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Quote of the Week: "A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled." - Barnett Cocks, British political writer (1907-)


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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-13 05:43pm
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Indeed, all of it.

Ah, this story or more specfically Ben killing the Emperor/Sisko combo is where I really remember looking through and going "Interesting, ST/SW."

All of it still holds together fantastically.



MM /CF/WG/BOTM/JL/Original Warsie/ACPATHNTDWATGODW FOREVER!!

Sometimes we can choose the path we follow. Sometimes our choices are made for us. And sometimes we have no choice at all

Saying and doing are chocolate and concrete

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-13 06:13pm
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Ghost Rider wrote:
Indeed, all of it.

Ah, this story or more specfically Ben killing the Emperor/Sisko combo is where I really remember looking through and going "Interesting, ST/SW."

All of it still holds together fantastically.


Thanks! SOTN will probably always be my personal favorite, but BOH is a close second because now that PL has laid all the groundwork and established most of the characters, they get to finally do their thing. The villains are villainous and the heroes are heroic and there's fun on one side and tragedy on the other. It was hard to kill both Gorren and Jorri, even though the story and Sebastian needed it to happen to continue development.



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-13 06:14pm
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Part XXVI


It's an old story, but it still gets told amongst the troops. On Earth, centuries ago, they would train members of their security or military to deal with bombs and other explosives. The new initiate would be given a specially armored suit to wear, then sent off to do a training exercise. As he walked, his trainer would talk to him over the communicator; radio at the time. "From this distance, if the bomb went off it would knock you over." The trainee would nod and continue. As he got closer: "From this distance, if the bomb went off it would require a trip to the hospital." The trainee continued; the trainer then said. "From this distance, if the bomb went off, you'd probably lose an arm or a leg." Often the trainee would pause for a moment at the revelation, then continue walking. As he neared his target, the trainer said: "From this distance, if the bomb went off, you'd be dead."

Now the trainee stopped in his tracks. In a voice mixing frustration and confusion he asked, "If that's the case, why am I wearing the suit? It's not going to protect me from the blast."

"You don't understand," the trainer would say, usually with a small chuckle. "The suit isn't there to protect you. It's so that if the bomb goes off it'll keep all your pieces in one place to find."

Jorri had told him that story, and he'd shared a good laugh with her. As he stood on the dock of wormhole station as they brought her body in, the remains held together by her flight suit, he wasn't laughing. In less than half an hour he had lost his center; without his wife and child, he had no reason to carry on. They removed her helmet, and he looked into her horrified expression, and he wept right there. He didn't care what they thought; his companion, lover, friend, the term "soulmate" didn't begin to do her justice. He would have given anything to be lying there in her place. Han put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It'll be okay, kid," he tried to say as comfortingly as possible, but Sebastian knew it wasn't.

There were officials from around the station, and stormtroopers as well. No one bothered Sebastian, even though he wasn’t disguised. Besides the Empress’ order, they had more than enough evidence to see that Sebastian and the Sith couldn’t have been the same person. It would have been a relief to know as little as an hour ago; now it was pointless.

“You’d better get some rest,” Bashir told him. “You’re still recovering from a telepathic attack.”

Sebastian wanted to argue, but there was no point. His strength was gone, and he had nothing to cling to to replenish it. He was alone, and that wasn’t going to change. They escorted him back to Jorri’s quarters, and he dropped onto the pillow and cried himself to sleep.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Sith Fighter settled into the docking facility on the Oracle's planet. Ben Skywalker noted with disapproval the presence of Cardassians about; there had been more in ships around the world. The Oracle was up to something, and she hadn't told him, at least nothing beyond the vague "security issue" remark. It would have angered him if he weren't already upset at recent events. He'd ultimately failed his mission, of course, but he did extract some satisfaction in the blow he had delivered. In retrospect, he should have taken Sebastian up on his offer for a fight and spared the girl... but for some reason that didn't seem right to him. As he flew back, with time to reflect on the matter, he suspected it was a desire for revenge at his humiliation. After all, if Sebastian hadn't fled, then the fiasco with his lightsaber would never have happened. He'd think twice about trying to run again.

Still, he'd let his anger get the better of him, to the detriment of his goals. Killing Sebastian was necessary, the girl wasn't. Sisko's words were so fresh in his mind, the taunting of the weakness of his choices. He wanted his anger to rule, wanted to demonstrate that it was he who controlled the dark side. In the end, it was a rather unimpressive display; the girl was good, but it was like stepping on an ant for a Sith. He should have known better.

Ben cast a glowering expression at everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path, but all were smart enough to give him a wide berth when they saw him. He passed the Oracle on his way towards his quarters; she was speaking with a Cardassian, but brushed him aside when she saw Ben. "My lord," she said in greeting. "I take it all went well." Ben growled at her, but said nothing, and continued walking. "If I may, lord," she called, and he stopped, then turned around with impatience. "Leia Organa Solo will be coming. While you were at Wormhole Base, the docking attendants placed a homing beacon on your fighter."

Ben's already dark expression moved towards darker. "Why didn't you tell me this?" he asked.

"You wanted to confront the Empress," the Oracle answered. "This is why you went to Wormhole Base, to draw her in. She'll think she'll catch you by surprise, but you can be ready for her. She will be no match for you." She smiled just a little. "There is even the chance you might turn her to the Dark side."

"Unlikely," Ben said. "The light is too strong in her."

"Respectfully, my lord, I think you underestimate how far she has already gone. And her anger towards you will be great. After all, you've killed her brother, her son, and now her nephew-"

"He's not dead," Ben snapped, and in a moment wondered why he'd reacted like that. His failure must have gotten to him more than he'd thought.

The Oracle, for her part, wore an expression of slight bewilderment. "What do you mean, my lord?" she said with a shaky laugh. "You killed Sebastian Skywalker, did you not?" Ben said nothing, but it was a very talkative silence. "I saw it," she said. "You killed him, the Klingon, Bashir, and Solo. You spared the Vorta because she amused you. Isn't that what happened?"

"No," he said, his tone and expression made it clear that he wouldn't tolerate further discussion on the subject, but the Oracle didn't seem to notice.

"That's impossible," she said, mostly to herself. She rushed into her lab; Ben decided to follow. She was operating her equipment, and an image appeared on the screen... an impossible image. It was his confrontation with the Klingon, but... there was no way a camera could have recorded it from this angle! He was about to ask about it when his humiliation played out on the screen. He was tempted to shut it down with a lightsaber, but the Oracle's reaction gave him pause. "Sisko," she said under her breath. "I should have known. Even dead, you want to try and interfere." She watched all the events that transpired, through the Falcon's escape, Ben's pursuit, and the inevitable death of Jorrielle Skywalker. "It's of no importance," she finally said to Ben. "So Sisko managed to postpone the death of one Jedi... it won't make a difference. The Empress is the real danger, and she will come regardless. If she brings Sebastian along, it won't matter; even together they are no match for you, my lord."

"Of course," Ben said with disgust, as if the very idea he could fail was laughably obtuse. He returned to his quarters to prepare himself for the conflict the Oracle warned him was soon coming. That would no doubt explain why she was increasing security, but her failure to foresee Sisko's manipulations was a bit unnerving. Ben wouldn't dare have admitted it, but he'd grown accustomed to her prophecies, and their inevitable outcomes. If Sisko could get around one of them, did that mean that they were no longer trustworthy? He dismissed it; Sisko had been lucky, that was all. The lightsaber, his connection to the woman who made it- Just the memory of her sent a stab of fear through his heart, which only fueled his Dark side rage. "Play your games, Sisko," he said aloud, hoping the dead man might be listening. "They won't do you any good."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was sitting in silence in the room with the two coffins. Both had been prepared and then put in stasis for their journeys to Qo'nos and Tatooine for the funerals. Sebastian would attend neither. This was where he said goodbye to both of them, and to the life he'd led. Kilana came in, showing quiet respect. She put a hand on his shoulder in sympathy; he didn't shrug it away, but it didn't seem to make much of a difference. She held out his lightsaber. "They found this near the body," she said quietly. "I assumed you'd want it back."

Sebastian took it with a nod of thanks. He held it a moment, then got up from his stool and opened Gorren's coffin. "Sto-vo-kor is a rough place, my friend," he said as he placed it in the Klingon's hand. "This will do you more good than I." Normally Klingons regarded the bodies of the dead as empty shells, refuse. Sebastian couldn't allow that. He had quite a bit of money saved up from the various assignments he'd taken, and had purchased a plot and commissioned a small mausoleum for Gorren; it was the least he could do for his friend, who'd selflessly given his life to save his own.

For Jorri... she deserved a monument a hundred meters tall, but that wasn't going to happen. He'd send whatever money he had left to her parents; she'd been sending some home every month to help make ends meet, so they'd need it more than a lump of rock in the desert.

"I could not have asked for two more faithful companions," he said quietly.

Kilana wasn't sure what to say as Sebastian closed the coffin and reactivated the stasis field. "I don't understand," she finally admitted.

Sebastian ignored the remark. "Han will take you to Chandrilla," he said, not looking at her. "Volgo Terraine will be waiting, and then you can decide what it is you want to do."

Kilana hesitated. "I want to go with you," she said.

"No," Sebastian said, but it had a lifeless tone.

"You said I should choose what to do," Kilana said. "I choose to help you."

Sebastian turned and looked at her; he looked washed out, as if he was nearly as dead as his wife and friend. "Why?"

Kilana opened and closed her mouth a few times. "The Syndicate... if you hadn't saved me from them, then none of this would have happened."

Sebastian was quiet, then a hint of a smile appeared. "That's right," he said quietly. "I guess it wasn't wise." He rubbed her hand. "But it was right. That's what matters."

"I will help in any way I can," she said emphatically.

"Good," he said, "then go with Han."

"I want to go with you," she said in frustration. "You cannot do this alone."

"Do what?"

Kilana stopped, her mental train derailed. "You are going to find the one who did this, aren't you?"

"Why?"

Kilana was flabbergasted. "To bring him to justice, make him pay for what he did."

"Will that bring them back to me?" he asked. She was quiet; he turned his back to her. "Then what's the point?"

Kilana floundered. "I thought... I thought that was what you did. You have some kind of responsibility."

"Had," Sebastian said. "I had a home, I had a wife, I had a daughter, I had something to fight for." He turned away and ran his hand over Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker's coffin. "And now it's gone. They have taken everything from me, all that I’ve ever loved. It’s all gone. And here I stand in the depths of woe, and even now the brief escape from reality is stolen from me, forbidden to entertain my desires." He laid his forehead on his hand, leaning against the coffin, his voice barely above a whisper. "I don’t even want revenge; I just want to indulge in my emotions, just this once, just to allow myself to feel something besides the emptiness. But that’s forbidden because of my burden, because of what I am. I am a Jedi. Hatred is a luxury I am denied.”

Kilana didn't know what to do, so she tried her best to comfort him. Physical contact... something she'd learned to use in the employ of the Syndicate, but never for something like this. "Wherever you go," she said, "I will help you."

"Thank you," Sebastian said, still not moving. "But you can't. Where I'm going you can't follow."

"Why?" she asked, unable to keep the frustration from her voice. "Because I'm not a Jedi?"

"No," Sebastian said. "Not because you're not a Jedi..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika Hansen Skywalker opened her eyes; at least, what her mind was telling her were her eyes. She was lying in her bed, but beyond it, there was nothing. A single light came from nowhere, illuminating a circle around her, but revealing nothing. She pulled herself up into a sitting position, free of weariness and pain. There was nothing beyond the circle of light. "Hello?" she cried, but no response, not even an echo, as if the darkness devoured her words. "Doctor?" she called. "Doctor!"

"He can't hear you," an old, familiar voice said.

"Jean-luc?" Annika replied. She paused, the familiarity of the situation coming back. "Is it time? Am I going to die now?"

"No," Picard answered.

"Good," Annika said. "I need just a little more time, Jean-luc. Just a little more time 'til the dawn..."

"Annika, I'm sorry," Picard said, "but there isn't going to be enough time left in the world now."

Panic seized her heart, although she didn't know why. "What do you mean?" she asked. "What's going to happen?"

"It's too late, Annika," Picard answered. "There's nothing you could have done."

"Jean-luc," she said, her voice quivering with a barely contained fury, "tell me-" She was cut off by a baby's cry coming out of the darkness. "Hello?" she tried again. She followed the sound of the crying out into the darkness. "Hello?!" No one answered. "Is someone out there?" she cried almost in desperation.

"Be strong, or they'll take it all away."

"Hello?" Annika continued into the darkness.

"Be strong, or they'll take it all away."

"Bastian?" she asked. She tried to follow the direction of the words, unable to orient based on anything but the sound of the crying.

Annika drew to a quick halt, her lungs frozen in shock as she saw Jorri standing before her. She was cradling a baby in her arms; it had finally stopped and lay in silence. Jorri looked up from the baby to Annika, and it was a face filled with shame and regret. "You were right," she said, and then she and the baby slowly faded into the darkness, oblivious to Annika's cries. Still, she saw a glow beyond.

"Be strong, or they'll take it all away."

Annika slowed as she saw another circle of light; the only sound now was her own breathing. She approached slowly, uncertain, her grief growing with every step.

There was a coffin on a table. It was wooden, with a solid black finish and a shine that was far too bright for so grim an object. It was draped by a red flag, the Imperial symbol emblazoned upon it. Before the casket sat Sebastian. He leaned wearily towards it, as if the weight of this tragedy was too much for his shoulders to bear. He was staring at it... no, not staring. It went far beyond that, as if there were nothing else in the universe but himself and the somber sight before him. Annika could only see his profile, but it betrayed no emotion. "Bastian?" she said. "Bastian?" He didn't answer. Uncertain, she came closer. "Bastian," she said, unable to hide her grief any more, "I'm so sorry." Slowly, he turned to look towards her, and despite herself, she screamed.

Sebastian's left eye was gone, replaced by a Borg ocular device.

Annika took a frightened step back into a wall. No, she realized as she looked about her in fear, not a wall, an alcove. She saw drones moving about the Borg ship in their mechanized fashion; they ignored her presence. The circle of light was gone. "Sebastian!" she cried. "Where are you?"

The drones stopped in their tasks, and suddenly Annika felt a billion eyes looking at her; it chilled her to the bone. And then they spoke as one, as the Borg always did, a dark chorus setting the stage. "Everywhere, mother," the Borg answered.

"Sebastian," she said, crying. "Don't do this!"

"There is no other choice," the Borg answered. "The Jedi -Sebastian- is part of us now."

"Why?!" she cried. "Why did you do it?!"

"You are all that was left," the Borg answered. "Everyone else has been taken away. There was only one way to save you, the last one Sebastian had left."

"No!" she shouted. "It doesn't have to be this way!"

"Would you ask your son to bear this burden alone?" the Borg asked. "With no mother or father, no wife or daughter, no friend at his side, no allies to turn to? He tried to be strong, 7 of 9, but no one is this strong, not as an individual." One of the drones stepped closer. It took Annika a moment to recognize the drone behind the implants and skin tone, and she started to weep. "Now strength is irrelevant," Sebastian said with the voice of the collective. "He will adapt to service us."

Annika wept as the ship and all the Borg faded into darkness. She soon felt Picard embrace her in his fatherly way, and she cried on his shoulder. "This can't be happening," she said.

"There are some things we can change," Picard said. "And there are some that we can only accept."

"Never," she said with fire in her voice. "I'll stop him."

"It's too late for that," Picard said.

"I will not lose my son to them!" Annika said. "And I'll kill anyone who gets in my way!"



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-13 06:14pm
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Part XXVII


It's been stated that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, but those means bear little resemblance to diplomacy. The threat of war is like pulling a pin on a grenade in a fairly small room; both sides know that tossing it is going to hurt both no matter what they do. But sometimes despite that knowledge somebody drops it, and people die. The Vong don't mind; they're like a masochist with a grenade... they enjoy the explosion, the hurt gives them strength, death is glorious. War is the diplomacy of the Vong, and all you could hope to do would be to close their embassy. If you didn't, then your people suffered and died... sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons... like Jacen.

"Fire," Empress Leia Solo ordered.

The Shade's superlaser lanced out into space and hit the planet. Leia never asked for its name... giving it a name gives it uniqueness, and snuffing out that uniqueness would be more difficult. That was an old military approach. Call the enemy Fritz or Tojo or Charlie... they're all the same, and one less isn't going to make a difference. It's much easier to blow the head off of Fritz than Karl Liebkind, who’s hoping to make it home to marry the girl down the road and join his father in the sausage-making business. The white armor of the stormtroopers had made that so easy for them during the rebellion... you could convince yourself for a moment that there weren't actually human beings inside those suits so you could find the part of yourself to pull the trigger. Now Leia was pulling the trigger on the largest weapon that still existed. The memory of her dead son gave her the will to pull it.

It was another world inhabited only by the Vong. How long this would last before they started using Imperial citizens as shields was uncertain, but the Vong didn't seem to have an ethic to protect non-combatants. Would Jacen be enough for Leia to pull the trigger then, or would the thought of a thousand dead children stay her hand? The day would come, and Leia knew that there would be no right decisions to make. The abstract thoughts and cold mathematics work until the power to carry them out is placed into your hands. Killing ten thousand innocent people to save ten billion made sense, but something like that should require ten thousand pulls of the trigger. If one life lost saved so many, there should be some respect for that sacrifice, something more than the single word “fire.”

Leia had once heard someone compare Luke to Tarkin; she had almost lost all control over the remark. Luke's destruction of the first Death Star killed a million people, possibly more, but there was a difference the critic seemed to ignore. Tarkin destroyed Alderaan to kill its people; Luke destroyed the Death Star to destroy the weapon. Like Han had told the Federation officers who opposed the destruction of Death Star II, they would be more than happy to let all the people on board leave before it was blown up, but they didn't seem inclined to do so. Luke never pulled the trigger to kill someone, he did it to stop a weapon from deliberately killing someone. So, who would she be closer to when the time came: Luke, savior of the Rebellion, or Tarkin, butcher of Alderaan?

"Your highness," the captain said, "the Vong are in full retreat."

"Excellent, proceed to the next target." Leia looked out the window at the newly formed asteroid field. The planet had no name...

"Your highness," a lieutenant said as he came up and bowed, then handed her a datapad. Leia took it and looked it over, her eyes widening.

"Captain," she said, "belay that order. Hold position until further notice, and send a message to Chandrilla; I want to speak with Volgo Terraine immediately."

"Yes, Empress," the captain said, but Leia was already on her way out, her royal guard escort close behind. There was a holo-theater in her private quarters; the guards remained outside as she entered and activated it. Volgo Terraine soon appeared.

"Empress," Terraine said with a bow. "I take it this is in regard to the news on the Sith?"

"Where is he?" Leia asked, cutting straight to the one question that mattered to her.

"The delta quadrant. We've been tracking the homing beacon on board, but we've been keeping our distance to avoid tipping our hand."

"Good keep that up," she said. "I'll deal with him myself."

"Respectfully, Empress, are you sure that's wise. The Sith has proven to be an extremely dangerous foe. If he killed you-"

"I know," Leia said, "but we can't allow this cancer to go unchecked any longer. I will do what I feel is best for the Empire, regardless of my personal feelings."

"I'm glad to hear that, your highness. Shall I send our data to the Shade?"

"Yes," Leia said. "And if this bears fruit, make certain those responsible for this information are compensated."

"Of course, highness." The hologram vanished, and Leia activated the commlink in her quarters.

"Captain, change of plan. Deploy the fleet and set our course to the wormhole. Time is of the essence." She removed her cloak and returned to the holo-theater. "Computer, sparring program 1A." She lit her lightsaber as six combatants materialized out of the aether. With the determination of someone with a huge obstacle before them, she jumped into the fray.
--------------------------------------------------------------

There was a knock on the wall and Anakin looked up from the stack of datapads he’d buried himself in for the past fifteen hours. It was Lucinda, looking rather nervous. “Hi,” she said with visible discomfort at so plain a word. “Um, I heard about… about Jacen. He was a great guy, I’m sorry.”

Anakin put the datapad down. “No, he wasn’t. He was arrogant and impatient, and nearly impossible to get along with.” He shook his head. “But he was my brother. And he was a good Jedi… probably could’ve been a great Jedi.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “It was supposed to be me, you know? Field assignments like that were my and Jaina’s job. If she hadn’t made that one little mistake, it would’ve been me there.”

“Look,” Lucinda said, “you can’t blame yourself for what happened-“

“Oh, I don’t,” Anakin said. “It just… it just makes you think. I mean, I knew going into this that death was a risk, but… but it didn’t really seem like a real risk, you know.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, that sounded stupid.”

“No, I get it. You think of risking your life but not actually losing it. I’ve felt the same way… ever since you told me about your uncle. And now with Jacen… Anakin, I don’t know about you, but this scares me.”

“Me too,” he admitted. “And that was the point. The Sith sent back that little message to us: we could be next.” He faltered a moment. “Look, if you want out, no one here would look down on you for it.”

“Hey, I’m Corellian,” Lucinda said with a forced grin. “We don’t back down from a fight.”

“I suppose we don’t,” Anakin said, trying to smile back. “But we’re going to have to be careful now.”

“Tell me about it.”

He looked back to the pile of datapads, and then pushed them over. “You know what? To hell with this. I’m going to bed. This stuff will still be here in the morning, and I’m sick of losing sleep to this place.”

“Good for you,” she replied. “Life’s too short to lose sleep over school.”

“Exactly,” he said as he got up. “Too short.”

“You spend too much time at this, you’re just going to watch life pass you by.”

“Good advice,” Anakin replied. “Watch for opportunities or you’ll miss them.”

“Absolutely.” She grabbed him and kissed him deeply. The moment drew out into the fuzzy abstraction of time that only lack of sleep and pure joy can bring. Anakin looked at her with eyes widened as they finally parted.

“You’re not going to hit me, are you?”

Lucinda smiled. “Only if you want me to.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Volgo Terraine was reading a report when Kilana walked in. The office was Spartan, but clearly functional, with terminals, display screens, holoprojectors, and items Kilana couldn’t even begin to identify strategically placed around the room. He was not what Kilana had expected, but as he rose to meet her she felt old instincts kick in. He was one of the Founders; she could feel it. “Greetings,” he said a bit uncomfortably. “You are Kilana, yes?”

“Yes, Founder,” Kilana said, a little nervousness in her own voice. “I am sorry to disturb you; I realize you have a great deal of work to do.”

“It’s no bother,” he replied, but Kilana wondered if he meant it. “What is it you want, Kilana?”

She hesitated. “At first, I wanted to learn how best to serve you, Founder. I know it is you who created me. You are gods… or so I thought.” She let the dangerous implication out there for him, waiting nervously for the response. He smiled.

“We are not gods, and I wouldn’t want to be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’d be no one left to pray to.” Terraine said. “So if it’s not to serve, why did you come to me?”

“I-“ Kilana faltered for a moment, which was silly since the worst part was now over. “I’m seeking an answer. Even though you’re not a god, your kind still created me. I was hoping you would know.”

“I’ll try,” he said as he seemed to squirm under her gaze.

“There was a human,” she said, plunging forward. “He saved me from a life as a servant living in degradation. And because of this generosity he’s lost his family. It’s not right.”

“No, it isn’t,” Terraine admitted.

“Why, Founder?” she asked. “Why did this happen? Why is it a hero like that should suffer for good when those who deceived me live in luxury? Where’s the justice in that?”

Terraine couldn’t look at her. “I think I know what you’re talking about. You’re right, there’s no justice in that, and I wish I can give you an answer, but I can’t.”

“Neither could he,” she admitted. “Tell me, Founder, before he left, he told me something I didn’t understand. ‘It’s not the tyrants that bleed.’ What does that mean?”

Terraine looked thoughtful. “I think he was referring to an old saying from his world: ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of tyrants.’ He’s probably right; in my experience, it’s not the tyrants who bleed... salvation is earned by the blood of heroes.”

“But now he’s left, and I don’t think he’ll ever return. He’s not going to try to make them pay, or face the Vong. He’s just going to stand by and do nothing.”

“I find it hard to blame him, given the future that’s been taken from him.” Terraine sat on the edge of his desk, as if the weight of the Empire were resting on his shoulders. “Even heroes should be allowed to dream, shouldn’t they?”

“His dream is over because of me,” Kilana said. “How can I make it right?”

“I don’t think you can.”

“I can’t accept that,” she said. “There must be something.”

Terraine looked back up at her. “There’s one way.”

“What is it?”

“Become a hero yourself.”

Kilana looked at him like he was mad. “What? I can’t do that! I’m no Jedi.”

“If that’s what you feel, Kilana, then so be it.” He got up and returned to his seat behind his desk.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to bring a little order in this chaos. It’s been an uphill battle for decades, but if I don’t do it, who will?” Like a Founder, she thought, he always knew the right words.

Kilana found her way out to where Han Solo and Julian Bashir were waiting. “Well,” Han asked casually, “you get an answer?”

“Yes,” Kilana said. “I’m going to help you.”

Han and Bashir looked at each other, than back at her. “Well, that’s a fine sentiment,” Bashir said, “but our work’s over. Sebastian’s going to claim the cure.”

“And that ends it?” Kilana asked. “You’re going to just stop.”

“I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,” Bashir said. “And I’m a doctor; my place is helping people fight disease and maybe reduce a little of the suffering in this war.”

“Mr. Solo?” Kilana asked.

Han shifted uneasily for a moment, then threw up his hands. “Aw hell, I’m still a sucker for a pretty face. Bastian left us all that information we never got to; might as well put it to some good use. You want a lift back to Charity, doc? Delta quadrant’s going to be our first stop anyway.”

“Assuming the ship can get off the ground, I’d love a ride,” Bashir said with a smile.

“Everyone’s a critic,” Han grumbled, but he led the way out of the building towards the docking bay.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Raven settled down on the edge of the island before the shield. Sebastian shut everything down on the ship and went through the tasks involved in setting the ship up for long-term storage. The saltwater air would probably render the whole point moot, but someone might get stranded down here some day, and if they couldn't get the ship to take off, maybe the transmitter would still work. He'd been marooned for months not far from this system, and he would have appreciated it if someone else had been so courteous.

Sebastian sat there, in the low light that filtered through the window, holding the holoprojection taken from the last medical scan of his unborn daughter. Even then, she was so beautiful... "Hi," he said, his voice barely audible. "It's me, your father. I hope you remember me," his voice shook a little, "because I haven't forgotten you. I know I didn't know you very long, never even had the chance to hold you, but I want you to know that doesn't make me love you any less." He wiped away the tears, the last ones he'd ever shed. "I was going to name you Morgan... Morgan Skywalker. There's so much I wanted you to see and hear and feel. I was going to take you to visit Earth and see the beauties of that world. We were going to linger in the wormhole, just watch it for hours, and appreciate just how much we owed to it being there for us. Every night I would tell you the stories your grandmother told me, to give you the chance to believe, even if only for a little while, that there was a happily ever after. I was going to end this war for good, to bring about an unprecedented era of peace. I wanted you to be spared the pain and obligations of being a warrior. Our family has a history of strong women." He stopped to indulge a few sobs. "I wanted to see you grow into one too. I just.... I just wanted to hear you call me 'daddy.' Just once." He buried his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook as he wept bitterly.

One shot... that was all it had taken to destroy him. Not kill him... the Sith had done far more than that; he'd destroyed who Sebastian Skywalker was. This thing was just a body pretending it was still alive... and so there was no reason not to take this last step. He put the projector down on the co-pilot seat and left the cockpit. He walked down the ramp and had it seal behind him to keep out any curious little beasts that might try to make it a nest.

Sebastian took a deep breath as he stood before the shimmering wall of energy. This was it... there was no returning once he crossed this point. But still, he was left a choice between his mother's life and his humanity. He knew which was more important to him. He stepped through.

The Borg city was a kind of shanty-town, more like what was seen on the hind end of nowhere in heavy poverty than the remnants of a galactic superpower. They all stared at him as he walked past; he said nothing, and they said nothing in return. He walked towards the largest building in the city, figuring it had to house something important if it wasn't the center of operations, and he wouldn't mind getting a look at what was inside. Nobody stopped him, although a few seemed to start following him. He didn't acknowledge their presence.

The door opened before him and Sebastian stepped inside. His eyes adjusted to the lower lighting and he made out dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ex-Borg. He recognized the Queen from all those years ago; she was smiling at him. "Welcome home," she said.

"This isn't my home," Sebastian said curtly, looking over the others. "Who infected my mother?"

"One of us," the Queen said. "It was necessary to-"

"Who," Sebastian said with a voice that was equal parts judgment on high and threats from below, "did it?"

The Borg looked amongst themselves; finally a large man stepped forward. "I did," he confessed. "On Tatooine, in the tavern-" He never finished the sentence. There was Jedi-tempered reflexes and Borg-enhanced strength, but most important of all was the fist at the end of it all that struck the man in the face, knocking him off his feet and sending him sliding several meters across the floor in an unconscious heap.

"Thump," Sebastian said. He probably broke most of the bones in his right hand, but it was worth it.

"That wasn't necessary," the Queen said sternly.

"Neither was infecting my mother," Sebastian said. "I came here in the end by choice; the suffering you've brought-"

"Is nothing compared to the suffering she brought to our people?" Suddenly, the Queen found she couldn't breathe; she tried futilely to loosen the grip on her throat somehow as she stared into Sebastian's face... she'd seen that expression once before on his father's.

"Some madman just killed my wife and daughter before my eyes," Sebastian said in a voice like liquid nitrogen, "so I am not in a very good mood." He released her. "Push me just a little too far and the Dark side is waiting, and if that happens I assure you I will kill every last person in this city."

The Queen was doubled-over, coughing in the wake of the attack. "I thought- you were- a Jedi?"

Sebastian walked over and bent down to her level. "Not any more," he said in that same cold voice. "Now I'm a Borg."

"Borg- don't act this way."

"I'm also a slow learner." He straightened up and walked over towards a large piece of equipment, looked it over, then leapt and pulled himself on top of it. "All right, ladies and Borg, let's get this started. You need me, I don't need you, so starting now this operation is under my command. You don't like it, fine, leave; I'm sure there's a Vong out there who'd like to make friends with you. Second, I'm sure this can of half and half you call a colony already has a plan in place. You wouldn't be so stupid as to drag me down here without one, right?"

"Yes," the Queen said. "We've worked something out."

"Good, starting now nobody scratches their ass without my say-so. I want to know every detail of this plan, every schematic, every theory."

"I thought you said you were a slow learner?" the Queen added irritably.

"Third, don't correct me, it pisses me off."

"Anything else?" the Queen asked.

"Just remember, you freaks called me, I didn't call you. You don't like my plan, that's fine, go find yourself another messiah. Otherwise you stick with me, and the galaxy will remember what it is the Borg can do. Now, let's get this started." Sebastian hopped back down to the floor. "Oh, and one other thing. Send me Typhoid Larry there when he wakes up; I've got a job for him to do to try and make up for this mess."



Chuck

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Part XXVIII


Annika Hansen Skywalker's eyes fluttered open, revealing the blur that was her room. She moaned to herself as the unpleasant existence that was consciousness descended on her again. Finally, her vision resolved the blob in front of her into the face of the Doctor. He was smiling, and for once it didn't seem forced. "Good morning. How do you feel?" he asked.

"I use nerve receptors in my skin, same as everyone else," she said, following it up with a cough. "But I'm also feeling less sick."

"I'm glad to hear that," the Doctor said. "And your prognosis is excellent. The new treatment is destroying the fungal disease, and your nanoprobes have already begun repairing the damage. It's still early, but I think you'll make a full recovery." His smile slowly faded. "I thought you'd be a little happier to hear that."

"I know what's happened," Annika said. "How you've acquired a cure."

"How could you-"

"It doesn't matter. What matters is the price is too high, and I've got to set things right." She tried getting up, but the Doctor put his hand on her shoulder and held her down.

"You know about the Borg," the Doctor said, and there was no hiding his visible distaste at the necessity of their involvement. "I’m afraid in your state we couldn’t be picky about our allies.”

“We’ve got to stop them,” Annika said. “We can’t let Sebastian do this.”

“I’m afraid he’s made up his mind.”

“Then I guess I’ll have to change it.” Annika tried harder to get up, but the Doctor was holding her down without any sign of effort.

“You’re not fit to walk, much less fly a ship,” the Doctor said. “And even if you were, you’re no match for the ex-drone outside the door.”

Annika’s eyes narrowed. “They sent a guard.”

“No, Sebastian sent a guard,” the Doctor said. “He knew you’d try to leave, and he said he didn’t want to go through this for nothing.”

“Doctor,” Annika said desperately, “I can’t let him go through with this.”

“You’re not fit to fly, even as a passenger,” the Doctor said.

“Then go to Sanctuary for me!” she pleaded. “Talk him out of it.”

“I don’t have a mobile emitter, remember?” the Doctor said.

Annika sunk back into the bed. “You’re right, I forgot.” Her eyes became downcast. “That’s never happened before.”

“And you can’t send anyone else,” the Doctor pointed out. “The-“

“The shield will only let Borg pass through,” Annika finished wearily. “Which means it has to be me.”

“Annika, you can’t. And even if you could, by what right would you?”

“What?” Annika said, her mind having trouble keeping up in its current state.

“This was Sebastian’s choice, Annika. He wants you to live. How long are you going to keep making choices for him?”

“You wouldn’t understand!” Annika said sharply, then immediately regretted it. “I didn’t mean it like that,” she added in as tender a voice as possible. “I mean- he’s all I have left of Luke now… all I have left of my family. I can’t give him away to the Borg.”

“Even if he wants to?”

“No,” she said. “He doesn’t know what he’s getting into. He thinks it’ll save him from having to bear the grief, but it takes away all the good with it. And… and if he joined with them, I’d have to fight him. I can’t let the Borg run loose again. Doctor- I’ve been through this once… I can’t do it again. Not with my son.”

“I understand,” he replied. “But right now you’re not in any condition to stop anyone. Wait until you get your strength back, and then see what you can do.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Eclipse-class star destroyer Shade dropped out of hyperspace in the delta quadrant. A day's worth of careful tracking had led them this far, but it seemed that was as far as it would go.

"The signal is gone, sir," came the report. "But it definitely originated in this system. There's only one planet which could potentially support life, sir, but I'm not getting any readings."

The captain stepped over to the Empress' side. "We can destroy it, if you wish, highness."

Yes, Leia thought, we could... was it the Jedi way, though? Was destroying the entire planet to kill one Sith overkill? Yes... but that didn't mean it wasn't a good idea. "Not yet," she said. "Bring us closer; I want to know for certain that the Sith is here, and to make sure there's no collateral damage."

"Yes, highness." The captain left to give the order; Leia remained where she was, watching the world grow through the window until it filled the view. It looked barren and lifeless... a good thing, since that meant there would likely be no innocent lives lost if they- Wait, why destroy the planet? An orbital bombardment would suffice, wouldn't it? The Sith was powerful, but not invulnerable. Why was she thinking of going that far? Was it becoming too easy to watch worlds die, too easy to pull the trigger? No, she told herself, it was her caution. The Sith had slipped through their fingers so many times, with such devastating consequences, that half-measures didn't seem good enough. There was still a tiny chance he could somehow survive... but with the entire planet destroyed, that would be the end of him for certain.

"Captain," came the report, "we've picked up several humanoid life readings below the surface."

"Can you be more specific?" the captain asked. "Is there a way to tell if the assailant is among them?"

Leia continued to stare at the planet, the sound of the bridge fading into the background as her own breathing seemed to drown it out. Before her the planet's surface seemed to burn away, showing her the caverns the dwellers had now taken over.

Greetings, Jedi

Leia felt the temperature drop ten degrees. Who are you?

The one you seek.

You killed my son.

He was already dead when he went to Provag, I just helped him finish the job. Are you ready to face me as well?

Leia returned to the here and now and turned to the captain. "Commence primary ignition," she ordered.

"Yes, highness," the captain said. If he was confused by her sudden change, he hid it well as he went about giving the orders to destroy the planet.

Ah, cheating? the Sith thought.

Never taunt a woman with her finger on a superlaser, Leia thought back.

Ha! You know, Sebastian tried cheating too... he ran away. I killed his pretty wife for that.

Your killing ends here.

Only if you come down here and stop me.

I don't have to come down there. Superlaser, remember?

Then I guess I'll just have to make you come down.

Leia's eyes widened and her mouth fell open. "Captain-" she began, but the ship shook, and the planet twisted sideways in the window, knocking much of the standing bridgecrew off their feet.

"Find the source of that tractor beam!" the captain ordered as he tried righting himself.

"It's not a tractor beam," Leia said, grabbing hold of the rail before the ship lurched again towards the planet, the Shade's engines losing the tug of war battle. "Dovin Basilisks." As if they needed further proof that the Sith had aligned himself with the Vong.

"Find them!" the captain ordered. But the ship was in a tumble now, dropping towards the planet without control. A turbolaser bolt managed to find one of the Vong creatures, but it barely slowed them as they neared the atmosphere.

"Highness," the guard next to her said; it spoke volumes. Leia looked at the planet spinning beyond the window, and nodded. "Emergency evacuation," the guard said into his commlink. Leia and her royal guards vanished from the bridge.

The captain seemed to reach the same conclusion. "Abandon ship," he ordered, although it was bereft of the passion he'd had in the previous minute. Still, the crew of the Shade didn't argue as they abandoned their posts and headed for escape pods, shuttles, and transporters. The captain stayed where he was. It wasn't going down with the ship, it was the knowledge that this was the end even if his body somehow survived. He managed to lose the flagship... you couldn't recover from that kind of disgrace.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The impact was beautiful in a detached sort of way. The ship struck on its side, cracking and warping under the deceleration and force of its own mass. Dust kicked up like geysers as the ship dug further into the ground, collapsing in on itself as it did so. Towers broke off and tumbled past the ship to form their own craters, sometimes kilometers away; but they wouldn't last long. The reactor finally went, and the wreckage exploded like a thousand sunrises.

Molly O'Brien turned off the display and turned to the Sith students. "Now, mop up," she said. "The survivors will be confused for a time; use that to your advantage. But don't be overconfident. Remember the master's lesson: fight from a position of strength, no matter what that requires." They said nothing in response, they just tied their datapads into the sensors to keep them up to date on the location of the survivors, then proceeded to the hangar. The Sith climbed aboard swoops and speeders and swept out into the light to finish the job.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The royal guards leapt into action the moment they rematerialized on the planet. They swept the area quickly looking for hostiles, then moved on to ensuring the longer-term safety of the Empress. The emergency evacuation protocol included beaming down a survival package, which they now tossed open and began setting up a shelter. Leia considered interrupting, but then thought better of it. What was she going to do, wander the planet looking for the Sith? He'd forced the crash; he no doubt planned to come to her. She sat down cross-legged on the sand and slipped into her meditation to prepare for the coming battle. It seemed she didn't have long to wait; she jumped up from her crouch as she felt a tremor in the Force, and leapt aside just in time to avoid the laser blasts. The guard nearby wasn't as lucky.

Leia turned and watched the swoop as it looped back, getting ready for another run. "Don't shoot," she told the other guard. She could tell he was surprised by the order, but he gave no response; you don't question orders from the Empress, even if they seemed suicidal. The weapons fired again, but Leia easily deflected them as she ran towards the swoop. She jumped and somersaulted, then drove her foot into the driver's chest. The guard, seeing what her plan was, took off after the decelerating speeder while Leia and the rider got back to their feet. Leia was momentarily surprised to see her adversary pull out a lightsaber of her own, but didn't give the opposition time to react. She struck twice hard, putting her opponent on the defensive, then twisted her lightsaber back and thrust a hand into the woman's face, knocking her backwards into a wall of rock. Leia swung before the woman could think, and her lightsaber hit the ground, soon followed by the hand that had been wielding it.

"Who are you?" Leia demanded. The woman was staring at her stump. "I asked you a question," she said sharply.

The woman turned back to face Leia. "Sith, your highness," she said with a rumble of menace. "I watched your son die."

Leia didn't stick her lightsaber through the Sith, but only just. The wound was still too fresh to be prodded in this manner, even if it was amateurishly transparent. "Come with me," she growled.

"And if I don't?" the woman asked with a smirk. "What will you do? Kill me?" She jumped as the lightsaber struck the rock where a moment before her head had been, then turned to Leia in shock.

"Yes," Leia said.

"But... you're a Jedi!"

"I doubt killing a gnat like you will make much of a difference," Leia bluffed. At least, she hoped she was bluffing. It wouldn't take much for her to run this woman through and leave her here.

The Sith didn't seem willing to take the chance and started walking where Leia pointed. Leia grabbed the woman's lightsaber and hooked it to her own belt, then they entered the makeshift camp. The guard was just returning with the swoop; it seemed undamaged. She took a look at it; there was the flight recorder, which led right back to the caverns, and probably to this little Sith's master. "I have to do something," she told the guard. "Alone. Watch her. If she shows any sign of trouble, shoot her."

"Yes, highness," the guard said. Leia left them alone; she hoped the guard would live, but she had a feeling the Sith had enough training to trick and kill him even with only one hand and no weapon. Still, she had to finish this, and she couldn't simply kill the woman in cold blood simply because she didn't trust her.

Leia climbed on board the swoop and hit the throttle, tearing off over the surface of the barren world. She wondered if she was heading into a trap; simply leaving a swoop for her to find would have been suspicious, but sending someone to kill her would make it seem fortuitous. Regardless, there was nothing else she could do; like with Jacen's funeral, this was something she wanted to get past and move on. Hopefully she would still be alive to do so.

Leia slowed the craft when she saw the opening ahead. It was well-hidden, but still large enough to allow ships to come and go without too much trouble. She pulled into the hangar and slipped off the bike, ready for resistance, but there was none. She reached out, but if the Sith was here, he was hiding himself well. Carefully she followed the only exit out of the room and into the caverns; there was artificial lighting hastily strung up along it. It reminded her of the good old days of the Rebellion, hiding out in whatever safe nest you could find and putting together only what you could just as quickly take down and run with.

Leia continued through the caves; where they forked, she let her instincts guide her. Soon she found her way into another larger cavern. Its size swallowed the light, but it was clear to see this was a room of some importance; stairways and deckplating and equipment had been set up, probably scavenged from pre-fab kits off of old star destroyers for their quick garrison posts. Doors led off into what were probably small personal quarters. The Sith certainly wasn't living in luxury.

A figure stepped out of the shadows on the small rise and Leia pulled out her lightsaber. She didn't light it yet, but she stood ready to. The figure came a little closer. "Welcome, your highness," came the woman's voice. "I've been waiting for you for a very long time."

"Do I know you?" Leia asked as the woman's face came a bit more into the light.

"It was a long time ago," she said. "I was called Janeway then, and you were a mere princess. Now you are the Empress and I am the Oracle... things change as time passes."

Janeway? Finally the memory resurfaced. "You were in the rebellion," she said. "And when Annika was sick-"

"Yes, poor girl. She finally accepted her humanity, only to make the mistake of marrying your brother. She should have known better than to trust him, given how your father turned out."

"That was a long time ago," Leia said. "And I know Annika wouldn't take back one minute she and Luke had together."

"More's the pity," Janeway said. "All that Borg wisdom and she couldn't see what your entire family really are: opportunistic traitors."

Leia was caught a bit off guard by the hostility. "What do you mean? You were in the Rebellion same as we were. We were allies."

"We were allies, once," Janeway said. "Until you chose to throw in with the winning side. You betrayed us."

"I did what I had to," Leia said. "I couldn't defeat the Empire, but I could change it from within."

"Really? Military supremacy under the control of a single leader, with no checks by civilian authority? I can see you've made a great deal of progress."

"We are in a desperate situation," Leia said. "And I will do whatever is necessary to preserve our people."

"So I've seen," Janeway said. "Even if it means using that terrible weapon?" Leia said nothing. "The darkness is growing in you, isn't it."

"Where's the Sith?!" Leia demanded, ignoring the slight.

"That is why you're here, of course," Janeway said. "Revenge is hardly the way of the Jedi."

"This isn't about revenge," Leia snapped. "It's about stopping this Sith before he murders again."

"So you will murder him first?" Janeway gave a sound of disappointment. "Why won't you admit that the Dark side has already claimed you? You've allowed your emotions to dictate your actions, rather than peace. You have become the Emperor you yourself once despised."

Leia shot daggers at her. "You're gravely mistaken."

"Oh no," Janeway said in a distant voice. "I'm afraid it is you who are mistaken." She grinned. "About a great many things." She stepped closer; there was something odd about her that tickled the edges of Leia's senses. "I told the Sith how to kill your boy." Leia's eyes widened at her words. "Were it not for me he'd never have found Jacen Solo. How does that make you feel, Empress?" She chuckled just a little. "I can see the anger growing in your expression, the hate swelling. What are you going to do, hm? You're armed, I am not. Come," she held her arms away from her body slightly. "Kill me; you are so close to darkness, this one last step can't be too hard. Let your hatred destroy me, Empress, and complete your journey. Become everything you ever fought against."

Leia's teeth were bared, and her voice was a rumble. "Where's the Sith?" A lightsaber activating answered her, and she turned and lit her own. There was no mask this time, just him, prepared for battle.

Ben Skywalker spun his lightsaber twice for show. "You've found him," he said.

Leia ignored the show and slipped into a combat stance. "Then it ends here."

"Only for you." And the battle began.



Chuck

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Part XXIX


Leia approached Ben, but didn't attack; she just watched him. He was a Sith, and while they could be patient if it was demanded of them, when the chance came to finally cut loose, self-restraint was impossible. Ben would make the first move if she waited, giving her a chance to catch him with a surprise counter-strike. It was slim, but in a match like this, you had to take every edge. When Force users faced each other, the duel turned on those edges.

Ben attacked, but Leia could sense the restraint. He was testing her limits, trying to see how great a threat she was, how best to defeat her. Leia responded in kind, with restrained blocks that betrayed nothing of her technique or skill. She didn't go to all the trouble of finding him to try and impress this Sith with her mastery of dueling. After half a minute of this his Sith nature got the better of him, and he cut loose with an almost mad technique, but Leia remained on the defensive for the moment. He was incredibly fast, and there was no mistaking the power he had; he practically glowed to her Jedi senses, but Leia didn't let that affect her. She held him at bay, watching for the opening with the patience of a Jedi, a breaker against the maelstrom that was the Sith. Sometimes she blocked the blow, sometimes she simply dodged out of the way, but always she remained one step ahead of the attack, to his obvious frustration.

"Are you planning to bore me to defeat?" Ben finally asked. "I've met more challenging holograms than you, Jedi."

"You'll pardon me if I don't follow your path," Leia retorted. The strikes continued, quick and unrelenting, but it was gradually starting to eat away at her edges. She drew strength from the Force, but even with it, she wasn't young any more, and a crash course wasn't enough to make up for several years of neglected practice. Every edge...

"Oh, I can feel the Dark side in you, Jedi," Ben said coldly as he offered two quick strikes, then withdrew. "Your hatred for me is strong... very impressive." Two strikes, then a quick reverse, but Leia caught them all easily. "I can feel how naturally it comes to you..." he followed up with a quick series of alternating high and low strikes, and the cavern echoed with the sound of clashing energy blades like bickering titans of a long dead era. "...it's in your blood, Jedi," he remarked over the din. "You can feel it running hot through your veins, filling you with strength." He laughed as he ground their blades together, reversed to strike at her left, then snap his blade forward to catch her counter-strike. "There's no words for that feeling, is there?" Ben advanced again, his blade whirling about in mad strikes, a sharp contrast to the minimalist technique Leia used, moving just enough to catch the strike to avoid being caught off guard by the one that followed. There were no openings in her defense for Ben to exploit, despite the fury. "We're not cold-blooded killers, we Sith," Ben remarked. "We may be calculating, we may be merciless," he swung hard, and Leia found herself using all her strength to hold Ben's blade back from her neck, her skin prickling as it closed to within centimeters. "But we do everything with passion." Sweat ran down Leia's face as the blade moved even closer despite her every effort. "Our blood runs like molten silver through our bodies, hot, fast, and filling us with power!"

Leia deliberately fell backwards, Ben's lightsaber passing over her face so close it sheared through her hair. Her left hand hit the floor and the arm absorbed the impact like a spring, and she flung herself back to an upright position, twisting just in time to catch Ben's opportunistic strike. The blades ground together, and her eyes flicked between them and Ben's grinning face.

"Your thoughts betray you," Ben said with a grin. "You think I'm a monster, and that makes it so easy to excuse the hatred, doesn't it. It doesn't really count if it's towards something like me, right?" He pushed the blades aside slowly, then thrust, forcing Leia to twist and jump back to avoid the lightsaber. Despite the distance he was there almost before she was ready to defend herself, and the crash seemed deafening as they connected.

"You are a monster," Leia said through her teeth. "Hiding in the shadows, preying on the weak. That's your idea of power?" Ben drew back and swung, but she dodged and counterswung. Ben caught and deflected it, nearly beheading her during the brief opening before she had her lightsaber back for the block.

"That's it exactly," Ben said. "Like a hunter. The Sith cull the weak animals from the herd, making it stronger." He offered three quick strikes. "Don't think of me as a monster, Jedi. Think of me as... natural selection. Your son, and others like him, were too weak. I had to kill them for the greater good." Ben laughed quietly to himself. "The galaxy's much stronger without him dragging us all down."

Leia couldn’t help herself; if she didn’t do something she’d explode. They were just words, she tried to tell herself, but they were the wrong words at the wrong time. She couldn’t ignore them; anyone in her place would understand. She switched from defense seamlessly into offense, striking savagely at him and his smug face, but he caught her every strike. Distantly she knew she was playing into his hand, but she couldn’t stop herself. He had to die. Ben blocked the next four strikes then swung with all his strength into her next swing. Leia’s lightsaber was pushed aside just enough by Ben’s blow to leave the opening. With the quick, precise cut of a surgeon her hand was cut off at the wrist, a cry of agony filling the room as she grabbed the stump and doubled-over. Ben offered a bemused laugh, lightsaber pointed at her as she dropped down on one knee, curled up around the center of the pain. “See now the power hate can give you?” he chided, chuckling to himself. He gave a few theatrical swings and swung at her, all showmanship, because she was helpless.

There it was, her edge.

With a primal cry Leia swung up with the stolen Sith lightsaber and caught Ben’s arm at the elbow, sending his limb tumbling through space into the shadows. He offered no cry, he was too stunned. She looked up into his face, malice in her every feature, and spoke with a voice like a razor on flesh.

“Yes!”

Ben was blasted off his feet into a column of rock, bouncing off it and landing with a heavy thud on the cave floor. He rolled over, and Leia stood over him, lightsaber at his throat. He didn’t have time to move, didn’t have room to resist. For the first time he was at a Jedi’s mercy... he looked into her eyes, and wondered if that statement was true.

Leia continued holding the lightsaber over the fallen Sith, breathing heavily. The agony had subsided for the moment, all thought now was on the crackling red beam and the prone form of her most despised enemy before it. A voice said, "Finish him," and for a moment she thought it was in her mind. It was what she'd been longing for, no matter how much she’d denied it. She wanted him to pay for what he had done, and didn't care if it was justice or vengeance. The murdering bastard deserved a far more agonizing end than this for what he'd done, for what he'd keep on doing if he were allowed to live. With one stroke, it would all be over.

But she had seen Luke cross that line, and her father. No matter what the intentions, what lay on the other side was darkness that was nearly inescapable. If she did this, then everything would be what Janeway had said. And then she realized whose voice she had heard. She looked up at Janeway. "Destroy him. It's the only way to save your family... what's left of it." Ben's eyes flew over to her, and there was malice in his expression. "Don't even bother trying," she said to him with contempt. "You've failed twice now; your usefulness has reached its end."

Leia reacted instinctively as he Force pushed her away, taking the hit without losing her balance. Ben had jumped back to his feet, but his only focus now was on Janeway. "No," he said with a voice saturated with hate, "yours has." He held out his remaining hand towards Janeway, and force lightning launched from his fingertips.

Janeway held up her hand, and the energy bounced off into a wall. Ben's eyes went wide with shock, but if Janeway took any satisfaction in that, she hid it behind a mask of disgust. "I brought you here," she said with a voice like falling stone blocks, "because I thought you had the power to crush my enemies. I can see now I've made a mistake." He tried again; this time Janeway deflected the energy back into Ben, knocking him over as Force lightning crawled over his body. She turned back to Leia who was holding up her lightsaber in a defensive posture. "I'm not your enemy here, Jedi," she said. "He is. He killed Luke Skywalker and your son, not to mention all the Force potentials and Jorrielle Skywalker."

"All targets chosen by you!" Ben snarled from where he lay. Janeway's eyebrows narrowed and Ben slid across the floor into the wall.

"You're a heartless psychopath," Janeway said. "I just gave you direction."

"And that direction was my family," Leia said sharply.

"You still have two children left," Janeway pointed out. "You can spare their lives. Kill this Sith now, while he's still helpless! Otherwise he'll kill them, you can be certain of it! He's already done it in his own time!"

Leia shook her head slowly, her eyes never leaving Janeway. "You are the real threat here... the real Sith. He's just your pawn."

Janeway straightened up; the appearance of age and feebleness seemed to slip into the background as she did. "Yes, your highness. I am the greater threat, at least to your vision. Your Empire is corrupt and useless. It will fall, and I am only too glad to bring that about."

"We've been trying to change-"

"You and Sisko?" Janeway said. Leia's eyes widened. "Don't act so surprised, I am the Oracle; that crazy old fool couldn't think to hide this from me. You two thought you could tame the beast, but the Empire is rotten to the core. Sisko knew it, that's why he allowed all this to happen. The Empire will crumble... as you've suspected, that was his plan all along."

"No," Leia said. "We worked too hard for him to simply throw it all away."

"But that's what must happen," Janeway said. "The Empire didn't work; you know this. He had his own ideas about how to fix things, but they were naive. The Empire will crumble... I've seen to that."

"And you'll just let the Vong destroy us all?" Leia said. "Even the Empire is better than that."

"The Vong?" Janeway said with a chuckle. "They're nothing! A tool I've used to smash the foundations of a corrupt government. No, Empress, the Empire will fall, but we will not surrender to the Vong. Sisko's vision of Unity will come true, it will merely take a different form than what you two envisioned. Once the Empire is eliminated I will rally the systems to wipe out the Vong, and a new government will form, a just one. A united federation of planets, if you will." She paused. "But there is another way," she said. "You have total control of the Empire now; there is a way you and I could work together, Empress."

"What, kill him?" Leia asked, gesturing towards Ben with a tilt of her head. "Give myself over to the Dark side? No, don't even bother trying, Janeway."

"It is the only way to save your children," Janeway said, and let the thought sit there for a while, uninterrupted. "Your thoughts betray you, Empress. I know your fear, your anger; don't deny it. The wound is so tender, isn't it. There is no way to comprehend the loss of a child than to experience it; do you want to endure that again... to watch another body that came from your own burned in the fire?" Then she held her hand palm out, and air swirled momentarily before an image appeared, an image of Jacen and Ben's confrontation. Leia flinched as the saber pierced her son's back, and tears forced themselves from her eyes. The image replayed itself over and over. "Look into your heart," Janeway said, "and tell me you wouldn't do anything to undo this."

"Stop it," Leia said, looking away.

"One child in the grave," Janeway said, "and two more waiting to join him. Look at this monster... smiling, laughing as he commits his butchery. Take your weapon and cut him down! There is no other way! If you don't then they will die!" Leia opened her tear-filled eyes towards Ben Skywalker; he was struggling feebly in Janeway's mental grip. "I can give you everything you've ever wanted," Janeway said with a chilling voice. "The power to mete out justice, starting with him. And it's only the beginning. I can give you Alixus, Nom Anor, Garak, to deal with as you see fit. No distortions of the truth to get in the way, Empress Solo. I can help you destroy the Vong forces in a matter of months. And most of all I can save what's left of your family from death and pain." Leia's lip trembled as she looked between the image and Ben Skywalker. "You are so close," Janeway said soothingly. "It is such a small step. One swing and all you've ever wanted is yours. How can that be wrong?" Leia squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to think or feel, but Janeway's voice pierced through. "I can bring him back," she said almost in lullaby tones. "My powers are greater than you can imagine. Join with me, and I will grant you this gift, Empress."

In the wake of Janeway's offer there was nothing but the sound of Leia’s own breathing. She couldn't think about it because the prospect was so wonderful it was torture. She reminded herself of her father, and her brother... but still, this was different! This was about her love... turning into hate. It was so unfair that the answer she had to give was to give up everything she wanted! What kind of universe could offer her this with that price tag?! And if that's what it was, why shouldn't she just take this offer rather than trying to defend it? Years of training and instincts tried to build up a wall in her mind, to hold back the tide as her will moved inexorably towards the only decision her exhausted mind could accept. She saw Jacen in her mind's eye, laid out before the pyre was lit, and her shoulders shook in grief. There was no choice...

"Empress is my title," she said, "not what I am." She breathed deep through her nose to steady herself, wiped her eyes, then looked back to Janeway. "I am a Jedi," she said coldly, "and no Jedi will ever stand with you."

The image faded, and Janeway stared at Leia for some time, her face a mask barely restraining the contempt and hatred that rumbled below the surface. When she spoke, her voice was low and chilling. "So be it... Jedi." Leia felt a flicker and she raised her lightsaber in time to catch the Force lightning that leapt from Janeway's hands. She was chuckling. "Your feeble skills are no match for the power of the Dark side," she chided as with a gesture Leia's lightsaber was yanked from her weak grip. Force energy tore into her body as she was tossed back into the wall. "And you will pay the price for your lack of vision!"

The pain was incredible, but Leia didn't scream or cry out. Amazingly, there was something almost peaceful in all of this. She'd faced the worst of temptations, and she'd won. There was nothing left that Janeway could do that was worse than that trial had been. Force lightning crawled along her body, but in the midst of the twitching limbs and smoke, Leia had a smile on her face. Seconds later, her smoldering clothing fell to the floor, empty.

Janeway glared at the mound for a moment, then at Ben Skywalker, who had pulled himself back to his feet. "We have work to do," she rumbled. Ben didn't respond, and Janeway turned and eyed him as a potential adversary. "Don't think about betraying me, Ben," she warned. "I know techniques that take five years to kill you, that leave you begging for death in five seconds." Ben stewed, but said nothing. "See to getting that hand replaced," she said. "If you can manage that." She turned and left for her laboratory, leaving the still smoking clothes where they lay.



Chuck

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Part XXX


Annika Hansen Skywalker stormed through the corridors without looking at anyone. No one else mattered at the moment to her. Even without sensors, it was clear that the doors would have opened on their own anyway under her steely glare. The final one opened, and there sat Sebastian talking with a medical droid. His expression immediately went from calm and collected to shock at her arrival. "Mom?!"

"Did you think I wouldn't find out?" she demanded.

"Well, you see-"

"I don't want to hear any excuses," she said sharply. "How could you? I thought I raised you to have more sense?"

"Now look," Sebastian said, but before he could continue, the door opened again. "Thank the Force," he said. "I'm gonna need some help on this one."

"Sorry, Sebastian, but you're on your own," Luke said. "I've still got to live with her."

"Damn right," Annika said. "And if you think that just because you and Jorri have moved out you can keep us in the dark, you've got another thing coming."

"I tried contacting you, but the comm unit was malfunctioning," Sebastian said.

"Faulty equipment is no excuse," Annika said sharply. "I'm not missing the birth of my first grandchild for anything. Now where is she?"

"2-1B here was just filling me in," Sebastian said. "There were complications, but it looks like-" He stopped as the door opened and Dr. Bashir came out, all smiles. "Well?"

"Mr. Skywalker," Bashir said as he shook his hand, "allow me to congratulate you on a very happy and healthy baby girl."

The tension of Sebastian's face gave way to relief. "Can I see her?" he asked.

"She's your daughter," Bashir said, gesturing for him to go through. The family entered and saw Jorri sitting up in bed holding the little bundle. Even in the wake of labor Jorri looked more beautiful than Sebastian could remember. He stepped over to her side and looked down at the pudgy face.

"Hello, Morgan," Jorri said with the voice used for small children and idiots. "Hello there."

"Oh, she is the most precious little thing I've ever seen," Annika said. "Warn your parents, Jorielle, I plan to arm wrestle for babysitting privileges."

Luke waited a short while before finally speaking. "Can you feel it, Sebastian?" Sebastian could only nod. "She's strong with the Force... very strong."

"That can wait," Jorri said. "She's only been in the big bright universe for a few minutes, let's give her a little time."

"Sure," Sebastian said. "Let me hold her, please." Reluctantly, Jorri held her daughter out, and Sebastian took hold of her. She was so light it was amazing. He felt her fear grow as the familiar comfort of her mother vanished, but he reached out to her. It's all right. Everything's going to be all right. You're safe here... you'll always be safe. I promise, I'll always keep you safe.

She didn't know words yet, but Sebastian felt her response. It was complete and utter trust, expressed in a way no words could have ever described. Sebastian cried a little as he held her as close as he dared. I'll always be there for you, Morgan. Always.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian's unconscious body was hefted off the hovertable onto the examination table. The Queen lifted one of his eyelids, then nodded with approval. "Let's not waste any time," she said.

There were over half a dozen Borg in the room, but most of the theoretical work had been done by Jollin and Koli. Those were the names registered with the Imperial Census Bereau, which refused to recognize Borg designations as official names, mostly because "Fourteen of Forty-Seven, Secondary Adjunct of Trimatrix 815" left too much room for error. The two were there to oversee the overall process, with Sebastian's own modifications in place. This was a sore spot for many of them, but it wasn't because they didn't like change. After all, they were Borg, adapting was part of the job description. Even the Queen was having a little trouble accepting his ideas, but Sebastian was uncompromising, and they had no choice but to give in. Still, Romal, the Devaronian Sebastian had brought in, had been a source of near revolt for the outcasts. The Queen had taken him aside and told him point blank that this was blackmail. He responded only with an ancient Earth line. "As you sow, so shall you reap."

"He has a death grip on something," one of the Borg remarked as she yanked on his right hand. "It won't budge."

"He's unconscious," Jollin remarked, coming around and trying to force the fist open, but his grip remained like iron. "Muscle relaxant would be a mistake," he said looking to Koli.

"Agreed," she said. "It's not worth the risk. Let's get these connections attached so we can proceed."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian dropped with a sigh on the couch, then flopped over and stretched out, exhaustion filling every limb. His head ground into the pillow a little to get comfortable, then he let out another sigh, this one sounding rather contented. A little imitation answered him, and he opened his eyes and saw the little pair of eyes peaking over the top of the disposal bin. He smiled, and the eyes changed, and when she slipped out he saw a grin a Cheshire cat would envy. "Helloy," she said. Whether it was an amalgam of "hello" and "ahoy" or just a personal quirk, Sebastian couldn't say, but he ignored the detail.

"Hello," he answered.

"Wha'you'do-ing?" Morgan asked, having constructed a new word for today.

"I'm taking a nap, sweetie."

"Oh, you ti-yerd?" she asked with a look of concern.

"Yes," Sebastian answered, trying not to smile too much.

"Oh," she said, as if it were the worst news in the world. "You go'n go sleepy?"

"Yes," he answered.

"O-kay," she answered, as if giving in on the point. "I go'n get blankeh foh you?"

"Okay," Sebastian said as she pulled the comforter off the other sofa and dragged it over.

Carefully, like she was packing fragile items for a hazardous journey, she covered him up and tucked the blanket around him. She finished, leaving only Sebastian’s head protruding from the downy mass of his body. She looked it over with obvious approval and a sound of satisfaction. "Dere!" she said with a big nod.

"Thank you," Sebastian offered.

"Yeah. You comfy?"

"Yes, I'm comfy."

"Yeah, you comfy." She started petting the blanket like Sebastian was a big pet. "Nice an' wa'm," she said in a little sing-song voice. She let out another loud sigh, then walked over to the other couch and pulled off the pillow. "Daddy," she said, holding up the huge pillow in front of her, "I go'n lay down wi' you?"

"You want to lay down with me?" Sebastian said in pretend shock.

"Yeah."

"No! You don't want to lay down with me!"

"Noy," Morgan insisted, the little pirate apparently showing through. "I wan' lay down wi' you."

"Okay," Sebastian said, pretending to give in, and the girl crawled under the blanket while Sebastian helped position the pillow for her. She lay on her back and offered yet another sigh, then looked at Sebastian. "Comfy?" he asked.

"Yeah," she answered. "Nice an' wa'm."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Okay," Koli said, "I'm activating power. Five percent... ten."

"Initiate energy discharges at multiples of twenty-five," Jollin said.

"Affirmative."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The room was terribly dark, lit only by the soft glow of Sebastian's lightsaber. He looked around with patience, but the shadows betrayed nothing. "You cannot hide forever."

"Watch me," Morgan answered.

Sebastian continued his slow examination of the room, but whirled as he felt a tremor. His lightsaber came up and blocked Morgan's strike, then dropped to catch the second, then snapped up and struck her arm. She hissed and grabbed the spot. "Not bad," he said. "But you left yourself open.

"I see that," Morgan said through her teeth.

"It's alright. This is just practice."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Twenty percent. Twenty-five," Koli said.

"Initiate discharge," Jollin said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian let out a cry and clutched his chest. Morgan turned off her lightsaber, her shock temporarily forgotten. "What is it?"

"I - I don't know." Sebastian panted. "It's... it's nothing. Let's not worry about it."

"Let me at least-"

"It's nothing," Sebastian said, straightening up and taking a steadying breath. He looked at the worry in Morgan's face; she had more important things to think about. "You are unwise to lower your defenses," he said quickly, and Morgan instinctively reactivated her blade to catch his strike. He gave her a lopsided grin and the sparring continued.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"No change in the readings," Jollin said.

"Thirty percent. Thirty-five."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Morgan clicked the last piece of her lightsaber in place. It floated across the clearing to her grandfather, who took it out of the air and thumbed it on. The blue blade sprung forth, and there was applause from the gathered family members. Luke nodded with approval as he switched it off. "Perfect," he remarked. "And I confer on you the rank of Jedi Knight."

Morgan had a grin that seemed almost too large for her face as her mother and father came over to embrace her. The family gathered together and posed for holograms before settling in for the celebration. Han and Luke, who had put aside their differences ages ago, were off to the side reminiscing about the adventures of their youth to the other grandchildren, arguing occasionally about who saved who when. Sebastian gave his daughter a fatherly kiss on the cheek. "We're very proud of you, sweetie," he whispered.

"Thanks, I- daddy!"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Discharge initiated. Fifty-five percent."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian straightened up, his joy drained away into disbelief. "No," he said as he stared up at the shape that eclipsed the sun.

"Get inside!" Annika shouted, rounding up the children and heading for the shelter. Many had already done just that, but Sebastian was staring up at the descending Borg cube. Morgan tugged on his arm, but he didn't move.

"Daddy, come on!"

"No," he said hollowly.

"Daddy, please!"

"I should have known it was too good to last," Sebastian said. The Borg Cube was moving slowly across the landscape, perhaps half a kilometer up now.

"Daddy, I love you! Please, come with us!"

Sebastian tore his eyes away from the Cube and looked at his daughters tear-filled eyes. He held her tight, looking over her shoulder at the Cube. It was nearly here now, nearly finished. And none of them would exist any more. He squeezed her tighter. This place isn’t real... it’s just your dreams, Bastian. The years with her weren’t real. This life wasn’t real...

“I love you too, sweetie,” he said. That was real enough for him. “And I’m not going to let you go.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Sixty percent," Koli said. "Seventy."

"I'm still not detecting any change," Jollin said.

"Give it time," the Queen said. "We've waited this long, let the experiment finish before you jump to conclusions."

"Seventy-five percent," Koli said. "Initiating final discharge." The bass sound shook the floor. "Eighty percent."

"What if you kill him?" Jollin said.

"We'll worry about that if it happens."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Borg Cube settled to the ground in front of the house. It blocked out the light, its top blending in with the sky some three kilometers up. Sebastian stood before it and trembled, but not with fear. Anger, unfettered rage, filled him. "No," he said in a voice only he heard. "Not this time. You're not taking them away from me... not again."

"You will be assimilated," the Cube answered.

"The hell I will," he answered.

"Daddy?" Morgan asked, unable to hide her fear now that it had finally arrived, "What can we do?"

"Keep away from it!" he shouted at her, then turned back to the cube. "And you, leave us alone!"

"Resistance is futile."

"No!" Sebastian screamed as a wall seemed to fall down in his mind, letting all of the anger and hurt and grief out in a single moment. This is real! This is the way it was supposed to be! He ran towards the Cube, an ant by comparison, but he pounded his fists on it in his rage.

"Your existence as you have known it is over."

"I made a promise!" he screamed as he beat on the cube. "I MADE A PROMISE!!!"
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian arched his back as every muscle tightened, and despite the fact that he was unconscious, he screamed. Energy arced from the walls into his body as alarms sounded, but it was beyond anyone's ability to shut down now. The room stank of ozone and the air had a tang of metal to it. Sebastian spasmed again with another scream. His fist flew open, and a gold ring tumbled from his grip and hit the floor, bouncing and rolling off into a dark corner, unnoticed.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian beat the cube until his hands were covered in his own blood, but still he refused to relent. "Get out of here!" he screamed. "Leave them alone! LEAVE THEM ALONE!" He struck again, and the Cube gave under the blow. He must have struck a power line, because he felt energy course through his body and toss him backwards through the air, dropping him on his back before blackness overtook him.
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the wake of the experiment came a silence like a lead weight. The Queen looked about at the other ex-Borg for a moment, then down at the still body of Sebastian. "Is he?" she asked, reaching towards him tentatively. She leapt away as his eyes snapped open.

Sebastian sat up, his face expressionless. When he spoke, his tone was even and devoid of any emotion. "A vessel has been detected," he announced. "Class IV Tactical Cube, undamaged in Sector 0197. Initiating emergency propulsion protocols, stand by."

The Queen looked uncertainly from face to face, until she was looking at Sebastian. "You have access to the Borg information networks?"

"Affirmative. 61.42% of data still accessible. 7.19% recoverable. All remaining data irretrievable."

"What about our ships?" Koli asked.

"24.74% of known vessels unaccounted for," Sebastian said. "Of remaining vessels, 62.05% damaged but salvageable. 12.80% damaged beyond repair. Remaining vessels awaiting Borg drones for operation."

"That's a lot of vessels to fill," Jollen remarked. "We'll need to assimilate a world to have sufficient drones."

"Negative," Sebastian said. "Such an action would interfere with new Borg protocols. Cloning of existing Borg using maturation chambers is the only acceptable choice."

"But how are we supposed to improve ourselves otherwise?" Jollen demanded.

"We will adapt," the Queen said. "Sebastian is correct, we can't follow the old ways any longer. New protocols are necessary to ensure our survival."

"There are 1718 Borg in the colony," Koli said. "If we take a sample from everyone, that will net us-"

"Negative," Sebastian said. "This Borg cannot be cloned."

"Why not?" Koli asked.

"Medical records indicate dangerous anomalous results in the cloning of beings known as 'Force sensitive.' Danger to the Collective outweighs benefit of potential drones."

"I think we should listen to him," the Queen said. "After all, he has a mechanical leg over an organic one, which shows how seriously they take this."

"It's a superstitious bit of nonsense," Jollen said.

"That superstition is bringing a Tactical Cube here," the Queen said. "We'd best be prepared for its arrival. No doubt Imperial forces have detected an unknown vessel and will investigate, and we don't have the power to resist, even with a Tactical Cube."

They got to work preparing the outcasts in the settlement for the final moments they'd been awaiting through the long years. Sebastian, however, continued the work of organizing the tasks to most efficiently proceed with the rebuilding of the collective. 7 of 9 had done a great deal of damage in those final moments, but not more than could be undone with sufficient analysis. First-

"Daddy?"

Sebastian opened his eyes, but the light hit him like a sledgehammer. "Morgan?" he groaned.

"Oh, thank the Force," she said, taking his hand in hers. "We were so worried about you. Are you feeling all right?"

"No," he admitted. Then he gave her hand a squeeze and smiled for her. "But I will be." He reached up and brushed the tears away from Morgan's eyes. "I promised you, remember? I'll always be here for you."

"I know," she said. "I love you, daddy."

"I love you too, Morgan." He swallowed. "I think I'm going to get a little more sleep," he said.

"Okay," Morgan said. "Good night."

"Good night, sweetie." And he laid back, content in the knowledge that they were safe. It was all he needed; he could face anything so long as he knew that.

"Regeneration cycle complete." Sebastian opened his eyes and exited his alcove. The Borg Queen was nearby, and he joined her in analyzing the initial results of the cloning efforts, a display screen nearby showing the whirl of hyperspace as their Cube fled from Sanctuary. Their cloning projections, naturally, were being borne out, and their number would soon be sufficient. They said nothing to one another, however. There was nothing to say. Their thoughts were one.



Chuck

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Part XXXI


The brain is not a muscle, but Annika Hansen Skywalker worked it anyway. With each passing day she subjected her body to a rigorous physical workout, ate like a starved Klingon, and took nutrient supplements like they were going out of style. But throughout it all Annika worked her mind, putting pieces together in every conceivable way. While her disease-ravaged body grew stronger and more fit, she poured over information with a passion. The Vong threatened on two fronts, the Empire was collapsing, Garak's terrorist network was running unchecked, and more and more systems broke away from the united front needed to stop all of it. For Annika, none of that was important. The one and only thing that mattered was finding her son.

Annika had started with Sanctuary, but the news from that planet wasn't good. The island of the outcast Borg was gone... not the settlement, the entire island, as if some great force had scooped it up. Annika had a worried suspicion it had been.

There were rumors, of course, of Borg ships being detected. None of them were confirmed, but Annika catalogued them all, just in case. When she'd destroyed the Borg Collective all those years ago, she knew most of the ships would be in deep space... and space was rather big. Salvagers no doubt stumbled across a lost ship here and there, but it didn't even qualify as a drop in the bucket. The firepower of a Borg fleet at the height of its power had been out there, waiting for someone to come along and fill those ships again, waiting to send them forth to begin assimilating once again. Sebastian had truly awakened a sleeping giant, one that a galaxy too weakened from war and internal strife, might not be able to repel.

At the moment Annika was working with the physical therapist when the Doctor walked up. Apparently knowing of the Doctor's personal relationship with this patient, the therapist left them alone. Annika finished lifting the weights, then set them back down on the supports. "Something on your mind?" she asked, wiping the sweat from her face with a towel.

"I'm not sure this qualifies as good news or bad news," the Doctor said. "But whatever it is, you're fit for release, if that's what you want."

"Of course it's what I want," Annika said.

The Doctor tried to hide his downcast look. "You know, you're not going to be able to find him... you know how big the Collective was, one drone out of that many-"

"Thanks for the pessimism," Annika said, "but I've already reached the same conclusion."

"I'm truly sorry, Annika," the Doctor said. "I can't imagine how you must feel, but I'm glad to see you've accepted the reality of the situation."

"Oh, I've accepted nothing of the sort," Annika said. "I just know that it will be next to impossible to track Sebastian down. Therefore, there's only one alternative."

"And what's that?" the Doctor asked.

"Time travel," Annika said.

The Doctor paused. "I hope you're trying to be funny," he said.

"Was it funny?"

"No."

"Then obviously I wasn't trying."

"Annika," the Doctor said, "I'd like to think you're a very close friend, so let me just say that that is the stupidest plan I've ever heard."

"Why? We've done things like this before."

"You can't just mess around with time for your own personal benefit!"

"Not just me," Annika said. "Think about how much damage the Borg can cause. If I can travel back to before Sebastian went to Sanctuary, I can save him and prevent the return of the Collective."

"Would you listen to yourself? You sound like you should be in an asylum."

"That's what we all told the captain," Annika said. "Remember? When she started exploring ways to travel back in time and prevent the conquest?"

"And she was crazy too," the Doctor said. "Look, we're all still here, and while the Empire may be crumbling, it's still the conqueror of our galaxy. Kathryn Janeway went mad trying to find a way to undo this... and if you try it you'll do the same thing. Sebastian didn't make this sacrifice so you could waste your life chasing a mad dream!"

"I won't need to," Annika said. "I'm not looking to do something as grand as the captain was trying. All I need is a small jump, and I'm sure she's mastered that."

"What are you saying?" the Doctor asked.

"I'm going to find Kathryn Janeway," Annika said. "If anyone can save my son from himself, it's her."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Admiral Yunar was leading a fleet into suspected Hirogen territory when the distress signal was received. Leading a fleet would normally have been a sign of his skill in command, but in this case he knew it was a conscious effort to shove him out of the way while the Empire quietly forgot about him. The Hirogen, already battered to near extinction, were only slightly more threatening right now than the Dominion, which had lost the "near" some time ago. They hadn't found a sign of Hirogen activity during the four months they'd been out here. The distress signal was a welcome diversion, but it quickly led to confusion. "What was that, captain?" he asked after the details were given.

"It's from Anbari, admiral," Captain Tilane, captain of the flagship, replied. "They say the Borg have invaded."

"Alert all commands," Yunar said. "We'll intercept."

"Aye, sir," the captain said. While he saw to the details, Yunar reflected. There'd been rumors for weeks now of Borg ships being spotted near civilized worlds, but they'd been seen as just that. After all, with the collapsing central government, the threat of Garak, the Vong, and the tragic loss of one of only two Eclipses left, the fear that their ancient enemy would resurface was understandable. This was probably nothing, but if it wasn't, it would help restore Yunar's damaged repuation by stopping them. Anbari, he recalled, was a fairly recent expansion of Cybot, a major droid manufacturing corporation that exploited the vast untamed wilderness of the Milky Way. Like many businesses not directly related to the war effort, the crippled economy was causing them plenty of financial troubles. Any attack would be a serious blow to the corporation, and that would trickle down to the employees, suppliers, and eventually the Empire as a whole... a very small overall effect, but these days the Empire seemed balanced on the edge of a razor.

The fleet dropped out of hyperspace, and Yunar was more than a little surprised to see the report was correct. At least twenty Borg cubes were within the system, many near Anbari itself; but they hadn't begun assimilating the world itself yet. "Have the fleet close to optimal range," he told the captain.

"Aye, admiral," the captain replied.

"Sir," the comm officer turned, "we've received another message from Anbari. They claim the distress signal was a misunderstanding, that they do not need assistance."

Yunar looked from the officer to the captain to the view out the window and back again. "It's a trick," he said. "That's obviously a Borg fleet."

"Yes, admiral," the comm officer said. "They claim there's not a problem, sir, that the Borg were expected."

"That's ridiculous," Yunar said.

"Yes sir." The comm officer paused. "I'm now receiving a communication from one of the Borg ships, sir. They want to speak with you, sir."

Yunar couldn't believe it, but there was no harm in listening to the Borg's standard hail. "Fine." Instead of the audio declaration, however, the flat display showed the interior of a Borg ship, and facing the screen was a Devaronian rather than a drone. "What's going on?" Yunar demanded."

"I'm Romal," the Devaronian said. "I speak for the Borg."

Admiral Yunar looked him over. "You don't look like a Borg," he remarked.

"No, admiral, I'm their attorney."

Yunar looked over to Captain Tilane, but the captain didn't seem to have anything more to offer than the admiral himself. Finally, after the silence became unbearable, he replied, "You are claiming you are the Borg's lawyer?"

"They are quite agreeable clients," Romal replied.

Yunar opened his mouth to reply, then paused. "Wait, I think I know you. Scandal wasn't it, on..." he snapped his fingers a few times as he thought. "Ord Mantel?"

"Sullust," Romal said sharply, "and it's ancient history."

"They nearly hung you in the streets," Yunar said.

"We are aware of the biographical information of Romal the Attorney," the Borg said.

"He was in bed with Black Sun," Yunar said reproachfully. "And it seems he's sunk even lower now."

"Your opinion of us is irrelevant," the Borg said. "We are minding our own business."

"You've invaded Imperial space," Yunar said, "which makes it our business."

"Actually, admiral," Romal interrupted, "this is their space."

"Not for long."

"Wait, wait! I mean it's still Imperial space, but the Borg own the system."

Yunar's mouth was opened but the last few words froze the part of his brain responsible for speaking until the processing was complete. "Did you say 'own?'"

"Yes, Cybot sold the system lock, stock, and barrel. Cutbacks. Troubling times, you know."

"But, but-" Yunar floundered. "They can't buy this system! Who do they think they are?!"

"We are the Borg, and we have a receipt."

"If the system was bought with stolen credits," the captain pointed out, "then the contract is null and void."

"Yes, that's right!" Yunar said, latching on to the point. "And how else would you have gotten that kind of money, huh?"

"A business loan from the Banking Clan, actually," Romal said. "In these uncertain times, they felt we offered a rather worthwhile investment."

"What business?" Yunar asked. "The Borg are... the Borg!"

"Ah, but the loan is made out to The Borg Collective."

"A Limited Liability Company," the Borg added.

"The Borg Collective holds the patents on seven pharmaceutical products including the cure for the fungal disease," Romal said. "They've already amassed quite a small fortune, enough to demonstrate their viability."

"And now they want to mass produce droids?" Yunar said suspiciously. "Why?"

"Its technological distinctiveness will be added to our portfolio," the Borg answered.

"It doesn't matter why, admiral," Romal said. "What matters is that it's all perfectly legitimate. The employees, like myself, will not be assimilated, and are free to move on at any time."

"Then why the distress signal?" the captain asked.

"Apparently a disgruntled employee contacted you hoping you would strike before this could all be straightened out."

"He will not receive his fruit basket," the Borg added.

"I assure you, though, this is an overall positive change for the sector," Romal said.

"This is ludicrous!" Yunar said. "This has to be a trick!"

"Why? Think about this for a moment, admiral. The Collective are the shareholders, the executives, the middle managers... and they all think as one, are concerned only with the economic success of the Borg as a whole rather than their own individual desires."

"And that desire is to destroy us!" Yunar snapped.

"Military might was a means towards an end," the Borg replied, "not the end itself. Our goals have not changed, only the method used to attain them."

"Biological samples can be bought," Romal said. "As can technology and raw materials. You are looking at the new economic superpower of the Empire, admiral. The Ferengi can't outspend them, the syndicates can't outmuscle them, and the terrorists can't infiltrate them."

"And the Empire can't tolerate them," Yunar said.

Romal folded his hands and grinned like only a Devaronian could. "Admiral, what exactly is the problem here, really?" he asked in oily tones. "You beat the Borg, and they know it, and accept it. They follow Imperial laws, serve as Imperial citizens, pay Imperial taxes... what more do you want them to do?"

"We have adapted to service your culture," the Borg said.

Captain Tilane cleared his throat. "Admiral, we've just received a communication from the regional governor, instructing us to ignore the distress call and not interfere in the Borg's legitimate activities."

Admiral Yunar glowered at him. "This is madness," he said in a voice only the two of them could hear.

"I agree, sir, but do we want to deliberately ignore the wishes of the governor and attack privately-owned ships in the hands of Imperial citizenry... ships that haven't even raised shields?"

"They're plotting something!" Yunar hissed. There was only one "s" in the sentence but he managed it all the same.

"Sir, respectfully, if you give the order we will fire, but given the incident with the Shade I truly think you'd be ending your career."

"For shooting at the Borg?!"

"I don't like it either, sir, but that slimy Devaronian is right about the law. The Borg were declared citizens after the conquest."

"The law said it applied to the former members of the Collective."

"Yes, but there was no stipulation on them never rejoining the Collective," the captain pointed out. "In any event, sir, interpreting the law isn't our jobs, it's for the civilian authorities, and they seem to be coming down on the side of the Borg."

Admiral Yunar fumed as he looked between the captain and the Borg ships. If it weren't for the fiasco with the Shade he could probably get away with it, but he was called on the carpet for pulling rank in that instance, even though he knew it was the right thing. "Mr. Romal," he finally said, "be assured we will be watching your clients very closely."

"So long as you do not interfere in legitimate business, I'm sure there's no problem with that," Romal answered.

"Would you be interested in joining our mailing list?" the Borg asked. Lumar nearly broke the control hitting the off switch.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The screen showed the star destroyers vanishing into hyperspace, and Romal's smile as well. He stumbled back into the wall, his legs shaking. "I was sure he was going to fire," he said as the Borg Queen and Sebastian walked up. "I'm going to need to change my pants!"

"It seemed a risk, but the new protocols are proving effective," the Queen admitted.

"Did you have to leave the shields down though?" Romal said. "I'm not irreplaceable, you know. There's only one of me."

"You are replaceable," Sebastian pointed out. "We can hire another lawyer."

"Thanks," Romal said bitterly.

"Shields would not stop their weapons," Sebastian said. "But credits did. Credits are power in the new order."

"Now we must see to our new business," the Queen said. "The worker who sent the distress signal is to be terminated."

"I hope you mean 'fired' when you say that," Romal said, mopping his brow with a rag.

"Yes. Remind the employees that anyone who does not wish to work for us is free to leave."

"Once that is complete," Sebastian added, "increase worker salaries by 12.17% to offset loss of morale."

"Noted," Romal said. "When will you directly take over operations?"

"When we resume production," Sebastian said. "We have selected drones for interfacing with the forty-seven managers." The Collective, after careful calculation, chose duplicate copies of a drone from species 3109. It was judged that a small, thin humanoid female would be less threatening to the human employees. Their opinions were irrelevant, but how those opinions influenced their work was not.

"Very well," Romal said. "I should point out that the distributors may refuse to supply your products, and legally they don't need a reason."

"They will not refuse," the Queen said. "Our units will have a cost reduction of 39.81%. They will be unable to resist no matter their personal opinions of the Borg."

"Um, you do realize that will substantially cut into your profits," Romal said. "Between the workers' salaries, machine upkeep, the loan-"

"We are aware," Sebastian said. "It is irrelevant. The system has adequate minerals to enhance our technological distinctiveness, and sufficient unused space on the planet for the construction facilities."

"Construction?" Romal said hesitantly. "What, exactly, will you be constructing?"

"Droids, Romal the Attorney, as it says on our paperwork."



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That Chapter once again has sent me onto the floor trying not to laugh my lungs out of my body.

"WE ARE THE BORG. FRUIT BASKETS ARE RELEVENT"

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Sure the Borg took a while to adapt to the empire. But they have adapted, and hired lawyers.

Quote:
"We are the Borg, and we have a receipt."

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Chris OFarrell wrote:
That Chapter once again has sent me onto the floor trying not to laugh my lungs out of my body.

"WE ARE THE BORG. FRUIT BASKETS ARE RELEVENT"


Thank you. It has always made me laugh trying to picture the Borg attempting to "get it" when it comes to all these standard business practices that really don't seem to have much logic to them. Salaries they can figure out to the decimal point, but the humanoid factor leaves them stymied. :)



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bilateralrope wrote:
Sure the Borg took a while to adapt to the empire. But they have adapted, and hired lawyers.

Quote:
"We are the Borg, and we have a receipt."


The only thing truly more dangerous than the Borg are Borg with attorneys.



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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-14 07:13am
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Part XXXII


The Eclipse was General Sunhaf's flagship in the campaign against the Vong. In the shocking aftermath of the loss of the Shade, and the realization that things were about to get a whole lot worse for the Empire, Sunhaf had the final ship of that line rechristened. It was the Eclipse that spearheaded the final assault into the Milky Way decades ago, and now it would do the same again, back in their own galaxy.

Sunhaf had been ready to retire, but then the Vong came. They swept across a thousand sectors and left the Empire scrambling to recover. He was long past his physical prime, but his mind was as sharp as ever, and he had the experience to mount the kind of campaign the Empire needed. Despite their every setback, he managed to hold back the tide. Every morning he arose from his bunk and entered the command center, and they'd fill him in on the latest news. It was mostly bad, but Sunhaf didn't rant about it, he just piled up the sandbags and held back the flood another day.

Today he didn't come.

Captain Tyrine went down to General Sunhaf's quarters himself. He'd been expecting this; he'd seen the man work, the weariness in his step, the way his face seemed a little more grey and hollow each day. Sunhaf ignored all comments, and piled sandbags.

Sunhaf was in bed, as expected. Whatever it had been seemed to have been quick and peaceful. His expression wasn't what Tyrine would call happy, but he looked contented. He could rest now.

The Empire, however, had to proceed quickly. There were sandbags to move.
--------------------------------------------------------------

A tricorder beeped in her hands. It was an old, old habit, operating a tricorder, and Seven did it without thought. Data was gathered, and she filed it away for later mental sifting. It was part of what being a science officer had been, back when there was a Starfleet to be a science officer in. The Empire didn't put much stock in science officers... they tended to bring in civilian experts for those rare times when it was necessary. Besides Luke's mission for the Emperor, it had never included Seven.

Seven... it was so easy to fall back into that name, she thought. It had been a voluntary concession when she'd teamed up with the Jedi Academy to investigate the crash of the Shade; having an Anakin and Annika around was an open invitation for confusion among people who were just trying to remember how to use their developing Jedi senses. Even after all this time of being Annika, it slipped on to her like an old coat from storage. She was Seven, using a tricorder, trying to solve a puzzle. She could have been that same ex-drone serving on Voyager right now, if not for the personal growth of the past few decades. She also felt better than ever. Years of wasting away had taken their toll, and she'd had to work hard to undo it, but now, without the disease sapping her strength, she felt unbelievable! She felt like she could lift a speeder if she wanted to, run a hundred kilometers, take down any Vong, any time, anywhere. But Vong weren't her concern at the moment. For Seven, her concern was the Borg, and only the Borg. Maybe that was why the old name fit so well... it put her in that mindset again. The young woman who had stormed the nest and destroyed them once, Seven, was here on the planet to make sure they didn't rise up again.

This planet, an unpopulated world in the delta quadrant, had now completely changed the direction of two entire galaxies of people. The Empire had sent in a salvage team... they found wreckage from the ship, and bodies. Lots and lots of bodies. Leia hadn't been among them, but there were no survivors found, despite an extensive search. That alone was perhaps the most shocking. There had been thousands of dead bodies across the planet, those who hadn't died from the landing had been found and murdered... with a lightsaber. If this Sith didn't have followers, then he was very dedicated to his craft. The dead were gone however, and the remains of the ship salvaged. They found no clues to where the Sith had gone off to, and the homing beacon had clearly been destroyed. Without the Empress' continued insistence on that point, the Sith matter was dropped from priority. With the exception of the Shade -a tragedy caused by Leia's insistence in hunting them down in the first place- the Sith had caused relatively few actual deaths, certainly not enough to concern the Empire when far greater losses were being caused by the assorted factions aligned against it. The Orion Syndicate or Black Sun caused more losses than the Sith had before this provocation. The feeling seemed to be that he should be left alone until the more immediate threats to the Empire were dealt with. Naturally Seven and the Jedi felt differently. The Empire's statistics had been family and friends; you didn't just calculate that on a cost-benefit analysis chart.

"Anything?" Laudica asked as Seven closed up the tricorder.

"Nothing new," Seven admitted. "I think it's time we check out the caverns."

Laudica nodded but was visibly unhappy about it. "I knew you were going to say that," she offered with a hint of a grumble. "I haven't had much luck with caves."

"We're not spelunking, we're investigating," Seven said as she climbed back onto her swoop. Laudica did the same, and after a quick comm message to the others, headed towards the entrance. The docking bay had been stripped of equipment, but it was still obviously an artificial structure; there were signs of damage on the walls from backwash. They made their way further inside, Seven noting the evidence of prefab walls and such being mounted on walls, floors, or even ceilings. There were signs everywhere of inhabitance if you knew what to look for, but little information of any use to Seven, even with her tricorder. Laudica, however, was another story.

"This place feels absolutely frigid," she remarked. "I mean, I'm sweating, but it also feels like I'm back on Ilum."

"Dark side?" Seven asked.

Laudica licked her lips and nodded, looking about with apprehension. "I don't like this place..." she said. "I feel like something's watching me, like a predator."

Seven looked at her tricorder again. "I'm not picking up any signs of life besides us," she said. "Whatever you're sensing, it's not physical."

Laudica moved cautiously now, as if being stalked by something. "Can't you feel that?" she asked.

"Sorry, no," Seven said.

"I'm starting to wish I'd never signed on for this," Laudica said.

"Nonsense," Seven said. "No pay, long hours, and all the lightsaber hits you can't dodge. It's perfect."

"You're not making me feel any better," Laudica remarked.

"No offense intended, but your little Jedi-Sith feuds have caused me no end of grief over the years."

"Oh, and your little thing with Darth Whind, what was that, a parking disagreement?"

Seven balked. "How'd you know about-" She froze. "Anakin," she said sharply.

"He can be quite chatty," Laudica said with a voice like thin syrup.

"I can imagine," Seven said. "The whole light-dark thing, though, it's a little hard for a mind like mine to wrap around."

"There I can-" Laudica froze in mid-step, then fumbled for her commlink. "Anakin," she said sharply, "get over here right now."

"What is it?" Seven asked even as she thumbed it off.

"I'm not sure," Laudica said, "and I'm not going to bother trying to guess at this point. I might summon Dark side demons or something."

Anakin arrived along with a couple other students. "What is it?" he asked as soon as he saw Laudica.

"You tell me," she said. "Come here." Anakin stepped over to where she was, and his eyes went wide.

"She was here," Anakin said distantly. "I can feel it." He trailed off for a moment. "Give me some room, please," he said. "In fact, if everyone but Seven could leave, this would probably be easier." The students departed as Anakin sat on the floor. Seven waited in silence as he slipped into meditation; she'd seen her husband and son at it often enough to view it as mundane. She waited, thinking over the data and seeing if anything interesting presents itself. Finally, he opened his eyes. "She died here," he said at last. "It was a jumble, but I saw the Sith, no question."

"Anyone else?" Seven asked.

"Yes," Anakin said, seemingly a bit surprised by the question. "A woman."

"Elderly," Seven said. "Seventy or so. White hair."

"Yes," Anakin said. Seven showed him a picture. "A little older, but yeah," he said. "How'd you know?"

"A guess," Seven said as she put the datapad away. "It's why I came... I was kind of hoping I was wrong, but this confirms it." She shook her head. "Janeway's in league with the Sith.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Delric Taar sat at his desk, sipping his drink. He'd been nursing it for the better part of an hour by now. On his desk sat a datacard; he could feel it staring at him, as he had the moment the academy administrator had brought it in. It was from General Sunhaf, to be delivered upon his death. Sunhaf was much too pragmatic and direct for this to be some kind of silly sentimental nonsense; there was only one reason he would have done this.

The glass seemed to have grown bored and decided to join in the staring contest. Taar set it down on the desk.

The Empire was going to fall. He'd never admit that out loud, but he'd been watching it, like a stack of wobbling dishes just waiting for the inevitable. With the death of the Empress along with the crew of the Shade, things were collapsing. The Senate had been reconvened for all the good it did; they had no power any more. No one could enforce their decisions, not with the Imperial military struggling to battle the Vong on two fronts and resist the hidden attackers from within. Local authorities still had some influence, but the central government had lost its hold. The brain was dead, and the limbs still moved for the moment before they too would wither and die.

There were Borg running unchecked in the delta quadrant. Taar shook his head and slammed down the remains of his drink at the thought. Perfectly legal, allowed to roam free under Imperial protection! He'd warned they'd go back to this, but no one had listened. He was a relic, a throwback, poisoned by prejudices of an era best forgotten. They had never had to face a Cube with mere centimeters of plastisteel separating you from them, or watch them strip apart an Imperial fleet while all you could do was turn and run. They'd heard the Borg's standard hail, but never issued live from the Collective itself, a very personal announcement of exactly who it was that would be assimilated. None of them ever knew how close the Borg came to assimilating every last one of them... and instead of thanks, they ignored the accomplishments, even second-guessed them. And now that the Borg were back, they couldn't see past their bank accounts! They didn't get it: the Borg couldn't be bargained with! With each passing day the Collective was growing stronger, and people would smile and hand them over resources and technology without the slightest thought of how it could all turn against them. It was like meeting a mugger in a dark alley to sell them a blaster... sure, you'll be richer for a moment...

Then there was that whole mess with the Vong in the Milky Way. Taar would have had half the fleet on KP duty for that fiasco, what with the lapses in their defenses and the business with the superlaser. It wasn't that they were necessarily incompetent; Taar had had many of his students go on to fill command positions. But they lacked the proper mindset and perspective. They looked at this whole thing as if victory was inevitable... they didn't remember that the Empire fell at what was at the time the height of its power. It took a man like Thrawn to hold some small relic together, to have the vision to do what needed to be done at the time to weather the storm.

But Thrawn wasn't here... so who was going to do it this time?

"Kriff," Taar said under his breath as he shoved the datacard into the slot and activated his desktop holoprojector. A small image of the late General Sunhaf appeared... he looked far worse than Taar had remembered.

"Hello, Delric," Sunhaf said. "I'm sure by now you've already figured out why I sent you this hologram, so I won't insult your intelligence by explaining myself. I'd have done this while I was still alive, but all you would've done was argue with me... so now you can argue with yourself.

"We both watched it fall, Delric. We know what happens. You can see the signs, can't you? The Empress may have had the right idea under more ideal circumstances, but things haven't been ideal, and they've been getting worse. These Vong... they're a nasty business. We can't bounce back against them, and that's a fact. We go down this time, and we stay down for good.

"We didn't always get along, and I'll be the first to admit that, but I do think you're a top-notch commander who knows when to put the Empire before his personal career. I'm doing what I can... all I can... but I don't think it'll be enough, and I can't let this Empire you and I worked so hard to rebuild fall again. If I know anything about you, it's that you can't do the same.

"I know what you're probably thinking. You've been out of it for too long, fighting paper battles instead of the real thing. But the fact is, you can rally support amongst the military to stop the breakdown we had last time. You made more of them sweat in your classroom than the Vong ever did. If you lead, I guarantee you many will follow. I wouldn't have sent you this if I didn't believe it, Delric.

"But what about the civilian authority, you might ask. Frankly, Delric, it's a failed experiment. Make the decisions and tell them how we're going to do things, tell 'em why if you feel like it, but do what you think needs to be done. I don't have the energy any more to fight that kind of battle and hold off the Vong, but you were never afraid of that... you had the stones to stand up to Palpatine himself. The Imperial Senate will be a cinch.

"Everything is already taken care of; full rank, total command, it's all waiting for you... if you want it. No, if you take it; I know you don't want it. But it's time, Delric, to stop being a paper general and be a real one. Remember: we won't rise up again."

The little hologram vanished. Taar didn't move for some time. Sunhaf hadn't said anything Taar hadn't expected, except for the information about having full command. Taar had figured he'd have to fight for control, and he didn't want that kind of thing to worry about. The politics of command was something he loathed to this very day, whether it was dealing with each other or the civilian authorities. If he could do it without that... Oh, wake up, Delric! You can't get rid of that, that's why you wanted out in the first place! A paper general didn't have to worry about symbols on a paper bickering behind his back over the placement of an arrow.

Taar had originally joined the Academy to pit himself against the best up and coming pilots. But age had taken its toll on him, and he couldn't keep up with them any more. He should have retired from service, enjoyed a nice pension somewhere and forgotten all about the fleet. But he'd found a new passion in training up the pilots in the classroom. He liked awakening the true leadership potential of students who had the ambition to rise but the unrefined talent. He loved the moment when they finally stopped regurgitating and started thinking. More and more of the pilots had taken over command positions because cranky old Taar had pushed them until they wanted to murder him in his sleep. He'd already given plenty of extra years to the Empire...

Taar could deal with all of it the way he knew it should be done. Taar could forget the politics and win the war, the thing that really counted, the thing everyone else just assumed was going to happen even though the Empire weakened day after day. Taar could probably also work himself to an early grave, like Sunhaf did. Then again, the Vong would probably be happy to put him in one themselves, whether he fought or not.

Captain Tyrine must have been roused from his sleep, but he still managed to look soldierly. "General," he said in greeting. Obviously he knew or at least suspected the content of Sunhaf's message for him. "I take it you have made a decision."

"I do this," Taar said, "we do it my way. None of this political stuff, no protocol nonsense, we do things my way."

"That's the idea, general."

Taar formed the words as if announcing his own death sentence. "I'll be on a shuttle in the morning."



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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-14 07:13am
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Part XXXIII


On the abandoned world of the Sith, Seven and Anakin continued their discussion of the former denizens of this world, and the ramifications of their actions. The revelation that former Starfleet captain Janeway had been with them was a particularly hot topic.

"What makes you think this Janeway has thrown in with the Sith?" Anakin asked.

"Besides the fact you saw her with him?" Seven replied.

"Yes. I mean, you said you suspected it."

"I did. It was the reason I came here, something I'd been thinking about since I heard your description of the attacker." Seven started packing her gear up. "The captain has been becoming more and more obsessed with preventing the conquest of the Milky Way by the Empire." Anakin gave her a look that showed just how insane the idea was. "She was making a lot of progress in manipulating time," Seven said. "I'd been helping her at first, but when I found out what she was planning, I dropped out. I have far too much to lose to allow her to mess with the past... a little push in the wrong place, and I might never have met Luke." She was quiet as she reflected for a time; Anakin didn't interrupt. "Despite all the downswings, I wouldn't trade a minute for anything."

"Then why didn't you stop her?" Anakin asked.

"Because her experiments always had the same results," Seven explained. "She couldn't change the past, no matter what she tried. I don't know if it was a mistake in her method or if some force like Q or something was stopping her, but regardless, her attempts all ended with failure."

"But still, she could have succeeded."

"You have to understand the captain," Seven said. "When she gets stuck on something, you can't make her let go; you've got to wait until she decides it on her own. The only way to stop her would have been to have her locked up... and I couldn't do that. Crazy or not, I'd still be a drone if it wasn't for her."

“But now you suspect she’s involved with the Sith?”

“She has time manipulating technology,” Seven pointed out. “And a passionate desire to undo the Empire. She could certainly have accidentally brought a dark future or alternate Skywalker of some kind here, and then fallen under his influence with promises of destroying the Empire.”

“It would explain a lot of things,” Anakin admitted. “So, what happens now?”

“For me, nothing much has changed,” Seven said. “This only further demonstrates how far she’s come with her technology. She can help me undo what happened with Sebastian.”

“But the Sith-“

“I know,” Seven said with frustration. “But what other choice do I have? Every day increases the likelihood that I’ll be prevented from interfering, just like she is. I’d rather risk facing a Sith than allowing this timeline to continue.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

General Taar had gotten very little sleep on his trip to the Eclipse; there was far too much that had to be done to indulge in that, so he took some stims. He wondered for a moment if that was what had done Sunhaf in... if he'd pushed himself too far and finally just wore out. Of course, Taar was probably in better shape and health, but it did serve as a warning, even if he hadn't. Once he had things under control he'd be certain to watch his health better, but for now he needed to be on top of every little thing.

Within an hour of arriving on board the Eclipse he hosted a meeting of the military high command. They needed to fill him in on the past, and he'd fill them in on the future. Some were there in person, most were there by hologram. Taar sat down at the head of the table. He looked at each face in turn... some he'd seen in his classroom years ago, others were only records he'd examined on his way here. There were a few of the political incompetents, but it looks like Sunhaf had done a good job of reassigning them or putting them on the front line and letting nature take its course. "As of this moment," he said at last, "the Empire is under the de facto control of the military. The military is under my control. I trust I don't need to fill in the blanks."

"Has the Imperial Senate approved this?" asked Admiral Cirule. It wasn't accusational; Taar remembered that even as a student, Cirule had always been thorough. He didn't make assumptions when it could be avoided, and he always waited on the intelligence reports before moving in unless it absolutely couldn't be delayed. Cirule had been a fair pilot... probably could have graduated, and wound up joining the legion of dead pilots the Empire had over the years, his potential wasted. Taar pushed him to transfer, although the boy had resisted at the time. There's a certain romance to being a fighter pilot, no doubt the result of holo-novels and overactive imaginations; they'd sent more than one substandard student into Taar's classroom. There was a good chance Cirule could be a strong ally for Taar, if the political situation turned ugly.

"The Senate is having difficulty achieving a quorum these days," Taar said, "nevermind a decision. We're in the wilderness again, gentlemen... and ladies." General Hnial and Admiral Pomier nodded; there had apparently been more headway for women than Taar had heard. So long as they did their job Taar didn't mind what was going on under their uniforms. "Survival is the issue at hand, and that's where our concern has got to lie. We are not going to win this war unless we make some changes, and that's a fact."

"We have had many successes in recent months," General Corbin remarked. "Respectfully, sir, things aren't as bad as you seem to paint them."

Corbin... Taar had read his file over. Not stupid by any means, but arrogant and ambitious. He took risks... sometimes they paid off, sometimes they didn't, but he had a lot of blood on his hands. He was the kind of officer who would disregard Taar's orders if he felt the need, which made him an uncertain element. Taar had made a note to keep him on a short leash. "Your opinion is noted, general," Taar said. "But since I'm running things now, it's my opinion that counts."

"I understand, sir," Corbin said. "I just thought you'd prefer to hear an opinion from someone who's been on the front lines." Unlike you. Corbin hadn't said the words, but Taar knew they were there.

"General Corbin," Taar said as he folded his hands and leaned forward on the table, "I'm an old man who has lost patience for bullshit. I'm not going to sit here and verbally fence with you in some ridiculous attempt to score points in a political game. The difference between you and me is: you want this job, but don't have it, and I have this job, but don't want it. If I thought there were the slightest chance you could pull this off I would gladly leave this entire mess in your hands and head back to Ralltiir to build model starships. Obviously, though, I am here, which is my assessment of your ability to handle this situation."

"If that's how you feel-" Corbin began, ignoring the slights in much the same way slime slides off a snail.

"It is," Taar cut in. "Fate and talent have brought you this far, general, be happy for that fact and do the job placed before you. There's a lot of work left ahead for those who keep their heads and don't waste their time posing for statues that may never be built." Before Corbin could compose a rebuttal Taar moved on. "Looking at the matter at hand. Our forces are stretched thin, with ships all over the galaxies trying to quell revolts and whatnot. This stops now. A message is going out across the Milky Way: you're either with us voluntarily, or you're on your own."

There were exchanged looks of confusion around the table. "Sir," General Hnial said, "I think that's why the systems are revolting."

"Exactly. So let them."

"Let systems leave the Empire?" Corbin replied.

"I see you're quick," Taar said. "Yes, enough of this death of a thousand cuts nonsense. These Milky Way powers are drawing our forces away from the front lines where we need them. If they want to try running themselves, then we'll let them have the chance."

"After all the work to conquer them, you'll just let them go?" Corbin said, not bothering to hide his outrage."

"No one in this room knows more than I do the price we paid for that galaxy," Taar pointed out. "But it is not worth losing this one over. So, we'll give the systems of the Milky Way one week. Anyone who wants out of the Empire need only say so, and it'll be done. After that, we'll withdraw most of our fleet here, to the front lines. With our full attention on the Vong we can end this conflict once and for all."

"The Milky Way is a hotbed," Cirule pointed out. "Some are already well armed. They might try attacking our remaining worlds there if we pull too many out."

"I realize that," Taar said. "That's why we have point number two: Pax Eclipsa. Captain Tyrine," he said, and the captain rose from his seat along the wall. "You've been promoted to admiral." Tyrine nodded in acknowledgement. "You'll be taking the Eclipse into the Milky Way to take command of a fleet I've formed from ships assigned throughout that galaxy. These are experienced captains... you’d be wise to heed their advice on local matters, but you’re going to be ultimately responsible. You will be enforcing the protection of our systems throughout the galaxy. If an independent system launches an attack against one of our worlds, you are authorized to destroy their planet, or planets if necessary. As soon as you take command you may fire the superlaser at your discretion until informed otherwise by the military command. The kid gloves are off, the brass knuckles are on."

"Understood, sir," Admiral Tyrine said.

"Now, the Delta Quadrant," Taar went on, as if every day he authorized entire worlds to be destroyed on whim. "There's a second Vong force in that part of the galaxy, yes?"

"Yes," Admiral Pomier said, "although they have been relatively quiet."

"I'm sure they are," Taar said. "Just like these Vong were quiet after their initial incursion into our galaxy. However, we can't afford to divert that much of our force to try and track them down. So, my order for the Milky Way will include an addition for certain sectors of the delta quadrant. If those worlds want to remain part of the Empire, they must contribute ten million credits, or fifty thousand conscripts. Mechanics, engineers, pilots, soldiers, I don't care, so long as we have manpower."

"I'm not sure many systems would agree to that," Admiral Pomier said.

"In the old days, Thrawn was able to wring a lot more out of them with the threat of the Borg," Taar said. "Most of them will give in. We'll use them to outfit a second army to face off against those Vong for the time being. And speaking of the Borg, they're going to be next on our list."

"You don't trust them," Cirule remarked. It wasn't a question; he'd attended Taar's lecture on the subject of the Collective.

"Not an inch," Taar said. "Once we take care of the Vong, the Borg will be next, so don't get too chummy with them, and keep your eyes open. When they come, they won't give you any warnings."

"They're technically a corporation now," Admiral Rinuld said. "Although I suppose since the military is in control we can dissolve the company's legal rights, even prohibit trading with them."

"The thought crossed my mind," Taar admitted. "But that might provoke them, and I don't want that. I never thought I'd say this, but they're not as great a threat. First our Vong, then the Milky Way Vong, then the Borg, then we set out to restore the Empire. Enough with this juggling act, let's focus on a task, get the job done, and then move on. We can afford the luxury of rebuilding once we know we'll still have something to build with." He consulted his list. "Admrial Hune," he said, then looked up. "The Defiance is under your command, yes?" The Defiance was an Executor-class star destroyer, one of several stationed along the border with the Vong.

"Yes, sir," Hune replied.

"It's my new base of operations," Taar said matter-of-factly. "I want the ship prepped for transfer to my direct control. Don't worry, you'll be getting plenty more ships to make up the difference."

"Yes, sir," Hune said, but this time with less enthusiasm.

"Good. Now, I understand we've caught some empty coralskippers in our last few engagements. Someone want to fill me in?"

Corbin spoke up. "Coralskippers can be individually piloted, but whenever possible the Vong prefer to allow their war coordinator to handle them directly. It ensures finer control."

"I know; what I want to know is if that's your conclusion."

"It seems so," Corbin said. "And to anticipate your next question, there's been no sign of the Yun-Yammka. Either they no longer possess the means to create it or they don't want to risk losing another yammosk to our Jedi allies."

"That might change if we hit them as hard as I plan," Taar said. "Did we ever work out a defense against whatever the hell it was?"

Admiral Tyrine spoke up. "If I may, general. General Sunhaf had numerous experts brought in to examine the issue, including the Jedi. No one was able to devise any means of stopping it, short of killing the yammosk itself."

"Then that should be our top priority. If the Vong get desperate, they may bring out their ace in the hole. Any idea where the yammosk might be?"

"It could be anywhere, sir," Corbin said. "We don't even know for certain there is one; it's just a supposition."

"Well, supposing wrong isn't going to hurt us in this case," Taar said. "I want everyone to understand that any evidence for the location of the war coordinator comes to me, no matter how insignificant it might seem. We're going to smoke this squid out."

The meeting continued, getting down to the more mundane matters. There wasn't much that actually needed to be changed in their deployment; Sunhaf had been doing a masterful job in that regard right up to the end. A few additional items were addressed, and then they were dismissed. As the holograms winked out and the room emptied, Taar remained in his chair. When he was alone, he switched his datapad over to the second point of order, thought a moment, then took another stim, just to be on the safe side. Feeling the fog clear from his mind, he instructed the communications officer to set him up a high security connection with Chandrilla. Moments later, a small hologram of Volgo Terraine appeared on the table. They exchange a few brief pleasantries, then got down to business.

"The word is that you've set up a little military junta," Terraine remarked.

"You say that as if it were a bad thing," Taar said. "The Empire's held together by spit and bailing wire at the moment; a little junta is just what the doctor ordered."

"I think we'll find out," Terraine said. "But I take it you didn't contact me so we could discuss political theory. You want information."

"Yes, the Rodian inside Vong territory..."

"Borda," Terraine filled in.

"Borda. His forces have been able to get us information, yes?"

“That’s right.”

"His alliance of bush pilots and ex-mercs reminds me of someone..." Taar let the idea hang there a moment. "I remember a lifetime ago when the rebels were a royal pain in the behind that the Empire was constantly trying to swat down. Made life very difficult for us."

"I wouldn't know," Terraine said.

"But the rebels were well equipped," Taar said. "Would it be possible for us to funnel materials to Borda and his people? Without alerting the Vong, I mean."

"You're going to turn them into a fifth column force?"

"Why not? As I said, the Rebel Alliance certainly made the Empire's life miserable. It'd be nice if there was one to help us for a change by working against our enemies. After all, that's what wore us down in the first place, the enemies within our midst."

"I'm not sure how keen he'd take this news," Terraine said. "They like to run independently."

"Fine," Taar said. "So long as they fight the Vong and not us, they're free to do what they like. It'll give the Vong something else to think about."

"That's normally not a problem for the war coordinator," Terraine pointed out.

Taar snapped his fingers. "That reminds me; any lead on where their yammosk might be?"

"Nothing," Terraine said. "I can keep you updated on that if it changes, however."

"Please do." Taar consulted his list; there was only one point left, and a rather unpleasant one. "One other thing," he said. "I need to get in touch with Elim Garak. Can you arrange it?"

"Garak's in hiding and untouchable, believe me," Terraine said.

"I just need to talk with him, remotely if necessary. Can you find a way to do that?"

"I suppose if there was a reason a message might get to Garak to contact you. What for?"

"To negotiate the surrender," Taar said.

"I'm afraid you don't understand Garak," Terraine said with a chuckle. "So long as he breaths he will never surrender, no matter what."

"No, I'm afraid it's you that doesn't understand." Taar said. "I'm not asking for his surrender, I'm asking him to accept ours."



Chuck

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Part XXXIV


On board the Defiance, a nineteen kilometer-long monument to naked aggression, sat General Delric Taar, de facto ruler of the Empire. Within a matter of days the Empire had been transformed into a sleek killing machine by, as Taar viewed it, hacking off gangrenous limbs to stop the infection. The revolution was over; at least, it was almost over. There was one last item that had to be dealt with before the Vong were shown what this new Empire could do.

The holoprojector on the desk lit up, revealing one of the most well-known and despised individuals in either galaxy. His continued survival despite the best efforts of the Empire showed how skilled this master of hiding was. There were rumors that Garak would sometimes be missing from his cell, then turning up later, being so skilled at concealment that even the guards couldn't find him. Taar dismissed them as just rumors. He knew it was more likely that Garak had fabricated the rumors himself; "why go to all the trouble of hoping for a good lie when you could create a better one?" would be Garak's philosophy.

"Ah, general, it's been a long time since I've had the pleasure." Garak smiled, but then, Garak always smiled, much the same way that tigers do. "I do hope this is a legitimate discussion and not some foolhardy attempt to trace my location; my people are quite technically skilled."

Taar laid the datapad down on the table. "No, Mr. Garak, this isn't a trick. I want this matter settled."

"You mean your surrender," Garak said. "That's what I was informed would be the subject of our discussion; not that I mind chatting with you, of course. It's refreshing to deal with a mind as base as my own."

"Yes, Mr. Garak, this is it. You've won, we concede that. You proved a very worthy adversary, you confounded us countless times, and you weren't afraid to play dirty, were you? You attacked civilian targets, assassinated our people, and managed to orchestrate the death of the Emperor."

"Don't forget about Earth's moon," Garak said, holding up a finger and letting his smile widen.

"Well, I won't credit you for failed efforts," Taar said.

"Ah, you do have me there, I'm afraid." Garak shrugged. "Pity... it would have been a most effective example."

"Let's not deal with could have beens, Mr. Garak," Taar said. "You've won, let's get on with the terms." Garak started to speak but Taar interrupted. "I have a list here of what we're willing to concede. Amnesty for you, an official Imperial apology for the destruction of Cardassia Prime, and an allocation of territory that includes the eleven settled Cardassian systems in the alpha quadrant."

"That's a nice start," Garak said. "What about war reparations? Say, one hundred million credits? Not enough to put any kind of crimp in the Imperial budget, but more than enough to jump start our economy."

"Thirty million," Taar said. "And you get to keep the Imperial equipment and facilities."

"Thirty-five, and a five year guarantee that the Empire won't impose tariffs on our goods."

"Done," Taar said. "You find the terms satisfactory?"

"Indeed," Garak said, "and I'm more than happy to accept the Empire's gracious surrender." Garak's voice could have left an oil slick. "I take it you have a few conditions of your own?"

"Nothing really," Taar said. "Cease and desist all hostilities, a guarantee you won't encourage further revolt within our territory, nothing to worry about."

"That's acceptable," Garak said.

"Good." Taar picked up his datapad, then snapped his fingers as if he'd forgotten something. "Oh yes, one other thing. Any Cardassian terrorist attack on our territory will be taken as a declaration of war, yes?"

"I will do my best to rein my people in," Garak said.

Taar tossed the datapad on the desk and looked up at Garak. That look had sent a chill up the spine of many a student, and Taar had spent years perfecting it. "I didn't ask for your best," he said in a voice like cracking glaciers. "Total cessation of Cardassian terrorism."

"I'm afraid that may not be possible."

"Try not to be afraid, Garak, it's unbecoming in a terrorist."

"You have a singular wit, general," Garak said. "But I'm afraid I can't speak for all of my people, or keep them under control."

"Well, it's funny you mention that," Taar said. "You might not have heard it, but I've placed Milky Way defense under the control of Admiral Tyrine. He's basically autonomous, able to handle assaults on the Empire in whatever manner he deems fit. Of course, he's been fighting in the front lines against the Vong for years now, so he probably doesn't think too politically... I doubt tariffs are going to be forefront on his mind." He sipped at his drink. "He'll probably be inclined to use the Eclipse I've given him."

Garak's expression hadn't changed at all; he'd also had a long time to develop it. "I really have to hand it to you Imperials. In the same conversation you offer apologies for blowing up our planet while simultaneously threatening to do it again. Quite a fascinating bit of schizophrenia."

"What, are you going to pretend to have the moral high ground here?" Taar asked. "After all the suffering your organization has caused?"

"Well, attempted genocide does tend to bring out the worst in people," Garak said. "Did you expect us to send you a thank you card?"

"The man who made that decision is dead; you've seen to that."

"That won't erase the crime," Garak said. "It won't bring back my Cardassia."

"No, but when you put it that way, what would?" Taar steepled his fingers, which looks even better when you have hands as gnarled as age had made his. "Even if you killed every last one of us, it won't bring back a dead world. However, if you try, you'll have plenty more on your hands."

The remark must have really gotten to him because there was a noticeable flicker in Garak's expression. "As I said, I have to hand it to the Empire."

Taar looked stone-faced over his fingers at Garak. "We can fight dirty too." The conversation continued without words as the two men stared at one another. "We're tired of fighting you, Garak. You're getting everything we can give you, provided you leave us alone. If you don't, then I will show you how dirty we can fight." He leaned forward, and his voice was full of menace. "I will exterminate your kind. My every waking thought will be devoted to hunting down and killing every last Cardassian. Even if it means letting Vong overrun Chandrilla itself, I'll put more men and ships towards ferreting out the last of your kind. You wanted our attention, Mr. Garak, you've got it, and if I were you, I'd gather up your operatives, return to Cardassian space, and hide in the hopes that we forget all about you."

Garak was quiet, his smile was gone, but Taar could still see the wheels turning below. In Taar's experience, Cardassians were a prideful species, but Garak never allowed that to interfere with what needed to be said or done. There was that reptilian patience about him... he could be conspiring against Taar, or simply deciding how he could use this to land on his feet. "Very well, general. Your terms are acceptable. If there's nothing else, I can see I'm going to have a lot of work to do." The hologram vanished.

Taar leaned back in his chair and set his feet up on the desk. He'd have gone as high as fifty million; Garak must've underestimated the amount of damage he was causing.

Amnesty for Garak... that would be the hardest part for the Imperial citizenry to swallow. But Garak was old, even for a Cardassian; time would render its final judgment on him soon enough, and the point was to allow them to focus on the important matters. Garak was a little problem, the holograms were a little problem, the Klingons were a little problem, and all together they added up to a big problem. However, the Vong were a big problem all by themselves, so that by worrying about the sum total of little problems that one had grown into a threat to the Empire's very existence. It should have been over from the get-go; the Empire had the military might and the critical resources to mop the floor with the Vong. Instead, it had been like a Wookiee that was too concerned with a swarm of angry bees to pay attention to the man coming up with a club. Garak was a very persistent hornet, and he liked to go for the eyes.

Garak probably knew how far Taar could be pushed, but he'd be cautious. He also knew that in his crazed rant was the truth that the Empire would use every tool it had, up to and including a planet-busting weapon. They'd turn their attention back to the Cardassians eventually, and Garak probably suspected they would, but there wasn't much that could be done without risking far more than he'd ever allowed. Thrawn wouldn't have allowed it; he'd have drawn Garak out and killed him within the first month, but now the man had introduced a cancer that was beyond even his own control. Still, Taar knew that the best way to rein them in was to sic the man who trained them on their tail.

Taar consulted his datapad. What else was there? Oh yes... he'd almost forgotten. He leaned over and flipped the comm on the table. "Admiral, instruct the tenth fleet to mobilize." There was a reply of affirmation and Taar switched it off. Hopefully that would be sufficient distraction for Terraine.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Sith had emerged into the light just long enough to snare the Empress, and with their task done, returned to their hiding places within the unsettled worlds. The Empire, even in its collapse, was massive in scope, yet settlements –especially in the Milky Way– were sparse. The Oracle knew where to hide from unwanted eyes, working like a slow poison even as the body crippled and died from it. Taar’s desperate amputation was foreseen... was counted on. The Vong was his only focus, his obsession; all others were of no importance. None but the Jedi now sought out the hiding place of the Sith... except one.

Ben Skywalker awoke every day to misery. It was not because of the Oracle. Little had changed in her manner since the battle with the Empress, except that she had done away with the pretense. Ben knew who was the master, and who was the mere servant, and in retrospect it was obvious he always had been. He ran her errands, cutting down her enemies, advancing her plans, all under the mistaken belief it was to restore his own lost power. She’d manipulated him, and not just with words... For all his power, he was weak. And there, every morning, he awoke to the hand. Mechanical, lifeless, and a fraud just like him. I am the price of weakness, it seemed to say. I am the price of baseless arrogance. The failure with Sebastian had been a horrible personal embarrassment, but at least he had taken satisfaction in knowing that it was only by Ben Sisko’s trickery that the half-breed still lived. What was his excuse with Leia, whom he’d bested easily in his own realm? He lived now only because she allowed it... he lived now only because she rejected the Dark Side, a most depressing fact to say the least. If she could beat him in the light, then what did that say about the basic truth that the darkness was stronger? But clinging to that truth then left only one logical conclusion: he must be far weaker than he’d imagined.

It’s not real, he told himself bitterly when he looked at his hand. They said you couldn’t feel the difference, but Ben could. He’d done this to Jedi dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times, although they rarely lived long enough to need a prosthetic. For the others, he’d always enjoyed the thought. He’d imagined them staring at the mechanical imitation of a hand or a foot, and know that somewhere out there, Ben Skywalker was plotting and preparing... that eventually he would come and finish what had been delayed. And he’d always come...

Sometimes, on the cusp of waking and sleeping, when the mind is unsure of the real and the unreal, Ben thought he could hear them all laughing.

There was a summoning from the Oracle, and grudgingly Ben answered it. She was in her laboratory, overcrowded with her equipment, watching various images from throughout the galaxies being played out on display screens around the room. She stood amongst them, tapping her lips thoughtfully as her eyes flickered over them. She seemed engrossed in them... perhaps he could kill her now, before she had time to react. He quickly dismissed the thought just as he had all the times before. She did nothing to hide the power now... unnatural power. Ben could sense it, the impurity within the taint... it was neither science nor Force, but a perverted combination of both. Sith sourcery. A dead art, but what matter is that to someone who can manipulate time and cross dimensions? Ben could only wildly speculate as to how it had gone, how much of it was raw talent and how much was twisting herself using the foul arts. But her hatred for the Empire... that must have given her power. And yet, now that the veil was removed and the crippled old witch revealed as a true Sith master, he could still sense that it all was in the service of that hate, and what a hate it was. Darth Bane himself would no doubt have commented on its intensity, and the Oracle tended to it like a meticulous gardener, fostering and shaping it to further the final end. He could sense that her only regret had been not being able to kill Palpatine herself and shattering Coruscant at her own command. But she would topple the Empire, and that was a feat that would dwarf both those acts.

“Your failure has had unanticipated consequences,” she finally said to him, her eyes never stopping their pursuit.

“I am sorry, my master,” Ben said. Pride had made the words difficult, but self-preservation, which had spent years being neglected, had lately been quite good at pushing it around.

The displays flickered as they changed, and Ben saw the same woman from dozens of different points of view. He didn’t recognize her at first, but the Oracle filled him in. “Seven of Nine,” she said, “should have perished from the disease. Now she’s out wandering the galaxy.”

Ben put it together. The cyborg wife of his father in this universe. “Yes, master. But, as you said, one person is not going to make a great difference.”

The Oracle glared at him, and Ben swallowed despite himself. He thought he saw a flame swirl in her eyes a moment before she spoke. “This one person completely upset the balance of power across the entire galaxy. And she now seeks us out.”

“We are well hidden, master.”

“Seven was always far too resourceful,” the Oracle said. “There was a reason she was to be eliminated.”

“She isn’t even a Jedi.”

“She has killed Sith,” the Oracle said sharply. “Would you lightly dismiss anyone who could face Mara Jade in personal combat and defeat her?”

A chill passed through Ben at the mention of the name. “You wish me to kill her?” he finally asked.

“No,” the Oracle said. “As I said, she’s very resourceful, and I would not have a duplication of the disaster that led to this complication.”

Bringing up his failure wasn’t the worst part for Ben, it was the fact that she brought it up merely as a justification for her plan, as if she considered Ben an unreliable lackey. Ben Skywalker, who had scoured the Jedi from the face of a galaxy, deemed unworthy to kill one woman who couldn’t even wield the Force. “Then what would you have me do, master?”

“She wishes to find me,” the Oracle said. “Bring her here, and I will decide her fate. If she can be persuaded to help me in my cause, she will prove an invaluable ally, and if not, then I shall correct history. Either way, it will be dealt with, and we can leave this deviation behind us.”

“Yes, master,” Ben said, and turned to leave.

“Remember,” the Oracle said, “alive. Do not attempt to redeem yourself by trying to kill her; I will be most dissatisfied if you do.”

“Of course, master.” And Ben left to fulfill another of the Oracle’s errands.



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Part XXXV


Across the long stretches of the galaxy, over distances where even light itself could not travel within a man's lifetime, imaginary lines were drawn. Out here, with no solid mater to create boundaries, mathematics chopped the galaxy into more manageable chunks, assigning names and numbers to gas and dust and vacuum. Beings fought and died throughout them to wrest control of the numbers from the other side. It was cold mathematics that decided where blood would be spilled and flesh turned to ash.

The Tenth Fleet was spread across one hundred twenty sectors and consisted of two thousand warships plus their escorts. On order from General Taar, they advanced. It was a chaotic affair, as space is a three-dimensional thing and thus moving in a plane is not going to be successful in repelling opposing forces a mere light-year above or below the advance. Ships slipped from position to position, reinforcing some areas and metaphorically digging in at others, and here and there running across Vong warships. Star destroyer and coralship met in space and exchanged planet-scorching weaponry until only debris remained. It wasn't a particularly important advance; it increased the pressure on Vong forces to be sure, but its true purpose lay in the chaos of the dance. Ships slipped here and there, but within it, more and more broke away from the fleet escort. They were snub fighters mostly, not something worth noting in small numbers. They made their way through the lines to different destinations within Vong space, careful to stay spread out from the others to avoid attracting attention.

Along with two A-Wings sped the Millennium Falcon, its notorious owner at the controls as they settled in for a landing on a deserted planet. Almost another dozen ships had already arrived and were being inspected by Borda's men. The Falcon had come full circle now, from cargo vessel to combat fighter to explorer and back again. Han and Kilana left them to unload the parts and equipment they'd brought and found Borda himself speaking with one of his Rodian cronies. Han caught some of it, but they seemed reluctant to talk in front of him. "[Excuse me a moment,]" he said to Han as he went to address a small huddle of arguing beings nearby.

"No problems with the plan," Han informed the remaining Rodian. "The Vong showed no sign of tracking us."

"[Let us hope not,]" the Rodian remarked. "[I find this entire affair ill-advised.]"

"What's he saying?" Kilana asked.

Han tried not to glare at her, but her antics ever since signing on had driven him up the wall. She spoke no languages the universal translator couldn't handle, she had no piloting experience at all, and she displayed all the mechanical aptitude of a Luddite.

"[Your companion doesn't seem very bright.]"

"I'm afraid you might be right," Han said.

"[She looks like a prostitute,]" the Rodian remarked. "[Is that why Taar sent her?]"

It was an uncalled for statement, but unfortunately it also was a fairly correct assessment. "She's had some experience-"

"He's asking about me?" Kilana interrupted.

"Y-es," Han said, wondering how best to continue the discussion without it blowing up. Then Kilana turned to the Rodian.

"What you're doing here is a great thing," she said, "and I'll provide whatever service I can to aid you in your struggle." Han bit his lip to hold back the smile. "I'm not afraid of getting a little dirty if that's what it takes." Han bit harder.

The Rodian stared at Kilana a moment, then turned back to Han. "[I take it back; this was a great idea.]"

"Don't get your hopes up," Han told him, then took Kilana's hand and led her towards Borda. "If you're not going to learn the language," he said in a low tone, "don't try to speak."

"I just want him to know I'm eager," Kilana said, sounding wounded.

"No problem there," Han remarked. Borda had just dismissed the grumbling mob and turned his attention to Han. "Sorry for the intrusion, general."

"[I don't know if I care for that title,]" Borda remarked. "[Or of being a pawn of the Empire.]"

"I've spoken with Volgo Terraine on this and he assures me that you will remain completely autonomous," Han said. "General Taar just wants your alliance to be well-supplied."

"[With thirty-year old fighters?]" Borda asked.

"It's the easiest to smuggle in-" Han began, but Borda waved his reply away.

"[We have few fighters that are superior,]" Borda admitted. "[But the Empire seems to feel we should be transformed into a military unit; we are civilians.]"

"But you've been fighting a war," Han pointed out. "I've heard of what you've had to train your people to do. Taar may have his head up in the clouds, but he is right that you're pretty much like the Rebel Alliance was in the old days."

"[This would be the rebellion to overthrow the Empire?]" Borda asked. "[You see my hesitation to follow in their footsteps.]"

"Point taken," Han said. "Look, the ships, the equipment, it's all yours to do with as you like. Leave it here to rust if that suits you. But like it or not, you're an alliance rebelling against the dominant force in this part of the galaxy. If I were in your position, I'd let them have it with everything I could get my hands on."

Borda's face was unreadable. "[And you did,]" Borda said. "[I'm more inclined to listen to people who back up their talk with actions. But we are not Imperial pawns to be sacrificed; I fear the Empire will sell us out to the Vong if they think it could bring them victory.]"

Han took Borda away from prying ears and spoke in a low voice. "I wish I could offer you some guarantees, Borda," Han said. "A while ago I could have offered some, but that's changed now. Everything's falling apart, and I'm just a man who's not so young any more trying to hold it back because it keeps getting into my house and taking my family away from me."

"[You haven't started taking this war personally, have you?]"

"A smart woman I know once told me that when it comes to family, it doesn't get any more personal." Han shook his head a little. "They took my boy, then my wife, and I know the rest are in danger. So I'm doing whatever I can to stop it now, even if it means being stuck with her," he jerked a thumb back at Kilana, "to try and make it right."

Borda looked over Han's shoulder at the Vorta, then back at Han. "[You're an older gentleman being escorted around by a beautiful young woman, all alone in your big ship... your sacrifice is an inspiration.]"

"It's not like that," Han said sharply.

"[That's disappointing to hear,]" Borda said.

Han sighed. "I get the feeling I'm not going to be taken seriously so long as I've got her tagging along."

"[Then why did you take her along?]" Borda asked.

Han looked back at her, then shrugged. "I don't know... but not because of what you think. May seem old fashioned, but I stick to members of my own species when it comes to romance."

"[What other possible use can she serve?]" Borda asked. "[I mean no disrespect; forty percent of my operatives are females of various species, but they all have some kind of useful skills. What can she do?]"

"I don't know," Han admitted. "She's eager and optimistic; reminds me of a scruffy-headed kid I knew a long time ago who went on to do some great things." When he spoke next, it was mostly to himself. "Maybe I'm trying to make up for not forgiving him when I had the chance."

"[Hmm,]" Borda said. "[Well, good luck to you in your endeavors. I hope ours can have a small amount as well.]"

"Thanks, but I didn't just come out here to deliver supplies and let you ogle my companion," Han said. He handed Borda a datapad. "I was told you might have some information on this shipment. We've come a long way hoping that was correct."

Borda examined the datapad. "[Let me consult with my people,]" Borda said, then walked off. Kilana strolled up, then stood beside Han. She seemed to be scanning the edge of the clearing while she spoke.

"Vorta have excellent hearing," she said.

Han closed his eyes and a small sound escaped his throat, like you might make when you know a bridge below you is about to dump you into a lake of sewerage. "I'm sorry," he said.

"I speak Huttese," she remarked.

Han nodded, then quickly turned to stare at her. "Then why-"

"If someone thinks you are stupid and don't speak the language," Kilana said, "they'll let their guard down, underestimate you. The Orion Syndicate used me for more than just a pleasure tool... I extracted information. You'd be amazed what people will say to a stupid pretty girl." She turned to him and gave him the most vacant look he'd ever seen, with a grin like someone had just knocked her silly. "It's not like we'll remember any of it." The expression left. "Oh, by the way, that was Leedo, very important man in Borda's operation, but doesn't approve of the involvement with the Empire. I took the liberty of borrowing his code cylinder if you want to check his records."

Han suppressed a smile. "I take back everything I said," he remarked as he felt it slip easily into his pocket like the old days before he became respectable. She had a practiced hand, he could tell, and being partnered with a criminal suddenly seemed very useful. "But I wouldn't try something like that again while we're here."

"Not to worry," Kilana said. "After what happened he'd be too embarrassed to even suspect I could fool him. Did Borda fill you in?"

"He's looking it over now," Han said. "Hopefully he's got something, otherwise I don't think we've got any leads left."

"[Mr. Solo,]" Borda said coming back, "[we did track the shipment you asked about. My scouts on Iebron noted it six months ago. The information is all here,]" he passed the datapad back to Han.

Han glanced at it, then did a double-take. "Are you sure this is right?" he asked, his voice edged with steel.

"[There was no mistake,]" Borda said.

Han nodded grimly. "Thanks for your help," he said, then walked double-time back to the Falcon, Kilana rushing to catch up.

"What is it?" she asked.

"We're leaving," Han said.

"So I gathered," Kilana said. "Why?"

"The equipment the Vong got from the Nom Anor," Han said, "there's only one thing you can do with it."

"And what's that?"

Han ground his teeth as he stormed up the ramp. "Carbon-freezing."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Cardassian shuttle set down in the docking bay of the Sith world; no one met them, but Garak had the codes for landing, naturally. This entire affair had been financed by his efforts, a wise investment to be sure. The Oracle had been Garak's edge throughout his campaign, but all things had to come to an end. With him were twenty of his best operatives, skilled men in a fight; not that he'd need them of course, but it was always nice to have an armed man in the background. The true danger, Ben Skywalker, was gone for the time being; Garak had been waiting for just such an opportunity.

As expected, the Oracle was in her laboratory, a myriad of events being played out on the displays around the room. At the moment, however, she was completing a chemical concoction that Garak didn't really want to know about. "Oracle," he said, trying to get her attention.

"Some things cannot be halted," she remarked, still looking at the swirling liquid. It glowed faintly blue.

"This won't take long," Garak said, but paused as he watched her fill the hypospray with the liquid. "What is that?" he asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

"A key, Mr. Garak," the Oracle said. "A key to things you cannot imagine." She held it to her neck and the hypospray discharged. It fell from her trembling fingers and she half-gagged, half-choked. Her eyes opened, and for a second they glowed yellow, then blue, then returned to normal.

"I see," Garak said, grateful that the madness of the Oracle wasn't going to be his problem any longer. "Speaking of keys, I'm afraid I have some rather bad news for you. I'm afraid we're going to have lock down your operation."

The Oracle got back to her feet and went about her business as if he wasn't even there. "That's quite impossible," she said. "My work is not yet finished."

"I realize this may come as a bit of a shock," Garak began.

"Nothing comes as a shock, Mr. Garak," the Oracle remarked. "Did you think that I didn't know you were speaking with General Taar?" She did nothing Garak could see, but nonetheless the displays flipped and showed both Garak and Taar discussing the terms of surrender; neither was a hologram.

"How did you - How did you do that?" Garak asked. There were angles from which it was impossible for a recorder to be hidden, and he took daily pains to ensure not one, not to mention the seven or so he saw before him, would be present. He also couldn't imagine Taar's office having such security failings.

"You have no idea what has been unleashed," the Oracle said. "Did you truly think that all of this was for your benefit? That I would devote my life to fulfilling your limited vision? Mr. Garak, you have been funding the means to do far more than merely rebuild a broken people, you will have helped me build a new galaxy."

Garak looked from display to display. It wasn't possible, but here the proof was, right before him. He turned back to the Oracle. "I'm not really interested in your madness any more, Janeway. As you can see, the Empire is giving us what we want, and all they want is for us to leave them be. I don't see that as being too unreasonable."

"The Empire will fall," she told him, and her eyes seemed to flash again. "You cannot negotiate with them on this, Garak. You must see this through to the end."

"This is the end," Garak said. "The Empire insists that none of my operations can continue to oppose them, and I cannot take the risk of your antics being traced back to me. The Sith are one thing, but your operations will have to be stopped."

"No, Garak," the Oracle said in a voice like a quiet rebuke, "nothing stops. This war is not over yet."

"Janeway-"

"Oracle," she interrupted. "I see what you can't see, hear the voices you won't listen to."

"Yes, I'm not surprised," Garak remarked in all honesty. "Now listen, I did not bring these guards along for show-"

"Yes, you did," the Oracle said. "But you're not afraid to use them."

"That's right," Garak said. "Now, we can end this without me having to kill you. Given all your aid, that is something I'd rather not have to do. There may be a place in the new Cardassia for you if you come with us."

"No, Garak. You are a small man with small dreams, and I've no more time to humor you."

The displays changed, and now it was Garak talking to Calrissian. "You can't back out now-" "You're in too deep at this point-" "There's no way out-" "You can't hide our connection any longer on your own-" "I own you now-" "My cause is your cause now-" "It ends when I say it ends-"

"Very amusing trick," Garak said. "But this is getting tiring, Oracle. Cooperate, and-" There was a sound like someone popping steel popcorn, and Garak saw the power packs ejecting from all the blaster rifles his men had. Garak's blaster flew from his grip into the Oracle's outstretched hand even as the lights vanished.

Then there was a sound like the grounding of a reactor as ten lightsabers lit in the darkness. Garak reacted, but felt himself being thrown across the room into a wall. As he struggled he could see the lights dance and hear the screams. It lasted for seconds, then the lightsabers winked out, and he was left pinned to the wall. His breathing seemed terribly loud in his ears, and he felt completely blind and helpless.

"You will return to Cardassian space," the Oracle said out of the darkness. "You will continue to provide whatever funds and equipment I demand of you. You will not assist our enemies. If you attempt to disobey me, then I will ensure the destruction of your worlds." Garak's breath froze in his chest as he saw the Oracle's eyes glowing in the darkness. "The Sith spared your life, Garak. It belongs to us now. Defy us, and you will lose far more."

Garak nodded. "But my people... Taar said-"

"Do not fear that old soldier," the Oracle said. "His threats are of no importance, because soon both he and his Empire will perish. I've already set it in motion." And the glowing eyes flashed in the darkness. "No, Garak... all you have to fear... is me."



Chuck

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Part XXXVI


Kilana flipped through the displays to get exterior shots of the facility. It was well guarded, with Vong forces everywhere. Han had managed to evade their sensors when he came in for a landing, but from the looks of things, it had all been in vain. "Han, this is crazy," she remarked.

"I get that a lot," Han said from the next room.

"You'd need an army to get into this place," she said, pressing on. "There's no way you can sneak past these guys. Whatever's down there, they don't want anyone getting to it."

"That's why we're going to get to it," Han answered.

"Listen," she said, getting up and coming into the next room, "I'll follow you anywhere, don't misunderstand, but this is going to be impossible."

"I get that a lot too," Han remarked as he lay on the floor modifying some piece of equipment from underneath.

"Do you want to get killed?" she asked, hands on her hips. "Is that what this is about?" She stopped. "That's it, isn't it. This is a suicide run."

"Bite your tongue," Han said.

"It is. It's because of what happened to your wife-"

Han wasn't old, although he obviously wasn't as young as he used to be. His body protested regularly with things that used to be second nature, and he was tired out so easily these days. But in that moment, he might as well have been twenty again as he pulled himself out and hopped to his feet, coming at Kilana so fast she backed into the wall. He stood before her, gesturing with the tool in a way that wasn't threatening, but the subtext was that it could be. "Never bring up my wife," he whispered in a voice that could cut glass. "Never!"

Kilana's eyes flicked between Han's face and the tool. "I meant no offense," she remarked.

Han stood there a few seconds longer, then lowered the tool. "Good," he said, but he had a smile on his face that obviously meant it wasn't. Only Han could smile like that, she thought; it was as cheerful as burning up on re-entry. He crawled back under the device and got back to work. "This isn't a suicide run; it's a rescue. Can't rescue anyone if you're dead, trust me on that. I've been rescuing people for so long I sometimes feel like printing up business cards."

"So," Kilana said, "if not a suicide run, then I hope you have a plan."

"Of course... you think I'm making this up as I go?"

"It seems your modus operandi."

"Hey, keep anatomy out of it," Han said. Then he slid out enough and winked. "Always said I'd never use one of these, but you're right, there's no way we're breaking into this place using any of the stuff I learned."

"What is it?" Kilana asked.

Han shook his head. "An abomination." He connected it to the console on the wall. "But I'm not too picky about the company I keep these days." He gave her another wink. "It's a transporter, a very primitive one."

"That just filled me with confidence," Kilana said, now looking at the device with quiet horror.

"Got it from Borda's people," Han said. "Nice for certain nefarious activities when you'll need to get out in a hurry."

"Don't you have a real transporter on this thing?" Kilana asked.

"Never saw the need," Han said. "And I don't particularly like them. Besides, the Falcon's got enough stuff jury-rigged into it, trying to add all that stuff in is liable to make the toilet flush every time I try to go to lightspeed."

"So instead, we're stuck with some piece of criminal equipment you've jury-rigged into the system. Did it even come with a manual?"

"Course it did," Han snapped. "Even read some of it." Han grabbed an untouched nectarine left over from lunch and placed it on the pad. "This should be no problem. I'll try beaming it back to the bowl."

"Should I get a blast shield?" Kilana asked.

"Ha-ha," Han said. "We'll see who's laughing in a second." He activated the controls and the nectarine faded out with twinkling lights. A moment later it appeared again at the bowl, at least, something did. It was black and shiny and pulsated violently before its skin ruptured like a pustule and sprayed some foul amber liquid into the air.

"Han," Kilana said, eyes wide in horror as she stared, "I'm not laughing. I'm definitely not laughing."

Han nodded wordlessly next to her. "I think I saw that manual around here somewhere." They flinched as the nectarine spat at them. "Why don't you get something and clean that up."

"I think I'd rather fight the Vong," Kilana said.

"I'll get it working safely," Han said.

"I'm talking about the thing," Kilana said. "I think it's staring at me."

"Nonsense, see, it's disintegrating." Even as he spoke it began shriveling up, leaking green froth as it did so.

"Oh my," Kilana said, trying not to gag as she cleaned it up. "For the first time I wish I was back on Ferenginar. Even the hutts weren't this nasty." There was a clatter as Han dropped the datapad. "What?"

"Nothng," Han said, perhaps a little too quickly. "Nothing scouring the inside of my skull won't cure." He picked up the datapad.

"I served them lunch once, you kriffing degenerate," Kilana said, tossing the mess into the disposal. "Let me know when you have this death trap fixed; I want to wash the stink off me." Han grunted as she left, then got back to work.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Instruct the guards to wait outside."

Senator Alixus froze and her bodyguards began going for their weapons, but familiarity kept her mind sharp. "Do as he says," she said quickly. "I have nothing to fear." Hands still on their weapons, the guards looked about the darkness of the senator's apartment for a few seconds before grudgingly slipping back into the garden. The door sealed behind them without Alixus even reaching for the controls.

"Good," the Sith said as he stepped from the shadows enough so that Alixus could make him out. "I've grown tired of killing trash."

"Can we please get on with your business?" Alixus said. Familiarity had also suppressed her fear. The Sith saw a need for her, which made her valuable and therefore not someone he'd kill without a good reason. Of course, the question was what end they were being directed towards. Was this Sith really with them, or was he setting them up for their own destruction, trying to earn trust so he could stab them in the back later? There was no way to be certain yet, so caution was the centermost thought on Alixus' mind.

"I've come with information for the Vong," the Sith said. "Information vital to their survival; life or death will depend upon this, so listen carefully."

"I will," Alixus said, although she maintained a skeptic’s perspective.

"The newly-formed rebel alliance will soon discover the hiding place of the war coordinator on Mi-noss," the Sith said. "It is too late to stop them. They will, however, present an opportunity the Vong can exploit."

"And what is that?" Alixus asked, wondering if she could trust this information.

"They will pass this information along to General Taar, the one who holds your Empire in such a tight fist, and who may have the strength to use that fist to smash the Vong forces, if some way is not found to stop him. He is clever, but he's out of practice, relying on old instincts to get him through these early days, and his instincts are where he is weakened."

"The Borg," Alixus said knowingly. His opinion for them was well-known, and whatever else you could say about the man, Alixus had to at least agree with him on that principle. The Borg were the antithesis of everything she believed in, stripping humanity of its strength and replacing it with synthetics, reducing the noble human spirit to autonomy. She'd fought to repeal their standings, but so far the Imperial Senate resisted her efforts. The Senate had little real power anyway, but they could cause havoc for this despised Collective if properly controlled.

"It stems from the Borg," the Sith said. "General Taar fears and hates that which he cannot resist. Vong ships and soldiers... this is understandable to him, he knows how to fight them. But the Yun-Yammka... how does a man who relies on energy weapons and machinery resist something like that?"

"The Jedi can fight it," Alixus pointed out. "That's why the Vong have not employed it."

"Yes, yes, but when news reaches him that the yammosk has been found on Mi-noss, do you think a man like Taar will pass this off to the Jedi to handle? He will hit the planet with every ship he can muster, to overwhelm the defenses and thoroughly annihilate the world. He will overcommit, because his fear will not allow him to take the risk of failure."

"How do you know this?" Alixus finally asked. "You come to me with plots and plans based upon things you couldn't possibly have learned-"

"It is unimportant; it matters only that it is. If you choose to ignore my warnings, then Taar will deal a severe blow to the Vong forces in this galaxy. With the death of the yammosk your ships will be once again thrown into confusion, the ships and beasts under its direct control will be left without direction. The Empire will press the advantage, and it will be the beginning of the end for the Vong." He paused, giving her time to think on it. "But," he said slowly, "if the Vong ambush the Empire at Mi-noss, destroy their forces and General Taar, then the Empire will be in no position to resist. There will be no one left to stop the splintering, and no one part will be able to resist the might of the Vong's army. This entire war will turn on Mi-noss, senator, but only you can decide which way it will turn."

"Yes," Alixus said with a nod. "Which is why I am left to wonder why you would tell us this? Do the Sith stand with us, or do you hope us to weaken the Empire, that you might remove them and take its place?"

"The Sith have always stood on the principle of strength and passion," the Sith answered. "We are alike in our goal."

"Yet you use technology," Alixus said, pointing towards the lightsaber. "You use it as a crutch to-" She was cut off as she felt a hand grip her throat and lift her off the floor... except there was no hand. She hung in the air, choking as the Sith answered.

"I will not defend myself to the likes of you," he said in a voice like a saw cutting through bone. With a gesture the invisible hand vanished and she dropped back to the floor. "The Vong have been forewarned," he said as she lay sprawled on the floor, coughing as she rubbed her throat. "Do what you will, but my part is done. I have other matters on Chandrilla that require my attention." Before Alixus could even get to her feet, he was already gone.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kilana was lying down in the main room of the Falcon; not sleeping, just staring at the ceiling, thinking. Introspection didn't come naturally to a Vorta because the Founders provided all the truths that were necessary. Even on Ferenginar she'd believed that her work, even when it was the most demeaning and horrible, was to their good, was part of their plan. There was no need to find wisdom in the plans of the Founders, she merely had to trust that there was some. With the crashing down of her world in the wake of Sebastian's revelation, and later, when the Founder had spoken with her, she'd found herself more and more questioning why things had to be the way they are. She also wondered about herself. Was her desire to participate in this war motivated by genetically programmed instincts to restore order or from a personal desire to stop the kinds of horrible things she'd witnessed. She sat up as Han came slowly into the room. "You couldn't fix it?" she asked, judging from his mannerisms.

"No, I got it," Han said. He tossed a nectarine in the air and caught it, then took a bite out of it. "No problems."

"Then what's wrong?" Kilana asked. "You look like you just got audited."

"Audited?"

"On Ferenginar, there were few worse things that could happen," Kilana said. "What's wrong?"

"Even with the Falcon's computer, it's still a tricky business. I'd hoped to operate it remotely, but I can't risk it. One of us has to stay up here."

"I take it you mean you," Kilana said.

Han walked over and slumped down into a chair. "You have no technical experience, right?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Yes," Han said. "Okay, let's get back to Borda."

"Wait," Kilana said, swinging her legs around and leaning towards him, "what do you mean."

"I can't send you down there alone," Han said. "It's too dangerous."

"But you'd send you down there all alone," Kilana said.

"Like I said, I'm a professional, I know what I'm doing."

"You're an arrogant jerk," Kilana said. "Who are you to decide whether something is too dangerous for me?"

"I'm someone with a lifetime’s experience of fighting, infiltrating, and just plain nasty behavior," Han said. "And you aren't ready for this."

"Did I say arrogant? I thoroughly underestimated you."

Han got to his feet and came towards her. "You don't know what it's going to be like down there," he said with a rumble in his voice. "Those Vong don't play around. What are you going to do if they find you, huh?" Han looked confused for a moment, then the white ball hit him in the chest and knocked him against the wall. When he opened his eyes, Kilana was standing over him.

"Bang," she said, pointing her finger at him. "I can handle myself." She extended a hand to help him up, but he shoved it away and pulled himself up instead. "I just want you to see-"

"You knew Sebastian," Han said, his index finger in her face, "did he seem strong-willed to you, committed?"

"Yes," Kilana said.

"They broke his spirit," Han said, "turned him into one of them. You think this little party trick of yours is going to impress them? You have no idea what you're going up against. These people don't kill you, they turn you into horrible things."

Kilana grabbed the hand and lowered it out of her face. "There's nothing the Vong could make me do that's worse than what I've already done."

"You really think that's the same thing?" Han asked.

"If you knew anything about women, you'd know that it is." She took a deep breath. "Give me a blaster, and let's get this over with."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven and the Jedi had done all they could on the abandoned Sith world, but Seven did return with them to Chandrilla to continue their research. The relationship between the Jedi and the late Emperor allowed them access to many ISB documents, and Seven began the long, tedious process of trying to find shreds of evidence and make a tapestry out of them. After three days there was little progress, but she pressed on, feeling this was the only worthwhile purpose she could put her mind to. If she succeeded, the Jedi could attack the Sith off guard and hopefully eliminate their threat, and also allowing Seven a chance to persuade Janeway to help her with the Borg question.

Seven was given a suite to stay in during her time on Chandrilla, and one of the Jedi always made it a point to escort her back. At first she thought it was pointless overprotection, but she quickly learned it wasn't really because of her, it was because of Luke, they had so many questions, and Seven could tell, they were holding back many more. She answered them all; Luke deserved to be remembered for all his sacrifices. Tonight it was Pallo, a bit of a slow-learner according to Jaina, but clearly very eager. There was no detail so minute that it didn't fascinate Pallo on the subject of the Jedi and Luke. He reminded her a little of Harry from his younger days. They walked at a slow pace into the turbolift, Seven taking time to reflect on her experiences, Pallo seemingly enthralled by every word. They walked just as easily down the hall, Seven winding the story to a close as they reached her room. Pallo entered the security code, and the door slid open.

Staring from within was the mask of Revan.

Seven froze, but Pallo instinctively reached for his lightsaber. With speed bordering on superhuman the Sith's right hand grabbed the Jedi's throat while the left caught the wrist with the lightsaber. "Run!" Pallo shouted before the sound of choking escaped his throat. The Sith pushed him back against the wall. Seven rushed to strike the opponent, but without losing his grip he swung a foot up and caught her in the mid-section, knocking her backwards and out of breath. She looked up at Pallo as his eyes bugged out, and wondered if she’d beaten the disease only to die here on Chandrilla as well.



Chuck

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Part XXXVII


Seven's mind flew at lightning speed as she assessed all aspects of the situation. At the moment, the Sith was still holding up the young Jedi, Pollo, by the throat, the lightsaber lit but useless in his grip while the Sith held his wrist unshakingly back out of harm's way. If she ran, he couldn't pursue easily.

The Sith had been in her room, ergo he was waiting for her. She was no Jedi, so if he'd singled her out it was either because she was considered a great enough threat, or to be used as a bargaining chip against the Jedi. Either way, staying here was only making his job easier.

But what about poor Pallo? That caused a moment's hesitation; leaving someone behind wasn't in her nature. But the fact was, he didn't have the training to stand up to the Sith, and she wasn't too sure if she still had it in her to either. He would kill Pallo either way... or would he? If she did run, wouldn't he pursue her rather than wasting time with some unimportant Jedi apprentice? The decision was reached; it took less than two seconds. Despite the blow she bolted down the corridor and reached for the button to call for the turbolift. A fraction of a second before she did, Pallo's lightsaber hit it, sending a shower of sparks over her. She turned back and saw the Sith, Pallo held in one hand, his other hand still outstretched towards her from the throw. "You run," he said even as he crushed Pallo's throat. "I can see where the boy got his cowardice from."

Seven's anger burned, but she didn't let it control her. She stuck her assimilation tubules into the controls, and the light above it lit up. The door opened and she rushed inside, hitting the first button she saw. The doors started to close, but stoppd as Pallo's lifeless body was tossed in between, wedging them open. She looked in horror from him to the approaching Sith. Running away was no longer an option.

Ben paused a moment in his step as Seven disappeared, despite what his eyes told him. "Your trickery will not save you," he said in leaden tones as he continued on his way. Seven launched herself out of the turbolift with a scream and planted a foot in his chest, knocking him backwards to the floor. She rushed up to follow it up, but he caught her leg and twisted, forcing her to spin to avoid the limb being broken. She landed face down on the floor, the Sith still gripping her foot. She kicked with her other, feeling the satisfying sensation of face and hearing him hit the floor again. She got to her feet, turned, and froze.

Seven didn't see Sebastian in that face, not like everyone else did. She saw Luke there, the anger in his expression that she wished with all her being she could wipe from her mind. But here, around the eyes, and there in the hair, and in the growl, she saw another face, an old one she'd also wished she could forget, and it all came together. "You are the son of Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade," she said, "aren't you?" Every other realm, she'd said, it was a constant. A child was inevitable, and Seven suspected who had brought him here. "This isn't your universe... this isn't your war."

"Neither of us are supposed to be here," Ben said, the hate in his eyes chillingly familiar. "But here we are." He pulled out his saber and lit it. "Surrender, and I won't cause unnecessary pain."

"You already have," Seven growled. Bracers formed on the backs of her forearms. Ben swung the lightsaber around lazily in his grip as he approached, then brought it around quickly. Seven brought her left arm up, blocking the strike to Ben's surprise. Before he had time to think her counterstrike was in motion, driving her fingertips into the area below the sternum and knocking the wind out of him. He swung in rage, and Seven was forced back and back, without an opening. But, as she watched, a new fact was realized: he wanted her alive. If the goal was to kill her he'd have already done; she'd seen how he fought, and this was restrained, designed to wound rather than kill. So, the plan was to use her against the Jedi, perhaps... or, perhaps Captain Janeway had convinced the Sith to take her alive, so they could formulate a plan against him. That would be her style. Together they might be able to send this creature back where it came from, then try to sort this mess out.

But she brought him here, a part of Seven commented. Would she really need her help to send him back? If anything, wouldn't she be more likely to help him in the advancement of her cause- No. Seven knew the captain, and this wasn't her. Deep down she was a good person; she wouldn't stoop to the murderous behavior of this Sith, and if she had bought into his vision, Seven could help her see the light. Long shot didn't even begin to describe the difficulty, but compared to besting a Sith who had already slaughtered several Jedi, it was simplicity itself.

Of course, ending this fight with all her pieces intact wasn't exactly easy either. Seven was about to throw herself on the floor and grovel for mercy before realizing that was probably the worst thing to do. With herself cloaked he couldn't see she was simply putting on a show, but even then Sith had contempt for the weak; he'd likely amputate something simply to show his disgust for her. "I surrender," she finally said, still avoiding his blows. "I know when I'm beaten," she said. Now was when she found out how well her deductive reasoning was. "As a warrior, I ask you to end it quickly."

Ben glowered at her, suspicion carved on his every feature. "On your knees," he ordered. She complied. "Hands behind your head." Again, Seven did what he said. Then, in a fraction of a second, his hand shot out and gripped her forehead, and the world went black.
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the caves of Mi-noss, Kilana gradually turned from a stream of energy particles into a living being. Immediately she began a quick inventory of her person, checking to make sure none of her body parts were missing or, possibly worse, spitting something. The small headset was still there too, and miraculously hadn't become fused with her head. She wasn't fused into any of the rocks either. "I'm in," she said, unable to keep the relief out of her voice. After the harrowing experience of the makeshift transporter facing an army of Vong held little terror.

Kilana was a Vorta, and that meant two things. One was that she was genetically-designed to fulfill a role in the Dominion. Her people held the leash of the Jem'hadar; they were coordinators and organizers. They were skilled diplomats but keen eyed and distrustful of their opposition. It might seem like stereotyping, but the fact was Vortas were made not born, and as such certain desirable traits were hardwired into them. Hand in hand with that was a fierce devotion to the Founders and an innate desire to serve them to the best of all abilities. She quickly mastered any skill that could best serve the Founders, and even in the cesspit on Ferenginar where she was unwittingly exploited, she picked up on things, from the other girls, from the employees, from the Orion Syndicate members, and even from her clientele. Inside Kilana's mind was everything you needed to start and maintain a working criminal organization, from how to get the officials to look the other way, to what kind of beverages to serve in your legitimate fronts. It was true that she had been hopelessly naive while working for the Syndicate, but naive doesn't necessarily mean stupid. She'd kept her capabilities well-hidden throughout their exploits... although she'd tipped her hand with Han. Maybe that was a mistake, but, for some reason she felt the need for his approval. She probably was afraid that he might decide to drop her as useless baggage; after all, he was a legend in his own time, and she was just some toy from the back end of space. And maybe she was just afraid that he'd give up otherwise; how he continued to even function with so much sorrow hanging over him was beyond her, but his strength was inspiring... it made her want to win his approval.

Kilana slipped through the caves so silently she made a cat sound like a tap dancer. She withdrew into the shadows when necessary, as hidden as a secret thought. There was a blaster sitting on her hip; she never once reached for it. It was stealth at its finest, and Kilana took just the tiniest amount of pride in her abilities, but it quickly vanished when she reached the cavern.

Kilana didn't enter, but she was near enough the entrance to witness the horror. A gigantic squid-like beast lay partially submerged within the structure. Nearby, the Vong held a struggling, naked Quarren. The helpless being was tossed into the water, where a tentacle quickly caught him and-

Kilana tried to remain as small and hidden as possible, but the beat of her racing heart seemed like the sound of battling giants. Fear of consumption is found in virtually every humanoid species as an instinctual hold-over, but the other part of being a Vorta was being only one step removed from the tree-dwelling monkey they'd been before the Founders elevated them. They had been a prey animal, and the racial memory of that fact left its impression on Kilana, leaving her frozen in terror at the prospect of sharing the fate of the unfortunate alien.

Have Han beam me back up, she thought. No one will blame me for being afraid after witnessing that... who wouldn't be? Leave and let the Alliance handle this, like Han said. Like Han said... because he didn't think you could handle this. If you can't beat your fear, Kilana, if you can't control yourself, then you might as well go right back to Ferenginar where it's safe and no one expects anything dangerous from you because you're just part of the furniture. Slowly, carefully, she slid back down the corridors the way she came and consulted her scan of the caves. There was another way around. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, she pushed on.

With an audible sigh of relief, Kilana arrived at the location of the chamber. This nearly proved lethal, as two Vong were within, but sorting through the contents of the room apparently drowned out the sound of her arrival. This was where the Vong seemed to keep the blasphemous technology they nevertheless might need to remain in the war, such as spare parts for transport scramblers and the dust-covered carbon-freezing equipment. The Vong were looking through the equipment in much the same way a humanoid might sort through manure, with visible distaste at the entire process. But, beyond them, Kilana could spot the small monolith that was the victim of the carbonite. She ducked back a little ways just to be safe. "Han," she said, keeping her voice low, "I see it, but there are two Vong in the way. Can you lock on?"

"No, I don't have those kinds of sensors. You need to put the disk on so I can get a lock."

Kilana peered again into the room. "That's not going to be easy," she said. Not whispering was another trick she'd learned. A whisper carries a distinctive sound, but a low voice simply blends in with the background. "If I wait they might leave."

"And if you wait, more might come," Han said. "Or you might get discovered. Every moment raises the odds on you getting caught, so tell me: do you think you can take them out?"

Kilana hesitated. "No," she admitted. "Not before an alarm gets sounded."

"That could raise a transport scrambler," Han admitted. "It's your best chance at success... or I can just pull you out now."

"No," Kilana said, perhaps a little too quickly. "No, I'll do it."

"You understand that if you get stuck there I can't get you out," Han said. "You'll be stuck there with the Vong."

"I know," Kilana said. "I'll take my chances."

Kilana steadied herself, taking out her blaster. She sited along it, and fired, putting a bolt into the back of one of the Vong's neck and sending it down. An alarm began sounding even as the second turned, the shots bouncing harmlessly off its armor until she managed to hit a vulnerable spot and put him down. She ran over to the carbonite block while she contacted Han. "Can you still lock on?"

"Yeah, but you better make this quick."

Kilana attached the device to the side of the block and turned it on. Immediately it vanished into nothingness, while Kilana whirled about watching for more Vong. Seconds later, the cave vanished and the Falcon's interior took its place. Han was already leaving the controls and bolting for the cockpit, Kilana right behind him. "We'll deal with our friend later; right now let's get out of here before Vong coralskippers find us."

The Falcon rose up off the ground and made a beeline for the atmosphere. As expected, coralskippers were moving to intercept, but Han poured on the speed until they reached a safe point to hit the hyperspace controls and vanish from Mi-noss. He dropped back in his seat and puffed out his cheeks as he slowly breathed out. "We did it," he said, his tone lined with disbelief. He smiled at her. "Good work, kid." Kilana only nodded; adrenaline was still shooting through her system. "I've gotta admit, I was a little worried about you for a second. Your heart rate shot through the roof at one point; thought you were going to pass out or something."

Kilana nodded, a little embarrassed that her secret wasn't so secret. "I saw this... thing, eat someone. It was not pleasant to see." She was surprised as Han sat bolt upright. "What?"

"Squid-thing?" he asked.

"Yes," Kilana said. "You know of it?"

"Unfortunately," Han said, suddenly thoughtful. "We're gonna have to tell Volgo Terraine; I'm sure the Empire'd like to have a crack at that thing."

"What is it?" Kilana asked.

"Yammosk," Han said. "Let's hope you don't have to learn anything more about it."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin looked at Pallo one last time before the medical droids removed his body. He'd be brought back to the Jedi temple for the funeral. They were starting to get too good at them. Jaina was nearby, ostensibly to examine the scene of the attack, but Anakin could feel she was focused on her grief. She had been trying so hard with Pallo, and now it was all for nothing. "There's nothing that could have been done differently," Anakin told her by way of comfort, thin though it was.

"He didn't even have a chance, Anakin," Jaina told him, not able to look at her brother. "I should have-"

"There was nothing," Anakin repeated, emphasizing each word. "I doubt you or I could have survived. The Sith has killed every Jedi he's fought-"

"Except you," Jaina pointed out.

"At the cost of Luke's life," Anakin pointed out. "You did all you could do."

"But I find no comfort in those words," Jaina said.

"You're not supposed to," Anakin said. "Our friend, our brother in the Force, is dead; there is a pain from that words won't take away. I'm only telling you not to pile guilt on that pain."

Jaina nodded wordlessly, then looked up and down the hall. "There's no sign of Seven's blood," she said, getting down to business. "Nothing that indicates charred flesh flakes either. He may have taken her alive."

"Why would the Sith want her?" Anakin asked. "He's got to know it won't draw Sebastian out, not now. Why-" He faltered as two stormtroopers arrived, one bearing a datapad. "Yes?"

"Sir," the trooper said, stopping at a precise military stance. "Message for you from Volgo Terraine."

"He can't know anything already, can he?" Jaina asked as Anakin took the pad and examined it.

"No, no he doesn't." Anakin shook his head. "It looks like we have something besides a Sith to worry about for once."

"What could be more important than the Sith?" Jaina demanded.

"A planet we're going to get very familiar with," Anakin said, "called Mi-noss."



Chuck

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Part XXXVIII


Anakin, Laudica, and Alema sat in Volgo Terraine's office. On his desk was a holgram of General Delric Taar. The meeting had been called as soon as the news of the location of the latest war coordinator was discovered, since delay gave the Vong time to figure out what the Empire knew. Unfortunately, the discussion was not going well.

"I have a sizeable fleet already being assembled to handle the matter of the yammosk," Taar said. "I appreciate your offer for assistance, but it won't be necessary. We'll reduce the planet to a glowing cinder."

"Such an attack has never succeeded against the yammosk's planet," Terraine patiently pointed out. "In every instance, the fleet was destroyed by the Yun-Yammka. If you travel there in force, you will likely provoke that response."

"I realize that," Taar said. "But I won't take any chances on losing the target, even if it costs us ships."

"General," Anakin said, "no one is saying your fleet can't handle this. But we Jedi have killed yammosks in the past-"

"But not, specifically, you," Taar pointed out.

"Yes," Anakin admitted. "However, the principle behind it is still the same: trained experts who can resist the yammosk and handle it face to face that can be dropped behind enemy lines if necessary."

"But it won't be necessary," Taar said. "We'll have more than enough force to handle them."

"Yes, but, what if something goes wrong? Wouldn't you rather have your options open?"

Taar was quiet for a moment. "Cards on the table?" he asked.

"Go ahead," Anakin said.

"This is a military operation," he said flatly. "I don't want people outside the chain of command running around my ships doing what they think is best instead of what I say is best. Tell me, Jedi Solo, are your people going to keep their mouths shut and do as they're told?"

"We are an autonomous group, general," Anakin said. "You can't expect us to act like soldiers."

"Then you see my concern," Taar said. "I'm not interested in a power struggle in the middle of this fight because you feel some distraction in the Force."

"Disturbance," Anakin corrected.

"As far as I'm concerned it's a distraction," Taar said. "My job is the here and now of winning the battle. Listening to cryptic mumbo jumbo and worrying about people undermining my command-"

"General," Anakin interrupted, "if that's your concern, then I give you my personal assurance that the Jedi will not interfere in your operations. We'll be there strictly to deal with an invasion of the base itself, and otherwise we'll stay out of things. We're not interested in doing your job for you."

Taar mulled it over for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “But if you’re not here by the time the fleet’s assembled, we leave without you, understand?”

“Perfectly.” The hologram nodded and faded into nothing. Anakin turned to Terraine. “We’ll need a ship.”

“I’ll see to the arrangements,” Terraine said. “I hope you all know what you are doing; the yammosk is always bad business.”

“I know, but the last thing we need is Taar provoking the return of the Yun-Yammka,” Anakin said. “Hopefully we can do something about it if things go wrong.” He switched to his other concern. “Where’s the Falcon?”

“I’m not at liberty to say,” Terraine said. “But it is safe; the communication came from one of the rebel strongholds.”

“Why there?” Anakin asked.

“No doubt to have some breathing room for when he freed his frozen companion. No sense in risking a hull breach.”

“Hull breach from someone frozen in carbonite?”

“Yes, well, you can never be too careful where this individual is involved.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben dragged Seven, blindfolded, through the Sith base, until they finally drew to a halt. Seven, of course, could have walked right back to the ship without taking off the blindfold, but there was no sense in making a Sith any more paranoid. "Release her," she heard Janeway's voice say, "and wait outside." There was something odd about her voice, but whatever it was was quickly forgotten when Ben spoke. It was short and simple, but it managed to flip Seven's entire world upside-down.

"Yes, my master." And as the blindfold was removed, Seven caught Ben's eye, and she could see he'd said it deliberately. His expression said it all: "If you think I'm evil, just wait..." Seven's restraints were also removed and Ben left without another word. Seven looked up at Janeway for the first time in years... but her face was marked by more than that mere passage of time.

"I'm sorry to do this," Janeway said.

"'Master,'" Seven said, ignoring the remark. "I've known Sith, captain, and they do not use that word to refer to one outside their number."

"It's not important."

"How could that not be important?" Seven said, flabbergasted. "You, a Sith? How..." She stopped, unable to even put the thoughts into words.

"Far more time has transpired for me than for you," Janeway said. "The details will be for another time, if I have your trust."

"Trust?! You're an agent of evil!"

"I didn't bring you here to listen to your ignorant opinions," Janeway said sharply.

"You sent him to kill Luke and Sebastian," Seven said, her voice filled with accusation. "He answers to you!"

"Ben Skywalker has a severe hatred for Jedi," Janeway said. "I didn't need to coax him into anything."

"But you did send him," Seven said, fury rumbling under her words.

"I helped him," Janeway said. "As you helped Picard lead the Empire to our doorstep."

"Don't change the subject!" Seven shouted. "Your culpability in the death of my husband and the attempt on my son's life are all that matters!"

"And to me, the Empire is all that matters," Janeway said. "The constant weight of their oppression, the taint of their corruption, is far more important than your hurt feelings." Seven was too enraged to reply, so Janeway continued. "You should be grateful that things turned out as they did on Wormhole Station. I had foreseen your son's demise there, but curiously he managed to escape that fate. That's why your here."

"You expect me to help you kill Sebastian?!"

"No, I mean 'that's why you still exist.' Your death would have happened as well; his survival has ensured your survival, though I've no ill will towards you, Seven. You could help me, you know."

"After what you've done?" Seven said, aghast. "Are you insane?"

"Some think so," Janeway said. "But you have no reason to love the Empire. With your help, we can more easily vanquish our enemies and rebuild the galaxies."

"The only enemy I would vanquish stands outside that door," Seven said through her teeth. "He's taken away everything that matters to me."

"Then I'll give you his life," Janeway said.

Seven faltered. "What?"

"When this is over, you may dispose of him in whatever manner will most satisfy you. He's merely a servant, Seven, and of late a poor one."

Seven gaped. "You can't be serious. What has happened to you, that you'd betray your followers?"

"If you don't wish to kill him, that's fine," Janeway said. "I feel nothing either way; he's a tool, and if disposing of it will make you happy I will do so."

Seven shook her head slowly, as if to shake some hallucination from her mind. "You're not Captain Janeway; you're just what she's been turned into; I've seen this before."

"There is no more Starfleet," Janeway said.

“How many times, captain-” Seven asked.

“That rank is no longer applicable!” Janeway said sharply. "My Federation is gone!"

Seven held her ground. “How many times did you try to turn me down your path? A path of familial importance, of peaceful coexistence, of following the best humanity had to offer. Is this where that path leads, Kathryn? The dark side?”

“What do you know of it?” Janeway asked with words like razors. “You’ve no idea; you’re as ignorant of what I am as you were when you first stepped out of that alcove.”

“I’ve seen the dark side first hand,” Seven said. “I know more about it than I ever wanted.”

“A Borg afraid of knowledge,” Janeway said with a smirk. “I love a good bit of irony.”

“The price is too high, Kathryn! You know this!”

“It’s given me more power and knowledge than you can ever imagine, Seven.”

“I know,” Seven said. “Faust. I’ve had this conversation before.”

“Ah, you mean with your late husband,” Janeway said with an infuriating grin. “It’s a pity he realized too late; he could have made this entire thing unnecessary.”

Seven looked at her, confused at this latest bizarre direction. “What do you mean?”

“At Wormhole Station,” Janeway said, “the previous one, when the Borg attacked. He could have ended the Borg threat in one fell swoop, and the Empire would never have been allowed to recover. But he was too stupid to realize it.”

Seven’s spoke through her teeth. “Luke was a better teacher for me than you ever were, bitch.”

Janeway downcast her eyes for a moment, then Seven was tossed through the air like she’d just been hit by a battering ram. “This is all the fault of Skywalker,” she said in an even tone. “That you’ll deny it is only a sign of how small you’ve become. Look at what he did over the Borg homeworld, and that was just operating on instincts. His love for you, of course.” She tapped her lips as Seven feebly tried to pull herself loose from the mental grip. "You do, of course, realize that that was my doing, don't you?"

"What are you talking about?" Seven said with frustration in her tone.

"I was able to make subtle manipulations of the past; a push here, a pull there. Much like you always had a latent ability to control your nanoprobes, I always had a latent ability to see the future, I just hadn't learned how to tap into it. It gave me all manner of insights over the years, like why a criminal like Tom Paris would be invaluable for that mission to the Badlands instead of some local... why there was more going on with the Caretaker than appearance suggested... why I should try to spare the life of some Borg drone instead of flushing her out the airlock. Subconsciously, I knew the consequences of all those decisions, and that's what helped me make those choices that I hadn't really understood at the time. And now, looking back, I saw that perhaps I could use that to my advantage. I triggered my latent ability in my previous self, to give her the visions needed to push things in the right directions... in the direction that I knew it had to take." Janeway sat down and folded her hands, looking over the tops at Seven's struggling form. "Did you never wonder why fate led you to him? You've already learned that that isn't the way the multiverse works."

There was a nervous tightening of Seven's gut, but it quickly gave way to anger. "That's a pointless question! It assumes that there's a will in place to control our lives, and as far as I'm willing to take some things on faith, I won't go that far! Luke and I loved each other because we were human beings following our choices, not because the universe demanded it!"

"Of course," Janeway said. "But as I said, a push here, a pull there." She sat back in the chair and crossed her legs, as if this was nothing more than a quiet discussion over tea. "Who was it who re-assigned you to the Enterprise?" she asked casually.

"This is pointless," Seven said.

"I did," Janeway said, ignoring the answer. "And who opposed the destruction of the Death Star while you were on board? Again, it was me. And when it was decided that the Jedi Skywalker would go on board, who tried to convince him to find you? And after your escape, who tried to point out the attraction he had for you, and you for him?"

"You were always the kind of person to meddle in the affairs of other people," Seven shot back.

"And I did it here. And I came so, so close to succeeding. I knew his passion for you could be used as a tool against the Empire. At Wormhole Station, all those years ago, it all came together. Your terror of the Borg, his love for you, it was the inevitable result of all my work."

A chill passed through Seven at the memory. "Luke destroyed those Borg ships to save me."

"Two!" Janeway said. "He stopped at two; it wasn't good enough!" The air seemed to take on the same red tint as her rage. "And it was because you were too stubbornly Borg to act like a human being! If it wouldn't have taken you so long to wake up and show true feelings for once, then Luke would have wiped out the fleet right then and there instead of waiting until the Borg had paved the way for Imperial conquest!"

"And joined the Empire!" Seven shot back. "That's what he did when he turned, remember?!"

"He would have joined up with Darth Whind and killed Thrawn," Janeway said. "And the Empire would have remained an insignificant backwater power, and the Borg returned to their predictable ways." Janeway seemed to finally calm down. "But, as I said, I just can't seem to truly change the past; it accomplishes nothing. After the failure at the wormhole, I didn't even bother trying to interfere any more... it seems that no matter what I do, the Federation will fall."

Seven was thoughtful for a moment. "Then stop trying, Kathryn," she said as kindly as she could. "Sometimes you have to accept the way things are, otherwise you become a greater evil than that which you're fighting."

"That's not possible," Janeway said. "You've seen what the Empire does."

"And is the way of the dark side any less destructive?" Seven asked. “Luke came back,” she pointed out. “You can too, Kathryn.”

“Come back to what?” Janeway demanded. “An enslaved world in an insignificant part of the back end of space? The looks from people who know that the Empire that rules over them was led here by me? You can’t undo the past,” she smiled, “but I can make the future.” Seven slid down the wall until she was released just above the floor. “A glorious future, my Borg friend, with the Empire on the ash heap of history, where it belongs.”

“With this rabble?” Seven asked.

“Seven, you have no idea how much time I've had to plan this,” Janeway said. “I started with nothing more than a toolbox, my blossoming gift, and wishful thinking, and now, my work is nearly complete.”

“A few Sith, some connections to Garak, that’s going to make a difference?” Seven asked in exasperation.

“You misunderstand,” Janeway said, heading into the next room and gesturing her to follow. “Do you think that that fool Nom Anor could possibly accomplish so much without help?” She chuckled to herself. “Believe me, Seven, everything that has transpired has done so according to my design.” She activated the screens, and there were views of ships from all over the galaxy: Imperial, Vong, rebel. “It was I who allowed the alliance to learn the location of the Vong planet. Your friends are walking into a trap.”

"Really?" Seven said incredulously. "And you don't think the Empire would suspect a trap?"

"No," Janeway said. "I've already foreseen it. Oh, I will admit that my servant's failure has adjusted the details slightly, but the life or death of ordinary people has no effect on the forces of time." She waved her hand and the interior of the Falcon was shown with Han at the controls. "Solo's intimate experience with carbon-freezing led to a predictable response. I had expected his son in his stead, of course, but his survival actually furthered my plan. Not only will he provide the Empire with the location of the yammosk to bait the trap, but inside that lump of carbonite is a Vong tracking device, as impossible to detect as their communication technology. He will lead their assault force to the Alliance, and one by one they will fall." Han vanished and the yammosk appeared; it was being loaded onto a coralship. "With my warning the war coordinator will be quite safe for the Empire's arrival, and their fleet ready to slaughter the task force that arrives. The Vong shall cripple both their enemies in a single day."

Seven looked between the other screens: the mounting Imperial assault, the collection of rebel ships, and the countless numbers of Vong vessels. “No,” she said in disbelief, her voice barely a whisper. “How could you?”

“You sided against us,” Janeway said with an accusatory finger up. “How dare you?!” She stepped around the corner and tapped some more buttons, causing the image to change. “Come, Borg, see for yourself. From here you will witness the final destruction of the Alliance,” and she gave one last smile of self-satisfaction, “and the end of your insignificant Empire.”



Chuck

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Part XXXIX


Ben only gave Seven a few minor contusions as he dragged her through the Sith enclave and tossed her into the cell. "The Oracle wants you to have time to think about her offer," he said, but he said much more than that. He was clearly upset and frustrated at having to play this role of chief lackey, of carrying out the details of Janeway's plans rather than for his own. "Feel free to try and escape." That said even more, and also made it clear that it wasn't a challenge, it was a hope. The door sealed him off, leaving Seven trapped for the moment.

It wasn't a bad cell, exactly, and Seven had been in quite a few during her life. There was adequate lighting from an overhead source, and not too far off was a camera to keep an eye on her. It could have easily been hidden, but clearly Janeway's message was that she was being watched, and trying to escape would be fruitless. Of course, Seven could send a message too. She coiled up and jumped, ready to reach out and snatch the camera and yank if from the ceiling. There was a searing pain as her fist hit a forcefield, and she dropped back down and cradled the hand for a moment. She glared up at the camera again. Point one for you, captain, she thought. The field had clearly covered the entire ceiling, stopping her from not only reaching the camera, but destroying the lights as well. That probably wouldn't make any difference; the camera no doubt could pick up more than the visible spectrum, and Janeway likely had other sensors in here even if it didn't. But, she thought with a smile as she shook her hand in the air to help with the pain, two can play this game, captain. She closed her eyes and concentrated for a moment; inside her mind an implant lit up, gathering data from the forcefield and aligning to generate a counter-mechanism. A glow spread across Seven's body for a moment, then she looked up at the camera again. She leapt again, the hand passing easily through the forcefield-

Seven dropped to the floor, body clenched around the hand that felt like it had been dropped in molten glass. A second forcefield, she thought with grudging respect. Different properties altogether... it would take hours to devise a way to pierce both simultaneously, and there was always the chance for a third one. As the pain faded she looked up at the camera. "Okay, captain, you've made your point." She took a seat on the bench and began to think. There were no doubt ways to escape, but Janeway's clear message had been that she knew how Seven would think, and had planned a countermeasure. That meant she'd have to get creative. However, with all those Sith out there, her odds didn't look good.

Okay, Seven, she said to herself, this cuts both ways. She knows how you think, but you know how she thinks. She's obsessed now, you've seen her get like this how many times? Destroying the Empire is her only motivation, everything else doesn't matter, can be ignored or cast aside. She had it all in place... if the Vong could hit the core of the Imperial command with enough to annihilate them, the Empire would likely collapse before them. Janeway seemed confident that there was nothing to stop the ambush, and she seemed right.

So, why was Seven here?

It was the part that she just couldn't wrap her mind around. If Janeway was counting on this plan going off without a hitch, why find Seven and tell her about it? Was that part of the plan? No, no it wasn't part of the plan. Seven was supposed to be dead... but because she was alive she was an unknown factor that could interfere. Slim, but Janeway appeared to be covering all her bases. Okay, so why she was found is clear, but then, why alive? If the plan had been formulated with her dead, then wouldn't killing her simply set things right? It was the logical thing to do...

If it had been Harry or Naomi or probably even the Doctor, they would have no doubt put it down to sentiment. It would have seemed perfectly reasonable, given the long history, the close ties, to simply lock them away rather than to kill them outright, and it did make perfect sense... it just happened to be completely and fundamentally wrong. Janeway was a Sith now. Compassion? Friendship? Those were signs of weakness. Seven remembered Luke standing over her on Vulcan, prepared to cut her down where she lay despite the bond they'd shared. If the dark side could choke love out of his heart, mere friendship didn't stand a chance. No, there was nothing sentimental about this. Being alive furthered Janeway's goals in some fashion, Seven just had to figure out how, but nothing was coming to her. She eventually laid back on the cot wearily, then finally surrendered the point. Whatever the reason, Seven didn't have enough information to deduce it.

All right, she finally thought, then stick to what you know. The Empire was walking into a certain trap that would leave the field wide open for Vong takeover, and while Seven felt little allegiance for the Empire, she felt nothing but hatred for the Vong. If she could warn them... if. Sure, if she could find a way to escape from this cell, then find a way to deliver a message to the leadership of the Imperial military about a no-doubt secret operation and convince him without evidence that the Vong were preparing an ambush, things would all work out fine. Maybe she could raise the dead when she found some spare time. Seven stopped and took a deep breath. Okay, she thought, break the problem down into manageable chunks. Who could you talk to? With all the deaths there didn't seem to be anyone she knew in any position of power. Maybe Volgo Terraine, but even that was a long shot, and time was a critical factor here. Even if she could hijack a ship and somehow send a transmission, there was no guarantee it could go through the red tape fast enough.

And, as it always came back to, there was the issue of escape. Seven could walk up to the door and use her tubules to override the security, and it was likely the first precaution Janeway had taken. It was a bit of a sticky problem; what plan could Seven come up with that Janeway wouldn't have already thought she would come up with? So, she finally decided, then it was time to stop thinking with cold logic, because that's what Janeway would expect. Stop thinking like Seven and start thinking like Annika again.

Then a chill went through her body. No, not like Annika. Think exactly the opposite... think thoughts that Annika would never in a century consider. And there it was, not the answer, but rather, like the deciphering of a code that allowed her to lay out all the facts and reach all the conclusions... the ugly, horrible conclusions, but not looking at them wouldn't make them go away. It offered a path now, a path she would never have considered taking, and that was what meant it could work. But if it didn't... Annika shivered again. No, there's got to be another way! She jumped to her feet and began pacing, trying frantically to think, but the idea hovered over her thoughts like a comet of ill omen, refusing to be ignored. For her, ignoring a solution was like a recovering alcoholic mixing drinks... she was only going to be able to ignore this for so long.

"Fine!" she said out loud, as if to answer the universe's question of what she'd do next. She returned to the cot and lay down, closed her eyes, and concentrated. The implants formed at her command, one after the other, until only one remained. She hesitated, like she was about to jump from a starship without a tow-line, with no certainty that there would be any way back. She couldn't do it.

"Remember what those Vong bastards did to your son," she said aloud, and the anger burned the fear way. With a thought, the last implant formed, and Annika Hansen Skywalker ceased to exist.
--------------------------------------------------------------

General Taar stood on the bridge of the Defiance, then took a moment to examine the fleet that surrounded the flagship. He hadn’t seen a sight like this in a long time. Silver hull after silver hull hung like daggers pointed at enemy territory, ready to strike. No Vong force was going to be able to halt their advance on Mi-noss, and, if things went very well, they could make significant advances. It was a long and probably costly battle ahead, but it could be the beginning of the end of the Vong War.

“General,” the communications officer said, “all the reports are in. The other fleets are ready to rendezvous at Ranvolum.”

General Taar nodded. He gave one last look over the expectant crew, then wet his lips. This isn’t a paper battle this time, general, he thought. This is the real deal. “Alert all commands,” he said. “We move to Ranvolum.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The voices were even, and there was harmony, although it was a cold, mathematical harmony. 7 of 9, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01, spoke with their voice, devoted her -if any Borg could be considered a “him” or “her” in the overwhelming “we” that was the sum of their thoughts- mind to the issues that presented themselves. The human had developed many new talents over the course of her absence from the collective, which could be put to use by the Borg. Their thoughts were one.

Before the connection was established she had a dim hope she might retain her independence here, but her emotionless thoughts dismissed it as the folly of the individual. You became one with the Borg, you did not intermingle. But... their thoughts were one.

Annika felt the world tumble away from her until she was left alone in an endless white expanse. Slowly she could see the movements of drones... countless drones. She could hear them whispering now, but they weren't overpowering her mind any longer. Another came into view, and took on an all too familiar form. "Hello again, Annika."

Annika rose shakily too her feet, fearful she might plummet again into the endless deep of the Borg collective consciousness. She tried to speak, but fear was getting the better of her.

"We understand why you have come back to us," the Queen said.

"I don't want to be here!" Annika sobbed. She didn't have the emotional resources to withstand this any more.

"Our thoughts were one, for a moment," the Queen assured her. "We know your arrival was an act of desperation; we will not attempt to steal your individuality." Annika was still trembling. "Perhaps you'd like to discuss it with them?" Annika froze as a Vong emerged out of nowhere, then in a rage she leapt at it, but the Queen interceded. "Good, hold on to that thought," she said.

Annika panted and the Vong faded again. "I hadn't expected such hospitality," she said, the rage having helped her find the strength for the moment. "Thank you," she grudgingly added.

The Queen nodded. "Your thoughts were... confusing. Too much information. We understand that something terrible has made you return to us, but we couldn't understand what... not without dissecting your memories."

Annika explained about Janeway and the Vong and the upcoming ambush that would likely be the death knell for the Empire. The Queen listened, stone-faced. "And we have to stop them," Annika finished.

"'We?'" the Queen asked. "Why this 'we?'"

"Because we have one thing in common," Annika said. "We're the consequence of Sebastian's survival."

"You mean the fact the Sith did not kill him on Wormhole Station?"

"Exactly. If he had been killed, then he wouldn't have been able to restore the Collective or cure me of the disease. I'd be dead and you all would be stuck on Sanctuary wondering what to do next."

"Yes, the connection is clear, but we fail to see the relevance."

"Janeway's plan was formulated based on an assumption that neither of us existed. With Sebastian's survival, we have the potential to upset that balance. It's why she sought me out. For a while I couldn't see why she wouldn't simply kill me; obviously she would like me to work with her-"

"But more than that," the Queen said, "she could see how you could potentially be turned against us. You destroyed us once, perhaps you could do it again."

"Exactly. You are the real threat here. With the Borg assisting them, the Empire could withstand the Vong ambush, possibly even turn the tide."

"The Empire is now under the control of General Delric Taar," the Queen pointed out. "He would rather die than accept help from us."

"I think he loves the Empire more than he hates you," Annika said.

"Even if that were true," the Queen said, "we've changed. We don't do that sort of thing any more."

"You have fleets of ships that are still feared throughout the galaxy!" Annika said.

"Sebastian showed us a new means of achieving perfection," the Queen said. "It is unconventional, but has so far worked. If we return to being a military power, we risk losing that, not to mention being the target of hate and destruction. We will not become outcasts again."

"But look at the consequences!" Annika said. "Do you think the Vong will ignore you? You are the embodiment of everything they hate! After the Empire falls, you'll be next, I can guarantee that."

"We have a business license," the Queen said. "Romal the Attorney has told us that this thing protects us."

"It doesn't work without an Empire to enforce it," Annika said.

The Queen cocked her head. "This 'economics' is proving a most difficult concept to assimilate."

"You can consult with... do you really have a lawyer?"

"Yes, Sebastian selected him before the reforming. Romal, a skilled Devaronian."

Devaronian... Annika shook her head. "Wherever Sebastian might be in there, tell him even his mother is groaning at this joke." But the Queen didn't seem to be listening for the moment. Eventually she spoke up.

"The attorney agrees that if the Empire falls, the license will not protect us. We will be forced to defend ourselves against the Vong."

"Then why not do so now?" Annika asked. "Stop them now before the Empire falls completely." She paused a moment. "Ask your lawyer about a thing called 'public relations.'"

The Queen had that far off look again, then seemed to return. “We would lose many ships and drones, which would not be balanced about by an increase in customers due to altruism. However, we recognize that the loss of the Empire would lead to our own destruction. Still, if we participate in this and demonstrate military potency, we may instill further fear in us.”

“Not if you’re fighting on the right side,” Annika said. “That’s part of public relations. Something done in the name of a righteous cause becomes righteous in and of itself... within reason.”

“If that were the case...” Annika shivered at the Queen’s question.

“Yes, I suppose you could do that,” she said. “I’m not sure it could work, but no one would fault you for trying.”

“Then we can see no flaw in your plan, save failure. We will leave at once; fortunately Sebastian had also considered the necessity of defending ourselves in such a campaign.” The Queen nodded to herself. “Yes. But for now, it is too dangerous to keep you here in this state. I would be very careful not to provide any clues to Janeway.”

“Absolutely,” Annika said. Her mouth opened to speak, but it was hard to get the words out. “Can I see my son?”

“No. We fear that the sight of him would drive you to despair, which could lead to rash, unpredictable, and dangerous behavior.”

“It can’t be any worse than what I see in my nightmares,” Annika said.

The Queen seemed to consider this. “Very well.” She faded away, and another Borg took her place. Annika’s gut tightened into a rock at the sight and she started crying despite herself.

“You were warned of this,” Sebastian pointed out.

Her throat was too tight to speak easily. “Please, Sebastian... leave them and come back to us.”

“We are one,” Sebastian said. “And were this one prepared to consider your offer, your plan prevents its execution. The knowledge and experience of the Jedi -Sebastian- will be invaluable in the coming conflict. He alone has battled the Vong; to remove him would be to severely limit the possibility of success.” He paused. “Do not allow your feelings to interfere with what you know must be done.”

“But,” Annika said, her face lined with tears, “you’re my son!”

“It was long-told that the one called Sebastian Skywalker would be instrumental in saving the galaxy. That time has now arrived, when he has, against all intentions, formed an army capable of protecting it, with a lifetime’s experience in waging war against these enemies. You always believed it... do not let your emotions destroy your faith.”

“But – But this isn’t-“

“This is what is, what must be. You have yourself stated that we alone are the unforeseen obstacle, we alone that can interfere, that the fate of the galaxies may have been decided by one Klingon who put himself in the path of certain death out of loyalty to his friend. Would you expect your son to allow that death to be in vain?” Annika was crying too much to answer, but she felt Sebastian reach out and embrace her. It was cold and artificial, but it was all that she had, and she cherished it.

Sebastian released her, and she looked up and forced a smile to her lips, and nodded her understanding... and her approval. "You did the right thing, Bastian," she said quietly. "It was always your decision, not mine... and it was the right one." She kissed his cheek, like when he was her little boy.

“You must go now... mother. And so must we.” The voices, which Annika had tuned out, were becoming sharper and more intense. “The Borg are going to war.”



Chuck

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Part XL


The air was still, but only for a moment. On the floor of her laboratory sat the Oracle, cross-legged, eyes closed, preparing. Her wall of screens stared blankly at her, her still form reflected on their dark surfaces in the low light of the room. The door was sealed, but not in the mundane affair of magnetic locks or interlocking mechanics. The Oracle called up dark Sith forces to prevent disruptions, whether mere disturbances from her work or an attempt on her life by her ambitious servant. While they remained in place, not even a lightsaber could penetrate the walls of the room. Before her lay tools and materials of such variety in manner and devising there were likely less than a dozen people in the history of the universe which could identify them all. They moved without any visible means, crystals and metals, ceramics and plastics, some being fused or shaped by tools, others realigning themselves seemingly of their own volition. Chemicals bubbled and hissed, altering their color and occasionally accompanied by a crackling of energy within the contents as if they were writhing to escape. The liquids came together in the air, forming a green and orange sphere, the light distorted through its swirling interior. Sweat ran in rivers down the Oracle's clenched face. With a suddenness like the fall of lightning the sphere hit her face and slid up her nostrils. Her head jerked back and her eyes went open wide in a look of frozen shock.

She screamed. Those two small words contained more than whole volumes could express. It was not primal, although the intensity could imply it. It carried much more than fear or anger could accomplish. Every howl of a human in unbearable pain, every roar of defiance at the uncaring stars, every cry by a woman in the throes of labor, every wail of lament at an untimely loss, every outcry of rage at justice denied, every screech of terror before sharp jaws descended was contained within it, and yet it was so much more. It was the spectrum of human passions, greater than the sum of its parts. It shook the minds of Force-sensitive beings within a hundred light-years. It skipped up and down the length of the Oracle's lifetime, causing sometimes overwhelming sensations of dread and regret. But in the scream, a part of herself lashed out and embedded itself within the newly-formed pyramid that hovered before her.

Just as swiftly as it came, it left her bent forward and panting. Her eyes shone like twin stars, casting dancing shadows across the room. Her breathing steadied and her form returned more towards normalcy, although there was still a hint of something about her face in the low glow. She reached out and took the holocron with both hands and gently laid it on the floor before her. Her hands passed over it in an unreadable dance while her lips moved soundlessly. "Commencement," she said finally. "This is the account of the Oracle, master of the Sith and keeper of its lore. I give unto you my power and wisdom." Her white hair was picked up by the breeze that now circled the room, but she ignored it. "I tell you now my tale."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Things were quiet on Wormhole Station. This was not due to a lack of activity; it was the result of a great flurry of activity that now led to a quiet, intense anticipation. Tension was high at the control center where the station commander and his senior staff waited to face whatever happened in the next minute.

One thousand Borg Cubes dropped out of hyperspace. Words can't do justice to the kind of bowel-loosening terror this sight can create. The Borg were citizens of the Empire, of course, but then, seeing a mob of citizens armed with pitchforks and torches does little for one's thoughts of peace and tranquility.

"Sir," the comm officer said, "they've hailed us." He looked quite pale, and his skin seemed to have a shimmer from the sweat. "They want permission to pass through the Wormhole."

That, of course, could mean anything. They could be going about their business, of course, but then, what business would that many warships have anywhere that didn't involve bad news for someone. On the other hand, their presence here was bad news enough for the commander, and he firmly believed in the pass-along theory of misery. Besides, after the mess the Sith made of his station, the commander was feeling less sure of his crew’s ability to deal with serious threats, and when it came to seriousness, well, Borg weren't known for being jolly. "Let them through," he said, his throat dry.

The fleet swept around the station into the wormhole. It took a long time, and the bridge crew sat on edge as they passed. As the last cube exited, an object was beamed onto the bridge, causing brief pandemonium until it was revealed to be a brochure. The words "Savings Not To Be Resisted" was printed boldly across the top. The crew hid behind a barrier while a droid disposed of it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Romal paced as he wrung his hands. "I've changed my mind," he said. "Send me back."

"It is too late," Sebastian said. At the moment, two drones were making modifications to his cybernetics by attaching devices at the outside wrists.

"It's never too late to turn back!" Romal said. "I've known people who have based their careers on it."

"There is no time," the Queen said. "We are already traveling at maximum velocity to attempt to catch up with the Imperial fleet. We cannot stop now."

"I'm not a soldier!" Romal protested.

"Neither are we," the Queen replied.

"You know what I mean," Romal said darkly. "I'm no good in a battle!"

"You are a negotiator," Sebastian said. "We have no skill in negotiation. You must comply."

"'You must comply,'" Romal said with sarcasm. "Why do I bother? I have had more attempts on my life since signing on with you then I ever had in my previous practice."

"No, you have not." Romal turned to Sebastian. "You had seven attempts on your life previously. And at those times the Borg were not there to protect you."

Romal stopped in mid-retort. "Okay, you've got a point there. But really, what good am I going to be to you here? The Vong don't know the meaning of diplomacy."

"Negotiation with the Vong is futile," the Queen said. "But negotiation with the Empire may be required."

"General Taar's animosity towards us is well known," Sebastian said. "We may require you to convince him not to destroy us."

"Your presence will no doubt provide some additional motivation for your arguments," the Queen observed.

"Thanks a lot," Romal said moodily.

"We will compensate you," Sebastian said. "A bonus for your success."

"And if I don't succeed?"

The Borg seemed to consider this.

"Then it is unlikely it would matter." The drones stepped away from Sebastian, who examined the modifications clinically.

"You haven't exactly improved my morale," Romal said. In response, a drone appeared holding a fruit basket. "Thank you," he said, but sarcasm was lost on the Borg.
--------------------------------------------------------------

There had been some initial apprehension about the Millennium Falcon landing at one of the alliance bases, but when Han had revealed they had some major news about the Vong, it had been overlooked. Nevertheless, Borda's people took great pains to examine the ship and its cargo in detail for the possibility of being tracked. They turned up nothing, although there was apprehension about their frozen companion.

"Who is he?" Kilana asked as four of Borda's people brought it down the ramp. "A friend of yours?"

"No," Han said. "Know him by reputation only."

"He can help us?"

"Maybe."

"Maybe?" Kilana looked at him critically. "I risked my life for a maybe?"

"We didn't rescue him for his help," Han said. "We did it because of what they did to him." He touched the carbonite carefully, as if worried it'd be too hot. "I wouldn't do this to my worst enemy," he said quietly. He began making some adjustments. "Let's stand this thing up to make it a little easier. In fact," he said as an afterthought, "we should probably move this outside, just to be on the safe side. I've heard he can be rather ornery and we wouldn't want him destroying your hangar... or my ship."

"You know, you never did answer my question." Kilana said. "Who is he?"

The group started manhandling the slab into position. "His name's Kalib," Han said. "Information broker, among other things. He's not on anyone's side exactly, but being a Vong prisoner should put him on our side, if we're lucky."

"And if we're not lucky?" Kilana asked.

"Then he might hold a grudge against the entire universe," Han said. "And from what I've heard, he just might try to act on it, starting with us."

"Wait, then why are we-"

"Here goes nothing," he said, ignoring Kilana as he operating the controls. The carbonite slowly melted away, exposing trapped limbs to air once again. Finally the front was completely clear, leaving the occupant free to step out.

Kalib fell face forward onto the ground.

"Is he still frozen?" Kilana asked, recovering from the shock of the impact that had shaken the ground.

"No," Han said. "Just having a little trouble I think."

"You don't sound like a Vong," said a voice muffled by grass.

"No," Kilana said. "We rescued you."

"Oh," the prone figure said, still face down on the ground. "Thanks."

"Um, do you want us to help you up?"

"No, I think I'd rather lie face down in the dirt here until the heat death of the universe."

"There's no need for sarcasm," Kilana said.

"Who's being sarcastic?" Kalib said. "You ever been carbon-frozen? Face down in the dirt is a hell of an improvement."

"I hear you," Han muttered.

Kalib was quiet. "Solo?"

"Yeah, it's me," Han said. "You've heard of me?"

"Just from the guys who were freezing me," Kalib said. "How long did it take you to recover?"

"What year is it?" Han asked.

"He's not being sarcastic either," Kalib told Kilana. "Could someone get me something to eat? There's some things you just can't do on an empty stomach." He groaned a little. "Throwing up is one of them, and I'd really like to right now."

"How's your vision?" Han asked.

"I'm face down in the dirt, any more stupid questions?"

"You can try sitting up," Han suggested.

"Yeah, and you can-" Kalib's description was rather graphic, but suffice to say it left four of them wincing, an Arcona confused, and Kilana wishing she had a datapad to write it down. A flock of birds flew from a nearby tree.

"All right," Han said. "If that's how you feel."

"[Should we fetch a medical droid?]" the Rodian asked.

"No!" Kalib said. "None of your voodoo witch doctors or whatever; been poked and prodded enough thank you. Just let me lie here for a while... what kind of star we orbiting?"

"G-class," Kilana said.

"Good, should be plenty of time before it explodes to get some rest."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Hundreds of ships filled the skies over Ranvolum, a world that had been on various sides of the front line in this war. At the moment it was in Imperial territory, and the launch point for Taar's campaign into Vong territory. He expected them to beef up security in the wake of Solo's incursion, but these numbers would be more than enough for the conquest of a single world. It was just a pity they didn't have another Eclipse; it would make this job much easier.

Among the arriving ships was a transport from Chandrilla, which docked with the Defiance, Taar's flagship. Its passengers were quickly escorted to the bridge. Taar gave them an indifferent expression; he had no ill will for them, but his concentration was needed elsewhere at the moment. He went back to examining the reports with the Defiance's captain while the executive officer came over. "Welcome aboard," he offered, doing his best to seem sincere in doing work that might normally be assigned to some lieutenant. "The general is rather busy at the moment, but if there's anything you need, I can see to it."

"We're fine," Anakin said. "We'll try to stay out of your way."

The XO nodded with restrained relief. "The general would prefer if you not interfere in operations," he added. "Especially if we're engaging the enemy. If you have anything you wish to tell him, please do so through me."

"We will, thank you," Anakin said. The XO nodded and returned to the discussion with his superiors.

"Not the warmest welcome I've had," Laudica remarked.

Anakin half-shrugged. "They're going into a key battle of the war while having to humor three civilians. I've seen worse."

"Then why are we even bothering?" Alema asked. "Let them sort it out if they think they can."

"We're in this together," Anakin said. "If things go wrong, that's when we'll step in."

"And if things go right, I'm sure they'll be real gracious," Laudica said sarcastically.

"I hope you didn't join the Jedi expecting thanks," Anakin said. "If so you're going to be in for a long wait."

The comm sounded, ending the conversation. "All fighter crews to your stations. All fighter crews to your stations." And soon after, the skies over Ranvolum were again empty.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"It was I who first led the Empire to my galaxy," the Oracle continued speaking to the holocron. "In my naiveté I paved the way for their conquest of my people, ensuring their subjugation at their tyrannous hands. For years we held them back, but eventually they came in force, and we were helpless before them." There seemed a black aura around her as she spoke. "I lost all that mattered to me when they came. They had given me the means to return home, but under their heel it lost all appeal for me.

"At the moment of defeat, my latent abilities became manifest, and I knew that I could use them to try and thwart my enemies. I considered joining one of the rebel forces that had emerged in my portion of space. In the end, however, it seemed pointless. At our strongest we lacked the means to hold them back; how could we expect to drive them out in our weakness? No, I decided that there was no way to oppose them, at least in this manner.

"Among my people there is a history of temporal disruptions caused by what is known in the vernacular as time travel. I lured a former associate into aiding me for a time, but when she discovered my intent she abandoned me. Her betrayal was indicative of the times; my people were already becoming complacent within the Empire. I attempted to alter the past on two occasions at this time, but neither proved successful. In desperation, I made a decision."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Imperial fleet dropped out of hyperspace less than a quarter million miles from Mi-noss. Twenty-one Vong coralships awaited them; less then what General Taar had expected, but perhaps they'd struck faster than the Vong had anticipated. Still... "Launch all fighters," he ordered. "Groups 1 and 2 are to continue to target; all remaining ships, engage the enemy."

Alema stepped to Anakin's side and spoke in a voice only they could hear. "I sense nothing."

"Me neither," Anakin replied. "But maybe the yammosk knows how to avoid us."

"It's not there, is it," Laudica said, not even bothering to phrase it as a question. "It's a trick."

"You don't know that," Anakin said.

"We should feel something-"

"This is exactly what Taar wanted us to avoid," Anakin said. "We don't know anything, we have guesses."

"But if we're right," Laudica said, "then this is probably a trap."

"And if we're wrong," Anakin said, "we risk missing a critical opportunity against the Vong."

"Then I say we-"

"It's not your place to say, padawan," Anakin said sharply. "Nor is it mine." He regretted having to say the words, but they needed to be said. The Jedi had to remain outside the military hierarchy; peace-keepers, not soldiers. He turned away and looked out the front of the bridge towards the battle, hoping they didn't die for that idea. Laudica stepped to his side; he expected a rebuke, but instead he felt her hand slip into his and grip it tightly. It was worse than anything she could have possibly said. She was headstrong and defiant, but she was putting all her trust in Anakin at that moment. The thought of that trust being misplaced was a heavy burden as energy lanced through the void. He squeezed back.

Taar stood at the center of the bridge, eyes flitting back and forth over the displays of the battle and occasionally up to the view outside the bridge. "What's the status of the planet?" he asked. "I'm not getting any reading."

"The Vong are jamming us, sir," the captain said. "We haven't been able to cut through." He looked over the reports coming in. "They've destroyed the crust to seventy percent of the planet, sir. Another minute and they will be finished."

Taar went back to his silent observations. The Imperials suffered little damage with their huge numerical superiority, although the coralskippers were proving difficult. He watched three move in perfect formation to ram the sensor dome on a star destroyer. He nodded a little to himself. "Captain?"

"They're finished, general," the captain said. "The crust of the planet has been vaporized."

"One hundred percent?"

"Yes sir."

"Alert all commands," Taar called out. "Prepare to retreat."

"Sir?" the captain said in surprise as the comm officer quickly began carrying out the order.

"The yammosk isn't here," Taar said. "It's a trap."

"Sir, we've destroyed-"

"If the yammosk is dead, then who the kriff is flying those ships? We retreat-"

"Sir, indictor torpedoes have just exploded in our area!" came a report from the pit. Taar had already turned to the next officer before the report came in.

"Vong ships coming-"

"How many?" Taar demanded quickly.

"We're still counting sir... hundreds, and they're launching coralskippers. They've cut off our retreat."

Taar looked from the screens to the approaching Vong fleet. "Seven hundred, at least, probably a lot more. All right, let's show these Vong how dangerous something trapped in a corner can be."
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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(cont'd)

Fortunately Kalib's recovery was measured in human rather than stellar time and eventually he left the loving embrace of the soil for the interior of the alliance base. His appetite seemed to return as well as he made up for lost time. Han and Kilana sat with him, but neither ate. It wasn't that Kalib was disgusting when he ate, it was rather because watching him eat was akin to seeing a man roll across a tightrope on a unicycle while holding a piano, it kept your interest.

"After Skywalker and his kid got away the Vong managed to overpower me, knock me out," Kalib explained while he continued his meal. "The Vong kept looking me over, trying to unravel my DNA or something, but they were having a tough go of it. My people are pretty hearty."

"So we've noticed," Han said. "It's a wonder they didn't try to brainwash you; they seemed to try with everyone else."

"Who says they didn't?" Kalib said, drinking half a liter of milk in one go. "But after a few centuries, your demons tend to come out and start straightening out the furniture and all that. There's nothing the Vong showed me I didn't make peace with a long time ago or frankly just don't give a damn about."

"Didn't you try to escape?" Kilana asked. "I'd imagine it'd be very hard to keep you prisoner."

"Escaped a few times," Kalib said. "But, problem is, flapping my arms isn't going to get me off an isolated planet is it? They'd find me and come up with some way to lock me up again, and then the cycle would repeat itself. I would kill for some kfalla sauce with this," he added. "Tastes like rubber-coated ceramic. Anyway, eventually they tried a stasis field, only, like I said, the physiology is pretty hardy, so eventually I could shake it off. I guess the carbon-freeze was their last bet."

"Why not just kill you?" Han asked. Kalib gave him a look, but Han stood his ground. "It's just a question. You have an answer?"

"Killing me is kind of hard," Kalib said. "And the Vong are into the whole genetic thing, kind of like that Species 8472 mob."

"Still-" Han began, but the alert sounded. The three looked at each other as a flurry of activity broke out across the base, then ran for the command center. "What's happening?" he asked. Han had a natural tone of command that had only improved with age. The answer was quick, if not particularly welcome.

"[The Vong have just entered the system.]"
--------------------------------------------------------------

The initial volley of interdictor torpedoes ensured the Imperial fleet would be stuck for four minutes, more than enough time for the Vong gravity ships to move in and extend it indefinitely. The Vong biotechnology operated differently than the Imperial version, and like the new version were invulnerable to DIT's. An Imperial counter-weapon had not been developed because other Vong technology had been a greater priority. Fighting to the edge to escape was the only option, and that didn't look like it would work either, what with the Empire outnumbered three to one.

"Is there anything we can do?" Laudica asked Anakin.

"Let them do their job," Anakin said.

"I'd rather do something more constructive," Laudica replied.

"Yes," Alema added. "I'm not going to just wait for the Vong to destroy us-"

Quiet! Anakin thought so sharply it cut their thoughts off as suddenly as a shout. They can hear you, he thought, indicating the men and women around the bridge. If they see us despair, what do you think will happen to their courage?

Laudica tried to respond in kind, but she lacked the training. She leaned in very close and spoke so quietly Anakin could barely hear it. "We could take our shuttle, make a run for it. With our Jedi reflexes we could make it."

We'll not abandon these people, Anakin thought.

"We won't do any good to anyone dying here," Laudica pointed out.

"We should find some fighters," Alema said. "At least we'd have a way to fight back."

"No fighter is going to take down those coralships," Laudica said. "It would be pointless."

"I would rather die trying," Alema said.

"I'd rather not," Laudica said.

Enough! We stay and wait, that is my decision. Anakin waited as the two grudgingly accepted it, then turned back to the view beyond the window. It didn't fill him with much confidence in his Imperial allies.

Unconcerned with the details of the Jedi debate, Taar examined a holographic representation of the battle occurring outside the window. His initial instructions were being carried out by the groups that made up the fleet. He didn't micromanage them; the captains of these ships were those Taar had felt were capable, so second-guessing their command abilities was counter-productive. He looked for openings to exploit, but with the sheer numeric disadvantage there wasn't anything new. The bridge shook as coralships bombarded them, but Taar's attention stayed focused. He saw the three of them around the shape of the Defiance. It was clean and sterile here... a paper battle for a paper general. He turned and looked out the front of the ship; the Vong coralship was there, bombarding the Defiance's shields enough so they could deploy their insects and tear it apart from the inside. His crew was ready for it, but it was a big ship... lots of places for the bugs to wreak havoc before they were eliminated.

Taar blinked in surprise as the coralship shuddered under sudden impact, then exploded. A ship quickly flew through the debris, in sight for only a moment, but- "Captain, tell me I didn't just see that."

"It's - It looks like the Borg, general," the Defiance's captain said. "They've engaged the Vong."

"Of course they have," Taar said with defeat in his voice. "They want us to themselves. I knew they'd turn on us."

"The Borg are hailing us, sir," the comm officer said.

"Save it," Taar said. "I've heard it enough for a lifetime."

"It's not their standard hail, general. They seem-"

"I gave my order," Taar snapped. "I'm not sure how many of them we can destroy, but I'm not planning on joining their Collective."

The captain hesitated. "General, I think they're here to help."

"Help themselves to us," Taar said. "I think it's pretty clear now who set up this trap." He shook his head. "They'll assimilate us, and use that knowledge to tear down the Empire. Between them and the Vong, they could do it."

"Respectfully, general, the Vong and the Borg are the least likely allies in the universe," the captain said.

"I fought the Borg for years," Taar said with a voice full of rebuke. "I'd put nothing past them."

"Respectfully, sir, I've fought the Vong for years, and they would rather be defeated then partner themselves with the Borg. Besides, those are Vong ships they are destroying."

"It's all part of their plan," Taar said. "They always have an angle, always have some way of lowering your defenses and stealing away your individuality-"

"General," the captain said, "if those were Alliance ships, or the Klingons, or even the Kazon, we'd welcome this as potential salvation."

"But they're not!" Taar shouted. "They're the Borg, and the Borg don't change!" He seemed on the verge of screaming. "They're evil, captain, don't you understand; not that they do evil things but that they are evil itself, evil in physical form! You can't even kill them for good! How can you see salvation in those dead eyes, in those harbingers of doom out there?!" He looked wild-eyed through the window as the cubes joined in the battle against the Vong. "You can't let down your defenses, captain, not for a second. This is it, don't you see? They've been waiting for me, waiting for me to grow old and sentimental, waiting for me to slip up just once so they could finally- No! We're not going to be taken in by this."

"General," Anakin said, stepping forward. "I must tell you-"

"Stay out of this!" Taar said. "This is not your concern."

"General," Anakin continued. "I must tell you that there is no duplicity in the Borg's thoughts."

"You can read their mind?" Taar said incredulously.

"No, but with all those minds thinking as one it's easy to sense their motivation. They're here to help us, general, of that I'm certain."

Taar was about to shout, then froze, and nodded slowly. "You're in this with them too, aren't you. I should have known..."

"General," the captain whispered in his ear, "I suggest we let him try."

"Are you blind, man?! Can't you see-"

"Sir, respectfully," -and it was clear by now that the word had come to mean, in the captain's mouth, as being "you twit"- "your fleet will mutiny if you try to get them to turn against the Borg."

"How can you even think about trusting them?!"

"Because, sir, without them we will fall, and I doubt the Empire will be able to recover. The Borg offer uncertainty, but it is better than the certainty of failure."

While Taar and the captain hashed it out, Anakin returned to the apprentices. "I thought we were staying out of it," Laudica asked.

"Rules are made to be broken," Alema said.

"No, rules are made so that you don't break them unless you don't have any choice," Anakin said.

"I hope you're sure about what you're sensing," Laudica said.

"Yes," Anakin said, but there's was something in the word only someone intimately familiar with him could catch, and she did.

"You lied?"

"I stated what I think is the truth," Anakin said. "I just surrounded it with some lies for believability."

"Is there a rule about that too?"

"Yes," Anakin said. "Hopefully I'm right so I can tell you about it.

“Alert all commands,” Taar finally said, “do not fire on the Borg unless fired upon. I hope you are right, Jedi.”

“You have nothing to fear, general,” Anakin said. I hope.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"At this time I had exhausted my supply of equipment and credits," the Oracle continued. "I needed support to continue my research, someone who could see why my work would be so crucial without the risk of betrayal. The only choice was Elim Garak, a small-minded Cardassian, but one who had as much reason as I to hate the Empire because of the destruction of his world. I was able to prove myself to him by supplying him with information gleaned from my growing abilities. Assuring him this would only be the beginning, he gave me the materials I asked for to build more powerful equipment, and again I tried altering the past. And yet, my every path was blocked; not once could I succeed in even the smallest way of preventing the conquest by the Empire. I could find no reason for this, short of interference by some outside force. I suspected Q for a time, but this did not lead anywhere.

"Finally, after consideration, I remembered the existence of the energy field known as the Force. I began to study it, to learn if it was possible this was the cause of interference, and if there would be a way to avoid it. However, something came of my studies I did not expect: the realization that the Force is interlinked with time... and the sudden epiphany that my own abilities were a partial manifestation of that. I realized that this might be the path to finally ridding myself of the Empire."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Tactical Cube was the result of the Borg's war with Species 8472. It was, by and large, a concession on the part of the Collective. The Borg were not a military power; their ships were designed to grab and assimilate, not to wage war. For every other species in the galaxy this didn't seem much of a distinction, but with Species 8472 they learned there were some threats that, if unchecked, would destroy them. In such instances, brute force was the only solution, and thus the Tactical Cube was conceived. It was a ship of war, and now that war was upon them, the Borg used them. Many had been built when they had fought the Empire decades ago, and their hearty design allowed them to survive adrift more easily then their less robust counterparts. Most of the fleet, then, consisted of these powerful ships.

Saying General Taar loathed the Borg would be unfair, the reason being that left no word to describe how the Vong felt about them. Taar saw them as a pet peeve compared to the Vong. Upon their arrival the Imperials were practically forgotten as the coralships and skippers turned their full attention to their antithesis. One of the standard Cubes slipped into the heat of battle and was quickly bombarded by the Vong forces. It exploded in less than a minute, causing mild panic in Romal. "Oh kriff oh kriff oh kriff oh kriff..."

"Adjusting shield geometry to compensate," the Queen said. "Increasing power to EM fields."

"Yes yes, increase power," Romal muttered in fear. "Adapt. In the name of all that is holy, adapt!"

"We will handle the tactical matters, Romal the Attorney," the Queen said. "You will handle diplomacy."

"Yes yes, fine, just adapt, please!"

"Closing distance to two thousand kilometers," Sebastian said.

"No no, no closing!" The Borg ignored him; they were quite good at that.

"I am.... conflicted upon this tactic," the Queen said. "Your distinctiveness is unique. Its loss would make us less complete."

"Yet that uniqueness can serve us here," Sebastian said.

"The plan is sound..." The Queen was visibly conflicted. "Be efficient."
--------------------------------------------------------------

General Taar continued examining the hologram and the real universe it represented. "They do seem to have the Vong's attention," he admitted. "Alert all commands; we reform our battle lines here, here, and here," he indicated on the hologram. "Then we squeeze."

While coralskippers and assorted fighters exchanged fire, the star destroyers formed a series of walls, leaving the Vong trapped in a crossfire with the Empire on one side and the huge Borg fleet on the other. Turbolasers blasted chunks out of their surface while heavy energy beams cut through the coral armor like a scalpel. The Vong energy weapons were still getting through the Borg defenses, but the damage was minor by comparison. Their insect-filled torpedoes, however, were causing greater difficulty, since they were able to bypass the shields that filled their corridors by digging through surrounding paneling. Commander Imal instructed his troops to use those whenever possible.

Not long after he gave the order the coralship shook under an impact, causing the crew on the bridge to stumble for a moment. As they did, lights appeared in the back of the room; they turned and noted with disgust the arrivals: humanoids, and worse, humanoids who polluted their bodies with machinery. Four Vong quickly moved to slaughter them.

Sebastian stood amongst the Borg drones; their eyes assessed the faces of their opponents, seeking out the one of highest rank. He was quickly spotted, and the Borg moved into action. Vong blows rained down on them, killing them quickly as they moved towards the target. The commander took out his own weapon now, let out a cry, and swung it at Sebastian.

A blue energy blade emerged from the Borg's left wrist, catching the blow as his right reached out and grabbed his target. The two vanished, as did the drones, living and dead. The Vong looked puzzled for a moment, then got back down to the business of the battle.

The Vong commander knocked Sebastian aside and swung his staff wildly to hold the Borg at bay. He would kill anyone who got too close, that much was certain. However, here, in the most abominable enemy the Vong had ever faced, they found their equal. Not in terms of fighting, of course; their technique lacked any combat prowess. No, their true advantage was that, just like the Vong, the Borg feared nothing. They swarmed over him as his staff tore flesh and shattered metal, killing four and severely injuring another six, but the staff was wrenched from him, and the Borg more than made up for their anemic hand-to-hand techniques with brute strength and sheer numbers. "I will tell you nothing!" he cried with a defiant laugh as they strapped him down onto the table. "No pain can break me! Whoever you are, you're wasting your time, haha!"

Sebastian stood over him at the table. "We are the Borg, and you will be assimilated. Your thoughts will now service us." His assimilation tubules punctured the commander's neck. He yanked them free, and the commander began to twitch, then seize.

"I - will not - talk!" he said through his teeth.

"Talk is irrelevant," Sebastian informed him. "Resistance is futile. Your existence, as it has been, is over. From this time forward you will service us."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Queen observed the battle, both through her senses and through the voices of the Collective. She paused for a few seconds, then hailed the Defiance. The annoyed expression of General Taar greeted her. "What's so damn important?" he demanded.

"The yammosk is not on Mi-noss," the Queen informed him.

"Yes, thanks, we figured that one out a long time ago."

"It has been moved to Barhis III," the Queen said.

Taar eyed her suspiciously. "How do you know that?"

"The knowledge and experience of the Vong -Kor Imal- is part of us now." The remark did not have the expected reaction. Instead Taar looked very angry and the transmission was terminated. The Queen dismissed it as the irrationality of humans and returned to the battle. Soon the Defiance hailed them.

"I don't trust you an inch," Taar said sharply. "Let's be clear on that."

"We are aware of that," the Queen said.

"Why should I listen to you?" he demanded. "Tell me why I should follow the Borg anywhere?"

Romal stepped forward. "Do you think the Borg came to your aid here only to lead you into a second trap?"

"That's not what I asked," Taar shot back. "Why should I even be talking to you after all you've done?"

"Because we are in this with you, general," the Queen said. "If you are destroyed, we will be as well. In any event, you are the leader of the Empire. It is we who will follow you."

"I don't buy it," Taar said. "Besides, you may need us, but we don't need you."

"We lost our first invasion of Earth," the Queen said, "because of the unforeseen. Every scenario showed that victory was assured, and yet we lost. We failed to consider there was some factor outside our calculations that could overcome us. It was our fatal flaw." Taar showed slight confusion at the comment. "You taught that to your students, yes? The question, general, is how certain are you that you can destroy the Vong without us?"

Taar cut the transmission. Romal whistled thoughtfully as he shook his head. "I don't think he liked hearing that," he commented.

"His mood is irrelevant," the Queen said. "It is only how he acts upon the information that matters."

"When this is over," Romal said, "we need to start work on another item called 'customer relations.'"
--------------------------------------------------------------

The first Vong ships hit the rebel hangars, destroying or collapsing them before they could get off the planet. Then there was silence. "What's happening?" Han asked, "why'd they stop firing." He'd been in hundreds of battles and he knew the cessation of fire, a normally welcome sound, was often the precursor to even worse news.

"They've got us trapped," Kalib said. "They're gonna come down and fight face to face... that's their thing, see? They've got us all caged up; they can wipe us out if they lose, so why not have a chance to enjoy the thrill of battle?"

"So we're seeing how many of them we take with us?" Han asked as he pulled out his blaster with a half-shrug. "Not a problem."

"Um, yes, I have a problem," Kilana said. "The cloning tanks are shut down; if they kill me then that's the end."

Han and Kalib looked at her, then each other, then back at her. "You do know that's what death is," Han said, "right?"

"Well... yeah," Kilana said. "But I'm a Vorta... death is something that happens to other people."

"I've always said that," Kalib said with a nod.

"Well if we're going to die, then what's the point?" Kilana asked. "Why bother 'taking them with us?' It won't make any difference for us."

"Look kid," Han said, "this isn't the time. If by some miracle we don't die I'll answer your question, and if I don't, then it won't make any difference, right? I'm not one for philosophy."

"Speaking of philosophy," Kalib said, "anyone have a large object I can beat someone with?"
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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(cont'd)

"The teachings I began reading were those of the Jedi," the Oracle said. "I spent much time trying to understand their perspectives, but they were frustrating in their approach. They feared their power, and they made little effort to push the limits of what they could do to time. Likewise they seemed to offer no way of opposing the Empire; my antagonism was not in agreement with their way.

"I recalled an event I witnessed once involving the Jedi Skywalker. In his darkness I saw him obliterate two Borg ships with merely his will; later he did this to an entire fleet. If the so-called 'dark side' could provide this kind of a weapon, then perhaps it also had the answers I sought.

"By this time my mastery of time manipulation allowed me to seek out knowledge long since lost in the distant past. In my studies I came across the Sith process they called Alchemy. Through it I found treatments that could be used to augment myself so that I could begin to truly feel the touch of the Force. Over time I augmented those abilities through alchemical treatments. Through study I learned how to use meditation to gain even greater control over my ability to see the future, and in time I was able to accomplish this without meditation, but through alchemical stimulation. And from this I saw that the future was not immutable, that I could change it, herd it in my direction towards my outcome.

“I foresaw the arrival of the Vong, a hopelessly outmatched collection of barbarians. They would be quickly and quietly wiped out, a footnote in the annals of the Empire. But I saw in them a force I could use against the Empire, if I could properly control them."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Cubes had a decentralized structure, so Sebastian merely left the assimilation chamber to join in the coordination of the battle. The Vong's mind had been quickly dissected and his information disseminated throughout the Collective. They considered their move carefully.

"We will assist the rebels in their defense," Sebastian said to the Queen through their link.

"Our thoughts are one," the Queen said in agreement. "Sixty-seven vessels will suffice."

"We concur," Sebastian said. "This one will accompany; the survival of this one's knowledge will be important if unforeseen factors are encountered."

"The remainder will proceed to Barhis III," the Queen said. "It would be beneficial if Taar recognized the wisdom of this." It was as close as a Borg could get to hope.

Without another comment on the subject, Sebastian and the ships designated to his fleet slipped out of the battle and raced to the edge of the interdiction zone. As soon as they were clear they slipped into hyperspace and were gone.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"To think that it could come to this," Taar said just above a whisper. "That we have to rely on the Borg against our enemies."

"I'd imagine the Borg are wondering the same thing, general," the captain remarked. "That they must rely on us for their survival."

"If they were inclined towards introspection," Taar said. "Which they're not." He was quiet for some time. "'The knowledge and experience...'" he said quietly. "They now know everything about the Vong, at least as much as a high-ranking officer could know. It's reprehensible... but it could save countless lives on our side."

"They are Imperial citizens," the captain pointed out. "In a way, they're a bit like Borda and his rebels... just doing their point to preserve the Empire."

Is this how it started for Thrawn? Taar wondered. Turning your enemy against even worse ones? The Borg could be such a powerful tool... No! Look where that led him! He was ready to betray them all to the Borg at the end.

"General," the captain said, "the Vong ships are withdrawing. Shall we pursue?"

Taar looked up at what was in all likelihood the largest Borg fleet assembled in a millennia. "We will follow," the Queen had said. Taar had the entire Imperial war machine under his command, and yet, the thought of having that fleet under his control made him heady. It was as if he'd tamed evil itself like a great beast and could now ride it against his enemies. But it was hard to suppress three decades worth of nightmares.

"Hail the Borg," Taar said.

"Which ship, sir?" the comm officer asked.

"It's the Borg, you twit, it doesn't matter." Taar waited until the display showed the Queen and the Devaronian again. "You say you're a corporation?" Taar asked.

"A limited liability company," the Queen replied.

"Close enough. In keeping with the terms of your license I'm conscripting your forces in the defense of the Empire."

"The law requires compensation for any lost property or personnel-" the lawyer began.

"Yes, yes, of course. It also requires a corporate officer be present with the military commander for the course of the conflict, which means you, ma'am."

"I see," the Queen said. "So that you might keep an eye on me?"

"Let's just say I'd feel less uncomfortable about this situation if you were within strangling distance."

The Queen nodded. A few seconds later she and Romal materialized on the Defiance's bridge. "My attorney insisted on accompanying me," she said to Taar.

"Purely to provide counsel, I assure you," Romal added. "The fact that you are heavily armed, thickly armored, and massively shielded never crossed my mind."

"Of course," Taar said dismissively. He tried reading the Borg Queen, but it was impossible. She seemed like she'd cooperate, but you could never really tell. "I take it you can relay my orders without me having to contact your ships."

"Affirmative," the Queen said. "What are your orders, general."

"Barhis III," Taar said. "And don't spare the nanoprobes."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Aiding the Vong struggle would be the key to my plans of crushing the Empire," the Oracle said to the darkness. "But despite how far I had come, I knew that my skills were feeble at best. What would be necessary for this task would require far more training then I could acquire in old books and recordings... I would need to learn from the masters themselves. And that was exactly what I did.

"My temporal displacement technology allowed me to travel to the distant past to the high points of Sith knowledge. I soon discovered what I had thought was mastery of Sith Alchemy proved to barely scratch the surface. I also explored the arts of the so-called Sith Sourcery. This became important, because the training in these techniques required many years. Time, my servant, now attempted to betray me through the feebleness of old age. However, I learned means to draw on the life forces of others to hold on to my health, to keep me alive and strong to continue my work. Many perished, but I offer no regrets; my work is far too important to entrust to another. Destroying the Empire is more important than those lives lost.

"I learned the ways of Naga Sadow, Exar Kun, Freedon Nod, and Darth Bane. I am sure all could sense my motives in being their pupil, but since my aspirations were for times and places beyond their reach, they no doubt felt me no threat. Corran Baj, however, tried to take my time control technology away by force, and I had to kill him because of it. History was left untouched, as it always was, although I will confess the feeling of power at besting an ancient Sith was quite intoxicating. The feeling of power only fueled my drive for Sith knowledge, and made me realize that what I truly needed to do was not merely stop the Sith, but conquer the territory in its name. The Empire coddled the Jedi with their weak and useless philosophies instead of embracing the true ways of the Sith. Its Emperor was a faker, striving for a cause that only further advanced weakness. Thus, my plan changed slightly, to elevate the Vong and drag down the Empire that the two might annihilate one another."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Barhis III was one of the numerous mining colonies throughout the galaxy; a minor settlement to say the least. In keeping with Vong strategy, the populace had been gathered together as a human shield should the Empire choose to attack. In case that failed, there was a more direct back-up.

"Planetary shield," the Queen informed General Taar. "Single projector, small range. The yammosk is located in the city."

"Defenses?" Taar asked.

"Barhis III is a staging area for moving troops to the front lines. They have numerous ground forces to resist an assault. But the shield is far too strong to penetrate even with all our ships together."

Taar turned to Anakin. "That 'just in case' you talked about? It's here."

"We can take care of the yammosk, general," Anakin said. "But getting from here to there isn't going to be easy. We're going to need help."

Taar nodded. "You'll get it."

"We will assist you," the Queen said.

"Thanks, but I'd like to reach the city some time before the end of the universe," Taar said. "You people aren't known for speed."

"Yes," the Queen said. "But we have adapted. And the soldiers down there will know more about the planet than we do."

Taar shuddered at the thought. "I don't like this," he said.

"The Borg are only offering to do this to help us win, general," Romal said. "There's no ulterior motive."

"I'd like to believe that," Taar said. Surprisingly, there was no malice to it.

"Trust has to start somewhere, general," Anakin said. "And the more the Borg can tell us about what's down there, the greater our chances of stopping the Vong."

"I know I know," Taar said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Ready your... whatevers," Taar said. "Captain, alert all commands, we're establishing a camp at," he quickly examined the holographic projection of the planet, then "touched" a spot, causing it to light up, "these coordinates. I want all our ground forces prepped and ready."

"Yes, general," the captain said.

"And you, Jedi," Taar said, turning to Anakin, "good luck."

"Thank you, general," Anakin said, and with his two apprentices, left the bridge.

Romal, noting he and the Queen had been forgotten for the moment, lowered his voice. "You know, we haven't actually field tested these new droids."

"The prototypes functioned properly," the Queen said.

"Yes, but they still are untested," Romal said nervously. "You didn't tell them that!"

"We do not think the general would approve of such information," the Queen said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"I am master of time," the Oracle announced. "And yet, even I do not have an infinite supply of it. I could not both lay my plans and carry out the work necessary when it was required. An apprentice was needed, but I had even less time to train up a follower. Using my technology I scoured adjacent universes, seeking out one to carry out my will, and I found him. Capable enough, but an arrogant fool that I knew could be easily deceived. I endured a few indignities from him, but as a true Sith I exercised patience, knowing that in time I would punish him tenfold for each one.

"His anger was great, so it was easy to use the Force to give him subtle nudges this way and that. While I attended to the collapse of the Empire, he killed my enemies, trained my students, delivered my messages. Were he a true Sith, one schooled in the ways of the ancients he wishes to emulate, he should have seen through me long before I revealed myself to him. He is an example for you, one who thinks himself strong because he is quick with a saber and skilled in a fight. However, he is weak in spirit, easily coerced and blind to what goes on about him. No thought for how to make the future beyond the obvious. But I say to you, you who bear this holocron, that you do not seize power, you develop through diligence.

"And that is how I topple the Empire."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The All-Terrain Heavy Transport was the latest design in Imperial ground weaponry. Like its predecessor, the AT-HT was a troop transport by design, slow but heavily armored. The legs were thicker and more flexible, giving it a greater stability and able to get around the old tow-cable trick. In addition, a group of manned gunnery pods were located at eight points around the body of the walker to help resist aerial forces and eliminate targets of opportunity. Alongside the AT-HT's were the mobile artillery units, treaded to allow it to pass through semi-permeable shields. It was essentially a treaded box, twelve meters long and five high, with a laser cannon on top. Flanking the two craft were smaller and more maneuverable speeders, tanks, and support craft. Laudica whistled as her eyes drifted over the vast army. "This'll make the Vong think twice," she said to no one in particular.

"The Vong will enjoy the challenge," Alema said darkly. "Brutality is their native language."

"Let's stay focused," Anakin said. "The Empire is handling the ground battle; we've got to worry about getting inside."

The trio’s gaze gradually drifted to the edge of the camp, where the Borg were setting up field equipment, most of which made a torture chamber look like a feng shui catalog. "I'm starting to see Taar's point of view," Laudica confessed.

"Just keep reminding yourself they're on our side," Anakin said, although he seemed a bit uncertain himself.

"This doesn't feel right, Anakin," Laudica said. "The Vong are bad guys, sure, but can we let the Borg do this to them?"

"I suppose it's better than killing them," Anakin said.

"It's redemption," Alema said. "For all the lives they've destroyed, they can now do something to help make that right."

"I guess I'm the only one who can't rally behind this," Laudica said irritably. But before anyone could respond, the Borg's army arrived, and all thoughts were put on hold as the ranks materialized. "What in the kriff are those?" she asked slowly, mesmerized.

"They’re not Borg," Anakin said with a slight shake of his head. "Battle droids. Lots and lots of battle droids."
--------------------------------------------------------------

A quick inventory of the rebel base's armory provided nothing for Kalib, save for four Gamorrean axes, which he dismissed as too impractical. "Too small to wield, too big to throw." Someone scrounged up a medium repeating blaster cannon and quickly cut off the trigger guard to accommodate Kalib's huge hands, and a handle was attached to a small fusion generator for him to power it, meaning that Kalib now technically qualified as mobile artillery. However, as the Vong ships began landing, it was clear that was likely not going to be enough.

Han took the lead, positioning the rebel forces around the base with a practiced eye. He kept Kilana close by. "How good are you with a blaster?" he asked.

"Proficient," she said.

"The weak spots are the neck and the seams of the armor," Han said. "Are you good enough to pick those off on a moving target?"

"No," she admitted. "But I do have one trick to use."

Han nodded; he knew what she meant. "That could come in handy, if you can do it from cover."

"No problem," she said. Then the air exploded from a group of thud bugs, and the two ducked for cover.

"Good, I don't like problems," Han said, turning and firing a few shots from his blaster. A Vong went down, then Han ducked back. "Not good for your health."

Kilana wasn't listening. She was focused, and a ball of white energy rose out of her chest, flew across the field, and knocked a Vong over. Han shot him while he was prone, then turned and put three shots on another approaching warrior before that one went down as well.

In the meantime, Kalib stood out in the middle of things, having never quite grasped the need for cover. Apparently projectile weaponry wasn't part of his forte, probably because hand weapons were too small for him. The shots struck wildly among the Vong, but there were so many of them and so many bolts flying around that it was inevitable that the two should meet. However, the accidental shots weren't doing much to slow them down, and Han was beginning to wonder if the rebels were even going to be able to put up much of a fight.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It had been a long time ago, when Vader sat near a fire and told his grandson the tale of the Clone Wars. Man versus machine... the cold unemotional logic of the droids versus the adaptive, creative passions of humanity. The droids, however, were also held back by their masters, who feared the army turning against them. Droid control computers were an Achilles’ heel, not to mention the limitations it placed on tactical responses to the army as both individuals and as a larger unit. Vader had planted the seed in that telling. What the droid army needed, really needed, was a computer capable of overseeing massive numbers of individuals, of being both coldly logical and highly adaptive, which did not fear their creation, which could bring together the natural and the artificial in a constant strive for perfection. They needed the thoughts of the droids and the computer to be one.

Sebastian had lifted the designs from ISB records. The design patent had expired long before he was born, so there was nothing to stop the Borg from building on Dooku's failed revolt. At the forefront of the Borg line rolled thousands of destroyer droids. They operated like pawns on a chessboard, alternating movement with their neighbor by rolling to the advance position, then letting loose with their twin cannons against any Vong forces in their way while those on either side advanced and did the same. The Vong's armor was somewhat resistant to blaster fire, but the sustained attacks and sheer ferocity forced them back.

Racing up the destroyer droid ranks came a series of battle droids on swoops, two to a bike. They were of the sturdier design, so that when two swoops converged on a Vong warrior the passengers would disembark and tackle him. Between the two of them one would manage to avoid the furious strikes long enough to inject its assimilation tubules into some weak point in the armor. Sometimes both droids would be destroyed, but the nanoprobes did their work, and back at the camp the Borg would lock on to the new signal with a transporter and beam the writhing Vong to them. Within a minute, the process would be complete, and a new drone admitted to the Collective. It was, however, proving a costly venture.

The Imperial forces continued on, either oblivious to or conveniently ignoring the actions of their recent allies. The mobile artillery and AT-HT's softened up the targets that stood between them and the city, usually a Vong blockade of some kind. The Vong responded with their various weaponry. Projectiles as hard as diamond and sharp enough to make a razor look like a rolling pin slashed into their armor. The great machines collapsed or exploded under their onslaught, but more came up to take their place and rain laser fire down on the Vong.

The Vong infantry had disappeared from before the destroyer droid line. The droids rolled over the hill and pushed on towards the next. Waiting for them, however, were the Fan'cals. They were huge, lumbering beasts, with a body like a squat brachiosaur, covered in armored scales. It had a head and neck like a flatworm, and a tail twice the length of its body but thin and mobile like a whip. As soon as the droids came into view the Fan'cals opened their wide mouths and sprayed incandescent fire across the line. The ground popped and hissed in the wake of the attack as the ceramic surface cooled, molten metals pooled across its surface. The droids opened fire, but the skin of the Fan'cals was even thicker than the Vong armor. A second blast of white-hot flame ran across the line, and the destroyer droids withdrew. However, waiting behind them was a huge collection of Vong warriors, who had circled around to catch the retreating droids. The Vong’s excitement quickly turned to frustration as they discovered that, in fact, the droid withdrawal had pushed the Vong into a crossfire with a second destroyer droid force that also cut off their retreat. Their staffs sliced through the droids lines, but the firepower decimated their forces with every apparent advance.

The Fan'cals were quickly dispersed by a few well-placed shots from the mobile artillery, but even the Empire's heavy vehicles were having difficulty against the war beasts. Two Fan'cals, working together, lashed onto an AT-HT with their tails and pulled its legs out, sending it toppling over with a ground-shaking crash. As the stormtroopers exited the prone vehicle a group of Vong cavalry riding Kyar-beasts overwhelmed them and killed most before they could even draw their weapons. Elsewhere, crews perished in their craft as their interiors turned into ovens under the Fan'cals breath.

General Taar watched the events from the bridge of the Defiance. "It's amazing what they can do with biotechnology," he said. "That they can actually stand up to our forces..."

"It is impressive," the Queen agreed. "But ultimately limiting. The Fan'cals, for example, have nearly exhausted their supply of fuel, and it will take many hours for them to replenish enough for even another bout of flame."

"Like a pet playing a musical instrument," Romal observed. "It's not that it does it well, it's the fact it can do it at all."

"Yes, but the Vong know of the weakness, and they expect we'll see it too." The Queen pointed along the map. "They'll withdraw this direction, expecting you to follow. It's a trap; there are mines, pits, hidden weapon emplacements. You'll need to alert your forces, general."

Taar's eyes darted between the map and Queen for a few seconds. "Are you sure?"

"We are Borg."

"That's a yes," Romal explained. "It's a cultural thing."
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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(cont'd)



The rebel forces had been forced to fall back before the ferocity of the Vong onslaught. Only Kalib had stood his ground and was currently using the remains of his rifle as a blunt object against the Vong that swarmed around him. Kilana crouched, panting next to Han, eyes screwed tightly shut as another white energy ball emerged from her body and struck an approaching Vong soldier. Blood ran from one nostril but she didn't seem to notice. Han would have stopped her for her health if he wasn't certain that her long-term health was unlikely to be an issue. We go down fighting, he'd said, and she seemed intent to follow through on it.

There was a high-pitched whistle followed by a green flash, and the Vong before them exploded. Han paused a moment in his attack, but only a moment because stopping could get you killed. Another bomb fell out of nowhere, blowing up the advancing Vong lines. Now he peered up at the sky and could make out the distant sight of weapons fire. "Looks like Borda's people heard about our little problem,” he remarked, then reached out and caught Kilana before she hit the ground. Her eyes were rolled up into their sockets. He looked between her and the Vong forces, then threw her arm over his shoulder and dragged her out of harm's way. He glanced back, and most of the Vong were gone, apparently returning to their ships. At the sound of falling rocks, however, Han whipped out his blaster and pointed in the direction. A hand emerged from a crater, followed by a second, and then Kalib's face rose into view like a very angry moon. He was swearing in several languages at once.
--------------------------------------------------------------

In orbit, Sebastian observed the Borg attack on the Vong ships. They had more than a four to one advantage, which was only increasing. The Vong tactics were standard and thus predictable; the Borg adapted quickly. It didn't take long before the last ship was a burning hulk dropping over the planet. Long-range scans showed no sign of reinforcements, but the Collective judged it prudent to wait to ensure the survivors might be able to escape. His task, however, was complete, and Sebastian stepped into his alcove and began to regenerate.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Four hundred destroyer droids crested the hill and soared into the air. As they did they switched to combat mode and began firing their twin cannons at the waiting Vong lines, shredding them where they stood. They landed uncertainly, but quickly pressed the advantaged, driving the Vong back. Behind them roared three swoops, banking hard and pouring on the speed to avoid the exchange of fire from both sides. "Stay close," Anakin told the others.

The three swoops passed the Vong line and made a sharp turn towards the flashing horizon. As they neared, they saw the Imperial forces exchanging fire with the Vong at the perimeter of the city. They could already see the smoke coming from the fires that had broken out across the city. A makeshift staging area had been established nearby, complete with a holographic representation of the city. The colonel in charge gave Anakin a quick nod as he hopped off his swoop and stepped up. "We're working on securing the city, sir," he informed Anakin, "but the Vong are putting up quite a fight. According to our new friends," he said, adding a great deal of incredulousness to the word, "the war coordinator should be in this facility."

"If we bring down the yammosk, the Vong resistance should be severely hampered," Anakin said. "Can you give us some support, colonel?"

"I've got a platoon standing by, but you'll want to go in on foot. The area suffered some artillery fire and the debris could end a swoop trip real quick, and an AT-HT will draw too much attention." There was an explosion, causing everyone to duck behind cover while screamed orders and swearing came from all sides. "Better be on your guard, sir. The Vong are ruthless."

"We'll keep that in mind," Anakin said, and gestured for the Jedi to follow. They met up with the platoon of stormtroopers and made their way into the chaos of the city.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The glow within the holocron slowly faded. The Oracle took it in her hands with all the respect the sum of her knowledge deserved, and carried it over to a specially constructed box. It was sealed inside to protect it for future Sith.

Her task complete, the Oracle gestured, and the displays around the room lit up. She looked from one to another, her face unreadable, but throughout the base there seemed to be the build-up of a slight static charge. She was leaning with both her hands upon her desk. After a few seconds it began to melt... a few more and the door exploded outward. Still without another word, she stormed out of her lab and into the base.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The city was a wreck, a mass of shattered stone and metals, and what air that wasn't choked with smoke was red-tinted and scorching from the fires. The Jedi-stormtrooper party ran across more than one group of Vong soldiers, but fortunately most were engaged against the larger Imperial and Borg units that were pushing into the city, making their job slightly easier. They cleared a pile of rubble half a kilometer away from their target, and saw the work might just be unnecessary: the building housing the yammosk had collapsed. The idea, however, was quickly driven from Anakin's mind as a Fan'cal spotted them and sprayed flame in their direction. Wordlessly the Jedi leapt from the hill of debris, but for many of the stormtroopers it was too late. They were shadows in the white flames for a second, and then there was nothing. The Fan'cal turned its head to follow the escapees, but the Jedi were now in a full sprint across the open area. Behind them the surviving stormtroopers had opened fire with heavy weaponry, piercing the Fan'cal's thick hide and igniting its fuel bladder, adding a new sickly scent and gut-tightening screams to the atmosphere of the city.

There was no time for delay, so Anakin led the way to the building. Two Vong waited for them, but they'd been injured in the attack and were quickly dispatched. Many more lay dead from the collapse of the building. "Where is this thing?" Laudica asked.

"Down," Anakin said. "There's a pool in the lower level; it'll be in there." Carefully they cut through collapsed parts of the building, causing one or two cave-ins as they pushed through to the stairway. Carefully, alert for further collapses or Vong soldiers, they found their way down to the lower level.

Anakin was the first down. For a second he thought there must be another fire as he stepped into the cloud, but soon realized it was steam. Through it he saw the pool bubbling like a cauldron; the result of the strike messing with the water temperature controls? he wondered. Nearby, he saw the yammosk lying on the marble floor; it showed signs of severe burns across much of its body. The pool had started cooking it.

They could sense its physical weakness, but despite that the mind still coordinated the battles, as it was created to. It lashed out at the three Jedi with sheer willpower, the only weapon it had left. It came out of nowhere, and caught unawares, it left Anakin reeling as icy fear seemed to stab through his body like he was impaled on an icicle. Beside him Laudica shrunk back in terror under the mental barrage. He tried to rally his thoughts, but it was proving difficult.

Alema, however, felt no fear. At the touch of the yammosk's mind rage flooded through her at its intrusion. She strode towards it, every step fueling the anger. The yammosk pulled horrors from her past out of her recollections, but this only seemed to encourage her. With hate in her eyes and murder in her heart, she hacked away at the war coordinator until it withered and Anakin felt the fear die. The hate, however, lingered in the air. "Alema," he called, and she turned and glared at him. "Alema-" But she turned and vanished into the steam. "Alema, it's all right!" There was no answer, and with a cry of helpless anger Anakin hit the stone wall with his metallic fist. "No no no no," he said in frustration.

"Anakin," Laudica said, putting a hand on his shoulder, "it's okay."

"No it isn't!" he said. "I knew this was a mistake... how could I have been so stupid?!"

"Anakin," Laudica said with a sharpness only a Corellian could pull, "stop it! It's over!" Anakin was going to reply, then thought better of it. Instead he embraced her. Around them, the city burned.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The door to Annika's cell opened, and she sat up on the cot. The Oracle came in, Ben close behind. "You warned them," the Oracle said, an all too familiar look of anger and frustration on her face that nevertheless lifted Annika's spirits. It must have worked, she though, if she's this angry.

"Here?" Annika asked, poker faced. "I've been locked in your dungeon-"

"You contacted the Borg," the Oracle said with a voice filled with red hot needles. "I can't believe you would stoop that low."

"You didn't give me much choice, captain," she answered, emphasizing the name. Force lightning picked her up and tossed her into the corner.

The Oracle turned to Ben. "Teach her some obedience," she said, then left.

"Yes, master," Ben said. He was grinning, although it was difficult to tell whether it was because he was glad for the assignment, or just glad to see his master upset. Regardless, the cell was soon filled with Force lightning and the sound of screams.


Kilana slowly opened her eyes, looked above her, and screamed.

"Morning," Kalib said, following it up with a pull on a mug of something pungent.

Kilana's heart slowed down to something below jackrabbit and started to put the pieces together. "The battle?"

"Oh, that," Kalib said with a half-shrug. "We won. Well, we didn't lose, which is worth a win in my experience."

"What happened?"

"Long story, we'll tell you on the way." Kalib finished off the mug and set it down on a tray among sterile medical instruments. "If you're still sticking around," he added.

"What do you mean, 'if?'" she demanded.

"Just asking," Kalib said. "Got a little taste of a fight this time, and it really was only a taste. The Vong played around with us, hadn't expected we'd have some friends around or we would be in a lot worse shape than we are now. You sure you want to be part of that? It ain't pretty."

"You ever seen a Hutt eat?" Kilana shot back. "I've seen ugly."

Kalib shrugged again; he had a good build for it. "Fine, so long as you don't slow things down."

"Thanks," she said bitterly. "So, this means you're on our side now?"

"I'm on my side," Kalib said. "That way I know somebody is."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The fighting had died across the city, the last pockets of Vong resistance being mopped up by Imperial forces. The fires had long since died out and rescue efforts for the trapped citizenry were already under way. General Taar walked along the market square, examining the extent of the damage first hand, followed by a group of armed soldiers just in case. He preferred to handle things up close whenever possible. Nearby an officer was filling him in on the damage, both to the city and to their forces. Both were heavy, but the Vong had taken the worst of it that day. It was a turning point for the war, without a doubt.

Taar turned the corner and noticed the Borg Queen along with several drones examining the remains of a Fan'cal like only a Borg could. Analyzing, adapting, so that next time they would fare even better. There was nervousness in that thought, but he pushed it aside and hushed up the officer in mid report, leading the entourage over to the carcass. The Queen turned to him as he approached. "General," she said as if nothing had changed, "we have assembled a list of pertinent facts which may aid you in future engagements." She held out a datapad; Taar took it like it was forbidden knowledge. He was quiet for a time.

"You say you have changed," Taar said. "Prove it. Release the Vong you've assimilated."

To Taar's satisfaction, the Queen appeared puzzled. "Why?"

"Because they're Imperial prisoners," Taar said. "You were conscripted, remember?"

"You can learn nothing from them we have not already taken," the Queen pointed out.

"That may be true," Taar said, "but I still want them."

"Then it is done," the Queen said. "They are in cells on board your flagship. We trust your personnel can remove the cybernetics."

"I'd imagine the Vong may rip it out themselves," Taar mused. "Anyway, by Imperial authority, blah blah blah, I release your forces from our service with the thanks of the citizens of the Empire. As for your losses..." He mulled for a moment. "I'll have a chat with the Banking Clan and the Imperial treasurer; I don't think you'll have to worry about any more payments."

"We thank you, and hope you will consider Borg Collective LLC for all your future droid needs."

Taar gave a quiet chuckle. "After today, I just might." And there, in the smoldering wreck of the city, he held out a gloved hand to the Borg Queen, who looked at it oddly, then reached out and shook it. It wasn't trust, but it was a place to start.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika's pain-wracked body finally, mercifully, collapsed into unconsciousness. As she lay in the corner of her cell, implants in her brain fired, and she sat up-

-the field was lush and green, the sky a brilliant blue, and nearby was the sound of water, and laughter. And she turned, and crouched nearby was her son, smiling at her. "Sebastian-" she started, then paused as her mind tried to wrap around this. "I'm dreaming, am I?"

"I'm dreaming, you might say," Sebastian said, his grin never flickering, "I just brought you along for the company."

Annika finally got up and saw the members of her family gathered nearby in the soft grass. Jorrielle was there, and so was a girl with features that were so very familiar. "Sebastian, what's-"

"No questions," Sebastian said. "It just is, okay? And sometimes questions can break things that are too fragile."

"I know this place," Annika said. "There's a kind of charge to the air that feels so familiar."

"Maybe it's just the feeling of home," Sebastian said. She tried to walk closer to them, but he held her back. "I can't let you interfere," he said.

"Did you bring me here?" Annika asked.

"You brought yourself," Sebastian said. "I forgot that I probably inherited this from you. You need to completely sever your link to the Collective. But I'm glad you came. I wanted you to know that it's all right, that you don't need to worry about me any more."

"You're part of the Borg," Annika said. "How can you expect me not to worry?"

"But here... mother, I can't remember ever being so happy. I can't give this up, I can't give them up."

"Sebastian," Annika said, "you are part of the Borg. This," she gestured over the scenery," is all in your mind."

"Happiness is a state of mind," Sebastian pointed out.

"I mean that it's not real."

"My wife and daughter are here," Sebastian said. "That makes it real for me."

"But-"

"Mother, we won," Sebastian said. "I stopped the Vong trap, turned back the tide. I've given the galaxies their chance. Is this," he held out his arms and took in the expanse, "too much for me to ask?" He turned back to his mother. "Is wanting to hold my daughter and hear her say she loves me too much to ask?"

"After all the heartache, Bastian," Annika said, "you should have all your dreams come true. But they aren't true."

"'They're going to take it all away,'" Sebastian quoted. "But not here. They can't take this away from me. And I won't give it up."

Annika was about to reply, but she caught the sight of the family again. She couldn't bring herself to say the words. "All I ever wanted was for you to be happy," she said as she held him close. "If this is enough for you, then I hope it gives you what you want."

"Thank you." Sebastian felt her fade away, and he tried to ignore the pain it brought.

"Daddy?" came the voice from behind him. "Are you talking to someone?"

"No, sweetie," Sebastian said, turning to Morgan. "Just sorting my thoughts out. Come here and give your father a kiss."

Morgan dutifully gave him a peck on the cheek. "Is something wrong?" she asked.

"No." Sebastian looked up at the sky and rubbed her arm like he used to when she was small enough to carry.

"We should really get back," Morgan said.

"Now now, be patient my little dawn," Sebastian said. "We have time... we have forever."



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-14 10:30pm
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nice
my favorite line of the entire collection is still:

"Speaking of philosophy," Kalib said, "anyone have a large object I can beat someone with?"

followed closely by:

"...and a handle was attached to a small fusion generator for him to power it, meaning that Kalib now technically qualified as mobile artillery."

but both will be trumped with:

"and with a flurry of movement and a precise strike, the lightsaber sliced through that stupid bitch janeway's neck...." or something to that effect.

CERC



Sum Senatus

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

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