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Quote of the Week: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." - Will Durant, American historian (1885-1981)


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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-21 07:54am
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Part XLVIII


Annika groaned and opened her eyes. She was looking at a clear blue sky... with an arch across it. "There's something you don't see every day," she mumbled.

Mara moaned and sat up. "What is that thing?"

"Well," Seven mused, "it's probably what we're on right now: a ringworld." She turned to Mara, but there was an expression of fear on it. "What's wrong?"

"The Force," Mara said fearfully. "I can't feel the Force."

"You okay?"

"Yes," Mara closed her eyes and seemed to concentrate. "Yes, it's just... just a little disorienting, but I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes," Mara said. "It's just going to take some time to get used to, but I lived without it for a long time." Mara looked at Annika's face, and her eyes widened. "Seven," she said in surprise, "your implants."

Annika reached up and touched above her eye and felt only flesh; then she looked at the hand and saw it was devoid of components. She took a panicked breath and made a fist, but nothing happened. No assimilation tubules emerged, no implants formed, nothing. She was human, fully human.

Annika wept bitterly.

"Seven?" Mara said.

"She took a part of me away," she said in grief. It was like she'd woken up and discovered someone had stolen a kidney. She stood up and shouted at the sky. "God damn you, Janeway!!! GOD DAMN YOU!!!"

"Seven," Mara said. "Calm down. So you're not a Borg any more. I'd thought you'd be thrilled."

Annika whirled around and looked in her eyes with rage. "Being a Borg is what I am!" she insisted. "She's violated my soul, Mara!" She grabbed onto Mara and cried hard on her shoulder. You finally did it, she thought bitterly. It took you more than a quarter century, captain, but you did it. You turned me into a human... and I hope to God I'll get the chance to kill you for it!

"You okay?" Mara asked eventually. Annika withdrew and nodded, wiping at the tears. "How'd she do this?"

"We're... immersed in the multiverse, you might say," Annika said. "We're on the shuttle in the anomaly, but we're also here." Mara stared blankly. "The anomaly cuts through the multiverse, that's where our shuttle -and us- is right now. But by putting us off course, we've in essence been dumped into the adjacent universes as well, universes where I was never assimilated and you never became a Jedi. But we're also still on the shuttle."

Mara stared. "Magic, got it."

"What it means," Annika said, "is that when the shuttle moves through the anomaly, we're going to be pulled along with it, out of the universe we're currently in and into the next." A wave of nausea passed through them; it was similar to what Annika had experienced when she and Captain of Nine had been switched, except compressed. She opened her eyes, they weren’t on the ringworld any more, they were in some... some very unpleasant place.

“I can feel the Force again,” Mara said. Annika quickly checked her hand; the familiar metal was there, much to her relief, although the sight of this place took a bit of the enjoyment out of it.

“New universe,” Annika said. “It looks like our form is dependent upon the reality we’re in.”

Mara looked down. “Pity I don’t have my lightsaber, though,” she said. “Still, an unarmed Jedi is better than nothing. The question is, where the hell are we?”

There was a very dark and bass laugh that answered.

Annika swallowed and grew a plasma discharger. “Well, that was comforting.”

“Look,” Mara said, pointing at the approaching figure. “Is that a Borg?”

Annika strained her eyes. There was the inhuman skin, the black outfit- Her breath froze as the figure’s face came out of the shadows. “No Borg I’d ever want to meet,” she whispered.

The being was bald, and his entire head and face was covered with pins. He stopped, one corner of his mouth lifted just a tad, just enough to offer an expression of minor amusement. “Mara,” he said in a deep, unnatural voice, then looked at Annika. “Annika. We have such sights to show you.”

Annika and Mara glanced over at each other. “He’s not half as scary-looking as his Force aura is,” Mara said under her breath to her.

“Who are you?” Annika asked.

“An explorer, Annika,” the Cenobite said, “just like you used to be. Before you became the wife of a dark man and bore a child who lost everything.”

Annika’s breath quickened. “How do you know that?”

“Because I can see your pain,” he answered in that chilling voice of his. He turned to Mara. “And you... looking back on what you did, the many crimes you committed when you took a name you now scorn. You caused such suffering... but you remain an amateur.”

“What- what kind of explorer are you?” Annika asked nervously.

“Not of space or time. Those, child, are trivial. We are explorers of the boundaries of experience... pleasure and pain, agony and ecstasy, and you will both learn the two are one in the same.”

“Thanks all the same,” Mara said, clearly as frightened as Annika felt. “We’ll pass.”

“Your fear is expected,” the Cenobite said. “Yet you cover it with transparent efforts at confidence. You will learn to abandon this insubstantial cloak and speak only of what fills your mind and heart and flesh.” The word seemed to make the room even chillier. “Time... to play.”

Mara leapt aside as a chain shot out of the darkness at her. She jumped again and again, staying one step ahead of them. Annika pointed her plasma discharger at the Cenobite and fired repeatedly, but the green blasts did nothing when they connected. A chain shot out, and now Annika knew there was a sharpened fishhook on the end, because it dug into her hand and yanked it up and out. She let out a small scream at the pain as it pulled, digging in deeper, and she was unable to escape it. She suddenly felt herself bound from behind. “Mara!” she cried. “Help me!” But it seemed to take everything Mara had to stay ahead of the chains herself; and there seemed an endless number of them.

The Cenobite stepped in front of Annika, face to hideous face. “No more time for words, child, there is only flesh, and pain, and screams.” Annika trembled, more terrified than she’d ever been in her entire life. “And oh how you will scream.”

Nausea struck, and suddenly Annika wasn’t there any more. She had to resist the urge to weep with relief. She quickly looked about to get her bearings; she was in a flight suit in the rear of a two-man fighter craft of some kind in deep space. “Mara?”

“Roger that,” Mara said from the front seat. “I’ve got a handle on this thing, don’t worry; handles just fine. I can’t sense the Force any more though.”

“Anything to be out of that nightmare,” Annika commented. Her hand still hurt from where she’d been wounded, so intense was the pain-

Nervously, Annika pulled the glove off her right hand, and looked. The wound was still there, and her breath trembled at the thought. “Mara,” she said, “something else important to know: we are being physically moved through these dimensions. If you get injured or killed, it’s for real.”

“Understood,” Mara said. “Then let’s try not to wind up back in that creep’s dimension, okay?”

“No argument here,” Annika said.

“Eagle 2 this is TCS Victory,” came the voice over the comm. “You are cleared for landing.”

“Roger Victory,” Mara said, bringing the ship in. The Victory seemed to be a long carrier vessel, with openings at both ends for fighters to take off and land; it seemed a simple enough procedure, and Mara handled it without requiring any assistance from Annika, giving her time to think about what was going on.

The fighter pulled to a halt, and Mara and Annika pulled off their helmets. They climbed out of the ship; mechanics were already running over to check it out. "Good job," came a very familiar voice. "A little more flying like that and the Kilrathi won't stand a chance."

They turned, and as one their eyes bugged out. "Luke?" they said.

Christopher Blair looked at them oddly. "'Scuse me?"

"I-" Mara verbally stumbled, but Annika rallied.

"Sorry, you know how it is when you work with someone a lot; you develop your own telegraph speech."

Blair nodded. "Understood. Keep up the good work." He turned and looked at a checklist someone handed him while Mara and Annika stared.

"It's uncanny," Mara said.

"Except he's a little more... seasoned," Annika said.

"Rugged," Mara agreed.

"His bearing."

"His eyes."

"I hope we spend a lot of time in this universe," Annika mused.

"Me too," Mara added.

"Uh-uh," Annika said with a small smile, eyes never leaving him. "You're married... I'm afraid that I'm the one stuck with this chiseled specimen."

"He looks a lot like him," Mara said. He turned around and bent over to inspect the landing gear; the two women slowly tilted their heads to the right.

"Just like him," they said together.

"Would it really count as cheating?" Mara mused.

"Don't even think about it," Annika said. "You get Luke in every universe; this guy's definitely targeted for assimilation."

"That's true," Mara said, turning to Annika and looking her over. "Here, take the flight jacket off; you look about as sexy as a hydrospanner." She quickly started whipping Annika into shape, but suddenly Annika stopped.

"Wait, what are we doing? We've got to figure out a way-"

"Yeah, shifting realities and all that. You have any ideas?"

"Well-"

"Didn't think so," Mara said. "Face it, it's in the other Seven's hands now, which means we're just along for the ride, and that means..." She cocked her head and grinned. "...you're going over there so I can live vicariously through you."

Annika nodded, then panicked. "What do I do?"

"Flirt."

"How do I do that?"

"Well how did you get Luke's attention in your universe?"

"I beat the shit out of a Wookiee."

Mara gave a half-shrug. "Okay, think we'll have to improvise." Just then a huge, hairy, feline-like humanoid walked by. "That's not what I meant," she said, grabbing Annika's arm before she could move. "You never flirted?"

"Look, by that time Luke and I were already in love," Annika said. "Then it was a no brainer. I don't know what to think."

"You don't have to think, you have boobs," Mara said, grabbing Annika and pointing her in Blair's direction. "Once more unto the breach," she said with a shove.

Blair looked up as Annika stumbled to a halt in front of him. "Lieutenant," he said. "Something on your mind?"

Annika grinned nervously and ran her fingers through her hair. "Yes, commander," she said. Fortunately her eidetic memory was natural talent, so the details she'd overheard were picked up. "I just wanted to thank you for noticing me out there."

Something was working apparently, because he leaned against the ship and seemed to take notice. "Well it was hard to miss," he said in slightly more syrupy tones. Behind her, Mara gestured in triumph.

"I do try," she said. There was an uncomfortable silence. "So, um..." Say something! "I-" Anything! "I have boobs." Mara grabbed her head in both hands.

"'Scuse me?" Blair said.

Annika turned crimson. "I- I- I-"

Suddenly the nausea hit, and she and Mara were sitting in chairs in a Federation control room. Mara glared at her, and when she spoke, her voice was a low rumble of disgusted disbelief. "'I have boobs.'" Annika cringed a little in embarrassment. "And I was actually afraid you'd seduce Luke?"

"That line would work on Luke," Annika said defensively.

Mara shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I can't argue with that." She adjusted the Starfleet uniform and looked at the readout. "At least we're somewhat closer to home this time. Let's-" She cut herself off.

"What?" Annika asked.

"No," Mara whispered. "Not here."

"Mara," Annika said sternly.

"Lieutenant," came a gruff voice, "what's the status of our Borg prisoner?"

Mara turned back to the controls and tapped some commands. "Not well, admiral."

"Put her on screen," Admiral Montgomery said. Mara hesitated, then complied.

Annika's eyes bugged out. It was her. Exhausted, emaciated, suffering, and left in a Starfleet holding cell. Her breath froze in her throat as she looked into her own eyes, and saw the long days of abuse reflected there.

"She seems to be holding up," the admiral remarked, then turned and strode off. Mara quickly removed the image.

"I'm sorry you had to see that," Mara said sincerely.

Words could not describe what Annika was feeling. "You knew?" she finally asked.

"I- I passed through this reality before," Mara said.

Annika looked down at her shaking hands. "What happened?"

Mara couldn't look at her. "This universe, there was no wormhole."

"That's it?" Annika said in shock. "That's all?"

"That was the difference," Mara said. "It took Voyager seven years to get home instead of five, after using some Borg whatchamajig to make it the last leg." She swallowed. "But there's a Borg virus that's been released, turning people into drones. You were taken into custody because..."

"Because I am Borg," Annika said, fighting not to weep. "It's not as if I'm capable of feeling pain like real people do." She'd never forget those eyes. Annika had been a loyal, decorated Starfleet officer for years, had been entrusted to command, prepped to captain her own vessel! And this her was locked away with less regard than an animal would get. And it all turned on the presence or absence of Q's wormhole. One toss of the coin, and that could have been her. "Will she die?" Annika asked, her voice shaking.

"No," Mara assured her.

"'I saw realities where you were locked up by the Federation like the freak of nature you are,'" Annika whispered, quoting the barbs of Darth Whind from their encounter on Vulcan. It was one thing to know it in the abstract, but another to witness it. "Why am I even bothering to fight?"

"Seven," Mara said, "let me tell you something. This is the reality the Oracle wanted to create. Here she gets to be Admiral Janeway; she doesn't care that this would be your fate. You're fighting because if this woman has her way then she'll cause countless people to suffer like this, because she has no regard for anyone but herself."

Annika closed her eyes and nodded. “You’re right... live with how things are, not how they might have been.” She called the image of herself up again on the monitor and tried to see if there was something she could do to help, but then the nausea hit... the other her was on her own.

They were in a house, a primitive one. Annika looked around and did an assessment. “Twentieth century, Earth. The intersection isn’t temporally consistent.”

“Makes sense, I suppose,” Mara said. “Hello!” she called. There was no answer. “Anyone here?!”

“Looks like it’s just us,” Annika said. She started looking things over. Fortunately she’d spent enough time in Tom Paris’ various holo-fantasies to be familiar with the nuances of this time period. She turned on the television; it declared that an emergency was in progress and to wait for further instructions. “Well, this is probably not a good sign.”

“What do you suppose...” But she stopped at the sound of footsteps on the wooden porch outside. She crept to the door and peered out; she put a hand over her mouth as she let out a noise of horror. “Seven,” she squeaked, “I definitely don’t think it’s a good sign.”

Annika stepped over and looked out, and gaped. The man on the porch had a hole clear through his chest you could lob a tennis ball through, yet still he was walking up the stairs. Slowly, sickly, but still he came. And beyond him, a horde more of people who looked similarly injured or just... just dead. “Lock the door,” she said. “Anything looking like that isn’t coming to offer us back massages.”

Mara tended to that while Annika looked about the closets. She found a hunting rifle and a box of ammunition; it’d do as a deterrent, assuming these things could even be deterred. She found a small radio also and slipped it into her pocket. “I found this,” she said to Mara as she came out into the main room. “A slugthrower; I figured I’d use it, I’ve had some experience with them.”

Mara nodded, then jumped at the loud thump that came from the door. “I’m not sure it’s going to do any good, Seven. I mean, that guy looks dead already... how do you kill something that’s dead?”

Annika loaded the rifle. “I don’t know. There seem to be rules in place to some of these realities that we don’t understand. A living body is so complex, it’s a wonder a creature would be capable of maintaining proper balance.” The banging got louder. “You may want to make yourself a heavy club,” she suggested. “They look pretty slow; at least just knocking them around could slow them down substantially if they manage to get through the door.”

There was a crashing sound, and Annika froze. Damn it! she thought as she kicked herself mentally. Twentieth century, no transparent aluminum! They can come through the windows! The huge windows in the main room burst inwards as the things tumbled inside. Mara grabbed a rocking chair and spun, sending three of them flying backwards under the impact, but she stumbled and fell. “This way!” Annika said, pointing to the stairs. It was a choke point; they could maybe buy some time.

Mara started for her, but one of the prone things grabbed her ankle and she fell over. She kicked back with the other leg, planting her foot firmly in its face, but it didn’t relent. It pulled forward and sunk its teeth into her calf, and Mara let out an agonized scream. Annika rushed over and helped her up, the creature still chewing the piece it had bit off Mara, apparently satisfied with that. Annika led the way to the stairs, pushing Mara to head up while she clubbed the things with the butt of the rifle. Mara limped up to the top and Annika quickly followed, but as she looked back she knew there were too many even to use this as a choke point. Mara must have realized it too; she had limped into a nearby room and Annika quickly followed, closing the door and locking it. Immediately she began pushing some furniture to help reinforce it while Mara took the sheets and made a quick field dressing for her leg. “Well,” she said through her teeth, “this has been fun.”

There was the sound of thumping on the other side of the door, but it seemed to be holding for the moment. Annika stumbled back and sat by Mara. “How you doing?” she asked.

“I’ve had worse,” Mara said. “Of course, ‘worse’ was being stabbed through the heart by my father-in-law.”

“Just hang on,” Annika said. “We’ve got to leave this dimension some time.” She pulled out the radio and switched it on, turning the dial to try and pick up a signal.

“-message number 7 of the Emergency Broadcast System. It appears that the bodies of the recently dead are returning to life and attacking the living.”

“Yeah, no shit,” Mara muttered, yanking the bandage tight.

“These creatures are to be considered extremely dangerous, especially when encountered in large numbers. They can be disposed of in only one known fashion: removing the head or destroying the brain.”

“At least it’s something,” Annika said. “We just sit tight, pick ‘em off one by one maybe, hope we get out of here and our troubles are over.”

“The condition is spread through the saliva of the attackers. This unknown force appears to infect the bitten victims, causing severe illnesses. There is no current treatment for such a condition.” Annika and Mara stared at one another. “Victims will eventually die and become one of the aggressors. It is vital that the injured be isolated from survivors to ensure they do not attack others once they succumb to infection.”

Mara’s breath trembled. “Well, hey, this is centuries ago, right? All we need is to just find a modern doctor and I’m sure it’s just one blast of a hypospray.”

Annika nodded, then turned away so Mara couldn’t see her expression. “I’m sure it’ll be just that easy,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. The door split and fell inwards, revealing a horde of the zombies. Annika got up, aimed carefully, and fired, shooting them in the heads one by one. She didn’t have her ocular implant to help, but at this range she was able to make due without it. She pumped the next shell into place and repeated it, again and again, until the gun clicked empty.

“Uh-oh,” Mara said, getting up. “That sounded bad.”

“Just give me a second,” Annika said, pulling out more shells and fitting them into the gun, but the mob was pushing the furniture out of the way now. Mara hopped over to a wooden chair, busted a leg off and used it to finish off one of the ones in front. “Got it,” Annika said, putting the gun to her shoulder and firing again, but it wasn’t going to be enough. There had to be dozens out there, and there weren’t enough shells-

Nausea hit, and thankfully they were elsewhere. Quickly Annika rushed over to Mara and dropped to her knees to check the wound. As she reached she saw metal on her hand. “Mara, we have our abilities back. Can you use the Force to try to deal with the infection?”

“I hope so,” Mara said. “How’s it look?”

Annika stared. It was an ugly wound, lined with black pustules. “Not good,” she admitted.

Mara shivered. “I don’t know if it’s the wound or not, but I really feel the Dark side here. It’s so dead.” Annika looked around and had to agree. They were in an alley, and the street beyond didn’t look all that promising.

“Late nineteenth, early twentieth century, from the look of things,” Annika commented. She crept to the corner, peered around it, and just as quickly ducked back. “Oh great,” she said under her breath.

“What is it?”

Annika shook her head. “An invasion.” And she glanced around the corner again, and watched the Tripods move through the city, annihilating anyone that crossed their path.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2006-06-21 07:55am
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Part XLVIII (cont'd)

Annika ducked into the make-shift shelter she’d constructed for her and Mara, a sack under her arm. “I brought some food,” she said. “Not a whole lot to choose from, I’m afraid, but better than nothing.”

Mara laid where she was, shivering, her skin pale and shining with sweat. It had been two days since they arrived in the midst of this alien invasion, and the conditions weren’t helping. Mara was strong, and she had the Force helping her, but even then the lack of even the most primitive antibiotics by these people meant that that was all she had going for her. “I’m not hungry,” Mara finally got out.

“I know, Mara,” Annika said with sympathy, “but you have to keep your strength up if you’re going to fight this.”

“Why?” Mara asked. “What’s the point? All I’m doing is delaying the inevitable...” She covered her face with her hands, shoulders shaking. She’d been through a lot of suffering the past couple days, and it had taken its toll.

“You’re gonna make it,” Annika said. “I promise, I’ll find a way to help you, but you’ve got to let me help you, okay? You’ve got to fight to stay alive.”

“I don’t want to fight any more,” Mara said quietly. “I’m just so sick... it hurts, Seven.” She started crying again. “You have no idea how much this hurts. I can feel myself de-decaying, feel through the Force the darkness spreading through me.”

Annika embraced her and rocked her gently. “I need you, Mara,” she begged quietly. “Please don’t make me do this alone.”

There was the sound of a Tripod nearby; under any other circumstances that’d be worrying, but Annika had been hoping for this opportunity. “Mara,” she said quickly, “the invaders are far more advanced than the locals; they should have medical kits or something on board their vehicles. I’m going to get one.”

“How?” Mara asked as Annika got up and headed for the entrance.

Annika turned and looked back; the ocular implant had been reconstructed. “I am Borg,” she said firmly, and left.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika ran up towards the Tripod; fortunately it was harvesting rather than annihilating, so the heat ray wasn’t being employed. As she approached a tentacle whipped down, scooped her up, and dropped her into a basket with a bunch of frightened people. The sight of her seemed to make things worse. “I’m a friend,” she said in what she hoped was a comforting voice. “I’m here to help you escape.” A plasma discharger formed on the back of the wrist on her left hand, spikes on the end of the fingers on her right. “I’ll be keeping them busy; you try to get away,” and she jumped, digging her spikes into the metallic underside of the Tripod’s main body. She pulled herself into position, enjoying the feel of her full strength again; after all this time of not having her Borg enhancements, it almost felt like she was superhuman. She turned and fired her plasma bolts, severing the connections of the basket; it dropped to the ground below. Some of the people would be injured or killed by the fall, but the invaders were killing them all anyway; at least this way they had a fighting chance.

Annika plunged her assimilation tubules into the skin of the Tripod, and the hatch opened. She quickly grabbed on and pulled herself inside. The invaders were shocked to say the least; they obviously didn’t anticipate a human boarding their craft. Annika hated to do it, but under the circumstances she couldn’t risk them overpowering her; it would mean almost certain death for Mara and herself. Besides, it was quite clear that these creatures had no regards for any life besides their own, so Annika felt little compassion for them. She eliminated them with a few shots of plasma, then began scouring the interior for the medical kit.

There wasn’t one.

Annika punched the wall in frustration. Not even antibiotics. What kind of idiot civilization invades an alien world without bringing along antibiotics? It was the first things on the checklist! For all their technology, these morons were all going to die of disease before they even had the chance to prop their feet up and enjoy the conquered Earth.

Annika climbed back out the bottom of the craft and slithered her way down to the ground. The people had already scattered; smart move, the loss of a Tripod would eventually draw others to investigate. She sprinted back towards their shelter and slipped inside. Thankfully Mara had taken her advice and eaten something. “Empty-handed, I see,” Mara commented, finishing off some juice.

“Our luck to be stuck on a planet being invaded by idiots,” Annika said, reabsorbing her implants and grabbing something to eat herself.

“Thanks for trying,” Mara said weakly. “Listen, about before... I’m not going to just give up, okay? I’m just...”

“I know, Mara,” Annika said. “I know how strong you are.” Before anything further could be said, the nausea hit. It was much worse this time, however, possibly because of how long they’d been stuck in this dimension. Whatever the reason, when Annika took in their surroundings, her head swam a little in the wake. It was particularly unpleasant because they were on the roof of a relatively tall building. Mara was stumbling, both from the effect of the shift and the infection spreading through her body. Annika glanced at her hand and cursed; no Borg implants, meaning Mara had no Force abilities to combat its spread. “Mara, let’s-“ She was horrified as Mara stumbled near the edge. “Mara, be careful!”

Mara screamed as she slipped and fell over the edge of the building. Annika ran over to the edge and looked down and-

And a streak of red and blue slipped by and caught her.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Mara looked up into the mask of her rescuer. “MJ, what are you doing here?” Spider-man asked.

Mara’s head was still groggy. “What?”

“MJ?”

“Go back... to the roof,” she finally got out. This was all confusing her too much. Without her Force ability to help her the infection was moving virtually unchecked through her body, clouding her mind. It was getting hard to think any more.

Spider-man hesitated, then went back and dropped onto the roof. He carried Mara over to an area away from preying eyes and pulled his mask off. “MJ, what’s going on?”

Mara tried to focus, but it was so hard. Why was he referring to her by her initials? “Who... who are you?”

Peter stared at her. “MJ, it’s me, it’s Peter... your husband.”

“Husband...” She tried to think.

“Yes,” he insisted.

Her head lolled. “My husband...” She tried to remember, but it was so hard. Her husband was... was special. Try to remember... “My husband can... can sense danger before it happens...”

“Right.”

“He’s fast, agile... can leap...”

“That’s right, MJ, it’s me.”

“After your uncle was murdered...”

“We’re going to have to get you to a doctor, MJ.” His spider-sense went off, and he got his mask on just in time as Annika came around the corner.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“What the hell’s going on?” Annika asked. “Mara, who is this?”

“It’s... my husband,” Mara said. Spider-man visibly stiffened at the words.

Annika looked between the two of them. “Mara, I really doubt that’s Luke under that costume.”

“Uniform,” Spider-man said.

“Yeah, just keep telling yourself that,” Annika said. “Mara, listen, you’re not thinking clearly.”

“Excuse me,” Spider-man said, “but I’ll take it from-“ He stopped as his cell phone rang. He looked at it, then at the two of them, then back at the phone. “’Scuse me,” he said, stepping around the edge of the building. Annika could still pick up the words despite the whispering. “Is this really you, MJ? No, no, just the usual. Probably clones or something, you know I’m a clone magnet. No, I haven’t seen a Skrull in a long time... well true, I could just be due then. No, I’ll take care of it, you have a good rehearsal.” He stepped back around the corner. “Well, let’s start this again. First of all, who are you, and why do you look like Mary Jane?”

Annika sighed. “Of all the universes, we have to stumble into one where your doppelganger married a circus performer.”

“Lady,” Spider-man said, “I’ve been to other dimensions, so before you say another word you better know that any bluff you pull is going to be called by experts.”

“You have experts on this?” Annika said, her pulse quickening. She was about to speak, but Mara stumbled a little, and she had to grab her to keep her up. “Listen to me,” she said quickly, “we’re being pulled through various universes, and she was seriously injured. Please, if you know someone who can help us, we need to contact them.”

Spider-man seemed to mull it over. “The worst part is that yours isn’t the craziest story I’ve heard this week,” he said, then tossed Mara over his shoulder and walked towards the edge of the roof. “I’ll take you to someone who can help you... or debunk you.”

“We may not have a lot of time,” Annika said.

“Then there’s only one way to travel,” he said, and before Annika could resist he threw her over his other shoulder and leapt off the roof. She screamed in horror, then felt the jerk and saw he was shooting cables out to connect with the buildings and using them to swing through the city at a rather impressive speed.

“You okay, Mara?” she asked.

Mara nodded. “The air’s clearing my head.” They looked around as the buildings and streets raced by around them. “Sensational.”

“Amazing,” Annika agreed.

“Please, please, I’m just your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Reed Richards finished looking at the computer readout. “This confirms it. There’s an anomaly all right, and I can barely make out that there’s a ship of some kind, right on the edge between it and our reality.”

Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm stood nearby with Spider-man. Grimm crossed his massive, rocky arms. “An anomaly that dumps beautiful women into ours... can you make a few more, Stretcho?”

“I hope the walking quarry isn’t what you meant by ‘expert,’” Annika said to Spider-man.

“Reed,” Spider-man said, “is there a way we can fly up there and put them back on their ship.”

“They’re already on the ship,” Reed said.

“Come again,” Grimm said.

“We’re up there,” Annika said, “but we’re also here.”

Johnny stared at her, then at Reed. “Huh?”

“They’re immersed in the multiverse,” Reed explained. “They’re on the shuttle physically, but they’re also here, physically.”

Spider-man, Ben, and Johnny stared at him. “Magic,” they said together, “got it.”

“What you need is some way to get your ship away from the boundary,” Reed said. “Then you will cease to exist anywhere but in the shuttle. As close as you are, reality is trying to force you-“

“-to exist properly in the reality rather than in the distortion,” Annika finished. “I know that.”

Reed nodded, impressed. “That would require a means of entering the distortion, which would be tricky. We’d need a small, light-weight craft, and anything like that’s going to require a pilot with a sturdy build.”

“That would be me,” Grimm said.

“He said light-weight, Thing,” Spider-man said.

“Hey, there’s no reason to call him that,” Annika said.

“’Thing’s’ my name,” Grimm said.

“Really?”

“Uh-huh.”

Annika nodded diplomatically. “Works for me.”

“Thanks,” Grimm said bitterly.

“Hey, I used to answer only if I was called the number seven, who am I to judge?”

“Getting back to the anomaly,” Reed said, “I’m not sure we have anything on hand that can do the job.”

“Would we need a ship?” Spider-man asked. “If we could get someone like the Sentry or something, could they just fly in and push it?”

“Too dangerous,” Reed said. “Maybe we can modify something on hand, but otherwise we’ll have to build a craft from scratch to do it, which would take time. What’s worse is that once you leave here it will be impossible for me to track down where your ship is, so we’ll need to hurry.”

“Understood,” Annika said. “What about Mara?”

Reed looked grim. “I’m not a medical doctor, but the scans suggested that whatever’s wrong with her, it’s not any kind of normal pathogen.”

Annika was afraid of that. “It’s something unnatural, isn’t it. Preternatural.”

“That would seem likely, given how she acquired it.”

“We could call in Dr. Strange,” Spider-man suggested.

Annika glanced over at him. “There’s a name that fills me with confidence.”

“What happened to ‘who am I to judge?’” he asked.

“There’s just only so much of this that I can take,” Annika said. “But-“ She felt the nausea pass over her. Damn! They actually were making progress that time! She looked down at her hand. Metal, good.

Mara collapsed where she stood, and Annika picked her up. “Mara,” she said, trying to keep her conscious. “Listen to me.” She spoke up, there was a lot of racket, even though this street seemed to be deserted. “Mara!” She slapped the side of Mara’s face a few times.

“What is it?” Mara groaned.

“We have our abilities here,” Annika explained.

“That’s good, right?”

“Given that there’s no sign of that creepy guy, yes, I think so. Whatever happens, odds are we can handle it.” Behind her the wall exploded as a giant robot flew through it backwards and landed on the street. “Do I even want to turn around?” she asked wearily.

“It’s just a giant robot,” Mara said.

Annika looked over her shoulder. “What robot?”

Mara blinked. “Huh, was there just a second ago... right where that car is now.”

“Yeah, it’s just a car.” It drove towards the hole. “With no driver.” She paused. “I don’t think they can do that in this century.” She stumbled back as it turned into a robot and leapt back through the hole again. “Okay, think we’ve seen enough,” she said, leading Mara away.

“Where are we going?” Mara asked with exhaustion.

“Away from he-“ she ended with a shriek as more of the walls collapsed around them, the giant robots struggling with each other. Some were wrestling, some were firing beam weapons at each other. Just to be safe, she added a couple of implants, then started half-carrying Mara through the horde, darting this way and that to avoid being stomped on. Her sensors were set to full scan absorbing everything as she tried to stay out of their way. Maybe they didn’t care about the two humans-

“All right, hostages!”

Yeah, of course they cared, Annika thought miserably.

Rumble stomped up to them; he was little bigger than Annika was. “Prime won’t dare keep fighting while humans are in danger.”

“Leave us out of this,” Annika warned. “We don’t want to fight.” Mara’s moan didn’t offer as much threat as she might have hoped.

“Come on, flesh bag,” Rumble said, grabbing her arm. Annika let go of Mara and formed metal plates on the back of her other hand. She swung with all she had, connecting with Rumble’s face and causing him to stumble back and fall over. “Big mistake, human,” he said, pulling out a gun. He fired, but the weapon stopped against Annika’s adaptive shielding. He stared at her in obvious surprise. “Hey, how’d you do that?” he asked, firing again.

Annika stormed towards him. “I’m more than meets the eye,” she growled.

Annika lunged at him, but he quickly battered her aside. He was clearly stronger than she was, but he was less agile, and obviously stupid. She jumped back up and ran towards him, ducking under his grip and planting a blow in his chest, but he backhanded her hard, and she hit the ground, bleeding from the blow. “Not bad for a meat sack,” Rumble said. “Hey!” He was shocked as his gun flew out of his hand and into Mara’s.

“That meat sack’s my friend,” she rumbled, and blasted him in the chest, again and again. Rumble stumbled under the onslaught and fell over. Annika quickly ran over to Mara’s side. Mara collapsed as she reached her, the gun tumbling from her grip even as Annika caught her.

“Hold on,” Annika said desperately. “Hold on Mara...” And then unconsciousness overcame Mara.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part XLVIII (cont'd)

Mara’s eyes fluttered open, and she looked up into Annika’s face. “Seven?”

Annika smiled at her. “You’re doing better, I take it?”

Mara looked around; she was lying comfortably in a large bed, and there was no hint of the weakness of her disease. There was a tall Vulcan man standing nearby. “Did he cure me?” she asked.

“Yes, he did,” Annika said. “It was pretty close, though. Don’t scare me like that again,” she said with a smile.

Mara looked to the Vulcan. “Live long, and prosper,” she said.

“Thank you,” Elrond said, “I already have.” He nodded to the two and seemed to almost glide out of the room as he left.

“How long have I been out?” Mara asked.

“A day,” Annika said. “Elrond’s medicine seems to have done the trick though. I guess they deal in dark diseases all the time.”

Mara sat up and embraced her. “Thank you... I was certain I was going to become one of those things.”

“The big rocky guy?”

“No, those ghoulish monsters.” She dropped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling; Annika joined her and stared as well. “Any ideas on what we can do to stop this? I mean, this is nice and all, but I’m sure the next place is going to be back with the Borg guy, or worse.”

“Well, there’s not a whole lot of spacecraft in Middle Earth,” Annika said.

“How many are there?”

“Um, I’m thinking zero.”

“Okay, well, that rules this universe out. Anything useful we can do here?”

“Not really.”

“Seven,” Mara said, “our injuries and stuff keep moving with our bodies, but yet we’re not bringing things along; why is that?”

“Our bodies are on the boundary, see?” Annika said. “That’s where we actually are. What’s here is reality’s attempt to... integrate us, if you will. What we experience here exists only here, but what happens to us down here also happens to us back on the shuttle... and since that’s moving, it stays with us.”

“Okay, you keep saying we’re on the shuttle, so why can’t I just alter course or something? Why can’t I see how to fix this?”

“I’m guessing whatever integrates us places our minds here, though I’m not sure why that is, and why us and not our clothing or equipment.”

Mara snapped her fingers. “The Force. That’s it, that’s why we’re doing this. In the Force we are more than our corporeal form, that’s why-“

“That’s why it’s only our bodies,” Annika finished with excitement. “And also why reality would attempt to integrate us; the Force tries to harmonize things in its natural state, right?” She stopped and frowned. “But why can’t you feel the Force sometimes?”

“Maybe it’s like you said, in some realities you and I are just ‘normal.’”

“Maybe... or maybe it has something to do with how we interact with the boundary. Maybe something can be done to allow us to possess our abilities; it helped out a great deal against that foul-mouthed robot, and it would have been even better against the monsters that bit you.”

“I don’t suppose you have any ideas,” Mara asked.

“No.”

Mara considered this. “If I swallow something, can I bring it with us?”

Annika considered. “I don’t see why not. I don’t see what good it’ll do us.”

“Just be nice to have the option open. There’s nothing worth swallowing here, right?”

“Well, I suppose a ring,” Annika said. “Very big on rings here... very advanced technology.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, from the sound of it this guy managed to take some of the different technologies and integrate it. One ring ruled them all, one ring found them, one ring brought them all, but now I guess they just have a single ring that does all three.”

“Well it sounds more useful. Wearing a handful of rings has got to be uncomfortable.”

“Yeah, well I guess there’s a lot of hubbub about the prototype or something, some problem with beta testing. Probably be a good idea if we stayed out of it.”

“Think we could get a look?” Mara asked. “Maybe it could come in handy.”

“Look, first, let’s not go swallowing things unless we have to,” Annika said. “And second, they’re all kind of jumpy. I guess this guy must have tough lawyers, ‘cause they’re all talking about who should go and bring it back to where he lives.” Before Mara could comment the nausea hit.

Annika swiveled her eyes about, because she could do little else. She was fastened to a wall with banded restraints, incapable of even the slightest movement. "Seven?" Mara said. "Seven, I can't move."

"Me neither," Annika said.

"I'm tied up."

"I know, Mara."

Mara was quiet. "I don't like it."

"That's kind of the idea, Mara."

"I'm just not used to this kind of thing," Mara said nervously.

Annika sighed. "Happens to me all the time."

Mara seemed to think it over. "Are they going to torture us?"

"Let's hope not."

"But... you don't know."

"Mara, I got here just like you did."

More silence. "If they... if they did... what would they do?"

"Usually they send in the children first and let them poke us with sticks for a while. After that they crinkle up tinfoil by our ears for a bit. Then they employ the itching powder. After that, they make us watch slides from their vacation."

Mara was quiet. "How big are the sticks?" she asked.

Annika sighed. "There's a reason you're not The Emperor's Brain."

"Look, I'm just having a little trouble coping with this, okay?" Mara said irritably.

"Well- Yeah, okay, I'm sorry. It's just, if that is what they have in mind, the best thing to do is to not dwell on it, okay? If it comes, it comes, and we have no control over it. Use whatever time you have to enjoy the peace and quiet." The door burst open. "Aw kriff."

Ugly bloated aliens came into the room and stood before Annika and Mara, looking them over. "You've been caught stowing away on a Vogon Construction Ship," one of them said finally. "The penalty for this is being tossed out of the airlock into space."

"Will sticks be involved?"

"Silence!" one of the Vogons said, and the others nodded in approval at his wit.

"However," the first Vogon went on, "I will consider sparing your pathetic lives. I will give you a reading of my latest poetry. If you tell me how much you like it... then you will live."

Annika let out a sigh of relief. "See," she whispered to Mara. "Nothing to worry about."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Vogon guards dragged Annika and Mara down the hall in the direction of the airlock. "Oh for the sweet release of death," Mara said quietly.

"Nothing removing my skull and sandblasting my brain won't solve," Annika agreed.

"I would have preferred the sticks," Mara said.

"Resistance is useless!" the guard said to Mara.

Annika blinked, then looked up at him. "Resistance is futile."

"Resistance is useless!"

"Resistance is futile!"

"Resistance is useless!"

"Resistance is futile!"

"Uh," Mara said pitiably, "Seven, it hurts where I think."

"All I have of the Borg are my words, and I won't let them be misused." The discussion ended, however, with Annika and Mara being tossed into the airlock, the door sealing shut behind them.

"Now what?” Mara asked.

Annika looked about for inspiration, but nothing came. “Let’s hope we jump universes before we asphyxiate.”

“Good plan,” Mara said. “Do we have a plan B?”

“I really doubt this qualifies as a plan A,” Annika remarked. Before any more could be said, the airlock opened and they were sucked out into space. Nausea struck, and fortunately it wasn’t due to floating in the vacuum of space. “See,” Annika said, “nothing to worry about.”

A sound like the breath of a giant came from behind her. Annika saw Mara go pale, and she whirled around; she was face to face with the alien... at least, what counted as a face. It was eyeless, elongated, it had long fangs dripping saliva like a waterfall. More emerged from the shadows around her, their bodies almost insect-like in their construction. Annika was frozen in place, she was so terrified.

And then they sprung.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika came to; a lot had happened during their unconsciousness. They were elsewhere, bound to a wall by some kind of organic shell; Mara hung nearby. “Any idea what’s happening?” she asked.

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Mara said.

“You’re going to die,” said a voice.

Well, that’s comforting, Annika thought. “Hello?”

“We’re all going to die,” and she saw the man now on the wall nearby.

“What are they going to do to us?” Annika asked. “They’re not going to eat us, right?”

The man laughed bitterly. “No... we’re not food. We’re incubators for the xenomorphs.”

“That’s those things that grabbed us?” Mara asked.

The man nodded bitterly. “Internecivus raptus. Very, very dangerous. Those they don’t kill outright are brought here to host the next generation. They...” He coughed. “They...” He screamed, and Annika and Mara soon joined in as they saw his chest rip open and a small creature emerge, shrieking into the chamber. The two continued shrieking for a time even after it left; after all they’d been through, this was just getting to be too much for even them.

And then there was the sound, so quiet, yet it was impossible to miss... perhaps because it was a portent for something worse. A large pod opened its top, and a long-legged pale thing emerged. Annika and Mara stared, then tried to pull themselves free. It was hopeless; they might as well have been in duracrete. The thing leapt and Mara screamed as it latched onto her head. Annika watched helpless as it grabbed on, wrapping its tail-like whip around her throat. After a few seconds Mara went motionless.

“Mara?” Annika said quietly. “Mara?” She repeated the name, her voice descending into tears as she did so, her grief and terror overwhelming her. There was another of the sounds, like a small wet pop. Annika turned, and she froze in absolute terror. And the thing leapt.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika sat in the center of a black void; she looked about it with fear. “Hello?” she called. “Anyone there?”

“Yes,” came the answer.

Annika swallowed. “Who are you?” A shape began to approach her, and she stiffened; but then the familiar features became clear.

“An old friend,” Picard said with a smile.

“Jean-luc?” Annika said with disbelief.

“Ah good, you finally stopped calling me ‘captain,’” he said with a smile. “There’s hope for you yet.”

“Jean-luc,” she said, ignoring the remark, “what are you doing here? This isn’t your reality.”

“Mara was right,” Picard said. “It’s the Force that integrates you into reality, just as it integrates realities with each other.” He smiled at her. “It’s unbound by time and space; is it so shocking to believe it’s unbound by dimensions?”

“I... suppose not,” Annika said. “What’s happening?”

Picard sat cross-legged before her. “Well, right now the xenomorphs are implanting one of their embryos in you and Mara. That’s going to be a bit of a problem.”

“I would say so,” Annika said with slight despair.

“Just keep your head about you,” Picard assured her. “This place... this is not your destiny, not to die as a host to some alien thing. You must return to our realm, Annika. There you will meet your true destiny, your true challenge.”

“And what’s that?”

“To end the struggle between the light and the dark,” Picard said. “And whoever wins that struggle will decide the fate of the galaxies.” He looked grim. “As the Force has both a light and a dark side, so to does Unity. If the light wins, then it will dawn an unending era of peace for all our peoples. If the dark wins... then it will be nothing but suffering and evil without hope for the future.” He folded his hands and gestured at her with them. “That’s why you must return, Annika... why you must fight one last battle for the cause of Unity. Only you can do this.”

“Me?” Annika said. “Why me?”

Picard hesitated, but then spoke. "Whenever something horrible is unleashed, there are usually two individuals responsible: the creator, and the executor. One who realizes it, and one who carries it to fruition." Picard seemed to peer into Seven's soul. "You found the wormhole... and Janeway gave the order to enter. You opened the door, she strode through."

Annika looked at him, uncertain of what to say. "What does that mean?"

"It means that you two have been at the center of this trial since the beginning, and it will continue until the two of you resolve it. Together, you started this; together you must finish it." He offered her a smile. "But don't despair, Annika. You made the right choices. You looked at what came through that wormhole, and you welcomed it with joy. You gave love, happiness, and so you were placed on the side of good; you became the light. You were given the honor of delivering to us the one who would bring lasting peace.

"But Janeway didn't follow your path. She looked at what came, and felt malice, envy. She gave it hate, destruction, stole its power to use against it, so that she was firmly entrenched on the side of evil; she became the dark. And she was chosen to bring about the challenge to Unity... because anything that is to endure must survive challenges.

"This war, Annika, covers two generations. It is a war between the spawn of good and evil. You prepared the way for Sebastian, she prepared the way for the Vong. Only he can hope to defeat them..." He looked gravely at her. "And only you can hope to defeat her."

Annika gaped at him. "Are you insane? Do you have any idea how powerful she is?"

"Yes," Picard said grimly. "It will not be easy. You may not survive."

"'May not survive?' Ben Skywalker couldn't beat her! Jean-luc, in my prime I was barely a match for a Sith apprentice. I'm old, I'm tired, I'm weakened by disease..."

Picard looked down. "You cannot escape your destiny, Annika. Two battles must be won, the one by you, and the one by your son. If either is a defeat, the galaxies will be plunged into unending darkness."

"No pressure," Annika muttered. She caught his look. "Jean-luc, I don't have a chance! She's a Sith Master, probably more powerful than the Emperor, and even Luke couldn't beat him! She's more experienced, cautious, healthier, and stronger."

"But you're smarter. Your mind remains your greatest asset. Use it, Annika! There has to be a way for you to win!"

"I have no idea where to even begin!" she lamented. "How am I supposed to succeed at things Jedi and Sith can't do?"

“I don’t know, Annika,” Picard said. “I only know what I am meant to share with you, but I do know that you can do this, that however great the gulf may seem, that you can overcome it.” And he took her hand in his. “Just remember that you are not that little girl any more,” and his warm expression offered her some comfort. “Just because this must be done by you, doesn’t mean that you have to do this alone.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika opened her eyes; Mara was still along the wall nearby. “How are you doing?” Mara asked.

“I just had my face raped, but other than that, peachy. You?”

“I threw up, so I’m feeling better now.”

Annika looked away a second, wondering what there was to say. “Mara,” she said finally, “even if this thing kills me, I want you to know that I don’t regret what the Oracle did in sending me. You... you have been a very dear friend and I’m- I’m glad I got to know you like this, that I could leave the memories of Darth Whind behind me.” Her lip trembled. “What you allowed Luke to do for me before we left was... it was the nicest gift I’ve ever received, and you have no idea how much it meant to me.” Her voice shook. “And I’m so going to miss you if I get back home.”

Mara offered her a weary smile and started to speak, but then she turned pale again. Annika felt it too... the nausea was much worse this time, and she almost vomited herself. “What’s...” Mara was visibly struggling for control, and Annika felt the same.

“Probably something with the shuttle,” Annika said. “The path isn’t straight, it might be getting jostled about, mired or something.”

“What would that mean?” Mara asked.

“That the passes become more difficult,” Annika said, trying to think. It was just like it had been the first time, overwhelming her senses. “If the shuttle stops altogether, than we’ll remain in whatever reality we land-“

“-in,” she finished as they sat in a forest clearing. The sickness had passed and Mara helped her to her feet.

“No Force,” Mara said with disappointment.

“Hold it,” came a voice from behind them. Mara and Annika just looked at each other and sighed. “Where did you two come from?” the voice demanded.

“It’s a little hard to explain,” Annika said.

“Turn around,” the voice commanded, and they complied. The figure was a blond woman, beautiful and clearly strong based upon her stance. She had a gun of some kind. “You appeared out of nowhere,” the woman said. “How is that possible?”

“Magic,” Annika said.

“Got it?” Mara added.

The woman stepped closer. “What brings you to Caprica, magicians?”

“We’re just passing through,” Annika said.

Number Six offered a disbelieving smirk. “So you say. I think there’s a bit more to your stor-“

Mara leapt. She didn’t have any Force abilities at all, no danger sense, no heightened reflexes, nothing. All she had was the knowledge that she was probably still carrying that horrible little monster inside of her, and if she was going down it wouldn’t be in some cell waiting for her chest to explode. As Number Six moved so did Annika; she didn’t have any Borg enhancements either, but she wasn’t going to just stand by while her best friend was gunned down. A shot rang out, but Mara instinctively managed to twist out of the way while Annika hit the Cylon. The pair went down in a heap as the gun flew from her grip and into the tall grass.

“Mara!” Annika called. “Quick, before she-“ She was tossed aside like she weighed nothing as Six moved and got back to her feet. Mara ran at her, and Six swung around, catching Mara on the side of her head with her foot, knocking her down. Annika ran at her; Six tried the same thing with her, but Annika’s Tsunkatse training paid off as she blocked the strike and followed up with a blow to the Cylon’s face. Unfortunately she didn’t have anywhere near her former strength, and Six was obviously much sturdier than she looked. She grabbed Annika by the throat and squeezed, and there was nothing the now human Annika could do to resist.

Mara ran at her, but Six backhanded her away. Annika raised her foot and kicked a nerve cluster on Six’s knee, and the Cylon dropped. Mara leapt up and swung a haymaker, knocking Six back and away. The hand left Annika’s throat and she gasped for air for a moment before pressing the attack. Six got up and the two women charged her, tackling her to the ground together. Mara and Annika both swung wildly, never relenting in their fight because they knew that the moment they did they’d lose the advantage.

“Stop what you’re doing,” a voice commanded. There was the sound of weapons being readied, and Annika and Mara looked up and saw them. Centurion-model Cylons surrounded them, along with two more copies of the downed Number Six and a few others. “Hands up, back away.” Mara and Annika complied; if it took both of them together to take down one, they didn’t have a prayer this time. “Simon?”

One of the men stepped forward and looked at the fallen Six. “Badly damaged, but she might recover.”

The Number Six who was speaking nodded towards Mara and Annika. “They’re obviously healthy,” she said. “Take them to the Farm; they look like they could produce some strong offspring.”

Mara and Annika glanced at one another. “Everyone wants to impregnate us,” Mara said under her breath.

“They want us alive, anyway,” Annika said. “That gives us time.”

“Time for what? If the shuttle’s mired like you said, then we’re stuck here.”

“We’ll just have to hope that somebody can help us,” Annika said as they were led towards a transport. “And not just for our sake. If Jean-luc’s right, there’s more at stake than even we thought.”



Chuck

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Part XLIX


Sebastian smiled at the hologram because that was his job. "Elected One," he said to the woman who appeared. "I'm told we have urgent matters to discuss."

"The most urgent," the Elected One said. "I have been informed that you have refused the admission of our world into the Alliance. We would like to know why."

Sebastian didn't roll his eyes, but only because those muscles had long since been killed by excess restraint. "You were informed why, Elected One. Angel 1 does not fit our criteria for membership. No patriarchy, matriarchy, or caste system is permitted in member worlds. Your refusal to reform means you are not eligible for membership."

The Elected One was visibly struggling with her response. "I just feel you are incapable of... understanding, why our way is the natural order."

"And why is that?"

"Because you are a man."

"I am Borg; gender is irrelevant."

"I beg to differ," the Elected One said. "The woman, Janet Fields, showed a great insight. Perhaps she could assist us in coming to an understanding."

"Ms. Fields is dead," Sebastian said, and there was no mistaking the subdued tone of pain at the mention of her name.

"A pity. Perhaps another-"

"Elected One," Sebastian said, "I am the Prefect of the Alliance; I am not unreasonable, but I will not tolerate disrespect for my position. I am the final authority on this, so I'll tell you the same thing I told the Ferengi: if you want to change, our door is open, but until then our peoples are far too different to coexist within the same government. We wish for peace with you, but we will not condone your choices."

The Elected One offered a pained laugh. "I suppose I should have expected nothing less from you, Mister Prefect," she said, emphasizing the word "mister."

"In a way, you should be glad your request was refused," Sebastian replied, "because if Angel 1 was admitted, guess who you'd answer to." He grinned an unpleasant grin. "Until such time as your world considers reform, the issue of admission is terminated. If you have other diplomatic concerns, please take them up with Mr. Romal. Good day." He cut the transmission, then turned and glared at David Kirtz, his new assistant. "This is the shit you drag me in here for?"

David opened and closed his mouth a few times. "She was quite insistent-"

"Listen," Sebastian said sternly, "your job is to keep people like this from wasting my time. Now this was nothing some low-level diplomat couldn't handle, when meanwhile I've got serious issues involving the annexed territory in the Core Worlds and prepping for the final assault on the Vong. Getting lectures from some Amazon with a bug up her ass has no place on my daily schedule, understood."

"Yes, prefect," David said nervously. "I just-"

"Look, you have got to use your head," Sebastian said. "And didn't we have this same talk yesterday about the Edo? Huh?"

"Yes, prefect," David said again.

Sebastian shivered. "Freaky Aryan weirdoes; like a goddamn Wagner wet dream down there. Five minutes talking to them I wanted to BDZ the planet."

"They are protected by a transdimensional being," David pointed out.

"Nothing against that," Sebastian said. "Some of my best friends have been transdimensional beings. I think my father might be one right now."

"Really?"

"I don't know, I haven't really had time to think about it because I'm too busy talking to Eva Braun and some bitch with a very simple complex." David laughed, but it was painfully obvious he was faking it. "Get out!" The comm chimed. "What?!"

"Um, prefect?" said Romal.

"Yes," Sebastian said, then cleared his throat. "Yes, sorry. I was... just being demeaned by an Amazon."

"Oh, if this is a bad time-"

"Romal," Sebastian said wearily, "this has been a very bad week. Please, can you just hold down the fort 'til I'm dead?"

"I'll do my best, prefect. I was just informing you that the Doctor has arrived."

"Which doc- oh, the Doctor. Excellent, send him in please." Sebastian dropped into his chair as the door opened and the Doctor entered. "How do you like your new toy?" Sebastian asked after a quick greeting.

The Doctor smiled and nodded. "It's good to have a bit of freedom again. I'd almost forgotten how liberating it is to walk about in the fresh air." His smile faded. "I assume you didn't ask me here just to discuss the new mobile emitter."

Sebastian nodded slowly. "You were briefed on what I need you to do."

The Doctor nodded, but it was clear he was a bit disturbed. "What you're asking me to do is questionable, Sebastian," the Doctor finally said. "You're asking me to sever a functioning limb without cause... technically, that's mutilation."

"I don't care for it much myself," Sebastian said. "But I'm not going to last five minutes against the Vong unless I have two fully-functional legs. I need you to do this."

"It's ethically questionable to say the least," the Doctor said. "The Borg may have changed but they're still pragmatists at heart; I don't have that luxury."

"Whether it's questionable or not, I'm asking you to do this," Sebastian said.

"That doesn't change my ethical obligations."

Sebastian sighed wearily. "Play recording," Sebastian said. Before the Doctor could respond, his own voice was heard playing across the room.

"Chief Medical Officers log, Stardate 51009.3: The captain has instructed me to remove the cybernetic implants from the Borg Drone, 7 of 9."

"Where did you get this?" the Doctor demanded, but Sebastian held up two fingers and listened.

"7 of 9 has made it clear she doesn't wish for me to perform the surgery, which makes this a very difficult situation for me. My ethics obligate me to honor her wishes; to do this against her will is... not an easy thing. But the captain is convinced that the drone is incapable of making a rational decision at this time. I dislike playing God, but I am inclined to agree. Perhaps it’s ethically questionable, but under the circumstances I see no other choice."

"Stop," Sebastian said. He swiveled in his chair a little. "People give me things all the time," he said. "Little things about my father and mother... when Earth joined I was presented with all logs and records related to my mother from the Enterprise and Voyager, including yours."

"That situation has nothing to do with this," the Doctor said.

"But look at what came from it," Sebastian said. "If you wouldn't have bent the rule, then she would have died... and look at everything she accomplished. Destroying the Death Star, halting the Borg assault on Earth, stopping Darth Whind. And she gave me life, which means everything I've done is the result as well: destroying the yammosk that controlled the Yun-Yammka and bringing the Borg back to stop the Vong ambush and turn back the tide. One decision by you has sent ripples out to affect the lives of every single being in two galaxies, do you see that?" He folded his hands. "But the work's not complete yet. There's one small task left to do: destroy the Vong planet, and to do that I need you to replace my leg." He smiled. "So it comes all the way around again, except this time we're approaching from the other direction. Instead of removing Borg technology, I need you to install it. Once again, the lives of all those people will be affected by the decision you make, Doctor."

The Doctor sighed and looked away. "You realize, of course, you could just cut your own leg off and make the point moot."

"I could," Sebastian said with a shrug. "But I won't."

"Why not? Because you want to force me to do this?"

"No," Sebastian said with a shake of his head. "Because I can't do it... I'm-" He closed his eyes and looked away. "I'm a coward."

The Doctor looked at him in surprise. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you intend to go to this planet and knowingly die."

"That's easy," Sebastian said. "That's outside my control. But this... knowing the stakes, it's still something I can't find in myself to do." He sighed. "There's just enough humanity left in me to be afraid."

The Doctor nodded a little. "Out of respect for your mother, I'll perform the surgery." He turned his head a little. "Die Unendliche Geschichte," he said, reading the book on Sebastian's desk.

"Oh, yes... I was going through some old things..." Sebastian looked at the book again.

The Doctor nodded. "You got her message?"

Sebastian cleared his throat. "Yes, but I... I haven't viewed it."

The Doctor seemed to think this over. "I was there when she composed it," he said finally. "Right after one of her check-ups... I know she wants you to hear it."

"She's not dead," Sebastian observed.

"True... but you may not see her again before you die. There were some things she wanted you to know."

"I know them," Sebastian said.

"'Words are important,' that's what she told me," the Doctor said. "'Some things need to be said while there's a chance for them to be spoken and heard.'" He looked down. "You were an impossibility," he said finally. "Like something out of legend, like a blessing from the gods, she was able to conceive you. You truly don't know how much she loved you, Sebastian, how much you were an answer to everything she hoped to have, and how very, very proud she always was." He pushed the book towards him. "Words have power, Sebastian," he said quietly. "Listen to hers."

The Doctor left to prepare for the surgery. Sebastian looked at the book for a while, then opened his desk and pulled out the isolinear chip. He stared at it for a while. Finally, he slipped it into a slot, and a hologram of his mother appeared. He swallowed; it'd been a long time since he'd actually looked at her. She spoke to him.

“Since you’ve found this, Bastian, it’s obvious that I must have passed on. I can only hope that it doesn’t cause you much pain, that with Jorri at your side, you can continue to do what is needed.”

“Pause,” Sebastian said, and covered his eyes. Well, he thought miserably, this was a real good idea. He took a deep steadying breath and looked up at the frozen image of his mother. Still, she did leave this for him... she wanted him to hear this. “Resume.”

“You feel inadequate,” Annika continued. “I’ve seen it. You have done good things, but I know you don’t think you’re good enough. You feel you’re weak by comparison... the problem is in your viewpoint, Bastian. You see things out of proportion, so that which is small becomes large, and it seems to dwarf what is truly important, truly meaningful.

“Too long have you lived in our shadow,” she said. “Destroying Death Stars, wiping out the Borg, toppling Sith, the achievements of Luke and Annika Skywalker sound impossible to measure up to. They were all important, they all shaped countless civilizations, but the truth is that your father and I both know that those alone were our smallest contributions to the galaxies; that they would pale compared to what we truly gave them.

“You are the symbol of Unity, Bastian, that the two galaxies can exist together without conflict. You can show them, Bastian, guide them... your example will bring them together. You will draw them to you like a moth to the light, and once there they’ll find out what they can truly become.” She beamed at him, and tears slipped out of his eyes at the sight of her approval. “Greater than all we have done, what we are most proud of, our greatest gift to them, is you... our only son.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Three weeks had passed. In another universe, Luke Skywalker had barely slept for most of them. He woke up this particular morning, got dressed, and walked onto the bridge. It had the same funeral-like atmosphere it had for some time. "Anything?" Luke asked.

Commander Greiss shook his head. "Not a sign of anything."

Luke looked up and beyond at the anomaly that had swallowed the two women he loved more than life itself. "How much time?"

Greiss shook his head. "Not much. The Emperor has his ships standing by to destroy the wormhole, but we're to give the captain and your wife as much time as we can give before we do."

Luke swallowed and nodded. "They'll make it," he said. "They're both too stubborn to give up."
--------------------------------------------------------------

A shuttle dropped out of hyperspace over Earth, and quickly slipped into the atmosphere without clearance. It hung over the Pacific for a while until the tiny dots of Hawaii came into view, and it dipped down further, finally settling on the beach as local authorities arrived on the scene. Jaina Solo and one of the padawans was also on hand as the ramp lowered.

Molly O'Brien stepped into the sunlight of her homeworld, blinked, and looked at the assembled mob. She wet her lips; it was time to see this through. "Oy!" she called. "I need to talk to the Jedi!"

Jaina gestured for her padawan to remain and slowly approached. Molly was unarmed; she figured a lightsaber wasn't going to do her any good if things went bad. Jaina stopped in front of her and looked her up and down. "Talk," Jaina said finally.

"I'm switching sides," Molly said. "If the Jedi will have me."

Jaina considered this. "You renounce the Dark side?" Molly nodded. "Come with me, and we'll examine the matter more carefully. But I should warn you that if you're lying you will find little mercy here."

"Yeah, well, live among the Sith a few years and you get used to that kind of thing."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika opened her eyes; she was in some kind of storage closet, along with Mara. "You okay?" the Jedi asked her.

Annika nodded, though her head was still swimming a little; drugs probably. "I thought we were going to be impregnated or something."

"If so, this is the worst maternity center in the multiverse," Mara commented. They both sat up as the door opened; Number Six was there, along with the one called Simon.

"We need answers?" Six said firmly.

"Well, we need questions to do that," Annika said simply. She was too fed up to be cooperative.

"What the hell was inside you?" Six demanded, but Simon held up his hand and stepped forward.

"We found some kind of creature living inside your torsos," he said grimly. "We removed them for examination. Unfortunately, they somehow managed to break out of their containers and escape. Since then-"

"Since then all hell has broken loose," Six interrupted. "Now what were those things."

Annika looked over at Mara, then back to Six. "We think it's a xenomorph."

"And what would that mean?" Six demanded.

Mara shrugged. "Trouble."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin Solo sat in his office reflecting on the conversation they'd had with Molly O'Brien. All their probings confirmed she was telling them the truth, that she had turned her back on the Sith and was ready to lead them to their den.

This wasn't going to be easy.

Molly had painted a grim picture. The Oracle's ability to anticipate the moves of her enemies went beyond anything they could have expected. She'd prepared for attacks by fleets and Eclipses, she'd prepared defenses against armed landing parties, she'd prepared for the Jedi. There was, simply, no attack that had not been anticipated.

The best they could hope for was surprise. Molly had been shot down shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, and had suffered serious injuries upon impact, so much so that the Sith had assumed she was dead rather than nearly dead. She would have died if she hadn't landed near a farming colony with a working med droid, and even then it'd taken some time to nurse her back to health, but all that did was lure the Oracle into a false sense of security. If Molly survived, she no doubt reasoned that the attack would have already come.

Of course, given how much she knew, she might just as well have anticipated this too, but that's just the way it was. You couldn't make your decisions based upon what ifs when things were this grim.

Laudica came in; he could sense her concern even before she'd arrived. She sat on the desk and took his hand. "I wish I could come with you," she said.

Anakin got up and hugged his wife as tightly as he dared in her condition. "I'll be fine," he promised.

"Oh really?" Laudica said. "With this plan?"

Anakin tried to be reassuring, but it wasn't easy. The plan was that the Jedi went in first to engage the Sith; if they could win then all was good. If not, Anakin -or whoever was still alive- would signal the Alliance to send in an assault fleet and hopefully catch the Oracle before she could employ those defenses. It wasn't the safest of strategies, but it did increase the chances of them eliminating this Sith, which is what was the most important. Every Jedi except Laudica and Sebastian were going, the former because of her pregnancy, and the latter because he had his own appointment. If the worst happened, Laudica could pass on the Jedi teachings, but they were hoping it wouldn't come to that.

Anakin put his hand on her swollen belly and felt the life within. I'll be back for you, little one, he promised. And hopefully, there will be a much better galaxy waiting to greet you when I do.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian held his double-bladed lightsaber out in his right hand. He spun it casually, shifting the swing angles gently upwards and downwards, inwards and outwards. Even after all this time it had felt natural; after just a little practice all the old instincts had emerged from their dusty hiding places and took their proper place again. He was as ready as he would ever get to face down the Vong; he’d even made a few enhancements to himself to give him an extra edge or two.

"Nice moves." Sebastian didn't turn at the gruff voice. "Could have used them back on Helska."

"Yeah, well, getting brainwashed takes the edge off," Sebastian said as he turned towards Kalib. "Never thought I'd see you on a Borg ship."

"Well, seems you're kind of hard to reach these days."

"Busy times," Sebastian said.

Kalib looked off and sighed. "So you kept the Borg in line after all."

"They kept themselves in line," Sebastian said. "Even the Borg can change."

Kalib shook his head. "At the center of this new Alliance, no less."

Sebastian shrugged, switched off his lightsaber, and hung it on his belt. "What better symbol, when you get down to it? Living being and technology working together, becoming stronger than the sum of their parts."

"Yeah, well, pardon me if a hundred millennia of aggression makes me jumpy," Kalib said. "Anyway, this ain't about them, it's about you. I hear you're taking down the Vong personally." He must have caught Sebastian's expression. "Relax, I kept that tidbit to myself. Last thing I want is the Vong coming out on top. But we've got some old business to resolve before you paint a bull's-eye on your forehead. Your old man still owes me one from when I saved your butt on Helska."

"Yeah, I remember. You come to collect?"

"No," Kalib said. "But I've been watching the galaxy for a long time, kid. I may not be touched, but I can still sometimes see which way things are going. I think this little Alliance of yours is going places. And one day, something might happen where I really need a hand."

"And you'll expect the Alliance to help you out?"

Kalib shrugged. "Way I see it, it wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that little favor I did."

Sebastian nodded. "True enough. I'll leave an executive order in place; you've got one free favor coming from the Alliance as thanks for all you've done."

"Heh, looks like there's gratitude left in the galaxy after all. Good luck, kid; hope it all works out." Kalib showed himself out; Sebastian returned to his suite. His cane was still sitting on his table where he'd left it. Maybe he should throw it away, but it had given him a chance to hold onto his humanity for a time... it was hard to look down on a gift like that when you have so little humanity left.

Word had come from the Queen: despite the virus' interference, the Borg had the pod finished. Cirule had returned as well, the pacification complete; Corbin himself had perished, killed by one of his own men. It was all done; all that remained was eliminating the Vong threat in a single blow. He felt no regret that he wouldn't see the galaxy after that day; he'd seen enough. Ten years of fighting this war had taken its toll on his soul.

Sebastian dropped onto the floor and began to meditate. As his grandfather had taught him, it was an important thing that the young often overlook, so he made sure whenever he had the time to look for guidance.

This time, guidance came looking for him.

Sebastian felt his mind pulled into a deep place, and fear gripped him for a moment, but then a comforting presence appeared around him. His breath started to slow again; he wasn't alone, was he?

No, you're not.

Sebastian stiffened at the thoughts that arrived unspoken.

Do not be afraid. We've come for you to prepare you for this final moment, when you will need all your strength and courage to triumph, to fulfill the long-told promise.

"Who are you?" Sebastian asked.

We are.

"Are what?"

We are. The cosmos appeared before him. You have questions. Ask them.

Sebastian looked about at the expanse. The questions were falling all over themselves in his mind, and so one word came out. "Why?"

Why what?

"Why all of it?" Sebastian blurted out. "Why me? Why must everyone I love die? Why was I ever born? Why does it always hurt? Why do they keep taking everything away? Why-"

We understand. You're confused and wish to understand, but there are some things that you could never comprehend. Still, we will help you, or try.

There were two Titans, brothers: Prometheus and Epimetheus. They were both there in the beginning, and both very different. Epimetheus, who though he possessed knowledge lacked wisdom, and was forced to look back on mistakes, on chances lost and things that will never come again. And there was Prometheus, foresight, who always looked ahead and planned. The gods sent a woman to the brothers, and Epimetheus could not help but love her. The woman's name... was Pandora, and she was given talents taken from the gods themselves. Epimetheus took her as his wife, but she came with a dowry, a box. And though Epimetheus pleaded with her, Pandora opened the box... and unleashed suffering, especially on themselves. But in time hope was released as well, and their wounds were healed by it.

Prometheus himself was the one who had earned the ire of the gods. He had stolen fire from them and given it to men, and thus he earned the most gruesome of fates. He was chained to a rock, and an eagle would come and pluck out his liver... yet still he would live. It would grow back, and it would happen again. Again and again... he wouldn't die, couldn't die, and he knew it would never end.

Reverse the genders, Sebastian, and it all becomes clear. Annika Hansen, who led the way through the wormhole without thought. Luke Skywalker, who came into her life, whom even within the confines of Borg limitations she could not help but love. Luke Skywalker... who unleashed such horrors on the galaxy because of his love for her, and the gifts he'd been given. Yet in time there would be hope again.

When hope returned to Epimetheus and Pandora, the world entered a golden age. Then the deluge came, and it was all wiped away. But the two had given birth to a child, and that child survived the deluge, and was the one who resurrected the human race, so that the new age would come, an age that would endure. The name of this child was Pyrrha... a name also taken by the hero, Achilles.

Surely you know of Achilles, Sebastian. Achilles, who fought in a ten-year long war. Achilles, whose mere presence inspired those around him so that no challenge was too great. Achilles, who refused a duel and therefore was forced to watch as his lover perished to the enemy he declined. Achilles... whose very name describes his damnable fate: "grief of the people."

Achilles, who according to popular legend, was an ancestor of Alexander the Great.

Why are you here, Sebastian? Why did this happen? Why are they taking it all away from you? Only Pyrrha can win the war, Bastian. Only Pyrrha can rebuild for tomorrow, Bastian. But to do so... Pyrrha must know the price of war. Pyrrha must know what grief is. If Pyrrha is to create a true and lasting peace, then it can only come from someone who can look into the eye of another and say, "I know how you hurt. I have been there. Let us work together to stop the suffering."

Forces at work beyond your comprehension allowed this, that a Jedi and a Borg should have a child in defiance of all known science. Why did she gain him and not the woman chosen in countless other realms? Because this universe needed you, it needed Pyrrha to bring Unity to fruition. If that could be overcome, mere biology had no chance of standing in the way. As your grandfather was born from forces unnatural, so too were you. As he shook countless civilizations, so too have you. As he lost flesh to machinery, so too have you. As he lost his pregnant wife, so too have you. Destiny needed a Darth Vader. Now destiny needs you.

Do not think that your suffering has gone unnoticed. You are a child of this realm as much as you were of Annika Hansen, and your pain is ours. But take comfort, little one... your pain will soon end. We promise. It will finally stop hurting.



Chuck

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Part L


Seven years ago, this is where it started. And now, even though the dawn was here, there's no denying that the sun is about to set, that this was the final end. When this work is finished, then... then there will be no tomorrow.

Sebastian looked at the sand. Seven years today... this spot. Earth, a world he'd heard so much about but rarely visited. The Emperor choosing to come and conduct the ceremony personally. Family and friends, gathered for a fleeting chance at a moment of joy during the endless turmoil of war. Jorielle Sunspring taking his hand and promising him that she would always be there; friend, partner, lover, soulmate, wife.

How much a man can change in seven years. How much a man can look back and wonder how he could have done things differently, with the wisdom he has now and the foolishness of then. But the moments come and go and they remain frozen in amber, to be looked at in the distorted view of hindsight.

It probably doesn't matter. This is, after all, where it all ends.

"Bastian?"

Sebastian looked up and saw Anakin and Jaina walking up the beach from the Academy. "Morning," he said without any heart in it.

"Hey," Anakin said. "We never got the chance to- about Janet. We're uh, we're sorry."

"Yeah." Sebastian shook his head. "I heard about the Sith girl."

"Molly's not a Sith any more," Anakin said sharply.

"You know what I mean."

Anakin looked ready to snarl a reply, but held himself back. "We know what you meant," Jaina said. They joined Sebastian in looked out at the waves. "We're leaving to take care of the Oracle in a few hours... hopefully we can stop her."

"I hope so, too," Sebastian said, watching the sea. "It's in your hands. The Vong are the immediate threat... but the Oracle is insidious. If she doesn't fall, then what happens today is just buying us time."

Anakin took a deep breath. "Come with us."

"No."

"You want me to apologize?" Anakin demanded. "Is that it?"

"For what?" Sebastian asked. "You were both right. I can't handle her. I face the Oracle, I'm not an asset, I'm a liability."

"Together-"

"No," Sebastian said, turning to face Anakin. "You have your destiny, and I have mine. Because even though the Oracle is the greater threat in the long run, someone still has to deal with the Vong, or the long run becomes very, very short."

"After we deal with the Oracle-"

"No," Sebastian said. "My mind's made up. I'm going."

"We need you!"

Sebastian shook his head. "Your thoughts betray you, Anakin."

Anakin sighed. "Maybe we don't always get along," he said. "But you're family, and family needs each other."

Seven years.

"Sometimes family has to say goodbye," Sebastian said.

Anakin looked at his feet. Jaina hesitated. "Is there some way off the planet-" she began.

"No."

Silence.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm not coming back, Jaina," Sebastian said.

"The Alliance needs you!" Anakin said in exasperation.

"Laudica needs you," Sebastian said, turning to him. "So does the baby. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about."

"Oh come on, Bastian!" Anakin said. "You hold the galaxies together! I'm just one man!"

"No," Sebastian said quietly. "If I did that, then it means we've learned nothing. That Jorri died, and it never mattered."

"I'll go, then," Jaina said.

"No, you won't." There was something in the tone that prevented Jaina from even protesting. She turned away and covered her face with one hand.

Anakin wet his lips and looked down, obviously struggling with something. "There's something you should know," he said. "You're not a good Jedi." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but you're not."

Sebastian swallowed and turned away. "Yeah... yeah I know I'm not." He started to walk away.

"But that's not what we needed," Anakin called after him. Sebastian stopped and turned back. "We didn't need one more guy living in an ivory tower, holding on to our ideals while the galaxies crumbled around us. We needed someone who could make the hard choices, do the things that no Jedi ever could." He started walking towards him. "They were- They were right about you, Bastian." He embraced his cousin, patted him on the back, and started back towards the Academy.

"Jaina?" Sebastian asked. "You okay?"

Jaina turned back; there were some tears in her eyes. "Luke... mom... Jacen... poor Pallo... I'm just so tired of burying Jedi, Bastian." She cleared her throat and forced a smile to her face as she looked at him. "You... you did good, little cousin. When- when the Empire fell, that could have been the end. But when our darkest hour came, you were there, and you told us the dawn would come... and to hear you say it, I could believe it just might happen. When you told us that despite being so heavily divided, that we would come together, I could believe in that too." She took a quivering breath. "But when you tell me you're not coming back from this I don't want to believe you," and she hugged Sebastian tight.

Sebastian hugged her back; surprisingly, that made this mission easier. "Thanks Jaina... that means a lot. And... and Sisko was right; without your help over the years, I couldn't have done all this." He let go, and his resolve and sorrow was all too visible. "But like I said... the time comes when you've just got to say goodbye." He let out a steadying breath, then forced a smirk to his face. "So let's go out with a bang."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven of Nine watched the events that transpired and knew that, if there was a hell, that this was probably a good glimmer of what it looks like. The cave was cast in dark shadow, and what light there was was red. There was the stink of smoke and the ever-present dry heat. At the center of it, dressed in her warped Starfleet uniform stood the Oracle, hands outstretched over the furnace, her shadow dancing across the walls while she muttered words that even someone with Seven's linguistic skills couldn't identify. The heat so close to the source must have been enough to cook her, yet the Oracle didn't seem to even sweat. While she spoke, metal bars floated from the workbench and dropped into the furnace; they were different from each other, so clearly she was forming a kind of alloy, but what kind was a mystery.

The Oracle had commanded the presence of everyone, and so the Sith had been gathered as well. Maybe it was just paranoia on the Oracle's part, but so far she seemed to show quite a bit of insight for what was taking place, even in places where she shouldn't have been able to see. Seven glanced over at the others; with the exception of the Twi'lek, the Sith seemed just as put off as Seven herself by all this. She couldn't help but notice the way they would sometimes look about them, and she wondered if they were sensing things that, well, that it was lucky for the sake of her sanity that she couldn't. They certainly didn't seem all that happy about it.

They stood there for over an hour before the rod rose up out of the furnace. It glowed red with the latent heat of its forging, but the Oracle began moving her hands about it. The glow shifted to orange, then yellow, then white... then soon became far more than a glow. As it happened the Oracle's body trembled, and her braids streamed wildly behind her as if she were standing in a powerful storm. Her words became louder, almost desperate, and the rod became impossible to look at.

Then the rod dropped onto a strange sort of mold, and even as it fell a hammer-like tool flew from the bench into her hands. With a cry she heaved it up over her shoulder and swung, the end crashing onto the mold. Lightning discharged with the blow, and she repeated it, always with the same cry, always with the same hideous crash.

Finally she tossed the hammer aside and stared into the mold. She reached in; the metal still glowed red from the heat, but it didn't deter her. There was a sizzling sound as her fingers gripped it, and Seven winced at the sight, but the Oracle still gripped the blade. As she did so it steamed and soon the red glow faded. She slide her hands down to the handle, and held it before her eyes, examining the blade carefully. Without word or warning she swung, and the mold cleaved in two; there was no great clash or sparks as it did so, in fact it sounded just faintly like the tearing of silk.

The furnace died, and the lights came up, much to Seven's relief. The Oracle slipped the sword into its sheath and Alema came forward with her robe. "The Jedi are coming," the Oracle said in a loud voice. "Molly O'Brien has turned against us." She pulled her dark hood in place and turned to the Sith. "There is no need to fear, I assure you. No Jedi has the power to oppose us and live." She paused and looked at Seven. "I question your loyalty," she said, getting straight to the point. "Return to your cell; do not return until summoned. Disobey me at your own peril."

Seven didn't need to be told twice; even without the threat, she didn't want to experience any more of what the Sith were doing.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"I have made plans," the Oracle said to the assembled Sith, "to ensure our survival. After the Jedi fall the Alliance will launch a fleet to bombard the entire planet, hoping to destroy us. We will let them think this has succeeded." She walked along the line where they stood. "Sebastian Skywalker himself will be going to face the Vong. The outcome is unclear even to me, but I do know that success or failure will mean his death... and the Alliance will be leaderless. If the Vong survive, we will be there to offer the desperate peoples of the galaxy a means of salvation in their dark hour. If the Vong fall, the Alliance will as well, and the way will be clear for us to rebuild and reconquer." She turned to face them. "Either way, the galaxies will fall before the Sith."

"How do you plan to deceive them, my master?" Alema Rar asked, bowing her head with respect.

"I've been making preparations; that's all you need to know."

"Yes, my master," Alema said with another bow.

"Leave me," she commanded, "and prepare yourselves for the battle that lies ahead." The Sith needed even less prompting than Seven had, and quickly exited, save for Alema herself. "You will obey me as well, child," the Oracle said darkly.

Alema dropped onto one knee before her. "I beg your leave, master, but there is a matter which puzzles me."

"You risk my wrath by disobeying," the Oracle observed.

"Power only comes with risk," Alema said. "I will not cower waiting for it to come in its own time."

The Oracle chuckled quietly. "Very good," she said. "You remind me of me, when I approached the Sith Masters of ages past. Very well, child; rise, and ask your questions?"

"I have read in your books that to properly forge a sword, you must put some of your own power into it. Why have you done so now, on the eve of battle with our enemies? Why not simply construct a lightsaber?"

The Oracle nodded. "I have lost much of my power in doing this," she admitted, "though given how much I have acquired it is not a significant loss. In time I will reclaim that which was given. But as to the sword... well, you saw when I battled Ben. The lightsaber, you see, is a tool... and a tool will always be limited by the skill of the one who uses it." The Oracle pulled out the sword. "This is much more... it is a reflection of the Force itself. The Force both controls and obeys us... so too does this weapon both control and obey me. With it, I am stronger, faster, more powerful. There is no limit to how far I can develop with this weapon, because as I grow in prowess, so does it. Make no mistake, child... I lost far more power when Ben destroyed my sword than I did in forging this one, because to be one with a Sith sword is to touch the Force in ways that only the greatest masters of history have ever done."

Alema bowed a little at the answer. "Master... you do not expect the others to survive, do you? That is why you have kept the details of our escape secret."

The Oracle smiled. "Very astute, child. There will be significant attrition in this battle, but it will wipe out the Jedi for good. The girl on Earth will have no chance to rebuild; but that is incidental. Yes, I do not foresee their survival... I have a ship located in the bowels of the base loaded with essential equipment and information. The temporal equipment will relocate it -and us- a day into the future, after the battle has ended, and we will be free to leave and rebuild. The Sith will always triumph, Alema, because time is my servant... it is always on my side."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian walked into the hangar and looked at the huge rock-covered glob that sat there. Romal and the Borg Queen followed close behind as he looked it over. Cube Prime was already on its way to the Delta Quadrant to launch it -and him- to the Vong world. Admiral Cirule's fleet had already rendezvoused and prepared for the final assault, but it all hinged on one ugly little pod. "So this is it?" Sebastian asked.

"Yes, prefect," the Queen said.

"It's a little snug," Sebastian commented.

"Reducing the deceleration to acceptable levels requires a minimal volume, prefect," the Queen said.

"Yes, I suppose it would," Sebastian said. Romal cleared his throat. "You should really see a doctor about that," Sebastian commented.

"Prefect," Romal said, ignoring the remark, "this pod technically qualifies as a ship, and thus I followed standard protocol for it."

"Uh huh," Sebastian said, looking it over some more.

"I had it christened the AFS Fields, Prefect," Romal went on. "Though you are well within your rights to change it."

Sebastian smiled a little. A ship that wouldn't be there for long, but would give him a little bit of comfort until he did what needed to be done... just like Janet. She could never have taken Jorri's place, but she was special to Sebastian nonetheless. He had seen her with her brother's infant son, and she was such a gentle woman. He hoped the embrace of the pod would be half as comforting as its namesake. "Ah, Romal, my devil's advocate," he said, "you are such a romantic at heart."

"It's not nearly as black and calcified as they say, prefect," Romal said with a smile only a Devaronian could offer.

"The Alliance is in good hands," Sebastian said. Romal bowed in appreciation, but it was clear he didn't share that assessment. He was probably right, too, but there wasn't anything Sebastian could do about it. Romal slipped out and Sebastian turned back to the pod. "You did good work," he told the Queen.

"We anticipated this would meet your approval," she replied.

Sebastian patted the rocky exterior. "It's kind of funny," he said, turning back to her. "You destroyed my mother, and then you rebuilt her according to your own values... and while you caused her so much suffering, nevertheless, she was that much stronger as a result. Same with you: she destroyed you, and through me rebuilt you into something that I like to think is better than what you were."

"There are some losses, and some gains," the Queen said. "But regardless, the Collective is what it now is, and we intend to remain as we are."

Sebastian crossed his arms and leaned back against the pod. "You don't know how happy it makes me to see my people as the force for good you have become."

"Yes, we do," the Queen said. "Our thoughts were one."

Sebastian laughed a little. "Yes, they were, weren't they."

The Queen hesitated. "We have made much progress on the virus," she said. "Soon we will be able to fully link again. At that time, perhaps we could find a way for you to escape the planet."

"Perhaps," Sebastian said. "But there's no more time. If I can end this war today, then anything I have to give up -even my life- is worth it."

"Your distinctiveness is unique," the Queen said. "Your loss will diminish us."

Sebastian let out a small laugh. It was as close as the Borg could get to saying they'd miss him. He embraced her; hesitantly, she patted his back, uncertain of the gesture. "You gave me a place to come to terms with my loss," Sebastian said. "And through your strength allowed me to move beyond it, to do what has been needed. Everything I have become, everything I have done, I owe to you."

"Give us time," the Queen finally said.

"No," Sebastian said. "I'll finish this."

"The Collective serves every Borg, just as every Borg serves the Collective," the Queen said. "You are still a part of us, Sebastian. Let us help you."

"You have," he said. "But this is where we must part. Sometimes... sometimes we have to stand alone."

The Queen shook her head. "That is one concept I'm afraid we can never understand."

"Can you accept that it's what I want?"

She nodded. "We will give you anything, Sebastian... even if it means your death."
--------------------------------------------------------------

In the Jedi Academy on Earth, Anakin Solo walked the corridors while talking with his father. Well, being talked at by his father was probably a more accurate description. Time was running out before they left, and Han was still pushing his son.

"Listen," Han said, "you've already lost time here. You want to get the drop on Janeway, then you need to get there pronto, and there's only one ship in the galaxy that can do that."

"I can't take her," Anakin said.

"Listen, she is fully up-to-date on everything; I even let Sebastian's Borg friends climb all over it and fix the little problems, the ship's as good as it's ever been."

"That fills me with confidence," Anakin said, but there was obvious humor in his tone. He caught his father's look. "Listen, I appreciate the gesture-"

"It's not a gesture," Han said. "I want you to do this, okay?"

Anakin stopped, then looked grimly at his father. "If we fail," he said, "the Alliance is smashing the planet. You realize that right?"

Han gaped at him. "Do you... do you honestly think that if you and Jaina don't come back, that I'm even going to be thinking about that ship? Anakin, it's a thing, it's not a person. All I know is that ship has gotten me through thick and thin, and if you and Jaina are going to do this, then I want to know you're taking the only ship that has never, ever, let me down."

Anakin wet his lips. Of course, he should have realized how hard this must be for his father; the Sith had already taken his wife and one of his children, and now the last two were going against her as well... and there was nothing to show that they weren't going to meet the same fate. "I'll bring her back personally," Anakin promised.

"'Course you will," Han said. "I mean, it is my ship... lot of history there." He put his arm around his son and the two walked towards the exit.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part L (cont'd)

Annika and Mara were dragged through the Farm, a medical facility of some kind they'd been stuck in ever since being dropped into this reality. The Cylons that had captured them seemed to have forgotten about the medical experiments for the moment, however, as whatever was going on outside the building was obviously serious. There was the sound of weapons fire almost constantly, but for now Annika and Mara's attention was firmly on their captors.

The pair were dragged into a room where Simon, two of the Number Six's, and a number of Centurions waited. There was a wooden chair covered with restraints and an array of needles; it didn't take much deductive reasoning to figure out what would come next. One of the Six's stepped in front of them. "Obviously there's more going on here than you're telling us," she said. "The one you injured said you seemed to appear out of nowhere, claiming to be magicians... now the place is infested with the xenomorph things. I want answers, and you will provide them."

"Again, we need questions first," Annika said.

Six grabbed Annika and pushed her towards the chair. "Her first," she said, and the Centurions quickly grabbed her and forced her into the chair. She struggled for all the good it would do; within half a minute she was strapped into the chair. "How did you get here?" Six asked.

"From another universe," Annika said flatly. Six backhanded her for the remark.

"She's telling you the truth!" Mara shouted. "We don't belong here; why else do you think you've never seen those things before?"

Six turned back to Annika. "Tell me about them."

Annika looked up at her with hate. "I told you what little I know. We were only there long enough to get infested."

"You never mentioned they had a secondary set of jaws."

"We didn't know that!"

"You never mentioned how fast they could mature."

"We didn't know that either!"

"You never mentioned that they had acid for blood."

"We- really? How the hell does that work?" She was backhanded again. "Stop that," Annika growled.

"Simon," Six said, "give her some persuasion."

"No!" Mara said, kicking the other Six in the knee and trying to escape. She managed to get her arms free, but then looked up as Simon held a gun to her head.

"Please," he said in a not unkind voice, "don't make this any worse than it has to be."

Mara backed off. The other Six punched her in the stomach, and she collapsed. Two Centurions picked her up, and she hung between them, coughing. These things may look human, Annika thought, but they were obviously much stronger.

Simon holstered the weapon and came over to the table, where he began filling the needles with chemicals. "Maybe we should rethink this," he said. "They're perfectly healthy, we don't want to risk-"

"Have you any idea how many female hosts we've lost to those things?" Six asked. "We need answers, Simon, and we need them now."

Simon nodded grimly and got back to work. Annika stiffened as she watched, then tried to take a steadying breath. The sight of Mara didn't help her confidence any.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The hours passed on board the pod, and Sebastian meditated to fill them, to prepare himself for this, probably his most important battle, because it would be solely decided by him. His success ensured victory, his defeat meant the end. There was no one else, no fall back position; this was going to determine the future for the galaxies. And as he considered the scope of that, visions came to him.

Seven of Nine slowed and stopped as she walked the corridor of the Death Star. She turned, and looked back. There he was; Luke Skywalker, waiting to die... and with him, any hope she'd have of exploring just how far her emotions for him could be taken. Was it just the schoolgirl crush, or was it something more? And if it was more, would it be allowed to reach fullest flower? Would he reflect her feelings, or merely decline her; just one more silly girl who presumed she could ever be worthy of someone as great as he was.

The moment came, and it defined the rest of her life. She saved him, and by doing so, was able to fully realize all of her hopes, as he helped her in every possible way to leave the drone behind and become something more, something that embraced the best of both her natures. And by that choice, she also allowed a champion to live who would help shape the future.

Luke Skywalker sat in his X-Wing, listening to the sound of her voice over the comm. He had been so stupid for so long, always thinking he had time to get to know her, but never taking the time to do it. It had taken the sight of her so close to death to shake him out of his sorry state and wake him up to the fact that if he didn't do anything, then he would never find it. And so he did, and found in Seven more than he could ever imagine. Not a day went by that he didn't revel in her presence, and that he didn't shake his head at his own past stupidity. He always had the power, but he had never acted.

Now the Borg were going to take her away forever. This time... time had finally run out. There would be no future with her, there would only be the void in his life where she had been, and the thought of that, and of what they would do to her, overwhelmed him.

The moment came, and it defined the rest of his life. He gave in to the Dark side, and even when it had been overthrown, it had never truly been beaten. It tempted him until literally the day he died, and the decision put up obstacles that couldn't be worn down even by time. But that choice also stopped the Borg conquest of the galaxy, and preserved someone who could help stop the Sith from spreading evil throughout the galaxies... as well as be the anchor to keep him from returning to his dark ways.

Moments come and go, but some are more important. Some shape our lives, and even the lives of others. In the lives of Luke and Annika Skywalker, those moments were one and the same. Likewise, it was for their son... but unlike them, he was not given a choice.

Sebastian stood in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, and he felt Jorrielle Sunspring Skywalker's presence vanish. He collapsed and repeated her name, quietly...

"No."

There is no emotion to the voice, no inflection. It's an empty, soulless voice, a voice that carries no conviction or condemnation. It is a voice that speaks the one compromise in the battle between head and heart. No, it's not true. No, there's no doubt. It's a truth that Sebastian can't deny, and can't accept.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Sebastian said quietly.

They're going to take it all away.

"She can't die. Not her."

Take it all away from you.

"And not my little girl."

Take it all away.

"The daughter I never got to hold."

Take it away.

"Never got to tell I love her."

Take away.

"Never got to know."

Everything.

Sebastian hadn't been allowed a choice, merely the torture of witnessing the loss of all that he treasured. What good did it matter now? he wondered. All that was left was his mother, who would fall all too soon from the disease that ravaged her body. And then they would be finished; they would have taken all that he had to give, and left him a wretched, empty shell.

"There's only one thing left to do," Sebastian had said as he got to his feet. "I have to stop them. It's all I have left now."

It was the moment that defined Sebastian's life, and affected the lives of every person in both galaxies. One woman perished, and in so doing, paved the way for the rise of the Borg, the defense against the Vong, and the creation of the Alliance. One woman died, and the galaxies had a chance to finally win this war. Just one woman... just one woman who had meant more to him than all the galaxies in the universe... and that was why there could be no choice, why she had to go away. "We need you," she'd said, "more than the galaxies do." And he would have given it to her, let the Vong win rather than give her up. But it was beyond his power... he had saved the lives of literally more people than could ever be counted, but the one he needed to save for the good of his own soul could never be one of them.

"I died," Jorri said, "because sometimes there are things that nobody in the universe can stop."

It couldn't be stopped, because Unity couldn't happen without it. Sebastian had become sick to death of it. He had been of half a mind to just forget the whole thing, but then he remembered that Jorri's death had made Unity possible. If Unity failed, then her death would be completely empty, and he would never let that happen. If it was all he had left of her, he'd respect it. So he crossed the void of space in his pod to see it to fruition, for her sake.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The door on the bridge of the AFS Enterprise opened, and Admiral Cirule turned to look at it. The Borg Queen was coming in lieu of Sebastian; she could offer advice on Vong capabilities if things deviated from the plan. It was a pity she wasn’t bringing a hundred or so Tactical Cubes along with her; Cirule never thought he’d see the day when he hoped for Borg ships, but given the strength of the Alliance fleet he could use the help.

Cirule looked out at the assembled mob. Romulans and Klingons, Cardassians and Krenim, Malon, Kazon, Tholian, hell, they’d taken anyone who was willing. This attack was it, they had to hit the Vong with everything, because there was no telling how long they’d have to wait for Sebastian, and if the Enterprise was lost then this whole thing would be for nothing. As soon as he was ready they had to be in position and ready to blow that planet away, because there was no way of knowing how long until the window of opportunity closed.

“Patch me through to all commands,” Cirule said to the comm officer, who quickly complied. “Now hear this,” Cirule said in a loud, crisp voice. “This is Admiral Cirule on board the Enterprise. We are heading to the center of Vong defenses, to finish a battle we were forced to abandon some time ago. This time, we are not leaving, not unless the Vong are dead. This war will end today... and I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve already made plans for tomorrow, so we damn well are going to be on the winning side. The Prefect would normally give one of his nice speeches to you about how we’re all in this together, and that he believes we can put aside our differences and defeat them as a united force. But he’s not here to say those words... he’s on the planet, putting his life in our hands, knowing that he can only succeed if we can do that. I think it says more than any words ever could. Let’s end this, and let’s make the boss proud.” He took a deep breath as he looked out the front of the star destroyer. “All commands, you have the coordinates. Move out.” And with that, the multitude of ships vanished into hyperspace.
--------------------------------------------------------------

There was a lot of activity, and that had to mean the Jedi were nearly here. Now was Seven's chance to try to help Mara and her counterpart, and to take care of the anomaly before it killed so many. But the question was how to do it? Oh sure, the technology wasn't all that hard to grasp, not with everything she'd learned over the years and witnessing the Oracle's application of it, but it was a good bet the Oracle was expecting her to try this. She had to be careful how she approached this.

What would Kathryn expect her to do? To override the lock with her nanoprobes. So, got to think of some other way of getting in... Non-linear thinking was Seven's specialty, so she threw the door out of the equation. Come through the wall, or the ceiling even. But this stuff was designed to resist small artillery fire...

She snapped her fingers. She remembered the vision of the Sith that the Oracle claimed was her son killing a Jedi... and taking his lightsaber as a trophy. It was around here somewhere, and odds were good they hadn't thought to booby trap that.

Seven slipped into the area where the Sith were quartered and easily broke into their rooms. The first two revealed nothing, but the third showed the trophy stand, complete with lightsabers. Good, now she had a-

Seven stared, then, her hand shaking, she reached out and took one. It was Luke's lightsaber... she'd know it anywhere. He'd left it for her after the incident with the Borg, and later he'd told her to keep it, that it was a part of him he wanted her to always have. She flipped it on, and the green blade hummed in the air, and a feeling of pleasant melancholy settled over her. She switched it off, nodded to herself, and ran off.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Millennium Falcon settled onto the surface of the planet near the entrance to the Sith caves. Carefully the band of Jedi exited, shielding their eyes from the glare of the sun. Molly O'Brien took the lead. "This way," she said. They quickly fell into step with her, but Anakin stepped to her side.

"Anything we need to be ready for?" he asked.

"Everything," Molly said. "There's still a good chance she knew we were coming. But she'll take us on face-to-face... she's very into the old Sith ways, she'll want to kill us with her own hands."

"I guess that's something," Anakin said.

"Not much," Molly said. "If you'd ever seen how she fights, you might think death from afar would be preferable."
--------------------------------------------------------------

There was a heavy clang as the portion of the wall fell in, and Seven winced at the sound. Still, it was too late now; she had to move quickly. She climbed inside and ran over to the controls and quickly plugged her assimilation tubules in. She was able to override the Oracle's security lockouts and gain access to the system. With careful touches she finally got the anomaly to appear on one of the monitors, then began searching. There it was, the shuttle, mired along the boundary, unable to pass into the universe there but also unable to escape. Mara and Annika were probably stuck there, but maybe she could do something. She looked over her options, but there were few. Maybe she could jostle them loose, she thought, and activated the controls, and was rewarded by some very unpleasant noises. She looked up and a pulse traveled down the tunnel and reached the shuttle; it spun about a bit but stayed where it was. She sent a second, and then a third, after which the system instructed her that any further pulses would threaten the stability of the anomaly. She couldn't chance another; if it collapsed they'd be trapped wherever they currently were, and she owed it to them to try and get them both home.

But what she didn't know was that although the shuttle hadn't moved, she had managed to make one small change to its interaction with the boundary.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika grimaced, and her whole body tensed. After a few seconds she began making noises as if her body were under incredible strains. "What's going on?" Six demanded.

Simon shook his head still holding the full needle. "I've no idea; I haven't done anything yet." They watched the muscles under Annika's skin begin moving of their own accord, and she groaned in agony at it. "I've never seen anything like this."

Annika held her head back and screamed. The skin on her left hand ripped and peeled, and metal emerged from underneath. She roared in pain and rage, and the restraints buckled and gave, and she collapsed onto the floor in a writhing mess; Simon backed away. "Do something," Six ordered.

"Like what?" he asked.

Annika's hands covered her face as she groaned in agony, but slowly she came to her feet. She straightened, and pulled her hands away; there was an implant over her left eye, and a grin on her face. "We are Borg," she rumbled.

Mara immediately took advantage of the distraction, Force pushing the Cylons away even as she reached out towards a gun. It flew into her hand and she began firing on the Centurions. They returned fire, but she ran, staying ahead of their shots thanks to her danger sense. She battered them about with the Force even as she fired, keeping them off balance.

Simon made the mistake of trying to grab Annika, but while he may be enhanced, it wasn't enough. She flung him aside and he smashed into the wall. One of the Six's ran at her and tried several martial arts strikes, but Annika blocked them. Metal emerged on the back of Annika's fist, and she gave Six a skull-jarring blow. Pushing the advantage, she grabbed Six, spun, and threw her into Simon, sending both crashing back into the wall again.

Mara ducked behind a pillar, the Cylon's fire getting a little too close. She picked up various pieces of equipment with the Force and began throwing them at the Cylons, sending them tumbling off balance. She ducked around and fired a few shots, then as one of the Centurions aimed she grabbed its limb in the Force and twisted, causing it to fire into a prone comrade. As the remaining Number Six went after Annika, Mara saw the other two were getting back up. She quickly shot them both, then went back to the Centurions.

Six ran at Annika, her blows quick and furious. Annika blocked two low swings, then ducked as Six spun a reverse kick. Annika came up, grabbing the front of Six's jacket while she popped the Cylon in the face, disorienting her for a moment. The moment meant everything. Annika spun Six around and slammed her fist on her shoulder, and Six dropped to her knees. Annika held her firmly with her right hand and held out her left. "This won't hurt a bit," Annika said as she extended her assimilation tubules.

Six jerked as Annika's tubules punctured the side of her head. She kneeled there, twitching, her face a mask of horror. "Wh-what are you doing?"

"Shh," Annika said tenderly. "I'm just seizing control of your silicate pathways." Six gasped. "Normally I wouldn't do this kind of thing, but there's two galaxies at stake, and well, you people haven't done much to convince me of your benevolence."

Six let out a quivering breath. "Wha-what are you?!"

Annika smiled. "I am the Borg. You will be assimilated. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. You will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile."

Six’s eyes slammed shut, then blinked open. Annika withdrew her tubules as she got back to her feet. "We will need to arm ourselves," Six said. "The area will be strongly defended, and there are xenomoprhs to deal with as well. This way."

Mara finished off the last of the Cylons and turned back, a sneer on her face as she looked at Six. "Don't, Mara," Annika said. "It's all right."

"Yes, Mara," Six said. "The knowledge and experience of the Cylon -Six- is part of us now."

Mara wiped her brow. "Okay, you know Seven, that never ceases to be creepy."

"I'm Six."

"No, you're Six, she's Seven." Mara threw up her hands. "God, the multiverse confuses the kriff out of me!!!"

Annika gave a lopsided grin. "Then what do you say we all just go home."
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Jedi entered the compound, and the Sith were waiting. So, this is what it came down to... either the Jedi would survive or the Sith would, there wasn’t going to be a rivalry any longer after today. Molly looked about at her allies, and there wasn’t a whole lot to fill her with optimism. There was Anakin and Jaina, of course; full Jedi trained by Skywalker himself, so she had some confidence... although given how Ben had mopped the floor with Jacen that confidence wasn’t much. There was Sakonna, the short Vulcan woman who clearly was better suited to other Jedi arts than combat. There was Shaote Lu, a fellow Terran, who was good with a blade from what she’d heard. And there was the Trill, Oria. They were the first class, battle-hardened for the most part, though still not full Jedi. And then there were the eleven, as they had been introduced to Molly; Force-sensitives with some training, but hardly qualifying as padawans. She’d been told their names, but there were so many, and she had a feeling most weren’t going to be alive after this fight anyway.

The Sith numbers had dwindled. There was Jowana and Triss, the Mistryl. There was Torda the Aqualish, and Aren Jod, the Ventaxian. And there was Alema Rar, in some ways Molly’s own counterpart, in that she had been seduced by the Dark side and switched sides, now probably the most devoted of the Oracle’s followers.

And then there was the Oracle, radiating power and darkness. Her eyes ran over the assembled Jedi forces, her assessment obvious. “This is the pitiful excuse you have for Jedi, Jaina?” she said. “It’s insulting.

“They can handle one measly Sith and a few hangers-on,” Anakin said.

The Oracle turned to him, and her eyes flashed. “Was I talking to you, boy?” And Anakin was knocked off his feet. “Is this honestly the best you think you can throw at me?” she asked, pulling out her sword. Anakin got back to his feet, only to be knocked back to the ground. “That this collection of children can possibly stand up to me?” Anakin stood up and was knocked down again. “When even the strongest of those among you cannot? Or can you?” Anakin was suddenly lurched back to his feet, as if a noose had slipped ‘round his throat.

Jaina pointed, and a swoop spun through the air at the Oracle. The Oracle held up her hand and it stopped, but Anakin dropped back to the ground, gasping for air. The swoop spun in the air as fast as a turbine and then launched across the cavern at the Jedi, who sprang out of the way; it exploded on the far wall. “Poor Jedi fools,” the Oracle said with a hint of pity. “You truly don’t know you were dead the moment you landed on this world.” She shook her head. “Kill them.”
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part L (cont'd)

On Caprica, the garage door opened, and Annika, Mara, and Six stood with weapons at the ready. Annika, naturally, wielded her standard plasma dischargers she’d grown, teasing Mara all the while since there wasn’t a lightsaber to be seen. The Jedi reluctantly opted for a pair of large-caliber explosive pistols; “clumsy and random,” was how she described them, but with her Jedi senses behind them they’d be very useful for this fight. Six settled on a carbine, choosing heavy fire rate and range since she had to worry about the xenomorphs more; the other Cylons would likely try to take her alive to figure out what had happened.

“We need a ship,” Annika said. “Something small; you’ll be piloting it alone, Six.”

“In that case, we might use the Raider,” Six said. “We liberated one that had been gutted by a human to allow a pilot on board; it should meet our needs. It’s in the hangar half a kilometer ahead.”

“What’s the plan on this, Seven?” Mara asked.

Annika led the way out of the garage, watching for any hostiles. “We secure the Raider; I’ll use my nanoprobes to augment its navigation system so it can find the border of the anomaly in this universe. All we need then is for the Raider to push us away from the boundary and we’ll cease existing anywhere except in the shuttle, where we’re supposed to be.” She stopped and held up her hand; two Centurions came, and she quickly downed them with plasma fire.

“I would prefer not to kill my kind,” Six informed Annika.

“Don’t worry, I did it for you,” Annika said, pressing on.

“Seven, “Mara asked, “will we... die?” She stopped and stared to her right. “In the shadows.” She fired, and there was the screech of a xenomorph. Another leapt, but rapid fire from Six’s carbine took care of it. “Those things feel so eerie.”

Annika turned her attention back to the front and marched on. “In answer to your question, no, we won’t die. We -our minds- will be instantaneously relocated back to the shuttle. This form we have here are just-“ She stepped around the corner and quickly ducked back. “Well, I could have lived a long time without having to see that,” she commented.

Mara peered around the corner. There were xenomorphs and Centurions engaged in an open fight. The Cylons had the advantage with their firepower, but every time they took down an alien, the creature managed to incapacitate or kill one of their own with its hideous blood. Mara watched as two xenomorphs jumped onto a Cylon and tried to penetrate with their hideous secondary mouths, only to watch them snap with an ugly wet sound when they hit the armor. The Cylon grabbed one and yanked it off, stomping its head in, but getting sprayed for the trouble. The other creature showed there was some kind of intelligence at work, because it shoved the Cylon’s head into the exposed wound, and the Centurion melted. “Yeah,” Mara said, “I really just want to go home now.”

Six glanced around the corner. “The hangar is past them.”

“Oh yes,” Annika said, “it would have to be.”

“We can try finding another way,” Six said.

Annika peered around the corner again, then took a deep breath. “If this works, I go back to being Annika Skywalker, disease-ridden old widow.” She turned and looked at the others. “Kriff that. This is my last chance to be that Borg girl, I’m not spending it skulking about trying to find the back door.”

“You do realize you’re just borrowing that body,” Mara said.

“This isn’t wise,” Six commented.

Annika held up her hands. “Okay, okay, we vote.” She sighed. “All those in favor of taking the short cut, open fire.” She darted around the corner and began blasting.

Mara growled. “Yeah, it’s all fun and games until something bites me in the leg,” she said, following after her, Six taking up the rear.
--------------------------------------------------------------

On the Oracle’s world, Jedi and Sith were already engaged in a bitter match. One battle in particular was personal.

Alema’s and Jaina’s lightsabers smashed together. “Is that fear I sense in you,” Alema mused, “my master?”

Jaina struck high, then low, then high; the blades ground together again. “Regret, my pupil... merely regret.” Anakin had actually asked that during the fight, that Jaina handle Alema for him; that after what had happened, he’d probably hesitate, and given the seriousness of the situation, they couldn’t hold back. The Sith underlings weren’t a problem but they would be a deadly distraction against the Oracle herself. Jaina, as always, would do whatever was needed for the Jedi Order to survive, although that still didn’t make this easy.

“Save your regrets,” Alema said, “for when you see the corpses of the fools that came here with you.” The sabers danced through the air together and Alema pushed towards Jaina, the Jedi giving ground as she did, lightsabers striking even as the Sith advanced on her. Alema got more vicious in her blows, until Jaina was on the defensive. The sabers’ crashes came faster and faster; Alema closed her eyes, clearly going solely on instincts now, Jaina rushing to keep her blade in front of the Sith’s.

“Jaina!” Jacen called. “Help me!”

Jaina turned. “Jacen?!” she cried. Alema brought her lightsaber around for the deathblow, and Jaina shoved her hand into her face. The Force push knocked Alema into a backwards somersault, and as she spun, Jaina swung, and the Twi’lek’s head flew from her shoulders. The illusion of Jacen vanished.

Jaina breathed heavily as she glared at the fallen Sith. “Thanks for making this easy for me,” she growled before jumping back into the fight.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Slowly Sebastian emerged from his meditation; the alarm in the pod was sounding. It's time, he thought. He hit the panel, and the side opened, and he emerged into the atmosphere of the Vong world. It was night and raining, of course... he'd have been foolish to think otherwise. He pulled himself out of the pod and looked about the world that he knew he'd die upon... there wasn't even the slightest hint of regret. He'd given Unity everything, and now he'd give it his life too; what more could anyone ask of him?
--------------------------------------------------------------

Three green blasts struck the Centurion in the chest, and it collapsed. Annika jumped over it and rolled to put her shoulder into the xenomorph waiting beyond it, knocking it off its feet. She bolted on as the creature’s head exploded from Mara’s blasts. It was all Annika could do not to whoop as she felt her heart pounding and the adrenaline rushing through her veins. The brakes were off, and she was as strong as she’d ever been, and it had been so very long since she truly indulged in pushing her mind and body to its limits. As she fired into more Cylons and watched them crumple under the blasts, she could believe that she just might have a chance against the Oracle after all.

It was a fantasy, she knew, but why not enjoy it for the few brief minutes she’d have it?

Behind her Mara was swearing, blasting the Cylons as she went to keep her Borg partner from getting herself killed. “You can’t adapt to a bullet, you stupid cow,” she muttered, putting two explosives into another Centurion that turned and aimed for Annika.

“I heard that!” Annika yelled, but there was no reproach in her voice.

“Good!” Mara shouted, and Force blasted a xenomorph out of her way. Six quickly turned and sprayed the creature with her carbine.

Annika laughed wildly as she grabbed a Cylon and twisted it around, using it like a shield as she blasted down its comrades. It struggled, but the fire that peppered its body soon finished that. She spun and tossed it into a xenomorph, sending the two into a nearby wall with a sickeningly wet cracking sound. She turned and blasted the door to the hangar open and ran inside; Six and Mara quickly followed. “See?” she said, panting for breath. “Piece of cake.”

Mara glared at Annika’s grin. “Six, you grab her arms, I’ll do the tickling.” Six reached out for Annika and Mara shoved her away. “What are you, an idiot? I was kidding. Get the damn ship ready.” Six went off amongst the various ships docked in the massive bay. “Seven-“

“I’m sorry,” Annika said. “And you’re right, it probably wasn’t the best plan... but I really needed that. When I get back, I’m going to be taking on someone who may even exceed the power of Palpatine... I just needed to feel a little strong again, because I’m probably about to get creamed.”

“I’ll help you,” Mara promised.

Annika shook her head. “There’s no time. The anomaly’s going to reach the wormhole eventually, and we can’t risk that. If you come with me you’ll be stranded in my universe-“

“So just use whatever voodoo equipment the Oracle has to send me back when we’re finished,” Mara said.

“I don’t know if I can,” Annika said. “Given how powerful the Oracle is, this may not be just technology... there’s no guarantees, Mara.”

“I’m willing to take that chance.”

“I’m not,” Annika said. “Because I will not hurt Luke -any Luke- and I know how much he loves you, Mara. I can’t let you come with me and risk you never going home.”

Mara scoffed. “You run through a field of monsters and killer robots and then talk to me about risks?”

“Flesh heals more easily than souls, Mara,” Annika said. “Please... go home to your husband... he needs you more than I do.”

Six came back into view. “The Raider is ready,” she informed them.

Annika nodded and walked over while Mara opened the main doors of the hangar. “Bleh,” Annika said as she climbed into the sticky interior, but she found the hardware integrated into it and inserted her nanoprobes, rewriting the navigational instructions to search for the boundary with the anomaly. She had to add a few implants to it to provide the necessary sensor data, but it would work. She slipped back out. “You understand what you have to do?”

“Yes,” Six said.

Annika gave half a smile. “You’re not bad, Six, when you’re not trying to torture me. Good luck.” Six nodded and climbed inside; Annika walked over to where Mara was waiting.

“Think it’ll work?” Mara asked.

“Flying lobster trying to pierce the boundary of space-time?” Annika asked. “What makes you doubt?”

“You really are an expert in inspiring people,” Mara said. “Because only an expert could suck as badly as you do.” They watched the Raider fly out of the hangar and towards the sky. “Anything we can do now?”

Annika looked at the assembled Cylons and xenomorphs fighting. “Just try not to get killed,” she said.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Alliance fleet dropped out of hyperspace, the Vong planet looming before them. Cirule watched it grow as the activity on the bridge increased. "All ships reported in, admiral," he was informed.

Cirule nodded, still watching the planet. "Shield status?"

A crewman looked up from the pit on his right. "Beyond superlaser tolerances, sir."

Cirule nodded; he'd expected as much. "I want a visual on the Prefect's landing site; let's make sure he made it."

"Enemy ship's closing in, admiral," an officer quickly reported.

Cirule glanced over at the holographic display. It was what was suspected. "Deploy the fleet, engage and destroy. The Enterprise is to be defended at all costs." The comm officer nodded and began relaying the orders while Cirule walked over to a nearby station. "Where's my visual?" he asked.

"There's heavy cloud cover, sir," the officer in command of the station said as he crewmen worked the controls. "We're filtering it out now."

Eventually a grainy image appeared on the screen, showing the pod, and the obvious footprints in the mud. "Can you find his current position?" Cirule asked. The scene shifted, and there was a figure tromping through the mud; the way the lightsaber glowed showed it could only possibly be Sebastian. "Do we have an ETA on his arrival at the shield?"

The officer looked at the data. "There's quite a bit of distance to cross, sir," he said. "There's no sign of any Vong in the area, but that will likely change."

"The Vong mind no doubt sensed him the moment he emerged from his meditation," the Borg Queen said. "You can be certain the Vong will offer some kind of resistance."

Cirule nodded grimly, staring at the grainy image of their leader tromping through mud and rain on a planet he was hoping to blow up. Strange things had happened over his career, but this was one for the books. "All right," he said. "If he needs time, we give him time, no matter what our losses." He walked over to the center of the bridge, eyeing the hologram of the battle, and then the battle itself beyond the window. "Though I hope he doesn't make us wait too long," he said under his breath.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Raider vanished from reality and entered unreality. Six gripped the sticky controls tightly, ground her teeth, and aimed for the shuttle. The two collided, and the Raider spun off out of control, but the shuttle drifted away from the edge.

Annika and Mara gasped as they found themselves on board the shuttle again. Mara quickly moved them far from the boundaries of the anomaly. "That's one for robot-girl," Mara commented.

Annika ignored the remark. "I think we're close enough by now," she said. "We should probably try switching me back."

"Sure," Mara said, turning in her seat and reaching for Annika's head, only to hesitate. "I didn't really realize it-"

"I know," Annika said, grabbing Mara's hand and squeezing it. "Despite everything, it was fun, Mara."

Mara pulled her close. "I wish I could help you pound the living daylights out of Janeway."

"Me too," Annika said. "But Luke's waiting for you back there... don't make him wait any longer." She kissed Mara's cheek and closed her eyes. "Let's do this."

Mara took a steadying breath and took Annika's head in her hands. She mouthed the words, eyes tightly shut in concentration-

Sickness came, and then the memories of things that Annika had never experienced. She felt herself being twisted and pulled and then, she saw herself, rushing past, and then a sensation like she was falling-

Annika opened her eyes and looked about the Oracle's lab. She was herself again... her weak, aged self. And now she was supposed to kill a Sith master. "I could really use some advice right now, Jean-luc," she whispered.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven of Nine gasped as she opened her eyes and looked down at herself. "Be it ever so humble," she muttered, then looked up at Mara. "Thanks for saving me," she said softly.

"Hey," Mara said with a grin, "what are friends for, if not to leave the universe and wrestle man-eating zombies?" She grabbed the controls and turned the shuttle around. "How much time?"

Seven shrugged. "She'll have to balance it as best she can," she said. "If the Oracle discovers her, she'll need to act immediately."

"So we better punch it," Mara said, and the shuttle raced down the tunnel back the way they had come.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin knocked the Sith’s saber aside and stabbed the Aqualish in the side. The alien howled in pain, and with two more swipes, it dropped to the floor, dead. Their plan, such as it was, had worked so far: they had numbers, they used them. Besides Jaina facing Alema alone, the rest of the Jedi had split into groups of three, one of the more experienced Jedi with two padawans, and they overran the Sith. Most of the Jedi lacked experience, but there had always been a heavy emphasis on teamwork, whereas the Sith always seemed to want to go it alone. The room was practically shaking with the crashing of lightsabers, but the Jedi had the momentary advantage. The ones going up against the other three Sith apprentices were doing very well; one had fallen, Oria had been injured, and another had lost a limb, but for the most part there was only one group that was having a problem, and it had been expected.

Anakin had hated doing it, truly despised himself for it. But as much as he might have spoken out against Sebastian’s pragmatism over principles, the fact was that they needed to stop the Oracle... even if it meant doing something ugly. Molly, Anakin, and Jaina were the three strongest Jedi; they had the best chance of overwhelming the Oracle. That meant that, to ensure they lived long enough to do it, that Anakin would have to put his students in her path, so that when it came down to just her that the strongest would still be standing. Shaote had volunteered for that; he was the best of the remaining Jedi, skilled with a saber, and as a Terran he felt he should face down this abominable example of his people. He hadn’t lasted long; even outnumbered the Oracle dominated the fight, keeping them at bay while she steadily disposed of them. Anakin could do nothing but focus on his chosen Sith; to deviate would be to risk everything.

The two padawans fell first, and then Shaote himself, and each one was like a blow to Anakin’s stomach. The Oracle turned as the Terran fell, and looked into Anakin’s eyes, and offered a hideous smile. Then she turned and walked from the room. It wasn’t long after that the final Sith apprentice fell, and Anakin was able to quickly take stock of the survivors. “Where’s she going?” he asked Molly. “She’s not leaving, is she?”

“Not a chance,” Molly said. “She wants open space to take us on... she’s heading into the larger caverns. More room for her to maneuver... more things to kill us with.”

“We’ve got the advantage,” a padawan said. “Even if you exclude the injured, she’s outnumbered ten to one.”

Molly shook her head. “You’ve no idea what she’s capable of.”

“She’s right,” Jaina said. “The advantage is hers, which is why we must be careful. Use our strengths; remember all that we’ve taught you. She’ll try to use the Dark side as a weapon against us... don’t surrender to it.” She pointed to Alema. “You see where that path ends.”

“Trust in your feelings,” Anakin said. “You are going to be close to each other, we don’t want to be hurting an ally in the middle of a fight.” He let out a steadying breath and led the way, the others following. It wasn’t hard to find her; her influence on the Force was greater than anything any of them had ever felt. She stood in the center of a large open cavern.

“Anakin,” the Oracle said, as if testing the sound of it. “Named after your grandfather, of course, who saw the power the Dark side had to offer.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Anakin said. “Spare me the Sith head games.”

The Oracle chuckled. “How’s Laudica doing?”

“Great,” Anakin said darkly. “I’ll tell her you asked after we’re done killing you.”

“Not very wise for one Jedi to marry another,” the Oracle said. “You grow oh so very attached... intertwined as it were.” The Jedi were taking up positions around her, waiting for Anakin to make the move. “And that makes you vulnerable.”

“It makes me stronger,” Anakin said.

“Really?” the Oracle asked sinisterly. “So then what do you think of... this?” She blasted Anakin off his feet, and the Jedi moved in. She grabbed three of them with Force lightning even while she knocked another two aside, leaping through the opening they created and somersaulting to the ground. She battered Anakin with another Force push, and his lightsaber spun from his grip. Jaina moved in, but was forced to hold back as lightning flew towards her. The Oracle blasted her away as well, then turned to Anakin. “Now,” she said, and Force lightning flew into him, “do you see?”
--------------------------------------------------------------

On Earth, Laudica fell against the wall and let out a scream.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin’s eyes flicked up to the Oracle. “What are you doing?” he said with rage.

“Just making a point,” the Oracle said with that frog-like grin, and more lightning ripped into his body.
--------------------------------------------------------------

“Anakin!” Laudica wailed, weeping in the hall of the temple as Kilana ran up.

“Laudica what’s wrong?”

“She’s killing him!” Laudica cried.

Han and Roger were soon on hand as well. “Take it easy,” Han said. “It’s all right.”

“It’s not all right!” Laudica snapped, then she closed her eyes and a shiver ran through her. “Please, help him!”

“Uh-oh,” Roger said.

“Not now!” Han snapped at the droid.

“No, there’s a problem,” Roger said. “’Cause she’s sitting in a puddle and I don’t see any rain in here.”

Han looked down; Laudica’s water had broke. “Oh terrific,” he said. “Kilana have someone ready to transport us to the Doctor’s hospital; Roger, you carry her.”

“Why me?” Roger asked. He caught Han’s look. “Because I always get the best and most rewarding assignments,” he said with as much sincerity as he could fake.

“It’ll be okay,” Han said to Laudica.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin glared up at the Oracle. “I’ll kill you for this,” he growled.

The Oracle grinned back. “Do try, little Jedi. Give in to the Dark side... you’ll still die, but perhaps you can at least be challenging.” Molly rushed her, but the Oracle gestured and threw her into the cave wall. Oria quickly followed up, and was stabbed through the stomach for the trouble. The Oracle threw the body at the Jedi just to be perverse. “You’re no Ben Skywalker, but I’m sure you could maybe manage something.” Anakin called his saber back and swung, but her sword blocked the blow. She pushed it aside and fired lightning straight into his face. “Or perhaps not.” Anakin was blasted off his feet and hit the ground with a skull-jarring blow. He looked up and the Oracle was wading into the Jedi, cutting down another padawan.

“What have we gotten ourselves into?” he whispered.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part L (cont'd)

Sebastian stomped through the mud as the rain fell around him, listening to the steam as it hit his lightsaber. His steps were steady and rhythmic to cover the distance quickly but without sapping his strength. Despite the chill of the air and the water he didn't shiver... in fact, he rather preferred this.

"Help!" came a frenzied cry from ahead. "Help me, please!"

Sebastian climbed up the low rise and saw a Vong warrior holding Morgan; she was weeping. "Daddy, please!" she begged.

"Stop, human!" the Vong commanded. "Stop or she dies!"

Sebastian stared at her. That look of desperation in her eyes, the agony... he'd seen it before, when she'd confronted him. It was a look he never wanted to see again.

"Daddy, help me!" she begged with tears.

"Do as I say, human," the Vong ordered, "or she will be given to the yammosk and broken... just like it broke you."

Sebastian looked at his daughter, his jaw trembling as grief spread across his face, rain running like rivers down his cheeks. In one quick move he lifted his lightsaber and threw it, spinning end over end and into his daughter. She and the Vong vanished, and Sebastian called his lightsaber back to him, pushing on without further comment. A Vong ran up the rise on his left and towards him, but Sebastian reached in its direction without looking and Force pushed, and it vanished, his steps never ceasing. His father came into view ahead of him, rage in his eyes. "What kind of Jedi are you?" he demanded. "You're nothing! You turn your back on everything I taught you-" Sebastian swung his lightsaber through him without pausing in his steps, and Luke vanished.

The battered form of his mother appeared. "Why are you here instead of rescuing me?" she asked, weeping. "What kind of son are you, that you'd let your mother suffer and die without trying to help? To pursue your own glory instead of looking after the only person left who loves you?!" She vanished as easily as the others.

"Everything I worked for," Janet said, "was to build an Alliance for you. Now you're ready to just throw it all away? Sebastian, why are you doing this?!"

"The Oracle is too strong!" Anakin said. "We need your help! She'll slaughter us all! Why won't you save us?!"

"What kind of example are you setting for the students?" Jaina demanded. "You don't belong here; you're not a real Jedi, just a fake. Only a real Jedi can win this war, and that means you will fail."

"It was the Sith that ruined your life," Kilana insisted. "I was there, I saw what they did! Why die here when they're still alive! Go and make them pay for what they did!"

"The Collective is collapsing, Sebastian," the Borg Queen pleaded. "We need you! You brought us back; don't let us die!"

"Unity," Ben Sisko said, "will only succeed if you are there. Turn back, Sebastian, or all the hard work will be for nothing!"

"I had to save your sorry butt on Helska," Kalib said. "How do you expect to get anywhere by yourself? Get off this planet while you've still got a chance, kid, or they'll mess you up good."

"This is not the way of a warrior!" Gorren declared. "You should be up there, leading our fleets in glorious battle, not skulking in the mud like some pathetic rat!"

"I told you I can't do this!" Romal said. "Without you the Alliance is going to collapse! It will be anarchy, worse than anything any Sith or Vong could ever hope to accomplish!"

"Bastian!" Jorri begged. "You've got to leave! Now! Please, you can't die here! Please turn back," she said, crying. "I need you!"

For the first time, Sebastian paused, but it was only for a moment. His saber passed through Jorri, and she vanished. He glared upwards out of one corner of his eyes, then the other. "Okay," he rumbled, "now I'm pissed."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Jaina and Sakonna attacked together, but the Oracle managed to dodge the one blade while blocking the other. She reversed and swung; Sakonna threw the saber over her head and back, catching the blow partly, but not completely. Green blood flew from where the blade struck her shoulder, and she let out a cry and stumbled away, but Jaina intervened before the Oracle could finish the job. Sakonna put a hand on the wound and closed her eyes. Her healing skills were impressive, but she needed concentration; she wouldn’t be much help in the minutes to come.

Two padawans came at the Oracle while she battled Jaina, hoping to catch her off guard. She blocked Jaina’s overhead strike before leaping and spinning back and around to avoid a thrust, and elbowing the responsible person in the back of the head. The poor padawan was tossed forward onto the waiting saber of the other, screaming as she felt the unintended deathblow. Jaina lashed out, Force blasting the Oracle in the face in a moment of anger, but following it up all the same. The Oracle swung back even while she stumbled, blocking Anakin’s attack. Jaina rushed in and the Oracle battered his lightsaber aside and leapt, somersaulting over him so the two Jedi would be side-by-side again. She gestured and rubble flew at them, and while blinded she pushed the attack, but together Anakin and Jaina could still hold their ground. Molly tried coming in, but it seemed that the more that got involved, the more the Oracle could play them off each other. She blocked Molly’s blow even as she put her foot into Anakin’s face and blasted Jaina with Force lightning. Immediately Molly was backing away on the defensive, trying to keep her saber in front of her blows.

Anakin rushed the Oracle from behind, but she locked blades with Molly and suddenly twisted and hurled her adversary around like a dance partner, and Anakin had to pull his swing so that he only grazed the back of Molly’s calf with the tip instead of killing her. She screamed and stumbled, but Anakin leapt right over her, saber swinging madly at the Oracle, hoping his ferocity could make up for her greater power; it didn’t. The blades locked and she twisted, putting a hand alongside his head. She Force pushed, and scrambled his inner ear, sending him tumbling over as his sense of balance was overwhelmed.

Jaina and Sakonna came at her again, but the Oracle’s blade seemed to be everywhere. She blocked Jaina’s strike even as her gnarled fingers grabbed Sakonna’s saber hand. A Vulcan has three times the strength of a normal human, but as the Jedi had learned, there was nothing either normal or human about the Oracle. She swung Sakonna’s blade in the Vulcan’s own grip as if she had the strength of a child, blocking Jaina’s strike even while the Oracle sliced through Sakonna’s leg. The Jedi screamed and fell, but again the fallen’s comrades rushed the Oracle and she couldn’t follow up on the kill. Still, the numbers were dwindling; whether it was death or incapacitation didn’t matter, the point was that they were losing their only advantage, and it was all too clear that none of them could go one-on-one against the Oracle. If she could injure enough, then it would all be over.

Actually, Anakin thought grimly, it may be already, and we just haven’t admitted it yet.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Raider raced through the tunnel of the anomaly at top speed. Six knew that there was a fifty/fifty chance that, after her craft had been spun out of control, that she was pointed towards the exit, so she pushed on. Of course, there was an equal chance she picked the wrong one.

Annika looked up in shock as Six tumbled out of nowhere and rolled across the floor of the Oracle's lab until she hit the wall. “Six? What the hell are you doing?!”

Six sat up, but remained on the floor. “Attempting an escape.”

“Nice choice,” Annika said. “You picked the reality where the bad guys are.” She sighed. “Still, I can probably use you... for what, I have no idea. Maybe you can run to the replicator and get dinner or something.”

“I don’t think this is the time-“

“No, it’s not,” Annika said. Apparently assimilating Six had some affect on her artificial intelligence, because it was coming up short.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Oracle paused in the middle of the fight. There was a disturbance... not in the Force, but in time itself.

“Seven,” she growled under her breath, and blasted a path through the Jedi and began running through the base towards her lab, the Jedi quickly pursuing.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The Doctor looked up as Han Solo came running up the hall of the hospital; behind him was Kilana, and taking up the rear was Laudica, who was swatting at a droid that was carrying her. “If those two are in love, I don’t want to hear about it,” the Doctor said.

“She’s in labor,” Han said, and the Doctor became fully serious.

“She’s not due yet,” the Doctor said, rushing over to the protesting Laudica, and the more protesting Roger. “What happened?” he asked Laudica as he ran a tricorder over her.

“Anakin,” Laudica said, crying. “He’s hurt, he... I don’t know!”

“Where’s Anakin?” the Doctor asked as he looked over the readings.

“The other side of the galaxy,” Kilana said.

The Doctor shook his head. “You people and the Force really know how to make life difficult.” He caught Han’s look. “This is a complication. I’m worried trying to give her something to stop the contractions will fail because of this Jedi magic thing.”

“You have a better idea?” Han asked. An orderly came up with a wheelchair and Roger set her down in it.

The Doctor wet his lips. “I’ve only done it once, but there is an Imperial procedure for fetal growth acceleration, for instances of premature births that can’t be stopped, but it’s a great strain on the mother.”

“Laudica,” Han said, coming up to her, “what do you want to do? Should the Doctor see if maybe he can stop it, or should we go for broke?”

Laudica was panting. “Which is safer for the baby?”

“The acceleration would be less risky for him,” the Doctor said, “but it won’t be pleasant.”

Laudica nodded grimly, knuckles turning white as she gripped the arms of the wheelchair. “I may have lost Anakin... there’s no way in hell I’m losing his baby.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Nom Anor watched the approaching shape of Sebastian on the display. "Why isn't he stopping?" he demanded.

The Hive considered this. "We don’t know,” they finally admitted. “This imagery worked on previous occasions.”

Nom Anor glowered at the image of Sebastian. "Then lose the subtlety. Destroy his mind; I will send out the warriors to deal with his body."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian marched through the mud and the rain. The visions had stopped. Good. They were unpleasant, if hollow.

He crested the next rise, and there was a Vong army. Thousands of warriors waited for him. It was all in his mind, of course, but still... it would feel real if they hit him. Do enough damage, and his mind would shut down. "Turn back, human," the one in the front called. "Or you will die."

Sebastian stared at them. Try as he might, he couldn't drive them away. They advanced towards him, but he stood his ground. He'd have to fight them... he had absolutely no idea how he'd do it, but he had to. Otherwise this was over; he'd never get the shield down, the attack would fail, and the Vong would eventually win.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"He's stopped moving, sir," an officer said to Admiral Cirule.

"Why?" Cirule asked, heading over to the station, the Queen joining him.

"Unknown, sir," the officer said. "He just stopped."

They looked at the long-range monitor; the grainy image did show Sebastian just standing there in the mud and rain. "What's he doing?" Cirule wondered aloud. "We're breaking radio silence; contact him."

The officer at the comm flipped a switch and tapped three buttons. "Prefect this is Enterprise, please respond." They waited. "Prefect this is Enterprise, please respond." He turned to the admiral. "No sign of an equipment malfunction on either end, sir."

"Has he switched it off?"

A few more taps. "Ping reports negative, sir," the comm officer said. "He's hearing us."

"Then there's only one possible explanation," the Queen said. "The Vong are attacking his mind."

Cirule ground his teeth and slapped the wall in frustration. "Is there something we can do?"

The Queen looked at him, then shook her head; it was as close to sadness as had ever been seen on her face. "There is nothing you can do."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Annika glanced up at the approaching form of the Oracle, and her hands flew over the controls. She just hoped Mara and Seven cleared the anomaly fast enough. She watched the Oracle stab a pursuing padawan through the chest and grimaced. Honestly, Jean-luc, she thought, anything would be helpful right about now. She hit the final button, and the machine pulsed and vibrated in a sickening manner, then let out a subsonic hum and went silent.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Seven looked at the rear display and watched the anomaly collapsing in on itself. "Oh, terrific," she muttered.

"Uh, Seven," Mara said.

"Not now, Mara," Seven said, "there's something very bad behind us."

Mara pointed. "I think there's something very bad in front of us too."

Seven looked up, and her jaw dropped open. "Aw crap..." she mumbled as she looked at the light at the end of the tunnel, which happened to be a hyperspace portal.

"What's that mean?" Mara asked.

"That the anomaly breached the light-speed barrier," Seven said, "and that we're in for a very rough landing." She looked at the collapsing tunnel behind them again. "Give it everything, Mara," she said. "And let's just hope we manage to survive."

The tunnel collapsed around them as they hit the boundary, and the two screamed as the shuttle spun end over end out of control through the white expanse before the forces overwhelmed them and they fell unconscious.
--------------------------------------------------------------

General Marnisch sat at the center of the bridge of the I.K.S. Qam-Chee, his flagship, scowling at the enemy on his screen. "I detest these Vong things," he commented to the captain even while the forces engaged. "It is like fighting a moving cadaver, nothing more. There are no minds over there seeking to thwart us, or that we might triumph over, there isn't even animal instinct to make this a worthy challenge. They are just moving things with no will except what their masters give them."

"And that is what makes them weak, general," the captain observed.

"Hah!" Marnisch said, clapping his hand on the man's shoulder, "so it does! And the prefect saw that as well." He shook his head as he watched his forces peel off and attack a new contingent of Vong bioships, their heavy weapons blasting at them while the bioships sought out their carefully calculated targets. "I envy him. One man against them all, meeting a final end in battle to thwart our enemy, truly a glorious death. Don't let that soft flesh deceive you, captain; there is a Klingon heart within him." He squinted a little. "There is a bit of sloppiness in the Vong," he observed. "Have the third wing converge on their right flank."

"Aye general," the captain said.

The Klingon heavy warships and light cruisers broke their lines and swooped in, torpedoes and beams firing. The Vong ships were buffeted by them, and many turned to engage the new arrivals. Their heavy firepower was able to quickly overwhelm the Klingon defenses with only a few shots, and it wasn't long before Marnisch was forced to redeploy his forces to better contain the Vong.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Contact the Rovaran," Admiral Cirule said. "Tell them I need the Romulans to provide more support for the Breen line."

"Aye sir," the comm officer said.

Cirule looked at the holodisplay, then out the window. The Vong forces were pounding them, without a doubt, and their attacks were far more coordinated than the Alliance's own. He glanced over at the frozen image of the prefect on the screen. "Come on, sir," he said under his voice. "We didn't come all this way to watch you stand in the rain."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin sprinted at the Oracle’s back, but she turned and swung, catching his strike. She quickly blasted him aside even as Molly and Jaina ran towards her. She caught Jaina’s strike and bent both blades to the left, swinging up and kicking Molly in the face with her right. Jaina Force pushed the Oracle in the face, and the Sith stumbled back, radiating hate. She didn’t run so much as glide towards Jaina, sword swinging impossibly fast for its size, Jaina barely staying ahead of it, forced back. Molly came back at her and the Oracle leapt back out of the way, blasted Jaina with Force Lightning, and tossed Molly into Anakin. Jaina stepped forward and swung, but the Oracle sidestepped and swung up, slicing through Jaina’s wrist.

Jaina screamed and dropped to her knees, but fortunately more of the Jedi were there to keep the Oracle from delivering the deathblow, but it may prove unnecessary. Even though it may act like a lightsaber, the Sith Sword cut like a piece of sharpened metal, and Jaina was bleeding profusely. Worried she might lose consciousness, she acted without thinking, grabbing up her lightsaber and burning the tip with it; the cave echoed with her screams.

Anakin swore under his breath. “I’ll go left, you go right,” he said to Molly. The two charged, but the Oracle pointed her sword at the rock in front of her, eyes tight in concentration. Before they arrived it cracked and exploded upward, tossing them aside as it ran over their flesh like sandpaper. She sprung at the prone Anakin, but he brought his saber up in time to block the stroke towards his neck. She swiped again low, but he drew his legs up just in time, then pivoted and drove them into her chest, tossing her backwards. Molly was waiting and swung, but the Oracle whirled and caught it, instantly going for a low slice that penetrated Molly’s thigh, and the former Sith cried out in pain, barely jumping aside as the Oracle tried to finish her off. The Oracle whirled and drove her sword through a padawan’s chest, then blasted him backwards to free her sword so she could bring it around and stop Anakin’s strike at her back. “Your numbers are growing thin, Jedi,” the Oracle said with a dark smile.

Annika and Six watched through the opening. “This is the one you must defeat?” Annika nodded wordlessly. “Can you do any of those things?” Annika shook her head. “Do we have a plan?” Annika shook her head. “I think my time in your universe is going to be rather short,” Six remarked.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian was able to catch the swing of the first Vong, and the second. He rolled with the third. The fourth, however, caught him square in the face, knocking him back. After that, the blows seemed to come from everywhere, which wasn't far from the truth. Sebastian stumbled as they battered him, then finally he was knocked to the ground. He tried to pick himself up, but another blow struck him across the face, knocking him prone. "One feeble mind," the closest Vong said with contempt. Sebastian turned and looked up at him. "You never had a chance." Sebastian tried to summon the strength to move, but there was nothing left. The Vong pulled back a fist wrapped inside the most horrifying gauntlet the Jedi had ever seen. It plunged at Sebastian's face.

A gloved hand caught it.

Sebastian looked up the arm to the face of the most unlikely rescuer he could have imagined. She looked back from the attacking Vong to Sebastian. "Our thoughts are one," the Queen said.

Sebastian felt cybernetic limbs of all types underneath him, lifting him back to his feet. He turned back and saw... not an army, because that would not convey the sheer number of beings there. Rank upon rank of Borg drones stood with him. He looked in shock over at the Queen. "What are-"

"We will hold them," the Queen said emphatically. "Do what must be done, quickly!"

"The virus," Sebastian said quickly. "You can't link together or it will destroy you!"

"Then destroy them first, Sebastian," the Queen said.

"You can't-"

"No Borg stands alone, Bastian," the Queen said. "Now go."

Sebastian looked between her and the Vong forces, then faded away as the Collective intervened, protecting his consciousness through the link. The Vong pulled his hand from the Borg Queen's grip and glared at her with contempt. "You can't protect him for long."

"We can for long enough," the Queen said.

The Vong spat. "It is futile!"

The Queen smiled at him. "Funny... we used to believe the same thing." And Borg and Vong charged one another.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part L (cont'd)

“Are we going to stand here until she comes in and kills us?” Six asked.

“Well, I’m calling that Plan B,” Annika muttered, trying to think of something.

“Can any of this be useful?” Six asked. “If it can cross universes and such, surely it can kill one person, no matter how powerful.”

Annika shook her head. “There are all kinds of safeties in the system; all I’ll be doing is sending her somewhere or somewhen else.”

“And why is that wrong?”

“Because all it does is try to buy time,” Annika said. “And time will always be on the Oracle’s side. Sending her away is exactly what she would like... it gives her a chance to prepare for a way to destroy us, that’s what she does. Look at her, lying dormant and striking when we’re weak. No, we try sending her away, and we lose, Six.”

Six.... 6.... she began mumbling the number as she dropped her finger on the panel and drew it out... “Son of a bitch,” Annika said under her breath. “That’s it.” She let out a laugh. “Of course, that’s it!” She grabbed onto Six by the shirtfront. “It’ll work! Ask me how I know it’ll work!”

“How do you know?” Six asked dutifully.

“Because I already did it!” Annika said, laughing as she plunged her assimilation tubules into the equipment. "Listen, if the Jedi fall, I need you to buy me some time.”

“Is there a weapon I may have?”

“No, no weapons. If you have a weapon you’ll just make her mad.”

Six nodded and walked to the entrance. Anakin was tossed aside again by the Oracle; it was obvious the battery was taking its toll on his body. She jumped down and took her position, ready to tackle the Sith aside if necessary, though she could tell it wouldn't succeed in being much of a delay.

Anakin reached out his hand and called Jaina's saber to himself, ignited it, and leapt back into action. The Oracle swung and Anakin crossed the blades, trapping it between them. Molly rushed at her, but the Oracle shoved her hand into her face and released Force lightning straight into her eyes. Molly stumbled away, screaming in horrible agony at her blindness. Anakin uncrossed the sabers, his right one pushing the sword aside while he brought the left around, but her other hand was still free, and she blasted at it with Force lightning, holding it back from reaching her. Anakin struck her in the knee, and she stumbled, nearly falling to his slice, but managing to stay ahead of it. The Oracle stepped and ducked and slid, as if dancing away from his strokes. In the blink of an eye she faked two different moves, actually making a third that put Anakin just slightly out of position. Her sword came down through his hand, and while he grimaced, all that happened was the end of the bionic limb sparked and sputtered. Still with one saber, he kept at her, teeth ground together as he fought on.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Annika said to herself, glancing up at the fight every once in a while. “Damn it!” She should have known; the Oracle had programmed the equipment not to lock onto her own biosignal, and reprogramming it would take hours at least. She looked up as Anakin tried in vain to hold off her attacks, but with only one hand left he didn’t have much time. Okay, then, she thought, then there’s only one other option: give it something else to lock onto, but that would require putting something inside her. Fortunately, Annika was an expert on exactly that. She programmed the controls and set up the machine, but to finish it... that was going to be a little tricky.

Annika cloaked herself, then tried to decide how best to do it. Then she saw Luke's lightsaber, sitting on the bench nearby. She picked it up and stared a moment, then closed her eyes and gave it a gentle kiss. "I need your help one last time, sweetie," she said.

Annika hopped out of the opening to the cave floor; the Oracle knocked Anakin aside and glared at her. “Do you honestly think that little trick can save you?” she asked. “You are quite delusional, Seven, if you actually think some Borg is going to defeat me.”

“I beat Whind,” Annika said defiantly.

The Oracle whirled and blocked two of Anakin’s strikes, then Force blasted him aside. Six rushed her, but the Oracle wrapped her in Force lightning and tossed her away. “Mara Jade was a pathetic child, just like you.”

Annika lit the lightsaber. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she growled. The Oracle tossed Force lightning at her, but Annika caught it with Luke’s lightsaber. “Come on, captain,” she said. “You want to kill me, then do it face-to-face. Prove that the Dark side can give you the power to overcome one aged Borg girl.” She swung the lightsaber defiantly. The Oracle laughed, and Annika charged at her, screaming like one of her berserk ancestors of ages past. The Oracle could batter her aside, or choke her where she stood, or catch her with the lightning, or any of the other tricks she’d used on the Jedi, but Annika was nothing compared to her. She was a washed up widow who hadn’t managed to outmuscle anything in over a decade, whose last real fight in this realm was a bar brawl. One slice of the sword would finish her as easily as the padawans fell... she could already see it would happen.

And as Annika almost reached her, the lightsaber was pulled up to protect her head, though her torso was all too exposed. She leapt, and the Oracle’s blade came up, and then there was pain. Distantly, the analytical part of her mind processed the information. The Oracle's sword had pierced her abdomen, just a few centimeters below the sternum. She'd die, without a doubt. It didn't matter any more, not to Annika. She dropped the lightsaber as her hand twisted into a fist, and with the other she grabbed the Oracle's collar and pulled it so her face was inches from her own. She growled at her former captain, her voice saturated by pain and hate. The darkness and the light faced one another for the final time.

"You’re out of time, bitch!" Annika snarled and drove her assimilation tubules into the Oracle's chest. The Oracle sneered at her, and Annika was tossed backwards, blood flying from her wound, but the brief injection was enough; the implants were being grown even as she landed. The Oracle could destroy them, but they only needed seconds. "Anakin!" she cried, coughing. He looked to her and she pointed to the controls. "The red button!"

Anakin and the Oracle both looked over to the blinking button on the table. She roared at him, but he stabbed in the air at it and the button depressed, and energy poured into the cave from out of nowhere. The Oracle screamed with rage as it centered on the wound Annika had inflicted, but for once she was helpless. The air smoked and sizzled, and the light became blinding. Anakin stumbled back and Six shielded her eyes, but Annika was too exhausted to even think of looking. With a final cry the Oracle seemed sucked into the wound itself, and vanished.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Through the rain, Sebastian knew they were coming. He'd expected it, of course; some of the Vong had thrown in with Nom Anor, and would know what he had planned. The creatures that composed the Vong mind would need to remain together to coordinate the battle, but the warriors could still oppose him.

Sebastian lit the other blade. Let them.

The first two ran at him; Sebastian brought the blades up and caught their swipes, then side-stepped and looped down to slice through the knee joint on one of them. He brought it up over his head, the other blade coming down to catch the other Vong's blow at his back. He quickly reversed and beheaded him. Three more had arrived almost immediately, and Sebastian quickly slipped into a defensive posture, his lightsaber twisting and spinning to block the strikes. A compartment on his right arm slid aside and a plasma discharger emerged. He circled sideways, shifted the saber to his left hand to block the blows even while his right hand came up and Force struck the nearby Vong. It stumbled, and in its distraction Sebastian dropped his hand into a fist and fired, sending the blast right into the Vong's face, killing it instantly.

The other two Vong swung furiously at him, but the rain helped; it gave him something to sense, like paint dumped on an invisible man. His saber spun, catching their attacks. It was the same problem they always had, they were too interested in personal glory to work as a team. But they were becoming a distraction, so Sebastian somersaulted away backwards, putting some distance between them and the three reinforcements. As he spun a crunching sound could be heard as he grew an ocular implant over his left eye. He aimed and fired, downing two of the Vong before they could reach him, then reaching out with the Force to toss the rest aside as they charged.

Sebastian switched off one of the blades and slipped in between them, letting their blows keep each other off balance. An amphistaff swung, and he stopped it, then grabbed the head of the creature. It went soft and bit him, but the arm wasn't real, so all he did was take advantage of the situation. A quick yank with full Borg strength pulled the Vong forward, his face landing right in Sebastians outstretched lightsaber. Sebastian pulled the amphistaff from its master's dead hand as he spun, slapping the Vong behind him with it. It was a momentary distraction while he shoved his saber between the seams in the torso of the armor.

Sebastian felt the blow connect with the back of his leg that was, until recently, human. There was no pain, he'd turned it off, so all he did was just take the information and use it. He whirled around, saber connection with amphistaff in a furious exchange of blows until Sebastian wrapped the still connected creature on his arm around the Vong's and heaved, throwing him off balance. Sebastian spun with everything, saber hitting with such force it sliced through the armor and cut the Vong in half through the chest.

Casually he stabbed the amphistaff in the head, and it fell off his hand. There would be more coming soon; all that was left was the one he'd disabled at the start of the fight. Sebastian turned, and was surprised to see it was Nom Anor himself. "Fancy tricks," the Vong spat. "But they will gain you nothing! You are inferior!"

Sebastian turned away, switched off his lightsaber, and started walking. "Where are you going?!" Nom Anor demanded. "I am a Vong warrior! Don't you dare turn your back on me!" Sebastian paused, and then he snickered. You're dangerous, he thought, but only as a creature in the shadows. All this time you wanted to be a warrior on the battlefield, dreaming of taking your place among the honored, but it was never your destiny. Your only talent is in letting others fight your battles.

"Come back here!" Nom Anor commanded as Sebastian resumed walking. "I challenge you to try and finish this!"

Sebastian looked back over his shoulder at Nom Anor, and shook his head. "Unworthy," he growled, and kept walking.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Anakin ran to where Annika lay, coughing and bleeding from her wound. She could tell by the look on his face that he had figured out what she'd already deduced; this wound was mortal. She could only hope she'd finished it first. "Is she..." she coughed. "Is she gone?"

"Yes," Anakin said, looking at her wound.

"Heh... never k-kriff with a Borg, Anakin."

"Shh, try not to talk."

"It's okay, Anakin," Annika said. It was over, that's what mattered. The last of the five to fall, the last to do what was required for Unity to succeed. All that was left was her son, and she knew he wouldn't fail... her baby didn't know the meaning of the word. She smiled and ran a hand down Anakin's face. "Tell- tell Sebastian that I am so, so proud of him." She looked into his face and noted the uncertainty. "He's not going to die," she said softly. "He's got to live... it's... it's fate..."

"Annika," Anakin said, "just hold on." Her eyes started to roll into her head, and he slapped the side of her face. "Fight, Annika!"

Annika took one last breath. "I’m tired of fighting... it’s...... futile........."

"Annika!" Anakin cried. "Annika, stay with me! Stay with me!"

"Stay with me," Luke said, taking her hand.

Annika stood up and looked down at herself. She looked as young and as beautiful as the day she'd walked into his quarters. Then she looked at him, and he was every bit the man she remembered. "You've been waiting for me?"

"Of course I have," Luke said with a smile. "We only get one universe together... why should we limit it to a mere lifetime?" He kissed her, and it felt every bit as wonderful as it had in life. “I’m sorry I had to go away for a while, Annika.”

She clung to him. “I’m just glad to have you back,” she said.

“No matter what happens elsewhere,” Luke said, “know that I was always and only your soul mate... that here, you were the only possible one for me, no one else.”

Annika was trembling, she was so happy. “I never thought it could be anyone else but you.”

“Come closer...” At first she hadn’t understood, but then she felt herself pulling into him, and him into her... like the many mind melds they’d shared, but so much more, so much closer until there was no way to tell where one ended and the other began. They never lost their individuality; instead they felt the warm comfort of each other, love and joy and contentment saturating their beings.

"It's so wonderful," Annika said. "I never imagined anything could feel like this." She basked in the sensation; to be so close to him, to share herself with him completely and feel his adoration in return. "How long will this last?"

"As long as you want," Luke said.

Annika's joy was indescribable. "I never want it to end," she said.

"Then it won't," Luke promised. "I'll always be with you, Annika... always and forever."
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Sir," an officer in the pit said, "the Krenim-Tamarian line has been broken."

Cirule nodded grimly, but with resolve. "Stand by for engagement," he said as the Vong ships swarmed towards the Enterprise. "Fire at will."

The assorted turbolasers of the Eclipse-II blasted into the Vong fleet, some merely battering them around, others blasting them into oblivion. The Vong weapons pounded the shields of the warship in kind, and it was only a matter of time before they would buckle and give.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Take us in," Captain Naomi Wildman ordered. "Engage and destroy. The Enterprise is to be protected no matter what."

The star destroyer Visage moved in, along with the rest of the flagship's escort, and began pounding the Vong warships. The smaller bioships swooped among them like schools of fish, but the former Imperial gunners were still able to catch them, but not all. They seemed to just keep coming.

Naomi shook her head as she watched the engagement. "Any ideas, Harry?"

Harry Kim, her long-time civilian science advisor, could only shake his head. "We can't jam the signals, and we can't disrupt their defenses. We're just going to have to put them down before they put us down."

“At least it’s a tactic that’s easy to understand,” Naomi said.

One of the star destroyers went up under the barrage, and then another. The Vong ships were taking heavy losses, but it was obvious that they had a strong numerical advantage. The Enterprise continued tearing into them even as they blasted away at her, piercing the shields in some places and penetrating her hull. Cirule called the Klingons and some of Borda’s cruisers to help keep the pressure off, but the bioships seemed to be everywhere. “How can they have those numbers?” Naomi wondered.

“There’s a lot of biomatter in a planet,” Harry said. “And the Vong have been pillaging worlds for a while now.”

Naomi shook her head wordlessly as she watched them. “I never really grasped it, up here,” she touched the side of her head. “They could actually overrun us, couldn’t they.”

Harry turned and looked out the front of the ship as another star destroyer was vaporized under a Vong attack. “Unless we finish this soon,” he said, “they will.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Laudica wailed as another contraction hit. "I know," the Doctor said sympathetically. "I'm working as fast as I dare."

"It's going to be okay," Kilana assured her.

"What the kriff do you know?! You're a goddamn clone!"

"I can't argue with that," Kilana admitted.

"Roger," Han said, "hold her hand."

"Why me?" Roger asked suspiciously.

"Because I'll melt you down if you don't," Han shot back.

Roger shook his head as he held out his hand to Laudica. "Some people have no consideration for the feelings of- whoa, quite a grip there!"

"Shut up!" Laudica yelled at him.

"Doc," Han said, coming over to where the Doctor was working. "Can't you do anything?"

"With all that's involved, we can't chance it. This procedure is very dangerous; every element that we can eliminate from the equation increases the likelihood of survival for both of them."

Han looked back. Laudica had given up the hands and had elected to grab Roger by the ears. She screamed, then him, then her, in a twisted sort of duet. "Just hurry," he said.

"Laudica," the Doctor said, "your child is nearly here. I promise, in a little while you'll see how it will all be worth it." He activated a few panels, and a hologram of the baby appeared before her, and Laudica stared. "Your son's almost here," he said soothingly. She let go of Roger, who swayed and fell over, but no one noticed. "I know it hurts... but I promise you that very soon, you won't even remember the pain at all..."

Laudica grimaced. "That's pretty hard to believe, doc," she got out.

"He's right," Han said soothingly. "You won't believe how wonderful it is."

A contraction hit, and her face screwed up in pain. "Just hurry this up," she said, crying.
--------------------------------------------------------------

More Vong had come, but they had met the same fate as the others. Sebastian wasn't the best duelist, or the best pilot, or the best warrior, but he had been killing Vong for a long time, and it had proven one thing he was very good at. They were fevered, blood-thirsty glory hounds, while he was a cold and analytical machine. So wherever they came, there was a trail of fallen bodies to mark it, but still Sebastian moved on, with the single-mindedness of a Borg and the unyielding resolve of a Jedi. It wasn't until he caught sight of the node that he quickened his pace.

Sebastian froze. There were two Fan’cals standing near the node. Great; those things were capable of talking down armored vehicles. He sighed; well, there was no other choice, the next node would take him days to reach on foot, and they probably didn’t even have hours. He switched his lightsaber over to single blade, then regrew his ocular implant and carefully sighted. He put a plasma bolt straight into the eye of one of the Fan’cals, and it roared in pain. Good, that cut down its depth perception. Then it pointed its head at him; not so good. Sebastian jumped and somersaulted through the air as a gush of flame passed below him, turning soaking mud into glass in its wake. He hit the ground and sprinted for it, standing ready. It blew flame again, and he again leapt out of its path, but this time it pursued, lighting the night as the fire tried to catch his arc. If it caught up with him he probably wouldn’t even leave ashes, but at the moment he was in the hands of Newton. Fortunately it couldn’t move fast enough, and his feet hit the mud. He sprinted madly, hoping to stay ahead of it.

As far as he could tell, he had only one thing going for him: the Vong mind was still engaged with the Borg, and clearly that meant that these Fan’cal weren’t being properly coordinated. Between the battle overhead and the mental assault, obviously there wasn’t enough to give these beasts the proper focus, or he’d be dead already. He played off that, jumping over the back of the other beast even as the Fan’cal readied another bout of flame. The other roared as the fire struck, chewing through even its armor plating. Sebastian grinned, and then horror passed over his face as the implication hit him, and he bolted off. Behind him, the fuel bladder was pierced and the creature erupted, sending shards of burning flesh raining over the area and knocking Sebastian face first into the ground. He whirled back and saw the creature lumbering towards him, but it looked a little better since it wasn’t flaming; their trick was good, no doubt, but the organic limitations on fuel were still a major problem. Sebastian stood in a wide stance, saber in his right hand, waiting for its next attack.

The tail whipped out at him, and he twisted and swung, slicing through it before it could stab him. The Fan’cal roared and charged him, its nasty black teeth snapping at him. He jumped and landed on its back, turned and stabbed the back of its neck; the beast went down. He repeated the gesture just to be safe; these things weren’t to be trifled with, and the last thing he needed was to die seconds away from finishing his mission.

Lightsaber still sizzling in the rain, Sebastian pulled out his commlink as he crossed the mud towards his target. "Come in Enterprise," he said.

"Go ahead, prefect," Cirule said.

Sebastian approached the node. "You have a firing solution in place?"

"Yes, sir."

Sebastian slowed in his approach, then stopped and turned to his right. It was still raining just as hard, but there, just on the horizon, was the barest hint of the sun peaking through the clouds. Morning had arrived despite the storm. Sebastian smiled, turned and swung through the node with his lightsaber. Energy discharged around it, but he ignored it, swinging again and again until the discharges stopped. With a deep breath he switched off the saber, holding up the commlink while he watched the distant sunrise. "Shield status?"

"Within tolerances," Cirule said.

Sebastian nodded, a lopsided grin on his face. "Final orders, Enterprise: Commence primary ignition."

Cirule looked from the comm station out through the window at the planet beyond. "Aye, prefect," he said quietly. "You heard your orders," he said in a loud voice. "Finish this!"
--------------------------------------------------------------

They're going to take it all away from you.

Sebastian sat in the mud, held his head back, and let the rain wash down his face, his smile never fading. The rain did nothing to detract from the beauty of the new day... in fact, it made it all the more sweet, like all the sins were being washed off of him along with the caked on dirt. "Is it over, Ben?" he asked.

"Yes," he heard in a voice on the wind. "The light has triumphed over the darkness."

Sebastian wiped his face, then let out a sigh of contentment. "'They can take nothing from me,'" he said, quoting Remarque’s words, "'they can take nothing more. I am so alone, and so without hope that I can confront them without fear.'" He looked up, and saw a glow that he knew in his heart was the blast from the Enterprise... and it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen in his life, because it was the way home.

"We promise," the vision had assured him, "it will finally stop hurting." After all the pain and loneliness, that was all the reward he wanted. He closed his eyes and claimed it.
--------------------------------------------------------------



Chuck

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Part L (cont'd)

The Borg Queen stepped to Admiral Cirule's side as they watched. The shield buckled and gave, and the full force of the superlaser struck the planet. It ripped through the layers until the core was breached, and then it burst, shattering the world into bits of starlight and rubble.

Around them, the Vong ships floated, but it was clearly inertia, nothing more. No will filled their simple minds to fight, they simply floated, free of the malicious thoughts of the Hive. The Vong menace was finally, fully wiped from the galaxies... and that meant that the war that had waged for ten long and tragic years had finally ended... that peace was finally here.
--------------------------------------------------------------

"Congratulations," the Doctor said, "it's a boy." Tears and sweat covered Laudica's face, but beneath it was nothing other than pure joy. The Doctor placed the baby in her arms, and she wept, she was so happy. Han patted her shoulder and smiled a little at his grandson.

"Did you two work out a name?" Han asked, watching the rocking form in Laudica's arms.

Laudica nodded. "Luke," she said. "Luke Solo."

Han let out a small chuckle. "Nice choice," he said. "Very nice choice.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Mara Skywalker and Captain Seven of Nine sat in the shuttle, waiting for the Visage -their Visage- to lock on to their distress signal and pick them up. The anomaly was gone, and their galaxies were safe again. They only hoped that Annika had been able to finish what she needed to do, but they knew they would never know. Seven looked over at her friend. “There’s something you should know,” she said. “What I said in the storage room wasn’t exactly accurate... the fact is that I never stopped caring about Luke as, as more than a friend. The other me didn’t make me do those things... all she did was make me do what I’ve been wanting for a long time.” She swallowed and looked away. “Don’t misunderstand... I could never hurt you. Luke is a very special man, and he deserves someone worthy of him, and he’s got her.” She forced a smile to her face. “I’m just glad that, for a little while, he thought that someone could be me.”

Mara cleared her throat; she couldn’t look at Seven. “Swear you will never tell anyone this.”

Seven blinked. “Of course. What is it?”

Mara closed her eyes. “One time, on his birthday, he asked me to wear the Borg hologram.”

Seven stared, then started laughing, and Mara quickly joined in. “That... that I would have liked to have seen.”

“Yeah,” Mara said, then managed to stop laughing. “Seven,” she said, taking her hand, “there are parts of his heart that will always belong to you... as much as it may drive me crazy,” she said with a grin. “That you can be my best friend when by all rights you should hate my guts says that, well, that maybe Luke made the wrong choice.” She looked down. “God, I’ve missed him so much... we’ve been apart before but this, trapped in those places, wondering if I would ever see him again...” She looked up into Seven’s eyes. “Maybe your counterpart had the right idea. Maybe there comes a point when you need to stop fighting to stay alive and just live. Maybe it’s time he and I stopped being the Emperor’s Hands and become Luke and Mara Skywalker.”

“I can’t imagine you settling down,” Seven said.

“I couldn’t imagine you doing it either, until I met the you that did... and saw how truly happy she was.”

Seven nodded. “Even if you leave, know that there will always be a place for you on my ship.”

Mara squeezed her hand. “And there will always be a place for you in our lives.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

Admiral Cirule and the Borg Queen beamed onto Cube Prime. “What’s the damage to the Collective?” he asked as they began walking.

“Extensive,” she admitted. “But we will recover... we are Borg.”

“Fleet’s not much better off,” Cirule said. “Between the annexation, the loss of your ships, and this fight...”

“Hopefully we will not require them any time soon,” the Queen said.

Cirule let out a small laugh. “True. We’ve been fighting a war for so long I’ve forgotten to think in any other way.” An officer quickly came up and presented a datapad. Cirule took it, nodded, and continued on his way. “Assaults on the Vong processing centers have all been successful; no resistance at all. Yeah, this war’s over, it’s just a little tidying up of the galaxy.”

The Borg Queen nodded. “It is regrettable he couldn’t live to see the peace he worked so hard to bring.”

“Yes,” Cirule said grimly. “And I don’t know how this is going to work without him,” he said under his breath.”

“If there is nothing further, admiral, I must tend to the Collective. Will you...?”

Cirule nodded. “I’ll break the news,” he said. “I owe him that much.”
--------------------------------------------------------------

The twin suns of Tatooine were low in the sky; they hadn't risen high enough to scorch the air yet, but in time they would. But that was no concern to those gathered here. Han Solo and his daughter Jaina stood together; next to them was Anakin and Laudica, the latter cradling the latest addition to their family. Before them the mortal remains of a lost member of that family had been laid to rest alongside the grave of her husband. Life had conspired countless times to keep them apart, but Han had made certain that death would be another story.

Their respects paid, the small group returned to where the Millennium Falcon sat amongst the dunes. Molly O'Brien, her new artificial eyes shaded in the growing brightness, stood up at their approach, along with Sakonna and the rest of the surviving Jedi. They had done the same earlier for Annika and the Jedi that had fallen trying to topple the Sith, acknowledging the sacrifice and offering a silent thanks for the safer place the galaxies had become because of it. There were prices to be paid, of course; no one had escaped the battle unmarked, whether it was with cybernetic limbs or artificial organs, but they knew they were the lucky ones.

Well, not lucky... that would imply an element of chance.

"Everyone inside," Han said. "Next stop: Earth."

The group climbed into the Falcon and the ramp rose. Without another word Han found his way into the cockpit. Kilana was in the co-pilot seat running through the pre-flight checklist; over the years he'd taught her enough piloting to handle it without a problem. Behind her, Roger was going over the diagnostics, and across from him sat Six, who was double-checking the navigational data. They were a hodge-podge if Han had ever seen one, and that made them the perfect crew for a ship like this. "Are we ready to go?" he asked.

"Just give me a minute," Roger said. There was an angry buzz. "Er, make that two minutes." Another buzz. "Five at the most." Han shook his head and slipped out of the cockpit and found a seat in the back away from everyone else. Jaina soon found him.

"Why don't you stay at the Academy?" she asked. Han couldn't look at his daughter; she took his hand. "We'd love to have you."

Han kissed Jaina's hand and pulled her close, just like when she was little. "You know why I hated Luke so much?" he asked. Jaina said nothing. "Because I did nothing all day but think about how empty the place was without Chewie there. Since then I've buried a brother, a son, a wife, and now a sister, and I've come to one conclusion," he looked over into her eyes. "I don't grieve well when I sit around and watch life go on around me. It eats away at me, and all that's left is a bitter man that... that I really can't stand being around. I need to move, I need to keep busy... that's just a part of who I am, kid." He kissed the top of her head. "I may be old out here, but in here," he tapped the side of his head, "I'm still running spice for Jabba through an Imperial blockade."

Jaina laughed and snuggled closer to him, clearly trying not to get teary-eyed. "You're not planning on smuggling, I hope."

"Naw... but I'll see what things turn up. Scoundrel like me, hey! We can always find some kind of dirty work." He looked up as Six entered. "Has Roger finished breaking the ship?" he asked.

"Yes, we've managed to correct everything he did to fix it," Six said. "Whenever you're ready, captain." She slipped out. Han turned and kissed Jaina on the cheek.

"I'll visit often," he promised.

"You better," she said.

"You're doing great things with the Academy... I'm sure your mother would be at least as proud as I am if she could see it."

Jaina smiled. "Thanks... we'll keep a room open for you... and an open landing pad."

Han got up and walked towards the cockpit, but paused as he saw Anakin holding his grandson. Anakin looked up from the boy to his own father. "I can't believe I almost missed this," he said distantly. "Bastian was right... he was so right." He rocked the baby just a little. "One look at him, and nothing can ever be the same again... and I'm not sorry for that."

Han patted his son on the shoulder as Laudica came up and kissed her husband's cheek, staring down at the little life they'd brought into the galaxy. Han left them and entered the cockpit. "Are we ready?"

"All set, captain," Kilana said.

Han looked at the dusty world through the canopy. He didn't plan to come back. There were too many memories there... and he wanted the ones he carried with him here. That cocky young kid who showed him he wasn't just talk when he climbed in that turret. The stuck up noble who'd shared a stolen kiss. An old furball who had crawled into every nook and cranny trying to find problems. A smirky Borg who never stood still even when she should have been dead on her feet. A smooth operator who helped him shift some less than legitimate cargo. A boy who beamed at his old man for letting him handle the controls of this ship. The Falcon was a thing, true... but that didn't mean it wasn't important.

The old freighter lifted off the dusty world and passed over the twin suns, rising towards the place where the sky meets the stars. Like its owner, it never did well sitting still either.
--------------------------------------------------------------

Kathryn Janeway stood in the cave with her newly constructed equipment. She had some new theories, some involving the bending of light -hence the need for the large mirrors Garak had provided, though they weren't properly installed yet. She was just finishing the power-up sequence when there was the sound of thunder, and she looked about her lair in confusion. It came again, and then electrical arcs, blasting into the equipment and breaking the mirrors, glass lacerating her skin. Then a figure dropped out of the air and landed in a heap nearby. Cautiously, Janeway approached; her newly-honed Sith abilities advised her to be careful. "Hello?" she asked. "Who are you?" The figure didn't move. She pulled back the hood, and stared in horror at the face.

The Oracle's eyes sprung open, and she grabbed Janeway. She was dying; she needed lifeforce to live, to fight, to grow strong, to resist, to conquer the galaxies, to get her revenge! Dark energy traveled up their limbs together until there was a final thunderclap, and Janeway dropped to the floor, eyes open in shock, dead.

The Oracle got to her feet, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs. What happened? It was instinct; it was- She looked at the dead woman before her. "Oh no," she whispered. "Not again." She felt for a pulse, but there was nothing. "Not again!" She put a hand to her head; she had to think! "I can resuscitate her," she said. "I have the power. I just need time." She looked about. "I'll need a stasis chamber to keep the body in until then, just to be safe." She paced about frantically. "Can't have a temporal paradox. Paradoxes are dangerous things. Paradoxes will swallow you up. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a vacuum in time even more so." She had to restore her past self to retain the time continuum, or who knows what could happen to her. It could all happen again, just like last time, and the time before, and the time before... She could see it so clearly in her mind's eye, her path through time, becoming an arc that turned in on itself and became a loop, an inescapable loop, looking like... like a six...

She put a hand to her head. "But you made a mistake, Seven," she said. "I can do things differently this time... I just... there's so much to remember... I'll... I'll need to acquire more power, devote myself more to my research. Can't run around and do everything. I'll... I'll find an apprentice... yes, someone to do the dirty work for me. Have him kill my enemies so that I won't have to. A Skywalker, perhaps... it would be deliciously ironic." She stopped in her steps and looked at the cracked mirror before her; she had stepped between the two. For some reason, the sight caused the word "Prometheus" to pass through her mind, but it was unimportant.

"This time will be different," an infinite number of Janeway's said. "This time it won't be like any of the others... this time will be the last time... this time I'll win... I must win... I am Kathryn Janeway, Sith Master, and time is my servant..." As her lips moved, countless voices spoke the same. "I will not die... cannot die... this will never be allowed to end..."
--------------------------------------------------------------

Sebastian opened his eyes, and he was elsewhere. If this was what being one with the Force meant, it was a bit of a letdown. After a few seconds, though, the memory popped up... an old court on Earth during its dark period, and a setting relished by Species 47, better-known as- "Q," Sebastian said aloud.

"I hope you don't mind a little diversion on your way to wherever good little Jedi go when they're reduced to atoms," Q said. He was lounging on one of the stands, dressed in the uniform of a Starfleet captain. "I thought we might chat a little, get to know one another better."

"Why?" Sebastian asked as his eyes narrowed.

"Such suspicion," Q said. "And you don't even know me."

"I know enough," Sebastian said. "I doubt you brought me here for my well-being."

Q turned and sat up. "I'm hurt. You wound me, Bastian, like a superlaser to the heart, and you would probably understand that better than anyone." Sebastian dropped onto a bench, still exhausted from his ordeal. "Not the smartest of decisions, volunteering to stand on a planet about to be pulverized."

"It was necessary," Sebastian said, a little more forcefully than was required.

"It was necessary to go down, but why couldn't you have escaped?"

"There was no way to escape."

"You didn't even consider it," Q said with dripping accusation. "You went to that planet to end yourself as much as the Vong... you wanted to die there."

"That's not true."

"Lie to yourself boy, but don't bother lying to me. I've been doing it much longer than you have."

Sebastian folded his hands and stared at them. "My task's done," he said softly.

"Of stopping the Vong," Q said. "But the work, the real work, is about to start. It's one thing to bring Klingons and Romulans together in a time of war, but quite another to do the same during peace. Holding billions of worlds together now that their common enemy is gone, giving them a reason to remain united... well, that's not an easy task, is it? Sounds rather daunting, in fact." He lounged back. "Probably the work of a lifetime."

Sebastian closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Yes," he whispered.

"To have to have all the answers," Q said. "To solve their problems even while people curse you for how you choose to go about it. It would be a most thankless job."

Sebastian's expression bore bitter agony. "It would be a curse."

Q nodded. "So, you'll let it all fall apart then?"

"The Sith and the Vong are gone," Sebastian said, his voice dry. "I've done my part."

"Yes," Q said. "But you could do more." Sebastian said nothing. "You could hold them together, if you tried... if you lived..."

"I'm tired," Sebastian said. "And the path... the path is so long..."

Sebastian looked up, and Q was now standing before him. "It would be better to just take the easy way out, right?" he asked, not unkindly. "Even if it meant everything you strove to build falling apart. To be the modern day Alexander in every way, including having your empire collapse with your death."

Tears slipped down his face. "Yes," Sebastian admittedly quietly. Maybe it seemed selfish... but he just didn't have the strength to carry this burden any more.

Q nodded in understanding. "Did Sisko ever tell you that Unity would only come if a price was paid?" Sebastian shook his head. "I'm not surprised... it doesn't paint a very good picture of it, if it demands so much."

"What is the price?" Sebastian asked.

"It's very steep, I'm afraid," Q said as he turned away and walked a short distance. A monitor lit up, and he looked at it; people were milling about on Cube Prime. "They need you, you know."

"The people can get along without me," Sebastian said, though he couldn’t look at them while he said the words.

"Oh no, I wasn't referring to them," Q said. "No, they need you... more than the galaxies do."

It took Sebastian a few seconds to understand what he meant, then he looked up at the monitor. The crowd parted, and there stood Jorri talking to Admiral Cirule; she was crying. "What's going on?" he demanded.

Q looked very serious. "She, and her baby, need you, Bastian."

"Jorri's dead!" Sebastian said. "Don't kriff with me!"

"'They're going to take it all away from you, Sebastian,'" Q quoted. "Who says you can't take it back?" Sebastian stared at his wife on the monitor. "Jorri never died at Wormhole Station. That event has been... corrected."

Sebastian's jaw trembled, but he couldn't accept it. "Jorri's death was the catalyst," he said. "You can't undo that without-"

"I know," Q said. "To warp reality to accommodate this is beyond the power even of the Q."

"Then how-"

"I'm not working alone," Q said. "Others have lent their power to this task."

"Why?"

"To pay a debt we owe to someone who feels that Unity is too important to throw away," Q said. "Someone who knows that no matter what, the price must be paid."

"Sisko?"

"No, someone else."

"Who?"

"Does it matter?" Q asked. "I've watched you, Bastian, since before you were even born. I know exactly what's going through your mind. Look at her. Not a dream, not a trick, not a hologram... not an alternate reality, parallel dimension, clone, or any other deceit. She - is - real; the real Jorri that you knew and loved. And the little one, Morgan," and the image switched. Instead there was a woman there, and Sebastian saw in her his mother's long golden hair and deep blue eyes... and in her face, so much of the beauty that was Jorri. "Yes, that's her, or will be in time. And as she grows in body so too will her abilities and wisdom." The image pulled back, and she was dressed in gorgeous Jedi robes, standing before a shining building that sat before the rolling shore Sebastian knew was Hawaii on Earth. "She'll become the most renowned Jedi of her time, building on the Academy to restore the Order as an instrument of peace and justice throughout both galaxies, helping to heal all the old wounds and create understanding among former enemies. In ten thousand years, the Jedi Order will still speak with reverence of Morgan Skywalker Fields." Sebastian was smiling as he looked at her, but it faded as she vanished, returning to Jorri's crying face. "But of course, you won't be there for any of that," Q said. "Unless, of course, you want to return. I have the power to send you back, naturally. All you have to do... is ask."

Sebastian's heart was pounding like a steam engine. It would be a lie to say it was more than he'd ever hoped for, because he'd hoped for it every day. But now, with it so close at hand, he was so afraid of losing it, as if the mere act of moving or speaking would shatter this one chance for the only thing he ever truly wanted. "Bring me back to them," he said, a tremor in his voice. "Please."

"I’m not without some mercy," Q said, holding his fingers up ready to snap them, but pausing. "But of course, you know what it costs to deal with Mephistopheles, and this time is no different." He stepped closer to Sebastian. "If you go back, you have to finish what you've started. It will be very, very hard work, and it won't end until the day you die, you understand? You make this choice, and there's no turning back," Q said with a shake of his head. "You become a slave to Unity... that's the price, Bastian. The price of Unity is your life."

When Q spoke, Sebastian could feel the weight of those words, the heaviness of the burden that he would be taking up, so that he would understand fully what he was getting into. His life would be a constant struggle until the day they found him cold and slumped over his desk. It was no light decision to make... it was a commitment to live and die for the cause of Unity.

Still, Sebastian had always said he'd do anything to have them back... apparently someone out there had been listening. They wouldn't take everything... they'd leave him one small thing, one small board to cling to in the endless sea that was this burden. For a man who had been so alone for so long, it was more than enough. "For Jorri, for Morgan," Sebastian said, "my life is a very small price to pay."

The room vanished, and he was back on Cube Prime. Jorri, tears still streaming down her face, looked up, and saw him, and she bolted towards him. He caught her up in his arms and they embraced. "He told me you were dead!" she wailed as she clung to him. "That you died on the planet!"

"Shh, it's all right," Sebastian said, holding her as tight as he dared, afraid he might unwittingly destroy this miracle.

"I knew it couldn't be true," she said. "Because there's no way I could live without you!"

Sebastian buried his face into her hair. "Same here," he said with a sob.

Eventually, amidst the applause of the people on Cube Prime, Sebastian and Jorri returned to their suite. The nanny got the sense of what was happening and slipped off to leave them alone with their daughter. Hand trembling, Sebastian reached out and ran the back of his finger down Morgan's cheek. I’ve so missed you, my little dawn, he thought. "The war's over, Jorri," he said, eyes never leaving his daughter. "I've got a lot to do now... a lot-"

"You have to fulfill your destiny," Jorri said. "I understand. I always knew it'd come to this."

"It won't be easy on us," Sebastian said. "Long days, sacrifices-"

"I know."

"A hard life," Sebastian said, looking up and into her face. "It's a difficult road ahead for me, Jorri."

"Us," Jorri said. "It's our road." Her hand found his. "And I swear I will never, ever, let you walk it alone." She shook her head. "And even if they take everything else, Bastian, I'll never let them take me away from you." And then she kissed him, and the last echoes of the pain faded away. And without that, Sebastian felt like he could do anything. He could hold the Alliance together, he could solve the problems that plagued it, he could build a society that would last far beyond his years. None of it would be easy, but it would be within his reach, because he knew that if he ever stumbled on the road, he'd always have her -when he didn't have the strength- to carry him.

Sebastian brushed the hair from out of Jorri's face and gazed into her eyes. But, of course, he had a lifetime to do this in. There would be a tomorrow... and when it came there would be time to begin the long journey, but for now... for now he just wanted to make up for all the stolen yesterdays. "Happy anniversary, my love," he whispered, then kissed her again.
--------------------------------------------------------------

The curly-haired gentleman watched the viewer and saw Sebastian pick Morgan up in one arm and wrap another around his wife. "Looks like my work here is finished, wouldn't you agree, K-9?"

"Affirmative," the robot dog said.

Ben Sisko leaned against the console and nodded while he folded his arms. "Thank you," he said. "I couldn't have done it without you."

The Doctor gave a dismissive gesture. "All in a day's work, saving galaxies."

"With the prize you won, you could have had anything," Sisko said.

"Tosh, it wasn't my prize. All I did was believe in him, he did the hard work. And he's right, it really isn't too much to ask. The real question is, will you be able to go through with all this, knowing how it will end?"

"I've already done it," Sisko said.

"Good man. Very rare to find a human with such a firm grasp of time."

"I suppose you'll have to be going then?"

"Oh yes, other worlds to explore, things to understand, busy busy busy." He pulled some levers and turned some dials, but soon paused. "It will work, won't it, Benjamin? Unity?"

"Yes," Sisko said, turning back to the viewer. "The wars are over now, there will just be peace."

"How long do you expect it to last?"

Ben Sisko smiled as he watched Sebastian touch the side of Jorri's face, then kiss her like a man who knew the future would be as wonderful as he chose to make it. "Without end."



Chuck

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