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 Post subject: Unity IV: Paradise Lost, Redux (Complete) PostPosted: 2006-06-09 06:34pm
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This story begins the Price of Unity trilogy, and follows up on the stories presented in Worlds Without End, Shadows of the Night, and Against All Odds. It would be beneficial to read those stories first.

The revisions to this story are much less than those of the previous three chapters, primarily bringing continuity in line and correcting some of the more eggregious errors, but there is some new material here and there.

Part I


The wormhole. A bridge across both time and space, one that connected two halves of a united Empire that, through its remarkable presence, was located on opposite sides of the known universe in the past and the future. As the tiny ship passed through its true beauty was revealed in twisting forms and flowing colors that seemed to not so much please the eye as caress it seductively. The passage was far too short, and the awakening on the other side equally irritating.

“Vessel 1C-711,” the bored voice of the controller said over the communicator, “this is Wormhole Base. Identify yourself and state your purpose.”

“Elphin Ryool,” he answered, using the name that matched his documents. Forged of course, but not terribly difficult these days as the Empire continued to loosen its restrictions on travel throughout its territory. “I’m bringing exotic animals to the Alpha Quadrant.”

“You have permits for these organisms,” the controller asked.

“Yes,” Elphin said, transmitting them. His instruments showed they were being scanned, but that wasn’t unusual. It certainly would back up his story; exotic animals. Very exotic.

“Vessel 1C-711 you are clear to depart for the Alpha Quadrant.” There was nothing more; a cargo ship was of little interest to the Imperials, especially one this small. Elphin reset the coordinates and activated the hyperdrive with distaste. No one had said his job would be pleasant.

Elphin walked back to one of his storage holds and brought out an animal which, had the Imperials taken a close look at it, would have piqued even their attention. No environmental force or mutation had been responsible for this creature’s development. It was the result of design so advanced it put this vessel on the level of bacteria. He reached behind its ear and the creature's skin glowed to present the transmitted image from his colleagues working on the distant planet of Sernpidal. He listened to the recorded message, which only confirmed what was obvious to him from the picture.

Over the tiny human cities, a moon loomed menacingly large in the bright Sernpidal sky.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The twin suns of Tatooine baked the landscape in the early afternoon as Luke Skywalker stepped out the front of his home. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness, but that didn’t slow him down; he didn’t need them anyway. “Sebastian,” he called, not bothering to look for the boy. He took his seat as the child came running out of the garage, his light brown hair sticky with sweat from his work. He jogged over, Luke noting how long his strides had gotten. Even at fifteen the boy was nearly a man in stature, and Sebastian never turned down an opportunity to remind his parents of this.

“What’ll it be today, father?” Sebastian said, wiping his brow as he sat down. He exuded the cocky confidence of his mother, which pleased or infuriated Luke depending on the situation.

“Terran chess,” Luke said, taking the board from inside his robe and letting it float in the air between them. With a thought he flicked the game on, and holographic pieces appeared in the shape of ancient horsemen and soldiers, ready to do cross swords for control of the tiny battlefield. “You’ve been reading up on strategy, I hope.”

“Oh yes,” Sebastian said with a grin, “yes I have.” Luke had beaten the boy every game for the past three sessions. It was a matter of pride now for the young man to try and best his old man.

“Good,” Luke said, and with that the two closed their eyes and relaxed. Their shadows moved slowly along the ground as time passed, each finding true peace within themselves, and yet within something far greater. “On three,” Luke said quietly. Sebastian nodded, his eyes still closed. “One...”

“Two...” Sebastian said.

“Three.” A white pawn advanced two squares and in response his black counterpart moved in kind. Another white pawn moved while a knight leaped over his own soldiers to secure his position. More pawns advanced on both sides, the soldiers setting up quick supports for each other as they approached their adversaries. After mere seconds, the bishops and rooks began advancing on the battlefield as well, and tiny skirmishes broke out as soldiers battered away at each other. Sebastian, having lost both his bishops, sent out his queen ten seconds into the match; Luke waited another three before doing the same. The tall woman strode forward and swung her scepter like a club through the towering rook, shattering it. A group of pawns led by a knight encircled her, but she slipped away. The knight leaped, lancing an opposing bishop as a consolation prize. In less than a second he was surrounded and done in himself. The game had now lasted seventeen seconds.

Sweat ran down Sebastian’s face as he concentrated, his father’s face completely expressionless. Not that Sebastian saw him, of course; his attention was focused fully on the contest. His pawn slipped through an opening in the defenses and rushed for the back row, a rook sliding into position to defend him. With triumph he stopped, threw off his helmet and grew to the towering height of a queen. She took one great leap across the board, battering aside the staff of the bishop and killing him. Before her next chance to attack the board froze. The black king stood stock still as a pawn’s sword was held to his throat. A step back would put him in range of the rook’s crossbow, to his left the knight’s lance, and his own pawns blocked movement to the right. He dropped his sword and fell to his knees; the entire game had taken twenty-nine seconds.

“What happened?” Luke asked as he opened his eyes.

Sebastian took a few deep breaths. “Too much offense,” he said. “I should have been watching for traps for my king.”

“Not just that,” Luke said. “You saw an opportunity, and you were so intent on seizing it you paid less attention to what I was doing. You can’t fixate on the goal without losing your ability to watch for threats.”

“Yes, father,” Sebastian said dejectedly. Before he could discuss any further 4D-8, their droid, stepped out of the shelter.

“Master Luke,” the robot’s feminine voice said, “there’s a communication for you from Chandrilla.”

“Aunt Leia?” Sebastian asked even as Luke got up.

“We’ll see,” he replied. “Keep practicing.” He followed the droid inside and took a seat before the small holographic communicator they had. He activated the system, and a slight chill passed through him as the wrinkled, weathered visage appeared before him. “Your highness,” Luke said, keeping the emotion from his voice.

“Jedi Skywalker,” the Emperor replied, his voice void of any emotion. “We have something of great importance to discuss.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The pieces on the chessboard moved almost as quickly as they had during the game between Sebastian and his father, but this time it was different. Unlike his father, the computer was predictable, and while it had been programmed with every chess strategy ever conceived, it was still no match for him. “Come on,” Sebastian said aloud even as he continued moving the pieces with his thoughts, “I don’t have all second.” The white king held up his hands as the bishop pointed his staff at him, then dropped to his knees. “Checkmate,” Sebastian said with contempt. This game had taken only half as long as the one against his father. It was infuriating that he seemed such a master against anyone but him, and perhaps that was the point, to keep him humble. But then again, his mother was the universe’s greatest master of knocking him down when he got a bit full of himself.

“Bastian,” a voice called, and the young Jedi turned towards the source of the voice as he deactivated the chess board. Even without the Force he could sense Jorri’s excitement as she practically sprinted up to him. “Guess what just arrived?”

Sebastian himself was too anxious to make a typical smart remark as he took the datapad from her hands. The normally subdued girl was near bursting as he took it, her frame shaking a little as she pushed a lock of dark hair out of her face. “Is it-”

“Just read it!” she almost shouted.

With a deep breath he activated the datapad. “Jorrielle Sunspring,” he read aloud, “this is to inform you that your application for the Imperial Academy has been accepted.” He couldn’t continue because she had latched onto him and begun jumping in excitement.

“I can’t believe it!” she screamed as she bounced. “I’m going to be a pilot! A real pilot!”

“I never doubted you for a second,” Sebastian said as he squeezed her back. “You’re the best bush pilot in either galaxy.” He glanced back at the letter, then loosened his grip a bit. “They want you there by the end of the week,” he said, a bit blown over.

Sebastian’s remark brought Jorri’s celebration to a halt. “I know,” she said finally. “And traveling to Ralltiir from here...”

“You’ll probably have to leave in a couple of days,” Sebastian finished. He passed the datapad back to her. “Sorry,” he finally said. “Didn’t mean to drop a sandstorm on the celebration. Really, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am for you. You’ve got so much potential that’s going to waste out here.”

“I’m not the only one,” she said, sliding the datapad into the back of her belt. “Come on, ‘Bastian,” she prodded for the hundredth time. “You know if anyone on this dustball was meant to be an ace pilot, it’s you.” He said nothing. “With your family’s connections you could walk into the front office and get accepted without a second word.”

He smirked at the thought. Yeah, being the son of rebel hero Luke Skywalker and the woman who had single-handedly destroyed the Borg went a long way, and Aunt Leia being chief advisor for the Emperor certainly didn’t hurt. And when it came to dealing with non-Force users, no one else challenged him like Jorrielle could. The fun they had growing up here, despite living in the armpit of the universe; it was so hard to accept that it was all going to come to an end now. Damn, it was so tempting, to just run away and forget about everything. But facts were facts: no teacher could compare to his mother, no one could show him more about flying than his uncle, and there was no one else in the galaxy equipped to lead him in the ways of the Force than his father. And in the end, joining the Imperial Navy just wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. “I’ll visit whenever I can,” he finally promised.

“Yeah, you’re always in the neighborhood of Ralltiir,” she replied a bit dejectedly.

“Hey,” Sebastian said, trying to perk her up, “with my connections, I can get a shuttle out to Ralltiir any time I like.” He grinned and she smiled back.

“Mr. Skywalker,” Jorri said, and Sebastian turned around to see his father walking towards them. Something heavy weighed on his mind, but he was doing his best to hide it from the boy.

“Morning Jorrielle,” the elder Jedi said, coming to a halt near them. “How’s the harvest going?”

“Way to slow for mom,” Jorri said with a laugh.

“Jorri’s been accepted to the Academy,” Sebastian said, not taking his eyes of her. She grinned with nervous pride.

“Really,” Luke said, “congratulations. You know, when I was your age they didn’t allow many women into the Academy.”

“Yeah, and you had to walk through a sandwhirl to get to school every day,” Jorri said.

Sebastian laughed. “Hey, tell her about the time you were in grammar school and had to kill a Tusken Raider with a tricorder who wanted your lunch money.”

His father laughed graciously at the prods but there was a somberness to him that he couldn’t hide. “Pack some things,” he told Sebastian. “We’re going to Chandrilla for a few days.”

The boy’s smile vanished. “Chandrilla? When are we leaving?”

“As soon as we’re packed,” Luke said, looking about. “Where’s your mother?”

“She took the speeder into town,” Sebastian said, trying to think quickly.

“Mos Eisley?”

“Mos Rosta, at least that’s what she said,” he answered. “Father, I’d like to stay here while you go, if it’s all the same.”

“Sorry, not this trip,” Luke said, clearly distracted. “We’re not short on supplies...”

“She wanted to get some fresh air,” Sebastian answered, knowing what his father meant.

“There’s not much of that in Mos Rosta.”

“No, there isn’t,” Sebastian answered quickly. “Father-“

“No discussion,” Luke said.

“Mr. Skywalker,” Jorri said a bit sheepishly, “I’m leaving for the Academy very soon.”

Luke took a deep breath as he looked at two of them and then back at the garage. “I’m sorry, but I’ve been called before the Emperor.” He stared at Sebastian. “We both have.”

“Wait-wait,” Sebastian said, “the Emperor wants to see me. Emperor Palpatine.”

“Unless there’s been an overthrow I haven’t heard about, yes, Emperor Palpatine.”

“That is so wizard,” Jorri said to Sebastian, all thoughts of her trip gone. He caught her look; he'd seen it once or twice before. It was when she realized that this scruffy boy she'd grown up with, who'd become her best friend, was really part of a circle that no kid on Tatooine could ever imagine being part of, and that through him, sometimes she was brushing the highest authorities in the galaxy.

“Oh, he always calls at the worst times,” Sebastian said dismissively. Of course, he knew why they were going, he’d known for as long as he could remember. But, but now? Was he ready for that?

“As soon as we have some free time,” Luke said, “I’ll bring Sebastian out to the Academy. I promise. For now, I need you packed up and ready to take off within the hour.”

“What about mom?”

“We’ll drop in at Mos Rosta and pick her up,” he answered. “Or bail her out of jail if we have to,” he added with a sigh.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika Hansen Skywalker, former Borg drone, former Starfleet officer, former galactic savior, wanted a drink. Not a drink the way most of the patrons of this cantina thought of it, since she didn’t react particularly well to alcohol. But she was dehydrating like anyone was in the heat of Mos Rosta, and the inhabitants of the cantina were as interesting a sight to her as anything else in this town. Loud, uncouth, belligerent, they were the antithesis of everything Borg and Starfleet, which was what made the place so endearing. Not that it was always pleasant; she had gotten into four bar fights in this cantina alone, but that hadn’t happened in two years.

However much he was her soulmate, Luke couldn’t really understand. It wasn’t the need for violence or excitement --she’d had enough for several lifetimes-- she just needed places like this sometimes to satisfy her wanderlust. “Lemonade,” she said simply as she slid up to the bar.

Most of the beings took little notice of her, and with cause. Not long after moving here there had been a little unpleasantness. Luke had made it clear that, Jedi or no, the consequences would be dire if anyone tried messing with her again, and word had spread. Still, Tatooine drew all kinds passing through. “[I thought you didn’t serve their kind here,]” a Talz said with contempt. Borg tended to attract attention; Annika always attracted attention.

“You can think whatever you like,” Annika replied in the Talz’ own language. Her sub-vocal implant was still a useful device for situation like this. “Well, maybe YOU can’t,” she added, looking him over like a specimen.

The Talz got up. “[We don’t care for the Borg around here,]” he growled, looming over her.

“I didn’t know you were elected group speaker,” she replied. “Nice coat,” she added, indicating the Talz’s fur, “I’ve got several exactly like it in my closet.” She smiled. “Exactly.”

Well, she thought distantly, two years was a long time without any excitement.
--------------------------------------------------------------

She slipped in as all eyes were fixed on the Talz and Seven, unnoticed as she joined her male companion at his table. Like her, he wore a full length tan robe, his hood pulled forward to hide most of his face from view. “How long?” she asked in a low voice.

“She just walked in,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the bartender, just as she was. While the Talz occupied everyone else’s attention, they watched him drop the capsule into the drink. He knew better than to look up at the two of them as he did it.

“I was wondering if she would ever leave that hole of theirs,” the woman muttered. They both stopped talking as the Talz pulled out a hold-out blaster from somewhere. Seven caught the limb as it came around with her left hand, twisting it and driving two fingers into a pressure point. The hand reflexively opened and dropped the blaster. She caught it with her foot, kicked it back up, and snatched it out of the air with her other hand, then jammed it under the Talz’ chin. It had taken just over a second.

The Talz’ breathing was heavy, fear reflected in its compound eyes. Seven just smiled at it, then pressed the barrel a little harder into his chin. “And Flotter the Water,” she said with a slight sing-song voice, “learned that day, there are some games he should not play.” She squeezed and the Talz flinched, then they heard the power pack slide out and hit the floor. She pulled the blaster away and held it out for him. “Now run along, you uncouth lout, or I will have to blow your brains out.”

The Talz waited several seconds, then snatched the blaster and headed for the exit. The bartender didn’t bother asking him to pay, he had been expecting it as much as they had. “It might be safer to kill him,” the man remarked.

“Agreed,” the woman replied. “But pay him first. We don’t want to make enemies among these people. We may need them again.”

“I understand,” he said. They watched as the bartender put the drink in front of Seven while she played absentmindedly with the powerpack. The capsule had dissolved instantly and the powdered substance settled near the bottom. She never thought twice as she sipped at the straw.

“Wait a few minutes,” the woman said to her companion, “then leave through a different exit.” She got up and slipped out. The man watched out of the corner of his eye as she finished off the lemonade and looked about the bar. He keyed data randomly into the datapad in front of him, just to look busy. After a short while he noticed her lull, then he got up. As he stepped through the exit he heard her collapse onto the floor.

“Perfect,” he said to himself. “Absolutely perfect.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Theoretically there was no difference between the streets of Mos Rosta and their home, but as far as Sebastian was concerned, theory could go suck a power socket. The air hung, enveloping them in unending heat and thick with dust. The streets were especially crowded, but the two Jedi somehow walked through them unimpeded, as if people instinctively stepped out of their way as they passed by.

“Excuse me,” Luke said as he approached a pair of stormtroopers, “I’m looking for someone. Borg, female-“

“Blond hair,” the trooper answered, “nice implants?”

“That’s the one,” Sebastian’s father said, not allowing his smile to reflect his contempt. Yes, never heard that joke before... how original! “Did you see where she went?”

“Watering hole up the road,” he pointed, then resumed his conversation.

Sebastian doubled his pace to keep up with his father. “They don’t make stormtroopers like they used to,” he grumbled.

“You’d think they could send a few less backwards ones out here,” Sebastian said in agreement.

“They’re from the Outer Rim,” Luke answered. “Weren’t you paying attention?”

Sebastian looked at his father. “What does that mat-“

“A Jedi must always be alert,” he interrupted. “Every detail, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be important. You especially, given your memory-“

“Okay, you’re right,” Sebastian said, letting a little of his adolescent rebelliousness take over, “I should pay more attention. From-“ He stopped as his father did. He was about to say something when he noticed it too, the “disturbance in the Force” as it was always described, like a change in the blowing of a wind. He probed inside the cantina in front of them, but sensed nothing unusual.

“Wait outside,” his father finally said. Before he could protest the elder had stepped through the front door. Did he really expect him to listen? Sebastian waited a few seconds outside the door, then slowly crept down the stairs after his father. The inside of the cantina was dark compared to the brightness outside, but he could still see what was going on. His mother’s body was sprawled across the floor surrounded by a representation of a dozen different worlds the young Jedi had never seen. They drew back as his father slowly approached. He could sense the elder’s fear as he knelt down by her side, an echo of the fear in Sebastian’s own heart. He couldn’t feel her, but whether it was because of her ability or because she was... he couldn’t allow the thought to continue.

While his father looked at Annika carefully Sebastian could hear the subdued laughter of the aliens and humans throughout the bar. “What happened?” he finally heard his father ask.

“Restraining bolt,” someone in the crowd said, a remark which got roars of laughter.

“I wouldn’t mind locking her in a few restraining bolts myself,” added another anonymous face in the crowd.

“Come on, do some Jedi magic!” came a cry, which prompted a chorus of agreement and chuckles from the group.

“Jedi is all well and good,” a nice voice said, “but I’ll settle for a medpak.”

“Or in this case, a hydrospanner.”

The laughter was suddenly cut off by a piercing noise, a noise that was perhaps the most recognizable in the universe, a noise Sebastian had heard hundreds of times growing up. The group fell silent as their eyes focused on the newly-lit lightsaber blade. The only other sound was his father’s breathing, heavy and even. He still knelt on the floor in front of Sebastian’s mother, still faced away from the crowd, but something about the pose was all the more imposing. “All right,” he said in a voice that was low and shook just a little, “which one of you dead men hurt my wife?”

After a few seconds, those near the exits began slowly moving out. Sebastian’s father started to turn his head towards them and it became a mad dash. Sebastian leaped out of the way before he was trampled by the escaping mob. Within seconds, the three of them were the only ones left in the bar. “I thought I told you to wait outside,” his father said, turning off the lightsaber.

“You weren’t going to hurt them,” Sebastian said. It wasn’t a question. Despite his appearance, there was no hint of malice from his elder, not even when he gave his threat.

“No,” father said, looking his mother over more carefully.

“You could have used the Force,” Sebastian said. “You could have used it to persuade them to leave, rather than frightening them away.”

“The Force is not a blunt instrument,” his father said reprovingly. “And it is not to be used lightly. There is no spice, no glimmerstim more addictive in the universe than power, and love of power is the path to the Dark Side.”
His father rested his hands on his mother’s face as he took a deep breath. Slowly he felt a warmth spread from him into her, until she was part of the ebb and flow of the Force once again. She took a deep breath and opened her eyes. “Luke,” she said hoarsely, running her hand along the side of his face.

His father smiled, but just a little. “What are you doing here, Annika?” he asked, his voice full of weariness.

“Ah, what an interesting philosophical question,” she replied. She coughed, then looked puzzled. “Hmph, must have been something I drank.”

“Can you walk?” his father asked even as he pulled her to her feet. She stumbled about a bit, so he gave her his shoulder for support.

“Sure, if you can stop the floor from moving.”

“You didn’t get into another fight, did you,” he asked as he led her to the door.

“I’m shocked you’d even think such an awful thing.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Vessel 1C-711 docked at Imperial Station AQ-13-15. The pilot once again submitted to scans and bored questions before being sent on his way. He made a small purchase at a local shop to help maintain his cover, then found his way to the only bar on the station.

The bartender didn’t pay him much notice. The Ferengi hadn’t changed in the slightest, despite the fact that he had been working here since the station was known as Deep Space Thirteen. Being a hologram had that effect. “What’ll it be,” Quark asked, sounding nearly as bored as the customs agents.

“Whisky synthehol,” he ordered. The drink was served; he never touched it. “I need to speak to someone,” he said a few seconds later.

“I’m someone,” Quark remarked, polishing a glass for no real reason.

“Someone in particular.”

Quark leaned forward and whispered. “Is this your first time looking for information?”

“No, I just don’t enjoy wasting my time.”

“In any case, I can’t help you,” Quark said. “I don’t meet many people I’m likely to remember.”

“This one you would remember,” he replied. “He’s a Cardassian. Elim Garrak.”

“The terrorist?” Quark said with a laugh. “The only way he’d come on this station is if he swallowed a thermal detonator and wanted to blow it up.”

“I understand. But I have something he’ll find very interesting.”

“Really,” Quark answered, not believing a word. “Well if I see him I’ll be sure to pass that along.”

The man dropped a latinum strip on the bar. “Good. He can contact me on this frequency.” Quark picked it up and eyed it as the man slipped off, an Imperial credit besides the untouched glass.

“Jerk,” he remarked as he put the glass in the disposal, then read the strip again. “What kind of name is Nom Anor anyway?”



Chuck

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Last edited by Sonnenburg on 2006-06-21 06:08pm, edited 6 times in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-09 06:34pm
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Part II


The bright, dominating blue of Tatooine’s sky faded into the endless darkness of space as Sebastian broke atmosphere. Fast, but not so fast as to effect fuel consumption Luke noted. The boy was doing well at learning how far he could push things without pushing them too far, a trait that would serve him well in the future. Luke’s smile faded at the thought; yes, he would need to know his own limits during the trouble to come.

“We’re not in that big a hurry,” Annika remarked as she leaned against the wall of the cockpit. “Ease up a bit.”

“Mom, this is nothing,” Sebastian remarked as he kicked the engine up to full throttle to put a safe distance between them and the planet before the jump.

“Unnecessary risks aren’t ‘nothing,” she replied in the spirit of motherhood everywhere.

“Come on, I’m just breaking orbit and laying in a flight path,” Sebastian said. “Uncle Han let Jaina fly the Falcon during combat.”

“Your comparison is irrelevant,” Annika said as she stepped behind him. “Jaina is older-“ she flicked him on the back of the head for emphasis “-than you.”

“Argument is futile,” Sebastian deadpanned. “Ow!” he added as she repeated the gesture.

“I don’t know where you get this attitude from,” she remarked as Luke covered over his smirk. No, now wasn’t the time to worry over the future, it was a time to enjoy the fleeting peace of the moment. He watched the stars fade to hyperspace then got a drink from the replicator. As he turned back he saw Annika stumble a bit as she reached the door; he also noticed she’d cut herself off from his senses again.

“Let me know if there’s trouble,” Luke said to Sebastian, then followed her. She took a seat at the table and leaned on it wearily. “You feeling alright?”

“Never better,” she replied.

“Ah,” Luke said, setting the cup down. He couldn’t really argue about her cloaking herself; it wasn’t as if he had the right to read her emotions whenever he wished. That still didn’t make it any less suspicious. “You’ve been taking your nutrient suspensions?”

“Yes, daddy,” she replied, as if to answer her earlier question about Sebastian’s attitude.

“That’s good,” Luke said as he grabbed her shoulders from behind and started rubbing, feeling her relax as he did. “’Cause if you didn’t,” he started scratching at her collarbones, “you’ll have to be punished.” Immediately she squealed in protest. “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” he added in a deadly serious tone.

“You know this doesn’t hurt!” she cried, laughing.

“See, I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“Oh, you’re a mean one,” Annika remarked as she managed to worm free then vacate her chair. “You enjoy giving out punishments a little too much.”

“Well, the Dark Side still lingers within me,” he said dryly. “Nothing’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she insisted.

“Okay, if you say so. I know you’d never lie to me, even if you wanted to protect me from the truth. You know how important honesty means to me.”

Seven scowled a little. “God, you’re irritating sometimes.”

“What?”

“I can come to terms with assimilating billions, but my husband can guilt me with a single remark.” She shook her head. “Even without the Force.”

“Hey, you know I’d never do that to you,” he replied, taking her into his arms. “I’m just concerned about you.”

“Look,” she said, “I’ll admit I feel a little funny, but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Funny how? Funny sick?”

“I don’t get sick, you know that.”

“Which is exactly why I’m concerned.”

“Luke,” she said with an exhausted laugh, “I don’t know what it is. Look, I’m not exactly human, and I’m not exactly Borg, which makes my physiology very unique.”

“Maybe we should see the Doctor.”

“You want to detour all the way from Chandrilla to Earth over some lightheadedness?” She squeezed him a little tighter. “And I thought I was being overly-protective of Sebastian.”

“You were being overly-protective,” Luke remarked. “But this doesn’t feel right, Annika.”

She sighed. “Look. I promise if I start feeling worse we’ll go see the Doctor, okay?”

Luke wasn’t too sure about that. “Promise?”

“If not,” she grinned, “you can punish me some more.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Lando dropped the datapad back on the table, trying to stifle a yawn. “I hope that wasn’t your final assessment,” B'Elanna Torres remarked.

Lando rubbed his eyes; he was getting too old for these late nights. “No.” he remarked as he pushed the datapad back towards her, “but this is: it’ll never fly.”

Harry Kim stuttered in disbelief. “What are you talking about? The simulations run perfect. This new fighter will match or outclass anything Sienar tries to produce. Better armor, shields, torpedoes, and all without compromising speed and maneuverability.”

“Yes,” Lando said, trying to decide whether coffee was a mistake or not. “But it’ll cost twice as much to manufacture as the TIE Interceptor.”

“But it’s a superior fighter,” B'Elanna insisted.

“I know it is,” Lando said. “But the Empire is going to look at the bottom line, and that line says ‘Interceptors for half the price.’ If we’re going to have a chance at winning this contract we need to bring the manufacturing costs down, which means that it’s back to the drawing board.”

B'Elanna grunted a Klingon curse. “I can’t believe this. This is so stupid!”

“It’s called free enterprise,” Lando said as he stretched. “I told you all this when I brought you on board.”

“Yeah, well maybe we made a mistake,” Harry said as he got up.

“Wait a minute,” Lando said, “Harry.” Harry started for the door. “Harry, sit your butt down.” As he reached the promenade the engineer drew to a halt, then came back to his chair, but there was no mistaking his anger. “Look, I brought you both on board because you know how to cut corners. You had to make due for five years in the Delta Quadrant, so don’t tell me you can’t find ways to trim this down.”

“Why should we, Lando,” B'Elanna asked. “It’s a great ship. Why can’t we just build it, and to hell with the cost?”

“Because the whole point of this company is to make money, and we won’t do that by ignoring costs.” He pointed at the datapad. “This is not an impossible task. Run some more simulations, see if you can find ways to cut enough off this bird to make it competitive.”

The two former Starfleet officers left without even trying to cover up their frustration. Lando yawned again as Quark came and cleared off the table. “I tooold youuuu...” the Ferengi sang under his breath.

“They’ll come around,” Lando remarked.

“They’re Federation, and worse they’re Starfleet. Commerce is beneath them.”

Lando shrugged. “Then that motivates them all the more on the other front. Which reminds me, what did the check turn up on that Nom Anor?”

“Nothing,” Quark said. “The man just emerged from the aether as far as the universe is concerned. Doesn’t look good to me.”

“Maybe,” Lando said.

“What maybe?” Quark demanded. “He’s obviously ISB; you should’ve seen him.”

“That’s just it. If ISB was gonna plant somebody they wouldn’t do any half measures. He’d have a full bio with tons of info to back up his cover story. All we’ve got on him is a name.”

“Listen to you. Nobody this bad could’ve covered their tracks this well.”

“I think we should let Garak decide.” Quark scoffed as he took the empty glasses back to the bar. “It’s his neck in the noose anyway.”

“Garak has a knack for putting other people’s necks where his own should be.”

“Yeah, well that may be, but if this rebellion has a chance we need Garak and his connections.”

“What’s the point anyway?” Quark asked as he came back to put the chairs up. “Yeah the Empire’s pretty rotten, but it’s good for business. And as businessmen, it’s not our concern.”

“I used to say the same thing,” Lando said, “’til they made it my concern.” He got up and limped towards the door. “Call Garak,” he said. “He’ll want to know.”

Quark sneered. “Humans,” he spat. “No matter what the galaxy, they’re all the same.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Shuttle AA-104 you have entered Chandrilla space,” the crisp voice came over the comm. “State your identity and purpose.”

“Sebastian Skywalker on board Shuttle Radiance,” he responded. “I’m carrying two passengers; we are here on official Imperial business.” He smirked at the comm, wondering what was going through the traffic controller’s mind.

“I have a scheduled arrival for a Luke Skywalker,” came the reply. “Is this your passenger?”

“Yes,” Sebastian answered. It was irritating, but Chandrilla was the capital of the Empire now, and with the unfortunate luck the previous two planets had they weren’t taking any chances.

“Your landing platform has been assigned.” Sebastian did a double take; it was one of the central landing platforms in the city, ones for the most important visiting dignitaries. Usually they were lucky to be able to land on the planet at all rather than one of the docking stations in orbit. He smiled and licked his lips as he brought the ship in; this was going to be fun.

“Radiance,” came the Dock Master’s voice, “you are clear for landing.”

“Roger that.” Sebastian set the shuttle down without the slightest jolt. “I’d like a crew to check out vent four,” he added. “I think it’s got some grit that’s interfering with maneuvering.” He cut the mike as he laughed, watching the maintenance crew scramble to look over the ship.

“Bastian,” his mother said from the doorway, causing him to whirl around. “What are you doing?” Her tone implied she knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t approve.

The young man wouldn’t even allow this to get in the way of his good mood. “We have GOT to do this more often.”

She rolled her eyes and gestured at the door, and the youth jumped up and headed for the exit; his father was already waiting. “There should be a skycar waiting to take us to Leia’s,” Luke remarked. “I don’t know how long we’ll be before the Emperor.”

“Take your time,” Annika said as they left the ship and crossed the docking bay. “I haven’t had a chance to come here in a while, and Leia’s probably stir crazy as well.”

“What’ve you got in mind?” Luke asked as they climbed in and gave the driver directions.

“Oh, drinking, gambling, fighting; you know, girl stuff.”

“The woman who brought down the Borg,” Luke remarked with a note of exhaustion. Sebastian listened to the banter, but he knew it was all just an act. He could feel that despite their flaws, or maybe even because of them, their feelings for each other hadn’t waned the slightest over their marriage. They loved doing anything together, even if it was trading insults.

The car pulled to a halt and the three disembarked as Luke told the driver to wait. The Solo’s had their own private platform; another perk that came with Aunt Leia’s position. Uncle Han was already at the door as they were walking up. He gave Sebastian a warm smile and shook his hand, but he couldn’t miss the animosity towards his father. The two shook hands for appearance sake, then he gave his mother a hug. “I see you skipped out on the transporter this time,” Han remarked to Annika.

“We had a planetary landing site,” Luke remarked. “We’re on business.”

“Yeah, so you said.” There was no mistaking the coldness of his tone. “Jacen, Jaina, they’re here.” The twins arrived, dressed in their formal attire as Sebastian and his father were. Annika got more hugs -a treat she still enjoyed, having never really had family since her assimilation- and the two gave Luke a much warmer welcome than their father had. They knew the reason for the enmity just as Sebastian did, but they didn’t let that get in the way.

“Where’s Anakin?” Annika asked.

“Still moping in his room,” Jaina said. “Just like a kid.” Sebastian tried not to take umbrage at the remark, even though he was only a little older than Anakin.

“I’ll go see if I can cheer him up,” Annika said, stepping past Han into the house. Han followed without another word, and the four returned to the skycar for their trip to the Imperial Palace. Sebastian started feeling anxious, which was amplified by the fact that he knew everyone in the car could feel it.

“Don’t worry,” Jacen said after a little while. “Just because he’s the unquestioned master of two galaxies doesn’t mean you need to be nervous or anything.” Sebastian made an obscene gesture with his lightsaber, then tried to find peace to help him through all this. Before he realized it they were already there. The main tower stretched at least a half mile overhead, its surfaces flowing together in contrast to the sharp angles of the surrounding buildings. Hesitantly he followed the others, not even noticing as they passed through security and were admitted, under guard, to the entryway of the man himself. Dressed in full scarlet splendor, the two royal guards stepped forward almost as one and opened the double doors to the Emperor’s throne room. Summoning up all his courage, Sebastian fell into step with the others and took his place before the center of Imperial power. The three were in a straight line before the Emperor at full attention, his father a bit closer and off to the side; he was there to speak on their behalf.

“Jaina Solo,” the Emperor intoned, “Jacen Solo, and Sebastian Skywalker.” The Emperor seemed to look through them, which probably wasn’t far from the truth. “I understand you have been growing in the ways of the Force.” He continued to examine them from his elevated throne. “You have taught them the history of the Jedi,” the Emperor asked.

“Yes, your highness,” Luke replied. “They know that the Jedi served the galaxy in times past; that they were the servants of justice since time long forgotten. I and Leia Solo stand at your side now as the last of the Jedi. As you commanded, I have trained them in the ways of the Force, to share with them all I know.”

The Emperor eyed each of them. It took all of Sebastian’s willpower not to wilt before that gaze. “How does it go?” he asked.

“Their training is nearing completion,” Luke said.

“Good,” the Emperor replied. “Bring them here.” At Luke’s nod the three of them stepped forward and nodded with respect. “The time is soon approaching when you will be standing at my side as well, to take your rightful place within the Empire.” There was no mistaking the excitement from Jacen and Jaina at the words, and Sebastian couldn’t deny his own anxiety being replaced with pride. He’d earned the right to stand here, earned it faster than either of his cousins had, much faster than Anakin. He was ready to be a Jedi.

So why was it that whenever he looked to his father he felt doubt?

“Present your weapons,” the Emperor ordered. The three pulled out their lightsabers and ignited them - Jaina’s green, Jacen’s violet, and Sebastian’s blue - holding them up for inspection. “Good,” the Emperor said again, the word caring immense approval. “They have only to face the trial.”

“Yes, your highness,” Luke said. At his gesture they extinguished and clipped their lightsabers.

“Then I have a task for them, and you as well.” The Emperor seemed to relax slightly. “There is a disturbance, a cancer in this galaxy that is growing to demand my attention. I want you and your apprentices to investigate and report to me what you have learned.”

“Yes, your highness.” The fact that his father had no idea what was being asked was unimportant; Sebastian knew he had no choice but to accept.

“There is an area of space that consumes all who enter,” the Emperor said. “No ship ever leaves, none communicate. I can only guess as to what awaits you there, but if we are to prepare we must have the facts. Learn what is behind this mysterious problem, Jacen, Jaina, Sebastian... and you will be given the rank of Jedi Knight.” He nodded to one of his aides who quickly stepped over and handed Luke a datapad. “Whatever you need, Jedi Skywalker, is at your disposal.” With a nod he dismissed them, and Luke led the way out. The doors had just closed when Jaina let loose with a cheer, Jacen joining in with her.

“This isn’t over yet,” Luke remarked sternly. “You need to take things seriously.”

“We do, we do,” Jacen replied. “We can’t help that we’re excited about it.”

“Yeah,” Jaina said, “we’re just one trip away from being full-fledged Jedi! How can you fault us for being a little excited?”

“I’m not, I’m warning you to avoid being a little careless so you don’t wind up a lot dead.”

“We’ve got the Force,” Jacen said. “And through it we’ve got control of our fear.”

“There’s a difference between being free of fear and being reckless,” Luke chastised. “I’m warning you because I want to make sure you three get to be Jedi Knights, to reach your goal. But it’s not going to happen if you get killed out there.” He took a deep breath as he continued looking over the datapad. “Wait here,” he said finally, and continued down the hall alone.

“Man, what a retro-fire,” Jacen remarked after Luke had left.

“Tell me about it,” Jaina agreed. “Needs to lighten up a bit, right Bastian?”

“What do you mean?”

Jaina turned and looked at him with amused disbelief. “Come on. Don’t tell me you’re not excited at becoming a Jedi Knight.”

“Of course I’m excited,” Sebastian replied defensively. “I’ve been training for this all my life.”

“Exactly,” Jacen said. “Boy, sometimes your dad is way overprotective.”

Sebastian thought of how his mother reacted to most of the things he did, or tried to do, and compared it to his father’s. “Only when it comes to the Force,” he said.

Jacen scoffed. “You ask me, he’s got his own fear to deal with.”

“I know,” Jaina said. “What kind of teacher refuses to use the Force unless he absolutely must? I mean, I wonder if we could’ve been ready years ago if he hadn’t held us back like this.”

“Hey,” Sebastian said, starting to feel the need to defend his father, “what makes you so damn qualified to assess his skills? You’re not even a Jedi yet.”

“Face it, Bastian,” Jacen said, “your dad should be a Jedi Master by now, but he’s still just a Jedi Knight. It’s because he’s afraid of the Force.” He put his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder, and despite his efforts spoke with condescension. “It’s nothing personal. If we’d gone to the Dark side and back like he did, we’d probably be afraid too.”

“He’s not afraid,” Sebastian growled. Before any more could be said they felt Luke’s return. The four returned to the skycar without another word and soon were dropped off back at Leia and Han’s residence. Neither of them seemed as enthusiastic as the twins over the Emperor’s orders.

“This sounds dangerous,” Leia remarked. “Luke, are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It is dangerous,” Luke said, “but if there’s a threat to the galaxy out there then the Emperor and the Senate need to know about it.”

“I think you missed the point, Luke,” Han said, seething beneath the surface. “Why should we send our children with you into this pit?”

“Daaad!” Jacen started to protest, but a quick glance from his father was all that was needed to quiet the youth.

“I promise I will look after them,” Luke said.

Han got up and walked over towards the doorway, looking out over Chandrilla. “Gee, that just put my mind right at ease.”

“What were you planning on doing?” Leia asked. “The Emperor offered you whatever you needed. Perhaps a star destroyer-“

“Hey, cool!” Jaina said. “Maybe an Inferno!”

“They’ve already lost several dreadnaughts in this area,” Luke said. “From what little we do know, I think something small and fast would be better than something that would attract attention to itself.”

“I’d rather have something big and heavily armed,” Jacen remarked.

“I’d rather be able to escape alive,” Luke said. Jacen gave Sebastian a knowing look. “You did remember that the purpose of our trip is to gather information, not to fight a war.”

“But-“ Jaina began.

“Your uncle is right,” Leia interrupted. “What did you have in mind, Luke? Obviously your shuttle isn’t going to be up to this.”

“I was thinking of a starskimmer,” Luke replied. “It’s fast, fairly well armed-“

“And as maneuverable as an asteroid,” Han remarked from near the door. “You’re going to get blasted to bits if there’s any hostiles out there.”

“What would you suggest?” Luke asked diplomatically.

Han turned, and now even Annika could see the belligerence. “You know exactly what I suggest,” he said. “It’s the reason you came here, right? You want the Falcon.”

“I hadn’t thought-“

“Spare me,” Han sneered. “You know that I’m not letting my kids go out there with you without me and the Falcon along for protection. So whenever you’re ready, let’s get this damn thing over with.”

“You don’t have to do this,” Luke said.

Han scoffed. “Yeah, right,” and turned back towards the door.

“I’m coming with you,” Annika said. Before his father could even protest she continued. “I have more experience investigating anomalies than all of you put together. If this isn’t an attack, you’ll need my expertise.”

“All right,” Luke conceded. “Leia?”

“Tempting,” she replied, “but I actually have a full time job here, and someone needs to stay with Anakin.”

“I’m coming too!” a voice declared from the shadows near the top of the stairs.

“Like hell you are,” Han said. Before another word was said he continued. “Up. Now.”

As the young man stomped back to his room Leia turned back to Luke. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow, in the morning. Get plenty of rest, and you’ll all need to read up on what we do know.” He turned to Jacen and Jaina. “This isn’t an adventure; this is serious work. That’s what being a Jedi is all about.”

“Yes, Uncle Luke,” they both said, but Sebastian could feel their thoughts, and it revolved around one idea: he’s afraid.
--------------------------------------------------------------

From a nearby tower the woman watched the activity at the Solo residence. Her instruments were set at the highest scan she dared. Every word was recorded, every detail stored away for later consideration. Finally, as the decision was reached, she pulled her comm from within her cloak and spoke. “Have the ship prepped,” she instructed. “They’re on the move again.”



Chuck

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Part III


The cave was an ugly, odorous, poorly lit pit that served as a reminder what kind of people he was involving himself with. It wasn’t the worst meeting place he’d had with any of the natives, but it wasn’t far from the top of the list. As he waited he mulled that it might be an ambush, but at this point fighting someone off would’ve been a refreshing diversion from the monotony of the Alpha Quadrant.

A shape appeared at the edge of one of the openings into the main entrance to the cave. “Mr. Anor,” the Cardassian said, his voice filled with a warmth uncharacteristic of his species. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He refused to approach despite the words; as the most wanted man in the galaxy, paranoia was a healthy thing.

“Can I assume you are Elim Garak?” Nom Anor asked. “I would hope that after this much time I wouldn’t be given a mere intermediary.”

“Yes, sorry about that,” Garak said with a good-natured laugh. “But security is always an issue in my line of work.”

“I can imagine,” Nom Anor replied. “And from what my people have observed, you are very good at that line of work. Very, very good.”

“I’ll take that as being complimentary. But I assume that’s not why you’re here.”

“No. We’re looking for an ally, Mr. Garak.” As always, Nom Anor got straight to the point. “We’ve made several already, but we need someone with your connections and... dedication.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean?”

“There’s no need to pretend, Mr. Garak. We both know how far you’re willing to go to restore a free, united Cardassia.”

Garak looked slightly offended. “Sir, I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me. Rumors of terrorist acts performed by my people are Imperial propaganda.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Nom Anor said. “Because we need contact with someone who’s willing to go as far as ‘Imperial propaganda’ claims, and then some. Someone not squeamish when it comes to bloodying the Imperial nose, even if it means crossing the lines of what some call morality.”

“And what exactly do you have in mind?”

“One thing at a time, Mr. Garak. We need to know if you and your people are capable of going as far as is needed for your cause.”

“’We?’” Garak answered. “’Us,’ ‘my people.’ You’ve been rather vague, Mr. Anor. Who are you representing?”

“Certain elements within the other galaxy; those who chaff under the Imperial yoke, much as you do. ‘My people’ includes former Black Sun members, disgruntled ISB, enemies of Talon Karrde; in short, people with their own connections and access to underground technology and information.”

“A rebellion?”

“Nothing so romantic. But we do face superior Imperial forces, much as you do. We want to introduce a little chaos to those forces, to help grind the system down long enough to secure our position. At the same time, you will demonstrate to the jaded public that Cardassian unity is not an issue to be ignored.”

“And what exactly is your plan?”

“It’s too soon to say. We need to know if you are willing to go as far as it takes. Are you committed enough, Mr. Garak, to do anything to achieve your dream? No matter how great the cost?”

“If I was,” Garak replied, still refusing to be pinned down, “what would be my role?”

“The idea is simple: we provide you with the means, you carry it out. Get our equipment past security and into position, and that’s all. You may take full credit if you wish; we’re uninterested in appearances.”

“The target,” Garak prodded. “What is the target?”

Nom Anor weighed his options, then gave in. They needed Garak. “Earth.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“No,” the Vong replied with a grin, “I can’t.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika finished brushing the tangles out of her hair in the Falcon’s tiny fresher, yawning despite herself. Spend a few years groundside and suddenly you forget how to sleep on board a ship, she thought gloomily. She tapped the brush on the edge of the sink. Except that it’s never happened before, she reminded herself. She looked closer in the mirror at her eyes, then opened her mouth to look down her throat. No sign of a cold, but there was no mistaking the feeling of exhaustion; this wasn’t normal.

Luke sat at the game table alone. His mood had been dark, much more so than usual. She knew why too, although Han had done his best to try to be civil. In the end, there was no hiding how you felt from someone like Luke, unless you had the ability to, like Annika. She’d been using it a lot lately to hide this problem from him; he had enough to worry about. But not now, he needed her now. No she didn’t have the Force gift to read him, but after all this time she didn’t need it. It was funny; she’d spent half her life devoid of emotions, and now could interpret the subtlest of clues as if it were written over his head. She sat beside him, kissed him on the cheek and held him close, then closed her eyes and thought about how much she still cared about him, and how important he was to her even after all these years... and she knew that he could sense all those feelings. There are ways of expressing them that go far beyond the mere words “I love you.”

She lost her sense of time until she heard the sound of a door. “Sensors are picking something up,” Jacen said from the cockpit entrance. Luke and Annika followed, entering just as the Falcon dropped out of hyperspace. Light glinted off spinning debris like twinkling starlight, eerie against the backdrop of the real thing.

“Asteroids?” Luke asked.

“No,” Han replied. They could sense his disbelief. “Starship debris field.” Jaina was working in the co-pilot seat while Sebastian sat behind her, analyzing the field on a small viewer.

Annika stepped closer to get a better view. “What’s our distance?”

“1500 kilometers.”

There was a crunching sound as she added pieces to the cybernetic implant over her eye. “It’s our technology. Based on the rate of expansion I’d say this happened within the past week. Jaina, what’s the total mass of the debris field?”

“This is a cargo ship, not a science vessel,” Han pointed out. “We don’t have those kinds of sensors on board.” He jumped as she plunged her assimilation tubules into the wall.

“You do now,” Annika said. Han opened his mouth to protest but she was already speaking. “Based on the distribution it looks like- wait a second.” She stood transfixed. “Sorry, Han, but your ship has a very odd dialect. I’d say we’re looking at several hundred vessels out there.”

Jacen whistled. “Hell of a battle.”

“There was no battle,” Sebastian said. “Not like any I’ve heard about.” He pointed to the screen as the group stared at him. “No burn marks; no heat stress, no evidence of vaporization or disintegration.”

“It only takes one shot to hit the power generator,” Jacen said.

“No, you don’t understand. The ships didn’t explode; they were torn apart.” He shivered. “Something bad happened here.”

“That’s an understatement,” Han grumbled.

“But you can feel it, can’t you?” Jaina said to Sebastian. “The death.”

“This was a slaughter,” Luke finally agreed. “Hundreds of thousands.” He looked over to Annika, who nodded with agreement.

“It was a mass exodus. From the remains it looks like this was a hodgepodge of vessels; nothing planned out beyond immediate necessity. Luke, I’d say given what we’ve seen these people had evacuated some disaster, and someone found and wiped them out.”

“Why?” Sebastian asked.

“If you’re right,” Han said, “whoever did this might have been responsible for driving them off their planet in the first place. They could’ve wanted to finish the job or just keep themselves quiet.”

“But it could’ve been someone else,” Jaina said. “We can’t jump to conclusions.”

“People escape from one disaster only to run smack into an unrelated second one?” Jacen said. “Even dad’s not that unlucky.”

“This entire area’s become a dead zone,” Han said, ignoring the dig. “I think whoever’s responsible for that also drove these people off their planet and killed them.”

“A lot of supposition,” Annika said. “But it fits the facts.” After a few seconds she withdrew her tubules. “I suggest we set course for Sernpidal.”

“Where?” Jaina asked.

“It’s the most populous planet in the area,” Han said. Annika gave him a look of respect; apparently Han did know his way around the galaxy as well as he had claimed. “That’s as good a place to start as any,” he said as he got the coordinates from the navicomputer. “Somebody there might be able to get us some answers about what’s been going on out here.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“I remind this body again,” the senator from Eriadu continued, “that the issue of holographic rights isn’t going to go away, no matter how much some may choose to ignore it. We cannot consider the expansion of freedom without extending that freedom to all, regardless of physical make-up.” The small light activated, indicating the senator’s allotted time was up. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, senator,” the Chancellor said. “If there is nothing more on this issue I believe we can table it for now.” That, Leia noted, was the polite way of telling the senator he’d wasted his breath. She did sympathize; she’d encountered more than one sentient hologram, each deserving the same freedoms as anyone else. At the same time, artificial life in the form of droids had been an accepted part of both the Republic and the Empire since times long forgotten. The issue was not an easy one to resolve, especially when one considered how much further this New Empire needed to go. True it was far less like its namesake than the Republic she’d served, but this was truly an entirely different creature. There was no common history or tradition to unite them any more, but the combination of thousands of independent governments into the one cohesive whole of the Empire. They were united only by their inability to resist the Imperial war machine, and that unity, however much Ben Sisko had sought it, would not come without hard work and time.

“The chair recognizes the senator from Malon,” the Chancellor continued.

The humanoid rose to her feet and cleared her throat, a rather lengthy and nauseating process. “Good representatives of the Empire,” she droned. “The innocent people of the Malon have appointed me to plead on their behalf. The Hirogen continue to plunder our people, and even kill them for sport. We had been promised protection, but where is that protection? We had been promised results, but they are nonexistent. If this continues then my people will be wiped out! I must insist that the Empire provide us with the ships and weapons we need to eliminate this enemy.”

“We have addressed this issue before,” the Chancellor interrupted. “As a matter of policy, the Empire will not give weapons or ships over to the local governments. They remain under the central command of the Empire.”

Pandemonium broke out in response; the Malon weren’t the only ones to suffer from the Hirogen. Leia stood up. “Senator, if I may.” Within moments the chamber was silent. Leia was no senator, not any more, but in this room she was the voice of the Emperor. “Members of the senate, the Emperor took eight divisions off their assigned patrols and relocated them to Malon and several surrounding systems. They have engaged the Hirogen on numerous occasions and responded to distress calls without hesitation. Before the relocation the number of Hirogen attacks on the Malon numbered over 150 in a six-month period. That figured has dwindled to thirteen over the past year.”

“You admit they have not been entirely successful,” the Malon senator said with accusation.

“I’d consider a reduction of over ninety percent as a success,” Leia replied. “It’s regretful that any have to die needlessly to the Hirogen, but we cannot be everywhere.”

“Your regret is of no comfort to the victims of these animals,” came the scornful response. “By disarming us you leave us with no means of stopping these assaults.” Despite Leia’s remarks there was a number of agreements with the sentiment.

After the Senate adjourned Leia met with the Emperor to discuss the issues of the day. Her skin crawled as he chuckled quietly during the playback of the senator’s remarks. “She actually called it a disarming?”

“An inaccurate, but not entirely incorrect assessment,” Leia said. “We’ve refused to allow them the means to produce heavy, more effective weaponry.”

“Because they would use it on us,” the Emperor replied plainly. “Or on their neighbors. The Malon’s entire history revolves around exploitation of one kind or another; now they are exploiting the Hirogen. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if they themselves were responsible for some of the attacks.”

“But if they are legitimate attacks,” Leia said, “it is our concern.”

“Yes,” the Emperor said, “within reason. You know that there comes a point when more ships will produce no noticeable result in those sectors, and that we would face further trouble elsewhere. The Hirogen will eventually give in or run themselves to the edge of extinction; we both know that.”

“Yes, your highness.” The words, spoken hundreds of thousands of times over the years, still never came easy. But her Jedi skills provided her the reassurance she needed to say them, because there was no trace of evil within the man who once was the living embodiment of darkness.

“Has Jedi Skywalker reported anything yet?”

“No,” Leia said, her attention being focused on the one thing she’d been trying not to think about. “Nothing substantive. They continue their regular transmission checks, but nothing to report yet.”

“I’m not sure whether or not to be pleased by that,” the Emperor replied. Leia didn’t say a word, but she knew for certain how she felt. The sum of her entire family, save Anakin, was on that ship, and the less excitement that happened to it, the better.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The planet Sernpidal appeared outside the viewport as the Falcon exited hyperspace. During the approach Sebastian began scanning the planet per his mother's instructions. “I’m picking up an emergency distress signal,” Jacen said from the other chair. “Automated... wait, it’s not coming from here.”

“Where’s it coming from?” Han asked quickly. “A ship?”

“No. It’s from a place called ExGal-4, whatever that is.”

“A research base,” Annika said, not looking up from what she was doing. “Belkadan. They’re searching for extra-galactic life.” The fact that Annika was extra-galactic life provided all the irony that statement needed.

“Somebody’s pet political project,” Han guessed. “Whatever their problem is is going to have to wait. Any word from Sernpidal?”

“Negative,” Jacen replied. “I’m not picking up anything; not even emergency channels.”

“Let’s start with the largest city. Which one would that be?"

“Sernpidal City,” Anakin answered.

“Well, they’re nothing if not creative,” Han replied. The ship turned as Jaina punched up the atlas for the planet to located their destination. Sebastian watched his uncle look between the two for a moment and scowled. “Dammit,” he said as he gave the display a slap. “They said the Falcon had the most up-to-date navigational data there was.”

“What’s wrong?” he heard his father say.

“There’s no city,” Han said testily. “Data’s all fouled up.”

“I don’t think so,” Annika said quietly. “I think the city was there until recently.”

“Yeah, I know, there’s a crater,” Han said as he ran a sensor search for signs of the city. “But that’s not it. There’s no sign of weaponry, and you can’t make a hole like that short of crashing a monster asteroid into the planet.”

“Or a moon.”

“What do you mean, ‘Or a moon?’ The moon’s right over there.”

“Sernpidal has two moons.” Annika stood up and turned to Han. “So where’s the other one?”

The weight of the question hung in the cockpit as Han brought the Falcon into the atmosphere. No one spoke as they settled just outside the lip of the crater.

“Stay close,” Han warned the three apprentices as he walked cautiously down the ramp, his blaster out and ready. “Don’t wander off.” He relaxed a little once everyone was out, but he still didn’t put the blaster away. Sebastian kept close to him as his mother walked about with her tricorder. Normally it wouldn’t have done much good, but her mother had added so many enhancements over the years it was almost like a portable science vessel. He felt his uncle’s anxiety as they walked over to a road where Luke was standing, its edge cracked and torn where it met the lip of the crater.

“Look familiar?” Han remarked, Sebastian noting his father’s own tension at the remark.

“Yarval Outpost,” Luke replied, looking over the edge into the expanse.

Han nodded and looked down as well. “Yup. At least that worked out for the best,” he said dryly.

Luke didn’t reply, instead he called over to Annika. “Is it possible this was a natural event? Some kind of freak astronomical occurrence?”

“Not likely,” she called. “The moon didn’t just come down, it was pulled sideways as well. The odds of that happening by sheer coincidence are infinitesimal. Unfortunately, the alternatives aren’t that great either.”

“I’d imagine not,” Han replied.

Annika closed her tricorder and came over. “We have the means to move a moon as small as this one; just wrap it in a warp field and drag it with a tractor beam. It could even be done with a small fleet. But the problem isn’t the means, it’s the motive.”

“Yup,” Han said. “If they had ships, they could’ve just blasted the city from orbit. And bringing the moon down would’ve taken time, and we know the Sernpidal had ships they could’ve fought with. Why go to these lengths?”

“There’s no rational reason I can think of,” Annika said.

“What about fear?” Sebastian finally asked. “The ability to drop a moon on someone would terrify a lot of people, probably more than an orbital bombardment.”

“But there were no survivors,” his father answered. “Terror weapons work only if the terror is spread. They’ve gone far in covering up their tracks.”

“Any more survivors?” Han asked.

“No,” Luke and Annika said together.

“You’re sure?” Their expressions said all that was needed. “Let’s go,” he declared, storming back to the ship.

“I’d like to get more readings-” Annika began.

“This planet’s dead,” Han said, not even slowing down. “The people at ExGal might still be alive. We’re not wasting time for you to collect soil samples.”

“What’s with him?” Annika asked in a low voice as she reached Luke and Sebastian.

“Planetkillers,” Jaina said. “Father just gets funny around them.” Without another word the five climbed the ramp and the Falcon lifted off for orbit.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Getting past the wormhole security had been much easier than everyone had feared. Sensors had been set up years ago to detect any cloaked vessels that tried to pass between the galaxies without being seen, and the routine scans helped minimize trans-galactic smuggling. However, Garak did have one or two tricks that he kept for special cases, one of which was the oversized cargo vessel equipped with a special Imperial cloak. Rather than hiding the ship, it managed to instead hide the contents so well they could have a few fighter squadrons inside and no one would notice. That had been the key, because transporting organisms was monitored, especially organisms of this size.

The Cardassian first officer completed his check of the hold. From all appearances the creatures had passed through the wormhole without any negative effects, but it wasn’t as if he was an exobiologist. In truth, no exobiologist had seen anything like it before in either the Alpha Quadrant or the Empire. He entered the information into the log and returned to the bridge, wondering to himself how those things were supposed to help bring about a new Cardassia.



Chuck

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Part IV


Jorielle Sunspring stood as straight as she could in her new cadet uniform, trying to concentrate on what was going on without slouching or relaxing. It was going to take some getting used to. The same was probably going through the minds of all the other cadets standing in rows with her. Today was the start of a lot of new things, she thought with a mixture of fear and excitement. The feelings grew as the headmaster, Gen. Delric Taar, came out to meet them. She couldn’t help but feel intimidated; aside of a graying at the temples he looked the same as the man who commanded the Empire’s forces through Borg assaults, and eventually to the expansion of Imperial power beyond its greatest limits. And he still flew against the top cadets every semester, probably just to remind them of that.

Gen. Taar stopped in the center of the first row and looked them over. There wasn’t even a glimmer of warmth in his expression. “This,” he said in a loud, clear voice, “is not a day care. This is not a summer camp. This is not a pleasure dome. This is the Air Wing division of the Imperial Military Academy, and for the next three years you will not mistake it for anything else.” He stopped, then walked down the row slowly, looking over the cadets’ faces. Jorielle tried to remain stone faced as he passed.

“You will learn to fly,” he continued as he walked. “You will be educated in military techniques, tactics, and history. You will learn mechanics and the basic liberal arts. But most of all you will learn a new word: discipline.” He stopped and stared at them. “And make no mistake, you will learn it well.” He walked back to the center of the group. “I see cadets like you come every semester, from all parts of the galaxies. You’re good. A little skill, a talent, a style...” From his mouth the words sounded like insults to Jorielle. “You think it’ll take you far. Let me be clear that it has taken you here, but that is as far as it will take you. From this point on, you’re going to have to learn. You’re going to have to admit, despite what your little egos might tell you, that there is a big difference between a bush pilot and a fighter pilot. The sooner you give up on being the former, the sooner you can work to become the latter.”

The general continued on with more of the same, but despite the speech she was near bursting with pride. She’d escaped a dull life on that miserable planet, and was beginning to take her place in the galaxy. She’d worked hard to get here, and wasn’t afraid to work harder now that she’d arrived.

“How about that welcome,” one of the other cadets remarked later while they stood in line for dinner. “Sure is a friendly guy, isn’t he?”

“Tell me about it,” Shorine, Jorielle’s roommate, remarked. “’Just let me remind you you’re all unfit for pond scum!’”

“He wasn’t that harsh,” Jorielle said.

“I’m surprised he didn’t turn the stormtroopers on us,” the cadet remarked.

“Hmm,” Jorielle said, looking him over.

“What?”

“I’m wondering if you’re afraid you’re not good enough.”

He snorted. “’You can’t be a bush pilot and be a fighter pilot,’” he said in a mock tone. “Two words: Luke Skywalker. Thank you, move along.”

“I think there’s a bit more to it than that,” Jorielle said, trying not to smirk.

“I’m Shorine,” came the inevitable introduction. “This is Jorri.”

He nodded. “Brian.”

“Oh, you’re a Terran.”

“Planet Earth and proud of it,” he replied with a nod and a grin. “Now living in the past, if you get my meaning.”

“Well, Future Brian,” Jorielle said, “if you want to live to see tomorrow, I wouldn’t go crossing Gen. Taar. He doesn’t look like he takes kindly to dissent.”

“He doesn’t look like he takes kindly to anything,” Shorine said.

The three continued discussing the headmaster, the academy, and their experiences in flying throughout dinner. It was nice to make some new friends right away, but sometimes her thoughts drifted to Sebastian. She’d expected to hear something from him by now, to hear all about what Chandrilla was like and what the Emperor had to say. Actually, she just wanted to hear from him. She wished he’d come; it wasn’t right for him to stay on Tatooine. He needed more excitement than that.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Millennium Falcon gently settled into position on the landing platform outside of ExGal-4. No one guided them in, no one responded to any communications. Like everything else in this part of space, it seemed the entire place was devoid of life.

Han told them to stay on board while he and Luke checked out the platform. Jaina was the first to ignore his instructions, followed closely by her brother. Normally Sebastian would’ve expected his mother to win that prize, but she was still waiting, looking over some information on her datapad. An experienced explorer, she’d taken detailed files on this entire area of space, including the base here on Belkadan. But that wasn’t what was slowing her down, he could tell. Something was wrong, something she didn’t want him to know about, which worried and angered him at the same time. As soon as this mission was over he’d be a Jedi; he didn’t want to be treated like a kid any more.

Not bothering to wait, he walked down the ramp onto the platform. The first glance revealed forest on all sides, broken only by the compound and its looming antennae. Unlike Sernpidal, this place didn’t feel dead, but there was something off. He tried to get a grip on it as he heard his mother follow him down the ramp.

“No signs of attack,” Han remarked. “I expected to see the place demolished.”

“It’s quiet,” Luke agreed, looking down at the clearing.

“Especially for a forest,” Jacen observed. He had spent some time studying exobiology, common evolutionary patterns in particular. “One this large should be teaming with organisms.”

Sebastian heard the sound of his mother’s tricorder. “Any signs of survivors?” Han asked as they climbed down the stairs to the forest floor.

“Not yet,” she said. “Wait. There’s something very wrong here,” Annika remarked. “These scans don’t look anything like the way Belkadan was described in the survey report.”

“Maybe they made a mistake,” Jaina said. Sebastian didn’t think so. He’d been to countless alien worlds but this one... there was something about it that didn’t feel right.

“No,” Annika insisted. “Jacen’s right, there’s almost no fauna within range of my tricorder.”

Jacen pointed to the trees nearby. “Then why are there nests? And humus in the soil? If the animals left, or died, it happened fairly recently.”

“Like Sernpidal,” Han remarked.

“There are some animals,” Annika admitted. “But not many. And the atmosphere... that doesn’t match the report either.” She turned to Luke. “Do you sense anything?”

“The place feels odd,” Luke admitted, “but nothing I can put my finger on.”

“Anyone around,” Han asked. “Survivors; anybody.”

“I don’t sense anyone,” Luke said.

“Some anomalous readings, but nothing humanoid,” Annika agreed.

“Okay,” Han said, “let’s start here. Luke and I will check the garage, you four start in the main compound, but be careful.” The two left towards the smaller building while Sebastian joined the rest as they approached the front of the compound. It didn’t look unusual, at least from the outside. On his mother’s instruction he overrode the lock.

The hiss confirmed the building had been sealed. There were a few sporadically lit spots, but for the most part the interior was dark. Aside of that and the accumulation of dust there was no real sign that anything had gone wrong. “Maybe they evacuated before the planet started changing,” Jaina offered.

“Doubtful,” Annika said. She closed her tricorder and took a few steps down an adjacent corridor, then knelt down. Sebastian stepped closer and saw what she was examining. He had no real combat experience but even he knew that only a serious wound would produce that much blood. She ran a finger over the dried remains. “It’s been here for weeks,” she remarked. She pulled out her tricorder again and started following the blood trail, the three Jedi running to catch up. She stopped in front of the disposal chute and pulled out her commlink. “Luke, I’ve got some bad news. It looks like the personnel were murdered.”

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“We’ve found blood,” she said. “Their ship, is it sabotaged?”

“There is no ship,” Han said over the commlink. “According to the log it left over a month ago.”

Annika breathed deeply through her nose, then looked back down the corridor towards the blood. “I doubt they would bother with the log if they were escaping some attacker.”

“Probably not,” Luke agreed. “Any bodies?”

“No, I’ll let you know if we find any.” She put the commlink away, then leaned against the wall. “We’ve got one planet with a moon smashed into it, and another that’s been terraformed. Both with no witnesses left alive.” She continued to mull it over.

“Should we see if there’s any remains down there?” Sebastian offered, pointing to the chute.

“Later,” she said finally. “I want to access the main computer first. Maybe there’ll be some clue as to what’s been going on.”

“I’ll go with you,” Jacen said.

“Sebastian and I will check out the personnel quarters,” Jaina said. “Maybe someone left a journal.”

“Be careful,” Annika warned, as was the duty of every adult. She passed over a datapad with a layout of the facility and left with Jacen. Jaina looked it over for a while before they continued back towards the main corridor.

Sebastian kept his hand on his lightsaber in case of trouble. Yes, his parents had both said that no one was around, but youthful fantasies said otherwise. After the rather boring task of searching the first two rooms his enthusiasm waned. He began feeling uncomfortable; not with the place, but what he was doing. As he went through the personal items of the former residents they became more like people in his mind. Not that they ever weren’t, of course, but it was in an abstract, statistical form. Looking at their things made the fact that they were probably dead that much worse. It was no longer the intellectual belief that murder was bad, but the voice in his heart that said that these people shouldn’t have had to die, especially like this.

He picked up a hairbrush. He could feel the woman who used it. He could sense her hopes and concerns, her drive for discovery tempered with a responsibility towards truth. He focused on it... she liked pecans. She was a bit shy, but she liked talking with people once she got comfortable around them. She was attracted to one of the other members of the expedition, but never had the courage to tell him. She-

Jaina wrapped her hand around the brush and slowly took it from his hand. “Let’s go,” she said quietly. For a moment he felt afraid, finally truly aware of his situation. He was on an alien world, exploring the scene of mass murder in a hostile part of space. But as Jaina started to leave he looked for courage. He was facing the trials, and part of that was overcoming his own fear.

“It’s nice to see dad talking with Uncle Luke more,” Jaina remarked as they continued looking through the next room. “I was afraid they might be at each other’s throats after a while.”

“He’s still pretty angry,” Sebastian remarked. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to take his mind off things, but he welcomed the opportunity. “I get the feeling the only reason he’s been at dad’s side is to keep an eye on him.”

“More than likely,” Jaina agreed. “Kind of funny, isn’t it,” she remarked a few minutes later. “Luke seems to be happy letting dad take charge.”

Sebastian stopped, recognizing the implication. “He’s not afraid,” he said.

“It just seems to me,” Jaina continued as if they were discussing the weather, “that he should be the one giving the orders. It’s his mission.”

“He doesn’t need to be contradictory just to show he’s in charge,” Sebastian said. “If Uncle Han has the right idea, why argue?”

“It’s not just that,” Jaina said. “He’s pretty much let everyone else decide what to do since this mission started. He doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to do this, and he definitely doesn’t want to be in charge.”

“Maybe. But that doesn’t mean he’s not up to it.”

“Maybe,” Jaina admitted. “If push came to shove, maybe he’d be up to task. But he sure seems to lack initiative, just like when it came to our training. Hello,” she said before Sebastian could respond. He turned and saw her holding a specimen jar, peering at the contents. A closer inspection showed it held an insect, obviously dead.

“Where’d you find this,” Sebastian asked.

“Just on this nightstand,” Jaina replied, still peering at the bug. “No others, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Why would they keep that by their bed? Shouldn’t it be in the lab?”

“Good question,” Jaina said. “Let’s go find Jacen and your mom. Between the two of them they might be able to identify it.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika could feel her hands starting to shake, and her stomach was tightening up. It seemed like every moment since the Falcon landed her strength was draining, or that whatever was happening to her was growing stronger. This definitely wasn’t normal, and as reluctant as she was to admit it, she would need to get some medical attention as soon as they left. But first was the mission, her first real scientific mission in a long time, and one she wasn’t going to miss out on. She paused as she almost lost her balance. Jacen drew to a stop and turned to look at her oddly. He couldn’t sense her, but he might be suspicious. “Thought I heard something,” she lied. He nodded, and then they continued to the main computer.

“I’m going to need some time to sift through the data,” Annika said as she approached the scomp link. She extended her left hand, but nothing happened. She tried not to turn, hoping he didn’t notice the obvious lack of assimilation tubules, then made a second attempt. One tubule extended, flailed about, then slid back into her hand. She tried concentrating but it was difficult; whatever was going on was affecting her interface with her cybernetics, which could be dangerous. If she lost control of her nanoprobes they might try assimilating her, but there wasn’t anything she could do about that at the moment. Taking a steadying breath she began tapping on her tricorder. It would be slower, but it could get the job done.

“Jacen,” Jaina called from the doorway several minutes later, “come take a look at this.” While they discussed something Annika continued looking over the records. Still nothing of interest, but the base had had a lot of time to gather information. Finding anything relevant could take a while.

Annika barely noticed the movement out of the corner of her eye, but she instinctively stepped back. Despite the adrenaline dutifully pumping through her veins in response to stress she still felt weak and sluggish, in fact even more so as the creature stepped into the light. Its appearance quickened the breath even of someone with the knowledge of thousands of species of every kind imaginable. Its face was hideously deformed; not simply alien but visibly mutilated into a horrible mask. Its breathing was nasally, but with a predatory edge to it. It wore full body armor, and in one hand held a snake. Its every gesture and sound implied malice, and for the first time in a long while Annika felt real fear. She stepped back as it looked her over, its scarred lips pulling back in a sign of contempt. “Abomination,” it sneered at her.

Look who’s talking. The words formed in her mind, but they never left her mouth. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. Despite everything she had done, all that she’d learned, at this moment she felt as small and weak as that little girl running from the drones. She was too terrified to run, and too terrified to stay. She jumped and cringed as she heard lightsabers igniting, and turned and watched Jacen, Jaina, and Sebastian step forward. Each held their weapon before them, slowly spreading out to surround the intruder.

“Put your weapon down,” Jaina warned.

The creature looked between her and the others as the snake slithered in its grip.

“Now,” Jacen said firmly, continuing to move to the right.

It turned and growled at Sebastian, who stepped slowly to the left, between it and his mother.

“Don’t point that at me,” Sebastian said darkly, holding the blade up in front of him, "you don't know where it's been."

At the sight of her son facing the intruder Annika mustered her courage. She concentrated, trying to form a plasma discharger on the back of her hand. There was a snap, then a crinkle, and finally an implant emerged from under her skin. She focused, but instead of a weapon the implant just broke into pieces, and a clear liquid oozed out of the opening on her hand. She steadied herself against the computer; she was helpless.

She saw the trio attack, but it was difficult to make things out as her vision started to blur. She tried to focus, but the room seemed to be fading. Then, just as it seemed she would fall unconscious, she saw something that so shocked her reality came back into focus for just a moment. Jacen swung at an opening in the intruder’s defenses... and his blade bounced off the armor. She had armor like that, armor that had allowed her to hold her own against Darth Whind long enough to finish the Sith off. It was unique, based on some samples given to her by her future son and stolen from an alien warrior.

But that son was here now; and an alien warrior possessed such armor. Then that meant that the time was now, that the invaders, whatever they were, had finally arrived. As exhaustion overcame her her heart filled with dread; and her last conscious act was to weep for the horror her son was now just beginning to face.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“It looks like the condition is accelerating,” she remarked, looking over the sensor readings. Their ship, now in orbit over Belkadan, used a Milky Way-style cloak that allowed their instruments to function with little interference. It wasn’t perfect, but it had kept the crew of the Millennium Falcon in the dark while they followed them across the galaxy.

One of her aides came over and looked at the readings. “No doubt the atmosphere of the planet is contributing to its spread.” He took a deep breath. “We could move our plans forward -“

“No,” she said forcefully. “I will not risk it, not after this. We won’t have another opportunity to try again.”

“They have to look at this reasonably-“ he continued.

“You don’t know her,” she replied. “Not the way I do. We must stick to the plan, or we will surely fail.”



Chuck

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Part V


Earth. Largest non-gaseous planet in its solar system, possessing one of the highest lunar to planetary mass ratios in the galaxy. Center of Imperial space for a hundred sectors. At the moment, it was being observed by one of the most dangerous men alive.

Dingale, one of Garak’s head of operations, watched as their leader stared at that world through the window. Why, he wasn’t certain, but he doubted it was out of sympathy. Garak had ordered over fifty separate attacks on the planet itself, two on its moon, and over a hundred within the system itself. Garak was here to see this one off; the last one, according to him.

“I want ten men at each site in case stormtroopers are sent in,” Garak said, still looking out the window. “They need stay only long enough to ensure the inevitable.” He didn’t actually say it; Garak never did say specifics unless he had to. His defense really, the same reason he never gave speeches or briefings. He spoke one-on-one, like now, to maintain deniability and distance. The fact that he was here, the most wanted man in the quadrant in orbit around the central Imperial world for this part of space, showed how skilled he was at using those talents.

Garak had nothing against Earth, at least as far as Dingale knew. His attacks were what led to the inevitable division from the former Federation group called Section 31. They certainly wouldn’t approve of this, Dingale thought. But it wasn’t their fault that the Imperials chose Earth to serve as their hub, although it shouldn’t have been a surprise. The moment Darth Whind’s forces pacified the planet it became a center for Imperial operations, and there was just one reason for that: humans. Despite the reforms the Emperor and his puppet senate claimed this pro-human stance continued. And the “innocent” locals? They quickly accepted the transition from Federation to Empire; as long as it didn’t impact their lives directly it wasn’t their concern. No, they weren’t targets for their actions, but because of their complacency.

“Are you sure ten will be enough?” Dingale asked.

“They’ll be dug in to resist infantry,” Garak said. “They just need to stall. If the Imperial’s think they can overrun them they’ll stick with ground forces; otherwise a TIE Bomber or orbiting warship will just destroy them and the creatures.” He left the window and activated the holoprojector, showing a far more detailed image of Earth. “Rather than stationing along the equator, we’re going to stagger the positions. These spots here should be obscure enough to help avoid detection.”

“But are we certain these... things, will work?” Dingale asked.

“I’d say we’ll find out soon enough,” Garak replied.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The alien’s breathing began to grow louder and more foreboding, but Sebastian was in control of his fear. He felt the same confidence and excitement from Jacen and Jaina as they prepared for the inevitable attack. It began as the snake in the alien’s hand hardened into a staff, swinging at Jaina. She moved to slice through it, but somehow the weapons simply locked together like crossed lightsabers. Jacen took a quick swing at its shoulder, but his blade bounced off the armor in a similar matter. There was no time to dwell on it as the creature continued attacking, putting Jaina suddenly on the defensive. Jacen and Sebastian immediately moved in to support her.

Three Jedi –well, near Jedi- against one person should’ve been a short fight, but amazingly the alien was holding his own. Sebastian found himself having to back off or stop pressing his attack to avoid hitting Jacen or Jaina, and they were probably feeling just as frustrated. More than that, the alien wasn’t there, at least as far as his Force sense was telling him. His reflexes were quick enough to make up for this, but without his ability to predict the alien’s attacks he wasn’t going to be able to finish it as quickly as the holograms he’d practiced on.

He detached slightly, trying to see a way through the alien’s defenses. It was amazing really, taking an obvious disadvantage –his being outnumbered- and using it to his advantage by keeping them in each other’s way. If he left the fray Jacen and Jaina could concentrate more on offense, but he knew what that would lead to. They’d accused his father of being afraid when he was just doing what was smart, and he knew they wouldn’t hesitate to do the same to him. He wasn’t afraid, and he was up to beating this alien solo. There was no reason to back down during his first taste of real hand-to-hand combat, even if it was the best tactical decision.

Jacen let out a wet cough as the alien’s staff connected with his ribs, sending him stumbling. Jaina circled around the attacker, probably hoping to catch it off guard, but it was so quick they had an even harder time avoiding each other’s blows. As Sebastian sidestepped one of Jaina’s assaults the alien brought the sharp end of its staff around, tearing a gash across his thigh. He was unprepared for just how much it would hurt, and stumbled backwards to the floor. It tried to spear him through the chest, but he rolled out of the way in time, feeling his shirt tear as it nearly caught him again with its next swipe. It was all about defense now, and in his prone position that wasn’t easy.

There were a series of loud blasts. It took Sebastian a few moments to realize that the attacks had stopped, the reason becoming obvious once the creature slumped to the floor and revealed the blackened shell that was its head. Han stood at the door, his blaster still leveled at the alien in case it wasn’t enough. “You three all right?” he asked, still not taking his eyes off it.

“Sebastian’s hurt bad,” Jaina said as she turned off her lightsaber and came over, stepping hesitantly over the creature to get to him.

“I think I broke a rib,” Jacen admitted weakly. “I thought there wasn’t anyone here?”

“So did I,” Han said darkly, holstering his blaster. He looked his son’s wound over, then pointed to Annika. “What happened to her?”

“She must’ve passed out,” Jaina said, putting pressure on Sebastian’s thigh. He was trying to use some Jedi healing techniques, but it was hard to concentrate with all the pain.

Han stepped over and tried rousing her. He lifted her eyelid. “She doesn’t look good,” he said. “Did he poison her or something?”

“He didn’t even get near her,” Jacen said.

“Han,” came Luke’s voice over the commlink. “How’s everyone?”

“Sebastian and Jacen are injured,” Han said. “We’ll need to do some field dressings pronto. Annika’s another story.”

“What happened?”

“Don’t know; she’s just unconscious.”

“Terrific.” His father’s frustration was clear even to Sebastian. “Okay, we’re leaving. Meet me back at the Falcon.”

“We just got here,” Han pointed out.

“We’ve learned enough for now,” Luke said.

Han put away the commlink. “Can you walk?” he asked Sebastian.

“I can try,” the young Jedi said. He got to his feet but his legs were shaking. He wouldn’t make it without help.

“Jaina, give him a hand,” Han said as he slung Annika’s arm over his shoulder. He reached under her knees and tried to lift, but was surprised by the weight.

“Let me,” Jaina said. Han looked at her oddly, but she closed her eyes and reached towards her aunt. Annika slowly lifted into the air, then moved across the room towards the door. Jaina moved to follow, but stumbled into a table. The group just looked on during her brief loss of concentration.

“You dropped her,” Sebastian said, breaking the silence. “I can’t believe you dropped her.”

“It was an accident,” Jaina said defensively.

“But you dropped her.” Sebastian’s tone implied no excuse would be acceptable.

“Well, she hit her head last,” Jacen offered. “Hopefully not too hard.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Jaina insisted. “I just haven’t had enough practice.”

“Next time,” Sebastian said through his teeth, “don’t practice on family members.”

“Enough,” Han said. “Jaina, help Sebastian.” Han tried lifting Annika again, but it was no use. He did his best to grab under her arms and across her chest, dragging her through the door.

“Try not to drop me,” Sebastian said bitterly as Jaina took his arm.

“Kriff you,” she mumbled.

Slowly the little group worked its’ way through the halls of the abandoned compound. Sebastian tried to think about something besides his leg, but the only other things on his mind were his mother and the fact that whatever attacked them was invisible to the Force. There could be more, and they could be anywhere, and he’d never know it until they chose to attack. It was a small comfort that Jacen and Jaina felt the same fear. They’d thought that being Jedi would make them some kind of super-warrior, but here was their first battle and they were limping away after being rescued. Not exactly what they’d had in mind when they were given this mission.

Luke was waiting at the bottom of the Falcon’s ramp, his lightsaber out and lit. As they exited he looked around the clearing, then extinguished it and clipped it to his belt while jumping down from the platform. “Jacen, Sebastian?” he asked quickly.

“Nothing serious,” Jacen croaked.

“Nothing a dermal regenerator won’t fix,” Sebastian lied, trying to show the same bravado as his cousin. In truth it felt pretty serious, but the Falcon had the equipment to treat it. He wasn’t as sure about his mother.

Luke grabbed Annika’s legs and together he and Han carried her up the ramp. “Jaina,” Han called as they carried her over to a cot, “close the ramp and take us off as soon as everyone’s on board.”

Sebastian limped the rest of the way to a seat, Jacen doing the same. “What were they?” the older apprentice asked. “I’ve never seen one of them before.”

“Me neither,” Han said below his breath, looking about for a med pack. They lurched as the Falcon’s repulsors kicked in and the ship lifted off. “Jaina,” he yelled. “As soon as we’re clear, set course for Dantooine.”

“We can’t go to Dantooine,” Luke said, strapping Annika to the cot.

Han knelt in front of Sebastian and pulled the pack opened. “These boys need to see a real doctor,” he said. “And I know your wife isn’t her usual cheerful self.”

“That’s what I mean,” Luke said. “There’s something wrong with her. She-“ He came up short as Han slowly turned to look at him, then rose to his feet.

“You knew there was something wrong with her?” he said, his voice full of accusation.

His father’s guilt was so overwhelming Sebastian didn’t need the Force. “Yes,” he said, his voice sounding dry.

Han took a step closer, radiating malice. “Fifteen years and you still haven’t changed.” When there was no reply he turned and got back to Sebastian’s wound.

“We need to go to Earth,” Luke said.

“Dantooine is the nearest system outside the zone,” Han said. “She needs medical attention now.”

“They won’t know how to treat her,” Luke said. “She needs to see an expert.”

“Even for the Falcon, it’s two days to the wormhole,” Han said. “Then another two days to Earth, and that’s assuming they’ll even let her through. She could be dead by then.”

“It’s better than the alternative,” Luke said.

“The alternative is medical care now,” Han said. “But you’re too interested in your little mission to care about that-“

Sebastian had never seen his father move like that. Within a second he was holding Han up by his shirt against the wall, breathing through his teeth. It lasted only a few seconds, but it was absolutely terrifying for him; he’d never seen his father lose control before. Han’s feet finally reached the floor; Luke was breathing heavy. “Earth,” he repeated.

Han looked him up and down; if there was any fear there Sebastian couldn’t see it. “Okay,” he said with quiet scorn. “Earth.” He kept eye contact, then turned and walked towards the cockpit. Luke watched, then left for the fresher.

“What’s on Earth?” Jacen asked as he rummaged through the med pack.

Sebastian didn’t answer at first; he was still in shock. Finally, “Help. If anybody can help mom, it’s him.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

A quiet night in the Belize Medical Research Hospital wasn’t common, and the Doctor had decided to make the most of it. He’d given himself a well-earned evening off, and with a stack of novels and a database full of new opera music he was prepared to settle in for the evening. As a physician, he should’ve known better.

“Incoming transmission, incoming transmission,” the computer said, its monotone voice in bitter contrast with the crescendo of Borogletz’ The Fall of Kings.

“Computer, pause,” he said with disgust. “Open transmission.” A hologram appeared of Dr. Barnet, one of his colleagues at the clinic. “I hope you’re calling to confirm our tee time,” he said, his tone implying he knew better than to hope for that.

“Sorry, Doctor,” she replied, “but I’m concerned about these readings from Mr. Hohm in Room 115. It doesn’t fit with your projections.”

“Let me see,” he said, getting out of his chair and stepping over to the display on his desk. The screen lit up with the data recorded on Mr. Hohm’s biosigns for the past twelve hours. “This isn’t right,” he said with more than professional reputation in mind. “Even if there was a problem with his medication these readings don’t make sense.”

“What would you like me to do?” Dr. Barnet asked.

He looked them over once more. “This could be life threatening,” he decided aloud. “I’ll be over right away.”

“The transporters are undergoing maintenance, remember,” Dr. Barnet said. The latest Cardassian chest thumping had caused the planetary network to become unstable. It had taken him an hour to fly back from the hospital that afternoon, and he wasn’t sure Mr. Hohm could spare the time.

“Computer,” he said, “transfer EMH to the Belize Medical Research Hospital.” Reality ceased for a moment, and then his home in the Himalayas was replaced with the first floor nursing station.

“Doctor,” the nurse said with a smile. This was old hat to her.

“Cheryl,” he said politely, then walked briskly to Mr. Hohm’s room. Dr. Barnet was already there.

“I think I’m on to something,” she said. “You know his elevated salorian levels? Well I think there’s a chemical reaction between the medication and a different chemical in his system.”

“Impossible,” the Doctor said as he looked the latest information over. “His medication and intake have been...” Then he noticed it; someone had injected him with another drug, and the reaction didn’t look good for Mr. Hohm. “Have a team standing by in case his body shuts down,” the Doctor said, punching in a prescription to hopefully counteract the war in his patients’ body.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Dealing with Garak’s couriers was a trying experience for Nom Anor. Unlike their leader they made no effort at charm, settling for the typical Cardassian paranoia and contempt. As essential as his role was in the grand plan, he did often chafe in it. But no matter how cumbersome a position it might be, he carried it out with all the skill Yun-Yammka had bestowed upon him.

This Talon Karrde, however, was an interesting deviation from the usual louts he’d had to deal with. There had been the expected run around to actually meet the man, but once that process was complete he was pleasantly surprised. Karrde was a smuggler, but he didn’t let that title dictate his behavior or his manners. He was polite and even, and didn’t make the slightest effort to impress Nom Anor with his success.

“My people tell me you are interested in some hard to acquire goods,” Karrde said, once the pleasantries were out of the way. “You emphasized to them that it would be quite a lucrative trade, but you wouldn’t provide any details. Would you mind telling me what you’re looking for?”

One thing in his favor, Nom Anor thought, Karrde got down to business promptly. “I’m here on behalf of the Malon. Their people, if you are not aware, are being continuously brutalized by the unchecked forces of the Hirogen. Their cries go unanswered by the Imperial government. They feel the time has come to take matters into their own hands.”

Karrde, like the gambler he was, showed no reaction. “How does this involve me?”

“The Malon need weapons, something strong enough to deter further attacks. And they need them quickly.”

“It was my understanding that the Empire had ships,” Karrde said. “And that they’d done quite well.”

“Propaganda,” Nom Anor said with a dismissive gesture.

“My own sources tend to agree,” Karrde replied in the same even tone he’d been using.

“Are you so concerned about rumors that you’re unwilling to do business with us?” Nom Anor said with a bit of irritation.

“Not at all,” Karrde said as if placating a child. “But the Malon should know that me giving them weapons does them little good.”

“Yes, they recognize the technical limitations. Which means they require the equipment and personnel to make these weapons compatible with their own.”

“Which is more than just providing a bit of contraband,” Karrde observed. “You’re asking me to directly involve myself in the equipping of a local government for war against the wishes of the Empire. That’s a very dangerous boundary to cross.”

“But equally lucrative,” Nom Anor replied. “Rest assured the Malon are prepared to pay very generously for such a service.”

“Karrde seemed to be thinking it over; Nom Anor knew he was just trying to justify it to himself. Despite everything, no matter how genteel or civilized he might try to act, Karrde was a smuggler who answered to his pockets. “What exactly do you want?” he finally asked.

“High yield energy weapons to outfit twenty small freighters,” Nom Anor said. “As well as power sources and equipment to adapt them to the existing vessels’ equipment. And technicians to install everything. They’re offering ten million if it can be done within two weeks.”

“That’s asking quite a lot,” Karrde said. “It will take time to make this happen.”

“Ten million should be able to shorten that time up,” Nom Anor said dismissively. He stood up and passed over a latinum strip. “You can contact me here when you’re ready. I’ll provide you with the coordinates of our fleet at that time.”

Karrde nodded as he took the slip but didn’t rise. “We’ll be certain to do that,” he said as he activated the comm in his chair. “Please escort Mr. Nemth back to his ship,” he said, using another of Nom Anor’s cover names.

As soon as he left dock he removed his Ooglith Masquer, grunting slightly from the pain. He set course for the planet where a ship under another alias was waiting, one he could safely use to cross back to the Milky Way. He just hoped this trip wasn’t a waste of his time.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Doctor, it’s been two hours,” Cheryl finally said. “I can contact you if he shows any more symptoms.”

The Doctor was still sitting in the chair watching Mr. Hohm sleep. “You didn’t give him any hyposprays?” he asked for the third time.

“No,” she said with the patience only nurses possessed. “I don’t know what happened.”

“Then that means someone did this deliberately, and without concern for Mr. Hohm’s well-being.” He reached a decision. “Have security watch his room, just to be safe. And definitely contact me if there’s any sign of degeneration.”

“Yes, Doctor,” she said, then returned to her station.

He let out an unnecessary sigh; why would anyone want to harm him? He was just a nerf herder, no one important enough to kill. “Computer, transfer the EMH to my private residence.” The room returned, Mrs. Borogletz still waiting patiently to continue the piece. He wasn’t in the mood. He tapped his fingers on the desk as he tried to make sense of it. What he needed was to stop thinking about it for a while, perhaps a walk. Making up his mind, he crossed the room to the glass case, and suddenly he’d completely forgotten about Mr. Hohm. He looked around behind the table, then under it. He became frantic, asking the computer for assistance. Its tone sounded even colder than usual.

“Cannot comply. Mobile emitter is not on the premises.”



Chuck

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Part VI


Nom Anor was waiting. Nom Anor was always waiting. Waiting for smugglers, waiting for politicians, waiting for engineers, waiting for this war to begin, waiting for the time to shed his many faces and glorify his own on the field of battle. A hunter grew accustomed to lying in wait; but Nom Anor was ever denied the pleasure of the kill. It grated him, but there was no choice for him but to do his part. If he succeeded the charade would be over, and that’s what he focused on whenever his patience was strained.

Dealing with Ferengi was a particularly difficult strain.

His long-range scans picked them apart long before they arrived. Their stealth technology was above par, but still backwards as far as he was concerned. Three crewmembers plus the two “merchants,” not to mention a bizarre collection of items. Klingon antiquities, Mandolarian relics, Dominion gadgets; junk mostly. But there was a bit of useful cargo here and there; some advanced weaponry too. Not bad for Ferengi, but that wasn’t saying much.

The image of the two sneering little monsters in question appeared on his viewer. They addressed him by the cover name he’d given them, already buttering him up for the sale. He didn’t need this, not after waiting nearly two hours.

“You have the merchandise?” Nom Anor asked, hoping the Ferengi would get the hint. The last thing he wanted was to listen to them try to pawn off some useless bauble on him.

“A most difficult prize, to say the least,” the lead Ferengi said. “It took extensive planning and coordination to acquire it. And expense.”

“Yes, I can understand how robbing an unarmed physician living alone in isolation would be a challenge.” Unfortunately, these Ferengi weren’t sharp enough to recognize sarcasm when they heard it.

“I’m glad you understand,” the little troll replied gleefully. “And that’s why-“

“I do not renegotiate,” Nom Anor warned. “You are already getting paid far more than the effort was worth.”

“But not enough compared to the value of the item,” the Ferengi retorted. “We are traders, not hired mercenaries. You pay for our merchandise, not our skills.”

Nom Anor knew enough about this galaxy to anticipate this. The Ferengi traders, more than anyone, had accepted the Imperial conquest as a boon. More territory, more goods, and more customers; so what if a little genocide got in the way? They were raking in the credits now, which was all that mattered to them. “Fine,” he replied, resorting to his back-up plan. “But I don’t have the credits for any more. Would you accept cargo?”

This had thrown the Ferengi off. He waited impatiently as they discussed amongst themselves, already knowing the question they’d ask. What...

“...kind of cargo?” the troll asked. Nom Anor tried to control his contempt. Perhaps between the five of them they could assemble half a brain.

“Functioning nanoprobes,” he offered.

“Impossible,” the other Ferengi said hotly. “The nanoprobes stopped functioning when the Borg were destroyed. Do you think we’re stupid?”

I know you’re stupid. “Then that makes these,” he pulled out a specimen container, “all the more valuable a commodity.” He placed it on the desk in front of him. “Say, as valuable as a mobile emitter?”

The Ferengi’s eyes were fixed on it. Nom Anor knew their scans would show them what they’d hoped. Emblazoned on the side was a logo known only to the most notorious traders: the symbol for Section 31. “The emitter is a true one-of-a-kind...” the Ferengi said slowly.

“But, realistically, with a limited market.” Nom Anor slid the container on the desk, taking slight pleasure in watching their eyes follow it. “Functioning nanoprobes... those are a commodity you’ll have no trouble moving.”

They couldn’t argue; scientific and military groups would climb over each other for a chance to dissect those Borg toys. Finally, Nom Anor was holding the mobile emitter, allowing himself a few moments to think on the potential of what he had. Placing it aside carefully in a blast-proof container, he opened a channel.

“Vurold,” Nom Anor said as the other appeared on the primitive projector. “All is going ahead as planned.”

Vurold’s contempt showed otherwise. “So you say, human. But I will not be lulled with mere words. I want-“

“You want a sign,” Nom Anor said. “A sign of my good faith. Not to worry. I’ve placed a tracking signal on board a freighter, one which is carrying, among other things, an advanced plastoid exo-suit. Feel free to do what you like with the ship, crew and cargo; it is a gift.”

Vurold looked over the data, a complete scan of the ship and information on the tracking device. “If you’re lying-“

“I wouldn’t dare lie to you,” Nom Anor said, proving there was nothing he wouldn’t lie about. “All I ask is my homing device returned. It’s a trophy of mine.”

Vurold glowered as he cut the transmission. But he was satisfied for now; Nom Anor knew him well enough to be certain of that.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Well,” Jacen said as he sat down next to Sebastian and Jaina at the Falcon’s gametable, “it’s some kind of beetle. I don’t know much more than that.” He rolled the specimen jar around on the table a little, the beetle in question rolling with it.

“That’s it?” Sebastian said. “No offense, but I could’ve told you that when we left Belkadan.”

“There’s not a whole lot of scientific information in dad’s records,” Jacen replied. “I went through the info your mom brought, but I didn’t find anything about this bug. If she were awake she might be able to help, but...”

But she wasn’t, Sebastian thought with a sick feeling. She was still unconscious, even after three days. He’d never seen so much as a sniffle from her in his entire life; he found it hard to believe anything could leave her so helpless.

Dad wasn’t taken it real well either, Sebastian thought. He rarely left her slumbering side. Probably for the best; Uncle Han had been moody ever since take off. The farther the two of them stayed away from each other, the better.

“I looked over the tricorder readings,” Sebastian remarked, hoping the new subject would take his mind off these latest worries. “Mom was right; the planet didn’t match the recorded information about it, which means one of two things. The original data could be wrong and this is just the natural state of the planet.”

“Possible,” Jaina said. “One planet in millions isn’t that important if nobody really lives there.”

“But this planet was being surveyed specifically for this project,” Sebastian said. “They’d have had a second scan to supplement the first one taken on the planet’s discovery. If they didn’t agree someone should’ve noticed, and the odds of both being wrong the same way is pretty unlikely.”

“Don’t underestimate the power of sloppy research,” Jacen said.

“Right, but there’s something else that doesn’t fit: those aliens. Whatever they were, they weren’t indigenous.” The memory of the creatures brought a nervous silence.

“Maybe so,” Jacen said finally. “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“If the Empire wants to settle a planet that’s inhospitable, what do they do?”

“Terraform,” Jaina said. “You think these aliens are responsible for the change; that it was deliberate?”

“I think it’s a definite possibility,” he said.

“If that’s the case, maybe they’re responsible for more than just that,” Jacen said. His thoughts ran the same as Sebastian’s: these aliens, Sernpidal, the dead zone, the destroyed fleet and the transformation were all connected somehow. Sebastian had to admit he found the idea exciting. If it was true he’d have the chance to be a hero like his parents had been. But on the other hand his mother had drilled into him the importance of theory based on facts, not supposition. It was an easy connection to make between these warriors and the destruction that was taking place, but so far there was no real evidence except proximity. He said as much.

“There’s plenty of evidence,” Jacen retorted. “We’ve never seen anything like those aliens before: complete ability to resist the Force.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Sebastian said. “We couldn’t sense them; that’s not the same thing. And mom can do the same trick, so it’s not as impressive as you want to make it out to be.”

“They were hostile,” Jacen replied, a bit angry that the younger Jedi would contradict him. “They killed the researchers at Ex-Gal 4.”

“They were hostile, but your conclusion is unfounded. Maybe they killed them, or maybe someone else did.”

“You saw how they acted,” Jacen scoffed.

“How did you feel when you saw the remains?” Sebastian asked. He turned to Jaina. “How did you feel seeing what we saw?” He resisted the feelings of dread that emerged when he thought back to the personal items of the dead researchers.

“Sad,” Jaina said. “And angry. It wasn’t right what happened.”

“No, it wasn’t,” Jacen said. “And they’re gonna answer for what they did.”

“Exactly,” Sebastian said. “So if you found someone you thought was responsible, do you think you might let your anger get the better of you? Attack them?”

“No,” Jacen said with a smug attitude, “I wouldn’t.”

“But if you weren’t a Jedi,” Jaina said. “Yeah, I can see it. So you think they weren’t responsible for that?”

“I’m just pointing out that we don’t know enough,” Sebastian said. “Occam’s Razor says the simplest answer that fits all the facts is probably correct, but what facts do we have? There’s no more evidence that says they killed them than says they didn’t.”

“Bit of a coincidence, then, for them to be there,” Jacen said. His tone implied that Sebastian was just trying to be argumentative.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they just happen to decide to terraform the planet while all this is going on? Bit of a stretch.”

“Think things through,” Sebastian said. “We’ve seen that someone out there is destroying ships, fleets, even whole worlds. It could be these aliens. On the other hand, maybe there was someone else responsible for the destruction, and these aliens were merely the victims. After all, if their world had been destroyed like Sernpidal had, maybe they were forced to migrate to Belkadan and terraform it for their own survival.”

“That’s a stretch,” Jacen said.

“You’re constructing an entire scenario around these aliens with no evidence besides a single attack, and we don’t even know why that happened. You make a dangerous assumption like you are and it could lead to serious consequences.”

Jacen laughed at him. “You act like you know what you’re talking about. You haven’t faced anything like this before. All you’ve got are your little theories, and while they may work great back in the lab, you’re out here facing it in the real world. You better get used to it.”

“’Scuse me, Mr. Man-of-the-Universe,” Sebastian said. “I forgot what a galaxy-hopping marvel you are.”

“I’ve been out there,” Jacen said with pride. “I’ve fought-“

“Dealing with a few spice pirates doesn’t ready you for interstellar politics,” Sebastian said. “Aunt Leia would be the first to tell you that.”

“And dad would say to go with your gut,” Jacen replied. “And my gut tells me these guys are responsible.”

“They might be,” Sebastian said. “But I want more than sketchy reports from your gall bladder.”

Jacen got up, looking at him with pity and disbelief; it made Sebastian’s blood boil. “Forgot you’re a kid. Maybe when you get some experience you’ll figure out what I’m trying to tell you.”

“Asshole,” Sebastian grumbled as the older Jedi walked off.

“Look, he’s being a jerk,” Jaina said, “but he’s right. We have to be ready if they are the ones responsible.”

“But if they’re not responsible,” Sebastian said, “that could lead to a war. We can’t jump to conclusions.”

“That’s why we need to prepare,” Jaina said. “Doing nothing could be dangerous too. That’s interstellar politics.”

She had a point. “Okay, so we prepare. We still need evidence before we start anything.”

“Well, we’re not going to find much of that in the Terran System,” Jaina said, getting up. “And we’re probably due to arrive any time now. Wanna tell Uncle Luke to come to the cockpit?”

Sebastian nodded, heading to the small room where his mother was still sleeping. He could sense his father’s concentration; Jedi healing techniques. How long had he been at it, and, more importantly, was it doing any good?

“Jaina said we should be reaching Earth soon,” Sebastian said, feeling lousy for the interruption but hoping the good news would help perk his father up some. “You want to come to the cockpit?”

Luke took a deep breath. “I need to be here, right now,” he finally said. “Contact the Doctor, he’s in central Asia. Tell him how she’s doing, and I’m sure he’ll take care of everything.”

Sebastian nodded and closed the door. His father was always right, he reminded himself. Please, let him be right now.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Lando Calrissian. Smuggler, gambler, outlaw. Over time he’d honed all the skills necessary for those jobs to a second nature. He may be in legitimate business now, but one skill in particular was still of use in this line of work: let them see what you want them to see. As he brought some investors on a tour of his establishment on Deep Space 13 he did just that.

“One of the principles of Calrissian Enterprises,” he said as they descended from the holo-suites, “is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By taking the best from as many places as possible we create something that will outperform, outsell, or just completely outdo our competition. The crossroads that is Bajor, leading as it had from the Alpha Quadrant to the Gamma Quadrant, has made this place a home to thousands of species with millions of pieces of technology and ideas.”

“It does tend to attract the riff-raff,” one Twi’lek remarked.

“The station’s security is top of the line,” Calrissian lied. If it was he’d never be able to get away with a tenth of what he and Quark pulled. “And even if it weren’t an occasional inconvenience is worth it. Take this for example,” he plucked a small device from behind the bar. “We acquired it from a Balnovian trader. It’s the initiator coil from a replicator he found on the fringe.”

“And what possible use is that?” a bloated Axanar said dismissively. “We have replication technology.”

Lando’s smile didn’t so much as flicker. “B’Elanna Torres,” he introduced, “one of my engineers.” The half-Klingon stepped forward and smiled as friendly as Calrissian could get her. “Would you like to answer his question?”

“Certainly,” she remarked, taking the device. “The coil uses a system that differs from both Imperial and Alpha Quadrant replicators. We’re using some of those differences to create a hybrid replicator that specializes in construction materials. When completed it can generate the parts with only forty percent of the required energy and no impurity.”

“Impressive,” the Twi’lek admitted. “But is the market strong enough to support a product such as this?”

“We’ll be putting this to work in our own construction facility,” Lando said, continuing the tour. Good job, B’Elanna, he thought. Short and non-technical. “By reducing construction expenses we’ll be offering the fleet high-quality fighters at a price to match Sienar; a ship that can fly rings around any TIE out there.”

“You are confident you will win this contract,” the Ishi Tib asked.

“I’m confident we can bring the Empire an offer that will knock them over,” Lando said.

“But Sienar has been the Empire’s golden child for decades,” it was pointed out. “Even during their collapse. The Empire rewards loyalty.”

“Yes, and it has for the past twenty years,” Lando said. “But what has Sienar brought them lately? Modifications to old designs, designs based around technology that was dated when we didn’t even know there was a wormhole. But you’re correct; it will not be a simple matter of bringing them a winning plan. We need them to see that Calrissian Enterprises is capable of meeting their demands. Your financial support, gentlemen, will give us that; and in return, an investment into a billion credit deal.”

“There is much to be gained,” the Axanar said. “But the risk seems high. I’m particularly concerned about Cardassian terrorists attacking the construction site.”

“I can assure you-“ Lando stopped as Quark gave him a nudge. He glanced, but just for a moment, in the direction the holographic Ferengi indicated. “I have the Cardassian situation well in hand. Quark, why don’t you show them our profit projections, so they can see what exactly this ‘risk’ could bring them. I’ll be a moment, gentlemen.”

Lando didn’t walk in the direction Quark had pointed; he knew better than to draw any attention there at all. By the time he arrived at his office Lumett was already waiting for him. “High class,” the Cardassian remarked as Lando came around the desk to take his seat. “I’m sure Garak will be happy to hear your business is going well.”

“You and he should know better than this,” Lando hissed. “This is more than just blowing this deal. If anyone starts putting us together-“

“Garak is concerned about your public appearance,” Lumett said. “But this is vital. I need to know if you have any assets on Earth or Luna.”

“I don’t discuss finances with the help,” Lando said.

“That’s fine. But let’s just say that if you do, it’d be in your best interest to look into relocating them. Immediately.”

Lando’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell’s going on? You never warned me before on any of your attacks, why now?”

“I’m just relaying a message,” Lumett said.

“From Garak.”

“Garak’s giving you some advice,” Lumett got up. “I suggest you follow it.”

“What’s going to happen?” Lando demanded, standing up.

“There is an issue of time, Mr. Calrissian,” Lumett said. “I don’t think you should waste it trying to get answers from me that I don’t have.”

Lando took a moment to get his thoughts in order. It was something big; Garak wouldn’t have warned him otherwise. But what could he have in mind? Last time he checked, Garak didn’t have his own Eclipse. But that was the point, wasn’t it. Garak kept him in the dark.

It was time to turn the lights on.

Lando keyed in to his communication system and set up his most secure channel. He needed an investigator, someone who could work fast and was in the area; a tough call.

“Harry this is Lando,” he said into the comm. “I’ve got a job for you.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika was so still, he couldn’t even notice her breathing. It was so wrong. No matter how Borg, no matter how human, no matter what she had been, Annika was always a fighter. Seeing her so helpless like this... Luke could barely stand to be with her, but couldn’t consider leaving her side.

Once he’d destroyed an entire fleet to save her, using nothing but sheer will. Now he was facing something that might achieve what even the Borg were unable to do.

Sebastian was at her side too. One more weight on his mind. The boy had a difficult enough future ahead of him; he didn’t deserve this heartache. For all our sakes, Annika, he thought, you need to beat this.

The Doctor took Luke aside, his face devoid of his usual optimism. Luke could sense nothing of course, but he knew; he’d known since they left Tatooine. “How bad is it?” he asked, his voice betraying his pessimism.

“I’m afraid the answer is somewhat relative, and to unfortunately fall into the tired staple, I have good and bad news.” He glanced back at Annika’s unconscious form for a moment. “The disease she’s contracted has been appearing throughout the Empire for over a year now. All cases so far have been fatal.” He allowed Luke a moment to come to terms with that harsh fact. “I’ve never examined a case personally, but I’ve read all the research on the subject and did some experimental work for the Marcoolw Society. Annika’s case, compared to the others’, seems far more controlled. I think there’s a chance we can save her,” he looked directly into Luke’s eyes, “and you know that I’ll do everything possible for her.”

Luke knew what he meant. The Doctor had developed the treatment to reverse the brain damage the Borg had caused during their failed attempt to infect the collective, and he knew more about her physiology than anyone. Coming here was definitely the right choice, at least for her. “What about the rest of us?” he had to ask. “We’ve all been on board the same ship for over a week now-“

“The condition is not spread by casual contact,” the Doctor interrupted. “Three cases of direct blood transfusion and one case of sexual transmission aside, the disease isn’t contagious. Even if you two had been intimate since her initial infection, the chances of you having contracted the disease are very low, and non-existent for the others.”

Before Luke could learn more Jaina came running in. She was radiating confusion and fear, panting as she tried to get his attention. “Uncle Luke,” she practically grabbed him, “you’ve got to come see this.”

“What?” he asked, his annoyance at the interruption tempered by experience; Jaina didn’t get worked up easily.

“It’s-“ she floundered. “Just- you’ve got to see it for yourself.”

Luke looked back at the Doctor. “I’ll keep an eye on Annika,” he assured him, and Luke followed her. By the time he reached the ground floor he could feel a growing sense of dread, almost as if the Dark side was slowly manifesting itself in this place. But it wasn’t evil, at least not directly, that was responsible, it was the sum of the emotions of the occupants all around him.

When he got outside he saw them all, every last one, transfixed on the sky as if under a single spell. He followed their stare, then stepped over near Han, who was just as hypnotized as the rest. “What am I looking at?” he asked. Han just pointed. “The moon?” He looked at it, failing to grasp what was so interesting about it. But of course, Luke had never spent much time on Earth.

“It’s getting closer,” Jacen said with a shake in his voice.

“It’s your imagination,” Han said, but his voice had an edge as well. Regardless, it finally clicked for Luke. Sernpidal. This time they were actually seeing it happen.

Except now there were nine billion lives at stake.

“How do we stop it?” he said aloud.

Han breathed deeply through his nose as he faced another planetkiller. Here, on a world he’d called home once, but could never again. “You don’t.”



Chuck

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Part VII


Since the late twenty-first century human beings have played with the laws of physics. They've distorted them, harnessed them, and with almost snickering glee, used their wits to try and violate them like young cadets breaking curfew. They've gotten used to bending the rules when it suited them. Unfortunately for humanity, a lesson in humility is quite literally falling into their laps.

The moon's slow descent was a sickening reminder of their hubris. They could play with inertial mass, but in the end conservation of matter would win the day, no matter what they might try to do to the tumbling giant. Blow it up, the pieces would fall. Vaporize it, the gas will fall. Do what you like, there was nothing that would stop its descent. And alongside mass came the inevitable conservation of energy, which meant that all that pent up potential energy was about to go somewhere, whether it was splitting open the crust like an egg or heating up the atmosphere to climate-altering levels.

Mother Nature's schoolmaster had arrived, and she was very, very cross.

Harry Kim had seen things that had amazed him, and had terrified him. Watching the plummeting orb was near the top of both lists. Lando’s orders were forgotten as old instincts from his youth spent in exploration took over. It confirmed what his eyes were telling him. “Okay,” he said to himself, hoping it would help him focus. “Let’s do a scan.”

Harry didn’t have a starship any more, and the shuttle he’d been piloting wasn’t up to the kind of readings he had in mind. Fortunately, he’d spent a lot of the past fifteen years learning about Imperial technology, including how to crack it. Brutal work compared to his old Starfleet days, but even the best security they had had holes, and he doubted anyone would notice what he had in mind. “R8,” he said to his astromech, “We need to link up with Spacedock’s system.” The droid warbled in confusion. “I mean Earth Platform 1,” Harry said, frustrated with the break in concentration. The old Federation station still had its elaborate sensor system in place, and at that moment no one was really concerned about anyone trying to access its controls.

“Bingo,” he remarked as he found what he was looking for. A heavy gravity beam, much stronger than any he’d ever seen, was pulling on the moon at that very moment. He zoomed in on the source. “What the hell is that?” He focused in some more; it was some kind of alien, but nothing he’d ever seen before. But around it, armed with blaster rifles... “Cardassians,” he spat, the last piece falling into place.

“Earth Platform 1,” Harry called into the comm, “this is Shuttle 177A.”

“Shuttle 177A,” came the reply, “no incoming clearance is being granted. Please evacuate Earth space.”

“I’m not landing,” he said. “I see what’s causing the problem with the moon. There’s-“

“Please leave Earth space immediately,” the voice repeated, then cut communications.

“Dammit,” Harry said, thinking frantically. There had to be someone he could talk too, before it was too late. “Let’s try to tap into the military communication grid,” he said to the astromech. “Maybe we can find someone who’ll listen.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The view of the descending moon was no less horrifying to those on Earth, and its menace all the more tangible. Amongst a crowd gathered outside a hospital in Asia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Jacen, Jaina, and Sebastian watched as the moon continued to grow bigger in the night sky. They’d seen the results of a similar attack made on Sernpidal in the other galaxy, but that moon was tiny and the planet sparsely populated. If they couldn’t find a solution billions would die.

“Can we get an Eclipse here?” Jaina asked, unable to take her eyes off the looming shape. “Evacuate the moon and blow it up?”

“No time for an evacuation,” Han remarked. “There’s millions up there, and that moon’s not going to wait much longer. Besides, there’s only one Eclipse in this galaxy; it’ll never make it in time.”

“There’s gotta be a way,” Sebastian remarked. “Use a tractor beam to buy some time maybe. Get a fleet together.”

“It’s too massive,” Han said with a shake of his head. “It’s simply too big to move.”

“Yes,” Luke remarked, speaking for the first time since Han had given his bitter assessment, “from a certain point of view.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Harry’s previous involvement with the Imperial military had mostly consisted of exchanging weapons fire. At the moment, things hadn’t changed much.

“Interfering in Imperial communications is a serious offense-“ barked the officer over the comm.

“I hope you get the chance to arrest me,” Harry said, “because it doesn’t look like you’re going to be enforcing any laws once that moon hits.”

“I don’t-“

“Listen to me!” Harry yelled. “There are aliens on this planet controlled by Cardassians. They’re using focused gravity beams to bring the moon down-“

“We know!” the officer shouted back. “We’re trying to take care of it! So quit interrupting and let us do our job!” Harry hit the console as the connection was cut.

“R8,” he started to say as he looked over the readings again for inspiration. “Let’s... oh no.”

The displays that he’d set up on the main screen, the views of the various alien placements on the planet, showed the same scene being repeated across the world. TIE Bombers descended on every target, dropping heavy explosives that left nothing but smoldering craters behind. “No!” he shouted, then slunk back in his chair.

R8 warbled at him curiously as he held his face in his hands. He finally looked up at the translation. “Yes, they stopped the aliens,” he said, his throat dry. “But it’s too late. The moon’s too close; gravity, Earth’s gravity, will finish the job now. They bought a little bit of time, but that’s it.” He didn’t even have the strength to think. “The scans showed the aliens manipulate gravity,” he continued, not even thinking while he spoke. “We could have tried to use them to put the moon back. But they just destroyed them... and the Earth’s going to go with them.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi echoed back to Luke from across the decades, back from when he was the only Jedi in the universe. His words had seemed so foolish at the time, so full of superstition. “Luke you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to,” the old man had said, “depend greatly on our own point of view.”

And what, in the end, was his view? His was a view that came with the Force, being part of it, the harmonic union of all life. It crossed the boundaries of space and time, filled the vacuum of space, bound the entire galaxy together as a living, breathing thing. Within its embrace worlds traveled and stars blazed, and civilizations rose and fell in less than an instant. Cataclysmic events transpired as bottomless energies and unimaginable masses worked together or fought their mathematically-bound battles, reigning destruction or dazzling with beauty. Suns exploded and collapsed in a thousand variant screams, or grew into a blazing inferno from swirling clouds. Nature in its most absolute primal state, when even the concept of life itself was a radical departure from the norm. And within all that an insignificant planet was orbited by an even more insignificant moon. So tiny; a mote of dust in a hurricane, a spore on the wind, a particle of sediment in a tsunami. In the view of the Force, it was next to nothing.

In short, size matters not.

“What the hell are you doing?” Han asked with irritation as Luke held his hand towards the passing orb. His look of contempt faded slightly as he saw the blood drain from the faces of his children and nephew as they watched. “What?”

“This...” Jaina shook her head. “This isn’t possible.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Harry was half-lying in his chair, eyes closed, the true weight of the situation sinking in. The Imperials had killed his parents during their invasion of Earth, they had destroyed the Federation he’d fought for and served. And the world that he had desperately tried to reach for five long years of exile was now about to die because of them.

R8 was whistling like crazy, and with irritation Harry finally sat up and looked at the droid coldly. “What?!” he demanded. The droid continued its infuriating chirping and Harry looked ahead, and the color faded from his face. He checked the instruments; the moon was gaining altitude all right. Slowly, but it was going up. Had they figured it out? Spared a few of the aliens and were actually pulling it off. But, there were no gravity waves, nothing. Somehow the immutable laws of physics were being broken once again. Harry just stared at the moon, literally scratching his head in numb confusion. “Have I gone crazy?”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“You’re all crazy,” Han remarked, but even he lacked conviction. “You can’t just...” He trailed off, unable to continue in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.

Throughout it all Luke remained silent, his attention fully focused on the moon, every thought bent on putting it back where it belonged. The disbelief of those around him was of no consequence. The power he had turned to the Dark side for in his youth was now far exceeded through the wisdom of the years. Not a weapon, not a tool, but a path that led him not to wield power, but to allow it to use him as an agent of light. He understood now. He wasn’t doing it; it was the Force, working through him. He no more wielded this power than the air wielded the lightning that passed through it.

But once the lightning passes through it, the air is never the same.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian’s awe gave way to fear as he watched his father struggling. While Luke's emotions radiated only peace and serenity the young man could see the physical strain; the flowing sweat, the grimace, the trembling as if he truly were some ancient titan holding the sky up. His breathing had become short, hasty breaths. Finally his hand fell and Han had to stop him from collapsing. Everyone was wondering the same thing, but Han asked. “Is it safe?”

“I- I think so,” Luke said. “I just followed my instincts, let the Force guide me.”

None of them could speak; what was there to say? Sebastian wanted to grab his father and comfort him in his weakness, but he was terrified of him. All that power at his command... what had it done to the man? Was that even his father any more?

Had he surrendered to the darkness again?

The people around, however, weren’t bothered by the spiritual concerns of the young man. They swarmed around his father, embracing one another and cheering the salvation he’d brought them. They chanted his name as Han and Jacen half-dragged him back into the hospital, applauding him for doing the impossible.

Sebastian stayed outside, his gaze returning to the moon. His mother was dying, his father wasn’t the man he thought he’d been, Jorri was gone, and he was a failure as a Jedi. The cocky boy from Tatooine stared at the moon of his mother’s people, the confidence, the self-assurance, the optimism, all gone.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor was a controlled man, but at the moment maintaining that control wasn’t easy. He’d handed Garak the means to cause widespread disruption of the Alpha Quadrant, and the fool had managed to screw even that simple task up. At the moment, Nom Anor felt like the most angry person in the galaxy. That was before Lando Calrissian came in.

“Garak!” Lando shouted, any trace of the gambler’s caution gone in his mask of rage. “What the hell did you do?!”

“Welcome, Mr. Calrissian,” Garak said, refusing to allow the emotions in the room to upset his imposed order and control. “I’m a little busy at the moment-“

“I don’t care about your business with Anor!” he shouted back. “What you tried to do-“ he floundered in disbelief at the sheer scope of it all, “-it-it’s unthinkable!”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking-“

“Don’t play that kriffing game, not with me!” Lando pounded his fist on the table for emphasis. “You risked billions; innocent people; children! That’s the kind of thing the Empire does!”

“I can see you’re upset,” Garak said, winning the master of understatement award for the fifth year running. “Let me finish my business with Mr. Anor and we’ll speak at length about this. I’m sure we can work things out to everyone’s satisfaction.”

Lando seethed but relented. Nom Anor watched him go, considering how this could impact future options. He never would have imagined that much passion in the man; a mistake he should never have made. He knew a great deal that what was seen on the surface wasn’t always the case. But Calrissian would have to wait. “What did happen?” Nom Anor asked, once Lando was gone.

“An element that I hadn’t anticipated,” Garak said.

“My people gave you resources with the understanding you’d look at all the elements.” Garak’s attitude was wearing thin on him.

“I’m afraid this particular one was quite impossible to foresee.”

Garak activated the Imperial holo-net and showed the news transmissions. All were focused on his failed attack on Earth and a human with blondish hair. He caught the name. “Skywalker?” Nom Anor asked. “As in...”

“The Jedi,” Garak replied. “Apparently out of retirement and on the side of the Empire. Not surprising considering his sister’s allegiance, but still... I can’t see how he knew. Unless your people talked.”

“Unlikely,” Nom Anor said, which was certainly the truth. “His people” existed only as a series of lies and false records, and unless a disgruntled one or zero had talked the problem had to be on Garak’s end. “What did he do?”

“No one knows for certain,” Garak said, “but he’s the hero of the hour. The Emperor himself is coming to Earth to personally offer his thanks for Skywalker’s untimely intervention. Imperial support will no doubt increase throughout the quadrant and security will be tightened.” Garak rambled on, but Nom Anor was staring at the hologram, which showed Skywalker apparently restoring the moon to its orbit through sheer will. He’d dismissed the stories about him as spacer legends, but was there a truth at their center? And if so, what effect would it have on his own plans and the war effort. He needed answers.

“I want him,” Nom Anor said finally, interrupting Garak in mid-thought.

“Who?”

“Skywalker. I want him alive for interrogation.”

“I see. And would you like me to whip you up a Death Star while I’m at it?” Nom Anor scoffed at him. “That man is a Jedi. I’ve looked into those eyes, I’ve seen what he’s made of. With all my resources I could never catch him, and even if through some miracle I did he’d tell you nothing." He shook his head. "I’ve seen in him a passion hotter than any star and a coldness even a Gul could envy; and I will tell you this: I fear nothing, but I hope with all my heart his gaze never passes over me again.”

Nom Anor waited for him to finish. “I want you to bring him to me,” he repeated, slowly and with an emphasis on each word.

“If it were within my power,” Garak said, “I’d give you the whole planet. But what you’re asking me to do is impossible. He’s too powerful. Or do you need to watch him stop the moon from descending again?”

Nom Anor glowered, then watched as the hologram replayed. Garak was infuriating, but he had a point. Still... “Who’s that with him?” he asked.

Garak looked more closely. “Ah, Han Solo, the ever-loyal sidekick. These I believe are his children and the one with the light hair is Skywalker’s son.”

A son. That offered some possibilities. “And is he also impossible to catch?” he asked Garak. “Or can your forces manage to overwhelm one child?”

“I’m sure he’s been trained by his father,” Garak said. “But without the wisdom and experience he’s no doubt weak. I could probably catch him, but why should I? I barely escaped with my life the last time I crossed Skywalker, I don’t see why I should risk it again.”

“My people are well-connected,” Nom Anor said. “We could do many favors for your organization if you do this favor for me.”

“I don’t see the benefit,” Garak said. “All you’ll succeed in doing is getting Skywalker upset, a mistake I wouldn’t want to make.”

“I’m willing to take the chance.”

“No, you’re willing to let me take the chance.” Garak sighed. “But I will consider it. Child or not, the boy is dangerous. This would take much planning and equipment. Any favor would have to be measured against that.”

“It will be, I assure you,” Nom Anor said. On his way back to the ship he tried to think of the best way to salvage the situation. The boy would be a good start, and Calrissian could possibly be used against Garak; allow him to play the two off each other to help further his own ends. He sealed the hatch, and was about to begin the launch sequence when he noticed the flashing indicator. Ah, something going right finally? he wondered as he pressed the play button on the display.

“We’ve acquired the weapons and engineers you wanted,” Talon Karrde’s representative said. “We’ll meet you at the rendezvous coordinates at 0800 in two days.”

He smiled a little. Good news seemed more and more rare these days, and he cherished what little he received. Two days, he thought. That would still allow him enough time to drop off the mobile emitter. Satisfied with the news he finished the pre-flight check and soared for space.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Bastian!” Jorrielle Sunspring said with shock as her hologram finished resolving. “I can’t believe it!”

“Hi, Jorri,” he said, trying to sound better than he felt. He had to thank Aunt Leia; she’d pulled quite a few strings to get a real-time cross-galactic link set up for him.

“We heard all about what happened. Were you there? When the moon fell, I mean?”

“Yeah, I was there,” he said weakly.

“Is it like what they said?” she continued, oblivious in her excitement. “Did your dad, I don’t know, Jedi the moon back?”

“Yes,” Sebastian said. “Just put it back as if he were tidying up our place back home.”

Even Jorri could see his attitude with that remark. “Is something wrong?”

“Yeah,” Sebastian said. He filled her in on what was going on with his mother. “I really need to talk to somebody.”

“You know I’m always ready to listen,” she said, taking a seat. “I’ve been waiting for you to stop by; tell me all about going to see the Emperor, all the amazing stuff you get to do.”

Yeah, it had been a long time, he realized. So much had happened; changed. “Not that great of a story, actually.” He filled her in on the meeting with the Emperor, the mission, and their eventual voyage to Earth. He noticed a kind of awe in her eyes, and her questions implied that she was so impressed with him. It just made things worse.

“Thing is,” he said finally, “I don’t know what’s what any more. I mean, if this is any indication, dad’s been holding himself back all these years. He’s always been going on about not using the Force unless we have to, but now this. Is there something he isn’t telling me? What he did tonight... I could never imagine having that kind of power, to be like a god. What does that do to you; what did it do to him?”

“Sebastian, your dad’s strong,” Jorri said, “but he’s also one of the most gentle men I’ve ever met. Whatever mistakes he’s made in the past, he’s learned from them, and I think he’s better because of them.”

“Really,” Sebastian said, scoffing a little.

“Look, he told you to use your power only when you had to. To not focus on using the power, but the force behind that power. He may be stronger because he didn’t bother trying to use the power, he tried to understand the power.”

“But you see-“ He stopped. He’d never told anyone, not even Jorri, what his parentls had told him. He didn’t want to be a freak, but – but he needed her to understand. “Dad said... This is going to sound crazy, but please listen. Mom and dad said that I’m going to be important. Dad wouldn’t say how, but he said that I was going to make a big difference in the galaxies, that I had a responsibility.”

“All parents are like that,” Jorri said.

“No. He’s a Jedi; he’s actually seen it. He knows what’s going to happen, what’s going to come. And I’ve always been kind of excited and nervous, you know. A big adventure, a chance to be a hero like he and mom were. But Jorri... my father can move worlds! I can’t even beat a single alien! If dad gave in to the Dark side, if even he wasn’t strong enough, what about me? Can I ever be strong enough or smart enough to face this? I-“ He caught her eyes, and her look made him quiver. He suddenly wished she wasn’t a hologram, that he could hold onto her, maybe even cry on her shoulder a little. His voice cracked. “I’m really scared.”

She was quiet, and Sebastian was afraid he’d made a mistake. She was such a good friend that he’d gotten used to sharing things with her, but this might have been too much. She probably saw him as an egomaniac, or a frightened little boy. He wanted to just close the link before she said anything. But finally... “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m just kind of stunned.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he mumbled.

“It’s just that I thought you weren’t capable of that,” she continued. “You never seemed frightened or unsure of anything, even when I was petrified. I was always a little worried that it was the Borg part of you showing through. I, I know it’s probably not right, but it’s almost refreshing to know you’re just as human as I am, that it was your courage that allowed you to overcome your obstacles.”

“And now,” Sebastian said moodily, “it’s gone.”

“You’re just realizing that what you’re facing is a lot bigger than any mess we ever ran into on Tatooine. I’m the same way; nearly wet myself when Gen. Taar gave me a dressing down in front of the student body. But I get through because I know that I’ve got people I can count on, like you. And whatever your destiny is, you know I’ll always be your friend no matter what the danger.” Her hologram rose and came as close as the projector would allow. “You may have to face the future, but that doesn’t mean you have to face it alone.”

He smiled as best he could. “Thanks, Jorri.” It was nice of her to say, but it didn’t change anything. A few more words were exchanged and he closed the connection, hoping the Doctor would have better news about his mother.



Chuck

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Part VIII


Lando Calrissian fumed in silence outside Garak's office. He ignored the stares of the Cardassian's henchmen, who were probably hoping to settle him down before he finished his conversation with Garak. Well, he sure as hell didn't feel like settling down! After Nom Anor left he rose to his feet and followed the aide into Garak's office. He offered Lando a seat, but he refused it. The aide slipped out and it was just the two of them. Lando was of half a mind to throttle Garak right then and there but knew the terrorist could kill him easily.

"Now," Garak said pleasantly, "where were we?"

"I was just about to tell you that it's over," Lando said.

"What would that be?"

"Our arrangement," Lando said. "As of now my business and its employees will have nothing to do with your organization."

"Because of one little thing?"

"Dammit, Garak," Lando shouted, "this is not a little thing! There is a definite line in this and you crossed it!"

"What line is that?" Garak asked. "Where is it drawn that it defines the boundaries of what we can and can't do in the name of our cause?"

Lando jammed a thumb into his chest. "In here! It sets the limits of where I'll go, and mass murder is definitely a place I've no interest in visiting."

"I'm sorry your conscience is panging you," Garak said. "But these operations are my decision. I don't answer to your conscience."

"No, I do. And that's why it's over Garak, 'cause by helping you I would have helped kill those people."

"Nonsense. The responsibility for any field activities my people do falls to me. I do the dirty work so you can serve in your current fashion."

"It doesn't work that way. My hands are just as bloodied as yours."

Garak got up and walked over to the terminal on the wall, tapping in some instructions. "That's why you're going to stay with us."

"I've made up my mind, Garak."

"I've no doubt. But how long will your business survive?" He turned back to face Lando. "You have been granted special exception from our raids and activities. Do you expect me to ignore you for old times sake if you leave?" Lando opened his mouth. "Your security is sub-par, but that allows you to direct more funds towards production and development. If you try to resist us you'll be forced to waste money and fall behind. And your new fighter construction facility? Have you failed to consider what kind of a target that would make for my cause? Your security demands will be so high that you won't have a chance of competing with Sienar for that contract."

Lando growled. "Your threats-"

"They're not threats," Garak interrupted. "They are the inevitable consequences of you carrying out your ridiculous notion that cutting ties will make your world better." He stepped right up to Lando. "The problem is that you're doing your thinking here," he pointed to the spot on Lando's chest he had earlier indicated, "rather than in your head where it should be. Take a moment to look at the larger picture, Calrissian. You have been with us for too long, too deeply, to back out now. Your business will die, and without my good favor you could even find yourself in an Imperial detention center." Lando opened his mouth but Garak continued. "You've provided aide and comfort to me for over a decade. Even if you cut a deal you'll go down too."

Lando could feel his fingers trembling in his rage, but he tried not to let it show. "Maybe I should do it anyway. If it stops you from trying again-"

"Don't be absurd. Even with your help they won't be able to catch me, Calrissian. I've been at this far too long, have so many plans in motion, so many secrets. I have anticipated any possible betrayal. Now end this pointless posturing, get back to your business, and try to forget about it."

Lando wanted to wrap his hands around that bloated neck, to tell him where he can stick his egotistical plans and that he was out for good. But the truth was, he couldn't. He had been in bed with the terrorists for too long; there was no way out. He could probably deal his way out of charges if he gave them Garak, but the slimy Cardassian would probably escape anyway. He'd lose his business, again, and he was getting too old to try to rebuild. Without it he'd have nothing; his assets seized by the Imperials, his reputation destroyed across the Empire. Damn you, Garak.

He was just turning to leave when Garak spoke again. "I need a cargo ship," he announced as if the past five minutes never happened. "And I'll need an engineer, a good one, to make some changes. Torres would be a good choice."

Lando breathed heavily through his nose. "What kind of changes?"

Garak smiled as warmly as a man so cold-blooded could. "I need to build a very special cage," he said, "for a very special adversary."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Security around the Emperor’s arrival was unparalleled. He flew to Earth on the flagship Eclipse, complete with a star destroyer escort. All traffic was halted for his arrival, and his shuttle was flanked by two squadrons of TIEs. On the ground, he was surrounded by his red-robed bodyguards at all times, and scramblers were kept around him to block any transporter that tried to beam in a bomb or steal away the Emperor. Even Garak knew better than to try anything.

Sebastian had seen the Emperor speak before the Senate, but never at a public event. The plaza outside the Earth capital in Sydney was overflowing with spectators who’d gathered for this rare event. Han told them that it was only the second time the Emperor had ever come to Earth.

The speech he gave was predictable, even to a political novice like Sebastian. The Emperor spoke against terrorism and vowed to double their efforts to ferret out those responsible for this near disaster. The crowd seemed pleased with the overall message and Sebastian could sense a growing feeling of support ripple throughout the masses. It seemed kind of silly to him, but, mother had taught him that leadership often meant being able to convince people of the justness of your cause. By showing this was important enough for him to come here he was showing them that even in an empire of millions of worlds they were still valued citizens. The personal touch... he'd keep that in mind.

Volgo Teraine, one of the Emperor’s entourage, came through the crowd towards the quartet, his royal escort clearing a path. He was bald with dark goggles, but they seemed to compliment his appearance, giving him a slightly foreboding air. He nodded politely to Han before addressing Jacen, Jaina, and Sebastian. “The Emperor wished me to share his gratitude for your service to the Empire. He is pleased to announce that, after conferring with Jedi Skywalker, that you are fully recognized Jedi Knights, with all the responsibility that honor brings.” Before that could even sink in he continued. “He wants to meet with the three of you, individually, after the presentation.” He nodded again, and slipped away.

“A personal meeting with the Emperor himself?” Jacen said in disbelief.

“Dad,” Jaina asked, “do you know what this is about.”

Han looked around at the rest of the crowd. “No,” he lied. None of the three decided to push the issue.

While they talked the Emperor took a moment to recognize Luke for his last minute intervention in saving the world. When the Jedi rose and gave a small wave to the crowd the cheers were deafening. Sebastian felt a gnawing in his gut at the memory of what had happened, and his own fears. Jacen and Jaina must have been thinking the same thing.

“How can he not be a master?” Jacen said. “What he did... that’s the stuff you read about the legends doing.”

“He’s unworthy,” Han said. The three turned to stare at him, shocked at his brazen remark. “The Emperor tried bestowing the title on him years ago; he refused it. Said if you’d ever done what he did you could never truly be a master.

“So he’s really-“

“It’s just a title,” Han said sharply. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make what he did today any more noble.” He looked up at Luke on the platform, a brief flicker of hate passing through him. “Or undo what he did,” he said in a low voice.

Sebastian was about to say something when he noticed someone slip onto the platform and whisper something into his father’s ear. In an instant the Jedi was gone, vanished into the huddled masses.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor had chosen Danule V for the exchange out of a long list of potential systems. It was outside Malon space, so no one would associate activity there with the Malon. There was an interesting anomaly in its magnetic field that boosted jamming signals, ensuring no one would be able to detect Malon ships waiting for refitting. It was outside normal Imperial patrol routes to ensure they wouldn't be interrupted, but close enough to shipping lanes to justify their presence if they were discovered. Everything was planned for the refitting of a Malon fleet.

Except, of course, that there was no Malon fleet. But that's what you would have expected to see if you were one of the smugglers delivering weapons on behalf of Talon Karrde. Always let them see what they want to see, Nom Anor believed, for as long as possible.

Of course, Karrde's men were expecting a double-cross; they expected one with every deal. Thus, only one ship entered the system with the weapons, the rest presumably waiting for the all-clear signal. He waited as the ship finally settled on its landing gear and Karrde's representative emerged. She was flanked by two bodyguards, their weapons already in their hands.

He answered to the pseudonym he'd given them originally. "Where are the rest of the weapons?" he asked, playing his part. "And the engineers I was promised?"

"Just as soon as we know everything's on the up-and-up," she replied.

"I've no intention of cheating you," he said, which was technically true. He set a box on the ground and stepped back. She carefully came forward and opened it, her eyes wide as she reached inside and let the credit chips flow through her fingers. "There is, however," he said as she began sealing the case, "a minor change to the plan." Weapons shots rang out and the two bodyguards were on the ground.

The negotiator decided to choose a new diplomatic tactic, so she pulled her blaster out and fired at him. Nom Anor's personal shield –a distasteful but necessary tool in this case- would hold for long enough. "They're only stunned," he said as she continued firing pointlessly. "A precaution my friends felt necessary."

Ten Hirogen hunters rushed out of their hiding places, weapons trained on her and the ship. The pilot must have recognized the high-grade equipment and knew better than to try anything.

"This isn't a re-negotiation," Nom Anor said, hoping he could get her attention despite the presence of the looming warriors. "Ten million, cash, for weapons and engineers to install them. The only difference is that they will be used by the Hirogen rather than against them. Agreed?"

The woman was trying to act fearless but he could see it for what it was. "Talon Karrde wouldn't approve of arming the Hirogens," she said.

"Which is why I had to resort to some minor deception," he said. "But ask yourself this; would he rather you and your crew died and the weapons taken without payment? Or would he prefer you to install the weapons, collect your payment in full, and go on your way?"

It was a bad situation for her, but Nom Anor knew what she'd have to do. If you can get yourself out alive, that's good; alive and with the money, that was the best you could hope for. He'd never be able to negotiate with Karrde again, but he'd get what he needed.

As the rest of the ships exited hyperspace Vurold stomped up to Nom Anor. "They agree to arm us?" he asked.

"Yes," Nom Anor said. "And you agree to our price?"

Vurold glowered at him. "There is no glory without a trophy," he rumbled.

"These weapons will be your trophy," Nom Anor said, not really caring about the Hirogen's primitive perspective. "And perhaps you will have the means to secure a trophy from the wreckage."

"It is not a proper hunt," the Hirogen remarked distastefully.

"You must make compromises," Nom Anor said, "when the prey is stronger."

The distasteful snorting punctuated the silence that followed his observation. "Very well," Vurold finally remarked.

"Good," Nom Anor remarked. "I need to check my ship for messages. Try not to eat anyone while I'm gone." He enjoyed the contemptuous response from the Hirogen as he turned his back. A species he could relate a bit more to, but still too primitive. Too dependent on technology, and their culture too disorganized. But they would create chaos amongst the New Order, and that made these Neanderthals his allies, as distasteful as that thought was.

Perhaps he would battle them when the invasion reached this galaxy, he considered. It would be a wonderful challenge.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nothing could have stood in his way.

Luke ran through the hospital, the normally calm and controlled Jedi visibly anxious. He didn’t even stop to acknowledge –much less apology to– the people he ran into along the way. He grabbed the edge of the door and pulled himself to a halt as it slid opened. “My, we certainly are prompt,” the Doctor remarked. Luke ignored him, a smile spreading across his face to match the one on his wife’s.

“Hey, farmboy,” Annika coughed. “Miss me?”

Now that his eyes confirmed the good news he fell more in to his usual step. “I was enjoying the peace and quiet for a change.”

The Doctor excused himself and Luke came over and sat by her bedside. She was conscious, and that was important; but he could feel how weak she was, and how embarrassed that made her. “Peace and quiet,” she remarked. “Like you’d ever get that.” She coughed again. “Heard you saved the world again.”

Luke half-shrugged. “The first few times are the hard part; after that it’s a snap.” She tried to keep up her smile but he could feel she was anxious. “I didn’t use the Dark side,” he assured her. “You know I’d never do that again.”

“Of course,” she said, but he could sense her relief. “This could come in handy,” she remarked. “Next time it gets a bit too warm you could maybe push the planet out a little further to cool things down.”

“That is the most pointless abuse of power I’ve ever heard,” Luke said with a shake of his head.

“Thank you, the practicing has paid off.” She coughed again, a little harder.

“I hope I never have to try something like that again,” he finally said, glad to be able to finally talk about the event. Sick or not, she was his soulmate, and he could tell her anything.

“How did it feel?” she asked, rubbing his arm.

“Good,” he said. “Like I had transcended, become something greater than I ever could be... like the Force was alive and talking to me. It was hard to give it up, to surrender the power when it was finished. And if you and Sebastian hadn’t been on my mind at that moment, I might not have.”

“You did what you had to,” she insisted.

“I know,” he said quietly. “But like I said, not again. I don’t like playing god.”

“I do,” Annika said. She tapped him on the shoulder. “Tag, you’re God.”

“Nice to know that no matter how grim the situation, you can do your best to ignore it,” Luke said, his smile showing he was just giving it back to her.

She laughed a little, but he could feel a little bit of despair. “You’re spot on on that, Luke.” Her smile finally faded. “I’m sorry,” she said eventually. “I was pig-headed and selfish. I shouldn’t have gone on the mission.”

“You were invaluable-“ Luke began.

“You knew,” she interrupted. “I didn’t want to listen; didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t up to snuff any more.” She tried not to cough, but it forced itself out. “The Doctor says I was out for almost a week.” Her eyes filled with tears, something Luke hadn’t seen them do in a long time. “I’m sorry, Luke. I can be so stubborn sometimes; I should have listened. And-“ She started crying a little, and Luke put his arms around her. “I’m scared of dying,” she admitted. “And if it happens it’ll be my fault.”

“It’s not your fault,” Luke said.

“You knew,” she repeated. “And I’m sorry, ‘cause I know how much I’ll hurt you if I die, and that’s even worse. ‘Cause you were always looking out for me; letting me take the risks knowing that you’d bail me out. I don’t want you to hurt-“

“You’re not going to die,” Luke said, squeezing her as tight as he could. “Because you’re going to beat this. I know it.” He kissed her cheek. “You’re stubborn and pig-headed; that germ doesn’t have a chance.”

She laughed and wiped away at her eyes. He could try soothing her; reach into her mind and help her relax and forget her guilt. He decided against it; it wasn’t his right to make that choice for her. They both turned as the door opened and the Doctor returned. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but I know you’d want to hear the results promptly.”

Luke moved his chair to better see the Doctor, then his and Annika’s hands found each other and squeezed tightly. The Doctor passed her a datapad. “The reason you’ve survived as well as you have,” he said, “is that your nanotechnology eliminates infections. It’s the ultimate immune system.”

“Which is why I never get sick,” Annika said.

“Exactly. But, I have some bad news. This strain is different. It’s actually attacking the nanoprobes, and I’m afraid it’s winning. At the current rate...” his face was downcast as he tried to say the words, “...unless we find a treatment, you have about six months before your nanoprobes are exhausted. And since you’ve depended on them for immunity for so long, I don’t think your body’s going to have much better luck.”

“Is there anything we can do?” Luke asked. He could feel every muscle in his body tighten as the Doctor had spoken, and he felt almost as if he’d tear himself apart if the answer was “no.” Fortunately, it wasn’t.

“With regular injections of nanoprobes we can halt the spread of the disease, but, I don’t think we can actually stop it. Not yet, anyway. Too many probes in your weakened condition, and you may lose the ability to control them. They would start attacking your cells along with the disease, assimilating you. We’ll have to work towards some kind of long-term treatment.”

“Whatever it takes,” Annika said. Luke could sense her trying to be nonchalant, but he knew better. “You’ll need to draw some nanoprobes from me to culture?”

“No, I don’t want to take the chance of getting a contaminated specimen,” the Doctor said. “And you need every probe you have to continue fighting. Fortunately there’s a rather easy alternative in this case.”

“Sebastian,” Luke said. “He’s speaking with the Emperor right now. I’ll leave a message for him to come straight back here when he’s finished.”

“Good. In the meantime, Annika, get some rest. We’re doing everything we can. I’ve even called in some old friends to help out with this one.”

“Who?” she asked, curious.

The Doctor smiled. “Someone who was in the neighborhood.” He pushed a button on the side of the bed and the door opened.

“Harry?” Annika said in shock.

“How’s it goin’, Seven,” Harry asked as he came in. “Doc tells me you’re not doing so well. Thought maybe I could help out.” For once she was speechless; they hadn’t seen any of her former shipmates –except the Doctor– for nearly twenty years. He turned to Luke. “So you’re the someone,” he said with a bit of a smirk. “Don’t think Seven could have chosen better.” He shook Luke’s hand. “I saw what you did from orbit,” he said with a nod. “And I can’t thank you enough. I was hoping maybe I could pay you back a little.”

Luke released the grip and found Annika’s hand again. “If you can help save her,” he said, “you’ll have paid me more than I’ve ever given. Thank you.”

“Quit talking about me like I’m not here,” Annika said, giving Luke a playful slap on the hip.

“I was wondering if you could make some improvements,” Luke went on, prompted by her behavior. “A mute button would be nice.”

“Now you’re just being mean!”

“Maybe a rear end alignment,” Luke continued. “I think she’s off her warranty.”

“That’s it! You two out! I don’t want any witnesses.” With a laugh the Doctor and Harry left, leaving Luke alone with the fuming Borg. “Rear end...” she mumbled.

“If I said front end I know you’d hit me,” Luke said, giving her a kiss. She grabbed onto him and held it longer than he’d planned; somehow he didn’t mind.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Emperor was alone when Sebastian entered. The room he was in was sparse and poorly lit, but what was most notable was the mood of its occupant. Most people left an impression in the Force, but his emotions at that moment were across the spectrum and impossible to ignore. It was the empathic equivalent of a full scale orchestra; full of shades and almost overwhelming. His wrinkled face, however, wore a simple smile for the Jedi Knight. “Please, be seated,” he offered.

“It’s an honor, your highness,” Sebastian said, taking the indicated chair.

"Believe me, when I say whole-heartedly," the Emperor replied, "that the honor is mine." The Emperor closed his eyes a moment and the orchestra seemed to subdue, but it was still there. “What I share with you now,” he said, “is for you only. You must never discuss what I tell you today with anyone, not even me. It is to awaken you to the past and prepare you for the future; but the secrets must remain secrets.”

Sebastian nodded, afraid of what he was going to say but dying inside to hear it. “I will share this with no one,” he confirmed.

“Good,” the Emperor sat back. “You must first know that I am not what you think. I am not the Palpatine who rose to power in the Old Republic, who formed the Empire and invaded this galaxy.”

Sebastian nodded. “Yes, you were cloned.”

“No,” he replied with a laugh, “that’s not what I mean. I mean that I am not Palpatine, not really. My name is actually Ben Sisko, and once just a man like you.” He recounted for the wide-eyed Jedi the story of how he vanquished the real Emperor and usurped control of his body, all to bring about the beginnings of Unity. “As you can see, I’ve entrusted you with a grave secret.”

“Wh-“ Sebastian floundered in deep shock. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because the things that will happen will depend upon you. Unity has begun, and it has prospered and grown. Eventually we will live in peace as equals, the old animosity forgotten. But before it is complete that strength must be challenged, and that challenge is now beginning.” Sebastian waited as the old man seemed to gather strength. “When I was still Ben Sisko I was outside the bounds of linear time. The past and the future were, for me, as real as the present is to you. It made me aware of the dangers, and what prompted me to action. That is why I know of the dangers we face in the future.”

“Father said the future is in motion,” Sebastian said.

“Yes,” the elder whispered. “And yet, I have seen it. I have shared a glimpse with Jaina and Jacen, as I shall with you. And it is a most eventful one. Your parents have left you a legacy to live up to, one which, through courage and strength, you will far exceed. If you remain true to yourself and follow what you know is right you will lead our people into its common future. You will take your rightful place, a place that I hold for you now, unworthy though I am.”

Sebastian felt a little nervous again. His father had always told him he had a great destiny before him, but this... this was something else. He felt the fear start to grow in his heart again and, despite all his Jedi training, couldn’t purge it.

“But do not be deceived,” Sisko continued. “The path before you is not an easy one. Decisions and obstacles will arise, and you alone must bear their burden. You have seen the start of it already.”

Sebastian nodded. “The alien.”

“The first of many,” Sisko agreed. “Before long you will curse the day you set foot on Belkadan.” His face seemed to recede further into the darkness, and Sebastian could sense a subdued despair. Sisko stood and walked a short distance away, turning away from him. “I wish I could spare you this news, and this future. If it were within my power I would, but I am a servant of fate as much as you are. I must tell you, however great the burden... you must be warned, so that you can prepare yourself. I fear no one is strong enough to endure what you will unprepared... I fear even preparation may not be enough.”

Sebastian waited, not realizing he was even holding his breath. He’d never imagined anything could leave the Emperor, whoever he was, in the state he was now in, but it was impossible to ignore. Such dread... he’d never have believed it. When he spoke his words were quiet and chilling.

“They’re going to take it all away from you, Sebastian.” He turned back to face him. “Everything.”



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-09 11:00pm
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First post. Finals are over and I haven't started my summer job yet so I read the whole 7 seven chapters. They're good of coarse. Thanks. Less than a week left in this story, hard to believe.

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-09 11:15pm
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And Bastion's long trip through hell starts.



MM /CF/WG/BOTM/JL/Original Warsie/ACPATHNTDWATGODW FOREVER!!

Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all

Saying and doing are chocolate and concrete

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Star Empire wrote:
First post. Finals are over and I haven't started my summer job yet so I read the whole 7 seven chapters. They're good of coarse. Thanks. Less than a week left in this story, hard to believe.


It is hard to believe for me too. I'm hopeful that the final ending will be a satisfying closure to this universe.



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 06:33am
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Ghost Rider wrote:
And Bastion's long trip through hell starts.


What's personally satisfying is that ahead of time it looks like the typical fictional overstatement trying to drill a point home, while in retrospect Sisko is perfectly on target, maybe even downplaying it a little.



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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 06:42am
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Part IX


They were playing katiskat. Luke would never forget that moment, not a single detail. In the years to come he would recall the way Annika's hair looked as she lay in the hospital bed, the pale complexion of her skin contrasted by the cherry color of her lips. Her smile, her little joke, the mild gloating as she captured four pieces with one move. The smell of disinfectant and mild perfume, the way the sunlight was slowly moving down her body as the day approached its end. The sound of the door opening, the Doctor's nervous cough, his expression, the way he tried to nonchalantly call Luke to the door. It was etched in his mind as surely as if he'd taken a holo-recording.

"I've some bad news," the Doctor said as the door closed. "It's not about Annika," he added quickly. "It's about Sebastian. He's missing."

No matter what the age, no matter how mature they become, it was every parent's worst nightmare. To a man who had lived many nightmares, that said something.

"After his meeting with the Emperor," the Doctor said, "Volgo Teraine told him about his mother and the nanoprobes. He said Sebastian seemed distracted until he heard the news, then said he was going straight to the transporter." The Doctor's fast became even more downcast. "He never arrived at the transporter station."

"Do we have any idea what happened?" Luke asked.

"Well, authorities are looking into it," the Doctor said. "Your recent service has no doubt made this their top priority. In the meantime..." he looked at the door to Annika's room.

"He's her only child," Luke said, understanding what he meant. "And he means more to her than her own life." He shook his head. "But she has the right to know."

"Think carefully about this," the Doctor warned. "Once you tell her you can't undo it."

"That's the idea," Luke said. "I don't want to talk myself out of it."

Annika was still lying where she was, smile in place, once again refusing to accept the limitations of her condition. He could sense her anxiousness; probably thought it was news about her condition, Luke thought, but didn't want to look upset. There was so much weighing on her at that moment, it killed him to think of dumping anything more on her. He had spent a few minutes thinking of things to say, but when he finally approached her he couldn't speak. The next thing he knew he was embracing her, trying not to cry. Him, the man who had saved billions with a wave of his hand, helpless against the doom his wife and child faced. As he held her he fought for strength and resolve, winning out over despair this time. "Whatever it is," she whispered in his ear, "we can face it together."

Luke slowly released her but held onto her hands. She was putting on her best fake smile for him. He couldn't bear it any more. He told her everything. He could feel her anxiety give way to fear and horror and grief. He knew it wasn't because of what it implied for her; she was the furthest thought from her mind. She pulled him close and grabbed him tighter than before, and this time they both cried.

He couldn't remember how long they stayed like that, but he remembered her expression as they finally looked at one another again. "You didn't want to tell me, did you." She couldn't look at him any more. "You were afraid that I'd get out of this bed and look for him, illness be damned." She coughed a little. "You were right."

"Please-" Luke began.

"But you respected my wishes," she went on. "You knew that I would hate you if you kept this from me. You knew I'd resent the idea that I need to be protected from the truth for my own good."

Luke opened his mouth but couldn't speak. "Yes," he finally croaked.

She nodded, wiping her eyes again. "You know me too well," she whispered. She finally laid back in the bed, staring at the ceiling. "You want me to stay here, while God-knows-who is off with my baby."

"Yes," Luke admitted.

Annika closed her eyes and shook her head. "It's not fair." He held onto her hand, uncertain what to say. "Luke," she finally said, her voice returned to its normal volume, "you've never broken a promise to me before." She looked into his eyes, and the tears came again. "Promise you'll find my baby."

He embraced her again. "I swear it," he said. "No matter what it takes, I swear I'll find him."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The galactic conquest obviously brought a great deal of grief to the inhabitants. There was the loss of life, the destruction of personal and public property, the tearing down of ancient institutions, and thousands of other disruptions. But one thing that Chakotay had to admit, the Empire had managed to bring peace to the Demilitarized Zone, something no one had managed before.

He was relaxing after spending the morning tending his field when the call came through. He’d expected it was another one for Jane, his wife, who was still off on her walk. As soon as the screen lit up he knew he was wrong.

“Harry?” He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

“Chakotay,” the former crewmate replied. “How’s everything going?”

“Fine, fine,” Chakotay said rather quickly, still catching up. He hadn’t spoken with any members of the Voyager crew in years. “What’s this about. I mean,” he added quickly, “I doubt this is just a social call. Not with what’s been going on back on Earth.”

“Afraid not,” Harry said. “But it’s not about that. Did you hear about Seven?”

“No.” Chakotay was a bit shocked at the news as Harry filled him in. “Dying? I thought her body rejected disease automatically.”

“This one’s a whopper. Doc said everybody who catches it dies, but Seven might be able to pull through.”

“Well, I’ll do whatever I can.” For all the good it’ll do, Chakotay thought. Medicine, this kind of medicine, was way outside his experience.

“Thanks. I was wondering if you knew where Kathryn was. She did a lot of work with nanoprobes while we were on Voyager, and I’m sure she’d do anything to help Seven.”

“You’re right about that,” Chakotay agreed. “But I don’t know where she is. Haven’t heard from her for years now.”

“Yeah, she just seemed to vanish,” Harry said. “But nobody has any clue what happened. She didn’t tell you anything?”

“Not much.” He tried to remember. It was a long time ago, back before his marriage... Ever since that moment on the bridge when they watched the Federation fall, she had seemed different... cryptic. Still, she had recruited Seven for some help with her project for a while, so she'd likely help if she could for old times sake.

“Any idea where she might have gone?” Harry asked once Chakotay filled him in.

“She didn’t say. Actually I think Seven did some work with her; did you ask her?”

“No. I just couldn’t bring myself to interrupt her; she seemed to be doing well psychologically.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure Kathryn mentioned working with Seven. I’d try her.”

“I’ll do that,” Harry said.

“Anything else I can do to help?” Chakotay asked.

“If so, I’ll let you know,” Harry promised.

The connection terminated, but Chakotay was still standing in front of it. Old concerns started resurfacing, prodding at him. He had a life now; a farm and a loving wife, no one was trying to kill him. He’d help Seven, but, it wasn’t his concern what was going on. He’d done his part, he tried resisting. They lost, he accepted it, and with Jane at his side they’d moved on.

So why was it so hard to sit back down?
--------------------------------------------------------------

There were several things Harry had never expected to see in his life. The moon falling was one of them. The surrender of the Federation was another. Watching Seven cry may not have been as monumental, but it was certainly on the list.

“Is this a bad time?” he asked, mentally kicking himself. Of course it’s a bad time, stupid. Harry Kim, master of the understatement.

“No,” Seven said, wiping at her eyes. “Come in, Harry.”

“I’ll come back later,” he said.

“No! I mean... I can really use the company right now.”

“You’re sure?”

“Christ, Harry, you need a kriffing invitation?”

“Okay okay,” he came over and sat down. “It’s still early, but I really think you’re going to pull through. The data’s all positive believe me, there’s nothing to worry about.”

She gave a little laugh. It made Harry nervous; was she in denial? “I’m grateful, Harry,” she said. “It’s just that right now this disease is the furthest thing from my mind, except for making me feel next to useless.” She filled him in on Sebastian’s disappearance.

“Oh, Seven,” he said. “I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks.” She blew her nose. “That’s a name I haven’t heard in a while.”

“What’s that?”

“Seven,” she said. “It seems like it’s been ages, almost like a life I left behind. It used to be such an anchor to what I was, to an order that I was missing.” She laughed to herself. “Now all I do is create chaos for Luke.”

“So, Annika then?”

“Whichever you prefer,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of what I am. Being Borg is what’s keeping me alive.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Harry said. “Speaking of old times, Chakotay mentioned you might have worked with Kathryn?” He gave a brief description.

Seven’s face lighted up a little. “Yes. I remember what he’s talking about. She had this idea for using hyperspace transporters like they had on the Death Star. We made some advances in its use. I thought it was a good way to make interstellar travel even easier, but Kathryn started taking it into a different direction... We stopped working together some time ago. Think I might still have some of my prototypes but... I don’t know what she ever did.”

“So you don’t know where she is?”

“Disappeared,” Seven said. “I always wondered if she’d tried it out on herself and gone back in time; that was an application she was particularly interested in. Being able to undo our mistakes...” She trailed off, growing more melancholy. “Or give a warning.”

“They’ll find him,” Harry said.

“I wish I could go,” Seven said. “I have a lot more experience in investigation; I could do a great deal.”

“Like get yourself killed,” Harry pointed out.

“Damn germs,” Seven said sourly. Harry could read her expression; she wasn't used to be helpless, and here was the one thing in the universe she most wanted to protect, and she was stuck here.

“Look, why don’t I help out?" Harry offered. "Until we have the nanoprobes I can’t get any work done anyway, I might as well find something useful to do.”

“Don’t you have a real job?” Seven asked. “I don’t want you to get fired.”

“Yeah, well, if Lando doesn’t understand then I don’t want to work for him anyway.”

She smiled. “Thanks Harry.” She took his hand. A lifetime ago that would’ve meant something different to him. Now it was a sign of appreciation to a friend.

“He’s as good as found,” he assured her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Whatever problems Han had with Luke, the moment he heard about Sebastian they were forgotten. He checked on Jacen and Jaina, confident they were safe from whatever had happened to his nephew. With his own house in order he tackled the present problem. "What have the authorities learned?" he asked.

"I spoke with the chief investigator in Sydney," Luke said. "He said it looks like a classic transporter abduction."

"They have the ship?" Han asked.

"No," Luke said. "They couldn't find any ships within range at that time."

"Makes sense," Han said. "Who's going to try anything there with the Emperor's escort in orbit. But it doesn't explain how he could have been transported out, unless there's a hidden ground facility."

Harry was at one of the terminals, checking out the reports for any important details. He stopped as Luke and Han continued discussing the fleet. "I think I know what happened," he said.

"What?" Luke asked, coming over to the terminal with Han.

"They used the planetary network to disguise the beam-out. Instead of going straight through to Sebastian, they passed it through the buffers in several key places to disguise the real source of the transport."

"How do you know about that?" Han asked.

"It's a smuggling trick B'Elanna and I came up with," Harry said. "I hope that will stay confidential."

"You could confess to blowing up Alderaan and I'd give you a pardon," Han said. "Can you trace it?"

"Maybe." Harry started scanning the transporter records. "Uh-huh. Yup, very sophisticated. This wasn't some smuggler; they knew all the tricks." He gave one final tap and a ship appeared in the small display, expanding to fill the main one.

"A cargo ship," Luke said. "Can you get the markings?"

"Sure, but they're probably faked," Harry said. He zoomed in and took a closer look, then did a double-take. "Oh no."

"What?" Han asked.

"I'm afraid I know who this ship belongs to," Harry said. "But I'm not sure you're going to like it."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben Sisko waited, aware for the first time in a long while of who he really was. The veil he wore out of necessity, the one that ensured that no one would suspect he wasn't really the Emperor, was only removed in the most extreme circumstances. He had decided that the Jedi's acceptance would be one, to let them know what they would be fighting for. He was happy that they still retained their optimism about the future, even though they were now more aware of the paths they would take and the trials they would face. He'd known how strong they would be. But he still had one more job to perform, if only he had the time.

"I'm sorry, Ben," Leia said, "Luke's got so much going on with Annika's illness and Sebastian's disappearance, I doubt he could find it in him to drop everything and come here."

"He'd refuse a summon from his emperor?" Ben said in jest. "I suppose I can understand. Losing a wife and a child are the two worst things a man can experience." He took a deep breath. "I wish he would come. I had so much to share with him."

"Perhaps another time?" Leia suggested.

"No," Ben said. "Every time the veil is removed it's that much harder to restore it. I dare not; we must keep it in place unless absolutely necessary." He drummed his fingers on his makeshift throne. "I need you to tell him some things," he said finally.

"Of course, what is it?" Leia asked.

"First, tell him this: 'When the time comes, when your son needs you, you'll be there to save him.'"

"I'll do that," Leia promised. "Anything else?"

"A warning. Tell him, when his son tempts him he must resist, or Unity will be undone."
--------------------------------------------------------------

When Quark told him he had visitors, Lando expected trouble. He expected the authorities or Garak's people to deal with him for good. He even expected a mob of people demanding he pay for the near disaster he was an unwitting party to. What he hadn't expected was the trio that waited for him at the bar.

"Well, well," he said with a grin, "there's a sight I haven't seen in a while. Welcome back to the Alpha Quad-" He cut short as Han stepped forward and held up a datapad.

Lando could sense a barely restrained rage as Han held it closer, and it permeated his voice as he asked, "What's this?"

"It's... a cargo ship," Lando said finally after looking at the image.

"One of yours, Lando," Harry said from over at the bar. "The markings are forged, but it's yours."

"Could be," Lando admitted. "Why, what's wrong." He jerked as Han grabbed his shirt and dragged him an inch from his face.

"This ship kidnapped a close member of the family," Han said, his voice shaking. "Sebastian Skywalker."

"Sebastian?"

"Where is he?" Han demanded.

"I don't-" Lando was cut off as Han yanked and pressed him against the bar.

"It's your ship," Harry said again. "You should know what it was up to."

"I have no idea what happened," Lando said, a remark that was greeted with a punch to his abdomen. "I don't know about any kidnapping!"

"Han," Luke said, "let him go."

The Corellian turned and scowled at him. "Don't be naive; he's lying." He turned back to Lando with hate burning in his eyes. "You know something. Talk!"

"Let him go," Luke repeated, putting his hand on Han's shoulder. He tried to shrug it off, but Luke finally yanked, pulling him away. Their eyes locked, and Lando could feel the temperature drop.

"All right," Han said finally, "play it your way. It's not as if you actually have any feelings for Sebastian."

Luke's gaze finally turned from Han to Lando, and he suddenly felt like crawling behind the bar and hiding. "Where is he?" Luke asked in the coldest voice he'd ever heard.

"I don't know," he repeated. Han started to move towards him but Luke held up his hand to stop him.

"He's telling the truth," he said. "But you do know something. I can practically smell your guilt."

"I- Luke if I'd known what Garak was going to do-"

"Garak?!" Harry shouted. "After what he tried to do you cooperated with him?"

"I didn't want to," Lando insisted. "But we're joined at the hip now. I tried to leave, but it's just impossible. I'd have lost everything otherwise."

"So you helped him kidnap family," Han rumbled. "Nice to know where your priorities lie."

"I had no-" He stopped and closed his eyes. He couldn't believe this was happening. "I had no choice."

He looked up and saw the look of contempt in Han's eyes. "So you sold us out again."

"Hey," Lando shouted, "don't you talk to me about selling out! I didn't jump ship when the going got tough! I didn't abandon the rebellion and go live in a mansion on the Emperor's private paradise planet. I stuck with the cause. YOU sold out!"

"Enough!" Luke shouted, bringing the room to a complete silence. "Where is Garak?"

"I don't know," Lando said. "And even if I did, he'd never see you. I think he's afraid of you."

Luke's cold blue eyes dug into him. "He should be."

"Garak wouldn't be able to help you," Quark said, speaking for the first time. "The ship's headed for the Delta Quadrant, destination unknown."

"How do you know that?" Harry asked.

"You think I just tend the bar?" Quark asked with a shake of his head. "I help keep a handle on the day-to-day runnings of the business. The ship's following a series of transmission bursts to deliver the boy to someone else. No destination, just a bunch of little trips until they make the exchange."

"Where's the ship?" Luke asked.

"They removed the homing beacon," Quark said. "And they're not responding to messages. I haven't the faintest idea."

"Who is he giving him to?"

"Never said," Quark replied. "He tell you?"

"No," Lando said. He wilted under Luke's gaze. "Okay, but I have a feeling I know who. Garak's been dealing alot with a guy named Nom Anor."

"Who is he?" Han asked.

"We don't know," Lando said. "There's almost nothing about him in the records."

"And you did business with him?" Harry said in disbelief.

"I introduced him to Garak, that's all."

"That's the same thing," Harry said. "I thought we could trust your judgment. Guess B'Elanna and I were wrong."

Lando looked over to Harry. "Who do you think modified the ship?" he asked. "Do you think Garak's rebels could set up a trap for a Jedi?"

"Don't try that with me," Harry warned. "You know B'Elanna would never do something like that."

"She's done this kind of work for Garak for years," Lando said. "Don't you see, Harry? How many people throughout the company work for Garak? Even you've done-"

"I never hurt anyone," Harry said quickly. "No killing, no kidnapping. And B'Elanna wouldn't either."

"Things change Harry." Lando slumped his shoulders. "We all change."
--------------------------------------------------------------

At the best of times, B'Elanna Torres tolerated Cardassians. It wasn't anything racial, just the legacy of the Maquis that found letting go of hatred difficult. Thanks to their Dominion friends, they had killed almost everyone she cared for. Almost everyone, she thought, but not everyone.

Oh Tom.

It was nearly twenty years now since he'd been killed, murdered by the Empire to cover their tracks. He wasn't even a person to them, just an inconvenience that needed to be removed. One more victim of their insatiable drive for conquest and power. Compared to that, even Cardassians were pleasant company.

She'd done many things over the years since the conquest, things she wasn't proud of. But the Maquis had hardened her; sometimes you had to do the wrong thing, the hard thing, for the greater good. A conscience was a luxury she couldn't afford.

Despite this sentiment, even B'Elanna had a hard time accepting what she was doing. Sebastian wasn't a random face; he was the son of her former shipmate, someone who had fought alongside her, who had resisted the Empire. He was still just a teenager... if Seven knew what she'd done that Borg calm would be gone at Warp 9. But however dirty and reprehensible the job was, it had to be done. Garak said it needed to be done to cement relations with their ally, someone who could maybe help turn the tide against the Empire. Compared to that, anyone's life was insignificant.

She took another look at the readings. They couldn't be too careful with him, child or no. She'd watched on the camera when they caught him; a simple enough maneuver. The room they beamed him into was filled with a sleep agent, and she'd installed multiple stun rays along the walls and ceilings. There was no way he could escape, and still... he'd managed to last four seconds before being hit by one of the beams, but it was a very active four seconds. He had leapt and swung, twisting and bouncing off the walls, all while holding his breath! For a moment she'd actually worried that he might last long enough to find a way out, but fortunately even he couldn't avoid every hit. Once the first had found its mark he was slowed down enough for the rest to do their job. And now, encased in a stasis field and pumped full of drugs - a redundancy Torres had insisted upon - he lay mercifully unconscious, oblivious of his fate.

The final check complete, she nodded to the Cardassian commander. She was beamed down to the planet along with several guards and the case holding Sebastian Skywalker. A group of humans were waiting. Brief words were exchanged to confirm this wasn’t a trap. "This is him?" the lead asked.

"Yes," B'Elanna said. "He’s to be given to Nom Anor on behalf of Elim Garak."

"Nom Anor has been detained," the human replied. "I am Kro Thrasis. We will take him, with thanks to Elim Garak."

"Very well," B'Elanna said. "I warn you not to release him until you are prepared to deal with him. He was not easy to catch."

"Perhaps," Thrasis said. "But we will take every precaution to ensure his fate doesn't trace back to you."

B'Elanna nodded, then activated the communicator. As she was transported away she hoped that the absence of Sebastian Skywalker would ease her mind. She wasn't optimistic.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kro Thrasis waited until the Cardassian ship was gone, then removed his masquer. The pain was delicious, a perfect appetizer for the work to come. "Bring the young one," he told the subordinate Vong. "The yammosk will be very interested in him."

Inside the case, Sebastian Skywalker lay flooded with drugs while energy beams interfered with his biological processes. Still, deep in the tiny part of his mind that was still aware, that tiny splinter of consciousness, a fear grew as echoing words filled his world endlessly.

"They're going to take it all away from you."



Chuck

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Part X


The creature bore a passing resemblance to a squid, in the same way that a shark bore a passing resemblance to a goldfish. It towered above the gathered crowd of the Vong, and over Sebastian as well. Its long tentacles slithered in every direction along the icy walls. Its horrible face was growing, its bulbous eyes, gaping maw, and terrifying tooth filling the young Jedi with fear. They called it the yammosk, the war coordinator. The simpler word was the most accurate, the one that stayed with everyone despite their years from visions of childhood: monster.

He was powerless in its grip. His mind was battered with its own, amplifying his fear until the terror saturated his body. Its mouth was open, jaw already working to consume him. He couldn't look away, and his body was paralyzed. He saw the maw grow until blackness overcame him, but not unconsciousness. He could feel his head was in its mouth, just about to bite it off like a grisly animal cracker. Then he was pulled back out and turned around. Feet first. The idea slipped into his mind from the yammosk; let him be alive for the ordeal. He didn't deserve a quick death. He was unworthy.

His legs slid into the mouth up to his knees. Primal instincts caused him to kick violently, but the mouth closed, the great tooth pinning them in place. It gave him a moment to anticipate; just a little more pressure to scissor them off, and the tasty treats would be its. Then onward up the legs, then the arms, one at a time, each succulent one enjoyed before moving on to the next tasty part. Only then, when he had been picked apart would it finish the job, when it would finally just devour the rest. A fine treat for the war coordinator, filling Sebastian’s only useful purpose in life. There was no other fate he deserved.

The next thing he knew he was flying through the air, then landing on the packed ice floor and skidding to a halt. He was alive and whole, like the time before, and the time before that. But knowing that didn't make it any less terrifying. The Vong continued to chant at him as he lay, prone and crying. "Unworthy!"

Some of the Vong grabbed him and pulled him to his feet. He tried to shrug them off but couldn't find the strength. They dragged him forward, the crowd of jeering Vong parting before him, never missing a chance to mock his weakness. They stopped as the crowd broke, and Sebastian's eye's widened in shock. "Dad?"

"What's happened to you?" Luke said with a shake of his head. "How can you give in to fear like this? You, a Jedi?" He looked at Sebastian with pity and disgust. "How can you be so weak?"

The words cut him deeper than any the Vong had said. "Father, please..."

"Please what?" Luke demanded, stepping closer. "Help you? Why should I bother?" His contempt was unmistakable. "You were supposed to be strong. You shouldn't need my help."

"I can’t fight them!" he wailed. The overwhelming emotions from the Vong drove reason from his mind. He couldn’t see through any of their illusions, as transparent as they might be. The rejection was so real to him, because it was something he’d always feared.

"Oh please," Luke said with disgust. "You're supposed to be a Jedi! Act like it!"

"I don't want to be a Jedi," Sebastian sobbed. "I just wanna go home!"

Luke scowled at him. "They're right," his voice pierced Sebastian's soul. "You are unworthy."

"Please, father!"

"What kind of man are you?!" Luke bellowed at him. "I fought the Empire for years and I never allowed them to capture me. I am a Jedi; we are above such limitations. But not you. A weak, pitiful child. I'm ashamed you bear my name."

The Vong released him and he fell to the floor. Sebastian didn't even have the strength to look up, instead lying there as the Vong continued to jeer him, his father joining in. "Unworthy! Unworthy!"

"Leave him alone."

The voices stopped. Sebastian looked up and the Vong were gone. His father still looked down on him with scorn, but he was surprised to see his mother approach. "Don't hurt him any more," she pleaded to Luke.

"He's unworthy," his father replied with contempt.

"Maybe so," Annika said. "But he's your son."

Luke's scowl faded into a smile. "I suppose you're right," he said, offering a hand to Sebastian. "You are still my son."

"And we're a family again," Annika said, giving Sebastian a kiss on the cheek and a strong hug. "Nothing can stand in the way of our happiness."

"You're right," Luke said, putting his arm around Sebastian. "Things will always be warm and joyful and safe when we're together."

Annika smiled brightly in the warmth of the family's love. Suddenly the smile vanished. "Oh no," she whispered.

"The disease," Luke said in horror. "Oh my God!"

"Mom?" Sebastian said in fear as she began to emaciate.

She turned to Sebastian with terror. "Help me!" she pleaded. "Help me, please!"

"How?" he asked quickly.

"Don't waste time with questions," Luke chastised. "Help her!"

"I don't know how!" he cried.

"Please, Sebastian," she pleaded as she continued to whither before his eyes. "Help me."

"Do something!" Luke screamed.

Sebastian took her hand, hoping a solution would come to him. He was horrified to watch the limb come off in his grip, then crumble to powder. Her screams filled his ears as she finally began collapsing in on herself, falling to the floor in a pile of dust and bone.

"Now look what you've done!" Luke cried. "You let her die!"

Sebastian was kneeling over the ashes, crying as he felt all the hope give way to despair. "I couldn't..." He stopped; there was nothing he could say.

"That's because you're weak!" Luke shouted at him. "Weak and pathetic. And all we had, all our love and happiness, is gone BECAUSE OF YOU!"

"I'm sorrrreeee...." he wailed. "Oh, momma..."

"She can't hear you any more," Luke said. "You killed her! Your feebleness let her die!"

"I'm s-so sorry..." Sebastian ran his hands through the pile as if to embrace all he had left.

"You should be!" Luke shouted. "Because it's ALL YOUR FAULT!"

"I'm sorry, father," Sebastian wailed.

"Don't call me that," Luke scowled. "You're no son of mine!"

A strong wind came up and blew the dust away. Sand came and blasted at the bones, eroding them until they too had faded into nothing. When the wind stopped Sebastian was alone, abandoned, helpless.

Out of nowhere two Vong soldiers grabbed his arms and lifted him off the ground. He didn't have the strength to resist. They dragged him back into the ice chamber, the sound of the screaming multitudes drowning out everything. They tossed him forward into the waiting grip of the looming yammosk. "Failure," it echoed in his mind. "Unworthy failure."

Sebastian's grief gave way to terror as it pulled him under the water and towards its waiting mouth. The jaw was already in motion, ready to consume the tiny morsel. Food was all he was good for, that maybe someone else could gain strength from consuming him, strength that he could never show. He deserved this fate. Any mercy would be a waste upon someone so useless and impotent. Better to put him out of his misery than let him continue to live like the pathetic creature he was.

The landing on the ice was harder than the last time, the pain as jolting as the realization that he was still alive. The Vong anthem continued. "Unworthy! Unworthy!" The voices flowed together, became more uniform and even. Finally they reached a common, chant-like quality, deep and resonant. "Unworthy," the trillions of voices said as one.

Sebastian was pulled shakily to his feet. He looked up, expecting to see another of the Vong, but the face that was there was far more horrifying than their mutilated visage. "Agreed," said 7 of 9. "It is unworthy of assimilation."

"Mother-" he said in horror.

7 of 9 punched him with the back of her fist. "You will remain silent, Zero." He rubbed his jaw as she communicated with the collective. "Agreed," she said after some time. "It is unfit for any service to the collective. Biological distinctiveness is unremarkable. Cannibalize it for parts; that is all it is good for."

"Mother-" he began again, and received the same punishment. Drones grabbed his limbs, and he couldn’t resist. He grew even more confused as his father entered, standing next to 7 of 9. "I'm sorry," Luke said to 7 of 9. "It's my fault that he's so puny and helpless."

"We will correct our error," 7 of 9 said. "I've drawn up schematics for our new son. Rest assured that he will not be a disappointment as this one was."

"Yes," Luke said. "I can't see how he could be as disappointing as this one was."

"Strip him for parts," 7 of 9 said.

"The sooner the better," Luke agreed.

"I don't want any reminders of this," she looked at Sebastian with contempt, "mistake."

The Borg dragged him off. As they continued their united voice repeated the message: "Unworthy!" They dropped him onto a table, ripping off his clothes. They began to make marks on his skin where they would cut. A piece here, a piece there, every part marked and catalogued and assigned its place for use by some other, more worthy drone. There was a series of high-pitched squeals as the Borg pulled out small hand-held saws to begin his dismemberment. He struggled but their grip was unyielding.

A small part of Sebastian's mind recognized what was going on. It was all just a trick the Vong were playing, trying to tear down his mental defenses and break his will. The Borg would never dismember him, any more than the yammosk would actually consume him. It was a ploy, one he had to resist.

That voice, however, was drowned out by the voice of the yammosk as it dragged him towards its salivating mouth. This time was no trick. This time it would eat him, and slowly too. He couldn't resist, it said. He was too small and helpless. A tentacle grabbed his right arm and pulled it taut, then pushed the extended limb into its waiting maw. The great tooth came down and Sebastian screamed.

This time he rolled to a stop on the ice. His arm showed a welt wear the tooth had pressed hard against his limb, but not actually shearing it off this time. This time, the voice of the yammosk echoed. The Vong continued to shout at him as he rubbed his limb, sobbing. "Why are you doing this to me?!" he screamed. They continued even louder.

"How come you never told me you loved me?" Jorri asked. Sebastian didn't answer; he just cradled his limb. "All those times out on the bluffs," she continued. "You wanted to run your fingers through my hair, but you never did. To taste my lips with your own. All the times I saw the way you looked at my body, hoping you would act on your desires, and every time you disappointed me. You didn't even come away with me to the Academy." She closed her eyes and shook her head. "What's wrong with you? Why didn't you have the courage to admit how you felt?"

"I-" He faltered. She responded with scorn.

"Yeah, no answer. How long did I keep throwing myself at you? Well, I'm not waiting forever. There's plenty more men at the Academy that are willing to give me what you were afraid to. Real men, not little boys like you.

"You were afraid of me," she continued. "Because of your parents; you were afraid that caring about someone like that would be dangerous." Sebastian couldn't bring himself to look at her. "You gave me up because you were too gutless."

"I didn't want to hurt you," Sebastian said.

"You didn't want ME to hurt YOU!" she shouted. "You couldn't bear the thought of attaching yourself to someone you could lose, so you just never bothered. You didn't care that I wanted you; you were only thinking of yourself!" She struck him with her fists. "You don't deserve someone like me! I need someone who can be strong for me; you can't even be strong enough for yourself!"

Jorri grabbed onto him and pushed him into the water. He kicked futilely as the tentacles of the yammosk surrounded him, dragging him towards its maw. All you ever do is disappoint, came the thought. They'll all be better off with you gone, without having to support the vulnerable, cowardly little boy that you are. You fill their lives with grief, hurt them because of your own failings. A disappointment. Unworthy.

Sebastian landed solidly on the ice this time, wincing with the pain. The Vong were shouting at him still, but their faces changed to ones he recognized.

"You were supposed to be a Jedi," Luke said with a shake of his head. "What's wrong? Why are you such a failure?"

"I never should have had a child," Annika said. "It hurts me so to see what a disappointment you are. Better you were never born."

"You were supposed to lead our people," Ben said. "How could you let this happen?"

"I thought you weren't afraid of anything," Jorri said. "I should have known better. You're a coward."

"We were wrong," Jaina said. "He's the weak one. He's the one holding us back."

"He's not good enough to be a Jedi," Jacen said. "He's afraid. It makes him the feeble thing he is. A real Jedi doesn't feel fear."

"Yes," Jaina said. "Look at him trembling."

"You were supposed to be strong!" Jorri said.

"You were supposed to be a hero," Luke said.

"You were supposed to be a good son," Annika said.

"I must have been wrong," Ben said. "It must have been someone else."

"Yes," Jaina said. "Someone else."

"Not him," Jacen agreed. "Someone who wasn't weak."

"Delicate," Jorri said.

"Vulnerable," Annika said.

"Fragile," Luke said.

"Where did I go wrong?" Annika asked.

"It's not your fault," Luke said. "He was destined to fall short. He can't live up to what we've done."

"Yes," Annika said. "I suppose you're right."

"I regret the day he was born," Luke said. "Destroying our perfect world."

"All the love we tried to show him," Annika said. "It was all a waste."

"I shouldn't have even bothered trying," Luke said. "You can't train someone as cowardly as him."

"It sickens me to look at him," Annika said. "How could we have made such a mistake?"

"I guess we just didn't want to admit that he was this hopeless." He shook his head. "We should have known better."

"I wish we could undo this error," Annika said.

"Let's let him die," Luke said. "It would be kinder than this meaningless existence."

"Yes. We'll have another son, a strong one. A champion he could never have been."

"But first we need to dispose of the refuse that he is." Sebastian felt the tentacles wrap around his body again. "Let him serve at least some purpose in his death. It's far more than he could ever have done in life."

"Please," Sebastian wailed as he was dragged towards the water. "Please help me!"

"It's all my fault," Annika repeated, "because I never really loved him."

"Neither did I," Luke said. "But how could you love someone like that..."

"Someone so selfish," Jorri said.

"So lacking in ambition," Jaina said.

"Incapable of succeeding at the simplest thing," Ben agreed.

"Unworthy!" they screamed at him as he was pulled under the water towards the mouth of the yammosk. This time, this time it was going to finish the job. This time it would grind him to pieces. He deserved nothing less.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The boy was strong, Kro Thrasis observed. Three weeks and his will still held on, even if only by its metaphorical fingertips. He pondered as they tossed the unconscious body of Sebastian Skywalker into the makeshift cell. Maybe tomorrow, he thought. He can't withstand them forever.



Chuck

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Part XI


In her sickbed on Earth, Annika Hansen Skywalker lay in quiet dread. Her hope that Luke would find Sebastian was contrasted by the fear of what the boy was going through. They'd made many powerful enemies over the years, and in her darker moments her mind conjured up images of torment that threatened to drive her from her bed and seek him out. It was pointless of course; Luke was turning over every stone he could, pulling in every old favor he had to find him. At the moment he was focused on finding Sebastian; if she left the hospital it would only serve as a distraction from that goal. That didn't make it any easier to accept, but it kept her in bed.

She put down the book she'd been reading as the nurse entered to check her progress. Oddly, she wore a mask used to prevent the passing of infection. "I thought I wasn't contagious," Annika remarked as the nurse started downloading the bioscans into a datapad.

"Just a precaution," the nurse replied. She pulled out a medical tricorder and began running it over Annika.

"Is something wrong?" Annika asked after a few seconds. This was out of the ordinary; any change in routine the Doctor would have mentioned.

"No," the nurse replied without looking at her. "The Doctor just wants to make sure the instruments are accurate."

It didn't feel quite right. "Where is the Doctor?" she asked.

"On his rounds."

"I'd like to speak to him."

"Certainly, as soon as your scan's complete."

Annika wanted to argue, but she was starting to feel light-headed. She grabbed the bedrail to maintain her balance. "I need to see him now," she said.

"I'll page him as soon as I'm done, Seven," the nurse said with reassurance.

Her eyelids dipped as she felt her strength oozing. Getting tired, she thought. Hope it's not... not too...

Seven?

"Who are you?" Annika asked, becoming a bit more alert. The nurse stopped her scan for a moment, then continued. Annika grabbed her hand and, despite the disease, forced her to drop the tricorder. "Answer me!" she demanded.

"Just relax," the nurse replied. She fought as Annika grabbed her mask and pulled it off.

Annika's eyes widened in disbelief, her grip weakening. "Wh-what are you doing here?" she asked, her voice shaking. The world faded to blackness.
--------------------------------------------------------------

She pulled the hypospray away from Seven's neck. Quickly she removed the empty container and inserted another, discharging that into the sleeping Borg as well. She scooped up her tricorder and slipped out. A quick change of clothes thanks to a holoprojector and she was as good as gone.

"Did everything work out?" one of the cowled men asked as she verified her identity at their makeshift operations center.

"Yes," she said, retrieving her own cloak. "But she's as clever as she's always been."

"She figured out what you were doing?" he asked with horror.

"Worse, she figured out who I was." Before he could react she held up a hand. "I gave her the hypospray; it should prevent her short-term memories from passing into long-term storage. She'll remember nothing."

"But if it doesn't work-" he began.

"Then it doesn't work," she replied. "Worrying about it will not change its outcome."

"I said it was a risk," he pointed out.

"And you know we had to do it regardless," she fired back. "The abduction wasn't anticipated, which means a change of plans. If we're discovered we'll change them again. And again if need be, until we have succeeded. Now, no more on the subject, just your report."

The man was silent for several seconds. "Luke Skywalker has struck out on his own to search for his son," he said finally. "His associates are working on tracking down any leads, but there has been little. Skywalker's been crossing the Delta Quadrant in an expanding search pattern."

"He's hoping to find the boy?" she asked. "The probability of success is almost nil. And why the Delta Quadrant?"

"We don't know," he replied. "Perhaps he's desperate."

"Well, after today's efforts he will be even more desperate." She mulled it over. "Have our agents located Sebastian Skywalker?"

"Not yet, but they're close."

"Good. Make this our top priority. That information could be invaluable if our gambit fails."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Innumerable species across millions of worlds made up the vast Empire. They varied in every conceivable way, from body structure to elemental composition, from language to social interaction. But one of the most common threads amongst them all was a desire for a dark, out of the way place to be served drinks. The one on Katholia II was no different than any Luke had seen throughout his life. The atmosphere was less smoky than some and no music played, but there was the smell of restrained malice in the air. It didn't matter; the only fear in Luke's heart was for his wife and son. Death himself wouldn't have even raised his heartbeat; but it wasn't Death that stepped up to the bar next to him. It was something much less friendly.

"Tantholian Lager," a rumbling voice announced from above. A thumb the size of a lightsaber gestured at Luke. "He's buying."

Luke turned and looked up to the face that loomed over two meters above the floor. The conversations came to a halt as the pair stared unblinking at one another. "You're a hard man to find," Luke finally said, his eyes never moving.

"I like it that way," Kalib said, scooping up the mug as if it were a shotglass. "The less people find me, the less I have to deal with the stupid." He downed the mug. "You haven't lost your touch," he said as he pushed the mug back towards the bartender. "Most people can't get through my cloak."

"I'm not most people," Luke remarked, taking a drink of his own.

Kalib gave a small laugh. "Nope. Touched seldom are." He took the refilled mug and pointed Luke to a booth. "So the vision was true," he remarked as they sat down. "Only it was the woman, not you."

"Annika did it," Luke confirmed. "From getting them in to destroying the Borg, she did it all."

"Good. Always preferred women who get their hands dirty." He took it easier with his second glass. "So what did you want?"

"What you trade in," Luke said. "Information."

"You've gotta do better than that," Kalib said. "Just because I live forever doesn't mean I've got time to waste."

"My son was kidnapped," Luke said. "I need to find him."

"That's a little too specific," Kalib said. "I'm not omni-"

"Yo, move it," came a voice. Luke looked and saw a group of five aliens; young, tough from the looks. He could sense their belligerence; they had serious problems with authority too. If they recognized him, it might mean trouble.

Kalib gave them a look like they'd just spat in his drink. "You interrupted me." His tone implied it was a cardinal sin.

"That's our booth, fat man," the leader of the gang remarked. "Go waddle along someplace else."

Kalib looked back to Luke. "Fat?" he said as if he'd just been called "shorty." He returned his attention to the group. "You're lucky he's here or I'd tear your arm off of and stick it up your ass."

"Big talk."

"Uh, no, he means it," Luke said. "Kalib's not one to use metaphors."

"Shut up, old man." Now it was Luke's turn to look at Kalib in surprise.

"Parents always said it'd make you go blind," Kalib said. "Look twerps, shove off. I've got business to take care of."

"Maybe we should-" Luke said, trying to play the Jedi peacemaker. It was like trying to negotiate with an earthquake.

"I'm not moving," Kalib said. "I'm... comfortable. Now, what were we talking about?" He stopped as a small blaster was pressed against the side of his head. "Didn't your mother tell you it's not polite to interrupt the grown-ups?"

"One last time," the leader said, "move it or we'll drag you out."

"Then again," Kalib said, "your mother didn't seem too interested in manners when I was with her."

The blaster fired. Kalib wore the most annoyed frown Luke had ever seen, a bare spot burned into his beard where the blaster had struck. "Not very nice," he remarked, reaching for one of his knives.

"No," Luke said forcefully.

Kalib scowled, but after a few seconds relented. Most of the gang had already turned tail when the weapon did nothing more than give him a bad haircut. “Like I was saying," he continued, "I don't specialize that way. I can't help you."

"But I think you might be able to point me in the right direction," Luke said.

"Maybe. Depends. Got anything-" he stopped in mid-sentence. The gang leader had picked up a stool and struck Kalib over the head with it, leaving a large dent in the durastele. Kalib held up a finger. "'Scuse me," he rumbled, "I've got something in my eye." An arm the size of Luke's waist reached out, snatched the punk, and tossed him across the bar into the wall. "There, it's gone."

"Elim Garak kidnapped him," Luke said, ignoring the display, "but traded him off to someone else. Who is he dealing with that'd want to get to me?"

Kalib shrugged. "You're working for the Empire now," he pointed out. "Lots of people wouldn't mind a piece of your hide for that alone."

"But this is different," Luke said. "Garak had access to the same weapon used to destroy Sernpidal. I investigated that system, and I know something odd's been going on in that part of space. I doubt this is a coincidence."

"I don't know," Kalib said. "Maybe they'd go after you, maybe not. Depends on how big of a threat you are."

"So you know who they are."

"I don't know if they're the ones who took your kid, but if it's who you think, you're gonna wish I was wrong."

"Who are they?" Luke asked.

"Uh-uh, this is an information exchange, remember? No freebies."

"What do you want?" Luke asked.

"What have you got?"

Luke stopped. He couldn't betray Imperial secrets for personal information, and Kalib would scoff at any technology he offered. "This is personal information I'm looking for," Luke said. "How about personal information in exchange?"

"I don't care about the details of your private life. I'm a broker, not a voyeur."

"This secret," Luke said, "is so private I haven't told anyone, but could prove useful. Could even be used against me. But if it helps me find my boy I'll risk it."

"Let's hear it," Kalib said. "I'll give you what I think it's worth."

Luke wet his lips. He thought of Sebastian, trapped and at the mercies of some alien. It gave him the motivation to say the words. "Since my... return," he said, referring to the conquest of his dark side, "I've heard the whispered voice of the Dark side trying to call me back. I resisted. Since the fall of Bastion I haven't heard it since."

"Fascinating," Kalib said with boredom.

"I'm not finished. Since I used the Force to stop Earth's moon from falling I've heard it again. Deep inside, like a rattling of chains, trying to claw its way out again. Even after all this time I'm still not truly rid of the taint of my decision. And..." He couldn't look up at him. "If I lose either of them, him to their hands, her to this disease, I doubt there's enough will in me left to stop it."

"My heart bleeds," Kalib said. Luke looked up at him with piercing eyes. Kalib shrugged. "But you took out the Borg, or helped anyway. I'll cut you a deal for that." He cracked his neck. "Ever heard of the Yuuzhan Vong?"

"No," Luke said.

"Nasty piece of work, them. Aliens from outside both our galaxies, warriors like nothin' you've seen before. Tough, strong, quick, merciless, and without fear. They've been scouting out the galaxies for decades, prepping for a full-scale invasion."

"When?" Luke asked.

"Already started. Claimed an area of space; they're already terraforming the planets to suit their needs. That's the way they work, see? They're ecology nuts of the highest sort; only biotechnology, nothing else."

"They're preparing to expand?"

"They're preparing for total conquest. Look, these guys weren't ready for the political winds to shift like they did. They expected to be going against the New Republic first, then to mop up everyone in the Milky Way. Instead the Empire wins it all, and because of their heavy duty military machine, the Vong don't have a chance unless they take steps."

"Like growing more weapons," Luke said, understanding.

"More than that. They've had scouts going around making trouble for a while now. They've been fostering dozens of tiny rebellions all over the place to help wear down morale and spread out the military. But this new guy, he's gotten pretty ambitious."

"What's his name?"

"Don't know, he uses too many aliases. But he's gotten involved in a lot of larger stuff. I'm sure he gave the weapon to the Cardassians, hoping that they could score a major hit against the Empire. If you got in the way of that plan, he might have been pretty ticked at you."

"Get revenge on me by... by killing Sebastian."

"Not sure it's revenge," Kalib said. "They could've just killed him when they took him and left the body. And they obviously didn't contact you about a ransom or to goad you or nothin'. More likely, they want you to do precisely what you're doing: look for him."

"Why?"

"Maybe it's to lure you into a trap. Maybe it's to keep you busy so you can't interfere again. But this guy, whoever he is, is sharp. He knows just how people think. I'm betting that whatever you're doing is what he wanted all along."

"Well, even if it's true, I can't stop looking."

"It's your choice," he said, getting up. "But if I were you, I'd get some help. Someone he wouldn't think you'd turn to."

"Someone like you?" Luke said.

"I'm not a mercenary or an errand boy," he said. "But I'll help you with this: you're not the only one looking for the kid."

"Who else is?"

"Open your eyes, Jedi, you'll figure it out." Kalib lumbered out as Luke mulled everything over. Kalib was different, but trustworthy for the most part. This information was probably genuine.

Although, Luke thought, we'd probably be better off if it wasn't.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"The Borg," Gen. Taar said loudly, a bit of contempt showing in his voice. Images of walking drones and cubes appeared behind him as he began the lecture. "Tell me about them. Mr. Paulson."

Brian sat up a little straighter. "The Borg are a cybernetic race that existed in a hive-like collective. They existed solely to expand their biological and technological diversity with advanced forms of both."

"Yes," Taar said. "A virtually infinite number of minds devoted to a single purpose; the combined intelligence of all working towards a common goal. Technological advancement that dwarfed those they encountered; weapons, speed, shields all superior. What is the current tactical threat of the Borg? Ms. Sunspring."

Jorri felt a little nervous. Was it a trick question? "None," she said. "They were destroyed."

"Exactly," Taar said. "Despite all their seeming advances the Borg experiment was left on the ash heap of history. A failure, despite all their seeming advances." The lights dimmed and a hologram appeared above their heads. "The first invasion of the Federation," he said as the Hologram played out the key battles. "Assimilation of a colony, confrontation with the Enterprise, and the infamous battle at Wolf 359. Every one a decisive Borg victory, and yet they failed. Why?"

Shorine raised her hand. "Because of the intervention of Captain Picard and-"

"No," Taar said with irritation, "that is how. I want to know why they lost, not your ability to recite history."

Shorine gave Jorri a look, and she shrugged back. She raised her hand. "The Borg were attacked in a way they hadn't anticipated. They'd expected weapons and ships, but not turning their own systems against them."

"You're on the right track," Taar said. "They analyzed and adapted, but what they failed to do was anticipate. A common failing of the Borg? No. So why did it happen here?"

Andrews, one of the younger cadets, raised his hand. "The attack couldn't have been anticipated, given what the Borg knew."

"So why did the Borg fail?" Taar asked. "If that was the case, Mr. Andrews, why did they fail?"

Andrews hesitated. He already gave the answer, Jorri thought. What does he want. "Because the circumstances were such that they..." He floundered. "It was bad luck, sir."

"Lights," Taar said. The holograms disappeared and the lights returned to normal. "Mr. Andrews," he said, taking a polished globe off his desk, "I'm quite pleased." He tossed the globe a few times. "It would disgust me if you were anything more than a first semester cadet giving me that pitiful excuse of an answer." The globe bounced off the back of his fist and hit the floor, exploding in a shower of tiny shards. "I would fear for your safety, Mr. Andrews, if you were to ever return from a defeat and tell your commander you failed due to 'bad luck.'" The class was silent as he returned to his place behind his desk. "Why did the Borg fail?"

Jorri thought about it. The question was, how could they have known about Picard's attack? How could they even have prepared, had they known?

"Mr. Paulson," Taar said as Brian raised his hand.

"Their systems weren't secure," he said. "If they-"

"No, that was incidental," Taar said sharply. "Come now, the answer is staring you in the face. Someone show me a glimmer of insight." Jorri bit her lip and raised her hand. "Ms. Sunspring," he called. "You have a better answer, I hope?"

"The Borg failed because they overestimated their own abilities."

"Explain."

She licked her lips. "The Borg looked at the Federation and all the possible attacks they could mount. They realized that there was no foreseeable way they could stop even a single cube. So they sent a single cube."

"And why is that the reason for their defeat?" Taar asked.

"The Borg refused to admit the possibility that the Federation could attempt a move they couldn't anticipate. Instead of sending in a fleet of cubes they sent only one, in effect, having the entire campaign rest on a single ship. If they'd had more ships, they would have been better able to adapt to any attempt to stop their attack."

She waited on pins and needles as Taar merely stood there. Finally he spoke. "Expect the unexpected," he proclaimed. "It is the creed of any competent officer. The Borg's failure was because they refused to accept this creed. Very good, Ms. Sunspring, your intellect exceeds that of the Collective. It certainly exceeds some of your classmate's, anyway."

Her heart raced a little. Gen. Taar was a harsh instructor, and while it had been another dig at his students, he had complimented her; a rare thing. It was a little thing, but getting noticed by him could lead to opportunities later on in her more advanced classes. She was so lost in thought that she didn't notice the man waiting for her outside class until she ran into him. "Excuse me," she said in passing, then stopped. "Mr. Solo?"

"Hi, Jorrielle," he said, giving that winning grin of his. "How's classes?"

"Uh great, fine," she said quickly. What was he doing here? She'd met him a couple of times on Tatooine when the Solo's had come to visit, but she was still a little starstruck.

"Good," he said. He waited a few seconds. "We talk someplace private?" he asked.

Whatever it was, Jorri thought, it must be important. "Shorine," she called, and her roommate ran over. "Can you take notes for me for Galactic History? Oh, this is Mr. Solo."

"THE Han Solo?" Shorine said, even more starstruck than Jorri. "Holy..."

"Hiya Shorine," Han said. "Nice meeting you, but you don't want to miss your class." Shorine nodded and finally took off.

"What's this about?" Jorri asked as she led him over to the dorm.

"It's about Sebastian," Han said. They drew to a stop.

"Something's wrong," Jorri said. "What's going on?"

"Not here," Han said.

"What's happened to Sebastian?" Jorri said, perhaps a little too loud.

Han bent down and whispered in her ear. "If you care about him, keep your mouth shut."

Grudgingly she took him back to her room. "Now what's going on?" she demanded. "Sebastian hasn't answered any of my holo-messages in weeks. Is he mad-"

"It's not about you," Han said. "But if you care about him you have to listen carefully. Someone kidnapped him."

Jorri felt all the strength leave her body, and her arms and neck were covered with goosebumps. Bastian? She sat down on the edge of her bed.

"Around the time the Emperor visited Earth," Han continued. "Listen, this is very serious stuff, and nobody knows about this unless they have to. If word got out," he hesitated. "If word got out they might kill him."

She looked into his face when he said that. "No," she said with a slight shake to her head. "They can't."

"Listen," Han said, grabbing her shoulders. "We are going to find him. Trust me on this. The Emperor himself has made this a priority. Whoever did this is going to be very sorry when it's over; but for now we have to keep this a secret. Nobody can suspect anything. Do you understand?"

"Yes," Jorri said, still having trouble accepting it. She took a deep breath. "Why are you telling me?"

"You kept sending holo-messages," Han send. "Annika said you should know; that you could be trusted." He lifted her chin so she was looking into his eyes. "She doesn't give her trust easily," he said.

Her breathing was still shaky. "I won't tell anyone," she said.

"Good," Han said. "Look, if there's anything you need..."

"Please, just find him," Jorri said. "I... I miss him. He's the best friend I've ever had."

"He says the same thing about you," Han said with a smile. "Trust me, we'll find him." He showed himself out, leaving Jorri to reflect on what this meant. Oh Bastian, she thought, why didn't you come here with me? We could’ve had some time before....

No, she insisted, he’s going to make. He’s too stubborn to let himself get killed.



Chuck

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Part XII


“How was your vacation, Mr. Vorchek?” the security guard asked as he flashed his hand over the scanner, showing his identity.

“I’m tired,” Vorchek said. He didn’t make eye contact.

The guard chuckled. “I hear that.” A quick scan revealed nothing out of the ordinary, just like it always did. The guard logged it in; it was Vorchek’s first admittance since he left for vacation two weeks ago. The door opened and Vorchek was admitted into the headquarters for Sienar Fleet Systems.

Vorchek walked through the building, barely alert of what was going on around him. A colleague bumped into him at an intersection. After a brief apology she asked how his vacation was. “I’m tired,” he replied, then continued on his way, the woman laughing to herself. That Vorchek; vice-president or not he was still a party animal.

He found his way to the power control center down in the bowels of the space station in orbit around Wakleemui. It was still early; the night crew that monitored the reactor was just preparing for the change of shift when he arrived. “Mr. Vorchek,” the primary engineer greeted as he walked up. “How was your vacation?”

“I’m tired,” Vorchek said. Before another word was said he grabbed the man and pushed a laserwelder into his face; he never had time to scream. He pulled out the engineer’s code cylinder and looked for the other two, who perished just as quickly and silently.

With his own authority and the authorization of the primary engineer, taking control of the reactor was simple. It had to be, his brainwashed mind was too battered to handle anything more complex. He cranked up the reactor’s fuel mixture, overriding the safeties and lowering the protective shielding.

Security, or course, was alerted to the condition themselves. Despite his best efforts they overwhelmed him and stopped the reactor from exploding, but not before 60% of the station had received what would prove to be a lethal dose of radiation. The other’s, like Vorchek, also penetrated security at Sienar facilities, each meeting with their own successes or failures. All had carried out their instructions though, as the yammosk had ordered them.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Lando couldn’t believe it as he watched the reports from across the holo-net. Everyone was talking about the disaster that Sienar had suffered. Three factories destroyed, tens of thousands dead or dying. It was catastrophic for the company. Their stocks dropped like a stone. Before the hour was out it seemed clear the company would be hard-pressed to recover from the loss of assets and personnel. They might have to close their doors forever.

For Lando it was the best of all possible events. There was no chance Sienar would be able to win that contract, which meant he was in. Calrissian Enterprises would become a shooting star of opportunity; he’d have to beat the investors off with a stick. He would be rich beyond his wildest imaginings.

“Garak,” he whispered. “What have you done?” He turned off the holo-projector, trying to resist the urge to vomit. His road to happiness was now paved with the skulls of innocent people. They were his competitors, but that didn’t make them his enemy. The Cardassian probably thought he was doing him a favor.

“What do we do now,” Quark asked.

Lando shook his head. “I don’t know. We’ve got to think very carefully about this.” He rubbed his temples, feeling a headache coming on. “But whatever we do,” he said, “we owe Sienar’s people for this. We can’t just abandon them.”

“We’re a corporation,” Quark said, “not a charity.”

“We’re responsible for this,” Lando said.

“You don’t know that.”

“An act of terrorism takes out our competitor,” Lando said. “We are allied with terrorists. Should be pretty obvious what happened.”

“Garak doesn’t operate in that part of space,” Quark observed.

“No, but we know who does.”

Quark nodded, getting the picture. “Nom Anor.”

“I think we know what Sebastian Skywalker was traded for,” Lando said miserably. Lando always figured taking his business into the big leagues would strain his conscience, but he’d never imagined this.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Belkadan was silent. No animals called, no feet scampered through the woods, no sound of burrowing paws. With the exception of the plants, this world was just as dead as it had been previously. Unfortunately, that also included the Vong.

“Sensors aren’t getting any better readings than they had on the Falcon,” Harry said. Luke didn’t answer. He hadn’t been able to sense the Vong the first time, but he was hoping maybe he would be able to pick up... something. Any sign of the invaders, any shred of evidence.

“Kriff,” he muttered.

After talking to Kalib he had gone straight to Leia. With the support of the Imperial Navy they could do a complete search of the dead zone and stop the invaders before they were ready to advance. That they had a chance to find Sebastian was, admittedly, a motivation. For all the good it had done, anyway. His heroism on Earth had gotten him somewhere, but being far from the Alpha Quadrant amongst the Imperial Senate had diminished his position substantially. With the increase in attacks throughout the Empire they couldn’t afford to form the kind of fleet he was asking, not without evidence of these invaders. And it was a perfectly reasonable demand, which is perhaps why it was so infuriating.

And now the Vong were gone, no doubt driven off by their discovery here. Even the corpses of the ones he’d killed were gone. Aside of the planetwide extinction there was no evidence to support his theory, which meant another dead end.

“What now?” Harry asked.

Luke had been wondering the same thing. “We could try some of the other planets, but the dead zone is a pretty big place. It could take us months to find evidence. I’m not sure if we’ve got that much time.” The commlink buzzed and Luke pulled it out. “Yeah, Han?”

“Leia’s got some news for you,” Han said. “Audio only, through the secure network. Want me to patch her through to where you are?”

“Yes.” There was no time to waste. “Leia?”

“Luke,” Leia said, the transmission slightly garbled after the encryption, “I’ve got a possible lead. Someone left an anonymous message that they had information about the Vong. They offered to help if they spoke directly with you.”

“Probably some crackpot,” Harry remarked.

“They also sent us the coding for a genetic sequence,” Leia said. “The Imperial Medical Board has confirmed it’s over 99.999% identical to the disease Annika possesses.”

Luke didn’t know what that meant. It could mean they were the ones that were responsible, or that they were claiming the Vong were. Regardless, even if it was a crackpot, he had no idea what to do next. Besides, it may be Kalib again trying to get his attention. “I’m on my way,” he said.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Harry asked as they started walking back towards the Falcon. “We could lose a lot of time if it’s a ruse.”

“That disease isn’t classified, but it’s not common knowledge either,” Luke said. “I’m betting that anyone who could get their hands on it wouldn’t be so desperate for attention that they’d cook this up just to get to me.”

“I wish we’d taken two ships then,” Harry said. “If I had some more time here maybe I could come up with some leads.”

“You could stay here and we’ll have a ship sent. Only take a couple of days.”

“No chance,” Harry said. “With my luck the Vong will pop out of the trees the moment you lift off.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The room was a blur, the sounds garbled and indistinct. It took a little while for Annika to focus on the shape of the Doctor, trying to talk to her, and even longer for her to understand what he was saying.

“Another coma?” she asked.

“Six days,” the Doctor said with a nod.

“What brought that on?” she asked. The more awake she became the worse she felt. Her lungs felt like they weighed thirty kilos, she was unbearably hot, and her stomach was killing her. There was a pounding in her head that made thinking difficult. On the whole, she decided, being sick sucked.

“You received a severe setback,” the Doctor said, a little moody. “As near as I can tell, someone got in here and deactivated fifteen percent of your nanoprobes.”

“That can’t be good,” Annika said, her mind not quite catching up.

“Your body was already losing the fight,” the Doctor explained. “This setback has allowed the disease to progress even more rapidly than I projected.” She heard a hypospray discharge. “Your systems probably shut down to allow you to try and fight it.”

Annika started to feel her head clear a little. Whatever the Doctor had given her was suppressing the symptoms for the moment. “You said someone did this to me,” she remarked. “But who would know how to deactivate my nanoprobes?”

“Obviously someone with advanced knowledge of how they worked,” the Doctor said. “Someone who probably rivaled my own knowledge, and I’ve had decades to study them. Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific than that.”

She nodded, then she suddenly sat up. “Sebastian! Did Luke find him?”

“I’m afraid not,” the Doctor said, crushing her hopes. She slid back down onto her pillow. “He did want me to tell you he had some strong leads and that he was confident he’d find him soon.”

Annika stretched and rubbed her burning eyes. “What I don’t understand,” she said, getting back to the topic of her health, “is why someone would do this to me? If they wanted me dead, why not just kill me?”

“I wish I knew,” the Doctor said. “It might give Earth Security somewhere to start.” He hesitated. “Annika,” he said, “I know you’re under a lot of strain at the moment, but, I’m afraid I have to be honest with you. Without an influx of active nanoprobes, I don’t see you lasting more than a month.”

She nodded, expecting that. “Then we may have no choice,” she said, “but to extract my probes and hope you can culture them in time.”

“I already tried,” the Doctor said. “But the disease is spreading so rapidly that I keep pulling contaminated samples. If I continue trying it will only weaken you further. We’re going to have to hope Luke finds Sebastian in time for a transplant.”

“He will,” she said confidently. “He’s the most resourceful man I know. Besides you, of course,” she said with a smile.

The Doctor smiled back, but even though he was artificial she could see hurt in his eyes. “I never told you this,” he said after a few seconds. “It had always seemed rather silly, but, I... used to...” he floundered a little, “...care.... very deeply for you. If you understand my meaning.”

Annika smiled. “Are you saying you had a crush on me, Doctor?”

If the Doctor could blush his look implied he would. “I told you it’d seem silly-“

“That is so sweet,” she said, putting her hand on the side of his face. “I never knew.” She thought a moment. “Although it would explain why you had me undress so often for check-ups,” she said with a smirk.

“I was always professional, I assure you,” the Doctor said, rather embarrassed by the revelation.

“I'm just teasing," Annika said, but then got a little more serious. "It could never have worked, of course."

"I know," the Doctor said, face downcast. "I'm just a hologram."

"'Just' is a word I could never apply to you," Annika insisted. "You were my mentor, Doctor. A relationship like that could never work."

The Doctor laughed a little. "I never really thought of it in those terms. Of course, you're right."

"Just because I can't care for you in that way doesn't mean I care for you any less," Annika said. "You have always been very important to me."

The Doctor seemed a little more relaxed at the remark. “Seeing you with your husband and your child,” he said, “it makes me so happy for you. You seem so joyful and complete; I'm so glad you took a chance on humanity, even if it wasn't with me. But you are still special to me, the first person I ever fell in love with, even if from a distance. And...” he paused, “And I want you to know that you’re more than just my patient; you’re my dearest friend. I will fight this disease with every means at my disposal, I promise you. I won’t give up.”

“Thank you,” she said. Then she leaned up and kissed his cheek.

“Well, enough about the past," the Doctor said. "In the here and now, why don’t you eat something and get some more rest. You’ll need to keep your strength up.”

She ordered some food from the replicator after the Doctor had left, but it was difficulty getting anything down. Before she had just felt weak and uncomfortable, but now she was absolutely miserable. It brought her mind back to how things had gotten worse, and the question that needed answering: Who would’ve done this?
--------------------------------------------------------------

She was waiting for Luke in Mothma Memorial Park, sitting at one of the tables near the fountain. She wore a long hooded cloak that hid her expression, but he could still sense her. She was anxious. He felt that anxiety rise a little as he approached. He slipped into the chair opposite her. “I’m Luke Skywalker,” he said. “You tried to contact me.”

“Yes,” she replied. Even this close he could only make out the lower part of her face. It reflected the same mild nervousness he felt from her.

“You said you had something for me,” Luke said, trying to get a stronger feel for her. There was something familiar about her, something that was on the borders of conscious thought that made him edgy. He’d been feeling that way a lot more often lately.

“Yes,” the woman said, a hint of a smile on her lips. “I have the treatment for the condition your wife suffers from."

“Really,” Luke said, trying to convey disbelief but secretly uncertain. There was no cure for Annika’s condition; he knew that, but his heart insisted that he hear her out, to hold onto this hope for at least a little while. “And where exactly did you get it?”

“From the same people who created it in the first place,” she replied, and this time her grin was obvious. “The Yuuzhan Vong.”

“I see,” Luke replied, still showing he wasn’t convinced. “And why should I believe you?”

“Because you love your wife,” she replied. “Because I know just how far you’re willing to go to save her.”

Luke sighed a little. “Whatever you might have heard,” Luke replied, “it wasn’t true. Just space legends; nothing more.”

“You’re a poor liar, Mr. Skywalker.” Her smile was gone now, and Luke could sense a growing pain from the woman, but above it all was her genuine belief she was telling the truth. “I know it’s true. I was there.”

Luke’s expression changed at that. She wasn’t any species Luke had met amongst the Alpha Quadrant powers. Was she a colleague of Kalib? “Who are you?” he asked, his voice showing just how serious he took this.

“Perhaps this will remind you,” she said, pulling her hood back more and tapping a small electronic device on her wrist. She took a deep breath, and when she spoke Luke nearly jumped out of his chair as a voice he heard only in his nightmares spoke once again.

“We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own.” Her face held an ironic smile; “Resistance is futile.”

Luke was panting for breath as he kept his emotions in a tight grip. There was no more collective, he reminded himself, just Borg refugees that had descended on the galaxy years ago. She reached up and pulled her hood off, then removed her wig, and a chill passed through Luke. Yes, he’d seen her inside Annika’s mind, back when they had fought to bring her back, when she had changed. The Borg Queen, he thought in horror. Somehow...

“I’m pleased you remember,” she said, but her expression was anything but. “So now you know, but I know what you are willing to do for her, what you were willing to sacrifice. No more lies now, Mr. Skywalker; I know you far too well for that.”

“A lot can change in seventeen years,” Luke replied, trying to gain the upper hand.

The Borg Queen scoffed. “A very human response, but it rings hollow. In any event, we are here to discuss the Yuuzhan Vong.”

“You still claim they were the ones responsible for this disease?”

“Really, Mr. Skywalker, isn’t it obvious? The same ones that are defeating you on the military and political front are the ones defeating you on the biological one.” She smiled with the pleasure of a spider watching a freshly-trapped fly. “They overrun your worlds, they transform them, consume them, so that they may serve their cause. They use superior weapons, they analyze, they adapt. They take your people and turn them against you, as they did on Sienar. Sound familiar?”

“Yes,” Luke replied with a dryness in his throat, but one quickly replaced with confidence. “It sounds very much like another overrated power I helped destroy.”

The Queen ignored the slight. “And you have every confidence that you will defeat them?”

“We defeated you,” Luke said, enjoying the remark perhaps a bit too much, considering what that victory had cost him.

“It was merely good fortune on your part.”

“Sorry, I don’t believe in luck.”

She was silent. “You’re right,” she said finally. “I cannot believe I have come to believe those words, but you are correct. There really is no such thing as coincidence, is there.”

Luke eyed her uncertainly. Whatever was going through her mind had given her a remarkable confidence and comfort, and whatever that was probably wasn’t good news for him.

“I’ve never been one to believe in a higher power, Mr. Skywalker,” the Queen went on. “But I know the facts when I see them. Seven-“

“Annika,” Luke corrected, perhaps a bit too forcefully.

“Annika,” she continued, “is Borg. What you and she have done goes against everything we know, against all possible logic.” She looked into his eyes, and he understood.

“Sebastian,” he said, just above a whisper.

“You and her, the two who overwhelmed the Collective, brought chaos to order. Your son...Mr. Skywalker, it can’t be a coincidence.”

“Sebastian has a great destiny before him,” Luke admitted.

“Yes,” she replied. “Far greater than you’ve ever imagined.” She was visibly anxious. “He will restore us. He has the power to rebuild the collective, to bring back the Borg.”

Luke stared at her, his face reflecting just how mad that remark was.

“He has the power of a Jedi with the strength of the Borg,” she continued. “With that combined might he will be able to undo the mistake Sev- Annika made.”

“Destroying the collective,” Luke said forcefully, “was the best thing she ever did. She brought to an end the reign of a malicious and evil collection of automatons. I’m not sure which offends me more; that you call that a mistake, or that you presume Sebastian would help you.”

“He will,” she said, “because you’re going to tell him to.”

“I’d cut out my own tongue first,” Luke said, getting up. “Stay away from him. Stay away from my family.”

“You’re forgetting something, Mr. Skywalker,” the Queen continued. “The cure. I assure you it’s real, and we will give it to you-“

“THERE IS NO CURE!” Luke shouted.

The Queen waited in silence for him to calm down. “We assimilated Species 15101 six months before the destruction of the Collective,” she continued. “The species you know as the Vong. One of their scouts was picked up during the routine assimilation of a planet. He had assisted in creating the disease that now spreads throughout the galaxy. It will come to the Milky Way soon enough; it is a weapon of war, after all.”

“And you claim to have a cure?” Luke said with skepticism.

“We adapt to all perceivable threats,” she replied. “Even biological ones.”

Luke hesitated. She wasn’t lying, he knew that much. But there was something she wasn’t telling him. “What do you want for it?” he asked.

“I’ve already said. I want you to tell Sebastian Skywalker to help us rebuild the Collective.”

Luke leaned down onto the table, his look piercing. “Maybe you didn’t hear me,” he said. “I will never allow Sebastian to help the Borg. I certainly won’t encourage him.”

“Then your wife will die.”

A flicker of anger passed through Luke. “Your thoughts may have been one once,” Luke said. “But if you knew Annika even half as well as I do you know she’d rather die than help the Borg, much less use her own son to do it.”

“Why do you think I came to you?” the Queen replied. “You can approach the subject rationally.”

“I said no!” he was a bit too forceful.

The Queen broke eye contact, nodding slightly. “Then perhaps I can offer you something else.”

“Nothing you have-“ Luke began.

“I know where the Vong have taken him.”

Luke ground to a halt. Just when he thought there were no more surprises the Queen pulled something else out of her sleeve. “Where?” he asked.

“I’m offering you the location and the cure,” she said. “You know what I want in return.”

“I can’t give you that,” Luke said. “Anything else.”

“This is all I want, Mr. Skywalker. I’ve waited years for this time, for the boy to grow into a man strong enough to take the lead for the Borg. It has been my only drive. Nothing else you have will satisfy me.” She stood up. “And if you refuse then I’m afraid our business is concluded.”

Luke grabbed her by the cloak as she tried to walk off. “Tell me where he is,” he demanded. She turned away. In a flash his lightsaber was humming in front of her face. “Tell me or I’ll kill you,” Luke warned.

She didn’t move but her eyes swiveled to look at him. “You don’t bluff well,” she remarked. Her eyes widened as the pitch changed and looked down at the stump where her hand used to be.

“You’re right,” Luke said, panting through his teeth, “I don’t!” She stumbled away as he approached, looming over her. The air around him seemed to darken with each step. “Tell me where he is,” he said, “or I’ll finish the job.” And deep within his mind came the rattling of chains.



Chuck

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Part XIII


There was a time before. He knew that in a vague sort of way, but became anxious whenever his mind tried to go there. As far as he was concerned his life had begun days ago. Any previous experiences were forgotten, replaced only with a drive to obey his masters. But still occasionally a memory of something would slip through, a snippet of something he might have done or read. No context, no understanding, just brief flashes of something that he wasn’t any more.

“’We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.’”

The amphistaff was manipulated with an amazing ease in Sebastian’s hands. It obeyed his will, becoming hard or soft at his commands, achieving brute force strength or the razor-edge depending on the moment. He brought it around with simple, elegant strokes that were impossible for the Vong to stop. His vonduun crab armor was pierced by the force of the blow and Sebastian continued to apply pressure, pushing it through to the Vong’s heart.

“’How do you know I'm mad?’ said Alice.”

Sebastian tugged the staff out of the Vong’s heart and stood over the fallen corpse. Kro Thrasis stepped to Sebastian’s side, then placed his hand on his shoulder in approval. He held his head high and let out a cry, a cry joined by the multitude of Vong who had gathered. A swirl of pride filled him as he looked at the body of the vanquished. He deserved his fate; he was unworthy.

“’You must be mad,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn't have come here.’”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke Skywalker was the ranking Jedi in the cosmos. He had more experience and wisdom in those areas than anyone alive. But at that moment, as he looked up into the night sky over Chandrilla with his sister, he didn’t seem any wiser than anyone else.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked.

Luke sighed. “What’s done is done,” he said with defeat. “Sebastian shouldn’t pay for my mistakes. I’m going to have to go and rescue him.”

Leia nodded. There really wasn’t a choice, was there. “I’ll speak with the Emperor,” she said. “Senate or not we’ll gather a fleet-“

“No,” Luke said. “There isn’t time.”

“You can’t go there alone.”

“I have a better chance alone,” he said. “Anyone who joins in is just a risk.”

"Luke," Leia said, trying to reason with him, "think this through. If you go there you'll tip off the Vong. They'll be able to escape, just like they did on Belkadan. If you wait for the fleet-"

"If I wait for the fleet," Luke said, "it may be too late. And I can't take the chance of them going off half-cocked and just blowing up the planet. Once Sebastian is safe the Navy can do what they like with it but until then-"

"But until then you're going to look out for your own interests," Leia said. "You're going to put your feelings ahead of the innocent people that may suffer if the Vong escape."

"Look," Luke said hotly, "I didn't ask to be involved. There's a reason I turned down the Senate and the Navy when they came knocking, the same reason Annika did. We've done our part, and we've sacrificed so much already. Now you're telling me I should risk losing my son?"

"You're already involved-" Leia began.

"We didn't want any part of this!" Luke shouted. "We just wanted to stay on Tatooine, out of the way, but that wasn't good enough! You, the Vong, Garak, even the kriffing Borg, none of you were content to keep us out of this! Well I'm going to find my son, and I'm going to save my wife, and that will be the end of it! The Empire can stand or fall on its own, I don't care, but for me it's over!"

Leia looked at him darkly. "You are a Jedi," she said. "And with that comes a responsibility."

"And my responsibility to Annika and Sebastian? I'm supposed to ignore that when it conflicts with the 'greater good?' Would you?"

"When push came to shove," Leia said, "I did. Remember? You convinced me to do it, on Bastion. And we nearly lost Jacen and Jaina because of it. But I made the choice, and now you've got to make a choice."

"I've made it," Luke said.

"Fine," Leia said sharply. "Look out for yourself and find a place to hide. But don't expect any sympathy from me." Luke scoffed. "You're supposed to be strong. You're the most powerful Jedi alive-"

"No matter how strong I may try to be I'm not all powerful. I am exhausted in body and spirit, and I can feel my soul balancing on the precipice between light and darkness." His anger had faded to a pleading. "Don't you see that I HAVE to do this? What I did..." He filled with shame at the memory of the Borg Queen. "I can't believe I could ever do something like that. And what scares me is, if this is what fear does to me, what will come of the inevitable grief and hate if I lose them? Leia," he took her hands, "you're asking me to risk my wife, my child, and my soul for this. I can't do that. I'm sorry, but I'm not a Jedi Master, I'm just a guy who loves his family."

Leia shook her head. In the end, she thought, everyone has their limits, no matter how strong they are. The past month had pushed Luke to his, that much was clear... and at least this time he was fighting to avoid crossing the line. She remembered how dangerous he had been... if he was unleashed now, what kind of damage could he do? “Take a cloaked ship,” she said. “Contact me when you’re clear and maybe we can catch them in time.”

Less than an hour later she watched his ship lift off from the platform. The Emperor was already working on assembling a fleet to attack the Vong stronghold; with luck they could deal them a critical blow. She just hoped Luke could pull it off.

She didn’t realize it at the time, but Leia wasn’t the only one watching Luke’s ship take off. Both were so distracted with the severity of the moment that neither of them noticed as a ship broke orbit and laid in a course behind him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian’s room was a comfortable contrast to the scorching heat outside. Humidity and temperature kept low, much lower than she might have preferred years ago, before Annika had given herself over to her human side. On the wall was a holo-poster, giving the illusion that the figure was inside the wall looking through a window. It was Selnora, the popular harpist with the Imperial Symphony, scantily clad behind her instrument blowing a kiss. The sex symbol probably made Jorrielle a little jealous, she thought with a laugh. On the desk was a bit of technology the boy had been rebuilding. He loved machines; he could do some amazing things with them. Her smile disappeared as she thought about it, and about him.

“It’s hard, isn’t it,” a familiar voice said.

Annika whirled around, dumbfounded. “Captain?”

“I let myself in,” Picard said. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“No, it’s,” she floundered. “But... aren’t you...”

“Dead?” he said with a laugh. “You didn’t think I’d let a little thing like that stop me from visiting my favorite science officer, did you?”

“Uh, no. Of course not.”

He nodded, that winning grin amplifying his knowing look as he came over. “As I was saying, it’s a hard thing. Very hard to let him go.”

“No,” she said with resolution. “I’m not giving up on him.”

“I wasn’t implying otherwise,” Picard said, fiddling with the machine.

Annika was wringing her hands, her confusion absent at the thought of her son. “He has to come back, don’t you see?” she said, more for herself. “It’s perfectly logical. Sebastian visited me from the future. That future hasn’t happened yet. Ergo, he must live. We’ll find him and everything will be fine and he’ll... he’ll be all right... he’ll be-“ She didn’t even notice she was crying until she felt Picard embrace her gently, fatherly.

“But you still worry,” he said softly. “In the face of all your logic your motherly instincts are warning you to watch out for your son. But that’s not what’s really bothering you, is it?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, wiping her eyes with a little embarrassment.

“You’re finally realizing that this is going to be the way things are from now on,” Picard said. “Empty house. Your son running all over the galaxy just like his parents did. Getting himself into all kinds of trouble.” He gave her a look of empathy. “You’re not ready for that, are you.”

Annika bit her lip. “I guess, I thought I’d have more time.”

“And you don’t think he’s ready.”

“He’s only fifteen,” she said, as if pleading the case before the universe. “He’s got so much more to learn.”

“Yes, he does.”

“Kids his age don’t fight to save the galaxy,” she continued. “They play and rebel and embarrass themselves in front of the opposite sex.”

“Indeed.”

“Stop being so agreeable,” she said with irritation. “You make me sound stupid.” Picard smirked and she laughed a little at her behavior. “He’s not most children.”

“No. But you wish he was. You don’t want him going through what you went through, you want to protect him. You want to keep him in here,” he gestured around the bedroom, “where you think he’ll be safe.”

“I want to protect him from the universe out there,” she said.

“No, you want to protect him from life.” He sat on the edge of the desk. “You’ve prepared him for the trip out there as much as you possibly can.” He held up the machine. “Or have you?”

She looked away. “I can’t do that,” she said.

“You want to protect him from everything,” he said. “Even from himself.” He shook his head. “But you can’t,” he said softly. “Sooner or later he’s going to figure it out, just as you did.”

“What if he doesn’t?” she asked. “Nanoprobes are complex, difficult to control. What if he can’t handle it? I should give him that power? Look at what it’s done to me?” Her clothing, with a few discrete exceptions, vanished. She gestured at the protruding implants across her skin. “I depend upon them. I need them or I’ll die. Sebastian shouldn’t-“

“Sebastian should make the choice for himself,” Picard said. “His father gave him the power of the Jedi, and you’ve seen how he uses it, how it has brought them closer together. Why cut him off from what you’ve given him?”

Annika’s clothes reappeared. “What if he can’t resist it?” she asked, not looking at him. “What if he gives himself over to the machine? It’s so easy to do, captain. To be free of all your pain and worries and fears.”

“You were strong,” Picard said. “Do you believe he is any less?”

“No,” she admitted. “You think-“

“What I think doesn’t matter. But ask yourself what is really best for Sebastian. You’ll know.”

It came together in that moment. The room, the way she felt, Picard, all of it. “I’m dreaming,” Annika realized. “I’m on Earth, in the hospital. And you’re not...”

“Real?” Picard said. “Depends on what you mean. But this isn’t the first time this has happened to you you know. Not the first time you’ve been this close to death.”

She remembered the old man vaguely. It wasn’t anything she was really aware of, but sometimes, at the boundary between sleep and wakefulness she could remember the words of Obi-Wan. “But, he-“

“He just gave you a little bit of guidance, and that's all I'm here to do.” He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. But believe me, your worries for the moment are over. Luke is on his way, even as we speak, to Helska IV. He will find Sebastian,” Picard said, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder, “I promise. And if you help him, Annika, he will become what you've always dreamed he could be.”

"Thank you, Jean-luc," she said, embracing him. "I needed to hear that."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Attempting a landing with a full cloak wasn’t easy, but it was the best way to avoid detection. Luke followed his instincts, guiding the ship without instruments to what felt like a stable part of the planet; not that there was much of that. Helska IV was essentially an ice ball, bringing up his less than fond memories of his time in the Hoth wilderness. But at the moment, he wasn’t looking after his own welfare.

Luke had his lightsaber out as he descended the ramp to the icy ground, alert for any possible attack. He knew there could be a hundred Vong around his ship and he’d never know it, but for the moment his thoughts were on the one thing he could feel above all else: his son. Weak, yes, indecipherable, yes, but alive, which gave him hope and in turn strength. His fear was controlled now, his mind focused on peace, serenity, calm.

Of course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to kill any Vong that fought to stop him.

It took an hour operating on automatic pilot for Luke to chop his way through the ice to a tunnel. Once through he could hear the activity of the Vong, their shouts echoing throughout the entire subterranean complex. Cautiously he began searching through the caverns, following the distant image of his son.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ma'Shraid was one of the few female commanders among the Vong’s first wave, and the one given the responsibility of protecting the war coordinator. It was therefore not a surprise when she was the first informed about the intruder. The surprise was the presence of the intruder himself.

“Have all warriors placed on alert,” she informed her subordinate. “We must not allow whoever this is to harm the yammosk.” A telepathic message came to her from the mentioned being. “I concur. Take the intruder alive if possible.” A group of eight warriors was sent; excessive for most quarry.

Most quarry aren’t a Jedi.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke ignited his lightsaber as the first shadows appeared. They were distant at the moment, giving him a little time to plan. “I don’t want to fight,” he warned as the last Vong entered the small cavern where he was. “I just want my son and I’ll leave, peacefully.” They might have understood the words, but it was clear the meaning was lost on them as they raised their weapons and approached.

It was similar to the battle Annika had fought against Darth Whind. Without the ability to anticipate the attacks and with some resistance to lightsaber strikes Annika managed to level the playing field. Except Luke was in the role of the losing side, and that had been a one-on-one match-up. The only advantage he had over the Sith was experience; he hoped that would cut it.

There was no more time to play it safe; the Vong refused to back down. With his own life -and therefore Sebastian and Annika’s- on the line, there was no choice but to defend himself with deadly force. Maybe he couldn’t sense them, but they were still physical beings, which he demonstrated by knocking them over with a Force push. Having faced the previous attackers on Belkadan he knew where he could and couldn’t penetrate, so before they got up he drove his lightsaber through the armor’s seam and sheared off a leg. He followed it up by removing the weapon arm of a Vong that had gotten back on his feet quickly. He repeated the gesture and struck again with the Force, but even though they were knocked down they weren’t surprised, each twisting away from his attacks before they too would be removed from the fight. It was only delaying things now, and if more troops came he would only be worse off, so he backed off.

The Vong quickly pressed the attack, so Luke somersaulted backwards to gain some distance. The nearest Vong pulled back his staff as it transformed into a snake, snapping it at him like a deadly whip. This had caught him off-guard on Belkadan, but not here. He twisted and, using the Force for strength, grabbed the whip behind its serpentine head and yanked, pulling the Vong forward enough to impale his skull on Luke’s outstretched saber. He spun clockwise as he released the whip and grabbed his lightsaber with both hands, putting all his speed and strength into the swing. Armor or no it tore straight through the next Vong’s chest, finishing it off before it could even strike. Luke brought his lightsaber up to parry the next strike, then jumped back as the opposite end of the staff nearly took his own leg off. He’d cut their force in half in less than a minute, but that only meant that the remaining four would be aware of what he was capable of. He was still at the disadvantage.

A Vong spun his staff and lunged, but Luke jumped straight up, slicing at some of the giant icicles near the roof of the cavern. The Vong evaded the following debris, but it was a distraction that Luke needed to decapitate two Vong on his landing. He pressed for a third, but it was too much. He felt his ribs give as the staff connected with his back and sent him flying on his face. He rolled over and swung as the Vong approached, cutting him off at the knees. He stabbed it as he got to his feet, ready to finish the attack.

The last Vong was now playing things differently. Without the numbers advantage it would rely on tactics, just like the one on Belkadan. It was waiting for Luke to make the first move, which Luke had to make or risk facing reinforcements. He barely ducked in time as the Vong swung over his head, the Vong twisting to avoid his own counterstrike. He brought his blade up as the Vong’s staff came down, the two crashing together. Its brute strength left Luke struggling for leverage until he finally had to twist away to avoid being struck, leaping back to avoid the counterswing. Luke advanced and brought his blade to the left, blocking the strike. He spun and drove his elbow into the Vong’s face, dazing it slightly. He pushed with the Force, knocking it off balance, then plunging the saber point-first through its chest. He pulled it out and watched the Vong fall, panting and wiping away the sweat despite the cold. No time to wait around, he thought as he deactivated his saber and continued running through the tunnels.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ma'Shraid watched the events in disbelief. One warrior against so many, triumphing with such ease... Behind her Kro Thrasis observed the events, offering his own interpretation. “It’s him,” he said once the battle was finished. “He’s found the child.”

“You know him?” she asked, watching the warrior continue straight towards them.

“Nom Anor reported he was an extremely powerful and deadly adversary,” Thrasis said. “He may even be able to kill the yammosk.”

“He will never be allowed-“

“Listen,” he said, risking death for interrupting a superior. “He is no doubt fixated on the boy,” he said. Sebastian stood nearby, an amphistaff gripped loosely in his hands. He was a gifted warrior and powerful tool; but the war coordinator was essential. “Send him in with reinforcements. Even if he dies he won’t lead this Skywalker to the yammosk.”

“That would be dangerous,” Ma'Shraid said, echoing the yammosk’s thoughts. “He could turn against us.”

“All the more dangerous if he leads Skywalker here,” Thrasis observed. In the end, even the yammosk concurred with the assessment.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke wiped the sweat from his face as he heard the sound of the Vong approaching. He didn’t need this; his injury from the first battle was already slowing him down. He looked around for a place to hide, finally noticing a small indentation up one of the walls. He leaped and caught the edge, pulling himself up despite severe protests from his battered ribcage.

Luke pressed back into the hollow, hoping he was distant enough not to be noticed as he watched the Vong swarm into the cavern. He needed to save his strength; he’d need it once he found...

“Sebastian?” he said, perhaps a bit too loudly. The Vong turned at the sound of his voice, Luke cursing himself for the slip. No sense hiding now, he thought.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian turned with the rest of the warriors, ready to kill whoever would dare to intrude the sanctuary of the Vong. The sight of the intruder, however, made him uneasy. He raised his weapon as the figure dropped down from his hiding place, but despite himself Sebastian could feel fear gnawing at him. It amplified as the intruder repeated his name, each time causing Sebastian to involuntarily step away.

“Sebastian,” Luke said.

“Sebastian!” his father screamed. “Luke at what you’ve done!!! It’s all ruined and it’s all your fault! You destroyed our happiness because you were weak! A pitiful and useless child. And I will have nothing to do with you!” There was steel in his father’s eyes. “I - HATE - you. If it weren’t for you our lives would be perfect! You should never have been born!”

“Sebastian, it’s me,” Luke said. Sebastian dropped his staff, his hands were trembling so. “Sebastian?”

He had to kill him. But how could he? He was too weak; he had said as much. And he was right; the fire of resolve had been replaced with sheer terror. He was unworthy; unworthy of being a Vong warrior. He froze in place as the true warriors attacked.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The fear was so strong, Luke had been caught off guard. He somersaulted back just in time to avoid being impaled on a Vong staff. He didn’t have time to fight; Sebastian needed his help immediately. The Vong pressed in towards him as he turned and ran towards the wall. He jumped, pushing off the wall and spinning, tossing his lightsaber as he did. The blade whirled under his control as he sailed through the air, slicing into the icy ceiling. Luke deactivated it as it fell just before he hit the ground, then turned, closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. The ceiling collapsed along the fissure he’d made, creating a tall mound of ice that served as a barrier between him and the Vong. It wouldn’t last long, but it was all he needed as he ran towards Sebastian. Something was wrong with the young Jedi, but if Luke could establish a mindmeld, maybe he could correct it in time for them to escape. Sebastian started to back away, his fear growing, but Luke sprinted and nearly tackled him.

Luke grabbed him tightly. Even at his age he was much stronger than Luke, but he just needed a moment. He reached up and placed his hand on the side of his son’s head, his eyes shut tight in concentration. “My mind to your mind,” he said through gritted teeth. “My thoughts, to yo-“

His eyes snapped opened and his face bore a look of sheer horror. In that brief moment the sum total of the past month came flooding into him. Day after endless day of psychological torture and brainwashing by the Vong, stripping away the strong young man into this husk that now stumbled before his father. His father... now Luke understood, and a flame of hatred passed through him like none he’d ever felt. They used his image to do this to him; put words into his mouth to destroy Sebastian. They used his love against his only son. A Vong made the mistake of climbing the embankment at that moment, and Luke impaled him on an icicle with a gesture. The voice screamed in his mind.

Yes! Destroy them! Destroy every last one! Make them pay for their hubris! Feel how your hate makes you strong! Use the power to annihilate them! Avenge your son!

Luke was breathing heavy through his teeth, sounding almost like a bull. His face was a mask of murderous rage. The Vong were over the embankment now; he couldn’t feel them but he could see them. That was all he needed. He reached out his hand towards the nearest one, and it rose off the ground. With a satisfying sneer he closed his fist, and the Vong was crushed in the air. He let out a short, satisfied chuckle at the display, then turned towards the rest.

The Vong didn’t feel fear. War was their life, and their death if need be. They had prepared for that day all their lives, ready to cast their life aside when the moment demanded it. No, they felt no fear. But the sight of one of their warriors vanquished in this manner, well, it made them pause. Given the Vong, that said something.

Yes! Embrace the power! You are a god! You are the master of life and death now; you will remove all who stand in the way of your vision! You can do anything!

“Anything,” Luke whispered.

You can destroy them!

“Destroy them.”

They’ll all be sorry.

“You’ll all be sorry.”

It takes hate to destroy evil.

“Evil.”

Let hate be your ally.

“Hate.”

Let hate be your strength.

“Hate.”

Now make them pay for their crimes!

Luke ignited his lightsaber and started walking towards the advancing mob. The pain of his injuries was gone. No more holding back, no more being careful. The Vong had to be exterminated; nothing less would satisfy him.

“I’ll be good.”

Luke froze. What was that?

“I promise I’ll be good.”

Luke turned around. Sebastian was on the ground, the boy’s eyes fixed on his father. He finally noticed the overwhelming horror radiating from his son as he looked up. “Please, I’ll be good,” he sobbed. Luke took a step towards him, but he scampered away, almost desperate to stay out of reach. “No! Don't please! I’ll- I’ll be good...”

“Sebastian,” he said, then stopped. He heard the voice that left his mouth, and he recognized whose it was. No, he couldn’t let it happen again.

Look at what they did to your son!

Luke shut his eyes tight.

Look at him! Your flesh! Your blood! Turned against you by their hand.

His breathing became quick and irregular. He fought it, tried to resist the hate that had already consumed him.

Are you going to turn your back on his suffering?! Are you going to let them get away with this?! What kind of father are you?! What kind of man are you?! Do you care so much about yourself you’d turn a blind eye to your only child?!!!

His body was trembling the struggle had become so great. The intensity of the raw emotions that battled within him distorted the Force around him, causing lightning to crackle and the ice to melt. An arc passed through a Vong that got too close, knocking him across the cavern. He felt Sebastian’s terror grow at the sight of his father, which only made the battle more heated.

What reason to have power but to save your family?!!

Luke collapsed onto the ice, his lightsaber slipping from his hand. He was still in control; barely. But he was exhausted; and the dark side of his nature refused to relent. It had been chained long enough, it was within reach of full release again if it could just push him far enough.

They’re coming!

“Leh – let them,” Luke mumbled into the snow.

They’ll kill you! You have the power to stop them!

“I won’t do it,” Luke slurred.

And they won’t stop with you. They’ll kill him too. Will you stand by and allow that? Let them kill your only son when you could prevent it?

Luke looked over at the advancing Vong army. He could probably get to his feet if he tried, but in his state he couldn’t hold off one, much less that many. Fear started to grip his heart, and the dark side seized on it.

You have no choice! Get on your feet and destroy them! There’s no other way! Who else will save him, if not you?

Fortunately, the Force had an answer for that.

The remaining ice ceiling collapsed as a figure dropped through the hole Luke had made, hitting the ground with enough energy to shake the walls. He uncurled from his landing and stretched up to his full height, pulling a knife out with each hand.

“Any time you’re ready,” Kalib said to the Vong.



Chuck

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Part XIV


"Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." The operable word, Luke knew, was "forever." Here it was, over fifteen years since he'd given himself over to darkness, and even now it still held him in its grasp. The struggle wasn't over, and it wouldn't be over until the day he died. From the looks of the Vong soldiers approaching his helpless form, that day could be today. Fortunately, Luke had the most unexpected ally at his side.

"You just going to stand there?" Kalib asked the Vong. "I'm getting old here." Not exactly true, Luke knew. Kalib was around when the Borg were just learning what assimilation was. Ageless, and dangerous from what he'd seen, but fortunately on the side of angels this time. He was tough, strong... "I realize I've got the advantage, what with you outnumbering me and all, but you want to get on with it?" ...and had a serious attitude problem.

Actually there was a method to his madness. Kalib wasn't armed with much more than his knives, but they packed quite a punch. But with an enemy as evasive as the Vong were he needed to be close to make sure he hit. The Vong, of course, weren't stupid, but they did have one weakness: warrior's pride. His goading eventually prodded them to action.

Luke had to hand it to Kalib, he played it cool. Even as the Vong charged he held himself at the ready, not making the mistake of attacking too soon. They were only meters away when Kalib tossed his daggers. Each one drove through a Vong's skull up to the hilt. The special blades split open into a series of razors and discharged a strong plasma burst; there was little left of their heads as the lifeless bodies fell over.

With their enemy temporarily unarmed the Vong continued the charge. Kalib, digging his feet into the ice, braced himself as they were about to strike. He took the nearest Vong and swept it aside while he pulled a knife out, skipping the throw and driving it through the crab armor of the one behind it. He grabbed the now dead soldier by the collar of his armor and used him as a makeshift club. They dodged the swings while he pulled out another knife. The Vong, however, were ready and this time he only snagged a stalagmite. He tossed the Vong cadaver at them, already reaching for his knives, but not fast enough to avoid the swing of the soldier he'd pushed aside at the start of the battle. There was a loud crack as the staff struck his spine and then a grunt of pain that resonated in the ice chamber. The Vong didn't stop swinging, keeping Kalib too distracted to throw accurately. Luke pulled himself up to a kneeling position to ready himself for the inevitable. He called the saber to himself; unlike his previous displays of power, this one took all his strength. He still wouldn't be much good to Kalib, he realized as he got woozily to his feet, but he could watch Sebastian. The young Jedi hadn't moved for quite a while, but he was visibly trembling, and Luke could feel his fear and confusion. He was in even worse shape if the Vong attacked, so Luke stood nearby for when it happened.

Kalib, however, had other plans. He jumped straight up about four meters and, as he reached the apex, tossed his knives. Two more Vong went down and he drove his foot into a third that thought he would be vulnerable during his landing. The Vong was off balance and Kalib finished him by knocking him down and driving his heel into his neck with a sickening crack. Even as he did Kalib howled in pain; the two remaining Vong had stabbed him in the back with their razor-tipped spears. Luke was surprised, but considering they were hard enough to stop lightsabers it wasn't hard to believe they could penetrate even his skin.

Kalib, however, wasn't done. He turned around, his face a mask of rage. His fist lashed out blindly, sending a Vong flying across the ice. The other got two more blows in, before Kalib grabbed his weapon hand. The popping of the bones was amplified by the icy walls. "You are about to be hit by a large blunt object," Kalib said, inches from the Vong's scarred face. His fist connected with the broken nose with devastating force. "'Cause nothin's more blunt than me."

The last Vong was back on his feet, and Kalib had his dagger out. This time, however, the warrior pulled out what looked like a handful of beetles and tossed them. They struck Kalib in the face, and promptly exploded. Kalib dropped the knife and fell to his knees, holding his face. "My eyes!" he bellowed. "Oh kriff you've blinded me!"

The Vong pulled his staff out again and charged towards the wailing form. Luke didn't need the Force to sense his self-satisfaction. Luke himself was feeling stronger now, but he didn't have a chance of reaching Kalib in time. The Vong pulled the weapon up with both hands and plunged it towards Kalib's skull.

Kalib's hand reached out and grabbed the staff before it connected, a wicked grin on his face. "Heh heh heh, sucker," he said as he grabbed the Vong and pummeled him several times. It dropped lifeless to the floor as Kalib straightened up and brushed himself off for show. "And that is how we do that," he said to no one in particular.

Luke walked over to where Kalib stood enjoying himself a little too much. Luke had killed almost as many Vong already, but he hadn't enjoyed it. Kalib, on the other had, seemed pretty happy about the whole affair. Still, if it wasn't for him they'd probably be dead. "Thanks," Luke said.

"Gratitude," Kalib said, still looking over his conquest. "Not something you see much of today." He walked over and started pulling his knives out of the corpses.

"At the risk of sounding ungrateful," Luke said, "why are you here?"

Kalib seemed to tighten up a little at the question. "Took your information and put it to good use," he said finally, then half shrugged. "Look, I ain't a merc, but I'm not in the charity business either. Lot of people would be worse off if you went psycho, your family especially, and I saw how you cracked up back there on Chandrilla. Nice bit, by the way, hacking up the Borg Queen like that." Luke turned away at the mention of the incident. "Anyway, figure if I stepped in, you'd owe me one, and a favor from you can be pretty valuable in these galaxies." He pulled out the last blade and slid it into its sheath. "So I'm offering you a little friendly assistance getting out of here with your kid and your brain intact. You interested or not?"

"What could I do for you?" Luke asked, wondering where this was going.

"Don't know," Kalib said. "But having you as an ace up my sleeve is worth getting my hands a little dirty."

Luke nodded; he didn't have much choice, and at the moment he'd join up with Thrawn if it meant getting his son to safety. "Can we get out that way?" he asked, indicating the hole in the ceiling.

"Sure," Kalib said. "But it's gonna be dangerous; not all that stable with all the damage it took. It might be faster taking the tunnels back the way you came."

"And face more Vong?" Luke asked. "I'd rather take my chances with the ice."

"Okay," Kalib said. He took out a small grappling gun, aimed for the edge of the hole, and fired. The spear drove into the ice, followed by a cracking sound. "Uh-oh," Kalib said as he watched the fissures spread. "Um... better run."

Luke, who had been trying to coax Sebastian to his feet, tried to reach out with the Force to stop it. It was no good, and he finally turned and followed Kalib through the tunnel, listening to Sebastian kick and scream as the alien carried him over his shoulder.The floor shook as huge blocks of ice tumbled down, causing them to stumble about on the semi-slick surface. As the collapse continued Luke knew that if there were any Vong who hadn't known about them before, the echoing debris would ensure that was corrected. They drew to a halt as the crashes came to an end.

"Okay," Kalib said as he panted a little, "Plan B."

Sebastian was kicking at Kalib as he was set down. "See," he remarked, "gratitude." He pulled out an instrument and held it to Sebastian's neck before Luke could react. He fought to remain in control as his son collapsed onto the cold ice.

"What was that?" he demanded.

"Tranquilizer," Kalib said as he put it away. "Kid's too far gone to be anything more than a hindrance at the moment."

"I could've tried another mindmeld," Luke said with a hint of anger in his voice. "You had no right-"

"I'm not going to stand here and wait for the Vong to find us," Kalib said. "We get out of here as quickly as possible while they're still confused. Do your touchy-feely crap later when we're not at risk of dying."

"I thought you couldn't die," Luke said sarcastically.

"I don't want to be proved wrong," Kalib said, swinging the boy over his shoulder. Together, their grudging alliance intact, the two continued through the icy catacombs.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ma'Shraid 's anger was obvious as she watched the three escape the chamber before she lost the signal. "Who is that?" she demanded of Kro Thrasis.

"I don't know," he admitted, equally puzzled by the alien's sudden appearance. A most unfortunate turn of events, but a welcome opportunity. These Jedi, whatever they were, relied on some kind of black magic to fight, a perversion that turned his stomach. But this one... he would be a true challenge. "I'll take a group myself," he said. "They won't be allowed to escape."

"No," Ma'Shraid said. "We can't afford the time. If they know we're here, they may have told others. We must abandon this world."

Kro Thrasis found it all but impossible to remain silent after such a command. Not only did she not want to battle their enemies, she wanted to retreat in dishonor! Perhaps it was feminine weakness, he thought. "We can face anyone who may defy us," he said, as far as he could go in questioning her while still maintaining acceptable protocol.

"The yammosk feels the threat is still too great. The Empire possesses weapons that can destroy this planet no matter how valiantly we fight. We cannot take that risk, not until we're ready." She must have noticed his frustration. "I chafe at the thought as well," she remarked, "but it isn't our place to question the war coordinator."

"But there is still the threat these intruders pose," Thrasis said. "They may decide to turn back or disrupt our evacuation. We should pursue them to ensure they leave."

There was silence. "The yammosk agrees to your plan," she said finally. "Take a force and drive them out. Once they've reached the surface, do what you like, but don't allow them to return." Thrasis nodded and left to gather his forces. Perhaps he could regain some honor lost at Sebastian's failure.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke wasn’t so foolish as to wander into the Vong stronghold without a way to escape. He had brought along a locator that would show him where he was in relationship to the ship, and he even had the foresight to ensure it operated in three dimensions. He knew exactly which direction the ship lay, and how far they had to go to reach it.

“Why are you staring at that wall of ice?” Kalib asked, Sebastian still dangling from his shoulder.

Luke sighed as he clipped the locator to his belt. “Wishing I had brought a very large laser torch.”

“Lost?”

“Yes.”

“Kriff.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Well, we can’t be that far underground...”

“Yes, we can.”

“Kriff.”

“You’re reading my mind.”

“You really owe me for this.”

“Get us out and I’ll be happy to pay it back.”

“Thanks for the help.”

“Any time.”

Before this conversation could reach the pinnacle of interspecies exchange, the caves echoed with sounds that could only mean one thing. “This way,” Luke said, pointing to a cave.

“Why there?”

“I think this is the way.”

“I thought you were lost.”

“I’m a Jedi.”

“A lost Jedi.”

“It can’t be any worse.”

Eight seconds later the three of them had finished sliding down the icy path and were in the process of picking themselves back up when the Vong began following them.

“When you came in, didn’t you have a plan for getting out?” Kalib demanded as he scooped up Sebastian.

“Never been good at that,” Luke admitted. There were at least twenty Vong, and he was still regaining his strength. “I recommend we run.”

“It’s worked great so far,” Kalib remarked as they took off down the next cave.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kro Thrasis continued watching events with his own forces. Good, they were finally managing to work their way towards the surface; he was afraid they’d never leave. He turned to his primary aide. “Gather the rest of our warriors for pursuit. And launch the coralships.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke felt Kalib grab the back of his cloak and hoist him the rest of the way out of the hole. The sky was plain but after hours trapped in the icy caverns it was a beautiful sight. White stretched from horizon to horizon as Kalib lay Sebastian down on the packed snow. Both men checked their instruments to find their ships. "Just over that ridge," Kalib said as he slapped the device closed. "I'll give you a lift back to your ship, then you're on your own." He loomed over Luke as he held up his finger. "Don't forget this," he rumbled. "I get reaaal ornery when people do that."

"I won't," Luke said, picking up Sebastian. "But this isn't over until we're safely away."

"Got that..." Kalib looked at the sky, "...right..." Luke followed the gaze and noticed the moving shapes before the whiteness. They started to grow too rapidly for Luke, and he ran as best he could, pulling Sebastian along with him. There was the sound of fire as Luke tried to pick up the pace, but the weapons of the Vong fighters overshot them and landed on the other side of the ridge.

"They're going for your ship," Luke said, trying to pull Sebastian up the hill.

"Let 'em," Kalib said. "My shield'll stop anything they might fire."

Despite its appearance against the background the slope was extremely steep. After a dozen meters Kalib plucked Sebastian from Luke's arms to speed up the process, climbing as quickly with one hand as Luke was with two. It still took several minutes to scale the icy peak, but it was forgotten as soon as Luke clearly saw Kalib's ship, and just what the Vong had done. He heard the sound of Sebastian being dropped into the snow as Kalib, for the first time Luke had seen, looked shocked. "What the..."

The ship was covered with moving, insect-like beings who were wasting no time in their assault on the ship. Corpses lay about from those that had fallen to Kalib's automated ground defenses, but it was obvious that any weaponry had been torn to shreds along with the rest of the ship.

"Hey!" Kalib shouted, the word echoing off the surrounding ice walls, ensuring that if anyone didn't know they were there, they did now. Luke watched the insects freeze, and he could feel their attention being diverted away from their original target. He shook his head as he pulled out his lightsaber, wondering if his ally was more trouble than he was worth. Kalib, however, wasn't thinking about anything like that. For the first time Luke felt the alien's anger; not annoyance and impatience, but a growing rage. He squeezed his oversized hands into tight fists, making a sound like all the rivets on a ship popping at once. He strode towards them even as they swarmed off the remains of his ship, his steps even, inevitable. Luke moved to follow, knowing that he needed to stop them before they reached his helpless son.

They reached Kalib before Luke, and that was the moment that started to make him uneasy. As the first creature lunged for him Luke realized just how big these things were as it dwarfed the alien. Its forearms reached out for him, but Kalib leaped forward and swung with both arms. Luke could hear the enormous crack as the head was crushed between the two fists. He grabbed the corpse and heaved it at the horde for all the good it did. The insects leaped and dodged around it easily, continuing their charge.

Luke pushed and spun through the air to cover the distance faster. One of the creatures noticed him and leaped to intercept him. He spun faster and lit his lightsaber, severing the creature's head and left shoulder. He landed and held out his blade, stabbing the next through the chest even as it lunged for him. He quickly deactivated the blade as the lifeless body fell on him, pushing him into the snow. He tucked his feet and heaved, rolling the corpse off him. He arced his back and was back on his feet in time to sidestep the next one, swinging as he did to sever its right arms and legs. He could sense its suffering but didn't have time to put it out of its misery as the assault continued. Fortunately he could sense them, unlike their masters, and that meant he had a much better chance of coming out of this alive. He jumped and somersaulted as an insect dived at him, his blade chewing into its back as he did so. He landed as its limbs kicked wildly, a nightmarish scream bellowing from its multi-jointed mouth. Luke cut it off by decapitating it, then spun with enough time to sever the jaw of the one following it. He continued the spin and brought the blade upward, cutting through the head and part of the back before the creature plowed a trench into the snow from its momentum.

Kalib, however, was sticking to more traditional methods of attack. A creature knocked him on his back and reached down to devour him in his prone position. Kalib grabbed the head on both sides and twisted, the sharp crack showing his less graceful but nevertheless effective method was getting the job done. He drove his feet into the face of the next one to charge, knocking the insect backwards several meters and buying him the second he needed to get back to his feet. The creature bellowed at him, its voice like a high-tensioned cable starting to fray. Kalib swung as it charged again, his fist cracking through its exoskeleton and into its skull. He pulled the limb back through the hole, apparently oblivious to the slime that now coated his right arm from the elbow down. "What are you doing?" he demanded of Luke as he struck an insect with the back of his fist to deflect its attack.

"This was your idea," Luke called, Force-pushing two insects enough to cause them to collide. His blade made quick work of them both. "You tell me."

"Your ship's the only way off this iceball!" Kalib shouted catching an insect's neck and, adding his strength to its momentum, plunging its head through the snow into the aforementioned iceball. "Get your boy over there before the Vong destroy that one too!"

"I'm not leaving you," Luke said as he narrowly avoided being disemboweled.

"You're damn right you're not!" Kalib said. "So get the ship so we can get out of here!"

Luke backed off, slicing off the claw that reached for him, then reversing to remove the other. He plunged the blade up its mouth into its brain as it tried to bite him, then turned and ran as fast as he could. He could hear them following him but didn't look back; that would only slow him down. He followed his instincts, dropping facedown into the snow just in time to avoid the insect that leapt over him. He rolled over and swung his blade, closing his eyes as a putrid-smelling liquid poured out onto his face from the wound. He turned off the blade, forced his way out from under the corpse and ran towards Sebastian. Without slowing down, adrenaline and the Force strengthening him, he scooped up his son and jumped over the ridge, sliding down the slope to where they started. Two insects jumped as well, but missed the slope and tumbled through the air, their limbs breaking as they hit the icy bottom. Luke ignored them as he continued running, hoping Kalib was wrong.

The next ridge was far more gentle, and no more insects pursued as Luke raced up as quickly as he could. However, he was still weakened from the battle, and he wasn't as young as he used to be. After a kilometer he had to stop for a moment to regain his strength. He pulled out his electrobinocular and scanned the horizon, catching the image of his ship amongst the frozen sea. At least another three kilometers, he thought wearily as he pulled Sebastian back onto his shoulder and moved as quickly as he dared. By the time he reached the ship every muscle in his body ached and his lungs felt like he'd tried breathing acid.
Luke set Sebastian down as gently as he could, then reached up to release the access ramp. There was no warning as he was tossed forward by a small explosion. He twisted back and saw the source, his heart sinking. Vong warriors - at least forty of them, Luke realized. Even at his best he didn't have much of a chance against those odds. The one nearest him, the one who had tossed the exploding bugs, was grinning at him. "Get up," he said, his voice distorted by a translator. "Die on your feet."

"If there's one thing I hate, it's a coward," Kalib's voice bellowed. The Vong turned to see him on the other side of the army opposite from Luke. He was bleeding, but that didn't stop his grinning. "These odds against Old Man River there aren't very sporting for a race of warriors. Thought you'd know better." He pulled out one of his knives. "Now me, I can take you all down. Probably. Well maybe. If I were armed with a Jedi weapon maybe." The Vong closest to him started to approach cautiously, still keeping their attention on Luke. "Ahem. I said if I were armed with a Jedi weapon," Kalib said a little louder.

Luke wasn't sure what Kalib's plan could be. Sebastian's lightsaber was gone, which meant that if Luke gave his up they'd be defenseless. What could he be planning? He looked at the lightsaber, struggling to make up his mind. "Yes, that's right," Kalib said with a note of exasperation. "Now, if I had that," he said, emphasizing the word "I," "then things would be better. Get it?"

Luke shook his head but pulled back his arm. In the end, it wouldn't make any difference if he was armed or not. He tossed it high over the crowd, guiding it with the Force to land in Kalib's outstretched hand. "Thank you," he said with exhaustion. "I was wondering how long it'd take to get through that thick skull of yours. Now, it's time for an ode to a Terran aquatic bird. I hope you know which one I'm thinking of at the moment." Kalib held the lightsaber in one hand, the dagger in the other, inching closer to the advancing Vong forces. "Kriff," he said to himself, "this is really gonna hurt." Luke watched his motions, and suddenly it clicked. He turned and dived towards Sebastian, Kalib chuckling as he did. "That's the one," Kalib said as he reversed his grip on the dagger, "duck!"

The dagger's tip drove through the housing of Luke's lightsaber. Instantly the knife split in Kalib's hands and discharged its plasma energy straight into the power cell of Luke's lightsaber. The energy burst shorted out all the normal safeguards to prevent the sudden release of all that energy, should the lightsaber be damaged. Luke could feel the heat from the explosion as he shielded Sebastian's unconscious body. It wasn't terribly powerful, but immediately he realized what Kalib's true intent was as he heard the sound of the cracking ice. He rolled onto his back and used the Force to push the Vong closest to him towards the rest of the army. Mere seconds later the ice gave, sending them tumbling deep into the chambers below ground. A few remained outside the boundary, but with a few Force-prods by Luke they were gone as well. Exhausted, he approached as carefully as he could, peering into the darkness. Not bad Kalib, he thought. But now what? Kalib was trapped down there somewhere, but Luke had no idea how to even begin to look for him. He was unarmed, exhausted, and worse he had a casualty with him. He owed Kalib everything for what he'd done, but getting captured or killed wasn't going to save him. Still, it took several minutes for him to even leave the hole, hoping that maybe somehow the cranky alien would have planned some way out of this situation. In the end, there was nothing left he could do himself.

Luke activated the cloak as the ship lifted off. The Vong either couldn't see him or weren't interested, and within minutes he was far off from the planet. He decloaked long enough to activate the comm. "Leia," he said, "I've got Sebastian. Send in the fleet."

"Is he all right?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said. Now that they were out of danger he didn't have anything to preoccupy his mind. It was hard not to get angry when he thought about what Sebastian had been through. "Tell the fleet to look for an alien named Kalib. He saved our lives Leia; if they can help him get off that planet I'll be grateful."

"I'll tell them," she assured him. "Anything else?"

Luke briefly explained about the insect creatures and what little he'd learned about the Vong from their battle. "They're dangerous," he said finally. "Maybe even more dangerous than the Borg. If we've any hope of survival, we need to stop them while they're still weak and unprepared."

"The Emperor's sending in forty star destroyers, including an Executor-II class. There shouldn't be any problem."

Luke nodded, then cut the channel, re-activated the cloak, and entered hyperspace. Finally, finally he could rest a little easier. It wasn't over, but finally there was real hope that things were going to get better. He secured Sebastian in one of the small quarters, then tended to his own wounds. As he finished wiping the grit from his face he stared at his reflection, wishing he could change things. "You're alive," he insisted to himself. "And I'm not going to forget what you did for me. We'll find you, Kalib."



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Part XV


Harry Kim was waiting for them at the rendezvous point on Dantooine. They had barely needed to slow down their trip back to the wormhole to pick him up thanks to the transporter. Leia had thought of everything, Luke thought as Harry came up to the cockpit. "How's he doing?" Harry asked.

"He's alive," Luke said, grateful for that fact. "But I'm not sure how much damage the Vong have done to him." He kept his anger in check. "He's sedated. You can extract some nanoprobes if you need to."

"The sooner the better," Harry said. "I'll need to make some modifications based on the research the Doctor and I performed; they could take time."

"It's still several days to Earth," Luke commented. "Take as much as you need."

Harry nodded but his mood remained dark. "The Vong evacuated the planet before the fleet could arrive," he said, answering the question that had been nagging Luke since they'd begun. "They're looking, but so far there's no trace of them."

Luke didn't look at him. "Did they find Kalib?"

"No."

As Harry left Luke reflected. He should've been happy. He had his son back, his wife now had a fighting chance... Somehow, he thought that would make everything better. It didn't. Was it his guilt over Kalib? About the Vong escaping? Was it that he'd allowed himself to go that far into darkness again? Probably all that and more. But one thing he couldn't deny was a sense of guilt about what he'd said to Leia back on Chandrilla.

When you really thought about it, he said to himself, it was pretty funny. All his life he wanted to get off Tatooine, to go anywhere but there and find adventure and excitement. And then, having found it, all he wanted was to have a life there with as little excitement and adventure as possible. He'd chalked it up to wisdom at the time. When he was a child he didn't understand that adventure and excitement would mean watching the people you care about hurt and die, about the guilt that comes from failure, about how truly lonely it was out there in the universe. With Annika he finally had the chance to stop being alone, and it had seemed the right decision at the time to retire.

Luke hadn't even realized he'd fallen asleep until Harry's jostling in the cockpit roused him. All this had taken a lot out of him, he realized as he lingered on the edge of consciousness. Unfortunately, his conscience wasn't making it easy for him. "I always wanted to be a hero," he said quietly.

"Nice to get what you want," Harry said as he propped a tray on the panel, eating as he entered some data into the computer.

Luke rubbed his eyes, his head aching from exhaustion. "Starfleet wasn't what you expected, was it?" Luke asked. "Not what you wanted it to be."

Harry stopped but didn't look up. "I was stranded seventy-five thousand lightyears from my home on my first mission," Harry said. "That was never in my dreams." He went back to entering data for a moment, then stopped. "I wanted to lead," he said with a slight tone of frustration. "I wanted the chance to make the big decisions, to know that I was part of what would expand human knowledge and make the galaxy better. Instead, because of that, I remained an ensign my entire career." He shook his head. "No, Starfleet wasn't what I expected at all."

Luke nodded. "Try being a hero."

Harry seemed to mull it over for a second, then got back to eating and working. Luke tried to sleep but couldn't. "You know what the worst part about being a hero is?" he said finally. Harry looked back over to him, still eating. "People hold you to a standard you can never live up to."

"How so?"

"If you're a hero, you're placed under a microscope. Every choice you make in the heat of a moment is second-guessed by people who have the luxury of time and hindsight. People expect selflessness from you at all times. Your every choice is questioned. And if you hurt, suck it up!" He rubbed his eyes, cursing his headache. "And that's why there are no heroes any more," he continued.

Harry was tapping his fork on the side of his tray, creating a dull thud in Luke's head. "I never thought I'd hear that from you," he said after a while.

"I know," Luke said. "And anyone who heard it would see it as weak self-pity. They would judge, because it's easy to judge when you can't change things. When you can sit back in your own part of the universe and solve all the problems just by talking about them. Imagine, Harry, if you had the power to make all the decisions. If the issues of local armament, holographic rights, Imperial security, Cardassian treatment, all of it was in your hands. I bet that you've already thought about it and know what you think is the right answer. But, and think carefully before you answer, if you actually had that power, would you do what you always thought needs to be done?"

Harry set down his tray and nodded his head slightly as he thought. "It would be pretty arrogant of me," he said finally, "to believe that, if I had the power, I should use it to impose my beliefs on the galaxies."

"Exactly," Luke said. "But half the Empire looks to you and demands to know why you won't get involved. The other half condemns you for your involvement. Half expect you to be a god, the other half is in the god-toppling business. And all you want, all you ever wanted, is just to maybe make things a little less bad. There are few things worse than fighting evil and winning, because people expect you to stop all the evils after that." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "It's easy to destroy a despot and his armies. But how do you destroy poverty? Greed? Hate? How can you ask one person to fight a battle like that?"

"If that's how you feel," Harry said, "then why do it at all?"

Luke smiled with weariness. "Why do you think Annika and I retired to Tatooine?" Surrendering to the situation, Luke replicated some coffee. "And the worst part of being a hero is, no matter how self-pitying you get," he said with a smile, "you can't be anything else. Every time something you could have prevented happens, you grow more conflicted over your choices. I can just imagine the weight on the shoulders of the Jedi Council in the days of the Old Republic, when they were all that stood between peace and chaos. We were never meant to be heroes, just mediators of the peace."

"So what happened?" Harry asked.

Luke shrugged. "A brash young man with his mind fixated on adventure and excitement became the last Jedi. All power and no wisdom, he made bad choice after bad choice, but somehow things worked out."

"So you regret your choices?" Harry asked. "Do you regret saving Earth?"

"No," Luke said, "that's not what I meant. I mean that I fear what I've done for Sebastian, the galaxies I've left for him, who will expect him to be the hero now. Because you see, Harry, that question I asked you before is going to be placed at Bastian's feet. He's going to have to make those hard decisions, and he's going to have to live with the consequences. For the rest of his life people will question his choices, and his motives, and they won't understand. Some people can't believe that a hero can just be a person who..." he trailed off.

"A person who just wants to be a person, and not a hero," Harry said.

Luke nodded, rubbing at his eye with the back of his hand. "He doesn't deserve this. He's giving up his childhood to become the champion of the galaxy. They'll hate him for doing it, and they'll hate him if he refuses it. And if he says he's had enough because he loses no matter what, they'll say he's self-absorbed. They'll never see that he's doing it because he can't not do it."

Harry put the empty tray back onto the disposal as Luke finished his coffee. The ache had slid down behind his right eye, and he rubbed the temple as he tried to ease the pain.

"Sometimes," Harry finally said, "a hero is just somebody who's too tired and too scared to wait for rescue. They're not demigods and they're not champions, they're just somebody who decides they can't give up without a fight."

"What are you saying?" Luke asked after reflecting on it.

"Don't be what others insist that you are," Harry said simply. "Be what you think you should be. Take it from someone who's tried to impress a lot of people over the years, it's a waste of time." He leaned forward. "Just because you're a hero doesn't mean you have to have all the answers."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Ms. Sunspring," Gen. Taar said, his voice showing the typical sympathy he held for cadets; in other words, none. That was all the prompting she required. Jorielle took her datapad and walked double-time to the front of the room, doing her best not to show how nervous she was at the moment. She took her place and activated the projector to illustrate the finer points of her report. She called up her notes and took a breath.

Jorielle was the first to give this kind of report for the class. Throughout the semester she'd noticed that Gen. Taar tended to do this to cadets who were getting a bit too overconfident. Being first often made them the target of his harsher remarks, since they hadn’t the experience to know exactly what he was expecting. She'd never forget when he actually interrupted Zef Dooglis during his introduction to berate him for beginning with "My report is about..." Now it seemed to be her turn, but she wasn't going to let him embarrass her without a fight. She had spoken with upper classmen about what Gen. Taar expected of the tactical examination she was presenting. She read some of the writings the general himself had penned to learn how he thought. Her every waking moment was devoted to proving that she was too smart to be had. She told herself it was because she wanted to gain Taar's respect, since he could do great things for her career if he took an interest. The truth, though, was that she didn't want to think about Sebastian.

"The Tactical Techniques of Gh'lyn Ty'urn, War Prefect of the Bivcyon." She projected her voice, enunciating enough to be clear without sounding too clipped. She looked at the audience, reminding herself to be confident in her manners. "Ty'urn's most notable achievement was the victory over the Moluvs at the battle of Horsch, and in that victory he demonstrated clear understanding of battle principles that still endure. With only ten small waships he managed to destroy the Moluvs foremost battlecruiser." Behind her a re-creation of the destruction was playing to emphasize the importance of that accomplishment.

Gen. Taar was unreadable, which Jorri took as a good thing. She'd deliberately chosen Ty'urn because he had so effectively humiliated the Moluvs. Taar had devoted an entire chapter of his book on military tactics to the techniques of the Moluvs. He had challenged her by placing her first; she was now offering a counter-challenge, although only the two of them knew it.

"Ty'urn was trained as a youth in the Moluv military academy. No one thought anything of it, since his family had been loyal to the Moluv's for generations. However, Ty'urn was seduced by one of his own people who rekindled the love for his heritage. His betrayal of the Moluv would prove devastating." Again, one point Taar had emphasized was the wisdom of the Moluv in allowing loyal members of conquered species to serve as officers in the military, which brought many distinguished and brilliant leaders into their command. Jorri agreed with him, of course, but couldn't pass up the opportunity to remind him of this obvious and deadly exception to his ideal. "The obvious result of this was that he had an understanding of Moluv tactics that could be used against them. But that was only part of the problem. The true threat Ty'urn posed was revealed in the battle itself."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Imperator-class Star Destroyer Defiance had broken away from its group twenty-seven hours previously. The price for the previous month's peace was the now unexpected and brutal assault of the Hirogen throughout the sector. Attack after attack, seemingly at random, staying only long enough to create havoc before vanishing into hyperspace. The frequency and number of attacks had forced the fleet to split up to deal with them. It was obvious this was deliberate, but they had no choice but to continue even though they found the behavior suspicious. Orders from the Minister of the Navy insisted that they respond to every distress call no matter what the situation; the political fallout would be devastating otherwise. It was, again, a reminder that politics and military forces don't mix well.

"The Thrawn Military Doctrine is not to just overcome obstacles, but to turn them into opportunities. Ty'urn understood that."

The Defiance emerged from hyperspace in the Ekkle System, one of the larger Malon settlements in this part of space. There was a good chance they could catch them in time, given how close they had been when the signal was received. They were right.

"Ty'urn had millions of followers willing to fight and die for his cause. Their disadvantage was a serious lack of training, moderate experience with advanced technology, and no real understanding of space combat."

Even with rotating shifts the crew was tired, and the commanding officers bordered on exhaustion. Fortunately the sight of dozens of Hirogen ships did the work of eight hours sleep and a pot of black coffee on them, even as their instruments detected an interdictor field emanating from the planet. Their plan to come out of hyperspace near the planet had left them well inside its range.

"Ty'urn appealed to the one thing he knew could turn them into an effective fighting force. The Bivcyon had a millennia-long tradition in the hunt."

The crew of the Defiance realized soon enough that it was a trap.

"Ty'urn devised strategies that his people could carry out easily, strategies of the hunt."

The surprise of the Defiance crew at the sight of the Hirogen fleet was met with even more surprise when the first shots were fired. The Hirogen weapons shouldn't have even penetrated their shields, but it was soon obvious that these weren't Hirogen weapons; they were Imperial.

The captain immediately began coordinating their defenses while his executive officer was charged with getting them out of the range of the Interdictor. It was difficult as the Hirogen fleet broke off into three groups, continually cutting off any attempt to withdraw.

"'It is as much the mind as the limbs that snare the prey,' Ty'urn told them. 'It is as much the heart as the spear. Without those you fail, but with them there is no prey you cannot fell. Likewise, there is no enemy you cannot destroy if you hunt with mind and heart.'"

The Defiance wasn't helpless, of course. While the Hirogen ships were too small for the Heavy Turbolasers, a few well-placed shots by the rest of their weapons were able to swat them out of the sky. But despite this they were still unable to escape the field. The Defiance attempted to maneuver into position to attack the field generator itself, but the Hirogen again herded them away from their target.

"This is not to say his plans were so simple. Rather, he was using them as a starting point for their understanding. He re-taught them how to hunt so that, when they faced their enemy, each understood their place in the hunt."

The TIEs launched within moments of the attack, but like the rest of the crew, the pilots had been on standby throughout the crisis. Smaller Hirogen vessels now joined the fray, taking advantage of the slight weakness the Imperials had from their fatigue. Without shields around the fighters the Hirogen's own weapons were enough to deal with the TIEs, and that left the Defiance to fend for itself.

"The Moluv battlecruiser, despite having superior strength and defenses, fell before Ty'urn. That Ty'urn lost most of his force wasn't important."

The sustained bombardment was too much. The shields buckled and finally gave long enough for a Hirogen ship to attack the reactor dome. Its breach signaled the end of the battle, the first victory of the Hirogen over the Empire in a decade.

"The real purpose of the attack was never what it had seemed. Ty'urn's hope was to shatter the Moluv's view that they were unstoppable. By doing that, the people began to question whether this was a war they could win. When facing a superior foe, the only way he knew to beat them was to convince a complacent citizenry that they shouldn't risk a war."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"I noticed you didn't mention that the Bivcyon were re-conquered a generation later by the Moluvs." Gen. Taar said to Jorielle after the rest of the class had been dismissed.

"It was incidental," Jorri said, using the general's pet phrase. "Ty'urn's successor restructured the military so that it was no longer capable of defending against the Mulov."

"But if he was a truly gifted military leader he would have chosen a successor who would have more sense."

"Yes, but that was outside the scope of my report, sir." Jorri knew that Taar had previously chided cadets who had strayed too far from the topic. "The same reason that I did not include his failing to capitalize on Mulov weaknesses in mineral-rich border systems."

"So you concede he was not a brilliant leader?"

"I concede that his skill as a tactician and commander did not aide his deficiencies in other areas. Nor do those failings diminish his skills."

And then General Taar did something she'd never seen him do before; he smiled. "Walk with me," he said, gesturing towards the door.

"I have Galactic History-"

"I've already cleared it with Col. Mulns," he said, leading her out the door. "How much do you know about Thrawn? You mentioned him in your report."

"I know that he was responsible for reconstructing the Empire during the Borg event. He seized the opportunity, but was later killed by Republic spies before his work was complete."

They left the building and walked along the endurance path, a safe enough move since portions of it were closed for renovation and would ensure they wouldn't be knocked over by practicing cadets. "I served under Thrawn for years," he said finally. "Now he... he was a master. Were he still alive I've no doubt that Cardassian terrorists would be non-existent, and that the Vong would have no chance against us."

"You believe in the Vong, then?" Jorri asked. Most were dismissive of the rumors that they were swarming for a total invasion. Jorri knew that Luke Skywalker had claimed they existed, and that was good enough for her.

"Yes," he said. "Thrawn warned me about them once. Called them by name. Never said how he knew, but I have my suspicions...." Jorri remained silent as he lost himself in thought. "The devotion of those beneath him was unmatched. We would have flown into a star on his command, such was the loyalty of his crew. The fact he was an alien didn't matter." He stopped, looking up at something Jorri couldn't see. "I killed him."

Jorri said nothing but she knew her face mirrored her thoughts.

"He betrayed us," Taar said. "I will not say how, but it was the worst kind of betrayal. And I never thought twice about what I had to do."

Taar began walking again and Jorri raced to fall back into step with him. She couldn't think of anything to say, wasn't even sure if he was telling the truth.

"Despite the history of the Imperial Navy I believe you will go far, Ms. Sunspring. I've felt this for some time, but I've wanted to see that you had the discipline to maintain it. Keep it; it's what's going to take you to great heights. But don't make Thrawn's mistake. Once you believe your own infallibility, that is when you will invite death upon yourself."

"Yes, sir," she said, at least knowing what to say in response to that. The fact that a few months ago she was trying to grow crops in a desert and now was discussing high command left her a bit overwhelmed.

"Sebastian Skywalker has been found and returned to Earth," he said as if he were continuing the next point of his lesson.

"He's all right?" Jorri said, all restraint lost.

"No," Taar said. "He's conscious but non-responsive. You may take a week to visit with him, considering your past history with him. The therapist thinks an old friend may do the boy some good."

Jorri understood now what the point of this was. "Am I being asked to choose between my friend and my career, sir?"

"Quite a thing to ask of a first-semester cadet," Taar said. "No, in fact this is quite out of the ordinary. But the Chancelor of the Academy was contacted by the Emperor himself over this matter. I assured them both that you were quite capable of maintaining your studies despite the interruption. I hope you won't prove me wrong."

"No, sir," she said, a bit shocked. Being friends with Sebastian had already opened her up to people she'd never imagined a Tatooine girl could ever meet, but now the Emperor himself? It almost frightened her. It did make her concerned. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"Granted," Taar said, still looking straight ahead.

"I don't wish to receive special treatment because of who I am friends with."

"You don't wish to go?"

"I do," she said quickly. "I mean, I don't want special assignments or privileges because of that. I want to earn my own way, sir. I want to know that I succeeded or failed because of me, not because someone was giving me a leg-up. Sir," she added.

"That," he said, "is exactly why I felt you should receive this special accommodation. You're going to have days on the shuttle, and I've no doubt you'll put them to good use for your studies instead of lounging in the rec area. You're getting this time because you've earned it."

From someone who had shown such clear contempt for the cadets on their arrival, that meant a great deal to Jorri. She also understood why he'd brought it all up; he wanted to give her something else to think about along the way besides Bastian. "I won't disappoint you, sir."

"If that's true, you'd be the first," he said, but there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The last piece locked into place. Luke felt nothing as he held it in front of him and activated the switch, lighting the night with the humming green blade. It had been a final test of his skills as a Jedi, and a symbol of his office. But now, on Earth, it was a weapon, one that he would not hesitate to wield against anyone who threatened his family again. The Vong were in hiding, but they weren't gone. Garak continued his petty attacks as well, taking advantage of the Hirogen mess. It was a dangerous universe no matter where you were.

Luke had been here before. There was a darkness on the horizon, as menacing as the old Empire had ever been. There wasn't going to be any place to hide from it. He'd foreseen some of it, and he knew just how terrible this war would become. Others had a sense of it too, he'd noticed. They were preparing for the coming conflict like the unstoppable force that it was, the force of destiny that said that Unity must be challenged. But Luke was alone in the universe in one respect, that he knew what the greatest threat would be. The destruction of Palpatine was not the end of the Dark side. It would rise up once again, no matter how much he wished he could deny it. The Vong, the catalyst for its return, had arrived. It was only a matter of time before its shadow threatened them all once again. No, there was nowhere to hide from it; no one could escape it. The only hope was that someone, somewhere, would stop it; that someone would rescue them.

Luke turned off the lightsaber, looking up at the cold, uncaring stars with a gaze that was every bit as frigid, and when he spoke his voice offered no room for dissent. "I'm not going to stand here and wait."



Chuck

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Part XVI


"Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honalee." Annika's voice was very low as she sang, rocking Sebastian back and forth with the rhythm. It was almost exactly the way she would sing him to sleep every night when he was just a baby. "And little Jackie Paper, loved that rascal Puff, and brought him strings and sealing wax, and other fancy stuff."

Luke was grateful that they had a friend like the Doctor. Sebastian was given a room just a few doors down from Annika so that she could see him whenever it was permissible. Their mutual presence would help each other heal; Luke knew it. The room, thanks to the holo-emitters located throughout the facility, had been modified to look like his room back on Tatooine and hopefully make him more comfortable. The only difference was the lump of clay the therapist had provided, and Sebastian often went over and dug his hands into it, manipulating it without the slightest sign of thought. The mass just changed shape in his grip, never evolving towards anything remotely recognizable. Luke understood why. Many nights during those brief moments when he was neither sleeping nor tortured, the child had laid in his icy cell, alone and terrified. He had taken to scratching at the ice during those times, trying to vent his frustration and maybe through it, push off madness another day.

It was a testimony to his strength that he had lasted as long as he did. None of the suicide attackers the Vong had brainwashed were in custody even half as long as Sebastian had been. His surrender wasn't because he was weak, it was because he was - Jedi or not, Borg or not - human.

"Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff's gigantic tail," Annika was singing. "Noble kings and princes, would bow when e'er they came. Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name."

Before she could get any further the Doctor arrived. He obviously didn't want to intrude but had to. "It's time for your treatment," he said to Annika. She nodded but said nothing. "I'll also need to harvest more nanoprobes from Sebastian," he said to Luke.

"Do you need any help?" Luke asked, fool question though it was. Now that he'd finished his desperate search he found it hard to return to just sitting and wondering, and now with twice as many people to worry about. He was also anxious being stuck here, not able to spend any time learning what his enemies might be plotting. This whole business with Garak and the Vong had his paranoia working overtime.

"Just your presence may be reassurance enough," the Doctor said. He pulled out his instrument. "Annika..."

"I want to be with him," she said. "I want him to know everything's all right." She held Sebastian a little tighter as she said the words. The Doctor nodded and reached out towards Sebastian's arm.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian began to tremble in fear as the Doctor approached. "This won't hurt," he said, but his wicked grin said otherwise. He held up a horrible looking tool that whined as its blades whirled. He approached his arm.

"We're not interested in pain," his father said with contempt. "Just salvage the useful parts."

"Yes," 7 of 9 said as she restrained him in her unyielding grip. "Get it over with so we can abandon this mistake."

"His pain will be nothing compared to the suffering we've had to endure by his presence." There was no sign of anything in his father's look but contempt. "If he hadn't been such a miserable failure, maybe we could have loved him. Now, I can barely find it in myself to pity him."

"You feel far more towards him than I ever did," 7 of 9 said. "At best I tolerated his weakness. Now the only answer is obvious."

"Don't worry," the Doctor said, his grin never changing. "The new son I build you will be a far cry better than this one."

"I can't imagine him being worse," Luke said.

"You're going to feel a sting," the Doctor said as he lowered the screaming instrument to his arm. "That will be the blades tearing into your flesh and slicing through the bone. Try not to move, I want to make a clean cut."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke jumped as Sebastian screamed. In a flurry of movement the boy tossed Annika and the Doctor aside like dolls, jumping to his feet. Luke moved between him and the door, afraid he would try to run off. Sebastian's face was filled with terror as he looked at his father, backing off until he was up against the opposite wall. He slid down it and pushed himself into a small niche by his dresser, shaking with fear.

Annika was on her feet, shaken but more worried than hurt. As she approached Luke could feel Sebastian's fear grow. He grabbed her arm to restrain her, but she tried to tug out of his grip. "Let me go!" she demanded.

"You can't help him that way," Luke said. If it wasn't for the disease he'd never be able to hold her back.

She turned back towards him with malice in her eyes. "This is your fault!" she screamed. "If you'd let me come we would have found him in time!" Luke didn't let go. "This is-" she stepped forward and grabbed him around the chest, burying her face into him. He could feel her shoulders shaking from the tears; he held her tenderly. He'd had a few days to come to grips with Sebastian's condition. Annika had only learned of it that morning.

"I'm sorry," she finally choked. "I didn't mean it."

"He'll get better," Luke said with as much reassurance as he could manage. "Just give it time." He screwed his eyes shut as Sebastian screamed again, then fell silent as the Doctor sedated him. "Just give it time," he whispered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Chakotay?" Jane said quietly, startling him a little. "What are you doing?"

Chakotay closed the display and turned, a smile forced on his face. "Nothing as important as talking to you," he said.

"Uh huh," she said, her tone showing she wasn't going to be conned. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," Chakotay said. His will weakened as she put her hands on her hips. "I'm just helping out a friend," he said finally.

"Who?"

He hesitated, but he knew she'd keep at him. Jane was too smart for him sometimes. "Kathryn."

"Your old captain?" she said with confusion. "I thought she was missing."

"That's the point," he said. "She is, but I think I've found her."

"How?"

"I’m sure this planet-"

"How?" she asked again, not letting Chakotay evade the question.

"I helped B'ellana install a chip in one of the main holo-net hubs years back," he admitted. "It's to monitor communications that could aid the rebellion."

"You told me you left that all behind," she said.

"I did, but I still have access to the chip. I had it monitor the traffic for anything containing Kathryn's voice. I'd just about given up on it when she finally communicated through the network. It was short, but I tracked it back to the planet I think she's at."

"So you illegally pried into the holo-system to help you find out where your old captain is," Jane said, not sounding terribly pleased. "I hope you've got a good explanation."

"I know how this must look," he said. "But I know Kathryn. She's been blaming herself for the Empire's arrival for twenty years, and after talking with Harry and Seven, I'm starting to think she's in danger of destroying herself, or someone else." He could see she was conflicted. "I've dealt with her when she's like this before," he said finally. "If anyone can help-"

"Chakotay," she said, perhaps a little forcefully, "you promised me it was over. I don't want to get involved, and if you go there I know she's going to drag you right back into things again."

"I won't let that happen," he insisted.

"You can't help yourself," she said. "You care too much. It's a wonderful quality and I love you for it, but it's also a terrible weakness."

"I swear I'll just talk to her," he said. "I won't get involved no matter what, but I have to try to help her. Please."

Jane took a deep breath through her nose, then hugged him tight. "I've got a bad feeling about this," she warned quietly.

"I'll be careful," he replied. Secretly, he had his own worries. Kathryn’s voice sounded so dead, so devoid of any emotion at all that he had run multiple scans to confirm it was her.

Two things nagged at him: why was she talking with Garak, and why did he call her Oracle?
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke Skywalker. Jedi Knight, galactic savior, known throughout all of civilized space. There was something unnerving about someone that important waiting for you to arrive. "Hello, Jorielle," he said with the same smile and warmth she recalled from her childhood. "I'm glad you could come."

"Me too," she said, taking a moment to adjust her eyes. This part of Earth was a little brighter than what she'd become accustomed to back on Ralltiir. "Is Mrs. Skywalker here too?"

"Yes, but she's sedated at the moment," Luke said, leading her into the front of the hospital. "She won't be conscious for another thirty-six hours; part of her treatment."

"So they think they have a cure now?" she asked. She'd heard about the condition Annika Skywalker had contracted, and about the mortality rate.

"They have what may be a cure for her?" Luke said. "I have a good feeling about it. And with Sebastian here now, she has something else to fight for."

"I'm glad," she said. "How's Bastian doing?"

The silence told her more than anything he could have said. "Not well," he admitted finally. "I don't want you to be alarmed, but he's going to need time to recovery from what the Vong did to him."

"They hurt him?" she asked, afraid of what it meant.

"Not torture," Luke said, which somehow did make things a little better. Her imagination, when she had allowed herself on a few brief moments to worry, had visualized the worst kinds of abuses they might inflict on him. "But they tried to brainwash him. I... Let me be honest," he said, coming to a halt in the hallway. "There's a very good chance he won't even recognize you, and if he does, there's a chance you may terrify him. You've come a long way, but, if you need time to come to grips with that before seeing him..." He left the implication hanging there.

"I understand," she said, letting her Academy training give her a confidence she sorely needed at the moment. "But I don't think I could do anything until I had a chance to see him."

Luke nodded and continued the trip through the hospital. "Here's a commlink," he said as he passed it over. "If there's a problem, just activate it and I'll come immediately."

"That won't be necessary-"

"Jorielle," he said sternly, "it's not a suggestion." She said nothing, slipping it into her pocket. "Ready?"

"Sure," she said, trying to sound nonchalant. It was ridiculous, of course; she was an open book to a Jedi, but she had to keep up appearances.

The door slid opened and Luke led the way. Sebastian was sitting up on the edge of his bed, molding clay with his hands. "Sebastian?" Luke said, trying to get his attention. He didn't look up. "Sebastian, Jorielle's here. She came all the way from the Academy just to see you. I thought you two might like a chance to talk."

He didn't stir. The whole thing was unsettling. He looked just like he did when he was fixated on some machine back on Tatooine. If she didn't know it, she wouldn't have guessed anything was wrong with him at all. But he wasn't responding, wasn't doing anything but concentrating on his project. Luke met her eyes for a moment as he turned, a signal that she should let him know if there was a problem. She looked back to Sebastian as he slipped past and out the door.

"Hi, Bastion," Jorri said as she slipped into the chair opposite from where he sat. His attention was on the piece of clay he was shaping, but she didn't let that stop her. "How are you?" She waited. "I'm fine," she said finally, not certain what to do. "I... I got a little time off from the academy to visit. Gen. Taar took me aside personally, said I had potential. I know it doesn't sound like much, but if you knew him..."

He didn't seem to be aware of anything she was saying, but she wasn't going to give up that easily. "I really wish you were there. It's hard work, but we have a lot of fun when we find the time." She faltered. "Well, that's not exactly true. When I heard what had happened to you... Sebastian, I was really scared. I was afraid I'd never see you again." His fingers continued to make deep impressions in the clay's surface. "But it's okay now," she continued. "You're alive and you're safe, and that's all that matters. And you're going to get better, and things'll be just like they were before. Your mom will be fine, and your dad and Mr. Solo and a bunch of heroes are going to fly in and destroy these Vong and save the day. That's the way it works."

Sebastian didn't look up as she nervously got to her feet. "I know you can hear me," she said, stepping closer very carefully. "You're still in there Bastian, waiting for someone to help you find the way out again. Well, I'm here." She was right next to him, but he still wasn't looking at her. "I need you," she said. "I know you know what I feel; I can't hide anything from you. I love you and you know that. Feel how much I want you back. And I know that no matter what the Vong did to you, it can't be stronger than what I know you feel towards me." She took one of his hands and held it between her own, but he continued working the clay with the other one. He didn't speak or look at her, showed no interest.

Slowly, trying to resist the fear, she closed her eyes and kissed him. She'd been wanting to do it for forever. She opened her mind to him, let him feel how much she wanted this, wanted him, wanted him to want her, wanted to share forever with him, wanted him to know that he was loved and had something to come back to. He had to come back. As the Romans said, love conquers all.

Unfortunately, as she slowly withdrew and looked into his hollow eyes, she saw that he had already been conquered by fear.

"Bastian?" He didn't react. "Bastian?" The hand fell limp as she released it. The right stopped its pointless work, sliding off the clay and joining the left. He looked down at them, and then he spoke to himself, his voice just on the edge of hearing.

"Be strong, or they'll take it all away.... take it all away..."

"Sebastian?"

He crawled away and curled up on his bed. "Unworthy," he said. "Unworthy of it all..."

"I love you," she repeated. "Do you hear me? I love you."

"Unworthy of love," he said, not changing his rhythm in the slightest. "Not strong enough... not brave enough... he wouldn't give in.... he never would have been caught... he is worthy..."

"Please, Sebastian-" she tried to embrace him. She was shocked when he whirled and gripped her, squeezing her arms in each hand with his Borg-enhanced strength. His lifeless eyes had now been filled with terror, and despite the agony of his grip she found the terror contagious. "They're going to take it all away," he said, his voice having a slight crack to it. "They're going to take Jorri away."

"Sebastian, I'm here," she said frantically. "Listen to me-"

"I hate you, Ben," he said suddenly. "I hate what you've done to me... what you've turned me into..."

"Ben?" she asked quickly. "Who's Ben, Sebastian? Does he have the answer?"

"Ben... why do I have to lie to her... linear time... linear... but I'm not a god like you...I'm not anything..."

"Sebastian, who's Ben?"

"Gorren, you don't know how much I miss her..."

Jorri looked into his face. "Are you talking about me? Bastian, I'm right in front of you."

"Borg drone... Vong warrior... Jedi Knight... ISB Agent... Alliance Prefect... E-ee-me-........ it's all slipping away..."

Jorri had no choice. She pulled the commlink out of her pocket and pushed the button. He continued rambling as she waited for help.

"I am Kital. I am he who is left behind. I am unworthy. I am..." His grip loosened and he covered his face, weeping. "Please don't die Morgan... Please... I don't want to live without... it's not fair... I love you more than anyone... please don't die... we'll be so happy together... there so much I had planned for us..."

"Who's Morgan?" Jorri wondered with worry. "Sebastian... Sebastian it's me, it's Jorri. I love you."

"Jorri..."

"Yes, it's me! I love you!"

"I could love you," Sebastian said distantly. "But you’d be living in another woman’s shadow."

Luke and the Doctor came rushing in as Sebastian withdrew from her. She stepped back as they prepared to subdue him, but he was already withdrawn. "Something happened," the Doctor remarked simply as he quickly checked the neural scans while Luke approached, "but I've no idea what."

"It's the Force," Luke said. "He lost control, became entangled in past and future..."

"What do you mean?" the Doctor asked, the two oblivious to Jorri's tears as she watched them start strapping Sebastian down onto the bed.

"He was overwhelmed by images of his past and his future," Luke said. "But the disturbance has passed, I think."

Jorri found it hard to take her eyes off as she worked her way to the door and slipped into the hall. She ran aimlessly, somehow hoping that she could leave this behind. He was supposed to be fine; she was his true love, and she'd shown him her own love. That was supposed to make it all right.

Except it wasn't her that he had been crying for. It was Morgan that he wept for, whoever she would be. Morgan he wanted to spend his life with, Morgan he wanted to love more than anyone. She finally stopped, exhausted more in spirit than in body, not even trying to hold back her grief. Of course it was someone else; they had their whole lives ahead of them. This schoolgirl crush was going to die out once they grew up; she should have known. How could she have been so naive?

Jorri ignored the nurse who was asking how she was and found her way to a terminal. Within minutes she had arranged passage back to the Academy. Face it, she told herself, you know where your future lies. It's time to get back to it and stop acting like a child.

"I just hope Morgan makes you happy," she said finally as she transported away.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian laid back on the bed, the reinforced restraints holding him in place while he twitched and mumbled to himself. "...stupid... so stupid... I had you... I had you..." He jerked as much as he was allowed. "...I don't want to lose... ...it was... ...no!"

Jorri sat on the bench, face in her hands, so that no one would see her. "It could only be you," Sebastian muttered. "...only you..."

"Shuttle AJ-127 is now boarding for departure," the computer announced. Jorri got to her feet.

"...only you Jorri..."

Jorri wiped her eyes. No more crying; she was going to become an officer, act like it! She picked up her bags and walked towards the entrance.

"...I love you too, Jorri... ...come away with me..."

Jorri stowed her gear and took a seat by the window. Earth was a lovely planet, it would be nice to see it again from the air.

"...I'll never leave you again... I love you, Jorri..."

"Last call for AJ-127," the computer announced. Jorri looked out the window.

"...don't go away, Jorri..."

The shuttle lifted off the platform and turned slowly, landing gear sliding in as its atmospheric wings adjusted. Jorri watched the world below her, and while it was beautiful, there wasn't even a hint of a smile on her face.

"...I love you... please don't go away..."



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 09:33am
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Sebastion's journey is and always was a great one, and I loved the bit of Jorri's conflict...poor Sebastion.

Yeah I say it a lot, but even between him and Seven...he gets at least a better childhood then hers. Everything afterwards just crumbles on and around him. It marks as an interesting character because he doesn't just get up and dust himself off, he just gets up enough to get the next act of his life. While I am interested to see how you will end Annika's, I am more interested to see how you will end his tale.



MM /CF/WG/BOTM/JL/Original Warsie/ACPATHNTDWATGODW FOREVER!!

Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all

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Thank you very much, and you clearly have a great grasp of how Sebastian ticks.

I felt that it was important for Sebastian to take a far different path than his parents did, because it would be so easy to make him just another Luke, and that it was important that he be, as Q put it, a watered down version of his parents, that he not be some uber-man. Sebastian lives in the shadow of two incredible people, with talents that he knows he can never possess to their degree, and with the insistence that he's got to accomplish some impossible task. It was my hope that it would make him easier to sympathize with, and have his personal triumphs and tragedies take on more significance. I suppose in some ways he's my Peter Parker.



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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 02:37pm
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For those keeping score at home:


Start of saga: More depressing and angst filled than Gundam Wing(running Angst count 0)

By the end of SotN:More depressing and angst filled than Evangelion(running Angst count 90)

As of midway through AAO: More depressing and angst filled than 1984(running Angst count 150)


As of chapter XVI of Paradise Lost: More depressing and angst filled than War Against the Chtorr(running Angst count 250)

By the near-finish of Dawn of Forever: Second Most Depressing Story Ever(running angst count 500, Sorry, but Feintuch's Hope series still barely holds the lead).

I may exaggerate just a little. But not much.



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consequences wrote:
I may exaggerate just a little. But not much.


:lol:

I can offer no counter-argument, you are pretty much there.



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Part XVII


Chakotay had been to some inhospitable planets before, but as he made his final approach to Tynil 6, he couldn't think of many that were worse. He was worried that he might have tracked the signal back to a dead end, some relay set up to avoid tracing back to where the real Janeway was. He couldn't explain why, but the thought of that was more frustrating than he would have imagined. He loved his wife dearly and wouldn't give her up for anything, but why was it that this seemed so damn important to him?

Fortunately a few moments later the scans revealed that it wasn't a trick. A cavern located near the equator was home to an assortment of technical equipment and one lifesign. He had no records of her biosigns, but he was certain that had to be Janeway down there. With a few touches of the panel the ship changed course and entered the frigid atmosphere. He set down two hundred meters from the entrance, then activated the cloak. If anyone found him, it would only be if they had been looking for him in the first place.

He set the coordinates for the transporter and beamed himself into the entrance to the cavern. Once inside he pulled out a tricorder and mapped out the path to Janeway's lab. There were no other life readings but he kept one hand on his blaster just to be safe. Deep down, his only fear was the person he'd find when he arrived in the lab. He hoped it would still be his old friend.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"And so he grabs my shoulder and yanks me back around," Luke said, gesturing a little with excitement as he talked. "And then he gets right in my face and starts really hassling me. 'I don't like you either! You just watch yourself, we're wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems!’ And I'm thinking, it's probably because of your bad breath you old boozehound, but I'm trying to defuse the situation, so I say ‘I'll be careful.’ Well the guy whirls me around and says ‘You'll be dead!’ And then... and then I grabbed him and threw him across the bar and kicked his ass. Then I kicked his friend's ass too. Han and Chewie were just amazed and Ben gave me that look like he just knew I was going to be a Jedi." Luke paused, but there was no response. "I guess you had to be there."

Sebastian hadn't looked up from the clay the entire time, hadn't shown even the slightest interest in anything Luke had to say. Luke cleared his throat and leaned forward. "That's the version I tell your mother, anyway," he confided. "Truth was I spent most of the fight on the floor. I remember watching Ben, though, and being just amazed at what he could do. The problem, though, was that I forgot what he'd done before that. He was trying hard not to get into the fight, even offering to buy these two jerks a drink, when he very easily could've taken on the whole bar. But that's the thing about being a Jedi, you've got to keep it in check. No matter how much someone bothers you, no matter how much you wanna just knock them down to show them how small they are, that's the time when you've gotta get even more in control of yourself."

Sebastian still wasn't listening. The alarm on Luke's chronometer beeped and he checked the time to confirm it wasn't a malfunction. "I've gotta go for a little while," he said as he got up. "We'll talk more later."

He jogged down the hall to the nurse's station. Nurse T'Chik was already getting up to let him know the transmission was coming through. He thanked her as he took the seat behind the panel and Leia appeared on the display. "Well?" he asked, feeling a little on edge.

"The fleet has run a full sweep of ninety sectors," Leia said. "Nobody has found any trace of the Vong."

"What about Kalib?" Luke asked.

"Nothing." Leia was uneasy as she seemed to look for the words. "Luke, the Senate doesn't believe you. In the end, no matter how much I and the Emperor believe the Vong were there, they just don't accept it. There's no evidence, and they're upset that the fleet is off in that part of space when the Cardassians and the Hirogen pose a real, tangible threat."

"Leia, they're there," Luke said slowly but with emphasis. "They may be hiding for now, but not forever. If we don't stop them now, while they're still weak, they'll destroy us."

"I know that, Luke," she replied, and he could sense a tiny amount of frustration in that voice. "But the drawback to the reforms is that the Emperor no longer has absolute power. If he pushes this without support of the Senate we risk undoing the progress of the past fifteen years."

"The Vong will set the clock back a lot farther than that," Luke said.

"Luke, it's a difficult tightrope we're on, and walking it is not as simple as you think. The power the Emperor gave the Senate is all that is keeping thousands of systems from open revolt. It's not a problem we can just ignore despite the Vong threat. Without evidence, the Emperor's going to have to withdraw the fleet and move forces into the Milky Way."

"Maybe I should bring Sebastian back to Chandrilla," Luke said bitterly. "Let them take a good look at what the Vong can do."

"Luke, I'm doing what I can, and this isn't over. But for right now our hands are tied. Nom Anor's going to get what he wants if we push this any further; do you want that?"

"No," Luke admitted, but he refused to hide his frustration about it. He knew more than anyone how dangerous these Vong were, and every day was another day they grew stronger. "Keep me informed."

"I will," Leia promised. "How's Annika?"

"Healing. I'd bring her over but she's still unconscious. These sessions are really exhausting her, but she's making progress towards a recovery."

Leia nodded, her face reflecting her concern. "Sebastian?"

Luke found it hard to answer. "All we can do is wait," he said finally.

"May the Force be with him," Leia said, "and with you."

"Thanks." He cut the transmission and stared at the empty screen for a few seconds as he pondered the situation. Finally he got up and returned to Sebastian's room. The boy was still digging his fingers deep into his clay while his father took a seat. Luke interlaced his fingers for a while, trying not to think about his wife and son's conditions, about the threat to the galaxies, about the man he'd abandoned to their greatest enemy. Finally he looked up and smiled at Sebastian. "Did I ever tell you about the time Han got lost on Hoth and I had to rescue him? Funny story..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"You shouldn't have come, Chakotay."

Chakotay froze. He thought he'd been quiet, and she wasn't even looking at him. His sensors had shown no sign of any detection system out on the planet's surface either. Uncertain, he dropped all pretenses and hoped she'd tip her hand. "I had to," he said. "I've been worried about you, Kathryn."

"No," she said, still not looking at him, "you haven't."

"Kathryn-"

"Please don't speak to me," she said. "Hearing that voice - it pains me more than I'd like to admit." Janeway turned around, pushing a strand of her long white hair out of her face as she looked at Chakotay, her eyes filled with pity. "If only I'd have known in time," she whispered.

"Known what?" Chakotay asked. "If this is about your research-"

"Even so, you could have spared yourself." Her eyes glazed slightly. "You and Jane would have had a child, a boy. You wouldn't have known him long, but you would have had a chance. He would be named Corey, and he was going to be a gifted surgeon whose compassion would bring healing of body and soul throughout the sector. But you had to come. You had no choice."

"Are you working with Garak?"

"I needed resources to continue my work," Janeway said without apology. "Garak was the only one who could provide them that wasn't involved with the Empire in some way. In some ways... it was a mistake."

"It's not too late," Chakotay said. "You can escape him. Garak's powerful here, but if you go-"

"It's not Garak," she interrupted. "Don't you see, Chakotay? I've done it. I've broken through the barrier now. I've taken the power of the Jedi to its ultimate conclusion, opening up the future and the past." She didn't seem to blink as she continued to look at him, into him. "What might have been, what should have been, it's all clear to me now, and it has confirmed the one thing I feared the most: I am responsible for bringing the Empire here."

"You don't know that."

"I do," she said bitterly. "I know it as the most undeniable fact in the universe. If not for my involvement, the Empire would never have discovered the wormhole. And... and we would have made it home anyway!" She laughed slightly at that. "Just two years more and we would have made it home, without dragging along the blight that consumed all we had wanted to return to. But no matter how hard I try, my every effort is thwarted to restore that past."

"Kathryn," he said as reassuringly as possible, "why don't you come with me for right now. Take a break and look at all this with fresh eyes." And a sane mind, he added silently. Things were worse than he thought. Janeway was given to fits of depression and regret, but never had it driven her this far. He blamed himself, really. He had been her conscience, and by leaving her he'd abandoned her to her own sense of failure.

"It's too late," she said. She raised her voice. "Garak. Keep your lackey in check."

There was no time for Chakotay to hide as the two Cardassians strode into the main chamber that housed Janeway's lab. Garak had the most well known face short of the Emperor, so Chakotay knew that it was one of his subordinates who drew a disruptor. Garak raised his hand, holding back the fire for the moment. Chakotay was armed, but he didn't dare go for his blaster. The point became moot as Janeway pulled it from his holster. "Disarm him, Garak," she said.

"He does not answer to you," the Cardassian began without bothering to hide his contempt.

"There's no need for that," Garak said, taking the disruptor. "The Oracle is as trustworthy as you are."

"Kathryn-" Chakotay began under his breath.

"Your fate was sealed the moment you landed," she said.

"After all we've been through-"

And for the first time since his arrival Janeway let her emotions unleash. "I told you to stop speaking to me! You and I have been through nothing together, and your words do nothing but remind me of what I lost! No!" she shouted at Garak as he raised the disruptor towards him. "You'll regret pulling that trigger, Garak."

"I find that hard to imagine," Garak said, holding his aim. Chakotay braced himself. He doubted in his prime he could've dodged the shot, but he had to try. For Jane, he had to try. Fortunately, Garak holstered the weapon. "I hope your judgment is not being guided by emotion."

"No," Janeway said, looking at Chakotay with contempt, "not remotely."

"You know why I've come?" Garak asked.

"Yes. Skywalker. It wasn't wise to draw his attention."

"I don't recall anyone asking your assessment, human," the other Cardassian said.

"Lumett," Garak said, "I'm getting tired of your interruptions." The subordinate glowered but said nothing. "What will become of him?" he asked Janeway. "Is he a threat?"

Janeway took a deep breath through her nose, then she pulled a hypospray off the desk and placed it to her neck. She grunted slightly as it discharged, her breath quickening.

"Oracle," Garak said again, slightly louder, "Tell me about Luke Skywalker's future."

"I cannot see whether he will turn his hand against you, Garak," Oracle said in an even deeper, scratchier voice than usual. "But you have upset the balance within him. You may have released something far more terrible than you have imagined. If his hand turns to darkness, you will find no mercy in that man, only an unequalled cruelty."

"But there's no certainty that will happen," Garak said, taking the news rather well in Chakotay's estimation.

"One thing is assured," Oracle said. "The Dark side is not beaten. It must return, it must challenge again. The fallen Vader will not be the last Sith to bear the name Skywalker."

"Explain."

"As always, the way things are and the ways things were are not the way that they should be. Father against son was the way fate had planned, two hands raised in anger against one another, the son destroying him. But Luke Skywalker never crossed swords with his father in hatred."

"What does that matter?" Lumett said, but Garak waved him into silence.

"That conflict will be crossed to the next generation," she continued. "Sabers will clash in hatred as father and son vie for control as it should have been twenty years passed. The time is soon coming when the two will stand on opposite sides of the Force, pulled together by destiny again and again until the contest is over and only one stands."

"Who?" Garak asked.

"I cannot see, but I do know that no matter who wins the Vong will be the true champions. The chaos they wrought will threaten the Empire."

"Then the Vong will prevail?"

"As things were meant the Vong would swarm through their galaxy, the might of the Republic and the strength of the Jedi unable to halt it. The Empire is not so weak, and the Jedi do not divide it yet. But the coming confrontation will lead to disorder."

"That's what Nom Anor has wanted," Garak said to Lumett. "We're part of his plan; causing trouble to distract the Empire so the Vong can destroy them."

"He's been using us," Lumett said with disgust.

"That surprises you? Of course he was. But if he destroys the Empire, we've won."

"Do not presume," Oracle continued. "You've been a part of his plans since before the fall of the Federation. His network of spies is far more vast than you can imagine. He has his claws dug into every major and minor faction in the galaxies. When the time comes, there will be few secrets kept from him."

"Who are they?" Garak asked. "Can you give me names, or a way of finding out how to purge them from ourselves?"

"Let me show you," Oracle said. "Chakotay, step over near Lumett," she said. Chakotay considered a moment, then did as he was told. There was no sense waiting for Garak to point his disruptor at him. "Garak, come to me." Bemused, the Cardassian obeyed. The four now stood opposite one another.

"What is the point of this?" Lumett said with impatience.

"I'm exposing you," Oracle said, "as the traitor you are."

"Oracle-" Garak began.

"You know Chakotay was my most trusted advisor and friend," she said over him. "I would have died for him if I had to." Before anyone could say anything more she pulled out the blaster. Chakotay tried to move, but he felt the plasma bite into the flesh of his left side, burning and charring even as he stumbled. There was a second blast, but it missed as he hit the floor. Then he saw Lumett stagger and knew that it wasn't a miss as he gasped for breath. He looked into her face wondering why, but it bore only hate.

"Are you insane?" Garak asked as he took the blaster away from her yielding grip. If he'd had the strength, Chakotay would've laughed at the question.

"They should be dead," Oracle answered. "Body shot at point blank, but they are dying." Chakotay's struggles for breath illustrated that clearly enough. Even with medical aid, he was still a dead man. I'm sorry Jane, he thought. If there was a way...

But there was. Suddenly, he knew there was. And as he looked at Lumett, he knew that he knew as well. They reached out their hands, human and Cardassian, and gripped them tightly. He felt his strength returning despite the pain, despite the fact that he wasn't breathing any more, despite the fact that, had he known it, his heart had stopped. His flesh bonded with Lumett's, the two being pulled together and fusing. Chakotay felt his bones and muscles, his organs and nerves and veins, all of him unraveling and intermixing with the other. It was surprisingly painless, even as they started reknitting together, their bodies now combined in an impossible way.

Then he was suddenly aware of a whole host of experiences he'd never had but somehow remembered. It took him a moment to acclimate them into his memory, the sum total of all that was Lumett now part of him. When he looked to Garak he suddenly recalled a bond of loyalty that matched his own towards Janeway. Recalled, but not felt, not any longer. His purpose was clear now that the deception was over. He needed to return to the Vong, and he couldn't allow anyone to stand in his way.

Garak was uncharacteristically aghast but the Oracle hadn't shown the slightest bit of surprise or horror at what at happened. Her expression hadn't changed from the moment she pulled the trigger. "Kill it, Garak," she said evenly. Chakotay-Lumett dived at them, but he felt the disruptor and the blaster tear into his chest. He still pushed on as they continued firing until finally, despite his overwhelming will to survive, death overcame him again. This time, there was no escape.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak was breathing heavy as he looked at the twisted form that half contained one of his advisors. "A changeling?" he asked finally once he was certain it wasn't getting up again.

"No," Oracle said. "A bio-reconnaissance organism, designed by Nom Anor and sent throughout the Empire. It destroys and replaces its target, becoming a replacement so accurate that it doesn't even realize it's not the original. No one, not a telepath, not even a Jedi can tell who is and isn't what they appear to be."

"You're telling me that there might be more of them in my organization, and I have no way of finding out?"

"I'm telling you that they are so well placed," the Oracle said, "you might very well be one yourself." Garak showed no reaction, but he was very good at that. "But I don't believe you are. In any case, there's nothing you can do about it if you were. When the time comes Nom Anor will cause all the spies to return to him, and when that happens whoever they might have been will no longer exist. Indeed, they're already dead. That wasn't Chakotay, just an impersonation so accurate it wasn't until the end that it realized it wasn't who it believed it had been."

"How did you know?" Garak asked.

"I am the Oracle," she replied, as if that fact said everything. "I knew that the Chakotay replicant would begin investigating me once he learned of my research. But he never understood that it was only because he was carrying out his mission; his 'concern' about me was just a justification to himself of why he had to come. It's the same reason that Lumett offered to escort you to me. But it was destiny that they would arrive together and allow me to prove to you that you are being spied upon in a way you'd never imagined."

"What would you suggest I do with this information?" Garak asked, still not taking his eyes off the twisted form.

"Use it as a reminder when you think of trusting Nom Anor. But now I must devote myself to my own work, in the hopes that the real Chakotay may be spared this fate." Garak said nothing as he slipped back out of the room, leaving Janeway alone with the remains.



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