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 Post subject: Unity VI: Dawn of Forever, Redux (Complete) PostPosted: 2006-06-17 10:08am
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This follows from Blood of Heroes, and is the final story in the series. Like the previous ones, this redux is primarily a clean-up, smoothing of continuity, but there are a few things added here and there.

Prologue


Q observed the unfolding of events within the galaxies, a frown upon his face. The Milky Way stood fractured but still quiet for the moment. The Vong here had yet to make their move, and the Oracle seemed to be assessing how to move in the face of her defeat. In the other galaxy, the Vong were reeling from the crushing loss on- Q waved a hand irritably; names given by humans didn't matter, not to the omnipotent. Instead he spoke the final, decisive words that had been long-awaited. "The round is over; pay up."

BOLLOCKS.

"I sympathize," Q said. "It seemed a long shot."

VERY LONG. I HAD HOPED FOR A BETTER SCORE.

"You scored better than most," the Living Tribunal remarked. "I would not complain if I were you."

Death grinned at him, but only because he had no choice. He wasn't used to losing at all. He stroked a cat thoughtfully while he observed a white-skinned girl with black hair and an Anhk around her neck assessing the scores. She looked over at him and he nodded as one professional to another. Their attentions were both quickly drawn away by a giant squid-headed creature that was nibbling on a continent in misery. It would probably go right to his hips.

"Zarquod, that was great!" remarked the boisterous individual in the chair right next to Death's. Death gave him the look an aristocrat gives to party crashers who are allowed to stay, which was the case for the two-headed drunk. Even by the standard of some of the beings present, he was rather short on omnipotence. Very short. Impotence, in fact, came to mind, but his ship had emerged in the middle of the pocket dimension where the contest was observed against all probability, and since this had been declared neutral ground, no one was permitted to give him the heave-ho at the moment. He'd taken to helping himself to the drinks cart and watching the events that unfolded like a very obnoxious theater patron. Death was a professional, but for a moment he hoped that this was a patron of his domain so that he could look forward to shutting him up at some point.

INDEED.

"I like those little robot doodads especially," the right head remarked while the left ordered another drink.

INDEED, Death said again in a neutral voice. He didn't care much for robots. They led to a bit of uncertainty in his work.

"You know, those ones the Borg froods had, the ones that could turn into a giant ring and-" He was cut off by a large being that grabbed him by both throats and lifted him off his chair with a snarl.

"Now now, remember the rules," Q said. The being dropped the coughing drunk back onto the floor and stormed off.

"What's his problem?" he asked with a cough.

HE'S A LITTLE SENSITIVE ABOUT THE R-WORD, Death explained.

"Oh, okay," the drunk said in a tone that said he had no idea what the R-word was, but was going to see if it was written on the bottom of another drink, especially since his last one had so tragically been spilt before its time.

"Brought it on himself," the young female Death remarked. Without looking she reached up and caught the swing of a Pak Protector and, with a slight push, knocked him a light-year away.

“Looks like he had a bit too much to drink,” the drunk observed. “Eyes looked really bloodshot.”

NOT QUITE.

"All right, all accounts have been settled," Q said, "it looks like we're ready for the final round to begin. I believe it falls to you first," he addressed the remark to a tall, curly-haired man who was at the moment on all fours polishing an electronic dog with his scarf. Q cleared his throat loudly, and the man looked up, and gave him a toothy grin.

"Yes, can I help you?"

"Yes, you can start the next round," Q said impatiently.

"I can?"

"Yes," Q said. "You are the only one present who has won every single round."

"Did I?"

"Yes," Q said, his tone making it abundantly clear he wasn't enjoying this conversation being drawn out like this.

"Ah, well, a bit of luck I suppose. Look for good things to happen and good things will find you."

"I'll drink to that," the drunk remarked. His other head added a "hear-hear," and did so.

"Nevertheless," Q said, "we are waiting, Doctor."

"Of course of course," the Doctor said, getting up and brushing his trousers off despite the fact that there was no dirt in the pocket dimension. "Let's keep things interesting, shall we?" he asked with a silly grin. "Let it ride."



Chuck

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Last edited by Sonnenburg on 2006-06-21 06:07pm, edited 7 times in total.
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Part I


This is the life of Sebastian Skywalker.

There was still the faintest hint of the sunrise taint on the eastern horizon, and the smell in the air of damp from the storm the night before. It's quiet and still, but it won't last long, but for now Sebastian sits in front of his house. He enjoys the solitude, but only as someone who knows it's a brief interruption in the hustle and bustle of his life, with a lovely wife and wonderful daughter to share it. Some days, especially after the rain has come to wash the corruption away, you need to watch the dawn and see to it that the new day has arrived. Each one was a gift - well, not a gift so much as a bit of stolen time, but it was probably nicer to think of it as a gift.

The presence was felt long before she arrived, but Sebastian didn't turn until after he felt a kiss on his cheek. "Good morning, daddy," Morgan said, then turning to watch the sky. "We don't have much time," she finally said.

"Then prep the speeder," Sebastian said. "I'll be along shortly." Minutes passed, then with all things duly prepped the trio set off across the planet's surface until they reached the home of Luke and Annika Skywalker. Most of the other guests had been staying in a nearby hotel, so the celebration was already underway. Food was being prepared under the now cloudless sky in an atmosphere that was just warm enough to counter the cool breeze. Gorren was sitting at the center of a mob of children, telling stories of the glorious battles of his youth. There was a quick all around welcoming for Sebastian and his family before everyone settled back into their various forms of revelry. Luke, as usual, was discussing the Jedi Academy with Jacen Solo, and explaining very patiently and tactfully that the young whippersnapper didn't know what he was talking about. Han and Kilana also tended to talk shop, although the fact that the Vorta woman was using the Falcon for their cargo ventures may have explained Han's constant concern with the business. Overall, however, the air was filled with a sense of relaxation.

Sebastian settled into a chair with a drink and watched the scene. Gorren, much to the chagrin of the children, had finished for now and was helping himself to some food using a reinforced Klingon plate. The sound of disappointment from the young ones caused Annika to emerge from the aether and take a cross-legged seat amongst them; a hush soon descended around the area. Even the older children stopped to listen when Annika told a story, because she had thousands of cultures to draw upon.

"On the alien world of Knidor," she began, "there was a writer named Lindo. His name went down in history because of a certain amazing series of events that transpired millennia after he died. Many had, naturally, read his works, full of flights of fancy most said. However, the flight of fancy that was most significant was his, well, flight of fancy," she said with a laugh, "specifically the flying city of Ohr, as told in Crown of the Heavens. It was richly described and wonderfully conceived, and alone among his works, was the kind of setting that could get the imagination of even the most harsh critic of his writing soaring right alongside it.

"Centuries after he'd written the story, the technology had progressed enough that the vision of the floating metropolis moved from the realm of fantasy to the realm of possibility. Great repulsorlifts held the first city aloft; it was crude, but it seemed to fit a niche in the imagination of the Knidori, because several others were constructed over the following decades. Eventually, on the 1500th anniversary of the publication of Crown of the Heavens, the largest nation-state on Knidor completed an exact replica of Ohr as it was described in the book, down to the tiniest detail.

"Two months later, disaster struck."

"Did the cities fall down?" one of the children asked.

"It wasn't a disaster for the floating cities," Annika explained. "Instead it was the worst calamity the planet had ever experienced. A collision by an errant moon devastated the world; everyone on the surface was killed, along with most of the floating cities. Most... but not all. A few survived the harrowing ordeal and eventually, when their planet settled down, they were able to resettle. They also knew that, had it not been for the vision of Lindo, their entire civilization, their entire species, would have been wiped out. He became an even more celebrated figure in their culture, and the people of Knidor eventually shunned the ground for the flying cities; it seemed ungrateful not to dwell there.

"Eventually the Knidori discovered faster than light travel and met other civilizations, and like many, learned a little of time travel. While they knew the cardinal rule was not to interfere with causality-"

"What's a causality?" another child asked.

"Things happening one after another," Annika said in the hope that was simple enough for the little ones. "Anyway, the leadership of their world felt it only right to show a proper thanks to the being that ensured the continued existence of his people. So eventually, Lindo was brought to the city of Ohr to be thanked personally for all he had done. He was absolutely astonished at what they showed him, and the Knidori beamed to themselves that they had been so able to grasp the vision that Lindo had had. There was, however, only one problem."

"What was that?"

"Lindo hadn't had this vision. Through a minor miscalculation, the author had been plucked from the time before he wrote the story rather than after. It was only to be expected after thousands of years and a minor apocalypse that a few dates might be skewed. After seeing everything, Lindo was returned to his own time, and the vision of the future had so captured his imagination that he was unable to resist writing about the fantastic place in his book: Crown of the Heavens."

"Wait," Morgan said, "if he got the idea for the book from the city, and they got the idea for the city from the book, then where did the idea actually come from?"

Annika smiled. "God, Time, the Force, what have you. Someone or something somewhere knew that there was a thing that was needed, and all it had to do was be plugged into the universe. It didn't need neat, trimmed edges, it didn't need proper causality, it just needed to be in the right place at the right time."

"It's not logical," Morgan said sharply.

"No, it isn't," Annika said. "But the story is still there, and the Knidori have taken their part within the Empire as if nothing had ever happened."

"If the will of the Force can move worlds and show past and future," Luke said, "I don't see why it can't take advantage of a temporal hiccup if it will save a race from extinction."

"Yes, grandfather," Morgan conceded. "But that's a frightening thought."

"We trust in the Force to guide us," Luke offered.

"No, I know that. What I mean is, this was obviously the light side of the Force. If it could save a world from extinction..." Morgan shivered. "What kind of horrors could the dark side unleash?"

The silence spread across the group like a cloud eclipsing the sun. Those with a greater touch of the Force suddenly had some very undesirable images float through their imaginations, but just as quickly things returned to normal. There was no sense in dwelling on potential cosmic influence when there were drinks available.

The day passed with the mixed time sensation of all outdoor parties, managing to fly by as it plodded, like a high-speed playback of a snail race. Inevitably the festivities died down and people said their goodbyes, and a speeder sped across the planet's surface back to the home of Sebastian and Jorrielle Skywalker. After the long day Sebastian turned in early.
--------------------------------------------------------------

This is the life of Sebastian Skywalker.

His eyes opened, and information flooded into his mind, and his thoughts were one with the billions of other minds. He stepped from his alcove and approached the Queen, who had completed regeneration some time earlier. She was addressing Romal, attorney for the Borg Collective and general liaison with those outside the Collective. Romal the Attorney had just returned from a two week vacation he had requested due to stress, but it seemed to have failed because he was even more stressed than he'd been before he'd left.

"Look at this!" he demanded, which was curious because he didn't actually show them the datapad. "You cancelled negotiations with Cybot?! What were you thinking?"

"Our designs are unique," the Queen informed him. "We will not pay them because of their irrational beliefs that we have stolen their intellectual property."

"But we could have settled without having to go to court!" Romal shouted. "That was the point of the meeting! We'll pay more in court costs than we would have settling."

"That does not seem right," Sebastian remarked.

"The court system seems flawed," the Queen agreed.

"It's just the way it works," Romal said wearily.

"It does not seem to work," Sebastian said. "That is the problem."

"And what's this?" Romal demanded, again not showing them what he was talking about. "The governor of the sector says that you sent a threatening message to the mining colony around NZ1-M2? What were you doing?"

"Following your instructions," Sebastian said.

"You will recall that you refused receipt of your fruit basket before the period of non-work began," the Queen said.

"That basket before my vacation?" Romal said. "Oh, you mean the sixth one you offered me that month? Yes, what of it? I said I didn't want the damn thing."

"Yes," Sebastian said. "Your instructions were to put it 'where the sun don't shine.'"

"We had to extrapolate a bit," the Queen said, "but NZ1-M2 is a black dwarf, and thus seemed to fit your instructions."

Romal closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. "This would be the one with the card, 'You are a valuable organic resource to the Borg,' yes?"

"We mean it as a compliment," Sebastian said.

"I will try to straighten this out," he said with a sigh. "For the record, the remark was a metaphor."

"Was it?" the Queen asked. "What for?"

"It-" Romal stopped. "It's not important."

"Perhaps the future?" Sebastian asked the Queen. "As we cannot see the future, perhaps it would be considered a place that is dark, ergo, where the sun does not shine?"

"Interesting," the Queen said. "Storing it away for later, therefore?"

"Possibly," Sebastian said.

"That's not important," Romal said testily. "What is is trying to get along with our neighbors and business associates. We still have a long way to go in overcoming the Borg's previous reputation."

"Our assistance to the Empire should have helped our 'public relations,'" the Queen said, referring to the joint Imperial-Borg attack on the Vong months before.

"And it did, to a degree," Romal said. "The problem is that the Empire isn't all that popular, especially in light of their aggressive foreign policy."

"You are referring to the destruction of the Malon world?" the Queen asked.

"Yes, as a matter of fact," Romal replied.

"But they were warned," Sebastian pointed out. "Everyone knows that if you attack the Empire, the Eclipse will show up and destroy your world. They should have expected it."

"That doesn't matter," Romal said. "It still made the Empire look like the villains in this."

"But the Malon were the aggressors," the Queen remarked.

"Yes, but somehow responding to a raid of a nearby system by destroying an entire planet did not go over very well with the general populace of the galaxy. I've no idea why." The Borg could detect to the tiniest degree the pitch, volume, and timbre of Romal's voice, but sadly they had yet to develop an instrument to measure sarcasm.

"It is not our concern," the Queen finally concluded. "We have our business license, and the assurance that General Taar will not turn the Imperial military against us."

"Yes," Romal said, "but you've got to look at the larger picture."

"We are Borg," Sebastian said. "We always look at the larger picture."

"The Empire may be winning the war, but it's falling apart at the same time," Romal pointed out. "The dismissal of the Senate, Taar's grasp at power, the fragmenting of the territory. The Empire is dying... some say it's already dead."

"The Empire is not a living thing," the Queen pointed out. "It cannot die. It can end."

"Yes," Romal said icily. "It's another metaphor."

"Dying, and already dead," Sebastian said.

"Paradoxical," the Queen remarked.

"Perhaps it's a reflection of somatic death."

"What?" Romal asked.

"When an organic being such as yourself dies, Romal," Sebastian explained, "you do not die all at once. Some parts can continue to survive for minutes afterwards."

"Like the Empire," the Queen said, exploring this new idea. "Dead, yet still plodding on."

"Logical," Sebastian said. "The decay usually first sets in in the frontal lobe, reflecting the loss of the representative government. The decay leaves only the r-complex, representative of the aggression of the military government."

"Okay, that's quite enough," Romal said.

"Consider that after death," the Queen continued, "the secretion of protective mucus ceases, allowing digestive chemicals to penetrate their linings and actually consume parts of the body, reducing the contents of the abdominal cavity to liquid. Self-digestion fits the behavior of systems such as the Malons who attempt to turn on other parts of the Empire."

"Please," Romal said, holding his stomach.

"And the rapid build-up of bacteria," Sebastian said, "unfettered by the defenses of the body, is an accurate description of the Hirogen and Mistryl that have been harassing us, resulting in the festering pustules and foul release of toxins which-"

"All right!" Romal said. "Can we just get back to the matter at hand?!"

"The Mistryl?"

"NO! The-" Romal paused in mid rant. "Wait, yes, the Mistryl. Korri Rej waylaid the shipment we were sending to the Imperial depot in Sector 127. It's going to set us back substantially, but the Empire needs those droids right away, which means our commercial vendors are going to have to wait. That cuts into our future sales."

"We are aware," the Queen said.

"Rej has vowed to increase attacks on the Borg unless we stop aiding the Empire," Romal said. "Business or otherwise."

"Raiders and terrorists are bad for business, yes?" Sebastian asked. "Then we must continue to oppose them."

"Yes, I agree," Romal said. "But perhaps if we negotiated something-"

"No," the Queen said, "we will not."

"But if we can work something out-"

"No," Sebastian said again. "If we deal with them, it would cost us more than if we did not. That is just the way it works."
--------------------------------------------------------------

To any known scanner that existed in the galaxy, the planet was as barren and lifeless as most planets tended to be. This was usually because conditions for life had been lacking, whether it be a shortage of temperature or energy or elements. Life crept up (or in some cases, slithered up) so frequently that it seemed to be everywhere, but space contains so much everywhere that the handful of places just seem like everywhere. This world, however, was full of life, but the Vong didn't want that secret getting out.

It was the amazing thing about conspiracies; when you had the right agencies involved, there were nearly no limits to what you could accomplish. It had started with Senator Alixus' contacts identifying the activity of a high-ranking clerk within the Empire named Deln Ibar, who seemed to have some kind of knowledge of General Taar's fleet movements. With the target identified, the Sith Lord -Ben Skywalker- was more than capable of overwhelming the security and capturing Ibar alive and mostly intact. With the underworld contacts of Garak and his Cardassians, slipping Ben's ship through the security around Wormhole Station was simple enough. And now, at the end of the journey, the Sith set his ship down on what his instruments told him was a lifeless world, grabbed Ibar, and dragged him out.

On the world was the last link in the chain. Nom Anor waited, hands folded, watching the Sith and prisoner with a blank expression. The groups were not allies as such, but the chain was a kind of loose-knit collection working towards their own ends in the defeat of the Empire, and thus far had been doing very, very good work.

Ibar had information that was only in his head, and that made him valuable to these groups. But, while Ben may have been able to manipulate him, or Alixus blackmail him, or Garak just torture him, only Nom Anor had the means to gather all of the information with its context and details thoroughly intact. A tendril shot out of the darkness, caught Ibar around the middle, and yanked him into a writhing mass of biomatter. Within seconds, Ibar ceased to exist, but the knowledge became part of the greater mind of the composite being Nom Anor called the Hive, which devoted all thoughts towards the singular goal of those groups. Soon, it would be able to achieve it.



Chuck

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Part II


Ben Skywalker deactivated his cloak and brought the ship into the docking bay, glad the work with Deln Ibar was behind him. Ben was a Sith Lord, and running errands like that was beneath him, but he had to answer to the Oracle, his master. All Sith chaffed when subordinate; the apprentices sought to replace Molly O'Brien, she sought to usurp Ben, Ben wanted to topple his master, and she sought to overthrow the Empire itself. The term for a Sith that wasn't striving for power and advancement was "corpse."

Not so long ago Ben would have had lackeys to carry out this busy work. In his own universe he was poised for total conquest of the galaxy, and it was only by the intervention of the Oracle, his Sith Master, that he'd been brought here instead, duped into believing that it was a fluke and that she was a humble servant. The truth, that he was chosen because she felt he'd be easily manipulated, had come as a rather nasty and shameful shock.

Still, despite his failing to spot the ruse and seize control, he'd performed masterfully, even if he did say so himself. He'd killed this universe's Luke Skywalker, Jacen Solo, dozens of Jedi potentials and one of the students. He'd even killed the Emperor himself in front of the entire Empire... although he didn't like to think that it was only because the Emperor allowed it to happen. But that didn't change the fact that he'd done it, and how many had the Oracle killed? Leia Organa Solo, and that was after Ben had already removed one of her hands; hardly impressive. A Sith Master had to be prepared to get his hands dirty, and so far it seemed the only way that might happen with the Oracle is if she knocked over one of her beakers. But patience was part of being a Sith, as paradoxical as that may seem. Passion, anger, these were part of what gave a Sith strength, and a willingness to commit any sin to achieve a given end. But if you weren't patient, if you weren't calculating, if you didn't look at when you were strong and when you were wanting, then you were just a very fashionable thug. So Ben watched for his opportunity with due caution. A mid-ranking Sith Lord was one of the most dangerous adversaries. They had the apprentices clambering for a shot at the big time, masters trying to stop their ascent, and Jedi adversaries all around trying to lay them out. They were survivors through and through. They made cockroaches look like a sickly goldfish.

Ben crossed through the complex without a word to the others, intent to give his report and get on with things. Some time in the holodeck would be most useful, he thought. Killing a few dozen Jedi would help him relax after the boredom of his latest -his stomach turned on the word- assignment.

The Oracle was in her laboratory, pouring over an alchemical elixir with rapt attention. It was at moments like this when she seemed to be at her most insane, mumbling to herself as she worked. It could be understandable if she were using it as some kind of memory aid; three parts green stuff to two parts bubbling blue whatever-it-was. Instead her little mutterings seemed to be completed unrelated to her work. "Displacement... displacement is natural, a consequence of the uncertainty principle. Have to be scientific about it, logical, even when it seems to break every known law. Just have to remember to be rational... have to think... have to remember... I can do it right this time. I have the knowledge, and with that they can't hope to fool me. This time I'll have the edge. Just have to be careful. Have to remember. Can't have a temporal paradox. Paradoxes are dangerous things. Paradoxes will swallow you up. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a vacuum in time even more so. There's so much to remember... so much that has happened... or has it already happened... can't think with the displacement... I'll need this. This can be reversed; the Sith have the power to do anything. Just have to remember it all... I can do it this time..." She took the chemical, apparently decided it was done and poured it into a hypospray. Hands fumbling, she placed it to her neck and it discharged; she dropped it to the floor in a massive coughing fit, doubled over from the force of it.

Ben saw his chance, and when it came to Sith assassinations, chances didn't crop up very often. He moved with speed beyond anything human, closing the distance and pulling his lightsaber, igniting it on the downswing to provide the traditional cure for dandruff - removing the head from the shoulders.

Time stopped. When dealing with matters that involve the Oracle and her perverse union of Dark side power with chemical and technological obscenities, it's important to keep in mind that a phrase like that needs to be taken literally. Time stopped. Awareness continued. Ben could see his lightsaber frozen just at the cutting point, its glow subdued in the non-time, silent. In fact, there was no sound at all, not the beeps and chirps of the Oracle's instruments, not the hiss from her chemicals, nothing.

The Oracle bent down below the motionless lightsaber and backed out of its swing. She straightened up and looked into his eyes, and it chilled him to the core. She had no eyes; where they should be was an empty, yawning abyss. Ben could feel it drowning him, like a fallen tear dropped into an ocean without notice or consequence. Many a stare said that you were beneath notice, but this one actually held up a mirror and showed you that you truly were insignificant in every possible way, that your existence had no consequence whatsoever to anything. Inside his mind, Ben screamed in terror and angst, and was appalled that he was helpless to turn away from her, which was the only thing he wanted at that moment. Some talked about a look that could kill, but this one could reach in and destroy the spirit itself.

Time continued, and the swing finished, causing Ben to stumble off balance. He righted himself and backed away from the Oracle, whose face seemed to have returned to normal for the moment, although it still wasn't a very pretty sight. She waved her hand and Ben found his cybernetic hand was holding the lightsaber near his own throat. He grabbed the wrist with his other and tried to push it away, but it was hopeless. His eyes flicked between the blade and the Oracle, fear saturating his body. She could kill him, but there was no way to tell whether or not she would. When rationality is gone, you become capable of anything. In an odd way, madness was the ultimate freedom.

The lightsaber switched off, much to Ben's relief. Then it exploded. He dropped down as he grabbed his wrist, the hand holding the lightsaber blown to pieces. It wasn't real, but it was attached to his nervous system, and hurt like hell. The Oracle walked slowly across the room to him, then just as slowly gestured upward. Ben felt something lift him up by the throat until he was standing on his toes, gasping for air. Finally she spoke, her words edged with ice and malice. "Don't ever do that again." Then she gestured and Ben was thrown out of the room through the door, landing on the floor beyond and rolling to a painful halt. He groaned where he lay, too weak at the moment to haul himself to his feet. He glanced up and saw the Oracle watching him from the doorway. He stayed where he was, working to gather enough strength to get to the infirmary. After a while she turned and returned to her work in the lab. The door didn't close, because there wasn't one. Another phrase to take literally when it comes to the Oracle is "through the door."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The thousands of minor powers throughout the Milky Way had been united in conquest by the Empire. Now, thanks to the disintegration of the central government, it was back to the old days for most, which mainly included fighting amongst themselves for resources and power. The problem was that some of it was still the Empire, and they took a dim view of aggressors, or at least, those aggressive in their direction.

Pax Eclipsa, General Taar had named the plan for Milky Way affairs. It was a rather humorous name, if the general could have been considered to have much of a sense of humor, and if the thought of enforcing international policy with a planet-killing weapon could be anything more than black comedy. Such a term had always been used to reflect a period of international stability because of the strength of a nation or several nations. Instead it was a period of international turmoil where the Empire waved a bat full of nails at people and threatened to use it if they didn't back off. Leave us alone, because we have the big stick, and we know where you live. A diplomat could call this situation "peace" in much the same way a doctor could call death "stable."

The Malon had been the first that were both ambitious and foolish enough to test the Empire's resolve. It had been a smallish raid of an Imperial planet. The Empire had responded by only blowing up a small Malon planet. The Malon had shown public outrage at the brutality of the response, but the ambassadors were powerless to do anything. The military was handling the Eclipses now, and they'd made their decision. Without the resources to respond with comparable firepower to every attack, the Empire would continue to respond to threats to its territory with the ultimate weapon. The Malon asked if that was their final word on the subject; General Taar advised them to look up "ultimate" in the dictionary.

What few people didn't know was that the Malon hadn't been alone in the plan. This was vital, because Garak knew that if his connection were discovered, the Cardassians would be in far worse shape than the Malon. But you didn't fight the kind of war he'd fought for a quarter century without knowing how to be careful, or without forging contacts across the galaxy. Janeway knew this, and gave him orders to make use of them. For some reason, Garak had found he'd become far more worried about her wrath than the Empire's. The worst the Empire would do would be to wipe them out, but with her technology, Janeway may have the means to erase them from existence.

Garak needed to provoke the Empire; she'd insisted upon that. The Malon, however, weren't listening any more after what had happened. They were ambitious, but they also knew when they'd already lost. The Kazon though... they were ambitious and stupid. Even after the annihilation of the Malon world, they were still itching for the chance to take a bite out of some forbidden fruit. It was almost depressingly easy to provoke them.

Garak watched the live feed from one of the Kazon worlds as the Eclipse emerged out of hyperspace. The Empire, in fact, was broadcasting the image throughout the holonet. After all, what was the point of resorting to a policy of total annihilation in response to attacks if you didn't show the galaxy you meant every word? There was a flurry of ships breaking orbit around the world; mere dots at this distance. Seconds after arrival, the front of the ship flared and a green energy beam rush out and struck the planet, causing it to rupture and explode.

The galaxy watched, and they got the message. But the other message, the one the Oracle had wanted them to receive, also was sent. This is what you get when you strip the Empire of the gentility. This is what it really was. It was a planet killer, a monster, which killed indiscriminately as its foreign policy. None of you will ever truly be safe while it still exists.

Garak turned the image off and leaned back in his chair. He didn't like the sight of the superlaser. It brought up bad memories.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika Hansen Skywalker, also known as Seven of Nine in the distant country of her past, laid on her bunk in the holding cell. It was a good day; she hadn't been tortured for eleven days now, and that was a streak worth celebrating, if she'd had the means. Janeway had become obsessed as usual, and there's few things worse than being tortured by an obsessive-complusive. For one thing, they tend to make it part of their routine.

It had started simply enough. Janeway -The Oracle, Annika corrected- wanted to find out how Annika contacted the Borg so she could set up a counter-measure to stop it. Eventually, Annika gave in. The next day, the ordeal was repeated, to find out if there were some other way to get a signal out. Sadly there was, and even worse, Annika spilled it, eliminating another option. What was even worse was the third time, because there were no options left for Annika to give up. It makes for a very long day, especially when the Oracle was involved. She had ways of keeping her victims conscious even after the body would normally shut down. The times after that, well, Annika was suspecting her old captain was just trying to break up the monotony; her own, of course, not Annika's.

Annika folded her hands behind her head and looked at the ceiling in the off chance it did something interesting. So... the Oracle was still keeping her alive. That meant she saw some use in doing so. It wasn't for old time's sake, that much was certain, so it had to be because it furthered her goal. During her frequent interrogations Annika had been asked about ways to destroy or hamper the Borg Collective, but Annika had never provided any. She was smart too and never allowed herself to think about the topic so that when the pain became too much she would be unable to give in. Still, if she had a credit for every time she'd decided to solve the problem to ensure the torture never happened again, she could afford an army to break her out. Since the sessions had gone on some kind of hiatus, though, it seemed that this line of inquiry was over.

Annika reviewed her list of the Oracle's potential motivations, short though it was. The first had been as a weapon to use against Sebastian, but that seemed to be diminishing. Sebastian was Borg now, and he would feel no emotional attachment towards her. The Oracle had to know that. Besides, letting Annika contact the Borg would encourage them to step into any kind of trap the captain could come up with, and she'd effectively cut off every emergency channel and frequency Annika had. That seemed the least likely option at this point.

The second possibility was to convince Annika to join with her. It might seem a bit of an odd technique to recruit someone, but by constantly pushing Annika beyond her pain thresholds it would allow the Oracle to start to brainwash her. That had seemed the most likely for a time, but with the lapse in her torture regiment, it seemed this wasn't right either, or the Oracle was too busy with other work to maintain an interest.

The third and most worrying possibility was simple sadism. If Annika's cynicism was right, the Oracle kept her alive purely to torment her for some kind of amusement. The recent break was because she had other things to occupy her mind, but if she was bored Annika could look forward to more of her former captain's ministrations. That it fit all the facts only made Annika more gloomy.

The only remaining possibility for Annika was that the Oracle had seen a future where her captive could be of some use to her. Despite the failure of the Vong trap the Oracle had instigated, the woman clearly had developed some means of seeing into the future and planning accordingly. Annika could be the key to whatever scheme she was putting together. If that were the case -or the previous one, Annika mused- then the only way Annika could foil the Oracle's plans would be to kill herself. She could do it too; even if her nanoprobes didn't work, she could still snap her own neck. But she also knew this was one of the classic blunders. The most famous was never to get involved in a land war with Klingons, but only slightly less well know was this: never second guess your actions when dealing with events known to occur in the future. Nine times out of ten, a person who did that caused the very event they were trying to prevent. It was called the Pogo Paradox, in fact, because Starfleet liked to name every damn thing. No, Annika planned for eventualities, but she never did anything that couldn't be easily reversed unless she had to, and self-resurrection wasn't a skill she'd mastered.

Annika squirmed a little on the cot to try and get more comfortable, then started to sing quietly to pass the time. The future would show up when it was ready, and Annika was even more patient than a Sith.



Chuck

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Part III


There was the quiet crunching noise of boot on snow as the figure crossed the ice plains. It was an interesting walk to any connoisseurs, at least given the terrain. It was unhindered by the cold and the snow, as if they were just unimportant background details rather than trying to suck the life from his body. It was a very rhythmic pace, the body having long ago laid down the tracks when it came to walking and didn't change a winning formula. And it also spoke of total confidence. In short, it said that of all the things in the immediate vicinity, the walker was the most important.

The crunch was sudden deeper and louder, and despite himself the walker stopped in mid-step. Carefully the boot was lifted, revealing the frozen innards of a Vong bug. In the years since its death the snow had covered it over; no doubt the rest were covered as well, making this a very icky minefield. The boot was pulled out and the walk continued, because icky had been dealt with long ago as well. The difference now was the change in the sound of the walk, if not the actual rhythm, rather like a very avant-garde drummer. The figure finally stopped before an icy hill, but only for a moment. He began digging until the hull of the buried ship was revealed. After using the revealed marker to get the bearings, the figure moved further down and dug again, revealing the hatch, which was just as quickly pulled open. More snow and ice waited inside, although not quite as deep. Nevertheless, the figure swore under his breath and pushed inside.

The elements had been given free reign within the ship, but the Vong had ignored it in their haste to depart the planet. There was no attraction for them anyway, except as more technology to be destroyed, and the bugs had done a good enough job already. Kalib scowled; he may have been large and brutish-looking and as blunt as a lead pipe, but he was not uncivilized, and he'd taken to preserving relics on board his ship. Ice and snow had not been kind to them; most were just junk now. There was the Uyn flute, invented by a species with incredible hearing to create incredibly detailed three-dimensional maps; snapped in half and irreparable. There was his collection of weapons, corroded and broken. He'd broken many over the years, but always in the process of using them, and that just came with the territory. But like this... there was no reason. The water sculptures burst their containers, the pages of books were lumps of pulp, the archaic crystal displays of ancient instruments were shattered.

The ship echoed with a sound like two cinder blocks being ground together, but it was actually Kalib's fists tightening. The Vong had taken several years away from him, and that was crime enough. But at least he had an abundant supply of time that he could make up for it -preferably by shortening that of the Vong- but the damage here couldn't be undone. The last remnants of many a broken civilization had been preserved by Kalib, and now broken bits were all that were left of them. This wasn't the first time it'd happened, of course, but it never ceased to infuriate him. No one besides Kalib remembers the name of the last species who did this.

Still, there were some things more precious than objects, and they were located in a secure area of the ship. Kalib had taken great pains to ensure that cargo was safe; anything that could damage them was certain to mean that he had more pressing problems to deal with, because it'd probably kill him. That was where Kalib put his foot down. Death was something that happened to other people; often Kalib was willing to help. The room had been breached as well, but that wasn't any reason for concern. He reached a metallic box and, with several grunts of effort, managed to get it opened. Inside were what appeared to be polished rocks covered with irregular patterns of quarts, although what they actually were were high-density data storage blocks. The technology to make or read them had been lost for millennia, except for Kalib, who had done it so many times his hands sometimes twitched through the motions while he slept. Next to them was a smaller box, the size of a large suitcase. He set it on its side and opened it, then carefully filled it with the blocks. When it was filled he closed it and hit one of the six buttons, causing the box to make a sound like the hum of a power grid and a small earthquake. He stepped into the next room and opened the box again; there was no sign of the blocks now. He filled it with the surviving relics, closing it every now and then and choosing the next button until it was filled. Filling a multi-dimensional box took time. He tossed it through the entrance a good ways from the ship. One last thing to do...

Kalib was an information broker who preferred not to get involved in other people's problems, which was why he believed in being heavily armed. Desperate people don't like to hear the word "no." The missiles were set with very high-yield explosive that were harmless when disarmed. Completely harmless; you couldn't bank on long odds when you were looking at several hundred centuries of reliable use, because those odds always caught up with you. After half an hour of tinkering he readied the missile to explode, then calmly walked out of the ship for the last time. He picked up his box on the way out and was about halfway back before the missile blew, peppering the landscape with wreckage from the ship. His stride, as always, didn't miss a beat.

Han Solo and Kilana were both asleep when Kalib walked up the ramp into the Falcon. He dropped the multi-dimensional box, which hit like a concrete pylon, causing the two to jerk awake. Han's eyes narrowed as his slid his blaster back into his holster. "Finished?" he asked.

"Yeah," Kalib said, as if every day he destroyed a vessel that'd served as home for centuries. "I need a new ship. Nothing fancy, just something to do until I can get something more functional."

"We can take you where you need to go," Kilana said. She missed the look Han gave her at the presumption, but said nothing.

Kalib shook his head. "I've got things that need sorting, and some private stuff to deal with."

"We can help," Kilana said.

"Good, help me get a ship so I can go there myself," Kalib said.

"He doesn't trust us," Han explained as he headed towards the cockpit.

"That's right," Kalib said.

Kilana was a bit of an anomaly. The life working for the Orion Syndicate had left her incredibly naive in some aspects and horribly sly in others, so that dealing with her was sometimes like, well, trying to cross the snowfield without getting your ankles covered in bug intestines. He could see in her face that she couldn't really believe that he didn't trust her. She knew without a doubt that you couldn't trust people, because people would stab you in the back just as soon as look at you, but that didn't mean you couldn't trust people you knew you could trust, right? You could trust a good person.

Kalib knew he wasn't a good person; it was one of the things he liked about himself. He didn't involve himself in things as a rule, although he'd be sure to ply his information trade to those who could use it to do something right. But for Kalib, it was always best to let them deal with it. He never stepped in unless he believed that he had no choice, and even then it was sheer self-interest. The incident with Luke Skywalker here, which had no doubt seemed like charity, was a bit of forward thought. Kalib knew that, push going to shove, a Luke that had turned to the dark side could track down and kill him. He knew how to do it, and with Kalib not helping him find his kid, well, he probably would be on a list of targets. The only way to save his skin would be to either try to kill Luke first, which was about as attractive as cleaning his face in an ion engine, or helping him out, so the Jedi would owe him one and hopefully leave him alone. And after getting out of the Vong's carbon freeze had left him with some pent up aggression that he'd directed at them for some time, but even that had worn off. Solo was all right and despite herself the girl was likeable, but this wasn't how Kalib operated. He needed to get setup and settled back into his routine. He'd deal with the Vong, but in his own way, in his own time.

"We worked well together," Kilana said, although Kalib didn't see it that way.

"I work best alone," Kalib said. "Had a lot of practice with it." Kilana nodded wordlessly, her face an image of restrained emotion at the news, she sat down at the table as the Falcon lifted off. Kalib sighed. "Nice try, but I know you had lots of practice tugging heartstrings on Ferenginar to fall for that. Besides, I'm far too much of a bastard to be bothered."

"We need you," she said sharply.

"For what?" Kalib asked. "Muscle? Listen kid, I'm a dealer in information, it's what I've been doing since before the Founders thought of bringing your people down from the trees. For me to do what I do best, I need to get out there and do it. Alone."

Kilana nodded, more to herself than to Kalib. "'Where I'm going, you cannot follow,'" she quoted.

Kalib dropped into his specially-reinforced chair. He knew what she was talking about; being quick on the uptake was also part of being a good information broker. "You're still worried about Skywalker's kid? Forget it; he's got a nice cushy number with the Borg right now."

"But that isn't right!" she said in exasperation. "He's a Jedi-"

"And a Borg."

"He's a Jedi," Kilana insisted. "He can't stand by while the Vong threaten innocent people!"

"He isn't standing by," Kalib said. "Borg screwed things up for them real good. Reeeeal good. Probably the turning point, unless the Empire really screws things up."

"But the prophecy-"

"Ah, this ought to be good," Kalib said as he stretched out, chair squeaking in protest.

"He's supposed to deliver the Empire through its darkness!"

"And he did," Kalib said. "Empire would have been carved up by the Vong already if it hadn't been for the kid and his Borg buds."

"But not like this," Kilana said in exasperation. "It's not supposed to be like this."

Kalib shrugged. "Thing about prophecies is, they don't tell you nothing. You think you know, so instead of facing reality you deny it, insisting what you constructed for the future was the true reality. There's a word for people like that: crazy." Kilana just glowered at him, and he closed his eyes and let the deep sawing sound of his snore fill the room.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The warmth from the explosion of Kalib's ship has already been sucked away by the eternal winter of Halva, and the departure of the Millennium Falcon returns it to the lifeless category. But let the mind's eye drift away from this icy world. Another galaxy, another time, but another world nearly as devoid of life as this one. It has no name, save a dutiful note in a few catalogs throughout the galaxy, but a world with no need for concern among those who think in galactic terms.

This is the planet's surface; not bare rock, as is usually the case with such worlds. The soil is bare, exposing its rich blackness to the sky; not the dust that would be expected. On a world where agriculture was still new, this would be ground worth going to war over. But there's not a single trunk or stem or shoot rising from it from horizon to horizon. The wind blows, and the topsoil begins to dry and fly off with it. The erosion will run unchecked.

There, just on the cusp of vision, a spore tumbles upon the breeze. The wind picks up and its white fluff flaps in response, slipping higher into the air. Following it, the scene seems almost not to be moving as mile gives way to mile of empty fields. The only sign the scene has changed is the appearance of a rocky outcropping, or a small, quiet lake. Then a mountain comes into view, directly in the path of the floating spore. But as it approaches, the surface becomes more distinct and the astonishing truth is revealed: this is no mountain. That is, it's not what would normally be considered a mountain; no tectonic force raised it, no flowing magma shaped it. There was no rock or dirt in its makeup, although clay might be given a symbolic nod from a certain religious perspective. This was because the mountain was alive. Aside of that small detail, it was certainly everything else you might expect from a mountain. It was half a kilometer tall and sprawled under its bulk across the bare soil. It didn't move, not until the spore struck its surface, and even then it was barely a movement. A tendril the size of a hair wrapped around the spore and pulled it inside the pink and gray mass.

Nothing that size should be alive, the mind insists. The weight of its own body would surely crush it. But all the same, it was there, sharing the world with the bacteria and a few other creatures more fortunate than the spore. It made no other sign of movement, and showed nothing to indicate any kind of intelligence. But still, surrounding it seemed to be an aura of malevolence, and soon fear overpowers curiosity and the thing is left behind.

More barren land passes, the rich dirt giving way to sandier soil, but still nothing. Soon, another shape appears on the horizon... another shape like a mountain, but not a mountain. A change in direction, and the soil gives way to white sand, and then ocean water. It's a clear blue that allows a view straight to the sea bottom. There are no fish, no signs of life.

And then, the largest, ugliest lily pad in the universe comes into view, floating atop the salt water of the ocean. It's dozens of kilometers in diameter, but flat, the same grey-pink mix of the mountains. And a few hundred kilometers away floats another, and another. And when the mind rushes away from the world in sheer horror, the ocean is shown to be dotted by the sickening shapes.

Before the mind can process the scene fully, a ship slides into view, followed by others... hundreds. They drop over the world and invisible forces grasp at the monstrous things and pull them into orbit. As they leave the surface and the high gravity they finally begin to move. The atmosphere is thin, but the sound is like the snapping of tree trunks and the grinding of bones. The organisms gradually form into a sphere; not long after, ice begins to form over their surfaces. The fleet pulls its grisly cargo away from the planet and disappears at superluminal speed. Behind hangs the world with no name, and virtually no life. No one would ever know of it, except as an abstract concept, but it had been the first. Sadly, this means that there will be more.



Chuck

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Part IV


There was a small lake a few miles from the home of Sebastian Skywalker and family, and it had come to be a tradition to visit it when Morgan was in need of parental advice. They sat on the bench looking over the still water, disturbed only by the bit of branch and leaves that had been blown from some of the trees that hung recklessly out over the water on bent trunks. The breeze was too slight to disturb the water, but it picked up the chill and carried it over father and daughter.

"What's the boy's name?" Sebastian finally asked. Morgan turned to stare at him just for a second, then apparently decided the lake was the most interesting thing in the universe and should be stared at intensely. Her face and the sides of her neck turned strawberry as Sebastian smiled to himself. "Some things are just obvious," he answered the unasked question.

Morgan had achieved the rank of Jedi Knight and was a grown woman, but she was rather inexperienced in certain typical adolescent areas. She hadn't shown much interest in boys, and not because she had an interest in girls. She just seemed to have been focused on being the best possible Jedi she could be, and that hadn't left room for a social life. But now she'd made it, and she was here at the start of her adult life, and she hadn't had the chance to get all of the uncomfortable socially awkward moments out of the way. Sebastian knew what it was like. Being brainwashed by the yammosk at age fifteen tends to mess up your ability to relate to others.

"It's Ryan," Morgan finally admitted. "Ryan Vinyon."

"From the Academy," Sebastian said with a nod. "Is he seeing someone?"

"No, at least not that I know of."

"Have you talked to him?"

"Yes, but not about... this..."

Sebastian nodded. "You're not sure of how to broach the subject?"

"I'm not sure he's the right one," Morgan said.

Sebastian stopped, pulled the sentence back and examined it back to front and every which way. "Right one for what?"

"I'm not sure he's the one for me," Morgan said.

Sebastian again took the remark and gave it a thorough examination. "Are you talking about marriage?" he finally asked.

"Of course."

"Morgan, you haven't even talked about going out with him," Sebastian said. "Don't you think you're moving a little fast?"

"But what's the point of spending time with him if he's not a suitable husband?" she asked. "Isn't it a waste of time?"

"There are worse ways to waste time," Sebastian remarked.

"Granted. But wouldn't it be better to spend that time developing a rapport with someone more suitable?"

"Morgan," Sebastian said, because saying the child's name is a good way of buying yourself a few seconds to think of a way to explain things. "You're overthinking this. If you want to become romantically involved with someone, do that, and let marriage come if and when it comes." She looked puzzled. "Listen; not everything in life is like your Jedi training, where you need to focus on the inevitable result. Maybe marriage is something that's not going to come to you for years or decades, or even ever. That shouldn't interfere with you enjoying yourself right now."

"I just-" Morgan made a noise of frustration, a kind of oouck! sound. "It's hard to think that way."

"Just give it some time and follow your instincts," Sebastian advised. "When it comes to this subject, they're good at working out what it is they want."

"Thing is, I'm one quarter Borg, one quarter Jedi, and one half human," Morgan said. "That doesn't make things easy."

Sebastian shook his head. "That's only because you're choosing to look at it like that. There's some things that are part of who we are, and some things that are part of what we are, and you've got to remember that the one doesn't necessarily affect the other."

"So, what I am, is one quarter Jedi-"

"No, what you are is a person with the potential to manipulate the Force," Sebastian explained. "Who you are is a person who has chosen to explore the limits of where you can take that potential, and how you can use it to the good of others who don't have it. It's the latter that makes you a Jedi, Morgan. No amount of genetics or micro-organisms can do that."

"Yes, but the Force user aspect came from you," Morgan said. "In that sense, it's genetic, making me one quarter-"

"You've been spending too much time talking to Milky Wayers," Sebastian said. "Too much cross-species discussion."

"You don't approve of hybrids?" Morgan asked in surprise.

"I didn't say that," Sebastian said sharply. "But it's a cultural thing there. 'My human half, my Klingon half, my Cardassian half, my Vulcan half...’ What you are, Morgan, is a human, through and through. That doesn't make you better or worse, it's just what you are. From your mother, you've inherited steady hands and sharp reflexes; from me, Force-sensitivity and Borg-enhanced intellect. But it doesn't matter which 'part' is responsible for what. You are a whole person."

"A whole person made up of parts," Morgan pointed out.

Sebastian sighed. "Where you came from affects what you are, this is true. The problem is being so distinct about them. Take steel, for example. Which is the carbon half? Which is the iron half?"

"Actually, the ratio of carbon to iron in steel is only-"

"I know I know," Sebastian said with mild irritation. "But the point is, unless you haven't made it properly, there's no 'carbon side' and no 'iron side' in steel. It's both together that makes steel what it is, and both together that make it better than both of the materials if they were merely stuck together as separate halves." He picked up a rock and tossed it onto the lake, hitting a floating leaf dead on. "Alloys are stronger, Morgan. Remember that."

"Yes." Morgan seemed to be pondering things. "I suppose I can stop by tomorrow and talk to Ryan about doing something... I have no idea what, but I suppose something may present itself."

"That's the way," Sebastian said with a nod. "Although I'd ask your mother if you're looking for ideas; she was always better at that sort of thing."

"Because she's human?"

"Shut up, child, just shut up." Sebastian sunk another leaf. "I don't know where you get this attitude from."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The ship settled into the landing dock on one asteroid that was indistinguishable from millions of others like it throughout the sector. The Mistryl in the Milky Way took their secrecy seriously, which is why Garak was willing to take the risk of meeting with them out here. If the Empire knew he was conspiring with rebellious forces, his people would be in mortal danger. However, if the Oracle thought for a moment that he wasn't conspiring as she'd instructed, then things would be even worse. It was an impressive balancing act even for someone like Garak who'd spent a lifetime developing a finely tuned inner ear.

One of the subordinates greeted Garak as he stepped off the ramp and led the way through the complex. It was simple, made up of prefab units the Empire had scrapped years ago, not unlike what the Oracle used. Conditions were livable if not comfortable, but the Mistryl didn't worry about comfort; they lived almost like clean and sober Klingons. Garak was left at the entrance to a gym/training room where Rej, the leader of this Mistryl cell, was teaching some unarmed combat techniques on an unfortunate volunteer.

The Mistryl weren't educated anywhere that didn't accept credits from the school of hard knocks, so none of them knew what a valkyrie was, or how Korri Rej seemed to fit one to a tee. Not like in an opera where the only requirements were mezzo-soprano singing and a tendency to vacuum up cream-filled pastries, but true valkyries. She was tall and well-muscled, with blond hair approaching white and eyes the color of a cloudless sky. She would have been right at home on a charging horse with a horned helmet and what would be called a breastplate despite the fact that "plate" was much less suitable than "bowls" or "pots," hauling warriors off the field of battle to a place of eternal drinking and carousing and, of course, fighting.

At the moment she was ferrying a different kind of warrior, of course; Borg Collective droids. Not the battle droids they employed; those weren't found in any of their catalogues, and in any event, were entirely the wrong thing for what Garak needed. A walking gunnery platform was all well and good, but what you needed against the Empire if you really wanted any kind of chance, were droids with no combat skills whatsoever. It was the huge capital ships with their heavy guns and thick armor plating that could strike a blow, not something that could be taken out by one well placed turbolaser from orbit. They weren't out to conquer the Empire, they wanted to drive them out, and for that they needed to hit their ships as hard as they were being hit back. The big cap ships didn't need soldiers as much as it needed maintenance crews and engineers and all around odd job men who could keep the ship going so you didn't need to assign humanoids who could become sick or tired or forgetful or just didn't do too well in a room that was pure vacuum and six Kelvin.

Garak watched as the valkyrie finished the training exercise, which largely consisted of beating some unfortunate woman senseless. She shouted a few things to the others that apparently was some object lesson beyond "don't mess with Rej," then finally strode towards Garak as she wiped the sweat off with a towel. Rej strode everywhere unless something required her to sneak; she always walked as if she owned the place and was going to thump you for trespassing. "You're late," she said, making it clear this was a very annoying problem that wouldn't continue unless Garak wanted to become known as "the late Mr. Garak."

"My deepest apologies," Garak said. "I'm afraid shaking off my pursuers took longer than planned, and I thought you would prefer tardiness to uninvited company."

Rej gave a scowl, as if annoyed at the thought that Garak could have a legitimate excuse, then led the way. "The droids have been kept in here," she said, activating a keypad to the storage room. "We counted roughly three thousand."

Garak stepped inside after her and nodded with approval. Rank after rank of immobile droids stood within the huge room, still draped by plastic. He approached the nearest one and pulled the sheet off, then began a quick diagnostic. Everything checked out; they'd work beautifully. "This is exactly what we need," he told Rej. "I'd prefer it if you focused more on items like this; crates of E-webs really aren't moving."

"We'll see," Rej said with a noncommittal tone. "I'm not crazy about trying another run against the Borg."

"Caution would certainly be advised," Garak said, examining the next droid. "Suicide upon capture would also be advised."

"A Mistryl never talks," Rej said with righteous indignation.

"But drones do," Garak said without turning his attention away from his work. "It's amazing what several billion voices screaming into your mind can do to a person's willpower."

"They don't do that any more," Rej said, although there were obvious cracks in her certainty. "Taar's made it clear that he'll cut up their license if they do."

"Ah, but who would tell? What's the difference if you die in battle or spend the rest of your existence plugged into some alcove, no one would ever know."

"The Borg have a good thing going," Rej said. "Even they wouldn't risk it for so small a prize."

"Perhaps," Garak said. "But we have a good thing going for us, you might say, and it would be wise not to risk that." He shut down the datapad and turned back to her with a smile on his face. "Not that I would dream of telling the Mistryl how to handle their own affairs."

Rej tried to read Garak, but the problem was the man had total body control. A person had better odds playing against a droid than Garak in poker because the droid never acted like it might be showing you what was really on its mind, or might just trying to throw you off. "Why are you here?" she asked. "Why not one of the other Cardassians, why you personally?"

Garak's smile widened. "Because I have a very special request to make of the Mistryl," he said with a voice full of oil. "One that I can't afford someone to misinterpret. It must work perfectly, and when it does... let's just say it will be quite a surprise."
--------------------------------------------------------------

There was a squeal, quickly followed by the rumble of a cave-in, which roused Sntch from his sleep. He quickly slipped from his nest and scurried along in the tunnel in the direction of the collapse. It could be an attack, but the sound had been wrong, and there didn't seem to be any sound in the wake of the collapse. Still, it was hard to imagine what could have penetrated this deep underground.

Sntch's people had achieved sentience, although their language was still very rudimentary. They were a kind of bi-pedal subteranean rodent-like creature that had recently discovered the power of fire. They found it useful when they dug traps for the large reptiles that prowled the surface; the fire made the flesh tender enough for them to digest. It was one of many ways their brains had allowed them to eliminate competing species. Sntch lit the torch and brought it along, not for the light, but rather as a weapon. Animals that preyed on Sntch's people feared the flames, although care always had to be taken with it. Sometimes when the flame was allowed to burn the air became wrong and people died. Some used extra air shafts to deal with the problem, but Sntch was a skilled maker of fire and only called it up when he needed it.

Attacks between Sntch's tribe and others were common enough. This was prime hunting ground and food was survival. If you didn't fight for food, then you risked starvation. Their species was still primitive enough that this was a necessary way of life, but advanced enough to cause a great deal of trouble in this kind of fight. Collapsing each others tunnels and nests was a tried-and-true tactic, but this didn't seem to be a particularly good job if that was the case. Sntch lived on the edge of the tribe, alone, and the collapse was even more distant from the main gathering than he was. But if not an attack, then what else could it possibly be?

Sntch soon found the cave-in, although it wasn't exactly a cave-in. A boulder had fallen through the ceiling and punched a hole into the tunnel, but how any boulder could achieve this was a mystery to Sntch. Also, it didn't look like a boulder. It had the right appearance, but the shape was all wrong, more like an egg.

Did rocks lay eggs? Sntch had never thought about it before, but then, where do rocks come from if not from eggs?

The rock-egg fissured and Sntch stepped back. Finally the pieces collapsed, leaving a quivering mass in the center. Sntch eyed it cautiously, but if there was one thing his species knew, it was that eggs were very tasty. Cautiously he slipped forward, holding the torch before him to better see the new thing.

There was a flash, and something leapt out of the egg-thing and grabbed his hand. It was thrust, torch and all, straight into the mass, and Sntch let out a chittering scream before he fell back, his arm missing half of the limb between elbow and wrist. The mass split open as he got back to his feet, then shot out a tentacle which wrapped around his head. Sntch was flung face-forward at the thing, and saw the rows and rows of teeth. As they closed on his head, it was the last thing he ever saw.

Sntch's people weren't the only ones who fought for food.



Chuck

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Part V


Deep space, the unfathomable area between star systems where only the odd speck of dust wanders the dark. One now drifts as it has for eons across an invisible line, one marked only by the mathematical plots of sentient minds to demarcate one place from another. It is the boundary between the Galactic Empire and the newly formed Cardassia. Near the border, on the Cardassian side, floats a vessel. Not a warship, because Cardassians do not fight such straightforward battles any longer, but a transport vessel... a plain and simple transport vessel.

Garak waited in the communications suite, various flunkies about seeing to the ship's functions and ensuring Garak was happy, which was amusing when Garak reflected on his years of exile from his homeworld. Now that world was reduced to rubble, and Garak was the unquestioned force behind Cardassia's strength. He had brought it back, had forced the Empire to capitulate to the demands for sovereignty. He was the one who had brought the new warfare to the Cardassian people, guerilla tactics and terrorism rather than posturing and overt acts of strength. The Empire had provided the ultimate act of strength when the Death Star blew away Cardassia Prime decades ago, and the Cardassians knew they'd never match it. No, Garak looked to the Bajorans, whose scornful expressions had provided him with petty torment for year after long year of his exile. He'd watched them, and he learned, and the galaxy discovered that the Bajoran Resistance had nothing on what the Cardassians could do when pushed into a corner. Now the Oracle was pushing Garak... in time, he'd have to push back.

"There's a ship coming out of hyperspace," Dennet, one of Garak's lieutenants, informed him. "Looks to be a small freighter."

"Our friend, Korri Rej?" Garak asked. He was answered by the appearance of the ship on the holoprojector in front of him. He stood up, not showing the pain it caused him. He was getting too old for this, but he dare not admit it aloud. "Right on time, madam," Garak said as the hologram changed to that of Rej. "I assume your presence here means you've found it."

"It was much harder than you said, Garak," Rej grumbled. "And the Empire was on my tail for hundreds of light-years!"

"Yes, we all have our crosses to bear," Garak said. "The package, if you please." Rej growled at him, but a box materialized on the table in front of Garak. A quick scan revealed it was safe, and he opened it, nodding with approval. "Congratulations," Garak said as he closed and sealed the box, "I must admit I wasn't certain even the Mistryl were up to the task. You've certainly shown your reputation is well-earned."

"I'm not interested in your praise, Garak," Rej said. "I want compensation for-" An alert sounded on Garak's ship, and from the looks of it, Rej's as well. "Kriff! They tracked us!" The hologram shimmered and changed to reveal the arrivals: two star destroyers. A small speck -Rej's ship- slid across the screen and vanished.

"The captain's taking us to hyperspace," an underling announced as he held a finger to the comm unit in his ear.

"Belay that," Garak said. "We don't move." The underling hesitated, but relayed the order. The ship lurched; Garak held up his hand. "I know, tractor beam. No one moves. Hail the star destroyer."

The hologram changed once again, this time into the form of an Imperial, a captain, Garak noted. He didn't recognize this one, which meant he was one of the less important ones; banter could be dialed down a few notches. The captain began his opening with typical imperial arrogance, but Garak cut him off almost immediately.

"This is an intolerable breach of the peace between Cardassia and the Empire," Garak said with righteous indignation in every syllable. "You've violated our space and seized our ship without the slightest provocation-"

"The Mistryl agent you were associating with is a known terrorist, Mr. Garak," the captain said. "You know that our treaty forbids such contact."

"It forbids Cardassian involvement in terrorist activities," Garak said. "It does not say that I can't speak with anyone whom the Empire chooses to label as a 'terrorist.' These days that would no doubt require me to tear down our communications systems."

"You're playing with fire, Mr. Garak," the captain said.

"I had no idea this Rej was a terrorist in the eyes of the Empire until now," Garak said. "I was told she was a skilled merchant trader with connections, that's all."

"You mean a smuggler," the captain said.

"Captain, captain," Garak said with mock weariness, "you do realize that these are dangerous times, yes? Especially out here, far from the patrolled areas of the galaxy, where pirates and raiders are as common as particles of dust. To survive out here a merchant trader must be highly skilled, or else she is quickly relieved of her cargo, probably her ship, and likely her life as well. I always seek out the best; they charge more, but it pays for itself in the long run."

"The Mistryl have been stealing a great deal of military supplies from the Empire," the captain went on. "Weapons, droids... what exactly did you purchase from them?"

"Just a collectible item," Garak said. "Hobby of mine. If you scan our ship, you'll find nothing out of the ordinary. Weapons and droids certainly, but not Imperial."

The captain was stone-faced, but he was an amateur compared to someone like Garak. "We'll be on our way," he finally said. "Stay away from Rej and the Mistryl, Mr. Garak."

"I shall certainly consider your advice," Garak said in a chipper tone. "Of course, I may disregard it, as this is Cardassian, not Imperial, space. I'd advise you to remember that. I trust this matter is over; I’m sure you have some helpless planet to blow to smithereens?"

The captain's hologram faded and a few seconds later the ship lurched with the termination of the tractor beam. "Tell the captain to return us to New Cardassia," Garak said to an underling.

"Perhaps the Oracle has the right idea," Dennet said. "They're not going to honor the treaty, not really. They'll ignore it when it's convenient just like they did here."

"And just what is the Oracle offering?" Garak asked. "Will we be trading one usurper for another? Watch your step with that mad witch, Dennet; she's useful now, but she's grown beyond our ability to control, and we don't know where her allegiance lies."

Dennet nodded; he left such matters in Garak's hands. After all, he'd earned more for their people than any of them had ever dreamed, and had stayed with it for longer than most would have. But there was one thing still puzzling him. "What do you intend to do with that, sir?" indicating the parcel Rej had delivered.

"Nothing," Garak said. "It's just what the humans call an ace in the hole, in case things become ugly." He patted the box. "Hopefully it won't come to this, though. If it does, the galaxy will likely be a very, very ugly place to be."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Snf was nudged awake by his second, and he immediately got to his feet ready for a fight. He had to present a strong presence for the sake of the females and young ones, or else they may panic when the attack comes. From the feel of the ground, it may be seconds away.

The beast, whatever it was, had devastated the other tribes already. Refugees from those broken by it had pledged themselves to Snf if he could protect them, meaning that if they won the day, he'd be the most powerful one whoever lived. If they lost, then nothing else would matter. Snf's scouts had been sent out already to the other villages, and always it was the same. No survivors, no bodies, no signs that their people had even been in many cases. The monster ate everything, even the bedding, even the lizard skins... it was horrible. Snf never had any care for the other villages, of course; they competed with his tribe for food and the best tunnels. But this horror made him feel the kinship with those even outside his tribe. This wasn't just about their survival, it was about avenging the dead.

The other slumbering warriors were roused; Snf could feel the rumbling in the floor of the beast digging through the collapsed tunnels. Even through all the soil and rock, it could still track them, which was why Snf had chosen this cave for the tribe. They could never outrun the beast, it would find them eventually. The only choice was to stand their ground and fight, he'd announced, and the tribe was in full agreement with him. The newcomers joined up, anxious to avenge their fallen loved ones. The elderly took up their weapons once again. Some of the stronger females were even permitted to join with the ranks of the warriors while the rest watched over the young. But they were here too, and it only furthered the resolve of the warriors to stop this monster before it could kill them like the young of the other villages; for the beast showed no mercy even to them.

Loose soil tumbled here and there from the cave roof as the beast grew closer. Snf looked up and down the lines of warriors. The numbers to count that many had not yet been created, but Trp the wise one had explained that it was as if each man were four, and Snf felt this gave them a great chance. Six men could easily fell one of the great lizards that had become a common part of their diet, but what the newcomers hadn't known about was the new technology Snf's people had developed. This bow and arrow gave amazing power to those skilled enough to wield it, and coupled with the fire, Snf knew that if any could stand their ground, this force could. Of course, it was too difficult for the inexperienced; they would have spears and torches. But his finest archers were ready with -and Snf was quite please with this ingenuity- fire arrows. Even if they did not kill the beast, perhaps their burning sting would drive it away and convince it to seek other prey.

There was a steady rumble now, like an unending cave-in. Two scouts bolted into the cave, shouting that the creature was very close. The third scout was nowhere to be seen, and Snf immediately deduced his fate. "Ready!" he shouted to the gathered warriors, who gave a cry as they readied their weapons. They grunted and hooted to keep their courage up. The females who bore the torches lit the arrows, and the rest tried to quiet the cries of the young ones.

The cave entrance ruptured, and the beast pushed its massive bulk through. Instantly it was peppered by burning arrows and spears. It halted, but didn't turn back. Its multitude of eyes looked over the villagers while the next set of arrows were nocked and fired. To Snf's shock and horror, the creature fired back like a porcupine. They were small darts, blasted like a great sneeze from some trunk-like extension on the creature's body. Those hit fought on for a moment, but they must have been poisoned, because before long they stumbled and dropped, paralyzed. They were the first the tentacles snatched.

The beast had no head; it had no real form to speak of, in fact. It was a bulkish monstrosity covered with eyes and tentacles... and mouths. Snf had heard of the mouths, but he had not pictured it in this form. They were placed seemingly randomly around the creature, and when they snapped open, multiple rows of horrible teeth could be seen within. The tentacle snatched up a helpless warrior and tossed him bodily into a mouth, which snapped shut, instantly severing one leg. The limb was plucked up and tossed inside, and for a moment Snf caught a glimpse of the half-chewed warrior, and it nearly stole the strength from his body. Even as this horror occurred the other mouths were put to work by tentacles tossing the helpless within. Arrows were fired again and again, but the creature ignored even this... enough to down an entire herd of great lizards! In fact, the arrows were being pulled into the body of the thing, and it seemed unharmed by their penetration!

There was another blast from the beast's trunk. This time the warriors were wary, but two were still caught by the blast, including Snf's second. In a cry of defiance he grabbed a torch in each hand and ran at the creature a few steps before the poison took hold. As he dropped a tentacle snatched him up before he even hit the floor of the cave and hurled him, into a mouth. The second managed to keep his grip on the torches, no doubt intending to burn the creature from within, but sadly even this sacrifice was for naught. There was no hope of defeating the creature... if even fire was useless, then no means existed to kill it. He should have kept the tribe moving; instead he'd left them to the same fate as the other villages. "Flee!" he ordered. "Into the tunnels!" Instantly the warriors turned their backs and bolted, helping lead the others away. The beast, however, never relented; another blast from its trunk took down a group before it reached the cave entrance. Snf paused in his work as he saw them snatched up, heard the young ones screams as they were hurled two at a time into open mouths, smelled the stink of burning fur as some of the paralyzed were ignited by their own torches. He took up his club, gave a final cry, and charged in the name of all that was just in the world; one way or another, the nightmare for him would be ended. It was... but it went on for others as the beast chased them through the tunnels.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Shadow's Edge was a twenty-meter freighter that had been outfitted with weaponry and shielding far beyond the intentions of the designers. Korri Rej had taken to it because it was quick and agile, like a Mistryl should be. Rej was fearless but that didn't mean she was crazy; getting killed wasn't going to help the cause, and she had seven other Mistryl on board to think about as well. Seven... make that six, she thought bitterly. Curse Garak and his miserly approach to information! Had they been properly briefed, Rej could have brought more than enough help to get everyone out alive.

Rej pushed that aside; it wasn't going to bring back the dead to dwell on it, and the Imps were obviously pulling out all the stops with her. She kicked the ship back into real space at random, grabbed a new vector from the navicomputer, and leapt back into hyperspace. Their tracking technology had improved over the years, but Rej had gotten away from their hunters even before she'd ever set foot here in the Milky Way. With the limited Imperial presence, not to mention issues of jurisdiction with the independent worlds, she just needed to buy a little bit of time before she could lose everyone tracing them.

The Shadow's Edge dropped off, turned, and vanished into hyperspace.

Rej was started to hate this galaxy. Most everyone still thought small, not more than a dozen parsecs beyond their borders. The Malon would never think of forming an alliance with the Klingons because the Klingons were half a galaxy away. Never mind that you could reach the system in a matter of days, they were over there, and of no help, or so the short-sighted people thought. Garak seemed to be one of the few who could see beyond this, and he was barely more trustworthy than the Empire was. Everyone complained about the Empire, some were willing to fight it, but they didn't see the strength of working together against their common enemy because of their hatred for their neighbors and the dismissal of those who weren't!

The Shadow's Edge dropped off, turned, and-

Rej's eyes bugged and her jaw dropped. "Kriff!" she said, and hit the navicomputer on the second try. The ship vanished back into hyperspace.

"What is it?" Lian, her closest friend, asked. She'd been roused from her slumber in the co-pilot chair by Rej's outburst.

"Nothing, don't worry about it," Rej said, a little too fast. But Lian could read Rej rather well, and her eyes fell onto the display that still showed the last communication the Shadow's Edge had received.

"We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ship. Resistance is futile."



Chuck

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Part VI


Lopdin IV was a Bith colonial world, one of the first to fall when the Vong emerged from hiding and struck. As on many worlds, the population was rounded up into a few central cities, which were then walled off to prevent escape by the indigenous population. Alema Rar had spent some time in one of them at the start of the war, before she escaped. Her sister hadn't been as lucky.

A Vong warrior walked the perimeter of the enclosed city. He was young and inexperienced, with few scars and minor warpaint. Guard duty of a pacified world was to be expected, but while such work chafes those with dreams of glory and bloodshed, it must be done to the best of all possible abilities. As he walked, he tried to be enthusiastic in his examination of the perimeter. There were few places for an enemy to hide, the Vong having cleared the foliage for a kilometer around the city. Still, he paused. There were faint footprints, and they were far too small for any Vong warrior. He slowly looked up and around the edges of the wall, trying to spot something out of place. There were shadows of course, but not deep enough and dark enough for anyone to hide in. He followed the prints nonetheless; perhaps it was a rebel who had a hidden entrance into the city.

There was a sound that was almost like a micro-lightning strike; it was the sound of a lightsaber being quickly activated, swung, and de-activated in under a second. It was a very precise second, in fact, and for the Vong warrior, a very long one, since it lasted the rest of his life. The head toppled to the ground as the body crumpled up, and Alema stepped over the corpse and deeper into the shadows beyond. Others would find the body soon, but she didn't care. Her hatred burned within her, so that there was no room in her heart for fear of the Vong. But getting herself killed now would stop her from getting revenge, so she took some measure of caution by staying out of sight. That was what this small cloak was for. It wasn't much; it would do little outside of the shadows, but it also wouldn't be picked up by any energy detectors because of its lower power.

A kilometer along the wall was the spot, and Alema carefully cut her way inside. It was the back of a shop, empty save for the stink of mildew. She hid away her lightsaber for the moment, slipped into the main shop without being noticed, de-activated the cloak, and strolled out into the streets of the city. The smell nearly froze her in her tracks. It wasn't that it was particularly pungent, although the scent of overcrowded beings with inadequate sewerage and housing lent a rankness to the air. But Alema had been expecting that; it was the memories the smell stirred in her that had hit her harder than she'd imagined. Not just memories, but the dread and fear associated with her time in one of these cities.

"You won't find what you're looking for here," a voice said in her mind. Alema ignored it and walked on into the prison-city. There was little joy here. Trade had been cut off years ago, hence the empty storerooms in the shops. The Vong provided only enough to keep their prisoners pacified. There was hunger everywhere, and the rage that impotence brings to beings after a while. Fights broke out at random, allowing the pent up hate a target for the moment, since they dare not turn it against their masters.

As she passed the mouth of an alley something grabbed Alema's wrist and yanked her inside. She cursed herself for letting her focus be on the city rather than on the real danger that was all around her. The owner of the hand was a Twi'lek; male, red, and his eyes weren't just hungry for food. "[I thought I was the only one on this stinking planet,]" he drawled in Huttese as he shoved her against the wall. The bile rose in her throat at the sight of him; she reached out. His grip on her instantly loosened as his hands went to his throat. The choking sound descended into sickening cracks, and he crumpled at her feet. Alema left him in the alley.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian slid the vial of poison out of the tray and carefully inserted it into the hypospray. Taking a steadying breath, he placed it to the rodents furry side and it hissed at the discharge. The beast convulsed, and Sebastian looked up at Morgan, but her eyes were already closed in concentration. He carefully put the hypospray aside and took up the second -the antidote- just in case. The animal was twitching, but Morgan spoke softly to it while her hands stroked it. Seconds turned into minutes, and finally the computer beeped. Morgan opened her eyes with relief and Sebastian dropped the hypospray on the desk, beaming with pride. "That was wonderful," he said as she seemed to catch her breath. He took the animal and returned it to the cage.

"Thanks," Morgan said. "It's getting easier now that I don't have to administer the poison myself... that made the whole thing seem wrong."

"It's understandable," Sebastian said. "But the animal feels no pain in its sleep, and no permanent harm is suffered. It's the least harmful way to learn this technique... even a holodeck can't accurately recreate it, because the light's not really alive."

"I know... but it still feels wrong," Morgan said as she stowed the hyposprays and chemicals away for the time being.

"Your intension is to save the creature, not harm it," Sebastian said. "But your compassion is proper, and I'm glad to hear it." Morgan was focusing more on learning the healing ways of the Jedi, something she'd already showed some skill in. With the continued training she seemed to be tapping into even stronger abilities than ever. The ability to cure poison in oneself was known, but in others it was far more difficult. So far her practice sessions had been going very well. Sebastian washed off the counter carefully. "Are you inviting Ryan to our get together on Saturday?"

"Yes," Morgan said. "Actually, he's already said he'd come. Should be interesting."

"'Interesting,'" Sebastian said with bemusement. "He's not a lab specimen, Morgan."

"Fun, okay," Morgan said with mock exasperation. "It should be fun."

"That's better." Sebastian hugged her close. "Try to have a little more fun, sweetie. You're working too hard."

"It's only because there's so much work to do," Morgan said.

"You've got to make time for other things in your life," Sebastian said. "You can't-" He stumbled, but Morgan caught him.

"Daddy?" she said with concern. "Daddy, is something wrong?"

"Just got a little dizzy there for a moment," he said, followed by a big yawn. "Must be overdoing it a bit myself."

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, yes it's fine," Sebastian pulled himself up straight. "I'm just going to take a nap, all right?"

"Pleasant dreams," Morgan offered after him, but as he left Morgan still seemed to stare at the door for some time.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian opened his eyes and stepped out of the alcove. His regeneration cycle had been interrupted - unusual, but upon resuming operations he immediately understood the necessity. The Queen was already examining the situation; Sebastian joined her.

"Korri Rej," the Queen remarked, "is a skilled pilot. She has already evaded eight patrols including one of our own."

"She interferes with our business," Sebastian said, "and is a threat to the survival of the Empire. She cannot be allowed to escape."

"Our thoughts are one," the Queen said.

"What is your opinion, Romal the Attorney?" Sebastian asked. The Devaronian was yawning; the Borg had called him out of bed as well, but he lacked the Borg's ability to push on if the situation demands it.

"The Empire considers you a corporate ally," Romal said. "You can pursue her without worry; just be careful to avoid collateral damage."

"May we cross the border into non-Imperial space?" the Queen asked. "The Mistryl seem to do this on several occasions."

"Be cautious, but yes, you could legally get away with it. But Imperial law doesn't exist there obviously. If they think you're an invading force, they may attack."

"The independent systems are weak, with few ships of sufficient power to damage us," the Queen said. "The risk is negligible."

"I agree," Sebastian said. "We must pursue Korri Rej until capture or destruction."

"Diverting cubes 10672, 53706, 41833, 64909..."

"Yes, fine," Romal said. "If you need me, you'll know where to find me." The Devaronian slumped off to his quarters while the Borg analyzed the Mistryl trajectories and compared it to previous data regarding flight paths and raids and calculated likely avenues of escape. Rej may have intended for her path to be random, but the entire purpose of the Borg was to find order in chaos.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It took the better part of an hour for Alema to spot the rebel. She had to concede they were well-hidden amongst the people, but there were always signs. One of them was the fact that they were being properly nourished; starvation drags the body, saps it of strength, and it's reflected in every movement, every stance. You couldn't hide it all the time, and a soldier weakened by malnourishment wasn't much use to anyone.

Alema didn't walk up to him directly, but she did finally arrive next to him. He was human, leaning against the stoop of a building and watching the crowd with mild interest, at least from outward appearances. She had no doubt he was aware of everything, including her approach. When she arrived, it looked like she'd just stopped for a rest. "I know you're with the Rebel Alliance," she said under her breath.

The man gave a very convincing laugh. "'Fraid not, lady," he said. His tone changed when Alema opened her tunic slightly, revealing her lightsaber. "The Jedi Academy sent you?" he asked in a low voice.

"I'm here to help," was all she offered back.

"Avoiding the answer?" the voice in her mind asked. "You killed the rapist without thought, but you refuse to lie?"

"How many of you are there?" the rebel asked.

"Just me," Alema answered. "But together, that will be enough to liberate this place."

The man nodded, looking off in another direction with a grin on his face, as if she'd just told him a joke. "You've got to be out of your mind."

"There aren't that many guards," Alema said. "We can catch them by surprise and-"

"And what?" the rebel asked. "Wait for them to send more guards, perhaps after killing a few thousand people as an example?"

"We liberate this city," Alema said. "Then we can arm the strong and take the others. We're deep inside Vong space, they'll never expect it."

"Because it's stupid," the rebel said. "What were the Jedi thinking, sending you here? Borda could have sent enough of us here to do this without you, but he hasn't because it will only make things worse. The Vong around here are itching for a fight, being so far from the front lines. A rebellious world is an invitation to slaughter everyone on the pretext of making it an example to other captured worlds."

"So you will stand by and do nothing to stop the Vong," Alema said with contempt.

"Getting these people killed isn't going to solve anything," he answered, trying to keep his voice down. "We smuggle in food and medicine to mitigate things, but it's not the time for armed resistance."

"Food," she scoffed. "These people are starving, you can see it everywhere."

"The Vong know how much food they provide us," the rebel said. "The starvation is deliberate, to help keep people from having the strength to resist. If they don't see evidence for it, at best they'll assume they're giving too much and cut back further, and at worst they'll figure out what we're doing here. We have to be careful with how much we provide to keep from tipping them off."

"He doesn't understand," the voice told Alema. "These people think small, coddle the weak who refuse to help themselves. Tell him about the Vong you killed, and watch his reaction."

"They're already tipped off," Alema said. "I had to kill one of the Vong to get in here."

Now there was no hiding the fury in his eyes. "Do you realize what you've done?" he demanded. "They'll know something's going on here. They're going to go through this city until they find out what we've been doing and how we've been doing it. We'll have to pull out now."

"Or we can fight," Alema said.

"No!" he said. "Go back to the Jedi Academy and tell them that this is not the kind of help we need." He stormed off; Alema was half-tempted to toss him down in the dirt for being so idiotic.

"Don't," the voice told her. "He's not worth it. Save your hatred for the Vong who deserve it."

Who are you? Alema asked as she walked back towards the shop where she'd entered.

"A guide on the path you now walk," the voice answered. "Since leaving the Jedi you've grown in power, but it hasn't been enough, yes?"

Alema glowered at the thought. There's too many of them, she admitted. I'd hoped by working with some of these people I could do more damage...

"But you overestimated their willingness to fight," the voice finished for her. "It was a noble effort, but futile. These people are small, with small concerns; they refuse to look at the larger picture as you do."

Alema walked into the shop, ignoring the protests of the shopkeeper as she headed into the back room. You're one of the Sith, aren't you.

"I am the Sith," the voice answered.

I saw what the Sith did to Jacen Solo, she thought.

"My servant. He can be showy, but he was right about the Dark side. You have seen that."

It has been... very potent, Alema admitted.

"It is but a taste of what you can achieve if you join with me."

Alema considered this. Where are you?

"Come through the wormhole, and I will direct you from there."

Alema paused in her step. You can't be in the Milky Way.

"But I am."

That's impossible! The Milky Way isn't in sync with this galaxy! It's not just the distance, it's the time difference-

"Such things are of no concern to me."

But Jaina said-

"Do not listen to the words of your failed teachers," the voice said. "Learn to know the Dark side of the Force and you will achieve a power greater than any Jedi."

Alema nodded; her power had grown substantially after leaving Anakin and Laudica behind. I will come to you, my master.

"Good," the voice cooed. "I can sense that you will be a powerful enemy of the Vong, my young apprentice."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Three H-wings came up behind the Shadow's Edge as Korri Rej pushed the engines to their limits. Someone had fired off an interdictor torpedo, which meant that engaging the hyperdrive was going to be impossible until she reached the edge of the temporary gravity shadow it generated. In the meantime, the H-wings were pelting the freighter with everything they had, and it was more luck then Rej's pilot skills that were keeping them alive at this point.

Lian, in the co-pilots chair, was more concerned with the source of the interdictor torpedo, which was growing larger and larger on her display. "That Cube's gaining on us," she warned Rej.

The ship lurched as a laser blast connected with their shields. "That we can handle," Rej said through her teeth, hands gripping the controls so tight it was likely one or the other would be permanently deformed. The ship dove, although that was strictly relative, since they were in deep space, where up and down were matters of personal preference. The Shadow's Edge gave a twist as it "dropped," the H-wings turning to track it as Rej pushed onward towards the edge of the field. There was another jolt, and the ship began spinning wildly, alarms sounding.

"We got clipped by an ion blast," Lian informed her. "The lateral controls are malfunctioning. I've got the droids on it."

"We're nearing the edge," Rej said, as if an out of control ship was a minor distraction. "Ready the navicomputer to jump as quick as we can before the Borg try something else."

"Rej, without the lat-"

"Ready the damn computer!" The alarm stopped although the spinning continued; Rej's attention was completely on the instrument showing the degree of distortion, and when she could jump into hyperspace. "Now!" she shouted. Lian sent over the coordinates, Rej pulled back on the controls, and starlines appeared. Seconds later, they dropped back into real space. The two sank back in the chairs, finally allowing some relief to catch their breath. Then another alarm sounded.

"What the hell is broken now?" Rej asked. Lian didn't answer, she just pointed to her display. A Borg Tactical Cube was growing inside as it approached from the right. "Aw, come on, give us a kriffin' break!" Rej roared as she yanked on the controls and headed off, the Cube in pursuit.



Chuck

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Part VII


Civilizations rose and fell on a daily basis when taken on an average over a galaxy. Fifty thousand years ago, one such civilization fell. The world’s name is now lost, except to a single group who, ironically, have no use for names. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy civilization; no more or less just than any other against the average of most worlds, although their achievements were in some ways greater than those of other worlds that failed to achieve space travel.

In fairness to the society, the failure to travel beyond their atmosphere wasn't due to scientific stupidity so much as a handicap. In fact, the inhabitants were capable of some quite amazing mental achievements, at least fifty percent anyway. The dominant species was born with a rather limited intelligence, nothing much beyond basic tool use. At the onset of puberty, hormones rushed through the body as they tend to throughout most advanced species, to promote changes and development. In the males, it promoted muscle growth. In the females, it promoted neurological growth. The result was an extreme disparity in strength and intelligence between the two genders, and while this might seem a recipe for an escalated battle of the sexes, it actually forced greater cooperation between them. The males lacked the brains to think beyond the next meal, and the females lacked the physical prowess to eat anything they couldn't pick up off the ground. Only in settlements where the males and females worked together did their species manage to thrive. The males did the hard work, and the females kept things properly coordinated. There was no caste system between them because the males were too stupid to organize one, and the females too smart to antagonize someone that could kill them with one hand.

But if the females were so intelligent, then why did they never learn how to leave their planet? Unfortunately, their forgotten world held little workable metal near the surface, and without ready amounts of copper, tin, iron, and zinc, there wasn't a great deal left for them to use. Stone, wood, shells were the materials they had to work with, and so the females of this world formed one of the most organized stone age societies in the galaxy. Of course, it wasn't perfect; they had their wars as much as anyone, there was corruption in expected amounts, but it wasn't really any more wicked than anyone else. Species are species.

Then the Borg came.

The females pooled their resources to coordinate a defense. The males fought hard, with 100-pound axes and bows that could put an arrow through a pine tree, but the Borg wanted them, and that meant that the resistance was, in the end, futile. The inhabitants became one with the Borg, and the next step in the Collective's evolution could begin.

The war with Species 01 had not only devastated the Borg's numbers, but also shown the futility of the single relay used to bring order to the chaos of so many minds. It was, upon further analysis, an Achille's Heel that in the wrong hands could be used to wipe out the Borg in one single attack... which is of course what had happened thousands of centuries after their homeworld was annihilated. The only alternative was to assign such tasks to individual drones for execution, but even the most intelligent specimens lacked the mental coordination it demanded, not to mention the great limitation in all Borg: the need to regenerate. With the coordination drone off line for even a few seconds, chaos would creep into the system, malfunctions would begin to occur, and total failure would eventually result. Multiple coordination drones were used, but this created extra overhead that put a severe limitation on the Borg's ability to function. For five hundred centuries, they did little in terms of exploration and expansion, but they continued to search for refinements to the process, so they could again move forward in the quest for perfection.

The newly-assimilated females were precisely what they needed. Their minds were perfectly-designed for organizing the high traffic the Borg Collective generated, and they were capable of retaining a degree of consciousness even while regenerating, which meant that the Borg could finally be coordinated by a single being. It was at that time that the new, expansionist era of the Borg truly began; they had all the strengths of the original relay without the weakness of it being turned against them, and if the "Queen" was somehow taken off line, others were available to resume operation without delay.

The last step was completed for these females. Their frail bodies were discarded; they were almost entirely mechanical now, giving them the physical strength they had never had before assimilation. But such a degree of automation requires constant maintenance to ensure peak efficiency, and the Borg demanded nothing less than peak efficiency. So, at this particular moment, in the present fifty thousand years after their assimilation, the Queen's head coordinated the recently reformed Collective while her body underwent maintenance.

Sebastian was observing the pursuit of the Mistryl ship when the grate on the floor next to him opened and a platform rose upon it. It looked like a pair of knee-high boots until close examination noticed half a knee sticking out of the top. Two robotic arms lowered a thigh onto each, then a panel on the back wall opened and the torso was pushed out and dropped into position. The robotic arms returned with real arms this time, attaching them to the body. Finally, the Queen's head, metallic spine twisting to ensure perfect alignment upon merger, was dropped into position and connected to the body. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, running a diagnostic on it to ensure the body was functioning properly.

The Queen stepped closer to where Sebastian was, to observe directly. She didn't need to, but it helped keep efficiency high when she directly perceived events. "Your effectiveness is impaired," she informed Sebastian.

"The apprehension of the Mistryl -Korri Rej- must succeed," Sebastian answered.

"Your regeneration cycles have been interrupted repeatedly," the Queen observed. "It is interfering with your efficiency. Your inefficiency affects all."

"Agreed," Sebastian said, because there was no alternative. Their thoughts were one. "This form will regenerate, but it would be advisable if this one were present for the capture of the Mistryl."

"Yes," the Queen agreed. Sebastian turned and entered his nearby alcove, and the regeneration cycle began.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian opened his eyes and smiled at what he saw. Gently, he ran the back of his hand down Jorri's cheek while she slept; she didn't stir. He laid there; he couldn't imagine anything better than watching her peaceful slumber. She was here, she was safe, and in the only sense that counted, she was real.

Still, it was going to be a busy day, and lying around wasn't going to change that, so he pulled himself up, got dressed, and found his way into the kitchen. The droids were already hard at work on the food and drinks for the get together that afternoon. Family was going to be there, and some people from the Academy, a few friends... nothing too special, just a deviation from the norm. Sebastian glanced out the window; the weather service said it was supposed to rain, but Sebastian had a strong feeling the storm was going to show up after the party was long over. Somehow that's how things always worked.

A quick examination showed Morgan was gone; a note said she'd gone off for a morning swim. Sebastian sighed; as always it fell on him to make sure things were done properly. He went outside and started sweeping the leaves and fallen blossoms off the patio; there were only so many droids, and if the choice was trying to sweep and trying to stuff minced things into other things, Sebastian would Force push people out of the way to get to the broom. Tables and chairs were wiped down, the power source in the sonic insect repellant was duly examined, and the traps were filled on the chemical dispenser to lower the pollen and mold count for those guests who suffered from allergies. He nodded at what he felt was a job well done and stepped back inside. As expected, now that the real work was done, Jorri was up, and as expected, working on straightening up things around the house despite the fact the party would be held completely outside. Gone was the sleeping princess, replaced by Mega-decorator, horror across the cosmos to those with bad backs. Sebastian hid out in his meditation room to avoid the carnage.

The morning passed with the dull tone that always happens when you know you don't have the time to do anything because of what's coming up later, but later is so long from now that you're tempted to try. Eventually zero hour arrived and the guests started showing up. Morgan finally returned as well, accompanied by Ryan. Sebastian was pleased to see the two settle onto a bench on the perimeter of the patio, which gave them a nice view of the hills. It was good to see her involved with someone in a personal way for a change.

The droids were distributing snacks and drinks as Jorri came and sat down beside Sebastian. "It looks like the weather's going to hold," she remarked.

Sebastian smiled. "Yes, I think it will."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The sky was orange and black over the city of Bur Illia; the fires were nearly out by now, but the air still stank of heat and char. This wasn't the city itself, though; it was the outskirts, hastily constructed shelters. Everywhere was the sound of screaming.

The room is stacked wall to wall with bed's. Here are the radiation victims; despite the advanced medical technology their doses were beyond what could be treated. They wouldn't last much longer, but that was probably merciful. Many were covered head to toe in burns, and there wasn't going to be enough bacta to treat one percent of all those who cried out in agony. Others had been shielded from the worst of it, only to breathe in the choking mix of vaporized contaminants and toxins. They struggled weakly, fighting for each breath into their scarred lungs. Then there were rows and rows of lacerations and broken bones, soft tissue injuries and concussions, and those who would need to replace a hand or foot or eye.

And then, of course, there were the dead, housed in a makeshift morgue. It looked more like a warehouse, and what was horrifying was the pile of bodies outside the doors, because the building was full and the next one hadn't been put up yet.

Millions were dead, and millions more were going to die. For those who managed to pull through, the pain and horror would create scars beyond the reach of any surgeon. The burning remnants of Bur Illia would be abandoned and its survivors dispersed elsewhere across the world. The Empire would arrive with a full relief force within a few hours; they'd help mitigate the damage. The Emperor would give a speech de-crying the Mistryl for this latest act of terrorism, and pledging to bring an end to their assaults on innocent civilians. The people listened, and believed him, and to Korri Rej's shame, for once the Empire was right.

Rej woke up and saw the tunnel of hyperspace before her. She didn't have the dream very often any more, but it always left her shaken. Bur Illia had been four years ago; she'd been rather low-ranking among the Mistryl at the time. It had been a fluke, but somehow that word seemed wrong in describing that kind of tragedy.

There was an Imperial military base on the edge of Bur Illia, which was nothing unusual. The Mistryl always tried to perform surgical strikes in their war against the Empire, although collateral damage was often inevitable. The base at Bur Illia was an important junction point, with high security and strong defenses. Rej had teamed up with a slicer to breach that security, something that hadn't been managed before. Because of this, she was given the chance to plan and lead the raid on the base. As was usually the case, this was all about sabotage: destroy as much Imperial equipment as possible. Because of her intimacy with the base's security, Rej stayed in a cloaked ship to control things from there.

Rej had been the one who delayed the raid an hour while a ship was diverted to the base for refueling. It was important to the Empire, so smashing it would be good for the cause. She waited, then took control of the security system and used it against the Imperials. Her squad went in, working by the numbers as always. They hit the docking bay; there were more guards there then usual, but with Rej controlling the automated defenses, they were soon wiped out. It was the work of seconds to hook up the usual charges to all the ships, and bolted so Rej could remote detonate them. What they didn't know was that the cargo on board the ship was an experimental micro-hypermatter reactor. The explosion set it off.

The Imperial engineers weren't stupid; they'd designed the reactor with failsafes. When the reactor was breached the energy was projected into hyperspace, otherwise the whole planet would have gone up. Unfortunately, the work was only near perfect, not absolutely perfect. Less than a fraction of a percent of the explosion was released, but it was enough for a multi-megaton explosion. The base was instantly vaporized. The entire city was affected by the size of the blast. Rej only survived because she was in orbit over the planet at the time. None of the Mistryl blamed her for what happened; there'd been no indication of what was on board, so the affair was dismissed as a tragic accident. Rej went on to rise through the ranks; her team, wiped out in the explosion, were listed among the casualties of war. She switched over from electronic infiltration to front-line work, though; she didn't want to watch things from a chair any more... she didn't want to sit back and listen as the women under her command died.

The ship dropped back into real space. A quick scan confirmed Rej's fear. "Borg cube," she said through her teeth. "They have to have a homing beacon, they have too!"

"We've swept the ship half a dozen times, Korri," Lian said. "The droids have checked everywhere-"

"They're not finding us by magic!" Rej snapped.

"Korri," Lian said as diplomatically as she could, "they've chased us across the galaxy. I don't think we're going to give them the slip. The Borg are too well coordinated-"

"I know, I know!" Rej snapped. She still hadn't taken control of the ship back from Lian yet, and for a moment the co-pilot wondered what was going through her head. Finally Rej switched on the navicomputer, except this time with a bit more concentration. "We're going to have to find a safe harbor," she said, mostly to herself. "Drellis... that sounds promising."

"Never heard of it," Lian said. "And what if the Borg figure out that's where we're going?"

"It won't matter," Rej said, taking the controls back. "I've got a plan; trust me on this. All my girls are making it home."



Chuck

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Part VIII


Drellis, a blue-grey world within the domain of the Empire's Milky Way territory; no more or less important than thousands of similar worlds throughout known space. Most of the population lived their entire lives here, and why not, most weren't more than a generation or two from the original settlers that had come through the wormhole. After several decades, it had gone from failed Malon colony to established Imperial world, with all of the expected comforts and industries and the usual traffic of starships.

The two new arrivals were anything but usual.

In the lead was a small, heavily-armed freighter named Shadow's Edge, a Mistryl ship that had been part of numerous raids on Imperial ships, and most recently, a chase across the galaxy. The chase was still on, as seen by the Borg Cube that had emerged from hyperspace shortly after its arrival.

Korri Rej, the Mistryl at the controls and top of the list of Milky Way raiders the Empire was after, slapped off the comm unit as the Borg repeated their standard hail for the umpteenth time. She hauled on the controls and the ship peeled away towards Drellis itself. Lian, the co-pilot and her closest friend, clung to her chair despite the straps. "What are you doing?" she asked as the planet soon filled the screen. "You can't land here; they'll catch us before we set down."

"We're not landing," Rej said, despite the evidence to the contrary.

"Then what's the idea?" Lian asked. "You can't jump to hyperspace this close to the planet." The ship shuddered at a near miss from the Borg's ion cannon.

"Get to the escape pods," Rej ordered. "Then wait for my signal."

Lian was aghast. "We're not leaving you to the Borg's tender mercies," she insisted.

"They've chased us across most of the galaxy," Rej said. "We're not going to shake 'em using the tricks in the Mistryl handbook. I have one or two others, but I want the rest of you somewhere safe."

"Korri-"

"There's about half a billion people living on that world," Rej said, ignoring her. "Lots of humans. Once you hit you can slip into the crowds, disappear. Finding a way off shouldn't be too difficult."

"Then come with us," Lian said. "If the Borg catch you, they'll turn you over to the Empire, and that's a death sentence."

"The Borg will just intercept the escape pods," Rej said. "We need a diversion, and that's my job."

"Korri-" Lian tried again.

"No more discussion," Rej said sharply. "Into the escape pods, now." Lian hesitated, but only for a second before she headed for the cockpit door. "Remember, wait for my signal." Lian nodded and slipped out.

Borg energy rays hummed near the freighter as the Shadow's Edge twisted and banked towards the planet. The Cube accelerated after it, but the ship continued to bank and twist like crazy. It twisted up until it was nearly skipping along the top of the atmosphere, then lurched as three escape pods blasted off the side towards the planet's surface. The Cube was about to adjust course to snatch the pods with a tractor beam when the Shadow's Edge raced back away from the planet.

A convoy had been approaching Drellis before the Borg-Mistryl drama had intruded on the system. Large transport ships, flanked by a few smaller escort vessels, were just about in position when the Shadow's Edge raced up and launched some proton torpedoes at one of the transports. The escorts immediately moved to intercept, but the freighter slid over to drop a second pair at a different transport. These weren't armored vessels, and the torpedoes penetrated and blew out some of the bays, causing the shreds of the cargo to blow out into space.

The decision took a millisecond to complete as the Borg observed this behavior. It was clearly a diversionary tactic to distract them from the escape pods. However, the life readings indicated that Korri Rej was on board the ship, not the pods. The Cube diverted course and followed the primary target; the escape of Mistryl underlings was as unimportant as the damage done to the transports.

Rej cursed in several languages as she broke away from the planet. The escort ships weren't interested in taking her alive like the Borg were, which kept things even more off balance. The Cube was approaching quickly as well; of course, that had been the plan, but it didn't mean Rej had to like it. She was at full throttle, but the Borg launched an interdictor torpedo before she could reach a safe point to jump to lightspeed.

It was the point where her luck had finally run out.

A blast by one of the escort vessels clipped the Shadow's Edge, causing it to veer out of Rej's control. It spun straight into the waiting grip of the Borg's tractor beam. Rej yanked and punched at the console in a desperate effort to escape, but it was obviously -she grimaced at the word- futile. The cube sped off with her in tow, shielding the freighter from further assault by the pursuing escort ships until Rej saw the bay appear in the side of the Cube. She tried firing weapons at it, but they bounced harmlessly off the shields. Snarling, she left the cockpit, grabbed her blaster from the rack, and took a seat facing the loading ramp. If the Borg wanted her, they'd be climbing over piles of bodies to get her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Immediately upon the capture of Korri Rej, the Queen altered her Cube's course to rendezvous with the vessel. It was a mere two hours away, which left little time for due consideration. Despite her previous remarks, it would be prudent to deal with the Mistryl prisoner together. She touched a panel on the outside of the alcove, and Sebastian's regeneration cycle began to wind down.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian stiffened almost imperceptibly, and his eyes shifted around. Finally he tapped Jorri on the shoulder. "I have to go," he said.

"What, already?" she asked with some surprise.

"I'm sorry, but all of a sudden I'm feeling exhausted." He yawned like a lion. "I'm afraid if I don't walk now you'll be carrying me."

"All right, if it's what you want," Jorri said without accusation.

"I am sorry," he said. "I'll make it up to you tomorrow, I promise."

"Don't worry about it, I mean it. You've been probably overdoing it lately, and your body is telling you things you're too stupid to figure out yourself." Sebastian kissed her, then got up and headed for the house.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Morgan watched with the kind of rapt attention normally associated with predators as her father broke away from the group and headed towards the house. "Something's wrong." She didn't say it, but she thought it so loudly that Ryan, sitting next to her, was able to sense it.

"Maybe he's just tired," he offered.

"He's been 'just tired' a lot lately," Morgan said, eyes still fixed upon Sebastian. "I don't like it. Something's going on."

"I don't sense anything wrong," Ryan said.

"That may be, but that doesn't mean all is right either." Morgan duly catalogued the pros and cons, filtered it through some human judgment, and reached a decision. "I have to go."

"I'm sure it's nothing," Ryan said.

"But I'm not," Morgan said. "And I'm afraid it's my opinion that counts on this."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Overriding the lock on the ramp hadn't taken long, and the Borg had started up towards Rej. She took careful aim and fired a blaster bolt center of mass; the drone crumpled. The one behind him did so as well. Rej waited, but there was no third, not right away. She sat back and waited, her grip on the blaster only tightening as time passed. Soon she heard the sound of clattering around the hull of the ship; were they going to try to rush her from several directions? But that would be-

There was a hum and the lights all blinked out. They'd terminated the ship's power; no lights, no sensors... no jamming equipment. The darkness gave way to the dim interior of the Borg Cube as she was transported away. She got off a shot that only managed to hit a wall before two drones grabbed her arms; the blaster was pulled from her grip with disappointing ease. They dragged her forward despite her best efforts and deposited her face-first onto a table; less a table than a bench, actually. Rej couldn't help but notice the drains on it. She struggled even more madly, but drones held her down; one hand on the wrist, one on the shoulder, was all it took. She kicked savagely, but that didn't seem to matter. She screamed at them, the usual gibberish about them having no right, but in truth it was just so she could have something to scream. Being helpless enraged her, and the fact she couldn't lash out properly intensified it.

Rej felt someone lifting her hair off, exposing the back of her neck. She felt the satisfying thump as a kick caught a drone who had strayed too close, but it was only a moral victory, since she was just as hopelessly pinned as before. She tried twisting her head to avoid whatever they were doing, but a drone grabbed it. It was a vise-like grip, tight and unyielding in the slightest. She felt something being attached to the back of her head, and having run out of even gibberish she just screamed in frustrated rage. Then their work was done.

Rej's mouth hung open in silence and her eyes bugged out. She had no control any more; she could hear the whispers, not loud enough to be understood, but close enough to be heard. They were all around her, everywhere, above and below even, even.... even inside. She tried not to think about the secrets she knew; it had been a strong part of her training, to help resist telepathic intrusion. No telepath could dig like the Borg instrument, but Rej had bottomless resources of hate to call on.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Her resistance is considerable," the Queen remarked. "The little data we can absorb is fragmented, and little is of any real use."

"Only full assimilation would allow us to learn what she knows," Sebastian agreed. "But that would jeopardize our relations with the Empire."

"Agreed, although this limitation hampers our efficiency," the Queen observed. "Would she succumb to torture or brainwashing?"

"Unlikely," Sebastian said. "She is strong-willed, and the Mistryl have likely trained her to resist such methods as well. If we had her companions, she may be compelled to cooperate."

"Yes." The Queen was silent as they tapped into the communications relays. "The Drellis authorities have found the escape pods, but they have lost the occupants. Minimal chance of recovery."

"Then we should inform Romal the Attorney," Sebastian said, "that Korri Rej be dealt with by Imperial Law."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Admiral Tyrine could arguably be called the most powerful man in the Milky Way, although it was a power some would consider abhorrent. He was not only the commander of the only remaining Eclipse-class star destroyer in the Imperial fleet, he also had been given the power to fire its ultimate weapon on his own discretion. It goes without saying that if you're going to place the power to annihilate whole worlds in the hands of a single individual, you had best hope the owner of the hands could handle it. Grand Moff Tarkin couldn't... the man instigated the largest anti-Imperial movement since the onset of the Empire by blowing up Alderaan, and what was worse were the rumors that he'd planned to use the Death Star against the Emperor himself to usurp control. And when the Emperor got ahold of the second Death Star, he'd immediately let it go to his head.

Tyrine frowned. And then he'd returned after being thought dead, and changed. Tyrine'd seen him at the christening of the Shade, the second of three Eclipses he'd ordered after the establishment on Chandrilla. It was almost with a sense of distaste, as if he regretted having built it. And he had only ordered its deployment on a handful of occasions during the war with the Vong... Maybe it was because he didn't go onto the ships himself. They said that the Empress became more and more inclined to deploy the superlaser despite her original opposition to the Eclipses.

Taar kept on top of things, though. While he'd given Tyrine authority to fire, a report always had to be submitted detailing why he'd felt it necessary. Taar had also given him a list of primary, secondary, and tertiary targets within all of the independent governments, no doubt to ensure only proper military targets were destroyed. He had the feeling that despite the war effort, Taar was keeping one eye on the Milky Way, and that if he felt Tyrine ever crossed the line, a quick change of command would be in order. And what could Tyrine do? Use it against Taar like Tarkin? He'd joined up to serve and protect the Empire, not blast bits of it into asteroids. No, he had to ensure that the authority didn't go to his head, or there was a chance he'd lose the authority, and possibly also the head.

"Admiral," the captain said as the ship dropped out of hyperspace, "we're within range. Shall we prepare a firing solution?"

Tyrine looked at the distant dot; it was next to impossible to tell what it was from here, but he knew from reports it was Nillan, one of the larger Kazon worlds and also the likely source of their recent attack on the Empire. The Kazon were always a little slow; most worlds had realized that the Empire meant business when the Malon planet was blown up, but some were just stupid enough to think armageddon was something that happened to other people. "Yes, captain," he said, hoping in a small way it didn't sound gleeful or callous. It was his duty, he had to remember that.

A lieutenant spoke up from a nearby control station before anyone could move. "Sir, there's heavy jamming in the area."

"Visual scanning," Tyrine said. A Kazon ambush? If so, they were even dumber than he'd thought. Their entire fleet could maybe defeat a single star destroyer, but against an Eclipse and its escort it'd be slaughter.

"There, sir," an officer quickly said, and indicated on the holographic display. "There's a fleet approaching... Ninety vessels."

"Kazon?" Tyrine asked quickly.

"No, unknown type."

Ninety ships... ninety Kazon vessels were a joke, but ninety heavy warships would probably be enough to destroy the fleet. There was no need to take chances. "Alert all commands," he said, "we're proceeding to our secondary target."

"Admiral," the captain said, "looks like a gravity shadow is holding us here."

"DIT," Tyrine ordered. He watched the torpedo streak out towards the approaching ships, then power down and explode. It only did that against two types of targets: an interdictor torpedo, or a Vong gravity well. That at least settled who they were up against. "All batteries, open fire," he ordered. "Prepare a firing solution on the assailants with the superlaser and fire when ready." Coralships were tough, they couldn't risk holding back.

But they weren't coralships, as the two fleets closed with one another, Tyrine could finally see them clearly, and if they were Vong, they were like nothing they'd ever used before. These weren't flying rocks... they looked almost like giant remora with bony exoskeletons, covered with spines like an urchin. They were only about half the size of an Imperator, but their numbers would likely make up for the size difference, unless the Vong had desperately thrown third string ships against them. The superlaser found its target, which exploded in a cloud of vapor and some kind of shrapnel that played hell with the other ships, but they kept on coming, and recharge time meant they'd only get maybe one more shot, at most. Tyrine ground his teeth; these weren't the third string, these were something new. "Which one is the interdictor?" he asked, but the jamming was proving too much. It was also clear the Vong -if it was the Vong- were able to match them nearly shot for shot. One of the escorting star destroyers was already burning in space.

"Alert all commands to disperse and withdraw," he ordered. Immediately the ships broke off their attack and raced in different directions. The Vong couldn't stop all of them, which meant the Empire could be warned about whatever this new menace was. However, it was quickly apparent that that wouldn't include Admiral Tyrine. The enemy ships converged on the flagship and blasted away at it. The Imperials returned fire, blowing ship after ship away, but whoever was piloting them seemed to have no concern about their own safety. Slowly but steadily, the final Eclipse was blasted into pieces until the reactor was breached with the expected results. Two more enemy ships were lost in the explosion, but again this fact seemed beneath notice. The ships merely gathered the salvage of their own vessels and departed.

On Nillan, the Kazon watched the whole thing with equal amounts of adulation and confusion over their saviors.



Chuck

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Part IX


General Delric Taar had been looking forward to a quiet retirement. He hadn't wanted to stay on in service at the Academy any more, not at his age. He certainly hadn't wanted to return to active service, nevermind to leading the Imperial war effort against the Vong invaders while trying to protect the Milky Way territories he'd worked so hard to acquire in his youth. But watching the footage of the disaster at Nellin was now definitely at the top of the list of things he hadn't wanted to do. Like all of them, he did it anyway.

Taar sighed despite himself. It was not a good thing to do when watching a crippling blow to the war effort unfold, but there comes a certain age when too much bad news exhausts the body, and Taar seemed to live life from exhaustion to exhaustion. "Let's cut to the bottom line," Taar said, freezing the image. "Are they Vong or not?"

There was a general clearing of throats. This ought to be good, Taar thought cynically. No one clears their throat for good news. "We don't know for sure," Commander Rhodes informed him. Rhodes had been put in charge of addressing the technical aspects of what happened. "They're bioships of some kind; that we know."

"The Milky Way is lousy for bioships," General Corbin pointed out.

"And nothing that's ever been a threat," Admiral Cirule said. "A bioship sounds nice, but it's hopelessly difficult to make it into a practical warship. Organics have advantages, but standing up to laser blasts isn't one of them."

"And the enemy we've been fighting the past few years?" Corbin asked with that infuriating tone of his. "Perhaps you'd like to explain it to them."

"Corbin, quit being an idiot and listen," Taar said, whose patience had run out months ago.

"I understand that the kind of biotechnology to achieve what the Vong have is absent from all the societies we've met," Cirule continued.

"Except for the aliens called Species 8472, sir," Commander Rhodes pointed out.

Taar grimaced at the memory of them. The Emperor had employed genetically modified versions as guards for a brief time after his return, and they'd always given him the willies. Thankfully they'd all been lost when Bastion was destroyed. "8472 is extinct, yes? We're sure of this?"

"I contacted the Borg, sir, and they assured me the species was completely assimilated."

"But clearly some survived the destruction of the Borg," General Hnial said.

"They lost everything," Rhodes explained, "including a way back into fluidic space. If they are still alive, they're no doubt in hiding somewhere trying not to have contact with us."

"Or trying to destroy us?" Admiral Hune asked.

"If Species 8472 went after anyone," Cirule said, "it would be the Borg."

"That would be terrible," Taar deadpanned. He held up his hand before anyone could speak. "I know, I know, old habits and all that. Now, if these are bioships, how could they stand up to that kind of punishment? I mean, coralships I get, they have all that stuff to work like armor, but this looks almost like bone."

"It's some kind of exoskeleton, sir," Rhodes explained. "Thick plates of some kind reinforced with these rib-like protrusions."

"Yes, but how can it shrug off a hit from a turbolaser battery?" Taar asked.

"From our analysis," Rhodes said, "it looks like they have some kind of shielding to dissipate the blast. Some still gets through, as you can see, but the armored exoskeleton proves somewhat effective."

"Vong ships don't use shielding like that," Admiral Pomier pointed out.

"Or that kind of weaponry," Hune said. "But I can't imagine who else this could be."

"There's one other thing that bothers me," Taar said. "How'd they know Nellin was going to be the target? We could have picked any of a dozen worlds to blow away, but they were waiting for the Eclipse there. Do we think they had ambush parties at all the targets?"

"Not only that, sir," Cirule said, "was the Kazon attack on us just a provocation to ambush the Eclipse?"

Taar stared at him for a moment. "I don't think I like where this conversation is going," he remarked. He got back down to business. "How do things look in the Milky Way?"

"The news is out, sir," Pomier said. "The independent systems are grabbing knife and fork and looking at our territory."

"Terrific." Taar rubbed his eyes with one hand. "How long until the Eclipse Mark II is ready?"

Admiral Rinuld sat up straighter. "Six months, sir." He saw the look on Taar's face. "Resources are stretched thin, general. Trying to keep the production lines running, repairs, the cost for supplies and equipment-"

"Starting now, round the clock shifts," Taar said sharply.

"But general-"

"I want that ship, not excuses."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Two drones, one at each arm, dragged the struggling form of Korri Rej through the Cube. She threw curses at them for all the good that it did, but for as much as it mattered to them, she might as well have been a corpse. Eventually they entered a room that could be considered a bridge, in the sense that it had monitors and instruments and such. Still, with the Borg's haphazard approach to aesthetics, it was obvious that any room could be converted into a bridge in a matter of minutes. Rej didn't dwell on it, however, as she struggled all the way to the holding area, which was a force field emitter over an area of the floor. Once she was inside it activated, and the two drones released her and walked through it. She banged her fists on it once or twice, growling at the two other drones.

"She seems almost animal-like," the Queen remarked. "Curious."

A Devaronian appeared out of nowhere. "The Mistryl are nothing if not devoted," he said.

"Let me out of here," Rej demanded, since Mistryl like getting straight to the point.

"You're in a lot of trouble, I'm afraid," Romal informed her. "You've been fighting the Empire in a time of war. That treasonous behavior, punishable by life in prison or execution, so I'd watch it."

"I'm not afraid," she said, and clearly meant every word. "Let the Empire try me; I'll tell the galaxies what they've done. Not that they'll need any extra convincing, the Empire's doing a good job of alienating worlds with their rampant militarism and use of a superlaser at the drop of a hat."

"Is that not the consequence of the assassination of the Emperor?" the Queen asked. "And weren't the Mistryl participants in that assassination? It would seem that you would have no grounds for complaint if you were an instrument in the causal event."

"For a collective of super-geniuses, you Borg are extremely stupid," Rej said.

"Exasperating," Romal admitted, "but not stupid. Sometimes they say things we'd rather not hear."

"Whatever, just turn me over to the Imperials. You people make my fists itch."

"We will not," the Queen said.

"You are our prisoner," Sebastian explained.

This seemed to have caught Rej off stride. "What? Hey, you can't do this! I have rights!"

"A right to a trial," Sebastian said.

"An Imperial trial," she said emphatically.

"Actually, the Empire has given the Borg Collective the status of corporate ally," Romal explained. "Legally, the Borg are well within their rights to conduct a military tribunal for captured prisoners of war, and there is no doubt that the Mistryl are on the side of the Vong in this."

"We are on the side of anyone who fights the Empire," Rej said defiantly. "And I do not recognize the authority of the Borg to try me."

"Yes, well, I'm afraid your opinion doesn't count."

"They’re Borg," Rej said, putting the same twist on the name other people employ for words like "rapists" and "cockroaches." "They don't have a court, because they all think the same way. There's no crimes within the Borg, but it's a crime to be one."

"Not any more," the Queen said, and despite everything she seemed, just a tiny bit, to be pleased with that fact. "In any event, we are perfectly suited for a trial."

"The Borg analyze information and use it to reach conclusions," Sebastian said. "That is the purpose of a court: to examine the facts and ascertain truth."

Rej scoffed in her holding area. "This is a joke," she said under her voice.

"Oh, the Borg are famous for their sense of humor," Romal said with a nod. "Ask anyone, they'll say, 'Those Borg, no sense of humor at all. Make Vulcans look like court jesters.'"

"This affair is dragging on longer than is necessary," the Queen said. "Let us begin."

"Agreed," Sebastian said.

"Very well, the verdict is guilty," the Queen said.

"What?!" Rej said in shock.

"My, justice is swift," Romal said. "I'm glad I don't charge by the hour. Respectfully, trials are traditionally oral affairs."

"Orally would be inefficient," Sebastian said.

"Yes, but it is kind of an unwritten rule," Romal said with a shrug. "I'm sorry, but that is the precedent. It would make everyone feel better, I think."

"An audio recording?" the Queen asked.

"That would be appropriate," Romal agreed.

"Very well. Commence the trial of Korri Rej. The defendant confessed to being a supporter of Vong forces against the Empire before multiple witnesses, and was apprehended in the wake of firing upon Imperial ships. The evidence thus shows beyond a doubt that Korri Rej, Imperial citizen, has betrayed the Empire to the enemy in a time of war."

"The defendant is hereby found guilty of treason," Sebastian said.

"Wait, you can't do that!" Rej said. "I get the opportunity to defend myself!"

"What facts could you possibly provide?" the Queen asked. "You attacked unarmed ships without provocation, and you confessed to being an enemy of the Empire. No evidence can possibly change that."

"But, but you can't use the confession," she said quickly. "You never told me my rights."

"This is true," Romal admitted. "You are supposed to tell her her rights."

"What, all of them?" Sebastian asked. "That would take several days."

"You have to tell me my rights as a prisoner," Rej said.

"Why?" Sebastian asked.

"So I know what they are."

Sebastian and the Queen looked at one another. "But you know what they are," the Queen said. "Otherwise you wouldn't have brought it up."

"That's not the point!"

"The position is absurd," Sebastian said. "We will not ignore a fact because of an unnecessary procedure. It can only lead to a flawed conclusion."

"But-" Rej looked around desperately. "There's other things too! Mitigating factors."

"Mitigating factors are irrelevant," the Queen said.

"It justifies what I've done!"

"Justification is irrelevant."

"What the Empire has done is wrong!"

"That is irrelevant."

Rej gave them a look of daggers with a side of venom. "This isn't justice," she said coldly.

"Justice," the Queen informed her, "is irrelevant."

The words seemed to have emptied the room of all sound. Even Romal looked rather uncomfortable with the sentiment. "Order out of chaos," the Queen continued. "That is the Borg way."

When Rej spoke, it was like a snarl. "Then you and the Empire deserve each other."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Morgan stood in the doorway as her father slept - again. He seemed to be doing it more and more lately. Not meditating, which would be understandable if something were wrong, but sleeping. But there didn't seem to be anything wrong besides that, no signs of sluggishness or weariness, no evidence he was sick or falling under some kind of unhealthy influence. He just seemed to sleep more and more, and it was beginning to worry his daughter.

There are some things so terrible that you would never do to family, no matter how desperate the situation. But there are some things so terrible you would only do them to family, even if it was the grossest kind of violation. In both cases, it's the special, intimate caring that is the barrier; in the latter case this is because the love and fear are strong enough to break through the walls we build in our minds to say "here's a place I'll never go." One thing Morgan had been taught was never to dig through an unsuspecting person's mind unless lives depended on it, because it's a gross personal violation. There was no evidence her father was in any kind of danger, not even a tremor in the Force. It was just a gut feeling that something was wrong, terribly wrong, and as she watched him sleep, the bricks tumbled down until she could make the decision. Each step wracked her mind with guilt at this betrayal of trust, but at this point, there was no turning back. She knelt down beside his bed, took a deep breath to steady her nerves, and placed a hand on either side of his head. She closed her eyes, concentrated-

Morgan hit the wall hard enough to dent it.

Morgan's eyes were glued on her father, her jaw still hanging open in shock. There had been voices. Millions. Trillions! She pulled herself back up, still staring, trying to think of what could possibly be going on inside her father's mind. Was he being controlled? Was he under some kind of evil influence? Had he tapped into some other dimension? Whatever it was, it only furthered her resolve. She returned to her spot, positioned her hands, steeled her mind, and pressed back in, far more gently this time, to try not to get hit so hard by all the minds.

She was able to suppress them this time, but it only made room for even more bizarre experiences. Vision was skewed, almost like being drunk, but as the seconds passed Morgan realized that in its own way this actually presented more detailed visual information than her eyes normally would. As she became used to it she realized that she -that is, her father, whose eyes she was using- was on board a ship. She saw the other people around him: a Devaronian male, a human female, and-

And a Borg.

Morgan knew all about her family heritage, and being one quarter Borg wasn't a problem for her. But the image of her father on the bridge, or whatever it was, of a Borg ship talking to a Borg was disconcerting. However, that same heritage gave her the ability to adapt quickly and to put together small details into larger ones. The voices, the skewed vision... her father was a Borg too.

Sebastian, or whatever the Borg her father was when he was here, was speaking. His voice was devoid. If asked to explain this thought, Morgan would have explained that there was no emotion in the voice, no feeling, no thought, no trace of her father. It was as if his brain had been completely turned off and some machine was controlling his mouth and lungs. Sebastian Skywalker's voice was devoid of Sebastian Skywalker.

The human said, "This trial is a farce. I demand you turn me over to the Empire. At least they'll treat me like a humanoid and not some damn robot."

"Under Imperial law," the Devaronian said, "we don't have to."

"The evidence demonstrates beyond all doubt," the Borg said, "that you deliberately committed treason against the Empire. The punishment for that is incarceration for life or death. Since we have no facilities for incarceration, that leaves a single option."

"You have no right!"

"You have killed," the Borg Sebastian said in the same voice as if he'd just announced their navicomputer was ready for a jump. "There is no logic holding others to a standard you repeatedly refuse to follow."

"I was fighting for my people," she said in exasperation. "I never pretended that what I was doing was right, but I did what I had to do!"

"And we will do what we have to do," Borg Sebastian said. "Verdict is decided, sentence imposed."

"I appeal," she said quickly.

"On what grounds?" the Devaronian asked.

"I was denied council."

"Council is not required," the Borg said. "We look only at facts, all facts."

"There was no one to defend me!"

"As I said, we look at all facts. A defender would seek to obfuscate the facts. We have no use for them-"

"Ahem," the Devaronian cleared his throat somewhat louder than necessary.

"We have no use for them within our own investigations," the Borg corrected.

"You can't do this!" the human screamed, and began slamming herself into a forcefield. "I deserve my day in court! Let me out! Let me-"

The forcefield collapsed, and the human tumbled out, but was caught by Borg Sebastian. Unfortunately, what he caught her by was the throat. She was gasping and banging at the limb as her eyes bugged out. "Verdict is decided," he repeated. "Sentence imposed." He gave a twist and her neck snapped, and the woman slumped like a limp marionette.

Morgan removed her hands from the sides of her father's head. Tears were running down her face, and she got up and ran from the room. Sebastian never moved.



Chuck

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Part X


It was in the late hours of the night, so late that morning was preparing to make its big entrance soon. For now, however, the darkness still claimed the sky, and if it hadn't been for the presence, Sebastian never would have known anyone was out there. He opened the front door and saw Morgan sitting in the chair; she'd been crying. "Sweetie," he said, coming over quickly, "Is something wrong?"

"Yes," Morgan said, and looked at him with enough pain in her eyes to freeze him in his tracks. "Yes, something's wrong. In fact, everything is wrong."

"Morgan, what's-"

"You killed her."

Sebastian gaped at her as the full implication of the words burrowed into his mind. There had been no accusation in her voice. When he looked back on this moment through the years to come, that's what he'd remember. No accusation, no condemnation, and that's what made it so terrible. Without that, all that left room for was the sound of bitter disappointment, that he had failed to measure up to his daughter's expectations. Nothing could have been worse. "How do you know that?"

"I saw it father," she said quietly, and new tears followed the path blazed down her face by earlier ones. "I saw it through your eyes."

Sebastian felt his heart starting to pound as the metaphorical ground began to shift beneath his feet. "How did you-"

"Put yourself in the here and now, father," she said sharply. "However it happened, I saw it! I saw what you did; you killed that woman in cold blood!"

"Executed," Sebastian explained. "She was a very, very bad person who killed many people and has been trying to hurt even more."

"But you are a Jedi," she said in a voice like liquid nitrogen. "You don't execute people."

Sebastian bent forward, running his hand through his hair in the hopes it would reach in and stimulate the brain. "In that place, sweetie, I'm not."

"You can't live that way father," Morgan said. "You can't be a Jedi here and a Borg there. We're both, remember, and however difficult that is, you always taught me that we can't forget the responsibilities that entails."

"Morgan," Sebastian said, "this is too much for you to understand all at once."

"No, it isn't," she said, and her lip trembled as she tried to hold the emotions in. "You made me too smart, father; too crafty. If you hadn't, then I wouldn't have figured out the secret you'd been hiding all this time." She looked down and shook her head. "It's a hell of a thing to find out you're not real."

"But you're real!" Sebastian pleaded. "As real as-"

"This is Unimatrix Zero, father!" she shouted. "A programming glitch that one Borg in a million taps into whenever they regenerate. That's why you've been sleeping so much, because when you sleep here you awaken in the real world."

"This is real!" he insisted.

"It's a lie!" she replied. "It's a lie you want to believe in, but at the end of the day, no amount of wishful thinking can make a lie real." She shook her head. "Why did you do it? Did it make you feel important? Is it nice being the center of a world built around you?"

Emotion burst through. "Everything I did here was because I love you!"

"I'm not real!"

"That doesn't change anything, not to me!" Sebastian wiped at his eyes. "You started as a dream, a wonderful dream, a dream of what should have been. And like it always happens, the dream ended." He wet his lips; this was so hard to explain to anyone, especially under the circumstances. "But there was a way to keep the dream going, here in Unimatrix Zero. With no other Borg to influence it, it reshaped under my willpower. But I never did it for any reason other than... other than the fact that I couldn't lose you again."

"You can't lose what isn't there, father."

"But you are here! You know you're real!"

"I know I'm real only because you want me to be," Morgan said. "Like I said, you made me too clever. I'm not me, I'm you, the part of you that wants a child to live up to all your expectations." She paused. "You said 'again.' What happened to the real me? Did she not measure up?"

"She-" Sebastian faltered. "You died before you were born. I never got the chance to know you." He punched the duracrete porch, which cracked under the blow. "It's not right," he said, more to himself than to her. "It's not right to have to watch the annihilation of all that matters to you. And it’s not right to dangle it before someone a second time only to snatch it away again. No, this is real, Morgan. It's real enough for all of us." Morgan was crying harder now. "I promise, everything-"

"You are a LIAR!" she screamed. "This has nothing to do with me!"

"That's not tru-"

"It is! Because if you loved me, you'd mourn for that dead little girl instead of making some fake to take her place! It's not about me, it's about YOU!!! You and your selfishness that says you'd rather turn away from emotion so you wouldn't have to feel anything!"

"That's not true!" Sebastian insisted.

"Is it?" she demanded. "Is it really, father? Well, if so, then let's put that to the test, shall we?" She reached into her pocket and pulled out a hypospray; Sebastian’s eyes widened. Before he could move she held it to her neck and hit the release. Sebastian cried out and snatched it away, but it was too late; he could feel her weakening from the poison already. "What will you... what will you do now, father?" she asked. "Will you burn my remains and move on, or will you... will you just shrug your shoulders and make daughter number three?"

"Morgan hold on," Sebastian said emphatically, "I'll get some help."

"There's no time, father. No," she coughed weakly, "no time. What will you do? What will you do..."

Morgan slumped out of the chair and Sebastian caught her, weeping. "Please," he pleaded. "Please don't die Morgan... Please... I don't want to live without... it's not fair... I love you more than anyone... please don't die... we'll be so happy together... there’s so much I had planned for us... please don’t die again…"
--------------------------------------------------------------

This is the life of Sebastian Skywalker.

There was still the faintest hint of the sunrise taint on the eastern horizon, and the smell in the air of damp from the storm the night before. The solitude is a weight on his soul, because he knows that he's lost one of the people he wants to share this life with, and in a larger sense, he's lost everyone here. At the center of this place full of the people he loves, he is horribly alone.

The presence was felt long before he arrived, but Sebastian didn't turn until after the grunt of exhaustion as his father took a seat beside him. There was a blue and white aura around Luke Skywalker as he looked sternly at the tightly folded hands before him. "So..." he said gravely, "what happens now?"

Sebastian looked away, back towards the rising sun; it was easier. "I can remake her," he pointed out.

"Yes," Luke said, his voice like an echo in a mausoleum.

"I can make it so this never happened," Sebastian said. "I can do anything I need to."

Luke nodded. "Because this place isn't real." Sebastian felt the words coming, but he didn't speak them. The argument with Morgan had covered all he could say on the subject. "I don't fault you for this," Luke went on. "I can't see how anyone could. The human spirit is strong, courageous, resolute..." Luke's eyes were downcast. "...but still only human."

"I haven't turned my back on the galaxies," Sebastian said, perhaps a little too strongly. "I have been fighting the good fight."

"Killing in cold blood," Luke said.

Sebastian jumped off his stoop and whirled around on his father. "What do you want from me?!"

"'From?'" Luke asked. "Nothing. I want things for you, not from you. Happiness, love, success, for your life to be wonderful, just like every parent... just like you do for Morgan." Luke leaned forward. "That's what's got you torn up right now, isn't it." It wasn't a question; Sebastian could see his father completely understood. "We all want our children to be smart and strong and good, to be better than we ourselves are, to excel. And Morgan did that, and because she did, she was able to find out your secret."

"Then I'll make sure that doesn't happen again," Sebastian said.

"How?" Luke asked. "By holding her back?" The question hung in the air, practically taunting Sebastian to try and answer it. "It's different, you see. If Morgan was born with a sub-standard IQ and irreversible blindness, it would break your heart, yet you would love her with all your being. But not a day would go by when you wouldn't wish that you could do something to help her, anything to make her better. What do you think drove so many parents to genetically enhance their children? Oh, some were selfish monsters, I'll grant you, but most simply couldn't live with themselves if they couldn't help, no matter what the law said. But for you, Sebastian, the only thing holding her back would be you... and you would know that the one thing you couldn't do was to make your daughter what you want her to be, because then she'd find your little secret out. And this paradise that you've created will lose all its charm... it would just remind you all the more of what you've lost." Sebastian said nothing. “Why didn’t you save her just now? If you truly have the power to make it so that this never happened, shouldn’t you have had the power to prevent it in the first place?” Sebastian still didn’t have an answer. “She wouldn’t let you, would she… and she’s a part of you. I think you’re trying to tell yourself something.”

“She’s real,” Sebastian said quietly.

“I’m starting to think that’s true… it’s just not in the sense you mean.”

Sebastian dropped wearily on the stoop. "It's not fair," he said finally, his voice crushed with defeat. "And yes, I know life isn't fair... but it won't stop me from commenting on it."

Luke put his hand on his son's shoulder; it felt surprisingly solid. "You remember your mother's story about the city of Ohr, yes? The city that came from nothing?"

"What about it?" Sebastian asked.

"You do know that it's not just a story."

"What, the Force taking advantage of the situation to do some good? What about it?"

"Some things are needed, Sebastian. Something... or someone, needs to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, even if that's supposed to be impossible."

The remark froze Sebastian to the core. It was the question he never asked; no, the question that was asked once and just dismissed with a shrug, never to be thought about again. You don't dwell on questions like that, but here it rose like the fetid contents of a swamp and demanded an answer.

How does a Borg have a child?

And the answer, of course, was, they can't. But here he was all the same. They'd had Sisko's cryptic remarks, and that had been enough. But now... now there was an answer, and Sebastian didn't like it very much. "So," he said slowly, like a man about to begin a very long climb, "I'm here because I'm needed, and that's all. My life never belonged to me; I was just a tool."

"No," Luke said emphatically, "you know better than that. Your life is yours, your choices are yours. But you're here because-" Luke ran the back of his hand down Sebastian's face with a smile, "because you're my son, and are smart and strong and good and thus will make the right choices."

"After all that's happened?" Sebastian asked. "'They're going to take it all away,' and they did."

"Yes," his father conceded.

"It keeps happening, father. Knock me down, wait for me to pick myself up and dust off, then do it again." Sebastian shook his head. "I can't go back to that."

"No, Sebastian," Luke said, "it's because of that that you can. The enemy-" He cut himself off, biting his lip as he fought some kind of internal battle. "The enemy that you face can spot your every weakness, Sebastian. It knows how to pick it out and exploit it. If you face it, you will find everything you care about taken away, all at once; it will destroy you."

"But when the worst has already happened," Sebastian said, more to himself than to his father, "what's left?"

Luke nodded. "The yammosk found a way in, Sebastian. It preyed on your love, and used it as a weapon against you. No matter how strong in spirit, you were still vulnerable. You weren't ready then, because you hadn't endured all that you have. But now you're going to face something even worse." Luke looked washed out as he spoke. "Evil is ultimately self-defeating," he explained. "They've sought to destroy you a piece at a time. What they didn't realize, though, was that with every blow they only hardened you, until you can withstand the worst they can throw at you."

"'That which does not kill me makes me stronger?'" Sebastian asked.

"That which makes us stronger does not kill us," Luke corrected, "it just feels like it does."

"So," Sebastian said with his head down, "I go back. I fight the good fight and try to save the universe, right? Because it's my destiny?"

"Because you're Sebastian Skywalker," Luke said, "and it's impossible for him to stand aside and do nothing." He got up, grabbed Sebastian’s shoulders, and pulled him to his feet. "Remember what I told you," he said. "I may have moved moons... but you will move civilizations." He walked to Morgan's fallen form and vanished; as he did, she blinked her eyes and got back to her feet. He was a little surprised with himself he didn’t feel different about that, but then, he wasn’t looking at the world quite the same way any more.

"You know what I'm going to do," Sebastian said.

"You're going to do the right thing," she said with a nod. "Just like I knew you would." He reached out and squeezed her with all that a father's arms had. "And you better," she said with a choke, "because I'll be watching you," she tapped the side of his head, "in here."

"In here," he said, tapping his chest. "Forever... forever, my little dawn."

Sebastian opened his eyes and stepped out of his alcove. The Borg Queen had been examining a holographic display, but she stopped as he walked, and turned towards him slowly. She looked him up and down, as if never seeing him before. Then she spoke; it was as close to regret as anyone had ever heard in a Borg's voice. "Our thoughts are no longer one."

"No," Sebastian said. "No they're not."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Romal scratched just below his right horn. "I'm still not sure I get this. Why are you not a Borg?"

"I am a Borg," Sebastian said, lacing up his boot. The foot inside was real; most of the cybernetics were able to be removed without a problem, although his other cybernetic leg was still necessary. "But I'm a Jedi too. I can't keep being one or the other, it's really messing with my head."

"But-" Romal looked about as if the answer would be written on the walls, "but you can't just leave the Collective!"

"I made it," Sebastian said. "I'll leave it any time I like."

"No," the Queen said. "You will not."

"Don't try anything," Sebastian warned, although the whole conversation seemed odd, given how the Borg had not only removed his implants and such, but had replicated new clothes and equipment.

"Not all who are members of the Borg Collective LLC are drones," the Queen pointed out.

"I can't stay here," Sebastian explained. "I've got greater concerns than running a business."

"We are capable of running the business without you," the Borg Queen said.

"People skills, people skills," Romal said under his breath. "Gotta work on those people skills."

"You are part of the Borg Collective," the Queen said. "You won't walk away from that."

Sebastian finished tying the boot. "Watch me."

"I mean that you will not walk away from us," the Queen said, "because we are going with you."

Sebastian blinked. "What, all of you?"

"Well, if it's all the same," Romal said, "I'd be more than happy to mind the store while you go off into certain death."

Sebastian ignored him. "Why are you doing this?"

The Queen hesitated. "We remember the time before you re-united us. Were it not for you, the Borg would remain pathetic refugees, throwbacks to a forgettable era. We will not let you become an outcast."

"The Borg have no sense of obligation," Sebastian said.

"We adapt," the Queen said.

Sebastian shook his head. "Are you sure you want to do this? If you go, there's going to be lots of bloodshed."

"Yes," the Queen said, "but that's their problem, isn't it?"

Sebastian grinned despite himself. "Bravado? From you?"

"We adapt."

"I see," Sebastian said with a nod. "Then in that case, we'd best be moving."

"Uh, where exactly would we be moving to?" Romal asked.

There was a snap and a glow of blue, quickly followed by a second. Sebastian examined the blades of his new lightsaber. "The right place, at the right time."



Chuck

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Part XI


Lando Calrissian had moved his business into the beta quadrant. He liked the beta quadrant, at least this far corner of it. It was quiet, far from the conflicts that plagued most of the Milky Way, whether it was Mistryl raiders or Section 31 or crazed Hirogen or even the odd hologram, they stuck to the other areas of the galaxy. Out here you kept your head down; it made sure nobody would try to chop it off.

Lando wanted peace and quiet, which is exactly what he got. Unfortunately, that didn't mean that life was going to be trouble-free, it just meant that the problems would be limited to the humdrum of "can I meet my bills?" and "will the new improvement to the drive assembly affect the cost?" instead of "can I do without a proton missile launcher or will my factory be incinerated?" or "will I be murdered in my bed tonight as either a supporter of the Empire or a traitor to the Empire?" Being a businessman again had come naturally to Calrissian, who had been so many things in his life. He'd been a general and he'd been a crook, so it was the perfect balance; he led people in taking other people's money away. Unfortunately, sometimes other people conspired to take your money away. It was a matter of knowing when that was going to happen so you could prepare for it, but nothing had prepared Lando for the day the Empire came for their shipment and only dropped enough credits to cover half of it.

Of course, there are usually options to deal with a situation like that. Usually you hold the merchandise until the full payment is arranged, or you provide whatever the customer can afford to pay for at the moment. However, when faced with a few star destroyers and a complete absence of serious defenses, the options become reduced to "hand over the goods and hope we can sort it out later." Well, it was later, and the sorting out wasn't going very well.

"General," Lando said in the firm yet diplomatic voice he had to employ when dealing with difficult yet valued customers, "we really can't work like this. We need payment in full for our ships upon receipt, or I can't continue to provide them to you." "Can't" was always important to say. "Won't" says "we could but we're not going to." "Can't" says "I really want to, honestly, but my hands are tied." "Can't" says we're in this together and can work it out if we all act sensibly.

"You'll be paid in full, Calrissian," General Taar said, looking over reports during the meeting. "You just need to give us time."

"General, I understand the Empire is a bit distracted-"

"The Empire is fighting for its existence," Taar said sharply. "And for the continued existence of all its citizens, whom the Vong aren't going to treat nearly as fairly if they are allowed to win. But wars cost money, Calrissian."

"I'm aware of that," Lando said. "I have an itemized list sitting on my desk, in fact."

"Look, Calrissian, I sympathize, really, I do, but I cannot pay you credits I don't have."

"And we can't continue to provide ships without payment, general," Lando said flatly. "We're going to have to come to some kind of an arrangement."

"Listen, I have a war to run, not time to deal with every little problem in the universe. You have two choices: either you extend us some credit until we can resolve the Vong situation, or we can just forget the whole thing."

"Forget the whole thing?" Lando said with a disbelieving laugh. "General, we have a contract. The contract calls on you to make payments upon receipt, not to give you credit when there's money problems."

Taar tossed down the datapad. "I am trying to stop aggressive nihilists from taking over two galaxies here, Calrissian. Do I look like I give a damn about some contract? You should be happy that you're dealing with me instead of some of the other gents who have been in command, 'cause they would take your ships and expect a thank you for not vaporizing your corporate headquarters for the lip. You'll get paid when I have it, or we can just terminate the contract right now."

Lando fumed. "I know you're still paying Kuat Drives and the Borg in full."

"Kuat Drives stuck with us through the worst of it many times," Taar said, "and the Borg, bastards though they may be, are at least willing to fight for nothing to deal with raiders and pirates. You sit in your warm safe office and expect to get lead teat? No no no. Put your neck on the line, Calrissian, and maybe I'll change my mind, but for now you take what we offer or start your own shuttle service." The connection was abruptly terminated. Lando stared for a few seconds at the holoprojector, then slowly leaned forward and tapped the button that lowered it into his desk.

Cloud City... Lando would always remember the day the Executor appeared in the sky over Bespin and the Dark Lord of the Sith himself contacted him. They could take the entire colony with ease, shut it down for good, and there'd be no one to appeal to. The shadow that loomed over them had finally taken notice. But Lord Vader had offered a deal instead, a minor inconvenience by comparison. A few platoons of stormtroopers to help catch Han, Chewie, and some Rebel bigwig to lay a trap for someone else. They weren't even going to be killed, just held to lure this Skywalker kid in for Vader, and then the Empire would go on its way, leaving Han and his friends behind, and Calrissian would keep Cloud City.

Lando had believed it. He'd wanted to believe it so badly he would have greeted Han in the buff if Vader demanded it. All in all, it was a very reasonable offer.

And then things spiraled out of control. Vader didn't just take the trio captive, he tortured them, and then decided to give Han to Fett. The Empire would make more and more demands until finally Lando saw through the reasonableness and recognized the deal was a sham. He was losing the city; all he'd done was help the Empire on his way down.

"Extend us some credit?" It sure sounds reasonable...
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema Rar had arrived a week ago, guided by the mind of the Oracle. She had no idea what to expect; she'd seen the previous encampment of the Sith during her time with the Jedi, and the evil had still been tangible in the air. Her minds eye had cast up ghastly images of forbidden rites being performed, of contacting black forces in the hopes of seizing even more power. The collection of pre-fabricated rooms seemed absolutely humdrum by comparison.

The Oracle had been waiting for her. There had been several others about, and even more that Alema could sense, but introductions seemed the last thing on the Oracle's mind. Instead she'd asked Alema a few questions. They were simple and direct. What did she want? What was she willing to do to get it? Was she willing to swear total allegiance to her new master? Alema had expected this and given her answers; the Oracle seemed pleased, although in a distant way.

And after that had been nothing. The Oracle had ordered her to confine herself to an assigned room away from the others, to talk to no one. She was only to study the Sith texts the Oracle gave her, and to wait until the Oracle summoned her. Over a week passed, and patience was not easy, but Alema buried herself in study to keep from giving in to other temptations. She had a feeling the tests here would not be like the ones at the Jedi Academy, but would instead be practical application and likely lethal.

And then the door opened, and the Oracle waited. "Come," was all she said, and Alema quickly did so. The Oracle explained a little more about their relationship, master and apprentice. And that was how she introduced Alema to everyone, "My new apprentice." The faces were all familiar; she'd seen them when Ben had killed Jacen. None regarded her with anything friendlier than disinterest, and Ben himself was a boiling cauldron of contempt; he'd refused to even speak to her.

The tour ended at the entrance to one of the cells, which was opened to reveal Annika Hansen Skywalker, currently lounging on her cot. Master and apprentice entered the cell as Annika sat up. "This is Seven," the Oracle announced, gesturing dismissively towards her Borg captive. "A rather stubborn woman, but hopefully will learn the error of her ways." Annika responded with only a look of contempt.

"We've met," Alema said. The Jedi had worked with Annika more than once during some of Anakin Solo's assignments.

"No, we haven't," Annika said darkly. "I knew Alema Rar; I've no idea what this thing is."

Alema stared at the Borg, who unblinkingly met it. The Oracle said nothing, she just watched. So Alema acted, and Annika soon found herself choking from the invisible grip on her throat. "No," the Oracle said. "that will achieve nothing."

"Part of being a Sith is being respected for one's power," Alema said, remembering the books she'd been given.

"The dead offer no respect, and she's potentially useful to me." Alema released her, and Annika gasped for air. "Seven has learned to respect me over the course of her imprisonment, isn't that so?" Annika turned and spat in the Oracle's general direction. The Oracle shook her head as she approached her prisoner. "Although she still remains defiant at times. She has cowered before me on more than one occasion."

"Get out," Annika snapped. The Oracle raised her hands, causing Annika to flinch in anticipation. "Out!"

"You can sense her fear, can't you?" the Oracle asked. "Underneath it all she fears me and what I can do to her." Force lightning crackled around the Oracle's hand, causing Annika to jump. "But even these tools aren't always necessary."

"She's going to kill you, Alema," Annika said. "She's using the Vong to-"

"Yes, using the Vong," the Oracle said. "And then they will be tossed aside. I'll leave that to you if you like," she offered, then turned her attention back to Annika. "The mind is a wonderful thing," the Oracle cooed as she ran a hand over Annika's head before the woman could flinch away. "Someone gifted like our Borg friend can recall all the memories on command, but most of us aren't so fortunate. Still, they're all in there somewhere, collecting dust, waiting. Every secret thought and stolen kiss and small transgression is there. Someone skilled enough could no doubt learn our friend's every secret, although I doubt we'd every meet someone with that much power. But memory has different paths, common elements, if you're skilled enough to know the thread to pull."

"The ways to find their secrets?" Alema asked.

"Perhaps, if you were so inclined and willing to patiently sift through it all." The Oracle gave a dismissive wave. "But I prefer to work more directly." She reached out and Annika's limbs froze in the Oracle's mental grip. "As I said, everything that's ever happened is in there. Let's say I gathered up all the times when there was horrible pain, took the threads, and heaved-"

Annika screamed; it was high-pitched and pitiful. Burning, freezing, aching, and wrapped up in agony, she lacked even the strength to move. The memories were as clear and substantial as if the moment was now, but they overlapped one another in a mosaic of torment, that left her blubbering even after the Oracle released her.

"And that is but a small taste of what the Dark side can give you, my young apprentice," the Oracle said quietly.

While being admittedly impressed, Alema nevertheless questioned her new master. "What use would that be to me against the Vong? Their minds are untouched by the Force."

"It's to show, child, how the Force can be used beyond the limitations of Jedi trickery. A master of the Force is not just some super-warrior, they have access to power beyond anything you've dared dream. You've already sensed the power, but it's raw and thus out of your control. I can help you tame it, and with it you will become so powerful you won't even need to activate your lightsaber to destroy Vong." She led the way out of the cell. "And I think we'll start with a little ability known as illusion..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

At its best, a collection of Sith hold barely-restrained tolerance for each other. Each fellow Sith is, in the end, either a potential obstacle to personal advancement, or a threat. It was played out when Ben Skywalker tried and failed to kill the Oracle recently, and it preyed on the minds of his students. Molly was unlikely to kill him, although even she wasn't completely beyond such temptations, but she had far more to worry about from a student hoping for sudden advancement. The unspoken hierarchy put her between them and Ben, and if it weren't for years working for Section 31 she'd likely have been stabbed in the back long ago, Force powers or no.

Then Alema Rar had come. Fallen Jedi, and suddenly of such interest to the Oracle. She was the apprentice now. The term had always been used regarding Ben -once the nature of the Oracle had been revealed- to indicate that he was not the master in this relationship. With this new member it seemed to leave Ben without a defined position. He was instructor to the students, and ran the Oracle's errands, but he had no traditional Sith role. Where he and Alema fit in the hierarchy was now uncertain.

It should have been no surprise that it was J'Dan who made the move. The Klingons, for all their talk of honor, were always quick to strike against a foe when they were weakened, and with the uncertainty provided by Alema and the sound defeat by the Oracle in his failed assassination attempt, Ben looked vulnerable. And like a Sith, he didn't announce his intentions, but simply struck while Ben was discussing the training with Molly in one of the main rooms. If Ben were cut down by surprise, it would be his own fault; a Sith should know that he is always surrounded by enemies, even if they are simultaneously his friends.

However, Ben was not taken by surprise. He was surprised to be sure, that someone would dare to try to best him with their limited training. But he was always ready for a lightsaber between the shoulder blades, and caught the assassin's strike with a flurry of movement and crashing of blades. To his credit, J'Dan immediately kept up the attack, without a trace of fear that he'd bitten off more than he could hope to chew. For Ben's part, however, this was just the final indignity. A man who had risen so high, had attained so much, now fallen so low that the damn students thought they had a chance of outperforming him. Hate boiled in his blood always, but in recent days he had set it to an even higher simmer than normal, and he stalked around the place in mute frustration at his position.

The Klingon had no idea just how grave a mistake he'd made. Ben didn't want to just kill something, he wanted to pour all his rage upon it first, every single angst that riled him day and night. J'Dan was bigger and stronger, but each blow from Ben's blade seemed to knock him back further, as if the human was channeling the strength of a giant. The sound of each blow was like a sledgehammer on neutronium. Finally, Ben brought his blade around and slashed between the Klingon's third and fourth finger, shutting down his lightsaber as well as sending half of his hand and a sliver of arm spiraling off. J'Dan cried out in pain and anger, but didn't back down; there was still too much pride in there to do anything else.

In anyone else, Ben might have had a murderous rage, but that basically defined his ground state. Ben never had to get mad to kill anyway, it came as naturally as combing his hair. But in Ben was something well-beyond his normal bounds, and it had been waiting for a release for a long time. J'Dan had been unfortunate enough to volunteer. The Klingon stood there, sweating as Ben's anger burned, and burned, and burned...

His hair smoldered first, briefly, before J'Dan's entire body lit up with flame. Now he let out a cry, but Ben reached into the fire and grabbed the Klingon, holding him there even as his own arm burned. Several others, including Molly, watched on as the immolation continued, until J'Dan crumpled to his feet. Ben still gripped him, and stared with open malice at the now dead Sith. Several minutes passed and the flames began to die down, and Ben shoved the corpse aside. Black bits of burnt flesh like wasp paper fluttered at the movement, but Ben just stormed out of the room. The onlookers, however, got the unspoken message. Despite appearances, Ben was on top of his game, and was not someone to be kriffed with.



Chuck

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Part XII


It was a scene that took place with greater frequency in recent weeks. A convoy was pulled from hyperspace into the waiting arms of raiders, but instead of the usual pirates and such, there were warships waiting for them. With the teeth pulled from the Empire's military presence, the independent powers now preyed on the under-defended ships that were still necessary to keep commerce flowing within the Empire's territory. It may seem unimportant, but commerce meant revenue, which meant tax money for the Imperial war machine. More and more were getting the same kind of messages from the Empire that Lando Calrissian had received, and provoking their subjects with even greater demands for funds while not protecting their interest was potentially leading to further revolts against their government. This was all well and good, but the Malon, who had sent three cruisers to deal with this convoy, also never turned down a chance for a handful of credits. Hurting the Empire was just a bonus.

Unfortunately for them, they'd garnered some attention. As the cruisers swooped in with tractor beams at the ready, two Borg tactical cubes arrived. One would be enough. The Malon turned to fight for all the good it would do; thanks to their own interdictor torpedo, they were now stuck here with the Borg. Their ships had been outfitted with heavier weaponry, but even when these managed to penetrate the Borg adaptive shielding, they did little more than scratch their armored hulls.

Three blue spheres were launched from one cube, splashing across the shields of a Malon cruiser. Alas, that was the point; the shields flickered upon impact. It was very, very brief, perhaps a few dozen miliseconds, but the shields were open nonetheless, and with centuries of finely-honed transporter experience, it was more than enough.

In the engineering section of the cruiser panic quickly spread as a horde of Borg drones appeared. Security forces were already standing by for engagement, but the drones ignored them, and the Malon quickly found their attention elsewhere. Two snaps rang out before anyone could react, and suddenly the security head's... head... rolled past. The Malon opened fire, but the figure was too quick, literally bouncing off a wall as he evaded their blast and dove, two deadly blades of pure energy spinning beside him. He weaved around them, casually slashing through as he passed and forcing the Malon to withdraw. He drew to a quick stop to catch a Malon's shot. It was a continuous fire weapon, a phaser or disruptor. Weapons like that could have advantages against a Jedi, or severe disadvantages. The continuous beam bounced off the lightsaber and was angled back, slicing down three additional Malon security guards before hitting the one holding the weapon himself. That had cleared engineering for the moment, but there was no time to celebrate. He gestured at the three doors, which each closed in turn. Finally, the situation fully dealt with, Sebastian shut down the lightsaber. "Status?" he asked.

"Ninety-two percent," the Borg Queen informed him. A few seconds later the ship lurched and the lights dimmed; emergency lights cut on under back-up power, not enough for much else. Gravity, minimal life support, transmission reception (not even enough to answer), and the doors. "Reactor is off line," she said. "We are the Borg-"

The Malon on the bridge listened as their guts tightened. "-your vessel will be assimilated," the chorus announced. "If you do not evacuate you will be punished." That was more than enough for them. It wasn't that the Malon crew were cowards, but they didn't care to throw their lives away, or hand them over to the Borg. The escape pods were quickly filled and ejected.

The other cube had been engaging the remaining two cruisers. One had been subjected to some of the Borg's heavier weapons; it was only useful for materials now. The other, however, seemed to be powering down as well. Sebastian nodded as he examined it on his datapad; no real damage, it looked like the destroyer droid squad coupled with the drones worked quite well. That was good; he didn't care for these jobs much, despite their necessity. Since the Borg had to stop assimilating personnel, electronic records were now the primary source of their information, and too often ships would lose some data during the course of the battle. The new Borg tactic of disabling the ship without damaging it had provided a wealth of information on anti-Imperial activities, not to mention some useful details to be integrated in Borg construction efforts. But that led to the second advantage of taking the ship intact; it meant you had an intact ship. The Borg were still salvaging damaged and empty cubes from before their re-birth, so they had no need for them, but there were plenty who paid handsomely for a fully-functioning warship. Naturally, the Borg only sold to Imperial allies to avoid provoking the Empire. Taar may have adopted a grudging tolerance for the Collective, but it wouldn't take much for him to declare it open season on any cybernetic organism.

The drones nearby had plugged into the main computer; there were no doubt high-level encryption patterns to protect the Malon's secrets, but they had no hope against the sheer number of minds devoted to breaking them. It took seconds before data flowed into the hive mind. "Interesting," the Queen said to Sebastian. "It seems this Malon ship had a brief encounter with the bioships."

"What?" Sebastian said, visibly shocked at the news. The Borg had been searching for the bioships that had attacked the Imperial fleet for some time, and hadn't found a trace of them. Any clue could be of help in finding this enemy and figuring out whether it was the Vong or someone else. "How much information do you have?"

"Enough," the Borg Queen said succinctly. Sebastian knew what that meant. He closed his eyes and concentrated, and the implant deep inside his brain switched on.

It always hit him like a blow to the solar plexus. To think he used to feel this way all the time! After a timeless period had passed his connection was cut and he was left gasping, but the new knowledge was fresh in his head: all the sensor recordings, all the flight details, all the little things that could prove the vital element in finally finding this mysterious force. "Any theories on where these bioships may have gone?" he asked the Borg Queeen.

"We have a few possible projections," the Borg Queen said. "You wish to take the Tactical Cube?"

"Yes, I'd like to look into this personally," Sebastian said. "This could be what my father was alluding to when he spoke of the greater threat to us. If so, I've got to figure out just what it is."

"Agreed," the Borg Queen said, although Sebastian knew she placed little stock in his views of the Force. Whatever these bioships were, they presented a possible threat and possible new information for the Borg, which made them doubly of interest to the Collective. They may be a business rather than a military force in the galaxy, but that didn't change their fervent drive towards knowing and understanding everything, of achieving total perfection. "Engagement at this time, however, would be unwise," she added.

"One thing at a time," Sebastian said. "Let's find them first, then decide if we're going to fight or not."

"That is a dangerous strategy."

Sebastian shrugged. "What can I say, I like to adapt." And with that he de-materialized off the Malon cruiser and disappeared into hyperspace on the Tactical Cube.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika Hansen Skywalker lay on her bunk, the lights dimmed to allow her the chance for some sleep. At the end of the day.... that was the expression, wasn't it? At the end of the day, often followed by an unpleasant truth. After all, that's what this time brought you, in the quiet and the dark, with absolutely nothing but the voices of your own mind. And often there was one voice, the unpleasant one. Not the conscience, no, though it knew about guilt. It knew about a lot of emotions, and used them with the fine skill of a master golfer selecting between a seven and eight iron. It was the voice of truth, with all the attractiveness of an open cadaver. At the end of the day, it spoke, and it was a voice not easily silenced.

Its message for Annika was simple: you're dead. You will never leave this place alive, and all your actions here are in vain. Maybe you made a difference with the Borg, but that's all over now.

It was at that moment that the Oracle entered Annika's cell, and the grim truth and fresh pain flipped a few switches in the woman's mind, and she leapt at her former captain. It wasn't calculated and lacked all of the normally subtle and crafty tactics Annika employed; it was brute force anger taking out its frustrations on the face of its tormentor.

She never landed a blow. Instead she was bodily picked up and tossed into the wall, not hard enough to break anything, but just hard enough to make a point. The Oracle's face showed no sign of response to any of this, as if she was too distracted to bother herself with a raging ex-Borg besides a subconscious reaction, like the brushing away of a fly. "It's good to see you're in touch with your emotions," the Oracle offered. Annika growled at her in response. "They can make you so strong when you let them." Annika rolled over and looked at the wall rather than at the thing Janeway had become. "I think you're starting to wake up to that. Pain, you see, is very good at getting one to admit the power of the Dark side. It worked for Ben, for Molly, even for Alema."

"I'm not interested in the Dark side," Annika said coldly.

"Then why did you attack me?" the Oracle asked. "Why did you lash out?"

"Because killing you would be a step closer to my freedom," Annika said, turning back.

"Analytical," the Oracle said. "You'd always turn to that as a crutch, but there was no reason in your actions, only passion, hate." She stepped closer and her voice seemed more soothing. "You've been conditioned to resist those feelings. I assure you, they give you strength, and with strength comes the ability to impose your vision on reality. For you, it was to live in a galaxy without me. For me, I saw a galaxy without an Empire looming over it."

"An Empire founded by Sith," Annika said. "Yet you join with them against the Jedi. That never made any sense, captain."

"The Jedi are weak, Seven, you should know that by now. You've seen first-hand Luke's limitations." The Oracle smiled a little at Annika's murderous expression. "You see? So easily it comes, doesn't it? Anger? Hatred? The Jedi suppress this like the Vulcans, but it's emotion that fuels the power of the Force."

"And if it were not for that, then there would be no Empire," Annika said. "Don't you see that?"

"What I see," the Oracle said, "is a means towards an end, nothing more. Besides, it is as much the fault of the Jedi that the Empire exists. Their failure to see the threat, and the failure of their teachings to stop it." The Oracle looked away as she reflected on something. "You don't really have the full story of what happened, do you? Second-hand tales, Imperial propaganda, wishful thinking... no one else really has the means of manipulating time itself to discover the hidden truths. Half a century ago, at the close of the Clone Wars, Emperor Palpatine seized total control." The Oracle seemed lost in the memory of it. "Right there, that was the critical junction. Palpatine was strong in the Dark side, oh yes, but there were still two Jedi who had the means to thwart him, two who had the chance to destroy the Empire before it ever began. One I'm sure you can already guess at."

Annika nodded a little. Luke's father, who in the end embraced that same dark path, and cast a shadow over his family that haunts even Jaina and Sebastian generations later.

"The other was a Jedi Master, in fact," the Oracle continued. "A powerful master of the Force, whose fighting style was so aggressive it skirted the boundary between the Light and the Dark, yet he in his arrogance believed he could control it." As the Oracle spoke the air nearby shimmered until it formed a sphere, and inside a battle between Jedi and Sith played out. Palpatine was almost unrecognizable in his comparable youth, but as Annika watched she saw what the Oracle meant. The power of the Jedi master was obvious even through this vision, the way he disarmed his adversary and left him prone and helpless. "He placed Palpatine under arrest," the Oracle said with a rumble in her voice, "at the same time that young Skywalker arrived."

And there he was, exactly as Annika had seen in the records. She could read between the lines. This was the pivotal moment, when Anakin Skywalker would stand in the light or embrace the darkness; when the Republic would endure or descend into the Empire that would bring two galaxies to their knees. Three human beings in this moment were about to affect more people than you could count in a lifetime.

"Anakin wants Palpatine taken alive," the Oracle said. "Windu has already arrested him. And yet... so close to the twilight between the two sides of the Force, so precariously balanced, as much in his way as the green youth beside him.

"The Force, Seven, has a strong influence on the weak of mind," she said bitterly. "But the influence on all minds, the unity of it, affects all. It can have a strong influence on the weak, but a weak influence on the strong. In the depths of his soul, Master Windu knew that the Jedi could not hope to remove Palpatine, not with the Senate and the Courts on his side. There was one and only one way to remove a man like Palpatine, one way to abort the birth of this monstrous thing called the Galactic Empire, and it took what all revolutions will ultimately end with... with one single swing of the blade."

Windu's face filled the sphere, frozen in his stare at the fallen Sith. The Oracle regarded him with nothing but contempt. "But that is not the Jedi way. That is not the way that Mace Windu and other teachers of the Jedi had pounded into Anakin Skywalker for years and years. And Palpatine, well, he was a friend and mentor to Anakin, keeping him in his confidence, offering things that the Jedi had refused. And Windu, who never made any attempt to hide his dislike for the young man, who despite all he had done never trusted him. Who would he side with, if Windu turned his back on all he'd told Anakin and tried to kill Palpatine? The answer is only too obvious." And now it was the fallen Sith who filled the sphere. "And Palpatine knew what was in the two Jedi's hearts, and so he reached out to Windu and gave that strong mind the weakest nudge, and toppled a thousand governments with it.

"Despite being a Jedi, despite the truth of Anakin's own words, in his heart of hearts, Mace Windu wanted to see Palpatine dead. Dead for the crimes he'd committed against the Republic. Dead for the worlds that burned by his order. Dead for the Jedi that fell in a war he caused. And that weak nudge was all that he needed to swing, and all the prompting young Skywalker needed to intercede." The scene played out, as Windu raised for the killing stroke, only to have the conflicted lad stop him, leaving the opening for Palpatine to destroy his own would-be killer. The air swirled less and the sphere evaporated.

The Oracle now glared at Annika. "Do you know why I hate the Jedi? Because they were given their chance, and they failed to measure up. It wasn't that their ideals failed them, it was that they could not hold themselves to those ideals!"

"One man's failure does not-"

"A Jedi master!" the Oracle shouted. "One of the most senior amongst the Jedi Council, could not measure up to their own standards! The Jedi always have been and always will be inferior because they will never admit that their code demands the impossible of them, that to do what must be done you have to be ready to cross the line!"

"So you side with the Sith that created the very Empire you seek to destroy?" Annika said, bringing up what seemed the obvious contradiction once again.

The Oracle scoffed at her. "The Sith are not like the Jedi, Seven. That Palpatine succeeds is not a victory for Sith everywhere, it's a victory for him and him alone. A Sith acquires power to attain their goals, and my goal is to destroy the Empire. Whether it was made by another Sith or not is of no consequence to me."

"But in your division, you are weakened," Annika shot back.

The Oracle leaned over her, until her face was mere inches away. "Think about the battle between Jedi and Sith Masters, and tell me which side it was that was divided."



Chuck

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Part XIII


Lando Calrissian pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, I want to pay you-"

"And I want to give you your shipment," Dalon Ros replied. "That's why I went into trade instead of becoming a computer debugger or an animal trainer. But if I'm to give you something, you have to give me something back. That's why it's called the 'trade' business instead of the 'charity' business, or the 'I was born yesterday' business."

"You'll get your money," Lando promised.

"Now," Dalon said, doing a little spin of his index finger and touching his desk. Lando didn't like it, it reminded him too much of the death spiral his company was in. "Payment upon delivery, that's what our contract says."

"Look, Dalon," Lando said, "I'm up against a wall here. The Empire's demanded credit on their ships, they're not paying me."

"You've got a contract," Dalon said with a shrug. "Sue 'em."

"We're at war, Dalon," Lando pointed out.

"The Empire's at war," Dalon said, "I'm not. That's why I went into trade instead of soldiering."

"When this is all squared away-"

"No, no, no," Dalon said emphatically. "Your company may be ready to plunge into bankruptcy, but I'm not holding hands with you on the way down. If you don't pay me, in full, now, I'll find someone else to buy this stuff, cut you off from all future sales, and put the word out on this. No respectable merchant's going to even pick up the commlink for you, understand? This is not how you run a business!"

Lando looked around the room, tight-lipped, trying not to give voice to his frustration. "Look, if the Vong win-"

"Don't talk to me about the Vong, Lando," Dalon interrupted. "I don't know when you fell in love with the Empire, but I'm not going to drive my business into the ground in the name of patriotism."

"I'm just being pragmatic," Lando said. "If the Vong win they'll kill all of us."

"I'd rather die rich than live in poverty," Dalon said flatly. "Now, we both know your business has been circling the drain. I've been making your deliveries only because a deal's a deal, but it stops being a deal when you stop paying. Now, what's it going to be? You going to pay me my credits, or are you going to drive a stake through your company's heart?"

"All right, all right!" Lando said. "Give me a minute to get it together; you'll get your money."

"I'm not going anywhere," Dalon said, then leaned in closer to Lando. "Yet." His hologram vanished. Lando hit the desk in frustration, then began gathering funds together. Finally he transferred the credits to Dalon Ros' account, and the latter began offloading the equipment for the fighters Lando wasn't being paid for. He pinched the bridge of his nose again; he wasn't sleeping much lately.

Lando reached forward and activated a few buttons. The holographic Quark materialized in the room. "Please state the nature of the fiscal emergency."

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Lando grumbled.

"I wish you wouldn't summon me like that," Quark shot back. "I'd like to keep what little dignity I have, thank you very much. Now what's the problem?"

Lando gave a gesture of hopelessness. "Unfortunately, you hit the nail on the head. We have a fiscal emergency. Dalon Ros showed up with his shipment."

"He wouldn't cooperate," Quark said, whose insight into the mind of businessmen everywhere bordered on supernatural. "I told you he wouldn't."

"Yeah, well, it was a long shot, but it was all we had." Lando settled back into his chair, if only as a token concession to his exhaustion. Quark took the seat opposite him. "He threatened to pull out and tell everyone we can't meet our bills."

"Expected that," Quark said. "And most don't need much of an excuse. The Empire hasn't been making friends out here, if you hadn't noticed. They're not going to listen to your 'all for one and one for all' speech. What did you do?"

Lando swiveled in his chair a little. "I paid him," he said finally.

"I see," Quark said, knowing he had taken the first step and now was waiting for the ground to hit him. "And where did you get the money?"

"The only place I could," Lando said. "Payroll."

Quark nodded. "Yeah," he said under his breath, picking out the rapidly approaching rocks at the bottom of the cliff. "And you think our staff will install those parts if we don't pay them?"

"Look, I didn't call you over here for this," Lando said impatiently. "We have two days to make payroll, let's do it."

"How?" Quark asked.

"Sell off some of the excess baggage," Lando said. "Some of the corporate ships-"

"You're not gonna move that stuff in two days," Quark said. "Not for the kind of value you're looking for."

"You have a better suggestion?" Lando demanded.

"Your plan isn't going to work," Quark said. "Don't waste time and resources on something that's just going to doom us anyway."

"It'll buy us time," Lando said.

"For what?" Quark asked. "Until the Empire pays us? The war's not going to be won next week, Lando; we're in this for the long haul. You need to not just look at the next two days, look at the next two months."

"I have," Lando said. He seemed to sink even further into the chair. "I have," he said in a voice just above a whisper.

"We need an investor," Quark said. "It's the only way; that or selling off what we have and starting again."

Lando shook his head. "I'm too old to start again, Quark. This company... it was my last shot at the big time... and we had it. I knew we had it..."

"We've had it," Quark said under his breath.

"I'm not giving up, not while there's any chance of staying afloat."

Quark leaned forward. "Then you know what you have to do."

Lando stopped for a moment, then swiveled back. "You're not suggesting..."

"No legitimate investor is going to touch us," Quark said. "Face facts. That only leaves the illegitimate ones."

"You know how hard we had to work to get out," Lando said.

Quark held up his hands. "What do you want me to say, I'm just the messenger. You sell out, Lando. One way or another. Otherwise the company's going to crumble around you." He leaned back in the chair, hands folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. "I miss my bar," he said. "Think things over, I'm going to visit it in the holosuite." Quark dematerialized, leaving Lando alone to face the decision.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema gestured and concentrated. Fire materialized out of the air around her. With further concentration they grew larger and crackled. Beyond them, the shadows flicked across the Oracle's face in a most unsettling manner. "Fair," the old woman said, "but you've forgotten something."

Alema strained. She hadn't forgotten, but the smoke wasn't easy to do while she concentrated on the flames. She tried, but the images shrunk and vanished. "I am sorry, master," she said.

"You should be," the Oracle said without pity. "Why fire, apprentice?"

Alema had read up on this. "Because the passion of the Sith, the fire in our blood, makes us strong."

"And you have no passion," the Oracle said sternly. "This is not an intellectual exercise, child. Use your hate, follow where it leads you. Stop trying to pull a parlor trick and show me fire!"

Alema nodded and closed her eyes to concentrate. She slowly raised her hand. "No!" the Oracle snapped. "You are not a Jedi, stop acting like one!" Alema's eyes snapped open at the rebuke, and was shocked to see a Vong warrior in front of her. Before she could react he hit her in the face, knocking her to the floor. She turned back and he was looking down at her, laughing. Laughing! "Burn him!" the Oracle commanded from somewhere in the darkness. The Vong was the only thing that mattered, his expression of bemusement at the fallen Twi'lek, that sickening chuckle of his, the sting on her cheek from the blow. She reached out her hand, and flames engulfed him, billowing smoke and radiating heat. This only intensified as the Vong screamed with rage, then soon vanished. "Enough," the Oracle said, and Alema ended the illusion. "Much better. Think like a Sith, child. You're not a Jedi any more."

"Yes, my master," Alema said. "Thank you." She rubbed the spot on her face where she'd been struck; it had been a Force blow, obviously, but it was hard not to think of the Vong as the one that had really done it.

"We will have time to discuss your training in detail over the coming days," the Oracle said, leading the way out of the training room. "We're behind schedule. The Empire should have collapsed months ago."

"Against the Vong," Alema said, not bothering to disguise her feelings about it. She may be the pupil in this relationship, but she wasn't going to keep silent about her opinions.

"Yes, child," the Oracle said. "The intervention by the Borg has given the Empire time to bring more of their forces into the fray. The Vong of your galaxy will not last much longer."

"Good," Alema said.

"No," the Oracle said sharply. "The Vong would have been overwhelmed by a united Milky Way alliance rallied around us. Instead the Empire is going to defeat them. Surely you must see, child?"

"So long as the Vong falls-" Alema began, but the Oracle had whirled around, a gnarled digit in the Twi'lek's face.

"Your hate makes you powerful," the Oracle said, "but in the foolish it's a blindfold. You are not looking beyond the defeat of the Vong, to what will happen afterwards. With the Vong threat eliminated the Empire will now be able to rebuild their military and reconquer the Milky Way. This took the finest planning, child. Dividing the loyalties of the citizenry, providing aid to Garak, Nom Anor, and Alixus, pinpoint strikes at the weak spots in their armor, so that the Vong could deliver the killing stroke. And all that planning, all those years... long years..." She faded off. "How many were there?" she asked in a voice just above a whisper.

"Master?" Alema asked. The Sith Master seemed suddenly very frail and exhausted, and the novice had no idea why. The sound of her voice seemed to snap her attention back.

"This time will be different," the Oracle said. "This time the Empire won't be able to recover."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak activated the holoprojector; the Oracle stared at him. Garak didn't like it. It was the only stare that could make him feel uncomfortable. "I take it this is urgent?" Garak asked, skipping past his usual banter. It never mattered with the Oracle, she could see right through him anyway.

"For you," the Oracle said. "The Empire's vulnerable now and ready to fall, and it will be its own short-sightedness that will serve as the catalyst."

"Wonderful," Garak said, since he had no idea how to respond. Provoking the Empire was something he'd hoped to avoid, even if they had lost their final superlaser. He was only involved because the Oracle had shown him just how easily she could destroy everything he'd worked for if the mood struck her.

"I'm glad you think so," the Oracle said. "Because I'll be giving you a very special gift. Of course, you'll need some fine mechanical minds to help."

"I have several good men in that area," Garak said.

"You have a handful, Garak," the Oracle replied. "The rest are glorified mechanics, not up to the task at all. You'll need help. You'll be rendezvousing with me at the coordinates I'm sending you to learn the details. Make sure to bring Calrissian with you, his people are up to this kind of challenge."

"Calrissian doesn't work for us any more," Garak pointed out.

"Don't keep me waiting, Garak," the Oracle said, and cut the transmission.

Garak sighed. That was the problem with the Oracle, she spent so much time looking into the past and the future that the minor details of the present eluded her. He was just about to reach for the comm to have someone arrange for his shuttle when it activated on its own. "Mr. Garak," came the voice of his aide. "There's a transmission coming in from Lando Calrissian. I told him you're busy but he says it's extremely urgent, that he needs to speak with you personally."

Garak stared at the comm unit for a few seconds. "How does she do that?" he asked quietly.

"Sir?"

"Put Mr. Calrissian through, please," Garak said. "I'm sure his business with us is most pressing."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle and her new apprentice had departed; Ben Skywalker had been left in charge. This was just the latest insult, as far as he was concerned. Of course he would be in charge while the Oracle was gone, being the senior-most Sith present and almost as powerful as she was. But it was the entire concept of being left here, like the oldest child babysitting everyone else while mom went out for the night. Ben had led armies; he didn't need for the Oracle to remind everyone that he was in command during her absence. He wielded authority as easily as he wielded a lightsaber. No, the purpose of that little gesture was to remind everyone, including Ben, of who was really in charge, of who had the power to give authority and take it away.

Hatred fueled the Dark side in Sith. The Oracle was Ben's personal dynamo.

Ben didn't wait long until after she and her new apprentice had departed. The new apprentice... that was another little effort on the Oracle's part to humiliate him. That simpering girl hadn't even been able to fight off Molly back on that Vong planet, and she was going to be the apprentice? Molly... she was still loyal to him, anyway, or at least, as loyal as Sith could be, and she still shared his bed from time to time. Her training had been a personal affair, and he'd used subtle Force manipulations to help get her to trust him. Ironically, the Oracle had been pulling similar tricks on him. Whether Molly would feel the same if she ever found out was unimportant to Ben; Sith had little in the way of empathy.

Those little manipulations... Ben remembered that letting the new Sith apprentice live had been the Oracle's idea. It had made sense at the time, something to put the fear of the Jedi into him. Like everything else, it was all just a part of her larger plan in using Ben and the Sith against the Empire. Ben should have known better. There were two Sith approaches to enemies. One was to leave your enemies beaten but alive, like the Oracle did with her Borg captive... they reasoned that it was far crueler to let them know they've been defeated, and took great personal pleasure in knowing there was some crushed foe that hated them. This was all well and good, but as has already been established, Sith are patient, and a crushed Sith can think about nothing else but revenge. Many have risen up far enough to seize it, even if it cost them their lives. That's why Ben and most sensible Sith chose to kill their enemies when they had the chance. Very few enemies dealt with in this fashion have managed to cause any further trouble.

Now he and Molly stood outside the entrance to the Oracle's laboratory. Years of experience with Section 31 had taught her how to bypass just about any lock that had been invented, but the Oracle proved quite the challenge. Nevertheless, persistence paid off, and the door slid open. Ben led the way, peering over the chemicals and machinery with only the barest interest. He had no science background so it was pretty much meaningless to him. "What are we looking for?" Molly finally asked after a couple of minutes. She hadn't been in here before and Ben could tell the room made her uncomfortable.

"The Oracle's hiding something from us," Ben said. "I want to find out what it is."

Molly nodded. "But the Oracle's very clever, Ben."

"Cleverness gets your foot in the door," Ben said, "but to be a Sith takes force of will. She has power, but she's distracted, and not altogether sane in any case. What's this?" It was a box, too long to be a footlocker or storage container.

"It's a stasis chamber," Molly said. "Haven't seen one of these in a while."

"How do you open it?"

"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Molly said. "It could contain virus samples, hazardous bio-matter-"

"How," Ben said with a tone that frozen Molly to the bone, "do you open it?"

Molly stepped forward and quickly activated a few buttons on the panel. The lid opened with a hiss. Ben froze, Molly gasped beside him. Both could only stare at the contents of the chamber.

"Close it," Ben said finally. Molly was biting her lip, staring, but her hand seemed to operate independently out of self-preservation and tapped the panel, shutting the box. They still continued staring at it.

"What does it mean?" Molly finally asked.

"It means," Ben said slowly, "that there's a great deal more going on here than I ever expected."



Chuck

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Part XIV


In ancient pasts when the world was a thing beyond any possible knowing, save in the realm of superstition, nature became mythic. The ground would rumble and shake and crack, and it was viewed as the wrath of titans. The skies would open, and lightning would strike down trees and houses and men, which could only be caused by a wrathful supernatural force. The crack of thunder was so intense, so penetrating, it could only be the work of something far beyond men. It was only the gods themselves who could cause such impossible things.

But human beings cracked the secrets. They learned how the convection circuits in magma drove the tectonic action that shook the land from time to time. They learned what atmospheric discharges were for, and tamed the lightning and silenced its thunder. They went far beyond, patiently peeling back the layers to see how the universe worked until they understood so well, they now could control them. They had, after the millennia had passed, harnessed the power of the gods. But they were still only human.

B'vun II. Parched and cracked soil from too long a dry season dominates the view. A thundering crash, a cloud of dust, and the gigantic foot of an All-Terrain Heavy Transport is revealed. It lifts, swings, and drops, rumbling the earth with the impact. Up the massive leg to the "head" protruding from the elephantine body of the beast, light launching out from the turrets located on the undersides. It flies across the barren field and strikes an oversized beast, which howls and falls with a tremor of its own.

A Vong soldier and a quick-footed beast quickly wraps a cable around the two front legs to trip it. Sensors in the AT-HT detect the cable; a hatch pops open and an automated turret snaps out, fires off three shots before the severed cable drops, and just as sudden withdraws. The AT-HT moves on, leaving the Vong to the lighter vehicles while it continues on towards their primary target.

The Vong rider doesn't get far, but it wasn't from vehicle weapons fire. A blur struck him in the side and knocked him right off the creatures back. He grabbed his amphistaf as he pulled himself up, only to discover what was responsible was already hopping back to his. He struck quickly to catch the enemy off balance, but the thunder crashed as the blade of the lightsaber lit and struck. The two grappled for a moment, then the human gave. But he gave too much, and the Vong stumbled forward. As he did the human whirled, sidestepped him, and stuck out the blade, letting the Vong's own momentum drive his neck through it. Anakin Solo shut the blade down for the moment as he scanned the battlefield. He saw the two figures not thirty meters away, lightsaber and amphistafs clashing in what looked to be a stalemate. Arms pumping, fueled by Force energies, he sprinted across the distance and leapt, igniting his blade and swinging as he approached. It skidded harmlessly across the Vong's crab armor, but it was a moment's distraction. The other Jedi swung with all her strength and plunged through the armor and snuffing out the warrior's life. Both shut down their lightsabers and, despite the battle taking place around them, exchanged a moment of quiet. Well, Laudica Reshad's was more of a glare of annoyance than anything else. "I had it," she said sharply.

"We're not keeping score here," Anakin said.

"I've been in fights before," Laudica said defiantly. "I don't need you to lecture me on the subject."

"Good, because there's no time for one," Anakin said. He ran, Laudica close behind, until he found the late Vong's riderless mount. With a leap he dropped onto its back, whirled back and caught her arm, hoisting her onto its back. He reached into its mind and soothed it, then rode it on towards the front line. A group of Vong warriors was charging; Anakin steered towards them. Just before they arrived Laudica leapt, tucking and rolling in the air. The group went down like a game of ten pins, and Anakin trod a few with the beast for good measure. He dropped into the mess, saber swinging as Laudica hopped to her feet and stood back to back with him. They were outnumbered and the Force was almost useless to them, but the Vong were confused and either wary of striking a friendly force or, even worse, not wary and doing so. Blades and amphistafs snapped at one another, but agility and coordination won out over brute force, and the two Jedi soon eliminated their opposition. "See?" Anakin said as he wiped the sweat from his face. "Teamwork."

"Yeah, thanks," Laudica said without a trace of honesty. She turned and winced as she saw a walker foot drop on a wounded and prone Vong mount. It would be little more than a stain under all that weight; they weren't called "heavy transports" for nothing.

Anakin.

Anakin froze in the midst of the battle. Jaina?

Shaote is in trouble, I can't get there.

We're on it. Anakin tapped Laudica on the shoulder and started running, waiting for her to start before he got into a full sprint. They may squabble at times, but Laudica was always into the business at hand. As they ran Anakin could sense the desperation of the apprentices, and quickened the pace to Laudica's limit. The two ran under a pair of walkers, narrowly avoiding the same fate as the fallen mount in their haste. A squad of troopers was exchanging fire with some of the Vong. Anakin diverted slightly so that his shoulder clipped one of them. It weighed more than him, but Anakin had been braced for the collision, so while he stumbled just a moment, the Vong did a pirouette into some of its comrades, sending them sprawled. Anakin recovered and pushed on, then went to his absolute limit as his eyes finally filled him in on the details.

Sakonna was holding off two Vong warriors as best she could, green lightsaber blade catching the amphistafs despite the fury of their blows. But she had to focus solely on defense, which meant that the Vong could keep this up all day. All they needed to do was wait for her to slip up and let a blow through. Given that half her face was covered with green blood, she obviously had already slipped up once. But Anakin had to give her credit; despite the seriousness of her situation, Sakonna was a Vulcan. Even against two merciless killers she was as calm and controlled as if this wasn't even happening, as if she could stop it any time she liked, like some holo-simulation.

The "Vong bowling" strategy, as Laudica jokingly referred to it, had been grown out of an unintended collision during one of their previous engagements, when Jaina hit a rock at full speed and hit a group of enemy warriors. She'd been rather seriously injured in that, but it had gotten Anakin thinking. Now the technique was to use it and then, on impact, use the Force to help absorb the blow like an energy bolt. It still hurt like hell, but it did little injury and was good for tripping up large numbers of Vong at once. It wasn't likely to show up in any future books on Jedi techniques, but with the Vong being resistant to the Force in so many ways, Anakin felt every edge, even a silly one, was worth it. He'd trained the others somewhat in the technique, although at the moment only he and Laudica had a strong enough mastery to try it in a real fight.

Anakin and one of the Vong struck like a pair of billiard balls. At that speed, Anakin was left rolling like a destroyer droid for a dozen meters while the Vong made a few ungraceful flops. Sakonna slipped from defense to offense so quickly it was like a graceful dance performance. The Vong had mistaken her earlier caution for cowardice and tried to intimidate her with furious strikes, but she caught and deflected three before slipping through with a counter-strike to the neck, putting the headless Vong down. Laudica, who had slowed down enough to avoid a crash, arrived just as the Vong was getting back to his feet and dispatching him. It may have seemed callous, almost cruel, to strike down an opponent who couldn't mount a proper defense, but given the fact the Vong were trying the same thing with Shaote meant that there was no time for battlefield etiquette.

Shaote Lu was a mess. He'd taken several blows from amphistafs already, and a slice had penetrated his abdomenal cavity. It hadn't been disemboweling, but Shaote had been forced to hold the wound closed to keep from tearing himself open like an aged flour sack. He'd dropped his lightsaber and was using Force blows to knock Vong backwards as they tried to finish him off, but it wasn't something he could keep up for much longer with the sheer number of adversaries. But he was trying... he wasn't going down without a fight. Anakin couldn't help but be impressed. He'd visited Earth many times, and the locals had always seemed like complacent sheep to him. But then you had humans like Annika and Shaote, who had a tenacity you could sharpen razors with. When Terrans fought, they fought hard and dirty.

Anakin, Laudica, and Sakonna struck quickly, and the Vong seemed genuinely happier to go against a challenge rather than finishing off an annoying and wounded human. And it was not an easy fight. The deflecting armor, the amphistaf that could withstand a lightsaber, and the fact that a Jedi lost their number one advantage against Vong meant that these were never easy fights. But training and hard work had still given the Jedi the edge, and while facing down a Vong wasn't as easy as facing down a Klingon, there was only one way a confrontation like that was going to end.

Shaote protested as Sakonna knelt down and put a hand over his abdominal wound, but it was mostly a token gesture. She had quickly mastered the healing aspect of the Force beyond those of her instructors, and Anakin could feel the warmth radiating off her as she helped the wound heal and the lifeforce remain strong. He and Laudica took up a defensive position, should any more Vong come along, but it didn't seem likely. The Imperial line had moved on and the Vong had fallen back to hold them off. A medic rushed over, ready to tend to Shaote, but Anakin told him to leave him in Sakonna's hands. Confused but used to following odd orders, he tended to the Vulcan's facial wounds instead.

Shaote and Sakonna are safe, Anakin thought.

Good.

They're hurt though.

Then Oria and I will finish the job.

But you said I could have the last one, Anakin thought. The jocular nature of the remark didn't have to be emphasized. Telepathic communication carried more undercurrents than any voice ever could.

Let's hope this is the last one, Jaina thought.

Anakin turned to Laudica. "Jaina's going to take care of this one."

"You sure that's a good idea?" Laudica asked. "Oria's never faced a yammosk before."

"There always has to be a first time," Anakin said.

"And what if... it... happens again," Laudica asked.

"Jaina's faced the yammosk before," Anakin said. "This isn't going to turn out like it did for Alema."

"It's the last one, Anakin," Laudica said. "There's no sense in exposing Oria."

"You know how this works," Anakin said. "You need two people, at least. You send one Jedi in there, when the yammosk can give you its full attention, and it'll turn your mind to slush."

"Then let's go-"

"There's no time," Anakin said. "And we're needed here." Laudica was biting her lip trying to keep her mouth shut. "You want another problem like on Yessik?"

Yessik had been liberated three months ago. That time the structure protecting the yammosk sustained several heavy hits during the fight. Because of the extent of the damage it was decided to use precision bombardment to annihilate the place. Then the clean up began and order started to return to the world, then the place went mad. It turned out that the yammosk, like some antiquated horror story, had escaped into the run off canals beneath the city and was attacking the minds of the locals. Hundreds died and just as many went mad before it was figured out, and Anakin and Laudica had gone down to finish it off. Taar agreed after that that no yammosk was considered dead until they saw the body.

There was a flicker in the Force. It was akin to what happens when a background noise that you didn't even notice was there suddenly vanished. It was the familiar sign of the yammosk expiring, and its influence upon the Vong forces was noticeable. Within minutes the shield generator was bombarded by the Imperials, leaving little left for B'vun II but mopping up and rebuilding. That wouldn't require the Jedi. Anakin pulled out his commlink. "This is Anakin Solo, requesting emergency medical energizing."

"Copy Solo. Stand by for transport."

"I will never get used to this," Laudica said as Anakin slipped the commlink back. "Give me a shuttle any day."

"Gotta move with the times, Laudica," Anakin said, and the foursome vanished.
--------------------------------------------------------------

It was well after midnight, local time, when the door slid open, but Annika's eyes flashed open as if she hadn't even been asleep. Once she'd acclimated herself to the human condition she'd grasped the finer points of sleeping and waking and handled it like a pro. A strong sense of self-preservation didn't hurt. "What do you want?" she asked icily.

Ben Skywalker stepped into the dark room. The door was still open, but it didn't matter. Annika knew he was far too powerful to try to evade or incapacitate. Still, she tensed herself; if this was another torture session, she'd see about giving as good as she got. Instead, he spoke to her, authoritatively, but without contempt or disrespect. "Molly tells me you're an investigator."

Annika may have been adaptive, but even she couldn't change her train of thought that fast at this time of night. "What?"

"She says you used to do investigations for the Federation, and then for the Empire."

"I never worked for the Empire," Annika said sharply. "I helped some friends of mine, that's all."

"But you do have some skills, right?"

Annika scoffed. "You think I'm going to help the captain and her mad plans? I've-"

"I'm not asking you to help her," Ben said. "I'm asking you to help me."

"Oh, you're conspiring against her," Annika said. "And I'll just ignore the blood trail you've left across the galaxy-"

"Listen," Ben said sharply, "you want to remain locked up in here on the Oracle's whim? If you helped me topple her-"

"I've replaced one Sith Lord with another," Annika said.

"If she's gone," Ben said through his teeth, "you can learn how to use her equipment... you can send me back."

"Back? To your own time?"

"To my own universe," Ben said. "She brought me here, I've just been trying to make the most of it. She said she couldn't send me back, but she's said a lot of things that aren't true. I'm betting you could do it. We'd both get what we want."

Annika mulled this over a bit. It explained a lot, actually. She didn't trust Ben an inch, but she didn't want to stay cooped up in this cell either. A diversion would be welcome. "What's your plan?" she asked.

"Just come look at this," Ben said, leading the way out of her cell. He stood a short ways outside and waited for her. "Don't try to run, it will just annoy me."

"I wouldn't want to do that," Annika said without bothering to hide her contempt. Ben grabbed the back of her neck; it was a bionic hand, she could tell. The pressure caused spots to appear in front of her eyes.

"No," he said in a low, dark voice, "you wouldn't." He gave her a shove. "This way."

Ben and Annika wound through the compound and into the Oracle's lab. "You want me to look at the temporal equipment?" Annika asked. "It would take-" But she was cut off as Ben shook his head firmly, then pointed to a stasis chamber, pushed off into the corner of the room as if unimportant. Annika looked back at Ben, then walked over and activated it. The cover hissed open, Annika glanced back at her captor while it did, then looked inside. She gasped. "Did you-"

"The Oracle left hours ago," Ben said stepping over to her side. "We all saw her go... felt her go..." He stared down into the chamber. "So, miss investigator, tell me, what the hell is that?"

Annika's mouth opened and closed a few times as she tried to speak but couldn't. She reached down and touched it... it felt real. "I'll see what I can do," she said, finally tearing her eyes off the still shape of Kathryn Janeway.



Chuck

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Part XV


General Taar's flagship hung over B'vun II while the pacification was completed. He'd come here personally for the same reason the Jedi had, to deal with the yammosk, the Vong war coordinator. It was on that ship that Shaote Lu was being lowered into a Bacta tank to recover from a brutal confrontation with the Vong. Three of his Jedi companions had accompanied him, including Anakin Solo. Now that the young apprentice was being tended to, Anakin slipped away to confront the general himself. As expected, he was in the war room, one eye on the closing steps on B'vun, the other on the campaign against the Vong. "Pass that tactical data along to the Alliance," Taar told his subordinate. "Borda could probably stage some very effective raids."

"General," Anakin said, just loud enough to get his attention without disrupting things.

Taar turned. "Ah, Mr. Jedi," he said, turning back to the campaign. "Good work down there."

"Thank you, general," Anakin said. "I'd like a word, if you please."

"I'm rather busy right now, Mr. Jedi." Taar hadn't even bothered to turn that time.

"General," Anakin said, slightly more forcefully. "Please?"

Taar sighed, offered a quick instruction, and stepped over. "What is it, Mr. Jedi?"

"General," Anakin said, "'Jedi' isn't my last name. Please don't call me that."

"What do you want?" Taar asked impatiently.

"I wanted to discuss the Empire with you," Anakin said.

Taar laughed just a little. "That's a rather large topic to delve into right now."

"We would like to see you pass Imperial control back to the senate," Anakin said.

"Ah," Taar said. "'We' being the Jedi?"

"Yes," Anakin said. "Although I'm sure we're not alone in this."

"No," Taar said, heading back towards the displays and holograms.

"General, you said you'd hand authority back when we've won."

"And I will," Taar said. "But it's too soon. The Vong still oppose us."

"Their back's broken, general," Anakin said. "The last yammosk has been killed, the war is over."

"Do we know that?"

"The Borg pulled that data from the minds of several Vong prisoners," Anakin said. "You know it has to be accurate."

"There's no sense in taking chances," Taar said. "We'll prosecute this war to the end, then we'll know we've won."

"I understand, but the Vong have been crushed, general. Without the war coordinator, it's just going to be mop up. We both know this."

"Then let me mop up, Jedi," Taar said, putting the emphasis on the final word.

"General-"

"The Vong could still win if we mismanage things," Taar said.

"We could still lose even if we crush them, general," Anakin said. "Maybe not by the Vong, but from what we've done to ourselves. We need to let the Empire run itself again."

Taar stepped over, not even bothering to hide his anger, but when he spoke it was in a whisper. "What do you want me to do, Jedi? Hand the galaxy over to the Vong? Because that's exactly what would happen if we try reconvening the Senate."

"You have to trust in the people, general," Anakin said.

"I do, to an extent," Taar said. "But people are panicked, and you and I both know that when any sentient being panics it ceases being an intelligent being and becomes an animal." Anakin was about to reply, but Taar's whisper took on a more urgent tone. "You look at the holonet reports, Jedi? Piracy is at an all time high, core worlds are being raided like this was the damn delta quadrant! There are riots on Corellia, Malastare, Nar Shadaa, people are talking about seceding from the Empire, and you want me to let these people run things?"

"It's what the Emperor believed in," Anakin said.

"The Emperor believed in a lot of strange things in those last days," Taar remarked. "Ever since Bastion fell, really. But he wouldn't have let this motley crew run themselves now, not when the enemy still has breath to resist us. Your mother wouldn't have either."

"That's a cheap shot," Anakin said darkly.

"She's the one who dissolved the senate," Taar pointed out. "When things become desperate, you have to be ready to do unpleasant things."

"Ends justifying the means, general? I thought you were better than that."

"The end is stopping genocide," Taar said. "We cannot afford to kriff around with the Vong when the stakes are this high! That's exactly what got us into this situation in the first place."

"What got us into this was that no one listened when the warning about the Vong came," Anakin said.

"No one in the senate," Taar said. "Thanks for making my point for me. We had the resources of two galaxies to call upon in this. Have you any idea what we could have done if we'd only had the will to use it? We played games, Jedi, and we gave the Vong a beachhead, and now what should have been a minor incursion has become our mortal enemy. I have been reduced to negotiating with every kind of scum in the universe to try to clean up the mess this grand experiment has gotten us into. We have the advantage, finally, and I will not back off, I will not play games, I will not hesitate to use every last bit of authority vested in me to drive the Vong into their graves, and if that means the people of the galaxy will despise me for the rest of their lives, I will take great comfort in knowing it will be a long and healthy hate."

Anakin nodded a little, not looking Taar in the face. His voice took on the same whisper. "The Jedi rose up to topple the Empire once, general," he said coldly. "Maybe that was why the Emperor brought them back? To serve as a check against the authority of the Empire?"

Taar didn't show his surprise but Anakin could sense it all the same. "Is that a threat, Jedi?"

"An observation," Anakin said. "Since the Empire brought the Jedi back, we have worked with the Empire. It's our job to protect it... even from itself."

"Dispensing your wisdom to us from up on high," Taar said with contempt. "I saw the old Jedi temple before the Borg blew up Coruscant. There's a reason the building was capped with an ivory tower. Going out, picking and choosing who would join and who would not, what battles to fight and what to sit out. Don't let the old romanticism fool you. You're a country club who won't truck with those who aren't your kind of people."

"Look, general," Anakin said, "we both know what this is really about. You're not going to finish the Vong off and head into retirement. You're going back to the Milky Way, aren't you. You're going to relive the glory days."

"Good men died," Taar said sharply. "They weren't 'glory days.'"

"Whatever. You're not going to honor the agreement. Everybody knows it. This was just a stop-gap measure so you could fight this war on one front. You'll head after the independent worlds before the last Vong body cools."

"I swore to preserve the Empire," Taar said. "That's what I'll do." Anakin opened his mouth to reply but Taar held up his hand. "Get out of my war room, Mr. Solo. Get out and let me do my job."

The room had become silent, save for the beeping of various instruments around the room. Anakin turned, looked at each other person in turn, then showed himself out.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian awoke to a symphony of noise. Bells were ringing, chimes were going off, sirens roared, buzzers buzzed, hyperactive dingers dinged, something was going "whoopwhoopwhoopwhoop," and underneath it all was some noise that implied the cube was backing up. Sebastian dropped off the bed to the floor and jumped to his feet, lightsaber at the ready as he looked about.

"The time is now 0700," the Borg announced.

Sebastian stood there in his underwear a while before he turned off the lightsaber. "That's a hell of a wake up call," he muttered. The bed was sucked into the floor to avoid wasting valuable space on a ship with roughly the same area as Haiti. Clothing appeared on the table next to him, freshly replicated. Sebastian sat down on the chair next to it and dressed. "Next time," he said, "less of a cacophony, please." He lifted the shirt off, and breakfast appeared on the now empty table. French toast, just like mother used to make, and pulled precisely from the records of all her memories. It was a little sad, but Sebastian ate them because they were a small bit of his real home in this new one he'd fashioned.

"What's the situation?" he asked as he plowed through the stack.

"Our current velocity is Warp 17.216," the Borg said. "Estimated time of interception with navigation coordinates in 27.14 minutes. Hull integrity 100%. Ship functions occurring at-"

"Stop!" Sebastian said, dropping the fork onto the plate. "This isn't going to work." He'd spent all his time since his separation interacting with the Borg Queen directly. This far away she had to speak to him using the voice of the Collective. And that was the problem, the voice was too much. Admittedly it had been fun for a little while; Sebastian would instruct them to speak tongue-twisters just to let the absurdity pass the time. But the novelty wore off fast; now it was starting to get to him. He was an individual among Borg... Borg who think as one, who communicate without words, and when they do speak, speak with only one voice. They looked humanoid, but they acted like pieces of a machine, which of course they were, but that they were nothing more than those pieces. They had a purpose, a function, and that was all that mattered. Humanoid issues were of no concern. They took care of Sebastian, but they didn't actually care for him, didn't actually feel anything. He was one more task, nothing more.

There were 37.2 million drones on this ship, and Sebastian felt horribly alone.

"I need to talk to an individual," Sebastian said.

"Who do you need to speak with?" the Borg asked.

"I mean that I need to speak to an individual Borg."

"We are Borg, there are no individuals."

"Right, right," Sebastian said as he rubbed his face with one hand. "It's gonna be a long day. I need to speak with a single drone."

"You wish to communicate with us through a representative."

"Exactly," Sebastian said.

A drone walked in; Vulcan female, roughly 1.6 meters tall. She turned to Sebastian. "I speak for the Borg," she explained.

Sebastian wiped his mouth with a napkin. "Designation?"

"Two of Six," she replied.

"Female," Sebastian remarked. "Because of my previous interactions with the Borg Queen?"

"Yes. And because of your mother. My biological distinctiveness has been calculated to be familiar enough to provide comfort without being similar enough to influence undue emotion."

"Well," Sebastian said, not quite sure how to respond. "Thank you."

"Thanks are unnecessary; I am here to optimize your efficiency."

"Now you sound like my mother," he said under his voice.

"On the contrary, Seven of Nine's voice operated at a frequency-"

"Never mind," Sebastian said, tossing the napkin on the empty plate; both vanished. "Do you remember when our minds were one?"

"The Collective has a full record of the time you were connected with us."

"Do you, personally, remember?" Sebastian asked.

"You are misunderstanding, Sebastian," Two of Six said. "I am using the personal pronouns to facilitate our communication. You must remember the experience of being one of us."

"Yes," Sebastian said. There was no mistaking the sound in his voice. He doubted anyone out there could understand how he could feel that way. "Better dead than Borg" was a long-standing policy that many who opposed them had adopted. The closest he could ever come to explaining this to anyone would be the same difference between sex and rape. Those forced into the Collective could never forget, or forgive, the violation. Those who joined voluntarily could never forget the peace, the certainty, the unity. It was such a temptation at times, when Sebastian was so very, very alone, when he felt that bare spot where Jorri should be sleeping, when he thought about the years he spent with his daughter that never actually happened...

"We should be approaching the coordinates soon, yes?" Sebastian asked, deciding to focus on work instead.

"We were," Two of Six said. "We're diverting course. Heading one-"

"Wait, why are we diverting course?" Sebastian asked.

"Long-range sensors detect bioship presence in that area."

"You mean we've found them?!"

"Possibly."

"Then let's get to work," Sebastian said, hooking on his lightsaber and grabbing his cloak.

"We are at work," Two of Six said. "We are always at work."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The only light was the one provided by Kilana's headlamp, which was low and tended to bob around as she moved, but the only view was of a pair of feet anyway. She continued her belly crawl; she wasn't claustrophobic, but this experience was making a good effort.

The foot in front of her dislodged some soil, kicking a couple handfuls worth of dirt right into her face. "Sorry," Han muttered, but his tone changed when he heard Kilana's coughing fit. "Stop that!" he said in as quiet a voice as he could manage.

"I-" she let out another spasm, "I can't help it."

"The Vong collapsed two tunnels already," Han reminded her sharply. "One when there were still people inside. Let's not go for number three."

"Why aren't these damn things shored up?" Kilana said in quiet frustration. "Dirt everywhere and no one let's you cough..."

"Because the sound of shoring up would bring the Vong down like a ton of soil, which is exactly what's going to happen if you don't quiet down. Now let's go."

"Try to be more careful," Kilana grumbled.

"You wanna push the damn box?" Han asked. There was a grunt as he got it moving again. Mini-repulsors kept it from sinking into the dirt floor and walls, but moving the thing forward required overcoming inertia, and it was damn heavy. He gave it another shove to try and keep it moving, then there was a thump as he hit wall. "I think we're here," he said.

"Finally."

Han moved his headlamp around until he saw the thread. He grabbed it and gave a yank. About half a minute passed, then there was the sound of furniture being moved and wood being pulled off. "[What's this?]" a Sullustan on the other side asked.

"Present from Borda," Han said, although his voice was low and tense. Accidents happened, and Han's luck came in extremes of good and bad. Someone on the other side grabbed the box and heaved it out. Three humanoids were present, pointing blaster rifles at him. "Can we come out," Han asked. "My partner's grousing about the dirt."

"What's happening?" Kilana demanded.

"Shut up, please," he said in a kind of sing-song voice.

The Sullustan, presumably the one who'd spoken before, nodded to the others and weapons were loaded. "[Mr. Solo,]" he said, extending a hand to help Han out of the tunnel. "[I'm Nellim, the contact for this cell. Your reputation precedes you... as does this crate of medical supplies, I hope.]"

Han dropped to the floor, then reached back and helped the dirty and angry Vorta out into the basement. "Not quite."

"Blasters?!" a human who had opened the case remarked. "We don't need weapons, we need medicine!"

"Trust me, you're gonna need these more," Han said.

"[What's happening?"] Nellim asked.

"The Alliance got intel from the Imperials," Han said. "The last yammosk is down, the Vong are re-aligning their forces to resist the Empire's advance."

"[They're pulling forces from here?]"

"They already have," Han said. "We need to get your people ready fast, Nellim, because we're taking this world back from the Vong."



Chuck

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Part XVI


It had taken a little digging, but Annika had managed to find a recent medical scan of the Oracle in the computer's database. Ben Skywalker brought her the equipment she'd need; nothing that could be used as a weapon, of course. Still, the discovery inside the stasis chamber was too much for her to run away from without knowing what was going on. She ran a medical scan of the body inside the box for comparison.

"Is it dead?" Ben asked as Annika started examining the results.

"Yes," Annika said. "Although I can't spot a cause of death... but then, I'm not a doctor."

"But it is a living thing, yes?" Ben asked. "Not a droid or hologram."

"It's organic," Annika said. "There's glass embedded in the hands. Looks like defensive wounds. But it was just superficial damage."

"So, the question then is," Ben offered, "whether this is the real Janeway, or the Oracle."

Annika nodded. "I thought that's what you'd like to know. Genetically, they are the same, so this isn't a cosmetically altered cadaver."

"Could one of them be a clone?"

"That's what I'd be most inclined to think," Annika said. "Let me look things over first."

Ben nodded, knowing he was out of his element without a map. He was not technically-minded outside the limited area of weapons. He was more interested in taking people apart than putting them back together. "A clone would explain a great deal… Force users don't clone well; they tend to go mad."

"Like the captain."

Ben nodded. Molly had been shocked just at the sight of the body, but that hadn't mattered to Ben; it was the idea that he faced an enemy that suffered the mental skewing of a clone. Anger, hatred, passion fueled the dark side, but so did madness. "Can you tell how long the corpse has been dead?"

"No, a stasis chamber would halt all life -well, death in this case- processes. There's no way to tell."

"Isn't there some kind of recorder or something on the box?" Ben asked. "Some kind of data."

"No," Annika said. "First thing I checked. I'm afraid it..." She stared for a moment. "Now that is very interesting."

"What is?"

"This thing," Annika said, pointing to a white solid amidst the haze of the various soft tissues. "It makes no sense."

Ben squinted at it. "Some kind of prosthetic?"

"It's a jerry-rigged hip pin," Annika said. "You won't find any med supply store or replicator that will make one."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I made it," Annika explained. "Years ago, when we were experimenting. There was an accident, the captain was hurt, I had nothing to work with, so I used my nanoprobes to improvise a pin... I grew it inside her body using my tubules. You can tell because there's no trace of surgery; not even the best regenerators can remove all trace of an operation, there's always going to be some minor misalignment. Even if you transported it in, it would still affect the tissue in a different way than this. This person was operated on by someone who has highly-sophisticated control over Borg nanoprobes and possesses assimilation tubules, and can you guess how many such people there are in the universe?"

"Just you and Sebastian," Ben said, looking between the two images.

Annika shook her head. "Even Bastian doesn't have that kind of control."

"Coming up short," Ben mused as he still looked at it. "What a surprise."

Annika turned on him. "You want my, help? Never mock my son!"

Ben was about to laugh, but he held himself in check. Like it or not, the Borg was useful to him, and trying to bully her into helping him would be dangerous. Better to just humor her. "Fair enough. So, not a clone. What is she then?"

"Not a standard clone," Annika corrected, turning back to the readings. "But there is such a thing as a transporter clone; that could reproduce the pin..."

"Can you tell if that's what happened?" Ben asked. His knowledge of transporter technology was limited as well, although that was more because of its absence from his own galaxy.

"No," Annika answered. "A transporter is designed to reproduce an exact copy of the original; if there were any differences, then people would change over time with transporter use. However, the biggest problem with this is that transporter cloning is virtually impossible. In all my readings on it there's been one accidental success and thousands of failures, and the failures are very unpleasant, believe me."

"Wouldn't that explain the glass? Something blew up during the transport?"

"No, that's not what usually happened, and besides, they were defensive wounds, remember? It would be a miracle if the captain managed to create such a clone, but then, she's grown so powerful. She could..." Annika trailed off as she looked over some of the readings. "Her midichlorian count is different," she said softly.

"Does that mean anything?"

Annika looked between the two readings. "Well, it might. Midichlorians are what make the whole Force process workable, and the captain had to artificially stimulate their growth in an effort to develop her powers to this degree. It indicates that if this were a transporter clone, that the cadaver would have been from many years ago."

Ben nodded, although it was only to not appear to be ignorant. "There's also the other possibility," he said. "We know she has no problem reaching across universes."

"Alternate universe?" Annika asked, then shook her head. "Not a bad guess, but no." She took up a tricorder. "You're familiar with the idea of a universal constant, right? Well, you can use that to tell if something's crossed the threshhold. You, for example, have six different minor variations from the rest of the matter in this room; you're not from the universe. The cadaver, however, is perfectly in sync, as is the still living version. No, one thing we do know is that both are from this universe. They belong here, cosmically speaking."

"So, it's probably a transporter clone," Ben said.

"I wouldn't say 'probably,' but I would say it's the only answer that at least falls within the realm of possibility. Let me run some more tests-"

"In the morning," Ben said.

"I can function without sleep," Annika explained. And it gives me the chance to find a means of escape, she thought.

Ben, of course, was no fool. "We are going to bed," he said.

"If that's what you want," Annika said coyly; she may be getting up in years, but she was still an attractive woman, and she'd use that fact if she had to. This was the first time she'd been allowed some kind of freedom outside her cell. Whatever distasteful task was required was worth it, since it offered a chance for some future plot.

Ben gave a lopsided grin. "I killed Luke Skywalker." Annika's grin faded like a cloud blocking out the sun. "Yeah, thought that might shut you up. You're not charming me, right?"

Annika glowered at him. "You are a bastard," she rumbled.

"All the more reason to put me back where I came from," Ben said. "Now move."

Annika shut down the equipment and marched out of the lab, Ben close behind her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"No, no!" Han said, getting up from his chair and stepping to the center of attention. Nellim stopped and deferred to him. "The attack is already planned, the Rebel Alliance is sending in everything. This is not your fight."

"[This is our world,]" a Rodian said. "[Who are you to come in here and tell us we can't fight for it?]"

"You've got more important things to worry about than fighting for your planet," Han said. "You've got to fight to protect your families and neighbors. The Vong have slaughtered the locals more than once before pulling out. Your job, priority one, is to get your people to places of safety and make sure that no Vong decides to take out their frustrations on them."

"[Mr. Solo is correct,]" Nellim said. "[All that we did was to ensure that our people were kept safe. This is when they need us the most to do that job.]"

"Good, all right." Han pointed towards the flickering holo-display of the city before them. "We need to identify safe refuges for these people."

"The stadium has large capacity and solid construction-" someone began.

"No, it's too tempting a target. One shot from a coralskipper and you'll have thousands dead. We can't keep all these eggs in one basket. Underground is good, especially if it can be easily defended. You've got to get organized, plan out the details, but be ready to toss them at a moment's notice. But above all, you have to make sure that no matter what happens, those people out there think you're in control. You panic, they'll panic. They see you're on top of things, they'll be that much more likely to listen and stay calm."

"[Stick close to your own neighborhoods,]" Nellim said. "[The familiarity will be a comfort, and the people will know you, trust you.]"

"Good," Han said. "All right, those of you who haven't handled a blaster before, or haven't had much experience, you're with me. The rest of you, get started on the plans. We have got to be ready to move the entire population of this city the moment the Alliance arrives. Move."

The group started breaking up. Kilana caught Han's arm as he went by. "Did anyone ever tell you you're a natural leader?" she asked. "Because you are."

Han's face became a little downcast. "Yeah... yeah, someone did once." He pulled his arm away. "Let's get some work done."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika was dropped off insider her cell. Ben at least had the decency not to throw her in there, but she doubted it was anything other than not alienating someone he needed for the moment. "'No Sith can manipulate time itself,'" Ben remarked.

"Pardon?"

"That's what I said to the Emperor, or whatever it was that was passing for the Emperor," Ben said. "And he said 'Can't they?' And I didn't get it... I didn't get that he was warning me of what I had aligned myself with."

"His ways were often subtle," Annika said. "You'd find there are many advantages in a soft touch, but then that's something you Sith never understood."

"Why do you provoke me?" he said with an exasperated sigh. He made an off-handed gesture that knocked Annika off her feet.

"Because you've destroyed my family," Annika shot back. "You know what that's like?"

Ben grinned but there was no humor in it. "Only too well. The Emperor was the Oracle's counterpart, wasn't he? He could stop time, he did stop time, right before the end. His grasp of it exceeds even her dark powers."

"You could look at it that way," Annika admitted.

"She's done all she could to further her cause," Ben said. "She tells everyone everything they need to know to use situations to her advantage. Did he do the same?"

"No," Annika said. "No, he knew better than that."

"I think you're lying," Ben said. "Don't make me extract the truth from you."

"Not what the Oracle does," Annika said. "Not this puppet-master thing she does with people. He always let people make the decisions he knew they had to make."

"So he didn't even warn them?"

Annika's eyes were downcast. "Yes, he did," she said quietly. "But he always gave hope. He was good at that."

"What did he tell you?" Annika didn't answer, just stared at the floor. "Tell me." Force lightning crackled around his hand.

"That I'd lose him again," Annika said, and there were tears in her eyes as she looked up at Ben. "But I'd find him again."

"Nice," Ben said contemptuously. "He get the same message?"

"No," Annika admitted. "When the time came, when his son needed him, he'd be there to save him."

"Lucky for him," Ben said, the earlier deal forgotten. "The little half-breed needs all the help he can get."

Annika gave him a look full of daggers. "He stopped the Oracle's plans," she said. "He confronted her and won. That's more than you ever have." She hit the wall and dropped hard to the floor.

Ben lowered his hand. "Don't provoke me," Ben warned. "I need you... don't make me break you." Then he sealed the door to the cell.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The shuttle dropped out of hyperspace and floated alone in the void. It was one of those gaps of deep space that Garak favored, where the nearest star was no different than one half-way across the galaxy. Garak leaned back in his chair, arms folded behind his head. "Pleasant view," he said because it's impossible for Garak to shut up.

"Who's our contact, Garak?" Lando asked, not even bothering to hide his annoyance. Being away from his business was bad enough, being anywhere near Garak was far worse; add them up and you got a recipe for Pissed Off Lando Stew with extra bile.

Garak smiled and then looked over at Lando, a technique he probably long ago perfected to cause maximum infuriation. "You'll find out soon enough." An alarm sounded and Garak glanced down. "Ah, there she is." Garak sent out a coded signal; the other ship gave a response. Apparently satisfied, he lowered the shields.

"What are you doing?" Lando demanded.

"Our next stage of the trip is with them," Garak said. Before Lando could protest they were materialized off the ship. Waiting for them was a blue-skinned Twi'lek girl, who was at the helm, and-

Lando hesitated as he took it in. He'd met Kathryn Janeway on more than one occasion, but that had been a long, long time ago. Nevertheless, there was something familiar about her that had nothing to do with looks or voice. It wasn't the Force or anything like that, just an old scoundrel's instinct for trouble. It was Cloud City all over again. When she spoke to him she seemed polite enough, but underneath, he could feel that same sense of... confidence, but something much more. It was like egotism backed up with fact; she was better than everyone else, and while she wasn't going to bring it up, everyone would know it. If they didn't, they'd learn it the hard way.

Lando could feel it in his bones: she was a Sith.

The ship disappeared back into hyperspace again. "Mr. Calrissian," the Oracle said as they traveled, "you will continue to supply ships to the Imperial military; do not worry about the money, you will be paid in full for every fighter that comes off your assembly line. I don't want the Empire thinking you're conspiring against them."

Lando crossed his arms. "Am I conspiring against them?" he asked.

"Some would call it that," the Oracle said. "You have engineers, mechanics, competent men and women that can perform a thousand minor miracles. I'll need them. Actually, Mr. Garak will need them."

"You still haven't told me what I'll be getting out of this," Garak pointed out.

"More than you ever dared dream, Garak," the Oracle said. "And you'll find it.... here." The ship dropped out of hyperspace.

Garak strained his eyes. "On that moon?"

The Oracle offered a faint smile. "That's no moon..."

"Oh my God," Lando said slowly in words just barely audible.

"Take us in," the Oracle said. "Let's take a better look at this battlestation."



Chuck

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Part XVII


The shuttle closed in on the monstrosity that hung in the void. As the image grew it was revealed that the shape was broken, incomplete. It was like looking at the bleached bones of some great beast and knowing what it was with the flesh on, and knowing what kind of threat it would pose were that the case. The difference, of course, was that this was a machine, and machines never really die as long as there are people foolish enough to try to bring them back to life. As it began to dominate the front window Lando had the eerie suspicion he'd been nominated for head fool. "What in the hell," he said in a slow voice, awe and horror fighting for control of his voice.

"It's exactly what it looks like, Mr. Calrissian," the Oracle remarked. "It's a Death Star."

"It seems our General Taar is a man of far greater ambition then I imagined," Garak said. Even he seemed awestruck by what he saw, despite his own world's fate in the face of another super-battlestation.

The Oracle smiled; it was a wholly unpleasant experience for those who witnessed it, almost frog-like. "Him? He lacks such ambition. This thing was built back when he was studying at the Imperial Academy."

"The Empire's had a Death Star sitting here all this time?" Garak asked. "Why haven't they used it?"

"It's not actually a Death Star, it's a prototype Death Star. Don't worry, Mr. Garak, it still works well enough for its macabre purpose."

"Hold on," Lando said. "If the Empire has a functioning Death Star, even a prototype, why didn't they use it? You know, finish it off? My company makes prototypes all the time, and they may not see front line duty, but we still find uses for them, or salvage the parts. The Emperor just went ahead and built a new one from scratch, and was commissioning the construction of more like it right before the Bastion Incident. With the hard work all done, they could easily have filled this out in a fraction of the time."

"You should know the answer to that, Mr. Calrissian," the Oracle said. "This is the first, the basis for Tarkin's Death Star."

Realization dawned. "The exhaust port."

The Oracle nodded. "A fundamental flaw in the design. The Emperor saw no need to waste resources on this, but also no need simply to scrap it. After the destruction of the second Death Star and the collapse of the Empire the records were purged and those who knew about it perished."

"Rather convenient," Garak remarked, who never found anything convenient in his experience.

"That was my doing," the Oracle admitted. "Between the two Death Stars most had been killed already. I just cleaned up the handful that was left, mostly a few scientists and technicians."

"I'm sure that was a challenge to a master of the Sith," Lando said bitterly. His throat tightened, but it was due to involuntary reaction rather than any Force powers. It was the sight of the Oracle, and those eyes... those mad eyes. Lando swore they flashed, actually flashed, when she glared at him. He suddenly felt he'd been lucky that Vader had worn that mask.

"Tracking down every last individual," the Oracle said slowly, darkly, "finding the right moment in time and space, carrying out the termination and returning again was a feat you couldn't accomplish in a hundred lifetimes. The existence of this untouched battlestation is the result of a plan meticulous in its planning and flawless in its execution." She stepped eye to eye with Lando. "And I won't have it mocked by some counter of money."

Lando was unable to pull away or close his eyes. He felt like the Oracle's eyes weren't just eyes, but an opening into an infinite abyss that threatened to suck him into oblivion. Lando would have handed the business, his possessions, the clothes on his back and lived naked on bare rock for the rest of his days if it meant not looking into those eyes. "I'm... sorry," he choked out.

The Oracle held the stare for another eternity or two. "Apology accepted," she said turning back towards the Death Star, "this time."

"I thought you couldn't alter the past," Garak said once the tension seemed to have lessened. "You said it wasn't possible."

"It's impossible for you to understand Garak," the Oracle said. "Some things must happen, it seems; cannot be interfered. It could be the will of the Force... or perhaps something, or someone, even more powerful. Whatever the reason, manipulating time without generating a paradox or skewing us into some alternate dimension is not an easy thing. I was not exaggerating when I described the difficulty of this task; for every successful assassination there were a dozen failures."

"I've known many people who traveled through time," Garak pointed out. "They always said it was hard to avoid altering history. Sometimes they saw history altered... had to actively participate to prevent it from being altered."

"Drop a stone into a pond and the surface will appear to be distorted, but the water will soon show no sign of its passing." The Oracle held up her hand before any more could be said. "I've had centuries to learn this, Garak, and I admit that even my understanding is far outweighed by my ignorance. There are some changes that can be absorbed, and some that aren't truly changes at all, but historical requirements. Time sometimes requires a thing or a person in the right place at the right time. At the moment, we require this battlestation. And I think you should be grateful for that."

"And I would be," Garak said. "Believe me, I've long wished I had a Death Star of my own, if nothing else than to return the favor the Imperials performed for my people. But besides the fact that it's decades old and obviously incomplete, it has the most famous design flaw in the universe. What good is it to me?"

The Oracle turned back to Lando; he'd rather hoped she'd exclude him from further discussion. "Mr. Calrissian, you were a piece of criminal scum back in the day."

"Thank you."

"You ever use a hold-out blaster?"

"On occasion," Lando said.

"Even though it's small, is less powerful, and in some cases can only hold a single shot?"

"Once or twice," Lando admitted. "Yeah."

"Why?"

Lando knew what she was getting at. "Because it doesn't matter if it's only one shot; it's the one shot they don't know you have."

"The largest hold-out pistol in the universe," Garak said as he looked back at it. "I suppose... It's going to take an incredible amount of work to get this thing working. Does it even have a hyperdrive?"

"I have the datapad with all the information there was before I purged the files," the Oracle said. "Alema's running a sensor sweep as we speak to see if anything's changed over the past few decades. Once that's done we'll drop you back off at your shuttle; after that it's up to you."

"No," Lando said. He felt all the eyes were on him, so he didn't look up. He didn't want to see those faces... it'd sap whatever strength he had left. "I won't do it. That thing is morally repugnant."

"It's a machine," Garak said. "There's no morality in a device, it's how it’s used."

"What, Death Stars don't kill people, people do?" Lando shot back. "Garak, I'd have thought you of all people would know that that thing is evil incarnate."

Garak smiled. "Not when it's on my side."

"I won't do it," Lando repeated. "Find somebody else. And don't bother saying it," he pushed on as Garak opened his mouth. "You can run the company into the ground if you like, but this is where I draw the line."

"And what of her?" the Oracle asked. She gestured and an image of Molly O'Brien formed in the air. "Is she less important than your conscience?"

"Nice try," Lando said. "I've seen her working with your people; you wouldn't hurt her."

The Oracle's horrible smile returned. "Alema, come here." The Twi'lek at the controls got to her feet and came over. "Don't resist," the Oracle ordered, and Alema nodded. Force lightning shot from the Oracles fingertips, picked Alema up, and tossed her into the wall. "Get up. We'll try that again."

"Yes, master," Alema said, pulling herself to her feet. She stood rigid, but soon hit the wall as the Force lightning struck again.

"On your feet," the Oracle said. Alema struggled to get up while the Oracle wriggled her gnarled digits in anticipation.

"Enough," Lando said sharply. "You've made your point. You don't give a damn about them, fine. But I still won't do it. I can't do it."

"Lando," came a voice. It was weak, and filled with the tone of someone in agony and trying to keep the pain bottled away. "Lando..." Lando recognized it through the pain as Kira. "Take care of the girl," Kira choked.

"I will," Lando heard himself say.

"Promise me!" Kira said, letting some of the suffering out. "Don't- Don't let those bastards get her like they got Miles."

"I promise."

Lando shook his head. "No," he said in a quiet voice. "It won't work."

"Promise me!"

"Stop it!" Lando shouted at the Oracle.

"They're your memories, Calrissian," the Oracle said. "They sit so close to the surface..."

"Promise me!" "I promise."

"Crisis of conscience?" the Oracle asked. Lando stepped forward to strangle her, but without so much as a twitch by her he was picked up and hurled away. "She's so young... and it's been some time since I've absorbed the lifeforce of another person."

"Promise me!" "I promise."

"Or I can hand her over to the Empire, if you like," the Oracle mused aloud. "She's already been tried, and convicted, and sentenced. All that is waiting is her execution, and you can be certain it will be handled quickly." Lando screwed his eyes shut, but that did nothing but allow him to see Kira in those last moment, tormented and weak from the years of degradation from the Imperial nerve gas. And in her pain, only one thing on her mind. "That would be fitting. Let the Imperials who murdered her father murder her as well. It bookends things nicely."

"Please..." Lando finally hissed.

"Or you can use this weapon against them," the Oracle said. "Which will it be, hand over Molly, lose your company and all you've worked for... again..."

"Promise me!"

"Or destroy the Empire that killed Kira."

Lando covered his eyes and nearly bit through his lip. Wherever card sharps, gamblers, and scoundrels talked about men with control, he was always on the list, usually near the top. Lando could smile while the sky fell around him and there wouldn't be so much as a hint on his face. But the pressure on his mind was getting to be too much, and old age had taken its toll on the body. It took that legendary self-control not to burst into tears right there on the deck. He'd give in, but he wouldn't give her that satisfaction. "All right," he said, his voice hoarse. "I'm in."
--------------------------------------------------------------

There'd been a chase. The bioships must have detected the Borg's tactical cube and decided an engagement was too risky. Long-range sensor readings had given the Borg a few details, but mostly enough solely to whet the appetite. The processing power of the entire Collective was soon put to the task, and finally, after hundreds of light-years of pursuit, one bioship was caught in the range of an interdictor torpedo, one designed to interfere even with the faster-than-light capabilities of those without hyperdrive. It was trapped.

As was expected, a fight broke out.

The bioship lashed out with its heavy weaponry at the Borg. The cube dodged most of them as they approached, the rest striking its armored hull. There was damage, but the Borg lost no time in working to regenerate it. The tactical cube fired off a series of green energy blasts, then three missiles streaked out. Some of the blasts struck, knocking chunks out of the bone-like hull of the bioship. The rockets moved much slower, relatively speaking, but weaved to avoid enemy fire. Still, with time on the bioship's side, even the missiles couldn't evade the sheer amount of return fire. The first and second went up almost at the same time. The third, seconds later, also exploded, but before it actually was reached. Flying out of the debris was a humanoid shape clad in an armored spacesuit. Moments after clearing the wreckage, the jetpack fired and the figure accelerated towards the bioship. "Be aware of your velocity," Two of Six said over the comm. "If you strike at too great-"

"I know, I know," Sebastian said. "Like a bug on a windscreen."

"Remember that if you get too close, we won’t be able to transport you to safety," Two of Six said. "Caution is necessary for your survival."

"I know," Sebastian said. That was the whole reason for this, after all. The bioelectric field surrounding these ships interfered with the transporters. It was too dangerous to try to beam directly on board. Fortunately, Sebastian had experience in dealing with these kinds of situations, although never in a ship versus ship scenario. He'd originally volunteered for this reconnaissance mission, but as soon as he saw the Borg's modified missile he had second thoughts. Now, out in the void trying to dodge opposing weapons fire, he declared he was never going to do this again. Then he thought about it and added, even though I'll still be alive. There was no sense in drawing the attention of the irony gods.

The bioship was tracking the rapidly approaching Jedi and fired all weapons at him. He dodged and dipped and spun through space. The shots were all around him, but he moved through them like a witch dancing between raindrops. Still, his teeth were grit, and despite the efforts of the suit sweat saturated his body. "I can't keep this up, Two," he said.

"Are you requesting transport?" Two of Six asked, her voice as devoid of feeling as it always was. The pulverizing of Sebastian was no more an emotional matter than the rerouting of power to optimize the engine efficiency. Not that he wasn't more important, but the Borg felt nothing towards him. "There is still time."

"Can't you do something?" Sebastian asked.

"We have been firing on the bioship, and are beginning to cause significant damage," Two of Six said. "But the bioship seems to have prioritized you as a target."

"They're more interested in stopping me than in defending themselves?!"

"Perhaps stopping you is defending themselves," Two of Six observed. "Knowledge is often a primary element in achieving victory. If-" But she was cut off as, faced with all the blasts coming his way, Sebastian finally was overwhelmed and hit.



Chuck

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Part XVIII


The Borg Collective (a limited liability company) was the brainchild of Sebastian Skywalker. Despite the old Federation propaganda on the subject, societies still wanted things. Maybe it wasn't material wealth and keeping up with the Joneses, but however enlightened a society is it needs things. Food, medicine, energy, metal, processed goods, raw materials, planets and systems, and that was just the physical items. There were rights of passage, defensive alliances, technological data, astrogation charts, and other kinds of information. A civilized government achieved these items themselves, or bartered for them from other governments. An exchange, X for Y, whether it was physical matter, intellectual matter, or legal matter, was what took place between them. The Borg's problem had always been that they only took. That was why people opposed them... they were, when all was said and done, pirates, except instead of stealing goods and money they stole systems and civilizations.

So, what's a pirate that goes straight? Sebastian told them: a merchant. And that had been the breakthrough they needed. You don't need to take any more; if you trade something with people, they'll give you the things you want anyway. All you had to do was find out what people wanted. And what was amazing was that the Borg really did have something people wanted: knowledge. The pharmaceuticals were growing so fast that centuries-old medical supply companies were getting nervous. The droids were taking off now that the anti-Borg prejudice had started to wear off, and people realized that someone who's spent tens of thousands of years perfecting artificial limbs, implants, and processors may know a thing or two about droids. With all that, the money rolled in, and the Borg learned that despite the hubris of some species, those that had "evolved" beyond the need for it were a small number.

The Borg bought all kinds of things. Some were to expand their economic muscle, since it was quickly deduced that currency seemed to defy the laws of thermodynamics by giving more out than was put in. They bought small companies that were facing ruin and turned them into a license to print credits. Jokes about the Borg's assimilation of companies abounded, but there was no arguing that they whatever faults they had, they weren't actually doing anything wrong. And that had been an outgrowth of the Borg's experience as outcasts; what people thought was no longer irrelevant. Yes, the Borg could swoop in and more efficiently run a business by replacing most of the employees with drones, but at the cost of alienating the population they wanted to deal with, and that was the whole point. The business, however much it was dwelled on by the Collective, was still secondary to their primary goal of biological and technological perfection. The Borg bought the rights to DNA from thousands of beings who were found biologically distinctive and cloned them in massive numbers. They had a running tab with salvage companies across both galaxies, legitimately purchasing the wreckage of all kinds of ships. They bought experimental technology from all corners of space. And then there was the assimilation.

It was the part of the entire venture that had drawn the most criticism. Romal had brought in top-line consultants from throughout the Empire while drawing up the contract because this was going to be big. Anyone who signed up and passed the rigorously high standards of the selection process would be assimilated for one year. At the end of that year, they would be released, all traces of the implants removed, and rich enough never to have to work again. Through them, the Borg gained knowledge and experience to add to their own. And it was just like Sebastian said; if you went into it voluntarily, knowing what was going on, it was actually a very positive experience. One or two even asked to extend their time at a fraction of the pay because they found the experience so tranquil.

The significance of all of this was how it all came together. The experimental technology, the diversified mental processing, the exotic materials, and the expanded knowledge of the Collective had been responsible for Sebastian's suit. The skin-hugging forcefield, powered by a prototype fusion mini-reactor, flickered as the blast grazed Sebastian, but rather than reducing him to a high-speed lump of carbon, he was deflected off his course. Wildly, uncontrollably, but -and this was the most important adverb- nevertheless alive. Sebastian, his head scrambled by the impact, screwed his eyes shut, hit the thruster, and relied completely on his instincts, eventually managing to straighten out his tumble. After a few seconds the shots stopped coming; he was too close for them to get a bead on him. He hit the reverse while the ship rushed towards him, so that he only hit with a bone-jarring impact.

"Landing successful," Two of Six said in his ear. Sebastian gurgled in reply.

Eventually Sebastian managed to pull himself up; his suit anchored him to the surface, helping diminish the spinning in his head. Sebastian hit the release, and a hiss rumbled in his suit while a compartment slid open, revealing his lightsaber. He took it, lit it, and sliced open the bony hull. Red-orange fluid sprayed out into space. "Ick," he commented. He was surprised when he looked back and saw the seal had covered itself over with a dried substance like the fluid. "It grew a scab."

"It is a biological ship," Two of Six reminded him. "Such capabilities are hardly surprising."

"Yeah, but this is..." Sebastian floundered. "This is gross."

"Irrelevant."

"Easy for you to say, I'm the one climbing through this crap." More quickly this time, Sebastian made three cuts. He scurried through the opening before it could seal. Inside was nothing but more of the fluid. "Can you still read me?"

"Yes."

"I'm not sure what this is," Sebastian said. "But hopefully I can find my way through to some kind of hallway or something."

"Are you able to detect any Vong?"

"No, but this stuff is playing hell with my readings. I can't sense any crew, but then if they were Vong I wouldn't expect to." He crawled/swam through the liquid. "But there is something. Can't put my finger on it." Sebastian felt a membrane before him and slit through it, crawling through. The only illuminating was from his suit lights. "There's fluid in here too," he said. "Clear, possibly water. What kind of ship is this?" Particulates floated around him. Sebastian stepped closer and looked at them closely while his HUD presented some information. "None of this makes any-" He was thrown off his feet as the fluid suddenly rushed sideways. He reached down and dug into the membrane with his suit's servo-enhanced grip and managed to stop, but it was like clinging to a rock in a whirlpool. Then, just as suddenly, everything stopped. "Any idea what just happened?" he asked.

"That fluid is not water," Two of Six replied. "It's a very complex organic fluid." Sebastian pulled himself back to his feet. "We are working on a theory. Advise us of what precisely occurs... now." Sebastian was thrown onto his back and dragged along the membrane before he managed to get another grip.

"What precisely happened," he shouted as he tried to get a better hold in the current, "is that I got knocked on my ass!"

"It appears the fluid is the fuel supply for the bioship's heavy weaponry."

Sebastian relaxed as the fluid stopped a moment. "What, this stuff?"

"Affirmative," Two of Six said.

"But," Sebastian floundered, in more ways than one. "These are just chemicals. How can a chemical have enough of a punch to get through an armored hull?"

"It's an organic chemical, but the energy appears to be stored as nuclear, not electrical, bonds."

"That's stupid," Sebastian commented. This time he was braced and didn't budge as the fluid rushed.

"If one makes a bioship," Two of Six said, "one is forgoing the use of machinery. One cannot simply divert reactor output to weaponry, a new energy supply of adequate output must be found."

The fluid stopped moving; Sebastian pulled out his saber. "And one's getting one's butt out of this tube." He slid through the wall and more of the red-orange liquid flooded in. Sebastian quickly crawled through.

"This is why bioships are such a rare phenomenon," Two of Six informed him. "Despite irrational romantic attraction, purely biological starships are inherently flawed. They are structurally weak and lack a means of large-scale energy production necessary for running such a vessel, nevermind defending it."

"This seems to be disproving your point, Two," Sebasian said as he continued cutting and crawling through the bioship.

"The statement is true," Two of Six said. "In order for a bioship to become this effective it requires extremely advanced biological elements. To put it simply, bioships begin with such a disadvantage that even greater technological advances must be made simply to catch up with their mechanical counterparts. That is the reason effective bioships are almost non-existent."

"Not to mention the fact they're absolutely disgusting," Sebastian said. "I don't get it. This is less likely a boarding than an autopsy."

"You have found no evidence of the Vong?"

"I've found no evidence of anything," Sebastian said. "Every chamber I enter is filled with something more grotesque than the last. I can't see Vong getting around in here without a Scuba suit." There was a huge jar that knocked Sebastian over. "Now what?" he demanded.

"That was us," Two of Six advised.

"Well thanks," Sebastian said irritably.

"We've locked on with a tractor beam," Two of Six explained. "The torpedo's effect is dissipating; we don't wish the ship to escape with you on board."

"Oh," Sebastian said. "Sorry. Thanks. You going to be all right?"

"We have adapted to the bioship's weaponry. It still penetrates our shields but it is causing minimal damage to our armored hull. Danger is minimal. Drones have been relocated from vulnerable areas to concentrate on repairs."

Sebastian nodded. The Borg were rather organic in their own way. People liked to compare them to an insect hive, like bees or ants, and in some ways they are. The Borg may have been mechanical, but their approach wasn't to shun the biological, it was to embrace both equally, the organic shoring up the weaknesses of the mechanical, and vice versa. It was just the logical conclusion of the entire approach: optimizing the interaction between human and machine. But still, as advanced as even they were, you couldn't take the human element out of that equation. However good the technology was, it still wasn't advanced enough that you could count on it to run itself with people there.

And there it was, right in front of him. "Son of a bitch," he whispered.

"Is there a problem?" Two of Six asked.

"I know why I haven't found the crew," Sebastian said. "Because there is no crew. Because this isn't a ship."

"A gigantic, synthetic, organic creature designed for stellar confrontations?" Two of Six asked.

Sebastian sighed. "The problem with dealing with Borg is you don't appreciate a good breakthrough, you know? Yeah, this ship must be alive, completely alive, designed to run itself. Like you said, making up for the biological deficiencies requires so much advancement to catch up, they could certainly have it function just fine without a crew on board. In fact, it'd be better. Absolutely no wasted space, because all of it is used to run the ship, because there's nothing but ship to run!"

"If it is a living thing," Two of Six said, "autonomous, then logically it must have a functioning brain."

"Exactly," Sebastian said. Then he got it. "You want me to speak to it?"

"We wish to know if it will pose a threat to us."

"Well they're our enemies, I think they mean... oh, wait a minute. Wait, you mean to assimilate this thing."

"It is our purpose," Two of Six pointed out. "It is in the service of an enemy of the Empire; we are entitled."

"But it's alive," Sebastian said. "That kind of falls in the grey area."

"We will consult with Romal the Attorney, if necessary."

Sebastian sighed. Still, he should see what they were dealing with. He closed his eyes, focused and reached out...

Something reached back.

Sebastian discovered he was screaming when his mind finally managed to break the grip that had been on him. There was a rumble and a huge laser beam sliced through the membrane wall nearby and kept going, then twisted to cut a large hole in it. "Sebastian," Two of Six said. "You must leave, now." Sebastian didn't ask questions, he ran over the cut section of the "floor" and felt the jolt as the Borg's tractor beam latched onto the cut segment. It was quickly dragged out like a grisly elevator system, various bodily fluids oozing around the opening as they rocketed pass. "You were out of contact for several minutes," Two of Six explained. "The organic fuel looks to be destabilizing."

"They're self-destructing," Sebastian said as he was finally pulled clear of the ship. "I'm sorry, they must have learned your intent while I was connected. They don't want you assimilating this bioship."

"Stand by," Two of Six said. Sebastian peered through the blue glitter-field of the tractor beam and saw the ship rapidly receding. Moments later it vanished, replaced by the interior of the Tactical Cube.

"Exterior view," he demanded. Four spiky protrusions jutted out from the wall nearby. Energy arced between them, forming a diamond, then the air within flickered and presented a semi-transparent view of the now rapidly receding bioship. There was a flash and the ship was replaced by an expanding cloud of vapor. Bony fragments that managed to survive peppered the area with relativistic-speed shrapnel. Fortunately, while the kinetic energy of the fragments wouldn't diminish in space with nothing to slow it down, the extra distance meant that fewer fragments struck the cube. The armor looked like the top of a pepper shaker in some places, but the damage was little to the Borg's regenerative skills.

Two of Six transported beside him. "They're smaller and weaker than other warships," she said. "But their numerical advantage makes them a dangerous adversary."

"And that's not the worst of it," Sebastian said, turning from the view of the debris to her. "The mind of that bioship, it's just instinct; no higher thoughts whatsoever."

"Your reaction indicated there was something wrong in there," Two of Six said.

Sebastian nodded. "It was being controlled by an outside force, something capable of handling the detailed functions of not just that ship, but every single one of them simultaneously. And I'd know that kind of mind anywhere."

"A yammosk?"

"We should be so lucky. It's more powerful than any yammosk I've ever encountered; just a brush with a link to its mind almost overwhelmed me. But I can tell you one thing for certain." Sebastian shook his head slowly as if unwilling to believe it himself. "They're Vong."



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Part XIX


Kilana had come into the world, and everything was wrong. The memories were incomplete; the galaxy was not what the implanted memories in her cloned brain -the basic programming of her Vorta mind- said they should be. No Founder waited to greet her, instead there were lesser creatures, with lies. And they tricked her into serving as entertainment in a Ferengi pit, where she was an unwitting slave. In that hellhole, she saw the worst in people.

Now she was in a firefight with Vong, and she saw the worst in people. They were the yellow, pink, and green tubules that jiggle about when the body splits open.

Built into the Vorta form the Founders had developed from her monkey ancestors was the same desire for order that they pursued. The Vorta believed in the chain of command, and their place in it. Kilana was attracted towards Han Solo because of this; not physically attracted, but a natural gravitation. He was at times a disorganized, improvising rogue, but he led people when the moment struck more naturally than most people Kilana had ever met. As Han shouted over the sound of battle for her and the shrinking group of rebel agents to hold the advancing Vong warriors off while he diverted the civilians out of harm's way, no one questioned him, least of all Kilana. She took up position behind a duracrete barrier, snapped off a two quick shots, then examined the situation. It was a quick yet orderly look, because that was how a Vorta thought. They needed a distraction. She stepped out around the barrier and made one.

Kilana had seen this same thing in Sebastian; actually, it went beyond. It was a difficult thing to describe. When it came to dangerous situations, a natural leader like Han knew how to organize people and make it happen. Sebastian had done that. But more than that, when he told you his orders, there was like an undertone to it. It said, "This has to be done, and you have to do it. We're all counting on you to do it, but it's all right because I know you can." It spoke to the best in people. There was no confusion as to why a surly revolutionary Klingon would give it up to fight beside him; despite her genetic programming to serve the Founders, it had even overcome her in the end.

A quick intake of air, deep concentration, and the kinetic energy rose up out of her chest, then shot forward, slamming into Vong and knocking several off their feet. Kilana ducked back behind the shield as thud bugs peppered the air where she'd been.

Sebastian hadn't been the best of Jedi; even Kilana knew this. He was the best when it came to going against Vong, but that was mostly due to experience with their fighting techniques from when he'd been brainwashed. But in a match-up against another Jedi or a Sith, there was no guarantee that he could come out on top. Even if that telepathic attack hadn't incapacitated him, Sebastian wouldn't have had any more success against the Sith warrior than Gorren had. And that was the amazing thing.

The rebel forces took advantage of the distraction, putting blaster bolts into exposed areas of flesh, thinning the Vong numbers. But they were still coming; they were losing to Borda's actual army, but those here were willing to take as many of the "inferior" beings here with them before they died.

The odds that, of all the women in that Ferengi club, it would be Kilana in that room that Sebastian broke into were so low it scarcely bore thinking about. Yet, Kilana knew that of them all, she was probably the only one who could make something of herself. That wasn't egoticism; she knew the girls, and even the slaves had succumbed to drugs as a mental escape from the daily indignities of service. If any of them escaped, it wouldn't even be a month before they'd wind up back in some other club doing the same thing, just to get their next fix. Sebastian had told her, though, that things don't happen by accident. They were meant to find that room, with her in it, and free her from the life of degradation she'd been tricked into. Kilana had liked that idea; it appealed to her desire for order to think that there was something out there that worked things out.

"Han," Kilana shouted, "there's too many of them! We can't hold them off!"

But it wasn't until later that Kilana had allowed herself to look at this with open eyes. Sure, a positive result had come of it, but how many negative events had been necessary to bring it about? The Borg turned the tide of the war, but there was so much that had conspired to make it happen. The Lythian attack that had impaired Sebastian's mind. The Klingon stepping in to face the Sith -and certain death- just to buy them a few minutes. The murder of Sebastian's wife and unborn child. The infection that threatened Annika Hansen Skywalker and millions of others. The murder of that Jedi and that same Annika's capture by the Sith (whom Han and Kilana still hadn't been able to track down). It seemed the success was built on a pile of broken bodies and tragedies. No doubt things would have been far worse if the Borg had not been there to intervene; the Empire would have suffered a mortal blow and it was doubtful anyone could stop the Vong from rolling through the galaxies. But it seemed those victories were coming only with a bitter price.

The Vong were up close and personal now. Amphistafs swung, severing limbs and heads or slashing deep. Screams filled the area as Kilana backed away, firing her pistol in the hopes of putting them down. Han came back around the corner, blaster at the ready. A Vong saw him and swung. Old instincts must have kicked in, because despite the fact it was at heart-height Han managed to drop underneath it. As the swing passed overhead he quickly straightened, shoved his blaster into the scarred face of the Vong, and pulled the trigger; the towering alien crumpled. Han assessed the situation and cursed under his breath as he grabbed Kilana's arm. "It's too late; let's go." Kilana knew it had to be true; even if it was a long shot of saving even one of the rebel agents, Han would have gone for it, would at least have tried to get his people out. But he knew, just like Kilana did, those people didn't have a chance... but the civilians that had been rushed off did. Their lives could be saved, by standing on the bodies of the fallen.

It had been a mental leap for Kilana. For her, "order" was by definition "good." The absence of order was chaos, and in chaos was the potential for harm, for the unpredictable that threatened life and limb. But over time, of reading about some of the things the Empire, the Borg, even the Dominion had done to impose order, it had finally sunk in that that which is done to further order does not, in fact, become good. And if that was so, then maybe the guiding influence of the Force was flawed as well. How can there be good if it requires evil things to happen?

"Where are the others?" one of the huddled masses asked. Terror was written on every feature, some more than others, but those that tried to hide it weren't able to fully disguise it.

"We're going in the sub-levels," Han said without answering. "Move it!"

"They're dead, aren't they?" someone said before wailing went up.

"No," Han lied, but his voice was full of command, so that even Kilana wasn't sure he wasn't telling the truth. "But if they do, it's to save you, so make those lives count for something and go! We've got the entrance; we'll protect you." And when Han said it, it was impossible not to believe it. Still despairing but at least somewhat trusting, the people herded down the stairs of the interior; Han sealed the door behind him. "Don't make a liar out of me, Kilana," he said.

Sebastian had explained once about a Klingon's relationship with fear, in an effort to get her to understand his companion better. Even a Klingon, who would charge head-first into certain death, held fear. It was necessary, something they recognized. Because, he said, there cannot be courage without it. A person without fear isn't brave, he's a machine. Kilana had taken that view to its natural conclusions. Absolute order without chaos wouldn't be right, it would just be everyone following pre-programmed rules. And good without the ability to choose to do evil has no moral basis, any more than a machine dispensing medicines is morally good. So maybe the Force wasn't choosing evil to happen to people... maybe it was pitting the evils off against each other so that good would come of it despite their best efforts? Anything more would be taking away that will, taking away that ability to choose to be good rather than being-

Rather than being programmed to?

Han and Kilana took up stations around the exposed doorway of the building. It would provide cover enough for the thud bugs, but whether they could stop the Vong completely was another matter. But they'd try, they had to... no, they wanted to. Fortunately, as the Vong came into the clearing approaching the building, there was the scream of a rebel gunship. Its weapons blazed at the Vong warriors even as rebel soldiers rappelled down to the ground. Most were engaging the withdrawing Vong forces, although a handful trotted towards their momentary shelter. The leader gave Han a salute. "The bulk of the Vong force has been routed," he said. "We're here to help with the mop-up."

"Glad to hear it," Han said, shaking his hand. "If you've got things in hand, I've got a lot of frightened people to deal with." The leader turned to give out orders while Han turned back to unseal the door. Kilana couldn't believe it; a few minutes sooner, and those rebel agents could have been saved. But then again, the few minutes their lives bought had made the difference. Was what happened right or wrong? Kilana gave up. It was easier to deal with life if she stopped trying to guess at these things and just did her part to make the right choices.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema Rar settled the shuttle to come in for the landing. The Oracle had meditated ever since they'd left Calrissian and Garak behind, leaving her effectively alone. Now her master sat in the co-pilot chair, observing the approaching planet. "It upset you that I used you as an example against Calrissian."

There were no secrets from the Oracle. "Yes, master."

"There were three lessons involved in that affair, only one of which was for our penny-counting friend. Do you know what they are?"

"To know my place," Alema said, although it chafed her to say the words.

"Yes," the Oracle said. "And the other?"

"I do not know, master."

"Pain, child. Pain leads to anger and hatred. These are powerful tools. You can use them to become stronger, or you can let them blind you. You could direct your anger at your pain and humiliation at me, or you can let it stew within you, letting you grasp more and more of the powers the Dark side has to offer you. It's the important balance the Sith must strike. Passion is our strength, but slavery to our passions is slavery nonetheless. We must exercise patience, so that we do not do anything before it is time."

"Yes, master," Alema said. She gently dropped the ship into the docking bay.

The Oracle nodded. "Inform the students that I want them to be present outside my laboratory for an announcement," she said. "Oh, and bring Seven, I'm sure she'd like to see this."

Alema left to carry out her tasks. The Oracle took a moment before exiting the ship. She found Ben looking over records. "Come with me," she ordered, and began leading him through the facility.

"I assume all went as you foresaw," Ben said.

"Our work with Garak should soon bear fruit. Despite the setbacks we should be able to bring the Empire to its knees."

"Very good, master."

"Anything to report?"

"No, master," Ben said. "It's quiet."

"Only for those who refuse to listen," she said, leading the way into her lab. "Things seem just as I left them," the Oracle remarked, her back towards Ben. Without any warning, he felt like someone had slipped a noose around his throat and was crushing him. "But things are not what they seem." Ben was choking for air as he was hoisted off the floor by his neck, grasping feebly at the nothing. "I have just one question for you, my former apprentice," the Oracle said as she slowly turned. Her eyes were gone, replaced by emptiness, with lightning crackling around and through them. "Did you actually think that I could be deceived?"
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika didn't say anything when Alema grabbed her and pulled her amongst the Sith. Was this it, then? Had the captain finally decided she was of no further use? All such thoughts vanished at the sound of fierce pounding against the metallic wall of the Oracle's lab. There was only a moment to speculate on the cause before the wall ruptured under the impact of Ben's body. He continued his shallow arc until he hit the rock wall, bounced off, and dropped to the floor in a heap.

The Oracle was gliding through the opening, slowly, like the approach of a storm. All eyes, even Annika's, were glued to her hovering form. "I tire of your petty jealousy," she said, her voice echoing far more than the cave should have allowed. "Your glory is behind you, Skywalker; your deeds of late are peppered with one failure after another. And yet your arrogance persists." She touched down on the cavern floor. "I would have thought that you'd learn some humility by now."

Ben pulled himself to his feet. There was blood on his lips; he touched it, looked at the crimson fluid, then up at the Oracle. Annika didn't have to have Force powers to see the rumblings under the surface. Ben had had enough. When a Sith got this way they would charge into a meat grinder without thought of the consequences; the rage was all that mattered. With deliberate movements he reached to his belt and pulled out two lightsabers; their red beams offered a chilling tint to the hatred on his face.

The Oracle reached deep into her cloak and pulled out- Annika blinked. It was a sword. It was almost a meter long, polished black, with a slightly curved edge in front and nasty looking arcs on the back. There was no elegance to it, but somehow just the sight of it sent shivers up Annika's spine. The Oracle held it as if it were light as a feather, then spun the sword once and plunged it tip-first into the floor before her as if the rock had been replaced by foam. The sword rocked slightly as she reached up with both hands, undid the clasp of her cloak, and dropped it off her shoulders. She was clad in a red and black suit underneath that had the vaguest bit of familiarity to it for Annika, until she pieced it together. It wasn't exact, wasn’t even close, but if you looked at it with a skewed perspective it was clear that this was some sickening morph of a Starfleet uniform. The red was the color of spilled blood, the black that of the darkest corner of the human soul. Like the Oracle, it was unrecognizable in the wake of its transformation.

Time was written across her features, but as she stood there, she looked as strong and lithe as Ben did on his best day. Her hair was pure white, draped down her back in five long, thick braids, bound in metal clasps. Her face was lined, but it only seemed to give her an expression of granite. Her hands, far from being the brittle digits expected, instead looked capable of choking the life from her adversary without need of the Force.

The Oracle grabbed the sword handle and yanked it from the rock without effort. Ancient technology, tempered with dark Force energies to give it almost supernatural abilities of hardness and sharpness. It could stop a lightsaber just like an amphistaf, except the connection to its maker, its master, was far greater than that primitive symbiosis.

The Oracle held her head high. "You want to usurp me, Skywalker? Then try. But if you raise that weapon against me it won't end until one of use is dead."

Ben took a deep breath, but he seemed to be trembling with the pent of anger of his many humiliations. "Good," was all he said, and then attacked.



Chuck

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Part XX


The battle between Ben Sisko and Emperor Palpatine on Bastion had been the most powerful and awe-inspiring duel Annika had ever witnessed. After that, every other was only ever going to be competing for second place. This duel won.

Annika had heard lightsabers clash. It was a crashing sounding, raw energy meeting raw energy, neither of which would relent. But the first time Ben Skywalker's lightsaber struck the Oracle's sword, it was different. It was a very bass boom, almost below the range of hearing. But the acoustics of the situation were the last thing that anyone else would notice, because the conflict was furious. Ben was using two sabers; there only two kind of people who would fight like this, the highly-skilled, or the extremely stupid. Ben clearly fell into the category of the former; he was either ambidextrous or had spent years developing his off hand, because even Annika's keen eye for details couldn't spot any difference in his technique between hands. He also used them well together; the inexperienced unwittingly kept their center wide open, which was why they never got to become experienced. Either one blade or the other was guarding his body at all times, sometimes even both. The Oracle had both hands on the hilt of the sword and despite appearances there was clearly more strength in her than nature would have allowed.

Ben stepped around towards the Oracle's right, striking out with his left blade. The sword easily caught it, but he quickly spun in the reverse direction, the other blade lashing out. The Oracle snapped the sword up to catch it, then immediately back to deflect the flick of the wrist he tried to use to carve the tip of the left blade into her. She moved into it as she blocked, so that once the blow was caught she could drive the solid lump of metal at the base of the hilt into his shoulder. Ben rolled with the blow, spinning back the other way. His blade was so fast she barely got under it before he could decapitate her. She tried a swing with the sword in her left hand, but Ben brought his right up and under to deflect, a dangerous move because without precise control he would have chopped his own arm off. It almost happened anyway; the Oracle pointed her right hand up into his face and blasted him off his feet. Force lightning shot out at him almost the moment he landed, but his left lightsaber jerked up to catch it. He pointed at a rock with his other saber, flipped his wrist, and it shot up, striking the Oracle so hard she half-spun and stumbled under the impact, losing her focus just long enough for Ben to hop back onto his feet.

Ben's next onslaught was more furious, but still he didn't let his anger get in the way of strategy. The Oracle's movements were doubly fast, catching each attack before it could meet, without any sign of wearing down. The three blades finally locked together and it was a case of raw muscle. The two Sith twisted for the better position, then Ben gave just enough to free his movement to put his foot into the Oracle's face. He yanked at the same time as the kick, sending her sword flying off. He wasted no time; unarmed the Oracle still had powers that could kill. He swung with each blade, but rather than backing off she continued to dash away at right angles, until finally when Ben swung she lunged, and caught both of his hands in her own. The two wrestled that way for a moment, then Force lightning began to crackle around both their hands; it was clear both were being hit by it. It was now a test of endurance: Ben's youth and rage versus the Oracle's experience and mastery. Sweat was running down both taut faces; it was obvious that both attacking and defending in this manner was taking everything they both had. There was no way either could perform some other Force-based attack without leaving themselves open. And Annika knew who that gave an advantage to... experience won out, because it knew that when things were even and you didn't know if you could pull it off, it was time to fight dirty.

Annika was right. The Oracle planted a firm kick in a very private place. It bought her a moment, and a Sith could do a lot with a moment. She gave him a massive Force push, yanking his lightsabers from his grip while he accelerated. She caught them as he rolled end over end, then lightning crackled around her hands again. The lightsabers sputtered and sparked and the beams vanished. She tossed the scrap aside, this time ready for his levitation attack, catching the boulders that came at her and deflecting them into the wall, where they pulverized upon impact. She responded with more lightning; Ben snatched up a short lightsaber from the array of homemade weapons that hung from his belt just before it struck. The Oracle walked towards him slowly, keeping the pressure on. Without breaking her attack she reached out one hand and her sword rattled on the floor a moment before ringing like a bell as it flew up and landed in her grip. One more blast and she rushed at the still prone figure, slashing at him. He caught the attack, then swung at her legs. As he did, the end burst off his lightsaber and dangled from it like a chain, spinning very quickly with the practiced moves. The Oracle jumped straight up to avoid the swipe, so Ben brought the chained saber around again. She stretched her legs up as she descended, the blade skimming the soles of her boots as it passed before she extended, kicking off the floor and into a backward somersault to get out of range. Ben's saber reattached and he arched his back to return to his feet, grabbing a brass knuckle-type weapon in his left hand and igniting another short lightsaber blade from it.

The Oracle spun and threw her sword, but instead of flying towards Ben, it shot upwards, slicing through stalactites that dangled from the ceiling of the cave. She gestured like a hyperactive orchestra conductor and they broke through the remaining rock and dropped towards Ben. The younger Sith was moving wildly to evade the exploding rocks as they struck the ground around him, narrowly missing him. He swung his arm and the equivalent of a bucket-full of debris was picked up by the Force and thrown into the Oracle's face, who relented and cursed in response. Her sword returned to her hand as Ben tried to press the momentary advantage, but she quickly fought him to a standstill. This meant she was at the advantage; the weapons he had now were specialty items created for certain specific exchanges; if he couldn’t do the job with real sabers, these weren’t going to cut it. He was on the ropes, but wasn't going to go down easily. His left saber deflected a strike, and he stepped forward, slamming the metal handguard into the Oracle's face so hard she almost fell to the follow-up stab. He used the left to grab her counterstrike and opened the chain lightsaber again while she rolled her head around. He flicked his wrist and the saber end looped over to strike her arms where they gripped her sword.

But the roll of the head wasn't a reaction to the blow. The long braids rose up on their own path, and the metallic ends connected with the lightsaber tip, just enough to deflect the angle. It gave Ben less than a tenth of a second, and with his left hand using all its strength to hold back the Oracle's sword, that wasn't enough time. It sheered through the middle of his hand, and he screamed in pain. The Oracle, with no pressure stopping her, brought her sword under and up, catching Ben's other, artificial, hand at the wrist. Ben backed off feebly, still on his feet, but only just. It was clear by the look on his face that he never really believed this would happen; that despite how powerful he knew she was, he could still best her. But now, now there was no question of who truly was the master, and who was just second best. The Oracle followed him slowly, her expression seemingly bereft of emotion. It would end with one of their death's, she'd said, and now they knew whose it would be.

The Oracle gave some theatric swings, which was something Annika couldn't understand. "Showy" wasn't a word to describe her, but the issue fell aside as the swing began to quickly decelerate, or at least it appeared to. It continued its perfect stroke through empty air, but it crawled rather than whirled. Annika tried to get a better view, but couldn't, because she couldn't move. That's when it sunk in. The Oracle was slowing time to a crawl... only awareness was left untouched. The sword began to thrust, and the point was obvious. So many killers had wanted to drag out that final moment, but only the Oracle had the power to do so. Ben's eyes were fixed on the blade. It crawled through the air; a Hutt could dodge it at this apparent rate. But with all his reflexes, speed, senses, Dark side abilities, the full power of a Sith Lord, he had no means of stopping the blade that closed in on his heart. In a macabre sort of way, it was a rather interesting demonstration of the human condition. Ben was about to die, and though he could see it coming, there wasn't one thing he could do to stop it.

Blade tip touched flesh, and slowly slit in. The transmission rates of the human nervous system are fast enough so that, even in the crawl that time had become, the pain must have hit him almost instantly. Yet still, there was nothing he could do. The sword merely pressed on, slicing through bone and cartilage and muscle without slowing in its glacial strike. Soon it reached the heart, and split it open, shutting down the organ. Still the blade moved, still Ben experience every last iota of its movement. Eventually, it reached the back and cut the skin open, this time from the inside out. Red droplets leapt from it in some kind of slow-motion bid for freedom. The black of the blade was partially obscured by the smear of blood, but still it moved.

And now, so did the Oracle. She moved normally now, although everything else still seemed to be locked in the creeping passage of time. She stepped over to Ben's ear, and her voice was just above a whisper. "Now young Skywalker," she said as she released the blade's handle, "you will die..." And time returned to normal; the only evidence necessary was Ben's agonized scream. His strength faded as his legs slacked, but he didn't move. The Oracle's hands were glowing and crackling with green light... in his final seconds, she was still stretching out his life. There was a sound like a capacitor overloading, and Ben's lifeless body collapsed on the floor.

The Oracle gave him a kick so he was mostly lying on his back, then reached down and pulled the sword from his chest. No one moved, no one spoke, there was only the sound of metal on silk as she wiped the blade clean, then returned it to her scabbard. Blood began to pool around the corpse as she examined him. "Hmm," she mused aloud, "it seems that, in my anger, I killed him."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kilana looked out the side view of the cockpit as Han came in to complete the pre-flight check. Outside the clean up was under way. It had been a victory, technically, but so much had been destroyed, so many people killed in battle or slaughtered by Vong for the hell of it. "It's so pointless," she remarked. "You fight, and you lose. You don't fight, and you lose."

"Yeah, life's rough," Han said distantly, checking over the navigation information. Things were crazy on Corellia and he wanted to make sure nothing was wrong with his paperwork to cause undo suspicion.

Kilana gave him a wicked glare. "That's all you have? 'Life's rough?'"

Han shrugged. "Would it make any difference if I said it in a profound way?"

"It might imply you actually gave a damn."

"Well," Han said, closing his checklist down, "I'll be sure to find someone who can write me up something nice and poetic for the next time you see something ugly." He started the engines. "Sorry if it ruffles your feathers, kid, but I don't even have time to mourn for those I've had to bury... there's no room for strangers in my busy grieving itinerary."

"I'm starting to miss Kalib," Kilana said. "Next to him you almost seemed like a decent humanoid."

"You take that back," Han said as he lifted off the platform and raced for orbit, and Corellia.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle slowly turned her attention to that of her audience. "Is anyone still not certain who is the master here?"

Alema Rar was the first to react; she immediately got down on one knee and bowed in reverence. The other Sith quickly followed, except for Molly, who seemed too shocked by the sight of Ben's corpse. However, it didn't take long before she too was kneeling before the Sith Master. Annika stood amongst them, not sure what to say or do. The Oracle walked casually in her direction. "What do you think, Seven?" she asked. "That man killed your husband, your nephew, your sister-in-law, your daughter-in-law, your unborn granddaughter, and drove your only son to join the Borg." She stopped eye to eye with Annika. "And now he's dead. How do you feel?"

Annika's throat was dry, but she forced the words out. "He was a monster, and I hate him. But what you did, captain... I pity even him that fate."

"Don't conspire against me, Seven," the Oracle warned. "You don't know what you've become involved in."

"I think I do."

"No!" the Oracle said, the word almost knocking Annika over. "You don't know the power of the Dark side! You cannot think that you could interfere and not be destroyed."

Annika stood her ground, but only just. "What is in that box?" she asked. "It's you, isn't it. Somehow it's you."

The Oracle stared at her, then held her hand out backwards. A vial hurtled through the air, through the hole in her lab wall into her hand; she looked at the green tube for a moment, then held it to her neck and discharged. It tumbled from her shaking hands, and the Oracle doubled over in pain, but even as she did energy crackled around her body, and the prostrate Sith suddenly dove away as it arced into rocky protrusions and equipment. But Annika saw the real show... the pool of blood was running backwards. It flowed up Ben's body into his chest wound, which slowly began to knit itself closed. The Oracle screamed, and a tornado descended, a cyclone centered over the body of Ben Skywalker. The energy arced between her and him, and he arched his back with each spasm. Soon he was crying out with each discharge, until the room was rocked by a pressure wave like a small explosion, followed by a thunderclap, and all was still.

Ben Skywalker touched his face, then his chest. Then looked around in horror at the equally confused and terrified Sith. The Oracle straightened up. "Ben Skywalker," she said, her voice rumbling with undertones, "your life is now mine."

Ben swallowed and nodded slowly. "Yes... master."

The Oracle turned her attention back to Annika. "That thing in the box, Seven," she said. "It is not your concern."

"Is it-"

Thunder rocked the cave. "There's an old saying, Seven, that you might reflect upon. Cowards die a thousand deaths..." Energy crackled up the Orackle's arms. "And so do upstart Borg. Alema, take her away and teach her some humility." The Twi'lek grabbed Annika's arms, who followed unresisting. "The rest of you... leave us." No further encouragement was needed. Soon the Oracle was left alone, walking about the place where Ben lay prone on the floor. "Your pride, foolish ambitions, they're behind you now, Skywalker."

"Yes, master," Ben croaked. He was beaten, and he knew it through and through.

"You lost your life. From this moment on you live on my time, to serve only my will, not yours."

"Yes, my master," Ben said, his eyes screwing shut.

"Have your wounds tended to," the Oracle said. "You will need to work very, very hard, to regain my favor."

"Yes... thank you, master." Ben pulled himself shakily to his feet as the Oracle strolled away. She stopped, cocked her head just a little, and held up her hand. There was a sudden breeze, and then the jagged metal of the hole in the wall of her laboratory straightened and sealed, so that there was no sign anything had happened. Apparently satisfied, she climbed the stairs, entered the laboratory, and sealed the door.



Chuck

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Part XXI


Lando was in his "office," if you wanted to elevate the converted storage room to such a grand term, when word came to him. He grunted, put away the datapad, and proceeded towards the docking bay. Having Garak on the station was bad enough, but leaving him unescorted was a recipe for who knows what.

"Well well well," Lando said as the Cardassian descended from the shuttle. "I can't tell you how glad I am to have you back on board our little battlestation."

Garak didn't even bothering pausing. "You can dispense with your usual pleasantries, Calrissian," he said as he proceeded towards the exit, Lando at his side. "I'm here to put you back on schedule."

"My men are working as fast as they can," Lando said wearily. Hands on partners were always a major pain in the exhaust port.

Garak flashed Lando that smile of his. "Perhaps I can find new ways to motivate them."

"The Death Star will be completed on schedule," Lando said, not cowed for a minute.

"I don't share your optimistic appraisal of the situation."

"Look, you're asking the impossible," Lando said. "This stuff has been neglected for decades, and in case you haven't noticed, it's a big damn station. You don't give us time, Garak, the only thing this battlestation's going to blow up is itself."

"Yes, they do tend to do that," Garak said dismissively. "The problem, Lando, is that the Oracle wants this station up and running on schedule."

"Oh, so the old Sith witch is calling the shots now," Lando said. "And here I thought this was your toy."

"The Oracle has offered me a splendid opportunity," Garak said. "I'm choosing to heed her advice in this case, but it requires this station to actually be working."

"What's she planning?"

"That's none of your concern," Garak said.

Lando grabbed Garak and pulled him to a halt. "I'm building this damn thing for you," he rumbled. "I think that makes it my concern."

Garak gave him a condescending grin. "I don't discuss day to day operations with the help."

"Then you better start shopping around for a new contractor," Lando said, "because I'm not going to help you if you keep me in the dark."

"You know, it's funny how a person with a complete lack of social skills like the Oracle is so effective at persuasion," Garak said finally. "She doesn't threaten you exactly... there's just something about her that says that saying yes would be much less painful than saying no."

"You think you can intimidate me by using her?" Lando scoffed.

"Have you any idea how rarely she leaves that little cave of hers?" Garak asked. "Can you imagine how irritated she would be if she had to come all the way back out here to remind you why you were doing this?"

"Let her come," Lando said defiantly.

Garak shot him another grin, then reached into his cloak and pulled out a hand-held holoprojector. He thumbed it on; a small recording of the Oracle appeared. "Are you sure that's what you want me to do, Calrissian?" she asked. "I hate to be interrupted."

"Cute," Lando said.

"Cute?" the recording replied.

"It responds to-"

"-to whatever you say to generate an appropriate response," the recording finished. "No, Calrissian. I am watching you, right now. You didn't think I'd let you get your hands on a Death Star and just leave you be, did you? No, I know everything... like the override you put into the firing mechanism, so you can disable the superlaser if your conscience started bothering you." Lando wore his poker face, but inside his stomach compressed to the size of a walnut. "You cannot hope to conspire against me, Calrissian, so you would be best served if you simply did the job given you, counted your money, and went on your way. Interfering in my plans is pointless; it doesn't stop me, it just annoys me. So, you will remove the override and stop trying to sabotage this battlestation. For each day the problem goes uncorrected, my Sith students will hunt down and murder ten of your company's employees. I'm sorry I can't threaten anyone else, but since all you love is money I see nothing else you could possibly value. Fix the problem, and don't oppose me further. Oh, and don't forget about our deadline... what it is for is not your concern, just complete your work on time." The hologram winked out.

"You never quite get used to that," Garak commented. Lando couldn't think of anything to say. Yes, he'd put the override in. It seemed like the only way he could help prevent this thing from causing another horrible catastrophe. "Well, Calrissian."

Lando swallowed; he had no choice but to give in. Even refusal would only mean a delay; they'd find someone else to do the work, and it seemed the Oracle truly was watching out for sabotage. Damn me, he thought, I'm going to have to do it. I'm going to have to resurrect this monster and unleash it on the galaxy. "We shall double our efforts," Lando croaked.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kalib cracked his knuckles; the echoes off the walls of his ship mixed creating a sound he found altogether pleasing. But it was just a moment's distraction; decisions still had to be made.

Over the millennia, Kalib had stowed away enough things around the galaxy to easily pick himself back up after any disaster, and in centuries to come, he'd look back at losing his ship and years of Vong imprisonment as a small footnote of little consequence, much the same way one might remember the annoyance of stepping in a puddle and soaking one foot. It was annoying, but not something to dwell on for the long term.

But now wasn't the long term, it was the short term, and Kalib was still angry. Carbon-freezing had been a wholly unpleasant experience, and even the venting with Solo and the Vorta girl hadn't satiated his appetite for payback. On the other hand, he needed to start acting his age and stop running around and hitting people with things... unless it was a direct response to an insult, of course. He had a reputation to think about.

So, with his ship in place and everything running smoothly, Kalib did what he was best at, and information trickled in. And now, now he had a big piece of the puzzle, something that could help somebody fight the Vong, which pleased him immensely. But who? He didn't have any connections to the Empire these days and wasn't too keen about making new ones under the circumstances. There was always Solo, but, he wasn't really sure where the human stood these days anyway. Yeah, he opposed the Vong, but he'd been getting moody near the end of their partnership. Luke Skywalker would have been a good choice, but apparently he hadn't lived long enough to return that favor he owed to Kalib.

Kalib sighed. Looked like there was only one choice, really. He opened up his communication signal and, cursing himself for doing this, tried raising the Borg.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The docking procedures at Corellia were practically draconian in the wake of the riots, but the Millennium Falcon soon settled onto a platform. Her captain exited the ramp looking annoyed because, as far as Kilana was concerned, he was capable of only expressing joy, anger, or annoyance. She had to rush to keep up with him as he walked out of the facility straight to the rental shop to pick up a swoop. "What about me?" Kilana asked.

"You crashed the last swoop I gave you," Han reminded her.

"People were shooting at me!" Kilana protested.

"They were shooting at me too, and I was fine. You ride with me." Kilana grumbled but took the seat behind Han. They lifted off and raced through the city until finally they reached the Reshad home. It wasn't the most luxurious, but it was clear that credits had grown in the Reshad's hands over the years. Anakin and Laudica had been waiting out front, and Han switched from annoyance to the more expected emotion as he hopped off the swoop and embraced them both.

"I wasn't sure you were going to make it," Anakin said.

"Are you kidding?" Han said. "Vong? Pshaw! Garak? Yawn! Corellian import regulations, okay, that scared me a little." He held them both again. "I just wish your mom was here to see this," Han said. "She'd be so thrilled for you," he said to Anakin. "And so proud to have you in the family," he said to Laudica.

"I'll try to live up to its reputation," Laudica said. Laudica went inside to introduce her soon to be father-in-law to the rest of the clan; Kilana stayed to park the swoop.

"Anakin," she asked before he could follow inside. "I am happy for you, but why now?"

"Why not now?" he asked.

"Well, there's a war going on. I thought you two were going to wait."

"There will always be some reason not to do it," Anakin said. "I could put this off forever, but why?"

"So many people have died," Kilana pointed out. "Aren't you afraid of what could happen?"

Anakin nodded. "Which is why we're doing this now. If it happens, it happens, but that means we should cherish the time we have all the more instead of waiting for something that may never come."

"But it sounds..." Kilana couldn't find the right word. "Risky," she settled for.

"That's why it's called 'love,' Kilana," Anakin said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben Skywalker opened his shirt and stared in the mirror. He was looking at a man who once commanded whole fleets, who razed worlds, whose name struck fear into the hearts of those across the galaxy who stood against him. Now he was looking at a man who had been broken, whose greatest accomplishments would always lie behind him.

Dead man walking...

There was no sign of it on his chest. The Oracle had reversed time, undone the blow so that the sword had never pierced his heart. At least, had undone the damage to the body. But Ben Skywalker had died... and he hadn't liked the experience.

Still, perhaps it would have been better to stay dead and be spared further humiliation. But now he was alive, and the body wanted to keep it that way. Life was all it had, and animal instincts told the brain that death was something to fear. And Ben could not resist them, because he was a Sith, and fear was a source of his strength. Except now his fear was in disappointing his master.

The hold she had on him now was nothing mystical; she did not supplant his mind or soul during his death and return to life. She held him because he knew, he laughed humorlessly at the words, through and through, that she was his better, that she was his master. Even if he opposed her, it would only be to invite further punishment on him.

But pain and fear fueled hate, and since directing it at his master would avail him nothing, he directed it against her enemies instead. If he suffered, others would suffer as well. It was all he had, so he would indulge in it... and perhaps in time he would find power-

No! He terminated that line of thought as quickly as it started. The Oracle knew of his duplicity with the Borg woman despite not even being in the same galaxy; plotting against her was useless. As much as it chafed, there was nothing he could do, or even dream of doing, to change the fact that she was the master and he a mere servant.

Ben closed his shirt and put on his cloak, then took up the mask of Revan. He'd made it as a symbol of pride; he was going to shake the galaxy in just the same way as it had been millennia ago. Despite the change in himself, he brought it with him now. It still had the power to fill his enemies with fear.

As always, the Oracle was in her laboratory. Ben walked in and stood in silence. "Well done," she said, no doubt referring to his submission before her. "You are learning quickly, my former apprentice." Ben nodded in respect. "My task for you, Skywalker, will be the penultimate step in toppling the Empire, so you must not fail me again."

"I won't, my master," he replied.

"Good. Your enemies are well beneath you, but they will be numerous. It will be a true challenge for a Sith of even your abilities."

"They will be destroyed, my master," Ben assured her. "Is it the Jedi?"

"No. They will be dealt with in time, but for now they still have the resources of the Empire to support them. We will tear down that corruption first, then we will dispose of them at our leisure."

"As you command, my master."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian cried out and opened his eyes. Sleep gave way to reality quickly for him as he assessed the situation. He saw he was holding his lightsaber... and it was on... and sticking through the Borg Queen's chest.

"Hello, Sebastian," she said.

Sebastian looked between her, then the hand holding the blade, then her again. Then he switched the blade off. "Sorry," he said.

"I am only present as a hologram," the Queen said. "You did no harm."

Sebastian put the lightsaber away for the moment. "Why are you speaking to me like this instead of through the Collective? I thought this kind of thing was distracting."

"'Distracting' is inaccurate, but it does limit efficiency. Nevertheless, direct interaction seemed necessary in this case."

"I'm fine," Sebastian said sternly.

"Your behavior just now was irrational, abnormal, and potentially dangerous," the Queen observed.

"I had a bad dream."

"Your neurological activity has been unusual ever since your brush with the Vong bioship," the Queen pointed out. "It's possible they damaged you."

"No," Sebastian said.

"Your behavior would seem to indicate otherwise."

"Look, here's what happened," Sebastian said. "Whatever Vong... thing was there, plowed through my brain, okay? Like throwing a stick of dynamite into a swamp, all kinds of stuff is coming to the surface. Just give me some time."

"We are at war, Sebastian. Time is a luxury."

"You are not plugging me back into the Collective," Sebastian said. "That's it."

"Your mind is damaged-"

"I SAID NO!" Sebastian turned away, ashamed of the outburst. "Don't tempt me," he said quietly. "Don't tempt me with an easy answer. I can't do it, you understand? I can't let myself go back to that, or I'll never be able to leave again."

"I cannot understand your thinking." Sebastian's hands were shaking. He closed his eyes tight and gritted his teeth. The chair nearby rose up off the floor as he held out his hand. He closed his palm, and it slowly began to crush in mid-air. He tightened the fist until his knuckles were white, then the mass of twisted metal dropped to the floor. "Or your action," the Queen added.

"I'm fine now," Sebastian said, getting up. "Just needed to get that out of my system."

The Queen looked him over, but it was just for Sebastian's benefit; she had all the sensors of the ship to examine him from head to toe. "The mercenary, Kalib, has made contact. He has information to trade regarding the Vong bioships. Because of the history between his people and ours, he has requested to speak only with you."

Sebastian nodded. Work, that was exactly what he needed right now. "Where is he?"

"He has sent us coordinates for a rendezvous," the Queen said. "An uninhabited world in the Delta Quadrant. Your ship has already changed course."

"Good," Sebastian said. "Good, thank you."

"Thanks are not needed; this will further our war effort against the Vong." Sebastian rubbed his face to try to wipe away the exhaustion. "Is there anything you require?"

Sebastian lowered his fingers. "A new chair," he said.

"I will provide two, in case you have further need to remove something from your system." And the worst part, Sebastian thought, was that she wasn't joking with him. What's happened to me? he wondered. Is it all too much? A shiver passed through him. Have I finally just gone crazy?



Chuck

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Part XXII


"Sebastian?"

Sebastian closed his eyes, visibly relieved. "Thank the Force; this place was starting to get to me."

"Well, I couldn't very well say no to you, could I? You need to talk?"

"Yeah," Sebastian said, and despite what he said he seemed even more weighed down than he had been. "The Vong bioships... we know all about them now, and we know that this war isn't over by a longshot. We can still lose if we're not careful."

"Then I guess we'd better be careful."

"But that's the question. How can we win this war without dooming ourselves in the process? Can we pull it off?"

"I don't understand."

"The Vong have pushed us close to the brink many times," Sebastian explained. "We have the resources of two galaxies at our disposal, and it's still proving to barely be adequate. Why?"

"You tell me."

"Because we have been fighting amongst ourselves," Sebastian said. "There's been no Unity, there's been only chaos, and our enemies have exploited that."

"Well, at least you have the Borg. They're masters of bringing order to chaos."

Sebastian nodded, but there was a cloud over him while he did so. "Yeah... thanks to me."

"I don't understand. What's wrong?"

Sebastian took a deep breath. "I rendezvoused with Kalib, the information broker my father had told me about, on some world. It was dead, but..."

"But what?"

"But it shouldn't have been. There was evidence all around us that it had been home to a vast variety of ecologies, but my scans could pick up nothing but some microscopic organisms."

"Well, disasters do happen, Sebastian."

"But there was no sign of disaster, that was the puzzling part. And there was no trace of the dead. It was as if someone carried away all the living creatures on an entire planet."

"How is that possible?"

"That's what I wondered too," Sebastian said. "And what this had to do with the Vong, since Kalib had brought me to this world." Sebastian rubbed the back of his neck as he seemed to think. "He'd landed on the planet; I beamed down, alone. I knew of him through family stories, and through the Borg's own experiences. He was pretty much what I expected. Gruff, imposing, but nevertheless, he was there. His price, a bit of the Borg's information supply, was minor. He was there because, deep down, I think he wanted to help us. He just couldn't bring himself to admit it."

"Well, given the animosity between the Borg and his people, that's no surprise."

"Anyway, Kalib explained what he'd pieced together..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Here's how it works," Kalib said. "You know about those doppelgangers Nom Anor set up, right? Passes for a person in every way until the signal is given, and then the thing goes completely kriffing berserk."

"I ran into one," Sebastian admitted. "Tried to bite my head off. Actually it almost did."

"Yeah, well, what the Vong have cooked up now is an even bigger take on that exact idea." He was unusually quiet as he looked across the barren landscape.

"What's going on?" Sebastian finally asked. "What's got you so spooked?"

"I'm not spooked," Kalib said sharply. "Just- just funny the way memory works is all." He seemed introspective for another moment. "Your pop ever tell you about me and the Borg? Kriff, what am I saying, doesn't matter if he said or not, you were part of the Collective. You remember, don't you?"

"Species 01," Sebastian said. "Nothing beyond a little basic history. The Borg mind doesn't work that way."

"I was there at the beginning," Kalib explained. "Saw the first glimmer of megalomania in their eyes. Us against the Collective, and we won."

"Yeah, that I know."

"But we knew the Borg was still out there," Kalib explained. "You -them- -whatever- went off to lick their wounds. Tracking all of you down seemed too great a bother, and one of our touched prophesied about the downfall of the Borg anyway. So we left them alone."

"What does this have to do with the Vong?" Sebastian asked.

"Look kid, when you get to be my age you learn two things. One, you can ramble on about nothing whenever the mood strikes you, because you've earned it. And two, don't make the same mistakes twice."

"So which one is this about, the rambling, or the mistake?"

"Both," Kalib admitted. "It had to be a hundred thousand years ago, but the trick of memory is that when things are so far away, it's hard to keep them separated. But I remember standing on an empty world. All the cities, all the machines, all the people, they'd been scooped off the planet. Any guesses who was responsible?"

Sebastian glared at him. "The Borg have changed."

Kalib scooped up a handful of soil and sifted it through his huge fingers. "Yeah, I know. I read your press release."

"Then what's the point?"

Kalib watched the last of the soil trickle out. "You're an intelligent person," Kalib said. "What are you afraid of?"

Sebastian was confused. "Are you saying the Borg may-"

"No, no, I asked you a question. Tell me what things you are afraid of."

"How about none of your damn business," Sebastian said.

"Knowledge comes at a price, kid," Kalib said.

"Yeah, but why that? So you can trade it to the Vong? Garak? Or just personal interest?"

"Vong was the first thing on your mind, right?" Kalib said. "Still scare you, don't they."

"I know everything I need to face the Vong," Sebastian said, probably more forcefully than necessary.

"Because you are afraid of them," Kalib said. "Deep down in your guts. Doesn't matter how much of a Jedi or a Borg you are, there's no shaking that feeling."

"All right, I've had enough," Sebastian said, activating his comlink.

"You'll leave rather than listen to what I have to say?" Kalib asked. "I can tell you all about what the Vong are doing."

Sebastian glared at him, then thumbed the comlink off. "Then let's get to the point."

"I just made it," Kalib said. "You're an intelligent person. When confronted by something you're afraid of, you seek to understand it, because by understanding it, you assume you can somehow control the object of your fear. And if you can do that, then there's nothing to be afraid of."

"I don't need a psychological analysis," Sebastian said darkly.

"Yeah, well, that's debatable," Kalib said. "Point is, you're not the only one who acts that way. Your old buddy, Nom Anor, is also a smart guy, and very, very afraid of your friends."

"He thinks the Borg can stop him?"

"No, I mean past tense," Kalib said. "When he arrived, the Borg were already gone, but the stories were still there. Everything they had done... it was the sum of all the Vong fear and hate the most. Just like you learned all about the Vong because of your fear, Nom Anor studied the Borg. And borne of the examination was an entirely new way of approaching this invasion of theirs. Do you think these duplicates and living starships were part of the Vong plan? He developed them by mimicking the Borg."

"Why mimic us when he hates us so?" Sebastian asked.

"Eh, when you get obsessed, rational thought takes a back seat to your ambitions. Look at what the Borg do: they assimilate people. Why?"

"Biological diversity," Sebastian said, "and the expansion of knowledge."

"Turning it against their enemies," Kalib said.

"Yes," Sebastian admitted. "Just like the duplicates have."

"Right. Then there's the collective consciousness; all those drones linked up."

"It provides a way of devoting many minds to solving individual problems, and controlling the actions of ships and personnel at maximum efficiency."

"So the duplicates hook up and form a Vong collective consciousness."

Sebastian nodded; it was all making sense. "Which is what I felt when I tried entering the mind of that ship."

"Yup. Then there's the assimilation of technology... except the Vong don't use technology like the Borg do..."

"No, it's biotechnology; except their biotechnology is way more advanced than anything we've seen. The only thing they'd need is-" Sebastian froze; the thought was too horrifying to complete out loud.

"That's right," Kalib said. "Raw material. Biomatter."

"How can they do this?" Sebastian said in horror. "Strip an entire world of its biomass?"

"The duplicates," Kalib said. "Thousands... millions maybe. Probably some variation, launched at a planet with only one thought in mind: eat. Until finally the things consume every living thing on the planet, or anything worth getting ahold of. Then it's a simple enough matter to gather them up and bring them back to a processing center to serve as raw material." Kalib shrugged. "And with that, then there's no telling what you can do."

"The fleet," Sebastian said. "No wonder they could gather enough ships to take down an Eclipse."

"Yup. So, looks like you Borg have a copy-cat on your hands. The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

"Well, we'll stop them, obviously," Sebastian said.

Kalib nodded. "Right. It's in the Borg's best interest." He looked at the expanse again.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're not going to do it because it's right," Kalib said. "You're going to do it because the Borg always look at what will effect them. Self-interest. No matter how much you try to change them, Sebastian, that's still at the center of what they are. The Borg have no concept of right for its own sake. Everything 'good' they've done has been because they're looking after their own skin, one way or another. Your public relations machine is just a smokescreen to cover that up."

"Who are you to talk?" Sebastian demanded. "You're an information broker, and you've deliberately stood aside while atrocities are committed because they have no impact on you."

Kalib shrugged. "I'm a bastard," he admitted. "But if I'd known, way back when I stood on that planet the Borg had robbed of every person and resource that I was somehow responsible for that... I would have done something to make up for it... I'd have tried to set it right because that is the right thing to do. But the Borg won't see it that way. The havoc the Vong created, and the fact that they’re still a very genuine threat to the galaxies, are a result of the Borg's own past, a past you cannot pretend to shed just because they pay their taxes and donate a few credits to some hospital. You haven't changed them Sebastian, just changed how they do what they've always done."

"And that's not enough?" Sebastian demanded.

"It's something," Kalib said. "But don't be an idiot; you know as well as I do it ain't enough. After a hundred thousand years, there probably never will be enough. You just seem to have bought into your own publicity a bit too much. Your Borg friends; they're not heroes, just a bunch of people looking to save their own ass."

"Isn't that what a hero is?" Sebastian said. "Someone who has just as much to lose, who steps forward and does something about it? A man who carries a cripple out of a burning building isn't a hero because he's getting himself out at the same time? The Borg aren't perfect, but at least they're not acting like the Malon, preying on those who are trying to fight the Vong-"

"Right, and the Borg are giving the Empire droids out of the kindness of their hearts," Kalib said. "Again, self-interest. If it suited the Borg's needs, you'd turn your back on the Empire, right?"

"Without the Empire, who will stop the Vong?" Sebastian said. "No one has the strength to do it."

"Oh, I don't know," Kalib said. "You've got how many drones now? How many ships? How advanced technology? How much money? If the Empire fell, the Borg would stand the best chance of anyone of eliminating the Vong threat."

"Good," Sebastian said. "Then we have that comfort."

"Comfort?!" Kalib said in shock. "The day the Borg wake up, or whatever the hell you call it, and find out they are the undisputed military power in the galaxy again? What's to stop them from taking over the galaxies?"

"I'm not interested in rhetorical questions," Sebastian said moodily.

"It's not rhetorical," Kalib said, "you just don't have an answer."

"The Borg have changed!"

"Because the Empire made them change!" Kalib shot back. "Because there was no other way for those selfish bastards to survive! If the Borg become the strongest, what can you possibly do to hold them back? Another team-building exercise? Some nice new brochures?"

"I'll take care of it," Sebastian said sharply.

"Don't be an idiot," Kalib said. "One person cannot hold back the Collective."

"It's happened before," Sebastian said.

"Yeah, but I'll bet you a billion systems your Borg friends dismantled the relay station, now that the area is open and the weakness exposed. Isn't that right?" Sebastian said nothing. "Yeah, thought so. Wake up kid; you are not in control here. The Borg will do whatever they think is best for them because that is what an emotionless cyborg does."

"Then what should I do?" Sebastian demanded. "Let the Vong win? Assimilation is better than extinction."

"Who the kriff are you to make that call for hundreds of billions of worlds?" Kalib asked.

"Just a man," Sebastian said. "But the decision seems to be in my hands, and worthy or not, I've got to make it, one way or another."

Kalib was quiet, then started to laugh quietly. "I like you, kid. Try not to let your friends take over the universe." And Kalib turned and walked across the barren wastes of the dead world to his ship.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Is that what has you so upset?"

Sebastian shrugged. "It's everything. The more I try to fix it, the worse the problem seems to get. Every step forward reveals just how much further I have to go. The job is so huge, the stakes so high... "

"You're right though, you're just one man. You just have to do what you can."

"But will it be enough?" Sebastian ran his fingers through his hair. "Then I think about what Kalib said, and try as I might, I don't have an answer. What if it's true? What if the Empire does fall, and the Borg find themselves the dominant power in the galaxy? Will they throw aside everything we've done and go back to the old ways, overrunning worlds like locusts?"

"You can't predict the future... it's in motion, remember?"

"But I brought them back! If it happens, it'll be all my fault."

"Is that what bothers you?"

"Of course not! But that just makes the whole thing worse. Everyone warned me, even you, and I thought I could do it right, thought I could reshape my people into something good for the galaxy. Now I wonder if I just resurrected a monster." Sebastian ran his hand down his face. "And I'm so tired, and so alone, and I don't know if I can keep doing this. Every day is like a marathon now, another endurance run. Maybe I'm just going crazy." He sighed. "What can I do? What more can they expect- I'm sorry, that sounds a little too self-pitying."

"It's natural."

"I'm just unsure of everything now," Sebastian said. "What do you think?"

Jorri patted his hand kindly. "Don't worry," she said, "I don't think you're crazy."



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Part XXIII


"I don't think you're crazy."

Sebastian squeezed Jorri's hand. "I don't know what I'd do without you. There's no one else I can really talk to." The word "soul mate" didn't begin to do the feeling of being with her justice.

"So, why don't you tell me how you feel, Bastian?"

Sebastian wet his lips as he thought about it. "I'm just so lonely, Jorri. I never imagined I could feel this alone."

"I don't understand," Jorri said, sliding closer to him. "You're with millions of Borg, right? How can you feel alone among so many people? Don't they talk to you?"

"Yes."

"Provide for you?"

"Yes."

"Do whatever you ask?"

"Yes."

"Then how can you be alone?"

Sebastian hesitated. "It came to me the day I realized that I was never going to experience any happiness that did not originate within me."

"What do you mean?"

"If I want something, something to make me happy, I'll make it happen, or I'll ask the Borg to do it. But whatever it is, even if they provide it, it will only be because I want it." He was quiet for a while. "The times I would wake up, and you'd be rubbing my back for me, without thought, just a spontaneous gesture of affection... I never realized how precious a thing that was. Receiving something simply for the purpose of bringing you joy... that's something that can only come from someone who genuinely cares for you."

"And that's the problem," Jorri observed. "Because by their nature the Borg can't care for you in that capacity."

Sebastian nodded. "Anything I want, I know they would provide to me. I can surround myself with joy, if I desired it. But it's just an empty thing, Jorri; it's no different than locking myself in a holodeck and satisfying my whims, it's just mechanics, nothing more. Because there's no emotion behind it besides my own."

"I see," Jorri said. "I can imagine how lonely that could be. It'd be like walking around and telling everyone that tomorrow was your birthday, but then when it comes it doesn't matter about the cake and the gifts and the friends, you know it's only there because you asked for it; if you hadn't said anything, it would never have happened. It's stripped of its meaning."

"That's exactly it."

Jorri patted his hand again. "You could leave," she pointed out.

"That wouldn't change anything," Sebastian said. "The Borg are not the problem. My life is the problem, and it's not a problem I can fix."

"You'd think that that would be the one problem you could fix," Jorri said.

"Yeah," Sebastian replied, then lounged back. He looked grim. “You’d think that would be something we could control.”

"But sometimes we're left alone," Jorri said. "And we don't have any control over it."

"We should."

"But we don't. You can't fix everything. Some things, when they're broken, just can't be mended."

"Like people."

"Like people,” Jorri agreed. “People die, Bastian. You can try to stop it, but once it happens, you can't undo it." Sebastian said nothing. "I died," Jorri reminded him.

Sebastian turned away. "Yeah," he said, eyes downcast. "Yeah, I know."

"It wasn't your fault. Don’t blame yourself."

Sebastian covered his face. "You were the most important person in my life," he said, his voice shaky. "I couldn't save you..."

"You can't save everyone, Bastian," Jorri said.

"I'm not asking to save everyone, just you."

"Bastian," Jorri said, "look at me."

"I can't."

"Why?"

A sob slipped out. "It hurts too much."

"It will always hurt, Bastian." Jorri said. "I'm sorry to say that. But with time, it will hurt less, but not if you keep running away from it, if you keep trying to pretend it didn't happen."

"Jorri," Sebastian said, squeezing her hand with his tightly, "I understand now why my father did what he did over the Borg homeworld. Because there is no sin in the universe so base and vile that I wouldn't commit to bring you back to me."

"Don't do this," Jorri said. "We loved one another, and that was a beautiful thing. Don't turn it into something wicked."

"It's such a little thing," Sebastian said. "Why couldn't you and I be happy? Two people, soon to be three, and the universe couldn't leave us be? It's unfair."

"Life's unfair, Bastian," Jorri said. "We weren't the first, and we won't be the last."

"But I would have given anything else!"

"But you don't get to make those choices, Bastian. Sometimes you have to just accept that there are things beyond even your control. Things which the Jedi, not even the Borg, can accomplish." She put her hand on his shoulder. "Look at me." He screwed his eyes shut. "You never allowed yourself to really say goodbye, to really grieve. You joined the Borg, and the pain ended, but now you're back and you're trying to pretend it's all over. You're still living in the fantasy world, Bastian, still thinking that maybe if you kill enough Vong that I'll somehow magically be in your life again. Bastian," she kissed his cheek, "I'm not coming back." His eyes were still closed but he nodded, just a little. "Look at me."

Sebastian finally forced his eyes open and turned and looked Jorri in the face. The floodgates opened. A decade of emotion was bottled up inside him, and he couldn't hold it back any longer. He put his head on Jorri's shoulder and clung to her, weeping without words while she gently stroked his back.

"Ev- Ev- Ev- Everyday I w-wake up," Sebastian got out eventually, "and you're n-n-not there. I d-d-don't know if I can keep doing that, Jorri. It- It- It's my fault! I thought we'd have time, and I squ-squandered it!!!"

"Shh," Jorri said, "it's all right."

"I w-wasn't there for you when you were alive," Sebastian said, "and I w-w-wasn't there to save you! I'm so suh-sorry!"

"I know Sebastian," Jorri said. "Because I love you. I always understood."

"Please don't leave me! Please!"

"You know I'm already gone, Bastian."

"I can't go on alone, Jorri," Sebastian said. "I don't mean the war... I can't go on living without you!"

"If you love me, Bastian, then you will." Sebastian cried; Jorri rocked him a little. "You won't stop thinking about my death, Bastian, and you're letting it overshadow my life. The times that we did have for each other. The sunset on Tatooine, our wedding on Earth... that night on leave on Chandrilla, where we loved each other so much that we created life. Our lives together were short, Bastian, but there was so much joy. Remember it, please. Stop watching me die and start watching me live."

"That juh-just reminds me of what we've lost."

"It's not lost, Bastian. True there won't be new experiences, but no Sith can take away what we had, can steal away those moments of love and happiness that we shared. You want to prove you love me?"

"Yes."

"Then understand that you don't have to be strong all the time." She pushed Sebastian back so she can look him in the face. "Stop listening to the Vong."

"What?" Sebastian asked.

And then he could hear what had always been there, a quiet background noise that was so much a part of his life that he had tuned it out of his conscious mind. It swelled as he focused in on it, so that it was soon an overwhelming chant. "Unworthy! Unworthy! Unworthy!" And overlaid on it was his own voice. "Be strong. Be strong. Be strong."

Sebastian closed his eyes, more tears joining the ones that had blazed the trail. "Or they'll take it all away." He sniffed. "Be strong, or they'll take Jorri away.... be strong..."

"I didn't die because you were unworthy of me, Bastian," Jorri said. "I died because sometimes there are things that nobody in the universe can stop."

"If you're not strong, you'll be alone... only the strong are worthy."

"I didn't leave you because you weren't strong enough."

"If you're not strong, no one will love you... only the strong are worthy of love."

"You are strong, Bastian," Jorri said. "But that's not why I loved you, and you know that."

"If you're not strong, you'll lose everything. They're going to take it all away from you.”

"One man against the Vong and the Sith," Jorri said. "You didn't lose us because you were weak, Bastian. You tried."

"It wasn't enough," Sebastian said.

"But it was all you had," Jorri said. "No one can expect more from you than everything, why do you hold yourself to an impossible standard?"

"How can a man hope to save two galaxies when he can't save the woman he loves?" Sebastian asked.

"Maybe you're not as alone as you feel?"

Sebastian's grief gave way to anger. "Why should I bother?" he demanded. "They weren't there when I needed them, why should I be there for them?!"

"Because the boy that I loved wouldn't stand by and do nothing," Jorri said. "Because it was his kindness, his generosity of spirit, that drew me to him. You had a power over me you can't begin to imagine, but it never had to do with how strong or weak you were." She took hold of his hands. "I followed you, Gorren followed you, Kilana followed you, the Rebel Alliance was built by you. Don't you see, the same thing that's destroying you inside is what's going to help you do the impossible."

"What are you talking about?"

"You keep saying that it's unfair. You keep saying that it's not the way things should be. That's the point! You can look at the universe and see the way things are, but also see the way it should be! And you have the talent to share others in your vision, so that no price would be too high, so that no one can refuse you. Look at you, you’ve even managed to tame the Borg!” Jorri looked at him with pride, and the look made him smile despite everything. “What’s driving you is that you are the biggest obsessive-compulsive there is, because there's an untidy universe, and you have to fix it, and you know how to fix it. Remember when you'd play a dozen or more games all at once; it was 'all just one big game?'"

"This isn't a game, Jorri," Sebastian lamented. "You're dead!"

"But the point is there, Bastian. You can look at the big picture and the small picture at the same time. You can see how the little pieces, completely independent of the little pieces elsewhere, are nevertheless part of the entire problem. And you know how to move them to solve those problems. Some things are beyond you Sebastian like bringing me back to you... you are not a super-being, you don't have that power. But saving the galaxies-"

"I am sick to death of hearing that," Sebastian finally said. "Why is this being demanded of me? I only want one thing, Jorri, and that's too much to ask for?"

"You're not doing this for anyone but yourself, Bastian," Jorri said. "There is no one out there compelling you to do this, no one that you can think to negotiate with for your part in this. The force compelling you to fulfill this destiny is you, and that's why it can't give you what you want."

"But," Sebastian fumbled for the words. "But if the universe is so uncaring, then why bother at all?"

"You tell me," Jorri said. "Like I said, you're the one making yourself do this. You’ve volunteered to take the responsibility."

“I know.” Sebastian closed his eyes and leaned against her. "But sometimes... it's such a burden..."

Jorri nodded, then kissed him. "Then put it down for a moment, Bastian. I told you, you don't have to be strong all the time." She adjusted her position and laid his head down on her lap, stroking it gently. "For a little while, let yourself be the little boy you were before the Vong took you away. Allow yourself a moment's weakness, so that when the time comes, when you need to be strong, you'll be able to find it." She touched him so tenderly, like she used to. "Let me carry you for just a little while."

Sebastian laid there, feeling oh so content. “Is this a dream?”

“It could be; you are asleep, after all. But it could be a vision in the Force. Or the Borg causing unintended feedback in your brain.” She kissed his cheek. “Or maybe the universe isn’t as uncaring as you think... maybe it can’t give you everything, but it’ll give you what you need.”

Sebastian closed his eyes. "I wish you'd be there when I wake up."

"Shh... I wish so too, my love. But a bit of stolen time is all we have, let's not squander it wishing we had more."

Two of Six stroked Sebastian's head. A hologram of the Borg Queen stood nearby, observing. "His neurological activity seems to be normalizing for the moment," the Queen observed.

Two nodded. "But there is no certainty that this is anything more than a temporary correction. Perhaps if we re-establish our link-"

"Sebastian would resent it," the Queen pointed out.

Two nodded again. "Individuality is impairing Sebastian's efficiency."

"That is true. But we can do nothing about it unless he requests it of us."

"We can compel him," Two pointed out.

The Queen shook her head. "Whether he knows it or not, he re-made us in his image. Such a violation is against our nature now."

"I am uncertain if our thoughts are one on this," Two said.

"Your biological distinctiveness did not experience being an outcast," the Queen said. "Sebastian's human counterpart was taken, and that loss has damaged him. We will provide whatever aide a Borg outcast requires."

"He chose to be outcast."

"Only from us."

"Nevertheless, the principle remains. We all must serve the Collective."

"And the Collective must serve us all," the Queen said. "We owe it to him."

"It is inefficient, and it is not logical," Two said.

The Queen opened her mouth and hesitated. "Sometimes... logic is irrelevant."



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-18 08:48am
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Youngling
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Joined: 2005-09-11 05:01pm
Posts: 103
Location: Deployed.. Middle East
nice additions, as usual. I always like the subtle wit and literary references you throw in. Look forward to seeing the rest... .again.... when I get back from survival in a few weeks.


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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