Chapter Two


                Hangar Bay 27a

                Titan-class Battleship Nexus

                Tralar System, 1930 Hours


                The Titan’s massive hangar bay was quiet at this time of day. Maarek Stele exited the turbolift, took a quick look around to make sure no one was visible, and then started forward.

     This is crazy, he thought to himself. His squadron had been granted passage to Varnus on the Nexus, mostly due to their hard-earned prestige. However, upon arrival they were whisked away to a private living quarters and were given strict instructions not to roam the ship. Apparently they were still trying to keep most of their vessel off-limits to NI personnel. The Altarin’Dakor still had secrets.

     But Maarek hadn’t been able to resist. Something about this ship was calling him. He could feel a strange sensation in the back of his head, as if the Titan was trying to communicate with him. Its presence was awe-inspiring. He knew he wasn’t only an NI officer now. What Victor had done had made him part Altarin’Dakor.

     He’d managed to excuse himself from the rest of the squadron and leave the assigned area. He’d always been fascinated by the size and presence that an Imperial-class Star Destroyer held. But with this ship… that presence was magnified a hundred times.

     Maarek had expected that it would be easy for someone to get lost exploring a thirty-kilometer-long ship. But surprisingly the layout was both simple and practical, and he’d managed to make it to the hangar bay they’d docked in without incident. He’d gotten a crazy idea into his head while roaming the ship, and hadn’t been able to shake it. Maarek remembered clearly his time at Victor’s base, and his first glimpse of the Archon fighter. The ship’s system connected directly with a pilot’s brain, making man and machine temporarily one. Flying had been intuitive, instinctive. But in order for the connection to work, he’d had to be modified, have special connections implanted in the back of his head. So far he’d managed to keep that a secret after returning to the NI. But, like some kind of eternal itch that needed scratching, he needed to use the connection again.

     Walking quickly across the cavernous hangar – a space large enough to fit medium-sized capital ships – he headed not in the direction of Inferno’s TIE Avatars, but toward one of the gleaming Altarin’Dakor fighters sitting on the flight deck. The ship looked equally as suited to atmospheric flight as space travel, with broad wings and sharp rudders fins. It was no Archon, but perhaps… He’d heard that even basic AD craft had systems that linked the pilot with the computer, increasing reaction time and accuracy while cutting down on inertia and pain effects. He knew such as system wouldn’t compared to the Archon’s advanced artificial intelligence, but maybe it would be just enough…

     Looking around once more to make sure no one was coming, he climbed the access ladder at the ship’s nose and slipped into the dark cockpit. Again he felt a twinge of guilt for doing something this stupid. He knew that if he fired up the ship that it would trigger alarms. But all he had to do was interface with the computer. Besides, he wanted to see what an Altarin’Dakor fighter could do from the inside.

     Slowly, hesitantly, he sat back in the seat, leaning back against the headrest. His neck touched against something cool and metal, and he felt a tingle move across his skin there. Then suddenly, everything changed. In his mind, he could see all the fighter’s systems, coming online as though they had a will of their own. A warm feeling suddenly rushed down through his nerves, and his nervousness and indecision vanished. Again, it was no Archon, with it’s total pilot-fighter integration, but it was still a rush he hadn’t had in a long time. Suddenly he felt himself activating the fighter, closing the canopy, disconnecting the locking clamps and raising it up on its repulsorlifts. The engines came online with a whine, and then he was rushing across the surface of the hangar, bearing out towards the dark opening into the depths of space.

     Dimly he became aware of the alarms blaring inside the cockpit. He looked down at horror at the warning screens flashing in front of him, at the words flashing in a language he didn’t know. What have I done?

     Then a voice came loudly in his ears. “Attention unauthorized craft, cease activity immediately or you will be destroyed!”

     Stang! Fighting against his own will, he managed to grab the controls and slow the fighter to a stop. Almost every part of him wanted to keep flying, to feel the rush of battle. His adrenaline flow must be working overtime. Mentally he forced himself to stabilize, then fumbled for what he assumed was the commlink. “Uh… Don’t shoot! Affirmative,” he called out frantically. “I am complying.”

     Breathing heavily, he turned the fighter around to face the massive ship. If they had wanted to kill him, he wouldn’t have had a chance. His fighter lurched and bucked as an invisible hand grabbed it and started drawing him toward the hangar he’d left. What were they going to do with him? Surely now they would know about the implants. Now, once again, he was being taken by the Altarin’Dakor. How had he been so stupid? What if they temporarily forgot their NI allegiance? He swallowed hard, trying not to think about that. He wasn’t afraid to die in combat, but he didn’t want to lose his life because of a stupid mistake that he’d made…

     Then the hangar lights came on full, flooding his vision light. He felt something strange then, a brief pain starting in his neck and running down his body. His eyelids began to close of their own accord, and his body sagged as if all his strength had left him. Then his eyes fell shut, and unconsciousness took him…


                                                *                                              *                                              *



                Royal Palace, Varnus

                1830 Hours


                “There you go. How’s that?” Doctor Hal Vannik, chief physician of the Varnusan Palace, asked his patient. Making a few last adjustments with his multitool, he pushed the access hatch on the upper biceps closed. The blaster scouring on his arm had been removed, as well.

     “Hmm. That’s a lot better,” Atridd Xoan said with satisfaction. He curled his artificial right arm up and down a couple of times, and flexed his fingers. “The articulation’s much smoother.”

     “Good. We can’t have that thing malfunctioning in the middle of, say, lightsaber combat. You might cut yourself in half,” Vannik said with a jocular grin. The dark-skinned man pulled off his sanitation gloves and ran a hand through his short gray hair.

     Xoan gave a nervous laugh. “Yeah, I don’t think I want any more mechanical parts.” He looked down at the silver metal limb, attached to his arm where his shoulder would have ended, had it not been sliced off by the Jedicon Turles. He’d lost his right arm in dueling the warrior, fighting alongside his companions, including Rynn Mariel, Alyx Misnera, Icis Novitaar, Draken Ar’Kell, and Omega Kira. All of them together hadn’t been able to even touch such a powerful man. Fortunately, Turles didn’t represent a typical Jedicon. He had been the exception. And they had all grown since that time, as well.

     “Have you considered growing yourself a new arm at all?” Vannik asked. “I still don’t understand why you would actually prefer a cybernetic limb.”

     “It’s a reminder to me,” Atridd said, manipulating his wrist. “You can’t just rush into things. Anger is a dangerous thing. I’ve learned to think things through before acting. Besides, it’s functional enough.” He set his arm back down onto the medical table.

     Dr. Vannik nodded, then reached over the table and placed a datapad in front of him. “Well, in that case, there’s something I’ve been thinking about. It’s about those special adjustments you’ve made to your arm. It’s not just a prosthetic, it’s a weapon unto itself.” He turned on the datapad and glanced through the readouts. “Pop-up mini-blaster in the wrist. Extendible spare lightsaber in the inner arm. Pretty radical stuff. What made you do all this?”

     “I guess it just fits my personality,” Xoan answered with a heavy sigh. “Lots of contingency plans. Considering my job, I need as many as I can get. I can’t always rely on the Force alone. When I decided to follow Xar and help him out, that includes going into some pretty dangerous situations. I’ll do whatever I can to stay prepared, for whatever situation my come up.”

     Vannik gave him a coarse grin. “I just hope you know what you’re getting into, my friend.”


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Library Rooms

                Planet Varnus

                1900 Hours


                The man who now went by the name of Bren sat at his table in the quiet palace library and reached for another text. Once, many lifetimes ago, he had called himself by a different name: Lasitus. That had been before his imprisonment in a stasis field, before his discovery by the New Imperium and the loss of his memories. He’d struggled to remember what he’d lost, until he’d met someone from his past who had restored the hidden areas in his mind. Or had he?

     He flipped through the old book, but his thoughts were elsewhere. He’ realized recently that maybe Akargan hadn’t restored his true memories. Those memories of his other life, of being a brutal Altarin’Dakor war general, a killing machine, a butcher – how could they be true? Such thoughts were utterly reviling to him now. And the other things Akargan had revealed, other things he’d done, and the friendship that he and Akargan had once shared; were they true as well? The Warlord had been so powerful, he’d broken through Bren’s consciousness like a hammer, casually going through his memories, throwing open sealed doors and forgotten passageways. If his telepathic powers were that strong, then how much harder would it have been to simply implant the memories he wanted Bren to remember? It could be that none of these new, frightening memories were real. Maybe that’s just what Akargan wanted him to believe, what he wanted Bren to become, so the Warlord could use him. The person known as Bren was a completely different individual, useless to a Shok’Thola. But Lasitus, if he could be revived, could be a strong ally to Akargan.

     Bren suspected that only time would reveal the truth. There was no way to discern the true memories at this point, or to know how much more he still hadn’t remembered. All he could do was cope with what was already in his mind, and try to live as best he could until the truth came out. Whether or not Lasitus was inside him, he was Bren now. And Bren was a gentle, peace-loving person who would only use his powers for good, to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves. Through his studies, and long hours in the library, he would grow closer to the Force, learn more about its true nature, and study this new galaxy, its past, and what secrets remained.

     Not many people were in the library at this time in the evening, so his thoughts were interrupted as the door opened and two figures entered. He looked up to see who it was. The first was, surprisingly, the former Grand Master, Xar Kerensky. And following behind him was… Bren’s breath caught in his chest. A sense of half-recognition came over him, sparking some unknown memory as the tall woman entered. Suddenly the room seemed less spacious, felt too plain and simple to accommodate her. She was thin and well-proportioned, dressed in a full, long white dress. Her long brown hair fell from her head in multi-braided locks. She was beautiful. For some reason it didn’t feel right merely to be sitting in her presence.

     “Hi, Bren,” Xar said, stuffing his hands into his large cloak pockets. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

     The woman’s gaze swept across the room before finally settling on Bren. What was at first a disinterested look vanished immediately as her eyes widened. So, she recognized him.

     What happened next was something he never expected.

     Wu’sha, Voxavit!” she barked out sternly. Beside her, Xar flinched at the unexpected outburst.

     The next thing Bren knew, he was out of his chair and on his knees in front of her, instinctively obeying her command to kneel in her presence. He looked up in surprise, realizing what he had done. The command was ingrained in all warriors who were graced with the honor of actually seeing a Shok’Thola. Now he realized the truth; he was standing before one of the supreme warlords of the Servants of Power.

     Seemingly satisfied, her mouth made a hint of a smile. “Sha. Dou walama,” she said, asking him to stand. “Ja namen, Vox’Indant Lasitus.

     Ka namen, Shok’Thola.” he said, returning the proper greeting as he stood. When he’d awakened out of stasis, he’d had to learn the language these people called Basic. But even during his sleep, he hadn’t forgotten his native tongue.

     “You two… know each other?” Xar asked, arching an eyebrow at both of them.

     Inwardly, Bren nodded. Of course – Xar could comprehend and speak Altarin, as well. “I do not know who she is,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But I know what her position is.” Mentally he sized up the woman in front of him. She was dangerous; that much had been obvious from the moment she’d walked in. Now he tried to be as proper as he could – Warlord tempers were things of legend. Displease them, and you would not live long. That is, if they were kind enough to give you a quick death.

     “We’ve never met,” the woman said, flawlessly switching into Basic. “But I have seen images, and as you recall, I have a perfect memory.” She smiled faintly then. “I am Zalaria. Surprising that you haven’t heard of my presence here. I certainly have heard of you. Who doesn’t know the story of Vox’Indant Lasitus, hero of the Final Battle of Varnus? It was your sacrifice that allowed countless of our forces to escape the jaws of the enemy. You are a living legend – albeit something of a relic, now.”

     Bren closed his eyes. So, she was Zalaria. Having run through his mental list of living Shok’Thola at the time of his capture, he’d guessed it was her. He swallowed. Well, I guess it could be worse… but not by much, he thought, feeling a creeping anxiety inside. Asellus would have been worse.

     “A battle… on Varnus?” Xar asked, his expression truly puzzled, now. “You never told me about that.”

     Bren looked at him, the memories of that bloody dream returning to him. Those memories were too fresh, not completely dealt with. “It was the battle in which I was captured.”

     “Everyone thought you died in that battle,” Zalaria said, stepping closer. “I admit I would never have expected to see you here on the same world. How is it that you are alive… and in this Age, especially?”

     “We found him in a stasis container in an underground treasury on Moro,” Xar stepped in, answering for Bren. “The Krri’Graq had acquired it sometime in the ancient past and kept it there. The thing was only half-working when we found it, and it was amazing that we were able to reactivate it. But when he woke up, he’d suffered from almost complete amnesia.”

     Zalaria reached up and tapped her chin thoughtfully. “And now? How much do you remember?”

     “Frankly, I’m not sure,” Bren said truthfully. He realized that there was no way he could lie in front of her. All that about his meeting with Akargan and his restored memories was about to come out. Taking a deep breath, he started telling her everything. He told them about the dreams, how Akargan came to visit him. Later, he’d sought out Akargan himself. It was the only way he knew he could get some answers. Akargan had gone through his head, sorting things around, supposedly restoring his old memories.

     “But I don’t know if those memories are true, or something Akargan put there to… change me,” he finished. “I’m not like the man I used to be. These images, these memories… They’re revolting to me.”

     “You left Varnus without permission?” Xar asked in shock. “You contacted another Warlord?”

     “I am sorry,” Bren said honestly. “I have betrayed your trust.”

     “This is serious,” Zalaria said, glancing at Xar. “If Akargan has gone so far as to visit Varnus, we could be in serious danger. He’s probably using Lasitus to get to us.”

     “If he attacks, do you think we’ll be able to stop him?” Xar asked her hesitantly.

     She seemed to consider for a moment. “Akargan is stronger than I am, and he has a powerful fleet presence. If his goal is all-out conquest, then the combined NI forces may be able to stop him. If he attacks directly… Well, the difference isn’t that great. We might be able to defeat him, if you brought most of your Jedi together to help me.”

     Most of them?” Xar swallowed visibly.

     “For what it’s worth, I’m fairly sure that’s not going to happen,” Bren spoke up. “I don’t think he’s interested in conquering the New Imperium right now. He wanted me to help with something else, but I don’t know what.”

     “And why should I trust you?” She asked, her eyes narrowing.

     “I still trust him,” Xar said, looking at Bren. “He was honest enough about it now. He saved Alyx’s life. Bren has been one of the most open and kind people I’ve ever met. You’ve been an honorable man as long as I’ve known you, Bren.”

     Astonishingly, she seemed to accept Xar’s words. Bren glanced between the two, realizing something that he’d skipped over before. He’d heard about Xar being in love with an Altarin’Dakor woman. Could they be… together? It must be, as impossible as that sounded. Bren seriously hoped that Xar knew what he was getting into. He decided to speak up.

     “Then in that case, can you tell me something, Xar? How is it that Zalaria is here, and on our side?”

     Xar glanced at the woman beside him. “When I was captured by the Altarin’Dakor during the attack on Varnus, I met Zalaria. She saved my life, and Bonded me through the Force. After that, we were connected to one another. As you know I later went off on my own – it was in search of her. She decided to come back with me and fight on our side.”

     Zalaria smiled, increasing her beauty even further. “I know it sounds hard to believe, but it really is that simple. Xar and I share a special bond, and I’m afraid we were both changed by it. Suddenly both our interests became much… closer.”

     “I see,” Bren said, though he still found it hard to imagine being in their positions. “And so you’re fighting with us against the rest of the Altarin’Dakor?”

     “Of course. We Altarin’Dakor are always squabbling amongst one another, as I’m sure you’re well aware.”

     Xar grinned. “Bren’s got the same kind of Force philosophy that Rynn Mariel does.”

     Zalaria looked at him curiously. “Really? You don’t believe in using your power for combat?”

     “Well, I’ll fight if I have to, but only to protect others from harm,” Bren said candidly. “But I’m not training merely to fight or increase my strength. I believe there’s a lot that we all can learn through study and meditation.”

     He expected criticism from her, but instead she gave a thoughtful hum. “That’s interesting. Perhaps you would be more useful to the New Imperium’s cause this way.”

     Bren arched an eyebrow. She spoke up in explanation. “There are many facets of the One Force. The living aspect, the present aspect. The various multicolored sides. And also, there are two distinct ways of using the Force’s power within you. Most Jedi train to develop their maximum potential or skill level, usually for combat. However, the more you focus on the Force as a power, the less you are able to sense its finer flows, be conscious of its presence. Additionally, you lose the ability to really communicate with it.”

     “Right,” Xar continued. “But those who focus on the Force’s presence, or Sense aspect, are better able to understand its flows. Precognition, telepathy, sensing the future – all this is developed and refined, but at the price of losing the pure Power aspect.”

     “The Altarin’Dakor train almost exclusively in the Power aspect,” Zalaria said, taking up where Xar left off. “Everything is centered on combat, and reaching one’s maximum power level. Virtually all Shok’Thola have developed using this principle, to the point where we no longer have the ability to sense the future. We can still anticipate events to a limited extent, and retain our sense of danger, but we cannot see more than that. And, as you know, this is the foundation of our philosophy. The Altarin’Dakor believe in making their own future.”

     Xar crossed his arms in front of him. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing here, as well. Out of necessity. The Jedicon are so strong that we have to focus purely on the Power aspect to match them. Precognition is great, but if your enemy is many times stronger than you, knowledge probably can’t stop them.” Bren blinked. He didn’t agree at all.

     Zalaria looked knowingly up at Bren. Although he was quite a bit taller than she, that gaze made him feel small before her. “You have strong latent power in the Force,” she said. “I can sense it within you, but it hasn’t been released yet. You would be stronger than Xar, if you release it. However, that same energy can be used to give us an immense strategic advantage. With several key Jedi studying the Sense Force, we can anticipate every move our enemy makes, and act accordingly.”

     Bren nodded, realization coming to him. “Of course. That’s been your plan all along, hasn’t it?” he asked. “You make it seem like you disapprove, but you actually want some of us to shun the Power aspect and focus on the Force’s natural flow. You want Rynn, myself and the others to do it. But why are you publicly denouncing it?”

     “You’re extremely perceptive, Bren,” Xar gave a thin smile. “The reason is because we don’t want the enemy to know we’re actively pursuing this strategy. If it were common knowledge that we were all focusing on our precognitive powers, the enemy would strike prematurely, or those who studied that aspect would be murdered. There are that many spies in the NI. But this way, hopefully we can keep the enemy off guard, so they won’t know we’ve discovered this weakness.”

     Zalaria nodded. “And in this war, one weakness is probably all we’re going to find.”


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Chapter Three


                Training Area

                Royal Varnusan Palace

                1030 Hours


                The young boy crossed his arms in front of his face, standing fast against the force of the blow, but still being driven back across the training room floor. His feet slid back across the mat before skidding to a stop. Slowly, he let his guard down and straightened.

     Standing in front of him, Xar held a relaxed stance, feet set apart. Several paces to his left, Ralagos Akala stood, dressed in a broad-shouldered torso armor and pants cut off at the knee, revealing his sinewy-muscled, fur-covered body. The Togarian’s fur was a mix of mostly grays and browns, with a few black stripes and splotches here and there. Despite his more than two-meter height, his body was proportionately slender and seemed poised for movement at any moment. His face was composed, noble-looking, and very feline with his whiskers, short mane, and upturned ears.

     Xar looked back at the boy on the other side of the room. Just recently having turned eleven, Derek had probably been the single most important find of his life. Captured on a backwater world by the rogue Jedicon Turles, he’d been used to summon the energy of a powerful Force crystal artifact to boost the Jedicon’s power. An orphan of some years, the youth had eagerly accepted Xar’s offer to come to the palace and train using his uncanny natural Force abilities. Derek had grown much since coming here, and continued to grow almost daily. He seemed to have nearly limitless potential, and no matter how hard Xar pushed him, the boy met every challenge.

     “Okay, that’s good enough for a warm-up,” Xar said. “I think it’s time to start. Ready, Derek?”

     Derek stepped back with his right foot into a fighting stance, fists clenched tightly in front of him. “Ready…” he said, his voice nearly a growl. He was focused, very focused.

     “All right!” With a shout, Xar stepped into a wide, even stance and began to draw deeply on the Force. He curled his arms up to waist level, clenching his fists, as he opened himself up to the torrent of Force power within. He struggled to tighten every muscle in his body, to focus completely on building his strength. As his energy level began to rise, he began to emit a wordless yell, focusing all his concentration on building up his strength. His voice echoed off the thick walls, and the air around him seemed to ripple, his hair suddenly rising and standing on end.

     Beside him, Ralagos began to power up as well, standing in a more relaxed stance, his arms crossed in front of his chest. His slit-pupil eyes focused on Derek, and his mouth opened in a deep roar that built as his energies grew. As the two Jedi increased their powers, their natural Spheres of Projection began to clash and interact, causing a rumble that started low, then built as the floor began to shake. Loose objects around the room began to rattle as the floor vibrated underneath them. Together, the two Jedi could literally bring the whole palace down around them.

     Despite all this happening in front of him, Derek showed no sign of breaking his focus. Instead he let out a growl, focusing his power within, refusing to be intimidated. His eyes flashed from one to the other, clearly trying to anticipate who was going to attack first.

     But suddenly both Jedi moved at once, launching off toward him from two different directions. Their motions were a blur as they rushed forward with Force-enhanced speed. Within two seconds they were on Derek.

     Xar struck first with a blurring-fast round-kick, his left foot aimed at the boy’s head level. But instead of ducking, Derek jumped backward quickly out of range, then brought his right arm up to parry a powerful straight punch from the large Togarian. Amazingly, Derek’s arm met the blow without a quiver, solid as steel. Then his left hand came down to block a front snap kick launched by Xar. Again, not so much as a slip.

     Then both Jedi came in, attacking simultaneously, the boy’s concentration split between two opponents. Their attacks drove him backwards as he focused on defending himself. He blocked their punches and kicks with his small arms and legs, possessing more strength than a normal man ever could. The motions of the three combatants would be just a blur to the normal eye, but Derek’s face showed no fear whatsoever. He had learned the focus of a Jedi in battle.

     Then, exploiting a weak spot in Xar’s attack, he drove forward on the offensive, throwing a lightning-fast punch at the man’s stomach. Xar lurched backward, avoiding the blow, then Force-leapt up into the air, using levitation to float up far over the boy’s head.

     But Derek wasn’t distracted by the ploy, and he managed to keep his attention on the other enemy. Taking advantage of Xar’s move, Ralagos jumped backwards, brought his hands up together in front of him, and launched a ball of white-hot Force energy out of his hands toward Derek. Reacting almost instantly, the boy brought up his own hands to catch the blast. He met the attack straight on, containing and blocking the energy, then threw his hands upward, sending the blast straight up – directly toward Xar. It was brilliant move, but not enough to catch the Jedi Master off guard. Xar quickly flew to the side, and the ball of energy struck the ceiling and exploded. Dust and pieces of hot ceiling began to rain down onto the combatants.

     Then Ralagos’ fist crashed across the boy’s face, catching him off guard while his attention was still above. Derek yelled out as he reeled away from the blow, flying back four meters through the air before crashing down onto the mat. His body stiffened, and he let out a grunt of pain.

     Xar lowered himself back down to the ground beside Ralagos. “Impressive,” he said of the boy.

     “Yes,” Ralagos agreed, looking down at the boy lying face-down on the mat. He gave a brief snort. “I think that is enough for today.” He dropped his guard, letting his hands fall to his sides.

     “No…” a strained voice came from the floor in front of them. Derek’s fists clenched tightly with apparent pain. Bringing his arms up in front of him, he pushed himself off the padded floor and looked up, his hair matted with sweat onto his forehead. His face was a mask of determination, and only a red spot on his cheek revealed what had happened. “No! Keep going!” he shouted. “I want… I want to be as strong as you two are!”

     Xar leveled his gaze at the young boy. “Derek, one day you will be the most powerful Jedi in the galaxy. But be patient. It’ll take time. You have to keep pushing, pacing yourself. Find your limits and push them even further. Your true power hasn’t even begun to reveal itself yet, and when it does, you’ll be far stronger than even we are. You must let go of any hesitation, any stray thought, and become one with the Force inside you.”

     “I will,” Derek said, his small bluish-gray eyes narrowing. “Let’s continue. I’m ready.”

     Xar and Ralagos exchanged glances, then the Togarian nodded.

     As Derek brought his guard back up, the two Jedi came in again. Still powered up from before, they immediately went on the offensive together. This time, Derek rushed forward to meet them. He ducked underneath a wide punch by Xar, then brought his arm up to block a round-kick from Akala.  Then he side-stepped between the two adults and spun around to attack Ralagos from behind. Akala turned and parried the boy’s punch to the side, then swept out a hooking punch that Derek quickly ducked beneath. He made as if to attack Ralagos again, but Xar forced him to go on the offensive as he stepped in with a side kick. Slapping the leg to the side, Derek jumped forward again with a punch aimed at his midsection. This time, the blow connected. Xar’s body tightened and took the blow as if it were nothing; the Jedi Master’s return kick caught Derek in the side and sent him sprawling away to his left.

     “No!” Derek shouted, catching his balance and turning back to face another assault from the Togarian. Xar hung back, watching the two carefully. Derek rushed forward and met the Togarian’s attacks blow for blow. Xar smiled slightly, deciding to try a new tactic. He reached out toward the boy with the Force, feeling his powerful energy level, searching out the spot in his mind where his connection was strongest. Derek seemed to notice the intrusion straight off; wincing, he began to fight back with his own mind, even while parrying blows from Ralagos.

     Xar fought with the boy for a moment, their invisible struggle unnoticed by anyone else. He pushed in, and was driven back. Pushed in again, to the same effect. Finally, drawing more deeply on his latent energy, he forced his way through Derek’s barriers, intending to break Derek’s concentration and shield his ability to touch the Force. He almost made it.

     Then something happened that he never would have expected.

     “NO!” Derek shouted just as Xar had almost trapped him. Suddenly the boy’s power level spiked, and a wave of air and energy erupted out from his body, destroying Xar’s probe and lifting the Togarian completely off his feet. Xar watched in surprise as Ralagos was hurled backward through the air and crashed into the far wall, breaking off pieces of ferrocrete and sending cracks out away from the impact. He was powered all the way up to his limit of 18,000, Xar thought in shock, Yet he was thrown back like a doll.

     Then Xar’s concentration was brought back to the present as he felt an invisible blast of Force energy hit him. Derek was going on the offensive! Instinctively Xar erected a shield around himself, then drew even more deeply onto the Force, about half as much as he could safely hold. If the boy could actually exceed 25,000, this was going to get ugly… The boy seemed to have snapped; his focus was completely on Xar now, and he was letting out a roar that matched the waves of Force energy pulsing out of him. 

     Raising his hands in front of him, Xar let out a counter attack, pushing at Derek’s wall of energy with his own. A ripple of air seemed to move through the space between them where their barriers met. The room had begun shaking again, more violently than before, and pieces of plaster began raining down on them from above.

     Xar succeeded in driving Derek’s wave back half the distance, then the boy’s intensity increased. His voice grew louder, and his face was contorted into a mask of concentration. The force of his barrier increased, driving Xar’s back now, forcing him to draw even more power to push back the assault.

     Xar narrowed his eyes. He’d had enough of this. Derek had definitely reached a new level, but there was no sense in taking the palace down in the process. Diverting some of his power elsewhere, he levitated the largest piece of debris that had fallen and sent it flying across the room at the boy. With Derek’s concentration totally on Xar, he was oblivious to the subtle threat approaching him from behind. The debris clipped him on the back of the head and pitched him off balance.

     The boy’s attack ceased instantly, almost as if it had never existed. Xar dropped his wall of force as well, but not before it struck the stunned boy hard enough to drive him back across the room like Akala had been a moment before.

     Immediately, Xar dropped his power level down and Force-leapt across the length of the room. He landed in front of the boy, who was sprawled out on his back, head beginning to lift off the floor. “Derek! Are you all right?” Xar asked, greatly fearing that he may have hurt the boy seriously.

     Slowly, Derek raised himself up on his elbows and managed a wry-looking smile. “Mister Xar… Wow. What happened?”

     Sighing with relief, Xar pulled the boy into a fierce hug. Then he drew back, holding him by the shoulders. “Don’t you remember what happened, Derek? You just knocked the stuffing out of Mister Ralagos.” He looked over at the large Togarian, who was just picking himself up off the floor. Akala was emitting a low, guttural roar, one clawed hand held up to his head. Seeing such a sight, Xar couldn’t help but smile back down at the boy.

     “Did I? I don’t remember what happened clearly,” Derek admitted, shaking his head slowly. “I remember fighting Mister Ralagos one minute, then everything went blurry.”

    “Is that right?” Xar said, mentally jotting down a note to himself. I’ll have to remember that, he thought. If Derek’s power could be triggered by intense emotion, it could be hard to control, especially if he didn’t remember using that energy. It was as if someone else were inside Derek, and was only released when the boy was angry enough.

     Xar helped the boy up on his feet. “Well, I definitely think that’s enough for today,” he said mirthfully. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

     “I’m okay,” Derek said, returning to his normal, easygoing character. “Just a little sore, I think. I’m sorry if I hurt Mister Ralagos. Are you okay?” he asked, heading to the Togarian, concern on his face.

     Ralagos had been walking toward them, and despite one hand on his head, he gave a fanged grin. “I am fine, Derek.” He dropped down to his knees in front of the boy. “You are too nice for me to injure in battle.”

     Derek gave a knowing grin in front of the Adept. “Okay. I’m just glad you’re not gonna eat me.”

     Ralagos dropped his hand and made an amused growl. They’d been through this before, many times. Though Togarian males had a large capacity for hostility, it was equally matched by their amicability.

     Derek laughed, then reached out to rub the Togarian on the head. Akala winced, but seemed to enjoy the attention nonetheless. Xar shook his head in amazement. Already, the incident of a few minutes ago was over for Derek. He didn’t doubt the boy would be ready to go a few more rounds if given the chance. Far tougher than durasteel, he thought, watching the two laughing together. I wish I could be like him, some day.

     “Derek,” he said, his voice naturally taking a more lecturing tone. “Even though your reaction just now was instinctive, there’s an important lesson to be learned here. Being a Jedi is not about how powerful you can become, nor is combat determined by power level alone. You were so focused on the brute force of our struggle that you didn’t notice the subtle target coming at you from behind. The more you narrow your concentration, the less aware you are of what’s around you. It’s possible to be very powerful and still not lose your ability to sense the small things.”

     “All right, I’ll work on that,” Derek said, never breaking his stride of cheerfulness. He didn’t seem to have a worry in the universe.

     “Okay then. I think it’s time we clean ourselves up,” Xar said. He glanced ruefully around the training room. “And let’s get someone to clean up this mess while we’re at it.”


                Rynn Mariel emerged from the ‘fresher and pulled out a thick towel large enough to cover her from her chest down to her knees. She fastened it securely around her body, then picked up a smaller towel and began wrapping up her long, auburn hair. Feeling the cool room air on her moist skin, she sighed with comfort. Life is so much better after a hot bath, she decided.

     Suddenly the sound of her door chime cut through the silence, and she made a vexed expression. “Who is it?” she asked.

     “Hey, Miss Rynn?” a young voice came over the speakers.  “It’s me, Derek. Can I come in?

     “Of course, Derek!” she answered at once, her spirits brightening. “Come right in!”

     Recognizing her voice, the door unlocked, admitting her favorite eleven-year old ‘nephew’ – that’s how she’d informally adopted him. As he entered, though, her smile of delight vanished into concern. He didn’t look exactly how she’d expected.

     “Derek! What in the world happened to you?” she exclaimed. The boy was covered in dust and dirt from head to foot. Furthermore, she could see a slight discoloration on his cheek, as well as other bumps and scratches on his forearms and hands.

     “Me? Aw, nuthin’,” the boy replied somewhat sheepishly. He glanced down at his hands, then rubbed them on his dust-covered pants. “I was just training with Mister Xar this morning.”

     “Again?” she asked, moving over to her bed and sitting down while she continued drying her hair. “What happened? You look terrible, you should use my ‘fresher to get cleaned up.”

     “That’s okay,” he said, walking over to sit on the nearby couch. Her apartment was fairly spacious, as were most of the Jedi rooms in the Palace, and well furnished and decorated. Her room was a combination of native Varnusan décor, with a few artifacts and things she’d brought from home.

     “We just had a pretty tough workout today,” Derek said, passing it off as if it were nothing. “Mister Ralagos was there, too.” He looked up at her with an expression of friendship and delight. Rynn smiled inwardly at the thought of him, totally oblivious that she was wrapped only in her long, white towel. In a few more years, his thoughts would be quite different.

     Still, her slight amusement was spoiled by a much warmer anger at his physical shape. “So that’s what I felt a few minutes ago,” she said sternly. “It felt like the whole palace was shaking! Xar should not be so hard on you, Derek.”

     “I can take it,” he replied, the fire of excitement in his eyes. “I have to push myself to the limit so I can become stronger, so I can be the best I can be. I can fight the AD!”

     “Did Xar tell you that?” she asked, feeling suddenly colder.

     “Well, he told me to keep pushing my abilities,” he said, then trailed off as he looked at her. “What’s wrong?

     “Derek, you don’t need to fight the AD. You can’t, nor should you have to. That’s the job of others, like myself and Xar. You don’t even need to train hard. If anything, you should be able to attend school, make friends and play, just enjoy a normal life.”

     “But I like it just how it is,” he argued softly.

     She sighed, feeling both sad and responsible for the boy. “Well, I’m going to go talk to him about this. You should at least go a lot easier in your Jedi training. Fighting is not everything, Derek. If you focus too much on fighting and gaining power, you’ll lose your ability to sense the Force and its will. Did you know that?”

     “I’ve heard it before,” he answered with a shrug. “I don’t know, though. I can still hear the Force talking to me just fine.”

     Rynn blinked in surprise. “You hear it talking to you?”

     He looked up to meet her gaze. “Sure. Not in words, really, but more like seeing a Holo of someone that shows everything that’s around them. It lets me know things, and it lets me see things about people.”

     Rynn shook her head, trying to balance her indignation with her sudden curiosity about this. She’d heard that Derek had some unique abilities, and that he’d already known many things about the Force when Xar first met him. She shook those thoughts away for now, though. They could wait until later.

     “I’m going to get dressed and then go talk to Xar,” she told him. “Don’t worry about it, you go on back to your room and get cleaned up, all right?”

     “Okay,” he promised, nodding. “See you later. Don’t be too hard on him, okay?”

     Rynn grinned despite herself. “I’ll take care of him,” she said.


                Xar and Ralagos were still walking through the corridors of the training wing. Derek had gone off to freshen up, but was probably making his usual rounds of the palace. He always dropped in on the friends he’d made, especially among the Jedi. Virtually everyone was open and friendly to him, as if he were part of the family here. He was definitely more accepted by all the Jedi than they were willing to tolerate one another.

     As they were moving through the hallway, they rounded a corner and came upon four other beings heading straight toward them. Xar took in their features with a single glance – two men, a woman, and a green-skinned near-human with distinctly reptilian features. All had strange-looking, black tattoos marking their faces, and their eyes all held a similar fire. The men had long hair, one with light and one with dark. The woman’s was closely cropped, and blonde. At the sight of them, Xar immediately tensed, fighting the instinctive urge to draw deeply on the Force.

     “Xar, they are on our side,” Ralagos whispered lightly beside him.

     His words brought Xar back to reality, and he let go with a sigh. He tried not to let on that he’d slipped up, and kept walking purposefully as the four Jedicon passed them. They seemed focused and aware, even when they stared straight ahead, faces betraying no emotion. The three humans had traces of sweat near their hairlines. Apparently they had just finished training. None of them looked his way as they passed.

     Now curious, Xar led the way down the hall to the entrance that the Jedicon had emerged from. It was another large training room, much like the one they’d sparred in earlier. There were a few differences, though. The floor was actually hardwood instead of matted, and along the walls were numerous weapon racks, holding a variety of melee weapons that the Jedi were often trained to use. This room was meant for weapons sparring. As they entered, a loud voice was in the middle of speaking to a group of gathered individuals.

     “…and that’s why this type of training is so important,” said Kiz Thrakus, Jedi Adept and regular trainer for many up-and-coming Jedi. “I hope you’ve all learned a valuable lesson not to overestimate yourselves. What you faced today is just a sample of how it’ll really be…” he broke off as he looked up at the two Jedi who had entered. He nodded in their direction. “Master Kerensky. Good morning.”

     “Likewise,” Xar said, stepping further into the room. “What’s going on?”

     Thrakus took all of them in with a wave of his hand. “Some of our newly-raised Jedi Knights, and a couple of Templars,” he said. “Today they had their first match against real Altarin’Dakor Jedicon, using stunsabers and empty hand techniques.”

     “Really,” Xar said. He glanced at them, arching an eyebrow. “How badly were they beaten?”

     Thrakus’ expression turned grim. “Utterly,” he said. “In fact, they never even scored a hit on any of them. Jedicon never hold back, even in training.”

     Xar nodded, understanding. He took stock of the six gathered Jedi in front of Thrakus, all in various states of disarray. Though they were obviously trying to stand up straight and appear strong, they were failing miserably. Three men, one woman and a Twi’lek male, they were all covered in sweat and bruises. Xar winced as he saw their faces. Most were bruised or bloody in one way or another, and there were two black eyes forming among them, and one man whose forearm was bandaged in a splint, obviously trying to hide the pain from his face.

     Thrakus’ words seemed to have an even more disheartening effect on them, because their small semblance of order broke apart just then. Breaking their line, they spread out and starting going their own ways, not waiting to be dismissed.

     “Hold on there,” Xar called out, stopping them in their tracks. They turned back to look at him, and he motioned for them to move in around them.

     “They did better than I would have expected, from the looks of it,” he said to Thrakus. Then he turned to the assembling group of weary-looking Jedi. “So you know, those people were Kodonn’Dakor, the mid-level stage of Jedicon. Usually they’re equivalent to our Crusader or Paladin ranks, which means you were fighting above your current level. We have to train like this, otherwise we won’t advance fast enough to engage them in real combat. Now, do we have any serious injuries?” he asked, glancing down at the man’s bandaged arm.

     “One of the Jedicon broke his arm with a stunsaber,” Thrakus said softly. “I told him to see Doctor Vannik in the infirmary, since few of us actually know Healing well enough… well, I didn’t want to bother you…”

     “I’ll do it,” Xar broke in, shaking his head. “I admit that even my knowledge in Healing is limited, but I can take care of this. Head over there and sit down,” he told the young man, gesturing toward one of the benches along the wall of the chamber. “The rest of you are free to go.”

      Xar followed the young Jedi Knight over to the seat and sat down next to him. Thrakus came as well, an interested look on his face.

     “What’s your name?” Xar asked the young man as he began removing the splint and bandages. He didn’t recognize the Knight, but then again, he was no longer able to keep up with all the new faces.

     Kip Slocum,” the man replied, wincing as the splint came off. The skin on his forearm was discolored, and his hand hung limp. The fracture wasn’t compound, though. That would make Xar’s task a lot easier.

     Opening himself to the Force, Xar began preparing for the delicate procedure. Healing was far different from any of the offensive powers they practiced; it took skill and precision, as well as an extensive knowledge of biology and human anatomy. Xar was no expert by any means – in fact, he was probably below average for someone who had been the Grand Master – but something simple such as this was within his abilities.

     “So Kiz, it’s been a while since we talked,” he said as he worked. “How’s Lorien doing? She’s due soon, isn’t she?”

     He glanced up at Thrakus and noticed the man’s sheepish grin. “Yeah, it’s getting close, man. Three more weeks to go. We can’t wait.” The excitement in his voice was almost palpable. Xar grinned as well. He knew the thrill and the nervousness that the soon-to-be father was going through, though he’d never experienced it himself. He wondered if he would ever get the chance… Thoughts of a possible child between him and Zalaria made him feel a bit dizzy, even surreal. Besides, they weren’t even married yet, and then, what would she have to say about the idea? He would definitely have to approach that conversation as delicately as possible.

     Focusing back on the task at hand, Xar laid his hands on the man’s injured arm and let the Force flow through him. “By the way, do you know if it’s a boy or girl yet? Thought of any names?”

     Thrakus laughed lightly. “Well, we do know the baby’s gender, and we’ve got an idea on what the name will be. But, if you don’t mind, we’re hoping to keep it secret until the baby’s born, as a surprise for everyone. I know everyone’s talking about it; I think we’ll have plenty of offers for help in the raising.”

     The young man gasped in pain as the broken bone fused back together with an audible crack. “Ah, it’s cold!” he blurted, grabbing his wrist with his other hand. Xar took his hands away, and a moment later Slocum’s breathing had returned to normal.

     “Wow. The pain is virtually gone,” he said, flexing his fingers in awe. “Thank you, Master.”

     “None needed. You’ll still need to go easy on it for a while; it could still be sore,” Xar said, wiping his sweaty hands on his pants legs. He looked back up at Thrakus. “Don’t worry, Kiz. I know it’s going to turn out all right. It’s a dangerous time to bring a new life into the galaxy, but if babies weren’t born during wars, then the current generation wouldn’t exist.”

     “True enough,” Thrakus said thoughtfully, nodding.

     “At any rate,” Xar said, standing. “I’ll be looking forward to the news, and the surprise.”

     “So will I,” Kiz grinned.

     Slocum gave each of them a respectful bow before taking his leave. Then Ralagos, Xar, and Thrakus headed back out into the hallway. They hadn’t gone far when he sensed the Force impression of another Jedi with whom he was familiar. He knew the Force signatures of all his close friends and all those he had trained, and although they usually repressed their natural outward senses, this one was wide open for some reason. It seemed she was looking for him.

     They’d made it through the hallway almost to the turbolifts when she appeared. Stepping out of the second lift, she turned toward them and stopped in surprise, obviously not expecting to see him so soon. She recovered quickly though, and stepped toward them purposefully. Rynn Mariel was dressed in civilian clothes now, a plain shirt and pants, and her hair was braided behind her, extending more than halfway down her back.

    “Master Kerensky,” she said smoothly. “May I speak with you for a moment?”

     Xar could see a fire behind her dark green eyes, one that he’d seen several times before when she was angry about something. He nodded curtly, then turned toward his two companions. “Kiz, Ralagos, go on ahead. I’ll try to meet up with you for lunch.”

     “Um, okay,” Thrakus said, arching an eyebrow but otherwise leaving any questions unasked. He and Ralagos stepped around her into the turbolift, closing the doors behind them.

     “So what can I do for you, Rynn?” he asked after they’d left. He offered a slight smile to try and soften her expression. It did, somewhat.

     “We can take the other lift up, if you want,” she said.

     He nodded, and she led him into the other turbolift and set it for the ground floor. Then she turned to look at him. “Master Kerensky, I know it isn’t my place to inquire about your affairs, but…” she began.

     “You can call me Xar,” he broke in. “You’re one of my closest friends now, and I trust you, and value your advice. You can ask me about anything,” he said candidly.

     “Very well,” she nodded. “Thank you. I think that this is something that needs to be said, and concerns more than just yourself. Well… Derek stopped by my room a few minutes ago. Xar, I think you’re being too hard on him.”

     “Are you referring to today’s training incident?” he asked her.

    “Partially, yes,” she said. Crossing her arms in front of her, she leaned back against the turbolift wall. “He said that you’re pushing him to become stronger, and that he wants to fight against the AD. Xar, he’s just a boy. He shouldn’t have to worry about such things. You wouldn’t actually consider sending him into combat against them, would you?”

     He waited patiently until she finished speaking, but her last words sent a spark of indignation rising inside him. “Rynn, I would never do that. I have no intention whatsoever of exposing Derek to real battle. He is far too young, and though powerful, he has no experience. To send him up against the Altarin’Dakor would be to kill him.”

     She sighed out in obvious relief. “Well, I knew you were wiser than that. But why go so hard on him in training? Why does he have to be trained at all?”

     “It’s not really my intention to train him hard,” he said truthfully. He thought back to the incident earlier, when Derek had demanded to keep going further. “Derek wants to train to the fullest of his abilities, and he wants to help us fight. That’s a child’s nature, but Derek seems to fear nothing at all. Often I find that he’s pushing me, actually.” He gave a slight smile at that.

     “Well, I just want to make sure you have his best interests in mind, not yours, if I may be so frank. Derek isn’t your son, even though you seem to have adopted each other, and you’ve treated him well as any father should. But he’s part of all our family. I just don’t want to see him hurt because the training is pushing him.”

     Xar shrugged and fingered the handrail next to him. The turbolift was about to reach the ground level. “Derek is a very unique boy,” he said. “I love him like he was my own son. I’m certain that his latent Force abilities are going to come out naturally, whether he trains or not. If he doesn’t learn to control them, then he could be a hazard, not only to himself, but to anyone around him.”

     “And that’s why you’re training him?” she asked.

     “Yes.” He paused for a moment, trying to form the words he wanted to say. “Rynn, I want to tell you something that I’d like you to keep between us,” he said, letting his voice drop to a quieter tone.

     She looked up at him expectantly, her eyes widening. If only she knew how important this information might be someday…

     “We all have a natural limit to our Force Potential,” he began. “Most Jedi don’t train hard enough to bump up against that level, but it can be done. It’s a natural part of the Power focus. Of course, you know this much already. It takes away your sense in other areas of the Force.” He stared down at the floor of the lift, suddenly gripping the handrail hard. “Rynn, I’ve reached the point where I can’t go any further. Something I learned from the AD: fifty thousand – by our Force Scanners – is the limit, even among the most powerful Jedi. People like the Emperor, Exar Kun, it doesn’t matter. No one knows why, but excepting the Warlords, that’s as high as you can go. I’ve been at that level for a month now, and no matter how hard I train, I can’t go any higher. I know how powerful that seems to you – it’s more than anyone else in the New Imperium or the known galaxy – but inside, I know that it’s not enough. Not nearly enough. There must be a way to go higher, and if there is, I have to find it, if we’re to have any chance of survival.”

     Her brow was narrowed in concern as she listened, eyes fixed. Suddenly the turbolift stopped, and he turned to look at her just before the doors opened.

     “Rynn, the reason I am telling you this is because of Derek. It’s because… I believe that Derek doesn’t have a limit.” He paused, letting the simple words sink in. “Do you know what that means? There may be no limit to his Force Potential. He won’t just be the most powerful Jedi ever, he’ll become something different, something greater than we can even imagine.”

     “Are you sure? What… What would that mean?” Rynn asked as the doors swished open.

     “I don’t know entirely,” he said, stepping forward. She moved alongside to follow. The corridor was empty around them, so he continued.

     “But I do know some things. First, it means that he must learn to control his power. Secondly, it means that if the wrong person finds out what we know, then Derek’s life will be in serious danger. And finally,” he said, looking straight at her, “it means that we have to keep him safe at any cost. He has some destiny to fulfill, something greater than all of us, and it’s fallen into our custody to make sure he’s ready for it.”

     Slowly, she nodded. “If that’s true, then I understand what you’re doing. Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me this.”

     Looking back at her, he grinned. “Don’t worry, Rynn. It may sound crazy. But I’m not out of my mind just yet.” He walked forward, his grin fading as he thought about that. “Not yet,” he said.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Briefing Room

                Titan-class Battleship Nexus

                0700 Hours


                “Are you out of your friggin’ mind!?”

     Maarek Stele stood at brisk attention as the man in front of him continued his ear-shattering berating. Commodore Laskley stood in front of him, his face livid with anger. “What were you trying to do, start a full-scale war?”

     “No, sir.” Maarek tried hard not to flinch as the man’s spittle sprayed on the front of his uniform tunic.

     The middle-aged officer ignored Maarek’s obligatory answers, his face a mask of anger. “Do you have any idea how close you came to being killed? I had to convince the ship’s gunnery officer not to shoot you after we had you sedated and under tow! That aircraft you hopped into for your little joyride costs more than you’ll ever earn in your whole life. I just hope this crazy stunt you pulled doesn’t completely destroy our relations with our generous friends here,” Laskley said, pausing to give a respectful nod to the Altarin’Dakor officer present. A tall, well-built man in his middle years, he had a clean-shaven head and wore a remarkably plain, gray uniform. Ignoring Laskley’s remark, he stood at attention, staring straight out in front of him.

     Maarek repressed a sigh. He really shouldn’t have to stand here like this. He had nothing to do with this ship or the NI contingent stationed here, and the commodore technically didn’t have the authority to hold him here. All this yelling was just for show, to kiss up to the AD present. They needed to alienate Maarek in order to prove how grateful they were for the Altarin’Dakor’s help. What a farce.

     “Are you listening to me, Commander!?” Laskley shouted, interrupting Maarek’s thoughts.

     “Yes sir,” Maarek answered, stiffening.

    “Well? I asked you a question!” Laskley’s expression turned decidedly impatient.

     What question had it been? Maarek thought frantically. Maybe he was asking for Maarek’s reasons again. But he was too late to respond.

     “I see,” Laskley said gruffly, one eyebrow arched high. “Well, I hope your little trip was worth it, because your chances of getting a squadron of the new Avatars flew out into the Void along with you!”

     Instinctively, Maarek clenched his fists tight, seething inside. He managed to keep from making an outburst, though. I don’t have to take this, he thought to himself. What does he know? He doesn’t have the authority.

    “But I tell you one thing, mister,” Laskley continued. “You’re not causing any more trouble for me. I want you off my ship. I’ve contacted the NIMB on this, and they’ve given me these instructions.” He thrust a hand out to a waiting ensign, who placed a sheet of flimsy in his hand. He thrust it toward Maarek.

     “Whatever possessed you to try and steal an AD fighter craft is beyond me. Obviously you’re either insane or suffering from some serious stress and tension. Here, do you know what this means?”

     “No sir,” Maarek answered, taking the paper and looking curiously down at it.

     “Exception order 1138. It’s a tour of absence,” Laskley said. “You’ve been assigned shore leave on Jengar. The rest of your squadron will be going with you.”

     This time, Maarek couldn’t contain his reaction. “What?!” he exploded in anger. “You can’t be serious! There’s a war going on! Jengar’s a backwater – nobody goes there. Even the AD haven’t gone there.”

     “Which is why it’s a perfect place for you, isn’t it?” the commodore said, his tone full of sarcasm. “The last thing you need is to interact with Altarin’Dakor. You’re to head for Jengar immediately. There, you’ll hook up with the local security forces and stay there until you’re deemed fit to return to full duty.”

     Maarek blinked at the paper in disbelief, then looked back up at the commodore. “This is outrageous!”

     “No, you’re the outrageous one, Stele,” Laskley retorted. “Now take your squadron and your fighters and get off this ship, and if you’re not off within half an hour I’ll have your fighters towed out and dropped off into space! I don’t want another word out of you. Now go!”


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                The nine TIE Avatars floated silently out of the hangar and into space. Maarek spun his fighter around on its axis, watching the gigantic gray hull of the Nexus pass by slowly in front of him. “I’m sorry, guys,” he said into the commlink, letting all his regret and shame pour out. It wasn’t his first apology to the team.

     “It’s no big deal, Commander,” Rann Wosper’s voice came back first. “We all would’ve wanted to get behind the controls of an AD fighter.”

     “Besides, we really don’t know if we can trust them. They’re still Altarin’Dakor,” Bast Vlagen, head of Flight Two, added.

     Tanya Vinikoro’s voice was the last to comment. “That Commodore doesn’t have any real power anyway. He’s just there to suck up to the AD to get what we want, and he knows what he’s for, too. I’d say he’s as worthy of our suspicions as the rest. Shore leave on Jengar won’t be bad compared to spending time under that jerk. Besides, we’ll be back soon. They can’t afford to keep us on the sidelines.”

     “All right, watch it,” Maarek said, letting his mirth filter into his voice. “They might be listening, you know.”

     “I doubt it, sir. They’re preparing to jump,” Narm Greyrunner, Inferno’s newest pilot, spoke up.

     Maarek looked out and could see that the Titan’s speed was increasing. Uncountable windows, sensor arrays and gun ports were passing by outside his fighter’s viewport. Despite their distance, the width of the ship was still too large to see in one glance, and the incredible length was more than the eye could even discern. Watching the city-like expanse moving in front of him, Maarek nodded. “Well, we don’t want to be around when that happens. It’s time for us to be off, too. Next stop: Jengar.” He tried not to sigh as he input the coordinates into the navicomputer and led the squadron into hyperspace.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


Chapter Four