A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2015-01-21 09:13pm

A long-delayed update to show that I'm still alive and haven't abandoned this story yet. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all that jazz.


29
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Leaning against the metal railing that ran around the circumference of the barrel-shaped bridge, Anakin Solo had to force himself to not fog up the transparisteel viewport with his breath. Spread in front of him, as far as the eye could see, was a sloped expanse of durasteel painted in anti-flash white. The red insignia of the New Republic adorned both dorsal flanks, and numerous turbolaser turrets and other emplacements protruded from the superstructure at seemingly random locations.

Generally speaking, Anakin preferred to work on a much smaller scale. Droids and cybernetic circuitry had always fascinated him, but the two-kilometer long keel of the Vigorous presented a quality all of its own. It was the largest warship Anakin had visited in his seventeen years, the warlord Hethrir's worldcraft notwithstanding.

Like most of the contemporary warship designs, Vigorous followed in the tradition established by Kuat's Acclamator with a wedge-shaped primary hull. Unlike the towering superstructures of the Acclamator's successors, however, the bridge of the Vigorous was built into a low, cylindrical superstructure common to other Corellian warship designs.

Arms-wise, the ship was equal to or better than any other Star Cruiser in its class. Eighteen massive turbolaser turrets adorned both the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the ship's hull, staggered diagonally along the length of the ship to allow better all-around firing arcs. The number of smaller turbolaser emplacements was nearly impossible to count, with industry estimates ranging from a scant hundred to almost a thousand. To top it off, the ship carried dozens of ion cannon and several clusters of ordnance launchers.

Anakin sighed, almost inaudibly, as he turned away from the viewport. He could rattle off the technical specifications of the major warship classes without even really thinking about it. His brother had always poked fun at the way he continually memorized seemingly useless technical information. What Jacen wouldn't admit was that his knowledge had come in handy more than once.

Back to the issue at hand, Anakin thought to himself. In the two weeks since the Senate committee hearings had concluded, the Corellians had been the first to put an offer on the table, and as such had received preferential treatment by the Federation delegation. Kuat and Rendili had eventually put their own offers out to match, and as a result, Vigorous was accompanied by Steadfast, a Republic-class Star Destroyer from Rendili, and Invictus, one of Kuat's mainstay block 2 Imperator-class Star Destroyers.

It didn't stop there, however. There was too much supporting hardware to fit on the three Star Destroyers, so it had been packed on four bulk transports. From what they had said, it included everything from scout walkers to spare hyperdrives. Anakin wasn't sure what sort of terms the Federation representatives had worked out with the various corporations, but he could easily guess that it must have been a fortune.

"Hyperspace reversion in T minus 20 minutes and counting," the ship's bosun announced over the intercom. "All hands, report to stations."

Anakin crossed the bridge in a few quick strides and walked down a short flight of stairs to the navigator's station. The navigator was a senior lieutenant in CorSec who had been traveling hyperspace since before Anakin was born. At Master Dellen's insistence, Anakin had been designated the "navigational advisor" of the Vigorous. This essentially entailed guiding the ship through the wormhole and helping plot hyperspace courses once they were in the other galaxy. He didn't mind, since the senior lieutenant had been "showing him the ropes" over the past two weeks and he'd learned quite a bit already.

The navigator glanced over as Anakin took his seat next to him. "Ready?"

The tone of that one word conveyed everything Anakin needed to know. Everything came down to this moment; any mistake he made could kill them all.

"Ready," Anakin responded, but he wasn't sure if he meant it.

The black hole – which, Anakin reflected, looked anything but black when viewed from a close distance – was exactly where it was supposed to be. Remembering what his father had told him about the Maw Cluster, he suppressed a shudder. But then again, his father did tell him about how Kyp Durron had managed, without any Jedi training, to navigate through the cluster.

But this was different. He wasn't just running past a black hole at a high fraction of lightspeed. He was going to override the hyperdrive's failsafe circuits and hit the gravity well at somewhere in excess of a million times lightspeed. Most navigators had a term for that: suicide.

The only comforting fact was that the Outbound Flight had managed this feat on two separate occasions.

Not quite as reassuringly, the Corellian engineers had explained their "improvements" to the hyperdrives of the four ships. They had taken a simple brute-force approach, adding in an absurd amount of capacitors and surge-absorbing circuitry that, in theory, would absorb any damaging back-fed power and slag themselves before the hyperdrive motivators did. If the circuits worked, then all they'd have to do is replace the damaged circuits. If the circuits didn't work, the freighters had plenty of spare parts assuming they made it that far.

Anakin put his mind back to the task at hand. He was acutely aware that all eyes on the bridge were focused on him now, but pushed the feeling aside. Taking a deep breath, he reached out.

Suddenly, he was aware of all seven ships, insignificant bubbles that glowed brightly in the Force. Almost sixteen thousand crewmen, he realized abruptly. He hadn't realized that the training crews were so large. Sixteen thousand people that were counting on him. Sixteen thousand people with families to return to.

It was a sobering thought. Over three thousand were aboard the Vigorous and the remainder were split between the other two Star Destroyers. The freighters, being mostly automated, took very little crew.

He dropped that train of thought as abruptly as it had started, and reached out further. The system had a number of lifeless rocks, cooked by the heat of the star that had once sustained them millennia ago. Some were planets, now barren. Others were the remains of comets and asteroids.

Anakin reached further. Now he could feel the incredible gravitational forces in the system's center. Some rocks unlucky enough were caught in a never-ending downward spiral, their orbits having been too close to the black hole to escape it. Those even closer had been pulverized by the tidal forces, forming a massive disc around the collapsed star that funneled material into it. Radiation caused the disc to glow brightly, but Anakin couldn't see any of it. He simply knew it was there.

Still deeper he reached, past the event horizon, the point at which light could not escape. If he was there physically, his body would already have been ripped apart.

Then Anakin feltit. It wasn't an object, it was a simple mathematical radius. Similar to the event horizon but not quite, he realized that if they hit that point exactly while in hyperspace, the gravity would steal a considerable amount of energy from the ships. In realspace, that amounted to a death sentence, but thanks to the bizarre nature of hyperspace, the loss of energy would actually accelerate them. He reached down and started entering in the numbers that came to him unbidden.

"Coordinates set," he finally said as he sat back up straight, rubbing his eyes even though they'd been closed the entire time. Looking down at his chronometer, he realized that the whole thing had taken close to an hour – althouh it had seemed like five minutes to him. His aunt Mara was standing directly behind him, and she nodded with approval.

"Are you sure they're correct?" Anakin turned to see the commanding officer of the Vigorous looking down at him from his position on the bridge. Justis Sicuro was a Colonel in CorSec, and a fairly young one at that, perhaps in his early thirties. His slightly longer-than-regulation black hair was combed straight to the sides, accenting his elongated cheekbones. Even though he was of average height, his elevated position made him look like a giant at the moment.

"I'm sure," Anakin replied.

Sicuro turned to the other side of the bridge, where Anakin knew that Comm-Scan was located. "Slave the other ships to our navicomp," he barked. "We'll make the jump in T minus 2 minutes."

"All ships slaved, Sir," an ensign called from Comm-Scan. "They report they are ready for the jump."

"Shields?"

"Shields up, generators at 99% efficiency."

"Weapons?"

"All weapons charged and ready."

Colonel Sicuro nodded and turned back to Anakin. "Make the jump. May the Force be with us."



.



It was, Anakin later recalled, like slamming into a duracrete wall at full speed. He'd half-expected the inertial compensators to fail but miraculously they had held. Other than that, the Vigorous suffered little damage. The surge-absorption circuitry had proven to be redundant, since the overload was well within the normal ratings.

Of the other ships, the freighters hadn't been so lucky. For whatever reason, one had managed to slag both its motivators and the hyperdrive core despite the added safety circuits. While they had the spares, it would still take time to repair. The other three freighters were still working fine, but some of their cargo had broken loose.

He was jolted out of his reflection by the sharp report of a crewman at Comm-Scan.

"Colonel, we've picked up an inbound on the scopes," the crewman exclaimed. "Unknown type, appears to be..." He paused momentarily. "It appears to be in a subspace bubble. Estimated size is 27 cubic kilometers. ETA in five minutes."

"Subspace warp," Sicuro muttered, walking over to Anakin and Mara. "Master Dellen warned me of some group called the Borg. Do you think that's who we're dealing with?"

Mara silently nodded.

Sicuro sighed and grabbed a comlink. "All commands, battlestations."

At once the crew began rushing about. Orders were barked and carried out. In the middle of it all, Anakin merely watched, feeling somewhat useless. Of course, he knew that there really was nothing he could do that the bridge crew couldn't do better, but that didn't stop the feeling.

"Subspace disturbance at 317 by 110 mark 228, range 510,000 klicks," Comm-Scan announced. "Inbound on an intercept course with Freighter 3. ETA three minutes."

"Hail them," Sicuro ordered.

Several uncomfortable seconds passed as the entire bridge crew watched he inbound – which could now clearly be seen as a cube – approach on the holographic tactical map. As it neared, more and more detail was revealed on its surface, which by this point best approximated a schizophrenic plumber's worst nightmare. As strange as it was, Anakin thought, it certainly didn't look like a warship.

"Incoming transmission, audio only," a crewman reported.

Sicuro nodded. "Let's hear it."

As the transmission began to play, half the crew on the bridge shuddered at the sound of the voice, or rather, voices. "We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile."

"So much for friendly," someone muttered as Sicuro grabbed a mic and keyed it on.

"This is Colonel Justis Sicuro of the Corellian Engineering Corporation warship Vigorous. The ship you are approaching is under our protection. You will change your course within ten seconds or we will open fire."

Their reply was swift. "We are Borg. Protection is irrelevant. Resistance is futile."

Anakin watched as the chronometers on the bridge ticked the ten seconds away, while the cube showed no signs of changing its course. He knew that Sicuro had seen it, too.

"Gunnery, fire one light battery as a warning shot," Sicuro ordered, his face grim. Anakin stepped over to the bridge windows and watched as a forward battery spat four green blasts that vanished into the distance almost immediately.

"Confirmation of hit, no effect. They just locked a tractor beam on Freighter 3."

The general atmosphere grew tense as Sicuro gritted his teeth. "Captain Arkala, turn your ship around and try to break their lock. All commands, fire on my mark."

He waited for a long, tense moment before calling "Mark."

Dozens of emerald bolts and hundreds of smaller bolts lanced out toward the cube. Even from the extreme distance, Anakin could see the brilliant glow as the turbolasers found their mark.

"Damage estimate..." The Comm-Scan operator trailed off as he read whatever figures the computer was presenting him with. "Fifty-one percent of the enemy ship destroyed. They are maintaining tractor beam lock."

"After taking that much damage?" Sicuro's voice was incredulous. "Maintain fire."

After several more volleys, all that remained of the Borg ship was half-melted wreckage and scattered atoms.

Sicuro sighed and leaned on the tactical map display. "Damage report?"

"Freighter 3 lost their primary reverse power coupling when they went to full thrust. They are working to repair it as we speak."

He nodded. "Comm-Scan, maintain long range scans. I want to know if anything sneezes nearby."

"Yes, Sir."



.

. . .

.



Anakin was jolted out of sleep by the sharp report of an alert klaxon. He jumped out of bed, narrowly avoiding bashing his head on the low ceiling above it, and threw his clothing on as fast as he could. Then, he grabbed his lightsaber and dashed out into the hallway, where he nearly collided with his aunt Mara.

"What's going on?" They both spoke at the same time, then laughed and Mara shrugged in response to their mutual question. "I'm not really sure, but I'm heading to the bridge to see what the fuss is all about."

"Well, that's where I was going too," Anakin agreed. They went for the nearest turbolift, along with about ten crewmen who had joined them in the hallway.

After a short trip they arrived at the bridge and the door slid open. "Captain?" Mara asked as the two Jedi approached. "What's the situation?"

"Comm-Scan just spotted five bogeys inbound. Their mass is consistent with the Borg cube and they're moving at a fairly high speed."

"That doesn't sound good," Anakin said.

"Tell me about it," Sicuro agreed. "I've recalled the CAPs and all fighters are being prepped for launch." He paused to give Anakin a skeptical look. "I've been told you fly."

CAP was jargon for the regular fighter patrols during combat operations. They had been running nonstop since the last Borg visit, and had almost completely canvassed the system to the point that the entire group had a good idea of all the places that a defense station would be most effective. Not that it really mattered at the moment since there really was no time to set up proper defenses, Anakin thought. "I've been training in my uncle's X-wing and flight sims for a few years now."

Sicuro glanced toward Mara. "Are you sure he's ready for this?"

"He could use the combat experience."

"Well," Sicuro said, "what do you think, Anakin? Do you want to fly?"

Anakin rubbed his hands together with barely contained excitement. "I'd love to."

Sicuro waved one of the bridge crew over. "Ensign, could you get Anakin down to the flight deck double-time?"

"Yes, Sir."


Not surprisingly for Anakin, the flight deck was a scene of ordered pandemonium. Fighters were constantly landing, while the other fighters on the deck had crews bustling about them with equipment, topping off the fuel tanks, arming and loading torpedoes, and generally making all the expected preflight checks.

The Ensign that brought Anakin down walked straight over to a small booth on the side of the hangar. He saluted the man inside the booth, then turned to Anakin. "This is the Senior Chief," he began. "He'll assign you to a craft."

The Senior Chief stood up. "So you're one of the Jedi that that the crew is buzzing about, eh? Well, first, let me set the record straight. If you're going to fly with this squadron, you HAVE to obey the orders of the squadron commander. No gallivanting off on your own like I've heard some of you Jedi are fond of doing."

He leaned closer to Anakin, who idly observed to himself that he seemed to be a lot older than he looked. He wondered why he was still a non-commissioned officer in CorSec...

"He's going to brief you all in about a minute here. You're going to listen to what he says, and you're going to do what he says. No IFs or BUTs. Above all, don't forget your wingman if you're the lead. If you're the wingman, don't forget your lead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir," Anakin replied hesitatingly, somewhat surprised by the whole spiel.

"Good. The briefing room is over that way," the Chief said as he pointed across the hangar. "Our orders will be coming as soon as the Captain gives them. You ARE familiar with the MSF-350, aren't you?"

"I've trained in the simulator on it."

"You've trained in the SIMULATOR? Is that all it takes to pass for a fighter pilot these days? What HAVE you actually flown in combat? Anything?"

Anakin stammered, now completely off guard. "I-I flew the Millennium Falcon in the Sacorrian crisis when I was seven," he finally came out with, then realized that it sounded completely inadequate. "I've also been flying X-wings for a couple of years now."

"A tramp freighter hardly counts as a fighter, son, and you were seven a long time ago. Have you actually flown an X-wing in combat?"

"N-no, Sir."

The Chief shook his head. "Rookies these days, hotshots the lot of you. Well, I have to let you in, Captain's orders, but remember, you kriff up out there and good men will die. Do you UNDERSTAND?"

"Y-yes, Sir."

"Good. Now get yourself to the quartermaster and get a flight suit on, then head to the briefing room."

As Anakin walked way, he could have sworn that he heard the Chief muttering something about "kriffin' Demorr krayts." He idly wondered what a Demorr krayt was and if it was related to the krayt dragon, eventually deciding that he'd have to ask Jacen about it later as he walked into the quartermaster's office.


Back on the bridge, the situation was tense as the entire crew waited for the Borg to drop out of their subspace bubbles. "They've reverted," Comm-Scan reported.

"Hold fire for positive identification," Sicuro ordered. As if on cue, the Borg's standard hail played across the bridge speakers, and brilliant emerald beams lanced toward the Star Destroyers.

"No damage," the ensign at Comm-Scan said. "Radiation output is increasing, consistent with scanning."

Sicuro just nodded. "All commands, fire at will."

By now the Borg were close enough that Mara could now see there were some differences between the five cubes. Two of them were like the one they had seen before, but three of them were partially clad in gray armor plating. "They seem to learn quickly," she remarked. "Now they're armored."

Not that the armor did the other unarmored cubes much good, Mara reflected. The first wave of turbolaser bolts immediately ripped into the nearest of the cubes, vaporizing a good deal of its underlying structure. Just like the previous time, they continued to approach despite the damage, and more volleys of fire ripped into the cubes.

The three armored ones moved closer, passing the two damaged unarmored ones. The less damaged of the two unarmored cubes then moved in toward Freighter 1, which, if Mara recalled correctly, contained hyperdrive components among other spare parts and was probably the most important freighter in the mission.

"Freighter 1 is reporting tractor beam lock," Comm-Scan announced.

"How did they know?" Sicuro murmured half to himself, voicing the exact thought that Mara had.

Sicuro grabbed a nearby comm. "Broadcast all channels," he told the ensign at the station, and keyed the comm on. "This is Colonel Sicuro of the Corellian warship Vigorous. Release our freighter or be destroyed."

"Demands are irrelevant," came the eerie, unfeeling response. "You will be assimilated."

Sicuro made a chopping motion with his hand, then turned to the gunnery station. "Mark that cube as the priority target."

The withering fire from the small force focused on the cube, which practically melted under the onslaught over the next few minutes.

"Ship destroyed."

A slight cheer went up from the bridge crew but was quickly silenced as another cube, one of the armored ones this time, locked on to Freighter 1. Without any prompting, the gunners changed targets and the barrage continued.

"I'm not sure if I'm reading this right," the ensign at Comm-Scan asked, "but it appears, Sir, that we're doing less damage with every volley."

"Duly noted," Sicuro replied. "All commands, increase firepower."

As the turbolaser bolts became more intense, the other cubes now moved in to block the shots and quickly began taking damage. The other unarmored cube was next to go, vanishing in the hail of fire.

Sicuro sighed heavily. "Helm, try to get us a clear shot at that cube. Fighter Command, launch fighters and target the tractor beams, we need to break it loose ASAP."




In the briefing room, Anakin sat next to the wingmate who had been picked for him, a female Selonian named Salisca, as they listened to the commander give the orders. Then they quickly filed out, running to the fighters and jumping in the cockpits. The engines were already idling, so Anakin simply pressed his helmet on and strapped in as the hatch closed over him.

Moments later, the MSF-350 was floating on its repulsors as he guided it out per the deck crew's directions. Then they launched, and the squadron commander's voice squawked over the headsets. "All fighters, report in.

"Talus Leader, standing by," the fighter squadron's leader reported.

"Tralus Leader, standing by." Tralus squadron consisted of the strike bombers, and it was the fighters' job to protect them.

"Talus 14, standing by," Anakin keyed in.

"Talus 9, standing by," his wingmate came through.

Anakin tuned out the rest of the chatter as he focused on the directions. They were to get in, knock out the tractor beams, and then escort Freighter 1 back toward the Vigorous. It sounded easy on paper but Anakin somehow doubted it.

"All craft, assume attack formation."

Anakin glanced at the screen as he adjusted the course of the starfighter. As he looked forward from the canopy, he saw the cubes rapidly growing in size from the pinpricks they appeared to be from the ship.

"This is Tralus leader. We have our target, begin the attack run."

He pulled on the stick and the fighter slid into formation ahead of the heavier bombers. As they approached, emerald beams began lancing out from the cubes. One managed to graze a fighter ahead of him.

"Talus 15. That tickled. Going in hot."

The cubes now loomed to fill most of the canopy. Anakin noticed that the closer they got to the cubes, the more wild the shots became. That was rather strange, he thought, since all the training he'd had told him that the closer you got to a ship, the more close-in defense guns you would run into. The only explanation he could think of was that the Borg were not used to combat with small attack craft.

The bombers in front of him turned and sharply dove in toward the haphazard surface of the cube. Anakin followed suit, twisting his fighter to avoid the shots that were coming toward them. When he was almost at the surface of the cube he pulled up hard and began winding along the tangled superstructure.

"Tralus 5. Torpedoes away."

Anakin saw the explosion rapidly pass. "Confirmed hit, tractor beam disabled," Tralus leader reported. "All craft, pull up."

"Negative, Tralus Leader," the comm squawked just as they were beginning to pull up. "Another tractor beam just locked on. Sending coordinates now."

"Kriff!" one of his squadron mates interjected. "What are we doing, whacking mynocks?"

"Keep the channel clear!"

Anakin pulled a hard about turn as the entire squadron headed back to the surface. At the same time, there was a brilliant flash in the distance as another cube exploded, silhouetting the squadrons and darkening his canopy.

He noticed that the defensive fire was getting more accurate, and on an instinct he lined the fighter up and pulled the triggers, sending a barrage of blaster fire into one of the Borg emplacements. A couple of his squadron mates did the same thing, although it did not seem to lessen the volume of incoming fire much.

As they began strafing along the surface, Anakin saw a flash of light to his right, and as he looked over, he saw fuel spraying out of Salisca's fighter.

"Salisca!" he shouted into the comm. "You've been hit!"

"I did not feel anything!"

Anakin jinked the fighter around another barrage, then looked back at the Saccorian's fighter again.

"Must have grazed you. You're losing fuel. Can you make it?"

"Yes."

"This is Tralus 13, I'm locked on." Anakin saw the bomber dive in toward the cube and followed suit, thumbing the trigger when he was clear to try and suppress some of the incoming fire.

"Confirmed hit," Tralus Leader reported. The comm stayed silent, then he came back in. "Comm-scan reports that there are now two emitters locked on to the freighter. We will target one of them, while the freighter tries to pull free."

"This is kriffin' ridiculous," the same voice as before said resignedly. Anakin silently agreed as the squadrons weaved their way back across the surface to the next target. Then, abruptly, the surface suddenly got much closer.

"What the hell?" The reaction was almost unanimous as the fighters and bombers had to jump upwards to avoid being hit by the now rapidly approaching superstructure of the cube.

"Freighter 1 has gone to full power. It's towing the cube now..." Tralus Leader reported. At the same time, a large explosion in the distance signaled the demise of yet another cube.

"I have a lock," Tralus 9 reported. "Firing torpedoes... kriff!"

Apparently the Borg didn't like being taken along for a ride, because the Cube suddenly reversed direction, towing the struggling freighter backwards. With the sudden change, the torpedoes went wild, blowing gaping holes in the superstructure of the cube but apparently not hitting anything vital.

That is, until a chunk of metal tore free from the cube and went sailing past the astonished pilots.

"There goes one emitter," one of the flight leaders remarked. As if on cue, at least four more emitters suddenly replaced it.

"Oh, come ON!"

"Clear the channel!" Tralus leader half-shouted. "Comm-scan's reporting a massive power surge on the cube, they're not sure what..."

All of a sudden, the cube and freighter seemed to elongate, then there was a flash of light and they vanished.

"... the kriff," Tralus leader finished. "Abort mission."



.

. . .

.



By the time Anakin landed, jumped out of the fighter, and rushed to the bridge, there was a heated debate going on over how to catch the Borg.

"We don't have any kind of interdiction system," he heard Colonel Sicuro say. "All we can do is follow, we have no way of stopping them."

"Wait a minute," Anakin said. "They aren't in hyperspace."

"It doesn't matter," the ship's navigator responded. "They're going faster than the speed of light, so they're tachyonic. Only mass can force them out."

Out of the corner of his eye, Anakin saw Mara walk over. "Actually, that's not quite true," she said. "They're in a subspace bubble, right?"

"Right."

"So they aren't really tachyonic, they're just warping space around themselves. It's a poor man's way of going past lightspeed, because they're actually still in realspace."

A light seemed to dawn on Sicuro's face. "And they're traveling at about a quarter of our flank speed... But how can we force them out? We can't put ourselves in the way or we'll be destroyed."

Anakin thought about it for a moment. "Turbolasers," he said. "Use our turbolasers to bracket their trajectory and force them out."

Sicuro scratched his chin. "We don't want to risk hitting the freighter."

"The cube is in front, so all we need to do is hit it with enough fire to force it out of warp. Keep the shots tight enough and we shouldn't hit the freighter."

"Sounds like our best chance," Sicuro agreed, walking over to the navigation station. "Lay in a course alongside theirs, and take us out ahead of them with enough time to set up a firing solution."

"Yes, Captain."

He walked over to the gunnery station next. "How fast can you set up a bracketing fire?"

"Thirty seconds, Sir."

"Signal Invictus and Steadfast to protect the remaining freighters while we pursue.

"Yes, Captain."

"Make the jump."


Several short minutes later, they emerged to realspace, turning the ship around to set up a firing solution.

"Standby," the lieutenant at Comm-Scan said. "Target in range in forty seconds."

As he counted down to zero, Anakin watched and on the zero mark, dozens of shots lanced out... and kept on going.

"What happened"? Sicuro demanded.

"We fired too soon so the shots went wild. I'm feeding the data in to the gunnery computers so it can compensate."

Sicuro rubbed his face and turned back to the navigator. "Plot another jump, and this time try to give us a little more time."

Anakin watched as the bridge viewports again filled with the scintillating sky of hyperspace, then almost as quickly returned to the blackness of normal space. Comm-Scan again began counting down the range, and right on cue the sky was filled with turbolaser blasts. This time, however, as the bolts passed through space there was a brilliant flash of light; the Borg cube and freighter both popped back into reality tumbling end over end.

"Kriff," Anakin swore under his breath. "That can't be good."

Even while Vigorous was still pummeling the cube, it stopped its chaotic rotation and managed to snag the still-tumbling freighter with more tractor beams. Anakin watched in disbelief as the cube again jumped to warp despite all their efforts.

"Helm, plot another intercept," Sicuro ordered, immediately turning to Comm-Scan. "How badly did we damage it this time?"

"They've lost less than twenty percent of their original mass," the lieutenant replied. "It's hard to tell if they suffered any damage to their systems since we can't get a good estimate on their capabilities."

Sicuro walked over to his chair and sat down. "At this rate, we're going to wind up chasing them halfway across this forsaken galaxy..."

Anakin certainly hoped that wouldn't be the case as they jumped again. His hopes were somewhat dashed when the next set of bracketing shots went wild.

"They changed course shortly after we reverted," Comm-Scan explained before anyone could ask. "They must be able to scan while they're at lightspeed."

There were a number of muffled curses from the crew in the pits.

"Helm, another intercept. Cut it close this time. Gunnery, you're going to have to work faster for that firing solution so that they don't have much time to react."

The next jump was far more abrupt, and they began firing almost as soon as they had reverted. Sure enough, there was another bright flash and the Borg unceremoniously came tumbling out again, followed by the freighter. Again turbolaser bolts chewed into the cube, most focused on the already-weakened areas. Yet again, despite it being almost torn in half, the cube managed to stop its dizzying spin and warp away.

With the next jump Comm-Scan almost immediately had an answer. "We can't get a firing solution. They changed course as soon as we reverted."

"They're getting desperate," Mara observed. "We can keep leapfrogging them, but they're just going to keep changing course now."

"Then we'll just have to leapfrog faster," Sicuro said. "We can't let them get the freighter. Can we come up with a firing solution any faster?"

The bridge was silent for a long moment, and finally the navigator spoke. "We know they have not changed their speed, so I can plot an intercept course that will put us right on top of them. If gunnery can work with the data I give them, they could have a firing solution ready before we even revert."

Sicuro looked over at the gunnery officers. "Can it be done?"

The officers looked at each other uneasily. "Possibly, if we get the timing right."

"Then do it, and make sure we hit them with everything we have. We can't let them escape another time."

In an instant the bridge was eerily quiet, save for the sound of keys tapping as the crew set the ship up for the crazy plan. Anakin could only watch in amazement as they went about it; he had no doubt that a Jedi could coordinate in the same way using the Force, but in this case it was better for the ship's crew to do it given the scale of the Vigorous's systems.

Then the jump happened, and Anakin could have almost sworn that the guns began firing before they emerged from hyperspace. The cube, or more correctly, the remainder of the cube, came hurling out of warp at almost point-blank range, only to be immediately assaulted with a broadside of turbolasers and concussion missiles.

"Gunnery, lock all available tractor beams on them, make sure they don't escape again."

There was a faint shudder as the tractor beams locked on to the struggling cube.

"What the..." Anakin said as he felt the ship begin moving with the cube. "Why are we moving?"

"The sensors are going nuts," Comm-Scan reported. "I don't think it's possible for our mass to be decreasing so fast."

All of a sudden, the stars turned to streaks around them, but the sky of hyperspace never appeared.

"This isn't right..." Anakin was dumbfounded. Directly in front of them was the damaged cube, and they could see streaks of light slowly passing by.

"Captain?" It was the lieutenant at Comm-Scan. "We're in the subspace bubble. They're towing us with our own tractor beams."

Sicuro frowned for a moment, but his frown quickly changed to a smile. "Gunnery, do our weapons still work?"

"Sensors are still nuts, but the visual tracking is there," the response came quickly. A shot lanced out toward the cube, disappearing in a small flash of light shortly afterward. Without any further confirmation, all of the ship's forward batteries opened up.

Anakin shrugged. "You know, I am a little worried what happens when that cube is--"

It was almost as bad as when they came through the wormhole. The ship felt like it had stopped, then inertia caught up with them as the systems struggled to compensate. Almost everyone that was standing was pitched to the floor, Anakin included. Mercifully it was over almost as soon as it had started, and they started to pick themselves up when reality re-asserted itself.

"I guess that answers that question," Anakin muttered, more to himself than anyone.

Colonel Sicuro coughed as he came to his feet. "Status?"

"We've only traveled about one light-year. The cube is almost completely destroyed. I can't read any power and there are only a handful of life signs left."

Sicuro looked at Mara and Anakin. "What should we do with them?"

The two Jedi exchanged glances, shrugging. "While Master Dellen did warn us to not underestimate them," Mara said, "they may be worth taking a second look at. Can we tow the remnant with us?"

"From what I've seen so far, I would honestly be far more comfortable with them vaporized," Sicuro said, "but I'll defer to you. Just so we are clear, however, if they show any sign of hostility I will not hold back."

"Perfectly clear," Mara replied. "I wouldn't suggest anything different."

About a minute later they had the largest of the shattered pieces in tow. When they returned, they found the remaining ships had followed and arrested Freighter 1's wild spin.

"Captain Tafalo reports that they did not suffer any serious damage, and they estimate they should have repairs completed within an hour."

Sicuro turned around to face Comm-Scan. "Finally some good news. Keep a close eye on the Borg, and Navigation, I need you to plot a new course to Earth. As soon as Freighter 1 is ready, we leave."
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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2019-02-01 10:38am

Don't know if anyone here still remembers this, as it's been (checks watch) almost exactly 4 years since that last update. I'm finally on track to finishing it, and have been bringing my SV thread up to speed while I edit and finish the last few chapters. I figure I should have chapter 30 ready to post by next week.

As for the bad news, I don't think I really want to attempt the sequels to this anymore. I'll do my best to tie up what I can by the end so this story can at least stand on its own. Currently looking at 41 chapters in all and probably close to 200k words, of which I've written 37 chapters and 175k words.
A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

Post by Eternal_Freedom » 2019-02-01 12:27pm

Glad to see an old favourite of mine getting revived!
Baltar: "I don't want to miss a moment of the last Battlestar's destruction!"
Centurion: "Sir, I really think you should look at the other Battlestar."
Baltar: "What are you babbling about other...it's impossible!"
Centurion: "No. It is a Battlestar."

Corrax Entry 7:17: So you walk eternally through the shadow realms, standing against evil where all others falter. May your thirst for retribution never quench, may the blood on your sword never dry, and may we never need you again.

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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2019-02-09 04:21pm

Reposting chapter 29 to correct some incorrect references to Colonel Sicuro's rank as well as some other minor tweaks, since I can't edit the original post. Chapter 30 will be out tomorrow.

29


At over two kilometers in length, the Vigorous counted as the largest warship Anakin had ever been on in his seventeen years, if he didn't count the warlord Hethrir's worldcraft as a warship. Even so he couldn't even remember being on the ship, which wasn't that surprising since he was only one year old at the time.

The Vigorous followed the very practical wedge design that Kuat had introduced with their Acclamator and continued in the other Star Destroyer designs. Unlike the Kuati Star Destroyer designs with their trademark tower, the Vigorous had the typical squat cylinder of a bridge common to Corellian warships.

Arms-wise, the ship was equal to or better than any other Star Cruiser in its class. Eighteen massive turbolaser turrets adorned both sides of the ship's hull, staggered diagonally along the length of the ship to allow better firing arcs. Hundreds of smaller turbolasers covered every possible attack vector on the ship. Topping it off were nearly three dozen ion cannon and well over a dozen missile launcher batteries.

Anakin sighed, almost inaudibly, as he turned away from the bridge viewports. He could rattle off the technical specifications of the major Star Destroyer classes without even really thinking about it. His brother had always poked fun at the way he had memorized all that seemingly useless information, along with sundry other technical data. What Jacen wouldn't admit was that Anakin's seemingly useless knowledge had come in handy more than once. But then again, Jacen didn't really care for technology. He preferred biology, a subject that Anakin professed no knowledge of and made him shiver sometimes. Neither brother really understood why the other liked what they did, but they did complement each other when Luke had given them assignments together.

Back to the issue at hand, Anakin thought to himself. It had been two weeks since the Senate committee hearings had concluded, and what a frantic two weeks they had been. The Corellians had been the first to put an offer on the table, and as such had received preferential treatment by the Federation delegation. Eventually Kuat and Rendili had put their own offers out to match. As a result, Vigorous was accompanied by Steadfast, a Republic-class Star Destroyer from Rendili, and Invictus, one of Kuat's mainstay Imperator II-class Star Destroyers.

It didn't stop there, however. There was too much supporting hardware to fit on the three Star Destroyers, so it had been packed on four bulk transports. From what they had said, it included everything from AT-ST walkers to spare hyperdrives. All Anakin knew was that it must have cost a fortune.

"Hyperspace reversion in T minus 20 minutes and counting," the ship's bosun announced over the intercom. "All hands, report to stations."

Anakin crossed the bridge in a few quick strides and walked down a short flight of stairs to the navigator's station. The navigator was a senior lieutenant in CorSec who had been traveling hyperspace since before Anakin was born. At Master Dellen's insistence, Anakin had been officially made "Assistant Navigator" of the Vigorous. This essentially entailed guiding the ship through the wormhole and helping plot hyperspace courses once they were in the other galaxy. He didn't mind, since the senior lieutenant had been "showing him the ropes" over the past two weeks and he'd learned quite a bit already.

The navigator glanced over as Anakin took his seat next to him. "Ready?" That one word conveyed everything the navigator was thinking. This was it, and any mistake made could kill them all.

"Ready," Anakin responded, but he wasn't sure if he meant it.

The black hole – which, Anakin reflected, looked anything but black when viewed from a close distance – was exactly where it was supposed to be. Remembering what his father had told him about the Maw Cluster, he suppressed a shudder. But then again, his father did tell him about how Kyp Durron had managed, without any Jedi training, to navigate through the cluster.

But this was different. He wasn't just running past a black hole at a high fraction of lightspeed. He was going to override the hyperdrive's failsafe circuits and hit the gravity well at somewhere in excess of a million times lightspeed. Most navigators had a term for that: suicide.

The only comforting fact was that the Outbound Flight had managed this feat on two separate occasions.

Not quite as reassuringly, the Corellian engineers had explained their "improvements" to the hyperdrives of the four ships. They had taken a simple brute-force approach, adding in an absurd amount of capacitors and surge-absorbing circuitry that, in theory, would absorb any damaging back-fed power and blow up before the hyperdrive motivators did. They had rated it at somewhere around five times what the hyperdrive was theoretically capable of handling.

If the circuits worked, then all they'd have to do is replace the damaged circuits. If the circuits didn't work, well, the freighters did have plenty of spare parts.

Anakin put his mind back to the task at hand. He was acutely aware that all eyes on the bridge were focused on him now, but pushed the feeling aside. He took a deep breath, and reached out.

Suddenly, he was aware of all seven ships, insignificant bubbles that glowed brightly in the Force. Almost sixteen thousand crewmen, he realized abruptly. He hadn't realized that the training crews were so large. Sixteen thousand people that were counting on him. Sixteen thousand people with families to return to.

It was a sobering thought. Over three thousand were aboard the Vigorous and the remainder were split between the other two Star Destroyers. The freighters, being mostly automated, took very little crew.

He dropped that train of thought as abruptly as it had started, and reached out further. The system had a number of lifeless rocks, cooked by the heat of the star that had once sustained them millennia ago. Some were planets, now barren. Others were the remains of comets and asteroids.

Anakin reached further. Now he could feel the incredible gravitational forces in the system's center. Some rocks unlucky enough were caught in a never-ending downward spiral, their orbits having been too close to the black hole to escape it. Those even closer had been pulverized into fine dust by the tidal forces, forming a massive disc around the collapsed star that funneled material into it. Radiation caused the disc to glow brightly, but Anakin couldn't see any of it. He simply knew it was there.

Still deeper he reached, past the event horizon, the point at which light could not escape. If he was there physically, his body would already have been ripped apart.

Then Anakin saw it. It wasn't an object, it was a simple mathematical radius. Similar to the event horizon but not quite, he realized that if they hit that point exactly while in hyperspace, the gravity would steal a considerable amount of energy from the ships, and thanks to the bizarre nature of tachyons, the loss would catapult them through space-time. He reached down and started entering in the numbers that came to him unbidden.

"Coordinates set," he finally said as he sat back up straight, rubbing his eyes even though they'd been closed the entire time. Looking down at his chronometer, he realized that the whole thing had taken under an hour – and it had seemed like five minutes to him. His aunt Mara was standing directly behind him, and she nodded with approval.

"Are you sure they're correct?" Anakin turned to see the commanding officer of the Vigorous looking down at him from his position on the bridge. Justis Sicuro was a Colonel in CorSec, and a fairly young one at that, perhaps in his early thirties. His slightly longer-than-regulation black hair was combed straight to the sides, accenting his elongated cheekbones. Even though he was of average height, his elevated position made him look like a giant at the moment.

"I'm sure," Anakin replied.

Sicuro turned to the other side of the bridge, where Anakin knew that Comm-Scan was located. "Slave the other ships to our navicomp," he barked. "We'll make the jump in T minus 2 minutes."

"All ships slaved, Sir," an ensign called from Comm-Scan. "They report they are ready for the jump."

"Shields?"

"Shields up, generators at 99% efficiency."

"Weapons?"

"All weapons charged and ready."

Colonel Sicuro nodded and turned back to Anakin. "Make the jump. May the Force be with us."









It was, Anakin later recalled, like slamming into a duracrete wall at full speed. He had half-expected the inertial compensators to fail but they had miraculously held up. Other than that, the Vigorous suffered little damage. The surge-absorption circuitry had proven to be redundant, since the overload was well within the normal ratings. There had been a number of minor injuries, mostly from unaware crew getting thrown across rooms when the inertial compensators had momentarily overloaded. One crewman had managed to break his neck and the medical droids were now working him over.

Of the other ships, the freighters hadn't been so lucky. For whatever reason, one had managed to blow out its hyperdrive motivators and the hyperdrive itself despite the added safety circuits. While they had the spares, it would still take time to repair. The other three freighters were still working fine, but some of their cargo had broken loose.

He was jolted out of his reflection by the sharp report of a crewman at Comm-Scan.

"Colonel, we've picked up an inbound on the scopes," the crewman exclaimed. "Unknown type, appears to be..." He paused momentarily. "It appears to be in a subspace bubble. Estimated volume is 27 cubic kilometers. ETA in five minutes."

"Subspace warp," Sicuro muttered, walking over to Anakin and Mara. "Master Dellen warned me of some group called the Borg. Do you think that's who we're dealing with?"

Mara silently nodded.

Sicuro sighed and grabbed a comlink. "All hands, battlestations. Freighters, lock down and prepare for battle."

At once the crew began rushing about. Orders were barked and carried out. In the middle of it all, Anakin merely watched, feeling somewhat useless. Of course, he knew that there really was nothing he could do that the bridge crew couldn't do better, but that didn't stop the feeling.

"Subspace disturbance at 317 by 110 mark 228, range 510,000 klicks," Comm-Scan announced. "Inbound on an intercept course with Freighter 3, ETA in three minute."

"Hail them, all frequencies," Sicuro ordered.

Several uncomfortable seconds passed as the entire bridge crew watched he inbound – which could now clearly be seen as a cube – approach on the holographic tactical map. As it neared, more and more detail was revealed on its surface, which by this point best approximated a schizophrenic plumber's worst nightmares. Whatever it was, Anakin thought, it wasn't a warship.

"Incoming transmission, audio only," a crewman reported.

Sicuro nodded. "Let's hear it."

As the transmission began to play, half the crew on the bridge shuddered at the sound of the voice, or rather, voices. "We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile."

"So much for friendly," someone muttered as Sicuro grabbed a mic and keyed it on.

"This is Colonel Justis Sicuro of the Corellian Engineering Corporation warship Vigorous. The freighter you are approaching is under our protection. You will divert your course away from the freighters within ten seconds or we will open fire."

Their reply was swift. "We are Borg. Protection is irrelevant. Resistance is futile."

Anakin watched as the chronometers on the bridge ticked the ten seconds away, while the cube showed no signs of changing its course. He knew that Sicuro had seen it, too.

"Gunnery, fire one light battery as a warning shot," Sicuro ordered, his face grim. Anakin stepped over to the bridge windows and watched as a forward battery spat four green blasts that vanished into the distance almost immediately.

"Confirmation of hit, no effect. They just locked a tractor beam on Freighter 3."

The general atmosphere grew tense as Sicuro gritted his teeth. "Captain Arkala, turn your ship around and try to break their lock. All commands, fire on my mark."

He waited for a long, tense moment before calling "Mark."

Dozens of emerald bolts and hundreds of smaller bolts lanced out toward the cube. Even from the extreme distance, Anakin could see the brilliant glow as the turbolasers found their mark.

"Damage estimate..." The Comm-Scan operator trailed off as he read whatever figures the computer was presenting him with. "Fifty-one percent of the enemy ship destroyed. They are maintaining tractor beam lock."

"After taking that much damage?" Sicuro's voice was incredulous. "Maintain fire."

After several more volleys, all that remained of the Borg ship was half-melted wreckage and scattered atoms.

Sicuro sighed and leaned on the tactical map display. "Damage report?"

"Freighter 3 lost their primary reverse power coupling when they went to full thrust. They are working to repair it as we speak."

He nodded. "Comm-Scan, maintain long range scans, I want to know if something sneezes twenty light-years from here." Of course it was an exaggeration, but that hardly mattered. At least they would know if something was coming again.

"Yes, Sir."





. . .





Anakin was jolted out of sleep by the sharp report of an alert klaxon. He jumped out of bed, narrowly avoiding bashing his head on the low ceiling above it, and threw his clothing on as fast as he could. Then, he grabbed his lightsaber and dashed out into the hallway, where he nearly collided with his aunt Mara.

"What's going on?" They both spoke at the same time, then laughed and Mara shrugged in response to their mutual question. "I'm not really sure, but I'm heading to the bridge to see what the fuss is all about."

"Well, that's where I was going too," Anakin agreed. They went for the nearest turbolift, along with about ten crewmen who had joined them in the hallway.

After a short trip they arrived at the bridge and the door slid open. "Colonel?" Mara asked as the two Jedi approached. "What's the situation?"

"Comm-Scan just spotted five bogeys inbound. It looks like they're Borg since their mass is consistent with that last ship and they're moving at a fairly high speed."

"That doesn't sound good," Anakin said.

"Tell me about it," Sicuro agreed. "I've recalled the CAPs and all fighters are being prepped for launch. I know that you like to fly, did you want to join them?"

CAP was jargon for the regular fighter patrols during combat operations. They had been running nonstop since the last Borg visit, and had almost completely canvassed the system to the point that the entire group had a good idea of all the places that a defense station would be most effective. Not that it really mattered at the moment since there really was no time to set up proper defenses, Anakin thought. "Sure," he said, looking at Mara for approval, and she nodded. "I'd love to."

Avin waved one of the bridge crew over. "Ensign, could you get Anakin down to the flight deck double-time?"

"Yes, Sir."



Not surprisingly for Anakin, the flight deck was a scene of ordered pandemonium. Fighters were constantly landing, while the other fighters on the deck had crews bustling about them with equipment, topping off the fuel tanks, arming and loading torpedoes, and generally making all the expected preflight checks.

The Ensign that brought Anakin down walked straight over to a small booth on the side of the hangar. He saluted the man inside the booth, then turned to Anakin. "This is the Senior Chief," he began. "He'll assign you to a craft."

The Senior Chief stood up. "So you're one of the Jedi that that the crew is buzzing about, eh? Well, first, let me set the record straight. If you're going to fly with this squadron, you HAVE to obey the orders of the squadron commander. No gallivanting off on your own like I've heard some of you Jedi are fond of doing."

He leaned closer to Anakin, who idly observed to himself that he seemed to be a lot older than he looked. He wondered why he was still a non-commissioned officer in CorSec...

"He's going to brief you all in about a minute here. You're going to listen to what he says, and you're going to do what he says. No IFs or BUTs. Above all, don't forget your wingman if you're the lead. If you're the wingman, don't forget your lead. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir," Anakin replied hesitatingly, somewhat surprised by the whole spiel.

"Good. The briefing room is over that way," the Chief said as he pointed across the hangar. "Our orders will be coming as soon as the Colonel gives them. You ARE familiar with the MSF-350, aren't you?"

"I've trained in the simulator on it."

"You've trained in the SIMULATOR? Is that all it takes to pass for a fighter pilot these days? What HAVE you actually flown in combat? Anything?"

Anakin stammered, now completely off guard. "I-I flew a YT-1300 in the Sacorrian crisis when I was seven," he finally came out with, then realized that it sounded completely inadequate. "I've also been flying X-wings for a couple of years now."

"A YT-1300 hardly counts as a fighter, son, and you were seven a long time ago. Have you actually flown an X-wing in combat?"

"N-no, Sir."

The Chief shook his head. "Rookies these days, hotshots the lot of you. Well, I have to let you in, Colonel's orders, but remember, you kriff up out there and good men will die. Do you UNDERSTAND?"

"Y-yes, Sir."

"Good. Now get yourself to the quartermaster and get a flight suit on, then head to the briefing room."

As Anakin walked way, he could have sworn that he heard the Chief muttering something about "kriffin' Demorr krayts." He idly wondered what a Demorr krayt was and if it was related to the krayt dragon, eventually deciding that he'd have to ask Jacen about it later as he walked into the quartermaster's office.



Back on the bridge, the situation was tense as the entire crew waited for the Borg to drop out of their subspace bubbles. "They've reverted," Comm-Scan reported.

"Hold fire for positive identification," Sicuro ordered. As if on cue, the Borg's standard hail played across the bridge speakers, and brilliant emerald beams lanced toward the Star Destroyers.

"No damage," the ensign at Comm-Scan said. "Radiation output is increasing, consistent with scanning equipment."

Sicuro just nodded. "All commands, fire at will."

By now the Borg were close enough that Mara could now see there were some differences between the five cubes. Two of them were like the one they had seen before, but three of them were partially clad in gray armor plating. "They seem to learn quickly," she remarked. "Now they're armored."

Not that the armor did the other unarmored cubes much good, Mara reflected. The first wave of turbolaser bolts immediately ripped into the nearest of the cubes, vaporizing a good deal of its underlying structure. Just like the previous time, they continued to approach despite the damage, and more volleys of fire ripped into the cubes.

The three armored ones moved closer, passing the two damaged unarmored ones. The less damaged of the two unarmored cubes then moved in toward Freighter 1, which, if Mara recalled correctly, contained hyperdrive components among other spare parts and was probably the most important freighter in the mission.

"Freighter 1 is reporting tractor beam lock," Comm-Scan announced.

"How did they know?" Sicuro murmured half to himself, voicing the exact thought that Mara had.

Sicuro grabbed a nearby comm. "Broadcast all channels," he told the ensign at the station, and keyed the comm on. "This is Colonel Sicuro of the Corellian warship Vigorous. If you do not release our freighter now, we will be forced to destroy you."

"Demands are irrelevant," came the eerie, unfeeling response. "You will be assimilated."

The colonel's face contorted in anger. "Gunnery, target that cube, maximum firepower."

For the next minute or so, space was filled with a hail of turbolaser blasts and the strange green beams of the Borg as the behemoths battled.

"Ship destroyed."

A slight cheer went up from the bridge crew but was quickly silenced when one of the armored cubes locked on to Freighter 1. The gunners immediately shifted all fire to that cube, but it seemed that the armor was holding for now although it was definitely getting thinner.

"I'm not sure if I'm reading this right," the ensign at Comm-Scan asked, "but it appears, Sir, that we're doing less damage with every volley."

"Duly noted," Sicuro replied. "All commands, increase firepower."

As the turbolaser bolts became more intense, the other cubes now moved in to block the shots and quickly began taking damage. The other unarmored cube was next to go, vanishing in the hail of fire.

Sicuro sighed heavily. "Helm, try to get us a clear shot at that cube. Fighter Command, launch fighters and target the tractor beams, we need to break it loose ASAP."



In the briefing room, Anakin sat next to the wingmate who had been picked for him, a female Selonian named Salisca, as they listened to the commander give the orders. Then they quickly filed out, running to the fighters and jumping in the cockpits. The engines were already idling, so Anakin simply pressed his helmet on and strapped in as the hatch closed over him.

Moments later, the MSF-350 was floating on its repulsors as he guided it out per the deck crew's directions. Then they launched, and the squadron commander's voice squawked over the headsets. "All fighters, report in.

"Talus Leader, standing by," the fighter squadron's leader reported.

"Tralus Leader, standing by." Tralus squadron consisted of the strike bombers, and it was the fighters' job to protect them.

"Talus 14, standing by," Anakin keyed in.

"Talus 9, standing by," his wingmate came through.

Anakin tuned out the rest of the chatter as he focused on the directions. They were to get in, knock out the tractor beams, and then escort Freighter 1 back toward the Vigorous. It sounded easy on paper but Anakin somehow doubted it.

"All craft, assume attack formation."

Anakin glanced at the screen as he adjusted the course of the starfighter. As he looked forward from the canopy, he saw the cubes rapidly growing in size from the pinpricks they appeared to be from the ship.

"This is Tralus leader. We have our target, begin the attack run."

He pulled on the stick and the fighter slid in formation behind the heavier bombers. As they approached, emerald beams began lancing out from the cubes. One managed to graze a fighter ahead of him.

"Talus 15, I've been hit, but not bad. I'm going in."

The cubes now loomed to fill most of the canopy. Anakin noticed that the closer they got to the cubes, the more wild the shots became. That was rather strange, he thought, since all the training he'd had told him that the closer you got to a ship, the more close-in defense guns you would run into. Apparently the Borg were not used to combat with small attack craft.

The bombers in front of him turned and sharply dove in toward the haphazard surface of the cube. Anakin followed suit, twisting his fighter to avoid the shots that were coming toward them. When he was almost at the surface of the cube he pulled up hard and began winding along the tangled superstructure.

"Tralus 5 here, torpedoes away."

Anakin saw the explosion rapidly pass. "Confirmed hit, tractor beam disabled," Tralus leader reported. "All craft, pull up."

"Negative, Tralus Leader," the comm squawked just as they were beginning to pull up. "We have another tractor beam that just locked on, sending coordinates now."

"Kriff!" one of his squadron mates interjected. "What are we doing, whacking mynocks?"

"Keep the channel clear!"

Anakin pulled a hard about turn as the entire squadron headed back to the surface. At the same time, there was a brilliant flash in the distance as another cube exploded, silhouetting the squadrons and darkening his canopy.

He noticed that the defensive fire was getting more accurate, and on an instinct he lined the fighter up and pulled the triggers, sending a barrage of blaster fire into one of the Borg guns. A couple of his squadron mates did the same thing, although it did not seem to lessen the volume of incoming fire much.

As they began strafing along the surface, Anakin saw a flash of light to his right, and as he looked over, he saw fuel spraying out of Salisca's fighter.

"Salisca!" he shouted into the comm. "You've been hit!"

"I did not feel anything!"

Anakin jinked the fighter around another barrage, then looked back at Salisca again.

"Looks like a slight hit, but you're losing fuel. Can you make it?"

"Yes."

"This is Tralus 13, I'm locked on." Anakin saw the bomber dive in toward the cube and followed suit, thumbing the trigger when he was clear to try and suppress some of the incoming fire.

"Confirmed hit," Tralus Leader reported. The comm stayed silent, then he came back in. "Comm-scan reports that there are now two emitters locked on to the freighter. We will target one of them, while the freighter tries to pull free."

"This is kriffin' ridiculous," the same voice as before said resignedly. Anakin silently agreed as the squadrons weaved their way back across the surface to the next target. Then, abruptly, the surface suddenly got much closer.

"What the hell?" The reaction was almost unanimous as the fighters and bombers had to jump upwards to avoid being hit by the now rapidly approaching superstructure of the cube.

"Freighter 1 has gone to full power. It's towing the cube now..." Tralus Leader reported. At the same time, a large explosion in the distance signaled the demise of yet another cube.

"I have a lock," Tralus 9 reported. "Firing torpedoes... kriff!"

Apparently the Borg didn't like being taken along for a ride, because the Cube suddenly reversed direction, towing the struggling freighter backwards. With the sudden change, the torpedoes went wild, blowing gaping holes in the superstructure of the cube but apparently not hitting anything vital.

That is, until a chunk of metal tore free from the cube and went sailing past the astonished pilots.

"There goes one emitter," one of the flight leaders remarked. As if on cue, at least four more emitters suddenly replaced it.

"Oh, come ON!"

"Clear the channel!" Tralus leader half-shouted. "Comm-scan's reporting a massive power surge on the cube, they're not sure what..."

All of a sudden, the cube and freighter seemed to elongate, then there was a flash of light and they vanished.

"... the kriff," Tralus leader finished. "Abort mission. Talus and Tralus flights, return to the ship."







. . .







By the time Anakin landed, jumped out of the fighter, and rushed to the bridge, there was a heated debate going on over how to catch the Borg.

"But we don't have any kind of interdiction system," Colonel Sicuro was saying. "All we can do is follow, we have no way of stopping them."

"Wait a minute," Anakin said. "They aren't in hyperspace."

"It doesn't matter," the ship's navigator responded. "They're going faster than the speed of light, so they're tachyonic. Only mass can force them out."

Out of the corner of his eye, Anakin saw Mara walk over. "Actually, that's not quite true," she said. "They're in a subspace bubble, right?"

"Right."

"So they aren't really tachyonic, they're just playing with their mass and warping space around themselves. It's a poor man's way of going past lightspeed, because they're still partially in realspace."

A light seemed to dawn on Sicuro's face. "And they're traveling at about a quarter of our flank speed... But how can we force them out? We can't put ourselves in the way or we'll be destroyed."

Anakin thought about it for a moment. "Turbolasers," he said. "Use our turbolasers to bracket their trajectory and force them out."

Sicuro scratched his chin. "But we don't want to risk hitting the freighter."

"The cube is in front, so all we need to do is hit it with enough fire to force it out of warp. Keep the shots tight enough and we shouldn't hit the freighter."

"Sounds like our best chance," Sicuro agreed, walking over to the navigation station. "Lay in a course alongside theirs, and take us out ahead of them with enough time to set up a firing solution."

"Yes, Colonel."

He walked over to the gunnery station next. "How fast can you set up a bracketing fire?"

"Thirty seconds, Sir."

"Signal Invictus and Steadfast to protect the remaining freighters while we pursue.

"Yes, Colonel."

"Make the jump."



Several short minutes later, they emerged to realspace, turning the ship around to set up a firing solution.

"Standby," the lieutenant at Comm-Scan said. "Target in range in forty seconds."

As he counted down to zero, Anakin watched and on the zero mark, dozens of shots lanced out... and kept on going.

"What happened"? Sicuro demanded.

"We fired too soon so the shots went wild. I'm feeding the data in to the gunnery computers so it can compensate."

Sicuro rubbed his face and turned back to the navigator. "Plot another jump, and this time try to give us a little more time."

Anakin watched as the bridge viewports again filled with the scintillating sky of hyperspace, then almost as quickly returned to the blackness of normal space. Comm-Scan again began counting down the range, and right on cue the sky was filled with turbolaser blasts. This time, however, as the bolts passed through space there was a brilliant flash of light; the Borg cube and freighter both popped back into reality tumbling end over end.

"Kriff," Anakin swore under his breath. "That can't be good."

Even while Vigorous was still pummeling the cube, it stopped its chaotic rotation and managed to snag the still-tumbling freighter with more tractor beams. Anakin watched in disbelief as the cube again jumped to warp despite all their efforts.

"Helm, plot another intercept," Sicuro ordered, immediately turning to Comm-Scan. "How badly did we damage it this time?"

"They've lost less than twenty percent of their original mass," the lieutenant replied. "It's hard to tell if they suffered any major damage to their systems because they're so redundant."

Sicuro walked over to his chair and sat down. "At this rate, we're going to wind up chasing them halfway across this forsaken galaxy..."

Anakin certainly hoped that wouldn't be the case as they jumped again. His hopes were somewhat dashed when the next set of bracketing shots went wild.

"They changed course shortly after we reverted," Comm-Scan explained before anyone could ask. "They must be able to scan realspace from lightspeed."

There were a number of muffled curses from the crew in the pits.

"Helm, intercept their current course, and cut it close this time," Sicuro barked. "Gunnery, you're going to have to work faster for that firing solution so that they don't have time to react."

The next jump was far more abrupt, and they began firing almost as soon as they had reverted. Sure enough, there was another bright flash and the Borg unceremoniously came tumbling out again, followed by the freighter. Again turbolaser bolts chewed into the cube, most focused on the already-weakened areas. Yet again, despite it being almost torn in half, the cube managed to stop its dizzying spin and warp away.

With the next jump Comm-Scan almost immediately had an answer. "We can't get a firing solution. They changed course as soon as we reverted."

"They're getting desperate," Mara observed. "We can keep leapfrogging them, but they're just going to keep changing course now."

"Then we'll just have to leapfrog faster," Sicuro said. "We can't let them get the freighter. Can we come up with a firing solution any faster?"

The bridge was silent for a long moment, and finally the navigator spoke. "We know they have not changed their speed, so I can plot an intercept course that will put us right on top of them. If gunnery can work with the data I give them, they could have a firing solution ready before we even revert."

Sicuro looked over at the gunnery officers. "Can it be done?"

The officers looked at each other uneasily. "Yes, but the timing will have to be down to the nanosecond."

"Then do it, and make sure we hit them with everything we have. We can't let them escape another time."

In an instant the bridge was eerily quiet, save for the sound of keys tapping as the crew set the ship up for the crazy plan. Anakin could only watch in amazement as they went about it; he had no doubt that a Jedi could coordinate in the same way using the Force, but in this case it was better for the ship's crew to do it given the scale of the Vigorous's systems.

Then the jump happened, and Anakin could have almost sworn that the guns began firing before they emerged from hyperspace. The cube, or more correctly, the remainder of the cube, came hurling out of warp at almost point-blank range, only to be immediately assaulted with a broadside of turbolasers and concussion missiles.

"Gunnery, lock all available tractor beams on them, make sure they don't escape again."

There was a faint shudder as the tractor beams locked on to the struggling cube.

"What the..." Anakin said as he felt the ship begin moving with the cube. "Why are we moving?"

"The sensors are going nuts," Comm-Scan reported. "I don't think it's possible for our mass to be decreasing so fast."

All of a sudden, the stars turned to streaks around them, but the sky of hyperspace never appeared.

"This isn't right..." Anakin was dumbfounded. Directly in front of them was the damaged cube, in some sort of strange star tunnel.

"Colonel?" It was the lieutenant at Comm-Scan. "We're in the subspace bubble. They're towing us with our own tractor beams."

Sicuro frowned for a moment, but his frown quickly changed to a vicious smile. "Gunnery, test if our weapons work and if so, fire at will."

"Sensors are still nuts, but the visual tracking is there," the response came quickly. A ranging shot lanced out toward the cube, disappearing in a small flash of light shortly afterward. Without any further confirmation, all of the ship's forward batteries opened up.

Anakin shrugged. "You know, I am a little worried what happens when that cube is--"

It was almost as bad as when they came through the wormhole. The ship felt like it had stopped, then inertia caught up with them as the systems struggled to compensate. Almost everyone that was standing was pitched to the floor, Anakin included. Mercifully it was over almost as soon as it had started, and they started to pick themselves up when reality re-asserted itself.

"I guess that answers that question," Anakin muttered, more to himself than anyone.

Colonel Sicuro coughed as he came to his feet. "Status?"

"We've only traveled about one light-year. The cube is almost completely destroyed, I can't read any power and there are only a handful of life signs left."

Sicuro looked at Mara and Anakin. "What should we do with them?"

The two Jedi exchanged glances, shrugging. "Master Dellen did warn us to not underestimate them," Mara said. "They may be worth taking a second look at. Can we tow the remnant with us?"

"From what I've seen so far, I would honestly be far more comfortable with them vaporized," Sicuro said, "but I'll defer to you. Just so we are clear, however, if they show any sign of hostility I will not hold back."

"Perfectly clear," Mara replied. "I wouldn't suggest anything different."

About a minute later they had the largest of the shattered pieces in tow. When they returned, they found the remaining ships had followed and arrested Freighter 1's wild spin.

"Captain Tafalo reports that they did not suffer any serious damage, and they estimate they should have repairs completed within an hour."

Sicuro turned around to face Comm-Scan. "Finally some good news. Keep a close eye on the Borg, and Navigation, I need you to plot a new course to Earth. As soon as Freighter 1 is ready, we leave."
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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.30 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2019-02-10 05:20pm

Finally into the new material. Don't know if I'll be updating this on FFn - did they ever get the profile infection problem fixed over there?
30


Jacen tried to calm himself inside the cockpit of the TIE Advanced as he watched the spinning asteroid field in front of him. They had been on Lando's latest crazy moneymaking scheme, a space station appropriately named Belt-Runner I located on the edge of Dubrillion's asteroid belt, for almost a week now. Of course, that part hadn't surprised Jacen since asteroid mining was a fairly common industry in the galaxy.

What had surprised him was that Lando had plotted a course along a certain area of the mostly stable asteroid belt, named it "Lando's Folly," and gone about selling the chance to fly through it in a TIE fighter to anyone willing--and insane enough--to pay.

Naturally Lando insisted it was perfectly safe, explaining that the TIE fighters were protected by brand-new repulsorlift shields projected from Belt-Runner I. Jacen, however, had his misgivings despite the so-far perfect track record that Lando said the course had.

Jaina had been the first to jump at the chance, and had been trying to convince Lowie, Tenel Ka and himself for the whole week they'd been there to try their hands at beating the lowest time, which ironically enough had been set by Kyp Durron himself before the Dozen-and-Two had been utterly trashed at Helska.

Finally Jacen had agreed, at which point Lando put them through a roughly hour-long training that had included the fighter controls, a simulation of a crash into an asteroid (which felt to Jacen as if he was inside one of the largest pool balls ever) and how all the craft had a limited on-board hyperdrive set to take them back to a recovery area outside the belt.

Not that it made him feel any more confident.

Jaina of course had wanted to take the course first, despite her only having a single good eye, and right now she had just passed the first marker. Over the comm, he heard her whoop as he assumed she narrowly avoided some asteroids. Several seconds later, it was his turn to launch.

He gritted his teeth, and the TIE fighter shot out of the launch catapult in Belt-Runner I's hangar with a howl that reverberated through the whole craft as the engines kicked in. Jacen hung on to the controls, keeping the TIE within the envelope displayed on its simplified targeting displays.

The numbers on the screen counted down to zero, and it was time to go in. He punched the throttle, rolling the fighter in between a couple of large asteroids that were only gently spinning. The craft shook a little as it was pummeled with smaller fragments, but none actually hit the ship thanks to the repulsor fields.

Keeping his attention only partially focused on the course map shown on the targeting computer, Jacen let himself slip into the Force as he continued to twist and jink among the asteroids. Dimly, he could feel Jaina doing the same as she neared the end of the course.

A particularly large and jagged asteroid loomed ahead of him, and he reached out to get a feel for what surrounded it. Quickly, he brought the TIE almost straight in at the asteroid, diving into a large, shallow canyon on its surface a moment later. As he did so, several other asteroids spun through the place he had been just a moment before.

With a triumphant shout, he pulled the TIE hard out of the canyon and back onto the course, weaving his way through a series of smaller rocks.

He suddenly hit the reverse thrusters as he saw the corridor he'd been planning on taking close suddenly. Thinking quickly, Jacen spun the TIE hard on its axis and punched upwards, finding another corridor--

Then a rock, strangely fast-moving compared to the rest of them, slammed into the repulsor shields, sending him careening off course. He focused, firmly grabbing at the stick and trying to keep firing the thrusters to get back on track, but the impact had been too hard for him to correct immediately. He saw the next one coming, and tried to spin the TIE around to point its powerful engines at the rock before he hit. This time he managed to minimize the effect of the impact, although when he hit, it effectively canceled out the sideways momentum he'd built up and he simply hung, momentarily stunned and drifting, as the asteroids drifted past him.

Jacen? Jaina's thoughts hit him suddenly. Are you all right?

Yes, he responded after several seconds, trying to re-compose himself. I think I've blown any chance I had at the record though.

He felt her wanting to laugh but not wanting to break her concentration. Meanwhile, he re-oriented his TIE, taking care to not slip backwards in the belt (which would immediately disqualify him), punching the throttle and again accelerating against the orbit of the belt.

This time, he was much more cautious, having already blown his chance at beating Kyp's record. As he passed the first marker, he felt Tenel Ka's apprehension behind him as it was now her turn to navigate the belt. Thankfully for her, the TIEs had a single control stick, which she could easily use with her hand.

He emerged untouched another twenty minutes later, letting out a relieved sigh now that it was over as the TIE's autopilot kicked in, taking him back to the station.

As the station's tractor beams snagged him and began to draw the fighter in, he could already feel Jaina's excitement, which unfortunately he didn't share. Exhausted and slightly dizzy from the trip, he climbed out of the TIE's cockpit up the extended ladder, where Jaina was waiting for him.

"Gimme five!" she shouted, obviously happy. "You should have seen it, I even managed to beat Kyp's record!"

He gave her the lopsided smile he'd inherited from his father. "Great work, sis," he said as he turned to find a monitor.

"Hey, you didn't do half bad yourself, except for that spill you took past the first marker," she replied. "At least you're in the top 10."

Finally he gave up. "Where are the monitors? I want to see how Tenel Ka and Lowie are doing."

"Oh," Jaina exclaimed. "Come with me, they're in the waiting area with Lando."

As they reached the waiting area, he could see multiple screens tracking a large number of pilots, with names below each screen. After scanning the wall for several seconds, he finally saw Tenel Ka's fighter as it rounded the last marker.

While he was watching, Lando walked up to him and clapped him on the back. "That was a pretty good recovery you did there," he said. "I'm sure Han would be proud."

"I still got hit," Jacen replied half-heartedly. "Any other place and I'd be dead."

Lando nodded. "True, but you still made it. Hey, did you see the maneuver your sister pulled toward the end? They're still talking about it in the control room."

"No," Jacen admitted. "What did she do?"

Lando tapped some buttons on his wristcomm, and one of the blank screens came up with a recording of Jaina's run. He could see her in the distance, shooting through the field. Almost like what had happened to him, Jaina's corridor closed up unexpectedly, and he saw the lettering on the bottom of the screen boldly stating that the computers did not see a way out. He saw Jaina hesitate for the briefest of moments before heading straight for the near-wall of asteroids. The recording illustrated the invisible repulsor fields as she punched them, causing the fighter to ricochet through an impossibly small gap between two of the asteroids. At the end of the run between those asteroids, one of the TIE's wings just barely missed a protrusion, and suddenly it went out of control into another asteroid. Just as Jacen would have thought that she'd leave the belt, disqualifying her, the timer stopped and declared that she had reached the end of the course. The fighter bounced off that last asteroid and she was clear, tumbling into space.

"You sure can fly," Jacen remarked to his sister, impressed.

As they were waiting for Tenel Ka and Lowie to finish their runs, suddenly the alarms in the room went off and Lando frowned as he held his ear, listening to the commlink bud.

"There's about fifty ships that just appeared off Destrillion," he finally said. "The Falcon's in the lead. I don't know what happened but it sure looks bad, they're hailing on all the distress channels."

Jaina and Jacen immediately were focused on what Lando was saying as he hit his wristcomm. "Guide the Falcon in for a landing here, see if the Dubrillion government can escort the rest of them to the surface for triage."

"What's happening?" Jacen asked.

"Your mother's flying the Falcon, she says that Sernpidal was attacked and those ships are all that's left."
"What about Dad and Chewie?" Jaina immediately asked. Just the fact that Mom was flying the Falcon in her condition...

"She wouldn't say, only that they had wounded on board."

The twins exchanged a worried glance. "Which hangar are they coming in to?"

Lando pointed to the exit. "Come with me, I'll show you where it is."

Together they rushed through the station's corridors, taking several turbolifts until they were at the correct docking bay. They walked out just in time to find the Falcon settling down into one of the berths.

"Mom?" both Jaina and Jacen said in unison as the Falcon's ramp lowered and Leia walked down. "What happened?" Jacen asked as they rushed up to meet her.

Leia just grabbed both and hugged them in response. "Go see your father, maybe you can help him. He hasn't spoken since Sernpidal."

They turned, walking up the ramp as the passengers started to come down. Once inside, they started walking around, trying to find him.

"Dad?" Jaina asked as they rounded the corner, seeing him kneeling in front of the medical berth. Chewie was just lying on the berth, and it wasn't until they approached closer that they could see he wasn't moving, blood having pooled around him.

"Go away," Han snapped.

Taken aback, they stopped in their tracks for a moment. "Dad?" Jaina asked again. "What happened? You can always tell us..."

"It's not that," he said, quietly this time. "They attacked us and he did what he always did, he went to defend us. I saw him take down almost a dozen of them before their leader went after him." Han's voice rose to a crescendo. "He fought so hard--and I couldn't do ANYTHING to help him! Not until it was too late!"

"Dad," Jacen said after a moment had passed, "I'm sure you did everything you could..."

"It wasn't enough!" Han shouted, almost in tears. "I would have gladly traded places with him... What am I supposed to tell Mallatobuck... and Lumpy... and Lowbacca? That he died pointlessly, fighting against a faceless enemy?"

"Tell them," Jacen suggested, his voice cracking from the emotions, "that Chewie died valiantly, a true Wookiee warrior, defending you for the life debt he had freely offered to you." Chewie had been a fixture of their household ever since he could remember, always protecting them when they were children, always there to fix things when they broke them...

Now he would never be there again.

The thought struck Jacen suddenly at the same time as it did Jaina. Tears began to flow freely down his face although he fought to retain his composure, and if he had looked over at Jaina he would have seen her reacting the same way.

"Dad," he said, fighting to get the words out, "there's more where they came from, right? We need to start evacuating other planets, otherwise millions could die right now."

Han let out a long sigh and tried to lift himself to his feet, but the hours he'd spent on his knees in front of Chewie hadn't helped his aging joints. "A little help here?"

Jaina and Jacen both grabbed his arms, helping him to his feet. As they walked out and down the ramp, Han spotted Lando and his face formed into a scowl.

"You," Han said accusingly, marching right up into Lando's face. "You told us Sernpidal would be a good spot to settle down, so far out of the way that nobody would care."
"Han," Lando protested before getting cut off again.

"What cut did you get from that deal, huh, 'old buddy'? Did you get any satisfaction out of knowing that Chewie died because of your arrangements?"

Lando put his hands up. "Whoa, hold it right there. Chewie's dead?"

"Yes," Han's voice had dropped in tone to something barely above a growl. "He was cut down by the invaders, I couldn't do anything to stop them. I had to watch as he died right in front of me!"

"Dad," Jaina said, putting her hand on his arm as she fought back tears. "I'm sure Lando didn't know a thing about it. He told you about Sernpidal long before any of us knew about this invasion."

"That doesn't mean I have to talk to him," Han said sullenly.

"No," Jacen jumped in, "but if we want to help all the other people out there, since the Republic's not doing anything, we need to work together."

Han twisted himself free. "Then find somebody else to help. I've done enough to save the galaxy."

The twins watched Han storm off before turning to Lando. "I don't know how long it'll take him to get over losing Chewie," Jacen finally said. "I've never seen him this mad before."

Lando was silent for several moments before responding. "Well, you're right, we need to act fast to save these people. Dubrillion can take at least several million refugees, I'll have to go talk to the government about it but I'm sure they'll help. As far as defenses go, I've pulled some strings and there are some warships on their way in, in addition to the Dubrillion defense forces. We've also got more laser cannons here than people to operate them."

"How are we going to get the word out?" Jacen asked. "The Rock Dragon is only one ship..."

"You can use my ship too," Lando said, pointing to the Lady Luck where it sat adjacent to the Falcon. "I'll try to talk Han into helping as well, but knowing him it might take a while before he's willing to talk to me again."

"What about the refugees?" Jaina asked.

"We have a couple dozen heavy transports that I'll send with you," Lando replied. "They should be able to take at least several tens of thousands each, maybe more if you pack them in. Won't be pretty but it'll help."





The following day, Jacen groggily stared at the controls in the Rock Dragon's cockpit. He now knew that it took close to eighteen hours to jump to Dantooine, load the transports, jump back, and unload. The only issue was that the actual time in hyperspace was the least amount of time spent during the entire trip, only about two hours each way. And of that, he had only managed to get a grand total of two hours of sleep.

He just hoped that his sister was faring better. So far Jaina and Lowbacca hadn't made it back yet from Jorrkona, where they had taken the bulk of the transports since it was a larger, more populous planet, but it made sense – it took a long time to even take one load from Dantooine, most of the time spent convincing the local authorities (such as they were) that there really was a genuine threat to the planet. Of course, once Tenel Ka had explained the pattern of attacks, and the fact that so far the invaders had apparently been avoiding the most populated and well-defended worlds, they had quickly agreed to the plan.

Jacen still wondered about his sister's reasoning that Dubrillion, which was further Rimward than Dantooine, would make a safer location for refugees, although he had to agree that its superior defenses and close proximity to the Imperial remnants made a certain amount of sense.

He watched, lost in thought, as Tenel Ka expertly pulled the ship out of hyperspace and began the descent into the atmosphere. There was something about the way she moved that had always struck him, although it had taken him a while to figure it out. Neither was that the only thing he'd noticed. Whenever she turned her head, the golden reddish braids that she usually wore flipped back and forth almost as if they were alive. Then there was the skin-tight lizard hide suit that she almost always wore...

"Jacen?" she asked, causing him to involuntarily jump. "Is everything all right?"

"Uh, yeah," he replied with a sheepish smile as he turned back to the instruments. He hadn't realized that he had been staring at her for that long.

Minutes later, they touched down on a grassy field that was somewhat flattened from their last landing, and Jacen unbuckled himself and jumped up.

"Threepio?" he asked as he found the passenger compartment empty. He continued down through the ship, opening up different compartments until finally he was aft in one of the mechanical compartments. C-3PO was standing against a wall, apparently hooked up. "Threepio? he repeated. "What are you doing?"

"I decided to hook myself up to the ship's computer since there was no-one to talk to," Threepio replied. "Master Jacen, did you know that this ship speaks an Imperial language? The Hapans must have recovered the computer from one of their battles with the Empire."

Jaina might have found that interesting, but Jacen certainly didn't. "No, I didn't," he replied. "Look, Threepio, I need you to go to the cockpit and keep an eye on the ship. Look for anything odd on the sensors and warn us immediately."

"Certainly, Master Jacen," Threepio replied. "I would be more than obliged to. Would you also like me to scan for communications?"

"Go ahead," Jacen sighed. "Just remember to warn us if anything happens."

"Of course." C-3PO disconnected himself and shuffled off to the cockpit. Jacen, meanwhile, returned to the landing ramp where he found Tenel Ka waiting for him.

"So what's the plan this time?" he asked.

"The transports will land in the same two locations as the last time. We should split up again and supervise loading."

As they walked down the ramp and through the now mostly deserted city, Jacen again couldn't help but watch the way she moved as she walked. Actually, he corrected himself, she flowed more than walked. Then, finally, they reached the middle of the city and split off on the different roads that led to the two landing sites.

When he approached the gigantic transports, he could see this time that the authorities had lined up the locals this time for faster loading, rather than the mob that had attempted to board the first time. It was a pretty interesting mix of humans and Dantari, the lanky figures and simple handcrafted clothing of the latter making them easily distinguishable. Of course, other aliens were mixed in here and there, he noted as he spotted a Rodian sticking out like a sore thumb with its green skin.

"How many do we have this time?" he asked the local leader, a human who he'd already forgotten the name of.

"We collected most of the Dantari from the nearby villages, but many of them didn't understand the concept of invasion and refused to leave. There are probably still thousands more scattered across the planet."

"If we have room," Jacen asked, thinking, "we should probably fly around and pick as many up as we can."

"I doubt many will even want to come," the leader replied. "The ones here, near the city, have learned Basic through trading with us although they're pretty limited in vocabulary. The ones further out speak a number of different dialects and tend to be very wary of strangers. Even worse, due to what Admiral Daala did a few years ago, they view the Imperials as gods. Some of 'em even paint stormtrooper armor on their chests!"

"Well... we have to try," Jacen insisted, somewhat surprised. "We'll bring our protocol droid along to translate."

A shout made Jacen turn around, and he saw a short, stocky man gesturing wildly at a Dantari that had apparently cut in front of him. Jacen quickly turned and jogged over to the line.

"What's going on?" he asked, looking down at him.

The man gave a frustrated shrug. "This stupid brute doesn't even know what a line is!"

Jacen turned around to face the tall Dantari. "Can you understand me?" he asked.

The Dantari grunted, and the short man harrumphed. "Could have told you that doesn't work. Can you just make him move or something?"

Jacen thought for a moment, then decided that perhaps the best tactic was the same one that he'd used during his years at the Praxeum on Yavin IV. He projected his thoughts into the Dantari's head, showing him images of the death and destruction the invaders had caused, and their scarred, grim visage. Then he thought of the blowing grasses of Dubrillion's plains, of the clear skies and open oceans, and showed the Dantari walking through the plains.

The Dantari grunted, turned, and walked away.

"What did I do wrong?" Jacen asked aloud, knowing that even he couldn't answer the question much less anyone else present.

"I dunno, you didn't say anything and he left," he replied. "Thanks."

As Jacen stood watch, the line of thousands continued to move past. He watched as people of all different ages walked past him. They ranged from women carrying their young infants to old men and women who could barely walk. He shook his head at the gall of the invaders. It wasn't as if the galaxy had had enough turmoil due to the Empire's atrocities, no, there just had to be some other species hell-bent on undoing everything that they'd worked so hard to rebuild just to gain control of a galaxy. He didn't even know what they wanted with the galaxy besides territory...

He wasn't sure what was more unsettling, the fact that the galaxy was being invaded or the fact that nobody knew anything about them. The only thing he did know was that as a Jedi, the responsibility that came with the power he had meant that he, and all the other Jedi in the galaxy, had to do everything they could to protect those living in it.



Several hours later, as the line was finally beginning to taper off, Jacen's commlink beeped and he heard Threepio's tinny voice from the position in his pocket.

"--inbound" was all he heard as he pulled the commlink out.

"Threepio, I didn't hear you," Jacen said.

"Master Jacen, the ship's computer tells me that it has detected a number of small ships inbound for the city."

Jacen frowned. "What do they look like?"

"They are almost the same as the ones that attacked us at Sernpidal."

Kriff, Jacen thought. "Is there anything in orbit?"

There was a pause as Threepio consulted the computer. "Only one of the moons."

"They must be on the far side of the planet," Jacen finally said. "Maybe that will give us a bit more time." He turned and shouted toward one of the local authorities. "You have to get everyone on quickly, there are hostiles inbound and there isn't much time!"

The man's face went ashen as he realized what Jacen was saying. He quickly turned and ran down the line, shouting at those in line to leave their belongings and get on.

In the meantime, Jacen switched the channel on his commlink. "Tenel Ka?"

"Yes, Jacen?"

"Did you hear Threepio?"

"Yes. I have visual on one of their craft. They appear to be landing troops. I've just signaled the pilot to take off. What is your situation?"

Jacen looked up and around, but couldn't see anything. Then again, he was standing in front of the transport. He stepped around one of the massive landing legs and suddenly wished he hadn't.

"They've landed here too," he said as he spotted a mass of figures approaching in the distance, along with... "Is that a snail?" he finished aloud.

The creature he'd just named recoiled, spitting a brightly glowing glob of something directly toward him and the ship. "INCOMING!" he shouted, dashing back toward the boarding ramp. A moment later there was a sound like a thunderclap, the world shook, and the grasses of the prairie were rushing toward his face.

"Ugh," he tried to say as he picked himself up out of the field, only to find that the words seemed to be echoing in his head. Come to think of it, where was that ringing coming from? And why had everything gotten so quiet all of a sudden? Blaster bolts, he swore internally, I've lost my hearing.

As his head poked above the grasses, he realized that the fields surrounding the transport were now on fire. Perfect. Where were the refugees? He tried to stand up but stopped after feeling like the world was lurching rather drunkenly under him. Which was decidedly strange because he was pretty sure he hadn't been drinking. Couldn't drink on most planets yet, for that matter. Concussion? He tried to focus on a Jedi meditation exercise, but the throbbing in his head was making that an extremely difficult task.

He took a deep breath. One. Two. Let it out. Again. Was that movement? He closed his eyes, couldn't fight very well if he was staggering around. Spots he hadn't even noticed began swirling around in reddish darkness of his eyelids. Breathe. One. Two. Let it out. Repeat.

He wasn't sure how much time had passed between the initial impact and when he re-opened his eyes from the brief trance, but the world was no longer spinning, which was a huge plus, and ... crap. The transport was gone, rapidly receding into the sky above him. He hoped the impact of whatever that was hadn't breached the hull plating. The fields were still burning, and approaching him rather quickly as the dry grasses combusted. Then, behind the wave of flames, was an approaching army.

Kriff.

Jacen turned around and ran as fast as he'd ever run before, and didn't stop until he was back into the city. Allowing himself a glance back after he'd ducked behind a wall, he could see the army still slowly approaching in the distance; at least he'd put quite a bit of space between them in his frantic dash. He waited there for a few more moments, trying to get his breath back under control, before snatching the commlink back off his belt. "Tenel Ka, what's your status?"

Only static greeted him. He clicked the button again. "Tenel Ka, do you read me?" Again, static. He slumped his head against the wall in frustration. I'm such an idiot. His connection to her through the Force was nowhere near as strong as the link he'd shared with his twin sister since birth, but it wasn't like he needed to know what she was thinking at the moment to tell if she was OK. The impression of a sharp stab of pain he felt a moment later told him that the answer was an emphatic no.

Loudly cursing the Sith and all they'd spawned, he tore across the city at a full sprint a moment later. Buildings and startled residents who still hadn't evacuated went by in a blur. He passed the Rock Dragon a moment later, turning his head as he went by but not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Just after he vaulted over a low wall on the other side of the city, he saw her retreating toward him, apparently locked in a saber duel with two grotesque parodies of the humanoid form, covered in bony spikes and protrusions. In each of their hands was one of the living staffs that he'd seen Yomin Carr using, and they were pressing their advantage against Tenel Ka despite the skillful fight she was giving. But the worst part about them was, like Carr, that they appeared to be blank spots in the Force, as if they were antithetical to life itself.

He forced himself to focus and move again. As he approached, one of the combatants struck out with his suddenly snake-like staff at the side of her missing arm. "Tenel Ka!" he shouted in an attempt to warn her, and she spun around in surprise. Except, it seemed, that he'd startled her too much, as the creature slipped around her attempt at a block and sank its fangs into her right forearm.

"You!" The emotions surged up, overwhelming his ability to form coherent words. Crouching mid-step, he leaped, arcing high through the air as if shot from a cannon. The invaders were still focused on Tenel Ka's stumbling form a moment later when he landed on top of one, knocking him to the ground with a satisfying crunch. He glanced down and noted that the ugly bastard's neck was bent at a decidedly unnatural angle, and stepped off. A quick stroke of his humming lightsaber severed the head of the snake thing that was still attached to Tenel Ka's arm before he brought it up to face the second warrior. "You're going to wish you hadn't done that," he said in a barely controlled voice.

Both combatants stepped back and circled, staff and lightsaber raised in defensive positions, as they studied each other. It was extremely unsettling for Jacen to watch the alien's posture without any of the usual emotional clues or premonitions he typically relied on. He would have described it as fighting blindfolded, but normally that wasn't as much of a handicap for a Jedi as it was for a non-Force sensitive.

"You are too late, Jeedai!" the alien taunted him in passable Basic, his voice coming out in hissing tones. "The might of the Praetorite Vong will not be stopped by soft, weak children!"

Jacen continued circling, letting a smirk cross his face. "Then it must really be insulting to lose to someone so soft and weak!"

The alien feinted before swinging at Jacen, and he overextended slightly in his hurry to block the staff, sending his lightsaber tumbling out of his hand and into the grass. Capitalizing on the opening, the alien swung back toward his torso, forcing Jacen to dive back frantically as he called the blade back to himself. It reignited with a snap-hiss a moment later, just in time to catch another strike that might have split him in two.

Pushing the staff back and getting some distance in between, he resumed studying the alien's posture. He knew from the fight with Yomin Carr that the alien's armor had weak spots in the armpits, although his killing the first of these two warriors was more a stroke of blind luck than anything else. Yet the way it held its arms, they were relatively tight to its body so striking there would be very hard.

"Your false bravado reeks of desperation!" There was a strange noise, which Jacen realized after a moment's confusion was probably laughter. "The one-armed warrior offered more of a fight than you, but even she lies dying before our might!"

"Oh yeah? Where's your partner?" Jacen made a show of looking around, never taking his eyes off the alien's weapon. "Oh, right, on the ground with a broken neck. You're welcome, by the way."

The warrior snarled and lunged, and Jacen saw what he hoped was an opening. He deactivated his lightsaber, diving hard to the ground, the staff passing dangerously close to his head, and kicked out at the warrior's knees. There was a loud crunch that sounded like a kneecap breaking, and suddenly off balance, the warrior moved his arms out to keep from falling. That was when Jacen stabbed upwards and ignited his lightsaber, driving it straight through a joint in the armor.

The warrior grinned and laughed, a reaction that Jacen hadn't exactly been expecting, as he staggered backwards. He awkwardly regained his footing, shifting weight to compensate for the injured leg, and moved the staff to his good hand. Jacen, meanwhile, jumped to his feet and held his lightsaber at the ready.

"So the scouts spoke the truth about the strength of you jeedai. Such a pity there are so few of you to fight us, or this might actually be challenging!"

Jacen noting with a sinking feeling that the rest of the army behind the warrior were getting closer far too rapidly.

As the warrior limped closer, Jacen reached out and about thirty kilos of dirt and rocks went flying at him, temporarily blinding him in a cloud of dust. Extinguishing his lightsaber, he ran to Tenel Ka's side, quickly checked her over, and then crouched down and pulled her over his shoulder in a rescue carry before turning and jogging back toward the ship. The additional weight sent a spike of pain through the ankle he'd injured on Belkadan with every step, but he gritted his teeth and pressed forward.

As he was almost to the ship's ramp, his leg muscles began to cramp and spasm. He almost dropped her but several of the refugees waiting inside the ship rushed down the ramp to help. Finally they set her down in the Rock Dragon's medical berth, and Jacen finally had another chance to look at her arm. The severed staff's head was still clamped on, and her entire lower arm was now red and swollen.

He knelt close to her. "Tenel Ka? Can you hear me?"

She nodding slightly and gave a weak cough. "Hurts."

"I'm going to take off the head now," he said, opening one of the drawers and pulling out two pairs of forceps. Then he used them to grab both halves of the snake-head's jaws before prying it off her arm. Frowning at the thing, he dropped it into one of the small stasis compartments under the berth, then turned his attention back to her arm, which was marked with a set of jagged punctures surrounded by vivid purple splotches.

If only Cilghal was here, he thought to himself. But he was not a healer like her, and while he knew how to use some purification techniques on himself he'd never tried using them on anyone else before. "Damn it," he cursed under his breath. He didn't remember his ankle looking this bad back on Belkadan, but that had just been a slash from the hardened end of the staff rather than a bite.

He placed a hand on her shoulder, gently probing to see how far the swelling went, and she gasped slightly. "Sorry!" he reflexively said. "I'm trying to see how bad this is."

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and tried to focus on her injuries. Her heartbeat was mostly steady, but not completely regular, and as his attention went back to her arm, his eyes snapped back open. The damage was even more extensive than it looked on the outside – the fangs had delivered the venom deep into the muscles, which were already starting to break down and liquefy in the immediate area of the bite. Some of the toxins were already spreading through her bloodstream, which was why her heart wasn't completely steady, and he knew that it couldn't be allowed to spread any further.

"No, there's got to be another way," he said to himself. He still felt responsible for the loss of her left arm several years back, when they had been sparring and her lightsaber failed in the middle of the duel. If he'd been paying more attention, instead of trying to win the duel, he could have stopped his blade in time...

Shaking his head, he turned his attention back to the young woman in front of him. It was rare seeing Tenel Ka so weak like this, and again he felt like it was his fault. If he'd been paying more attention back at the transport, if he'd been faster getting back to her, if he hadn't distracted her in the middle of the fight...

"Focus!" he told himself. Had to stop the toxin from spreading any more. A tourniquet would work, but with as bad as the damage was, they'd just have to amputate the arm as soon as he got her to a proper medical facility. He knew how far along the damage was, maybe he could prevent it from getting worse if he... used...

He grabbed a length of rubber cord out of one of the bins, put it under her arm, and quickly tied it off. She took a sharp breath in response, which at least told him that she was still conscious.

"Tenel Ka, I don't want to scare you, but the snakebite is really bad. I just tied it off, but I'm pretty sure any doctor we see is going to want to amputate since it's going to be hours at least before we see one." He looked at her face, her eyes half-open, and they slowly turned to him. "Or I could do it right here."

Her eyes closed for a moment before she opened them and nodded. "If you think it best, then do it. I trust you."

"Hang on." He rummaged through the bins before pulling out a syringe of anesthetic, wiped down her upper arm, and injected it. "OK, now I'm going to have to shift you so I can make a clean cut." Carefully, he slid his arms underneath her before sliding her closer to the edge, and then took her hand and extended her arm sideways. "I'm really sorry for this."

"Do it," she replied.

He pulled the saber off his belt, ignited it, and made a quick and precise stroke down on her forearm, just before the elbow. "Ah!" she exclaimed before crunching her eyes shut and grimacing.

Jacen shut the lightsaber off and examined the arm he was left holding. The ends were cauterized, and he opened up the stasis bin he'd placed the snakehead into and dropped the arm next to it before closing and activating it. Next, he rummaged through the other bins for some bandages, pulling out a sealed roll and unwrapping it. Wrapping the stump of her arm was the work of barely a minute, and then he removed the tourniquet.

"How do you feel?"

"Unh," she grunted. "Like a rancor's dinner."

He heard the whirring servos of C-3PO approaching before the droid's ever-worried exclamation. "Master Jacen! We're doomed!"

The ship shook and he heard some panicked screaming coming from the passengers. "Stay here and meditate. I'll get us out of here." Then he turned back to Threepio. "How bad is it?"

"We're surrounded! I closed the ramp but there appears to be an army outside! I don't want to be disassembled!"

"Relax, Goldenrod," he said as he squeezed around the shiny droid to dash toward the cockpit. "I'm sure it's nothing we can't..."

He trailed off, blinking, as he looked out of the cockpit viewports. Like Threepio had said, there was what appeared to be an entire army outside, not of the warriors he and Tenel Ka had fought, but slightly shorter and thinner troops brandishing similar weapons and apparently... chanting? Their ranks parted and he saw the warrior he fought earlier limp through before pointing his staff weapon at the ship and opening his mouth.

A hail of projectiles rose from the ranks, crashing into the ship's hull and exploding. A couple left scorch marks on the viewports, and Jacen quickly threw himself ito the pilot's seat and finished the final checks of the startup sequence that Threepio had helpfully begun several minutes earlier. As soon as the repulsors were ready, he lifted the ship off the ground, spinning it around even as he angled it up and slammed the engines to full throttle. Hopefully the shockwave from the engines' exhaust would ruin their day and perhaps let some of the city's remaining residents get away.

As the Rock Dragon shot up through the atmosphere, Jacen spotted several of the coral-like fighters changing their course to meet him.

I knew this was too good to be true, he thought to himself as he grabbed the ship's comm. "If anyone aboard knows how to use a turret, we're going to have to blast our way out of here. The turrets are in the middle of the ship."

After almost a minute had passed, Jacen felt the thumping of the turrets opening fire. Most of the shots missed completely or were sucked up and vanished, but a few got through. As the fighters closed in, he started evasive maneuvers, twisting, rolling and jinking the ship to try and avoid being hit. For all his maneuvering, however, the simple fact remained that the Rock Dragon was only a transport, and that fact was pounded in as the whole ship shook from multiple hits.

As the sky turned black and the Rock Dragon crossed into space, Jacen frantically started looking for any sign of warships, like the ones that had prevented his parents and the rest of the Sernpidal refugees from going to hyperspace. That was about the last thing he needed right now, what with the fighters hot on his tail.

After he had confirmed that there were no warships waiting in ambush, Jacen quickly double-checked the coordinates in the navicomp to make sure they were set for Dubrillion. His eyes remained focused on the jump countdown as he kept flying evasive, and the second the alarm sounded he pulled back on the controls, launching the Rock Dragon forward into hyperspace and leaving its pursuers in the dust, so to speak.

Dazed, Jacen stood up and stretched his arms before turning around to go and check on Tenel Ka. When he reached the berth, he gently placed a hand on her shoulder and leaned in to look at her face. Her skin felt somewhat cold, and she was nearly panting. "Tenel Ka?"

Her head bobbed slightly toward him, the eyes still wide and unblinking. "Poison," she muttered. "Stop the poison."

He nearly choked. I thought the worst was gone! "C'mon, stay with me. You're gonna be OK."

She began shaking her head uncontrollably. "No."

"You're safe!" he exclaimed. "Lando's got doctors who can fix you up. We'll be there before you know it."

"No," she continued repeating several more times before her eyes suddenly fixed on his. "They're going to kill me."

He shook his head. "They're not going to kill you," he replied. "You're safe here in the Rock Dragon. I'm watching you."

"They're going to kill me," she repeated.

"No they're not," Jacen replied. "They can't hurt you now."

Her eyes seemed to widen further and she raised her head. "They're going to kill me," she proclaimed even louder, and her voice seemed to have a degree of certainty to it.

"The hell they are," Jacen replied. He placed his hand across her forehead and tried to push her head back down on the pillow, but she resisted. Her forehead was slick with sweat, so he grabbed a towel and wiped it off.

Her lips moved several times but no words came out. Finally, her voice seemed to return. "I'm dying," she declared.

"No you're not!" he nearly shouted before catching himself. "You're just in shock. I promise I'll make sure you get better." He rummaged through the drawers before pulling out an oxygen mask, which he connected to the berth and then slipped over her face. The monitor leads followed, and soon the equipment was adjusting the oxygen flow to steady her breathing out. She mumbled softly several times before slipping into unconsciousness. "Blaster bolts," he muttered. Not knowing what else he could do to stabilize her, he continued to sit next to her and tried to meditate, watching her chest rise and fall slowly as she breathed. His eyes began to water when he looked at the two arm stumps, remembering the pain that she had felt both times. Nor did it make matters any better that he had been responsible, both times.

This is all my fault.

He frowned as the thought crossed his mind. Yes, if he'd been paying more attention he might have been able to stop in time, but it wasn't like anyone could have anticipated that the tiny flaws in the focusing crystal would have caused such a catastrophic failure.

I still did this to her. She wouldn't have been in either situation except for me.

Jacen paused at the unbidden thought. If it had not been for her loss of an arm, she might have been able to fend off the two Vong warriors.

He closed his eyes, his brain struggling with his rampant thoughts, and tried to focus himself. But every time he did so, his mind kept drifting back to the battlefield only minutes -- or was it hours? -- ago, and the internal bleeding and swelling around the snake-staff bite, and her delirious rambling just a moment ago.

Still my fault, the thought continued.

No! he protested.

I wasn't there for her, and I distracted her at the wrong time!

But I stopped them!
he argued with himself.

After the damage had been done.

There was nothing I could have done!

Wrong.


Jacen's eyes snapped back open, and he looked down at Tenel Ka's slumbering form. She appeared peaceful, despite her scars and missing arms.

Look at her, the thoughts implored. Is this good?

It was necessary
, Jacen concluded.

Was it? the thought taunted. What if it could have been avoided?

Jacen grabbed his head and shook it in mute rage and frustration.

It doesn't matter if it could have been avoided. What was done was done, for better or for worse.

The reversion alarm suddenly sounded, snapping Jacen out of his thoughts, and making him suddenly aware of the fact that hours had passed while his mind had struggled with the reality of the situation. He tried to jump to his feet, numb joints sending a burst of pain in the process. After stretching, he dashed forward to the cockpit, strapped in, and started watching the chronometer count down.

When there were just a few seconds left, there was a sudden jolt and the sky of hyperspace exploded into a dizzying swirl of lights. The inertial dampers prevented him from feeling the worst of it, but just looking out the viewport made him feel sick.

There was, of course, only one explanation, he realized as he tried to bring the wildly spinning ship under control. The Vong had arrived, and they wanted to prevent anyone from escaping.

Jacen frantically considered his options. He didn't have any other routes calculated in the navicomp yet, unless he wanted to jump back to Dantooine. There was a war fleet surrounding Dubrillion, and if his displays were reading correctly, the planet's shield was active which meant he could not get through unless they opened it for him

The decision was quickly made for him as a swarm of the rocky fighters appeared from behind. He punched the throttle, diving straight through a heated exchange of fire between Belt-Runner I and a Vong warship and prayed they wouldn't take any hits as he grabbed the comm. "This is the Hapan transport Rock Dragon to anyone on Dubrillion. We have wounded on board and are under heavy fire. Need a shield entry vector ASAP."

Seeing an opening ahead, Jacen rolled and flew around Belt-Runner I, only to come out on the other side facing another group of Vong ships. "Sithspit," he cursed as he frantically looked for an exit. They were so spread out that there really weren't any angles they hadn't covered, leaving him with not much else he could do except head straight for them. Hopefully for him, that would present them with the smallest target and give them very little time to lock on. So far the poor Hapan transport had managed to survive the beating that the fighters had been giving it, but Jacen had no doubts that whatever it was the capital ships packed could surely overwhelm it.

As he rocketed towards the Vong ships, a fusillade of orange glowing orbs emerged from the launchers. Luckily, they weren't aimed for him, and instead went sailing past to the station. Sporadic turbolaser fire came in return but Jacen noticed that it seemed to be weakening.

"Jacen?" He couldn't have been more relieved to hear Lando's voice. "This is Lando. I'm working with Dubrillion control right now, they're swamped down here. Look, kid, just give us a few minutes to get the shield ready to open and we can let you in. I'll send you coordinates as soon as we're ready."

Not daring to take his eyes off the battle, Jacen silently thanked Lando. Soon enough, he was in the middle of the Vong formation, again trying his best to dodge plasma orbs--but this time ones that could easily obliterate the ship.

After several harrowing moments, he was clear of the warships and punched the throttle for Dubrillion. Several more fighters detached themselves from the capital ships and started chasing him, at which he rolled his eyes. Don't they ever give up?

In between maneuvers, he reached up and switched the displays to show the range to Dubrillion. The planet was still only a glowing dot in the distance, and moments later the computer confirmed it was about a half million klicks out.

"Hurry up, Lando," he whispered as he dumped every spare erg into the ship's engines, pushing them well past their recommended limits. He was immediately pushed further back into the seat, and he quickly adjusted the inertial compensator so the passengers wouldn't get too sick.

After several minutes he saw that the fighters were starting to gain on him once again. Dubrillion was now distinguishable as a blue-green orb although still horribly far off.

"Jacen," Lando's voice finally came through again, "we have a vector and timing for you. Let me know when you have it."

Jacen glanced down and saw the information displaying on one of the transport's screens. "Copy, Lando, I have it. It'll take me at least a few more minutes to reach the shield and I have fighters hot on my tail, request escort if possible."

"Negative on the escort," Lando replied. "We're short on fighters now, lost a lot before we got the shield up. We're going to time the shield opening very close so hopefully we can get your tails to smash into it, any that do make it through we should be able to handle."

Just don't time it too close, Jacen thought although he knew Lando was usually very good at keeping his word.

When they finally got close to the shield, Jacen simply corrected his course without touching the throttle, making sure that they were hurtling in as fast as possible. Lando had barely given him a second to get through, he needed to make sure he had plenty of time to clear.

"Lando, I'm on approach," he said as he hit the comm. "I hope you're ready down there or this is going to look really bad."

"Believe me, we're ready," Lando said. "Standby for opening."

He mentally counted down the seconds, trying to reach out with the Force and feel the shield surrounding the planet... and in comparison the tiny pinprick of an opening that they were creating. They were approaching it at a sickening speed, some fraction of the speed of light that Jacen didn't even want to think about...

Then the hole opened, the Rock Dragon slipped through, and almost as quickly as it had opened it was once again gone. He could feel the explosions in the rapidly increasing distance as most of the fighters collided, but apparently one had been lucky enough to make it through.

Well, not for long, Jacen thought. In one swift move, he killed power to the engines, which stopped him from accelerating any more but kept him moving at the same suicidal velocity toward the atmosphere that was now almost on top of him. Then he dumped the now suddenly freed power directly into the repulsors and inertial compensators. The Rock Dragon suddenly rebounded off the planet's mass and came to what might as well have been a full halt compared to the pursuing fighter, which went by so fast that Jacen's eyes didn't even register it. Moments later, he saw the fireball as the speeding fighter hit the atmosphere. He only hoped that the fighter wasn't designed for ballistic re-entry as he started a slow descent toward Dubrillion's main city.



Sirens were wailing through the city as he touched down, although the only people to greet him were paramedics.

"How many wounded?" the lead tech asked him.

"Just one, and you'll need a stretcher, she's unconscious and suffering from toxic shock. Might want to check the rest of the passengers for motion sickness though."

He followed them back up the ramp and showed them to the medical berth. The lead tech frowned when he saw her. "What happened to her arms?"

Jacen had to admit he'd been expecting that one. "The left one was a training accident years ago." He opened up the stasis unit and handed the bin inside to the tech. "This snake-thing here bit her right forearm, and it must have had some sort of fast-acting cytotoxic venom. I amputated to keep it from spreading."

The tech lifted her arm and began unwrapping the bandages to examine the cut. "Did you administer an antidote?"

Jacen gave the tech a confused look. "Have you ever seen one of those things before? This is only the second or third one I've seen, and I'm pretty sure they're not from around here. I doubt an antidote even exists yet."

"Hmm. We'll have to take some samples from the head and see if we can synthesize one then." The tech frowned as he saw the cut. "What did you use? This is an incredibly clean and well-cauterized cut."

"Just a lightsaber," Jacen replied.

The tech blinked. "Huh. Never saw one used before. Guess there's a first time for everything." While he was talking, another tech approached with a floating stretcher, and Jacen helped the two of them transfer her from the berth. The other passengers, still obviously dizzy, lined up behind them as Jacen followed the paramedics down.

"What's your relation to her?" the tech asked as they loaded her up.

Jacen was a little dumbfounded by the question. "Uh..." He paused for a few seconds. "We're Jedi, we were working together to evacuate Dantooine."

"Guess you're the lucky ones then," the tech replied. "The other transports ran straight into these invaders as they were arriving. Only one made it through. One hell of a mess on board that ship, too."

Jacen's stomach sank at the news. All that time he and Tenel Ka had spent trying to protect them... The universe just wasn't fair sometimes.

The ride to the hospital was downright quiet. Only the beeping of the life support equipment disturbed the silence, until Jacen finally couldn't stand it any more. It was just maddening, he wanted to be able to hold her hand at least but he couldn't even do that, thanks to his own actions! He leaned forward and put his head in his hands, then just let the tears flow.
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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.29 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2019-02-12 09:03am

31
"I need a left-handed plasma coupler!" B'Elanna Torres shouted, her head sticking halfway out of a Jeffries tube aboard USS Prometheus. "You gave me a right-handed one, you dolt!"

"Sorry, Ma'am," the unfortunate ensign who was the current target of her ire responded, passing over the correct part. "Won't happen again."

"Better not. Now get back to the console and watch the readouts for me."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She ducked back into the access tube and after a few moments of fighting with the broken part, emerged victorious; installing the new coupler was the work of another minute as she made sure the new part was aligned and tightened properly. "Computer, re-activate EPS junction 11-28A."

"Readings look nominal, Ma'am," the ensign reported from his position a few meters away.

"Good," she said, climbing out of the Jeffries tube and closing the access door. She handed him the incorrect part. "Make sure this gets put back into the correct spares bin."

He nodded, taking the proffered part. "Yes, Ma'am."

As he walked off to put the part away, she made her way back to what passed as Prometheus's Engineering room. Compared to her old Maquis runabout, it was quite expansive, but even Voyager's engineering space had it beat hands-down. She made her way past the glowing slipstream drive mockup, which she was mostly convinced was only left aboard the ship to confound any moles from Romulan or Dominion intelligence, and stopped at the main engineering console. A minute of rapid tapping later, she reached up to her commbadge. "Engineering to the Bridge."

"Janeway speaking."

She cleared her throat. "Captain, I believe I've cleared out the last of the plasma oscillations. We should be ready for warp."

"Good work, Lt. Commander. I think, after what happened the last time, we should probably stick to static warp-field tests. Do you agree?"

"Yes, Captain. I was just going to suggest the same."

"Good. Helm, prepare to activate warp drive, but keep the safeties on."

B'Elanna turned her attention back to the console, checking the various readouts as the helmsman manipulated the controls. "Ready for warp," she reported.

"Helm, activate warp 0."

The background hum of the compact core behind her increased in pitch slightly as plasma was diverted to the warp coils. This time, however, none of the alarms went off. She double-checked the readouts to confirm she wasn't missing anything. "Captain, plasma injector losses are within acceptable limits."

Whatever Janeway might have been about to say in reply was cut off by the ping of an incoming connection. "Captain, dispatch from Starfleet Command," she heard the comm officer report. "There's been a Mars perimeter breach. Borg protocols active. All available ships are to proceed to Earth."

"Acknowledge the orders. B'Elanna, what's the fastest you think we can make right now?"

She glanced down at the readings. "I would suggest no more than Warp 5 for now, Captain."

"Helm, you heard the Lt. Commander. Bring us to Earth, Warp 5."

"Yes, Captain."

A moment later the channel closed, followed by the chime of a ship-wide broadcast. "All hands, this is the Captain. Starfleet has declared an emergency and we are being recalled to Earth. Borg protocols are in effect. Prepare to repel boarders."

While the rest of the engineering crew went to the lockers to retrieve their phaser rifles, B'Elanna reached down to the holster at her hip and drew the blaster pistol she'd received as a gift from Outbound Flight, turning it over to check the power cell and safety before re-holstering it. The heavy weight of the pistol was different compared to the phasers she was more used to carrying, as ineffective as those tended to be against the Borg. It was somewhat reassuring, in a way, even if carrying such an obvious weapon around went against normal Starfleet protocols.

Then again, the Maquis had never really cared for such trivial protocols. Other priorities took precedence when you were fighting a revolutionary war against a power like the Cardassian Empire, such as ensuring that each cell was committed to the cause. She snorted, thinking about Tuvok. If Starfleet Intelligence had been able to infiltrate their cell right from the start, just how compromised were the Maquis security protocols anyway? Given that the entire organization had dissolved while they were lost in the Delta Quadrant, B'Elanna reflected, that was probably a foregone conclusion.

Out of curiosity, B'Elanna pulled up the external sensor feeds on one of the engineering terminals. Hmm. So they'd identified 8 ships not just inside the Mars perimeter, but inside the Earth-Moon system. Three of them were pyramidal wedges with massive impulse engines, with some variation between them in layout, mass and length. Another four looked like long hexagonal tubes made of clusters of smaller hexagonal pods, also with large impulse engines at the stern. Then, sitting at a distance behind one of the pyramidal wedge-ships was ... she blinked, then zoomed in. Unless her eyes were playing tricks on her, that looked like a shredded chunk of a Borg cube?

Well, she thought, at least that would explain why Starfleet Command was having a conniption fit. Idly, she accessed the sensor readings – nevermind that this was the engineering console, she had admin privileges to the main computer for testing purposes, so she could reconfigure her console to show whatever she damn well pleased. Hmm. Only a handful of life signs, and they were reading as whatever passed for hibernation among the Borg anyway. Power generation was practically nonexistent, structural integrity was ... well, she was honestly surprised that the rat's nest of tubes that made up the remnant was even still in one piece. Oh, wait, no it wasn't, it was actually three loosely connected pieces. Eh, close enough. Either way, she was pretty sure the Borg wouldn't be putting up a fight anytime soon, at least until somebody was dumb enough to go poke them directly with a stick.



. . .





Not having ever been to Earth before, Anakin Solo wasn't quite sure what to expect. As the capital of the Federation, he had been expecting something along the lines of Coruscant or perhaps Corellia: a heavily industrialized world choked with people, ships, and of course pollution. A blue, white, green and brown marble of a garden world was perhaps about the last thing he'd been expecting. Honestly, he couldn't wait to take a shuttle down and see how people lived in a different galaxy.

Except, going by the situation around him on the bridge of the Vigorous, any sight-seeing would probably have to wait.

"Captain, I'm picking up multiple warp signatures inbound on our position. There is also no sign of the other Outbound Flight ships in the system."

Captain Sicuro frowned as he made his way over to the sensor pit. "Any attempts to hail us yet?"

"None that I can see, Sir."

"Hmm. Not quite the welcome I was told to expect. Try to see if you can raise anyone on the frequencies we were given. This may just be a misunderstanding." He turned around to the tactical pit. "Have the gunnery crews stand by to track any possible threats and await further instructions."

"Acknowledged, Sir."

"Good." Sicuro turned to another one of the techs, who seemed to have their hands free at the moment. "How are the captives doing?"

"Life signs remain concentrated in the same locations as before. There is evidence that they have attempted to carry out repairs in the time it took us to cross through hyperspace, but no new energy sources have been detected."

"Sir," the first comm-scan tech interrupted, "we've received a response to our hails."

"Put it through."

"Unidentified vessels," the rather rough-sounding voice began, "this is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the USS Prometheus. You are in restricted territory with multiple active Borg signatures. Explain yourselves or you will be fired upon."

"What's going on?" his aunt Mara demanded as she marched onto the bridge, trying but struggling to stifle a yawn. Evidently the alert klaxons had awoken her from one of the naps that had become more frequent occurrences in the past couple weeks.

"Hey, didn't Master Dellen say something about a Captain Janeway?" Anakin pointed out. "Nearly spoiled the negotiations or something like that?"

"Wait, who?" Mara said, while Captain Sicuro grimaced before picking up a mic.

"This is Captain Justis Sicuro of the Corellian Engineering Corporation warship Vigorous, escorting a diplomatic and trade convoy to the Federation. We fought off a Borg attack upon our arrival and have their remains under tow as salvage."

Another voice cut into the channel. "Apologies, Vigorous. This is Earth Spacedock Actual, Admiral Bullock speaking. As Captain Janeway noted, you have active Borg signatures detected in your, ah, salvage. Any active Borg technology is a grave threat and we must insist that it be neutralized immediately."

Mara motioned to the captain, who passed her the mic. "Admiral Bullock, this is Mara Jade, acting as a representative of a group of Republic interests. We had hoped to offer the Borg salvage to the Federation as a peace offering of sorts, seeing as they appear to be a mutual enemy of ours."

There was an extended period of silence on the line, to the point that Captain Sicuro took the mic back and clicked it. "Spacedock Actual, do you copy?"

"We copy, Vigorous Actual. Please hold."

After several awkward minutes of silence, Anakin cleared his throat. "Well, that didn't quite go how I imagined it."

Mara looked at him skeptically out of the corner of her eye. "And just what were you imagining?"

The teen shrugged exaggeratedly. "Oh, I dunno. Medals or parades or something? I mean Master Dellen did mention how much trouble they'd had with these Borg before."

"How many holonovels did you read on the way here?" Mara asked slowly.

"I dunno, most of them? What's that got to do with anything?"

She let out a huff. "Thought so."

The comm came to life a moment later. "Vigorous Actual, this is Spacedock Actual. Please be advised that we will be towing the Borg salvage into a quarantine orbit. If any of your ships came into direct contact with the Borg, we would also request those ships be placed in quarantine until we can be certain they have not been sabotaged."

"Understood, Spacedock Actual," Sicuro replied. "Now, who should I speak to about setting up a meeting for our diplomats?"

"Bullock speaking," the Admiral's voice came across. "My staff will be making the arrangements. It may be a few days, given the extremely short notice. Will you be needing any provisions in the meantime?"

"None at the moment, Admiral," Sicuro replied. "But thank you for the offer."



. . .





Several days later, true to his word, Bullock had arranged a meeting to be held inside one of Spacedock's conference facilities. Anakin was mildly surprised at the scale of the station, which managed to dwarf even Vigorous, but still couldn't hold a candle to some of the installations he'd seen like Centerpoint Station let alone the planet-spanning orbital shipyards of Kuat. No, he wasn't going to brag about the Death Star to them, even before Aunt Mara made him promise no less than three times. It wasn't like he'd even seen one, the last real one had been blown up before his parents were even married and the skeletal prototype model had been destroyed when he was only a toddler. But there were a slightly worrying number of youth who wanted to return to those times, if the Imperial remnants' recruitment numbers were anything to go by. Why, he had no idea.

Aunt Mara's hand brushed his shoulder. "Anakin? Do you want to head back to get some rest? You were staring off into space."

He looked up and then realized he'd been zoning out. "What? No. Sorry, the sandwiches are excellent."

Now everybody was looking at him. Oops. He gave a sheepish grin and picked up one of the (untouched, double oops) triangular sandwiches on his plate and gave it an experimental bite, then a thumbs-up gesture as he chewed. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his aunt roll her eyes before turning her attention back to the datapad on the table in front of her.

He looked around the table to see who was speaking. One of the Federation diplomats with the pointy ears. Vulcans, he recalled. "-so you wish to offer us a 3 month trial of these ships—these Star Destroyers, I believe you called them? That seems rather generous. What is the catch?"

"No catch," the Kuat representative, who oozed of slime in the purely metaphorical sense, replied. "We're interested in seeing how our products perform here, and of course we always value customer feedback."

"And if they are damaged during that period? Are we going to bear responsibility if we decide to back out of the contract within that timeframe?"

The representative shook his head. "Not at all. KDY fully insures its products until ownership is transferred, at which point they become your responsibility. There is a small deductible in the event of damage, of course, but we don't believe that should pose too much trouble."

The other two manufacturers' reps nodded along. "I believe you will find the contracts to be identical in their terms. We previously agreed that our products should compete on their own merits rather than legal trickery."

"Magnanimous," the Vulcan deadpanned. Wait, weren't they supposed to have almost no sense of humor? Of course stereotypes would be inaccurate. "What would this deductible be?"

"A fixed fee, set at five percent of the contract value. It will only be collected if the contract is cancelled and major damage to the ship is identified at the return inspection."

The Vulcan nodded. "If we sign the contract, how long can we expect to wait for replacement parts when they are needed?"

"The ships' stores are fully stocked with replacement parts for damage control purposes, so you should not need to worry about restocking them immediately. Those parts include everything that can be replaced outside of a drydock, and any more serious repairs would require sending the ship back to one of our shipyards. Having said that, we are interested in setting up a mobile drydock joint-venture at Sigma Alpha III, and should the contract pan out, we would explore our options for more permanent facilities."



.



The meeting continued like that for some time. They talked about placing the Republic Navy volunteers for the crew exchange program, and something about establishing teams to negotiate a proper treaty between states, to go beyond the basic recognition granted by the Senate. Anakin ignored the minutiae, absorbed in thought as he considered some of the things he'd learned about the old Jedi so far.

"Aunt Mara?" he asked softly during a break.

"Yes, Anakin?" she replied.

"Do you think I could study under one of the Jedi Masters?"

She seemed to consider it for a while. "I don't see why not, as long as they also agree."

He totally did not jump or pump his fist in the air. "You're the best aunt ever."

Mara snorted at his exuberant attitude. "I'm your only aunt, so I'd better be the best one or else."

"When can we go see the colony?" he asked. No, his voice was not whiny when he said it, and anybody who said so was a dirty liar.

"I don't know. Once they come to an agreement, whenever that is. I can tell you're getting bored, do you want to go sightseeing or something?"

"What, like to those Utopia Planitia shipyards I keep hearing about?"

The older Jedi attempted to stifle a laugh but failed, a chuckle escaping anyway. "I had been thinking something planetside, or maybe one of their lunar cities, but if they're willing to let us tour the shipyard then that's fine."

"Awesome!" No, he didn't jump for joy either. That would be silly. Rocked on his feet, perhaps. Like a man would do. Definitely.



.



Four days later, he was going out of his mind. Again. The back-and-forth over the fine print of the contract terms was taking forever, and if it wouldn't have made a scene, he would have just let his head fall against the table. Surely that couldn't possibly hurt more than listening to the droning of the legalese. Or at least it would provide a brief distraction from it.

The shipyard tour the day before had at least been a welcome distraction, and it was interesting to see how they built their sleek ships in comparison to the very utilitarian construction he was used to seeing, but he was shocked at the thickness of the hull plating they used. The thinnest plating he'd ever seen on a Star Destroyer was about a meter thick, and that was in the less critical understructure. The main armor belts were tens of meters thick – he wasn't sure of the exact figure and it varied from one class to the next anyway. The Federation's plating, in comparison, was measured in centimeters. Centimeters! Sure, they claimed it was a highly advanced duranium alloy composite, which did sound like it was tougher than basic durasteel, but surely not to that degree.

He'd tried to tell them that they'd probably be doing better against the Dominion if they didn't build their starships like luxury liners, but naturally nobody listened to "the kid." He wasn't a kid, damn it! He was 17! Hell, he'd probably been in more combat situations than they'd ever be in! Granted, one of those times had been when he was a toddler, but he'd flown the Falcon by himself when he was only 7 and that had to count for something! Even if his dad had been rather upset with him afterward.

So engrossed in raging at the unfairness of society was he, he nearly missed them talking about scheduling fleet training exercises with the ships on loan. Some place called Andor? Why would they go there? Last he heard, the forest moon was still uninhabitable, and there were occasional protests of the Ewok genocide in front of the embassies of the Imperial remnants. Oh wait, that was Endor. Still, joint training? That sounded incredibly awesome and not something he wanted to miss, especially if it meant he'd get another chance to fly one of the MSF-350s. Seriously. Put him in any fighter-sized craft with high power engines and he'd be happy. Much happier than sitting in a stuffy conference room eating whatever replicated food they put on the menu and listening to the diplomats drone on...

"Anakin Solo?" a new voice said from behind him, breaking him out of his daydreams.

"Yes?" He turned to face the newcomer, who was wearing Jedi robes. After a moment, it clicked. "Master Ma'Ning?"

"Indeed," the Jedi Master replied with a look of amusement.

Anakin jumped to his feet, tipping his chair in the process and then briefly struggling (and failing) to prevent it from clattering to the floor. Over a dozen pairs of eyes turned to him; even though they seemed to be on a refreshment break, he'd made quite the scene.

"Are you quite alright, or will you be in need of assistance?" the Jedi Master inquired dryly.

Having finished putting the chair back, he stood straight. "I'm fine," he said quickly. "Just... it's been tough staying cooped up in here. My aunt thought it would be a learning experience for me, but so far I think all I've learned is that contracts give me headaches. It's, uh, a pleasure to meet you, Master Ma'Ning."

"Well then, shall we speak elsewhere?"

"Thought you'd never ask," Anakin said, already on his way to the door. Once they'd reached the corridor, he slowed down. "I can't imagine you came just to relieve me from my boredom though."

"Indeed not," the balding Jedi replied with a nod. "I spoke to Jedi Jade-Skywalker earlier about some of the traditions and ways that have been forgotten. She asked me if I would consider taking you as my apprentice, and while I am not necessarily against it, I felt it best to meet you before making any decision."

"Oh," Anakin said, suddenly feeling as if he'd flunked an exam. After all, there was no such thing as a clumsy Jedi Knight.

Seemingly ignoring him for the moment, Ma'Ning continued. "We on Outbound Flight are not exactly set in the old ways. Master C'baoth did not often get along with the Council, but then again, it seems that their stubbornness also did them no favors if the history Jedi Jade-Skywalker told me is accurate." The older Jedi paused briefly. "May I see your lightsaber?"

Anakin hesitantly unclipped it from his belt. "It's... not actually mine," he admitted. "It used to belong to Master Kenobi."

Master Ma'Ning shook his head briefly. "What a coincidence. I met Master Kenobi and his apprentice Anakin shortly before we left." He examined the ribbed cylinder briefly before igniting the pale blue blade. A couple of experimental waves later, he extinguished it and handed it back. "It is indeed Master Kenobi's."

"You met my grandfather?" Anakin exclaimed.

"Would I be wrong to assume that is where your name comes from?" Ma'Ning replied with a gentle smile. "Yes, although it was brief. He and Master Kenobi had been sent by the Chancellor to conduct a final inspection of Outbound Flight, and we dropped them off in the outer rim on our way here."

"Wow." Anakin came up blank on anything else to say.

"I did not interact with him all that much, however, as they were only aboard for a week or so. He was... enthusiastic. Much like you in that respect. Around the same age, I think, if not older."

"Still, that's incredible," Anakin said.

"I heard you like to fly as well?"

The teen nodded. "Yes, they let me fly one of the strike fighters on board Vigorous when we arrived."

Ma'Ning made a follow-me gesture, and the two Jedi walked to a nearby turbolift. "Shuttlebay 17," he said, and a minute later the doors opened onto a rather low hangar deck littered with unfamiliar, somewhat boxy craft and cargo crates.

Anakin frowned as they stepped out. He wasn't going to ask him to fly one of those, was he? Then they rounded yet another stack of packing crates (which nearly touched the low deck ceiling – how did they manage not to hit it regularly?) and he saw a sleek arrowhead form that had speed written all over it. The cockpit was placed toward the rear, integrated into a single vertical fin that extended aft of the engines.

Evidently Ma'Ning also noticed his reaction. "Delta-12 Skysprite," he explained without prompting. "A longer-ranged, two seat recon version of the Delta-7 used by the Jedi Order."

"I don't think I've seen anything like it," Anakin admitted. "The A-wing looks a little bit like it, but this is a lot thinner. How'd they fit the hyperdrive in that thing?"

"They didn't," Ma'Ning replied. "It has a separate hyperdrive ring which I left in a parking orbit."

"Huh," Anakin muttered, crouching down to take a look underneath. "Makes sense, but it seems kind of like a huge risk if someone finds it."

"It's yours if you want it," the Jedi Master said off-handedly after watching Anakin crawl around the fighter for a few minutes.

"Wait, what?" Anakin said, jerking up and banging his head on a protruding fin. "Ow." Slightly more carefully, he cleared the stern of the fighter and stood up, rubbing his head. "Really?"

"Incom sent over a dozen new model X-wings," Ma'Ning said with a shrug. "A sponsored advertising deal, I am led to believe. This was only on board for Master Kenobi and his apprentice. We never had much use for it."

"I..." Anakin trailed off. "I would like to accept, but you still haven't said anything about whether I can become an apprentice."

"What do you know about padawans?" Ma'Ning asked in reply.

"Master Dellen explained the steps to me on Coruscant. Would I have to pass some trials first?"

Ma'Ning shook his head. "I feel the trials would be a waste of our time. I merely wanted to gain a measure of you, and I believe I have seen enough to satisfy my curiosity."
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Re: A Prelude to War (ST/SW) (Ch.32 up)

Post by Crayz9000 » 2019-02-13 10:04am

32


"Any news?"

The sudden question interrupted the quiet beeping of the life support equipment in the small room deep inside the Dubrillion military hospital. Jacen looked up to see his sister walk in and immediately jumped up to give her a hug. "She's still in a coma," he finally said, gesturing to Tenel Ka's bed, where she was hooked up to life support equipment. "They managed to make an antidote for the venom, but they told me they're not sure how far the extent of the damage is. Apparently it's a really horrible cocktail, the cytotoxin is the fastest-acting component of it, but it also functions as a neurotoxin. They're worried it may have caused brain damage. I guess we were lucky we didn't get exposed to more of it on Belkadan."

"That's horrible," Jaina said, reaching up to touch her eyepatch at the memory. "How's her arm?"

Jacen sat down and shook his head. "She's going to kill me when she wakes up, I just know it," he said. "At least this time her lightsaber's still intact, but..." He trailed off, his voice hitching. "She took such a large dose that in the time it took me to get her to the ship and put the arm in stasis, the muscle had already started breaking down. They told me the only option is prosthetics, but I still remember her reaction the last time someone tried to put prosthetics on her."

"Wait, when was that?"

"Come on, sis, you've known her as long as I have. Whose fault was it she lost her right arm in the first place?"

"Yours?"
He nodded. "So afterward Ta'a Chume tried to force her to get a prosthetic installed. As soon as it made contact, she panicked and sent the arm flying."

"Oh."

Jacen nodded. "I told the doctors that decision would have to be up to her when she wakes up. It's only fair."

Jaina put her hand on her brother's shoulder. "Jacen, look, at least you made the right choice. If you hadn't done what you did, she might not even be alive right now. I'm sure she'll see that as more important than the fact you had to amputate her only good arm."

"I hope you're right," Jacen finally admitted, leaning back and resting his head against the wall. "So, I haven't seen you in a while. You never told me what happened on Jorrkona."

Jaina took a seat across the room and stretched. "Well, I guess I didn't tell you, but Lowie and I have been working at cleaning up the mess left over from the battle, ever since the sector fleet showed up and spooked the marauders."

"Praetorite Vong," Jacen muttered.

"What?"

"One of the crab-armored warriors I fought on Dantooine, he said something about the 'might of the Praetorite Vong.' The way he said it, it sounded like the name of their empire or something."

"Huh," Jaina mused. "That could be useful. Anyway, when we reached Jorrkona everything was calm, but once we were in the middle of loading the transports the, uh... Preterit Vong?" She half-grimaced at forgetting the name already.

"Praetorite Vong," Jacen filled in.

"Right. I'm just going to call them the Vong, the other part takes too long to say. So, we were in the middle of loading the transports when the Vong arrived. We took pretty heavy casualties. I organized some of the local militia to hold them off while we tried to finish loading as many as possible."

"The same thing happened to us on our second trip from Dantooine," Jacen said. "But the locals weren't really armed or organized so Tenel Ka and I were the only ones fighting back."

Jaina shook her head. "It was a slaughter. Sure, we got a few, but they attacked with so much force it just overwhelmed us. We finally cut our losses and retreated, only to run into some warships in orbit. I think they followed us here, which is why you ran into the middle of the battle."

"So I take it the Lady Luck survived?"

"Yes," Jaina replied. "Took pretty heavy fire though. The hull plating is still scarred and pitted from all the molten rocks and plasma."

Jacen nodded. "Same here. So, are Mom and Dad still here?"

"Yes, and pretty badly shaken up, too. Lowie and I are going to go with them after we finish the cleanup and testify before the Senate. Sometime after that we're all planning on meeting up on Kashyyyk for Chewie's funeral. If Tenel Ka recovers by then, you should come too."

"I'm planning on it," Jacen said. They sat in silence for several minutes before Jaina got up. "Hey, would you mind coming with me for a while?"

Jacen looked across the room to where Tenel Ka lay, her unconscious form slowly rising and falling with every breath. The nurses had undone her braids and her hair, kinked and messy as it was, was was pulled back behind her head to keep it away from her arms. A feeding tube ran into her mouth, and fluids were dripping through IVs into her. She just looked peaceful, and Jacen didn't want to leave her in case she woke up...

Seeing the hesitation in his eyes, his sister took his hand. "Jacen, how long have you been inside this hospital, anyway?"

He shrugged. "Kind of lost track of time. Since they put her in this room, I guess?"

She sniffed the air. "Have you even showered? C'mon, Jace, you gotta take care of yourself too."

"What!" he objected, waving toward the refresher stall. "Of course I showered."

"When?"

His voice got quiet. "Uh, after they moved her here..."

The flat stare on her face spoke volumes. "Yeah, that's not gonna fly. Tell you what. I'm going to go get you some clean clothes, and you're going to hit the refresher while I do that. Then we're going to get out of this place for a bit."

"But..." he protested, knowing full well it was in vain.

"No buts. The staff are more than capable of watching her for a couple hours without your supervision. Anyway, it'll do you good, you know I can't stand it when you're all mopey like this. You've practically been broadcasting your despair since I got here."

"But what if she wakes up and I'm not here?"

A not-terribly pleasant smile crept across Jaina's face. "Oh, is that how it is? It'll be so hard for me to not mention that to her when she does wake up. You know she'll never let you live it down, Jace. She's always hated being treated like a princess."

"Wh-" He spluttered. "No! I swear that's not what I meant. It's just that..."

"It's kind of obvious," Jaina said. "You're just living out that old nursery story Threepio used to tell us, the mildly creepy one with the sleeping princess." She fixed him with a serious look. "You haven't been taking any liberties with her, have you?"

"What!?" he half-shouted, shuddering. "No! Ew. I'd never."

"That's not a terribly convincing denial. Look, I'm just saying, you could have snuck in a kiss and nobody would ever know."

"Ugh! Not like that, that's just wrong. Who would want to do such a thing?" Then again, now that he thought about it, there probably were some people he wouldn't put it past. Now that he thought about it, his denials were probably giving his sister even more ammo... and there was that smirk. He facepalmed.

"Not even thought about it?"

"Well I have now, thank you very much." He shuddered again. "And now I'm worried that if I leave somebody else might have the same idea. Thanks a lot."

She punched him in the arm. "That's what the security droid outside is for, you dope. And come on, as the elder sister it's my sworn duty to embarrass you."

"Only by a couple minutes," he muttered in protest, but she continued anyway.

"You should've seen how red your face was."

"Yeah, yeah, yuk it up. I'm coming, all right? Don't you have some clothes to grab or something?"

She nodded. "Sure, I'll be right back." Then she winked at him. "Behave yourself, all right?"

He ducked into the refresher in lieu of making eye contact with his evil traitor of a sister. Now he was definitely going to need some cold water, and probably some meditation to get his stupid treacherous mind off the subject.





A short while later, washed and feeling much better, he was dressed in the clean flight suit that Jaina had brought out of the ship's stores. They'd grabbed a quick bite in the cafeteria, which was exactly as underwhelming as it had been all the other times he'd eaten there since arriving on Dubrillion. Now they were riding to the outskirts of the city in a hovertaxi that had definitely seen better days, going by the ratty state of the upholstery and the unidentifiable melange of smells gracing its interior.

"So where is it we're going, anyway?"

"Classified," Jaina promptly responded.

He rolled his eyes. "Seriously?" But the absence of a smirk on her face suggested that she was, in fact, serious. "Oh."

"I mean, I can't tell you what it is right now, but I can tell you that you're going to love it."

"That makes me feel so much better."

The hovertaxi pulled up outside what at first looked like an industrial park, going by the nondescript uniform blocks of prefab duracrete buildings. But the entire compound was surrounded by stresscrete walls and razor wire and the guards at the gate they were approaching looked a little too alert to be private security.

"Don't tell me," Jacen began to say as he stepped out of the taxi, "this is one of Lando's black ops sites."

Jaina, who was handing the driver a credit chit, groaned and got out herself. "You know what? That's entirely too plausible, so I'm going to forget you even suggested it. I don't wanna know."

"So what is it then?"

She waved him forward. "You'll see when we get inside."

They passed through the security checkpoint, where the guards waved some scanners over them. Jacen could tell that the guards were keeping an eye on the lightsabers attached to his and Jaina's belts, but they evidently chose not to say anything.

Another guard pulled up driving a hoversled, and Jaina stepped toward him. "Building 42-besh, please."

He nodded, and the sled pulled away a moment after they had both stepped on. A few minutes later, they pulled up in front of a large warehouse with more guards waiting inside the entrace. When they saw Jaina, they opened ranks to let them pass inside.

The lobby of the building had been converted into some kind of decontamination area. After Jaina showed them some kind of card, they were both handed disposable white coveralls to wear over their clothes, which they put on followed by shoe coverings, masks and gloves. Once they were fully attired, another guard gestured for them to pass through the doors at the far side of the room.

Jacen let out a low whistle when he saw what was inside. Chunks of volcanic-looking, rocky material were organized in neat rows. Further down, he could see stasis pods with what looked like bodies inside.

"DubSec has been using this to store and catalog some of the materials they captured after the attack," Jaina explained as they walked across the warehouse before coming to a curtain. She grabbed a hanging flap and pulled it back before gesturing to her brother to enter.

Inside, he found himself staring at what could have only been one of the Vong fighter-craft. It was more aerodynamic than Jacen had expected, its surface polished to an obsidian shine and sharpened or perhaps chipped into jagged leading edges. Where the cockpit should have been was a hole surrounded by chunks of translucent shards of iridescent crystal. Carts with tools and instruments were scattered seemingly haphazardly around the fighter as techs and scientists bustled about in a barely organized state of chaos.

"It crashed in one of the marshes outside the city," she continued, clearly excited. "It's in the best condition of any craft they've found so far, but nobody's come up with an explanation for how it works." She looked around for a moment. "Dr. Young?"

A short-cropped, gray-topped head popped up on the other side of the canopy. "Miss Solo? Ah." He stood up fully, brushing some dust and dirt off his white coveralls before walking around the craft. "This must be your brother?"

"Jacen Solo, sir," he replied, extending his hand which the doctor briefly shook.

"Pleasure to meet you. Your sister mentioned that you had a talent for understanding living organisms?"

"Yes?" Jacen replied, not quite understanding what that had to do with the fighter in front of him.

Dr. Young climbed up a short ladder, reached into the cockpit and after a moment's struggle pulled out a purplish bucket-shaped mass, attached by a pulsating umbilical cord of some sort to the fighter. "We were hoping you could help us with this."

Jacen blinked. "What."

"They're pretty sure the fighter is a living organism of some sort," Jaina unhelpfully clarified. "So I said you should take a look at it."

Jacen tentatively reached a hand out to touch it. It felt slightly warm, with a rubbery, leather-like texture. "May I?"

Dr. Young passed him the bundle, and he grunted as he took the full weight of the thing. "Damn. What the hell was this for, anyway?"

The doctor shrugged, stepping down. "We found the pilot wearing it over their head. As far as we can tell it has something to do with life support, since the aliens clearly breathe standard atmosphere. We fit a dummy head with sensors and feedback mechanisms and put it inside but there was no response to stimuli."

Jacen flipped it over, poking at the inside of the floppy mass. Unlike the exterior, the inside felt spongy and somewhat moist, and he rubbed his fingers together experimentally.

"It secretes a mucus compound, presumably to provide a seal against vacuum," Dr. Young explained. "Protein-stabilized aqueous compounds, with some remarkably effective broad-spectrum antimicrobials based on the tests we've conducted."

"What about the cockpit?" he asked. "Anything else inside?"

"Just this," Dr. Young replied. "My working assumption is that the hood also provides some kind of neural link to the fighter, but I haven't been able to find a volunteer willing to try it. For obvious reasons. There's also some sort of orifice in the seat which is presumably for the pilot's other biological needs, but again we haven't been able to test this."

Jacen snorted. "I can't imagine why." Curiosity getting the better of him, he climbed the ladder and stepped into the cockpit, taking care not to tear his coveralls on the jagged chunks of translucent mica at the edges of the canopy. Like the helmet, the seat felt like it was made of some kind of very spongy material, except that its surface felt much drier compared to the gooey inside of the hood.

He gingerly eased himself into the seat, feeling it compress somewhat to fit his form, and then looked at the hood again.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Jaina asked, and he looked up to see her and Dr. Young peering down at him from the entry ladder.

"Well, he said it doesn't respond to simulated stimuli, and nobody's volunteered to try it on, so..."

"Yeah, but what if it, I dunno, sucks your face off?"

He let out a laugh at the holovid absurdity of the comment. "Come on, the pilot was wearing it. Why would it hurt its pilot?"

"You're not the pilot," she pointed out. Huh. That was actually somewhat compelling.

"Eh, it's just a hood. What's the worst that could go wrong?"

Somehow both she and Dr. Young managed to deliver synchronized glares.

"I mean it's tied to that umbilical cord, so if anything happens just cut the cord with your lightsaber. Easy, right?"

"I'd prefer it if you didn't damage our only intact specimen," Dr. Young protested.

"Fine, just let it eat me then. I'll make sure I give it indigestion," Jacen joked, lifting the hood up.

"Hold on," Dr. Young interrupted. "I want to make sure the instruments are recording this." He disappeared down the ladder for a moment, returning with a thin wire cap that he placed over Jacen's head. "That'll let us get some readings on your brain activity while you're in it."

"Is that all?"

The doctor nodded, so Jacen lifted the hood again and carefully lowered it over his head. The sensation of the slime-covered membranes sliding down his face was one that he would have sooner forgotten, and he tried not to breathe as it went on. Once it was all the way over his head, the bottom tightened suddenly, and he had to keep himself from reflexively clawing it off. Everything was dark, and he couldn't breathe. Where was the air? He thought it was going to supply air, and that was clearly a mistake.

Dimly, as focused on holding his breath as he was, he became aware of something other than the blackness inside the hood. It was a strange feeling he couldn't properly describe, but there was a sense of mass, as if he could reach out and touch the core of the planet below him. In fact, he was suddenly sure he could touch it, so he reached out and gave it an experimental poke. The world suddenly shook.

He heard Jaina yelling outside, but the hood completely muffled whatever she was saying. He looked around to try and see her, instead feeling several smaller moving masses around him. Then the blackness started sparkling, and he wondered briefly if he had gone to space before the realization hit him: he needed oxygen.

As if responding to his sudden panic, the bottom of the hood unclenched, and he hurriedly pulled it off his head before greedily gulping the fresh air.

"Jacen!" Jaina shouted, appearing above him again. "What the hell happened?"

"There's no air under that hood," he said after he'd gotten his breath back. "It sealed around my neck and I couldn't breathe."

"I should have expected that," Dr. Young muttered from behind Jaina.

"No, besides that," Jaina replied in an irritated tone. "You did something and the whole ship rocked. What was that?"

"I don't know."

She sighed. "No shit. I mean, what did you do just before everything moved?"

He considered it. "I could feel everything. The planet, you, nearby objects. So I poked the biggest thing around."

Her eyebrows raised. "The ship bounced off the ground." Then her eyes widened. "That means--"

Dr. Young cut her off, apparently equally excited. "We know how their drive system works! Do you think you can do it again?"

"I, uh," Jacen hesitated, "I nearly suffocated. Sure that's a good idea?"

The scientist tapped his commlink. "I sent for a rebreather as soon as I realized what happened. Should be here any minute." He looked down and then thumbed the commlink on. "Bren, I think we've figured out what that crab-squid thing stuck in the pilot's throat was. Some sort of armored symbiotic breathing apparatus."

Jacen paled. "That sounds horrible."

"Not half as horrible as it looked," the researcher jokingly agreed.

True to his word, the mask arrived a few minutes later. Jacen wasted no time in fitting it over his nose and mouth before grasping the hood again.

"Vong starfighter neural interface test, attempt 37," Dr. Young narrated. "Subject is Jacen Solo, age 19, wearing rebreather and neural mesh. Begin test."

He slid the hood over again, forcing himself to continue breathing normally as it oozed over the rounded rebreather, fortunately without dislodging it. The mask also included a commlink, so he could communicate with them more easily this time around. "Hood is on," he reported, feeling it seal around his neck a moment later. "And sealed."

Once again, the sense of weight, of mass, came back to him. It felt strange in the way that tasting a color might feel, and he reported as much.

"Synaesthesia," Dr. Young mused a moment later. "It's not an uncommon side effect of neural links, especially when feeding additional sensory information to the brain. Now, do you think you can 'poke the planet,' as you said last time?"

"I might be able to do better than that," he replied after considering the request. "Let me try to hold it."

"Proceed when ready," Young replied.

Using his newfound sense, he reached out, but given the vast mass differential between him—or rather the fighter, it was getting hard to tell—and the planet, it was more like placing his feet under him and using his hands to balance as if he was learning how to walk. Probably an apt analogy, all things considered, and he said as much.

"The fighter just lifted off the deck," Dr. Young replied. "Wobbling a little, but holding steady at about a half meter. Can you move forward slightly?"

Jacen did so, at which point the scientist had him walk through all the cardinal directions before turning in a complete circle and setting the fighter back down.

"I think we have data to work with for now," Dr. Young finally said. "Go ahead and get out of there, we'll take care of tidying everything up."

He thought about taking the hood off, and somewhat to his surprise, the collar unsealed and he was able to pull it off with a wet slurp. He looked up to see his sister giggling, and ran his hand through his hair which was now completely covered in mucus. "Great. Looks like I'm in for another shower," he sighed, and then flicked some of the mucus on his hands at her.

She twitched backward in surprise, barely catching herself on the ladder's hand rail, and then glared at him as she wiped the flecks off her cheek. "Jerk."

"Hey, you're the one who brought me into this, I don't think you've got much room to complain here."

As his sister turned around with an irritated huff, he climbed out of the cockpit, trying to ignore the wet squelching noises it made every time he took a step inside it. She was standing at the bottom of the ladder when he got down, arms crossed and glaring.

"Don't even think about it," she warned.

"Think about what?" he replied.

"Getting any more of that stuff on me."

He reached up to touch his face. "It's already drying. Ugh. My face feels like it got dunked in icing, it's cracking every time I twitch."



They were silent as they went back through the warehouse, took off the coveralls in the entry area, and then got in the hovercar for the ride back. Finally, Jaina broke the silence. "Sorry I dragged you into that."

He shrugged. "It's fine. Not like I've had a lot of time to go cataloging xenobiology lately. That fighter did have a pretty cool control system, and it was alive. Do they build the shells and then grow the internals, or is it all one organism which molts the shell as it grows? I have so many questions."

Jaina chuckled. "And that's why I pulled you out of that hospital. You were so melancholy, I could feel it from across the city."

His face fell. "Yeah. It's just... I wish I could have gotten there sooner, you know? Then maybe it wouldn't have happened."

"There's nothing you can do to change that now, Jacen," she reassured him.

He nodded. "Yeah. I keep telling myself that. Dunno if it's helping."

Jaina fixed him with a serious look. "Jacen?"

"Yeah?"

"When was the last time you told Tenel Ka how you felt about her?"

"I, um." He opened his mouth to reply and then closed it again. "I don't know."

Her disapproving glare didn't help. "Promise me you'll at least think about it."

"I will."
A Tribute to Stupidity: The Robert Scott Anderson Archive (currently offline)
John Hansen - Slightly Insane Bounty Hunter - ASVS Vets' Assoc. Class of 2000
HAB Cryptanalyst | WG - Intergalactic Alliance and Spoof Author | BotM | Cybertron | SCEF

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