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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: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.10 up) PostPosted: 2011-07-17 01:36am
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Location: Improbably superpositioned
CHAPTER TEN




Cathi slumped back into the pilot's seat with exhaustion. Alarm lights still flashed across the control panel, even though it had been several days since her ship had been so rudely thrown from hyperspace. If she had felt depressed before when she had lost her cargo, now she was desperate. For what must have been the hundredth time, she checked the navicomputer and was rewarded by the same error message she had seen each time before: No Known Objects Found. Unable to triangulate location. What the kriff was that supposed to mean? Tarv had paid a relative fortune for the military-grade navicomputer, which was supposed to be able to function even in the outer reaches of Wild Space. Yet here it was, spitting out errors as if it was a relic of the ancient Hyperspace Wars.

After holding her head in her hands for an indeterminate amount of time, she looked through the forward viewports at the strange system they were in. At the center of the system, where one might expect to find a star, there was a black hole. Orbiting it were charred, dry hulks that might once have been planets, but had been stripped completely bare by the massive supernova that had occurred so long ago.

She tapped the sensor panel again, hoping that it had turned up some more information about the system in the twelve hours since she had last checked. One result stood out, and she called up the details only to frown a moment later. "That can't be right," she finally muttered.

Moving back to the navicomputer, she worked the controls to plot a jump to the other side of the system. Then she pulled back on the hyperdrive levers, and was rewarded as the ship smoothly slipped into hyperspace for the brief moment it would take to cross the system. When she emerged, there was a slight glimmer of reflected light in the dark patch of empty space ahead, and with some careful piloting it grew into a roughly cylindrical, red-striped shape in the near distance.

"Ah!" Orb exclaimed from the co-pilot's seat beside her, despite her not having invited him into the cockpit. "That's a Republic navigation beacon! I haven't seen one in many years..."

Cathi turned to regard the droid with an exasperated expression plastered across her face. "How could you possibly know that?"

"It's written on the beacon," Orb said as he lifted an arm stiffly. Had the droid been capable of humanoid facial expressions, it probably would have worn a look that said 'You idiot'. Despite that particular limitation, Orb's inflections in Basic were quite expressive and carried essentially the same message.

Indeed, in large, blocky plain Basic the beacon read "REPUBLIC PROPERTY" and what was probably once a warning against tampering with or damaging it per some obscure section of the penal code.

"Right," she muttered, turning back to Orb. "Well, since you're such a genius, I trust you can figure out how to retrieve the coordinates from it?"

"Already done, ma'am. There is also a priority message on the beacon. Would you like me to downlink it as well?"

"Yes, and put it on the holo," Cathi answered.

Moments later, a bearded, long-haired figure appeared on the holodisplay in front of her. He wore a flowing robe and the lines in his face probably placed him at about fifty or sixty years old.

"I am Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth aboard the Outbound Flight. If you are receiving this message, then you have traveled through a hyperspace anomaly into a galaxy eighty-five million light-years distant from our own. You should already be familiar with navigating the anomaly, so I will not waste time discussing that. We have entered a sixty-year hibernation while the ship replenishes its hypermatter supplies. Based on the present time, we are approaching the fourth planet of a nearby system."

The message fritzed slightly, and then C'baoth re-appeared. "This is an update to our previous message. We were discovered by a local spacefaring civilization known as the Federation and have agreed to take one of their starships back to their territory. The coordinates on this beacon have been updated to reflect this change."

Cathi leaned back in the pilot's chair and frowned. Talk about a name from the past. The Outbound Flight was one of the many ghost ships that had entered the legends of spacers. Something about a grand exploration mission, lost just before the Clone Wars broke out. But C'baoth? She'd heard that name too during a stop on Ord Mantell. Didn't he have something to do with Thrawn?

She loaded the coordinates into the navicomputer and pulled up a holomap. The region that was highlighted was located off in the middle of the galactic disk, which she found surprising. It was fairly common knowledge that life had developed in the core... then again, this wasn't the same galaxy she knew, at least if the message was to be believed. What sort of hyperspace anomaly was he talking about, anyway? At least the message had provided her with the answer to why she had been dumped from hyperspace.

Several minutes of contemplation later, the connection hit.

C'baoth.

Thrawn.

The Imperial Commodore who had captured her also had blue skin, like Thrawn. He must have been connected to the Grand Admiral, she finally decided. Had they sabotaged her ship to send it here? Then the rational part of her brain caught up with the irrational part and metaphorically slapped it silly. It was just as likely that it was just a bizarre coincidence that she ran into a non-human Imperial Commodore, made a blind, suicidal (by anybody's book) jump into hyperspace, and then ran into a message beacon that purported to come from the long-lost Outbound Flight.

The odds were still unbelievably high for such a coincidence.

Cathi massaged her temples as her brain continued to argue with itself, deciding after some time that none of it made any sense. The only constant that she absolutely knew was that she was lost somewhere in the universe that was most definitely not her own galaxy, and she had coordinates to a region of the galaxy that may or may not have been the final destination of the Outbound Flight.

Well, first things first. Now that she had downloaded the message, she knew where Outbound Flight was -- and that information alone would fetch quite a price on the open market. Assuming she could get back, of course... but like most smugglers, questions like that typically didn't bother her. In the meantime, she had to make sure that nobody else would get the message.

Cathi reached down to the panel and activated the forward laser cannons, then locked them on to the message beacon. One quick tap of the trigger, a single burst of laserfire was all it took to turn the beacon into a glowing cloud of plasma.

With that out of the way, she began to consider her next steps. If she recalled correctly, Outbound Flight was a large and heavily armed vessel, so she would have to be careful not to get too close. Further, the message had not provided her with an actual system, only a region of space that was known as the 'Federation', whatever that meant. And that meant that she would have to go from system to system once in that area to find Outbound Flight.

She also knew that in another couple of weeks, she would get unbearably sick and tired of eating surplus ration packs. As appetizing as the names printed on the standard-issue survival packs sounded, the food inside them contained no resemblance to what the real meal would have been even in the most average of cafeterias. Gray was probably the best word to describe it, closely followed by bland. Delicious was a word that, upon seeing the rations, had fled at speeds faster than the fastest HoloNet message to unknown parts of the universe.

With that in mind, she got up and walked back to what passed for the living quarters in the ridiculously cramped YT-2400 freighter. The one working amenity it did have was a drink processor, and she programmed it for the strongest cup of caf it would produce, knowing full well that she'd probably regret it afterward. Right now, however, she just needed the boost in concentration it would bring.

Minutes later, a cup of steaming caf in hand, she returned to the cockpit and began considering the coordinates on the beacon. While it supposedly provided her with a destination, it also unhelpfully left out the means to get there. She remembered the introductory hyperspace navigation course she'd been required to take during the two years she had attempted to attend a university. While it had glossed over many of the details, it had laid a few facts out. One was that if one was ever lost and without communications, it was prudent to seek out a point in deep space away from stars and other navigational hazards to make it easier to jump to a likely destination.

She ran through the navicomp's display, and programmed it to seek a path to a point several light-years outside the strange system. From there, she could leapfrog through empty space until she was outside the bulk of the galactic disk.

The only issue with this plan, which they had mentioned in the course, was that the safest course was also by far the longest. They had then stressed that millions of ships had been lost over the ages by navigators who tried to take shortcuts when they really should have known better.

On the positive side, once she was in the galactic halo, the stars were dispersed enough that it would only take one or two hyperspace jumps to bring her back to the galactic disk near her destination. From there, it would be a matter of hopping through deep space until she felt comfortable jumping into a star system.

The navicomp beeped its readiness, and she activated the controls. The first jump lasted only a few minutes, enough to send her ship into the middle of a relatively empty patch of space. She took a sip of the now slightly cooled caf and resigned herself to the long, thankless task ahead.


. . .



So this is Helska, Jacen reflected from his upside-down position in the ventral gun turret as the Rock Dragon dropped out of hyperspace along with the Avengers. It had seven planets in all, including a couple of gas giants in the outer system. Looks like any other system.

He found himself somewhat dizzied by all the movement; so as to hopefully avoid detection, all of Kyp's squadron was looping and rolling as they moved, seemingly on the edge of disaster but in reality highly coordinated. He whistled softly. They were good pilots.

"We've got a lot of activity around the fourth planet," Jaina called from the cockpit.

Tenel Ka broke into the comm. "I thought it was supposed to be uninhabited?"

"It's not now."

"Any hostiles?" Kyp asked when there was a lull in chatter. Jacen had almost forgotten that the Rock Dragon had the best sensor kit of any of the ships flying with Kyp...

"I'm reading what looks like an asteroid field in orbit around the fourth planet," Jaina replied, "along with a large moon. All have lifesigns."

"Don't tell me we came all the way out here to find a mining operation," Miko said, his voice dripping with so much sarcasm that Jacen imagined he could catch the excess in a bucket.

"Cut the chatter," Kyp called. "We've got incomings. Rock Dragon, do you have readings on them? Identification?"

"Negative," Jaina replied. "Bunch of asteroids, came from the fifth planet."

"Let me get this straight, a bunch of asteroids just broke orbit and decided to come over here?"

"I said cut the chatter, Miko."

There was an audible sigh. "Roger that."

"Rock Dragon," Kyp continued, "do you have any sign of the scientists yet?"

"Negative." There was a pause. "Those asteroids are... accelerating?"

"Then they aren't asteroids," Kyp replied. "Shields up, weapons ready. Mark them as potentially hostile and scan all frequencies for comm traffic."

Suddenly, Jacen's targeting screen was awash with yellow dots. "Blaster bolts," he muttered to himself. There must be around a hundred of them.

"No comm traffic," Jaina reported. "They seem to be well-coordinated."

"Strange," Kyp remarked. "Hang on, we've got something inbound."

"Rocks."

"What?"

They're firing rocks at us? Jacen wondered.

"Slight correction," Jaina dryly said, "they're molten rocks. Re-designating incoming group as hostile."

There was a snort. "Rocks? What are they going to do next, start throwing sticks at us?"

"Miko," Kyp warned, obviously getting annoyed at his wingmate. "Avengers, break formation on my mark." He waited until the two sides had almost closed to visual range. "Mark."

Shortly after the squadron split into pairs, they found themselves in the middle of what would best be described as a swarm. Jacen opened fire along with everyone else, and space was suddenly awash with the streaks of tracers and the strange molten missiles of the enemy.

He paused for a moment, in between bursts, to take a look at one of the enemy ships that was flying low below him, and noticed its roughly aerodynamic shape, transparent canopy, and even stranger-looking pilot. So they're starfighters, he thought before nailing the fighter with a burst from his twin laser cannons.

The first shot... vanished? he wondered, but the second powerful shot caught the fighter squarely in the center and blew it into a cloud of molten debris. As he looked around, he noticed that the rest of the Avengers were faring just as well against these crazy fighters.

"Jacen, stay sharp," Tenel Ka pointed out from the other turret. Jolted, he noticed a few of the fighters had strayed close to his position, so he resumed firing. The first blew up immediately, but he found that he had to put several bursts into the second before it was also destroyed.

"They seem to be diverting our fire," he finally remarked. "And they're getting better at it."

"Won't help them," Miko replied in a smug voice. "Those rocks of theirs are a joke."

"Hey, Tenel Ka... I keep getting grav-well alarms," Jaina reported from the cockpit on the ship's intercom a few moments later. "Is there anything wrong with the instruments?"

"No, I just had them checked out," Tenel Ka replied.

Jacen, meanwhile, squeezed his triggers to send another burst of rapid blasterfire toward one of the dagger-like fighters. This time, instead of disappearing or impacting, he watched in astonishment as the shots quite literally bent around the fighter, sailing off into the distance.

"Um... Jaina?" he tapped his headset. "I don't know what's going on here, but my shots just... well... bent."

"I'm seeing the same thing happening," Tenel Ka remarked a moment later.

"What do you mean, bent?" Jaina asked.

Jacen tried to nail another fighter but it spun out of his line of fire. "I'm not really sure. It's like the wind blowing the water from a fountain: it just sort of starts curving sideways."

Jaina was completely silent for a long enough time that he tapped his headset again. "Jaina?"

"Gravity," she replied an instant later. "It has to be."

"What has to be?"

There was an audible sigh over the intercom. "Think about it, Jacen. What's so dangerous about a black hole?"

The question distracted him enough that he only clipped one of the fighters instead of nailing it head-on. "I don't know," he said in an annoyed voice after the fighter went out of his arc. "It'll suck you in if you get too close?"

"That's part of it," Jaina replied. "The gravity is so strong even light can't escape. You know how even stars bend light around themselves? It sounds like these fighters are doing the same thing, but on a much smaller scale..."

"What stops them from getting crushed to death, then?" Jacen pointedly asked.

"How should I know? Probably their own equivalent of inertial compensators."

A war whoop from Miko dragged Jacen's attention back to the battle. "That was the last of them," Kyp confirmed. "Now let's go see if we can find that ExGal shuttle."

They drove on through the system, passing the fifth planet several hours later. The planet glowed dimly blue-green with reflected light from the primary star. Like most gas giants, it was a ball of clouds that looked incredibly calm from a distance. Having been deep inside Yavin's atmosphere, Jacen knew that it should be anything but calm.

Far ahead in the distance, he could just barely see the speck of light that was supposed to be the fourth planet. As they drew closer, it became larger and larger until they could see that it was frozen solid, with one oddly-shaped moon orbiting.

"Some pretty strange readings coming off that planet," Jaina remarked from the cockpit.

"So I noticed," Kyp replied over the comm. "Looks like some sort of jamming. I should have figured they'd be expecting us."

Jacen knew that his sister was shaking her head. "It couldn't be jamming--it's on all the wrong frequencies. Wouldn't mess up anything except maybe old radionics gear. I really don't know what to make of it."

"Well, for all we know, they're just as confused about us as we are about them. Maybe they're expecting us to be using those frequencies to communicate."

"Could be. Avengers, hold course. Jaina, are you picking up anything that looks like the ExGal shuttle yet?"

"Not yet," she replied before cutting herself off. "Wait. I think I've got an ion drive trail... it's pretty diffuse, could be anywhere up to a week old."

"That matches the distress call," Kyp remarked. "Where did they go?"

"Looks like they went somewhere toward the northern hemisphere, but the trail just cuts out halfway to that moon... I'd say they were intercepted, but there's no debris anywhere. They might still be alive."

"What, on the moon?"

"Maybe."

The comm went silent for a moment, and Jacen squinted to get a better look at the planet and its moon. Now that they were closer, he noticed that it wasn't as round as one might expect a moon to be -- more disk-shaped and kind of rough looking. Around its equator, he could just barely make out what appeared to be sharply curved peaks. It was a little bit on the small side, too, now that he thought about it. A captured asteroid? he wondered.

"Miko, on my signal, you and I break and make a pass at the moon. Avengers, you are to hold back and escort the Rock Dragon until we regroup."

There was a flurry of acknowledgements and then the two X-wings separated from the rest of the squadron. Not long after that, Jaina opened the channel again.

"Kyp, Miko, you have bogeys inbound. I think that moon's their base."

"We see them," Kyp replied. "Looks like more of those rock fighters. I think we can handle it. Stay sharp."

"Copy that," Jaina replied. "Jacen, Tenel Ka, you ready?"

"Ready as ever," Jacen said.

"I am ready," Tenel Ka added.

Jaina chirped the comm. "Range in thirty seconds. Um... Kyp, heads up. Two more groups of fighters are closing in on you."

"Copy," Kyp replied tersely. "Miko, break right! Go close to the moon, let's see if we can lose them."

A moment later, the Rock Dragon entered the thick of the fray. This time, Jacen guessed that there were at least twice as many fighters as the last time. Not that it mattered much -- the molten missiles of the enemy didn't even pose much threat to the two old Z-95 Headhunters in the Avengers.

"What the kriff?" one of the pilots, who flew a B-wing if he remembered right, exclaimed. "My shields just went down!"

"I'll get 'em off your tail, Alesatt," his wingman replied. "Hang in there!"

"Mine are down too!" another pilot exclaimed. "Damn it--" then the transmission cut off in a burst of static.

"Avenger Six, do you copy?" Jaina asked. "Avenger Six! Kriff. Avenger Seven, did you see what happened?"

"Came right out of nowhere," Avenger Seven replied. "Shot cooked off his magazine."

"Avenger Eleven, what's your status?"

The B-wing pilot coughed. "I'm a little roughed up, but my shields are back."

"What happened?"

"I don't know," the pilot replied. "Arfour was babbling something about gravity and magnetic fields, then my shields went down until my wingmate blew the fighter off my tail."

As Jacen fired another burst at a passing rock-fighter, there was a scream over the comm and he saw the icon representing Avenger Nine wink out.

"Kyp, what's going on? We're under heavy fire!" Jaina exclaimed.

"Not much better," Kyp replied. "We can't shake them!"

"Maybe we should just get out of here. I think we can still outrun them," Jaina suggested.

"Agreed," Kyp replied. "Avengers, meet up at the rendezvous point. We'll be right behind you."

The Rock Dragon went into a tight turn that sent Jacen's fire wide, and he heard the sharp whine of the engines running up to full thrust.

"No shield!" Miko suddenly exclaimed. "Tractor beam!"

Jacen frowned. It was nearly impossible to snag a fighter with a tractor beam at the near-relativistic speeds they usually traveled at. Then again, they obviously weren't dealing with an enemy familiar with the term 'impossible'. Who'd ever heard of stripping fully charged shields away, anyway?

"Hang on!" Kyp answered. "Where's it coming from?"

"I can't tell!" Miko shouted. "I'm at full power but I'm still going backwards!"

Two of the symbols that represented Avengers Three and Four--a Z-95 and an X-TIE Ugly, respectively--broke from the formation and curved back toward where Kyp and Miko were.

"We're coming!" Avenger Three said.

"Negative, Negative!" Kyp shouted. "Get out of here, there are too many of them!"

"We're not leaving you," Three replied.

Kyp nearly screamed. "You kriffing idiots! Get the kriff out of here!"

There was another burst of static and Avenger Four's icon winked out.

"I see you! Hang on!"

"Avenger Three, return to formation! You have a wing of bogeys on your tail!" Jaina shouted.

"I'll make it!"

"The hell you will!" Kyp exclaimed.

"I'm hit!" Miko reported. "Port engines out! I'm losing fuel!"

"Can you eject?"

There was a brief pause, followed by a spurt of very descriptive cursing. "My hatch is jammed!"

"I'll try to break their lock," Kyp said. "Hang on! Three, this is no time for heroics. Get out of here before you get yourself killed!"

"I've got your six," Three replied.

"Damn it, Three," Kyp grumbled. "If you insist. I'm going in. Cover me."

"The hell is that?" Jaina said on the internal comm. A new symbol winked to life on Jacen's targeting screen and he squinted to see where it was in the distance. Whatever it was, it seemed to be much larger than the rocky fighters they'd been struggling with. Roughly ovoid-shaped, it came toward them slowly--and then the front of it seemed to disintegrate into a cloud of pieces.

"Wasn't me," Jacen remarked.

"Oh kriff," Jaina said. "Missiles." A cloud of red blips flashed to life on the targeting scope, suddenly seeming to streak forward toward the remnants of the Avengers.

"Miko, did it work?" Kyp asked.

"Negative," came Miko's subdued reply. "Get out of here--how's the Navy going to know what's happening out here if nobody survives to tell? I'll be fine without you guys."

"You're kidding," Kyp replied. "I'm not going to let them kill or capture you if I can help it."

"I am a Jedi," Miko intoned, "and the Force is my ally..."

Avenger Three burst into a fireball right behind Kyp. The sudden impact seemed to make up the older Jedi's mind. "We'll be back, Miko, I promise. May the Force be with you. Jaina, what's the status?"

"We can't jump yet, there are too many gravity wells."

Jacen saw one of the missiles flash by, and for a fleeting second he thought he saw wings and a tail. He tried to track another missile but it passed too fast to hit. Then he felt a thump and looked around to see where it came from. His mouth dropped as the... thing... came into sight. It wasn't even a missile at all, but a living creature. It crawled over the hull of the Rock Dragon with four stubby appendages. Vicious-looking pincers formed its mouth, and for a brief moment the creature looked at him with a beady eye.

It reminded him of a sea creature he had seen in an aquarium on one of the worlds he'd visited with his parents as a young child.

Then he snapped out of the moment and swung his turret around as fast as he could, hoping it would depress far enough to let him hit the ugly thing. At its lowest point, he fired. The first two bolts passed right over the creature, and then the lower pair of cannons spat out red bolts that blew the thing completely off the hull. His proximity alarms blared from the close hit before fading away.

"Jaina, they're firing mynocks, or some ugly relative of theirs! If we don't jump to hyperspace right now, one might chew through something important!"

"I'm trying!" she cried in desperation. "The damn thing's going crazy with all the gravity wells!"

Another of the things passed uncomfortably close and Jacen grabbed the comm again. "Just jump anywhere, damn it!"

"It got my droid!" one of the Avengers exclaimed.

Jacen saw another creature heading straight at him and blew it away with a burst of laser fire. "I don't think we have any more time!"

"Hang on!" Jaina shouted triumphantly, and the stars seemed to elongate for a brief, frozen moment of time before settling into the familiar, swirling maelstrom of hyperspace.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.10 up) PostPosted: 2011-07-17 09:02am
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So now the Solos, Tenel Ka, Durron, Miko and the Avengers are off to see Outbound Flight and the Avengers, eh? This should be interesting...

(I vaguely also recall Mara Jade Skywalker and Anakin Solo being the New Jedi Order's envoys to Outbound Flight/the UFP in a previous draft of this fic.)



"Yee's proposal is exactly the sort of thing I would expect some Washington legal eagle to do. In fact, it could even be argued it would be unrealistic to not have a scene in the next book of, say, a Congressman Yee submit the Yee Act for consideration. :D" - bcoogler on this

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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.10 up) PostPosted: 2011-07-17 08:52pm
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Well... actually, the Avengers just got their asses handed to them. Kyp's X-wing and the Rock Dragon are the only two ships that may have managed to escape.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.10 up) PostPosted: 2011-07-24 04:39pm
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CHAPTER ELEVEN



"You let the infidels escape?"

The undertones of the question Prefect Da'Gara had just posed suggested it had much more in common with a judge's verdict than the simple question it appeared to be. From his position at the bottom of the hollowed-out ice chamber, his head bowed low to the cold floor, Commander Skravi Krel considered his options.

"Most Honored One, I do not believe they escaped," Krel replied as he came back to his feet. The stalactites overhead looked especially sharp today, part of him considered. "Only two metal-craft made it into darkspace. Each was followed by several grutchnya."

Prefect Da'Gara narrowed his lidless eyes, his blood-red living robes waving about him as he moved closer toward the commander. "But how can you be so sure? The jeedai that we captured told us that the two metal-craft that escaped were controlled by other jeedai." The Prefect straightened and began to circle about the commander. "While you may be correct, there is no way I can know for sure."

Skravi Krel wanted to say something insulting, but knew that such a move would be pointless and ultimately fatal. In the meantime, the Prefect continued stalking around him in a circle. He eyed the stalactites above, and wondered what the chances were of one falling and hitting the Prefect. Or himself; that would be much better than the fate the Prefect undoubtedly had planned for him. The shapers would likely remove his implants and send him to join the ranks of the Shamed Ones, who kept the bowels of the great Yuuzhan Vong worldships running. It was a thankless, inglorious task that no Yuuzhan Vong warrior of true standing ever wanted to be faced with.

"Thanks to you, we now know more about the infidels' capabilities, and, if this jeedai is to be believed, the metal-craft you faced were controlled by the best warriors to be found here. But allowing even two of the infidels to escape is inexcusable, no matter how much this unworthy jeedai may hold them in regard."

Skravi Krel waited, silently, for the hammer blow that he knew was about to hit him.

"It has become apparent to me that you are ill-suited to commanding the defense of our foothold in this galaxy," Da'Gara snarled. "Yet you showed initiative in battle, something not every warrior possesses. You will therefore be rewarded with a Miid ro'ik and two escorts."

"I am humbled, Prefect," Skravi Krel said as he bowed again.

"I am not finished," Da'Gara replied. "There is a region of the galaxy that no scouts have ever returned from. Executor Anor has not given me any insight as to why that is the case. You will take your command and have an answer for me within a klekket. Furthermore, if you manage to destroy the infidels that dare to resist us, you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail, even death shall be no escape as your domain will bear the shame of your failure."

Skravi Krel bowed, wincing at the very idea as he did so. While the Miid Ro'ik was a powerful war-craft in its own right, it was presumptuous to assume that even one could conquer a star system with average defenses. The escorts barely made any difference... and yet Da'Gara was expecting him to single-handedly wipe out the resistance in an entire region of space, in only a single klekket? Such a task would normally take a Kor Chokk battle group with at least ten Miid Ro'iks and several dozen escorts close to six klekkets to complete.

If the concept of a suicide mission was known to the Yuuzhan Vong commander, he showed no sign of it. Death was supposed to be a cause for celebration for any Yuuzhan Vong; it was the re-uniting of the recently departed with Yun-Yuuzhan. Death in battle was even more glorious; some said that Yun-Yuuzhan's reward to his faithful increased for every infidel they sacrificed. Every day that a true warrior survived therefore meant more chances for him to offer infidels to the glory of the gods.

The latter sentiment was the one that Skravi Krel most readily agreed with. Unlike some of the heathen religions in this alien galaxy, however, there was little room for dissent with the Yuuzhan Vong way of life. Such arguments usually ended in much pain and suffering for those who went against the True Way. Some even whispered that wars resulting from such heresies were responsible for the destruction of Yuuzhan'tar.

For that reason, whatever heretical thoughts he may have had about suicide missions he kept to himself. "Belek Tiu," he said, snapping his fists against his shoulders in acknowledgement before bowing and exiting the chamber.



. . .



"Commodore, a report for you," the comm on Mantrel's desk crackled to life.

"Send it over." He turned his chair to face his datapad, then called up the information on screen. Before he had returned the smuggler's ship, they had placed a tracking beacon on it. For two days, it had returned no results. Then it had broadcast a quick ping before going completely silent again.

The part of the report that made him stop and re-read it were the standard coordinates listed as the beacon's last known location. He hadn't seen those particular coordinates in almost sixty years.

"Navigation, set a course to the coordinates I will provide you," he ordered over the intercom. "Flank speed."



Kalm'ant'reltano looked up from the helm station on the bridge of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet picket Springhawk as the commlink chimed.

"Ch'tra," Mitth'raw'nuruodo ordered.

Kalm'ant'reltano grabbed the helm controls and the Springhawk surged forward like a starfighter, maintaining close formation with the other eleven picket ships. His orders had been simple: execute an attack run as close as possible to Outbound Flight to evade their defensive batteries while the commander organized a distraction.

The distance was lit up by flashes of light as hundreds of Trade Federation vulture droids tore apart the Vagaari fleet. After seeing how viciously the Vagaari had destroyed the Geroon and countless other races, Kalm'ant'reltano was understandably curious why they were not firing on the starfighters or anything else. After all, they had a massive numerical advantage over even the Trade Federation force. Why would they not use that advantage?

For that matter, why wasn't Outbound Flight firing? What had Mitth'raw'nuruodo done to both?

As Springhawk drew closer to the six Dreadnaughts, he forced the questions down. They were almost at point-blank range now, and it would have been trivial for the Dreadnaughts' powerful turbolaser batteries to blow them out of the sky. Yet they held their fire, as if... what? What could they possibly be expecting? Mitth'raw'nuruodo had threatened them with complete destruction, and now Springhawk and the other eleven pickets were making an attack run on the massive ship.

Then space flared to life with hundreds of point defense cannons, but Springhawk's shields held against the fire even while the gunners began to engage their own targets.

Blue met green as Springhawk traded fire with the much larger ship. They were already inside the minimum firing range of the turbolaser batteries, skimming along just meters from the armored hull. The main batteries of the Dreadnaughts were the first to be targeted, along with munitions magazines and shield generators. At such close range, with all of the picket ships' guns trained on the same target, they were able often to achieve partial shield bleedthrough. One of the main batteries on the Dreadnaught cooked its magazine off, detonating violently. Still they kept going, targeting other essential systems that were close enough to the hull to have a chance of damaging. Sometimes they succeeded, other times the shields held fast.

Then the attack run was over, and the twelve ships shot out aft of Outbound Flight before turning around to make another pass at the next Dreadnaught. By the time they had finished their attack runs, it was injured and weakened, but not completely crippled. Kalm'ant'reltano resumed formation with the other ships; he now only had to wait for the next command.

"Jedi Master C'baoth;" Mitth'raw'nuruodo began in Basic, a language that Kalm'ant'reltano now mostly understood, but still had trouble pronouncing. "Leaders of Outbound Flight. Your vessel has been damaged, its ability to defend itself impaired. I offer you this one final chance to surrender and return to the Republic."

"What?" a shrill voice exclaimed over the active comm. "But you were to destroy them."

"If and when you should command again, Vicelord Kav, such decisions will be yours," Mitth'raw'nuruodo said coolly. "But not now. Outbound Flight, I await your decision."

It seemed like an eternity before the comm came to life again. This time the speaker sounded much different. He coughed heavily before beginning. "So this is what you call gratitude?"

Mitth'raw'nuruodo was rarely fazed, but Kalm'ant'reltano thought he detected a hint of confusion in his commander's voice. "What do you mean by gratitude?"

"We just helped you destroy the Vagaari," the voice, which he guessed was C'baoth, replied. "This is how you have repaid us? Do not forget, Commander, that we have over ten thousand innocent civilians on board this vessel. If you destroy this ship, you will be just as guilty as the Vagaari."

"Do not dare to compare me to the Vagaari," Mitth'raw'nuruodo answered. "You know nothing of what they have done."

"I have looked into their minds. I have seen the millions they murdered without so much as a second thought, simply because it amused them. We helped you destroy them because it was what justice demanded of us, and yet you attacked us in return."

"I do what I must to protect my people," Mitth'raw'nuruodo replied plainly.

"As do I," C'baoth countered.

"So then, Master C'baoth, we remain at odds. Will you surrender and return to your Republic, or will you force me to destroy you? As I see it, that would make you an accomplice to murder."

"Harsh words from the man holding the blaster," he replied.

"Nevertheless, the choice remains yours. You have had your hour to decide. What will your answer be?"

"A Jedi does not yield to intimidation," C'baoth spat. "He follows only the destiny that the Force provides him. We will not agree to your terms."

"Then so be it."

The vulture droids, which had been holding back near the now-crippled Vagaari, suddenly shot forward toward Outbound Flight. The remaining point defense blasters and several turbolaser batteries again flared to life, but the fire was now inconsistent and often went wild.

Kalm'ant'reltano was expecting the fighters to strafe the remaining batteries and silence the point defense guns so he and the other picket ships could make another attack run to actually cripple the massive assemblage of warships. But as they madly drove toward the warships, they made no attempt at all to slow down as their blaster cannons and torpedo launchers spat out everything they could. The first wave, which he guessed was about fifty fighters, simply crashed into the rear hull of one Dreadnaught, where his attack had already weakened the shields. The impacts buckled the already damaged hull of the ship, creating a massive explosion. He frowned slightly; the explosion was far more massive than he had expected from such tiny craft.

Then, just as more fighters were about to strike that and the other Dreadnaughts, the ship's engines suddenly flared brightly, and in a flicker of psuedomotion Outbound Flight was gone.

Stunned, Kalm'ant'reltano ordered their last vector to be pulled up. The system they were in was a strange one, with a black hole at its center.

He double-checked the information in front of him, but there was only one conclusion he could make.

Outbound Flight had jumped into hyperspace, on a course that could have only taken them into the black hole. It was, by anyone's definition, suicide. Why? was the only question that remained in his mind.



Commodore Mantrel pushed the datapad away from himself. The coordinates the tracking beacon had reported from were, unbelievably, the same coordinates of the black hole that Outbound Flight had been destroyed in.

Or had it?

As he recalled, theoretical hyperspace physicists across were still arguing over the true nature of black holes, as they had since time immemorial. The biggest problem with black hole theories, of course, was that once something went in, it never came out. Many a probe had been sent in to investigate, yet no one in the galaxy had ever heard back from any of them.

Then again, he didn't ever recall hearing of any hyperspace probes going into black holes, although there was concern from some theoretical hyperspace physicists that hitting a black hole in hyperspace could actually tear apart the fabric of the universe.

He had never been sure how much faith to place in that idea. It seemed more likely that you would simply get killed doing such a stupid thing.

Sighing, Mantrel picked up the datapad. If nothing ever came out, then what the kriff did their homing beacon's message mean? Mantrel stood and began walking to the bridge. Perhaps he could get to the bottom of this once and for all.

"We have arrived in the system, Sir," the navigation officer informed him as he stepped onto the bridge.

"Sitrep?"

"No active ships in sensor range. Sir, this system is completely inhospitable to all known life forms. The primary black hole has thoroughly irradiated what's left of the planetary bodies."

He nodded. Just as he remembered, then. "Comm-scan, run an active sensor sweep on the black hole itself. Look for any metallic objects."

"Yes, Sir. It may take additional time with the system interference."

"Understood."

Mantrel paced the floor of the bridge while he waited for the scan to complete; it did, in fact, take quite a bit of extra time to complete and the Comm-Scan tech apologized for the inconclusive results.

"I did pick up trace amounts of the component elements of durasteel in the spectral analysis," he finally concluded.

"Can we retrieve it?"

"I doubt it, Sir. Gravitational stresses in that part of the accretion disk are quite extreme. Whatever it was, it has been broken down to the atomic level."

Commodore Mantrel paced a few more steps before turning back to Comm-Scan. "I have a suspicion that something about this is not quite right," he began. "I want to send two probe droids into the black hole."

"Sir?" the operator questioned.

"Have one probot programmed to enter at sublight speeds," Mantrel continued, ignoring him. "Program the second one to make a hyperjump that passes through the black hole's coordinates. If either one remains operational after entering the black hole, it will scan the area, turn around and transit the black hole again, then begin broadcasting at full power.

"I see, Sir. At once, Sir."

As the activity in the pit resumed its steady buzz, Mantrel walked over to where Captain Ollic stood.

"Commodore," Ollic acknowledged.

"Captain," Mantrel replied. "What do you know about this system?"

The human captain shrugged. "Only what the scans turned up. It has a black hole primary that is feeding off the secondary star. No hospitable planets, no liquid water anywhere."

"Was there any information in the ship's database?"

"No, Sir."

"Then allow me to fill you in," Mantrel replied. "Almost sixty years ago, Commander Mitth'raw'nuruodo of the Chiss Expansionary Defense Fleet intercepted a Trade Federation task force in this very system.

"I see," Ollic mused. "That was before my time... but what business did the Trade Federation have? There is nothing of value here."

"Precisely." Mantrel took several steps toward the bridge viewports. "They had been sent here by the order of the Emperor, with one of his trusted advisors."

Ollic paused, obviously lost in thought. "That doesn't mean what I think it means... does it?"

"This is where the Outbound Flight met its end," Mantrel finished. "At least, that was what we assumed. We struck and crippled them, and Thrawn was about to finish them off when they suddenly jumped to hyperspace."

"I always thought they had been destroyed?"

"As did I," Mantrel replied. "Their hyperspace vector lead straight to the black hole. The Emperor's advisor assumed that meant they were dead. I was not so sure but was not about to try following them."

Ollic frowned. "So why did our smuggler come here, then?"

"Perhaps she was looking for something from Outbound Flight," Mantrel suggested. "It was a colony ship, after all. They had quite a bit of valuable technology aboard, even by today's standards. The salvage rights to that ship would be quite... handsome."

"Indeed," Ollic agreed. "No self-respecting smuggler that I've met would ever fly into a black hole unless they had good reason."

"Probe droids have been launched, Sir," a tech reported from the pit.

Mantrel walked over to the holographic tactical display, which showed icons of the two probots shooting away from the Magistrate. They both blinked out as they jumped to hyperspace; then, moments later, one flashed back to existence in the black hole's accretion disk, spiraling inward at a rapid rate. As it neared the black hole, though, the probe seemed to freeze in place.

"Comm-Scan, what's going on with the probe?" Ollic asked.

"We've lost communication, Sir."

"How? It's still there."

"It must have passed through the event horizon, Sir."

Ollic nodded. "Understood. Continue monitoring." Then he turned and walked back to Mantrel. "I hope this works," he remarked. "We only have one functional probe droid left, and we won't be able to restock until our next overhaul." He paused and turned toward the rear of the bridge. "Which reminds me. The crop reports from Nilor III are below average. Their shipments to us will be reduced by one third compared to last year."

Nilor III was a small colony world in the Outer Rim that had fallen through the cracks during the Clone Wars and been subsequently ignored by both the Empire and New Republic. The Magistrate had intercepted a distress call from their authorities several years prior, arriving in time to drive away a small fleet of pirates that had been harassing them. In exchange for their continued protection by the Empire of the Hand, they had agreed to a small tax on their yearly output. So far the arrangement had worked fairly well for both sides.

"That could cause us some problems. Dispatch one of the corvettes there to investigate."

Ollic nodded. "I'll inform Captain Artravis."


While Captain Ollic walked over to the inter-ship comm to deliver the orders, Mantrel continued watching the holotable. Moments later, one icon popped back up on the display.

"Sir, we have the data from one of the probes," a tech reported from the pit.

Mantrel walked over to the pit and looked down at the tech's station. "Report. Which probe was it?"

"The hyperspace one, Sir."

"And where does the black hole lead?"

The tech checked the displays briefly. "Unknown, Sir. I've cross-referenced the star logs from the probe with our navigational database. No matches were found."

"Interesting," Mantrel mused. "Were there any signs of civilization?"

"There are bursts of subspace emissions from several nearby star systems. The emissions appear random at first, but the computer has identified structures that are consistent with an encoding scheme. Should I send the logs down to intel for analysis?"

"Immediately," Mantrel ordered. "Excellent report, Technician Jenz."

"Thank you, Sir."


The Commodore walked back to the tactical display, where Captain Ollic was waiting.

"Captain Artravis will be en route to Nilor III shortly," Ollic reported, then his expression became more quizzical. "What did I miss?"

"We now know there is life in this new galaxy," Mantrel replied. "Captain, may I ask you something?"

"Of course."

Mantrel paced briefly in front of the holotable. "Which captain do you think would be best suited for a long term survey mission?"

Ollic considered the question, obviously wondering if it was some sort of test, before finally answering. "Captain Yates."

"And what do you think qualifies him?"

"He has consistently high evaluations in his service record, and his ship is more well-suited to long term operations than any other ship in the fleet." Which was true; Thanan Yates was in command of their only Loronar Strike Cruiser, the Diversion. The Strike Cruisers had been designed specifically for Outer Rim patrol missions where the starship would be operating semi-autonomously for several years at a time. Of course, at less than one third of the size of an Imperator-class such as the Magistrate, it was never meant to be compared to the real cruisers of the Imperial Navy which out-massed and out-gunned the Magistrate several times over.

Then again, most of those cruisers now belonged to the New Republic.

"A wise choice, Captain. Have the ship prepared for hyperspace. We will return to base and inform Captain Yates of his new assignment."

Ollic's confusion was plainly evident on his face. "New assignment, Sir?"

"He is going to find out where exactly this anomaly leads, and determine the whereabouts of Outbound Flight's final resting place."




. . .



Kyp had never heard of, much less seen, any living creature capable of surviving hyperspace by itself. Even mynocks, silicon-based lifeforms that were irritatingly common in spaceports, could only survive if they stayed latched on to their host ship.

Yet right now, there was evidence of such a thing staring him in the face. With nasty, beady eyes, Kyp mentally added. It just looked evil, having ray-like wings and constantly clacking pincer-jaws.

The reason he was staring at it, of course, instead of simply blowing it out of the sky was because that had simply not been an option at the time. Right after their first frantic hyperjump, several of the creatures had been inside point-blank range. One of the few weaknesses of the X-wing's design were its widely spaced laser cannons, which prevented it from firing on anything small that was within about one fighter-length. Effective minimum range, the point at which you were guaranteed to get convergence from the four cannons, was about one hundred meters. Which, Kyp, reflected, was so close that it was almost never actually seen in combat.

So, faced with allowing one of the creatures to make a pass at his fighter and potentially damage his propulsion, like they had done with all the others in his squadron (he still hadn't quite wrapped his head around the realization that everyone except him and those aboard the Rock Dragon--with the possible exception of Miko--were all dead), Kyp had opted to sacrifice the sensor package at the nose of his X-wing. Considering that the Rock Dragon mounted a far more thorough set of sensors, it was a trade-off that he was willing to make. He had rammed one of the creatures, impaling its midsection on the rather blunt plasteel dome of the fighter. Somewhat amazingly, it was still struggling to pull itself free, its acid-covered pincers clacking angrily.

Of course, as long as the thing remained there, it would make re-entering an atmosphere an interesting challenge. It also meant that he couldn't fire his own cannons accurately.

"Jacen, anytime now..."

"I'm working on it!" Jacen's reply came. "Little busy here."

He squinted at the Rock Dragon in the distance. Several of the creatures were still crawling over it. "If you blow this thing off my nose, I can pick the rest of those bugs off your hull," he replied.

"Would you mind coming a little closer at least? I'd rather not shoot you by mistake."

Kyp ran the throttle up, pulling alongside the port turret of the transport. "Just don't scratch the paint."

Jacen laughed nervously. "We're about to be eaten alive, and you're worried about your paint job?"

In what only seemed like a heartbeat after two searing red blaster bolts blew half of the offending creature away (splattering his cockpit canopy with yellow ichor in the process), his R6 unit screeched a warning. He frantically looked around to see what was going on, but nothing seemed out of place.

"Jacen, what's going on?" he finally asked.

The comm was silent for a moment before Jacen replied. "You've got one hanging off your upper starboard cannon."

"What?" Kyp craned his neck around and leaned forward; sure enough, another of the beady-eyed bugs was now attempting to chew through his laser cannon. If it damaged the Tibanna gas cylinder inside... "How'd that happen? Can you get it?"

"I'll try," Jacen replied. Kyp saw the quad guns swing around and silently hoped that Jacen's aim was true. First one moment passed, then two, before Kyp finally spoke again.

"What's going on?"

"Damn thing's between your S-foils now. I can't hit it."

Kyp looked again but only saw the torn metal from where it had been chewing on his laser. "What's it doing there?"

"Going for your engines, I think. These damn things are worse than mynocks..."

"Kriff." His mind raced as he thought about his options now. Jacen couldn't shoot it for fear of blowing his whole fighter up, and if the bug got into one of the fuel cells it would also be game over. He looked over the control panels for anything that could help, and his eyes came to rest on the S-foil control switch before he quickly mashed it.

The fighter shuddered as the S-foils began closing. They had just touched the creature when they began re-opening. The control panel started beeping a warning at him which just made him swear louder. "R6, override the damned S-foils!"

Well, at least the droid was all right, he decided as the S-foils began closing again before grinding to a halt with the bug in between. Unbelievably, it continued to squirm, causing the foil motors to squeal in protest as they struggled to finish closing.

"How many more of these kriffing things are there?" Jacen exclaimed in frustration. Kyp looked over his shoulder and saw another bug crawling down the Rock Dragon's hull toward the quad lasers.

"Hold tight... I'll get him."

Grabbing the controls, he spun the X-wing around to face the transport, and began lining his sights up on the creature threatening Jacen's turret.

Then an ear-splitting thud reverberated through the fighter, and his shots went wild as the X-wing began spinning slowly. "What now?" he screamed in frustration. A brief message from R6 appeared on his screen, and as he read it, his stomach sank. Somehow, the creature he'd trapped between his starboard S-foils had still managed to breach one of the fuel cells. He only hoped that it had cooked itself in the process, but given how tenacious the damned things were, part of him doubted it.

He fought the control stick to bring the damaged fighter under control again, then tried to line up his sights on the bug again.

Only it wasn't there.

"Jacen, where'd it go?"

"I don't..." Jacen's voice trailed off, and Kyp wondered just what the hell was going on for a moment before R6 screeched out an agonizing wail and went silent. "Uh, I think he just took out your R6 unit."

"You think?!"

Then he heard a scratching noise directly above him... and saw a set of dark, sharp-edged limbs scraping away at the already stained, acid-etched transparisteel of his cockpit canopy.

"I have had it with these kriffing bugs!" he shouted at no-one in particular as he madly fumbled to seal up his vacsuit. "That's it!"

"Kyp, what are you doing? I think I can get it!"

He grabbed his lightsaber and opened the canopy, which strained against the creature's mass. Still, it opened just enough to let him squirm out of the fighter. A razor-sharp spear-claw swung at him and he just narrowly managed to avoid it by pressing himself down against the nose of the X-wing.

When the claw cleared, he kicked frantically to free his legs as the canopy began to creak back down. He must have hit the controls, he realized a moment later, as the X-wing entered into a slow, dizzying spin.

As soon as he was clear of the hatch and out of range of the spear-claws of the abominable creature, he wrapped his legs around the nose of the fighter so he wouldn't go flying off and drew his lightsaber. Another swipe by the bug was cut off prematurely along with the leg. It recoiled, and Kyp grinned viciously. "Not so tough now, are you?"

Another appendage flew at him, and Kyp removed it just as easily as the first. "Yeah. Just try to eat my X-wing. I dare you."

The bug dragged itself backward a step, but continued to stare at him as its jaws clacked wildly. He swung the lightsaber again and chopped off its pincer-like jaws before propelling himself toward it and slicing it down the middle. Still twitching, it began to drift away from the X-wing as Kyp tried to stop himself.

After pulling himself back toward the X-wing with the Force, Kyp took in the situation. His R6's dome was hopelessly trashed. The upper starboard S-foil was twisted at a crazy angle from the explosion in the engine, but although blackened, the creature trapped between the wings was still alive. Kyp gave it another glance; barely alive would be more like it, as it hardly moved except to follow him with one of its eyes.

Then he shifted his attention over to the Rock Dragon some hundred or so meters away. Three of the bugs were still attached to it, and he could see sparks flying as one of them was apparently chewing through a power conduit. Throwing caution to the wind, he crawled along the damaged fighter to the side facing directly toward the Rock Dragon, crouched, and kicked himself off toward the transport. After all, if that ship became crippled, none of them were likely to make it back without a miracle.

The hundred meters between the X-wing and the Rock Dragon were probably the most agonizing hundred meters Kyp had ever crossed. The ship seemed to take forever to get closer, and he could only watch helplessly as one of the bugs finished chewing through the conduit. The transport's ion engines sputtered out moments later.

"We've lost power!" Jaina exclaimed over the comm.

"Yeah," he replied in a resigned tone. "One of them chewed through a conduit. I hope you have a spare or we're all screwed."

Then he crashed into the side of the Rock Dragon, grabbing at a protruding sensor to arrest himself as he started to rebound off the larger ship. He grimaced, hoping that he didn't puncture anything on his vac suit, and carefully began to crawl around to where the bugs were.

Fortunately for him, the nearest one was still completely focused on gnawing through what was left of the power conduit. Keeping as much distance between himself and the almost three-meter long critter as was possible, he took out its hind claws with one slice of the blade. Rudely interrupted from its meal, the bug spun about threateningly without even using its legs--a feat that, for a brief instant, struck Kyp as remarkable. They must have been bred to function in vacuum, he realized. Although he still had no clue how they managed to move so damned fast--outperforming an A-wing in burst acceleration was no small feat, although the A-wing probably had longer endurance...

The bug suddenly shot forward at him, barely giving him any time to react. He sprung off the top of the Rock Dragon's hull, igniting his lightsaber and pointing it down at the creature as he did so. The blade sliced into its head before his momentum carried him out of reach. In the meanwhile, the creature's dead body continued drifting forward beyond the Rock Dragon.

One more down, two to go, Kyp mentally counted.

The brief contact between the creature and his lightsaber had taken his vertical jump and sent him somersaulting in a way that an ordinary human would not have been able to correct for in the vacuum of space. It went without saying that a Jedi was far from an ordinary being.

He closed his eyes and reached out for the larger ship, trying to draw himself in toward its mass like an anchor. He never really had understood the problems that many Jedi had with levitation; when you boiled it down to the essentials, levitation was simply using the Force to counteract gravity. The only difference between levitating a rock and levitating yourself was that instead of merely being the fulcrum of an invisible lever, you had to be the lever.

Kyp guessed that that was actually the real reason that most Jedi had such trouble with levitating was precisely that; it was tough to stand back and use your mind's eye when you were the subject in question.

Once he was back on the hull of the ship, he grabbed onto a sturdy-looking handhold and looked for the next bug. It wasn't very far away, and was currently attempting to break through the transparisteel viewport near Jacen. He quickly estimated the distance and angle to the creature, then took his lightsaber, locked it on, and sent it spinning toward the bug's head. It reacted by reaching up to catch the spinning, glowing saber--a reaction that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in this case only got its forelimb chopped off before it was beheaded by the blade. After watching it for a moment to make sure it wasn't moving, Kyp called the saber back to his hand. "Jacen, where's the last one?"

"There's another one?"

"I think I saw something over here," Tenel Ka called out a moment later. Kyp sighed; if it was on the other side of the ship, there was no way he could tell whether or not he would run into the creature from behind or head-on.

"Jaina, any idea?"

"I'm getting an alarm on one of the coolant lines," she replied a moment later. "That could be it."

Kyp looked over the upper edge of the ship but didn't see anything particularly alarming. As he recalled, the primary cooling lines on this ship ran along the ventral portion of the hull and were heavily armored for a civilian vessel, considering how vital they were. Still, the bugs had shown themselves able to corrode and cut their way thorough starfighter hulls, and he wasn't willing to bet his life that the slightly heavier armor plating of the Rock Dragon would be able to withstand it for much longer.

He began climbing headfirst down the side of the ship. One problem, of course, with being in space was that he had to rely completely on his eyes and the Force for any warning of dangers; sound, of course, didn't travel through the near vacuum of space no matter what they showed in the action holovids.

"Got you, you spawn of a gundark," Kyp muttered as he poked his head out over the bottom of the ship. He could see a slight spray of venting coolant and hoped that they had working vacuum suits aboard the Rock Dragon. His X-wing flight suit, after all, wasn't designed for sustained space operations--in the brief time he'd been out of the cockpit, he had already used up over a quarter of his total oxygen supply. He knew that there was always a five-minute reserve supply once the level read empty, but he didn't feel like pushing his luck any farther than he'd been forced to push it within the past twelve hours.

This time, the beast was looking right at him, but it evidently didn't consider him of interest because it went right back to scraping at the hull. He retracted his head and began pulling himself around the side of the ship, toward the stern.

When he looked again, the coolant leak had gotten slightly worse, and the bug was still occupied by trying to make it even bigger. "I found it," he reported back to Jaina and the others. "It's pretty close to the engines, and it's working on one of the coolant lines. The line's already starting to leak. You guys have vacsuits, right?"

"Yes," Jacen replied.

"You'll need them to fix this. I don't have enough air left to weld a patch in place."

"What about the bug?" Jaina asked.

"I'll worry about the bug. You guys just get the tools and stuff ready."

Trying to expose himself to the creature as little as possible, Kyp pulled himself far enough over the edge to have a clear space to throw his saber at this bug. After what had happened with the other ones, he didn't feel the pressing need to get up close and personal with it.

He carefully extended his arm back to line up for the throw, and then in one smooth motion flung the ignited saber at the creature. Astonishingly, as the saber spun toward it, the creature began to react, turning a claw-like appendage in an attempt to block it. Kyp nudged the saber and the blade sliced through the appendage before piercing the creature tip-first.

When the creature stopped twitching, he pulled himself over the edge and crawled up toward it to retrieve his saber. Something stopped him when he was only about a meter away, and he looked down at the creature to see a small flash of light where the saber had entered. He bent down--

--and then the creature exploded, showering him with gooey chunks of flesh. He reached up to wipe a piece off his faceplate, but whatever was in the creature's blood had already etched a scar in the surface of his faceplate.

"Kriff, these things have acidic blood! Get the hatch ready, I need to get inside before it eats through my suit!"

As fast as he could, he began hauling himself around the ship to the dorsal surface where the airlock was, barely daring to exhale until he had stepped inside the ship and removed what was left of his flight suit.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.12 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-02 02:33am
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CHAPTER TWELVE



Captain Thanan Yates was normally quite a patient man. However, hunting for a legendary lost ship such as the Outbound Flight in an entirely alien galaxy, with absolutely no navigational charts available, was enough to test even the most patient of commanders.

So far, he had been in the alien galaxy for the better part of the week aboard his command, the Loronar Strike Cruiser Diversion. It had taken several hours after transiting the wormhole to make sure that they had not suffered any malfunctions aboard the ship, and several more hours to complete a survey of the local star systems and establish their position in the galaxy. Roughly speaking, they were approximately twenty thousand light-years from the galactic core, in a galaxy that appeared to be ten to fifteen percent smaller than their own.

The wormhole system itself hadn't been much help in their search. The only clues to Outbound Flight's existence was a small debris field with traces of durasteel and other alloys, and some other drifting garbage that hadn't been touched in at least sixty years.

They had then jumped to the nearest star system, some twenty light-years away, and had found more signs of activity. In addition to some debris, they found an asteroid that had been mined for yttrium, one of the components of durasteel alloys. But again, the actual ship had eluded their search.

After jumping through several more systems nearby, and coming up empty-handed each time, he had realized that they needed to think like the commander of Outbound Flight would.

You're in command of Outbound Flight, he mused. Your ship has just been seriously damaged and you fled through a wormhole into a strange galaxy. Your first priority is repairs, so you go to a system with the resources to fix the ship. What is your next step?

Well, that all depended on what the mission of Outbound Flight was, didn't it?

He held up the datapad that the Commodore had given him containing the mission profile and technical specifications of the ship. Outbound Flight was, for its day, a formidable foe. Six Dreadnaughts arranged around a central core, crewed by a mixture of Republic Navy personnel and Jedi.

Somehow, Thrawn still managed to fight them to a standstill. No mean feat for a commander with only a few picket ships.

He paged through the datapad, eventually finding what he'd been looking for.

Official mission: To expand the influence of the Republic beyond the known galaxy; to make contact with new civilizations; and to set up colonies on suitable worlds with the intent of later re-integration into the Republic.

A simple enough mission, with enough wiggle room for the commander to do practically anything he wished. No wonder the Emperor had wanted the mission destroyed. A group of Jedi-led holdout colonies outside the galaxy would have been a major setback in his plans. Not that it had mattered in the end.

So, if the mission statement had been more or less followed, then he should find several things. One, if there were any space-faring civilizations in the area, they had probably been contacted by the Outbound Flight and therefore might know where they went. Two, assuming that said civilizations were not hostile or were insufficiently advanced to pose a threat to Outbound Flight, he would find at least one Republic colony. Three, if one of the civilizations was advanced enough to pose a threat, he could find out if they had destroyed the damaged vessel.

It was the third possibility that he found most disturbing, of course, since if a civilization was advanced enough to destroy six Dreadnaughts, he was looking woefully unprepared in a lone Strike Cruiser. Then again, he had at least two advantages they did not: his ship was not previously damaged, and as a scouting mission, he had no qualms about fleeing back to the wormhole if trouble arose. Like most sane military commanders, he held absolutely no faith in the foolish notion of a "fair fight." A fair fight, as far as he was concerned, might as well be suicide.

There was a knock at the door of his quarters, but he barely bothered to glance up. "Come in."

It turned out to be one of the bridge crewmen. "Sir, I have the results of the scan you requested."

"What's the situation?"

"Sir, it appears there is a large amount of subspace comm chatter coming from a point in deep space. Comm-Scan is trying to decode the data."

He nodded. "Let me know when they finish."



Several hours later, he and the rest of the senior officers were assembled in the situation room along with one of the Comm-Scan signal analysts.

"So, Lieutenant Whenne, what did you find?"

The analyst took a gulp of water from his glass on the table. "We first had to decode the digital signal. Identifying the carrier timing was the easiest part, but it took several attempts before we understood how the data was formatted. We had been expecting holographic data, but instead all we found was 2D video and audio streams."

Yates nodded. "So that means what exactly?"

"Well, that was our next hitch. While we had the video and audio, we didn't understand a word they were saying. We linked several of our protocol droids into the central computer and we believe they have produced a reasonable, if somewhat rough, translation of some of the messages." He slid a chip into the datacard reader on the table.

"Once the protocol droids had worked out a language database, we began examining the contents of the messages. Most of the traffic on the relay is to be from a race called the Hirogen. They appear to be a predatory species, as most of their communications were related to where the good 'hunts' are located."

He took a breath and continued. "However, we also intercepted what appeared to be several old messages from a United Federation of Planets to one of their ships in this area called Voyager."

Yates shook his head. "That's all fine and well, but what does it have to do with finding Outbound Flight?"

"Well, Sir, I'm sure you are familiar with human history, our origins in particular?"

The captain shrugged. "The common consensus was that we evolved on Coruscant."

"Right," the analyst replied, reaching for a button on the datacard reader. "Watch this."

A two-dimensional frame appeared over the table, which was fairly unremarkable. What was striking, however, was the face in it. A distinctly human face.

"Good work," Yates said after a moment had passed. "It looks like they were pretty busy. Although wouldn't it have been difficult to set up a regional government in only sixty years?"

"But not impossible," Commander Rowin, his second-in-command, replied. "After all, they had the capability to set up six colonies. If those colonies wanted to, they could very well form their own federation."

Yates had known Rowin Opgard for many years. They had started off as enlisted crew aboard a small patrol vessel in the Tungra sector, and slowly worked their way up through the ranks. All in all, Rowin was probably one of the few people that Yates would willingly entrust his life to.

"Which just leaves the question of where the hell they are," Yates remarked, then turned to the analyst. "Didn't you say they had a ship in this area? Maybe they were trying to re-establish contact with the Republic."

A thoughtful expression crossed the analyst's face. "There is one way we might be able to find out. We noticed that for some reason, the relay only forwards messages under a certain length. Any longer messages are truncated and I would expect that you would have to have physical access to the relay station to download the full message. So if the station has access and sensor logs, it might just help us identify the ship."

"Well, that settles it then," Yates replied. "We'll get a team together to take a look at this thing. Any other questions?"

The room was silent for a moment. "Dismissed."




Looking through the shuttle's forward viewport at the massive space station ahead, Lieutenant Fhong Whenne was perplexed. The idea of a race of apparently nomadic hunters building such a station, not to mention keeping it working for years, was simply preposterous.

Then there was the question of, why? Why put a relay station out in the middle of deep space, light-years from anything of note?

The pilot took the shuttle into orbit of the station, which raised another question in Fhong's mind. Didn't you need gravity to orbit?

He rubbed at the neck seal on the stormtrooper armor he was currently wearing, and wished he was in the pilot's position instead of being a damned SIGINT analyst. He'd had an uncorrectable eye condition that had disqualified him from being a pilot when he had enlisted in the Navy years ago. As a result, he had fallen back on his civilian training in communications and wound up assigned to Comm-Scan.

The shuttle's pilot continued circling the station until he apparently spotted a docking port. Then he deftly maneuvered the shuttle into place, and locked the magnetic clamps to create an airtight seal around the hatch.

After several attempts at unlocking the hatch, they finally wound up just cutting their way through. The first thing Fhong noticed as he, the two other Comm-Scan techs and the squad of stormtroopers assigned to the team stepped through the still-warm hatch was the quiet clicking of the built-in rad meter in the stormtrooper armor. The only good news about the clicking was that the clicks were spread well apart; if it had been an almost continuous tone, he would have had only seconds to get out before receiving a too-large dose of radiation.

"OK, let's focus on finding a computer terminal," he said.

As they began to walk down the narrow corridors of the station, boots clanking on the metal grate decks, he began to see what he at first thought was flecks of rust on the walls. The further they went, the more there was. Finally they reached a junction, and when he saw the giant, brown splatter pattern against the wall, he realized that it wasn't rust.

"Blood," he muttered.

There really was nothing that could help morale more than being on an ancient, dimly lit, blood-spattered space station. If he'd been in a holo-thriller, the only thing that would have been missing was the eerie, tonal music so common to those holovids.

The other techs must have been thinking the same thing, because one of them began whistling a tune from one of the most popular recent holo-thrillers he'd seen. Actually, he corrected himself, the music was probably the best thing from that thriller, which was so predictable as to be boring.

Even so, he wasn't really in the mood. "Knock it off," he snapped at the midshipman.

They continued toward the heart of the station in silence when suddenly, a crimson beam of energy sizzled through the air no more than a foot away from him.

Without any words spoken, the stormtroopers instantly dove for cover along the walls of the corridor, raising their carbines and sending a hail of blaster bolts down toward the source of the beam. Fhong and the techs followed suit a moment later. Then they began leapfrogging down the corridor, continuing their suppressive fire, until they reached the end -- and found nothing besides ruined machinery and blaster-marred walls.

"What the kriff was that?" he asked in disbelief.

Then there was a clinking noise from the side corridor behind them that took even him only a fraction of a second to recognize.

"Detonator!" he shouted, diving for cover around the corner along with the other troops. But instead of the explosion they had all been expecting, there was a quiet pop and a hissing noise. Moments later, smoke began to fill the corridor.

Detecting the change in visibility, the helmets automatically switched to enhanced vision mode, painting the formerly foreboding atmosphere of the station in vibrant false colors.

Another crimson beam lanced out through the smoke screen, and Fhong turned just in time to see a brightly glowing figure duck back into cover.

"Contact at three o'clock," he said, swinging his carbine around and letting loose a quick burst of shots that blew smoking craters in their foe's cover. Once again, the stormtrooper squad began advancing under covering fire only to turn up a ruined packing crate and no sign of the assailant.

They continued advancing down the corridor until it came to a T-junction.

"Split up," the lead stormtrooper, Sergeant Kriglen, ordered. "Five and five. Keep your comlinks open."

Fhong smirked slightly. In the holovids, whenever a group split up, it was almost always the first on their path to doom. Most holovid scriptwriters, however, had no military experience and so when they showed a group splitting up, it was almost always each being for itself. The smallest unit that a stormtrooper squad would typically split up into, in contrast, was a three-man fire team.

The other common cliché in holovids was that when a group would split up, either they would not have comlinks, or some technobabble excuse would be made to explain why theirs were not working. The reasons usually given in the vids might have been valid thousands of years before, but after all the time spent on SIGINT through the various wars in the galaxy, the end result had been a communication system that used tight band transmissions, randomly hopping frequencies and heavy encryption. Civilian models were restricted to a smaller chunk of spectrum but were still strong enough to preclude listening in or jamming in most cases. The only sure way to jam a comlink was therefore to put out as much high power hash as possible across the entire spectrum, which typically had the side effect of wiping out your own comms and required the sort of power output usually found on warships.

He somehow doubted these aliens were even familiar with the part of the spectrum that comlinks operated on.

"This side is a dead end," the other squad reported a few minutes later. "It ends at some sort of storage room with no exit. Storage room is clear."

"Return and re-group," Kriglen replied, then turned to Fhong and the rest of the squad. "Look sharp. The hostile had to go this way, so chances are he's going to try and set up an ambush."

Fhong nodded, mentally noting to keep at the back of the squad just in case. He'd had plenty of marksmanship training as part of his Navy regimen, but being shot at up close and personal just wasn't really part of his job description.

"What I'd give to have a mouse droid right now," one of the troopers muttered to himself.

"Wouldn't work," one of the other troopers replied. "Its wheels would get caught in the grating. Now, one of those repulsor scout droids... that would be perfect."

"Keep it down back there," Kriglen said. "Unless you want me to make you two point men."

"No, Sergeant," they both replied in unison.

"Then move out," he barked.

"Yes, Sergeant."

They began moving again cautiously, and Kriglen called a stop after they had gone about twenty meters forward.

"Laser tripwire," he said quietly, pointing at a small emitter that had been placed across the corridor. "Explosives are probably hidden. Corporal Landot, it's your call."

Rob Landot was the explosives tech of the squad, and was also the heaviest member. When Diversion was on patrol duty in the Outer Rim, some nutcase saboteur had managed to get on board. Rob had just gone off duty when he discovered the saboteur, and without his sidearm had tackled and then suffocated the unfortunate idiot. The exact method had never been disclosed, but the rumors were that he had merely sat on him. Rob, of course, had never confirmed or denied any of the rumors.

"How far are we from the outside hull?" Rob asked.

Kriglen pulled out a datapad and checked. "About one hundred meters."

"Good. Then I won't hit anything important if I use a det," Rob replied. "Smallest charge, of course," he clarified when he caught the questioning look from the sergeant, then pulled one of the small metal spheres off his belt. He tossed it in the air experimentally a couple of times to get a feel for its weight, armed it and sent it rolling down the corridor.

"Damn, I'm good," he said when the thermal detonator rolled to a stop just short of the sensor. Then he took cover behind some obstructions in the corridor, and Fhong and the others did likewise.

When it finally detonated, there were two explosions, the second one being larger than the first. The combined effect of both, however, was to send a fireball expanding through the corridor, knocking Fhong back on his ass.

After the smoke cleared, the pulled themselves up, dusted the soot off their armor, and carefully moved forward to see what the damage was.

"Well, we wiped out all the oxygen in this area with that stunt," Kriglen remarked as he looked at the damage. Where the detonator had gone off, it had completely vaporized a hole in the deck plating and the nearby wall. Several feet away from it was an even larger gash torn in the metal, which presumably had been caused by the explosives intended for them. "It should be safe to proceed, but watch your footing. Especially you, Rob."

"Thanks a lot," Rob muttered under his breath.

They picked their way through the rubble and continued on, watching for more laser mines or any other traps. None were to be found, however, and they eventually stepped into a large circular chamber.

"Lot of cover here," Fhong remarked as he took a step back into the corridor. Almost as soon as he had spoken, there was the crack of a discharging weapon and a orange-yellow beam streaked through the air next to his head. He had taken the safety off his carbine before he'd even thought about it, and had it up and ready to fire off a return shot by the time the second shot came, searing one of his plasteel shoulder pauldrons. His E-11 carbine flared to life in response, followed shortly afterward by the carbines and rifles of his squad mates. For a good several seconds, they blasted away at the accumulated junk in the general vicinity of the shots' origin.

"Move," Kriglen barked.

They dashed forward into the cover of what could possibly have been a ship's bulkhead. After lining up their sights and blasting away for another several seconds, they made another mad dash for another covered location several meters closer to the source, then paused to check their surroundings.

"Lifesigns?" Landot turned to Fhong as he asked the question.

Fhong shook his head. "I'd need a sensor grid in place. Suit's not giving me anything useful right now... too many shadows and other interference."

"Then I guess we just have to do this the hard way," Landot muttered, pulling another detonator off his belt, arming it, and lobbing it over the stack of debris toward the location of the mystery shooter. "Fire in the hole!"

A moment later, the detonator went off, its shockwave sending debris flying into the piece of armor plating they were all crouched behind. The plate shifted slightly from the impacts and blast wave before starting to creak ominously.

"Kriff, I think you dislodged our cover," Kriglen remarked. "Let's move."

They picked their way through the debris to where the detonator had gone off, finding a small crater and not much else.

"How many exits are there-" Landot began to ask before an orange-yellow bolt slammed into his breastplate, causing him to jerk back reflexively. The plasteel armor held, although there was a scorch mark where the bolt had impacted. "Alright jackass, that's it. Your ass is MINE."

"Don't do anything rash, Rob," Kriglen warned him.

"Rash?" Had Rob's helmet been off, he would have given Kriglen an innocent and offended look. As it was, he simply unclipped a heavier-yield detonator, armed it, and sent it flying toward the origin of the shot. They all hit the deck a moment later, just in time to see the flash from the miniature thermonuclear device as it initiated.

There were no further attempts to shoot at them as they picked their way through the debris toward the epicenter, and when they finally reached it they found a humanoid figure lying on the ground, its metallic armor scorched and blackened but still mostly intact. The humanoid's flesh had been seared in the few places it was exposed, but it was still drawing regular, if weak, breaths.

As the squad assembled around it, blasters pointed at the figure, it let its distorted and damaged weapon clatter to the deck, where Fhong kicked it aside.

"Check the perimeter," Kriglen barked. "Make sure there aren't any more of them.

"All clear," they reported after a quick search.

"Bind him, then I want the four of you to take our prisoner back to the transport. Lieutenant Whenne and the rest of the squad will continue searching for an access terminal."

"At once, Sergeant."



Trying to figure out how to work the computer terminal, once they had found it that is, was another story entirely. The data that Fhong had collected from the transmissions had allowed them to put together a translation database, but the systems aboard the relay station completely failed to follow everything they knew. There were some stickers that had been applied next to the terminal which listed Hirogen words next to the alien glyphs, but there was no way any protocol droid or translation program would be able to infer the meaning of an entire language from a handful of notes.

Which left them with the option of pressing buttons to see what would happen. Fhong just hoped silently that the designers of the system had been smart enough to lock away dangerous functionality behind some type of security system, to prevent them from inadvertently blowing up the station or anything else of the sort. So far it had worked out, but every time he tried guessing at an entry on screen he hesitated.

Calm down, he told himself. No sane engineer puts self destruct or reactor control in a terminal without protecting it somehow. In fact, those shouldn't even be accessible from any random terminal!

Finally he saw one of the entries on the sticky notes, which roughly appeared to translate to "Start". He tapped it, and on the screen one of the alien messages began playing.

"You're recording this, I hope," Kriglen remarked quietly.

Fhong reached up and tapped his helmet. "Holocam's on... they're seeing what I'm seeing back on the ship."

"I hope there aren't too many messages saved on this blasted thing," Rob remarked. "Because if we have to stand here and play every message, this could take forever."

"Tell me about it," Fhong muttered. "I wish this had a droid socket so we could just download the messages and get out of here."

"Can you tell how many messages there are?" Kriglen asked.

"I'm not sure," Fhong replied. "I think I've found the time elapsed, since the glyphs are changing pretty rapidly. Let's see... Huh."

"What is it?"

"I've got twenty-five glyphs on this counter. Base-25 seems like a pretty odd number system. At least that explains the 5x5 keypad."

The message ended shortly after, and Fhong leaned in toward the screen. He frowned and pulled out a datapad, then began scribbling notes on its screen. "Looks like there's at least a few thousand messages here."

Behind him, Rob sighed loudly.

"I think there's a data port here," he added a few moments later, pulling out a meter and probes. "Sergeant, can you bring in the slicer droid?"

While Kriglen contacted the transport, Fhong began checking the pins on the connector for voltage with his meter. By the time the droid arrived, he already had all of the pins wired up and it only took a few more moments to hook up the signal analyzer. The droid beeped its readiness, and he told it to begin working. The only thing left for them to do now was to sit and wait for the droid to finish.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.13 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-06 11:33am
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CHAPTER THIRTEEN



"Engineering to Commander Chakotay," Tuvok's voice carried over the intercom. Groggily, Chakotay reached out and slapped the comm panel next to his bed.

"What is it?" he asked, slightly irritated. His alarm hadn't gone off yet, and a quick glance at the clock told him that he'd only slept for about three hours and ten minutes. Too long for a nap, too short for REM sleep. He knew he should have gone to sleep earlier the night before.

"B'Elanna noticed some irregularities in the main computer. Come down here as soon as you can."

"I'll be right there," Chakotay said with a sigh, shutting off the comm. Murphy be damned... they always had problems whenever anything important happened. It was practically the curse of Voyager.

He crawled off the berth and staggered to the sonic shower stall, hastily undressed, and climbed inside. "Shower on," he commanded.

Absolutely nothing happened.

"Shower on," he barked at the computer again, with no response. Finally he reached for the manual controls, and was surprised to discover that they were also dead. "Great, just great," he muttered, stepping out of the stall and walking over to the small sink in his quarters. At least the faucet used physical plumbing, he thought thankfully as a small stream of water came out. He quickly splashed some water on his face and then ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it out, making sure to apply gel to keep it in order.

The morning ritual finally finished, he threw on his uniform and exited into the corridor, where he began walking to the turbolifts.

"The turbolifts are down, Sir," a crewman remarked as he passed about halfway there. "You'll have to use the Jeffries tubes back this way."

"Great," Chakotay sighed as he turned around. "So what else isn't working?"

"Anything that operates on voice commands, Sir."

"Terrific," he grunted. They came to the Jeffries tube entrance moments later and crawled inside. Chakotay briefly recalled the main schematic for the ship; his quarters were about six decks above Engineering and fifty meters forward. But the way the Jeffries tubes ran, it would actually take him about seven decks and closer to seventy meters to reach Engineering. He flexed his arms, stretched his back as much as the cramped space would allow, and started crawling down the ladder.

He finally arrived in Engineering to find a barely controlled scene of chaos. The senior bridge crew were all standing at the consoles near the entrance, so he walked over to Tuvok. "What's the situation?"

"The main computer is running very erratically," Tuvok explained. "We've had subsystem failures all over the ship. Voice control, authentication, waste management... I would estimate that 48 percent of the subsystems are not presently responding."

What else could possibly go wrong? Chakotay wanted to ask, but refrained from doing so for fear of tempting Murphy. Instead, he looked straight at Tuvok. "I know this is probably a stupid question, but have you tried restarting the main computer?"

"Considering that would temporarily shut down all essential functions on the ship, including life support, we are considering it the option of last resort. B'Elanna is still running diagnostics in an attempt to locate the problem through normal means."

"All right," Chakotay replied. "Seems she's got things pretty much under control then... I'll go wait in the room down the hall. Alert me if anything happens."

"Naturally, Commander."



. . .



"Why do we always get general alerts in Spacedock?" Captain Gail Hancock of the Excelsior-class starship USS Hercules complained, throwing an angry glare at the bridge dome. Naturally, she reflected, whenever some potentially hostile alien vessel showed up by Earth there were almost no Starfleet vessels around to investigate. She sometimes wondered if the universe was out to get the Federation.

Still, a general alert meant that any nearby starship had to respond immediately. This meant that she had no choice--even if her aging Excelsior was only halfway through its long-overdue refitting process. The ship only had about half of its nominal firepower because the photon torpedo launchers were being upgraded to fire quantum torpedoes, and the antiquated and underpowered phaser cannons were being replaced with more capable phaser strips. The warp drive was still offline for maintenance, for goodness' sake!

She turned toward her helm officer. "Well, you know the drill. Get us out of here as fast as possible, thrusters only."

"Aye, Captain," the officer replied.

Gail glanced up at the viewscreen, noticing one other starship, a four-nacelled Cheyenne-class destroyer, begin to slide out of its berth as well. As if two horribly outdated ships would make much difference in the face of a Dominion assault or Borg attack. The Hercules might as well have been re-christened the USS Speedbump.

Several minutes later, they passed through the massive doors of Spacedock and were finally able to go to full impulse. The intruder, according to Starfleet Command, was currently holding position near lunar orbit. They'd been very sparing on the details, only saying that multiple unidentified ships had breached the Mars defense perimeter without any warning.

The only question left in her mind was how? The Dominion did not possess cloaking devices, and she'd never heard of the Borg using them. Which left only the Romulans and Klingons, both of which were nominally at peace with the Federation for the time being due to the threat of the Dominion.

"Lieutenant Gordon, can you get me a better view of the intruders?" Gail asked once they had closed to visual range.

A brief moment later, the viewscreen came to life and Gail frowned. The first vessel did not appear to be much longer than a Galaxy-class, although its solid design probably made it far more massive. The second vessel, on the other hand, looked more like a space station than anything else -- the displays were estimating the ship at over a kilometer in length and close to half that in diameter -- but what was strange about it was the configuration. The center part of the ship was a fat cigar-shaped cylinder, with a thick framework wrapped around it. Attached to that were five ships that appeared to be identical to the first... and was that the tip of a saucer?

"Magnify the forward portion."

The computer display zoomed in on the saucer, and she frowned as she noticed some lettering on it. "I think that's Starfleet," she muttered under her breath. "Lieutenant, is the ship broadcasting any IFF?"

"Negative, Captain," Gordon replied.

Well, it was worth asking, she thought. "Helm, bring the ship around. Let's see if we can get a better look. Lieutenant Gordon, has there been any response to hails?"

"Not yet, Captain," the lieutenant reported. "I'll keep trying on different frequencies."

A few minutes later, they had moved into view of the opposite side of the strange ship. Nearly everyone gasped as the battered form of an Intrepid-class primary hull became visible, its once smooth surface marred by scorch marks and pitting. Some of the worst damage was located where the bridge had once been, which now looked like a twisted, mangled mass of wreckage.

"I can't see the registry number," Gail remarked as she squinted at the screen. "Lieutenant, can you get a clearer image?"

After a moment the screen resolved, showing the ship's registry number of NCC-74656.

Gail's jaw dropped slightly. "My God," she muttered. "It's Voyager." She turned toward Lieutenant Gordon. "Get me a reading on their systems. I want to know why they're not responding to hails."

"One moment, Captain," Gordon said, tapping away at his panel. "Main power is out and so are their impulse reactors. I'm getting strange readings from the warp core... ah. Their warp core is completely uncontrolled right now. The reaction could destabilize at any moment."

Her eyes widened. "Helm, take us out to a safe distance. Tactical, shields up. Lieutenant, open a channel to Starfleet Command and get me a readout on the other ships."

The image of Voyager disappeared from the viewscreen an instant later to be replaced by the Starfleet Command logo, before finally showing Admiral Whatley from Starfleet Headquarters.

"Captain, what's the status?"

"Admiral," Gail began, "we have two unidentified ships on a translunar trajectory. One of the ships is connected to USS Voyager, to the best of our knowledge. In addition, Voyager's warp core is unstable. Their power is down and we have not been able to raise anyone yet."

"Voyager?" the Admiral responded incredulously. "Are you sure?"

"She seems to be badly damaged, but yes, I'm sure it's Voyager."

The Admiral had a thoughtful expression for a moment. "Hold your position and keep me informed. I know it's dangerous, but can you beam over a damage control team to stabilize their warp core?"

"Of course, Admiral," Gail replied. "Hercules out." As the screen switched back to show the strange ship and Voyager, she turned around to face the tactical station. "Lieutenant Commander, get an away team ready on the double and beam over if it's still safe to do so."



. . .



"What the hell happened?" Chakotay asked as he ran back into Engineering, trying to not trip in the dim emergency lighting. He rubbed his eyes twice trying to clear up the blurriness, to limited effect.

"I reset the main computer, but after it initialized more subsystems were shut down than before," B'Elanna responded. "Then we tried resetting both the main computer and the backup systems. When the computer came back up, it flooded the warp core with anti-deuterium. Right now we're trying to purge the core but the systems are so screwed up..."

"Core overload in five minutes," the computer pleasantly intoned, as if it were announcing that a cup of coffee was ready.

"And then there's that," she finished. "If the vents don't work, we're going to have to eject it. My only problem is that the eject hatch is pointing right at Outbound Flight's storage core."

"Well, that's simple enough to fix," Chakotay said. "Just release the magnetic clamps on the framework and we'll spin the ship around."

B'Elanna shook her head. "The release mechanism is controlled by the computer. I don't even know if the helm will respond assuming we do manage to detach ourselves."

Chakotay put his palm across his face. "Do we have any sort of backup system for the clamps at least?"

"Outbound Flight does."

"Great. I'll contact Captain Avin and ask him to release us." When he got a look from B'Elanna, he stopped. "Wait... don't tell me that we can't reach them either."

She shook her head and Chakotay leaned his head back to look at the ceiling in frustration. The flickering blue-tinted light of the warp core was casting eerie shadows all over Main Engineering, making the entire deck look like something out of a Frankenstein holoprogram. What a perfect setting for this, he thought.

"Then what else can we do?"

"I've already sent one of the crewmen over to D-1 through the pylons," B'Elanna replied. "He should be there anytime now to let them know what's happening. With any luck, they'll get the message in time to allow us to eject."

"Lately, I'd say we've been pretty short on luck," Chakotay remarked quietly.

They were interrupted by a very familiar whining noise, and Chakotay's hand dropped to his phaser as five figures materialized in front of them. When he saw the Starfleet badges on their uniforms a moment later, he relaxed. "Welcome aboard Voyager. I'm Commander Chakotay."

"Lieutenant Cho, USS Hercules. What's the situation?"

"Core overload in four minutes," the computer intoned.

Chakotay took a step backwards. "I'll let Lieutenant Torres explain."

The glare that Torres gave him could have cut through duranium, but remarkably she managed to refrain from any sudden outbursts. "We had a computer failure two hours ago," she began. "We were having trouble getting the subsystems to respond, so I finally rebooted the main computer and backups. When the computer came up, it flooded the warp core with anti-deuterium because the rest of the management systems weren't running. Right now we're doing everything we can to contain it until we can eject the core."

"What's the status of the magnetic interlocks?" Cho asked.

"Holding for now," Torres replied, "but barely. We're lucky the computer didn't decide to dump an equal amount of deuterium into the core or we'd all be quark soup right now."

Cho swallowed and nodded. "Yeah... it would be pretty terrible to come home from all the way across the galaxy only to be blown up by your own warp core. Well, we're here to help. What can we do?"

B'Elanna gestured to the other side of engineering, where a number of ensigns were huddled around one of the LCARS panels, apparently engaged in vigorous discussion. "You can go make sure they don't screw this up," she said with a wave of her hand. "I've got enough to worry about with the management systems without having the EPS conduits inhale antimatter."

The lieutenant nodded and started to turn away, then turned back and gave Torres an inquisitive look. "You're not who I think you are, are you?"

"And who might that be?" she shot back at him.

"A wanted Maquis operative?"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "Long story. Anyway, I actually like serving on Voyager... although I'm sure Starfleet Command will have more than a few colorful words for me when we all get debriefed. Now will you quit the small talk and help us stop this overgrown garbage scow from blowing up while we're on it?"

"Yes Ma'am," Cho said, his tone suggesting mirth but his facial expression betraying nothing.


A minute after Cho and the rest of the Hercules away team walked away, Torres' commbadge pinged.

"Torres here," she said as she tapped it.

"Lieutenant, it's Ensign Chell. I'm on D-1 right now with Captain Avin. He's ready to blow the explosive bolts but wants to make sure you have helm control first."

Torres rolled her eyes. "I'll run a diagnostic but we won't know for sure until we're free." She nodded to Chakotay, who stepped over to one of the LCARS panels and accessed the helm subroutine diagnostics.

"It keeps locking up when it checks for impulse power," Chakotay remarked after several unsuccessful attempts.

"Well no shit, the impulse reactors are still offline," Torres snapped, not caring if Chakotay was her superior officer. "Punch in your override and see if that works."

A moment later the maneuvering controls appeared, with the options for impulse and warp power darkened. "I think I've got it," he reported.

Torres tapped her badge. "Chell, tell Captain Avin we're ready."

There was a dull thud that momentarily vibrated through the deck plates below them, and a quick look at the helm controls told Chakotay that they were free. "Here goes nothing... thrusters to half power."

"Well?" the engineer asked expectantly.

Chakotay frowned. "The system says the thrusters are operating normally... but it also says we're not moving. That can't be right."

"Hmph." B'Elanna pulled out her PADD and began punching data into it. "If I did the math right, we should be accelerating at a rate of 3 meters per second under emergency thrusters. How long have the they been engaged?"

"Fifteen seconds."

She punched the information into the PADD and frowned. "Not enough. We need to have at least one hundred meters clearance before we attempt to rotate."

"Core overload in two minutes," the computer chimed.

Chakotay squinted, trying to do the math in his head. "I'll run the thrusters up to full power for another thirty seconds," he finally said. "That should be enough to get us clear. Can you ask Chell to find out if we're really moving?"

B'Elanna relayed the question, and Chell answered "Yes" a moment later.

"Distance?"

"Fifty meters and increasing," the response came back.

"Let me know when we hit one hundred," B'Elanna ordered.

There was silence as the seconds ticked by, then finally her commbadge beeped. "Range one hundred meters."

"Executing rotation," Chakotay said, tapping the controls again. "Damn it, I can't even tell how fast we're spinning around!"

"Chell?" B'Elanna asked. "A little help here?"

"You've only turned about fifteen degrees," he replied.

B'Elanna sighed theatrically. "Let me know when we hit one hundred thirty so we can stop rotation."

"Core overload in sixty seconds."

She shook her fist at the air. "Damn it, I know! Shut up already!" Then she turned to where Lieutenant Cho was working with the other crewmen from Voyager. "Lieutenant, can you restart the impulse reactors and divert all power to shields? We're getting really close to the wire here and if that core cooks off after we eject it..."

"I know," Cho replied. "I think we have one up and running, but the others aren't responding to commands."

"That's only about 10% of nominal shield power," Torres muttered, then spoke up. "Keep me updated."

"Core overload in forty five seconds."

"Chell!" B'Elanna shouted unnecessarily. "Are we clear yet?"

"Only one hundred twenty degrees, Lieutenant."

"Damn it, that's close enough. I'm going to start the ejection sequence."

"Stopping thrusters," Chakotay replied as the doors to Engineering hissed open and Paris walked in.

Chakotay opened his mouth, closed it, then finally spoke. "I thought I confined you to the brig until we reached Earth?"

Tom shrugged. "Well, we're here, aren't we?"

He sighed. "That's not what I meant. How did you get out?"

"Well, first the lights started flickering, then went out along with everything else, including the forcefields. That didn't seem right, so I tried to go to the Bridge except that it was sealed off three decks down. I figured if something was happening, this was the place to be."

"How nice of you to join us," B'Elanna sarcastically remarked. "Don't expect to get all the credit this time."

"Credit for what?" Paris asked with a confused expression.

"Nevermind," B'Elanna cut him short as a new message appeared on the screen of the LCARS station. "Oh come on! Now is NOT the time to jam on us!"

"Core eject sequence aborted. Core overload in thirty seconds and counting."

B'Elanna spun to face Tom, and his face went white. "You're not going to ask me what I think..."

"Damn right," the half-Klingon replied. "I don't care if you have to pound on that hatch with a sledgehammer to open it. Just make sure it opens!"

"Well, I was thinking more along the lines of a phaser set to a cutting beam..." Tom replied as he started running toward the ladder.

"Are you trying to kill us all?" B'Elanna half-screamed.

"I was joking!" his voice echoed up from the deck below.

"You'd better be!"

"Core overload in twenty seconds and counting."

"Cho!" B'Elanna shouted over the ever-increasing racket in Engineering. "How are you coming on those shields?"

"I think we have three reactors," he replied. "Will that be enough?"

"How the hell should I know?" Torres snapped. "I've never had a warp core cook off next to my ship before! Overload the reactors if you have to... just dump all the power you possibly can into the shields!"

"Warnniing. Huull breach on on deck 8. Warning. Warning. Structural integrity system failure. Warning. Life support failure in fifteen minutes. Warning. Core overload in ten seconds. Nine."

B'Elanna spat out a string of nasty-sounding Klingon phrases that Chakotay quite frankly was glad he didn't understand. "At least we still have life support," he remarked with the sort of fatalistic humor that develops in stressful situations.

"Eight."

"TOM!" B'Elanna screamed.

"Almost there!" his voice echoed up.

"Seven."

"Work faster!"

"Six."

"I'm trying!"

"Five."

"GO!"

B'Elanna slammed her hand down on the panel, causing the entire row of consoles to shake.

"Ejection sequence started. Four."

Everyone in engineering turned to watch as the warp core began sliding down. Then, the scene was replaced by the shimmer of a transporter beam and they all found themselves standing in a cargo bay.

"What the hell is it now?" Torres snarled.

Lieutenant Cho breathed a sigh of relief. "Relax, I requested an emergency beamout for everyone."

B'Elanna charged over to where the lieutenant stood and stopped scarcely one centimeter from his face. "You IDIOT! There's only thirty or so of us here, which leaves another seventy aboard Voyager! You'd better pray those shields hold or..."

"Lieutenant," Chakotay said calmly, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Not now. Let's just go to the bridge and find out what happened."

She let out a long breath, turning around and surveying the cargo bay. Then she stopped and looked around a second time before swearing under her breath. "Where the QI'yaH is Tom?"




By the time the computer countdown had reached two seconds, Tom Paris had come to the sudden realization that there was no way it was going to finish its ejection sequence in time. He also was quite aware that standing next to the ejection hatch of a warp core about to overload, it would make no difference whether he tried to run or not.

"Computer, emergency beamout, authorization Paris Seven Three One Alpha," he said, tapping his commbadge.

"Transporters offline," the computer responded. "One."

The light from the warp core, which so far had been consistently pulsating, suddenly dimmed.

"Core breach imminent. All personnel evacuate immediately."

"Thanks a lot, you piece of shit," Paris swore. The light from the warp core suddenly doubled in brightness, and for the briefest of milliseconds Paris thought he saw some sort of pattern form in the flickering light.

Then his world went white.




From his vantage point aboard D-1, Captain Avin watched in sheer dumbfoundedness as the underside of Voyager, for a brief moment, became bright enough to rival the system's primary star. When Chell had rushed to the bridge to warn him, he hadn't quite believed the lieutenant. Surely a spacefaring civilization would have more failsafes in place on something as dangerous as an antimatter annihilation reactor?

Still, he had activated the charges and jettisoned Voyager, then watched as they slowly drifted away. Once they were completely clear of the framework, he had ordered the helm to run the main engines up to maximum thrust and put as much distance between them and Voyager as possible. In this case, that worked out to about six thousand kilometers, enough distance that the shields had been easily able to handle the weak radiative effects of the uncontrolled antimatter annihilation. He was sure they could have handled it even had Voyager been closer, but with over ten thousand colonists aboard he hadn't been about to risk it.

He looked over to where Ensign Chell and several other members of Voyager's crew were working with the comm-scan techs to enable communication. "Ready, Captain," one of the techs finally reported. "Incoming transmission."

"Put it on the holo," Avin quietly ordered.

The holoprojector flashed to life, although instead of displaying the three-dimensional image he was expecting, it only projected a two-dimensional box into the air.

"Outbound Flight, this is Captain Gail Hancock of the USS Hercules. Are you in need of any assistance?"

"No, our shields held. What happened to Voyager? Did anyone survive that?"

Gail sighed. "We're not sure. The residual radiation is interfering with our scans. We did manage to beam out about thirty of the crew in the engineering section, but that was our maximum capacity for an emergency beamout in the time we had. Another twenty were beamed over to the USS Nogales, so I'm told that would leave about fifty people aboard."

Avin turned to face C'baoth, who so far had stood on the bridge and watched the entire event unfold without moving an inch. "Did anyone survive?"

The Jedi Master closed his eyes for a moment before they snapped back open. "Yes, although they are in much pain. Some will not make it."

Captain Avin shook his head. What an end to a long journey for these people. To cross half the galaxy after spending years struggling to return, only to have your ship blow up?

Idly, he wondered what they'd done to incur such misfortune.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.13 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-16 05:18pm
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very good story, cant ardly wait for the next chapter. :)

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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.13 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-17 01:20pm
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you know what, this fic has had me re watching voyager, and... to answer C'boath's question... they did a lot to incur misfortune, starting with following janeway




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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.13 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-17 11:00pm
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You mean Captain Avin, but I remember that in a previous draft that:
[Reveal] Spoiler:
Starfleet Command ended up removing Janeway from command of Voyager in favor of Chakotay after full debrief, and her being upset over this -- which, in retrospect, seems to have been her being blind to her own failings as Voyager's captain.



"Yee's proposal is exactly the sort of thing I would expect some Washington legal eagle to do. In fact, it could even be argued it would be unrealistic to not have a scene in the next book of, say, a Congressman Yee submit the Yee Act for consideration. :D" - bcoogler on this

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Last edited by Edward Yee on 2011-08-18 03:32am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.13 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-18 12:57am
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CHAPTER FOURTEEN




"Shields down to 78 percent."

Captain Jean-Luc Picard tried to ignore the shaking on the bridge. Enterprise was being hammered by no less than twelve Dominion attack ships plus one of their massive battlecruisers, and they were only five minutes into the engagement.

"Fire quantum torpedoes, full spread."

"One attack ship destroyed," Data reported a moment later. "I am not reading any noticeable effect on the battlecruiser's shields. They are returning fire."

"Change heading to 055 mark 131," Picard replied. "Evasive maneuvers, pattern Epsilon."

The bridge shook again and the lighting flickered. "Shields at 69 percent," Data observed. "At the current rate of depletion, we will lose shields in six minutes."

"We need to find a way to bring that thing down fast," Riker observed. "There's no way we're going to be able to stay in this slugging match for much longer."

"I agree," Picard replied. "Any suggestions, Number One?"

"If we concentrate our firepower on one specific section of the ship, we might be able to punch through the shields and do some damage."

After a moment's thought, Picard nodded. "Make it so."

Riker studied the readouts from the massive Dominion ship. "What do you think about hitting it here?" he asked Data, highlighting part of the Dominion ship on the LCARS display.

"Their shields appear to be weakest in that section," Data agreed. "We may be able to damage one of their warp nacelles and induce a power surge in their reactor that way."

Riker ordered a channel open to the task force. "This is Commander Riker aboard the Enterprise. Target the following coordinates and fire on my mark."

On the viewscreen, they could see the assorted ships of Task Force 11 re-orient themselves toward the Dominion battlecruiser.

"Mark."

Multiple phaser beams struck out at the Dominion ship. At first it seemed as if nothing was going to happen; the beams stopped at the purple-hued bubble of energy that surrounded the battlecruiser. Then, suddenly, they punched through and there was a flash of light as the beams struck the side of the nacelle.

"Direct hit," Data reported. "I am reading a power surge within the ship."

For a moment, the Dominion ship fell silent. Then its assault on the Federation task force redoubled and Enterprise rocked from yet another direct hit. One of the lights exploded overhead, and Picard raised an arm to shield himself from the falling debris.

"Report."

"EPS failure on deck two," Data said. "Shunting excess power through conduits on deck four. Shields holding at 53 percent."

"What's the status of the Dominion ship?" Riker asked.

"They appear to have stabilized the power surge," Data replied. "I am reading only a minor drop in their shield output."

The commander turned back to the viewscreen. "Riker to Task Force 11. Regroup and maintain fire on the same coordinates."

The USS Mateo re-targeted the battlecruiser, suffering several strong shots in return. Explosions blossomed across the hull of the Akira-class vessel as its shields collapsed.

"Lieutenant Daniels, give 'em hell," Riker said.

The lieutenant smiled. "Glad to, Sir."

Enterprise turned in a sweeping arc as it brought its armament to bear. Then Daniels unleashed the full fury of the Sovereign-class vessel. Searing phaser beams lashed out at the intruder, causing its shield bubble to glow purple where they landed. Dozens of miniature stars appeared and then evaporated as quantum torpedoes impacted the still impenetrable shielding of the battlecruiser.

If the force brought to bear by the Enterprise was like a tornado, then the reply it received from the Dominion was like a hurricane. Phased polaron beams flashed, torpedoes spat out of dozens of launchers, and the pinnacle of Starfleet engineering was battered around like the proverbial rock in a black hole.

One of the ensigns standing behind Picard was thrown forward as a plasma conduit in his console exploded, showering the unfortunate ensign and nearby crew with plastic and metal shrapnel. Fortunately for the captain, the back of his chair took the brunt of the impacts.

"Damage report?" Picard asked.

"Shields at twenty-three percent," Data replied a split second later. "Multiple hull breaches on decks five, eleven and fifteen. Damage to secondary reactor cooling system. Port phaser array is offline."

Picard pushed the comm switch on his armrest. "Mr. Laforge, report."

"I'm not sure what you just did," the engineer's voice came back over the comm, "but I sure hope you don't plan on doing it again. Another hit like that and we could lose containment."

"Objection noted," Picard replied. "Unfortunately we don't have much choice in the matter."

"Understood," Geordi answered. "I'll see if I can divert a little more power to the containment systems in the meantime."

"Captain," Data interrupted, "the Jem'Hadar have entered Benzar's atmosphere."

Picard looked down at his tactical display for a moment. "Plot a course to intercept," he ordered. "We can't allow them to land troops."

"I am detecting Dominion transporter signatures," Data replied. "We may be too late."

"Better late than never," Picard replied. "Engage."

The view from the main screen streaked slightly as Enterprise entered low warp to cover the short distance between the Dominion fleet and the planet.

Seconds later, they emerged from warp over the planet, in front of six Jem'Hadar attack ships. The tactical officer wasted no time opening fire, destroying two and damaging a third in the initial volley.

"I am detecting multiple ships approaching at high warp," Data reported as they began pursuing the remaining attack ships.

"Dominion?" Riker asked.

"Unknown," Data replied. "I cannot identify the warp signature."

Picard looked up with interest. "On screen."

The ships that appeared were fairly flat, appearing to consist of multiple shallow crescents welded together. The curving warp nacelles glowed with a green hue similar to Romulan vessels, but the design was anything but Romulan.

"Hailing frequencies," he said. "Unknown vessels, this is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Federation starship Enterprise. You are in Federation space. State your intentions."

Instead of replying, the ships dropped out of warp within point blank range of Task Force 11 and immediately opened fire. The Federation ships were quick to fire back, and several of the new arrivals were destroyed with multiple well-placed quantum torpedoes--but not before something happened, causing blue arcs of electricity to dance across several of the ships in Task Force 11.

"Mateo has lost all power," Data reported. "Other commanders are reporting random systems failures."

The Enterprise rocked again as two of the Jem'Hadar attack ships concentrated their firepower on the much larger ship. One of the bridge stations' consoles began smoking, and the lieutenant stationed there quickly backed away. The console exploded a second later, sending more debris flying across the bridge and widening the already large cloud of acrid smoke lingering overhead.

"Shields at fifteen percent," Data observed quietly. "Our position appears untenable, Captain."

Picard allowed his shoulders to slump forward in defeat. "As much as I wish it were not the case, you are correct. Signal a full tactical retreat. We will regroup at Arcturus--" A flash on the viewscreen interrupted his order as the Mateo exploded violently. "That is, what's left of the task force will regroup at Arcturus IV."

"Yes, Captain."

"Captain, we have another wave of torpedoes incoming," Data reported.

"Evasive maneuvers, Mr. Data," Picard snapped out. "Have the commanders acknowledged the order for retreat?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Maximum warp to Arcturus. Engage."

The android tapped the commands into his LCARS screen, then paused. "Warp drive is not responding."

Picard activated the communicator controls on his chair. "Mr. Laforge, what is going on with the warp drive?"

"Sorry, Captain," the engineer's voice replied. "That last hit was worse than I thought. We have a bad coolant leak in one of the port nacelle EPS conduits."

"How long will it take you to fix it?"

"I already have a team of engineers working on it. I think they'll be done in five minutes."

"Mr. Laforge, our shields are almost completely drained. We need warp power now. Can you do anything?"

A long, uncomfortable pause preceded Laforge's reply. "I can divert power through the secondary EPS conduits, but we'll be limited to Warp 5."

"Make it so," Picard replied.

"Captain, I am continuing evasive maneuvers but there are too many torpedoes to avoid. I estimate time to impact in thirty seconds," Data reported.

"Mr. Laforge?" Picard asked.

"Almost there!"

"Impact in twenty seconds. Shields at sixteen percent."

The tension on the bridge was palpable as the seconds ticked away. "There," Geordi's voice came over the comm. "I think that should do it."

"Engage."

Just as Data reached for the controls, the first of the torpedoes hit and nearly threw several of the bridge crew out of their seats.

"Warning. Shield overload. Structural integrity field compromised," the computer intoned.

A second impact jarred the ship again, and then the stars mercifully elongated as the Enterprise entered warp. Picard let out the breath he realized he had been holding and leaned back in his chair. "Damage report."

"Secondary deflector dish offline. Navigational sensor array has sustained heavy damage and is barely functional. We have lost atmospheric containment on decks eight through eleven... it appears that one of the torpedoes punched straight through the forward portion of the primary hull."

He nodded and thumbed the intercom. "Mr. Laforge, status report."

"We've managed to stabilize the coolant leak for now, Captain," the engineer replied. "We should be able to make warp 7. However, I wouldn't recommend trying maximum warp until we replace the damaged section of conduit."

"Duly noted," Picard replied. "Anything else?"

"No, Sir."

The captain came to his feet, turning toward Riker. "Bring us down to yellow alert, Number One. If you need me, I will be in my ready room writing reports for Starfleet Command."



. . .




"Why did I even bother trying?"

There was a brief pause in the cockpit of the YT-2400 freighter Headwind and then a synthesized voice replied in an infuriatingly smooth tone. "I believe you were unsure if you could safely duplicate the transit of the wormhole without killing yourself."

Cathi threw a glare over at the co-pilot's seat, where Orb was sitting motionless. "Yeah, well this isn't much better. We're stuck Force-knows-where trying to find a ghost ship full of Jedi that vanished sixty-odd years ago, with no prospects of getting home anytime soon. It took us two weeks to cross this damned galaxy without killing ourselves, and because of all the extra jumps we had to make I'm not even sure if we have enough fuel to get back."

Orb leaned forward and looked at the navicomputer. "If I am not mistaken, we are still outside the region of space this Federation occupies. Shall I begin plotting our next jump?"

"Well, first off, I think it would be good to know where we are."

"If only that were possible," Orb lamented.

"Relatively speaking, I mean."

"Oh! Why didn't you say so? We are approximately one hundred light-years from the provided coordinates, with a margin of error of fifty light-years.

Cathi leaned back in the pilot's seat and stared at the ceiling in frustration. "A margin of error of fifty light-years? Do you know how long that area will take to cover?" She ran through the math in her head... "That's a hundred and twenty five thousand cubic light-years!"

"At an average speed, I estimate that we could complete a satisfactory survey of the area within eighty years. That is well within my operating parameters."

"Yeah, your parameters! What about me?"

"The average life expectancy of humans from your homeworld is one hundred thirty-five. In eighty years, you will be one hundred eleven. That is a sufficient safety margin."

"Since when do you know my age?" Cathi snapped.

"If I am not mistaken, you have been forced to provide it on many occasions for the entry forms of various planets. Although you also claim that you are a tourist in most cases, so I suppose that may not necessarily be correct..."

Exasperated, she threw up her hands. "This is absurd. If we're going to do this in any reasonable amount of time, we need to identify the most likely systems instead of just jumping from one to the next. I really wish we had the scanning power of a Star Destroyer right now..."

Orb glanced out the viewport before looking down at the console. "That won't be necessary."

Cathi laughed. "And why is that?"

The protocol droid stiffly raised his arm to point out at space. "Because we have already been found."

Cathi squinted out of the viewport at the brightening speck of light before looking down at the consoles. She quickly isolated it from the other scan results, then pulled it up on the holoprojector.

"We're a long way from the Corporate Sector," she muttered, "but I could swear that thing looks like a Marauder corvette."

"The ship's characteristics are all wrong," Orb observed. "The length is over twice that of a corvette, the aft portion is too hemispherical, and it does not appear to have standard sublight engines. Also, if it was a CorpSec ship, they would have already hailed us by now to demand we stop for a customs inspection."

She slumped back in the chair. "Thanks a lot for the datadump, Orb," she said, following her comment with a pronounced sigh. "Well, what do you suggest we do now? Run?"

"If this is representative of the local spacefaring races, then it may be beneficial to see if they know of this Federation. More importantly, they may be able to provide us with current navigational data."

The last part was what made up Cathi's mind. "Alright, we're going to try talking to them. I hope your language database is current."

"My last maintenance period was with my seventeenth master."

"Great. I'm in a new galaxy with an antique protocol droid that was last updated before the Emperor was born, about to meet locals who we know absolutely nothing about. Could this possibly get any better?"

"The ship appears to be transmitting something on subspace frequencies," Orb reported. "Would you like me to attempt to decode the message?"

"YES!"

"There's no need to shout," Orb quietly remarked with what might have been a hint of pain in his synthetic voice. "My aural sensors were not designed for such abuse. Decoding, please wait..."

"Well?" Cathi asked nearly a minute later. The ship was drawing steadily closer; the last time she had checked, the distance was down to three hundred thousand klicks. I could hit that thing practically blindfolded, she thought to herself.

"The binary encoding scheme of the audio-2D video stream is unusual, but hardly innovative," Orb replied in what might have been an absent-minded tone if such a thing was possible for a droid. "It uses a simple rotating checksum with only sixteen bits of parity per frame packet to ensure integrity..."

"I meant, what are they saying?" Cathi, almost at her wit's end, shouted.

"Oh. I believe they are claiming to be from a place called... For-ein-gen-ar," the droid attempted to pronounce. "The syntax of their language is not very complicated, although it shares no similarities to Basic it does have common traits with several extinct mid-Rim languages." The droid cocked its head for a moment. "They seem to make frequent references to money. Given the apparent context, I do not believe they are pirates, but perhaps they may be merchants of some sort."

"Just get on with it!"

"Very well," Orb said with a slightly depressed tone. "It appears to be a standard hail, if I am not mistaken. Who are you, what is your business in our space, et cetera."

"Can you respond?"

"If it would make you happy, I can," Orb responded in a weak attempt at humor.

Cathi rolled her eyes. "Yes, it would make me positively ecstatic. Tell them that we are lost and in need of accurate starmaps. We are also interested in trading for food and other essential supplies."

Barely a minute had passed when the ship abruptly lurched. Apparently the concept of a tractor beam was universal.

"Orb," she said in the same tone a mother might use with a a particularly troublesome two-year-old child, "what, exactly, did you tell them?"

"I told them only what you said!" the droid protested.

"Was there any chance you didn't translate it accurately?"

"I translated as accurately as was possible given the limited data I had from their language."

Cathi thought for a moment. "So what words did you use when you didn't know the right word?"

"I used words from several of the extinct mid-Rim languages as those were the closest linguistic matches to their language."

"Great," Cathi sighed. "For all I know, you told them that our airspeeder is full of eelworms."

"I am offended that you think I would say such a thing," Orb protested.

"That's not my point!" Cathi shouted. "We don't know what they think we said!"

"Actually," Orb remarked, "we will have the perfect opportunity to find out what they thought in just a moment."

"And why is that?" she snapped.

"Because they have pulled us into their hangar bay."

Cathi looked out of the viewport and wanted to laugh. The hangar of the ship was so cramped that the Headwind barely fit into it with its landing gear retracted. Unfortunately, that precluded the use of the main landing ramp, meaning they would have to use an airlock instead.

She reached down to the panel and checked the external sensors. The hangar bay doors had already closed around them, and the hangar was pressurizing with a fairly standard atmosphere. No unusual gases were detected, so at least they weren't trying to poison them either intentionally or by accident.

Then the internal doors to the hangar slid open, and she really had to resist the urge to laugh. The aliens were humanoid figures no taller than the average Bimm. Unlike the Bimmissarii, however, these aliens were rather stocky, with bald heads, orange-tinged skin and what looked like massive earlobes. They actually reminded her of some creatures she'd seen once in a children's holovid about a mad candy maker.

In stark contrast to their amusing appearance, the weapons that the aliens held looked menacing enough. Cathi couldn't tell whether they were blasters or some other type of weapon, but they had a barrel, handle, and trigger. That was enough to define their intent.

"I believe they are asking us to come out with our... legs? ... raised," Orb remarked as the apparent leader of the group of aliens began talking through a loudspeaker of some sort.

Cathi did a double-take. The aliens had two arms and two legs just like most humanoids. "I'm sure they meant arms," she told Orb.

"I certainly hope so. Unlike you, I am most certainly not capable of walking on my hands."

She allowed herself a small chuckle to break the tension. "Orb, get on the external speaker and tell them that we are not going to exit the ship until we have an assurance they will treat us with respect, and that we will only come out unarmed if they put their own weapons aside."

As soon as Orb began to respond, the aliens seemed to get agitated, brandishing their own weapons and shouting wildly. Cathi rolled her eyes and turned to the droid. "Don't tell me, you translated it literally."

"Well, of course," the droid replied.

"What are they saying?"

"They appear to be talking about anatomical impossibilities, yelling what I think are insults directed at our mothers, and claiming that we are their sole property and will be sold for a profit. Oh dear."

"What?"

"I am not looking forward to being sold to some uneducated troglodyte on a world half the universe away with no access to proper technical resources."

Cathi wanted to whack the droid in the head but past experience told her it was a bad idea. The droid's head, of course, was hard metal and her hand was merely squishy flesh.

"You're not getting sold as long as I can help it, even if you are a pain in the ass as a co-pilot and somewhat useless as a translator." She paused to regard the droid's reaction before continuing. "Now, is there some possibility that you were too literal or simply used the wrong translation?"

Orb looked back and forth between Cathi and the aliens outside. "I am learning a wealth of information about this language from their frenzied conversations," he finally said, "and I believe I may have indeed been mistaken."

"Thank the Maker," Cathi sarcastically remarked. "Now will you please say what I wanted you to tell them the first time around?"

"Of course." Orb began repeating her words back to her, and she raised her hand to cut him off.

"Tell THEM, not me! You're so kriffing literal sometimes..."

"My apologies, Mistress Cathi."

This time, the effect seemed to be slightly more calming. The leader of the aliens stepped forward and said something different over the loudspeaker.

"The Ferengi, I believe they are called, are claiming their salvage rights to our ship and cargo. They say they have no intention of harming us."

"That's a nice steaming load of bantha poodoo," Cathi remarked. "Salvage my ass. Tell them that this is a fully functional armed merchant vessel and if they wish to continue their present course of action they will greatly regret it. If they are interested in trading with us, however, we are open to discussions."

The reply this time was very quick. "What do you have to trade?" Orb translated.

Cathi thought briefly. "Well, there is that crate of blasters that the commodore left us with... Tell them that we have powerful handheld energy weapons."

The Ferengi outside bobbed their heads in discussion. "I believe they are asking if we have... ah... visors, or disruptors. I may not have translated that first word correctly."

"Tell them we have blasters. Let's see if they can understand that."

"They are... ah... requesting a demonstration," Orb managed.

Cathi considered the idea for a moment. "Have them set up a target in the hangar, and I'll come out with a blaster to show them. I want you to stay in the ship and translate. If anything goes wrong, use the chin blasters to take them out, otherwise wait for my orders."

"I'm not a battle droid! My programming will not let me intentionally harm a living being!"

"Oh save it," Cathi shot back. "I saw you deck an Aqualish back on Nar Shaddaa."

"Well, he swung first," Orb protested in a somewhat petulant tone.

"These guys are pointing weapons at our ship. Doesn't that count?"

The droid hung its head slightly. "I suppose so."

"Good. Now get on the blaster controls already!"


While Orb checked the ship's monitors, Cathi went back into the cargo hold and opened up the crate. It was filled with mostly BlasTech civilian models, all of which appeared to be used. Probably weapons the Imperials confiscated during raids, she decided.

After sorting through the pile and putting some of the better weapons plus extra power packs into one of the Headwind's storage lockers, she pulled a BlasTech heavy pistol out, checked its powercell, and holstered it. The second weapon she pulled was a civilian hunting blaster, whose conspicuously long barrel would make it all but impossible to conceal and therefore useless for urban use. On the other hand, it supposedly offered high-powered fire even if the cycle rate between shots was very slow.

When Orb gave her the OK, she tapped the airlock cycle switch and waited for it to equalize the pressure. As soon as it was ready, she stepped through, waited for it to cycle again, and then stepped out into the hangar of the Ferengi ship.

"Hyoo-mons," one of the short Ferengi suddenly exclaimed. Cathi instantly paused -- how do they know a word from Basic?

Then the babbling resumed until their apparent leader stepped forward and began speaking rapidly in another completely different language.

"Orb," she quietly spoke into her commlink headset, "what are they saying?"

"I'm not entirely sure," the droid replied, "but the language they switched to shares vowels and many syntactic references with Old Corellian. I do not understand the vocabulary, but if they continue to speak it I may be able to make contextual inferences."

"Wait," she said to the Ferengi, switching to Old Corellian. Not being a Corellian herself, she had a pretty limited vocabulary mostly picked up from interactions with other smugglers and traders. "Please, keep speaking. I do not fully understand you."

The Ferengi looked at each other and began babbling excitedly in what she assumed was their own language. Then the leader started speaking rapidly in the not-Corellian language again.

"Orb?" she asked again. "Anything?"

"I think he is asking if you are from the Federation," the droid answered.

"No," she told the Ferengi. That word, at least, seemed to be close enough for them to understand. Their leader threw another unintelligible question at her.

"Are you a smuggler?" Orb translated.

She frowned. "Why?"

"The Federation does not allow weapons to be sold," Orb translated for the Ferengi. "So you must be a smuggler."

Cathi shrugged. "Are you a buyer?"

"We are always interested in profitable opportunities," the Ferengi responded.

"Then yes."

The Ferengi looked the hunting blaster over with what Cathi could have sworn was a greedy expression. "How does it work?" he asked.

"Do you have a suitable target?"

He pointed to what looked like a packing crate on the other side. Cathi raised the blaster and sighted the target marked on the packing crate, paused for a moment to catch her breath, and pulled the trigger. Almost instantaneously, the sound of the blaster shot echoed like a thunderclap in the hangar bay and the side of the packing crate exploded into shrapnel and smoke.

While the rest of the Ferengi began chattering excitedly, their leader studied the weapon and his eyes moved down to the holster at Cathi's side. "That one?"

Setting the hunting blaster aside, she drew the blaster and in one quick motion aimed and fired it at a second packing crate. The second crate suffered the same fate, although the effects of the shot were slightly less pronounced.

The Ferengi studied her and the blasters for several more moments, then appeared to come to a decision. "How many do you have?" Orb translated.

"One crate," Cathi replied. "Sixty blasters like these."

The alien reached into his clothing and pulled out a thin bar of shiny metal. "Latinum," he said, which Cathi assumed referred to what he was holding, followed by some babble in his language. "I will offer you ten bars for the crate," Orb translated.

She eyed the metal suspiciously. "May I see it?"

"Do you think I am a cheat?" the Ferengi asked. "I am offended. Gold pressed latinum is one of the few remaining rare substances in the galaxy. It is the official currency of the Ferengi Alliance."

"We just met," Cathi pointed out. "I have never heard of this Ferengi Alliance."

The alien frowned as much as was possible given the facial protrusions. "Where are you from, anyway? You are obviously hyoo-mans, but not of the Federation. We have never seen a ship such as yours, and you have not heard of the Ferengi Alliance?"

Cathi paused to consider her answer, but made up her mind relatively quickly. "I am a citizen of the Galactic Republic," she replied. "Judging by the expression on your face, you have not heard of my government either."

He shook his head.

"Then that makes us equal. Now may I inspect this currency so I know that you're not trying to pass some inferior grade material off on me?"

Reluctantly, the Ferengi handed the piece over to her. She pulled out a small hardness tester and made several scratches on the surface of the metal, which amusingly made the alien cringe. Then she checked the reference table attached to the tester, which concluded that the material was somewhere in between gold and platinum on the hardness scale. The only other material in that category would have been lead, but her scraping hadn't removed any plating that would suggest such a blatant forgery.

Then again, the price of such an alloy wasn't as high as the Ferengi seemed to believe it to be. "Fifty bars," she replied.

"Would you have me feed scraps to my crew?" the alien objected. "Ten is my price. No more."

Cathi shrugged. "I'll just have to find another buyer." She turned and began walking back toward the airlock when the Ferengi seemed to recant.

"Twelve bars."

She made a show of considering the offer. "I still think I can find someone else."

"Fifteen!"

Cathi walked back. "Maybe you are worth talking to. How about forty-five?"

"I would still have to feed my crew scraps! Seventeen, no more."

"Thirty?" Cathi suggested.

"Nineteen," the Ferengi stated.

Several thoughts occurred to Cathi. "What do you call the human language?"

"English," the Ferengi replied. "Why do you ask?"

"I'll take twenty bars, a copy of the local starmaps and an English dictionary."

The alien paced back and forth several times with a disgusted expression on his face. "This is robbery," he spat out.

"If you want the blasters, you pay my price."

He continued pacing for several moments before finally making his decision. "Deal. Bring out the merchandise and you get your payment."

Cathi sighed; some things never changed no matter where one went. "Show me the payment and then I'll bring out the merchandise."

After some muttered curses, the Ferengi reached into his robes and pulled out a stack of the small bars.

"The starmaps and dictionary, too," she said.

He turned around and shouted something at one of the other aliens, who disappeared back into the ship for several minutes before returning with a small electronic device.

She motioned for him to wait there, and went back inside the ship for the crate. It proved heavier than expected, and when she reached the airlock, she realized that it was too big to fit through.

"Kriff," she muttered, slapping the airlock override and confirming that yes, she wanted to open the ship up to outside gases.

"Do you have an empty crate?" she asked, sticking her head outside the ship to face the Ferengi. They immediately responded by bringing several of the oddly shaped black crates forward. "OK, make a line... I'll pass them out to you."

By the time she had finished emptying it, they had filled up two of their own crates up with the blasters.

"Now hand it over," she told the short Ferengi leader. She could have sworn that his orange-hued face was twisted up in emotions as he slowly released the metallic bars.

Once he had handed the last of the bars over, along with the electronic pad, she smiled. "See? That wasn't so hard. Now, unless there's anything else we'll be on our way."

The leader frowned for a moment while Orb translated, then turned to some of the other Ferengi and had a brief side discussion before turning back.

"Would you be interested in performing a small job for us?"

Cathi raised an eyebrow. "And what would that entail?"

The Ferengi picked at one of his teeth. "There is a colony world which paid for a shipment of food, medical supplies, and arms several weeks ago. We have not been able to deliver it as the colony is currently blockaded. Your ship seems like it would be well suited for breaking the blockade and delivering the supplies; in return, we would pay you..." He paused for the slightest of instants in thought. "Another fifteen bars of gold-pressed latinum."

Do we really have to go through this again? Cathi inwardly sighed. "Let's just call it twenty-five and be done with it. I have fuel and other supplies to worry about."

The Ferengi's voice turned into a high-pitched squeal that reminded Cathi a little too much of a Gamorrean. "The latinum I already paid you was several days' worth of food for my crew!" He turned toward the other Ferengi, who nodded in agreement. "But if that is how you will have it, then we will pay the twenty-five bars. We will just have to go hungry for another week."

Cathi tried hard not to laugh. They were playing the sympathy card? Cheeky, greedy little bastards. Well, you know what? It's not going to work this time. They're still making plenty of margin off this stuff... no competent merchant would accept less than twenty percent profit on legitimate goods, much less gray or black market stuff.

"I accept," she answered in a neutral tone, thoroughly enjoying the horrified looks on their faces as they realized she had seen right through it. Oh, yes. Two can play at this game. "So, where is this colony located?"



. . .



"What are your findings, Lieutenant?"

Lieutenant Fhong Whenne picked up his datapad in response to Captain Yates' question. "We completed the analysis of the transmissions we copied off the relay station. Over three-quarters of the traffic on the relay is related to the Hirogen and their hunting activities. In the remaining messages, we found four from the Voyager ship and the Federation. It seems that Voyager has been stuck in this region of space for the past five years and has been limping home at around 2,000 times the speed of light.

"And where is it that they call home?"

"The capital of this Federation appears to be a planet called Earth. There were no maps or any data that would identify where Earth is, but we do know from their messages that it is about fifty-seven thousand light-years away from here."

"On the other side of the galaxy," Yates said, nodding. "Well, if we knew exactly where it was, that wouldn't be much of an issue. But we don't have any good maps, so it may take us a while to get there."

"Right, Sir," Fhong replied. "However, the Hirogen appear to be aware of Voyager. There were references to their boarding it on two occasions, and in the second case they actually took over the ship for a period of time. If we can locate those Hirogen, they may know the location of Earth."

"Our captive has not been very talkative," Commander Rowin remarked. "If we want him to give us the location of the others, we may need to persuade him further."

"And how do you suggest we do that?" Yates asked. "The only thing we think we know about the Hirogen is their distinct lack of social structure. Every individual seems to be on their own. I'm not even sure how they have survived this long as a species. Surely they have a need to procreate?"

"Either that or they are practically immortal," Rowin replied. "The longer the lifespan of a species, the slower the reproductive rate usually is."

"Well, if we combine that with their behavior, I would say that they've stagnated to the point of suicidal indifference. They practically live for the hunt now. So, if we want him to talk, what can we threaten him with?"

"Maybe we should approach it differently," Rowin remarked. "Instead of threatening, we could offer an incentive to cooperate."

"They're nomadic hunters," Yates replied. "What could they possibly want from us, besides mounting our heads as trophies?"

"We could always ask," Rowin said with a shrug. "Besides, unless like you feel like keeping him locked up in the brig indefinitely, we're going to have to let him go at some point. His freedom could be our bargaining chit."

"Only question now is whether he will give us what we need," Yates agreed.

Rowin gave his chair a push away from the table. "Let's find out."


When they reached the cell block, one of the guards ushered them toward the interrogation room, where the Hirogen was seated at a table, his hands bound behind him. The walls of the room were smooth and featureless, and a protocol droid was waiting in a corner of the room.

Walking around, Yates finally was able to get a good look at the Hirogen. When the captive alien had first been brought in, his features had been obscured by the metallic armor he was wearing. Now, with the armor removed and replaced by plain prisoner's clothing, he had a much clearer look at its facial features.

When Commodore Mantrel had told him that he was going to be exploring a different galaxy, Captain Yates had not quite known what to expect of the aliens there. Perhaps they would be vaguely bug-like, or maybe they would be some sort of gelatinous mass. He hadn't even tried to guess the number of appendages, tails, or other evolutionary quirks that they might possess.

Looking at the Hirogen, however, he realized that what could have easily been a near-human species was not what he had expected. Its face may have been encrusted in bony protrusions, but there was no mistaking the stereo eye arrangement, the flared nose, the mouth directly below, or the ears on the sides. The proportions were even roughly similar although the alien stood closer to the height of the typical Wookiee than a nominal human.

Shaking his head briefly, he took a seat across from the captive. Commander Rowin simply folded his arms and leaned against the wall of the room.

"So," Yates began, "how are you?"

After the protocol droid translated the question, the hunter's eyes moved back and forth between Rowin and Yates although he said nothing.

"What do you know about a ship called Voyager?"

Again, the droid translated the question and again there was no answer.

"Let me start over," Yates finally said. "I am Captain Thanan Yates of the Republic Survey Corps. We are looking for a ship lost in this region which may be Voyager."

"So?" was the droid's translation of the Hirogen hunter's reply. "How is that my concern?"

"There was a message on your relay station that was intended for Voyager. We also know that you, or other Hirogen hunters captured Voyager at some point. Where are they?"

The Hirogen seemed to slump. "I am not one of the hunters," he admitted. "I am a tech. My task is to maintain the relay station."

"Then why did you open fire on my men?" Yates retorted.

"They were intruders."

"We tried to contact you before we boarded," he replied. "You did not respond."

"It is not my task," the Hirogen tech replied. "I maintain the station."

"You mean to say that this has not happened before?"

"No. We are feared by most. They do not disturb us."

Yates walked across the room several times before speaking again. "Where can we find the other hunters?"

"I would not recommend doing so," the tech warned.

"Why?"

"They only care for the hunt," he replied. "They will treat you as prey the moment you arrive."

"Then we will have to show them that we are hunters also." Yates answered. "They are our only link to the ship we are searching for. Where can we find them?

"There is a station they sometimes meet at, concealed in a nebula thirty light-years away," the tech said. "If you take me back to the station, I can show you the location on the charts."



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
John Hansen - Slightly Insane Bounty Hunter - ASVS Vets' Assoc. Class of 2000
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.14 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-22 06:32pm
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It take it that this version and the one on Spacebattles both supersede the Fanfiction.net version? Seeing as the FFN one got as far as Janeway back at home and Cathi linking up with Maquis.



"Yee's proposal is exactly the sort of thing I would expect some Washington legal eagle to do. In fact, it could even be argued it would be unrealistic to not have a scene in the next book of, say, a Congressman Yee submit the Yee Act for consideration. :D" - bcoogler on this

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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.14 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-23 02:59am
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I'm making some minor updates as I go along. I basically started posting it on FFN for the feedback since it's a completely different audience. Once this and the SB threads are back in sync with it, I'll resume new content in all there places.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.15 up) PostPosted: 2011-08-24 11:01am
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CHAPTER FIFTEEN




Hanging halfway out of an access panel approximately three meters above ground on a berthed starship was not the best time to get a sharp shooting pain in your ankle, Jacen realized. Especially when said sharp shooting pain was caused by a stubbornly slow-healing gash from an alien weapon.

Grimacing, he put his hydrospanner down and tried to let the Force wash the pain away. It helped a little bit, but there was still a lingering burning sensation that he couldn't quite eliminate.

Trying to get his mind off the pain, he looked out across the hangar floor of the Great Temple. Directly opposite the Rock Dragon was Kyp's X-wing, sitting in a mostly disassembled state for the time being as he and Lowbacca cannibalized parts from a salvaged fighter to fix it. The port S-foils and most of the external plating had been removed, allowing access to the damage from the strange space creature.

He looked down at the hydrospanner and shook his head. When Tenel Ka had spoken to her mother on their return to the Praxeum, the Hapan queen had immediately wanted her daughter to bring the Rock Dragon to one of the shipyards in the Cluster for repair. Jaina, however, had talked Tenel Ka out of the idea, convincing her that they had all the parts they needed already.

Predictably, they hadn't. A Hapan courier had arrived three days earlier with a new main power conduit and other parts to replace the ones damaged by the alien creatures. The end result was that he had spent far too much time crawling around the ship with Jaina barking instructions out at him. Sure, he was pretty good at fixing simple things--his dad wouldn't have had it any other way--but when it came to troubleshooting a malfunctioning system, Jaina and Anakin were much better.

"What's going on?" Jaina's slightly irritated voice filtered through a nearby hatch. "Just how long does it take to put in a new reverse power coupling?"

He sighed. "It's already installed... go ahead and test it out."

There was a slight pop as she applied power, followed a few seconds later by a slightly louder sizzling noise. Jacen turned around as quickly as was possible in the cramped space, and saw--

"Turn it off!" he shouted. "There's a short here!"

The sparking stopped a moment later, and Jacen leaned forward to see what the cause was.

"I can't tell what it is," he said after studying it for some time. "It's just a melted blob."

"All right, get out of there and let me take a look," she replied.

Awkwardly, he levered himself back up onto the hull of the Rock Dragon, wincing as his heel dragged over the edge of the access hatch. Trying to come to his feet was yet another exercise in agony, as icy, burning spears of pain shot through his leg.

A moment later, Jaina brushed past him without a word and hopped down into the hole. "Yep, that's what I thought... the power surge from when that ugly thing chewed through the main conduit must have overloaded the relay here. Good thing we caught it, or it would have left us stranded somewhere. Can you go run and grab another relay from the spares bin?"

"What kind of relay is it?" he asked absent-mindedly, trying to ease the echoes of pain that were still radiating up from his heel.

"A 500J-LR235," Jaina shot back a moment later. "You know what, get two. The one next to it's got cracks in the housing."

Jacen pulled himself back to his feet and immediately regretted it. "I don't think I can really run right now."

She popped her head out of the panel, looked at Jacen, then hoisted herself up. "Sorry... I forgot your ankle was still acting up. You need help getting down?"

"I'll manage," he lied.

Jaina gave him a glare that seemed as though she was looking right through him. Which was true, in a sense. "Sure you will."



After getting the Rock Dragon functioning two days later, they left for Sernpidal. Leia had contracted a still unknown infection almost a year previously, which forced her to resign her position as Chief of State. After her condition continued to worsen on Coruscant, she and Han made the decision to move to a relatively undeveloped world in the Outer Rim. Lando had suggested Sernpidal due to some business interests he had there, and surprisingly Han had agreed to give it a try.

Jaina silently watched the unassuming, white-capped ball of verdant green, azure blue and mottled brown grow larger through the forward viewports. Her parents had moved there only a couple months before, with the help of Anakin and Chewbacca. She and Jacen had been tied up on a mission on the other side of the galaxy at the time, which made this the first time she had been to Sernpidal.

She shook her head and tried to focus as Tenel Ka brought the Hapan transport into the atmosphere. There was a brief flash of plasma around the ship when they hit, which disappeared as soon as the repulsors activated. Then, the view of the planet's disc from space was replaced with horizon as they lost altitude. She picked out snow-capped mountain ranges, tiny lakes and meandering rivers as they shot past them, finally coming up on a downright diminutive city near the edge of a large, grassy plain. Although it didn't seem to have any buildings over three stories in height, there nevertheless was a busy air about it. Jaina noted with some amusement that the spaceport consisted of a few crumbling concrete pads and a long runway for airskimmers.

Even Mos Eisely's spaceport is bigger than this, she thought.

"Your parents live about seven kilometers to the northeast, correct?" Tenel Ka asked.

"That's what they said," Jaina replied.

Less than a minute later the Rock Dragon arrived at the house. As they settled down on a cleared field beside the familiar disc shape of the Millennium Falcon, Jaina unbuckled her restraints, jumped up, and ran out of the cockpit – only to crash headfirst into her brother, who probably had the same idea.

"Are you two combatants knocked out yet, or do I have to bash your heads together again?" Tenel Ka asked in a deadpan tone as she approached the twins as they were lying on the floor. She offered Jacen her hand as Jaina climbed to her feet.

"Ow. Don't remind me." Jacen reached up and rubbed his forehead where he'd smacked into his sister.

"For a Jedi, you are remarkably clumsy at times," Tenel Ka observed with a smile on her face. "Whatever am I going to do with you?"

"Well, your grandmother thought you captured me for marriage. What more can you do with me?"

The redhead tilted her head slightly to one side. "Do you really wish to know the answer to that question, Jacen Solo?"

Laughing softly, Jaina stepped in between the two Jedi. "Alright, knock it off you two. You know the rules. No kissing while Mom and Dad are around."

"We are not kissing," a suddenly serious Tenel Ka protested. "Nor are your parents present."

Jaina winked at her. "But you know you want to." Then she turned and walked toward the ramp, glancing back when she reached the release button. Tenel Ka's slightly freckled pale cheeks had flushed a bright shade of crimson red, and Jacen was having trouble keeping a straight face. So the feelings are still there, she observed, despite all of their denials.

The landing ramp hissed downward, and there was a sudden roar of recognition behind her. Then a massive, furry brown blur flew past her and down the ramp before tackling Chewie. As the two Wookiees landed in a heap, growling and roaring, Jaina reflected that if she hadn't known about their customs she would have thought that Lowie was attacking his uncle.

As Chewbacca and Lowie continued catching up in rapid bursts of Shriiywook, Jaina walked down the ramp and toward the house.

Apparently alerted to their arrival by either the roar of the landing ship or the continued roars of the two Wookiees, Han was already standing on the front porch of the spacious house.

"So my little girl's come to pay us a visit finally," he said with his typical lopsided grin. As she approached and he looked at her face, the grin changed to a frown. "What's with the eyepatch?"

"Long story," Jaina replied with a sigh. "I got hit with some kind of poison that blinded it. I think I'm going to have to get a bionic replacement eventually."

Han let out a low whistle. "Those aren't cheap. Do you want us to get one for you?"

She shook her head. "No, please. Don't worry about me. I'm old enough to take care of myself now... I mean, I'm a Jedi Knight for crying out loud!"

"You're also my daughter," Han replied. "It's my job to worry about you." He turned to look at the ship behind her. "So... where are those two lovebirds, anyway?"

She turned around to look at the ship.

"Hiding in the bunks, huh? You'd better go... interrupt them before they get too serious," Han said with a teasing tone.

Jaina snorted. "You know Jacen. Shy as hell. He still hasn't worked up the nerve to kiss her since she kissed him at that celebration at the Academy a couple years back."

Han adopted a wounded look. "I thought I would have rubbed off on him more. He was supposed to be a regular scoundrel like his dad."

"Funny," she replied. "I thought you would have realized something was amiss back when he started being more interested in plants and animals than fixing ships." She turned back toward the house and the two Wookiees. "Anyway, how's Mom doing?"

Han's face darkened. "She's struggling," he finally said after a long pause. "You know how there were about twenty other people who caught the same disease? Well, she's now the only survivor. The last of the others died about a week ago."

"That's horrible," Jaina replied.

"I know. The doctors think the Force meditations she's been doing might be the only thing keeping her alive this long."

"What about Cilghal? Didn't she come out here a couple times?"

"Poor girl worked herself sick trying to do that purification thing she does," Han answered. "Leia improved for about a month afterward before relapsing. Nobody's seen anything like it before... almost like this disease sprung up out of nowhere. Thank goodness it doesn't seem to be contagious."

Jaina slowly shook her head. "And did the NRI find out who was responsible yet?"

"They think it was some two-bit tinpot dictator named Nom Anor. Everyone who caught the disease was in contact with Anor around three years ago. The whole thing was related to some sort of anti-technology movement on the planet Rhommamool. I don't even know why Leia bothered meeting that lunatic in person."

"But they got him, right?" Jaina asked, spotting Jacen exiting the ship.

"Nope. Not a chance. Two days after Leia met him, Rhommamool's twin planet Osarian fired off their entire strategic missile arsenal at them. It was absurd, something like fifty thousand warheads. Irradiated most of the planet for hundreds of years. I'm not sure who was more pissed over the incident--the sector government or the Senate. The Navy sent in one of the new Mon Cal cruisers, but it arrived an hour too late to do anything.

"That sucks," Jaina remarked. "I remember Mom said that it was a complete disaster. Didn't that sector get fined by the Senate for failing to enforce local strategic weapon limitations?"

"Something like that," Han agreed as Jacen walked up behind his sister. "Hey kiddo. You got something on your face."

Jacen reached up to touch his face where his father had been pointing at, and then realized that he had been pulling his leg.

"Don't worry, I won't tell your mother," Han half-whispered conspiratorially.

He rolled his eyes. "Right. Thanks, Dad."

"Oh!" Jaina grinned. "Dad, you know how we told you we were going to be stopping by Dathomir? Well... when we landed and went to meet Tenel Ka's grandmother, she thought that Tenel Ka had captured Jacen!" She burst out in a fit of giggles at the memory, and after a moment Han also cracked up, then slapped Jacen on the back.

"What didn't you tell me you were getting married?"

This time Jacen tried to play along. "Well, I was going to but we couldn't decide on the invitations. Then Tenel Ka didn't know whether she wanted the ceremony to be on Hapes or Dathomir. We finally went to an all-night chapel at a casino on Nar Shaddaa."

"I bet Teneniel and Isolder were thrilled," Han deadpanned. "So did you enjoy the honeymoon?"

"Honeymoon?" Tenel Ka suddenly asked from behind them, causing Jacen to jump slightly. "Who got married?"

"Apparently we did," Jacen said, giving an almost-perfect imitation of his father's trademark grin.

One eyebrow went straight up. "Aren't you supposed to ask the girl before you marry her? Or is it a custom here for marriages to take place without the bride present?"

"Actually, it is." He gave her a funny look. "What, you don't remember signing the papers?"

"It is difficult to remember something that never occurred," she stated in a very matter-of-fact tone that suggested the joke was finished.

"Right. Sorry," Jacen replied.

Despite all of her brother's efforts to improve Tenel Ka's sense of humor, the warrior / princess still had some difficulty picking up small nuances and implied meanings. "Relax," Jaina said, leaning toward the red-haired girl. "I was telling Dad what happened at Dathomir and it sort of went downhill from there."

"Ah." Tenel Ka nodded, looking over at Jacen who winked at her in return. "Aha."

After a long, awkward pause, Han cleared his throat. "Well, let's go inside and see how Her Worshipfulness is doing, shall we?"



They found Anakin sitting across from the bed where Leia was resting. As usual, he had some unidentifiable piece of electronics in his lap, and a number of tools were strewn about at the foot of the bed along with bits and pieces of other components.

"Hey guys," he said, jumping up to greet them. After they had all exchanged greetings, Jaina pointed to the bed. "So how's Mom feeling right now?"

"She's been better," Anakin replied. "It usually helps when she goes outside, walks around, and rests out there. I don't know what happened today, but Dad and I found her collapsed on the ground near the garden.

Jaina turned to get a better look at her mother. Her skin was pale and blotchy. Her cheeks, which she had always remembered as being full and rosy, were now stretched tightly against her face.

She dropped to her knees at the side of the bed. "Mom?" she asked softly, taking Leia's hand -- which felt thin and bony compared to before -- and clutching it gently.

Leia stirred, slowly turned toward Jaina and opened her eyes.

"How are you feeling?" Jaina asked.

She gave her daughter a weak smile. "I'm still alive, aren't I?" Then the smile turned into a frown. "Are you injured?"

"We went to investigate some strange events further out in the Tingel arm," Jaina explained. "Jacen and I were attacked by some sort of alien agent. He had this weird staff-like animal that was able to block our lightsabers and spit poison. I got some in my eye and he used it to cut Jacen's heel."

Leia glanced around the room at everyone. "You kids have to be more careful. I don't want to lose any of you."

"Uh, I'm OK," Jacen quickly said. "I can walk -- it hurts a little but it's healing."

"And your eye?" Leia asked, looking directly at Jaina.

"It's blind," Jaina admitted.

She shook her head slowly. "You're both Jedi. You should know better than to get yourselves into a situation you can't get out of."

They both nodded. "We know."

"Good." She smiled again. "How long will you be here with us?"

"About a week," Jacen replied. "Uncle Luke has us and other Jedi spread out through this area of space, watching to see if there is any more activity or other attacks. He said he'll be stopping by to check in with us before he goes to Coruscant."

A flicker of concern passed across Leia's face. "Do you think we're in danger here?"

He shrugged. "It looks like the aliens are based in the Helska system, which is right on the edge of the Tingel arm, almost into Wild Space. So far, all we know they've done is attack an ExGal observation station on Belkadan, destroy a few merchant ships and a pretty well-armed pirate ship."

She slowly nodded. "Well, I'm sure you'll let us know if you find anything, right?"

"Of course."



They all walked back into the kitchen area, where Tenel Ka stopped Han. "Have you been in Sernpidal City recently?"

"I haven't, but Chewie was there looking for some parts for the Falcon a couple days ago," Han replied.

Tenel Ka turned and stepped through the front door, onto the porch where the two Wookiees were still, apparently, having their conversation.

"Chewbacca," she began, "did you see anything unusual when you were in Sernpidal City?"

The Wookiee momentarily gave her what might have been an annoyed look before saying something.

"He asked, what do you mean by 'unusual,'" Han translated from behind her.

She re-phrased the question. "Did you see anyone who seemed out of place, or was acting suspiciously?"

Chewie gave a short bark for "no."

"Look, Princess," Han said, "things out here aren't like they are on Hapes. Sernpidal City is the closest thing to a trading town in this part of the sector, but it's a far cry from Mos Eisely. The city's almost completely natives, only a handful of spacers pass through here. And I'd dare you to find me a spacer who isn't unusual."

"You are not," she observed.

Han looked slightly offended. "Come on," he protested. "I'm a Corellian who got kicked out of the Imperial Starfleet for saving the life of a Wookiee, who now happens to be my co-pilot. I fly an antique rustbucket of a tramp freighter that keeps breaking down, and I'm married to an Alderaanian princess who was also the Chief of State of the New Republic! We have three kids, all of whom are Jedi. How is that not unusual?"

She tilted her head to the side in contemplation. "I suppose, when you put it that way, it could be considered unusual."

Han threw up his hands and smiled. "Thank you."

There was a loud yelp from behind, and he turned to look outside. "Right, Chewie. The sun's going down." He turned back to face Jacen. "How do we want to do this? Do you and Tenel Ka want to share a room?"

Jacen was dimly aware of his cheeks flushing some embarrassing shade of red. He was about to reply when Tenel Ka answered for him.

"Thank you for the offer, but that will not be necessary. I can sleep out in my ship."

Han's expression changed to a pained look. "We have plenty of rooms for everyone. I was just joking about you two sharing a room, anyway. Her Worshipfulness wouldn't allow it."

She thought for a moment before speaking again. "In that case, I suppose that would be acceptable."




The following day, after going through all the usual motions of breakfast, the four Jedi piled into an enclosed landspeeder with Han.

"Never thought you were the landspeeder type," Jacen remarked as they rocketed out over the grassy meadows toward the city.

"Son, if it moves, I can fly it," Han replied.

Lowie chuffed a question, and Han raised an eyebrow.

"Well, maybe not always on the first try."

The Wookiee made another remark.

"What, do you think you could fly something without controls? I'd like to see you try!"

Lowie gave an affirmative bark.

Han turned to look over at him. "Just how do you plan on doing that?"

While Jacen missed most of the details, he did catch the gist of the explanation.

"So let me get this straight," Han said after processing it. "You would wire in controls? Well, I could do that too, but then it wouldn't be a ship without controls anymore, would it."

"Dad, pay attention," Jaina quietly reminded him. The landspeeder was hurtling toward a small group of trees. He put it into a hard turn, managing to avoid the trees, then there was a loud scraping noise as the bottom of the landspeeder skimmed over an exposed rock.

Han threw a glare at Jacen. "You're fixing that."

"What did I do?" His expression was equally indignant.

"You started the conversation," Han answered, before catching the still-sour expression that Jacen was wearing. "You of all people should know when I'm kidding."

"About fixing the speeder or blaming me?"

"Don't start slowing down on me now, Jacen. Of course I mean both."

"Uh-huh."



The only way that Jacen could tell they had entered the city limits was because the buildings had become more closely packed. However, he still had yet to see a building higher than two stories.

"Don't let the appearance fool you," Han remarked. "This city also has a seedy underside."

"And where might that be?" Jacen asked.

"Downtown." Seeing the disbelieving looks he was getting, Han added, "Yes, there actually is a downtown. Only bad thing about it is that they roll up the sidewalks at night."

"That must be difficult," Tenel Ka remarked in complete seriousness. "What do they make them with? Flexible duracrete?"

Jacen couldn't help himself, and his pent-up mirth suddenly erupted as a loud snort followed by laughter. A few seconds later, everyone in the car was laughing so hard they were grabbing at their sides.

They continued zipping through mostly similar-looking streets, finally coming to a part of town that had more three and four story buildings that for the most part appeared to be built either out of rough-cut stone, clay blocks or permacrete. In some cases, the buildings were a mixture of the three.

"So, is the water here even safe to drink?" Jaina asked as she looked at the somewhat crude buildings.

Han snorted. "Yeah, I checked. They have a proper filtration plant here, believe it or not."

Finally, he pulled up and stopped in front of yet another nondescript block building. "Jacen, you wanted the seedy underside, so here it is."

"This is it?" Jacen asked, then muttered under his breath "You have to be kidding."

There was a small sign, letters peeling off, that said "Cantina" mounted over the door. He took a breath and stepped inside, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

The cantina was nearly empty. Recorded jizz-wail music was playing over the speaker panels; there was no band in sight. A Duro was sitting over in one corner, nursing his drink while a furry Talz was seated at the bar; the rest was filled out with a mix of Sernpidalans and humans.

"Hey, Han." The bartender waved a hand as they entered. "What's the occasion? You don't usually bring company."

"Aldred," Han said to the bartender, "these are my kids Jacen and Jaina, Chewie's nephew Lowbacca, and their friend Tenel Ka."

Aldred nodded and shook their hands. "So, what brings you all out here? Just visiting?"

"Sort of," Jacen answered. "We're Jedi."

The bartender took a step back and his expression soured noticeably. "Well then, you've probably found the wrong place. I don't do anything illicit here."

"We're not here for anything like that," Jaina said as she stepped up to the bar. "We've been hearing rumors of some pretty strange stuff going on in this part of the galaxy and wanted to know if you'd heard of anything.

"Strange?" Aldred asked. "No, you've definitely found the wrong place. The strangest thing that happens around here is when two drunks get into a fight. Now that's something the town can come and watch." He looked the group over. "Well, can I at least get you Jedi anything?"

"I'll take a cup of caf," Jacen said.

"Black or sweetened?"

"Sweetened."

"And the rest of you?" the bartender asked as he began pouring the hot caf.

They all ordered their drinks and then stayed in the cantina for about an hour, talking to some of the spacers inside. Han threw some credit chits to Aldred, and then they all left.

There were only a few other cantinas and bars in Sernpidal City, and by the end of the day they had visited pretty much every last one, getting pretty much the same reactions to their questions each time. A few spacers had heard rumors of attacks on shipping, but it was all hearsay.

"I guess we should just call it a night," Jaina finally suggested around sunset.

"See why I said they roll up the sidewalks at night?" Han asked. "There's just nothing to do here."

"Must be a tough change for you," Jaina said.

He shrugged. "If being here helps your mother, then that's just something I'll have to put up with."



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.16 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-01 10:41am
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The first thing he came to recognize was a bright white light above him. In and of itself, that meant very little. However, he quickly equated it to the white light of a warp core about to overload.

Was he dead?

He tried to look about himself but everything seemed to be glowing the same way. Tom Paris had never believed in an afterlife, but part of his mind started wondering if he had been pulled into the Q Continuum. Which would only mean that that obnoxious Q would be around somewhere, ready to taunt him for eternity. Or as long as it took for Q to become bored of him, he corrected himself.

"He's awake!" a voice said right next to him.

That was a decidedly odd thing for Q to say, he realized. Except... Q wasn't a woman, and most certainly did not sound like B'Elanna... although he had been known to impersonate members of the crew in the past.

"Hey, get a nurse in here!" the voice that sounded like B'Elanna shouted.

Q... B'Elanna... and nurses? his brain protested.

Suddenly, he realized that he was in a hospital, and reached up and slapped his forehead with his palm. A heartbeat later, his head was in agonizing pain and he swore loudly.

"Tom!"

"B'Elanna?" he replied weakly.

He blinked as he felt a warm body press against his, and coughed as his chest suddenly came under pressure. "Hey, take it easy..."

"Sorry," B'Elanna replied. "You ass... I thought we lost you!"

He blinked again, trying to clear his blurred vision. "You're the one who sent me down there!"

"And three dozen of the crew owe their lives to you," she answered.

Tom tilted his head. "How did I survive, anyway? The last thing I remembered was seeing the core start to overload. I didn't even think that was possible."

"The transporter operator on the USS Hercules got you at the very last moment," B'Elanna replied. "I don't know how he did it. Starfleet Command gave him the Medal of Commendation for his actions."

"Already?" Tom asked in surprise. "How long have I been out?"

"Almost two weeks. You took a heavy dose of hard radiation when the core went critical, so the doctors wanted to make sure they regrew most of the damaged tissue before waking you up."

"Well, that explains the itching," Tom said, rubbing his arm. "What have I missed?"

"Actually, we will be handling that part, Mr. Paris," a strange, gruff voice said from the side opposite B'Elanna. Tom turned his head to see a man in a Starfleet Security uniform standing by the side of the biobed. "My instructions are to bring you in for debriefing as soon as the doctors feel you are capable."

Tom's expression went from calm to panic. "Relax," B'Elanna reassured him. "You didn't do anything wrong this time."


. . .



From space, Earth appeared as a tiny, mottled blue orb ringed with white wisps of clouds. It had been seen that way by human space travelers for hundreds of years, ever since an astronaut named William Anders took a photograph of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon in 1968.

To Jean-Luc Picard, watching from his quarters aboard the Enterprise, the normally reassuring sight was anything but. Not one ship of Task Force 11 had made it back without damage, and the list of casualties was longer than he cared to admit. Over three hundred people were aboard the Mateo.

For an entire week now, his sleep had been sporadic. Picard had never counted himself as a heavy sleeper, but lately he had been lucky to even get a whole hour of rest in without waking up. He paced back and forth several times before turning back to the view of Earth.

To think that we successfully fought off a Borg assault here barely two years ago, and yet we are nearly helpless in the face of the Dominion today. How long before their war fleets arrive here, at the very heart of the Federation?

The computer chimed, causing Picard to jump slightly in surprise. "Incoming call from Starfleet Command," it intoned in an all too pleasant voice.

"Put it on," Picard replied, before his eyebrows went up in response to the wiry Japanese face that appeared on the screen.

"Admiral Nakamura." Picard said by way of greeting. "What a surprise."

The Admiral wasted no time in response. "Captain, do you know the reason why I brought you back here?"

"I had assumed it was due to the battle damage we sustained at Benzar and Arcturus."

Nakamura shook his head. "The damage to Enterprise is relatively minor compared to some of the ships that have been coming into Utopia Planitia, such as Voyager. No, I brought you here for a different reason."

Picard's brow furrowed. "Wait. Did you say Voyager?"

"Still sharp as ever, I see," the Admiral replied. "Yes, Voyager. And that is the reason why I... we... why the Federation needs you here, Captain."

Picard's face blanched. "It's not the Borg, is it?"

Obviously noticing the look on his face, Nakamura smiled. "No. Good news, for a change. Voyager found a ship from another galaxy in the Delta Quadrant. They towed Voyager home and we are now in negotiations with them for a possible military alliance."

The captain mulled the sudden declaration over. "While I know that we need all the help we can get," Picard said, "what good will one ship be?"

"They came through a wormhole from their galaxy to the Delta Quadrant. We are hoping to form an alliance with their government in that galaxy."

Picard considered the implications for a moment. "They use a transwarp drive, I presume?"

Nakamura shook his head. "Not exactly. They call it hyperdrive, and based on sensor logs we salvaged from Voyager, it appears to be completely different from anything we've seen. It only took two weeks for them to tow Voyager from Borg space to Earth."

The captain maintained his neutral expression. Two weeks was the time it usually took to reach Bajor from Earth at maximum warp. The ability to cross the galaxy in the same amount of time would be a game changer.

"Who else knows?" he asked.

"Starfleet Command, the President, and selected members of the Council," Nakamura replied. "We're trying to keep this as low-key as possible. If the Romulans find out at the wrong time, all the progress we made with them in the last year could be for nothing."

"Of course," Picard replied. "However, you still have not fully explained where I fit into all of this. I doubt that bouncing ideas off me was your intention in bringing me here."

Nakamura was silent for a moment, his face still stoic. "They call their government the Galactic Republic. In order for us to enter into an alliance with them, we must send an envoy to their capital to negotiate with their Senate on behalf of the Federation. We feel that you are the most qualified person in Starfleet for this job."

"Surely there are others," Picard replied, somewhat dumbfounded. "Such as Ambassador Spock."

"He will be on the diplomatic team with you. Captain, the fate of the Federation depends on your success. If we are unable to come to an agreement with the Republic, we will lose this war."

Picard mulled his thoughts over. "If they are a galaxy-wide Republic as you say, I am sure they have troubles of their own. What makes you so sure they will want to help us?"

"We are not," Nakamura admitted. "That is why we are sending you. The survival of the Federation is at stake here, and you are one of the few people that we can trust. I have already made arrangements for you and Ambassador Spock to meet with the Republic commanders. I have also prepared background information for you to review prior to the meeting. Be ready in the transporter room at 1800 hours."

"Certainly, Admiral," Picard replied.



Several hours later Picard found himself greeted by an ensign in yet another identical Starfleet transporter room.

"Welcome to Utopia Planitia, Captain."

Picard nodded. "Thank you, Ensign."

"If you would follow me?"

Straightening out his uniform as he walked, Picard followed the ensign out. After several minutes of walking, they entered one of the conference rooms where he found Admiral Nakamura, several other Starfleet admirals, and a mixed group of humans and unidentifiable aliens in strange uniforms waiting. A gleaming silver figure stood motionless at the rear of the room.

Nakamura walked Picard around the table and the group seated there rose to their feet. The first man who rose to greet him was tall, with a flowing gray beard. "Captain Picard, this is Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth of the Republic's Outbound Flight mission."

"My pleasure to meet you," Picard said.

"Likewise," C'baoth replied. "Admiral Nakamura spoke very highly of your skills as a negotiator. Before Outbound Flight departed our galaxy, I was involved in mediating a number of disputes on behalf of the Republic."

Picard inclined his head. The briefing hadn't explained much about the Jedi. "So is Jedi a title for a diplomat of sorts?"

"Diplomacy is one of the many skills that we are called upon to perform as members of the Jedi Order."

He looked C'baoth over again rapidly, noting the rough-styled robe. "Ah. You are a monastic, then?"

"Monasticism is another skill of the Jedi," C'baoth answered, "but to be a Jedi is more than being a simple monk. The Jedi are called to act on behalf of life in the universe. We are linked to life through an energy we call the Force. Through it, we are given insights and abilities not afforded to most beings."

Picard nodded. "In that case, I will be honored to work with you."

The introductions continued as they walked around the table, with Picard counting out three more Jedi and a handful of various specialists. Once he had finished, he took his seat next to Admiral Nakamura and Ambassador Spock.

A moment later Spock leaned forward. "Master C'baoth, you said you believe that the Force links all life in the universe. Does that mean that the Jedi are a ... religion of sorts, or do you possess concrete proof of the existence of this Force? As a Vulcan, we are aware of some extra-sensory aspects that certain races possess, some of which manifest as psychic or other paranormal powers. However, to call these powers proof of a universal life force seems as though it may be a stretch, to say the least."

C'baoth allowed a wan smile to cross his face. "Ambassador Spock, as a man of logic I am sure that you appreciate how difficult it is to quantify the inexplicable in terms of proofs and theorems. However, the incontrovertible fact is that approximately one out of every ten million sapient beings in our galaxy is born Force sensitive. Over time, we have developed a number of scientific tests for this sensitivity, which allow us to identify them within months of birth. However," C'baoth paused for effect, "without Jedi training most sensitives will not even realize the gift they have been granted."

"Fascinating," Spock remarked. "If what you are saying is correct, there are potentially hundreds of Force sensitive beings in the Federation alone."

"Yes," C'baoth replied. "One of the goals of Outbound Flight is to determine if Force sensitivity was solely a trait common to our galaxy, or a more universal constant."

"And what have you found?" Spock asked.

C'baoth shook his head. "We have not had the chance to conduct any tests yet."

"In that case, I will speak to the Vulcan Science Academy," he replied. "This is a topic that is sure to interest them."


When the discussions around the table had died down, Nakamura glanced at the assembled figures and cleared his throat. "I now call this meeting to order," he said. "Our first topic of discussion is the matter of the ten thousand Republican colonists aboard Outbound Flight. Master C'baoth, if you would begin?"

C'baoth cleared his throat. "As has already been stated, our ship has been carrying colonists with the intention of setting up a Republic colony in our destination galaxy. When our ship entered the hyperspace anomaly, it transported us into your galaxy instead. Accepting that as a change in our mission, we therefore request the permission of the Federation to establish a Republic colony world here."

Nakamura nodded. "The Federation Council has already been briefed on your request. Due to your unique position, they have offered the use of one of our former colony worlds under certain conditions. I have a draft of the conditions here, which I will read aloud with your permission." He passed out several PADDs to the assembled diplomats.

"Please proceed," C'baoth responded after glancing over the document.

"The first condition is that the colony, as a neutral and sovereign state, must sign a treaty of non-aggression with the Federation."

"I find no issue with that request," C'baoth replied.

"The second condition is that due to close proximity to Federation worlds and assets, all military operations must be conducted under the direct supervision of Starfleet. Planetary peacekeeping forces are considered exempt from this clause."

A flicker of emotion passed across C'baoth's face, but it did not show in his tone of voice. "Continue."

"The third and final condition is that Federation peacekeeping forces will be allowed unrestricted access to the colony at all times. Furthermore, the Federation reserves the right to extradite suspects involved in criminal investigations."

C'baoth took his time to respond, squaring his shoulders and leaning forward to look Nakamura straight in the eyes. "I see. Does the Federation usually treat its guests with such suspicion?"

"My apologies, Master C'baoth, but this is a rather unprecedented situation. I'm sure the Council only wanted to be proactive."

"Proactive or not, those are very strong demands," C'baoth retorted. "I'm afraid I cannot agree to the conditions presented in this document. How much authority do you have to alter the terms?"

"I can make temporary changes but the final agreement must be approved by the Council," Nakamura replied.

"Very well. Here is what I am prepared to offer: Per the first clause of the original agreement, the colonial government will sign a non-aggression pact with the Federation."

Nakamura nodded, making notes on his PADD as C'baoth continued.

"In light of the current instability in the Alpha Quadrant, however, we insist on maintaining military forces for our own protection. We would be open to participating in a crew exchange program with Starfleet. As an initial part of that program, Starfleet observers would be allowed aboard our ships during training exercises.

"Finally," C'baoth took a sip of water, "as a sovereign state the colony will conduct its own judicial affairs without interference. Access to Federation peacekeeping personnel will be granted on an individual basis. Furthermore, any requests for extradition must be reviewed and approved by the colonial administration."

As the Federation delegates considered the terms, Captain Picard cleared his throat. "Master C'baoth, you mentioned maintaining military forces for the protection of the colony. Could you please explain exactly what that would entail?"

"Gladly," C'baoth replied. "As you know, Outbound Flight consists of six Dreadnaught-class cruisers. We plan on restoring four to their full capabilities and using them as the core of our colony's naval forces."

"What about the rest?" Picard asked.

"Dreadnaught D-3 will be decommissioned and used for spares. Dreadnaught D-6 will be used for our return mission to the Republic."

"Do you have any plans to build new vessels?" Nakamura interjected.

C'baoth shook his head. "We don't have the capabilities. While Outbound Flight was designed to set up multiple self-sustaining colonies, it would take at least fifteen years for us to build a new shipyard."

Picard and Nakamura exchanged glances. "In that case," Picard replied, "I believe that will work to your favor in the Council's decision."

"Agreed," Nakamura added. "I will present your feedback to the Council tomorrow and we will meet immediately afterward. With any luck, we should have this matter concluded by next week."

"That would be appreciated," C'baoth said.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
John Hansen - Slightly Insane Bounty Hunter - ASVS Vets' Assoc. Class of 2000
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.16 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-01 11:52am
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Location: Queens, NYC I DON'T FUCKING CARE IF MANHATTEN IS CONSIDERED NYC!! I'M IN IT ASSHOLE!!!
It's been awhile since I have read Star Wars books, but it seems I am still tired of reading their hero characters ie. Skywalkers/Solos. It makes it all the more unbearable waiting for those chapters with the Imperial Remnants or the Star Trek parts.

With that said, can't wait for your next update.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.16 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-01 01:11pm
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Soontir C'boath wrote:
It's been awhile since I have read Star Wars books, but it seems I am still tired of reading their hero characters ie. Skywalkers/Solos. It makes it all the more unbearable waiting for those chapters with the Imperial Remnants or the Star Trek parts.
Ehh, at least the Solos are playing a bit part for now, what with Han and Chewie de facto retired by Leia's illness while the Skywalkers remain in the background story-wise (as "just" administrators/head instructors, albeit very high-profile in-universe) and thusfar unmentioned.

It should be amusing to see Jorus C'Boath's reaction to the new balance of power in the Jedi hierarchy...



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.16 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-01 07:03pm
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Edward Yee wrote:
Soontir C'boath wrote:
It's been awhile since I have read Star Wars books, but it seems I am still tired of reading their hero characters ie. Skywalkers/Solos. It makes it all the more unbearable waiting for those chapters with the Imperial Remnants or the Star Trek parts.
Ehh, at least the Solos are playing a bit part for now, what with Han and Chewie de facto retired by Leia's illness while the Skywalkers remain in the background story-wise (as "just" administrators/head instructors, albeit very high-profile in-universe) and thusfar unmentioned.
Their children are included. :lol:



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.16 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-01 07:17pm
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Originally, my reason for including the Solo kids was because I was extremely irritated by the way they were portrayed in the NJO. As much as it pains me to say this, they behaved in a more adult manner in KJA's Young Jedi Knight books.

Their story in this is basically a "butterfly effect" version of the events of Vector Prime, mixed with events from the Dark Tide duology, and set about three years late compared to the original NJO timeline (the Solo twins are 19, not 16). Things will start to diverge much more rapidly once the OFP Jedi return, and by the time we hit the second book, the ripple effects will have completely changed the Vong invasion. That's as much as I'm willing to say at this point.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-05 08:26pm
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17


Captain Yates stifled a yawn as Diversion's reversion alarms sounded for what was perhaps the two hundredth time in the last several weeks. In an effort to find out Voyager's origin, they had tracked down and disabled a Hirogen hunting ship to get access to its navigational data. Finding the ship had been easy enough. Boarding it to get its navigational database had been another story.

He had read over the mission logs from the stormtrooper teams several times and still couldn't quite believe that the ship had only been crewed by two hunters. Of the two squads sent in, six troopers were KIA and another nine injured. They completed the objective in the end, but the hunters had killed themselves rather than be captured.

He sat up and rubbed his temples to try and eliminate the budding headache that was threatening to make a long duty period even longer. He had quickly come to the conclusion that there was just a lot of weird stuff in this galaxy. Apparently, one of the largest forces in this part of the galaxy was a collective of cybernetic-enhanced aliens, which most other races in the area had warned them to keep away from. Not seeing any reason to put his crew in any more risk than necessary, Yates had heeded their advice and they had managed to jump through the so-called 'Borg' space with only about three stops to change course.

During their last course change, they had emerged in a system filled with massive cubes that measured roughly three kilometers on each side. They had been operating as stealthily as normally possible; external running lights shut off, photosensitive transparisteel viewports darkened, and no external transmissions or active sensor pulses of any sort. Yet somehow, within minutes of their arrival, one of the cubes had entered into the strange subspace warp method the natives of this galaxy were so fond of using.

The message it had broadcast on its return to realspace had been very short and ominous in tone, even before they had realized that the Borg had been broadcasting in Basic. The implications of that had been terrifying, in the sense that it meant the Borg perhaps had encountered colonists from Outbound Flight. The stories the natives had told about the Borg had not been very reassuring.

Still, it had been a measure of the professionalism of his crew that they had kept their wits about themselves, managing to complete the calculations for the next jump within thirty seconds of the cube's arrival. The damage that Diversion had suffered from the Borg weapons was relatively insignificant; the shields had bled off most of the energy fired at them, although one of the generators had come close to overheating during the brief barrage.

Things had been surprisingly quiet for the next several jumps after that harrowing experience. That is, until they had been pulled out of hyperspace in a strangely dense nebula. Diversion had then been attacked by dozens of tiny, almost fighter-like ships.

Fortunately, Loronar had built the Strike Cruiser with starfighter defense in mind. The ship was studded with so many point defense blaster turrets that their attackers never even stood a chance.

Yates leaned back in his seat and considered the goal. So far, everything he had learned pointed to some system called "Ocampa" as Voyager's starting point in this region. Since none of the alien races they had encountered so far had actually been able to say where Earth with any degree of accuracy, it stood to reason that the Ocampa system was the most likely place to find out.

The only problem was that he still didn't know where Ocampa was, exactly. They had instead been leapfrogging from one system to the next, looking for traces of Voyager's journey.

"Sitrep?" he asked, turning to Comm-Scan.

"Average system," the answer came back promptly. "Six rocky planets, two of which lie in the habitable range for humanoids. We're picking up large amounts of subspace emissions coming from both."

"Any sign that we've been detected yet?" Diversion had deliberately jumped into the halo of comets that surrounded most star systems in an attempt to avoid notice.

"Not yet, Sir."

He turned to Rowin. "Keep most systems on standby until we learn who the inhabitants are."

"Yes, Captain," the commander replied, turning back to his own duties.

"Comm-Scan, does the language match anything we've learned so far?"

"There are some that appear similar to Hirogen words, but otherwise no matches."

Yates nodded. "Keep on it and let me know when you have something."




It took several hours for the computer to aggregate enough data to provide a meaningful translation, although Yates mentally noted that the accuracy was still somewhat lacking.

Less surprising was the fact that most of the transmissions were commercial in nature. There were advertisements for various products of fairly universal nature such as foods, tools, and other consumer-related goods. Other transmissions seemed to be more focused on entertainment, mostly competitions of various types. While not necessarily important from a military sense, the transmissions allowed Yates to mentally paint a picture of their society.

While the audio was simple enough, it took some additional time for the computer to process their video formats, which turned out to be simple two-dimensional imaging rather than the holographics that Yates had grown accustomed to.

Even the simplicity of their video codec was nowhere near as astonishing as their actual appearance. The Hirogen had been surprisingly close to the typical galactic humanoid, enough for Yates to wonder if it was merely coincidence. These, however, looked almost human if one ignored the copper-colored skin, minor cranial ridges, flattened nose, and lichen-like tufts of hair. There were just too many similarities for not one, but two species to have been a product of evolutionary convergence. How many times has that wormhole been used? he wondered.



Fhong walked up several minutes later carrying a datapad. "Here is the report you requested on the system assets, Sir."

Yates nodded. "Thank you, Lieutenant. What are your thoughts on the report?"

"Sir, they appear to have less than fifty ships in system. Most of them have been going back and forth between the fourth and fifth planets, suggesting they are ferries. Only one ship appears to be a potential threat."

"Do they appear to possess any sort of FTL similar to the Hirogen or Borg?"

"We have not detected anything that would suggest that, but I would not discount the possibility yet."

"Commander?" Yates asked, turning around.

"Yes, Captain?" Rowin replied, walking up to where Yates was standing.

"What is your recommendation on how we approach this civilization?"

Rowin considered the question. "Given our previous experiences and the fact that we do not know how they will react to our sudden presence in the system, I would suggest that we downplay our appearance and enter the system at high sublight. It will take longer this way, but we will be able to track their movements more carefully and get a feel for their commanders."

"Very well," Yates replied. "I'm leaving the ship in your hands for a few hours. I'll be in my quarters."


. . .




Maje Zerin, commander of the Kazon-Nistrim warship Pursuer, was not having what could be called a particularly good day by anyone's standards.

It had started off with the death of his daughter's favorite pet, a wretched reptilian that he had always despised but she was strangely attached to. She and her mother had wasted the better part of several hours on the comm with him trying to convince him to come down to the planet below for a small funeral service they were holding for the animal. He had outright refused for two reasons; the first was that he regardless of what his idiot daughter might have thought about the creature, it was still just that, a creature. The second reason was that Pursuer was assigned to the task of patrolling the system by the First Maje. For him to leave his post for something as frivolous as a pet's funeral would undoubtedly bring very harsh consequences for him.

Then, right after he had finished settling back into his normal routine, one of the reactor techs had forgotten to properly re-seal a containment vessel for radioactive waste from one of their secondary powerplants. Pursuer's medics were still trying to figure out how many of the crew had been exposed to the radiation. While they had gone about that task, Zerin had personally reprimanded the crewman before throwing him out one of the ship's airlocks, sans helmet. He found the colors that the unlucky crewman's face turned before he finally died somewhat amusing, and a nice relief from the earlier tension.

"Maje?"

He snapped out of his reverie to face a crewman holding a sensor report. "What is it now?"

The crewman bowed deferentially. "Maje, the sensor outpost on Krale detected an object entering from outside the system at a significant fraction of lightspeed. Their current vector will bring them into the inner system in several hours' time."

"Who are they?" Zerin demanded.

"The outpost commander was not sure," the crewman replied, taking a step backwards just in case Zerin lashed out at him. "The ship does not appear to be warp capable. They think it is unarmed."

"Primitives, then," Maje Zerin spat. Of course, he was aware that less than a hundred years prior the Kazon were themselves enslaved by the Trabe--held down at a mere Iron Age technological level. That minor detail didn't change the contempt he felt toward the intruders. "A colony ship maybe? Either way, they may hold something of interest to us. Plot a course to intercept them, and see if you can contact them."

"At once, Maje."



After several minutes, Maje Zerin was beginning to wonder if the aliens had even received his transmission.

"Incoming signal, Maje," one of the operators finally reported.

"Let's see who these cowards are," Zerin snorted. A moment later, when the figure appeared on the screen, his jaw dropped.

"Federation?" he exclaimed in disbelief.

"Maje Zerin, I am Captain Thanan Yates of the Galactic Republic survey vessel FSC-956. We were unaware of your claim to this system. In light of that we formally request permission to continue on our mission." Instead of the message terminating, Yates stood motionless, apparently awaiting a reply.

Zerin took a moment to find his voice. If these aliens were really Federation, then this could be a dangerous situation. The last Federation ship the Kazon-Nistrim had encountered had been Voyager, and although they overpowered it in the end, the damnable starship still managed to destroy one of Pursuer's sister ships and damage several others. And while Zerin had access to a number of fighters and other smaller supporting vessels in the system, the nearest reinforcements were spread across several systems that were light-years away -- almost a day's journey at flank speed.

And what did this Captain Yates mean by "Galactic Republic", exactly? Was there another Human government besides the Federation?

The other thing that bothered him was the ship itself. It had more of a war-like quality to it than Voyager did, although he couldn't see any obvious weapons emplacements. Still...

"Technician Viadi, is that vessel armed?"

The sensor operator checked his displays. "I count about fifty emplacements on the near side of their ship. They appear to be point defense turrets of some sort, perhaps similar to our own."

"What about torpedo tubes, like Voyager?"

Viadi looked over the readouts for a few moments before answering. "I cannot find anything that matches Voyager's torpedo launchers. There are some impressions on the hull that could equally be hatches or docking ports. They're much larger than torpedo tubes."

Zerin frowned, but his expression returned to normal a moment later. "Well, we have little choice but to take them at their word. Keep the weapons and shields charged." Then he turned back to Viadi. "Can we open up two-way communication?"

"Yes, Maje. Allow me a moment to set up the connection." Viadi fiddled at the controls some more, and the camera warning light above the main screen turned red. "Link is active."

Maje Zerin cleared his throat and turned toward the screen. "Captain Yates, this system has been Kazon territory for over a hundred years, yet we have never heard of the existence of any Galactic Republic. Did you perhaps mean the Federation?"

Yates shook his head. "No, although it's interesting you mention that. We have been searching for a ship that was lost in this region of space close to sixty years ago. It's possible they could have set up a government of their own by now."

Zerin wanted to spit at the news but resisted the urge--barely. "So, then you admit that you are associated with those humans?"

"Loosely," Yates replied hesitantly. "As I said, they disappeared over sixty years ago. Our mission is to discover what happened to them. Since it seems that you may have encountered the descendants of that ship, can you tell us anything that will help us continue on our way?"

"The ship we came across about two years ago was called Voyager," Maje Zerin began slowly. "They said they were trying to return home, and wanted to cross our space. When we refused, they fired on us without warning and damaged several of our vessels. We returned fire, but they broke through our lines and fled into Borg space. We have not heard from them since."

"I see," Yates replied. "This home of theirs... was it called Earth?"

Zerin paused to regard the captain for a long moment. "Yes. Why do you ask?"

"Do you know where it is?"

"No," Zerin replied. "They never told us."

"What about the Ocampa? I have heard that mentioned, but nobody so far has been able to tell us where it is."

"Now, Captain Yates," Zerin leaned his head to the side, "surely you understand that information is valuable."

Yates sucked his lower lip in and nodded slightly. "Name your price."

"Fifty kilos of anti-deuterium."

For the briefest of moments, one could have heard a pin drop over the connection. Then Yates' face screwed up into an incredulous expression and he snorted quietly, but it wasn't until he spoke that the Kazon understood the meaning of his facial expressions. "Are you planning on blowing yourself up, Maje?"

"No," Zerin answered in the best monotone he could manage under the circumstances. "Antimatter is a valuable commodity."

"A valuable commodity that is notoriously unstable and impossible to work with under the best of circumstances," Yates corrected. "But to answer your question, we're not in the habit of carrying it on board."

Now Zerin snorted, obviously amused. "So. That is why you entered this system below lightspeed. You do not even possess warp drive! You will be old and withered by the time you reach Ocampa, if you even survive." He started turning to tell Viadi to cut the transmission off, but Yates spoke again.

"We don't have to have your warp drive to be able to tell that there are only about fifty ships in the system, and that you have the only warship here. Be careful who you call primitive."

Zerin stopped dead in his tracks, halfway through his turn. "How did you know that?"

"Well..." Yates raised an eyebrow. "As I said, this is a Galactic Republic survey ship. Anything more than that... well, that would be valuable information, wouldn't it? Draw your own conclusions."

"Now you begin to see how things work." The Maje smiled wanly. "Very well. I would like to invite you aboard my vessel to discuss the information you are looking for."

Captain Yates shook his head. "That is a generous offer, but I must refuse. I propose a counter offer: we will both meet on the surface of the fourth planet of this system, in an open field, with our respective ships on the opposite side of said planet."

In the same situation, Zerin reflected, he probably would have proposed exactly the same thing. "Agreed. I will meet you there in one hour."


. . .




"Humph," Commander Rowin snorted. "Galactic Republic survey ship, my ass. Although, Captain... I do have to give you credit; nobody's started shooting yet. We didn't have that luck with the last three races we ran into."

Yates grinned as he collapsed into a chair on the side of the bridge. "Well, I would hope that you of all people would realize that not all Imperial captains are the bloodthirsty fools that the old Rebel propaganda vids would make us out to be."

"Although I believe we did encounter more than our healthy share of bloodthirsty fools in the command ranks, as you so eloquently put it."

"Indeed," Yates said with a sigh. He reached over and grabbed a bottle of water out of a locker built into the chair's armrest.

"You did get some good intel out of him, no matter how indignant he may have been about the whole thing," Rowin pointed out as Yates took a long drink out of the bottle. "For instance, I'd guess from their questions that they're dumb enough to try using antimatter to power that ridiculous system of theirs... it's a wonder it doesn't blow up in their faces."

Yates nodded sagely. "There's another reason I wouldn't feel very comfortable aboard one of their ships. By the way, did you catch his reaction to our pointing out his system assets? I don't think they have any sort of FTL sensor system, unlike the Borg. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that's what he wants to negotiate with us on."

"For that matter," Rowin cocked his head as he paused mid-sentence to collect his thoughts, "what about this Voyager ship? He remarked that it wasn't well liked, and we know that the Hirogen hijacked it. It sounds more like a civilian ship than anything else."

"Perhaps," Rowin agreed. "Did you notice how quickly he insinuated that Voyager attacked first? That suggests to me that he is not quite as blameless as he tries to seem."

"So what about Voyager and the Outbound Flight? He's obviously seen humans before, so I think we're on the right track. The only question is, assuming Voyager was built by survivors from Outbound Flight, why would they settle for something like an antimatter-powered warp drive?"

"Why does it have to be built by them?" Rowin asked. "They could have just as easily stolen, bought, or traded for the ship from any one of these local civilizations. Then they can go off and explore the galaxy while leaving their Dreadnaughts to guard the colony.

"That still doesn't explain the connection to the Ocampa system. Do you think that might be one of the Outbound Flight colonies?"

"Possible," Rowin replied. "You should ask Maje Zerin what he knows about Ocampa."

"I can... I'm not sure what he will want to charge us for it, though, if his rate for information about Voyager was fifty kilos of antimatter. I suppose I can always talk him down, but I really hate haggling."

"Also," Rowin pointed out, "we don't have antimatter and I don't think we want to sell our sensor technology to this particular group. What exactly can we trade with them? I have the feeling they're not going to be very interested the crates of shiny glass beads some genius thought we should take with us."

A light dawned on Yates' face. "I know what we can use. Commander, have one of the 'special' crates that the Commodore gave us loaded onto my shuttle. I hope it's as addictive to the Kazon as it is to everyone else."


. . .




The wind-swept plains of the fourth planet were a welcome departure from shipboard life, despite it being a frigid 13 degrees outside once the wind chill was accounted for.

Captain Thanan Yates sniffed at the air, noting the unfamiliar smells of the native grasses and other vegetation. Judging by the color of the foliage and the sudden wind changes, he guessed that it was probably nearing the end of the autumn season on the planet, or perhaps the beginning of winter. But at least the atmosphere was breathable, and he hadn't had any signs of an allergic reaction yet. There had been a handful of worlds back in his own galaxy where he simply couldn't stand being outside during certain seasons due to the pollens. Anti-allergy meds helped somewhat, but they usually left his nose and throat dry and irritated, so he preferred not to take them if he could avoid it.

Behind him with its landing pads mashed into the somewhat soft savannah was one of his ship's two Lambda-class shuttles, its tripetal wings folded over it like a mechanical flower. Standing guard to either side of the forward ramp were Sergeant Kriglen, Corporal Landot and several troops from Diversion's stormtrooper detachment. Inside, he knew that there were a dozen more stormtroopers both to guard the shuttle's valuable cargo and in case anything went wrong. Last but not least, two more stormtroopers stood behind him as his personal guard.

Hearing a whine in the distance, he looked up and saw an ungainly-looking brown Kazon craft descending through the sky. It circled the location twice before finally turning and settling down less than a hundred meters away.

A landing ramp unfolded from the rear of the craft and several Kazon troops with odd rifles stepped out first to survey the area. Once satisfied, the apparent guards then took positions at the side of the ramp while the remaining personnel disembarked.

Somewhat apprehensively, Yates turned to the TC protocol droid at his side. The polished silver droid stood stiffly on the uneven ground, although if it was uncomfortable with the situation it made no attempt to show it. Yates was glad that the unit at his side would be silent except for what was required to do its job, unlike the much chattier civilian 3PO and 4PO models from Cybot Galactica.

As the group of Kazon approached, the TC extended an arm in greeting and began speaking rapidly in the guttural alien language. The Kazon at first reacted with confusion, then began babbling to each other and gesturing excitedly at the droid.

"Uh-oh," Yates muttered to himself. "TC, what are they saying?"

"Sir, they are astonished to see an autonomous unit such as myself serving as a translator," the droid replied quietly. "Ah. I believe their leader just expressed his interest in purchasing ... me?"

Had the droid possessed the ability to display facial expressions, it would have likely worn a shocked expression on its face. As it was, the wide-open, dimly glowing photoreceptors and narrow speaker-grill that were common to Cybot's entire protocol droid line gave it a perpetually surprised look, which suited it perfectly in this situation.

"Relax, TC," Yates reassured the droid. "The most I'd be willing to part with would be a binary load-lifter, and even that might be too advanced for them to handle." The droid started to move its arm, and Yates grabbed it. "No, don't tell them that!"

"As you wish, Captain." The droid turned back to the Kazon, who had stopped several arm-lengths away. Their leader began saying something, and TC dutifully translated it.

"Welcome to our planet, Captain Yates of the Galactic Republic. As you are already aware, I am Maje Zerin of the Kazon-Nistrim." The alien waved to the guards surrounding him. "These are my personal bodyguards."

Yates nodded, and gestured toward the droid and stormtroopers behind himself. "This is TC-21, our translator, and these are selected members of the Republic Marines," he said, slightly distorting the truth per his cover story.

The Kazon waved his hand dismissively and began speaking.

"Maje Zerin wishes to know if you are still interested in data on Voyager."

"That depends on the price he wants for it," Yates replied, then waited for the droid to translate.

"He says he will provide the information in exchange for your... translator."

Yates tried not to roll his eyes. "Unfortunately, I cannot part with my translator. However," he pulled a clear vial filled with a brown powdery substance from his pocket, "I would be willing to exchange a certain quantity of ryll spice, if you find that acceptable."

"What is ryll spice?"

He should have expected that question, he realized a moment later. "Ryll is a substance that, when consumed, heightens awareness and decreases reaction time. In some cases, it can also enhance telepathic abilities."

"How powerful?"

"The effect depends on the species," Yates replied. "If you would like to try for yourself," he extended his arm, vial in hand, "you can have this."

After a brief moment of hesitation, Zerin stepped forward and took the vial out of Yates' hand, then in turn handed it to one of his bodyguards. After Zerin said something to the bodyguard in Kazon, the bodyguard opened the vial, stuck his finger in and licked the powder off. His eyes went wide, he began blinking rapidly, and then said something to Zerin that TC-21 didn't translate.

Everyone stared expectantly at the bodyguard for several minutes, but nothing more happened. Zerin then asked the bodyguard a question before dabbing some of the spice on his own finger.

"So... what do you think?" Yates finally asked after several more minutes had passed in silence.

"We will talk, in exchange for fifty kilos of this 'ryll'," Zerin declared.

Yates frowned. "We don't have fifty kilos. Ryll is extremely expensive; five kilos is considered a fortune in the Republic."

"Then give me thirty."

He shook his head. "How about this. I have five kilos aboard my shuttle. I will give you that in good faith, and five more after you tell us what you know."

"Give me the five now, and twenty after."

"Five and five... or we leave. I'm sure that I could always find someone else willing to talk for the spice."

"Good luck with that," Zerin retorted. "We are surrounded by the Borg, who I am sure you will not find at all hospitable. Five and fifteen."

Yates looked back at the shuttle, then shrugged. "Well, I suppose we'll be off, then. Voyager must have passed through other systems." He started walking back, but just as TC-21 began following, Zerin shouted something.

"Wait!" TC-21 translated.

Thanan stopped and turned. "Yes?"

"Five and five it is," Zerin agreed.

Yates smiled and tapped his ear. "Besh team, bring out the cargo."



As he was waiting for the stormtroopers to bring out the crate of spice, the commlink in his ear beeped and he held a finger up to the earbud. "Yates here."

"Captain, this is Rowin. We have a situation here."

The euphoric feeling that he had from successfully negotiating with Maje Zerin suddenly evaporated and was replaced by a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Go ahead, Commander."

"Sir, six more Kazon warships just entered orbit. They are demanding that we surrender or they will open fire."

Yates suddenly spun around. "Is this some sort of trick?" he demanded.

"What do you mean?" Zerin replied, obviously confused.

"Maje Zerin," Yates snapped, "there are six additional Kazon warships in orbit that are demanding the surrender of my ship. Now, I would like to know something, and you had better choose your answer carefully. Did you call for reinforcements?"

"No!" Zerin exclaimed.

Yates tapped his commlink again. "Commander, have the new arrivals identified themselves?"

"Yes, Sir," came the prompt reply. "They are commanded by First Maje Culluh of the Kazon-Nistrim."

"Maje Zerin, I am going to ask you one more time," Yates said, his eyes burning with anger. "Did you call for reinforcements?"

"No, I did not, Captain Yates." Zerin straighted himself. "How dare you insult me in this way. The Kazon are strong. To call for reinforcements is to show weakness."

"Very well," Yates sighed. "Let me ask you a different question. Who is First Maje Culluh?"

"Why is that relevant?"

"Just answer the question, Maje."

"Fine," Zerin spat. "He is my commander."

Yates nodded. "I thought so. Does it surprise you to know that the ships that just arrived are commanded by Culluh himself?"

"No," Zerin finally answered.

"So, then you admit you, or someone under you, did call for reinforcements."

"As I already told you," Zerin waved emphatically, "why should I call for Culluh? He would perceive me as a weakling if I did such a thing. More likely, he had a spy among my crew or in one of the outpost stations here."

"Well, then," Yates replied, "I guess that's a good thing for you. Because you are going to come with us."

"I will do no such thing," Zerin objected.

Yates made a sweeping gesture. "Take a look around yourself."

What Zerin hadn't realized was that while he had been engaged in the conversation with Yates, stormtroopers from the shuttle had completely encircled both the Maje and his bodyguards. Now, all twenty of them were holding their standard-issue carbines level, aimed directly at the Kazon.

"Now, slowly remove your weapons and place them on the ground."

Zerin and the bodyguards complied, unholstering their disruptor rifles and dropping them to the dirt.

"Troops, bind them and escort them aboard our shuttle. I will need two of you with pilot experience to fly the Kazon shuttle as well."

While the stormtroopers went about their assignments, Yates tapped his commlink again. "Commander, sitrep?"

"They're still threatening to open fire," Rowin replied.

"Tell them that we have Maje Zerin aboard and that any actions they take will threaten him as well."

"Yes, Sir."

"Just to let you know, we have just captured the Maje and his bodyguards. I plan on bringing him and the shuttle he came on back with me. Can you prepare a distraction for us?"

"I will do my best, Sir."

"Thank you, Commander."


Moments later, as they were walking back to the shuttle, the commlink in Yates' ear beeped again. "Go ahead."

"Sir, the First Maje wishes to see proof that we have Zerin aboard."

Yates thought for a moment, then pressed the earbud again. "We'll broadcast from the shuttle's holoprojector."

As soon as they walked the bound Kazon up the ramp into the shuttle's main cabin, several of the stormtroopers forced them down on the acceleration couch while another went for the holorecording equipment. It took about another minute to get everything set up, and finally one of the troopers approached Yates. "The link is active, Sir."

"Thank you, Corporal." He stepped over in front of the holocam, directly between it and the Kazon on the acceleration couch. "First Maje Culluh of the Kazon-Nistrim, I am Captain Thanan Yates of the Galactic Republic Survey Corps. We are here in search of a lost ship and do not intend harm toward any of your people. As a matter of fact, we were negotiating an agreement with Maje Zerin when you arrived and threatened us. Because of this, we have taken Maje Zerin and his bodyguards into custody until we can resolve this matter peacefully."

Yates took a step back, giving the holocam full view of Zerin and the two bodyguards, sitting on the acceleration couch with their bound hands in their laps.

"I trust that you are a reasonable being, First Maje, and ask that you consider Maje Zerin's life in your calculations. Yates out."

A minute later, the holoprojector flared to life, displaying a 2D screen floating in the air. Once Yates got a good look at the figure on the screen, he shook his head gently; apparently, the higher you rose in the Kazon ranks, the uglier you got.

"Captain Yates," Culluh began, "do you take me for a fool? It would be hard for me to care less if anything happened to Maje Zerin. There is a reason that he was assigned guard duty in this system. As for you and your so-called Republic Survey Corps, you are an audacious liar. I know you are from the Federation looking for Voyager, and I do not intend to allow you to succeed. And if you have any thoughts of escaping, you are outnumbered and outgunned. I will disable your ship if necessary, and I will take what is rightfully mine."

"Oh, you mean Zerin?" Yates retorted, unable to resist the opportunity to jab. "He's yours. All you had to do was ask nicely."

"I am referring to your technology," Culluh said in an icy tone. "I will not let you escape the way Voyager did. You have one minute to surrender or we will open fire."

The holoimage disappeared, and Yates turned around to face Zerin. "Is he always this abrasive?"

Zerin looked at him with a blank expression and shrugged; Yates realized that TC-21 wasn't aboard the shuttle yet. "Get that droid in here!" he ordered one of the nearby troopers, who ducked out of the shuttle and came back seconds later with the startled droid.

"Zerin, what sort of firepower does your ship have?"

After TC-21 translated the question, Zerin looked at Yates and shook his head. "As much as I may dislike First Maje Culluh, I am not going to answer any of your questions."

"Suit yourself," Yates said with a shrug, then held his hand up to his ear. "Commander, how much time do we have left?"

"Twenty seconds, Sir."

"Use your best judgment, Rowin. You're in command right now. We're going to head into orbit in a few minutes; let us know when it's safe to approach."

"Yes, Captain."

As the pilots prepared the transport for takeoff, Yates silently hoped that his ship would be prepared for whatever came next. In all the years he'd been in command of her, she hadn't failed him.

Yet.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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Last edited by Crayz9000 on 2011-09-10 03:22am, edited 1 time in total.
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-06 12:04pm
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Crayz9000 wrote:
Captain Yates shook his head. "That is a generous offer, but I must refuse. I propose a counter offer: we will both meet on the surface of the fourth planet of this system, in an open field, with our respective ships on the opposite side of said planet."


Crayz9000 wrote:
The wind-swept plains of the fifth planet were a welcome departure from shipboard life, despite it being a frigid 13 degrees outside once the wind chill was accounted for.


So. . .on which planet did they meet?



Time makes more converts than reason. -- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776

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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-06 02:05pm
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I read the original and I like the revised version of the story even more. Good chapter. I got to go back and watch Voyager to jog my memory with regards to what Voyager/Janeway did to the Kazon to piss them off so.

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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-07 12:11pm
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General Trelane (Retired) wrote:
Crayz9000 wrote:
Captain Yates shook his head. "That is a generous offer, but I must refuse. I propose a counter offer: we will both meet on the surface of the fourth planet of this system, in an open field, with our respective ships on the opposite side of said planet."


Crayz9000 wrote:
The wind-swept plains of the fifth planet were a welcome departure from shipboard life, despite it being a frigid 13 degrees outside once the wind chill was accounted for.


So. . .on which planet did they meet?


Oops. Good catch.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-07 04:52pm
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Spice Runner wrote:
I read the original and I like the revised version of the story even more. Good chapter. I got to go back and watch Voyager to jog my memory with regards to what Voyager/Janeway did to the Kazon to piss them off so.


Man, I might almost have to do that, since I can watch Voyager on Amazon Prime now...

I'm enjoying the story by the way, haven't seen it before so it's fun to see what'll happen next.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.17 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-09 03:37pm
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Nicely done! Been some time since I've read this and I just stumbled back upon it.



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 Post subject: Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.18 up) PostPosted: 2011-09-10 03:32am
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18



"Councilors." Jorus C'baoth's voice boomed throughout the relatively small Federation Council chambers. "I am honored to stand before you today, both as a representative of the Galactic Republic, and as the administrator of the Outbound Flight project."

He glanced around the chamber at the assembled councilors, who could not have numbered more than three or four dozen. That was about the typical size of a Senate sub-committee.

"I believe we have much to offer each other. I have been in negotiations with Admiral Nakamura of Starfleet Command and his diplomatic team for the past two weeks, and we have come to several agreements that I hope you will accept."

There were several nods from the gathered councilors and quiet murmuring. After a few long moments of silence, C'baoth continued.

"As you may already know, Outbound Flight was a groundbreaking exploration and colonization mission. It has already succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. We discovered not only intelligent life in this galaxy, but human life. We may infer that our past history is therefore more closely related than any of us had anticipated.

He took a deep breath. "At the moment, we have several pressing concerns. The first is that there are ten thousand Republic colonists aboard Outbound Flight with nowhere to go. I understand that a vote will be held next week on the revised grant agreement to allow us the use of one of your former colony worlds.

"The second relates to your current predicament. We have already established that Outbound Flight will only be able to provide limited assistance, due to the need to protect our colonists. Your diplomats have told me they intend to seek a mutual defense treaty with the Republic. I do not believe that is a good idea."

The quiet chamber suddenly erupted into argument as a number of councilors stood up and tried to shout questions and accusations. The President slammed his gavel down several times until the chamber became quiet again.

"The councilor from Vulcan has the floor," he said a moment later.

"Master C'baoth," the Vulcan intoned, "you appear to be a rational being and I am sure you meant no insult by your statement. However, I believe my colleagues would appreciate an explanation. Finally, if a mutual defense treaty will not work, then what would you recommend we do instead?"

C'baoth nodded in assent. "A mutual defense treaty is not feasible due to the scale of the Republic. Our galaxy has been unified for over a thousand generations. While there may be petty disputes over territory from time to time, we have no outside threats that would require aid. For that reason alone, I find it unlikely that such a treaty would get the majority vote needed to pass the Senate."

"Then what option do we have?" a blue-skinned Andorian asked. "Also, if your galaxy is so used to the status quo, how was your Outbound Flight mission approved?"

"First," C'baoth replied, "Outbound Flight was my own idea. We have looked inward far too long, unaware of the universe around us. I believed it was time to change that, and I had the support of the Chancellor of the Republic. Despite his support, I do not believe the rest of the galaxy will be so quick to accept change.

"Second, it may be possible to simply purchase the ships and technology you need. However, you may run afoul of ancient export regulations such as the one prohibiting us from simply giving you hyperdrive technology. I am not sure if there is an easy way to resolve that situation, which leads me to my final suggestion."

"And what might that be?" the Andorian interjected.

C'baoth let out a quiet chuckle. "Patience, my blue friend. I would suggest that you apply for admittance to the Republic."

"And give up our freedom?" one of the human councilors objected. "You can't be serious."

"While that is always a risk," C'baoth stated forcefully, "the legislation of the Republic is primarily written to enforce equality and minimum standards of life across the galaxy. There are a plethora of sector governments that are independently governed, much like your Federation."

"But we would still be subservient to the Republic," the man retorted.

"Would you prefer to be subservient to the Dominion?" C'baoth asked. When no response came, he continued. "The Senate grants the sector governments a great deal of autonomy. To do anything else would be foolish as no single governing body could directly manage an entire galaxy."

"I believe you have adequately explained the downsides," the Vulcan said, "but what would we stand to gain from joining your Republic?"

"You would gain several seats in the Senate and a say in galactic politics. As a Republic sector, the Federation would also fall under the protection of the Senate Judicial Corps. You would also have unrestricted trade with the rest of the galaxy."

"What sort of protection would we get?" the Andorian asked.

"The Judicial Corps," C'baoth explained, "includes both the Republic Navy and the Jedi Order. Jedi are sent to mediate and dissolve small conflicts and disputes, to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. If a situation is outside the capabilities of the Jedi, and cannot be dealt with by sector fleet command, then the Republic Navy is deployed."

"So if we joined, the Senate would have to send the Navy to help?" the human councilor asked hopefully.

"No." After several quizzical looks from the councilors, he continued. "The autonomy comes at a price. The recommended course of action for your situation would be to immediately enter discussions with our defense contractors, who would provide you with ships, weapons and financing. Navy veterans would then come to train your Starfleet crews."

"That is a logical course of action," the Vulcan concluded. "However, any such agreement would be a major change for the Federation. Do you have a copy of the laws of the Republic for us to look over?"

C'baoth held up a datapad. "I have already loaded this with a copy of the Republic Charter, as well as the majority of our legal code. I will warn you however that the legal code is long and convoluted. Our return mission is scheduled to depart in two weeks, so you need to make your decision before then."

"If that is what is necessary, then we will do so," the Vulcan replied, holding his hand up in a split-V. "Master C'baoth, thank you for your time. May you live long and prosper."


. . .



There were always going to be times, Commander Rowin reflected, when hindsight made a very close approximation of a Gamorrean sow. Right now was one of them. Captain Yates' decision to go in diplomatically had come around to bite them all in the collective hindquarters. They'd had a chance to see how strong a Kazon ship was in combat, when the odds were one to one. Now he was surrounded by the damned things and they had next to no idea how strong their weapons were. Or defenses, for that matter.

He sighed quietly and turned toward the Comm-Scan station. "Open a channel to Maje Culluh's ship."

"Yes, Sir."

Moments later, the First Maje's wrinkled face appeared in the middle of the bridge on the holoscreen. "So," Culluh gloated, "you have realized that you cannot escape."

"Yes," Rowin said with the best poker face he could manage. "You have out-maneuvered us. What are your terms?"

Culluh snorted. "First, you will surrender Maje Zerin to me unharmed. Second, you will disable all security measures on your ship. We will transport your crew to the planet below and then we will sweep your ship. If we find any... surprises... there will be harsh consequences."

Rowin swallowed and nodded. "Of course, Maje."

"Good." Culluh seemed genuinely happy with himself, Rowin noted. "Power your systems down and prepare for our arrival."

As the holo disappeared, one of the senior lieutenants looked at Rowin with a slightly disapproving frown. "Sir... we're not really going to surrender, are we?"

Rowin shook his head. "Of course not. I'm just trying to buy some time. Helm, put the engines into hot standby, make it look like we're powering down and surrendering. Cut the reactor output to fifty percent as well but keep it ready to go to full power. Tac-Ops, shields to standby. Gunnery, what's the status of the main turbolaser batteries?"

"In standby, Sir."

"Good." He turned back to Comm-Scan. "Open the channel back up."

When Culluh's face appeared, Rowin bowed slightly in mock deferment. "We have powered down as you requested, First Maje."

Culluh glanced off-screen for a moment. "Excellent."

The holo vanished again and Rowin allowed a slight smile to cross his face.

"Commander, the Kazon are launching transports," one of the Comm-Scan techs reported barely a minute later.

Rowin nodded. "Evacuate all personnel from the hangar and have E-Web crews set up choke points at the entrances. Gunnery, prepare firing solutions for the Kazon flagship. Tac-Ops, prepare to raise the shields."

"Yes, Captain."

"ETA thirty seconds on the transports," the Comm-Scan tech read out.

Rowin calmly watched the icons representing the transports steadily draw nearer. "Execute on my mark," he instructed them as he waited for the most opportune moment to present itself.


. . .



From his seat in the lead assault craft's cockpit, First Maje Culluh silently watched the alien ship grow larger in the distance.

He was already convinced that they had been lying to him about the so-called Galactic Republic. It had to be a cover story for the Federation. From what he'd read in Voyager's computer databanks, the humans of the Federation had only been in space for perhaps three times as long as the Kazon. They hadn't even had warp travel for the first hundred or so years of that! That made the idea of a galactic government even more ludicrous. No, they had to be lying; he was completely certain of that.

Then again, their ship didn't have warp drive, which made it possible that it was from those first hundred years of pre-warp travel. But if that was the case, and they had somehow managed to cross the galaxy in two hundred years without warp drive, how was it that they knew of Voyager?

He leaned back in his seat, contemplating the questions on his mind, before glancing up to see the hangar bay looming in front of them like a gaping mouth. By the standards of his own ship, it was not terribly large, but it was certainly larger than the cramped joke that Voyager called its shuttlebay. His pilot expertly aligned the shuttle with one side of the hangar and guided it in, landing it so that its ramp was pointing toward a wall for cover. Then Culluh stood up and, after they had checked the air outside the shuttle, the pilot unsealed the hatch and he stepped onto the hangar deck flanked by two of his best troops.

There was definitely a metallic tang in the air that had been absent on Voyager; it was the smell of machinery being worked on. But Culluh could not see any crew in the hangar. They spread out and marched forward, keeping an eye out for possible traps. All they saw, however, were abandoned equipment carts parked next to several oddly shaped craft. One of them, hanging close to the ground on an overhead gantry, looked like a ball suspended between two flat panels. Culluh wasn't sure what it was supposed to be, but if the ball was a cockpit, then it could only hold one person. What was the use of that?

The next craft they passed was much larger, similar to the assault shuttle he had flown in on. This one had wings of some sort that extended upward like the petals of a strange metallic flower. Culluh paid it little attention, instead looking around for any signs of danger.

Finally, at one end of the hangar they came to the exit, a wide black door of some sort that silently split in half and slid aside as they approached. Culluh motioned for two of his guards to stay behind in the hangar near the doors, and then the rest of them continued forward.

One of the other things he noted as they kept walking down the wide hallway (it was, he guessed, enough for eight or ten to walk side by side) was that the floors in this ship were all polished metal, whereas the floors on Voyager had been covered in some kind of fuzzy textile. It definitely lent the ship a much more essential, military feel compared to Voyager.

"Halt!" a harsh, metallic voice shouted in perfect Kazon as they rounded another corner of the hallway, coming to face a barricade that was positioned about ten meters down the hallway. All Culluh could see was the large muzzle of a weapon poking ominously over the heavy barricade. "You are trespassing on Imperial property. Surrender your weapons immediately."

Culluh ducked back around the corner out of range of the weapon and grabbed his earpiece, but all he was greeted by was static. Jamming? he wondered as he tried to contact his flagship. Nobody answered.

"Who is the fastest runner?" he asked, turning around to face the group.

"I am, First Maje," one of them replied.

"Go back to the shuttle and bring reinforcements. Try to contact the flagship."

The runner obediently turned and dashed toward the hallway. Culluh then turned to face the rest, pointing at the two nearest troops.

"You two will charge the position while we provide covering fire. Take your positions and wait for my command." Half of the squad knelt or stood next to the corner with their rifles drawn while the other two stood back in a runner's stance, waiting to go. "Charge!" he exclaimed. As the two began sprinting, he and the rest of his troops aimed their weapons down the corridor and began firing on auto at the barricade.

For a moment, Culluh thought the fire would keep the humans from responding. Then the cannon at the barricade roared to life, rapidly spitting out a hail of powerful red bolts that literally cut the two unfortunate troops in half as it walked its sights down the corridor. Culluh ducked back in time to avoid being hit, but he could feel the searing heat of the bolts as they passed. Several of his other troops were not as lucky; a rifle exploded in one guard's hand, and another trooper's head turned into a smoking crater in spite of the helmet he wore. The infernal weapon continued firing for several more seconds, tearing chunks out of the wall before it finally stopped.

"I repeat, surrender your weapons and you will not be harmed," the same mechanical voice intoned.

Maje Culluh looked at the troops around him. They all shook their heads, and he turned as the messenger he had sent came running back up behind him. "Why have you returned without reinforcements?" he asked.

"My apologies, First Maje," the Kazon said, panting, "but we are sealed in by a bulkhead of unusual strength. Our disruptors do not even scratch its surface."

"Then beyond that barricade lies our only way out," Culluh said. "Lieutenant, set up a smoke screen to cover our advance."

The lieutenant unclipped a canister from his belt, pulled out a pin, and then hurled it down the hallway. There was a burst of fire from the gun, but he narrowly avoided being hit. Then they heard the distinct pop and hiss of the canister exploding. "Go," Culluh ordered.

Three troops charged out this time, as Culluh and the rest shot blindly in the general direction of the barricade. Then the high-pitched staccato of the gun began again, and Culluh's stomach sank as one of the unfortunate troops screamed in agony.

"This is your last chance, Kazon. Throw your weapons down and come out with your hands up."

Culluh looked at the surviving troops and frowned. "Conceal your sidearms. We may be able to approach close enough to overpower them if they think we are surrendering."

They all quickly stuffed their pistols into various parts of their clothing, then threw their rifles around the corner and walked out slowly, hands outstretched.

"Move forward, slowly," the voice ordered. "Keep your hands up."

The ten meters to the barricade took an agonizing amount of time to cover, but finally, several white-clad, almost skeletal looking figures stepped out from behind the barricade. Each one was holding a very practical carbine-sized gun.

"Halt."

Culluh looked around at the other troops. The gun was very close now, and perhaps they could duck out of its firing arc... He could see that the others were evidently thinking the same thing.

"Turn around. Keep your hands in the air."

The Maje did as the voice said, and waited. Then he felt something grab one of his arms and he suddenly spun, pulling his would-be captor's arm down as he wrenched his hand free. There was a flurry of movement around him as the other troops reacted likewise. He ducked and ran toward the barricade, pulling out his concealed pistol as he did--

--and the last thing he would remember seeing was another dozen or so of the white-armored troops standing behind it, guns drawn and ready. Blue light flashed toward him, he felt the tingling sensation of electricity, and then the lights went out.



A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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