunted by beings far more formidable than lions.

The comm unit in his helmet crackled.

“Sierra,” he reported.

“Beta,” crackled Truul’s voice, heavily distorted but still recognizable.

“Alpha,” Jacen Solo said a moment later. “Quite a landing.”

“Status?”

“Clear. Beta Unit is on target and ready to go. Gamma missed her mark by about a kilometer, but she’s gearing up, too.”

The Chief nodded slightly, ticking off points of a mental checklist. Gamma Unit, attached to the Butte, was headed by Commander Worf. All the strike commanders had survived landfall.

“We’re clear, too,” Jacen said. “Alpha Core is eager to move.”

Alpha Core, Tassadar, was the pivotal component of the strike force. He had provided them with as much intel on the disposition of the Zerg defense as he could on the way down, and picked up on hidden warrior concentrations and traps conventional scans had missed. The High Templar was also absolutely set upon penetrating Kerrigan’s fortress himself, and it was everyone else’s job to make sure he got there.

The creep and the darkness that seemed to rise from it made it difficult to see at any distance accurately, but the Chief perceived movement around the base of the mountain, only a few kilometers away. A great deal of movement.

It was time.

The Chief spun from the opening and jogged towards his waiting shuttle, now free of its restraints. The other soldiers were already piling into theirs, phaser rifles, disruptors and blasters at their sides.

“Mission clock: zero three point five,” he said, checking his HUD’s chronometer. “Sierra is deploying.”

“I copy.” Truul sounded calm and professional, in his element. “Beta and Gamma are engaging the Secondary. We’ll keep as many of them off you as we can.”

“Alpha and Epsilon are ready to join up with you, Chief,” Jacen said, more noticeably nervous. “May the Force be with you. And you, Major.”

“And you, Solo. Let’s show Queen Bitch what we can do. Time’s wasting.”

“Copy that, Beta,” the Chief said. “I’ll see you all at the Primary. Sierra out.”

The Spartan shared a short nod with his two lieutenants, a Klingon in full battle regalia and a woman in a shock-padded Starfleet uniform, and then climbed into his shuttle. The door closed quickly behind him and he climbed passed twin rows of seats, packed with Allied personnel. Some looked wide-eyed at the armored giant as he walked past. Others checked the sights on their weapons, avoiding eye contact with anyone else.

He could only hope they were ready. The task before them was one he wouldn’t give lightly, even to a corps of Spartans like himself. No one had told them it was a suicide mission, but they all must have known it probably was.

And yet, they were all there with him. They knew that this was their last hope, every one. They would succeed because there was no other option, even if none of them lived to see the flag of victory raised. And that resolve was all any commander could ask for.

The Master Chief Stopped behind the pilot and peered out through the canopy at the looming face of the mountain, and the creature it housed. Above it, he could see the minute, flitting forms of winged beasts, Scourges and other monstrosities. The Zerg citadel was a scant few kilometers away, but moving on foot over open terrain, pock-marked with Zerg holes and writhing with thousands of enemy contacts, would be impossible. Air was their only option.

“Keep us fast and low, pilot.”

“Affirmative, sir.” The man looked up at the supersoldier’s faceplate, and attempted a weak smile. “The bottom of this ship we’ll be purple by the time we get there.”

The Chief laid a hand lightly on the pilot’s shoulder. He looked back up at the mountain, and then at the storm-laden sky. For an instant, he thought he heard a familiar voice just by his ear, a joke or focusing remark, but there was only the rev of his shuttle’s drives and the breathing of the men behind him.

“Sir?”

The Chief grabbed a handhold on the frame above him.

“Punch it.”

As the ship surged from the Montgomery’s landing bay, the Chief realized that he would willingly take on Kerrigan’s hordes alone, if only that little voice was back inside his helmet.

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

The Millennium Falcon tumbled through space, its flattened hull flipping almost end over end. It maneuvering thrusters fired in an automated sequence intended to stabilize the freighter’s course, but the ship continued to wobble violently, dipping suddenly and then overcorrecting only to plunge into another barely-controlled spin. The space it had inhabited moments before was filled with an expanding cloud of fragmented hull plating, some of it still superheated from high-velocity contact with the Falcon’s skin-tight deflector screen. The angular hulk of a Klingon cruiser drifted away from the field, bleeding more debris from a massive breach in its midsection. The red illumination visible through slots in its angular nacelles flickered dangerously.

Han Solo ground his teeth, straining against his control yoke and the sudden increase in G-forces he could feel pressing on his body. An unwelcome hissing in the bulkhead above his head confirmed his suspicions: his ship’s primary inertial dampeners had been knocked offline by the glancing impact with the Zerg warship. Fortunately, the auxiliaries had kicked in. If they hadn’t, he and everyone aboard would be unpleasant-looking paste smeared on the deck plates.

A long, arcing push with his main sublights and a few emergency blasts from the ventral thrusters managed to stabilize the Falcon’s roll, but his instrument panel was still going wild, and Han couldn’t take his eyes off his navigational displays and the wide canopy before him long enough to sort them out. The crimson glow of a photon torpedo shot across his bow, forcing him to initiate another dive to avoid the subsequent detonation.

A single bead of sweat dripped onto Han’s eyebrow. The odor of burning polyplast and an echoing roar from deeper within the ship were doing little to improve his concentration.

“There was nothing I could do!” he called out to his perturbed gunner. A lance of phaser energy lased against the freighter’s underside, and another light on Han’s interface began to blink angrily. “Even the heavier ships are trying to ram us now! It was all I could do to avoid their center mass!”

The bellow that thundered down the access corridor beyond the bridge in response sounded unconvinced.

“Just keep on that gun, Chewie! I can’t draw a bead on the Cerebrate if I’m dodging exploding eyeballs and flying plates!”

And Picard had been right about the Cerebrate. As soon as the Millennium Falcon had gotten within a thousand kilometers of the fast little Starfleet picket ship the Captain had pointed out, all its escorts had opened up on him with suicidal fervor. They were still more sluggish than the other infested warships the Falcon had engaged, but whatever the Protoss had done to them was wearing off, and the freighter was still outnumbered ten to one, not counting the Scourges that were still flitting between the larger enemy vessels.

Han felt the report of his ship’s pair of quad laser cannons through the soles of his boots as he surged past a pair of ponderous Cardassian hulls. As he shot around them in a wide arc, a contact dropped off of his FOF scanner.

Nine to one. Han grinned. Those were odds he could deal with.

The Corellian yanked on his maneuvering pulls and the stars before him briefly spun into dashes of light before stopping again. The turn had placed a new point of light directly in Han’s sights. Electronic aides showed a representation of the Cerebrate’s ship, surging as quickly as its drives were able towards the gentle, bright arc of Earth. The Falcon outperformed Starfleet designs in virtually every category of comparison, but some could still top it at sublight speeds, and it looked like the Zerg coordinator had chosen one that did. There was no way he could get within weapons range of it before it disappeared into the thick of the Earthward Zerg battle line.

That was, if he played fair.

Heavy footfalls pounded through the low hatchway of the Falcon’s cockpit. Han didn’t take his eyes off the receding point of light. He jabbed at the interface of a navigation panel, his brow furrowed.

“Chewie, the guns!”

Chewbacca pulled a breath mask from his muzzle and moaned urgently, indicating back down the entryway, which was now choked with acrid smoke.

“I know the automated fire suppressors are offline. Have one of the guys you’ve got on the quads grab a hand-held.”

The Wookiee was about to turn back into the haze when he caught sight of what Han was doing and issued an alarmed question.

“You recalibrated the micro-jump ranging in the navicomputer before we left, right?”

A cautious affirmative sound.

Han grinned.

“Then you’d better grab a seat, buddy. This’ll be tight.”

Chewbacca wailed and threw himself into the co-pilot’s chair. Before the Wookiee even hit the cushions, Han deactivated a safety switch with a flick and shoved forward on his control sticks.

“Come on, baby.”

The stars before them surged into smears of light as the freighter lurched into hyperspace. Before Chewbacca could even fully register the change, the Millennium Falcon jerked back into realspace with a tremendous bang that rattled every plate, person, and machine within its hull. The abrupt jump and reemergence knocked Alliance techs standing in the Falcon’s hold off their feet and into the nearest bulkheads and slammed the breath out of both the occupants of its cockpit.

Han tried to ignore the pained screech of overtaxed machinery from his ship’s aft sections and pushed through the suffocating blackness that attempted to close over his eyes. The transparisteel canopy was now filled with nothing but interstellar blackness and the distant sparkle of alien suns. Holding his breath, Han sent his ship into a narrow, 180-degree turn. For an instant, there was nothing before him but more stars…

… and then the full mass of Earth loomed directly before them, eclipsing the rest of space with its great, blue form. They were now just beyond the Zerg line and the heart of the battle. And between them, a small shape against the planet’s reflected shine, still racing from an unseen pursuer.

“Chewie!” Han demanded, pushing into his controls again. “Missiles!”

The Wookiee’s huge paws fell upon his weapons interface without question as the ship surged forward, closing what remained of the gap. Within the freighter’s split forward section, a pair of blue-tinted concussion missiles slid from storage racks into waiting shafts.

The smooth lines of the Cerebrate’s runner resolved against the glare, a spot of black in a wall of light.

Han’s eyes widened.

“Now!”

One after the other, two elongated projectiles rocketed from the Millennium Falcon, slashing through space so quickly that Han and Chewie barely saw the flash of their departure. They flew straight and true, adjusting only slightly with the mounting gravity of the planet beyond. No other corrections were required; Han Solo had aimed well.

The first missile shot under the Zerg ship’s drive section, missing its shield bubble by meters. Before it could travel any further, however, the second found its mark, and both ignited with tremendous force. The shield shattered uselessly and the vulnerable plating underneath was laid bare to the ravaging energies of the twin weapons.

The two pilots shared a yell of triumph as they watched the flayed remnants of the Cerebrate’s vessel plummet into Earth’s yawning gravity well.

The fragmented vestiges of the ship burned into nothingness as they were pulled into Earth’s atmosphere, joining the storm of fiery streaks that rippled across half a hemisphere. Much of the debris was the handiwork of the Allied fleet earlier in the battle, but an increasing volume of the rain of misshapen duranium ingots and charred casings was the product of Zerg resistance. As the Millennium Falcon skimmed Earth’s outer atmosphere and surged back towards the main combat zone, the significance of those lost vessels became clear.

The five space-borne task forces of the Allied fleet, arranged into cohesive forward and rear combat fronts when the Falcon had begun its hunt, had compacted into a rapidly-shrinking orb. Pinned in the space above the African continent, the fleet was almost completely surrounded by the massed Zerg armada. Only a narrow, planetward corridor on the fleet’s perimeter remained free of enemy ships, and that too was beset by half a dozen tendrils of infested contacts. The rest of the space around the allied force was crowded with an endless number of confused dogfights and a still greater quantity of shattered hulls.

Captain Picard stared at the Enterprise’s primary viewscreen, his hand clenched tightly on the back of his navigation officer’s chair. Before him, a thin band of Klingon warships maneuvered through a screen of debris and phaser fire. The formation, no more than twenty ships, was all that remained of Battle Group Qo’nos. General K’Nera’s forces had been cut off when the Allied fleet had begun to collapse inwards, and hadn’t made contact with any of the other commanders since.

“Has Qo’nos reached the Fleet’s perimeter?” Picard asked, turning to Commander Data.

The android glanced down at one of his displays. “They will reach it in eighty seconds, sir. However, it appears that the Zerg units pursuing it have not broken off. They will overtake Qo’nos in forty five seconds.”

“Can’t the squadrons in that sector assist?”

“Negative, sir. All ships within range are heavily engaged. Diverting units in that area might allow for an even larger incursion.”

Picard looked back at the Klingon ships, keenly aware that there were fewer of them displayed than when he had last looked.

With the Alliance fighters tasked with providing air support for Battle Group Earth, the Allied fleet was severely out-gunned. The Zerg armada had lost a Cerebrate due to General Solo’s efforts and perhaps another during Earth’s breakthrough, but sheer weight of numbers was made up for their lessened coordination. The Fleet as a whole was down to half-strength, and it was all that it could do to hold the sphere above in orbit above Africa. The remnants of each battle group were beset by unending series of suicide charges and running low on heavy munitions. The Zerg casualties were staggering, but at the rate the battle was progressing, the Alliance would run out of ships and missiles long before Kerrigan’s minions did.

The Allied forces had to rally if there was to be any hope of their survival, and Picard knew that losing an entire division of the fleet would make such a turnabout even more unlikely.

“Helm, put us on an intercept with Qo’nos’ pursuers,” Picard ordered.

“Sir, if this squadron leave the line…” the tactical officer began to protest.

“Not our squadrons,” Picard said. “Just the Enterprise. Have the other captains keep their ships here. The perimeter must hold.”

There was a momentary lull on the bridge as the command officers digested the significance of the order. Data stared at his commanding officer and Picard locked eyes with him. What he had just ordered them to do was logically and tactically unsound; risking a command ship to potentially cover another could result in the loss of both. And even if the distraction of the Enterprise’s attack managed to buy the Klingons enough time to rejoin the rest of the fleet, the ship would be alone in the midst of overwhelming numbers. Had Riker been sitting in Data’s chair, he would have abandoned decorum and jumped up to dispute the plan in full face of the captain’s crew. Picard would have expected him to; the move was suicide.

Data’s face was impassive, but he did not respond immediately. Picard knew his second was carefully considering the order, trying to deduce its possible precursors and likely outcome.

Trust, Data.

“I suggest that you keep the Enterprise within the Fleet’s as long as possible, sir,” Data said, only slightly more slow and careful than unusual. “It will decrease the likelihood of the Zerg units anticipating our maneuver.”

Picard’s lips creased with relief.

“Make it so.”

The Enterprise banked away from its flanking host of Starfleet warships and shot away from Earth, arcing to match the tight curve of the besieged battle line.

As embattled warships and tumbling wrecks turned into streaks of light and movement, Picard looked out towards the great circle of Luna and the dim stars beyond, eerily placid against the carnage they backed.

If you’re out there, now is the time.



The Rift
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-03-23 02:34am
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The Arbiter
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Sixty Nine


Jacen Solo leapt easily from one rocky outcropping to the next on the steep slope. The dry stone and dust beneath his feet crumbled and shifted at his weight, but he steadied himself by throwing out both arms, careful to keep a tight grip on the lightsaber grip clasped in his right hand. When he was sure of his balance, Jacen scanned the bare slope before him, and continued his ascent. The sound of a dozen, trudging pairs of feet kept pace on either side, almost masking the chorus of heavy breathing and jostling equipment that emanated from young Jedi’s companions. The hurried progress of the mixed group of Starfleet and Alliance personnel did not slow even when they came to a shallow trough in the steep slope. They plowed through the thicket of dead vegetation that filled it and scaled the other side, intent on the crest of the rocky face, less than ten meters ahead.

A roar of super-compressed air directed Jacen’s attention skyward. As he glanced at the dark, roiling sky, the green-sided form of an Alliance starfighter streaked overhead. Close behind the A-Wing, which had passed less than a hundred meters above them, half a dozen scaled creatures shot past, their massive, clawed wings beating the air vigorously. Several of the flighted Zerg loosed keening cries, and one discharged a convulsing projectile from the tip of its curved, tail-like body.

Jacen did not turn to see if the Zerg had hit its target. Several of his soldiers had already reached the lip of rocky earth at the slope’s peak, and he hurried to join them. A few long strides brought him there, and he helped push a puffing Starfleet officer over the edge. The run up the slope, although brief, had been exhausting, and Jacen had already been forced to tap into the Force to preserve his stamina.

To his relief, the next being to reach the ridge also appeared to have maintained his strength.

“Tassadar,” he said, extending an arm to help the towering alien onto the lip of gravel and exposed stone. Tassadar accepted the help and heaved his armored bulk up next to the Jedi.

“I am the last,” he intoned, looking down at Jacen without any outward signs of distress. “Is this place secure?”

Jacen nodded. There was another trough just beyond the ridge, and the others had piled into it, their blasters and phaser rifles drawn even as they caught their collective breath.

“We should stop here for a minute. They might not get another chance to rest for a long time.”

“We must not tarry, Solo,” Tassadar replied. “No place on this mountain is safe, and it will not be long until Kerrigan brings the full force of her multitudes against us.”

Jacen glanced at his squad, and then looked back down the sloped they had just scaled. It had been a rough climb, steep and marred by unstable mounds of stone, but they hadn’t encountered a single Zerg warrior during the course of their ascent. The lack of resistance puzzled Jacen; the ridge on which they stood was not part of the main mass of Mount Kilimanjaro – rather, it was a long spine of raised rock that trailed from the main formation to a group of smaller peaks hundreds of meters away – but it’s rough surface was ideal for hiding ambush holes and traps. Tassadar’s pointed face was impassive, but Jacen thought could sense unease from the templar as well.

Far down the slope, Jacen could make out the shuttle that had brought them all to the mountainside. They had been forced into a controlled crash by fire from a Zerg anti-air growth and come to ground well short of their final target, and had hastily abandoned the ship in an attempt to avoid the inevitable clean-up units. No one was left to guard the shuttle. Jacen tried not to think about how little thought had been given to escape from Kerrigan’s fortress, should they succeed.

As the young Jedi watched, the mountain’s guardians finally appeared; from the lifeless, dusty slope, dozens of tiny, inhuman forces suddenly swept over the shuttle. They seemed to come from nowhere, but as Jacen looked on, he noticed a pack of the creatures scrabble from a shaft hidden behind a cairn of stones.

“This place is wormed with their tunnels,” Tassadar warned. “They can emerge from any part of it. We must not linger.”

Jacen nodded, and turned to the others.

“We’re heading out up the ridge. Keep to the rocks as much as you can, and watch out for any…”

His gut clenched. Danger.

He cast about for the source of the abrupt premonition. Then the ground beneath his feet began to tremble.

“Out!” he shouted. “Out of the dip!”

The soldiers threw themselves at the sides of the depression, but before any could clamber out of it fully, its bottom cracked and transformed into a churning pool of rubble. There was another great tremor, and Tassadar and Jacen were nearly knocked off their feet into the trough. Before their eyes, a wide swath of ruptured ground fell away and a pair of massive legs and wide, hoofed feet burst from below. The limbs scrabbled for purchase on the sides of the depression, and an angular head burst up between them, showering the fleeing soldiers with fist-sized rocks.

The creature that tore itself from the ground was massive, easily as tall as a mature Rancor and far more massive. Its four muscular legs, each thicker than two men, supported a squat body of thick hide and chitinous plate. Atop this mass was the creature’s head, a huge, flattened barrel that seemed to serve as little more than a pivot for the pair of meters-long bone scythes that flanked it. The mind Jacen perceived within its hardened skull was animalistic and chaotic, impossible to reach with the calming influence of the Force. The fire that Kerrigan instilled in all her minions both sheltered it and drove it towards oblivion.

The Jedi ignited his lightsaber. The burst of light and sound drew the creature’s attention, allowing the soldiers who had escaped the shower of debris more time to flee. Slowly, it pulled itself from its hole and planted its front feet on the ridge to Jacen’s either side. He watched its ponderous movements and tensed himself, waiting for the thing to try and bring the massive hooves down upon him.

There was a twang of tendons, and the creature’s outstretched scythes swung together on back-slung jaws. The sudden movement caught Jacen off-guard, but before could make a move to escape the double guillotine, a blow to his back sent Jacen tumbling down into the trough, directly under the titan. As he slid through dislodged gravel, Jacen heard the blades clash together uselessly.

Slamming his foot onto a jut of rock, Jacen stopped is descent at the edge of the hole the creature above him had created and pushed himself to his knees. Looking back, he saw Tassadar standing on the ridge where he had been, just beyond the beast’s withdrawing mandibles.

“Its knees!” Tassadar called, just as the creature swept a leg across the ridge at the Protoss, unleashing a wave of dust and earth. The high templar seemed to simply vanish a moment before the blow reached him, but Jacen didn’t waste a moment to try and find him again. He leapt to his feet and focused on the beast’s hind legs, perched centimeters from the pit’s edge.

In a moment he was next to one, and his blade slashed into the leg at the joint, above the protective growths that etched up from its hoof. The lightsaber punched through its hide, but its progress was not easy, and Jacen was only able to inflict a shallow gash before the beast drew the injured leg up and then smashed it down, trying to the squash the interloper. Jacen avoid the foot, but the shock of its impact against the ground sent him sprawling.

Lances and darts of fiery light splashed against the creature’s body and neck from several directions. The outer layers of its hide boiled and charred, but the biological war machine shrugged off the blows, turning its attention towards the scattered ring of soldiers that surrounded it. With unerring speed, it stomped towards a knot of three and swung its head down upon them. Its blades slashed into the soldiers, and Jacen heard their screams as he pushed himself from the silt.

Before he could even find his footing, the creature was back on top of him, intent upon a group of Allied soldiers on the other side of the depression. A massive hoof came down upon Jacen, but he anticipated the movement and rolled to the side. The creature lumbered past and Jacen rose once more.

He watched a Starfleet officer lash across one of its forelegs with his phaser. The beast shuddered, but the blast did not stop it from crushing the hapless man and clench another between its jaws.

Tassadar was right about its knees, Jacen knew, but the Allied soldiers lacked the firepower and cohesion to bypass its dense hide. His blade might work, but he doubted he’d survive many more forays beneath the beast’s crushing feet.

The titan flailed at another retreating officer, knocking a large rock from the ridge into the air. Jacen side-stepped the missile, and promptly had to lean forward to stop himself from falling backwards into the pit left by the creature’s emergence. Glancing down, he saw that the hole was quite deep, despite the mounds of debris knocked into it in the war beast’s swath.

A desperate cry of pain pulled Jacen back to the battle.

“Pull back!” Jacen ordered as loudly as he could. “Stop shooting it!”

The fire from the remaining soldiers petered out as they hurriedly complied with the Jedi’s command. The Zerg monstrosity noted the withdrawal, and made to pursue the closest pair of humanoids, put it ground to a halt when a large rock bounced off the base of its right blade.

Still standing at the brink, Jacen telekinetically wrenched another stone from the rubble and flung it at the creature’s head, waving his lightsaber in its direction as cast around for the new attacker. As he had hoped, the beast fixated on Jacen and lumbered straight at him, its pincer-head waggling up and down in anticipation.

The creature was almost within arm’s reach before Jacen moved again. It brought its head upon him, and the Jedi caught a glimpse of tiny, blank eyes deeply ensconced within it before he leapt backwards, somersaulting backwards into the air. The beast followed with significantly less grace. The ground in its path fell away, and it plummeted headlong into the pit with such force that it flipped onto its back before dropping the few meters to the hole’s clogged bottom.

Jacen alighted on the far side, but the force of the beast’s fall knocked the ground beneath him into the widening depression and he found himself being propelled towards a quartet of powerful, flailing legs that now filled its bottom. He jumped again, this time landing on the beast’s up-turned belly. It seemed not to sense the impact through its dense hide, and continued to pound at the air aimlessly with its legs. Steadying himself, Jacen marveled at what he sensed from the creature. Even its compromised state, he could sense no animal fear or drive for preservation. It desired only to fight and destroy, to satisfy the hunger that the Swarm instilled in all its beings.

The Jedi felt disgust bubble up within him. This thing was a true monstrosity, an aberration of life. Nothing would benefit from its continued existence save its equally perverted master. Staring down at the thing’s blood-stained mandibles, pressed by its own mass against the ground, he felt a sudden compulsion to slay the thing. Not just to eliminate it as a threat, but erase it from existence entirely.

Hatred and revenge are the surest paths to the Dark Side.

The mantra, one of many pounded into him during his youth, crept into his mind unbidden, and his heart slowed.

Needless killing is not the Jedi way. Destroy only when you must, and always with a mind that which you silence.

Jacen lowered his blade. The creature was thoroughly stuck. Killing it now would accomplish nothing, even if was but a thing of evil.

“Jedi Solo!”

He looked up at the edges of the pit. Several soldiers from his squad were crowded there, peering at the incapacitated titan warily.

“I’m all right,” he replied. Jacen took a last look at the struggling creature and then made from the steep wall of the depression, careful to avoid the thing’s thrashing legs.

Reaching the top, Jacen wiped dust and sweat from his face and inspected the survivors. They all seemed to be uninjured, but the surprise attack had obviously taken a toll. The empty space in their formation was a blatant-enough indicator of that.

“The others?”

“We lost five, sir,” an Alliance marine reported. A few of the others glanced at the outcropping where the Zerg’s first group of victims had been caught. “None of them made it.”

“And Tassadar?”

“I am uninjured.” The Protoss appeared from beyond the ridge, his dark cloak spattered with dust. He paused to look down at the fallen titan. “You did well, Solo. Ultralisks are formidable foes. Kerrigan has crafted her fortifications carefully, if she can hide such a beast so well.”

Jacen nodded shortly.

“We should keep moving.”

“Indeed. The Zerg that located our craft have begun to scale the ridge, and their numbers are growing.”

Jacen turned to face the main mountain face in the distance, but as he did, a new burst of premonition made him focus on the pit again. As he did, his vision was filled by the barbed frame of a leaping Zergling, its jaws wide and its claws splayed. Jacen’s lightsaber burst to life in an instant and he bisected the vicious thing, side-stepping its severed limbs as they sailed past. Tassadar bristled and the soldiers hurriedly aimed their weapons, but two more of the creatures were already upon them. Jacen slew another before it could even clear the pit, but the other leapt onto solid ground and threw itself at a hapless Starfleet officer standing less than a meter away.

The woman tried to get a bead on it with her phaser, but the weapon was barely raised when the quadruped knocked her to the ground. It arched its slimy frame, ready to tear into the woman’s flesh with tooth and claw, but the report of blaster rifle sounded from across the depression and the Zergling rolled onto its side, back shattered and smoking.

Burrowing their way out from underneath where the Ultralisk lay, more Zerglings appeared, taking advantage of the racket of the larger Zerg’s struggles to clamber up the shifting slopes unnoticed. The other soldiers opened up on the new attackers, and half a dozen of the beast rolled back into the pit, waylaying still others who were vying to emerge.

Jacen pulled the fallen officer to her feet and then gestured towards the direction of the first shot.

“Come on!”

The seven skirted around the edge of the depression, firing intermittent bursts into the hole as more Zerglings showed their malformed heads. Additional fire came from the other side; even in the dimming light, it was easy for Jacen to see where it was coming from. The Master Chief stood with one leg on a cracked shelf of rock, using his knee to help aim his weapon, an Imperial-made heavy blaster repeater, as he swept the Zerg hole. A trio of Allied personnel were still hurrying up the slope behind him.

The two groups met the Chief at the same time.

“Rig!” the Spartan demanded.

A soldier unclipped a phaser pistol from his belt and tossed it to his superior. The weapon’s small handle display was blank, and all but one of its buttons had been removed. The Chief jabbed the remaining control, and immediately it began to emit a high-pitched whine. He took aim and lobbed the jury-rigged phaser into the pit.

“Move it!”

As one, the Chief, Jacen, and the rest broke from the lip and ran for the long crest of the ridge. Behind them, the whine escalated into a screech, and then terminated in a resounding boom. Jacen squinted against the glare of the overloaded phaser and looked over his shoulder. Nothing followed them from the blackened crater.

“Almost as good as an actual incendiary,” the Chief said to himself. “Wish I had more of them.”

“Master Chief!” Jacen called, pulling alongside him.

“Solo,” he replied, slowing slightly. Behind them, Tassadar and the two squads did as best they could to keep pace and maintain their footing on the uneven terrain.

“Where are the others?”

“Zerg anti-air forced my shuttle to find an LZ short of the target zone. It was hot. I lost most of my squad, and the rest of us had to double-back on to this ridge to escape our pursuers. We still have at least twenty Zerg tailing us.”

“The same thing happened to my shuttle,” Jacen said. “We all made it out alive, but that creature in the pit came up from the ground when we reached the top of the ridge.”

The Chief nodded curtly. “The Tassadar’s intel was good. This place is honeycombed with tunnels and ambush holes.”

“What of the other units?” Tassadar asked from a few paces behind.

“Unknown. Zerg jamming intensified as soon as we began our approach. I know my unit lost at least two shuttles before we reached the mountain. Hopefully, the others made it to the target zone and are holding, or dropped early and are converging. I haven’t been able to contact Beta or Gamma since touchdown.”

“The second Cerebrate still lives,” Tassadar said. “I can still sense its mind.”

“Then we’d better hope Beta and Gamma are still operational, too.”

Jacen suppressed a grimace. He had seen his share of combat, but that had not prepared for the rate casualties were increasing. He had known all along that this might be a suicide mission, but that knowledge hadn’t really begun to sink in until the last few minutes. A Jedi was not supposed to fear death; it was but to become one with the Force, a new state of being. Nevertheless, the mounting agitation of those around him and his own, increasingly unrestrained emotions were wearing at his training.

There was a roar overhead, and an X-Wing shot over them from the direction of the main peak. The group turned to watch as it swung low over the ridge, and then peppered the lower face of one of the slopes with its quartet of laser cannons. There was a distant burst of screeching and howling, and dozens of minute forms began to tumble down the steep face. Several of the soldiers in the group loosed a weak cheer, but it was cut short as another volley of sound boomed from the air above Kilimanjaro.

Jacen could make out the form of an Alliance Y-Wing shuddering as it moved along the same trajectory that the X-Wing had taken. It was buffeted by a continual chain of violent explosions, some of which momentarily blocked it from view. The Jedi didn’t need to wonder what was assailing it; the even smaller forms of three bat-like Scourges streaked into view as the Y-Wing approached. The starfighter attempted to execute a sharp banking turn, but the evasive maneuver merely allowed the Zerg minions to slam directly into the ship’s belly. The Y-Wing crumpled immediately under the onslaught, and its wreckage dove straight down into one of the shallow crevasses that lined the mountainside.

The Chief slowed to a stop as the crash site burned in the distance.

“Air support can’t keep them off of us forever. We need to get to that mountain. Now, double-time! And keep an eye on the ground. They’re just as likely to come from below as above.”

None of the others raised a voice of objection, and soon they were running again up the increasingly-steep ridge. Before them, Kilimanjaro loomed ever higher beneath the blackening sky.

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


The trek did not take long, but by the time they left the top of the ridge for a wide ravine that cut into the mountain’s main peak, the sky had dimmed to a muddy, deep gray. The gathering twilight had seen only a minor skirmish with a patrol of Zerglings, but the relative ease of their progress seemed to unsettle Jacen and the Chief. Either Allied air cover was more effective than any of them had thought at keeping mountain’s defenders at bay, or Kerrigan was holding back. Surely, she knew that the intruders had reached the walls of her fortress, and yet they were not being overwhelmed by endless waves of Zerg both knew were lurking on all sides.

Passing by a Starfleet shuttle that had crashed at the mouth of the ravine, mercifully free of corpses, the group moved cautiously between towering walls of rock. The Chief indicated that they should all be as silent as possible, but there was little need. Each was far too occupied scanning the barren walls and listening past the distant sounds of laserfire to talk. Jacen sensed life up ahead, but his senses became cloudier with every step they took towards the mountains heart, and he could not tell if they beings he felt were friend or foe. He cast a questioning look at Tassadar, but the templar kept his eyes straight ahead and his cloak wrapped close.

At length, the officer the Chief has saved waved him close and indicated to her tricorder.

“Sir, the target zone is just ahead, beyond that jut of rock,” she whispered, indicating to a rounded, nearly vertical face of dull stone that narrowed the ravine’s floor and blocked their view.

The target zone, chosen by Tassadar before the mission had commenced, was the most likely point of entry into the mountain, an organic sphincter visible from orbital scans. If any of the other shuttle crews had survived, they would have converged on the structure.

There had been no sign of life, human or otherwise, since they had left the ridge, but Jacen noticed indentations on a patch of sand that ran up to the narrow gap.

“Footprints,” he said. “Humanoid.”

“Let’s go then,” an Alliance marine urged, glancing over his shoulder at the empty pass. He started forward, but Tassadar held out an arm.

“Wait.”

The alien moved to the side of the ravine, where the rock bowed out into their path. He scanned the surface, and then kneeled, his eyes undulating. A long finger brushed a small gouge on the base of the formation. Tassadar moved his hand up the smooth surface a meter, and then turned his gaze up along its rapidly-rising crest. Other marks marred the stone at random internals, some barely-visible scratches, others deep and wide.

“There is another path here,” he said softly. “Older, and less obvious.”

“Up that?” the Chief asked, following the templar’s gaze. The slope steep and relatively smooth, but it was far more gradual than the bowed face further along.

“I believe that this is the better way,” Tassadar replied, already testing the surface with a foot. “The lower course feels like a trap.”

The Chief looked between the templar and the pass in silence, turning the stock of his rifle over in his hands.

“I agree, Chief,” Jacen said. “There’s something wrong about this all of this. If we can approach in a way Kerrigan might not expect, we should.”

The Spartan considered Jacen for a moment longer, and then hefted his weapon onto his back, where magnetic clamps held it fast.

“Let’s make this quick, then. After the Protoss, Solo.”

Jacen turned to see that Tassadar was already making his way up the rounded face, carefully inserting his huge feet into the claw marks that had drawn his notice. The others shouldered or clipped their weapons and followed suit, and soon the opening of the ravine was empty once more.

After a few dozen meters, the slope came to narrow crack in the wall of the ravine itself and leveled off, allowing the party to slide in with their feet on even ground. The gap was so narrow that Tassadar was barely able to slide through with his back to the wall, but he persevered. Jacen noticed that the Protoss scanned the walls of the space constantly and intently as he moved, picking up on every minute scratch and cleft. More, it seemed as though he was looking beyond the rock, peering into the depths of the mountain. He didn’t have to ask what was preoccupying the templar; there was a power close at hand, as dark as the sky above.

The gap opened onto another sloping path, sided to the left by a vertical wall of rock and to the right by a sharp drop into the center of the ravine. Careful not to stray too close, Jacen peered down over the edge, but he saw nothing more than another stretch of lifeless sand and stone. Nevertheless, Tassadar remained stiff and wary, and silence hung heavily over the others.

Their narrow path inclined upwards sharply not long after the pass, widening into a ledge large enough to accommodate all of them. Beyond the far lip of the open area, Jacen perceived the end of the larger ravine, a convergence of the two steep walls that tapered down out of sight to the formation’s floor. Wind echoed through the expanse from above, but no other sounds reached their high path.

“We should hear the others by now,” an Allied soldier whispered. “And where are the fighters?”

“Cut the chatter,” the Master Chief ordered, but he eased the rifle down from his back. The others followed suit.

Tassadar took a few steps onto the ledge, but rather than making for the other side, he stop at a large alcove in the rock. It was less than a meter deep, but the heap of large stones at its back indicated that it had once gone much deeper.

The high templar pressed a huge hand against one of the boulders, and his eyes slipped shut. Jacen felt energy crackle between the Protoss and the mountain, and the hairs on his back stood on end.

“Here,” Tassadar muttered. “There is a path here.”

“I thought you said that the main entrance was our best,” the Chief said, moving alongside him.

“I could not perceive this way before. We were too far. I am not certain…”

Tassadar withdrew suddenly from the rock and his eyes flashed open. He brought his hands to his head, as if racked by a sudden pain, but when Jacen approached, he waved him off.

“No. I just felt… this is the way. It is an old tunnel. It should be safe, for a time.”

“And what about the other strike teams?” Jacen asked.

The Chief looked from one to the other, and then back at the rubble-clogged indentation. “If any made it to the mountain, they should be close by, in the ravine.”

He turned to one of the Starfleet officers who was waiting behind them. “Can your phaser penetrate this?”

She looked at the alcove, and then flipped open her tricorder. “I’ll need a moment to calibrate it if you want a stable shaft, but yes, I think so.”

“Do it.”

The officer immediately began to scan the surface, and the Chief turned back to Jacen.

“Take two men and continue down the ravine. If you find the other units, contact them and guide them back up here. I’m taking the rest in as soon as the debris is clear. Follow us in with as many men as you can locate.”

Jacen spared another glance at Tassadar, who was now leaning against the ravine wall with a hand clasped to his forehead, and then gestured to a pair of the soldiers, who fell in behind him.

They did not have to walk far. As soon as the three came to the ledge’s far lip, a wave of dread and revulsion washed over him.

From his vantage point, nearly twenty meters up the side of the ravine, he could see the entirety of the sheltered valley that made up the formation’s terminus. The path on which he stood did continue on, narrowing as it wound down to the ravine floor until it ended just short of the flattened back face. The lower of half of this face was dominated by an enormous structure, one Jacen recognized from long-range orbital shots of the entry point Tassadar had picked out for them. A lens twelve meters in diameter, the portal was tethered to the mountainside by a tangled fusion of blackened rock and livid, organic growth. A shell of gray bone and purplish plating covered the lens itself, giving the structure the appearance of a great, burrowing beetle lodged in the rock. Jacen knew that that might actually be close to the truth; the building-creature probably extended deep into the mountain, perhaps constituting most of the interior of Kerrigan’s fortress.

The open space before the biological construct had once been covered by the enveloping Zerg creep, sustenance for the menagerie of other growths that had flanked the entryway, but much of the living surface had been burned away, and the lesser structures with it. Only meters from the gutted bases of anti-air appendages, a trio of shuttlecraft sat on scorched rock. The hatches of the vessels were wide open, but Jacen saw no movement within them, or anywhere in the valley.

One of the soldiers the Jedi had chosen to accompany him choked back a gasp of horror.

Fragments of humanoid figures covered the valley floor. What Jacen had first assumed to be carbon scoring from the Allied incursion was actually a thick layer of dark blood and ichor, lit in flickering bursts by a collapsed Starfleet field beacon. Strewn throughout were fragments of humanoid forms – human, Klingon, Cardassian, Wookiee, and others wholly unrecognizable – stuck to the rock walls, dashed against the shuttles, or mounded in wet heaps before the sealed gate. The corpses of a handful of Zerg warriors lay sprawled to one side, but the vast majority of the carnage was humanoid in origin.

Jacen had seen slaughter in the Republica’s cargo bays, but this transcended even that savagery, violence brutal and indiscriminate, but quick. The scope of the death laid out below him was calculated and malicious. Butchery.

The Chief’s assessment, seen through the magnification and illumination his visor afforded him, was the same.

“Forty, at least,” he said slowly, turning away from the grisly spectacle. “It doesn’t even look like they had a chance to fight back.”

“They lie in wait,” Tassadar said softly. He hadn’t moved from the ravine wall. “We are at the heart of the Swarm. They need not make themselves know until it is their time to strike. Their prey comes to them, and cannot escape. There is need for efficiency or speed then. The beasts burst free, and the feeding begins. They, upon flesh and blood. She, upon fear, and death itself.”

“How?” Jacen sunk onto the lip, his back to the scene below. “How are we still alive? That creature back on the ridge attacked us. She must have realized that we were here, too. Why has she not sprung a trap on us?”

Tassadar let his hand fall from his face, and caught Jacen’s eyes with his own, unblinking orbs.

“Surely you have realized by now, Jedi. Our lives ended as soon as those ships reached this blackened plain. We still breathe only because she wills it. The Queen of Blades is drawing us in, deeper into a trap from which she thinks there is no escape. She wants me. She needs me to come closer.”

Tassadar paused. Jacen felt his fists clench.

“You live only because you are with me, and she has not seen fit yet to prune you from me.”

Slowly, Jacen rose from the rock, his gaze fixed on the Protoss. Tassadar did not quaver under his stare, instead returning it with equal intensity.

“You knew,” he whispered. “You knew from the start that she would let you come here to face her.”

“As did you,” Tassadar replied. “I made it no secret that the only hope, the entire purpose of this gambit, was for me to reach Kerrigan.”

“But then why them?” The words came out harsher and louder than Jacen knew was wise, but he suddenly did not care. “Why let all those men and women die? And the fleet! Thousands up there are dead, are still dying, and for nothing!”

Calm yourself, young one. Anger is not the path.

The admonition from his training echoed in his head, but it seemed far away, and was easily pushed aside. All Jacen could think about were the bodies strewn below. And his father, and Chewbacca.

Laura.

“Not for nothing,” Tassadar said, undaunted by the Jedi’s apparent agitation.

Jacen advanced on Tassadar, his lightsaber pommel clenched in white knuckles. The Allied soldiers around them back away uneasily.

“Then for what, Tassadar? Why not come alone? If she wants to face you so badly, she would have let you. The fleet could have held back, taken more time to plan and regroup, instead of throwing itself blindly upon her fortress, one you knew it could not break!”

“You do not know the Queen as I do, Solo. You have not touched her mind as I have. This, all of this, is a game. Her armies, the worlds she has taken, your resistance, is meaningless to her. She believes herself invincible. Even I, the destroyer of her predecessor, am but a curiosity in her eyes. Something to be toyed with before being discarded. I do not know why she was so intent upon me coming here, but I had to, before her fancies changed and my only chance to bring her to a reckoning was lost.”

“But the rest of us? The Fleet! What if you fail?”

“Even games have rules, Solo. I must meet Kerrigan on my terms, and I can only do that if she is occupied elsewhere. Were I simply to surrender myself to her, the game would be forfeit. She would cow me from afar, overwhelm me with her minions and strip me of my power. Only then would I be brought before her, spent and powerless. This was the only way.”

Jacen shook his head, disbelieving. All of their planning, training, hoping. It had all been false. Fodder for the Zerg Queen’s game. And Tassadar had delivered them to her. He had trusted the high templar, fought alongside him, even saved him. For that, he, and Enterprise’s crew, everyone who had depended upon the Tassadar’s knowledge and power had been thrown away.

The rock behind Tassadar’s head trembled, and a minute fissure began to cut through its dusty surface. Jacen’s fingers edged haltingly towards the activation stud of his lightsaber. He felt power welling up from within, not the serene strength of the Light, but something far more base. He had touched that hidden might before in his darkest hours, but now the will that normally held it back quavered, somehow weakened.

Tassadar did not retreat or cower, or even avert his gaze.

“You must trust my judgment now, Solo. Their sacrifice will not be for nothing. I will give everything I am to ensure that is so. But first, I must reach the Queen.”

Jacen was barely listening. He took another step forward and raised his sword arm, leveling it straight at the Protoss. His thumb found his saber’s activation stud.

A heavy hand fell on his shoulder. Jacen shrugged it off, but it would not budge. When he tried again, it yanked him back and around, nearly taking him off of his feet. Anger burst over Jacen, and green fire erupted in his right hand.

The Master Chief held him fast at arm’s length. Jacen raised his lit sword with his free arm, but the Spartan did not flinch, and his grip did not weaken. The two stared at each other, and Jacen saw himself reflected in the saber’s light against polished plate, his face contorted with rage.

Breath caught in the Jedi’s throat. He had not seen as much of the Dark Side as some in the Order, but he knew it well enough to see it bubbling up before his eyes.

“Are you really going to use that thing on me, Solo?” the Chief asked, his voice calm and even.

Slowly, Jacen lowered his sword arm, but he did not let the searing beam collapse.

“What’s done is done. Were in this fight now, and we have our orders. Those men did their job. Now we’ve got to do ours.”

“Sir!” The Starfleet officer by the alcove by the alcove flipped her tricorder shut.

The Chief acknowledged her with a nod, and then turned back to Jacen.

“Are you with us?”

Jacen stared at his clouded reflection for a moment longer, and then he released the stud of his weapon, closing it with a hiss.

“I am.”

The Spartan’s helmet dipped forward, and Jacen barely made out a whisper.

“Mourning will wait.”

The Chief released the Jedi, moving to direct the debris removal without another word. As the other soldiers moved away from the ravine wall, Jacen felt as though he was coming out of a stupor. Looking down at his unlit saber, he could barely believe that it had been active only a few moments before. And yet, the anger had been so real, so powerful…

Tassadar walked past him, and Jacen felt it flare anew, but he quickly pushed back the emotion. He still did not understand or accept the Protoss’ actions, but that… that was not the way.

“I’m sorry,” he managed, joining the alien at the Chief’s side. “I should not have done that.”

“It is this place,” Tassadar replied without facing the human. “Her corruption taints the very air here. It is all I can do to withstand it.”

He was silent as the Starfleet officer began to calibrate her phaser, but before Jacen could reply, Tassadar turned slightly towards him.

“This is not the first time I have sacrificed valiant warriors in my pursuit of the Zerg. I have a great deal to atone for, far more than you know. The destruction of Swarm is the only thing that can bring me penance now, and I am not sure even that is enough. Perhaps I have been too focused on my goal, too willing to throw the lives of others away for it. I once fought to protect my people, but now I fear that I fight only for revenge, not for the Protoss, but for the lengths that the Swarm has pushed me to.”

“Repress your anger if you feel you must, but I do not begrudge you for it. My life outside of this feud ended long ago, and I have been far too reckless for it. Too secretive. It is time that it ended. Kerrigan will die this night. After that, my life is no longer relevant.”

A lance of red light shot from the officer’s phaser into the alcove. Heat and energy radiated from the point of impact across the mound of boulders, and they began to glow as the weapon pumped still more energy into the rock.

Far below, the gore-strewn floor of the ravine began to tremble, and dozens of small rifts formed on its surface. One after another, claws and thorny feet burst through the sodden sand and fractured rock, and the seemingly-solid ground dissolved into a churning mass of silt and scrabbling bodies. The first Zerglings to pull themselves free immediately pelted for the far end of the raised path, chattering as they went. Others simply threw themselves at the ravine wall, clawing at the solid rock for leverage.

“Weapons free! Contacts below!” the Chief called, and the other soldiers rushed to kneel at the brink of the ledge.

“How long?” he demanded of the Starfleet officer.

“A few more seconds!” The first boulders had begun to melt away under the onslaught, matter vanishing with heat into the twilight air.

“Fire!”

Blaster bolts and phaser beams swept over the approaching Zerglings, sending them spinning off the path into the milling masses below. The valley was already filled with the vicious quadrupeds, and larger creatures were beginning to pull themselves from the bloody muck. The Chief locked the elongated head of a Hydralisk into the sight if his blaster and depressed the trigger. Four crimson bolts lashed the serpentine monstrosity, shattering its hardened skull beyond recognition.

Jacen had ignited his lightsaber once more, but he kept behind the line of soldiers. Jumping into the fray now would be suicidal, even for him. There were dozens of Zerglings pelting up the narrow path now, and hundreds more waited eagerly to follow them. Concerted fire on the winding ramp was keeping the horde at bay for a moment, but it wouldn’t be long until they figured out other ways to reach their new prey.

“Put a rig on that path!” the Chief shouted, and one of his soldiers produced another jury-rigged phaser. He lobbed it ten meters down the narrow stretch, and everyone on the ledge turned away, covering their heads. The device detonated just as the foremost Zerg warrior reached it, buffeting every living thing in the ravine with noise, heat and blinding light. Only the Chief seemed able to ignore it, shielding the cutting officer as he sprayed fire at Zerglings further up the ravine.

The blast carved a sizeable hole in the rock face, obliterating a section of the path, but the Zerg continued on undaunted, leaping over it or tumbling twenty meters in the attempt.

An Alliance marine screamed and fell onto his back, clutching his face. Jacen fell on one knee at the convulsing man’s side, but before he could find a medical kit, he stopped moving. His hands fell away uselessly, revealing the tail of a bone barb lodged in one eye and a visage of boiled flesh, still being consumed by the acid that had accompanied the missile.

“Hydralisks!” he shouted, reluctantly leaving the man where he had fallen.

“They’re scaling the wall!” the Chief confirmed. He was leaning over the lip, hosing the unseen attackers with fire as fast as his weapon could discharge it. A hail of acid-coated, organic projectiles arced up at him in response, sending spasms of light across his battle suit’s energy shield.

“Fall back! The tunnel’s been cut!”

The last of the boulders had vanished, revealing a narrow passageway that led down into the inky blackness of the mountain, but the first few yards were still glowed red-hot. Urged by the Spartan, the soldiers poured into the gap anyways, gasping as they pressed through the wall of heat the phaser had left.

The crest of a Hydralisk emerged over the lip of the ledge, followed by black, glassy eyes and a snarling, skeletal maw. The Chief pumped three rounds into it, and the creature plummeted back out of sight.

He pivoted on the spot, bringing his rifle to bear on the first Zerglings to reach the overlook, but before he could fire off another shot, Jacen was among them, cleaving free limbs and heads with grim focus.

“Go!” he shouted over his shoulder as he sent another Zergling tumbling over the edge with a blast of telekinetic energy. “I’ll hold them while you get Tassadar into the mountain!”

“I will not have your life on my conscience as well, Solo!” Tassadar rumbled from the entrance to the tunnel. “Come, both of you!”

Neither the Chief nor Jacen was in the mood to argue, and a moment later they had cleared the expanse of still-searing rock. Tassadar was close behind them, but he halted while the tunnel entrance was still in full view. Already, Zerg were bounding down after them, paying little heed to the heat. The Chief picked off two over Tassadar’s shoulder plates, but many more were close on their heels.

“Stand back!” Tassadar bellowed, throwing out his arms and letting his cloak flow free. The fabric rippled with an unseen wind, and arcs of forked light shot from one scaled hand to the other. Jacen looked on in awe. He had never seen the Protoss’ psionic energies unleashed, but he had heard accounts of the templar’s duel with Darth Vader aboard Home One. He sensed power swell within the alien, energies both Light and Dark, and others he could barely perceive, let alone comprehend.

The crisscrossing volley of charge between the templar’s hands quickened and intensified. One of the lead Zerglings leapt for the Protoss, heedless of the web of energy. To Jacen’s eyes, it seemed to simply vanish, and the space it had occupied was swiftly filled by an expanding network of brilliant synapses. Then, with a crack that resonated through the rock and into the Jedi’s very core, Tassadar’s energies burst forward. Jacen brought his arm up to shield his eyes, and the Chief’s visor polarized to its limit.

There was another crack, deeper and more physical, and a series of booms and crashes. Dust and searing air rushed down the tunnel, and then all was quiet.

The flashlight affixed to the side of the Chief’s helmet flicked on, adding to the glow cast by Jacen’s lightsaber. In their combined light, the quality of Tassadar’s work was apparent. Only two meters up the tunnel, and fresh pile of distressed boulders and loose gravel filled the space from floor to ceiling. The Chief cast his light above them, wary of residual deformations in the rock, but the tunnel seemed otherwise intact.

Slowly, Tassadar lowered his arms and turned to face them. His eyes were dimmer than they usually were, half-closed. He took a few tentative steps, swayed, and then caught himself.

“That took more of me than I had hoped,” he said, his words coming slowly. “But I am far from spent. Come, let us catch the others. Our fight is not over.”

The tunnel was barely tall enough for Tassadar to move without stooping and only wide enough to accommodate two of them at a time, but the floor was solid and even, angled steadily downward in a relatively straight course. The walls bore the same gouge-marks as the pass Tassadar had found, and Jacen could only assume the tunnel had been carved by the Zerg when Kerrigan had chosen the mountain as her citadel.

The room in which they found the seven remaining Allied soldiers was a different matter entirely. The tunnel stopped abruptly, opening onto the side of a low-ceilinged, rectangular chamber little wider than the interior of a Starfleet shuttlecraft and twice as long. It was still hewn of the dull stone of the mountain, but it looked more like the interior of a starship than a roughly-cut Zerg hole. The floor and ceiling were perfectly flat and regular, and the walls were carved with blocky, vertical pillars and shot with bands of silvery metal that glinted in the artificial light. A large, empty alcove dominated the far wall, and next to it, the rectangular maw of a door opened onto darkness. Both the door and the alcove were marred by slash marks and signs of deformation, and shards of metal lay scattered on the floor around each.

“Secure, soldier?” the Chief asked, ignoring the sudden abnormality of their surroundings.

“Yes, sir. We haven’t seen or heard anything since we ran in here. What about the ones behind us?”

“The entrance is blocked, but there are probably just as many crawling around down here. Keep your guard up.”

“What is this place?” another soldier asked, carefully keeping his phaser trained on the doorway even as he marveled at the precise geometry of the wall supports.

“This is no Zerg construction,” Tassadar said, genuinely startled by the chamber’s appearance.

Jacen kneeled to pick up a tiny piece of metal that had settled into the dust at his feet. It sparkled in a vaguely crystalline manner as he turned it over on his palm.

“And not a Federation one, either, I’m guessing. It looks too old.”

The Chief didn’t take his hands off his rifle, but he too peered into the room’s perfect corners and regular alcoves.

It almost looks like…

A keening cry echoed from beyond the darkened doorway, and each member of the unit froze, eyes and gunsights locked on the entryway. A new howling joined it, and then another. There was a sound of distant scrabbling, talons on metal or stone, a last, sharp clack, and silence once more. Peripherally, the Chief noticed that both Tassadar and Jacen bored pained expressions.

“What was that?” he asked.

“Psionic backlash,” Tassadar replied, peering up at the flattened ceiling. “Those cries were made by Zerg without guidance, confused and directionless. A Cerebrate has been destroyed.”

Jacen looked at the Chief. “Truul and Worf!”

The Spartan immediately activated his helm transmitter. Zerg interference had made long-range communications impossible for over an hour, but if the Cerebrates contributed to the disruption…

“Beta, do you read?”

Nothing but static.

The Chief switched channels.

“Gamma, are you receiving?”

A series of rapid clicks, and then static again.

“I repeat, Unit Beta, do you…”

Abruptly, the static increased in volume, and a familiar voice materialized from the background noise.

“Damn straight, I copy ya, Sierra! Sounds like you’re half a parsec away, but I copy!”

“What’s your status, beta? Have you reached the secondary?”

“We got there all right, and cleared out just about fifteen seconds ago! Wasn’t a pleasant sight, and we wanted to clear out before the clean-up crew arrived.”

The Chief glanced over at Tassadar. “Confirm, the secondary target has been neutralized?”

There was a burst a static, and something that sound like a like muffled explosion obscured Truul’s voice momentarily.

“…looks like they’re not letting us off so easy after all. But yes, we got it. Gamma and mine got under the damn thing’s anti-air. Don’t know how, but we did. Hard fighting, and both units are down to less than half-strength, but we cleared out the anti-air from the ground and painted up the secondary. That’s where our boys in the air came in. I couldn’t reach ‘em on comms, but the flares we sent up were good enough it looks like. You should see…”

The Chief cut Truul off. “Are Beta and Gamma fully airborne?”

“Affirmative, Sierra. We’ve got the shuttles packed and we’re angling on your vector. The Zerg up here took a hit from the secondary, it looks like, but there are still a hell of a lot of ‘em. As long as we have the squadron, though…”

“Beta, Sierra and Alpha have breached the primary, but we lost most of our units. The target LZ is hot, repeat hot. We had to bypass the main entry vector for a side passage, on the ridge above the ravine floor. Strafe the LZ, repeat, fire it, offload your troops, and follow us in. The way may be still blocked. I repeat, clear the obstruction and follow us in with all available forces. Do you copy?”

There was no reply but static.

The Chief tried the link several more times, and then shook his head.

“Jamming’s resumed.”

“Did it get through?” Jacen asked.

“We can’t wait here to find out.” He turned to the others. “Move on that exit, and stay together! We don’t know what’s in there. Tassadar?”

The Protoss looked off into space, and shook his head at length.

“I can’t be sure where she is. There is another Cerebrate in here as well, and its presence is shielding her.”

“Then we’ll have to bypass it,” the Chief said, checking the capacitors of his blaster. “Or kill it.”

“It lies directly ahead of us, and below.”

“Let’s get moving, then. Praxal, Richardson, you’re on point with me.”
Jacen and Tassadar lagged slightly behind the others as they readied to leave.

“You have something else to say?” the Protoss asked, drawing his cloak tightly around him once more, as if warding off a draft none of the others could feel.

“Tassadar, back there, in the tunnel, and before, I sensed darkness in you, and light. They were at war, as they are in me, sometimes, and yet you controlled them both, used both energies. I know your power is different from the Force, but… how can both exist within you like that?”

The templar stopped to stare down at the human, and a chilling sensation ran up his spine.

“I cannot speak of your Force, Jedi. But I will never claim to control the energies within me. I am but a conduit, open to light and dark, and they flow through to me as they will. They are powers beyond comprehension, and to deny either is to throw everything out of balance. Try to follow only one, if you will. I did once, long ago. But now I take both, ride their conflicting course, guide them toward the path I deem true and hope they follow. Light and dark lend me their power, when it is to be had, but they do not dominate my destiny. I alone can do that.”



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: 2008-03-23 02:35am
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
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As much as the world that it orbited, Earth’s moon was a graveyard. The domed cities and research hubs that had grown up across its pockmarked surface over centuries of peaceful and prosperous Federation rule had been among the first Zerg targets after Kerrigan had claimed Earth, and now only blackened craters and derelict tramways remained. Debris from two desperate battles had added new hollows to its already-marred surface and scattered melted fragments across pristine gray plains. The newest conflict promised more of both, and already the satellite’s weak gravity was guiding ruined forms towards its bald, lifeless face.

With the entirety of both Allied and Zerg forces engaged closer to Earth, the moon and its orbital perimeter were quiet and motionless.

But they were not devoid of life.

The streamlined forms of thirty Romulan warbirds slid cautiously from the far side of the satellite. Each ship in the tight, stacked formation was completely enveloped in its characteristic cloaking shield, and none but the most sensitive gravitational sensor could have detected their arrival. With the barest bursts of ionized discharge, carefully filtered so as to appear as simple background radiation, the warships slowed their forward momentums in unison and gradually came to a halt. All but hugging the lunar surface, they had paused just beyond its gentle arc. The night face of Earth drifted before them, serene save for the occasional, fleeting discharge of light.

The Agrona sat at the heart of the formation, its wide-swept, avian hull just as cool and outwardly undetectable as those of its companions. Its transmitter arrays and running lights all lay inactive; not even the most subtle ship-to-ship message was to be risked while combat was so near. Only passive sensors remained active, but they alone were enough to relay the gravity of the battle that still raged in Earth’s shadow. All other eyes of the task force were fixed upon the conflict.

But those aboard the Agrona, for the moment, were oblivious to it.

Groggily, Commander Suran ran a hand across his face. He attempted to open his eyes, but the dim illumination of his bridge forced them shut again. His head was swimming so badly that he tried and failed to form a coherent word, but a vigorous shake sent feeling through his body. Sensing his command chair beneath him, he leaned forward and tried his eyes once more. The blinding glare quickly faded, and he was met with the familiar, orderly operations center of his command.

“What’s happened?” he demanded of no one in particular, rising tentatively from his chair. “Operations, report!”

His command crew was in the process of picking themselves from the deck, and none seemed to be any more cognizant of the situation than he was. Trying not to stumble over control interfaces and their attending officers, Suran made his way to his second-in-command, who was busy helping a navigational officer to her feet.

“What’s going on here, subcommander?” Suran asked, making way as his other subordinate offered a self-conscious salute and hurried back to her station.

“I am not certain, commander,” his second replied, turning to the closest interface and hunching over it urgently. “The last I remember, we had just reached the Federation Neutral Zone. You were just about to open a comm line with the commander of the Doerank, and then…”

The subcommander trailed off, looked up at Suran with a mixture of confusion and apology, and then turned back to his interface.

Suran turned back to the rest of his bridge crew. “Give me our position, now! Where is the rest of the task force?”

The commander was an experienced and level-headed soldier, but he ran an orderly ship, and liked it that way. Nothing like this had happened during his entire service in the Imperial Fleet.

“Sensors are online, sir! Checking our position now!”

“Commander, I’m getting alerts from across the ship! Section executives are all reporting black-outs among the crew!”

“Get me status reports from each of them!” Suran demanded. “Tactical, bring us to full alert!”

“The Zerg, sir?” Suran’s second suggested. “Could they have hit us with some new weapon?”

“Commander! The Agrona is already at battle readiness!”

Suran whirled on the tactical officer.

“We are at stealth stations, sir! The ship is under full cloak!” the man continued.

The commander strode over to his station.

“Under who’s orders?”

The officer shook his head. “Yours, sir.”

“But I never…”

“Sir, I have our position! We’re no longer in the Neutral Zone. New coordinates…”

The officer began to list of numbers, but the ship’s second pushed him aside and peered at the navigational display.

“Sector 001, Commander!” he called out after a few seconds. “The Sol System!”

“Earth!”

A thousand different thoughts burst upon Suran’s brain. This was place he had sacrificed the Romulan alliance with the rest of the quadrant and pushed aside his personal inclinations to avoid, and yet there they were. The last he could remember, he had been light-years away, leading his forces back to the relative safety of the Star Empire, but…

“How did we…?”

He shook his head, and then moved to the command chair.

“Never mind that now. Is the rest of the task force with us?”

It was a credit to his crew that they were able to move from delirious half-consciousness into battle readiness in little more than a minute, but it was nothing more than what he expected of them. They were officers in the Romulan Fleet, the best of the best. If this was a Zerg trick, the devils would regret not finishing them off while they were all helpless.

“I’m reading twenty-nine other warbirds flanking us, sir, standard fringe formation. We are still with the task force.”

“There are reports of a few minor feedback errors in the long-range sensors and the computer core, but all major systems are nominal, commander. There are no reports of significant casualties in the lower decks.”

If this was a surprise attack, Suran mused, it was a very poorly executed one.

“Are we in scanning range of the human homeworld?”

“Yes, sir. The task force is just above the planet’s moon.”

“Show me.”

Earth’s night side filled the bridge’s main viewscreen. Suran leaned forward, his attention attracted by the distant obvious flashes of a pitched battle.

“So, it has begun already,” he muttered to himself. “Magnify quadrant five.”

The profile of Earth vanished, and a great double-orb of minute shapes replaced it, lit irregularly by a cascade of dashes and lances of red and green light.

“How many ships are engaged there?”

“At least three hundred, sir, mostly of Federation or Klingon construction. Sensors also detect several hundred smaller contacts, identical to the living missiles the Zerg used during their assault on Romulus.” The officer took a moment to confirm his readings. “The ships appear to be divided into two opposing formations. The larger, numbering some two hundred vessels, is evidently in the process of enveloping the smaller and trapping it against the planet’s gravity well.”

Suran felt an unexpected glimmer of hope.

“Where are the Zerg missiles concentrated?”

“Within the interior formation, sir.”

Suran leaned back in his chair and suppressed a sigh.

You should have listened, Picard. This assault was suicide.

“Sir.”

Suran looked over to see his second approach, face creased with confusion.

“Have you determined how we got here, Subcommander Dural?”

“The diagnostic logs indicate that the inhabited decks simultaneously decompressed as the Agrona entered the Federation Neutral Zone, incapacitating the crew. Technical is still working on the subsequent logs, but it is clear that life support only normalized a few minutes ago. Navigation recorded a course correction directly for Sector 001 at maximum warp velocity immediately after decompression.”

Suran frowned. “Was the ship commandeered? Are there intruders aboard?”

“None have been detected thus far, sir, but the marine detachment is conducting ongoing sweeps.” Dural shook his head slowly. “Sir, the ship recorded both the decompression and the course change as being executed with your voice authorization.”

“I gave no such orders.”

“Yes, sir. There’s more. I also checked the transmission logs. There has been one outgoing transmission from this ship since the decompression, directed at the rest of the task force. Audio and visual. From you, sir.”

Suran’s lips pursed into a tight line. “Put it onscreen.

Dural gestured to a waiting officer, and the viewscreen switched to freeze-frame of Suran himself, backed by a view of the Agrona’s bridge. There was a brief pause, and then the image came to life.

“All ships of the Second Expeditionary Task Force, this is Commander Suran. I have received new instructions from Romulus. We are to alter course for Sector 001, infiltrate the primary system, and taking up holding stations at coordinates included in this transmission. This deployment is class one covert, and as such, there will be no further ship-to-ship communications of any sort until the objective is reached. Full stealth precautions are to be initiated. Do not engage hostile contacts unless you are engaged, and do not reveal the location of the Agrona under any circumstances. Fallback coordinates will follow. That is all.”

The message ended abruptly, and Suran caught several of his crew cast uncertain glances his way. The speaker’s appearance, mannerisms, and diction had been identical to his own. Except…

“That bluish distortion, near the beginning of the transmission…”

“Yes, commander. The technical division is analyzing it right now.”

Suran stroked his cheek thoughtfully, eyes fixed on the frozen image of him. It was obviously a fake, a projection of some sort, but he could not conceive how it had worked its way into the Agrona’s comm system.

“There must be an intruder aboard. Lock down the non-essential sections, and double the guard.”

“At once, sir.”

“We shall deal with this later. Now, raise the rest of the fleet. Tell them…”

Suran trailed off. What did he want to tell them? Whatever had brought him halfway across Federation space, it had given him another opportunity to join Picard and the rest in their final stand against the Zerg. Judging by what he had seen of the battle, they needed the help, desperately.

Of course, the rationale for his withdrawal from their alliance was just as valid as it had been days before. Even with the aid of his forces, the Zerg would still command numerical superiority, and Suran had no idea if they had reinforcements incoming. More than likely, the Allied fleet was doomed, and any effort to assist them would be suicide.

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.

Picard’s parting words had haunted Suran since the task force had left Deep Space Nine, and he still couldn’t shake the human’s determined face from his mind. The commander had seen Romulan worlds defiled by the Zerg, and the idea of abandoning an opportunity to strike a mortal blow to the monsters, fleeing to the relative safety of the Empire’s borders while humans, Cardassians, even Klingons fought on…

“Sir?” Dural prompted.

Suran stared at the officer. He, and the rest of the crew, would follow him unquestioningly, no matter which path he chose. They were good soldiers, and no doubt many of them silently wished to bring the fight back to the invaders.

But this was not the time. He would not see them die in a hopeless battle, no matter how righteous.

“Tell them to break from orbit, full impulse. We’re heading back home. This is a fight we cannot win.”

The bridge viewscreen flickered, and several displays at the back of bridge went blank for an instant, and then resumed their previous tasks.

Before Suran could question the momentary disruption, the tactical stations came alive with activity.

“What is it?”

“Commander, I’m detecting a large number of vessels approaching at high warp. At least seventy, possibly more.

“Range?”

“They’ve already entered the star system, sir. They will reach the lunar perimeter in under a minute.”

“What? Why didn’t you detect them before?”

“I’m not certain, sir. Our proximity to the planet’s moon may be reducing the range of our long-range sensors, but…”

“Well, it’s of little consequence now. Can you identify them?”

“The warp signatures appear to be human and Klingon in origin, sir.”

“The Alliance wouldn’t have mounted this attack piecemeal,” Suran said, leaning forward.

“Zerg reinforcements?” Dural ventured, still at his side.

Suran nodded, his frown deepening. The Allied assault was utterly lost now. All he could do was keep his men from being swept up in the slaughter.

“Open the comm. We’re leaving, now.”

“Sir!” the tactical officer’s consternation was palpable. “The incoming ships have dropped from warp. They’re almost on top of us, range thirty thousand kilometers!”

“Calm yourself, centurion. Our cloaking shields are still online. Put them onscreen.”

The viewscreen flickered to life, and a wall of Starfleet vessels and Klingon warships filled it. As the bridge crew watched, the massed fleet began to spread out, and the space between each vessel was filled by a cloud of tiny, winged forms. Suran felt a twang of dread, invisibility or no. He hadn’t realized that the Zerg possessed so many ships, much less could afford to keep them in reserve.

“One hundred and twenty ships, commander, and hundreds more of the organic missiles. They appear to be spreading out and moving towards our position.”

Suran clenched the armrest of his chair tightly. “They’re moving on our position?”

“Yes, sir. The formation has closed to twenty-five thousand kilometers.”

“They’re pinning us against the moon…” Suran heard Dural mutter, and he felt inclined to agree. Cloaking shields or not, the Zerg fleet was angling directly for Earth’s satellite, not the battle above the planet.

Slowly, Suran rose and walked towards the viewscreen as the wall of enemy ships inexorably approached. Before his eyes, the gap between the colossal formation and the lunar surface closed to a sliver. Other ships moved just as quickly, plainly intent on Suran’s other avenues of escape.

They were trapped. Somehow, the Zerg had detected the task force, and now they were pressed between a countless kilograms of rock and one of the largest fleets Suran had ever seen.

The game was up, and there was only one option left to him.

“What should I tell the fleet, sir?” Dural asked earnestly.

“Tell them…” Even now, Picard’s steadfast expression stuck in his mind’s eye. “Tell them to disengage their cloaks, divert all power to weapons and shields, and form up on the Agrona. I’m not about to die hiding, and I’d rather make a stand with a human at my back than smashed against this blasted rock.”

Subcommander Dural’s lip fell in surprise, but he caught himself and saluted smartly.

“Helm, take us into the Earthward Zerg line, full impulse!”

Suran thought he saw a small smile on his second’s face as he moved to oversee the order, and he couldn’t help share a bit of the sentiment. If the Zerg had the resources arrayed against his force at their disposal, falling back to Romulan space would have only delayed this encounter. Stealth and calculation had had their place. Now he would show the invaders what the price of their conquest would truly be.

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“Admiral, the Enterprise has broken from the main battle line!”
Nechayev peered through the acrid smoke of a fried navigation console at the distant form of the Sovereign-class vessel as it skirted around a pair of badly damaged Galaxy-class ships and shot towards the slivery lunar disk.

“The fool is going after K’Nera!” she snarled. “Get me a link with Picard. Now! And get more ships on our starboard flank!”

The Versailles rocked violently as a lucky photon torpedo exploded just aft.

Nechayev’s operation’s officer shook his head. “Sir, the main communications array is still down from the last volley. Engineering is switching to auxiliaries, but we won’t have it back for another few minutes, at least.”

The admiral slammed her fist against her chair.

“Damn him! We’ll lose both of them now! What does he think he’s proving?”

The bridge shook again, harder this time, and a lighting panel on the bridge’s upper half exploded, sending crewers fleeing from the sparks.

“Admiral, we can’t take much more of this!” Commander Slovach shouted over the din as she helped the remaining navigational officer back into his chair. “Shields are down to forty-two percent! We have to fall back! Let the reserve squadrons move forward!”

“We don’t have many reserves left, Commander!” Nechayev shouted back.

“We won’t do anyone any good if we’re dead, sir! The Fleet needs you! N’Kera’s probably gone, and Picard…!”

A direct phaser triggered a chorus of warning klaxons, drowning Slovach out. The captain silenced them with an irritated jab at her seat’s interface.

“All right, commander! You’ve made your point! Helm, take us back to the reserve position! Tell Captain Gehirn to take her ships forward and cover us!”

The admiral watched as a flight of Starfleet vessel, each almost as badly damaged as her own, moved past her viewscreen, straight into a volley of missiles from the ever-advancing Zerg front. Slovach was right; the Versailles’ engineering teams needed time to make repairs. But time was something they were running out of, just as fast as the Fleet lost ships. At their current loss rate, there wouldn’t be anything left of it in under twenty minutes. And if they lost the Enterprise, the last vestiges of morale among her crews would vanish.

“Damn him,” she whispered. The Enterprise would have met the Zerg ships pursuing the remnants of Battle Group Qo’nos by now. It wouldn’t take long. One ship couldn’t withstand the Zerg onslaught alone, no matter who captained it or what its name was.

“Sir… Admiral Nechayev, I’ve lost the Enterprise,” the sensor officer reported haltingly.

The other members of the bridge crew looked up from their stations. Nechayev’s eyes fell.

“…no, wait a moment.” The lieutenant smacked his interface in frustration, and then began jabbing at it again. “The long-range sensors seem to be malfunctioning. Yes, I’ve got it again! And… wait…”

Slovach stalked around towards the man from the other side of the bridge, wiping sweat and soot from her forehead.

“Lieutenant, if the station is malfunctioning…”

“Sir, it’s not the station… There! I’ve got it! And… Romulan signatures?”

“What?” Both Nechayev and Slovach shouted in unison, and in a moment both were looking over the lieutenant’s shoulders.

“Yes! Thirty Romulan warbirds, D’deridex and Valdore-class!”

“Suran,” Nechayev whispered.

“But how…?” Slovach began.

Nechayev was already running back to her command chair.

“How did they get here? How did Picard know they would come? We’ll just have to ask them ourselves, won’t we? Let’s make sure we have the chance to chat! This isn’t quite over!”

Damn him.

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Nestled deep within the Agrona’s computer core, Cortana looked on through the ship’s sensors as thirty fresh, Romulan warship swept into rear of the Zerg line. As the reactor of the first infested ship ignited like a thermonuclear firework, the AI loosed a sigh of relief. Or rather, she would have if she wasn’t currently a collection of data packets circulating through the warbird’s central routing junction. There was a very real chance that the Zerg would rally and turn on the unexpected reinforcements, annihilating her matrix in the process, but at that moment, she didn’t let the danger bother her, and sat back to enjoy the show.

For the first time in days, Cortana didn’t entirely loathe her surroundings. When she had first heard Picard’s contingency plan, just after the loss of the Republica, she had been all for it; after all, she had, quite literally, been built to infiltrate alien computer systems. As the captain had expected, Suran had decided to withdraw from the Allied Fleet, and she had hitched a ride on the last transmission between the Enterprise and the Agrona.

It had been a tight fit; the message had been only a terse navigational intent statement, and she had lost a few lengths of accessory coding in the process. That, she had expected; it was the loneliness that had turned her off. The warbird had no artificial intellect to speak of, only a few relatively basic defensive algorithms and an entirely bland coordinating system. Knocking out the crew, fabricating a message to guide the rest of the task force to Earth, and conjuring up a phantom armada of omniscient Zerg to trap Suran had been too easy. Give her a hostile Covenant AI any day, if only for the company.

The Romulan fleet was worthy of its reputation – in combat, at least – Cortana was still surprised how easily their unquestioning chain of command had enable her to seize the entire task force. Already, it had swept through Zerg’s outer perimeter and overtaken a handful of beleaguered Klingon warships. And with them…

The Enterprise!

A more welcome sight Cortana hadn’t seen since she’d last slipped from the Master Chief’s familiar neural interface. She began collecting the tendrils of her consciousness from the various system hubs she’d hacked and migrated towards the communications network. The sooner someone tossed a hurried salutation or status request the Enterprise’s way, the better. Sheltered as she was deep in the Agrona’s hardware, Cortana didn’t relish the idea of being around when Suran opened a line to one of his escorts and found out that the Zerg reinforcements had been nothing more than sensor artifacts and a bit of artistry with the bridge viewscreen’s combat log.

Hopefully, Suran would be too thick in the fighting when he finally found out to try and withdraw. Still, Cortana didn’t envy the unfortunate individual standing at the Agrona’s bridge sensor station…

An unheard order activated the ship’s primary communications grid, and the AI was gone.



The Rift
Stanislav Petrov- The man who saved the world
Hugh Thompson Jr.- A True American Hero
"In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope." - President Barack Obama
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-06-07 01:40am
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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 Seventy


One by one, the ten remaining members of Alpha and Sierra units moved down a long, enclosed corridor, silent as the countless tons of rock that hemmed them in on all sides. The Master Chief led the company, his keen eyes scanning the path ahead for any interruptions in the smooth, geometric lines of the octagonal passageway. The bland sameness of the space contrasted sharply with the frantic spasms of activity that crowded the short-range motion tracker of his helmet’s HUD; masses of Zerg somewhere above or below, or the composition of the mountain and its unlikely interior structure, had rendered it useless. Similarly, the helmet’s integrated flashlight sat inactive; lambent nodes embedded in the narrow corridor’s walls cast the space in dusky, bluish light.

Behind him, Jacen, Tassadar, and their diminished escort of Alliance marines and Starfleet officers kept pace. Like the rest, the Jedi held his weapon at the ready, but his apprehension over their continued descent into Kerrigan’s fortress was mitigated by simple curiosity. Jacen wasn’t sure what he had expected the heart of the Zerg hive to look like, but he certainly hadn’t imagined subtly-carved, mathematically-precise passageways and anterooms reminiscent of Coruscanti museums. Even the Federation members of the party seemed confused by the network’s presence, and a passing scan of the Chief revealed an even stronger, if carefully restrained, sense of astonishment.

Next to the impending threat of the Swarm, however, the strange architecture seemed almost welcoming, and when the Spartan had guided them from the darkness of a larger passage into the almost claustrophobic area, no one had objected. The sudden illumination of the tunnel by some unseen trigger had seemed more comfort than threat; the further Jacen progressed, the more the Jedi felt as though the mountain’s interior structure was quite disparate from its Zerg occupiers, and beyond even their dark mistress.

Perhaps it was just the twilight illumination and the steady, almost imperceptible hum that resonated from the plated floor. They seemed undeniably… permanent, more than any living being could be.

The Master Chief slowed to a stop, and the rest followed suit. Before them, the way was blocked by a sealed doorway. A pair of narrow windows was set in its surface, but all that was visible beyond them was the same eerie dusk that filled the corridor. Eight pairs of hands leveled blasters and phasers at the barrier, and the Spartan took a tentative step forward.

Obediently, the door split into three segments and vanished into the walls and ceiling, revealing a small, circular chamber adorned only by a single, central pillar.

“A dead end?” one of the Starfleet officers, Richardson, asked as the group filed into the room. The space was barely large enough to accommodate them all, and there appeared to be no other hatches or doorways that would permit further progress.

The Chief did not reply immediately. Instead, he rounded the central pillar, scanning its streamlined, mechanical surface intently. Finally, he found what he was looking for: an illuminated, rectangular panel, precisely at waist-height. Shifting his rifle, the Chief extended his right palm towards the panel, and just before he touched it, Jacen thought he saw the outline of a humanoid hand on the surface.

There was a hiss of ancient hydraulics from above, and the members of the party drew back from the central column. A puff of pressurized gas escaped its upper seam, and the entire cylinder retracted into the ceiling with dull thud. The movement revealed a sizeable hole in the floor, down which was visible an inclined shaft of indeterminate length.

The Chief turned to Tassadar. “The Cerebrate is below us?”

“It is.”

The Spartan inspected what was visible of the shaft for a moment, slid his rifle onto the magnetic clamps affixed to the back of his armor, and removed the compact blaster pistol from his hip.

“If the shaft is safe and the landing secure, I’ll call back up. If not, find another way to the Cerebrate. Don’t waste our time looking for me.”

“Sir…” one of the Allied soldiers ventured apprehensively, but the Spartan had already slipped into the hole.

The sound of metal on metal echoed back up the shaft for a few seconds, and then stopped. Jacen reached out, trying to follow the Chief’s life force, but before he could find him again…

“Clear!”

“All right,” the Jedi said, relieved. “One at a time, now.” He gestured to Tassadar. “High Templar?”

The Protoss slid into the opening without complaint and the rest followed, most easing their way into the dark shaft with obvious trepidation. When the last had vanished, Jacen counted a few breaths, and then swung his legs over the gap. Inhaling, he let go, and let the steep, metallic incline guide him down. Almost immediately, Jacen made out new light beyond his feet, but before the sensation could even fully register, an all-too-familiar feeling shot up his spine.

Danger.

A few seconds later, the Jedi hit the ground at a crouch with his lightsaber ablaze. A quick look around the new chamber yielded only the surprised faces of the other members of the squad, still in the process of recovering from the lengthy fall, so Jacen turned his attention upward. Three meters above his head, the shaft yawned, narrow and empty, but the abrupt sound of scrabbling held his focus there. A moment later, the tusked, beady-eyed bulk of a Zergling plummeted straight downward at Jacen’s head, its spiky limbs flailing.

An upward slash and swift sideways roll ensured that the Jedi escaped the beast unharmed and that it was dead before it finished its fall, but the creature was only the first to tumble from the shaft. Within a few moments, three more Zerglings had dropped upon their slain brood-mate.

The Chief and the other soldiers were quick to respond, backing to the encircling wall and focusing fire on the center of the small chamber, and the trio fell before they could move more than a few steps. Jacen scrambled to his feet, keenly aware that he was well within their field of fire.

“Solo!”

The Chief’s shout coincided with another burst of premonition, and Jacen spun back towards the smoking heap, but before he could react further, his legs fell out from underneath him. One of the creatures must have only been stunned by the initial volley, and had thrown itself at him upon recovering.

Jacen pushed out with the Force to break his fall, but a slash of pain across his thigh shattered his focus, and he tumbled onto exposed belly of one of the other Zerg minions. In an instant, the creature was on top of him, and he felt the serrated hide of one of its forelimbs rip across his left cheek. Realizing that the fall had knocked his lightsaber from his grasp, Jacen pushed up against the beast’s center mass, trying to avoid its gaping, toothy maw.

Before he could summon the pulse of pressure needed repel the Zergling, an impact drove the creature full onto his chest, knocking Jacen’s breath away and prompting a throaty yelp from his attacker.

The two lay stunned for a moment as the air filled with the sound of energy discharges. One of the beast’s glassy, red eyes was pressed centimeters from Jacen’s own. A burst of sensation swept over the Jedi. The same manifestation of empty malice and hunger that he had sensed in the Zerg on the approach to Kerrigan’s fortress was here to, but now it appeared to be nothing more than a flimsy veil. Beyond it, a greater entity dwelled, a being with an intelligence of its own, and for a moment their minds touched.

They are close.

Fear that was not his own tore at Jacen, and the Zergling howled. The thing reeled back, and the pressure on the Jedi’s chest lessened. Acting on instinct, Jacen summoned all the energy he could to the small space between their bodies and pushed. The creature shot backward through the air for a full meter before grinding into the metallic floor and coming to a stop in a confused heap.

Pulling himself to one knee, Jacen looked about him to see that two more Zerg bodies had joined their fellows on the growing mound at the room’s center. Several others had made it to the encircling line of Allied soldiers, and Jacen saw one leap for a pair of Alliance marines. Skirting around the pile of Zerg corpses, he spied the hilt of his lightsaber next to the body of the first fallen Zergling and summoned it to his outstretched palm with barely a thought.

The report of a blaster rifle cut the air, and the Zergling Jacen had spotted collapsed onto one of the soldiers. He grunted under the sudden weight, but immediately began to extricate himself, apparently uninjured. Jacen looked back towards the origin of the shot, and caught sight of the Chief. He stood by the chamber’s single exit, through which the rest of the squad was hurriedly stumbling.

The Spartan gestured to him earnestly, but another pulse of insight pulled Jacen’s attention to the other side of the small chamber. In a flash, he perceived the spiny back of yet another Zergling, and beneath it, Tassadar’s robed form. With a shout, Jacen charged towards his companion, ready to tear the beast from him, but he stopped short after only a few steps. The air around the Zergling seemed to crack with energy, and both Zerg and Protoss glowed white. Light burst from the creature’s thick hide in an expanding web of brilliance, and with a crack, it fell away. When the glare cleared, all that remained of the attacker was a smear of gore across the curving wall.

Tassadar stepped quickly past the remains without a second look and moved past Jacen towards the door. The Jedi’s eyes lingered on the bloody smudge for a moment before he followed.

The power of the dark with the control of the light.

Tassadar’s power was alien, and yet it still awed him as much as any feat of his old masters.

The corridor beyond the chamber was identical to the one they had left levels above. The Chief, Tassadar, and the others pelted along it as quickly as they could, eager to put some distance between themselves and the shaft before any more Zerg could emerge. As Jacen sought to catch up, a flare of pain on his side reminded Jacen of the gouge on his thigh. He glanced at the bloody gash, and tried to focus on the blood flowing into his lower extremities. The bleeding slowed, but he kept on running and it did not cease entirely. He would have to leave it until they had a moment to rest. The pain also lessened, but his lower body still tingled with it.

He could feel no poison flowing from the wound. Jacen grimaced. There was that, at least.

Pulling up behind Tassadar, Jacen called to him.

“I sensed the Cerebrate back there.”

“We are almost upon it,” Tassadar replied without breaking his long, powerful stride. “And it knows we are here. It must be eliminated quickly, before the brunt of the Queen’s vanguard is brought upon us.”

“Will we be able to face it directly?” Jacen asked. “It must be well-defended, and we don’t have that much manpower. I don’t know about the Chief, but the others are wearing down, and I can only fight so many.”

“I do not think that the creature expected any intruder to penetrate this far. We must be cautious, but…”

Tassadar trailed off, and to Jacen it looked as though the Protoss was lost in thought.

“What is it?” Jacen asked, moving closer.

The templar faltered. “It is calling… he is calling to me.”

“The Cerebrate is trying to communicate?”

Tassadar did not turn his head. “No… it is nothing. We will be able to reach the creature, but we must hurry. There is little time.”

The templar raised his voice. “Spartan, the next doorway!”

A small door mounted in the right wall led them into a somewhat more spacious passageway, lit with the same bluish light but brighter than the others had been. There was also a familiar, fetid tang in the air, and the arching walls and plated floor bore more scrapes and claw marks.

“Do you hear that?” one of the soldiers ahead of Jacen whispered to a companion.

As they advanced quickly along the gradually-curving passage, the sound became more apparent: wind, and faint echoes. It was like they were approaching an exit to the mountain, and yet Jacen knew that they had to be hundreds of meters deep within its stony bulk. More ominously, the Jedi was beginning to perceive individual glimmers of life ahead of them, resolving from the mass of clouded activity that had pressed upon him since the squad had penetrated Kilimanjaro. Among them, one emerged with particular clarity, the same that he had touched vicariously only minutes before. Jacen drew back from it, attempting to minimize his own psychic presence.

“Do not restrain your senses, Jedi,” Tassadar said, his eyes fixed on the path ahead. “It already knows that I am coming, and it perceives only me. I have made sure of that.”

Abruptly, the passageway straightened out, and the floor inclined upward steeply. Above them, the roof gave way, revealing a vaulted ceiling of dark stone and patterned metal far above. They crept up the incline in tight formation, each with their weapon at the ready, but the broad space beyond presented no obvious foes.

The unit emerged into what appeared to be a sort of nexus. Behind and far in front of them, walls like vertical cliffs towered dozens of meters until they met the ceiling. The base of each was studded with small doors and inclined openings like their own. Higher up, rows of protrusions extruded from the flat surface, some like open pipes, others sealed hatches studded by rhythmically-blinking lights. A broad causeway stretched to either side between the walls, hemmed in by the blank, imposing faces of twin gates. The left barrier was set into a third, huge wall, but the right was built into a sheer rampart that extended less than halfway to the ceiling. Beyond it, the vaulted ceiling transformed into the underside of a shallow dome, from which most of the huge chamber’s illumination seemed to emanate.

The group formed up around Tassadar and moved quietly onto the causeway. The soldiers at the perimeter swept their weapons back and forth over closed doorways and imposing columns, conscious of the slightest movement of sound. A gentle breeze brushed past from them from the domed area, and Jacen realized that the current must have been born of the room’s ventilation systems. Unfortunately, the circulator seemed incapable of dealing with the growing stench of exposed flesh.

“Watch those openings,” the Chief warned, nodding at the protruding, pipe-like structures high above them. “I’ve been surprised by them before.”

Jacen shot a quizzical glance at the Spartan, but he seemed not to notice it.

“The right wall,” Tassadar said. “The Cerebrate is just beyond it.”

“But where are its guards?” a Starfleet officer asked, stepping over a particularly deep gouge in the floor. “And their black growth? The creep?”

The Protoss looked from the far wall to the man. He stared back nervously, but Tassadar seemed lost in thought once again.

“The creep is corrosive. It will consume all that is not Zerg in time. The Queen… she wanted this place to remain intact.”

“What? Why?”

Tassadar closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened then again. “No. No, we must hurry. Come, to the wall.”

The right gate sat fully sealed, but as they approached, a pair of smaller openings to either side of the main entrance came into view, set into low blocks of protruding dark stone. Careful to avoid full view of the smaller entry points, the group came to a halt at one of the house-sized protrusions, and the Chief stepped forward. He sized the barrier wall up carefully, taking in the blocks, both of which were less than a meter taller than he was, as well as the construct’s other sparse features.

“There’s another raised platform set against the wall above this protrusion,” the Spartan said at last. “The wall is inclined near the top. I should be able to climb up and reconnoiter the area before we advance. The rest of you, hold position here.”

Jacen offered no complaint, and Tassadar seemed lost within his own head once again. With the soldiers, they moved up against the wall, trying to make the open corner at the base of the sheer barrier as defensible as possible. Behind them, the Chief stowed his weapon, and with a single standing leap, caught hold of the lip of the protrusion and hefted his half-ton weight up with little effort. With practiced finesse, he silently moved across the flat roof, scaled the secondary platform, and then shimmied up the inclined crest of the wall. The barrier arched skyward at almost ninety degrees, so the Spartan was forced to lodge his back against the vertical face of the adjoining wall and laboriously wedge his way up with carefully-coordinated movement of his legs and left arm, but he reached the top nonetheless, with surprising speed.

After securing himself to the barrier’s upper edge, the Chief’s optically-enhanced visor took in everything that lay below. Thirty meters away the causeway gave way to a huge circular platform, anchored far below the dome they had seen below. The source of its illumination was now apparent; a sizeable hole marked the platform’s center, and through this gap a continuous beam of blue-white light rose up until it disappeared into some sort of emitter affixed to the dome’s apex. The platform itself seemed to be quite barren.

A large alcove flanked either side of the causeway. The Chief could not see into the one closest to him, but the other was more than enough to draw his attention. Filling it was a creature that could only have been the Cerebrate. The being was huge, easily larger than an Ultralisk, and yet it barely even seemed to be alive. A folded, oblong mass of pulsating brown flesh affixed to a small expanse of the Zerg creep by a collection of thick, purple tentacles, the Cerebrate lacked any overt sensory organs or recognizable features of any sort. Like all components of the Swarm, it had been bred and grown to be just what it needed to be, with no unnecessary embellishments or vestigial limbs. It was a brain, utterly dependent upon the minions that were its eyes and ears, its hands and its protective shell.

As he turned his magnified viewer away from the thing, the Chief was grateful for his suit’s dedicated air filters. Whatever waste the Cerebrate excreted, it must have done so directly into the surrounding creep.

A handful of large, crab-like creatures the Chief had never seen before clustered about the Cerebrate, grooming its perpetually-undulating creases with their proboscises or trimming the edges of the surrounding creep. Others scuttled around a pair of sagging, conical growths that flanked the Cerebrate. Eight Hydralisks also slithered back and forth before the immobile entity, watching the wall and the far platform with empty, hateful eyes. These creatures were half again as large as most of the same breed that the Chief had faced before, and their chitinous exoskeletons shown a dusky crimson in the light of the nearby energy pillar.

The Chief was about to take a closer look at the organic mounds adjacent to the Cerebrate when a shout from below drew him back to the other side of the wall. The Allied soldiers had drawn into a tight semicircle against the gated rampart, and their weapons were aimed purposefully back down the causeway. Jacen stood before them, the green of his lightsaber clear against the dull stone.

Zerglings and Hydralisks had begun to pour from the passageways at the other end of the huge chamber. A chorus of clacking-hisses reached the Chief’s aural receptors, and he watched as the closest Hydralisks reared back and loosed volleys of lethal spines. A few found their way to the crest of the wall, but the Spartan was already sliding back down, unhooking his rifle as he went. The Chief hit the upper platform firing, adding his blaster’s coughing report to the rising symphony of weapons fire reverberating from below. As he began to topple advanced warriors, the Spartan failed to notice that Tassadar was no longer sheltered amongst his squad’s ranks.

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Boil’s massive bulk shuddered with relief as he sensed a throng of his warriors descend upon the human interlopers. The clutch of Hunter-Killers arrayed before him stiffened at the sound of weapons fire just beyond the barrier wall to their left, but they did not break away from their master to hunt the intruders. They were Hydralisks of the purest, most power breed, and for several long minutes, they had been the only beings between Boil and debilitating panic. His final line of defense, the eight warriors were all that Kerrigan allowed him to retain so close to her hive’s heart. He had never questioned her insistence that lesser Zerg be kept from the core of the mountain complex, nor was he capable of doing so now, but he was nevertheless relieved that his master had temporarily lifted the restriction to stop the human’s advance.

The Cerebrate did not fear death; as long as the Queen of Blades persisted, his consciousness would persist and be grown a new corporeal form. Rather, he had feared that he would fail in his mandate to protect her inner sanctum. This anxiety was not born of potential punishment or even the thought of not being created anew; loyalty to his mistress was part of what he was.

Boil had tracked the small group of humanoids since they arrived at one of the fortress’s upper egress maws, near the mountain’s summit. At first, he has thought little of them, suspecting that they were simply stragglers of the larger group that his forces had ambushed as they established a beachhead just meters from the hive’s sealed entrance. These first attackers had displayed little of the cunning that had frustrated the Cerebrate during the human’s initial incursion; by the time that they’re metallic conveyances had offloaded the pitiful strike force, his perimeter broods had already burrowed themselves into the sand and soft rock below they’re feet. The slaughter had been quite satisfying.

The latecomers, however, had posed an unexpected challenge. After killing a large number of his underlings, they had been able to slip into an excavation tunnel carved months earlier by the brood tasked by the Queen with establishing her seat on the human homeworld. Boil had believed that all such entrances had been collapsed, but somehow, the intruders had managed to use it to gain access to the mountain’s interior. The Cerebrate had become nervous as soon as his perimeter forces lost the group; the preexisting, artificial complex that the Queen had adopted as her throne was left more or less intact at its lower levels, and thus lacked the sensory organs that would have allowed Boil to pinpoint the human’s exact movements in a comparably-sized superorganism.

He had been forced to flood the portions of the facility that his Queen had not restricted with all the minions he could recall, weakening the fortress’s defenses. Moreover, he had resorted to personally directing their search, an effort that distracted him from the other enemy forces scattered across the surrounding plain; the destruction of Boil’s other brother had left him in sole command of the continent’s broods. After a period of mounting agitation, a group of lesser minions had finally stumbled across the offending humans, who had evidently used the complex’s conduit network to penetrate hundreds of meters down, to Boil’s own level. One of them had touched his mind, and the Cerebrate had realized that, for the first time in his short life, he was in real danger. Desperately, he had called all the warriors within his reach to him, and attempted to track the alien mind as it approached. Even that effort had failed; another psionic power had repelled his mental tendrils, and mounted its own psychic assault.

The creature’s dreadful, alien presence in his own thoughts still sickened him, even though it had been fleeting. Foreign as the hostile mind was, he could comprehend it fully, and he felt a portion of his being reach out in response. The momentary, uncontrollable reaction confounded and terrified him.

Through all of this, his Queen had left Boil almost entirely to his own devices. She seemed content to simply observe, and it did not even occur to him to question her passivity. He was tasked with defending her, and he threw himself upon the task with every measure of his will.

Nostrils of a dozen remote bodies captured the iron-heavy tang of human blood, and Boil began to calm down. Extraordinary nuisances they might have been, but no lesser organisms could withstand the fury of the Zerg for long. Confident that the threat had been dealt with, Boil extended his psionic presence outward once more, eager to oversee the extermination of the remnants of the force that had slain his brothers.

A wave of psionic energy washed over the Cerebrate, and his restored view of creep-covered vistas dissolved into blackness. Boil felt the solid metal and stone of the floor beneath him break asunder and give way, and he was falling, blind and alone, unable to even scream. Bursts of searing flare erupted across his pulpy hide, and with each one, a pulse of pain shot from end of his bloated body to the other. The tortuous void became solid again in an instant, and Boil felt the impact with every ounce of shivering biomass and every iota of sentience.

Reeling, the Cerebrate shot mental tendrils out in every direction, desperate to re-anchor himself in the corporeal realm. First, he felt the creep he was rooted in, then the floor, and the sheltering walls above, all still quite intact. The drones that had milled been milling about his body, grooming and sustaining it, lay dead, their tiny minds fried by his sudden outpouring of shock and disorientation. Beyond, his guardians coiled around one another, tense and confused, but still very much alive. Outwardly, the world seemed virtually unchanged.

Boil knew different. The Queen was gone.

She had not disappeared entirely, for as Boil concentrated, he could barely detect the familiar resonance of her thoughts, but it appeared as though perceived from a vast distance, like an eclipsed star a galaxy away. The gulf was crushing. From his first thought, she had been with him. The ebb and flow of her passions was his heartbeat. Her designs and machinations were his dearest dreams. It was as though his very ability to feel had been torn from him, and only the crushing ache of its memory had been left to him.

He needed to reach his Queen again. He needed to lose his mind in hers. He would find the thing that had severed them. He would take her back.

Boil felt the unending fury and blind bloodlust of his minions, and took the fire as his own. As his intellect began to boil away, he lashed out with all his will, and all at once, the demon that had stolen his essence was before him.

Tassadar walked calmly from the far entryway in the barrier wall, his blazing eyes fixed firmly on the Cerebrate. The attendant Hydralisks spotted the Protoss, simultaneously loosed keening wails that drowned out the echoing sounds of battle, and charged. Their claws scythed the empty air in furious anticipation, and the scales of their armored carapaces gouged wakes of stone as they surged forward on tails of knotted muscle.

The templar’s resolute, steady pace did not slow, and he spared the leading Hunter-Killer’s only a momentary glance before turning his gaze back on the heaving mass of the Cerebrate. The fiends stopped short, almost collapsing backwards from their own inertia. The inky eyes within their serrated skulls went wild, and primal fury overcame the tenuous hold that genetic conditioning and psionic influence had on their basic instincts. Suddenly, everything that moved was enemy and prey, and each Hydralisk found an adversary within claw’s reach.

Tassadar sidestepped the ball of gnashing jaws and shattering chitin, pushing the pair from his mind even as they smashed into the sealed gate, tearing at each other’s arched throats. The six remaining beast fell upon the templar, unfazed by his effortless dismissal of their brethren. As the first blade plunged down upon his unprotected head, Tassadar flung back his dark cloak and thrust his arms out to both sides. The air before him cracked with blue and white, and lattice of pure energy burst into being from nothingness, mirroring the cool fire in the Protoss’ eyes. Synapses of psionic force pulsed through open space and the bodies of the Hunter-Killers, unimpeded by their meticulously-evolved exoskeletons. Organs and soft tissue burned as bodily fluids boiled, and one by one, the Zerg warriors exploded.

When Tassadar looked again at Boil through a sinking red mist, the Cerebrate could finally see the isolating shroud that had severed him from his mistress. The obscuring, impenetrable fog poured from the Protoss’ every orifice. In Boil’s mind’s eye, Tassadar became the miasma, a singularity anchored to the world only by conflagrations of cerulean and jet that erupted from where his skull should have been.

Terror lashed at Boil, and the rage he had manifested within his prone body burst forth. The pyramidal growths that flanked the Zerg coordinator came to life. Their sagging crests turned towards Tassadar, revealing circular maws dripping with nameless, toxic fluids that withered the creep where it fell. With great, wet inhalations of oxygen, the living towers vomited forth twin globes of writhing biomatter. Steeped in pustules of corrosive chemicals, each projectile swam with lethal bacterial spores.

Tassadar stiffened as the wave of filth hurtled at him, but he did not attempt to evade it. The projectiles washed over him, and his lanky form faded from being in a flash of blue light. Boil’s bulk trembled with a silent roar of triumph, but it died as he watched three new dark-robed Protoss emerge from the empty space only a dozen meters before him, untroubled by the loss of their duplicate.

Illusions!

Boil’s spore belchers lobbed another volley of corrosive missiles, obliterating a pair of the phantom templars, but the third leapt free of the withering impacts and broke into a run, thrusting his palms forward as he did. The firing mouths of constructs exploded in showers of blue sparks, and the organic towers collapsed in on themselves in eruptions of caustic fluid.

Tassadar leapt, clearing the creep entirely and burying his splay-toed boots in Boil’s soft, livid flesh. The Cerebrate thrashed with all his might, almost tearing his barely-motile tentacles from the ground, but Tassadar held fast, climbing further up the bucking mass and clasping hold of its blistered surface.

When he felt the Protoss’ long, delicate fingers on his body, Boil no longer could articulate the emotions that flooded his mind, kept so carefully in check for its entire existence. Fear, anger, and despair coalesced into madness, and the last thing that the Cerebrate perceived was an expanding point of darkness deep within its very skin, disrupting the last of the creature’s cascading neural impulses as it reached out for Tassadar’s careful grasp.

Then there was light.

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

The Master Chief knelt in the narrow archway. He held a Starfleet phaser in his right hand and his blaster pistol in his left. His favored rifle lay somewhere out on the open causeway, cleaved in half by a Hydralisk he let get too close. Methodically and with supernatural precision, he fired each weapon one after the other in short bursts. The right sent a Zergling skittering to the floor. The left punched a hole in the chest of an arachnidan horror that the Spartan could not name.

The right. The left. Two more monstrosities dead. The Chief ignored the flashing, red indicators on his HUD that tracked the ammunition and charge levels of both weapons. They still fired when he engaged their firing studs, and so he held his ground.

Behind him, Jacen Solo dragged a Starfleet officer deeper into the dark, confining passageway that ran through the barrier wall. Even through the spattering of blood and grime on her face, he recognized her as the officer who had cut them a passage into the mountain. As gently as he could, the Jedi leaned her up against one wall. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was shallow. Jacen’s hands and tunic were covered with the woman’s blood. Looking down, he saw that the jagged stump where her left arm had been was still bleeding furiously.

“I’m out!” the Chief shouted, and Jacen stood. Turning towards the archway, he palmed and ignited his lightsaber, illuminating the barren passage and the Spartan’s worn battlesuit. Over its shoulder, the Jedi saw that the open chamber still writhed with fresh Zerg bodies, eager to pile after their wounded prey. Jacen stepped carefully over the unconscious woman and moved to join the Chief in the doorway. The Spartan had thrown aside both exhausted weapons, and now faced the ravening hoard with his gauntlets alone.

Another Zergling leapt at them, and all Jacen could hear was the rapid thud of his own heart. The others had all died so quickly after their makeshift line had been overrun. Somehow, it seemed quite natural that he would join them. He was mortal, just like the rest of them, and mortals died. They had fallen short of their goal and their deaths would bear little lasting meaning, but, didn’t that seem like a very mortal end?

The Chief caught the air-borne Zergling with a sharp elbow just below the jaw. Robbed of its momentum, the beast tumbled to the blood-stained floor, but its spiked, dorsal limbs swung up and into the supersoldier’s chest. His energy shields exploded into sparks and he was forced back a step, but the defensive field absorbed the brunt of the blow, and the Chief was able to grab both appendages before their owner could bring them back for another attack. His armored fingers locked on the bony shafts and he yanked up and back, twisting his wrists as he did. With a wet crack, the upper halves of the limbs broke away in the Chief’s hands, and the Zergling loosed a pained shriek. A plated boot silenced the cry, and before the creature could bite down on it, the Chief slammed the foot to the floor with a sickening crunch.

Not bothering to shake away the gore, the Chief brace himself for the next attacker, but the only thing that greeted him through his spattered and scratched visor was a heap of broken and burned Zerg corpses. The rest were now halfway across the chamber, running or staggering for the hatches and openings from which they had come, wailing as they went. Several dashed against each other as they fled, hissing and clawing as they stumbled to the floor and then uneasily picked themselves up again. Within a few more seconds, the causeway was devoid of life.

Warily, the Chief stooped to recover his blaster and reloaded it from a compartment on his leg. No Zerg had shown itself by the time he had finished checking the weapon, so he withdrew deeper into the passage, where Jacen knelt again next to the Starfleet officer.

“Zerg aren’t intimidated that easily,” he said.

Jacen shook his head. “It wasn’t that. I felt… something, very close by. It must have scared them off.”

He looked up at the Chief. “Tassadar! He slipped away just before the attack!”

“He must have found the Cerebrate,” the Chief agreed. “Lucky for us. We should find him before the effect on its minions wear off.”

The Spartan paused. Jacen had torn a piece of his tunic and was tying it around the wounded officer’s stump. She wasn’t moving. The Chief had seen hundreds of battlefield injuries in the course of his service, and he was a reasonably good a gauging them.

“You can’t save her. She’s already lost too much blood.”

Jacen ignored him. Tying off the tourniquet, he leaned closer to the woman and gently placed his hands on the wounded area. He closed his eyes, and concentrated. Almost immediately a measure of color returned to the officer’s ashen features and chest swelled with a ragged breath. The Chief stepped back and fell quiet.

Jacen withdrew a hand. It came up caked with blood, but none of it was new. Satisfied that the bleeding had stopped, he moved his hands to the woman’s face. In the dim light, in her Starfleet uniform, she reminded him of Laura. Taking a deep breath, he placed each palm on her cheeks and laid his forehead on hers. She took another drag of air, and then another. The Chief saw an eye flutter, but the third breath was weaker, and after the fourth, no others came.

After fifteen seconds of motionless silence, the Chief placed a heavy hand on Jacen’s shoulder.

“You did all you could, Solo. We have to go. We have to find Tassadar.”

Slowly, Jacen lifted his head from the cooling body. His hands fell away, but his eyes lingered on her bruised, pallid face for a few more moments.

The Chief was already at the other archway.

“Solo.”

“Just a moment,” he called back, and then took a long, deep breath. “I’m with you.”

Jacen tried not to look back.

Cautiously avoiding the entwined bodies of a pair of Hunter-Killers, the two survivors found Tassadar standing in the midst of a massive mound of charred, oozing flesh, three times the Chief’s height even in its ruined form.

“I guess he didn’t need our help after all,” the Spartan said, kicking a loose segment of shriveled tentacle.

The Protoss was kneeling waist-deep in the blasted remains, cradling a limp hunk of the dead Cerebrate in his arms. Wading closer, Jacen realized that the object was moving, if only slightly. Trying to shake away the disorientation of the last few minutes, the Jedi realized that there were two minds alive in the muck. Two very similar minds.

Carefully, almost tenderly, Tassadar swept a layer of purple ichor and white veins away from the top of the mass, and a face came into view. Its skin was rough and gray, and it seemed to lack any facial features save for a pair of clouded, half-open eyes. A faint glimmer of yellow light appear in them, and the being’s neck twitched, shaking organic detritus from its pronounced, back-swept forehead.

“Another Protoss?” Jacen whispered.

“A friend.”

For the first time since Jacen had met the templar, the psychic resonance that was his voice lacked its stern, commanding tone. The words were almost a whisper.

“Zeratul, I am here,” he continued, pressing his head close to the other Protoss. “You are free.”

The gore-covered alien twitched again, and his eyes opened a fraction wider.

“See with eyes unclouded, my friend. The Cerebrate will trouble you no longer.”

“It was… a dream.”

Zeratul’s voice was even softer than Tassadar’s, purely psychic, lacking the resonance that carried the templar’s thoughts into the physical world.

“Trickery.”

“I am no illusion, Zeratul,” Tassadar said gently. “Although… I must appear so.”

“You died. On Aiur. I saw it.” Zeratul shivered, and his eyes began to inch closed. “More deception. But I will do no more. Your prize is spent, O Concubine of the Zerg.”

Tassadar pulled him closer.

“You know me, Zeratul! You know the energy that flows through me. It is as much a part of you as it is of me! You felt it when you reached out to me, and you feel it now.”

Zeratul said nothing for a long moment, and Tassadar’s arms slackened.

“I feel one who has walked the path of shadow.”

The glimmer beneath Zeratul’s heavy eyelids brightened.

“Death suited you well, Tassadar. The stain of your association with me was washed away. They spoke of you as they did of Adun. En taro Tassadar, they would say. En taro Tassadar…”

Zeratul’s eyes undulated flicking over Jacen where he stood nearby, but he did not appear to see him. Staring back, the Jedi remembered a conversation he had shared with Tassadar weeks previously, all but an eternity. He recalled mention of one of the templar’s mentors, a teacher who had expanded his thinking and broadened his powers to combat the Zerg. A Dark Templar.

The emaciated Protoss soon settled on the high templar once more.

“How?”

“I do not know, my friend. When I plunged my flagship into the Overmind, I was ready to walk Khala’s Path. Instead, when I awoke, I found a different road ahead of me.”

Zeratul shivered again, but he did not speak.

“Though I Was far from home, an old enemy found me. The human… the terran Kerrigan.”

Zeratul made a sound Jacen did not understand. “Ah. She found me, too.”

Tassadar nodded slowly. “I must find her, Zeratul. I must discover how she brought me to this place, so far from home. And then she must be stopped, before she carries her curse to any other worlds.”

“Tell me, my friend, if you are able, how did you come to this place? Why did she bring you here?”

Zeratul’s eyes slid shut, and there was another long silence. Jacen heard footsteps behind them, and turned to see that the Chief had moved towards the huge, circular platform beyond, his opaque faceplate still turned warily towards the barrier wall.

“The creation exceeded its master. Queen… the corrupted terran rose with the Overmind’s fall. Under her, the Swarm consumed the terran empires and pushed our people back to my world. We fought as one, like the Protoss of old, but even with the ancient artifacts of the Xel’Naga, we could not withstand forever.”

“When Shakuras was finally overrun, I was taken. Some escaped… fled to the stars, but all the rest… consumed. She brought me to the apex of the Great Temple. She did something to the sacred machine, and then made me fight her. I attacked… summoned what energy I could…”

For a third time, Zeratul shivered, more violently than the last. Tassadar raised a hand to his the other’s face, but he shook it off, opening his eyes once again.

“Something happened to the machine, and we left Shakuras. Far, far… She was too strong. I, too weak. She kept me locked away. Used new terrans, pitted them one against the other. She…” The Protoss cringed at some unseen stimulus. “She broke it. My mind. Took the secrets, like she had from the others. The dark… she used it to corrupt…”

“Deep Space Nine,” Jacen whispered. “That’s why the commander went mad!”

Zeratul seemed not to hear him.

“Then… here. She brought me here. Gave me to the Cerebrate. I tried to fight, but… I slept… everything. Everything stolen. Everything lost.”

The final words seemed to have exhausted Zeratul, and he slumped again into Tassadar’s arms.

The templar held him close. “Not all is lost, my friend. I will destroy her, and I will bring you home.

Zeratul’s eyes had diminished to slivers of yellow again, and their light had faded noticeably.

“I am meant for shadow, Tassadar, and the light has already begun to fade. But not all of us are gone. Some still live, lost amongst the stars. They need a guide.”

Zeratul’s right arm, virtually atrophied beyond recognition, shifted free of a mass of matted debris and inched up agonizingly until Tassadar clasped his friend’s hand firmly in his own.

“Find them, Tassadar. Guide them home.”

“By Aiur, Zeratul, I will.”

The withered Protoss’ eyes closed on distant embers.

“Shadows, at last. Adun toridas.”

“Adun toridas,” Tassadar said quietly, laying Zeratul’s hand upon his sallow chest. It tightened, and then was still.

Neither Jacen nor Tassadar spoke until the Chief returned.

“We’ve got to move out,” he said. “I don’t know how badly losing this Cerebrate hurt the Zerg, but we can’t count on them not coming back.”

“The Queen is not far,” Tassadar said, still facing the fallen Protoss. “We must go deeper.”

“I found a control panel I recognize on that platform. It should take us down.”

Jacen looked up. “A control panel you recognize?”

The Chief paused a moment before replying. “I’ve been in structures like this one before, in my galaxy.” He shook his head before Jacen could ask the inevitable question. “I don’t know how it’s possible. It just is.”

“There is one who can answer your riddle. Let us find her.”

Tassadar clambered down off of the Cerebrate’s corpse, Zeratul’s body in his arms. The other alien was wrapped in Tassadar’s cloak; the dark blue and gold of the templar’s bare cuirass and raised pauldrons shown ethereally in the light of the looming energy beam.

The Chief stared pointedly at the wrapped remains as they moved towards the platform.

“Do not concern yourself with the body, Spartan. He will not burden us for long.” After a few more strides, Tassadar laid Zeratul on the smooth stone of the causeway. “No sentient being deserves to rot in that foul heap, especially not him.”

Kneeling at Zeratul’s head, he closed his eyes, and Jacen felt the resonance of thoughts that only other Protoss could comprehend. Tassadar placed both hands on the covered skull, and with an exhalation, blue-white fire spread from his fingertips across the body until it was covered with roiling arcs of energy. There was a momentary flash of blinding light, and when it cleared, only a scattering of ash marked the spot where Zeratul had lain.

Tassadar stood and waved an arm across the spot, sending the remains scattering into the artificial wind.

“May these ashes find their master upon the Path,” Tassadar said, straightening. “Let us hope that he receives them, for nothing can find a Dark Templar who wishes to remain hidden.”



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 2008-06-07 03:32pm, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-06-27 05:30am
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Seventy One


The remnants of Tassadar’s battle with the Cerebrate disappeared beyond the circular lip of an enormous shaft that slowly swallowed the platform and its luminous pylon. The metal beneath two pairs of human feet and Tassadar’s heavy boots barely vibrated and the beam of energy that seemed to anchor it remained constant, but impenetrable walls of dark stone quickly rose up around them, consuming everything save the skyward dome. For a few moments, air currents from the chamber above echoed about the three, amplified by the enclosed space, but soon the sound faded, leaving only the faint reverberation of the surface beneath them and a gentle, magnetic hum to break the silence.

The Chief stepped back from the terminal he had located, his hands free to reclaim his blaster pistol. The control panel was made up of what appeared to be several thin, adjoining sheets of luminescent glass, dotted with geometric glyphs and blocky forms that crisscrossed its surface in regular, purposeful patterns. In actuality, the surfaces hovered at an angle to the plate below, holographic projections that had nonetheless given purchase to the Spartan’s open palm and activated the lift at his touch.

The three stood in silence as the platform continued to descend. None had spoken since Tassadar’s brief valediction, and the Protoss was once more drawn within himself, his bright eyes lowered and subdued.

Jacen was the first to break the restless silence.

“What is this place, Chief?” His voice echoed with more volume than he had intended and the Jedi tensed at the sound, but the reverberation faded harmlessly into the shaft’s immovable walls.

“I’m not sure,” the Spartan replied. “The only Forerunner structures I’ve seen have been Halos. Massive space stations with artificial atmospheres and landmasses. Their interiors were similar to this place, but I can’t tell you what they built it to do.”

Jacen frowned. “Forerunners?”

“That’s what the AI Cortana and I found in one of the Halos called its creators. Apparently, they all died hundreds of thousands of years ago in a war with the Flood, a parasitic organism we found on the instillations.” The Chief paused, glancing up the lengthening tube. “One that we woke up.”

Jacen’s own galaxy had its share of ancient, lost civilizations, evidenced only by enigmatic constructs they left adrift in the depths of space or scattered across remote worlds. In his experience, such wonders were rarely benign.

“And the Halos? What were they built to do?”

“They are weapons. I don’t know how they work, but the Forerunners built them to combat the Flood. If activated, the Halos kill almost every living thing within a galaxy. They used them once, tried to stop the Flood and killed themselves in the process. I almost activated it again.”

“Why?” Jacen asked, surprised.

The Chief stared at the younger man through his opaque visor, impassive.

“The first Halo’s AI just told me it was a weapon, one I thought the UNSC could use against the Covenant. Cortana interfaced with the instillation’s computer and stopped me in time, told me what it really did.”

Jacen pondered this, but before he could ask another question, he sensed movement above and jerked his eyes up.

Descending from an unseen conduit or opening, a single, metallic entity sank into a relative stop a few meters above them, its repulsors emitting an audible hum. The dim light glinted dully off the polished, silver sheen of its casing, an elongated, torso-sized cube with a trio of angular appendages splayed at its front like a segmented shield. Behind these plates, a single, robotic eye gazed at Jacen and his companions, lit with the same ethereal light that guided their platform downward. A fourth appendage hung slightly below the machine’s chassis, its small, forward aperture dark.

Jacen inhaled sharply and raised his lightsaber blade to guard against the new arrival, but it seemed to ignore the weapon, drifting side to side slightly, inspecting each of the figures below in turn.

“Wait!” the Chief cautioned. His blaster was clutched tightly in his right hand, but the Spartan had not aimed it at the machine. “It’s a sentinel. The Forerunners built them to guard their facilities.”

“Like the one we’re wandering around in, unwelcome?” Jacen asked, not taking his eyes off the odd observer.

“Its weapon isn’t charged,” the Chief said, indicating to the ventral appendage. “And there’d be more of them if it was here to kill us.”

Slowly, Jacen lowered his lightsaber. The sentinel turned its lambent eye on him again, pivoted slightly back and forth on its axis, turned, and then raced up wards on an ephemeral trail of light, vanishing quickly into the darkness of the shaft’s walls.

Before any of them could ponder the machine’s appearance and equally abrupt exit, the platform noticeably slowed its decent. A moment later, a full half of the continuous circle of stone and metal beyond the lift gave way to open space. There was a blast of air current and echoing noise, and a chamber far larger than the one they had just left rose into view.

The Chief felt his muscles tighten.

This place, I do remember…

The space was circular, easily two hundred meters across and capped by a vaulted dome so far above that it was barely visible in the dim light. Evenly-spaced around its perimeter, three more dark shafts identical to their own sat empty, their central energy columns inactive. Leading from each, broad causeways that appeared to be composed mainly of frosted, semi-transparent glass converged on the center of the cavernous chamber. Near the center, they terminated into a single, continuous circle of walkway that left dozens of meters at the very middle of the chamber completely open, a gaping well that led down into nothingness. Beneath the walkways, themselves anchored only to the walls around the lift shafts, dark, solid walls tapered into a wide funnel and then plummeted down beyond sight.

Jacen and the Chief were still taking in the impressive, artificial vista when their lift eased to a stop, aligning perfectly with its causeway. The platform, like the rest of the massive space, seemed to be quite empty. And yet, as he took it all in, Jacen sensed a profound, vital presence that seemed to resonate from the artificial cavern itself, strange, familiar, and wholly alien all at once. The place positively sang with ancient power, untouched by transient beings for countless millennia.

And yet…

Tassadar advanced between the two humans and stepped from platform to causeway, both as unyielding as solid granite. His eyes were veiled no longer, and his gazed was fixed straight ahead.

And then, at last, Jacen saw her. A single figure stood at the lip of the circular walkway with its back to him, its form obscured by the light of a long array of floating displays, similar to the one that had controlled the lift. At such a distance, the Jedi could barely make out the humanoid silhouette, but he knew in an instant to whom it belonged. He had never come face to face with the Queen of Blades, but he had sensed her from a distance, and seen her corrupt handiwork up close.

This was Kerrigan, heart of the Swarm.

The Chief and Jacen kept close behind Tassadar as he advanced towards her, unspeaking. The humans scanned the suspended causeways and empty air with cautious eyes, wary of more of Kerrigan’s Zerg vanguard, but there was no sign of movement anywhere else in the chamber, and no sound saved the steady, slow clap of their boots on the smooth, unsettlingly transparent surface. Kerrigan was herself motionless, seemingly absorbed in the display before her and ignorant of the intruders. Steeling himself, Jacen reached out towards her, attempting to gauge something, anything about the being they had traveled so far and lost so much to face, but she was a hole in the Force, her malice and dark energy folded into an impenetrable psychic rampart. If Tassadar had more success he gave no sign of it, and walked onward unshaken.

Finally, when they were only a few dozen yards from Kerrigan and her green-gray skin and serrated, bony carapace were plainly visible, she turned to face them. Her muscular arms spread wide, clawed hands open in a show of welcome. The pair of barbed, wing-like appendages that spouted from beneath her shoulder blades mirrored the gesture, flaring like the grasping feet of a bird of prey. Pools of impenetrable black welled in her fine, yellow eyes.

Suddenly, the eyes filled Jacen’s vision and obscured his other senses, searing through carefully-honed mental defenses as though they were wisps of idle fancy. He stumbled and started to reach for his head with his free hand, instinctively compelled to dash the foreign image from his mind, but he forced his arm to stop.

No! Not this easily! Not so soon!

He smothered the desperate, defensive urge and pushed back instead. He focused on the eyes, staring back with all his resolve. If Kerrigan thought she could break his will with the cursory assault and simple mental projection, she was sorely mistaken. He was a Solo, a Skywalker, and would not be bullied so. Another push, and the gilded voids evaporated.

Glancing to one side, Jacen could see that the Chief had faltered as well, but as the Jedi moved to lend him some of his own strength, the Spartan straightened up and squared his broad shoulders.

“Keep up with the Protoss,” he growled, breathless, but in control.

Jacen looked at the man’s opaque faceplate with fresh respect. Kerrigan’s telepathic assault had been limited, only half serious, but it still should have been enough to send a human without the appropriate mental barriers to his knees. Fleetingly, the Spartan reminded him of his father; Han wouldn’t have been easily cowed, either.

He would have never allowed such an insult to his ego, Jacen reflected before pushing the errant thoughts aside. Dad would say that the Chief has a bit of Corellian blood in him.

Tassadar came to a stop less than ten meters from Kerrigan, completely unfazed by the unseen attack. Kerrigan moved a step from her controls, and a broad smile spread across her stained lips.

“Welcome, brave Templar, to my humble keep,” she said, her voice saccharine. “I hope you and your companions found the stroll here pleasant.” She made a show of glancing around Tassadar’s armored frame. “I had expected more guests, but I suppose my guardians can be a little overzealous when it comes to my privacy. Nevertheless, I do usually demand a bit more… respect be paid to my servants. I was rather fond of the lump you gutted in my antechamber.” Something dangerous flashed across Kerrigan’s face, but in a moment it was gone, replaced once again by macabre good humor.

“But that is all behind us.” She waved an arm extravagantly at the high walls and ceiling. “Extraordinary, wouldn’t you agree? Feels a bit like home, doesn’t it?”

The Chief and Jacen had moved alongside Tassadar by now, and Kerrigan turned her gaze on the former. “You feel it, don’t you, Master Chief?”

The Spartan’s only reply was to raise his blaster pistol and point it squarely at her chest.

“Oh come on, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117… or perhaps, just John. Yes, that will do nicely.”

Jacen could sense anger rising in the Spartan, but he remained motionless, his armored finger just off the blaster’s firing stud. He kept control.

Kerrigan cocked her head slightly to one side, and the spines above her head swayed in tune with the movement. “Not in a sociable mood, John? Perhaps some old friends, to lighten the mood.”

“Eyes up!” the Chief barked.

Jacen saw a dozen sentinels rise from the empty space to either side of the causeway and form staggered lines in the air above them. They were identical to the one in the shaft, save that their lower appendages were noticeably extended. Apparently that, and the malevolent glee obvious in Kerrigan’s face, was enough to mark them firmly as threats in the Chief’s mind, and Jacen was not inclined to disagree.

As the humans turned their weapons towards the machines, Kerrigan spun around and reached out for something lying on a flattened area of the hard-light display. She returned with a large metal sphere gasped firmly in one hand. Its metal shell was similar to that of the sentinels, partially split to make room for a bulbous, eye-like lens, now dark and glassy.

“This little guy was quite upset when I found the facility. The place’s caretaker and artificial intelligence, I think. It called itself Insoluble Vector, or something. It flitted here and there, whining about my broods upstairs or blathering about its mission and how I was disturbing the machinery. It put up a rather disappointing fight when I finally decided to be rid of it.” She pondered the lifeless, artificial shell glumly, staring into its empty eye, cracked, Jacen could now see, and then tossed it carelessly to one side. The vacant machine bounced and rolled along the walkway until it came to its edge, teetered for a moment, and then tumbled soundlessly into the abyss.

Kerrigan turned her attention back to her audience, and smiled once more. “These sentinels proved far more useful, once I was able to bypass their old command protocols. For all they know, they’re doing what they’ve always done, keeping watch on my sanctum and making sure that any unwelcome guests are kept properly contained. Far more subtle than any of my organic creations. No risk of damaging what’s down here.”

One of the sentinels drifted out of line, dipped low over the walkway, and then wound lazily up behind Kerrigan until it was just above her right shoulder. She raised a hand and ran a single, razor-tipped finger delicately along one of its forward plates.

Suddenly, the sentinel twitched violently, and Kerrigan’s hand drew sharply back. Blue-white flame manifested itself on the sentinel’s armored chassis, and the light behind its single eye flared. With a crackle of arcane energy and dying machinery, the robot was consumed by the fire and fell at Kerrigan’s feet, a blackened mass of crumpled metal.

“Enough of your games, Dark One!” Tassadar boomed, his right hand raised. The space between them crackled palpably with charge.

The Queen’s stare grew cold as it turned once more onto the Templar. Jacen and the Chief watched as the remaining sentinels drew back from the trio, their forward plates splaying further and their low-slung apertures coming to life with golden light. There was no cover available, should the machines open fire, and no place to run save the yawn darkness below. Kerrigan had them in the palm of her hand.

And yet, Tassadar seemed barely even aware of the threats above, or the men on either side, for that matter. He beheld Kerrigan alone.

“You have called me here, Empty Queen, and I have come of my own free will. Now, you shall lay your plans bear, and tell me why and how you have dragged me to this realm. Then, and only then, will we have our reckoning.”

Kerrigan regarded him in silence, her lips pursed. The moment stretched, and Jacen felt the wash of a bubbling of power or raw emotion. As he tried to keep his guard on both the Queen and her stolen servants, the Jedi realized he could no longer be sure from which presence the feeling emanated. The life-force of Protoss and hybrid seemed to enmesh, immaterial tendrils clashing and knotting in an invisible duel.

“I suppose that would be only… fair.” The words rolled from Kerrigan’s slowly, cloyingly temperate. “You have answered my call, after all. Very well, I’ll tell you a story. But don’t think that you can fade away again if you don’t like what you hear, my slippery friend. There is no way out of here, at least not…”

She trailed off, a self-assured smile forming again. Tassadar said nothing.

“My thanks, to start, Templar. Without your courageous sacrifice on Aiur, my ascension would have been impossible. As much as he was fond of his new toy, the Overmind would have never truly left me to my own devices, and his sniveling, sycophantic Cerebrates would have remained an insufferable impediment. As it was, they had to be dealt with, but with the Swarm’s old master gone, it was a simple matter to subvert and eliminate the last hold-outs.”

“The Terrans and your crumbling empire – and proud Aiur was quite lost even before I even had a chance to lay eyes on it, I’m afraid – put up a more satisfying fight, but in time, their flimsy alliances were easily rotted, their heroes corrupted, and their peoples consumed. A few stragglers here and there, but nothing left worthy of the notice of the Queen of Blades and her loyal hordes. I even followed the Terrans all the way back to their homeworld.”

She looked upward dramatically. “I have to say, this version of Earth was much prettier when I found it. Heavy industry can take quite a toll on a biosphere. Well, I think my modest renovations improved on both worlds. A nice balance of efficiency and aesthetics, I think. You’re welcome to disagree, but I wouldn’t waste too much energy on it.”

“Anyways, I found myself master of, well, everything. Any planet I saw, I could have. Any organism, new genetic material for my Swarm. It was all… so very easy. I tried to distract myself with little projects, tinkering with species I had harvested, adding augmentations and culling evolutionary dead-ends. But I wanted more, knew that there was something else out there that was mine to claim. A supreme challenge for the ultimate lifeform. Maybe that’s why the Overmind created me.”

She aped an introspective air. “Perhaps I should give the old flesh ball a bit more credit.”

“My next conquest lay in the past. Relics. You know the ones, Tassadar. Xel’Naga monoliths and ruins, scattered from one side of the Galaxy to the other. The great progenitors, architects of entire sapient species, the creators of the Protoss and the Zerg. You know the legend, wise Templar, the ancient scripture of your race. How their creations grew too quickly, how they became too powerful, and turned on their masters, pushing them from known space.”

She paused again, seemingly for dramatic effect. Kerrigan seemed excited and thoroughly engrossed in her own story, for once almost human, but Jacen still could not feel her. If there was any humanity left in the being it was purely superficial, left intact to disarm and distract.

“But how could this happen, Tassadar? How could a species so ancient and so powerful fall before the tantrums of a pair of children? Where was the might that had forged a boundless empire and the will that had bent the foundations of life to their purposes? Why had they fled so easily? Where was their power? The answer was there all along, in the carved, abandoned rocks that Protoss and Zerg alike revered for their ancient energies. And I found it.”

“The key was on Shakuras, the great Xel’Naga temple that your Dark Templar claimed as their holiest ground. As soon as I set foot in its halls, I could feel the potential of the place, but the ancient’s would not give up their secrets easily. I knew it was a weapon, one that its acolytes had used to slow my advance, but there was so much more there, just out of reach. Its true power and purpose was locked away, and even I could not seize it by my energies alone. So, I recruited another to supplement my own psionic talents.”

Kerrigan tilted her chin down and frowned, plainly for Tassadar’s benefit. “Poor Zeratul. The strain was too great for him, I guess. He never was the same when it was over.”

Tassadar’s eyes flashed with blue-white fire.

“I tire of this, Dark One. You may have lured other with your petty goading, but I will not be ensnared. Tell me what I must know, or I will tolerate your musings no longer! I have slipped through your grasp before, and I can do so again.”

Kerrigan loosed a throaty chuckle. “Impatience, Tassadar? I expected a bit more from you. But you are right, of course. My thoughts do wander. No one’s perfect, right?”

“When the Dark Templar’s energies flared with my own, the temple at last opened to me, and I was swept up by a flood of insight. New, alien power poured into me, and I could see everything. I could understand it all! The true power of the Xel’Naga had not been lost. We had never really seen it at all! The empire that the Zerg and Protoss fought off was just a vestige of a far grander whole, cut off from its nexus, dying like a severed limb. The entity that our ancestors destroyed was already doomed!”

For once, Tassadar’s iron focus seemed to slacken slightly. Jacen could not blame him; either by some psionic trick or the sheer force of her will, Kerrigan’s tale was enthralling.

“The Xel’Naga’s greatest achievement was not a weapon or a monument or some new pet! It was this!”

She threw her arms back and on cue, a beam of blinding light pierced the emptiness at the chamber’s center, bisecting it from dome to bottomless deep. The column of energy and luminance was superficially similar to the lift’s anchor, but it was far wider, and indescribably more powerful. The beam dimmed slightly and began to widen, pulsing with cascading hues that Jacen’s conscious mind could barely comprehend.

A shockwave slammed into them, and both the Jedi and the Master Chief were forced to step back, bracing themselves. The sentinels above buffeted violently, some smacking into each other as their repulsors tried to compensate for the sudden turbulent. Only Tassadar and Kerrigan held their ground.

“A passageway, Tassadar! A gate to worlds that you and I cannot imagine! Galaxies unreachable by the most powerful starship! Even time is not beyond its reach! No dark age of the past or shrouded future horizon was barred to them! This is power! Resources, secrets, entire universes ripe for conquest! Unlimited power!”

Behind her, the column pulsed faster, and the empty air between it and the walkway seemed to solidify. From nothing, a cloud of distortion bent light and absorbed sound, swelling until it almost touched the thin surface on which they stood. The strange, ancient vitality Jacen had sensed before bloomed and roared in his mind, flooding him with psychic sensation.

“With devices like this one, the ancients spread well beyond the confines of their own reality, laying claim to galaxy after galaxy and bending them to their own will. Monuments like this were constructed in each, gateways that bound their mighty empire together. A trillion species felt their influence, and each of you have seen the undying remnants of their dominion. The Xel’Naga. The Forerunners of your world, soldier. The forgotten builders of your realm, Jedi, and this one as well. All of them, the same great architects. The greatest conquerors of this or any reality has ever known! And all because of these gates!”

The massive distortion, still fed by the towering beam of light, had stabilized into a great sphere of constant movement and spiraling charge. As Jacen followed wave after overlapping wave of warping space, he realized all in an instant that this was a rift. The mysterious phenomenon that had spat the Enterprise ravaged into Imperial space and propelled the Republica from peril to peril sat before them, a tear in the fundamental structure of reality. Even the Force seemed to change in its presence, its barely-perceptible veins made erratic and its very aura impregnated with the awesome presence.

Air current whipped about Kerrigan, but she did not turn to face the storm of essence and energy. Face broad with exhilaration, her gaze had locked firmly with Tassadar’s.

“But even these great creators were not invincible. An unstoppable foe encroached on their home realm, and the war that followed pushed the ancients to the brink of defeat. Their only chance to stop the invaders from finding these gates and spreading to every corner of their empire was to annihilate all life in their own homeland, nexus of the network. When their ultimate weapon was unleashed, the gates fell silent, their heart damaged by the blast and the final release of so many of its masters. The survivors were isolated, their lifelines cut, left to fend for themselves alone in galaxies they had only begun to tame.”

“In the end, they were not as magnificent as their constructs. One by one, the scattered remnants vanished, destroyed by rebellious natives and each other. Others simply wander off into the endless cosmos or went to ground on forgotten backwaters, letting all that they once were slip away. Now, all of them are gone, and only these gates remain. My gates.”

Kerrigan took one step towards Tassadar, paused, and then took another. He was utterly motionless, his eyes bound to hers.

“And now we come to your role in this little tale, dear Templar. You see, I was too greedy. When knowledge of the gates flowed into me, I bent all my power into awakening them from their dormancy. It worked, but the effort was draining, and I could not resist the portal when it opened over the temple.”

“When I awoke, I was weary and beaten, cast on the surface of a world I had never seen or heard of. My Swarm was gone; only the lone Protoss and a handful of my attendants had been pulled through the gate with me. I was angry at first, perhaps even… afraid, but soon I could sense another gate out amongst the stars, flush with new life and waiting for its new master to claim it. All I had to do was wait, bide my time until I could claim the artifact and probe its power more carefully. It did not take long for a Starfleet vessel to happen upon me, and it was a simple matter to corrupt its captain and crew. My influence spread quickly throughout the Federation, and all the while I bred fresh Zerg strains from those few that had accompanied me and the DNA pumping through my veins.”

“At last my strength returned and I maneuvered myself secretly to Earth. Finding this instillation was not difficult. This place called to me. I am the one who reignited it, its long-awaited master.”

“The true capabilities of this gate are incredible. After using Federation scientists and its own caretaker to discover its secrets, I realized that it was not limited to projecting rifts here, in this chamber. It could generate passageways anywhere in this realm, connected to any other dimension, and any other time, that the ancients had anchored with another gate. Causeways for war fleets between galaxies, as large and as permanent as I desire. Fleeting rifts capable of plucking individual starships or settlements and casting them into the farthest reaches of time and space. Tiny portals that grab sleepers from their beds or whisk them from transporter beams. Nothing is beyond its power!”

“Unfortunately, the amount of psychic energy required to accurately direct the device is considerable. It can work without such guidance, but it is greatly limited. Projected rifts appear erratically, both in time and place, varying unpredictably in size and duration. Often, they only manifest on areas of high energy. Even this rift’s end-point is variable. I needed more energy to bend it to my will, and your Zeratul was spent. Only Protoss, of all the species I had encountered and could obtain, had the necessary degree of power.”

Kerrigan was now only a few paces away from Tassadar. Jacen and the Chief had drawn back, weapons at the ready, but Tassadar seemed to be frozen in place.

“I don’t know how many rifts and portals I scattered across reality, using my Federation agents to follow up each subspace distortion and secure every being I managed to pull into this reality. So many dead ends and useless weaklings. And then, one of my pet admirals received word of a strange ‘transporter accident’ from Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise-D. Among the roster of unusual, displaced sapients, there was a Protoss face. Your face, Tassadar.”

“Of course the rifts would have found you eventually. Your battle with the Overmind must have been simply magnetic for the wandering portals. You can imagine my joy when I dispatched a ship to retrieve you… and my rage when Picard used one of my own rifts to escape.”

“I searched for years, but still you eluded me. Each new portal brought more disappointment, and eventually I resigned myself to this limited, weak realm. When my broods were ready, I swept aside the rotted Federation and its allies with contemptible ease. More frustration.”

“And then, you returned. What was more, you presented me with your ship, a tool I could use to crush the last, annoying remnants of this pitiful galaxy, and, of course, your own psionic power. I knew I had to be careful, draw you in slowly to ensure that you did not flee again. But you have come, in the end, and with a gift to replace the one your companions stole from me. I thank you, Tassadar, sincerely. It would have taken years to hunt down the defiant fools who are dying overhead right now in your name. But most importantly, I thank you for delivering yourself to me. With your power, I can make this gate complete.”

Kerrigan’s void-like pupils had widened until now her eyes were both impenetrably, irresistibly black.

“With your help, Tassadar, every being on every world in every universe will know my name. By your hand, the Queen of Blades will stand alone.”

Jacen expected a gout of the familiar white-blue flame to burst from the Templar, to sweep over the Zerg Queen at point-blank range. For all his Jedi training, for all his old masters’ admonitions about the necessity of restraint and their warnings about preemptive action, he would have attacked Kerrigan now were he in Tassadar’s place. Wearily hefting his lightsaber in her direction, he silently admitted to himself that he wouldn’t have let her get within five meters.

And yet, Tassadar was still. The Jedi could feel nothing from him. Surely, he should be able to feel something piercing the invisible pall cast by Kerrigan’s presence.

“Templar,” the Chief warned.

Kerrigan’s right arm extended towards the Protoss’ unarmored face.

“Tassadar!” Jacen shouted, fear suddenly stabbing at him. He had waited at the Templar’s side, certain that Tassadar was biding his time, waiting to strike when Kerrigan had divulged what he had so desperately wanted to know.

But Tassadar did not move, did not speak, did not even brush the edge of Jacen’s mind with his own. He was paralyzed, trapped in Kerrigan’s gaze.

Jacen and the Chief shot a quick glance at one another, thinking the same thing. Surrounded as they were, something had to be done. Kerrigan had to be stopped before she could claim her prize.

The Spartan’s trigger finger tensed. Jacen tried to clear his mind, focusing on the pommel in his hand and Kerrigan’s outstretched arm.

Neither man saw Kerrigan move. One moment, she was still beyond Tassadar, the next, she stood between them, the huge, bony spike on her back sweeping outward, low to the ground. The thick, hard tines caught Jacen in chest and legs with tremendous force. In a terrible, agonizing instant, he felt the bones in his legs creak and his knees buckle almost to breaking.

The world before his eyes reeled up and back. His lightsaber slipped from his grasp. He felt himself falling.

Instinctively, he pushed back to soften his impact on the ground, but he immediately realized that there was no ground. Kerrigan had knocked him clear of the causeway, and he was falling into the abyss. He felt his body tense and the swirling world around him seemed to slow. Numb with pain and shock, he reached out and did the only thing he could think of doing.

Miraculously, both his hands grasped the smooth, slightly raised edge of the causeway. The jolt of his own weight against his arms knocked his head from side to side, but his grip held fast.

There was a crack of lashing claws from above, and a mass of dull green rolled off the other edge of the suspended platform.

The Chief!

Jacen knew that he could not halt the armored man’s fall, especially not as he hung on for his own life, but…

With artificial rigidity and supernatural speed, even for a Spartan, the Chief’s left arm shot straight up and his fingers closed on the walkway’s narrow lip. An impulse flashed through his impact-clouded mind, and the fingers clamped onto the metal, vice-like. The joints of his gauntlet scrapped thin lines on the surface as his immense weight pulled him downward, but the right hand joined the left, and he found purchase again.

All this happened in a matter of seconds, but before either could take stock of their precarious new situation, a low chorus of hums heralded the approach of Kerrigan’s vanguard. Eleven silver-plated machines swung into view from either side of the walkway, dipping slightly below their targets and orienting their angular bodies in the humans’ direction. Jacen saw the golden glow, and knew at once he had to move or be skewered by whatever the sentinels could spit forth.

Swiftly checking his physical and mental reserves, the Jedi knew he could shoot himself straight upwards, back over the lip.

But the Chief…

Looking across the underside of the causeway, Jacen caught the other man’s gaze through his faceplate. The Spartan jerked his up.

Go!

Not pausing to think, Jacen summoned all the energy he could to him and pushed up. The Force felt strange, colder than it normally did when he manifested it, but it complied nonetheless. Bouncing off of his palms, Jacen shoot up three meters, landed back on the causeway in a roll, and then shoved himself up onto his haunches. Casting about for his lightsaber, he saw it just out of arm’s reach, less than half a meter from a very long drop.

As the sentinels rose back up over the lip, resolutely tracking their assigned target, the pommel was in Jacen‘s hand and lit. A swift slash caught a machine that had risen too close. A spherical energy barrier appeared around the sentinel to deflect the blow, but Jacen pushed through it, shattering the shield and cutting the device cleanly in half. Before the sparking fragments had the chance to fall more than a meter, four lances of golden light erupted from the firing apertures of the other sentinels.

Jacen felt the heat of the beams, saw them carve through the clear air, each aimed precisely, just above his breastbone. The Jedi ducked and thrust his lightsaber lengthwise in front of him. The beams intersected with the glowing blade almost at the same point, continuous bursts of energy that sent a wave of heat like lava over Jacen’s hands. He grunted as the skin of his knuckles blistered, but he pushed back, angling his blade forward and up. Like the refracted rays of sunlight on a mirror, the energy beams angled off wildly. Two grazed an unfortunate sentinel, overwhelming its shield and sending it spinning beyond sight, its rear chassis smoking. The others scattered to avoid the ricochet.

Taking advantage of their momentary withdrawal, Jacen looked down to the other side of the causeway. The lip was smooth and straight, without any sign of armored fingers.

Jacen inhaled sharply and rushed across the walkway, looking down and expecting to see nothing but sentinels circling down out of sight. Instead, one of the machines shot upward, just centimeters from Jacen’s face. Its movements were erratic and jerky, and it took the Jedi only an instant to realize why.

Clinging to the sentinel’s upper pair of forward plates, the Master Chief swung precariously back and forth, his stomach as flat as he could manage on the thing’s stubby drive section. It dipped back and forth and up and down like an insect with a broken wing, trying to shake the unwelcome passenger free and unburden its straining repulsors. Around it, the other sentinels watched the bizarre display at a distance, momentarily unsure of their targeting protocols.

Jacen knew that their hesitation would not last long, but before he could try to assist the soldier, a trio of energy beams slashed across the causeway in front of him and he was forced to jump back, lightsaber on guard.

Jacen spotted two of the machines floating close together overhead, and jabbed at them with an open palm. The two suddenly found their directional fins non-functional and smashed into each other at speed, triggering both of their defensive screens. They tried to move apart and reorient themselves, only to be flung into the shield of the third device. The last had been firing its weapon at that moment, and the shot went wild, catching both of the units that had impacted it. Their spherical screens absorbed the raking blow, but the confused fray distracted them for precious seconds, just as Jacen had intended.

One of the sentinels observing the Chief finally resolved to override its friendly-fire subroutines and angled a beam intended to clear the offending human off of its fellow machine’s back. The Spartan saw the blast coming and hauled back on his makeshift handholds, sending his sentinel into a reluctant backwards spin. The beam cut into the unprotected underside of the machine, and the hum of its repulsors revved and sputtered loudly.

Fortunately for its passenger, the sentinel bucked wildly before its drives gave way, sending the human sprawling through mid-air and onto the causeway a few meters from Jacen. Even more fortunately, the energy beams that followed him were all wide. One managed to sweep across his left shin, but his own energy shield saved the leg, and the Chief tugged the limb away from the searing lance.

Jacen ran in the prone soldier’s direction, and as he did, something bumped against one boot. Glancing down, he saw it was the Chief’s blaster, lost after Kerrigan’s assault. Still running, he swept his arm towards the Spartan, and the weapon turned and tumbled along in its wake.

“Chief!”

The Spartan’s head turned in his direction. He took in the motile blaster in a glimpse, reached out, caught it, and then rolled sharply right to avoid more lances of lethal energy. Jacen sent another wave of Force pressure at the sentinels, sending them spinning away even as the others recovered from their disorientation and shot back towards the causeway.

As the Jedi turned to deflect the next volley of brilliant lances, the Chief picked himself up and searched the platform for their immediate priority. Kerrigan had moved to the very edge of the huge sphere of distortion that still hung at the center of the chamber. Tassadar was slouched against one of her legs, pinned there by the Zerg Queen’s flexible spines. Kerrigan’s back was turned on the humans, and she seemed to be entering something into the large holo-display at the walkway’s edge. The Protoss was still motionless.

The Chief raised his blaster, sighted along his arm, and fired. The burst of crimson hit Kerrigan full in the back, and she slumped against the controls. The Spartan pulled the firing stud again, but this time Kerrigan seemed to swipe the bolt from the air with her dorsal appendages, absorbing the burning plasma with reinforced chitin.

Her movement left Tassadar free to slump onto the causeway. His head hit the smooth surface, and his clouded eyes burst back to life. He felt sluggish and inordinately weak. At first, he couldn’t remember anything, not even his own name, but as his eyes filled with the swirling, cascading surface of the gateway’s rift, everything flooded back. His mission, Zeratul, what Kerrigan had told him, confident that the psionic trap she was laying while she spoke would bind him utterly to her will. Wisps of the spell still hung behind his eyes, dark threads that receded from the fire of his thoughts.

Dark Templar psionic technique, no doubt stolen from the mind of Zeratul or one of his comrades. Tassadar cursed himself for not detecting the familiar tendrils of coercion and paralysis-inducing apathy. He had been too desperate to learn some reason, some rationale behind the madness of the last weeks and months. Kerrigan had given that, at least, and now he felt his mind clear, his purpose crystallize.

His right hand shot out and grasped hold of Kerrigan’s spurred ankle. He pumped psionic energies through the limb, and heard the abomination scream. Good, he thought, she can still feel. Trillions demanded justice, and he vowed silently that each would exact its own painful vengeance.

Enormous claws slashed down his face and his body, each of them spitting its own searing psionic charge. He felt the armor at his waist melt away, and an enormous barb plunged deep into his side. Tassadar roared, and felt a foot plant itself on his side.

“Willingly or not, Protoss,” Kerrigan sneered down at him. “You are mine.”

Jacen had just sent another sentinel tumbling away into the blackness, scorched by its own weapon, when he felt Tassadar reach out to him. Whirling about, he saw the Templar lying on his side. Kerrigan stood above him, her back spines withdrawing from wounds on the Protoss’ vulnerable form. In that instant, Tassadar was looking past her, directly at the Jacen.

My people, Jedi.

With that, he was gone. Kerrigan had rolled him off the platform with his foot, straight into the throbbing surface of the rift. Jacen didn’t even see him hit it. The Zerg Queen arched her back, splayed her spines wide above her head, and barked a laugh of triumph. In an instant, she had vanished, too.

The sentinels did not cease their attack, but the departure of their master seemed to make the machines sluggish, and Jacen and the Chief made short work of them. Only when the last had fallen out of sight could either fully appreciate what had happened.

Jacen deactivated his lightsaber and let his arms fall to his sides. He stared at the massive bubble of distorted space. The rift was unaffected by the passage of the pair, its surface an uninterrupted tide of folding, barely-perceptible waves and burst of indescribable color. Only now, the Jedi noticed that the anomaly was utterly silent. Indeed, with the elimination of the sentinels, the chamber felt as soundless as deep space. The raw, living power of the rift still roared at him in within his skull, tugging his perception of the Force this way and that, but even that waterfall of sensation had dulled, as if it had started to pour its energy inwards.

My people, Jedi.

Jacen knew that Tassadar had intended it as a farewell, a last, desperate request. It left the Jedi feeling utterly helpless. The unspoken words hung on him like bricks of durasteel, crushing him to the floor. It was a request he did not know how to satisfy, the plea of a being that knew its time was near an end. He was certain that Tassadar still intended to destroy Kerrigan, but…

He remembered the huge gash in the Templar’s chest, and the Dark Queen’s feral joy.

“No more contacts on my sensors. We’re clear, for the moment.” The Master Chief stopped alongside Jacen, holstering his blaster. “The interference is gone and I’ve got comms. We’re pretty deep, though. I might not be able to reach anyone through the rock.”

“Truul’s team?” Jacen said numbly.

“Already searching,” the Chief replied, tapping the side of his helmet with two fingers.

They were silent for a moment, simply staring at the rift.

“We’ve failed,” Jacen said at last. “Kerrigan’s escaped.”

“She’s gone,” the Chief acknowledged. “And if our Intel was right, the Zerg fleet is falling apart right now.”

“So we saved them, what’s left of them, for what, a day?” Jacen shook his head. “You heard Kerrigan. If she manages to control one of these gateways, she’ll be all but unstoppable. All we’ve done is deliver Tassadar to her.”

The Chief stared at the younger man, and he suddenly felt his tinge with red.

“This was Tassadar’s plan. No one pushed him here. Not you. Not me. He’s in that thing with her right now, and I wouldn’t count him out of the fight yet.”

Jacen’s eyes fell. The Chief was right, of course. Tassadar had risked everyone, himself included, for the chance to get within striking range of Kerrigan – Jacen remembered his own anger at the prospect - and he had managed to do precisely that. Tassadar was one of the most powerful beings he had ever encountered, and the Protoss had saved all of their lives more times than he could remember. If anyone could destroy Kerrigan, he could.

And yet, there was the wound.

The Chief’s helmet crackled with static.

“Sierra, do you copy?”

“I copy, Beta. What is your status?”

The sound of weapons fire echoed from the transmitter, followed by a gruff, booming voice.

“Watch that door, Galmak! Catch them as they enter! Show these creatures what it means to match blade and claw with Klingons!”

There was a burst of static, and then Truul’s voice returned. “Don’t encourage ‘em, Commader! It’s bad enough that they had to bring so many damn knives and swords with ‘em. We’ve got these things beat, and I don’t want to have to drag along another fool who got his arm gnawed off because he didn’t think his disruptor was good enough for the job!”

“Sierra, we found your tunnel, and were making our way down into the mountain. We got to these damn huge tunnels before the Zerg found us. Hard going since, and I’ve got casualties. The pressure’s just cut, though. Fewer of the blasted things, and they’re not as coordinated. Did you upend a Cerebrate or something?”

“Affirmative, Beta. My unit has advanced what appears to be the command center of the facility. Alpha has engaged the Primary.”

There was a pause. “Please repeat, Sierra. Is Kerrigan dead?”

Jacen looked up. They wouldn’t ever know if Tassadar succeeded or failed, at least not until Kerrigan emerged again with the rifts and a new army bent to her will. And then, it would be too late.

“Negative, Beta,” the Chief replied. “Alpha and the Primary…” he trailed off, apparently unwilling to explain over the comm. “We’ve lost contact with both. I’ll fill you in when your unit gets here. Follow this signal until you reach a shaft. I’ll send the lift up for you when you signal.”

“Got ya, Sierra. I’ll shout if there are any more problems.”

The Chief muted the line and turned back towards Jacen. The Jedi was still staring at the rift, silent. Slowly, the Chief looked away and started back down the causeway towards the waiting lift.

“I’ll stay with the lift until the Major arrives. If you notice any new contacts, let me know.”

“I’m going in.”

The Chief stopped mid-stride.

“What?”

The two turned to face one another again, and the Chief saw that younger man’s face was hardened with resolve.

“We have to be sure that Tassadar has destroyed Kerrigan. I’m going to follow him, and help him if I can.”

“You’re not stupid, Jedi,” the Chief said briskly. “We have no idea how that thing works, or where it leads. Even if you were to survive the transit, there’d be no way of contacting you or getting you back. This is in the Templar’s hands now. We still have our duty here.”

“We failed in our duty when she stepped into the rift, Chief! Tassadar’s alone with her, who knows where, and she’s on the verge of accessing a power we can barely comprehend, much less stop. If she survives, all we’ve fought for is for nothing! We’re dead, and so is everyone in this galaxy. Eventually, my home will fall, too, and so will yours.”

He shook his head. “I’m not a soldier, but I take my duty just as seriously as you do. On this world or any other, I am a Jedi, and it is my responsibility to preserve peace and defend life, no matter the personal cost. Kerrigan threatens that and everything else I care about. I must follow her and make sure that she cannot spread her ruin anymore, even if I have to become one with the Force to do so. That is my duty, Chief, and I will fulfill it, just as you must fulfill yours.”

With that, Jacen turned his back on the Spartan, clipped his lightsaber to his side, and stalked towards the ethereal vortex. The Chief watched his back for a while, and then glanced down at his hands.

Worn armor. Veteran of too many firefights and daring escapes. The paint was thin and chipped, burned off in places, and number of dings and minute fractures in the metal probably would have made its designers recoil.

The blank-faced helmet shook back and forth slowly. Who was he to tell anyone else not to take stupid risks for what they believed in?

“Wait.”

Jacen had stopped near the edge of the circular walkway already, and he glanced back, his face still set.

“Even bad ideas should have contingency plans. If you go in there, find Kerrigan and eliminate her, do you want to be stuck alone on the other side of that without a way to get back?”

Jacen shoulder’s drooped slightly. “I don’t see how I have many options.”

“Wait a moment,” the Chief said, and reactivated his comm link.

“Beta, are you in contact with the Fleet?”

“Haven’t tried for a while, Sierra, but I can give it a shot.”

“Patch me to Flagship Vulcan, if you can.”

“All right, give me a bit.”

Jacen was giving him a quizzical look, but there was still a good chance the Chief sudden inspiration would fall flat, and he avoided the gaze.

After a tense half-minute, there was a hiss and burst of static so loud that it echoed up to the chamber’s high dome, and then a voice, scratchy and distant, but entirely recognizable.

“Strike Force Earth? Major Truul, is that you? What is your status?”

Jean-Luc Picard’s faint voice sounded nearly as excited as it did weary.

“Captain, this is Sierra. The Master Chief, sir. We’ve breached Kerrigan’s fortress and secured her control room.”

“Acknowledged, Master Chief. The Zerg armada is collapsing. We had thought we’d just hit another Cerebrate, but I suppose you and your men deserve the credit. Is Kerrigan dead?”

“No, sir. She entered some kind of device at the base of the facility with Tassadar when we attempted to engage. The device is secured and we’re prepared to pursue, but I want someone down her who can control the machine and pull us back when the mission’s been accomplished.”

There was a long pause, and the voice that finally replied was not Picard’s.

“What have you found us this time, Chief?”

The Spartan smiled for the first time in what felt like years. It had been far too long since he had heard Cortana’s smooth, confident voice.

“Forerunner. An entire facility, buried under Mount Kilimanjaro.”

“Forerunner?” Cortana was understandably bewildered, but none of the apprehension in her voice was doubt. “How is that possible?”

“I’m still not entirely sure, but we’ve found out what brought us all here and what’s been making the anomalies. Kerrigan found some sort of projection device, and she’s been using to try and lure Templar Tassadar here. They’ve disappeared into a rift, and Jacen Solo and I are going to follow them, but I need you to get down here and figure out exactly what this thing is and how to use it. We’ll need a way back when the job’s done.”

“Wait, Chief. You’re going into it before I figure out how it works?”

“It can’t wait. Tassadar and Kerrigan have already been gone too long. We can’t even be sure it will stay open much longer.”

“All the more reason to be careful about this.” Cortana’s agitation was painfully clear. “The battle up here is over. Without Kerrigan, the Zerg ships are all but dead in space. Can’t we wait and follow her later, when we have more data?”

The Chief paused.

“No.”

“Are you sure about this, Chief?”

He grinned. “Do I ever jump into anything if I’m not sure I’ll come out of it?”

“No jokes! Just… tell me.”

“I’ll come back, Cortana. I promise.”

The AI was silent for a moment, an eternity for the artificial mind.

“How long do you need?”

The Chief considered for a moment. “Three hours. If you can figure out how to get us back at all.”

“If that thing’s Forerunner, Chief, you’ll have your evac. Three hours, no longer.”

“Acknowledged. Give my regards to the Captain. Sierra out.”

Immediately upon ending the transmission, the Spartan activated his mission clock, a tiny numeral that wound slowly up on the corner of his vision.

“We?” Jacen asked when he had finished.

“As you said, Jedi, duty.”

Jacen smiled slightly.

Everyone has someone to protect.

“What about Major Truul?”

With speed and efficiency that still impressed the Jedi, the Chief traversed the long causeway, activated the lift and loped back off of it before it could rise more than half a meter, and informed Truul of the change of plans, ordering him to secure the chamber in their absence and wait for Cortana. In less than a minute, they were standing side by side at the edge of the walkway, the distortion rippling silently before them.

“Take my hand,” Jacen said, offering it to the Spartan. “We can’t be separated. You won’t know where you’re going in there.”

“And you will?”

Jacen sighed, glanced at the anomaly once more, and raised his hand higher. The Spartan took it, careful not to clasp it too hard.

“On count of five,” the younger man said, squaring himself before the rift and taking in a deep breath.

“It’s better if you just jump.”

Before Jacen could protest, he felt the pull of the Chief’s weight on his arm, and both were gone.

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



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 2008-06-27 05:32am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-06-27 05:31am
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----------------------------------------------

When the Republica had first traveled through one of the holes in reality, Jacen had been at a viewport to watch the galaxy slip away. The distant starfield had faded into bland nothingness, and then, for a few unforgettable moments, the space beyond him had blossomed with impossible vibrancy. Undulating bands of primal energy had danced and intertwined as he sat back, safe within the warship’s hull as glorious and unknown sensation washed over him. They had been guided by Cortana then, and the AI had only just barely been able to deliver them to their desired destination, an effort that had succeeded through sheer guile and intuition, and not without misadventure.

Jacen had hoped that the experience this time would be similar, and that he would be able to latch onto whatever cosmic current Cortana had located.

He had been wrong.

At first, the Jedi had thought that they had simply fallen through the portal, victims of yet another trap. When he had looked down, however, there was no yawning pit to swallow him up. No wind lashing at his face.

There was nothing at all. No sight. No sound. No feeling. The only thing that proved that he existed at all was the pressure of the Master Chief’s gauntlet on his hand. He tried to squeeze back, and dimly, he could feel fingers that must have been his pressing against cool metal.

The sensation, remote as it was, anchored him, and he began to calm, his mind focusing. It no longer felt as though they were falling, but when Jacen tried to move his arms and legs, he found no purchase. Indeed, it didn’t feel like he had a body at all. Trying to look around, the Jedi realized why it was so impenetrably dark. It wasn’t for lack of light; his eyes, and the head around them, weren’t there at all. The only part of him that seemed to exist was his enveloped hand, and as he focused on it again, even that faded away, leaving only a subtle, disembodied pressure, and the inkling of another mind nearby.

Jacen could sense agitation from the Chief, the sensation far sharper in the absence of physical distractions. He tried to think of some way of reaching the other man, to calm him, but the agitation had already begun to subside, replaced by ordered, basic thoughts. Vaguely, could discern memories, a name, ranks, a long series of numbers… the Chief was falling back on training, centering himself.

Just as I should be doing.

Jacen thought back to his youth, the earliest years of his guidance in the ways of the Force and the tenants of the Jedi Order. He was a child again, no older than four or five, sitting cross-legged in a sun-lit room within the Jedi Praxeum on Yavin 4, his eyes squeezed shut. There was a voice, warm, calm, and familiar. Uncle Luke.

Don’t think about me, or the room, or the sun. Do even think about your own body. Let it all go, and look inward. Let your mind drift. Don’t try. Just… let it come to you. You’ll see a new light deep down, eventually. Just wait for it to come.

Jacen felt it now, the little spark that had always seemed like it was hiding in his chest. Gradually, at an almost imperceptible rate – time seemed to mean little in this place – the spark grew, flared, and he felt warmth flow from it. The gentle heat expanded outwards, and Jacen could sense a bit of his body again with its growth, as though it was thawing after a bitter winter.

And then Jacen could see them. Four stars hung before him, impossibly distant and just within reach, if only he had the arms and hands to take them. Each burned with a slightly different radiance, and as he focused on one, it seemed to have its own texture or smell or taste or tone, a distinct note that combined with the others to form the same irresistible, living roar that he had sensed in Kerrigan’s chamber.

He could have sunk into the feeling, let the raw power and primal beauty of it permeate his being, become part of the chorus forever…

“Don’t leave me waiting.”

Jacen remembered the transporter room and Laura’s final words to him before they had parted for the attack on Earth. The gaze that didn’t break his even it was swept away by a glinting veil of blue.

Enough! Focus!

Jacen tried to push through the sensation, and to his surprise, it faded obediently into the back of his mind. The four stars were before him again, and he bent his will towards one, selecting it at random.

Tassadar!

He felt minds. An endless sea of being, and with them, fleeting images of cities, planets, stars, galaxies. The sudden torrent almost overwhelmed him again, but he pulled away, back to the quartet of lights. None of the feelings within the stream had been familiar.

Jacen tried another, and again almost fell into a river of alien thoughts and foreign places. He pulled back, and felt panic and desperation returning.

They had waited too long. He should have followed sooner…

The third star hit Jacen like a tidal wave as soon as he touched it, and this time the Jedi truly felt as though he was drowning in the surge. A trillion horizons blended with uncounted minds and Jacen felt everything else begin to wash away under the onslaught. Tassadar. Laura. Even the steadfast pressure on his hand began to slip away.

And then he felt it, rushing past with all the rest. Familiarity.

Jacen lunged for the minute jewel as though it were a lifeline, not caring who held it or where it led. The fragment burned bright, and the flow cringed at its light, wrenching and twisting to avoid the point. Incomprehensible eternities drained away, and the spot became Jacen’s world.

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

“Jedi? Can you hear me, Solo?”

Two heavy hands were closed on Jacen’s shoulders.

Shoulders? He had had one of them at some point, he thought. Two, in fact. Their precise purpose eluded him for the moment, but they had apparently come back.

“Solo!”

“I always liked them,” Jacen mumbled blearily. “Now, what were the other bits?”

His reply came in the form of a firm shake that rattled his bones and roused nerves all the way down his body.

One at a time, his eyelids rolled back, revealing a muddy, distorted image of his own face.

“Chief,” Jacen said groggily, proceeding to arch his legs in an attempt to drive off a lurking cramp.

“On your feet, Jedi.”

The Spartan drew back, his helmet shifting out and back into focus, and Jacen craned his neck to see an offered hand. He took it, and immediately regretted the choice.

“I suppose I had this coming.” Jacen had steady himself, and was staring at his left hand. Its edges were tinged with crimson, and several fingers had begun to swell.

“You were slipping,” the Chief replied. Memories of their transit still jostled and swirled about inside Jacen’s head, but he did distinctly recall the pressure, and how it had given him focus. “Next time I’ll try to be gentler.”

Jacen gave the hand a shake and let it fall to his side. The pain would pass, and it was far better than the alternative.

“Next time, you’re taking those things off before we go.”

The Jedi looked up into the Spartan’s faceplate, and wished he could see the man’s face.

What did you see in there?

The Chief held his head in place for a moment, and then turned away, and Jacen nodded slightly.

Another time, perhaps.

They were at the end of a long, sun-lit hallway. Rather than the ancient, geometrically-carved stone of the Kilimanjaro instillation, the floor was layered with wide, polished tiles of lustrous jet, and the walls were a soft gray. One side of the hall was dotted periodically with sealed, vertical-seam doors, and the other was adorned with large windows, one of which was only a few meters away. Except for him and the Chief, it was quite empty.

“Did you see any sign of Tassadar or Kerrigan?” Jacen asked quickly, his chest tight.

The Chief shook his head, and looked towards the wall to his left, where the hallway ended. Jacen followed his gaze, and could see that the flat, featureless surface was rippling like a pond on a windy day. Without thinking, he reached for it, but the Chief grabbed his arm. Centimeters from the Jedi’s outstretched fingers, the entire wall gave a shudder, bowed inward, and then rapidly stilled. Waves of distorted space and matter converged to a point the size of a coin, gave a last bubble, and then vanished.

Jacen stared dumbly at the blank wall.

“If felt him…” Even as the words rolled of his tongue, though, he began to doubt them. What had he felt, really, in that final instant? He had been thrashing about for the familiar aura of the Protoss, touched something that he knew…

Eyes squeezed shut, Jacen focused on the Templar’s essence. The alien manifested clearly in his mind, his power, his dignity, the strange concurrence of his foreign energies with the Force. He reached out to the dimmest edges of his perception, ignoring all else for the smallest inkling of the Protoss’ wake.

Nothing.

Jacen’s head dropped and he felt a palm slapped against the wall. It did not yield.

“What now?” the Chief asked.

Jacen’s breath was coming in gasps now. He felt helpless. Useless. Unbelievably, unforgivably stupid. He had failed again, and now not only was Tassadar beyond all assistance, he and the Chief were lost as well. If Cortana couldn’t figure out the gateway device, both of them were wholly cut off from the rest, probably forever.

“I don’t know.”

Jacen pushed away from the wall and stalked past the Chief, purposefully avoiding the other’s gaze. As he paced down the hallway, he made a halfhearted attempt to collect his thoughts again, but mounting contempt with himself made the attempt fall flat. The lack of control served only to inspire further self-loathing.

He would have likely stormed down the length of the corridor if two sensations hadn’t simultaneous stopped him in his tracks. The first was a hazy glint from the window he had been passing, and he glanced out the wide, translucent portal. In the distance, a sun was setting behind an uneven horizon, partially hidden by a multitude of massive shapes. Jacen squinted through the glare, and his heart skipped a beat. The shapes were artificial, tiered skyscrapers and glassy spires.

Then, before he could fully process the scene, Jacen realized that he could still sense the familiar presence he had felt in the surging depths of the rift. It was faint and almost unrecognizable. It was no wonder why he had not appreciated it until now, but his mind had been jarred by the sight of the skyline, and now it was working furiously. He slumped back against the window, bringing a hand to his forehead.

It’s not possible…

“You’d better take a look at this, Jedi.”

The Chief was staring at a plaque mounted next to one of the sealed doorways, just above a simple control panel. He couldn’t read the script engraved into the metal, but the twin symbols that anchored the beginning and end of the line of text needed no translation. A circle enclosing a wheel with six spokes.

It was the standard of an empire.



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: 2008-07-22 11:39pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
All right, it looks like it'll be seventy three chapters, after all.
---------------------------------------------

Chapter Seventy Two


The Master Chief padded quickly along behind Jacen, careful to keep a few strides behind the Jedi. The younger man had been moving at almost a run since they had left the site of the rift opening, loping around corners and plowing past open doorways, apparently without a second thought to who or what they might run into. Decades of experience behind enemy lines precluded the Chief from any such luxury, and the Spartan was finding it increasingly difficult to keep pace with Jacen while still scanning the neat, austere walls for disguised security devices and dampening the impact of his boots against the polished floor. He might have abandoned the pretense, but the Jedi’s earnest demeanor and the pommel gripped firmly in his right hand kept the Chief on edge.

So far, they had encountered very little in the way of life. The Chief had spotted a stiff, metallic figure stepping through a far doorway, but it had seemed not to notice them, and Jacen had briskly assured him it was just a service droid. Beyond that, the Jedi had spoken little, and only given the vaguest idea of why they had suddenly departed the row of windows and the remarkable view beyond. The Spartan had learned to trust the supernatural intuition of his companion and followed without complaint. Nevertheless, the Chief took careful stock of their surroundings as they past, trying to form a mental map that could lead them back to the dead-end corridor, the best – and only – bet the Chief could think of for extraction.

The mission clock at the edge of his vision was ticking steadily upwards. 01:39:40. They had spent more time in Kerrigan’s portal than he had thought.

I hope you have a better hold on things than I do right now, Cortana.

He dismissed the idle thought. Of course Cortana had the situation under control. She was a systems hacker by design, and better at her given profession than any Spartan was at his or hers.

The environs that rushed by gave the Chief few clues as to their tactical situation, but he had cobbled together a working theory. The symbol he had spotted on the plaque had been that of the Galactic Empire, so they could only be in Jacen’s home galaxy. The Jedi had fleetingly confirmed the supposition and mentioned the word ‘Coruscant’, another artifact from his brief time in the realm that the Chief could recognize. Coruscant was the capitol of the Empire, and the skyline they had left behind seemed sufficiently grand; it had been quite unlike any human city he had ever seen, and the Chief doubted that even the Covenant had anything that could compare to the glimpse he had seen, hundreds of multi-kilometer skyscrapers stretching out into in the dusky horizon.

The Chief had to assume that they had landed somewhere significant, but Jacen reckless advance didn’t seem to have triggered any alarms, and no familiar white suits of armor or trim, dark uniforms had presented themselves. Each successive corridor was vacant save for the occasional raised terminal or piece of statuary that embellished square sitting areas or communications hubs connecting the hallways at even intervals. The level seemed to be abandoned, a suspicion reinforced by the doorways that would occasionally slide open as they moved past. Each revealed a small living suite or office area, and many of them seemed to have been stripped and vacated in a hurry.

Passing through what appeared to be a security checkpoint, the Chief was relieved that the guards had packed up as well. If his luck held, whoever might have been watching the pair of intruders were also absent.

Finally, Jacen stopped at a bank of turbolifts. He looked them over quickly and then made for the farthest, but the Chief laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Before we get in that thing, I want to know what we might be dealing with on the other side,” he said. “Where are we?”

Jacen glanced at him a moment before looking back at the lift. He was plainly anxious to keep on moving, but the Chief didn’t ease his grip. Blaster bolts and ravenous alien killing machines were one thing, but he knew that lack of information was one of the surest ways to end up a post-op statistic.

“Coruscant, like I said,” the Jedi replied. “Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

The Chief stared at him calmly. “If you’re not sure, then why are we running deeper into this place?”

A pain expression crossed Jacen’s face, and he looked earnestly at the turbolifts again. “We’re running out of time, Chief. Let me go.”

“Only when you tell me what’s going on.”

Jacen’s free hand balled into a fist, but the Spartan could tell from his face that it wasn’t in anger.

He’s afraid.

The Jedi fixed the Chief in a stare and he held it, confident that the other could tell even with the curved sheet of composite between them. After a moment, Jacen inhaled deeply and his fist loosened, but it did not fall away entirely.

“I’m not really sure myself, Chief. It’s a feeling, just a feeling, but I’ve got to follow it. When we were in that rift, I saw something…” He trailed off for a few breaths. “I have to be sure. You don’t have to follow me. In fact, you shouldn’t. Get back to the corridor. If the rift comes back, it’ll be there. I’ll be all right by myself.”

The Chief considered the Jedi. It was clear that nothing short of violence was going to sway him, and if it came down to a fight, he honestly wasn’t sure if he’d be able to stand in the man’s way. Besides, he had to admit, the prospect of doing something, even if it meant barging into unknown, potentially hostile territory beat an hour of idle sight-seeing.

“I don’t think so. I’ve had enough of solo ops. Now, which lift?”

Once they entered the small cubicle and the doors closed behind them, Jacen entered a trance-like state, his eyes unfocused as a hand hovered over the control panel. The Chief used the time to scan the chamber for obvious signs of observational equipment. No security features were apparent, but the Spartan had led enough infiltration missions to know that it didn’t take that much work to make cameras and sensory triggers all but invisible. Nevertheless, when Jacen finally settled on a destination, no alert sirens sounded above their heads and the lift slid compliantly into motion.

The Chief could sense the speed of the conveyance in spite of its dampening systems as it shot upward, and was impressed by how long the trip took. By the time the time the lift slowed to a stop, he was quite sure that the structure they’d stumbled into was at least as large as the skyscrapers he had seen looming outside.

Soundlessly, the doors slid open, revealing a niche of other turbolifts. The space opened onto a far larger room, nearly as long as the hallways they had left and tree times their width and height. Life-size marble figures on pedestals posed grandly along its middle, with turbolift niches and the open mouths of corridors dotting each long wall. As the Chief eased out of the lift, his blaster drawn, he noted the Imperial seals mounted prominently at either end of the room, huge disks of black against pristine, white walls.

“Clear,” he whispered.

Jacen was already striding into the long chamber. He stopped by the statue of an older human male with a disdainful expression on his stone lips, ignoring it in favor of the half-dozen hallways that converged around them.

“Which way?” he muttered to himself, turning from one to the next, his probing eyes obviously seeing well beyond the confines of the room.

The Chief was about to ask just what exactly the Jedi was looking for again when a faint hum from ten meters down the chamber pushed the question from his mind. By the time the sound gave way to the soft hiss of gliding metal, he was pressed against the wall of the niche, weapon arm raised at his side. Jacen had ducked into a corridor across the way, and the Chief could just see him, flush against the wall as he was. They exchanged a furtive look, and the sound of multiple pairs of feet filled the chamber.

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

Reginald Barclay was not in high spirits. His brief stay in the brig of Darth Vader’s star destroyer had been positively agreeable compared to his time in Covenant hands – he had been cleaned up and eaten his first adequate meal in weeks – but the gray tunic that had replaced his tattered uniform and the heavy binders on his wrists were grim reminders that he was still a prisoner. He tried to twist his wrists inside of their metal restraints, but they wouldn’t budge. Barclay blew out a noiseless sigh.

You’re still alive, Reg. That’s all that matters.

But his resolve was slowly eroding under the weight of hopeless captivity and exhaustion. Barclay had only been allowed what felt like a few short hours of sleep in his lonely detainment cell before being roughly awakened and escorted to a large hangar bay. There, he had been thrust face to face with the towering Dark Lord again. This time, however, there had been no questioning and no painful mental incursions. Barclay had simply been shepherded into a waiting shuttle in Vader’s wake and crowded with a complement of stormtroopers and a small, dome-headed astromech droid into a rear compartment.

The windowless passage had deposited him on a small landing platform, blustered by the first real wind he had felt for months. Before Barclay had had a chance to enjoy the fresh air or fully appreciate the scale of the building before him, soldiers had hurried him inside. The interior was grand even to Barclay’s tired eyes, high-ceilinged promenades lined with towering, intricate mosaics and antechambers dominated by courtly statuary, all of it cast in stark black, white, and gray.

And yet, the place had seemed eerily vacant. Stormtroopers, some of the bearing distinctive blue decals on their crisp, white armor, seemed to flank every entryway and patrol every corridor, but even they were strangely small against the grandeur of their surroundings. Barclay only saw a few others; army officers busy with datapads stopping to salute their lord, harried-looking staff pausing to stare at the procession, a scattering of droids. They even passed one man, a pale, slightly overweight dignitary in a flowing robe who watched them in bald-faced terror. If the Dark Lord noticed any of the attention, he didn’t allow it to break his fast, purposeful gait.

At length, Vader had dispensed a few curt, unintelligible orders to a black-uniformed officer attached to the group and disappeared. The Dark Lord’s words had been gibberish to Barclay, deprived at last of the precious universal translator, but the look of consternation and confusion on the officer’s face had required no translation. The engineer had tried to derive a measure of comfort from that; at least he wasn’t the only one at the whim of forces beyond his control and comprehension.

Barclay felt a firm shove in the small of his back, and he stepped forward. The lift had come to a stop while he had been lost in thought, fighting through weariness to contemplate the ultimate destination of the inexorable parade. Any illusion of escape from whatever fate awaited him had long since been dismissed by the Imperial might arrayed about him, but the unheralded resolve that had pulled him through the trial with Flitch kept his mind working, staving off the despair that had all too often claimed the engineer in the past.

Something rubbed against Barclay’s leg and he looked down. An optical nozzle on the little astromech droid’s squat head swiveled up to meet his gaze, and the droid loosed a brief series of chirps and whistles. The man understood the machine’s language as well as the words of his captors, but he thought he caught an air of apology in the sequence of intonations.

Weakly, Barclay smiled at the droid, and it chirped twice more before rolling away on its squat trio of legs. The stormtroopers escorting him gave the machine a respectful berth, allowing the astromech to weave as it liked through their ranks. Another attempt to keep his mind focused, Barclay had tried to puzzle out why the thing had accompanied them. Surely, it wasn’t a security measure; the half-dozen armored soldiers were more than enough.

Perhaps it’s a prisoner, too. My new cellmate.

As the formation emerged from the turbolift bank and advanced down another quiet hall, Barclay watched the droid clip the Imperial officer a dozen paces in front of him. The man grunted in surprise and the little machine responded with a loud razzing noise before veering away, back towards the human captive. The officer followed it with a glower, but turned away without another word.

Barclay watched the astromech with mounting curiosity.

Looks like someone put in a special word for you, little guy. I hope you are my cellmate. Just as long as you don’t have the temper of the last one.

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

Six stormtroopers, each armed with a standard E-11 rifle. One officer, pistol holstered at his hip. Another human, unarmed, with hands restrained. A tech droid.

The Master Chief watched the complement move past, taking in every detail with quick precision. He was only meters from the Imperial soldiers, and he knew that there was nothing between him and half a dozen blaster bolts save the insulated walls of the stormtrooper’s helmets. The Spartan’s motion tracker displayed the contacts as a blob of red, barely separate from the tiny vector that was his suit. Just one casual, sideways glance…

The Chief’s heartbeat quickened slightly, but he kept his breathing steady and even. He felt the internal contours of the gauntlet wrapped around his sidearm, could feel its weight. The regimented click-clack of the stormtrooper’s boots filled his ears, but the poised trigger finger did not twitch, and his body was still. The officer passed from view, then the first pair of soldiers, then the second…

As the Chief watched the other unarmored human slip beyond the far wall of the turbolift niche, directly between the latter pairs of Imperial troopers, the man tilted his head in his direction, following an irregular movement of the group’s astromech droid. The Chief was certain that the man didn’t see him, and he only caught a momentary profile himself, but it was enough.

Reginald Barclay.

The Chief managed to suppress any physical manifestation of surprise, but his mind immediately began to work furiously. The Starfleet officer had been lost during the Republica’s transit through the Reach system, and the Chief had watched Captain Picard give a few parting words for the engineer, yet another blow to the Enterprise’s dwindling crew. The Chief had always suspected that the Arbiter was more than a match for the traitor Flitch, but he had never maintained any illusions of ever seeing the Sangheili warrior again, much less the hapless hostage he had vanished attempting to save.

And yet, here the awkward, introverted engineer was, escorted, alive and apparently intact, by a guard of soldiers worthy of a high-ranking dignitary.

With the last stormtroopers passing from view, the Chief shot a questioning glance at Jacen, hoping that the Jedi might be able to shed some light on Barclay’s bewildering appearance, but the opening across the way was empty.

The Chief found himself unsurprised by Jacen’s sudden absence. The unexplained determination had never left the younger man’s face even after the Chief had refused to leave him, and he knew that kind of focus would not permit any delay. Obviously, Barclay’s presence was not what drove the Jedi, and consciously or not, he had taken advantage of the distraction to shake off his last restraint.

Good luck, Jedi, he thought, checking the mission clock at the fringe of his vision. Just don’t be late.

The volume of footsteps on tile had begun to decrease, and the Chief knew that Barclay had his escort were approaching the end of the long chamber. If they left the space, he could easily lose them in the unfamiliar complex, or run into additional guards in the attempt. It was already seven on one.

The unfavorable odds, particularly considering his load-out – a single blaster pistol and one extra clip – gave the Spartan pause, but the doubts over his next move never entered into the mental calculus. He had been isolated from his other companions and objectives, and an ally - clumsy and awkward but an ally nonetheless - lay in hostile hands. There was no other alternative.

Soundlessly, the Chief stepped from the shelter of his alcove, bringing the backs of the Imperial complement into full view. The rear soldiers were ten meters away, with their officer another three ahead. Barclay walked at the center of the group, the astromech trailing just behind him. In a moment, the Spartan had sized up the situation, fixed the rear stormtroopers positions in his mind, and leveled his blaster at the back of the engineer’s head.

His breathing was steady. His mind was clear.

“Barclay!” he bellowed.

The prisoner’s slow gait faltered and he dipped to the left, in the process of looking back. The soldiers surrounding him responded similarly, whirling about with their rifles at their hips. For the moment, the Chief ignored them; his focus was on the trim, capped head of the officer Barclay’s sudden move had revealed.

This was the Chief’s element. A narrow shot, hostile contacts close at hand, a life riding on his aim. Training took over. He pulled the trigger.

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

Tassadar’s world was pain.

The wound to his stomach he had been able to bear. It was agony of the flesh, easily washed away in the reserves of power that he had summoned to purge Kerrigan’s corruption from his mind. But when she had kicked him into the rift and his mortal coil had seemed to fall away, the pain returned and grew like a fire across oil. Before he could even comprehend the sensation, it had nearly consumed his mind, robbed of its fleshy shell and laid bare to anguish that swiftly transcended its corporeal nature.

He roared in pain and frustration, but now sound emerged. He felt the flames washing over him, but he could see nothing. The space beyond his eyes, and his eyes themselves, were voids. Nothing but torture existed for him now, pure, overwhelming sensation.

Another disappointment, Tassadar? I’m hurt. I thought you, of all of them, would put in a bit more effort.

There was another mind with him now, barely perceptible beyond the blistering sheath. Tassadar felt it and his psionic eye, the only extremity left to him in the empty place, sharpened and probed outward. The inferno intensified, almost withering the psychic tendril, but he endured. Another desperate push and it was through, and the Protoss could perceive his foe clearly for the first time.

Kerrigan was unmasked, her cloying sheath and cruel illusions cast aside. She was a thing of energy and emotion, as raw and elemental as any being he had ever imagined. Beneath roiling tongues of dark psionic power, perpetually consuming and tearing free from one another, knots of malevolence squirmed like bloated worms. Tassadar had touched a mind like this once before, in the instant between his final assault on the Zerg Overmind and the treacherous salvation of the rift, and he could see the same foul contours now, the same primeval wretchedness.

The Overmind had not simply been evil. It was not insane or covetous. Hatred, anger, bloodlust; nothing so petty and insignificant. It was consumption. The Overmind existed to grow and devour, to claim lives, species, planets, galaxies, everything for itself, until nothing else was left. It was this elemental force that Tassadar perceived in the Queen of Blades.

But she was not quintessence. As Tassadar looked upon her through the fire and the void, he could see breaches in the raging sea of her being. There were holes that the self-consuming shards of intent could not fill, and in them there was conflict. The Overmind has failed; his creation was not unitary, not perfect. Deep beneath the lashing waves, a human mind was still trapped, stripped of everything but its fear and the will to be. The discord infected every part of Kerrigan, and emotions that the Overmind would have disdained bled from her. Greed, rage, and even… doubt.

She drew deeply from wells of power to contain the discordant impulses, sources that did not originate from within her. Rather, she sucked what she required from the emptiness, like the parasite that refused to die within her. The void engulfing them, Tassadar realized, was just another trick.

It will be your last.

Tassadar willed the fires of pain to cool. The act exhausted his last internal reserve, but the agonizing sheets turned to ice and shattered, and with them, Kerrigan’s obscuring façade fell. Suddenly, he was drifting in a sea of energy, not light, not dark, but simply there.

He drank deeply.

That’s more like it! Kerrigan’s thoughts overlaid onto his, snide and self-assured. Zeratul could not touch the power that is dormant here. You will make a far superior conduit.

Claim me then, my Queen! I will not await your pleasure!

Still siphoning all he could from boundless streams of energy that seemed to pour from the black, Tassadar’s very essence flared and he burst forth. The two shapeless, ageless manifestations of thought collided, and the space around them transformed once more. The great sea of power morphed into raging river, and Tassadar felt himself tumbling trough it, entwined with Kerrigan’s toxic being. Four nexuses of energy loomed around them, springs from which the primal torrent surged. On the edge of his conscious mind, the Protoss perceived more, uncounted wells that fed the churning ocean, but one of the nearer sources swelled swiftly, and he felt the current no more.

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

Barclay stared at the barrel of the blaster. The weapon was meters away, but to him it loomed just before his eyes, dark muzzle and circular bore identical to the dozens that had menaced him over the last weeks. The sharp report still echoed in his ears, and the skin on one side of his neck chaffed with heat. There were no other sounds, and nothing moved.

This is it?

He hadn’t expected his journey to end so suddenly. In quiet moments, Barclay’s mind had dipped into a variety of half-baked, grim fantasies that involved exotic tortures or fiery crashes. In more sensible moments, he had pondered the prospect of simply sitting alone in a holding cell for the rest of his days. Compared to that, an unannounced blaster bolt to the neck wasn’t so unwelcome. Besides, it didn’t hurt as much as he had expected. In a slow stupor, he raised a hand toward his throat, anticipating the muddiness of blood and charred flesh.

Behind him, a loud thump echoed in the silence. In the same daze, Barclay turned away from the blaster until he caught sight of a smoking mound of black cloth on the floor several meters ahead of him. Bemused, he peered at the odd shape more closely, until his eyes fell on a limp white hand emerging from the gangly lump. It was the commanding officer of his escort. The man’s head, above which the thin smoke hung, was mercifully hidden by the contortion of his back.

The stormtroopers around Barclay were moving now, scattering with long, glacial strides and sedately raising their blaster rifles to chest height.

Barclay continued to peer at the Imperial officer. The heat on his exposed neck had begun to dissipate.

All right, Reg. A near miss. Now, don’t be an idiot and stand there until someone gets another shot off.

The world around him suddenly accelerated back into life, and the sounds of battle assailed his ears. Stormtroopers shouted unintelligibly to one another, and several fired off shots barely more than an arm’s length from him. The familiar smell of ozone filled his nostrils.

To his left, there was a gust of heat and a strangled cry. Barclay looked down into the blank, black eyes of a stormtrooper’s helmet. The chest of the man’s polished, white suit was marred by a carbon-rimmed, coin-sized hole.

Run!

Beyond the fallen soldier, an open doorway split the far wall. Without a second thought, Barclay leapt over the man and ran for it, wincing each time a chunk of the floor or an elegant fixture exploded into shrapnel.

A hand grabbed his left arm, and Barclay skidded to a halt just meters from his escape route. Blindly, he turned on the hand’s owner, raising the only weapon at his disposal. Another white-armored head filled his vision, and he swung both arms at it. The heavy binders connecting them slammed into the side of the soldier’s helmet and sent him to one knee, releasing Barclay’s arm in the process. Freed, the captive started to make for the safety of the doorway again, but stopped again after a few steps.

The remaining four stormtroopers had taken up positions straddling the width of the chamber, their backs turned towards Barclay and their fallen comrades. From positions behind corners and cracked stone benches, the quartet were zeroing in on a large statue at the center of the long aisle. The brief firefight had already cratered it beyond recognition, and the combined blasterfire of the group was swiftly reducing the humanoid form into a charred column of rock.

As Barclay watched, a figure behind the statue popped into view, squeezed off a pair of shots at the nearest trooper and retreated back into cover. The bolts rocked the wall next to the stormtrooper, but his armored protected him from the burning shrapnel, and he returned a withering barrage that sent sparks flying across the withdrawing combatant’s green armor.

Barclay held the fleeting image of the worn battlesuit in his mind, suddenly oblivious to the danger he was in. He had not fully appreciated who had fired the shot that had felled the escort commander until now.

The Master Chief!

A flurry of questions and doubts assaulted the engineer, but they were dispelled when a large chunk of the Chief’s cover broke off and clattered to the floor. A couple of the stormtroopers had shifted their E-11s into auto-fire mode and were spraying the makeshift redoubt with a devastating volume of fire. Barclay knew that the statue wouldn’t hold much longer, and even the Spartan could take on that kind of directed firepower at close range.

He could still run. The stormtroopers were thoroughly distracted, and the open doorway still beckoned to him, tantalizingly within reach. Running had saved him before; he wouldn’t have survived the furor in the Covenant Council Chamber if he hadn’t been able to find cover.

And while he had watched from relative safety, the Arbiter had nearly died at the hands of the hulking Tartarus. For all he knew, the valiant Sangheili had succumbed to his wounds on the Chamber floor. And what had the evasion bought Barclay? Another brush with death at the hands of Flitch, and fresh imprisonment.

Not again. No more running.

The stormtrooper Barclay had knocked to the ground had regained his balance, and he saw the man raise his rifle in the prisoner’s direction. Barclay’s eyes locked on the blaster, and he leapt straight at the man, his bound arms outstretched. The two collapsed to the floor on top of one another, and the engineer managed to grab hold of the rifle’s grip. The stormtrooper still held his weapon fast, and Barclay knew that he wouldn’t be able to out-muscle the man, but he didn’t have to; the blaster lay in front of them, aimed at the backs of the soldier’s comrades. Barclay fumbled desperately for the trigger, found it, and squeezed as hard as he could.

The spray of crimson bolts carved a wide swath of blackened craters across the ceiling, cleanly missing all of the Imperial troopers, but contact from their rear and the shower for debris from above was enough to draw their attention. Fire on the Chief’s position lessened momentarily, and that was all he needed.

Barclay watched the Spartan tear out from under cover, his pistol blazing with precise fire. One stormtrooper was hit before he could respond, and the Chief had closed on the next before he shot off another bolt, advancing with blinding speed. There was a crack of metal on reinforced ceramic, and the white-armored soldiers spun into a wall. The Chief was drawing a bead on the third trooper when Barclay’s vision exploded with stars.

The soldier he was tangled with had delivered a sharp knee into his stomach, and Barclay found himself unable to breathe. His grip on the rifle weakened and it was torn easily from his hands. Another kick turned the engineer onto his back, and it took all of his will to keep from blacking out.

He heard the click of a firing mechanism, and peered up through bleary eyes. The stormtrooper was kneeling above him, and the muzzle of his blaster was bare centimeters from his heaving chest. The soldier barked something, but Barclay could do nothing but wheeze. He saw the trooper’s finger tense on the trigger of the E-11.

Suddenly, the stormtrooper shouted out in pain. Arcs of electricity sparked up the back of his armor and wreathed his neck, and he began to convulse. The electric pulse intensified, and the soldier fell sideways to the floor, his hand frozen uselessly on the weapon.

Confused and still breathless, Barclay pulled himself onto one elbow and cast about for the source of the paralyzing blast. At his feet, the squat form of the astromech droid sat on its trio of rectangular feet, the receptors on its blue-paneled head aimed at the unconscious stormtrooper. A long, pronged instrument protruding from its side retreated back into its vertical panel with a whir of gears, and the droid turned its domed head on Barclay.

“Thanks,” he said uncertainly. “Thank you.”

The astromech whistled happily, and then turned its glassy receptor back down the corridor.

Barclay glanced at the motionless stormtrooper, breathed deeply to slow his pounding heart, and began to rise. As he did, a shadow fell on him and the engineer looked up so quickly that he almost tumbled back to the floor.

The Master Chief stood over him, a new E-11 propped against his shoulder. The Spartan’s armor bore a few fresh, blackened score-marks, and a thin, transient line of sparks rippled from his back down the side of his breastplate, but he appeared to be uninjured. The same could not be said of the other stormtroopers; four white-clad bodies lay motionless in the hall behind the Chief, neatly dispatched by blaster bolts or physical trauma their suits had failed to mitigate.

“Thanks for the distraction,” he said in mercifully intelligible English as he helped the man to his feet. “Lieutenant Barclay of the USS Enterprise?”

“That’s me,” Barclay replied, clutching a bruised elbow as he stared at the supersoldier. “And you’re… the Master Chief, right? I mean, if I’m not crazy. You’d know. If you’re him, I mean.”

Barclay looked at the Imperial soldier at his feet again, worry creasing his face. “I’m not crazy, am I?”

The Chief stepped over the stormtrooper and walked around Barclay. The man grimaced, suddenly annoyed at the anxiousness that had been in his voice, and turned to follow the Spartan.

“How did you get here?” he asked. “Where are the others? Where are we?”

“Later,” the Chief replied without turning back. “Right now, we have to get out of this hallway. Each of those soldiers has a comm unit in their helmets, and at least one of them must have gotten off an alert. Now, grab a weapon and follow me.”

Barclay stopped and cast about, settling on the blaster that the trooper he had knocked over still clutched. The immobile man’s grip was still tight and he had to haul at the steely fingers before they released the rifle with an almost mechanical slackening. Barclay shivered, hugged the weapon close, and jogged away to catch up with the Chief, who had already come to the end of the long chamber.

The Spartan stared at the huge Imperial cog for a moment and then set about inspecting the doorways to either side. One was evidently another turbolift, as evidenced by the sizeable control interface mounted beside it.

“We should get off of this floor,” Barclay offered.

The Chief shook his head. “If these lifts can be deactivated remotely, we’d be trapped. I’d rather not get in one until we have to.”

The other door was sealed fast, and did not budge even when the Chief tried to wedge his gauntleted fingers into its seam.

“We’ll have to find another way,” the Chief said shortly. “And fast. If we weren’t being watched before, someone’s going to be looking for us now.”

Nervously, Barclay scanned the walls and ceiling for any obvious surveillance equipment. He saw nothing, but the Chief seemed uncomforted by that fact and immediately turned back down the corridor. When Barclay made to follow him, he noticed that the little, dome-headed droid had trundled along with them. As he watched, the astromech rolled to the locked door, planted itself in front of it, and popped open a hatch on its curved side. A thin, plug-tipped arm shot from its chassis and the droid inserted it into a small port near the base of the doorframe.

As it worked, the machine rotated its dome head 180 degrees to face Barclay, and it emitted a plaintive series of tones.

Barclay stared into the bulbous, black eye. He had been fascinated by droids during his brief time onboard the Republica, but he had lacked the time to learn more than a few cursory technical details about them. Many of the Alliance crewers he had encountered seemed to regard the machines, many of them squat maintenance models like this one, as simple pieces of equipment, so many walking toolkits or talking energy conduits, but a few others had viewed them with a great deal more respect. Barclay recalled one technician holding a lift door for a square-headed unit, just as though it were any other member of the crew. To someone who had served his entire career on ships where automation was exclusively integrated into bulkheads, the idea had been extremely curious.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t so strange. Commander Data was no more flesh and blood than the little astromech, and no one who served more than a day with him would dismiss the android as a simple computer.

His eyes lingering on the droid, Barclay called to the Chief.

“Wait! Come back!”

The Chief was back at the end of the corridor in seconds, his blaster at the ready. He looked from the interfacing droid to Barclay, plainly uneasy.

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure,” Barclay said, shaking his head. “It was with Darth Vader when we were escorted into this place.”

The Chief stiffened sharply. “Darth Vader?”

He leveled his blaster at the droid. The machine spat something unpleasant at the Spartan, but did not interrupt its work.

“Wait!” Barclay shouted, slapping a hand on the raised muzzle. “It saved my life back there! I don’t know if it’s Vader’s or what it’s doing here, but… I think it’s trying to help us.”

The Chief glared at the resolute R2 unit, his weapon still aimed fixedly at its tubular body. The little machine stared back with its round, expressionless lens for a moment, and then started to whistle and beep again. The tone was no longer indignant; it seemed to Barclay that the droid was calling out in alarm. Furthering the impression, its head turned back towards the wall socket, as though it were fixing the sum of its energies on whatever it was trying to do.

A distant hum manifested behind them, and both humans turned to see that several of the lights on the lift’s control panel were newly lit. Immediately, the Chief turned his weapon on the turbolift door, backing away as he did. Barclay followed suit, almost tripping over the droid as it continued its fevered task.

The R2 unit loosed a loud whistle, and a firm pivot of its interfacing arm sent the locked door panels retreating into the wall. The droid wasted no time in retracting the apparatus and skating into the space beyond.

“Chief!” Barclay shouted earnestly.

The humming had grown into a low rumble from below. The Chief paused a moment, swept the open doorway with his blaster, and was through it, Barclay at his side. Another moment and the doors closed fast, unmarked by the fugitives’ passage.

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

Sharp corners and broad passageways marched swiftly past Jacen’s eyes, an endless, unchanging landscape of drab colors and lifeless artifice. He moved without any real sense of direction or orientation, any measure of caution he’d maintained before gone. His legs seemed to be moving in isolation from his conscious thoughts, guided only by the sensation that had taken hold of his mind and refused to loosen its iron grip.

He had perceived her on some level almost since the rift had deposited them on Coruscant. At first, he had not fully understood the significance of the distant familiarity; it was like déjà vu, or a dream that he couldn’t quite remember. Still, something had compelled him to follow the indistinct path that existed only in his mind, a minor eddy or occasional fluctuation in the Force that pointed him down one hall and through another door. Nevertheless, he had kept himself alert, and as he and the Chief had progressed further into an increasingly familiar labyrinth of deserted Imperial formality, the hair on the back of his neck had begun to stand on end. There was something wrong here, an unsettling presence that transcended the simple massing of stormtroopers.

The appearance of the patrol had brought the peril of their situation into clearer focus, and Jacen had almost resolved to turn back in spite of the beckoning impulse.

Then, as he had watched the first soldiers pass from his hiding place, a wave of recognition had nearly overwhelmed him. Strangling a gasp, he had retreated further back, grabbing the wall for support. He had felt the wrenching, unreal presence before, on Poloon Three, only days after he had awakened onboard the Enterprise. That time, it had cast him into unconsciousness, and he had never really been certain what had overcome him.

Now, on a level that seemed to transcend the Force, he understood.

Darth Vader was near.

He was a bloody ghost from a dark past Jacen had never fully understood. To him, Vader had been a fable, a parable on the dangers and subtle allure of the Dark Side. The man behind the black, nightmare mask was distant, reachable only during his few glimpses of the Dark Side, and then only briefly. After all, to a member of the Solo line, Vader was more than dead and gone; Master Skywalker had been sure to temper his cautionary tales with those of redemption, recounting Anakin Skywalker’s victory over Emperor Palpatine and the darkness within himself at Endor. In Jacen’s world, Vader had ceased to be and Anakin had died a hero. His own brother had been named in the Jedi’s honor.

But this was not Jacen’s world. The Vader he felt was a towering storm of rage and dark power, undiluted by any perceptible light. Peripherally, he had known there was something else there too, but the Sith Lord was still distant, and he had been afraid to probe the sensation more closely.

He might have gathered the courage to touch the brooding aura again, but something else seized his thoughts. For all his might, Vader was not the thing that had drawn him so far; the other was still distinct, and very close. Somehow, Vader’s presence seemed to crystallize her in his mind.

Aayla is alive!

For an instant, he could almost see the Twi’lek Jedi. Through the Force, he felt her heart beating next his own and perceived the luminous blue of her skin. The flash of clarity was all to brief, gone again with harsh abruptness, but it left Jacen breathless. All at once, he remembered their first meeting and the singular connection they had shared, strangers united by the Force where the Force itself was foreign. He remembered his fast-growing attachment to the strong, confident woman, and the few, joyful moments they had shared.

Then, he felt the old, sickening helplessness. He recalled awakening after the escape from Poloon to find that she stayed behind to cover his flight. Through everything that had happened since, he had held onto the shame of that moment, unable to accept her loss and unwilling to forgive himself for falling in her time of need.

But she was alive. It did not matter how she survived, or why her presence seemed attuned to the darkness of the Imperial hub. She needed him, and this time he would not fail her.

Not even the Dark Lord of the Sith would stand between them.

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

Jacen sprinted down a wide, windowless corridor, his footsteps echoing dully off of polished, ebony stone. The vaulted ceiling above him sloped sharply, emblematic off the massive, pyramidal face that was its exterior side. The Jedi now recognized the distinctive architecture, remembered his parent’s descriptions of the place and felt the truth intuitively; this was the great palace of the Imperial City, the crowning jewel of Emperor Palpatine’s New Order. Even in Jacen’s time, the colossal structure retained discordant vestiges of its grim past; now, it was a mountainous monument to the might of the Dark Side, and he had reached its summit.

No living thing stood in the Jedi’s way. Where silent, watchful sentinels in crimson raiment once stood rank upon rank, echoes resounded unimpeded. No stormtrooper would dare to take their place; the palace’s peak had been Palpatine’s innermost sanctum, and with its master usurped, it was his tomb. Even the least Force-sensitive could feel the lingering, perilous tendrils of his power.

Nevertheless, Jacen kept his lightsaber at the ready as he ran. He could sense that Aayla was in danger, and the extent of her peril seemed to mount with each step. Jacen tried to reach out to her, but his advance only seemed to cloud the other Jedi further, until direction was all he could perceive.

He squeezed the unlit pommel. That would be enough. Aayla was close.

And then, from behind an angled pylon of the ceiling, a massive gate came into view. Jacen skidded to a halt and tried to collect himself as he took in the towering, featureless double-doors. The sight of the obstacle, or perhaps what was beyond it, dismissed each calming mantra he could think of, and he was forced to make do with a short breathing exercise to slow his pounding heart. Counting gulps of air as he had done as a beginner seemed ludicrously childish in the gate’s shadow, but it worked.

On the sixth breath, Jacen stepped forward. He was prepared to force the doors aside, but they swung easily inward at his approach. As the barrier gave way, a red-orange glow illuminated his face, washing away the harrowing gloom of the antechamber.

The Imperial Throne Room was no longer the commanding, cathedral-like space its master had commissioned. Its outer half was shorn away entirely, the edges of its high walls and squared ceiling burned and blackened. Beyond the open, half-space, the Coruscanti skyline sat resplendent in the waning, ruddy light. Monumental as they were, the towers dotting the endless field of processed metal and anonymous life that was the world’s surface appeared small and insignificant from the vantage point, indistinct against the setting sun. The Imperial Palace loomed over its surroundings, peering down on them with the same smug contempt that had inspired its construction.

A single figure stood at the edge of the shorn floor. She looked out over the artificial landscape, apparently unaware of the Jedi’s arrival.

“Aayla!” Jacen shouted. His voice cracked, fading quickly in the open air, and he ran towards her. His heart pounded again, rhythm forgotten.

The Twi’lek did not turn or speak, or make any other move to acknowledge him. Halfway across the intact space, Jacen’s footsteps slowed, and he reached out to Aayla through the Force.

“Aayla?”

The being he felt was veiled. When he tried to touch her mind with his, the emanation of his inner self broke upon an invisible cliff face. The guarded warmth and focused strength he remembered were gone. In their place, cold artifice kept him locked out, obscuring thought and memory. All that Jacen could clearly perceive was a profound, alien power, one that Aayla didn’t care to hide or could not contain.

A gust of wind blew across the open chamber, buffeting Jacen’s confused features. He suddenly realized it was bitterly cold; his tunic was little protection against the chilling cross-breeze. Fully in the wind’s path, Aayla stood unmoved by the cold.

Confusion giving way to concern, Jacen took a few more steps forward and gritted through the icy draft, trying to think of some way to rouse the woman from her stupor. Before he could consider for than a few moments, however, she stepped back from the precipice and turned slowly to face him. Their eyes met, and words died in his throat.

“Jacen Solo,” she said, her tone perfectly measured.

The voice was wonderfully familiar. Jacen’s doubts blew away in the wind, and he felt aching relief flow through every inch of his body. Overcome, he covered the distance between them in a few long strides and threw his arms around her shoulders. She did not resist, and he tightened the embrace, reveling in the substance of her physical form even if he could still not clearly see her through the Force. Aayla’s arms moved onto Jacen’s back tentatively. At the touch of the right one, encased in an arm-length glove, his skin prickled.

“You’re alive!” Jacen said breathlessly, still holding her fast. “We all thought you were dead. I thought you were dead! I’m sorry I left you on Poloon. I was overwhelmed, but… but I’m stronger now. I’ll get you out of this place.”

“Solo,” the Twi’lek repeated quietly. “Ah, yes. The secret one. Darth Vader never did learn of you.” She chuckled. “Good. Very good.”

Jacen barely heard her. His conscious mind was still overcome with the release of tension that had brooded within the recesses of his being for what seemed like an eternity. Nevertheless, something about her response was unsettling.

“What happened, Aayla? Vader was on Poloon. I know that now. Did you face him? Did he bring you here?”

The alien woman was silent. Slowly, Jacen tried to pull away and look her in the eyes once more, but her arms remained fully placed on his back, holding him against her. Shifting uncertainly, one of Jacen’s hands fell on one lekku hanging from the base of her neck. Its skin was clammy and cold.

“Are you injured?” he asked, euphoria draining away.

“I am perfectly fine,” the Twi’lek replied. “In fact, I feel far better than I’ve felt in a long time. The air up here is… invigorating.”

The voice sounded the same as it had before, but as she spoke, Jacen felt and underlying resonance to the words that he had not noticed before.

“All right, then. We have to get out of here. I may have been tracked getting here, and I don’t know who might be coming after us. The Master Chief is back inside the Palace, and I think we have a way out. Come on.”

Jacen tried again to disengage, more firmly this time, but he found himself held in place by Aayla’s arms. When he tried a third time, the limbs pressed themselves against his back with unanticipated force and he suddenly found it hard to breath.

“Leave?” she asked quietly. “Feel the wind on your skin, Solo. Isn’t it glorious? Why would you want to leave?”

“What are you doing?” Jacen gasped, pushing uselessly against the lean, resolute muscles of Aayla’s limbs. “We can’t stay. Please, let me go.”

“But you wanted to be with me so badly, young Jedi. I remember the way you looked at me. I felt your joy at the touch of this body. Surely, no other has claimed your affections? Come, stay with me awhile. We have a great deal to discuss.”

Jacen sensed an immaterial hand settle upon his skull and press into it. At once, his mental defenses flared in alarm, but he was helpless as the outermost layer of his thoughts began to peel away, bewilderment and agitation pushed aside in favor of the thoughts and memories beneath. It took him only an instant to realize that Aayla was attempting to bore into his consciousness, and an instant more for blind shock to manifest an instinctual response. He pushed back against the violating tendril, and found that the Twi’lek’s mental barrier had vanished.

Darkness overcame Jacen so quickly and so completely that he blacked out momentarily, coming too utterly disoriented and without even basic muscular control. It was all he could do not to vomit.

His body moved away from Aayla’s, totally limp in her arms. Reeling from the sensory and metaphysical overload, unable to comprehend what he had just felt, Jacen’s head lolled backwards, bringing him face to face with the woman. The comforting hazel of her irises had disappeared; slit-black pupils encircled by coronas of red and yellow burned there instead.

“You are truly fascinating. Vader’s grandson? His offspring must have outlasted their mother.” The humorless laugh that followed was still in Aayla’s voice, but there resonance had amplified dramatically, and it rang in Jacen’s mind with far more potency then mere words could convey. The tone he heard was dry and cracked, worn with far more than simple age and heavy with a power that sprang from the depths of the Dark Side.

“No matter. You hold a secret of your own, one far more valuable than Skywalker blood. This one knew little of what brought you and your friends to this place, but you know far more, don’t you? Perhaps this… troublesome ordeal will be worthwhile, after all.”

A surge of adrenaline pulsed through Jacen, and he pushed away from the Twi’lek’s grasp with all the strength he could summon. This time, the arms fell away and he was free. He landed, just barely on his feet, two meters away, and was forced to simultaneously steady himself and hold back the renewed threat of heaving. The burning, slit eyes watched him with condescending amusement.

“Your weapon, Jedi.”

She pointed to a metal tube near her feet, dropped when Jacen had lost consciousness. He avoided her gaze, determined not to open himself up to another mental assault, but he did reach out for the pommel of his lightsaber. The weapon leapt obediently towards his outstretched hand. A thin smile split Aayla’s face, and she flicked two fingers at the shape as it flew. The lightsaber continued its course to Jacen, but instead of flying neatly into his palm, it arced away from the hand at the last second and the heel of the tube planted itself in the Jedi’s jaw with a crack.

Jacen reeled back with a pained grunt, but he remained standing. The lightsaber hit the floor between his boots, and when he bent warily to retrieve it, the other made no move to stop him. The blade snapped to life, and Jacen squared himself against the being he had come to save. His mind still swam, but his brush with the dark mind was clear in its meaning.

“I don’t know what’s happened to you, Aayla,” he said slowly, spitting out blood. “I don’t know how you could have fallen, but that doesn’t matter now. You were a Jedi Knight, and I know that you still are, deep down. I felt it, when you called out to me before. You can still turn back. The Dark Side isn’t the only path.”

She laughed again.

“What do you know of the Dark Side, boy? Through it, I have powers that no Jedi has ever attained, much less a deluded child, feeding off of the scraps that the Jedi Order left behind when it was destroyed.”

Jacen shook his head. “I… I am a Jedi. Just like Master Skywalker, and his father before him. Just like you, Aayla. We’ve both fought the Dark Side before, and we’ve both overcome it. Remember what I told you. Remember what Anakin was able to do. He was deceived by the darkness, thought he could use it for good. He came back in the end, and I know you can, too.”

He lowered his lightsaber. “I didn’t have a chance to really get to know you, but I knew from the moment we met that you were a good person. Whatever the reason, no matter why you let yourself fall, I’m sure it was for a just purpose. Remember that purpose now. Did the sacrifice work? Is this worth it?”

Aayla frowned. “My purpose? I can’t remember… I don’t…”

She placed a hand on her forehead, and turned away from Jacen.

“What am I doing?” Her voice was suddenly plaintive. “What’s happened to me?”

Jacen took a step forward, lowering his lightsaber still further.

“I don’t know Aayla, but I can help you. Just come with me. We can fight the darkness together.”

Another step put Jacen almost within arm’s reach of her. He saw the pained look on her face, and moved his free hand slowly towards her. As he did, she looked up, and the Jedi froze. The Twi’lek’s eyes blazed with malice and dark power.

“You really are an idealistic little fool. Perhaps you’re not so far from the old Order, after all.”

“Aayla…”

The spiteful smile returned. “As I said, little Jedi, you don’t know the power of the Dark Side of the Force.”

Blue lightning erupted from Aayla’s right hand. Jacen was completely unprepared as the current flowed into him, and barely perceived what was happening as the voltage seethed across his body, sending rivulets of agony coursing into his brain. He tried to raise his lightsaber to divert the flow, but the energy was already overpowering. Aayla splayed her hand, thrusting it forward, and the arcing stream of crackling force intensified. Jacen screamed.

He landed on his back, blown off of the floor by the force of the shock. The current ceased, but his nerves still burned with pain, and his senses were overcome by numbness. Dazedly, he tried to roll onto one side, only to find that Aayla was standing directly over him, her smile broad.

“Exhilarating,” she said, her voice entirely subsumed by the alien resonance. “It has been far too long.”

Jacen attempted to push away from her, yielding an uncontrollable series of hacking coughs.

“Please. Aayla…”

The Twi’lek crouched next to him. Before he could even try to stop her, she scooped up his lightsaber from the floor and clipped it to her belt opposite her own undrawn hilt.

“Even now, you don’t understand. The Dark Side is not simply the power to destroy. It is the power of life, more even than your vaunted Light. With it, the strong can persist, even when the weak mass against them.”

She held her arms up to her face, admiring them. “I’m sure that your master taught you that physical bodies are simple hunks of flesh, finite and interchangeable. It is the power inside them that matters. Most are bound to their physical forms, but true masters of the Force are not constrained by such weakness. They are truly limitless, and one body is easily discarded for the next. It is a simple matter to dismiss the simple minds within a new shell when one is needed.”

Jacen stared up at her, his eyes wide. He had dared to reach out towards her with the Force once again, and this time, he could perceive the being beneath skin and bone.

“Yes, young Jedi. Now you see. Sith do not die easily.”



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: 2008-08-04 03:52pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Chapter Seventy Three


Tassadar’s body was falling, and his mind with it. This was not the momentary disorientation of submersion in the disembodying rift, the wrenching descent that merged into eternity. This was reality. Real wind lashed at his face and kept his eyes closed fast. Real pain burst from his gut.

He flailed, and his arms tossed lamely back and forth against the rushing air current before they were pushed again against his armored sides. He forced one eye open and absorbed a plane of solid, dark blue, broken by the crests and smooth sides of tiny, pale forms. Pain from the wind and from his midsection forced the eye to close quickly, but the Protoss knew.

Freefall, headfirst and a thousand meters above the surface of an unknown ocean. In his best condition, the impact would be fatal.

He attempted to summon the energies of the High Templar to him, imagining a psionic cocoon that could encase his wounded body and willing it to be. Sparks crackled down his arms, but he could manifest nothing more. The exertion prompted a flare of pain from the gash, and Tassadar could feel the soft tissue of his belly tearing and bleeding into the whipping air. Rumbling with aggravation that bordered on panic, he compelled the atmosphere around him to shift and darken, hoping to form a cushion beneath his tumbling form. The Dark Templar technique was rewarded only with more pain.

It’s not the fall that kills you, Tassadar.

The Protoss forced open an eye, but he didn’t need to. Kerrigan was plummeting beside him now, and feel the sneer on her cracked lips as clearly as he could see it.

Today, that honor is all mine.

Tassadar felt the weight of a clawed hand pressing down on his chest, and his world convulsed. He felt what little energy he had not expended in the futile attempts to save himself from the fall leach away at her touch, and he almost black out. Sheer will and self-preservation instinct saved him from that fate, and when he recovered, the fall had ceased and he was adrift again in the vital, inter-dimensional ocean.

Impulsively, he funneled the ambient energies into himself, desperate to replace what Kerrigan had taken from him. The renewed power flowed into him and he was suddenly refreshed and able to think clearly again, but the respite did not last. As abruptly as the planar juxtaposition had come, her essence assaulted his again, and he felt himself dragged back towards the great quartet of upwellings. He attempted to resist and pull away from the Dark Queen, but her hold was too tight, and he could only bide as she selected a pinpoint of variance from the converging currents and tossed them both into it.

In a baked, rocky desert, Tassadar felt his face ground into the dry sand. Within a murky river, he all but drowned. An alien city on an alien world saw him smashed through dense glass until blood flowed from a hundred cuts. In the blackness of deep space, he froze and asphyxiated at once for an endless second.

Again and again, Kerrigan threw him into the real world, wounding and humiliating the Templar in new and excruciating ways. Again and again, the rifts opened around them and Tassadar felt his strength renew, only to be torn away with the next forced emergence. By the third fleeting, agonizing episode, he knew he was beaten; with his refilling reserves of power and her knowledge of the terrible, inter-planar expanse, she could cast him wherever she wished, wearing away at his ravaged body with each successive trip. Even resisting the fresh influxes of energy couldn’t break the cycle; somehow, the ambient power of the rift seeped into him all the same, and Kerrigan gleefully renewed her assault.

Tassadar did not know how many times he was thrown into realspace and then recalled. The myriad of sights and pains flickered across his failing senses and flowed together in his mind, until he could barely summon a coherent thought from the torturous morass. The moons of Aiur. The dark ravines of Shakuras. Human faces. Protoss faces. A familiar starfield, spread out before him like the pages of a book. Whether these were new images, memories, or delusion, he no longer could clearly discern.

When the Templar at last heard his name, he only recognized it because the psionic resonance was clear meant for him.

Glorious, Tassadar, glorious! You truly are a credit to your species. It’s fitting that you are one of its last remnants. Any number of lesser creatures would have succumbed to my onslaught, but your body still lives and your sanity is still intact.

Kerrigan filled his perception, and he could see her eyes once again. They were wide and filled entirely by the jet of her pupils, engorged on the very essence of the flow between universes.

I hope you have saved enough of yourself to appreciate this moment, good Templar. The broken shell that your core will soon become is more than sufficient to draw the energy I need from this realm. The portals are already forming and closing at my whim. With you, nothing will be impossible!

A conduit?

The singular thought pierced the swirling fog of Tassadar’s intellect. She had referred to him as a conduit before, but he had disregarded the word in his zeal. Now, however, her full meaning took shape before his mind’s eye. Before, he had assumed that Kerrigan had needed to sap his own psionic energies to control the rifts, but plainly, they were not nearly enough. Instead, he had only survived so long because the inter-dimensional space had replenished him with each visit. Even now, he felt the endless ocean filtering through psychic pores, clearing away mental debris and focusing his thoughts. The amount of energy available must be limitless, more than Tassadar could hope to ever control or comprehend.

No, the Protoss corrected himself. It was more than any mortal being could reckon with.

Realization swept away his pain. For one precious moment, he perceived the majesty of the great, lost plane about him, untainted by Kerrigan’s cancerous presence. He saw the endless currents of fundamental energy that bound universes together, each a small facet of a whole grander than any who had not encountered it could comprehend. He felt the glow of uncounted stars across uncounted realities, each one with its own distinct warmth. He touched the life-force of beings separated by more than space and time, and yet undeniably attuned to the same vastness.

He felt a profound sadness as the moment of clarity faded away, eclipsed once more by the corrupted human’s power, but his resolve did not waver. He was a Templar, a son of Khas, and he would see his mission through.

Tassadar could feel Kerrigan’s essence closing upon his, her tendrils already outstretched.

This time, he did nothing to resist. Tassadar opened himself to her, intertwining light and dark energies and unfurling them into the waiting maw.

I am yours, my Queen. Eternity awaits.

Kerrigan drew in the Protoss in greedily, seizing hold of each morsel of consciousness and each strand of power with unsurpassed relish. To Tassadar’s surprise, the sensation was not at all unpleasant. It was as though he was falling into a deep slumber, with bits of musing and memory drifting off into the ether before his mind succumbed to soft, dark relief.

Distantly, almost oblivious to Kerrigan’s voracious feeding, Tassadar set what remained of his being to one task. He reached out into the flow submerging him, willing it align with his diminishing being. As a minute ripple emanated from him through the trackless reach, an unpleasant smothering intruded upon his last, sheltered thoughts, but he did not attempt to repel it. The intruder became as much a part of him as the endless vital sea and the cooling ember of his own mind.

The exertion robbed the Protoss of the last extremity of his will, and silent numbness descended upon him, an entire lifetime of weariness. There was little left to resist the pull of sleep. A few words and cherished memories were all that he had kept with him. For the second time in his life, High Templar Tassadar settled into a deep, untroubled dream.

The Queen of the Zerg continued to devour the other’s pith, utterly unaware of his fading thoughts. Years of disappointment, boredom, and meticulous planning had made her victory all the sweeter, and when Protoss light and dark gave way to the pure, untainted stream of cosmic essence, she could not contain herself. Energy flowed into her at an awe-inspiring rate; by herself, she had never been able to absorb even half of what now poured in effortlessly, invigorating every corner of her consciousness. Even in the depths of the inter-dimensional realm, she could feel the flow of universes quicken around her. The sensation was intoxicating, and she drank even deeper.

Grand designs formed in her head, products of long hours of brooding as she waited for her machinations to work their way through the Alpha Quadrant. Immediately, she dismissed them; they were small, fancies of a mind still restrained by the confines of her own limited reality. The Queen of Blades could do far better. Soon, she would surpass even the creators of the device that made her dreams manifest, and her empire would encompass four universes and beyond. And then? She would be a god.

Perfection.

Suddenly, the self-ordained deity had an urge to test her new powers. She had all the power she would ever need to control the rifts now. Indeed, she was so saturated with new energy that she was beginning to have difficulty thinking clearly. With a certain amount of reluctance, she savored the glorious flow a moment longer, and then let it go.

The stream continued its course into her, funneling through the seething shell of her exposed intellect, which grew in volume and intensity with the influx. Slightly irritated and increasingly uncomfortable, the god tried to release the flow again.

It was only when her second attempt failed that she realized that every trace of the Protoss’ mental energy had dissipated, and in its place, the great cosmic tide had formed a new current, one that flowed directly into her. There was nothing to let go of.

The painful overabundance of energy arcing through her became excruciating, and the god felt fear. She lashed out at the void, ramming the rending tentacles of her will into its widening stream, but they flared and burned at the ferocity of the torrent. The god tried to withdraw them from it, but the psychic emanations had already melted away, replaced by new strands of streaming energy that joined their primary in its inalterable course. New and unimagined torment washed over her as more energy poured through the fresh tributaries.

The god’s perceptions pulsed with obscuring luminance, and the realm around her began to dissolve into a haze of blinding light. Rage, confusion, and fear melted into an incoherent miasma, a thundercloud assailed endlessly by barbs of jagged lightning that settled upon her conscious thoughts, disrupting and drowning them. Self-preservation instinct alone emerged uncompromised, burned free of ambition and Zerg biological engineering.

She thrashed desperately, clawing at the eddies and currents of the plane, conscious of nothing other than a desire to escape the pain that was overwhelming her. The exertion only brought a sensation of bloated, tired numbness, and her aimless throes redoubled.

No longer really aware of her psychic presence in the void, the god thought she could feel her corporeal form wrapping itself back around her. For a moment, the presence of skin, bones, and blood was comforting; this was something she could control, something she could fight back in. It was still hers, and nothing could defeat such a perfect form.

But even as she tried to settle into the body and move her limbs against the suffocating blackness, her extremities lost feeling. She looked at a hand, only to see it scored with blazing rifts that belched helixes of black and blue-white light. The fissures spider-webbed down her arm, and she felt her legs and torso dissolving with the same piercing luminance. She opened her mouth to scream, but her lower jaw had fallen slack and useless, cracked with an inner light that was not her own.

As her eyes went dead, splintered by the sundering light, a single thought blazed in her mind, and her form ignited like a sunrise. The last mental wall breached, a wave of energy burst from what was left of Kerrigan, turning aside lesser flows as it propelled that final memory across timeless space.

Eternity awaits.

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

Jacen’s eyes flashed open and his mouth gaped wide, its edges flecked with froth. A long, strangled scream issued from him, lingering in the chamber’s high corners before echoing out into the dusky sky. He could do nothing to silence the wail; every fraction of his willpower was focused inward, and it was all he could do to keep his sanity under the assault. The Jedi’s frame convulsed violently and his back arched sharply upward. His arms lay limply to either side, pinned to the floor by unseen hands.

The lithe form of Aayla Secura kneeled over the man, straddling his chest as her palms pressed against his skull. Her eyes bored into Jacen’s, piercing them with malice that had brooded and festered for decades before the Twi’lek’s birth. Invisible, corrosive energies poured from her fingertips, products of dark arts that no Jedi had ever dared employ. The gleeful, crooked grin that split her youthful features was borne of an ancient bitterness few living beings could comprehend.

The being beyond Aayla’s darkened eyes was known by a hundred names, on a million worlds. Darth Sidious. Senator. Supreme Chancellor. Master of the Sith. Schemer. Enslaver. Murderer.

Emperor.

Palpatine delved into the young Jedi’s mind, shattering mental barriers and peeling away unwanted memories with a surgeon’s practiced skill and a gourmand’s appetite. He leafed through guarded secrets and peered at unvoiced thoughts with contemptuous ease, relishing the agony that each new incursion unleashed upon his victim.

“I had forgotten how invigorating it is to break a conscious, unwilling mind,” he hissed with breathless exuberance, leaning closer and digging Aayla’s fingers into Jacen’s scalp. “And you, young Solo, are most worthy of the effort. All this, and you still resist me? If you survive, you will make a fine agent of my will. I am in need of replacements.”

Jacen gagged and ground his teeth. His neck bent against the Twi’lek’s grip, but she held his head fast.

“I’ll… I’ll never join you!”

The wicked grin on Aayla’s faced widened. “Still so naive. Look at this face. Look at your pretty, alien friend. She resisted me, too. When I was forced from my old body and found her mind, she was as defiant as you are now. Empty Jedi platitudes diluted her thoughts and pointless restraint bound her power, but I dug past them. I found a seed in her, a fragment of doubt, one that dwells within all those who possess power but not the will to wield it. She had seen the pure, uninhibited truth of the Dark Side, and felt its might. It was a simple matter to nurture that seed; it thrives upon emotion, and your friend was a sea of anger and desire, barely muzzled by her masters. Yes, in the end she tried to fight me, but blind serenity and restraint cannot withstand the truth of nature.”

“The Light that you worship is nothing, Jedi. A pale illusion conjured up by those too cowardly to harness the full power within them. There is only the Dark Side, and it is the Force. I am the Sith, Solo, and the Force serves me. Secura could not deny my power, and neither will you.”

Fresh torment lashed at Jacen as Palpatine tore deeper into his mind. The Jedi knew what the intruder desired, and it was all he could do to keep it from him. When their minds had touched, the Sith glimpsed recent memories, and that meant that he had seen Kerrigan and her rifts. Jacen knew that Palpatine and the Zerg Queen shared more than a fondness for deception; both nursed an insatiable need to dominate. If the fallen Emperor found one of the ancient’s gateways, darkness would descend as surely as if Tassadar failed in his crusade.

And so Jacen resisted. He had been trained to oppose mental incursions, but this attacker was unlike any his masters could have anticipated. Palpatine’s will towered over his own, and as the Sith Lord’s assault continued, he knew that no secret could be sheltered for long. Each barrier he erected withered away under Palpatine’s gaze, and each failed effort racked his mind, boiling away memories and miring thought. Sanity itself was beginning to give way before the dark mind, and Jacen knew that once that was gone, nothing stood between Palpatine and his prize.

You can’t win this way. Withdrawing and defending won’t keep him out. The voice was his, eager and reassured. But there is another way. Fight back.

Palpatine was too strong. Jacen wasn’t prepared to face the destroyer of the Jedi Order alone. Even Master Skywalker was barely able to withstand the dark being’s might.

But Luke did survive. He did not best Darth Vader by retreating and hiding. He did not endure Palpatine by retreating inside of himself. He lashed out, and his anger gave him power.

But Luke refused to give into the Dark Side.

And his refusal almost killed him. You are alone, Jacen. No one is here to save you.

Jacen summoned the few comforting thoughts he could, flickering candles against the pounding thunder of the Sith’s advance. The faces of his family, proud defenders of the Light all. The Jedi Praxeum, where he had learned to control the power within and use it to protect others. The Code, clear and calming. Laura, determined and beautiful.

Each was part of him, and he would not betray everyone and everything that mattered to him. There were worse things than death.

But you will not be the only one to die. Once Palpatine has broken you, just as he destroyed Aayla, he will know of the rifts. Even if Kerrigan does not spread her ruin across space and time, he will. Do you think Mom and Dad will be safe, then? Will Laura?

The serene images shattered. Jacen was alone, trapped by the impending storm.

What good is the Light if it cannot save what you love?

In a moment of clarity, Jacen saw Aayla’s face, less than a meter from his own. Her lips were still frozen in a vile sneer, and her pupils were void-like slits, wreathed in flame. The man could still remember her as she had once been, could still see her confident smile and feel the kindness in her eyes. He missed the familiar face, longed for so achingly that the pain almost overshadowed the searing of Palpatine’s intrusion.

Their eyes were locked. Jacen realized that he loathed the creature that had robbed Aayla of her body, and now peered out with such arrogance and disdain. He hated Palpatine.

His chest tightened, and he could feel it warming from within. Jacen’s jaw closed, and he felt his lips draw back into a sneer.

The huge double doors at the throne room’s end began to move. Immediately, Palpatine pulled back from Jacen, breaking eye contact and removing Aayla’s hands from the man’s head. The sudden cessation of the mental assault and release of pressure shook the Jedi’s world, and his thoughts scattered. The kindling flame in his chest guttered, and he fell still.

Palpatine rose slowly, eyes fixed on the doors as they parted.

“Lord Vader,” he said through Aayla’s curled lips. “Unannounced, as always.”

Darth Vader pressed into the open chamber without a word. His black facemask was fixed and emotionless, but the rest of his figure was alive with energy. His heavy cape whipped behind him with a force that surpassed that of the chilling wind. His armored chest and broad shoulders heaved noticeably with every step, and each mechanical breath was a hiss. He held a lightsaber in his right hand, its crimson blade harsh against the dimming light.

“How goes the campaign, my lord?” Palpatine asked, outwardly unmoved by the other Sith’s approach. “I trust that nothing untoward has drawn you back to Coruscant? I have endeavored to fulfill your wishes to the best of…”

The gloved fingers of Vader’s left hand wrapped around Aayla’s throat and he yanked her from the floor. She made no attempt to resist as he brought her face centimeters from his own.

“My son is dead,” Vader said, his voice slow and raw.

Aayla’s mouth opened and her neck bulged, but no sound emerged. Rather than relax his grip, Vader tightened it, burying his fingers in blue flesh.

“Who did this?” Even through his suit’s vocalization system, the words trembled with rage. “Who killed Luke?”

A hand rose to claw at Vader’s iron grip, and Aayla gritted her teeth. After a moment’s pause, Vader’s fingers loosened fractionally, barely enough to allow the Twi’lek a strangled breath.

“It… it wasn’t me, my lord.” The voice was weak and subdued, and Aayla looked away as Vader pulled her closer still.

“Then who?” the Sith demanded. “Look at me! Who killed my son?”

When Aayla’s head turned to face Vader in full, her look of muted dismay had been replaced by an evil grin.

“You did. For all your efforts and all your power, you could not save him, and so you left. You left him here. You left him alone. He died because of your failure and your weakness.”

Vader froze.

“Don’t be so distressed, my lord,” Aayla sneered, her voice swallowed by Palpatine’s. “It’s not like this hasn’t happened before.”

Her hands shot forward, pressing against the cyborg’s plated chest. Lightning arced between her outstretched fingers, and Vader’s front vanished in a burst of light. He fell backward, roaring as blue-white spasms coursed over his torso and down his arms. Free of his grasp, Palpatine alighted easily on the throne room floor.

Several meters away, Vader picked himself up off of his back and rose onto his haunches. His dark cloak hung loosely about him, smoking with the energy of Palpatine’s lightning. He stared at the gloating Twi’lek face.

“I destroyed you,” he said, the fury in his voice momentarily dulled by disbelief. “I felt you die.”

Palpatine shook his head slowly.

“I taught you better than that, my apprentice. You know the power of the Dark Side better than anyone, and you know that I have mastered its every facet. I once offered you the power to stop death itself. That power was not a lie. You were simply too weak to wield it.”

Lightning leapt from Palpatine’s fingertips, but this time Vader was not caught off guard. He cast back the folds of his cloak and thrust the blade of his lightsaber out in front of him, catching the crackling teeth of energy as they arced through the air towards him. The jagged, luminous tendrils wrapped around the column of light and surged down it towards Vader’s hands, but he angled the weapon downward and the flow reversed, sending a cascade of searing energy into the solid stone at his feet.

Palpatine interrupted the attack and withdrew his hands. His back straightened, and he flung the slender arms of his new body out to either side. Two pommels flew from his hips, landing and igniting in waiting palms. Vader raised his own blade from the floor and lowered his masked helm.

“No hidden pawns this time,” Palpatine said, mirroring the other’s stooped pose. “No reprieve and no mercy. Just as it is meant to be.”

Both leapt forward in the same moment. Palpatine closed the gap in a heartbeat, leading with a pair of high, parallel slashes. Vader’s blade caught the blows in the same movement, sweeping them aside in a swift, brutal stroke. Palpatine’s attack had left his flank completely exposed and Vader powered through towards it, angling his lightsaber under the Twi’lek body’s outstretched right arm. Even as the towering cyborg brought his weapon against the other’s ribcage, he bent his legs and rolled under the blow. In the same movement, Palpatine swung himself forward under Vader’s extended arms and brought his blades against the man’s thigh.

The lightsabers barely scorched the black padding of his leg before the limb surged away from them. Vader smashed his knee into Palpatine’s chest and the smaller figure fell backwards. He moved to follow up on the blow, but his adversary had already recovered, somersaulting back from her compromised position and landing on her feet several meters away, completely unfazed by the punishing impact.

“How marvelous it is to be young!” Palpatine shouted, twirling both of his weapons in full circles.

Vader was already in motion, covering the distance between them with a long stride and aiming a diagonal cut at Palpatine’s unprotected neck. Palpatine dodged the blow easily and pressed his own attack, chopping at Vader’s right shoulder with one blade and following immediately with the next. The first gouged the surface of the reinforced composite covering Vader’s upper torso, but he recovered in time to repel the next, locking the green and blue beams with his own and regaining his footing.

He bore down on the crossed blades, pushing them back towards their master. For an instant, the Sith were eye to eye once again, their respective masks lit by the lightsabers’ eerie glow. Then Palpatine gave way, leaving Vader to compensate for the force of his own assault as he made for his legs once more. Unable to sidestep the incursion, Vader brought the butt of his lightsaber down on Palpatine’s neck, forcing him to divert his course and withdraw.

The dueling figures repeated the cycle of parry and riposte several times, moving back and forth across the wide chamber floor. Each time, Darth Vader pressed a strong, focused attack, throwing his physical might and force of will behind a single, devastating blow. Each time, Palpatine’s slimmer, younger, lighter body would deflect or dodge the strike and lunge into counterattack, using multiple blades to feint and slip through Vader’s defenses. After every exchange, one or the other would give ground, they would share a swift series of probing attacks and parries, and begin again.

With every bout, they moved closer towards the gaping, open edge of the blasted chamber. Vader could see that Palpatine was guiding them there, but he did not care. Rage still coursed through him, and all he could do was press onward. Shadowy faces and distant, instinctual warnings lurked at the edges of his consciousness, but an inferno of anger kept them at bay. The creature before him had to be destroyed. That was all that mattered.

Palpatine’s lips creased with mocking confidence.

When they were little more than a meter from the brink, Vader launched another assault. Aayla blocked the blow, let it slide away from her, and then moved to flank her opponent once more. Rather than attack his legs or torso, however, she used one blade to punch several neat holes in the dense fabric near the edge of his cloak. Leaping back from the chamber’s precipice, she reached out for the material and swept it towards the blasted rim. With uncanny precision, the trailing edge of the cloak found its way to the brink and the holes she had cut aligned with contusions in the melted surface.

Vader jerked after her, only to find himself pinned by the small of his back. He cast a confused, withering look back at his cloak, and Palpatine charge forward again, scoring a gash on Vader’s upper right arm. The man hissed with mounting fury, and hauled against his caught raiment. Woven of the blaster-resistant fibers, the cloak would not yield, and Palpatine moved in for another swift clip.

The Twi’lek face flashed across Vader’s vision, and he saw the gleeful sneer upon it. The other Sith was toying with him.

“Your anger gives you power, Vader,” Palpatine said, withdrawing from the edge again. “But it controls you. It always has. Fury exists to be dominated and bent to one’s will, just as the Force does. I have mastered both. You are their slave. One such as you is fit only to kill and intimidate, never rule. How can you control an empire if you cannot command your own emotions?”

“Perhaps you are correct, my master.” Vader grabbed his cloak with his free hand. “Perhaps I cannot command this empire. Perhaps I am still a slave. But I can kill, and whatever trickery you used to escape me last time will not save you again.”

With a single movement, Vader tore his cloak away. The reinforced fabric shredded against his might, leaving only ragged scraps protruding from his armored back. He cast away the rest, and it fell from the precipice into the descending night.

Palpatine crossed his blades in front of him.

“We shall see.”

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



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: 2008-08-04 03:53pm
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The Arbiter
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Joined: 2005-04-30 12:03am
Posts: 5938
Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Jacen heard the crash and sizzle of crossed lightsabers. He opened his eyes and saw flashes of blue, red, and green played across the dark ceiling far above. For a moment, he was disoriented, distant and shivering in the cold. Then, in a rush, everything came back to him. Aayla. Palpatine. His own brush with the Dark Side. Everything.

He turned his head on the flat, hard stone. Halfway across the chamber, Aayla… Palpatine stood locked in combat, Jacen’s lightsaber clutched in his left hand. Against him was a figure he had seen only in old holo-vids and fevered imaginings. Darth Vader stood as imposing and terrible as he had ever imagined, a tower of rage with a crimson blade in his hands.

Two nightmares warred almost within arm’s reach, and Jacen knew he could not delude himself into thinking it all a dream. His head ached from the Sith’s intrusion, and embers of hate still flickered at the back of his mind, waiting to be fanned again.

Grim realities played across his mind as the two fought, oblivious to their prone spectator. Aayla’s dark fate and Palpatine’s thirst for knowledge of the portals loomed heavily over him, but somehow the moment of hatred and rage that had almost taken hold of him dominated his thoughts. He had experienced the Dark Side before, but never in such a fundamental and visceral way. This time, it had not been borne of some external force or basic survival instinct.

The impulse to embrace the Dark Side had descended from reason. Calm, altruistic logic, cherished in Jedi philosophy, had compelled him to embrace everything he had spent a lifetime resisting. Had Darth Vader not intervened, and Jacen not lashed out in hatred, Palpatine would have broken him and taken his secret. The Light had not been enough.

Now, the two great evils of Jedi parable fought before him for reasons he could only guess at. If one, malice and greed, was victorious, he would undoubtedly return to Jacen and finish his gruesome feast. If the other, temptation and anger, prevailed, he would have to face a new and unknown danger.

Jacen tested his strength, and found he could barely push himself upright. He lacked the energy to run, much less fight. There was one reserve still available to him, but…

No. I will not give in. Not yet.

The lingering flame behind his eyes receded further, but it did not vanish. He still felt his loathing for the creature inside of Aayla, and he did not have the strength or the will to suppress it entirely.

Jacen pushed himself to the closest wall and sank back against it, allowing the spectacle of the duel to wash over him.

Darth Vader was now firmly on the defensive. Each time he attempted to land a critical blow on Palpatine, the Sith used the speed and flexibility of his younger, unencumbered body to evade the attack and retaliate. Palpatine’s hits were minor, some almost cosmetic, but they landed with each clash, and it was plain that the mounting number of gashes across Vader’s body were beginning to take their toll. Already slower than his opponent, Vader’s movements were becoming more sluggish still, and it was all he could do to rebuff Palpatine’s more brazen attacks.

Yielding ground with each engagement, Vader eventually found himself pinned against the far wall of the throne room. Taking advantage of the Sith Lord’s loss of mobility, Palpatine hammered at him from both sides, using his lightsabers to threaten Vader’s flanks in a quickening, erratic series of slashes and jabs. At last, one found its way past the cyborg’s defenses, and Palpatine barked a laugh as he drove one blade into Vader’s hip.

Thinking his victim pinned and distracted, Palpatine slashed his other edge at Vader’s neck guard. Rather than try to avoid or deflect the blow, Vader switched his lightsaber to one hand and wrapped the free arm around the one that had delivered Palpatine’s first strike. The forward lurch and added pressure drove the blade deeper into his side, But Vader pressed on, throwing his weight into Palpatine and pushing off from the wall. The decapitating cut gouged the wall uselessly, and Palpatine was swung around and smashed bodily into the vertical surface. He gasped, the smile gone, and felt the bones in his pinned arm creaking under Vader’s brawn.

He flicked the wrist of his trapped limb, raking a lightsaber blade across Vader’s back, but the masked titan did not loosen his grip. Out of the corner of his eye, Palpatine saw a descending flash of red. Unable to avoid it physically, he pushed against the down-crashing arm and blade with the Force, willing it to bend away. Vader immediately recognized the exertion and countered the immaterial blast with one of his own, but the distraction was enough to loosen his hold on Palpatine’s arm. Releasing its weapon, the thin Twi’lek limb slipped free.

As Palpatine ducked from the wall and spun away around Vader, Jacen could see that her escape had not come without a price. The arm, formerly enclosed in a long, black glove, was bear, its covering discarded in Vader’s grasp. Just below the shoulder, smooth, blue skin gave way to a landscape of charred rot. Down to its emaciated, almost skeletal fingers, the arm was blackened with horrific burns that cracked the skin into jagged, irregular scales. Between the fissures livid, whitish growths bubbled and sprawled, spreading tendrils of tumor-like tissue around the elbow and down the forearm.

The Jedi’s heart quickened at the gruesome sight; with the revelation, the darkness he felt radiating from Aayla’s body became all the fouler, as though Palpatine’s last façade had been tossed aside. The loss effected Palpatine as well, and he hissed with rage, throwing himself against Vader before the other could fully disengage from the wall.

The lost lightsaber flew back into Palpatine’s hand and his assault on Vader renewed with ferocious vigor. The masked Sith managed to avoid being pinned once more and maneuvered the fight back into the open chamber, but he did so at the loss of any fresh initiative. Palpatine was a blur of light and motion, flanking, striking, and withdrawing faster than Vader could effectively track him.

With a stifled grunt, Jacen pulled himself onto his feet and slowly rose, using his wall for support. His eyes were fixed on Vader as the man wearily blocked another volley of blows. It was clear that he was losing, and as Jacen watched him yield step after step, it was plain that he wouldn’t last much longer.

In some ways, Darth Vader was as dark and twisted as his master, but Jacen knew that the threat Palpatine posed was far greater. The Emperor was a true agent of the Dark, merciless and insatiable. For all his crimes, Darth Vader had once been something more, and Jacen knew that, deep inside of him, some part of the good that was Anakin Skywalker still clung. Palpatine had no such inhibition.

Unless…

Jacen’s gaze focused on the putrefied arm. He paused a moment, took a deep breath, and pushed off from the wall.

Snarling, Vader lowered his guard, allowing a pair of blows to etch deep gouges in his chest plate. The interface panel on his chest began to spark, but he ignored it. Disregarding Palpatine’s attacks, he freed himself to launch one of his own and did so with reckless abandon, bringing his saber to his side and charging forward, intent upon slamming his full force into Palpatine’s unarmored flesh.

Rather than attempt to spin around the blow, Palpatine leapt back, barely avoiding a vicious, horizontal chop that easily could have bisected him. Exhaling through clenched teeth, the Sith drew Jacen’s green blade back and then whipped it forward, releasing the pommel as he did. The lightsaber became a spinning disk of light and whistled through the air, aimed perfectly for Vader’s black helm. Still charging after Palpatine, Vader swung his saber hard and wide, dashing the projectile from the air and sending it spinning away.

Palpatine had vaulted upward immediately after tossing the blade, propelling himself vertically more than three meters. Distracted by the lightsaber, Vader did not see him move, and found the space in front of him empty. He began to slow, only to feel the weight of two feet slamming down onto his shoulders. Reeling from the sudden impact and his own momentum, Vader could do nothing more than glare upwards as Palpatine, balanced precariously on rounded pauldrons, plunged his remaining blade downward. The blue beam punched through the shoulder plating of his sword arm, barely missing Palpatine’s foot as it plunged deep into machinery and flesh.

Vader roared, staggering as Palpatine pulled his weapon free of smoking armor and jumped from the cyborg’s frame. The towering Sith collapsed onto his knees and clutched at his wounded side. The right side of his torso sagged, its arm flopped uselessly against the floor. Vader’s lightsaber rolled from limp fingers, silenced.

“A pity,” Palpatine said, his voice dripping with disdain. He rounded the heaving form with jaunty ease, seemingly undiminished by their contest. The only hint of frailty was a slight tremor that ran through his despoiled fingers as they lowered the tip of their blade below the chin of Vader’s mask.

The kneeling Sith turned his faceplate upwards to stare into Palpatine’s sneering visage. He was silent, save for the weakened, rhythmic sigh of his breathing.

“I had great hopes for you, Lord Vader. You had limitless potential, once, but you have squandered it at every turn. Failure has dominated your life and consumed everyone you have ever cared for. Your mother, your wife, your son; all dead because you lacked the strength protect them from your enemies and from yourself. And now, at the end, you have only your life left to lose. You have failed to best me, and for that, I shall do what your old master should have done so many years ago.”

The humming tip of Palpatine’s edge probed towards the base of Vader’s neck, but stopped abruptly, less than a centimeter from the black plate. He stiffened and looked up from his defeated foe, eyes wide. Then, in a swift, fluid motion, he spun away from Vader, brining his lightsaber up just in time to intercept another blade. Green and blue beams of energy strained against one another, hissing and crackling in the dusk.

Above the crossed blades, Jacen Solo stared into Palpatine’s eyes, his gaze resolute.

“I am no fool,” the Sith snarled. “This creature surprised me once. Never again.”

“You are overconfident, Emperor,” Jacen replied. “I resisted you. Darth Vader resisted you. If you couldn’t break a failure and an ignorant boy like me, how could you truly break a Jedi knight? I know, deep down, she’s still fighting you.”

Jacen thought he could see Palpatine’s lip tremble slightly, and that was enough to bring a tired smile to his own face.

The reaction was enough to provoke the Sith into action. With terrifying speed, he disengaged from Jacen’s lightsaber and slashed at his chest. The Jedi deflected the blow, but Palpatine struck again and again, battering at the other’s blade until he was able to flick it from his grasp. In an instant, Jacen felt a hand clench around his throat and the shaft of a lightsaber align beneath his chin.

“You do not need your tongue to tell me what I wish to know, Jedi,” Palpatine hissed. “Be silent.”

“You’re afraid!” Jacen gasped through the vice-like grip. “Afraid that I’m right. What’s the matter? Couldn’t get rid of her as easily as you thought?”

Jacen felt the agonizing tendrils of Palpatine’s will encroach on the verges of his conscious mind, but he did not retreat from them. He would not withdraw this time, would not accept defeat.

“I know you can hear me, Aayla! This isn’t his body, and he doesn’t have your mind! Whatever he’s done, tried to show you, made you do, I know you’re still in there! Look at your arm! That’s all he is! A scar! A parasite! A weak, defeated thing, afraid of what you can still do!”

The hand at his throat tightened with unnatural strength, and Jacen began to gag.

The blood-shot coronas around the pupils of Palpatine’s eyes shimmered with rage.

“Your friend is dead, Solo, not even a memory! Soon enough, I will show you the despair that I showed her.”

Jacen’s eyes bulged and the veins on his neck swelled, but he still managed to mouth a few words.

“Just… a… scar.”

The skin at the base of his jaw flared with pain as scattered hairs burst into flame from the intensity of the blade.

Jacen closed his eyes.

Kill me. That’s all I can ask for now.

There was a hissing whoosh from somewhere behind Palpatine. A lightsaber reigniting. Jacen braced himself, expecting the beam at his throat to leap forward. Hazily, he imagined what it would feel like as the column of heat cleaved through his neck, half saw Palpatine spinning back to face Vader once more as his head tumbled to the floor.

The blow did not come. Searing heat still racked his nerves, but it did not resolve into the overwhelming pulse of the lightsaber itself. Disoriented, Jacen opened his eyes a crack. Through the dull glare of the blue edge, he could see Aayla’s face, still only centimeters from his own. The Twi’lek face was a mask of bewilderment far greater than his own, fixed squarely on the hand that still held the weapon in place.

A hand which refused to move from Jacen’s throat.

There was a brief, bubbling hiss and a muffled thump. The eyes widened, fixed Jacen with an unknowable, strangely vacant stare, and then rolled into white orbs. Aayla’s body fell back, crushing hand and lightsaber falling way with it.

Jacen watched her hit the floor and crumple like a discarded doll. The Twi’lek’s back was marred by a long, deep gash that stretched from hip to shoulder. The man stared at the smoking, blackened mark for a long moment, mute, utterly lost in the moment.

After what could have been seconds or an age, Jacen felt his legs begin to give way and had to focus, catching himself before he joined Aayla on the cold floor. Beyond the limp form, he could see Darth Vader, stooped and sagging towards his injured side. The Sith’s red-bladed weapon hung loosely from his left hand, its tip gouging the polished stone.

Vader was not staring at the fallen figure. The darkened lenses of his mask displayed muddy reflections of Jacen’s pallid features, and the Jedi could feel that the man behind them was utterly fixated upon him. He could feel new tendrils of consciousness, touched with the same aura of darkness that Palpatine’s had possessed, but… something more, as well. Curiosity. Trepidation. And suddenly… hope.

Without a second thought, Jacen opened his mind fully to Vader. Memories poured forth, everything that the Jedi could bring to mind and fragments even he could barely recall.

Reminiscences flashed before his eyes. He lay wrapped in his mother’s arms, cooing softly as her calming voice lulled him into sleep. He scampered about the floor of the Millennium Falcon with his brother and sister as their father chuckled over them with the tall, kind-hearted Chewbacca. He stared in wonderment at his first lightsaber as it ignited in his grasp, Uncle Luke’s steadying hands on his shoulders.

He could feel Vader watching alongside him, utterly engrossed by each fleeting recollection. Almost tenderly, the man sifted through Jacen’s childhood, lingering over images and sensations as though they were his own, reluctant to let any fade away. When they came to Jacen’s years as a learner at the Jedi Praxeum, discovering the ways of the Force under Luke Skywalker’s close, careful tutelage, a swell of emotion washed over Vader, but he endured, savoring every snippet of memory Jacen could offer him.

As quickly as they had bubbled up, the recollections drifted back into Jacen’s subconscious, and the two were alone in the darkening throne room again. The man across from Jacen stood outwardly unchanged, his battered, dark armor and swept helmet sinister in his weapon’s crimson light. But as the Jedi looked more closely, felt beyond the battle plating and life support mechanisms to the mind beneath, he found something new.

Slowly, Jacen extended an arm towards the other.

“Anakin?”

Aayla’s crumpled form convulsed. The movement, at first a few reflexive finger tremors and waist motions, moved swiftly up her back and arms, until her neck began to twitch. All at once, her back arched and she flipped over, limbs splayed wide. Both men took a sharp step away from her, but before either could make any other move, the Twi’lek’s chin shot into the air and her eyes and mouth opened wide.

There was a shriek, an echoing, ethereal wail that seemed to resonate from the foundation of the palace itself. Icy wind suddenly whipped across Jacen’s face, not from the open Coruscanti sky, but rather the space just in front of him. In a moment, it was a howling gale that meshed with the otherworldly screech and overwhelmed all other sensation. Gritting through the assault, Jacen saw that a hazy light had begun to pour from Aayla. It surged from her mouth and eyes in streams of dense mist that collected a meter above her face, swirling with formless, shadowy patterns. As Jacen watched, the cloud became a thunderhead, charged with violent cracks of lightning.

A wrinkle on the billowing surface of the phenomenon flowed through the churning winds until it faced Jacen, and he could see that it was a face, barely recognizable, but dreadfully familiar. Lightning coursed into its eye sockets, and the visage flared into life. The shapeless maw of its mouth gaped hungrily, and the entity coalesced around the face and surged forward, straight at the Jedi. Jacen’s body seemed to be rooted in place, and he could do nothing but watch as the cloud enveloped him and the savage, crackling light and shadow became his world.

“No!”

The booming voice cut through the roar of the gale, and Jacen suddenly felt himself falling. In a moment, he was flat on his back, free of the entity’s overwhelming presence. The swirling form still hung above him, but there was something else inside of it too, now, a thrashing mass of black. A glint in the corner of his eye caught Jacen’s eye, and he turned his head to find Darth Vader’s lightsaber pommel on the floor several meters away, abandoned by its master.

The wailing of the gale sharpened into a screech that seemed to shake the stones on which Jacen lay. The thunderhead churned and compressed, its surface immersed in a storm of arching lightning. The entity disappeared into the swirling light, and when it cleared, Darth Vader stood alone. The reinforced composite of his armor ran like melted glass and the rest of his suit was bathed in bluish fire that constantly guttered and reignited, burning away fabrics design to withstand the harshest extremes of nature.

And yet, the man beneath stood straighter and prouder than Jacen had ever seen before. His right arm still hung limply at his side, but he seemed untroubled by it, his posture wide and steadfast even as his vital coverings melted into the whipping air. As Jacen raised himself onto his arms, the man turned to face him. The sharp, intimidating contours of his mask had dissolved away, leaving a soft, muddy mass and wide eyes that glowed with residual light.

“Tell Leia that I’m sorry,” he said in a voice that bore no hint of artificiality or anger. “Tell your mother that I’m proud of her. And when you see Luke again, let him know that… that I love him. Let him know that I always will.”

With that, he turned away, stared out at the boundless night sky, and began to run. In a few long strides he was at the brink, and he plunged over it without hesitation. The man plummeted swiftly past darkened windows and vast supports, shedding corroded coverings and trailing a wreath of barbed electricity that still lashed at his body.

As he felt his flesh begin to dissolve into the rushing night air, the man sensed the other mind near his own, and knew it perceived everything he did. But as the world melted away into crisp, white light and the other felt fear, he found only a settling calm. Dark memories faded with sight, and for the first time in far, far too long, Anakin was at peace.

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

Deep within the Forerunner device’s computer system, Cortana registered another fluctuation in the structure of the rift network. This one was much like the first she had perceived, just after accessing the machine’s navigation and targeting processor. Smaller and somewhat muted, it nonetheless sent a ripple across the plot of three-dimensional space that represented the functional aspect of the portal device. The AI could only guess at the cause of the distortions, but their effects were all too apparent. They swept over the minute lines and horizons that connected the four major convergences of activity on her plot, bending them out of shape and causing their anchor points to drift.

Her frustration and agitation mounted as she tried to keep track of several strands she had focused on as possible egress lines from her own anchor point. The technology she was trying to comprehend and manipulate was quite unlike anything she’d been programmed to encounter, and her brief experiences with Forerunner virtual systems and half-blind rift travel were the only reasons she wasn’t entirely overwhelmed.

The rapidly-ticking mission clock in the back of her mind wasn’t helping matters.

Desperate to keep a hold on the shifting, immaterial pathways, she focused on the course of one of them as it wound into a major convergence point. Suddenly, she realized that it terminated quite close to the epicenter of the most recent fluctuation.

Things have a way of blowing up around you, Chief, whether you set them off or not. Let’s hope you’re consistent as I know you are.

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

“Jacen?”

Aayla lay against Jacen, her head cradled in his arms.

“Yes, Aayla. I’m here.”

She was silent for a long moment, her breath slow and labored. Only one eye was open, its heavily-lidded orb defined by a clouded iris of hazel.

“It’s gone.”

“Palpatine is gone. For good. You beat him, Aayla.”

She coughed weakly.

“I did nothing. I fell. I failed.”

Jacen shook his head and placed a hand on one of her limp lekku. It was as cold as the night air.

“If that was true, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now. You fought him. You resisted the dark, and now Palpatine is gone.”

“No. No, I didn’t resist the dark. I tried to use it. I wanted revenge, Jacen. I wanted it so badly. I needed to destroy him, and I didn’t care how I did it. And it worked. At least, I thought…”

She paused.

“I failed the Order.”

“That’s not true…”

“Yes, Jacen, it is. You might not understand now, but I hope that you do someday.” She paused again, waiting until Jacen looked her squarely in her open eye. “To be a Jedi is never to succumb. Never to compromise what we believe in for personal reasons. What I may have done at the end doesn’t atone for my failure.”

Jacen held her gaze. “You’re still a good person. You did what you thought was right. You did what you had to.”

Aayla’s eye lingered on Jacen for a moment in silence, and then slid shut.

“I can’t feel my legs.”

Jacen tried not to glance at her withered body. Even without much training as a healer, he knew that she was well beyond help.

“I can carry you,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “We should get going soon. I wouldn’t really choose this place to set up camp. With all the trouble, I forgot to bring blankets.”

The Twi’lek didn’t reply.

“How about it? Aayla?”

Jacen looked down at her calm, set features, and knew.

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

R2-D2 hummed and beeped busily as he interfaced with the security routing hub that was imbedded in one wall of the small communications room. Aside from the holographic projector that took up one corner of the space and the large section of grating that the Master Chief had forcibly removed to reveal the hub propped against another wall, there was plenty of room for the astromech to bustle from port to port as he looked for the correct data feed and plumbed tertiary networks for lightly-encrypted backdoors. The Chief and Reginald Barclay stood well out of his way, flanking the chamber’s only door as they waited.

After a few minutes, R2-D2 disengaged from the last access slot and turned to face his new human companions, emitting a triumphant tone.

“What’s it saying?” the Chief asked Barclay.

The engineer stared at the droid curiously.

“I’m not sure, but it does sound happy.”

The tone went flat with tired exasperation, and R2 made for the door. It opened automatically and he rolled out into the hall without incident. Cautiously, the two followed.

“We must be being followed,” Barclay remarked as the trio moved down a long, windowless hallway, identical to virtually every other one they had encountered on the level. “Imperials don’t give up so easily. I mean, we’re still in their facility. They should be able to track our every move, and I don’t see why they’d let us avoid them like this.”

The Chief was somewhat annoyed with Barclay’s nervous chatter, but he had to admit the man made a good point. They hadn’t run into as much as a cleaning droid since Barclay had been freed. They’re progress hadn’t been exactly covert, and the only real effort they’d made to cover their tracks were the astromech droid’s periodic stops next to control terminals. At first, the Chief had suspect that the little machine was simply locking doors and checking floor plans, but the fact that they’d avoided patrols for so long indicated that the droid was more skilled than he gave it credit for.

Indeed, each passing minute that they didn’t come face to face with a squad of stormtroopers made him more and more suspicious of the astromech. It was clearly more than just a piece of service of equipment, and neither man could guess why it had been attached to Darth Vader’s detail. Nevertheless, it was keeping them alive and out of enemy hands, and for the moment, that was all that mattered.

Besides, there was a more pressing concern on the Chief’s mind.

“Sixteen minutes until pickup,” he muttered, checking his mission clock for what seemed like the hundredth time.

“Are we close to where you were dropped?” Barclay asked.

The Chief checked his motion tracker, still mostly useless, and took stock of their recent movements.

“We should be close to the evac point, but we’re still thirty levels too high.”

Barclay frowned.

“Then shouldn’t we be looking for lifts? I know you don’t want to use them, but what other option do we have? The service tubes didn’t work out.”

They had attempted to descend by way of a service conduit they had located, but it was only traversable for a few levels before it split into dozens of smaller channels and pipeways. Plainly, the architects of the facility had been somewhat more security-minded than the designers behind most Starfleet vessels.

Slowly, the Chief nodded.

“We’ll have to use them. Hopefully, your little friend can keep the lifts covered and working all the way down.”

As if responding to the conversation, the R2 unit issued a few high notes and turned down a side passage. After a dozen or so meters, they came to another doorway, and R2-D2 indicated towards it with a spin of his head. With Barclay covering him a safe distance down the hallway with his blaster rifle, the Chief backed next to the door, opened it, and after a ‘clear’ signal from the engineer spun inward, weapon at the ready.

He found himself in a small turbolift chamber. Five doors adorned the bare walls; three leading to awaiting turbolift shafts, his entryway, and another on the opposite side of the room that looked as though it had been sealed shut with a welding torch. Beyond it, muffed shouting put the Chief immediately on edge. He might have withdrawn outright, had it not been for the room’s occupants.

Leaning against the far turbolift, Jacen Solo sat with his lightsaber lit in one hand. Propped next to him, the frail, limp body of a blue-skinned woman lolled, her eyes closed. The Chief immediately recognized Aayla Secura, remembering the desperate flight from the Poloon system, where he’d seen her last.

“Chief,” Jacen said, clearly exhausted. “I’d been hoping you’d find your way here soon. I ran into some trouble on the way, and I’m not sure how long it’ll take them to get through.” He nodded towards the partially-melted door.

Keeping one eye on the door, the Chief moved to Jacen’s side, Barclay and R2 close behind. The Jedi nodded weakly when he saw the astromech, but the droid showed no sign of recognition.

“Does she need medical attention?” the Chief asked kneeling next to Aayla. He knew the answer before Jacen responded.

“She’s one with the Force, now. I just couldn’t leave her here.”

The Chief nodded, turning his attention to the young man. There would be time for questions later.

“What about you?”

“I’m just… tired.”

“Chief,” Barclay said anxiously. Jacen’s sudden appearance had been enough to mollify his nerves briefly, but a low banging had begun beyond the sealed door. The R2 unit added his own warning tone.

“Can you walk?” the Chief asked Jacen.

He nodded, quite unconvincingly.

“Barclay, help the Jedi into this lift.”

The ride was cramped but uneventful. R2-D2 took a few moments to negotiate with the lift computer, but it quickly dropped them the number of levels the Chief indicated, and they exited into yet another empty hallway. Nonetheless, the Spartan felt particularly compromised, burdened now by Aayla’s body, even though he hadn’t objected to Jacen’s request to bring it along. The Jedi moved quickly enough with Barclay’s support, and within a few minutes, they were back on ground the Chief recognized.

Their luck didn’t hold.

After passing through several abandoned security checkpoints, the Chief walked headfirst into a pair of Imperial personnel. Fortunately, the technician and black-uniformed army officer had their backs turned to the doorway, occupied with a security display, and the Chief had time to shift Aayla to one shoulder and level both before they could do more than draw their blaster pistols. Nevertheless, one managed to key an alert button on his comlink before he fell, and although no audible alarm sounded, the Chief knew their time was up.

The rest of the way to the long, windowed hallway was a running gunfight. Evidently, the facility’s guard had been deployed in full force to try and locate the intruders, and the R2 unit’s diversions had done little more than slow their search. They ran into two more pockets of soldiers before rounding the corner into the dead-end hallway, and could hear more echoing down the corridors after them.

“I don’t see anything,” Barclay said as they came to the end of the passageway, now brightly-lit against the night sky. He eased Jacen, who now barely seemed to be conscious, against a wall. The Chief did the same, laying the Twi’lek out near where the rippling distortion had appeared before.

“It hasn’t been reactivated,” he replied. The clock was at two hours, fifty-eight minutes. They were early.

Shouting emanated from down the adjoining hallway, and the sound of multiple, rapid footfalls soon joined it. The Chief checked the ammo in his blaster and indicated that Barclay do the same. Unimpressed by the remaining load-out, he glanced down at Jacen’s lightsaber and considered briefly, but decided against it. If the guns weren’t enough to buy them time, he wasn’t about to go down waving an energy sword like a lunatic. That only worked if one could see the blaster bolts coming, and even he wasn’t that fast.

“Grab Solo!” the Chief ordered. “Get as close to the wall as you can!”

Barclay hurried to comply, fumbling with his blaster as he pulled the other man against the flat surface.

Two hours, fifty-nine minutes, ten seconds.

The Chief kneeled a few meters in front of Barclay, placing himself directly in any attacker’s line of fire. His shields wouldn’t take many blaster bolts, but if worse came to worse, it could buy the others a few more seconds. Just as he lined his rifle up, the first white-armored head appeared, right in the iron sight.

He smiled. Sometimes, it was the little things.

After the first three troopers dropped without firing a shot, their pursuers smartened up somewhat and slowed their advance. Readjusting his sight, the Chief could tell that they were massing just out of view. At least three officers, judging by the voices, and probably five times that number in grunts. Fleetingly, the Chief wished he’d saved one of the jury-rigged phaser grenades from the assault on Kerrigan’s citadel.

“Brace yourself!” he called backed to Barclay. “They’re about to make a push!”

By way of response, a blaster bolt tore down the hallway from behind him and nearly took the shoulder off of a trooper who’d edged too close.

That’s the spirit.

Two hours, fifty-nine minutes, fifty-eight seconds. Time.

Three stormtroopers appeared at the end of the hallway, E-11s blazing. The Chief responded in kind and knocked down one before the others could even draw a bead on him. He felt three shots sheer over his head, and gasped as another punched him in the gut. His energy shield exploded with luminescence, and the indicators on his HUD burned bright red. The barrier wouldn’t withstand another direct hit.

The surviving soldiers had already disappeared from view, however. The Chief was momentarily confused, until he saw the squat, cylindrical device rolling down the hallway towards him.

Ah.

“Cover!” he yelled over his shoulder, swiftly backpedaling.

There was no response.

For a terrible moment, the Chief expected to find Barclay with a gaping hole in his chest, but when he reached the end of the hallway, there was no one there at all, save Aayla’s body. It only took the Chief a moment to realize that the once-solid wall was rippling like pond water on a windy day.

The Spartan didn’t pause. In an instant, the Twi’lek was in his arms, and in the next, Coruscant, the ambling grenade, and throng of shortly bewildered soldiers were memories.

The last thing that the Chief registered before he slipped into the rift was the mission clock, displaying 3:00:11:70.

Funny. Very funny.



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: 2008-08-14 02:58pm
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Location: Beyond the Outer Rim
Epilogue


Jean-Luc Picard cradled the small, glass teacup in his hands, enjoying the warmth of the brown, steaming liquid inside. He held it beneath his nose and inhaled deeply, allowing the rich, faintly citrusy aroma to wash over him. When the rising tendrils of vapor had thinned, he raised the cup to his lips and sipped the infusion delicately.

Bitter.

Frowning, Picard lowered the cup and placed it on the long, uncluttered desk before him. He looked at it for a few moments, and then sighed. For some reason, the ship’s replicators didn’t seem to be capable of producing a good cup of Earl Grey. He pivoted his chair away from the cup and removed a datapad from the desk. The captain reminded himself to have a technician come in to look at his ready room’s replicator as soon as one was available. Non-essential food processors were quite low on the Enterprise-E’s maintenance schedule of late.

Picard activated the tablet and began to scan through its contents. He had read it all before, multiple times: damage reports from his engineering crews, after-battle statistics for the entire Allied fleet, preliminary surveying of Earth’s surface. The captain thumbed past recent reports from ground teams dispatched to the planet’s surface to begin the task of wresting Earth from the Zerg. Kerrigan and her Celebrates were gone, but her forces still infested every continent, feral and unpredictable. Some early estimates placed their numbers in the billions, and no one was sure if the creatures would simply die off without their masters, or if every last one would eventually have to be hunted down. Either way, the battle to reclaim Earth was far from over.

To say that the push to Kerrigan’s fortress and the corresponding orbital engagement had been costly was a drastic understatement. The commanders of the Allied Fleet had known going in that they were fundamentally a diversion for the ground assault and would be both outnumbered and pinned against Earth’s atmosphere, but that didn’t lessen the sting of the losses that they had sustained. Of the five space-borne battle groups of the Fleet, numbering 278 hulls at the beginning of the battle, only 104 had survived until Kerrigan fled Earth and the Zerg defense collapsed, and well over half of those had suffered severe damage. Picard’s group Vulcan and the primarily-Klingon Qo’nos had been hit the hardest, with the latter suffering almost total losses. General K’Nera had barely survived the annihilation of his battle group, and only a dozen functioning Klingon ships were left in the Allied Fleet.

The statistics belied the valor and skill of the Fleet’s commanders and crew, however. Reviewing the disposition of the enemy force and the suicidal ferocity of the Zerg counterattack after the fact, Picard was astonished that at any of them had survived at all. The performance of Lt. Commander Addel’s fighter squadrons and the Millennium Falcon were particularly outstanding; they had scored three confirmed Cerebrate kills and formed the lynchpin of both the initial breakthrough and Battle Group Earth’s deployment, at the cost of six starfighters and pilots. General Solo alone had destroyed more infested vessels than the Enterprise’s entire combat squadron.

Accounts from the African savanna told a similar story. Only a handful of the troop-laden hulls had made it past the Zerg aerial defenses, and most of the soldiers who fought their way to the Kilimanjaro hive were wiped out, but small strike teams under the command of the Master Chief, Major Truul Besteen, and Commander Worf had nonetheless managed to disrupt the enemy perimeter and deliver High Templar Tassadar to his target. Kerrigan had fled, and both she and the Protoss were now missing, but her fortress and the alien transportation device that it housed were in Allied hands.

All told, Earth had cost them more than 30,000 lives. Flipping through column of names and serial numbers, Picard told himself that it had been worth it. He knew that their sacrifice had been necessary, and indeed, vital; without their Queen, dead or in flight, the Zerg were beaten.

And yet, the victory seemed hollow.

Through the small window of his ready room, Picard could see a small portion of the Earth’s gentle curvature rolling by. He saw flecks of green on a plain of dusty brown, and a matte of dark blue beyond. Humanity’s cradle had survived the infestation. It had been scarred and beaten, but it would flourish again, in time. But, as for its children…

A short while later, the room’s door chirped.

“Come in,” Picard said. He had left the datapad at his desk, and was standing at a wall terminal.

The door slid open and Fleet Admiral Nechayev walked in. Her poof of blonde hair bore a few more strands of white and her cheeks a few more wrinkles, but she seemed outwardly much as she had been before the final assault. The real change in her had taken Picard several meetings to recognize, but as he moved to greet her now, it was impossible to miss. The keenness in her tired eyes was dull now, and her air of determination spent.

Nechayev eyed the terminal.

“I’m not interrupting anything, I hope.”

Picard shook his head and stepped to one side, revealing the screen. It displayed a bright, outdoor scene, a cobble-stoned street lined with colorful cafes and low, antiquated buildings. In the background, a silver spire soared into the cloudless sky, glinting in the sun.

“Just reminiscing.” He glanced back at the image. “Paris, just off the Seine. I always used to visit this street during stopovers at Earth. There was a little bakery there, and…” Picard trailed off. “I’m sorry, Admiral. You didn’t come here for this.”

Nechayev lingered on the scene. “I visited Paris once, when I was nineteen. I always wanted to go back, but I never had the time.”

Picard looked at her for a moment, and then nodded slowly.

“There is always something like that, isn’t there? The little things you always expect to come back to, until they’re gone.” He exhaled, took one last look at the airy, cheerful glimpse, and deactivated the display.

“Please.” Picard indicated to a chair, and both officers seated themselves at the desk. “Tea?”

Nechayev passed a critical eye over the full cup. “Yours didn’t suit you?”

The captain grimaced slightly. “Ah, yes. The replicators aren’t quite up to specifications at the moment. Something else, perhaps?”

Nechayev waved a hand. “No, thank you. Frankly, though, I could have used the caffeine an hour ago.”

Picard nodded. “Commander Suran.”

“The Romulans are leaving the system as we speak. I tried to convince the Commander to stay until after the memorial ceremony, but he insisted that the Romulan Senate demanded the immediate return of his task force. I have no doubt of that, but it was plain that he still doesn’t buy our claims of innocence.”

Picard sank back into his chair and steepled his hands in front of his chest. “Suran is an intelligent man. There was never much chance that he would believe that the timely and unwilling arrival of his task force or the phantom Zerg fleet were random occurrences. He suspects, and for all Cortana’s efforts, there’s a good chance that he’ll find something to link the incident back to us.”

The circumstances surrounding the entrance of Suran’s unit of warbirds late in the battle were still top-secret, known only to Picard, Nechayev, Cortana, and a handful of others. The ships had served to disrupt the enemy assault and significantly boost the morale of the Allied forces in their darkest hour, and Picard was certain that they had played a crucial role in staving off the all-out massacre that should have occurred. As far as most everyone knew, Romulan crews included, the Star Empire had intended to aid their humanoid compatriots all along. Suran and his officers were hailed as heroes, and the Commander had decided to keep the truth of the event under wraps. Nevertheless, the task force had sustained significant casualties for its efforts, and Picard knew that Romulans were not prone to let mysteries go unanswered and misusage unavenged.

“We’ll have to hope that Cortana is as good at covering her tracks as she says she is.” Nechayev shook her head. “We can’t risk antagonizing the Romulans right now. As things stand, they’re the only major power in the quadrant with anything approaching an intact military and infrastructural base. If we keep them the champions of this thing, they might just give the rest of us time to get back on track.”

Picard leaned forward, his eyebrows raised. “Back on track, Admiral?”

Nechayev sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, Captain. Kerrigan is gone, one can only hope for good, but she left a mark unlike any we’ve ever had to deal with before. Most of the Federation is like Earth, half-dead and covered in feral Zerg. The Council is all but gone, and Starfleet is what little we have assembled in orbit. The Klingons, the Cardassians… they’re even worse off than we are. How can things go back to the way they were?”

Picard waited quietly for her to continue, but he could see the answer on her face just as clearly as he felt it in his own gut.

“We can’t,” she said at last. “Maybe the machine buried in that mountain down there holds an answer to our problems, or perhaps our Alliance friends do, but as things are now, the Federation is finished. We may have taken back Earth, but what we started there can’t be recovered. When Kerrigan started this war, she killed the Federation just as surely as she killed the seventy billion that followed it.”

Picard nodded stiffly. He had come to that realization before the battle for Earth had even commenced, but to hear someone like Nechayev voice it so definitively truly drove it home.

The admiral allowed the thought to settle for a minute, and then pulled something from a pocket of her uniform. It was a simple, black box, small enough to fit in the palm of her hand as she offered it across the desk to Picard.

“This is why I stopped by,” she said. “Take it.”

With a moment of hesitation, Picard picked the box from the woman’s hand and turned it over in his own. He didn’t need to open it to know what lay inside. A small, golden bar enclosing a line of four pips. The mark of the admiralty.

When Picard made no sign of opening the box or speaking, Nechayev continued.

“The Federation may have been defeated, but Starfleet remains. This Fleet, and all it stands for, still remains. There are billions of people out there right now, Vulcan, Klingon, Cardassian, and human alike, celebrating what we accomplished here. They needed heroes, and now they have them. Every single man and woman who fought in this system is a hero, both for what they did, and what they represent.”

“But more than heroes, they need leaders. There are far too few left, and this struggle is far from over. We need good men, officers who are able to inspire and willing to take chances. You are a good man, Jean-Luc, and a one of the finest soldiers I’ve ever had the privilege of serving with. Duty demands that you take the next step.”

Picard stared at her for a long time, and then looked back at the box. With a nudge of his thumb, he pushed the top up, just enough to see the bit of metal inside.

“I suppose I won’t have to worry about being stuck at a desk if I take this now, will I?”

At last, Nechayev cracked a thin smile.

“You may miss that luxury yet, Admiral. I know I do.”

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

The Master Chief stood at ease in the turbolift, watching soft lights rush by as the capsule propelled him along the Enterprise-E’s length. The space was vacant and quiet, save for the soft hum of the electromagnets that guided the compartment through its shaft. To the Spartan, it seemed like days since he had found such a calm spot. The rest of the vessel was crawling with engineering teams and reassigned crewmen who had lost their own ships during the battle, but not here.

And yet, he was not alone.

“Sometimes, I wonder if you ever take this thing off,” Cortana groused, making little effort to hide the playful tone the Chief knew so well. “I think an occasion like this might benefit from a bit more human interaction on your part. Not everyone can see past the stoic and battle-hardened veneer you like to carry around.”

The Chief looked down at the dull green plating of his MJONIR armor. He had taken the time to clean and polish it, but the suit still bore months-worth of dents and burns from a dozen battles. Its internal components were even worse for wear; if he ever made it back to the UNSC, the Chief wouldn’t envy the technicians assigned to repair it.

“Maybe that’s the way people should see me,” he replied. “This suit is what I am.” He could tell Cortana was about to fire back with something, and hurried to cut her off. “Besides, I lost my luggage somewhere around Reach. If you see a tailor who sells UNSC dress uniforms, let me know.”

He heard the AI laugh, and almost laughed himself. Having her back, close to his thoughts, was an enormous relief, enough to dispel the residual tension of the mission to Earth. He had almost forgotten what it felt like to have the little, faintly cool presence at the back of his mind, and now that it was back, he never wanted to let it go again.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Cortana said. “Anyways, I don’t really mind. I’m not that good at social events. I’d much rather tag along in here and let you do all the talking.”

“Sure. That’ll happen.”

The turbolift came to a stop and the Chief stepped out. Immediately, he was thrust back into a stream of activity, and moved out of the way as a group of ensigns hurried into the empty lift. The corridor beyond was lined with dotted with exposed wall conduits, and as the Chief moved into it, he had to navigate around small knots of engineers as they replaced fried isolinear chips and realigned loose wiring.

“So, why did you decide to come up?” he asked as he walked. “I’ve heard about the progress you’re making with the Forerunner portal, and I thought I’d have to go planetside again to dig you out of it.”

“It was hard to leave.” She was suddenly engaged, energized by the change of subject. “You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve found in its data cores. Kerrigan’s story about the multi-dimensional empire you told me about? I’m beginning to believe it. I’ve found primary subroutines in the targeting array that seem to lead to three other installations like the one under Kilimanjaro. It’s a good bet that there’s one in our reality, and High Templar Tassadar’s, and the Alliance’s. I haven’t translated nearly enough of the functional programming to know for sure yet, but I think that the off-location anomalies in each universe are each tied to their respective facility.”

“Any word on Tassadar?”

Cortana took on a more somber tone. “Not since the last time you asked. I’m still keeping an eye on rift activity as best I can, but I haven’t seen any movement since I pulled you back. The system registered some pretty big distortions, and if he was actually in… whatever the space the rifts exist in is when they happened, my hopes for him haven’t improved. Of course, the same goes for Kerrigan.”

She paused briefly.

“Did you tell the Jedi?”

“I did,” the Chief said. “But I don’t think I had to.”

Cortana was silent for a few moments before continuing, her vigor restored.

“I’m making good progress on codifying the device’s functional characteristics, but something that’s been bothering me about it is the rifts that Kerrigan projected all over place, like the one that caught us. I haven’t been able to figure out how to open any new ones, but I’ve found several of the anomalies that she made, still open – I’m not certain yet, but I think a few of the stable ones might even lead back to Covenant space, or at least our own universe. In any event, I think I’ve uncovered a few drivers related to remote rift creation, but the thing is, I haven’t found anything that should be able modify temporal correlation.”

“Meaning?”

“Time, Chief. You remember when I accidentally dropped the Republica near Reach. The Covenant Armada was still bombarding the planet; somehow, travel through the rifts had brought us back twenty-one days. When we escaped and ended up back in this reality, what should have been well under a month was actually seven years. Jacen Solo also reported displacement; in his world, the Galactic Empire had fallen from dominance decades before. In short, there is an obvious temporal element to the rift device’s functionality.”

“But I can’t find any evidence of it. From what you saw on Coruscant and what little data I’ve been able to gather from the anomalies that are still open and connected to the device, the timeline of each universe is both unitary and constant with every other one. Unless I’m wrong, the current, fourth-dimensional coordinate of each reality, the ones we’ve seen most recently, are the only ones that an individual traveling through an anomaly could reach.”

“So, no more time travel.” The thought suited the Chief just fine.

“Not unless I can figure out how Kerrigan did it. Maybe there’s an element of the device beyond its physical components. We know she was a powerful telepath. Perhaps the rifts respond in a way that I can’t predict to extra-physical stimulus. Solo’s abilities are different, at least as I understand it, but perhaps if he were to come back down to the facility and…”

“Later,” the Chief said firmly, stopping in front of a set of wide doors, set with Starfleet’s arrow-and-streak emblem. Numerous, muffled voices sounded from beyond.

“Of course,” Cortana said quickly, turning her attention back to their surroundings. “So… this is the place, I believe. Shall we?”

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

Jacen Solo sat near the corner of the Enterprise’s banquet hall, wedged onto the sill that framed one of the wide windows lining its outer wall. Positioned with one leg propped on the narrow platform and his arms crossed, he looked out, lost in thought. To his right, Earth’s southern hemisphere hung, full and beautiful for all the dark marks scratched and spattered across its surface. To his left, a mass of bodies stood, each lost in their own thoughts, overcome by reverent silence.

The memorial had drawn people from all over the Allied Fleet, and, as word of the costly victory had already spread far across space, beyond. Jacen had seen Captain Picard, Commander Data, Worf, and much of what remained of the Enterprise-D’s crew, spoken briefly with a few of them. Admiral Nechayev and Captain Gehirn were there, along with several other high-ranking officers of the Fleet. General K’Nera was not among them, still confined to medical quarters for injuries sustained during the assault.

Others were in attendance, as well, dressed in a hodgepodge of crisp dress uniforms and hastily-cleaned combat fatigues. Major Truul and the Master Chief stood across the room from him, both looking distinctly uncomfortable. Closer to the center, Commander Addel was in a place of honor, his face a mask of pride and sadness.

Just within view, behind a rank of rank of Klingons and Cardassians in full battle garb, Jacen could see another contingent, arrived from Bajor only hours before. Captain Ryceed was there, pale-looking and off-balance, but resolute. She was supported by the First Minister of the Bajoran people, one of a handful of chiefs-of-state who had traveled to Earth for the ceremony.

And, standing with them, surrounded by Chewbacca and the newly-reunited C-3PO and R2-D2, were his parents.

Tell Leia that I’m sorry. Tell your mother that I’m proud of her.

Anakin’s words had stayed with him constantly since the flight from Coruscant, and his mother’s appearance instilled them with fresh potency. Even now, in the middle of the packed hall, he wanted to go to her, tell her everything that had happened, tell both his parents who he really was. The urge to establish a connection with them had been there since he had first seen them on the Alliance flagship, but now it was all but irresistible.

And yet, he did resist, if only for a little longer. Their lives were already changed utterly from the pasts of the Han and Leia he knew; Jacen didn’t want to complicate things any further, for his sake as much as theirs.

Still, if Cortana couldn’t figure out a way to get everyone home, truly home…

Patience. One way or the other, the time will come.

The ceremony was somber, quiet, and low-key. Nechayev and few others had already spoken of valor and sacrifice, and now Picard was adding his own words, a solemn remembrance for the fallen. In spite of himself, Jacen slipped back into his thoughts, his eyes fixed distractedly on the slowly rotating orb beyond the window.

He remembered Aayla, valiant and strong, and yet sorrowful in the end.

He remembered Anakin, resplendent in the Light, redeemed again as he had fallen, to protect what he loved.

He remembered Commander Riker and so many others, lost before they could see the triumph their labors had bought.

And he remembered Tassadar. Events on Coruscant had pushed the Templar’s last, desperate request from his mind, but there, in the reflected light of the scarred world, it came back. He had wanted the Jedi to do what fate had not permitted of him. The Protoss needed a savior, if there were any left to be saved, and that burdened had fallen to Jacen.

But was he ready to be a savior, even if he did find some way to reach Tassadar’s people? Now, more than ever, he was unsure. That wrenching moment in the Emperor’s throne room was still with him, the pure, unrelenting logic of the darkness, and the power he had touched in its course. More, he remembered the Templar’s own view of the Dark and the Light, and how they had seemed to coexist in him. What would he find if he sought out more of the mighty species? What experiences and arcane wisdom might color his inner being?

He was afraid. Afraid of the future. Afraid of the past. Afraid of himself.

There was movement close by, and Jacen looked up. Laura had taken a seat next to him, and was watching Picard intently as he continued his commemoration. As Jacen stared at her, brooding thoughts diminished in the glow of her skin against the distant stars, a smile spread across her lips. She turned slightly to face him, and extended a hand.

He took it.




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

Well, that's that. I'd like to thank everyone who helped make The Rift possible. Were it not for the continuous commentary of the readership over the last few years, I doubt that I could have finished it. I especially appreciate the constructive criticism I've received along the way; input on my prose and thematic style has both improved the quality of The Rift and my overall writing skill. Those who have contributed through proofreading and editing deserve particular note; after slogging through nearly four hundred thousand words, many of them misspelled, forgotten, or substituted in bizarre ways, I've developed a new respect for those who edit for a living.

I hope that everyone has enjoyed The Rift, and that I'll be able to provide you all with another diverting bit of writing in the near future. Now, one last indulgence...

May the Force be with you, always.
(I would have preferred to end this by having the screen fade to black as John Williams blares in the background, but, alas, this medium is somewhat limiting technically – there’s always next time)



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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