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.
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."
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."
"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.
Last edited by Sonnenburg on 2006-06-21 06:07pm, edited 6 times in total.