Varnusian Productions Presents:


Grave Affairs


                Medlab, Royal Palace

                Vectur, Planet Varnus

                1800 hours


                Xar Kerensky strode into the Medlab recovery room with Deputy Mathis Organa close on his heels. As he entered, he swept his dark eyes across the sparsely-lit room. He hadn't had much sleep in the trip back from Sigma, and he knew his attitude reflected it. His long, gray overcoat hung over his shoulders, and his dark hair was disheveled from their hasty arrival. Behind him, Mathis looked even worse, in his worn brown coat and long, scraggly brown hair.

    Doctor Vannik, a dark-skinned, elderly man in a white overcoat, stood at one side looking into a status display screen. Occupying the only bed in one of the smaller recovery rooms was a man with long blonde hair, a white sheet covering him up to his peaceful and quite noble-looking face. It was a face Xar remembered well, now, though it had seemed familiar even the first time he’d seen him. A number of monitoring devices were set up around the bed, checking the patient's progress. He was sleeping.

    Xar immediately turned to the doctor, laying a hand on his arm. Vannik turned and met his eye.

   "How is he? What happened here?" Xar asked, quick and to the point.

   Vannik's eyes narrowed, and he made as if to pull his arm away. When Xar's grip held, he shook his head and gave up with a sigh. The doctor sometimes seemed to forget whom he was speaking to, treating high and low on the ranks the same. It was one reason Xar had selected him for the position; Vannik knew that inside the Medlab, or in matters where therapeutics were involved, he was in charge. He spoke his mind, and acted as he thought was right. Xar wanted people who could tell him when he was wrong. Foolish leaders died thinking they were always right. Many had died that way, including Emperor Palpatine, though Xar usually kept those thoughts to himself.

   Still, sometimes that slightly impulsive trait had its drawbacks - and annoyances. Now was one of those times. Xar wasn't very interested in Vannik's remarks about his tone of voice, nor his objections about the patient’s well being. Vannik's words surprised him, though.

   "Physically, my patient's fine," he said matter-of-factly. "Mentally, I'm not so sure."

   "What do you mean?" Mathis asked from behind.

   "What I mean," the doctor said, glancing between them, "Is that he has problems. Big ones. You thought he caused damage when he was still in a coma? He's ruined half the medical wing by now! He's still lashing out with the Force, throwing things around..."

   "I do not care about the damage he has done," Xar interrupted, holding up a hand. "He is more valuable. Besides, he does not know what he is doing."

   "Know what he's doing? That's what I'm trying to tell you," Vannik’s voice was tense, but he was careful enough to keep his voice down. "I don't think he's mentally stable. How was I supposed to know what to expect? Nobody has been removed from a stasis sleep of more than a couple hundred years, much less fifty or a hundred times that. He's suffering from some kind of hibernation sickness. He's got temporary blindness, but I think that'll only last a while. But that’s just part of it. When he woke up, he seemed stable enough. Then when he noticed something was wrong, he started jabbering in a language nobody understands, not even our best computer translators. We can't communicate with him. He must be disoriented and afraid."

   Xar nodded. "All right, all right. Let me try. Jedi learn... other ways to communicate. Let us see if this one remembers anything." He glanced at Mathis. "Stay close. Back me up if I need it." He didn't know what to expect from a Jedi who lived during the earlier stages of the Old Republic; he'd have to be ready for anything.

   He started over toward the simple bed on which the patient lay, hesitated as he looked into that calm, regal face. A Jedi who lived in the galaxy's ancient past... What long-forgotten knowledge might he hold? What lost Force Powers might he be able to teach them? He tried to suppress the thoughts, tried not to get too excited, focusing on what he had to do. He heard Mathis step up behind him.

   Xar reached out and lay a hand on the man's shoulder. Reaching out with the Force, he gently brushed the man's mind. Wake up, he thought.

    Suddenly the man's eyes snapped open, and he sat up so abruptly that Xar took an involuntary step back.  The man's cold blue eyes were open, but they saw nothing as they stared blankly at Xar. Then the man began speaking.

   "Je, samo lawushan se bukan?"

   Xar didn't bother answering verbally. Now he knew what the doctor had meant, had an idea what the poor patient must have been going through. Calmly he reached into the man's mind with the Force and closed his eyes. Yes, now he could see what the man must have been seeing. Now they were on level ground. But where his projected thoughts should have been transmitted to the other man, he ran into an invisible wall around the Jedi. He felt around the man's mind, searching for some entrance point, but he could find none. Whether involuntarily or of his own accord, the other man was blocking him out. He couldn't communicate with him unless the man made the other half of the connection.

  Xar could vaguely hear the man still speaking in the background, but inside the Force, the spoken words mattered little. But try as he might to make sense of the thoughts that went along with the words, he couldn't. He was being thoroughly blocked out. Dauntless, he pushed harder, straining his thoughts, trying to connect with the other man. Can you hear me? Please, answer me, we are friends!

   Suddenly he felt as though hurtled forward at incredible speed, and the other man's sense flooded into his mind. Xar realized it was the first time he'd actually been able to sense him since he'd awakened. I can hear you, the feeling said, right in his head, and for a moment he thought it was his own words. Thoughts weren't like voices, with different pitches and volume. There was a sense of volume, actually, but different. It depended on the user's strength in the Force, and, left unchecked, could give their recipient splitting headaches from a simple communication. Xar had to mentally reduce the intensity of the voice, otherwise he would probably have been writhing in pain. The man's power level was absolutely incredible, and he had no control over what he was doing. He felt a question. Who are you?

   My name is Xar Kerensky, Xar thought back, finally getting himself oriented again. He didn’t know how exact his thoughts would be transmitted to the other man. I am a friend, he concentrated on saying. You were injured, asleep. We have been taking care of you. We do not mean you harm. He let his feelings and emotions flow through the link, offering his sincerity.

   Why can I not see?  The thoughts came forth.

   You are sick from long-term hibernation. You eyesight should return in a week or more. Please, let us help you. Stop lashing out, you are making things more difficult.

   I do not understand. I do nothing. Are you truly a friend? Where am I? Questions bombarded him.

  You are on my home, the planet called Varnus, in the medical facilities of our Royal Palace, Xar thought as best he could. You have been out of stasis for about ten days. You are among Jedi.

   A feeling of recognition at Xar’s last thought. Jedi? That word... I know it. But I cannot remember. I do not know what a Jedi is.

   Xar struggled to maintain his concentration. A sinking feeling hit his stomach .You cannot remember?  But how are you using the Force now?

   The Force? What is that? I... cannot remember... anything. Anything! Who am I? What am I doing here? Why can I not remember! The thoughts came through like a scream. The link seemed to fade.

 Please stay calm. You have... amnesia. We will help you, but you must cooperate. It will take time, we must learn your language, or you ours. Until then we can communicate like this, through the Force. A mental link.

   Force? Link? I am not doing anything, how can I talk to...

   And just like that, the link was broken, snapped like a twig as the man thought about what he was doing, was doing something he didn't know how to. The breakaway was abrupt, and violent. Xar felt like something really had snapped in his head.

   He opened his eyes staring at the ceiling. He was lying on the floor against the wall, the patient's bed a good five meters away. Breath rushed back into him, and he gasped for air. Vannik's face came into view, as he leaned down to check on him.

   "Are you okay?" Mathis asked anxiously, looking over beside an unconscious patient.

   "I am fine," Xar muttered, coughing. Pushing away the doctor's hands, he brought himself back up to his feet. "What happened?"

   "One moment you were standing there," Vannik said, watching him warily. "The next, you were flying backwards as if you'd been launched from a catapult. A trick of the Force?"

   Xar nodded. "He just caught me by surprise." He began making his way back toward the bed. "The man is using the Force without even knowing it, like a beginner, except this one is as strong as me, maybe even stronger. He can only do basic things, manipulation of matter, telepathy, telekinesis, that sort of thing. Nothing too complex."

   "Not too complex?" Mathis eyed him incredulously.

   "He has amnesia. He cannot remember anything." Xar announced, looking over at the doctor.

   Vannik shook his head thoughtfully. "Yes, it would make sense. A good possibility with that long of a sleep. This complicates things, obviously."

   "You bet it does," Mathis scowled. "If he can't remember anything, then he doesn't remember anything about his time-period, the Force, or all the knowledge he might have gained..."

   "That is correct," Xar breathed heavily. "So much for our hopes of recovering any long-lost Force secrets. He is going to have to learn the Force all over again..." He looked back over at the bed. The man had lain down again, sleeping soundly.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Grathkar Korealis looked out the viewport of his Nebulon-B class Frigate, watched as several Y-wings flew by in front of his new prize, a large Imperial Modular Conveyor they’d captured. Carrying important supplies for the New Imperium's cause, though it would be their own undoing. Ironic, that. But he hardly gave it any thought. They didn't dare touch the cargo onboard the ship. To do so would destroy the whole operation, as sure as a delay on their part would, as well.

    He reached down and keyed his commlink, signaling his men that were working onboard the conveyor. "Report," he demanded. "Is the bomb in place?" If they took much longer the NI might suspect something, find the device they were hiding onboard. Then he'd have to kill someone.

   "The bomb's in place, milord, but we're having a bit of problems getting this cloaking device to work,"  an accented voice came over the link.

   Grathkar frowned. "You have five more minutes to get it perfect, otherwise I'm gonna blow your sorry hides into space dust," he warned.

   "Aye, sir, we'll have it," the man promised.

   They'd better have it. It was just so hard to find good terrorists these days...


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Royal Palace, Vectur

                Planet Varnus

                1930 hours


                Maarek Stele wandered the corridors, contemplating the events that had happened only days before. In the Danube system he'd seen... something. A ship, but vast beyond comprehension. Still he had nightmares about it; impossibly huge, and dark as night, emitting a silent scream of terror that had penetrated deep into his being. Since then he had many times found himself thinking about that ship, and being afraid.

   Strolling along on what he considered his evening walk through the palace grounds, Maarek was passing through the lower recreation area when a strange humming sound stopped him. A familiar sound... He'd never heard it in person - most hadn't - but he was sure that many had in popular Holovids and a hundred other methods. It was hard to mistake the sound of a lightsaber once you'd heard it before.

   The sound clashed again and again. Maarek was becoming worried. It had to be a battle; who in their right mind would fight with a lightsaber except with the intent to kill? He hesitated. Should he try and find out what was going on, or call security first? The latter might be the most prudent, except, he felt... drawn towards the sound. Cautiously he made his way down the hall. The sounds grew louder as he approached, then finally leaned around the corner into the large recreation area. He gave a start at what he saw before him. Xar was in the middle of the room on the training mat, golden-yellow saber held diagonally downwards in front of him. But the person opposite him was what startled Maarek. A huge bulk of a man, dwarfing Xar, and what looked like a large, black axe in his hands. An axe with a glowing, deep azure blade. A lightsaber's blade. The light-axe's handle was long, and held firmly in the man's large hands. He had a roundish face, and his head was shaved. His eyes met Xar's, but Maarek couldn't discern any particular emotion in them. Concentration, perhaps.

   Maarek slipped inside and moved along the wall as the two men suddenly went into motion again. The large man swung the axe down right on top of Xar, who managed to bring his blade up, and parry the strike to the side. The weight of the axe brought it down low, and Xar came up with a strike to the man's left side. The burly man barely got his weapon over in time to block, then with a grunt of effort pulled Xar's blade up and moved in close, bringing the opposite end of the axe, ending with a sharp spike, up to stop centimeters from Xar's face. It all happened in a split second. Maarek gasped and took a step forward, knowing too late that he was too far away to help Xar in any case.

   Then something unexpected happened. Both men smiled and lowered their weapons, and Xar reached up and slapped the larger man on the shoulder. "Nice one, Iver," he laughed.

   The other man smiled back, and laughed, a deep rumble. "As you say."

   Then they stood back, and this time it was Xar's turn to attack. He came in with a series of thrusts that Iver turned to the side, then abruptly Xar brought his blade around in a low strike to the man's right. Iver blocked the blow just in time, though Maarek thought the man's dark robes might need some stitching after that strike. Xar left his blade down, trapping Iver's weapon, then pivoted and threw a side kick into the man's midsection. Iver bent over, the wind rushing out of him as Xar took his blade and held it mere millimeters from the man's neck. "How was that one?" he asked smartly, pulling the blade back and de-igniting it.

   Iver straightened and took a couple shallow breaths. "Not bad, Brother." The glow of his axe-blade faded, and he held his weapon at his side. Both men grinned again, and this time clasped hands and slapped one another on the back.

   "It was good seeing you again," Xar said seriously. "Will you be staying around much longer?"

   Iver shook his head. "No, I'll be leaving in the morning. I have some things I need to take care of. It was a good match, my friend. Until later." Then with a final nod, he turned and headed back toward the far entrance.

   Xar turned and strode over in Maarek's direction. As he got closer Maarek could see that sweat had plastered his hair down and soaked his short-sleeved dark shirt.

   "Who was that?" Maarek asked, glancing after the retreating figure.

   "Just a friend. An old comrade." Xar walked over to the bin at the near wall and pulled out a towel.

   "For a moment there, I thought you two were really going at it," Maarek said, raising his eyebrows.  "That's pretty dangerous, fighting with live blades. You could've been hurt or killed."

   Xar looked back over at him and smiled. "Not really. We were just having fun. But I need to catch a shower and take care of a few things myself. How are you doing here in the palace?"

   "Just fine, thanks. It's really incredible. Probably one of the most beautiful ones I've ever been in."

   "Glad you like it," Xar smiled.

   "Yeah. Well, I'll continue my walk then," Maarek announced.

   "Right. Oh, by the way, I have to make a public speech tomorrow morning, 0900 hours. I am going to go over our recent mission to Sigma and make a few announcements. Come if you like."

   "I might be able to make it," Maarek said. Then, nodding, he headed back out the entrance to continue his walk. The night was still young, and there was much of the palace yet to be seen.


                                                *                                              *                                              *

                Delran Spaceport

                In orbit, Planet Tralaria

                1810 Hours


                The modular-conveyor slowed to a halt and sank down on its repulsorlifts. Seconds later it came to a rest on the landing pad.  Delran was one of Tralaria's largest spaceports, and also one of the busiest. It was late afternoon here, though, Tralaria standard time. Most of the ships scheduled to land were already in their docking ports. The area around the landing pad was deserted as the ship powered down and the automatic systems locked it into place.

   The outside hatch slid open, and Engineer Jonas Meiers made his way out into the cool hangar. Buttoning his coat up in the front, he looked down and studied the pad area and walkways below.  No one in sight, as it should be. The operation was proceeding exactly as planned so far. The operatives working there had taken care of that, along with making the landing clearance and docking move as smoothly as possible.

   Jonas turned around and secured the hatch, sealing off the ship for cargo unloading, and started down the debarking stairway. The original pilot and four-man crew of the ship had been taken away when they'd intercepted the vessel, and Jonas had finished its journey alone. Now all that was necessary was for the cargo to be unloaded, and to wait.

   At the bottom of the stairway, he glanced down at his datapad. His final orders were there. He read them one last time.

   Upon completion of your mission, leave the ship behind for unloading. Get off the spaceport and take a couple month's break. You've earned it. We'll contact you.

   A tap of a few keys deleted the message, and he walked over and tossed the device in the nearest waste bin. Then he turned and walked down the corridor, hands in his pockets, whistling a lively tune to himself. Leaving the ship behind.


                                                *                                              *                                              *

Royal Palace

Vectur, Varnus    

2130 hours


                Xar strode into his chambers and dropped down onto one of the cushioned seats in the lounging area. Across the room a gray and black striped cat padded across the carpet and jumped onto the couch, where it lazily fell onto its side and lay there. It was one of many Xar had brought in, or let into the warm palace from the outside chill. He had a soft spot for the small creatures, and made sure the palace tenants took good care of them when they needed it. It was strange, he knew; but somehow he likened them to himself, their ability to survive, their tenacity. Many that were let in from the outside had had to make their way through trying situations, much as he had.

    Reaching over beside him onto the glass table, he took a small crystal sphere into hand and studied it intently. The object was transparent, but a latticework of crystal became more and more intricate toward the center. This particular item was very old, and very expensive. He'd found it in a museum of antiquities in the Galactic Museum on Coruscant and arranged to purchase it in exchange for information. Information was another one his specialties, something he hoarded. But some kinds of information you didn't want. Some kinds of information could kill you.

   The air in the middle of the room rippled suddenly, folded, and suddenly a tall figure was standing there on the carpet. A cloaked man, hair as dark as his robes and contrasting with his pale face.

   "Still here, Icis?" Xar muttered from his seat. "Did you know this little globe was responsible for two wars, three coups and the merging of two rival families?"

  "Only call me that in private," Icis Novitaar warned.

   "Ah, afraid one of you 'enemies' will notice you around and come calling? You must have quite a few, to live in such constant secrecy," Xar jested, looking up at the man. Going by his Jedi name of Rex since officially entering the Jedi Division on Varnus, he had saved Xar’s life when they'd first met. Icis had decided to travel with Xar as an advisor, though he absolutely insisted on maintaining as low a profile as possible. Apparently the Force trick he used to render himself invisible was a large part of that.

  The other man's dark eyebrows rose. "I'm a survivor," he stated plainly. "That is what I was trained for, and I learned it well. I survive."

   "Of course." Despite his closeness to the man, Xar didn't really know that much about Novitaar. He'd revealed only a sparing amount of information about himself, though from his sage advice and apparently vast sources of information, Xar guessed he had been trained as an informant or some similar vocation. He said he was a Traveler, one of a group that recorded the most important events of history, but never interfered. Except for this one, it seemed.

   "These petty administrative and diplomatic duties are getting to me, Icis," he announced. Around Novitaar was one of the few places he knew he could speak his thoughts aloud candidly. "Did you know that the Harlek Ambassador wants to double the tariff rates on juriff this year? I did not even know what juriff was until he explained the whole deal to me."

   "How interesting," Icis said blandly. "Responsibility is a heavy burden, slowly eating away the freedom of individuality."

   Xar set the crystal back on its table. "That is why I am not running for Diktat again. Not next term, anyway. What do you think of the other potential candidates? I cannot lend my support to either, of course."

  "With the power comes the responsibility to use it properly. Either one - or many others - would do, as long as they are prepared. We must all be prepared or risk the dissolution of all we work for."

  Xar sighed in frustration, but he wasn't really angry. "Stop talking in riddles, man! You always avoid my questions. You are supposed to be my advisor. So advise! What else do I keep you around for?" he ended in a more jocular voice.

   "I feed your cats," Rex offered, eliciting a smile from Xar. "Really, diplomacy is not my area of expertise. I'm afraid my advice is limited in that regard."

   Xar nodded. "Yes. Well, at any rate, I have to give a speech in the morning about the recent Sigma trip, more political stuff. Will you be there?" The other man shrugged slightly and gave a nod.

   "How did you find me?" Xar asked suddenly. "Out of everyone in the galaxy, you chose me to join and offer your assistance. Why?"

   All expression left the other man's face as surely as if he'd donned a mask. Xar clicked his tongue in exasperation.

  "I must know," he said.

 The corners of Icis' mouth turned up slightly in a smile. "You have been thinking about this." It wasn't a question, but Xar nodded anyway.

   "We have ways of... sensing such things," the man said softly. "Key events in history, events certain individuals may be able to take part in during their lifetimes. It is not that the person is so important as is the event itself. I found you because of what I was seeking."

   "And what was that?" Xar interjected.

   Icis continued as though he hadn't been interrupted. "It took me a long time. Nothing may happen in your lifetime. It is always uncertain. Before I found you, there was someone else that I thought would be the key. I found him when he was still a young, an upstart in the Jedi Order. He was destined for great things. Just not what I had been looking for. It may be the same case, now. But developing events suggest otherwise."

   "Who was it?" Xar asked.

   "The future is always in motion."

   Back to the riddles, then. Xar didn't ask what the man was talking about. That brief spout of information was the most he'd ever gotten out of the man before. It was obvious he knew more than he was letting on. His hint that he was fairly informed of current events meant the man had access to a wide information base. Yes, there was definitely more to him than met the eye.

   Then a barely-caught name made him jerk his head back up. "What did you say to yourself? Nimoudians? You mean the Nimoudian Conflict before the Clone Wars?"

   The other man's eyebrows rose. "You know your history," he noted.

   Xar nodded. "Yes, I try to learn everything I can about Jedi history."

   The other man's face held a guarded look, so he decided not to press the issue further. He didn't know what could have made the man bring that up; the Nimoudian Conflict had happened almost forty years ago. Certainly before his time.

  Coming to his feet, Xar gave a long sigh. "Well then, I suppose must prepare for tomorrow. I will not need you any more tonight. Have fun doing... whatever it is you do."

   Icis half-smiled, and nodded. "Very well. Good night." With that he turned and headed for the far door. Before he was halfway there, the air around him shimmered, and suddenly he was gone.

  Xar shook his head. He had to learn how to do that, someday.


                Icis strolled through the corridors, lost in thought. This part of the palace wasn't widely traveled in the evening; only a few passerby were making their way along on their business, the occasional cat scurrying across the floor.

   He knew he'd given too much away by that spill about the Nimoudians. For a moment he considered erasing that annoying part from Xar's memory, but he quickly cast the idea away. Such a small matter would involve great risk, he might be detected, which would create a new host of problems. Besides, Xar had other things to worry about. Icis had been there during the Nimoudian Conflict, knew all about their secret pact with the Sith Lords, Sidious and Maul. Back when he had first started watching Anakin Skywalker, the failure, the one who had proved not to be the One. He snorted, thinking about Maul and his obsession to look like Velius. The thought made him give a sardonic laugh, and a passerby jumped at the invisible sound, running down the corridor the other way. Icis didn't care. He'd seen the real Velius, and fought the weeks of nightmares that had come from it. Idly he wondered where Maul had found a description to go by. Probably in some mythology text or some far-fetched, ancient historical record. Perhaps Vader had done the same, modeling Nimrod the Destroyer.

   Icis was so lost in thought that he didn't realize what he was doing until he turned a corner and ran straight into a short, stocky man going the other direction, knocking him down. The man got up with a curse, mumbling something about not even being at the bar yet, then went off on his way. Shaking his head, Icis continued his trek through the Palace, his thoughts wandering along with him.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Audience Hall

                Royal Palace, Varnus

                0900 Hours


                The morning air was cool, hinting at the impending winter months of Varnus' southern hemisphere. It will be much cooler soon, Maarek thought as he made his way down the hallway. Outside, through the tall multi-paned windows, he could see the leaves already changing color as the cold set in.  He continued on through the hallway until he emerged in the audience chamber where Xar would be making his presentation. The room was already full of people, the rows of seats lines up facing the raised stage and podium was buzzing with conversation. Why so many people were really interested in a drab political report was a mystery to Maarek; even with this New Imperium they'd formed out here in Wild Space, politics were still politics. Normally he wouldn't have been caught dead at such an event, but he was willing to do it for his friend. It was strange: he almost felt like he was supposed to be here... He shrugged the thought away. He glanced around the room, wondering where he should sit. The hall was decorated well, with a blending of colors on the carpet and walls and arched scroll-worked ceiling. Tall glowlamps augmented the light coming in from the tall windows and overhead skylight. A number of beautiful, exotic flowered plants were even placed in the four corners of the room.

    Maarek decided to take a vantage point against the wall, up near the stage, where everyone could be visible to him. He'd always thought it wise to have all potential threats in front of him instead of behind, with no chance for him to defend himself. The security men obviously subscribed to the same philosophy, as even this far inside the Royal Palace they stood at attention, both the crowd and all the exits under their watchful eyes. A Holocam was also in place at the end of the room, ready to broadcast the Diktat's message throughout the New Imperium and to its news agencies. Maarek didn't much like cameras, either.

   A few minutes later the room was mostly full, and a string of murmurs issued as the Diktat arrived, striding through the side entrance, an escort of guards surrounding him. Xar wore a black Jedi robe, beneath which appeared to be plain clothing like he always wore. Apparently he still wasn't much for formality. Not only security was around him, though. Maarek could see three finely dressed men who looked like delegates following Xar. One was lean, with graying hair and mustache; the other two seemed cut from the standard bureaucratic mold, plump, pale, and important-looking. They weren't the only escorts, though. Three other men wearing Jedi robes came in as well. One was of average build with sandy-blonde hair that hung down to his eyebrows, while another, named Kiz Thrakus, was a brown-haired, handsome man from Jengar who had come to Varnus with the rest of House Ar’Kell. Maarek had met him earlier in the Palace’s cafeteria. The third man... Maarek blinked. He hadn't noticed the other man before. This one was taller than everyone but a couple of the security guards, with black hair that contrasted his pale facial features. Simply striding along in his cloak, he acted nonchalant, but his eyes took in everything in the room. Two Jedi to accompany the Grand Master in his speech; perhaps the old days of the Jedi were returning after all. But some of the room's occupants cast wary glances at the Force users.

    Maarek watched as Xar made his way up the short steps to the stage and moved to stand behind the wooden podium. Behind him on the wall was a long banner bearing the New Imperium insignia, a gold Imperial symbol and laurel leaves on a field of blue. The security guards moved to conveniently out of the way places, though they were obviously ready to act if necessary. The other three men took up positions behind and to the side of Xar.

   Xar took a moment to look out around the crowd, meeting Maarek’s' gaze for a moment, before beginning.

  "Ladies and gentlemen, citizens of the New Imperium, and denizens of Varnus, welcome. As all of you know, the past weeks and months have been busy, hard, and trying for all of us and the New Imperium as a whole. We have had to stand up and take our place in the galaxy, sort through our underlying problems and correct them. The NI has gone through its birthing stages, and we have prevailed and succeeded in accomplishing our goals. As newly-elected Diktat, I am here today to report on more goals we have been able to accomplish for the New Imperium, new venues for our growth and expansion. A great period lies ahead of us, as we continue to grow and gain new allies throughout our home sector.

   "It is the latter which I wish to speak on first, and to report on what may be ahead for us in the coming period. Less than two standard weeks ago, our diplomatic mission to the planet Sigma resulted in a huge success and the gaining of new allies for the benefit of the New Imperium. Our new allies, the Kaav'Klan, have agreed to join us and share technologies, and to assist us in production with their prodigious productive abilities..."

   And suddenly his speech was cut off as the rear wall of the room blew out, sending out flames and smoke, and wall debris flying out into the room and into the crowd. The camera shattered into a hundred pieces. Time seemed to slow down to a crawl, as chaos enveloped the audience chamber. Everything happened at once. Just as people reacted, turning toward the source of destruction or reeling back from the deafening blast, figures burst through the smoke filling the open back wall, charging in through their newly-made entrance. Maarek noticed the blasters clutched in the invader's hands and dove from his seat, along with many of the crowd, and the room erupted in blaster fire. Red bolts flew out across the room, aimed toward the stage and the podium there. As Maarek hit the floor, he saw one of the Jedi - the younger, sandy-blonde man - throw his arms around Xar and hurl him toward the ground as shots blew off the front the podium, sending flaming fragments into the air.

   "Protect the Diktat!" someone yelled, and then a hail of blaster fire answered the assailants from the security guards, responding only a second after the attack began. The stage's other occupants threw themselves down, as many of the crown were, but screams were already erupting from everywhere.

   Then, impossibly, several of the crowd stood up, doffing their cloaks and revealing the blasters in their hands, and opened up on the stage area as well. Red beams of energy filled the air ahead. It didn't seem like anyone could have still been alive up there. Then Maarek noticed something; the blasts weren't reaching their targets - they were impacting against an invisible wall at the edge of the stage, where the now-shattered podium had stood. Behind the shield, the three Jedi stood, the tall one looking out with his dark gaze, the younger man clutching his left arm and glaring malevolently at the assailants. The hail of blaster bolts intensified, but still they couldn't penetrate that invisible shield.

   The return fire of the guards was fierce, and accurate. Apparently the shield didn't stop shots from the other side. The would-be assassins screamed as they fell, and began taking cover themselves, diving behind the audience seats where most of the crowd still huddled.

   Facing the death flying across the room, Maarek decided to make a break for cover, himself. First coming up on his hands and knees, he threw himself forward into a run toward the stage. When he was halfway there, red blasts began flying close past him on either side. If those Jedi didn't let him through their shield, he was a dead man. Taking one last stride, Maarek leapt headfirst onto the stage, where he hit hard on the floor, rolled, and came up against something soft. A guard's body, he realized, as he pushed himself up. Gritting his teeth, he looked back out at the men who'd just tried to kill him. Reaching down, he took the dead guard's blaster and brought it up to take aim at his attackers. One of them popped up from his cover to snap off a shot that impacted harmlessly against the shield, and Maarek fired, sending a burning bolt of energy into the man's torso, throwing him backwards.

   "Where are the Centurions?" someone yelled. "They should've been here by now!"

   "If they could have made it, they would have," another guard responded. "We're on our own here. Let's show them the mistake they've made!"

   Maarek took a second to glance around him and take stock of the situation. One of the two large bureaucrats was lying face down, dead, the other huddled against the back wall. The graying man was standing with the remaining security guards, sending fire back at the enemy. The three Jedi were still standing there, seemingly engrossed in whatever they were doing to keep the shots off them, and Xar... Xar was pulling himself up off the floor, a wild look on his face. A frightening look.

   As Xar rose, the attackers started yelling, and then, surprisingly, began turning back, running back out the hole they'd made in the rear wall. Fire still came from the assailants still in position, but they began moving back, one by one, as well. Grimacing, Maarek fired at the retreating enemies, scoring a hit on one that took him in the back and sent him sprawling forward.

   Seeing the Diktat up and alive, the older man grabbed his shoulder and shouted something inaudible amidst the ringing in Maarek's ears. Maybe there was more to him than it seemed; he certainly didn't look like a politician now. Xar nodded at what the man had said. Then, making a closed-fist motion to the guards, the graying man quickly began moving the Diktat out toward the side exit. The other bureaucrat anxiously ran out as well, and the guards began following as well, The Jedi, still holding their shields up, came last. Maarek moved on ahead, down the stairs to catch up to Xar and the man holding onto his arm.

   "...and I know that, Drayson," Xar was saying angrily. "I could have done something!"

   "You're the Diktat, your life comes before ours," the older man said. "Our job is to protect you... with our lives."

   Maarek glanced behind him, seeing the guards and the three Jedi coming into the hallway behind him, the hallway Maarek had used to enter minutes before. The tall, dark man was walking ahead of the others, moving to catch up with him and Xar.

   "I am glad you made it all right, Maarek. I am sorry about this."

   Maarek looked back around to meet Xar's gaze, and shook his head.

   "Why?" Xar asked simply. His face was full of confusion. "I do not understan..." A high-pitched sound from behind cut him off, followed by a deafening blast. The ground rushed upwards in Maarek's vision...

   Maarek pushed himself up spitting out the blood in his mouth. There was more on the tiled floor in front of him. His face felt as if someone had pelted it with a hammer. Gingerly he reached out to touch his nose. It was definitely broken. Blood was gushing from his nostrils down over his mouth, dripping from his chin to the floor below.

   Ahead of him, Xar was getting to his feet as well, and as Maarek rose and turned he saw what had happened behind. The end of the corridor was filled with flames. The roof had collapsed, sealing off the entrance as well. Maarek turned his head away at the sight of what was left of the rearmost two guards. They'd been blown to bits by the explosion. Two more guards were down, and the rest were staggering to their feet, swaying as they did so. The tall, dark cloaked man was kneeling over the other Jedi. Blood stained the younger man's hair; it was clear he wasn't going to get up. Kiz Thrakus was pulling himself to his feet nearby.

    "What... what happened?" Maarek asked in disbelief. Reaching up, he wiped his face with his sleeve, stared at the blood on it when he took his arm away.

   "Concussion grenade," the Drayson’s voice said from behind. "They wanted to make sure they'd finished us off." Then he reached down and pulled out his commlink from its belt snap. "This is Drayson, there's been an attack on the Diktat in the forward audience chamber. We need some reinforcements now! Where are the Centurions?" He waited for reply, and a few moments later he lowered the link, a grave expression on his face. "The Centurions are all dead. They just found them, still at their posts, dead where they stood. We'd better get clear of here, sir. You're not safe in this part of the palace."

  Xar hesitated, then nodded gravely. "We have to find out who did this," Xar growled. "And make them pay."


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                "You have to get off Varnus, sir."  Drayson's jaw was set firm, he obviously wasn't going to back down from this one. "We can't guarantee there won't be another attack. I've called in the rest of the guard, but without the Centurions, we're undermanned and spread out thin. If you weren't here it would make our job a whole lot easier."

     Xar reached the center of his office and turned to stare at the older men. "I cannot leave my people in their time of need. I have to calm them down, assure them that everything is all right."

     "It won't be all right if you're dead. There's no choice here. We'll handle things here on Varnus. You’re the Diktat; your safety is important for the whole New Imperium. We don't need you here."

    Mouth dropping open, he gaped at Drayson. "You are directly defying me?"

   "That's one thing you hired me for, sir. To correct you when you're wrong. And right now you aren't thinking clearly. I'm right on this. You can fire me if you want, but otherwise, I have to do my duty," he stated simply.

    Xar shook his head wryly. The man was right, that was why he hired them. Just like Vannik, they could be a pain sometimes, they could make you regret you'd hired them, but in the end you could trust them with your life to do the right thing. "All right," he conceded. "But I will not be leaving until later today, I have some important things that I must take care of." Drayson opened his mouth to protest, but he cut him off with a slash of his hand. "Don’t push it, Drayson." The older man sighed, then finally nodded reluctantly.

   Breathing a heavy sigh, Xar went around his desk and dropped into his seat. Drayson was right, in the end. Besides, the Senate would be convening anyway, and he had planned on attending. He could not let this change that. Mathis would have to go as well, as the second Jedi representative, and perhaps Maarek would want to come, as well. After exposing himself during the firefight, he might be a target as well. Yes, there was much to do before he left. He had better get to work...


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Maarek gazed out the shuttle's viewport at the blue and green world receding below them, touching his still-sore nose, barely healed by bacta before taking the trip out. For the second time, he was leaving Varnus after having hardly been there at all. He was never going to get anything done as Jedi Division Wing Commander at this rate. He didn't really know why he was here, but somehow Xar had convinced him to come along. Must be why Kerensky was a diplomat and an Admiral, there to give out the orders, and he was a pilot, trained to follow those orders. Xar had been a pilot though, once.

   Over in the seat across the room from him, the long-haired Deputy Grand Master who called himself Billbob groaned and stretched. Maarek still couldn't believe this man was a representative for the New Imperium. He looked like a wild predator pretending to be tame so he could get close to his prey and strike at any moment. Wild, dangerous, yet seemingly sitting easy in his seat beside the table. Maarek doubted the man ever sat easy. The ubiquitous half-grin that always seemed to be on his face was directed toward Maarek, now.

   "Boy, is life out here strange or what?" Mathis shook his head. "One minute you're in your quarters enjoying a nice hot bath, the next you're blasting your way out of the atmosphere under secrecy of night, traveling to the capital for who knows whatever reason."

   Maarek didn't answer. Instead he reached out to the glass of water on the table beside him and took a gulp. This luxurious private shuttle apparently reserved for the NI Diktat's personal use was well-stocked with supplies and a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, but Maarek had preferred water for a long time. When you had to live on the edge, the last thing you needed was a buzz. A pilot had to make split second decisions, and have lightning-fast reflexes. He'd seen pilots who had sneaked drinks before a mission come back in a little container carrying their remains, or nothing at all. And when you had to live by the skin of your teeth and whatever money you could scrounge from doing odd jobs and flying missions, you couldn't afford much else but water. This stuff might have been free, but he didn't want to get into the habit.

   Apparently giving up on the conversation, Mathis leaned back in his seat, sipping his brandy.

   "So what can we expect from Tralaria?" Maarek asked suddenly.

   Mathis, lowering his glass in surprise, shook his head wryly. "I guess you’ve never been, huh? With our luck? More of the same, my friend."

   Maarek looked down into his water, turning the glass in his hand. "That's what I expected," he sighed.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Delran Spaceport

                In orbit, Planet Tralaria

                0840 Hours


                Kreg Harken strode into the control room, a fresh cup of caf steaming in his hand. With annoyance he noticed that his two subordinates in this cluster, his Tech officer, Pann, and his "go-for”, Jenar, were already at station before him. Clearing his throat, he set the cup down on the control console and slipped into his seat at the Main. "Well? What've we got today?"

   "Good morning to you too," Jenar said dryly.

   "I heard that," Harken warned.

   "Same old stuff," Pann reported. "I'm just going through system boot-up now."


   "Well... there looks to have been a crash last night," the man answered.

   "That's odd," Kreg muttered. With a tap of a few keys he brought up a manifest of the ships currently in dock and their cargoes. Crashes weren't too uncommon as to be cause for more than a rudimentary examination, but he was one who believed in thoroughness. And when the manifest came up he stood up so abruptly he yelled aloud from the scalding hot caf that spilled on his pants. "What the... What's that ship doing here!" he demanded, pointing a finger at one of the Modular Conveyers on the list. A typical class of ship that could regularly be found in the star dock, except for one thing. This one wasn't supposed to be there.

   "Huh?" Pann got to his feet and moved over to lean on the console. "Good question there, boss. Must've come in during the night."

   "I know that!" Harken yelled. "Find out what it's doing here!" 

   "Yes sir!" Pann launched himself off the console and began furiously typing away at his own station. "No data, sir. It must have been lost in the system crash."

   "Or it wasn't there at all," Harken mused. "How very convenient. Jenar!"


   "Kindly get yourself out there and find out what's onboard that ship... Unless they've already offloaded whatever was onboard."

   Jenar got to his feet in compliance, but Pann called out for him to wait. "Sir, I've found something in the important lists, where the higher-ups keep schedules. This ship was carrying an important cargo of... pets, of all things! It was offloaded this morning. Maybe we should leave it alone... If the higher ups wanted this through with minimal slowdown we shouldn't interfere."

   Harken nodded. Pann could be right... But still, something felt wrong. Why would the brass want to push such a regular cargo through the important list? No, he would be thorough on this. "Jenar... Do it."


                The override caused the hatch to open itself, opening into the interior of the Modular Conveyor, and Jenar Olen entered. Shining his glowrod ahead of him, he made his way through the cabin area and the hallways into the cargo area. An empty room greeted him, his footsteps echoing in the expansive cargo hold.

   Bringing his wrist commlink up to his mouth, he spoke. "It's all been unloaded, sir. I think it's safe to say there were pets in here, of some sort." The stench in the hold made his nose turn. He had to get a better job in the department than this...

   "Roger, search the rest of the ship before coming back." Harken's voice came out.

   Wonderful. Harken would have to keep him here as long as possible. Shining his glowlamp around, he made his way around the entire cargo area before returning to the cabins.

   Suddenly Pann's voice came over the commlink. "We're picking up an energy source from somewhere in the forward part of the ship," he said. "It's faint, but it shouldn't even be there. Check it out."

   Shaking his head in exasperation, Jenar went in the direction he'd been told. If Pann started being as picky as Harken, he didn't know what he was going to do. Forcing the hatch door open, he made his way into the room Pann was telling him.

   "That's it. Now, somewhere near the floor against the wall. Look under stuff."

   Setting his glowrod on the floor aimed at the wall, Jenar set to work. He pulled the storage chest away from the wall, retrieved his glowrod to look behind it. And froze at what he saw there.

   "By the Core... Uh, guys, we have a problem..."


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                One massive expanse of ocean stretched outside the shuttle's viewport, as far as the eye could see. In the copilot's seat, Maarek shook his head at the panorama of water. "So this is Tralaria. I've never been to a water planet before."

   Beside him, the pilot busied himself with the controls, but he still seemed in the mood to make conversation. "Yeah," he responded lightly. "Tralaria's got millions of indigenous species, all different types, most of them water dwellers and submariners. We're over the Great Ocean now. It takes up over fifty percent of the planet's surface area. But don't worry, where we're going there's plenty of land, on the largest continent."

   Maarek nodded absently, his gaze concentrating on the deep blue water below. There were ships down there, white and brown vessels cruising about on their massive sails. One might wonder why such primitive methods of navigation were still used, but these craft weren't made for speed or comfort, but for pleasure. On such a pristine, beautiful world many would enjoy a day of sailing on the ocean, the wind and sea in their faces, enjoying simple life away from the rest of the galaxy's problems. Many of those vessels belonged to the Tralarians, with their incredible aptitude for the seas, they had vessels which traveled both above and below the waves.

   "Beautiful sight, isn't it?" the pilot continued. "There are some really incredible species living in the oceans. Out of them, too. Did you know there's something called a flying fish that can leap out of the water and soar around the air? Their wingspan - or fin-span - can be up to five meters long! Of course, the native race here's an enigma itself. Most of the Tralarians live underwater, but they can breathe air too. That's how they have been able to mix in with the Imperials living here. But they've irrigated most of the land mass so they'll always be close to the water. The capital is crisscrossed with canals and rivers. Ah, here comes the main continent now..."

   "Okay," Maarek finally got in, holding up a hand. He'd wanted conversation, not a full lecture. "I'm going to the back, going to get some things ready." With that he followed his own words and got up and made his way toward the rear compartment.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Senate Hall

                Capital City, Tralaria

                1520 hours


                The wide doors that were the east entryway into the massive Senate Hall opened, and Sector Admiral Ryskar "Scourge" D'larit emerged, blinking his eyes in the bright sunshine. It was a warm, beautiful day on Tralaria, the kind most people would spend outside as much as possible. Not the Senate, of course. They conducted business indoors, although Ryskar wished he could do something about that. It was such a shame he couldn’t take the chance to work on his tan, he realized mirthfully. The sea breeze stirred his hair, and he ran a hand through its not-yet-graying frock as he waited.

   Scourge looked up at the deep blue sky, where only a few wispy clouds were making their trek across the upper atmosphere. Even from down here he could see dozens of craft in the sky above, traveling to and fro, some approaching the capital city, others making for orbit. The salty tang of the sea air tasted clean and refreshing. The faint roar of ocean waves crashing on the beaches less than a kilometer away made soothing background music, punctuated by the cry of gulls soaring overhead.

   One ship, a bare speck of metal reflecting the sun, circled above and started closer. A moment later the tri-wing design of a graceful Cygnus Lamba-class shuttle could be discerned. That would be the Diktat's ship, the reason he was out here, waiting. Good that Kerensky were coming on time on this occasion; there were many things that needed taking care of back in the territory of his Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and Ryskar was anxious to return. That was, as long as another crisis didn't decide to present itself during the Senate session. The news of the assassination attempt had shocked the entire Senate, and there would inevitably be a bill proposal to upgrade the defense guard for NI Senators and Officers. That on top of everything else.

   He pushed his thoughts away as the shuttle loomed closer and descended on its repulsorlifts, coming to a gentle rest on the VIP landing area. The shuttle's boarding ramp descended, and a troop of six guards came out first, moving to form a row for the rest of the passengers to walk through. Then three more figures emerged and made there way out, heading past the guards toward the Hall's entrance. Ryskar moved forward as well and met them halfway, offering a bow to the Diktat and the Senator from the Jedi. A third person, someone who looked vaguely familiar, stood as Xar's left, rubbing his thin, short beard as he looked up at the massive edifice in front of him.

   "Welcome to Tralaria, Diktat, Senator," he said formally, nodding to each man as he spoke. "We are very glad to see you here, safe. You have arrived at just the right moment."

   "Hello, Admiral D’larit," Xar greeted him in return.

   "You'll hear more about it once inside," Ryskar continued, "but I'm glad you're all right. I couldn't believe the news when it came in. I'd like to speak with you later, if possible."

   "Of course, my friend," Xar nodded. Then he blinked. "Ah, yes. Allow me introduce a good friend of mine from back during the war. He made his way out here to join up with the NI, and has signed on as Wing Commander for the Division. This is Maarek Stele."

   Ryskar's mouth dropped halfway open. "The Maarek Stele? You're supposed to be dead, aren't you?"

   Stele shook his head. "I get a lot of that, nowadays. Let's just say you shouldn't believe everything you see in the Holovids." He smiled as he offered his hand to Ryskar.

   "Don't I know that," Ryskar replied, taking the hand. "You probably don't remember me, but we flew on the same mission once."

   Maarek stepped back, eyes widening. "Really? Which one?"

  "Back during the defection of Admiral Zaarin. I was there when he tried to pull the coup."

  "You too?" Stele exclaimed. He cut his eyes over at Xar, then back at Ryskar. “Now this is strange. I guess we're almost like family, huh?" All three men shared a laugh at that.

   "I wasn't in your flight group," Scourge continued, "but I was on detail and scrambled in to head off Zaarin's fighter groups."

   "Ryskar D'larit, right? I think I remember now..."

   Behind Stele, a cough broke into the conversation. "Sorry to interrupt, gentlemen, but the reason we're here..." 

  Ryskar looked past Maarek's shoulder at the long-haired Jedi standing there. "Good to see you too, Organa," he said jokingly. "You're right, of course. Well, now that the pleasantries are dispensed with, shall we?"

   With that he turned back toward the massive edifice that was the New Imperial Senate Hall and started forward.  Behind him he could hear whispered voices coming from the other three men as they followed.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Main Senate Hall

                1730 Hours


     Maarek sat back in one of the plush-leather seats in the spectator area of the Senate Hall and sighed. It was about time for a little rest and relaxation. The Senate Hall itself, the interior, the city around it, they all held a feeling of newness, a feeling of life and vitality that was attractive and refreshing. No wonder Tralaria had been chosen as the seat of the New Imperial government. No one to bother you, no one to talk your ears off, and no one to blast their way through the wall and try to kill you. The main Senate Hall was relatively peaceful compared to recent events, even with the buzz of voices coming from the Senators' booths. It was amazing how a group of people could disagree on even the smallest issue. Then again, they could surprise you sometimes. Right now the Senate was discussing, as expected, the idea of increasing protection detail for the Diktat and the NI Senators.

   After their arrival, Xar and Mathis had been taken to a small reception ceremony in regards to their safe return. Instead of joining them, Maarek had opted to find his assigned quarters and stow his gear away. He didn't think the two men were having a good time at it, anyway. A short time later, it seemed, it was time to get down to business, and thus everyone had filled in here for the first formal Senate session after Xar’s appointment as Diktat.

   As Maarek gazed around the circular chamber – a much smaller copy of the Imperial Senate Hall on Coruscant (what was left of it, anyway) – he wondered at the faces sitting behind the booths occupying the alternating levels upon which they sat. High-ranking officers, all of them, some military, some actually Moffs and political leaders themselves. In the earlier days of the Empire such a gathering of leaders would have been cause for serious occasion; in these days, it was not so rare a sight to see so many leaders as to see them working together and not trying to kill one another.

   Then again, maybe the terms "working together" weren't the best choice. While everyone seemed to be for the idea of increased security, is was the manner of security which was cause for debate, as well as how that extra security would be carried out. Maarek didn't know any of the Senators besides D’larit and Mathis, though he thought he'd seen Intruder Wing Fleet Commander Arfann Dogar and Phoenix Technologies CEO Walt Amason on the HoloNews at least a couple of times. He didn't want to judge any of them prematurely, but naturally held reservations against political officers. His experiences with them in the past had been less than pleasurable.

   At the moment Senator and Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere, who commanded his own fleet, was calmly laying out a plan for assigning elite Stormtrooper protection details to Senate officers until the Royal Guard could be reinstated. Occasionally one of the other Senators would make a comment, or the Speaker himself, asking questions regarding the senator's plan. Others seemed to want to expand the Centurions who had been doing the duty up until now, offering that Imperial guards and stormtroopers gave too much of an ‘Imperial’ presence and would instill fear rather than assuage it. It wasn't all that interesting to Maarek though, and he found his thoughts drifting. He was considering the idea of visiting the hangar and pilots' mess to see what he could get into when the tone of the Senate's conversation suddenly changed. He hadn't been listening closely enough to make anything out, but he could definitely feel it in the atmosphere. Xar, standing at the Speaker's podium in the center of the room and surrounded by the Senate booths, was looking intently into his access vidscreen. Finally he looked back up warily and his eyes swept across the Senators around him.

 "Gentlemen, an incident has come up that I am afraid will require the Senate to postpone its discussions. A matter pertaining to NI security requires our attention. I am sorry for the interruption, but I cannot say more at the moment. I would suggest we relocate to the forward conference areas to discuss these matters."

   Without waiting further, Maarek got up and began making his way down toward the center floor. Regardless of the danger, he figured he was better off with the ones who had the real security...


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Conference Room

                Senate Hall

                1800 Hours


                Half an hour later the group had reconvened in the spacious conference room, the Senators gathered together in small clumps debating as to what had happened and what to do about it. For himself, Maarek chose a seat by the wall where he could keep his eyes on everything that was going on.  As Xar took the podium at the front of the room, though, most eyes turned toward him and the news he'd received.

   "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a bit of an incident in occurrence which may slow us down for a little while. It took them a while to convince the security channels to let it through, but I just received an important message stating that an explosive device of some sort was found smuggled into the Delran Spaceport in orbit on a cargo ship. It was armed, but I assure you it has been deactivated at this point."

   Before he could say more the room erupted in voices. A dozen questions were coming in, but Xar overrode them and continued. Maarek leaned forward in anticipation.

   "While who has planted this device is unclear, the bomb itself was powerful enough to destroy most of the spaceport, and would have if it had not been disarmed. The Security commission has deemed it possible for other such devices to exist, and the Senate has been advised to take cautionary measures." He held up a hand to forestall any comment, the voiced finally dying down to a murmur. "I know you all have questions, but that is all the information I have at the moment."

   Naturally, the questions came then, most of which Xar couldn't completely satisfy. Then, predictably, the increased protection detail issue was brought up again. This time, just about everyone seemed to support the idea. Though the question of whether or not they could legally conduct business outside the Senate was briefly raised by one of the newer members, it was quickly explained that being the Senate, they could meet anywhere they wanted and conduct business.

In order to, as Xar put it, "get things over with so we can get out of here and get to more pressing matters", the group quickly proposed and wrote up a document to bolster Senator protection, leaving the details of uniform to the individual being protected. Thus there, in the meeting room, the Senate ratified the bill to establish increased personal protection detail for Senators and Senate Officers.


                The setting sun was a large, orange-yellow globe as it slowly sank toward the horizon, the point where the astonishingly clear sky met the massive expanse of ocean spreading out as far as the eye could see. Waves crashed gently against the sandy shore, and a light breeze stirred the air and swept around those enjoying a peaceful late walk along the shoreline. A few ships were still out there, far off the coast, their large sails puffed out as they slowly swept across the waves. The cloudless sky was populated by soaring seagulls, and the much higher sky saw ships and smaller craft passing by far above.

   Maarek stood leaning on the rail of the balcony overlooking that beautiful panorama, taking a moment to enjoy and revel in the beauty of that view. Peace. That was the image portrayed. He liked it here on Tralaria. A shame he wouldn't be here long enough to fully explore and enjoy what was here. It gave him a feeling he'd rarely ever felt before. Here, he felt truly alive. It wasn't like the feeling he got when flying. Almost nothing could compare to that feeling, of total freedom and power, the ground so far beneath you that it didn't matter. That was a life unto itself. But this... This was different. It was strange to him, alien.

   His thoughts were interrupted as he noticed someone walk up to join him at the rail. He glanced over... and instantly straightened as he saw the other man. "Admiral D'larit! Good evening, sir."

    The other man smiled and waved him off. "No need for the formality, Commander. We're off duty. Mind if I join you?"

   "Not at all." Maarek glanced back out toward the ocean. The sun was just touching the horizon, bathing the two men in orange light as it slowly sank below the surface of the waves. "This sure is a beautiful place, isn't it?"

   D’larit nodded. "Yes. But as officers we don't usually have the time to enjoy it."

   Maarek frowned. "Do you regret that?" he asked.

   "Of course not. What I'm saying is that I'm hardly ever here longer than it takes to handle Senate affairs." He turned halfway towards Maarek, a calculating look on his face. "May I ask you a personal question?"


   "What do you think about all this? About the NI and our cause. What brought you out here to join us?"

   Maarek grinned. "Well, it’s a long story, Sir. Let's just say I was between jobs. When I heard about Xar and the NI, and what you were trying to do here, I decided to come and see for myself. I believe in what the New Imperium stands for, sir.  Here, with you, I feel like I have a real purpose, and I want to do what I can to help." He paused, his thoughts wandering. "What brought you into military life, if I may ask?"

   D’larit’s face suddenly harbored a guarded look. "The Rebels killed my wife on Thyferra. In one day they destroyed one future and set me on another path for the rest of my life."

   Maarek winced. "Sorry, sir."

   The Admiral shook his head. "It's all right. You couldn't have known."

   "If I may be so bold... " Maarek went on, curious. "How does the NI's new stance reflect on your feelings? Do you fight for vengeance?"

   "Not anymore," the man said flatly. He didn’t elaborate any more than that.

   Rather than press further, Maarek decided to change the subject. "Do you... think we can make it? The New Imperium, out here on our own, I mean? There are plenty of enemies that would gladly try to take us down at the first sign of weakness. We can't fight everyone at once."

   "True," the other man agreed solemnly. "But we're not shooting for some far off, impossible goal. We're taking it as we come to it and focusing on this small area. And by doing that we can make the difference we're hoping for."

   Maarek gave a slight nod as he stared back out toward the sea. "But it would be grand, wouldn't it? Having a seemingly insurmountable goal, something to really drive you. People follow impossible dreams."

   D’larit shrugged. "True. Imagine what it must have been like for the Rebellion, at first. Their task before them was incredible, yet they persevered and didn't give up. And look where they are now. Now the tables have been turned. Now the Empire is in that position. But for us... We're somewhere in between. With somewhat around a single sector group's strength, dreaming to take our place in the galaxy, it's all we can do. We have enemies on both sides, now. I don't know what the future has in store for us, but whatever it is, we'll face it as best we can."

   "All we can do," Maarek agreed. But inwardly he couldn't shake the feeling that something was going to happen, and not far off in the future. His gut feeling was working again. He couldn't quite put a finger on it, but somehow he knew that it was his true purpose for being here. It had been driving him ever since he arrived on Varnus. His feeling he'd had when on the Stormwatch, barely making it out of his crippled TIE Defender, what he'd felt when he saw that massive ship in space... Something was coming. But that knowledge didn't bother him, really. In fact, deep down, maybe was even looking forward to it. His whole life, as far back as he could remember, he'd been searching for something, something he could never quite place but dangled just outside of his reach. Maybe it was the burning desire in a pilot, the thrill-seeking factor he'd experienced back in his youthful days flying swoops in illegal races on Kuan. He wasn't sure if it was here, in the New Imperium, where he'd find it. Not sure if this was the end of his journey. But it was part of it.

   The last slivers of bright orange slipped below the horizon, casting the sky a beautiful red-orange, silhouetting the far-off clouds into a dark gray.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                The incessant beeping of his commlink brought Xar awake. "Lights," he groaned. As the room brightened from pitch-blackness, he made out and reached for the infernal machine. "Yes?"

   The voice coming over the link sounded strained. "Very sorry to wake you, Mister Speaker, but an important matter has come up. The Advisory Council has asked for you."

   Xar stared incredulously at the device. "And what are they doing awake at this hour?" He quickly glanced at the chronometer beside his bed to make sure he hadn't overslept and made a fool out of himself. Seven o'clock. Still early for the Senate.

  The voice at the other end of the link answered his question. "They need you in the meeting room, sir. An Imperial Star Destroyer has just dropped out of hyperspace into orbit."

   "What?" Giving a muffled curse, Xar practically jolted out of bed, momentarily forgetting that he wasn't in his usual bed on Varnus. His feet hit the floor and he stood up, bumping his head into the canopy beam overhanging the bed. "Ouch!"


   "Nothing," he replied flatly, holding his head with one hand. "I will be right down."


                Briefing Room

                Senate Hall

                0725 Hours


                Hurriedly doing up the last two buttons on his jacket, Xar strode into the Advisory Council's meeting chamber, which happened to be right adjacent to the Hall's Command Center. From there the members on the Council could meet and discuss a situation and immediately put their plans into action if need be. Giving a nod to red-bearded Base Commander Brinks as he passed, he moved over to the briefing table, relieved to see that the other members  looked about as bad as he felt. They must have been gotten up before him, and with less preparation time. All the Fleet Commanders of the New Imperium's various member groups as well as the base commander, security staff, and a number of other officers were gathered around the table, which boasted a large, flat topped holoprojector built into the tabletop. The device, a black square level with the table surface, could project high-quality holoimages directly above its surface.

   A hail of voices greeted him as he reached the table at one of the empty spots and looked around at the members present. "Good morning, gentlemen," he nodded. "I hear that someone has dropped in on us uninvited." Opting not to take a seat with the rest, he stood and leaned on the table with one hand, staring at the holoimage floating above the tabletop. A full-color representation of the virgin blue planet hung in the air, with small color-coded images of the planet's orbital facilities, blue for civilian, green for military. A small red wedge, as large as his thumb, was the newcomer, an Imperial-class Star Destroyer. As the image rotated, another was projected beside it, a larger view of the ship and its readouts.

   "Here, have some caf," Walt Amason offered him a cup of steaming liquid. "It’ll get you woken up."

   Xar nodded and murmured his thanks. He needed to be awake for this. "So, what have we here?" he asked aloud.

   The whispered buzz around the room had died down a bit as he entered. Everyone looked to have thoughtful expressions on their faces. The base commander, Brinks, the man in charge of the command center, filled him in on the details.

   "The newcomer ship projected ahead," he began, "entered the star system just under an hour ago and has since moved into a high orbit above Tralaria. Our scanners have identified the vessel as the Devious, an Imperial Star Destroyer Mark II under the charge of the Commission for the Preservation of the New Order."

   "COMPNOR!" Xar exclaimed, interrupting the man.

   "Now you see what has everyone in such a bind," spoke Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar from across the table. The Intruder Wing's Fleet Commander sat at his ease, though Xar knew from the elder man’s face that he must have been as upset as the others at the news.

   Standing on Xar's right at one edge, Commander Brinks continued. "We've already been contacted, so you know. A preliminary message was sent to us shortly after they arrived, in which they requested a diplomatic reception later this morning by the Diktat and first Senators, followed by what they referred to as 'diplomatic discussions'."

   "How typical," said Amason from the opposite end. "No respect whatsoever. And as for diplomatic discussions, well... They're after something, zealous scumbags."

   "We must take care to tread lightly here, gentlemen," Admiral Majere spoke up from the far side of the table. "I've not been in the NI as long as some of you, but I can see plainly what we face here. In light of the NI's new 'stance' in galactic and diplomatic affairs, if COMPNOR decides, we could have the entire organization down on our heads. Zealous Imperial groups would pour all over us, and that would be just the beginning. The NI could be crushed."

   As he finished, the room began buzzing again with conversation. Xar closed his eyes for a moment, trying to concentrate and gather his thoughts. Yes, many things were in play here, but they weren't totally unexpected.

   "Please!" he called out, holding up his hands. The din died out a bit as the officers turned to see what he had to say. "This is not unexpected. We knew what we were getting into, and we knew that some kind of opposing action was inevitable. I know that COMPNOR visits are usually not very pleasant and sociable incidents, but I tend to agree with Senator Majere in that we must tread cautiously here. Let us admit them and arrange their discussions to find out what they want, and then we can plan what to do about it."

    "I concur," Sector Admiral D’larit spoke up. "Set up the meeting."

   The others seemed swayed by the proposal, and within short order the matter was agreed upon. Then Xar turned back to Commander Brinks.

   "Commander, what is the status of our forces here in Tralar?"

   "Well, our fleet has been dispersed throughout the quadrant, patrolling and offering escort for our supply lines. All we have at Tralaria, at the moment, are the standard defense forces."

   "They could feasibly do a lot of damage with an Impstar Deuce," Dogar muttered.

   "Hostility isn't a foregone conclusion," Majere put in.

   "True, but we can't totally rule it out, either. We should be prepared, just in case."

   Xar nodded. "All right, we will get Commander Brinks to see what he can do for us. Meanwhile, I suggest we should get ready for our guests. We can only guess at what they have in store for us."

   The other Senators murmured their assent.


                                                *                                              *                             


                Senate Hall Landing Grounds

                Capital City, Tralaria

                1130 Hours


                Xar swallowed hard despite himself as the Lambda-class shuttle slowly settled down on the forward Senate landing pad. This wasn't going to be pleasant, or easy. The mild sea breeze that gently swayed the palms belied the tension and unrest simmering below the surface of his and his entire party's feelings. Behind them the wide base of the NI Senate complex rose many stories, surrounded by satellite buildings and various other structures. Around them, however, was simply open ground leading to beach and ocean. Tralaria’s main cities were either on other islands, or underwater.

   Two men were accompanying him for the reception of the COMPNOR officials. At first he'd thought he would have to face it alone, but D’larit had surprised him by coming up to him after the meeting and insisting that he come along. Then, just as unexpectedly, Maarek had met him on the way to the landing area and asked the same thing. Seeing no reason not to admit them, he continued on with the two men and the honor guard of Centurions in his wake, hearing an occasional whisper behind him as he traveled. As soon as they were outside though, strict formality took over, and the officers had gone silent.

   The three officers stopped some short distance away from the craft, and the Centurions lined up in perfect formation behind him. Moments later the boarding hatch of the Imperial Shuttle descended with a hiss of steam and hydraulics. Xar watched as a squad of Stormtroopers emerged and formed a path for the rest of the debarking passengers, the COMPNOR committee staff.

   As the three beings disembarked and made their way toward the waiting reception, Xar stared in surprise. At the head of the group was a very attractive young woman. His surprise wasn't really that a female was leading the group - COMPNOR didn't hold as much disrespect for women as the Empire proper - but that someone so young would be sent to deal with the NI. Xar guessed that she was quite his junior, perhaps in her mid twenties at the most. The Commission for the Preservation of the New Order often used younger beings that were more susceptible to their zealous philosophies, but they rarely put them into key positions of responsibility. While the New Imperium's government might have been small by most galactic standards, it was strong enough militarily to have care taken in dealing with it. This was an insult right from the beginning.

   Despite his feelings, Xar managed to keep them hidden behind a smooth face. He glanced briefly at her two companions.  One of them was a young man probably a couple or more years less than he was, and the other was a Devaronian male with two long horns protruding from his skull. The young woman stopped in front of Xar and gave him an inviting smile. Her light blonde hair was tied behind her, and she looked at him coyly from her deep blue eyes. She was pretty, he had to admit, but he wasn't swayed only by looks. He could see deception in those eyes, feel it through the Force. There was more going on than could be seen on the surface. An underlying tension filled the air around them.

   The leader spoke. "I am Taryn Darl, member of the Commission's Select Committee and the appointed representative to the New Imperium. Greetings."

   Again, Xar tried to hide his astonishment. The Select Committee was the ruling body of COMPNOR, consisting of barely over a hundred members. That Darl could be one of those was more surprising than the fact that she had been chosen to lead the expedition to the NI.

   Etiquette required a cordial response. "Greetings," Xar said, nodding. "I am Xar Kerensky, Diktat of the New Imperial Senate. May I also introduce Sector Admiral Ryskar D’larit, Senator for the New Imperium. And this is Commander Maarek Stele." There was no need to introduce him further, they were almost sure to know who he was. But if Taryn Darl was surprised in the least at seeing him alive, her expression didn't show it. Her human companion actually had a smirk on his face.

   "Nice to make your acquaintance," D’larit said cordially but distantly.

    Taryn's lips parted in what might have been a smile, but it never touched her eyes. "This is my personal aide," she announced, gesturing the young man beside her. "Commander Mitch Remmac. He is also an excellent fighter pilot, one of COMPNOR's best. And this is my ISB liason and advisor, Manres." The Devaronian gave a toothy, fanged grin, but Remmac's smirk widened.

   Xar heard an indrawn breath, and looked over to see Maarek glaring at the young man. A match of wits, maybe? Well they could have their staring match, as long as it did not come to outright blows right there. He focused his attention back on Darl. "Well then, on behalf of the NI, I welcome you to our capital. May I ask to what honor we owe this visit?"

   Taryn's lips curved upwards in a smile. "Of course, Diktat. I have been sent on behalf of the Select Committee to visit your government and judge and evaluate the loyalty of its goals as they coincide with the New Order's."

   Inwardly, Xar gave a frown. Close to what they had expected, but with all the flair and just-right wording that made it sound the most natural thing in the world. This lady was definitely not to be underestimated in wits.

"I am not sure I understand, ma'am," he replied, knitting his eyebrows in what he hoped seemed like confusion. "The New Imperium is a coalition of Imperial groups. We have made our goals quite plain. What exactly are you saying?"

    "It is the duty of COMPNOR to ensure the loyalty of all Imperial branches with the goals of the New Order. Although your New Imperium is a separate, unified sovereign state, as many of our Imperial allies are, it is our responsibility and policy to ensure the safety of all Imperial citizens." Her eyebrows rose as if asking whether he questioned that point.

   Xar made a noncommittal sound. "I see," he replied.

  "Your territory doesn't even have an officially designated Sector Monitor," she continued as if he hadn't spoken. She shook her head in seeming disbelief. "In light of this, the ISB itself has taken an interest in your development and growth, and I have been imparted with the full authority to personally oversee that things are proceeding as they should be, and to take appropriate action if they have not."

   Despite his intentions to keep a hospitable demeanor, Xar allowed himself a frown that fit his mood. The Imperial Security Bureau, she had meant. The meaning of her message was quite clear: if she so chose, the NI could be declared disloyal and be treated as traitors. "I do not like threats, madam," he said darkly.

   Her face took on a slightly smug look. "Oh, it's not a threat, sir. Just... a reminder." However she'd intended it, the message had gotten through, all right.

   "Very well," he said curtly. It was time to end this little charade before matters got too entangling. This was not the place for a discussion, and he needed to discuss this with the Senators. "I am sure you are eager to find your quarters and retire until the diplomatic reception, later on today. If you will make your way inside, the tenants will show you and your... staff to your quarters."

   Taryn Darl arched an eyebrow, giving him an inquisitorial look, but said nothing. Finally she gave a slight nod, then made her way around Xar and his companions, her entourage keeping close behind her.

   When her group was finally out of sight, Xar heard Maarek give a low whistle beside him, while D’larit was slowly shaking his head.

  "Boy, you don't know how close that was," Maarek said in a strange tone of voice. "I was about three millimeters from tearing that guy's throat out right then and there."

   Xar eyed his friend warily. It had been anger emanating from Maarek's throat in that growl. Not just a passing dislike of the COMPNOR agents, but true malice. Even hate, perhaps. What could have pressed such a normally laid-back individual to feel like that?  "Is there something between you and Taryn Darl's aide... Uh, what was his name again?"

   Maarek was still staring darkly toward the gate where the others has disappeared. "His name is Mitch Remmac, and he's a man I swore that I'd kill." Then, as if realizing for the first time where he was, he gave himself a shake and looked up at Xar. "I'm sorry... Maybe we should we talk later. Some place safe, preferably?"

   "Of course," Xar replied. Safe? Safe from what, potential eavesdropping? Or did his friend think he was in true mortal danger? "My office should be safe enough. I should be there most of the day except for the reception."

   Maarek seemed to hesitate for a minute, then nodded. "I'll be there. Right now I think I just need to blow off some steam. Later." With that he turned and quickly made his way back toward the entrance. For a moment Xar wondered if he should have someone watch the man to make sure he didn't try anything rash or stupid. Maarek hadn't exactly been acting like himself the past few days... But still, he was a friend. If Xar didn't know him well enough, he certainly didn't know who did. At any rate, he should find out whenever Maarek decided to drop in for a visit to his office.

   "Well," D’larit spoke up. "We might as well go, ourselves. We shouldn't stand here all day, should we?"

  "No, of course not," Xar agreed. "We would not want anyone to think we were gawking at our visitors, now would we?"


                They'd barely made it back inside the Hall and out of everyone else's range of hearing when D’larit pulled him into one of the small alcoves where art paintings and sculptures rested, providing the place with atmosphere. Xar gave him an inquiring look, but something in the other man's face stopped him from voicing his unspoken question. Ryskar looked up and down the corridor once more before turning to look back at him discreetly.

   "We need to hold a meeting, Xar. In your office, preferably, since it looks like Maarek will already be there."

   Xar shook his head in confusion. "What do you mean?"

   "I can't say much right now," he replied. "Let's just say I know a bit about COMPNOR. I know how they think, Xar. We've got to be careful here. I've got my own grudges, too. But we'll talk more in the office. Preferably before the diplomatic 'discussion'?"

   "Yeah, sure," Xar agreed. "We only have a couple hours though, maybe a little more. I hope Maarek takes care of that steam quickly."

   "Me too. He'll want to be there for this," Ryskar noted. Then he stepped back out into the corridor and started off to the left, seeming very interested in studying the artwork along the walls. A few moments later Xar left as well, going right. Something was definitely up.


                Maarek stalked through the corridors of the Senate Hall, not really caring where he was going.

Inside he was still seething from finally seen Remmac again. After all this time, he had forgotten the man was still alive. Now, after meeting him again, it was like a burning fire inside threatening to eat him up. It truly was a small galaxy. Of all the places, all the possibilities, they both were to show up here at the same time. It was so ironic it almost made him laugh out loud.  Then again, maybe it was destiny that they meet again. And this time they would settle old scores.

   So caught up in his thoughts was he that he didn't even realize where he was until he looked around the massive area. He shook his head ruefully. Even wandering around, lost in thought, he'd subconsciously made his way to the base's hangar bay. Well, now that he was here he might as well see what was to be seen.

   A squadron of TIE Avengers were fueled up and sitting inside the hangar, the home guard of the Senate. The squadron only launched in cases of emergency or threats to the Senate itself, though they could launch on a moment's notice if such a threat did manifest itself. The hangar doors were closed. There were no missions scheduled for the day. Maarek headed over to one of the craft, his eyes caressing the powerful lines of its solar panels, the wingtip-mounted lasers that could vaporize steel and duracrete in an instant.

   "She's a beauty, isn't she?" said an arrogant, all-too familiar voice behind him.

   Maarek spun around, coming face to face with a smirking Mitch Remmac. Instinctively he gave a start and stepped back, staring unbelievably at the man. "You!"

   "Good to see you again, Stele. It's been a while. You've grown up a bit, haven't you?" Remmac said with a laugh. He reached over and leaned arrogantly on one of the TIE's solar panels.

   "And you're still a piece of garbage, aren't you?" Maarek retorted angrily.

   "Ah, come now. Is that any way to greet your old pal?"

   "No, you're right," Maarek conceded. "This is." Stepping in quickly toward the other man, he brought his fist up in a fast right cross that took Remmac across the jaw, spinning his head sideways. The man recovered fast, though, and blocked Stele's second strike with a quick slap of his hand. Mitch's return blow caught Maarek across the left side of his face, sending him reeling back. Stars exploded in front of his eyes as the pain of the strike caused his head to whip back. Blinking, he focused back on Remmac and rushed forward again.

   "Always so cocky in the air, but not so tough on the ground!" the man yelled, then let out an "Oof!" as Maarek rammed into his midsection, knocking the air out of him and sending both men to the ground.

   "Hey!" another voice, sounding faint, called out. "What's going on here?" The next thing Maarek knew he was being pulled away by several pairs of hands, and other beings were jumping on Remmac, doing the same to him.

   "What's the meaning of this?" a tall man in a pilot's uniform spoke up, warily eyeing both men. It was then Maarek noticed who was holding them back. They were all pilots, wearing the same colors as the symbols painted on the TIEs in the hangar.

   "That's it, get him out of here!" the man called out. The pilots holding Remmac pulled him away, but the man shook them off angrily and started off on his own. "This isn't over, Stele," he said darkly. "We'll meet again, in the air or otherwise, and this time you're going down."

   "Come on," Maarek taunted his back. "We'll settle this later, Remmac! Get in a fighter and we'll see!"

   Moment later Remmac was lost to sight, and the gray-haired man who had spoken was eyeing him up and down. "I'm Geren Bree, commander of Delta Squadron, protector of the Senate. You're a pilot, I can tell. Who are you?"

   "Maarek Stele," he answered as the other squadron members released him. "I came here with the Diktat. That other guy is a COMPNOR agent, and a killer."

   "COMPNOR?" The commander's eyes widened. "Well now, maybe I should have let you two go at it. No; then again, there would have been too much paperwork about it." If there was one thing a pilot hated more than being grounded, it was paperwork and the endless reports one had to write up. "Well it's a pleasure to meet you, Stele. Perhaps you'll visit us again when you're friend's not down here and I'll introduce you to the squadron."

   Maarek grinned cynically. "Yeah, I just might take you up on that, later. But if you'll excuse me..." With a nod to Geren and the other squadron members, he started back toward the interior of the Senate Hall, careful to take a different way than Remmac had gone.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Diktat's Office

                Senate Hall

                1530 Hours


                A light knock on his office door pulled Xar away from the paperwork adorning his desk. "Enter," he spoke up.

   The door hissed open, admitting a disheveled Maarek Stele. His clothes hung on him sloppily, as if he'd been in some kind of scuffle. A red bruise on his left cheek completed the image.

   "Maarek! What happened? You look like a total wreck."

   Maarek grimaced and walked over to the small wooden cabinet bar. Reaching inside, he pulled out a bottle of dark liquid and poured himself a glass. Bringing it up, he sniffed it, then drained it in one gulp.

   "Help yourself." Xar’s voice was tinged with sarcasm.

   "Remmac was in the hangar with me. I swear I'm going to kill him."

   "You got in a fight with him?"

   Stele gave a bitter laugh as he refilled his glass. "The squadron pilots had to pull us off each other."

   Xar frowned. "That is not good, Maarek. It could cause trouble during the talks.” He shook his head. “What is it between you two? Was that what you wanted to talk to me about?"

   The other man nodded affirmatively. "Well, I first met Remmac three years ago. I was still living in, well, in hiding with my family." He hesitated as if deciding how far to explain what he was trying to say. "At that time he wasn't a COMPNOR agent. But he was a hotshot who thought he could get rich by turning 'escapees' in. I told you bounty hunters were the least of our worries; well, this was Remmac’s livelihood. Then COMPNOR came along... I suppose they saw his piloting potential or something and signed him on. He tried to gain our trust at first, then he betrayed us to COMPNOR and got a lot of people killed in the process. I..." He was interrupted mid-sentence by another knock at the door. Whipping around, his hand reaching for a holster that wasn't there, he glared at the entrance. "Who is it?"

   "It's D’larit," a voice said from the other side.

   "Come in," Xar called out. As the door opened, Maarek leaned against the counter sheepishly, looking embarrassed. Ryskar nodded at the two men and closed the door behind him. "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" he asked concernedly.

   "Oh, not at all," Maarek grinned, assuring him. "I thought you might have been someone else."

   Ryskar eyed them both warily. "More trouble from our COMPNOR friends?" he guessed.

   Xar nodded. "Maarek is really on edge about this Remmac character. You going to be okay?" he asked Stele.

   "Sure. Just get me a chance to meet him in the air and we'll all have one less problem to worry about."

   Xar opened his mouth to reply sharply, but a third knock at the door interrupted him. The door opened and Mathis entered quietly. He gave a start as his eyes rested on the room's two occupants. Then, with his ever-present half-grin, he shrugged and went to join Stele at the bar cabinet.

   "Organa," Ryskar nodded towards the man.

   "Good to see you again, sir," Mathis replied as he poured himself some of the liquid. Maarek slid to the side to get out of his way.

   "Mathis, you came just in time," Xar told his Deputy Grand Master. "I think we all have a common interest here."

  "I didn't know he was coming," Ryskar put in. "But now that we're all here, that's what I wanted to talk about, also. Our friends can do more damage than you might realize. I've had some experience with COMPNOR, firsthand. That's why I wanted to come with you to meet them, to get a feel for what we're facing here. We may need a contingency plan for if something goes wrong. They've got a Mark II Star Destroyer sitting up there, and that means they can cause some serious damage if they wanted to."

   "I am aware of that,” Xar stated, not sure what the man was getting at. "Our fleet may be occupied elsewhere, but the planet does have defenses."

   "Yes," Scourge allowed, "but those defenses have to be operated by people. And that's that COMPNOR specializes in: people. And people can be bought, or turned…"

   "Are you saying they've got their own people inserted here on Tralaria?" Maarek asked, sipping his second drink thoughtfully.

   Ryskar nodded gravely. "I'm afraid that's the case. They certainly have agents just about everywhere, but in a place like this, they may have a lot of operatives to stir up trouble. And that's just the beginning. If they can rally enough of our people on their side, they can sabotage, turn our own weapons against us – in short, they can cause some serious damage."

    Mathis gave a low whistle. Xar didn’t like what he was hearing.

   "So, we could be looking at sabotage," Xar sighed. "What do we do?"

   "Like I said, we prepare a contingency plan. Hit them with their own medicine, so to speak."

   "Knock out that Star Destroyer," Stele said decisively.

   "Well, maybe not entirely destroy it," Ryskar corrected him. "That would be too conspicuous. But maybe we can disable it and deal with their people one at a time. We can get more out of them without killing anyone not involved. Unfortunately, I can't see a way to do that at the moment."

   "Well, we'll think of something," Mathis grinned.

   Xar shook his head at the man’s enthusiasm and leaned back in his seat. "I am not really comfortable with the idea of interrogation. We might have to do things we would regret. What about their representatives, the three agents we met? Remmac is pretty straightforward, or so it seems. Taryn Darl seems quite clever, though. I wonder what she has planned."

   "Just let me get a crack at her," Mathis said ruefully. "We won't have any trouble from her then."

   "I think not," Xar countered wryly.

   D’larit lowered his eyebrows thoughtfully.

   "What's up with the Devaronian?" Maarek asked quizzically. "How can he hold a job as an ISB advisor? I thought they loved travel and couldn't stand staying too long in one place."

   "That's true," Ryskar nodded. "It's a well-known face that Devaronian males suffer from wanderlust. That guy doesn't push papers. I’ll eat my boots if he's not a field agent."

   "Great. So what do we do about all this?" Maarek wondered.

   "We will just have to bide our time for now," Xar told them. "They have not done anything yet. We must also be careful not to let things out on our own and give them exactly what they want. Perhaps we can keep them off us and eventually they will get fed up and leave. But we cannot give them any evidence to use against us."

   "That's true," Mathis agreed. "But sooner or later the galaxy is going to find out. We knew that. Sooner or later we've got to take our stand and show them we're our own power. Same thing with the Elfo..." he broke off in mid-sentence, his eyes widening as he seemed to notice the other two men in the room.

 “The what?” Stele asked.

 "Forget that," Organa said quietly.

   Xar shook his head and ended the issue. He didn't think Ryskar or Maarek would have leaked anything even if Mathis had mentioned the Elfodd Contingency and their use of the "true" Force as they'd begun calling it. "Well then," he spoke up. "The diplomatic reception with the COMPNOR Representatives is in a few moments. We need to form a plan of action."

   The other men leaned forward as he made his proposals. A few moments later, they nodded their assent.


                Agent Danres Motov leaned away from the office door and grinned in cruel delight. The foolish humans had sealed their own fate. They didn't have a chance against the mighty Commission for the Preservation of the New Order. Barring his fangs to dissuade anyone who might try to stop him, he moved off down the corridors, rehearsing the conversation in his mind. Taryn Darl would be pleased.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                VIP Guest Complex, Senate Grounds

                Tralaria, Capital City

                1930 Hours, after the Diplomatic Meeting


                Taryn Darl looked at the display in front of her and smiled. This so-called New Imperium was a truly incredible find. They were totally lax in their security, flaunting their little slice of freedom as if they were in the center of the galaxy. Nobody could stand against them, or so they seemed to think. Well, they'd be proved wrong soon enough. She would see to that personally.

   The meeting with the NI Senators had been a carefully planned trap for their unsuspecting hosts. She had trounced them all with her expertise in diplomatic speaking. The poor fools probably didn't know heads or tails of her intentions, now. As it should be. On the screen in front of her was a copy of the Diktat's recent public NI-wide communiqué denouncing the Imperial devastation of Coruscant. True, many had been killed, and the Mutiny had thrown nearly all the various Imperial factions into turmoil. But COMPNOR remained stable and unified. The galaxy was a ripe picking ground for rooting out traitorous Imperial groups, and assuming control of their various territories. As most of the factions still claimed fierce loyalties to the Empire and the New Order, they actually supported COMPNOR's efforts. It was a brilliant strategy, and she, Taryn Darl, had the honor of fulfilling this part of it. Slowly, one territory at a time, COMPNOR would wrest control of the galaxy and present it to the new Emperor.

    The entrance hatch swished open, and she swiveled in her seat as Remmac walked in. She stood up and listened to his report warily. As he finished, she slapped him hard across the face. His head jerked to one side, but he turned back to rest his eyes on her, not moving to touch the reddening handprint on the side of his face.

   "You fool. You could have jeopardized our entire operation by getting involved with that twit Stele. When the time comes, you may kill him, but until then you will not endanger my mission. Is that clear?"

   "Perfectly," he said quickly, his face a smooth mask.

   "Good. Now, our friend Danres has given us some interesting information about these traitors. I have a special mission for him, one that you will help in. Another discussion is scheduled tomorrow. By then, we will have sent a message to the New Imperium. They cannot fight us; they must know that. We have too many of our friends inserted amongst them. When the time comes, we will reveal ourselves and make a decisive strike. The New Imperium will be ours. But first..." She turned back to the screen and input several commands. Another face replaced the Diktat's on her screen. A long-haired man, wearing a dark robe. "We make an example to them, tonight."


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Senate Hall

                2120 Hours


                The tapcafe was crowded with people during the evening dinner session, Mathis noted with an annoyed sigh. So much for expedient service. Maybe I can grab something to eat at the Skyline. Situated at the top of the Senate Hall, it took a good walk and a turbolift ride to reach, but the view of the ocean and surrounding city was unparalleled, and the food was exquisite - however expensive. Oh well, he sighed. I don't get around here that often. Might as well enjoy it. Of course, there wouldn't be much of a view except darkness outside... Resignedly he set off back toward his quarters in the ambassadorial wing, planning to just fix whatever food was afforded to the tenuous Senators who might need a meal at any hour. The comfortable rooms were equipped with their own kitchen and stove, and he'd learned to cook back when he was still a young man.

   He made his way though the winding corridors of the Senate Hall, offering passerby a pleasant evening whenever he met them. If there weren't always some crisis at hand, he noted, he might actually get to enjoying this place. Maybe I'll spend some leave here when it comes up again. That was, if it ever came.

   As he entered the ambassadorial wing and neared his quarters, the number of people he met decreased, until finally he was alone in the corridors. But that didn't really bother him. He's spent much of his life alone, and now he had the Force, the feeling and sense of life all around him. He knew that Xar apparently was much more attuned to Life Sense, as he could usually pick up tiny traces of things Mathis couldn't quite catch. Still, he was a Deputy Grand Master, and hardly insensitive to it.

   It was that feeling that let him suddenly sense a strange, alien presence nearby. He was quite used to the sense of non-humans around him, as his occupation made it a daily occurrence, but this sense stood out more strongly. He could easily discern the feelings he received. Malevolence, evil intent. But where? He spun around, looking back the way he'd come. Nothing. He turned around again... And out of the shadows of an overlooked alcove, something black moved. Then pain exploded into his chest, and he gasped as he staggered back, an incredible agony sweeping out, sapping his strength almost instantly. As he fell, he saw the small knife hilt sticking out of his chest right between his ribs.  Darkness threatened to overwhelm him.

   What seemed like an eternity later, a shape moved over him again. He could feel the intense pain shooting through him as the assassin pulled the knife free of its mark. All he could see, a small point of vision at the end of a tunnel of darkness, was a pair of dark horns that stuck from a bald forehead. Then the blackness came...


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Xar finished going over the last document of the evening, signed his name at the bottom of the sheet of flimsy, and put it on the tall pile holding all the others he'd gone through.

   The diplomatic reception had gone rather well, he'd thought. Darl had raised some cleverly-worded questions, but all in all he didn't think he had let anything through. The whole attitude she seemed to have for the discussions was disturbing, like everything was gearing toward an imminent and unavoidable conflict. Even more he resolved to have a plan ready for when that time came.

   Pushing himself to his feet, he stretched, and with a stifled yawn decided to retire to his quarters for a hot shower. It had been an extremely long day. He briskly made the quiet walk through the Senate halls to his private quarters, encountering few other people on the way. Unlike the Varnusian palace, where he was a common sight strolling through the corridors, here most people gave him a respectful nod and greeting, and some newcomers occasionally stopped to gawk at the Speaker of the NI Senate as he went by.

   Back in his quarters, he secured the door and moved into the refresher station, grateful to shed the formal uniform he'd been forced to wear all day long. He had just finished removing his coat and pants when his commlink sounded outside in the living room. Cursing the blasted device, he trudged back into the room to see what whoever it was wanted.

   "Kerensky. What is it? I am off hours."

   "Sorry to disturb you sir," a shaky voice said.

    Instantly Xar was on his guard. "Go on. What is it? What has happened?"

   "I... I'm sorry, sir. It’s Senator Organa. He's in critical condition."

    Immediately he felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut. "What?!"

   "He's been severely injured. He's in critical in Medlab, sir. Can you... can you spare some time to..."

   Xar stopped listening. Running back into the refresher, he grabbed his clothes and hurriedly started dressing, praying that his friend was all right...



                10 Minutes Later


                Mathis actually looked peaceful as he lay still on the bed. A white sheet covered him from the neck down, but there was an obvious lump above his midsection where surgery had already been performed and a bacta soak was being administered.

   "Mathis!" Xar yelled, starting for the glass door that separated the two rooms. Through the large window he could see inside where his friend lay. Through the Force, he could sense his presence, but there was nothing inside his mind. He had to help him.

   Before he was halfway there, two of the male nurses dove into him, forcing him backwards and away from his goal. "Let me go!" he shouted. The two men forced him backwards, grunting with effort.

   "There's nothing you can do for him, sir!" one of them said loudly. "Calm down!"

   Feeling the fire that had welled up in him upon seeing his friend subside, Xar let himself be pulled back away from the window. When they were satisfied that he wouldn't make another charge, the men backed off slowly. Resolutely, he turned toward the man that had been watching him.

   "What happened?" Xar asked the doctor quietly.

   The doctor, a tall, middle-aged man with dark hair, shook his head. "The Senator was attacked on his way back to his quarters. A very sharp object, apparently a knife, was thrust into his torso just below the solar plexus. He was very lucky. A centimeter's difference and it would have been in his heart. He would have died instantly. As it is, no vital organs were damaged, and we've repaired the vein and artery damage and are sealing him up."

   "So what is the prognosis?"

   The man shrugged. "We've done all we can for him right now. The rest is up to him. If he wakes up, he'll be a little weak, a little tender for a while, but he should be okay. If he wakes up."

   "What does that mean?" Xar asked warily.

   "It means that he's comatose and I really have no way of knowing when or if he'll come out of that state," the doctor answered. "It could be any moment, or it could be days, weeks, months. Only time will tell."

   "I... see. Any idea who did this?" he demanded. He already knew the answer, though.

   "Not to my knowledge." A chime sounded, and the doctor nodded and started off into another section of the room.  Xar looked through the glass window into the critical care room, his mind racing. He was glad that Mathis hadn't been killed, glad it seemed he'd be okay after he woke up. But he could feel a burning in his stomach. Anger. He knew who had done this. Oh, it looked like an act of revenge from the Eyes of Elfodd on the surface. Who would the Eyes have to hate more than Mathis? Their leader, Grathkar Korealis, was insane with hate of Organa. But it was too clever, too simple. He was reminded of that long-lost, ancient Jedi on Varnus they'd brought out of stasis. He wondered how he was doing, since after the assassination attempt they'd left Varnus so suddenly. Xar had left Warden Vynd Archaron with him, to try and communicate with him, to teach him Basic and get him on the road to mental recovery. He only hoped it was working. But now he had another vice. He'd had just about enough of the COMPNOR agents. It was time for action.

   "Kerensky to communications," he called on his commlink. "Send a message to Senators D’larit and Dogar. I need to see them in my office first thing in the morning." No need to get everyone upset, just yet. With one last, sad look at his friend, he started out of the room. He never should have gotten Mathis mixed up in this.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Ryskar quickly entered the Diktat's office, closing the door and securing it behind him. As he made his way into the living room, he noticed that Arfann and Xar were already present and waiting for him. On second glance he saw Maarek Stele in one of the chairs near the far corner, staring intently in front of him at nothing.

   "I heard about Mathis," Ryskar said quietly. "I'm sorry."

   "It was them," Xar replied coldly. Everyone knew to whom he was referring. "Time to be rid of our guests."

   Ryskar frowned. "Agreed, but how to do it without destroying the New Imperium in the process?"

   "It's too late to worry about that," Arfann put in flatly. "They've already made up their minds. This was a message to us. But it's just the beginning."

   "So how do we stop them?" Ryskar asked again. "They've got agents everywhere. Anybody have a plan?"

    "I just want to be there," Stele said from the corner. "When it all goes down, I want to fly with the squadron. I should get that much."

   "I think we've all got a score to settle, Maarek," Ryskar told him.

   "Nobody's stopping you from flying, if that's what you want to do," Dogar put in. "Though you know we don't want to lose you. Your skills can serve a great purpose in the NI."

   Maarek nodded, seeming to come out of his trance. "Don't worry. I'll come back. I always do."

   "I have a plan," Xar announced suddenly. At the interruption all three sets of eyes focused on him. "You probably think it would be crazy. Maybe it is; there is no guarantee it will work, but..."

   "What is it?" Arfann asked.

   Xar looked up at him with a flat expression. "The bomb."

   "What bomb?” Dogar paused, then his thick eyebrows went up. “Surely not..."

   "Exactly," Xar cut him off. "It's our only viable option to taking out their Star Destroyer, and it is not even our device. The Eyes of Elfodd made it."

   "How do you know that?" Ryskar asked him.

   "They like to show off their handiwork," Xar said. "At any rate, they gave us a chance, here. The Eyes are clumsy, but dangerous nonetheless. With any luck the Imperials might trace the device back to them."

   "But we have to find a way to get the bomb onboard, or at least get it close enough to do damage," Maarek put in.

  "Besides that," Ryskar added. "We're talking about an entire Star Destroyer here. Over thirty thousand people, many of who have nothing to do with this. The common workers probably don't even know where they are, much less be in on the mission here. We can't murder those people simply because the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."

   "What if we could modify the bomb somehow. Make it disable the ship instead of destroying it?" Dogar suggested.

   Xar seemed to consider the idea. "Perhaps. Maybe they could replace the charge with an electromagnetic device? Like an ion bomb."

   "Excuse me, but I must be missing something here," Maarek interrupted. "Why go to all this trouble to modify this bomb ourselves? Why not use our own, or just call in the fleet to destroy the enemy?"

   "We don't have any weapons readily available like this. And if we did, it would not link back to the Eyes of Elfodd like this one does."

   "And," Ryskar added, "Calling in the fleet would be extremely conspicuous. Our job isn't just to eliminate the enemy, but to keep the whole incident from blowing up into huge proportions. A huge Imperial fleet could show up right at our doorstep."

   "So when do we stand up and show the galaxy we're on our own?" Maarek asked.

   "Soon, very soon." Xar said quietly. "I will call our technicians about modifying the bomb. It is a long shot, so it will have to be our fall-back plan."

   "Agreed," Ryskar put in.

   "There is another meeting scheduled later today," Xar continued. "At this point we know that confrontation will be coming, so we will both probably just be stalling for time and trying to trip up one another. We need to decide what exactly to present later."

   "Well, I'm going back down to the hangar to get familiar with the pilots there," Maarek announced, rising from his seat. He gave a half-grin. "If I'm going to be doing any killing tomorrow, I'll need to know who my squad mates are." With that he gave each of the men a nod and moved past Ryskar toward the door.

   “Happy hunting,” Ryskar said as the man walked out.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Conference Room

                Senate Hall

                1400 Hours


                "I don't know what you're talking about," Arfann said in a dry tone, addressing the yellow-haired woman standing in front of him with her palms on the table. "Those were routine readiness tests, not military strength assessments."

   Taryn Darl shook her head arrogantly, looking like a falcon hovering over her prey. "I've had my people check all your records and public archives. You can't get out of it by lying."

   "We all know that COMPNOR fabricates its own supposed facts to suit any situation," Majere argued.

    Ryskar gave an annoyed sigh. The whole thing had gone like this, and it had really begun dragging on now. Xar had already gotten fed up and left, in a very un-Diktat way, and it was clear that everyone else had had their fill of it, as well. He could empathize with the man, with his best friend down in a coma in the medlab. Having to put on a good face and chat with the perpetrator must have been all he could bear. Now the conversation was beginning to drag, and it was fairly clear that both sides knew that matters couldn't be settled without confrontation. Ryskar didn't really know what more Darl wanted to gain by going through all of this.

   Dogar simply threw up his hands. "I've had enough of this. I believe this will adjourn our meeting now."

   "Yes, it is definitely over," Darl said. Then, giving a glare that took in all of them, she stormed out of the room.


                Xar stared into the screen where technician Howen, a balding man who already had a spot of grease on the side of his nose, sat fumbling around for something, trying to look for whatever it was and talk to the Diktat at the same time. In the background Xar could see glimpses of crew members moving about in a hurry.

   "Well, we've made the move up here to the spaceport, now what do we do?" the man asked, still concentrating on several other things at the same time. That morning after his meeting with D’larit and Dogar, Xar had spoken to the chief technician and instructed him to move his personnel and facilities to Delran Spaceport in orbit, where the explosive device the Eyes of Elfodd had planted was still in holding. He had figured that it would be easier to prepare and send the device from there, if necessary, and besides, the transport that still held the device was docked there as well.

   Steeling his nerves, and his trepidations about the man in front of him, Xar laid out his plan in full detail.

  When he finished, Howen stared at him in disbelief. "You want me to do what?" he stammered.

   "I want you to modify the device so that it will disable the enemy ship," Xar repeated. "You can simply replace the charge with an ion bomb or something similar, can you not?"

   "Uh..." The man's face held a panicked look. "Well, I suppose I could, but what if it goes off while I'm working on it or something?"

   Xar frowned. "Are you telling me that it is not possible? If so, then by no means am I going to make you take the risk to try."

   The technician shook his head. "No, it's possible. Just... Delicate. How much time do I have?"

   "You have until sometime tomorrow. It might be sooner. Can you have it done? If things go wrong it could be our only chance."

   "We'll work all night on it if we have to, sir," the man said, pricking up in his seat. "I'll make the NI proud."

   Xar felt a bit of skepticism at that, but kept it from his expression. "Good. Oh, and make sure this does not get out, Howen. You understand the consequences it could have."

   "Of course, sir. You can count on me."

   Nodding, Xar shut the connection down and made his way out of his office. He planned to check on Mathis' condition, get something to eat, and get a bit of much-needed rest. Things were going to heat up the next day. He'd be ready for them.



                                                *                                              *                                              *


Diktat’s Quarters

NI Senate Complex



                Xar rolled over in his bed, twisting the sheets around him. He was dreaming.

   A strange, beautiful voice was calling his name. He knew it sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. A point of light appeared amongst the darkness around him, calling him. He could almost make out a form standing on the other side of that light. Tentatively at first, then with more confidence he reached for it, striving to touch it. It was so warm...


   His eyes snapped open as he awoke, just in time to glimpse - and sense - a shadowy form above him. His danger sense flared... With a grunt of effort he threw himself to the side, off the bed, as something thumped from where he'd been an instant before. He struggled to stand, then fell back as the sheets still tangled around his legs. Pushing himself back up, he moved back, trying to get a mental image of his position in the room. His legs came up against something hard, and he fell back again. There was a crash as whatever had been laying on the table was knocked off and shattered.

   Finally getting the sheets out from around his ankles, he could hear his silent assailant approaching. Rolling over, he kicked the table up into the air, coming to his feet and pushing off toward the oncoming footsteps.

   "Lights!" he yelled, as another crash sounded from where he'd kicked the table over. Then the room's lighting came on, sending bright light to fill everything. He'd closed his eyes from the initial flash to keep from being blinded, now he could see his assailant in front of him. He saw a flurry of dark clothing, and two black horns coming from the assailant’s head. Manres! As the lights came on the alien brought his hands up to shield his eyes, something glinting in one hand, and Xar took that instant to kick the alien in the stomach. The Devaronian doubled over, the wind rushing out of him. Pressing his attack, Xar grabbed the alien’s knife, pivoted his wrist back toward him, and stabbed him with his own weapon. As Manres gasped in pain, Xar took him by the horns and brought his head down sharply to meet his knee. There was a thud and a grunt from the would-be assassin as his face was smashed, and he sank to his knees. Xar let him down slowly, firming his grip, then suddenly twisted his hands sharply with Force-enhanced strength, eliciting a popping sound as the alien's neck broke.

   Xar let the body fall to the floor, letting out a breath he'd been holding. He stared down at the corpse, breathing heavily. He felt like a mess. He glanced over at the bed, saw that a gash had been cut through the center. He turned back to stare at the form on the floor. A cruelly-curved knife stuck out of the dead alien's chest.

   That was for Mathis, he thought. Moving over to his commlink, overstepping the glass and various objects that littered the floor, he sent a call to command.

   "This is command, sir. Is everything all right?"

   "No, things aren’t all right!" he replied angrily. "Somebody just tried to kill me! Wake the Senators, the command officers, everybody! Prepare the city defenses. No, don’t ask why, just get them!"

   Furiously he went to the wardrobe, dressed, and left his quarters, stopping to call in a clean-up crew before he exited. In his rush, he never saw the light on his comm display, informing him of the message waiting for him.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Command Center

                Senate Hall

                0640 Hours


                Xar entered the command center into a scene of chaos. The entire personnel were on their feet, moving from one console or monitor to another, their voice going among a buzz of computer messages and alerts. "What is going on here?" he spoke up loudly. Then, noticing that Dogar and D’larit were already in the room near the command console, he made his way over near them and repeated his question.

   "The board's lit up all over the place," Dogar announced angrily, gesturing at an overlay map of the capital city. "The whole city is in pandemonium."

   "What happened?"

   "Our good friend from COMPNOR, Taryn Darl, sent out a broad-band message not long ago," Ryskar replied. "In it she called all 'loyal' Imperials to stand up and rise against the traitorous NI, and to help them take control. Of course, they made it all sound like we're the bad guys. Who'd have thought we had so many among us?"

   "They are not just 'loyal Imperials'," Xar explained. "We’ve had COMPNOR agents inserted among us for months, waiting to incite just such a coup."

   "How do you know that?" Ryskar asked quizzically.

   Xar shook his head. "Think about it. They’ve known about us for a while. They had the resources to send a group to us a long time ago, but they did not. Why, unless they already knew and were preparing for just this day?"

   Ryskar made an angry-sounding grunt, and Dogsr nodded his concurrence. "Makes sense. But what do we do about it? We have very little to work with on our own."

   "Yes, but we are not down yet," Xar assured him. "Let me speak with Darl, please."

   "Sure." Getting up, Dogar moved over toward one of the secondary displays, while Ryskar moved over to the other side of the room.

   "Coming through now," Dogar announced.

   The main view of the Tralarian capital suddenly changed into a view of an Imperial Star Destroyer's bridge. Taryn Darl stood in the foreground, hair tied back as usual, wearing an Imperial-style uniform.

   "What is the meaning of this?" Xar asked angrily. He already knew what it was, and he also knew that the command personnel were already working on a solution to the problem, but he needed to keep playing innocent or things could get even worse for them. Right then, he doubted that the COMPNOR agents had enough proof of the NI's disloyalty to bring a full-scale assault down on them, but if they openly became hostile against the agents, it would be all over. On the other side, if they could force Darl to revealing her hand too soon without revealing theirs... It wasn't a perfect plan, but maybe it could work.

   Taryn took a moment to answer, and cleared her throat importantly before starting. If she was surprised to see him still alive, she didn’t show it. Xar knew this message was being taped, and probably transmitted to unseen listeners even as they spoke. "After a thorough evaluation of the New Imperium government, I have determined that the New Imperium no longer holds its loyalties to the New Order. As duly appointed representative from the COMPNOR group, and with the full authority of the Empire bestowed upon me, I am hereby assuming control of the New Imperium until Imperial-loyal forces do arrive. This will not be long, as I have already sent a full report to my superiors and to the Select Committee. Consequently, all significant NI officers and Senators, including the Diktat, are hereby placed under arrest and confined to quarters until the arrival of relief forces. Refusal to cooperate with these orders will be taken as an act of treason against the Empire. Either way, your little party is over, Kerensky."

   The display went silent as Dogar cut the sound. "She's bluffing, trust me," he said confidently. "No message has been sent yet. They're trying to push you into moving." With that he turned the sound back on again, and Xar turned back to address her.

   "This is preposterous," he said. "You have no evidence to support your conclusions, nor the authority you claim to have."

   "I have full authority," she replied sternly. "You will comply, or else."

   "I know you have set this all up from the beginning, Darl. Your zealous agents find only what you want to see. But you made a mistake when you tried to kill me and my friend!”

   "I don't have to answer your questions," Taryn said defiantly. "You're under arrest..."

   Xar motioned for the link to be cut and turned away. It was about to begin.


                Xar was doing a fairly good job of keeping her at bay, Ryskar thought as leaned against one of the side consoles, out of the way. As the link was cut, the screen went back to a view of the city. Xar got up and started pacing around the floor. Commander Brinks moved around the command console towards the back of the room.

   "So, what are our options, gentlemen?" Xar asked, addressing the two Senators.

   "If we fight, we could bring the whole Empire down on us," Ryskar sighed. "Dogar, how did you know she was bluffing and didn't get a message out?"

   Instead of answering, Dogar gave a thoughtful look toward Xar. "What if there wasn't anyone around to tell the Empire?" he asked.

   "Are you suggesting we kill anyone involved?" Ryskar asked incredulously.

   "Of course not," Dogar replied sternly. "But what I am saying is that if we destroy these COMPNOR enemies we may not have to worry about a message getting back to the Empire. Not one anyone would pay much attention to, at least."

   "But we would have to take out the Devious," Xar pointed out. "I would rather not try going to sleep knowing I had killed thousands of people in one day."

   "We don't have to kill them. We just have to.." Dogar froze in mid-sentence as he was interrupted by a faint but distinct click beside him. Ryskar knew that sound. The sound of a blaster safety being switched off. Turning his head, Dogar stared straight down the barrel of a blaster carbine, held by none other than base commander Brinks himself.

  "Well, looks like our base commander's in for a promotion this season," he said darkly.

   "He is not the only one."

   Ryskar looked over toward the sound of the voice, and blinked in surprise. The tactical officer was standing behind Xar, one hand holding his arm, the other pointing a small blaster pistol against his temple.

   "Traitors," Dogar spat.

   "Hey now, you mind your tongue, sir," said Brinks. "You're not in a position to give any orders here. Now, nobody move! In case you missed something, we're holding the leaders of three of the New Imperium's most powerful fleets hostage all at once, including the Diktat himself. Bet you never thought that could happen, eh?"

   "How about putting your guns down if you want to live through this," Xar answered him firmly, still held upright by the man behind him.

   Brinks gave a cynical laugh. "Yeah, sure. We're gonna be rich men. Now shut up and listen to me. We're getting out of here, and as soon as I turn you all in to Taryn Darl..."

   "Are you going to shoot me or are you going to just talk?" Xar interrupted again.

   "Shut up!"

   Ryskar frowned. Everyone else in the room had their hands up, including him, and Dogar and Xar were directly under the traitor's guns. What could he have been referring to... Except... Of course. They probably didn't think about Xar being a Jedi Master. When Xar's eyes met his, Ryskar nodded.

    "Come on, shoot me!" Xar taunted. The man holding him looked up incredulously at his captive, probably wondering if the man was sane or not. Ryskar almost wondered, himself. Who could stand there with a gun to his head and ask the man to shoot him? Either he was crazy or he had no fear of death at all. But would Brinks shoot his most valuable prisoner?

   Apparently Brinks had had enough. For a second he took his gun off Dogar and pointed it at Xar. "I told you to shut up!" he shouted.

   It was all the time Xar needed. Suddenly the blaster ripped itself from Brinks' hand and flew halfway across the room, followed by a high-pitched scream from the traitorous commander. Brinks must have been holding tight to the blaster, because blood was spurting out of his knuckled joints where two of his fingers had been ripped off in the process. Brinks grabbed his hand, screaming in pain, as he stumbled towards the back wall.

   The other captor didn't have time to react. The instant the blaster left Brink's hand, Xar ducked his head forward and rammed an elbow back into the man's midsection. The captor stumbled forward, firing a blaster shot that passed over Xar's head and hit one of the center consoles. Xar immediately came back up, slapping the gun out of the man's hand. Then, giving a yell of his own, Xar grabbed the man with both hands, ran forwards with him, and slammed his head into one of the command monitors, shattering the glass display. The traitor fell away, his bloody face gashed with cuts.

   It had all happened in seconds. Ryskar was still staring incredulously at the downed man when Dogar called to him, his blaster pointed at the kneeling Brinks’ head, the command crew standing by for support. Then time seemed to return to normal. Xar, breathing heavily, was making his way back over towards the main console. Ryskar went to the near console and opened the bridge back up, it having been sealed by the traitors when they tried to take over.

   "Get this trash out of here," Dogar said contemptuously. Two men led Brinks away at gunpoint, while the rest began to drag the tactical officer away, as well.

   As the deck crew moved to comply, Xar looked over from the command console. "We are short on command crew now," he said. "Can you handle tactical and coordinate our forces?"

   "You sure you want me to?" Dogar asked.

   "You do have the most experience here with what forces we have available, since you helped to set the system up," Ryskar put in.

   "Yes, you know more about it that the rest of us," Xar added.

   With a brief nod, Dogar moved over to the now empty tactical console. "Uh-oh," he muttered.

   "What is it?" Ryskar asked, making his way over beside him.

   "It looks like Brinks and that other guy weren't the only 'loyal Imperials' on Tralaria. The board's lit up all over the place. The city's shield generators are offline, as well as all our hangars except for the one here as the Hall's guard force. We're sitting ducks unless we move fast."

   "Sabotage," Xar said bitterly. "Kriffing traitors."

   "Sir," the comm officer, now back at his post, spoke up. "The Devious is launching fighters."

   From the main command seat, Xar frowned. "Not good. Suggestions?"

   "If we engage them, then we'll have committed an act of war against the Empire," Ryskar reminded Xar.

   "Don't worry about that," Dogar said from his console. "I've had all outgoing messages jammed since this morning."

   Ryskar looked at the man in surprise. "Well, that ought to make a lot of people happy. So, what'll it be, Diktat?"

   Xar seemed to hesitate for a moment, then finally nodded. "Launch ours," he ordered.

   Dogar turned to look back at him with a sly look. "I already did."

   Xar smiled wryly.


                Maarek ran down the hallway and emerged in the hangar to the whine of ion engines. Fully decked out in pilot's garb, helmet under one arm, he ran toward the waiting fighters as the other pilots were boarding their craft. A loud siren was sounding throughout the hangar, which had apparently been sealed off behind him to keep any would-be saboteurs from stopping the launch. Maarek had heard what was happening all over the city here in the dawn-hours of the morning. He knew that they were the NI's only chance at success here.

   As he approached, Commander Geren turned from the orders he was giving and smile when he saw him.

   "Got an extra ship for me?" Maarek grinned.

   The other man mirrored the grin and nodded. "Yeah, actually I've got an empty slot in my squad. Delta Four decided to bail out of this one because he didn't want to fight any fellow Imperials. He'd in custody at the moment."

   Maarek gave a cynical laugh. "These aren't Imperials. They're a disgrace to the Empire and to themselves. A scourge on the galaxy that I'll enjoy ridding it of."

   "Aye, that's the spirit. I'd be honored if you'd take my man's place," he said seriously.

   "Offer accepted," Maarek answered briskly. "Ready when you guys are."

   "All right then," Geren nodded. "Climb into your fighter and be ready. I'll give you command of Flight Two."

   Maarek nodded back. "Thank you. I'll be ready." He gave a smart salute, which the Commander returned, and continued on as Geren went on with his orders.

   Maarek quickly climbed the access ladder to reach the scaffolding above, which held up the fighters. He found his designated ship in short order and stood waiting while the techs finished their checkout. He took several deep breaths, trying to calm himself down. This is just like any other mission, he told himself. Mitch Remmac does not exist. He tried to convince himself, but the knowledge of Mitch out there still hung in his mind. He knew the man would be flying out there, too. They were destined to meet, and only one would come out alive.

   The techs gave him the go-ahead to board his fighter, and he gingerly slipped into the TIE Avenger's cockpit with a sigh of relief. Finally, he was back home. The hatch sealed behind him and he donned his flight helmet, attaching it to the necessary connectors behind him. He began strapping himself in as the hangar doors began opening in front of him. It was like a doorway into his soul, seeing the red-orange sky of dawn open up. He could feel it pulling at him, beckoning. Now he was alive.

   "All right, everyone check in," his commlink crackled to life as Commander Geren's deep voice came over the link.

   "Delta Two, standing by."

   Delta Three, all systems ready."

   "Delta Four, standing by," Maarek called out.

   And so on it went until the entire squadron had checked in. The sky was clear outside the hangar doors. He nearly shouted with anticipation.

   "All right, one last thing before we go," Geren told them. "The enemy Star Destroyer is in position near the Delran Spaceport. Watch your fire; we don't want civilian casualties here. Our job is to take out the enemy fighter cover and provide a screen for the spaceport and if possible, the planet. We're fighting the enemy here gentlemen, the enemy of the New Imperium, which we've sworn our lives to protect. It's time to fulfill that vow. Serve well."

   Maarek nodded his assent, giving a silent prayer for all those that would be in battle that day. Then at Geren's command he brought his fighter up to full power. The intense whine of ion engines filled his ears, and a beautiful sound it was. The whole hangar reverberated with the noise, and the technicians, looking like insects from his lofty spot up on the racks, began to scatter for the sides.


   Gripping the throttle controls, Maarek edged them forward, and his ship eased out of its holding rack. Slowly at first, but then with increasing speed his fighter raced toward the entrance, a widening expanse of sky ahead. Then in a second he was past, and with an irrepressible shout of joy he pulled his fighter up and goosed the throttle up, shooting the ship up like a rocket. The acceleration and gravitational forces pinned him back against his seat. The Senate Complex and its island faded rapidly below, surrounded by endless ocean.

   "Well, that was a refreshing wake-up exercise," Geren's voice came over. Glancing at his radar, Maarek noticed that the commander had followed his move and was flying beside him. "Care to join with the rest of the squad now?"

   "Yes sir!" Maarek answered enthusiastically. He pulled his fighter in behind the commander’s as the squadron formed up around him. Then, leveling off, he began steeling his nerves for the mission ahead. Once combat started, he knew, instinct would take over, and his enemies would simply be targets in his viewscreen. All except one.


                "Fighters have been launched," one of the command crew reported. "The Devious has taken a position a hundred kilometers from Delran Spaceport and has begun orbital bombardment." His sentence ended a bit shakily. Dogar knew what he meant. The primary display showed intense bursts of green turbolaser fire as they struck down at the capital city and the surrounding areas, vaporizing both land and water in an instant.

   "You were saying about the lives of many outweighing the needs of a few?" he asked Xar casually.

   "The ion bomb," the man answered stiffly. "I will contact the techs immediately."

   "You do that. And tell them to send a special kiss to these COMPNOR zealots for me!"


                Howen stared in horror at the officer who had relayed the Diktat's message. "What?" he asked. "Didn't he get my message?"

   "He didn't mention that part, sir."

   Howen bit his lip, thinking frantically. He'd sent a message to Xar hours before. By five in the morning he'd known there was no way they could modify the bomb's charge in time. He was in major trouble now... What could he do? There was only one thing he could think of.

   "Place the original detonator back in the bomb and send it on," he stammered. "We have to deliver or we're all dead anyway." He gave a nervous laugh. The bomb would totally obliterate the enemy Star Destroyer, no doubt about it. Surely that was what they would want, much more than letting the enemy destroy them all. Maybe he'd get even credited as a hero for it...


                "Watch it, bandits at nine o'clock," Delta Six called out.

   "Got it," Geren's voice came over. "Ten bandit Avengers, watch for missiles. Flights one, two, and three, break and attack. Repeat: break and attack."

    "That's our cue," Maarek said on his flight's frequency. "Stay on my wing if you can, but choose targets of opportunity." With that he pulled his fighter into a wide turn to port, where the enemy fighters were already coming in hard on a cross vector. He knew he couldn't get around to face them head on, but he could pull in behind some of them.

   "Boy, they're coming up fast," one of his wingmen said.

   "I've got a missile tone here," another voice came over the link.

   "Break hard to port, Eight!" he heard Geren shout.

   Maarek inverted his ship as the enemy fighters flashed past too fast for an untrained eye to follow. His was trained, however. Bringing his ship up in a tight loop, he was suddenly going the other direction, pulling around to follow the enemy fighters. His wingmen couldn't pull as tight a loop and dragged slightly behind. Mentally keeping their positions in check he focused on staying with the cluster of four enemy ships ahead of him.

   "Incoming missile!" the man who'd spoken before shouted. "I'm hit, I'm hit..."

   Maarek saw Eight's fighter fly past in front of him as the missile hit the back of his fighter and blew away the rear half of the craft. The rear of the ship exploded, but amazingly his scanners picked up an escape pod flying off as the rest of the fighter broke up.

   As the fight descended into a brawl, the endless chatter coming across the link passed his ears barely noticed; Maarek was more than used to picking out the useful elements. He was focusing on his own targets. Suddenly they split around him in a classic maneuver that would have made him follow one and be susceptible to one of the others. But he did something they couldn't have suspected. He kept going straight, after his original target. Another enemy craft was flying past over two kilometers ahead, tracking on his own squadron.

   "Got a tone," he called out as his threat indicator went red. "Firing." An ion-trailed concussion missile shot out from his ship at blinding speed. The enemy Avenger, with almost no time to react, pulled his craft high and right to try and avoid the missile, but the warhead was well on target. The missile punched straight through the bottom of the fighter near its port solar panel and exploded, destroying most of the fighter and killing the pilot instantly. The debris continued on towards the blue world below.

   Suddenly his warning light came on, and he responsively jerked his fighter up in a tighter loop than before. "Got a lock on me," he called out.

   "Right with you, boss," another voice called out. He recognized Delta Seven, one of his own flight. "I'm taking a shot."

   Maarek saw the ship ahead and to his left launch a missile that flashed by within twenty meters of his craft. The enemy blip on his rear scanners winked out, as did his warning indicator. "Thanks, Seven," he called out.

   "Good shot, Seven," Geren's voice said. "New craft alert, boys. A squadron of Interceptors coming in mark one-oh-seven."

   "I see them," Maarek called out. A glinting cloud of ships was approaching from the direction of the Devious. "Seven, Six, form on me. Let's pierce their formation."

   "Right with you," Six called out.

   "On it," Seven assented.

   Maarek slewed his fighter into a skid, then goosed the throttle, shooting off toward the enemy formation. His wingmen stayed close behind him. The enemy Interceptor squadron was spread out to cover a wide firing range while keeping them from being attacked in a cluster. As they neared, a swarm of laser blasts erupted from the enemy group, swarming all around them. His wingmen sent return fire back towards the cluster, shaking off several of their attackers. Maarek, on the other hand, singled out one target, near the center. His target's blasts passed all around him, but none scored a hit. Maarek waited until the ship was nearly in his sights - and his target indicator flashed. He fired, sending a quad-blast of laser fire at the enemy fighter that hit the ship dead on. The Interceptor exploded into a ball of flame and gas that passed underneath Maarek's fighter. Bringing his ship up and around, he came in for another attack.


                   Sector Admiral D’larit watched the unfolding scene being played out on the displays. Their fighters had engaged the COMPNOR forces and appeared to be holding their own, at least for now. The enemy Star Destroyer Devious, however, was doing more than enough damage itself. Apparently loyal NI groups were regaining control of the various elements that had gone down due to sabotage, however. Several of the city's shield generators had been activated, and more often than not the blasts of turbolaser energy streaking down from space impacted harmlessly against their protective fields.

    "Modular Conveyor Delivery I has just launched from Delran Spaceport," reported one of the officers.

   "Good," Xar replied. "Right on schedule."

   "How did you fix it so they'll take the bait?" Ryskar asked him. "They aren't just going to pick up a fleeing transport for the fun of it."

   "I gave them a temptation they cannot resist," the Diktat replied smugly. "They think the ship is loaded with special technology we cannot afford to lose."

   "But they still might not take it," Ryskar pointed out.

   "Well, we just have to show them how desperate we are to save it."


                Maarek pulled back on the stick, bringing his fighter into a tighter loop than the Interceptor in front of him, exposing the top of the enemy fighter to his targeting reticule. Their two ships were locked in a deadly spiral dance. The star-field swam by, and even the planet below passed by the viewport as he pulled in tight to stay with his target. His first shots passed behind the ship. He pulled even tighter, his target indicator going green at a spot just ahead of the enemy fighter as he got lead on him. Firing, he sent a quartet of laser bolts that hit right on target, destroying the ball-like cockpit in a bright flash. The remaining debris, pieces of solar panel and metal, drifted along to join the rest of the scrap in orbit.

   Maarek leveled off a moment, the lattice-type metal of the spaceport hanging in space ahead. A ship seemed to be lifting off, over there. Not very wise for someone to try to escape in the heat of battle. The Star Destroyer had several batteries focused on the station, as well, sending out flashes of turbolaser fire towards the spaceport. The thought made him angrier than ever: that this ruthless scum had no care for life, civilian or otherwise. "We can't let them destroy the spaceport," Maarek said into his commlink.

   "Affirmative," Geren spoke up. "Flight Three, break off and..." His voice broke off as a new signal came in, this one on a private channel.

    "I think you should worry more about yourself, Stele," a familiar voice cooed.

   Maarek stared down at his radar in awe. There was no mistaking Remmac's voice. A red enemy blip was there, directly in his wake trail. "YOU!" he yelled, at the same time skewing his fighter in a wild turn to starboard. A quad-burst of laser fire shot through the place he'd been an instant before. "Glad you could make it, Mitch!" He pulled into a series of tight corkscrews, but he saw that Remmac was right on his tail. "Now let's settle this once and for all!"

   "Yes, this is the end between us, Maarek."  Suddenly a blast pounded into his rear shields, bringing them into the red. Instinctively Maarek shunted laser power to recharge his shields and focused on juking his ship around to avoid Remmac's bursts. One thing Maarek knew from the time he'd faced him before: Remmac was the best, most accurate gunner he'd ever seen. He knew he could out-fly the man, but his own lasers weren't going to be a factor in this fight. All he had to do was hold out long enough to pull off his own special move. It had taken a very long time to work out the physics of it, since once in the spin there was no way to orient oneself. You just had to finish it and hope it worked out. But Remmac didn’t know about it, and that was all the advantage Maarek needed.

  Another blast hit his craft, rocking it hard. "Come on, Stele," Remmac taunted. "I was expecting a better fight than this. Have you gotten soft?"

   "Eat space dust," Maarek murmured angrily, goosing the throttle as far as it would go. Space flew by around them. Everything else was forgotten. He tried to calm himself, taking a slow, deep breath. He was flying on instinct; all his consciousness was on focusing himself. There was nothing but him and Remmac. They were one, his ship and his enemy's. 

   Laser fire flashed past close enough to rub his shields, over and over again. They were getting closer. Maarek turned a sharp barrel-roll, then pulled back up into a wide loop. Suddenly a massive blast rocked into the rear of his fighter. Maarek wasn't consciously in his ship, though. Dimly he noted his shields collapsing, most of the energy hitting the rear of his fighter. His displays sent a shower of sparks all over him.

   "You tried that move before, my friend." The evil man gave a hearty laugh. "I was always better. Time to die."

   Maarek leveled out. Now. In one motion, he cut in full reverse thrust, turned the lateral port stabilizers to full and pulled back on the stick, sending his fighter into a disorienting and normally unrecoverable spin. A quad laser blast cut through the space he had been in. Dimly he heard a cry of surprise from Remmac as he passed from the man's view. Then he cut both engines back in, hard, wrenching the stick to hold straight. Dropping him right in his opponent's own wake trail.

   For a split instance, Remmac hesitated. It was all Maarek needed. No lock was necessary. "Bye bye," he whispered, his finger tightening on the trigger.

   Instantly an advanced concussion missile shot from its launcher and connected with the enemy fighter. At this close range, he could see a trail of ions momentarily connecting both ships. The missile, carrying such incredible velocity, punched through the rear of the craft and actually burst through inside. Then the missile detonated. Remmac's scream filled his headphones, then faded to static as his Avenger was completely obliterated. The explosion was so intense Maarek had to turn away to keep from being blinded.   

    "Yeeehaaa!" he screamed as his fighter passed through the widening explosion. His shields dropped as the flames enveloped his Avenger, and bits of metal clinked against his hull and viewport.

   He switched back over to the squadron's frequency. "Enemy down!" he yelled.


                "Sir, one of the techs wants to speak with you. He says he has a message from Chief Technician Howen," the comm officer stated.

   "I am a little busy at the moment,” Xar said to the man. “What is it?"

   "He says he just wanted to let you know that they weren't able to replace the detonator charge, so they used the old one instead..." The man grew silent as Xar, Dogar, and D’larit all stared at him at once. Xar felt a chill wash over him. Blankly he hit the commlink on his console, patching him through directly to the tech. "Excuse me?" he asked unbelievingly.

   "Sir, we couldn't get the ion device working, so the chief had it sent as it was."

   "Do you know what that means?" he practically yelled.

   "He said it was achieving practically the same goal..."

   "We did not want to destroy it!" he replied angrily. "That is the difference between night and day! Call the ship back!"

   The tech's voice took on a panicked tone. "Uh-oh... Uh, sir, we can't bring it back... The ship is on automatic, it was programmed not to receive any incoming transmissions after launch."

   "You idiots! Then we will have to destroy it. How long until the bomb goes off?"

   "Uh, actually it's set to go off after docking procedures have been established."

   "Great." He shut off the link. "Order Delta Squadron to destroy the transport now!" he shouted.


                "Good shooting, Four," Geren told Maarek evenly. "But now we've got a new objective. We've been ordered to destroy the modular conveyor lifting off from Delran Spaceport. Its target priority is number one. We can't let it fall into enemy hands."

   "What? Is there anyone onboard?" Nine asked.

Geren pulling around toward the space station hanging in orbit. The enemy Star Destroyer seemed to be closing in on it, as well. "Negative. The ship's on autopilot. Now let's get to it."

   "Got it, boss. Let's go."


                From the bridge of the Star Destroyer Devious Taryn Darl watched the battle unfold. Remmac had been a good pilot, but expendable. She was getting tired of his cocky attitude, anyway.

   "What're they doing?" she asked, staring in confusion at the scene in front of her. The NI pilots were actually moving into attack position on the transport. They wouldn't do that unless there was something onboard they'd rather destroy than let fall into her hands. She gave a slight smile.

   "We intercepted a message instructing their squadron to destroy the transport," one of the crew reported.

   "Why blow up their own cargo?" Taryn wondered aloud. "Unless they'd do anything to stop it from falling into our hands? Take us toward that ship! Fend off the attacking fighters, I want it disabled and brought onboard."

   "Are you sure that's..."

   "Do it!" she yelled.


                Xar watched the screen in horror as the blue NI dots were swarmed and pushed back by the red COMPNOR ones. "Our fighters are being driven off by the enemy Star Destroyer's presence. They can't get through," the comm officer explained what Xar already saw. "There's just too many of them. They can't get in and stay alive long enough to get a clear shot."

   “Tell them to stand down,” D’larit ordered.

   "Well, we tried," Dogar said with a sigh. "They must believe there’s something valuable inside."

   "Open a channel to the Star Destroyer," Xar told the officer. There was only one other thing to try.

   The screen flashed, again, into a view of the bridge of the Devious. And again, Taryn Darl held a self-confident smirk on her face. "What is it, Diktat? I'm very busy at the moment."

   "Darl, listen to me. Do not capture that ship."

   "Why not? Something onboard you couldn't possibly afford to lose? Or afraid we'll discover another of the your dirty little secrets?"

   "No, because there is a bomb onboard!" Xar shouted at her, his patience exhausted at last.

   The woman suddenly interrupted him by breaking into a hysterical laughter. "Oh, that's very good," she said between chuckles. "You'll say anything to protect your precious little empire."

   "I am not lying," he said evenly.

   "And why would you be telling me this if there really was a bomb onboard? No, my dear Diktat. We've already scanned the ship. We know its carrying new technology you've developed. You just can't stand having it fall into my hands. How pathetic. You are all doomed. When Imperial reinforcements arrive, you will all be finished."

   "Listen to me!” Then Xar broke off as the display went blank. He slammed his hand down on the control panel in frustration.

   "Ignorant woman," Dogar spat. "She deserves it."

   "Somebody's in for a court martial for this," Ryskar said dryly.

   "Show the ISD on the main display," Xar ordered. In response a view of the Devious appeared, the ship beginning to pull the Modular Conveyor into its expansive hangar via tractor beam.

   "It's all over now," Dogar murmured. "The countdown's already begun."


                Taryn watched the secondary monitor show the transport being brought inside and secured for boarding. To think that crazy Speaker thought her foolish enough to believe his ludicrous idea.

   "Ship's secured," the commodore pointed out. "Boarding now."

   "Excellent," she sighed. "Move us away from the planet now. There's not much more we can do until reinforcements arrive. The NI fleet could show up at any moment, and we must be prepared to jump out." Their starfighter units had been depleted, and the planet’s shields were back up. They were effectively at a stalemate. The Devious would have to move away from Tralaria in order to get past the jamming and get a signal out Corward.

   "Affirmative," her officer replied. "We're already underway."

   "Uh, sir, I think we've got a problem," one of the crew reported. "The boarding crew is reporting. The cargo manifest was hacked. There's nothing onboard, after all."

   "What?" she exclaimed. "That's impossible! We checked it!"

   A new voice spoke up. "Ma’am, I'm reading an energy spike building up inside the transport."

   Taryn Darl spun around to stare at the officer that had spoken. "It can’t be..." That pathetic moron hadn't lied... "Get it out of here, now!" she shouted.

   "Working on it!" the commodore answered, running over to the console the other officer.

   "It's going critical!" the officer shouted.

   Taryn watched the secondary display in horror. She hoped it wasn’t going to hurt…


                The blaring alarms in the Devious’ hangar bay were nearly deafening as the crew started to work on removing the ship from its docking position. People were running around everywhere, rushing to complete their tasks or trying to get away from the blaring alarms emanating from the ship itself and the hangar around them. One crew member stopped to watch, mesmerized, as the transport's alarms suddenly stopped and all its exterior lights began flashing.

   "No one can defeat the Eyes of Elfodd," an electronic-sounding, recorded voice came over the ship's external speakers. "The Eyes of Elfodd are the future of the galaxy!"

   Then a bright light seemed to emanate from the ship. Time slowed, as a line of light covered his vision, growing, spreading out to consume everything...


                 A massive explosion ripped through the Devious, destroying the centerline in a huge fireball. The incredible force of the blast actually propelled bow of ship forward and away from the rest of the vessel. The explosion engulfed the rest of the ship, obscuring it from view. Then a bright flash emanated from the center of the flames as the ship's solar-ionization reactor went critical. A second, much more powerful explosion decimated the rest of the ship, a double-shockwave spreading out from the center of the temporary supernova. The wave spread out, the explosion slowly dissipating into a cloud of dust and gas. Moments later, nothing remained of the Imperial Star Destroyer but a billion speckles of space dust.


                                                *                                              *                                              *




                Speaker's Office

                Senate Hall

                1320 Hours


                Sector Admiral D’larit grinned as he watched the Diktat load his things into a heavy carry-bag. "What a way to start a term in office, wouldn’t you say?”

   Xar paused to look up at Ryskar, giving a short laugh. "Yeah, I guess you are right. But next time I think will let someone else handle this."

   Ryskar nodded. "So you're heading back to Varnus then?"

   The dark-haired man nodded. Ryskar could see the tiredness in his eyes, and he hoped he wasn’t burning out yet. His term had just begun, and he had nearly six months to go until elections would be held again.

  "I need to get back," Xar stated. "There is still a lot of work to do there. Lots of things to decide." He stared ahead at nothing, as if seeing something else. "Besides, I need time to rest a bit,” he whispered.

   “You, rest? Never,” Ryskar said, and they both smiled.

   "Well you've got to admit it’s been crazy so far. I wonder what's in store for us the next few months. Who would have thought we would make it this far?”

   "Actually, I admit did," Ryskar said candidly. "But it really is a good note to get started on. The whole city's in celebration. The entire NI is breathing a collective sigh of relief. We've gotten rid of virtually all the spies and other disloyalties we knew were here. We've defeated our biggest threat yet, and have established ourselves as a separate, sovereign government."

   “True. Now if we can just lay low for a while longer, we will be solidified and cohesive enough to stand proudly out here.”

   “Agreed. And that reminds me: are you sure it’s safe to go back? What about those would-be assassins?”

   Xar looked back up at him and shook his head. “Alyx and Gaius are doing a good job ratting them out. With their failure here, I am confident we have them on the run now. Besides, if I cannot survive on my own home world, where else could I?”

   Ryskar nodded knowingly. He missed his home on Thyferra, too, but he expected the intrigues there would make Varnus look like a model of peaceful society. “I’m sure things will be quiet until the next Senate session,” he conceded. “And I’m sure you have a Jedi Order that needs attending to. How is that proceeding, if I may ask?”

   “Progressing fast. The Palace has been totally rebuilt, along with most of the city, and we have decided to launch several houses out of the main body of the Order, not just old Ar’Kell. Our numbers are growing and our own Jedi are getting stronger. New members are joining every week. In fact, I am surprised there are so many Force-Sensitives in Epsilon Sector. It is almost as if there is a strong history of Jedi presence here.”

   Ryskar nodded. He’d lost a few of his officers to Xar’s Jedi, as well, when the members discovered they could learn to use the Force. He didn’t resent it though; the more Jedi the NI had, the better. They were, ultimately, the best defense they had against potential threats. “I am very glad of your work on Varnus, Xar.”

  “Thank you,” the other man said, looking surprised and sincere. “How about your own fleet?”

  Ryskar smiled. “We’re ready for anything. If anything else threatens the NI, I promise you the DLSF will be the first to respond.”

   “I am glad to hear that. It is my hope that the various factions within the NI will soon reach the point where they act not as individual groups, but in unity one cohesive government.”

   “That day is coming, Xar,” Ryskar assured him. “Just wait for it. It’ll take time to bring some of the other leaders around.”

   The door opened again behind Ryskar, and he turned as Maarek Stele entered. He exchanged a friendly salute with the man, who walked up to the desk, grinning.

   "Afternoon," he said. "I hear Mathis' come out of his coma."

   Xar nodded. "The doctor said he is going to be fine. Maybe better than ever. When I told him everything that happened after he awoke, he asked me why we hadn’t saved any for him.”

   "That's Mathis," Ryskar agreed.

   "Good flying out there, Maarek," Xar told him. "I heard you got Remmac."

   Maarek nodded. "Yeah, that score's been settled. And I think I may have found some candidates for that squadron I'm forming. Delta Squadron's got some pretty good guys. With training, they could be really good."

   "You will have to talk to the Senate about taking their guardian squadron," Ryskar said, smiling. "They're practically heroes now. As are you, I understand. You've proved your worth - and loyalty - to just about everyone, now. Glad to have you with us." He extended his hand, which Stele shook heartily.


   Ryskar turned to look at Xar. “Have a safe journey back to Varnus – both of you. I’ll see you again in about a month.”

   Xar shook his hand also. “I am sure we will have many positive things to report. There is a bright future ahead for all of us.”

   “Until that time, then.”


   With that the three comrades parted ways, heading out to solidify their own units – and return to business as usual – for a few months of relative peace and quiet. No more word was heard from COMPNOR or from the Imperial Remnant, reassuring the NI leaders that they were safe and secure in their haven in Epsilon Sector. But not everything was as smooth as they might have hoped.


                                                *                                              *                                              *


                Grathkar Korealis smiled. Not because of the after-action reports that he received from the few survivors of the attack on Varnus and his agents on Tralar. His losses had stung, certainly. But the object before him more than made up for the entire cost of the operation. While his main forces had attacked Varnus openly, a secret force had broken into the treasure vaults and taken a single, special artifact. His new artifact. Yes, the Holocrons and Null Spheres and other gadgets secreted away there were interesting, but nothing compared to what was before him. The Scepter of Karanishma, with the ability to give a Jedi sight across space incalculable, to see the past, the present, a thousand possible futures. His pathetic forces didn't understand the scope of their victory; they thought they'd lost. But oh no, they'd won a great victory this day. The loss of most of his resources could be made up; he already contacted a powerful pirate group for a prospective alliance. He chuckled that that thought, and couldn't stop. Yes, dire days were indeed ahead for the New Imperium. He cackled harder. His men stared at him wide-eyed, probably wondering why he could be laughing after such a tragic loss. Probably thinking he was insane. The thought made him laugh harder still. Tears rolled down his cheeks, but he couldn't stop. He didn't stop for hours.


 The End of

 Grave Affairs


 Written by Joshua Ausley

 Copyright 1999


Next in The Return: The Search for Kurt

                The first major NI Run-on story, this story involves the Jedi's search for the former Warden, Kurt. Having left in search of what was rumored to be the last untouched Sith Temple, he mysteriously vanishes, as does the search party sent to retrieve him. It's up to the Jedi Warden Nico and a handpicked team of Jedi to find how deeply the intrigue goes. Passing through multiple harrowing experiences, from a run-in with the Ssi-Ruuvi to capture by an elite servant of the Emperor, the team will uncover the truth behind Kurt's disappearance... and have their first major encounter with an Altarin'Dakor Jedicon Warrior!


And following in The Return:

 Glimpse of Shadows

                The deranged Doctor Borowen and the maddened Dark Jedi Master Estod have teamed up with a powerful, evil being known as Turles. Their goal: to gain Immortality. And it will take everything that the SoH has to stop them.