“Across the reaches of the galaxy,

through seas of black stars,

rivers of whispering black shadow

from the Republic’s ancient past.

Evil history we had thought forgotten.” 

Master Ooroo, oldest recorded Jedi

Before – 2 years prior to the Return

   Xar heard footsteps behind him as he strode through the corridor outside. Feeling a burst of anger, he spun around, and, finding Maarek standing there, gave him a dark look. "I thought I told you to go to Medlab," he warned. 

  Maarek hesitated, as if considering whether or not to leave. Then his expression became resolved. "Sir, thank you for believing me. I did see that ship out there." His voice was formal, yet uncertain, shaky. Xar had never heard him talk like that before. There was something strange in his voice. Almost... fear.

   Xar nodded. "I know you did, Maarek. The question is who... and what... were they? And what do they want?"

   Maarek shook his head. His voice was shaky. "I... don't know, Xar. But I'm afraid. I felt like a gnat beside a rancor. Either they didn't notice me, or I wasn't even enough of a threat to acknowledge. And there was this scream, a horrible, piercing scream in my head... I've never been so terrified in my life."

  Then Xar realized how shaken Maarek really was. Embarrassed at his earlier anger, he stepped forward to comfort the other man. "Maarek... It is all right. I do not know what could have caused that, perhaps some kind of tremor through the Force, or a deep-buried phobia you might have. But do not jump to any conclusions. Whoever they are, they are obviously way beyond our technological level. If they decide to show themselves to us, then they will. Until then, there is little we can do to stop or hinder... whatever they are up to out there. But if they want to establish contact, we will be ready and waiting."

   Maarek’s eyes met his, and Xar saw dark pools that reflected his own face. "I hope that doesn't happen, Xar. I don't know why, it's just my gut instinct. But I've learned to trust my instincts. Nothing good will come of this. Something is coming, and it's going to affect all of us." – From Awakenings

* * *

“It is time to remove the last obstacles

to peace, prosperity, and real power,

such as has not been seen in the galaxy

since the days of legend.” – Emperor Palpatine

Now – 10 days before the Return


Planet Haven

Varnus Quadrant, Epsilon Sector

1900 Hours Local Time

The lone figure walked across the dusty streets of Tranquility, the largest of the cities on Haven. Settled and named by refugees from an ancient trading federation, the dry, almost desert world had become its namesake; if not a paradise, a place of peace and freedom for the hardy farmers and colonists who lived there. Its people clung to their simple, selfless way of life, forgoing the extravagant luxuries the rest of the galaxy strove day and night to obtain. They enjoyed life, love, and freedom, and opted to stay separate from galactic affairs, including the current conflict between the New Imperium and the New Republic for control of the system. Located on the border of both governments in one of the most contested areas of space, it was hard to stay out of the affairs of others. But both sides had respected the people’s wishes. Haven was declared neutral, and its people were content. 

    The figure wrapped his worn parka more tightly around himself, pulling his scarf back over his nose and mouth. Not because of the temperature – Haven was a warm, even a hot planet – but to better conceal his features. Unlike the others, he’d come here of necessity, forced into his hermitage because of his past. Many had come to Haven to get away, for personal peace and quiet; politicians, retired or injured officers, and fleeing families from the Empire or other governments. But he was different, and at first he hadn’t felt like he’d belonged here. The pace of life, the attitude of the colonists here, mostly families, hadn’t suited him. But, gradually, he’d felt himself going over to their way of thinking. Their simple, honest way of life had intrigued and invited him. Now, after nearly a year here, he almost considered himself one of the Haveners. The other thirty-five years of his life, and the events that had happened during them, were as if they never happened, as long as he was here. This was his home: peace. 

    A sparse population of passersby mulled along the streets, most donned in simple, worn, earth-colored clothing like he himself wore. Even the capital city had few buildings over three or four stories. The sun shone low over the tops of the buildings, illuminating the streets in a surrealistic red glow. He, like most others, was going home after a day’s work in the fields.

    Suddenly he paused, seeing two figures moving along the sidewalk near him. A woman, and a small boy, dressed simply, strolling along with smiles on their faces. Each had dirty, sandy-blonde hair and dressed in plain, unremarkable clothing. Neither seemed aware they were living in poverty, but they looked content nonetheless. Suddenly, the boy tripped over an uneven section of the sidewalk, nearly fell. But his mother’s hand reached out and caught him, pulled him back up. 

     “Be careful, Juenor,” the mother said softly, straightening the boy and brushing him off. She looked down at her son, her sun-darkened face weathered from years of care.

     As the boy looked up at his mother, his face split into a grin, his wide, dark eyes shining in the sunlight. “Thanks, mommy. I love you.” 

     “I love you too, honey,” the mother replied kindly, bringing the boy into her arms and hugging him firmly. Then the boy took her hand, smiling widely, and pulled her along, humming softly.

     The figure was surprised to find moisture in his eyes that hadn’t been there a moment before. After everything he’d seen, such a simple, innocent display of love touched him more deeply than he would have imagined. Yes, he finally understood what it was, after living here among these people the past four years. The entire galaxy was searching for riches, fame, and personal gain. But the Haveners were the richest of them all, for they had contentment, and love. Not fleeting happiness, but joy. That was why was here. He yearned for that kind of feeling. Perhaps it would come to him, some day.

     Turning back down the nearly empty street, he continued walking. The sun cast the shadows of his robed form long in front of him as he went. In the sky ahead, Haven’s sole moon, Refuge, was rising in the sky. He knew, as well, the capital ship that the New Imperium had dispatched as sentry for Haven would be moving overhead as well. Not just any ship, an Imperial-class Star Destroyer. In the claim that it was necessary in case the New Republic moved in to claim Haven as their own. Nonsense, of course. The NI wanted a foothold in the system for itself. Granted, it was also to protect against pirate attacks or whatnot, a possible yet highly improbable occurrence. Haven had nothing of value to steal. Whatever the reason was for the New Imperium’s ‘protection’, he wasn’t so sure it was really needed. He knew enough of the NI. Its goals, publicly at least, were honorable. Despite the implied name of the Empire, it was more like a stronger form of the Republic. But he knew politics and bureaucracy could corrupt and bring down any government, as they had with the Old Republic. And despite its goals and claims, the New Imperium was really no different from the New Republic itself. The two were so similar it must have only been confusion and a lack of communication that drove on the current conflict. They shouldn’t be fighting at all.

    Finally he came up to the white sandstone, single-story adobe he called his own, nestled among a group of two-story dwellings lined along a quiet side-street. He went up the short flight of steps, put his dirt-covered hand against the sensor plate, and entered as the door slid open sideways. He moved into the darkened, cool interior, the door closing behind him and the lights coming on to illuminate the simple living area.

     “Good evening, master,” an electronic voice spoke up from the far corner. Blinking lights and the whir of machinery and fans filled the caught his eye and ear. Then out of the shadows a thin, metal, humanoid form emerged. “I trust you’ve had a pleasant day?” the dull gray service ‘droid inquired.

    “Fine, Cozeeke,” the man replied dryly, pulling off his robes and hanging them on a wall peg. He paused to glance in the small mirror on the wall at his reflection. His face, roughly handsome, was decorated with a neatly-trimmed beard the same color as his dark brown hair, which had just begun to spring up its first, thin threads of gray. His prominent scar, there as always, cut its way from the center of his forehead, inside his right eye, across his nose and down his left cheek. His dark, brown eyes studied his worn face, eyes that had seen far too much in his lifetime.

    He turned away at last from his visage, moving deeper into the dwelling toward the kitchen in the back. The C-OZ K ‘droid moved along with him, snatching a stack of letters from the small caf table in the living room. “Master, here is today’s mail. I’ve prepared dinner; it’s in the preserver.” 

     The man nodded, taking the letters, and went into the kitchen. The droid remained behind, ready if called upon. Unlike most droids of his type or personality, Cozeeke didn’t ramble on incessantly or wish for constant conversation. In fact, the droid was a relatively quiet figure, and had been a valuable companion for him ever since he’d come by it a few years ago. Or discovered, more like it. He’d never had Cozeeke’s memory wiped, so the droid had seen what he’d seen, been with him through good times and bad. It had a serious personality, and was really the only friend he had. Cozeeke was just about as human as droids could get.

    He glanced in the preserver, saw the meal waiting for him inside, and smiled. A loyal and useful companion as well, he thought. But he didn’t always restrict the droid to such menial tasks. When they’d come to Haven, Cozeeke had fully understood their reasons for being there, and had welcomed his new ‘house-droid’ persona as fully as any other he’d taken before. But he would never forget what the droid had done for him, the times his life had been saved. And, along with that, all the information stored within the droid’s memory cores.

    Sitting down at the small kitchen table, he glanced through the day’s mail. The letters were scribed To: Jac Railler, the name he’d taken when he’d moved to Tranquility. A simple name, for the simple life he now led. His old name was just a memory now. He glanced through the pile of useless messages from companies and the city, then his gaze finally rested on the last letter, one which he stared at silently. The outside was inscribed with an intricate, looping symbol. He opened the letter, briefly scanned its contents, then got up and left the kitchen. He quickly told Cozeeke about the letter’s contents – his companion deserved at least that knowledge – and moved down the small hall into his bedroom. He opened the closet, and the small chest inside, and placed the letter there. Then he closed the chest and locked it, ignoring the long cylindrical shape which rested among a pile of papers and other artifacts. He secured the closet and then returned to the kitchen. Pushing the letter out of his mind, he went to the preserver and retrieved his dinner.

* * *

Jedi Master Mathis Organa stood at the railing of the balcony on one of the palace’s upper floors, facing east. The sun was about a hand’s length above the horizon, rising into a near cloudless sky, bathing the sky above in a progression of orange to blue. And there, barely visible at about twenty kilometers off, stood a massive cone shape jutting into the Varnusian sky, distinctly out of place compared to buildings shaped to accommodate people. Mathis sighed. A bad omen, that. What that crazy alien Malphunoc had intended to do with the device, apparently a giant planetary repulsor, he had no idea. They were just fortunate they had stopped him in time. The deluge of scientists that had descended around the thing after its sudden appearance in a flat plain of grass hadn’t been able to figure out the slightest thing about how the thing worked or how to operate it. So there it just sat, an enormous eyesore, and a potential draw for other power hungry forces out there.

    Turning from the view, he walked back into his office, letting the outside screen slide shut behind him. Enough with the strange artifact. He had to put his mind on matters at hand, consider all the possibilities that might come from the meeting this morning. When they announced the full truth of the Elfodd Contingency, the truth about the Force, and the path that they were going to take as a Jedi Order.

    Only earlier in this year had they actually received a full, intact copy of the Contingency, a massive Jedi Holocron in the shape of a simple, hardbound book. But actually discovering how to use it, how to delve into its secrets, had taken months. Once completed, the Holocron had revealed a simple truth, yet one so fundamentally different to the established thinking of the Force throughout the galaxy that it had shaken even the open-minded Mathis and Xar to their core. And now soon it would the entire Jedi Division, as well. Would the members be able to adjust to the change? Could they open their minds and accept the concept of this, what they had started to dub the ‘True Force’? Moreover, would everyone be able to use this new way of thinking to tap into the Force and the far greater power that it offered? Too many questions, and only one way of knowing.

    Glancing briefly at the holo on his desk of a sunset beach on his home planet of Alderaan, forever lost, he took up his Jedi cloak and marched out of his office. Time for the meeting. Let come what may, the New Imperium was about to take a step in a new direction.

The New Imperium Jedi Division’s Jedi Council sat in a semicircle facing the stage of the audience chamber, where Mathis stood alongside the Grand Master, with Jedi Master Alyx Misnera on Xar’s other side. In the chairs facing them were Nico Flygras, Kiz Thrakus, Vynd Archaron, Gaius Adonai, Emil Beli, and former Grand Master Chandel. Behind them sat the other leaders and members of Houses Ar’Kell, Vortigern, and Aurora, including Draken Ar’Kell, Omega Kira, Amleth Uiara, Sturm Brightblade, Neres Warjan, Jacob Skipper, and others. The remaining members would be watching this on the live holocast throughout the palace and beamed to the other NI member factions throughout the New Imperium. Grand Master Xar Kerensky sat behind the counter, his hands together in front of him. For this announcement the honors had been given to Mathis, though how much of an honor it was, Mathis couldn’t be sure.

    Interestingly enough, Icis Novitaar, the enigmatic, self-proclaimed ‘Traveler’, the one who had brought the truth of the Elfodd Contingency and the secret of the True Force to Xar himself, was standing near a potted plant in a corner nearby, for once choosing to remain visible, though distancing himself from the meeting as if he had nothing to do with it at all. Though of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Even accessing the Contingency’s Holocron would have been beyond them except with Novitaar’s help, and it was Novitaar who had originally taught Xar how to reach out and access the True Force. Only then had Xar, in turn, shown Mathis, and Misnera, and a few others in the Council.

    Beside him, Xar cleared his throat, snapping Mathis from his thoughts and prompting him to continue.

    “Therefore,” Mathis said in a voice loud enough for everyone in the room to hear clearly, “the Grand Master, myself, and the Jedi Council have decided to officially release the details of the Elfodd Contingency to the New Imperium as a whole. Sparing the finer points, which can be perused at your leisure, I would like to explain now the important news contained in the Contingency’s Holocron, its implications, and our new philosophy as Jedi.”

    Then he began, explaining exactly what he and Xar had worked out to say a week before. The secret held in the Elfodd Contingency was simple: The Force is one, with no light or dark aspect leaning it one way or the other. The history of the Jedi, going back further in the Contingency’s Holocron than any before discovered, revealed a time when Jedi had had no concept of a ‘dark side of the Force’.  The ‘dark side’ as it was known, began to be referred to when Dark Jedi came out of the Sith Empire attempting to conquer the galaxy using a mixture of the Force with Sith Magic. In response, the other Jedi, rather than become tainted like the Sith, had chosen to abandon emotion and the full power of the Force to save themselves during the conflict. Afterward, the leaders of the Jedi had decided this philosophy was safer, for both the Force users and the galaxy at large, and came about the same time the Jedi decided to keep peace and order throughout the galaxy.

    “In other words,” Mathis concluded, “whether or not your actions are light or dark, good or evil, depends on your heart, and how you use the Force, not in what particular ‘side’ of it you use. As you know, since we all came here to Varnus, we have no longer been teaching our students and advocates to use the ‘Dark Side’ of the Force, and we have shunned the teachings that were forced upon us back in the Dark Brotherhood. Now, at this time, we are going to completely renounce all teaching of the Dark Side, and announce a change of path to follow what we have termed the ‘True Force’.

    “This means a personal decision for each and every one of you,” he continued, glancing at the many sets of eyes in the room. “You will all have to choose whether or not to not only accept this philosophy about the Force, but also to turn from any use of our former teachings and to learn to tap into the true well of power available in the Force, as the Grand Master and I have learned. This process may be hard for some of you, and may involve re-learning much of your use of the Force. But, ultimately, it will result in a much freer and cleaner access to the Force, along with another benefit – a dramatic increase in your ability to access the Force. Both the Grand Master and I are proof of this. We have both seen large increases in power, as promised.” He paused, glancing around the room once more. “That is all. This proclamation will go into effect immediately. We will now answer any specific questions you may have.”

    Immediately the room erupted into a low buzz of whispered conversation. The announcement had not come as a surprise to most, considering the display of power that Xar and Novitaar had shown during the battle against Malphunoc. But to others throughout the New Imperium, the news would be shocking, a change of values right down to the core, away from the old Imperial way of thinking. Others, including some Jedi who had known about the upcoming changes, took this time to voice their opinions, or dissent.

    “Grand Master Kerensky,” former Grand Master Chandel spoke up after clearing his throat. “Thank you for the comprehensive and candid briefing.” He nodded to Xar. “I would like to take this moment to announce to the others what we had agreed on previously.” He waited until Xar’s return nod before continuing, this time addressing the others throughout the room. “My fellow Jedi, I feel it is time for me to leave the active scene and turn to more private affairs. It’s not that I disagree with the Grand Master on this, but personally, I’ve lived a bit too long as I am, and I don’t think this old dog will be able to change quite so easily.” He gave a chuckle at that, as the rest of the Jedi gathered put their attention on him. “Therefore I will be retiring, probably back to Erebria, but I truly wish you all the best in your new path, and endeavor. That is all,” he finished.

    Finally Xar spoke up. “I speak for all of us in that we wish you the very best,” he said with a candid expression, addressing the former Grand Master. “We cannot repay you for what you have done to help build this Jedi Order and the New Imperium. May you be successful in whatever future endeavors you may embark upon.”

    At that, the buzz of whispers in the room continued, though it seemed there were no outstanding questions or issues to be raised. Mathis supposed the members would all cope with the announcement, and once began actual adapting and training in the True Force, there would be no regrets among any of them. Like he’d said, it was like being set free.

    Then Adept Emil Beli walked up to the counter in front of Mathis, Xar and Alyx. His eyes had dark rings around them, like he hadn’t slept lately, and his expression was different from the calm, stolid Weapons Master of Ar’Kell he had known a couple of years before. “Xar, Mathis,” he began, speaking crisply. “Do you really believe all this you just said? How can you turn your backs on all that we’ve been taught until now and chase after some new way of thinking? How can you deny the power and teachings that we’ve learned as Dark Jedi? How can you deny who we are?”

    Before Mathis could answer, Xar cut in. “We are not Dark Jedi anymore, Beli. Since we came here we have not been using those teachings. This is just a formality; the real ties were broken two years ago. We are not a Dark Jedi organization.”

    Beli’s eyes widened, and seemed to Mathis to almost glow with heat. “I for one have not abandoned my teachings,” he said, passion in his voice. “You have allowed these new teachings to brainwash you, Grand Master. I’m sorry; I can’t accept this ‘True Force’. I am a Dark Jedi and I will always remain so.”

    “I am sorry to hear that, Beli.” Xar looked up at the man. “But the decision is yours.”

    “Are you sure you’re all right, Beli?” Mathis asked. The man seemed on edge, as if something else was troubling him, also. 

    “I’m fine, Mathis,” Beli countered. “But forgive me, Grand Master, but I cannot adhere to these new teachings. I will continue on my own way, as I have until now.”

    “Very well, Beli. You are free to make your own decision,” Xar stated.

    “Then consider it made.” With a last, intense look, Beli turned on his heel and left the room.

    “That could be trouble,” Mathis murmured to Xar beside him. “He carries weight with some of the apprentices, people from the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet.” 

    “We did not expect this transition to be without losses,” Xar said. “but I do expect it to be peaceful. Beli will deal with it properly, or he will be dealt with.”

    Mathis nodded, silently realizing just how hardened the Grand Master was becoming. He supposed the pressures of leading such a large, diverse group and making decisions of this scale required such hardness. But how much more the man could take until he broke, Mathis couldn’t guess. He didn’t know how much he could take, either. 

    Altogether the Jedi Division lost over a dozen members due to the change. All of those who rejected giving up their powers agreed to leave Varnus and establish themselves elsewhere. But while concerned over the loss, Mathis’ thoughts kept going back to Xar’s mental condition. He just knew that if something happened to Xar, this whole thing was likely to fall apart. He just had to convince himself that would never happen…

* * *

Varnusian Productions Presents:

Senate Complex

Tralaria; NI Capital

1430 Hours

Commander Maarek Stele sat in one of the spacious lounges inside the main Senate Complex, leaning against the bar and idly fingering the red-colored drink in front of him. Through the lounge’s panoramic view outside, through floor-to-ceiling windows, he could see the bustle of activity that occurred on the New Imperium’s capital world. Personal craft sped along the streets below, eager to reach their destination and escape the heat of summer. Tall, flowering palms swayed in the breeze, standing upright next to the streets and the towering skyscrapers of the business district. Between the buildings he could make out a gorgeous, frothing turquoise ocean in the distance. He’d returned to Tralaria for the first time in the past nine months since his last visit and the COMPNOR incident, and much had changed. The planet had really been built up, and the New Imperium was booming. 

    He turned back to look up at the holoscreen hanging from the ceiling over the bar. The bar was busy this time of day, and a myriad of species lounged throughout the room or sat up at the bar. But the only thing to show on the screens mounted throughout the room was the current feed from the Senate building itself, the official governmental channel and news reports. The current populace didn’t seem to like that too much.

    Maarek grunted as he watched the end of another Senate session, his untouched drink warming in front of him. Another day of seemingly endless bantering, tabling of bills, and generally getting nothing done. The camera focused on Diktat Ryskar D’larit as he descended the podium in the center of the chamber, which looked like a miniature of the main galactic Senate on Imperial Center. 

    The screen cut away from the Senate session and changed to a news update. Maarek sat and kept watching as the screen flashed into a logo and a series of music played, then showed the image of a news reporter recounting current news throughout the New Imperium.

    “And another Senate session ends with the tabling of a bill designed to create a New Imperium House of Officers,” the newswoman reported. “With delays, counter-proposals and filibustering the designated timeslot for the bill had already passed, and will have to be re-written and submitted before it can be brought to the floor of the Senate once again.”

    “Kriffing bureaucrats,” someone beside Maarek muttered, then launched into a series of expletives describing the genetic flaws of said governmental figure-types. Maarek coughed and ignored him, hoping the wrong people didn’t hear his insulting remarks.

    “In other news,” the reporter continued, the screen flashing to a view of space and a group of planets surrounding a hot white star. “It appears the New Imperium – New Republic conflict over the Vonsam Star System is drawing to a close at last. After nearly a month of tactical and strategic combat in both space and on-planet, both the New Imperium and New Republic forces in the system have been heavily battered. Yet NI citizens can rejoice, for it is the New Imperium that has emerged victorious after a harrowing final series of missions involving even the New Imperium flagship, the Super-Star Destroyer Independence.” The screen changed to show footage of a fleet engagement, in which dozens of fighters looped and circled around several capital ships, including a Star Destroyer and a Mon Cal Cruiser. Maarek felt a pang of guilt at not being there, helping the NI out. But instead he’d had to come to Tralaria to get his personal Squadron and NI commission straightened out. He would much rather be in the cockpit of a newly-commissioned TIE Avatar, wrecking havoc on New Republic forces. Well, if things worked out, he would be soon enough.

     The onscreen newswoman continued. “The New Imperial Senate has officially commended the Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere for his generous deployment of resources for the Vonsam Campaign. An award ceremony will be held Sunday evening for those who were distinguished in the conflict. Meanwhile, a tentative peace has been instilled as New Republic forces have withdrawn from the system, and debates have begun within the Vonsam government as to whether or not the system should remain at its neutral stance. A New Imperium protection force will remain in the system while most of the fleet withdraws as well. It seems the campaign will inevitably continue inside another star system, though details have not yet been released as to which system that might be.”

    “I don’t see why we keep prodding so gently along the border,” Maarek muttered stiffly. “I’d strike deep into their territory, defeat them with one decisive blow. Strike your enemy where they least expect it, where their weakness lies and their misconceptions of security keep them in a false assumption of reality…” He caught himself before bantering further. He realized with some shock what he’d been doing. He was talking like Grand Admiral Thrawn. Repeating one of his lessons Maarek had studied while being the Admiral’s Wing Commander. Copying the man he’d wanted to desperately, at last, to be rid of. Had Thrawn really rubbed onto him that much? 

     The news report changed then, to a close up of the other side of NI Territory and a large, bright red sun. “Meanwhile, the situation in the Satyr System continues to escalate. The NI Senate has dispatched the Mark-II Imperial Star Destroyer Vortex to guard the system and the fragile planet Haven from impending occupation by the New Republic. Protection of the civilian colony has been made top priority. This is due in part to fear of repercussions in the system because of the New Imperium’s victory at Vonsam.” A close-up of the brown and cream colored world filled the screen, and showed a far-off image of the wedge-shaped hull of the Vortex as it cruised through space in orbit. 

     Maarek disagreed with the woman’s words. It didn’t sound right that the New Republic – the Rebels who’d fought to overthrow the Empire – would knowingly attack a world of civilians that had officially been declared neutral by both parties. It didn’t make sense; while the NR might have unknowingly caused a lot of collateral damage during the war, such a blatant display would ruin the entire New Republic’s reputation and send the senate into an uproar. The situation didn’t make sense. There had to be something else going on, to cause the NI to send a Star Destroyer into the system and violate the neutral zone. The thought sent a chill into him. 

    But the next words of the screen didn’t just chill, they turned him cold. As the news program ended and a popular interview-style talk show began, a window popped onto the screen showing a lone Tie Defender, circled in red with a line across the middle. The words “Convertible hero or loose cannon?” appeared across it.

    “Commander Maarek Stele,” a new woman began to Maarek’s dismay, “made Wing Commander by former Diktat Xar Kerensky, and now in charge of the New Imperium Jedi Division’s fighter groups, has been an enigma and a mystery for many since he joined over a year ago. He’s kept quiet on the Division base world of Varnus, training a special squadron for privateer-like runs throughout the New Imperium, giving him virtually complete freedom with his forces. But is this a wise decision? We let you respond. Simply dial in on your comm system and record your feelings on this…” 

    The woman’s voice was cut off by Maarek’s yell of surprise. His full glass of liquid smashed against the screen and broke, sending red rivulets streaming down its face. “Stupid, frigging media!” he yelled. He spun around, hearing how silent the room had gone. He glared around at the various occupants, many of whom realized with shock on their faces that the man in question was standing there in front of him. The disgruntled man who’d sat beside Maarek, berating the senate for its actions, was staring wide-mouthed up at him, now. With a last furious glance over the room, Maarek turned and stormed out of the lounge.

    As fate would have it, he hadn’t gotten far down the hall when a voice called his name. He stopped and turned to see Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar approaching, still dressed in formal uniform from the Senate session. Since the circular Senate chamber was designed as the centerpiece of the building, someone inside could access many parts of the huge building with relative quickness and ease. Maarek stopped and waited for the man to approach, as the daily bustle of activity, a myriad of people and species moved around him on their way. 

    “Good thing I found you so quickly, Maarek,” the Admiral said as he approached. Maarek could see his generous covering of dark hair slightly graying with age. “Were you in a hurry?”

    “Just venting my jets,” Stele replied. “I watched the session. And the trash the media was spilling about the decision.”

     The man nodded knowingly. “Yes, well, at least you got what you wanted. Your own commission.”

     “About time,” Maarek muttered under his breath. He wasn’t angry with Dogar for the time involved in the decision, just at the system itself. There had to be a quicker way. He wondered if the Senate could get anything done if things really counted, when an emergency came. “Not fast enough to help out at Vonsam,” he said less strongly.

      “Unfortunately, no. But you’ll be there for the next fight, I assure you.” Dogar cleared his throat. “Speaking of which, what do you think about some Sim time later on this evening? After dinner, of course; I can’t fly on an empty stomach, you know,” he said with a laugh.

     Maarek smiled, but shook his head. Everybody wanted to fly with him – or against him – these days. “Afraid I have to get back to Varnus, tell my men the news. I still have to collect everyone on leave. Only a few are here on Tralaria.”

     The man nodded solemnly. “Well, maybe next time then. I doubtless have some obscure official matter or appointment to take care of at any rate. Probably one I haven’t even been told about,” he said, grunting.

      Just then a beeping noise sounded, and Dogar arched an eyebrow. “Speaking of which,” he said in an annoyed tone. Reaching down, he brought up his commlink. “What is it?”

     “Admiral, an Ambassador is here to see you. He says his appointment had been pushed back, but he’s on a schedule, sir. I think you should see him.”

     Dogar’s eyes narrowed, and he glanced at Maarek. Stele could make out the man’s words as he mouthed the aide’s last sentence. I think you should see him?

     He cleared his throat, then hit the comm again. “Very well. Tell him I’ll meet him in the officer’s lounge. I don’t want to sit at a desk all day today again.” 

     “Very well, sir.”

     Dogar shut off the comm and clipped it back to his belt, muttering something about finding a good Secretary like Brucmack. “The Diktat is so busy we Senators get all the runoff,” he said gruffly. “When you get back to Varnus, could you kindly tell Xar to come up here and relieve me for a while? I know he’s itching to get back in on the action.”

     Maarek laughed, shaking his head. “Frankly, sir, I don’t think he’d touch it with the butt end of a blaster rifle.”

     “Is that so? Hmm, maybe he has changed, like they say. Oh well.” He gave a quick salute, which Maarek smartly copied, then reached out to shake his hand. “Farewell, Maarek. Till I see you again on your next trip up here, keep your weapons hot and your shields at full.”

     Maarek returned the handshake and smiled. “Always, sir. Always.”

Dogar walked into his office and gave an involuntary snarl. His visitor was already inside, sitting upright in a chair facing his desk.  The man was tall, pale, and dark-haired, and his suit was way too neat for Dogar’s tastes. Everything about him reeked of a greasy, nasty worm, the kind he liked to squash with his boot on hot days. Like today.

     “I know you,” he said, walking around to the other side of his desk and sitting cautiously in his chair. The window behind him showed an expansive view of the ocean, but even its beauty couldn’t lighten his mood, for once. “Moren Zein. The mystery ambassador.”

     The man in front of him gave a smile that didn’t touch his dark eyes. Dogar had seen the man several times around the Senate Complex, though he had rarely had chance to talk to him. Diktat Ryskar D’larit didn’t like him though, and from what Dogar had heard of him, there wasn’t much to like, anyway. He had just appeared a few months ago, claiming to represent a powerful alien race that had helped the New Imperium by eliminating a pirate threat. But as far as Dogar knew, his claims were unfounded, and his attitude simply so arrogant and repugnant that nobody wanted to deal with him. Why any race would choose such a man as their representative, he hadn’t the slightest idea.

    “Fleet Admiral Dogar, it is a pleasure to speak with you,” the man said in a voice that indicated no pleasure whatsoever. “Thank you for your time. I heard about the battle at Vonsam. I understand the Rebels have been giving you trouble lately.” 

    “The New Imperium can more than take care of itself,” Dogar countered flatly. “The situation with the New Republic,” he said, stressing the proper name, “is very complicated and sensitive, and we are taking the utmost care with it.”

    “Nevertheless,” the man continued as if Dogar hadn’t even spoken. “I urge you to consider our aid in this matter. Strong the New Imperium may be, but it is still a fledgling government, in the relative early stages of formation. Too many… situations… could cause what you’ve begun to unravel. Chaos could ensue.”

    “Is that a threat?” Dogar asked darkly.

    The man laughed off Dogar’s comment as if brushing off a child’s words. “Perhaps I should be a little more direct in stating my intentions,” he said. “We wish to help you, not harm you. My associates are powerful, with powerful allies as well. It is in our interests to see the New Imperium prosper in this sector. You have already established order in this part of space, which is very good for all of us. We can do a great deal to help the New Imperium solidify it’s presence in Epsilon Sector.”

    “Please elaborate.”

    The man smiled again. “We can help you with your situations with the Rebels,” he said, making it sound simple as breathing air. “Our military might is more than capable of dealing with their forces in this sector.”

    Dogar leaned forward, studying the man. This was quite some claim to be making, especially for someone with as yet ambiguous relations with the NI. “How exactly are you able to do that? What military might would you be referring to?”

    “We have a large fleet, Admiral, lying just outside the sector. And I assure you, we have technology that would be of great interest to the New Imperium. If you wish, as a token of our goodwill, we could lend quite a helping hand to eliminating the Rebels’ presence from this sector.”

    “In exchange for what?” Dogar asked. The tone in the man’s voice was unmistakable. This was no mere boast he was making, he was dead serious. He truly believed what he was saying. Was he mad? Or could his words be true?

    “Well,” the man said tentatively, “Let us say for favors that can be decided later on. For now, we just ask that the New Imperium continue to control events in this sector and keep order.”

    Dogar gave a low harrumph and leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know whether to believe you or if I should get my ears cleaned,” he said sharply. “But I’m afraid you’re telling all this to the wrong person. Such an issue is not my decision to make, it’s the Diktat’s.” He didn’t really believe Zein’s claims, but there wasn’t much he could do. He didn’t want to shovel this onto Ryskar’s shoulders, but he had a full plate to take care of already. “You’ll have to talk to him. Then, if something comes of it, the Senate will take it up and discuss it.”
    Zein stared at him for a moment before nodding. “Very well. But I urge the Senate not to wait too long. Think on our offer. It won’t be available forever.”

    “Fine. But go through the proper channels, Zein,” Dogar said, letting a hint of force into his voice. “Don’t try to go behind the Diktat’s back like this again. If he decided not to talk to you, there was a reason for it. You will abide by NI laws while you are here.”

    Zein stood abruptly, apparently deciding this meeting was over. “I understand, Admiral. But I am disappointed to find you aren’t as… open… as we had hoped. I sincerely hope for your Intruder Wing’s sake, and that of the entire New Imperium, that you treat us with a little more welcome, and consider our offer carefully.”

    Dogar had had enough of threats. “I have a lot to do, Zein. I believe we’ve said all there is to say. Have a good evening.”

    With a last, glaring look, Zein turned on his heel and walked out of the room. Dogar repressed the urge to wring his hands together. He felt like he needed a bath.

Grand Master Xar Kerensky waited as his personal terminal sent a call through the Holonet to the New Imperium capital of Tralaria. After a few moments he was patched into the governmental network and ambassadorial channels. A few requests and several subalterns later, he was watching the waiting screen to the Diktat’s personal office.

     Finally, the face of the Speaker of the New Imperium came on-screen. Ryskar D’larit was a middle-aged man with a look of authority and experience in his eyes. Those eyes seemed a bit tired, of late. Xar knew the feeling; he felt that his own six-month tenure as Diktat had put more years on his shoulders as well, if not a few gray hairs on his head. The man must have a tremendous amount to deal with, these days. The NI was becoming a larger and more complicated thing every day.

    “Xar, good to see you. How’s the Division?”

    Xar gave a nod of respect, but familiarity, to the older man. “Ryskar. As good as can be expected, considering the announcement and reforms being made. But things are going well. Most of our members have adapted, and many have already converted to using the True Force exclusively. It is very encouraging. And Phoenix Technologies is about to unveil our new ship, the Starfire model. It is scheduled to undergo its maiden voyage next week.” The new design was something he was particularly proud of, and thankful to Walt Amason for designing and producing. It would be ideal for taking teams of Jedi anywhere in the sector they were needed, quickly and efficiently.

    “That’s good to hear,” the man replied. “Wish I could say there are such good happenings here as well.”

    “I heard the news,” Xar said. “That is what I called about. Beli left Varnus a few days ago. I did not expect he would go so far, though…” 

    The news had come in from the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet just that morning, followed quickly on the Holonet channels with the news. Emil Beli, an Admiral in the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet and one who had helped D’larit build the fleet after he came from Thyferra, had taken a battlegroup out of the fleet and was on his way out of the New Imperium territories. The news had shocked even Xar. 

    D’larit’s eyes narrowed in anger at the mention of the man’s name. “So far? It’s mutiny, that’s what it is!” he spouted angrily. “Nobody thought he would go this far. When I get my hands on him, he’ll wish he’d never left Minos Cluster, that’s for sure.” 

    “I am sorry, Ryskar,” Xar said candidly. “We will do whatever we can to help. I am sorry to say, our announcement may have exacerbated his issues with you and the DLSF. Beli considers himself a Dark Jedi and would not change his ideals.”

    D’larit gave another harsh sigh. “That’s as may be, but this problem lies inside the DLSF, at its core. In my absence I couldn’t take care of the fleet, and Beli didn’t like the way I was running it. He gained far too much power than he should have. If we catch him, he’ll be dealt with as a traitor, and those who mutinied with him.”

    Xar nodded. “I agree. However, I think it will be difficult to catch him. He is probably outside the NI by now.”

    “He’s headed towards the Unknown Regions, Delta Sector.” D’larit narrowed his eyes. “If he knows what’s best for him, he won’t be coming back out.”

    “We will keep an eye on things from this end of the sector,” Xar put in. “I just wanted to assure you that we do not support his actions at all.”

    A look of weariness finally came onto D’larit’s face. “I know. Don’t worry, Xar. It’s just another problem piling on top of a mountain of problems.”

   “Is it that bad? If there is anything I can do, let me know,” Xar offered.

   “Actually,” D’larit spoke up, “there is one thing. I need Nico back, Xar. I can’t watch after the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and with Beli gone, there’s no one competent enough to head the fleet. I hate to take one of your most valued Jedi, but Nico is a DLSF officer, and helped me get the fleet started. He’ll be in charge until I finish my term and can resume command.”

    Xar paused, fighting back an urge to deny the man’s request. He needed Nico Flygras, too. The man was currently the Warden, taking care of a lot of training, Force research, history, and had been useful in a number of missions that Xar had been unable to undertake himself. But he could hardly deny Ryskar his highest-ranking subordinate now that Beli had seceded from the fleet. Not for the first time, he regretted that so many Jedi had gone onboard the DLSF in the early days – but that was over and done with, now. No use dwelling on the past. “Very well,” he said with some reluctance. “I will inform Nico. I am sure he will be able to leave for Kolath within the week.”

    “Good, that’s all I ask,” D’larit said, sighing heavily. “That takes a weight off my shoulders. I’m sure the fleet will be in capable hands. That’s one less problem I have to deal with.”

    “Indeed. I am sorry to keep you so long, Ryskar. Perhaps I should leave you to take care of those other things.” Xar said. At the man’s nod, he added, “If you need anything else, just let me know.”

    “Thanks, Grand Master,” the Diktat said with a grateful nod. “I’m glad to have your support. I’ll be in touch. At least not all the news is bad. I will be giving a victory speech broadcast to the whole NI after our victory at Vonsam. Majere is to be commended for his actions.”

    “My congratulations to you, and him,” Xar said genuinely.

    D’larit nodded. “Finally, we seem to be getting things were they need to be. As you well know how hard that is.”

    Xar nodded. Keeping a new government together was hardly easy. Especially one consisting of many different fleets and factions, formerly independent of one another and self-governed. Sometimes getting day-to-day things done seemed a miracle in itself. “May the Force be with you,” Xar said.

    “And with you, Xar. Keep an eye out for the broadcast. I’ll see you on Tralaria next month for the Senate meeting.”

    “See you then,” Xar nodded. Then the Diktat reached up somewhere off screen, and the transmission ended. Xar sat back in his chair, thinking of all the different changes that were taking place. Yes, finally things seemed to be going somewhere. But he couldn’t help shake an uneasy feeling from the back of his mind. It all seemed just a little too good to be true…

* * *

Maarek Stele watched the ceremony from the back wall of the auditorium, as those officers who had distinguished themselves during the conflict at Vonsam stood one by one and received their medals and awards. The room was full of beings wearing military uniforms, the hodgepodge mixture of colors and styles that the various fleets within the New Imperium used. The most by far, however, were the gray uniforms of Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere’s Naval Fleet, who had been the primary participants in the battle.

     It was a good chance for Maarek to take stock of which pilots in the NI were exceptionally talented, or good in their abilities. At the head of the line was Colonel Rivian Donitz, Majere’s top Ace. And with good reason. With dozens of confirmed kills just in this recent conflict, he was the NI’s most decorated pilot, and to Maarek’s frustration, held even more kills than Maarek had in the NI so far. They had not met formally yet, much less flown together, but Maarek already could feel a rivalry spawning between them. Maarek knew that his reputation had preceded him; as a famous pilot, people expected him to perform. On the other hand, Donitz kept on making kill after kill, steadily climbing the ladder with a calm, no-nonsense attitude until he’d unexpectedly been named the most decorated pilot in the NI. But Maarek had plans for that to change, soon enough. He just needed someone to fight; that was the problem. Things had died down now that the NI had established its territory, and the situation with the New Republic was complicated. Neither side really wanted a fight, and aside from a few hot spots flaring up now and again, Maarek doubted there would be much threat of an all-out war. 

     Realizing where his thoughts had traveled, his chided himself. Only a fool would hope for conflict, or a war, he realized. Hopefully, the NI would keep on going exactly as it was, at peace and on friendly terms with its neighbors. That was, after all, the cause that had attracted Maarek to this place, and was what he claimed to be fighting for, now. If that meant he didn’t have to see actual combat anymore – well, so be it.

     Also, behind Donitz, was a plethora of other pilots, both representing Majere’s fleet and the others, including the Intruder Wing, Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and the Star Vipers. Some he knew by their call signs, others by their profiles. Narm Greyrunner was there, a very talented pilot from the IW, and was currently receiving a Golden Sunburst. He had scored numerous kills as well as doing an exemplary job as a Flight Leader. He would be perfect for the squadron Maarek had assembled, had he not belonged to another organization. That was the problem, Maarek thought. The NI was too disjointed – each group still looked out for its own interests first, although in principle their loyalty was ultimately to the unified government. If things ever changed, and the different organizations merged, formed into one single government and fleet – well, any loss in individual identity would be more than made up for in terms of unity and strength.

     As the ceremony winded down to its conclusion, Maarek checked his wrist chrono and saw that he’d need to hurry to make his scheduled flight back to Varnus. With a last glance at the pomp of the award ceremony, he turned away and made for the exit. 

* * *

Diktat’s Office

Senate Complex

Tralaria, 1330 Hours

“Sir, an Ambassador is here to see you.”

Diktat Ryskar D’larit looked up from his large desk, stacked high with datacards and sheets of flimsy, at the figure approaching him, working his way around past Brucmack. He was tall, dark-haired, and pale-skinned. Not the man he wanted to see today. He set the datapad he’d been studying back on the table and smoothed his own uniform Jacet, still left over from the Senate session, then stood. 

     “Moren Zein,” he said flatly. “I knew it was you when I got the call.” He gestured at the chair opposite him. “Sit down.”

    “Of course,” the man replied smoothly, his voice low and almost harmonic. “Thank you for admitting me.” He took the seat offered, and D’larit sat back down as well. The man stared at him with dark, penetrating eyes. 

    “Please do be brief, Zein. Do you have the information I requested out of you last time?”

    “It has been several weeks since we met,” the man replied coldly. “You have been avoiding me. I do not understand why.”

    “Forgive my frankness, but entertaining you when you won’t reveal any information regarding those you represent is just a waste of my time, Ambassador.”

    “I have told you, Diktat. My people are very eager to establish healthy relations with the New Imperium, but we are afraid we might… frighten you, for lack of a better term.”

    “We don’t frighten easily,” D’larit replied gruffly. That was all this Moren Zein was; slimy, coolly grafted words and veiled threats. 

    But in answer to D’larit’s response, the main raised his head and laughed heartily. A cold, heartless laugh, one that sent a chill through D’larit. Not pleasant at all.

     Irritated, as he often was with this man, D’larit tapped his fingers on the table. “Without enough information on your people, I can’t do anything for you.”

     The man’s laughter cut off as if it had never been. He stared at D’larit with those dark, black eyes. “Very well. I am prepared to reveal things about my government to you.” He leaned forward. “This is for your ears only, Diktat.”

     “That is for me to decide,” the Diktat replied tersely. “The New Imperium doesn’t just ally with every new faction on the space lanes. Now please; I’m all ears.”

    “What I have to say may surprise you, Diktat, but please listen until I am finished. I have a confession to make: the original data I gave you on my associates was falsified.”

    Why am I not surprised, thought Ryskar. However, what was surprising was Zein’s willingness to admit it, something he wasn’t used to hearing from diplomats.

    “We represent a government that is far more than one single race,” Zein continued. “In fact, we are a coalition of many races that has existed for many thousands of years. We come here to you from the spiral arm in the galactic rim. We are known as the Altarin’Dakor.”

   Ryskar tried emulating the sound of that name in his mind, listening with genuine interest, now. He had never heard the name, but he knew there were species and governments out there that the NI hadn’t made contact with yet. Zein had never been this forthcoming before about who he represented, or where their territory was. But things were about to get even more interesting.

    “My people are very ancient and powerful, Diktat. We were driven from our lands many millennia ago, but we have now strengthened ourselves once again and are now expanding throughout the stars. We have assembled a vast military that is capable of defeating any opponent we face. And we have expanded, incorporating many new peoples into our culture, our way of life. Unfortunately, some have not accepted our new rise to power, and we have had to eliminate some of our opponents by force.”

    Ryskar kept listening, a wary sense coming into his stomach. He didn’t want to believe what he was hearing, even now.

    “I am prepared to make you a very generous offer, Diktat. We are already gaining allies elsewhere throughout the galaxy. But your New Imperium is essential. You see, it is directly in our… way. I told you, I am not interested in what you can do for us. Indeed, we simply wish for you not to interfere while we continue our expansion. This is about what we can do for you. We have already given you one example of what we can do. Do you require another to settle the deal?”

    D’larit stared in disbelief. This man was clearly threatening the New Imperium. Moren Zein had first appeared about three months previous, when the NI had just moved into finish off the Blackhawk pirates operating out of the Caledon System. Instead, they’d arrived to find that every living thing in the system had been completely annihilated. Then Zein had appeared to D’larit and claimed responsibility for the event, claiming it as a gesture of goodwill and asking for an alliance straight off. D’larit had delayed and finally tabled the event until now, but it seemed the man wouldn’t take the hint. Ryskar still didn’t believe his preposterous claims. If these people were powerful enough to wipe out everything inside a star system, then they were definitely worth attention. But he had offered no proof that it was actually they who had done it. Moreover, even if it was true, their ‘gesture of goodwill’ involved the death of hundreds of people – pirates, yes – but living beings nonetheless. 

     “What do you mean?” he asked, guardedly.

     “You are currently fighting the New Republic, are you not? Perhaps we can do you another favor… To prove to you our intentions to help you. Perhaps the New Republic colonies on Firma, Shaghar, or Hague might interest you. Just choose the place, and it will be done. First, perhaps we could help you settle your dispute with the Rebels in the Satyr system. I understand the system is under your protection, but the Rebels consider it their territory. I am prepared to offer to remove this problem for you, in exchange for a simple agreement on your part to not interfere with our business in the sector.”

     The man’s eyes widened as D’larit stood up abruptly, knocking his chair over behind him. “That’s enough!” he said, his voice rough with anger he was feeling. “The New Imperium doesn’t accept bribes. “

    “It’s hardly a bribe, Speaker. We do this in a gesture of goodwill to you. We do not ask for money, or concessions. We are not mercenaries. We simply want your friendship – and alliance.”

    “At what price?” Ryskar countered. “You are not a friendly, tolerant government; you admit as much, yourself. The New Republic – we no longer call them ‘Rebels’ – are a legitimate government with much the same ideals and goals as ours. We simply have a misunderstanding, which is causing our current situation. We intend to deal with them peacefully in the future. And we certainly don’t want you escalating the situation!”

    “Ah yes,” Zein said in a tone that made Ryskar’s skin crawl. “I know of your non-confrontational attitude towards the Rebels, officially. But deep down, you would rather have them out of your way, would you not? They are disrupting your presence in this sector. It is preferable to us to see the New Imperium in control of this sector instead. Perhaps, one day soon, you could supplant their government entirely.”

    Ryskar looked at the man in total disbelief. Was he truly mad, to make such claims? He spoke as if he could destroy the New Republic whenever he wanted.

    “Listen, Zein,” he said forcefully. “You’re out of line here, making such ridiculous claims, threatening the New Imperium and trying to incite us against the New Republic. You want to wipe out another star system? Go ahead. But stay out of the Satyr system. And while the NI may win or lose its battles, we do it fairly. I’ve heard enough, Ambassador.”

     “Diktat.” The simple word made him stop. “Perhaps I could interest you in another way.” The look in his eyes drew Ryskar in an inexplicable way. He moved forward slowly. The man reached inside his fine jacket and produced a small pad, which he laid on the table. He activated something on it, because a holographic image sprang to life over the table.

   “I can see you are a hard man who desires much gain from his deals,” Zein explained softly. “If military intervention does not interest you, then perhaps this will.” The holograms split and changed into various forms, alien to D’larit, but similar enough that he recognized what they were. Weapons.

     “Fusion beams, advanced mass drivers, advancements in armor, propulsion, biotechnology, medical sciences… All here at your fingertips,” the man coaxed. The display changed to show a view of starships, long, shiny, and sleek, of many different designs, sporting these beam weapons and other advancements the man spoke of. “We can offer you starships as well, to supplement your fleet. We seek an alliance, one that will benefit you greatly, Speaker. All you have to do is promise that you will let us go about our business freely within this sector. We have a lot of equipment and resources to move in the near future. Simply ensure that your government does not interfere. With your position and authority, you can convince the other leaders to leave us alone. It is not such a high price to pay for a thousand years of technological advancement… is it?”

     Ryskar caught himself, staring at the projection. He swallowed hard. This was impossible. Zein offered technological advancements beyond their dreams. Stuff that would put them light-years beyond the New Republic. And these aliens had access to that technology, and who knew what more? And he was blatantly trying to bribe the Diktat of the New Imperium. “I…” he managed, finding his mouth suddenly dry. This was something he hadn’t suspected. Not in the least. If this was true, he could understand how they could lay waste to entire systems… Things the Empire had only dreamed about. Could it be true? A vast alien government, advanced beyond comprehension, lying beyond the Unknown Regions… All they wanted was an alliance. “Let me… think about it…”

     “Of course, of course…” the main whispered, switching the hologram off. “But please, I don’t want this to get out very far. If the wrong people see this, there would be serious trouble for both of us.”

      Nodding numbly, D’larit sat as Brucmack escorted the man on his way out. He wasn’t thinking straight. An alliance with such an obviously ruthless group of beings was out of the question. But if what they were claiming was true, they couldn’t simply be ignored. This was going to affect the whole NI. He needed time to think this over. Seriously.

* * *

Hours later, Moren Zein sat in the small quarters that had been appropriated for him in the Senate Complex and, instead of the standard data terminal on his desk, brought out another, portable terminal and set it on the desk instead. At the tap of a few instructions on the screen, he was connected to his contact, over a secure, secret line that would be untraceable to the authorities in the NI. His contact’s face came on screen, revealing a graying man with a sharp nose and steely eyes. 

    “Report,” the man on the screen, who Zein knew only by the code name of ‘Raptor’, said evenly. 

    “The Diktat is reluctant to accept our proposal, even after all the evidence,” Zein said apologetically. “I even showed him the datacard. His response was… disappointing.”

    “D’larit is an honest man, and not as greedy as some of his rich relatives,” the graying man allowed. “But no matter. Things are already in place. We cannot afford to wait on the NI any longer. They say Kronos is moving.”

    “Already?” Zein asked, breath catching in his throat.

    “This is all within General Akira’s plan,” the other man assured him. “He assumed the response would be like this, but we had to make it look real, to set up our example to them.” He paused, seemed to be lost in thought for a moment. “Reveal more to D’larit, Zein,” Raptor commanded. “If we cannot appeal to his greed, then we will instill him with fear. Show him what he faces if he does not accept our rule. If he still doesn’t bend… Well, the NI will be provoked to action soon enough.”

    “I don’t understand why we must act in such a roundabout way…”

    “That’s not your place,” the man snapped. “General Akira has sent new orders, Zein. We will give D’larit one more chance. If he refuses…” His eyes tightened. “Then I’m afraid it may be time for a change of command.”

    Zein listened intently as his instructions were relayed. “I understand,” he said once the man was finished. “And I obey. Glacia tomek Altarin’Dakor.”

As Zein cut the connection, Raptor turned to the cloaked figure standing behind him. “I may have need of you very soon, my friend,” he said.

     The man who had once been part of House Ar’Kell, a man who was now missing from the Jedi Division roster, stepped forward obediently. “I hear and obey, master,” he said in a monotone voice.

     Raptor eyed the man warily, wondering if he could truly accomplish his mission. He had been turned completely, fully loyal to their cause, yet doing so had left few traces of the former man. Raptor began relaying his instructions, slowly. It would take some time for him to get to Tralaria, to get inside the Senate Complex and establish himself.

    The instructions received and digested, the cloaked man turned to leave, uttering the same words Zein had but moments before. “Glacie tomek Altarin’Dakor.

    “It will be,” the man assured him. “It will be.”

* * *

Royal Palace


1950 Hours

Xar watched the sun set on his beautiful home planet from the comfort of one of the Royal Palace’s top balconies. The bright orange ball fell in the west, past the not-yet-repaired area of the city, allowing him to view its trek all the way down to the horizon. Broken crusts of buildings were silhouetted and a haze hovered in the distance, but he felt the sun’s warmth on his face and felt truly glad to be at his home.

     Varnus was a completely different place from what it had been when House Ar’Kell had arrived. And now, a unified Jedi Order with members from all over NI space and Epsilon Sector was finally established and strong. It was nice for once to just relax and enjoy the change of pace after so many unexpected events and conflicts had sprung up since they had been here. Now they had definitely earned a little rest. 

     A lot of recruits had come into the Division, so that now the pyramidal structure operated as it should: a few Jedi Masters and Adepts to lead, a strong showing of Jedi Knights, Crusaders, and Templars to provide the backbone, and a large base of Initiates, Novices, Acolytes and Guardians who were learning the basics and growing. The Palace was filling up and the renovated areas were being put to good use, especially the Jedi training areas. Now that things had died down and the Division was filled with a respectable number of Jedi, Xar had allowed the members to reinstated the House system and organize themselves into sub-units, just like the system House Ar’Kell had been a part of before. Now there was a House Ar’Kell again, under new leadership and with new members, but also a House Vortigern, House Aurora, and House Castellan. Xar figured that four would be more than enough; they were sparsely populated now and had lots of room to grow. While the Houses provided a way to induce friendly rivalries that encouraged hard training and growth, Xar had been careful not to allow them to become too powerful or independent, lest another coup occur just like the one he had caused with Ar’Kell. The Houses were all friendly to one another and highly dependent on the Division as a whole. And while he’d allowed them to establish their own bases in other star systems, on other planets, each House had its own section in the Royal Palace as well, and each leader had to spend a certain amount of time here, running errands, attending meetings, training, and performing missions for the Grand Master. 

     Xar was very pleased with how the Division had grown, and he was in good spirits. Even Bren was becoming more open and Derek, the boy they had saved in a recent mission on Hijarna, was taking to the Palace quite enthusiastically. 

     And, in a few days the Division’s newest craft, the Starfire, would be unveiled in a grand ceremony in orbit. A medium-sized vessel about twice the size of a Corellian Corvette, the Starfire was still fast and agile, well-armed, and was ideal for sending teams of Jedi throughout the sector or the galaxy on missions. Although Xar still preferred his own personal ship, he had to admit the new vessel would allow for more personnel and much more freedom of movement for his organization. Yes, there was definitely a positive outlook on things to come.

     Turning, he made his way back into the Palace, for once deciding not to work late, but to get some rest. 

* * *

Conference Room

Senate Complex, Tralaria

2130 Hours

Ryskar entered one of the Complex’s private conference rooms and found the two men he’s asked to attend sitting at the center table, chatting in low tones. He nodded first to Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar, then to Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere. The two of them commanded the largest naval fleet units within the NI, besides D’larit’s own Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, and they had become his closest advisors in military affairs in the few months since Ryskar had taken on his position as Speaker.

    “Thanks for coming,” he told the men. “I’m sorry to pull you away from your evenings, so I’ll try to keep this brief.”

    “My wife has already gone back to Gracchus Prime for the weekend, so it’s not a problem,” Majere replied, placing his datapad and stylus onto the table in front of him.

    “What’s concerning you, Ryskar?” Dogar asked with a questioning look.

    D’larit waited until he sat down to begin, even then keeping his voice low. “We have a situation with our ambassador friend Moren Zein,” he told them. Briefly he recounted his last meeting with the mysterious, brash representative, including his veiled threats and pompous attempt to bribe both Ryskar and the New Imperium. The other two listened intently until he finished, then Ryskar waited to hear their responses.

    “Didn’t we have this conversation a few months ago?” Dogar spoke up first. “That man has been a nuisance since he first showed up.”

    Majere just shook his head. “That’s crazy talk, and illegal, too. It sounds as if they’re planning to invade the whole galaxy.”

    “And this is a tactic that an empire with vastly superior forces might use against a minor opponent,” Dogar added. “Think about it: an invading army arrives at a city, displays their might, and demands the city surrender and join the empire without a fight. They get to keep their lives and their lands, but must serve the new empire and obey their laws. This allows the empire to take the city bloodlessly, and move on to other targets as well.”

    “They said they are coming from the far spiral arm,” Ryskar added in.

    “It sounds as though they want to avoid a fight with us in order to keep their movements secret,” Majere mused. “If we resist, and it causes an uproar, the New Republic hears about it and they lose the advantage of surprise.”

    “We’re assuming that what Moren Zein says is true,” Ryskar reminded them. “Come on here; do you really believe that he’s representing a massive, powerful alien force? Personally I think he’s on the edge of insanity, or at least bluffing to try and win some kind of concessions for his own government.”

    “The problem,” Dogar pointed out, “is that we don’t know. We know nothing about them or where they’re located – except that it’s toward the Galactic Rim.”

    “That brings the Mizar System into concern,” Majere said.

    Rysker nodded gravely. In this part of Epsilon Sector, with the nebula bordering the edge of settled space, there was one star that lay farthest out toward the Rim and the Spiral Arm. The Mizar System. A scouting frigate that had been exploring the different NI systems two years previous had never returned from Mizar. It had been considered a mystery at first. Then, other scouts had vanished, as well. It was clear there was an alien species there, but with the system being technically outside NI space, and with a desire not to start a conflict, the NI had left the system alone. “It’s really the only feasible place that these aliens could be based out of,” Ryskar said.

     “Then we have to do something about Mizar,” Dogar agreed. “But first, we have to do something about Zein. Let’s say that for now we call his bluff. What do you intend to do?”

    “Well, he’s already tried to bribe me once,” Ryskar told him. “That, according to NI law – and most other governments’ laws, for that matter – is illegal and can bring an indictment. I don’t like Zein having the freedom to run around the Complex freely – I’d much rather have him confined somewhere that we can find out some real answers.”

     “You’re going to arrest him?” Dogar asked.

     “I have no witnesses or hard evidence yet,” Ryskar said, “but soon I will. Our next meeting will be recorded, and I’ll have guards standing by. We can’t let Zein get any chance to escape or to contact his associates. Then he’ll be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law.”

     Dogar smiled. “I can see we picked the right man for this job; it takes a strong man to reject and expose what this guy’s tried to offer you. I’m just glad you’re on our side.”

    “I couldn’t do it without you, gentlemen,” Ryskar replied, standing. “Now, let’s get this taken care of.”

* * *

Raptor sat in his office, reading the endless reports coming in to him from his intelligence network strewn throughout Epsilon Sector and the rest of the entire galaxy. Much of it was useless junk and babble – speculations from agents and news from informants who thought what they’d found was important, but really wasn’t. One particular message was of note, and was pasted to the top of his mail window: the news that his man had arrived safely on Tralaria.

     Suddenly his commlink beeped, indicating an incoming signal. His eyes widened as he checked the frequency, and he immediately set his desk display to visual communications mode. This was a rare moment indeed.

     The screen flashed to an image of a balding, older man with dark, almond-shaped eyes and a thin gray mustache that cut neatly across his top lip and down to his chin. Behind him was a background of plain durasteel. The caller’s face was impassive, revealing no emotion or hint of his intentions.

    “I am honored, General Akira,” Raptor said to the man on the screen. “How may I be of service?”

    “What have you found?” the man asked, straight to the point.

    “Our agents have spread throughout the New Imperium,” Raptor replied. “We are ready for anything you may need. Our ambassador, on the other hand, has met with little progress. He has been speaking with the New Imperium’s leaders, but they are stubborn and difficult to corrupt with their lofty ideals.”

     General Akira leaned back from the screen, crossing his arms in front of him. “I expected as much,” he said finally. “You have my contingency plans in place?”

     “Of course,” Raptor replied.

     “Very well. Proceed with them,” the other man ordered. “We are working on an escalated timetable from now on. Lord Kronos will be arriving imminently.”

     Raptor felt a chill go down his spine. So the time had finally come; things were about to become very dangerous. He’d been dealing with General Akira for years, and knew the man to be rational and cunning. But now all bets would be off, and things were likely to explode into barely organized chaos. He’d heard the rumors, knew how servants could get themselves killed, literally, on a whim. But this was what it was all about – there was no going back, now.

     “I am telling you this because it is in your interest to know,” General Akira continued. “You are my top man inside the New Imperium, and I will still be relying on you heavily to help navigate through the first part of the Spearheading process. The New Imperium must be felled quickly, decisively – and quietly. We will cripple them, then offer our ultimatum. Any sensible being would accept our terms, but if not, then we will be prepared to destroy them utterly. No one must be allowed to escape to warn anyone else.”

     “I understand,” Raptor replied. “This is what I’ve been preparing for ever since the NI got started.”

     “I’m counting on you,” the other man said. Then he reached down, and the screen went back to Raptor’s message summary. A dozen new messages had arrived already.

     Raptor returned to his work with renewed vigor. 

* * *

Diktat’s Office

Senate Complex, Tralaria

1740 Hours

     Ryskar looked up as the figure entered his office once more. “Good. I’ve been looking for you, Zein. Come in.”

     Moren complied, moving across the carpeted floor into the seat opposite the Diktat.

      “I want to hear more about your proposal, and about your associates,” Ryskar stated.

      “I think I was quite clear before, Diktat,” the man replied.

      “Nevertheless, I would like to hear it again,” Ryskar countered, “in more detail. What exactly are you offering me if I comply?”

      Moren Zein leaned forward and met Ryskar’s gaze eye to eye, shaking his head. “We are not playing games with you, Diktat. I am offering you a chance to grow powerful beyond your wildest dreams. An invasion is coming, and my associates can promise you the safety of their protection if you will join us. Furthermore, I am sure that the territory of the New Imperium will be greatly expanded once we have taken control of this region. Perhaps the entire sector can be given over to the control of the NI government.”

      Ryskar narrowed his eyes, wanting the man to say more. He had enough already, but he felt like he’d barely scratched the surface. “And?”

     “And?” The man gave a short laugh. “I told you we can give you technology that will put you millennia above the other governments in the galactic community. That, coupled with our protection, would be more than any organization could normally dream of.”

     “I’m talking about me, personally,” Ryskar put in. “You spoke of benefits before.”

     “Diktat, you are a wise, just man,” Zein said. “It is in the New Imperium’s interest – and our interest – to see that someone like you stays in power to lead. We are prepared to let you stay in control of your government, and I can promise you that as the official NI representative of the Altarin’Dakor, you will have power and prestige beyond your wildest dreams. Anything you desire can be accommodated.”

      “And in return, you just want me to let you guys pass through our space, is that is?”

      “In basic form, yes,” the man replied. “Because you are so well known and respected, I am sure your people will listen to you. Assure them that we are not hostile to your worlds or your government, and convince them to cooperate with us in every way, and I promise you there will be no trouble.”

      “What kind of trouble?” Ryskar prodded. “Are you saying we might end up like some of your other… opponents, as you called them? Wiped out?”

      The man’s cool eyes told Ryskar the truth even before he spoke. “The past is of no concern,” he said evenly. “Insignificant. You have to learn, Diktat. Only the strong survive in this galaxy. And we will choose only the strong to assist us, and to serve us.”

       “An entire race, insignificant?” He shook his head, brought his finger up in the man’s face. “I’ve had enough of your arrogance. You cannot wipe out an alien species, Zein. That’s what the Empire does, and we are not them. Do you understand me?”

    “It is you who do not understand,” Zein countered, leaning forward and placing his hands on Ryskar’s desk. “Now listen to me, because this is crucial for you. The Altarin’Dakor are not to be trifled with; we are not some tiny government hiding out in the Rim. Before the founding of the Republic we were the sovereign rulers of this galaxy. We were driven off, but we conquered our own and rebuilt our vast armada of military might. I cannot describe to you how insignificant the New Imperium is compared to us. Indeed, even the New Republic and the Imperial Remnants stand no chance against us. We will conquer them; a plan is already set and in motion. We will be passing through New Imperium space whether you like it or not. I am offering you a chance: promise me you’ll open your borders and let us pass through quietly. We do not want to provoke a conflict – and outside interest – yet. We don’t want to waste resources in a battle here, so far out in the Outer Rim. We are on the march, and unstoppable, inexorable march, and your only chance is to join us, or be wiped out.”

    D’larit had lost all ability to answer; he simply sat there in shock, listening to the man’s insane words.

    Zein reached into his coat and pulled out the hologram emitter he’d used before. Once again images of ships and weapons flashed in front of the Diktat’s eyes.

    “Listen to me, D’larit. We have quashed thousands of governments your size. The NI will become just another statistic to us, but you still have a chance to decide. Ally yourself with us, allow us to move through, and you can keep your own territory. Your government will run in much the same way, and we will not cause you any permanent harm.” He broke off, half-grinning as he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “In fact, we will even go further than that. As I told you, as one of our regents, you will have power far beyond what you experience now. Imagine the honor of being the savior of your people. Imagine an NI more prosperous than you’ve ever dreamed. All I ask is that you speak to the right people, exert your own governmental authority, and allow us to move unchecked. Keep quiet, and keep your subordinates quiet. Think well on this, Diktat.”

    “Are… you… quite… finished?” Ryskar whispered. He could no longer contain his outrage and anger. “You have tried to bribe me, you have threatened this government, and you have clearly stated your claims to invade our space and attack legitimate governments. You have just violated several capital laws of the New Imperium.” He paused, letting his words reach their full effect. “How can you even think I would accept such a proposal?”

    Zein blinked, obviously surprised by D’larit’s response.

    Ryskar’s eyes bored holes through the man in front of him. Who did you he think he was? How could he expect Ryskar to believe such preposterous claims? Ryskar had never heard of the Altarin’Dakor – none of the man’s story held even a shred of familiarity to him. And now the man had just incriminated himself right in front of him. Reaching under his desk, he depressed the button that would call the officers waiting outside to arrest the ambassador.

    “Zein, If I had a blaster in my hand, I’d shoot you where you sit,” he said with finality. “Nevertheless, I will see you and those you represent brought to justice before a galactic court for what you’ve done. I am hereby placing you under arrest for conspiracy to bribe a government officer and to bear arms against this government.” He glanced over the man’s shoulder as the officers began to file into the room.

       Moren didn’t seem to notice. His gaze was intently on the Diktat. “Don’t you understand? You are taking the wrong side! This is your last chance, Diktat. Join us, and you can rule this galaxy with us. If you don’t you’ll end up like thousands of others who have perished by our hand. Do not make the same mistake that they did. Do not invoke our wrath, D’larit. You cannot stand before the tide of our Return.”

       He was cut off as the officers reached his seat, surrounding him on both sides. Zein looked up at them in shock, then back at D’larit.

       “How dare you! I have diplomatic immunity!”

       “Not anymore, you don’t,” Ryskar said flatly. “Not without one shred of evidence that you are who you say you are. Anybody can come in here saying they represent a government. You’ve committed a crime, Zein, and you are going to pay for it.” 

     Zein stood as the officers put their hands on him and lifted him to his feet. “Don’t make a foolish mistake,” Zein said coldly. “I can’t be held responsible for whatever happens next.”

       “And I can’t be held responsible for what I’m going to do to you if you don’t leave my sight right now,” Ryskar shot back. He looked at the head officer present, a large, muscular man who had Zein’s hands behind his back and was placing a set of stun-cuffs on him with professional efficiency. “Officer, confine this man to the brig and have him watched at all times. Make sure he is unable to communicate with anyone on the way.”

       “Aye, sir,” the man replied crisply. Then, accompanied by his men, they began leading Zein away. But the man tried to hold back, spitting a stare of hate back at Ryskar, and he felt a chill at that gaze.

        “I warned you, D’larit!” was all the man said. Then he turned and let himself be led away, a drum of  footsteps echoing down the corridor as they left. 

* * *


Planet Haven

Satyr System

Jac Railler walked down the dusty street once more and paused a moment to gaze up at the sky. The deep sky of Haven rested peacefully above him – and he could still see that New Imperial ship up there too, glinting sunlight. Oh well, they hadn’t bothered any of the populace so far, so he was content to let it be for now. No use worrying about threats that might not manifest themselves. Besides, the ship was the only real line of defense in the rare event Haven was attacked by pirates or the like. 

     Clearing his thoughts of it, Railler moved through the streets, turning onto the wet market, where hawkers cried their wares from dozens of different stalls and bodies mulled about in a hubbub of noise. He stopped by the meat vendor, choosing some choice cuts for the soup he was preparing, then picked up a few types of vegetables that would compliment the soup as well. He’d been cooking for himself for years, and had gotten quite good at it, developed a passion for it, even. And although coming to a new world involved learning a whole plethora of new ingredients and recipes, the basics of a simple, hearty meal remained the same: meat, vegetables, broth.

     With his two baskets filled to the brim with fresh produce, he made his way back toward his abode, once again relishing the new, simple life he had found here on Haven. It was truly a perfect place to get away from the troubles plaguing the rest of the galaxy. And with any luck, those troubles would stay far, far away, enabling Jac Railler to dwell here in peace for many years to come.

      Unconsciously whistling an old tune he’d picked up during another lifetime, he continued down the road, passing neighbors and playing children, content.

* * *

Mizar System

Space rippled, stars being skewed out of their positions. Then a massive hole opened in the fabric of the universe, followed by another, and another. Then the three ships that emerged from the vortexes coasted silently into the Mizar System, the rifts closing up behind them and returning to a normal vista of space. 

    The three Titans – massive, dark, wicked-looking amongst the void – cruised slowly toward the second planet in the system, a dark, lifeless world of barren rock that seemed, externally, no different from billions like it within the galaxy. 

     From his viewpoint in the space station above the world, General Akira watched the Titans arrive. They signaled the launch of the main phase of the Return, at long last. It was the culmination of years of hard work and scheming, but soon the time of secrecy and subtlety, of striking from the shadows, would be over. 

     Those ships also marked the arrival of his master. Finally the Shok’Thola, Kronos, was here to personally oversee the next phase of events. General Akira had made all the required preparations for his arrival, and now the time had come to relinquish control and watch all his plans come to fruition.

    He turned from the view, knowing he had to get ready; his master would be landing soon. And those ships, he knew, would be preparing for their first, decisive strike into the heart of the enemy.

    Into the heart of the New Imperium.

* * *

Grand Audience Chamber

Senate Building

Tralaria – NI Capital

2100 Hours – 3 Days before the Return

Diktat Ryskar D’larit stood at the podium, hands raised, trying to calm down the raucous applause reverberating throughout the massive audience chamber in the Senate Building. Everyone was waiting in anticipation for the Diktat’s victory speech over the Vonsam Conflict. Outwardly, he put on an expression of pride and tried to smile. His anger from the previous day had faded some, replacing rage with resolve. This speech was necessary to draw the New Imperium together, to honor its heroes and raise support for conflicts ahead. Then they would deal with Zein and his associates as a unified front. 

     He waited until the noise quieted and the near-capacity crowd sat waiting to listen. Then, taking a swallow from a glass of water and glancing at the speech readout text in front of him, he began, reading more from his head than his heart. His mind was still elsewhere, on the events from the day before. But the Holocameras needed to show a resolute leader, firm in his support for the NI and its citizens.

     He began to read aloud, letting his voice carry throughout the room as the words spilled out.

Planet Haven

Satyr System, Neutral Space

1430 Hours

The ISD Vortex hovered in space above the serene brownish-yellow planet Haven. Suddenly, only kilometers away, the darkness of space shimmered, and the dark, sleek shapes of ships appeared, one by one. Two groups emerged from their invisible veils, one consisting of black, rock-like ships with jutting angles that flew toward the Star Destroyer. The second was comprised of fighter-sized craft and three hundred-meter long vessels that sped by the massive ship, ignoring it, making speed for the planet below.

       Alarm systems blared all over the Vortex, as it turned to meet the incoming ships, shields raising and weapons coming to bear. But the attacking ships paid them no heed. Within five kilometers their weapons let loose, brief flashes of light emerging from their gun barrels as they fired their hypersonic projectile weapons at the Star Destroyer. Before the shots hit, the Vortex responded with a barrage of turbolaser fire, and fighters began pouring from her main hangar. But the snubfighters weren’t even enough of a threat to divert any of the attacking ships. Fire poured from the black vessels, sending shield-piercing projectiles through the Vortex’s shields and slamming into her hull with shattering force, boring on inside, tearing and ripping up huge tracts of hull armor and exposing the interior of the ship to vacuum. Gouts of flame and explosions blossomed all throughout the ship’s hull. The Vortex’s return fire plastered the incoming ships, directly striking their unshielded hulls and merely bouncing harmlessly back off their reflective hulls. The response fire from the black ships was furious.

“Citizens of the New Imperium,” D’larit began, looking out over the throng of people. This is a great day for the New Imperium. A new age is dawning on us. Our victory in the Vonsam System has solidified our hold on our territory and has shown the galaxy that we can hold to our promise, keep our territory, and defend those within our space. We have defeated our enemies, those who seek to destroy us and our way, and have shown the galaxy a safer, stronger New Imperium. Now we move on, with great days ahead, and a new era of expansion that will establish the New Imperium as a great power within the galaxy…”

The death-black ships continued pouring fire into the helpless ISD, many shots hitting with such velocity that the projectiles bored through the entire hull and blasted out the bottom of the ship. Explosions wreathed the hull in fire and light. Yet still the ships attacked, slowing as they moved up around the ship, ignoring the turbolaser fire which bounced off their hulls. Mass driver blasts slammed into the bridge superstructure, crushing the structure and annihilating the bridge in a conflagration of burning, escaping atmosphere. NI fighters swarmed around the black ships, but fighters of the enemy’s own had moved in, twice as fast and maneuverable than the NI forces. Long, continuous beams of energy reached out and swept the NI fighters from the sky. The few missiles that the New Imperium forces got off impacted harmlessly on the attackers’ shields or hit the black hulls of the oddly-shaped ships, causing minimal damage. But the Vortex was a dying ship. As the dark ships moved away, they continued pumping fire into the mile-long Star Destroyer with a vengeance. Blasts finally tore through the hull and detonated the ship’s solar-ionization reactor. Flame blasted out of the ship’s huge engines, tearing them apart, and a colossal fireball expanded, consuming the ship’s hull and anything around it. Then a massive explosion completely annihilated the once-mighty Star Destroyer, sending out a shockwave throughout space.

     The remaining NI fighters, the few that were left, began to power down and broadcasted messages of surrender. But their gesture was as futile as if they had continued the fight. They barely had time to realize in horror their error before continuous beams of energy and hypersonic blasts of matter blew the fighters out of existence. Within moments, nothing was left of the New Imperium’s Haven protectorate force.

     Beyond the destruction and dissipating gasses, more ships sped toward the planet, burning through the atmosphere on their deadly mission.

D’larit waited for the applause to dissipate before continuing. “Furthermore, I would like to present the following awards tonight. For his gallant courage in leading the New Imperium forces in the Vonsam Conflict, I am proud to award Fleet Admiral Majere the New Imperial Medal of Honor. Also, for his excellent display of bravery and heroism in taking out many of the enemy, I am presenting the same medal to Colonel Rivian Donitz, one of our most premier tacticians and fighter pilots.” 

     As the two men approached the podium, the chamber broke into applause once again. D’larit raised the golden medal and placed it around the Majere’s neck, then did the same with Donitz. Then he reached out and shook both men’s’ hands. “Great job,” he said. “You’ve made the New Imperium proud.”

The advanced fighters streaked over the city of Tranquility, their energy beams and missiles boring death into earthen security buildings and governmental offices. A small contingent of defense fighters finally launched to attempt a defense, but they only succeeded in raining down their own flaming debris on the unprotected city as the enemy fighters shot them cleanly out of the sky. 

     A flotilla of larger transports quickly sat down on the outskirts, stirring up massive clouds of dust as they landed. Then the ships split open to admit scores of large, armor-clad warriors that raced across the dry ground and ran into the city, screaming with fury as they came. What local police had gathered to confront them were decimated almost instantly by long, burning blasts of fusion beam fire or super-sonic slugs of portable mass drivers. The shock troops trampled over the slaughter, the severed bodies and blood-soaked soil as they continued deeper into the city. Within minutes hundreds of soldiers had invaded the city and were drawing out its inhabitants, forcing them into lines, pulling them out of their homes and fields. Any who resisted were killed instantly with shots to the head or other vital areas. Naturally, the captured inhabitants quickly realized the futility of resistance, and amidst a palpable air of shock and disbelief the citizens began to be herded into designated sectors. The entire process was all too efficient and well-planned. Within hours it was clear the city, and likewise the whole planet, would be in complete submission and captivity.

From the sounds outside, Jac Railler knew what was going on. He’d both seen the sights and heard the sounds of an invasion before. It was unmistakable now. He stood in front of the entrance to his small house, the house he knew he would be leaving behind. Cozeeke was behind him, at the ready. But this time Railler wasn’t dressed in the simple clothes and robes of a civilian. Dark armor covered his body, with a black cloak over that. A hooded mask veiled his face. At his back was a pack containing all of his most valuable belongings, from the secret compartment. In his hands was a long shaft. At the press of a button twin vibroblades would extend from the ends, strong and sharp enough to cut through flesh and armor alike. It wasn’t a lightsaber, but it would suffice. 

     The door slid open in front of him. Activating the weapon, he turned and swung it upwards, cutting the armored figure in the doorway from groin to neck. As the first man fell, he brought his weapon around as best he could in the small space and sliced the top of the second man’s head off before he could react. Then he stepped outside into the light, hitting a button on his belt-commlink which would activate the flares positioned throughout his house. A pity, he would lose it, but the enemy would not find out anything about him. He and Cozeeke stepped outside as flames burst up inside the house.

      He took a moment to glance at the two bodies lying on the steps in front of his house. They were human, that much he could tell from the remains. But anything else about them was hidden by their armor and face masks, and he didn’t have time to find out. He felt a rush of adrenaline and anger shoot through him as he thought of what was happening, the peaceful planet of Haven under attack from a viscous enemy with no regards to life. That they would exterminate and enslave peace-loving civilians was horrible beyond description. Doing such to the people of Haven was an abomination.

      He turned and began making his way down the street and moved into an alleyway. Mostly he kept to the alleys to keep from being spotted, though he knew it was just a matter of time. He only had one shot at this, he knew. Cozeeke’s movements behind him were thankfully silent. The droid had had to move like this before. 

       After what seemed like an eternity of sneaking about, he emerged into a clearing beside a large warehouse, his final destination. The attack itself had only been going on for perhaps an hour, and this part of town had not been completely subdued yet. 

      A sudden yell made him turn, and he saw something that made his mouth go dry. A woman and child were wrestling from the iron grip of two of the armored figures as they drug the two away. He realized with horror that they were the same two that he’d seen before, a scene which had brought tears to his eyes. Now this one brought tears, as well. Tears of rage.

        With a yell of his own, he ran across the street, falling upon the armored men, taking them completely off guard. With a few masterful strokes of his staff, moves he barely remembered performing, he looked down to see the mutilated bodies of the assailants. Filled with a fury he hadn’t felt for years, he turned and glared at the wide-eyed pair from behind his veil. “GO!” he shouted. “Take refuge in the warehouse there! There is a basement that will hide you!” When they failed to comply, in total shock, he retracted his blades and took them himself, pulling them along until they were at the entrance. A panel in the door slid open and a pair of eyes looked out at him, then the door opened and admitted all four of them.

      Letting the mother and child off to make their way to the cellar, he and Cozeeke stared at the motley group of dirty folks assembled in the warehouse interior. These people he knew, for they were part of an underground resistance group designed for just such an occasion. And gathered inside the hangar interior were the recently uncovered hulls of several small transport ships. Safe for the moment, Jac reached up and pulled his mask off.

     “Glad you could make it, Jac,” the middle-aged, grime-covered leader walked up to greet him. Railler  locked his staff into its notch at his back, and nodded.

     “We’re all ready to go,” the man announced steely. “Though some of us didn’t make it in. We always knew we had to be prepared for an attack, but man… Nothing like this. It’s totally unbelievable. These people are way beyond the NI in technology! We had reports that they’d blown up the ISD in orbit within five minutes!”

      Railler nodded gravely. “I know. And these ground forces are equipped with advanced equipment. I’ve never seen anything like it. But why would they be attacking Haven?”

     “I’ve no idea, but we only have one choice, now. We have to try and make it off-planet to the NI. At least one of us has to make it back and tell them what is happening here.” He gestured behind him, at the hull of the sleek craft in the lead. Railler knew it was the best ship they had. 

     “You’re the best pilot among us, Jac,” the man said. “We want you to take this one. You’re really the only one with the chance to break their blockade. Their ships are faster than anything I’ve ever seen. I just hope even your skills will be enough.” The group of people behind him nodded their agreement, but Railler could see the fear and uncertainty in their eyes.

      “Very well,” he agreed. “We’d better move immediately. I hope you all make it, as well.”

     “Good luck,” the man said. 

     Railler nodded. “Cozeeke, come on.”

      “All right, let’s go!” the man yelled, clapping his hands. The group dispersed, each to their ships. Jac and his droid headed for the lead craft. He didn’t know what was up there waiting for them, but he just hoped they would make it out. Someone had to warn the NI. Someone had to help the people of the planet Haven.

Ryskar watched Majere and Donitz join the crowd once more, his face glowing with genuine pride. It was encouraging to see such a sense of unity and brotherhood among the various fleets in the NI. The Holocast had ended moments before, with Ryskar giving final words of encouragement to the citizens of the NI, urging them to cooperate peacefully with one another and do their utmost to see the NI prosper in Epsilon Sector. 

      The applause had died down, and Ryskar turned to his staff and others gathered around, accepting their handshakes and congratulations. Brucmack was there too, his face all smiles. “Well done, sir,” he said, then turned to the podium to gather the Speaker’s notes and datapad for him.

     Ryskar gave a last wave to the crowd, noting the approving smiles of Donitz, Amason, Majere and the others there, then turned toward the curtain at the back of the stage, to exit the same way he had come in. 

     Just then the edge of the curtain was pulled aside, and a black robes figure stepped up in front of Ryskar. Two guards’ bodies were lying on the ground behind him. Ryskar’s eyes went wide.  Someone had gotten in through security. His eyes widened even more as he realized he recognized the figure. “You’re…” he began.

     “A message, Diktat, from General Akira,” the figure whispered, face hidden in shadows. “This is the price for opposing the Altarin’Dakor.”

     Ryskar tried to cry out for security, but the knife plunging into his solar plexus instantly took all force out of his words. Pain exploded in his middle, and he gasped as the figure reached out to grasp his shoulder. He tried to speak, tried to mouth the words, why… But nothing could come out. The assassin drove the blade even deeper, and cold began to emanate from it throughout Ryskar’s body, even to his limbs. The edged of his vision began to go black, quickly fading to merely a tunnel of light.

     “You should have taken our deal,” was the last thing he heard before his vision closed, and he fell to the ground, darkness taking him…

Majere cried out as the Diktat fell, then watched his cloaked assailant as he fled out the back entrance behind the stage. For a moment, shock froze him still. The crowd around him had gone deathly silent. Where was security? Then suddenly adrenaline took over, and he could move again.

     “Donitz, call for reinforcements!” he shouted, already taking off at a run toward the exit the assassin had left from. “He’ll be headed for the East Wing!”

     He didn’t turn to look whether the man was following orders – he knew he would be. Majere vaulted up to the stage in one leap, surprisingly limber even at his age, and paused just long enough to see D’larit’s lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling. “Get a medical team up here!” he screamed through the noise, then tearing his eyes away, ripped the curtain aside and dashed through the exit.

     Majere sped through the narrow access passage that led to another, larger one, then followed that out into one of the main hallways, lined with windows on one side looking out on the ocean. Glancing right and left, he saw the tail end of a black cloak vanish around the corner of an intersection to his left, then took off after it, pulling his sidearm from his belt.

     Before he made it, two security guards appeared in the intersection, and he yelled out at them. “An assassin! He went right! Follow him!” Then he suited actions to words as he moved in behind the guards as they followed the right-hand passage. Again, he saw a black cloak ahead, just before it took a left turn ahead. 

     Running for all they were worth, the three of them skidded around the corner and saw the assailant straight ahead. They had gained ground, and now the figure was running perhaps ten meters ahead. 

     “Stop him!” he yelled. “Set for stun!” They had to take the assassin alive, find out what he knew and who had sent him.

     Knowing his own weapon was already set, he switched off the safety and fired in mid-stride. His blast went wide, unable to aim while running, but the blast hit the wall beside the assassin and made him look back.

    Then the figure skidded to a halt and turned, bringing his own blaster carbine to bear. Deadly red bolts spat out at them, flying by so close Majere could feel their heat. He and the guards halted, bringing their weapons to bear again. One guard was hit in the chest and went down. Without flinching, Majere brought his sidearm up and fired again, as the remaining guard beside him followed suit. Again blue bolts spat out, Majere’s taking the assassin in the leg and sending him to his hands and knees. Then the guard’s blast took him in the shoulder, and he flew to his back, blaster flying from his grip to slide across the floor. The shots should have been enough to incapacitate him, but Majere could still see him moving. Drawing closer with the guard behind, he kept his weapon raised, seeking a better aim as the assassin struggled on the floor with something. He wasn’t going to take the chance of getting nailed at close range, so he prepared to put another bolt into the man as he came to within five meters of him.

    Then he slid to a halt again as the assassin drew up, revealing a face and eyes wild with craze, as he lifted high a live thermal detonator. “Glacia tomek Altarin’Dakor!” the man screamed in a language Majere didn’t understand.

     “Get back!” Majere yelled. He tried to back away, bringing his weapon up and firing desperately at the man’s hand. The remaining guard threw himself in front of Majere, then the thermal detonator exploded, filling the room with light and fire that rushed out to the two men in an instant…

     One section of windows on the side of the Senate Complex was shattered as an explosion ripped outside, sending fire and glass raining out in the air to fall down to the grounds below… 


* * *


Command Room

Senate Building

Tralaria – NI Capital

0900 Hours – 2 Days before the Return

“It’s confirmed, sir,” the command chamber crew reported over the viewscreen. “We’ve lost all communication with the ISD Vortex.”

      Fleet Admiral Arfann Dogar shook his head. In the mass confusion since the day before, Dogar had temporarily had to step in as per emergency protocols. Ryskar D’larit had been dead when medics had reached him. Despite their best efforts, it had been too late to save the Diktat. The blade had been poisoned and had stopped his heart almost immediately. Fleet Admiral Majere had followed the assassin, and to everyone’s continued shock and dismay, the assailant had killed himself rather than accept capture, detonating a suicide bomb that killed two guards and had ripped through Fleet Admiral Majere as well. Dogar had barely been able to look at the man when he saw him in the emergency room. He was alive, thankfully, down in the medical ward, but in critical condition, and it was unsure if he would last through the next couple of days. A blow had been struck to the New Imperium, taking out two of its leaders in a single day, and now they had found out that another attack had taken place at the same, time. There was no communication from the Satyr System at all. 

      “How is that possible?” Dogar asked in confusion. “Mark-II Imperial Star Destroyers have ways to communicate back to their home base under the most extreme conditions. What about any of our resources in the system?”

      “All of them are gone, sir. Wiped out.”

      Dogar sat back in amazement and shock. “By whom?”

     “Preliminary evidence indicates possible New Republic involvement,” the man said, an edginess in his voice.

      Dogar shook his head in immediate denial. It wasn’t possible. The New Republic would never kill innocent people and violate the neutral zone like that. Unfortunately the remains of the assassin hadn’t revealed anything as to his identity. But records had been found on a computer system in the Senate Complex implicating the New Republic in that as well, though Dogar knew they were planted. It was too easy. But who was really responsible, then? It just didn’t fit, not at all. “Get me the New Republic’s commanding officer in this sector,” he said.

     The officer turned to look at him in shock. “But… But sir, that’s nearly impossible! We’re in a communications blackout with them, and we don’t even know who the commander is. There’s no way we can...” 

     “Officer, someone has declared war on the New Imperium! We are going to find out who! Do it!” Dogar yelled.


Impossible or not, less than two hours later, Dogar was facing the New Republic commanding officer in Epsilon Sector, a Sullustian with a look of experience in his eyes. “Thank you for your quick response, Admiral Sovv,” he said. 

     “Admiral Dogar, my sincerely regrets over the loss of Diktat Ryskar D’larit. His work to ease our conflict is a testament to his character. I promise you on everything the New Republic was founded on and stands for, the New Republic had nothing to do with this.  Assassination is against our core values, and you know that we do not attack civilians.”

     Dogar nodded in agreement. “I already knew that. I just wanted to hear it from you. Still, someone did it, and they wanted it to appear that the New Republic was responsible. You had better take care. The New Republic may be in danger also.”

     “Thank you for your warning,” Sovv said, genuine gratitude in his voice. “Admiral, do you have any idea who is really responsible for this?”

     Dogar frowned. “I know exactly who it was. I just can’t prove it…”

     “Well, consider any aggression toward the New Imperium ended during this conflict. We would not want to take advantage. Perhaps this can be the catalyst to seeking a peaceful resolution between us,” Sovv offered.

    “Thank you most kindly,” Dogar replied. “We accept, and I sincerely hope that will be so. We will keep you informed of the situation.”

      Moments later he ended that connection, then established a link to Varnus. Moments later Xar’s face came onto the screen. 

     “Hello, Dogar,” Xar said in a pained tone. “I heard the news. I am… so sorry. Words cannot express what I have been feeling.”

     “We all are,” Dogar countered.

     “You will not believe what is going on here on Varnus… But I will let you go first. What do you need?”

      “I need to know everything you know about the Satyr System,” Dogar said evenly. “We’ve lost all contact with the system and our ships there.”

     Xar frowned. “I thought you knew,” he said. “You mean all our ships there are gone? All of them?”

     Dogar nodded slowly, fear creeping into his gut. “What do you mean, ‘you thought I knew’?”

     Xar’s expression soured even more. “Bad news, my friend. I have a man here who just showed up from Satyr with his droid. He was barely alive, running out of life support. We picked him up, and he told us what he saw, but not in what you might call peaceable terms.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “Here, I will show you a feed from some footage we got after we first revived him.” 

      The man hit something off-screen, and the image flashed to a medical ward, and a middle-aged man thrashing about on the bed, fighting the guards trying to hold him down. He was pale, and he seemed enraged at the officers around him. “You don’t understand! Don’t just stand there, there isn’t any time! We have to do something! They wiped out everything in the system. The planet’s population has been captured and taken as hostages… They’ve got these ships and technology the NI can’t stand up to! Listen to me, you have to save those people!” The feed cut off abruptly as Xar switched it off.

     “Can you shed some light on this, Dogar?” 

     “I’m afraid I can…” he said softly.

     Turning to the security officer in the Command Room, he spoke in a dark voice. “Bring me Moren Zein.”

As Zein was brought before Dogar, he knew he wouldn’t even have to ask. He could tell by the smirk on the man’s face. Zein’s hair was disheveled, and he looked as if he hadn’t had a pleasant stay in the brig. Nevertheless, his gaze was defiant, and he radiated arrogance and contempt.

      “We know what you did,” Dogar spat. “You’ve attacked a neutral population and destroyed New Imperium ships. You’re responsible for thousands of deaths, many of them civilian. And even though I can’t prove it yet, I know you had D’larit assassinated!”

      “Preposterous claims,” the man spat contemptuously. 

      “I’ve had enough of your lies! D’larit was a good man! Do you understand? A good man!”

     “I told you, Dogar,” the man said darkly, ignoring the guards beside him. “There would be an example. I admit that the Satyr system was our doing, to show you that we’re serious. Don’t be a fool! This was but a mere sample of our power! We can do anything we want, and you cannot stop us. I’m here to give you one final chance: Join us, or be swept away. Stand down all your military and prepare for the arrival of our forces. There is no other choice.”

      Dogar’s gaze bored into the piece of filth in front of him. “Take this man away. You are hereby under arrest for the assassination of Diktat Ryskar D’larit. And for the murder of countless officers and civilians on Haven. I believe you will find these charges far graver than the ones you have already been charged with. I will have you tried for war crimes, and when the evidence is compiled, you will get what you deserve, very soon.”

       Moren Zein shot him an incredulous look. “You fool. If you do this, you’re declaring war on us! You don’t have a chance!”

      “I’ve heard enough!” Dogar growled. “Get him out of here! NOW!”

     The guards moved to comply, grabbing the man by the arms and pulling him back. But Zein fought them, struggling forward, suddenly bursting with anger and rage. He screamed at them, cursing them in a language Dogar didn’t even recognize.

     “I warned you! Now the NI is finished! You’re all finished!” he screamed. Then the guards dragged him away, and the doors shut, immersing the room in silence.

     Less than an hour later Zein was found dead in his cell room, his wrists and neck slit wide open and a pool of blood covering the entire cell floor. None of his guards had seen what had happened to him.

    Less than an hour after that, Fleet Admiral Arfan Dogar was instated as emergency interim Diktat, and declared a state of emergency throughout the New Imperium.

    Then night settled on Tralaria, though few could sleep because of the news. Indeed, few would be getting much sleep for quite a while. No one knew what the next day’s dawn would bring. Everyone and everything seemed to be waiting, holding its breath, for the storm to hit, for the hammer to fall. And at that time, all eyes turned to Varnus…

The End of

The Return

Written by Joshua Ausley

New Imperium

Copyright 1999

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