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 Post subject: Unity V: Blood of Heroes, Redux (Complete) PostPosted: 2006-06-12 06:12pm
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This is a follow-up to Paradise Lost; at this point, nothing makes sense if you haven't read the previous stories.

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

Part I


Like a knife cutting through black velvet, the star destroyer slid slowly through space towards the blue-brown world. As it approached, others joined it, emerging from hyperspace –in astronomic terms– on the planet's doorstep. Vong defenses were already scrambling; it was going to be a race.

Without a moment's pause two squadrons of H-Fighters launched from the lead star destroyer and raced towards the planet. Within their midst, as out of place as a Klingon at a beauty pageant, a single TIE Bomber soared in its protective cocoon. Vong skippers were already approaching; it would be close.

Coralships were already engaging the star destroyers, and the space above the world was alight with the beautifully horrible glow that comes from continent-battering energy weapons striking armor. Without concern for the battle behind them, the fighters raced on. They neared the atmosphere as the skippers approached. One squadron broke off to engage them; the other shifted their positions to continue to provide cover for the bomber. However, whoever was running things for the Vong was clearly suspicious of anything that was entitled to an escort, and they continued to pursue the bomber. Even as the fighters began tearing into them, the skippers remained focus on the bomber. Soon the space around it was filled with weapons fire as its escort tried to keep them away. Half a minute later, it was alone, a new squadron of skippers already approaching. The pilot dipped it into the atmosphere where he'd have the advantage, his eyes glued to the targeting computer. The old Sienar-era ship still had a few tricks up its sleeve, and he kept the skippers from getting too close. He counted down as the target approached, his eyes flitting between the HUD, the view in front of him, and the targeting computer. As the computer lit up and a beep indicated the position, he hit the button, and the side pod fired its target. Even as it cleared he yanked back and headed for space.

The skippers pursued the TIE, ignoring the projectile plummeting towards the planet. It was vaguely egg-shaped and as black as infinity itself, ringed with the reddish-orange tinge of superheated air as it dropped towards the planet's surface. It left a trail of fire behind it like a falling star, its heat-absorbing armor the only thing ensuring the contents wouldn't meet the same kind of end.

By the time it reached thirty kilometers above the planet's surface the Vong on the ground realized that it was neither debris nor an energy weapon. The surface cannons began firing in the hopes of detonating the potential bomb before it got within range, but it did something they hadn't expected: it opened. There was a single slowing burst of energy before the sides of the pod exploded away and twisted off in the distance, leaving a roughly humanoid-shaped suit streaking towards the surface. With only a slight movement it skidded out of the way of the passing energy beams, still continuing its suicidal head-first drop. Retro-rockets were already firing, slowly reducing the speed, but still the metal glowed with the heat of re-entry. It dipped to the right and back to avoid a passing energy beam.

A coralskipper came out of the clouds to intercept him, weapons firing. The suit jerked hard to avoid both as it roared past. A hand slapped a hatch, which opened, dropping a cylindrical object into its grip. As the skipper came around again the suit tossed it end over end like a throwing knife. It didn't strike the ship; instead it simply spun through the air until the skipper flew directly into it, with explosive results. The suit neatly slipped out of the way of the passing fireball, then checked the altimeter. At ten kilometers, the rockets burst off; by now the meteoric drop had been turned into merely a stomach-twisting plummet.

Clouds were everywhere now, and the Vong weapons continued to pound the air around the dropping figure. Still, like a witch dancing through raindrops, the descending figure managed to avoid every single one. It wasn't that it was zigzagging; every slight move simply ensured that it wasn't where a passing bolt was about to be. It was like a high-speed slalom with an extra dimension to worry about, but there was nothing in its graceful movements to suggest even the hint of nervousness. At five kilometers a small chute opened, slowing it down even further. It also impeded mobility, but only slightly, so that the figure seemed to laze out of the way of the Vong bombardment. Soon the clouds were above instead of below, and the smear of color now was identifiable as roadways and buildings to even the untrained eye. The second, large parachute was opened, and the figure jerked at the sudden drag, and suddenly was no longer falling face first, yet there wasn't a single moment when the evasive movements were sharp or erratic. Handles were pulled and rockets fired to assist at these low speeds, but it was as if someone had dropped a Jawa on a ballet dancer and the performer didn't seem to notice.

With a gentleness that shouldn't come from someone who'd fallen from orbit, the figure touched down on the roof of one of the taller buildings, narrowly avoiding being skewered by the antennae, sensors, and other towers that projected from its surface. One button released the chutes, which flailed off in the high winds. The second caused a panel to slide back on the chest, revealing a flashing red button. The figure pushed it, and the armor opened and dropped off, leaving only the helmet. There was a bang as a hatch opened nearby and the Vong started to climb onto the roof. The moment the first had its footing it charged, but the helmeted figure made a slight gesture, and it tumbled over the edge of the roof. There was no scream, even though a five hundred meter plunge meant certain death. A scream would imply fear, and the Vong didn't believe in fear. Well, they did, but fear was something that happened to other people. There was Vong, and there was other people... the weak, the unworthy, the afraid. But the ones who climbed out after their comrade stayed back; not from fear, of course, but from caution. They'd learned, at some great price, there was a third category, those with the strength and heart to stand against a Vong in battle. They waited as he reached up to remove his helmet, partly out of respect for the duel, partly to avoid the same fate as their late companion.

Sebastian Skywalker tossed the helmet aside. His hair stuck to his head with sweat, but other than that, he looked as if he'd just stepped off a shuttle. In one motion he unslung his lightsaber with his right hand and lit both violet blades. The rising and falling hum as he slowly spun it with one hand mixed with the sound of the wind as it buffeted the three of them. He didn't take the time to give some clever or witless remark like "Mind if I drop in?" or "Watch that first step," like some mindless adventure holo. Perhaps it would steady the nerves for other people, but in his case, that wasn't necessary. When he fought, it may have been with the skills of a Jedi, but inside his head was the frosted machinery of a Borg, emotionless and calculating. Nevertheless, he was still human and only killed when he had to. Sebastian knew the value of all life; in these circumstances, down to the decimal point.

He stepped forward. The Vong, well-trained warriors in their own right, quickly adopted a joint strategy when fighting an outnumbered opponent. The one engaged Sebastian while the other circled around behind to attack where he was exposed. Except, as his amphistaff struck, he wasn't exposed. The opposite blade was catching the blows without the front missing a beat. They were strictly defensive, but infuriatingly, he seemed to be controlling the situation. He was drifting slowly across the roof, and the two Vong found themselves dragged along to maintain their assault. The wind howled around them, but above it all was the clear, crisp sounds of impenetrable weapons slamming together like a titan eating a mountain range.

Sebastian's strategy seemed to change. It wasn't that he was moving on the offensive, just that it was no longer the simple expedient strokes of defense. He was swinging much wilder now, more like a dance than a fighting technique. They were pointless swings, the kind of showmanship egotistical fencers employ because they never face a real enemy, but the blades were still moving so fast they'd become a blur, still blocking every advance, high or low, front or back. Had it not been for the noise of wind and war they would have heard him counting down under his breath. As he reached single digits his movements somehow became faster, almost desperately quick, despite the fact the Vong were no longer even getting close with their blows.

"Zero," he said, his voice full of spite, as if the number itself was the source of all his worldly troubles. He swung his right foot back while he brought the blade around hard. It struck the armor, but the armor refused to yield. Instead, the warrior did, falling backwards over Sebastian's outstretched ankle even as the Jedi shoved the blade forward like a lance through the other Vong's eye. Before the body started to fall Sebastian stepped forward, shutting off the lightsaber and reaching towards the tower.

It was then clear that the legs had been sheered through, and that only the smallest nudge was required to send it toppling forward. It dropped on the remaining Vong, leaving him pinned beneath the network of crossbeams. Sebastian didn't stop to check; instead he ran to the edge and secured a cable to it, letting the other end unwind down to the distant ground. He pulled himself over the side and began to rappel down the side. It was half a kilometer, so it took time, unfortunately. It gave Sebastian time to think. "A few more seconds," slipped from his lips. He'd been so close at getting both, at ending the fight without killing, but he knew the longer he took up there, the more time the Vong would have to prepare, and the more he might have to kill later. It was the horrible balancing act of the Jedi: kill now to try to avoid killing later, or spare now and risk having to kill far more. It was the paper-thin boundary between defense and attack, between light and dark. A few more seconds, and he could have done it, he thought.

But you don't know that, he thought again. A few seconds here, a few seconds there, and suddenly it's Remus all over again... or did you like killing a dozen Kazons? There comes a time when the hard decisions have to be made, when mercy for the few must take a back seat to mercy for the many.

He wondered for a moment if that was a bit too Borg, then decided against it. A Borg wouldn't have thought that way... mercy is a zero sum equation.

His boots hit the steelcrete, and he took off, his arms and legs pumping almost without effort as he drew on the Force. He ducked behind a nearby wall as two Vong rode by on Kyar-beasts at at least seventy kph. So, they knew he was there, but did they know why? He slipped into the shadows and moved as quickly as he dared, finally spotting the target. Yes, they'd figured out what he was up to, but, unfortunately for them, they were thinking like Vong. He slipped closer. This was the dangerous part; the Vong were empty space as far as his Force senses were concerned. There was no way for him to tell if they were aware of his presence, or even suspicious, if they were preoccupied or off guard. All he had were instincts honed by experience and twenty years of tactical analysis. Fortunately, as he reached to his belt, it looked like it was enough.

Transport-scrambling technology was decades old throughout the Empire, but even after all this time the Vong still hadn't perfected their own versions. It was probably their xenophobia, Sebastian thought; the transporter was such an abomination to them that they refused to study it. Their blind efforts to thwart the device had made almost no headway, and, much to the Vong's distaste, the Imperial devices found on captured worlds were allowed to function in the same way as the replicators, disposals, and other mechanical devices that allowed galactic civilization to function. This kept the hostages alive and thus had drawn out the conflict, giving the Vong a chance to hold on to their shrinking territory until more forces arrive... but that didn't mean they had to like it.

Unfortunately, they hadn't considered that their enemies knew the technology better than they ever would. Sebastian immediately thought of thirty-seven ways to shut down that scrambler... the Vong had prepared to stop four of them. Sebastian settled for number three as he activated the timer and, with Borg-enhanced strength, tossed the sphere. There was a high-pitched ting sound as it struck the wall, and then the high-powered ion grenade detonated, leaving the stink of ozone in the air as all electronic devices within a hundred meters shut down.

There was silence, and then a hum that indicated there wouldn't be silence again for quite some time.

The ground shook, and an armored foot the size of a shuttle dug into the steelcrete just a few meters from where Sebastian was standing. The Heavy Walker turned its head and dealt with the scrambler using a variant on method number one, which the Vong were unable to stop. The air was alive with weapons fire as armored vehicles and squads of stormtroopers faced off against the nimble Kyar-beasts, the giant lumbering Fan'cals, and the swarms of Vong warriors that now streamed out into the streets. But Sebastian remained in the shadows. This wasn't his fight; he wasn't even here. He flipped on his comm link. "Status?" he whispered.

"Another twenty seconds, sir," came the response.

"The battle's already started!" Sebastian hissed.

"The captain insisted on deploying first," came the helpless reply.

"Then get them out as quick as you can," Sebastian said. "There's twenty-six prisoners."

"Twenty-four, sir."

Sebastian screwed his eyes shut; he wanted to thump the wall, but that would only attract attention. "Understood." A minute later he appeared in the transporter room on board the star destroyer. Gorren was waiting for him. "Who were the casualties?" Sebastian asked.

"Bensen and T'lork," the Klingon replied. He read Sebastian's mood. "But they died fighting."

"We needed them alive fighting," Sebastian said, storming out of the room, Gorren rushing to catch up. The two swept into the turbolift.

"You look angry," Gorren observed.

"Part Betazoid, are you?" Sebastian remarked.

"Going to thump someone?"

"I'm a Jedi; we're not allowed to thump."

"I think you'd feel much better if you did. Good for the heart." Sebastian said nothing; finally the doors opened onto the bridge. The captain turned as Sebastian and Gorren marched out of the lift, his executive officer stepping to his side.

"By the Sith, what is that?" said the XO, looking at the Klingon.

"Mr. Skywalker brought it on board," the captain replied.

The XO looked Gorren up and down again. "Does it do tricks?" he asked.

Sebastian stopped in front of the captain. "Your orders were to wait until the POW's were secure before you invaded."

"And give up the element of surprise?" the captain replied.

"Two died because of your breach of command."

"What command?" the captain said smugly. "What orders? Or are you admitting that you were here and that the ISB was involved?"

"I needed those men-"

"Bush rebels are a dime a dozen," the captain said dismissively. "Better them than one of my AT-HT crews."

"Ten seconds would not have made a difference," Sebastian said, a rumble in his voice. "But it was everything for men and women in the Vong cells."

"The Empire doesn't need the backwater aid of inbred civilians to end the Vong threat," the captain said. "It doesn't need your simian-like allies. And despite what you might think, Mr. Skywalker, it doesn't need you. You should be happy I let them get beamed out at all. Now, if you don't like it, feel free to go and complain... but since you don’t exist, who will you tell?"

Sebastian took a deep breath through his nose. "Gorren, thump."

Without a moment's thought the Klingon's fist hit the captain in the face, lifting him off his feet before he dropped solidly on the floor in an unconscious heap. "It's the only trick I know," the Klingon said with a grin to the XO.

Everyone had been reaching for their blasters, but the snap of the lightsaber activating froze them like a premature ice age. Sebastian's voice was quiet, but in the silence of the bridge it filled every corner. "Before you make the next move, here is what the future will hold. The captain will be reassigned; nothing beneath him, but someplace where he won't be able to cause much harm. The commander," he indicated the XO, whose eyes were flitting between Gorren's dagger and the Klingon's toothy smile, "will have a choice of remaining with his captain, or remaining with his ship. The rest of you... you get to decide whether you value your captain's pride over your lives. You see, gentlemen, I may not really exist, but I assure you, the people I answer to do... and they have a very, very long reach." He shut down the saber and gave Gorren a tap on the shoulder, his eyes drifting over the assembled officers and crewmen. Together they turned and walked back towards the turbolift. No one dared to try anything.

"Tell me," Gorren said under his breath, "whose side are we on again?"

"Our side," Sebastian replied.

"Ah, good. I'm glad someone is."
--------------------------------------------------------------

No one noticed the humanoid in the restaurant. It wasn't that he was hiding in the shadows, or that he was trying not to attract attention, it was that he had simply blended right into the surroundings. If the dictionary had required a picture for "typical unnoticed restaurant patron," his image would not be in there, because the photographer wouldn't have noticed. It was a survival trait; it had allowed Nom Anor to not only avoid capture, but to walk unencumbered amongst the people currently fighting a bitter war against his own. He was the Yuuzhan Vong's primary insurgent, a man with more connections throughout both galaxies than most private governments. Nom Anor's operations covered everything from minor mob activities to manipulating the Senate itself.

The latter was the reason he was here on Chandrilla, the capital of the Empire. It could be considered an extreme risk; he was the most wanted man in the galaxy. His safety was that no one knew who he was really... an assortment of aliases and forged identification cards and falsified ship markings, not to mention the fact that no one had ever seen his true face, was the best shield there was.

He glanced up as a woman slid into the chair opposite him. There was a whine on the edge of his hearing, and he knew she was carrying a personal scrambler to protect them from anyone who might be listening. She talked while she pretended to look through the menu. "You said this was urgent."

"The Empire has taken Kordel, Senator," Nom Anor said.

Senator Alixus froze, but just for a moment. "I haven't heard that."

"I'm sure you will soon enough. Why did we receive no warning?"

"I don't know!" she said sharply. "Kordel was on my list of targets to watch. If there was an attack being planned, I should have known."

"Should have," Nom Anor said. "I'm concerned that our partnership is not very equitable."

"Look, I'm doing the best I can," she said. "I have stuck my neck out very far on this, but for years now your territory has been shrinking. You came to me with great promises, Mr. Anor, but it is starting to sound like it was posturing. What about the beetles we gave you?"

"We've tried, but your Jedi killed the last four yammosks before we had barely started. They may be powerful, but they attract unwanted attention."

"Can't you guard it better?"

"Do you think we are stupid?" Nom Anor dabbed at his mouth with a napkin in a nondescript fashion. "You understand natural relationships. The Jedi is simply far too efficient of a predator against the Yun-Yammka. Until he is dealt with, we cannot risk losing another yammosk. Without them, we would have to pilot the coralskippers and Fan'cals ourselves. We tried that, and it was not our finest hour, senator."

"I've told you before," Sen. Alixus said darkly, "the Jedi is beyond my reach, and he's not the only one."

"If we are to succeed," Nom Anor said, "you have to find something."

"The girl-"

"Too well protected," Nom Anor said. "And given our experience with his father, I'm not inclined to stick my neck out to grab someone and only make matters worse."

There was little else said, but in the back of Nom Anor's mind, he was already considering. Was it time? Should he take his chance now, or would he only be exposing himself? Every day the Empire pushed further and further into Vong territory, but had it pushed far enough? Too far? He finished the meal and exited, still weighing the possibilities.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kyp Durron strode into the tavern with the personal warmth that always comes from being with friends the first night of leave. After a three month duty against the Hirogen, it was a welcome opportunity for him to buy a round for the fighter jocks under his command that had survived the ordeal. Fortunately, there were lots of drinks to order. In minutes the group had practically taken over the small bar, laughing and carousing in the manner of people who have had to stand at quiet attention for far, far too long.

Suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he had one of those gut feelings he often had when he was in the thick of things in a dogfight. He flinched as a hand tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and saw a dark robed figure; the person's presence drove him back a step into the bar. A few members of his squadron stopped and looked. "He bothering us, sir?" asked Lt. Gail. There was no "me" in a squadron, only "us." It kept you all alive.

"What do you want?" Kyp asked, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.

The hood was pulled back, revealing a red and black mask. For some reason it chilled Kyp to the bone. "Your life," it said coldly.

Even as they pulled their blasters the masked man gestured. Half the squadron was tossed off their feet backwards. Kyp jumped at the figure, but with a single fluid motion he had sidestepped the pilot and driven an elbow into the back of his neck, knocking him to the floor in a daze. The masked figure's other hand had already pulled out a lightsaber, its red blade catching the blasts of the remaining members of the squadron and sending them back into the crowd. It took only a couple swings more to finish that group off. Then he spun and leapt in the opposite direction, blade already dancing before him. The room was filled with the rising and falling hum of the blade and a symphony of screams. Kyp pulled himself to his feet as the masked figure turned around to face him. In less than half a minute he had done what the Hirogen couldn’t. Kyp pulled out his blaster, but it tugged from his hand and flew across the room, where it was caught with ease. "Why?!" he half shouted, half cried.

"Silence." It wasn’t a shout, wasn't even a demand. It was apparently a simple order to the universe, because in response Kyp found himself unable to speak. His throat was closing, and he gripped it in mute horror. "You are a disgrace, Kyp Durron. If the real you could see this pale imitation... he'd probably thank me for what I'm doing now."

Kyp collapsed to his knees and then, with a sound that was half-crack, half-croak, fell face forward. The masked man turned and walked out of the tavern. He stepped into the shadows for a moment; when he emerged he was dressed in ordinary street clothes. He walked with the easy gait of people who are going about their business, until he saw Molly O'Brien and the speeder. "How did it go?" she asked as he leapt into the vehicle.

"As always," Ben Skywalker said, "they continue to disappoint me." With a punch of the accelerator they were gone before the sirens were heard.



Chuck

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Last edited by Sonnenburg on 2006-06-21 06:07pm, edited 6 times in total.
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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-12 06:12pm
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Part II


In another time and place, things would have to be different. The room, for example, should be dark, and candle-lit. Nasty-looking coils and switches should line the walls. Things should buzz and bubble and crackle. Outside should be lightning, and perhaps a small disfigured hunchback with a kite. It shouldn't be neat, organized, softly lit. It betrayed the nature of what went on between these walls. When you tamper with things mankind was never meant to know, it should have a hard edge, not tool-free access panels.

The position of mad scientist in this particular drama was uncontestibly held by the woman known as the Oracle. She had had other names once... Janeway, Captain, Kathryn, and some rather unprintable ones. She was not given to her new name because she dispensed wisdom; wisdom was easy to fake after all. Ask questions about a belief you disagree with, and it's wisdom. When someone questions a belief you agree with, tell them they don't fully understand it yet... and that's wisdom too. Beware those who dispense wisdom, becuase the truly wise know it's often best to keep their mouth shut.

The Oracle was a source of a far greater commodity than wisdom; she had information. She had stretched and pulled and stitched at time in the manner that the mad scientist archetype might well handle fresh corpses, and she'd learned more than most could have imagined. She had looked into what was, what is, what will be, and what could have been. She was an invaluable ally, and an impossible enemy. A chess computer won by considering every possible move that could be made against it. The Oracle only considered the one move you would make and discarded the rest.

At the moment she was filling a hypospray with a slightly bluish liquid. She handled it in a routine way, in the manner of someone who regularly walked around slamming a sledgehammer into the foundation of the universe. She held it to her neck and released it, giving sudden, quick breaths, then a terrible coughing fit. For a second her eyes glowed green, then pink, then blue, before fading back to what passed for normal. She walked over to the datapad and, below the name "Kyp Durron," carefully tapped in "Miko Reglia." Good, she thought, one more before the masterpiece, one more before they revealed themselves to the Empire.

There was no maniacal laugh, but there should have been. There's a special madness for those who cross into insanity and come out the other side.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The guard stationed outside the barracks housing the POW's did nothing but open the security door. News like Sebastian and Gorren got around even on a star destroyer. As they walked in Sebastian felt the group tension rise. They were unarmed, but it was obvious they all had survived by being able to fight with their hands if it came down to it. Borda rose to his feet. "[We want the bodies of our comrades,]" he said.

"I've left instructions to that effect," Sebastian said. "Please convey my sorrow to their families."

Borda remained standing. A staring contest with a Rodian isn't easy. "[Thank you for freeing us, but I doubt you were motivated by altruism.]"

"The dissident movement needs you," Sebastian replied. "When we heard of your capture, we knew we had to move fast."

"Your exploits are known even on my world," Gorren added. "Some who chafe under the Empire point to you as a folk hero to be emulated."

"Choo-ee iyta val, mooly-ra."

The expression on Gorren's face quickly darkened. Rodian, like Wookiee and Ithorian, was a language impervious to universal translators, but he had made the effort. Naturally, remarks like that were the first ones he'd picked up. A Klingon hates not knowing if he's being insulted.

"You are very important, and my friend is very loyal," Sebastian said. "That is the only reason he hasn't killed you for that."

"Yet," Gorren growled.

"I ask that you not disrespect him again."

"[I have heard of them,]" Borda said. "[They talk of honor in death and sing songs about slaughter. How can you, a Jedi, stand with one of these?]"

"Because I am equally loyal to him," Sebastian said. "And I offer no apologies, any more than you would offer apologies for your resistance fighters. A man who has stood at your side in the face of death and didn't abandon you is a man deserving of your utmost respect; wouldn't you agree?"

Borda was quiet. "[Yes. I apologize; I should have known any a Jedi would call friend is worthy of respect.]"

"[Jedi,]" another Rodian said with scorn. "[Why do you waste your time with him, Borda? They don't care about the Rim unless it inconveniences their Imperial masters.]"

"I'm from Tatooine," Sebastian pointed out.

"[Bah! Tourist trap! Where were the Jedi when the Ssi-ruuk invaded our worlds, Borda?]" Sebastian knew what he meant. Borda had become famous along the Outer Rim during the Borg War when he led a band of militia against a Ssi-ruuk invasion force. He'd been a security advisor for one of the Black Sun chiefs in that part of space, but heroism covers over a multitude of sins, and when he rose up to resist the Vong incursion, thousands rallied to his cause. Almost every rebel force throughout Vong space was connected to Borda in some way, which was why the minute he'd been captured Volga Terraine had contacted Sebastian. While Borda as a martyr might help, Borda as a living symbol was preferable.

"Because others were not here then, you would reject help now?" Sebastian asked. "I know you don't trust me, and that's good. A rebellion cannot survive without protecting secrets and being wary. But, Borda, before you turn us away, let me remind you of Yozal."

Rodian faces are hard to read, but there seemed to be a flicker of surprise across Borda's face. Gov. Yozal had refused to allow Borda's fleet into their space because she didn't want them to owe anything to Black Sun. After the Ssi-ruuk were done even the Vong hadn't bothered with the remains.

"[You want our help, Jedi,]" Borda said eventually. "[To coordinate our resistance with the Empire, perhaps? Fine. But, without Bensen and T'lork, I don't have the men to help with the resistance efforts on Dane II. They need training.]"

"Then we will go to Dane and help." Sebastian noticed the mild look of surprise on Gorren's face when he answered.

"[You are familiar with guerrila tactics?]"

"My family was in the Rebellion for a long time," Sebastian said. "I've learned alot, and Gorren is an experienced soldier."

"[Then I will escort you to Dane II and explain to the resistance,]" Borda said. "[I hope you will not disappoint us.]"

Sebastian nodded and he and Gorren left. "Something on your mind," he asked after a while.

"You're going to have to postpone again," Gorren said.

"I know."

"Why'd you volunteer?"

"You think I should have told them to wait while I took a holiday?"

"I think you think you should. You're tapping your ring again."

Sebastian's hand froze. Whenever he was thinking about Jorri, he'd tap his wedding band against his lightsaber. He'd never known he did it until Gorren pieced it together and told him. "It's just been a while."

"Too long, my friend," Gorren said. "Jorielle is a fine woman and a brave warrior. You spend far too much time from her side."

"I know.... but we've got no choice. Officers like Capt. Ozzel are more common than I'd like, and without a dissident movement that has a chance, they may move in and pull the Vong out by whatever means are necessary. Billions, would die if that happened. If we can prevent that, then not seeing her is a small price to pay."

"No, it isn’t," Gorren said. "Just because it's personal doesn't make it small."
--------------------------------------------------------------

From white to starlines to blackness, the routine miracle of hyperspace ended. Jorielle Skywalker made a course adjustment and headed towards the planet. “All wings report in,” she ordered. As the members of her squadron gave their report, she looked over the preliminary scans. It was the multitasking of commanders: make sure everyone is going in, and try to make sure everyone will be leaving in the end. “Ali,” she said to her gunner after the report was complete, “anything on long range.”

“No sign, sir,” he reported. “Looks like all the Hirogen that are coming have already arrived.”

“That’s more than enough,” she remarked, counting fifteen vessels. “Break formation, try to draw them away from the settlements, but stick with your wingmen. All gunners, kid gloves are officially off; I want an opening volley of flux torpedoes, and shoot to kill.”

Jorri had been one of the pioneers in the tactical application of the H-Fighter, back when it was still in the testing phases. The design bore some similar wing structures to a TIE Interceptor or X-Wing, and a tapering cylindrical shape that was edged with warp nacelles. The extra maneuverability combined with the heavy firepower was leaving every fighter in the dust, but the Hirogens didn’t use fighters. Their ships were small enough to be vulnerable to attack – trench run syndrome, as some in the Academy called it – but they had more raw power and heavy armor. With the Hirogen’s numerical superiority, they’d need to do some serious early damage to have a shot of getting out of this.

The squadron of H-Fighters descended, but the Hirogen didn’t seem to care. They continued the bombardment right up until the moment those shimmering green lights rocketed from the fighters, slipping through their shields and tearing into their armor. Two exploded outright, but Jorri’s stomach tightened as the ships turned to engage. “Black 2, cross the T. Ali, fire at will.”

“Understood, Jorri,” he remarked. The ship’s top panel opened and a turret emerged, its twin cannons coming around as the two fighters twisted through space and flew in between the Hirogen ships. The laser cannons pivoted and fired as Ali tried to compensate for the evasive maneuvers while Jorri raced through at full throttle. The Hirogen scored almost as many hits for them as he did. Their combat mentality still hadn’t evolved to the teamwork necessary to face a coordinated enemy. Nom Anor and his cronies could arm them, give them all the choice targets in the galaxy, but he couldn’t change centuries of an individual approach to combat. The Hirogen were exceptional hunters, but inefficient soldiers.

They passed through another group of Hirogen ships, their lasers scorching across their armor. As Jorri pulled up a pair of proton torpedoes raced away and struck a target of opportunity. “Nicely done, lieutenant,” she remarked as she came about for another run. Behind her, Black 9 and 10 added a pair of flux torpedoes each, finishing off the ship. Unfortunately, Black 10 had strayed too close, and the shrapnel shredded two of its wings and left the fighter in a mad spin. There was an explosion, and pilot and gunner tumbled away from the ship a few moments before it exploded. “Hutch! You okay?” came the voice of Black 9.

“Commander, Breje is gone, sir!” came Hutch’s desperate words.

“Radio silence, Hutch,” Jorri said.

“Sir-“

“Radio silence, wait for rescue. Black 9, join up with Black 4.”

“The Hirogen-“

“Task at hand, lieutenant,” she said sharply. “Ali, what’s the ETA on the Sentinel and her escort?”

“Seven minutes, Jorri.”

“Kriff.” The Hirogen would find Breje and Hutch fine trophies, but there was nothing they could do about it. Even if this wasn’t a combat situation, they didn’t have the gear to rescue someone in their escape suit; Hutch would just have to hope he could hold out for another seven minutes. “All wings, change of plans. Go for the turbolaser batteries, let’s de-claw these predators.”

The Hirogen turbolasers had gotten over some of their earlier compatibility issues and, much to Jorri’s distress, were applying them with greater and greater skill. What’s more, while she had several combat veterans in her squadron, this was their first combat run in the H-fighter. Old instincts, instincts of survival, were obsolete. Black 5 did a perfect twist out of the path of turbolaser fire, but misjudged the maneuverability and sheered right through his wingman’s port wings. In the confusion the Hirogen finished both off. Jorielle tightened her grip on the controls, keeping the movements soft and smooth for Ali. One flux torpedo shimmered and hit a turbolaser battery right at the power line. She banked and raced towards the next as the battery went up. With the wilder shots of the next Hirogen, she found it harder to keep it steady without risk of becoming a target. This time the torpedo only damaged one of the guns, but Black 2’s gunner dropped a few protons and finished it. The dance continued in the timeless environment of combat as each sought the best way to atomize the other.

“Commander,” Ali said with a tone of relief, “they’ve arrived.” Jorri looked up at the welcome sight of the Inferno-class star destroyer and her two Imperator escorts. There was a flash of silver as an Interdictor torpedo exploded, causing a four minute gravitational distortion that would ensure the Hirogen wouldn’t be going anywhere.

“All wings, break off,” she ordered. “Screen the planet; let’s make sure they don’t decide to take anyone with them.” The H-Fighters pulled off as the Sentinel opened fire with its own turbolaser batteries. Two Hirogen ships fired their anti-Interdictor torpedo, but without a projector they simply exploded upon arming.

“This is the fifth time we’ve used the Interdictor torpedoes on the Hirogen,” Ali remarked. “You’d think they’d know better by now.”

“There’s no organization for the Hirogen,” Jorri remarked, looking over the status of her squadron. “No intelligence network, no central command, they won’t know about it until Nom Anor tells them.” Hutch’s lifesigns were gone... it could be a malfunction, but more than likely he was dead or a Hirogen prisoner, which wasn’t much different. The Sentinel had already chomped through half the remaining Hirogen ships while the Imperators kept them contained.

“Black 1, this is Fighter Command,” came the voice of Col. Deltone, her superior. “Status?”

“We’ve lost five fighters, two ejections with no life signs.”

“Return to base,” was all he said. Jorri took the lead and the remains of Black Squadron slipped through the battle to the Sentinel’s launch bay. They hadn’t even finished docking before the last of the Hirogen resistors were finished.

Jorri pulled off her helmet after her feet hit the deck. Col. Deltone was waiting. “We’ll go over the recordings at 1800 hours,” he said, “but what’s your initial opinion?”

She wiped some of the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand while she thought. “We got there much faster,” she said, “so that part of the strategy was sound. But we were outnumbered, and even with delaying tactics, we took heavy losses. If we want to use the H-Fighters as an advanced response force, we need to replace our protons with flux torpedoes and stick to a minimum of two, preferably three, squadrons at a time.”

“Most of the H-Fighters have been going to the front line,” Deltone said. “I’m not sure we could outfit that many for Hirogen patrols.”

Jorri shrugged. “Just my initial opinion, but I think that if we’re going to do this, one squadron isn’t enough.”

Deltone nodded. “The ten casualties,” he added, “get me their names and personal effects; I’ll write the letters later. Anything you can add would be helpful.” Jorri nodded, and went about the rest of the post-mission routine. She talked things over briefly with Black 2, Capt. Relam, then returned to her quarters. She smiled when she saw the flashing message, but the minute she read it her heart sunk. With a stab of her finger she deleted Sebastian’s message and headed for the fresher. Even the soothing warm water wasn’t enough to relax her.

“Oh, Bastian,” she said under her breath, “we had so much to talk about.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The McCoy Foundation was one of the few organizations from the Pre-Imperial era that hadn't allowed the switch to a monetary economy to influence their activities. It was, in fact, partly because of this that it did do so well. In the chaos of the present day, it was an island of Federation ideals. When people like Jorielle Skywalker were done, the Foundation's work just started.

Charity, as the ship was called, was one of the only Mon Calamari Star Cruisers to survive. Its weapons had been stripped off before it was donated to the Foundation by Talon Karrde after some members of the group boarded one of his ships despite the fact that the beacon clearly showed there was a plague on board, just to minister to the dying. It was through such generosity that the McCoy foundation was known throughout the Empire for their disaster relief efforts. At the moment, the wake of the Hirogen attack had left thousands of casualties that were already overwhelming the local hospitals and emergency treatment camps. Charity could handle them all easily, thanks to the huge capacity, advanced medical technology, and crack personnel. At the moment, one of them was asleep in a chair.

"John," said Dr. Helga Grant as she gave him a gentle but no-nonsense prod, "triage is standing by." Dr. John Ezri nodded and pulled himself up. He looked even worse than usual, his cheeks more sunken, his thin form seemed actually frail. "Were you down here last night again?"

"Let's see to the patients," he said, pinching the bridge of his nose and then brushing his silver hair out of his face.

"John, you know you won't do us any good if you don't get enough rest."

"Bah, the body is miserly when it comes to rest. Don't listen to it, that's my advice." Dr. Grant was about to protest when he stepped up to the first occupied bed. It was as if the sight of the sick and the wounded tapped into him; he seemed taller, spry, and his every word was quick and crisp. "She goes into surgery," he said with barely a pause as he stepped to the next bed. He read the readings over the bed, ran a tricorder over the body, and put it back within seconds. "Give him a local to take the edge off. Dermal regenerator." He was already on to the next bed. Dr. Ezri never diagnosed during an emergency; he told you what to do. Giving it a label won't help, it'll only start a debate. "Helga, you want to take the OR or handle things here."

"I'll handle the surgery, what're we looking at?"

"Serious rupturing in the chest cavity. Have a blood-oxygenator standing by, and don't be surprised if you have to replace the lungs. This man needs a Bacta tank."

"His burns aren't that severe," the nurse remarked.

"Bacta," Dr. Ezri snapped, then began looking over the next patient.

"Bacta supplies are low," the nurse said to Helga. "Can you offer a second opinion?"

"Dr. Ezri doesn't give opinions, he gives facts. Get him into a Bacta Tank." As the patient was wheeled down the hall Helga took a moment to glance down... John hadn't grabbed a medical tricorder. She flipped it open to look at the previous reading. The surface wounds were contaminated with the fungal disease, she saw. At this early stage, the Bacta would stop it, but if the dermal regenerator was used, the stuff would be free to incubate. He'd be dead within a couple of months.

She shook her head as she watched him wade through the fallen. Even after years he still surprised her. What was someone with his skill doing in the back end of nowhere?



Chuck

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Part III


Annika Hansen Skywalker sat up nervously on the bed as the Doctor looked over the results of the many tests she'd been subjected to. She pulled her snow white hair into a bun; it gave her something to do. “Bad news?" she finally asked.

"I'm afraid it's not news," the Doctor replied. "It's what I'm sure you already figured out on your own; the nanoprobe treatment is no longer having any effect on the disease." He held the hypospray to her neck with a faint hiss of discharge. "It is still helping your body some, and your immune system seems to have picked up the slack..."

"But it's not enough, is it." It wasn't a question; she'd known the answer long before Han insisted they return to Earth for a full check-up. "I'm not going to make it."

"Annika, I can help you if you stay," the Doctor said with restrained exasperation.

Annika shook her head; the effort made her head swim. "There's still too much to do."

"Yes, it's called 'life,' Annika! Running around the galaxy looking for Nom Anor is killing you, can't you see that?"

"I'm not going to just lay here and wait to die," she said. She took his hand kindly. "I have every faith in you," she added, "but there's nothing you can do for me, right?"

"We're making progress-"

"But not soon enough... not for me." She hugged him tight. "You've given me years more than anyone else ever had. I saw my son's wedding thanks to you. But there comes a point where we have to accept the inevitable."

The Doctor tried to persuade her, but her mind was made up. She kept herself under tight control and only stumbled once on her way out of the building. A short walk to the transporter station and she was in Paris, but while ground crews were looking over the Millennium Falcon, Han wasn't among them. She had a pretty good idea where he was, but you never know when a Cardassian ambush squad or alien doppelganger might be involved, so she connected her commlink to her tricorder to track him down. She closed the tricorder once it confirmed her suspicions, then, wincing, she walked as best she could to the swoop rental depot and set out into the heart of the city.

Han was standing next to a marker. It was one of the few times that Leia ever wielded the weight of her position, but replacing the apartment complex with a memorial park had seemed the right thing. With the movement of the capital to Sydney, the Parisian housing demand had dropped considerably anyway.

Annika stayed a little ways back in silence. She hadn't known Chewie - really known him - at all before the engagement. He'd been just another alien to come through the wormhole, another partner in their struggle against the Empire and the Borg. But then she became engaged to Luke, and that changed. He told her, in no uncertain terms, that he would protect her if she ever needed it. She was family now. Family. Not the way Capt. Janeway had tossed the word around in the "we're all in this together" mindset, but that there was an unbreakable bond between them. Even Han's hatred for Luke couldn't sever it, couldn't drive him out. Family sticks together, no matter what... and no one had felt that way about her in a long, long time. She would never forget the way he'd pick her up like she was just a little girl and give her just the sort of comfort she sorely needed during the hardest days of her life. He was truly a special being, one deserving all of this and more.

Han left Chewie's grave and walked over to her, a forced smile on his face. "Hungry?" he asked as he led the way to one of the wheeled stands the locals kept up for the tourists.

"No," she said. She hadn't eaten in eight days, her stomach couldn't handle it any more. She regenerated and injected nutrients into her system to keep her strength up, but even then she still needed to sleep several hours a night. Han bought a pretzel; her insides twisted at the sight of him eating it. "I brought a swoop."

"Good, I'll drive," he said crumpling up the pretzel wrapper.

"It's my swoop," she chided him. "You don't think your macho ego can stand having to take the back seat to a woman?"

"Oh really?" he said, drawing to a halt. "Hold out your hand."

Annika held it out; it was as steady as a mountain. "See? Maybe you-" She stopped and blinked after the pretzel wrapper hit her in the face. She'd been so focused she hadn't seen it coming.

"Nice try," Han said as a droid scurried out of some underbrush, grabbed the piece of litter, and vanished. "I'll drive." He stepped onto the swoop and hummed it to life. Grudgingly, Annika took the back seat and grabbed him around the waist, and they took off back to the docking bay. "How did things go?" he asked.

"No surprises," she said. He didn't probe further, and she didn't volunteer anything. They returned the swoop and a few minutes later the Falcon was heading for space.

"I'm thinking we should change our plans a bit," Han said as he examined the instruments and made some adjustments.

"What do you mean?" Annika took a deep breath, ready for the heated argument that was coming.

"Finding Nom Anor is important," he said, "but so's stopping his plans, right?"

"I suppose so. Anything he does inevitably furthers the Vong cause. You have something in mind?"

"Yeah, I was thinking about this fungal disease." He pressed on before she could say a word. "It's been spotted across hundreds of worlds now, and some people are starting to panic. If we found a cure, I figure that would hamper the Vong effort."

"True... but flawed. Medical researchers have a much better chance of finding a cure-"

"There's a cure out there," Han interrupted. "Remember?"

Annika's mood darkened. "That is not an option."

"All I'm saying is, maybe we can find a way to negotiate it from them. Offer them something else."

"They're not interested," Annika said. "They made it clear what they want, and I'll die before they get it."

"You never know," Han said, "maybe they've changed their minds."

"They are Borg."

"And I thought Borg adapted. It's worth a try."

"Han-"

"I've already buried one co-pilot," he said sharply. "If I have to steal the cure from them, I can live with it."

Annika sunk back into the chair; she didn't have the energy to fight any more. "Okay, you win. Set course for Sanctuary; that's the best place to start."

"Actually, we're going to make one other stop first." He finished entering the coordinates into the nav computer.

"The delta quadrant?"

"I think we're going to need some help on this one," he said as he pulled back on the lever and sent the freighter into hyperspace.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak had been lying back on his bunk, but as the door to his cell opened he jerked up, and a grin spread across his face like a plague through a slum. "Minister Terraine. What a delightful break in my daily tedium. Have you come to administer my daily torture sessions? I've been hoping they would send a master to do the job."

"Spare me, Mr. Garak," Terraine said as a chair was brought in. He sat down; with a single nod the guards left and sealed him in.

"I know you didn't order it, but I'm afraid they do enjoy their petty torments. Really quite amateurish in my experience, and I have been in-"

"I have no interest in today's work of fiction, Mr. Garak," Terraine said evenly. Those who knew Garak was in ISB hands - a small number to say the least - would have been surprised to know that no harsh interrogation methods were used on him, even though he was the one person who knew everything about his organization. The ISB had met its match in the Cardassian; no instrument was fine enough, no droid precise enough, to cut through his lies to find the truth. If you believed the reports, it was one hundred percent certain that Garak was actually a disguised clone of Grand Admiral Thrawn, had constructed a fleet of one thousand Eclipse-class star destroyers in the Badlands, and that he had rebuilt Cardassia by gathering all the planetary fragments and fusing them back together again. Terraine had once called in Sebastian Skywalker to see if he could tell when he was lying; Garak told him he was the temporally displaced reincarnation of his father.

"I see," Garak said. "In that case, why would the head of the ISB wish to see me?"

"The Emperor has made his decision regarding your appeal of the death sentence."

"Really? I thought for a while there he must have forgotten about me... it's almost as if he kept me alive for a reason."

"The war is a complication; he wanted to consider all the ramifications, perhaps even the possibility of your reform."

"Ah, you mean to become an Imperial lapdog such as yourself." Garak took a perverse pleasure in Volgo Terraine's look. "Still, I suppose one should know when it's time to switch to the winning side. I accept. I think I could be best put to use here in the ISB. Oh, you've done some wonderful things with it, but I think there's potential here that's not being explored, for example-"

"Enough, Mr. Garak," he snapped, then pulled himself back under control. "The Emperor has made his decision, but these things must be handled properly. You'll be brought before the tribunal again the day after tomorrow, where he will render his decision. If he supports the ruling, you will be executed immediately, so I suggest you prepare yourself for the possibility." He stood up to leave.

"You're not going to tell me?"

Terraine turned back. "No," he said sharply.

Garak gave a half-shrug, half-nod. "I see you enjoy your petty torments as well." Terraine said nothing as the guards opened the door and let him out. They kept blasters pointed at him as they removed the chair, and Garak took a certain pride in that. At his age, to still be seen as dangerous was a sign that he was doing things right. He lay back on his bunk and reflected. The Oracle, like she had with everything else, had been right. He still didn't know why, but the Emperor had been keeping him alive for this long, and now was going to announce his execution. If the situation were reversed, Garak would have ordered a swift public trial and an even more public execution, then gotten down to business. There had to be a reason; the Emperor had grown far more calculating once the galaxies had been conquered.

There were stories that the Emperor was a Sith, much like his own young partner, Ben. Some say the Sith can see through time in much the same way the Oracle can. Could he have figured out what they were planning? Did he delay deliberately so that he could foil their efforts? If so, then Garak was beaten; even if he escaped, he could never reach the pinnacle of power he'd attained. They'd just be what everyone thought, a collection of terrorists and malcontents, not a force for galactic change.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Gorren walked up and down the ranks inspecting the rebels. They were standing at what passed for attention among farmers, mechanics, merchants, and anyone else whose closest approach to military service was watching adventure holos. Gorren reached the end of the line and bellowed. Few can bellow like a Klingon; they've spent millennia crafting shouting into an artform. "Stomach in! Chest out!" The makeshift army shuffled to comply. "You!" He pointed a dirty fingernail at a small man in the front row. "What is your name?"

"Gorlif-" he started.

"EYES FRONT!!!"

The man jerked so hard Sebastian winced in sympathy. "Gorlif Otts, sir. I'm a swoop mechanic."

Gorren continued down the ranks. "When they write the songs of the great deeds done on Dane II, will they take time to sing of Gorlif the Mechanic, who tended to slouch?" He turned back to them, and there was fire in his eyes and a smirk of approval on his face. "Or will they sing of Gorlif the Warrior, who stood tall and proud in the heat of battle and sent a dozen enemies to their judgment with his righteous hand?" He waited. "Well?!"

Gorlif stopped looking at his hand and jerked back to attention. "The second, sir."

Borda shook his head as the Klingon went back to it. "[Where did you find him?]"

"Qo’nos," Sebastian said. "He was the leader of a Klingon resistance cell, so he knows what he's doing."

"[These aren't Klingons.]"

"He knows that; that's why he's not hitting anyone."

Borda looked back to Sebastian. "[Why would a rebel Klingon join with you?]"

"I defeated him with five forms of hand-to-hand combat. He said whatever cause such a warrior fights for must be honorable."

"[And what do you think of these rebels, warrior?]"

Sebastian ground his teeth as he looked them over. "Honestly... I think most of them are going to die. They have no idea what they're going up against."

"[But-]"

"But they'll make a difference. They'll help rid this world of the Vong, and that's what they came here to do. I just hope it's worth it to them."

"[And the songs?]" Borda asked.

Sebastian forced a laugh. "I'm afraid I never found it much to sing about?"

"[I thought you said you were a warrior?]"

"I said Gorren thinks I'm a warrior. The only thing you can do to get a song out of me is to end the war this afternoon."

"[Yet you side with a Klingon.]"

"He follows my lead, and he's a good person. He just has a different cultural background than I do. Battle, conflict, war are the heart of Klingon culture. For him, this is opportunity for honorable victory or honorable death."

"[And you?]"

Sebastian looked back to the rank and file. "War is a monster," he said. "And it eats people."

Borda nodded as he turned to the rebels. "[You know,]" he said, "[we hear stories out here on the Rim. They say there's a Jedi who secretly works for the ISB, that he's got contacts on hundreds of worlds...]" He turned back to Sebastian. "[...but really he's supposed to be in line for the Emperor's throne.]"

Sebastian's face was blank, but when he spoke, one corner of his mouth turned up in a forced attempt at a smile, and his voice was low and unfriendly. "Never heard of him." He stepped to the front and Gorren drew himself up. "At ease, Gorren," Sebastian said, then turned to the rebels. "All that is good advice," he said loudly, "and I'd think about it. But two things are most important of all to remember when you're out there facing the real thing. Remember that this is your world, your home that you're fighting for, not for cause or glory. And remember that the best way to defend your home is to live to defend it when it’s threatened again. Now, stand at ease and pay attention." Gorren handed him a weapon. "We're going to learn to fight with this, but first, a little tidbit for those of you without training. I don't care what your beliefs or philosophies are, but when it comes to this weapon here," he held it up high, "you are now an existentialist. Every weapon is loaded unless you have examined the charge yourself when you've picked it up. This is a Blastech S-14 Hybrid Rifle; it's designed to kill people. Never point it at anyone unless you are prepared to kill them; there are no exceptions to this rule." He passed it back to Gorren. "Mr. Borda's going to take some of you to practice using this weapon; I'd better see all of you return. Now, some of you have mechanical and engineering experience." He rattled off a list of names from memory. "I want all of you with me; we're going to discuss the art of sabotage. Mr. Gorren will be selecting some of you to learn heavy weapons. Does anyone here speak wookiee?" A large hairy arm went up, accompanied by a few chuckles. "Thank you, Mr. Shekaaala, I'll keep you in mind. Is there anyone who can translate wookiee into Basic?" He pointed to a raised hand. "Good, Mr. Cloudstorm you're with Mr. Gorren."

Borda stepped towards him while Gorren began handing out weapons. "[I can't stay long.]"

"I know. Just long enough to get things started, let them know you find it's important enough for your time."

"[You really think they're going to die?]"

"Most," Sebastian said. "The new weapons are helping, but even stormtroopers have trouble facing the Vong."

"[Then why are you bothering with us?]"

"Because I do want the war to end this afternoon, and if I help you, the odds can only go up."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin Solo took a deep breath as he switched on the computer. "Begin scan of holo-network, use filter Sith-3." He sat back as the computer began searching through a trillion trillion listings of the events from throughout the galaxies, tapping his hands on the table in boredom. They didn't sound the same; it was hard to tell, but if you were the owner of the hands you couldn't help but notice. One resonated with the vibration of muscle, bone, and blood, of real skin and real flesh. The other was a facsimile of advanced mechanics and complex polymers that Anakin didn't begin to understand. He had it because of a run-in with a Sith... a Sith that seemed to be very busy.

The computer beeped that it was complete, and Anakin held his breath as he examined the results. Two were false positives that he deleted, but the third... He punched the datapad and the full story came up.

The victim was Miko Reglia, a swoop racer who was competing on the Malastare circuit. Once again, a figure showing no concern for his safety had arrived, dressed in black and wearing a black and red mask. He'd slaughtered twelve guards who got in his way before striking down the pilot and disappearing. It was just like all the others.

Anakin sat bolt upright. Not quite like the others; they'd gotten an image. He stared at it for a long time. Of course, it was just a mask, nothing special in and of itself. The number of people in the universe who would recognize its significance could fit on a single shuttle. He filed it away with the rest of the reports. He had a theory, but no one was going to listen to it until he had more. He just wished that wouldn’t involve people dying.



Chuck

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Part IV


Telaaca was as physically intimidating as they come. His heavy frame easily topped two meters in height, and even beneath his fur signs of durastele-like musculature was evident. He stank of sweat and wet hair, and his breath was foul. His mouth was open, and the Wookiee's sharp canines promised that if the claws couldn't kill, they could. He swung a fist; Sebastian dropped under it.

"Come on, attack me!" Sebastian said, standing back up and dancing about to stay light on his feet. "Mean it!" Telaaca swung again, but Sebastian easily dodged. "This is a waste of my time. Wookiees are beasts of burden; pack animals. You don't know the first thing about fighting; no wonder you were enslaved so easily. Why don't you go over and start unloading some cargo so I can face a real warrior, ape."

Telaaca let out a roar as he attacked. Sebastian caught the massive arm at the wrist, then pivoted and shoved to drive his shoulder into the counterswing; by catching it near the elbow he managed to dissipate most of the strength. He then twisted, pulling the wookiee off balance and shoved his elbow into his abdomen. He ducked and pivoted, sending the wookiee over him and dropping him on his back on the ground, but even as he hit, Telaaca yanked, pulling Sebastian on top of him. He grabbed a handful of the human's hair and pulled him further over, but Sebastian drove his knee into the side of Telaaca's head with bone-jarring force. He repeated the kick several times, then grabbed and twisted the arm that held him until his head was free. He pushed as Telaaca kicked, narrowly avoiding the claws of his feet as he stepped back. He caught the Wookiee's back swing and twisted the limb until Telaaca was on his stomach. Sebastian leapt onto his back, pulled out his lightsaber, and swung.

"And had I been a Vong," he said to the assembled rebels, "that would be the end of that." He attached the still unlit lightsaber to his belt, then got off Telaaca's back. He got down on both knees. "I apologize for the attack on your honor, and I place my life in your hands." The Wookiee grabbed him by both shoulders and lifted him back to his feet to indicate that all was forgiven. "Does anyone think they could stand up to Telaaca in a fight?" There was no answer. The other Wookiees had agreed that he was their finest warrior, and the assembled humans and aliens knew how Wookiees often acted when they lose, and felt they'd be lucky to live that long. "Okay then. The Vong will not use anything different than what you saw here: strength, position, and viciousness. Remember that going up against a Vong hand-to-hand is the absolute final resort. They are at the advantage; it's how they fight best. Any questions?" He waited. "Fine. Mr. Shilof, take care of Mr. Telaaca's wounds. The rest of you, pay attention, this is basic field medicine. After that I want squad leaders to have their groups armed and ready to fall out for drills. Dismissed."

The group walked off as Sebastian came up to Gorren. "So, how about this weather?" he asked.

"Good, good," the Klingon answered. "Nice and clear. Hope we get some rain soon to help toughen them up."

"Quite true, quite true." Sebastian looked up at the sky. "Maybe it will."

"It might at that."

"Are they gone?"

"Yes."

"Good," Sebastian said as he fell down and groaned. Gorren laughed, then helped prop his friend up next to a tree. "What was I thinking?"

Gorren started patting the dust off Sebastian's clothes, causing the Jedi to wince. "You were thinking that they would only get the point if the Wookiee gave you his all. Anything less, and they wouldn't remember it, especially him. They'd know that he was holding back, that he really could have won if he'd tried. This way there's no doubt, so they'll be cautious. It was a wise move, my friend."

"Well, I think this could be the first time in galactic history that wrestling an enraged Wookiee was called wise; usually it's the opposite."

"Nonsense. You are Sebastian, Son of Luke and head of the house of Skywalker. You could have bested two such warriors if you yourself weren't holding back."

"Are you sure my scalp is still attached?"

"Hmm, mostly," Gorren said, looking him over. He found the medkit and gave it to Sebastian, who gave himself a pain killer with a sigh of relief. "You're tapping your ring again," he remarked.

Sebastian smiled and looked at it. A little piece of her he would always have with him. He missed her, that was certainly true. With his work they didn't have much time together, but it never diminished what he felt for her, only made him wish all the more the war could be over, that he could be with her. Just being with her... he always felt like anything was possible, that even the most daunting task was simple.

Sebastian recalled the last time they were together. He was lying in bed, and she came in off the balcony dressed only in a sheer robe. And the light of the two moons shone through around her, and she walked towards where he laid, and she was so beautiful, that he was paralyzed. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe, couldn't think, he just laid there, loving her with all his heart and knowing that she was the only one who could ever have it. When she came to him, all he did was hold her, as if anything more would sully the purity of the moment. And he knew, he knew without hesitation, that nothing in his life would ever make him regret loving her, because that moment alone had been worth more than a month of Vong brainwashing as far as he was concerned.

"It's a shame we cannot have more missions like this," Gorren went on as he tended to Sebastian's wounds. "If you'd been at my side on Qo'nos we would even now be standing at the front of an army of millions of warriors ready to battle the Empire at our command."

"Yes, but we're not at war with the Empire."

"Yes, it's a pity. They'd be a far more worthy challenge than the Vong have been."

"And by 'worthy,' of course, you mean 'certain to annihilate us,' right?"

"Ah, but what a way to end," Gorren said dreamily, sitting back alongside Sebastian. "You have no idea the dishonor the Imperial conquest has brought to my people. Defeat in battle is one thing, but to be reduced to an unarmed state, to be forced to resolve all matters with words... I cannot tell you how it fills our hearts with shame. Believe me, one such as you could rally the entire population behind you in any cause."

"You, perhaps, my friend. But I am no Klingon."

"Maybe not in your flesh, but in your heart you honor our ways."

"I respect your culture because I respect you, Gorren." Sebastian winced as he closed the last wound on his scalp. "But let's be honest, I'm just a human."

"Maybe so, but I still think they would follow you. When you speak you are genuine; why else would any of these men who are two, three times your age show you the respect they do? You inspire them, show them that you find them worthy, and for that they won't disappoint you. The way you remember every detail about them-"

"It's just my eidetic memory," Sebastian said.

"It doesn't matter where it comes from! It matters that it is! These farmers and bankers will march into certain death at your command because they believe in you, and they do that because you believe in them! If you lead-"

"No!" Sebastian snapped. Gorren said nothing more, and they sat together in the shade until the squad leaders arrived. Sebastian kept trying to put it out of his mind, but he could no more do that than stop breathing; sooner or later, it comes back. That quiet voice whose tone did nothing to ease the foreboding of those words.

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

Two Imperator-class star destroyers dropped out of hyperspace near Gidala III, a minor world still under Vong control. It was a routine mission: arrive, show of force, leave. Let the Vong know that the Empire hadn't forgotten about them, and that they could strike with impunity throughout their territory. TIEs were launched to deal with the skippers. The mission was so commonplace that the new fighters hadn't been assigned to these operations.

Alarms suddenly came to life on the bridges of both ships as the mundane gave way to surprised anxiety. A gravity well projection had arrived, but it wasn't an interdictor field; it was biological. Only one group had that capability.

Twenty Vong coralships came out from behind the dark side of Gidala III's moon. The star destroyers, obviously trapped, moved to engage the Vong, intent on taking as many down with them as possible. But the Vong's strength of numbers was too much. Within minutes one was disabled and the other in flames. The skippers, outnumbering the TIEs by thirty to one, made short work of them. No one bothered to jam the Imperials' signal. The Vong had a message of their own to send.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sen. Alixus finished reading through the report, doing her best to hide her satisfaction behind a frown of disapproval. It wouldn't do for anyone to suspect her any more than they already did. She handed it off to one of her aides as the turbolift doors opened. Perhaps this will help solidify things with Nom Anor, she thought as she and her bodyguard entered the hall and proceeded to the transporter. Seconds later she was in the garden of her senatorial home, blooming with the radiance that comes only from plants grown by calloused hands and bent backs. The bodyguard led the way to the door, entered the security code, and held the door opened for her. She hung up her coat as he went about the daily ritual of checking in with the house security.

"Senator," he said, "there seems to be a problem. Gall and Didara aren't checkin-" He stopped, and she turned and also saw the look of horror in Didara's eyes. Perhaps it was the fact that his body was several meters away.

"Don't move," came a voice from the shadows. Alixus' bodyguard went for his weapon. As a lightning bolt came out of the darkness to engulf him, Alixus noted a cloaked figure wearing a mask. As the charred remains fell to the floor she decided not to disobey.

"Why are you here?" she asked, keeping her voice even. Strength was what was needed to overcome, she reminded herself. She couldn't bring it back to humanity if she didn't embrace it herself.

"Your allegiance," the masked figure said.

"To whom?"

"To the Sith... we who will tear down the Empire and make mankind strong again."

"And how will you do that." She jumped despite herself at the snapping sound, and the cloaked figure was eerily outlined by red light.

"With this," he said. "And that datapad." She noticed the device sitting on the table. He nodded, and she stepped forward and activated it. A gasp escaped her lips. "You're surprised?"

"It'll never work," she said as she read through it. "This is Chandrilla, not the Alpha Quadrant. You can't just-"

"For the Sith, there is no such thing as 'can't.'"

She read through it again. It was impossible... and yet, it included details that hinted at her own connections, at the secret network she'd been using to help topple the Empire. With the help of this Sith... "If you can do this," she said, "I will gladly play my part."

"See that you do," he said as the lightsaber went out. Alixus turned away; somehow she knew it would be better not to look at him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Dr. John Ezri was leaning over a patient when the door opened. He nearly jammed the medical tricorder into the patient's eye as he saw who came through it.

"John," Helga said, "Mr. Solo and Mrs. Skywalker asked to see you directly."

"Hello," he said with a voice like a drop of liquid nitrogen.

"Do you know them?" she asked.

"I'm afraid we've never met John Ezri," Han said. "But we have some problems we were hoping he could help us out with."

"I'll see what he can do," he said in the same tone. "If you'll come with me," he led the way to the side examination room and sealed the door. "What are you doing here?" he said in a low, harsh voice.

"We came for you, doc," Han said, getting straight to the point.

"Me?" Ezri was indignant. "I have no interest in galactic politics-"

"It's not about that," Han interrupted, "it's about the fungal disease."

"What about it?"

"How'd you like to help find a cure?"

Dr. Ezri looked ready to burst but he managed to contain himself. "I've said before, and I'll say again, I want no part in Imperial Research. Using condemned prisoners as test subjects isn't my idea of medicine, its barbarism."

"We're not talking about research," Annika said. "Someone's developed a cure, but we're going to need someone who can verify its effectiveness."

He looked at them both, not sure whether to believe a word of this. "You're really serious," he said finally. "Who could develop a cure and keep it a secret? You'd think someone would at least try to sell it... ever since the Empire came everyone's become half Ferengi."

"They're not interested in money," Annika said. "But you're right... it comes with a high price."

"It's the Borg," Han said.

"Borg?" Dr. Ezri said. "But, there hasn't been Borg for decades."

"Ex-Borg," Annika said. "Some movement that wants to rebuild the Collective; they have the cure. They developed one before the collapse of the Collective."

"How-"

"It's rather involved," Annika said. "Suffice to say that they have the cure, but we need someone to make sure it's the genuine article."

"Plus, Annika can use a doctor," Han added.

"Han!"

"Her condition's gotten really bad," he continued. "We need you to keep her alive long enough to get the job done."

"You ass!" Annika snapped at him as Dr. Ezri pulled out his medical tricorder. She pushed it away as he tried to scan her. "This isn't about me!"

"This is about you," Han said sharply. "That's why they infected you."

"This- what?" Annika was staring at him. This time she offered no resistance as the tricorder scanned her.

"It's your son they want," Han pointed out. "Did you think it was all just a coincidence?"

She shook her head, still slightly in shock and also a little embarrassed. It wasn’t often that Han put things together before she did. "I can't believe I never thought of that..."

Dr. Ezri closed the tricorder. "Well, if that's true, then this might all be for nothing. The Borg may have a cure tailored specifically to your infection. Still, I suppose I could use it as a roadmap even if that were the case, and according to these readings, you're not going to survive without medical care for much longer."

"So you're in?" Han asked.

Dr. Ezri hesitated. "I won't work for the Empire," he said firmly.

"You'll just be working with us, I promise," Han said.

Dr. Ezri nodded. "Let me take care of a few things, and I'll meet you at the docking bay."

Helga was waiting as they exited. Han and Annika slipped off as she came up. "You're leaving, aren't you."

"I'm sorry," he said, and meant it.

"It won't be the same," she admitted. "But you've nothing to be sorry for. You've done a lot of good here, John Ezri."

"Yes," he couldn't bring himself to look at her. "I suppose it's time Julian Bashir did a little of his own."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Molly O'Brien was just examining the results of the previous hour’s work. It was crucial that it be flawless; the stations may have rather lax security, but once she actually set foot on Chandrilla there'd be all types of sensors that might pick her out if she wasn't careful. She'd lengthened her hair until it was halfway down her back and turned it purple. She'd attached what was called a Twi'lek clip that gave her a dual ponytail; it was the style on some of the core worlds. She'd adjusted her pigmentation to pure white with lavender leopard spots on her arms and legs, and her eyes were red. She'd also turned her lips, tongue, and gums black. She turned as Ben came in. "What do you think?" she asked.

"Tacky," he remarked.

"That's what I was going for," she said.

"Congratulations. I'd lose the fur on the back of your hands, though. That can cause trouble in a fight."

"Good point," she said, although she was disappointed. Stimulating the hair follicles like that had been a challenge, but she couldn't let pride get in the way of their work. She picked up the pigment adjuster and walked over to where Ben had taken a seat. "How did it go?"

"She'll do her part," he said wearily as she started running the device over his head. "And through her we are aligned with the Vong." There was no mistaking the tone in his voice. "This is what I've been reduced to; seeking help from the Vong."

"It's only for the moment," she offered. "When the time comes, you'll drive them out of the galaxy."

"Of course I will. But to have to get help from those barbarous fanatics..." He pounded his fist on the desk in frustration.

"Hold still; the eyes are the hard part." A minute later she turned it off and spun him around. His hair was now sandy-blond and his eyes blue. Ben examined it in the mirror. "Not a spitting image," he said, "but more than enough for the task at hand."

Molly placed the device on the table. She seemed to hesitate before she spoke. "Ben... ever since we arrived here I've felt a tremor in the Force."

"Yes, I have felt it."

"What's it mean?"

"Most obvious is the Emperor; even in his old age he makes an impression on the Force. But he is feeble... there's no sign of the great power there... he's a changed man."

"I see," although she didn't. "And the others?"

"Of no importance."

But Molly pressed on. "They're Jedi, aren't they."

"There's nothing to worry about."

Molly knew she was tiptoeing into a dangerous subject. "It’s just... they seem so tranquil, serene."

"Of course they do," he said with contempt, "they embrace the light side."

"'Light side?'"

Ben turned back towards her and she took a step back in fear; she could feel his anger. "The Jedi," he said with rumbling undertones, "call their way the 'light side,' and ours the 'dark side.' We've taken their petty label and turned it into a badge of honor, because like children they fear the dark. They deny their feelings and preach only of peace."

"But, peace-" She froze as she felt his anger expanding like pressure in a deep magma pocket. She straightened up. "'Peace is a lie,'" she recited, "'There is only passion. Through passion I gain strength. Through strength I gain power. Through power I gain victory. Through victory my chains are broken.'"

Ben stepped right up to her; at these moments he filled her worldview, and it was terrifying. "Remember that." Before anything more could be said, the commlink chimed. "Yes," he said, his eyes still on Molly.

"We're in position. As soon as you give the signal we'll have the transporter get him out of there."

"Good," he said, putting the commlink away. He took Molly's arm in a somewhat kind fashion to lead the way. "Come. Garak will be waiting for us."



Chuck

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Part V


Her friends called her Mouse. She was small and could squeeze into the tiniest of places, and when she ran, there was little more than a quiet scurrying sound. When it came to slipping into the out of the way, the inaccessible, the well guarded, few could compare to Mouse. When Ben Skywalker had brought the Mistryl the details for his ambitious plans, Mouse was the only one considered for this assignment.

It had taken her hours to work her way up the vents, pipes and shafts into the access junction. After all that, it took her only two minutes to install the remote scrambler that would cut the power along the one line she’d selected out of the dozens in the room. Without a second’s delay she was back on her way out. As Mouse was known to say, it’s the little things you have to watch out for.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The door to the cell opened, and Garak sat up. “Mr. Terraine,” he said with the faintest of smiles.

“On your feet, Garak,” Volgo Terraine remarked. “Then slowly hold out your hands in front of you.” Garak did as instructed, and one of the guards stepped forward and locked a pair of binders on him. Garak noticed the other still had his blaster pointed at him, and he offered him the same grating smile.

“I take it the moment for what passes for Imperial justice is at hand,” Garak remarked as the guard ran a scanner over him just to be safe. It turned up two keycards, a shiv, and Terraine’s watch.

“You will remain silent throughout the proceedings,” Terraine said as he slipped the timepiece back into his pocket. “Do not speak unless the Emperor asks you a question. If the sentence is death, you will be allowed final words. Please do us all a favor and keep them brief.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of boring you, minister. I wouldn’t want to detract from your celebration of the moment.”

Terraine took the lead and the guards led Garak from the cell and out of the cellblock. An Imperial officer was waiting; he looked uncomfortable. “Orders, sir,” he said as the entourage drew to a halt.

Terraine took them, gave them a glance, and then glared at the officer. “This is a mistake,” he said.

“Sir,” the officer said, no doubt undeserving of being the messenger in this particular instance, “those are orders from the Emperor himself.”

“Indeed,” but there was a rumbling of resentment under his tone. “You’ll understand if I want confirmation.”

The officer nodded and gestured to the terminal. Terraine entered his code cylinder and entered his code to contact the Imperial Palace. The small screen revealed Leia Solo. “Minister,” she said, “can I help you with something.”

“Is his highness available?” Terraine asked. “I’m afraid it’s rather urgent.”

“He’s already left for the High Court,” Leia answered. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“These orders,” he said, sending the information from the datapad to her, “are they genuine?”

Leia took a look. “Yes, these are correct. You need to report to the Devastator immediately to debrief one of our operatives.”

“Now? Right before Garak is brought to trial?”

“I understand, I was a little confused too, but the Emperor was quite insistent that there was no time for delay.”

“This doesn’t feel right,” was all Terraine could say.

“I agree, but the Emperor has spoken and we cannot question him.”

Terraine held her gaze. “You’ll understand if I ask for your authorization code.”

Leia gave a lopsided grin. “Of course.” She pulled out her datapad. “I authorize Bravo Golf 127.”

Terraine said nothing as he gave a nod of acknowledgement and punched the kill switch. He hit the comm. “I want a squad brought up to escort him from here into the room. If he escapes before he enters that room every one of them will wish the Vong had them instead of me, understand?” The sergeant on the other end acknowledged. “You two,” he said to the remaining guards, “stay here.” He turned and headed for the exit.

“Not even a ‘good luck?’” Garak asked. Terraine slowed near the door, then stomped through it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Capt. Iblin was exhuasted, but there was no sign of it as he inspected the security arrangements for the sentencing. Any time the Emperor made a personal appearance security needed to be tight, especially with Garak involved. His capture had only made him slightly less dangerous, although Iblin was of the opinion that his execution wouldn't go much further in diminishing it. If you could unmake Garak there was a chance he'd stop being a danger, but only just.

Iblin slipped from his determined stride to a jog as he noticed some trouble near one of the entry points. There was the sound of quiet argument but the stormtroopers were visibly uneasy, and Iblin could tell why. "Jedi Skywalker," he said as he drew to a halt. "What seems to be the problem?"

"Your men don't seem to want to let me in," Sebastian Skywalker said darkly.

"He refuses to relinquish his weapon, sir," the corporal informed him.

Iblin sighed inwardly; he didn't need this. "I'm sorry, sir, but everyone besides the official guards must be unarmed without exception."

"It's not a blaster, captain," Skywalker said irritably, "it's a lightsaber. It's my badge of office."

And it kills people, Iblin added in his own mind. "I'm sorry sir, but no exceptions are allowed."

"But a Jedi without a lightsaber is no Jedi."

"But a Jedi without a lightsaber is no Jedi," Iblin admitted. It was a badge of office, after all, and there was no chance Sebastian Skywalker could be on Garak's side. "Let him in."

"Sir," the corporal said, signaling to the others to stand aside for Skywalker and his alien companion.

"Carry on, corporal," Iblin said, heading for the next entry point. He tapped the butt of his blaster pistol as he walked, then stopped and looked back at the door. His head told him to get on with things, but his guts were telling him that something was wrong.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Under the circumstances, the High Court was ill-equipped for the task at hand. That's not to say there was anything wrong with it, per se, but clearly the architects didn't have a case of this magnitude in mind, or else it would not have been limited to a mere ten thousand observers. But the word that the Emperor was about to pass final judgment on the most famous criminal of the era had drawn in crowds like a major sporting event. Ben Skywalker and Molly O'Brien, however, had taken a seat in the front row; it was the influence of the Skywalker name even in times of turmoil.

The crowds all faced down onto the small area where decisions were made and sentences handed down. Under the circumstances, the platform of the five High Judges had been removed and replaced with a single throne for the Emperor. Only he had the authority to overrule the Five, although it was a power he scarcely used.

For security sake a forcefield was kept between the crowds and the actual court, but that didn't stop the Imperials from keeping stormtrooper patrols visible as a reminder to the crowd. For added security, a large blaster-proof box was firmly secured to the floor in the center of the court. Inside the box was a transport scrambler, operating on an independent power source and separate from the network. It operated on time controls only, except for a code chosen random every day and known only to the head of security. It was also designed so that, if anyone tried simply blasting the one control panel, the field would stay on, not off. In the highest court, no precaution was too great.

"Are you sure they can do this?" Molly whispered to Ben. "With that shield in place we don't have a chance."

"The Mistryl are nothing if not resourceful," Ben answered. "How else could they have fanned a tiny revolt on some insignificant planet into a force to be reckoned with?"

The noise of the crowd died down as Elim Garak was led into the court. Stormtroopers flanked him as he was brought behind the defendants table, where they remained standing. A few seconds later one of the two rear doors opened.

For a time the Emperor had employed genetically engineered creatures to serve as his guards, but after they were all destroyed in the Bastion holocaust he returned to the traditional red-robed guards. Still, while times may have changed, standards hadn't; these remained the finest hand-to-hand combatants in the Emperor's armies. Their dedication bordered on fanatical, despite the fact that no one had gotten even close to attacking the Emperor since the establishment of the capital on Chandrilla.

Six guards filed out, then stood to attention as the Emperor followed, then another six guards. A squad of stormtroopers then followed, taking up positions around the room. Despite the seriousness, this was rather routine. The Emperor took his seat; Garak remained standing. The protocol droid that had been standing in silence now stepped forward. "Here ye, here ye," it said, "the High Court is now in session. His highness, Emperor Palpatine, presiding. Come forth and you shall be heard."

"Present the details of the case," the Emperor said to the droid.

"The defendant, Elim Garak, was found guilty of treason by the High Court in a unanimous decision. The sentence imposed for this crime was death, also by unanimous decision. Elim Garak appealed the decision to your highness. The basis for his appeal: that he is not an Imperial citizen, and thus incapable of treason. Your highness chose to reserve judgment of appeal." The droid stepped back.

The Emperor cleared his throat. "It is quite clear that I have given this case considerable thought. Mr. Garak, the basis of your appeal is baseless. It is a matter of record that you were a prime agent under Gul Tulvek. It is also a matter of record that that same Gul Tulvek surrendered to the Imperial military and pledged to the Empire 'all territory, ships, industrial capacity, material wealth, and citizenry' under his control. Therefore, your claim to non-citizenship is a transparent falsehood."

There was a gasp of shock as the forcefield dropped. The droid stepped forward and called for order even while more stormtroopers poured into the auditorium. Ben's eyes remained on the Emperor as one of his guards stepped over, no doubt advising him to exit. The Emperor, however, merely held up his hand, and the guard returned to his position. The droid called for quiet, and order was restored. Another squad of stormtroopers entered the rear doors while the Emperor continued. There was no doubt that security sensors were checking for any possible snipers in the crowd; to Ben’s knowledge, they would find none.

"The reason for my delay, Mr. Garak, is not because of legalities, but because of a firm hope that you might be of some use to the society you have so brazenly resisted. Yet you have offered no help in restoring peace, made no effort in bringing your allies in terror to justice, or shown any real remorse for the lives destroyed by your shameless behavior. You could have been an invaluable ally, Mr. Garak, but you are an intolerable enemy. For this reason, I cannot and will not overturn the verdict of the High Court. The sentence of death stands."

Noise broke out throughout the crowd and the droid again called for order. Unobserved, Ben Skywalker reached into the depths of his robe and pulled out the mask. No one noticed as he slipped it onto his face, but Molly sensed it was about to happen. As one person they both pulled their lightsabers out; the sound of the ignition was like a crack of thunder at a funeral. The troopers were still pulling their weapons into position while the two leapt through the air, cutting down the guards that surrounded Garak. The screams had already begun, and blaster fire echoed, but Molly quickly moved to protect Garak while he dropped down and undid the binders.

"I thought you'd never arrive," he remarked as he dropped the binders to the floor. Molly said nothing; she didn't care for Garak in the least, but she had every faith in Ben. If he thought the Cardassian could be put to use in their cause, then that was good enough for her.

Ben, in the meantime, had raced up to the transport scrambler and pierced the blaster-proof casing with his saber. The moment he did Garak shimmered and vanished. As he did there was the further sound of transporters as dozens of Mistryl warriors appeared blocking the exits. As planned each group activated their own transport scrambler to effectively reverse the situation; now no one came in or out unless they allowed it. The Emperor's personal guards were at a loss; the two emergency exits were blocked, and now transporting was out of the question. They formed a tight ring around him as they tried to hold the terrorists off.

The tide, for the moment, may have been in their favor, but Molly knew that they were still heavily outnumbered once the Imperials got more troops inside. She hopped up onto the table, caught three blaster bursts with her blade, then jumped, catching two more before beheading the first trooper. Instinctively she stayed in motion, catching another shot she couldn't dodge on the backswing and brought the lightsaber around to finish off two more troopers. She ducked and reversed the swing, finishing off the last two, then moved on to the next group.

While Molly and the Mistryl concentrated on the troopers, Ben went straight to the Emperor himself. The guards fired as he approached. At one point he had to actually stop because they were working together so effectively. But far sooner than anyone could have guessed he had struck down the first. As one they leapt at him, trying to overwhelm him with sheer numbers. A rifle butt struck the side of his head, and the mask was thrown off, revealing the burning anger on Ben's face. As if filled with new strength by the blow he dispatched the remaining guards with three quick slices of his saber. He turned and looked towards the Emperor, still seated on his throne. He spun the blade, brought it up, and as he swung, time stood still.

This was not poetic license.

The Emperor stood up amongst the frozen forms. The Sith was still locked in mid-swing, even the energy of his blade was still. Beyond him, the stormtroopers and Mistryls were exchanging weapons fire, and Molly O’Brien was just about in position to wipe out another group of troopers. Further up were the panicking crowds and the reinforcements on their way to rescue him. He sighed, then turned his attention back to Ben Skywalker. Casually, he reached out and pushed the center of the Sith’s chest until he fell over backwards. As he hit the floor his lightsaber rolled away and time started moving forward for him once again. He looked up at the Emperor with confusion and an edge of fear. The Emperor was changing before him, growing taller, his skin richer, his features smoothing, his voice deepening. “Did you think,” he said as he towered over the fallen Sith, “that I was some helpless old man for you to assassinate?” He pulled back the hood of his cloak, revealing the face of Ben Sisko. “That I would be a ‘disappointment’ like Kyp, or Miko, or any of the others you’ve been casually murdering? Be very careful, Mr. Skywalker,” he said, as the walls seemed to press in around him and the man’s tone became harsher, “the universe sometimes gives us the things we ask for.”

Ben jumped back to his feet, backing away. With a gritting of teeth, force lightning jumped from his fingers and struck Sisko in the chest; he didn’t seem to notice. “Is there something wrong?” Sisko asked. “I’m here. What are you waiting for?”

“This isn’t possible!” Ben shouted in frustration. “No Sith can manipulate time itself!”

Sisko’s small grin sent a chill down Ben’s spine. “Can’t they?”

Ben called upon all his strength, sending so much raw power through the air it started to grow thick with smoke. Sisko took a brief interest in his fingernails as the air screamed with unfettered Force energy. Ben dropped his arms, collapsing in exhaustion. Sisko looked up at him. “Oh, finished yet?”

“You’re not real,” Ben said desperately. “This isn’t real...”

“Real?” Sisko snapped, and his rebuke was like the cracking of a thousand whips. “It was real when you killed twenty-seven potential Jedi on the orders of Kathryn Janeway! It was real when you took a lost and confused girl and twisted her soul down the path of the dark side! It was real when you took that blade and killed your own father, just like you killed your mother, and all the members of your family!” Sisko glared down at him like the judgment of the Almighty. “And this moment, boy, is just as real as that.” Ben trembled under his stare. “You think your Oracle can see? I know it all boy, everything! Every secret deed, every dirty thought, every whispered betrayal, every senseless murder, YOU HAVE NO SECRETS FROM ME!!!” And Ben saw in Sisko’s eyes that they were true, that his every shame was on display, that in the scale of things, he was found wanting. In his glare he felt the consequence of his every sin, each one dropping on his mind like the blow of a hammer. He sank back, the weight of his guilt more than he could bear.

“I was your best friend! How could you betray me?”

“I gave you a place in my home when everyone turned you away...”

“I only wanted to help...

“Why did you do it Ben?”

“I loved you like a brother...”

“There were other ways...”

“Didn’t I mean anything to you...”

“...didn’t it count for something...”

“...couldn’t think of anyone but yourself...”

“...why Ben...”

“...we loved you...”

“...the darkness will consume you...”

“...don’t do it, Ben...”

“...why didn’t you stop them...”

“...it’s not worth it...”

“...please spare the children...”

“...we just want to help you...”

“...I’m scared, Ben...”

“...you’ll never forgive yourself...”

“...I don’t want to die...”

Sisko held out his hand, and Ben’s lightsaber flew into it. “You deserve to die for what you have done... isn’t that right?”

Ben screwed his eyes shut, trying to hold it in. Fear and guilt had wrung him out; his Sith pride turned to dust. “Yes,” he said as a sob escaped his throat.

“And so you shall,” Sisko said. Then he shut down the lightsaber and tossed it on the floor next to Ben. “But not today.” He turned and walked back towards the Emperor’s throne. “My work is done,” he said, although whether he was speaking to himself or Ben was unclear. “The galaxies will have to face this on their own. Unity can only exist if it comes from within... if it's what the people want, not if it's forced upon them.” He turned and faced towards Ben. “And I too must pay for my crimes... for allowing all the suffering and dying because it was for the greater good, because necessity is a reason, not a justification. This day is about my judgment; yours will come soon enough.” He smoothed his cloak out as he took a deep breath. “Pick up your saber.” Ben still lay on the floor, panting. “Pick up your saber!” Sisko said with a tone of divine command. “You are a Skywalker, and for once in your twisted life, you will act like one! Pick up your saber and execute me... know in your shriveled heart what you do this day, boy, and maybe there will be salvation even for you.” Ben took the saber handle and got shakily to his feet. Sisko dropped into the throne; he looked weary, but the aura of power still surrounded him. Ben hesitated, then plunged the lightsaber through his chest.

An empty robe was all that remained.



Chuck

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Part VI


Borda had a network in place that would make the ISB proud. With the training complete, Sebastian and Gorren were smuggled off Dane II to an uninhabited neighboring system. There they took a shuttle to a liberated Imperial system along the border, where they were given a different shuttle to use to reach the rendezvous with the star destroyer that would return them to the core worlds. It took time, but it also would make it far more difficult for the Vong or any of their spies to work out where the resistance cells were located.

Sebastian and Gorren came off the shuttle into the docking bay, neither one sure what time it was after flitting around on so many systems. The lieutenant who administrated the bay was on hand, apparently well-slept and recently showered.

"Welcome back, master Jedi," the lieutenant said. Sebastian gave him a weak smile and a nod of acknowledgment. "The captain would like to speak to you right away; I'm afraid the situation is quite grave."

"What's the problem?" Sebastian asked.

The lieutenant hesitated. "It would be best to hear from the captain himself."

"What do you suppose this is about?" Sebastian wondered aloud as they headed towards the turbolifts.

"Knowing the Empire, he probably wants to tell you they just Base Delta Zeroed Dane II," Gorren remarked.

Sebastian let the comment pass, but as they continued through the star destroyer, he couldn't help but notice the looks he was getting from the crew. Had word of the incident with Captain Ozzel gotten around? But then, it was Gorren who thumped him, why would they be fixated on Sebastian? He thought about it a little as they made their way onto the bridge. Here it seemed the crew was working very hard not to look in his direction. The captain finished speaking to his XO and came over. "I trust your assignment was a success?" he asked.

"It went well enough," Sebastian said. "What's going on? The lieutenant said there was some bad news?"

"Yes, very bad," the captain said. "The Emperor's dead; murdered."

"And the bad news?" Gorren asked, but Sebastian's expression silenced him.

"How did it happen?" Sebastian asked.

"He was killed on the floor of the High Court."

"That's impossible! Who managed to do that?"

The captain shook his head. "Believe it or not, you sir."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The mask was knocked clear, revealing the face of the enraged man who hid behind it. The computer zoomed in and enhanced the image; if they wouldn't have known better, they would have believed it too. "It's Sebastian," Jaina said with a shake of her head.

"Sebastian's been off with the ISB for weeks," Leia said. "He hasn't been near Chandrilla.” Still, it was hard to argue with this evidence. The tragedy of the assassination had led to the horror of accusation as various parties started pointing the finger at Sebastian Skywalker as the assassin. The four remaining Jedi: Jacen, Jaina, Anakin, and Leia, had gotten together to try and figure out who was really responsible.

"Obviously we know it's not really Sebastian," Jaina said. "He's some kind of dark Jedi from what I can see."

"Yes, and I'm almost positive he's the same one that killed Luke," Anakin said. "Like I said, he looked a lot like Sebastian did, so it would be pretty simple for him to pretend to be him if he wanted."

"But he wore a mask," Jacen pointed out.

"Yes," Leia said. "Because if he didn't we'd all be wondering how he could have thought to get away with it. By wearing the mask and then losing it, he was able to make it look like he had something to hide."

"The mask tells us something else too," Anakin said. "This is a replica of the mask worn ages ago by Lord Revan."

"Who?" Jaina asked.

"A fallen Jedi during the time of the Sith Empire," Jacen said. "That's a pretty obscure bit of knowledge, Anakin; I assume you think this implies he is Sith as well as a dark Jedi?"

"I've always thought it," Anakin said. "This just provides a bit more evidence. It also shows that this person isn't just some mad dark warrior; he's familiar with obscure portions of Jedi history."

"Which begs the question of where he came from," Leia observed. "His physical similarities to Sebastian make this even more of a puzzle. Could he have been surgically altered?"

"Maybe, but there's more to it than that," Anakin said. "This Sith... he felt familiar."

"I hate to bring this up," Jaina said, "but you encountered a Jedi from the future before, when Bastian went back to the pre-Imperial era. Could this be a descendent transported back to the present?"

"I thought about that," Anakin said. "The problem is, we know so little about the nature of time, even with what we've learned from Federation studies. Sebastian's trip seemed to be a pre-destination paradox: he was meant to go back in time and do the things he did; the timeline depended on it. If that applies here, this Sith was meant to come back and do all this for his own era to take place properly; his history would turn out differently had he not killed Luke and the Emperor."

"This kind of thing always gives me a headache," Leia remarked wearily.

"And it's pointless anyway," Jacen said. "If we presume that all of this is part of some grand plan of time or the Force, that still doesn't change anything. We're Jedi, guardians of the peace. This Sith is a threat to the peace and must be stopped, no matter what time or universe he comes from."

"Good point," Jaina said. "I suppose when we catch him we can have a chance of figuring this out."

"Not to mention why he'd help save Garak's life," Jacen said.

"Garak's always been resourceful," Leia remarked. "The Sith may have been depending on him for material and connections."

"That reminds me," Anakin said. "The mask that the Sith wore: I've seen it before on Malastare. It's also been described several times in eye witness accounts across both galaxies."

"So the Sith likes to get around," Jacen said. "What of it?"

"The Sith has been killing force-sensitive individuals," Anakin said.

"How do you know?" Leia asked.

"I've been watching his activity. Each time he picks people with Jedi-like traits. Miko, for example, was an incredible swoop rider with lightning reflexes. Durron was an exceptional pilot who's never been shot down-"

"That doesn't prove anything," Jacen said. "You don't need the Force to be gifted; Jorri can keep up with all of us in a cockpit, if you hadn't noticed."

Anakin was annoyed at his brother's skepticism. "Do you honestly think that a Sith would go travel tens of thousands of light-years to murder a swoop jock just because he was too good at it? You think he lost a bet or something?"

"Even if you're right," Jaina said, "what's it mean?"

"I think the Sith wants to eliminate potential adversaries," Anakin said. "He's killing Force adepts to do it, but there's one problem: how's he finding them?"

"Perhaps by the same means you're identifying them: their skill." Jacen leaned back and held up his hands. "You're still just assuming these were Force users."

"But it goes back to what I was saying before," Anakin said. "If he is from the future, then he would know who the Force potentials would be."

"Or he could be determining them the old fashioned way," Jaina said. "The masters would identify the Force potentials through meditation, even tens of thousands of light-years away."

"Right, but that would imply he had tremendous abilities," Anakin said.

"I agree," Leia remarked. "That's a rather strongly-honed skill. It would probably take a Sith Master to accomplish that, which is a thought I don't relish."

"Whatever the case, I think it's clear we have to do something," Anakin said.

"At least we can agree on that," Jacen said. "But unless you can identify his next target, it looks like our Sith friend has vanished."

"Well, we're going to have to come up with something," Leia said, getting up. "Because I'm going to have a hell of a time trying to convince the Senate to ignore the evidence of their own eyes."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The holonet was awash with confusion. Everywhere people were talking about either the escape of Elim Garak, or, more often, the assassination. In either case, the overall sentiment was the same: what happens now? Would the small skirmishes lead to open revolution? Would the military attempt to seize power as it did during the affair after the Death Star was destroyed? Would the Vong roll over a confused Imperial force? Would the Empire be forced to give in to the Cardassians to maintain their hold on what was left?

Nom Anor watched it all, astounded. Years of work in trying to shake the foundations of the Empire, and yet never before had he expected to witness something like this. Garak and his new ally had proven to be even more effective than he had ever expected; even killing Luke Skywalker was nothing compared to this. The little terrorist movement had managed to cut off the head of the Imperial government itself!

Nom Anor turned the sound off, but he watched the recordings from around the galaxies. They were scenes of panic and uncertainty, or open joy at the idea of liberation. It had awakened in some the fear of collapse, or the flame of hope in revolution. Their certainty in the strength of the Empire had floundered, and in that failing, one like Nom Anor could get his hooks in people.

But there was more to it than even that. For years now Nom Anor had an ace in the hole, one he'd been tempted countless times to pull out as the Vong were pushed back by the Imperial war machine. Yet every time his gut instinct was patience, that another, better moment would come, one which would not only bring victory, but allow him to take his rightful place in this invasion. For the first time his instincts weren't telling him to wait; it seemed that the time had finally arrived.

A little more time, he told himself. Let Alixus do her work in the Senate. Let Garak sow his mischief. Let the Empire face the Vong armies with uncertainty. Let the people wonder if their Jedi heroes had betrayed them.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Gorren watched from his bunk as Sebastian continued pacing, which he'd been doing for the better part of the day. There were subtle changes in his steps, his expressions, the slight gestures of his hands, but above it all was a dark cloud that had been there ever since he'd seen the evidence for himself. "I don't suppose you'd take much comfort in knowing many will idolize you over this?" Sebastian didn't reply, which was all the more disturbing. He would have expected at least a sharp retort from the Jedi. Gorren pulled himself to his feet. "Come, my friend. Let's go down to the simulator and dispatch some Vong. A good sweat and stretch of the muscles is exactly what you need!"

"Not now," Sebastian said.

"It would take your mind off things," Gorren pointed out.

"No, it wouldn't; it'd just provide a moment's distraction."

"Isn't that enough?"

Sebastian took a seat, showing a rare bit of weariness to the Klingon. "I'm going to become an enemy of the state," he said. "They're going to assume I'm responsible, and with good reason."

"We will clear your good name," Gorren said, "when we have the head of this impostor on a pike!"

"What about Jorri?"

"She can hold the pike, if you like."

Sebastian glared up at him, then a snicker slipped out that led to both of them chuckling. "I'm lucky to have a friend like you, Gorren."

"And I'm honored that you would call me friend," Gorren said back, patting the Jedi on the shoulder like only a Klingon could.

"I should have listened to you," Sebastian said. "I've been away from Jorri for too long, and now there's no way I can get near her until this is resolved."

"She will understand," Gorren said. "But were I in your place, I would shower her with gifts and song for weeks upon your reunion."

Sebastian smiled and nodded. "Good advice."

The door slid open, and Sebastian wasn't sure to be worried or relieved. Volgo Terraine stepped in, looked for a moment at Gorren, then turned to Sebastian. "Under the circumstances it would be best if we spoke in private."

"Hello to you too," Sebastian droned.

"I was just leaving," Gorren said. "There's an army of Vong in need of a bat'leth in the face."

"Save a few for me," Sebastian said, nodding to the Klingon on his way out. "So, Volgo... I leave for a few weeks and you manage to lose the Emperor. You do know what the 's' in ISB is supposed to stand for, right?"

"Your levity is ill-timed," Volgo said, taking a seat. "I'm sure you're aware of the gravity of the situation, even beyond the obvious."

Sebastian nodded, although the obvious still was bothering him. "How could this happen?" he asked. "How can someone, even a dark Jedi, kill the Emperor like that?"

"I think he wanted it to happen," Volgo said. "He had Leia and I sent off on errands so we couldn't be present. If we had we would have recognized your doppelganger and known something was up." He seemed rather tired himself. "Perhaps he felt this was the best thing for the Empire, or that he was standing in the way of our development into a true republic... maybe he was just tired of trying to hold this mess together."

"What's happening now?"

"Chaos, naturally. Fortunately with the Senate in place we shouldn't have a repeat of when the Death Star was lost. Your aunt should be able to hold things together in his stead; let's just hope the Vong don't try to press the advantage."

Sebastian nodded, leading him to the inevitable. "What about me?"

Volgo cleared his throat. "Obviously this is going to be a difficult issue to cope with. Minister Solo will be bringing the issue before the Senate to proclaim your innocence. You'll need to appear there to clear your name. But that's not going to be easy."

"I have an alibi," Sebastian said. "But if I use it, I'll be betraying those guerrillas on Dane by letting the Vong know they're there."

"And since the ISB doesn't officially exist, we can't vouch for you."

Sebastian sighed a little as he leaned against the wall. "You’re right, this isn't going to be easy," he mused aloud.

"We've doctored some records," Terraine said, "which should help. You'll tell the Senate the Emperor had sent you to speak with Gul Tulvek on a mission of peace regarding Garak. Cardassian space is remote; there should be no trouble with us making it look genuine."

"I don't like this," Sebastian admitted.

"Do you have an alternative? Because as it stands, the evidence of your guilt is insurmountable. If you fail to convince the Senate, they will arrest you, and you'll likely be executed as a traitor... in Garak's place," he added, pointing out the irony.

Sebastian paused, then he laughed to himself. "Sithspawn, the slimy little Cardassian was right!"

"What?"

"Garak," Sebastian said, laughing as he shook his head. "He warned me about this. He told me that by bringing him in I was ruining my life. I didn't believe him, of course, but it turns out he was right. He knew... somehow, he knew what was going to happen, even before we all did."

"Sebastian," Terraine said, "you're life is not going to be ruined."

"Promise me one thing," Sebastian said, now in the dark depression that lay on the other side of his outburst. "Promise me I can be with Jorri before the end. There's so much I want to tell her that I never did."

"Sebastian-"

"Promise!"

"All right," Terraine said, holding up his hands. "I'll make certain of it."

"Good," Sebastian said, hopping out of the chair. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have Vong to kill."



Chuck

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Part VII


“The woman has undergone some kind of pigmentation adjustments,” the chief investigator said to the Senate as the recording of the assassination was paused to show the person in question. “We’ve done an analysis and determined with 99.7% certainty this is Molly O’Brien of Section 31.”

“What is her background?” the Chancellor asked.

“Sabotage and murder,” the chief investigator replied. “She was found guilty and sentenced years ago, but she escaped. She was recaptured aboard a Bajoran station a few years ago, but before she was to be executed the station was destroyed and she was presumably rescued. Details are sketchy.”

“What about the others with them?”

“They wear markings that identify them as a group called the Mistryl, a remarkably well-organized revolutionary movement operating within our galaxy. However, this is an operation well outside their normal scope.”

“I see. And the man?”

The chief investigator cleared his throat. “The individual wears a mask for the majority of the fight. His combat technique is superhuman, indicating that this person has finely-honed Jedi skills.”

“Is it possible that this is someone mimicking a Jedi?” the Chancellor asked.

“While I am not an expert on Jedi combat, I would have to say no. The way he senses attacks before they happen, throw people with the use of his mind, and skillfully wields a Jedi weapon looks simply impossible for any human without preternatural skills.”

“Can you identify him?”

The chief investigator hesitated. “As I said, he wore a mask. However, there was a brief time when his mask was knocked away before he put it back on. The images, however, do not allow for as clear a view as with O’Brien. We have a 62% certainty that this is Sebastian Skywalker.”

“That sounds rather low.”

“It is. I have never used such a low identification in any criminal case. It leaves too much room for mistaken identity.”

“Thank you,” the Chancellor said. “I yield to Senator Alixus.” Alixus had petitioned to become involved in the interviews since Garak was from her sector. Grudgingly, this had been accepted.

“I have only one question,” Alixus said. “You say that 62% is too low, yet given that there are only five known Jedi in either galaxy, wouldn’t you say that this is proof enough, under the circumstances?”

“If we presumed the existence of only five Jedi,” the investigator said. “However,-“

“So that’s a yes?”

“A conditional yes.”

“Very well, no further questions. Thank you.”

The investigator was allowed off while the Chancellor prepared for the next testimony. It was difficult; Alixus seemed more on top of things than the rest of them did, knowing just what questions to ask. He was especially leery of this one. “Sebastian Skywalker has volunteered to speak before the Senate on this matter. He has affirmed that he will testify to the truth.”

Sebastian came out, trying not to look nervous. It wasn’t easy, but he kept his mind focused on the truth at the center of all the lies: that he was innocent. He told the story they’d constructed about his trip to Cardassian space. The Chancellor backed up his story with affidavits from Gul Tulvek, the captain of the ship that transported him, and so on. It all painted a clear picture that he wasn’t even in the same galaxy as the Emperor when this murder took place, and when he finished Sebastian finally felt confident they might pull this off.

Senator Alixus came up then, all smiles. It was as comforting as a rapidly approaching fin while you’re stranded in the water. She asked a few questions that probed at the edges of his alibi, then veered off in a strange direction. "Isn't it true, Mr. Skywalker, that seven years ago you were kidnapped and brainwashed by Vong agents?"

"Yes," Sebastian answered, not sure where she was going with this.

"It's because of this time with them that many consider you an expert on Vong tactics, techniques... the way they think in general."

"It's given me some insight," Sebastian remarked. "I wouldn't say it makes me an expert."

"Still, you are one of the few who have ever escaped from the Vong," Alixus said. "And you managed to recover from their brainwashing relatively quickly."

"I was very lucky," Sebastian said. "And my age probably played into it as well. Made it easier to adjust to that experience."

"Yes, I've read the report," she said dismissively. "I also read the report of your escape from the Vong. Rather remarkable, even for your father and the alien who aided him. You'd think an entire Vong base could capture even a Jedi."

"The Vong's primary concern was with escaping Halva IV before the arrival of the Imperial fleet. Capturing three people was a relatively low priority compared to that."

"Yes, of course," she said with a smile that was anything but friendly. "Speaking of capture, you were the one who brought in the terrorist, Elim Garak, correct?"

"Yes."

"This is the same Elim Garak who was being sentenced at the trial where you allegedly murdered the Emperor, correct?"

"Yes."

"A strange coincidence," Alixus remarked, "that the person who performed the assassination chose to impersonate the same person who was responsible for Garak's capture."

"I'd imagine that's Mr. Garak's twisted sense of humor," Sebastian replied. "In my conversations with him, he did tend to take a quite skewed view of reality. I'm sure this made sense to him."

"So you have an insight into Elim Garak's psyche as well as the Vong?" Alixus asked innocently.

"In the sense that I have learned to understand my enemies, yes."

"It has been suggested by some that your capture by the Vong was instigated by Elim Garak's organization."

"That's my understanding."

"And that Elim Garak was the one to transfer you over to the Vong?"

"Again, that's my understanding."

"So there was a time when you were his prisoner, correct?"

"A time," Sebastian said. "But I was unconscious, so I couldn't really say."

"I see. You've been to the aforementioned Bajoran station on several occasions, yes?"

Senator Alixus seemed to be all over the map. "Yes," Sebastian admitted. "To visit my mother when she was sick."

"Yes, your mother spent some time on the station," Alixus said, consulting her notes. "During that time she had a discussion with the aforementioned Molly O'Brien... it appears the details of that conversation were lost with the destruction of the station..." She looked up from her notes and smiled at him again. "I'm sure it wasn't anything important," she added.

"I wasn't privy to their discussion," Sebastian said.

"I understand," she said with a nod of condescension while she returned to her notes. "And your uncle attempted to postpone her execution," she said. "The commanding officer states in this affidavit that he wished to allow Minister Solo to examine the possibility of a pardon... a pardon for a convicted terrorist who was to receive the death penalty."

"Senator," the Chancellor said, "this is an investigation into the murder of the Emperor; I ask that you remain on that topic."

"Apologies, Senator, but I'm afraid these facts, which might appear irrelevant, are part of a larger picture. Given the severity of this heinous act, I ask for a certain degree of latitude."

The Chancellor looked to Leia, but she did nothing. She couldn't interfere without making it look like she was covering up for Sebastian. The Chancellor turned back to Alixus. "Proceed, Senator, but let's not get caught up in any red herrings, please."

"Thank you, Chancellor. Agents of Elim Garak that have been captured have testified that the destruction of the Bajoran station fits the contingency plan outlined by Mr. Garak himself. This explosion occurred shortly before the so-called Battle of the Yun-Yammka, but after your capture of Mr. Garak."

"That would appear to be the timeframe," Sebastian remarked.

"What were your whereabouts at that time?"

"I was in my quarters, reflecting on the situation," Sebastian said.

"The entire time?"

"The Vong threatened the galaxy, my father had been murdered, and my mother was dying," Sebastian said tersely. "I wasn't feeling very social."

"I see. So the only person who could vouch for you would be your wife, yes?"

Sebastian shot her a look. "Yes, I suppose so."

Alixus nodded. "For the record, eye witnesses fleeing the destruction of the Bajoran station observed Molly O'Brien in the custody of a man. Now, there are discrepancies in the details, but they all agree on one thing: this man had the powers and weapons of a Jedi."

"Yes, because he's a Sith," Sebastian said.

"You claim that this person is the same boogeyman who murdered the Emperor?" Alixus asked.

"He's not a boogeyman. Obviously he's real."

"The person is real; what proof, Mr. Skywalker, is there that he is what you claim he is?"

"Anakin Solo said that he was the one-"

"Ah, another Solo," Alixus interrupted. "Another coincidence. They seem to be everywhere around your family."

Sebastian glared at her. "The Force guides my family, if that's what you mean."

"I don't pretend to understand your religion, Mr. Skywalker," Alixus said. "But it does seem rather convenient that it can explain away coincidences. For example, the fact that your father found the Vong base, when the fleets of the Empire and thousands of probe droids could not. That minutes after you claim to have destroyed the yammosk the planet was destroyed, leaving no evidence to support your claim. The fact that your mother spoke frequently to Dr. Bashir before he confessed his involvement in Elim Garak's organization, only to disappear a short while later before he could testify. It can all just be explained away as the influence of some divine power whose total followers can be counted on one hand."

"The existence of the Force can be easily demonstrated," Sebastian said.

"Psychokinetic powers aren't proof. You are claiming that the Force has the power to control the destinies of trillions of beings!"

"What more do you want?" Sebastian asked in frustration. "You've seen the fight on the recording. You saw how my father moved the moon. How the Emperor destroyed Bastion?!"

"The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power you give the Force."

"Whether you believe or not, it is the truth."

"Well, you'd think that if the Force were that powerful you could use it to track down this imaginary Sith, wouldn't you?"

"That has proven somewhat difficult."

"Perhaps because he doesn't exist?"

"He does; we saw him on the recording."

"No, that was you, Mr. Skywalker. You never went to Gul Tulvek; it's all a cover-up."

Sebastian didn't betray any emotion, but his gut tightened. He had a very bad feeling about this. "I did not murder the Emperor," he said without the slightest hint of uncertainty in his voice. "I am innocent, and the victim of a frame-up."

"You falsified the records," Alixus said. "You tampered with the witnesses. I have a recording here," she held up a datapad, "of my conversation with Gul Tulvek shortly after the murder. I specifically asked him if he'd spoken with anyone about Garak, and he was quite adamant that he hasn't spoken to anyone in the Empire for years. And yet, now suddenly he's reversed his opinion."

"He was keeping my presence a secret," Sebastian said, hoping his nervousness wasn't showing through.

"The captain also backs you up, but curiously, none of the rest of the crew of your ship recalls your presence."

"I keep to myself."

"And what of your Klingon companion?"

Sebastian froze. He glanced over at Terraine and saw beneath the expressionless face the mental kicking. No one thought of an alibi for Gorren; he wasn't a suspect. "I don't know what he was doing," Sebastian replied.

"You two were seen exiting the same shuttle together," she said. "And yet, he wasn't part of this expedition. Where was he?"

"I don't know."

"Perhaps we should call him up here and ask him."

"If you like, though I don't see the relevance."

"He has connections to revolutionary Klingon forces, isn't that right?"

"Had, senator," Sebastian said. "He's allied with the Empire now."

"Really? He's worked with you; I have reports of dozens of times when you and he were sighted together under unusual circumstances. Curiously, none of them match up with any of the official assignments the Emperor gave you. In fact, you seem to have very few assignments compared to the other Jedi, and yet you seem to be everywhere."

"We all do our part, senator."

Alixus smiled again and shook her head. "Admit the truth, Mr. Skywalker. You were not on a mission to Cardassian space. You falsified the records to manufacture an alibi for yourself." She dropped a stack of datapads on the podium. "Do you really want me to go through every tedious bit of proof? Every eyewitness, every manifest, every sensor log that contradicts your fiction? Admit to the truth."

"Chancellor," Leia said as she rose, "I ask for a recess to confer with the accused."

"To get their lies straight?" Alixus asked the senate at large.

"Mr. Skywalker has the right to counsel," Leia pointed out.

"And you have a clear conflict of interest," Alixus said. "A barrister should be able to provide sound advice under the circumstances."

The Chancellor looked to Leia, then back at Alixus. He cleared his throat, but his voice still sounded dry. "Agreed. The accused will be allowed a brief recess with a senate-appointed barrister before proceeding."

There was a bit of senatorial chaos as Sebastian's counsel was allowed to join him. The recorders and such were turned off and no one allowed to hear what they discussed. He had the right to refuse to answer, but with the damning evidence it was suicidal. The recess concluded and he got up to issue a statement. "I realize what I'm about to say will imply evidence of a guilty conscience," he said. "The truth of the matter is, I have been involved in a private mission for the Emperor, off the record, to help cause uprisings in Vong space. I cannot provide details, as that would jeopardize their safety. Yes, the records were falsified, but it was done to ensure that I wouldn't have to endanger the lives of people who are fighting the Vong. I did not kill the Emperor, I was not on Chandrilla when the incident took place. I can offer no proof to support this, I ask that you believe me."

"After you've lied to us already?" Alixus asked.

"As I said, it was a necessity."

"A necessity," she said with a slight nod. "And yet you still claim that this Sith is the one responsible?"

"Yes."

"Whose existence you cannot prove?"

"He's right there, on the recording!"

"Circular reasoning, Mr. Skywalker. I see a man who looks like you."

"That's not me!"

Alixus held up her finger with a bit of bemusement. "So, then, your theory is that a person, one who is trained in the ways of the Force to a phenomenal level, has managed to disguise himself as you for the purposes of this assassination, and conveniently times it to occur when you can't provide yourself with an alibi. Is that it?"

He turned to the barrister, who nodded. "Yes," he said. "As unbelievable as it may sound, it's the truth."

"I have a theory of my own," Alixus said. "Tell me what you think. Your father knew Garak for a long time, back during the War of the Alpha Quadrant. He and your mother were morally opposed to the rise of the Empire upon Palpatine's return, choosing self-exile rather than involvement in government affairs. After being forced to become involved by the Emperor, Luke Skywalker met with the Vong during their early reconnaissance in the galaxy. He then arranged with Garak that bit of showmanship on Earth to paint himself as a hero while in reality he secretly was negotiating an alliance between Garak and the Vong. Your 'capture' was an event orchestrated to help coordinate your efforts with the Vong, and your 'escape' just as artificial. You have been aligned with Garak and the Vong since the beginning."

"That's not true!"

"When your mother couldn't convince Bashir to keep quiet, you silenced him when he tried to turn himself in. Garak had you 'capture' him to keep up appearances; how else could you have succeeded at what the forces of the Empire could not? You then destroyed the Bajoran station to try and eliminate as much evidence as possible, freeing Molly O'Brien so you could continue to train her in secret. Garak's trial was a deliberately staged event so you could assassinate the Emperor in public to waylay suspicion, since if you'd done it in private it would have been obvious who was responsible. Your attack on the yammosk is a lie, conveniently covered up by the planet's destruction. Your alignment with the Klingon, Gorren, is to solidify your contact with revolutionary forces, and all of this is part of your goal to topple the Empire that you and your entire family pretend to serve yet secretly loathe."

"We have done nothing but serve to preserve the Empire!" Sebastian said with barely restrained fury. "You have been working with the Vong!"

Alixus shook her head at him with pity. "You can throw your baseless accusations at me, Mr. Skywalker, but the truth is out there now for everyone to judge. You have put the Empire in the hands of people who have been working with the enemies of order. I have no doubt your life will be spared from your just execution, but I can only hope that some who have heard what's been revealed today will rise up and resist the efforts to hand our galaxies over to terrorists, invaders, and traitors."

There were shouts, but they were few. The terrifying sound wasn’t that racket, it was the silence of contemplation. Most would see through it, a stack of lies built on circumstantial evidence. But most wasn’t going to be good enough. Sebastian sunk into his seat. A confession would practically have been better; now was room for whispers of conspiracy. Alixus had inserted a crowbar in the cracks of unity, and heaved.



Chuck

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Part VIII


There was no mistaking Col. Deltone's look as he read through the datapad; Jorri had seen it dozens of times during her assignment to his command. That telltale frown, the attempt to appear neutral, those eyes... still, Jorri stood her ground. "It's not a very good time for this," he finally remarked.

"I understand, sir," she replied. "But he's my husband; I can't abandon him now, sir."

"I know, although it seems that he abandoned us."

Jorri leaned forward, her knuckles resting on the desk. "Senator Alixus is a slippery traitor who only remains in office because of her ability to dodge the truth. Bastian would never have done something like this; never!" Deltone cast his gaze down to her hands on his desk, but she refused to budge. "If I'm the only person left in the galaxy who believes that, then it's all the more reason why I have to be there."

Deltone took a deep breath through his nose, then picked up the datapad again. "Capt. Relam is up to date, I assume?"

"Jon is always on top of things," she said with a nod. He passed her back the datapad; it had "Two Week Pass" imprinted over her name, with the colonel's signature. "I'll make up for the lost time," she promised.

"I hope so," he said as neutrally as possible. "You're a good pilot and effective leader, but frankly I wish you were a man. It'd save me a lot of headaches."

"Sorry, sir."

"But you're worth every one," he said, finally warming up just a little. "I hope you're right about him, I really do."

"Thank you, sir," she said, then tucked the datapad under her arm and walked out. She had her bunkmate pack her things for her to expedite the trip; within half an hour she was on a shuttle heading for the wormhole.

It was never an issue of hope for Jorri. She knew her husband, and more than just what his character was. This assassin wasn't him; he didn't move right to be Bastian, and the way he responded to the attack was all wrong. Bastian wouldn't have gotten mad, he would have gotten even more controlled, aloof. For Jorri, it was practically a wonder that anyone could think this impostor was her husband.

Jorri took a deep, steadying breath as she pulled back on the hyperdrive controls. This wasn't how I wanted to do this, Bastian, she thought. But I guess we both have to take what we've been given.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Dr. Bashir looked at the tricorder with the same expression that all doctors have used throughout history. It was a kind of frown, showing a mix of contemplation and disappointment, one that is always used whether there is good or bad news. It’s not without reason skilled poker players are usually nicknamed “Doc.”

Still, the lines were a little deeper, the expression a little more downcast. Annika lay on the bed as he ran the device over her one more time. “Is it that bad?” she asked.

“Worse,” he said. He closed the tricorder up. “Unless the Borg give us the cure, I don’t see any alternative but admitting you to a hospital.”

“No,” Annika said without a moment’s pause.

“Your condition is continuing to deteriorate,” Bashir said.

“I’m aware of that. But I have too much to do to lie in a hospital.”

“The only thing you’re going to do is collapse and die,” he said in frustration. “Denial isn’t going to make this go away!”

“Like I said, I’m aware of that. But I’m not going to just lie in the hospital and wait to die, not while I can try to stop whatever else Nom Anor is up to. This mess with Alixus is only further proof of that.”

“You’re being stubborn.”

“Damn right.”

“Fine,” Bashir said irritably as he closed up his medkit. “I can’t force you to seek treatment. But sooner or later this is going to go beyond what I can do, and then what? Do we just let you lie here in an unconscious heap?”

“If it gets that bad, do what you have to, but right now, while I still have the strength to move, I move. We’re going to bring this Vong down even if it’s the death of me.”

Han came up the ramp before the subject could continue, although both knew which side he’d come down on if he became involved. “Anything?” she asked.

“A lead,” he said. “There’s word of a Borg settlement on an archipelago in the Southern Sea that might point us in the right direction.”

“A Borg settlement on Sanctuary isn’t unusual,” Annika pointed out.

“No, but it seems that this group is a bit more isolationist than most. They don’t even answer communications most of the time.”

“Is it safe?” Bashir asked.

“No less than anywhere else we’ve been,” Han said with a shrug. “But you’re right, this probably isn’t going to be pretty. That’s why I’m taking the Falcon in; if we need to get out of there, I want something that can put a couple of light-years between us and them if it comes down to it.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Leia's every waking moment was dedicated to holding the bitterly divided Empire together, and Sebastian had been placed in a holding cell to mollify his accusers for the time being. That left only Jacen, Jaina, and Anakin for the discussion of what exactly would be their next step. With the Emperor gone they would no longer be seeking guidance from him; they were on their own.

It was Jacen who had called for this meeting, and Anakin had a feeling what it was going to be about. His older brother always had been a little too sure of himself, and Anakin was betting he was going to appoint himself to decide what kind of work the three of them would engage in. But even Anakin's suspicions hadn't prepared him for Jacen's revelation.

"I've meditated on this a great deal," Jacen said, "and I think there's only one thing we can do." He took a deep breath. "We need to rebuild the Jedi Order."

The others looked at one another, suspicious of what it meant. "You aren't suggesting what I think you're suggesting," Anakin asked.

"We'd need to have some way of training more Jedi," Jaina said. "And we don't."

"That's right," Jacen said. "So we'll have to start one. We'll have to start training Jedi."

"No," Anakin said without hesitation. "We can't. None of us have a strong enough understanding of the Force-"

"I realize that this isn't an ideal solution," Jacen said. "But what's the alternative? Allow the Jedi to die out with us?"

"We wait until we are ready to start training others," Anakin said. "If we rush into things, we'll only make things worse."

"I understand if you don't feel ready," Jacen said. "Jaina and I have been Jedi for longer than you. We don't know everything there is to possibly know about the Force, but we know enough to help force potentials learn to harness their powers and put them on the light path."

"That's arrogant," Anakin said frankly. "Obi-Wan was trained by the best and had the guidance of the Jedi Council to aide him, and even he wasn't up to training grandfather. How can you expect to succeed?"

"The Force will guide us," Jacen said. "We have to trust that."

"I don't like this idea very much," Jaina admitted. "But this Sith has gotten these people involved. I think we may have no choice in the matter but to help them learn how to use the Force."

"This is a mistake," Anakin said.

"Things are desperate," Jacen replied. "The Empire is now being thrown into chaos. The Jedi Order once existed to preserve the peace; we need it now more than ever."

"We'll have mom to fall back on if we need help," Jaina pointed out to Anakin. "We'll work through this."

"I'm not saying this is going to be easy," Jacen quickly added. "But you'll see that this will help ensure the survival of both us and the peace we've sworn to defend." Anakin just sat there; there was nothing more for him to say than he had already said. They would do this without him, if necessary. He only hoped this wasn't going to be as fatal a mistake as Obi-Wan's.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The ocean zipped past the window as the Falcon came back out of orbit for its approach to the main island in the archipelago. As expected, there was a large settlement, complete with a series of landing platforms just outside. “Automated systems,” Han remarked as he signaled his desire to land. “Some things never change, I guess.”

“Any sign of weapons?” Bashir asked.

“No,” Han said. “But some kind of shield around the settlement. Not something I’m familiar with.”

Annika looked over the readings. “I have,” she said wearily.

“Borg stuff, huh?” Han remarked.

“Yes, similar to what we- they, used inside their ships. You two won’t be able to pass through.”

Han settled back into his pilot’s chair with his arms crossed. “I’m not too sure I like that.”

“Is there some way we can fool the shields into letting us through?” Bashir asked. “Perhaps with a tricorder.”

“Maybe, but it would be a bad idea. They may have some automated defenses in case of that scenario, or they might simply kill you out of xenophobic spite.”

“Then I’m not so sure you should go,” Han said.

“I can handle them if things turn ugly,” she said.

“No, you can’t,” Bashir said.

Annika glowered at him. “Fine, let’s bring in the stormtroopers. Then none of us will have anything to worry about.”

Annika had known just what to say. Bashir still despised the Empire, and Han was still upset over the mess on Deep Space 13. “Be careful,” he said, making it sound like an order.

“Naturally,” Annika replied. She strapped on the hold-out blaster she’d started using; she hadn’t been able to form a plasma discharger in years. She made her way down the Falcon’s ramp and crossed the empty docking bay. She stopped before the shimmering energy barrier, then pushed through. Almost immediately three ex-drones were on hand, sporting disruptors and blasters. Annika had her blaster in her hand but pointed it away from them. “I need to talk to someone about Sebastian Skywalker.”

The male, Species 7109, nodded at her. “You’re Seven of Nine, Tertiar-“ He stopped as Annika held the blaster inches from his face.

“If you’ve any sense of self-preservation,” she growled, “you won’t finish that sentence.”

His eyes flitted down to the blaster for a moment. “She’s been waiting for you for a long time,” he said finally. “Put down your weapon and come with me.”

Annika glanced between the ex-drones for a moment, then with a flick of her wrist, was holding the blaster out butt-first. He took it and gestured for her to follow. There were ex-drones in all stages, from those that could nearly pass for normals, like herself, to ones that looked like something out of the nightmares she still sometimes had. The settlement was an odd marriage of lean-to shelters and advanced technology. Everywhere the people stopped what they were doing and watched her; she could tell it wasn’t idle curiosity. Gradually they worked to the main building, larger and sturdier than the others, which probably housed the power for the settlement and maintained the shield. She had a feeling she knew who she’d find inside; she was right.

“Annika,” the Queen said. She gestured for her to come in, and Annika noticed it was with a mechanical arm… to replace the one Luke cut off, she realized. Of course, it had always been mechanical, but without their advanced technology it was a makeshift replacement. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Annika glanced at the various ex-drones in the room, then returned her attention to the Queen. “Naturally. You did this to me, didn’t you.”

“We knew we needed some incentive for your family to cooperate,” the Queen replied.

“It wasn’t enough,” Annika said defiantly.

“Perhaps,” the Queen said. “But we can always hope. It’s all we have left.”

Annika nodded towards the crowd. “Even now you still speak for them?”

“I do what must be done,” the Queen replied. “As I always did to ensure the survival of my people.”

“Your people are gone,” Annika said harshly. “There are no more Borg.”

“That’s true,” the Queen admitted. “But I never claimed that’s what we are.”

“Then what are you?”

"The lost and forgotten,” the Queen replied. “We are the outcasts; the last vestiges of the Borg who cannot adapt to your way of life."

"Excuse me while I shed a tear," Annika said coldly.

The Queen looked at her with a mixture of contempt and disappointment. "You should," she said. "You are the lucky one, the hero because you turned your back on us."

"I earned their trust," Annika replied defiantly. "And I worked beside them as one of them, as an individual."

"As one of them?" the Queen replied. "Really? I look at your face and I wonder whether you were once an outcast as well."

"I was accepted-"

"Were you?" the Queen interrupted. "Were you really? Eidetic memory means we cannot forget, Annika, even if we want to."

Annika opened her mouth, but she couldn't reply. She did remember it all. The Caatati who wanted to torment and murder her out of a petty desire for revenge, just because she was Borg. The times when the Voyager crew referred to her as "our Borg," rather than as a human being. The stares of the cadets at Starfleet when they'd returned to Earth, looking her over like some specimen. The Tsunkatse, where she was simply a Borg to fight in the rings for the crowds amusement. Captain Picard, a man she'd come to admire, who when push came to shove, thought her nothing more than a Borg agent in the midst of battle. If even he, whom she always felt represented the best the human race had to offer, couldn't see past the implants, how could anyone?

And then there was Luke, who lied to himself for a long time about what she was because he couldn't accept that she could be the same as his hated enemy. A man with the heart of a saint, and yet it had taken even him time and the strong love he had for her to see that she was Borg, and to accept that there was nothing wrong with that.

"You landed in the best possible circumstances, Annika," the Queen said. "And even your path wasn't easy, was it? Imagine what it's been like for the rest of us, who have never known individuality, to awaken to this terrifying new experience. To be captured and put in camps for execution, or hunted for sport, or put on display in museums. The galaxy hates us, and you left us with no way to protect ourselves from that hatred."

"The Borg are hated with cause," Annika replied.

"And does that justify the treatment of ex-drones?" the Queen asked with fire in her voice.

Annika's gaze slipped over some of the brutalized faces that were looking up at her. Some reflected that hate, but there was no mistaking the signs of jealousy and envy. She had run into quite a few difficult people over the years, but she had a very protective Jedi watching her back; she really didn't know what these people had been through, had she. "I don't know what to tell you," she said finally.

"Tell me that you understand!" the Queen replied in exasperation. "That we have been abandoned in a galaxy that preaches tolerance and unity!" Annika was shocked at the hint of tears in the Queen's eyes. "Tell me there's a reason for our suffering! Tell me why the few are favored, while the many must live with the scorn of others! They fear us, flee us, try not to see us! Tell me there's a way to end this!"

"I'm sorry," Annika said, just above a whisper.

"That is why we have taken the measures we have, Annika," the Queen said. "We have hope now, a single, fragile hope. Our every thought is bent on it, because it is the only way we can endure our suffering without succumbing to despair. Without it, we are lost... it would have been better if we'd never been born."

"I can't do what you ask," Annika said. "If you were to somehow restore the Borg to what they once were, you would be a threat to millions of peaceful worlds."

"No," the Queen said. "We've seen where that path has led us. Instead we could devote ourselves to research and exploration. You know the propaganda about us only learning through assimilation is a lie. Imagine what we could do if we worked with the Empire.”

“I don’t have to imagine, I saw it.”

“You know what I mean,” the Queen said.

“I think it would be a fatal mistake,” Annika said. “And you’d have to be insane to think anyone would think otherwise.”

The Queen nodded a little, not really looking at Annika. “Maybe I am,” she said quietly. “But I have to believe that there’s a purpose behind this. There must be a reason that we have been allowed to endure our hardships.”

“No, there isn’t,” Annika said. “It’s been happening for millennia across the universe. All you’re feeling is a vestigial Borg desire to impose order on a chaos beyond your control.”

“I can’t believe that,” the Queen said. “There must be something more. Even if we are merely to die in the effort, we cannot have reached such heights and fall for no purpose.”

Annika half-shrugged. “I am no philosopher. Maybe it’s so you can share this cure with the galaxy?”

“No, it’s not,” the Queen said. “We fell to teach us the lesson of hubris. We won’t make the same mistake again.”

“That’s right, you won’t.”

“So you still refuse us?”

“Even if I believed in your cause, which I don’t, he’s my son. I would never give him up to you.”

“You hate us that much, you’d rather die?”

“I love him that much, I’d rather die,” Annika said. “If you’ll accept nothing else, then I’ll be on my way.”

“There is nothing else you could give us,” the Queen said.

Annika nodded. “Then I’ll show myself out.”

Annika turned to the drone who had led her in. He glanced at the Queen, who nodded at him. He handed her blaster back, and she slipped it onto her belt. She glanced at them one last time, then walked towards the door. Just before she reached it the Queen called out to her, and she turned, and she could see the pleading in her eyes. “Remember Annika: you made the outcasts... don’t cast us out.” Annika looked them over again, and then left.



Chuck

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Part IX


Annika took a deep breath to steady herself before she walked up the ramp. Everything exhausted her these days, even the short trip back through the Borg settlement. Sure that she would present the least decrepit image, she walked up the ramp into the Millennium Falcon. Han and Bashir were waiting with the expressions of men who had done a great deal of waiting under tense situations throughout the years, and knew how to sit on the balance between apathy and focus that prevented cracking or death. "Well?" Han asked

"Nothing’s changed," Annika said. "There's only one thing they want."

"And I assume we're still refusing?" Bashir asked. He caught the looks of the others. "I just wanted to be sure," the old physician remarked.

"We could try breaking in," Han said.

"We could, but chances are they'd kill us or destroy the cure before we got the chance. We don't even know what we're looking for, or even if it's here. They might have it buried on an asteroid somewhere, waiting for the moment when they need it."

Han knocked on the dejarik table a few times while he thought. "What if we infected them?" he asked. "That'd force them to bring out the cure, and then we'd know where it was."

"No," Bashir said. "We can't do that."

"Why not? They did it to Annika, and it's not like we'd be killing anyone. They have a cure."

"Yes, but not necessarily the right cure. If you're wrong, we'd be guilty of mass murder."

"Look, these people have the ability to stop this thing," Han said rather hotly. "And all they're interested in is trying to blackmail us rather than helping anybody. These people deserve whatever they get."

"No, they don't," Annika said. Han turned to her in surprise. "You don't know what they've been through."

Han was trying to say something, but he still seemed stymied by her remark. "These people have infected you with a fatal disease," he finally got out. "How can you defend them?"

"I'm not," Annika said. "But you've no idea the suffering they've been through."

"It's a tough universe," Han said. "We've all suffered, but I've never used that as an excuse for anything."

Annika couldn't look at him. "You are now," she said. "Take me to Earth."

Han looked even more confused. "What?"

"Take me to Earth, please," she said. "I'll check in to the hospital, I'll let the Doctor do what he can. Just leave these people alone, Han."

"Annika-"

"I love you too, Han," Annika said, wrapping her arms around him. "You're the brother I never had. But I can't let you do this to them, or yourself, because you want to protect me. Chewbacca, Luke, they wouldn't have wanted you to do this either. So, I’ll accept the situation Han, so long as you’ll do the same.”

Han squeezed her back, then got to his feet. He pointed at her and adopted his command tone. “I’m not going to stop looking,” he told her.

“I’m counting on it,” she said.

“I’ll stay with the Falcon,” Bashir said, getting up. “I can do more good helping find the cure out here than in the hospital. I’d just be one more doctor offering an opinion.”

“I’d get started packing now,” Han said as he headed for the cockpit. “Earth is just a quick jump away.”

“I will,” she said, although she'd probably keep most of this stuff with Han. She'd brought some of her most treasured items with her on this trip, and had gone down and looked at them every once in a while. This ship had been her home now for years... she’d come to expect she would die on board it. But part of being a family was knowing when you had to compromise for everyone’s good. Han was getting too emotional about her condition; she needed to get away from him so he could think clearly, without worry. She knew how resourceful he was; if anyone could find a cure, or a way to bring down Nom Anor, she had every faith it’d be him. She just wished she could have come along for the ride.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It hadn’t been a straight journey back for the renegades for obvious reasons. Ben Skywalker had to keep his existence a secret to further the deception, and Garak had one of the most recognizable faces in the galaxy. Security at the wormhole would be tight, so they had to bide their time with the Mistryl until things dropped enough that the group could be smuggled back through to the Milky Way. Garak’s incessant chattering had made Skywalker almost regret saving his life, but for the moment he was still necessary.

The shuttle set them down on the Oracle’s planet, which had come to serve as a makeshift base of sorts for the Sith and his plans. Garak, on the other hand, stayed not more than ten minutes before taking another shuttle back towards the Alpha Quadrant to get his own plans under way. Traffic to this world had to be kept to a minimum to avoid attracting attention, but besides that, Ben could tell Garak was uncomfortable around the Oracle. That a spy and a murderer would feel that way about an old woman would have been amusing, if not for the fact Ben found her rather off-putting as well. It was fortunate she served him so well, so that he wasn’t inclined to kill her.

"Welcome home, Lord Skywalker," the Oracle said. “I trust things have gone well?”

Ben nodded. "The Emperor's dead, and Alixus has all but convinced the Senate that Sebastian is to blame for it."

"Good," she said. "Everything is going as planned." She returned to her work. Eventually she glanced back over to Ben. "Was there something else, my lord?"

"No," Ben said, snapping out of his trance.

"You're haunted by the words of the Emperor," the Oracle said. "They are merely the mad ramblings of a being facing his own oblivion. Do not dwell on them."

"Of course not," Ben said with visible irritation. "I don't need you to tell me that."

"Of course, my lord," but it was clear she was just humoring him. "As expected the young Jedi are planning to begin training Force potentials to rebuild their order."

"That should prove difficult," Ben remarked.

"Thanks to your intervention, yes," the Oracle said. "But still, they will find them. You'll have to be prepared."

"I can handle them," he said. It wasn't even said with pride, just the rock solid sound of belief, as if he'd been asked if he could stomp on cockroaches. If he could kill Luke Skywalker, some half-ass Force user would be simple.

"Yes, my lord, but why waste your time on the little fish? Our plans are bearing fruit, and you'll no doubt want to take a more active role in the events of the galaxy. There's no sense in you having to take time out to crush a few arrogant upstarts."

Ben looked at her with the distrustful curiosity he usually sent in her direction. He approached discussions with the Oracle in much the same way he might cautiously poke an insect hive, wary of what might come out of it. "What do you have in mind?"

Hardly pausing in her work, the Oracle grabbed a datapad off a stack and handed it towards him, still looking at her instruments. "I took the liberty of assembling a list of Force potentials who would be inclined to join the ranks of the Sith."

Ben yanked the datapad out of her hand and looked it over. "I have an apprentice already," he said even as he read the names. He recognized two as the Mistryl he'd brought back with him from their assignment.

"Yes, my lord, but I think you might wish to consider breaking with tradition."

"That 'tradition' exists to preserve the Sith," he replied, still reading through the names. "It ensures that we won't let our ambition cloud our judgment by turning on each other."

"Yes, but even the Emperor took your mother in to serve as his hand," the Oracle said. "The rule existed when the Jedi were strong. These few trainees are weak and their followers will be even weaker. Your disciples would be more than sufficient in overrunning them and serving as your agents throughout the galaxies while you seized ultimate control yourself."

"You are trying to appeal to my ego," Ben said with a hint of anger in his voice. "Do not think I am a fool, Janeway."

"Of course not, my lord."

"Still, there is some merit in what you propose," Ben admitted. "And my power is more than sufficient to eliminate any student with ambitions above their station. Training them would be time consuming..."

"At first, perhaps. But with your apprentice assisting you, they should soon learn all they would need to aid you in your conquest of the galaxies. After that you could train them at your leisure or simply eliminate them."

Ben nodded thoughtfully. As was often the case the witch’s madness contained a certain wisdom. “In the future, you will discuss matters with me before taking liberties,” he said, just to make things clear where he stood. Still he tucked the datapad into his pocket for later.

“Of course, my lord. I am merely a servant of the Sith.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The detention officer checked over the visitor request form with a frown, then handed it back to Jorri. He punched up the image of the cell; Sebastian was sitting on the floor in meditation. The image was switched off and he nodded to the stormtrooper, who escorted Jorri down the cell block and opened the door for her. It was quickly sealed behind her.

Jorri's presence must have triggered something, because Sebastian blinked his eyes opened and looked up at her with excitement and relief before springing to his feet and embracing her. "Jorri," he sighed, squeezing her even tighter, "it's been longer than I thought."

"I know," she said. She let the moment last longer than it probably needed, but she couldn't help herself. She hadn't realized how much she missed him until she saw the recording of the man with his face. She looked up into those eyes, and saw how much he needed her to hold onto him, and it was all she could do not to cry. This man was absolutely astonishing, holding one-on-one conversations with the Emperor, accomplishing impossible tasks, but at the end of the day, he turned to her and his expression said it all: I need your strength to get through this. Her, some Tatooine girl who'd become a fighter jockey, propping up a man who could face down giant tentacled monsters. Sebastian didn't just hold her and love her; everything about him said that she was needed... that a man who touched the pinnacle of power said that she was important. It was hard to be apart, but that look, that look could make the absence evaporate... because it said that he never wanted to be away from her. And she always felt the same.

If they executed him, she had no idea how she'd survive. Without her Bastian, there seemed no point in being alive.

Eventually they released one another and took their seats in the cell. "I didn't do it," he said emphatically.

"You don't have to convince me," she said as she took his hand. "Who do you think it was?"

"The Sith, although why he looks so similar to me is a mystery. And it's going to be difficult to prove it wasn't me who killed the Emperor, especially after the disaster in the Senate."

Jorri nodded a little. "Could we use the same kind of trick to prove your innocence?"

"What do you mean?" he asked with a frown.

"Like, had a hologram or something appear while you were locked up. That would prove there was someone else-"

"Too risky," Sebastian said. "We tried duplicity once, and look where it landed us. If we tried again, it would only further demonstrate to our enemies that we have something to hide."

"But without proof, they might execute you."

"I don't think so, although with Alixus poisoning the well it might come down to that." Sebastian caught Jorri's expression. "There's nothing to worry about," he added. "The Sith is going to come up for air one way or another, and when he does they'll see the truth, and I'll be out of here."

"I hope so," Jorri said, "for the three of us."

Sebastian wondered what she meant by that for a second. Was she talking about his mother's condition? Then he realized the two of them weren't alone in the cell, not exactly. He reached out and pulled her close. "I had no idea," he whispered.

"I've been waiting for you to come home so I could tell you," she said as she gripped him as tightly as she had when she'd first entered.

"How far along?" Sebastian asked.

"Three months," Jorri said. "It's a girl."

Sebastian shook his head as he tried to take this in. In the last minute he'd undergone a mental transformation. He was going to be a father... and for the rest of his life, that's what he'd be. It was a terrifying thought to have this new life suddenly become his responsibility, far beyond what he'd prepared himself for. Sure he'd saved the lives of many children over the years, but that was simple by comparison. Disarming a bomb may be harder than teaching someone how to walk, but it was a short experience... very short if you weren't good at it. The latter required constant vigilance, along with a host of thousands of responsibilities. The fact the child would no doubt be strong in the Force made that even more daunting.

And what kind of galaxy am I creating for her? he asked himself. Civilization teeters on the edge of collapse, the Vong stand at the gates, ready to sweep through the undefended systems. Old rivals stand ready to turn their weapons on one another once again. And a Sith ran in their midst, sowing chaos and murdering people. Is this what he was going to bring his daughter into?

There was a look of grim resolution on Sebastian's face. Not if I have anything to say about it, he thought. "Tell Terraine to get me out of here," he said with steel in his voice. "I've got work to do."

Jorri took hold of his arm and held him close again. "I asked Leia, actually, but there's nothing they can do right now. If they let you go free the divisions could spread."

Politics! Sebastian thought, hopping off the bench and pacing in frustration. "I don't suppose you smuggled in my lightsaber," he muttered, frustrated at the situation.

"Gorren still has it," Jorri said. "Although he's wanted to break you out ever since you were locked up," she added with a laugh.

"Yeah, well, if I thought he had a chance I'd let him try," Sebastian said. He kicked the wall in frustration, then caught Jorri's expression. "What?"

"I'm just-" she stammered. "I've never seen you like this. You're usually so restrained."

"I just feel so useless!" he said. "I'm not doing anyone any good in here."

"Well then, should we try the hologram idea?" Jorri asked.

Sebastian stopped his furious pacing. "No," he said, but there was no mistaking the fact he hated saying the word. "There's too great a chance someone could see through it... no pun intended, of course. What convinced everyone was that the Sith moved like a Jedi, and that's because he is a Jedi, a dark one anyway. A hologram, a shapeshifter, none of them would be able to put on as convincing a performance. As much as I hate to admit it, it'd probably only make things worse."

"Then what are you going to do?" Jorri asked.

Sebastian threw up his arms. "I wish I knew," he said. "But I can't stay in here, not now."

"Bastian," Jorri said, getting up and embracing him again, "I'm sorry. I didn't think telling you about the baby would upset you like this."

"It hasn't," Sebastian said. "It's given me the kick in the pants I've needed." He finally seemed to have calmed down. "It's put things in perspective. All my work has been to preserve the galaxies because of obligation. Now I've got a personal stake in it, and I realize that staying locked up and letting them sort this mess out is a luxury I don't have." He gave her a quick kiss. "I won't do anything stupid," he promised.

"Good, because we both need you," she said. "More than the galaxies do." They spent two hours together, making up for the time they'd lost as best they could under the circumstances. When the time was up, Jorri activated the call button inside the cell. Sebastian stood well back to indicate he wasn't going to try anything, and the stormtrooper opened the door and let Jorri out. Sebastian returned to the spot on the floor and resumed his meditation. He needed to think clearly if he was going to find a way out of this mess.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It was a nondescript ship, but then, Nom Anor would have it no other way. He slipped through the wormhole protocols with a skill that had been honed by years of experience, so much so that it was second nature to him now. The coordinates came up on the navicomputer and he slipped into hyperspace. He’d made up his mind; the time was ripe now. It was time for him to take a more active hand in shaping the fate of the galaxies.



Chuck

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Part X


The guard looked up as a stormtrooper entered holding a datapad. The guard continued entering the information in for his report, ignoring him. These new troopers always needed to learn their place when it came to the detention blocks, otherwise they tended to overstep their authority and risk security breaches.

"Sir," the trooper finally said.

"I am busy," the guard growled.

"Sir, I need to deliver this message," the stormtrooper said. "And I have a ticket for the gladiatorial games in less than an hour."

The guard looked up, suspicion on his face. "You're not being reassigned?"

"No sir. I have a message from Volgo Terraine for the prisoner, Sebastian Skywalker." The stormtrooper handed over the orders, causing the guard to bristle slightly. One of those damn ISB cover jobs, which required him to turn off the sensors in the cell for "privacy," which usually meant some heavy persuasion. That didn't seem likely under the circumstances, however, but there was nothing he could do about it. Every order was checked against the sensor logs, and if he violated it he'd wind up in one of their holding cells undergoing very heavy persuasion. He checked the cell one last time to verify the prisoner was still in there, then deactivated the sensors.

Twenty minutes later the chime rang for the cell. The guard switched the sensors back on and saw the trooper ready to exit, the prisoner lying on the bunk. The guard tapped his lips a moment, then gestured for two stormtroopers to join him as he walked down the cell block. He entered the code and opened the door, the trooper inside waiting with the patience of a stormtrooper. "Prisoner," the guard called, "stand up." The two flanking stormtroopers held their weapons at the ready.

Sebastian rolled over on the bunk. "What?" he asked as he got to his feet. The guard frowned as he pulled out a scanner, but they confirmed this wasn't some illusion. He put it away with a huff, then gestured for the trooper to exit.

Once the trooper was out the guard sealed the door. "Enjoy the race," he said as he led them back down the detention block.

"Thanks," the trooper replied. "But it's a gladiatorial match, not a race."

"Yes, of course," the guard replied shortly. He resumed his post, checking in on the prisoner, he seemed to be lying down again. The guard thought some more, then activated the comm. "Prisoner, stand up."

Sebastian rolled over. "I have a name, you know," he replied moodily, then got back to his feet. The guard ran another sensor sweep, but found nothing out of the ordinary.

"What did you two talk about?" the guard asked.

"I'm not at liberty to say," Sebastian said.

"The ISB give you a rough time?"

"I don't know what you mean. There is no ISB."

"Of course," the guard said. He hated this cloak and dagger poodoo; it made his life difficult.

The stormtrooper left the building and took a public transport to an apartment complex on the outskirts of the capital. His every step was exact, his choices made without hesitation or missteps. He flashed an ID to a protocol droid upon entry without missing a step as he headed for the turbolift. He exited and continued to the room without searching, as if he'd been there a thousand times and knew it by rote. He activated the chime; a Klingon answered.

"What do you want?" Gorren growled at him.

The stormtrooper removed his helmet. "I want my lightsaber back," Sebastian said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor finished connecting to the network relay, an overall unpleasant experience for him despite his time living amongst these technophiles. Still, this was the most effective way to carry out his plan, although he was loathe to think that his work would have to depend upon Imperial technology. He made the final connections, then without ceremony, hit the send button.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Gorren had a grin that threatened to drop the top of his head off his body. "I knew it," he said triumphantly. "I knew you would see the light, my friend. How many Imperial Toh-pahs did you have to kill to make your escape?"

"None," Sebastian said, getting out of the armor even while he accessed the computer terminal. "We're going to need passage..."

"Ah, the Jedi way," Gorren said with the same tone a man uses when trying to show he understands female hygiene issues.

"Jedi had nothing to do with it," Sebastian said, still looking over the screen. "I had help."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was sitting on the edge of the cot in his cell, tossing his ring up in the air and catching it while he thought. He didn't have a lightsaber to tap it against, so he made due. His thoughts were bent on how he could try to resolve these problems. There were so many, it was difficult sorting out where to start. Clearing his name was important, but not necessarily the most important. Nom Anor, the Sith, Garak, they were all serious threats in their own way, and it was difficult to decide which would be the most important, yet practical, first choice. Still, he had his contacts; he could probably get a better feel once he was off Chandrilla, which was what it always returned to.

The door opened, and a stormtrooper let himself in. Sebastian stayed put, flipping his ring through the air and catching it casually, as if the trooper weren't even there. "Excuse me," the stormtrooper said.

"I'm a bit busy right now," Sebastian said moodily.

"You're about to be," the stormtrooper said, removing his helmet to reveal Volgo Terraine's face. Sebastian was so surprised he missed the ring as it fell.

"Kriff!" the Jedi cried as he dropped to the floor to find it.

"Do you mind if we get down to business?" Terraine asked as he continued stripping off the plastoid armor.

"I have to find it first!"

"It's just a ring," Terraine said. "Focus on what's important, please."

"It's important to me!" Sebastian said. "It's precious. Ah!" he said as he closed his fingers around it, then slid it on his finger. "You were saying?" he added as he sat down on his bunk.

"We're getting you out of here," Terraine said.

"Good, how are we going to do it?"

"One thing at a time," Terraine said. "You should leave the galaxy as quickly as possible; it's the safest option at this point. Let the heat die down and you can start looking into how to proceed. I'll find a way to contact you if necessary. Put this on."

"Any advice?" Sebastian asked as he started pulling on the stormtrooper armor.

"It's all in the datapad inside the armor," Terraine said. "But one thing that might interest you are a couple of leads we have on the alien, Kalib."

"The one who was caught trying to save me?"

"Yes. From what little I know, he was a bit of an information broker. He could probably help."

"I hope he's inclined to cooperate with me," Sebastian said.

"Well, whatever the case, I doubt he has any love for the Vong." He looked Sebastian over. "That looks fine. The datapad has a map of the route to Gorren's apartment; you'll want to memorize it."

"No problem," Sebastian said as he looked it over.

"Get your Klingon friend and get off the planet as quickly as possible without attracting any attention. Oh, and if anyone asks, you're on your way to the gladiatorial games."

"Got it," Sebastian said. "But how exactly am I going to get out of here?"

"Simple," Terraine said. Sebastian took a step back as Terraine's face melted. No, not melted, transformed, until he was looking at a copy of himself. "This will fool the guards," he said in a perfect imitation of Sebastian's voice.

"How the kriff did you do that?" Sebastian asked. "Are you a changeling? Why are you working for the Empire?"

"Let's just say that Sisko and I are very old friends," Terraine said. "But this isn't the time for questions, Sebastian."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"So the ISB is run by one of the Founders?" Gorren said with dismay. "I didn't think any were left."

"Neither did I." For a moment he had considered that the changeling might actually be impersonating Terraine to lead him into a trap, but he knew the Emperor's true identity. The number of people who did numbered less than a dozen, many of whom were dead. "It explains a few things though, like his animosity towards Garak for one. But let's stay focused on our job."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jorri was unaware of Sebastian's escape, and unfortunately would have to be. Agents of the Vong had been watching her since her arrival, and Terraine had suspicions that they had bugged her quarters. After a couple days on the capital with nothing to think about but her husband and her baby, she decided to check in with her squadron.

"Everything's quiet," Capt. Relam, her wingman, remarked. His image was grainy, but considering it was being transmitted through the wormhole, that was expected. Years ago this would have required a serious bit of pull, but now it was practically routine.

"The Hirogen aren't putting up a fight?"

"Not since our last run-in," he said. "I think we might have scared some sense into them."

"I'm not sure they could be scared or develop sense," Jorri said.

"Well, whatever it is, it's-" his words were drowned out by a sudden scream."

"Jon? Jon what's happening?" She leapt back from the hologram. Obviously it couldn't do anything to her, but the sight of Jon transforming before her eyes was horrifying. What could be happening to him?
--------------------------------------------------------------

Across the Milky Way, the signal propagated from relay to relay, each one broadcasting Nom Anor's signal. It was, in and of itself, harmless, yet there was devastation in its wake all the same.

Ten years ago it had started with a single organism Anor had designed for infiltration. It overpowered its targets, absorbed them, and then released an exact copy. Even the memories were the same; you never even knew what had happened to you. And yet, when the circumstances were right, instinct took over, and you yourself passed it on to the next. One became two, two became four, again and again, inserting themselves into positions throughout the Empire high and low. Now there were billions of them, sleeper agents of Nom Anor.

And the signal just woke them up.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle emerged from her laboratory. "It's time," she said.

Ben Skywalker was in the midst of working with the Mistryl agents who had been on the list. He'd been impressed so far; it seemed that their command of the Force was already manifesting in their reflexes and combat techniques. The Oracle had done a good job in selecting them, but that didn't mean he was going to indulge her. "This had better be important, witch," he growled.

She pointed towards the third Mistryl , the one who hadn't been on the list. "It is," she said. They watched as the woman collapsed and then began to transform. "Kill it," she said. "Kill it or Nom Anor will know everything about us."

Ben didn't need to be told; he'd faced one of those before, and he didn't like them very much. The affront also fueled his anger, made him stronger. He blasted the quivering form with Force lightning, sending it bouncing across the floor into a wall. A tentacle lashed out of the center of its mass, but he held up his hand and it deflected away before it could reach him; he sliced it off with a casual swing of his blade as he closed in. It struggled to get away, but he held it in place with a gesture of his left hand, even while his right shut down his lightsaber and hung it on his belt. He pulled off a similar looking device, hit a button on the hilt, and caused the end to split open into five parts, each about the size of a commlink. There was a deeper hum as he flicked it on, and each produced a thinner lightsaber, angling off slightly from the handle to look like some kind of dangerous bouquet. He plunged them into the squirming mass, getting an inhuman shriek for his troubles, followed by a stomach-wrenching stench. Ben poured his power into the weapon, strengthening the blade while the creature’s tentacles gyrated feebly. Finally they collapsed as the creature began to dissolve.

"What are these things," he demanded as he turned back to the Oracle. He switched the weapon off and returned it to his belt.

"Tools of Nom Anor," she answered. "And of us, in time. But that doesn't mean we can allow them to run amongst us."

Ben nodded, then noted the expression of awe in the Mistryl's faces. He gave a slight lopsided smile at the sight. Good... let their desire for power show them the path to the Dark side. He pulled his lightsaber back out again with a flourish. "Let's get back to work."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The airvent was small without any kind of removable access, but that was more than enough for Terraine. Once he had given Sebastian what he felt was enough time, he crept up the wall and into the vent. He slid through it cautiously, recalling all the security devices there to catch miniature robots and the like, dropping back out in the hallway before sliding into the garbage chute. It was a less than graceful exit, but it did the job. By the time the guard discovered Sebastian was missing, the Jedi was off the planet.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Securing passage was uneventful. Finding an inconspicuous disguise for Sebastian was uneventful. Leaving Chandrilla was uneventful. Of course, that meant that the trip couldn’t be uneventful; Sebastian knew enough of how the universe works to be sure of that.

There was the sound of weapons fire coming from the hall outside their quarters, and Sebastian could sense desperation in the minds of the crew. He couldn’t ignore this. Sebastian grabbed his lightsaber and headed for the door, but Gorren’s hand dropped on his shoulder. “Low profile, remember?” the Klingon warned him, holding out a blaster.

“No time for subtlety,” Sebastian replied, pulling out of his grip and heading for the door.

“Remember why you are escaping, my friend.”

Sebastian was just reaching for the door release, but froze. He was still for a moment, then the blaster flew out of Gorren’s grip; Sebastian caught it without looking. “Come on,” he said, putting away the saber and stabbing at the door control. The weapons fire was now much further up the hall, and the two raced after it. They rounded the corner and both drew to a halt.

The distorted, rolling creature filled the hallway; on the other side was the sound of blaster fire, a scream, and something like breaking bones, only wetter. A twisted head turned back towards Sebastian and Gorren, one eye the size of a fist, the other normal. Its face seemed to be half skull, half molten flesh. A growl issued from its throat, and a tentacle flew down the hall towards them, the two stepping aside in opposite directions as it passed in between them into the wall. “I’ve changed my mind,” Sebastian shouted, tossing the blaster back in Gorren’s direction even as he fished his lightsaber back out. Gorren was already firing with one hand, but snatched the blaster out of the air and began firing with that one as well. A tentacle knocked him into the wall, but the Klingon barely missed a beat, screaming like a berserker as he continued firing the blasters at the thing.

Sebastian lit the lightsaber and lopped a tentacle off, then a second. The creature’s torso opened and another tentacle emerged from inside. He sidestepped it while he swung, but another caught him and knocked his saber hand aside. The first wrapped around his neck and with a yank, pulled Sebastian’s head and shoulders into the gap before it bit down on him. Gorren called his name as Sebastian’s legs kicked frantically; he dropped the blasters and trying to yank him free. He had to drop back as Sebastian’s blade swung wild, then the legs stopped kicking. For a second the Klingon feared the worst, but then he saw the movements: quick, precise, controlled. He stabbed the blade into the mass and swung, tearing a huge gash in the creature. He repeated the gesture, until finally he was tossed back out against the opposite wall. Gorren scooped up his fallen blasters and fired madly into the beast, and within seconds it had collapsed. Gorren didn’t let up until the hallway was filled the stench of burned flesh. He went over to Sebastian’s side; the Jedi was bleeding and looked absolutely awful. “Are you all right?” Gorren asked quickly.

“No, but give me some time.” Gorren helped Sebastian to his feet.

“You took the fight out of him, my friend,” Gorren said with approval.

“That’s what happens when your food disagrees with you.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor's ship came out of hyperspace into the chaos of the Kolyet system. Ships were everywhere, most coming in, but a few trying to escape. It didn't matter; they were only buying a little bit of time. Nom Anor set his course for the planet and took time during the approach to watch the fruits of his labor. It seemed to be going even better than he'd hoped.

The shield around Kolyet was down now, and would remain down for some time. The knowledge stored in the planet’s vast archives would be invaluable to anyone who wanted to take over the galaxies and that's why Nom Anor had made certain to infiltrate a sizeable percent of those in power here. In fact over one percent of the planet's entire population were agents of Nom Anor now; eventually that figure would become one hundred.

Nom Anor had heard of the Borg upon his arrival, and it had made the bile rise in his throat. That so many lived in fear of a group that had sullied their organic form with machinery was mystifying, but not nearly so much as their effectiveness. Nom Anor had lost one of his associates to them when they spread through the Republic. He hated what they were, but even he had to admire the idea of it: the many sharing minds, experiences, knowledge, to create the perfect thinking machine. And anything these people could do with their machinery, Nom Anor knew could be done better with Vong technology, if given the chance. And here was the arrival of the proof: billions of beings from throughout the galaxy, coming here to share their knowledge of the enemy. They would then link together into a single being, equipped with their experiences and the contents of the greatest collection of knowledge in the galaxy. And like all their creations, it would exist only to serve the Vong... specifically, Nom Anor.

In the chaos created by this sudden uprising, no one was able to stop his plan. By the time the Empire had pieced it together Kolyet had fallen completely under his control. Those who hadn't escaped were absorbed into the creature, adding their knowledge to it. The planetary shield was up long before the Imperials figured out what was going on, and by then all effort was being directed towards restoring order. And Nom Anor watched it all from Kolyet, the only living being not part of their biomass. The effort to splinter the Empire had already begun... Nom Anor knew it would be finished here.



Chuck

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Part XI


Annika Hansen Skywalker had been admitted to the hospital fourteen weeks ago, but it felt like a lifetime. Her life had fallen into a routine of misery, of pokes and prods and scans and tests, oh the tests. The endless parade of faces with their analyses was her world now, and by now Annika was convinced that if there was anyone within a thousand miles who was a physician, surgeon, microbiologist, or village witch doctor that hadn't seen her, he or she was probably sick themselves. And during the moments when she was finally left in peace, she was exhausted beyond measure. The disease sapped her strength, and the treatments took whatever was left. Tired in body and tired in spirit, waiting for the inevitable, knowing she'd done all she could. Most of all, she was tired of fighting, which given her past tendencies, was amusing to her in its irony.

But there was one thing she clung to even in her desperate hours, when the loneliness and exhaustion were overwhelming. It was a tiny little kick, when Jorri had come to visit. Annika could never have children, and yet, a grandchild was coming, was nearly here. Another addition to their little family, and Annika wanted to be there for her. The Doctor, as always, had been right: the thing she had left to do in her life was live. So, she awoke to a new morning, and with grim determination reminded herself that her job for today was to stay alive. It didn't seem the most ambitious of goals, but it required a constant vigilance. Fail once, and odds are you wouldn't get another chance.

The door opened, and Annika turned towards it with her usual weary dread. It evaporated in an instant when she saw who it was. "Sebastian!"

"Shh!" he said as the door closed behind him. "The Doctor let me in, but I can't attract any attention; it would be bad for the other patients."

"And you," she said. "They're probably watching the hospital."

"Yeah, well, I'll take my chances."

"Such reckless behavior; I thought I raised you better." She embraced him, although it was hard for even that exertion. "Still, I'm glad to see you."

He released her and pulled a chair nearby. "I'm sorry I can't visit often," he said, and she could hear in his voice that was putting it mildly.

"Being a wanted man does that to you," Annika said. "Don't worry about it. Han and Jorri have both been by often enough. How long has it been since you've seen her?"

"A few days, actually," Sebastian said. "We've gotten a few systems worked out to avoid attracting attention."

"She's not still flying, is she?"

"Another month," Sebastian said. He held up his hands as the tirade began. "I don't like it either, but she's bucking for fighter operations command and if she takes too much time off for maternity leave-"

"That's the most idiotic thing-"

"Mom," Sebastian said, "this isn't the Federation. Jorri's facing an uphill battle on this; she can't do anything to make it look like her gender will interfere with her duties."

"Bah," she said with a wave of her hand. "I made the choice of your father over my career."

"Yes, and you hated leaving the Enterprise. And don't lie to me because I was there to see it."

Annika made a disappointed grunt. "Damn time travel paradoxes. They get in the way of old people embellishing on the good old days."

"Yes, interfering with causality has always been one of my pet peeves."

"I trust she's at least being smart about this," Annika finally said in defeat.

"Jorri sees the doctor daily and follows a regiment so strict it makes Senatorial procedure look like a cantina brawl. She's not taking any chances."

"Except by flying," Annika pointed out.

"Non-combat missions," Sebastian said. "She's at no more risk than she'd be sitting in an office."

"That's a lie," she said. "If that were true you wouldn't feel nervous about it either."

"I don't feel nervous."

"Then why did you say, 'I don't like it either?'"

Sebastian opened his mouth to answer, but all that came out was "kriff."

"Hah, perfect memory. Don't try slipping one past me again," she said with a nod of self-satisfaction.

"There's nothing dangerous about what's she's doing," Sebastian said.

"But that's not good enough, right?"

Sebastian sighed wearily. "I have a bad feeling. Only problem is, I don't know if it's a premonition or just me worrying needlessly. I don't want to sink her career just because I'm overprotective."

"And the baby?" Annika asked.

"Jorri would never do anything to risk the baby," Sebastian said adamantly. "That's why she's doing everything the doctor tells her. She even makes sure to keep the inertial dampeners at maximum to avoid any G-forces; the baby is going to be fine."

"'The baby,' 'the baby,'" Annika said. "You know, human beings really should have names. Hasn't 'the baby,' had one picked out by now?"

"We've talked about it a little," Sebastian said, seemingly grateful for the slight change in the subject. "Although we're having a little trouble agreeing. Jorri prefers traditional names like Toryn and Brindy, but I kind of prefer Terran names. Samantha, or Mary, something a little closer to my ancestral home."

Annika nodded. In their case, she and Luke didn't have to discuss this possibility; it was one of the advantages of meeting your child before he was conceived. Still, she had always felt that it was the right name, that she would have chosen it regardless. "Bastian," after the name of the little boy in the book Data had given her so long ago, a boy who somehow showed up because of some special kind of magic. "Have you considered Dawn?"

Sebastian made a face at the name. "Dawn Skywalker? No offense, mom, but that sounds pretty stupid. Why Dawn?"

Annika hesitated a moment, then explained about what she did, how she lived. The rise of the sun in the morning was a sign to her that she'd made it again, that another day had passed and she'd come that much closer to finally meeting her grandchild. She finished and she saw the look on Sebastian's face. "But you're right; Dawn really doesn't work."

Sebastian nodded a little, seemingly lost in thought. "How about Aurora? That means the same thing, right?"

Annika rolled it off her tongue a few times. "It's your child, but personally I don't care much for it."

"Well, there's got to be some more choices," Sebastian said, tapping his ring on his lightsaber.

"What do you think of Morgan?"

"Morgan?"

"It means 'morning' in the language of our ancestors, at least in that area."

"Morgan Skywalker," Sebastian said as he thought. "I like that. Although convincing Jorri will be another matter."

Before the discussion could continue the Doctor materialized inside the room, which was unusual since he usually came in through the door. His expression showed this wasn't about medicine. "Sorry to intrude, but it looks like some white-clad fellows are interested in interrupting this reunion as well."

Sebastian got to his feet, gave his mother a quick hug and kiss, then pulled out a site-to-site transport. "I'll be back when I can," he promised.

"Be careful," she said, then bit her lip to not got emotional when Sebastian vanished. Except, he didn't vanish, and grief turned to panic.

"Kriff," he said under his breath as he jumped across the room to the window and yanked it open, looking down at the twenty or so story drop. A group of about ten stormtroopers also waited there, and they drew their blasters at the sight of him.

"I sympathize with the situation," the Doctor said quickly, "but I would like to remind you that this is a hospital."

"Then they won't have far to go," Annika said, trying to pull herself out of bed. The Doctor forced her back down, which was disgustingly easy.

"Relax, I can handle this," Sebastian lied, running out into the hallway and sprinting down it. Fighting his way out wasn't an option; like the Doctor was implying, a firefight here would be disastrous for patients and staff. If worse came to worse, he'd let them capture him and hope Gorren could break him out later... maybe. Admittedly, that didn't look very good, but there was one last option. He reached the opposite side of the building and pulled the rappel cable from his belt, affixing it to the floor. Even as he straightened back up the stormtroopers rounded the corner. He reached out, and a blaster rifle flew through the air into his hand even as they brought their weapons to bear. He ran towards an empty room, firing the blaster at the window until the material exploded outward, diving through the opening as the cable snaked out from his belt. It caught a story below with a spine-jarring yank and pulled him into the side of the building, but a quick glance showed there were no stormtroopers here, so he dropped as quickly as he dared, letting the blaster fall while he sped things up. As expected, the troopers cut the cable and he fell the last eight stories. He absorbed the impact, but even for a Jedi it was a hard fall. If he'd hit duracrete he'd probably need... well, he'd probably need to be brought back inside to be put back together, he thought as he rolled over and pushed himself off the dirt. He disconnected the cable and half-ran, half-limped around the building.

As Sebastian rounded the corner he discovered that the troopers had done an even more thorough job, having located his swoop and posted a patrol to guard it just in case. He cursed the fact that he hadn't kept the blaster; he could have stunned these two with ease. There was nothing malicious about what they wanted; they were pursuing a wanted man, they would use deadly force if they had to. But Sebastian was too badly hurt to do this gently; if he screwed up they'd easily put him down or take him out. He couldn't do that; he had a wife depending on him. He had a baby coming... Morgan... Morgan Skywalker, who needed him to make it out of this alive. He pulled out the lightsaber as he speed-limped his way across the clearing, blocking three blaster bolts and sending a fourth back to hit one of the troopers. Sebastian closed the distance and stabbed the remaining stormtrooper through the chest, extinguishing it and hooking it to his belt even as the corpse fell.

Sebastian hopped on board the swoop and set off into the jungle, piloting on instinct as he pulled a tricorder out. Transport scrambler, he thought as he closed it up and put it away. He shifted to a higher speed, keeping himself focused as he dodged the thick foliage. They'd be after him now; he'd need to get past the field to use his transporter to get back to the ship, and they'd probably pursue him with it to stop him. That'd make things even more difficult. It wasn't enough to get past them, he'd need to get far enough so he could stop and still use the transporter before he was inside the field again. Sure, he could try doing it without stopping, but these little transporters weren't the most accurate, and odds were he'd wind up arriving on the ship at ninety kph. They'd probably have to bring the transporter pad back to Chandrilla for the trial.

Sebastian took a gamble and cranked up the accelerator. His entire focus was on the approaching trees and the swoop; everything else was just a blur in the background. He was moving solely on instincts, looking for gaps before he'd even flown through the one right in front of him, because there was no time to think. After half a minute, it caught up with him as a stablizer grazed one of the trees, sending him into a wild spin. Sebastian was thrown clear just before the swoop connected with another tree in a fiery explosion. He hit the ground and rolled, bones breaking under the impact as his battered body came to a halt on the jungle floor.

After the shock of the moment wore off -which wasn't too long because the pain was like being dropped into a freezing lake- Sebastian reached down and activated the transporter. Nothing. He laid his head back with a grimace, then took a moment to try and take the edge off so he could think. Finally, agonizingly, as his right arm was broken, he pulled out his tricorder. The display was cracked, but he could clearly see the boundary was nearby. Thirty, perhaps forty meters... he dropped the tricorder and laid back in exhaustion. There was little chance his broken body could make it... ten maybe, but not that far.

But, that wasn't how you got there. His mother had gotten here, even though she shouldn't have. Sebastian had asked the Doctor how much longer she had; he'd said that they were surprised she was still alive, with how far the disease had spread. But she hung on, too stubborn to give in, her mind insisting that she go on because... "I have a daughter," he said quietly, a weak cough escaping his lips. "Morgan Skywalker." He clawed with his good arm and pulled, groaning as he pushed with his broken legs. Day by day, meter by meter, just know that you have to get there.

There was nothing majestic about Sebastian's struggle. Sometimes he would whimper in agony as his tortured body tried in vain to move. Other times he simply laid there, too spent to even brush the fallen leaves from his face. It was a pitiful display, but he wasn't doing this to impress anyone. He fought on because he couldn't stop, even when the pain was too great to move or even breathe. He must have gone about ten meters before he realized he'd left the tricorder where he'd landed, but didn't dare to go back. He stopped every once in a while to try the transporter, each failure like another lead weight attached to his body as he pushed on. He started worrying that it might have broken in the crash, but he couldn't think that way. If it was broken, then it was over, and that meant he'd failed his daughter.

The sight of the inside of their ship was the most beautiful thing Sebastian had ever seen. He lay back with a smile of contentment as Gorren came over and examined him. He couldn't even hear the Klingon over the sound of blood rushing through his head. "Take off," was all he could get out. "Take off." Gorren tried picking Sebastian up, but he pushed the Klingon away. “Take off!” he said firmly. After a moment’s hesitation Gorren rushed to the cockpit and Sebastian felt himself pushed onto the transporter pad with the acceleration. He lay where he was, content despite the pain, despite the protest from his overtaxed limbs.

Gorren eventually came back and picked up the Jedi. Even with a warrior’s strength it proved a challenge, but he laid Sebastian delicately on a bed and started treating his wounds. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“I fell… twice.”

“I will do what I can, but I am no doctor.” He gave Sebastian something for the pain. “I’ve set course for Fereginar.”

“Of course,” Sebastian said. “The Ferengi are known for medicinal skills across the Empire.”

“Your uncle and his doctor friend are there. I’m sure he could look you over without risking another run-in with your Imperial friends.”

“Yeah, we’ll see ‘bout that,” Sebastian droned. “Now you be quiet ‘cause our medicine make us sleepy.” And with that, the world faded away.



Chuck

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Part XII


Ben Skywalker, the Sith Lord, sat in silence on board the cloaked ship Garak had provided. It was a top of the line Imperial cloak, ensuring no one would be able to detect them. Granted, they were operating without sensors, but for one as strong in the Force as he, that was no real loss.

Far below on the planet Aligon the Sith were undergoing their first field exercises, each carefully observed by their master. He'd paired them off on different assignments according to their ability with the Force, and he'd made that point clear before they'd been sent out. Arrogance was an all too common trait of the Sith, but in such neophytes it could prove a fatal flaw. Still, he had no doubt they possessed the skill to accomplish all they needed on Aligon; if not they weren't worthy to become Sith anyway.

J'Dan, the Klingon, had been partnered with Shodah, the Falleen. They both had only about two and a half months of training, and neither had been permitted lightsabers for this mission, which infuriated them both almost as much as being saddled with each other. Ben had also made it clear that if one half of any team was lost, the other half would perish as well. It was too early in their training for infighting and betrayal. Instead they'd been armed with heavy blaster pistols and vibroknives, and with the dark side knowledge they'd been given. For now it was mostly combat instincts and basic abilities to sense and control the Force, but they were far too green for the truly serious work.

Jowana and Triss, the two Mistryl, had learned their lessons quickly, and Ben often allowed them to assist in the training of the newer students. Although they were all united as Sith, there were obvious cliques within the groups. Torda, the Aqualish, and Shodah banded together because both had grown up on Ord Mantel, and also because Shodah spoke Aqualish. Most of the Alpha Quadrant races tended to band together also. Ben had wondered if the Oracle's choices were deliberate, being an AQ native herself, but he did note the fire in them. Unlike the Gamma and Delta Quadrants, there was no single dominant power like the Dominion or the Borg, which made their inevitable conquest a bit harder to adjust to than others. Garak had started there, and so had Section 31. The Hirogen may have remained persistent in their resistance, but it was never any real threat to the Empire. The Alphas, though, they were dangerous, wearing away at the foundations rather than trying to topple the walls directly. A search for those who turned to anger and dreamed of power would be wise to start there.

The only Alpha Quadrant member who stayed out of that little group was Mareth, the Romulan. She and the Klingon didn't see eye to eye, and she seemed to prefer the company of the Mistryl, whom she had more in common with. Because of this, she had a definite leg-up on the others, which furthered the animosity between her and J'Dan. Ben and Molly stayed above it all; Ben made it clear to her that he wanted them to think him unconcerned about their petty rivalries. It was, of course, beneath him, but it also provided a means to feed their anger. Perhaps in time they would battle one another, but if that happened, it would only make the survivors stronger.

There was a small-time group of thugs who'd been brokering information out of Aligon for weeks. Garak was sure they had a slicer droid -an astromech outfitted with the latest infiltration protocols- which could be put to much better use than these fools were. J'Dan and Shodah were charged with eliminating the gang without damaging the droid. It was just past sundown on this part of the planet, and many of the gang's members were out investing their organizations profits in alcohol and entertainment. "I sense, four or five minds," Shodah whispered to J'Dan. The Klingon nodded, and the two crept silently through the shadows. The gang was operating out of a converted warehouse, with an upper level for their housing while the lower level contained their equipment and weaponry. Shodah fired an ascension gun and used it to quickly and quietly get to the upper story window. It was open, but she could smell the ozone residue of a cheap security system to watch for intruders. She waited in the darkness.

J'Dan, in the meantime, had gone around to the front entrance. With three blaster shots the door fragmented and the alarm sounded, causing the gang to rush up from whatever they were doing and check it out. Shodah slipped through the window, unnoticed since the alarm had already been activated. With quick, silent steps she crossed the distance to a gang member who'd taken up the rear, covered his mouth, and stabbed him through the back. She lowered the lifeless body to the floor and slipped after them. J'Dan, meanwhile, had picked off two with snapshots, letting his senses guide him even though he couldn't actually see what he was aiming at. He felt Shodah's presence on the ground level and grudgingly held back to draw their fire for the moment. She slipped up behind another and put him down in the same manner, but this time they noticed her. Using the corpse as a shield, she let go of the vibroknife and pulled out her blaster pistol, gunning another two down. Even as they turned to blast her J'Dan came back in, shooting down the ones who had tried going for the attacker in their midst. Between the two of them, the gang went down in seconds.

Shodah dropped the corpse and ran towards the back room. It was empty of all living occupants, but she spotted the droid. J'Dan was behind her almost immediately. "We've got it," she said into her communicator as she attached a beacon to the droid. The three vanished, rematerializing back on the transporter pad of their ship. Molly was there, overseeing everything as Garak's men began looking over the droid. It was understood that when Ben wasn't there, Molly was his voice. She may have been his apprentice, but she was the closest to him of all of them.

"Well?" she asked.

"Simple personality," the Cardassian said. "This will be easy."

"Good, astromechs can sometimes get a little independent," Molly said. "I don't want any problems." She pulled out the commlink. "Phase one complete," she said. "Proceed with the next step."

Triss, to her disdain, had been stuck with Dirg, the Markalian. He wasn't very far along either, but his strength would be valuable in their work. Triss took comfort in knowing that she was here to balance about Dirg's incompetence, but it was frustrating being stuck with this brute. Lightsaber in one hand, blaster in the other, she led the way towards the compound. It took a great deal of subtlety to cross in the darkness with stormtroopers about; their body heat would still be visible to the stormtrooper gear. Still, they trusted their feelings, and even Dirg managed to keep out of sight until it was safe to move. Within minutes they were within ten meters of the stormtrooper guard. She nodded to Dirg, who shrunk further back into the shadows, while she pulled out her lightsaber. She called on the power of her hatred, reminding herself what the Empire had done to her people, the suffering it had brought her. The anger gave her strength, and with an expression of righteous fury she broke from cover and swung, apparently wildly, yet each stroke felled a stormtrooper until they'd all been killed. Dirg broke into a run and the two made their way across to the tower. Working in tandem, they took the load of charges out of Dirg's pack and attached them all around the base of the tower. While he finished Triss grabbed the rest and sprinted across to the back-up, using the Force to propel her jump so she could catch the edge of the roof. She pulled herself up, placed the rest of the charges even as the alarm began sounding. She ignored it and jumped off the building, easily absorbing the impact. She tore away from the building as Dirg activated the charges, taking out both communication towers. With the jamming field up and the transmitters out, the base would be cut off until they could get an emergency transmitter going.

Even as Triss made her escape, the next group moved in, which was Mareth and Jowana. Both were armed with lightsabers, having shown a great enough proficiency for this assignment. They would need to prove it however, as they would have to fight their way to the lower levels to take out the base's transport scrambler. Rather than risking the high-traffic entrance the troopers would be guarding, they used their lightsabers to make their own door, leading them into a maintenance closet. They slipped out, only to spot two stormtroopers waiting in the hallway. Jowana knocked them over with a Force push even while Mareth raced forward, slicing the prone forms where they lay. They rushed to the turbolift and dropped to the lower level. Two more stormtroopers waited, but they met the same quick end.

While the two Sith slipped into the bowels of the base, Torda and Aren Jod, a Ventaxian, were outside the base, wreaking havoc. They slipped from cover to cover, sniping at the stormtroopers to create confusion. After a while Dirg and Triss got into the act, keeping the Imperial forces off balance. It wouldn't last for long, but then, it didn't need to. Still the Sith initiates put forth their best. After two false starts Torda managed to Force jump to the top of a small building, using the extra height to pick off a few more stormtroopers. However, he was quickly forced to abandon the spot when the troopers started using heavy weapons.

While Torda and Aren sowed mischief, Triss and Dirg concentrated on the troopers who were trying to set up the emergency beacon. This would keep the reinforcements from the main base from learning of the attack until the Sith were already gone, but it was still proving difficult. Dirg stepped out to get a better shot. Triss cursed at him to get back under cover, but he was shot in the chest before he could move. He hit the ground dead.

As expected, overconfidence got the better of more than just Dirg in the end. Mareth stepped around the corner for the last leg of the trip, and was met by a stormtrooper patrol. She managed to react quickly, but it was only enough to save her life, not everything. She flew back, her black outfit stained with green blood that poured from the wound where her left arm used to be. Still, she had Sith force techniques to dull the pain while she pulled a medpak out and stopped the bleeding. Jowana was already moving in; she couldn't afford to stop and help her colleague, even if she was a friend. The hall was filled with blaster fire, but she skipped through it unscathed, her red lightsaber a blur as she covered the distance and sliced through them with apparent ease. She cut through the door, strode up to the transport scrambler, and stabbed it with her blade, causing a small explosion. With it, the Sith lowered their jamming field, otherwise there would be no point in stopping the transport scrambler.

Jowana took a quick, yet cautious, jog back down the hall, her commlink in her hand. "Scrambler is down," she informed her. "But so is Mareth."

"Dead?" Molly asked.

"Wounded. She's out of this fight."

"I can make it!" the Romulan replied with passion in her eyes.

"I'll continue as planned," Jowana said, ignoring her. "Assuming you can get a lock on her." In response, Mareth disappeared with a scream of anger. Jowana didn't so much as stop to catch her breath as she headed back towards the turbolift.

Yelsar, the Bajoran, had been part of the pah-wraith cult before Ben had found him. He had attributed his power to their approval rather than his use of untapped Force potential, but it gave him an advantage. He accelerated quickly through his training, grasping some of the more difficult concepts already. It was one of the advantages of having faithful on hand, they were more open to the seemingly irrational. He'd been partnered with Di'Bol, the Takaran for perhaps the most dangerous part of the assignment. With the transport scrambler down, the two were beamed into the command center. With Di'Bol providing cover fire Yelsar called upon the power of the Force to create a violent whirlwind that knocked the Imperials off their feet. It was the work of seconds for Di'Bol to eliminate the resisters, even with them flying about on the rushing air. Yelsar dropped his hands and the bodies tumbled out of the air to the floor. Di'Bol pulled the code cylinder from the major's uniform and deactivated the alarms; it wouldn't do much good with the base itself, but it would help in a moment.

At the all clear signal from Yelsar the droid beamed into the command center. Without a word from the Sith it rolled over and plugged into the computer, downloading the Sith command codes into its system. The door opened and the two Sith whirled, but they didn't fire; they could sense it was Jowana. She was breathing heavy, but she'd obviously made sure that any of the stormtroopers heading for the command center had been routed. "Are we ready?" she managed to ask between gasps.

The droid rolled back and beeped. "I think so," Yelsar said, signaling the ship. Across the base, the Sith were beamed out of the firefight where the stood. Immediately upon arrival, the slicer droid rolled over to the ship's computer and used it to tap in to the Imperial network. Using the command codes and its slicing protocols, it quickly pierced the network and downloaded huge amounts of data into the ship’s computer: ship deployments, convoy routes, the defenses for dozens of sectors. Less than seven minutes later security lockouts cut them off, but by then they’d retrieved even more than they’d hoped for. The ship lifted off even as Imperial fighters, no doubt tracking the infiltration back to its source, moved in to eliminate them. The Cardassians quickly downloaded the information onto datapads while they broke for orbit, TIE fire pounding at their shields.

Molly stood at the transport controls, trying to translate the position in her mind with the coordinates of the computer. Despite the cloak, she knew where the ship was; Ben’s mind was like a single star in an empty sky. She finally matched it up in the computer. “Lower the shields,” she ordered. The instant they fell she activated the controls and the crew vanished. Seconds later, so did the ship, although with an explosion of superheated metal and expanding vapor. Ben set the course and the cloaked ship vanished into hyperspace. Once in hyperspace he deactivated the cloak, then left his chair. Leaving the ship in the hands of the Cardassian pilots, he walked back to meet with the other crew.

There was no mistaking the self-congratulatory looks on most of their faces. Even Mareth, who was being treated by the physician, seemed pleased they’d succeeded. “Well?” he said.

“My lord,” said the Cardassian, “we’ve got enough information here to sow chaos throughout the quadrant.”

“Good,” Ben said, still walking down the lines looking over his students. They were a sweaty, disheveled mess, but they’d proven themselves for the most part. For the most part… “What of Dirg?” he asked.

“He didn’t make it, master,” Triss said.

“What do you mean?” Ben asked, drawing out the moment.

“He died, master. He acted foolishly and paid with his life.”

“He was too sure of his strength,” Ben said with a nod. “Let that be a lesson to all of you: a Sith only works from a position of strength. Whether it is your strength of arms, or strength of numbers, or strength of the Force, or strength of secrecy, you do not fight where you are weakened. If you do not know where your strength lies, then you will fall.” There were nods and murmurs of agreement. “However, I also told you you were to ensure that your partners made it back alive. I see Jowana brought back Mareth, but you, Triss, have failed me.”

“Master,” Triss replied, “Dirg was a fool. I could do nothing-“

“He was your partner,” Ben interrupted. “Why is he not here?”

“Master, there was nothing I could do! I was partnered with an idiot!”

“You failed me,” Ben said. “The rest is detail.” He could now sense her fear, because she could sense his anger. He hid his satisfaction at the emotion, at the way she further pulled herself into darkness.

“Master,” she pleaded, “I will not fail you again!” She let out a scream as Force lightning came from Ben’s hand and wrapped around her, tossing her through the air into the bulkhead.

“Yes,” Ben said coldly, and then blasted her again. She screamed in agony as the energy coursed through her body. He continued, feeling the reactions of the Sith, mixed though they were, with the underlying fear that it could be them lying on the floor in torment. And it could be, he thought, if you fail me as well. Of course, this had been deliberate; Dirg’s progress was far too slow to be worth the time; let them learn something in his death, at least. Smoke began to fill the air, until finally he stopped, leaving the Mistryl to lie on the floor in a panting, whimpering state. “Fail me again,” he growled to them all, “and I will not be so merciful.”



Chuck

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Part XIII


Darkness gave way to consciousness, but it took a while to get to lucidity from where Sebastian had started from. Still, as the minutes passed he became more aware of his surroundings. He was still on board their ship, the Raven. That name had been a source of some minor disagreement between him and his Klingon friend. Gorren had names like "The Righteous Fist" and "Kahless' Vengeance" in mind. Sebastian had pointed out that they were trying to maintain a low profile and that those kinds of names tended to attract attention. Besides, the ship was a light freighter whose best chance of killing their enemies was accidentally landing on them. Sebastian had decided on naming it after his grandparent's ship, in remembrance of their own rebellious status among the Federation. Explorers outside of the official government, and now he was a defender of a government that wanted him dead. It had almost succeeded, although Sebastian had given them a little help on that.

Right, the crash, he thought as his stream of consciousness brought him back around to the moment. He was on board the Raven, and he was getting treated. He could feel the various equipment being applied to his broken body, but it was detached, as if his body was miles away from where he was right now. There was a dull ache, though, and he knew this was even after some kind of pain killer had been administered. Gradually he focused on the random shapes above him, and it gradually coalesced into a more familiar blur. "Han?"

"How you doin' kid?" his uncle asked with that familiar smirk. He put a hand on Sebastian's shoulder; it hurt, but that didn't outweigh the comfort of the familial grip.

"Had a disagreement with the ground... then a tree, and then some more ground. And possibly another tree, but I was a bit distracted."

"Yes, you're in my lucky-to-be-alive ward," Bashir said. "You've got multiple compound fractures and have lost a lot of blood. If it weren't for your physiology taking after your mother, you'd probably not have made it."

"You almost didn't," Han said. "Gorren caught us just as we were preparing to move on."

"We were very fortunate," Gorren agreed. "I don't know of anywhere else safe I could have brought you."

"You've get friends on Qo’nos," Sebastian slurred. "You're resourceful."

"It's safer here than on the Klingon homeworld," Bashir remarked. It was hard to think, but the statement fired a few synapses. Right, he thought, the Klingons broke away from the Empire, just like hundreds of other systems. That was going to mean one of two things: retaliation by Imperial forces, or a bloody power struggle among the local authorities.

"How goes your work?" Gorren asked Han.

"Straight down the sewer," Han rumbled. "Every lead we have ends with a door slammed in our faces."

"It seems that Nom Anor was everywhere and nowhere all at the same time," Bashir said.

"With those duplicates," Han said, "it's pretty much like he was."

A heavy silence hung over the group at the remark. Bashir was the one who eventually broke it. "Did you lose anyone?" he asked Han.

"Not really," he said. "I don't have many friends left these days. You?"

"Joan and Orin," Bashir said. "Two of my friends on the Charity. Good doctors, good people."

"My niece," Gorren said. "Part of the revolutionary movement. A pity she wasn't able to see its success."

Two out of three, Sebastian thought. Nom Anor's duplicates had touched so many lives, and brought so much grief to the galaxies. And not only did he steal them away, but he stole their knowledge as well. The Vong had launched eighteen successful attacks since the chaos that had followed their activation a few months back. The Empire was trying to hold on to itself, and face wars on multiple fronts. Even Garak's groups had gotten back up to their old tricks with the return of their leader. Jacen's fledgling Jedi academy wasn't going to make a dent in this. They needed Ben Sisko now more than ever, but he was gone. They were on their own.

Well, not completely on their own. It was Sebastian's job to get them through this, but being a wanted man made that rather difficult, and even if he wasn't, what good could one man do against all this? Everything he'd worked to do, bringing in Garak, stopping the Vong expansion, all it did was delay things. And with Sisko gone the Empire was crumbling, so he didn't even have access to the Imperial resources any more. What good could he expect to do?

Sebastian realized his thoughts had become much clearer and he sat up a bit to assess the situation. Bashir had done a great job so far; aside of some soreness in his joints, he felt much better. Bashir was looking over his right leg now; he had that look Sebastian had seen dozens of times when visiting his mother. "Something wrong?" he asked.

Bashir turned back to look at him, visibly uneasy. "There's no easy way to say this," he said with a downcast expression. "Your wounds have been infected with the fungal disease."

Sebastian didn't realize he was holding his breath until he finally let out a deep sigh and fell back down on the bed. He was still light-headed, and this news hadn't helped. "There's still something you can do though, right?" Han asked. "It's still early in the infection."

"Yes, there's two options available to us," Bashir said. "Although at the rate of spreading we have less than an hour. I can treat this without a problem if we can get him to a bacta tank."

"That would mean a hospital," Sebastian remarked, still laying back on the bed. "There's a chance I'd be recognized."

"Not necessarily," Bashir said.

"It's a chance we can't take," Gorren said emphatically. "Not unless there's no other option."

"Wait, this is Ferenginar," Han said. "If you can't buy it here, it can't be sold. Can't we get one off the black market?"

"In less than an hour?" Bashir asked. "And install it properly? I wouldn't count on it."

"What's the other option?" Sebastian asked.

Bashir hesitated a moment. "Amputation." Sebastian closed his eyes, he'd been afraid of that. Again, it was Bashir who broke the silence. "Sebastian, we can use the bacta tank. For credits the Ferengi would look the other way."

"And for more credits, they'd turn me in," Sebastian said, his eyes still closed. "It won't work."

"I hate to say it," Han remarked, "but I think he's right."

Bashir nodded. "Then we have only one other choice." He noticed there were tears in Sebastian's eyes. "We can replace it," he said. "Organic limbs are available-"

"No, we tried that with Anakin," Han interrupted. "The limb was rejected... they think it had something to do with the Force and foreign tissue. It has to be cybernetic."

"All right," Bashir said. "The point is, we can replace it."

"I know," Sebastian said, wiping his eyes. "But if you think that makes this any easier, you're crazy."

"I understand," Bashir said.

"No, you don't!" Sebastian snapped. He dropped his hand on his forehead as he lay there. "I'm sorry. Please, just get it over with."

Bashir nodded, pulling out a datapad. "I'll need a few things, Han," he said as he entered the information. He passed it over. "Can you get them?"

Han was nodding as he looked it over. "Like I said, if it can't be bought here, it can't be sold." He gave Sebastian's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then gestured for Gorren to join him.

Bashir pulled out a hypospray. "This won't hurt," he promised.

"Yes,” Sebastian said, “it will."
--------------------------------------------------------------

With the destruction of the Bajoran space station, Lando Calrissian had moved his operations into the Beta Quadrant. Nobody ever talked about the Beta Quadrant; the Alpha Quadrant (at least, what they usually called the Alpha Quadrant) was the hotbed, where the different forces lived in an uneasy truce forced upon it by the Empire. The Gamma Quadrant was quiet; the Empire was positively benevolent compared to the Dominion and their Jem'hadar, especially near the end. And without the Borg the Delta Quadrant was fairly relaxed too, although the Hirogen and holographic attacks did require a constant Imperial presence.

That was what was nice about the distant Beta Quadrant, you could go unnoticed, which is what Lando wanted at his time of life. He was getting too old to try toppling governments, and he came out here so he could leave that life behind. Besides, the Empire was in shambles, and no amount of prodding on his part was going to make any difference. Sure, he could sabotage the H-Wing fighters in his factories, but that would paint a big fat target on Lando's forehead for the Imperials. Best to leave it to the experts, like Anor and the Sith. However, while Lando considered himself out of it, others didn't quite see it that way.

Garak was waiting in Lando’s office in the morning; sitting in his chair, of course. That was Garak’s way, let the situation say it so you don’t have to. “I can get to you. I can get anywhere.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Lando demanded wearily. He knew why, of course, but some distant part of him seemed to wish the question could banish the Cardassian.

“Just making sure we’re all still on the same page,” Garak said. “I would have been here sooner, but it seems that some of the members of my organization thought my incarceration was a sign they could assume control.” He leaned back in the chair, putting his feet up on the desk. “Oh, I wish it were so,” he sang quietly. “But alas, I’m afraid duty still calls me to see this through until the end. If only they’d seen it that way; we could have avoided some messy misunderstandings.”

“Well, here’s something you can’t misunderstand,” Lando said, knocking Garak’s feet off his desk. “I’m out!”

“Absolutely,” Garak said. “You’re a business man now. I respect that.”

“And that means I’m not getting involved with your organization.”

“That’s perfectly fine. Ties severed, going our separate ways, I understand completely. Our partnership is dissolved.”

“Don’t think you can manipulate me,” Lando warned. “I know where this is going.”

“Do you? I seem to be surrounded by people who can see the future.”

“You can’t threaten me, you can’t intimidate me,” Lando said. “The Empire’s got more on its hands right now than you, so trying to blackmail me isn’t going to work this time.”

“I understand. I’m here merely as a potential client.”

Lando let out a laugh edged with bitterness. “I’m sure you are.”

“Really. I have revenue that I need to invest, and I know a good venture when I see one.”

“Ah, that’s your game, is it? You want me to wash your money.”

“Let’s just say I’d like to keep things on the up-and-up.”

“Not if I was down to my last decicred,” Lando said as he leaned across the desk. “It’s over, Garak. I’m sitting the rest of this out.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m not disappointed,” Garak said as he stood up. “But I’m sure you have your reasons. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few errands to run.”

“Don’t think you can scare me, Garak,” Lando warned.

“Yes yes, much as I’m enjoying this exchange, I’m going to have to cut this short. Good day, Mr. Calrissian.”

Lando watched Garak exit. He could try to tip someone off or have his security forces try to nab him, but Lando still knew enough about odds not to gamble on it. He dropped into his chair instead and contacted his VP of operations. “Sridhar? It’s Calrissian. Yeah, he finally showed. We’re going to want security raised across the company, every factory, every warehouse, the works. Garak isn’t going to sucker us back into anything.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Darkness turned to light and Sebastian took in the ceiling of the Raven. He glanced around and saw he was alone. He tried sitting up but was too woozy and had to lie down again. But he had to… he reached down and pulled the sheet aside, and he strained to see. It looked right… he flexed it, and it felt right. Mostly. But it wasn’t really him, it was machinery, replacing what he had been. It was one thing to be cybernetic, it was another to lose a part of yourself.

What do they do with it? he wondered as he lay back on the bed. Do they gather them together in mass graves? Some future archaeologist comes along and finds a pile of arms and legs with no bodies to go with it? They probably just cremate it or something, something sanitary and “respectful,” no doubt following the rules laid down by people who had all their parts. Of course, this was nothing new for the Jedi… his father had had it, Anakin… but it was different, somehow. Different because it was a choice, even if it was a necessity. With a lightsaber it’s over before you can think, and it's dealing with the consequences; no Jedi had to ever voluntarily give it away, had to willingly sacrifice a part of himself to preserve the whole.

“They’re going to take it all away from you, Sebastian.” It wasn’t enough, was it, to take his father, and leave his mother near death… to negate his life’s work and turn him into a fugitive who couldn’t see his wife in daylight or visit his dying mother without a firefight. No, they had to take away a bit of his humanity too, a piece of himself. And here he was, in his grief, without being able to turn to the woman he loves for comfort, to give him a little of her strength so he could carry on. How can you do this, Ben? How can you ask anyone to fight for a galaxy that stood against them, without even the smallest of comforts? What is there to fight for?

“You know what it is?” a voice answered.

Sebastian sat up, his light-headedness gone. “Father?”

“Don’t give in to despair, son. You know what path that is.”

Sebastian squeezed his eyes shut, but the rollercoaster ride of emotion left him with little reserves. “I can’t walk this path, father,” he sobbed. “It’s too hard!”

“I wish with all my being, son, that I could take this burden upon myself instead. But it’s been laid before you.”

“No,” Sebastian said weakly.

“They need you.”

“’They’ want me dead!”

“They will learn the truth in time. Truth has a longer half life than lies.”

“Even so, what difference would it make? Look at me, I can’t even fly through the jungle without nearly killing myself?! What kind of Jedi am I?”

“Human,” his father answered. “And that is not where your strength lies, Sebastian. You are a fine warrior, and a great tactician, both of which will aid you during your trials. But your strength, son, is not in the power over matter, but power over spirit. You dwarf my feeble skills.”

“You moved a moon!”

“But you will move civilizations. Sisko laid the groundwork, but Unity can only come from within, and it will take you to help them find it.”

“What difference can one person make?” Sebastian demanded.

“In your case, son, it makes all the difference. They don’t need a hero, Sebastian, just a man they believe in to show the way.”

Sebastian rubbed his weary eyes. "Just tell me it'll get easier." He was answered by silence. "It won't, will it. It's only going to get harder, right? As bad as losing a leg is, it's going to get even worse."

"Yes," his father said quietly. "But don't despair, my son. You have already shown how strong you can be against the Vong."

"And yet I still broke," Sebastian said. "Father... I can't do this."

"Sebastian," his father said, "you are stronger than I ever was. You can do this... you will be instrumental in saving the galaxies. May the Force be with you, my son.”

Sebastian felt the hypospray discharge as he returned to consciousness. Bashir was looking at him with as reassuring an expression as he could. “It’s finished,” he said. “You can try walking, if you feel like it.”

Sebastian nodded but said nothing as he pulled himself up and gingerly stepped to the floor. His steps were shaky, mostly from exhaustion and the ordeal of his body. His leg hurt, but oddly enough it was his real one. He soon found himself using his cybernetic limb to hold his weight. He let out a small laugh at the thought. “How long until I can go out again?” he asked.

“I’d stay off your feet for a few days,” Bashir said. “Your body needs time to adjust to the new limb. But don’t worry, I’ve done this hundreds of times, and I’ve yet to have a rejection.”

Sebastian nodded. “Doctor, what happened to my old leg? I want to know.”

Bashir cleared his throat. “For sanitary reasons we cremate the limb. When I was with the McCoy foundation, we developed a… I wouldn’t call it ritual, but it was what we did. We mixed the ashes with a drop of the patient’s blood and placed it in a small capsule and inserted it inside the cybernetics. It seemed more befitting given the trauma of the loss.”

“Did you do that with me?” Sebastian asked.

“Yes,” Bashir said.

“Good. I like that thought.”



Chuck

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Part XIV


An emergency session of the senate had been called, although these days everything seemed an emergency. Leia Organa Solo hadn't slept in two days, trying to keep the Imperial organization running smoothly even in the midst of collapse. Ben Sisko had left a great deal unprepared for his death, and she couldn't help shaking the feeling that it was by design. Had her suspicions been correct, that he had done this to help destroy the Empire? But why? The Vong were far worse than the Empire he had forged during the nearly three decades of his rule. But whatever the reasons, trying to hold off the shattering of the Empire seemed a more and more impossible challenge. Today was going to be the latest effort to resist it, and no doubt the hardest.

"Members of the Imperial Senate," the Chancellor said, "thank you for your attendance. This special session has been called at the request of Minister Solo, who has been handling many of the responsibilities of the Emperor in the wake of his passing. She has requested an audience to discuss a matter of some urgency regarding the war effort. Minister?"

Leia stood up. "Esteemed senators," she said by way of introduction. "As you no doubt know, the so-called 'Vong duplicates' that had been inserted amongst us have been gathered together on the planet Kolyet in the Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way. Their powerful planetary shield has not only made intelligence gathering next to impossible, but it also prevents any possible bombardment by our fleet. What we do know, however, is that the planet has been completely co-opted by the Vong forces there; no one who is not Vong or one of the constructs is present on this world."

"How can you be certain?" Sen. Alixus asked.

"Senator," the Chancellor said, "please hold your comments until the end."

"It is not a comment, it's a question," Alixus replied. "As I suspect the minister's entire proposal is based on that assumption, I'd like to know by what reasoning it was obtained."

"Our scans of the planet do not indicate any other life signs."

"But the shield is very powerful," Alixus pointed out. "Isn't it possible the Vong have relocated the population into underground bunkers to use as hostages, and the sensors can't detect them."

"There is no sign of any such activities."

"But it's possible," Alixus said with emphasis. "It's possible that Imperial citizenry is present on that world."

"Senator," the Chancellor said, "let the minister finish."

Alixus nodded gracefully and Leia continued. "The Vong duplicates existed for one purpose: to gain insight into the operations of government, military, and industrial facilities. Already the Vong forces in this galaxy have used that information to their advantage, and will continue to do so. The Vong communication system is not based on any type of technology we're familiar with, so our efforts at jamming their transmissions have failed. What's more, we have observed the Vong on Kolyet using yorrik coral to grow more ships to support the Vong war effort. In short, this planet poses a real threat to the Imperial war effort, one that is beyond the reach of our conventional forces. We cannot ignore this threat, and our blockade of the world is all but useless. That, regretably, leaves only one viable option: the use of one of our two remaining superlasers."

As expected, the room exploded. Feverish arguments were breaking out even amongst some of the senatorial aides. Leia had known this would be the reaction; it was the reason she'd waited before bringing it forward. But they had no choice, not unless they wanted to let the Vong win this war. After a few minutes the Chancellor's cries for order were heeded, although there was still an undercurrent of hostility throughout the room.

"I am aware of the gravity of the situation," Leia continued. "And believe me when I say that I would never wish this weapon to be used against anyone, even our enemies. I have witnessed its destructive capabilities first-hand," she reminded them. If they had known how long she'd agonized over this choice, they might understand, but her opponent's would probably only think it political rhetoric. "But we are faced with an enemy that wishes to take away our freedom, our very lives, and has the means to do so. Given this choice, necessity demands that we employ this weapon to ensure the survival of our people."

"[When will the weapon be used?]" asked Senator Morah Bindal of Ithoria.

"That is why I am here," Leia said. "To maintain control, especially given Grand Moff Tarkin's abuse of authority with Alderaan, the Emperor laid the proviso that the Superlaser can never be fired without his express permission. This was to keep the final authority out of military hands and help prevent an attempted coup. However, with the Emperor's death the question of procedure remains. He appointed no successor, nor would there be any logical person to step in and assume that role, and I'm not entirely sure its a position we would want to continue. But that is an issue for another time. The matter before us is: where should this authority rest? Placing it in the control of the military high command would negate the purpose of the Imperial authorization."

"It should be placed in our hands," Sen. Alixus said. "To ensure control of these weapons remains in the hands of the citizenry."

"Respectfully, senator," Leia said, "that would be impractical. It would mean providing a lengthy delay between assessing a target and executing the order. Also, it would make these targets a public matter, which would allow our enemies to fortify their positions."

"Or abandon them," Alixus said. "Is that what concerns you, minister? A lower death toll?"

"Would that our enemies shared your compassion, senator," Leia said. "Unfortunately, they view us as inferiors that should either be enslaved or exterminated. We cannot afford to hold back against such an enemy, especially when they show signs of gaining the upper hand over us."

"They are our enemies today," Alixus replied. "And what of tomorrow, when the Vong is no longer a threat to us? Will Qo’nos be next?"

"That is not the same thing," Leia answered.

"No? I read the history of your galaxy, minister. The Empire that you rebelled against, that many of the worlds in this chamber fought against, came into existence because the Republic Senate chose to give total control to the then Chancellor for the immediate crisis. When that crisis ended he instead continued to wield that power and eliminate any representation of the people. Now you are asking the Imperial Senate to grant the same authority to someone with an even more devastating weapon than was in the Chancellor's hands."

"The use of these weapons would remain limited," Leia said. "And we would not turn them against rebellious worlds."

"Who is 'we,' minister?" Alixus asked. "It's you, isn't it? You want us to place this authority in your hands."

"I didn't ask for that-"

"But that is what you're thinking, isn't it? You were closest to the Emperor, you would be the natural choice."

"If the senate feels someone else would be better suited," Leia replied, maintaining her calm demeanor, "then so be it."

"How can we choose anyone to have such authority in these times?!" Alixus demanded. "How do we know who tried to cover up Sebastian Skywalker's crimes? How do we know who helped him escape? Put the Eclipses in the wrong hands and we could soon face an enemy far worse than the Vong could ever be!"

"I understand your concerns, senator," the Chancellor broke in, "but the minister is correct: the senate is ill-suited for such a responsiblity."

"I disagree, chancellor," Alixus replied. "In fact, I submit that the entire process was flawed. Observe the near destruction of Lazeria that came about on order from the Emperor! An Imperial world with 500 million inhabitants, and he was content to destroy it. Ask them whether the procedure is wise."

"The use of these weapons will be reserved solely for extreme circumstances, such as this one," Leia said emphatically. "Already we have revealed to the Vong our intentions to destroy that world; next time this information could allow them to stop us."

"Frankly, minister, stopping the use of these despicable weapons sounds like a blessing."

"They are terrible," Leia conceded, "but they are a last resort for our survival."

"Trust in our technology to save us," Alixus said with a condescending nod. "It's worked so well so far, hasn't it?"

"Senator, we are all aware of your feelings on the subject," the Chancellor said. "And your personal feelings on the issues of technology. Please allow this discussion to continue without further interruption." Alixus nodded again and the discussion continued. It consisted mostly of more subtle versions of Alixus' own questions, which had no doubt been her intent. When the senate adjourned, the Chancellor accompanied Leia out of the chamber. "I think they will support it," he said as reassuringly as he could.

Leia nodded. "But it will take time."

"You are the larger issue," he answered. "Despite what you said in there, you want that authority."

"No, I don't," she said. "But I dare not put it in anyone else's hands. Alixus was right about one thing: Lazeria was a mistake, and not just because we lost an Eclipse. I don't want these weapons turned against our people."

The Chancellor agreed silently as they continued through the building. "You're doing the right thing," he finally said. "If you let them fire without securing approval we'll lose many more systems. I can see how thin our authority is stretched; a sign of securing central power will be taken as a return to the old ways."

"And without the legitimacy of our government," Leia said, "there's nothing stopping the military from assuming control. But still, I hope this doesn't take long; Kolyet must be destroyed as soon as possible."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian limped down the ramp of the Raven and noticed the sheets of rain coming all around the ship. "Nice," he remarked to Gorren as the two raced towards the protection of the docking bay doors, then looked out across the city. It was a drab, muddy affair with buildings designed for its shorter populace. Still Sebastian was surprised, and said so.

"What were you expecting?" Gorren said.

"Well, this is the center of Ferengi civilization," Sebastian said. "I thought it wouldn't be so subdued."

"It's the rain," Gorren said.

"Yeah, but still... I was expecting, I don't know... ancient Las Vegas, only not as tasteful." He shrugged. "Big lights even."

"Bah. A Ferengi would never put out big lights; why let people see for nothing?"

Ferenginar and the Ferengi territories had fallen just like everyone else when the Imperial fleet rolled through the Alpha Quadrant. As always, however, they landed on their feet. Aside of the Imperial taxes, business went on as usual, and as far as Ferengi were concerned, as long as business went on that was all that mattered. This was especially true after the destruction of Deep Space 9, when a visit by Grand Nagus Rom fatally coincided with the Imperial plot to frame the Cardassians. Rom had continued his predecessors reform policies, but the sudden power vacuum had allowed hard-line Ferengi reactionaries to brush them aside and return to the old ways. They quickly forged business agreements with everyone from the Corporate Sector to Black Sun, and profits rolled into Ferenginar so that credits were falling like the unending rain. If it weren't for the insufferable taxes, this would almost be paradise for them.

It was no wonder, then, that Nom Anor had had many business dealings with the Ferengi during his years of preparation. The ISB confirmed it was a Ferengi group that had seized control of the Doctor's mobile emitter, the device which proved responsible for allowing the holographic rebels to perform their operations. It was the reason Han and Bashir had come to this world, on the off chance that some clue to a cure for this disease might be found. The odds were slim, of course; the Ferengi would have seized upon it years ago and use it to make a fortune. But there was always the off chance they didn't know quite what they had that had compelled Han to try. Still, ISB sources had other tracks of Nom Anor here, and Sebastian was prepared to chase down every last one.

“Any experience with the Ferengi?” Sebastian asked.

Gorren answered with another “Bah!” It seemed to sum up the attitude of Klingons towards Ferengi in general. “They robbed us blind selling us weapons,” he said with a grunt. “But they are cowards. But since they know they’re cowards, they are smart enough to make large friends. Nossagins, Trandoshans, we’ll have to be ready for battle if we decide to use force on them.”

“We’ll see… the Ferengi may love credits, but they might not have very strong minds. They might give up information voluntarily.”

“A Ferengi never gives anything up voluntarily,” Gorren spat. “They’d charge you to breathe their air if they thought they could get away with it.”

“Thanks for the reminder.” Sebastian slid on his breathing mask to keep his identity a secret. The Ferengi would be tripping over themselves to turn him in and claim the reward if they knew who he was. Gorren had changed his hairstyle and didn't wear his family crest, a sacrifice Sebastian had appreciated. Now more than ever he needed his Klingon friend at his side, and Gorren was all the more determined to be there despite the revolution on his homeworld. "My Klingon brothers and sisters can handle this revolution without me," he'd told Sebastian, "but only I am here to help recover your lost honor. I go where I am needed."

“Are you sure you are ready?” Gorren asked. “You were badly injured even for a warrior.”

“I don’t have time to wait around to heal,” Sebastian said. “So let’s try not to let this turn violent.”

“I will try,” Gorren said, “but these little orange men get on my nerves.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

On Kolyet, Nom Anor watched the recordings of the senate proceedings. The minister was correct, of course; Vong technology could easily cut through the human’s jamming signal.

Nom Anor cursed himself; how many times had he caught himself using that blasphemous word? Worse, how many times had he used it and not noticed? His time among these inferiors was starting to get to him, and he didn’t like it. And now, he was depending on it for his very existence, and for the preservation of his plan. When he conquered the Empire he would have their engineers and technicians rounded up first and made an example of. Their pollution would be answered for before he was finished cleansing the galaxies.

His anger passed, and he replayed the part of the debate he had missed. Excellent; Alixus was holding up admirably, distorting the picture each time the minister tried to bring it into focus. Such a pathetic display, trying to find an answer to a thousand disagreements that would satisfy all. Didn’t they understand what they were up against? The Vong may have disagreements, but they were always united in their goal. They would take over the galaxy to the glory of their gods and the benefit of the Vong; how was merely details. But here… even without Alixus prodding, many were actually agreeing with her! They refused to use a weapon, not for strategic or tactical reasons, or even issues of supplies or resources. They didn’t want to use it simply because they didn’t like it! Some of these beings were even weaker than Nom Anor had imagined, not to mention stupid. They refused to use the weapon precisely because it did what it was designed to do! With these as their enemy, it was a wonder the Vong had been held back for this long.

Still, this was exactly what Nom Anor needed. The Hive, as he’d come to think of it, had been making progress, but there was still so much more to do. The separate organisms had combined together and merged to form a single, creature the size of a large city. It was essentially a hill of biomatter, with individual sections of it breaking off as needed to perform tasks, such as gathering information out of the planetary archives for absorption into the Hive as a whole. Others would tend to the coralships on other parts of the planet being grown for their escape. Alixus was buying them time, but she couldn’t keep them away forever, and not even this world’s shields could withstand the power of their superlasers. They’d need to keep the Hive hidden until the Eclipses could be dealt with; it would be a great tool. Like the yammosk, it would be able to control the coralskippers and Fan'cals without requiring Vong warriors. Thanks to the information it had observed, it also would provide better strategic decisions and offer sounder tactical choices than the yammosk. Unfortunately, it lacked the yammosk’s developed mental powers, meaning that it couldn’t improve the battle coordination, or make use of the special beetles that Alixus had provided, but no matter. This was a supplement for the yammosk, not a replacement.

But they would have to live to escape this world first, and the Imperial blockade was going to make that a challenge. A challenge, but not an impossibility, not with what Nom Anor had in mind. And each day delayed only made their success more and more of a certainty.



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Part XV


Julian Bashir watched the swearing, hunched over figure with a mixture of amusement and pity. Han looked less like the rebel hero the legends painted him as and more like a hump-less Igor when he got to work on the Falcon, which was more and more common these days. Keeping the Falcon spaceworthy had been a full time job for him and Annika during their searches for Nom Anor; with her in the hospital on Earth, it now seemed to be Han's sole reason for existence.

The technology jump had been too great for many people in the Milky Way, even for Bashir. His engineering extension courses had given him a taste for Federation technology, and his genetic enhancements had made it simple to extrapolate from them. But the assimilation of their technology was a difficult bridge to cross. Some, like Annika, had been involved from the beginning, and it had become second nature. Miles O'Brien had been the same way, absorbing their technology as fast as it arrived, with the same old Irish curses accompanying the new stubborn technology. Now it was probably too late; Federation technology had been absorbed into the Imperial system or discarded altogether.

Technology was what most people had seen during that transition, but for Dr. Bashir contact with the Empire and Republic had opened up new ideas about medicine. Some were better, some were worse, but the different approaches sparked things in Julian, sent him off in new directions. His papers had earned him brief stardom, and the Empire had frequently offered him high-ranking medical positions or research grants. He'd turned them all down. Even before Miles' death, he couldn't bring himself to work for them. He couldn't shake the memory of DS9 exploding. He'd heard about Jedi abilities, and had even seen them in action, and when that happened, it was like that for him. He could feel Ezri Dax vanishing from existence. Probably just his imagination, but he couldn't shake that feeling, and it drove him to no ends of hatred, hatred for the Cardassians and traitors of the Federation for their senseless brutality. Then, when the truth came out, it had been centered on the Empire, whose reasons were even worse. They killed his love, destroyed his life, for politics.

All those years ago, a young green Julian had taken an interest in Dax. As much as he would have liked to admit to the contrary, it was lust, not love, that he felt for the woman. Maybe that was why Dax brushed him aside, with all the years of the symbiont she could recognize what it really was in the young officer's eyes. But maybe he'd planted the seed of something there, because when he turned to Ezri Dax, she'd seen that things had changed with him... he'd changed. If Jadzia had gone ahead with a quick fling he'd have enjoyed her company and then moved on, but through the waiting and emotional maturing he'd found more in her when she came back to him as Ezri. It was never a fling with Ezri, never anything less than true love. Feeling her wink out of his life was something he could never get past. He'd looked around many times at his friends. Han, with three children; Annika, with a grandchild on the way, and Julian Bashir, an emotional widower for thirty years, and all because of the Empire. So what the hell was he doing out here?

Medicine.

It had taken Annika to shake him out of his mental slump and realize he'd made a mistake. Sure, he had done much good over the years at Bajor or with the McCoy foundation, but the small leaps he made back in his sickbay were nothing compared to what he could have accomplished. He'd let the hatred poison him; that infuriating counselor Borui, had tried to tell him about it more than once, but he didn't want to listen. How many lives would have been saved if he'd taken up even one offer from the Empire? Thousands? Millions? Instead he plied his trade in the back end of nowhere out of some subtle form of vengeance, and that led people like Annika to face terminal diseases without hope. Ironic, he thought, that he needed Ezri's counsel so much only because she wasn't there to give it. Well, now he was here, and now he could do his damndest to make up for three decades of hate. Not for the Empire; it could collapse for all he cared. No, for the people like him caught in the crossfire.

"Maybe we should find another ship," Bashir offered.

Han was hunched over, his arms tangled in a collection of unidentified components, but still he managed to twist his head under his arm and glare at Bashir. "There's still plenty of years left in the old girl."

"No offense, Han, but I think this ship is past its prime."

"The Falcon was built to last," Han said sharply. "The YT-line was a durable design and well-crafted. It's a work of art."

"Then perhaps it should be in a museum," Bashir said with a smirk.

"Ha-ha," Han said as he got back to work. "Listen, philistine, this ship has faced down Death Star I, Death Star II, the Executor, and the Borg. All of them are gone, but the Falcon's still here. How can you speak ill of a ship with that heritage?"

"I would be more easily convinced if it could get us off this planet," Bashir pointed out.

"Luke used to tell me that everything happened for a reason," Han said. "I ain't one to believe in mystical nonsense, but he's convinced me that not everything is luck, good or bad. Sometimes, some things just have to happen, even if we don't want them to." He was quiet, still tangled in the equipment, but not moving.

"Yes?" Bashir finally prompted.

Han's eyes darted back to Bashir, then he got back to work. "If the old bird hadn't had this problem, we wouldn't have been here for Bastian when he needed us, and he would have probably been seriously infected by that fungus, probably die."

"You're saying the ship was broken on purpose?"

"I'm saying this old girl has been through a lot, has never steered me wrong. Even when she couldn't perform, it was always for the best. If I need something to count on, you can damn well bet it's going to be something that has gotten me through thick and thicker."

Bashir nodded. After all, wasn't it why he stayed in his old sickbay all those years? To surround himself with the familiar and stay in the past, as close as he could be to his old friends... to Ezri... "I think I'll look over some more of that information Sebastian gave us," Bashir said. "The ISB may be bastards, but at least they have some valuable data on the Vong." Han grunted something, and Bashir left him to his work.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin Solo entered the Jedi Academy with the usual dread he faced every morning. Not always dread, of course; sometimes he wasn't so optimistic.

After Jacen and Jaina had made the decision to begin training more Jedi, they had thrown themselves into finding potential students. Anakin had been an integral part of that, having noticed some of the patterns the Sith had employed and using his own Force abilities. Jaina had assisted him in the recruiting while Jacen had made preparations, but overall Anakin couldn't help but feel that he was leading these people to their deaths at best, or even worse, the Dark side.

Jacen himself seemed to be the biggest obstacle, although that wasn't to say he wasn't a skilled Jedi. He had handled the administration admirably, and he had gathered up much of the old records of the Jedi and training methodologies for their use. But Jacen's biggest problem seemed to be his vision. Anakin could see what he had in mind: a huge company of Jedi, ready to go forth and bring peace to the galaxies. And, naturally, a council of Jedi at the heart of it all, making the big decisions, containing only the wisest and most powerful of their number. Of course, who would that be, if not Jacen Solo? Not that there was a problem with that vision; it would probably do the galaxy some good, and Jacen would be able to guide them effectively. But that vision was a stumbling block. He was disappointed with the fact that Anakin had only located six candidates so far, and had made that abundantly clear. Anakin, however, had stuck to his guns: prove they could handle this, and he'd go about finding more, but he wasn't going to risk it. Anakin had a vision too, one of an army of dark Jedi sweeping through the galaxies, spreading fear and darkness to every corner. As dedicated as Jacen was to making his dream real, Anakin was devoted to ensuring his never left the confines of his nightmares.

Alema Rar was the one who filled him with both hope and wariness. She was a Twi'lek who had survived on one of the Vong-held worlds until the Imperials had pushed them back. She was strong with the Force, and learned her lessons well. Jaina had taken to working with her separately, as it was clear she was moving light-years faster than most of her fellow students. But she'd lost a sister to the Vong during their occupation, and Anakin feared what it would do to her when her thoughts dwelled on the alien invaders. Controlling that hate was not going to be an easy challenge; even for Anakin, controlling his hatred for the Sith who had taken his limb hadn't been easy, and he'd been trained from youth by his wise uncle. How did Jacen, whose mind dwelled on the grandiose, hope to guide his students over these problems? But that was the real issue for Anakin; Jacen simply wasn't a good teacher. He was impatient, and he played favorites, and it was left to Jaina and Anakin to keep the small company of students from getting frustrated with him. There had been a heated argument when Jacen wanted to elevate he and his sister to the level of master, in keeping with the hierarchical nature of the Jedi. Their mother had finally stepped in on that one and quickly quashed his ambitions. However, that still did nothing to deflate his ego.

Anakin had found two of the students here on Chandrilla, although neither were natives. One was Pallo, from Dantooine by birth but brought here with his parents to join in the booming industries surrounding the new capital. He seemed to show promise, but he wasn’t moving very fast in his studies, and even though he was one of the first students, he was being passed by the others rather quickly. Still, Jaina had said that she had hope for the young man, and had taken time to work with him during her free time. That helped curb the frustrations Anakin often felt from the young man, not to mention Jacen’s attitude.

The other student was a Terran named Shaote Lu. He'd been the nephew of the senator seventeen years ago and had come with his family to the capital. Even after his uncle had been voted out of office, the family stayed, enjoying the prosperity of the world. Having spent most of his life here rather than Earth, he lacked many of the Terran quirks that had held over from the Federation days of the planet. He was peaceful, introspective, yet he could be passionate at times when it came to his studies. His progress was remarkable, and Anakin had a good feeling about him. Anakin worked with him individually when there was time; if this worked, Shaote would make an excellent teacher for the academy, although he kept that thought to himself.

Other students had taken some work to locate. Oria Nan was a recently joined Trill when Anakin and Jaina approached him. The Nan symbiont had been part of Starfleet in three prior hosts and Oria was an athletic young man. The idea of being one of the first of the Milky Way to join the Jedi was intriguing to both, as was the idea of physical and mental discipline it would require, not a problem for someone who had worked through the program and emerged with a symbiont. Still, even for him the program was a challenge, but he was disciplined enough to continue to work at it despite the frustrations Jedi training often brought.

Another promising student was Laudica Reshad, a Corellian. She had spent most of her childhood on ships with her parents and traveled the lanes with an ease often not seen in people ten years her senior. Still, Laudica was hotheaded by nature, but was learning to keep herself under control. Anakin suspected Jacen had a thing for her, which was its own mess. On the one hand, it kept her from getting frustrated at his behavior and helped her practice restraint. On the other, Anakin knew it was probably going to only lead to trouble if Jacen tried acting on his feelings. As was often the case, Anakin bit his tongue and concentrated on the work that needed to be done, and there was usually a lot of it.

Strangest of all was Sakonna. She was older than the three Jedi put together, but considering she was a Vulcan, that didn’t mean as much. Anakin had been surprised the Force had led him to her, as she was actually from the time before the discovery of the wormhole. He’d been concerned she’d be filled with Federation preconceptions that could cause strife, but it turned out she was a bit of a rebel herself. She’d been part of a group called the Maquis that had fought the Cardassians and later the Dominion. Fortunately for her, she’d been captured by the Federation rather than their enemies, or she probably wouldn’t have survived. Instead she had been sent to a Federation penal colony, only to be released when the Emperor’s order regarding political prisoners was sent out. That the Emperor was the same Ben Sisko who had been responsible for her capture was an irony Anakin had kept to himself.

Sakonna had been young at the time and rather idealistic, even with her logic. She’d joined the Maquis to right what she perceived to be a wrong, and while she may have matured, she never stopped believing that the overall goal was for the best. She was a defender of those who couldn’t defend themselves, and in that, Anakin knew he’d found the heart of a Jedi. Her training was going moderately well, for although she had the mental discipline necessary for control, she was still trying to unlearn half a century of experience. He could definitely see why the Jedi of old started so young, and why Luke had done the same with him and the others when it came to their training.

Sakonna had been the last, and that had been… two and a half months? It had seemed so much longer, but then, the days had grown longer and the nights shorter ever since they’d started this enterprise. There was always more to do, train the students during the day, train himself to be a teacher at night. His quarters were a mess with the writings of the old Jedi that Jacen had given him, and Anakin studied them fervently. He didn’t agree with what they were doing, but that didn’t mean he could afford to not give it the best possible effort. The dreams of spreading darkness spurred him on when his exhaustion seemed to get the better of him. It didn’t seem like ten weeks, it seemed like one long day, punctuated by the occasional nap.

The training for the day was done, but rather than tending to some of the individual work, the three Jedi had to attend another meeting. As usual, Jacen had called it, and as usual, he seemed to think he could dictate it. He started off by talking how happy he is at the initial progress, then tried prodding Anakin to find more prospective students. As always, Anakin refused, this time a little more sharply, as he hadn’t slept much the night before. Jacen quickly backed off, although his irritation was clear to all of them considering they were all Force users. But Jacen didn’t have the patience to do the scouting work, not when so many other things seemed to demand his attention.

Jacen moved on to his next point. “We’re out of lightsaber crystals,” he said as if they’d run low on bread and milk.

“How did that happen?” Anakin asked wearily.

Jaina cleared her throat. “I was working late, constructing some extra sabers in case there was an accident during training.” Her embarrassment was obvious. “I must have dozed for just a second and…”

“We’re all overworked,” Jacen said. “Let’s not dwell on it. But, obviously we can’t ignore this, not with the Sith out there.”

“Agreed,” Anakin said. “Any ideas?”

“Yes,” Jacen said. “I was thinking this would be a good exercise. Laudica has experience in travel; she and I could find additional crystals as a training mission.”

“No,” Jaina said. “We can’t afford your absence right now.”

“Nonsense, it won’t be long.”

“You’re the administrator,” Jaina said, “Anakin and I do the field work. That’s what was agreed to when we started, that’s what we’re going to do now.”

Jacen fumed for a moment. “Fine,” he said sharply.

“Good. Anakin, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d prefer not to go. I think Pallo is finally starting to get the hang of telekinesis, and I don’t want to interrupt that.”

“Fine, but I’d appreciate it if you could work with Shaote a little. That Terran is really going to surprise you.”

“He already has,” Jaina said with a weak smile.

“It’s settled then,” Jacen said, getting up. “I’ll inform Laudica. I expect you’ll leave first thing tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Anakin said. In a way, he was relieved. Long trips through hyperspace meant blissful sleep, which was worth its weight in credits these days.



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Part XVI


It was a dark and stormy night. Then again, it was Ferenginar, so every night was a dark and stormy night. Even the days tended to be dark and stormy. But most of all, it seemed that Gorren's mood was darker and stormier than all of them.

Everywhere Sebastian and his Klingon companion went, it seemed the Ferengi were trying to sell them something... or someone. Within twenty minutes Gorren's patience had worn thin and it was all Sebastian could do to keep his friend from disemboweling a street vendor as an example. Nevertheless, Gorren's growl seemed to make the point clear enough, and the Ferengi seemed to know when to look for less hostile clientele. Overall, though, there wasn't too much to worry about. A Klingon who tolerated Ferengi irritation would probably attract more attention than one who bristled at their antics.

With all his connections, Sebastian had never made his way to Ferenginar before. For some reason, it had never been necessary, despite their connections to the underworld. In the end, the Ferengi weren't the type to rebel against the Empire; they had too much to lose compared to the gain. That's what mattered to them: a cost-benefit analysis. A Ferengi who was worth more credits for himself dead than alive was perhaps the closest they ever got to a moral dilemma. Well, a dilemma at any rate. Still, Sebastian had experience forming connections, and with the list of contacts he had from Volgo Terraine, this wasn't going to be as difficult as it had been on other places. Qo'nos had been the hardest and, well, look what he'd accomplished there. Well, the world was in open revolt, but it wasn't because of him. Well, not directly, just... kriff, was his life ever depressing. The rain didn't exactly help.

The two turned the corner and headed towards the entertainment district of the city. As expected, the Ferengi seemed to go overboard on this idea, but given the weather, it wasn't surprising. With skill honed from experience, the two found their way to the right club without in any way indicating it was their destination all along. Information brokers often kept an eye on the visitors, and it was best not to attract their attention if it could be avoided. Sebastian didn't know the name, nor did he care; odds are it was one of those tasteless jokes that was about as funny as a kidney stone.

One of the many bridges that the union of the two galaxies had to overcome was related to an unexpected issue. Because of some factor in the ancient primordial past of this galaxy, it was possible to crossbreed between sentient species on different planets. It made absolutely no sense, but the half-humans and such-like walking around were proof enough that it was possible. In the Imperial galaxy, even during the time of the Republic, inter-species marriage was outlawed. Of course, there were the occasional indulgences allowed, exotic dancers and such of varying species, but actual copulation was a rarity and was usually regarded as an exotic experiment, nothing more. That the Milky Way often indulged in open inter-species mating, even marriage, was a difficult cultural hurdle and led to many problems. The one side was regarded as repressed bigots, the other as degenerate hedonists. The entire issue was further confused by the existence of humans in both galaxies, and the fact that they were capable of having offspring with each other. The eventual "compromise" was the continuation of the law without any real enforcement. In other words, it was permitted so long as the people involved didn't make waves that drew Imperial attention. It was grudgingly accepted by both sides in the end.

Of course, this law had little bearing on the contents of the club, since long-term relations were the last thought on the minds of the patrons. The stages showed a cross-section of the Empire that wouldn't exactly be welcome on any pro-unification poster, although it seemed that getting together was on the minds of the various patrons. Twi'leks, humans, Bajorans, Romulans, Cathar, even, to Sebastian's surprise, a Vorta, although where they managed to find one was more than he wanted to know. Probably cloned from old stock, he thought distantly. The Jem'hadar samples had all been destroyed, but it wouldn't have surprised him if a few Dominion bits and pieces of technology had found their way into Ferengi hands. As it always did, it raised the dilemma in Sebastian's mind: how far could he balance the needs of the injustices he observed on his missions without compromising the larger problem he was there to combat. If he had time, he'd look into this later. For all he knew, the Vorta had escaped captivity and was working here voluntarily.

Sebastian was married, but despite that fact he didn't indulge himself here. He felt no attraction towards females outside his species and looking at the humans only reminded him of how much he longed for his wife's touch. Gorren, naturally, was a hard-liner and didn't believe in diluting the purity of his house with alien blood unless it involved a knife. Without distraction, it didn't take them long to spot their mark, Gint. They took a seat, keeping an eye on him while he watched the show; it was too crowded to make a move in here. They drank their drinks, talked only enough to keep up appearances, and waited. Less than two hours later, the Vorta exited the stage and took the Ferengi's hand, and the two headed towards one of the back rooms. Sebastian and Gorren casually followed; a large Nosagin blocked their path. "Authorized personnel only," he growled.

"We're authorized," Sebastian said quietly.

"You're authorized," the Nosagin agreed, stepping out of the way and letting them through. Sebastian quickly followed the trail to the room; it was locked, but nothing more than a simple privacy device, and easily bypassed. The door slid open and he and Gorren slipped inside. Thankfully nothing had started yet, or this assignment would have crossed a new boundary of distaste for the Jedi.

"What's going on?" Gint demanded. Like most Ferengi with something on his mind, he was a bit slow on the uptake. "You can't be in here."

"We have some questions for you," Gorren remarked. The frustrations of the evening made themselves obvious in his tone, and the Ferengi shriveled back and hit the call for security. Two more Nosagins came in right behind them, but they hadn't expected anything more than a tryst gone sour. Gorren quickly twisted and drove a dagger into the exposed ribs of one while Sebastian grabbed the arm of the other and slammed him headfirst into the wall. Then with a touch he knocked him unconscious. He and Gorren straightened back up, their body language making it clear that this was less of a threat than a minor inconvenience. The Ferengi was almost pale, the girl uncertain.

"Don't do that again," Sebastian warned. His body, in the meantime, was screaming at him for the exertion. He was in worse shape than he thought.

"I'm connected," the Ferengi babbled. "Big people! Really big people! You don't want to mess with them!"

"Enough," Gorren rumbled. "Answer our questions and I will kill you."

"'Or,' you mean, right?" Gint said.

"Answer our questions or I will kill you slowly."

"Being ambushed angers my friend," Sebastian said, playing the slightly less bad cop. "Answer honestly or he'll make a hat out of your skin." With a thought, he flicked on the recorder in his mask; eidetic memory aside, it was always good to have a precise account of an interrogation. "You came into possession of a gross of concussion missiles fourteen months ago. You don't have them any more. Who'd you sell them to?"

"I don't remember details from that long ago!"

"Thump," Sebastian said. Gorren stepped forward and struck the Ferengi across the head, sending him tumbling out of the bed and onto the floor. "Who'd you sell them to?"

"Roz! Dem Roz! Some Malon who'd done business with the syndicate."

Sebastian flipped through the images on his disk, then held it up. "This him?" he asked as the hologram appeared.

"Yeah, that's him." Gint was holding his head where he'd landed.

Sebastian shut down the hologram; it was a composite design of one of Nom Anor’s identities, which meant they were on the right track. "What else did you sell him?"

"It was just a one-time deal."

"Thump," Sebastian said. He tried not to look uncomfortable as Gorren picked up the Ferengi and slammed him face first into the wall, holding him there. "What else did you sell him?"

"I didn't sell him anything!" Gorren was holding the Ferengi off the floor as he pull him backwards to hit the wall again. "I SWEAR I DIDN'T!"

"Hold it," Sebastian said, and Gorren stopped, the Ferengi's face centimeters from the wall. "But..."

"But I did put him in touch with a slicer on Betazed." Face met wall.

"Do you think we are stupid?" the Klingon growled. "That a criminal would try to hide among telepaths?"

"Okay! OKAY! She was on Trodendt. Thorim Glesser, top-notch with electronics."

"She still there?"

"As far as I know," the Ferengi said. "The Syndicate still uses her sometimes, but she's strictly freelance."

Sebastian nodded and Gorren lowered the Ferengi to the floor, but kept one hand on his shoulder as a reminder. "You," Sebastian said to the Vorta, "what's your name?"

"Kilana... Kilana 5." She seemed frightened, which was understandable.

"You are the fifth clone then?"

"Yes," she said.

"Are you a slave?" Sebastian asked point blank.

"No Vorta is a slave," she said, seemingly finding the idea ludicrous. "We serve out of love and devotion. We live only to serve the Founders."

"Seems someone's not been up on current events," Gorren said under his breath.

"Who are the Founders?" Sebastian asked.

"The ones who made us Vorta," she said, looking at him oddly.

Sebastian turned back to Gint. "Who are the Founders?"

"The Founders are dead," he said, trying to force a laugh.

"Blasphemy!" Kilana cried. "The Founders cannot die! They are gods!"

"She's right," Sebastian said with a nod to Gorren. The wall was starting to take an imprint of Gint's frontal lobes. "It's the Orion Syndicate, isn't it."

"They're clones!" Gint wailed. "Who cares what happens to them?!"

And this, of course, is what it came down to, balancing the little crimes against the big ones. Sebastian couldn't right all the wrongs, but he was here, now, and could right this one if he wanted to. Balancing the risks between the two, his own cost-benefit analysis. He reached up and pulled off his mask. "I do," he said.

Gorren let Gint drop to the floor; the Ferengi seemed almost paralyzed. "But you... you're..." Sebastian pulled out his lightsaber from its pouch, then lit it; the Ferengi visibly wet himself. He dropped to his knees, fists held together over his head at the wrist. "Please, spare me! I promise, I'll never sell arms again! I swear it! Please!!!"

"The girl comes with us," Sebastian said. "The Orion Syndicate writes it off as a loss. Nobody tries to follow us. Anyone does, and I will come back for you, Gint. You hear me? I'll come for you." The blade struck the floor a centimeter from Gint, who had been too terrified to move. He nodded vigorously in agreement.

"The Founders said I was to work here," Kilana said. "It was to their glory that I served them in this way."

"They lied to you about being the Founders," Sebastian said. "They were just using you."

"You're lying!"

"No, I'm not," Sebastian said. Then a thought hit him. "Because I know where the Founder really is."

Kilana looked at him with skepticism. "Really?"

"Yes, just as I know that you are missing some of your memories. You know you are the fifth, yet you do not know everything about the Dominion you should.”

Her eyes widened. “Yes,” she said. “The Founders told me…” She slipped into silence.

“They were lying,” Sebastian said. “I have met the Founder; I have served under him.” Technically, it was true. “I can take you to him.”

Kilana looked between him and Gorren, then to the cowering Ferengi. “I believe you,” she said eventually. “Please, take me to him.”

Sebastian deactivated the lightsaber and put it away. “Replicate her some clothes,” he told Gint. “Something that won’t attract attention.” The Ferengi nodded and got up quickly, rushing over to the controls. A few minutes later Kilana was properly dressed for the constant weather of the planet. “Make a few changes of clothes so she has some comfort,” he added.

“This goes on my account,” Gint protested.

“Bill the Syndicate,” Gorren said, and at his word the Ferengi got to work. Soon she had a small suitcase full of clothing. Sebastian, in the meantime had put his mask back on.

“Remember,” Sebastian said, “no one knows what happened, and we were never here… Gint.”

“Of course, of course,” the Ferengi said. “Have a safe trip.”

As they slipped into the hall Gorren stepped to Sebastian’s side. “I would not question you in front of another,” he whispered. “But are you sure this is wise, my friend?”

“No,” Sebastian said. “I’m sure it’s unwise.”

“Ah, well, at least I have that comfort.”

“Look at it this way Gorren, how many times have I done what I figure is probably unwise, and look where it’s gotten me?”

“Yes, you’re a wanted man hated by trillions with an artificial leg.”

“See? Law of averages says this has got to turn my way.” And together the trio slipped through the club and out into the streets.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The mists of sleep slowly started to lift from Anakin Solo’s mind. “Good morning, lover,” rolled a deep, sexy voice. It filtered through the cracks in his mind like molten metal through a fractured mold until it hit the center of his consciousness and he jerked bolt upright. Unfortunately, he was in a co-pilot’s chair and caught himself on the restraining harness, tossing him right back into his seat. The voice was laughing at his antics. “Sorry about that, but I’ve done that a dozen times and it never stops being funny.”

“No, it’s not,” Anakin grumbled, undoing the restraints.

“Yes it is… from a certain point of view.” She was trying to keep a straight face but was failing miserably, until it just slid right out and she was laughing at him again.

“Remember who’s grading you, Laudica,” Anakin said, for all the good it did. He couldn’t actually hold this against the student, that wouldn’t be setting a very good example. Still, Laudica Reshad could be grating at times, and this was one of those times. “What’s our status?”

“I’ve made two zig-zag jumps,” she said, “and was just about to make the third. Are you really sure this is necessary?”

“With a Sith, there’s no such thing as too careful.”

She nodded, but it was plain to see she wasn’t so sure about that. There was a cockiness about her, part of what made her clash with the students at times. He hadn’t been too sure about recruiting her at all, but despite that she was proving to be an able pupil with much potential. He just hoped this didn’t lead down the wrong path. “So you really think it was a Sith that killed the Emperor?” she asked. “I mean, I know you and Jacen and Jaina said so, but is that just like party line? Was it really that Skywalker?”

“Laudica,” Anakin said, “believe me, before this war is over, you’re going to learn the answers to all those questions for yourself. Unfortunately, yes, it was really a Sith, no it wasn’t Bastian.”

“But it did look just like him.”

“I know, but I saw the Sith. I was with him when he killed Luke Skywalker.”

Laudica was quiet and for the first time he felt that she was taking this seriously. “I though the Vong killed him?”

“No Vong could kill Luke Skywalker,” Anakin said. “No, it was a Sith, with the power of the Dark side. Against that, even a master like him was unable to survive.”

She was still for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably. “You’re just trying to scare me,” she said, but her voice lacked the self-assurance it had before. Then she jumped as Anakin detached his hand.

“He did this to me,” Anakin said. “I had a lightsaber, he was unarmed, and he still managed to defeat me. If Luke hadn’t been there I’d be dead.”

She swallowed. The lightsabers were all locked on training, and all of the apprentices had felt its sting at some time or other. “The Dark side is that powerful?”

“No!” Anakin answered, perhaps a little too forcefully. “No, it’s not the Dark side. The light is just as powerful, but it is the harder path. It requires peace, patience. The Sith walks the path of self-destruction, of hate and pain, and though he achieves power quickly, it is ultimately self-defeating.”

“But, if he could defeat a master like Luke Skywalker, how can we face him?”

Anakin was quiet. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I wish I could give you something more reassuring, but you would know my lies. But I cannot believe the Jedi came that close to extinction and came back only to be wiped out by this Sith. Somehow, we’ll stop him. Jacen, Jaina, Sebastian, me, maybe even Alema or Shaote.”

“Or me?” Laudica asked.

Anakin smiled. “The Force is strong with you,” he said. “But you have much to learn.”

“Jacen says I’m making great progress.”

“Yes… but my brother has a tendency to stretch the truth. You’ve had three months of training; I had had nearly twenty years when I faced the Sith.” He could feel her fear returning. “I don’t say that to make you feel inadequate,” he added. “But you’ve got to know your limitations, and to remember the ways of the Jedi. I forgot that, and it cost me a limb. If you forget, it could cost you much more.”

“My life,” she said quietly.

“No, your soul.”



Chuck

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Part XVII


Leia Organa Solo maintained an impassive expression as the holograms on her desk spoke, although it took a great deal of effort to do so. Gen. Sunhaf was doing most of the speaking, and he had the tactical experience to know what he was talking about. Still, since the arrival of the Vong he was showing his age more and more, and it was obvious that his strategic instincts were barely overcoming exhaustion these days. Still, many of their generals and admirals had become Vong duplicates, so they didn't have the luxury of being choosy.

"We are in a difficult situation, minister," Sunhaf said frankly. "The Vong are on the offensive now, their ranks swollen, and they've forced us to concentrate our forces to resist their ambushes. The result is they've retaken almost all of the territorial gains we've made for the past several years. Because of the degree of the intelligence breach, we've had to devote large forces to protecting supply convoys. The initial attacks on our convoys have left many of our ships under-supplied."

"What do you suggest?" Leia asked.

"Reinforcements are the primary concern, minister," Sunhaf answered. "We'll have to draw more forces to the front lines to hold back Vong expansion. The more territory they acquire, the easier it is for them to expand their fleet."

"Our forces are already stretched thin," Admiral Chanor remarked. "Without an Imperial presence, more and more systems will revolt."

"It won't matter if there's no Empire left to revolt against," Sunhaf said simply. "You don't worry about a cancer when you're in a blaster fight, admiral."

"I don't like it," Leia admitted, "but I'm inclined to agree. However, I think we should draw our forces from here rather than the Milky Way." There were several protests, but she held up her hand. "Protection of strategic targets, but we stop worrying about pirates, smugglers, etcetera. We have the resources of two galaxies at our disposal, but it won't make a difference if we can't mobilize it."

"Several thousand star destroyers should make a difference," General Hinal agreed. "But there is still the matter of Vong intelligence. So long as they possess the experiences of our leadership, they know our strengths and weaknesses, our contingency plans, our-"

"I understand," Leia interrupted. "The planet will be destroyed, but it's taking time to convince the Senate."

"Which is precisely what the Vong want," Hinal said with barely restrained frustration. "We need the order-"

"General," Leia said, "I take this situation as seriously as you do, but I am not the Emperor. I can only push things so far without risk of shattering our Empire. We will use our weapon when the civilian government approves, and no sooner. In the meantime, you will have to cope with the limitations placed upon you." She nodded, as did the holograms, then they vanished. "The situation is grim, gentlemen," she said to the Chancellor and Volgo Terraine, both of whom had been present for the meeting. "Nom Anor and his duplicates have turned the tide in this war. We have to stop thinking about the Vong as being the nearly vanquished foes they have been."

"I think the Senate is aware of how serious the situation is," the Chancellor remarked. "But they seem reluctant to provide anyone with the executive authority to use the superlasers. The near destruction of our own people on the Emperor's authority is a strong factor in their thinking."

"We've been over this," Leia said. "It's impractical to seek approval of the Senate in every instance when the superlaser is necessary. It tips off the enemy to our activities and delays necessary military action." The irony of the situation was not lost on her; that this very weapon had destroyed her own planet was a fact not lost on her, and it was infuriating that it was needed at all. Unfortunately, with the Emperor gone she didn't have the luxury of keeping her hands clean. She had been opposed to the construction of more Eclipses, a terror weapon as far as she could tell. Now she knew why Ben had them built, but it didn't mean she had to like the despicable things. All it meant was that she had to be prepared to use them when the situation demanded it, for the extremes like this case, when it was clearly a case of no collateral damage and strictly military targets. She doubted it would put fear into the heart of the Vong, but that wasn't their goal.

"Minister, the Senate's outcome is uncertain, and how long it will take to reach that outcome is unclear. Given the timeliness of the matter, I suggest that we table your issue for the moment and speak directly to the point of its present use on the Vong planet. Even Senator Alixus’ supporters can see the weaknesses in her opposition to its use in this specific case. We can quickly push that through and use the weapon now, then re-open the larger issue."

Leia shut her eyes and took a deep breath; she was running on Force-tapped strength for days now, and the exhaustion was getting to her. "Very well," she said. "As soon as possible, Chancellor." He nodded, then showed himself out. Leia now turned her attention to Terraine. "I kriffing hope you have good news for me," she said, exhaustion overcoming regal habits.

"Somewhat," he answered. "Our connection with Borda is starting to bear fruit."

"Borda?" Leia asked. Her mind was having trouble keeping track of all these names in its current state.

"The Rodian Sebastian rescued," Terraine reminded her. "His rebel forces have been helping us counterbalance the Vong's recent activities."

"It's about time," she said irritably. Sebastian's silence on his work with Borda's rebels had been the foundation of Alixus' entire coup theory, which was used as a justification for many of the uprisings that took place. As horrible as it was to think, it would probably have been better if they had sold out the rebels to preserve the Empire. Better at least for the Empire, although Leia wondered if the strain of the position and the amoral demands it made wasn't driving her towards the Dark side. Perhaps that was why Ben had to die then, to prevent himself from going to far into darkness.

"They've located a planet that the Vong are using for the growth of coralships. It's uninhabited, the Vong probably assumed no one would notice it, because there are high concentrations of yorrik coral. A blow against that world could be crippling."

"Base Delta Zero?" she asked.

"I wouldn't advise it," Terraine said. "The planet is too heavily defended and is well within Vong space. A single superlaser strike-"

"Why does it always come back to that?" Leia growled, more to herself than anyone else. "I remember the good old days when we solved problems without blowing up planets."

"Minister," Terraine said, "it was a Base Delta Zero that wiped out my homeworld and left few of us changelings to survive in the galaxy. All these actions are morally repugnant, but would you have us lose to face enslavement or extinction?"

"No," Leia said. "But obviously we can't employ the superlaser in this case; we would need Senate approval, and that would tip off the Vong."

"The system is remote; I doubt anyone would know if we simply destroyed it and didn't say anything."

"We can't chance it. We have galactic resources because we are held together, if we cut the Senate out of the loop we'd be slitting our own throats."

"Respectfully, minister, if we don't, the Vong are lining up to do it for us."

"We need to find another way,"

Terraine nodded. "There is one way to get results. We developed a chemical that interferes with yorrik coral growth. We used it on one of their worlds a year ago, with much success."

Leia's eyes narrowed. "Why wasn't I told of this? I asked for all our anti-Vong tactics when the Emperor died."

"The process worked only the one time," Terraine said. "We released it by firing several torpedoes loaded with the chemical at the planet and releasing it into the atmosphere. Since then the Vong have anticipated those moves, and are able to strike fast enough to neutralize the chemical before it spreads. We had put it aside, since it had ceased being effective."

"Then if that's the case, why bring it up now?"

"I had received a communication from Sebastian Skywalker through our network. It had actually been in regard to Kolyet, but it seems even more applicable here. He said that if there were a way to bypass the shield, he could fly a cloaked ship to the planet and release the chemical gradually, undetected, to inhibit the yorrik coral. Unfortunately, there's no way through the shield, but it could work for this planet."

"But Sebastian's not available," Leia pointed out.

"Yes," Terraine said. "Some other Jedi must do this, then."

They'd done it before, Leia knew. It was how Anakin got stuck and Luke killed. She didn't relish the thought of repeating that, but she couldn't go herself; she was needed here. "Anakin is off-world," she finally said. "Jacen or Jaina should be able to assist you."

"It's not an especially dangerous assignment," Terraine said, offering some small comfort.

"Perhaps, but I'll feel better when it’s over."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika was still when the door opened, and Jorri feared the worst. If she was sleeping, it would be bad to wake her, and if she wasn't...

"Jorri?" she croaked. "Is that you, girl?"

"It's me, grandma-to-be," Jorri said with relief.

"Come around to the other side of the bed, please," Annika said. "My interface with my cybernetics is gone now, so I can't see you with that eye."

Jorri swallowed, trying not to let the sight of her mother-in-law upset her. She put on her brave face and came around to the other side; Annika was smiling, but there was visible exhaustion in her expression. "How are you doing?" she asked.

Annika coughed. "I'm dying... but if I fix that I'll be right as rain." He smile broadened just a little, and she reached out a shaking hand and ran it over Jorri's belly. "And you are going to love having me as a grandma," she said. "I'm going to get you a Flotter the Water doll that makes two hundred different annoying sounds and runs off ZPE so you'll never need a power pack."

"Ugh," Jorri said, but couldn't keep the smile off her face. "I heard I missed quite a show."

Annika gave a dismissive wave. "Stormtroopers being stormtroopers," she said. "Don't worry about it."

"They didn't give you a rough time, did they?"

"With the Doctor here?" Annika laughed. "I think they knew better." They talked for a while; Annika mildly chastised Jorri for flying, Jorri explained how there was nothing to worry about. They discussed their plans and what she and Sebastian would do after the war. Eventually, Annika wore out and had to go to sleep. Jorri still couldn't believe it. She remembered there was an accident on the farm once when they were a kid, and Annika had lifted a three hundred kilogram condenser and held it out of the way while Luke and her father got everyone stuck inside the entryway to safety. Now she barely had the strength to move her own body, and it was thanks to the Vong.

Jorri gave her a goodbye kiss and slipped out to find the Doctor. As always, he was nearby. "What's the prognosis?" she asked, steeling herself.

The EMH Mark 1 was notorious for its lousy bedside manner, but a few decades had taught him more than any programming ever could. Still, there was no way to couch some news. "With the spread of the disease so far, it's a wonder she's even still alive. Still, willpower can play a factor, especially when there's a goal in mind for the patient. She wants to see her grandchild... and I wish I could tell you she would. I give her a week, two at the most, and it won't matter how much she wants it, her body is going to shut down. I'm sorry, Jorri, I truly am. I had hoped we could do something to combat this disease, but it looks like Annika may have been right about this." He realized he was rambling and glanced up at Jorri. "Sorry," he said. "I've lost many friends over the years, but usually not in my own hospital."

Jorri just hugged him in response. “Thank you for giving her what time she’s had,” she whispered. He nodded, and she left. She left the flying to her co-pilot; her mind was a million light-years away.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben was training the Sith when the door to the Oracle's lab opened. She half-walked, half-stumbled to the communicator, entering one of the code scramblers to prevent it from being traced to either end by the network. He paused in his training and let the students continue with their exercises; he listened distantly, and realized it was Garak.

"I was wondering how long that Vong was going to wait around," Garak mused.

"As long as he must," the Oracle replied without a touch of humor.

"Well, I must admire his courage, if not his good sense. Not many are willing to play chicken with an Eclipse."

"He's been prepping for departure, but he can't do it alone. You're ready to assist him." It wasn't a question; the Oracle hardly ever asked questions, and when she did, it was usually to lead someone to their own conclusions.

"I suppose we still need him," Garak said with a sigh of resignation, as if the task of aiding the escape from a blockaded world was merely an inconvenience, like picking up stray garbage. He signed off, and the Oracle turned and started to walk back; she suddenly hit the wall and stuck there.

"Why did you not inform me of this?" Ben Skywalker demanded.

If the Oracle was afraid, she hid it extremely well. "It was of no importance to you," she replied.

"I," he said emphatically, pointing a thumb at his chest, "decide what is important, not you, Janeway."

"I assumed your concern was with the Sith," she replied. "Garak, Anor, they're just tools to be used in furthering your will-"

"I do not like your independent thoughts, Janeway," he said. "Don't think that I can be played; you live only so long as I deem you useful."

"Yes, my Lord," she said. "If I may, I do have information which you might find useful."

"Indeed," he said, but he left her up on the wall. "Tell me, and I'll see if I find it useful..."

"The Jedi are about to be divided," she said, "and in that division is an opportunity to destroy them. One is already traveling to Ilum in search of lightsaber crystals, another will be heading to the Vong world of Provag, one will remain on Chandrilla with their pathetic attempts at a Jedi Academy, and Sebastian Skywalker remains a fugitive. Any or all are potential targets, my Lord."

"And Leia?” Ben asked.

“She will be out of your reach for now,” the Oracle said. Ben’s anger visibly burned. “But do not fear. In time, she will seek you out, and when she does, you will have the chance to destroy her and the Empire.”

Ben mulled it over; while he did so the Oracle slid down the wall to the floor. “What of the Jedi Academy?”

“You may destroy it at your whim, of course,” the Oracle said, dusting herself off as if the situation had been nothing out of the ordinary. “Or you could turn them to the power of the Dark side. In times of old, many Sith recruits were fallen Jedi,” she reminded him. “A demonstration of dark side power would no doubt speak to many of them.”

Ben smiled, but only a little. She did have her uses, loathe though he was to admit it. “All right,” he said finally. “We’ll follow your plan, for now. Where do you suggest we begin.”

The Oracle took out a datapad. “I took the liberty of making all the arrangements, my lord.” She passed it over to him. “Your victory is assured, and the results devastating to the Jedi.”

“You’ve foreseen it?”

“Naturally, my lord.”



Chuck

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Part XVIII


The authorities had been called in to investigate at the club. Not the Ferengi authorities, of course; no one was that stupid. No, the Orion Syndicate had their own authorities to deal with their problems. Duwal, in this case, was in charge of handling things on Ferenginar, and that usually kept him busy. There are few things a criminal hates more than being cheated by businessmen, so the Orions and Ferengi often had a relationship comparable to the Klingons and Romulans, only without the polite banter.

The minute Duwal showed up he knew he'd have to update Luin, the man he answered to in the syndicate. Vorta slave girls were rare and high demand; their fanatical devotion to service made them an experience to remember. Whoever was responsible had no idea what they were bringing down on their heads. Duwal set up a small holoprojector in the room and contacted Luin on a secure line; he quickly informed him of the situation.

"Was the client in on it?" Luin asked right away.

"The Ferengi's pretty shaken up," Duwal said. "I don't think he's that good an actor, and whoever was here smacked him around pretty good. I don't think he'd go in for a beating."

"Why didn't the little creep call down to security?" Luin asked.

"He did; we found two Nossagins here, one dead, one out cold with no sign of stun weapons. To me, looks like a Vulcan and a Klingon, which mostly backs up his story."

"Mostly?"

"He says the other one was that Jedi the Empire's looking for, if you can believe anything that comes out of a Ferengi's mouth."

"Did they say what they were doing with her?" Luin asked.

"Something about the Founders, just some lines to get her to come along quietly. But he-"

"'Scuse me, Duwal?" said Brune. "You wanna take a look at this?"

Duwal glanced over then back to the hologram. Luin gave a quick but impatient nod, and he came over. "This better be important," he said in a low, menacing tone. Brune pointed to a hole in the floor, and Duwal looked it over. "What about it?"

"I ain't never seen a weapon that can do that," Brune said.

Anyone else and Duwal would've rebuke them on the spot for wasting his time, but Brune was an expert on weapons, especially on their application to people that crossed the Syndicate. "Phaser?"

"Not with that shape; bottom of the hole's full of hardened molten metal. You need tools to make a hole like this."

Duwal was thoughtful for a moment, then came back up to the hologram. "It looks like the Ferengi may have been right about this guy being a Jedi."

"I hope you're not playing a game with me, Duwal," Luin said coldly.

Duwal told him about the hole. "Those Jedi weapons are supposed to cut through anything, even armor."

Luin rolled this new idea around for a moment. Rising in the Orion Syndicate required a strong balance between ambition and caution. Too much of the former and you wind up dead, too much of the latter and you never make the big scores. It was very high stakes gambling. "The Empire wants this guy back, right?"

"That's the word," Duwal said.

"We know where this guy's going?"

"Yeah, Ferengi spilled his guts. You thinking about trying to catch this guy and ransom him back to the Empire?"

"Forget ransom," Luin said, "this could buy us a lot of favors from the regional governor if we let him bring this Jedi in."

Duwal shook his head a little. "I don't know... I saw this guy chop through a bunch of stormtroopers, I don't think we can take him down without leaving the body a smear on some wall."

"If that Cardassian pimple can pull it off, I'd think that we could."

"You're the boss," Duwal said, but he could hardly keep the defeated tone out of his voice. Capture a Jedi? Maybe he should steal Luin a star destroyer while he was at it. He turned off the holoprojector and slid it in his pocket. "All right boys," he said, "we've got some work to do. Oh, and Brune, remind the Ferengi why it’s important to keep your mouth shut."
--------------------------------------------------------------

By the time the Orion Syndicate had learned what had happened, the Raven was already in hyperspace. Gorren volunteered to handle the controls while Sebastian took some rest. He was still barely holding together in the wake of his accident on Earth, but the Jedi healing techniques were helping speed things along. He slipped out of his quarters and into the "dining hall," the term applied to what amounted to a food synthesizer and a table. Kilana was sitting at it at the moment, an empty tray in front of her. She looked up at him the moment he entered the room.

"You're going to take me to the Founder, yes?" Kilana asked. It was obvious she wasn't entirely convinced of Sebastian's honesty with her.

"Kilana," Sebastian said, taking a seat opposite from her, "I'll take you wherever you want to go, once we leave Trodendt."

"No, I need to meet the Founder right away."

"I understand how anxious you must feel-"

"Good, then take me to the Founder."

Sebastian waited a moment. "But I have to get to Trodendt before the Syndicate figures out I'm going there," he finished "If we wait, we could lose our only lead. The Founder will still be there for you when we are done."

"You are trying to trick me," she said sharply.

"Not at all. Like I said, wherever you want to go, that's where I'll take you."

"Then you will take me to the Founder," she said, leaning back and crossing her arms.

"Why?" Sebastian finally asked. "Why is it so important to you?"

Kilana looked at him like he'd just asked why people breathe. "My life is glory to the Founders," she said.

"I can't argue with that," Sebastian mumbled in defeat.

"Without the Founders I wouldn't have existed," she said emphatically. "My entire species would be some primate living in a tree somewhere. What other purpose would I have than to serve those who created me?"

Sebastian shrugged. "It seems to me that a just creator would have you serve only if it was what you wanted, rather than being compelled to."

"I am not compelled by anything except my love for the Founders," Kilana said.

"Yeah, except that you've never met them," Sebastian said. "It's been hard-wired into you to seek out and serve those you've never met."

She shook her head in pity. "I wouldn't expect you to understand."

"I understand better than you could imagine," Sebastian said. "Your whole life is there for a purpose, and so your every thought is on completing it. It's all you ever knew, all you ever expected."

"Yes," she conceded.

"But sometimes, it's too big a task before you; no sane person could stand before it and expect to succeed. And it's only then that you realize that by what right should any life be made to merely serve someone else's purpose? Life should exist for its own sake too, right? So, what you decide then is to do it for your sake, not for someone else's."

"Huh?" Kilana said, rather deflating Sebastian's attempt at grandeur.

"I'm out here on the run, fighting the good fight, because I have a wife, and a daughter on the way, and I want to make a better galaxy for them. That's how I get out of bed in the morning and face stormtroopers and Vong and Cardassians, because it's my choice. You have a choice too, Kilana."

"And I choose to serve the Founders," she said.

"If that's what you really want," Sebastian said, emphasizing the "you." "But I think you're basing this on Founder programming rather than your own desires."

"I am a Vorta," she said sharply. "I live only to serve the Founders."

Sebastian shook his head. "Little bits of proteins... all they tell you is what you are, not who you are. You don't have to listen to them."

"There is an order to things, Skywalker," she said. "The Vorta serve the Founders. Without the order, there would be chaos."

Sebastian got up. "I hate to break it to you, but if you take a look at the galaxy, you'll see the order was destroyed a long time ago."

"Then if it falls to me to help restore it, so be it."

Sebastian couldn't help but laugh. "You? You'll restore order to the galaxy by yourself?"

"Yes."

"That doesn't sound a little daunting?" he asked with a laugh.

"No more than your task, Skywalker," she said evenly. "And I have the Founder on my side. Who will help you restore order? The Klingon? I'm sure you two will present a formidable challenge." She paused. "I see you're not laughing any more."

"Hey, you want to live as a slave to some changeling, knock yourself out," Sebastian replied with a slight edge to his voice. "I hope it makes you happy." He headed for the cockpit.

"Which upsets you more?" she asked. "That I want to do it, or that it will make me happy?" Sebastian shut the cockpit door behind himself to... to let her think about it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Volgo Terraine finished explaining the plan to Jacen and Jaina Solo. It was simple, nothing more involved than anything either one of them had done before for the Emperor. Still, both had a bad feeling about this job, and Jacen finally had to ask, “Is there another option? The academy really needs our presence, with Anakin gone.”

“Days could mean the difference,” he said frankly. “A coralship will take time, but the coralskippers mature very fast. Waiting that long would provide a boost to the Vong fleet.”

“Would it really make that much of a difference?” Jacen asked. “A few coralskippers-“

“Forgive me, master Jedi, but you must remember that this is a planet we’re talking about. There’s more than a mere few involved when it comes to matters of planetary scope.”

Jaina knew exactly what he was talking about. The size of the Empire and the scope of the war tended to make planets seem rather small. Take Chandrilla: the Empire had built even more cities around the world, and yet you hardly noticed the difference overall, because a planet is just such a large object that humanoid activities don’t really have an influence. It took superlasers or millennia of construction or serious terraforming efforts to have lasting influences. A whole planet devoted to Vong ships meant a great deal to their war effort. “I’ll go,” she said.

“No,” Jacen said.

She gave him a look of mild annoyance. “Field operations are my and Anakin’s job, remember?”

“Yes, but you’re needed here more than I am,” Jacen replied. “You’ve been doing the special training for your and Anakin’s students, I can’t pick up the slack for both of you.”

“I can take Alema,” Jaina said. “She’s ready for some field work.”

“I agree, but your place is here.”

Jaina was taken aback. “Who are you to tell me what my place is?”

“I’m just holding up the mirror, Jaina,” he said. “This may have been my idea, but you’ve really made it a reality. You have more of the patience for this than I do, and I should have realized that. I guess I wanted to think of myself as being one of the masters of the old age, making the big decisions. But I miss not having the dirt under my feet. I’m not cut out for this, you are.”

“I hope that’s not an attempt at flattery,” Jaina said, even though she could sense the truth. She had to admit, though, she liked the way it sounded, and she did enjoy working with the students. “Bring Alema,” she said. “It would be good work for her to try, and it would help her confront the Vong in a small way.”

“And it would allow you more time with the other students,” he said. “I’ll tell her right away; we don’t want that Vong fleet growing any bigger.” Neither of them voiced their feelings of doubt surrounding the mission.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Senator Alixus had a tightness in her stomach as she stepped onto the transporter. She had delayed things as best she could, but there was no chance of buying any more time. Tomorrow they would definitely approve the use of the superlaser on Nom Anor's world, and there was nothing more she could do to stop them. She could only hope that she'd bought him enough time.

This time the Sith was waiting in her garden, seated on the bench. The bodyguard's guns flew from their holsters before they could move and landed at his feet. Still, one of them tried charging him while the other reached for a hold-out weapon. With casual gestures the Sith lit his lightsaber and cut down the attacker even while he gestured at the other, causing him to cough and sputter until he collapsed on the ground with a death rattle. "I wish you would tell your men to stop this foolishness," he said. "I hate getting my hands dirty with such unbecoming enemies."

"What do you want?" she asked, trying to keep the fear out of her voice.

"I have more work for you," he said. "To our mutual advantage, again. There will be a Jedi traveling to the planet Provag on a mission of sabotage against the Vong. I will stop him. Tell your Vong allies that neither of us is to be interfered with. If they do their death's will be swift and without glory."

"Are you threatening the entire army of the Vong?" Alixus asked despite herself.

The Sith stood up. "The ability to terraform worlds, drop moons, grow ships, overrun the Empire... I laugh at the puny exertions the Vong call power. You have no idea what power is until you have tasted the Dark side."

"I will pass along your message," Alixus said finally. Even though Nom Anor was trapped on the blockaded Vong world, his network was still in place for her to relay information to the Vong. It helped keep them up-to-date even when the Empire tried deviating from the plans the Hive had learned of through its infiltration. Whether they would listen to this idea was another matter, but all Alixus could do was pass it along.

"Good. Also, there is a group of petty criminals in your sector... the Orion Syndicate. They have decided to embark on a fool's errand, but it serves my interests that they do so. If they want to fight a Jedi, however, they had best come equipped for the challenge."

"Sebastian Skywalker," Alixus said quietly. "They know where he is?"

"Skywalker is mine," the Sith said with a voice that left no leeway for argument. "But to maintain this charade the battle must be short. They'll need the proper tool to face the Jedi in anticipation of my attack." A datapad flew across the garden and hung in the air before Alixus; she carefully took it.

"This?" she finally asked. "What difference will this creature make?"

"If you understood the Force, you would already know."

He slipped away, so quickly Alixus almost wondered if it was a personal transporter. She looked back to the datapad, wondering if the Sith was right about this. Of course, he had been right last time, impossibly right. Still, all of this was hard to fathom. She looked at the creature again, and said the name aloud. "Ysalamir."



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Part XIX


Million to one chances always come through for the heroes. It's practically a universal law. Even Han Solo had to admit that the destruction of the Death Star was one in a million, and he won a battered old freighter in a card game, so he should know a thing or two about odds.

There are roughly a hundred billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and that leaves a lot of places to hide. In exchange for services rendered, Nom Anor gave Garak the means to produce the coral ships and skippers used. He chose out of the way places, unsettled systems across the galaxy, on moons or lifeless worlds. All told, he selected close to fifty places to grow his ships. Of course, the Imperials were interested in hunting down Garak's group, which was why Garak insisted those worlds never be ones where a base would be even considered. If the Empire stumbled across one by accident, they would know what was going on and devote more resources to the search. They devoted thousands of probe droids to search for the bases of Cardassians, Hirogen, Section 31, and the holograms, choosing likely systems for all those groups. But the odds of randomly selecting one of Garak's systems works out to, believe it or not, a million to one. Somehow, the Empire didn't beat the odds.

Garak made a few coralships, but the real prize for him were the coralskippers. He operated as a terrorist because he lacked large numbers, but he knew that the Vong could control these ships with their yammosk. With time, he knew they could develop a computer that could likely do the same thing, so he had grown thousands of the fighter-like craft on his various worlds. The progress was stymied by his incarceration, but the ships were there. The Oracle's plan had counted on them, and he started to wonder if her suggestion that he ask for them was in anticipation of this very situation. Whatever the case, she was right that the Vong were destroying the Empire, and helping them would help themselves in the long run.

Hundreds of transport ships dropped out of hyperspace simultaneously across thousands of parsecs. The targets were chosen based upon the data gathered by Ben Skywalker's Sith forces to cause a maximum amount of chaos, and they did. The transports dropped countless numbers of coralships into space before vanishing. There were no pilots, but there didn't need to be. There was a war coordinator on hand... not a yammosk, but in some ways, it was something better.

No one could have imagined how surprised Nom Anor would be when the Hive informed him of Garak's plan. The Oracle had apparently informed one of the duplicates deliberately that Garak would do this months before, back when everyone assumed the Cardassian was going to be executed. It was disconcerting that Garak's witch could be so accurate, but he was willing to go along with her plan, as it was going to work much better than what he had originally planned for this scenario. Still, he wasn't entirely certain of its success until the Hive informed him that the coralskippers had been deployed and it had assumed control.

No one had been prepared for this. The security breach was known, of course, but the anticipation was for terrorist attacks or perhaps a squad of Hirogens. Instead hundreds of coralskippers descended on unprepared targets, ranging from military installations to civilian infrastructure to space stations. Planetary defenses consisted of outdated defense platforms, sometimes some fighter squadrons, but they were no match for the numbers involved, not to mention the fact that there was no concern for personal safety among the Vong ships because they were unmanned. Left unchecked, they would cause widespread chaos throughout several sectors.

And in the middle of it all was Kolyet and its star destroyer blockade.

There were thirty Imperator-class Star Destroyers on hand, and one Eclipse, the Shade. If any left, it would increase the Vong's chances of lowering the shield and making a successful escape. The Senate was scheduled to vote on the deployment of its superlaser that day, but it would come too late to do any good. Captain Dorrin wrung his hands as reports came in of the attacks. As captain of the most powerful ship in the blockade, he did have the authority to send the rest of the fleet out to quell the attacks. This was an obvious diversion effort, which could have catastrophic consequences if he played into it. On the other hand, letting the Vong wreak unchecked havoc across Imperial worlds while the fleet did nothing would only further the cause of separation. Dorrin knew the Empire could stand or fall based on his decision, and it wasn't one he had woken up that morning prepared to make.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the viewpoint, the decision was taken out of his hands. Admiral Yunar appeared across the blockade, hiding under his desk as his base was shaken by coralskipper bombardments. On his authority, he ordered the fleet to deploy whatever ships were necessary to stop the Vong attacks.

"And what of Kolyet?" Dorrin asked quickly.

"It'll still be there whe-" The signal was cut off, although it was obviously because of a loss of the transmitter than the admiral's untimely demise. Dorrin leaned wearily on the wall, still looking at the blank picture.

Dorrin's executive officer cleared his throat. "Orders, sir?"

Dorrin shook his head a little. "This is exactly what the Vong want us to do."

"Yes, sir. But the admiral's orders were clear, sir."

"He wasn't in a position to look at the larger picture," Dorrin said in a voice only the two of them could hear. "It's a bad decision."

The XO was noncommittal. "But it was his decision to make, sir." Dorrin said nothing, he just turned it over and over in his mind. "Sir?" Still nothing. "They're running out of time, sir."

Dorrin gave a small nod. "Against my objection," he said in a loud voice, "we are deploying the fleet. Transmit the orders."

"Aye sir," the XO said, and went off to coordinate with the other captains. Dorrin looked up and saw Kolyet through the window. On that world was a force that could bring the Empire to its knees, and here he sat with the capability of eliminating that threat with a single stroke. The capability, but not the power. On one hand was decades of training and service telling him to follow orders, and on the other the knowledge that those orders prevented him from delivering a crippling blow to their mortal enemy. He had been told what felt like a thousand times that the superlaser was not under his control. He didn't make the decision to fire it, he was just the hand that pulled the trigger when the brain decided it was time. It was training and conditioning that had held him back, and it was simple common sense for him to move forward. The more he thought about it, the more insane it all became. You are the protector of the Empire. We place our lives in your hands. Here is a weapon that will obliterate our enemies; don't fire it. Stand by and do nothing, because you are our protector. It was governmental schizophrenia.

Dorrin knew what he needed to do, but he had to find a way to justify it in his mind. It was a technicality, he reminded himself. The minister, the military leadership, everyone wanted this planet destroyed, it was just a matter of political maneuvering that had delayed it. It's not disobeying orders, he told himself, it's merely taking the initiative. Thin stuff, but if they took his commission over it, so be it. "Lieutenant," he said, standing up properly and straightening out his uniform. "Prepare a firing solution."

"Aye, sir," the lieutenant said without batting an eye. He obviously knew the protocol, but he also knew the obvious decision under the circumstances. Moral dilemmas were something that happened to senior officers.

As expected the XO was at his side in a flash. "Sir," he said in a voice only the two of them could hear, "we can't fire without authorization."

"We can," Dorrin said back in the same tone. "We just shouldn't."

"Captain, the protocols are explicit," the XO said. "No one on this ship, not even you, has the authority to use that weapon."

Dorrin had expected this kind of resistance. The XO's training had hammered into him that even if he objected, he was still responsible for not stopping a rogue captain from firing the superlaser. "I was just following orders" doesn't cut it when you've blown up a planet. "Protocols exist, commander, so that you don't break them without thinking things through."

"Sir," the XO said with just the slightest edge in his voice, "please don't make me countermand your orders."

Dorrin was silent. "You would mutiny?"

"I have no choice, sir," the XO said. "I have my orders too."

"The men would follow me, you know," Dorrin said. "This is the only rational course of action."

"Perhaps," the XO said, "but we don't have that luxury." It wasn't a blaster bolt; the sound was all wrong. A kind of deep energetic whistle, like a morose party favor, accompanied by a blue ring. The stun blast struck Dorrin's solar plexus before he even realized his XO was holding the pistol. He was unconscious before he hit the floor. "I'm assuming command," the XO said loudly. "Stand down firing solution, prepare to engage the Vong. We'll not let them escape without a fight." There was some uncertainty amongst the men. "You can't fire the superlaser without the command codes," the XO pointed out. "Watch for the Vong's launch vector and move us to intercept. All gunner crews are permitted to fire when they have a target."

The rest of the fleet was already gone. Nom Anor's coral ships had been located across the planet's surface, ensuring that no one ship could stop them all. Together they might have a chance against the Eclipse, but one Imperial ship, no matter its size, was worth risking the Hive. The shield fell, and they made a break for it. The Shade blew away three coralships immediately, and caught another two attempting to flee, but it was a small percentage of the Hive, and Nom Anor himself managed to escape on a single coralskipper. He'd reasoned that they wouldn't waste their efforts on one small ship given the choice of targets, and it was important that he escape as well. Without him, the Hive would lack direction, and could even become a threat to the Vong.

The Shade tried to follow the escaping fleet, but the Vong forces quickly scattered. Eventually, their forces were lost in hyperspace, and the Shade had to give up the hunt. Captain Dorrin had recovered by then and had his XO thrown in the brig for mutiny. As for the rest of their fleet, the Vong coralskippers had been destroyed or driven off with little further loss to the Empire. It was a rather small victory compared to what Dorrin knew would come of the Vong's escape.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema Rar, like many of the students, didn't get on too well with Jacen Solo, but when he told her they were going on special assignment into Vong territory, refusing wasn't even considered. The Twi'lek girl had a score to settle with the Vong, and while vengeance was not an idea the Jedi believed in, there was nothing wrong with striking a blow against their enemy to further the war effort. Still, she wasn't particularly happy with the company she was keeping, and she barely said three words the entire trip into Vong space. Things all changed once they exited hyperspace. Jacen flipped on the ship's cloaking device, causing all the sensors to go dead and plunging them into darkness. He explained to her what he was doing, how the Force was guiding him so that he wouldn't fly into anything. With it, you didn't need eyes or sensors, just your instincts. She understood, but she was glad she wasn't the once at the controls; she had accepted a lot, but landing blind was something she'd rather wait on until she had more experience.

Still, Alema couldn't argue with Jacen; the ship settled down gently on the planet's surface. He powered down the ship and they could see again. Together the two started unloading the equipment. It was one thing to say they were going to poison the planet, it was another to have to do it. Even at low concentrations it was requiring dozens of tanks of compressed chemicals to get the job done. "Start bringing the equipment to that forest," Jacen said, pointing to the treeline some twenty meters away. "The foliage should keep it out of sight from Vong patrols."

"Will the trees absorb the chemical?" Alema asked.

"Some, that's why we've got the dispenser. We'll bury the pipe connecting it to the pump so the rest will be in cover. The only way the Vong would find it is if they tripped over it."

Alema nodded and loaded the repulsor-sled while Jacen continued to unload the equipment. She was only a few meters from the tree when she felt the presence, and she froze. A woman was standing in the shadows, waiting. When Alema stopped she stepped into view, and she recognized the woman: Molly O'Brien, the one who’d helped kill the Emperor. Alema nervously grabbed her lightsaber; Molly already had hers out and switched it on. Alema had done some sparring, but she was out of her league and knew it. She blocked Molly's initial attack, but she was immediately on the defensive. Her blue blade clashed against Molly's red on instinct, but the hatred coming from her was something Alema hadn't been prepared for. It was disconcerting, and in that moment she knew that despite what she liked to think, she wasn't ready for this.

Molly suddenly whirled, her lightsaber catching Jacen's just as he swung. Alema tried to strike while she was distracted, but Molly stuck out her foot, catching the Twi'lek in the chest and knocking her over backwards. Even that didn't stop her from holding Jacen back, and Alema decided to stay back and let her teacher handle this.

Sabers clashed and Molly called on her hatred. She had years of training behind her and a merciless instructor. But Jacen had a lifetime of experience. Her strikes were easily blocked, and his own advances were barely caught. There was no need to treat this as a life or death match, so Jacen patiently waited for the opening. It came soon enough; Molly went for a decapitation, but Jacen ducked it and touched the tip of his saber to her forearm, searing her flesh and causing the weapon to drop from her grip. She backed away carefully, holding her wound while he approached, saber pointed directly at her. "Ben?" she said nervously. "Ben?"

"All part of the lesson," a voice said, and Jacen turned and saw the crowd gathered on the small rise nearby. He glanced between Molly and them; they'd hidden themselves rather well for the moment, but now he could sense the Dark side in them. Their leader stepped forward, and Jacen recognized the picture Anakin had shown him. Black cloak, the mask of Revan, and the unmistakable feel of dark side power. This was the Sith, without a doubt. "As you can see, a Jedi 'Padawan' is poorly trained and easy prey. The fully trained Jedi, however, is a more dangerous adversary." He pulled his lightsaber from his belt. "But not for a Sith Lord."



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Part XX


Provag, a Vong planet, is important because of its support to their war effort. Their ships –coral ships and coralskippers– were grown on worlds like this one and had allowed the nearly vanquished foe to bounce back. Yet, at this moment, all of that was incidental. No Vong participated in the conflict that occurred on their planet, and while it might seem minor, the two sides involved were both working to shape the face of this galaxy. Whichever one won here today would be at the advantage. Jacen, Jedi Knight, knew this, and took this responsibility seriously. Their enemies, the Sith, had them easily outnumbered, and if Molly O’Brien was any indication, they had potential. If they all attacked, Jacen could probably handle the lesser trained ones, but the Sith Lord was going to be the problem. However, he could sense that this wasn’t an ambush, but rather a duel. That improved the odds, but not by much.

The Sith Lord -Ben- removed the mask and handed it to one of the others that stood with him. It was just like Anakin said: eerily close, but not quite right for Sebastian's face. Still, it was easy to see how it could fool people from far away. "I'll handle this," he told Alema, shrugging off his robe. The Sith kept it on; a sign of his overconfidence? It fit with the overall feeling he was getting from him: contempt mixed with anger, and he practically glowed with Dark side power. If Alema were better trained, he'd ask for the help in a heartbeat.

"Watch and learn," Ben said to the other Sith in a voice that was all business. Jacen steeled himself for the onslaught, but Ben walked towards him. He was casual, as if he were merely enjoying the afternoon rather than about to start a battle that would likely end in death. A few meters away he lit his lightsaber, but Jacen still waited with a Jedi's patience. When he was within range Ben made a few strikes, but they seemed half-hearted, almost like a child with a stick. Jacen easily blocked the simple attacks and then moved on the offensive, but the Sith resisted. He held the lightsaber one handed, mostly just rotating his wrist to block Jacen's strikes; pure showmanship, except that Jacen couldn't pierce his defenses! Still, the Sith's toying was his weakness, and Jacen knew it was his best chance of besting him. He increased the speed of the strikes, his opponent still maintaining the same aloof manner, but it was setting up. He made a feint and reversed it, coming around too fast for the Sith to catch with his clumsy technique.

There was a crash and a jarring sensation that nearly knocked Jacen's lightsaber out of his grip. A short lightsaber blade had caught the strike, and he could see Ben's look of smug superiority. I could have just killed you, he said in Jacen's mind, but that would have been too short a lesson. Instead he pushed aside Jacen's blade, and for a moment Jacen saw it wasn't a regular lightsaber, but a kind of merging of a lightsaber with a set of brass knuckles. It was only a moment, because they struck his face and knocked him a step backwards, then the hand open and Jacen was lifted off his feet and tossed backwards. He got back to his feet, but Ben had extinguished both of his weapons. Now he undid the robe and let it fall to the ground, reactivated the lightsaber, and gave it a few swings before taking it in both hands and adopting an imposing stance.

"To a skilled Sith," Ben said to his followers, "the Jedi is the closest thing to a worthy adversary." He leapt, arcing high through the air towards Jacen, shouting, "But it's still not enough!" His strike was sudden and violent, but Jacen was able to hold it back while the Sith landed, but after that was a descent into despair. If Jacen thought he had been pouring on the pressure before, he immediately learned how wrong he'd been. Compared to Ben's strikes, it was like he had been fighting in molasses, and it was all he could do to keep his lightsaber ahead of the whirling red storm. Sweat ran down his face, but he fought his fear and locked blades with the Sith, the air filling with the screams of protesting energy blades. Ben grinned at him, then winked, and with the slightest gesture Jacen's feet were pulled out from under him, dropping him on his backside. Still, he held his blade up in defiance, should Ben try to push the attack; but again, he didn't. He was toying with him, and the infuriating part was that he could! "See where the path of 'peace' leads you," he called to his followers. "Prone and helpless before superior strength."

Jacen hopped back to his feet. "That's a lie," he said. "There is nothing the dark gives you that the light can't as well, except the capacity for self-destruction." He followed it up with a quick strike at Ben's knees, but the Sith caught it with a twist of the blade and nearly bisected Jacen for the effort.

"Quicker, easier," Ben parroted. "I've heard it all before. Jedi propaganda, Jacen; you know it as much as I." He swung, and Jacen blocked, but the blow was so strong it forced him backwards. Ben did it a second time, then a third. "Do you think I was always a Sith?" he asked as he struck, causing Jacen's legs to quake slightly under the strain. "I learned the ways of the Jedi... but I also learned that they are tainted by lies." Jacen tried a counterattack, but it was blocked and the counterstrike barely missed his head, and it was back to the red storm for a moment until Ben relented. "Look at you," he said contemptuously, "so much focus required for survival you can't even spout their 'wisdom' at me."

Jacen was breathing heavy, his body screaming from the constant tension despite using the Force for strength. "You want... to talk... let's talk... not fight..." It was hard to get even that much out. Then Ben's attack stopped, but Jacen had to try to end this, so he went on the offensive for a moment, but Ben caught the strike. Still, the Sith seemed to have backed off for the moment. Apparently this was some kind of lesson for his "students," and his main concern was in making the points clear. Well, if it fell to him to defend their teachings, then so be it. "The Jedi use the Force for protection," Jacen said. "We use our power to protect the weak."

Ben caught the strike and ground the blades together. "And who will protect you?" he asked with a smirk. He let five quick blows make his point for him, forcing Jacen on the defensive again. Then, once again, he stopped. “That’s a question you had best answer,” he said, “because I have already killed one of your number.” He lashed out, just once. “And it won’t be the last.”

Jacen blocked and counterthrust. “We’ll see about that,” he said in a low voice.

Ben wore a lopsided grin. “Will you?” He launched another attack, then drew back. “More to the point, could you? Never for attack, Jacen, remember? Never for attack.”

“I’ll kill you,” Jacen said, “but only if I have to?”

“Will you?” Jacen swung at a brief opening. "I have vowed," Ben blocked the strike casually, "that so long as I have breath I will work to destroy the Jedi." His blade was everywhere Jacen tried to strike, but there was practically no movement on his part, as if the Sith wasn't even really trying. "That means, Jedi, that there is only one way to protect your beloved order." He blocked, stuck out his hand, and knocked Jacen backwards four meters. Jacen rolled back to his feet, ready for the inevitable attack, but it never came. Ben just stood there, hand still outreached, smiling. "You can't stop me otherwise," he said calmly. "No prison can hold me, even if you were to somehow catch me. Would you try to put me in some stasis field? Live out your days wondering if some saboteur, or power failure, or merely the power of a Sith could overcome it and release me to fulfill my vow? How much death could you stop by running me through, Jedi?"

"I've wondered that myself," Jacen said under his voice. He was rewarded by a look of satisfaction from Ben.

"Then make sure that you do," Ben said. He leapt, and Jacen brought his blade up to block the strike. He was quickly forced back, and Ben was swinging incredibly fast, Jacen's blade barely staying ahead of it. Through it all, the grin never left, an insufferable look of such superiority, that Jacen was something to laugh at for trying to resist a Sith. Jacen wanted to stick his fist into that face, but it was all he could do to hold back the attack. As he caught another blow Ben gestured and Jacen was flipped over backwards and landed face down on the ground. He rolled over and Ben's lightsaber was hovering an inch from his chest.

"You haven't killed, have you?" Ben asked. "Not like this, where you have a moment to know what you're about to do." The air sizzled around the end of the red beam, the smell of ozone filling Jacen's nostrils. "You look into the eyes of another being, and they know you have them at your mercy. Someone just like you who doesn't want to die. It's the simplest of gestures to finish them, the pulling of a trigger, the thrust of a blade... all that it takes to extinguish that tiny flame of life in them. And then you watch those eyes... the way they gloss over and show the moment that separated a living being from so much organic matter." The blade moved closer to Jacen's face. "Tell me, Jacen Solo... what part of your Jedi training ever prepared you for that moment?"

Jacen pried his eyes from the lightsaber to the man holding it. The smile was still there. "Nothing... because a Jedi would never do such a thing." He swung and knocked the blade away for the moment, rolling aside before it pierced the ground where his head had been. Arching his back, he flipped back to his feet and swung at the Sith's back, but Ben brought the blade back over his head to catch it, then twisted and swung horizontally into Jacen's own blade. It left an opening, so Jacen swung, and Ben had to leap back to get out of the way. Jacen got back into a defensive position, but Ben instead stopped, spinning his blade.

"I was twelve when I learned just how wrong you are," Ben said. "I was fighting a Vong warrior who had thought me easy prey, but even with their resistance and my youth he was no match for me." He gestured suddenly and a cloud of dust rose up into Jacen's eyes. Jacen coughed, but used his instincts to catch the swings, but he could sense that Ben was still just playing with him. "I had him down, unarmed and helpless, much like you were a moment ago," the Sith continued. "And I looked at him, and he looked back at me, and nothing had prepared me for that moment. The Jedi training had prepared me for every step before that, but not the last one. And he saw the fear in my eyes, and he laughed at me." There was a sudden flicker of rage at the memory. "At me! And in that moment I discovered how you can take that final step: you have to hate. You have to know that this is a life that deserves death. Anger, contempt, those are the only ways to finish this." Jacen was tossed back again; he really wished Ben would stop doing that. He managed to rub the dirt from his eyes, and he could see that Ben was actually speaking to Alema, not his followers. "That is why the Dark side is the true path of the Force."

"No," Jacen said emphatically. "Only quicker."

"That is the lie," Ben said sharply. "For all your Jedi training, you are nothing compared to me, and you never will be. The Dark side opens up powers you have never imagined, Jacen. Your ambitions know this; I can feel it within you. If you come with me, I can help you fulfill your thirst for power."

"You have no idea what I want," Jacen said, leaping at the Sith, swinging his blade. Ben blocked it and just as easily tossed Jacen aside.

"Don't think I'll be taken in by the lies you tell yourself," Ben said. "Look at them," he gestured to the gathered Sith. "Eager to learn, ready to follow the true path. By birthright you can stand at my side, Jacen over an army of Jedi. Isn't that what you've really been envisioning?"

"No," Jacen said, saber held out towards Ben as he got to his feet.

Ben shook his head. "If you could only know the power of the Dark side." He turned off his lightsaber and tossed it to Molly. "Use your weapon, Jedi. I'm waiting... laughing at you. Let your hatred free you."

Jacen stepped closer, saber still pointed at Ben. Sith egotism... at least now he had the upper hand. "Come with me," he said. "We'll see you get a fair trial." Ben started laughing at him. "I will not kill you."

"Weak, pathetic, idiot," Ben said as he continued laughing. "What will you do then, if I refuse? Dismember me? Are you prepared to do that deed, just to bend me to your will? Of course not, that would require passion, convictions, qualities you sadly lack." Jacen took a step closer. "All your years of Jedi training, and none of it has prepared for you to deal with this moment. Can you find the part within you that can kill? If not, your empty threats are just a pitiful attempt to hold to the teachings of men long turned to dust." Ben held his arms wide and stepped closer, so that the blade was inches from his chest. "That is why the Dark side is the one true path. Were I in your position, I would already be off this planet and heading for home."

Jacen thrust the blade. He didn't know what compelled him to do it, but something inside him told him he had no choice. Whether it was anger or fear or something else he couldn't have said, but he moved to kill.

Ben wasn't there.

The Sith's move was impossibly fast, yet he somehow managed to twist to the side and move past the blade even as Jacen had struck. His hand dropped down on Jacen's, thumbing the off button on the saber. The blade extinguished, he moved forward, grabbing the hand with his remaining hand while giving himself leverage. In less than a second, Jacen was hunched over, the end of his lightsaber pressed against his solar plexus. "Did you feel the anger within you?" Ben whispered in his ear. Jacen said nothing. "You could have been at my side, cousin. Look at me." Jacen looked up into Ben's eyes. "Here is the power hate gives you." He thumbed the on switch, and the blade emerged from Jacen's back. Ben switched it off and pulled it away, letting Jacen's lifeless body fall to the ground.



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Part XXI


Alema watched Jacen Solo's body hit the ground without even a flicker of life in his body. The Sith was still holding her teacher's lightsaber; he attached it to his belt. "Shall I deal with this one, master?" asked a Romulan woman with a smug expression, gesturing slightly towards Alema.

"Do you want a fight, little Jedi?" the Sith asked her. His look froze the air in her lungs with fear, a terror amplified by the knowledge that he could probably sense it. He removed all doubt. "Fear is good... it will empower even the coward to fight like a beast when cornered. You, child, are not cornered." He made a small gesture, and the tanks toppled off the repulsor-sled. Another, and it floated over to where Jacen's body lay. "Take this back to your Jedi Order," he said. "Let them see the power the Dark side grants.” Alema jumped as the distributor crumpled next to her, and the Sith smirked at her before slipping his mask back on. "With proper training, you may learn the true power of the Force." His students disappeared over the hill, followed by Molly and the Sith himself, leaving Alema alone with Jacen. She vainly checked for a sign of life, but there was nothing. She pushed him onto the sled and brought him back to the ship.

Alema looked over the distributor; it was useless now, and without it she couldn't complete the mission. There had barely been enough room for the equipment they'd needed, so there was no spare, and she had no idea how to jury-rig one. She finally gave up and climbed back onboard the ship, strapping herself into the pilot's seat with uncertainty. It looked like she wasn't going to have time to learn before trying this. She flipped on the cloak and watched everything go dark. She had nothing but instincts now, but at least she knew that going up was safer than coming down. She eased the ship into the air and tried using her feelings. The images were vague and practically useless; eventually she decided to kick her speed up and hope her danger sense would kick in. After a few minutes she flipped the cloak off; she'd cleared the atmosphere, but two Vong coralskippers were nearby. As they began moving to intercept she tried to get the nav computer going while making some evasive maneuvers. It would be embarrassing to survive a group of Sith warriors only to die by a remote-piloted ship. Thankfully her danger sense kept her out of harms way long enough to punch the hyperdrive and vanish.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema's return marked a change in the fledgling Jedi Academy. None of them had particularly cared for Jacen, but word of his death filled them with more grief than they would have expected. Grief, and despair, because if a Jedi like Jacen couldn't stand up to the Sith, what chance did any of them have?

The failure of their mission was of no concern to anyone, although Alema had been quite upset at her failure to at least finish what Jacen had died starting. It wasn't about revenge, which Jaina had taken as a good thing, probably the only good thing that had come out of this.

Jacen had been brought to the site of the Jedi Academy and laid out. They discussed briefly the traditional funeral rites, but all discussions stopped as Leia Organa Solo entered the chamber. They parted to allow her to see her son. She shed no tears at first, but the grief was almost a tangible thing for even the weakest Jedi as she slowly stroked his forehead. A line of blood slid down her chin as she bit into her lip, and the sadness found an exit as she bent over Jacen's body and wept. No one said anything, not even Jaina; it was a grief they knew they couldn't understand the depths of. She straightened up, wiping her eyes. "How did it happen?" she asked. Alema told her everything. "Jaina, your father can be here in a day and a half; put him in stasis, we'll have the funeral the day after tomorrow."

"What about Anakin?" she asked.

"He could be gone for a week or longer," Leia said. "And we can't contact him on Ilum." She shook her head, then walked out. Volgo Terraine found her on her way back to the palace.

"I heard what happened," he said, "and I'm sorry. If there's anything I can do-"

"Yes," Leia said sharply. "You find this Sith, and you tell me where he is, and I can kriffing stop him from MURDERING MY FAMILY!!!"

Terraine took a moment before replying. "Yes, minister." She was back on her way and he fell into step. "I would, however, like to point out that tracking the Sith is no easy task."

"Five hundred thousand credits," she said without missing a step. "Whoever finds out where the Sith is and can lead me to him. Put it out on the holonet. I want every ISB agent, every soldier, docking attendant, local policeman, bounty hunter, tracker, amateur astronomer looking for this man. He is not walking about my Empire unchecked any more."

Terraine nodded as he stayed in step with her. "Respectfully, minister, even if we find him, what do you plan on doing? So far he's eliminated two Jedi and fought his way through an army of royal guards."

"First find him," Leia said. "I'll deal with him in my own way."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han had found out what had happened as soon as Leia returned to the palace. Before the conversation even ended Leia's staff had leapt into action. It was rare that the minister threw her weight around, but this was an exception. The Millennium Falcon was moved to the head of the queue for refueling and launch. It was given permission to pass through the wormhole without bothering for code clearance. Its flight path was cleared. A docking bay on Chandrilla near the Jedi temple was set aside, even though it had been reserved for the Rodian diplomatic corps. The pressure of the Empire was getting to be too much; she needed some kind of closure on this, even if it meant ruffling a few feathers to expedite this. Jacen had died trying to protect this Empire, the least it could do was show a little appreciation.

Twenty-seven hours, including refueling; a record even for the fastest ship in the galaxy. Leia waited as the Falcon settled onto the pad, then came out even before the ramp was lowered. Han was soon down it; they embraced right there. They said nothing, because a husband and wife in a moment like this have ways of communicating that put even the Force to shame. The preparations were already in place; Jacen had been dressed in his ceremonial robe for this occasion. The gathered Jedi were similarly attired; for many this was their first time in this role. Terraine was there, Dr. Bashir, the Chancellor, a few representatives of the state. Most didn't know Jacen, and it bothered Leia for a little while. She understood now why Annika wanted to keep Luke's funeral a private thing. Let this moment be for the people who care rather than the ones interested in making an impression. But it was too late now, and she didn't want to cause a scene.

Han had been allowed a few moments with Jacen; Leia was the only one in the room at the time. He didn't cry; Leia wondered if he ever did. He'd make a poor Jedi, she thought; he turns his pain into anger. He kissed Jacen on the cheek where he'd always kissed the child. No words of bravado or vengeance, just a kiss. It brought the tears back to Leia's eyes.

With the crowd assembled Jaina lit the pyre, and Jacen's remains soon turned to smoke and slipped away, much like his spirit that had become one with the Force. It brought her comfort for the moment, but his death was a wound that wouldn't heal easily. All this did was allow her to put the tragedy behind her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han stayed for a few days. No doubt he wanted to be here for his family now since he couldn't have been there for his son. Leia almost expected him to fly out to Ilum and bring Anakin back. Leia threw herself into her work, but the war with the Vong offered no real comfort. They were floundering in their efforts against a smaller, weaker enemy because they were being attacked from within. She ranted about it to Han one evening in their quarters.

"In many ways, it's like fighting the Empire again," she said. "The Vong aren't divided, they don't have to worry about their subjects being happy or rebellious. That's why they can afford to hit us with their worst and never worry about their own people sabotaging their efforts."

"It's the price we pay for being the good guys," Han said.

"Yeah, good guys with planet-destroying weaponry," Leia said, getting to her feet and passing during her tirade. "Morally reprehensible weaponry at our disposal, and the only thing worse than that is that we can't even use it when we need it!"

Han nodded a little. "Is it true what they say about the Shade? They tried to fire."

"Yes," Leia said. "Frankly, I wish they had."

"Almost did, according to rumor. There was a mutiny or something?" A sound of frustration. "I'll take that as a yes."

Leia shook her head in disbelief as she continued pacing. "Mutiny... on an Imperial star destroyer! Duplicity, undermining, okay, that comes with the territory, but blasters being used on the bridge?!"

"What's going to happen?" Han asked. "Court martial?"

Leia stopped. "We don't know," she said. "Both men were in the right, and in the wrong. We side with the captain, we're telling the captains and XO's to ignore everything we've taught them regarding the superlasers. We side with the XO-"

"And you set the precedent that it's okay to use force to relieve a captain of his command," Han finished. "I don't envy you this problem."

"But that's just a small part of the picture," Leia said. "Whether he was right or wrong, this captain is the first to disregard the civilian government's orders. This is exactly what I've wanted to avoid."

"You worried about a military coup?" Han asked.

"Maybe, or just disregarding our government altogether. The return of the Empire we both fought to overthrow."

Han came over and wrapped his arms around her; part of being a husband is knowing when that was necessary. "You'll get us through," he said.

"Not all of us," she said with a choke in her voice. He held her tighter; she reciprocated. "Ben had to have known," she said. "He had to know that if he died, Jacen would have to travel to that world and die. How could he let that happen?"

"Don't," Han said. "You start playing those games it's going to drive you insane."

"I devoted half my life to his vision of Unity," she continued. "And he destroyed my work and took my son for the trouble!" Han tried to comfort her, but there was nothing anyone could say or do; the exhaustion, the frustration, the grief, like an alchemical nightmare they mixed and bubbled and fused, until they produced an idea that was as horrible as anything, yet it was the only conclusion to reach. "I have to go," she said, pulling away.

Han knew the look; that was another part of being a husband. "Don't do anything foolish," he warned.

"I think it might be the first smart thing I've done," she said as she walked out. The door sealed without so much as a goodbye.

Han sighed. "I've got a bad feeling about this," he said under his breath, then left for his ship.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Sith entourage exited the craft and immediately got to training under Molly's supervision. Ben Skywalker left them to it; he didn't need to hold their hands the entire way. The Oracle wasn't in the laboratory, but she had left a datapad out for him. He picked it up and flicked it on, his frown slipping into a grin of satisfaction. Half a million credits? At least they'd finally taken notice of him. This would probably light a fire under the Orion Syndicate, who no doubt assumed his local counterpart was him. It would be insulting under most normal circumstances, but this was rather abnormal all around.

Ben entered his quarters and pulled out his trophy. He placed the lightsaber up on the rack next to the one he'd taken from Luke Skywalker - the Luke Skywalker from this universe. That hadn't made much of a difference, he'd still proven a dangerous enemy, and his lightsaber was a worthy prize. Jacen was something of a disappointment, but he was rather young here, it was to be expected.

Two sabers... he had a rather impressive trophy room back on board his ship in his own realm, one he'd earned through years of stalking and defeating his former Jedi allies. He'd shown them the path of power, but not one had chosen to follow it, just like poor Jacen. Maybe these Jedi students would learn a thing or two and not make that same mistake.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It was another emergency session of the Senate. There seemed to be a great deal of them lately, but given the number of emergencies across the Empire, it was expected. For Alixus, it was a sign that she and her Vong allies were having an impact. The funeral for Jacen Solo was proof that her Sith contact was having his own, although how he fit into all of this, and where he got his information from, was still an uncertainty. The contempt he showed towards the Vong was hardly promising; they weren't perfect, but they had the right idea. Get rid of technology, and let a human being stand on his or her own two feet for a change. The Vong were the wake up call humanity needed, while the Sith seemed interested only in his own agenda.

The Chancellor called the session to order and the noise died down. The monitor showed his discomfort in this affair, and Alixus wondered for a moment what had him so visibly agitated. She soon found out.

"Minister Solo has asked for this emergency session of the Senate to address you all about the state of affairs within the Empire. Because of the war she has had to leave Chandrilla for the moment to address some matters personally, but she has left a holographic recording that she has asked be played for you now."

The Chancellor stepped aside. Where he had stood now showed a holographic image of Leia Organa Solo, looking grimmer than usual. "Members of the Imperial Senate," she said in greeting. "I apologize that I cannot address this to you in person, as I'm sure you'll have a great deal of questions. However, the war against the Vong now requires my immediate attention, and I'm afraid I will not be in a position to address you remotely at this time.

"In a matter of a few days we have twice failed to deal serious blows against the Vong military, despite having the means to do so. The reason is simply that we have not been prepared to fight this enemy as the situation demands, or to deal with the insurgents that have aided them since before this war began. The price of defeat, senators, is not subjugation, but extermination. I'm afraid that, given the circumstances, we can ill-afford to continue fighting this war with one hand tied behind our backs.

"What I'm about to tell you is a decision I did not come to lightly. It's one I would have found abhorrent a week ago, but today I see as the only solution left that can save us from extinction. The Empire has been moving towards a weak central government, with power vested in the hands of the systems... towards the days of the Old Republic. It seems we will be following their example once again." She hesitated. "I've spoken with our military leadership and high ranking civilian authorities, and there has been almost universal agreement to this course of action. We need a central figure to hold us together for the duration of this war, someone to be the final authority. Because of my experience in these matters, it's been decided that someone will be me." She paused, no doubt in anticipation of the outburst that followed. "I assure you that this will only be for the duration of the war. For now, however, I have been given the position of 'Emperor' to carry out the duties formerly entrusted to Palpatine. When the war ends, I will lay down this authority, I swear it. In the meantime, the Senate is dismissed with the thanks of the Imperial government. And may the Force be with us all."



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Part XXII


Empress Leia Organa Solo stood at the center of the bridge of the Shade, watching the passing tunnel of hyperspace. By outward appearance, she was an unmoving monument to strength and determination. Inside, her heart was pounding with a fury that threatened to split her chest open. She opened her mouth to say words she never would have imagined could have come from her throat. "Captain," she said in a crisp voice, "prepare the superlaser to fire the moment we emerge from hyperspace."

The Shade's captain nodded, then relayed it to his XO to carry out. There was no need for anyone else's approval, no one to second guess her. She said to destroy an entire planet, and an entire planet would be destroyed. That kind of power was frightening to wield; what terrified her more was that one day it wouldn't. Destroying a world would be routine for her, and when that happened, would she be able to give it up? There was no more time to think about it, though; she'd brought the Shade out here to deal a blow against the Vong. If she turned back now, it would be a sign of weakness before the military leadership, and they might consider taking matters into their own hands.

The Shade and a twenty-two star destroyer escort emerged from hyperspace inside the Provag system. The Vong had increased their fleet presence, but not enough. The word probably hadn't reached them that the Empire wasn't playing by the same old rules. The officers went about their work, but Leia didn't hear any of it. There was just the sign of Vong forces, there to defend a Vong planet, a planet she was going to destroy. There were no innocent bystanders amongst the Vong; it was like fighting the Borg in that regard. Everyone was part of the military in some fashion, everyone was devoted to the cause, and every resource was devoted to their war effort. There was no collateral damage when you fought the Vong, except against your own people amongst them. It didn't offer her as much comfort as she'd hoped.

"Empress," the captain said to her, jerking her back to the task at hand. "We have a firing solution."

Leia nodded. The planet was a distant dot from this range... not like Alderaan. It was nothing like Alderaan. Alderaan was peaceful, and beautiful, and home to a culture whose richness was known across the galaxy. This was just some empty world the Vong terraformed. It was here only to serve the cause of war, to try to destroy her people. It had consumed her son... yes, she focused on that thought. Jacen, lying on his pyre, dead because of this world. "Fire," she said, startled at how easily the word came out. Green energy lanced from the distant tip of the ship through space. It hit the small dot, which glowed for a moment, then was gone. It was so simple, so quick... had Tarkin gotten up close to Alderaan just to make for a better show? Probably, given his reputation for sadism.

"Target destroyed, empress," the captain reported. "Should we withdraw?"

"No, captain," Leia said. "We have the Vong confused. Let's mop these Vong up first before we proceed."

The captain tried to hide a smile; finally, they were fighting like they were the Empire again. "Yes, empress," he said emphatically and returned to conduct the battle. Leia watched distantly, reflecting on what had just happened, what she had just done. It was over, and she was glad for it, because it had to be done. Now all she could have were regrets, not second guesses, not refusal. Every time she started to feel guilt, she remembered Jacen, and the feeling went away.

Beyond the window a Vong coralship exploded under fire from the Shade. For some reason the sight made her smile.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle was talking to Garak again when Ben Skywalker exited his quarters. He waited with his usual impatience while they finished; the Oracle cut the transmission. "What was that about?" he demanded.

"Just addressing a security issue, my lord," she replied.

"What security issue?" he asked again, letting his teeth show.

"It's nothing to be concerned about, my lord," the Oracle replied. "Just a detail or two. I thought you were more interested in the Jedi."

Ben brooded, but she was right about where his interest lay, and there wasn't really anything he needed to worry about from her. "Leia Solo," he said. "She's the only real threat left. You think you know everything, so tell me; where do I go, so I may kill her?"

"She's Empress now," the Oracle replied. "It would be exceedingly difficult to reach her now."

"I don't care about difficult," Ben said irritably.

"Of course, my lord. But if I may, there is a simple way to deal with her."

"How?"

"She already wants to face you. Let her seek you out, and you can dispose of her as you like."

"I grow tired of waiting-" Ben began.

"Respectfully, lord, this will not take long. You merely have to show yourself, and she will come to you." She held up a datapad. "May I suggest this?"

Ben yanked it from her grip and looked it over, and despite himself a smile slowly crossed his face. "Yes," he said slowly, "I had almost forgotten. Did Alixus heed our warnings?"

"Yes, it is proceeding as I have foreseen it. If you depart now, my lord, you will have time to deal with him and attract the interest of the Empress."

"Very good," he said, and returned to his quarters to prepare himself. As he did he took note of his trophy display. Two already there, and soon he would add Leia Organa Solo's and Sebastian Skywalker's.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Finding Thorim Glesser on Trodendt proved easy; persuading her to talk was less so. Her will was too strong to manipulate, and Sebastian had a tough time looking the other way when Gorren used his persuasive talents on females. Perhaps it was chauvinism, but Gorren had learned to adopt a different technique in such cases. At the moment, he had a chair and was using it to smash up some equipment. Kilana watched with obvious distaste.

“Thorim,” he mused as he worked. “That doesn’t sound like a Twi’lek name,” he remarked.

“It’s probably an alias,” Sebastian remarked as he held the white-skinned Twi’lek still while Gorren did his work. “It is, isn’t it?” he asked.

“[You will pay for this!]” the woman snarled at him. “[I can destroy your lives!]”

“Indeed,” Sebastian said. “Gorren, I think you missed a spot.”

“Ah, thank you,” the Klingon replied, smashing up another display, causing an angry torrent of Huttese profanity. He paused in his work. “Hello,” he said. “What’s this?” He worked a small bit of the wall material until it all fell away in a neat section, revealing a wallsafe. “If I were a slicer, I’d hide my dealings in something like this.”

“So would I,” Sebastian remarked. “Will you open it, or will we?”

“[You can’t,]” she replied. “[It’s set up so that an energy weapon or tool will erase the data. Unless you can cut through it with physical tools, you’re stuck.]”

“We’ll destroy the rest of your equipment if you don’t open it,” Sebastian said.

“[I’ll get more.]”

As the argument was about to heat up, Kilana stepped forward. “Wait,” she said. “Let me.” She looked down and closed her eyes. She seemed to slowly raise her head, as if taking a deep breath. As she did so, a glowing ball of white light seemed to emerge from her chest and rise up to neck height. It lashed out and hit the wallsafe, blowing the door open. She took another deep breath, then was aware that everyone was staring at her. “Some of my people are allowed telekinetic abilities,” she said. “A gift from the Founders.”

“Speaking of gifts,” Gorren said with a menacing grin. Klingons were quite good at menacing grins. “I think we have quite a selection here.”

“We want all your data from Dem Roz,” Sebastian said. “You can give us the right one, or we can just take them all. It’s your choice.” Thorim glowered, then reached out for them. Gorren glanced at Sebastian, who nodded to him, and he handed them over to her. She flipped through, then handed it over. Gorren looked through it a moment, then gave it to Sebastian. “Pleasure doing business with you,” Sebastian remarked. They left the cursing Twi’lek behind as they walked out onto the streets of Trodendt.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin Solo, Jedi knight, led the way through the cavern, quickly followed by Laudica Reshad, his apprentice for the moment. He held a small glowstick, but in the reflective walls of the cavern it was more than enough. Laudica shivered as they walked, and it wasn't because of the cold of Ilum. "This place feels strange," she said, constantly looking around her. "I feel comfortable in some ways... and yet, I feel like I'm walking through a cemetery."

"Ilum is sacred ground for the Jedi order," Anakin said, not turning back. "Tens of thousands of Jedi have walked this path. The place remembers..." He continued through a small opening in the wall into another cavern.

"Come on," Laudica said. "You're just trying to give me the willies."

Corellian bravado; Anakin knew it well. She was spirited, and somewhat questioning of their teachings, but so what? Knowledge and wisdom was at the core of the Jedi's purpose, parts of their philosophy from before they had taken an active role in the galaxy. So long as she evaded the Dark side's lure her challenges were a sign of healthy thought. Anakin stopped. "Close your eyes," he said. She stopped and put one hand on her hip at his behavior, but Anakin's expression was more than enough. As if humoring him, she sighed and closed her eyes. "Stretch out with your feelings," he said, then waited a moment. "Open up your mind, Laudica, and-" He stopped talking as he heard her gave a deep suction sound as if just struck in the solar plexus.

"Someone's watching me!" she said, looking around at the walls as if they were going to come to life any second.

"Calm yourself," he said. "You're safe." She continued her panicked searching. "The presence you sense is the impression of past Jedi."

"Yeah, well whatever it is I don't like it," she said with sharpness and fear in her tone.

"You're going to have to get used to it," Anakin said as kindly as possible. "Your senses are going to grow more acute as your knowledge of the Force grows. Come," he reached out to lead her by the hand, but she shrunk away. "It's all right," he said.

"No!" she said, "it's not all right!"

"This is still new and frightening to you," Anakin said. "But you have to trust me. Here, feel my peace... share in it." He reached out his mind towards her; at first she shrunk away, then slowly he could feel her start to accept it. "Good... like passing flame from torch to torch, let the peace come to you and fill you with comfort." Her movement was so quick he was caught off guard, but suddenly he felt her lips on his. Almost as suddenly as it came she pulled back in horror and slapped him across the face.

"What did you just do to me?" she demanded.

"What?" Anakin replied, rubbing the stinging red spot on his cheek.

"You did something to me just now," she said, her voice saturated with accusation. "You made me do that."

Anakin gave her a look. "You obviously just-"

"I'm not going to listen to your excuses," she shot back. "I should have known from the beginning. You set this up, didn't you."

"I set this up so I could cross half the galaxy just to kiss you?" Anakin replied. "Don't flatter yourself."

"You bastard," she replied with a voice that could cut diamonds. She tried slapping him again, but he caught the limb this time and held it, staring into her eyes to see the anger bubbling just beneath the surface. She kissed him again, then pulled away and slapped him on the other side of the face with her free hand.

"Would you stop that!" Anakin said at the end of his rope.

"You are a disgusting pig," she said.

"And you are psychotic," Anakin said. "And I've had it. I'm going to go get the crystals, you can stay here and argue with the shadows." He turned to leave, but she grabbed his shoulder and twisted him back. In one movement she stepped into him, kissing him passionately as she knocked him over backwards. As he lay back in shock, the passion in her mind was the emotional equivalent of a siren, and he found himself reciprocating. As she fumbled for her coat, however, he pushed her away. "No," he said, though it was hard to get the word out of his mouth, which seemed to disapprove of the conclusion the brain had reached. "Let me take you back to the ship."

"We don't need the ship," she answered coyly.

"I'm taking you back to the ship," Anakin said, now in a better position to resist the thoughts, at least emotionally. Physically it was a great position to indulge them. "I'll finish the mission alone, okay." He got up.

Laudica's lust soon crumbled leaving resentment and anger in its wake. "Is this some kind of sick joke?" she said barely below a shout. "You having fun with me?"

"No, it's-" She tried slapping him again, but he knew now, and he blocked both slaps easily. "Would you just-" His voice turned to a squeak as she drove her knee into his lightsaber crystals.

"And don't think of trying that crap on me again," she said with a look of evil satisfaction. It vanished as Anakin straightened up.

Anakin's cybernetic arm snapped out and caught her shoulder, whirled her around, and picked her up so she was standing on her toes. "To the ship," he said in a voice like a rumble along a fault line. He half-led, half-dragged her back to the ship. Given her behavior, he locked the helm with his security code so she couldn't leave him stranded here. "I'll be back," he told her, his words managing to convey the additional message "and you'd better not think of leaving." Laudica said nothing as she flopped into a flight chair and watched him with unhidden malice as he exited the ship.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was scanning through the data while they walked, his eidetic memory storing away details for later contemplation. Half way through he lowered the list, and started thinking. "Han and Julian could probably use this to," he mused to Gorren.

"They haven't had much success tracking down the cure for this disease," Gorren said. "Any lead may be of help."

Sebastian nodded. "Gorren, would you stop at a public terminal and find out if Han wants to rendezvous with us somewhere? I don't want to just broadcast the data over the holonet."

Gorren responded with a nod of his own. "You'll be at the Raven?" he asked. Sebastian answered in the affirmative and Gorren parted ways for the moment. Kilana didn't seem as pleased.

"You said you would take me to the Founder once our work here was completed," she said.

"I will," Sebastian said. "But this data is important-"

"So is my getting to the Founder," she interrupted. "Your concerns are secondary."

"My concerns are for stopping an incurable disease that's crossing the galaxy and preventing the Vong from wiping out our people."

"The Founder will know how to solve these problems," Kilana said confidently.

"Kilana, I've known the Founder, and I can tell you that he doesn't." He turned and he could see the anger in her eyes at his remark. "Something wrong?"

"Yes," she replied coldly, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

"Look, the Falcon is coming from Chandrilla towards the wormhole," Sebastian pointed out. "We wouldn't be going out of our way to meet with him. After that, no more delays, okay?"

Kilana seemed to struggle with it for a moment, then eventually said, "Fine. But I will hold you to that."

"Don't worry," Sebastian said as they reached the docking bay. They sat on a bench and waited. A few minutes later their Klingon companion arrived.

"I made contact with the Millennium Falcon," Gorren said, trying to suppress a grin. "Solo suggested that we rendezvous with him at Wormhole Station." He gave a deep belly laugh and hit Sebastian on the shoulder, not quite breaking the bone.

"What's so special about Wormhole Station?" Kilana asked.

"Jorielle Skywalker," Gorren said cheerfully. "A proud warrior and the mate to our own proud warrior." He hit Sebastian's other shoulder, apparently to balance them out.

"It's been a while since we've been together," Sebastian explained.

"I see," Kilana said, even though it was clear that she didn't.

"Bah," Gorren said, falling back on the Klingon standard. "You are a Vorta; you would not understand. When we mate, we do so out of love, not like you did back in the Ferengi pleasure pit."

"Gorren," Sebastian said sharply.

"What I did," Kilana said, "I did out of love as well. Love for the Founders." She stood toe to toe with Gorren. "You're a Klingon; you would not understand."

"Yes," Gorren sneered, "Klingons do not understand willful slavery."

"Is that not what you call marriage?" Kilana replied. "To make the self subservient to another out of love for them?"

"What you call love, I call genetic programming."

"Enough," Sebastain said. "Now I need to know that you two aren't going to be at each others throats while I'm with my willful slave, okay?"

Gorren drew himself up. "I would not let even my own dishonor interfere in your happiness, my friend."

"I won't distract you," Kilana said.

"Good," Sebastian said. Together the trio got on board the Raven and headed for orbit, then slipped into hyperspace. Behind them, an Orion Syndicate freighter powered up its engines and followed.



Chuck

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Part XXIII


Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker opened the door to her quarters. The man on the other side was wearing a blue and grey flight suit and a combination helmet-mask for breathing. "I expected as much," she remarked sternly. "All right, come in." She stood aside and the man walked in; she sealed the door shut behind him. Sebastian pulled the mask off; it was still in his hands when she struck, sending the two together into the wall behind Sebastian, her lips on his as her arms tried making up their minds of where they should start.

"You do this with everyone who comes through your door?" Sebastian asked when he had a brief respite.

"If I did," Jorri managed to get out, "I wouldn't be so quick to give you this welcome." She finally finished for the moment, then leaned back, looking Sebastian's suit up and down. "Can't say I approve of this," she remarked. "It'll have to go."

"Well, you'll-" Sebastian stopped, mesmerized for the moment. "I suppose you have a lot of practice getting in and out of that," he remarked as she tossed her own flight suit on his head.

"Imperial pilots, baby," she said. "Now, if you don't mind," she crawled onto the bed, "your wingmate is standing by waiting for your move."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Laudica Reshad waited two days for Anakin to return. It was plenty of time to think, especially when you're alone and dare not leave the ship. The more she thought, the more her anger gave way to embarrassment. She knew for certain that she wasn't acting on her own impulses... okay, admittedly Anakin wasn't repulsive or anything. He was a Jedi, he kept in shape, and he seemed to care a great deal about his students, all positives. But she wouldn't have done what she did, felt what she felt, on her own. The only answer had been that he was using the Force to try and manipulate her mind. It did make sense at first glance. After all, he had brought her half way across the galaxy, and he'd made sure it was just the two of them. If he wanted to make some moves on her, he was in the ideal position. But there were problems with that idea she hadn't thought of at first. She knew that the Force influenced the weak mind, and pride wouldn't let her admit that about herself. Also, her blossoming Jedi senses hadn't picked up anything from Anakin except confusion, nothing malicious or mischievous. If he was playing with her mind, he was doing a good job of hiding his enjoyment of it. But the most damning of all was simply that it wasn't in his character. Anakin was patient and kind and self-sacrificing... it just didn't seem to fit in with the idea he'd go to this much trouble just to mess with her head.

The ramp sealed, and Laudica straightened up, still not sure what she should do at this point. Anakin stomped the snow from his boots and carried a storage box back to stow in the cargo area. Laudica went to start the pre-flight, then remembered that he'd locked the helm to keep her from leaving him behind. It was a smart thing to do because she'd been tempted at first. He came up and unlocked the helm without a word, then flopped into the chair. Laudica decided to be the first to speak as she started prepping for take off. "You were gone quite a while," she said.

"Gathering lightsaber crystals is not a matter of just grabbing shiny rocks," Anakin said with weariness in his voice.

"I suppose," she said as she finished the checklist and closed the ramp. The ship slowly left Ilum and headed for space. "About what happened-" she began.

"I'm sorry for what happened to you," he said before she could continue. "I should have expected that."

She cocked one eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"I should have expected your emotions to get the better of you."

Now she gave him a glare. "You stuck-up, vain little shit," she said. "Get over yourself."

Anakin looked at her with the same dazed confusion he had been, then straightened up. "Poor phrasing," he said. "I haven't had much sleep. I didn't mean your emotions towards me, I meant your emotions in general. Ilum is strong with the Force, and the Force is an influence on the mind."

"On the weak mind, if I remember the teachings correctly," Laudica said accusingly.

"On any mind, to one degree or another. The weaker the mind, the stronger the influence. Like, have you ever been on the fence about something, where a little nudge could push you one way or another?"

"Sure, everyone has."

"So even if your mind is strong, it only takes a little push from the Force to persuade you to take a direction. It's like a little friendly persuasion. So, in your case, you were influencing yourself."

"What?"

"Your mind was being influenced by its own emotions, feeding back upon themselves. Think about it, your little nervousness grew into terror, because your feelings were being amplified. When I tried offering you peace, that no doubt gave you some comfort, and it amplified to... you know... it wasn't that my animal magnetism was at work," he finished, and Laudica offered a laugh at it. "And then, when you got angry, naturally you got really angry. So, it was really just a matter of falling under your own influence."

"Well, how come it didn't affect you?" Laudica asked.

"Well, it does in a way. The influence of the Force is what helps give a Jedi control. But I've been a Jedi for so long I've learned to... tune out the noise, I guess you could say. That's why I said it was a mistake... not because there's anything wrong with you, but because this is all simply too new for you to take in properly."

"And what about you?" she asked. "I do recall that you seemed to be ready to give as good as you got."

Anakin cleared his throat. "Probably just the intensity of your own mind lowering my guard a moment."

"Uh-huh," she said while she activated the hyperspace controls, not bothering to hide her self-satisfied grin. "I'm sure it was exactly that."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jorri finished brushing out her hair while Sebastian lounged on the bed. He hadn’t slept in an actual bed for months, and just the feel of it was filling his mind with warm fuzzy thoughts of sleep. But he didn't want to yet, because she was still here. Watching her just seemed to take the weight off his soul.

When things die down, Sebastian thought, I am spoiling you, Jorri. His life had made it very hard for the two of them to spend much time together, and it was the only time he ever used his influence for personal gain. He and Jorri were given the finest suites in the finest hotels; his way of thanking her for being so patient with a husband that ran all over the galaxy. Now she was being patient with a fugitive that she couldn't even be seen with in public... God, he really didn't deserve someone as good as her, who would put up with all the crap she did by becoming his wife. And she never used it either; she refused any effort for him to help her career, said she wasn't going to have anyone saying she hadn't earned it. She took all of the bad and never was tempted to get anything in return, except him, and that just made him love her all the more.

Jorri put the brush down then picked up Sebastian’s flight suit in the manner wives have done for millennia. Then she picked up the mask and looked at it for a moment. "I thought Leia- the Empress- had called off the search for you," Jorri said as she toyed with Sebastian's mask idly.

"Yes, which is a relief," Sebastian said. "But that only changes the Empire's policy, not people's thoughts. In many minds, I murdered the Emperor and drove us into near chaos; being incognito will help prevent any attempted 'accidents.'"

Jorri nodded just a little, then set the mask down carefully on a table. "We couldn't have picked a worse time to bring a child into this galaxy," she mused quietly.

"Hey," he said, coming over and taking her hand. "Don't even think that."

"The Vong are on the loose; even the Milky Way isn't safe any more." Jorri squeezed his hand tight. "More and more worlds are openly revolting, and the Empire has to let them, to avoid weakening their positions. Sebastian, we could lose this war... and even if we win, what will happen? Leia said she would lay down the power when this was over, but when does that happen? When the Vong are stopped? When the Empire is reclaimed? When?" She shook her head a little. "I know she's your aunt, and it's not that I shouldn't trust her, but I have a feeling this galaxy is going to get a whole lot uglier before this is over."

"That may be," Sebastian finally admitted. "But if I'm going to take an interest in that, I want a personal stake. You, the baby, you give me something to fight for; when all else is gone I have that left to cling to... and it's already gotten me through the worst of times."

Jorri snuggled into him and they embraced. "I suppose Rahasia and I could live with that," she said.

"Ah, it's Rahasia this time," Sebastian said.

"I like it," she said with mixture of humor and defensiveness.

"I had one in mind," Sebastian said. "It refers to the morning, the dawn. It's a bit of hope."

Jorri sat up and looked at him. "I do like the sound of that," she admitted. "What is it?"

"Morgan," he said. He looked at her curiously. "Is something wrong?" She sat frozen, as if she were locked in a stasis field. "Jorri?" She snapped back from wherever she'd been. "What is it?"

Jorri opened and closed her mouth several times. "You just... caught me off guard."

"What is it?" he asked, now visibly concerned.

"I-" She got up. "It's complicated," she said finally. "And I have to run a patrol with Mayhew. If you want we can discuss it then."

"Jorri-" he began.

"Sebastian, I don't want to start this and not have time to finish it," she said as she grabbed her flight suit. "I promise, as soon as I get back, I'll explain."

Many a husband has been stuck in this infuriating position, but Sebastian had learned to cope with being in the dark over the years. "Haven't seen you with one of those in a while," he finally said to change the subject.. He pointed to the complete environment flight suit she was sliding on.

"Patrol duty around Wormhole Base isn't a very high risk job; that's why I took it. We only get the old TIE Interceptors rather than the H-Wings." She ran a quick diagnostic on her suit's equipment, then gave Sebastian a kiss. "I'll be back in six hours," she said.

"Be careful," he said.

"In this system?" she said with a laugh. She sealed her helmet and left, leaving Sebastian to wonder what her odd behavior was about. After a few minutes he surrendered as most husband do to the fact that he wasn't going to figure it out himself and so might as well leave it alone. He crawled back onto the bed, enjoying the mild scent of his wife on her pillow before napping for a few hours. He awoke, took in a standard shower, and put his outfit -complete with mask- back on and hunted down Gorren. The Klingon and their Vorta companion seemed to be getting on as well as they could, given the growing sense of mutual antagonism. Sebastian ignored it; Gorren was too professional to let it get in the way of his work, and Kilana's only concern was the Founder anyway.

"Any problems?" Sebastian asked.

"None," Gorren said. "And Bashir seemed optimistic about the data for their work."

Sebastian nodded. "How was Han doing?" he asked.

"Well enough," Gorren said, "though I could tell he was hiding his grief. I would have thought the knowledge that his son had fallen in battle would be a comfort to him, but I didn't broach the subject."

"Good," Sebastian said. "Very wise."

"I am becoming used to dealing with alien ways," he said. "Though I worry sometimes that your ways may leave an impression on me."

Sebastian was about to respond when he froze. There was a tremor in the Force, and he reached out towards the disturbance to try and pick it out. The presence reached back towards them, and their minds met, sending a chill of terror through Sebastian's body.

Greetings, Jedi, came the thought from the Sith.

"Is something the matter?" Gorren asked, but Sebastian closed his eyes to concentrate.

Who are you?

Your doom, Jedi. Sebastian could feel the satisfaction in the mind of the Sith. Is that fear in you, Jedi? He seemed to be chuckling to himself. Good... you are wise to be afraid of me.

So it's my turn to die, is that it?

Astute, Jedi.

Sebastian opened his eyes. "We're leaving."

Gorren nodded; he knew when to ask questions and when to operate on his trust. "Do we have time to get our gear?"

"No, we'll have to leave it behind." They began walking briskly through the halls of the station.

"What's happening?" Kilana asked, but her question was drowned out by the Sith.

Are you trying to run away, Jedi?

Yes, Sebastian thought frankly.

You wish me to hunt you down before I kill you, is that it?

No, I just don't have the luxury of dying today.

I killed your father, Jedi. Don't you remember?

The trio turned a corner. Every single day, Sebastian thought back.

Are you going to pass over the chance to make me pay for that?

Yes.

You are a coward, the Sith thought with hatred.

The galaxies are falling apart, the Vong press further into Imperial space, and terrorism increases every day. I don't have the luxury of indulging in a fight with you.

You cannot hide forever, Jedi!

Tell me that again in a hundred years, if you can find me. Sebastian focused on the here and now. "Our old friend is coming," he said out loud. "We need to get out of the system in a hurry until we can plan our next move."

Gorren seemed hesitant for a moment. "Now would be the time to reclaim your lost honor, my friend."

"This guy is good," Sebastian said. "Even with your help, I doubt I'd win, and we have too much left to do."

"What more is there than your honor?" Gorren asked in bewilderment.

"My family," Sebastian said.

This silenced Gorren. "Sometimes our obligations stand in the way of what needs to be done," he finally said.

"Yes, they-" Sebastian shifted and twisted his head; a blaster bolt hit the wall right behind where his face had been a second before. He pulled his blaster out; Gorren, who was always a soldier, already had both out and had fired at the attacker, putting him down. Even as they did heads popped from out of cover everywhere, quickly followed by weapons. "Get to cover!" Sebastian said as he grabbed Kilana and pushed her towards a doorway, ducking down and taking a shot at one nearby. He dropped behind a crate of supplies, shot and ducked back. As he lay hunched down a blaster bolt exploded through it and hit the wall next to him. He flinched back as a second perforated the box, then rolled forward to avoid the next one, coming out of the roll and blasting a mercenary in the face. He jumped to his feet and ducked down the next corridor. "Gorren!" he shouted. The Klingon gave him a quick glance. "Give Kilana a weapon!" Gorren gave him a disapproving look, but tossed her one of his blasters. He shifted his other blaster to his right hand while his left pulled out his Klingon dagger.

Duwal cursed as he pulled himself back behind some cover for a moment. This was exactly what he'd wanted to avoid, and still knew was going to happen. The Klingon was of no use to them; they were supposed to wait and catch him first. But these Syndicate mercenaries can sometimes be a little too independent, and probably thought the Jedi was the greater threat. Of course, he was, but taking a potshot at him wasn't going to solve the problem; if it was the Empire wouldn't have a five hundred thousand credit bounty on his head.

Then there was the Vorta. Technically she was expendable, but Duwal knew Luin wanted her back; she was worth too much to just kill. Except now she was armed with a blaster and was a threat, and the Klingon was there to protect her. Best laid plans... He ducked back then promptly returned fire. They had to move quicker; the Empire wasn't going to ignore a firefight for long. He switched his blaster over to stun and took a shot at the girl, missing. He ducked out again, lining up his shot-

Kilana put a blaster bolt into his face. Duwal's body collapsed on itself like a broken puppet. She went back to work. Gorran, however, apparently decided that it was time to up the ante. He holstered his blaster and put his dagger on the ground where he was crouching. He pulled out the disruptor... not a Klingon disruptor, but a little something he'd picked up from Black Sun a year ago. Sebastian disapproved, but they were in a desperate situation. He didn't want stormtroopers here for the same reason the Orion Syndicate didn't. He steadied his shot, aimed at the intersection the Syndicate was using for cover, and fired. It blew out a jagged chunk of metal, and left a similar shape in the mercenaries behind it, who fell to the floor in pieces. He gave a grin and turned to the next, sending the mercenaries scrambling. Another shot and there was a new doorway into a storage bay. He put the disruptor away, feeling he'd made his point. The Syndicate were going to be more cautious, and that would give them time to withdraw back to the Raven and get off the station before the Imperials found them.

Duwal had already had an idea in place for dealing with the Jedi, although he had doubts about the entire operation. When Luin had sent him the furry little beast with its nutrient harness, Duwal wondered if the Orion had lost his marbles. Still, if it did what it was supposed to do, then it fit in rather well with Duwal's own plan. It was a pity he was dead, because he never had the chance to see what happened a few moments later. As Sebastian came out from cover to take another shot, the Force left him. It was only a moment, but that was all it took. A Lethean, wearing the nutrient harness, stepped up behind him and put his hands on either side of his head. Without the Force, he never saw the attack coming, and it left him with no means to defend himself against the vicious telepathic attack. His jaw locked shut, his eyes screwed closed, and his mind was reeling under the mental onslaught. He tried to cling to something, but his thoughts were a jumble, and his mind collapsed under the blow, leaving him powerless to offer any resistance.



Chuck

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Part XXIV


The Sith fighter was a heavily-modified smuggling vessel. Ben Skywalker had a similar one in his own universe, one he'd grown quite fond of. This model lacked the cloaking device, but it did have more than enough weaponry and extreme maneuverability, which is what counted most for him. Most of the military equipment either required a special flight suit, or was as maneuverable as a sloth on rollerskates. Ben hated both, and took satisfaction in blowing many of each out of the sky over the years.

As Ben approached Wormhole Station -known to some as Wormhole Base- he gave his forged ship codes and moved in to an assigned docking bay. He fitted his mask into place as the ship settled into position, then headed down the ramp. The docking attendants watched him with fear, but he didn't care. Let them alert the stormtroopers; it wouldn't make a difference. As he left, however, the one attendant stopped the other from hitting the alarm. "What are you doing?" he demanded as she held his hand away from the button. "There's a half a million credits on this guy's head!"

"Yeah," she replied, "and guess who will collect it if you sound the alarm. I'll give you a hint, he has a blaster rifle and only knows killing and white uniforms."

"So?" the attendant said. "You have a better idea?"

"Yes," she said with a grin. "I do."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian twitched where he stood, the Lethean’s hands on both sides of his head, psychic energy passing between them into his mind. It ended when Gorren whirled and jabbed a klingon dagger into the Lethean’s ribs; it dropped to the floor without so much as a stagger. A moment later, Sebastian collapsed as well. Kilana was behind him, firing the blaster at the Syndicate members with instincts, but Vorta instincts for protection were quite good. She picked a second off, then a third. Gorren came to her side and joined in the fight, and that was when the remaining forces broke off and bolted. They were killers, but not soldiers, and this wasn’t what they’d signed on for. With the Lethean dead and their numbers dwindling, they knew this was already a failure. Gorren plucked the blaster from Kilana’s hand before she could say anything and placed it in his holster. “Syndicate ambush,” he rumbled.

“How did they know we were here?” she asked.

“Credits buy a great deal in the Empire,” Gorren said, “and that means information.” He knelt down by Sebastian and felt for his pulse. "We have to get him back to the ship. There will be more of them."

Kilana was shaking Sebastian. "He's dead," she said bitterly.

"No, but he won't be much use in a fight," Gorren said, hefting him to his feet. "Lethean attacks shut down the brain. Hopefully we stopped it before he came to much harm."

Kilana seemed hesitant. "I will stay here," she said.

Gorren put Sebastian's arm over his shoulder, but the Jedi hung limp. "Nonsense; follow me."

"It's me they want," Kilana said. "If I stay they'll leave you two alone."

Gorren grunted as he tried to turn with Sebastian's full body weight on his shoulders. "They were after him. A Lethean attack would incapacitate a Jedi, and they knew it. Gint must have told the Syndicate who he was. If you want to help, help me get him to safety!"

Before anything more could be said there was the sound of stormtroopers. Gorren groaned, knowing this wasn't going to end well. He was shocked when, after they had filled the hallway, they all turned away from him. "There he is, blast him!" one said, and immediately blaster fire rang out. Gorren called to Kilana and the two began heading down the hall in the opposite direction. Gorren managed a good trot despite the situation, but Kilana was able to easily keep up while glancing back. She was surprised to hear the sounds of screams coming from the stormtrooper ranks, until finally they parted, revealing a man in a cloak and mask swinging a lightsaber at the stormtroopers. She paused. "Is he a Jedi?" she asked. "Could he help us?"

Gorren turned, and for the first time ever Kilana saw a Klingon show fear. "No," he whispered. He began running, half dragging Sebastian as he tried to put as much distance between them and the pursuing Sith. They reached an intersection and Gorren activated the blast door, sealing them off. "Take him," he said, passing Sebastian off to Kilana, who nearly fell under the weight. Gorren pulled out his commlink. "Solo, Bashir, this is Gorren."

"Solo here, Gorren. What's up?"

"Our Sith adversary is here, and he's after us. We need help."

"Falcon's nearby," Han said. "Docking Bay 1172; we'll give you a ride out of here."

"My thanks," Gorren said putting the commlink away. He grabbed Sebastian and began running with him again. "Let us hope we can reach it in time," he said to his Vorta companion.

"What's going on?" Kilana asked as she jogged to keep up. "Who is that?"

"Sith," Gorren replied, panting. He quickly explained the situation, and Kilana's fear rose with each word.

"He kills Jedi?" she said. She had thought that nothing could do that, especially if Sebastian was still alive after the Lethean attack.

"This one killed Sebastian's father," Gorren said. "I saw a recording of him moving Earth's moon solely with his mind." Gorren shook his head. "Uninjured, I doubt even Sebastian could stand up to him. Now, it would be quick slaughter." There was a sound of metal striking metal, and they glanced back and saw the blast door closing. Gorren didn't waste time talking; he hefted Sebastian up and did his best to sprint, Kilana following suit. They passed through the next door before it closed, but there was another after that. Sweat poured down Gorren's face as he raced to beat it; Kilana had already passed through and was waiting for him on the other side. With a cry of defiance he jumped and the two passed through the doors just before they closed.

"There it is," Kilana said. Gorren had no breath left, he just nodded and picked up Sebastian. Cybernetic implants made Sebastian heavy, but Gorren carried him like he weighed no more than a kitten. They turned into the docking bay and rushed to the ramp. Bashir was waiting for him at the top. "This way," he said, ushering them over to the bed he'd already prepared for Sebastian. Gorren laid him down and Bashir worked on getting his mask off. "Someone get me my medical kit," he said.

Kilana found it and handed it to Bashir, who had just finished getting the mask off. Sebastian's expression was a cross between being dead and being heavily doped. Bashir opened the kit and ran a medical tricorder over him. "I've had experience with Lethean attacks," he said, mostly to himself. "They can be fatal, but I don't think I see any permanent damage, at least physically."

"Can you help him?" Gorren asked, getting straight to the point.

"I don't think so, not yet. This is a telepathic attack; we've got to just hope that he can fight it off."

"Then I have every confidence," Gorren said with a nod. Before any more could be said there was a sound of protest from the ship's engines and a great deal of Corellian swearing.

"I'm glad someone does, “Bashir remarked as he went towards the cockpit, only to be nearly knocked over as Han came rushing out. "Bad?" he asked.

"I can handle it," Han barked as he grabbed his toolkit and raced towards the back of the Falcon.

"What's going on?" Kilana asked Bashir. "I thought you would help us escape."

"Yes, well, the Millennium Falcon is a rather temperamental old ship." There was a heavy clang and a collection of shouts and curses. "As is her owner," he added.

"But that person was after us!" Kilana said.

"A Sith," Gorren said with a nod, heading over to a display and getting a look through the base's security cameras. The Sith had been trapped between two blast doors, but it didn't look like he was going to let that stop him. He was already trying to cut through with his lightsaber.

"There's four blast doors between him and us," Bashir said as he watched the activity on the display. He tapped his lips with a clinical detachment. "Rate of cut... distance... Han, I'd say you've got about six minutes before we all face a rather violent death."

"Thanks," Han shouted back, his tone managing to carry a great deal information, especially about the value of Bashir's opinion and the circumstances of his conception.

"Is that going to be enough time?" Kilana asked.

Gorren looked between Bashir and Kilana, then drew himself up. "Yes, it is." He walked over to Sebastian and started going through the pouches of his suit.

"What are you doing?" Kilana demanded. She froze as she saw him pull out Sebastian's lightsaber.

"Today is not a good day to die," Gorren said, holding the weapon up as he examined it. He flipped the switch and the blades came on, then turned off. "But it will have to do."

"Gorren," Bashir said, "that is a dark Jedi out there. You can't beat him."

"Ah, but I don't have to," Gorren said. "Just slow him down."

"Wait," Bashir said, then rummaged through his medical kit for a moment. "Wear this."

"What is it?" Gorren asked with annoyance as Bashir attached it to his neck.

"Blood oxygenator," Bashir said. "I have a feeling you might need it."

Gorren nodded to him, then put a parting hand on Sebastian's shoulder. "See you in Sto-vo-kor, my friend," he said, then strode down the ramp and out of the docking bay. He reached the nearest blast door. Even as he arrived the tip of a lightsaber penetrated and began cutting; there wasn't going to be much time to prepare. Gorren got down on one knee and bowed, the lightsaber held to his brow. "Kah'less," he thought with determination. "I go to my death as a warrior. I ask you, in my final hour, to give a bit of your strength for my strength, your skill for my skill, your courage for my courage. Help me save my friend, great Kah'less. I do not ask for a glorious death, but a death that will mean something." He opened his eyes, took a deep breath through his nose, then rose to his feet. He switched on the two blades and held it before himself like a bat'leth. The blast door fell towards him with a blow that shook the floor; Gorren didn't so much as flinch.

The Sith came through, paused when he saw Gorren, and laughed with contempt at the Klingon. He made a gesture and Gorren was thrown aside like a leaf in a windstorm, and the Sith went on his way. Gorren pulled himself to his feet; it was a miracle that he hadn't been killed by his own lightsaber. "Coward!" he cried after the Sith. He paused at the insult. "Running away to kill a helpless victim rather than face an armed enemy? You are no warrior!"

The Sith turned back to face him, his face unreadable behind the mask. He gestured at Gorren, and the Klingon's windpipe sealed. The blood oxygenator kicked in and despite the choking he still stood, although it took all his strength to do so. He gave a contemptuous grin to the Sith, and finally he felt the pressure ease as the Sith turned his lightsaber back on. "Come!" Gorren said between gasps. "It is a good day to die!"

"Maybe for you," the Sith said as he approached. "I plan to live forever." Gorren waited until he was close, then swung. The weight of the lightsaber was all wrong, and he overextended, allowing the Sith to step out of the way with ease and stick his lightsaber into Gorren's side. Gorren let out a cry of pain and rage and swung back, getting another stab for his troubles. "Klingons," he said with contempt as Gorren stumbled in agony. "So much talk, but you all fight like a lazy hutt. It's really quite pathetic."

"Hide behind your words, Sith!" Gorren snarled back. "Let them keep you warm on cold nights when you realize tricks are all you have! Take them away and you have all the skill of a Ferengi!" He screamed as the Sith shoved the tip of his saber into his left arm near the shoulder, then slowly drew it down towards the elbow. He stepped back as Gorren swung blindly, then stabbed the Klingon in the abdomen and out through his back. Behind his mask he smiled as the Klingon coughed weakly, then jerked as he pulled the blade free.

"The words of dead men mean little to me, Klingon," the Sith said. He turned and began walking away, but he heard the wheezing and turned back. Gorren was stumbling after him, still holding the lightsaber. "You are determined, if not bright. Probably too stupid to die."

"Only... one way... to find out," the Klingon gasped. He made some bat'leth like swings just for show, then charged as best he could.

"Nice trick," the Sith said with irony in his voice. Gorren swung, and the Sith easily evaded, bringing his lightsaber around to chop off his right hand. Instead of pulling back the severed limb, however, Gorren continued his forward momentum and struck the Sith across the face with the stump, knocking his mask free. The Sith turned back from the blow, and looked at Gorren with fire in his eyes.

"Thump," Gorren said through teeth clenched in agony. "It's the... only trick I know."

"Oh really," the Sith said with hate. "Lie down." Gorren was tossed backwards several meters and landed on his back with a hard thud. "Roll over." His body twisted until he was face down on the floor, bones cracking in protest. Ben kicked the lightsaber away from the Klingon's feeble grasp. He spun his own blade and held it point down. "Play dead," he stabbed Gorren through the back up to the handle. He deactivated the weapon, then kicked the body over. There was no sign of life in the Klingon's eyes.

Ben hung his lightsaber on his belt, then turned and looked at the one that had fallen from the Klingon's grip. It was Sebastian Skywalker's; he'd seen enough footage of his counterpart to know that. He reached out and it flew through the air into his waiting grip. The moment his hand closed around it, it was just like the Lethean attack had been for Sebastian. Hate, fear, pain, rage, the sources of Sith strength, turned on him in that moment. He tried to release the lightsaber, but his fingers seemed fused to it. Ben stumbled and hit the wall, leaning against it for support as his mind was bombarded. Then he heard the voice, and even in the midst of the emotional storm it pierced through to his mind. "Mara Jade's lightsaber," Ben Sisko said. "You should have known better than that."

"Make it stop!" Ben cried, or tried. He couldn't get his muscles to respond properly; instead it was just a desperate mental thought, although that didn't seem to matter to Sisko.

"This is the path of strength; don't you remember? The self-destruction of the dark side is a lie. You should know, you've said it many times to your students or to the Jedi you've slaughtered." There was no sarcasm in Sisko's tone, which made it all the worse. "You haven't given up on your beliefs, have you?" Ben slid down the wall until he was kneeling on the floor; still he couldn't drop the damn lightsaber! "The dark side has no loyalty, Ben. It consumes, and it doesn't care who or why."

Sith lightsaber crystals are often constructed through personal meditation. When complete, there remained a bit of the Sith's power within. It was subtle; despite proximity Luke and Sebastian hadn't noticed over the years they lived near it. But Ben Skywalker had a personal connection to this weapon's creator, one filled with pain and fear. Sisko was probably amplifying the effects, but for him it was like jabbing a pick into an exposed power socket. It took all his strength, but he was able to release the lightsaber; he collapsed on the floor in exhaustion.

After a few seconds he tried picking himself up, but he heard the voices again, like on Chandrilla. In the weakness of his exhaustion, their accusations filled him with fear, as if he were on the cusp of cosmic judgment. He put his hands over his ears for all the good it would do, his eyes screwed shut. "Tell me," Sisko said, not unkindly, "what in your Sith training ever prepared you for this moment?"

And then, like waking from a nightmare, it was gone, and Ben realized someone had just put binders on his hands. He looked up and saw he was surrounded by stormtroopers. His eyes narrowed, and they were tossed backwards like a bomb had gone off. With a thought the binders dropped from his wrists and he grabbed his lightsaber and swung, his embarrassment at this humiliation turned into a white hot rage he channeled into a fury of destruction. The stormtroopers weren't just killed, they were massacred. As the last one fell he looked and saw the Falcon through the window as it exited the docking bay, and a scowl crossed his face.

On the floor, near his feet, the corpse of Gorren seemed to be smiling.



Chuck

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Part XXV


The Millennium Falcon slipped out of the docking bay into space. As they turned, Bashir saw the Sith through the window, staring at them as they flew past. "It's an amazing similarity," he remarked in passing. "If I didn't know he was lying down in the back I'd swear that was Sebastian."

"Let's not let him get any closer," Han said as he kicked the engines up. "Take the controls while I get the coordinates from the nav computer."

"Where are we going?"

"Earth."

"Why there?" Bashir asked.

"Because it's the first thing I thought of," Han replied.

Lying down on a bunk, Sebastian tried getting his thoughts together, but it was like trying to grab a speck floating in the water; it kept sliding out of his grip. As the ship passed the window, however, the Sith's thoughts pierced his shattered mind.

You cannot escape me, Jedi.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben Skywalker, Sith Lord, stood amongst the mound of dead stormtroopers, oblivious to their presence as he watched his enemy attempt a retreat. He deactivated his lightsaber and pulled out a site-to-site transporter. A moment later he was standing inside his ship. He took his seat in the pilot's chair, went through preflight within seconds, and started lifting off. He gestured, and the doors for the docking bay opened; he would have preferred to blast his way out, but that was outweighed by the risk to his ship. Sith were reckless, but not stupid. When the doors opened he pushed it to full throttle and roared out of the docking bay, twisting as he did to follow the escaping Falcon.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Bashir was visibly sweating. "I'm afraid I'm not exactly experienced in this kind of flying," he said as he tried to make a move to evade the Sith Fighter and instead sent them into a crazy spiral. "You'd better hurry." An alarm sounded, but Bashir didn't dare take his eyes away long enough to see what it meant. "I hope that's not bad news," he said in the tone of a man who knows alarms rarely ring to report good news.

"Damn! Wormhole Station's set up an interdictor field!" Han hit some buttons. "It's nearly 2 AU across; so much for a quick escape."

"Why would they- ah, the fighter."

"Leia wants him bad; can't say I don't feel the same, but I'd rather not be caught here with him." The ship rocked under a laser blast. "I'll take over, go check on your patient."

Bashir pulled himself out of the chair and worked his way back to where Sebastian lay. The Vorta -Kilana- was watching over him like a mother lion, ready to protect him against anything or anyone. Bashir pulled out his medical tricorder again. "He seems to be doing somewhat better," he said with relief. "Pass me my medkit there." He took it and prepared a hypospray, then held it to Sebastian's neck. "Hopefully this'll help speed up his recovery, now that he's started to fight it off." The ship shook violently under another impact.

"What's happening?" Kilana demanded. "Why haven't we gone to lightspeed?"

"Interdictor field," Bashir said, examining the readings again after the injections. "Large gravitation impression on space, leaves ships unable to enter hyperspace."

"I thought they were obsolete?"

"The Empire developed a new form that was immune to anti-interdictor torpedoes, for the moment anyway." The ship shook again. "Lucky for us," he said dryly. "Keep an eye on him, let me know if he's having some kind of reaction." Bashir got back to his feet and stumbled under another impact on his way back to the cockpit.

Bashir returned to his seat. He was amazed at how fast Han's hands were flying over the controls while he spoke on the comm system. "Mayday mayday, civilian freighter Millennium Falcon under attack, requesting assistance."

"Stand by, Millennium Falcon," said a voice with the calm detachment of one who wasn't being shot at. "We are attempting to lock onto the hostile with a tractor beam."

"You're not going to get this guy with a tractor beam," Han said sharply. Another blast rocked the Falcon. "Damnit, get us some support ships or lower the interdictor field! We're sitting ducks out here!"

"Shields are holding," Bashir reported. "But I'm not sure they will for much longer."

"Come on old girl," Han said, "don't let me down." He started putting the Falcon through an even more intense set of maneuvers that threatened to roll Bashir's eyes back into his head, but it didn't seem to make any difference. There was laser fire everywhere. "You ever operate a quad laser cannon?" Han asked in a rush.

"No, but I learn quickly."

"Good, crash course, down the ladder. That should at least give him something else to think about." Bashir nodded as he headed back through the cockpit door. His equilibrium took a jolt as gravity changed direction on his way down, then he settled into position. He looked the controls over; it was all fairly straightforward.

"Try to spook him off our tail," Han said over the comm.

"Aye aye," Bashir said, bringing the gun around to point back towards the pursuing Sith Fighter. He fired a few shots, but it evaded easily. A few more, and it rose up out of sight. "He's out of firing range," Bashir reported.

"Stay there, he may slip up."

"Civilian freighter," came the sound of the officer at Wormhole Station, "we are having trouble locking on with our tractor beam."

"Thank you, Lieutenant Obvious," Han shouted back. "Now can you give us some help out here?!"

"Stand by, we'll be sending you some support."

"'Stand by,'" Han growled. "We head for the edge of the field, and it'll take longer for the backup to arrive. We head back to the base, and we're stuck here."

"He can't hold off against all those fighters," Bashir pointed out.

"Yeah, but he just needs enough time to catch us," Han said. "And that's what he wants, another dead Jedi. Well, he took away my boy, and he sure as hell isn't getting Sebastian. We'll head for the edge and hope for the best."

"Doctor," Kilana said peeking her head down the shaft. "I think he's having a reaction."

"Han?" Bashir asked.

"Go, you're not doing much good down there... no offense."

Bashir climbed back up to the deck and rushed over to Sebastian, his tricorder already out. "It's not a reaction," he said as he closed it up. "He's starting to shrug it off. The treatment is working faster than expected. His nanoprobes seem to be accelerating his recovery."

"Good," Kilana said, resuming her protective position. Bashir got to his feet and returned to the cockpit. As he passed through he had to resist the urge not to grab the wall as space spun beyond him. Han was pulling out all the stops it seemed, and considering they hadn't felt an impact for a couple minutes, it seemed to be making a difference.

"How much further?" Bashir asked.

"A while," Han replied, not letting his attention wane.

"Civilian freighter," the officer said again, "we have ships inbound. They will assist you. When you are clear proceed beyond the field and engage your hyperdrive."

"Thanks," Han said. "Brilliant strategist, that man," he remarked to Bashir.

"Tractor beam control reports inability to lock on," someone else reported in.

"Launch all fighters," the officer said. "Launch all fighters."

"Finally," Han remarked.

"Wormhole Base," came a new voice on the comm, "this is patrol 127, we are preparing to intercept."

"Patrol 127, you are cleared to engage and destroy," came the response from the base. Han banked as two TIE Interceptors roared past, firing their laser cannons at the Sith fighter. It made only the smallest of moves to evade, firing again at the Falcon as it continued to run for the edge of the field.

Sebastian sat up a little as the sound of the battle came over the comm. Something was itching his broken mind. "Loosen up, but don't break off, this guy looks too good to take down alone."

"Copy, sir," came the response. The TIEs passed near the Falcon again, and Sebastian felt it, and it locked the last mental piece into place. His eyes went wide, and Kilana flinched as he bolted from the bed.

Jorri!
--------------------------------------------------------------

A look of brief confusion passed over Ben Skywalker's face, soon followed by a smile of self-satisfaction. With a quick move his ship twisted off its pursuit course of the Millennium Falcon. He fired weapons, and the TIEs scrambled to avoid him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Wormhole Base," Jorri said, "be advised the bogey has broken off its attack on the civilian freighter and is actively pursuing our patrol." The TIEs twisted to evade his weapons, but he stayed on them. "Requesting reinforcements, Wormhole Base."

Sebastian lurched into the cockpit, hitting the wall hard and causing Han and Bashir to whirl around and look at him. "The Sith is bugging off," Han told him, turning back. "It's the Empire's problem now."

It took all his concentration to get his mouth to move right, and even then he sounded like a buffoon, but the words came out. "He's after Jorri."

Han turned to Sebastain again, then looked at his instruments, and that at space through the window. "Aw kriff," he muttered as he yanked the Falcon around and headed back for the fray.

"Give me some room," Jorri ordered her wingman as she took a wild spin to give her a moment to put the ship at full throttle. The Sith fighter turned to follow. "I'll keep him busy, you finish him off." Her wingman acknowledged and Jorri dipped and veered right, then left, then back, taking quick banks and unexpected turns. The Sith Fighter's weapons continued to fire, but she was managing to stay ahead of him for the moment, never quite giving him a chance to lock on for the kill. "Mayhew?" she asked.

"I can't get a lock on him, sir," he said. "He's just too quick."

"Hurry it up, I can't do this all day." She had her speed at maximum and was going through all the parts of her evasive maneuvers playbook, and even with the Sith Fighter evading her wingman's fire, he was still always on her tail. It was starting to make her a little nervous.

Sebastian fumbled for a headset and put it on. "Jorri," he said.

"Bastian?" she replied in surprise, almost getting blown to pieces for the brief lapse in judgment.

"You've got to get out of here, now!" he said. "Don't argue, just go!"

The edge in Sebastian's voice spoke of more than just worry; he was terrified of what was about to happen. She had to trust his instincts. "ETA on the fighters?" she asked Wormhole Base.

"Ninety seconds," came the response over the comm. Jorri saw the Falcon coming in and she banked off to the right, the freighter already firing towards the Sith Fighter head on. It dodged, twisted, and came right back on her flight path.

"Determined, isn't he," she mused, but there was a nervous edge to her voice. She turned the inertial damper to max and put the ship into insane turns and random jumps, yet still he stuck like glue behind her. Even as the Falcon joined her wingman in trying to blow him away he flew as if they weren't even there. Every time she seemed to straighten out there was approaching laser fire all around her, so she was constantly corkscrewing and weaving to avoid his shots, but it was simply impossible to do it and keep her bearings. She could be leading them away from the rest of the ships for all she knew. She took a brief second to glance at her position; it was all Ben Skywalker needed. To her credit, it was a grazing shot, just alongside the strut to starboard of her pod. The ship now spun even beyond her control, alarms filling her cabin. She heard Sebastian call her name, but she tuned it out.

"Sir, what's your status?" Mayhew asked. "Can you pull it out?"

“It’s no good!” Jorrielle shouted as she tried to keep the ship under control. “I’ve lost stick, engine’s going critical.” She grit her teeth, making the decision. “I’m ejecting,” she announced as she pulled the handle. The top of her TIE burst off and she was shot out into space, narrowly missing the passing panel as she floated away. The explosion pushed her even faster, and she had to use the small jets in her seat to stop the end-over-end flipping that was tying her stomach in knots.

“Recovery’s on the way, sir,” Mayhews said as reassuringly as he could, but Jorrielle knew the truth. She was a beautiful target, unmaneuverable and unarmored.

"She won't have that much time," Sebastian told Han. "We've got to pick her up now!"

"Hang on," Han said without another word as the Falcon twisted around, engines flaring as he poured on the speed. Jorri looked towards the distant shape of the Falcon, and the much closer shape of the fighter.

Ben Skywalker took a chance to savor the moment. She was vulnerable now, and through her, him. Know pain, he thought towards Sebastian through the Force. Feel her die.

Please, Sebastian thought back. Your fight is with me, not her!

You broke the rules, Ben thought back. You ran away and hid behind the weak. If I have to kill them to get to you, that's the price you pay for your cowardice.

I'll fight you, Sebastian thought frantically. Whatever you want, just don't do this!

It's too late for that, Ben thought with scorn. I'll find you eventually, but for now, let this serve as a reminder if you decide to let cowardice govern your actions next time.

Please, Sebastian begged, don’t take her away.

Ben laughed. Such a pathetic excuse for a Jedi.

Adrenaline focused Sebastian's mind like a razor. "Jorri, hang on!" he said into the comm.

“Sebastian,” she said, closing her eyes as she heard the despair in his voice. “I’m so sorry.” The fighter was getting closer now; she was an easy target, and there was nothing she could do about it.

“Han-” Sebastian said in a drawn out tone.

"I'm working it, kid," the old smuggler said, trying to get them into position. "Jorri, just hold on a little longer.

Jorrielle tried to blink away the tears. “It’s too late,” she said as the ship closed to within range, evading her wingman's best efforts to intercept it. She should’ve been terrified, but all she could think about was the baby. It wasn’t fair for her to die now, not without knowing any of the wonders life had to offer her. She cursed herself for her arrogance and putting her unborn daughter in danger, and now into certain death. She would’ve dived into a sarlaac’s maw and faced its living death rather than this fate. But it was too late to change things now, too late to make the right choice. She watched helplessly as the weapons prepared to flare. She couldn’t bring herself to say goodbye. “I love you, Bastian.”

He felt the comforting presence slip from his mental grasp, and Sebastian fell to the floor. He didn’t cry out, he just said her name over and over, as if trying to quietly awaken her from a deep sleep. His wife and his unborn child... the knowledge was like an overwhelming weight around his neck and heart. The sorrow seemed to seep through his pores into the core of his being, engulfing him in a dread that dwarfed even the loss of his own father. And above it all, the prophet’s words came back to him.

“They’re going to take it all away from you.”



Chuck

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