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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 06:11pm
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Part XVIII


Garak sat alone in the cockpit of his ship, mulling over the situation. He had lived a life that revolved around the simple belief that no one was to be trusted. Now that belief had been proven true, and taken to an extreme he'd never imagined. His deep-rooted paranoia had, in the end, not been paranoid enough.

Was he Elim Garak? That question had plagued him for the better part of an hour. He believed he was, but he was unable to reach it through any rational means, and that left doubt. And doubting himself was a weakness, and weaknesses led to failure. Therefore, he had to prove who he was to himself if he was to succeed, not to mention have the means to ferret out the moles in his organization.

A few taps of the controls and the remains of the Chakotay-Lumett creature was beamed into a stasis field in the small medical bay of the ship. The body was a starting point, but he knew that was a difficult place to be starting from. He lacked the medical knowledge needed to discover its secrets, and who could he turn to for the answers? Anyone he went to could be a spy, and based on what the Oracle said, they would subconsciously be working to further Nom Anor's ends. And so it came back to that same question: who do you turn to when every living thing could be your enemy? But fortunately, logic provided the simple answer to that question as he activated the launch sequence and set his course.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"''The Men of Gondor are valiant, and they will never submit; but they may be beaten down,'" Luke read aloud. "Valour needs first strength, and then a weapon. Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!'"

Sebastian showed no interest in what Luke was saying, but he didn't let that stop him. The therapist had said Luke's presence would be a great help in his recovery, but Luke had run out of things to say in his one-sided conversations with the boy. Luke had already finished Hard Times with the boy, so he asked for the thickest book they could find. Hopefully that would help gain Sebastian's interest after a while.

"'Alas, no,' said Elrond. 'We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman.'" Luke paused. "Do you think it's sow-ru-man or sah-ru-man?" Sebastian said nothing. "'If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron's throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear.'"

Before Luke could continue the commlink chimed. "Yes?" he said into it with a hint of irritation.

"Mr. Skywalker," said the droid the Doctor had assigned to him during their stay, "Earth Governor Hill has asked if you would reconsider joining them this evening for the charity banquet." The droid no doubt had learned Luke's mannerisms well. "I told him you were busy with personal affairs but he was quite insistent that I relay the message to you regardless, with a reminder of how much your presence could boost support-"

"The answer is still no," Luke said. "Please convey my sincerest regrets to Governor Hill that..." he trailed off. "Find a way to say 'Kriff, no' in a polite way, UP0."

"Of course."

Luke put the commlink back and returned to the book. "Boromir looked at them doubtfully, but he bowed his head. `So be it,' he said. `Then in Gondor we must trust to such weapons as we have. And at the least, while the Wise ones guard this Ring, we will fight on.'" The commlink beeped again. "Yes?"

"Mr. Skywalker," UP0 said, "Admiral Durnov just left a message for you."

"P0," Luke said sternly, "I said I didn't want to be disturbed."

"But you did say to contact you about anything involving the Vong. Did you wish me to disregard that command under these circum-"

"What about the Vong?" Luke said.

"The message is encoded for you alone," the droid said. "I can transfer access to a terminal if you wish to view it."

Luke mulled it over, then looked at Sebastian. "I won't be gone long," he promised the boy as he set the book down on the table. Sebastian continued molding his clay. He left the room and went to the nearest station on that floor. He entered his authorization code to access the message, for all the good that it did. It was already encrypted, he thought as he looked over the gibberish on his screen, why would they use another code. "P0," he said into his comm, ask the admiral if the message was doubly-encoded or if it was just garbled." He waited a few seconds for the response.

"I cannot reach the admiral or his ship?" P0 said. "Would you like me to leave him a message?"

Luke's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what was going on. "Find out if there's something wrong with the grid," he said as he got up and started to return to his room. "Maybe something went wrong during the transmission and we can't contact them now." P0 acknowledged and Luke slid the commlink back into place as he opened the door to Sebastian's room. He froze in the doorway. "Who the hell are you?" he asked.

The startled little man jumped as Luke spoke. He seemed to look for an exit but, unfortunately for him, Luke was blocking the only one. "I asked you a question," Luke demanded as he took a step closer, the alien stumbling as it tried to get away from him. Luke tried to focus his attention on him while at the same time checking Sebastian. When Luke touched him the boy slipped away in fear, whimpering as he curled up on the bed away from his father. Luke closed his eyes and tried not to think about how much it still hurt to watch that, but then he felt the alien break for the door. He turned and with an outstretched arm pointed towards him, lifted the figure off his feet and then flat against the wall. He remained there as Luke got up and approached, his lightsaber unlit in his hand. If the Vong had sent an assassin or agent, he thought, it was the worst mistake they could possibly have made. "Who are you?" he asked again, his tone low and menacing.

"Nobody!" the little man squealed. "I'm..." he trailed off as Luke pulled the device from his hand.

"A holo-imager?" Luke said uncertainly. Suddenly he realized what was going on. "You sent that transmission," he said. "Just to-" he couldn't say the words; just the thought was causing his darker side to rumble within.

"The p-populace has a right to know," the little man said. "Unless a state of emergence exists, freedom of the press shall not be infringed..." Luke's look showed that he wasn't interested in freedom of anything at that moment. It would have been more satisfying to crush the imager with the Force, to vent his anger. Instead he stabbed it with his lightsaber, destroying the memory crystal inside and any stolen pictures of his son. "I will not see you again," Luke said. He allowed the alien to fall to the floor; he didn't even bother scooping up his camera.

"Where were we?" Luke said in as cheerful a voice as he could despite Sebastian's behavior. The one thing he couldn't do was try to coax him out of it; experience had taught him it only made matters worse. "Here we are. 'Mayhap the Sword-that-was-Broken may still stem the tide – if the hand that wields it has inherited not an heirloom only, but the sinews of the Kings of Men.'"

"Excuse me," came a voice, causing Luke to drop his head in frustration. "Do you have a moment?" It took Luke a second to realize it was the Doctor.

"Yes, yes, sorry," Luke said, getting up to greet him. The Doctor had been keeping Luke regularly updated on Annika's condition despite his heavy schedule. Luke really did appreciate the effort.

"You and I have been hailed," the Doctor said, his tone implying he found it rather absurd.

"I think I know by who," Luke said. "It's just a trick." He explained briefly what had happened.

"I'm sorry," the Doctor said. "I'll have a security detail stationed outside his room, and Annika's as well. We should have thought of that sooner."

"It's all right," Luke said, calmer now that the moment had passed.

"Ms. Brent," the Doctor said into his communicator, "I think this is a false alarm."

"I'm afraid not, Doctor," she said. "At least, I really don't think so."

"Who is it?"

"It would be better if I didn't say over a comm channel, Doctor," she said. "But I think you'll want to take this."

"It won't hurt to check," the Doctor said. Luke agreed as long as they waited for the security officers to arrive. On the way down the Doctor began briefing Luke on the progress of Annika's treatment.

"The therapy is working, but I must admit it's taking its toll. The increased nanoprobe dosage shows a marked increase in her immune response, but Annika was having difficulty..." The Doctor seemed to search for the right words.

"Resisting assimilation," Luke said.

"In a matter of speaking," the Doctor said. "I've been giving her injections of steroids and hormones to try and offset that. It's been successful, but she's not quite as cheerful as she usually is."

"Is she in pain?" Luke asked.

"No. She's just not as in control of her emotions as she normally is. If she seems belligerent or depressed, it's just the medication." Luke nodded but said nothing. "After her treatment this afternoon she should be well enough for you to spend some time with her. Despite how she might act she misses you, and Sebastian."

Me too, Luke thought.

"Doctor," the nurse said as she got out from behind the station, "I'm sorry to disturb you, but when he asked for you and Mr. Skywalker I figured you'd want to take this."

"Who is it?" he asked, but there was no need as the voice of the caller beckoned them. Luke's whole body tensed as he came around the station with the Doctor who urged the nurse to depart.

"Garak," Luke rumbled as he saw the image of the Cardassian on the monitor.

"Jedi Skywalker," Garak said in greeting, his voice devoid of his usual grating charm. He must have known it would only infuriate Luke all the more. "I'm sure you have a lot of things you'd like to say and - more to the point - do to me, but I'm afraid it must wait, as there is something infinitely more important at stake here than you think."

"You're a liar, Garak," Luke said, his voice still a rumble as he tried to maintain control of his anger. "There's no reason for me to listen to a word you say."

"You lose nothing by listening," Garak pointed out. Luke said nothing while the Doctor prompted him to get on with it. "I've recently learned that Nom Anor, the man who forced me to kidnap Sebastian Skywalker and who nearly destroyed Earth, has even greater treachery up his sleeve." The two listened as Garak explained about the incident with Chakotay and Lumett, minus any details about the Oracle of course. They grasped the implication, but weren't convinced given the source.

"If what you said is true," Luke said, "then you can't trust anyone. Why tell us?"

"The Doctor," Garak said, "is the one person in the galaxy I know can't have been duplicated by his very nature. Given your extensive medical background," he said to the Doctor, "I'm sure you can find some way of understanding how these spies work and how we can unmask them."

"If you're telling the truth," the Doctor said with a tone implied he found the idea laughable.

"As for you, Jedi Skywalker, I've decided that you are highly unlikely to be infected. You were actually Nom Anor's intended target, and there would be no need to kidnap you if you were already one of his servants. Regardless, I knew you'd sense my arrival and had little choice but to explain my reasons for coming."

"You're not giving me any reason not to capture you the second you set foot on Earth," Luke said. Luke stumbled on the word "capture," but it came out nevertheless.

"Ah, but there is one," Garak said. "The body will be rigged with explosives, enough to destroy it if I don't send a code to disable them, which will only be sent if I leave Earth a free man."

"I've no interest in your paranoid delusions, Garak," Luke said. "You can jettison the corpse right now for all I care."

"You seem to have missed the obvious, Jedi. By your own admission, your escape from the Vong was far easier than it should have been. Is it because Nom Anor wanted you to?" Luke understood the implication immediately. Sebastian had been in Vong custody for weeks; was there any way to know if he was truly his son? His lifeforce felt the same, but if he was a precise duplication... clone's had identical lifeforces too. His anger burned at the Vong for what they'd done, and at Garak for taking away the hope he'd had that he'd get his son back. On anything else Luke would have dismissed Garak's remarks as lies, but that was the one thing Luke had to have no doubts about. Unfortunately, there was no way for him to know the truth of what Garak was saying unless the Doctor examined the body.

"If this is a trick," Luke said finally, "make no mistake that I will find you no matter where you hide. Dark side be damned, I'll find you Garak."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Kolyets were a unique phenomenon throughout the Delta Quadrant. The worlds that comprised the broken remnants of the Empire twenty years previously had been from three groups: pre-collapse territory that could not overthrow them, those who had not achieved superluminal travel and fell to their forces, and those who sought their protection from the Borg. The Kolyets, however, were a non-spacefaring race that joined the Empire voluntarily at the request of Grand Admiral Thrawn himself. Their skill was that they were, whether through culture or genetics, exacting cataloguers of every aspect of the universe they could measure. Their world was almost utopian, the Kolyets having mastered replicator technology and conquering disease and natural catastrophe millennia ago. They were in some ways similar to the Federation with one glooming discrepancy: they never left their planet. It wasn't because they were backwards, it was because they saw no need. Their world was idyllic and they saw no reason to leave it for something that wasn't. An energy shield protected them from hostiles, even the Borg, and siege tactics were impossible against a planet that had imposed its own quarantine. No government could threaten them into submission, appeal to their desire for defense, bribe them with technology or appeal to greed. Thrawn, however, had broken the world and persuaded them to submit to his Empire with the one and only item that could convince the Kolyets to throw open the gates and allow themselves to surrender: the contents of the Great Imperial Library. For them the combined knowledge of an entire galaxy was too great a temptation to pass up. The only thing it cost the Kolyets was their isolation: any citizen of the Empire had the right to approved portions of the overwhelming Kolyet Library. Through it Thrawn not only helped preserve information he knew would be lost when the authorities began systematically destroying their records, but he now possessed every scrap of information needed to topple any system in the entire galaxy. It was shrewdness like that that Nom Anor could respect.

"Launch window approaching," came the voice of the transport coordinator as it passed instantaneously to every ship inside and outside the planetary shield. The shield was opened every eight hours for precisely five minutes. Long-range scans constantly watched for any hostile forces that might try to take advantage of their brief lapses in security. It wasn't that the Kolyet were paranoid, it just took a lot longer than twenty years to reverse a millennia of isolationist tendencies. "Three...two...one... shield is open. Please follow your assigned flight path." Nom Anor ignored the instructions; he had docked his ship at one of the orbital platforms outside the shield to avoid any unnecessary scans of its interior. It wasn't the most ideal of circumstances; almost everyone else was using transporters to reach the station in moments, while he was taking a shuttle that would take several minutes to reach the same distance. Someone who was curious could break into his ship and stumble across some of his secrets, but better that than face the insidious energy machine of these humans. Vong feelings towards matter transport made die-hard Imperials look like experienced transporter jockeys.

There was no sign of entry as Nom Anor checked over his systems. One of his own "exotic animals" had a different urgency. Communication across the wormhole was impossible, but Anor had previously made arrangements to signal him if a communication was required. He was only five hours from the wormhole, so it wouldn't put him substantially behind schedule, but he was annoyed nonetheless. Ever since the evacuation of the ice planet they had been contacting him constantly. However the breach of security had been made, it had succeeded in doing far more than tipping their hand to the Empire, he thought as he left the station and entered hyperspace.

Once clear of the wormhole Nom Anor took out his Villip and waited for it to contact its opposite back on the Vong command center. He recognized their images once contact was made: Prefect Da’Gara, the commander of the first wave, and He’Lader, the tactical coordinator. At least he was being interrupted by someone in charge. Nom Anor gave the appropriate signs of respect to his superiors, they showed little interest in sharing that respect for him, despite his labors. It was an affront, considering that he was the executor of this attack, but his work in adapting to the altered galaxy had diminished his appearance in their eyes.

"Have you learned how the Jedi was able to find us?" He’Lader demanded once the formalities were out of the way. "We tire of your delays."

"I have nothing concrete," he said, "only speculation."

"I'm sure," He’Lader said with contempt. "If we wanted you to guess we wouldn't have wasted precious time!"

"Enough," Prefect Da’Gara said. "What have you learned?"

"I've just completed a study about this power the humans call 'The Force.' Apparently the Jedi is a master of this power-"

"The Force is heresy," He’Lader interrupted. "Do not use their blasphemy to try and cover up your failings."

"Whatever name you give this black magic," Nom Anor continued, "the fact is that the Jedi clearly has some unknown power at his command. We've witnessed it often enough that any who would deny it is a fool." He continued before He’Lader could protest. "I think it's likely, given what I've learned, that the Jedi tracked his son to the planet using a link through their magic."

"So the boy you brought us led to our discovery," Prefect Da’Gara said.

"Yes," Nom Anor admitted.

"You accept blame for this failure?"

"I accept responsibility for his learning of our base," Nom Anor said. "I do not take responsibility for his being allowed to land undetected and to infiltrate our central command, or for his escape with the boy." They made a sound that showed their disapproval. "Regardless, I have done my best to contain the situation. The forces I've put in motion have drawn attention away from us. We are considered a fiction despite the word of the Jedi, which means that the pursuit should continue to dwindle. I also have further forces in motion that will draw the full attention of the Empire. This should give us additional time to develop our forces and await the arrival of reinforcements."

"That wasn't part of the plan," Prefect Da’Gara said.

"Neither was there being an Empire here when we arrived," Nom Anor said. "But we must accept that before we continue."

"I've read your report," He’Lader said. "I believe you are being overly cautious.

"The facts, coordinator, speak for themselves. This Empire has the combined resources of two galaxies at its disposal, as well as a highly effective war machine. They have in their service three Eclipse-class star destroyers, which means they can destroy unshielded worlds singly and shielded ones as a group. They have detailed plans for battlestations with the power to penetrate any shield known to exist. They have matter transport technology and a redundant trans-galactic communications system. They have chronoton torpedoes that can bypass virtually any energy shield. In short, they are an order of magnitude more powerful than we had anticipated. To attack now would be an error of unimaginable proportions."

"Your pretty words veil your fear," He’Lader said.

"Your bravado veils your foolishness," he retorted. "There is no dishonor in strategizing, but there is dishonor in being defeated through the failings of our leadership. If you launch an attack before we have secured our allies and have eroded the support of the Empire you will be trying to topple the enemy at his greatest strength. If you launch this attack for glory's sake then fine, but do not pretend for an instant that any thinking is involved in this affair."

"Enough," Prefect Da’Gara said. "We will move when the yammosk has deemed the time right, regardless of the arguments of either one of you. In the meantime, continue your work, Nom Anor. I expect a better success than you had with the boy."

The connection was broken, and Nom Anor fumed silently. Let them do what they like, he thought. If they're slaughtered, then perhaps the next wave will take him more seriously. He set course back towards the wormhole, his anger still smoldering. He was the one who had adapted. He was the one who had witnessed first hand the collapse of the Republic and the return of the Empire, and every step of the way he had plotted how to turn every detail to his advantage. Despite the worst possible scenario his plan had met with only a few obstacles, but they saw only failure. It was the kind of single-mindedness that led to defeats in the past, but recognizing that took wisdom that was clearly lacking.

The wormhole opened before him. Fortunately, he had considered every detail... even betrayal by his own people.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Doctor gave the final injection as Annika lay in her bed. "Try not to get up for the next two hours," he said with his usual compassion. Annika didn't even reply. It wasn't like her, Luke knew. Not one flip remark, joke, or insult, not even so much as a smile. He could feel the reason; grief, confusion, and overwhelming them all, hate. Hate for those responsible for all of this. Luke wished she could cloak herself, because it was hard to resist the feeling growing in himself without her encouragement.

"How about some katiskat?" Luke offered after the Doctor left.

"How the hell can you think about games now?" Annika demanded.

"No on the katiskat," Luke replied.

"Luke," she said sternly, "your son is in that room-"

"I know."

"-lost and confused-"

"I know."

"-and he needs our help-"

"I know."

"Then how the hell can you just stand there?" she shouted. "Don't you love him?"

"Hey!" he shouted back, all the long hours dealing with his wife and son catching up with him. "I get enough of that stuff from Han, I don't need you on my back too!"

"Maybe you need to hear it!" she said. "Maybe it'll wake you up!"

"I love my son!" Luke cried.

"You've got a funny way of showing it!"

Luke seethed. "How dare you judge me," he said with a cold, quivering voice. "I was always there when he needed me."

Annika's eyes were daggers. "Not this time," she said coldly.

Luke was so taken aback by the remark he almost didn't hear it.

Kill her.

"You think being a teacher makes you a parent?" she continued. "That it makes up for the coldness?"

She's not the woman you love any more.

Luke closed his eyes and put his hand to his head. "Shut up," he said quietly.

"Excuse me?" Annika said hotly. He could feel her anger grow at the remark.

She's becoming Borg now. The Doctor said as much. All the nanoprobes... the real Annika is gone. Kill this imposter.

"I don't care what those people out there may think of you," Annika declared, "I've seen the kind of man you really are, Luke Skywalker! So don't think your Jedi reputation is going to give you any leverage with me!"

She's exploiting your devotion to her memory. Look at the truth, see the way things are. Look at all you've suffered for something they call love, and realize that it's not worth the price. It's just a chink in your armor that your enemies exploit time and time again.

"Does the truth hurt?" Annika demanded as Luke continued to squeeze his eyes shut, rubbing his temple. "Good! Maybe then you'll..." She drew to a halt as his eyes opened.

Remove them and you'll remove the weakness. No more pain, no more tears, not ever. Put them out of your misery.

"Luke," Annika said just above a whisper. She recognized the look in her husband's eyes; she'd seen it before years earlier. She laid helpless as he pulled the lightsaber from his belt, jumping as the blade ignited. "Oh my God," she said as he raised it towards her, "how could I have forgotten?"



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-10 06:11pm
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Part XIX


A voice from out of his past, from a life he doesn't want to remember but cannot forget. The darkest, dirtiest part of his soul... the part of him that wants nothing but unlimited power. It drove him to unspeakable acts once. Now it has forced him to raise his weapon against his sick wife, the woman he would do anything for; next to his son, the most important part of his life. His life... not the Dark side's. For it, she's always been an obstacle. It's looked forward to this chance to kill her for decades.

She's afraid. She should be. She knows that you don't really need her, that you won't let her hold you back any more.

"Please," Annika said, her eyes tearing up as he approached. "I'm sorry." She backed away as much as she could, but she was obviously still too weak to resist. "I was wrong! You love Sebastian, I know you do!" She jumped as the blade came towards her. "Please," she pleaded, cowering in her sickbed.

See? She's afraid of you. She knows what you're going to do. Finish her.

The blade quivered at her throat. Her eyes were wide as she glanced between it and him. She continued to plead with him. The voice prodded him on to do it. One flick of the wrist was all that separated life and death.

He stopped. He stopped because he knew the voice was lying. There was fear there, true, but it was overshadowed by grief and guilt. Annika wasn't thinking about herself, that much he knew.

"You can kill me," she said, confirming what he felt. "But please, Luke, don't give in. Sebastian needs at least one of us. Kill me but don't make him lose you too. Show the love I know you feel for our son."

No! Love is a weakness! Anger is strength! Without them holding you back you will be all powerful!

The lightsaber deactivated as it slipped from Luke's hand. It was all too much. His emotions were out of control now, the Dark side ready to exploit any weakness, no matter how small. And in that moment he understood why his father had to leave, why he disappeared without even taking the time to say goodbye. He had loved his children so much he couldn't bear the thought of raising a hand against them, even if it meant a lifetime without them. He knew what he needed to do, and now, so did Luke. "I'm sorry I've been weak," he said to Annika, not even looking at her.

"You've been so strong for us," she said as she grabbed hold of him and pulled him close. Before he knew it she was kissing him, tugging at his shirt. She pulled away only for a moment. "I love you," she said, her emotions unveiled for him to see. "Let me show you how much I mean it." She pulled him back to her and kissed him again, and despite her exhaustion she lived up to her word.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Molly O'Brien," the words echoed throughout the massive chamber. At the mention of her name the human rose to her feet, resolute despite everything. She was, as always, in control of herself. Her father had been a passionate man, but he had taught her to be meticulous. Most of the time that had been enough; this was the exception that had rendered the rule moot.

"On the first count," the voice said again, "the murder of Stanul Rays, how does the jury find?"

"Guilty," the juror said.

"On the second count, the murder of J'ohr Grytl, how does the jury find?"

"Guilty."

"On the third count, the murder of Horul Nimba, how does the jury find?"

"Guilty."

And thus it continued, until no less than ninety people that Molly had never met, had never even heard of, had been mentioned by name, each with the same pronouncement. And although she admitted she was guilty, she bore no guilt. They had chosen to take their chances by transporting mutagenic weapons for the ISB, Molly reasoned, and the destruction of those weapons would save millions of lives. That didn't matter to them; none of it did. The court refused to recognize the existence of the supposedly dissolved ISB, much less what their cargo was. The verdict was never in doubt for the revolutionary.

"Ms. O'Brien," the judge said, leaning down over her from the terrace, "you strike me as a cold, uncaring person. You have shown not one glimmer of remorse for killing ninety innocent people in a clearly premeditated act of sabotage. The implication that you may have been involved in even worse matters may not have been a fact for the jury, but clearly demonstrates to me that you are a heartless individual with no sign of decency. You are filled with the worst of all of us, a fanatic who believes your cause justifies any act, no matter how horrific. I see no sign that you could ever be rehabilitated to the point of re-entering society as a contributing citizen of the Empire. This, and bearing in mind the depravity of your act, I sentence you to the stiffest penalty allowed by the statute. Molly O'Brien, you are remanded to the Imperial Department of Health, to serve as a medical test subject until the end of your natural life."

Molly heard the screams of her mother, Keiko, as the judge dismissed the jury. Medical research, she thought distantly, even worse than death. The only form of legalized torture that endured within the Empire. Perhaps that was the ISB's plan, she thought as the stormtroopers attached a binding collar around her neck. Maybe they thought they could get her to give up her associates in exchange for a reduced sentence. The stormtroopers pushed her towards the door as Keiko pounded on the glass partition that separated her from the proceedings. Molly didn't look; she didn't want to remember her mother like that, begging for her only daughter's life. "I'm sorry," she said in the quietest whisper as they led her out of the room to the prison ship. She had a day, maybe two, but after that, her life was effectively over. Her pain and relief would be at the whim of people who were at best unfeeling and at worst sadistic. It didn't matter; the Empire wasn't going to be killing civilians with bioweapons like they did in the demilitarized zone, like they did to her father.

"Molly!!!" her mother screamed as the door sealed her off from the courtroom, leaving Keiko alone in every sense of the word.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The sky above Paris was bright and blue, the sun high in the sky and promising it would be a gorgeous day in the city that once had been the capital of the most powerful government in the quadrant. There were no leaders in the city of Paris any more, save one. Leia Organa, chief advisor to the Emperor himself, now stood beside her husband and three children in that city. Two of them had been born here, she reflected, but it had never really been their home. The apartment in which they’d lived was destroyed during the siege of Earth by the Empire. Leia had ensured the area was not rebuilt, one of the only times she ever used her power for personal reasons.

Leia remained with the children as her husband stepped forward and placed a small branch from a Kashyyyk tree at the base of the monument. "Hey, furball," Han said quietly to the polished marble image of his co-pilot. "It's been a long time. Things have been gettin' kind of crazy lately. There's a new group in town that wants to try and take over the galaxy, and we're trying to stop 'em, just like old times." He took a deep breath as he ran his hands over the stone. "Kinda funny," he went on, "me workin' to try and protect the Empire now. Who would've thought it, huh? I mean, the Rebellion, that was crazy enough, but the Empire? Heh, guess things change, huh?" He closed his eyes for a long time, still touching the stone. "I can never thank you enough for what you did for me," he said. "When my family needed you the most, you were there. You always called it a life debt, but you really showed it was what you'd been willing to give for me. I'll never forget it, Chewie. Never." He took a deep breath, then returned to his family. "Let's go," he said in a low voice, not looking at anyone.

"Do you think we should stop and see Aunt Annika, since we're in the neighborhood?" Anakin asked.

Leia looked towards his husband as he continued walking towards the Falcon. "I don't think this would be a good time," she said. "We've got tickets to the Polar Arboretum, and I don't want them to go to waste. Besides, as much as they might be glad to see us, I'm sure they've got enough on their minds already."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke ran as fast as he could, trying to keep from losing his balance on the smooth, icy surface. He didn't know if the Vong were closing in on him, but he didn't dare stop to find out. "There's a way out," he repeated to himself. "I got in, I can get out." He looked at three ice caves, each identical to every other cave he'd seen. He tried to sense the correct path, but he just couldn't see it. Finally, desperate, he picked the center one and ran through it, ducking and twisting through the tunnel until it widened into another cavern, as nondescript as anything else in the Vong base. His heart was racing, and despite the cold sweat ran down his body as fear overwhelmed him. He was trapped, helpless, buried alive. "It's only a matter of time," came a whisper in the wind.

Luke turned and ran to the right, slipping and falling through the opening down a slope into still another cavern, darker and colder than ever. He lay sprawled on the floor, weak and exhausted. This wasn't the way out, he was only digging himself in deeper. "There was a way in," he finally said, as he pulled himself up into a sitting position. "There has to be a way out." He wrapped his arms around himself, chilled to the bone.

"Does there?" came a voice out of the darkness.

Luke pushed himself back until he hit the wall, trying to sense who was speaking to him but unable to sense anything but his own terror. "Who are you?" he demanded.

"Or maybe," it said, ignoring the question, "you don't want to find the way out."

"Who are you?!" Luke screamed. Before he could say anything he felt something hit him. He was dazed as he was struck again and again until he could hardly think. Powerful hands seized him, and he couldn't find the strength to resist them.

"I am the primeval," the voice said. "The instinct, the survivor. Appetite. Libido. Passion. Craven thoughts."

A spark grew into a flame, and from the flame a roaring fire whose flickering light offered some view of the interior of the cave. Sitting on the opposite side of it was a wampa. "I am the ancient part of you that you deny," it said. "I am the part that offered you everything you truly wanted."

Luke tried to run, but finally realized that he was dangling from the ceiling as he had been on Hoth. He tugged at his feet to no avail, but the wampa didn't seem to notice.

"We could have been something great," the wampa continued. "They trembled at the name of Darth Vader, but they would have known true fear at the mention of our own name. We would have possessed a power without boundaries if you had accepted me. But you were pitiful, following the creeds of old, dead men. That's why you'll never be as strong as I. Despite what you may think, I'm the core of what you are. You are just a polished version, tidied up to try and pass in their imperfect universe. That's why the cracks are appearing in your resolve. You know the real path we need to take."

"Never!" Luke shouted at him, still tugging on his bonds. "It was a moment of weakness, nothing more! You're over! I won't turn to you again, no matter how desperate I become!"

The wampa rose to its feet. "You've already shown me that's not true," it said. "You've finally let me see the daylight. Sebastian, Annika, they're your weakness. You can't handle the passions, the intensity of emotion that's part of what you signed on for when you turned her into your sex toy, then filled her belly with that pile of jelly you call a son." It stopped right in front of him, its white-furred face even with his own. "It's going to happen, sooner or later. You're going to turn to me, just like you did when the Borg came knocking. And I'm going to enjoy it, taking your life apart. You won't stop me from killing her this time, or the brat. It's all a matter of time, Wormie. All a matter of time." And its lips curled back to reveal a maw filled with huge teeth and it lunged at him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika didn't stir as Luke finished getting dressed. Despite what she said, he didn't need her to do that to know she loved him; he knew that would never change. In truth, it just gave him all the more reason to protect her. He strapped his lightsaber back to his belt, then leaned over and kissed her one last time before leaving.

Sebastian was awake, still shaping his clay like he always was. He didn't show any awareness of Luke's arrival. At least he wasn't afraid, Luke thought. "Sebastian?" he said quietly to avoid startling him. Nothing. He took a seat across from the boy. "I need to talk with you."

Finding the words was hard, he realized. Maybe he shouldn't have come. No, he thought, I need to do this. "I've got to tell you something important. I'm going away for a while. I don't know when I'll be coming back." His hands were shaking a little. "I don't want to go," he added, "but I have to. But I want you to know that it's not your fault; it's mine."

Sebastian seemed oblivious to him, continuing to work his clay. "I know what the Vong did to you, and it's hard not to hate them for that. But that hate is destroying me, and I'm terrified that I'll take you and your mother with me. So until I can find control again over that side of myself, I need to stay as far away from you all as possible." He closed his eyes and shook his head. "I can protect you from anything," he said quietly, "but not myself. But before I go there's something I need to tell you. I'm so proud of you. Despite the fear and the pain you never turned to the Dark side for the answer, you never gave in to temptation the way I did, and the way your grandfather did. You found the strength to endure rather than take the quick and easy path, and I envy you your strength. With that will and the Force as your ally, I know you will become everything they've foretold... you will be the person the galaxies will need to survive."

Luke wanted to reach out and embrace his son, wanted to do it more than anything, but he was afraid of what it might do. He didn't want to leave him like that, so he resisted the urge. "You'll always be my little boy," Luke said, trying to keep his voice even. "But in my eyes, Bastian, you are already a man. And, I look forward to meeting that man when I'm ready to return to you. Until then, be strong as you've already proven you are. Don't make the mistake I did, because the Dark side will haunt you 'til the end of your days." He got to his feet, his heart pounding as if he'd just run ten kilometers. "Goodbye Sebastian." He turned away and walked to the door.

"A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys." Luke whipped around. Sebastian's expression hadn't changed in the slightest. "Painted wings and giant strings make way for other toys," he sang quietly. "One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more. And Puff that Mighty Dragon, he ceased his fearless roar."

Luke got down on his knees; Sebastian was still working the clay diligently, his eyes fixed on it. Hesitantly Luke put his hand on the boy's arm, but he didn't seem to notice. "His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain. Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane." His hands slipped off the clay and hung limp as he closed his eyes. "Without his lifelong friend," he continued, "Puff could not be brave." Tears slipped from the boy's eyes. "So Puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave."

The young Jedi didn't say anything else, didn't even move. "Sebastian?" Luke asked, afraid of what it meant. "Sebastian?"

"I'm sorry, daddy," Sebastian eventually replied. "I won't be bad any more. Please don't go away."

He recognized his father. For the first time he showed a true awareness of the people around him, and he wasn't afraid. Luke wrapped his arms around him, and felt the boy returned the gesture, however weakly. "It's going to be okay," Luke promised.

"Do you still love me," Sebastian asked, "even though I'm so bad?"

"More than anything," Luke choked.

Sebastian's embrace grew a little stronger. "I love you too, daddy."



Chuck

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Part XX


"How do you feel about the Vong?"

"Ha! How am I supposed to feel? Angry? Hateful? Afraid? What kind of question is that?"

"Just a question. Does it make you uncomfortable?"

"It's nonsense. How would you feel if someone tried to brainwash you, to turn you against everyone you ever cared about?"

"I don't know. Why don't you tell me?"

"They're monsters! Okay? Does that spell it out for you?! The Vong are evil!"

"So you hate them."

"I'm a Jedi. I don't hate."

"Of course. So what do you feel?"

"..."

"Were you afraid of them?"

"Fear is the path to the Dark side. No, I didn't fear them and I didn't hate them."

"But they're monsters."

"Yes! Is that so hard to understand?! Let's talk about something else for a while."

"All right. What did you mean when you said 'Be strong, or they'll take it all away.'?"

"It was something to wrap my mind around; something to remind me that I needed to resist."

"What were you afraid they'd take away?"

"..."

"Sebastian, you really need to talk abou-"

"Everyone, okay?"

"What do you mean?"

"The Vong wanted to take away everyone and everything I had. They wanted to make me Kital."

"Kital. You mentioned him to Jorielle. Who is Kital?"

"It's not important."

"It seems to be for you."

"Look, can we just forget about it?"

"That's the problem. I don't think we can forget about it."

"..."

"Who is Kital, Sebastian?"

"A myth."

"Tell me about the myth."

"Okay. Once upon a time on a minor planet on the border of civilized space, there lived a man named Kital. Kital had dreams of glory and power, dreams he shared with his friend, Shorv. Shorv was faithful and loyal to his friend, and did everything he could to aid his friend in his advancement, however cruel it might be. Shorv became a skilled killer for his friend's sake, but only because it succeeded in bringing the man closer and closer to his dreams.

"Then one day, Kital found Shorv to be an obstacle himself. To appease a high official, Kital betrayed Shorv to his death. The final moments of hate were so powerful that Shorv refused to abandon this world for the next. Thus he enacted a cruel vengeance on Kital. He did not kill him, did not cause the slightest harm to him. But he did kill. Kital's family and friends, his associates, his allies, anyone and everyone who had anything to do with the betrayer was killed, until Kital found himself alone. And that was how he spent his days, never being allowed by Shorv to find aid from anyone, never being allowed another soul to talk to. And when he died, no one remained to mourn him. He was the last, the one who had lost everything and everyone he had."

"I've never heard that legend before."

"Mother told me that story once. I never really cared for it."

"Then why did you bring it up?"

"Because I know that's what's happening. I'm just like him... it's unavoidable."

"What is?"

"They're going to take it all away. Everything."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Harry Kim tried his best not to get upset. He'd been in this position more times than he could count over the years, and he knew better than to fight the uphill battle that was before him. Time had helped him grow more mellow. Obviously it hadn't had the same effect on B'Elanna.

"You finished?" he asked during a break in her colorful monologue.

"Not remotely," she shot back hotly. "I can understand you quitting Calrissian Enterprises. I think it's stupid, but I can understand it. But going over to the other side, to actually help the Empire?! Are you nuts or just gullible?"

"Well, isn't this just a picture," Harry said, unable to keep silent any more. "The Maquis terrorist judging me. What, do I have to start bombing schools before you let me make my own decisions?"

"You're turning your back on us, and on the Federation."

"There is no Federation," Harry said with exasperation. "And we are certainly not living up to its ideals. So your appeals to my duty are pointless, B'Elanna."

"Well, it's nice you decided to wait before going straight over to the other side. I'm glad you didn't start waving an Imperial flag on the bridge the moment the Federation surrendered."

Harry fumed despite himself. "Nothing's changed," he said finally. "When we first met I was interested in doing what was right, and you were interested only in striking out against anything you disagreed with. And here we are, right back where we started, Maquis. It's just a lucky thing Tom isn't here-" his sentence broke off as B'Elanna grabbed his throat with one hand, still amazingly strong.

"Don't you mention his name to me again," she said through her teeth. She released him with a small shove, then turned and stormed out. Quark, who had watched the whole thing, never stopped polishing the glasses.

"She'll get over it," he said, not even looking up at Harry.

"Sure," Harry said with a dry voice, trying not to cough.

Quark set down the glass and started mixing a drink. He handed it to Harry, who sat down on the stool and sipped it. "You sure you want to do this?" Quark asked, returning to his glasses.

"I've had time to think it over," Harry said. He sighed a little as he reflected. "He chose me," he said finally. "Probably the most famous hero in the Empire and he chose me. How can you say no to that?"

"He wants you as a sidekick?" Quark asked.

"He wants my technical skills to help him find the Vong," Harry said. "He knew I used to work for Garak through Lando, but he still said he trusts me."

"You sound a little star-struck."

"It's not that," Harry said. He noticed he'd been fiddling with his drink and took another swallow self-consciously. "He said, 'I'm working for the Empire now. The same Imperial Navy I fought for years are going to be my ally in all of this. It's not an easy thing for me to do, but things have changed, Harry. I wouldn't do this if I didn't believe that the Empire we now live under has purged itself of its evil heart. I know it's not an easy choice for you, but you could be a great help for me on my journey.'"

"Nice speech," Quark mused. "You buy it? You think the Empire's changed, even after the Hirogen, the DMZ, the 'elimination' of the ISB that only gave them plausible deniability for illegal spying? You going to take his word on all of this?"

Harry knocked on the bar a few times absentmindedly. "I used to hate him," he said finally. "Not specifically him, but whoever he was that had wrecked any chance I might have had with Seven. I figured he was just some Rebel hotshot that was going to take advantage of her and break her heart." He took another drink. "I was wrong. I should've trusted Seven's judgment, 'cause she's too sharp a lady to be taken in like I thought. I guess what I'm saying is, if this guy - the man who saved my world - if he really thinks this is a different Empire, that it's not the same evil system that rolled over us all those years ago, I'll trust his judgment too."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"The cultural oppression of the Klingons is intolerable," the senator said. "The embargo of our worlds is an insult that seeks to separate us from our glorious past and force us to accept the Imperial culture in its stead. This kind of cultural genocide is despicable, and I hope the Senate will see fit to remove these ridiculous sanctions over my people."

Leia recorded her thoughts as the speech continued, wanting to address the issue with the Emperor later. The Klingons were even more outraged than the Malons, and Leia had to admit it was justified. The Hirogen were getting out of hand, and the destruction of a defenseless Klingon outpost had suddenly turned up the heat in the galaxy. Alexander of the House of Mogh was normally very supportive of peaceful initiatives, but even he couldn't ignore the dishonor of falling before an enemy while unarmed. That was the drawback of the restriction on local armaments and the strict sanctions that prohibited all large-scale weapons from being traded to the Klingons. If a free-thinker like Alexander was this upset, what were the hard-liners thinking?

"Thank you, senator, for your words," the Chancellor said. "While the issue of local armament remains a challenge, I do have word from the Emperor himself that he will act in response to the current Hirogen situation. The fleet that has been searching for the rumored Vong is being disbanded and re-assigned to deal with the Hirogens permanently. I know this is an answer many of you do not wish to hear, but I must remind you of how dangerous it would be to allow the different local governments to possess large-scale weapons." The response to it indicated a very strong difference of opinions over that assessment, which signaled for Leia that it was time to leave.

Luke was already waiting for her by the time she got back to the Imperial Palace. He was wearing his black cloak with the hood as he often did before the trouble with the Vong, but his mood was much darker than it had been during those times. Nevertheless his greeting was warm as they embraced. "You're sure you want to do this?" she asked.

"Want has nothing to do with it," Luke said. "Besides, I'm not going to stand around and wait for the Vong to come to me again. It's about time that I put them on the defensive."

"The Emperor has assigned a star destroyer to serve as your personal vessel for however long you need it. We've already got probe droids out there, but there's a lot of places to hide in a galaxy this size."

"It won't matter," Luke said, and his voice had an edge. "They're as good as found."

"Just remember the Emperor's warning," Leia said. "Don't let your guilt over Sebastian draw you to the Dark side."

"It already has. But maybe stopping them will help draw me back."

"Our desires can be our undoing," Leia said.

"I won't turn down that path again," Luke promised. "No matter how desperate, that won't be my answer." Leia could sense the conflict within him, even when he was calm. It was dangerous to send him out there, but she couldn't stop him any more than she could when he chased the Vong the first time. At least he'd have help this time around.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Molly O'Brien," came a crisp female voice from behind her. Molly said nothing, resisting the urge to shiver as the doctor walked past and created a slight breeze. The lab was easily fifteen centigrade, but that hadn't mattered when they stripped her and placed her on the metallic examination table. "Subject 14109C. Initial scans show no signs of any pathogens. No evidence of allergies. Any surgeries?"

"I have an artificial shoulder," Molly said evenly. "I damaged the joint breaking a droid's neck."

"Oo, how seedy," the doctor said mockingly, brushing a strand of blond hair out of her face as she looked Molly over like a specimen. "No genetic evidence towards hereditary defects. Mother is still alive; father is listed as deceased. What was the cause of death?"

As she turned Molly noticed her pin on her jacket. It was in aurekbesh, but that didn't matter to her. Fluency in the Imperial alphabet was a way of life now for anyone who left their own planet. "My father died of a bio-engineered poison released by the ISB during the culling of the Demilitarized Zone."

"So, not of natural causes," the doctor said, looking over a checklist. "Based on this principle information, Subject 14109C seems an ideal candidate for the hormonal regenerative process being conducted by Dr. Triab. Information to be forwarded to him for final approval. End recording." A tone sounded. She walked by Molly, casually running her hand along her bare torso and up her chest as she did so. Molly ignored the violation, as her fingers lingered. Finally the doctor deposited the datapad in the head of the table and stepped out.

After the doctor left the restraints released. Molly quickly dressed herself so that by the time the stormtroopers arrived she was mostly decent. They quickly slipped binders on her wrists and, with one at each arm, escorted her back to her cell. The binders were slipped off and she was pushed inside, then the door sealed shut behind her. Molly sat on the edge of the bed and waited. There was nothing else she could do at this point.

She knew some of the questions were a test, but she’d answered them all honestly. What they didn’t know was that the artificial shoulder -which she did get during the scuffle- had been modified prior to her capture. Any scans would obviously reveal the presence of metals, plastics, and ceramics, but what it wouldn't reveal was an inactive powercell or a specially designed molecular "clock." The compound inside slowly broke down according to precise chemical laws, until it no longer bridged the circuit. It tripped a nano-switch that activated the cell and sent out a subspace signal. It would be detected quickly by the base security, but Molly had a few minutes before they tracked her down.

The station shuddered and alarms began sounding. The Rebellion had stolen six chronoton torpedoes; she hoped the one that had just hit had destroyed the shield emitter. In answer to her thoughts a blaster rifle transported onto the table next to her. She grabbed it, pulled the strap over her shoulder, and waited. As expected, two stormtroopers came to search the room for the unauthorized transmitter; they never saw the shots coming. Molly stepped over the white-clad corpses and peered around the corner; thankfully it was clear. A quick dash to the end of the hall, and she locked the door. It would be bypassed, but it would buy her time. She pulled a commlink from one of the stormtroopers, changing the frequency to conform with her shoulder transmitter. "Odysseus to Agamemnon," she said. "Horse is ready; we're looking for a Dr. Iva Sannet. Sierra Alfa November November Echo Tango." She used the stormtrooper's code cylinder to gain low level access to the computer system.

"Copy Odysseus," came the static-filled reply. "Physical description?"

"Human female, approximately 1.5 meters tall, blond hair, blue eyes...." Molly trailed off as the doctor's full bioscan appeared on the terminal. "I'm transmitting her data to you now."

"We've got it," came the voice of Agamemnon. "Stand by." The station rocked as another explosion struck. "We've got her." Seconds later a code cylinder appeared on the table next to Molly, who snatched it up and jammed it into the port. "Transmitting," she said as she began accessing the data on humanoid experimentation. There was no time to look at it as she went from point to point, trying to grab as much info as she could before the security systems locked down the computer from everyone.

There was a bang from the door. Molly quickly abandoned her search and accessed the door controls. She cursed; Dr. Sannet may have been important, but she didn't have the authorization to stop security from getting through. "Agamemnon," she said, "the Trojans are getting too close."

"Understood Odysseus," came the reply. "Stand by." The room faded as she was beamed onto the Rebel ship. She could feel the sudden acceleration as the ship quickly banked and vanished into hyperspace.

"You okay?" the transporter chief asked as Molly stepped out of the recess. She nodded but said nothing as she left, marching quickly through the halls towards the brig. Captain Paul Jellico fell into step with her. "Glad to see you're still in one piece," he remarked.

"Almost wasn't," she said. "I was slated to be dismembered."

Jellico shook his head but neither slowed their gait. "You took a hell of a risk."

"Don't go soft on me, Paul," she said. "Your grandfather would've been the first to support this mission."

"That doesn't change anything," he said strongly.

"Whatever. We got farther than we ever managed before. She's the overseer for all their work. With her and the data we stole we should be able to get a leg-up on the Imperials, maybe even find something to use against them."

"I'm not knocking your results," he said. "I'm just glad it turned out okay." They turned into the brig. Dr. Sannet, in an ironic twist from the morning, was now stripped and strapped down to the table. She didn't struggle, in fact she seemed oddly calm about the entire situation.

"You have no idea what you've done," she said, surprisingly without any tone of fear or anger. "The Imperial government won't stand for this. When they're finished with you you'll wish they'd just vaporized your ship."

"Spare us," Molly said. "You know the Empire's not going to find you... not while you're alive anyway. You're important, but not that important."

"We'll see," Sannet said confidently.

"There's no sense in posturing," Jellico said as he rifled casually through a small metal tray on a stand next to the table. "My people are going to get information from you. I suggest you lose the attitude and accept the situation, doctor. It’ll be easier on all of us if you do."

"Do you really think I'm going to tell you anything?" she said with a laugh.

Jellico pulled a scalpel out of the tray and held it to the light. "Yes," he said with obvious distaste, "I do."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Captain Naomi Wildman took a moment to survey the bridge of her new command. The Imperator-II Class Star Destroyer had been in service for longer than she had been, but that couldn't dull her excitement in the least. After three years being bounced around in command of minor support vehicles, to be in control of the ship that symbolized the Empire was a sign that she'd made it. Her skills had finally allowed her to overcome the circumstances of her birth - as a woman and as a former Federation citizen - and take her place in command.

"Captain," the voice intruded on her moment, but the sight of the admiral's uniform made her tense. He crossed the room, the hint of a smile on his face. She'd served under Admiral Kormain years before when he was the captain of the Conquest II, and he'd helped her career more than once over the years because of her performance. "Ready for your orders?"

"Yes, sir," she said, unable to hide her own smile as he passed a datapad over to her. She activated it and began looking it over as the admiral spoke.

"The Emperor has officially called off the search for the Vong," Kormain said, "but that doesn't mean it's over. You've got expertise in exploration and search and destroy; you're going to need a little of both."

"If the Emperor's called this off, then why are we pursuing it?"

"A person of some influence requested the Emperor provide him and his aide with a ship to help him in his own personal search for the Vong. No one will miss one single star destroyer that has only just been returned to active service."

"I understand," Naomi said, even though she didn't. This wasn't the Imperial Taxi Service. "Who is it that has this kind of influence?"

"I can't say for security reasons," he replied. "But it's important that you understand that this is his mission, and he has final say. Not exactly the way you wanted to cut your teeth on a star destroyer, but there it is."

Naomi's guts were telling her that her good fortune may not have been as good as it looked. "I'm not sure I like the thought of a civilian giving orders-"

"He's only in charge of the overall mission," Kormain said. "And he's ex-military himself. Sort of," he added.

Naomi couldn't help herself. "Who is it?" she practically demanded.

Kormain thought it over. "He is only to be referred to as The Emperor's Hand."



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Part XXI


"...Do solemnly swear to serve and protect the Galactic Empire, and to pledge my life in its defense." Sebastian could sense Jorri was near bursting as she repeated the words with the rest of the graduates. The three years of hard work had paid off for her.

Gen. Taar lowered his hand and the graduates followed suit. "It is with great personal joy that, on this day, I announce to the Empire that you are all now... someone else's problem." There were a few chuckles from the graduates. "Congratulations," he said with a smile, then he shook Jorri's hand along with the two other cadets that had placed highest in their class. Jorri was the first behind him down the stairs as the recessional music began, then broke away from the group and ran to her parents. Sebastian stepped over as she continued hugging both of them, grinning despite himself. "Congratulations, lieutenant," he said as she finally let them go. He held out his hand, but she brushed it aside and embraced him. He wasn't sure how to feel about it, but it was over all too quick as she did the same to his mother.

After things had settled down a little bit Sebastian and Jorri broke away from the group. They started walking along the hiking trail. "So how is Chris doing?" he asked.

"Fine," she said. "Excited, scared... just like all of us."

Sebastian nodded absentmindedly. "So, what now?"

"I'm being assigned to the Rhodella Proving Grounds," she said.

"Alpha Quadrant," Sebastian said with a knowing tone. "Fighting off Cardassians?"

"Hardly," she said with a smile. "More training. The HTFs are being given their final check-ups before Calrissian goes into full production mode. I'll be putting them through their paces for the next six months. After that, probably reassigned to a starship."

"What's Chris think of that?"

"Since when are you so interested in Chris?"

Sebastian half-shrugged. "Well, he's important to you... and you're important to me. I don't want to see my best friend get hurt over this guy."

"Bastian, are you jealous?" she said with a bit of a laugh.

Sebastian laughed a little. "What's to be jealous of? Just because he's got a career, direction, clearly delineated goals, and a beautiful girlfriend, that's no reason for me to be jealous. No, I couldn't be happier for the little bastard."

Jorri laughed again. "I've missed your flippancy. I wish you would've been around more during school."

"Yeah, well, you know how it is with mom."

Jorri nodded, her mood dipping slightly. "The treatment is working, anyway?"

"For now," Sebastian said. "Still no cure, but with the regular injections she's able to live a fairly normal life. I try to keep a few supplies ahead in case she needs them while I'm gone."

Jorri was really quiet, and Sebastian left her to her thoughts as they continued along the trail. "How do you live like that?" she asked finally.

Sebastian just dismissed it. "You go to bed at night, you get up the next day, and you do what needs to be done. Just do, and forget the worrying."

"I don't think I could do that," Jorri said.

"You'd be surprised," Sebastian said, not looking at her. "'Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,'" he quoted. "In the end, we all adapt; a Borg even more so."

"Jorri!" Chris shouted from somewhere off the path. Must’ve cut across the woods, Sebastian thought.

Jorri waved, then turned back to Sebastian. "It's been great talking again. I'm glad you could come." She gave him a quick embrace.

"Get out of here," he said with a chuckle. He watched as she rushed up the embankment and grabbed onto Chris, the two practically spinning in the woods. He watched as they continued along the trail together, holding one another close, then turned and hiked in the opposite direction. It was over a kilometer but his pulse hadn't even quickened as he emerged from the woods and back into the crowd. He slowed as he felt the presence, then sped up.

He saw his mother first, laughing and talking. Next to her stood his father, who at least had the decency to remove the damn hood for once. He breathed deeply through his nose as he approached, ignoring his father's smile. "Bastian," he said as warmly as possible. "How's Jorri doing?"

"You missed her," Sebastian replied, his tone darker than usual.

"That's too bad," Luke said.

"Isn't it," Sebastian replied.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke did his best to ignore Sebastian's attitude, but the young man wasn't doing much to hide it. Things had been getting worse, especially over the past year. They weren't about to get any easier. "I've got something to show you," he said after they'd mingled enough for appearance sake. He pulled out a commlink. "Energize," he said.

They materialized on board the star destroyer. Harry was still looking over the remains of the two Vong soldiers. He stopped for a moment to give a warm greeting to Sebastian and Annika before getting back to work. Luke turned anxiously to Annika.

"We've got everything," he said. "Scans, holographic recordings, bio-samples, even more of those beetles Jacen brought back from ExGal. Everything we need to prove the Vong are real to the Senate, and that they pose a threat."

He could sense Annika's excitement. "Will you be coming home?" she asked. "After you speak with the Senate, I mean."

Luke found himself hesitating. He caught Sebastian's eye, knowing the young man already knew the answer. "I can't yet," he said finally.

"Luke," she said, half pleading, "you've done your job. Let the fleet take it from here."

"You don't understand-" he started.

"No, I think I do," she said a bit emotionally. "You don't want to give this up, do you. You and Harry are having quite a bit of-"

"They're coming," he interrupted.

"What do you mean?"

"We found the colony on Grabun II," Harry said. "An advanced one, we think, probably freshly terraformed, but beyond the dead zone."

Luke watched as Annika quickly put it together. "That's only three hundred light-years from Tatooine," she said with shock.

Luke took hold of both her shoulders. "They're threatening our home now," he said. "And I'm not going to let them do that."

"And I suppose you're not asking me to join you," she said. There was no hiding her suppressed anger at the disease that continued to get in the way of her life.

"It'll just be for a little while," Luke said.

"Where have we all heard that before?" Sebastian asked.

Luke looked over at him for a moment before concentrating on Annika. "Listen," he said, "it's not safe on Tatooine any more. That could very well be the front when this becomes a full-scale war."

"We can take care of ourselves," Sebastian said. "Maybe you haven't noticed that."

"No one's saying otherwise," Luke said to him.

"Yes," Sebastian said accusingly, "you are. You've sent Jacen and Jaina out there to help you on your search, but you never once asked me."

"You were needed elsewhere," Luke said.

"Don't lie to me, father," Sebastian said, his voice showing a flash of anger. "You should know better than to try."

"This isn't the time for this discussion," Luke carefully warned, noting the presence of Annika and Harry. That didn't seem to matter to the young Jedi.

"I'm not afraid of the Vong, no matter what they did to me."

Luke couldn't hold eye contact with him any more. "That's the problem," he said softly, "you should be."

"If I'm going to lead-"

"You've got to learn how to follow orders if you're ever going to learn how to properly give them," Luke said sternly. "Leadership unearned is a dangerous thing. It clouds the mind with delusions of wisdom and experience."

"Then how am I going to learn if you keep me away from this war?"

"Trust in the Force, Sebastian."

There was no mistaking his anger now. "Don't hide behind religion on this! I'm not there because I'm your son and you think that means I need protection. Well I don't! I have the right to earn my place just like you and mom did!"

"You speak with the arrogance of youth," Luke said.

"I'm the same age you were when you blew up the Death Star," Sebastian retorted.

"And I was an arrogant youth when I did," Luke said, "who thought he knew everything."

"Well I'm not you," Sebastian said hotly.

"Then comparing yourself to my destroying the Death Star was pretty foolish," Luke remarked.

Before anything more could be said Harry was at Sebastian's side. "Bastian, I was wondering if you could show me a little bit about how this snake creature is used as a weapon?" Sebastian kept his eyes on his father even as he walked over to where the Vong weapon lay on the table.

Luke gave Annika a datapad. "There's an old Republic research station in the Delta Quadrant. It's been abandoned for years, but I've had a maintenance team bring it back up to spec. It's far from the Vong and there's been no Hirogen activity in the area. I'd like you to stay there until it's safe to return."

"Tatooine's our home," Annika protested quietly.

"I know," Luke said. "And when this is done we'll all return there." He took her hand. "All of us. I promise."

He noticed the tear she tried to hide. "What if it never ends?" she asked. "What if they kill you?"

"I won't let them," Luke said. "I've made you a promise," he reminded her.

She laughed as she sniffed a little. "And you always keep your promises," she said. She held him tightly. "Don't start breaking them now," she whispered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Despite his disguise Nom Anor spotted Kro Thrassis the moment he entered the park. He’d been dreading this meeting because he knew there was only one reason why Thrassis would contact him. Once he arrived they began walking through the park, speaking in their native tongue to protect their privacy. “When are they attacking?” Nom Anor asked.

“Days,” Thrassis said. “With the discovery by the Jedi the yammosk feels they’re compromised. If we attack now we can still maintain the element of surprise.”

“I cannot argue with the yammosk’s reasoning,” he said with a sigh of resignation. “But I had hoped to draw things out longer.”

“They’re tired of waiting,” Thrassis replied. ‘The Praetorate Vong lost the opportunity for the honor of first strike since our reinforcements arrived. Even though it was a reasonable choice it hasn’t sat well with many. You’d have better luck of holding back the tide than trying to stop an attack.”

“Yes, the over eagerness of our brethren has always been our greatest weakness. It has also blinded them. Jedi Skywalker remains our enemy, and any assault should take him into consideration. It was he who discovered one of our terraformed colonies and bested two of our warriors.”

“The leadership does not consider one human to be a threat.”

“It will take only one human to kill the yammosk,” Nom Anor said. “And if any could, it will be him.”

“I have long trusted your judgment, Nom Anor,” Kro Thrassis said. “But as your confidant I must tell you that you are becoming obsessed with this human.”

Nom Anor shook his head. “He foiled my plan for the destruction of Earth. He invaded our base on Helska. No one anticipated either of these events.”

“Not everything can be foreseen.”

“But events of this magnitude,” Nom Anor said, his voice betraying his disbelief even now of what had happened. “How can we continue to ignore him, especially now that he seems on a crusade to destroy us?”

“What do you think would be the correct choice?”

Nom Anor was clicking his teeth in a rather inhuman fashion as he considered the question. “Only one thing has diverted him so far,” he said, “the well-being of his mate and son. With them, we have leverage against the Jedi.”

“Last time we tried that,” Thrassis pointed out, “he made things worse.”

“We won’t make the same mistakes,” Nom Anor said. “We find them and lead Jedi Skywalker in chase around the galaxy. That will keep him out of our way.” He nodded as he reached the conclusion. “Yes. It’s the best choice. Have some squads travel to Tatooine and capture them. Be ready for resistance from the boy; he’s been trained by his father. Also, tell them-”

“They are not on Tatooine,” Thrassis interrupted.

“What?”

“My scouts have informed me that the Skywalker homestead has been abandoned, the mate and child vanished. The last known place they were seen was at the station near the anomaly.”

So, Nom Anor thought, they passed through the wormhole. Somewhere in the Milky Way then. “In that case, we’ll need assistance.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Inside the organic computer that was the yammosk's brain the final details of the engagement were determined. The single stolen worlds here and there had, over time, provided a significant addition to their forces. They still were at a disadvantage, but this was the best moment to strike. In its mind the position of Vong forces throughout the galaxy were plotted out, then the placement of key worlds throughout the nearby sectors and any known Imperial patrols. The area was filled with pirates and smugglers, but they posed no noticeable threat. The yammosk repositioned its forces again and again, playing out the scenarios until the adjustments indicated optimal placement.

Ma’Shraid relayed the war coordinator's instructions to the commander who passed it along to the fleet commanders throughout the Vong held territory. Within an hour organic ships of all sizes and types were traveling at supraliminal speed towards their targets. The first major battle of the Vong War was about to begin.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"And what did you say your name was?" Garak asked.

"Kro Thrassis," he replied. "I'm an associate of Nom Anor."

"Really," Garak said. "You worked with him in the Black Sun?"

"Not as members," Kro Thrassis replied. "We were-"

"Pardon me for interrupting," Garak said, "but I've changed my mind. When I was a young man I would have loved to hear the layers of lies you would construct to explain away your relationship, but I'm too old and too busy to care any more. You know him because you both work for the Vong."

"The Yuuzham Vong are a myth," Thrassis said.

Garak smiled inwardly at the response. "You are saying you are not Vong," he overemphasized the last word.

"No," Thrassis said with annoyance.

"The Vong would make a great ally," Garak said. "I cannot imagine anything better than having the Vong at my side in battle. Especially a Vong like you." Thrassis bristled. "Vong" was actually an insult when it was not used with the full title. Garak knew this too. "You know, if I were you I would stay clear of Calrissian's gambling parlor; his Ferengi barkeep will rob you blind." Thrassis said nothing. "I know you're Yuuzham Vong," he said, putting the proper respect into the name. "I've been your unwitting ally for years. I only ask that you admit it. After all, the reason for our allegiance is our common enemy."

Thrassis seemed to weigh the options. He wasn't stupid, but Garak could tell he wasn't as crafty as Nom Anor was. "Even if we were," he said finally, "what would be the point of us telling you?"

"Well, you could provide us weapons. If what I've read about the Yuuzham Vong proves true you could give us the means to grow weapons to use against the Empire here."

"You think we would arm you if we were the Yuzhaam Vong?" he replied with a laugh.

"What have we been doing this whole time?" Garak asked. "My forces have been drawing Imperial attention away from you. We're using outdated technology that doesn't allow us to cause much real damage, only distraction. Imagine how much trouble we could cause if we had more powerful ships and weapons."

Thrassis mulled it over. "I will mention this discussion with Nom Anor when next I see him. In the meantime, there is information I need of vital importance to our... joint... war effort."

"And what would that be?" Garak asked. "I'm afraid my resources are concentrated in this galaxy. I've nothing of any use in the other."

"This I'm sure you can find with ease," Kro Thrassis said. "I need you to tell me where to find Annika and Sebastian Skywalker."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor had arrived an hour early; his contact was already waiting for him.

"I trust you have what you've promised us?" said the person who appeared on the display. No time wasted on pleasantries, Nom Anor thought. Oddly, it was almost refreshing.

"I told you I would," Anor replied. "But the conditions remain. Do you agree?"

The man in the Starfleet uniform who had seemed so sure at first, now started to hesitate. "I'm not sure I like the thought of answering to you," he said finally.

"I am only asking that you make our targets a priority," Anor said. "They are a threat to you as well."

Apparently that was all the convincing he needed. "Beam them over," he said. "If they do what you say we'll have no problem bringing the fight to the Empire."



Chuck

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Part XXII


Luke finished presenting all the evidence. The room seemed to be humming as the rows of Senators discussed it with their advisors. "As you can see, esteemed members," he said loudly, "the Vong are real. They are without a doubt the greatest threat the Empire has ever known; a cancer we have allowed to flourish within ourselves for too long.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Three star destroyers were on a routine patrol of Sector 14153 when the first ships appeared. Their long-range scans picked up the fleet a short time before they emerged from hyperspace; enough to get off a warning, but not enough to summon reinforcements. They scrambled their fighters and prepared for the inevitable.

"So there can be no doubt, let me tell you about our enemy," Luke said.

A fleet of two Vong worldships and two hundred coralskippers came out of hyperspace. The Imperials wasted no time with diplomacy; they immediately opened fire to take advantage of the brief disorientation of returning to real space.

"The Vong use advanced biotechnology for all their devices. Even their ships are living creatures that are not built, but grown."

The heavy turbolasers were tearing into the worldships, but the smaller coralskippers were far more evasive. They covered the distance quickly, and began dogfighting the TIEs. Their numbers were comparable, but the fighters weren't as heavily defended as the coralskippers. Glancing hits produced no damage, while the unshielded TIEs had no protection at all from the Vong attacks. Within minutes the fleet had been reduced to shielded Defenders and a few dozen Interceptors.

The Vong worldships were large, but not as impressive as an Inferno or Executor. Nevertheless their thick hide was able to take the substantial punishment the turbolasers were giving them and continue their attack. On orders from the lead star destroyer the group concentrated their fire on a single worldship. This new tactic started making a difference as the worldship tried to evade the bombardment as well as its bulky form could allow. The coral armor was being ripped apart as the blasts continued. The other worldship continued to blast at one of the star destroyers. It reeled under the assault but obeyed the orders to fire on the single target. But as its forward shields fell a new strafing run by the coralskippers produced unexpected results. A group of advanced insects, improvements on the ones used on Halva, were launched through the opening at to the ships surface. It would take them weeks to eat through the armor, but instead they scurried along the surface until they came across a window. The transparisteel was strong, but not strong enough as they chewed and battered their way through, one knocked off into space as they penetrated into the sealed atmosphere of the ship. Klaxons sounded across the star destroyer as they came in through the breach.

Across the ship more bugs were dropped through shield openings. They created other breaches and swarmed in throughout the ship. Their primary job was to create confusion; they were stronger than any humanoid and were resistant to blasters. The stormtroopers were quickly overwhelmed in the first engagements. They fell back to two-man blaster cannons to finally start holding them off, but the damage was done. There was chaos throughout the forward part of the ship as the insects killed gunners, technicians, and damage control teams. Even the droids weren't safe.

Outside the first worldship fell to the Imperials. The star destroyer, however, was done for. Shields continued to fail across its surface between the attacks from the coralskippers and the trouble caused by the invaders. A squadron finally blasted through the reactor dome on the bottom of the ship, and the star destroyer turned into expanding vapor.

"Their culture is centered around one and only one thing: the glory of war. They have perfected its art in every manner. Their ships are strong, their personal weapons are deadly, and their devotion to their cause is fanatical."

The lead star destroyer was already under heavy assault from the worldship and the coralskippers. The Imperials were on the defensive now; they knew what the Vong were going to try next but were unable to prevent it. As insects began to breach its hull the commander accepted the fact that this battle was lost. He ordered all remaining fighters to board the remaining star destroyer and fall back. The ship couldn't make a difference to this battle, but it might have that chance with another fleet. A minute after its sister ship vanished into hyperspace the star destroyer, unable to escape itself, fell to enemy fire.

The Vong continued to the star system located two light-years away from the battle. The planet of Ytuin wasn't well known, but it was populated and had a small garrison. The worldship set down and four thousand warriors were sent out across the planets surface to the population centers to subdue any resistance.

"They are utterly without mercy. They will not hesitate to torture and kill. They will brainwash our citizens with no regard for their rights as people. In many ways, they personify the worst of the Borg - a society that by our standards is totally amoral. They will turn our worlds into tools to continue their conquest. And they will never stop."

Six AT-STs and two squads of speeder bikes were the first to go up against the Vong warriors. They met at the entrance to the valley where Ytan, the largest city, was located. The Imperials moved easily through the woods, having perfected their forest combat techniques years previously. But the Vong were prepared. They circled around the Imperials and forced them out of cover. The coralskippers provided close air support to take out the armor while the Vong infantry faced the quick speeders. The machines were the danger at the moment, so they used razor-tipped projectiles to pierce the thin skin of the speeders and take them down. It worked, but not as effectively as the yammosk had planned - fifty-seven Vong were killed or wounded by the speeders. A note was made to find superior tactics for the next incursion while the remaining forces moved against the stormtroopers.

"At the center of the Vong force is the yammosk, the Vong war coordinator. The yammosk is a highly developed living war computer that is responsible for the Vong's entire combat strategy. Through it the they act as a perfect harmonious weapon that exceeds even the best training we can provide our forces."

Despite all their training the troopers simply weren't up to the task. The Vong moved quickly and their armor was blaster-resistant. A few fell to head shots, but most of them were simply too fast. Thermal detonators were eventually used as the troopers fell back, but several times the Vong would use their hardened amphistaff to send them back almost like cricket players, breaking up the Imperial ranks. Eventually the stormtroopers were overrun and faced the Vong in hand-to-hand combat. At this the Vong clearly excelled and the troopers were taken apart in under a minute.

Around the planet the Vong gathered people from their settlements and herded them into one of the four large cities of Ytuin. The coralskippers remained behind for defense while the worldship lifted off to return to the Vong base for preparation for the next attack. On the planet terraforming had already been initiated. Eventually Ytuin would be ready to start producing more ships and weapons to further the Vong cause. The three hundred thousand citizens vastly outnumbered the captors but were nevertheless powerless to stop them. The story was the same on other worlds all throughout this area of space as the Vong, after years of preparation, had made their first ambitious move against an unprepared Empire.

"This enemy cannot be negotiated with. They cannot be dealt with diplomatically. We are the inferiors in their eyes. It's their duty to enslave us. The only recourse the Empire has is to destroy them first."

The yammosk received the information based on the Ytuin attack and incorporated it into its thinking for future engagements. The attack had not been optimal but had been well within tolerances. Barring the unforeseen, the prefect concluded that the first wave would be a resounding success.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Jedi Skywalker," the Chancellor interrupted, "I'm afraid we must ask you to yield for the moment. I'm afraid grave news has just arrived that makes your entire message moot."

The lights throughout the Senate Chamber dimmed and a gigantic hologram of the galaxy appeared. "Ships, spacestations, and planets have fallen under attack within the past several hours. The attacks were quick, well-organized, and devastating." Green dots began to appear within the hologram indicating the locations of battle. Luke's eyes widened as he watched them continue to appear, forming a long band in the Outer Rim. "These attacks have occurred throughout almost one thousand sectors of Imperial space." Luke could sense the fear in Leia's heart overshadowing those of the others. The Chancellor looked up. "We've lost contact with those areas, but based on the descriptions of the attackers..." He visibly swallowed. "There is no doubt that this is the work of the Vong."

As the Senate fell into utter chaos, Luke felt his heart sink. He didn't for a moment think that he had been right; he could only think that if he'd acted sooner, maybe he could have stopped this. But the greatest guilt of all came from knowing that he had that chance once and threw it away.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika Skywalker felt her stomach tightening as she analyzed the readouts. Based on the data Harry had shown her she could tell with almost absolute certainty that the ship exiting hyperspace over their planet contained Vong. While the network was saturated with reports on the attacks made by this very real enemy, there had been no mention that they had extended as far as the wormhole. Also, Luke said their technology was organic, which this wasn't. Finally, there wasn't enough room on that ship for an army. For her logical mind there was only one conclusion: the Vong were there for them.

The first thing she did was cloak herself. She didn't need Sebastian feeling how frightened she was; it would only make him do something careless or stupid. She put on a tough facade and found him, then told him to seal the compound and prepare for the inevitable assault. In the meantime, she had work to do.

Luke had arranged for their personal items to be transported from Tatooine to the base. Most of it was still in cases, which she snapped open and rifled through. There was no chance they could get to a ship and get off the planet before the Vong caught them, but maybe there was another way. She paused as her hands closed around a metallic rod, then pulled out the lightsaber she'd taken from Darth Whind after their final battle. After a few seconds she dropped it in her sack. She continued digging until she found the disk. She checked it over to see if it was still functional. Thankfully it was. She hadn't worked on any of the hyperspatial transport technology since she and the captain parted company years before, but it would still work. She continued digging through the box until she heard Sebastian calling her. She dropped it into the sack of equipment she'd prepared and rushed to the entryway. Sebastian was trying to look brave for her. "They’ll be coming through any second, and they fried my lightsaber," he said.

"Look in here," she tossed him the bag. There was no time for subtlety as she plugged herself into a nearby powersocket. With the influx of energy she began constructing a large-scale blaster on her arm with power feeding directly from the reactor. She was slightly light-headed but her nanoprobes were still up to the task. As the door caved in she laid down a heavy wall of fire to hold them back.

Eventually the Vong managed to get in and cut the power supply, which left her no choice but to absorb the weapon back into herself. Pulling her blaster rifle to her shoulder, she prepared herself for the next attack. They weren't going down without a fight. However, at Sebastian's insistence, they withdrew to a safer position.

As they ducked into the temporary shelter Annika leaned against the wall as she tried to steady herself. The nanoprobes had drained her more than she thought. "Mom?" Sebastian asked with concern, and she realized that in her confused state she'd uncloaked herself. She smiled for him. "Everything's going to be fine."

Sebastian agreed with the sentiment, holding the lightsaber ready for when he needed it. He was breathing heavy and she could tell how nervous he was. He'd been here before, she knew; he knew first-hand what the Vong did to their prisoners. She became more heartbroken as she thought about what they'd done to him once. No matter what happened to her, she decided, they weren't going to hurt her baby again. "Get in front of me," she said, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice as she rifled through the sack. Her hands closed around the disk. "Here it is," she said, trying to be nonchalant about it. Sebastian didn't seem to be buying it.

"What is it?" he asked.

Before he could react she strapped it to his back. "I love you," she said as she hit the button. He gave a scream of protest as he vanished, hopefully to the coordinates she'd set. The safety systems would ensure he'd only land on a habitable planet, so at the absolute worst he'd be stranded, but away from the Vong. That was all that mattered now.

Annika saw movements in the shadows. She sighted down the weapon as they approached, then fired controlled bursts to try to discourage them. After a few shots she heard the sound like a swarm of ants, and a handful of bugs flew through the air near her. She pulled back as they exploded, knocking her to the floor. As she got up a Vong boot connected with her temple, sending her sprawling again while her vision swam. Powerful hands picked her up off her feet. "Where's the boy?" the monstrous face demanded.

Normally Annika would say something clever or insulting, usually both. At the moment she didn't have the strength to talk; that didn't mean she was done fighting. Razors slipped out from behind her knuckles and she slashed the Vong across the face with them. They didn't really make things look any worse, but he slammed her into the wall for the trouble, repeating the question.

"There's no trace of him," one of the other Vong said to him.

"Impossible," he replied. "We saw him; there's no way he could have escaped." He slammed Annika into the wall again, leaving a Borg-shaped dent. "Where did he go?"

"Off this planet," she said, blood trickling from her lips as her face was pushed into the wall. "That's all that matters." He twisted her around and backhanded her, repeating the question. "I don't know for certain," she slurred. "And I wouldn't tell you if I did." She could hardly keep her eyes from rolling into her head. "You all should rot." He tossed her onto the floor with enough force to crack a rib.

"Contact Kro Thrassis," he said. "Tell him the boy is missing." Two Vong bound her wrists behind her back and dragged her through the base towards their ship.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sometimes, Garak considered as they walked through the caves, his job was very trying. Having to deal with the Vong that he knew were using him and had already betrayed him was a grating experience. For someone who had been responsible for wanton death and destruction throughout the galaxy for years, finding someone else's methods distasteful wasn't so much hypocrisy as a realization of how far was too far. But for the moment he needed to cooperate. It would get him the technology Thrassis had promised that could help shift the balance of power in his favor, which was reason enough. Besides that, he knew that Nom Anor could use his spies to destroy his organization if he wished; delaying that was worth the distaste.

"This woman," Kro Thrassis said as he followed Garak through the caves, "she's some kind of witch?"

Garak couldn't help but grin at the remark. "That depends who you ask," he replied. "But I think she can help you."

"I hope so," Thrassis replied. "Our bargain was struck on us finding both the woman and the boy. Without him..." Thrassis let the thought hang.

Without him I get nothing, Garak knew. It was a dangerous gamble, but at this point he was running out of options. He was now a spider trapped between two warring giants. His only chance to survive was to find a venom that could kill both. He believed the new technology could do just that.

"Garak," came Janeway's voice as he entered. "I see you brought our allies to finally meet me."

"Kro Thrassis," he introduced. "The Oracle."

Thrassis stepped forward and looked over the white-haired woman with what he no doubt saw as heathen, decadent technology. "Garak says you can find Sebastian Skywalker with your magic."

"Yes," Janeway said. "I know this sorcery quite well. Seven used the hyperspatial transporter disk she and I designed to attempt to transport him through space-time to a habitable planet."

"So where is he?" Thrassis asked.

"In the past," she told him. "The path was disrupted by a curvature in space-time caused by the use of temporally unstable weaponry by the Krenim. He's there right now, actually, or rather, right then."

"Is there any way we can follow him?" Garak asked.

Janeway smiled, but as always it made Garak uncomfortable. It was unfortunate that such great skills were required of someone so clearly insane. "I have a device I've been using to transport back in time, but I'm not sure it will satisfy the Yuuzham Vong. I've been unable on any voyage to alter the flow of history."

"We are uninterested in changing history," Thrassis said, but it was clear he thought the idea was absurd. "Just so long as we can find the young Jedi."

"I can send you to his coordinates," Janeway said. "If you approve, Garak," she added.

"If he wishes to take the risk." Garak said, turning to Thrassis. The Vong considered, then joined with the six soldiers that made up his escort. Garak watched with mild fascination as they outfitted him with armor even more elaborate than their own. He took one of their weapons into his hands, and when he squeezed it the sound was like a hundred ropes being tightened under incredible strain. "Send me to where he is," he ordered finally. “I will find him.”

Janeway said nothing but her smile never wavered as she activated the controls. She then handed him a device. "This will let me know to bring you back," she said. He took it with distaste, then she activated the machine. A few seconds later there was a shimmer and a high-pitched whine as Thrassis was enveloped in the energy of the beam. When it stopped he'd vanished.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian suddenly and inexplicably found himself in the sky. His landing was less than the normally graceful moves of a Jedi as he hit the grassy field. "Ouch," was the first thing he thought as he hit the surface of the Krenim homeworld. He pulled himself to his feet, only to discover he was in the middle of an Imperial invasion. He sprinted away until he found cover in some trees, then disabled their scout vehicle. So far the only thing he could figure out was that he was displaced in time; the Age of Expansion given the appearance of the Imperial army he ran across. If he was right he was in serious, serious trouble. "All right. Now what?" he wondered aloud.

The sudden presence shocked him. He whipped around, only to find himself staring in the face of a tall, powerfully built man. The feeling of him was immediately familiar. He was going to call him Emperor, but recognized who it really was at this moment. "Ben?” He remembered their conversation on Earth. "Linear time?"

Ben Sisko smiled at him. "I always liked you, Sebastian, you were always quick on the uptake."

His shock gone, his thoughts quickly turned to his mother, who was now facing a Vong army without any support, and probably without any medical aide. He pleaded with Ben to help, but the elder told him he'd have to wait; there were more pressing concerns. Consenting, he and Sebastian vanished.

Some time later, Kro Thrassis tracked Sebastian back to the exact same spot. It was easy for him; he'd broken this boy’s will and remade him for the Vong. When they found him, he'd do it again. On his command, Janeway transported him to the new coordinates to allow him to continue the search.



Chuck

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Part XXIII


The strikes were far too fast for Sebastian as he tried to stay ahead of the flashing blade. He spun the double-bladed lightsaber in the hopes it would provide a makeshift shield, but the shock as the opposing weapon passed through caused it to fumble in his grip. A quick counter-swing and the weapon spun away from him while an invisible force knocked him to the ground. As he looked up he saw the red blade quivering in front of his throat. He looked up it to the black hand holding it, then the expressionless face of the man it was attached to. He was like a statue; the only evidence he was even alive was the deep, regular sound of his breathing. “I give up,” Sebastian said. In response the blade struck his shoulder.

“Your carelessness sealed your doom,” the deep voice rumbled.

“I noticed,” Sebastian winced from the pain.

“You allowed yourself to be distracted.” If the towering figure noticed the pain he showed no sign of it. “Focus is the only answer.”

“The only thing I can focus on at the moment is my shoulder.” He flinched as the blade was about to strike again.

The tip stopped just before it touched his neck. Finally it vanished as the lightsaber was shut down. A black glove was extended. “Pray you never have to feel the touch of one that’s not set to training,” Vader said as he helped Sebastian back to his feet.

“You didn’t have to shock me,” Sebastian said, rubbing the tender shoulder.

“No, I didn’t,” Vader said. Nothing more was offered on the subject.

“I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn about using this weapon,” Sebastian said as he called it back to himself. He could still use it as effectively as if it was a regular lightsaber, but having access to a double-bladed weapon had intrigued him to the point of wanting to try it out. He was discovering that it was like learning to fight all over again.

“You’ve got a lot to learn about many things,” Vader said. Then he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder - his good shoulder - and started leading them back towards his shelter. Their shelter now, Sebastian thought, now that Ben had him dropped off here for “safe keeping.” He resented the idea of needing to be protected, but Sisko was the only ticket he had back to his own time, and so the young Jedi had little choice but to do as he was told. Still, it wasn’t a bad thing; not everyone had a chance to hang around with the most infamous man in modern history.

“Everyone seems to have that opinion,” Sebastian remarked.

“There is no question you are a Jedi,” Vader said. “Believe me, I know how they fight.” There was something about that remark that didn’t relax Sebastian much. “But becoming a Jedi is not the end of your schooling.”

“I should probably meditate more,” Sebastian admitted.

“Yes. Young people think being a Jedi is about combat, athletics, acrobatics. That is like the shiny skin of ripe fruit; a beautiful surface, but in the end, just surface.” He sat on the ground as Sebastian walked inside to prepare their meal. He hadn’t moved an inch by the time Sebastian had returned. Together they ate in silence as the sun set and the temperature dropped. The shelter was heated, but they created a small fire instead and remained outside, watching the flames dance and looking up at the stars. “What distracts you?” Vader finally asked.

Sebastian shrugged. “My mother, I guess. She’s probably in danger, but I can’t help her while I’m stuck here.”

“So why are you here?”

“Ben told me I had to stay here,” Sebastian said. “He must have a good reason. He wouldn’t let anything happen to mom if it could be stopped; he owes her.”

“So, your conflict is between obligations,” Vader said. “Your obligation to your mother, and your obligation to your Emperor.” Sebastian’s eyes widened at the word. “Do not fear. I’ve had a great deal of time to explore the things that have yet to pass.”

“This is all getting to be a bit too much,” Sebastian said.

“That is where your problem lies,” Vader said. “You must resolve the conflicts within you, Sebastian. Your conflicts between mother and duty have torn you. When you faced me you faced me as two men without common ground, which proved the distraction I needed to vanquish you.”

“What do you mean, ‘as two men?’” Sebastian asked.

“We are in conflict,” Vader said. “Our love and our hate. Machine and man. Our side that wants peace, and our side,” Vader’s mask seemed to gleam, “that wants power.”

Shivers ran along Sebastian’s spine. “You’re talking about the light and the dark side of the Force.”

“No.” Vader’s voice somehow seemed to be accusatory, as if being judged from on high. “The light and the dark side of you.”

“I’ve resisted the darker side of my nature,” Sebastian said.

“Yes, but you have not vanquished it. He is still a part of you even though you have never given him voice, have never turned to him for help. But he is a part of you.” Vader was silent for several minutes. “Anakin Skywalker was one man. Darth Vader was another. Darth Vader seduced Anakin with power, and in so doing killed him.”

“But not really,” Sebastian said. “You’re here, now.”

“Anakin Skywalker is dead,” Vader replied. “And no matter what happened to Darth Vader that could never be undone. I am merely a ghost of that man, still existing, but not living. Waiting, because with both men dead I am free of the conflict, but am also free from everything.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I hope you never have to.”

Sebastian eventually prodded the coals with a stick to keep the fire going. “What are you waiting for?” he asked.

“Redemption,” Vader said.

“For turning to the Dark side?”

“For allowing the spread of evil. My redemption lies in finding a way to stop that evil, even if in some small way.” He looked towards the fire. “Just as you must find redemption for yourself.”

Sebastian paused. Vader had taught him a lot over the past several weeks, but he was absolutely cryptic tonight. “For what?” he asked finally. “For what I’m going to do?”

“For what you’ve already done,” Vader said. “For surrendering to the Vong.”

Sebastian breathed heavily through his nose. He did know a lot about what was going to happen. “If you know that,” he said, “then you must know what they did.”

“Yes.” Vader let the word hang. “But you surrendered.”

Sebastian’s glare spoke volumes. “I resisted as long as I could,” he said.

Vader nodded slowly with obvious empathy. “So did I,” he said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the future, things continued with little concern for the absence of one small Jedi. Galactic invasions tended to do that.

"How bad is the situation?" the Emperor asked.

Admiral Kormain, who was primarily responsible for the Outer Rim, was grim but to the point. "They've secured over twelve thousand worlds throughout the Outer Rim, based on our probe data. In every case the population has been moved to major cities that house the garrisons. By keeping themselves there they ensure that large-scale bombardment will kill our own people. Since the initial attack, however, there's been no sign of a follow-up assault. We don't know what they're planning."

"If I may, your highness," Luke said. The Emperor nodded. "My associate has analyzed the probe data that was gathered. Based on comparisons from our own investigations, we are fairly certain the Vong are terraforming these worlds to begin construction of more vessels."

"Regardless, our path is clear," said General Chalb. "We need to strike back immediately."

"We still haven't located their main base of operations," Kormain said. "The only targets we know of are our own planets, which I've said are going to be difficult to retake without civilian casualties."

"We can't afford to let them continue," the general insisted.

"That will accomplish little," Luke said.

Chalb glared at him. "With all due respect, your excellency, I think your Jedi is overstepping his bounds."

"The yammosk is the greatest threat," Luke said, ignoring the slight. "It is the mastermind behind this attack and the Vong's war strategy. As long as it is present you are only delaying them, not stopping them. They're like the Borg in many ways; they'll keep coming until we destroy them."

"We destroyed the Borg," Chalb said with satisfaction.

"By attacking the mind behind the collective," Luke said. "We must find their base of operations and kill the yammosk if we're to ensure that same victory over the Vong."

"Then we shall," the Emperor said. "Or rather, you shall. Take your ship and find the Vong base. Once it has been confirmed the yammosk is there I want them destroyed."

“Base Delta Zero?” Kormain asked.

“No,” the Emperor said. “Have the Eclipses standing by for deployment.”

The admirals and generals looked at one another in surprise. This was a violation of the Emperor’s previous order to never use the superlasers to destroy inhabited worlds. “Yes sir,” Kormain said.

“Desperate times, your highness?” Luke asked as he accompanied the Emperor back to his throne room.

“A preparation for the worst case,” he replied. “If you can kill this yammosk without them, please do. But the risks are too great to not use every tool at our disposal.”

“I understand.”

The Emperor stopped and Luke stopped behind him. Behind his aged eyes Luke thought he could see a little glimmer of Ben Sisko. “We don’t have much time,” he warned him in a whisper. Luke nodded and headed for the exit. Minutes later his star destroyer was breaking orbit around Chandrilla and heading for the dead zone.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"So, you were at the first battle of the clones wars?" Sebastian asked with surprise as he finished preparing breakfast.

"Yes," Vader said. "It was when I was still training under Master Kenobi, before I married your grandmother. It further demonstrated the lesson we'd learned about droid armies. Machines simply don't work as effectively as soldiers."

"I'm not sure that fits the facts," Sebastian said.

"The clone army was able to overcome the droids because they were thinking individuals," Vader said. "The droids weren't. They were bound by their programming and the commands from the central computer."

"How?" Sebastian asked, curious. He hadn't learned anything about droid armies, except that they had been involved in a few minor skirmishes during the Old Republic.

Vader took some time to describe them. He got very detailed with the destroyer droids, a type of droid that rolled into battle, then generated its own force field for protection. "In some models," Vader added.

"But didn't the droid army make short work of the Jedi army on Geonosis?" Sebastian asked. "That's what mother taught me."

"Yes and no. First, the Jedi were heavily outnumbered by droids and Geonosians. The Geonosians, if you don’t know, had sonic weapons that Jedi can’t deflect. But second and most importantly, Darth Tyrannus was there."

"And he was killing the Jedi?"

"Not directly," Vader said. "But he was able to cloud their use of the Force. I've no doubt it took his entire concentration, which is why he didn't confront us directly, but nevertheless he made us vulnerable. Only the strongest Jedi survived that day."

"Okay, but I still don't see why a droid army can't work," Sebastian insisted. He'd always liked machines and to him it was a natural progression of droid technology.

Vader was quiet for several moments. "Did your mother ever tell you about Commander Data?"

"Yes," Sebastian said. She'd spoken quite often of him; it was clear that even though they hadn't been shipmates for even a year, they had become good friends. "He's the one who destroyed the Death Star."

Vader nodded. "Did she ever tell you that he betrayed the Federation?"

Sebastian was taken aback. His mother had never had anything but praise for the android. "No."

"Good," he said. "It should remain a secret. His memory should not be sullied by one failure."

"What failure?" Sebastian asked. "I don't understand; what did he do?"

"I offered him the chance to join me. It was very simple; I deactivated his ethical program. Without that that heroic, giving individual gave in to his own hate. I used him as a tool against the Federation and the Alliance, and nearly destroyed them because of it." Vader leaned forward. "Data was the most unique droid I've ever come across. If even he could be capable of individual corruption, what of a run of the mill droid soldier? They could easily turn against you if you allowed them free will."

Sebastian shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it. It's got to be possible."

"In theory, perhaps," Vader said. "Perhaps a droid army under the control of an artificial intelligence of unimagined complexity, one that could make the individual thoughts you'd find within organic soldiers. But such a computer is beyond any technology I've encountered."

They finished eating in silence. Sebastian got up and checked his rifle; he’d been planning to get a little hunting in for several days. Vader remained outside as he left. When he returned he found the old warrior still outside, leaning against the shelter. Vader’s lightsaber was in his hands. Sebastian was about to ask what was going on when he looked across the horizon. Even as he did he heard Vader’s blade ignite. Somehow, even without the Force, he was able to spot the Vong. How did they find me? he wondered. And how did he get here? Sebastian readied his own weapon, calming his fear. That didn’t matter. They were here, no doubt looking for him. Let them, he thought. He’d faced them before, he’d-

Sebastian felt ice travel through his veins. He knew this one. His markings were those of the highest warrior, and the face... It was Thrassis, the Vong who had broken his will and trained him to be their servant. He was more skilled than any other Vong Sebastian had seen during his captivity, and he started to wonder if even two Jedi could take him down.

The battle was furious as weapons clashed. Sebastian was injured early in the fight, leaving Vader alone against the warrior. It didn’t matter; Vader was filled with determination to win, even after the Vong had smashed his faceplate open with his ampistaff. Finally, after what felt like hours, Vader found his opening and plunged his saber through his enemy’s chest.

Before Sebastian could celebrate he watched Vader collapse. He rushed to his grandfather’s side, cradling him as he lay dying. Vader smiled at Sebastian a little through the mask, telling him what needed to be done. But behind it all, Sebastian could feel one word radiating from the fallen giant.

“Redemption.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

"He's dead," Janeway said without the slightest hint of regret.

Garak furrowed his brow as he came over. "Maybe you just lost him."

"No, he's dead," she repeated. "He's integrated in the timestream now; I can't even bring back his corpse."

Garak tried to think but this wasn't his area. "I don't recall there being a Sebastian Skywalker running around at this time. He shouldn't be part of the timestream. Could you lock onto him?"

"It would be difficult," she said. "Finding his approximate location isn't easy; pinpointing him precisely enough to pull him back would be next to impossible."

"He has been a worthy opponent," the lead Vong remarked. Apparently they were taking the death of their comrade rather well, Garak thought. "But we need him. Bring him here."

"You're talking about pinpointing one individual out of an infinite number of possible realities each containing its own universe," Janeway said. "I can't guarantee success."

"Bring him here," the Vong repeated, as if just saying the words was enough to make it reality.

“I wouldn’t advise this,” Janeway said. Her voice was somehow absent of concern, almost as if she was saying it solely for the point of ticking it off her list.

“Do as you are told, human,” the lead Vong said.

Janeway nodded as she continued. “As you command.” The sound of the instruments increased, and Garak watched as displays nearby flipped through DNA sequences and mathematical representations of time and space. “You do realize he’s armed,” she pointed out. The Vong raised his weapon to show that he was armed as well, and that that was all that mattered.

“I’m losing the signal,” Janeway continued. “There’s some kind of interference.”

“Bring him or you will die,” the Vong announced. That a species could produce someone as wily as Nom Anor and as stupid as this fellow was amazing.

“Energizing,” Janeway announced. There was a shimmer akin to a transporter in the center of the room, and a familiar shape appeared within. Garak recognized the face, but.... something was very wrong.

“That’s not-“ he began.

The young man looked up, his confusion controlled and slowly flowing to anger as he took in his surroundings. “Vong,” he said with immeasurable contempt.

Garak had never seen anyone move like that.

In one fluid motion as he stepped forward he pulled a weapon from his belt. It was an ornate rod about thirty centimeters long, but with a single touch the top quarter disconnected from the main handle and dangled by fine chains. He swung the loose portion around on the chain as he rushed forward. The closest Vong struck at him, but without slowing he grabbed the amphistaff, deflected it, then swung up with the weapon. For a brief moment there was a snapping sound and a red blade of energy -about thirty centimeters in length as well- appeared as the loose portion of the weapon swept up, slicing through the Vong’s head without resistance. As it passed through the other side the blade vanished, the wielder taking a quick spin counterclockwise while he moved right to repeat the gesture on a second Vong.

Garak had seen this up close once. The design was different of course -somewhat like the head was connected to the handle by a chain- but he knew a lightsaber when he saw it. Much like the man who wielded it, who despite his appearance was not Sebastian Skywalker, this was some kind of twisted version of the Jedi weapon.

His left hand reached to his belt and he pulled off a second weapon, this time sliding it over his hand so that it was a part of it. As the Vong advanced he activated it, producing another short but unmistakable lightsaber blade. He brought it up to block the attack on his left while the chained blade in his right hand came up, tearing through an exposed point in the second Vong’s armor, deactivating it at the apex. It wrapped for a second over his shoulder as he reversed direction and struck the third Vong in the neck. The attacks were so swift that the first Vong was already working on the counter-swing from his strike blocked by the short saber. He ducked under the swing and pushed the blade straight up under the Vong’s jaw even as he brought the chain around again to cut through the leg of the second Vong.

The last Vong warrior, spotting an opening, swung down with his staff sharpened to a razor point that would cut the man who was not Sebastian in two. He brought his weapons up, but the Vong was just out of his striking range. Instead the chained weapon retracted into a single piece as he brought it up and igniting it, catching the end of the ampistaff between the two crossed blades. The three seconds they struggled in that position was the longest break the battle had seen, but even after everything that had astounded him, Garak watched the next event with horror. The head of the ampistaff was right in front of the young man’s face, and he was staring at it with a visible rage. In its current form it was too hard to be cut even with a lightsaber.

Then, regardless of the will at the other end of the staff, it softened.

He stood as his blades chopped the staff in half, then rammed both points into opposite sides of the last Vong’s neck. The blades immediately deactivated and he turned and reached for the one-armed, one-legged Vong, who suddenly gave off a horrible choking sound. Seconds later it collapsed, unmoving.

The new arrival was looking back and forth between Garak and Janeway, seemingly wondering if they should die too. Garak knew it was out of his hands; he was too old for this kind of fight, and the young man’s breath had barely quickened while taking down six Vong soldiers. Janeway got down on one knee and looked down. “My lord,” she said with respect.

He continued to look between them, but seemed slightly less belligerent. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Where have you brought me?”

Janeway looked up. “I am the Oracle. I brought you here under their commands,” she indicated the Vong with distaste.

He was breathing through his nose like a bull as he looked them over again. “Send me back,” he commanded.

“I will follow your every command,” she said, “but that is impossible. You were brought here by accident; I’ve no idea how to send you back.” Somehow she didn’t flinch as the chained weapon extended and ignited.

“Then you’ll die,” he said, and there was nothing about him that showed he wouldn’t carry through on it just as quickly with her.

Janeway rose back to her feet. “Before you kill me,” she said, “let me show you something.” Slowly she stepped over to the controls and activated them. A hologram emerged; a moment later Garak recognized it as Luke, Annika, and Sebastian Skywalker in a family portrait. The new arrival stared at it as he stepped forward, the rest of the world seemingly forgotten.
Garak slipped over to Janeway’s side. “What’s happening?” he whispered. “Who is he?”

Janeway just smiled as the young man began to shake in rage. “Your new ally,” she said as he stabbed his saber into the controls and destroyed the hologram. “Trust me, Garak. You have nothing to worry about from the Vong or Skywalker again.”



Chuck

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Part XXIV


Spacedock floated tranquilly over the blue-brown mass that was home to the Federation. This major relay point for both Starfleet and private vessels was especially busy at the moment. The major exchanges taking place between the Federation, the Romulans, and the Republic had resulted in a most uncomfortable disorder for those trying to keep the station from descending into anarchy.

'Let me clue you in a little on what's going on.'

With all the traffic, plus the panic over a suspected Imperial agent being on Earth itself, Spacedock was a mess. The confusion provided cover for a young man with sandy-blond hair sneaking through the passageways.

'Yup, that's me. The name's Sebastian Skywalker. What can I say, my parents are into alliteration.'

Sebastian worked his way over to a console and activated it. Information about all the ships and crews were available to a person with the right skills.

'Pretty impressive looking, huh? Well, I can't take all the credit. This stuff isn't exactly state of the art where I come from. You see, I'm from about twenty years in the future. I got brought back here when my mother used some gadget to try and help me escape from the Vong. Wasn't suppose to displace me in time though. Back to the drawing board I guess. Anyway, things haven't been easy. Stick with me and I’ll try and fill you in.'

"Kriff," he muttered as he was locked out for a few seconds before getting back into the system.

'You said it. So, first I hung around with my grandfather for a while, but when the Vong killed him Ben brought me to help train my mother in this time. I had to lie to her to keep my real identity a secret, but it only made things worse when I finally had to tell her.'

"Bingo," he said as he came across the manifest. A small cargo ship with a flight path set for the Gamma Quadrant wormhole. He scanned the page.

'Eidetic memory; my mother gave me that. Comes in handy in situations like this. So where was I? Oh yeah, I've been on the Enterprise for a while, training Seven of Nine -my mother-to-be- and spent some time learning myself. I started meditating more and practicing with my new lightsaber. Things had been going pretty well until she thought that I killed Vader -my grandfather- and I had to explain it to her. She took it pretty well.'

Sebastian turned and walked up the hall with a presence like he belonged there. No one looked at him in the chaos that was Spacedock.

'So, let me repeat: Seven of Nine from the future sent me to the present. Present Seven of Nine: trained by me, confused as hell, and a real unhappy camper. It all comes back to my father -my father in this time- who’s a Sith. He’s a dark Jedi in the service of Mara Jade. He came to Earth to kill my cousins, Jacen and Jaina, when they were kids. From the way he was acting, he was going to kill everybody just to make sure.'

Sebastian did his best not to make eye contact as he walked past security, his eyes fixed on a blank PADD he held in his hands.

'Security... I wouldn't trust these guys to guard an ice cream parlor. Getting back, here's the really confusing bit. I showed up and stopped him. Now just think about that: if I wasn't there he would've killed my mother, which would mean I would never be born, to prevent him killing my mother. But, she wouldn't have been there if I hadn't come back in time. Probably. Confused yet? If not, let me tell you that in my time the only person my father -Luke Skywalker, by the way- killed was Chewbacca. He did that here too, but he didn't kill anyone else because I stopped him. But was it because I was there that he was stopped, or would he have been stopped anyway?'

Sebastian slipped on board the ship. It was snug; no more than two people could fly comfortably on board. The launch wasn't scheduled for hours, but unfortunately, someone was already at the controls.

'Uh-oh. Gimme a second here.'

"Who are you," the woman at the controls said as she turned around. She had a disruptor in her hand and it was obvious she felt threatened.

Sebastian held his hands up. "Janine, don't shoot."

Her expression darkened. "How do you know my name?"

"Janine, it's me, Paul. This alien switched bodies with me!"

"What?! What are you talking about?"

"Janine, listen to me," Sebastian said. He rattled off her name, history, information about her brothers and sisters, the last job they were on together, where they had met. It was all in the ship's log that he'd accessed back at the console, but his quick recitation implied first-hand knowledge rather than a photographic memory. Janine lowered the phasers.

"Paul, what happened to you?" she said in shock. She stepped up to Sebastian, who tenderly touched her on the shoulder and caused her to black out.

'Sucker. Gets 'em every time.'

"Sorry," he said as he dragged her to the entrance, "but I need this ship more than you do right now." He sealed the hatch and, despite protests from the control officer, took off. He jumped to hyperspace as soon as he could.

'Things were different in the old days with all the alien possessions and body switching and what-not. You could be turned into a salamander or a kid version of yourself or get really old... things were kriffing weird. Anyway, I really do need this ship bad. You see, when all the dust settled after my fight with my future-father and I'd explained things to Aunt Leia, it got me thinking. Did I fulfill the past, or did I create it? Could things be changed by my presence here? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had to at least try to make a difference.'

With hours to wait, Sebastian ordered some food from the replicator. The choices were Spartan, but he'd been eating far worse during his exile. He took the tray back to the controls and studied the readings.

'Nobody knows where he is. Every time we think we have it nailed down, he's gone. All we've got is a trail that leads nowhere. But thanks to my eidetic memory, I can tell you where he is at this time. And maybe I can use that to prevent millions of needless deaths.'

Sebastian shoveled another mouthful in his mouth as he looked over the flight path. He made a few corrections than leaned back in his chair.

'I'm coming for you Garak. You're not hiding from me this time.'
--------------------------------------------------------------

"As near as I can determine," the Oracle said, "Sebastian Skywalker is part of the timestream now. That's why I wasn't able to grab him exactly, and we accidentally grabbed our new associate."

Garak hadn't taken his eyes off him since the moment he'd arrived. He looked very much like Sebastian Skywalker, but the differences were pronounced. Garak was quite skilled at telling humans apart despite how much they all looked alike. "You knew he would come here," he said. He knew Janeway well enough by now.

"Yes," she replied. "But everything has to take its course. What matters is that he's here now. He has no way to return to his own time and place."

"Why does he seem to hate the Skywalkers so much?" Garak asked. "If he is-"

"He isn't," she interrupted. "He doesn't belong here. This is a shadow of his life, a cruel reminder of what he's lost now. He wasn't in the best state before he was brought here," she added. "The displacement has driven him somewhat mad as well. That's often the result of this kind of crossing.”

“Really,” Garak said, quite aware of how mad Janeway herself was.

“Yes. He has no direction now, only his hatred. A person skilled in manipulating others could easily turn that to their advantage.”

Garak nodded slowly, understanding now. His own pet Jedi. Yes, that was just the thing he needed to help tilt the balance of power.
--------------------------------------------------------------

'Things weren't going exactly to plan when I left hyperspace.'

"Oh kriff," Sebastian said as he looked out the view port.

'Okay, the thing about eidetic memory is, just because you know and remember things, don't think you'll always keep it in mind. For example, I knew that at this time in galactic history the Dominion were performing a few random acts of violence before they went down for good. And I knew they crossed the Gamma Quadrant wormhole more than once during that time.'

Sebastian banked the ship hard to avoid the volley from the Jem'hadar fighters that had tried to intercept him.

'Thinking. It's what separates you from random swirls of gases.'

Sebastian brought the ship around and kicked the engine up to full power, but even then he was having trouble shaking the pursuing fighters. He corkscrewed through space, trying to get a moment's rest to come up with a plan. But despite their gradual descent towards madness from withdrawal of ketracel-white, the Jem'hadar were every bit as ruthless and skilled as they'd always been. The ship shuddered as a shot tore across its port hull.

'I'd like to be able to blame this on the ship. It is a small, underpowered cargo ship, and was never designed to dogfight. It didn't even have any weapons. But the truth was, it wasn't just the ship. I'm not as good as I'd like to think.'

Sebastian ignored the warning lights as he twisted and dived, a thick trail of black smoke continuing to pour from his ruptured hull. Without any drag it just pooled outside the ship until it looked like there was some bizarre growth on the hull. He left the small cloud to continue on its way while he changed course again; there was an off chance they would pursue the cloud thinking it was him.

'I'm something of a generalist. Mechanics, flying, Jedi skills, Borg skills... I've worked hard to be good at a lot of things. Problem is that I'm not as good at all of them as I could be. The only thing getting me by right now is my danger sense.'

The Jem'hadar pursued the real ship. Sebastian frantically entered in a path for the navicomputer. During the brief distraction another shot grazed the ship, destroying two of its four engines.

'If I'd practiced my flying more instead of letting myself get by, I probably could've gotten away, made it to Garak and killed him myself. But I didn't. Same with the Vong, probably. If I'd learned my Jedi skills better, maybe I could've resisted them long enough. It came down to settling for being good...'

Sebastian strained against the bucking ship as he activated the hyperdrive.

'...instead of being the best.'
--------------------------------------------------------------

“She’s waking up,” came a distant voice. Annika’s eyes opened slowly, her brain trying to make sense of the blobs floating around in front of her. As they started to coalesce it came back to her. She tugged futilely at her bonds like she had the previous times, foolish as it was. If her strength hadn’t succeeded the first time, the limp limbs didn’t have a chance.

The floor of the ship shuttered as the huge Vong turned and approached her, his massive scarred face filling her vision. “Good. Time for the abomination to try again.”

Vong reasoning was simple: humans were inferior, machines were blasphemous. A human cyborg was the most contemptible thing they could ever meet, a point they’d made clear over the days of her interrogation. “I don’t know where he is,” she repeated.

The Vong took her hand in his. “You’re lying,” he said, and began to squeeze it. Her synthetics were weakened from her disease and the fight; the room echoed as the metal and bone began to crack. She yelled in pain as she shut her eyes tight and tried to think about Sebastian. What they’re doing to you, they’ll do to him, she told herself.

In the distant part of her mind that tried to distract her from the agony, a memory of a book she read, 1984, came to mind. She recalled that the protagonist found himself in a similar situation, and offered to let his beloved take his place in the horrible torture. Orwell’s view of most people was probably dead on, but then Annika wasn't most people. Most people never were told all their lives they could never have a child, and then miraculous had one. Most people had never been forced to witness their child's will broken and to struggle back for humanity. For her, there was no chance that they could ever do anything that would make her compromise her son.

As the Vong finished squeezing her hand another came up with a small animal in its hand. The leader stepped aside as the flat white shape fluttered in his grip. As he approached Annika felt someone squeeze her broken hand, and she let a small scream escape. While her mouth was opened she felt the Vong grab the back of her neck and shove the animal into her mouth. She coughed and gagged, but after a couple seconds no sound came. Her eyes bugged out as she felt her airway close and she struggled hard to breathe. Toxins on the animal’s skin passed into her bloodstream and amplified her survival instinct. She began thrashing about, fighting to live but powerless to escape. Fear filled her as she realized she was going to die.

After two minutes the creature shifted its position and Annika took in huge gasps of air. She hung limply as the much needed oxygen started hitting her bloodstream. “Where is the boy?” the Vong leader asked. There was no time to reply as her airway closed again and Annika was struggling for breath. “You’re going to tell me,” he repeated. “You’re going to tell me or you will die.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

'They say any landing you can walk away from is a good one.'

The small cargo ship hit the ground at a slight angle before its front end dug in, causing it to tumble end over end and then roll several kilometers before coming to a stop at the base of a mountain. Several minutes later the bottom hatch burst out and weary figure pulled itself out.

'I don't know what "crawling away and throwing up" qualifies for.'

Sebastian pulled himself a safe distance away, waiting for the ship to explode. Finally he collapsed into unconsciousness. When he awoke the ship was still there. Still tired but aware of the situation he began going through the ship, salvaging what he could.

'There wasn't enough working equipment to build a communicator. The mandatory back-up was missing. I'll have to file a complaint against Janine and Paul when I get back to civilization. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but wait. I was on an uninhabited planet in Republic space, so my only hope was just that someone would come along and find the small beacon I was able to cobble together.

'My time was put to good use. The skills I'd picked up hunting helped me survive. When I found the time -which wasn't hard- I practiced my swordsmanship and meditated. From time to time I thought about Garak. He was back underground by now; he wouldn't resurface very much in the years to come. My opportunity was blown.

'Through the Force I managed to contact my father eventually. By that time he'd returned to the Light side of the Force. He and mother had married, and when she was reassigned to Starbase 213 they'd moved in there, and that meant father would be close enough to sense me. They picked me up last night and brought me back to the station.'

Sebastian looked about the station; his mother seemed to already be on a mission to make this place a model of efficiency. This wouldn't be his home, and that wasn't because she got that captain's chair they talked about. Things weren't over for them, not until the conquest was complete, which wouldn't be for some months. But Sebastian had his own work to do. He beamed down to the planet and rented a swoop, then raced across the landscape towards the capital city on Sanctuary. He walked with determination to the local representative of the fleet. The man didn't seem interested in him until he explained what he knew. Locations of Garak's hideouts throughout the area, places where his raiders could trade goods and where his weapons were hidden, Sebastian told them everything. He was skeptical at first, but as it started to point more and more towards their own confidential leads he realized Sebastian was telling the truth. With this information there was nothing that could stop the Republic from destroying Garak's operation.

Sebastian was satisfied with himself as he returned to his swoop and took off towards the house. By the time he left the city the information was passed up the chain to those in charge of dealing with the pirates. By the time he was several kilometers from his destination the information was being considered by tactical experts within the Republic. They began balancing it against the approaching Imperial threat as they continued to spread across the galaxy towards their space.

The swoop was out of control as a wave of nausea hit Sebastian. It came to a sudden stop, throwing the young Jedi through the air to tumble across the open grass. He looked up towards that same sky as another, stronger wave passed through his body.

'It was like feeling millions of people screaming in agony. The pain of each one was overwhelming. The snuffing out of each individual life was like feeling part of myself dying. I couldn't think for the longest time. I barely noticed when the group of people picked me up and put me on the back of their transport. They seemed oblivious to what I was going through, and I can't help but envy them that.

'Of course the Empire was the greater threat. My information was stored away, to be used later when the Republic had the resources to devote to Garak. But they wouldn't; the Empire would overrun them first. They'd come across my information, and the ISB would use it to plan their attacks on the Demilitarized Zone. What I felt was the death of people that would inevitably come from my attempts to change time. The culling of the DMZ... it did happen; and I was responsible. And I knew why it had happened. I had been trying to stop Garak so that he could never turn me over to the Vong. I was trying to spare myself what had happened, to maybe fix my life so that my father wouldn't have had to go away and I wouldn't have the shame of falling to them. Instead I caused millions to die from bioweapons... and Garak gets away anyway. That's what Vader was talking about... He warned me, but I didn't listen.'

The barely conscious form of Sebastian was carried off the transport and into a nearby warehouse. The woman they spoke with looked at their tricorder scans and then at the young man carefully. He didn't even notice.

'So do you understand now? I wasn't trying to- I didn't mean for this to happen. I just wanted to make things better. Don't you understand? I just wanted.... Can you grasp what it's like to have the welfare of countless beings resting on you, only to fail?'

She withdrew her connection from Sebastian's temple as the young man fell back in his chair. She leaned forward, her fingertips pushed together on her lips as she looked at him, pondering. "Yes, Sebastian," the Borg Queen said, "I do."



Chuck

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wow, long read, but good. By the way, Sebastion prepared a meal for him and vader..... and how did vader eat it?

CERC



Sum Senatus

And thus, the Padawan and the Master are dispatched, and it falls to the champion of the Force, Yoda to save them; whom in his near infinate power, displays little intelligence, by stopping the piller with the force instead of jerking his underlings out of the way so that his fight with Dooku can continue.....

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CERC wrote:
wow, long read, but good. By the way, Sebastion prepared a meal for him and vader..... and how did vader eat it?

CERC


Quietly. He ate it quietly. ;)



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Sonnenburg wrote:
CERC wrote:
wow, long read, but good. By the way, Sebastion prepared a meal for him and vader..... and how did vader eat it?

CERC


Quietly. He ate it quietly. ;)



bwahahhaha. No other way for an ex-sith lord to eat I suppose..... then again who would tell him he was loud?


CERC



Sum Senatus

And thus, the Padawan and the Master are dispatched, and it falls to the champion of the Force, Yoda to save them; whom in his near infinate power, displays little intelligence, by stopping the piller with the force instead of jerking his underlings out of the way so that his fight with Dooku can continue.....

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Part XXV


The entrance to the ship was locked, but it opened anyway.

The attention of the Vong had now drifted from Annika to whatever had happened. They took up their weapons slowly, eyes fixated on the opening. Silhouetted by the bright sunlight pouring into the ship was a figure, his hand located over the lock. His mannerisms were calm, controlled, and confident. A lightsaber blade activated in his hands to Annika’s joy. Luke, she thought with relief.

And then a second blade lit.

He stepped into the ship slowly, watching every move from the Vong warriors, who eyed him with the same practiced technique of a duelist. Sebastian’s face came into view, and while his expression was stern there was a hint of relief on his face at the sight of his mother. “I’m giving you one chance to let her go,” Sebastian said, his voice deeper and more forceful than she remembered. “If not, then I challenge you all to a death duel.”

“Impudent child,” the lead Vong sneered at him. “You have no right to issue such a challenge.” Annika knew what was going on; the Vong had her prisoner, and thus had the upper hand. By threatening her they could take Sebastian without a fight. But if he challenged them, then refusing to fight would have been a disgrace. Apparently they knew this too.

“Belek tiu," Sebastian said, then snapped his fists against his shoulders. Annika didn’t know what it meant but she could tell the Vong were confused.

“Continue,” the lead Vong said finally.

“I was trained in the ways of the Yuuzham Vong under Kro Thrassis to be a warrior of the Praetorite Vong. I was given the tests and found worthy. I have even bested Kro Thrassis in a death duel of my own.” He tossed down the sack that had been dangling over his shoulder. The nearest Vong opened and, in obvious disbelief, pulled out the helmet. The markings were unmistakable to them. “Thus as a warrior of standing within the Yuuzham Vong I challenge you to a death duel. But I will withdraw my challenge without prejudice if she is released without further harm.” The warriors continued to look him over, not as certain as they had been. Kro Thrassis was a high-level warrior; anyone who could defeat him would be a deadly opponent. Annika couldn’t believe it as she looked at him, the Jedi radiating self-confidence.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Don’t call the bluff don’t call the bluff don’t call the bluff... The silent wish repeated in Sebastian’s mind as the Vong seemed to reach a decision.

“Then you have earned a death duel,” the lead Vong said.

“Excellent.” Shit. “I’ve looked forward to testing myself against true warriors.” Shit shit shit!

“You will wait outside on the battlefield while we prepare.”

Sebastian nodded and walked out; no Vong would dare attack him with his back turned now. Well, it had been a long shot anyway, he thought as he waited outside the ship. Surprise might have worked against two or three, but not five, and there was no way he was risking his mother’s life when there was an alternative. He just hoped the alternative wasn’t him getting skewered. He forced himself to remain in control and balanced as his grandfather had taught him. Conflict now would only give the Vong an even greater edge. Like a twenty year-old hand-me-down weapon and being blind as a bat against these Vong isn’t disadvantage enough, he thought as the warriors exited the ship. Hopefully his little friends could help reverse that.

“Try not to do anything foolish,” Ben had warned him before returning him to his own time. The situation spoke for itself as the Vong approached.

Sebastian spun the lightsaber like a propeller with one hand. It felt natural, the result of many long days with nothing better to do than practice. He took a breath, let it out slowly, and grabbed the handle with his other hand, stopping the spin and holding it at the ready. This was what it all came down to. As far as Sebastian knew, the only people in the galaxy who had battled more than one Vong and won was his father, the best Jedi alive, and Kalib, who was practically immortal anyway. His hope lay in a lifetime of preparation. His parents had taught him combat tactics back when he was learning to ride his first swoop. But the overall rules were simple: identify the strengths and weaknesses of yourself and your enemy.

In this case, the Vong’s greatest advantage was their lack of impact on the Force. It made it more difficult for his danger sense to operate properly, which in a situation where he was clearly outnumbered meant he was in trouble. As the Vong filed out onto the battlefield a small smile crept across his face. It’d worked; a small spray of harmless bacteria had stuck to them here and there. It was like dumping paint on a cloaked Jem’hadar; it gave you something to aim at.

The Vong slowly circled him, watching for the precise moment to strike. Each was looking him over for a weakness of his own, something to exploit. Their honor -more important than their life- rested on killing him. Somehow, that didn’t make him afraid. It’s their weakness, a voice in the back of his head said, use it against them. And somehow, when the moment he’d dreaded for years had arrived and the first Vong attacked, there was nothing but calm in the young Jedi.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak had no empathic powers, but he could feel the hate in the room. The new arrival, whomever he was, had been looking through the Oracle’s records on Imperial history and the current newsbursts from across the network. Garak had done a little digging himself. He knew what this person was if not who. A dark Jedi, the opposite of the man who had been creating havoc for Garak for years. The proper term was a Sith, and the serpentine name seemed to fit this dark image of Sebastian Skywalker.

“I wonder if we might talk,” Garak said.

The Sith didn’t even look at him. “Why should I bother myself with you?”

Having been the most hunted man in the Empire for years that was a bit of an unusual remark, but Garak rarely allowed such things to interfere in his work. “You tell me.”

The Sith stopped and turned to look Garak up and down. “You are far too weak to speak as you do.”

“So I’m told,” Garak said. “But appearances are sometimes deceiving.”

“I look beyond appearance,” the Sith remarked. “You’re an open book to me, Elim Garak. Even for a Cardassian you are far past your prime.”

“But not up here,” Garak said, tapping the side of his head. “And if you’ve been scanning the broadcasts you’ll see it’s a weapon I’m quite skilled in using.”

“They say you’re a terrorist,” the Sith said.

“Oversimplification,” Garak replied, not sounding offended by the term. “I only pick and choose my battles to ensure that I win. Am I to be branded a coward simply because I won’t attack a star destroyer head on, but will slip a bomb on board to destroy it? Quite simply, what you call cowardice I call pragmatism.”

The Sith seemed to think it over. “Why should I work with you?” he asked, showing that he did understand what Garak was after. “What can you offer me?”

“Resources towards your ultimate goal.”

“I see. And what do you think my ultimate goal is?”

“You want what the Vong want,” Garak said, “control. Since you’ve been stranded here there’s nothing else for a being with your talents to work towards. To rise to power over a galaxy-spanning empire...” Garak couldn’t help but smile, “what better goal for a master of the Force?”

The Sith looked back at the hologram of the galaxies, clearly mulling things over. “You do seem to know people well,” he finally admitted. “But perhaps that should concern me.”

“I can’t be a threat to you-“ Garak began. He was shocked when he was lifted off his feet and flung across the room into the wall as if gravity had given into boredom and decided to try something novel. He lay pressed against the wall as the Sith approached, the air seeming to darken around him.

“You’re right,” he said with a voice of ice. “But you don’t really believe it. Don’t think, terrorist, that you can play with me; your motives are transparent. I can feel your duplicity. Remember: I can do this without you.”

“Yes,” Garak managed to say. “But it’ll take longer, probably years longer. Is the satisfaction of killing me worth that?”

The Sith’s expression was as if he was looking into Garak’s soul, and then he realized he might very well be. Garak let him finally break the silence. “My uncle once told me that, when the stakes are high, don’t trust anybody.”

“What would he say to this?” Garak asked.

“Nothing,” he replied. “I killed him when he got in my way.”

“I can see you were an exceptional student.” Garak felt himself slide down the wall until his feet touched the floor. “I offer you experience, connections, resources. Are my motives self-serving? Of course. But there is no need for us to be at odds.”

“What’s your price?” the Sith asked, his tone implying that this was what the deal hinged on.

“There are two galaxies,” Garak observed. “Your native is far larger. If I received the Milky Way, that would satisfy me.”

“Would it?”

“We could always destroy the wormhole,” Garak said. “The greatest security we could have.”

“Perhaps that won’t be necessary,” the Sith said. “Very well, for the moment I’ll accept your service. If you manage to not disappoint me this will continue.”

“You are too kind,” Garak said.

“Let’s waste no more time on this,” he said, ignoring the sarcasm. “How do we begin?”

“The Empire still remains the primary threat,” Garak said. “While I have no doubt you could best any Jedi they sent, they do have the numerical advantage.”

“Is there an academy?” the Sith asked.

“No. The totality of the Jedi are: Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa Solo, Jacen Solo, Jaina Solo, Anakin Solo, and Sebastian Skywalker.”

“My counterpart,” the Sith said, managing to say the word with even more contempt than usual.

“Yes, the reason you were brought here,” Garak said, hoping to further fan the flames of hate in someone else’s direction. “But for the moment I think our primary concern is Luke Skywalker.”

“He’s a weak old man,” the Sith said.

“In this reality he’s the most powerful Jedi alive,” Garak said. “He’s more experienced than any of the others. If you destroy him the rest will fall.”

“Very well. I’ll find and destroy him.”

“If I may,” Garak said before the Sith could continue, “he’s currently on board a star destroyer near the newly acquired Vong territory. I don’t think it would be wise to try to find it and try to board it.”

“More ‘pragmatism?’” the Sith said.

“Yes. As you said, I know how people think. The Empire has yet to mount a counterattack against the Vong. Why? The Emperor wants to know what going on on those planets. He’s got probe telemetry, but they won’t last long. No, he’ll attempt something much more subtle. And that’s how we’ll catch them.” And to Garak’s satisfaction, the Sith seemed impressed with the plan.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The air wreaked of ozone as lightsaber and amphistaff continued to collide. Sebastian twisted and sidestepped, bringing his lightsaber blades up to block two strikes while physically dodging two more. He spun it overhead while he ducked, causing the two Vong to back off while he stepped forward, holding it behind his back to block a low swipe at his leg and reversing it to cause sparks to fly off the crab armor of the lead Vong. Had it not been for a quick dodge on his part the saber would’ve speared his throat, but his counterattack failed to find the opening in the young Jedi’s defenses. He was visibly enraged the battle was taking this long when it was so clearly lopsided. Normally that would’ve pleased Sebastian to no end, but at that moment, it didn’t seem to matter.

His mother's ancestors in Scandinavia back on Earth were ferocious warriors in their own right. One of the things that made them so feared was a fighting technique called, appropriately enough, the berserk. When that happened they became a hacking, thrashing engine of destruction because they drove all reason from their mind, and sometimes would froth at the mouth like animals. It would probably surprise them to see their descendent now, on this alien world, doing precisely the opposite. The more furious the Vong got, the more they pressed at him, the more controlled Sebastian became. The anxiety was gone now as he allowed pure reason, unfettered by his emotions, to guide him. He lifted the staff over his head and swung at an angle before him to block the amphistaff, only to drop and dip the reverse to catch a Vong in the neck. Despite the complexity of the move he felt neither excitement nor pride as he was already moving to block the next strike. He spun his body while bringing the saber's tips around low before a sudden upward sweep that pierced a seam in the crab armor of a warrior while he stabbed the eye of the one before him.

The injured Vong soldier, refusing to allow the loss of a limb to interfere in a death duel, took up his amphistaff with his other hand and rejoined the fight. They surrounded Sebastian and, as one, they swung. The air echoed with the sound as irresistible forces met a man who refused to be moved.

They stood locked for several seconds. Sebastian held his saber to his right, both blades pressing against the amphistaff of a Vong. His left hand was up, the third staff held against a thick armored plate that had emerged on the back of his hand. Sebastian turned and looked in the face of the lead Vong, causing the alien to freeze. The Jedi's eyes... He'd expected hatred, anger, maybe even fear. There was none. At first the Vong thought he saw madness in those eyes, but what chilled him to the bone was the realization that those eyes reflected a mind too sane for its own good. Behind those eyes was frost and clockwork; the antithesis of the Vong. The Vong could see Sebastian knew he was going to win, but there was no trace of smugness or self-confidence. They'd tried to surprise him, to overwhelm him, and to terrify him, but that was impossible, pointless...

Futile.

The lead Vong was still alive only because of that cold mind which, having weighed everything, had decided that it would be more efficient to fight the most skilled warrior without distractions. Towards that end, the human pushed aside the staff with a flick of his wrist and reached out towards the Vong's face. It never reached him, but the Vong felt as if he'd been struck in the face and thrown backwards.

Sebastian flipped backwards as the other warriors tried to take advantage of his distraction. He held his saber vertically in front of him and blocked the second and third strikes, then twisted horizontal and struck at their chests twice. The blades didn't penetrate, but it knocked them off balance while he stepped and twisted to decapitate the one on the right, the left barely able to raise his amphistaff in time. But instead of going for the kill Sebastian whirled around towards the lead Vong, his hand outstretched. The thud-bugs he'd hoped to use during the distraction bounced off of nothing and flew back at him, exploding around him and knocking the warrior off his feet.

The other Vong swung at Sebastian's back, but the Jedi whipped the blade up behind his back in time to stop it. While the two clashed together the other blade switched off, and Sebastian twisted around so that he was holding the blade upright but still keeping them locked together. He then stepped back and released his opponent for a moment before pressing the attack. The fluidity of the double-blades was now replaced by quick furious blows that kept the Vong on the defensive. The weapons locked again, but this time Sebastian had leverage and forced the Vong's blade down. It snapped up, passing through its neck and leaving only one Vong left to face the Jedi.

His exposed face was lacerated from chitin shrapnel, but the lead Vong was unimpeded by pain. He relished it, let it make him stronger for what had shaped into his greatest challenge. He would not concede defeat, but he knew that he was beaten. But if he was going to fall today it would be glorious.

Sebastian approached quickly, striking at the Vong rapidly. There was no fury in his swings, just quick, deliberate attacks. The Vong was going backwards, Sebastian staying with him so that it was almost like a dance. He could only block, his human opponent not allowing him even a moment to consider an offensive strike. Every attempt to turn was anticipated so that he couldn't escape. It was as if he was being toyed with, but the expression remained as cold as ever. It seemed to radiate patience, inevitability. Sebastian's saber passed through the elbow joint of the armor, and with the same motion he knocked the Vong on his back with the Force. Sebastian stepped over his vanquished form, and as he raised his saber the Vong still saw no emotion in his face. "Abomination," he choked.

That made Sebastian pause. "What did you say?"

"You're an abomination," he repeated. "Worse than the woman." He coughed. "She is bonded to machines, but you... you are a machine. An imitation of life, but not really alive. Blasphemy to fall to one such as you."

Time stretched out forever as the remark hung in the air. "Then you don't want me to kill you?"

The Vong hadn't expected this, but considered. "Not like this."

Sebastian stepped over and stabbed the slithering amphistaff. "On your feet," he said finally. "Just hope that I don't change my mind once I've seen my mother."

"I hope you do," the Vong said, struggling to get up. "It means you might actually be more than just an automaton."



Chuck

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Part XXVI


Aunt Leia assured Sebastian that someone would be along to take the Vong prisoner into custody shortly. He was relieved, frankly. Now that the fight was over he felt the icy fear whenever it looked at him. He resisted the urge to replicate some clay; he wasn’t a kid any more.

Despite her torment his mother was in rather good shape. A new injection of nanoprobes helped get her strength back for the moment. “Hopefully this’ll be the last time,” he remarked under his voice.

His mother, however, still had rather acute hearing. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” he said as he checked over the readings on the medical tricorder.

“You meant something,” she said. “Don’t think I don’t know what that ‘nothing’ mean.”

“It’s a surprise,” he said finally.

Annika sat up. “Tell me.” When he said nothing she closed her eyes and shook her head. “You’ve spoken to the Borg.”

Sebastian’s mouth was agape. “How did you-“

“I’m very good at deductive reasoning,” she said darkly. “However much the body is failing my brain is as sharp as ever. You’re thinking of joining them?”

Sebastian cursed himself for letting it slip. He should’ve known better. “Not thinking; I’ve already decided. I’ll be meeting up with them as soon as they deliver the antidote.”

"Sebastian," his mother said with horror, "don't you realize what you're getting into?"

"Take it easy," he said. "I know it's a bit of a shock-"

"Do you have any idea what we had to do to stop them?" Annika said.

"Yes," Sebastian said in frustration, "I've heard the story a thousand times. I'm not interested in hearing it again."

"It's not just some story, Sebastian! It's the reality of what the Borg did, and what we had to give up to make sure they couldn't do it again. You were there, you saw the consequences... how much it destroyed the good man your father was, how much it hurt me for so long." She closed her eyes, clearly fighting to maintain control of her emotions. "How could you even think about doing this?"

"Because they can cure you!" he said. "And they'll do it if I join them."

"Never trust the Borg," Annika warned. "They'll break their word at the first possible opportunity. I'm speaking from personal experience on this one."

"Maybe the Borg turned on you once-"

"I turned!" Annika yelled. Her outburst caught Sebastian off guard as she took several deep breaths. "I broke off a Borg deal made with Voyager. I did it because the Collective deemed it the logical choice." Her eyes bored into her son's. "I assimilated innocent people. I strip-mined entire planets. I destroyed ships filled with people trying to flee us. I tried to assimilate the people who'd defeated our greatest enemy. Me, Sebastian. I had no sense of right and wrong, no understanding that I was destroying lives, civilizations. But I was dragged into this kicking and screaming; how could you ever consider volunteering?"

Sebastian didn't say anything for a while, and Annika had nothing to say. For her the idea that her own flesh and blood would work to help the Borg was more disconcerting than anything she went through during her return to humanity. "So you want me to just let you die?"

Annika opened her mouth and closed it. "Yes," she said finally. "Yes, I'd rather die than let you join the Borg." Sebastian got up and began pacing, visibly furious. "You don't know what you're trying to get into, Sebastian."

"Yes I do!" he shot back. "The Queen showed me-"

"The Queen?" Annika couldn't hide her shock. "When did you meet the Queen?"

Sebastian waved the question away. "The point is that it's my choice to make. I'm the one who has to live with this decision, and for me I'd rather join the Borg than watch you die while I could have stopped them."

"Sebastian, your father and I already discussed this-"

"And I don't seem to remember being included in that discussion."

"Because we were afraid this is what you'd do."

"What, make my own decisions? Actually disagree with the all-wise Luke Skywalker and the super-genius Annika Hansen? Heaven forbid!"

"You want to rebel, fine. Get a funny haircut and steal a speeder if you want, but don't go joining a cybernetic collective bent on universal domination, that's just a mistake."

"Dammit, this isn't about rebelling! It's about me doing what I think is right. If it was up to you and dad, I never would've done that," he pointed towards the battlefield where the dead Vong still lay in the sun. "I'm capable of making my own choices."

"Sebastian, you're talking about throwing your life away. How can you think I could ever stand by while you did that?"

Sebastian waited several seconds before replying. "How can you think I could ever stand by while you were dying?" He came over and collapsed into a chair. "Why do you get to take the easy route? Why do you get to be the one to make the sacrifice for me, instead of me for you? Because you're my mother? Because you need to protect me from the big, bad Borg?"

Annika shook her head as she took his hands. "Sebastian, look at me. Take a good look, and remember the person you were talking to just a day ago." Sebastian looked over her face; there were more lines there, her hair with streaks of gray. She seemed smaller, weaker, than he'd remembered. "My best days are behind me; we both know it. Maybe the young woman you knew yesterday could've taken down these Vong, but I couldn't. I've had my adventures, Sebastian; done my bit for saving the galaxies. I did my work, past tense. Look at me now," she laughed. "I'm a damsel in distress, always needing someone to watch out for her. And I'm not going to die in glorious battle like some adventure holo; I'm going to succumb to disease and pass away like anyone else." She pulled his hands up and kissed them. "My story's over, Sebastian. I have my regrets, but not that it's the end. Don't throw away your entire future trying to preserve it."

Sebastian sat and thought about what his mother had said. She wasn't asking him to do something easy, but he found it hard to resist it. He'd felt so sure about it before, as if being a Borg was what his entire existence was about, but now he couldn't understand why. "So what am I supposed to do?" he asked finally.

His mother smiled and stroked the side of his face tenderly. "Take a break," she said. "Get adjusted to life in your own time, and come to grips with what you've got ahead of you. Sebastian, this war isn't going to be easy. You're a Jedi now, and when the time comes people are going to look to you for guidance, like they do to your father. Take some time to realize what that means." She smiled a little. "I think I know who might be interested in your little trip to the past, and it's been months for you since you last saw her."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Lt. Sunspring," came the clearly anxious tone of command as she continued putting the HTF through its paces. She almost didn't hear; she was still impressed with how well the machine seemed to respond to her every touch. It was amazingly smooth, yet she felt completely in control. The Empire'd done the right thing giving Calrissian Enterprises the fighter contract; she had no doubt the ship would make a difference against the Vong.

"Copy base," Jorri replied.

"We have a group of hostiles approaching from sub-sector 12. You still have your full weapons inventory?"

"Affirmative." The ship held four proton torpedoes and four flux torpedoes, which Jorri was supposed to use against a series of prefab targets. She hadn't reached that portion of the course yet, which meant that she was packing heavy weapons in addition to her wing-mounted laser cannons.

"Form up with our bomber squadrons," he said. TIE bombers? she thought. Pretty unusual choice to use against the Cardassians. The star destroyers that patrolled this area had the raw power to take down the capital ships, which left the fighters to run interference and deal with any small support craft Garak might have outfitted.

The HTF stood out against the bombers as Jorri slipped into formation. The main portion of the fighter was a somewhat conical shape that eventually rounded off into a cylinder, with five high powered engines in the back. Four pylons stuck out of it at a forward angle giving it a front profile similar to an X-wing with the S-foils opened. The laser cannons protruded from each pylon past the nose of the fighter. Running along the sides between the pair of pylons was a small nacelle built into the fighter's structure akin to an old Federation Defiant, but actually flush with the surface. The low-level warp field it generated gave it a lower apparent mass that allowed it to make sharper turns and higher accelerations than a ship it size would normally have.

It was while Jorri was coordinating with the squadron leader that she noticed why she was in a bomber squadron. Hirogens? They were going to be far more of a threat than one of Garak's hit-and-run attacks. Taking out star destroyers must've made them cocky, she thought as she readied her torpedoes for single fire. Her lasers were effectively useless, so she'd need to make her missiles count.

"Target the turbolaser batteries," the squadron leader said. "We're just softening them up for the big boys."

"Yes sir," Jorri said, enhancing the view of her targets. They'd be dropping out of hyperspace any moment; looked to be six of them. She kicked her shields up to maximum and turned the inertial dampening down slightly to give her a better feel for the ship. This was going to be more intense than the practice course.

"Flux torpedoes," her wingman said as the two of them broke towards their assigned ship. Jorri readied the weapons and together they fired. The three green dots shimmered as they passed through the Hirogen shields and hit the turbolasers right between the guns with a satisfying explosion. "Fire 'em in pairs," he said.

"I've only got the three left," Jorri said as she readied the next. "Gotta make 'em count."

"I didn't ask for a weapons' inventory, girl,' he replied sharply. "Fire 'em in pairs."

"One will do the job if your pair can find the target," she shot back. "You hit the bull’s-eye and we'll be just find."

"T-A-H," said the squadron leader, ending the discussion. "Task at hand" meant to skip the argument and focus to keep the channel clear. It also meant he was probably pretty pissed off. It didn't matter to Jorri; her wingman didn't outrank her and she had no reason to follow instructions she felt compromised the job.

The turbolasers were silent, being designed to target capital starships. However, the small anti-fighter weaponry was everywhere, and as Jorri took out the next battery the argument became moot as one tore through her unshielded wingman and disintegrated him. There was one more left on their target ship, but she didn't think she'd have enough. Reluctantly she readied her last two flux torpedoes to fire together as she came in. As she fired a Hirogen weapon hit; not enough to penetrate her shields but more than enough to knock her off target as she fired. They auto-corrected a moment later, but hit the turbolaser from the side and caused little damage. Cursing Jorri readied her protons as an idea hit her. "Activate gunner controls," she ordered the computer. There was a slight lurch as the top panel opened and the turret-mounted twin cannon emerged. It didn't pack any more punch than her lasers did, but Jorri wasn't interested in power at the moment. "Ion cannon," she ordered, and the turret withdrew while one behind it emerged in its place. "Gunner controls disabled, switch to vocal commands. This would be a lot easier with a gunner," she said under her breath as she came around. Hopefully she could eyeball this.

Jorri brought the fighter around and fired her lasers to soften them up a bit. "Fire," she said, and repeated several times. The first two shots were off, but the third passed through the shields and hit the turbolaser itself. Energy visibly arced across it surface, then passed down into the main part of the ship. As she'd hoped, the Hirogens hadn't shielded the linkage between the turbolasers and their own systems, which meant they were as vulnerable as anyone else hit by an ion cannon. Jorri executed a tight loop and regretted it; the inertial dampeners were still set higher than normal and it felt like her head was being shoved down her neck. She fired all four protons; they tore through the hull below the turbolaser, hit the reactor and sent the ship up in a glow of expanding gas. That hadn't been her plan, but she wasn't going to knock it either.

"I'm out of missiles," Jorri told her squadron leader.

"Withdraw," he almost snapped at her.

You're welcome, she thought darkly as she brought the ship about and plotted a course back to her hangar. The ground crew was whooping and cheering as she lowered her landing gear and settled to the ground. Col. Parrel, the commanding officer of the test group, looked pretty pleased as Jorri hopped out of the lowered cockpit to the floor. Jorri pulled off the helmet of her flight suit, revealing the grin she couldn't manage to hide as he shook her hand. "The first combat kill for a HTF," he said with satisfaction. "Good job, lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir," she replied.

"Should we paint a little ship on the side of it, sir?" one of the maintenance team members asked with a laugh.

"Let's worry about aesthetics some other time," Parrel said. "I want the ship checked back to front for any problems before she's put back into the rotation. Sunspring, I want a report before 1600." He turned and marched out towards the compound.

Jorri got out of the flight suit and went into the cafeteria to have some tea while she filled out the report. She'd just finished her glass when a hand slammed down on her table. She looked at it as it lifted, revealing a dogtag. She looked up at the owner of the hand, a mid-thirties man with short blond hair and a look that could boil water. "Happy hotshot?"

Jorri looked back at the dogtag and then at the man; a captain from the look of it. "Is there a problem?"

"Yeah," he said as he scooped it back up. "You're the problem. You test pilots think you're so kriffing great, maybe you oughta learn how to be part of a team instead of kriffing grandstanding at every kriffing opportunity."

Jorri's eyes narrowed. Four years ago she'd have been intimidated, but the Academy had built up her spine. "I was just doing my job."

"You ignored orders," he almost shouted. "Your wingman-"

"With all due respect, sir, my wingman was in no position to give me orders."

He scoffed at her. "You think those dots mean anything? You have no combat experience and you refuse to follow the lead of your wingman. Then you disobey my orders and take out the ship instead of your target."

"I was carrying out the order the best I could with-"

"Your opinion isn't important," he said. "You're on report, lieutenant. I don't give a damn who you work for you're not getting away with this." Before Jorri could reply he turned and stormed out.

It wasn't easy after that, but she finished her report and dropped it off at Col. Parrel's office. The colonel just put it aside and she was turning to leave when he spoke. "Captain Jacume is a little set in his ways," he told Jorri. "I wouldn't worry myself over him."

Jorri nodded but her melancholy was obvious. "I'm more concerned about my record than his opinion."

"Don't be," he said. "He's a pilot who's too washed up to be good on the front lines any more, and his record says as much. Why else do you think he's flying bombers in the Alpha Quadrant? I doubt anyone expected him to even see combat again. You've got a glowing recommendation from Gen. Taar, and if you keep up the good work you'll get one from me too. You'll be able to write your ticket."

"Yes sir." Jorri smiled a little. "Thank you, sir."

Parrel picked up the datapad. "There were six Hirogens on board that ship." He paused. "You okay with that?"

"To be honest, that hasn't really sunk in yet."

He nodded. "If it starts to bother you, let me know."

Jorri knew what this was about. "My boyfriend shot down a smuggler last week," Jorri said. "No one seemed bothered about how he took it."

Parrel sighed. "What do you want from me, lieutenant? I follow the playbook they give me, just like you do. You want to be a lady in the Imperial war machine, you take the bantha poodoo that comes with it."

"I take it. I just don't like it."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Elim Garak was a weak old man, but even the Sith had to admit that he was a worthwhile ally for the moment. No one noticed his cloaked ship as he passed through the Imperial blockade to enter the newly acquired Vong territory of the Outer Rim. The Vong.... His blood boiled at the thought. It was the Vong's fault that he was here, once again ruining his life. He had been close to achieving control of the Imperial and Republic remnants, and now he could never go back. Still, he had an outlet for his rage now, and a new direction. A united Empire might actually be easier to overtake than the scattered systems of his own universe. And he'd have more Jedi to kill, a thought that pleased him to no end.

He sensed the one he wanted, and he was amazed at how even in another universe Anakin Solo felt the same as the one he'd known, the one he'd looked up to, and the one he'd beheaded when the moment came. If he had a weakness, it wasn't sentimentality. He hadn't enjoyed it as much as say, dismembering Kyp Durron, but he could hardly think of anything that could top that. Pity Kyp wasn't a Jedi here, he thought, it would have been fun for alternate history to repeat itself.

As Garak had surmised, the few Jedi that there were had been sent to various planets within Vong space to gather information for the Imperial counter-attack. Too bad his counterpart wasn't here; he could have removed that annoying detail at the same time. Still, it'd be more fun to take his half-brother apart once their father had fallen. From Garak's account the Luke Skywalker in this universe was far younger when he sired his son, Sebastian. Now instead of being a weak old man he was still strong enough to fight Vong, yet skilled enough to move Earth's moon when the situation called for it. His death would be the most satisfying.

The ship settled on the outskirts of the city. He operated the secondary cloak to render it invisible to the Vong; he'd need the ship to get off the planet once his father was dead. Of course, Anakin would no doubt think the same thing once he discovered his own ship had been sabotaged, leaving him no choice but to contact Luke through the Force to try and rescue him. The old Jedi would fall right into his trap.

If he was disposed towards irony, he would have no doubt noted that he was going to be the one to carry out the last command his mother, Mara Jade, had received from her own Emperor. Of course, he didn't. Ben Skywalker never dwelled on irony.



Chuck

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Part XXVII


Annika was beamed onto the Visage; Luke was on her in a second, holding her tight. "I'm so sorry I wasn't there," he apologized, his voice edged with agony.

"It's okay, sweetie," Annika said. Just feeling his arms around her made her feel stronger. "It's okay."

"It's not okay," Luke insisted. "It's- not here," he said, indicating that they weren't alone. "Come with me," he said, leading the way. A short while later they entered his quarters.

"Oo, Luke," Annika said seductively, "I had no idea you missed me that much."

Luke grabbed onto her again, and she could feel he was shaking with grief. "After all that happened, you can still joke around," he said, and she could hear the tears in his voice. "There's no one else in the universe like you, Annika..." After the strain, she found herself crying too. "I just wanted to protect you, and you almost died because I wasn't there."

"You had to appear before the Senate," Annika said. "It's okay."

"You should have been here," Luke said. "I should have known that after they took Sebastian they'd come after you both. How could I have been so stupid?!"

"Please, don't," Annika said. "You've been away for so long... Luke, after what's happened, I need my husband back for a little while." She took his right hand and placed it alongside her face. "I don't want you to feel guilty, sweetie... I just want you to be strong for me." She looked into his eyes, and he obviously understood. "I can endure anything the Vong can throw at me, so long as I have you to help me stand."

They closed their eyes, he said the words, and they touched. She felt the rumble of darkness that paced about like a caged animal within him; he felt the agony of her interrogation at the Vong's hands. But between them, the presence of the other dulled it, so that it was easier to endure, so that it could soon be set aside and they could focus on what they really wanted to share. The meld ended, and Annika kissed him deeply, as she always did after mindmelds. "Thank you," she whispered when it ended. Luke held her tight to him, and she started crying a little again, because even after all these years, it always felt special that he could want her that much.

"The Doctor's on a Priority 1 transport here," Luke said.

"He doesn't have his mobile emitter," Annika said, puzzled.

"He volunteered to be downloaded and brought offline," Luke said. "He said you needed to be here with me right now, to help you heal." Luke kissed her hand. "I'm thinking it'll work both ways," he said quietly. She leaned in and rubbed her cheek against the side of his face. "We'll stay together," he promised. "I may need to ask you to live on starships and such, but we'll stay together from now on. I'll never let them hurt you again, Annika."

Being with him was all Annika wanted, but she wasn't going to ignore the elephant in the corner. "You left because of your fear of your dark side," she said. "Are you sure this is what you want?" Luke nodded, tight-lipped. "It's good to-" Tears ran down her face. "After all that's happened, I- I started to feel like you didn't need me any more."

Luke's breath trembled. "You were always at my side, as far as I was concerned... because I could never have done any of this alone."

The tears never ceasing, Annika just pulled him close again and held onto him, until the passage of time ceased to matter. She'd been waiting for too long to care about it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Name: James Benson. Rank: Lieutenant, Senior Grade. Serial Number: ESD2-01832-15209."

The Cardassian walked around the Imperial officer, currently strapped down on a table, shaking her head. "A Terran," she said with disgust. "I'd have thought your people would be more loyal."

"Name: James Benson..."

"Are we going to have to compel the truth from you?" she demanded. "You're an Imperial engineer. We know this. Tell us your scomp access code."

"Serial Number: ESD2-018..."

"Should I bring Mr. Garak down here to deal with you?" she said with frustration. "All humans are the same to him, you know. He'll have no problem finding ways to get the answer out of you. Just tell me what it is!" She slapped him across the face. She breathed heavily as he continued his recitation, then turned and stepped out of the room. "I can't do this, John."

"You're doing fine," he assured her.

"No, get one of the other Cardassians to do it."

"You know," John said not unkindly, "we're going to be killing a lot more just like him. Your conscience going to stop you from that?"

"John, I can't do it," she said, emphasizing each word. "Besides, he's not even really an Imperial."

"He wears their uniform," John retorted, "that's enough." He let out an exasperated sigh. "Okay, it's all right. I'll handle it from here."

"Not looking like that, I hope," she replied.

"What better way?" John asked. He gave the Starfleet uniform a tug to straighten it and walked into the room. The prisoner's eyes widened. "Haven't seen one of these outside of a museum, have you James?" He pulled up a stool and sat in front of him. "Starfleet didn't die with the Federation, son."

"What are you doing here?"

"Strange bedfellows," John said. "There's an underground militia of Starfleet, Romulan, and Klingon units that avoided the Imperial clean-up crews. Garak and the Cardassians are our face for the galaxy; taking the heat for us, you might say, so we can continue operations."

"You're allied with the terrorists?"

"They're not terrorists, James," he said, repeating the name to try and breed familiarity. "They're freedom fighters. Terrorism is ISB propaganda. Actually the ISB has used several of these 'terrorist attacks' to kill dissidents within the Empire." He leaned forward. "Hear about the incident with the moon?" The Imperial nodded. "Experiment with new artificial gravity projectors designed to replace the ones in Interdictors. It'll make DITs a thing of the past. Worked a little too strongly though and damn near destroyed the planet."

"No," he insisted, "it was the Cardies."

"Use your brain," John said, "where are they going to get that kind of technology? It was all just a smokescreen. Test a weapon, build up anti-Cardassian support and paint Skywalker the hero for his triumphant return."

The officer shook his head. "This is all some kind of trick," he said. "You're not really human."

"James," John said in an almost pleading tone, "our allies aren't quite as enlightened as we are. That Cardassian woman is ready to extract that information from you by whatever means necessary. If you don't tell me, I can't help you."

The officer breathed deeply. "Name: James Benson. Rank: Lieutenant. Serial-"

John threw his hands up and walked back out again. "It was a long shot," he said as the door closed.

"What now?" the Cardassian asked.

"Level 1 interrogation has failed," John said. "We need to go to Level 2. Time's running out."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jorri was literally waiting with open arms when Sebastian exited the ship. He realized he'd been gone too long as he hugged her a little too tight. "You've changed," she remarked as he finally let her go. "Something happen?"

Sebastian half-shrugged. "Got displaced in time and space," he said dismissively. "Happens all the time." He couldn't stop laughing at the look she gave him, and on the way back he filled her in on some of what had happened. They had the time; the city where Sebastian had landed was located a few kilometers away from the perimeter of the base.

"Wow, I thought time travel went out with warp cores and phasers," Jorri remarked.

"That's one thing that's been bugging me," Sebastian said. "I know that I wound up there by accident. So, how did the Vong know how to follow?"

He could feel the chill from the question. "I hope you're not suggesting what I think you're suggesting," Jorri said.

"If the Vong have time travel technology," Sebastian said, "then I'm not sure we can pull this off. At least there were understandings among the Alpha Quadrant races about it. Even the Borg didn't try it more than once-"

"Bastian, I don't even want to think about it." They stopped in front of the entrance to the officer's barracks. "I'm in room 14," she said, "if you need to find me. The chime doesn't work, so just let yourself in."

Sebastian was astonished when they entered her room. "You have this to yourself?" he said as he gaped at the size of it. Sure it was cramped by civilian standards, but he'd only seen multi-room quarters like this on the Enterprise.

"You get a little pampered when you're a test pilot," she said coyly. "Back there's the bedroom, complete with holonet connection. It even has its own fresher."

"Oh, you are going to be too spoiled to ever serve on a star destroyer," Sebastian remarked.

"Spoiled, Mr. Time Traveling 'I'm buds with the Emperor' Jedi Knight?"

"No one ever accused me of being disciplined," he shot back with a grin. "So how have things been on your first assignment?"

"Amazing," she said. Jorri filled him in on the new HTFs and about how she was the first to use it in combat against the Hirogen. "It's a real good, versatile fighter. If the war lasts long, I think it could be a huge asset."

Sebastian's position for the Emperor gave him high enough clearance so that they could discuss the details of the fighter. It was actually relaxing to think about something as trivial as mechanics. Or maybe it was just being back to his own life, where the consequences weren't quite as far-reaching...

"Something wrong?" Jorri asked, snapping Sebastian back to the moment.

"No," he said, perhaps a little too quickly. "Just got a lot on my mind."

"It's boring, isn't it," she said. She got up and grabbed a datapad.

"Not at all."

"Mm-hm. Sure." She activated the datapad and flipped through. "Not a whole lot to do this time of day. Ah, this sounds interesting." She passed it over to Sebastian.

"A Game Of Pool?" he read out loud.

"It's a Terran two-man play being given down in the city. It's gotten some good reviews."

"What's pool?"

"Kind of like tabletop croquet, only with sticks instead of mallets. How 'bout it?"

Reluctantly Sebastian went along, but the theater wasn't of particular interest to him. The plot seemed rather simple: a young man named Jesse was playing this game, pool, by himself. He then started lamenting that despite his skill he stilled lived under the shadow of the late Fats Brown, the greatest player who ever lived. He seemed surprised when the dead man actually arrived to challenge him to the game he'd been asking for.

"That doesn't make any sense," Sebastian whispered to Jorri.

"Just go with the flow," she said in a low, frustrated voice back.

"Are you afraid?"

"No," Jesse said coldly. "Maybe I can beat you; it's possible isn't it."

"It's possible," Fats conceded. "Things change, records get higher... but you'll never got the job done with your mouth." Jesse grabbed his stick and held it up defiantly to show he was going to accept the challenge. "And the stakes?" Fats asked.

"Stakes?"

"Something to make the game a little more interesting." Jesse huffed and dropped a stack of credits on the table. "Come on, use your wits boy! What good's money to me?"

"Well what then?" Jesse demanded.

"You said you'd give anything for a game with me," the old man said. There was a pause that said volumes. "Anything?"

"What are you talking about, mister?" the cocky young man replied, his tone showing he knew this old legend was up to something. "Just what kind of stakes are you talking about."

"Life, or death," he replied with the weight those words deserved. "You beat me, and you live. You lose, and you die."

There was silence and then, to Sebastian's surprise, the young player turned away with contempt. Usually people in the fiction he'd come across didn't have this good sense. The old man, however, wasn't about to let it go, goading him. "I'm just a pool player. There's probably no less important thing on the face of the Earth." There was a hint of pride in his voice. "But mark this in your book: I'm the best. It's a proud thing to be the best at anything." He picked up the case and began walking towards the door. "But then, you wouldn't know anything about that."

Sebastian watched in amazement as Jesse eventually gave in. The game began, but the focus was far more on their discussion rather than on the game itself. It was a vehicle for a contrast of philosophies. Sebastian was engrossed until, eventually, there was the last ball sitting right in front of a pocket. Even Sebastian could've sunk it. And the next shot belonged to the young Jesse, who was realizing just what that meant for him. "I sink that ball," he said with subdued joy in his voice, "I become the greatest." He couldn't contain himself.

"If you sink it..."

Jesse looked him over with a smirk. "You're sweating; why're you so nervous?"

"Oh," Fats smiled a little, "for reasons I'm afraid you wouldn't understand."

"'I'll give you a chance at my crown, Jesse,'" he parroted, "'but only if you'll bet your life on the game, Jesse!' Couldn't be a nice friendly game."

"I take them as I find them," Fats said slowly. "To you pool is not a nice, friendly game. It's a win at any price affair. I acted accordingly."

"Yeah, well it didn't do you any good!"

"You know Jesse," Fats said, "there's still one ball on the table and it's taking you a mighty long time to sink it. Why?" Jesse scoffed at him. "You may not believe this, Jesse, but personally, I'd like to see you win." The young man just laughed at him. "Believe me, I've only been doing my job. You see the great ones, the legends, they serve a purpose. A challenge from out of the past that says 'Match what I've done, boy, and make it better!' That's true in all aspects of life: music, sports, art, you name it. Me... I'm just a pool player," he said, and then smiled with pride, "but I'm the best."

When Jesse replied there was only the tone of a man about to squash a bug. "You WERE the best."

After Jesse sunk the ball and the play concluded, Sebastian and Jorri started walking back. "What do you think was the message?" she asked. "That things come and go... that change is inevitable?"

"Maybe," Sebastian said. "But I think it was really that you have to be willing to accept your losses. It doesn't matter how good you are, eventually someone's going to come along who's even better."

"Sounds a little depressing."

"That's life," he said. "Good news is hard to come by."

There was nothing more said for some time. Of course, Sebastian should have known Jorri was too sharp for him. "Something's bothering you."

Sebastian's face bore the hint of a smile. "I thought I was the Jedi."

"You're not changing the subject," Jorri said, again showing how well she knew him. "What's wrong?"

"It's better that you don't know."

Jorri shook her head. "It's about Chris, isn't it."

Sebastian stopped, then laughed. "If only it were about that," he said. "Jealousy would be a comfort right about now."

"I see. So are you going to keep acting like an asshole or tell me what's wrong?"

Straight to the point, Sebastian thought, just like she always is. He hadn't realized how much he missed her until now. He just hoped this wouldn't mess up their friendship. "I made a big mistake," he said finally. "I tried messing with the past, and I wound up killing people. A lot of people." He couldn't look at her any more. "I wanted to stop Garak and I wound up causing the culling of the DMZ. Millions died because of my selfishness." He explained briefly how it had happened.

"Sebastian," Jorri said, taking his hand and squeezing it tight, "it wasn't your fault."

"I may not have done it on purpose, but those people are dead just the same." He breathed deeply through his nose, visibly swallowing as he fidgeted. "I felt them die... every last one. And I couldn't believe how insignificant I felt by comparison to the sum total of their lives, and that they were all dying for something so meaningless." He looked up into her eyes. "How can I ever make up for that? In one flash of bad judgment I did more harm than I can ever undo in my lifetime. That's why she makes so much sense."

"Who?" Jorri asked.

"The Queen," he replied. "She felt it through me. She understood." He looked a little excited. "It was a part of myself I'd never really explored, but it's there."

"What is?"

"Peace," he said finally. "No more guilt, no more worry, just direction and purpose."

Jorri's face turned almost white. "You're talking about the Borg, aren't you. Not some cybernetic refugee, but the real McCoy. How can you think of that?"

"Think of all the good I could do-"

"Good?! Sebastian, the Borg were a blight on the universe! They were a tool of destruction!"

"Well maybe I could point that tool at the Vong," Sebastian retorted.

"It's too dangerous. Sebastian, however guilty you might feel now, imagine how you'd feel if you helped the Borg assimilate worlds." She shook her head. "But that's the point, isn't it. You won't feel anything."

Sebastian couldn't say anything. He'd said enough already, he thought as he mentally kicked himself. Jorri's look somehow managed to make him feel even worse.

"You were right," she said when she finally broke the silence, "it would've been better if I hadn't known. I never would have imagined you were a coward, but I guess the Vong must've taken away the boy I knew after all. Well go ahead, take the easy way out; live your life without guilt or fear. Me? I'll mourn for you, Bastian, but I'll keep my pain no matter what. The rest of us don't have your luxury... and we don't want it."

Sebastian watched her storm off. She was right, of course. This was the easy way out. He sat down on a bench, feeling even worse now that he'd screwed up his friendship with Jorri. Give him a lightsaber and a hostile alien and he knew what to do, but this...

Sebastian pulled out his communicator, fidgeting with it for a while. He should contact her, apologize for being a jerk. No, go to her stupid, he thought, don't try to take the easy way out with this too. Reluctantly he pulled himself to his feet and started towards her quarters, trying to think of what he could say to not get himself in even worse. He hit the chime by reflex before he remembered it was broken. "Jorri?" he asked. Well, I can't do much worse, he thought as he let himself in.

"-look like hell," a somewhat familiar voice said. "Have you been crying?"

"It's nothing, Chris," he heard Jorri say.

"Just tell me who it is and I'll give him a week's ration of ass-kicking."

Sebastian recognized the laugh. It was her "thanks for trying to cheer me up" laugh. He'd heard it many times before, but not for someone else. "That wouldn't be a good idea. I prefer you in one piece."

"Jacume is over the hill," Chris said. "Even I can take him."

"It's not him," Jorri said. "Just a boy I thought I knew."

"You want me to arrange some leave?"

"No, thanks, I'm fine." Sebastian leaned against the wall, suddenly feeling very exhausted. "Just watch out for pirates."

"I will," Chris said. Sebastian pulled out his communicator and thumbed it on. "Love you."

"You'll meet us at the rendezvous point on Tatooine?" the communicator asked.

Sebastian nodded for no reason. "Yes," he said.

"I love you too, Chris."



Chuck

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Part XXVIII


Luke returned to the here and now, but not without a few mental bumps. It took him a few seconds to regain his focus, but Harry wasn't giving him those seconds as he ranted. "Would you mind starting again?" Luke asked finally.

"Finally back from the spirit world?" Harry asked sarcastically.

"What's wrong?" Luke asked, pulling himself up off the floor. There was a sharp pain in his left knee as he did so; a sign of his body's succumbing to time like everyone else. He ignored it as he straightened up, only to have Harry thrust a datapad in front of his face. "Report from the Vong Sebastian captured," he observed.

"That's right," Harry said hotly. "Extracted by the ISB. There wasn't supposed to be any more ISB."

"I know, Harry," Luke said. "And I don't like it either, but that's a battle for another time."

Harry's passion only grew at the remark. "I can't believe that you of all people would tolerate the existence of those butchers, much less expect us to work with them! They represent more than anyone else what was evil about the Empire-"

"No," Luke said, "they represent the worst aspects of corruption. But the evil behind the Empire... that was more terrifying than you'd believe."

"This isn't about semantics," Harry retorted, "it's about partnering ourselves with mass murderers!"

"They're not our partners-"

"Don't try to play me, Luke. I looked into this. You recommended turning the Vong over to the ISB. How could you, a Jedi, possibly condone that?"

"We don't have the luxury of using kid gloves," Luke said, looking at something else. Of course, he didn’t have an answer. It seemed like the right idea at the time, but now... how could he have done such a thing? "There's more going on here than you think, Harry. The Vong are a threat, no question, but they're actually a distraction from an even greater one. We have to stop them now, while we can focus on it." Harry scowled at him. "Our enemy is destroying our unity, playing us off against each other. We can't win a war fought on all these fronts. We need to find the yammosk now, or we could be facing..."

"What?" Harry asked.

Luke was silent for some time. "Just find it Harry," he said in a low voice.

Harry fumed, then dropped the datapad on a table. "I don't condone torture," he said icily, "and I won't partner with someone who will." He turned to walk out.

"Harry," Luke shouted, but he kept walking. "Harry, I have another idea." He stopped, then slowly turned back. "First-hand information that could prove helpful," Luke said, walking towards him.

"Where?" He tensed as Luke quickly grabbed him, holding a hand to the side of his face. His struggle was brief as Luke established the mind-meld, then re-called in agonizing detail what he'd taken from Sebastian back on Helska. There was a psychic snap as the meld broke and Luke stepped away in exhaustion.

Harry was stumbling, holding his hands to his head and mumbling "oh God," over and over. He finally looked up at Luke. "Are you crazy?" he asked. "You had no right-"

"Harry, the hour is far later than you think," Luke said, sitting on the edge of the table. "You've got everything we know about the yammosk now; you're going to need it."

"All you've shown me is why you're so obsessed," Harry said. "Whatever they did to your son doesn't justify-"

"It has nothing to do with that." Luke held up a hand before Harry could speak. "Don't think I haven't entertained thoughts of revenge. My judgment and Sebastian's is colored by our emotions. We're too close to it. You're a scientist; you can put aside your feelings and look at this objectively, and in so doing you'll probably notice things we've missed, details that could end the Vong threat for good." He put a hand on Harry's shoulder, but he shrugged it off. "The people who destroyed Sienar," he said softly, "went through the same thing. This isn't an isolated incident Harry. It's going to keep happening. They're turning our people against us, like the Queen said. If they can do that to a Jedi, imagine what they'll do to the rest of the population."

"I don't want to hear it," Harry said.

"Did you hear about Dantooine, then?" Luke asked. Harry said nothing. "The Vong-"

"I read the report," Harry said sharply. He turned and sat down. "The Vong brainwashed a hundred thousand beings from across the territories, armed them, and dropped them onto the planet. They didn't even follow up the attack, just observed the whole affair."

Luke sat down opposite Harry. "It was a mistake for me to let that influence me, to goad me into contacting the ISB. If you don't want to use the information, fine, but I need you, Harry... and so does Annika."

Harry looked up at the name. "The disease," he said quietly.

"The - report," Luke said, referring to the interrogation, "shows that the same Nom Anor that kidnapped Sebastian created this disease. If we can find him, we might find a cure. But we need to find the Vong headquarters first."

Harry finally nodded his head. "Pull another stunt like that again," he warned, "and I'm out the door for good."

"Don't worry," Luke said, "I won't make that mistake again." He shrugged. "'Jedi' doesn't mean 'infallible.'" They turned as the door opened and Captain Wildman entered.

"We've received a communication," she said, handing him a datapad.

Luke took it with visible confusion. The captain bringing him a message rather than a crewman? He understood when he encrypted it. Top secret information known only to himself, Harry, and the captain, and apparently to someone else now. "I'll need a ship," he said. "With a cloak."

"What is it?" Harry asked.

Luke shook his head, afraid this would happen. "Anakin's in trouble."
--------------------------------------------------------------

John took another look at himself, making a couple of adjustments to his uniform. He looked exactly like the late James Benson, down to his voice and mannerisms. He'd never stand up to any physical scan, but if all went to plan there'd be no need to deal with that.

"Are you sure this is the right thing?" He turned and looked at the Cardassian who'd spoken. "We're going to be drawing a lot of attention to ourselves."

John walked over to the case and gave it another examination to be safe. "We have the means to resist now. If we don't use it to help our people, what does that make us?"

"Anyone who can pick up a blaster has the means to resist," she said. "Why do we have some special obligation?"

"Because we're better than they are," John said with slight contempt. "Because we've languished in slavery, and our emancipation should make us realize all the more how precious our freedom is." She rolled her eyes, much to his annoyance. "Don't you value it?"

"Of course. But I'm not sure I'm willing to die for it."

"I've died a hundred times," John said. "I'll gladly die a hundred more if it'll make a difference."

The Cardassian put her hands on her hips. "Do you know who you sound like?"

"James Benson, I hope."

"I'm being serious, John," she said sternly. "All you need to shout is 'In the name of the Prophets'-"

"This has nothing to do with that crazy Bajoran's crusade," John interrupted. "Our people suffer the way we suffered. The Senate has done nothing for them." He sealed the case. "War is politics continued by other means," he remarked. "It won't be the first war to earn freedom for the oppressed." He leaned forward to kiss her, but she pulled away. "This is the last time I'll see you, Kajal" he said.

"You're already dead as far as I'm concerned," she said. "That makes you the copy."

A brief flicker of anger crossed his face. "Fine. I'm glad I won't remember this conversation when the mission's over."

"Would you listen to yourself! You're thinking like some kind of soldier."

"Aren't I?"

She scoffed at him. "You think that Starfleet uniform makes you a commander? It's not real John. There isn't even a Starfleet any more, but you're still playing the part." He tried to step out but she blocked the door. "If you insist on playing the role they've given you," she said slowly, "then you are a slave after all."

John breathed heavily through his nose. "Computer," he said in his own voice, "deactivate Kajal." Before she could say a word her holographic body faded into nothingness. She'd be upset, of course, but that would be something for the "real" John to deal with when the mission was over. He gave his mobile emitter a last examination before slipping a coat over it and walking out the door.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Doctor closed the medical tricorder, his look of concern passed. "Nothing we can't patch up," he said reassuringly. "Certainly better than I would've expected at the tender mercies of the Vong."

"'Tender' and 'mercy' aren't words that come to mind when I think of the Vong," Annika said, squirming slightly as he ran a dermal regenerator over some of her worse lacerations. She'd already patched things up herself back at their installation in the Delta Quadrant, but it was just a quick fix. The corrections itched like crazy.

"Indeed. It seems the whole universe has gone mad. Violence and fear are spreading, and given the recent Hirogen and Cardassian assaults and your own misfortune, the sentiment seems to be that no one is safe."

"I find it hard to argue against," Annika said, biting her lip. "Have you been making any progress on the disease?"

"Very little," the Doctor said. "But not for lack of trying."

Before Annika could enquire any more the door opened and Luke came in. "You feeling any better?" he asked.

"Physical integrity at sixty-one percent and rising," she said. "Should be right as rain in no time."

"Glad to hear it," he said, but his expression showed he had other things on his mind. "Doctor, can you give us a moment." The Doctor nodded and deactivated himself. "I have something to tell you," he finally said. "I wish I had more time but we're in a rush. Anakin's in trouble."

"Is he all right?"

"He's fine for the moment," Luke said. "But there's something else. I don't know how to explain this, but I... I have a bad feeling about this mission."

"What do you mean?" she asked, afraid of what he meant. Despite his remark she understood how he would have this feeling, and overall her experiences with it weren't positive.

"I'm not sure even I know what I mean," he admitted. "It's not exactly something I like to think about." She could see him struggling. "There's a future, a possible future," Luke said morosely, "where the strain of events have become too much. I've been afraid to say this to you for so long, but you need to know. The dark side is growing within me... so much that it can even influence my behavior if I'm off guard. Something's happening, and I don't know if it's me or some force out there, but I don't think I can stop it."

"Luke," Annika said in a controlled voice, doing her best not to show how terrified she was, "why don't we take some time away from all of this? Let you heal."

Luke hesitated. "I've seen this world in my dreams a thousand times, Annika... I..." He couldn't look into her face. "I don't know for sure what will happen, but I don't think I'll be returning to this life."

Annika couldn't help herself; she grabbed him and pulled him close and cried like she had in the Borg citadel decades ago. "Please don't leave me again," she begged, weeping. "Please, Luke, not again! I’ll do anything you want... just tell me what I have to do! Please!" She couldn’t get anything more out, it was too much. When you love someone that much, pride vanishes in the wake of grief, and even the strongest are left fighting to hold on to the things that are central to their life.

Luke closed his eyes and buried his face into her hair, and started shaking himself. "I can move faster than any human," he whispered. "I can dodge blaster fire. I can move moons." He let out a sob. "I'd gladly face down a Sith master without any of them if I just had the power to stop you from ever hurting again."

"I can live with hurt," Annika said. "It's not having you for strength that makes it impossible."

"Annika," he said, "I will do everything I can to try to return to you as the man I am. But I can't abandon Anakin, I can't. If I don't go, then he'll likely die."

"I know," she said in a quiet, strained voice. "But that doesn't make this any easier." She swallowed, and even after all the disease and the Vong put her through she squeezed him with enough strength to make him wince, but she couldn't help herself. "Please try to keep your promise."

"I'll try," he assured her. "And maybe, just maybe, things will be okay. But no matter what happens, no matter what I might... turn into, Luke Skywalker loves you, and that man always will."

"I love you too, sweetie," Annika said. "Don't give us up without a fight."
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the Force Anakin was like a monstrous spotlight, and Luke was drawn to him despite the enormity of the planet. Even after this long he was still astonished by the power of the Force. It wasn't just poetic license that the Jedi said it bound the galaxy together.

Anakin was practically radiating relief as Luke lowered the landing ramp on his ship, but he tried to play things cool. "I was starting to think I'd have to blast my way off the planet like the old days."

Luke said nothing in reply to the bravado. He looked about carefully for danger, but he sensed nothing. Hurry up and get off the planet, a part of him whispered. But Jacen and Jaina were still on the Vong planets, and if they left the ship behind and the Vong found it they would no doubt begin searching the other captive worlds. "You've downloaded all your records off the computer?" he asked.

"Yup, and I've wiped the memory. If the Vong find the remains, there won't be any evidence suggesting it's anything other than an old wreck."

Luke's cursory exam reached the same conclusions Anakin had: the cloak would take days to repair, and it was definitely sabotage. His stomach tightened at the only possible explanation: Anakin was bait. "No time to be delicate," he said, pulling out a small bomb. When they abandoned Yavin the Imperials seized a lot of their supplies, which was then used against the Rebels. By the time Hoth was overrun they'd developed explosives like this one; cheap, easy to procure, and quiet. Within moments the ship was engulfed in flames that would leave only a burned out husk. Like Anakin said, it would look like an abandoned wreck....

The sensation emerged out of nothing, setting Luke's teeth on edge. "There's something not right here," he said.

Anakin stepped over to his side, scanning the horizon. "I feel it too. Vong?"

It was horribly familiar, much like the voice that chuckled deep within his mind. "No," he said quietly, "not Vong." His hand pulled out his lightsaber without any conscious thought on his part. "Stay here."

Anakin looked indignant. "I can help," he insisted. "I'm ready-"

"If this is a trap," Luke interrupted, "I'll need you to bring help."

"Together-"

"Anakin," Luke said sternly, then softened. "There are worse things in the universe than Vong... things that threaten more than just life and order. The most base kind of corruption is standing at the gate, forces that would turn all we've sworn to protect into darkness." He took a steadying breath. "If this is it, it'll take all our strength to stop it. Leave behind your pride and ambition, Anakin, because the galaxies may stand or fall because of your choice. Do you understand your responsibility?"

Anakin obviously wasn't happy about it, but he nodded in acceptance. Without another word he left, following the sensation. There was no mistaking it now. The cold, the icy feel of death... the Dark side was here. Very strong, possibly even a vergence. It drew him towards the outskirts of the city.

Do you feel fear? came a voice in his mind. Or are you too strong for it?

Luke stopped in his tracks, trying to get a better feel for the mind that had just touched his. It had a familiarity to it that was more unsettling than the mere hatred it had possessed.

You have known the power of the Dark side. Yes, and I can feel that knowledge makes you weak. You don't want to risk losing everything you've worked for, so you hide away from that power. It's a pity; with it you might have a chance, but now... you're little more than a reputation.

Head games don't work with me, Luke replied in kind. So you might as well tell me who you are.

Luke's blood froze as the Sith stepped into view. The young man smirked as he ignited his lightsaber. No more chances to play it safe, father. It's life or death now. Kill me, and you'll live... lose, and you'll die.



Chuck

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Part XXIX


Luke had faced the dark side of his father twice. It had been so disconcerting to feel the malevolence from someone so close to himself and what he had always aspired to be. Eventually, he gave in to his own darkness, allowing it free reign until he found the strength to overcome it. Since then it was like wolves scratching at the door to his soul, never once allowing him weakness without striking. He had thought he'd seen the worst that the dark side could throw at him. He should have known better.

This wasn't Sebastian, but Luke felt the same familial connection to him. He saw himself in some of those features, but overall there was one person who continued to come to mind: Darth Whind. He could feel within this young man the same spirit he'd felt within Mara during his exile. But whatever his connection to Luke, the obvious was that he was beyond any help he could provide. The anger and hate within his heart was prized above all else. He reveled in the power that his rage gave him, intoxicated by it and ready to use it without a second thought. Unlike his father, unlike himself, Luke couldn't see any way back for whoever this was. He activated his lightsaber and stood ready for the inevitable. As is usually the case, it didn’t keep him waiting.

Red and green clashed together. The blades were locked, each testing the strength of the other in that initial blow. Ben withdrew first, but quickly made three strikes, two high and one low. Again their blades held. Luke tensed as he felt Ben trying to pick him apart. There was a raw talent in him that was greater than anything he'd faced since the Emperor.

Ben alternated between left and right strikes at Luke's torso. Luke went for the opening, forcing Ben to twist and block with a horizontal hold as they locked again. He should be off balance, but he made no move to correct it. Luke gestured to Force push him, but even as he moved Ben took one step, now having leverage with both hands against Luke's one. He found himself twisting to avoid the blade, instinctively bringing his own down a second later to stop a low strike at his legs, then back up again. Now he was the one off balance. He blocked another high strike, then tilted back the rest of the way, absorbing the fall with his arms and pushing off to land on his feet several meters away. By the time Ben arrived he was already prepared for his attack.

Speed was what it was now about as Ben raced over, preparing his swing even before he'd arrived. The strikes were furious as he battered at Luke, who was on the defensive. I haven't faced anyone this fast since Data, he thought with shock, and twenty years hasn't helped me. Fortunately what time had done to his body was made up for by experience and growth, and he was able to put his green blade wherever the red was trying to come at him. Luke tensed and held it, trying to minimize Ben's sense of it. He pushed with all the strength he could against an incoming blow, knocking Ben's arm back. Luke executed a quick reverse, but Ben had already ducked under it, leaving Luke wide open. Luke continued the swing, giving him the momentum to block Ben's counter-strike long enough to right his position. He had less than a second before the attack continued with the same intensity.

It was clear to Luke what Ben's plan was now. He'd tested Luke's abilities with his attacks, finding the best way to kill him. He was obviously outraged that Luke was fighting back just as well as he could, so he was just going to wear the old man down. Luke had the Force for strength as did Ben, but with his youth he would be nearly inexhaustible. Ben must have known, and probably assumed Luke knew too, which is precisely why Luke struck at the opening. Ben sidestepped him he moved to stab his pseudo-father's exposed side, but Luke was already in motion, somersaulting forward into the thrust not to attack, but rather to escape. He came out of the roll and into a full run, putting some distance between them to give him a moment. He needed to think, and he could feel Ben pursuing. He quickly turned and pointed at Ben with his right hand. Ben was already moving to evade, which is why Luke's left hand was pointing at the ground nearby. The dust kicked up into the air from the Force push, straight into the young Sith's face. Luke could feel the rage intensify, but his opponent was temporarily blinded, and Force powers or no, that still gave Luke the advantage. He was just starting to charge when Force lightning shot through the air, barely missing Luke as he dropped and rolled to avoid it. He sprinted, taking cover behind the ruins of a settlement even as the lightning sparked against the stone remains. Luke continued to sprint further into the remains, knowing the Sith would pursue. This was obviously what it had been all about, to try and finish Luke off before he learned of the presence of a Sith.

Coward, came the thought of the pursuer, but Luke could sense his frustration. He'd obviously chosen his battleground carefully, which was exactly why Luke had to change it. The boy was so skilled that his relative inexperience was the only thing keeping him on the same level as Luke himself, which meant that any edge on either side was what would decide the outcome of this fight. Luke tossed a fifty kilo chunk of brick at Ben as he ran past it, but Ben jumped over it and continued his sprint. Luke ran up a set of stone steps that went nowhere, leaping off the top a dozen meters to land on top of a nearby column. He turned, lightsaber held at the ready in case Ben jumped after him, but the Sith pulled to a stop at the top of the stairs. He fired some force lightning in fury, but Luke easily absorbed it into his saber. With a half growl he jumped off the top of the steps, landing gracefully on the distant stone floor and striding towards the column Luke was standing on. Luke took a moment to calm himself and focus, this was a long shot. Granted their long shots worked nine times out of ten, but this one was longer than usual. He distantly felt Ben cut through the column, then give it a shove to topple it to the ground. Luke took a deep breath, leaped and rolled as it was about to hit, mind already focused on the Sith as he raced towards him. It was hard work, trying to apply that much force in that precise a manner. He dared not open his eyes, knowing the sight of Ben running at his prone form would be a fatal distraction.

Ben reached him, his weapon already swinging. There was a pop and a wave of heat and ozone passed over Luke as he swung, his blade extinguished as Luke twisted the lightsaber crystals out of alignment. Ben paused as his eyes flicked between his dead saber and Luke, then tossed it aside with a look of hatred. Luke pointed his lightsaber at him as he straightened up. "Don't make me destroy you," he warned.

A lightsaber ignited, and Luke took a deep breath to control his temper. "Dead or alive you're coming with us," Anakin said from behind Ben.

Ben turned and looked him over like a child with a squirt gun. "You're anxious for me to kill you first?" he said with condescension.

"Anakin," Luke said with authority, "get back to the ship. Now."

"Yes, run along padawan," Ben said with a dismissive gesture. "This fight is amongst the adults."

Anakin's eyes narrowed. "Brave talk-"

"Anakin!" Luke commanded.

Ben was looking at Anakin with a grin that would infuriate a Vulcan. "You're the one talking from the other side of the lightsaber." He held his arms wide as he stepped closer towards the young Jedi. Anakin grabbed the handle with his other hand, ready for attack. Luke reached out to knock him off his feet, but even as he moved Ben whirled around and gave his own Force push, sending Luke backwards off the small platform. Anakin jumped and swung, but Ben flipped backwards out of range and off the platform himself. Anakin pursued, saber swinging in anticipation, but Ben moved with an agility that seemed beyond anything human. He dodged three strikes, then caught Anakin's left arm. The young Jedi released the saber with his left and stabbed, but even as he moved the Sith twisted, yanking at the captive limb. Luke heard the scream as energy passed clean through flesh and bone, a scream cut off by an elbow to the face. Ben wrested Anakin's saber from his remaining hand, but even as he turned to finish him off Luke pushed, knocking him off his feet as Anakin held his stump in shock. Luke quickly stepped between Anakin and the now armed Sith. "Get back to the ship," he said in a low voice.

"You're only postponing the inevitable," Ben said, back on his feet and holding the newly liberated lightsaber at the ready. "Might as well let me finish him now so he doesn't have to return in disgrace."

"Enough," Luke said. "Your fight's with me."

"For now," Ben said, his grin back. "But you've already lost, 'father.' If you still had the Dark side, maybe you could defeat me, but not now." Luke knew what he was trying to do; get him angry and careless, and it was the last edge the Sith would need to finish him off. "Maybe you should reconsider, or haven't you thought about what I'm going to do to the rest of the Jedi when I'm finished with you? Let me give you a hint: where I come from the Jedi used to number in the hundreds... now there are none. I am death for everything you ever fought for, every sacrifice you ever made, the true extinction of your weak, cowering order." He slowly circled back into the open for enough room to maneuver if Luke attacked. "You think the twins will fair any better than Stumpy over there? That Leia's skills haven't atrophied over too many years of signing checks for the Emperor? That the schizophrenic brat you had in this universe could ever pull himself together enough to face me? The only disappointment I have is that once I kill you, the challenge will be gone."

"You're not gonna get the job done with your mouth," Luke said.

Ben chuckled a little. "Is that anger I sense in you, 'father?' Disturbed by the thought of what I'm going to do to your Jedi? Your feelings betray you; your fear for the whelp and the cyborg concubine-"

"Don't waste my time with these ham-fisted headgames."

"I think I'll give the woman to Garak," he continued. "I'm sure he could finance his little war with her." He seemed to consider. "The boy... perhaps I'll give him back to the Vong." Luke fought to keep his anger under control; he couldn't let Ben break his confidence. "Tell me something, 'father,' who is the greater disappointment? Me, the Sith, or the jellyfish halfling you had here? I mean, I may have rejected your teachings, but I was never a simpering little coward. Hopefully the Vong can whip that pathetic creature into something..."

Ben trailed off. He'd done this trick dozens of times before against the Jedi. It wasn’t a temptation, it was too overt. It got them mad, off-balance, easy pickings. But inside Luke Skywalker he felt a rumble that made him pause. It was the sensation of twenty years of repressed anger, of intense inner struggle and the knowledge of how much hinged on him winning that struggle every day. The fear and anger that never seemed to abate. The guilt over his wife and son. Now, he was all that stood between them and this maniacal spawn.

He's right, came an all too familiar voice. There's only one way to be certain of victory.

A wind blew, and the clouds blocked out the sun. The air crackled slightly with energy. Luke seemed to be shrouded in darkness as he looked up at Ben, who for the first time felt uncertain. He stepped away, still ready for the attack. Luke didn't take a step. Instead he pointed at the ground, and a jagged crack crawled across the ground towards Ben. The Sith stepped aside as the crack widened, steam escaping from the depths.

"Luke," he heard Sebastian call. He turned.

"Luke," Anakin repeated, "what're you doing?" Luke turned away. He made a slight move of his hand, and a column uprooted itself and smashed to the ground where Ben had been standing.

"Luke," Anakin repeated.

"Get back to the ship, Annika."

"What?" Anakin jumped as the ground seemed to burst upwards where Ben would run. "Luke, it's Anakin."

"You said Luke Skywalker would always love me," she said in his conscience. "Why are you doing this?"

"Not now, Annika," Luke said, causing a wall to explode and nearly lacerate Ben as he dove for cover.

"Don't do this," she pleaded, "not again."

"I have to," he said. A small cyclone rose up, raining rock fragments around the open area like deadly meteors.

"Luke, you can't protect us forever."

"Yes I can!" he shouted. "I'm not going to let them hurt any of you any more!"

"Please Luke, you've walked this path. You know you can't find the answer here."

A six story building imploded, choking the area with dust. Desperate, Anakin ran for the clearing while there was still time. "How can I be sure you won't die?" he asked.

"You don't," Annika said. "You're just going to have to trust me." Her face changed slowly, until a different woman appeared, a woman full of life and light and warmth, a woman that seemed to be familiarity and comfort given form... a living embodiment of... of life. "Trust me, Luke Skywalker, as you did on Earth."

Luke watched Ben pull himself out from amongst the wreckage. He could finish him now, kill the Sith in his weakness, but at a price he'd paid once before. But it offered so much more... the feeling of unrestrained power and unquenchable passions... the universe at his feet. Could he pass that up?

Luke took a deep breath. "Yes."

He felt it again; that same sensation he had when he'd moved the moon back. He was part of something greater now, an instrument in the service of light. It was like becoming saturated in pure energy, unbounded from the frailty of his mortality. The darkness struggled vainly within Luke, screaming its primal cry for control. But Luke had turned his back on it for good in that moment. He embraced the warmth of life, and the screams faded into tiny whispers, until eventually even they were silenced. Without hindrance Luke opened himself fully to the Force.

It was nothing short of an epiphany.

The rolling waves that had seemed so overwhelming now subsided, and Luke was pulled further than he'd ever dared go. But the fear that came with the dark side was gone, and with certainty of spirit Luke let it carry him along. The experience was almost more than he could endure. His mind expanded to the feelings and desires of a galaxy. The power to crush a star or restore it to life was within him. Past and future were as clear as the sky on Tatooine. In him was the full potential of the Force. With it he could roll back the Vong invasion single-handedly, or find the cowards among them who killed from hiding. End conflict, find compromise, bring true order to the galaxies.

"But that would be more than mere flesh could bear," the woman said. "And that is not your destiny."

There was only one thing holding him back now: the thread attached to the animate matter that he'd been. He deactivated his lightsaber and stood, calm and collected, the very image of serenity. Uncaring of the changes within the Jedi, Ben ran across the debris and stabbed him through the chest. As it passed the cloth, flesh gave up its now pointless hold on the physical world. The empty robe collapsed around Ben's saber.

Across the galaxy there were scattered reports of individuals experiencing dizziness, confusion. Some said it was a strong déjà vu, others that it was a kind of foretelling. But a number said they felt an overwhelming of emotion, of the euphoria of total liberation, and the guilt of promises broken. Three Jedi felt a shift in the Force unlike any other, and inside the mind of the Emperor, Ben Sisko could only nod his head in recognition of destiny playing its final card for the man who was once the last Jedi. Annika Skywalker, who had been one with his mind so often and for so long, wept at the touch. On the planet, the intensity of the blow was so strong that Anakin and Ben were knocked off their feet. When the Sith slowly pulled himself up and looked over the remains of his father’s counterpart, he grinned. He’d had a moment of doubt, but in the end, he walked away the victor.

But what he didn't know was that at that moment, Luke Skywalker became more powerful than anyone could possibly imagine.



Chuck

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Part XXX


Annika was like a statue; immobile, unreadable. She seemed to have expected it, but that couldn’t have made it any easier to accept. "Are you sure?"

Leia wished there wasn't a holographic interface between them at that moment. That her sister-in-law had to be alone for this moment only compounded the cruelty of the situation. "Anakin was there when it happened."

"But he died," Annika said, not looking at her. "He didn't pretend and escape as someone else... something else..."

"I'm sorry, Annika."

There was silence for several heartbeats. "But he didn't give in," Annika said finally. "I was afraid I'd have to look into those eyes and see... him, looking back. I don't think I could've done that again, Leia."

"If there's anything-"

"I know," Annika said, and finally there was a hint of a smile on her face despite her visible exhaustion. "You're always there when we stumble, Leia. I don't know where you find the strength."

At the moment it was taking all her strength not to show how devastating this was for her. "The Emperor's called for a funeral on Chandrilla-"

"No," Annika said sternly. "Tatooine. That's our home."

"Annika," Leia said gently, "that's close to the border with the Vong. It would be dangerous-"

"I made a home for him there," Annika insisted, "I gave birth to his only child there, and if I have to hold back the entire Vong army with a broken tricorder and a butter knife, I'll bury him there!"

"There's a lot of important people who want to pay their last respects," Leia observed. "If they come to Tatooine, it could provide a target too opportune for the Vong to ignore."

"I don't want them there," Annika said. "Not even your Emperor."

"Annika-"

"Look, Luke wasn't the first to die in this war and I'm sure he's not going to be the last," she interrupted a little hotly. "He wants to use the memory of my husband to further his war effort, let him, but I am not turning my last moment with him into a political tool for someone who's kept my husband from me for the past three years."

"The Emperor truly wants to pay his last respects to Luke for everything he's done," Leia said. Annika scoffed, as expected, and Leia knew she'd have to pick her words carefully. "He was my brother, Annika. I swear to you that I won't let anyone turn the ceremony into something less than what he deserves. But there is room in this for us to rally support for the war effort. When word of what happens gets out, people are going to be frightened. If a Jedi Master can't stand up to the Vong, what chance will they? The Empire could fall apart-"

"Let it," Annika rumbled.

"Luke didn't believe that, and deep down neither do you."

"Bullshit," she replied. "Luke didn't go to that planet for the Empire, he went there for Anakin. This war was never about politics, it was about him refusing to stand by and wait for the Vong or Cardassian terrorists to come after us again. It was about a wife in an ICU and a son in a mental asylum, something which damn near undid twenty years of personal struggle for him." Leia could see she was on the brink of tears, but was doing her best to hold them in. "It was never about the Empire, Leia, it was about our home. I am not interested in the righteousness of the cause, nor am I interested in the arguments among those far from the front lines who see my husband's death as a debate point for or against this conflict. Self-righteousness won't bring him back, and right now that's all that matters to me. He died fighting to protect our home, and I won't listen to anyone tell me different."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor watched the transmission with continuing disbelief. "-funeral held this afternoon in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location on Tatooine. Members of the Senate expressed their concern for his family during sessions on Chandrilla, but did not wish to provoke the Vong into an attack on Tatooine by their presence. Again for those just joining us, Luke Skywalker, noted Jedi Master and most prominent supporter of the war against the Vong, has been confirmed dead following a confrontation with what are presumed to be Vong forces."

"Do you believe me now?" Garak asked with typical smugness. Nom Anor didn't seem to notice it this time.

"One of your people?" he asked. "I didn't think you had anyone with that kind of skill."

"New recruit," Garak said. "Very promising, as you can see. I trust you're prepared to give us the technology. That was the agreed price for his death."

And there was no doubt about it. Garak had given complete details about where it had happened, and Nom Anor's scouts had confirmed the location and the state of the remains of the battle; his adversary had gone down fighting, that was certain. He had been shown the cloak, complete with a burn mark where its owner had been stabbed with some energy saber. "Where's his weapon?"

"My associate kept it as a trophy," Garak said. "I'm afraid his people are quite fanatical on that point."

In a way he was disappointed. Skywalker had been a challenge, one Nom Anor had been hoping to overcome himself. Still, he couldn't let his pride get in the way of results... it was the vision that gave him a leg up over most of his comrades. "Very well. I'll arrange a transport. My people will contact you through our usual route." Garak nodded and slipped away. Nom Anor remained, still having a hard time believing it.

"We've learned that many close friends and family members arrived to pay their final respects. Skywalker is survived by his wife and son, who both were present at the ceremony. A notable absence was that of war hero Han Solo, whom rumor has it, has held a twenty year grudge against him..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian drove his mother into town; she didn’t want to stay at the house without his father... too many memories for too fresh a pain. “You’re very quiet,” she said.

“I’ve had a lot on my mind,” Sebastian said.

“I know,” she said distantly, then was quiet for a time. “It’s been a long time since you saw how happy we made each other.” Sebastian looked at her quizzically. “The thing about perfect memory and being a genius, Bastian, is that you can remember twenty years ago like yesterday and put things together. You still remember so vividly all that time when I was crying for your father... and you barely saw us after that. Now he’s gone, and you don’t seem to be thinking about before that.” Still he said nothing. “You think I don’t remember our conversation. You were admittedly cryptic, but I’ve figured out over the years exactly who you were talking about, and since from your perspective that wasn’t long ago, I know those feelings are still fresh.”

“Jorri’s with someone now,” Sebastian said, focusing on his driving.”

“That was never, ever, a factor,” Annika said. “You focused solely upon your feelings.”

Sebastian swallowed. “Damn temporal paradoxes.” He turned to her. “I saw how much you hurt... you don’t have any regrets?”

Annika looked angry for a moment, but it passed. “It’s a valid question... more valid than I’d like to admit. When I lost your father to the Dark Side, when I believed that he was truly gone, I tried to forget everything. I tried to escape. But in the end, the pain didn’t matter any more, and I realized that if it was the price paid for what we shared, then I more than made out on the bargain. So no, the only regrets I have are the moments I was separated from him, of the times lost. But I treasure every moment we had together, because they were our lifetime.” She sniffed. “And that was all we were allowed; a lifetime.” Sebastian couldn’t look at her or he was afraid he might start crying himself. “Take this from someone who took the long route to becoming human: Don’t be afraid to love. The loss can never compare to what you’ve gained.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han turned gradually as the shouting continued. He'd heard the cantina here in Mos Eisley had mellowed out over twenty years, that it was more of a tourist attraction thanks to him and Luke. The psycho with the blaster obviously wasn't up on current events.

It was all pretty cut and dried from the guy’s rambling. Apparently he needed a ship to take him into Vong space, try to rescue his sister or his girlfriend or someone from one of the occupied planets. Stupid idea, and plainly obvious to all the bush pilots, mercenaries, and smugglers he'd tried to hire to do the job. Obviously he's gotten a little desperate, given the two blaster shots he'd put in the wall trying to shoot his latest contact. At the moment, Han was the only one not hiding behind a piece of furniture. "All right!" the gunman shouted. "Now we've got a problem! Nobody's getting out of here until I have a pilot with a ship that can take me to Gridal, and if no one steps forward, some of you aren't getting out of here ever!"

Wuher, who even after a quarter century stuck to his establishment and, even more so, its no blaster policy that had failed in this one instance, whispered to Han from behind the bar. "Why don't you do something?" he asked. "You're Corellian."

"He's not a Corellian," Han mumbled into his glass. "Alderaan native; you can tell by the accent."

"Accent?!"

"Live with that accent for long enough you'll recognize it in a thunderstorm," Han said.

"Nobody move!" the Alderaanian said, firing several shots at an upturned table. He stepped over and sealed the exits to slow down the stormtroopers that were no doubt on their way. "We can solve this real simple," he continued. "Just one person with one ship, that's all."

"You're out of your kriffing mind!" someone shouted. "That's Vong space you're talking about. There's not enough money in the galaxy to make anyone fly there with anything short of a star destroyer."

"Then maybe you value your hide more than all the money in the galaxy," he shouted, firing in the direction of the critic.

Han didn't slide off the stool so much as ooze off. His movements were slow, but smooth, as if every one had been planned to the last detail, but that he wasn't in a hurry. The Alderaanian pointed the blaster at him, "That goes for you too, old man." Han didn't stop, didn't show any sign that he'd heard anything as he straightened up. He walked towards the man with the gun, slowly, but somehow a looming presence. "I said nobody move!" the Alderaanian shouted, but Han just continued his slow walk across the Cantina. A look of surprise crossed the gunman's face. "You're... you're him..." Han said nothing, and the man pointed the gun at Han's chest. "I don't care who you are! I'll blow you away too!" Han wore a face that was every sabacc player's dream. "I'll kill you! Skywalker died, everybody dies, don't think some rep is going to save you!"

Han stopped less than a meter away from the muzzle. The gun was visibly shaking in the man's hand, his breathing heavy. "You're crazy..." the man said, his eyes, much like everyone else's, fixed on Han. Han didn't even seem to be breathing. "What do I do?!" he demanded. "Tell me what to do!"

Han's movements had been so slow that, when he finally grabbed the man's hand it was all just a blur. The tip of the blaster was now pointed at the center of Han's head, still in the gunman's hand. Han gripped his wrist so hard the knuckles were white, and when he spoke, it seemed to be emerging from someplace deep and empty. "How far are you prepared to go?"

The Alderaanian jaw trembled. "She's going to die," he finally got out.

"Everybody dies," Han repeated in a cold voice. The gun never budged. "How far?" The gunman started to cry. "HOW FAR?!!"

The gun slipped out of his hand, and Han released his grip on the wrist. Someone unlocked the door and a stormtrooper took the Alderaanian by the arm and escorted him out as Han returned to his stool. "That wasn’t what I had in mind," Wuher remarked.

Han took his glass, but he only stared at the contents. "He was willing to go all the way," he said to himself. "Loved her that much, wouldn't let anything stand in the way. He didn't know he'd have to kill..."

"He brought a blaster," Wuher said.

Han finished the glass, then stared at it. "I couldn't bring myself to forgive him for that. Spent most of my life hating him.... kriffing waste." He looked up slowly as a familiar presence slid up to the bar next to him. "Ice water," he said before a word was spoken, "with a twist."

"Thanks," Annika said, taking the drink from Wuher. She didn't bring it up; she didn't have to.

"It wasn't my place to be there," Han said finally.

She took a drink. "He would've wanted you there."

"I'm sorry," he said. "Wish I hadn't seen it too late." He shook his head. "I should've told him I forgive him."

Annika put the glass down on the bar; he could see she was trembling, but whether it was grief or her condition he couldn't say. "He didn't want forgiveness," she said finally. "If you'd tried killing Sebastian he never would've forgiven you either." She sniffed, and despite himself Han put an arm around her. "He didn't want to be forgiven... he just wanted to be your brother again."
--------------------------------------------------------------

After dropping his mother off, Sebastian returned to the grave. He didn't know what he expected to find... this was only a marker after all, not his father's resting place. He still found it hard to believe that someone was strong enough to beat him. And if they were still out there, could anyone stop them?

"They're going to take it all away from you, Sebastian." It had already started. He'd missed the chance to say goodbye. He missed the opportunity to admit his failings to his father, and to say that he understood now why he was so protective, and why he felt so obligated. He thought he'd have the time... but time runs out eventually. Alderaan, Cardassia, Coruscant, Bastion, they probably thought they had time too.

"They're going to take it all away from you, Sebastian."

He had no idea how much he'd miss the old man until he was gone. He would've thought that martyrdom would've made a difference somehow, that it wasn't in vain. But his father was gone from him forever, and in light of that fact all the ideals and philosophical considerations fell before the dull ache inside. How many more was he going to lose before this war was over?

"They're going to take it all away from you, Sebastian."

Sebastian felt the Borg long before he arrived. He was the way the rest appeared these days, their long featureless robes hid their implant from the eyes of those who might seek revenge for sins committed a lifetime before. "When you weren't at the rendezvous, I thought I'd find you here," he said plainly. Sebastian said nothing in reply. "The transport is ready. The Queen is waiting for you at our facility. When you've arrived we'll deliver the antidote to your mother as agreed."

It's like dying in a way, Sebastian thought. No more heartache or tears, no more worrying, no more loss. No more nightmares about the Vong. No more fears about the uncaring thing called Destiny that has overshadowed him all his life. And like the desperate man that he was, this was his last way out.

No, not the last. Just the easiest. Just like death, it would be taking the easy way out. "I'm not going," he said finally.

This didn't seem to surprise the Borg. "There's nothing to fear-"

"It's not fear," he said. "I have unfinished business to take care of."

"When our work is complete you can destroy the Vong-"

"It has nothing to do with the Vong," Sebastian said quietly. "I will not let the future be dictated to me any more."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jorri didn't seem surprised to see him when she opened the door. "Need someone to talk to?" she asked as she hugged him again. She was staying with her parents for the moment until she returned to her post back in the Milky Way.

"Undoubtedly." She offered him a chair as she half-lounged on her bed. Her parents hadn't changed a thing, much like Sebastian's own room was.

"You miss him?" she asked.

He sighed. "More than I would have ever imagined." There was a pain in his right leg, and he realized it was because he was digging his fingernails into it. "One hour. Just give me back one hour with him, and I'll give up anything."

"I wish I could help, somehow," Jorri said.

Sebastian nodded hollowly. "I'm not joining the Borg, not after this." He could sense she was both relieved and confused. "I'm not going to be intimidated by prophets." They're going to take it all aw- "I don't care about that any more. I'm tired of being afraid all the time."

"Sebastian," Jorri said with a look of concern, "what are you talking about?"
--------------------------------------------------------------

He was obviously in conflict about something, and Jorri wasn't sure what she could do to help. "Do you remember when I used to stay with your family when I was real little?" Sebastian said. Jorri nodded. "Mom and dad would have something to do, some big responsibility to the Empire, and they would have to leave me with you." He closed his eyes and looked away. "I was a kid," he said, "I didn't understand."

"I remember," Jorri said. She remembered all too well, despite how young she had been. Sebastian would be standing at the entrance to the shelter, watching the speeder leave, screaming. "Go away! I don't want you!"

"For as long as I can remember," Sebastian continued, "I felt the truth of what I have been told. I dreamed of a future where everyone had been taken away... standing alone in the mud while the rain fell around me, knowing they were all gone. And I... I was so afraid. And then they would leave me behind, and I would think it was finally happening. So I tried to tell myself that that's what I wanted. And then my father told me that he was leaving, and maybe he was never coming back."

"Back in the hospital," Jorri said.

Sebastian nodded. "And I wanted to scream and yell for him to get out of there, to go away and never come back. But what came out was what I had really been saying the whole time." He finally looked up into her face. "'Please don't go away.'"

Jorri's throat was tightening. She didn't want to be there, but it was what she had to hear. "Sebastian, I-" She couldn't think of what to say.

"My father's dead," Sebastian said. "And all the chances we had to be together were lost because I kept telling him to leave. Maybe it's all true and I'll lose everyone, even you, but I'd rather feel the void of your absence than the regret of never making you part of my life."

Jorri broke his eye contact and wiped away at her eyes. "It's not going to work," she said. "It's going to be someone else you want, not me. Whatever I feel, that's not going to change."

"Maybe it won't," Sebastian said, "but I don't care any more. All my life I've lived with the future in mind, and I'm sick of it. I'm not going to let the shadow of destiny stop me from loving people." He offered his hand. "I'm going to follow my heart from now on. I'm asking if you want to come along for the ride."

She embraced him and squeezed her eyes shut to hold her tears in. "You're making this so hard, Bastian," she whispered.

"Just say you don't love me," Sebastian said, "and I'll never bring it up again."

She thought about Chris, and how faithful he'd been to her, how kind, how much joy he'd brought her... but the truth was, as horrible a person as it made her feel, he was always just first runner-up, always the person who took the place of the man she could never let herself forget, even though she knew she wouldn’t ever have him. She sobbed quietly. "It's so unfair." She couldn't contain herself. "Why are you doing this to me?"

"I'm sorry," Sebastian said, "and it is unfair."

"Please, just go."

Sebastian said nothing as he let go and stood up, not looking at her. He turned and walked towards the door. Jorri looked up at him as he opened the door, then he stopped.

"Get out of here!" she shouted. "Don't do this to me! Get out of my life!"
--------------------------------------------------------------

Without another word Sebastian stepped out into the warmth of Tatooine. Twilight was approaching. He walked away, watching the twin suns slowly drop towards the horizon. They followed the paths laid out for them without question. But then again, they had each other.

Perhaps it had been foolishness, but it was his mistake, and he'd live with it. He wasn't going to try to escape any more; he was going to trust his judgment and let things happen like anyone else. If that wasn't good enough for the universe, than it could find someone else to do this job.

He'd been so busy watching the sky he never felt her approach until she took his hand. He turned to look at her, her face stunning in the low light of sunset. He didn't resist as she leaned up and kissed him. He found it hard to breathe when it ended. "I thought you wanted me out of your life," he said weakly.

She smiled a little. "Don't you know what I was really saying?" Then she mouthed two little words, and kissed him again.

"Come back."



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Part XXXI


Annika Skywalker noticed Anakin jump when she opened her eyes. "Enjoying the show?" she asked in a stern voice.

"I'm sorry," he stammered, and Annika couldn't keep up the facade.

"Never seen someone regenerate before?" she asked with a smile as she stepped away from the makeshift alcove Leia had built here. The room was small, an addition made at no doubt great expense to the Imperial citizenry, but when you spread it out over a few million billion, it probably wasn't that big of a deal. It looked like Anakin was just helping move some of her personal effects in and got a little distracted.

"No," he said. He still seemed kind of nervous. "Do a lot of people do it?"

"To my knowledge, I'm the only one," Annika said. She did a cursory inspection, but it looked like everything was here. "Doesn't bother you, I hope."

"Course not," Anakin said, but there's something about the way he said it that implied it did.

Annika popped the top off the container and began pulling out a few things she'd need for right now. "Look, let's get one thing clear. Your father is no longer the only person in the house who can't read thoughts, so tell me what's on your mind."

"Nothing," Anakin protested.

"The Force," Annika said, "has got nothing on motherhood. Something's bothering you, and if I'm staying with you we should probably get this out in the open now."

"I said-"

"It's me, isn't it," she said. "I'm a reminder you don't need, right?"

Anakin tried to keep a poker face, but he didn't have the practice. "Anything else you need?" he asked shortly.

"No," she said as kindly as she could. He left without another word. Shaking her head, she started pulling things out of the container and placing them around the room. She paused as she pulled out the old wedding holo. Leia had collected all their things from Starbase 213 and sent it to Tatooine before the looters got ahold of them, but some things Annika had never bothered to unpack. She turned it on and looked at the two of them, arm in arm, smiling. She looked so beautiful in that dress, so young and strong, and he was everything any woman could want as far as Annika was concerned, yet standing with a look like he was the luckiest man in the galaxy...

"Anything wrong?" Leia asked, and it was then that Annika realized she'd been crying.

Annika swallowed as she tried putting on a tough face. "Peachy keen," she remarked, putting the hologram on the shelf. "Think I spooked Anakin."

"He doesn't mean anything," Leia said.

"I know, and it doesn't bother me. It may be bothering him though." She pulled out a pile of clothes. "He caught me regenerating."

Leia just shook her head as she leaned against the wall in exhaustion. "Jedi or not, he's still just a kid. How did you cope with being cybernetic?"

"I had a mental breakdown that drove me into a catatonic state," she replied. "But I'm feeling much better now." She dropped the clothes into a drawer. "You were with Luke after he lost his own hand," she said, "you've got to have some experience in this area."

"It's the stress of the moment," Leia said. "Luke had a thousand things going on then, from trying to find where Boba Fett had taken Han to finishing his training as a Jedi. Anakin's cooped up here with the rest of us; he's got nothing else to think about."

"Maybe he needs something to do-"

"No," Leia said sternly. "We agreed that until we know more about what happened, we were going to keep the Jedi in one place. It's bad enough Sebastian's not here-"

"We also agreed not to discuss that," Annika said sharply.

Leia stopped. "Yes, we did. If you're comfortable with that, then I'm-"

"I'm not comfortable with having my son walking around the galaxy with a target painted on his back," Annika said. "But he said he's not going to let that stuff affect his life any more. He's waited years to try to patch things up with Jorri, and he doesn't care if a Sith is gunning for him, he's not going to lose her."

"I know," Leia said. She reached in and started helping unpack the clothes. "You planning on wearing this any time soon?" she asked as she held up a tight red number.

"Why, you wanna borrow it?"

"As what, a mitten?"

Annika had a good laugh. "Look, I don't pretend to understand the Jedi, which is pretty kriffing irritating when you're in the minority, but doesn't it seem dangerous with all four of you staying here. One well-placed bomb-"

"It's a Sith we're worried about," Leia said. "They don't work that way."

"You willing to bet on that?"

"Look, he could have taken Anakin hostage against Luke, forced him to disarm, and killed him outright. But he didn't, because that's not the way this game is played. It doesn't make sense to you because you're not a slave to hatred and power." She put the last of the clothes into the drawer.

"So they're stupid."

"Darth Whind drew you into a trap on Vulcan," Leia pointed out. "You never saw it coming."

"Thanks for reminding me," Annika said, smiling at her own expense.

"But they're overconfident; that's their weakness. Why kill us in such a cowardly way if he could take us all out one by one? That's the way they think, which means that if we are here together we can use numbers against him."

"I'll trust your judgment," Annika said finally. The rest could wait, so she followed Leia down to the kitchen to see what concoction Jacen was working on for tonight. They started chatting a little about current events when Han came in. Even from where she sat Annika could smell the grease and sweat, but he didn't say more than five words before he headed into the fresher. Who's he think he's fooling, she thought.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"You going to brood all the way to Romulus?"

Molly O'Brien gave a brief glance to Paul Jellico before looking back at the controls. "Your mind's already made up," she said. "Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"No, but your personal feelings should have no bearing-"

"My personal feelings were that we never hook up with the Cardies in the first place," she said. "And it looks like I was right on that count, wasn't I?"

"We gained a lot during our time with Garak," he remarked.

"And how much did he gain from us?" Molly demanded. "How many people died furthering Garak's ambition rather than the Rebellion?"

"And how many people were saved because of intelligence his forces gathered?"

"If what they did was so great, why'd you break off our ties?"

"Molly-"

"You want to rationalize away our involvement of that so it you can go ahead with this plan of yours with a clear conscience. Well I'm sorry, Paul, but this is a bad idea, and you ought to know it."

"The Romulans proved invaluable allies during the days of the Alliance," Paul observed.

"You're not talking Romulans, you're talking Tal Shiar. I'm not sure I want to deal with things that terrify Romulans."

"The Tal Shiar has the connections we need-"

"And are going to exploit us just like Garak did," Molly interrupted. "You enjoy being used?"

"Dammit, Molly, get your mind out of the past! Here and now we need every ally we can get. We don't have the luxury of choosing our allies based on moral principles, it's about survival."

"The creed of Section 31," Molly said with distaste. "My father probably turns over in his grave every day that I'm hooked up with you."

"Well then decide whether you're going to listen to me or a dead man," Paul said in frustration. Molly shot him a look that could have melted neutronium. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that." Molly's silence said more than words could. "We have only two choices here: accept Imperial domination, or accept that we're not strong enough to do this alone. And there's something else you haven't commented on. What if Garak convinces the Tal Shiar to join him?"

"He's welcome to them," Molly grumbled.

"And thereby ensure that Garak is in control of the strongest resistance faction in the Empire? I know you're smarter than that, Molly." He did a last scan of hyperspace before they returned to normal space near Romulus. "What would your father have said about your plan to kidnap Dr. Sannet?"

"He would have said it was a good plan, provided Romulans weren't involved."

Paul was visibly frustrated but as usual he kept it to himself. He was pretty good at getting things done; even Molly had to admit that. But sometimes he seemed a little too naive. The Alpha Quadrant may be a lot smaller now that it's part of the Empire, but being neighbors doesn't mean you're friends. Most of the current members of the Tal Shiar actively worked to destroy the Federation, and things don't always change so easily. But for now, she'd follow his lead. She just hoped he didn't make the kind of mistake he made with Garak.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han finished tapping the flight plan into the datapad as he climbed the ramp into the Millennium Falcon. Well, not really a plan so much as an excuse to keep the Imperials off his back; if he actually had a plan the last thing he'd do was tell them what it was. He hit the door release for the cockpit; before it was completely open his hand was going for his blaster.

Annika turned and looked at the blaster barrel. "I'm going to assume that was a reflex rather than an eviction notice." She turned back to the co-pilots controls as Han slid the blaster back, his heart pounding in the wake of adrenaline. "The diagnostics have shown a slight problem in the alluvial dampeners, but nothing that can't be taken care of while we're in hyperspace."

"'We?'" Han asked.

"You're going to need a co-pilot," Annika said. "Preferably someone whose not a target for a Sith."

"And I remember the last time I took you along," Han said, getting straight to the point. "There's not a whole lot of hospitals where I'm going."

"I have nanoprobes and the ability to culture more," she said, not looking away from the instruments. "And what I have can't be treated in any hospital anyway."

"Look, you'll only be slowing me down."

Annika stopped and turned to look at him. "Your bravado is really cute, even endearing, but sometimes it makes you a real asshole."

"Sometimes?" Han said with a lopsided grin.

"I know you might feel nervous trying something new, but why not think for once. You have no idea where you're going, and don't lie to me," she added as Han opened his mouth to protest. "You're too sensible to go randomly charging into their territory, but you've no idea where to start. When it comes to detective work, of going into the unknown, I was one of the best, and while a couple of decades may have taken the edge off, I can still outperform anybody else you can find. And let's not forget that you're competing with the Imperial Navy on this, which means if you want even a shot of beating them to the punch, you need every edge you can get-"

"You going to talk this much the entire trip?" Han interrupted.

"Probably," Annika said, getting back to the controls. "We're going to need some pretty high level codes to get clearance for some of the things I have in mind. Perhaps Leia-"

"Already done," Han said. Seven glanced back at him over her shoulder and his grin widened. "I've been at this a while too you know."

"See, I knew we'd make a great team," Annika said. "You going to raise the ramp, or are we going to hold our breath 'til we hit Vong space?" Han waited a moment, the nonchalantly strolled back and raised the ramp. What the hell, he thought, it'll give him someone to talk to.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian could feel the heat-sapping rain penetrating the thick growth above while the smell in the air was a mixture of vegetation and decay. He pulled himself over the undergrowth and noticed a small settlement, a mud hut with an astromech droid keeping watch. As he got closer he noticed the sound of voices, one eerily familiar. It was possessed of frustration and anger that Sebastian had never heard from it before.

"I don't even know what I'm doing here, we're wasting our time!"

Sebastian peered through the window and saw his father, much younger, much more like himself actually, crouched on the floor with an alien. The alien bore an expression of disappointment, and its voice was filled with regret. "I cannot teach him; the boy has no patience."

Master Yoda? This was the one who had trained his father? He'd never have imagined it, but appearances could be deceiving.

"This one, a long time have I watched," Yoda remarked after a brief exchange. "All his life as he looked away, to the future, to the horizon." His tone implied they were cardinal sins. "Never his mind on where he was, hm? What he was doing." He shook his head with mild disgust. "Adventure, heh! Excitement, heh! A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless!"

Sebastian saw the expression on his father's face change from self-confidence to uncertainty. He'd never seen him as anything but the cool, collected man who'd shown bottomless patience to his clowning students. He seemed almost like another person here, brash and headstrong.

"Speak with me, you will," said Master Yoda, and Sebastian suddenly realized he was talking to him. Uncertain, he crouched and crawled through the low entrance into the hut. His father had vanished.

"You can see me," Sebastian remarked.

"Mm," Yoda confirmed, looking him over. "I know why you are here."

Sebastian wasn't certain what to say. He'd been meditating for weeks hoping to get some kind of an answer, but now, it seemed as if he'd forgotten all the questions. "My father's dead," he finally remarked. That seemed to say everything.

"Left you his burden, he did," Yoda remarked with a nod. "And you are not ready."

"I can't do it!" Sebastian practically burst. "I'm not strong like he was."

"You are not ready," Yoda repeated, "yet." He put a reassuring claw on Sebastian's shoulder. "See you did not. Unready was your father when he rushed off to confront Vader. Unready for the burden of his father's failure."

Sebastian looked into his face, and there was surprising tenderness there. He shook his head. "He moved a moon-"

"With the knowledge of the Jedi and the Force as his ally," Yoda said strongly. "Think you it was through love of power? That was a test your father had already failed, a temptation he could not resist. Learned, he did, from his failure. Learned nothing from it, have you?"

"I know, but..." Sebastian couldn't find the words to say.

Yoda sighed. "You have I watched as well. Arrogant yet timid. Take after your mother you do."

"Thanks a lot," Sebastian mumbled.

"Face her temptations you do. Escape your guilt... your fear... your pain."

The words stung. "I've resisted that."

"Temptations never end," Yoda said.

"I have resisted the dark side," Sebastian said strongly. "When the Vong had me, I never gave in, not once!"

Yoda nodded. "Controlled your anger, you did. Controlled your fear, you did not."

Sebastian wanted to put his fist through the mud ceiling in frustration. "If you knew what they did-"

"The price of being a Jedi is the weight of our burden. Sometimes we cannot carry it, but still it is ours." He poked Sebastian in the chest with his cane. "Your father heard, but listen, he did not. So afraid to lose her, yet in the end, what did he give her? Pain... terrible suffering; felt you how his failure harmed her."

Sebastian swallowed and nodded. His mother's pain during those weeks he'd been there had been so terrible.

"Selfishness and jealousy, Sebastian; insidious they are. Grow into fear, they do." He put his hand on Sebastian's shoulder. "Your fear is your enemy. If you surrender to it, you too will become an agent of evil."

The remark triggered a memory. "The Sith. Who is he? Where did he come from?"

Yoda sighed. "Another who failed. Lusted for power, and now become an unwitting slave to darkness."

"Where is he?" Sebastian asked. "Where can I find him?"

Yoda grabbed his shoulders and looked straight into his eyes. "You are not ready," he repeated firmly.

"Ready or not, he killed my father," Sebastian said hotly. "I can't let him get away with that."

"And make you the same mistakes your father did," Yoda said with a shake of his head. "He was unready for the burden. Why believe you that you are?"

"So what's the point," Sebastian asked as he threw up his hands in defeat. "Why bother telling me anything?"

"More patience than your father you have," Yoda said. "But much to learn you still have."

The lights were low as Sebastian opened his eyes. Jorri was quietly filling out her report on the day's flight. He pulled himself to his feet and crossed over to her, embracing her from behind and kissing her neck before burying his face in her hair. "How was your day?" he asked.

"Usual," she said indifferently. "How was yours?"

"I don't know."

She nodded a little. "Did you find any answers?"

He slid down and kissed her neck again. "Yeah, but I'm not really sure I like them." She put down the datapad, then stood up and turned around, embracing him back. In the low light of the room their lips found each other, and for the first time in a while, the memory of his fate was silent.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"We're at lightspeed," Annika remarked as she exited the cockpit. Han was pulling tools out of the chest to get to work on the alluvial dampeners. "Need a hand?"

"Ever worked with one of these?" he asked, pulling out the tool.

"Hydrospanner?" Annika took it delicately, then spun it between her fingers like a baton. "I think I can manage. Give me a boost?" Han interlaced his fingers and she stepped into the makeshift step and grabbed the edge of the overhead access shaft.

"So," Han asked as Annika pulled herself up into the shaft, "how'd you know I was leaving?"

"Two parts deductive reasoning to one part experience," she said between grunts. "You were obviously getting the ship prepped for launch, so it was simple to figure out what you had in mind."

"I could've been going to see Lando for all you know," Han said.

"And leave your family undefended?" She made a noise of disapproval before he heard the sound of the hydrospanner. "No chance."

"They're all Jedi," he pointed out.

"Doesn't matter." Annika popped her head out of the opening and handed back the hydrospanner. He took it and passed up the electron torch. "You don't let that affect your thinking the same way I don't."

"What good could I do out here?"

Annika propped herself up on one elbow. "Again, it doesn't matter. They hurt your boy." She took a deep breath through her nose. "I know exactly what I would do in your position, believe me." She fitted the shield over her face. "Find the bastards who did it, make sure they'll never do it again."

"And is that why you're here?" he asked.

"Partially." Han heard the crackle of the torch. "And I'm tired of spending this one warming the bench. Sebastian's got his own concerns now with Jorri, and-" she trailed off for a moment. "I can either sit around and wait to die, or I can spend what time I have left for some constructive purpose." She swung her legs over the edge, and Han grabbed her waist as she slid down to the deck.

"Never known you to be defeatist," Han said as she dropped the torch into the tool chest.

"Recent events have made my mortality a little hard to ignore." She half-shrugged. "I may have gotten around, but I haven't really been around. I went from child to Borg drone to officer to wife and mother... without Luke, Sebastian, a Federation, or even a Collective, I've kind of found myself wondering what to do with my life. Maybe this disease is really a blessing."

"Never known you to be self-pitying either," Han observed. She gave him a playful shove that nearly knocked him over. "Face it, Annika, we've both seen too much dying to treat life that cheap."

Annika smirked at him. "You've got less tact than Luke did, but you do know what he'd have said." She grabbed the tool chest and stowed it in the storage locker while Han checked the diagnostic reading. He wished he'd had something like this back in Anoat with half the Imperial fleet on his tail and no hyperdrive. "Within tolerances by eight percent?" Annika asked.

"Nine percent," Han said.

"Oo, exceeding projections," she said as she closed the door, "the girl still has it."

"I'm going to alter course," Han said. It wasn't likely that anyone was following them, but those old habits had kept him alive this long.

"041 Mark 21," Seven said.

"Nope, 231 Mark 8," Han said, heading towards the cockpit.

"Han, that takes us to the wormhole."

"I told you, we're going to see Lando." He stopped and gave her a knowing grin. "So much for deductive reasoning."



Chuck

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Part XXXII


“Your sidearm.”

Han Solo froze in his tracks. “He’s my guard,” Annika said before Han said anything to upset the security officer. After the three days it took to get here, there was no sense getting tossed off the station in the first five minutes.

“Is that so, ambassador?”

“Yes. I’m here on a fact-finding mission for the Emperor. We have full diplomatic rights during our stay, which includes the necessity of an armed guard.”

The guard took a look at Han that made the ex-smuggler even more irritated. “This is your guard?”

“He’s undercover.”

Now it was the guard’s turn to look annoyed. “Please don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot. I know who you both are and I’m not interested in any more stories. That your security codes check out is the only reason you’re being let on the station at all, but you will relinquish your weapons for the duration of your stay.... ambassador.”

Fuming Han pulled out his blaster and handed it over; Annika did the same. The airlock opened and they stepped aboard what was once Deep Space 13. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

“If you’re asking how I feel, I’m fine. If you’re asking if I can whip up a plasma discharger in a pinch, probably not without ending up in a hospital.”

“We’ll just have to make due under the circumstances.” The two climbed down the stairs towards the promenade.

“Think we were a special case?” Annika asked.

“It’s not standard procedure for Imperial stations,” Han said, “but out here on the edge...”

“Out here where Garak runs business, you mean,” Annika said.

“Maybe. But I’ll bet even money this is Lando’s doing. He’s probably got the whole station working for him.”

“The power of the Imperial credit.”

“Credits, blackmail, favors... most everybody’s can be persuaded to turn a blind eye or lend a helping hand with the right prod.”

“You think so?”

“Why else would he run his business from the station instead of Bajor? He’s... oh my God.” Annika noticed it too, a man dressed in black with a brownish sash and primitive body armor. Tucked under his arm was a bizarre helmet with a faceplate that covered below the nose and a pair of odd tusks. Even for someone with a memory like Annika’s it took a moment to recognize Dr. Julian Bashir in the odd outfit.

“I had an appointment for the Tamtel Skreej program at 1400,” Bashir said with irritation to Quark. “It’s now 1445.”

“It’s a popular program,” Quark said. “Taking on an army of bounty hunters is fun for the whole family.”

“But I want to win this time!” Bashir said. “I can rescue Solo and the princess and get out alive. I’ve got it all worked out.”

“You’re starting to obsess.”

“I’m not obsessed,” he snapped. He took a drink, glanced over at Han as he stepped up to the bar, and promptly spit the contents all over the bar. “Oh... my... Quark, that wasn’t funny.”

“Indeed,” Quark said, pulling out a rag and mopping up the bar.

“I need to speak with Lando Calrissian,” Han said to Quark in a voice just quiet enough to get past most people.

“He’s out. You want to make an appointment?”

“I just need a few minutes to ask him about some things. Just for old times sake.”

Dr. Bashir started to realize what was happening. “You’re not a hologram are you.”

“’Fraid not,” Han said. Han took a look at Annika out of the corner of his eye. She was over at the Dabo table, blending in as best she could.

“I’m sorry,” Bashir said. “It’s just, the simulation, I thought-“

“You thought what?”

“Bashir’s been trying to rescue you in the holosuite for the past week,” Quark said.

For once Han’s face betrayed his confusion. “What?”

“The Calrissian holotale line,” Quark said. “You haven’t heard of it? Battle of Teneb, Cloud City Escape, Tonnika Sisters...”

“This is a holonovel?”

“Very popular. People love the chance to participate in the acts of heroism Calrissian participated in.”

Han shook his head. “Of all the narcissistic...”

“Well, he did save your life, Mr. Solo,” Bashir observed.

“He was the one who gave me to Jabba in the first place,” Han said. “Or is that not in your fairy tale?”

“But what about the skiff.”

Han took a sip from the drink Quark offered. “What about the skiff?”

“You know. When you fell over the edge, dangling beneath it, and Calrissian had to pull you back on board before the Sarlaac got you.” Han slammed his glass down. “It’s understandable. You were still blind at the time.”

Han just shook his head. “History just ain’t sacred any more.”

“Dr. Bashir,” Quark said, “Suite two is available and queued up.”

Han watched him put on the helmet and climb the stairs. Annika slipped away from the table and followed him. Once Han saw she was on him he returned to his drink, still shaking his head. “Next they’ll say I waited until Greedo shot at me before I blasted him.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Goo nee tay!”

Jazzy music started playing from on odd assortment of instruments as the lead dancer stepped up and began performing. The room instantly turned into a virtual orgy of self-indulgence as drinks were served and various creatures moved in the ways their anatomy determined were most provocative. Tamtel Skreej took his position, watching for things he might be able to use against them later, any weakness that could get him closer to removing Jabba’s favorite decoration permanently. He watched as the dancing girl was killed for Jabba’s amusement, then the arrival of his ally, disguised as Boussh.

But why was she taking her helmet off?

“Fifty thousand,” Annika said, “no less.”

“Freeze program,” Dr. Bashir said. “What the hell are... Ms. Hansen?”

“Skywalker,” Annika said. “And it’s Annika. It’s been a while, doctor.”

Bashir’s face split into a grin and he couldn’t help but shake her hand. “My star patient. I had no idea you were here on the station.”

“Well, it wasn’t something I could advertise,” she said, unzipping the costume to reveal her jumpsuit underneath. “I’m here on business, but when I saw what you were doing I couldn’t resist. I actually visited the real palace once back home.”

“Really?”

“I remember it being a little bigger,” she said. “Anyway, I’m sorry for the disruption.”

“Not a problem, Quark owes me anyway. You say you’re here on business?”

“Yes. Say, you’re familiar with the station, perhaps you can help.”

“Ever since they built it,” he said. “What do you need?”

“I’m trying to track down Elim Garak. This seemed the most logical place to start.”

“Actually,” Bashir said, “I don’t think he’s been on the station since his arrest.”

“No, but he’s obviously got a contact here. It’s just a matter of figuring out how his network works.”

“And so you were sent out here to investigate?” Bashir shook his head. “As much trouble as Garak is, I’d think the Empire has a much larger concern at the moment.”

“Well, I’m hoping Garak might actually point me in the direction of Nom Anor.”

“Ah, the Vong boogey man,” Bashir said. “Personally, I think he’s a fairy tale, maybe even Garak’s way of disguising some of his activity.”

“Well I suppose I’ll have to... now that’s one ugly monkey.”

“He looks better than he sounds,” Bashir remarked.

“I find that hard to imagine. Biological distinctiveness is definitely unremarkable.”

Bashir laughed. “A little Borg legacy, I assume?”

Annika bent down a little. “Not everything the Borg did to me was negative. One thing they did leave me with was an analytical nature,” Annika said as she peered closely at Salacious Crumb. “It’s a common misunderstanding that the Borg learn only via assimilation. It’s true that there’s no better way to understand a species than be one with it, but analyzing the data, considering all possibilities and arriving at conclusions, that was our nature.”

“I suppose the Borg are the scientific method taken to its most nightmarish conclusion,” Bashir remarked.

“Yes,” Annika said. Then she straightened up and looked around the rest of the room. “Take this Garak issue, for example. Lando’s obviously connected to him, but not directly; too great a risk. No, they’d need an intermediary to give him plausible deniability.”

“I suppose,” Bashir said. “But surely someone like Quark knows how to pull the wool over the Imperial’s eyes.”

“Yes, but it would be better if that chance not be taken. No, there’s a go-between between Lando and Garak.”

Bashir nodded. “And if you’re right, he could lead you back to Garak. But how do you find him, or her?”

Annika sat on the edge of Jabba’s platform. “That’s where that analytical nature comes in. Who would be willing to act as a go-between with someone like Garak?” She tapped her fingers on the stone. “Someone permanently on the station, so that their comings and goings aren’t recorded. Someone Garak would know well enough to trust. And, of course, someone who had a grudge against the Empire.” She looked up into Bashir’s eyes. “Someone who lost a loved one to an Imperial attack, probably in the destruction of Deep Space Nine. Someone who lost his friend because of a pointless attack in the Demilitarized Zone; a fact compounded because his medical knowledge won’t let him forget how much the bio-weapon made his friend suffer in his final moments.”

Dr. Bashir broke the stare and walked over to where the frozen form of Han Solo hung on the wall. “Someone who in a moment of anger made a choice he’s now having second thoughts over.” She could see the change in his posture. He could have easily denied it, but instead it seemed almost a relief that the deception was over. “What convinced you it was me?”

“Personal experience,” Annika said. “You’re too fine a physician to stay out here unless you felt an obligation.”

Bashir never turned around, but Annika could practically sense the emotions rumbling beneath the surface. “Had it not been for the Empire, you never would have met Luke Skywalker on the Death Star,” he said finally. “And if it hadn’t been for their capture of Picard and Anansi’s intervention, you’d never have wound up in my sick bay, and never would have been restored to your full self. And when the galaxy was overrun, you received a full Imperial pardon.” He turned back around to face her. “Your life was forever altered by their arrival, but not everyone was as lucky as you were.”

“Things haven’t been the best-“ Annika began, but Dr. Bashir suddenly seemed to burst.

“The Emperor never asked to show up at Ezri’s funeral! He expressed no concern at the loss of DS9 and all my friends! His spies caused my best friend to suffer and die in a way no one deserves!” As he stepped closer the old physician seemed to radiate hatred. “The Empire forced itself into every aspect of my life, bombarding my homeworld, overrunning my station, eliminating my Federation! They did everything to destroy me short of killing me!” And then, the pressure having found release, he withdrew again into the quiet man she’d remembered. “I suppose you of all people might be able to understand living when everything you loved was taken away.”

Annika recalled standing before the Borg Queen so many years ago as she tried to draw her back into the Collective. In that moment the sum of all her hatred for them at what they’d taken from her was released, and from it she destroyed the entirety of it. But not everyone could purge themselves of their demons that way, and she could understand at least why Bashir would consider the unthinkable. “You said you’re having second thoughts?”

He half-smiled. “Why else all the escapism? What’s life outside the six planes that comprise this room? I have my alliance with a murderer on one side, and my most hated enemy on the other. In here,” he ran his finger along the edge of Jabba’s throne, “it’s simple. I’m Tamtel Skreej, plotting to destroy a bloated gangster and his network of cronies so that I can save my friend. It’s a Herculean task, but I know my place in it.”

“You’re a doctor,” Annika said.

Bashir smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Not any more.” He sighed and stepped back. “I’m one of them now,” he said with a gesture towards the frozen masses in Jabba’s court. “A toady. A spoke in the wheel of a criminal empire, with no more free will than this vibro-axe.”

“I can’t accept that,” Annika said coming over. “You’re a good man who’s made some bad choices. This can end.”

“No, it can’t,” Bashir said before she could continue. “You don’t understand. Garak’s too clever, nothing leads back to him. If I try, my final contribution to medicine will be as an Imperial lab rat.”

“I can get you immunity,” Annika said. “The Emperor-“

“The Emperor?” Bashir looked at her as if she were insane. “I wouldn’t take a glass of water from him if I were stranded on a desert isle. You don’t understand, it’s not that there’s a lesser of two evils, it’s that both are so deeply mired in their darkness I can’t justify aiding either. It’s a no-win scenario, Annika.”

Annika could see there was no convincing him, despite his admission. She sighed, then walked over to examine the image of her traveling companion. “Are you going to turn me in?” Bashir asked.

“You saved my life,” she replied. “I can’t betray your trust, but I still urge you to reconsider your hate, hard though it may be.”

The room echoed with the sound of the vibro-axe tapping against the stone floor. The seconds drew on as neither spoke, but Annika heard Bashir stepping up behind her. “B’Elanna Torres.” Annika turned around. “She delivered your son to Nom Anor in a neat little package.”

The remark was so casual it took time to sink in. As it did a look of uncertain disbelief spread across her face until finally she shook her head. “No, B’Elanna wouldn’t do that.”

If Bashir took any pleasure at informing her of the news, he had the decency not to even hint at it. “I’m not the only one with cause to hate the Empire,” he whispered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Quark placed a glass in front of Han as Lando took a seat. He didn’t touch it. “You know, the babe in the woods act really doesn’t go with your reputation.”

“What are you talking about,” Lando asked, taking a drink of his own. For anyone watching, there might as well have been a sabacc pot the size of a small Jawa on the table. Each man showed only as much as he wanted the other to see.

“The Attorney General’s been trying to connect you to Garak for years,” Han said, “but every time something starts to make a connection, something happens. Witnesses vanish, change their minds, electronic trails wind up leading nowhere.”

“And what makes you so interested in the political aspirations of a minor functionary of our little corner of the galaxy?” Lando asked. “You been recruited by the A.G.?”

“I don’t work for the Empire,” Han said in a low voice that betrayed a hint of an insult.

“Not even for Leia’s boss?” Lando took another sip, his eyes never leaving Han. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that? You drag me into this rebellion by bringing the Empire right to my doorstep, only to jump ship and buddy up with the prince of darkness himself. Am I with Garak? Yeah, I’m with anybody who stands against what the Empire did in the DMZ.”

“And you’re still willing to sell them fighters.” Han let the implication hang over the table. “Bombs with wings? Gonna seize up at just the right time to let the Hirogens wipe them out?”

“You finished?” Lando asked with a look of impatience.

“Sure is convenient that Sienar went belly up. Even with a superior ship and better price, defeating an incumbent on a military contract is an uphill battle all the way. You had a lot riding on that.”

For the first time Lando broke eye contact. “We took care of Sienar’s people,” he said as he took another drink.

“Yeah, you took care of them all right.”

There was a loud thud as Lando brought the glass down on the table. A bit of anger showed through the cracks. “My friends killed thousands against my wishes. Yours killed millions. Who’s the more guilty party?”

Han leaned forward and his voice was barely above a whisper. “Thing is, buddy, those people dying didn’t fill my bank account.” He took the glass, then slowly slid it off to one side, keeping his eyes on Lando. “Real nice set-up you’ve got here; lining the pockets of the local authorities to keep your operations running smoothly. Wonder what Kira would think-“ He was cut off as Lando’s fist connected with his jaw.

Lando stood up and straightened his suit as the room was filled with a suddenly silence. “Get the hell out of my bar,” he said in a low voice. He looked up at the sound of Annika’s heels clicking on the floorplates. “And take your Borg with you.”

Han pulled himself up off the floor, still keeping his eyes on Lando. “Annika,” he said, but she ignored him. He was about to call her name again when things took a turn for the worse. In a single motion she grabbed B’Elanna Torres right out of her chair and tossed her up against a wall. He saw Lando going for a hold-out blaster and tackled him. He held him down as he heard the sound of the weapon skittering out of sight. And people think I’m the hot-tempered one, he thought.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Why’d you do it?!” Annika demanded, her arm pushed into B’Elanna's throat. “He was just a boy!”

“I... don’t know... wha...” She was having a hard time speaking with the pressure on her larynx.

“Annika!” Han yelled again, but she ignored him.

“Do you have any idea what they did to him?” she growled.

“It... wa-wasn’t... per-sonal...”

“He was my son!” Annika shouted. “It doesn’t get any more personal!”

The next thing Annika knew she was airborne. She hit the opposite wall so hard she left a dent, then collapsed onto the floor. She started to pull herself back up, wondering what happened. B’Elanna was half Klingon, but there was no way she had the strength to toss someone of her mass like that.

“Aw kriff,” she heard Han mutter from nearby, and for a moment she thought security must have arrived, but as she got to her feet she saw him and Lando both staring with the same look of dread.

“She’s a damn changling,” Lando remarked, but Annika took one look at B’Elanna and wished he’d been right.

“No,” she said as B’Elanna’s body contorted to the sound of cracking bones and tearing flesh, “something much worse.”



Chuck

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Location: Gotham City
Part XXXIII


Ben Skywalker didn’t emerge from the holosuite so much as erupt. His tunic clung to his body with sweat, and his breathing was quickened just a little, but his face bore nothing but malice. “Can’t your puppets do better than that?” he demanded. “I have faced Noghri kittens more challenging than these things.”

Janeway didn’t pause in her work. “I have limited computer resources to devote to the holographic systems. I’m afraid you’ll have to make due until Garak can get something more powerful.” She continued entering data as he started to storm off. “I wouldn’t advise that.”

“Do you think you can stop me?” he asked over his shoulder as he continued.

“You’re free to do whatever you like, it’s little concern to me,” she said, not even looking at him. “I’m a scientist, not a babysitter.”

Ben drew to a halt. “What did you say?” he asked without turning around; his voice carried all the menace that was required.

“I didn’t ask to be in charge of you, it was thrust upon me by the Von-“ She stopped as she was pushed against the wall, his hand around her throat. It had been a ten meter sprint, but then, he was quick.

“No one is in charge of me,” he said, every syllable implying a threat greater than the previous. “You and Garak serve me. That I allow you some freedom does not change that fact. You live so long as I deem your existence useful to me.”

“Of course.” Ben pulled her off the wall and slammed her into it again. “You wished me to disagree?”

“Don’t speak to me like I’m a child, witch,” he warned. “I’ve killed more Jedi in one battle than you have ever known. I’ve bent the mighty to my will on a thousand worlds.” He let her go and paced around the room like a caged tiger. “And look at me now, LOOK AT ME! Living in a cave in the armpit of the universe aligned with a deci-cred level criminal and a crazy old witch. Before your idiocy snatched me from my dimension I was poised to usurp total control of the galaxy, an entire GALAXY! Can you understand what has been taken from me?!”

“I can imagine,” she said softly, but before he could protest she continued. “What might have been, what should have been. That’s what all these tools around us are about. You should have become emperor of the galaxy; and with the extermination of the Jedi there would be none to oppose your grip upon all systems within your vision.” He seemed a bit calmer as she stepped forward. “Admiral Katherine Janeway,” she said slowly. “A high level officer in one of the finest navies in the quadrant, the flagship at my beck and call.... it’s nothing compared to your glory, but then, I’m no Sith.” He seemed a bit confused as she gently took hold of his arms. “I can help make both our dreams a reality. Together we can-“

Ben pushed her away, his anger returning. “I don’t need you,” he said through his teeth. “You serve me like that shuttle, but you are just as replaceable to me. Attempt to speak to me as an equal again and-“

“You’ll what? Kill me?” His face was overcome with murderous rage at the interruption. “Fine. It seems your patience didn’t make the jump to this universe with your body, or are you just missing your old friend Sylus.” There was a flicker of confusion at the name. “Do you think I’ve been trying to stroke your ego? I know your dimension, its every detail inscribed right here,” she tapped the side of her head. “The way you betrayed Jaina, thinking nobody would ever know, that your lie would shield you from your own feelings of cowardice.” He ignited his lightsaber, but she didn’t react. “I’m just the mirror, Skywalker. Destroy me if you want but it won’t change the reflection. Your anger may be the source of your strength, but surely even you must look at the reality of the situation. You want a way back; I’m the only one who might find it. If there’s no way back, who else can help you achieve your desires? But you have to exercise good judgment and patience-“

“You have robbed me of the latter witch,” he spat at her, but eventually he shut down the lightsaber. “I will spare you if you can prove yourself useful. Tell me, why should I not do what I’m about to do?”

“A loaded question,” Janeway said. “If I tell you the truth, you’ll kill me anyway. You don’t want to hear it.”

“None of your games!”

She sighed. “Very well. You were off to Chandrilla. You know that the four Jedi are held up together there, and that even you can’t possibly get them all. But you’ll try to ambush the Emperor’s Advisor. You’ll defeat her, but it won’t be quick and the battle will be joined by the three, and against them you will have an even more difficult time. You’ll kill two but the third will cripple you, and you’ll barely escape with your life. Haunted by your failure you’ll launch another foolish attack days later and be destroyed before you even reach the Jedi, a victim of your own ego.”

Ben fumed. “And you would be wrong,” he said finally. “Because I was going to face the half-breed-“

“No, you weren’t,” Janeway said plainly. “You want to, but you can’t bring yourself to do it.”

“And why not?” he scoffed. “Because he’s my ‘brother?’”

“No. There’s no mistaking your hatred for him in particular, but it’s different isn’t it? Confusing? Seeing your father with him and Seven. It was easy to lash out against Luke Skywalker, wasn’t it? He was never there, even in this universe. But to see what could have been.... to wonder deep down in places you don’t like to think are even there what it would be like to have been that boy. To have been cherished as a miracle... to have a mother who’d never dream of doing what was done to you-“ The station closest to Janeway crumpled as Ben reached towards her; she never flinched. “To hate him for having what you never did, but to deep down wish you could have.” Another exploded, showering her with sparks; still she didn’t move. “So you’ll wait. Maybe you’ll make him suffer a little first, then kill him. Maybe you’ll offer him a chance to join you. You’re an unstable element, Skywalker; I can’t discern any more than that. But I do know that if you walk out that door you won’t kill Sebastian.”

Ben reached out and began to Force choke her. Her eyes met his, and Ben paused, because there was no fear in there. The pressure eased off and she took a deep breath. “I live to serve you,” she said, “even if you do not like the manner in which I serve.” Ben backed away a bit, still looking confused. He looked between the exit and Janeway, then after a moment’s thought he stormed across the room into the holosuite, pulling his lightsaber from his belt as he did so. As the doors closed she walked over to the comm unit and encrypted it. “Garak,” she said, “I need some equipment; I’m transferring it with this message. I’m afraid our friend is getting restless.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Something bearing a striking resemblance to James Benson strode purposefully down the passageway of Deck 119. He didn’t ignore the others as they walked by, he just didn’t allow himself to react. He had to blend in; outnumbered the way he was, his anonymity was his sole defense.

The station was empty, but he didn’t falter in the slightest as he walked up and began checking over the readings. Act bored, he told himself, but don’t overdue it. This is monotony for you, dreary routine tasks to perform until they decide you’re not a danger to the ship and can get back to your real assignments. But while he put on the façade, inside he was quivering; it shouldn’t have taken this long. Out of the corner of his eye an astromech droid rolled up and plugged itself into the scomp link. Ignoring it, he continued checking over the readouts and noting them for his report. “I was starting to worry,” he said under his breath.

“This form isn’t built for speed,” the astromech replied in the chirping sound they used. Fortunately one of the preps for the mission was to learn how to understand the language. It was a rather complex addition to his holomatrix along with the other modifications they’d made for this mission. In the long term it would introduce an instability that would cause early degradation, but they didn’t expect to live long enough for that to be a problem. The “real” version of them was back at their homeworld, waiting for the outcome to decide on the next move.

“You holding up all right?” Kyle’s was the worst rewrite, but he was the best slicer they had, and there were few ways to access scomp links without attracting any attention or having someone make small talk with you.

“Managing. We were right, I wasn’t able to access the controls even with Benson’s codes. We’re going to have to go with the alternate plan.”

He nodded, but in such a way that it looked like he was approving of the readouts. “You made the arrangements?”

“Room 127-D132 is now assigned to a new company of stormtroopers,” Kyle responded. “They’ll be arriving as soon as I can wheel this crate over to a turbolift.”

“Be careful,” he warned, then tapped a few notes into a datapad before walking off. Behind him the astromech disconnected and rolled in the opposite direction. Hopefully no one suspected anything yet, but just to be safe he’d better stay away from Deck 127; he was the one under suspicion after all.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han stepped over to Annika’s side as he watched the form of B’Elanna Torres twist and distort. It didn’t flow like a changeling; it seemed to tear itself to the accompaniment of stomach-turning snaps and rips, its flesh breaking loose and rearranging itself. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked. Annika had explained about the corpse Garak had brought Luke during the trip, one of many things she’d told him about Nom Anor and the Vong that wasn’t common knowledge. Annika only nodded dumbly as they watched it, transfixed by awe and disgust.

Quark seemed to be the only one who hadn’t lost his head, probably because no matter the outcome, he’d be none the worse for wear. “Everybody out! Security is on its way!” The spell broken, the mob bolted for the door.

Inside the uncoiling mass of the creature a mouth emerged, lipless and jagged. It let out an odd scream, followed by echoes of terror from the crowd. Han saw two people stagger and fall in response, a Dabo girl and some Bajoran. They held their heads in fear for a moment, until they started to undergo the same kind of metamorphosis. “It’s spreading,” Han said to Annika as he watched the change, trying to think of something.

“No, they were copies all along; they just didn’t know it.” Unfortunately that meant that their escape was cut off.

“My gun’s gone,” Lando said anxiously. “Blast that thing!”

“Sure.” Han pointed at it with his index finger. “Bang.” A blaster bolt scorched the wall, and Han looked at his hand with suspicion for a moment before he saw the stormtroopers responsible. “Never thought I’d be glad to see them,” he remarked as he pushed Annika back into cover.

“Watch the ho-“ Quark said, but as a stray shot hit the panel behind the bar he flickered and vanished.

The two new organisms were a pulsating mass of tendrils and bone, but as the stormtroopers fired they leaped and dodged the shots with eerie precision. Even from Han and Annika's position they could smell the ozone as the bolts filled the air. Han spent his time concentrating on finding another way out; even with the aliens distracted they’d fall to friendly fire if they tried the front entrance.

Suddenly claws erupted from the mass of one of the organisms as it bounced off the floor and leapt onto the head of the lead stormtrooper. He fought to get it off, but a long tail-like extension snaked out of its body, a long claw running along its end. It swung like a whip and passed between the seams of his plastoid armor, severing head from torso. Before anyone could react to the sickening sight creature and head rolled onto the floor. It righted itself and jumped, narrowly escaping blaster fire, still gripping its grisly cargo. After two jumps it tossed it through the air like a champion sports star to the former Torres, who caught it with a snaking tendril. A stalk snapped out of its form and pierced the neck, pulling the trooper’s head out of his helmet; his eyes were still wide with shock at his sudden decapitation.

At first Han thought it was his imagination, but Annika’s muffled scream showed he wasn’t the only one who saw those eyes turn and look at them. “What the hell....” he said slowly.

“Oh kriff...” Annika said, “I know what she – it’s doing. It’s assimilating it.”

“That’s not some damn Borg-“ Lando said anxiously.

“Same idea, different principle. It’s absorbing his knowledge. It’ll know all the security codes for the entire station; there’ll be no way to stop it.”

“Well, what does it want?” Lando asked.

Han thought. “It’s a spy, right? A bio-engineered probe droid, really. It’s gonna try to get off this station to report to the Vong. Barring that, it’ll try to send them whatever information it has.”

The room rocked as one trooper tried a low-yield thermal detonator. There were still two movements, but the creatures seemed to be retreating, which unfortunately sent them back into the bar. They bounded through the air, activating the door release as they passed through, cutting them off from the security force outside. They continued their leaps across the bar, connecting with the third. The noise made as they started to knit together made the sickening sound from their transformation sound like pristine opera by comparison. “Now’s our chance,” Lando said, ready to break for the door.

“No!” Annika said. “Wait, give me a minute.”

“We don’t have a minute!” Lando snapped. “That thing’s preoccupied now, we’ve gotta run.”

“Keep it distracted,” she replied. “I need some time.”

“Listen-“

“Han,” she said, pleading, “trust me.”

Han took one last look between her and the twisting form of the alien. “I’m too old for this,” he said as he grabbed a large mug and tossed it at what looked like an eye. The sudden bellow from the gyrating thing added a new melody to the hellish composition that filled the bar. He picked up a chair, spun around and tossed it. A tentacle shot out and plucked it out of the air, holding it for a second before crushing it in its grip. “Aw crap,” Han muttered, and the creature let out a roar at him as it grew taller and more symmetrical.

“Just a little longer,” Annika said.

Han looked around for inspiration. “Lando, help me!” he said, grabbing the table. Lando hesitated, but only a second before he helped Han hoist the table up. “Ramming speed!” he shouted, and with a cry of the truly suicidal they charged at the alien, ramming it with the table and knocking it over. Han stopped a moment to grin in satisfaction; in response the alien grabbed the table in one oversized hand. His eyes widened as he, Lando and the table were lifted off the floor and tossed across the bar into the wall. The three dropped into a heap on the bar floor.

“Any more ideas,” Lando snapped as they untangled themselves.

“That’ll do it,” Annika said. Without another word she grabbed onto the platform and pulled herself up to the low landing. With a cry she leaped and landed on top of the twisting mass before Han could stop her. She pulled back her hand and swung, her tubules entering the center of mass. It tried swatting at her, but she dodged it, still clinging to its form. Finally it grabbed her and yanked her off, then slammed her face first into the grated floor with enough force to shake the room. It repeated the gesture twice to get the point across.

The door to the bar exploded inward and stormtroopers rushed through. The creature, now somewhat recognizable as a biped, although with huge skinless arms and legs, turned and roared at them, its mouth eerily located somewhere in the middle of its chest. However, a blaster bolt caused it to scream in pain, and it dove through the rear wall of the bar, the troopers in pursuit.

“Annika!” Han called, pulling himself up to his feet. She was moving, but barely. “Annika!” He ran to her side, but he took a step back in shock as she turned and looked up at him.

“Is it that bad?” she asked, her voice possessing an off-putting undertone because of her sub-vocal processor. The flesh on the entire left side of her face was gone, revealing torn muscle over a patchwork of metal and bone. Sparks shot across where her left eye used to be, and a greenish fluid mixed with blood to leave a multi-colored streak as it rolled down her neck and trickled onto the floor. He reached for a towel off the bar. “No!” she said emphatically. “The infection...” Her head lolled back as she passed out.

Adrenaline kicked in, and despite the trouble he’d had years before on ExGal-4, Han picked her up off the floor and staggered towards the door. Two stormtroopers who’d just arrived stopped him as he reached the door, blasters pointed right at him. “Don’t move,” they warned.

“I need a medic,” he said frantically, “she’s wounded.

“There’s a changeling on the loose,” the trooper replied. “Nobody moves until the station’s locked down.”

“It’s not a changeling!” Han shouted, but before he could say any more, Lando was at his side. “Do something!” he shouted at him.

“Don’t you trust in the Empire?” Lando asked.

Han turned and stepped face to face with him. “You going to let her die just to make a point?”

“No,” Lando said with a shake of his head, “it’s already been made.” He tapped a code into the bar and a small microphone ejected. “Medical emergency in Quark’s Bar,” he said, “I need Dr. Bashir and a team at once.” He tossed it back amongst the debris of the bar. “What the hell was that thing?” But Han didn’t answer, he just watched the patchwork river running through her hair and dripping onto the floor.



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-11 05:18pm
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Location: Gotham City
Part XXXIV


Annika heard the distant sound of her heartbeat, interrupted by the heavy, rhythmic sound of an automatic respirator. As her eyes fluttered she saw the world through rose-colored glasses, or so it seemed… the red, distorted haze confounded her senses as both the biological and technological tried to understand it. It all fell into place as the tank opened and spilled Annika and the bacta onto the floor of Sickbay. She pulled the mouthpiece away and coughed a few times, the air terribly frigid after her time in the tank. Where is everyone? she thought as she huddled and rubbed her arms for warmth. Not even a droid on hand to monitor her... was Bashir upset with her over what had happened?

The voice came so suddenly she jumped. “Commander Skywalker sends his regards.”

Despite her injuries Annika was on her feet in a second, but she became slightly more relaxed at the sight of the man. “Captain?”

Picard gave her that fatherly smile of his. “Not ‘Jean-luc?’”

“I don’t think I could ever get used to that,” she admitted. Having accepted his presence, and pleased at the company, she had to ask. “Where am I?”

“Exactly where it looks; Sickbay on what used to be Deep Space 13,” Picard said. “Floating in a bacta tank very much like the one you’ve projected for yourself here. It seems you’re continuing to push the envelope, young lady.”

“I don’t know about ‘young,’” Annika said, leaning against the wall. “B’Elanna, or whatever was pretending to be B’Elanna, was way too fast for me. Between the disease and the years, I’m starting to feel...”

“That these young brats can do your job better than you can?” Picard asked.

“Yes.”

“Infuriating, isn’t it. They always got on my nerves, especially that smug science officer,” he added with a smirk.

Annika gave a small laugh. “Point taken, Jean-luc. So, what are you doing here? Am I dying?”

“Nearly,” Picard said. “Fortunately Captain Solo had the good sense to collect some of your nanotechnology from his vessel... and Dr. Bashir should be able to hold you together long enough for them to do their work. Speaking of which, clever work, by the way, using your nanoprobes against the alien. You didn’t try assimilating her, correct?”

“No, I reprogrammed them to construct implants. They’ll create several homing beacons throughout its body that we can track back to Nom Anor, assuming that’s where she’s going.”

“It’s good to see twenty years of civilian life haven’t dulled your instincts,” he remarked.

“I should’ve put it together sooner,” she said gloomily. “B’Elanna was my friend; maybe not close, but she would never do what she did to Sebastian. I should have taken the time to think before jumping to conclusions.”

“Yes.” He came around and took a seat in Bashir’s workstation. “I wasn’t joking when I said you were my favorite science officer,” he continued. “Well, between you and Data, it's a toss-up really," he said with a smile. "But you always knew more than just how to find the answers, you knew how to find the questions. It was what helped reveal the Imperials’ duplicity.” He looked into her eyes. “You’ve stopped asking those questions, though. You’ve been looking at all the symptoms, but you’re ignoring the causes.”

“I don’t understand,” Annika said. “You mean with the disease?”

“With everything, Annika,” Picard said. “The Vong are more than just some idle problem; you of all people should know what they can do. You’ve just been too focused on the disease, and Luke’s death, and your son to allow yourself the time to find the questions.”

Annika opened her mouth to protest, but realized it was pointless. “If you think I’ve missed something, then tell me.”

“I did, but I don’t have the answers.” He smiled knowingly. “I don’t even have the questions. But I do know that you’ve been far too busy to look for them.”

“There’s nothing...” She stopped. “Okay, there is something,” she admitted. “ExGal-4.”

“What about it?”

“It was formulated years ago to search for non-galactic life. Except, the existence of non-galactic life is a known fact. So, why did they bother with the project?”

“Perhaps someone was watching for the Vong?” Picard offered.

“Possible... the Vong did overrun the planet right away, before they were able to do more than send out the emergency distress signal, though. It’s as if they knew the settlement was already there.”

“Nom Anor?”

“Maybe. Whatever it is, there’s something wrong with Belkadan. It seems like both sides knew more about what was going on there than in the official report.” She drummed her fingers on the wall. “You see the problem?” she asked, but Picard shook his head. “Everything looks fine, except, just a little-cockeyed.”

“Such as?”

“Such as...” Annika gestured, trying to think. “The bug.”

“What?”

“The bug that Jaina found. We learned that the Vong use beetle-like insects to help terraform planets from the probe droid telemetry. Belkadan was terraformed, so that must be what that bug was. Except...”

“Except what?”

“Except that that bug has genetic make-up similar to those found in the Alpha Quadrant, not the ones Luke found on the terraformed worlds. So, why was it there? Is it a different bug they use and the similarity is a coincidence, or is there something else going on?” She pointed at Picard with a smirk. “And that’s another thing. What about the ship debris field we discovered in the dead zone? The ships were torn apart.”

“I thought Luke had revealed the cause,” Picard said. “The Vong use an insect-like being to literally tear the ships apart. You saw it during the initial advance against the Imperials.”

“Yes, but not on this scale. Do you have any idea how many it would take? There were dozens necessary to take apart Kalib’s ship. The number required would be so huge it’d make the whole thing completely inefficient... and why not just engage and destroy them anyway? You see, it almost makes sense, but not quite.” She stopped and gave him a slightly accusatory look. “That’s why you’re here, right? To get me to find out the answers to these things.”

“I’m only here to provide you some comfort,” he said, but Picard’s grin said otherwise. “The chit-chat we engage in is just to help pass the time.” His smile faded. "But I'm afraid our time is up. I hope you make good use of what you have left, Annika."

Annika felt slightly disoriented as she felt a nurse drying her off in Sickbay, but it helped pull her out of her dream-state and back into reality. She still wasn't sure if that was really Picard or just a construction of her subconscious, but it had gotten some ideas going, and the sooner she got to them, the better. "Where's Dr. Bashir?" she croaked.

"He had some business to take care of," the nurse said, then shrugged. "He said you'd understand."

A light dawned, and Annika smiled a little. "I think I do."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Lando fidgeted with a section of duranium while he watched the repair crews, his mind several light-years away. Rebuilding the bar would take time, given the amount of damage done between the alien and the Imperials. Still, aside from Annika and the unfortunate stormtrooper, nobody’d been hurt before the creature that had once pretended to be B’Elanna Torres had found a way onto a ship and escaped into hyperspace. As far as Lando was concerned, it was someone else’s problem now.

“Calrissian,” came an annoyingly familiar voice. Lando tossed the duranium aside as he turned around, watching Attorney General Abdul-Majid pick his way through the debris towards him.

“Deniz,” Lando said in as warm a tone as he could find under the circumstances.

“I understand you’ve had a little problem,” the attorney general remarked.

“Nothing noticeable,” Lando said, leading the way through the rubble towards his office. He knew he hadn’t come out here for a simple hello. “A lick of paint, a couple new tables-“

“I’m not interested,” Abdul-Majid said with irritation. Lando offered him a seat as he circled his desk and took his own. “I’m here because I had the most interesting conversation with Julian Bashir.”

“Did you,” Lando said, his sabacc face firmly in place. Abdul-Majid had been working to expose Lando’s ties to Garak for years, but every time he got close Garak would pull some trick to leave him right back where he started. Lando had become accustomed to the Terran’s inquiries, but theirs was no friendly rivalry. Lando knew the attorney general was itching to get him executed as an example for anyone who might aid Garak and his terrorist network.

“It seems that Bashir has confessed to his own involvement with Garak.” He intertwined his fingers and looked back at Lando with a face every bit as controlled as Lando’s own. “Given their history in the pre-Imperial days, it’s not surprising.”

“And how long did it take to extract this confession?” Lando asked. “And how many teeth did you let Bashir keep?”

“He came to us,” Abdul-Majid said, refusing to be baited. “He said his conscience wouldn’t allow him to remain involved any more. Understandable, considering the despicable acts Garak’s henchmen have perpetrated on Bashir’s own people.”

“But against someone else, it would be all right?”

Abdul-Majid smiled humorlessly. “I’m afraid you have reason to be concerned by this confession. Do you know what I mean?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Bashir was a go-between with Garak and operations on board this station.”

“That is cause for concern,” Lando said. “If Garak tried anything here, he could get plans for the HTF. Thank you, I’ll make sure security is increased.”

“Garak already has access to the plans.” The Terran pulled out a small leaf and began chewing on it. “And if he uses it to their advantage over the Imperial fleet that will reflect very badly on you.”

“Bashir told you this?”

“No. But he told me who he was working with.” Several heartbeats passed. “Do you know who?”

“No.” Lando’s face could have been carved from stone.

Abdul-Majid leaned forward. “Torres.”

Lando forced out a sigh. “That explains why Annika Hansen confronted her,” he said without looking at the attorney general. “And also why Torres reacted the way that she did. It must have been some kind of escape plan-“

“Yes, I’m sure it was,” Abdul-Majid interrupted. “Very unfortunate for me that she’s not around to confront over this accusation. She could very easily have been falsely accused in all this.”

“She tore off her friend's face,” Lando said. “I wouldn’t have believed that if I hadn’t seen it either, but frankly at this point, nothing you tell me about B’Elanna would surprise me.”

“I’m sure.” The Terran tossed the leaf into the disposal. “Rest assured that we’ll get to the bottom of this. We’ll turn this place upside-down… if there’s any evidence that someone here was working with Garak, we’ll find it.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Lando said. He rose as he saw Colonel Renal, commander of the station, enter. “And you’re wasting no time, I see.”

Abdul-Majid smiled with just the slightest bit of satisfaction. “I want everything,” he said to the colonel. “Every communication record, every business dealing, every-“

“Let’s not go off half-cocked,” Col. Renal interrupted.

Abdul-Majid’s jaw dropped at the interruption. “Excuse me?”

“We have to be concerned about the integrity of the crime scene,” Col. Renal continued. “One of my men is dead. I want to preserve all the physical evidence until that issue is resolved.” He held up a hand as the attorney general opened his mouth. “Once I’m satisfied we will thoroughly investigate the matter, but at the moment Torres’ conspiracy charge is trumped by this murder. Once we’re certain the area has been thoroughly examined we’ll pursue your allegations with all due speed.”

Abdul-Majid’s façade was wearing down. “But that could take hours,” he said, recognizing what was going on.

“Oh, I’d say considerably more than that. Days, more likely weeks. The murder of an Imperial soldier in the execution of his duty… we can’t allow that to go unpunished.”

“Not to mention the security of my business dealings and the proprietary documents on the Hybrid Tactical Fighter,” Lando said. “As both a representative of my shareholders and a partner with the Imperial military, I can’t just let you have access to everything until my lawyers have assured me of what our obligations are in this regard. That could take some time to iron out as well.”

“Months,” Col. Renal said.

“At least,” Lando agreed.

Abdul-Majid got to his feet, clearly resigned to the situation given the return of his mask. “Gentlemen,” he said.

“Drop by any time, Deniz,” Lando said. “First drink’s on the house once the place is running again.”

“But don’t hold your breath,” Col. Renal added.

The Terran nodded curtly. “Weeks,” he said with a forced smile, and then left.

The door hadn’t even closed by the time Renal had taken a seat. “What the hell happened, Calrissian? You assured me that Garak wouldn’t pull any of his crap on this station.”

“It wasn’t Garak,” Lando said. Renal was on the payroll like everyone else, but even he couldn’t turn a blind eye to terrorist attacks on the station.

“Then what the kriff was that thing?”

Lando took a deep breath through his nose as he thought. It was absurd that he was fighting a war against the Imperials by enlisting the aid of so many on this station, but it was a necessity. It kept prying eyes like the attorney general’s from getting into his affairs, and he’d dealt with worse in his time. Besides, it made him look more like a gangster and less like a terrorist, and frankly, Lando preferred it that way. For some reason, people looked at you differently if you killed for money than if you killed for ideals… maybe it was because deep down, most people could understand it. However, by being in bed with both Garak and Col. Renal, Lando was walking a very thin tightrope. “I think she was working for the Vong,” he finally admitted.

Renal’s laughed derisively. “The Vong aren’t even in this galaxy.”

“That’s the impression I got from Annika Hansen, and we both know she’s here on the Emperor’s okay. Maybe she came to sniff her out. But in all honesty, colonel, I think it’s out of our hands now. She’s not coming back.”

“And what do I tell my superiors when they ask what the hell happened on this station?”

“Be creative,” Lando said dismissively. “I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about.”

Renal got to his feet. “Let me make one thing clear,” he said, giving Lando a prod in the chest to emphasize the point. “I am not an employee. I am the lord, and you are the kriffing vassal; your money is tribute for my protection. You forget your place and Deniz will have your head on a force pike.”

Lando said nothing as Renal walked out. It figured; every since Han showed up and won his ship in a game of sabacc, the man had become his own personal bad luck charm. "Quark," he said into the display on his screen, "coordinate the repairs to the bar. I've got bigger things to take care of right now."
--------------------------------------------------------------

An Eclipse-class star destroyer is basically a large pointed city in space, with the obvious difference that it has engines on it. Like a city, its vital spots were defended. Also like a city, there were infinite ways to cause minor sabotage.

"Ready John?" asked Kyle, still in his astromech form nearby.

"Check," he whispered.

"The ship is beginning to come around," Kyle said. "Cut it in three... two... one... mark!"

On the signal John cut the emergency power to what his programmed Starfleet mind called the inertial dampeners. It had taken them days to quietly usurp control of the back-up system, by far the most important part of the mission. Cutting the power was easy, but emergency systems would immediately restore it to prevent disaster. Thanks to the endless hours of work, instead of restoring power to the inertial dampers, it cut power to the structural integrity. The virus they installed then attacked computer system. It was the most sophisticated invasive program credits could buy on the black market; it was a fruitless effort, of course. It took a second and a half before the threat was isolated to a single system, and they were already purging it when the systems analyzed the problems and restored power to the off-line systems. The sabotage had lasted for less than two seconds before being corrected, better than John had hoped.

During those two seconds the ship and all its contents were thrown unceremoniously back into the world of conventional physics. Stress fractures occurred throughout the ship as its inertial mass came face to face with the strength of the material. Everyone was tossed off their feet, including the saboteurs, and even as the computers restored power it began to receive thousands of individual failures. Klaxons sounded as John pulled himself back to his feet, then helped Kyle back onto his. "Phase two," he whispered, then stepped off as his comrade resumed his connection in the hopes of delaying repair efforts. John saw Weiss and his group right on schedule, in full formation as a group of stormtroopers. Without a word he joined them.

The group hadn’t marched more than a dozen meters before two Imperial officers came storming up. They'd planned for this, of course; it was the whole point of the stormtrooper disguises. “Where are you taking him?” the lieutenant commander was demanding.

“The first officer demanded that Benson be taken into custody,” Weiss replied.

“You didn’t answer my question,” the officer replied hotly. “Benson is under my supervision-“

“Not any more,” Weiss interrupted. John winced inwardly. Weiss was an excellent tactical officer, one of Iden’s last smart moves before he went completely nuts and had to be taken off-line, but he was still a bit high-strung when it came to organics. He wished this wasn’t a suicide mission so that he could tell Weiss to watch it in the future.

The engineer turned to his subordinate. “Contact the commander,” he ordered. Weiss motioned for them to continue, but the officer stuck out a hand and pushed him back into position. “You’re not going anyway until this is straightened out.”

“I have my orders,” Weiss grumbled, emphasizing the point with a gesture of his blaster rifle. The engineer wasn’t impressed, and before anyone could react he yanked the rifle right out of Weiss’ hands. He was already starting to read him the riot act when he watched the gun fade into thin air with surprise, but the holograms were already reacting. Both officers went down as they hit their mark, then rushed through the halls, blasting at everyone they saw. John cursed the turn and snatched up the officer’s blaster pistol; the mobile emitter didn’t have the room to arm him and Kyle the way Weiss and his team were. If the Imperials ever tried removing their helmets, they’d find nothing but bright light underneath.

"John!" Kyle's voice was frantic over his comm link. "There's a full alert! They're sending six squads down to engage you; get out of there!"

They were outnumbered by about five to one, John figured, but they still had the element of surprise and they might confuse the enemy with their appearance. He stayed close behind Weiss' forces as they continued at a trot down the hall, not even slowing as they fired on anyone they saw. They finally slowed as they came to about two dozen stormtroopers blocking the path in front of them. Shots were exchanged the moment both sides spotted each other, but the blasters passed through the holograms without any effect. The platoon sergeant reacted quickly and ordered them to engage hand-to-hand, no doubt hoping they could at least balance the scales until more reinforcements arrived. It was just as fruitless; a hologram can't be injured by brute force, and it only gave their own forces a chance to show off as they used their density manipulation to reach through the armor and attack the helpless organic inside.

As John had expected, another squad had been sent in from behind, but he laid down suppressing fire to buy them time. The troopers in front of them were wiped out in under a minute, but Weiss just kept right on charging rather than helping slow them down. They'd let this go to their heads, and John knew they were going to get sloppy as a result. The scream he heard just as he was about to continue confirmed it, and he pressed himself into a niche, still firing while he raised Weiss on the comm link. "What's happening?"

"They killed Sumek and Dar!" came the frenzied reply, but Weiss didn't provide any more details. John broke cover and ran to follow, just in time to watch the climax. The Imperials had apparently anticipated such an attack, because there was a fireteam with some kind of anti-photonic cannon that was mowing down the holographic troopers as easily as they had the real stormtroopers.

John ducked down the adjoining hall as he shut out the sound of his comrades' screams. "Kyle," he said into the comm as he readied one of the thermal detonators he'd taken off one of the dead stormtroopers, "I'm all out of support here." He tossed it down the hall; the explosion seconds later would make the mobile emitters unsalvageable. If the Imperials took any of them intact, they could strip their programming down and learn everything they needed to about their society. "Any targets I can hit before taking myself out?"

"There's been structural damage to a power breaker fifty meters from your location. An explosion has a good chance of frying some of the circuitry."

"Not exactly the reactor core," John said.

"Hey, we knew that was the longest shot," Kyle replied. "You need me? Otherwise I'm self-destructing before they track me down."

"Go ahead," John said, and cut the connection. Fortunately he'd spent his time familiarizing himself with the ship's layout, so he knew exactly what Kyle was referring to. He strapped the belt around his waist, readied his pistol, and took an unnecessary deep breath. "Here goes," he said under his voice, and charged. Another fireteam was in position along this hall, but he'd expected them to do that. He kept running while his feet ran up the opposing wall, his altered density keeping his movement "unnatural." Still the team seemed to be well trained: one shot removed his right arm, but fortunately he was no longer programmed to feel pain, and he literally ran over the troopers and leaped towards the door.

It didn't opened.

He thumped it in frustration with his one arm, but he didn't have time to vent. He pushed himself against the door as tight as he could and activated the thermal detonators. Three seconds later, there was light and heat, then nothing. The "real" John back on Ha'Dara never knew what his copy accomplished.



Chuck

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Part XXXV


"How long will the Shade be out of service?" General Chalb asked.

Admiral Huyil shook his head in disbelief of the situation. "Six months, at least." He held up a hand before they had the chance to protest. "We don't have the facilities to repair a ship of that size. We're going to have to be somewhat... creative."

"We can build a Death Star in that much time," Chalb retorted.

"No," Huyil said. "If we didn't have our forces spread out like they are, then yes, but with the preparations at the front and the problems in the Milky Way, we can't divert that much manpower and equipment."

"We are not fighting this war with engineers."

"General," Huyil said with strained patience, "this is not something that can be overcome through arguing. Six months, minimum. Accept it."

"What we have to accept," Sunhaf said, "is that the Imperial presence in the Milky Way has now been seriously reduced, not to mention the obvious negative image we've suffered as a result. Without more ships-"

"We can't take any more ships off their patrols," Admiral Kormain said before things could go further. "The Outer Rim that's still under our control is already spiraling towards disaster. Smuggling, piracy, organized crime have increased by twenty percent over the last month alone. You pull any more ships off their patrols and we might as well hand the Outer Rim over to the Vong."

"Enough," the Emperor said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Admiral Huyil, how quickly can you get the Shade spaceworthy?" He raised his voice over the protest. "I mean establishing its presence in the Delta Quadrant."

"If you mean traveling under its own power," Huyil thought it over. "A week. But she will be virtually defenseless."

"And that fact will not leave this room, except for the captain. We shall have to hope that a paper tiger will due for now. In the meantime, what word on the Vong base of operations?"

Captain Naomi Wildman drew to attention. "My expert has comprised a list of likely systems, but we have not been able to positively-"

The Emperor interrupted with a flash of anger. "Do we have a target?" he asked, punctuating his words.

Capt. Wildman swallowed. "No, your highness."

The Emperor scowled. "Every day the Vong grow stronger. Every day our people wonder why we aren't acting."

"It's a logistically complicated situation," Kormain said.

"I know that," he snapped. "But the Empire is vulnerable to assault from without and within; we cannot allow this standoff to continue." The assorted admirals and generals were looking at each other with uncertainty. The Emperor didn't sound the same... it was more... impassioned? Perhaps the stress of the situation was too much for a man of his age, but none would ever say the words out loud.

"We have run the simulations, your highness," Chalb said finally. "We can overrun the Vong, but the collateral damage will be high. They've deliberately used our own people as shields. We have to accept that if we launch an attack now, without eliminating their central command, we won't be able to pull our punches."

The Emperor's face seemed to disappear into the depths of his robe. "What are the projections?"

"We attain complete control within ninety hours of the initial assault. We lose 37% of our ships, and sustain damage to 74% of the survivors. We'll lose 60% of our fighters. As for civilians..." Kormain hesitated. "We estimate 29 billion dead."

"That's assuming the Vong don't begin executing them out of spite," Admiral Rhital added.

The silence seemed to stretch on for hours. "Are there any alternatives? Any at all?"

The atmosphere in the room implied that there was, but no one felt inclined to bring it up. "There is one," Chalb said. "It would require a change in policy, however."

"What do you have in mind?"

Chalb took a deep breath. "The Shade is damaged, but the Eclipse and Twilight are only a day away from the front lines."

"You are suggesting deploying the superlasers," the Emperor said.

"The planet Lazeria IV has a population of less than five hundred million," Chalb said. "But it's equipped with a planetary shield that we know the Vong are using. If we destroy that world in one stroke, it might convince them they're overmatched and withdraw."

"Gambling half a billion doesn't sound much better," Sunhaf remarked. "But shock and awe tactics has been shown to be effective on some occasions."

"Even if it doesn't work, your highness," Kormain said, "the system is too dangerous to leave in Vong hands. Its position is too close to our major trade routes; it's a path right into the center of our space."

The Emperor mulled it over. "As much as it pains me," he said finally, "I don't think we have a choice. You have permission to deploy and terminate."

"Your highness," came a sudden voice, edged with desperation, "may I see you in private." Leia Organa Solo, whose presence at such meetings was usually a formality, was visibly anxious.

"You have my decision," the Emperor replied without looking at her. "Dismissed." The assorted leaders, recognizing when a quick exit would be advised, vanished as their holo-projectors extinguished.

"Your excellency," Leia said as she got to her feet, "you can't do this. Not against your own people."

"Sometimes hard decisions have to be made," the Emperor said. He seemed to be much smaller under the weight of the Vong threat. He tried his best, however, to put up a strong front. "Is there anything else you have to say?"

Leia stepped forward. "Yes, one thing." With the kind of speed normally associated with hummingbirds she thrust out her arms and took hold of his head. "Remember," she intoned, bringing her Jedi training to bear.

The Emperor visibly swayed as experiences and thoughts kept safely locked away burst from their vaults and flooded his being. He looked at her crossly. "What was that for?"

"Ben, you can't do this."

He shook his head. "I already answered this point. Did you think this would make any difference?"

"Actually, yes," Leia said. "Ben Sisko wouldn't murder millions in the vain hope of military victory."

"Please Leia," Ben said, "put me back so I can get to work."

"No," she said hotly. "I'm not going to let you hide behind that mask, not about this. You, the real you, would never accept this kind of solution."

His hands were resting on the back of the throne, and he wasn't even looking at her. When he spoke, his voice was low, with the slightest trace of emotion. "Imagine, for a moment," he said slowly, "that when your Jacen and Jaina were still small, still unable to care for themselves, that you were being pursued across the plains of some world by a predator. You can't outrun it, you can't hide, you can't fight it. It's a problem our ancient ancestors faced all the time in long forgotten days."

"Ben-" Leia began.

"What would you do?" he asked.

Leia drew herself up. "Fight. It won't take my children without one."

"But it will nonetheless. Whether you fight or not, the end result is the same. Both your children die."

Leia practically growled Ben's name. "You're not changing the subject."

"What if I told you there was a way to save one of them?" Ben said.

"Fine, I'll play along. How?"

He finally looked up into her eyes. "You drop one." Leia's eyes widened but he couldn't before she could speak. "The predator stops and consumes the one while you bring the other to safety. For one, it's the same as if you had done nothing, and for the other, it's salvation."

"Ben," she rumbled, "that is the single sickest thing I've ever heard in my life!"

"Absolutely. And the only thing even more sickening is the fact that it's the truth. We can't save all, but through our own moral crippling, we can save some." He laughed, but there was no trace of humor to it. "Machiavelli was an armchair amateur compared to me."

"Ben, we don't know-"

"You don't know," he said emphatically, "I do. You never answered my question, you know. You're fortunate, because you don't have to. You have the same luxury that I used to have, the luxury of making the small choices, easily guided by morality. What you don't remember, Leia, is that I have been making these kinds of decisions every day, knowing how I have to decide because, as terrible as a choice might be, it's the best out of all the bad choices there are."

"And that justifies it?" Leia said with contempt.

"I'm not asking for justification," Ben said weakly. "Nor forgiveness." He sighed. "Some things just have to happen, Leia. It's not victory at any price, it's victory at the lowest price. Perhaps when you look back, you will see. But never think that this is easy for me."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika’s eyes fluttered, then opened, revealing a concerned blur that was Han Solo. She tried to think of something extremely clever to say to lighten the mood, but despite the treatments she still felt like she’d just tried sumo wrestling a Hutt. “Tell me it’s not as bad as it feels,” she groaned.

“The doc said you’re in his lucky-to-be-alive ward,” Han replied. “Try not to do anything like that again; your kid shouldn’t have to bury both his parents before his quarter-century mark.”

“Your bedside manner is...” She stopped in mid-simile. Her mind felt like it was wrapped in cotton.

Han must have noticed her confusion. “The disease made a lot of headway while you were being treated. They’ve got you pretty juiced up.”

The disease... she’d forgotten. “He’s using extra na-“ She floundered for the word.

“Bashir has been in touch with the Doctor,” Han said. “He’s using an upgraded treatment. It’s supposed to help you gain some more ground.”

“They’re using.... something.... to suppress my Borg 'instincts,' right?”

“Yeah, some gizmo that’ll-“

“Turn it off.”

Han scoffed a little. “I think the two MD’s know what they’re doing.”

“I need my mind clear, Han,” Seven said. “I can’t func... I... this is crap.”

Han drummed his fingers on the side of the bed, then held up his finger as he spoke slowly and seriously. “If you try getting out of bed...”

“I won’t,” she said, and meant it. The injuries and disease had left her so weak she couldn’t have fought off a determined slug. She laid back and relaxed while Han stepped over and spoke to one of the nurses. Eventually Annika felt a curtain part in her mind, allowing her to think clearly. Time, she suddenly remembered, was a factor. “Han, the shifter-“

“I have the fleet tracking the movement of your beacon,” Han said. “Don’t worry, just observing; Leia made sure they understood that they weren’t to actually follow it or they might tip Nom Anor or the Vong off.”

Annika cocked an eyebrow. “Was I talking in my sleep?”

Han gave her a half-amused, half-insulted look. “I saw what you did to it. I’m a scoundrel, not an idiot.”

Annika nodded. “Good to know you’re good for more than flying the ship. But let’s see if you get the blue ribbon: have you accessed Chandrilla appropriation records?”

“No, why?”

“Belkadan. One of the Vong’s first targets, and a complete waste of credits. What if there’s more going on with that planet than we’ve realized?”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at how much Nom Anor has done to hamper the Empire’s response. Maybe he has somebody in a position to help the Vong in their war effort, either a disgruntled politician or a mole like B’Elanna.”

“Maybe, but we’ve got to focus on the real issue, which is the Vong base of operations. Sooner or later, somebody’s going to fire the first shot and this is going to turn into a full blown war, and personally, I don’t want that squid running the Vong’s sho-“ He froze.

Annika waited. “What?”

“Where’d the nurses go?” he asked, his tone full of suspicion. His hand instinctively reached for his absent blaster as Lando stepped into the room.

Lando hit the button that sealed them off from the rest of Sickbay. “We need to have a talk.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Quark tapped on the datapad for a few seconds, then slammed it on the bar in frustration. "This is unacceptable," he growled.

"Problem, Quark?" Dr. Bashir asked from his stool as he sipped at an ale.

"Of course there's a problem, or haven't you noticed that the place is empty for the third day in a row?"

"Quark," Bashir said with a laugh, "you just opened ten minutes ago."

"It's ruined," he said, ignoring him. "Calrissian's going to close the bar. He'll probably take me offline permanently."

"Quark," Bashir said diplomatically, "maybe you should hold off judgment until your repairs are finished."

"It won't matter. They're not going to come."

"Quark, look. You have one Dabo table, the bar, and no holosuites in the middle of the day. Give it some time to complete the repairs."

"Do you have any idea how extensive the damage of a rampaging alien and a firefight can be?" Quark shook his head. "It'll take weeks to repair the damage they did."

Bashir finished his glass. "Well maybe your Imperial friends that caused the mess can help you clean it up."

Quark took the glass with a sneer. "Get a stormtrooper to fix the holosuite? All they know is killing and white uniforms."

Bashir nodded, then dropped an Imperial credit on the bar and left. He walked straight into a bald man dressed in Chandrillan fashions. Bashir mumbled an apology but before he could leave the man planted a hand on his shoulder with a grip like a vise. "Look, it was an accident," he said sharply.

"No, it wasn't." He gestured towards a pair of waiting stormtroopers. "Come along, doctor. We have a great deal to discuss."

Bashir struggled, but he couldn't budge. "If this is about Garak, I've already made a deal with the attorney general."

"Rescinded," he replied coldly. He pushed Bashir towards the stormtroopers, who caught him easily. They half dragged him into the nearby corridor while the man straightened his tunic, then followed.

Quark watched him leave, his mouth hanging open in shock. "Oh no," he said under his breath. A Trandoshan walked up to the bar and dropped a stack of credits on it. "Get out of here," he snapped at the arrival, "can't you see we're closed for repairs." The alien growled at him, and Quark scooped up the pile. "Didn't you hear me? Take your money and have a seat - I mean, I mean, get out of here." As the alien left Quark ran out from behind the bar and sealed the entrance. "This is just what I don't need," he groaned.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han didn’t take his eyes off Lando as he pulled a stool over and took a seat near Annika. The fact that he wasn’t saying anything was all the more infuriating. “Is there anyone on this station you haven’t bought?” Han finally asked.

“Don’t knock it,” Lando remarked evenly. “You know how hard it is to get Bacta out here?”

“Yeah, you’re a regular saint.”

“Look, I don’t need this!” Lando snapped. “It seems every time you step into my life I should hop into an escape pod. You’re thirteen broken mirrors chasing a black cat under some ladders.”

“Isn’t that a painting by Salvador Dali?” Annika mused. A glance realized it hadn’t had the effect she’d hoped. “What do you want, Lando?”

“Just information,” he replied, staring back at Han a few moments longer before turning to Annika. “Was B’Elanna working for the Vong?”

“You work for the Vong,” Han said. “Garak’s hooked up with Nom Anor, in case you’ve forgotten your little role in that.”

Lando didn’t even look at Han as he repeated the question to Annika. “I think so,” she said finally.

“What is she?”

“Why not ask Garak?” Han said.

“Maybe you should leave,” Lando said shortly.

“Gonna have your stormtrooper buddies toss me in a cell?”

“Don’t tempt me. Look, I’ve done a hell of a lot for you, and you’ve turned my life upside-down. Now all I want is some information.”

“It’s not unreasonable,” Annika pointed out.

“That’s how this game works,” Han remarked. “A lot of people being reasonable nearly pulled Luna out of its orbit... and worse.” He didn’t have to bring up Sebastian; he knew her mind would head there on its own.

“Look, I promise you whatever you tell me won’t get back to Garak,” Lando said. “Really, I don’t want to work with him any more, but I need to know what I’m up against if I’m going to try to make a move against him.”

“He’s lying,” Han said. “Bashir’s turning evidence; Lando’s just looking for the most comfort place to land when this comes tumbling down.”

“Yeah, well, not everybody can be lucky enough to land in a luxurious Chandrilla house and a job rubberstamping the Emperor’s death warrants.” Before Han could respond the communicator chimed. “Maybe it’s the Emperor asking about his laundry.”

Han scowled, but got up and walked over to the communicator. Hopefully it was Leia with a report on the shifter. The image was so unlike her he did a double-take.

"Quark?" Han said, annoyed to see who the source of the interruption was. "Beat it."

"I need to talk to Lando," the Ferengi said anxiously, "it's important."

"Just pour some drinks and stay out of our hair." He cut the transmission, but didn't get two steps before the communicator rang for him again. "Lando," he finally snapped, "your hologram wants you."

Lando stepped over and activated the comm. "I said I didn't want to be distur-"

"Dr. Bashir has just been arrested," Quark got out before he could finish.

"Abdul-Majid's not going to get anything-"

"It's not Deniz," Quark interrupted impatiently. "He was taken into custody by Volgo Terraine."

Lando's face fell. When he spoke his voice was devoid of emotion. "I hope to hell you're joking."

"I wish to hell I were," Quark replied. "What do we do?"

"Give me a minute!" Lando snapped.

"What's the problem?" Han asked, smiling just a little.

Lando whirled around; his expression could've melted tungsten. "Go find somewhere else to gloat."

"Looks like things aren't running quite as well as you'd like."

"Boys," Annika said before the confrontation could escalate. "We've got more important concerns. Han, you've got to contact Chandrilla about Belkadan, and every minute you waste is a minute closer towards invasion. And Lando, if you're concerned about Bashir giving you up, turn states evidence and you'll get the same deal he did."

"That's exactly what I'm hoping to avoid," Lando said anxiously.

"Bashir is going to get an Imperial pardon-"

"Bashir's going to be dead in a matter of hours!" Lando shouted. "Didn't you hear? Volgo Terraine has him."

"Would you relax," Han said, the image of Lando’s suffering bringing him out of his funk. "Terraine is one of the Emperor's aides; he's just here to keep Bashir safe."

Lando looked at Han like a Hirogen had jumped out of his mouth and begun tap-dancing in the infirmary. "Don't you have any idea who he is?"

Han shrugged. "Well, I met him once on Earth, and a couple times at the palace."

Lando shook his head with a mixture of frustration and disbelief. "He's an aide all right. Your buddy Terraine is the head of the ISB."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Captain Turah betrayed no emotion as the Eclipse emerged from hyperspace into the Lazeria system. It wasn't a perfect exit from a tactical standpoint, but the orders had been for him and his escort to let the enemy see them coming before delivering the final blow. The division between front-line and rear leadership is the shifting weight between tactical and strategic concerns, and while the idea made sense to him, that didn't mean he liked being the one executing it.

"Execute?" He could have picked a better word.

Since taking command of the Eclipse six years ago Turah had fired the superlaser eight times, of which half were practice tests on uninhabited worlds and moons. His only shots fired in combat were against renegade space stations and a retired Executor-class star destroyer being used as a base of operations for a Black Sun splinter group. But this wasn't some minor target he could fire upon under his own authority, this was something they had experienced only in practice drills. "Battle stations," he ordered as he prepared to exe- to carry out, his orders. "All TIEs launch. Commander?"

His executive officer stepped forward, a datapad in his hand. He held it up crisply and spoke in a sharp voice. "By order of the Military High Command and the wishes of the Emperor, the Star Destroyer Eclipse is ordered and required to fire its primary weapon upon the planet Lazeria IV until it is deemed destroyed. Authorization code check."

"Authorization code check, aye," came the voice of the main gunner.

"Golf, November, Sierra, Hotel, Yankee, Victor, One, Four, Seven, One."

"Aye, sir. Golf, November, Sierra, Hotel, Yankee, Victor, One, Four, Seven, One, confirmed."

"Firing code confirmed," Turah said, his voice slightly dry. "Take us to within two hundred thousand kilometers of target. Lieutenant, when we are within range, prepare a firing solution. Engineering." He stopped. He looked out through the front window. The ship was close enough now that the target appeared several sizes larger than the background stars. In moments it would be within range, and then... His XO looked at him out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing.

"Sir?" came the voice from Engineering.

"Commence primary ignition," he said. The deckplates vibrated slightly as the hypermatter reactor began charging.

"Sir, we have a firing solution."

"Final bearing and shoot on my mark."

Turah was so focused on the moment that he nearly jumped when his XO stepped to his side and started speaking to him. "Something's wrong," he said in a low voice.

Turah gave him a quick glance to convey his anger at the interruption, but it turned out to be just what he needed. He'd been so focused on what he had to do he hadn't seen the obvious: there was no resistance. Their first engagement with their mortal enemy, and not a single ship? "Stand by. Navigation, confirm the system is correct."

"Confirmed, sir," they responded several seconds later.

Capt. Turah took a deep breath through his nose. "Send in a probe," he ordered.

"Sir, we're ordered..." his XO began.

"I want to know there's Vong down there before I vaporize half a billion people!" he exploded. When he turned back, he froze. The obvious silence, save for the emotionless sounds of the equipment, showed he wasn't the only one shocked by this latest turn.

Turah's first thought was that a massive ship was de-cloaking between them and the planet, but as it coalesced into shape, he knew that would have been far more preferable. It was enormous, dwarfing even the mammoth Eclipse, hanging in space as if the last defender of this world, but it had the least comforting visage imaginable. It was a mass of tentacles and claws, an almost haphazardly constructed creature. Its hideous face sported a grinning mouth filled with teeth the size of small cruisers. It hovered before them, almost as if to allow them the chance to contemplate the horror it was about to unleash.

Turah found his voice. "Hold on the superlaser; fire all other weapons." The air before them filled with green turbolaser bolts. The creature ignored them as they passed through its body without a sign of damage. Instead it slowly seemed to drift towards them. "Hold fire," Turah ordered. "It's an illusion. The Vong must be-"

No one on the ship managed to remain upright as a blow from the great creature slapped the ship to one side. Seconds later the weapons began firing again across the ship, but still the creature laughed them off as it brought its limbs around and struck it again, causing the shields to flicker under the strain. Two more blows and the shields collapsed. Its hideous grin never waning, it reached its great claws forward and began tearing at the ship's armor. Escape pods began firing as it managed to make a small hole into the ship. It shrank as it pulled itself through the gap and inside the ship. Those few personnel who had been wearing sealed suits at the time could only gape in horror at the gigantic monster who filled Engineering. It paid no attention to them as it tore its way through the much softer interior walls until it came to the heart of the ship. It drew back a clawed hand and plunged it through the wall of the hypermatter reactor. Immediately the reaction went critical and the explosion tore the ship apart in a fireball visible even to those on the surface of Lazeria IV.

The creature was gone, but even as the glow dissipated from the explosion Vong ships lifted off from the planet. The Imperial crews, having seen enough, followed the better part of valor.



Chuck

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Part XXXVI


The room was dim, the glow from the holoprojector providing the only illumination. Leia watched it happen for what might have been the hundredth time, but repetition didn’t diminish its implication. She watched giant claws tear into the ship, tentacles the length of cities binding it for the kill. It was, literally, a nightmare given form.

The recordings of the attack, the ones that had been intended to demonstrate the wherewithal of the Imperial position, had gotten out. Even attempts to block transmission of the signal couldn’t prevent people from discussing what had happened. There was a word for the thing now, the name the Vong had ascribed to the thing. “Yun-Yammka,” also known as “the Slayer,” was the Vong god of war.

Victory was always a certainty for Leia. They had the resources of two galaxies to draw upon, skilled Jedi, and a united government. The only question was how much damage would they sustain; how many lives would be lost in repelling the invaders. The image of the Yun-Yammka tearing the Eclipse apart had awakened a fear that she had never entertained.

And Ben had known. That’s why he could give the order; he knew the Eclipse would never destroy its target. But that left the question of why, and Leia didn’t see any answers she liked. Was it to shake them out of their complacency? Was it to try and get the warring factions to put aside their differences in the face of this threat?

Was this Ben’s way of finally defeating the Empire? By leaving it helpless before its enemies?

These were disturbing thoughts for her, but perhaps the most disturbing of all: if that was his plan, should she try to stop him?
--------------------------------------------------------------

“You know, you can read through this while we’re on the Falcon,” Han pointed out.

Annika didn’t look up from the datapad. “If you’re bored, you could call up Lando on the commlink and tell him what you think of his mother.”

“That topic’s already been covered,” Han remarked. Truth was, this station was starting to get on his nerves. He’d grown used to stormtroopers on Chandrilla, but out here... “We have to get moving on this, especially after what happened with the Eclipse.”

“It was your idea to come out here,” Annika said. “Research before we got started.”

“Yes, and we have a lead, but it’s days ahead of us. The longer we stay here-“

“Han, there’s something up with Belkadan. The Vong didn’t go there on a whim.”

“Then let’s get in the ship and check it out,” Han said.

“Not yet,” she said. “Look, the approval for the project was by Senator Alixus, who represents systems less than a hundred light-years away. If we need to go digging further into her motives, I want to be close to her old stomping grounds.”

“Annika, it’s a stretch.”

“No, it’s a hunch-“ She sat up straighter in her bed. “Han, this file requires high level clearance, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, it looks like somebody else accessed it.” Han stepped over and she pointed at a squiggle of random characters. “That kind of code corruption usually shows up when someone’s sliced and copied a file.”

“Who would want...” Han stopped. There was no need to even ask the question. “I’ll be right back.” Annika called after him, but Han had had enough of this. He didn’t so much as slow down as he turned into the bar, pushing past the protesting form of Quark as he headed for Lando’s office. It was locked. “He’s a little busy right now,” Quark said hurriedly. “Maybe try again later, or tomorrow, or maybe next week...” Han pulled an arc welder off the makeshift workbench the repair crews were using to undue B’Elanna’s damage. “How ‘bout next month... and I’ll throw in some holosuite time.” Sparks flew as Han used the welder on the door; the lock disengaged. “You can try out our new Calrissian ‘Battle of the Death Star’ program.” Han handed him the arc welder, which Quark held like a dirty handkerchief. “Perhaps something more relaxing...”

Lando sat behind his desk with a datapad when Han stepped into his office. He would have stormed right up to him and snatched the pad away if it weren’t for five questionable people who apparently didn’t believe in the station’s “no weapons” policy. “Han,” Lando said in a very serious voice, “this doesn’t concern you. Get out.”

“What are you doing with the information?” Han said, doing his best to ignore the wave of menace slowly ambling towards him.

“I don’t have-“

“Don’t give me that!” Han stepped forward, but his right arm was grabbed by a hand that felt like it was made of quartz and powered by hydraulics. “If you didn’t intercept that transmission, then you know who did!”

“How you figure?”

“Because you’re a scoundrel like me, and we only get to be this age if we watch our backs every second. Anybody who could slice that transmission would be on your watch list, so if it wasn’t you, then tell me.”

“Anyone tell you you’ve gotten crotchety in your retirement?” Lando said.

“Damn right,” Han said. “Having aliens chop my kid’s hand off does it to me every time.”

Lando scoffed. “Is that what this is about? Are you taking this Vong thing personally?”

“Like Annika said,” Han said in a low voice, “he’s my son. It doesn’t get more personal.”

Lando tapped the datapad on the edge of the desk. “Her name’s Molly O’Brien; she’s in Section 31.” He nodded to the brute holding Han, who released him.

“Where can I find her?”

“The prison,” Lando said. “She was nabbed before she could escape the station, but you better hurry... she’s got a death warrant on her.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jorri dropped her flight suit into the laundry chute on her way down the hall. She gave only half a glance in the bedroom on her way past, then stopped and stepped back. She stepped in quietly, not sure what to say or do.

Sebastian was sitting cross-legged on the bed, his eyes tightly shut. All manner of electronic games hovered in the air around him: Terran chess, three-dimensional chess, Strategy, Katiskat, and Dejarik. He was playing against the computer, but the scary part was that, he was playing all of them at the same time. The pieces whirled around their various boards, providing a surreal symphony of beeps and clicks. “Give me a minute,” Sebastian said, not even looking at her. Within seconds each game began playing the victory tune; Sebastian opened his eyes and they dropped gently to the floor. “Just looking for something to do.” Jorri’s mouth was still hanging open. “You okay?” He got up, agitated. “Was there an attack? Are you hurt?”

“How could you...” she stammered.

Sebastian looked back as she pointed at the games, then gave a shrug. “The trick is to not think of them as several games, but of one game fought on many levels. They all operate under relatively similar principles, just different rules. After a while, it’s just like learning to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time.”

Jorri was still reeling a bit. Yes, she always knew that he could do this kind of thing, and she’d seen him play chess with his father once, but... “Doesn’t this strike you as a little...”

His eyebrows met. “I hope you’re not about to say what I think you’re going to say.”

“I’m just a little taken aback,” she said. “I don’t mean anything by it.”

Sebastian turned around and started picking up the boards. “Look, if it bothers you, I won’t do it any more.”

“It’s not that it bothers me. It’s just...” She floundered. “Okay, it bothers me. I’m just worried about you, Bastian. You don’t go out unless we’re together, you don’t answer communications; you’re not acting normal.”

“Comes from being abnormal,” Sebastian replied, stacking the games on a shelf. He came back and hugged her tightly. “It’s okay. I’m not going to turn Borg or anything. I just need time to think about things. Besides, you’re the only person I want to be with anyway.”

The door chimed and Jorri pulled herself away. “I’ll get rid of them,” she said with a quick peck before heading to the door. She was shocked to see the door open and a man standing inside the room. “Hey, you can’t just come barging into the barracks,” she said.

He seemed to barely notice her. “I need to speak with Sebastian Skywalker, immediately.”

“He’s out. Make an appointment.”

Jorri had withstood some of the harshest instructors in the galaxy at the Academy, but somehow she wilted under his glare. “I’m afraid,” Volgo Terraine said, “that I must insist.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

“I’ve heard about her,” Annika remarked as she and Han left Sickbay for the prison. “She escaped custody after she blew up a ship and dozens of people with it. Why would she be interested in this report?”

“Lando said she’s Section 31,” Han said. “It may be that she’s just interested in whatever that senator is up to, but if you want a lead, she’s practically got a blinking arrow over her head.”

They passed the stormtroopers that stood outside the prison and approached the administrator. He seemed to put more stock in their credentials than they’d had from anyone previously, which was a welcome change for Han. “Corporal,” he called, “please escort the visitors to cell 19A. I’m not sure what you hope to get out of her,” he said. “She’s done nothing but curse at anyone who goes in there, including her advocate.”

The stormtrooper led them down the cellblock to a waiting table. Molly O’Brien was pacing on the opposite side of a force field, looking like a small but very angry tiger. “Who the kriff are you?” she demanded.

“Profanity police,” Annika said in a tone that matched hers.

“Guess that’s why the Imps are gonna shoot me,” Molly said without a trace of humor. “Now bugger off.”

“We’re here about your slicing,” Han said, trying to steer this in the right direction.

“Yeah, you work for that slimeball Deniz, don’t you. Guess you get to have me once the Imps are finished.”

“You sliced into our file,” Annika said. “We just want to know why.”

Molly stopped dead in her tracks. “Bloody hell,” she said, “I thought that was for the administrator or something. Why would you be interested in what that bitch Alixus does?”

“Why would you?” Annika shot back.

“Let’s just say I don’t much care for her views,” Molly said. “Or her friends.”

“Who are they?”

“Kriffing ask her,” Molly said. “You still haven’t answered my question.”

Han and Annika looked at each other. “We think she’s somehow connected to the Vong,” he said finally. It’s not like they had anything to lose; if anyone was spying, they could just say that they were bluffing the kid into talking.”

“You’d be thinking right, then,” Molly said. “She’s messed up in this Vong business all right. Your file proves it.”

“How?”

"Several years ago we acquired Dr. Iva Sannet from an Imperial research facility. We also got a great deal of information on some of their humanoid experimentation techniques from their database. Let me tell you, I’m glad I didn’t wind up making any contributions to medical science, given what I heard."

"I'm waiting to hear what this has to do with the Vong," Annika said.

"Just listen. Senator Alixus was responsible for her advancement to head researcher several months before our arrival. I believed that Sannet and Alixus were using the facility to further their own agenda."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Han remarked. "Wanna connect the dots for us."

A brief look of anger passed her face. "My father," she said, a slight change in her tone punctuating it, "told me about Alixus back before he died. He and Captain Sisko ran into her a long time ago, before the Dominion War even. She's a fanatical anti-technology proponent who deliberately sabotaged her own ship to strand a settlement on a world so that she could create a society according to her own belief system. She called it paradise, but it was a totalitarian nightmare where her word was law, even if it meant tortured incarceration or death by incurable disease. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to the New Zealand Penal Colony."

Han nodded, finally understanding. "Order 181Alfa." Shortly after the securing of the Alpha Quadrant the Emperor issued the order that all political prisoners being held by local governments be released.

Molly fumed. "Right," she said with complete contempt. "My father told me what she did to those people, what she did to Sisko and almost did to him... and the bloody Imps let her go and wound up killing him." She glared at them. "And that's the Empire you want to protect?"

"You said she was convicted of murder," Annika said, ignoring the remark. "Why was she released?"

"Alixus' movement had many supporters. They researched the device that created the duonetic field that stranded her people on her world. When the order came down they hired the best legal minds in the Empire, arguing that the murder was a trumped up charge and that she was a political prisoner. She was set free, her record expunged," Molly grinned humorlessly, "and now has a seat in the senate itself."

Han was starting to put the pieces together. "So you're saying she and Sannet were working to further their anti-technology agenda."

"I know it," Molly said. "I have the records, and a confession. But we never figured out why; it was only because of your investigation that it finally became clear. The beetle that you recovered from Belkadan... it was created in an Imperial lab." Molly sat down on the edge of her bunk and fumed. "She had access to countless Vorta prisoners, so she could easily test and determine which had the psionic enhancements."

"Psionic enhancements?" Han asked.

"Some of the Vorta possessed telekinetic abilities," Annika said. "Starfleet never was able to determine why it was present in some but not in others."

"Sannet found out," Molly said. "She discovered that all Vorta have the capacity for it, but it remained undeveloped unless the Founders introduced certain chemicals into them at critical points during their growth. She analyzed their abilities and developed something astounding: an organism that could amplify natural psionic abilities."

"So that’s what the beetles do."

"Right," Molly said. "And I knew she was up to no good with it, but what was the point? Sannet wouldn't tell us, despite our... persuasion. But then we intercepted your communication with Chandrilla."

"Yeah, how'd you know about that?" Han asked.

"We may have broken away from Garak's organization, but we still have access to the relay junction tap that was installed. I set it up to inform me of anything having to do with Alixus. When you brought up the fact that she authorized ExGal-4 I had to know if the beetles were involved."

"Son of a bitch," Han said, getting out of his chair and pacing in anger.

"Bloody Imps are bad enough," Molly said, "but Alixus rang the dinner bell for the Vong. ExGal-4 was never really about searching for extra-galactic life, it was about providing information and resources to the arriving Vong forces. After all, who better reflects Alixus' philosophy towards technology than the Vong?"

"She's probably been working with Nom Anor for years," Annika agreed. "She probably never told the researchers on Belkadan-"

"She just sacrificed them for her cause," Han growled. "It wouldn't surprise me if she warned them about the Eclipse."

"But there's something I still haven't been able to figure out," Molly said. "Why give the beetles to the Vong?"

"The beetles are the key to Vong success," Annika said. "How else could they have so quickly overwhelmed the Imperial defenses? They were operating at an unbelievable level of coordination across impossible distances. By using the beetles to symbiotically enhance the Yammosk they could ensure..." A look of horror crossed her face. "Oh my God."

"What?" Han asked.

"I know what destroyed the Eclipse," Annika said. "The Yammosk. The psychic energy of the Yammosk, amplified to an untold level." She shook her head slowly. "Luke wasn't exaggerating. The Yammosk is more than just some war computer; it's the perfect coordinator of their forces and their ultimate weapon. And our own people are responsible for it."

“Wait,” Han said, “what do you mean?”

“The Yun-Yammka, it’s not some alien or entity; it’s a projection of psychic energy, like a Force push on steroids.”

“Whatever that thing could do before,” Molly said, “it’s probably been enhanced by several orders of magnitude. Bloody stupid Alixus...”

“I’ll bet the Sernpidal fleet we found was a test run,” Annika added. “This is bad, Han. Unless the Yammosk is on Lazeria IV, this thing can operate over vast distances. Any fleet we sent could face annihilation.”

“But it can’t be everywhere,” Han pointed out. “And it can’t coordinate the Vong fleets while it’s in that form.”

“I’m not too sure about that. From what Sebastian told us, this thing is similar to a squid. Its nervous system isn’t like a humanoid’s, with thinking centered in one specific location. That kind of construction is conducive to complex multi-tasking once the system becomes advanced enough for higher level thinking; probably why the Vong used such a species as their war coordinator in the first place.”

“So are you saying it might be able to make more of these?”

“I don’t know, but I would have to say it’s possible.”

“Terrific.”

“’Bout sums it up,” Molly said. “Hope you can do some good with it. I’ve got no love for the Imps, but that Alixus is a bloody monster. I only wish I could see her taken down myself.”

As they left the cellblock Han started thinking. By the time they were safely away from the prison he’d made up his mind. “We can’t let them kill that kid.”

“It’s not a question of letting, Han,” Annika said. “She’s a convicted terrorist, who’s killed dozens that we know of.”

“She’s part of the rebellion,” Han said. “You and I have both been there.”

It was obvious that Annika’s discomfort was more than just with her injuries. “It’s not the same galaxy it was then, Han.”

“You mean we’re not the same people,” Han shot back. “We’ve been ignoring what goes on here. They don’t want the Empire out here, Annika.”

“And do they speak for everyone?”

Han gave her a sideways glance. “When did you become a patriot?”

“I’m not a patriot, I’m a realist. The hours are better and there’s no heavy lifting.” She stopped. “This is a bad situation, Han. The Empire has screwed up royally out here, and there’s support for movements like Section 31 and even Garak because of it. But just imagine what would happen if the Empire pulled out of this area... this whole region would be packed with mini-wars because the only people with the weapons right now are the various rebel factions. You know what would happen to Romulus, Quo’nos, Earth, and any other former center of power in the quadrant. Millions, perhaps even more, would die. Beyond them, countless others would suffer during economic collapse, as trade would trickle to a halt because of safety concerns. Black markets would be the only way goods would be exchanged amidst such a conflict, which would put everyday goods beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. Eventually on such planets there would either be mob rule that would make the post-World War III courts look like a Vulcan civics lesson, or a system where the elite enslaved the populace through their control of the planet’s replicators, transporters, ships...”

“So, what do you suggest? You want me to go back in there and tell that kid to take one on the chin for the good of the economy?”

“I’m suggesting that there may be a solution, but what they’re proposing isn’t it. Just look at my homeworld: the Roman Empire may have been corrupt, but when it fell it led to a thousand years of intellectual darkness.”

“Yeah, you’ve got your philosophy and your history, but where does it leave Molly O’Brien? A regrettable statistic?”

Annika breathed deep through her nose. “Yes,” she finally said.

Han stepped closer, and when he spoke his voice was barely above a whisper. “If Volgo Terraine had taken Sebastian instead of Garak, would you still just write him off?”

“And if Molly had killed Chewie, would you be so quick to get her out?” The air between the two burned with mutual anger. “You do whatever you have to do. I’ve gotta check out her story.”

“Knock yourself out,” he said with a sneer, then turned and stormed off. Unfortunately, the further he walked, the more he knew he didn’t have any idea of what exactly that would be. Leia was out of the question; he knew she wouldn’t risk escalating the anti-Terran sentiment by pardoning her. He could maybe contact Section 31 to help her out... if he had the faintest idea how to do that. Grudgingly, he had to admit that there was only one way to do it.

Quark looked up from behind the bar. “Ah... changed your mind about the holosuite.” Han ignored the remark as he stepped up to the bar. “What’ll be?”

“I’d like to speak with Mr. Calrissian,” Han said in a low voice. “At his convenience,” he added, although grudgingly.

“Absolutely, I’ll make an appointment for you when I can clear some time on his schedule.” Quark’s tone had just enough sincerity to avoid getting beaten to death, a trait that natural selection had made quite common among Ferengi.

“Please tell him that I need to speak with him,” Han repeated in the same tone. “I’m afraid it can’t wait long.”

Quark sighed, but put down the rag. “Just a moment.” He vanished. A minute later he returned and continued cleaning the glass. “He’ll be with you in a minute.”

Han turned around and leaned back against the bar, watching the passing stormtroopers the way he used to... back when they were on the other side. Or rather, when he was on the other side. Between being an Imperial cadet, a Rebel hero, and the Emperor’s aide’s husband, he was having a hard time keeping it all straight. Finally the door to Lando’s office opened and Han straightened up.

“Decided not to let yourself in?” Lando asked.

“Look,” Han said, still speaking in a low voice, “this is important-“

“Everything’s important when it comes to you. Now I’d like to think I’ve been civil with you given our old friendship, but you are disrupting my business, and it’s pretty damn obvious you’re not interested in patching things up. Stay out of my bar.”

“I’m sorry, okay. Look, this isn’t about me, or some nebulous cause or ideal. I need one favor, and I’m out of your hair for good.”

“You’ve used up your favors,” Lando said.

“That kid,” Han said, ignoring him, “just might be able to help us score a big one against the Vong. That shuts down Nom Anor, which shuts down Garak, which leaves you free and clear, just like you want.”

“Ask the Emperor for help,” Lando said, and turned around. Han grabbed his shoulder and turned him back.

“One call,” Han said, “and you can have her out. Do it, and I swear on my kids I’ll never come back.”

Lando gently took the hand off his shoulder. “I’m sorry.” He nodded to Quark, then walked back to his office. Han didn’t resist as the hologram escorted him to the entrance and sent him on his way.



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Part XXXVII


Sebastian had arrived within seconds of Volgo Terraine's remark, standing at Jorri's side across from the bald-headed arrival. "Okay, you wanted to see me. What's so important?" Jorri couldn't help but notice Sebastian was wearing his lightsaber; she didn't know whether to be worried or thrilled about that.

"I'm afraid what we're about to discuss is not for Lt. Sunspring's ears."

Sebastian put his arm around Jorri and pulled her closer. "Then you probably shouldn't tell me, since I'll only repeat everything we discuss to her after you leave."

"You have an assignment for the Emperor."

"I'll be sure to put out the nice tablecloth then."

"Mr. Skywalker," said Terraine with infinite patience, "you haven't forgotten that as a Jedi, you owe your loyalty to the Emperor. I believe there was quite a nice ceremony involved-"

"Fine, what is the assignment."

"The girl-" Terraine began.

"Stays," Sebastian said firmly. "My oath to her is a lot more important."

Volgo Terraine remained stone-faced behind his dark goggles. "You are aware, lieutenant, of the consequences of disclosing classified information."

"Yes." Jorri didn't really need to be here, but she could tell that Bastian wanted her to be. She'd ask him about it once the vulture-like man was gone... preferably on another planet.

Terraine sat down; Jorri and Sebastian did likewise across from him. "Your assignment is to infiltrate a Cardassian stronghold and retrieve Elim Garak."

Sebastian cleared his throat and glanced at Jorri for a moment. "You don't beat around the bush."

"No, I do not. We've obtained Mr. Garak's current location from one of his contacts. He doesn't stay in one place for very long, so time is of the essence. We need you to extract Mr. Garak, alive, within the next forty hours."

Sebastian's grip had grown almost painful, but Jorri didn't want to say anything. Instead she patted him on the back in the hopes of soothing his nerves. "Does Julian Bashir have any advice?" Sebastian asked.

"You will be given a cloaked vessel," Terraine said, ignoring the question. "I understand you can operate one without sensors; that will make infiltration easier. There's a dampening field in place to prevent surprise transports, so you'll have to enter on foot. How you decide to do that is up to you, but we must have Garak alive."

"Why me?" Sebastian asked. "You could drop a battalion down there with weapons on stun."

"The Emperor believes such an act would be too dangerous. He believes that subtlety is what is required. As such, he wishes you to do this."

Sebastian continued to mull it over. "I need an hour to consider," he said finally.

"Very well," Terraine said, dropping a card onto the table. "You can reach me here," he said, then showed himself out.

Sebastian relaxed a little as the door closed, but just barely. "This stinks."

"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," Jorri pointed out.

"That's not what I mean. How does he know where Garak is?

"He said they’ve got an informant."

"Bashir," Sebastian said. He had a lot more time to stay up on current events than Jorri did. "I heard he disappeared shortly after turning evidence to the attorney general. Assumption was that Garak had him eliminated as an example."

"So, Bashir gave up Garak's location," Jorri said. "Except..."

"Except what?"

"Well, Bashir's arrest was common knowledge; Garak would have moved on to a location that wasn't compromised."

He kissed her forehead. "Smart women are so sexy," he said. "I guess boys really do look for women that remind them of their mothers."

"Thanks, Oedipus," she said with a smile, "but that doesn't answer the question. How do they know where Garak is?"

"That's what stinks," Bastian replied. "I'm thinking ISB, and if that's the case, I'm not sure getting involved is such a good idea."

"But there isn't an ISB any more."

"Not officially. That's what's got him so worked up about you being here."

Jorri shifted her position. "It's nice you want to keep me involved," she said, "but I wouldn't have been offended if you asked me to leave."

"No. One thing I decided before I came to you on Tatooine was that I wasn't going to live my life divided like that. I'm not going to have a part of my life that you can't know about."

"You don't want to be alone in it, you mean."

Bastian looked almost shocked. "Did I say you were a smart woman? I seriously underestimated you."

"A mistake you won't live to make twice," she said as she wrapped her arms around him, seeking out a much, much more comfortable position.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Col. Renal's eyes narrowed and his voice took on a tone of menace. "A stay?"

Han didn't back down. "Just to allow enough time for me to contact Chandrilla. I believe Miss O'Brien might be eligible for an Imperial pardon."

The commander looked at him like he had just told the world's worst joke. "A pardon... for a known traitor and murderer. Is the word 'idiot' stamped on my forehead, Mr. Solo?"

"No," Han thought. "Why state the obvious."

"The matter was carefully reviewed and an appropriate decision rendered, and a correct one I might add. She escaped incarceration last time and is a high-ranking member of a known terrorist group. I've had to increase security station-wide since her arrest. Even if I was inclined to believe you, I can't maintain this for days; we're a remote outpost that's barely up to spec."

"This girl could be a key to victory against the Vong," Han lied. Well, theoretically she could, in some scenario Han couldn't begin to imagine. He'd tried it with Molly's advocate, for all the good it had done there. Without anything to demonstrate a need for an injunction, there was nothing anyone could do. This backwater tyrant was Molly's last hope, and it was going every bit as well as Han had imagined.

"You're wasting my time," Col. Renal replied with visible impatience. "Sentence will be carried out per the letter of law; it's one of the few things you rebel peaceniks haven't watered down," he added.

"Thanks for your time," Han said, with just enough sarcasm not to be obvious.

As he reached the door the commander said one last thing. "By the way, tell Calrissian this is cheap. If I'm not going to listen to him, I'm sure as hell not going to listen to you."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika tapped her metallic fingertips on the desk with boredom as she waited for the signal to be processed. It was a minor miracle, really: communicating across the galaxy through a wormhole and back across a second galaxy in virtually real time. That amazing fact did nothing to make her any less restless as countless bits of advanced machinery worked together to violate the laws of physics solely to allow her to have a conversation. Sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but people will still complain if it takes too long to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

A technician finally appeared on the display, the familiar face of Naomi Wildman behind him. “Annika,” she said as the technician moved out of the way, “it’s been too long.”

“It has.” They exchanged a few brief remarks. “Have you been monitoring my beacons?”

“The signal was lost nine hours ago,” she replied, “but Harry’s confident we can use the data we have to narrow down the number of systems.”

“Harry knows what he’s doing,” Annika said. “I was wondering if I could have some time to speak with him?” A quick transfer, and the familiar grinning face was looking back at her. “Nice to see that massive interstellar war has done nothing to damper your good mood,” she remarked with a smile.

“Hey, you spend a few years looking for something, it takes a lot to dampen your mood when you find it.”

“How close are you?”

Harry shrugged. “Hundred fifty systems, give or take. I know it sounds like a lot, but a week ago I was looking at several hundred thousand, so this is a nice break for us.”

“Good. The sooner this whole mess is done, the better.” She leaned a bit closer and lowered her voice. “Are you alone?”

Harry immediately did the same. “Yes. What is it?”

“The beetles on Belkadan; Luke mentioned that he’d found similar ones on Grabun II.”

Harry couldn’t help but let out a disbelieving laugh. “That’s right. Man, how do you remember all this stuff?”

“It’s in the genius-cyborg job description,” Annika remarked. “Were they the same, or did we just assume they were the same?”

“Some of them were the same,” Harry said. “They all looked pretty similar at first, but some were definitely the same species as the ones recovered on Ex-Gal.”

“Where did you find them?”

“Um, give me a second.” Harry frowned as he pulled out a datapad and started flipping through files. “Let’s see... an incubation/stasis chamber. Yeah, that was the weird part; it was Imperial technology. We assume that they co-opted it when they invaded.”

“Not likely,” Annika said. “What happened to them?”

“I kept a couple for samples and handed the rest over to the senate, along with the rest of the excess Vong material.”

“I’m sending you a file containing a genetic code. Could you compare it to your samples?”

“Sure. I should have one of them on file already; should save time for comparison.” Annika waited as Harry ran through the comparison program. “Yup, almost dead on. Very similar stuff.”

“But not identical?”

“Well, no, but pretty close. Just a few variations normal within a single species, but their definitely closely related. Is this from Jacen’s sample?”

“No.” Annika had come across it during a detailed look at Dr. Sannet’s research files. It had been a rather disturbing look into the practices of the Empire, something that made her start to wonder if Han hadn’t been right, at least about the girl. But there was no doubting it any more: the beetles had been manufactured by the Empire and handed over to the Vong at some point, probably at Belkadan. “Harry, tell Naomi to be extra cautious. I have a feeling if you get too close to the Vong base that Yun-Yammka is going to show up.”

“I’ll pass it along.” Annika said goodbye and closed the connection, reflecting on this new information. The facts did support her theory, but there was more to it than that. First, the Vong had some at Grabbun II, which was well outside the dead zone and wasn’t near any of Harry’s suspected systems. This meant that either the Vong had a second use for the bugs as a weapon, or the yammosk was being moved to that location.

A look of horror crossed her face. Or, even worse, the yammosk was reproducing, and the bugs were for its offspring. She didn’t want to think about it, but the prospect of two such monsters in the galaxy was impossible to ignore. If that was the case, had Luke stopped them in time, or had he only changed the location? Whatever the case, there was work that had to be done, and it wasn’t going to get done here. Han would be pleased, she thought as she left Sickbay to look for him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han slowly lowered his drink as he saw Lando approaching. Well, there was no more putting this off. Chin up, back straight, pride swallowed, he got up and intercepted Lando before he got even halfway through the bar. "I don't have time right now," Lando rebuffed.

"I'm sorry," Han said. Lando kept walking. "I mean it," he said slightly louder, "I'm sorry."

Lando finally stopped, then turned back to face him. "For what?"

"You know," Han floundered, "for being a jerk." He stepped closer so he could lower his voice. "I spoke to Col. Renal; he mentioned you had spoken to him about the kid. Thanks for trying."

"Sure," he started to head back, but Han held his shoulder. "I'm a busy man."

"I know; I just need to clear this up." Han sighed a little. "Look, I... I've got a lot of regrets, probably more than most people have got. But the big one is that I turned my back on Luke, and I never got a chance to make it right. I don't want to make that mistake again. I've got too few friends left these days."

Lando wasn't looking at him, but he nodded a little. "My life would probably be easier if I just hated you," he pointed out. Then he turned around and held out his hand; Han shook it. "But it would probably be more boring."

"Thanks." He gave Lando a quick embrace for old time sake; he froze. "Why are you wearing body armor?"

"Can't be too careful these days," Lando said.

Han shook his head. "Try that on somebody else, pal. You're not wearing any kind of casual defense there."

Lando's tone was very serious. "It's nothing. Don't worry about it."

Han leaned close, his voice barely a whisper. "You're up to something. This, and those mercs you had in your office... I won't stop you, but just tell me."

Lando seemed hesitant, then led him back to his office, where he sealed the door. "This room is secure," he said absentmindedly. "Look, Han, this doesn't concern you."

"I thought you were just in information," Han said. "You're too public to be pulling operations for Garak."

"This isn't about Garak," Lando said, sitting on the edge of the desk. "It's personal."

Han sat down. "Kira?"

"Not exactly." He seemed to think it over, but surrendered to the inevitable. "Years back, when I was just expanding, I was trying to set up some trades within the DMZ, and I put Kira in charge. She brought in Miles O'Brien because he'd spent a bit of time with her fighting the Maquis, and so they knew the ins and outs."

"You mean how best to smuggle," Han said with the voice of experience.

Lando gave a flicker of a grin. "Like I said, trade. Anyway, they were on the planet when the ISB attacked.

"I wasn't there to see it myself," he went on, "but I wish I had been. The ISB bombarded the area with some nerve toxin; brutal stuff. They had designed it for extreme circumstances; I'm told even stormtrooper armor won't help. Miles and Kira had sealed themselves inside their ship, but the ISB was destroying anything that tried to leave the planet.

"Maybe they should have stayed; hoped that the ISB would maybe let them go. But Miles said he knew the type, that if they went into an ISB holding cell they'd never come out alive. He told Kira their only hope was to make a break for it."

"But you said the ISB was shooting everyone down?" Han said.

"Fortunately I was planning on using this ship for a lot of... trading. We'd picked up a cloak for a Romulan Warbird and had started our installation."

"A Romulan cloak?"

"We couldn't get an Imperial cloak, and we figured for what we were planning, it would get the job done. Problem was, we needed to mask the engines, which looks kind of conspicuous, so when hadn't finished the job.

"Miles never thought twice about it. He put on an environmental suit and beamed out with the parts to finish the job. But like I said, that stuff can get through even plastoid armor eventually..."

"But he got the job done."

Lando nodded distantly. "Kira could hear the sound of Miles screaming in agony as the stuff started leaking through. She wanted to transport him back, but he told her not to, that unless he finished the job they'd both die. He kept getting worse, could barely operate his tools after a while. As he was finishing he told her that his suit was full of the stuff, that she'd have to leave him behind." Lando grinned a little. "You'd have to know Kira to know why that was funny. She beamed him on board and tried to help, but by then he was convulsing. Kira told me that there was only two things he kept saying. One was for her to get the damn ship out of there." He looked at Han again. "The other was to take care of Molly."

Han wasn't sure what to say at that point. Lando started absentmindedly knocking on his desk. "Exposure to the residue on Miles led to the neurological breakdown that she finally died of," Lando said. "But Miles bought her twelve years at least. Julian, Kira, and I swore that we weren't going to let the Imperials get away with it, and we swore that, no matter what, we'd watch out for Molly." Lando stretched and rubbed the back of his neck. "It's been something of a full time job."

"You're going to try to bust her out, aren't you," Han said.

Lando shrugged. "Kira's gone, Bashir's in custody; who else is gonna do it?"

"So you and a couple of mercenaries are going to break into the prison? Lando, that's crazy."

"I know what I'm doing."

"They've stepped up security," Han said. "They're expecting something like this."

Lando smirked. "Not like this."

Han looked at him sideways. "What are you up to?"

"Let's just say that it will get Molly out, cover my tracks, and avoid getting any innocent people killed."

"Maybe I can help."

"No. You've got your job to do, I've got mine. You've been here too long for your own good anyway."

"Alright," Han said, getting up. "I'll trust you, for old times sake. Just don't go getting yourself killed."

"Same to you," Lando said, shaking his hand one last time and showing him out. He sealed the door again, and the smile vanished from his face. "Sorry, buddy," he said under his breath. He turned and exited through the back entrance, apologizing to his guest.

"It was probably unavoidable," Ben Skywalker said. "I know how stubborn he can be."

"Are you sure you won't need any help?"

Skywalker chuckled while he continued re-assembling one of his Sith weapons. "I was taking out platoons when being a stormtrooper meant something. Just do your job Calrissian; I'll get your little girl out." Lando turned and started to leave. "Just make sure you take care of your part of the bargain, Calrissian."

"The meeting's already been arranged," he said. "Once the girl has been delivered to me I'll give the go ahead."

"No," Skywalker said, "I will retrieve her unharmed, but she will not be delivered to you. I've decided to put her to other uses."

Lando fumed. "We agreed-"

"I'm altering the deal," Skywalker said. He snapped the last piece of the weapon into place and glanced up at Lando with a smile like a shark. "Pray I don't alter it any further."



Chuck

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Part XXXVIII


Night had fallen on Bortal IV, an uninhabited M-class planet that had only slightly more colonization appeal than an asteroid. The lone settlement was a Cardassian base, one of hundreds that dotted the Alpha Quadrant that served as a base of operations for sabotage or piracy, depending on what circumstances demanded.

A maintenance crew sat around a table playing sabacc just off the landing pad. The game had just started becoming interesting as a ship de-cloaked overhead. Before the crew even moved the lower turret had begun firing on one of the ships. They scrambled for the alarm while the guns continued their merciless assault on the helpless ships. Within mere moments, all five were on fire or reduced to scrap.

Sebastian tugged the controls up and brought the ship around. He'd spent hours examining the schematics of the base on the trip here, looking for weaknesses in their security that he could exploit. He found none. Garak, true to his reputation, had been very careful; with a complete array of surveillance devices connected into an optical recognition system, nothing short of major surgery could have avoided triggering the alarm no matter how careful he was.

Of course that didn't make it impossible. Once subtlety ceases to be an option it's amazing how many choices you have, Sebastian reflected as he brought the turret around and blasted the primary communication array. He glided over the base as he took out the back-ups just as the defense turrets began firing. He let his instincts guide him as he finished the back-up arrays and anti-personnel emplacements, then switched on the cloak. He set the ship down gently a kilometer away from the compound. He pulled the helmet of his combat suit on as he ran down the ramp and sprinted across the open country to the base, vaulting up and catching the top of the wall surrounding the burning landing pad. Sebastian pulled himself on top of the ledge and spirited along it, jumping and catching the roof of the building itself.

He ran along the roof, stabbing his saber through weak spots and dropping gas grenades into the ventilation system. The scrubbers would clean it out, but not before he had knocked out enough to even the odds a bit. He cut a much larger hole and dropped in a grenade, waited a few second, then followed it.

He dropped into a corridor full of yellow gas and the sound of Cardassians trying desperately not to breathe the anesthetic. Some had already put on their masks however, but a few Force-guided stun shots from his mini-blaster took care of them. He Force pushed the rest out of the way and bolted past.

Sebastian turned the corner towards the command center and almost lost his head to a heavy blaster cannon. He ducked back around the edge, thinking frantically. For all he knew, that was Garak over there, so he had to play this safe. He switched his lightsaber over to a single blade and gripped it tight in both hands for maximum control. He grit his teeth and charged around the corner, his blade snatching the blasts out of the air as he built up speed, jumped, and planted his foot in the gunner's chest. He hit the wall a little harder than planned, but fortunately it was just one of the soldiers. Sebastian knocked his head into the wall a second time for good measure, then plunged his saber through the doorlock.

He hadn't even entered the room before blaster fire started. He switched his second blade on and leapt into the room. A close shot singed his suit, but he brought his blade around and reflected the soldier's next shot back at her. He knocked the remaining two over, yanked one of their blasters into his hand, pointed at one of them, and-

And stopped.

Time was the critical factor. He had the base cut off for now, but they could have gotten off a distress signal before he took out the towers. He needed to grab Garak before any reinforcements could arrive. Putting these two down with their own blaster would save him time... would be the quicker, easier path. Defending himself was one thing, but killing a helpless soldier when there were other options was something else. He dropped the blaster and pulled his mini-blaster out again, giving them both a quick jolt before turning to the control system. As expected, it was in lockdown, so he started slicing in. A Cardassian squad came halfway through the process, but it was a rather brief interruption. With a sigh of relief he shut down the disruptor field and activated the remote transporter.

Safe inside his ship, Sebastian pulled the bulky helmet off as he sat down at the controls. Garak's age and Obsidian Order implants made him easy to distinguish from the rest of his forces. As the transporter engaged he turned around, blaster at the ready. Before Garak could react Sebastian stunned him, slapped on a pair of binders, and turned back to the controls. He activated the cloak, yanked on the stick, and sent the ship skyward.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The heated arguments taking place among the admirals and generals died down as Leia and the Emperor entered the room. As he took his seat Leia could practically feel the weight on his shoulders. If this was all to make the Empire crumble before the Vong, he was doing his best to keep that fact hidden. "I sense there is some disagreement on how we should proceed."

Admiral Sunhaf was the first to speak up. "Your highness, this weapon the Vong have used against us is an element we had not projected in any previous scenario. The information we provided prior to the attack-"

"No one is looking to assign blame, Admiral," the Emperor replied. "I am more concerned with how we deal with it."

"If I may, your highness," Admiral Sunhaf continued. "My real concern is that our prior projections on the exchange were based on incomplete data. With this new element, we have nothing to support any belief that an attack will succeed."

"While I agree with the admiral's desire for caution," Admiral Huyil said, "the fact is that the Eclipse attack has backfired on us. We have appeared weak in the face of our enemy, and the internal rebellions will only increase as a result."

"We cannot allow political concerns to dictate a military situation," General Chalb said firmly.

"This isn't about politics. Open revolt draws more ships away from the front lines. The only way to counter such rebellion is with a show of strength."

"And if that should backfire on us as well, general?" Admiral Sunhaf asked.

"Then, frankly, begging your pardon, your highness, this war would have been lost regardless. All we would do is delay the inevitable, as it is clear the Vong are not going to stop with the mere foothold they have now."

"I disagree with your conclusions," Admiral Sunhaf said. "It's far safer risking revolution then plunging the fleet into battle against an unknown element which might just wipe us out with a single stroke."

"If I may interject, excellency," said Volgo Terraine. The discussions stopped. "Based upon the movements of Vong forces recorded by our probes and the work of our agents, I believe the Vong have already made the decision for us."

"You mean they are going to attack."

"The build-up of forces along their front-lines suggests it," Terraine said. "My agents project that they have grown over one thousand coralships to help swell their forces. An attack is imminent."

"All the more reason to attack," said Admiral Huyil, "while we still have the advantage."

"All the more reason not to," said Admiral Sunhaf. "If they attack we can engage them in open space rather than attempting to take out their planetary entrenchments."

"The Vong no doubt have the same idea of our capabilities as we did of theirs," Admiral Huyil said hotly. "They would not launch an attack unless they felt they could overwhelm us. If we strike before their ranks swell-"

"-we will have nothing left to resist their reinforcements," General Chalb interrupted.

"Your highness," Leia said over the increasing din, "I believe I have information relevant to this discussion."

"Silence," the Emperor said to the assembled holograms. "What have you learned?"

Leia explained what Han and Annika had learned about the Yun-Yammka, how it was a projection of the yammosk, and how it might be able to project that beast anywhere the fleet may be engaged.

"How certain are you of these facts?" the Emperor asked.

"Seventy percent," Leia said, quoting Annika's figure. "The creature that destroyed the Eclipse was some form of projected psychic energy or Lifeforce; the yammosk is the only creature the Vong possess capable of that."

"That we know of," someone pointed out.

"Yes, hence the thirty percent remainder. However, the circumstances of the attacks, the known nature of the yammosk, and the strategic application of this weapon all point to it. If we are right, then the Yun-Yammka would be capable of moving virtually instantaneously throughout their space. This, plus the threat of the war coordinator, means that the only real path to victory is through the death of the yammosk."

"Which we have been working towards for years without success," Admiral Huyil said. "This is not a solution."

Admiral Kormain spoke up. "Captain Wildman and her crew have devoted those years to this search. I think we should hear her opinion before you dismiss this plan out of hand, admiral"

Naomi rose. "We have the system narrowed down to one of twenty-two. At this point we could launch probes directly into those systems and determine which system and planet the Vong are operating from. Of course, the Vong would almost certainly know this."

"And would either relocate or perhaps even launch a pre-emptive assault," Admiral Sunhaf said. "But perhaps we could have the Twilight standing by for confirmation, and destroy them before they get the chance."

"And repeat the Eclipse catastrophe?" Admiral Huyil asked. "This is our last working Eclipse, admiral; we cannot risk it on this errand."

"I agree," said General Chalb. "If this can move throughout their space instantaneously, then it could arrive and defend the world against our forces. Nothing short of a fleet would be safe, and we're going to need every ship at the front lines to stop those coral ships, war coordinator or no."

Leia could sense that Naomi was thinking intensely about something. "Do you have something to add?" she asked.

The captain jerked to attention again. "No... I just wish to... point out that the Vong has taken no action against our star destroyer despite our proximity. Since the primary target is the yammosk-"

"It's not a question of what, captain," General Chalb said sharply, "it's a question of destroying the target before that thing destroys you."

"Sir, my suggestion is a surgical strike with TIE Bombers, with stormtroopers being deployed to ensure-"

"No disrespect to your command," Admiral Sunhaf interrupted, "but experience shows that the Vong have our stormtroopers outmatched. The only case of victory without overwhelming numbers was the late Jedi Skywalker, and we all saw that even he could not hold out against them forever."

Leia's face betrayed no emotion, although her brother's death was a little too fresh for this kind of casual discussion. It also reminded her that the threat posed by Luke’s real killer wasn't diminished despite the current Vong menace. But flushing out a Sith without winding up dead was a daunting prospect that would have to wait.

"There is another possibility," Volgo Terraine offered. "The Jedi have had success infiltrating Vong worlds."

"Remote scouting is a far cry from surgical elimination of a priority target," General Chalb said.

"Besides," Admiral Huyil added, "the Vong are using those energy grids now. Even a cloaked ship can't avoid detection."

Admiral Kormain spoke up. "But if we used a fleet of bombers, as Captain Wildman suggested, one small ship could probably evade detection long enough to set down on the planet's surface and engage a low-grade cloak, enough to buy a few hours. Would that be enough time?"

The arguments started again, but the Emperor spoke up. "I think the issues are clear; you will receive my decision within the hour." With that, all the holograms disappeared, save one. "I was hoping there would be another way," the Emperor said to Terraine in a weary voice.

"As did I, your excellency."

Leia couldn't remain silent. "What are you suggesting?"

"Only two people have ever escaped a Vong base," Terraine said. "And only one is still alive."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian had strapped Garak into the co-pilot chair after they had escaped into hyperspace. It would take several hours to deliver him to Volgo Terraine; the first was the easiest. Then Garak woke up.

“Quite commendable work, Mr. Skywalker,” Garak had remarked upon regaining consciousness. “I must admit that I doubted you had it in you... I thought a fight like that would be beneath a Jedi like you.”

Sebastian didn’t take his eyes off the instruments. “And I would have thought you wouldn’t underestimate your enemies.”

“Well, give me a little credit for making you work to catch me,” Garak said. He looked Sebastian up and down. “You wear black well. Must have inherited that from your grandfather.”

“Are you trying to get a rise out of me, Garak?”

“Not trying exactly... more just something to occupy the time.”

“I could give you another shot with a blaster,” Sebastian said.

“On someone of my age so soon after I’ve recovered?” Garak made a sound of disapproval. “Wouldn’t do to bring me in dead, would it? The ISB wouldn’t approve.”

“You’re being brought in alive,” Sebastian said, “to stand trial for what you’ve done. And you can skip the part about your crimes versus the crimes of the Empire,” he added as Garak was about to speak. “I’m not interested.”

“I suppose you’re not the most sympathetic ear,” Garak conceded, “since you were the victim of one of my so-called ‘crimes.’”

“You can stop trying,” Sebastian said. “You’re not going to get to me.”

“Mm, perhaps you can tell me that ‘argument is irrelevant?’” Garak chuckled to himself. “Who could have imagined that Borg traits would be hereditary?”

“Maybe I’ll take my chances with the blaster.”

“Now now, mustn’t disappoint the fans,” Garak chastised. “You don’t want to rob the Imperial citizenry of closure do you?” Garak watched the passing stars. “Some thought Nero faked his death. Same with Hitler, and Bin Laden, and Khan. You see, when there’s a devil, it’s very hard to imagine that he could just perish, that he was just as mortal as everyone else. You bring me in dead, and you’ll turn me into something even worse than a martyr, you’ll turn me into a legend of evil.”

“You wish.”

“Very well; then kill me. Right now.” Garak started raising his voice. “Come on! I handed you over to the Vong! You were easy prey, easy! I could do it again if I set my mind to it.”

For the next hour Sebastian kept a strip of bonding tape across Garak’s mouth. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from trying to talk. Eventually, Sebastian removed it; anything was better than that infuriating grunting.

“So, how long have you been an agent for Volgo Terraine and his genocidal ISB?” Garak asked eventually.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sebastian said. "There is no ISB."

Garak's zealous laugh turned his stomach. "Yes, that's quite true. The ISB no longer exists, and as such, is more powerful than ever." He leaned forward, his smile never waning. "You know, Dr. Bashir introduced me to several pieces of human literature over the years, and frankly most of it was rather unimpressive compared to Cardassian standards, but one work did impress me. Oh yes, it was a magnificent glimpse into the human psyche." He leaned almost up to Sebastian's ear. "Catch-22."

"I'm familiar with it," Sebastian said, concentrating on his flying.

"So you know what a Catch-22 is?"

"Of course," Sebastian said with irritation. "It's when the only solution is prevented by the problem that needs to be solved."

"Oh, it's considerably more than that," Garak said. "It's the inherent power of paradox. Like the ISB that you don't work for because it doesn't exist, the one organization in the galaxy with unfettered power because it has been given no power at all. And if you would have actually read the book you would understand precisely why the ISB needed to destroy the Demilitarized Zone."

"Really," Sebastian said, wishing Garak would shut up.

"Yes. The ISB was the symbol of the Empire's unfettered might turned against its citizenry. How long would such a thing be tolerated in the open society the Emperor was striving for? No, the only way to survive was self-destruction; Catch-22. And that's where the power is; unobserved, unchecked, denied by all but feared by the same."

"Ridiculous."

"Is it? Don't you remember the power of Catch-22? It was that it was the ultimate rule because it was never written down. People simply believed in it, and in believing, gave it the power. The power of paradox, the same power that has intertwined you and I more than either of us would care to admit."

"Look," Sebastian said, at his wit's end, "I'm not interested in what you think. You're a self-serving opportunist who lies as easily as I change my socks."

"Well the truth is often a last resort for someone who's wanting in creativity," Garak admitted. "But in this case I'm afraid truth is far more interesting than any fiction I could create. Consider, for a moment, Kro Thrassis, and his involvement in all of this." He seemed to enjoy Sebastian's recognition of the name. "Do you think the Vong have time travel technology? If so, why haven't they used it?"

"I... don't know," Sebastian admitted. The problem had been bothering him for a long time, and he'd never come up with a reasonable explanation.

"Well, let me assure you that they don't," Garak said, "or they wouldn't have come to me seeking it."

Sebastian scoffed. "You have time travel technology?"

"One of my more covert operations," Garak said. "When your father invaded the Vong base looking for you, he became the foremost threat to Nom Anor. So Kro Thrassis had to capture you to eliminate him as a threat. So, I sent him back in time to capture you, and for that you should be very grateful."

"And why is that?" Sebastian asked, not believing a word of it.

"Because by going back in time Kro Thrassis provided the armor your mother needed to win her battle against Darth Whind." Garak's grin widened as Sebastian gaped at him. "The Oracle has been a most invaluable investment in terms of information. But look at the larger picture for a moment: by attempting to capture you Kro Thrassis provided the means for your mother's survival, which means you would now be born to draw your father into the Vong base and become identified as a threat, ensuring that you would need to be captured by any means, even if it meant traveling back in time."

"Even if you were telling the truth," Sebastian said, "it's a paradox. Big deal. You're going on like you invented the whole thing."

"Ah, but you don't see the beauty of this," Garak went on, "a loop within a loop. Because I provided the Vong with the time travel technology, I am an essential part of your existence. And that's why you failed to kill me when you provided my whereabouts to the Republic; you can't destroy me without preventing your entire existence; and if you prevent your own existence, how can you destroy me?"

"Great, it's two paradoxes," Sebastian continued. "Write a paper on it while you're breaking ore at a penal colony."

"But don't you see, Mr. Skywalker, just how it has all come around? The information you provided in an effort to destroy me was the tool the ISB used to drive itself underground, and you bolstered my own support to create the kind of organization necessary to create a resistance force with the connections to kidnap you and hand you over to the Vong, which not only was what drove you to want to turn me over to the ISB, but also what required your father to raid the Vong base... which is what started the entire mess in the first place. And now we sit at the end result: an ISB with the clandestine power to give the enemy of the Vong the righteous tools he needs to destroy the renegade whose power was forged by the ISB's move to become clandestine."

"Do you have a point to your long-winded meanderings?" he snapped.

"Indeed I do," Garak said with an oozing voice and a smile Sebastian wanted to slap off his face. "Because years from now when you look back on this moment where the moebius strip closed in on itself, I want you to remember that you had a choice. You could have dropped me off on a planet and forgotten all about me, or even drawn that saber and killed me as I sat helplessly beside you. You'll remember that I warned you not to bring me in, that I told you that you were about to set an even more dire set of circumstances in motion than the Catch-22 that has brought us right here. This seemingly unimportant moment that you dismissed as a bluff you will curse until the day you die, because it was the missed opportunity. And because the future you will be a product of that fate, you will be forever unable to undo it. You have one chance, this moment here, to prevent it all just by letting me go... but you won't. You don't believe me. You think I'm lying to trick you into letting me go, even though you can sense no deception on my part. That, I imagine, will be the worst part of all: to know that I was telling you the truth all along, but still not accepting it. And perhaps that's the greatest paradox of them all: that a man so bereft of emotion can harbor so much hatred he will destroy himself."

"Your 'Oracle' tell you all this too?" Sebastian finally asked derisively.

"She does have a rather astute vision of the future," Garak said.

"Not likely," Sebastian replied. "If there's one thing my father impressed upon me, it's that the future is in motion."

"Yes," Garak said, leaning back in his chair with satisfaction, "and I suggest you get out of its way."



Chuck

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Part XXXIX


Jorri was relieved that Sebastian had pulled off his assignment without a hitch. He'd seemed pleased to be back home, but she was confused by how distant he felt. She'd hoped that bringing Garak in would help him feel like he'd accomplished something, but it only seemed to have driven him further into his shell.

Volgo Terraine was already waiting for them in their quarters, much to Jorri's displeasure. The man made her skin crawl, and something about him always set Bastian on edge. "Congratulations," he remarked. "Although your role in Garak's capture is going to have to be downplayed, rest assured that the citizens of the Empire are pleased."

"What'll happen to him now?" Sebastian asked.

"He'll be put on trial for what he was done," Terraine said. "It's still being decided whether it will be a military tribunal or conducted in the high court on Chandrilla."

"No chance of letting the local authorities try him, huh?" Sebastian said. "Wouldn't want them to have any feeling of sovereignty."

"Garak's crimes reach far beyond the local government," Terraine said evenly. "Regardless, it is out of both of our hands. I have another assignment for you-"

"I just got back," Sebastian said.

"Yes, you did." Terraine's tone managed to imply that awareness of that fact would have as much bearing on this discussion as his boot size. "The Emperor and I are in agreement; only you can perform this particular assignment."

"It will just have to wait," Sebastian replied.

"He thought you might take this approach," Terraine said, reaching into his jacket. Jorri felt Sebastian drop his hand to his saber, but Terraine pulled out a small holo-projector. He placed it on the table as he stood up. "You know where to contact me," he said, then exited.

"Do you want me to leave?" Jorri asked as Sebastian rubbed his chin in thought, his eyes fixed on the projector.

"No," he said, still not looking at her. "I have a bad feeling about this," he added as he switched it on.

The Emperor was seated before them, a small smile set in a grim face. "Hello, Sebastian, and to you too, lieutenant."

Jorri's eyes bugged out and looked at Sebastian, who was looking back with the same expression of shock.

"I realize," the Emperor went on, "that you must think that Terraine is trying to use you, so I want you to understand that this matter is of great importance to all of us. Sebastian, remember what I told you on Earth, about the future? As I've said, I've seen it, which is how I know that when you see this, you will be sitting to the right of your love. Might I add that I'm pleased you didn't allow my news to sway your judgment on that affair."

"What news?" Jorri asked, but Sebastian held up his hand for quiet, entranced.

"I trust you will see that this is not an attempt at deception," the Emperor continued. "And I want you to know, Sebastian, that I would not ask what I'm about to if there were any other way, or if I wasn't certain you were up to it. Thanks to your mother's efforts, we've learned the source of the Vong's ultimate weapon."

Jorri listened in disbelief as he described the origin of the infamous Yun-Yammka and its tie to the yammosk. At the mention of the creature she felt Sebastian stiffen, but she squeezed his hand to provide some comfort.

"The Vong attack is imminent," the Emperor said, "and with the Yun-Yammka and the war coordination I do not believe we can resist them. There is only one way to give us a chance of overcoming the Vong, the yammosk must be destroyed. Unfortunately, the presence of the Yun-Yammka makes any conventional attack impossible without seriously thinning our numbers at the front. However, we can slip a small fighter past their defense and transport someone into the Vong base."

Jorri wasn't sure who was gripping whom harder. They can't ask him to do this! she thought.

"You're the only person left who has escaped the Vong," the Emperor said. "You have an intimate understanding of them. You are the ideal candidate, except for one obvious problem. You can say no, Sebastian; there are other Jedi. But, you do have an edge over them. You can turn what the Vong did to you against them. The choice is yours; I hope it is a wise one." The hologram blinked off.

"Forget it," Jorri said firmly. "They can't expect you to face that thing again." Sebastian was silent, still staring at the projector. "Somebody else can do it."

"'Destiny will call you,'" Sebastian said, quoting his father. "'Be strong.'"

"Bastian," Jorri said, forcing him to look at her, "you don't have to do this."

"There's no choice, Jorri."

"That's a crock, Bastian!" she shouted. "You don't have to be some kind of savior just because people tell you you are! Make your own choices."

"I never asked for any of this," he agreed, but she could hear the agony in his voice. "I never asked to be a Jedi or a Borg; those choices were made for me by circumstance, but they make me what I am." Jorri embraced him tightly. Quietly, almost a whisper, she heard him. She recognized from her Terran Literature course at the Academy; it was from the most famous work of John Milton. "'Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me Man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?'"

"Whatever brought you here," Jorri said, "the choice is yours. Make the one you want to make, not the one you think everyone wants you to make."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The guards on the engineering deck of the station looked up in surprise as the turbolift doors opened. Their weapons were out and pointed as a group of Breen stumbled out. "This is a restricted area," the sergeant said with irritation. He'd been telling them to get those damn turbolifts fixed for a week, but all the repair crews had been assigned to repairing Calrissian's bar.

The Breen answered with a static-like response. The sergeant glowered at it. "Your translator is malfunctioning. Now get off this deck, and head somewhere else... preferably to someplace where they teach Basic."

The Breen continued trying to argue, but was pushed aside by the one behind him. The Imperials managed to get a shot off, but the suddenness of the attack had caught them unprepared. The Breen slung their blaster rifles as the guards slumped to the floor, stepping over the fresh corpses to look over the controls. It looked like they were safe so far. The lead pointed down the corridors, and two Breen began firing gas grenades. As gas poured into the rooms the others swept in, blasting any of the personnel who were trying to find the alarm or a mask.

As the last slipped into unconsciousness, the lead Breen pointed back they way they came. One left and began welding the lift door shut while two more began laying booby traps along the hall. The rest released a chemical spray to dissipate the gas. As quickly as it had come, the room was cleared of the anesthetic. The lead Breen pulled his helmet off.

"Okay," Lando said, tossing the helmet aside. "Let's get to work on this reactor."
--------------------------------------------------------------

It felt like an eternity as Sebastian waited for the communicators to connect him with the Falcon, and all it did was make him more torn on what to do. Thankfully the familiar image appeared on the screen. "Sebastian," Annika said with a smile, "I've been wondering what you've been up to. You never call your mother."

"Yeah yeah yeah," he said, "I'm the neglectful son. Just wait 'til I put you in a home."

"I don't need a home. All I ask is that you wheel me in off the porch when it starts to rain."

He chuckled a little, but it wasn't easy. "Mom, I've got a bit of a dilemma."

"What about?"

"It has to do with, well, with what I'm doing with myself, with my responsibilities." He tried to think how to broach the subject. "The Emperor has an assignment for me, and I'm not sure if I should do it."

"What's the assignment?" she asked.

"They haven't said exactly," Sebastian lied. He didn't want her overprotectiveness to cloud her judgment. "I'm just trying to decide if this is what I should do."

"Whether you're obligated, you mean?" Annika said with a small smile.

"Sort of."

"You're not," Annika said firmly. "Unless you caused whatever they want you to fix, or promised that you would, then you're not obligated. I know you took that whole Jedi oath thing... I guess I still don't know what that was about. You'll have to decide what that means for yourself."

"That's the problem," Sebastian started, but then paused. Did he cause the problem? After all, if he hadn't been at the original Vong base, the Empire could have stopped this whole thing before it started... Or maybe not, considering the Yun-Yammka, and whether they would have even known about it if he hadn't been there in the first place. Great, he thought, instead of clearing things up, they're even murkier than they started.

"Ask yourself this, Bastian," she said, "is this something that needs to be done?"

"Yes."

"Are there other people that can do it better?"

"Maybe," Sebastian said. "On the one hand, I have the best chance, but on the other..."

"You're not sure you'll be able to do it?" Annika asked eventually.

"Yes," he admitted weakly.

"Well, only you know what you can do. I believe that you can overcome anything if you'll try; you've come so far already. But if you don't think you can, don't believe you can, then maybe you should reconsider."

"But father wouldn't back down," Sebastian pointed out. "Now matter how hopeless-"

“Okay,” Annika said sternly, “that’s the problem. You are trying to measure yourself against your father’s accomplishments.”

“And you’re saying I should accept not being him,” Sebastian said. “I know, I know-“

“That’s not it. Sebastian, when your father was your age, he wasn’t even a Jedi yet. He hadn’t learned patience or prudence, hadn’t realized that he still had a long way to go.” She stopped for a moment, and even across the distance he could sense grief at the mention of him. “Your father accomplished some amazing things in his life, and you should be proud to be his son. But don’t feel you have to compare yourself to him; you’re not him.”

“But my point is, he wouldn’t back down from this. He didn’t back down from trying to find the Vong, despite the odds.”

“That was different.”

“How, exactly?” he demanded.

Annika thought about it, then began reciting a poem:

"’Have you heard of a story that gossips tell

Of Burns of Gettysburg? No? Ah, well:

Brief is the glory that hero earns,

Briefer the story of poor John Burns:

He was the fellow who won reknown,--

The only man who didn't back down

When the rebels rode through his native town;

But held his own in the fight next day,

When all his townsfolk ran away.

That was in July, sixty-three,--

The very day that General Lee,

Flower of Southern chivalry,

Baffled and beaten, backward reeled

From a stubborn Meade and a barren field.’"

"Queer rhythm," was all Sebastian could remark.

"I think it's catchy," Annika remarked, then turned slightly introspective. "I never told you the story of Burns, did I? So much history throughout the galaxies, it's hard to squeeze it all in."

"How many books can you fill with the names of all the generals who seemed so important in the moment," Sebastian wondered aloud, "and who are now forgotten to all but a few dusty old scholars? Present company included," he added with a grin.

"Well, before you write this dusty old scholar off, let me tell you that you are wrong. Burns wasn't a general, and he wasn't a soldier."

"Then why is there a poem about him and the battle?"

"Because this dusty old man, seventy years old in a time when advanced medicine was hacking off a limb, walked out and joined the Wisconsin regiment who had just arrived there to defend Gettysburg against the rebel forces." She shook her head with a smile. "They must have thought he was crazy. Veteran of a war half a century ago, carrying an old musket into battle, he must have been quite a sight. What could this one man hope to accomplish for the battle or the country?"

"But he helped turn the tide and win the day," Sebastian finished.

Annika grinned. "Wrong again. He was wounded several times and left behind when his group was forced to retreat... but he survived. But it wasn't about that, Bastian. He wasn't expecting to perform a miracle, and he didn't act out of obligation to a cause or ideal. What it came down to was the simple fact that these rebels wanted to take his home, and there was no way in hell this old man was going to let them do it without a fight."

Sebastian nodded a little. "No matter what anyone else said. Not even his own family.” He laughed a little. "Stubborn old bastard."

"No," Annika said, chuckling at the memories. "He was always willing to find the middle ground, always willing to sacrifice for the peace. But he was always ready to stand firm when the situation demanded... I swear he was a bottomless source of strength."

"So if father were here-"

"If your father were here, he'd do what he'd do," Annika said. "But you're not him, and you shouldn't try to be. No poems were written about those young boys from Wisconsin, but were they any less brave to stand on that field with John Burns? Or their wives back home who stepped up and did what needed to be done despite being the 'weaker sex?' What they have is the pride of knowing that they were doing what their hearts told them needed to be done, and that's the kind of hero your father was. So if you want to be like him, then be willing to not be like him."

"Catch-22?"

"Catch-22."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Col. Renal looked up with irritation as the aide rushed into his office. "This had better be good," he said through his teeth. "I was just sending a report to the general on the status of our prisoner." Renal had been called on the carpet for the mess with the shape-shifter, and now that O'Brien girl was his only real shot at salvaging his reputation.

"Sir, there's a problem with the reactor," the aide said quickly. "It looks like sabotage."

"Have they cut the power?" the colonel replied.

"No, they seem to be trying to cause an overload. We've tried overriding it, but it looks like they've physically cut the connection."

He thumped his fist on the desk. This assignment was the black hole from which his career would never escape. "Send down two platoons; I want them dead!"

"Yes, sir," the aide said as he stepped aside, giving the order. "Frankly, sir,” he continued, “we may not have that much time."

"If that damn Section 31 wants to kill everyone on the station, let them," he snapped. He flopped back in his chair, infuriated at this turn of events. But as the seconds pressed on, his conscience got the better of him. He may be corrupt and self-centered, but he wasn't a monster. "Order an evacuation," he said, "just to be on the safe side. And I want that prisoner escorted under heavy guard; nothing short of a juggernaut is going to take her out of our hands, do I make myself clear?"

"Yes sir," the aide said, turning and exiting the room. Moments later across the station claxons began sounding, and a calm but serious voice ordered all people to abandon the station.

Ben Skywalker looked up with a grin and took another sip of his drink. This was going to be fun.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was sitting alone in the dark when Jorri returned from her assignment. When the lights came up she noticed he'd traded his combat suit for his Jedi robes; she had an inkling of what that meant.

"I've decided to try," he said, not looking at her.

Jorri came over and sat down next to him, trying to think of what she could say. All that came out was the one thought that dominated her mind. "Why?"

When Sebastian spoke, it was filled with both resignation and conviction. "This whole thing is partly my fault. Father had a choice: to wait for the Empire to attack, or to rescue me first. He chose me, and because of that we're now in this mess. I have to make this right." He sighed. "And then I think of all those people back in the DMZ who died because of my mistake-"

"Bastian," Jorri said, "you've got to stop beating yourself up over that."

"I think about all the people that could die if the Vong aren't stopped," Sebastian continued. "I can save them, Jorri; I can try to make up for that mistake."

"Bastian," Jorri said, trying not to cry, "I believe you're strong, but I- I can't forget what they did to you." Officer or not, it finally managed to find its way out. "I don't want them to take you away from me again," she said, weeping a little.

"I know," he said, his voice hollow. "That's why I want you as my pilot."

Jorri was taken aback, and her grief stopped for the moment. "What?"

"I want you to pilot the ship," he said. "You always were a better pilot than me, anyway."

"I'm not so sure of that."

"Don't kid me, Jorri. I've got the Force, but you've got talent and practice. You can do this. And, if I know you're there, if I know that you're waiting for me on that ship, then I think I can do this."

Jorri held him tight. "I'll go anywhere with you. Just promise me you'll be coming back."

"You know I will," he said. When the embrace broke Jorri went to the bedroom to start packing; it gave her something to do to keep her mind off what was about to happen. A few minutes later Sebastian entered. "It's all set. Took a little convincing, but he's arranged a temporary reassignment for you to carry out this mission."

"Already?" she said with disappointment. "I thought we'd have a little time."

"No, we don't. The Vong are ready to take the fight to us." Sebastian picked up his lightsaber, looked at it carefully, and attached it to his belt. "And I'm not going to stand here and wait."



Chuck

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