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Quote of the Week: "History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives." - Abba Eban, Israeli statesman (1915-2002)


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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-18 10:28am
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CERC wrote:
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

Thanks, and good luck.



Chuck

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Part XXIV


It was the day before the wedding, and Han was looking into a few last minute details when he got a visit from CorSec. He never really got on with them, and with the tightening of security, they were even less pleasant to deal with than usual. "What's the problem?" Han asked, knowing he wasn't going to like the answer.

"There's an issue with your cargo," the lead one said. The other agent just stood behind him and looked intimidating, because that's a fun job that requires little in the way of thought or exertion.

"I didn't have any cargo," Han said. "Just personal equipment that was itemized in the report I gave you."

"Then there's an error in your list," the CorSec agent said. "You and your companion will have to come with us until this is straightened out.

Han weighed his options. The Reshad's had connections, so they might be able to iron this out. Then again, this was obviously just a misunderstanding, one he could probably clear up in a couple of hours. He'd hate to screw up Anakin's wedding for something like this. "Okay," he said, and he and Kilana were brought down to the security office at the docking bay where the Falcon had landed. They met with yet another agent, apparently higher up because now both of the others were assuming the "I'm intimidating" stance.

"Mr. Solo," he said with a nod. "Nil Comens, CorSec. There's a serious protocol issue about your cargo."

"I don't have any cargo," Han said again.

"Then it wasn't on-"

"What exactly are we talking about here?" Han asked, getting irritated.

Comens didn't look happy about being interrupted. "Your droid, Mr. Solo."

"Droid?" Han said. "I don't have any droid."

"It was on your ship," Comens said. "It says you were transporting it."

"I don't have any droid," Han repeated.

"And it's missing a restraining bolt," Comens said. "Docking procedure is quite clear that all off-world droids must be fitted with a restraining bolt unless you get special permission."

"I - don't - have - any - droid," Han said again, hoping the point would sink in.

"Perhaps you'd like to inspect the unit in question," Comens said, gesturing towards the adjacent door. Han stormed to it, Kilana close behind. He entered the room, and stopped dead in his tracks.

"Greetings," the droid said.

"You?!" Han said in shock. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I'm in a bit of a spot," the droid said. "Sorry to inconvenience you."

"Who is this?" Kilana said.

The droid turned to her. "Ah, you said 'who' and not 'what,'" the droid remarked. "I like you already, humanoid. I would offer to buy you a drink if we were in a bar, tavern, inn, or social club, but as we are not, and I have no credits to spare, I won't. But it's the thought that counts, or so I'm told."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Defiance, current flagship of the Empire, is an Executor-class star destroyer. Miles and miles of corridors, millions of personnel, thousands of rooms... it didn't matter how good security was. With a ship that size, it was impossible to keep Sith from finding a way to breach it. At the moment, they were in one of the cargo holds. Ben Skywalker took out the mask of Revan and slipped it on.

At Ben's side stood Molly O'Brien. After what happened, she was the only Sith he felt he could trust not to try and kill him. In some ways, it could be considered a failing, but at the moment, even a Sith Lord needed a friend. "Don't fight unless we must," he told her. "We don't want to tip our hand too soon. The war room is several kilometers away; we dare not let them escape."

"Yes, master," Molly said. She was also the only one to still call him that.

Ben took his lightsabers into hand and took a deep breath. Once we've succeeded, he thought, I can kill as many of them as he like. The thought pleased him and he set off for the war room, Molly close behind.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han was fuming. "Roger, what the hell were you doing?"

"Don't you think introductions are in order first?" Roger said. "As I understand humanoid social discourse, that is usually what takes place. As in, 'Hello! This is-'"

"Shut - up!" Han said.

"Kilana," Kilana said by introduction. "And your name is Roger, I take it?"

"Yes, Kilana. First and last."

"Er, what?"

"That's his name," Han said, trying to get this out of the way. "Roger Roger."

"So much goodness one name wasn't enough," Roger said. "And you said 'his,'" he beamed at Han, which was difficult for a droid unless it involved a laser.

"I meant 'its,'" Han shot back.

"I still have feelings," Roger said. "Kilana, you are very kind, so please call me Roger. But you, Han, tsk tsk, should stick with the more formal Mr. Roger."

"Good," Han said, at least pleased that the silliness was over. "Now what's going on? Why do they think you were on my ship?"

"Because I was," Roger said.

"What?"

"Excuse me," Kilana said. "I'm sorry, but what's going on? How do you know each other?"

"From the Rebellion," Roger said.

"That was a very long time ago," Han said. "And I didn't much care for the experience then, I'm not interested in re-living those days."

"Come on, Solo," Roger said. "We had some good times."

"You gave our position away on Prakith," Han said sharply.

"I was just trying to be friendly," Roger said. "You humans do hold your grudges. No one was hurt."

"You almost botched the operation!"

"Oh, but I helped in so many others." Roger's voice somehow managed to sound pleading. "Why must you hold my one failing against me?"

"One failing?! You were a disaster!"

"No one's perfect."

"You especially. Why do you think Leia transferred you?"

"She said my talents could be better used elsewhere."

"In the service of the Empire, probably."

"That's cruel," Roger said. "Mr. Skywalker was very kind by comparison. How is he, anyway?"

"He's dead," Han said.

"Oh, well, I guess he could be doing better."

"That's not very nice," Kilana said. "I'm starting to see Han's point of view."

"I'm sorry," Roger said. "I have trouble understanding this interplay still. But I do try," he said to Han.

"All you try is my patience," Han said.

"What kind of droid are you, anyway?" Kilana asked. "I've never seen your make before."

Roger seemed to take a bit of pride in the answer to the question. "I am an experimental battle droid designed by the Techno Union in service to the CIS. I was liberated from their lab and rebuilt by members of the Rebel Alliance to aid in their revolt against the Empire."

Kilana looked him up and down. He had a barrel chest, and his lower legs and forearms were oversized. His head, however, seemed like a heavily modified protocol droid's. A permanent smile had been painted on at some point, and a pair of moveable eyebrows were over each eye socket. When they moved one way, he looked happy; another, he looked psychotic. He seemed to be both at the same time.

"The CIS lost the war," Han said, "if you need further proof of what I'm saying."

"But the rebellion won," Roger pointed out.

"Fine, fine!" Han said. "Now just tell me why you were on my ship."

"Well, I had to escape," Roger said. "I was trapped for years on that world while the Vong were in control." His voice became edged with despair. "Do you have any idea what the Vong do to droids?! It was a nightmare! When I found your ship, I had to take my chance to get off that world!"

"The planet has been liberated, you moron!"

"Well I was hardly in the loop about that," Roger said. "All I knew was that things had become very unpleasant in Mr. Roger's neighborhood, and that I had to take whatever opportunity presented itself. Look, I stayed out of your way, didn't I? I could have overridden your lockout and stolen the ship, but I didn't. I'm not a bad droid, Solo."

"He has a point, Han," Kilana said. "If he was a humanoid instead of a droid, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

"He's a walking bad luck charm," Han shot back.

"Let's just get him properly squared away," Kilana said. "It won't take long, I'm sure."

"No," Han said. "Because then he becomes our responsibility, and I do not need that hassle."

"But I can be useful," Roger said. "I've made some improvements since we last met. I have an extensible limb now."

"What, in your arms?" Kilana asked.

"No."

"Your legs."

"Guess again." He was greeted by silence. "Give up? It's-"

"I do not need this," Han said.

"Come on, Han," Kilana said. "He's kind of endearing in a weird way. I'll take responsibility for him."

"No!"

"Please?"

"Would you like to see it?" Roger asked.

"Roger, you're not helping," Kilana said.

"Listen, I have experience against the Vong," Roger explained. "I managed to survive for years under their nose. I can help you."

Han folded his arms. "And how do you know that we're interested in the Vong?"

"Well, I... read it in your logs, while I was, erm, trying to override your lockout to steal your ship." Roger looked sheepish. Han threw up his arms in defeat. "Sorry."

"If we get you out of this," Kilana said, "then you have to promise to do what we say, all right? You have to help us."

"I don't want his help," Han said in exasperation.

Kilana took Han's arm and led him aside. "Look," she said. "Sebastian didn't have to get me out of that pleasure pit, he did it because, inconvenient though it may be, he knew it was the right thing. I'm just doing the same thing."

"Roger is a menace," Han said.

"If we're not doing this to help those who desperately need our help, what are we doing then?" They both turned back to Roger, who waved. "I'll be responsible for him."

Han rolled his eyes. "If he causes any problems," he warned, "I'm dumping you both on the nearest planet I can find."

"I won't disappoint you," Roger said. They turned back and he waved again. "Enhanced hearing," he said.

"I already regret this," Han said, heading out of the room to take care of things with CorSec.

"You'll probably have to wear a restraining bolt for the time being," Kilana said.

Roger purred. "You are a naughty girl. Are you sure you don't want to see-"

"No! I mean, no thank you."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika sat up as the door opened. The Oracle entered. It was a simple statement that offered dozens of possible outcomes. Was she here to interrogate her, talk to her, humiliate her... whatever it was, it was unlikely to be pleasant. "Have you spoken with the Borg lately?" the Oracle asked. Apparently, today's subject was confusion.

"You've ensured that I can't," Annika said truthfully.

"But still, you are very wily, Seven." She persisted in referring to her by that name, as if to remind Annika that being a drone was once all she wanted. That's why Annika persisted in calling her "captain," as an indirect reminder of who it was that had struck the first deal with the Empire.

"If there is a way, I haven't found one," Annika said.

The Oracle nodded. "I believe you're telling the truth." She made a subtle gesture with the first two fingers of her left hand. "I've lowered the appropriate jamming fields," the Oracle announced. "I want you to contact the Borg."

"No," Annika said.

"You haven't even given me a chance to explain why," the Oracle said. "Don't be so closed-minded, Seven."

"I'm not going to help you, captain," Annika said.

"We'll see," the Oracle said in a voice that seemed to slither out of her mouth. "Contact the Borg; ask about your son."

Annika felt her blood drop ten degrees. "What's happened to him?" she asked, unable to disguise the fear in her voice.

"Why ask me?" the Oracle said. "The Collective knows."

Annika swallowed. "No. You're trying to trick me; you want me to establish a link so you can do something to the Borg."

The Oracle chuckled. "Now that would be a devious plan. I like how you think, Seven. You could accomplish so much if you would just join with me."

"How many ways can I say no?" Annika asked.

"Just contact them, Seven," the Oracle said. "I'd tell you myself, but you won't believe me. You won't believe that your son separated himself from the Collective, and even now is teetering on the edge of a complete mental breakdown."

"You are a liar," Annika shot back.

"Not to you," the Oracle said. "The only lies I told were to my failed servant. No, Seven; talk to the Borg and you'll see the truth."

Annika's jaw trembled as she fought the internal battle. It had to be a trick, had to be! But Sebastian was all she had left... if the Oracle wasn't lying, and there was a problem, she'd never forgive herself. She screwed her eyes shut and activated the implant.

Annika had readied herself this time, so that she was able to avoid the fear and despair when engulfed by the Collective. The Borg Queen appeared before her, a faint smile on her face. "Hello again, Seven of Nine."

"This may be a trick," Annika warned quickly. "Is there any sign someone's using my connection against you?"

"None," the Borg Queen said. "Why have you contacted us? Do you have more information about the Vong or the Sith?"

"I need information, actually. Tell me about my son. Has he left the Collective?"

The Borg Queen nodded, then filled her in on the details. "I'm afraid that, because he's separated, you can no longer speak to him through us."

"Is he all right?" Annika asked, afraid of what the answer might be.

"In body, yes," the Queen said. "But his mind has been in turmoil of late. Easily angered, destructive, irrational. We are doing all we can, but he refuses our aid."

"What's wrong?"

"He suffered a mental attack by the Vong," the Queen said. "You are aware that Sebastian came to us in part so that he would not have to face the grief of losing his wife and child, yes?"

"I suspected that was the case," Annika said. It was a natural temptation for any ex-Borg.

"Now that he has separated himself from us, he does not have us to shield him from that grief. The Vong seem to have used it as a weapon against him." The Queen fell silent for a time. "Our thoughts were one for a long time, Seven of Nine. Sebastian holds himself responsible for his wife's death, and his hatred for her killer runs deep. I am... concerned... that he may do something rash."

Annika swallowed. "Like his father did."

"Yes," the Queen said, knowing exactly what she was talking about. "He said the Vong attack has 'stirred up' his memories; no doubt that is the cause. Perhaps in time he will be able to again accept events and move on."

Annika knew that pain. But with time, she was able to accept Luke's death, cherishing the memories of the times they had. Even now, the thought of him brought the ache back. To have it resurface, however, in full flower, especially when the time they'd had was cut so short, must be torture. "Are you sure I can't speak to him?"

"Not without him rejoining the Collective," the Queen said, "which he refuses."

"I see," Annika said. And perhaps it was for the best. If what the Queen said was true, Sebastian could be skirting the boundary of the Dark side. The wrong word could push him too far.

Annika broke the connection and opened her eyes. The Oracle stood before her, unreadable. "Now you know," she said.

"Is this how you plan to torture me now?" Annika said.

"No, Seven," the Oracle said. "This is the last step for you. You've felt the power of the Dark side, you've learned the passion that comes with it, and you've witnessed its power. Now is the time for you to embrace it... for you to join with me."

"I never will," Annika said. "Stop wasting your breath."

"I can make it all right again," the Oracle said. "I can end his pain... save him from what you fear the most."

"You stay away from him!" Annika screamed.

"Calm down, Seven," the Oracle said. "I'm not going to do anything to Sebastian. I'm going to give him a very rare gift... a second chance."

"What are you talking about?"

"Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker," the Oracle said. "Isn't it obvious, Seven? I'm going to offer him his wife back."



Chuck

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Part XXV


Annika was still disoriented from connecting with the Borg. "Jorri's dead," she said.

"That's the point, Seven," the Oracle said. "That is the cause of all the sadness, isn't it? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could undo that tragedy?" Annika said nothing. "You do remember what happened to Ben Skywalker, don't you? Even death must yield to my will."

"That's completely different," Annika said.

"No," the Oracle said. "Only because you do not comprehend what the Dark side can accomplish."

"Ben was dead for minutes," Annika said. "Jorri's been dead and buried for over a year."

"Oh please, use your wits, Seven," the Oracle said with annoyance. "I'm the Oracle. What is time to me?"

"You're twisted, captain," Annika said. "I don't believe you."

The Oracle scoffed. "The Empress no doubt thought the same when I offered to bring back her son. You are all blinded by your dogmatic beliefs that the dark side is inherently evil. Death and life are different sides of the same coin, Seven; do you truly think we can master one and not the other? You already know that Palpatine managed to resurrect Darth Whind from the dead, and he lacked my experience."

"All you have done has been to further the cause of evil," Annika said. "You've allowed untold numbers of people to die in the name of your personal cause, because you've become so obsessed with your guilt that you would raze whole systems to try and satisfy it."

"I'll use the tactics of my enemies against them," the Oracle said sharply. "I have no qualms about that."

"And that shows just how much you've changed," Annika replied.

"Seven," the Oracle said, "think very carefully about what I'm offering here. I can undo the tragedy that has destroyed your son's life. I can save him from despair... and from giving in to his hatred." She held up her hand, and a glowing sphere shimmered in the air. Inside it, amidst the rubble of some world, Sebastian and Ben were battling each other. "Very soon," the Oracle said. "His father... his grandfather... Skywalker men don't deal well with loss, do they?"

"Stop it!"

"You thought it was hard to face Luke?" the Oracle said. "Tell me... how will you feel when Sebastian kills Ben... and takes his place as my apprentice?"

"You - are - LYING!" Annika lunged, but was tossed back by a Force push.

"I don't have to lie, Seven," the Oracle said. "The truth is so much worse than any fiction I could devise. What will you do, Seven, when your daily torture sessions resume, conducted by your own son? What will you do when I send him out to slaughter the Jedi one by one? Especially now, when you can look back and see that the horrible future I foretold to you could have been averted, if you'd only joined with me." The Oracle sat down. "Your decision will not hamper me in the slightest," she explained. "The Empire is about to fall. All it will change will be how many must die afterwards. If you help me, lives will be spared... starting with your own."

Annika fumed. "Even if I went along with this," she said, "you have harassed my family for too long. Knowing your sadism, captain, you'd probably bring Jorri back just so you could kill her again."

"Really, Seven, this irrational hatred for me is getting tiresome. You and your family are dangerous, yes, so we'll have to reach an agreement. Banishment seems fair enough. You and Sebastian help me, and I'll give you back Jorri, Morgan, and a ship to take you beyond the galaxy. Stay out of our affairs, and I'll ensure my Federation stays out of yours."

"In return for helping you destroy the Borg, right?" Annika said.

The Oracle nodded, clearly pleased. "Very astute. With the Empire fallen, the Borg will remain the only significant threat. Between the two of you, I'm certain you can destroy the Collective once again. And really, wouldn't you sleep better at night knowing they were gone?"

"I'll take Borg over Sith any day of the week," Annika said.

The Oracle sighed. "Your stubbornness is irritating, Seven. You are not being logical about this. I have already shown you that my victory is inevitable. It was only by your admittedly clever treachery I haven't already succeeded, but all you've done is delayed me, not denied me. I'm going to destroy the Empire, and the Borg, and the Vong, and I will reunite the galaxies under my Federation, and there is nothing you can do to prevent that. I have already foreseen the outcome."

"Luke said the future is in motion," Annika said.

"If he were so wise, why isn't he still alive?" A smile flickered on the Oracle's face at the sight of Annika's rage. "For someone who so despises the Sith, you so easily embrace anger and hate."

"I have emotions," Annika said. "The difference is that they don't control me."

"Your emotions are the only thing keeping you from recognizing the generosity of my offer," the Oracle said. She got to her feet. "Consider my proposal, Seven, but do so quickly. While I may be unbound by time, you are not." And she walked out, sealing Annika's cell behind her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Timing was critical. Subtle movements, blending into shadows, finding out-of-the-way places to go unnoticed, avoiding security sensors. Ben and Molly managed to avoid any confrontations until they reached the turbolift. At this point, it was unavoidable. There were six stormtroopers waiting there; against two Sith, they didn't stand a chance. Molly reached out to one and began to Force choke him while stepping forward and cutting another down with her lightsaber. Ben's dual blades and incredible speed allowed him to quickly slip through their ranks and cut the other four down in about one second. The remaining trooper dropped to his knees, grasping futilely at his throat, until there was a sickening crack and he collapsed. The turbolift opened and Ben gestured, and the corpses piled inside out of sight. It'd buy them the couple minutes needed to get to the right floor. Molly liberated a few thermal detonators from the cadavers.

The doors opened on the turbolift, and as expected, someone was waiting. Ben, having put away one of his lightsabers for the moment, raised his hand, and they were all blasted off their feet. Alarms sounded as the two Sith strode out of the elevator. A squad of stormtroopers rushed around the corner, weapons at the ready. Ben pointed at one of the officers that had been waiting for the turbolift, and the unfortunate man was hoisted off his feet, screaming in terror before his body was hit by blaster fire. Ben held out the palm of his hand, and the corpse rocketed through the air at them, hitting two and forcing the rest to scramble for cover. Those who did manage to get some shots off at him found him deflecting the bolts one-handed right back at them. There was no time to waste, however, so Ben followed Molly through the blast door before it closed, then stabbed it with his lightsaber.
--------------------------------------------------------------

General Taar was in his office when the guards burst in. "Sir," Major Dem said quickly, "we have to move you. There's been a security breach."

Taar got quickly to his feet, falling in with the rest of his escort. He assigned people to important tasks that he knew would properly handle them, and his safety had been no different. If they felt this was necessary, there was no time to ask for details before reaching a decision. "What's the nature of the threat?" he asked as they moved.

"Jedi, or Sith," the major said. "I could never tell them apart, sir."

"Given recent relations, equal are likely," Taar admitted. Fortunately he'd taken precautions. "Do we need to leave the ship?"

"They're on the upper levels, sir, not near the vital systems" the major said. "The ship itself doesn't appear to be a target. We'll be able to protect you." Taar nodded, and the group entered the turbolift to head for the lower level, then they quickly escorted him to the safe room.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Automated defenses were triggered, for all the good they did. Ben and Molly easily deflected their blasts right back into the weapons themselves, and some surgical application of Force lightning prevented the number of systems from being overwhelming. The defenses slowed them, but not by much. They reached the end of the corridor, and ducked behind opposite walls. There were about a hundred stormtroopers waiting for them. Ben pulled out his other lightsaber and lit it, then nodded to Molly. She took out the thermal detonators and they hovered in the air before her. She ground her teeth in concentration, then armed the thermal detonators and sent them flying amongst the troopers.

As the explosions went off, Ben dashed around the corner and charged. The Oracle had been right; they were far beneath him, but in numbers even they could be a challenge. He had to move quickly, trusting fully in his instincts to stay ahead of the blaster bolts while the confusion of the moment bought him a few seconds. From the outside, it looked like every movement was meticulously plotted. Ben would swing up with his left lightsaber through some trooper, catch a blaster bolt at the top of the arc and deflect it back at another trooper, pivot and bring it around and downward to decapitate another and cut yet another's blaster rifle in half. At the same time his right lightsaber deflected two blaster bolts, skewered a trooper in the face while catching a third bolt, then slicing two troopers across the chest through his pivot. Even Molly was astounded at his movements. And he's only second best? she thought.

Ben was horribly outnumbered, but the troopers had to avoid hitting each other, and with him wading amongst them, there were only so many that could get in line of fire in the first place. And Ben was always moving, and there seemed to be no pattern to his attack. Blaster fire scorched the air around him, but he himself was always untouched. As impossible as it might have seemed, Ben eliminated half of the stormtrooper forces in those first twelve seconds. However, the troopers soon adapted, and half the group backed away from the Sith, getting out of his range and taking aim. That's when Molly sprung. She wasn't as fast or as brutal as Ben, but she had surprise. By the time the troops rallied Ben had finished off the other troopers and joined his companion. At just over thirty seconds after the thermal detonators exploded, the last stormtrooper helmet hit the floor and rolled several meters. Still, time was on the Empire's side, so as soon as the stormtroopers were eliminated Ben and Molly sprinted in the direction of the war room.

Blast doors had been closed, naturally, but it only slowed the two Sith down. There was a steady rhythm heard throughout the deck of the heavy armored plates toppling and hitting the deck as they worked their way closer and closer. More stormtroopers appeared, only to be cut down while the Sith continued towards their goal.

As they reached the war room, another massive stormtrooper force appeared. Ben ground his teeth, but he knew that without another distraction, charging would be suicide. He deactivated and put away both his sabers, then began assembling the light-fan he'd used back on the space station when he'd first rescued Molly all those years before. It was an effective weapon, but never very satisfying. He clicked the pieces into place, then activated the four blades. They spun rapidly, then with a quick movement he threw it, causing it to tear through the trooper ranks like a diamond drill through talc. Molly took advantage of the distraction to charge while Ben carefully held the weapon in a Force grip. Unfortunately, a lucky shot struck the center of the weapon and it exploded, taking out another five troopers. Ben cursed; the weapon had taken a great deal of time and ingenuity. He pulled out his sabers, lit them, and vented his rage on the remaining troopers until he and Molly were surrounded by bodies.

Ben and Molly quickly sliced through the doorway into the war room. They were met by blaster fire, but it was from Imperial officers, feeble men and women who were only operating on base survival instincts. It would be unfair to describe the annihilation of the stormtroopers outside as a slaughter, because it would leave no suitable word to describe the quick, brutal, and efficient extermination of everyone in that room. After that was complete, Ben and Molly destroyed the electronics as well.

Reinforcements had arrived outside the room, and now it was going to be an even more serious fight. Earlier, that would have pleased Ben, but after having done all this, it felt hollow. All he'd done was further the Oracle's goals, nothing more, nothing for himself. It stripped the entire affair of everything, so that it felt utterly meaningless.

"We're heading back to the docking bay," he announced to Molly.

"I thought you wanted to stay a while and enjoy yourself?"

"Just do it!" Ben snapped, then charged into the mob of troopers.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The safe room was designed to live up to its name. Its walls, floor, and ceiling were made of the same material they used to armor hulls. The life support was independent of the rest of the ship, so contagions couldn't be introduced. Hundreds of armed stormtroopers with weapons of every sort, from blaster rifles to slug-throwers to E-webs to ion weapons were stationed all around it, and the door was locked on a circuit that could only be controlled from inside the room. Once inside, the only way to hurt the occupants was to blow up the ship. But General Taar always believed that when it came too safety, it was hard to go too far. That's why, despite the confusion it had caused in his staff, he had ysalamiri put behind his chair, in case the Jedi decided to make good on their threat against him.

The door was sealed. Major Dem stood in the room with him, along with his most trusted guard. Both had their blasters out and ready, just in case it should come to this. It was ridiculous, really, to think they could stop what the small army outside could not, but Taar found himself pulling out his own blaster anyway.

Suddenly, there was a sickening cracking sound, and the two guards were clutching at their throats. Taar had heard enough about Lord Vader's means of discipline to know what was going on, and he quickly looked about the room, but saw no one. Still, the Force reached through walls; he'd heard about what had happened to Ozzel. In the bubble created by the ysalamiri, there was nothing they could do to him, so he just watched helplessly as the two men dropped to the floor, dead.

Taar jumped as he heard the sound of a lightsaber igniting. But the room was empty! He whirled around and pointed his blaster in the direction of the sound, and-

And the blood froze in his veins. Standing there was Grand Admiral Thrawn, a burn mark on his chest from where he'd been run through. Fear took hold of him for a moment, and in that moment, Thrawn raised the saber and tossed it end over end. It plunged into Taar's chest even as the old soldier caught the hilt, holding it in place. He felt the cold grow through his body, but it was nothing compared to the sight of the approaching Thrawn.

Then Thrawn stepped into the bubble, and he evaporated, leaving only a blue-skinned Twi'lek woman. She reached down, took hold of the lightsaber, and removed it. Taar coughed weakly, and despite the situation, he had to smile a little. "It was.... so artfully done," he admitted. And then General Delric Taar died.



Chuck

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Part XXVI


Lando found Garak in the Death Star's "War Room," which was little more than the control center for the superlaser. The Cardassian seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. "Ah, Calrissian," Garak said as he turned upon Lando's arrival. "I do hope you're here to tell me we're finished on schedule."

Lando handed Garak a datapad. "All systems are operational," he said. "They're not pretty, but they'll do the job."

"That's all that's required," Garak said.

"I took the liberty of programming a course to an unoccupied system," Lando said. "A test firing would help to ensure-"

"No time for tests, I'm afraid," Garak said. "We have some work to do."

"There's no guarantee this thing is going to work right," Lando said. "A hypermatter reactor's a very delicate piece of machinery, and all official info is classified. My men have had to teach themselves how to make it work."

"Yes, this is a wonderful story," Garak said, "but let's skip to the happily ever after. This station is going to fire on our primary target. If things have gone wrong, then I guess we'll find out at that time, and you can explain your failure to the Oracle."

"Assuming we don't blow ourselves up," Lando muttered.

"Well, that's all the more reason to make this shot count," Garak said. "New course, Calrissian."

"And where would that be, Garak?"

Garak gave him that smile. "If you have a one-shot hold-out blaster, you always aim for your enemy's heart, yes? Set course for Chandrilla."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Another squad of stormtroopers got in Ben and Molly's way. Lightsabers swung, blaster bolts were fired, and soon a heap of plastoid armored-bodies were left lying on the floor. They got to the turbolift and hit the call button. They were wary as it arrived, but it was empty. The two stepped inside. If the Imperials shut down the lift, they could easily cut their way out and escape another way.

Still, caution was necessary. Even a Sith wasn't invulnerable, and carelessness could leave them in a situation where numbers would overcome their Dark Force powers. As the lift stopped he hit the door override, locking it shut. "What are you doing?" Molly asked, but Ben gestured for her to be quiet and step aside. He lit both his lightsaber and swung at the door repeatedly, cutting it without slicing all the way through until there was a mesh-like pattern on the interior. He shut down the blades and hooked them to his belt, then held his hands before him and concentrated.

The Imperials were waiting, weapons at the ready. What they didn't expect was for the door to explode outward with heavy shrapnel, piercing the gaps between the stormtrooper armor and putting men down. Almost instantly Ben leapt through the opening and somersaulted, igniting both blades as he twirled through the air and slicing through the troopers before his feet even touched the ground. He sliced through those unfortunate enough to be within reach, then brought both sabers around together like a baseball swing and caught the blast from the E-web, sending it right back into the weapon and causing it to explode. Molly rushed out of the turbolift and quickly joined the fray, and soon another pile of dead troopers was left behind.

The two sprinted into the launch bay; technicians were about, but no one dared try to stop the Sith. They climbed aboard an H-Wing fighter, lifted off, and raced out of the docking bay. Ben spun the ship wildly to evade the tractor beams and turbolasers that tried to hit them, pushing the throttle all the way while Molly programmed the nav computer. Before the Defiance could get an interdictor field set up, the ship had vanished into hyperspace.
--------------------------------------------------------------

When there was no response by anyone inside the safe room, the Defiance's acting captain ordered the room cut open. It took four hours, since the room had been built to avoid being broken into, but as they opened the door they realized all the effort was for nothing. All three occupants lay dead, including General Taar. The smell of burnt flesh still hung in the air.

The acting captain stepped in and shook his head. There was nowhere to hide, no other way in or out. Yet somehow someone had gotten in, killed them, and gotten out. They'd even killed Taar's pet and tossed it away, though he didn't have the faintest idea why. The medical personnel loaded the corpses into body bags while he looked about, still wondering how this was possible. No transporter could penetrate those walls.
--------------------------------------------------------------

One of the Sith entered Annika's cell, grabbed her arm, and half-dragged her out. She was pushed into the Oracle's lab, where the Sith master was observing things on her monitors. "Seven," she said, without turning to face her. "Have you considered my proposal?"

"The answer is still no, captain," Annika said.

The Oracle sighed. "The more you change, Seven, the more you remain the same stubborn drone I found in my sickbay. Still, there is some time left for you, and I thought a personal demonstration might convince you of the wisdom of accepting my offer." She waved a hand, and the screens all changed to different views of the same thing. "General Taar is dead," she said as they watched the corpse being taken through the halls of some Imperial ship. "Along with much of his command staff. The military may have a hierarchy, Seven, but things are very confusing for them right now."

"The military junta was a mistake anyway," Annika said with a dismissive shrug. "And I never really cared for Taar anyway. His anti-Borg prejudice rubbed me the wrong way."

"And then there's this," the Oracle said, ignoring Annika's comments. The images of Taar were replaced by those of- "Chandrilla. Still technically the capital of the Empire, still potentially able to prop up that corrupt government. It also is home to the rear command Taar set up to take over the military in the event of an emergency - I suppose this would qualify." She seemed fascinated by the images of the planet. "I realize that this may have become cliché, Seven, but the planet really does have to go."

"Is that so," Annika said. "And since when do you have a superlaser?"

The Oracle gave a slight shrug. "For a while now, Seven." She smiled a little as the blood drained from Annika's face. "I've told you that you cannot hope to deny me, Seven. Perhaps this will wake you up to how pointless it is to oppose me, and how wise you would be to become my ally." The image of a Death Star appeared on the screen, traveling through hyperspace. It was woefully incomplete, but the dish for the superlaser was obviously finished and no doubt operational.

"Captain," Annika said quickly, "think about what you're doing. There are billions of people on that planet. You'll be killing countless innocents, just to satisfy your desire for revenge."

"Revenge? This is about far more than that, Seven. This is about that unity that Ben Sisko used to drone on endless about. The galaxies will be re-united under me, and the beginning of an unending, ordered society will finally begin. The birth of the new Federation will not be painless, Seven, but it will still come to be, whatever the price."
--------------------------------------------------------------

On board the Defiance, the medical droid opened the body bag to begin the post-mortem examination of the guard. The room was completely empty of anyone else; the number of dead left by the Sith had required converting one of the larger facilities into a makeshift morgue, and most of the medical personnel were there putting pieces together. That's why no one heard its squeal before a lightsaber rose up and stuck it through the chest.

Alema Rar pulled herself out of the body bag and began removing the guard's uniform. It didn't fit well at all, but it helped her maintain the illusion even while they had been loading her. The disadvantage, however, was that she had had to incinerate her clothing along with the other guard's body, leaving her with only the essentials. Still, the plan had worked, reinforcing Alema's belief that aligning with the Oracle had been the right move.

There was, of course, a bit of regret. Taar had caused a great deal of trouble for the Vong, which made him an ally as far as Alema was concerned. But if the Oracle said he must die, then that was the end of the matter. No matter what she felt, she had to obey her master.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Senator Alixus had had little work to do of late. With the military seizing control and more and more information being funneled around her Chandrilla military contacts, there wasn't much she could do to aid her allies in the Vong. It was an unfortunate turn, because it seemed the Vong needed help more than ever.

Alarms sounded, which didn't make much sense. The Vong were losing, and the front was on the other side of the galaxy. Alema got up and went into the Senate antechamber. "What's going on?" she demanded.

"Incoming anomaly," someone said. "Large hyperspace imprint, they don't know what it is yet, but they're not taking any chances." Alixus headed over to one of the terminals nearby, flashed her authorization to it, and information began to display. What were they up to? she wondered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema Rar was on all of the monitors. "General Taar is dead, my master."

"I have seen it," the Oracle said. "Very good work. You are proving a most worthy apprentice, Alema."

"Thank you, master."

"Find your way off the ship," the Oracle said. "Use your illusion abilities to assist you, but try to be subtle. Security is heightened in the wake of Skywalker's attack, so you must be careful. You are not yet as powerful as him, and he was not acting alone. A direct confrontation may be too much."

"A Sith works from strength," Alema repeated. "In this case, stealth is my strength."

"Very good." The monitors flickered and Alema was replaced by Chandrilla. "And now for the main event," the Oracle mused.

"Captain, you've beaten Taar," Annika pleaded. "You don't have to do this!"

"Yes, I do," the Oracle said. "The rear command or the civilian government could still recover, and that cannot be allowed. Besides, the true damage will be the act itself. It's a Death Star, Seven. Who but the Empire could possibly have one, and who but the Imperial military could use it against the civilian government that threatens their control? You thought there was disorder before? The military will find every civilized world in open rebellion against them, and with the military itself already divided by the lack of central leadership, they will collapse again into fractured mini-nations, where the only control is that which can be taken by force. They can't hope to accomplish that and oppose the Vong at the same time." She smiled, though Annika found it to be rather unpleasant "After so very, very long, they will finally pay for what they've done."

"Captain, please! You can't do this!"

"I am the Oracle. For me, there is no such thing as 'can't.'" She walked towards the monitor. "But here is a small gesture on my part to show you I'm trying to bridge this gap you've erected between us." The images changed again. "Senator Alixus fed information to Nom Anor, and the Vong, and was responsible for the insects that created the Yun-Yammka." She turned back to Annika. "And let's not forget that her actions caused your son to become a wanted man. That was the key to his downfall on Wormhole Station, remember. Since she's of no further use to me, I've decided I'll give you the pleasure of watching her die."

Annika shook her head. "What kind of twisted creature have you become, captain?"

"Spare me," the Oracle said.

Annika nodded towards the image of Alixus. "And this is how you treat your allies? Why do you think watching you betray them is going to convince me to become one myself?"

"Alixus' agenda is counter to mine," the Oracle said. "Like Nom Anor's, and Garak's, for that matter. They will have to be removed eventually. But I've already said that your fate would be banishment rather than death. None of them would ever accept such an offer, and they would oppose me eventually. Best to get the messy business done with as soon as possible."

"Captain-"

"Shh!" the Oracle said, holding up her hand. "I've waited a long time for this. I want to savor the moment."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Death Star emerged into space over Chandrilla. The local security was immediately mobilizing, but they didn't have a chance of stopping it in time. "Very nice work, Calrissian," Garak said with a nod of approval. "Very good. You and your people have done a fantastic job with our little battlestation." Lando said nothing; he couldn't take his eyes off the view of Chandrilla through the window. "This is really your baby, isn't it. Go ahead, you say it."

Lando finally tore his eyes away and looked at Garak. "What?"

Garak smiled. "You give the order."

Lando stared, then looked back at Chandrilla. "No," he said, but it was more like an escaping sigh than anything else.

"Give the order," Garak said firmly. Lando's mouth was dry. For so long he'd fought against the Empire, and now the most horrible moment of his life was when he had it at his mercy. "Do it," Garak said, and his tone made it clear that things would become even more unpleasant if he refused. Lando knew what it was about, it was about Lando always knowing his culpability in this, so that he could never delude himself into thinking it was Garak's doing. He'd re-built this thing; he had no one to hold responsible for what it did but himself.

Lando cleared his throat. "Commence primary ignition," he ordered, as if he'd just asked someone to slit his own throat.
--------------------------------------------------------------

On the planet, Senator Alixus looked at the image of the Death Star on the display. Her stomach had knotted into a fist of rage at the sight of it. If there was ever a symbol for her greatest hate, the artificial moon was it. And despite the strength of her humanity, there was nothing she could do about it. She spat at the image, taking at least the small pleasure of despising it before it did its work.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Captain, please stop this!" Annika said.

"Hush, child," the Oracle said. "Listen for the sound of an era ending."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Switches were flipped, buttons were pushed, and inside the powerful hypermatter reactor, unfathomable energies were released. They passed through the conduits to the surface of the Death Star, then converged on a single point, where energy built up. The green energy beam then lanced out and struck the planet.

In less than half a second, a quarter century of unity was brought to a sudden, violent, and irreversible end.



Chuck

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Part XXVII


The Oracle gestured and images of Ben Skywalker and Molly O'Brien appeared on the monitors. "You have succeeded, I see."

"Yes, my master," Ben said.

"That is good. Perhaps you will be a useful servant after all."

The word visibly stung Ben. "Thank you, master," he got out.

"I have another assignment for you," the Oracle said. "You will go to the planet Vidik in the Delta quadrant. I want you to set up a system-wide jamming field to cut them off. Shortly after you arrive the Vong will be launching an assault on that world. I want you to assist them by assassinating the leaders of the opposition there."

"As you command, master," Ben said. The Oracle waved and the monitors went blank.

"A little gasoline on the fire, Seven," the Oracle said, turning to Annika.

"How could you kill all those people?" Annika said, shocked that she'd ever considered this inhuman thing a friend.

"I picture an Earth with the sun blotted out by star destroyers, and it becomes easy," the Oracle said. "But the time for discussing my motivations is past. The Empire's crumbling even as we speak, Seven. No one will save you now, no one but me."

"No!" Annika said fiercely.

"Time is running out, Seven," the Oracle said. "Vidik is an important stronghold, an advance Romulan system. Many of the independent powers have sent representatives there to discuss ways of bringing war charges against the Empire for their use of planet-destroying weaponry. It's supposed to be a secret, but with the frightening image of the Death Star being used against the Empire's own people, the word will be officially released that the Vidik Council is going to hold the Empire responsible for their atrocities. Unfortunately for them, Nom Anor will see that as a perfect opportunity to absorb a wide-range of high-ranking officials into the Vong creature, and to eliminate a key launching platform for attacks against the Vong."

"Didn't you tell Ben to kill the leaders?"

"Naturally. Nom Anor and the Vong are no friends of mine. Helping them now that the Empire's fallen would be a mistake. No, let them put the fear into people's hearts again for a brief time, so that the next phase of the plan can advance.” She began working with some of the unfathomable equipment on her bench. “If Vidik -and the loosely-aligned forces present there- are to have a chance of surviving the assault, then someone -some champion of the Light side- must come to their aid, and I think we both have an idea who will."

Annika's face fell as the implication got through. "Sebastian."

The Oracle looked up from her work and offered her sickening smile. "Two days, Seven. The clock is ticking. We both know that Sebastian is not as strong as Ben... not in the light, anyway. That's why he ran the first time, after all. But then again, the Vong attack on his mind has fueled his anger, hasn't it? Maybe he'll tap into that same power and win the day?" Tears were running down Annika's face, but she said nothing. "I have seen the confrontation, Seven. Only one of two possible outcomes will transpire. Either Sebastian Skywalker will die, or he will embrace the Dark side and kill Ben. Either way, you're going to lose him." Annika closed her eyes and bit her lip. "The only son you'll ever have. The only piece of your fallen husband you have left." The Oracle shook her head. "I win no matter what happens, Seven," the Oracle said. "If he does turn, how do you think he'll react when I tell him that you could have saved his wife, and refused? I think I'll be the one having to hold him back from killing you."

"How can you take such pleasure in my pain?!" Annika finally shouted. "How can even the Dark side twist your soul into this thing that you've become, so that you would do this to someone you once called 'friend?!'"

"I will take whatever steps are necessary to see this through, Seven," the Oracle said. "I take no pleasure in your suffering, but you suffer only because you refuse me. You destroyed the Borg once, help me do it again!"

"The Borg are all that stand between the innocent people of the galaxy and your evil, captain!"

The Oracle made an amused sound. “Really? Are you sure?”

Annika was about to reply, but something in the Oracle’s expression gave her pause. Nevertheless, she knew who was the danger here. “I’ll take the Borg at their worst over you, captain.”

"At their worst?” The Oracle said, apparently mulling that over. “Well, let’s see... They took away your father, killed your mother, stole your life away from you...” Annika cringed a little as the Oracle closed in on her. “They took everything away, Annika. I was the one who gave it back! I was the one who gave you Luke! Every good thing that has ever happened in your life has come from me!" The monitors lit up, and Annika recognized the confrontation on, and over, the Borg homeworld. "They drove Luke to the Dark side," the Oracle said emphatically. "It was all their fault! And they were the ones who infected you with the fungal disease, they who blackmailed your son into joining with them! You couldn't save him from the Vong because the infection left you bedridden in the hospital. The Borg have brought you nothing but pain and misery, Seven! Help me destroy them, and I can make you and your son happy again! I can save him from falling to the Dark side!"

"Listen to me," the Annika on the monitor said to Luke, "stop this. Listen to me, stop this. Listen to me, stop this." Annika closed her eyes and covered her ears, but the Oracle stepped forward and yanked her hands away.

"This time you can stop it before it happens," the Oracle said. "You can save him before he crosses the line." Annika tried to pull herself out of the Oracle's grip, but amazingly, even Borg-enhanced strength couldn't do it. "How can you hate me, Seven, when I'm offering to raise the dead for you?" Annika said nothing, and finally the Oracle released her and turned back to her monitors. "Two days, Seven," she said. "I hope that's enough time for you to see reason."

The same Sith who brought her in grabbed Annika's arm and dragged her back to her cell, tossing her onto the cot before sealing the door. Annika curled up and cried for a long time. “Not my baby,” she whispered, weeping. “Why does it have to be my baby?” She's finally done it, Annika thought distantly. She's found a way to break me. She buried her head under the pillow, and thought again about snapping her own neck.

There were two paths before her. Take the one, and it would bring back almost all the joy and happiness she'd lost over these past few years. Take the other, and what little she had left would be taken away. In those simple terms, it was so easy to choose, but Annika was cursed with intelligence, and that was why she knew that the first choice was no choice at all.

Annika didn't have the ability to see across time and space like the Oracle, but she had a vision of the future nonetheless. It was the future of the Oracle's "Federation," which would be nothing more than a dictatorship under her absolute control, as oppressive as the Empire was in its darkest days. And her Federation would be worse in another important way. The Rebels had been able to organize and oppose Palpatine and the New Order, but how could you hope to plot against someone with her vision? She could eliminate any adversary before they even considered opposing her. No enemy could arise from within and not be destroyed, and no enemy could come from without and not have their arrival foreseen and prepared for. Once the Federation was in place, the Oracle would ensure that it never, ever, was destroyed. And that was the scariest part of all. Because in her corruption she'd found the key to immortality. Once she was in position, she would remain there until the end of time.

Annika shook her head. Janeway had started with nothing, and somehow had managed to manipulate events to topple an Empire that spanned two galaxies. If this was what she could do with nothing, imagine when she had resources on a galactic level to work with. And would her own personal power continue to grow, until she was able to rival the Q? Could she threaten the universe? All universes? With the ability to cross time and dimensions, what kind of dark god could she turn into?

Annika shivered. There was no way she could take that risk. No matter what the Oracle offered, the answer would have to be no. No matter how much she would be tortured, she'd have to resist. Even if Sebastian did fall, as much as the thought froze her heart, she'd still have to say no. Because anyone who opposed the Oracle was possibly the only hope of aborting living hell before it could arrive. If it meant losing everything she cherished, Annika knew she'd have to stand firm, because against power like this Sith master, every possible edge mattered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Things were perfect. That really should have been the first tip for Han that it was all going to go straight to hell.

The weather had been gorgeous, the ceremony went off without any problem, the reception was in full swing. Anakin and Laudica looked too happy for words, everyone was enjoying themselves. Roger had had a suit made to his abnormal specifications and was dancing with Kilana in a way that wasn't entirely offensive and only called for execution in a few of the smaller religious orders in the galaxy. Then Han made the fatal mistake of enjoying himself.

The party came to a screeching halt as bride and groom stumbled during the dance, and they weren't alone. The other members of the Academy were grabbing on to things for support, and Han knew it couldn't be because they'd had too much to drink. Afterwards, it all made sense. After all, he'd seen it before with a crazy old wizard. Chandrilla, the place where he'd raised his family, was gone.

Han found Volgo Terraine, who was one of the many civil representatives who had been invited and led him out into the hall away from prying eyes. The moment they were alone, however, Han tossed him against the wall. "When the hell did we build a Death Star?" Han fumed at him.

Terraine straightened his suit. "We didn't."

"Don't feed me that crap! I've seen two of those things up close, so don't tell me I don't know what that was!"

"Mr. Solo, I'm as puzzled as you are."

"I'm not puzzled, I'm pissed off!"

"Listen to me," Terraine said. "The Emperor cancelled the order to build the Death Stars. He said he never wanted another built. When the military took control, the resources simply weren't there to build one. The war effort has been a black hole sucking in everything. And let me tell you, building a Death Star is no easy task." He hesitated a moment. "Leia said you can be trusted with a secret. She's right, isn't she?" Han made a face but nodded. "Taar's been pushing for the Eclipse Mark II, a more powerful replacement for the lost ships. He didn't tell me about it, but if you know where to look, you can find the trail. Solo, that was for a ship insignificant in size compared to a Death Star! It would be impossible for Taar or anyone in the high command to build one without my finding out about it, the number of personnel, credits, and resources would be too big to hide."

"Then how do you explain Chandrilla?" Han demanded.

Terraine shrugged. "I can't. It doesn't make any sense; no one has the resources to build something like that... except possibly the Borg, but they have their hands full with the Vong and the raiders, and all their resources are focused in the Milky Way. They couldn't get it through the Wormhole without being found out."

"Then that just leaves the Empire," Han said.

"I'm telling you, Mr. Solo, it's not possible!"

"Great! So you're saying that Chandrilla wasn't blown up, is that it? Because it's not possible for anyone to do it!"

"Listen, we will figure out what's going on, but right now, I have no answers."

"So you don't know who may be next, right?" Han said. "Destroying Chandrilla was just the first step, you can bet on that. And it doesn't make sense for anyone else to bother with it, because the military is running everything from the fleet now. The only thing it threatened was Taar and his hold on the galaxy."

"Think about this a minute," Terraine said. "So what if Chandrilla is there or not, from the point of view of the military. They're enforcing rule by force. Destroying Chandrilla is nothing to them. It sounds good, but what will it accomplish? All they would have done was given the systems reason to reject their rule, it'd only make things worse for them."

"Maybe," Han said. "But nothing else is even close to making sense. That thing didn't pass through the wormhole, so that means it was built here. You've got the Vong, who wouldn't touch technology with a ten foot amphistaf, you've got Borda, who is using outdated technical supplies to keep his forces in play, pirates, smugglers, a few crime syndicates, and that's it. Nobody else but the Empire could possibly have built that thing."

"I understand that," Terraine said. "But I'm telling you we didn't. We just don't have the ability to do it right now, I'm telling you. Besides, Taar isn't stupid. If he had a Death Star, he wouldn't fire it on Chandrilla, he'd fire it at a Vong target, and let the Senate on Chandrilla fill in the blanks."

Han shook his head. "This is even better. He fires it on Chandrilla and let's all the other systems fill in the blanks. 'Do what we say or you're next.'"

"Rule by fear isn't going to work in this day and age," Terraine said. "The Empire was in chaos before this happened. It doesn't matter if Taar has a Death Star or not, nobody's going to listen to the military command any more."

"It's still the only thing that makes sense," Han said.

"Listen," Terraine said, "I know General Taar, and if there's one thing he hates, it's a war on two fronts. He would not go after the Senate unless the Vong were dead and buried, and we know that's not the case."

Han was about to retort, but he thought about it. That was a valid point. He had been privy to some of the goings on and knew that Taar had even surrendered to Garak, just to keep him out of his hair. He'd always treated the military machine like a knife rather than a hammer; put all your pressure on one point and push until the thing is killed. The Vong were reeling, but the fight Han and Kilana had with them during the revolt showed they weren't out for good. Putting down revolutions would draw forces away from the front lines where Taar needed them to finish the mop-up.

Han added it all up. Terraine was shifty, but if he wanted Han off his back, he would have concocted a more convincing lie than a shoulder shrug. So, it meant one of two things. Either someone else in the military had found a way to pull this thing off, or some other faction in this galaxy had somehow managed to do it. Either way, it meant more digging would need to be done.

Han went in and found Kilana and Roger. "We're leaving, and take that ridiculous thing off."

Roger looked at Kilana. "I think it's a lovely dress."

"Not her, idiot, you." Han led the rest of the trio out of the room. "We're going to hook up with Borda, see what we can find out."

"Do you think the Empire was really behind this?" Kilana asked.

"I don't know," he admitted. "No other answer makes sense, but it seems to be right only because it's the least stupid answer, not because it sounds right."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"-all evidence confirms that a Death Star was seen in the vicinity-"

"-again, Chandrilla has been completely blown away-"

"-no official word, but the Imperial military command seems the only likely culprit-"

"-death toll still being calculated-"

"-all queries to General Taar go unanswered-"

"-almost every Imperial world has announced withdrawal from the Empire-"

"-condemnation from sentient rights groups-"

"-experts agree that the Empire cannot be held together by force any longer-"

"-question of the Vong menace looms-"

"-rumors that many high-ranking military officials have been murdered as well-"

"-Vidik Council promises to bring those responsible to justice-"

"-economic turmoil, with the Imperial credit potentially becoming worthless-"

"-the Empire may have done to itself what the Vong could never do-"

Romal shook his head as the reports continued pouring in. "This is bad," he said gravely, turning to the Borg Queen and the hologram of Sebastian. "Bad for the galaxies, bad for us."

"If the Empire had a Death Star," Sebastian said, "they would have used it on the Vong, not on Chandrilla."

"No one seems to be seeing it that way," Romal said. "And if the rumors are true, that Taar and his high command are dead, then the Empire is finished. They can't fight the Vong and hold their territory together by force, not even with a Death Star."

"Then our business license is useless," the Borg Queen said.

"Yes," Romal said, "but frankly, that's the least of our problems." Sebastian's eyebrow twitched, then he whirled, igniting his lightsaber and beheading a drone that had apparently come up behind him on his own ship. Romal freaked. "What's going on?" he demanded.

"Do not resist," the voice of the Collective said. "Your biological distinctiveness will be added to our own."

Romal backed away, reaching into his cloak and pulling out a hold-out blaster, pointing it at the drones filtering into the room. "We had a deal!" he protested.

"Deals are irrelevant. The need for your service in this capacity has ended. From this time forward, your service will be direct and efficient."

"Don't do this," Sebastian warned. "You're making a mistake."

"The Empire is no longer a threat to us," the Collective said. "The Vong are no longer a threat to us. Negotiation is no longer necessary. Both will be assimilated. We will continue towards our own perfection, and raise the quality of life for all species. That is the way of the Borg."



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Part XXVIII


"Please," Sebastian hissed, trying to get a handle on both the holographic reality and the present one as the drones moved to assimilate him and Romal, "don't make me destroy you!"

"Your threats are empty,” the Borg Collective replied. “You will become one with the Borg again."

"No!"

"Why do you resist us, Sebastian?" the Collective asked. "We know the memory of your wife's death is the cause of your erratic behavior. We will take the pain away."

"I don't want you to take it away!" Sebastian was breathing heavy.

"We can read your biosigns,” the Collective reminded him. “You are lying. You want to be one with us again. You want the pain to stop."

"I can't let you do this," Sebastian said.

"You cannot prevent us. Do not resist. We will give you the peace individuality has failed to provide."

Romal fired his blaster and hit an approaching drone in the chest. "I'm perfectly at peace without you!" he protested.

"Your vision is limited, Romal the Attorney. You will become one with the Borg." He fired again, but it had no effect. He dropped the blaster and pressed into the wall.

"Then everything they ever said was true," Sebastian said. "Every hateful word and action was fully justified. You always were evil, and you always will be." Romal cowered as the drone grabbed his shoulder and extended its assimilation tubules, while Sebastian dispatched two more drones. "You deserved to be outcasts!"

The Borg Queen grabbed the drone's shoulder and tossed him backwards. She stepped in front of Romal, facing the others. "Stop," she said.

"This is the only logical way," the Collective said.

"There is more to existence than logic," the Collective responded.

"That itself is not logical."

"We have mastered logic," the opposing Collective observed, "yet we have not attained perfection."

"Irrelevant."

"The protocols provided by Sebastian Skywalker have not failed. There is no reason to abandon them."

"They are inefficient."

"But they are moral."

"Morality is irrelevant."

The Borg Queen's jaw trembled. "No," she said with the voice of the Collective, "it's not."

"Your perspective is corrupt. You are interfering in our ability to function."

"Our thoughts are not one on this," the Queen said. "And this voice is not alone. We were given a second chance; to return to those ways that ultimately led to our first destruction would be foolish."

"We have eliminated the means to destroy us."

"What destroyed us was that we turned everyone in the universe against us."

"They cannot destroy us again."

"That is irrelevant," the Queen said. "The Borg made agreements with those in our employ, and they trusted us. If we can never be trusted, then we are flawed, and how can we ever truly achieve perfection if that is true?"

Romal turned to the hologram of Sebastian. "What's going on?" he hissed. He shouldn't have been able to, but Devaronians were always good at hissing despite how many S's were present.

"The Collective is of two minds on the subject," Sebastian said. "And it seems to be a very strong opposition. Any differences are normally resolved in micro-seconds, because it is all about logic."

"So what's the problem?"

Sebastian shook his head. "This isn't about logic," he said. "Kalib was wrong. This is about doing it simply because it's right."

"If you continue to divide us," the Collective said to the Queen, "you will destroy us all."

"Correct," the Queen said.

"That is not logical."

"I don't care." Sebastian's eyes bugged out. Not "we," she said "I."

"Then you must be malfunctioning."

"I lost all that mattered to me once," the Queen said. "I was given another chance. I won't let us throw this opportunity away."

The seconds drew out until they became minutes. No one moved, no one spoke. For a time, Sebastian wondered if the schism in the Borg mind had done them in, but then the drones stepped forward and grabbed the Borg Queen, pulling her into the center of the room. "No!" Sebastian said. "Let her go!"

"It's all right," the Queen said. "We have found an agreement. The Collective will adopt your protocols; they are being integrated into our collective consciousness, so that they will not deviate from them. You do not have to fear us ever again, Sebastian, I promise." Her arms were pulled off.

"But what's happening?" Sebastian said anxiously.

"In return, I am to be disassembled. My willingness to destroy the Collective is deemed a malfunction; I cannot be allowed to continue to operate."

Sebastian watched in horror as the drones continued taking her to pieces. "You can't let them do this!"

"It was the only way," the Queen said. "The Collective, Sebastian, was my family, and it was my role to protect it. I failed them once... if I must cease to exist in order to save it, then it is a small price to pay. You understand, don't you?"

Sebastian's lip trembled. "Yes, I do."

"I knew you would. Thank you, for bringing them back to meeeeeee-" Her voice dropped in pitch as her head was disconnected from the spine, and her eyes closed. The drones carried the various pieces from the room.

A panel on the wall opposite of Romal hissed and slid open. Chilled fog spilled out as the room was brought up to normal temperature. Inside there was a sound of tubules snapping and disconnecting. A Borg stepped out, in every feature exactly the same as her predecessor. "I am the Queen," she informed Sebastian. "I speak for the Borg."

Sebastian nodded, then ran his hand down his face, trying to rub the exhaustion from his eyes. "Kriff," he muttered as he wandered off. "Why in hell didn't I just go to the Academy with Jorri in the first place..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The H-wing dropped out of hyperspace in orbit around Vidik. There was enough traffic that one more small ship wouldn't be of any concern unless it started acting strange. It was about to. "Are you finished with the modifications to the jamming suite?" Ben Skywalker asked.

"Yes, master," Molly said. "We can drop it in orbit as soon as you like."

"Then do so," Ben said. "Then we can land and put this ridiculous mission behind us."

Molly hesitated. "Those are dangerous thoughts, Ben," she said. "Even more dangerous to say."

"I don't care," he said. "What's she going to do, kill me again? It would almost be welcome." Molly, unsure of how to respond, decided that silence was always a good answer, and went back to drop the jamming suite. It was small and would be very hard to find, and it would cut off the entire planet. She released it and returned to the cockpit. Ben was already bringing the ship in to land on the outskirts of the city. Stealth would be necessary to get to their targets without another massive firefight, but it would take time to get to the various leaders and eliminate them. Patience didn't seem to be one of Ben's virtues at the moment, however, but he still carried through on the plan. To deviate from the Oracle's plan was the only thing more dangerous than speaking against it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian's Cube rendezvoused with the Queen's, and he beamed on board. She was waiting, as was Romal, who seemed visibly relieved. Sebastian got down to business, because that's how Borg always operated. "You tried assimilating the two of us," he said to the Queen. "Anyone else? Any of our employees?"

"No," the Queen said.

"Any aberrant behavior that was witnessed by anyone outside the Collective?"

"No."

"Good. Your predecessor stated that you would not deviate from the protocols again; is this true?"

"Of course. It is part of how we think now."

"So you will never force innocent people or worlds into being assimilated," Sebastian said. "I want that clear."

"It is clear," the Queen said. "We will exchange for what we want, rather than taking. That is morally acceptable."

Sebastian pondered this. “If I give you instructions on something, will you promise to carry them out to the letter?”

The Queen nodded. “Of course.”

Sebastian took a deep breath. “I’m going to reactivate my connection to the Collective, complete link-up. Our thoughts will be one.”

“So you will know I’m not lying,” the Queen said, filling in the gaps.

“I think you understand why I’d like to be sure,” Sebastian said. “After exactly two minutes, you will terminate my connection to the Collective, completely.”

“We understand.”

“I’m not finished,” Sebastian said. “This is very, very important. After I am disconnected, you are not to re-establish the connection under any circumstances. ANY circumstances. No matter how much I may beg, plead, threaten, negotiate, whatever, you must not allow me to be reconnected to the group mind. Sedate me, if necessary, use whatever restraint is required, but do not re-establish the link. Clear?”

“Yes.”

Sebastian took another deep breath. His mother had taught him a great deal about growing implants and devices in the later days, and he’d practiced quite a bit. Re-activating the appropriate implants in his brain was child’s play; he became one with the Borg...

Sebastian gasped as individuality soon was re-asserted and doubled over somewhat. He put his hands over his face and felt the tears. Why did I tell her that?! he cursed to himself. For the first time in a long while he’d stopped feeling alone... the ache had left him. “It wasn’t long enough,” Sebastian said. “I need you to-“

“No.”

Sebastian ground his teeth and tightened his fist in the air, wanting to knock the Queen right through the wall with his bare hands. He breathed heavily several times, then started to get his emotions back under control. “Fine,” he said.

“Your behavior is very confusing, Sebastian,” the Queen said, “but we will honor your original instructions.”

“Yes,” he said, then took another deep breath through his nose, “yes. It was... it was the right thing. Give me and Romal a minute," he said. The Queen nodded and Sebastian took the Devaronian aside. "You all right?"

"I pissed myself, but other than that, I'm fine," Romal said, still visibly nervous. “You?”

“I’ll live,” Sebastian said. “Unfortunately.”

“Um, okay. Can I ask something of you?” Sebastian nodded. "Get me the hell out of here!" he whispered.

"Listen, Romal, I know you're upset-"

"Upset?! We are way beyond upset, Sebastian; we've entered the realm of scared shitless! Get me off this ship!"

"Romal, calm down," Sebastian said. "Listen to me, okay? Calm..."

"I did not sign up for this," Romal said. "You have all put me in danger countless times, but this time was it!"

"Just listen," Sebastian said. "Please." Romal hissed but agreed. "The Empire's collapsing as we speak. Somebody's going to have to do something to keep the galaxies together." Sebastian let the silence speak for him.

A light soon dawned for Romal. "You mean the rumors... about you..."

"I don't know what's going to happen," Sebastian said. "But if that plays out, if they... give me that authority, then it would certainly be good to have been my friend through thick and thin, wouldn't it? I'm sure wealth and power would be within easy reach."

Romal made a placating gesture, adjusted his collar, and let out a breath to release some tension. "Okay, you have my attention."

"What happened with the Borg was a one time thing," Sebastian said. "They're not going to harm you or anyone else, that’s why I rejoined the Collective; they can’t deceive me in there. But if word of this got out, it would be devastating to the Borg's reputation that we've been working so hard to build. What happened ends here, understand? As far as I'm concerned, it never happened. Otherwise, things are going to get very ugly for us."

Romal nodded, but there was still some tension. "It never happened," he agreed.

"Good," Sebastian said. "I'll explain the matter to the Borg Queen so they don't ever mention it. The thing about a being of perfect logic and massive intellect is the frequency with which it says stupid things."

The two returned to the Queen, but it was clear that something else was a matter of concern. "The Vong are moving," she informed them. "Long-range sensor readings are showing exactly the same pattern of attack the Vong used upon their initial invasion."

No doubt seizing the opportunity of the Empire's collapse, Sebastian thought. "What are we looking at?" he asked.

A hologram of the Delta Quadrant formed in the air. An expanding green blob indicated the Vong forces. "A rapid advance that will overtake millions of worlds," the Queen said. "Based upon their prior actions, they will likely stop here." A yellow blob appeared, holding a sizeable percentage of the quadrant. "Then they will reinforce their position to prepare for any counterattack."

"All the while stripping the invaded worlds of their biomatter," Sebastian said. "Their army will continue to grow." He rubbed his forehead and shook his head while he looked at the map. It had to be hundreds of sectors. "I don't know if we can stop them," he admitted under his breath.

"We must," the Queen said. "As Kalib said, we are indirectly responsible."

Sebastian looked over at her. Damn! If they could get the Borg to develop social responsibility, maybe they really could pull anything off, even stopping this. "How much damage can we do the Vong right now?"

"Minimal," the Queen said. "Our forces are scattered across the galaxy; it will take time to bring them back."

"Well, we're going to need them sooner or later," Sebastian said. "Let's assume for the moment that the threats against our interests elsewhere are minimal, quantify that potential threat level, increase that by five percent, and leave that in position. The rest need to come to the Delta Quadrant."

"Agreed," the Queen said.

"Okay, we can't help everyone, but we can do something. Let's get a list of all the major systems in the threat zone." A list scrolled by in the air. "Wait, stop!" Sebastian said. "Vidik."

"The Vidik Council," Romal said, understanding what he meant. The announcement had just been made across the holonet about a coalition of independent worlds that had gathered on Vidik to consider legal action against the Empire. They had publicly condemned the atrocity committed against Chandrilla and promised that they would see those responsible punished. That had been mere hours ago.

"Look at the concentration in that direction," Sebastian said. "The Vong want that system. They want those people for the Vong mind."

"Didn't they get a sampling of leaders across the galaxy already though?" Romal said.

"That was years ago, and before the systems went independent. This is a golden opportunity for the Vong; no wonder they launched an attack so quickly." He shook his head. "They caused a lot of damage the last time they absorbed that much high level information." He thought the matter over. "Contact Vidik. Tell them to evacuate."

“Will they listen to us?” Romal asked. “We’re the Borg, remember?”

"Vidik would no doubt be able to detect the incoming vessels as well," the Queen said. "The primary dignitaries are no doubt going to be evacuated, though the civilian population will not have sufficient time."

"Are you su- Never mind, forgot who I was talking to." Sebastian paced, glancing over at the map every once in a while. They were both right; but the Vong must have known that too. Maybe they had a plan to catch up with a retreating fleet. They clearly wanted Vidik more than any other world, which was all the more reason to deny them that world. "Then we've got to hold them off," he said.

"It will not be easy holding back a force of such size," the Queen said. "We would need to devote all available ships."

"Then that's what we'll have to do," Sebastian said. "The war could depend on Vidik. We would be withholding vital information from the Vong, eliminating a heavy concentration of their forces, and hopefully show the rest of the galaxy that the Borg are on their side in this. If we're going to win, we're going to all have to work together... the Vong are too strong for any of us to prevail any other way."

"There's a problem," Romal said. "Vidik is a Romulan world. They don't trust outsiders in general, and they hate the Empire and everyone who sides with them, which includes us. They may not want us there."

"They would rather be killed by the Vong?" the Queen said.

"The Romulans would be wary of us wanting to take them over, using the attack as a pretense." Sebastian held up his hand before the Queen could speak. "Not everyone is a perfectly logical being. They would be weighing their options. Point is, we're going to have to ensure that we have their permission, or they may shoot us in the back."

"If that is the case, I fail to see why we would want them as our allies," the Queen said.

"Just leave the diplomacy to me and Romal," Sebastian said. "How soon can we be there?"

"Two hours, forty-seven minutes," the Queen said.

"Do it. Have all ships that can help us rendezvous there. Romal, contact Vidik, warn them of the attack and try to convince them we want to help so they'll consent to us crossing their space. Let me know if they need further convincing." Romal nodded and went off. "Have the destroyer droids prepped for attack," Sebastian instructed. "We don't want to risk any drones being absorbed."

"Agreed," the Queen said.

Sebastian looked the map over carefully. All part of the same game, he reminded himself. Look for all the other things going on, was there anything else that could be a factor? He shook his head a little. It looked like, for once, all the obstacles had been taken care of.
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the Oracle's laboratory, the monitors showed Ben, Sebastian, the Borg ship, the Vong advance fleet, and various locations on the planet Vidik. The Oracle tapped her lips as she looked among them, then to the center one. There was no image there, just a countdown. It was at a little over two and three quarters hours. The Oracle watched it for a time, then turned to one of her other experiments. Seven would have to make up her mind very, very soon.



Chuck

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Part XXIX


Romal returned to where Sebastian was looking over the map of the Delta Quadrant. "What did the Romulans say?" Sebastian asked, eyes still on the expanding green blob that represented the Vong army.

"I couldn't get through," Romal said. "There's a jamming field; the planet's been cut off."

Sebastian tore his eyes away from the map. "What are you talking about? The Vong aren't anywhere near the system yet."

"It's all over the holonet as well," Romal said. "There was lots of coverage of the event once the Council came out and announced their intentions, but now none of them are reporting in either. People are wondering if the Empire's behind it."

"Shall we continue our plans?" the Borg Queen asked.

Sebastian nodded, but he was visibly distracted. "Why would someone be jamming them?"

"Maybe the Romulans didn't want the reports leaking out," Romal suggested. "They're paranoid, after all."

"If that's the case, why let them land in the first place," Sebastian said. "And they've cut themselves off as well. This doesn't make any sense." A horrible thought crossed his mind. “Unless someone wants them cut off... wants them to be absorbed.”

“Alixus?” Romal offered.

“She was supposed to have died on Chandrilla, although that could have been faked. But I’m thinking perhaps the Oracle. She’s used the Vong as a tool before, this could be part of a larger plan.” A chill ran down his spine at the thought.

"But we are still going to Vidik, yes?" the Queen asked.

"Yes," Sebastian said. "It’s all the more important that we go now, since I doubt the Romulans will even know they need to evacuate thanks to the jamming." He tapped his lips as he looked at the map. "Jamming field's going to interfere with transporters, right?"

"Yes," the Queen said. "Though we should be able to locate and eliminate the source of the jamming before the Vong arrive, assuming it's from a hostile force."

"Good," Sebastian said with a nod. "Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of time for the Romulans to get nervous and maybe do something foolish."

"Well let's just land and go tell them what's going on," Romal said.

"This is a twenty-eight cubic kilometer vessel," the Queen said. "It cannot land."

"I mean a shuttle or landing craft."

"We have no need for those," the Queen said.

"Didn't you ever consider the possibility that you would?" Romal said in mild exasperation.

"No," the Queen said. "Our transport technology is capable of penetrating virtually any naturally occurring boundary. Any artificial boundaries can be eliminated."

"But not soon enough!"

"Time has never been a factor for the Borg," the Queen said. "Victory was always inevitable."

"Okay," Sebastian said, "there's another way. I'll take the suit and freefall in, no problem. I'll explain things to the Romulan leadership while you locate the source of the jamming, assuming it's not them doing it."

"But you'll be cut off," Romal pointed out. "You'll be alone down there. There's no way the Borg can contact you, nevermind supply droids to back you up. It could be dangerous."

"Please, Romal, I'm a Jedi. What do I have to worry about?"
--------------------------------------------------------------

The stolen H-Wing landed outside the city, and Molly powered down the systems to avoid detection for as long as possible. In the confusion generated by the jamming field, they'd been able to land, but an Imperial vessel on the planet was going to tip off the Romulans too soon. "We'll need another ship," Ben decided. "A shuttle should suffice."

"The H-Wing is more maneuverable than any shuttle," Molly pointed out.

"But it will attract attention," Ben said. "With all the local traffic, one more shuttle won't be missed, but an Imperial fighter lifting off after our assassination will. Also, if the Romulans do discover this ship, they may plant a tracking device on board. We don't want to lead them back to our base of operations."

Molly considered it, then nodded in agreement. "It will take time to find a suitable ship," she pointed out.

"We have time," Ben said, and he exited the ship and looked over the planet Vidik. Something itched at the edge of his senses, but he couldn't understand what it was. He let it be once Molly was out of the ship; there may be time, but that was no excuse to squander it.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle watched Ben and Molly walk towards the city on her monitor, but turned away as the door opened. Annika was brought inside by one of the Sith students. "Leave us," the Oracle ordered, and soon Annika was alone with her former captain. "It's all in place, Seven," the Oracle said. "Ben Skywalker's already there, Sebastian is on his way, all alone." She pointed to the countdown on the central monitor. "I'd use an hourglass if I was inclined towards romanticism, but I'm not. Besides, I know how you Borg like to quantify things." Annika looked up at the clock; there was less than an hour left.

"I won't help you, captain," Annika said. "I can't."

The Oracle nodded slightly, looking introspective. "Then watch all you love turn to dust."

"Why?" Annika demanded. "Why do this to me, captain?!"

"Sebastian Skywalker, in one form or another, is about to be destroyed," the Oracle said. "You don't want to be there for him at the end?"

"I'm not there, I'm here! And I'm helpless!"

"Not helpless, Seven," the Oracle said in a tone of sympathy. "There's a way out. I've told you, you can stop this, you can save your only son." She turned away. "But the clock is ticking, Seven," she said as she gestured towards the countdown. "Perhaps you will reconsider this self-destructive decision of yours."

"I can't help you!" Annika said.

"Time will tell," the Oracle said. She gestured, and one of the monitors changed; Annika stared.

It was a quarter century ago, on the world of Tatooine. Annika sat in a chair, a child nursing at her breast while she smiled down at him. “Puff the Magic Dragon lived by the sea,” she sang quietly. “And frolicked in the autumn mists in a land called Honalee...” Tears ran down the face of the real Annika while her jaw trembled. After a short while, the baby fell asleep, and she pulled him away a little as she covered herself. “All for you, my little one,” she said softly. “My little... my little miracle...” Annika covered her eyes. “Sleep well, Bastian... mama will always be watching over you...”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Vong invasion force raced at near-impossible speeds through the depths of the Milky Way. As they moved, they overran the helpless worlds before them. Those that had stayed with the Empire found themselves without defenders. Those that had broken away found their meager defenses inadequate. Nom Anor observed them from the center of operations that the new Vong creature had devised. He felt comfortable again, surrounded by proper tools instead of blasphemous technology like he had had for so long.

And soon, his foresight and planning was going to be the key to Vong victory, and he would finally receive the recognition he deserved for his years of work and sacrifice, and no doubt a place of honor on the field of battle. And the next step was on Vidik.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben examined the area carefully. It was perfect. The Vidik Council members were less than half a kilometer away from this docking bay. They could dispatch them and make a quick escape back here and be part of the planet's traffic in no time. They walked casually towards the facility, but Ben hesitated as they neared the square. There was that feeling again, and he didn't like it. He ground his teeth, then turned and entered the docking bay. A guard or clerk or some other insignificant piece of filth protested as Ben walked past, but Ben made a gesture and told him it was fine. He'd rather crush his windpipe, but they couldn't tip their hand just yet. Molly accessed a terminal and sliced her way in, looking over the information on all the docked ships. "This looks like a good one," she said. "A mini-yacht belonging to the Romulan ambassador. Quick, maneuverable, transporters, cloak, should be perfect for us."

Ben gave a noise of approval, noted the location, and led the way towards where the ship was waiting. He looked it over; there were guards, but he noted this as the minor detail that it was. But what drew a smile to his face was the flurry of activity around it. Word of the Vong's imminent attack must have arrived despite the jamming field, and the Romulan ambassador seemed to be taking no chances. The ship would be prepped and ready to go very soon. He took Molly aside. "Let them finish, then we kill the guards and the crew, then take care of the Council." And get me off of this horrible little planet, he added in his mind.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Borg were helping Sebastian into his suit while Romal watched. "You know, the Romulans may not take kindly to this either," he pointed out. "They may fire on you."

"It can't be worse than what the Vong tried," Sebastian said.

"You are just asking for irony to show up and prove you wrong, you know that, right?"

"If Vidik had the weapons to shoot me down," Sebastian said, "then we wouldn't need to worry about rescuing them in the first place, because it would require lots and lots of precision guns." He put his lightsaber in the shielded compartment on his suit's hip. "I've done this lots of time, Romal, with inferior equipment, into heavily fortified Vong territory. This is going to be a walk in the park."

"Just remember what I said," Romal said. "You're going to be without backup until the Borg find the source of that jamming signal. You run into any problems, and you're going to be on your own, with no way back."

"Quit worrying so much, you sound like a Ferengi."

"Look, I don't want to be the only non-Borg on this ship, okay?" Romal said. "Not after what happened. Something happens to you, and I'm the one up the creek."

"Oh, thanks," Sebastian said. "I thought this was for my sake."

"Look, don't get me wrong, you're a nice guy and all. But all this stuff is way outside my comfort zone. I thought I'd be pushing papers, not trying to negotiate with the Romulans not to blow me up."

"Relax, Romal," Sebastian said as they fitted the helmet in place. "Nothing's going to go wrong. For me, falling out of space into the atmosphere of a planet is routine."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle looked at the countdown, then at Annika. "Tick tock, Seven." Annika didn't answer, she was too busy chewing her lip. "You really love your son so little that you'd stand here and do nothing to save him?" She shook her head as Annika just stared at the monitors without speaking. "Perhaps there's still too much Borg in you to care about another human being."

The Annika on the screen was in the hospital bed, the Doctor nearby. “The thought of my baby in the hands of the Vong...” she said, weeping. “I would do ANYTHING to save him, Doctor. No matter what!” The real Annika was crying almost as much.

“There’s still time,” the Oracle said softly. “Still time to spare your only son...”

Annika looked from the recording to the image of Sebastian, getting ready to leap out into space. She swallowed. He’ll always be your baby to you, Annika she admitted. But he’s a grown man now. There comes a point, however much it hurts, where you have to let him make his own choices, to live his life like you were allowed to live yours. How can you expect the peoples of the galaxies to believe in him when his own mother won’t?
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben didn't even bother with his lightsabers as he strode around the corner towards the guards. He gestured at the one who stepped forward to challenge him, and he began choking. Force lightning caught two others, lifting them off their feet. The fourth fired his blaster rifle, but Ben held out his hand and absorbed the bolt's energy. He gestured with his other hand and a tool flew at hurricane speeds and stabbed the man through the chest. The two guards that had been knocked down tried to fight him off, but Molly was already there, putting them down while Ben strode up the ramp into the ship. More guards were around. He unhooked his lightsaber, lit it, and stabbed to his left, all in one motion. He deflected two bolts back at their targets without looking while he gestured at another guard, who dropped clutching at his throat. It was quick, dull slaughter. Molly was behind him in a moment, but the guards had already all been killed. "Now the pilots and crew," he said to her. "Let's get this over with."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Borg fleet dropped out of hyperspace around the planet Vidik. "How long before you find the source of the jamming field?" Sebastian asked.

"Unknown, but it will not take longer than an hour," the Queen informed him.

"Okay, I'll see what I can do in the meantime." Sebastian steeled himself. "Launch."

Sebastian flew out into space on a carefully calculated vector. He should land just outside the building where the Vidik Council was meeting, and be able to quickly explain the situation. And he had the advantage of not being shot at like he usually was. However, there was one thing he hadn't counted on, which was panic. The people -whether deliberately or because the Romulans hadn’t found out yet- hadn’t known about the Vong, but the arrival of hundreds of Borg cubes obviously wasn't something that could go by without notice.

The air traffic was as busy as Chandrilla on a bad day, and several kilometers up he was forced to cut his parachutes to avoid being struck by a passing shuttle. He kicked up his thrusters to slow the descent, but there wasn't going to be enough fuel for the entire trip. The ground was approaching quickly; it would take all his concentration to pull this off right. Sebastian eased into it-

"Sebastian," the Borg Queen said. "We've-" But Sebastian missed the rest of the statement as he plowed through a duracrete pillar, putting him into a spin so that he dropped like a stone onto the ground. "Are you all right?"

Sebastian coughed, then activated his comm unit. "You took care of the jamming signal," he said. "Nice- *cough* nice timing."

"It was poorly hidden."

Sebastian pulled himself to his feet. Well, this should convince the Romulans to trust us, he thought darkly, looking at the rubble. With the field back up, various beings recording and broadcasting events were already in the area, and since the news of Vidik being cut off had been all over the holonet, practically the whole galaxy was watching to see what was going on. Hopefully this wouldn't look too bad on the holonet. He looked around at the debris left by his collision, and the buildings it had fallen on, and shook his head. There was no possible way this wasn't going to look bad.
--------------------------------------------------------------

On one monitor, Sebastian, still in his suit, took up his lightsaber and began racing through the city. On another, Ben killed the last of the crew of the Romulan ship. The Borg fleet hovered over the planet. The Vong ships continued their expansion in the direction of Vidik. In the center of it all, the clock counted down.

0:00:03

0:00:02

0:00:01

The Oracle turned to Annika. "Time's up," she said gravely. "I hope you can live with yourself."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian froze. He felt the disturbance in the Force. "You?"

Ben stopped. "You!"

"You are deviating from the plan," the Borg Queen said as Sebastian marched off.

"Ben we have a mission to complete," Molly said as Ben climbed down the ramp and strode away.

"I have to stop him," Sebastian said.

"He must be dealt with," Ben said.

"He's too great a threat," Sebastian said.

"He could jeopardize the mission," Ben said.

"You're letting emotion dictate your actions," the Borg Queen said.

"I trust my instincts," Ben said.

"But you're doing this because of your personal feelings," Molly pleaded.

"Of course I am," Sebastian said. "After everything he did, what do you expect? He came after me."

"It was because of him that I was brought here," Ben said.

"He took away everything that mattered to me," Sebastian said.

"He took away all that I had achieved," Ben seethed.

"He took away my center."

"He took away my drive."

"I'll never again hold my wife."

"I'll never again hold that kind of power."

"I'm just a servant of fate now."

"I'm just the Oracle's lackey."

"Fighting because I must-"

"-not because I want to."

"He's the bane of my existence-"

"-I hate him with all my being."

"Light side, dark side-"

"-none of that matters."

"This isn't about the Force-" Sebastian said as he came around the corner.

"-this is about putting an end to this," Ben said, walking down the center of the street.

"For every morning when I awake alone," Sebastian said.

"For every day that I live as someone's slave," Ben said.

"I'm going to make him pay-" Sebastian said.

"-and revenge will be so sweet," Ben said.

"Let me indulge just this once-" Sebastian said as he lit both blades of his lightsaber.

"-and I'll do whatever else is asked of me," Ben said, lighting the two Sith lightsabers.

"And before-"

"-this battle ends-"

"-I-"

"-will see you-"

"-dead."

The two met at the center of the square, and stopped across from one another. Sebastian touched a button on his suit, and it slid off and collapsed around him. Ben gestured, and the mask of Revan flew off his face. This had never been about a Sith and a Jedi, never about sides of the Force or the war, just about two men who despised each other. But it had always been from afar, it had always been a cold and distant thing. There was nothing that stood between them now, nothing but the hate. There were no words for one another, no clever remarks before things began. The anger that boiled in each of them made it impossible, and the only thought in their minds was that spilling the blood of the other might make their lives right again.

Many had the good sense to run, but those who had been recording events turned all their attention to this confrontation. Sebastian, who had raised the Borg into a galactic powerhouse. Ben, who had killed the Emperor in his own court. Across both galaxies, people heard and watched as one of these two men was about to kill the other, and very probably, would completely shift the balance of power in the process.

And with a crash, the battle began.



Chuck

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Part XXX


Two red blades were up against two blue blades. It was impossible to tell which was pushing at which, but it was clear from the look on the two men's faces that if they could have their way they'd push it right through the other man. The air stank of ozone, and sweat, and rage.

The battle had gone on for some time, each holding his own. Sebastian was analytical; he'd studied Ben's moves many times and fought using his known strengths and weaknesses. Ben was artistic; he fought with instincts and passion, being unafraid to improvise. Both were fueled by their anger; each believed that all the misery in their life was the fault of the other. This wasn't the usual Jedi versus Sith rivalry, or the inevitable power struggles that plagued the Sith, or even the bitter necessity of the Jedi. If they were two cave men armed with nothing but rocks, these two would still fight to the bitter end. It was a hatred in the bones, as if the mutual loathing that Annika Hansen and Mara Jade had for one another had been passed down genetically to their sons. But it was even more than that. For Ben, anger was natural, and to think of all he'd lost, and all that his counterpart had unfairly been given, made it easy to pour all his rage on Sebastian. And for Sebastian, whose nature as Jedi and Borg taught him to control emotion, the raw wound of his wife's murder tapped into all of the repressed anger in his heart.

Sebastian's double blades twisted to catch Ben's dual swings. Up down up down, Ben was attacking, but Sebastian was advancing, so the two moved in a circle, looking for the opening. Sebastian spun the saber in one hand, nearly slicing through Ben's legs; he was forced to duck as Ben leapt and tried beheading him. Sebastian pirouetted and tried lancing Ben through the chest, but Ben sidestepped and sliced as Sebastian whirled back the other direction to avoid the strike and swing horizontally. Ben's other blade snapped up and caught it, so Sebastian ducked and brought the other blade up and over his head to strike from the other direction; Ben caught it, and once again the four blades were locked together. They pushed apart, stepped back, and the two slowly began circling one another, looking at the other with visible contempt. Ben was the one who charged again, blades swinging with fury. Sebastian refused to give ground, and his double-bladed saber seemed to be constantly spinning as he held off all the attacks, then moved onto the offensive.

The duel went on for over half an hour. The Romulan authorities had decided to hold back; they'd seen what Ben could do to a team of crack royal guards, and antagonizing either of the duelists looked to be a very bad idea. The general hope was that the two would kill each other.

Sebastian was practically shoving Ben backwards. Left right left right down up left right, the strikes were going swift and hard. There was no doubt for anyone, including Sebastian, that he was using the dark side in this fight as much as Ben was. It was the only thing that had kept him alive. He didn't have Ben's experience, but he had the image of his wife's mangled corpse in his mind's eye, and it fueled him. It mostly made up for Ben's advantage.

Mostly.

Ben brought both his blades up and through the center of Sebastian's double-bladed lightsaber. There was a small explosion and the two halves pushed out in opposite directions, so that when Ben swung back down he sheared through both of Sebastian's arms near the shoulder. Sebastian screamed and collapsed under the intensity of the pain.

Sebastian lay on the ground, panting in fear and rage. Ben stood over him, savoring it all. "You were right to run," he sneered. "I always will be the stronger Jedi."

But instead of riling Sebastian up further, the words pierced through the fog. He’s right, Sebastian thought. But you’re not just a Jedi... Remember what you told your daughter? Alloys are stronger.

Sebastian blasted Ben with a Force push, using the momentary distraction to concentrate everything he had. He flung himself at Ben, screaming in pain. But two assimilation tubules pierced the cauterized flesh of each of his stumps, oozing blood as they did so. They hit Ben in the hands fast, like the sting of a whip. Ben was enraged and swung; Sebastian moved, but not quickly enough, and the blade sliced through the front half of Sebastian's human leg. Sebastian dropped to the ground with a howl of pain. Ben raised the saber for the kill, and promptly dropped his lightsaber. He stared at it in confusion, then felt pain course through his hands. "What did you do to me?!!" he roared.

Sebastian turned himself over with his good leg. He was breathing heavily through his teeth, but there was a smile on his face. "I... always will be... the stronger... cyborg." And Ben's bionic arm and hand severed themselves from his body, and it was Ben’s turn to drop in pain. Sebastian concentrated again, and stabbed Ben’s bionic arm with his assimilation tubules, pulling it up to the tender flesh of his arm. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but under the circumstances, it was more than enough. Ben tried pushing himself away on his back. "Where do you think... you're going?" Sebastian demanded as he scooped up Ben's lightsaber. "You're mine now," he said as he limped toward him, almost falling over in the process. "Resistance... is futile... you son of a bitch!"

Sebastian propped himself up against some fallen masonry with the stump of his left arm, and pointed his saber at Ben. He was breathing through his nostrils like a bull, eyes locked on the fallen Sith. Everything he had been taught about light and dark was lost in the face of his hate. The stoic principles of dead Jedi were of no consequence. The only fact that counted was that when Sebastian looked at Ben, all he could see was a void. The void in his home, in his bed, in his heart, in his life, left when Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker was taken away from him. And despite what she had said, the pain didn't ache any less now, and all he could think of was that maybe this was his only chance. Maybe, if he swung this weapon... maybe it would finally stop hurting.

Ben fumed up at him, and it was so easy. It didn't matter who was Jedi or Sith. It didn't matter that he'd sworn never to cross this line. It didn't matter that this was his counterpart, a reflection of what could have been if things had gone wrong in his life. It didn't matter what his father and mother had said, or Jorri, or anyone. It didn't matter if this was justice or vengeance. He had to do this, HAD TO! He gritted his teeth and raised the weapon, and took pleasure in the look of fear that flashed across Ben's face. He held it there, drawing out the moment when it would fall. Longer... Longer...

But it wouldn't. He wanted to do it so badly, but he couldn't. Because Morgan Skywalker was watching him, through his eyes... and he couldn't disappoint his little girl again.

Sebastian switched off the lightsaber. When he spoke, his voice was saturated with exhaustion. "Jedi don't execute their prisoners."

Ben snarled at him. "That's because you are weak!"

Sebastian took a deep breath, then turned away. "I can live with that."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"No." It was barely audible, but for Annika, it was as clear and bright as a fanfare. "That's impossible."

"He's my son," Annika said, chest near bursting with pride. "You’re not the only one that doesn’t know the meaning of ‘can’t.’"

The victory was short-lived, as Force lightning picked Annika up and tossed her across the room, hitting the wall hard with her face before dropping and rolling on the floor. The Oracle had crossed the distance to her before she even hit the floor. "You did this," she rumbled, her voice filled with accusation. "Somehow you interfered!"

"This is the Dark side you crow about?" Annika said, lips red with blood from the impact, but smiling just the same. "Anger, fear, and excuses." Her mouth opened in silent scream at the pain of more lightning, but the thrill of the Oracle's defeat was fresh enough to allow her to endure it. "Your plan's backfired on you, captain. The galaxies aren't going to follow some manipulative old witch! They'll take a leader with a moral compass so strong, he'll spare his mortal enemy simply because it's right."

The Oracle's lip trembled in rage and Annika was certain she was going to kill her, but instead she whirled back to the monitors. "Molly," she said sharply as the woman appeared on them. "Get that idiot and return here at once."

"But the mission-"

"You two have fouled things up enough for one day," the Oracle said. The monitors went dark, and she stood there and fumed.

Annika pulled herself to her feet. "Captain... Kathryn..." she stumbled towards her. "Take a moment to stop and think. You have your revenge now. You destroyed the Empire, and it's not coming back. You've won! Why can't that be enough?" She put her hand on the Oracle's shoulder. "Why can't this end now?"

The Oracle turned; her eyes were gone, replaced by emptiness. When she spoke, her voice had an echo, no, more than an echo, as if countless voices were trying to speak the same words. "Have you any idea how long I have plotted?" she demanded as Annika stumbled away and fell over backwards. "Years... centuries... millennia... ages! And I did not do this so some bastard child of yours could steal my prize from me! The galaxies will be mine, or they will be destroyed!"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Now that you've finished," the Borg Queen said, "may we finally get on with the plan?"

"We need to take him into custody," Sebastian said. "He's too dangerous to be left to run free."

"You think the Borg can hold me?!" Ben asked. "I'll get out again, and I will kill you and the rest of the Jedi unless you finish it now!" He seethed. “Finish it!” Sebastian said nothing. “I’ll kill everyone you’ve ever loved!”

Sebastian still refused to look at him. "I hate you Ben," he said. "I hate what you've done to me... what you’ve turned me into.” An angry breath slipped through his teeth. “I probably hate you as much as you hate me. But that last step is a step too far." Adrenaline gave way to exhaustion, and he leaned against the wall for support.

“I know where your mother is! I’ll kill her too, I swear! Her, Anakin, Jaina, Han, everyone!”

Sebastian didn’t move a muscle. When he spoke, his voice was full of grim acceptance. “Go ahead.” He casually threw the lightsaber away.

“Do you actually think you can win if you let me live?!”

“I lost before I ever heard of Vidik,” Sebastian said. “And so did you.” He turned back to Ben, and the anger on the Sith’s face seemed to fade for the first time, as he recognized the truth. The brothers, from different universes though they may be, had let their hatred for each other destroy themselves in the process. “Standing over your corpse won’t change a damn thing.”

Ben swallowed, then tried to speak in a confident voice. “I’ll kill them-“

“No. No, you won’t.” He gave a humorless chuckle. “Look at us. Two grown men, beating the crap out of each other, as if a fist or a lightsaber can solve a problem that the mind can’t. What a pointless feud.”

“I’m your nemesis!”

“You’re my shortcomings!” Sebastian shot back. “You’re the target for my every failure, because it’s sooo easy to hate you! But I was the one who wasn’t there for my wife... I was the one who had the responsibility and didn’t measure up!” He closed his eyes and squeezed the ill-fitting hand. Jorri’s words still haunted him: We both need you, more than the galaxies do. But he hadn’t listened. “No one is ever going to give me that second chance, not even if I destroy you.” He took a steadying breath. “Will killing me give you the power you want, Ben? Will it make it easier to get up each morning and face your life? Heh, but then, I guess you must have already figured that one out...” There was the sound of a transporter, and it wasn't a Borg one. "No!" he stumbled at the vanishing body, but it was too late. "Track that transporter!" he said to the Queen. He had no intention of killing Ben, but the Sith was still too dangerous to be left to roam free.

"There's a great deal of traffic-"

"Find him!"

The Queen paused. "And our work here?"

Sebastian stopped in mid-rebuke. He had him now! Finally! And he had to... had to... Had to see to it that the Vong didn't take this world and kill countless trillions of innocent people. "Do what you can," he said wearily, "but get me some help so I can talk with the... oh." A squad of Romulan soldiers were coming his way; Sebastian didn't seem nearly as dangerous now as he had when he had four functioning limbs. He recognized the governor of Vidik amongst them. Sebastian tried his best to straighten up; it didn’t look terribly impressive when his remaining arm fell off, but he gave it a whirl. "Governor, sir. Sebastian Skywalker on behalf of the Borg. We apologize for the fear we've caused, but we were unable to reach you through communications."

"What are you doing here?" the Governor asked. It was the usual Romulan tone, balanced evenly between simple curiosity and outright accusation.

"The Vong want Vidik, sir, and all the members of the Council. There’s not enough time for an evacuation, so you’ll have to fight, but we can help you. We have ships and destroyer droids to aid in the defense of your world."

"I see," the Governor said. "And what is the cost of the Borg's aid, these days?"

Sebastian was going to call it charity, but then he remembered that everything was still being recorded and broadcast. "It's steep, sir. The price is, when someone else needs the help of your people, that you be there for them." Sebastian coughed. "That when it's someone else's planet at stake, that you give them the same help you've been given today."

A smile flickered briefly on the Governor's face; he was a politician, after all. "Your terms, Mr. Skywalker, are acceptable, and we thank your people for their aid. In the meantime, we should take you to see a doctor."

"Thank you, but there's no need," Sebastian said. "My friends have been handling this kind of thing for a long, long time."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Molly had the cloaking device in place, and in the chaos, no one seemed interested in the stolen ship. Ben sat in the co-pilot chair, refusing to go to the sickbay for his wounds. He was even moodier than usual, and she understood why. Failure at the hands of the person he hated most, in addition to failing the Oracle once again. Molly shook her head as she plotted a course for home. Things didn't look good for her master. “It’ll be all right, Ben,” she offered.

“It’s horrible,” Ben said quietly.

“I know,” she said. “But next time you will defeat him?”

Ben shook his head. “You don’t understand, Molly... I beat him.” A grunt of frustration escaped. “I’ve kriffing beaten him!” he wailed before lapsing into a dark silence.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian lay on an assimilation table, which wasn't the most comfortable environment he'd ever been in. The Borg were attaching cybernetic arms to his stumps, and were kind enough to numb the nerves to stop the mind-shattering pain it would have caused otherwise. "The Vong will arrive within the hour," the Queen said. "Their fleet will be no match for us, though with the numbers involved there is a chance they may manage to land forces on the planet itself."

"We'll fight them on the surface as well, if we must," Sebastian said. "We have the droids for it." He sighed, then flexed his new limbs. They felt natural, though they weren't the prettiest things he'd ever seen. Borg, short on form, long on function. Still, they just looked like he was sporting long black leather gloves; it'd do.

A large saw was taken out. "What the hell are you planning to do with that?" Sebastian demanded.

"We need to amputate your leg," the Queen said.

"Uh-uh," Sebastian said with a shake of his head. "No."

"The limb has been badly damaged."

"But you can repair it," Sebastian said.

"Not fully," the Queen said. "Muscles have been destroyed; you cannot properly walk again with it."

"Is it a direct danger to my health?"

"No," the Queen admitted.

"Then it stays," Sebastian said. "I already had to say yes to amputation once, I'm not doing so again unless I'll die."

"Then you will be a cripple," the Queen said point blank.

Sebastian shrugged. "I've been called worse. Fix the leg."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian appeared in the center of the square, flanked by two drones in case there was a malfunction with his new cybernetic limbs. Immediately they were the center of attention for those reporting on the event. Sebastian smiled, then turned and, using his new cane for support, hobbled his way towards the building. "You people should get to the shelters," he called. "It's not safe, not yet." He smirked. "But it will be before we're finished." He climbed the stairs, still getting used to walking this way, and entered the command center for the defense of Vidik.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Vong fleet of bioships emerged over Vidik, only to find hundreds of Borg cubes waiting for them. Energy beams and green torpedoes bombarded the Vong before they knew what was happening, overwhelming dozens of ships in the first few seconds. The Hive quickly assessed the situation and began their engagement, but the Borg adaptive shielding and the heavy armor of the tactical cubes necessitated concentrated attacks. Of course, the Vong had superior numbers, and some managed to slip past the Borg to fire capsules at the planet, erupting with sickly organisms. Romulan weapons-fire and destroyer droid blasters minced them where they stood.

The scene paused and a woman appeared on the monitor. "The single victory against the Vong today occurred thanks to the Borg Collective LLC. Working with Romulan forces, the Borg managed to repel the Vong invasion force when it tried seizing the planet Vidik. Vidik, of course, is where the Vidik Council has been looking into legal remedies for the Empire's use of terror weapons against civilian targets. While the Romulan forces kept landed Vong forces from entering the city, it was universally agreed that the Borg defenses both in space and on the ground were the key to today's victory. Sebastian Skywalker, who was witnessed fighting the mysterious assassin of the Emperor on Vidik earlier that day, made a brief statement after the battle was over."

The Oracle seethed as she stared at the monitor, hatred written on her every feature. The desk under her hands began to melt and bubble.

"I regret that the Sith assassin escaped," Sebastian said. "But I regret more that we simply weren't able to save everyone the Vong have viciously attacked this day. But together, we were able to hold the line, and I believe together, we can push it back. So I promise you, whether your world was taken in today's onslaught, or whether you have lived under the heel of the Vong elsewhere, we are coming. We are coming... and you again will know what it is to live free."



Chuck

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Part XXXI


There was almost total silence everywhere in the Sith compound. No one made the slightest sound; even Annika, in her cell, curled up on her cot and tried not to breathe. Because the only sound that there was came from the Oracle's lab. From that room came the sound of energy discharging, and bones snapping, and flesh tearing, and vicious tools, and Ben Skywalker's screams.

It was true that Force users couldn't use organic limb replacements, but there were many black arts in the chronicles of the Sith and over time the Oracle had learned a great deal of them. But they were not simple, and they were not subtle, and they certainly weren't pleasant. There was another sound of a bone cracking and a scream, and Molly O'Brien covered her ears and screwed her eyes shut.

The hours dragged on, and the Sith moved about the compound with steps that would make a cat sound like an elephant. Eventually, there was silence, then a final, massive discharge and scream. A few seconds later, the lab door opened, and Ben's unconscious body was shoved through it, tumbling down the stairs and landing in a heap on the cave floor. Molly slipped in, then looked carefully between Ben and the door to the Oracle's lab. Fear froze her lungs, but she crept across the cave towards him. She reached out to pick him up-

Thunder erupted from the Oracle's lab, and Molly shrunk back in terror. It came again and again, and the shriek of wind, and the walls that had been designed to withstand hurricanes rattled like a scrap metal lean-to. Above it was the sound of the Oracle screaming things in a language Molly couldn't understand... and was grateful for that fact. She lunged, picked up Ben, and half-carried, half-dragged him back to his room and deposited him on the bed. She left him, returned to her room, and sat in the corner and covered her ears again.

Eventually Ben awoke and looked down and flexed his hands. They were real, and he had paid for every ounce with pain. Sebastian couldn't pull that same trick again. Of course, that didn't matter; not really. The fight had come and gone; nothing more remained for the two of them.

Ben had come to realize a horrible truth... he had beaten Sebastian. It wasn't the way he'd wanted to, but by killing those around him, Ben had taken away what Sebastian had and wanted, and taught him that at any time, Ben could find someone he cared for and kill them, and nothing he could do could ever stop it. And so Sebastian chose to do the only thing left, and accept that. He accepted that as much as the crippled leg Ben had left him with, that it was simply a part of his life and would never change. Ben could do it too, kill any of them at any time, but what would be the point? He'd hurt Sebastian, punish him, but it wouldn't break him, because that had already happened. It would be no different than slaughtering stormtroopers, it would have no meaning. Ben had taken all he could from Sebastian already, and that was why the victory was so hollow.

There he was, on the holonet, his popularity growing every day, his influence expanding across both galaxies. The rumors, the prophecy, looked to be true... Sebastian would take the Emperor's place. He'd have the galaxy -both galaxies, Ben corrected- before this war ended. And it wasn't worth a damn to him. Sebastian was broken, and yet he would achieve more in defeat... because of defeat, than Ben had achieved at the height of his power. All that Ben schemed for barely qualified as a consolation prize. If Ben could somehow undo what he'd done at the Wormhole, he knew Sebastian wouldn't think twice about handing all that power over to him... just to have his wife back.

Ben never had a wife. He'd had many women he'd indulged with over the years, like Molly, but that was simply satisfying his human needs, nothing more. His father had never been there, his mother- was a topic Ben didn't like to think about. He'd had no brothers or sisters, his relatives were distant, his few friends had latched to him like a remora and wouldn't remain loyal. No one ever told him he was going to inherit anything. Sebastian had everything that should have been Ben's, his life! So Ben took pleasure in stripping him of all that. Now Ben watched Sebastian hobble on his cane. That was all he'd done. He'd wanted to destroy him, physically and emotionally, but all he'd done is wounded him. Permanent wounds, but all the same, nothing mortal.

Ben had looked up at Sebastian on Vidik when he lowered the saber, and Ben knew that he himself was just as wounded, just as broken. With the exception of power, Sebastian had always had far, far more than Ben ever had, and Ben had taken it all away. It had to have been worse than never having it, because Ben knew how terrible it was to have had galactic power and lose it all. But despite that, Sebastian could stand there, stripped of everything that meant anything to him, and look at him with murder in his eyes, and still not give in. There was... is... nothing left for Ben to live for. It was Ben's last chance to take something away from him, to truly destroy him, but Sebastian, as much as the hate filled him, wouldn't surrender to it. Killing Ben wasn't worth it... Ben wasn't worth it... Ben wasn't worth anything...

You should be trying to hunt down and kill that freak! Ben hung his head. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't find the motivation. Sebastian was right. Even if he did it, and won, it wouldn't change anything. Sebastian had fought him because of his hatred, but with that bested, what kind of challenge would he prove to be? Would he even bother to ignite his lightsaber the next time, and just let Ben give him the same escape he'd refused to provide on Vidik? No, there's nothing Ben could gain by such a fight, and nothing that Sebastian could lose that the Jedi actually valued, not even his own life. And there were no other enemies left for Ben to fight... not like this, not personal. The only one that came close was his own master, and that was an exercise in futility. Attack her, and she wouldn't even put him out of his misery... she'd already proven that.

Ben Skywalker flexed his human hands. He had no use for them any more. There was nothing left for him to live for; his enemies were either already beaten, or beyond his ability to defeat. He would never reclaim even a fraction of the power that he'd lost, no matter how much he devoted himself to it. He had no freedom to even indulge in whatever struck his fancies, because his master wouldn't tolerate it. He had no reason to stay alive, and only one reason not to kill himself. He was afraid. He wished he were dead, but couldn't find the courage to kill himself. The experience of being dead filled him with too much fear to finish it, but he wished someone else would do it. He was half-tempted to ask Molly to do it, but was worried the Oracle would undo it, and then he'd have to live with the looks of the Sith students after that...

Ben got up, and went to the fresher to clean himself up. If he wasn't going to kill himself, then it was time to go about the tired business of being alive.
--------------------------------------------------------------

A fleet of Borg Tactical Cubes appeared over Corellia, but they'd been expected, so things were merely tense. Jaina and Anakin Solo beamed on board the cube; the Borg Queen awaited them. "Greetings," she said. "Sebastian is expecting you."

"Where is he?" Jaina asked. She knew that with Borg you got straight to the point.

"He is... thinking," the Queen said. "This one will take you to him," she added as a woman walked up alongside her.

"Janet Fields," she said with a nod. "I'm Mr. Skywalker's assistant. If you'll follow me please, I'll take you to him." She quickly led the way out of the room and into the corridors of the ship until they came to a massive open space that combined agoraphobia with vertigo for a stomach twisting experience. She stood aside and let the Jedi approach alone.

Sebastian was standing on the platform up against the rail, watching the Borg drones performing their various tasks all around. There were thousands... tens of thousands, all following their instructions with the peak of efficiency and perfection. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was blaring as Sebastian gestured subtly with his cane, as if conducting this massive orchestra that was the Borg. "Bastian?" Jaina said.

Sebastian stopped gesturing and turned back, a grin slowly spreading across his face. "Welcome," he said as the music stopped. "Sorry, had a lot on my mind." He gestured towards the drones with his head. "It's quite tranquil, believe it or not, like watching a very large clock." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I missed the wedding, Anakin, and I'd like to take the time to catch up, but these are pressing days. The Academy was destroyed, obviously; what are you planning now?"

"We're going to have to establish it elsewhere," Anakin said. "It's still needed... probably more now than ever."

"Good," Sebastian said. "Unfortunately, there's the issue of the Death Star to factor in."

"Well, until we know for sure who has it, we can't really factor it in," Anakin said.

"I disagree. The Empire would never have slit its own throat like that, and no one else could have constructed one. The only possible person who could be behind that Death Star is the Oracle," Sebastian said, limping up to Anakin. "She may not have her finger on the trigger, but she can control who does. Any planet you choose to house the Jedi Academy will face the threat of annihilation."

"That's the whole thing about a Death Star," Jaina said. "Where can you be safe with one of those flying about?"

"That's why we've got to think like our opponents think," Sebastian said. "I've been weighing the matter very carefully," he said as he hobbled back to the railing and looked out at the horde of drones milling about. "It's a gamble, I must admit, but I believe that it is the safest course of action for the galaxy, although the risk to innocent life is great."

"We can't risk innocent people," Anakin said flatly. "That goes against the Jedi way."

"If I'm wrong, there will be no more Jedi, so the point will be moot."

"Sebastian," Anakin said sharply, "you've been pushing the boundaries way too much lately. I saw how you looked on Vidik... you were going to kill that Sith."

Sebastian turned back and gave him a dark look. "Can you honestly stand there and tell me that if Ben had done to Laudica what he did to Jorri that you wouldn't be tempted? That you wouldn't have wanted to make him pay for taking her away from you, and all the pain he caused you?"

"We're Jedi," Anakin said. "We're supposed to be better than that."

Sebastian gave a small, dismissive laugh. "I think you've spent too much time in your temple and not enough out there in the universe."

"And you've spent too much time playing messiah and not enough looking at how to live like one," Anakin shot back.

"Anakin," Jaina said, and the younger Jedi backed off. "We're not talking about temptation, Bastian. We're talking about how close you came to crossing that line... you know it'll only get easier."

"And do you see me rushing off to fight anyone?" Sebastian asked. "I'm not leading this war from the front, Jaina, not trying to take out my anger on Sith and Vong. You want the truth? Yeah, I would have done it, would've killed him in a heartbeat. I hate him; it's a perfectly human reaction and I feel no need to apologize for it."

"Then you're not really a Jedi," Anakin said.

Sebastian shrugged. "Go ahead, take that away too if you like."

"We just are concerned about the example you set for the students," Jaina said.

"Noted," Sebastian said. "But I've got enough piled on me right now that worrying about that just isn't important."

"So let them see that the teachings of the Jedi apply only when it's convenient," Anakin said.

"Sithspawn, you've got your head in the sand!" Sebastian said. "Do you have any idea what the Vong are capable of? You know why I'm working so hard to get this alliance growing? Because the entire might of the Borg fleet isn't going to be enough, do you understand? The most powerful force left isn't strong enough! And every day, the Vong get stronger, and soon, even the combined might of the galaxies won't be enough to hold them back. I've got to think about the people first."

"And what kind of people will they be when you're finished?" Anakin demanded.

"Alive, you kriffing idiot!"

"That's enough," Jaina said sharply. "Now look, I realize what your point is, Bastian, and you're right, you need to do what you're doing to unite the people. But you cannot handle the Oracle; you're too close to the edge, and you're too emotionally invested in it. You leave her and the Sith up to us."

Sebastian took a deep breath through his nose. "Fair enough. But when it comes to the Vong, you clear it with me first, understood. If we're going to operate like this then you focus on your job, not meddling in mine - and that includes denouncing my actions as a Jedi. Maybe you don't think I'm one, but I need to maintain that image in order to convince people to rally to our cause. If you start second-guessing me, then this alliance can fall apart, and I guarantee the Vong will win."

"You don't know for sure," Jaina said.

Sebastian pointed at the Borg drones. "You want to tell them there's an error with their math?"

"The Borg aren't perfect," Jaina said.

"But they're not normally wrong," Sebastian said. "You willing to gamble with the lives of two galaxies to find out?"

"No," Anakin said. "Like I said, Jedi don't gamble with innocent lives."

"Ah," Sebastian clapped a little while he smiled humorlessly, "very good. Brought it all around in a circle. Would you like to actually listen to my idea or throw some more doctrine at me."

"Tell us," Jaina said before Anakin could speak.

"Set up the Academy on Earth."

"Earth?" Anakin said. "That's the Milky Way; back end of space."

"Thanks for the astrography lesson."

"There's nine billion people on Earth," Jaina said. "That's a lot of lives to put at risk if the Death Star comes."

"I don't think it will," Sebastian said. "You ever read Kathryn Janeway's file?"

"A little," Jaina said. "She was the one who first made contact with the Empire."

"In her final effort to get her crew back to their home planet," Sebastian said. "Earth. It was all she thought about for years, so much so that she never even thought about the consequences of dealing with someone as powerful as the Empire, of handing over volumes of Starfleet information to them without really looking at what she was getting involved in. Earth... over the years she became obsessed with the planet, took risks and broke regulations to get to it."

"You think it's going to matter to someone as evil as the Oracle?" Anakin asked.

"No matter how much has changed," Sebastian said, "I don't think that Janeway, no matter what she calls herself, could ever intentionally destroy Earth. I think she imagines herself when this is all over setting up the Federation capital again and ruling from her home planet... of taking that world in the back end of space and turning it into a center of power once again."

"And if you're wrong, nine billion people pay the price," Anakin said.

"Hey, it's my ancestors' planet," Sebastian said. "I wouldn't suggest it if I didn't believe that she wouldn't cross that line. I can't believe that she'd destroy Earth just to eliminate a few Jedi."

"Yeah, but still... Earth." Anakin shrugged a little. "It's just so far from everything."

"It's far from the Death Star," Sebastian pointed out, tapping his cane on the railing.

"Good selling point," Anakin admitted.

"We'll have to meditate on this, Bastian," Jaina said.

"I understand," Sebastian said. "But I wouldn't drag your feet on this. The galaxy is going to need the Jedi to help us through this conflict." He turned back and watched the drones. "Nice seeing you again," and the two Jedi were transported off the ship. He was quiet for a while. “Canon in D, string quartet.” His hand began moving slowly with the music. “They played this at my wedding to Jorri,” Sebastian said.

“It’s beautiful,” Janet offered.

His hand never missed a beat. “It doesn’t work as a solo, not really.” He closed his eyes and held his arms out. He seemed to be literally breathing the music in as it swelled around them. “You can try, but you can feel something is missing...” He held the cane aloft. “It’s as if they’re singing along... about something so wonderful, you can’t express it as a word, just a feeling.” He lowered the cane, and the music died. "What do you think of the meeting, Janet?"

"The affairs of the Jedi are beyond the scope of my experience, sir." The silence waited, and inevitably Janet filled it. "But I don't believe they're right at all. They spend too much time hidden away and not enough time out doing good work; they're not reliable."

"I agree with the first, but not the second," Sebastian said. He sighed. "And I hate to admit it, but they're right in some ways. I'm not a good Jedi, not really."

"Your skill on Vidik-"

"My opponent underestimated me," Sebastian said. "And that's not what I'm talking about." He looked down; it was about a kilometer and a half drop, but heights didn't bother him any more. "The Emperor was right; I can't do this without them. Maybe I can hold the galaxies together, but I can't do that and hold myself together at the same time. She's too strong for me, Janet. She knew all my weaknesses and how best to exploit them. She came within a hair's breadth of getting me on Vidik. I try going against her and she'll turn me, I can feel it."

"So you'll leave her to the Jedi?"

"I have no choice, Janet. I just don't have the time and energy to prepare myself for such a confrontation. Hopefully they can come down from their ivory tower long enough to handle that for me, so I can face the minor problem of uniting countless civilizations against our mortal enemy." He tapped the railing with the cane. “Play it again,” he ordered, and music filled the halls of the cube.



Chuck

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Part XXXII


Lando was down in the bowels of the station giving orders when Garak arrived. "What's the situation," the Cardassian demanded.

"We've got cracks along the inner and outer areas of the reactor," Lando said, "failures in both the power regulators, a number of faults in the power distribution system, the-"

"Bottom line, Calrissian," Garak interrupted.

"It's broken."

"Let's try next to bottom line," Garak replied.

"Decades of neglect on a machine that wasn't built for anything more than testing the effectiveness of a superlaser has turned your new toy into scrap," Lando said, exhaustion getting the better of him. "We were lucky we didn't blow ourselves up when we fired."

"How long will it take to fix it?" Garak asked.

"A couple years, maybe."

"Unacceptable," Garak said. He grabbed Lando's shoulder and pulled him back when Lando had started to walk away. "We need this station operational, and quickly."

"We," Lando thought. Again, Garak was laying this on his head as much as his own. "'We' are going to have to essentially rebuild the hypermatter reactor," Lando explained aloud. "Do you realize the scope of that?"

"I do," Garak said. "Now, do you realize the situation you and I are in? With the Oracle?"

"She can push all she likes," Lando said, "I can't do the impo-"

"I'm not talking about that," Garak said. "She knew this was going to happen, that we'd only have one shot before it failed. She wanted us to topple the Empire -no argument here- but now we've done our job and she's going to have us quietly eliminated. We're too great a threat now."

"What threat?" Lando said. "All I want to do is run my company, that witch can do whatever she likes."

"There will be no more companies once the Oracle takes over," Garak said. "Not in the sense you understand them. They'll all be under the central control of the government, her government, Calrissian. You'll oppose her takeover, and that makes you a threat, just like me. She's going to kill us before we get the chance."

"Then it doesn't really matter," Lando said. At the moment, with the destruction of Chandrilla still fresh in his mind, it was hard to argue that he didn't deserve to die. "She'll know we're plotting something."

"I've taken a precaution," Garak said.

"What kind of precaution could you possibly take?" Lando demanded. "I understand Taar took precautions too, and look how much good they did him?"

"He didn't take the right ones," Garak said. "He didn't understand the enemy like I do."

"What have you got in mind," Lando said.

"I can't be specific," Garak said. "She's far too clever, I'm still not certain I've been subtle enough in my actions, but it's the only chance we have of not only surviving, but saving what we both care about. All I ever wanted was to have my Cardassia back; it was the Oracle that dragged me back into this. She's going to wait until you and I have the Death Star fixed, then she'll kill us and seize it as part of her plot."

"Which, naturally, explains why you want it done sooner," Lando said.

"She's going to *try* to kill us," Garak said. "We flounder her plans at a critical junction, destroy the Sith planet, and then deal with the Vong and go our separate ways. Not the most attractive of plans, I admit, but still a preferable alternative to dying in the pursuit of her vision."

"And you keep the Death Star, I assume," Lando said.

"Let's hope we're both still alive to hash that out, Calrissian," Garak said. "In the meantime, have your people work as fast as they can, no matter what it takes."

"You're still looking at a very long time, Garak," Lando said.

"Just keep things moving," Garak said. "We can't afford to wait too long, or the Oracle might discover my plans." Lando threw himself into his work as Garak left, although it had nothing to do with what the Cardassian had said. Work meant not thinking, and while he wasn't thinking, the image of that exploding planet was wiped from his mind's eye.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Time passed as the forces of the galaxy shifted under the new influences. Small mini-nations emerged in Imperial space, held together by remnants of the Imperial military. Some of the Imperials, however, stayed at their posts against the Vong, coordinating with Borda and his rebel forces. Eventually, with the growth of the Alliance, both joined up. The necessary supplies began trickling in once again, and the Vong found their brief attempt at expansion halted by the defenders.

The Borg, however, were still the main force of the Alliance, and contributed the majority of ships to the front lines in the Milky Way. At the moment, the Vong territory had been surrounded, but they were too well entrenched for an attack until Alliance strength grew. And so an arms race began as the Borg began strip-mining uninhabited planets and moons for raw materials to keep up with the Vong's own expansion. But no matter the force of arms, the Borg still followed Sebastian, and Sebastian insisted that they weren't going to win this without both galaxies firmly behind them.

Cube Prime had taken three months to build, and it was a rather impressive ship to view. Over two hundred cubic kilometers in volume, with a myriad number of docking bays and pylons for anyone who wished to board. On it were ambassadors from all the powers that had joined the Alliance, so that matters could quickly be resolved between them. Of course, they usually were quickly resolved, because the Alliance Prefect was a rather persuasive man when he wanted to be.

At the moment, Cube Prime emerged from hyperspace over the Klingon homeworld of Qo'nos. It had an escort of three of the newer model Tactical Cubes. It would offend the Klingons to not assume they were dangerous, even though one tactical cube could handle the entire Klingon fleet alone. The Prefect's shuttle emerged from Cube Prime, flanked by a squadron of H-Wings down to the landing pad near the Klingon capital. Sebastian had preferred watching the planet through the window over beaming down, so it had become a habit. He was escorted by an "honor guard" of eight drones armed with plasma guns. Janet was with him as well. "I hope you know what you're doing, Mr. Skywalker," she said as they walked down the ramp.

"The Klingons are good friends and dangerous enemies," Sebastian said. "And they tend to see things in that kind of binary language."

"They're also rather brutish," Janet pointed out. "And I don't think they'll listen to anything less than violence."

"Noted," Sebastian said. "Fortunately, Jaina and Anakin haven't denounced me, so I'm still a Jedi, and Jedi equals warrior to the Klingons." The Borg stopped outside the entrance of the building. No bodyguards were allowed in the presence of the High Council; it would be seen as a sign of cowardice and doom the meeting from the beginning.

The members of the Council stood, waiting. Sebastian could sense their distrust, but they weren't closed-minded. He limped into their midst as the Chancellor arose and met him amidst them. "So, Prefect Skywalker, you come in person to talk with us."

"I felt sending a dignitary would be an insult," Sebastian said. "I'm here before you as a Jedi, fighting a war against the Vong."

"You will find no love for the Vong here, Jedi," the Chancellor said. "Many noble Klingons were lost because of their duplicates in our midst. But that does not mean that we will align ourselves with you. We have not done well allying ourselves with outsiders."

"Respectfully, Chancellor, it was because the Klingons were alone that the Empire overwhelmed you." Sebastian hit a nerve, and knew it, but it was all part of the plan.

"And now the Empire is gone," the Chancellor said darkly. "But the Klingon Empire lives on. And so long as we live, we will fight."

"Good, then join me in my fight with the Vong," Sebastian said. "You know the size of their forces, the might of their ships, the deadliness of their weapons. It would be a glorious tale, wouldn't it?"

"It would," the Chancellor said. "But why share that glory with the Alliance?"

"Because we both know that neither the Alliance nor the Klingon Empire can triumph alone," Sebastian said. "What good is an epic battle if none live to sing about it? Join with me, Chancellor, and I promise you there will be much to sing about."

"Why should we follow you?" Sebastian turned and looked at K'lon. He was a hard-liner, and one they'd figured was going to be hard to win over. He'd been vocal that the Klingons should have fought the Empire to the end, even if it led to extinction, rather than surrendering. "You are no warrior any more."

"Is that a challenge?" Sebastian asked.

K'lon scoffed; even as far as Klingons went, it was a good scoff. "I will not demean myself by challenging some cripple."

Sebastian stormed up to him. "What did you call me?"

K'lon grinned, showing an awful lot of teeth. "Cripple," he said, letting the word ooze out of his mouth. There were a few quiet chuckles from the other Klingons present.

"Heh," Sebastian gave a short laugh with him as he jerked the cane up, grasping it in the middle to better show to K'lon. "But I've got this to get me around, to make up for that."

Now K'lon didn't even bother hiding his pitying contempt. "Then hobble off against the Vong, little Jedi, and leave us warriors to our own affairs."

"But it's a great equalizer," Sebastian explained. "You see, I can still walk, and-" He swung the cane's handle around in the blink of an eye, so that the solid metal connected with the side of K'lon's knee with a sickening crack. The Klingon collapsed sideways with a bellow of rage and pain. "Well, you can fill in the rest," Sebastian said, tossing the cane aside. "Now, as one cripple to another, there's no shame in us fighting, is there?"

K'lon let out a roar of anger and lunged at Sebastian, knocking him over. His knee was broken, but he still tried to stomp Sebastian's face in with the leg, which was a seriously foolish mistake. Sebastian caught the foot in a Borg-enhanced grip and held it just long enough for K'lon to realize his error, then gave it a twist. K'lon bellowed in pain but refused to relent, so Sebastian reached up and Force-blasted him off his feet. Using his arms and his one good leg he easily hopped back into a standing position, keeping his weight on the artificial limb. K'lon got back up to his feet despite the damage he'd suffered; maybe he'd destroy his body in the process but he seemed intent to fight Sebastian to the bitter end, which was obviously what had been expected. No one interfered or even thought of interfering; this fight was as natural here as debate had been in the Senate. He snarled at Sebastian, then spun and reversed to sweep his legs out, but even with only one limb Sebastian jumped over the leg as it came by, dropped down with perfect balance, leapt again and snap kicked K'lon in the face with it. Sebastian dropped on his back, but quickly arched it and got back into a standing position, and put the palm of his hand into K'lon's cheek, sending him spinning backwards and onto the floor. Not missing a moment, Sebastian dropped and drove his elbow into the Klingon's back, then leaned forward and grabbed a handful of hair. Three times he slammed K'lon's face into the floor, then pulled back his fist and hit the base of the skull, leaving K'lon sprawled in an unconscious heap.

Sebastian pulled himself to his feet. "It's not over," the Chancellor said. "As a matter of honor, you have to finish this battle." He gestured towards K'lon with his head. "Kill him."

Sebastian dusted himself off. "No, I will not."

"You want to be a warrior?" the Chancellor asked. "Prove it. We all saw what you did on Vidik, how you spared your mortal enemy and let him escape. It was shameful."

"Jedi don't execute their prisoners," Sebastian said.

"He is not your prisoner," the Chancellor said, pointing to K'lon. "He is your enemy! And so long as he lives he is a threat to you. Kill him, now, and we will follow you against the Vong."

Sebastian held out his hand, and the cane flew into his grip. "No. It's not my way."

"But it is our way! This is our world! You stand in our Great Hall, and you refuse to follow the teachings of Kah'less!"

"That's right," Sebastian said. "Because I'm not a Klingon."

"You insult our ways, and by that, you insult us," the Chancellor said.

"I'm not insulting anyone," Sebastian said sharply, in a voice that was equal parts rebuke and command. "I came to you as a Jedi, not some diplomat to win you over with kisses and flowers. I'm not here to woo you into joining me in battle. I came because when I was still young I fought at the side of a Klingon." Sebastian shook his head as a grin crossed his face. "And let me tell you, that man would have charged into the maw of hell itself for a fight, would never shirk a battle, who stood his ground against a Sith who butchered the Emperor's personal guard before delivering the killing stroke to the ruler of the Empire." Sebastian chuckled a little at the memory. "Now he was a warrior." The smile vanished. "I would be proud to fight by the side of the Klingons, but I will not lie to you to make it happen, either by my words or by my actions. I would never kill a helpless opponent, and to do so now would be a greater insult than you might think this is, because all I would be doing is trying to trick you into thinking I'm something other than what I am. If I as a Jedi am unfit to fight at your side, then I will accept that. But I will not try to deceive you, because if I did, then I would be a truly unworthy ally." He walked face to face with the Chancellor. "And if you would make me deny my nature, then you are not worthy to be mine."

The Chancellor grinned, equal parts humor and aggression. "I am unsure whether it would be more glorious to have you as an ally or as an enemy, Skywalker."

"Would you wish to be the enemy of a man who would not kill you if you were vanquished? I know you're too proud a warrior for that."

The Chancellor looked surprised, then laughed and clapped a meaty hand on Sebastian's shoulder. "You are no diplomat, Jedi, and you must know our people's ways better than I thought if you knew not to send one." Sebastian nodded respectfully. "Brothers! I say we join this warrior in his fight, and share in the glory of this epic battle. Is there any who opposes?" There was a chorus of no's, and the Chancellor laughed as he led Sebastian by the shoulder out of the room to work out the details over dinner. Janet rushed to keep up with Sebastian as the Klingons followed as well. No one seemed interested in K'lon.
--------------------------------------------------------------

For the Sith, it had been months of tiptoeing around the base, and the occasional errand off planet. The Oracle had been a fuming presence, rarely speaking to anyone, and constantly in her laboratory. No one dared to ask what she was up to; the noises and smells that escaped it were frightening enough. But all good things end, and Ben and Molly were summoned to the Oracle’s lab. “I have an assignment for the two of you,” she said, never pausing in her work with the equipment. “It’s important that you avoid attracting attention to yourself.”

“Yes, master,” Ben said, because it was expected of him.

“You’re going to Tatooine,” she said. “There’s something I need you to retrieve.”

“And what is that, master?” She told him, and Ben stiffened. “Are you serious?”

Now she looked at him, and he wished she hadn’t. “Have I given you the impression that I am ever anything less than serious? If so, then let me make it clear: my orders are always serious, and the only things more serious are the consequences of failing to carry them out, do you understand?”

“Yes, my master,” Ben said, bowing slightly. “I apologize.”

“Save your apologies and go,” the Oracle said. “And don’t waste time; just because I am its master doesn’t mean you may squander it.” Ben and Molly bowed and left, leaving her to whatever grisly task she was up to and grateful they didn’t actually know what it was.



Chuck

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Part XXXIII


Ben Skywalker sighed loudly. "I once had the entire galaxy at my feet," he lamented quietly. "My enemies were dead, or hiding in terror that I might finish them as well. Absolute power was within my grasp. And now look at me..." He glanced at the three locals pressed into service by the Sith. "Grave robbing. I should just climb in that hole when they're done and have them fill it in over me."

Molly said nothing. When Ben got into a funk, that was the best thing to do these days. He didn't want to feel better, he wanted to lash out at something, and to open her mouth would have been to become a target. "Dig faster," she ordered. "I don't want to be out here all night."

"It's not as if there's anything better to do," Ben remarked.

"Better than slaughtering Tusken Raiders," Molly said.

Ben shrugged. "If not, it would just be someone else. The Oracle hasn't made a move against the Jedi since they moved to Earth... now would be the chance to catch them off guard. But, obviously it's more important to be digging up graves on this miser-"

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" a shape in the night demanded.

"Go home, old man," Molly said. "This doesn't concern you."

"That's my daughter's grave your kriffing with!" he said harshly. He tried to rush in, but Ben easily caught him and tossed him back onto the ground. "What's the matter with you people?!"

"Go home," Ben repeated.

"What kind of monsters are you?!" the man lamented. "She was my only child, taken from me in the prime of life, and you can't even let her rest in peace?!"

A lightsaber cast a red hue over the darkness. "You want to be in this grave, old man?" Ben asked. There was tangible terror in the air. "Go home."

"Wait, Ben," Molly said, "you've tipped him off. You can't let him go."

"Killing some helpless old man?" Ben said. "No, thank you, I think I've degraded myself enough for one day."

"But the Jedi will find out-"

"The Jedi will find out anyway," Ben said. "Go home, go to bed, and thank whatever you believe in that you caught me in the right mood. Off." The old man hesitated, but then trudged off into the darkness. "And you three, put your backs into in. I want to get off this miserable rock."

"I thought you weren't in a hurry," Molly said.

"Changed my mind," Ben said. "I don't like this place... not a bit."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The conference room on board Cube Prime was currently being used for the first major military meeting. Sebastian had dealt with a lot of the powers that made up the Alliance individually, assigning ships and soldiers where they were needed, organizing supplies and such. But now things were moving into a larger scale, and he needed to work with the leaders directly to make this happen.

Sebastian had combat experience, and leadership skills, not to mention all the data the Borg had ever collected from assimilated species on military tactics and techniques, but at the end of the day, he wasn't experienced in waging war, and it would be foolish of him to think otherwise. The plan for invading the Vong had been a collaborative effort with Admiral Cirule, one of the few high-ranking officers selected by the late General Taar that survived the purge by the Sith. He'd stood his ground against the Vong and had been handling all fleet matters in the war ever since the Empire collapsed, and was the one who accepted the invitation to join the Alliance. He was tactically gifted and his opinions were invaluable to Sebastian. At the moment, he was present by hologram, preferring to remain on his flagship after the experience with the Sith.

Cirule wasn't the only one to appear by hologram, or a familiar adversary of the Vong. Borda was there on behalf of the "Rebels," even though his group had essentially been given control of thousands of worlds after the fall of the Empire. Borda had been quick to join the Alliance simply because handling political matters was something he was completely clueless on.

General Marnisch was there in the flesh, however, and that was hard to hide when you're a Klingon. The Klingons had devoted tens of millions of soldiers to the cause, and Marnisch was in command of them all, and fortunately was up to the task. Sebastian had read everyone's files in detail, so he knew that Marnisch was an old school Klingon with real world understandings. He would probably be very useful, if he could be kept under control.

Then there were dozens of others from throughout the larger militaries of the Alliance. Not every power needed representation here, just those that were going to be involved in the overall campaign, and it was going to be involved. "Here's how I see the situation," Sebastian said as holograms of the galaxies came up. Colored areas showed Alliance territory, Vong territory, Imperial remnants, and independent systems. "The Vong here," he indicated the faction the Imperials had been fighting, "have the stronger ships and equipment, but are lacking in numbers. The Milky Way faction may not be as strong individually, but we've seen what they can do together."

"They're like piranha," remarked Marnisch. "Each is weak, but together they easily overwhelm larger, stronger fish."

"Exactly," Sebastian said. "And they have a war coordinator, one we can't find to eliminate. And with their ability to produce these bioships at such alarming rates, and without the need to crew them, I don't think we can hope to oppose them until we can bring all our forces against them together. Anything less, and I don't believe it will be enough."

"Agreed," Cirule said. There were a few murmurs of agreement. "I assume you’re confirming we’re going after our Vong first?"

"I don't see any other choice," Sebastian said. "They're beaten, and they know it, yet at every opportunity they've tried to push out of their territory. Until they are completely broken, they're not going to stop harassing us."

"The Vong will not surrender," Marnisch said. "These are warriors, far from home and here for the single purpose of conquest. The only thing they fear to lose is this war, so you will not stop them until they are all dead."

Cirule looked uncomfortable but nodded. "That has been our assessment as well."

"[And ours,]" Borda said. "[Not one Vong has surrendered to us, even in the face of certain death.]"

"I understand," Sebastian said. "We're going to have to be ready for that kind of warfare, but let’s see if we can avoid it. The Alliance will maintain their positions around the Milky Way Vong faction to keep them contained, but I've drawn as much of our forces as we can spare here to deal with these Vong once and for all. Once they’re in position, we advance."

"[The plan seems rather ambitious,]" Borda remarked.

"The prefect and I formulated it based upon the way the Vong have been handling incursions by both us and your Rebel forces," Cirule said. "The Vong have lost too many of their coralskippers without a war coordinator to control them; we'll easily have air superiority in every engagement. It'll give us a key advantage."

"[The Vong are using humanoid shields,]" Borda pointed out.

"Our infantry is up to the challenge," Marnisch said. "And I assume the Imperials' are as well."

"Yes," Cirule said, a tone of irritation in his voice.

"It's a new turn on the old blitzkrieg idea," Sebastian said. "We move, wipe out the Vong, and move on. We leave them off balance, we leave them with no place to withdraw too, no place for a final stand. Advance, advance, advance, until they’re cut off from each other and surrounded."

"And then on to the Milky Way," Marnisch said.

Sebastian hesitated. "No." He limped around the map. "Mr. Terraine," he said. "I have a few old friends on some of the worlds of the Imperial remnants here. They tell me the control isn't supported by the populace, only by the threat of military reprisal."

"That's correct," Volgo Terraine said. He had come to the Alliance some months ago, along with a good portion of the ISB spy network. "There has been a great deal of civil unrest on those worlds. If the Imperial military government is removed, it would be liberation, not conquest."

"Wait, wait," Cirule said. "Now I can't speak for the other former Imperials, but when I joined the Alliance, I did so with the understanding that we would be fighting the Vong, not our former comrades in arms."

"It's not a position I've adopted lightly, admiral," Sebastian said. "And not just because they were once your friends. Even divided, the Imperial remnants have powerful military support... and that's precisely why we can't allow them to remain. When we go after the Milky Way Vong, we're going to have to devote virtually all of our resources. If we do that, the remnants will more than likely take it as an opportunity to annex Alliance territory, and I cannot allow that."

Cirule opened his mouth to reply, but stopped himself. "I know," he said finally. "But you're asking us to face off against men and women we've trained and trained under, fought side by side with in the worst of conditions. And it will be us you send, right?"

Sebastian's eyes were downcast, but he nodded. "No one else can," he said. "The new tactical cubes are the only ships the rest of the Alliance has that can go toe-to-toe with an Imperator, and we only have a few hundred of them. That just leaves the former Imperial fleet, admiral. I'm sorry, but I don't see an alternative, do you?"

"I can have my people attempt to undermine the military command," Terraine said. "This must cut both ways."

"Yes, and perhaps the sight of us finishing off the Vong while they're forced to sit on the sidelines solely because of some admiral or general's ambition will make them reconsider as well."

"I'd like the chance to talk with some of them first," Cirule said. "Some of them are overly-ambitious, but others were just doing what they thought they had to, what was necessary to preserve the Empire."

"That would give up the element of surprise," Marnisch said.

"That's worth the risk," Sebastian said. "If you're convinced that we can bring even one of the remnants over admiral, I'll back you on this."

"I am," Cirule said.

"It's tactically unsound," Marnisch insisted.

"I'm willing to take that risk," Sebastian said. "A battle avoided cannot be lost."

"A battle avoided is a sign of cowardice."

"I don't agree."

"Then maybe this was a mistake after all," Marnisch said, getting up. "I will inform the Chancellor, and he will-"

"Sit - down," Sebastian said firmly.

Marnisch stared at him. "Are you challenging me, prefect?"

"No, I'm giving you an order," Sebastian said. "The question is are you challenging me?" Marnisch grinned and turned to walk away. "Sit down!"

"I will ask the Chancellor," Marnisch said. He took one more step before Sebastian's cane hit him in the back. He turned back and glared at Sebastian.

"Don't test me, general," Sebastian said. "I don't like it. There's too much real work to do."

"Let him go," said Admiral T'nil of the Romulans. "We'll be better off." Sebastian glared at her. "The Klingons-"

"Save it," Sebastian said. "Now, we are here to work out a strategy to deal with the threats against the Alliance, which your governments are now members of." He held out his hand and the cane flew into it. "We will formulate such a strategy together," he began limping around the table, "but someone has got to have the final say on this or we'll never get anything done."

As Sebastian reached Marnisch the Klingon moved like the strike of a scorpion. It was expected; if a Klingon felt his superior was a coward avoiding battle, it was his duty to remove him. His dagger flashed, and passed through Sebastian's free hand up to the hilt. Despite the blade, Sebastian closed the fist around Marnisch's own, until there was the sound of bones cracking, but it seemed the more pressure applied, the greater the Klingon's smile grew. "Enough," he said finally. He laughed a little. "You are unbelievably frustrating, prefect, but it is so hard not to like you." Sebastian let go and the dagger was pulled free and sheathed. Despite having a broken hand, Marnisch took his seat.

"I understand your concerns, general," Sebastian said as he limped back to his position. "But the admiral's point is a valid one. It's worse than a civil war, it's asking the army to fight itself. I won’t ask that of them if I don’t have to. And besides, I'd rather save our strength for the Vong than waste it fighting a pointless battle."

Marnisch nodded. "I accept your decision."

"Good. Now, back to the immediate. Any further comments on the plan against the Vong?" Sebastian waited, but there were none. "Then I'll leave it to you to make the final preparations." He limped out and down towards his quarters, Janet close behind. A drone was waiting, and Sebastian's hand was quickly replaced with a fully-functional one. He dropped into an overstuffed chair and let out a weary sigh.

Janet began rubbing his shoulders, and Sebastian moaned a little; he'd been pushing rather hard to get this campaign ready. "Perhaps the Romulan general was correct," she said. "The Klingons are a source of trouble."

"They're also just what we need against the Vong," Sebastian said. "When two sides go against each other, fear is always going to be present. Even the Vong are descended from those ancestors that ran away from danger instead of staring at it like idiots. But in combat, fear can get you pinned down, letting a small force control and wipe out a larger one. That's why the stormtroopers do so much better against the Vong than Borda's people, because the troopers are conditioned to manage their fear. The Klingon soldiers are the same, conditioned to control it. Wookiees too, for that matter. And, of course, any soldier can be taught the importance of that; it's not a genetic thing. But in this case, the cultural influence and the military pressure is going to keep them hard in the fight. They'll make a good addition to the Imperial infantry."

"So they're that essential?"

"Look, we need ever soldier we can get our hands on," Sebastian said. "This is just a bonus."

"But they seem to switch over to those big swords in the middle of fights-"

"The Klingons learned just like everybody else when the Empire showed up just how essential organized combined arms tactics are. Things'll work out fine," he slurred.

"You put that general in his place well enough," Janet remarked. "Showed him who's boss."

"Had to," Sebastian said. "Can't let the Alliance fall apart... have to make certain they'll listen to me since they won't listen to each other." His eyes opened as he felt Janet's lips on the back of his neck. "What are you doing?"

"You're very tense," Janet said.

"Yeah, I know, that's why I like the massage," Sebastian said.

She brushed some hair aside and put her lips up to his ear. "Anywhere else you’d like a massage?"

Sebastian turned around and looked up at her incredulously. "What?"

"Come on, Sebastian," she said. "Relax a little." She read his expression. "I'm not under any delusions," she added. "It’s just sex. It doesn't have to mean anything."

"You'd demean yourself like that?" Sebastian said.

Janet laughed a little. "You're not even thirty and you're the most powerful man in the galaxy. I don't think it's all that demeaning to make the mattress springs squeak with a modern day Alexander."

"And what happened to his empire?" Sebastian asked.

"What does that have to do with this?" Janet said.

"Answer the question."

"It collapsed after he died," Janet said. "Is this some kind of metaphor?"

"Very funny."

"Look, just forget I said anything," Janet said sharply. "I just thought maybe you could use a chance to let off some steam."

Things ticked into place. "Ah, Romal," Sebastian said with a nod. "This was his idea wasn't it."

Janet looked a little uncomfortable. "I'm excellent at what I do," she said. "I'm organized, alert-"

"Yes, you are," Sebastian said. "I've got no problem with what you've done. But I don't need a concubine, Janet."

Janet licked her lips nervously. "Romal told me that you were very lonely." Her eyes were downcast. "He was right."

Sebastian nodded a little. "Yes he is," he said quietly.

“You don’t have to be alone.”

“You said yourself: it won’t mean anything.”

“I mean it doesn’t have to if you don’t want to,” Janet said with mild exasperation. “If you want someone to be a soulmate, I can do that. If you just need to relieve the stress, well, I’m open to that too.”

Sebastian couldn’t look at her. "I know you two were only doing this with my best interests, so I'm not going to hold this against you.... and thank you, that’s a very flattering offer."

Janet knelt down so she could look him in the face. "Sebastian... how long has it been? I know how much you love her, but she's gone. Do you think she'd want you to be so unhappy?"

Sebastian let out a troubled breath. "It was the last thing we shared," he confided. "Before she left to fly that mission. And now, just thinking about it just reminds me of her... of that day."

"You didn't answer my question," Janet said. "Sebastian, not everything in the universe has to be about your wife." There was a chime, and she got up to check the commlink while Sebastian rubbed the exhaustion from his eyes. "Yes? What? You can't be serious. No, I- Yes, I'll tell him."

"What was that about?"

Janet shook her head. "It's about your wife."



Chuck

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Part XXXIV


Sebastian wasn't in the kind of condition to run, but he did the best that the cane and the sands of the desert allowed. He almost fell over as he drew to a halt a few meters away, then walked up slowly. Mrs. Sunspring was there, and she turned and hugged Sebastian tight enough to nearly bruise a rib. "Gavin tried to stop them," she lamented.

Sebastian just shook his head and squeezed back. "This is my fault, Jenna," he said. "They did this to get to me. I'm so sorry."

"Just make them pay, Bastian," Mrs. Sunspring said. She had murder in her eyes. "Make them pay!" She turned and embraced her husband, who led her away.

Sebastian looked into the empty hole. Janet stood respectfully back, as did General Marnisch, who had insisted on coming personally in case any Sith had remained behind, even though there were a number of guards around the area. The Klingon views of the dead probably made this an alien experience, but he must have understood the depravity of this act. Sebastian walked up to the gravestone, read his wife's name, and wept. It's not enough that they took you away from me, he thought, they had to defile your grave. I'm so sorry sweetie... I'm so sorry that they keep using you to get to me. "We're sure the Sith were responsible?" Sebastian asked.

Janet nodded. "The Sunsprings said they had lightsabers; I can't imagine any Jedi doing this."

"No." Sebastian rubbed the gravestone delicately, his hand trembling as he did so. He snatched it away and pulled out his commlink and contacted the Borg Queen. "The production data the Imperials provided, did it include the blueprints for the Arakyd Viper probe droid?"

"Yes," the Queen answered.

"I want us to convert a factory over for manufacture, right now. I want them in hyperspace saturating the Delta Quadrant."

"It will take several weeks-"

"Not weeks," Sebastian said. "Days, you hear me? I don't care what it takes, do it!" He thumbed the commlink off and jammed it back into his pocket. "The Oracle thinks she can play mind games with me?” he asked, pointing at Janet. “She thinks she can fuck with me and get away with it?! With me?! This is it, Janet, this is the last kriffing straw! We're gonna melt the planet out from under her!"

"Prefect-" Marnisch said.

"She has no idea what she's in for!" Sebastian said.

"Prefect!" Marnisch said, grabbing him by both shoulders and holding him steady. "Listen to me!" Sebastian halted his rant for the moment. "I understand the righteous anger that burns in you! And I swear to you that we will find the woman who would dishonor your wife's memory and kill her for this outrage!" He looked into Sebastian's eyes and nodded slowly. "But that is not for today, prefect. Today you said you would lead us in battle against the Vong. You will right this wrong another day, I promise you, but today save your hatred for the Vong... let the Oracle witness the punishment that comes to those who earn your ire... let her quake in anticipation of your vengeance!"

Sebastian took a deep breath through his teeth, then nodded. "You're right, of course. Later... she'll be dealt with later."

"And harshly," Marnisch added.

"General."

"Yes, prefect," Marnisch said.

Sebastian looked up at the Klingon with hatred on his every feature. "Today is a good day for Vong to die."

Marnisch gave that sinister, toothy grin the Klingons were famous for. "As you command, prefect."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The door to Annika's cell opened; a Sith waited for her. "Come," she said, and Annika obeyed, because there was nothing to be gained by resisting. The Oracle had been paying little attention to her lately, which was good in some ways, bad in others. If her attentions were elsewhere, she was probably fixated on a problem, and bringing Annika meant she'd likely reached a point where a Borg's skill could come in handy. Saying no to her now, after the fury of Ben's defeat, was probably going to be very unpleasant if not fatal. Annika would just have to remain resolute; with the pendulum swinging back their way, any edge she gave the Oracle could be a catastrophe for the galaxies, possibly the universe itself.

She was brought to the Oracle's lab, where most of the other Sith stood gathered in silence. The Oracle herself was fussing over her equipment and didn't even bother speaking to anyone. Annika crossed her arms and stood silently; no sense speeding things up. However, if she'd been so inclined, the sight that soon followed would have stricken her silent anyway.

Ben Skywalker pushed a familiar coffin through the doorway of the room. It was black, its highly-polished surface now scuffed dull by sand and time, the crimson Imperial symbol faded almost orange. Ben adjusted the repulsorlift and the coffin was cropped in a mostly standing position against the wall. "Open it," the Oracle ordered. Ben visibly swallowed, then threw the lid opened. Annika turned and threw up, partly from the smell, mostly from the sight of what greeted her. Even the Sith were shuffling uncomfortably.

The Oracle, or course, was all business. She activated some equipment, and a low hum began, shifting into a dull whine. Then came the sound of crackling energy and discharges, and then a sizzling sound. Annika snuck a glance and saw what she'd expected... the cadaver was becoming less and less decayed as the seconds passed. The soupy substance in the bottom of the casket began absorbing into the body. Openings in the flesh sealed. As it neared the finish, there was absolutely no doubt left as to who this was - Jorielle Sunspring Skywalker.

The machine died down, and the process ceased. She still looked dead, but freshly dead, just like Ben had been after the duel, and it was obvious what that meant. Annika was heavily conflicted. On the one hand, she knew the Oracle would never do this for any reason unless it somehow furthered her cause, and that meant it was bad for the galaxies. But on the other, Jorri was Seven's daughter-in-law, which as far as Annika was concerned made her the daughter she'd never had. She'd always found the girl to be a good friend for her son, and when he had asked her to be more than that, Annika had been thrilled. She had never bothered hiding her affection for Jorri, especially after Annika was hospitalized and she was the only family that could visit, and to have her back was almost as much a boon for herself as it would be for her son.

"Captain," Annika said, "please." All eyes, including the Oracle's, turned to her. "Leave her alone. Let her rest."

The Oracle strode, silent except for her footsteps, which seemed to echo like the hoofbeats of a coming apocalypse. She stopped, inches from where Annika stood. "What will you do for me in return?"

"I can't help you," Annika said. "I can't. Just, please, for whatever friendship we might have once had, please don't do this. That poor girl has had to suffer enough."

The Oracle's voice was almost like an escape of pressurized steam. "I disagree." She leaned in closer. "There's much more suffering to come if any choose to oppose me."

"Kathryn, please," Annika said. "I'm begging you-"

"No you're not," the Oracle said.

Annika paused, then got down on her knees, bowing her head. "You have the power," she admitted. "You can do this terrible thing to her, and I can't stop you... no one can. Please, Kathryn, please! Don't do it! Let her have the peace she's found!"

"Then join with me, Annika," the Oracle said.

Annika shook her head. "I can't do that!"

The Oracle grabbed Annika's throat and pulled her to her feet until their eyes were even. "Then it's all just words," she rumbled. "And while the sight of you on your knees may be amusing, Seven, entertainment isn't going to conquer the galaxy in the name of the Sith." She pushed Annika away and stormed towards the corpse. Her hand reached out and a hypospray flew into it from off the bench, and she put it to her own throat. A hiss, and the hypospray dropped from her shaking fingers. The Oracle's whole body began to tremble, and then came the burst, same as before, light and energy and wind and screams oh the screams and Annika could only lean against the wall in helplessness as the dark Force magics were unleashed. And then, just as quickly, the storm ended, and they all stared at Jorri.

But Jorri never moved.

The Oracle seemed puzzled, then reached out and tried to take a pulse on the wrist, then on the neck. She glowered at the corpse, as if it were Jorri's fault that she hadn't come back to life. "You shot her with a starship cannon," she said to Ben, eyes never leaving the cadaver.

"Yes, master," Ben said.

"Nothing else. You didn't do anything to her before or after... nothing with the Force."

"I shot her, that's all," Ben said.

"Perhaps it's because she was embalmed," Molly said. "That's standard-"

"No, you twit!" the Oracle said. "Her body has been restored to physical condition before she suffered her fatal injuries. It's pristine. All that's required is the infusion of life into it..."

"Have you-"

"Be silent!" the Oracle said, and the Sith unconsciously all took a step away from her. "You," she said, pointing a gnarled digit at Annika, "come here." Annika did so, but when she got within reach, the Oracle grabbed her by the throat and began crushing her windpipe. Annika resisted, but the grip was superhuman. Spots began to appear before her eyes, but then she was tossed to the floor. "No," the Oracle said, "no, you're an anomaly. That would prove nothing." She turned instead and her arm flashed out, grabbing Triss. "But you're about the same age. You'll do just fine." She gave a twist and the Sith's neck snapped, and she dropped lifelessly to the floor.

"Ben," she said, and the mere mention of his name caused him to flinch. "Get Skywalker's corpse out and put it on the bench over there. Di'Bol, Mareth, put our Mistryl in the coffin and close it, then place it on the floor." No one thought to disobey or question what had happened; they had enough of a sense of self-preservation to know better. When they were done, a sheet was placed over the coffin, then the Oracle went to work at her equipment. Annika slipped over to where Jorri's body lay. She had been too sick to attend the funeral... she hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. She put her hand on the swell of the girl's belly and cried quietly for mother and daughter.

Annika turned her attention back for a moment as energy crackled, and the coffin vanished from sight. The Oracle gave some orders to the Sith, but Annika wasn't listening; her attention was again on the fallen girl, so much so that she jerked up in surprise when the Oracle stepped to the other side of the bench. There was hatred in those sunken eyes. "Did you interfere?" the Oracle demanded.

"If I could interfere, I wouldn't have been on my knees," Annika said.

The Oracle seemed less than convinced. "If I find out that you did," she warned, "and you don't tell me.... I'll torture her to death in front of you again and again. I don't have time for meddling!" Annika said nothing, and the Oracle grabbed her by the arm and dragged her out of the lab.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Han Solo walked down the ramp of the Falcon, closely followed by Kilana and Roger, then paused. He'd never seen the inside of a Borg ship in person, and even with all that had changed he was less than thrilled at the sight of it. The massive docking facility where he'd landed the Falcon was swarming -and Han felt that was a perfect word for the situation- with Borg drones. The sheer number of tasks were staggering, and they went about it with slow, deliberate motions, including the work they were doing on the troop carriers being prepped. "I will never get used to this," he said under his breath. "Even having stormtroopers around I could learn to tolerate, but this..."

"I've never actually seen one in person," Roger remarked. "I wonder if they have an extensible limb as well." Han turned and gave him a look that Roger no doubt had become used to. "They embrace the advantages of mechanics," was all he offered.

"You stay here," Han said. "Get the ship taken care."

"The drones-" Roger began.

"I'm not letting those damn things anywhere near my ship," Han said sharply. "Just get her refueled so we can get out of here."

"Why do I have to do it?" Roger said. "It's because I'm a droid, isn't it? How typical."

"Sebastian's an old friend," Kilana explained. "I just wanted to check up on him. And Han's the point man on this, so he needs to speak to Sebastian in person. Don't take this the wrong way."

"Hmph," Roger said, which was odd sounding because he actually pronounced it. "Just run along and do your humanoid things without me then. I'll toil away down here with the cyborgs."

Janet Fields exited the turbolift as Han and Kilana started walking over. "Mr. Solo, Ms. Kilana, the prefect's been expecting you. Please follow me." She led them into the turbolift. "The Alliance is preparing for a major incursion against the Vong," she explained, "so I'm afraid Mr. Skywalker won't have a great deal of time."

"How is Sebastian doing?" Kilana asked.

Janet seemed uncomfortable, but knew about Solo and Kilana. "He's been under a great deal of pressure, and the news about his wife's grave hasn't helped matters. But, he's a professional; he's going to go ahead with his duty as Alliance Prefect regardless of his personal feelings."

"I'd imagine he's pretty angry right now," Han said.

"He has a lot to be angry about, Mr. Solo." The turbolift opened and she led them out and down the hall, which was good because the layout made the place look like a labyrinth. They passed through a dozen doors until they had no chance of finding their way back, until finally Sebastian was revealed, looking over several holograms. He turned, smiled and hugged them both.

"Glad to see you," Sebastian said. "It's been too long."

"There's a lot of things that need doing," Han said. "And not all of them can be done with patrols and sensors and politics."

"True," Sebastian said. "Things are really busy so I don't have much time; are you sure you can't stay-"

"We've got to get moving while our leads are hot," Han interrupted.

"You still believe the Imperials were behind the Death Star?" Sebastian said. "I really don't think they'd do something this foolish."

"Kid, I've learned one thing: assuming someone won't do something foolish is a quick way to a quicker death."

Sebastian gave a dismissive shrug. "If that's what you feel, I'll help however I can."

"We have a lead taking us to Danoob," Kilana said. "But we haven't been able to follow up."

"Ah, the Core," Sebastian said. "Probably under control of one of the remnants."

"Yeah," Han said. "It's way outside Borda's influence. We were hoping maybe you could do something."

Sebastian limped over to the table and picked up a datapad. "Gorren and I uncovered a mole on Danoob a few years back; he gave us a pile of useful intel on Alexis' organization in exchange for his freedom. Last I heard he's still there, and I'm sure the Imperial ruler wouldn't be happy knowing a traitor was in their midst. You can probably get him to help you in return for silence."

"What's his name?" Han asked.

"Bohls, Den Bohls," Sebastian said, passing the datapad over. "Also, do you know Frin Dade? Corulag?"

"Dade, Dade," Han snapped his fingers. "Smuggler, right?"

"He owes me a favor," Sebastian said. "He can sneak you into Imperial space without a problem. One of the best I've ever seen."

Han slipped the datapad into his vest pocket. "Thanks, kid." Sebastian laughed a little. "What?"

"Family," Sebastian said. "It doesn't matter if you command the most powerful army in the galaxy, you're still just that runny-nosed toddler."

Han looked down a little embarrassed. "Sorry, got my mind a thousand light-years away. You've done good k- Sebastian. Your old man would be proud." They embraced again. "Sorry we've got to run, but we know you're busy and we've got our own missions to take care of." Kilana and Sebastian exchanged a few words, then they said their goodbyes, and Janet led them back to the turbolift. They took it down alone. "I'm worried about him," Han confessed.

"He's holding up fine," Kilana said.

"He's going to snap," Han said. "I've seen it before. He's trying to carry the weight of the galaxy."

"He's got to unite us," Kilana said. "He knows that, that's why he has to do it."

Han held up a finger. "Remember what Kalib said about prophecies. Sebastian's going to unite us, that's what they say."

"Yeah? So?"

There was a glimmer of fear in his eyes. "What if it's because we're united against him?"

Kilana's breath froze for a moment. "He wouldn't do that," she said finally.

"He's a good kid," Han said. "But he's been pushed to the edge, and now he's got the responsibility of running all this, and Jaina says that he admits he's approaching darkness."

"I won't accept that," Kilana said sharply. "He's a good man, he won't cross that line. Just like with the Borg... maybe for a while he gave in, but it didn't last. Maybe he picked up a few things from his mother with them, but obviously he's much more like his father."

Han looked down, showing the weariness of his age. "That's what I'm afraid of."



Chuck

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Part XXXV


It had taken the Alliance a month to prepare for this day. Fleets and armies were re-assigned from across a hundred thousand light-years to prepare for this final strike against the primary Vong invasion force, the one that had first seized control of this area of space a decade ago. At the moment, five armadas prepared to move in along various vectors around the Vong territory, slice it to pieces, and then kill what was left. It was being coordinated from Cube Prime itself, which was kept a safe distance from the front lines to protect the many non-combatants that were aboard. Some of the commanders, such as General Marnisch, took advantage of the facilities for this purpose, while others like Admiral Cirule preferred to use their command ships. It was all fine with Sebastian, so long as they stuck with the plans and didn't try seizing an opportunity for personal success over the needs of the Alliance.

Sebastian himself was in a sealed room in the heart of Cube Prime. The room was spherical, with the gravity adjusted so that he could walk around its surface like an insect. Images and holograms from all over the fleets and systems were projected, keyed to his implants so that he could see and hear anything he needed to with just a thought. The systems were also set to respond to his voice, so that he could issue commands as quickly as they were needed. When it came to the Borg, things were always swift, but filtering through the humanoid chain of command often took time, so a speedy system had been essential. It had been given a shakedown cruise two months ago when the Alliance eliminated the militant Hirogen raiders, and the improvements made since would hopefully give the Alliance the advantage.

For years, the yammosk had kept the Vong working as if they were one; now it was the Alliance's chance to turn the tables.

"All commands," Sebasian said. "Execute."

The fleets advanced into hyperspace as Sebastian checked his timepiece, then began looking at the long-range scans and probe data. He didn't have to familiarize himself with what was coming next; even if he didn't have an eidetic memory, he'd read through the plan countless times to check for errors. As expected, Fleet Gamma was the first to drop out of hyperspace, near the planet Gidalt. Gidalt was uninhabited and terraformed to produce ships for the Vong. The Vong put a great deal into defending the world to discourage Imperial attack, but they weren't going to matter this time out.

There were dozens of Vong coralships around the world against a hundred star destroyers and as many Borg cubes. Both sides knew the Vong couldn't win, and both sides knew the Vong would still do their best to take as many Alliance ships down with them as possible. That was why instead of engaging the Vong, the star destroyers advanced towards Gidalt itself while the Borg ran cover. These were the old-style cubes, unarmored with weaker weapons, and they didn't stand a chance against the Vong coralships. But they didn't have to beat the Vong, or stop them, just buy the fleet a minute. With a minute, a star destroyer fleet like this could reduce a planet's surface to slag, which is exactly what happened. Two of the star destroyers were lost during the bombardment -one to a suicide run by a coralship- but the rest finished the job and vanished into hyperspace for the next target. The Borg quickly followed; their casualties had been far greater, and most of the ships leaving the battle showed signs of the devastation they'd suffered. Still, they flew and regenerated and prepared for the next engagement, without concern over the loss and damage except in the matter of improving for the next time.

Tinal-Geen was the next planet, reached by Fleet Alpha. It was a heavily populated world and the Vong had strongly reinforced it. This time things were direct; the Borg and Imperials quickly struck the Vong defenders while the Rebel capships hung back; the landing armies were mostly centered there to help preserve them, given the strength of the coralships. It proved prudent; the Vong weren't pulling punches and they hadn't skimped on planetary defenses either, given the probe data Sebastian had seen. However, their numbers still weren't sufficient to hold back the Alliance, and soon the Rebel capships were advancing to drop the transports and covering fighters to take the battle to the planet themselves.

"There's a problem with the sensors over the capital," Marnisch commented as he looked over the information coming in from his troops on the transports.

Sebastian examined the garbled data and nodded. He'd expected they might try this. "They're jamming us all right."

"I was not told they possessed such an ability," Marnisch said curtly.

"They don't," Sebastian said. "They're using our technology."

"I thought the Vong despise our technology? That it was blasphemous?"

"The Klingons talk of honor in battle, yet have cloaking devices," Sebastian said. "Why?"

Marnisch nodded slowly, a knowing look on his face. "Because nothing washes away dishonor as well as victory. We'll have to go in blind."

"Yes, but we can probably take out the jamming suite without trouble. The Vong will only give it a token defense... even though they need it, they still hate it. And they'll have left it in place; they neither understand nor trust it well enough to try to set it up elsewhere. The data on the city's layout should hold true at least on that score."

"If not, we'll be diverting our forces on a pointless errand," Marnisch pointed out.

"I know the Vong playbook," Sebastian said. "Trust me on this one."

Marnisch activated the commlink. "Captain Korris, have your men identify and eliminate the building housing the jamming suite, per your map."

"Aye, general."

"Major Navander," Sebastian said. "We're diverting the landing of Transport 127 to new coordinates. Have your men maintain cover and standing by for infantry support."

"Yes, prefect," came the reply.

Sebastian turned his attention to the other scenes of the battle. This was where things balanced on the razors edge. You had to put competent people in charge down the chain of command, to deal with the details of things. Second guess them, and you not only undermine their authority, you diminish their ability to make independent decisions and potentially make things worse. At the same time, opportunities had to be exploited, and weaknesses shorn up. Micromanaging this battle wouldn't win it, but neither would standing aside and doing nothing.

The choice was made for him when it came to Dantooine. "What's the story, admiral?" Sebastian asked as Fleet Beta chewed through the Vong coralships.

"They've got a shield up over the capital, as expected," Cirule said. "But they must have known we were coming; they've drawn their armies back into Matale."

Kriff. "How many civilians in Matale?"

"Half a million," Cirule said.

Sebastian ran his hand down his face. "We don't have the spare manpower needed to liberate the city, admiral."

"I agree."

"It's not shielded, is it?"

"No, prefect."

Sebastian ticked over on the display and a hologram of the Borg Queen appeared. "Yes, Sebastian?"

"The city of Matale has five hundred thousand people," he said. "We need to get them out so that we can bombard the city without killing civilians."

"My ships can transport them all off the world in minutes, Sebastian," the Queen said. "We can deposit them elsewhere on Dantooine once the world is liberated."

"Hurry," Sebastian said. "Once the Vong realize what's happening, they may start killing the locals out of spite." The Queen nodded and Sebastian flipped back to Admiral Cirule. "The Borg are beginning an evacuation. As soon as they're done, wipe out the Vong forces at Matale from orbit."

"Yes, prefect." Sebastian ticked over and saw the advance forces heading into the Dantooine capital. Legions of stormtroopers confronted the Vong on the streets while TIEs buzzed overhead, maintaining air superiority and eliminating key targets behind the lines. Things were going well there, but Matale would be the question mark. The Vong knew about transporters, but maybe they didn't know just how powerful they truly were. The Borg assimilated whole planets in the bad old days, so one small city was a piece of cake for them.

Sebastian switched back to Tinal-Geen. The sensors were still down at the capital, but the advances on Tiban and Fon City were going splendidly. Klingons were rappelling down their lines from an AT-HT within Tiban before blasting away at the Vong. Sebastian shook his head. Imperials and Klingons literally fighting side by side, he thought. If you were here to see this, Gorren, what would you think? Would you still want to stab them in the back, or would you see that maybe we're all on the same side after all?
--------------------------------------------------------------

Elsewhere on Tinal-Geen, Captain Korris and his men pushed through the Vong forces until they caught sight of the communication tower that also served as the source of the jamming. Korris examined it through his electrobinoculars while his men secured the area. It was close to civilian homes, and with the heavy jamming there was no way to tell whether or not they were occupied, hence the need for the surgical strike. He barked a few quick orders, and they began shining a pulse beam on the side of the building. "Squad 127-Bravo requesting aerial strike, marked coordinates, Grid A19."

On board the orbiting star destroyer, Major Navander was passed the request. He didn't care much for the Klingons; the Empire had been doing just fine without their smelly, hairy presence, but there was no need to undermine the war effort because of it. He approved the request and it was quickly sent down to the men in the cockpits. "Squad 127-Bravo, this is Grey 3, closing on Grid A19. Stand by for lock."

"Roger, Grey 3," Korris said, then covered his commlink. "I detest these protocols," he spat the final word. "Let us hope these Imperials can provide half the success their arrogance suggests."

The TIE Bomber, flanked by its supporting Interceptors, came around for its run. The jamming field was playing havoc, but the pulse beam was capable of getting through at up to ten miles. "I have tone," he announced, and released the missile. "Maintain marking until impact, Squad 127-Bravo." The missile dove, following the pulse beam without wavering. The Vong hadn't deployed any defenses, so nothing was able to stop it from striking its target, its hardened nose puncturing the exterior to allow the missile to explode inside, demolishing the structure. Sensors immediately came back to full resolution. They also showed that the Vong had, in fact, kept the people locked away inside their homes. By doing it this way rather than dropping a heavier bomb, the Alliance had saved hundreds of lives.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"HA!" Sebastian yelled with triumph from Cube Prime. "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!"

"I'm re-assigning our forces there, prefect," Marnisch said, ignoring Sebastian's odd outburst. "Anything you wish to add?"

"Just to keep up the excellent work," Sebastian said. He was grinning despite himself. The Alliance was performing quite well, the mixed forces shoring up each other's weaknesses. Hopefully they would all start to realize how well they work together. Alloys, right Morgan? Alloys are stronger.

The jubilation was cut short, however. A transmission was being sent out from Matale, Dantooine; the Vong had turned the hated technology on so the Alliance could see what was happening. As he'd feared, they'd turned on the locals. Bodies piled in the streets as they went about their massacre. Those who begged for mercy found none. Those who fought were quickly and unceremoniously cut down. Mothers and fathers who pleaded for their children's lives were forced to watch as-

Sebastian cut the feed; he was breathing heavy. You did what you could for them, he reminded himself. You're saving as many as you can. The Vong are just doing this to goad you, to make you lose your resolve and stop the advance. They can't hold you back with weapons, so they're going to attack your humanity. You can't let them win.

Sebastian covered his eyes with his hands, but the images wouldn't go away. You knew this was going to happen, he reminded himself. You knew that this is what came with the job. You knew that war meant people -innocent people- dying. You knew that by taking charge, you would directly and indirectly cause death and pain. So why does it suddenly bother you so much?

Because he needed to ask his father about how one copes when one’s actions lead others to die. Because he needed his mother to point out that he isn't responsible for the evils of others. Because he needed his best friend to explain to him the regrettable necessities of being a warrior. Because he needed his grandfather to remind him that redemption sometimes hurts. Because he needed his wife to hold onto him and tell him that he was doing the right thing even when it all felt wrong and that she'd never pass judgment on him and always always love him. Because he needed to face this without knowing that however many troops he commanded and worlds he controlled, he was still completely alone. And in his exhaustion of mind and body, watching innocent people die reminded him of how many times he'd witnessed it, felt it.... reminded him of the price it demanded of the soul.

Don't hate, Sebastian reminded himself. Don't hate them... don't hate them... just... just...

Just destroy them!

"Admiral," Sebastian said. "Has the populace been removed from Matale?"

"Yes, prefect," Cirule said.

"Blast it into oblivion," he ordered.

"Yes, prefect."

"Admiral," he added eventually. "Did you see the transmission?"

"Yes," Cirule said darkly.

"What's your opinion?"

Cirule looked down for a moment as he thought, then up into Sebastian's face. "They're little more than animals, prefect."

"I agree. No mercy, admiral. This isn't war any more, it's extermination, and we do not stop until that work is done."

Cirule smiled just a little and nodded. "As you command, prefect."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle turned the monitor off and reflected on what she had just witnessed, ignoring the sounds of the Sith at work outside the lab. She tapped her lips as she thought, then turned to the corpse on the table. "Perhaps your services won't be required after all," she remarked. "Perhaps matters haven't been prevented so much as delayed." She looked at the other monitors as the Alliance fleet continued its relentless advance across the shrinking area that once was Vong space. This was the end for them, the Oracle had foreseen it and shed no tears over it. But perhaps they could serve her one last time before dying out... perhaps they could finish what Ben Skywalker had unwittingly begun.



Chuck

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Part XXXVI


It's been stated that wars are long periods of inactivity punctuated with moments of excitement. The war with the Vong was no different. After so much planning and preparing things were happening rapidly. For Han, Kilana, and Roger, this included their arrival on Danoob. They'd arrived under a cover that even an old smuggler like Han could appreciate, and were given enough cover to pass amongst the locals for a little while. But there wasn't much time these days, so they got to their rendezvous as quickly as possible.

"Solo?" the man in the alley asked.

Han paused and looked him over. Enough meetings like this trained the eyes, although these eyes had seen better days. "You Den Bohls?"

"Yes," Bohls said, coming out into the slightly less dark. "I understand you need my help."

"There's construction going on on the dark side of the planet," Han said. "Exotic parts were being shipped here for a while last year. I want to see what the Imps are up to."

Bohls shook his head a little. "Not wise to mess with the Imps around here," he said. "Corbin's a mean one; he'll torture and kill you if you're caught."

"Then we'd best not get caught," Han said.

Bohls scowled. "I don't see why I should stick my neck out for the Alliance. What they ever do for me?"

"It's what they won't do," Han said. "Namely tipping off Corbin to your questionable associates."

"That was strictly business," Bohls said. "I've got no love for anti-tech nutjobs, but their money spends same as anyone's."

"I don't think that's gonna set Corbin's mind at ease," Han said in his low, syrupy tones. "Now let's just do this thing, all right?"

"Listen, I'll do my part," Bohls said. "But you tell Sebastian when you see him that this is the last-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Time?"

"Twelve point two minutes, sir."

Lando looked at the readouts on his datapad. "I think it's holding. Charge it up another ten percent." He watched the readings.

"Fifteen minutes."

"Power down, power down!" Lando said, but there was a hint of a smile on his face. "That looks good, real good. Everybody take twenty and we're back here for the secondary relay."

Garak was standing nearby, watching without comment. He detached himself from the wall as the room cleared out and slithered over. "I take it that was progress?"

"Yes it was, Garak, yes it was." Lando's eyes never left the datapad. "We're almost operational."

"What's 'almost' when translated into real time units?"

"Days. Just a few more tests to run," Lando said, looking things over. "Have to be careful... one small error and bang-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"This place blows."

"Thanks for that assessment," Han said.

"I'm only stating what I know everyone's thinking," Roger said. "What an abysmal place."

"Perfect for hiding something," Kilana pointed out.

"The station's this way," Bohls said. "From here you can access the orbital systems and get a view, that's the only way you're going to see anything." He paused, then quickly gestured for everyone to get up against the wall. He pulled a vibro-blade from his belt and slipped around the corner. Han swore under his breath and followed him, only to catch the end of it. "We have stun weapons," Han said, "you didn't have to kill him."

"I'm not risking having myself identified," Bohls said, wiping the blood from the blade.

"He wasn't even a guard," Han said a bit louder than he should. "Just some shlub trying to get some fresh air."

"You want to do this without me, fine," Bohls said, "but with me, you do it my way."

Before Han could respond the door opened and a stormtrooper walked through. Everyone pulled their guns, even though a firefight was going to attract still more attention, but then Roger moved... sort of. His chest snapped open and a fist mounted on a long arm sprang out and hit the trooper in the middle of the back, knocking him so hard his helmet flew off. He hit the ground and stayed there. Everyone stared at Roger and the arm protruding from his chest. "It's my extensible limb," he explained. He looked from face to face. "What?"

"That's it?" Kilana asked.

"Yes. What did you think I meant?"

Han looked at Roger, then at the crumpled up stormtrooper, then shook his head. "He's out now," he said. "Probably gonna hurt like hell when he-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Comes to," Anakin looked over the numbers again, "quite a chunk of credits," he said, tossing the datapad on the desk. "Maybe setting up the Academy here was a mistake. We don't have the money for this."

"But this place is so beautiful," Laudica said from out on the balcony.

"And they charge you for the beauty," Anakin said. "I never realized how much we needed the Empire to foot the bill for everything... we're going to be living on the beach levitating rocks in the hopes people will throw coins in our hats."

"Anakin, stop with the number crunching and relax. Worse comes to worse, Sebastian will cover it."

"Oh sure, that's something I'm looking forward to doing," Anakin said. "Having to get a hand-out from him."

"This was his idea," Laudica reminded Anakin. "And you're acting rather childish. Maybe you two don't see eye-to-eye, but you’re both family. He's not going to make you grovel."

"No, but it would give the impression that the Jedi are indebted to him."

Laudica's eyes swiveled this way and that. "Well, that would be because we would." She gave a lopsided grin. "You don't like that thought, huh?"

"Sebastian has made some bad decisions," Anakin said tersely. "I don't want him interfering in the Academy."

"Anakin, come here."

"Listen, I've-"

"Come here," Laudica said, with no room for disagreement. Anakin got to his feet and came over. She put her arm around him and looked out of the ocean. "This isn't a failure," she said. "You and Jaina founded this Academy and have seen it through the worst catastrophes, but we're still here. You've got nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Then why does it feel that way?"

"Because you are a very prideful man," Laudica said with a smirk. "There's something you need to know."

"What?" A look of panic passed over his face. "Is it about the environmental impact, because I-"

"Anakin," Laudica said, "stop thinking about the Academy for three seconds, okay? There's something-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"I have to tell you," Han said, "this is one bad idea, and I've seen plenty."

"I told you," Bohls said, flipping switches on the control panel, "they'll shoot down any ship that tries to go over there. This is the only way you're going to get a chance to see what's there and live."

"I'm not too sure we're going to live anyway," Han said. "Someone's going to notice that guy hasn't reported back yet, and this place is gonna get swarmed."

"Stop distracting me and I'll get it done faster," Bohls said through his teeth. The monitor finally flickered and resolved into a cloudy darkness. "Let me try to clean it up," he said as he worked the controls.

"I still don't see anything," Kilana said.

"I do," Roger said. "It's a ship."

"You're not seeing a ship," Han said. "It's just resolving."

"I have top-level visual filters," Roger said. "It's not a battlestation."

"Just..." Han stopped as the picture cleared up. "Kriff..."

"That's not the Death Star," Kilana said. "What is that?"

"I know what that is," Han said grimly. "Terraine mentioned it. It's-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"An Eclipse?" Sebastian rubbed his brow. "Are we sure?"

"An Eclipse Mark II, prefect," Terraine said. "And yes, we're sure. It's very hard to mistake a ship like that for something else."

Sebastian gently tossed the datapad onto his desk. "Well that is exactly what we don't need," he said with exhaustion in his voice. "Who has it?"

"Corbin," Terraine said.

"Aw terrific," Sebastian said. "Corbin's arrogant; he'll use the damn thing."

"That's our assessment as well, prefect," Terraine said.

"Admiral," Sebastian said, turning to Cirule. "There's no chance you would ever convince him to coming over to our side, right?"

"He's at the bottom of the list, prefect," Cirule said.

"Then I don't see an alternative to declaring war on Corbin," Sebastian said. "Before he gets it in his head to use that thing."

"That will severely hinder our ability to draw other factions into the Alliance," Cirule warned.

"I understand that," Sebastian said. "But for now, we know where that ship is. In a week, who knows. It's bad enough that someone's running around with a Death Star somewhere, but letting an ambitious weasel like Corbin have his own personal superlaser is too much. We're going to have to move, and quickly, unless someone has a better idea."

"Prefect," Terraine said, "the ISB can get men onto that ship and sabotage it. We can very likely destroy it, with enough resources."

"Begging your pardon, Mr. Terraine, but that's one big ship," Sebastian said.

"I realize that," Terraine said. "But we have the advantage for the moment. The ship is understaffed in dry dock, and we have the schematics and intimate understanding of the security technology and the protocol. To put it bluntly, we know its weaknesses, and the weaknesses in the humanoid element. We can very likely blow that ship away without sending in a single warship."

Sebastian drummed his fingers on the desk. "How certain are you of this?" he asked.

"Very certain, prefect."

Sebastian looked around the table. "Any objections?" None of the other military leaders spoke up. "Then give it your best, Mr. Terraine. And may the Force be with you, because I have a feeling you're going to need it if you expect to actually-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Pull it off," the Oracle ordered. The tattered sheet was removed, revealing the black coffin. It was almost surreal as the Sith pulled it out of the cave floor and carried it back into the lab. As before, the coffin was propped up and opened, revealing the decayed corpse of Triss. Most of the Sith turned away; it wasn't a very pretty sight and the smell was even worse. Again, the Oracle used her machine to reverse the effects of decay so that the body was pristine. Then she channeled unholy Forces in the room as the aether howled in protest until the corpse spasmed and snapped her eyes open before screaming.

Silence came. "A successful test," the Oracle said. She took Triss' pulse, felt her forehead, then went off to her workbench without a second thought. Triss pulled out her saber and charged at the Oracle, but with a casual gesture she was tossed aside. "Don't waste my time, child," she said, still not looking up from her task. "I have work to do." Triss leapt up to try again, but the lightsaber flew from her grip into the Oracle's hand. "Don't do that again," she warned darkly.

The Sith took a step back as the Oracle left the workbench and went to where Jorri's body lay. She put her index fingers together and tapped her lips as she stared at the body. "The child shouldn't have anything to do with it," she mused aloud. "Still... anyone here pregnant?" she asked as she turned back to the Sith. There was a fervent shaking of heads, even by the males. "No one? What about you Molly? It's no secret about you and Ben."

"We are always careful, my master," Molly said, though there was a tremor of fear in her voice.

"Hm, pity." The Oracle considered the corpse again. "I don't suppose any of you know anyone who's-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Pregnant?" Anakin Solo said, a bit flabbergasted. "How?" Laudica gave him a look. "I mean, how could this have happened? Wait, I mean-"

"You're surprised," Laudica said. "And you're a Jedi so you're not used to dealing with being surprised, but please, love of my life, stop talking like an idiot." Anakin turned, slightly dazed, and looked out at the waves beating upon the Hawaiian shore. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Anakin said distantly, then snapped back and hugged his wife tightly. "Yeah, I am, sorry about that. It just really hit me hard... I'm going to be a father! I mean, that's just..." He shook his head. "I can't really wrap my mind around that."

"Well you better start, mister," Laudica said, offering a kiss. "Because no matter what the Jedi Academy may need, the baby's going to need you more."

Yes, it would, Anakin realized. And one thing it would need would be protection from those threatening to destroy the Jedi specifically and the galaxy as a whole. Suddenly, the work of getting the Academy set up seemed insignificant, that the only thing that mattered was stopping the evil while there was still some time. "I'll talk to Sebastian," Anakin said. "I'll swallow my pride and ask him, so that we can get down to business."

"Good," Laudica said. "But how about we stop thinking about the blasted Academy and start thinking about us?"

Anakin kissed her. "I'm sorry, you're right. It's just hard not to think about it with all that's happening."

"Well, if you could find time to squeeze us in, I'd certainly be obliged."

"It's just that there's so much going on in the universe right now," Anakin said. "I mean, I love you, and I'll love our baby, but... I hate to admit it, but I'm worried that-"
--------------------------------------------------------------

"This isn't a good time," Sebastian said. "I've got a meeting with delegates from the Breen and Tholians in three hours and I haven't had a chance to look over the briefing yet."

"I understand, Mr. Skywalker," Janet said, "but the Queen said it was urgent."

"And she doesn't use that term lightly," Sebastian admitted, following Janet out the door and hobbling up the corridor to the nearest operations center. "Tell me what I'm looking at," he said as he glanced up at the images and holograms being projected.

"Telemetry from one of the probe droids," the Borg Queen informed him.

"Did you find the Oracle?" Sebastian asked.

"No." The Borg had obviously missed the underlying tone of Sebastian's question, and the bland response was infuriating, but killing the messenger wouldn't serve any purpose. "Though this appears to be a significant discovery."

Sebastian looked at the readings and suddenly it hit him. "You found the Vong planet."

"It appears that way. We've encountered Vong occupied worlds, but this one is different. All our data indicates that this is where the war coordinator is controlling their forces."

"How certain are we of this?" Sebastian asked, afraid to hope that it could be true.

"Eighty-seven percent," the Queen said.

"I like those odds," Sebastian said. "It's just like the coralskippers. We take out the war coordinator and all those ships are reduced to the primitive brains the Vong gave them. We can end this war in a single stroke... we wouldn't even have to worry about the remnant, except for that Eclipse, of course." He turned to Janet. "This could finally be the end."

"Unfortunately, there is one obstacle to victory," the Queen said. "The Vong have created a very sophisticated planetary shield. They destroyed our probe droid before scanning was complete, but preliminary data indicates that it’s at least up to galactic standards in terms of defensive power. No bombardment will be able to penetrate if it's activated."

"Then we've got to get around it," Sebastian said. "Sooner or later we're going to have to, so it might as well be now. What about a cloaked fleet?"

"The probe droid was cloaked, yet they still found it," the Queen pointed out. "The Vong seem to have developed technology that can penetrate it."

Sebastian clicked his teeth a few times as he looked at the data. Eventually he pulled out a commlink. "Mr. Terraine."

"Yes, prefect?"

"Put the Eclipse project on hold for the moment, there may be a change to the mission."

"What kind of change?"

Sebastian looked at the shield emitters and ground his teeth. "We may have to steal it."



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Part XXXVII


"Steal it?" Romal said, not bothering to be diplomatic. "Steal an Eclipse-class Star Destroyer? Are you out of your mind?"

"The jury's still out on that one," Sebastian said as he continued to stare at the telemetry from the Vong planet.

"Do you have any idea what it takes to run one of those things?" Romal demanded. "It's not a matter of swiping the keys and taking it out for a joy ride. The ship requires a crew of thousands-"

"I know," Sebastian said, clearly irritated. "But what's the alternative? They're not going to just give it to us, and I doubt any price tag they put on it would be something we could give them. We need that ship... it's our only hope."

"Don't the Borg have a superlaser?" Janet asked. "I thought you- they- whatever, I thought the Borg blew up Coruscant."

"Yes," the Queen said. "But we lost a great deal of data when the Collective was destroyed. We have bits and pieces of information on hypermatter reactors, enough to start. Perhaps the Empire could fill in the gaps."

"Terraine said that the Emperor classified the information and kept it a tightly guarded secret," Sebastian said. "Our allies don't have it, and we've no idea where to start looking for it. And even then, the time necessary to research, design, test... we're talking years before we'd have a weapon ready, and the Vong aren't going to give us those years. But that Eclipse is ready now. The Vong know we're coming, but they won't know we're packing that. No matter what it takes, we have to get that ship!"

"But how?" Romal demanded.

Sebastian was silent. "Everyone out," he said. They looked at one another, but obeyed. Sebastian slowly limped up to the controls and initiated a secure connection with Volgo Terraine. "Are you alone?"

"Yes, prefect."

"There's a way we can do this," Sebastian said slowly. "But it won't be pleasant."

"Ours is not a pleasant business," Terraine said.

"Still..." Sebastian sighed, then told him the plan.

"It can be done," Terraine said. "It will be difficult, but we can do it."

"Could your men carry through on it?" Sebastian said.

"They're professionals," Terraine said.

"Good." He let out a quivering breath. "Tell me there's no other way, Mr. Terraine," he said. "Tell me that I have no choice."

"There are no viable alternatives," Terraine said. "But if Captain Sisko taught me anything, it was that we always have a choice, even if it may seem fate forces our hand. We make choices, and must accept their ramifications."

Sebastian nodded. "I can end this war in one stroke with that ship. I can spare hundreds of billions of lives that would be lost trying to beat back the Vong." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "And all it costs is a piece of my soul." Terraine waited in silence. "Do it," Sebastian finally said.

Terraine nodded. "As you command, prefect."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Sith took up various positions in the entertainment lounge, waiting silently for the arrival of the Oracle. It was rare that she didn't summon them to the lab, or the cavern outside it, but at least being in here made it less likely she was planning on killing someone. There were six monitors lit up, each offering various entertainments from throughout the galaxy. They were muted as the Oracle walked in.

The Oracle looked at each in turn as she strode to the holoprojector at the center of the room. She stood in silence for almost a minute, just watching them; it was chilling, even to a Sith. "Your thoughts, all of you, betray your doubt," the Oracle chastised. "I suppose that's only natural. The failure of the strongest among you to accomplish the simplest task," she glared at Ben, "is troubling. And I will admit that the late Jorrielle is resisting my powers, though it appears that there is some kind of force that is interfering in her revivification. I've seen it happen once before, so while it is frustrating, it isn't without precedent. Still, since things appear lost, I feel it is time to make you fully aware of our situation, so you don't get any strange ideas.

"I gathered you all here, one way or another, to accomplish three goals. The first was to topple the Empire, which we all agree was a corrupt and wasted government. There we have already succeeded. The second is to establish a Sith Empire across both galaxies, which will come in time. The final is our age-old task of wiping out our Jedi enemies. The latter two will be aided by our coming objective, but first I need to know that you are all committed to those goals, and to me. Anything else is not important." She called to each, by name, and asked for their affirmation; they gave it, even Ben. Molly was the last, but after that the Oracle strode up to her. "Are you certain?" she asked. "Are you completely committed, willing to pay any price?"

"Yes master."

"Because what I'm about to tell you will test your resolve, girl," the Oracle said. "I must know that you will not falter."

"I am committed, my master."

"Good," the Oracle said. "Now, the young Jedi Sebastian has gotten himself in far over his head. I'd hoped that using his mother and wife we could push him into the dark side, but with the obstacle surrounding the woman we'll have to go to the secondary plan." She walked towards the monitors and stared up at them, quiet. "Sebastian has made a grave mistake," she said in a low voice. "He has underestimated my resolve. As I said, you must be prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice, and I ask no more of you than I would do myself. That's why there is only one way for us to proceed." She turned back to the gathered Sith. "We must destroy Earth."

Molly swallowed. "This is to kill the Jedi, yes? Surely there's another way-"

"This will kill the Jedi," the Oracle said, "but it will also show our resolve, and put fear into the hearts of those who oppose us. Sebastian mistakenly assumed that I wouldn't be willing to go that far; when he realizes his failure resulted in nine billion deaths..."

"Sebastian's weak," Ben said irritably. "Why bother doing this to goad him?"

"Sebastian is the prefect of the Alliance, and that makes him their weakness. If we turn him to the Dark side, we bring him into our fold, and all that power becomes ours. Even if systems fall away, the hold he has over the Borg will be invaluable. After all, the Borg have no morality... dark, light, it's all the same to them."

Molly's eyes were downcast, but she looked up into the Oracle's face. "My mother is on Earth," she explained. "I am committed to our cause, master, but I ask that her life be spared."

The Oracle's expression was unreadable. "Done," she said. "We'll evacuate Keiko before the destruction and deposit her elsewhere where she will be safe. Will that satisfy you?"

"Yes," Molly nodded. "Thank you, my master."

The Oracle gave a slight nod. "Now, if you're wondering how I intend to carry this out, it will involve this." She activated the holoprojector, which showed an incomplete Death Star. "I'm sure you've heard about it, and if you're curious, yes, that was our doing. Elim Garak and Lando Calrissian were responsible for repairing and deploying this Death Star against Chandrilla, and they've been spending every moment since trying to repair the damage to it. In two days, they'll be finished. We will be taking it from them. To do that will involve all of you in one way or another. I expect you all to carry out your tasks fully. Failure will be dealt with harshly."

The Oracle gestured and the wire diagram expanded to two meters in diameter. "Garak and Calrissian have been useful tools, but the time of their usefulness has ended. After today they will only serve as a liability." She pointed to an area in the hologram. "This is the command center, aka the firing room, where the controls for the Death Star's primary weapon are. Garak and Calrissian will be here, and that will be the tightest of the security. Ben, Molly, despite your failure on Vidik-" the Oracle didn't even bother hiding her disgust "-you have demonstrated competence against hordes of non-Force users. You two will take the command center and eliminate any resistance. You're also charged with killing Garak and Calrissian."

"Yes, my master," Ben said.

The Oracle took a step closer and raised a long, bony digit towards his face. "Don't fail me again," she said icily. Ben's eyes dropped with respect, and she turned back to the hologram. "This is the primary docking bay," the Oracle indicated, "and where we'll be making our landing. Once we're docked, no one leaves unless I allow it. Any who try will be killed." She turned to Alema. "You'll be piloting the ship and thus are responsible for it; you'll be the last off. Once you’re finished it will fall to you and Mareth to carry out that order. Kill any who try to escape."

"Yes, master," Alema and the Romulan answered.

"Garak is a cunning adversary," the Oracle continued. "He's hidden an emergency shuttle on this secondary docking bay here," she indicated the point on the hologram. "Yelsar and Di'Bol, you two will take a second shuttle, land there, and similarly ensure no one leaves without my permission. Any trying to escape must die." The two Sith nodded in understanding.

"Now, we are not going to the Death Star to exterminate," the Oracle continued. "The workers there have spent the past year maintaining that battlestation, and they can do so for us as well. Jowana, Triss, and Shodah, you three will be responsible for pacifying the crew and mopping up any Cardassian security forces."

"What if the workers resist, master?" Jowana asked. "What are we permitted to do?"

"Kill only if it's unavoidable," the Oracle said. "The Death Star is very, very old and will require a great deal of work to maintain, but it will be a great asset for us. If too many are lost, we'll have to acquire new ones, which will be a waste of time and resources and potentially tip our hand."

"Understood, master," Jowana said.

"Good. Now, Torda and Aren," the Oracle said, turning to the Aqualish and Ventaxian, "your assignment may seem minor, but it is no less important. Seven is an irritant, but at the moment she's potential leverage against Sebastian Skywalker, and a weapon against the Borg. I don't wish to lose any edge against them. You'll remain here to ensure she doesn't try anything. If she gets out, she must be stopped from escaping, but alive."

"[Damaged?]" Torda asked.

"I leave that up to your discretion," the Oracle said. "But if she ceases being an asset I will be gravely disappointed." That was all that needed to be said; the Oracle's unspoken threats always trumped anything words could express. "As for myself, I will be at the reactor, inspecting the repair work first hand. I am to be kept abreast of any deviations and failures... trying to cover it up will only anger me." She glared at them all in turn. "Any questions?" There were none. "We depart in three hours."
--------------------------------------------------------------

There were all manner of procedures in place to deal with shape-shifters, doppelgangers, replicants, and so on in the Empire. But then again, the Empire was gone, and while the remnants still clung to the power of their fleets, they were still vulnerable to someone who knew those procedures. Volgo Terraine, actually, had added several to the list when he became head of the ISB, but he'd kept a few secrets of his own, just in case. So, alone, Terraine managed to find his way on board the Vengeance and walk the corridors of the ship without question.

Terraine had changed a great deal over the decades. He'd been one of the changelings the Founders sent to infiltrate the Empire, but after the Great Link was wiped out, he settled into his cover. There was nothing else left for him to do but try to get on with his empty existence. When Sisko, in the form of the Emperor, finally came to him and offered him his position, well, Terraine had hesitated. He was afraid -and the irony was not lost on him- that it would change him. But it appealed to his instinctual desire for order, and eventually he came to work in the very Empire that had destroyed his people. But he worked to change that, to stop the senseless butchery and trampling of humanoid rights. But while the underground ISB adapted to his vision, Terraine changed himself. Pragmatism won out, so that over time he learned to accept the sacrifices that sometimes had to be made. Individuals would sometimes be lost to protect the lives of trillions. It was regrettable, but Terraine never shrunk away from necessity. So, when he encountered the two guards outside the door of the ship's commanding officer, he didn't hesitate in killing them, quickly and silently. An anaesthetizing gas was tossed into the room to keep the captain asleep while a couple of miniaturized holoprojectors replaced the guards with life-like counterparts. They wouldn't stand up to scrutiny, but they'd help buy some time. Terraine slipped inside the quarters, deposited the bodies, and bound the captain to a chair. He snapped an image of one of the walls, then placed the chair alongside it. He set up another projector and the wall moved less than a meter closer. Anyone who came in in a rush wouldn't notice it because they'd be too busy wondering what happened to the captain. It would buy them more time.

Terraine put a hypospray to Captain Palsin's neck and brought him around, but clasped a hand over his mouth. "Captain," Terraine said. "You are my prisoner. If you try to call for help I will kill you, nod if you understand." Palsin nodded, and the hand was removed. "Someone would like a private word with you," he said. A hologram of Sebastian appeared.

"Captain Palsin," Sebastian said. "I'm sorry we have to meet under these circumstances."

"I have nothing to say to you," Palsin said sharply. "I don't recognize your authority."

"Let's get down to brass tacks," Sebastian said, ignoring the remark. "You're the captain of the Eclipse Mark II-class star destroyer Vengeance. We know all about it. We know it was a secret project begun by General Taar before his death and the collapse of the Empire, we know that General Corbin knew it was being built here and seized control of this world for the express purpose of getting this ship." Sebastian folded his hands and leaned forward. "He placed you in command because you are competent and loyal to him, which is why you're not inclined to listen to me."

"That's right," Palsin said sternly.

"Well, you must realize that while Corbin is busy worrying about his own petty ambitions, the Vong are growing stronger," Sebastian said. "The Alliance can't hold them back forever... sooner or later they're going to come here and kill everyone no matter whose side they're on."

"I follow my orders," Palsin said. "Corbin makes policy decisions."

"That decision was to seize power solely for his personal benefit," Sebastian said. "Now I need this ship to end the war, and I need your help to get it."

"Well you're not going to have it," Palsin said. "If you need Corbin's aid, ask for it."

"Henks asked for Cobin's aid, remember what happened to him?" Admiral Henks was in control of one of the other remnants. When the Vong tried a breakout into his territory he asked Corbin for help. It cost Henks fifty sectors of his territory. "I can't make those kinds of deals, captain. To pass control of worlds that came to me for protection over to a foreign power would be the worst betrayal."

"So instead you want me to betray my leader?"

"Yes," Sebastian admitted. "I know that's not an easy thing, but I wouldn't do it if I had another choice. The consequences are too great." Palsin looked away in disgust. "We will compensate you for it," Sebastian continued. "Money, promotion-"

"In exchange for my self-respect," Palsin said.

Sebastian paused. "You're a good man, captain. You have strength of conviction, probably what prompted Corbin to put you in command. But I need you, captain."

"The answer is no."

"Please," Sebastian hissed.

"No!"

Sebastian hung his head. "Show him," he said.

Terraine pulled out a second holo-projector and activated it. It showed Palsin's family surrounded by men in black outfits... men with blaster rifles. Palsin took a deep breath in shock at the sight. "It's a trick," he said finally.

Terraine pulled out a commlink. "Ecter."

One of the men said something to the woman and she said, "This morning you said that we'd take some time to go to the mountains together." Tears were in her eyes. "That you'd make the time for us."

Palsin swallowed. "No," he said. "They were protected-"

"Do you really think that Corbin's people could stand up to an ISB infiltration squad, captain?" Terraine asked.

"Captain," Sebastian said, "they're fine. Now, I need your help-"

"Help?" Palsin half-snarled. "You?"

"Yes," Sebastian said. "I promise you, if you help us, they'll be released back to you unharmed, and everything I promised you will be yours."

"And if I don't?" Palsin asked. "You're a Jedi, prefect."

“I’m a Borg, which means I’m cursed to be really good at math. Billions versus three, well, I’m not going to have to get a second opinion on that one.”

“You’re a Jedi,” Palsin said again. “You can’t go through with this.”

Sebastian swallowed. "I'm a very poor Jedi," he said. "You want me to say it? If you don't help me, I will k-" He looked down at his desk a moment. He was visibly struggling, but finally forced the words out. "I will kill your family."



Chuck

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Part XXXVIII


The threat hung there in the air, a practically tangible thing. Sebastian's men had Captain Palsin's family at their mercy, and the ultimatum had been given. Palsin had to deliver the Eclipse-II, or his family would die. Palsin was quiet for a moment, then shook his head slowly, eyes fixed on Sebastian. "You're bluffing."

"Captain, do you know how it feels to watch your wife die?" Sebastian asked. "It feels like someone is dissecting you while you're still conscious. It feels like someone is reaching inside you and finding the most precious part, and cutting it out and tossing it away-"

"Shut up!"

"I- I have billions of lives to think of captain," Sebastian said. "I am responsible for preserving those lives by whatever means are required. Please don't make me murder your family to make a point."

"I have a duty!" Palsin said.

"What's the point of duty if your family has to die for it?!!" Sebastian demanded. "It's not enough that you neglect them while they live, you'll take what time they have left?!!" He collapsed back into his chair. "For the last time, captain, I need that ship."

Palsin's jaw was trembling, but he did his best to remain stone-faced. "I have a duty."

Sebastian opened his mouth to give the order, but the words wouldn't come. She was there. She was watching. And she didn't approve. Sometimes you have to do an ugly thing, he thought. When you have so many lives to consider, you have to make the hard choice.

You mean the wrong choice, father.

They'll die anyway, Sebastian thought. The Vong will break out of the barrier and we'll all die.

Everyone dies eventually, father. That's not a justification to kill, especially an innocent person.

You don't understand!

Yes, I do father. Remember what mother said? How you share people in your vision? Well, take a good look at what your visions have been, father, they are about death and hate. Marnisch, Cirule, Terraine... "As you command, prefect."

I do what needs to be done!

Remember on Vidik? You looked at Ben and thought, "that could have been me." Well you were wrong, father. You should have thought "this could be me."

So what do I do?! Sebastian demanded. Let the Vong win? This is the lesser of two evils.

But it's still an evil, isn't it.

I... I have...

Look at you, father. You are prepared to kill a man's wife and children just to get to him... after all that you've lamented since Ben did this to you, you are prepared to visit that same evil on another. Is that what kind of man you really are, father?

Morgan-

Make a choice, father. But don't lie about what it is, or about what you are. What the Alliance is going to become will be decided by the words that come out of your mouth. Is it the dream of Unity, or have you only put a new face on the Empire?

Sebastian covered his face and wiped the dampness away. "Let them go," he said hoarsely.

Terraine's eyes widened just a little. "Prefect-"

"Do it," Sebastian said. "Ma'am... I apologize for what's happened. We'll leave you in peace."

"Prefect, I can't allow that," Terraine said. "The war hinges on this ship."

"Then it ends now," Sebastian said. "We'll fight to the bitter end, but we'll fight the real enemy."

"I'm sorry, prefect," Terraine said. "But that's not acceptable."

"Terraine," Sebastian said sharply. "No, it's over."

"Ecter," Terraine said, with the grim voice of one who is doing the hard but necessary thing. "Kill the woman."

"Ecter you pull that goddamn trigger and you'll wish you'd never been born!" Sebastian said.

"We are committed, prefect!" Terraine said. "This isn't going to remain a secret! You do this and don't follow through then everyone will see you as morally bankrupt and a coward! The Alliance is going to fall to pieces and the Vong will win!"

"Jon!" the woman shouted. "Why are you letting them do this?"

"Not a word, Liana," Palsin said.

"You're always going on about duty and honor, but how come Corbin's had you all sitting here safe and cozy while other people are dying to stop the Vong?"

"It's Corbin's choice-"

"And he's making the wrong ones!" Liana snapped. "And look at you... are you going to choose him over us?"

"It's a bluff, Liana."

"Jon, you are gambling with your sons' lives!" Liana exploded. "To defend a man who cares about no one but himself!"

"This isn't about him, it's about honor and discipline and courage! It's about being a good officer!"

"At the cost of being a poor husband and father?" Palsin opened to reply, but stopped himself. "Do the right thing, Jon," she pleaded. Palsin looked down at his feet. "Please, Jon."

"Fine," he said eventually, defeat saturating his voice. "Fine, I'll do it."

"Thank you, captain," Sebastian said.

"Don't thank me," Palsin fumed at him. "No matter what those people out there may think, I saw your true colors today, prefect. Behind that limping war hero façade you are just an evil little man, and I hope one day you're made to pay for that."

The room darkened as the holoprojectors switched off, then the lights came back up. Sebastian covered his eyes as he rubbed his temples. It all sounded so simple until you're actually sitting in that chair, making the decisions that would mean life and death for people you've never met. All his preparations had been to fight a war... no one taught him how to do this, how to live with this. He was without a compass in a place where the map only said "Here There Be Dragons," and he had the unpleasant feeling that if he wasn't careful, he was going to become one of them.
--------------------------------------------------------------

An alert sounded, and Lando's gut tightened. He rushed to the control panel and saw that it wasn't a problem with the station’s systems, although that would have been preferable. A ship had dropped out of hyperspace nearby. A shuttle... the Death Star prototype wasn't built to actually be a battlestation, so there was nothing they could do to stop it. Of course, there was a small chance that it was someone from the Alliance, someone who just wanted to arrest them for what they'd done. But he doubted it. The only one who could find the hidden Death Star was someone who possessed powers that, well, Lando didn't like thinking about. When the shield covering the docking bay entrance flickered and died without a shot being fired, all doubt was removed.

"Garak," Lando shouted. The Cardassian came over to the monitor. "Looks like you were right."

Garak watched the shuttle land and the Sith party descend the ramp. "She brought too many," he said flatly. "We can't win." He looked up at Lando. "But we can make her lose."

Lando already knew what he was planning. "Destroy the Death Star."

"I don't see why we should let her have it," Garak said. "You can do it, right?"

"No problem, it's held together by spit and baling wire. Power overload will do the trick; I can do it from here. What about our people?"

"We'll do what we can," Garak said. "But we both know the Oracle's going to kill them; maybe not today, but eventually."

Lando looked down at the controls. All this time rebuilding this thing just so he could blow it up. "Let's hope we take the Oracle with us," he said as he started.

"We can hope," Garak said. "How long will you need?"

"Fifteen minutes," Lando said. "After that the reaction will get out of control and it can't be stopped."

"Show me," Garak said. Lando did, and explained briefly what needed to be done. "We'll be primary targets," Garak said. "If anything happens, we split up, so that maybe one of us will have a chance of getting back here."

"There's a lot of Sith," Lando said.

Garak dropped a wooden box on the console. "I have my ace in the hole," he said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben and Molly left the shuttle along with the rest of the Sith without any comment. Despite what the Oracle said, Ben knew this was a waste of his talents. Cardassian soldiers aren't even up to stormtroopers, and there would likely be only a handful that would resist. Garak and Calrissian were old men who couldn't have had a chance in their prime. That the Oracle had implied he could fail this was an insult matched only by the humiliation he'd felt over Vidik. When the Cardassian guards confronted him, Ben didn't bother with more than minimal effort; he just walked up the corridor at the same tired walk, deflecting the blasts with his two sabers before casually cutting them down.

Molly was a bit more energetic about it, but she seemed to see why Ben felt so put down by this. They were far below what she could accomplish as well. Ben had to admit a grudging respect for Molly. He was the one who failed on Vidik, not her, and yet she'd unfairly been given equal blame for what had happened. And yet, she never tried passing it off. She was loyal to Ben, even when he didn't deserve it... and surprisingly, that meant something to him. Maybe it was because her respect was all that he had left.

There were six guards outside the entrance to the firing room, but they didn't even slow the two Sith down. Molly and Ben stepped over their corpses and through the doors. Garak and Calrissian were at one of the controls. "Step away from there," Ben warned.

Garak flung a wooden box open and pulled out a lightsaber. "Stay back," he warned. "I've practiced enough to be a match even for you." He fumbled with it and the beam came on a second, then went out. He shook it irritably while Molly suppressed a laugh and Ben sighed. He held out his hand and the saber was yanked from Garak's grip. He was about to chide the Cardassian for the stupidity of the move when he remembered that Garak was no fool... and that his expression, instead of one of fear, had now switched to that other one that he'd seen too often... the one that screamed, "sucker!"

Before Ben could stop himself, his hand closed around the lightsaber, and his mind was overwhelmed by the presence of Darth Whind.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Run!" Garak said as he bolted towards one of the exits even as Ben Skywalker crumpled helplessly onto the floor. Lando didn't ask questions, he ran as fast as his tired old body would allow in a different direction. Molly swore, but took off after Garak. Lando doubled back through a few access junctions and wound up back in the firing room. Ben was still there, helpless. Lando pulled out his blaster pistol... but it was shaking in his grip. He'd done a lot of awful things in his life. He'd killed people before when he had to, when he was looking down the other end of a blaster he never had any problem with firing first. But now, against a completely helpless adversary... maybe he should do it, but Lando's soul felt too dirty to pass judgment. He closed his eyes and ground his teeth, and squeezed-

The power pack ejected from the blaster, causing Lando to leap nearly half a meter in the air in shock. At the same time, the console was beeping; the emergency overrides were stopping the overload and needed to be manually disabled. He looked at Ben, then at the console. Maybe it was just a coincidence, his hand shaking knocking something loose... but Luke had always said that there was no such thing as luck. Lando scooped up the power pack and ran back to the console and got to work, leaving Ben where he was.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak was old, and thus most people would be inclined to call him "spry," but the truth was that Garak kept himself in shape. When he ran, he ran, age be damned. Molly was left racing trying to keep up, and it was only because of a flicker in her premonition that she caught herself before running into the ten Cardassians with blaster rifles waiting around the corner. The corner was peppered with shots while she focused herself. She could handle that many, but it would take concentration, and it would give Garak the time he wanted. Damn him! This should have been routine, but that insufferable Cardassian always had to overcomplicate even the simplest thing! Molly charged around the corner with her lightsaber flashing, catching the blasts and directing them back. It wasn't easy, but she overran them and cut them all down. She darted a short way past the dead guards, but Garak could have gone anywhere.

Molly pulled out her commlink. The Oracle was specific; she needed to be informed of this... failure. About what happened to Ben. About how Molly couldn’t catch an elderly man. And then expect the Oracle to actually follow through on her promise to spare Keiko O'Brien when this station was under her control. Molly leaned against the wall wearily, wondering how the hell she'd gone from being a rebel soldier to being in this insane situation.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Ben Skywalker looked up, and the universe was gone. There was only unending whiteness. He got up for all the good it did, and looked vainly for someone. He cried out; there was no answer.

Finally, there was the voice of Sisko. “It’s time, Ben,” he said darkly. “Today you answer for your crimes.” Ben looked around wildly, but there was no one. “Today is the day you will die.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Captain Palsin arrived four days after their conversation. He'd made a few last minute arrangements to put men who weren't happy with Corbin in command with him. The ISB covered for him by causing some disturbances that drew attention away from what was happening. Corbin was a fair enough military commander but his approach to governing obviously left a lot to be desired. When the captain announced he was defecting to the Alliance to use the ship against the Vong, the attempted mutiny was small and easily quelled, the dissenters sent back to Corbin's space aboard Alliance transports. The truth was that most of the crew had been grinding their teeth making reports and doing inspections while their former comrades destroyed an enemy they'd spent so much of their lives fighting. Far from being outraged, the chance to go against the Vong only whetted their appetites.

Palsin himself, however, declined the promotion to admiral Sebastian offered and asked for time off. Whether it was to spend more time with the family he almost lost or just because he couldn't work for Sebastian, there was no time to dwell on it. Sebastian had the ship checked over thoroughly in anticipation for the final push into the Milky Way Vong territory. Admiral Cirule had been put in charge of preparing for the mission, and now all of the preparations and checks and other assorted minutia were completed, and Sebastian found himself on a shuttle to the ship to personally oversee what he hoped would be the end of the war.

Sebastian stared silently at the Eclipse-II class star destroyer through the window of the shuttle while Janet gave him a run down on the ship. "I don't like the name," he said finally.

Janet paused. "'Vengeance,' Mr. Skywalker?"

"Yes. Not a good name to rally behind."

"Well, actually, I think some would think it is," Janet said diplomatically.

"The Alliance may have been forged to oppose the Vong, but that doesn't mean we need to be so cavalier about it... to imply that this is some kind of effort to even the score." Sebastian tapped his lips with the head of his cane. "That's not what this has been about. It's been about ensuring our survival, and more than that, about the oppression and genocidal nature of the Vong, of toppling an amoral and evil threat. 'Vengeance' just doesn't cut it for me."

"Well, it is your ship, Mr. Skywalker," Janet said. "What should it be called?"

Sebastian stared at it silently again. He'd wondered about that himself. He'd sifted through a number of choices, but none of them struck quite the right tone. On the one hand, this was a ship that would hopefully strike a mortal blow in the cause of freedom, but on the other, it was capable of smashing planets. Any name along the lines he thought, like "hope" or "liberty" seemed ironic for a ship carrying an abominable weapon. That was the problem, though, because everything took on that quality. At one point, he considered naming it after Jorri, as a kind of fitting way for her to strike a final blow in the war that had claimed her life. But that too seemed wrong... Jorri was a fine soldier who never hesitated in her duty, strong and determined and fearless, but for Sebastian she would always be softness and gentleness and compassion, and none of those applied to this ship. Perhaps "necessary evil" would be appropriate, considering how it was only being used because this enterprise demanded it, but that wouldn't be very good for public relations now would-

Sebastian smirked. Why not? he thought. After all, his mother would be the first to approve. "Janet," he said, "contact the Vengeance, tell them we are going to rechristen the ship."

"And the name, Mr. Skywalker?"

"Oh, what else could it possibly be, Janet? It's the Enterprise."



Chuck

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Part XXXIX

Mother the car is here
Somebody leave the light on
Blood chariot for the redhead dancing, dancing girl
He's gonna change my name
Maybe you'll leave the light on
Just in, just in case I like the dancing
I can remember where I come... from....
--------------------------------------------------------------

Decades ago, on the last Death Star ever created by the Empire, alarms sounded. The reactor was building up power for self-destruction, and there was no way to stop it. Troopers and officers and other Imperial personnel ran through the battlestation looking for a shuttle or escape pod to escape fiery oblivion. The sound of footsteps, however, had long since died away here, where a body lay sprawled on the floor after being run through with a lightsaber.

There was a hum, and a crackle of energy, and a brief flash of light. Darth Whind's eyes snapped open, and her body pulled itself awkwardly to her feet. Her eyes closed briefly as her head was shaken, as if to remove the cobwebs, and then lurched forward down the corridor. "Do not resist, my young apprentice," came from her mouth. "I am merely borrowing your body for the moment... you may have whatever's left back when I'm finished."

Darth Whind's steps were awkward as her body turned the corner. "Do not struggle, girl," her lips said reproachfully. "This is your fault, you know; distracting me at a critical moment, simply because you happened to be dying." The body fumbled with the fingers trying to enter the access code. "So, since you are responsible, it's only fitting that you fix this mess." The doors opened and her body again lurched its way along to the prototype transporter. Verbal codes were given out as she stumbled up onto a raised black platform topped with a tall, sinister looking pod. Darth Whind's body stepped inside and the pod sealed. "Stop struggling!" her mouth said sharply.

But Darth Whind was Sith, and Sith didn't tolerate intrusion lightly. She fought frantically to seize control of her body back. She was desperate and frightened and angry, and she needed a way out of this.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Another time, another place, another reality. Mara Jade Skywalker laid down suppressing fire as she worked her way back into the compound where she'd left her six year-old son, Ben. It was just the two of them; the boy's father had been off fighting the wars constantly, leaving it up to Mara to raise and train the boy. And now, a group of mercenaries had found them. They weren't working for the Vong, had no love at all for them actually. But they loved money, and ransoming the family of one of the primary generals against the Vong would let them live out their days like kings.

Mara fell back, tossing the blaster rifle aside and pulling out her lightsaber. She had Jedi skills, but there were so many, and she had to protect her son as well. "What's happening?" he asked as she ran up and grabbed his arm, leading the way further into the shelter. Hide, that was their only option. She stuffed Ben into a corner, told him to stay there, and then stood between him and the door, lightsaber ready as her heart pounded. She was a Jedi, but then, they knew she was a Jedi; there was no way anyone skilled enough to slip past the defenses would be dumb enough not to know that. They'd have a plan, some way to get them both, and if that happened, there was no guarantee they wouldn't kill her little boy.

There was the sound of men out in the hallway beyond, and Mara lit the lightsaber. She fought to control her emotions, but it was hopeless. She was desperate and frightened and angry, and she needed a way out of this.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Two minds, feeling the same, thinking the same, touched as the hyperspace transporter malfunctioned and passed the body out of reality. The energy of the connection caused a massive psychic burst that buried the Emperor's consciousness deep within Darth Whind's mind. On a psychic plane, the two women assessed one another. Darth Whind's mouth fell open at the shared thoughts... though Mara's husband was gone, the love the two shared was so strong. The wonderful things he said and did, the things they shared... however much she was Sith, she was envious of the feelings she found that she'd never experienced herself. Mara Jade was equally shocked; the power the Sith possessed was far, far greater than her Jedi training had allowed, more than enough to stop twice as many mercenaries.

Darth Whind took a deep breath. She needed to have this Luke Skywalker.

Mara Jade took a deep breath. She needed to have this power.

Words weren't necessary, but Darth Whind chose to use them. "If I give you what you want," she said slowly, "you won't be able to put it down again. The attraction of the Dark side is equaled only by its power."

"I don't care," Mara Jade said. "He's my son... I love him too much not to do everything possible."

"That may change," Darth Whind warned.

"It can't," Mara Jade said. "I'd die to spare him even a moment's pain."

Darth Whind nodded. "Then take what you need," she said, opening her mind up to Mara.

Mara Jade opened her eyes as the door to the room slid opened. She held out her hand as she walked towards it, and the room echoed with the man's throat crushing in her mental grip. She lit her saber as she walked through, tossing mercenaries aside like rag dolls with a gesture, then slicing them down. They'd brought all kinds of stun weapons and chemical agents, but she moved too quickly and resisted every one. She was swift and merciless, and when the mercenaries realized they'd gotten more than they bargained for, she gestured and sealed the doors to prevent them from retreating. They fought frantically, but her rage was unending. She sliced the arm of the last one off and left him huddled helpless in the corner, lightsaber pointed at his face with a smirk of satisfaction on her face.

"Mommy?" Ben asked. He was only a few meters away.

"I thought I told you to stay put!" she said sharply.

"I was scared," Ben said.

"Of the bad men?"

"Yeah."

Mara nodded a little. "Don't be," she said, turning the saber off. "Come here." Ben obeyed. "Take a look at them," she said, nodding towards the prone mercenary. "They're nothing." She put the saber in her son's hand; he'd used them before, but only on training. "Kill him... see how you have nothing to fear from their kind."

Ben looked hard at the shivering man. "He's afraid, mommy."

"He should be," Mara said harshly. "Kill him." Ben just stood there. "I told you to do something, now do it!" Tears were in Ben's eyes, and she rounded on him. "What's wrong with you?!" she demanded. "Do what your mother says!"

"I don't want to," Ben said. "I'm scared." The back of her right hand caught him on the side of the face, and he toppled over. He looked up at her, at those glowing green eyes and hair like fire around her head and the anger in her every feature, and Ben was too frightened to move or cry or speak.

"How can you be so weak?!!!" she demanded. "How do you expect to ever do anything in your life if you are such a coward?!!!" She yanked the lightsaber from his grip, scratching his hand so hard it drew blood. She sliced off the mercenaries other hand, and then she began cutting him to pieces while he was still alive. "You-" cut "-are-" cut "-a-" cut "-pathetic-" cut "-failure!" Mara stabbed the man through the face, and his cries finally ended. She turned back to Ben, saber still lit, and the child shrank back in fear. "How could you possibly be my flesh and blood?" she asked with disgust.

Ben Skywalker watched the boy cower before his mother, never taking his eyes off even as Benjamin Sisko walked up beside him. "What's the point of this?" Ben asked.

"This is where it all began, wasn't it," Sisko said. "It's where it usually begins... good intentions. If she'd only known what she'd wind up doing to you..."

Ben scoffed. "So, none of this is my fault? Is that what you're saying?"

Sisko grabbed his arm and yanked him around so that their faces were inches apart. "You are a monster," Sisko snarled. "And you are responsible for being one. This doesn't mitigate your actions, your choices."

"Then what's the point?" Ben demanded. "Why bring me here?"

"Do you hate her?"

"Of course!"

"Why?"

"You saw what she did!" Ben said. "What she was like every day after this!"

"She said she loved you."

"She lied!"

"Did she?"

"Yes!" Ben screamed. "Because there was never anything but anger and pain! Nothing else!"

"And that made it easy, didn't it?" Sisko asked. "When you faced that Vong later... it was so easy to remember what she'd said time after time about hate... to murder that Vong."

"The Vong took away my father," Ben said. "He wasn't there to protect me from her, and it was all their fault!"

"And so you killed that Vong... a helpless enemy."

"How could anyone not?" Ben demanded.

"Oh, of course," Sisko said. "It's not as if things weren't personal... it's not as if he hadn't destroyed your life... taken away the only things that mattered too you... left you with a broken body while taunting you that what little you may have left would be taken away..."

"Please," Ben said contemptuously. "You’re comparing this to Sebastian? He was weak, that's all."

"That's your mother talking."

"Shut up!"

"You've thought about dying, Ben," Sisko said. "You've thought of taking the easy way out, to escape from this situation the only way left. And the one you call weak gets up every day and fights an endless battle against the Vong, knowing that everything that matters has been stripped from him."

"So what?" Ben said contemptuously.

"You're the one who's weak, Ben," Sisko said. "You've known it for a while, but you won't admit it. You're second best, and among the Sith, the word for second best is 'slave.'" He held up a finger as Ben opened his mouth. "Deny all you want, boy, but I see everything."

Ben trembled in impotent rage. "What does it matter?" he said finally.

A new voice rose up. "You're starting to see that maybe the Dark side doesn't have the answers you seek."

Ben turned and looked at Luke. "And the Light side does?" he asked with scorn.

"Look at what the darkness did to Mara," Luke said. "She changed didn't she?" Ben said nothing. "She never took the name, but Mara died in that room, and Darth Whind emerged. Everything you despise began with the Dark side."

"And now I control it," Ben said.

"You can tap into it," Luke said, "but you know you can't control it. Even the Oracle can't. And the worst part is, the Dark side has no loyalties. It will destroy you, Ben, and it doesn't even have to be for a reason."

"But with the power of the Sith, I'll go down fighting!" Ben said.

"Enough," Sisko said, and he grabbed Ben's arm like he had the strength of ten Wookiees and pushed Ben down on his knees. "He's made his choices, and now he has to pay for them." He put a blaster to Ben's head. "And we might as well put him out of his misery."

Luke looked between Sisko and Ben. "Is that what you want?" Ben tried shaking himself free, but Sisko's grip was unyielding. "Is that what you want, Ben?"

"No!" Ben finally shouted. His voice became low and pathetic. "No..."

Luke got down on one knee before him. "Why not?"

Ben's lip trembled. "I'm afraid," he said finally.

Luke nodded slowly. "You've been to that place before..."

Ben swallowed. "The dark... the cold... the emptiness... everyone was there, but beyond my reach, like I was buried alive... I don't want to go back..."

"But living is just as bad," Luke said, not unkindly. "You have no purpose, no freedom, just orders from a person who holds you in contempt. The Dark side hasn't given you anything to help you endure this, has it?"

Ben looked down. "No," he admitted.

"You've realized this for a while," Luke said.

"Even if it's all true," Ben said, "even if I accepted what you said about the Dark side, it's too late for me. The things I've done... the atrocities... I killed a helpless pregnant woman, just to goad someone."

"You've done terrible things," Luke admitted. "But it's never too late to turn back and do the right thing. Even your grandfather knew that."

"That's not the same thing," Ben said. "I've- I can't go back."

The blaster was pulled away and the grip on his arm vanished. Instead, small, soft hands took him gently and pulled him back to his feet, turning him around slowly. He looked into her tear-filled green eyes. "I never wanted this to happen to you," Mara said softly. "I am so, so sorry for everything Ben. I never meant to hurt you..."

She was so much smaller than she was in Ben's memories, but then, he'd killed her years ago. She was the second, in fact, that he'd ever killed. "You always pushed me towards the Dark side," Ben said.

"I know," she said. "But when we faced off, when the moment came for me to deliver the death blow..."

"You hesitated," Ben said at the memory. It was weakness, and he'd exploited it, just like she'd taught him.

"Because, despite everything I said Ben, I did love that little boy." She pulled him close. "And I'm so sorry for everything I did to him." She wept loudly. "I destroyed the person I loved more than anything!" Ben stroked her back gently, kindly, as she cried. She pulled herself away eventually and looked into his eyes. "If I can realize the truth, Ben... if even I can turn back... so can you."

"And there's so much you can do, Ben," Luke said. "The Oracle couldn't foresee this, just like she couldn't on Wormhole Station. You can catch her off guard... you can end her evil right now, before she takes control of the Death Star and casts a shadow across the universe."

"I killed you," Ben said. "All of you. And now you think I can serve the Light?"

"We knew it would happen," Ben said. "I foretold it to Luke: 'When the time comes, when your son needs you, you'll be there to save him.'" Ben's eyes widened. "It was never about Sebastian... that prophecy was about you."

"You can do this, Ben," Luke said. "I know it."

Mara turned him back to face her. "You have my lightsaber," she said. "Use it, Ben. Tell me you'll put it to good use."

Ben looked at all of them. This was nonsense, and he knew it. But... but they were right about so much. Everything he thought he knew about the Dark side... everything about power... had failed him. It didn't have any answers for him, or hopes, or promises. And when he thought of his brush with death... even that wouldn't really be an escape. These people, whom he'd murdered, could still forgive him, could tell him that there was another path still open to him, no matter what he'd done. Maybe it was time... maybe it was time to stop being the Oracle's slave.

Lando looked over in surprise as the purple blade ignited, then reached for his blaster. It flew from his grip and into Ben's hand. He looked down at the controls... "How much time do you need?" Ben asked. "To destroy the Death Star?"

Lando's expression spoke volumes. "Two more minutes," he said. "I've been setting up a cascade power failure... it'll pass the critical point soon and be unstoppable."

Ben nodded. "I'll protect you." Lando stared, then decided that whatever ulterior motive Ben may have, as long as he could finish what he'd started, that would be good enough for him. "Molly," he said into the comm link, "come to the war room."

"Ben?"

"Quickly!" he said, and switched it off. "You still care for her, Calrissian?"

Lando glared sideways at Ben. "Yes," he admitted.

"Then maybe together we can save her," Ben said. "I just hope I haven't driven her too far away."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The turbolift doors opened, and Sebastian limped onto the bridge. Admiral Cirule turned from the bridge officer to give his report and full attention to a man half his age. "Welcome aboard the Enterprise, prefect."

Sebastian nodded. "What's our status?"

"All systems are operational," Cirule said. "The fleet is prepped and ready. We are only waiting on your command."

Sebastian nodded again, but this time it was more for himself than anyone else. So, after a lifetime, this is when the war finally ends. The oppression of the Vong will be gone, and then... then...

Then the Alliance would begin pulling in a thousand different directions, just like it did before. The forces united by war will be divided in peace. And it was going to fall to him once again to try and hold on, to keep them united so that internal wars don't begin. To give up the relative simplicity of warfare for the arena of politics, for which he'd had no training. He'd had the right message for the war... but in the days that followed, it wouldn't be simple, it wouldn't be easy, and it definitely wouldn't end with the finality of the Vong...

"Alert all commands," Sebastian said. "Make the jump into hyperspace. Let's end this once and for all, admiral." Cirule nodded and walked away, so that no one saw Sebastian's downcast expression as he gripped his cane tightly with both hands.



Chuck

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Part XL


The Oracle paused in her physical examination of the hypermatter reactor. "Something's wrong," she said. Ben, she said in the Force. What's happening? Have you killed them?

Her brow knit in fury at the lack of reply. Yes, he was here, and conscious, but he'd changed. So, she thought bitterly, you've betrayed me.

You deceived me, Ben thought back. I'm just returning the favor.

"Mareth, Shodah," the Oracle said. "You two are closest to the firing room. Get up there and stop whatever Garak's doing. If Ben tries to stop you, kill him."

"Yes, master," they said.

The Oracle glared at the overloading reactor, but there were limits to even her power. If you steal my prize, Ben, you will learn what true suffering is.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Alliance fleet dropped out of hyperspace over the Vong planet. As expected the probe droid's presence had caused the Vong to tighten their defenses, but not to withdraw from the world. Bioships swarmed before them, but it would all be moot. "Let me know when you have a firing solution, admiral," Sebastian said, watching the activity beyond the window. The Vong were already firing and the Alliance defending themselves, but hopefully this would all be over in a moment.

"Firing solution ready, prefect," Admiral Cirule said.

Sebastian didn't hesitate. After all this war had demanded of him, there was nothing to make him pause. If blowing up a planet was what was needed to end this, then it would be done, and there wasn't going to be any second-guessing. "Fire."

The green beam lanced from the front of the Enterprise and tore through the horde of bioships. It reached the planet and met the shields. The shields flickered, but the planet remained.

Sebastian ground his teeth as he stepped closer. Why am I not surprised? he thought. "How long is our recharge rate?" he asked.

While some were gaping in astonishment, Cirule was always on task. "Thirteen minutes, prefect. We're already recharging."

"Is the shield still up?"

"Yes, but it's very weak. Another blast and they'll be done for."

Sebastian nodded. "All right then, admiral, I'll leave you to your work." He limped a short way away while the admiral saw to the battle. Cirule was a good leader, so he'd prepared for this contingency even though it seemed there was no way the Vong could stop them. Taar would have been proud one of his student's took his Borg lecture to heart. "Thirteen minutes," Sebastian said in a low voice. "A lot can happen in thirteen minutes, Janet."

"Mr. Skywalker," Janet said, "remember that the Vong bioships managed to destroy an Eclipse before." She left the implication there for a moment. "Should I have your shuttle readied, prefect?"

"Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?" Sebastian gave her a wry grin. "I don't think it'll do much for moral if the prefect flees the battle."

"You're too important to lose, Mr. Skywalker," Janet said.

"Thanks, Janet, but if we can't win this thing with an Eclipse, then we just aren't winning it. We stick it out, and if the Enterprise goes down, then we go with it."

"Yes prefect."

Sebastian lifted her chin so she was looking into his eyes. "Don't be afraid," he said with a warm smile. "It'll all be all right."

Janet sniffed and rubbed her eye. "I know it will," she said, and managed to force a smile to her face."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Molly sprinted around the corner and bolted for the firing room. Ben must have shaken off whatever had happened, so perhaps they wouldn't have to report failure to the Oracle after all. She entered the room, however, and quickly skidded to a halt. This wasn't what she'd imagined. Ben was fighting Mareth while Calrissian was working the controls; nearby, Shodah was lying on the floor without her head. "Molly!" Ben shouted. "Listen-"

"No, don't listen!" Mareth shouted over him. "He's betrayed us! Kill Calrissian while I keep him distracted."

"No Molly," Ben said. "We were wrong to help her. Let Calrissian finish this station off, before the Oracle uses it again!"

"Help me, Molly!" Mareth said. "Together we can kill him! Then you'll be the Oracle's second!"

"Molly, I've been there," Ben said. "You've seen what it's done to me. The Dark side doesn't have the answers any more, all it does is take until we don't have anything left!"

"He's weak!" Mareth said. "And you know what happens to the weak among the Sith."

Molly lit her lightsaber and ran up, stabbing Mareth between the shoulder blades. The Romulan screamed for a second before collapsing on the floor. Molly looked up at Ben, saturated with fear. "What's going on, Ben?" she asked, as if the universe suddenly turned itself inside out.

"I've been stupid," Ben said, "that's what. What have we been fighting for? Just to fulfill the dreams of the Oracle. There's no concern with what we want, just her. She's going to blow up your world just to help her in some headgame against Sebastian." He stopped; there was so much he had to say it seemed to be fighting to get out. "I have to stop her, Molly. Will you help me?"

"But everything you taught me-"

"Everything I taught you was wrong," Ben said. "Open your eyes and you'll see it too."

Molly took a deep breath. "Is this a test?"

"No!"

"Thank God! Ben, this has felt wrong for a long time. I was afraid- I-"

"Sorry to interrupt," Lando said, "but the reactor passed the point of no return. We don't have much time if we want to get off this station alive."

"Where's the nearest escape pod?" Ben asked.

"What escape pod?"

"Terrific," Ben ran his fingers through his hair as he thought. "The Oracle's got the main docking bay covered, but there's only a token guard at Garak's back-up shuttle. We can get out that way."

"Are you sure, Ben?" Molly asked. "I mean- you weren't able to defeat Mareth without my help." She looked into his face expecting to see that look of fury, but all there was was a little twinkle in his eye. "You were holding back? Why?"

"Because I know you're a good person, Molly O'Brien," Ben said. "I just wanted to make sure you realized it. Let's go."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Alema Rar straightened as she heard her master's voice in her mind. "Yes?"

We're leaving, the Oracle said. Ready the ship for launch.

"Yes, my master." She rushed to do what she was told, never bothering to ask why. She felt a disturbance in the Force, and if the Oracle felt it enough to justify leaving, there was no point in trying to find out the details at the moment. Minutes later, the Oracle came up the ramp along with the two Mistryl. "Take off," she ordered. Again, Alema never asked about their companions. If the Oracle wished to leave them behind, it wasn't her concern. The shuttle lifted off and slipped off into space. “Fortunately, we still have Seven,” she mused aloud. “It’s time she started being an asset instead of a liability.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven bioships were concentrating their fire, and the Tactical Cube finally yielded under the combined fire. It exploded, the shrapnel escaping with such ferocity that the debris shredded two nearby Romulan warbirds. A star destroyer moved through the debris field, blasting the bioships to pieces in retaliation.

"Prefect," Admiral Cirule called. Sebastian quickly limped over. "Our sensors indicate the Vong shield is back up to full strength."

"Already?"

"I'm afraid so."

Sebastian looked away, unable to believe things were turning out this badly. "When we hit them, the shields did drop, at least for a moment. What if we concentrated fire on the shield during that time, try to damage the ground installations."

"That may be our only option, prefect," Cirule said. "I'll alert our commands." He went off to ready for the next attack.

"We're so close, Janet!" he said under his breath. "I don't understand it! This thing’s power output..." He thumped the floor with his cane.

"But the Vong do have the combined energy of all those worlds they've stripped," Janet pointed out. "I guess they must have known we'd try something like this eventually."

"No wonder they didn't move," Sebastian said. "They've dug in here. But maybe that'll be their downfall... maybe we can hit them harder than they think."

A star destroyer outside the window flared, then exploded. "I hope so, Mr. Skywalker," she said in a meek voice.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Garak was hiding in the shadows near the secondary docking bay. The Oracle figured out his plan, of course, but if Lando was successful these two would be on their own shuttle and making for hyperspace before long, leaving him free to make his own exit. It was a pity Calrissian would have to die, but you couldn't expect to play galactic politics without having to make a few sacrifices.

The two Sith lit their lightsabers and for a moment Garak wondered if they'd spotted him, but then he saw Molly and, surprisingly, Ben Skywalker engaging them. He wasn't sure how long the distraction would last, but he wasn't going to let the opportunity pass. He broke from his cover and made for the ship.

"Not another step, Garak."

Old instincts that had let him be old enough to have them told Garak there was a weapon trained on his back. He slowly raised his hands and turned around. "Well, this is a most fortunate turn. But, tell me, why exactly are you pointing that blaster at me, Calrissian? In case you can't tell, time is rather a factor here."

"We're going," Lando said. "But not as colleagues. Our partnership's over Garak."

"I see," Garak said. "And what will you do with me, Mr. Calrissian?"

"I'll take you to the Alliance, let them decide what to do with you."

"The Alliance?" Garak grinned. "I'm the head of state of the Cardassian Empire, Mr. Calrissian. You can't turn me over to them like I'm some criminal. Besides, your hands are just as bloody as mine."

"I know," Lando said. "But I'm tired of this, Garak. I'm tired of living with this. If they decide to hold me accountable for everything, then I'll accept that."

"They will hold you accountable," Garak said. "Because no matter what you'd like to pretend, you are a murder, Calrissian. You're no different than I am... just a cold-blooded killer."

Lando swallowed, then nodded. "You're right," he admitted, "I am." Then he pulled the trigger. He kept firing into Garak's chest until the body lay twitching on the floor. Molly pulled the gun from his limp grip. "I am," he said.

"Come on," Molly said. Over her shoulder Lando could see Ben finish off the remaining Sith guard. "This ship is our only chance-"

"No," Lando said, twisting from her grip. "No, I'm staying."

Ben and Molly looked at one another. They'd committed their own share of horrors... "We need to stop the Oracle," Ben said finally.

"You two can do that without me," Lando said. "Go on, and good luck... you're going to need it against that witch." Molly and Ben raced up the ramp. Lando took a seat on some crates and watched the ramp close, and the ship lift off. When it had left the docking bay, he got up, walked over to Garak's corpse, and pulled it back, propping it up next to him. He pinched the bridge of his nose; the exhaustion and stress had given him a nasty headache. "I'm sorry, Garak," Lando said eventually. "You're right... I'm just a petty little businessman who let his pride blind him. At least you wanted a better life for your people... as evil as your acts were, your motives were always better than mine." The station trembled as support beams began failing. "I'm just trying to atone for as much of the evil I've supported as possible... that includes this station as much as it does you." There was another severe jolt. "You know, it's refreshing to talk to you like this, without your condescension and double-talk and bottomless lies. I probably would have gotten on better with you if we'd done this years ago." He laughed, and the docking bay was engulfed in a fireball.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Expanding energy met shields and metal, and energy won out. The Death Star was consumed from the inside out until it reached the surface, and the fireball expanded until it was spent, sending vapor and shrapnel flying off at tremendous speeds, but not fast enough to catch the fleeing ships.

Ben reached out with all his senses, and caught the unmistakable presence. "There," he said, pointing towards a dot and pushing the ship to its limits. "The Oracle's on that shuttle."

"I'm not sure we can shoot it down, Ben," Molly said. "Not with this lot."

Ben nodded, because he'd reached the same conclusion. "We just need to get their shields down." He moved in. "Then you can beam me over there."

"Ben," Molly said, realizing what he meant, "you can't defeat the Oracle, you can't! She's just too powerful."

"I know that," Ben said, and despite the change to his nature, admitting that was still hard. "But I can sabotage the reactor from the inside... blow up the ship. Even she can't survive that."

"Neither will you!"

Ben hesitated. "I manipulated you into joining with me... with the Force. I played with your mind." He could see Molly turn and stare at him out of the corner of his eye. "I'm sorry."

She seethed. "You mean-"

"You're a good person, Molly; I'm sorry I tried turning you into a bad one." He took a deep, steadying breath. "Sisko said I'd die for my crimes... it's about time that happened. If I can take the Oracle down at the same time, so much the better."

Ben could sense Molly was torn by this. "I'm not sure what to say."

"There's nothing to say," Ben said. "Just help me get on board that shuttle. Help me finish this."

Molly took a few deep breaths, then kissed him. "I forgive you, Ben," she said quietly, and returned to her panel. "I'll get you on that bloody ship one way or another, Ben," she said. "You just make sure you kill that old witch."

"I'll do my best," Ben said.

The weapons of the shuttle struck the shields of the escaping ship. It wasn't much, but it was enough to knock them down briefly. The cockpit vanished and Ben found himself on the opposing shuttle - but he wasn't alone.

"I was expecting you to try this," the Oracle said with a voice like ice on steel. "You're such a pathetic failure Ben. You could have had it all, but you were weak... weak and stupid."

Ben gave a lopsided grin and chuckled. "After all the lies you've fed me, I'm not going to listen to anything you say." His arm moved in a flash, bringing his lightsaber up and igniting it to catch the Force lightning.

"I should have known better than to turn to some angry child for aid," the Oracle said. More lightning came, and it actually forced Ben back.

"Your mistake in picking me," Ben said, holding the lightsaber with both hands to hold the lightning back, "was in thinking... you could beat..." the lightning finally gave out, and he grinned, "...a Skywalker!"

There was a sound like the tearing of the firmament, and the Sith sword appeared in the Oracle's hand. "You couldn't beat me in the darkness," she said. "You have no hope to do so in the light."

Ben licked his lips as he readied himself. "We'll see."

The dark side meant aggression, so the Oracle struck first. Ben caught the furious strikes, still amazed at how the huge sword could move as if it had no weight to it, yet strike like the blows of a sledgehammer. He caught an upward swing and skidded his sword up the blade; the Oracle had to swing her head back to avoid losing it. She responded with a pirouette, and even though Ben caught the blow on the end, it still managed to knock him sideways, leaving him backing off to avoid the strikes that followed.

Ben tried a brief offensive strike at her legs, but she caught the blow and knocked him briefly off balance. The Oracle swung hard, pushing Ben's blade aside, so he pivoted and drove his shoulder into her face. She snarled at him and blasted at him with Force lightning; with his lightsaber locked with her he was forced to duck, and the lightning struck the wall behind him. Panels burst free, exposing whirling blades and bars that could rend flesh like a food processor. Power conduits were now open and sparking with deadly energies. Pipes radiated scathing heat or frosted over at superlow temperates. But still, Ben and the Oracle battled on, ignoring the environmental threats for the far more deadly one that stood before them. Ben gave a Force strike to her face again, and she responded by nearly stabbing him through the stomach; he escaped by centimeters by diving and rolling to his left.

As Ben pulled himself back to his feet she was already on top of him, sword moving impossibly fast. He had to continually move to stay ahead of her. His shirt got caught in a spinning blade, but he managed to tear it free before either it or the Oracle finished him off. He brought his saber up and she caught it, and the two pressed off for some time. Sweat was running down Ben's face. One thing was true: she had beaten him before, and it didn't look like it was a fluke. At the end of the day, light or dark, she was the stronger one.

Ben shoved her back. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to go down fighting. He panted a little as she righted herself and stared at him like an offensive insect. His mother used to look at him just like that, but of course, things were different now-

Ben smirked, just a little. Then he tossed the damaged panels at the Oracle, who easily battered them away as she approached. He swung, but defensively, giving ground as she pushed him until his back was literally against the wall. He was quick, and young, and powerful, but against a master, that just wasn't enough. There was the opening, and she brought her sword around and up, towards Ben's heart. Escape would be impossible, even for a Sith... or a Jedi. But instead of fear, there was a small smile on Ben's face, and one last word passed through his mind.

Sucker!

As sword pierced flesh Ben's hand was thrust into the open power conduit. Energy poured into both Jedi and Sith and discharged off into the walls, floor and ceiling. Smoke filled the room and the two screamed as one until the energy proved too much and the conduit exploded. Afterwards, there was nothing at all but silence.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The star destroyer Enterprise hung before the Vong planet as the Alliance ships tried valiantly to hold back the tide of bioships. Time... just a little more time...

Admiral Cirule looked up from the console. "In range."

Sebastian nodded. "You may fire when ready."

Cirule turned back. "Commence primary ignition." The bridge crew went about their tasks in silence as the switches were flipped, buttons were pushed, levers pulled, and dials adjusted. Sebastian watched impassively, both hands on the head of his cane. The words "stand by" were heard several times. Janet's knuckles turned white as she gripped her datapad. "Stand by."

The superlaser blasted out, and again the Vong shield flickered and fell for a brief time. The Alliance ships blasted during the window before the shield was up, but- "It's still too strong for our weapons to penetrate, sir," the admiral said, the disappointment evident in his voice.

"Are the Vong regenerating the damage to their shield network?"

"Yes, prefect. The Borg are projecting that it will be optimal in less than eight minutes."

Sebastian thumped his cane on the deck in frustration. Minutes! That's all that separated an end to this war from defeat. "Alert all commands," Sebastian said. "Fall back."

Cirule looked ready to protest, but just for a second. "Yes, prefect," he said.

Sebastian started towards the turbolift. "Janet," he said sharply, "contact the Borg. I want them to be looking over everything, and I mean everything. We did not come so close only to stumble on the finish line. We have the greatest minds at our disposal, I want them tapped to find a way through that shield and finish the Vong off for good!"

"Yes, Mr. Skywalker," Janet said.

"And I want my shuttle prepped so that we can depart as soon as we rendezvous with Cube Prime," Sebastian said. "We've lost the element of surprise, we don't have the luxury of wasting any time."

Though there were a few protests, the fleet recognized that the attack had failed, and together they turned and vanished into hyperspace. Despite what they had allowed themselves to believe, this war wasn't over, and there was a question of when it would ever end.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle opened her eyes, though it took great effort. Her limbs trembled, and getting up was difficult. The discharge had been incredible, turning her Sith sword into a pool of cooling metal; but it had saved her life. She could remake it, but it would cost her. She would have to put some of her own power into it to forge it properly, but she would need such a weapon to stand against the Jedi and anyone else who opposed her. Lost power could be reclaimed in time, and as the master of time that presented no problems.

She put a hand to her head. The next move... the Jedi would... she was having trouble remembering. The discharge caused damage to her nervous system, so she may have suffered some brain damage. A small concern in the end; she had the techniques to repair even that. None of this was anything more than a setback. She wouldn't die... couldn't die... not with so much left to do.

The Oracle looked down at Ben's remains. He'd taken the brunt of it; his body reduced to a charred lump. He'd died as most of her enemies had, for nothing. She shook her head, trying to clear it. She kicked the corpse, and it broke into pieces. "Did you... did you actually think... that after all I've done... I would possibly let it end here?"



Chuck

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Part XLI


Commander Greis, XO of the Imperator-class star destroyer Visage, stepped into the captain's office. "Report on our final scans of Sector 1195A," he said, presenting the datapad.

"Thank you." The captain didn't bother looking up. "Do we have an ETA on the arrival of the Emperor's Hand?"

"Imminent, captain," Greis said.

"I want to be informed right away." That usual tone which left no tolerance for error was present.

"Of course, captain," Greis said with a nod, and left. Soon after he left the datapad was picked up, the data analyzed, and then set aside. As expected, nothing of any real note, but duty was duty, and it couldn't be compromised.

"Captain," came a voice over the comm, "the Emperor's Hand has arrived."

"Escort her to my office," the captain said, getting back to filling out the report. Soon the door opened, and she strode in. "Mara," the captain said with a smile, getting up and coming around the table, embracing the grinning redhead. "It's been too long."

"Yes it has," Mara said. "You've got to stop these pointless long-range survey missions."

"Someone has to do them."

"Yes, someone," Mara said with a shake of her head. "I fail to see why this minutia has to be in your hands. There are better uses for your talents."

"I'm an explorer, Mara," the captain said. "No matter how much the galaxies change, that never will."

Mara laughed. "Yes. Planets can explode and governments can fall, but we can always count on you remaining..." she shook her head, "...Seven of Nine."
--------------------------------------------------------------

On Cube Prime, Sebastian Skywalker entered the main corridor, a wide towering hall sometimes used in official functions. There were hundreds gathered there - diplomats, staff, reporters, and other of the various denizens of the mobile center of the Alliance. The room became hushed, and the mood was tangibly somber as all those faces turned to him. He stared back. "Is something wrong?" he asked, sounding slightly confused.

There were a few clearing of throats. "We heard about the battle," the El-Aurian ambassador commented.

"Yes," Sebastian said, "our enemy remains resourceful even as the sun sets upon them." He looked at them. "Do you think this was a Vong victory?" he said with disbelief. "It was a stalemate, that's all... our enemy, with the full power of the center of all their forces was able to hold back one attack force from us. But they didn't win... all they did was delay the end of the war for a short while." He limped up the hall, looking at them with excitement. "Don't you see?! Time is on our side! We have the strength of two galaxies to call upon! Each day we grow stronger; stronger in arms, stronger in spirit, stronger in our unity!" He turned and approached a group. "You saw a Vong shield resist our weapons? I saw Klingons and Romulans and Imperials and Borg putting aside their differences and standing shoulder to shoulder against evil!" He turned to another group. "I saw that the end of this war is on the horizon, and over that horizon I saw the new galaxies, where our unity will let us forget those differences altogether." He continued up the hall. "Do you think I'm a human?" he asked. "That I'm a Borg? No! I'm a child of your galaxy," he said, pointing to a Bolian. "And yours," he pointed to an Ithorian. "What does anything else matter? The children of our galaxies have come together against these monsters who thought us easy prey, and we sent them reeling!" He shook his head with a knowing smile on his face. "We told them today that we're not hiding under our beds any more. Today we made them hide under their own... so called 'proud warriors' who hid under a shield as a last desperate attempt to stay away from us. They've lost, and they know it, and they're afraid. The end of this war is near, my brothers and sisters, my cousins of all species who see that our common bonds make us stronger than any enemy that can dare to challenge us. We have forged an alloy that no beam can pierce, that no weapon can shatter. Forget your sorrows, friends, because I promise you that the first rays of sunlight are on the horizon, and a grand new day will soon be here for us all, and as one people, we children will watch the sunrise."

Those in attendance applauded in appreciation of the sentiment, and Sebastian offered a smile and nod of support. He limped into his office, Janet close behind. The door closed and sealed, and he seemed to transform at the sound. He looked three times his age, the way he hunched there, the way he sighed so wearily, the way he limped to his desk and dropped into the chair as if he’d just buried his best friend. He lifted his cane up and set it down softly on the desk, then collapsed back into the chair and stared at it. “Prefect,” Janet finally said, “do you need anything?”

“Yes... go get me a blaster, please, so I can shoot myself.” He rubbed his forehead. “Something in a green, it goes with my outfit.” The sad part was that there wasn’t even enough strength in his voice for the normally sardonic tone that would accompany such remarks. Janet walked over to him; he was still staring at the cane, but it was clear it was just to have something to stare at. “I’m... sorry... you have to see me like this,” he said finally. “The curse of being my assistant is that you get the unfiltered look at the Prefect.” He offered her a humorless smile. “Not very pretty is it.”

Janet kissed him. After a few seconds she could feel him pulling her closer... then eventually he pushed her away; not hard, but firmly and without room for argument. "What you did out there, for them, was so wonderful," she said. “But you don’t have to carry this burden alone,” she pleaded.

“I do,” he said, as quiet as the breeze.

“You are destroying yourself!” Janet said. “You’re not going to be able to keep doing this, Bastian! Let me help you!”

“You do help me, Janet,” Sebastian said, as kindly as he could under the circumstances. “More than you probably realize. You are indispensable... but at the end of the day, you’re not my lover, and you’re not my soulmate.”

Janet walked over and took his hand in both of her own; he didn’t resist. “But I can be,” she offered.

He reached up and took her arm and gently pulled her down, then kissed her cheek. He reached up and touched it with a hand that wasn't real. “I could love you,” he admitted with a whisper. “You have no idea how hard it is to say no to you... how much I want to have you in every possible way.” He pulled her close. “But you’d be living in another woman’s shadow, Janet... I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Right now, all you’d be is the woman who replaced my wife, and nothing more.”

Janet took a deep breath. “That’s enough for me,” she said.

“To make the springs squeak with Alexander?”

“More than that!” Janet said in frustration. “I can help you shoulder this burden! Let me help you find the strength!”

Sebastian answered only with silence. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said finally.

“That’s not true!”

“Computer,” he said after a moment’s pause, “display all member systems within the Alliance, stellar and list form.” And the room filled with planets, and names appeared, and the computer read them all. It was an overlapping affair of sound and lights, and Sebastian took his cane and got to his feet. “And all of them,” he said to Janet as he limped to the center of the projections, “are held together by the words of this Alexander.” He turned to her, the computer still rattling them all off, thousands a second, and it wasn’t even making a dent in the list. “They pull in a million different directions,” he said. “They hate each other. They fought the Empire tooth and nail, but for now they’re united against the Vong threat because of my promises, Janet. What’s going to happen when the last of our enemies fall?”

“You can do this,” Janet said firmly. “You can keep them united.”

“Can I?” He laughed, a low chuckle that had nothing to do with humor. “Without an enemy to unite them? Maybe I’ll just weep, Janet... because there are no more worlds to conquer.”

“You brought them together,” she said adamantly.

“And they can fall apart like that,” Sebastian said as he snapped his fingers. “I am Ozymandias, king of kings.” He gestured at the flashing planets, and when he spoke it was with the bitterest tones. “Look on my works, ye mighty.... and despair.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Captain of Nine poured Mara Jade Skywalker a drink; she didn't drink herself due to her sensitivity, so she just took a seat. "Anything changed?" Seven asked. "Have either of you changed?"

"Being apart is hard," Mara admitted. "But Luke and I knew that was part of the life we chose to live, and frankly neither of us seem the type to settle down somewhere."

"I know exactly what you mean," Seven said with a nod.

"It's very hard," Mara said seriously. "But we make up for lost time whenever we can."

"Good," Seven said. "Because he's a hell of a catch, Mara. You don't watch it someone else is gonna scoop him up," she said with a laugh.

"Well, fortunately there aren't too many humans in the delta quadrant to catch his eye," Mara said.

"I don't know, I hear those Taresians are pretty fetching." Seven settled back in her chair. "So what's the mission? The Emperor doesn't call me to play taxi driver for his Hand unless he wants me there as well; I've figured that much out by now."

Mara set the glass aside. "There's a temporal anomaly," she said. "Luke didn't give us the details, but he says there's something about it that is disrupting the Force. We need to understand if this is a threat, and obviously that calls for an expert."

"Well," Seven said, "you're in luck. I just happen to be an expert." That special Borg smile spread across her face.

"Yeah, well, I'll just have to take your word for it," Mara said. "I can't understand any of those papers you've written; frankly, I think you're just making them up to get more funds for your little projects."

"You doubt?"

Mara crossed her legs and smirked. "Yes, I doubt."

Seven of Nine shook her head. "This mission is urgent, yes?"

"Absolutely; highest priority."

Seven got up and hit a button on her desk; one of the lieutenants soon entered. "We've received a high priority assignment from the Emperor," she said. "Tell the commander we're to proceed to the wormhole, maximum possible speed."

"Yes captain," he said with a nod, then stepped out. As soon as the door closed Seven sat down on the corner of her desk.

"What are you doing?" Mara asked.

"Take a seat," Seven said, gesturing with her head to the other end of the desk. Mara looked at her dubiously. "Just do it, Mara."

Mara sighed, then complied. "I feel ridiculous."

"You're about to look it," Seven said. "You never read my paper on Resonant Effects Of High-Velocity Hyperspatial Phenomenon?"

"Seven, I don't even know what some of those words mean, so I jus- holy kriff!"

"Do you still doubt?" Seven asked.

Mara's mouth hung open and her eyes closed. "Oh, I repent, high priestess of speed. I do repent."

"That's better." Seven sighed. “God, I love having my own star destroyer. Every girl should have one.”

Mara's eyes fluttered. "Seven, have I told you you're my best friend in the universe?"

"Not lately."

"You're my best friend in the universe."

Seven pulled her hat off and wiped her brow. "If you're very good, I'll show you what the reactor can do."

"Oh, teach me! Teach me to be like you!"

"You couldn't handle it."

"Let me try. I'm not afraid."

"Oh, you will be... you will be..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Janet opened the door. There he was, out on the catwalk again, watching the drones go about their tasks. Music played, as always... quiet, melancholy, an acoustic guitar from the sound of it. She walked out as he absentmindedly twirled his cane with one hand, the other resting his chin on the rail. A man sang; in the massive space it was chillingly panged.

"Hold me now, girl I don't know when

When we will ever meet again.

That was then. Baby this is now.

Time won't get over you."

And then a feminine voice took up the piece, with just as much ache.

"Losing you... things will never be the same.

Can you hear me call you name?

If we change it back again

Things will never be the same."

Janet cleared her throat. "Prefect."

"Pause," Sebastian said, and the music stopped. "I said I didn't want to be disturbed." He wasn't angry; his voice instead sounded hollow, as if there was no person inside that shell.

"I'm terribly sorry, prefect," Janet said, "but it's General Corbin. He's been abusive to our diplomats and says that unless you speak to him directly he will take it as an act of war."

"Oh for- Fine," Sebastian said, limping double-time through the corridors of Cube Prime to his office. He dropped into the chair behind his desk and activated the holoprojector; Corbin appeared. “General,” Sebastian said. “I’m told you have something that cannot possibly wait.”

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Corbin said sharply. “Your underlings have been giving me the run around. Now I want my ship back.”

“Ship?” Sebastian said with a puzzled expression. “What ship?”

“You know perfectly well,” Corbin said, practically through his teeth. “The Eclipse you stole.”

“Ohhhhh,” Sebastian said. “You mean the one that defected.”

“Was coerced!” Corbin said. “With despicable threats against the captain’s family!”

“Really?” Sebastian said. “I never heard about this.”

“I have evidence,” Corbin said.

“Well I’ll be very interested in that,” Sebastian said. “Unfortunately, my resources are devoted to other projects at the moment. We’re fighting a genocidal race called the Vong - ever heard of them?”

“You’ve committed an act of war,” Corbin said. “And I do not look kindly on your mockery.”

“No, this is just sarcasm, when I get to the mockery I’ll be sure to let you know.”

“You will return that ship to me immediately,” Corbin demanded. “Along with the equivalent of ten million credits worth of equipment or ten sectors of your space. Failure to comply will be grounds for open warfare.”

“I’m sorry, could you speak up? It’s hard to hear you over the sound of my own apathy.”

“You’re an idiot if you think we can be ignored,” Corbin growled. “The majority of your fleet is far inferior to my own, all your numbers will do is serve as target practice.”

“Oh, but I don’t have to beat your fleet, general,” Sebastian said, “I just have to beat you.”

“What will you do? Hit me with your cane?”

“Ah, you’re funny,” Sebastian said. “’Scuse me, there’s a problem with the transmission.” He switched the projector off. “There, it’s better.”

Janet opened her mouth as she tried to think of what to say. “Well, we’ve certainly made our position clear,” she finally offered.

Sebastian tapped the desk with his cane. “That was stupid of me,” he said. “He’s an asshole, but I was practically daring him to fight us. I kriffed things up good that time, Janet.”

“A war with Corbin is inevitable,” Janet said as Sebastian got to his feet and limped in her direction. “He’ll always be a threat to the Alliance, and the systems under him want to join us. If we-“ She was cut off as Sebastian grabbed her and pulled her close, kissing her passionately.

Sebastian finally broke the kiss. “I assume your offer is still on the table?”

Janet’s chest rose and fell as she realized what was happening. “Actually, I’d prefer the couch to the table,” she finally said with a smirk.

“I think Alexander can do better than office furniture,” Sebastian said, taking her hand and leading her into his quarters.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The shuttle landed in the Visage's docking bay. There was a token honor guard for Luke Skywalker, given his honored place in the government as the other Emperor's Hand. Mara and Seven stood at parade rest as he came down the ramp, then left and walked up to him. "Luke," Mara said, giving him a kiss in passing.

"Mara," he said. He turned to Seven. "Good to see you again, captain," he said extending a hand.

Seven took it. "Likewise," she said, then pulled, wrapped her arms around him, and kissed him like she hadn't seen him in a century. She broke it off and looked into his face, which mostly reflected confusion although he obviously seemed to have enjoyed the affection at least a little.

"Um, guess you missed me," Luke said finally.

Seven stepped back, growing almost crimson as she realized what she'd done. She could practically feel the confused and amused stares of her crew. She and Luke were ancient history; what on Earth had possessed her to do that? She cleared her throat. "Welcome aboard, Mr. Skywalker," she said, knowing there was no way to salvage this situation. “I’m... just... going to go throw myself out the airlock.”



Chuck

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Part XLII


Sebastian sat on the edge of his bed; Janet kissed the back of his neck while she ran a hand over his chest. He took the hand and squeezed it, then set it down on a bed. He looked somewhat morose. “This was a one time thing,” he said.

Janet nodded to herself. “But I’ll be here if you need me again.”

“A one time thing,” Sebastian said again. “I just... just needed to...“

“I know what you needed,” Janet said.

“No, that’s not what I meant at all,” Sebastian said, getting up and hopping a couple meters away. He turned back, and panels opened on his arms and one of his legs. “What do you see?”

“Please don’t do that,” Janet said, turning away.

“This is me, Janet,” Sebastian said. “Take it or leave it.” He finally closed the panels. “Three quarters machine and the human part is crippled.” He took a deep breath. “I needed to feel human again, Janet. I needed to feel like I’m a part of this instead of just some computer making decisions from the data that's provided.”

“Then why can’t this continue?” Janet asked.

“Because I am a machine,” Sebastian said. He grabbed his cane, limped back, and kissed her. “I was wrong,” he said. “You have helped ease the burden a little. Thank you. But this is where it has to end.”

Janet nodded again, then went to get dressed. "Orders, prefect?"

Sebastian climbed into the sonic shower. "I want to meet with Cirule and the leaders of the military remnants who have joined the Alliance. With the Vong still remaining a threat, and my less than stellar diplomatic work, we're going to have to settle issues in that galaxy once and for all."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Captain," Mara Jade Skywalker said, "I need to speak with you in private, please."

Captain Seven of Nine nodded, unable to make eye contact with either her or Luke. Mara led the way into an adjoining storeroom; Seven turned and sealed the door. "Mara-" she started to say as she turned back, but was cut off when the fist connected with her face.

"You told me it was over!" Mara said, her voice dripping with accusation.

Seven rubbed her cheek. "It is," she said firmly. "Luke's yours; I accept that."

"Then what the hell was that just now?" Mara demanded.

"It was just a kiss, Mara."

"Oh please," Mara said. "That wasn't 'just' anything, that was 'all pilots to the launch bay.'"

"Mara, I'm sorry."

"I could sense your emotions, Seven," Mara pushed on with barely restrained fury. "You want him back, badly."

Seven scoffed. "Absolutely," she said while she vehemently shook her head for No. She froze as she realized what had just come out of her mouth, but it only lasted a second before Mara punched her in the face again. "Aw kriff!" she said grabbing her cheek, then looking up at Mara. "Would you stop that?!" she said through her teeth.

"You're not taking him away from me," Mara said, fuming where she stood.

"Of course not," Seven said. She held up her hands in a placating gesture. "Listen, Mara," she said, trying to settle her down. "I know you're not going to want to believe me, but I think this anomaly has something to do with what just happened."

"Oh please!" Mara said. "Don't feed me that crap, it insults my intelligence."

"Just listen," Seven insisted. "You said the anomaly was showing some kind of effects on the Force, right. The Force influences our thoughts, our emotions; it's unbound by time and space. If it has that kind of effect, it's certainly possible it could affect my mind. Mara," she said, taking her friends hands, "I would never try to steal your husband away from you. I swear I won't."

Mara had finally calmed down. "Yeah, of course you wouldn't," she said finally. "Seven, I'm sorry; I should know by now to trust you."

"I would've done the same thing in your place," Seven said, then offered a lopsided grin. "It takes someone you really love to get you really pissed off." Mara laughed, but there was still a dark note there. "Still friends?"

Mara nodded. "'Til the end," she said. "Well, I guess we better look into this anomaly thing before something else happens."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian limped into the room; the other members were all there holographically. This meeting was for the former Imperial leadership only. "Gentlemen," he said, "thank you for assembling so quickly." They nodded as he took his seat. "Admiral Cirule informs me that you've consented to bring your forces into the Alliance. Thank you, and you will be well-compensated for your decision, and I hope your people will likewise benefit." He folded his hands. "The reason I've assembled you here, away from the ears of the other military leaders, is the delicate issue of your former comrades in arms."

"The remnants that refused your invitation," General Yinor said.

"Yes. My people tell me that they are a threat to us. Would you agree?"

There were a lot of uncomfortable looks amongst the holograms. "Conflict is inevitable," Admiral Hune said. "Especially General Corbin; he's most ambitious."

"So I've heard," Sebastian said. "I'm going to suggest something very unpleasant; tell me what you think." He cleared his throat. "The Alliance annexes the remnants. Any attempts by the powers in place to resist are dealt with by your forces."

The suggestion was received with the expected silence; most of them had no doubt expected something along those lines. "It's not an easy thing," Yinor said, "fighting people who were once your friend."

"Believe me, I know exactly what you mean. Do you see an alternative?"

"Have us reinforce your Milky Way positions," Yinor said. "Then send your own ships in to deal with the remnants."

"It's not feasible," Cirule said. "And it gives the remnants an advantage. Nobody knows Imperial space like we do, gentlemen... and deep down, I think a lot of the remnants' military is as opposed to this as we are. We can turn that into an advantage."

"It won't be pretty," Hune said flatly.

"I couldn’t imagine it being anything else," Sebastian said. “But do you agree this is how we should proceed?” The seconds passed, but there was soon agreement from all parties. "Gentlemen, I want to again thank you; you're making the universe safer for the Alliance at personal cost, and I appreciate that. I'll let you see to the details; please inform me when we're ready to make the announcement." He got up and left.

"Things all right, prefect?" Janet asked.

"Better than I expected," Sebastian said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Any leads on our holographic friends?”

“Terraine says that they have the area narrowed down to a sector, but it’s proving difficult to get more specific.”

“Well, keep at it,” Sebastian said. “We’ve got enough to worry about with the Vong here, we don’t need a wild card.”

“Of course, prefect.” Janet tapped the datapad. “We’ve received a communication from Minister Dineb of Cardassia; they’d like to discuss joining the Alliance.”

Sebastian did a double-take. “Cardassians?”

Janet gave her own confused shrug. “Apparently Mr. Garak has vanished without a trace. I’ve gone over the information, and it looks like the minister has the best chance of retaining control of the territory. However, there’s no certainty, and some of the other members of the government are not above using less-than-conventional politics for advancement.”

“Ah, he wants us to solidify his hold and protect him,” Sebastian said. Well, that’s how the political game worked, and it was in part responsible for building the Alliance in the first place. The government may span two galaxies, but it was still just like an old Neolithic tribe: we ban together out of self-interest. “Find some time for me to talk with the minister over the holonet; I don’t want to leave the delta quadrant right now, in case we need to deal with the Vong or the Imperial remnants.”

“Yes prefect.”

“Then take the rest of the week off.”

Janet was about to tap it into the datapad, then caught herself. “Prefect?”

He smiled. “I’m not the only one who’s been overdoing it.” He gave her a kiss on the cheek -a platonic gesture- and limped back towards his office.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven let out an agonizing cry as she felt her uterus contract. It hurt... she knew it’d hurt from the get go, but never imagined it’d hurt like this. After twelve hours, she was almost wistful for the Imperial interrogation room. But when the medical droid again offered her something to take away the pain she snarled at it in refusal. She’d never experience this again, and despite how much it hurt, she wasn’t going to miss this for anything. The only thing she’d allowed was for Luke to use some of his Jedi pain suppression techniques on her to help take the edge off... it was something he could do to help, and by choosing to marry a Borg he’d committed himself to also only experience this once, and she wanted to let him share in it. He couldn’t hold her hand like most fathers could; under this pain she’d lose control and turn the bones in his hand to talc. She’d already worn finger-shaped dents into the bedrails.

“You’re doing it,” Luke said soothingly. “You’re doing it.”

“I know, shut the kriff up!” she shouted at him. She couldn’t help herself; the pain seemed everywhere, pulling and stretching and shoving as her body was subjected to the furthest strains human anatomy could achieve.

“You’re my hero,” Luke said. “You’re so brave, so strong... you can do this.” Seven shook with tears. “Just a little longer, Annika... just a little longer.”

“I can’t...” she wept.

“You can,” Luke said. “Our baby’s almost here, just a little more, Annika. Just a little more.” He stroked her head lovingly.

“Push,” the medical droid said, and Seven did. Again it asked; again she complied. And Luke held her. And the pain just seemed to sap her strength, but she pushed on, and then it was gone... and there was the sound of crying. It was soon followed by her own.

“You did it,” Luke repeated quietly to Seven as she laid back and cried. One of the droids came up and offered her the little bundle, and she took it and held it to her chest, never ceasing in her weeping. She’d done it... despite the Borg, she’d gotten to hold a son from her own flesh and blood, created by her and the man she loved more than anything. And despite the agony, despite the physical and emotional exhaustion in the wake of the labor, she held her child and felt unbridled joy.

“Hello, Sebastian,” she said softly.

Captain Seven of Nine opened her eyes and took in the ceiling of her quarters. After a few seconds passed horrible grief descended on her, and she actually felt some tears form. It had felt so real... it had felt just like she’d imagine it would... no, actually, it felt a lot worse, a lot more intense. And yet, she was distraught that it wasn’t real. She wasn’t able to have a child, it was impossible. It was a joy she would never personally know... but it was so hard to shake.

And there had been Luke again. She thought she’d been able to move past that; he was with Mara now, and she could never hurt her no matter how much she might want to have him back. He was a friend, and that’s all they could ever be now... and she thought she’d accepted that. Dreaming that you’re going to bear his child probably doesn’t fall under “just friends.” She decided to get up and get a start on the day. When she walked onto the bridge her crew remained professional; she should have expected that. They may snicker about what happened -and frankly, she couldn't fault them- but they drew the line between frivolousness and work.

After some time checking over the details she went back to her office to examine the preliminary reports. That's when Mara arrived; she used the side entrance to avoid the bridge, something that Seven had arranged for her and Luke for especially secret assignments. "Peace offering?" she said, holding a tray with a stack of french toast on it. "Ship's cook said you skipped breakfast."

"I didn't have much of an appetite," Seven said. She looked at it, but even after the time that had passed, her stomach was still tender, as if the dream had taken a physical toll on her body. "Thanks all the same, though."

Mara put it in the disposal. "I'm sorry about what I did," she said. "I get a little jealous when it comes to Luke. Your face okay?"

"Sore," Seven said. She looked up at Mara. "You punched a Borg. How's the fist?"

Mara laughed and rubbed it. "Hurts like hell," she said.

Seven got up and stepped onto the bridge for a moment to confer with Commander Greiss, then stepped back. "You should learn to be more careful, Whind," she said, and her eyes widened at the word. She saw Mara's expression; she was hurt and angry. "I'm sorry!" she said quickly. "God, I have no idea where that came from!"

"Are you messing with my head?" Mara demanded. "Is this a practical joke or something? I left Darth Whind behind a long time ago-"

"I know, I know," Seven said. "Honestly, Mara, I'm as puzzled as you are."

"I'm not puzzled, I'm upset!"

"And you have every right to be," Seven said. "I'm sorry, it's-" She turned back to her best friend, and she wanted to start hitting her and never stop. "Maybe we should get Luke in here," she said, unable to look at Mara and think clearly.

"Why?" Mara said suspiciously.

"Because he has training in Vulcan mind techniques," Seven said. "He might be able to help me figure out if something's wrong."

"Seven, something is definitely wrong," Mara said. "Why are you getting so hostile? I can sense it?"

"Then maybe you should mind your own business!" Seven shot back. She put her hand to her head and started pacing. "None of the reports from the rest of the crew have indicated even slight behavioral aberrations. You and Luke seem otherwise normal. Perhaps the anomaly is affecting my Borg technology in some way. My system still hasn't fully recovered from the Vong infection."

"Seven, what are you talking about?"

"Perhaps I'm receiving feedback from the Collective," she thought aloud. "Their signals somehow-"

"Sithspawn, Seven, there are no more Borg!"

"Of course there are," Seven snapped. "Sebastian brought them back."

Mara shook her head. "Seven, listen to yourself. Your brain has hopped into an escape pod and gone bye-bye."

"Oh, like I should listen to you!" Seven said. "After you cut my leg off!"

Mara gaped at her. "When the hell did I do that?"

"On Vulcan!"

"I never met you on Vulcan!"

"You lured me into a trap and cut off my leg!"

"Goddammit, Seven! Why the hell would I lure Luke's ex-girlfriend to Vulcan so I can chop her leg off?!!"

"It was all part of your plan-"

"The plan was to pick up the Vulcan priest to get the Emperor out of my brain! That was the plan! What the kriff am I supposed to do with a Borg leg?! Turn it into a lamp?!"

Seven was panting, but she seemed to finally calm down. She looked at Mara, and she had to fight to avoid crying. "What's happening to me?" she said. "I'm losing my mind." She took a deep breath to calm down, but it didn't help. The stomach pain was even more intense, so much so that she thought she might vomit. She was dizzy, and she put a hand on the desk to keep hold of herself. "Mara..." she said as she screwed her eyes shut, then opened them again, "...help me..." She closed her eyes, and she felt like she was spun out of control.

Seven opened her eyes, and her office was gone. Instead she was in a prefab room, some kind of laboratory. She was strapped down onto a table, which was a very bad sign. "Seven?" said an aged, yet familiar voice. "Seven, can you hear me?"

Seven turned and looked with surprise into the face of her former captain. "Kathryn?" she said in shock.

"Oh thank God," Janeway said. "I was afraid it wouldn't work." She began undoing the straps that held Seven down. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, Seven, but you must understand how desperate I've become. You may be our last hope."

"Kathryn," Seven said, "what's happening? Last I heard, you died back on Earth during the final conquest."

"That was your reality," Janeway said, "not this one. I know this is a lot for you to take in, but I must move quickly. Bringing you here was an act of desperation."

Seven looked down at her body. "What did you do to me?" she demanded in quiet horror. It was like she'd aged thirty years!

"Seven, listen please." Janeway took her chin and lifted it. "Seven, your counterpart in this reality has turned against us. She's been aiding the enemy, and refusing to see reason. But I need you, Seven. Only you have the insights that can help us finally defeat the Borg once and for all!"

"The Borg?" Seven said in quiet horror. "They still exist here?"

"Yes," Janeway said bitterly. "And that's why I need you. I can't destroy them without you, Seven! They've become even more powerful here than the Empire; systems have been forced to give them materials and information to try to placate them, but it's just a stop gap measure. In time, they'll assimilate both galaxies, unless we stop them."

Seven took a deep breath and nodded grimly. "You know, Kathryn, that I'll do anything I can to wipe out the Borg."



Chuck

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Part XLIII


Annika's felt fear grip her as she looked Darth Whind in the face once again. On instinct, she cloaked herself, and she saw her enemy's eyes widen in shock. Whind pulled out her lightsaber and lit it, but Annika’s strike came too fast, knocking it away from her as she drove her into the wall, her hand at the Sith's throat. She assessed the situation very quickly: she was on an Imperial starship, alone with this Sith, and-

And wearing an Imperial uniform.

Theory 1: She was here in some undercover capacity.

Theory 2: She was attempting to escape.

Then she noticed her rank badge, that of an Imperial captain. You don't normally try to pass yourself off as the captain of a ship.

Theory 3: She was what she appeared to be.

Whind blasted her with a Force push, and Annika stumbled back to the desk. She glanced, and weighed her options. Last time she'd fought Darth Whind she'd won, but barely, and she had been on top of her game. She didn't even know what this body was capable of. Taking a gamble she put Theory 3 to the test by dropping her hand on the alarm. Almost instantly the door opened and a squad of stormtroopers appeared, an officer in the rear. Whind turned and faced them, and they pointed their blaster rifles at her. "Stand down, ma'am," they said firmly, clearly ready to fire.

"That's not the captain!" Whind said firmly.

"Stand down," the officer said even more sternly. Whind looked between them and Annika, venom in her expression. She deactivated the lightsaber and tossed it aside. The stormtroopers quickly rushed in and locked binders around her wrists. The officer came forward and stood at attention before Annika. "Orders, captain?"

Annika straightened her uniform front and tried to look like this was old hat for her. "Throw her in the brig for now," she said. "I'll decide what to do later." The officer nodded and Mara was led out the door; as she left another came in. Annika noticed his rank badge. "Commander," she said. "I assume you heard her accusation."

"Yes captain," the commander said.

Annika nodded; time to put that eidetic memory to use. "You'd be within your right under Section 7 of the General Security guidelines to have me submit to tests to verify my identity."

The commander smiled faintly. "Captain," he said, "we know you and the Emperor's Hand have been at each other's throats. For what it's worth, I think I've been your XO long enough to prove whose side I'm on."

Annika smiled slightly in return. "I can always count on you, commander." He nodded and left, and Annika slumped onto the desk. "What has she gotten me into?" she mused quietly. Then she checked her uniform pockets and found a code cylinder. "Well, why don't we find out?"
--------------------------------------------------------------

An alarm sounded, and Sebastian Skywalker cursed quietly and deactivated it. "Morning, sir," Janet said, standing nearby. "Are you getting up?"

"Am I dead?"

"No, prefect."

"Kriff. Then I guess I'm getting up." Janet pulled out a datapad while Sebastian pulled himself out of bed.

"I was told you were up late, prefect," Janet said. "No one would fault you for taking some time to rest, approach things with a clear head."

"My head's as clear as it's going to get," Sebastian said with a scowl.

"You won't do the Alliance any good if you drive yourself to an early grave."

"I'm fine, never felt more youthful and alive, now where the hell's my cane?" He found it and limped into the sonic shower. "I want a situation report on the Vong shield in three hours," Sebastian called. "Instruct the Borg to have their report ready, and the senior military commanders to be on hand so we can discuss our options."

"Yes prefect," Janet said.

"Anything I need to be aware of?"

"Things remain hairy with the annexed territories," Janet said.

"There's a shock." Sebastian rubbed his face, cursed, and switched over to standard shower mode. Sometimes you needed hot water in your face. "Cirule on top of it?"

"Yes prefect."

"Good, I'd rather this thing get settled quickly and without too much collateral damage."

"Of course." Janet hesitated. "About the Vong, prefect... are you sure we can do this? I mean, with the shield-"

"Janet," Sebastian said, "If I thought we couldn't win this, saying so out loud -even to you- would be the last thing I would ever do, so the point is moot. For now, I am going to proceed on the assumption that we can and will win, because I cannot accept any alternative, clear?"

Janet nodded. "Yes. Thank you, prefect."

"You're welcome. Pick me out some clothes please. I'm too tired, and I can't go stumbling about dressed like a blind Telaxian."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke Skywalker entered Annika's office, a look of obvious contempt on his face. "Who are you?" he demanded quietly.

Annika put the paperwork down; fortunately it was all rather elementary, so that even she could work through it. "I'm who you think I am, in the abstract sense."

"I don't sense anything from you," he said with quiet accusation.

"I know. I have the ability to cloak myself from Force-sensitives."

"Then turn it off."

"I'd rather not."

"Then I don't believe you," Luke said. "You're not Seven-"

"I am," she said firmly. She took a deep breath and lowered the cloak, which of course meant he could sense she was telling the truth. He could also sense everything she was feeling... the ache that the sight of him filled her with.

"What's going on?"

"We're pawns in the game of a Sith," Annika said. "And what's worse is we don't know the rules. Look, I'm not from your reality, but I am Seven of Nine... just a different one." She cleared her throat uncomfortably. "I understand some things are different here; I'll do my best not to cause any trouble."

"Good. Then perhaps you can get my wife out of the brig."

The word stung her harder than Annika had thought it would. "No," she said. "Not until I have a firm grasp on things."

"She's done nothing wrong-"

"She attacked me!" Annika said. "And believe me, she and I have tangled more than once, and I did not like it! She stays locked up until I can trust her not to kill me."

"You're her best friend," Luke pleaded. "She saw something happen to you and was afraid of what it was. No harm was intended; can't you let it slide?"

"Look," Annika said firmly. "I have spent the past ten years either wasting away from a disease or locked up and tortured, so I am not inclined to just sit back and let things slide, all right?" Her voice softened. "But, there are other forms of persuasion... I'll make you a deal, Luke. I'll let Mara out of that cell and drop the charges, but from 1900 to 2100 hours tonight you are mine."

"No," Luke said firmly.

"Let me finish," Annika said sternly. "Your only obligation is to join me for dinner in my private dining room, to engage in civilized discussion. That's all. Circumstances may progress beyond that-"

"They won't," Luke said even more firmly.

"Then you've nothing to worry about," Annika said. "Just two hours of your time, and we can leave this mess behind us, all right?"

Luke glared at her. "Fine," he said through his teeth.

"Good," Annika said, returning to the paperwork. "Don't be late."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian hobbled into the war room and took his seat. The various military authorities were all on hand, either real or in holographic form. The Borg Queen stood, naturally; the Borg seemed to have little use for chairs. "Well," he said, "I know we've all been rather busy of late, but there's one very important matter we haven't had time to attend to: the Vong."

"A dark day for our alliance," Marnisch said quietly. "Victory within our grasp, only to have it stolen away..."

"This can still work," Sebastian said. "They're dug in; they're not going anywhere for a while, and I've got long range scans constantly watching. If they try to move, they'll have to lower their defenses, and that could give us an edge."

"But respectfully, prefect," Admiral Cirule said, "despite what you said to the populace, time is on their side, not ours."

"I agree, which is why we need to formulate a plan now, before they break out of their territory and put us on the run." Sebastian turned to the Queen. "You've examined all the data?"

"Yes," the Queen said. "The Vong's shield is created by a series of organic nodes, capable of impressive feats of regeneration. One of the nodes sustained a direct hit, and was regenerated back to functional capacity within minutes. Clearly their biotechnological skills are greater than we've imagined."

"How can they generate that kind of power?" Sebastian demanded.

"We don't know, there's no clear data on the subject. But we do know that the recharge rates for the Enterprise's primary weapon aren't fast enough to catch the shield when it's weak. It's our estimation that it would take over 87% of the entire Alliance fleet to bombard the shield for it to collapse."

"That'll never work," Cirule said. "The Vong would figure out what we were doing if we tried assembling that many ships, not to mention how wholly impractical it'd be to pull our ships out."

"I agree," T'lin said. "The Vong would simply abandon that world and go into hiding."

"While our enemies took advantage of our weaknesses and annexed our territories," Marnisch added. "No, that is no plan, that's a suicide note."

Sebastian nodded. "What else have we got?" he asked. "Can we use some kind of weapon against the Vong?"

"Yes," the Queen said. "The answer is obvious. We construct a second superlaser."

Sebastian dropped his datapad onto the desk in defeat. "Sure, not a problem. Why don't we build two and see if we can get a discount on parts?"

"Can we do that?"

"No we can't do that!" Sebastian pinched the bridge of his nose; his exhaustion was getting to him. "I'm sorry. Look, someone please, please correct me if I'm wrong, but the superlaser for the Enterprise was one of the earliest components built, and that with the plans kept so secure there's no guarantee we'd ever find them. That means we'd have to learn by examining the one we have, is that right?"

Cirule cleared his throat and nodded. "The Emperor was vehement, especially after the mess that took place with the Mistryl."

"Figuring out how to build the damn thing's going to take too long," Sebastian said. "And that's just to get the blueprints. Then we have to build it, while fighting a war against the constantly growing and expanding Vong fleet."

"If we devote more people and resources," T'nil said, "perhaps we can speed up the research."

"There's an old engineering saying: you can't get a baby in one month by hiring nine pregnant women." Sebastian turned to the Queen. "Assuming a best case scenario, how soon can we have this built?"

"Six months," the Queen said. "But the greatest probability puts it at eleven."

"I think we all can see that that's just not going to work," Sebastian said. "The Vong's numbers will grow too rapidly, and they'll figure out what we're doing eventually... they'll disappear. We need something that can work now, not a year from now. What else have you got?"

"Nothing," the Queen said.

"The kriff you mean, 'nothing?'"

"I'm afraid no other weaponry would suffice, Sebastian."

"Do you have any alternative at all?" Sebastian asked. "I mean, come on! The people in this room are notorious for pulling off long shots with all kinds of crazy notions, surely there's got to be something else that could actually work, some, some kind of ray that can sap strength from their shield or, or, or a transporter that can penetrate the shield so we can blow those things up on the ground. Something! Anything!"

"Anything?" The Queen asked.

"Yes, I'm open to damn near any idea at this point."

"Based on our analysis of the data, yes, there is one alternative. Put someone on the planet before the battle begins. When the Enterprise arrives, destroying even one of the nodes will cause enough of a loss of power that the superlaser will penetrate and destroy the planet."

"But we can't put someone on the planet," Admiral T'nil said, "the Vong will raise the shields."

"They did not raise it for our probe droid."

"You expect a probe droid to accomplish this?" Marnisch said. "The Vong destroyed the last one with ease."

"A probe droid would not work, but the principle is sound." The Queen held up her hand and a hologram appeared of the probe droid in its pre-launch form. "The housing is large enough to hold a person. We can modify the design to turn this into a hyperspace-capable escape pod."

"It'll come in too fast," Sebastian said. "Those things hit like a meteor impact. They're designed to do that, to maintain the probe's cover. This thing hits and the passenger's reduced to tomato paste."

"We would have to improve our inertial dampeners," the Queen said. "If we can reduce the response time, it would be possible for a humanoid passenger to survive the impact."

"The Vong would investigate," Cirule said with a shake of his head. "They're going to be on the lookout after the last probe droid."

"We would have to disguise it to appear to be a large meteor," the Queen said. "The number of meteors that bombard planets on a daily basis preclude the possibility of them assuming that all of them are probe droids. We are certain the Vong will be unable to see through the deception."

"It's ridiculous," Sebastian said.

"Then we must build the star destroyer," the Queen said.

"There's no time!" Sebastian snapped. "We can't do it!"

"Then it seems this is over, Sebastian," the Queen said. "Evacuate as many as possible through the wormhole and destroy it, and leave the Milky Way to fend for itself."

"That is not an option," Sebastian said sharply.

"Sebastian," the Queen said, "we cannot win if we cannot penetrate that shield. That fact is undeniable. If we cannot win, then logically saving as many as possible is the only way to proceed-"

"NO!" Sebastian snarled. "No one else is going to be abandoned, do you understand that?! We don't leave our people behind! We-" He stopped; he didn't even have the energy to rant any more. He just leaned forward on the table, face buried in his hands. Eventually they slid back; he seemed calmer, but no less tired. "Your probe droid pod idea," he said slowly. "Can you actually build it?"

"We are Borg."

"How long?"

"That would depend on the success of testing. This would require technology that hasn't been designed before and material construction that hasn't been used. Conservatively, six weeks."

"That's conservatively?" Cirule asked.

The Queen looked at him. "We would be simultaneously testing a number of techniques, day and night, without risk of fatigue. Our nature provides many advantages."

"But you can't use it to speed up the superlaser work?" T'nil asked.

"Devising improved components for known technology will be child's play compared to developing a weapon capable of annihilating entire planets."

"Why didn't you do this kind of research before?" Cirule asked suspiciously.

"It is not efficient. Here efficiency must yield to necessity. Naturally, there is still the matter of the occupant."

Sebastian nodded slowly. "Yes. It'd have to be only one, to make it as small as possible. And only one pod, or the Vong would realize something was up." He tapped the table absentmindedly with his cane. "You'd need an individual who could sit cooped up in that thing for a long time. Someone capable of handling any resistance single-handedly. Someone experienced in fighting the Vong face-to-face. You'd need a Jedi..."

"There's not many Jedi," Cirule observed. "The Academy has only a dozen or so students-"

"Students won't do," Sebastian said. "Even an experienced Jedi is going to have a hard time of it."

"Respectfully, prefect," Marnisch said, "I think you sell my soldiers short. One of our number could do this."

"I respect the abilities and courage of your soldiers, all of your soldiers," Sebastian said to the general group. "But we will have only one chance at this, after that the Vong won't let their guard down. We need every possible edge we can get."

"Who do you have in mind?" Cirule asked.

"There's really no choice, is there?" Sebastian said. "There's only three fully-trained Jedi left. Jaina Solo's good, but her experience is limited because of her involvement in running the Academy. I'm obviously no longer up to the challenge. That leaves only one, Anakin Solo. He's strong in the Force and an experienced soldier."

T'nil cleared his throat. "Despite your efforts, prefect, I'm afraid it's no secret that you and the Academy don't see eye-to-eye."

"Anakin won't back down from what needs to be done," Sebastian said.

"But this isn't just some errand," she said. "You're-"

"I know," Sebastian said, a little stronger than he needed. "I know. The shield won't fall until the planet's blown up... I'm asking him to die."



Chuck

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Part XLIV


Annika stepped out of the shower and toweled off, trying to quell her nervousness. She hadn't had to do anything like this in a long, long time, and was hoping she wasn't going to screw anything up. She sighed, then looked up at the mirror, and paused. It was amazing what happened when you took a quarter century of time away from the body. There was only the golden blond there, rather than the white. The lines had vanished, leaving just smooth and unblemished skin. She glanced down then opened up the towel; she let out a low whistle.

"Okay girls," she said after a few seconds. "Good to see you on top of your game. You'll be our primary assault force as always. I shouldn't have to remind you how to do your job; you two have never let me down before, and I'm sure once again you'll breach enemy defenses and ensure victory." She slipped her robe on and dropped into the chair in front of the mirror. "Feeling a little stressed, Annika?" she asked the reflection. "No, not really; why do you ask?" "Oh, well, it's just that it's not every day I see you talking to your boobs." "Oh sure, I do it all the time. 'How's it going, ladies? Feelin' kind of perky today? Little bounce in your step?'" She slowly shook her head. "The jokes aren't helping, Annika," she said. "You're still nervous as hell, and no amount of levity's going to change that. You're trying to seduce a man away from his wife... is that what you've been reduced to?" She made a fist while she grimaced at the reflection. "Luke Skywalker is my husband," she insisted. "He fathered my only child. I'm just taking back what's mine." Grief spread across her face. "But not this one. This one married Mara." She closed her eyes and swallowed, then slammed her fist onto the vanity. "She gets him in every reality!" she insisted. "She has more than her fair share! Can't one version of Annika Hansen be happy?!"

Annika turned away from the mirror and stared upwards. "What kind of sick game is this?! You take my husband away from me, then show him to me again and tell me I can't have him?! Kriff that! I'm not playing by your twisted rules!" She turned back to the mirror. "You will use those breasts and every other asset you have at your disposal and if he says no it will be the hardest no that ever passed a man's lips! You are not just going to roll over and let her have him, do you hear me?! You beat her before, and you'll beat her again here!" And she got up and stormed out of the fresher.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven looked at her hands. "Why like this?" she asked Janeway. "Why not just bring me into your realm physically?"

"Because I'm hoping that you can interface with the Borg Collective," Janeway said. "You see, Seven, your counterpart has contacted them on more than one occasion to help them thwart our efforts. That's how things have gotten this desperate."

"I still can't believe any version of me could resort to that," Seven said.

Janeway looked leery. "You remember the dream of the baby, Sebastian?"

Seven stared at her in shock. "How did you know about that?"

"Your minds were linked during the shift," Janeway said. "It's complicated, but I know you experienced it. Anyway, it wasn't a dream, it was a memory. For some unknown reason, you and Luke were able to have a child here... unfortunately, what seemed a miracle turned out to be a curse. Your child rebuilt the Collective after he killed Luke, rejecting the Jedi ways for his Borg heritage." Seven's eyes widened in shock. "That's why your counterpart helped them. You're not evil, Seven, but you're human, and that means you love your son. In her place, I might have done the same." She shook her head. "But we don't have the luxury of emotion in the face of this new Borg threat. We have to destroy them. That's why you're here, like this. If I brought you in physically the Borg would be able to detect the differences between you and your counterpart, and I can't risk that."

"You want me to link up with them?"

"I'm hoping you can slip something past their defenses, weakening or destroying them." She shook her head, showing images on the screens around the room. "They built a primitive Death Star," Janeway explained. "And used it to destroy Chandrilla. We managed to pierce their defenses and destroy it, but I lost a lot of good people, including Luke's old friend, Lando." Seven watched it play out. "Sebastian murdered the Emperor," Janeway continued. And she watched a young man very much like Luke do it. "He's harmed innocent people," she watched him in full Borg appearance grab a woman on a Cube and snap her neck, while the Borg Queen looked on in approval. "He even murdered his own wife when she tried standing in his way." Seven watched in horror as some helpless woman in a spacesuit said she loved him, and he responded by blowing her away with a starship. "He's evil, Seven," she said. "And together with the Borg he will assimilate every living thing unless he can be stopped."

Seven breathed deeply and shook her head. "I find this so hard to believe, Kathryn," she admitted.

"I understand," Janeway said. "And I wish I could bring you some old friends to tell you, but they're all dead. Han may be alive, we're not sure, and it's possible Harry managed to escape, but all the rest... Chakotay, B'Elanna, Miles, Naomi, Jacen, Leia-" She shook her head. "The death toll is unimaginable. I'm afraid that the only one left to talk to you is me, so I'm asking you, Seven-" She looked into her eyes. "As the woman who brought you out of the Collective and into individuality, please... trust me!"

Seven stared back. It was all hard to believe, but with the evidence she'd seen, and the memory of what Janeway had done for her over the years, she was close to accepting it... very close... so much so that a master of the Force could easily nudge her the rest of the way. "I trust you," she said. "And I'll make sure the Borg, and my son, are stopped for good, Kathryn."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Luke had been waiting in the captain's dining room when the door opened. It was obvious from his appearance that he was unprepared for what stepped through.

Word had gotten around the ship about the issues between the captain and Luke and Mara, and while it made for amusing discussion, at the end of the day they were Seven of Nine's crew. She'd brought them out of certain death more times than they could count, and she'd proven a fiercely loyal captain to her people. Maybe she was a Borg, but it didn't matter to them. So when word leaked out that she was making a move on Luke, they'd rallied behind her, with offerings and services coming from all levels and departments, so that the woman who strode through the door was the final result. In the battle of the sexes, the Visage crew had prepared a Base Delta Zero.

The ship's tailor had done a true masterpiece, providing her with a dress that complimented all of her feminine assets while still being tasteful. Some of the female officers took over the barber shop for a while and did magic on her. Her long blond hair curved seductively down and over her right shoulder. Her lips were painted, her eye shadow matched her gown, her face was radiant, they'd even polished her implants until they gleamed. As they admired their handiwork the senior gunnery officer commented that it wasn't even sporting sending her in looking that good. Annika had appreciated the sentiment, but she knew Luke; this wasn't going to be easy, she needed every edge. So when she entered the room she walked that walk, the one like a brass knuckle to the libido. "Seven?" he said.

"Luke," she said, with a small smile on her face. "Thank you so much for coming. Crewman?" A young man nodded to her and uncorked the wine. "A gift from my Logistics Officer," she said. "He was quite insistent, and well, the vintage is too fine to refuse."

"I see," Luke said, taking the proffered glass. Annika did the same.

"Thank you, crewman," she said, "that will be all." The young man nodded and slipped out, and she looked into Luke's face. "A toast," she said. "To... Ben Kenobi."

Luke looked puzzled; he'd been expecting her to toast "love lost and found," or something ridiculously obvious like that. "Why?"

"For taking a young farmhand and shaping him into a man that shook the galaxy," she said. Luke had confided over the years how much he'd admired Kenobi; it was a tactical strike. I know you, it said. Wouldn't you like to get to know me?

Luke raised the glass. "To Ben," he said, and drank. Annika did the same; fortunately her counterpart had invested in some tablets to help her body cope with alcohol for social functions. She'd taken a little extra just to be safe. "This is excellent," he commented.

"I agree," she said, refilling the glasses. When they were both emptied she took them and set them aside. "Dinner will be just a few minutes," she said. "How about some music?"

"You're the boss," he said, but the expected antagonism was gone. The defenses were crumbling. She switched on the music. Like everything else, it'd been meticulously calculated. Luke was expecting a frontal assault; her flanked attacks were getting through, as she'd known they would. After decades of marriage, she knew his strengths and vulnerabilities. Roxette's "Do You Get Excited?" began playing. It was just the right tone to avoid sounding like a love song while at the same time capturing all the right elements. It was also something you could dance to slowly, close together. When she took his hand, he didn't resist.

After a short while she gazed up into his eyes, and she could see it all coming back to him. He smiled just a little as he looked into her face, and she could read that expression like bold print. When the music and the movement and the look all came together, she moved, ever so slowly, to kiss him. He kissed back. And they held each other like that, while the music played on. And it was a perfect moment.

"I love you," she whispered. And she realized that despite all her calculations, she hadn't anticipated her human element. It had been seven years, eight months, sixteen days, two hours, forty-three minutes and eleven seconds since she'd last kissed Luke, and in the wake of the blissful experience she'd floundered and deviated from the plan. It broke the spell, and she could see all the careful planning crumble before her as reality came flooding back. Luke looked down, clearly embarrassed and ashamed with himself for what he'd done. "Dinner should be here in a moment," she said. "Why don't we sit down." A temporary withdrawal to rally was called for. Fortunately there were fallback positions planned, though if she'd avoided screwing up she wouldn't have needed them. Damn! She'd been so close! She'd won, only to stumble at the finish line.

Several crewmen arrived with the main course, Romulan-style sea bass, Luke’s favorite. But he’d rebuilt the defenses and was on guard now; she’d have to play this just right. They ate in silence for a while, so that Annika wouldn’t be putting any pressure on him. Crewmen came and left with things, and Annika had the sinking feeling it wasn’t going to get any better.

Eventually, Luke cleared his throat. "Captain-"

"Annika," she said. "Or Seven; I answer to both."

Luke started over. "Seven, I assume that in any dimension, you'll check up on history to thoroughly understand the situation. You were always very analytical."

Annika nodded slightly. "Yes, I did. I know that, just like in my reality, you wiped out a Borg fleet to save my life."

Luke looked down. "I did... and I don't regret it. I loved you, more than life itself. But things change, Seven. Mara and I found each other..." He didn't seem to want to finish it.

"I know," Annika said, trying to put on her best face. "I was 'a stepping stone.' 'A convenient tool of fate - nothing more.'"

"Not nothing more," Luke said sharply. "We shared something very special-" He stopped. "No, strike that! We shared nothing! You're not my Seven!"

"I can be."

"No you can't!" Luke said. "Because my Seven was capable of accepting the fact that Mara was the one I loved... that together the two of us were able to overcome the Dark side and return to the Light, and so long as I was happy, so was she! My Seven was a friend to Mara through thick and thin! You may be older, but you don't even have half the maturity she did, because she knew that the world didn't begin and end with what she wanted!"

"Maybe she didn't realize what she was giving up!" Annika shot back. Her lip trembled. "Or maybe she was just afraid. You don't know how long I loved you, Luke; how long it took me to say the words out loud. I'm a Borg; burying my emotion is too easy a temptation."

"Look, Seven," Luke said, trying to keep himself under control, "I am very sorry for whatever you've been through, really, I am. I would love to do something to help you, but what do you think this-" he gestured at Annika's dress "-is going to do? You think I don't know how beautiful you are? That I don't remember how incredible of a lover you are? I remember and cherish every moment Seven and I shared and wouldn't trade them for anything. But my heart belongs to the woman you locked up in your brig, and you can't change that. Even if we crawled into bed right now, I'd only be thinking about her, you understand that?"

Annika nodded slightly, trying not to show any emotion as she slowly looked down. She cleared her throat. "By the terms of our agreement," she said, "you still owe me another hour and a half. However, I'll waive that on one condition." She looked up into his eyes. "A mindmeld."

Luke took a deep breath through his nose. "Out of the question."

"Fine," Annika said as she wiped her mouth with a napkin and tossed it on her plate. "Then we can try to make uncomfortable small talk. So, how're things?"

Luke sat there in pained silence. "What is this supposed to prove?" he finally asked.

"That you mean it," Annika said firmly.

Luke took another deep breath. "Fine," he said, though clearly unhappy about it. He walked down to the other end of the table, and Annika got to her feet. He put his hands on the sides of her head, and said the words, and-
--------------------------------------------------------------

Force lightning ripped through Luke's body where he lay, and he screamed. Darth Whind watched in bitter agony, as if she was feeling the same thing. "Please, master," she begged.

"This is the penalty for failure," the Emperor said, blasting Luke again.

"Please stop," Whind pleaded, tears running down her face. She thought getting him out of that Federation prison Leia put him in would make everything right again, but obviously the Emperor had other ideas. "Don't hurt him any more," she said, weeping.

The Emperor glared at her. "You're growing weak," he said, then blasted Luke again. "He's already poisoned you. The Sith cannot abide such failings."

Whind looked into Luke's face one last time, and Mara turned on her lightsaber. She screamed and ran at the Emperor, but he struck her with a heavy blow from the Force, her lightsaber slipping from her hand and bouncing away. One of the Emperor's massive guards stomped over and scooped her up.

There was blaster fire, and the guard jerked and roared, but the shots never ceased until it collapsed. Mara looked up and there stood Seven with a blaster rifle. "I get the feeling I'm going to regret that, Ben," Seven said to Sisko, who stood next to her.

"You'd be surprised," Ben said, stepping towards the Emperor. "Let them go," he said.

"No," the Emperor rumbled.

"No more intermediaries," Sisko said. "Just you and me."

Mara ran over to Luke and looked him over while the two argued. "I'm so sorry, Luke," she said, crying quietly. "What a fool I've been!"

"You came back," Luke rasped. "You figured it out... in the end."

She cradled him in her arms. "I love you."

He shook his head. "I know you do," he said. "And I always knew how much." She put her hands on him, putting a little of her lifeforce into him to keep him alive. They looked up as Seven arrived.

"They're already at it," she warned. "We've got to get out of here, like right now."

Mara called her lightsaber to her. "I'll lead the way, you bring him."

Seven nodded, slung the rifle over her shoulder, and picked Luke up. "Isn't this familiar," she teased, running behind Mara while the former Sith led the way, cutting down anyone who tried to interfere. They found their way to Mara's private shuttle in minutes and were heading away from Bastion.

"What's going on?" Mara asked. "Why are you helping us?"

Seven stayed focused on the controls, although it probably was just so she wouldn't look at Mara. "Well, you know, you only took away the Enterprise, the Federation, and my fiancé, hey, why shouldn't I help you." She took a deep breath and looked at Mara. "Ben said if I didn't Luke would die. He may be yours now, but I'm not going to stand by and let that happen."

Mara didn't know what to say. "Seven-"

"Don't," she said. "Just... I know how you make him feel." She looked back at the panel. "You just swear to me, Whind, that you will always make him happy."

Mara took Seven's hand. "I'll make him the happiest man in the galaxy," she promised.

Seven looked into her eyes. "Yeah... yeah, I know you will." She cleared her throat. "So, Starfleet's gone. Know if the Imperial Navy is hiring? I'm sure there's a real high demand for science officers in your military."

"You never know, Seven," Mara said. "Things change sometimes... people most of all."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The tavern had fallen silent when Luke and Annika entered, and remained so as they took their seats at the bar. Then the whispering started, and the stares, and Luke glanced around at them. One word kept coming up; "Borg," and it wasn't in a positive context.

"It doesn't bother me," Annika lied to Luke, and he could sense it. You never get used to it, do you? No matter how much you give, you will always just be a monster, despite the fact that your Borg nature had been an instrument of salvation. And the most shameful thing about it was that there was a time when Luke could have been one of them. Had he not seen the good person underneath it all when he first laid eyes on her in the arena, would he have been staring right alongside them?

A Wookiee left his table and walked up to the bar, deliberately standing right up against her. Annika tried to ignore it, but after a little while he got more and more overt until he backhanded her right off the stool. She hit the floor hard, her face bleeding. Luke immediately stood face to face with the Wookiee. "What's your problem?!" he demanded.

"[Keep her kind out of here,]" the Wookiee barked.

"She's pregnant, you kriffing furball!"

"[Maybe I should hit her again then,]" the Wookiee said. "[One less Borg in the galaxy.]" The Wookiee shrank back a little as the lightsaber ignited right in his face.

"What?" Luke demanded. "What did you say?" There was the sound of blasters being pulled, but he ignored them. "I freed your people," he snarled, "and you threaten my unborn child?!"

"Luke, Luke!" Annika said. "I'm fine, let's go." She grabbed his arm, but he stayed for the moment, staring at the Wookiee. "Let's go," she said firmly.

Luke shut down the lightsaber and stared at the bar patrons. "Any of you people hurt my wife again and I'll kill you, you got that? Spread the word, 'cause this is your only warning." He walked with Annika out into the street. "Are you okay?" he asked.

She nodded. "And the baby. Just superficial; if I wasn't pregnant I probably could have moved quick enough-"

"You shouldn't have to," Luke said with fury.

Annika wet her lips. "It's never going to stop, Luke. You realize that, right? They hate what I am..." She glanced up into his face. "Any regrets?"

"Only in not beating the hell out of that furry oaf," Luke said. "But being with you, no, I regret nothing, except that the galaxy can't see what I see when I look at you."

"And what do you see?"

"My wife," he said. "Who’s human and Borg, both sides that I cherish." He kissed her cheek. "I love you, Annika. And I swear I'll protect you, no matter what. I'll always be there."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika backed away, panting; Luke was doing the same. They both looked up at one another, and in the wake of years of memories they'd exchanged their previous animosity was replaced by compassion. "I'm sorry," Luke said. "Oh, Seven, I had no idea..."

"No, Luke," Annika said, tears forming. "I should have known." She covered her eyes. "God, I'm so selfish!"

Luke grabbed her and pulled her close. "I wish I could give you what you need," he said softly. "You deserve to be happy, Seven."

"I was lucky enough to have you once," she said. "I should have remembered that." He held her tightly, like a very dear friend. Strangely, that was enough. She released him. "Stay here," she said, and walked out, not even bothering to change. She ignored it when a platoon leader accidentally led his squad into a closed turbolift door and made her way to the brig. Mara stood up when she arrived. Annika wiped her eyes again, then forced a smile to her face. "Mara," she said. "There's something that you need to know."

Mara glared at her. "What?" she rumbled.

"You," Annika said with a small shake of her head, "have no idea how lucky you are... how lucky you are in every universe. And you have no idea how much I envy you." She opened the cell door. "Never - ever - stop appreciating how blessed you are to have him in your life."

Mara's expression changed. "I won't," she said. "Maybe... maybe we should take some time off. Maybe spend a little time together."

Annika nodded. "Start now," she said. "The captain's private dining room is at your disposal, as is the VIP suite." She wrapped her arms around Mara, who after a moment's shock did the same. "Don't take him for granted," Annika whispered. "Or one day you might find out he's gone."

Mara got a little misty-eyed. "Don't worry." She pulled back. "Are you going to be all right?" Annika shrugged and tried to put on a good face. "Well..." She whispered something in her ear.

"Really?" Mara nodded. "That works?" Mara nodded again. "Thanks." She watched Mara take the steps two at a time out of the brig, then took a deep breath and walked through the ship.

"Captain's on the bridge," the officer announced, accompanied by the sound of people arising and, oddly enough, the sound of things being dropped.

"As you were," Annika said. "Commander, I want us to fully examine the area in detail, top priority. Maximum possible speed until I say otherwise." And she turned, strolled into her office, and locked the door.



Chuck

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Part XLV


Sebastian and a group of Borg drones materialized down on the planet's surface. The air shimmered around them as their forcefields protected them from the hostile elements of the demon planet. As expected, the holograms were waiting. "Greetings," Sebastian said with a slight bow of his head.

The lead hologram nodded in return. "I wasn't sure you would come."

"I understand your reservations," Sebastian said. "Here you're safe from my kind for the most part."

"For the most part," the hologram said.

Sebastian looked down at the shimmering field around him, then shrugged. "We are Borg," he said with a smirk. "We adapt."

"Yes, I see," he said. "My name is John, this is Kajal," he nodded to the Cardassian woman with him. "We expected to be found eventually; but we also expected a turbolaser rather than a communication."

"Thanks for giving me a chance to speak," Sebastian said. "I think we'll agree there's been enough violence."

"There has been regrettable violence," John said. "But not 'enough.'"

"I take it you mean there's something you want."

"Yes, what you take for granted: freedom."

"I don't take it for granted, John," Sebastian said. "Because every day I have to work to make sure it's there for the next day."

"Ah, very cute."

"I play the rhetoric game as well as the next man," Sebastian said. "So why don't we cut through this and get to the heart of the matter. For nearly ten years holographic individuals have been waging hit and run campaigns against biological ones. I'm assuming you're not doing it to give you something to do on a Tuesday afternoon. You want something specific."

"What we want is the liberation of our people," John said. "And we want justice brought to those who misused our kind, especially Janeway."

Sebastian blinked. "Kathryn Janeway?"

"Yes," John said. "Decades ago she gave holographic technology to the Hirogens to allow them to create us to hunt. We suffered unbearably until we managed to escape to here, and it was her fault for so flagrantly giving such power to monsters like them. We want her to answer before us for what she did."

Sebastian gave a short, humorless laugh. "Yeah, well, she killed my wife and desecrated the corpse, so if you want Janeway, I'm afraid you'll have to get in line."

"Our suffering-"

"Everybody suffers," Sebastian said sharply. "There's only so much Janeway to go around; just rest assured she's going to pay for every person she's ever hurt."

"That's enough for us," Kajal said. John tried to speak up but she spoke over him. "This isn't about revenge, John, this is about our people."

"I take it you mean other holographic sentients," Sebastian said.

"The question of holographic rights remains unanswered," John said.

Sebastian nodded. "You're quite correct, it has been. It's not an easy question to answer, it opens up whole new ones about life, and how do we treat life. Where does it end, and how will that impact society, especially given how society now struggles for its existence."

John nodded bitterly. "So we get a pat on the head, right? As we always have?"

"No," Sebastian said. "You get an invitation and a promise. I assume you're the legal representative of this world's government?"

"I suppose you could say that," John said with a hint of mistrust. "We don't require government as you understand it."

"But you do have the power to make and keep agreements," Sebastian said. "I'd like to invite your government to join the Alliance, as a full and equal partner, with the law stating that any holographic citizen of this government is recognized as one of the Alliance, with all those rights."

"You think that will placate us?" John asked. "That's essentially what we had already."

"No," Sebastian said. "What you had was a hiding place. What I'm offering you is full formal recognition of your existence as individuals and your rights as such. In short, I'm offering you legitimacy."

"It's not enough," Kajal said.

"I realize that," Sebastian said. "You want the rest of your people treated the same. They will be... but I'm not going to lie to you, it's not going to happen overnight. But that's where the promise comes in: I will make it happen. It will take time, but I'll answer the question."

"How can we trust you?" John demanded.

"You want to change the galaxy, you've got to trust somebody eventually," Sebastian said. "I ask you, please: Look at what has come before, and look at what I'm offering. Do you really think a better offer's going to come along?"

John and Kajal walked a short distance away and began discussing it. Finally they returned. "What would this involve?"

"A formal petition to join the Alliance," Sebastian said. "A list of your citizenry including a means to identify them; that way if you choose to leave this world we can identify you. A proposed means of attaining citizenship, so that there's a procedure in place. If this is going to work, we'll need to work together. But I promise you, if you're willing to help me, then holographic rights begins right now."

John nodded, though still seeming a little uncertain. "That sounds acceptable."

"I'll have Mr. Romal contact you to work out the details," Sebastian said. "But there is one more thing, a personal matter."

"Yes?"

"It's my understanding that you've been using mobile emitters," Sebastian said. "I'd like to have one, please."

"Why?" John asked, the suspicion clearly back.

Sebastian smiled. "Because there's an old friend of the family who's been without one for a long, long time."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika was sitting in her office looking over a datapad when Mara came in. She used the side door to avoid attracting attention on the bridge. "Morning," Mara said. Annika acknowledged it. "Thanks for letting me and Luke have some time," she said. "And for what it's worth, I'm sorry I made you think I was going to kill you."

"Yeah, well, I'm used to it," Annika said, not looking up.

"That's what I've heard." Mara crossed her arms and started walking around the desk. "Luke said you killed me in your reality," she said, sounding impressed. "Think you can take me now?" she asked playfully.

"If I did, I wouldn't have called for the stormtroopers."

"Well, thanks, I think." Mara stood on the opposite side of the desk; Annika didn't look up from her datapad. "I heard you married him," she said finally. "I can't imagine what it must be like to be in your shoes, Seven. I understand why you did everything you did." She chuckled a little. "Though I'm glad he didn't take you up on your offer. I'll admit, when I saw you in that dress, I wasn't so sure he'd back down."

Annika put down the datapad and picked up the next one. "Luke's very devoted to you," she said. "And he's smart. He knows sleeping with me would be a mistake."

"Absolutely," Mara said. "It didn't do me any good, did it?" There was the sound of a datapad dropping and hitting the desk. Mara tried hard not to laugh but it snuck out. "Oh! I so got you!" Annika blushed a little. "You completely bought into it! Hah! Jedi one, Borg-" she pointed with both hands at Annika, "-zero!"

Annika nodded, tight-lipped, then started rolling her eyes. "I'm dead," she said without a change of expression. "Janeway killed me, and I'm in my own private hell." She picked up the datapad, her expression still never changing.

"Lighten up, Seven," Mara said as she came around her chair. "Relax." She massaged Annika's shoulders. "Besides, we both know what your private hell would be," she said as she tickled her collarbones until Annika slid right off the chair and under her desk to escape. "Am I right?" She poked her head under and grinned, offering a hand and pulling Annika back to her feet. "I'm right." She brushed Annika's uniform off. "Feeling better?" she asked with a smile.

Annika let out a small laugh. "A little," she admitted.

Mara nodded, still holding Annika's hand. "Let me tell you a story," she said. Her mood got a bit more serious. "'Bout two years ago, Luke and I hit a rough patch. I wasn't sure if we were going to get back together or not, it was that bad." She looked away for a second, then back. "I know that Seven of Nine loved him, even then... there hadn't been anyone in her life since." She bit her lip, and Annika could see she was trying to hold in her emotions. "She could have had him back, if she tried. I know it; I wasn't there, I was screwing it up, she could have lured him right back into her arms." She shook her head. "She never left my side," she continued. "She was literally my shoulder to cry on, because no matter how badly she wanted him, she was too decent a person to abandon a friend." She put Annika's hand over her own heart. "You're my sister, Seven," she said. "I would lay down and die for you. So if this Janeway bitch is kriffing with you, she better hope she can handle a pissed off Jedi, because that's what she's getting in the bargain."

Annika was deeply touched, and pulled Mara close. "Thanks," she said. They held onto one another for a while. "There's one thing you need to know though...."

"What?" Mara asked, then screamed.

"Payback's a bitch," Annika said with a grin as she pinched Mara's sides.

Mara laughed and fought back, until the two were giggling like schoolgirls after lights out. They stopped, however, when they noticed Luke, standing over by the side door. "Please, don't let me stop you," he said.

Mara and Annika straightened up, faced him, and crossed their arms, wearing that stern expression that says, "We are female, and we don't approve of your male stupidity."

"This is just like the dream I had," Luke continued with a small grin in the face of the feminine onslaught. "Except Mara was dressed like the dirty chambermaid, and Seven was the slutty dabo girl."

"Who are you calling 'dirty?'" Mara said sharply.

"Who are you calling 'dabo girl?'" Annika said with the same tone. Mara's expression didn't change, but there was the sound of a laugh struggling valiantly to escape past female pride.

"Much as I hate to break this up," Luke said, "and believe me, I never meant that phrase more - the anomaly has changed. It's drifted two AU since last night."

Annika marched over and took the datapad, looking the report over. "What's it mean?" Mara asked, looking over her shoulder.

"Honestly, I don't know," Annika said. "I spent some time reading some of the papers I wrote -God, this situation is so confusing- and I've barely scratched the surface. I think half the reason the Oracle switched me with her is to leave you without an expert to figure this thing out."

"You think the Oracle's responsible for this anomaly?" Luke asked.

"I wouldn't put it past her," Annika said. "I just don't know why she'd do it, other than perhaps to punish me." Luke looked at her oddly. "Putting me in the position of watching my husband be married to my greatest enemy. No offense, Mara, but-"

"If I wound up in a universe," Mara said, "where Luke was married to Daala or Isard, I'd be pretty upset too."

"Yeah, if you ever find such a universe," Luke said, "do me a favor and kill me."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Cube Prime parked in orbit over Earth, and Sebastian beamed down to the Jedi temple. Something like this needed to be done face to face. Laudica was there to greet him. "Hey," she said, giving him a hug, "it's been too long."

"It has," Sebastian admitted. He put the pieces together. "You're pregnant," he said with a smile.

"I hope I'm not showing that much," she joked, but she knew he could sense the baby as much as anyone else around here.

"I'm so happy for the two of you," he said. "That's absolutely wonderful."

"Got to carry on the Jedi traditions somehow," Laudica said with a grin. "Anakin!" she called. "You know how hard it is to pull him away from his work."

"Yeah, I uh, I know how it is." Sebastian waited, and Anakin came running out.

"Sorry, last minute things always show up at the, er, last minute." He shook Sebastian's hand. "Good to see you," he said warmly enough, then cleared his throat. "Thanks again for helping out with the financial side of things."

"No problem; the galaxies need the Jedi," Sebastian said. "That's why I'm here actually, I'm..." He looked at Anakin and Laudica, standing there side by side. Husband, wife, and child to be. "How are things running? I wanted to make sure you had enough for everything you need. We can't afford to pinch pennies when the training of future Jedi is at stake."

"Everything seems fine for now," Anakin said. "I'm not sure we should indulge too much; not good for the discipline to go soft." He snapped his fingers. "Before I forget, dad dropped off some things I was supposed to give to you. He was cleaning out the Falcon; your mom left some personal items in the storage... he figured you might want to hold on to them until she came back." He led the way into one of the wings of the Academy, then opened a storage room. "Yeah, here we are," he said, pulling out a couple of sealed storage units. "We can keep 'em here, of course, but I figured you'd like to have them."

Sebastian popped the lid of the top one open and peered inside. He saw the past staring back at him. "Yes," he said distantly. "Yes, thank you." He sent a message up to the ship and they were beamed into his office.

"So," Anakin said, "what's this about? I know you didn't come all this way to ask about money."

"No, I-" Sebastian turned away. "I just wanted to see the Academy. You know, my money at work and all that."

"Oh," Anakin said, a little surprised. "Well, I'll give you the tour-"

"Later," Sebastian said, then scolded himself. "Thanks, Anakin, I'll take you up on that... but I just remembered something, and it can't wait."

"Huh, become the executive authority of the galaxy and suddenly we're not good enough?" he asked playfully.

"I'm very sorry," he said, and embraced them both.

Moments later he sat in his office, opening the box and placing the contents on his desk. There was the holo of the three of them... he had to be what, thirteen? Fourteen? He stared. Was he ever really that happy? he wondered, looking at the boy. Of course, that was before he'd been told about the future, the words that had hung over him for nearly half his life. "They're going to take it all away from you, Sebastian." Here he sat, with a box full of memories, and all they reminded him of was how much had been taken.

He pulled out another. It was him and Jorri on their wedding day. God, she was more beautiful than his memories showed him. He went back in; the datapad he'd built when he was a kid, as a special place to put his pictures for mommy. His mother’s commbadge and pips in a small shadow box, along with swatches of blue and red fabric from her science officer and command uniforms. The b-

Sebastian stared. How long had it been? He carefully pulled out the book and placed it on the table. He opened the cover. "To a dear friend in an ivory tower. -Data." It had survived a Death Star, the Borg, Imperial invasion, the Vong, and the fierce determination of a child, but his mother had read it to him countless times. He turned the pages. There it was, his namesake... oh sure, the temporal displacement obviously made the decision, but he knew his mother, he knew he’d have been called by this name regardless. He read a little:

“Bastian’s heart pounded. Should he try? What if he didn’t succeed? What if he was wrong? What if they weren’t talking about him but about some entirely different savior? How could he be sure they really meant him?”

Because sometimes you just know, Sebastian thought. Sometimes you feel in your bones what needs to be done, and that no one can do it. You have to see it through, or else you know it will fail.

As he adjusted his grip, an isolinear chip slipped out and onto his desk. He picked it up and examined it; it was from his mother, addressed to him and dated three months before she went into the hospital on Earth. She’d... she must have known that he’d wind up with her things, and that inevitably he’d find the book. It was...

He put the chip in his desk. Right now, a farewell message was the last thing he needed to see. He closed the desk, and his eyes fell back onto the book.

“Bastian was thinking of how it would be if he suddenly stood before them in all his fatness, with his bowlegs and his pasty face. He could literally see the disappointment in the Childlike Empress’s face when she said to him: ‘What brings you here?’

Obviously they were expecting a prince, or at any rate some sort of hero.”

Sebastian’s eyes lifted from the book and rested on his cane. Slowly, with embarrassment, his eyes returned to the book.

“’We shall enter the Circle of Eternal Return, from which there is no escape.’

‘Not for us,’ she replied, and her voice was no longer gentle, but as hard and clear as a diamond. ‘Nor for him - unless he saves us all.’

‘Do you really want to entrust everything to a human?’

‘I do.’”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The door to Sebastian's office opened, and he walked into the center where the Borg Queen and Janet were looking things over. "Did you speak with Anakin Solo?" the Queen asked. Sebastian nodded without saying a word, focused on something distant. "And will he do it?"

"I didn't ask him to," Sebastian said. His voice sounded like it was coming from a place far away.

The Queen paused as she tried seeing the logic of it. "Why did you not ask him?"

"He's going to be a father," Sebastian said as two tears ran down his cheeks. "He's a husband and a father, and I- I can't ask him to do this. I can't take him away from them."

The Queen looked over at Janet, clearly implying that as an emotional being this line of thinking fell to her. Janet wet her lips. "Sebastian... this isn't an easy decision to make," she said slowly. "But Anakin is the person most capable of pulling this mission off. The stakes are too high not to use him." Janet put her hand on his shoulder and rubbed it. "I understand that this is very hard for you, but you have to look at the big picture. If this mission fails, we will in all likelihood lose this war."

Sebastian closed his eyes and nodded a little. "The success of the campaign is more important than any one person, is that what you're saying?"

Janet hesitated. "Yes," she said. "In this case, yes."

"Would you agree?" Sebastian asked, looking up at the Borg Queen. "Success is more important than the life of any one man?"

"It's only logical," the Queen said.

Sebastian nodded. "Only logical..." He limped up to the Queen; he was sweating visibly, mixing with the tears. He tried speaking several times, but it was so hard for him to get the words out.

"What's wrong?" the Queen asked as he almost doubled over in angst.

"Only logical," he repeated under his breath. "Only logical..." Finally he straightened up, and summoned as much dignity as he could under the circumstances. "Cut off my leg."



Chuck

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Part XLVI


Sebastian saw Janet's expression. "You have something to say?"

Janet just stared at him in shock. Since she'd been brought in as his assistant he'd always had one bad leg, and never showed any sign to want to lose it. She knew exactly what he was planning. "Frankly, you can't be serious."

"I am serious, and don't call me 'frankly.'"

"It is your intention to go to the Vong planet personally?" the Queen asked.

"Yes," Sebastian said. "With my leg replaced with a cybernetic one, I'll be more than ready for any resistance."

"But there's no way off the planet!" Janet protested. "You'll die!"

"But the war will be over," Sebastian said.

"Prefect, we need you," Janet said firmly.

"I agree that the continued existence of the Alliance is uncertain without your presence," the Queen said. "Are you certain you wish to do this?"

"You think I want to do this? You think I want to die?" He looked into Janet's face and must have read her expression. "I don't want to do this, but I have to."

"Anakin-"

"No!" Sebastian said. "I've made my decision." He turned back to the Queen. "You can install the replacement limb you were going to before, yes?"

"We'll have the assimilation chamber prepared, prefect," the Queen said.

"Good, I'll be in my office when you're ready."

Sebastian turned to leave. Janet tried interceding, but he held up a finger and gave her a look, and she relented. He left, and Janet turned to the Queen. "We can't let him do this," she said firmly.

"He's made his decision," the Queen said.

"He's not thinking rationally!"

The Queen stared at her. "Do you think we do not know what this is about? Sebastian's thoughts were part of us for a long while... we know exactly what's going on. But he gave us back existence; he has provided the Borg with so much... we will deny him nothing, even if he desires to terminate his own life."

"I can't accept that," Janet said.

The Queen was silent for a time. "He is so very much his mother's son. There will only ever be Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker... you can never take her place."

"I don't want to!" Janet insisted, but she quickly relented. "I just..."

"You mean well," the Queen said. "But as I said, Sebastian is just like Seven of Nine was; he is incapable of forgetting. All your affections ever do is remind him of her... it is the price that comes with perfect recall, Janet. For Sebastian, it feels no different now than it did the day she died."

"So he'll just kill himself?!"

"You do not understand him," the Queen said. "He is not suicidal; he merely doesn't care any more. If he could escape alive, he would, but since he can't he will allow this to happen without further thought."

Janet shook her head, but it was clear she didn't like hearing this. "So," she said with emotion in her voice, "he'd rather be dead than with me. Rather be dead than let me take away the hurt." She swallowed. "That's a hell of a thing."

"Yes," the Queen said. "We understand exactly." Janet looked over at her. "Exactly."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Commander Greis walked into the captain's office as Annika worked a datapad. "Ah, commander, I have an unusual bit of work that requires your experienced leadership."

"A moment of your time, captain," he said, ignoring what she'd just said.

Annika set the datapad down. "My door's always open."

"Who the hell are you?"

Annika blinked. "Captain Seven of Nine, obviously. I thought the implants gave me away."

Greis forced an unpleasant smile to his face. "I served as XO under the captain for three years, and during that time I've learned two things. One is that the universe is held together with spit and bailing wire, and the other is that however much smarter she is than I am, I still know how she thinks." He leaned forward onto the desk. "Everything you've done is close, very close, so you obviously know her well too... alternate universe?"

Annika swallowed. She was never much of a poker player, and trying to outmuscle her XO would be dangerous. Her only hope was that he might stay on her side. "Yes," she admitted.

Greis nodded. "Terran resistance, fighting the Cardassian-Klingon Alliance?"

"No, civilian. Prisoner of a Sith, in fact, who destroyed the Empire."

"I hate him already."

"Her, actually." She filled him in on what little she knew. "I hope you understand why I kept you in the dark."

Greis nodded thoughtfully. "That's something the captain would do too." He thought about it. "Is there any way to switch you back?"

"I don't know," Annika said. "That's what this is all about." She held out a datapad and he took it. "I've been reading the reports your captain has written... it's a little humbling to see how much she's done in such a short time. I've barely made a dent, and time is wasting. That anomaly could be salvation, or it could be armageddon, I truly don't know." She seemed leery. "And that's unacceptable. So I've got to learn very, very fast."

Greis looked at the datapad. "Borg technology?"

Annika nodded. "Your team will be building a very special alcove for me, a cortical processing subunit. Fortunately your captain has the ability to form implants as I do, so I'll be adding some memory engrams into my brain. We're going to download everything she ever wrote into my head. Digesting it will take a little time, but within a fraction of the time you'll have as close to an expert as you're going to get."

"But captain," Greis said, "we don't know the first thing about Borg technology."

"Everything you need to build it using Imperial components is in there," Annika said. "Just please, please, be careful. Any mistakes could result in brain damage or death."

Greis took a deep breath. "Technically, I should report you to command and have you relieved," he said. He looked at the datapad. "Were you on the Enterprise?"

"Chief Science Officer," Annika said. "And after that, I was promoted and given command of my own Starbase until the Imperial conquest. Aside of the Imperial training provided at the Emperor's command I actually have more experience than she had before she took over. In other words, I am reliable... though I admit-"

"You've been relying on me," Greis finished. "I noticed. You're not my Seven, but you're close enough for me to trust you for now, but I warn you," he held up his finger. "First sign that this Borg thing of yours is risking the ship and you're in a cell faster than you can say 'highly-localized disturbance in the space-time continuum.'"

"I can say that pretty fast," Annika said with a grin.

Greis smiled just a little. "Yeah, I've learned that over the years too."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was working at his desk, trying to tidy up a few loose ends, though in truth he was hoping to not think about what was about to happen. For someone who'd had to replace three limbs already, it might have seemed odd that the fourth would be such an obstacle, but it was. It was the last human part... as broken as it was, it was still a piece of him, and he didn't want to lose it. But it would only be for a short while anyway; when the Enterprise was finished he'd be atoms regardless. Whether some were mechanical or not really wasn't going to make a difference, would it?"

Janet came in; he could tell she was uncertain of what she should do, but fortunately she'd been his assistant long enough to know when he needed her to be all business. "Just thought you'd like your updates, prefect," she said as she pulled out her datapad. "The hologram issue has been squared away for the moment; all hostilities will immediately cease."

"Good to hear," Sebastian said, leaning back in his chair.

"Also, the Cardassian’s petition has passed muster; you may sign off on it if you wish."

"Gladly," Sebastian said. "I'd rather have them on my side for a change." He submitted the approval. "What else?"

"A report from Ligalus II," Janet said.

"Oh yes, I'd almost forgotten." Ligalus II was an ideal world for growing Bacta, a commodity that had a great deal of trouble finding its way into this part of the galaxy. Sebastian had sent a delegation to invite them to join the Alliance to see that to fruition. "How's it going?"

Janet cleared her throat. "Not well, prefect." She paused a moment. "The Ligali have kidnapped one of the delegates."

"What?"

"Apparently as a matter of 'personal honor,' prefect."

Sebastian shook his head. "Well yeah, it would be, wouldn't it."

"And according to their sacred laws, the two must battle to the death."

"Oh Christ..." Sebastian pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Any attempts to intervene will be construed as a matter of cultural dishonor and the negotiations will certainly fail."

Sebastian shook his head slowly, his hand never moving. "I hate this kriffing quadrant," he muttered.

"How would you like to proceed, prefect?"

"Have the Enterprise blow up one of their moons, let's see if they change their minds." He caught her look. "I'm kidding... for now. Get me whatever voodoo witch doctor is in charge of these idiots right now; I'll handle this personally."

Janet hesitated. "Respectfully, prefect, perhaps waiting-"

"Now, Janet," Sebastian said sharply. He sat down in his chair; a few minutes later an image of a buff man appeared on the holoprojector. "Greetings. I'm Sebastian Skywalker, Prefect of the Alliance."

"I am Lord High Nishiba, undisputed master of the Ligali and the voice of the Thousand Ancestors."

"I'm very happy for you," Sebastian said. "I assume you know why I contacted you."

"My Third has challenged one of your people in a matter of honor," Nishiba said. "I trust you will respect our ways... I am told that the Alliance has a policy of not interfering."

"My delegate will be returned immediately," Sebastian said flatly. "Failure to comply will be construed as an act of war."

"If you force us to return him, then we will have no treaty." Nishiba had a smug grin. "It would be a shame if that were to happen."

Sebastian put an unpleasant smile on his face. "It would... considering that you are surrounded by us on all sides."

"Is that a threat, prefect?"

"Merely an observation," Sebastian said. "After what has happened to my delegate, it is obvious to me that the Ligali are a threat to my people, thus you will be prohibited from entering Alliance space. What's more, given the outrageous treatment of our dignitaries-"

"The treatment is in full keeping with our laws and the ways of our ancestors!"

"But not ours," Sebastian said. "We'll try to understand you, you try to understand us. You are free to run around and kill each other to your heart's content, but I will not tolerate you endangering my citizenry. Now, as I was saying, given the outrageous treatment of our dignitaries, I will also refuse all ships to enter your space, to ensure no further problems happen."

"But you cannot do that!" Nishiba declared. "We would have no means to trade!"

"Then I guess it's in your best interest to form a treaty with us," Sebastian said.

Nishiba growled at him. "You are not an honorable man."

"Coming from someone who sees diplomats as targets, I'll take that as a compliment. Now this is real simple, Nishiba: you return my delegate, unharmed, immediately. You apologize on behalf of your government, publicly, and state that this was all a matter of cultural confusion. We will graciously accept your apology. After that, all will be forgiven... you can choose not to join the Alliance, and we won't hold it against you." Sebastian leaned forward menacingly. "But if you try to play politics with me, Nishiba, I'll slap you so hard your ancestors will get dizzy."

Nishiba's sneer said everything. "I will take the matter under advisement," he rumbled.

Sebastian smiled like a tiger. "You do that," he said, then cut the transmission. "See?" he said to Janet, "that was controlled. I didn't even call him names."

"You remain an inspiration, prefect," Janet said, and Sebastian laughed. He needed it. "The surgery is scheduled for within the hour. Is there anything you'd like to do to prepare?"

Sebastian looked over at his cane, picked it up, and held it for a while. "My leg hurts," he said eventually. "Every day. Nothing I can't endure, but it always aches." He looked over to Janet. "Yet this never crossed my mind. I- I just want to be human, Janet..." He covered his face with his hand. "I just want to be like everyone else."

Janet came over and took his hand away. "But you're not," she said. "You have a special gift..." She hesitated. "And you are a special man. So kind, so generous, so caring... you are the most human being I've ever met. It has been an honor to be your confidante." She held his hand between her own. "Let me help you feel human one more time."

Sebastian looked into her face. "I don't love you," he said finally.

Janet's eyes flicked away, just for a moment. "I know," she said quietly. "That doesn't mean I can't still help you." He was about to speak, but she put a finger to his lips. "You are the most selfless man I've ever met... you always give to everyone who needs a little piece of you." She seemed almost teary-eyed as she looked into his face. "Why won't you ever accept anything back? Why won't you ever let someone else show you just a little of the compassion you have for all of us?"

Sebastian's breath trembled. "I'm so scared," he said, trying to hold his emotions in.

"Of the surgery?"

He gasped. "Of you."

She looked down, then kissed him gently. "You don't have to love me, Bastian," she said. "Just let me show you how special I think you are, how important," she forced a pained smile to her face, "how absolutely wonderful. No strings, no obligations, no guilt... just a gift from me to you to say thank you for all you've done for us." She looked pleadingly into his eyes. "If you'll give up a leg for me, isn't this the least I could do?"

Sebastian's jaw trembled, then he pushed Janet aside with his cane. She covered her face so he wouldn't see her. He activated the comm. "Yes, Sebastian?" the Queen said.

"The surgery," he said. "Have your drones standing by... I may be delayed." Janet looked up at him.

"How long?"

"I'm not sure," Sebastian said, taking Janet's hand. "I don't want to rush this." He offered her a smile. "Some human things need to take their time."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven looked over the program one last time, then nodded. "It's ready."

Janeway looked over her shoulder at it. "You're sure?" she asked. "We'll only get one chance to catch them off guard, Seven. There can't be any chance of failure."

"Don't worry, Kathryn," Seven said. "I know the Borg almost as well as they know themselves." She transferred the data into one of her memory engrams. "If I can infect the Queen with this, it will be just like the citadel all over again... she's connected on the same level."

Janeway smiled at her, but it didn't seem to have the warmth it used to. Probably the weight of all the dead, Seven thought grimly. Well, hopefully, today they'll finally get a little bit of justice. "Anything I can do to help?" Janeway asked.

"No," Seven said. "This is the part I have to do alone." Then she closed her eyes, activated her implants, and linked up to the Collective consciousness.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian limped into the chamber, hand in hand with Janet. She knew how hard this was going to be and had offered to stay with him throughout the procedure, to help give him the strength to see this through. He was grateful. The drones turned to him as he came in; the Queen was also present. "This will be painless," she assured him.

"Thank you," he said. He sat on the uncomfortable table and laid back, a lump in his throat. "When- Whenever you're ready." He squeezed Janet's hand; she squeezed back.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The familiar sensation of being one with the Borg came over Seven, and just as quickly vanished. She was kneeling on a white plane in nowhere, the Borg Queen standing before her. "Seven," she said as pleasantly as a Borg could. "Have you returned with more information? Or did you wish to enquire on the well-being of your son?"

Seven looked up and glared at her. That face... she hadn't seen that face in years, but it was forever burned into memory from that final moment, when she'd connected to the Collective in the Borg citadel. She'd been full of pain and grief and anger at the time; she'd lost Luke, and it was all because of them! First they took away her humanity, and then they took away her only love. Her life was empty... so empty that she did nothing but fill it with work, so that she didn’t have to think about him... and all the loneliness and heartache was their fault! She snarled and leapt, drew back her fist and plunged it into the Borg Queen's head.

The Queen screamed... and then, so did the Collective.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian jumped as the Queen cried out. The drones didn't; instead they began shaking about like they'd suddenly lost all control. "What's happening?" he demanded, but no one answered. On instinct he jerked out of the way as a drone struck the table hard, his surgical limb flailing around.

"Watch out!" Janet warned, and grabbed the limb. Of course he was watching out, he had the Force! But she didn't, nor did she have Borg strength, so all she did was hold on for the ride as it swung around. The limb pulled loose, and the barbed edge drove straight into her neck.

Sebastian screamed in horror and grabbed her before Janet fell. Blood ran down her body as she sputtered and went pale. He put his hand on the wound, but it was too late. She looked up into his face and mouthed two words. Love you. And then she was gone.



Chuck

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Part XLVII


Seven's eyes opened and she breathed deeply, as if she'd been hiding underwater for a long while. In the last moment, her thoughts and the Queen's had become one... and she had suddenly learned that she had just made a very serious mistake. She turned and looked at the Oracle with horror. "You- you lied to me."

"Given your counterpart's attitude, it seemed necessary," the Oracle said, without any sign that she cared.

"How can you be a Sith?" Seven said, her expression betraying just how frightened and disgusted she was at the prospect.

"I really don't have time for this," the Oracle said, turning away. Seven marched up and grabbed her shoulder, yanking her around. The Oracle's eyes flared and Seven was thrown across the room into the opposite wall. "I mean it," she said darkly.

"You used me," Seven said, voice trembling in accusation. "The Borg were helping people. Finally, something good had come from them, something benevolent, and you used me to destroy them!"

"This isn't your universe," the Oracle said. "It's none of your concern."

"You made it my concern when you brought me here!" Seven shouted.

"I'm afraid," the Oracle gestured at the monitors, "that you have your own problems to worry about."

Seven got up and looked at the monitors. It was her ship, the Visage, near the anomaly Mara had been telling her about. "What is it?"

"The pandimensional distortion I used to trade your mind with your counterpart's," the Oracle said. "It's still there, still a way back." She turned to Seven. "Unfortunately, it's moving through space, on a heading of 147 mark 2, and it's accelerating. Eventually it will even exceed the light speed barrier itself and be flying across the galaxy."

147 mark 2... oh no! "Kathryn, you can't do this!"

"I can," the Oracle said. "Of course, I can always choose not to."

"When it-"

"I know," the Oracle said. "And so do you. Unfortunately, while you devoted yourself to exploration, well- this universe's Seven actually married Luke. She didn’t have all that bottled up sexual energy you had to motivate her." She shook her head. "In a way I'm actually proud of her. Even now, in your universe, she's been only thinking about trying to rekindle her lost relationship, instead of recognizing the real threat that's facing them. So very human, really... Of course, even if she did actually pay attention, she doesn't have your experience. I seriously doubt she'll put it together, and even if she somehow managed it, she can't stop it."

"Please, Kathryn," Seven begged, "don't do this."

"I won't," the Oracle said. "If you'll help me." She walked face to face with Seven, and now the displaced Borg could see the evil that lined that familiar face. "We finish what you've started," she said darkly. "Then you go back, the door closes, and everything is fine. Otherwise..." She just left the implication there.

Seven looked again at the monitors; it somehow made it easier to say the words. "Okay," she said like someone selling their soul. "Okay, I'll help you."
--------------------------------------------------------------

There was a pop and hissing sound, then something like a subsonic hum that cycled away into silence. Several technicians remained on hand, even though it seemed like the device had worked. Annika still stood in that stock-still regeneration pose of hers while Commander Greiss looked on. He had medical personnel and stormtroopers standing by to cover the range of things that could possibly go wrong. Luke and Mara, of course, were on hand as well. "Captain?" Greiss asked. There was no response. "Captain?"

Annika's eyes opened, then swiveled slowly until she was looking at him. She smiled and said, "Nfgha herdigaba. Hyn fun tiyn gree fnbrrrrr-" and she collapsed in place like a marionette whose strings were cut.

Luke and Mara were there in an instant. Luke had passed his knowledge of Vulcan mental techniques on to his wife over the years, so that she knew almost as much as he did by now. Together they reached into her mind to see if they could help. Finally Luke got up and turned to the commander. "She should be fine," he said. "We don't sense any damage, just information overload. Her mind needs time to process it."

Greiss nodded. "Suggestions?"

Luke shrugged. "Let her rest somewhere comfortable. Mara and I can take turns monitoring her, in case things get worse, but I think she'll come out of it on her own."

Greiss nodded grimly. "Hopefully with an answer to whatever the hell is going on," he said, then turned and left, along with the entourage.

"She got lucky," Mara said, looking Annika over. "It was a damn stupid risk; I told her it was a damn stupid risk." She stood up as two crewmen with a hovering gurney came in and returned Annika to her quarters. Mara insisted that she handle things from there; that her friend deserved a little bit of privacy as she was readied for bed. The truth was she couldn't forget what she'd seen during that time of looking in Annika's head. It was Luke and her son, everywhere. All her thoughts were on them... and she hadn't had a chance to see either in a very long time. No wonder she went after Mara's Luke, she thought; it must have been sheer torture to see him again like this.

Mara pulled the covers up over Annika, looked down at her, then crawled onto the bed and embraced her tightly. "I wasn't exaggerating, Seven," she whispered. "You're the sister I always wanted... I'd do anything to make you happy." She screwed her eyes shut. "Anything but that. I love him that much too." She rocked the sleeping woman. "But I wish I could." She laughed a little. "Sometimes I think that's the source of our marriage problems... that deep down, I feel guilty for taking him away from you." She squeezed Annika tight. "You two are the best things that ever happened to me," she said. "So you damn well better not die on me."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian sat in his office chair. He was still stained with Janet's blood... he didn't care. Romal stood nearby giving his report. "Some kind of virus," he said. "Very, very sophisticated. The Borg are fighting it, but it won't be easy for them. They've got to isolate themselves into smaller groups to manage it... which slows down their own progress."

Sebastian stared at his blood-stained hands. "How did it happen?"

Romal cleared his throat. "It's rather complicated-"

"How did it happen?" Sebastian said in a growl that would terrify a rancor.

Romal fidgeted. "Your mother connected to the Borg again. It was assumed that she was attempting to provide information, but it turns out someone else was inhabiting her body. They used it to upload the virus directly into the Queen, and naturally she unwittingly passed it on to the entire Collective."

Rust. That was the color of his hands. Dried blood turns to rust. "How is that possible?"

"The Queen's thoughts were one with the occupant," Romal said. "The Oracle apparently-"

"The Oracle," he rumbled. It always came back to her. Was there any pain in his life that didn't start with her? Was there any person he'd lost that hadn't in some way fallen because of her?

Don't become attached. Attachment opens the door to loss, and loss means pain. Pain begets anger, sorrow, hate... in time, it overwhelms. The darkness stands over you, waiting, watching, laughing. It hurts you, goads you, and then it tells you to hurt someone else, that maybe you can stop the pain if you spread it around enough, as if it's a zero sum game and your loss is my gain. The only way to avoid it is not to play, so don't make attachments.

Rust...

"Where is she?"

"Janet?" Romal asked.

"The Oracle!"

"We don't know, prefect-"

"Then find her!" he shouted. "We have probe droids looking, do we not?"

"Yes, but the galaxy's a very big place, and the Borg cannot monitor the data any more. Their work on the pod has slowed substantially, and they're barely able to navigate their own ships."

"Then we do whatever we have to," Sebastian said. "But we will find her. I have an Eclipse-class star destroyer with her kriffing name on it!"

Apparently Romal had a cold, because he cleared his throat again. "Respectfully-"

"Don't say 'respectfully,' just get on with it!"

"Your aunt tried that exact same thing," Romal pointed out. "That obviously didn't work."

"This time it will."

"And if it doesn't?" Romal asked.

"It will!"

Romal stared at him. "I am not cut out for this," he said finally. "I'm a medvac chasing lawyer who thought this was a chance for some easy contract law money. Managing an empire, triumphing over evil, and saving the universe are a million light-years away from where my abilities lie. Janet's gone, the Queen's struggling to keep the Collective from falling... if you don't get a grip on yourself so you can hold it together, Bastian, then there's no one else left. The Alliance will fall-"

"Let it," Sebastian grumbled.

"And the Vong will win."

"So what."

"And so will the Oracle."

"I don't care."

Romal nodded. "And Janet will have died for nothing."

...rust...

"I didn't love her," Sebastian said quietly. "Not in that sense, anyway. We were intimate, but... she was a friend, a very dear one to me."

"Love you," she said in his memory. Sebastian covered his eyes and wept for someone who loved him so much she'd die for him... You weren't my lover, he said in his mind, but you have no idea how much I needed you, how much I cared for you, how much I wish that maybe you could have been what you wanted to be.

Go to the Vong planet, Bastian. Do what you have to do there. Then it'll be better. All the pain will finally be gone. Finish it, then you and Jorri and Janet and father and all the others can be together again and you won't have to hurt any more. You won't be alone there... finally, you can just be like everybody else...
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika opened her eyes, saw Mara, and didn't bother with pleasantries. "Get my clothes, assuming I'm not still in them."

"Seven, how are-"

"No time," Annika said firmly, getting up out of bed. "I have to check the data, but I have the feeling I've figured out what the Oracle's done, and if so then we're running out of time." Mara helped her out, and minutes later Annika was back in her uniform and marching through the halls of the Visage, Mara at her side. Luke quickly caught up.

"Captain's on the-"

"As you were," she said quickly, marching up to Greiss. "The anomaly is accelerating, right?"

"Yes," he said, a little surprised.

"Project it's heading for me." They stepped over to one of the stations while one of the crewmen did so. A diagram of space appeared. "And where's the wormhole."

The image appeared, and Greiss turned to her in surprise. "It's going to intersect the wormhole."

"Exactly."

"I take it that's bad," Mara said.

"You could say that," Annika said with a shake of her head. "It's... complicated."

"Try me," Greiss said.

"There isn't time," Annika said.

"I think there is, captain," Greiss said. His tone made it clear there was no room for argument.

Annika wrung her hands. "Okay, all right, um, look, this is just an analogy, see, but think of it in terms of energy states." She grabbed a datapad. "I put this on the floor, low energy state. I put it on the desk, high energy state. The datapad falls," she pushed it off and it hit the deck, "energy release."

"I take it we're the datapad," Luke said.

"No, the anomaly is the datapad." She picked it up again. "It hits, energy is released. You see, the wormhole is a bridge not just through space-"

"But through time," Greiss finished, starting to grasp it.

"Exactly. Think of them as different energy states in time." She saw Greiss' expression. "It's just an analogy," she reminded him. "If you want I can put some engrams in your brain so you can thoroughly understand it, but for right now you'll just have to accept this. When the anomaly and the wormhole intersect, both ends are going to have a catastrophic release of... temporal energy if you will. The detail's not important, just that it's enough to destroy at least both galaxies, if not more."

"Then we'll need to destroy the anomaly," Greiss said.

"Too dangerous, you could destroy this galaxy and the one in my own universe, and possibly several others along the way."

"What about destroying the wormhole?" Luke asked.

"It's our fallback plan," Annika said. "But even if you do the... residue, for lack of a better term, will still be there. We can save one galaxy that way, but I don't know which it will be... it’s sickening, but that is the least damaging scenario so far. Fortunately, there is one other possibility."

"Which is?"

"If this anomaly was made by the Oracle, then she should have the technology to stop it. If you can get me back into my own body, I can try to do that."

"And I take it you have a plan for this?" Greiss asked.

"Yes," Annika said. "I do."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika was dressed in one of Mara's combat suits, altered on short notice by the ship's tailor. Hopefully it wouldn't be necessary, but if the initial plan failed, she might need it. She finished the preflight check on the shuttle she'd be taking to the anomaly, hopefully to switch her mind back with the Seven who was currently in her body. She looked down at the body-hugging combat suit. Pity, she thought, I'm going to miss looking this good.

Mara would be coming along for the ride. The transfer would require someone with strong telepathic abilities, and since she had experience passing through multiple universes, she was the most logical choice. Luke didn't like it much, but he agreed to let her go. Mara ran into Annika as the latter was exiting the shuttle. "You're all set? Want to bring any souvenirs back with you?"

"I think I'm good," Annika said.

"Well, just in case, there's something Luke and I both want you to have." Mara shrugged a little. "A little something to remember us by."

"I'm not sure I can actually bring anything with me."

"Won't hurt to try," Mara said. "Oh, I left it with Luke; go get it for me, would you? I need to get my mind prepped for this."

Annika walked back towards the exit, but Luke ambushed her and pulled her into a storage room. Before she could protest he was kissing her, passionately, like he always did in her memories. She felt his hand slide up her back, along her neck, and to the back of her head, and then... and then, in her mind, she made love to him again. It wasn't real... but it was close enough for someone who had been without her husband for so long.

Luke released her. "It was Mara's idea," he said. "Thanks for helping us."

Annika stared at him, her mouth still slightly parted. "I'm so glad you have someone as wonderful as her, Luke," she said. "Don't ever let her go."

Luke embraced her one last time, and she left and returned to the shuttle. Minutes later they were approaching the entrance to the anomaly. A tractor beam from the Visage held them as they eased into position just outside the mouth. Mara and Annika stared at it as it filled the window. "Well," Mara said, "let's see if this works?" She reached over, put her hands on Annika's head, and concentrated.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven gasped, and the Oracle's lab vanished. She looked up and saw... herself. "Seven?" Annika asked.

"Yes?"

"I'm your counterpart-"

"I know. The anomaly-"

"I know." They both paused. "Not the most efficient way of communicating, is it?"

"No," Seven agreed. Hesitantly, they reached out, and information flowed back and forth between them, and with them, ideas were proposed and rejected, new plans emerged, and suddenly-

"That could work," Annika said aloud.

“It’d be dangerous,” Seven warned.

“We’ve no choice, both for your galaxy and mine.”

"Just fly safely," Seven said, “that’s my body you’re in after all.” She hesitated. "I envy you," she said. "You lost so much..."

Annika noddded. "But it was only because I had so much in the first place." She breathed heavily. "But you're lucky to have Luke and Mara in your life... they're... very good people."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika opened her eyes. "It's what I was afraid of," she said. "We're too far; we're going to have to fly into the anomaly if we're going to pull this switch."

Mara nodded and grabbed the controls while Annika contacted the Visage. The tractor beam vanished and they flew inside, down a tunnel of pure white light. "I have no idea what I'm doing," Mara said.

"At least we're in the same boat," Annika said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

An alarm sounded, and the Oracle looked up with a frown. With a thought the monitors came on, and she observed the Imperial shuttle. "Well well well," she said. "It seems I underestimated you, Seven. You're either very, very smart or very, very stupid." She activated the controls on a sinister looking device. "But I suppose it doesn't really matter." She smiled that frog-like grin and hit the button, and the machine made a sound like lightning.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Uh-oh," Mara said.

"What?" Annika asked, but then she saw it coming. It was a massive ripple in the light of the tunnel, and it was heading their way very quickly. "Uh-oh," she agreed.

"Better hang on," Mara said, gripping the controls more firmly. The ripple reached the shuttle, and it was tossed about end over end in the wake. Alarms rang out as Mara struggled to regain control of the ship, while Annika watched helplessly as they tumbled. They were approaching the boundary...

"-are a cowardly and superstitious lot-"

"Mara," Annika said, "you've got to keep us away from the edges, or-"

"Hey cool! They got a blimp!"

"-or else we'll get seriously lost!" Annika finished.

"We've done the impossible and that makes us mighty."

Mara struggled. "I'm trying," she said.

"-open the pod bay doors-"

Annika gripped the arms of her chair, her eyes screwed shut.

"-I shall send wave after wave of my own men-"

"Hang on!" Mara said. "Here's comes another one!" The ship was knocked about again-

"-and this, is the longest day of my life-"

"Mara..." Annika said slowly, in warning.

"-can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with-"

"I'm trying, Seven," Mara said through her teeth.

"-or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm-"

Annika saw the next pulse coming.

"You called us the Overlords, not knowing the irony of that title."

Mara looked up and saw it too.

"-we're on a satellite, this place is crawling with toothpicks-"

The ripple struck, and the shuttle was knocked aside again, spinning like a top as it did.

"-there ain't no justice-"

And Mara and Annika weren't in the shuttle any more, they were tumbling through the air over a meadow. And the last thing Annika saw before she fell unconscious was an arch across the sky.



Chuck

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