Prologue – 6 months after Ancients Waiting


Starship Jurkanis


En Route to Epsilon Sector


Princess Almani strode quickly across the blue carpeted floor of the throne room. Her delicate, ornate robes made a soft swishing sound as she moved, and her pure white hair fell down behind her back in two long, elaborate braids. Her slipper-covered feet padded across the floor with hardly a sound. Within moments she reached the white throne at the end of the large chamber, and she paused, placing a hand on one of the arms as she stared down for a minute at the empty seat.

“I thought I might find you here, Almani,” came a familiar voice from behind.

She turned, and found herself breaking into an involuntary smile. “Zoar!” she cried out to the tall, handsome man standing back at the entrance. Zoar was kind, gentle man, and held a special place in her heart. He’d been a brother to her, in everything but blood, for as long as she could remember. Zoar had long hair, most of it a rich brown, but with a few strands of white as pure as Almani’s. He wore his formal dress, as he usually did; an ornate robe that split at the leg to form loose pants that allowed freedom of movement. His deep brown eyes looked on her with compassion, but could have a deadly fire when he felt a lecture was necessary. Almani had always looked up to her brother, who was sometimes the only stable factor in her life. Especially after recent events.

Her smile quickly faded, and she looked down at the seat, speaking more solemnly. “I miss my sister,” she admitted softly.

“You know that Lucia’s duties keep her very busy. But even when she is not present physically, she is still with us in spirit, my little Zuami blossom,” Zoar told her. His deep voice sounded soft and comforting. “She will always remain by your side to guide you, as will I.”

“I know,” Almani said. “That makes me glad. But I still wish she were here.” She looked back up at her brother. “Do you think we’ll be safe in the… Nooh Emperium?” she struggled with the foreign words, so different from her native tongue.

“The New Imperium is a very tolerant place, I hear,” Zoar said, correcting her pronunciation. “They take many refugees from the… evil ones. I am certain they will give us sanctuary on our way toward the Core.”

“I hope so.”

Feeling a sudden impulse, Almani pushed away from the throne and ran across the carpet, wrapping her brother in a fierce hug. “Oh, thank you for doing this, Zoar. I’m so glad you’re here to protect us.”

“It’s all right, Almani,” he said softly. After returning her hug, he took her gently by the shoulders and knelt down on one knee, looking into her crystal blue eyes. “This ship holds the last of our people. We will preserve and protect our own. And I will never abandon my duty, or my love for you. As your Guardian, I promise this to you, now and forever.”

“I want to live in a safer place,” she said, her delicate voice almost cracking. “Without war or fighting. There has to be such a place. There has to be!” She’d known war her entire life. It was something she almost couldn’t imagine living without. What would it be like? Would it be as wonderful as the legends said?

“There is such a place, little sister,” Zoar said. “And we will reach it soon enough; have no fear of that.”


* * *


Downtown Vectur

Planet Varnus

2230 Hours


The bar was named the Desperate Chance, and with good reason. One of the seedier pubs in town, it was located on street level, and home to an amalgam of motley-looking aliens looking for the right place to get wasted for the night. Anyone down on their luck or strapped for cash could usually be found here, and it had generated quite a reputation across the city, so much so that the entrance line was sometimes two whole hours long. As a result, it had attracted more than the common run-down spacefarers and junkies, from thrill-seeking youngsters to politicians who wanted a nice, “public” place to take care of some of their less legitimate businesses. It had become a far cry from its original, simpler roots. Not that the owners were complaining though, with the obscene amounts of money the place was raking in.

It’s one of life’s little ironies, Xar thought as he sat at the bar, nursing a blur concoction in a gourd-shaped glass that tasted more like some exotic alien’s by-product than an alcoholic beverage. But that was all part of the image, he guessed. Same thing with the heavy techno music and the neon blue room lighting, and the strobe lasers that were constantly reflecting of shiny surfaces and into people’s eyes. Yeah, I really love this place, he thought for the tenth time that hour.

What made this experience even better was the obnoxious Weequay sitting to his left who simply would not shut up. Ever since replacing the seat’s previous occupant in the crowded nightclub, he hadn’t stopped talking. He’d taken an instant fixation on Xar for some reason, rambling on in broken Basic first about his dire situation – obviously a lie, since everyone here made up a tough-luck story to keep up appearances – and then from there went on about everything from politics to how well different drinks mixed together. Now he seemed to be prodding closer for some response, and he was quickly pushing the limits of the Xar’s nerves.

“I tell you truth, it all same here,” the Weequay went on. “I come here to make living, but no luck. You have luck?”

Feeling his synapses starting to twitch, Xar turned to cast a wary look at the drunken figure. “Could you please leave me alone, I’m waiting on someone.”

“It no baatha,” the alien mumbled on. “Let me buy you drink…”

Suddenly the alien broke off a large hand landed on his shoulder and spun him around the other way forcefully. The Weequay stared into the imposing gaze of a wide-shouldered, bald and dark-skinned man, flinching as he was pulled to his feet and held up by his shirt. The large, built man practically yelled into his face.

“Can’t you hear? He said leave the man alone!

The two fell out of Xar’s sight, and a second later he heard a wild shriek. The crowd shuffled around him, and then the large man slid into the now-empty seat beside him.

“Thanks, Atridd,” Xar said, nodding but not looking in that direction.

“Not a problem. You found our buddy yet?”

“Got a line on him now,” Xar said, fixing his gaze on the rear exit as he watched between the stirring mass of bodies. He tapped his ear once, activating the transceiver there. “Heads up everyone, we move in two minutes.”

He quickly received confirmation from his other team members, three distinct double-clicks over his commlink. There were five of them including himself and Atridd. Nodding, Xar settled back to wait the allotted time. Taking another look at the caustic liquid in the glass in front of him, he slid it over to his left. “You want this?” he asked Xoan.

“Thanks,” the man said, taking the drink. He tasted it, then set the glass back down on the counter and flexed his right hand. “You know,” he said, breathing out beneath his black mustache that traced its way to his chin, “I may have actually hurt that guy’s shoulder.”

Xar looked over at him. He knew that underneath the coat sleeve and glove, Xoan’s arm was artificial, and he sometimes didn’t know his own strength. It had been sliced off in a vicious battle with an Altarin’Dakor Jedicon, and Atridd had chosen to wear a prosthetic instead of a potentially risky clone arm. Ironically, the mechanical arm would be much stronger than a normal human’s, but with Force-enhanced strength Xoan could make his left arm many times as powerful. “Don’t worry about it,” Xar said.

Outside the bar, it had begun to rain steadily, and the crowd of milling bodies inside packed more closely together in an attempt to stay dry. Beings who entered were cloaked in drenched raincoats, by now. The atmosphere inside was becoming more uncomfortable for everyone. Casually, Xar reached into his coat and touched the handle of his single-handed rail gun, his favorite ranged weapon, taking comfort in feeling its weight there. Roughly the size of any hand-held blaster, it hung snugly in the shoulder holster in which is was concealed. It was an elegant weapon, simple in appearance – made of polished metal – but it was deadly in form, holding a magazine of twelve supersonic mass driver projectiles. Using such a weapon was mostly tradition for him, one that he’d kept even after becoming a Jedi Master. Almost unconsciously, he popped the safety switch off with his thumb, making ready. “Let’s go,” he whispered into the transceiver.

Without further word, he shoved away from the bar and started forcing his way through the crowd towards the back door. He could feel Xoan’s presence moving behind him, and his other three operatives drawing close, as well. It only took a couple of minutes to break through the thickest part of the mass and reach the rear door near the refresher stations. Standing just outside of the ‘fresher line, he turned to see the rest of his team gather up around him. Atridd was close by on his right, calm and alert, as always. Drawing up in front of him, the other three members gave knowing yet inconspicuous nods. Xar grinned back at them. The slim, attractive Nadia Ispen had fit in well with the crowd; her short, bleached-white hair turned blue under the room’s lighting. Beside her, Jacob “Jinx” Skipper was reaching into his trench-coat for the blaster hidden there. And bringing up the rear was the large form of Ralagos Akala, the only Togorian Jedi in the New Imperium. He was a rare find, but the fact that he held the rank of Adept spoke that much more about his skill. Any enemy not cowed by his fearsome feline appearance would regret being the recipient of his awesome Force abilities.

His short inspection satisfying him, Xar turned back towards the door and strode up to the rough-looking, muscular security guard standing watch there. From the way the man watched the crowd, he was obviously one of the bouncers, though Xar figured he had other reasons for watching this particular exit.

The sight of the five shady-looking characters approaching him was probably what sent the guard’s eyes wide. “Is there something I can help you with?” he spoke up gruffly.

“Yeah,” Xar said, coming to a stop half a meter in front of him. “Let us through this door.”

“The back room is off limits to customers,” the man said, his eyes narrowing. “You’d better turn around now before I decide to have you thrown out.”

Xar gave the man a cold smile. “I assume you don’t know who I am, do you? Open the door.”

The man began reaching into his belt for the stun rod secured there. “That’s it. I’ve had enough of you…”

But Xar didn’t give him a chance. Slapping a hand over the bouncer’s wrist to trap it, he thrust his fist straight into the man’s solar plexus, bending him over in pain and cutting off his breath.

“I own this city, idiot! Now get out of my way!” Xar yelled, forcibly shoving the man to the side. Then, ripping his mass gun out of his holster, he stepped forward and kicked the door completely off its hinges. The door clattered to the floor amidst a shower of splinters, and Xar quickly stepped through the doorway, followed closely by Attrid, Nadia, Jinx, and Ralagos, each with their weapons drawn and at the ready.

Four men looked up from the sabbacc table in the center of the smoke-filled area, clearly startled speechless by the sight of five armed assailants suddenly bursting into the room.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” the bald, pudgy man at the far side of the table demanded loudly, backed up by the protests of the others gathered there. Xar quickly took stock of all four. Two of the men around the circular table were plain-looking and built– clearly hired muscle. Across from the fat man who’d spoken was another man with tall, spiky blond hair, the other’s business associate. Concentrating on that group, Xar was surprised as Jinx moved up beside him and trained his blaster on a fifth person, a tall, dark-skinned man who had been returning to the table with a drink.

Xar walked up to the table and pointed his gun straight at the pudgy fellow. “Slyvie Voor, you’re under arrest for conspiring to and committing treason against the New Imperium.” He gave a cynical grin as he recognized the man he’d been searching for. It had taken him almost a month to find this one. “You’re a kriffing AD spy.”

The man’s eyes went wide, and he jerked back as if hit. “What? That’s ridiculous! You can’t just come in here and arrest me on such a ludicrous charge. What proof do you have? Where’s your warrant, puke-eater?”

“My name is Xar Kerensky. I believe you know who I am. And my warrant is right here,” he said, turning his gun to one side, still pointed at the man’s chest.

“Kriff you! I demand to see a lawyer!”

“Gentlemen. Can’t you see we’re in the middle of a relaxing game?” the spike-headed man put in. “What happened to the freedom of personal privacy? Can’t you desk-jockeys leave well enough alone?”

“I’m sorry, but we’re not tolerant people,” Xar shot back sardonically. “Put your hands up now.”

“Please, officers,” Slyvie broke back in. “This is absurd. Allow me to explain the situation…” He glanced nervously at the guard on his right as he spoke, and Xar groaned inwardly. So much for a non-violent confrontation. As one, the two guards’ hands shot under the table, followed an instant later by Slyvie and the spiked man. The first guard had brought the handle of his weapon up by the time Xar moved. Taking a quick step forward, he kicked the table hard from underneath, launching it into the air and scattering cards and chits everywhere. Slyvie and one of the guards were thrown backward as the table fell down in front of them on its side with a crash. Not waiting to see what had happened to Slyvie, Xar brought his weapon up and fired two shots straight through the wooden table. The supersonic bullets tore through the wood like flimsy, blasting splinters out of it, before spearing two holes straight through the fat man on the other side.

Simultaneously around Xar an explosion of sound and light erupted as the other members of his team fired their rounds. He felt the heat of blaster bolts burn through the air around him, followed by the sickening smell of burnt flesh. A split second later, there were four corpses lying across the floor, strewn with sabbacc cards and gambling chips. One guard’s face had been blown completely apart; the other guard and the spiked man had smoking holes in their chest and back, respectively. Xar let his weapon fall to his side and he shook his head, sighing.

“Kriff. I was hoping to get something out of this group. What a waste.” Of course, that was how all of these busts had gone so far. Altarin’Dakor – even traitors from this galaxy – never surrendered; they would always fight, no matter what the odds were.

“You okay?” he asked Atridd, who was wincing as he nursed his left arm, smoking from a near-miss Xar hadn’t noticed.

“I’ll be fine,” the man winced. “Just a scratch, it’ll heal up in no time.”

Ralagos and Nadia had replaced their weapons and were stooping down to search the bodies. Xar let his gaze linger over each one. How do you defeat someone like that? he wondered silently. After all, they were the aggressors. Usually the defending forces in a conflict would have the advantage of pure desperation on their side, but these Altarin’Dakor fought as if winning were the only thing that mattered in the universe. But of course they do, he thought. They’ve trained all their lives for the Return. Even defectors from this galaxy, like these worthless thugs now lying on the ground, were willing to put everything on the line for a victory.

“Don’t move,” Jinx spoke up suddenly, interrupting Xar’s thoughts. Turning, he saw that the man’s blaster was trained on the fifth member of the group, the one who hadn’t been at the table. Xar arched an eyebrow in surprise. The dark-skinned man hadn’t moved an inch, but his drink had shattered on the floor when it had fallen from his limp hand, and the man’s eyes were filled with terror at what he’d seen.

“I’m warning you, stay right where you are,” Jinx repeated. He could clearly sense the man’s emotional stress; he looked ready to bolt at any second.

“I…I know nothing…” the man stammered, holding his hands up in front of him. “I d-don’t have anything to d-do with this.”

“Then I’m sure you won’t mind coming in for questioning,” Jinx replied evenly. Xar looked from him back to the other man, who seemed about to jump out of his skin. The man’s eyes were as wide as saucers, now.

Xar sensed it an instant before he actually moved. The man dove to the side, scrambling across the floor as fast as his feet would take him. Jinx fired in response, sending out a couple quick reaction shots that passed behind the man’s head. He was moving fast, too quick for Jinx to track with his muzzle, and before he could fire again the man had vanished through the room’s rear exit.

Jinx started to move after him, but Xar put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll get him,” he said, and then took off into a run. “You finish up here,” he called back to the others over his shoulder.

He passed through the doorway and emerged into a dimly-lit stairwell. Above him he could hear the padded footsteps of the fleeing man, and Xar quickly started up the steel-framed staircase, bringing up his mass driver once more. He reached the second floor and kept on going, steadily pursuing the pounding footsteps above. Drops of water dripped down on him from above. Looking up, he could see the man’s shadow moving between the gaps in the stairs.

“Stop!” he shouted, but to no avail. If anything, the scrambling steps came more quickly. Bringing his gun up as he climbed, Xar fired a couple shots into the framework above, hearing the bullets loudly as they ricocheted countless times. Still, the retreating man continued on.

Xar followed up six more flights of stairs, gaining some ground, before his quarry reached the stairwell exit to the roof. He vanished behind it, quickly closing the door behind him. Moments later, Xar bounded up the last several steps and threw his body against the door, sending it bursting open. He emerged into a drenching downpour of rain that almost instantly soaked through all of his clothing. He padded out across the slick rooftop, searching through the deluge for his target. It was raining so hard that he almost missed the dark figure moving to the raised edge of the roof.

Raising his gun ahead of him, Xar ran toward the figure, calling out again for the man to stop. But again he was ignored. The escapee slid up to the raised wall at the edge of the roof and leaned over, peering down. Then he turned back to look at Xar, who came to a stop several meters away, gun trained steadily over his chest. Xar didn’t speak; the man knew he’d been caught. But the wild look in his eyes made it clear that he wasn’t going to give up. Astonishingly, the man climbed up onto the edge of the wall and looked desperately at the slanted tile roof of the building next to them. Xar understood what he was thinking. He could probably make the jump, but with the rain pouring down, could he grab hold without sliding back off? Xar didn’t think so.

Yet when the man looked back one final time, it was clear that he was willing to take the chance. Crouching down on all fours, he leapt out across the gap, stretching his body out to grab hold of the other side, his only chance at life. Xar ran up to the edge to watch as the man made his target, grabbing desperately onto the tiles of the next roof. For a moment it seemed that he had succeeded. But the rain had made the roof slick, and the slant was fairly steep, and he began to slide down, first slowly, then faster as he fell.

For a split second, Xar considered using the Force to catch the man and bring him up. But, he reasoned, the man wouldn’t have lived much longer anyway had he been captured. Either the courts or one of his own kind would have ended his life. And it wasn’t likely he’d be able to reveal much about Slyvie’s spying contacts. Those secrets had died with Slyvie himself.

The man never cried out as he slid off the edge of the roof and into the chasm below. Silent, he fell, spinning wildly down the eight story drop to the streets below. There was a sharp crash as he landed atop a passing hovercar, bursting through the windshield and sending the vehicle out of control.

Xar turned away from the edge, ignoring the rest of it, pausing to take several deep, calming breaths. A moment later he had collected himself, and started back toward the stairwell, his mind already working on his next lead. There were many more spies to filter out, of that he was sure. The only real problem with having spies was that you never quite knew when you’d gotten them all…


* * *


Somewhere outside NI space


The being sat alone in his large, luxurious living quarters, silently contemplating the infinite expanse of space that was visible outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Here, he could see the awesome grandeur of the stars, imagine the incredible amount of space out there, and of all the forms of life living within it. And very few out there, if anyone at all, knew of his existence.

Once, he had been a Shok’Thola, feared across this galaxy, during the Great War and before his people had been banished. Then, he had been a terrible sight to behold, a being so frighteningly alien to humanity that most beings couldn't even have looked upon him.

But that had been before his eventual demise and imprisonment within a massive Repository along with thousands of other Jedi spirits. During that time, he had forgotten what it was like to be a physical being. Then when an ambitious Jedicon had sought to release him from his prison, he had barely escaped and taken the Jedicon's body instead. He could thank the Jedi known as Nico Flygras for that. His... pet.

In the months since, he had gotten used to being human, enough that he couldn't even remember being his old species, with completely different senses and organs. Not that he didn't like being a human; in fact, he'd gotten rather accustomed to its differences, and its new pleasures.

Before, he had been Queklain, a terrifying visage of death. Now, he was known mostly as Rofel, the unremarkable human that had become his new host. From the shadows he worked now, for his very presence was probably unknown to all the other Warlords. All, save Altima, who would still have been able to sense his connection to the Entity that had kept him alive and gave him Immortality.

But now his thoughts had turned to his own machinations and schemes, his secret manipulation of events. His pet, his little experiment, was going well. The one who had given him life again, this "Jedi" known as Nico, had deserved payment for his generous favor. So Queklain, or Rofel, had saved his life in turn, just before he would have died in the Altarin'Dakor-controlled Mizar System. There, he had taken special care of him, preparing him for his return to the New Imperium as an unwitting servant. Not that the New Imperium itself was worth any real notice; it was just a curiosity, a gamble that might pay out one day. The government itself sat directly in the way of the Return. There was little doubt that soon the Altarin'Dakor forces would sweep mercilessly over their space and crush them like flies. This Warlord had other things to concern himself with. Still, there was a chance...

As if summoned by his thoughts, a servant entered, bowed low, waiting for acknowledgement. The being made him wait for a while, then finally turned his head toward the entrance and gave a slight nod for him to proceed.

"Great Lord, I have important news. An informant relayed information that the one called Nico has returned from his mission to the Rafa System and has now been placed in a position of high authority. He is the Deputy Grand Master of their so-called Jedi Division."

“Excellent. And what of the spy network left by Kronos?”

“They have kept us informed of the highest level decisions by the New Imperium Senate,” the servant explained. “Elections for new Diktat will be held soon. They also report of the defection of the Shok’Thola Zalaria, and that she has brought a sizeable force to the New Imperium’s aide.”

The being did not let the sudden flash of surprise and interest show in his expression, nor his intense eagerness to find out what Zalaria was up to. "Interesting,” he mused aloud. “We have agents traveling with them, of course?"

"Yes, sire. They have already reported in."

"Good. Anything else?”

“One other point of interest, sire. There is a certain… individual who was the overseer of all Kronos’ agents in the New Imperium. He is also the head of the NI Intelligence Network.”

That caused his interest to peak, indeed. Someone that highly placed could be in a position to assume leadership of the entire NI. “Who is this man?”

“Gene Rytor, sire. He currently resides on Tralaria.”

“I believe I will have to arrange a meeting with this… Rytor. Make arrangements for my relocation to Tralaria. I will want to see to the next series of events personally.”

“It will be done.”

“You may leave," the being commanded, deciding to let this servant live, at least this time. "See to it that I remain informed. I will be taking a personal interest in these two."

"Yes, Great Lord." With that, the servant left as quietly as he'd come.

Queklain smiled, and for a moment his eyes glowed with the ancient alien presence of his past. Then his laughter filled the chamber. This gamble was going to pay off better than he'd ever imagined.


* * *


Senate Complex

Tralaria, NI Capital

1600 Hours


Maarek Stele got up from his seat and stretched for a moment. Turning slowly, he took stock of the huge chamber around him. He and the other members of Inferno Squadron were seated in the Senate Complex’s main auditorium, a huge half-oval with rows of seats facing a large curtained stage. It was a place for grand speeches and exhibitions intended for hundreds of spectators, and broadcast to uncounted multitudes throughout the New Imperium. One such event would take place here today. He and his squad-mates had been given seats halfway down, and were easily lost among the mass of other officers, delegates, military personnel, and other VIPs.

Stele looked across the row at the members of his squadron. What was left of it, anyway. The survivors of the Battle of Mizar, they had more than proven themselves in combat. Jocular Rann Wosper, professional Bast Vlagen, attractive Tanya Vinikoro, Kikitik the Sigman, Salle Darl, Gren Pabos, and Petur Kien. There were nine members of Inferno now, since they’d picked up only one new member since Mizar. Narm Greyrunner, a decorated pilot from the Intruder Wing, had opted to join up. Maarek was glad of that, and hoped that more good pilots would be willing to transfer. Inferno Squadron was building up quite a reputation for itself. Still, he thought of the pilots who had died in the horrible Battle of Mizar. He’d witnessed the deaths of Vlini Makor, Macen Isabi, and Juor Nace. He’d learned of Kei Nomos’ death later, after returning from his capture and brief period with the mysterious man known as Victor.

Stepping out into the aisle, Maarek climbed the steps up to the top of the auditorium and the connecting area outside. This entire section of the Senate Complex had been done in white marble with gold trim, an incredible expense for the Senate to make. In some ways the Complex reminded him of the old Imperial Senate House on Coruscant, only with a much lighter atmosphere. Up here above the auditorium, there were several sitting areas, a bar, lounges, and communications and HoloNet access terminals. Maarek walked over towards the bar counter, intending to get a little something to drink. The bartender brought him a cold glass of water and he sat there for a moment, sipping it. Water was Tralaria’s most abundant resource – the planet was covered in ocean, almost as thoroughly as Mon Calamari. It was funny how a resource so common on one world could be a treasured scarcity on another. On Tatooine, most of their water had to be coaxed out of vaporators every day.

The presentation would be starting in just a few minutes. There was a lot of hype circulating about today’s event, though Maarek wasn’t too excited about it, himself. As he sat there silently, another man dressed in officer’s uniform came up to stand at the counter beside him.

“Commander Stele. I didn’t expect to see you here,” Rivian von Donitz said in a low tone. “I heard you’ve been very busy lately.”

Maarek set his glass down and turned to look at the slim, dark-headed man, resplendent in his ceremonial uniform all covered in campaign ribbons and medals. Admiral Caramon Majere’s most prized pilot, he claimed to be the best fighter pilot alive in the galaxy, and he had claimed many more kills in the Battle of Mizar itself. The man was all cool confidence, rarely showing any other emotion. Maarek didn’t much like Donitz. There was an air about him, of something dark and ruthless. Maarek wondered if he’d been that way himself, once. They were both soldiers, they both killed in battle. But recently, all the meaning in battle had changed for Maarek.

“Well,” he told Donitz, “With everything else going on around here after those AD forces defected, I thought Inferno could make itself useful helping out wherever we could. We managed to be at the right place at the right time, at Sigma.”

Recently, he and Inferno had helped to stop a coup de’ tat by the Kaav’Klan military commander Xantak, who had targeted at the Sigman Emperor in a bid to assume control and establish a military government. In the process Xantak’s forces had attacked the Moro shipyards, a move which could have crippled the New Imperium’s capacity to make war. But Maarek’s squadron had helped thwart that attempt, as well, finally chasing Xantak’s flagship VSD down and destroying it along with its commander.

All that had happened in the past month. Maarek briefly recounted the experience to the man beside him, as well as the latest mission that had followed. “After that, we patrolled the NI border near Eridani looking for reported disturbances. We thought it was the New Republic, but I never thought we’d run into an Altarin’Dakor cruiser there. We got lucky enough to take it down.”

Donitz made a noncommittal sound. “Luck should have nothing to do with your piloting skills. Hmph. They’re already calling you the hero of Sigma. You did kill that traitorous Sigman military commander, after all. You should at least be proud of that.”

“Sorry, but I don’t take pride in killing people,” Maarek said, turning back to his glass.

“Have it your way, Stele. You can’t deny what you are forever.” Then he was gone.

I don’t deny what I am or what I’ve done, Maarek thought. He shook his head slowly. Donitz just didn’t understand; he hadn’t seen what Maarek had seen. His encounter with Victor had changed his way of thinking, his whole reason for fighting this war. It was amazing how different he’d felt since returning from Altarin’Dakor space. But as much has he’d learned from that experience, he knew there was much, much more he needed to know. Sometimes, he thought he could still hear the Archon speaking to him, guiding him, but he could never make out the words. He felt like a part of himself was missing, now. A part he would have to find again, someday.

When he had drained the last of his water, he left the bar and headed back down to the designated seats. He slid into his chair next to Rann Wosper, Inferno Two. Beside Rann was Bast Vlagen, the experienced Varnusan and leader of Flight Two. Due to the decimation of Three Flight, Maarek had placed Salle Darl in command of that group, with Petur Kien still in slot eight and Narm Greyrunner, the newcomer from
Abregado, in slot nine.

Rann nodded to him as Maarek sat down. “What’s up?” he asked in his usual light tone. “I saw Donitz coming down from up there, too.”

Maarek sat back and waved him off. “It’s nothing. Forget about him.”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m itching to see this new model of the Avatar unveiled,” Rann said, the eagerness clear in his voice. On his other side, Bast Vlagen cleared his throat loudly.

“I’m holding my judgment back until I’m actually in the cockpit,” Maarek told them. He’d heard about the new upgrades to the Avatar based on Altarin’Dakor technology. If they worked as rumored, the ship would be the most advanced fighter the New Imperium had to offer. Still, deep inside, he knew it wouldn’t be good enough. It wouldn’t even come close to matching the Archon.

Rann gave a slight smirk and ran a hand through his blonde hair. “You think they’ll replace our Avatars with the newer model, boss?”

“We’ll see,” Maarek said. “I’ve petitioned for a squadron. They’ll go to some of the top units first, but I think we’ve got a good chance.”

“I sure hope so. I can’t wait until I have some of those beam weapons at my fingertips. Then I’ll finally be able to deal those AD muckrakers some of their own medicine.” Rann looked about to rub his hands together in glee.

Maarek opened his mouth to tell the Rann how different using full beam weapons was, but Bast cut into the conversation. “All right, guys. The show’s about to begin.”

Both pilots looked down towards the stage, then. Indeed, the rest of the auditorium was dimming, and the curtains in front of the stage were opening up. Stepping onto the scene from the sidelines was a man that Maarek immediately recognized: the interim Diktat of the New Imperium, Sector Admiral Dogar. After the shocking assassination of Diktat Ryskar D’larit, Dogar had been forced to step up in his stead, though he had lost much of his will and reputation after the defeat at Mizar. New elections were to be held imminently, but for the time being he was forced to remain in charge. Now he was the most adamant advocate of rearming the NI after the loss. Several operations were currently underway, and these developmental projects were the subject of today’s presentation.

The room quieted down to silence as the Diktat stepped up to the podium on one side of the stage. He took a sip of water from a glass there before speaking into the series of microphones in front of him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, officers and citizens of the New Imperium: Welcome. Today it is my pleasure to inform you of the latest advancements in New Imperium technology, as well as our current fleet strength status.” He looked around at the audience as a pair of large holoscreens descended from the ceiling. “As you know, thanks to the Altarin’Dakor citizens that have joined us here, we have been able to incorporate some of their advanced technologies into our own ships. The first step in this process was improving our shields and scanners, which allowed us to finally penetrate and explore the Galbagos Nebula in the last month. Today, we are proud to show you the latest advancement in this procedure.”

As the Diktat paused in his speech, the large curtains that hung across the stage behind him suddenly began sweeping apart, revealing the object of the presentation, a pristine starfighter resting in the middle of the huge stage floor.

Diktat Dogar gestured with his hand toward the sleek ship. “It is my pleasure to unveil the latest advancement of New Imperial engineering, the Modified TIE Avatar!”

The crowd immediately broke out in applause, and Maarek took the moment to carefully study the craft in front of him. There, in all of its innate glory, sat the distinct, imposing form of a TIE Avatar, its shiny new armor gleaming under the bright stage lights. The NI’s newest space superiority starfighter was truly an impressive work of art. The fuselage and cockpit closely resembled that of a sleek Missile Boat, but instead of the usual short, stubby wings, a pair of solar panels stood out, like those of a TIE Advanced, only inverted so that they dimpled in instead of out. At the wingtips hung four large-barreled guns, their shafts extending back along the length of the panel. Just underneath the cockpit hung two slightly smaller gun mounts. Missing, though, was the bulge at the top of the fuselage with five rounded openings facing forward. The Avatar’s optional heavy firepower, a single load of five heavy space rockets, had been removed in this configeration.

Right on cue, the large twin holoscreens hanging down from the ceiling came to life, showing a view of distant space, into which flew a pair of the new craft, quickly accelerating and maneuvering their way through a makeshift obstacle course. The video feed continued as the Diktat resumed speaking.

“What you are seeing is actual footage of the TIE Avatar prototypes, taken just a week ago. The fighter has surpassed all of our expectations, outperforming every other ship we could test it against. In addition to an improved and miniaturized power plant, and an Altarin’Dakor shield system and targeting computer, we have also replaced the quad lasers with a set of Chizon-grade beam cannons. These are the same weapons used in the latest Altarin’Dakor fighters.” On the screens, the Avatars began to engage moving drone fighters, and the new ships opened up with quad-linked blasts of continuous yellow energy. Their beams stretched across space, cleaving their targets from the sky in spectacular fireballs. Missiles streaked out from underneath the fuselages, followed by rapid fire laser blasts from the cockpit guns, each hitting with pinpoint accuracy. So that’s what those new guns are underneath: AD pulse lasers, Maarek thought.

Dogar’s next words echoed his thoughts. “In addition, the Avatar is equipped to handle Altarin’Dakor shockwave missiles, and the two forward ion cannons have been replaced with pulse laser cannons with rapid-fire capability. Due to these modifications, the beam weapons and heavy rocket launcher onboard had to be removed, but this is just a minor loss considering this configuration of the fighter’s new role.” The Diktat made it sound like the beam weapon’s removal was but a trivial thing. Maarek arched an eyebrow. He was used to employing his tractor beam in combat, much like a grappling hook. The Diktat continued on. “In keeping with our plan for the Avatar to match any Altarin’Dakor fighter it meets, the need for disabling and retrieval capabilities is not as necessary. Thanks to these modifications, the Avatar is once again the monarch of space combat. It will be a match for any ship our enemies can throw against it. This is a major achievement for the New Imperium!”

Again the crowd burst into applause, and Maarek noted that Rann seemed to be among the most fervent supporters, clapping and cheering his approval with the best of them. Maarek had to admit, the test pilots on the holoscreens were doing a fine job of demonstrating the new fighter’s abilities. Too bad he hadn’t been there to participate in it. But could it really have compared to test-piloting the Archon? He gave a sigh. No, of course not.

Finally the applause died down, and the Diktat went on with the rest of the presentation. After the Avatar’s announcement, he proceeded with a briefing on the military status of the NI. Things had been busy since Mizar, and a lot had happened during the time Maarek had been on assignment. The Independence, the NI’s Super Star Destroyer flagship, had been repaired, and new ships were rolling off the lines at Moro. Six of the new Majestic-class cruisers were now in service, sleek capital ships built around a huge mass driver, another AD weapon that could tear through most capital ships in one shot. In addition to that, the Devastator plan was proceeding on schedule. The World Devastator Pillager Nine, recovered from a rogue Imperial Warlord some months earlier, had been used as a massive factory, gaining in bulk until it was large enough to produce capital ships, and even spawn other World Devastators, which would start the process again. Soon the factories onboard would exceed the production capabilities of any other NI shipyards.

And that wasn’t all. With the defection of the Altarin’Dakor Titan-class Battleship, Nexus, came hundreds of Altarin’Dakor fighters, and factories onboard the Nexus were capable of building even more. Soon the NI would reach a maximum level of readiness, and establish a powerful military with which to defend Epsilon Sector. In addition, with the DLSF being completely absorbed into the Intruder Wing by now, and all the other organizations coming together, talk was abounding about a total merging of all fleets and organizations into one organized unit, and a restructuring of the New Imperium’s entire makeup. Maarek supposed it would be much more efficient in the long run.

In the meanwhile, an expedition had been sent into the Galbagos Nebula to explore the interior and to scout potential enemy presence there. The word was they had encountered strange droid-operated ships apparently protecting some of the worlds inside the nebula. Although they had explored several systems and some were halfway habitable, they had encountered no indigenous species.

The second major event, aside from the failed coup at Sigma, was the NI’s continuing search for allies. An alliance of sorts had been formed with the Barabels, and after showing them the graveness of the Altarin’Dakor threat, Barab had sent in platoons of warriors to supplement the NI’s stormtrooper contingent. Rumor was that it had something to do with Grand Master Xar Kerensky’s connection to some Barabels there that had brought them the help. The scouting force had ventured deeper into the Unknown Region in an attempt to make contact with species far more ancient than even the Republic. Whether or not they had, or whether or not they would get any military aid, however, was information even Maarek wasn’t privy to.

But, seeing all this in front of him, Maarek just had one question: Why hadn’t the Altarin’Dakor already attacked? Why were they holding back and letting the New Imperium rebuild? They could have swept through Epsilon Sector by now, especially after the loss at Mizar, and probably taken the whole sector with barely a fight. What was going on that had delayed the inevitable counterattack? He had no answer to his questions, and he doubted that any of the NI’s leaders did at the moment, either.

When the presentation ended some time later, the crowd got up and slowly began to disperse. Maarek stood up as well, and turned to speak to his squadron members while they were still gathered.

“You guys go on ahead,” he said. “I’ve got a couple things to take care of, then I’ll meet you in the hangar when it’s time to go.”

“Understood. We’ll see you later,” Bast said, putting a hand on Rann’s shoulder and pulling him along before he could ask Maarek any questions. Then Maarek left them and started making his way down toward the stage. He intended to discuss a few things with the Diktat in person – if that were still possible.

By the time Maarek reached him, Dogar had assembled his things and was starting to leave. After a brief encounter and inspection by the Diktat’s bodyguards, Stele was allowed to approach him directly. Maarek caught up to him just as he was about to leave.

“Ah, Maarek. Good to see you,” Dogar said, noticing Stele as he approached. “I trust you’ve been well?”

“As well as can be expected,” Maarek said. He shook the Diktat’s proffered hand. “Have you got a minute? I was hoping we could talk.”

“Of course. Follow me to my office, if you would,” Dogar nodded. Folding his papers under one arm, he started off down the corridor, and Stele fell in behind him, along with the usual bodyguards, keeping far enough away that one could almost forget they were there. Security was still tight, though, after recent events.

As they walked, Maarek opened up the conversation. “It was good seeing this update. I’ve been out of the loop for a while,” he admitted.

Dogar nodded, glancing his way. “I’d heard you were serving with some of the NI’s line units and squadrons, filling in. It’s good work, and much needed help. I’ve heard about your squadron’s exploits at Sigma, Eridani and Fortress. Very impressive.”

“It wasn’t much, really,” Stele said. “A good way to get our minds off what happened at Mizar…” He broke off as he saw Dogar’s mirthful expression vanish suddenly. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to bring that up,” Maarek apologized.

“No, it’s fine. We all have… regrets… from that day,” the Diktat said, his voice distant. Maarek involuntarily felt a chill crawl down his back. He’d forgotten how hard the loss had hit the man. After all, it had ultimately been Dogar’s order that had started the battle. And although he couldn’t have anticipated nor imagined the tragedy it had caused, he’d still taken the responsibility solely on himself. The deaths of half a million people weighing on one order was too much for anyone to bear alone. Stele and others had tried to console him, to show him that it wasn’t his fault, but the man’s viewpoint hadn’t changed.

“The new Avatar looks incredible,” Maarek spoke up, changing the subject. “I can’t believe we’ve come so far in incorporating their technology in just a few months.”

Dogar nodded. “Actually, it’s not us.” He paused, took a quick look around the corridor as they slowed beside the door to the Diktat’s office. He looked back at Maarek, lowering his voice. “Altarin’Dakor scientists have been responsible for all the integration. All of it. It would have taken our own scientists years to figure out such advanced technology.”

“Why such secrecy behind it?” Maarek asked as Dogar stepped inside the room. Maarek followed behind, as two of the guards took up positions outside the door.

Dogar went over to the large wooden desk and set down his documents, then went over to a cabinet sitting by the wall. “You don’t realize the public’s opinion of our newfound friends, Maarek. Most people don’t like any Altarin’Dakor at the moment. If people knew that their help was so essential in our preparations, there’d be a major uproar.” His voice fell, and he paused as he pulled out a bottle of brown liquid. “Besides, my position’s already precarious enough, as it is. Brandy? It’s real…”

“Sure,” Maarek said, accepting the glass that the Diktat poured for him. “I was… hoping I could get some true information on affairs while I was here. I figured you were the best man to speak with. But I didn’t want to cause any problems…”

“You’re not causing any problems, Maarek. There are some things I have to deal with for myself. I’m not invulnerable because I’m the Speaker of the New Imperial Senate.” He took a sip of brandy, closing his eyes as he lowered the glass. “I can still see Admiral Don Varrel’s face, on the bridge of Independence, as he was vaporized by that Titan’s beam… The nightmares won’t stop, and I can’t keep this up forever.” His eyes opened, focusing on Maarek. “All that you saw earlier was just for show. It’s a politician’s job to keep up appearances, to appease the populace – even create a false sense of security, if need be.”

False sense of security? Maarek wondered. Did he mean for the entire New Imperium? Looking at the man, he suddenly saw the lines underneath his eyes, the tiredness in his stance. Once again he felt thankful for being a simple fighter pilot, for not having so many lives in his hands, or the responsibilities of office. Victor had been right.

“Things aren’t that bad though, are they? I mean, what about your recent mission into the nebula?” Last he’d heard, Dogar had lead the expedition into the Galbagos Nebula, using AD-modified shields and sensors to explore the anomaly.

Dogar shook his head. “I wish I could forget about that mission entirely. Or maybe go back in time and stop myself from going. Did you know we found the Virulence?

“What?” Maarek asked, stunned. The last time he’d seen the NI’s second largest Star Destroyer, she’d been burning and helpless in the Battle of Mizar. In a desperate attempt to survive, the crew had sent her into an emergency hyperspace jump, an uncalculated leap into the unknown. She hadn’t been heard from afterwards, and everyone assumed she hadn’t survived.

“By some stroke of the Force, we found her hulk floating in the nebula,” Dogar informed him sadly. “It was a ghost ship. There was no one alive onboard. Either they died from lack of life support, radiation poisoning, or were taken somehow by the AD. By the way, the Altarin’Dakor are in the nebula. Did you know that? It’s another secret we’re keeping from the public.” He gave a sardonic grin and took another drink.

“There are Altarin’Dakor forces in the Galbagos Nebula?” Maarek asked breathlessly. The news of the Virulence had been a shock, and now this… That meant the AD were closer to key worlds than they had previously thought.

“Practically at our doorstep, and we can do nothing about it. We engaged some of them, but lost one of our cruisers. Then, hoping we could salvage some part of the mission, we proceeded to explore the systems inside the nebula. All we found were rocks in space, guarded by some forgotten droid fleet that we almost couldn’t defeat. The only thing we brought back with us was a weird spacer that the droids had captured recently and imprisoned on one of the planets.” Dogar laughed again. “So I wouldn’t exactly call the mission a success. A fitting end to one’s career, wouldn’t you say?”

Maarek shook his head in consternation. He hadn’t known about all of this. A lot of things really had happened while he was off on duty.

Then suddenly the gravity of Dogar’s words hit him. “What are you saying?” he questioned. He knew that new elections would be held soon. Was he not going to run for the office he now served in?

Dogar’s next words echoed Maarek’s thoughts. “I’ve had enough of this position, Maarek. This life, these pressures and troubles.” He stared hard down into his glass. “I think it’s time for me to leave the spotlight, to fade into the background, now. At least while I deal with things. I’m not running for Diktat… I think I’ll go back to Erebria. It’s a nice place to retire.”

“Retire? In the middle of a war?” Maarek began angrily.

“Don’t take that tone with me, Maarek,” Dogar cut him off with a wave of his hand. “It won’t do any good. Don’t think I haven’t considered the implications. But believe me; the NI is better off without me.”

For a moment, the room hung in silence as Maarek watched, speechless. He hadn’t known whether Dogar would run again or not, but leaving the scene entirely wasn’t something he’d expected to hear. He took a long sip of his brandy, to help clear his head. Perhaps he could understand, under the circumstances. If Dogar really felt this way, then it was probably for the best. He wasn’t the most popular person in the New Imperium at the moment. “Any idea who’ll be running in the new election, then?” he asked.

The Diktat shrugged. “Don’t know, and don’t really care. The Senate will decide who is best to take the position. I can’t really recommend anyone. It’d be more of a curse than a condoning!” he ended with a harsh laugh.

“Well, what about Xar?” Maarek asked.

“Are you kidding?” Dogar replied curtly. “He wouldn’t have the job again. You’ve probably heard all about that, too. All he can think about these days is that woman he brought back with him. That Altarin’Dakor woman. Even if he did run for election, who would trust him, with her influence hanging over him?

Maarek nodded slowly, solemnly. How had trust faded this far, this fast? Would they all be at each other’s throats, soon? Was this the Altarin’Dakor plan, all along, to wait until the NI devoured itself from within so they wouldn’t have to do it?

“I guess Majere or Stan will go for it,” Dogar shrugged. He set the glass back on top of the desk. “What about you, Maarek? What’s next on your agenda?”

“That reminds me,” Maarek said. “Inferno and I are going to head back to Varnus, get near the border again where we can do some more good. The Nexus is in orbit here, you know. It’s supposed to travel to Varnus in a couple of days, so I’ll see if we can get passage for the squadron on her.” He was referring to the Titan-class Battleship that had defected along with the Altarin’Dakor forces two months before. He didn’t know exactly why they had come, or how they’d brought a Titan along, but he knew that Xar must have had something to do with it. To think that the NI had its own Titan! He still couldn’t believe it.

“I guess this will be our last meeting for a while, then,” Dogar said. “How about another drink before you head out? We’ll drink to old times.”

Maarek half-smiled. He knew that Dogar probably looked back to his Imperial days as the best of his life. Why not, he figured. He’d grown to consider the man a friend during his time here with the NI. And when saying goodbye to a friend, one should make sure that the memories brought out of that friendship are good ones. After all… He doubted he’d ever see Dogar again…


* * *


Varnusian Productions Presents:





Chapter One


Shuttle Vanderguire

On approach to Vectur

Planet Varnus

1230 Hours


The sleek, aerospace passenger shuttle cruised down through the upper atmosphere, the yellow-orange sun of Varnus glinting brightly off its shiny armor plates. It soared through thick layers of cumulous clouds, looking like large tufts of cotton hanging in the air. Then it dropped below the cloud layer, flying over the surface at supersonic speed, the landscape below merely a blur. Forests and grasslands sped by below, interrupted occasionally by a small range of hills or a calm lake. Varnus was a fertile, habitable world, and despite it’s prominence in the sector, was largely rural and untouched by high technology. Only the main cities revealed the modernization of New Imperial settlement, and those cities were large metropolises, especially the capital – Vectur. Having been bombarded by the Empire once, and by the Altarin’Dakor a second time, its resilience was a mirror of the Varnusian people, a sturdy, proud race who stuck to their traditions. They had faced adversity many times, and were used to it.

The shuttle lowered its descent, as the tall, wide vista of a city skyline appeared on the horizon. Inside, the passengers disconnected their datapads, music players, and HoloNet connections, preparing for the landing. Over the internal comm speakers, a woman’s voice made the announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now on final approach to Vectur. Please fasten your safety restraints and remain seated. Upon arrival please exit at bays two and three. Baggage claim will be in area thirty-four. Thank you for flying Epsilon Space Travel.”

Inside the craft, listening as the whine of the engines descended in pitch, one particular passenger sat quietly. Outside the viewport window next to him, the figure could see tall skyscrapers sweeping past, and could briefly glimpse countless hovercars following pre-designated skylanes. It was very similar in its look to the bustling planet-city of Coruscant, only on a smaller scale. But this passenger had never seen Coruscant. Still, what he saw did not excite him in any way. Unlike the countless tourists and immigrants onboard, he had no interest in what the city had to offer him.

The moving shuttle jerked as its repulsorlifts kicked in, and it sped along the black duracrete, buildings and other aircraft passing by the windows. The reverse thrusters kicked in, finally slowing the craft down to its normal taxiing speed. Within moments, the shuttle made its way to the designated parking area and docked in the terminal.

Slowly, the two hatchways came open, and a flood of passengers disembarked, lugging their belongings across the suspended gangway and into the main complex. They were greeted by a host of flashing data terminals and display screens, hovercab advertisements and currency exchange stalls. Flashing arrows directed them to baggage claim and immigration, while moving conveyor belts sped other passengers away to connecting flights in other terminals.

The figure exited the shuttle with the rest of the passengers, and soon everyone had parted in different directions. He turned deeper into the terminal, losing himself in the crowd. He had no belongings, nothing to claim. Within minutes he flashed a plain ID that the customs officer was convinced was authentic; then he was cleared through and made his way out to the spaceport entrance. Ignoring the bustle of people around him, he walked out into a large square, gazing up at the massive city surrounding him, the towering buildings all around. He turned slowly, trying to get his bearings on location; then he saw it. There, not far off, was the heart of the city, the centerpiece of Vectur – the Royal Varnusian Palace. It was a huge monstrosity of metal and duracrete, shaped somewhat like a pyramid, but mixed with a convolution of architectural styles. One face was smooth and slanted, while the other side was more castle-like, with large walls, courtyards, and spires. A huge projecting structure shot out from the center of the tan building, like a skyscraper jutting straight out of it, a circular dome of transparisteel resting at the top. Another massive wall surrounded the palace itself, separating those in authority from the common populace. Those walls wouldn’t do much to hinder him, though.

The figure looked out upon the city with utter malice and hate. This was what civilization had wrought in his absence. A decadent society of lavish waste. It was a visage of prosperity that only masked the stagnation inside. But that was all right. It wouldn’t last for long. He was here now, and everything was going to change soon. As they had once before, in time beyond memory, all people would again revere and worship the name of Malduke. He smiled.

Turning away, he walked to the main street and kept walking, off into the bustling crowd of the city, quickly becoming lost among the throng.


* * *


Private Quarters

Tralaria, NI Capital

2100 Hours


Queklain had been waiting for quite some time by the time Gene Rytor finally entered his personal quarters. The man had returned later than usual, but that was probably typical for someone of Rytor’s position. The Warlord had been looking forward to this first meeting for quite some time; he’d set himself up as a janitor in the palace in order to get this close, since NI security had been greatly increased since the assassination of the former Diktat.

As the lights came on and Rytor made to hang his light jacket inside the closet near the door, the Warlord spoke. “Rytor, I’ve been waiting for you.”

Immediately the man dropped down low and snatched a blaster pistol out of the closet, pivoting to point the weapon at him. But he was no match for the Warlord’s speed. Instantly he wrapped Rytor up in tendrils of the Power, gently prying the gun from his hand and setting it on the floor. “No need of that,” he said. He wasn’t angry – it had been exactly the kind of response he’d expected.

The man’s tongue, however, was not tied, and he quickly spoke. “Whoever you are, I promise you are not going to live long enough to…”

“Nos Salam,” Queklain interrupted, and immediately the man ceased struggling. Doubtlessly he knew the command would only come from the highest ranking Altarin’Dakor, and now he was wondering who exactly was standing before him.

“Who… Who are you?” the man asked, confirming his thoughts.

The Warlord decided to be honest. After all, they were going to be working closely together from now on. “I am Queklain,” he said. “I am sure you haven’t heard that name before, but I assure you that I am a Shok’Thola.

Rytor’s eyes widened even further, then. Obviously no one in his right mind would make that kind of claim unless it was true. “How man I serve you?” he spoke up uncertainly.

Queklain slowly walked toward the man, then began to circle him, studying the man before him like a buyer at market. “I understand that you performed admirably as the head of Kronos’ spy network,” he said. “But now Kronos is gone, and I am filling the place that he once held. I am excited to meet you finally. First, tell me of your history until this point.”

“I was the Imperial Moff – the governor – of the Kuat System for a brief time,” Rytor began obediently, obviously not daring to disobey a Shok’Thola, “and during my time there I established a large enough information work that I decided to go into it full-time. Shortly after that I was found by General Akira, Krono’s chief operative in this galaxy prior to the Return.”

“I have heard of him. Continue.”

“Akira saw value in me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Later he took me to Kronos and I was placed here in the New Imperium to help prepare the way for the Return’s spearhead. The plan was to make the NI cower in submission and to use it as a staging base for the rest of the invasion.”

Queklain nodded, continuing his circle around the man. So that explained why all the sudden interest in this region of space. “And what have you been doing since Lord Kronos’ demise?” he asked.

“With both Kronos and Akira seemingly defeated, and with no other orders, I transferred here to focus on running the NI Intelligence Network, and to clean up the pieces,” the man replied.

“Well done,” Queklain said approvingly. “But I’m afraid that time is over. You will be working for me, now.”

“I understand.” Rytor’s expression betrayed little, but Queklain could sense the fear inside him. Being scooped up by another Warlord was probably a spy’s worst nightmare – suddenly following someone else’s orders and wondering if your former master would come calling again, too. Rytor doubtlessly felt very precarious at this point, but Queklain didn’t sense any falsity in his words. To do so would have been a death sentence.

“I have new orders for you,” Queklain told him, “a different agenda than you were following previously. Until now, you have enjoyed some freedom away from Kronos and his schemes. But now you belong to me. You see, I have a vested interest in the New Imperium, and it is my desire that the NI prosper at this time. We will strengthen it and put up as strong defense against the next push of the Altarin’Dakor, most likely led by Nimrod, or whomever else decides to come.”

Confusion now made its way through Rytor’s head, but he didn’t question the Warlord. Queklain wasn’t concerned though; he wanted to set everything straight from the beginning.

“Therefore,” he continued, “I want to have a direct hand controlling events here. As you know, elections for Diktat will be happening soon. It is my desire for you to enter the running and to win the position.”

Now surprise covered Rytor’s face. “Me?” he blurted.

“You have all the qualifications,” Queklain assured him. “And I must confess that right now, I need you. I need someone in a position of authority who can do what I want done. And that will be you. Do you have any problems with serving me?” Of course, what other choice would he have?

“I will serve and obey,” Rytor said, though his words sounded forced. Of course he wouldn’t be happy about it. But the problem was, Queklain did need him right now, and this gave the man some leeway in their relationship. Queklain knew little about this galaxy, or even of the activities of the other Shok’Thola. He needed Rytor in order to gain power and get back into the playing field. Of course, he would have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he stayed loyal, as well.

“But Great Lord, what should happen if Kronos returns and seeks my allegiance again?” Rytor asked testily. Of course – that would be a major concern for the man. Being caught between two Warlords’ interests was the last place anyone would want to be.

“Don’t worry about Kronos – or whoever else may come,” Queklain purred in a reassuring tone. “I will set myself a place to watch and be in constant contact with you. I promise I will keep you safe and will reward your loyalty with much power and prestige – as long as you do what I say.” Finally he let go of the Power, and Rytor relaxed, reaching up to rub his limbs that had been constricted tight for several minutes. “If you are not loyal,” he added, “well, you know exactly what would happen in that event, don’t you?”

“Yes, Great Lord.”

“Very well. Now, tell me of this spy network of yours.”


* * *


Royal Palace

Vectur, Planet Varnus

1400 Hours


Rynn Mariel walked briskly through the palace corridors. Having just finished another training period in one of the palace’s workout areas – designated rooms specifically made for Jedi training – she hung her sweat-towel over one shoulder and made her way through the lower levels. She didn’t enjoy the too-frequent workouts all that much, but at least those who had been designated full Jedi were able to choose their own method of training. All of it was aimed at increasing their Force power, of course. With the threat of war looming over the New Imperium every day, the entire Jedi Division was filled with activity and a burning need to train new Jedi. It had been estimated that at least two Jedi were needed to defeat a comparably-powerful Altarin’Dakor Jedicon. However, the problem was that the Jedicon had the advantage of numbers. So, the New Imperial forces had been desperately searching all of NI space for anyone even remotely Force-sensitive. These days, the Royal Palace was the center of virtually all Jedi training, and was so full and bustling that it was hard to find a quite spot to ones self.

Rynn took a moment to consider how far her own training had come. She’d joined and started her training in the Division two years ago, and already she’d passed Jedi Knight. A week before Grand Master Xar had been passing by, noticed her, and promoted her two ranks to Crusader on the spot. Rynn’s power, as measured by the Division’s numerical Force scanners, was a very strong 11,800, compared to a normal non-Force Sensitive, who was somewhere around 10. She was very strong in the Force, and she’d been told by one loose-tongued instructor that she would reach Jedi Master quickly at this rate. It was something she could scarcely imagine – she didn’t feel the least bit ready for such a rank and position. To her, a Jedi Master was still a thing of legend, and even though there were Masters on the Council, the word still held a magical tone to it in her mind. If becoming a Master was this easy, then her preconceived notions of what the Jedi were had been way off. It was more than just Force power; it was about age, wisdom, and experience. She should be decades away from achieving Master status. If the instructor had meant twenty years as being quick, then maybe his statement would have been more sensible.

She actually had more experience against the Altarin’Dakor than many others above her, having fought with Grand Master Xar against the Jedicon Turles and his compatriot, Dark Jedi Master Estod. That mission seemed surreal now, as if she’d watched the events instead of participating in them. Her injuries had long-since healed – at least, her physical ones. But she had slain Estod herself, in a desperate action that had earned her knighthood. Earned through violence. It wasn’t something she was proud of.

Why was everyone so obsessed with fighting, anyway? Virtually all of the other Jedi were going through rigorous training, constantly pushing their physical and Force abilities to their limits. Everything they did was about increasing their power levels and learning more Force abilities. Jedi were being sent through an accelerated program just to get them out on the front lines. But power given without the wisdom to wield it was just as dangerous as the Altarin’Dakor. They were breeding a whole new set of problems behind the scenes. Couldn’t they see that?

Perhaps the new Grand Master did. After Xar had disappeared, his close friend and former guardian Alyx Misnera had taken command. He had instituted new programs that struck a better balance, and didn’t just teach mere techniques. But much of the damage had already been done, and now that Xar was back again, things seemed to be going the way he wanted it once more. In fact, Xar seemed more and more intense and over the edge than ever, since he’d returned with an Altarin’Dakor Warlord and her defected forces. Rynn didn’t like all the combat training and power gaining they were being forced to do. She preferred to focus more on meditation, keeping herself at peace and attempting to decipher what the Force was telling her. The others couldn’t seem to hear it, but Rynn was able to, sometimes. So, lately, she and Bren had been working on ways to fight the AD non-violently, studying ancient Jedi Battle Meditation techniques. So far, progress was slow, but she was certain it would pay off someday.

Heading toward one of the internal turbolifts, she entered and rode it up to the main residential level where most of the Jedi and other VIPs lived. Her room was waiting for her there, along with a nice hot shower. Perhaps that would help to take her mind off of the current state of affairs.

She walked out of the turbolift and into the round, open atrium that split off into the various side corridors. The palace was a mix of architectural styles, but all with a common, elegant theme, and this was evidenced in the carvings, tapestries, and various kinds of floors throughout the palace. Ferns and other exotic plants were commonly placed in large pots to add flavor. Overall it was a pretty palace and a nice place to call home, except for its function as a military base.

Suddenly she caught movement at the corner of her eye, and turned in time to see another turbolift door open and several cloaked figures emerge. She recognized them immediately, even as they strode quickly and purposefully away in mid-conversation. In the lead was Jedi Master Xar Kerensky himself, followed closely by several of his regulars – the large Togorian feline, Ralagos Akala, Nadia Ispen, a hard-mannered woman with a taste for adventure, and Jacob “Jinx” Skipper, whom she had gotten to know as more than just a normal friend. They were all part of Xar’s informal operational team, or the “posse”, as they were starting to be called by others. Though no longer Grand Master in official position, Xar still held tremendous power among the Jedi, due partially to his experience and fame, and also because he was the NI’s most powerful Jedi. He was also the regent and legal owner of the Palace, which explained why he kept tromping around with impunity. Rynn guessed it was a good thing he and Alyx were close friends, or there might have been trouble between them. It looked like Xar was actually running things while leaving the deskwork to his friend and comrade.

Rynn had been offered the opportunity to join Xar and the others, but she’d refused. If most of the Jedi were training hard, this group took it to new heights. They were the epitome of training for Force strength, the icon of preparation against the Altarin’Dakor. But that wasn’t why Rynn had refused. It was because of the group’s hard-line, uncompromising attitude in their missions. Their enemies usually wound up dead, even when a little more effort could have resulted in live captures. At times it seemed as though Xar was willing to be as ruthless as the Altarin’Dakor were, if that was what it took. Rynn just couldn’t see herself doing that; it was the opposite of her own philosophy. She’d had words with Xar before – had even slapped him across the face on one occasion, though that was past – and though she’d failed to convince him of her own viewpoint, Rynn still hoped to change the Division from the inside, using positive methods. She knew that the good in Xar would win out someday.

Interestingly, Atridd Xoan, her first mentor and later a good friend, had opted to join Xar’s team. Though he wasn’t present with the group as they faded down the corridor, he had probably been in on the latest assignment. She hoped he hadn’t been injured. Atridd had agreed with Rynn on many occasions, and had sided with her even when a rift had come between her and the former Grand Master. He had been a good confidant, and he often had agreed with her musings on the current situation. Still, he was staunch supporter of Xar, whom he considered a good man and friend, and he was willing to be a part of the team in order to protect his friend and further his goals. Atridd was strong, that much was certain. To do that, even if he didn’t agree, must have taken more strength than Rynn could muster, herself. Rynn felt a pang of sadness for him, and for Xar. Outside his own personal team, Xar didn’t seem to have that many supporters these days. Many of his old friends were still around, but the new generation had come to question his authority. Now it had come out more than ever. She hoped that things would work out and that he could make amends with the rest of the Division. The last thing they needed in the midst of all this was a split.

Turning away, she headed back down the corridor towards her own room. She’d been thinking too much, again. It was time to relax, and take her mind away from troubling thoughts. Yes, that hot shower was starting to sound really nice about now…


* * *


Xar entered the conference area on the main level, a room he had commandeered and set up for use in their independent operations. Following closely behind were Ralagos, Nadia, and Jacob. He led them past the long conference table and into one of the side offices. Walking over to the desk, he tossed a study datapad down on top and started up the built-in holoscreen. He moved around to the other side to type in his commands but remained standing. “So what did you find out?” he asked without looking upward.

Jinx had known the question was for him. “With all the refugees coming in at this point, it’s impossible to do background checks on everyone. About forty-percent of the incoming population aren’t even registered. It’s not just Varnus, it’s everywhere.”

“In other words, out gateway operations have failed,” Xar said, looking up. “There’s no telling how many more spies are getting in. I can’t help but feel there’s more coming in than we’re finding and stopping.”

“Sounds like a lost cause to me, Master,” Nadia Ispen put in wearily. “Excuse my frankness, but I’d rather stop wasting our time doing this and take on the real enemy. They’re bound to start a major invasion soon.”

“That’s true, Nadia, but how can we win if the enemy is on both sides of us? How can we fight if we don’t know our homes are safe as we leave? The Altarin’Dakor are totally without morals. They’d have no compunctions about taking civilian lives .Just look at what they did to Haven.”

Jinx gave a sigh and moved to sit down in a chair by the corner. “This is no conventional enemy we’re dealing with. With their power, you’d expect a full-scale invasion, yet they prefer to weaken us from the inside before delivering the killing blow. I don’t understand it.”

“It makes no sense,” Nadia said, “unless they want more than just victory. They want to destroy our morale and crush our will. They love to flaunt their power just to fill their own egos.”

Xar nodded. “They don’t want subjects, they want slaves. The total demoralization of our people. They want to destroy our capacity to make war, and then destroy our will to make war.”

“I’m inclined to agree with Nadia though,” Jinx put in. “We aren’t making any real headway by looking for AD infiltration. None of them have talked about their operations. I’m getting tired of playing executioner. The refugee problem won’t last long, anyway. When the AD come, they’ll be running away again. I guess even the Renestatians will have to leave home. Again…” he trailed off sadly.

“Well, you may have a point,” Xar admitted. “I’ve been preparing some other cases in this event. Here, I need a favor,” he said, putting a few last commands into the terminal. A sheet of flimsy printed out, and he handed it Jinx. “I’d like you and Paladin Nova to head out to Moro. Make sure defenses are back in place since that rogue Sigman attack. And stop by Vortigern. I want to increase rotation of Jedi between the houses and ourselves here on Varnus. You never know when we’ll be needed.”

Jinx took the flimsy and looked it over. “With Nova? As in, ‘Ken Nandos’ Nova?” he asked dubiously.

Xar arched an eyebrow. “I know you two have never gotten along, but he needs to learn the hard way. I’m sure you can make him follow orders.”

“I… see. Have these orders been approved by Moro?”

Xar snorted. “You’re a Jedi Adept, and overseer of Moro. Make it authorized.”

Jinx’s eyes widened a bit, and he looked up at Nadia, who nodded slyly.

“Besides,” Xar said, “you can check up on your people there. I’m sure the Renestatians would rather hear the news from one of their own.”

“Okay… Thanks,” Jinx said, sounding genuinely appreciative.

“No thanks needed. I’ll have a shuttle ready for you in the morning. Good luck.”

As Jinx and Nadia rose and turned to leave, Xar closed down the holoscreen and put the remaining papers away. Then he stood and addressed the room’s remaining occupant. Ralagos Akala was one of the few Togorian males to travel outside their homeworld of Togaria, and although most of his species could readily understand Basic, he had actually learned to speak it rather well.

“Ralagos, I’m going to speak with Alyx,” Xar said. He checked his wrist chronometer. “If you would, please bring Derek to the training session tomorrow. The usual time – 1030 hours?”

Ralagos barred his fangs in a Togorian grin. “I would be honored. But he may be frightened when he sees me. He is very young.”

Xar laughed aloud. “With Derek, I don’t think you have to worry about that. That boy fears nothing. Just try to tolerate his attempts to pet you.”

“Then I look forward to training with him,” Akala said, bowing before he took his leave.

With everyone else gone, Xar left the office and took the turbolift down two levels to the main floor. On his way he couldn’t help but look forward to training with Derek and Akala the next day. Ralagos had become a good friend and a loyal, trusting companion – as most Togorians were. However, he had more than his share of a male’s fighting spirit, and could be just as fierce as Xar was in combat. And with his Force power level rated at just over 18,000, he had enough power to back up Xar in battle against most foes – even Jedicon.

Akala really was an exception to the stereotypical Togorian male. Usually it was only the females who traveled the galaxy on grand tours, learning about all the many technological wonders it had to offer. The males usually eschewed technology completely, preferring to hunt in the vast plains of their homeworld in the Thanos system. With their aptitude for fighting, most males out in the galaxy ended up with mercenaries or pirates. Ralagos was different, though. He’d started off into space looking for his wayward mate, who had never returned from her galactic grand tour. At first he’d hated every minute away from his world, but gradually, as he discovered the many wonders around him, he’d grown used to it. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t found his mate, and Xar had come across the Togorian working with a group of rangers in the Outer Rim. Xar had sensed Akala’s Force potential and convinced him to come to Varnus to train as a Jedi. Now, Ralagos was right at home on Varnus, with its many large, grassy plains.

As Xar grew near to the Grand Master’s office, Xar suddenly felt that familiar spot in the back of his head warm up, felt a rush of another person’s presence overcome him. She’s near, he thought. Zalaria. He could feel her nearby, through their Force Bond. The desire to follow that presence and join her was almost overwhelming for a moment. Because of their Bond, he always knew where she was, could feel a mirror image of her senses and emotions. She seemed to be annoyed with something at the moment. He wished he could go to her and make it better. Whenever he was away from her, he felt that pull, and it was stronger the closer they were. Xar had sacrificed everything to go and find her before. He’d left the entire NI behind to look for her. But now she was here, and that was enough. It was almost too much to believe. She had actually come back with him on her magnificent flagship, the Nexus. The full magnitude of what had happened still hadn’t set in. But all that mattered to him was that she was here.

It was all right; he’d go to see her later. She’d been keeping quiet and very low-key around the palace. Understandable, since no one but a select few knew who she really was. Most just thought she was an Altarin’Dakor like any other. Her Jedicon bodyguards kept enough distance as to not be too conspicuous. During his time with her before they’d come back, she’d taught him a lot about the Warlords and Altarin’Dakor society. The Shok’Thola were so high above normal society that to most of their galaxy’s residents they were simply epic myths, and were even worshipped as gods in many sects. Few knew the truth, that above the military leaders and governors, beyond the kings and emperors, were beings that held multiple empires under their command. So Zalaria had to keep a low profile, even for many of the Altarin’Dakor that had joined the NI. And even fewer NI citizens knew of her true position as a Shok’Thola. He wondered how many of her own forces knew, anyway.

Finally Xar reached the door to the Grand Master’s office. Turning, he pushed the door open without knocking and entered. Inside, the room had changed quite a bit from its transition between Xar and his friend. Xar’s office had been elegant, but not crowded. The few objects he had laying around had been old artifacts and Force trinkets. Misnera’s office was much better decorated. The royal seal of Varnus, embroidered on the thick carpet and the elaborate tapestries had remained, however. Fitting, since Alyx was a Varnusian, once a royal guardsman assigned to protect Xar during his childhood.

Inside, Alyx was sitting behind his desk, and he looked up as Xar entered. Xar was surprised to see the other figure in the room – Icis Novitaar, the Traveler. This time, he wasn’t invisible. Since his return from Traveler space, he’d lost all of his Force potential, and with it his unique illusionary technique. Icis had only given sketchy details about his time away. Apparently the Travelers had arrested him for interfering with the New Imperium’s war against the Altarin’Dakor. Since they were supposed to watch and never interfere, this was a capital offense. In exchange for his freedom, Icis had been stripped of his Force powers and cast out by his own people. Xar was amazed that Icis had such a loyalty to the NI, to be able to bear that kind of punishment. He’d been surprised to see the Traveler at all. They hadn’t exactly been on the best terms when they’d parted ways last. But they had made their apologies upon Xar’s return, and the man had ceased his judgmental comments toward Zalaria, so Xar was at peace about it. Besides, Icis had been through a lot. He could hardly imagine what it would be like to lose the Force’s presence permanently. It would be maddening not to feel that touch, that sense of power.

“Hello, Xar,” the Grand Master spoke up as he entered. Nearby, Icis gave him a nod. Xar knew that Icis still didn’t trust Zalaria, and neither did Alyx, much. Xar sensed that Icis was hiding something else he knew or suspected about her. Though now he’d be able to take that knowledge with the Force, it would be a horrific breach of Icis’ privacy and would end their friendship. Xar wouldn’t consider doing that.

“Alyx,” Xar said, walking up to the desk and taking one of the seats in front of it. “How are things?”

“More hectic than ever.” the man said bluntly.

Xar lifted his eyebrows. “Okay.” He noticed the man’s frustrated expression. “Is something wrong?”

Alyx reached up and rubbed his temples, giving a long sigh. “The NI’s in a state of chaos with all that’s going on. If it’s not preparations against the AD, it’s attacks by pirates and the New Republic, or intersystem conflicts, or a thousand other things. And we’re the whole NI in microcosm. Do you know how many different factions there are in the Division right now?”

Xar shook his head. “Factions? I don’t know if I’d call them factions. We’re always going to have differences. There isn’t just one way to be a Jedi, you know.”

“It’s worse than mere variations, Xar,” Icis spoke up, taking the Traveler’s lecturing tone. “These are real groups. It’s spreading to the Houses, too. There are the traditionalists, those that have been with us for a while and support what we’re doing. Then there’s the generation that arose, frankly, during your leadership. They’re brash and cocky, eager to use their powers but without the wisdom to wield it. They want to take the Altarin’Dakor head on, and they have no idea how badly they’d be slaughtered. Thirdly, there’s the group that’s recently developed, believing that our military focus is wrong, that the Force should be used non-aggressively. They’re refusing all the battle training and are acting more like what you’d call the traditional – albeit anachronistic – ‘Light-side Jedi’. Then there’s your ‘posse’, the no-nonsense zealots who train day and night and want to stop the AD at any cost. Not that I have anything against that,” he said quickly as Xar opened his mouth to protest. “If anything, I’m with you. I gave up everything to come back here with you.” He shrugged. “Most everyone else is in between, not knowing which is right, so they’re training on their own as best they know how.”

“Well, you can blame all that on me if you like,” Xar said, sitting back in his chair. “We’ve been through several distinct periods of growth here, and that can influence your experience in training. Besides,” he added, “the only group that concerns me is the one that refuses to fight. I think that when the war flares up again, the rest of us will band together out of necessity.”

“Those seeking peace have a valid argument, Xar,” Alyx argued, frowning. “What’s wrong with what they’re trying to do?”

Xar sighed, feeling a pang of frustration. “There’s nothing wrong with it. In other times, I would gladly be joining them. But we’re facing a threat worse than any the galaxy’s ever seen! It’s not only our duty to fight, it’s a necessity. And I believe it’s the will of the Force, as well.”

“That’s an interesting notion,” Icis murmured thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should talk to someone more sensitive in the Force’s finer flows…”

“Gentlemen, let’s drop this for now,” Alyx broke in, still focusing on his writing. “There’s no need to argue, and we’ve been through all this before. We’ve got other problems. Mainly, we’re understaffed and undermanned. It’s the shortage in the Council that has caused a lot of these problems. Jedi are having to fend for themselves.”

“Speaking of the Council… How is Mathis doing?” Xar asked more somberly. He’d heard bad news about his former Deputy Grand Master and best friend. Apparently Mathis Organa had been so emotionally distraught after Xar’s capture that he’d begun using mid-level spice to cope with it. And now he couldn’t stop. Alyx had suggested he move down to the less active Chancellor position and let Jedi Master Nico Flygras become Deputy. The switch had been made, but Xar hadn’t heard whether Mathis was recovering, and sadly hadn’t had the time to visit him lately.

“About the same,” Misnera said. “He’s still fighting it. I’m letting him deal with his own battles. But as it stands, he’s still not ready for activity.”

“I see,” Xar said, saddened.

“You should help him, Xar,” Icis put in. “It was his concern for you that drove him to go so far. He cares for you.”

Xar nodded and was quiet for a moment. He silently acknowledged that it was probably his fault Mathis had gone over the edge. He’d acted way too irresponsibly during the earlier days of the NI.

“What is the latest word on the Diktat elections?” he asked, changing the subject. He knew that it high time for the NI Senate to elect a new leader. Interim Diktat Arfann Dogar’s attitude, which he revealed to only a few of the New Imperium’s leaders, was fading fast. With the damages incurred in the nebula, and without anything to show for it, his reputation had dropped even further. It was a shame; Dogar was a good man, merely a victim of circumstance. But the NI needed a new figurehead now. Before he’d met Zalaria, Xar had considered running for office again himself, but now he knew that wasn’t his calling.

“Dogar made an official announcement a couple days ago,” Alyx said. “He’s not going to run. That leaves it wide open. Currently, the prime candidates are former Moff Gene Rytor, Fleet Admiral Stan Sanders, and Admiral Caramon Majere.”

“Rytor? That’s surprising,” Xar mused aloud. Gene Rytor, the former Imperial Moff of Kuat, had retired some years ago. What many didn’t know was that he led the mysterious ‘Inner Circle’, an independent intelligence division operating within the New Imperium. His information brokerage had been to Xar’s benefit many times, and to others as well, he suspected. He had taken a place as a key advisor and cabinet member for Dogar, which he currently still held. “So are you going to Tralaria next week for the elections?” Misnera, as Grand Master, was the Senator representing the Division.

“With all this going on, I think not,” Alyx replied, shaking his head. “I think I’ll designate someone else to represent us in the Senate, maybe even for all official affairs.”

“Who’s free for that kind of duty?” Icis asked.

“I’m planning to ask…” Alyx started to say.

“Nico,” Xar finished for him, smiling. Alyx looked at him with a bemused expression. This time it hadn’t been Jedi telepathy; Xar had known who the right man was for the job. Fitting, since Master Nico Flygras had been on numerous missions for the NI before, and had the most experience outside the Division next to Xar.

“I’ll tell him about it this evening,” Alyx said. “Knowing him, he probably won’t like it, but I’m sure he’ll do fine.”

“He always does,” Xar agreed.


This time, Nico was in the middle of dinner when the fateful call rang out.

“Nico, come to my office in five minutes, please,” Alyx’s voice came through his commlink.

Nico’s spoon and plate crashed down onto the table as he jumped reflexively out of his seat. “What the frizz?!” he shouted out, startling everyone else in the cafeteria. “Not again!”

He was off within seconds, knowing instinctively that it took exactly seven and a half minutes to get to the Grand Master’s office from where he was. When Xar had been in charge, the calls had come in so frequently that Nico had paced the entire palace, memorizing the time of each major location in relation to that blasted office. How when that call always came he could be too far away to make it in time was mind-boggling.

Nico used the Force to speed up his pace as he rushed through the corridors, flashing by startled passerby and occasionally bumping into someone. Shouting an apology behind him and realizing how much of an idiot he was making of himself, Nico kept running.

He got there just ten seconds late.

“You’re late,” Alyx said, stopping the counting chronometer as Nico charged into the room. He skidded to a halt just in front of the Grand Master’s desk.

“Alyx, I know that Xar enjoyed this little running joke a lot, but tell me why in the name of the Sith do you have to keep it up?” Nico asked breathlessly.

The Grand Master’s mirth seemed to fade somewhat. “Sorry old man, just trying to remember old times,” Alyx said, his tone apologetic. Still, he seemed to be struggling to contain a smile. “Have a seat. You can probably guess why I wanted to talk to you.”

“Let me guess. You wanted a fried nerf platter for dinner?”

“Very funny, Nico.”

“Well, you can’t blame me for hoping you wanted something simple,” Nico argued. “So what’s the mission this time, and when do I leave?”

“You’re getting better guessing these things,” Alyx grinned. “As you know, Diktat elections are coming up, among other events in the Senate. With things so busy here, I won’t have time to be away. I’d like you to go in my stead and represent the Division.”

The man’s words hit Nico like a blow. He’d been ready for a mission to Dathomir, Coruscant - even back to the Unknown Regions. But he’d never expected this. “You… want me to be a Senator?”

“Basically, yes.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“What’s wrong?” Alyx asked, bemused. “You’re perfect for the job. You’ve been a Senator before, back when you led the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet. There’s no one else on the Council as qualified as you. Besides, either you can be the Senator, or you can take on my job while I’m gone.” With that, he gave a half-grin.

“Hmm. Now that you mention it, Senator sounds like a great idea,” Nico said, only half joking. “Seriously though, it’ll just be strange, going back…” He thought back to the final moments of the Battle of Mizar, when he thought he was about to die, when the only choice was to self-destruct the Dark Lightning in order to cover the fleet’s retreat… What had happened after that was still a blur. “The DLSF is gone, now. It could bring back a lot of memories.”

“I know, but you’ll do well. You know what the Division’s interests are, and what we need. I have full trust in you, Nico. Don’t forget that.”

“Thanks,” Nico said, nodding. “I’ll do my best for us.”

“As always. And may the Force be with you.”


* * *



Chapter Two