Prologue - 37 years before the founding of the Republic
"The shadow was stayed, but only for one short breath.
And as the dawn of war came upon the galaxy unawares,
we stared into the very face of oblivion.”
Record of New Imperium History
Discovered 200 ANR
The tall man ascended the small grassy hillock, the gentle breeze stirring his royal-looking cloak out behind him. His long blonde hair was tied back behind his head, and his deep blue eyes stared out from his intricately tattooed face, surveying the wide grassy plain and gently rolling hills that expanded for miles around. The azure sky was filled with points of light that hung overhead like stars. But they weren't stars.
Lasitus reached the apex of the hill and surveyed his army filling the plain in front of him. Far away, at the top of another range of hills stood another force, barely in sight. Hundreds of thousands of warriors were on either side. The beauty of this pristine world, named Varnus on their star charts, seemed to deny what was about to occur.
On either side of him were his best commanders, Starnek and Goath. They watched their master with alert gazes, studying his every movement as if they could know his wishes by body language. But it was more than that - from his link with them through the Force, they could read his emotions, and even his thoughts, if he so allowed them to. And he could sense theirs.
"Such a beautiful world," remarked Goath, now turning to survey the vista around them. "A shame to waste it."
Lasitus nodded idly, fingering the hypersaber at his belt, the legendary blade Sha'kira. He remembered the massacre of his family on Golron VII. Now he would repay the galaxy - and the barbarous Jedi - for what they'd done. He smiled.
"Yes. These plains will run red with blood, this day. Are our forces assembled?"
"Yes master. Ready and awaiting your commands."
"And the enemy?"
Goath sighed audibly. "Not good. They outnumber us almost three to one."
Lasitus gave a low chuckle. "I would think we are used to such odds, my friend."
"I know, Master. But they say the leader is Delavous."
His smile faded at the mention of those words, and Lasitus narrowed his eyes. Delavous was an experienced Jedi Master. He'd been a true warrior once, in his prime, but with age he had diverted into a generalship position. Goath was wise to be wary of him, but Lasitus did not worry. "Leave him to me. The rest of you cut down their line forces. We shall drive straight through to their center and cut out their heart. And we will have this day."
Looking to either side, he surveyed the lines of his amassed army, a sea of warriors that covered the countryside around him. His force represented the height of Altarin'Dakor glory, an amalgam of countless variety in both race and skill. And among them were his Jedicon, those who could wield the One Force, who controlled and spurred on his armies. They were a match for any of the so-called Jedi facing them today. That, despite Goath's worries, was what would make them win.
Bringing up a pair of high-powered macro-scanners, he peered at the hills that held the seemingly endless line of enemy troops. At this magnification, he could make out individual soldiers, and the so-called Jedi Masters leading them. Their mouths were open in an anticipatory battle cry, inaudible at this distance. They were ready.
He lowered the macros and let a servant take it from his hand. "Very well. For the glory of the chosen ones, the Servants of Power, and the honor of the True Jedi, the time has come. We make our stand now. May it begin."
And begin it did. Lasitus shed his cloak behind him and stepped forward slowly, closing his eyes, attuning himself with the Force. He breathed in the cool, moist air around him, felt the soft earth give slightly under his boots. All his senses sharpened tenfold, his awareness of his beating heart, the growing grass, the passage of the planet around the sun. Even the passage of time itself. All was in harmony, in perfect order and design. The Force spoke to him, its will floating around the edges of his consciousness. He caressed it, stroked it, searching for that perfect connection, the essence of the One Force. And then he found it, and power and life beyond description filled him to bursting. When he opened his eyes again, it was a different man who now surveyed the valley below. His eyes had gone white, his consciousness converted into that of the perfect warrior, precisely attuned to the Force. He was nothing but a living weapon now. And that weapon had but one purpose: to kill.
Raising his arms high above his head, his fingers outstretched, he stepped forward and yelled out a scream of pure fury, a shrill battle cry amplified a thousand times through the Force. The sound carried all across the valley, echoing among his forces, spurring them on. The power of the One Force itself flew threw him, a torrent that threatened to sweep him away. Total power engulfed him, filling him with life beyond imagination. The cry was taken up and redoubled by his forces, thousands upon thousands of voices giving out a yell of fierceness and exhilaration. Warriors innumerable took up the call, and hundreds of Jedicon to lead them, as they brought their own lightsabers and blades up and ignited them, spears of bright color piercing the air. The earth shook and trembled beneath their cry of defiance, a scream that summed up all their unspent emotions toward the Jedi and those who opposed the Altarin'Dakor.
His battle cry flowed into a pure scream, as he lifted Sha'kira high above his head and activated it. A tremendous and deafening crack shot through the air, a bolt of lightning striking up at the sky as the super-intense blade shot into existence above him. Four smaller blades extended out at an angle to the main shaft, forming a protective guard of light-energy. The weapon hummed and clicked as its internal mechanisms aligned themselves, almost as if the blade itself was eagerly preparing for battle. At his sides, Starnek and Goath brought their own blades up, as well. Lasitus could feel the energy and adrenaline flowing through him, building in him the unstoppably fierce fighting spirit that allowed the Servants of Power to fight like no others.
"Na nakannda!" he cried. "Glacia na Altarin'Dakor! Undia na Jedicon!" All around him, the call was taken up. Their screaming and stomping created a palpable feeling of energy in the air, one that shook the very ground. Nothing would stop them now.
As one, his forces surged forward...
In the fury of battle, he struck, flowing amongst the swarming bodies, striking with the grace and power of the most dangerous predator. Warriors engulfed him on all sides, yet he slipped through them with the grace of a cat. Enemy after enemy fell before his blinding, unstoppable blade. Ducking the wild swing of one warrior, he stepped to the side and drew his blade across, cutting through not only that soldier but the one beside him, as well. Then, continuing forward, he met another attacker's downward stroke with his own, cleaving the enemy's vibrosword in two. Then, spinning around behind him, he took both the man's legs off at the knee. As the screaming soldier fell, Lasitus faced yet another opponent. He stood right in the center of the conflict, surrounded by both his army and that of the so-called Jedi. Death and violence raged all around him, the clashing of steel, the discharge of blasters and rail guns, the explosions on the ground from bombs or the crash of a fighter. Overhead, ships swarmed like insects, waging another battle, but one no less decisive. Their beams crisscrossed the sky, cleaving ships apart to crash down upon the armies below. But those explosions were quickly covered by the swarming mass of uncountable thousands, trampling the virgin earth of Varnus into muddy mire. Blood flowed freely through the air, splattering on him and others, creating a mist that hovered in the midst of battle.
Seeing the glowing blade of an enemy Jedi, he pushed his way forward, grinning eagerly in anticipation. The Jedi was moving as graceful as a falcon, cleaving through Lasitus' armies almost as easily as Lasitus himself. But he was far from being the Jedicon's equal.
The Jedi seemed to notice him at the last moment, turning and swinging his blade downwards at Lasitus. The Jedicon parried the strike, then reached out and quickly grabbed the man's wrist, pulling it back. Then, pushing the other man's blade up with his own, he slammed the butt of his saber into the man's face, throwing him backwards. Though blood streaked down from the man’s shattered nose, the Jedi recovered quickly and launched into a series of attacks against the Jedicon. But Lasitus was too fast. He blocked a down strike, which the Jedi pushed down until it struck the base of his light-guard. Then Lasitus pulled his blade across and over his opponent's, locking it between the blades of his guard. Then, with his enemy's saber trapped, he disengaged and swung Sha'kira across the man's chest, cutting a wide swath of his torso away in a spray of blood vapor.
But that wasn’t enough Jedi blood spilled. Turning from the falling opponent, Lasitus met another Jedi, whose face was contorted in a scream of horror for his fallen companion. The Jedi's eyes looked up to meet Lasitus', and they contained an angry rage that bordered on madness. But it was nothing compared to the perfect battle fury of a Jedicon. Licking his lips eagerly, Lasitus met the man's attacks stroke for stroke. The Jedi's strikes came in a blur as he threw his most advanced techniques against the Jedicon, but Lasitus parried every one. Then, meeting a horizontal strike, Lasitus slipped his weapon up and turned it over, catching the Jedi's blade down between the guard. He pushed forward, rushing up to the man. With his opponent's weapon caught between Sha'kira's main blade and guard, the Jedi could do nothing as the hypersaber slid up the blade and over the handle. As Lasitus bore on top of the man, the guards sliced into his enemy's hands. The Jedi screamed and dropped the lightsaber, but his scream was silenced as Lasitus split him from groin to shoulder in one powerful upstroke.
Bellowing in satisfaction and unbridled fury, Lasitus turned away from the corpse to face some fresh opponents. One warrior loomed before him, leveling his pulse blaster at Lasitus from point blank range. With his Force-enhanced speed, he could see and anticipate the rapid-fire blaster bolts as they came in. As the man fired, Lasitus dodged or deflected every single one with Sha'kira, then at the right instant swept his blade across and too the man's gun hand off at the wrist. His next swing cut the man in two at the waist.
Another enemy came in, bladed spear held high. Before he could strike, the Jedicon's foot flashed out, catching the humanoid alien in the stomach and sending him onto his buttocks. With a yell Lasitus swung down with all of his might, cleaving his head apart and splattering his legs with blood. Stepping over the mess, he screamed and pushed forward, driving Sha'kira deep through the stomach of another human. Then, he sensed another attack coming from behind. Holding the body up of his last victim aloft, and with his blade caught through the middle of the corpse, he reached for the man's sheath, drawing the vibrosword out. Turning, he struck downward with it, cleaving through the enemy's sword, neck, and shoulder in one powerful stroke.
Dropping the vibrosword, he drew Sha'kira out from the other's dead body, only to have it struck from his hand by the powerful downward strike of a lightsaber. Now weaponless, Lasitus turned to face the glowering Jedi who moved into view. He shrunk back, waiting for the perfect moment. As the Jedi raised his blade overhead, yelling in anticipation of the kill, Lasitus shot forward, catching both the man's hands with his left as the strike came down. Then, rearing back with his right, he struck with all of his Force-enhanced strength with his right. His fist blasted out the man's back, killing the Jedi instantly.
Retrieving Sha'kira with his blood-soaked hand, Lasitus stood and surveyed the status of the battle. All around, similar fights were raging, an intense struggle between the forces of the Jedi and the Servants of Power. Each side gave its all, for they knew that the only way to win was to kill all of their opponents. And neither side was about to lose until every one of them was dead.
It was then that Lasitus spotted the gem that sent his eyes wide. There, not a hundred meters from him, was the command platform of the Jedi Masters controlling the battle. And with his eagle-sharp vision, he could see their commander, Delavous, directing the battle from his command platform. The old man's bald head reflected the golden sun of Varnus; Lasitus knew it couldn't be anyone else.
With a burst of speed, Lasitus shot forward, just as an ambitious blast from an enemy fighter overhead obliterated the ground he'd stood on a second before. Barreling his way across the battlefield, ignoring everything else, he drove for the command platform, pushing aside enemy and friend alike, or in some cases leaping over them. When he got close the Jedi seemed to notice him. Pulsing lances of fire shot from the armored sides of the platform, missing him by centimeters. He ignored them, instead leaping high into the air. Flying toward the platform, he extended his free hand, releasing the power of the One Force in a powerful white beam of energy. The blast struck the side of the platform at its base, causing an eruption that obliterated the side and threw people everywhere. Then the repulsors collapsed, and the entire platform came crashing down to the ground.
Lasitus landed on the deck of the command platform after it'd barely settled. He touched down in front of the command seat itself. Delavous still hadn't recovered from the attack and crash. As he righted himself, the old Jedi's eyes met Lasitus' in a spark of recognition and fate. Then Lasitus swung his blade with all of his might, and with one powerful stroke clove the Jedi's head clean off. The head flew away to the side, the body slumping to the floor in silence.
His fury finally expended, Lasitus gave out a long sigh as he turned to look down at the battle. But the battle was over. All around him, his forces stood, battered and bruised, but surrounded by the dead bodies of the Jedi and their wicked forces. Looking intently across the bloody vista, he could see Starnek and Goath among his troops, still alive, as well as countless other Jedicon. All his vast myriad of races, incredibly varied yet allied to one common, honorable cause, stood as one. He nodded at his forces, all of them looking up to him with wide eyes. A feeling of intense pride swallowed him up, stronger than anything he'd ever felt before. Here, he'd made a last, seemingly futile stand against the overwhelming forces of the enemy. And here, on this day, in the largest ground battle in the war’s history, he had emerged victorious. They'd won.
We've won, he thought, filled with an overwhelming sense of pride and honor. "We've won!" Raising Sha'kira high, he let out a roar that summed up all his emotions, a victory yell that spread out over the battlefield. Standing on top of the enemy's command platform, his blood-soaked form must have seemed like a vision of glory and honor for his armies. Spurred on by their victory, his forces took up the call, raising their arms and weapons in a shout of victory, a shout of defiance and vanguard against the enemy. This day would be marked throughout history as the greatest defeat the Jedi ever suffered. This day would become known as the Blooding of the Servants, the day the Altarin'Dakor earned their right, their claim, to the galaxy. And that claim would never again be disputed…
With a gasp for air like that of a drowning man, Bren came awake. He sat up in bed, throwing the sweat-soaked sheets off of his body. The lights came on slowly - he didn't even recall turning them on with the Force - and he looked down at his sweaty hands in shock, expecting to see them stained red and black with the blood of his enemies. But they looked just as normal, pale and smooth, not rough and dark like they'd once been. Once been. No longer did he try to deny that he wasn't Lasitus. The dreams were too real for that, dreams that could only have been born of memory. And there was more than that. There was the visit, by a man who called himself Akargan. A man who called himself his friend, a long time ago.
I must find out more, he thought. I must find the answer. But, frighteningly, he knew that those answers could come from only one person: Akargan himself. Bren wasn't blind. He'd been watching the events unfolding throughout New Imperium space. He knew the Altarin'Dakor were returning. The Return. What part do I have in that? What part am I supposed to be playing?
But the silence held no answers for Bren. No answers; just memory of fading dreams, haunting shadows of his past, a harbinger of what was to come…
* * *
Varnusian Productions Presents:
Maarek Stele – former
Imperial Starfleet General and hero, then outlaw, now a Commander in the New
Imperium Starfleet and in charge of the Jedi Division’s space force – took one
last swallow of his ale and set it down next to his half-empty plate. Rising
from the table, he retrieved the sheet of flimsy that held his bill and made
his way toward the counter to pay. Most of the other tables around weren't
occupied at this time of day. The cozy, post-modern restaurant, which had been
established at the very top of the new spire that projected from the top of the
palace, was encased in floor-to-ceiling windows that offered a supreme view of
the capital city, the deep blue sky, and the surrounding Varnusian landscape.
Jutting two-hundred meters above the top of the
As he reached the check-out counter, he tossed the bill onto the table and waited as the lady brought up the charge. When he saw the price on the ticket, his eyes widened in surprise. "Hey, come on," he protested. "That's ridiculous."
The lady looked at him blandly. "They have to pay for this new thing somehow, you know."
"But this is my going-away meal," he pleaded. "I'm about to leave."
"You won't be back? That's the best news I've heard all day," she said with a cynical smile.
Maarek shook his head with a sigh, mumbling as he searched his pockets for the correct change. "Jeez, you'd think a guy's reputation would mean something around here…" Tossing the credits onto the counter, he turned to leave. "Xar might get to eat here free, but I don't even get a discount. The food stinks here anyway."
"Good riddance," he heard her call mock-pleasantly after him. Ignoring her, he walked over to the turbolift and got in, setting the controls back down to the ground levels of the palace.
turbolift descended, running down the side of the new tower, and as it passed
down into open air he was suddenly plunged into a superb view of the capital
His view was obscured as the lift went down through the palace itself, finally dropping him off in the center of the palace. He stepped out into the main concourse, second level. In the center of the massive room was the Royal Varnusan Symbol, a large white starburst encased in a perfect right triangle. The rest of the floor was white tiled marble, with a sloping double-staircase ascending from each side that led up to the second level, which formed a ring around the first. The main concourse was always bustling with activity, with beings of every race, status, and position imaginable. Jedi strode about in their full arrogant pomposity. Novices scurried quickly by, rushing to deliver their messages or perform services for higher-ranked members. Workers and citizens made their way on a myriad of unknowable tasks. There were even a few tourists taking a guided excursion through the main chamber.
Walking around the railed balcony, Maarek descended the staircase and crossed the seal on his way to his next destination. He'd almost entered one of the branching corridors when he heard someone call his name from behind. He turned around, seeing a middle-aged man striding purposefully toward him, traces of gray touching his brown hair and lines touching dark eyes that had seen much in their time. A prominent scar ran diagonally across his face. As he neared, the man slowed and gave a broad grin. "Hello Maarek. How have you been?"
"Jac Railler," Maarek said, returning the grin. "I'm good. And you?"
"Same as always," the man replied with a shrug. Maarek knew the man from a recent mission they'd gone on together. Railler was from the planet Haven in the Satyr system, or at least he was living there when the Altarin'Dakor had unexpectedly swept into the system. He'd escaped during the planet's subjugation, and managed to arrive at Varnus and warn the New Imperium of the impending doom of the system. It was too late to save Haven, but Jac had managed to help a few others find shelter so they could be rescued. After Varnus had been recaptured from Altarin'Dakor forces, Railler wanted to go rescue the survivors, and had asked Maarek to accompany him. Together, they'd taken a shuttle and Maarek’s fighter to Haven and recovered a woman named Alona and her son Juenor, along with a few others, and brought them back to Varnus for asylum. The refugees had made a new, if temporary, home in the palace, and Railler had stayed on as well. Jac said he wanted to remain and help out however he could in the coming conflict against the Altarin'Dakor, and Xar, impressed with his abilities, had given him a field commission and hired him to train the Palace guards.
"So," Jac spoke up. "I hear you're leaving. Is that right?"
Maarek nodded an affirmative. "Yes, I've been given command of my own squadron in the NI starfleet. Not that I didn't enjoy being here, but I'm just not suited for a desk job. I've got to be out there, in the action."
The older man smiled and placed a hand on Maarek's shoulder. "I know how you feel. I was the same way." Despite the man's warm expression, there was something in his eyes that seemed to go cold at those recalled memories. Jac had never really opened up about his past, as if he were trying to forget and hide from it. "Besides," he added, "I think someone with your talents would be better in that kind of a role."
Maarek shrugged. "I'm heading to Xar's office now, to get everything squared away. Of course, I'll be back here on Varnus from time to time, working with the Division forces." He took a moment to look around, taking in the view of the main concourse, and the Varnusian architecture. "Something about this place has really grown on me. It was home to me when I felt I didn't have a home anymore." He gave a cynical half-grin. "Now I realize that my true home is out there, in space, where it's always been."
"You'll be missed, but you'll always have a temporary place here in this spot of the galaxy," Railler smiled. Then his expression turned serious. "Don't get killed out there. Something really big is brewing. I think you can handle yourself, as long as you keep your cool and don't try anything stupid. Keep your friends close; they're what'll keep you alive. I should have learned that sooner, too. It almost cost me everything."
Maarek nodded, a bit marveled at how Railler could speak as if he knew him so well. "I will. Goodbye, Jac."
"Farewell, Commander," Jac said, giving a mock salute. Then he turned away and continued across the concourse.
Maarek steeled his nerves, wondering what Xar was going to say. His close friend, past and present, seemed to have changed after his abduction by the Altarin'Dakor. Though he'd come back on fire against the enemy, he seemed more and more distracted every day. There really wasn't any way to tell how he'd react. Only one way to find out, I guess, Maarek thought. Turning back down the corridor, he started toward the Grand Master's office.
"Enter," Xar replied to the knock at his office door. Tossing the report he'd been looking at onto the table, he leaned forward and put his head in his hands. Why am I sitting here doing this? he questioned himself. All the endless text, the status checks, progress reports… They don't mean anything. What was worse, he was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on such menial, everyday things. He was too distracted, and furthermore felt much too important to have to focus on minutia.
At least now he had an archival droid to help him out. Cozeeke, formerly Jac Railler’s companion, now stood in the corner, recording everything that transpired for him so he wouldn’t forget. Railler had given the droid to him after Xar approved of his mission to Haven, and after that, the commission to train the troops in the capital. He’d needed to delegate responsibility, and every little bit helped out. He just couldn’t do everything himself.
He didn't know if he was getting tired of having responsibility, or if the Altarin'Dakor threat looming over them made everything else seem insignificant. There was a war about to be waged. He needed to prepare everyone as much as possible. Yet that feeling, so strong at first, had begun to fade, and increasingly there was one particular thing that always came to the forefront of his thoughts…
Xar jolted up at the voice, mentally berating himself for not even noticing his visitor's entrance. He sat back in his plush seat and nodded at the man in front of the desk. "Maarek."
"Are you okay?" the man asked, a look of concern on his face.
"I'm fine," Xar assured him, folding his hands in his lap. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, you've heard the news, I'm sure," Stele started out hesitantly. "My request's been granted by the Senate Committee. My elite squadron is officially formed. I've assembled an excellent group of pilots from throughout the New Imperium. They're some of the best I've seen."
"Glad to hear it," Xar nodded. "I'm happy for you, and I don't doubt you'll do an excellent job."
"Thanks." Maarek paused, the signed audibly. "Look, I enjoyed being Wing Commander and working with the Division pilots. But after the attack, we lost almost seventy percent of our forces. All my hard work was wasted… I can't start all over again, even though Varnus seems to prolifically produce pilots of such high quality. It's not that I don't like it here; I love Varnus. But I'm just not suited for a desk job, I have to get out there and do something personally. I want to feel like I'm making a difference." He paused, waiting for Xar to answer.
Xar stared down at his lap. His thoughts wanted to wander again, already. But he also didn't want to deal too harshly with his friend, as much as he hated losing him. In Xar's opinion, stepping down to lead one single squadron, one of countless others in the New Imperium, was moving in the wrong direction if he really wanted to make a difference. But then, he argued to himself, Isn't that what I was just thinking, myself? Steeling his nerves, he spoke up. "Maarek, I fully understand your position. I really wish I could join you. I appreciate what you've done for us here, and wish you the best of luck in your new position. Congratulations."
Maarek opened his mouth as if to speak, then pushed away resignedly. Had he expected something more? "Well, all right then," he said. "I'll be around, from time to time. My squadron mates here on Varnus are prepped and ready to go, so if it's all right, we'll be leaving later today."
Xar shrugged, feeling the bit of distance coming between him and his friend. "Go ahead."
"All right," Maarek said, coming to attention and giving a sharp salute. Then he turned around crisply and started for the door. But as he left, Xar felt a pang of guilt for brushing him off so formally. Before Stele reached the door, he held out a hand and called out to him.
Stele turned back, raising his eyebrows. "Yes?"
Xar hesitated, then gave as much of a grin as he could. "May the Force be with you."
Maarek grinned back, his features brightening. Xar could see the gap closing once more. "And with you, my friend."
The door closed behind the commander, plunging the room into silence once more.
Xar let the quiet hang in the air for a moment before he spoke again, echoing the question that was running through his mind. “How long has it been since I’ve been back, Cozeeke?”
His new CO-Z-K droid barely hesitated before replying with smooth professionalism. “It has been twenty-two standard days, fourteen standard hours, and thirty-six standard minutes since you returned to the New Imperium from the Mizar system.”
Xar sighed again, feeling tired. It felt like much longer than that. More like years.
“Let’s take a walk,” he said, rising.
* * *
Icis Novitaar -
the Traveler - posing, as always, as Dean of the
He strode through bright and colorful corridors in the West Wing, probably the busiest wing of the palace during the day. The halls and rooms were well decorated, with live plants from all over, and beautiful tapestries and draperies hanging down from the vaunted ceilings. Many of them held crests and symbols emblazoned on the fabrics, most of the designs pertaining to Varnus and its culture. Soft, but definitely upbeat music played at various places, waxing and waning depending upon where he was. People of all shapes, sizes, and dress passed him on either side, not exactly avoiding the overly tall Jedi, but offering him the respect he was due. To Icis, it was really quite amusing, just watching the different types of people and their faces. But then, watching was something he'd been born and trained to do. He continued on.
Finally he left the busier sections and moved into quieter territory. The tall windows on his right looked down into some of the palace's splendid courtyards, and he understood why. In them he could see Jedi in training, practicing their various physical skills and some of the simpler Force techniques. Though this wasn't a Jedi exclusive area, and there were only a few places that were restricted to Jedi only, most people seemed eager to give them as wide a berth as possible. Icis wasn't going to say anything about them, though. Most of the Jedi were still like children in terms of knowledge and potential. Well, compared to him, anyway. But his own powers were only at half strength, so he didn't have a place to speak. That wouldn't be his style, anyway.
After several more minutes of walking down the now sparsely populated corridor, he finally found who he was looking for. Xar was standing by a window some distance away, accompanied by his new companion droid, Cozeeke. The dark haired Jedi Master stood opposite a tall, slim woman with long, braided auburn hair that ran down her back. From their posture and expressions, he could tell they were discussing something that they were at odds about. No, even arguing, he realized. On a whim, he brought his Force Mask into being and got closer. Oblivious to him, they continued as he listened.
"Forgive me if I'm being too frank," Rynn Mariel was saying, "but I don't understand the way we're doing things. You're pushing us so hard, training us to fight and to kill, but the way we're learning things isn't at all what I heard the Jedi used to do. I think the Force should be a close, personal thing, not just a weapon you can take and use any time you will."
Xar's expression darkened and he shook his head. "We don't have time to waste with useless diplomatic skills, Rynn. Those aren't going to be very useful with the Altarin'Dakor breathing down our backs. If we don't train our Jedi to fight, we won't stand a chance against them. We have to use the Force as a weapon against them, if we're to have any chance."
"Not enough time?" Rynn asked, cocking her head one side and staring across at him defiantly. "So instead you teach them to kill but don't teach them the responsibility to use it?"
"There aren't any rules with the Altarin'Dakor," he replied, his voice cold. He was obviously struggling to keep himself in check as he answered. "It's them or us. Soft feelings and hesitation will only get us killed."
"I can't believe you're telling me that," she breathed, shaking her head. "This… This isn't why I wanted to become a Jedi. I thought we were guardians. I though we protected people who couldn't protect themselves…" She looked down at the floor, and Icis could see tears starting to form in her eyes. "I wanted to help people, not hurt them," she whispered.
"You'll help people by destroying the Altarin'Dakor," Xar said adamantly. "If we don't stop them, they'll initiate the biggest slaughter in galactic history. I'm sorry, but we couldn't exactly choose whether or not to have the galaxy’s deadliest threat ever bearing down on us. We must do what we have to, Rynn. You are a weapon, a living weapon. Your power is the Force, and your objective is to destroy the Altari…"
"You're obsessed!" she broke in roughly, her green eyes boring fire through him.
"And you're out of line!" he countered. "I'm the Grand Master. You can do what I say, or you can get out of here. Nothing's holding you back. I don't care…" His words were rudely interrupted as her slap took him across the cheek, causing an audible crack through the air. His head barely moved, though, and as she drew back, he just stood there and stared at her distantly. Then, with tears in her eyes, she turned and ran off down the corridor, holding her hand. Icis listened as her footsteps padded off into the distance, her sobs following behind her.
"You'll understand, once you've seen them," Xar muttered after her, though she couldn't have heard. He turned back to the window, and pounded his fist on the railing in front of it. Cozeeke wisely kept his distance on the far side of the corridor.
"You were way too hard on her," Icis said, dropping his Force Mask.
Xar jumped as if he'd just been hit by a blast of Force Lighting. He spun around toward Icis, his expression just short of being in utter shock… "Blast you, I thought I told you never to do that again…"
"Apologies," Icis shrugged as Xar turned back to the railing. "You told Rynn to leave? What's gotten into you?"
"I don't know, Icis," Xar shook his head. "I'll make it up to her somehow." He sent a sideways glance toward the Traveler. "Come on. You of all people should know the threat that they represent. Don't you think we should be preparing for their return?"
"I think the wisest thing is always to keep a balance," Icis said smoothly. "Remember, even I didn't tell you about the Altarin’Dakor until you were ready."
"Ready? You waited until I'd already had a kriffing close encounter …"
"I didn't see that coming," Icis admitted. "But, looking back, would you have believed me otherwise?"
"I see your point. Let's walk," Xar offered.
As they continued on through the
West Wing of the
They emerged into open air, walking along the walkways that connected Palace buildings and walls in the Jedi training sector. Below, in the courtyards, Jedi were practicing in some of the more advanced techniques. Duels using stunsabers and lightsabers sent a familiar and unique buzz through the air. Others practiced using the Force in various ways, some causing head-sized stones to explode in showers of pebbles, others learning the basic concepts of energy manipulation, sending small sparks of energy from their hands against still and moving targets. Icis admitted that it was impressive, at least on an organizational scale. But there was a long way to go.
They passed by under an alcove in the side of the palace. Below was a large area where a line of Jedi Knights were practicing their abilities at levitation. Xar stopped there, looking down at the group. Icis stood beside him and followed his gaze. He smiled when he saw what the man was looking at.
Down below, various crates and other objects were piled up. The Knights had to lift as many as they could control and send them into various motions. Some of the objects were arranged like hoops or angles, while others were balls or spears. Other crates were simple weights, ranging from few kilos to several tons. Icis recognized several of the Jedi below. Among them were Sturm Brightblade, Huan Knor, Varanus Templar, and even his old pal “Omega” Kira, the object of many of his infamous invisibility pranks. Calling out the instructions was the former Quaestor of Ar’Kell and now Master at Arms, Adept Thrakus.
"I see Thrakus is back," he remarked. "How's Lorien?" The Adept had recently returned from a private vacation with this wife, Lorien Kal, a Dathomiran from the Singing Mountain Clan. They'd met on Dathomir during the incident they now called the Clandestine Conflict. Ironically, after all his chasing women, it was she who had caught him. Now she was pregnant, and it seemed the whole Division was ready to welcome their first Jedi baby.
"Five months now," Xar said. "I think Thrakus is getting a bit on edge." He gave a chuckle, and Icis realized it was the first time he'd hear the man laugh since the rescue. He gave a grin, himself, inside wondering what it was like for a human, a mortal, to go through something like that for the first time. Of course, he'd never actually had children himself, either as human or Traveler. "I think the whole Division is going to adopt this baby," he remarked jovially.
Xar nodded, as below Thrakus began barking out orders for the assembled Knights. He quickly instructed them to lift as many weighted crates as possible, starting with the heaviest, and while holding those, to run the smaller objects through a certain pattern.
First up was a newly raised Jedi Knight, Sim Zaphod, one whom Icis hadn't seen before. He had obviously been raised according to the accelerated program, and the flaw in their new system was quickly discovered as the Jedi only lifted the smallest crate and put only a few of the other items into a clumsy circle. Beside him, he saw Xar shake his head. Of course, they knew that the exercise wasn’t designed to measure Force strength. Growing stronger in the Force wasn't akin to building muscles. The size and weight of an object didn't matter so much, yet there were limitations according to one's power level. This exercise tested one's control over the Force and the ability to use several powers simultaneously. The final part of the exercise, where the Knight had to lift only the water out of a nearby bucket, was failed completely by the newcomer, no matter how hard he seemed to strain. It just splashed around, spilling out on the ground around it.
Sturm Brightblade went next, thrusting his hands forward in grand gesture. Not only was he able to lift the ton crate, but he put several different objects into a spinning circle overhead. Finally, he lifted half the water from the bucket in a rough spherical shape.
"Omega," Thrakus called out. "You're next."
Rubbing his hands together eagerly, Omega Kira put his hands forward and with a grunt of effort lifted the five ton crate off the courtyard floor. With that held aloft, suspended by one of his outstretched arms, he picked up half the objects on the ground and sent them into a spiral, the smaller objects passing through the ringed ones without touching the sides. He also succeeded not only in pulling all the water from the bucket, but keeping it in its cylinder shape, as well. As he set the objects down carefully, he was greeted to a small round of applause by the other Jedi gathered. Of course, he was really a Templar, closer in truth to a Crusader, with a lot of real combat experience, so his extra strength wasn't overly surprising.
Thrakus appeared ready to dismiss them, then checked his board as if remembering something. "Ah yes," he spoke. "Forgot about him. Where's Derek? Derek?" he called.
His eyes widening, Icis finally noticed the small boy sitting at the table near the corner. The dark haired ten-year-old had been one of the greatest finds they'd ever made. Having been kidnapped by a rogue Jedicon named Turles, it had been up to Xar, Icis, and an elite team of Jedi to rescue him and foil the Jedicon’s plans. Since the boy had no family left, he had willingly come back with them to Varnus to learn the ways of the Force. And had he ever. Already having taught himself much, he was now learning much faster in this more formal education. "So that's where he is," he whispered.
"That's right," Xar said, the pride in his voice almost palpable. "Just watch."
The boy rose from the books he'd been studying, looking up at the Adept beneath his dark bangs that came down on his forehead. "Huh?" was all he managed in a high-pitched voice.
Thrakus seemed to pause, then gave a sigh. "Let's see what you can do," he said nonchalantly.
The boy's gaze went past the Adept toward the assembled items. A bare second later, Icis smiled and shook his head in awe. Thrakus was still staring at the boy, but at the gasps and expressions of wonder coming from behind him he turned around… And looked up. All the weighted crates, from the ten ton down, as well as every single other loose item on the grounds, were floating quickly about in an intricately complex sphere above him.
"How…" Thrakus' words were cut off as a dragon made completely of the bucket’s water moved over in front of him, its long tail wrapping back around his body twice. Then it actually growled at him. Thrakus turned to look back at the boy, but he was already into his book again, not even glancing in the direction of his fantastic display.
"I think it may be time to move Derek up again," Xar mused idly. Icis agreed.
Once everything was back in place, Thrakus lined the Jedi back up, though he still looked a little shaky to Icis. "All right. Now we're going to split up into two groups. Group one will be doing lightsaber combat in the forward yard. Group two will be doing energy manipulation in rec. room three." He turned back to the boy, still absorbed in whatever it was he was reading. "You coming, Derek?"
"No thanks," the boy declined.
Apparently not seeing the issue important, Thrakus began to dismiss the assembled Jedi.
"Let's go," Xar offered. "I'd like to talk in my office."
"All right," Icis said. He started after the Grand Master, but kept an eye down in the courtyard. Suddenly, Derek looked up, and their eyes briefly met. The boy's face turned into a smile, and he quickly stood and closed his book up.
"I think we're going to have company," he said, coming up beside Xar.
Just then, more shouts of excitement and shock came from below. Icis turned to see what was going on…
And stopped dead in his tracks as Derek flew through the window and landed in front of them.
"I'm not even going to ask how he can do that," Icis began.
"Hey, Mister Kerensky!" the boy said enthusiastically. "And Mister Novitaar, too! How are you?"
"Hey, Derek! I'm fine!" Xar answered just as happily. Icis stared at the man incredulously. It was as if a switch had just been turned on, and he was a different person entirely.
"Hi," Icis responded casually. "That was some impressive work down there."
"That? Aw, that was nuthin," the boy responded.
He bests our top Jedi Knights, and says it's nothing? "Well, congratulations, nevertheless," he said. Not to mention that he's learned how to fly somewhere. That little rediscovery in itself would have had the olden Jedi rolling over in their graves.
"Mister Xar, can I ask you something?" the boy said.
"Sure, Derek. You can ask me anything," Xar said heartily, bending down. It struck Icis how attached Xar had become to the boy, almost as if he wanted to claim him as his own son. For some reason, something about that seemed a bit familiar.
Derek opened his mouth to speak, but before he could another person came up behind him at a trot. Icis recognized the placid face and long hair of Crusader Gui Sun Paan, Quaestor of House Vortigern. "Master!" he exclaimed. "I've been looking all over for you." Icis knew of the man, a recruit from another organization, who had risen quickly here. "I wanted to talk to you about my new appointment as…" he began.
"I'll be with you in just one minute," Xar said forcefully and clearly, staring up at the young Crusader. Then he looked down back at the young boy. "What were you saying, Derek?"
"Well, sir, you know I love to study and all," Derek said, "but I'm getting kinda bored with all these exercises. I want to learn something new. Can you teach me?"
Xar hesitated. "Well, I'd be glad to work with you personally, Derek. But some of our powers are pretty destructive, even dangerous. I know you're stronger than almost anyone here, and your control is superb, but I don't know if you're ready for some things yet."
“But I know I’m ready,” the boy argued. “I want to be the greatest Jedi there’s ever been!”
"Xar's right," Icis put in. “Some things can get pretty advanced. You're a bit hard to place, Derek. Your skill matches a Jedi, but your age slows you down. Granted, you could probably handle them, we just have to be careful, you understand."
"Sure I do," the boy replied. "Like they taught you your powers when you were still young. Of course, you're still kinda young, aren't you? But they still taught you to disappear. Of course, it is a little basic, but…"
Icis finally stopped gagging on his tongue enough to interrupt him hoarsely. "How… How do you know that?!"
"Don't worry, I won't tell anyone," Derek promised. "Thanks for saying you'll train me, sir," he spoke up to Xar.
"No problem, Derek. It'll be my pleasure," the Grand Master responded.
"Okay. Well, goodbye Mister Kerensky, Mister Novitaar!"
With that, he lifted off into the air and flew out the window just as he'd come in. Icis thought Gui Sun's jaw was going to hit the floor when he saw that.
"Gui Sun…" Xar started, then noticed the Crusader staring out the window. "Gui Sun! What was it you wanted?"
Abruptly the man seemed to snap out of it, and turned to face the Grand Master. "Yes, master," he said. "I wanted to thank you again for your trust in me to lead Special Operations. Ever since Kobota left, we haven't had a leader of the team. I won't let you down. Where you going to make the promotion official today?"
Xar opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. He seemed to think for a second, then finally replied. "Well, it's been unofficially made, and there's still a few things left to fix. It'll go into effect within a few days."
"Ah. All right," Gui Sun nodded. "And does the promotion come with it?"
Icis arched an eyebrow, and looked as Xar hesitated again. "We'll make the promotion once you've proven your abilities to lead.”
"Thank you, master," the man replied. I will serve you well. I'm going to focus all my energy on Black Ops."
"I'm glad, and proud of your loyalty," Xar replied.
"Thank you, and good day, Grand Master," Gui Sun said with a bow. "I'm well on my way to my ultimate goal. I will be the fastest person ever to reach Jedi Master." Then, with another bow to Xar and Icis, he turned and made his way off down the passageway.
At this rate, he may well be, Icis thought miserably, watching him leave. Then a thought hit him. “Head of Special Ops,” he mused. He turned back to Xar. "Wasn't he an Initiate last week?"
The man shrugged. "I guess everyone's advancing quickly, now. Desperate times, my friend." He gestured down the hallway the same way they'd been heading before and gave a mirthless grin. "Shall we be going now, before the Emperor himself shows up?"
In the Palace’s elaborate main hangar, on the metal walkway hanging from the ceiling, Maarek Stele walked around his beautiful TIE Avatar Wildfire, running a hand along its port solar panel. He caressed the cool armored hull that would soon see the cold vacuum of space. His elite unit, Inferno Squadron, was ready for flight. He was still a bit in awe that he'd received his request: his own personal squadron, which he had full control over, not tied down to any one ship or fleet. He chose the pilots, trained them, and decided - at least in theory - what missions or campaigns to devote his squadron toward. In the end, of course, he was still under the direct command for the NI Advisory Council and the Diktat, but having his lifelong dream finally fulfilled gave him an exhilarating feeling. The last time he'd commanded a squadron had been shortly after the Battle of Endor, under Grand Admiral Thrawn, and under Imperial restrictions. Those were now gone, he realized, unable to hide a smile.
He stood back from his ship, taking in the line of fighters hanging from the scaffolding docks. Unlike most TIEs, the Avatars had landing gear of their own, and didn’t have to be launched from a special holding rack, but they had that ability, as well. And what a ship it was, he remarked. Maarek still admired the sleek next-generation vessel, even after months of flying the new design. The body was smooth and aerodynamic, somewhat like a flattened Missile Boat hull, from which it was derived. The solar panels on either side were identical to that of the TIE Advanced, known as the TIE Avenger these days, only these were turned outward, opposite to that of the popular design. The ball cockpit so common in the TIE design was gone, replaced instead with a modified missile boat cockpit, which offered a superior view to all sides. Comparable with the TIE Defender in almost every respect, except its cheaper price, the Avatar was a formidable fighter that Maarek believed could become the mainstay of the NI Starfleet. He’d passionately argue down anyone who dared call the ship an “ugly”, or a hybrid. The ship incorporated many new technologies and advancements in miniaturization. An improved onboard AI computer and targeting system, the next line of Twin Ion Engines, and improvements in hull strength and shielding were all prime features. The ship held four wingtip-mounted, upgraded laser cannons and two ion cannons beneath the cockpit itself. Two advanced missile launchers on either side of the cockpit, and a special missile rack on the top of the hull, carrying five advanced torpedoes or heavy rockets, all combined to give the Avatar tremendous firepower at its disposal, as well. There was even room for a beam weapon option to be installed. All in all, he was very pleased with the new ship class.
Hearing the clank of footsteps on the racks behind him, he turned to see the rest of his new squadron emerge from the entrance, garbed in the new NI pilot uniforms. These suits, while similar in appearance to the standard TIE Pilot Uniform, were much more advanced. Made of sturdier, lighter fabric, the suits were much less bulky, allowing a person their full range of motion. The gloves and boots were no thicker than those that might be worn on a cold day on Varnus. Finally the control panel on the front was gone, as the sleeker, lighter pilot's helmet now plugged into a socket in the fighter itself. Since their cockpits had atmosphere now, as with most NI fighters, more comfortable designs like this were available. The suits themselves were the dark, NI-standard gray, with the NI symbol emblazoned on the shoulder pads and helmet.
As might be expected, his squadron was a motley-looking group, since he'd scoured the entire sector searching for the best, most trustworthy pilots. Maarek had never had the privilege to command a finer group than elite Inferno Squadron. Out of countless candidates over the year it'd taken him to assemble the full unit, these were the best of the best. Some were experienced NI pilots, while others were naturals he'd found and trained. Most of them had already seen combat against the Altarin'Dakor, when they'd had to flee and then retake Varnus from the enemy. Now, he knew their next trial would be all too soon.
Though most of the dozen were humans, that didn't matter to him. Three of the pilots were from Varnus itself. Rann Wosper was Inferno Two. Of medium height, and slim, he was the perfect size for a pilot. He was also the prankster of the group - since it seemed all squadrons needed at least one - and had the habit of always brushing back his blonde hair that kept standing straight up. Inferno Five, Bast Vlagen, was actually his first find. Already an accomplished Imperial ace, then New Imperium pilot, the 46-year-old, dark-skinned veteran was often the squadron's rock of stability and confidence. His tried and true tactics and experience had proven invaluable in helping Maarek assemble the rest of the unit. Bast held a lot of respect for Maarek, due to his fame as an Imperial pilot, and held no ill feelings because Maarek had left the Empire to rescue his father Kerek. Because of his experience, he was the second of Maarek's two flight leaders.
The final Varnusan was Petur Kien, a young man Maarek had chanced upon with immense, yet innate, piloting skills. It truly seemed that Varnus was a breeding ground for skilled pilots, soldiers, and Force users. Perhaps it was a tribute to the hardiness of the people themselves, though Maarek didn't know if that was true. Petur might have been his best pilot, second only to Maarek himself, but the young man lacked experience and judgement that could only come with time. When that time came, Maarek knew that he would have more than a match in him. A strong friend and loyal wingman, Petur occupied Inferno Ten.
The rest of the pilots were just as diverse and unique. Inferno Three was Tanya Vinikoro, a tall, pale-skinned woman with short dark hair. A former pilot for Fleet Admiral Majere, she had served with that fleet since its retreat from Byss, until volunteering for Maarek's elite squadron. With nerves of quadranium and an eye that could take out a womprat at a thousand meters, she was a stable addition to his flight. The last member of the flight, Inferno Four, was actually a Sigman, known to themselves as the Kaav'Klan. The bipedal, insectile inhabitants of Sigma Prime were amiable, fun-loving allies of the NI. Kikitik, as he was named, had a custom Avatar cockpit and communicated via translator. Astonishingly, yet not unexpectedly due to the comical habits of the Sigmans, Kikitik often hung out with the other resident prankster, Rann Wosper.
Flight Two was led by Bast, Inferno Five. Six was Salle Darl, a former Dark Lightning Strike Fleet pilot and native of Kolath, its base of operations. She was a good-natured and skilled member of the squad, with dark hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes. Seven was a man named Gren Pabos. Gren was one of the Renastasian refugees who had taken shelter on Ravick in the Moro System. House Vortigern of the Jedi Division had taken the refugees in, and they now were eager to give something back to the NI. Gren was probably the best Renastasian pilot they'd found. Eight was Kei Nomos, a fiery red-headed woman from Laan, the habitable planet in the Talas System. Maarek had discovered her incredible piloting skills after she’d successively won the flying tournaments on Laan. The competitions were to navigate the treacherous, craggy ravines called the Path of Fury that most of the planet’s surface was covered with. It was a tournament that many pilots did not survive. The canyons were excellent training grounds, and Nomos had proven her worth in winning the tournaments.
Flight Three was
led by a Sullustian named Vlini
Makor. The alien was a former Imperial defector who
had served with the
Maarek ascended the sunken pit ladder to meet them as they formed a loose group at the top of the rack ready area. As he approached, the squadron snapped to a respectful, yet informal attention. Rann even gave him a sarcastically overemphasized salute. Maarek had done his best to facilitate relations and comfort between members so that they might work better with one another. Of course, that meant if anything ever happened to one of them, the others would feel the loss that much more sharply. But that wasn't something he intended to let happen. He nodded to his subordinates.
"Everyone ready to depart?" His words were met with a series of affirmations. Since most of their personal belongings would remain on Varnus, and the more necessary items were already onboard the Transport in orbit and would follow them wherever they went, the squadron was ready to lift off.
"All right then," he said. "Get to your fighters and run through the pre-flight sequence. We take off in five minutes."
As his squadron broke up toward their individual fighters, Maarek turned around and descended the ladder once more. He moved over beside the cockpit; twenty meters below, the deck was clearing of personnel. Walking across the link, he stepped into the deep cockpit and settled down into the dark, plush seat. The cockpit canopy fell down overtop him and sealed, cutting off all sounds except the whirs and beeps of his instrument panel and the humming purr of his engines. The flight check and warm-up ran as he gently took hold of the flight controls, feeling the awesome power of the ship vibrating through him. There was no feeling like that of sitting inside the cockpit of a fighter, a ship that could do almost anything at his command. When he opened his eyes again, not realizing he'd closed them, he could see the Heads-Up-Display painted onto the canopy glass, and beyond that, the open-air exit of the hangar itself.
"All ships, report in," he ordered into the commlink. Within seconds, the other pilots responded that they were ready to go. Then, with final clearance from Palace Control, he activated the lock controls, and the ship suddenly plunged downward like a rock.
But then, ten meters off the ground, his repulsorlifts kicked in, holding him steady above the gray and tan deck. Then, with a rush of nostalgia, he pushed the controls forward, and his TIE Avatar shot forward with such acceleration that it slammed him back against his seat. The tunnel toward the hangar exit sped forward at a blur, the light at the end growing larger, larger…
And suddenly his ship shot out into the air, blasting its way overtop roofs and courtyards. He pulled back on the stick, watching as the skyscrapers not far off fell beneath him, to be replaced by a gorgeously blue sky punctuated with lacy white clouds.
He brought the fighter around in time to see several of his squad mates burst out of the hanger entrance, then brought the controls back and pulled a slow, lazy loop around the Palace's central spire and the observation lounge at the summit. To think that just a few hours ago he'd been in there, ground-ridden, forced to trudge his way up and down using a lift… Now he could fly its length in less than a second. Nothing could compare to such a sense of freedom and power. Outside a fighter, life was nothing.
He rose into the sky quickly, the massive city fading into a mass of gray surrounded by splotches of tan and green. The Wildfire passed through the icy clouds, slowly rising as he allowing his squadron to catch up. Soon, all ten fighters were established in a delta formation, cleanly slicing their way through the stratosphere. On his command, they pulled upward, pushing the throttle to the maximum as they burned for orbit. Ahead, outside his canopy, the blue sky began to fade away, replaced by the black background of space.
Within moments, the squadron had left atmosphere, rising away from the serene blue-green planet of Varnus. Maarek led the squad to the standard waypoint for traffic, where the white hull of the Modified ISD-II Stormwatch, newly repaired from damage during the Battle of Varnus, and the dark shape that was the Dungeon Ship Lord Keto, both were rested, suspended in space. After the loss of every orbital installation and satellite, including the system’s space platform and two Golan-III Defense Platforms, the remaining Division capital ships were all that was left to protect the homeworld. Though such a meager force would be insignificant if the Altarin'Dakor decided to strike again, it was enough to dissuade any pirates that might be seeking an easy target in the convoys that were helping to re-supply Varnus after the earlier attack. Thanks to starfleet escort, the convoys had made it to Varnus safely; the Division’s ships would keep them there.
Turning away from the pointed white dagger shape of the Stormwatch, Maarek set course for their charted hyperspace waypoint and locked in their flight path. Moments later he received the proper clearance from Varnus Command, and his squadron was ready to go. “All flights,” he spoke up. “Confirm course trajectory and sync in with my navicomputer.”
“Five here,” Bast answered. “Flight two locked in and ready to go.”
“This is nine, Flight Three is set on your coordinates,” Vlini chimed in.
Maarek nodded. “All right then. Course set; hyperspace in ten seconds.”
As the timer ran down, Maarek took one last long gaze at the pristine blue-green world that was Varnus. He knew it might be a while before he returned. If so, he wanted to burn the image into his mind, of a place that he could call home after years of running. Whatever happened, he knew now that he was in the right place. This was where he was meant to be.
The stars ahead stretched into starlines, and together the ten TIE Avatars shot into the endless swirling sky of hyperspace. Toward the New Imperium’s Capital. Towards history that would soon be made.
Icis followed Xar through the deeper levels of the palace, which saw a bit less traffic than the outside, and mostly that of Jedi. And there was a distinctly different atmosphere as they made their way to Xar’s office. Obviously, the new training methods being placed upon them, coupled with the threat of invasion constantly bearing down upon them, had changed the feelings between the different Jedi. And between the Jedi and the Grand Master. As he looked at their faces as they passed, Icis could see something different in their eyes. Ever since the new program had been installed, since the focus was on combat and the acquisition of power, the Jedi looked at Xar and the others a bit differently. Some of the respect was missing, ever since Xar had come back from his capture. Ever since he’d changed. These new Jedi were being trained to use their powers, but without the intense self-control that was needed. This made them, as Xar himself pointed out, little more than living weapons. Weapons to be used against the Altarin’Dakor. To be sent forward to die, and the survivors would be made stronger by that use. Now some of the other Jedi, especially those newly-raised to Knight or better, held in their gaze something different. Almost disdain. Almost… rivalry. Icis wondered… Could this be the right way? Were they working to save the New Imperium… or destroy it?
His pondering was interrupted – and his fears confirmed – as they came upon two Jedi Knights, newly raised by the look of them, arguing in the middle of the corridor. Whether by chance, or some twist of fate, his worries were being manifested, and Xar was right there to see it happen. This wasn’t going to be good.
The two young men, probably in their early twenties, were too engaged in their argument to notice the two onlookers. Icis and Xar stopped to wait it out and see what would happen.
“I told you,” the mid-sized, dark-haired man addressed his blonde companion. “That simulation was fixed! There’s no way I could have made it because it was set up!”
“That’s a load of flaz, and you know it,” the other man responded angrily. “The warden in charge settled the matter already. You’re just whining like a stupid loser!”
“Loser, eh?” the other man responded coldly. Suddenly his lightsaber hilt was in his hand, and he shook it at the blonde man’s face threateningly. “Be careful how you address me. I’ll prove the matter right now, if I have to. From now on I…” His words were broken off into a cry as, in one motion, Xar moved in, snatched the weapon out of his hand and slammed a fist across his face that send the man reeling. He hit the floor sliding, then slowly turned over and stood up wild-eyed, ready to fight. His gaze diminished only slightly as he saw who it was that had hit him. “Who the…”
“You fool!” Xar stopped him. For all the anger in the younger Knight’s expression, it was nothing compared to the mask of rage covering Xar’s face. He clenched the man’s saber in his right hand, shaking it. “Never draw this thing unless you intend to use it!” he practically screamed. Then, with a grunt of anger and frustration, he hurled the weapon away. The cylindrical object flew down the corridor, colliding somewhere down the tunnel with an audible crash.
“My lightsaber!” the Jedi yelled in dismay, reaching futilely after the weapon. Then he turned to Xar, his expression full of hurt and anger. But Xar was standing there, wide-eyed, daring the younger man to take him on. Wisely, the Jedi seemed to take the idea and slid back to a sitting position against the wall. “You don’t know what that means to me,” he said softly.
Xar gave a short laugh that was devoid of any amusement. “What garbage. Besides, you care nothing for it. If you did, you would never use it with such carelessness and ill-restraint. You don’t deserve to be called Jedi.” He turned to the other man, who was still standing up against the wall, and gave him a dark look as well. Seeing nothing left to challenge him, Xar turned away and strode purposefully down the corridor. As the young Jedi tried to gather themselves together, the dark-haired man nursing his jaw, Icis passed them quietly and followed the Grand Master.
He caught up with the man a few moments later, matching Xar’s broad strides across the stone-tiled floor. “I can’t believe what almost happened,” he remarked.
“I should have expelled that fool right then and there,” Xar answered. “This training is not working… The Jedi are too hostile, too immature.” He shook his head quickly. “My plan isn’t going to work. We’re not going to beat the Altarin’Dakor, we’ll destroy ourselves first.”
Icis opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t find anything that would sound comforting to say. In a way, Xar was right. But the fault wasn’t all his. His motives were pure; he wanted to defeat the Altarin’Dakor. And unless something could be done, something to make their own Jedi stronger and learn faster, they wouldn’t stand a fraction of a chance.
When they finally reached the door to the office, Xar led them inside, shutting the door behind and activating the room’s full lighting. He started to make his way toward the large wooden desk, but halfway across the room, he stopped, standing in the middle of the carpeted rug. He paused there for several seconds, his head down. Icis understood his posture well. Whatever it was the man wanted to discuss, it must be important. Cozeeke walked past them both and took up his place in the corner. A tingle of anxiety crawled its way up Icis’ spine, as if he could sense some bad news coming on. Finally he heard Xar whisper, “That’s it…” Then, suddenly, he turned around to face Icis, his eyes full of resoluteness.
“Icis, I’ve made a decision. This is something I feel I must tell you; you’re the first person who’ll know. This job and its rigors have begun to really grate on me. I don’t see the point in such meticulous tasks that accomplish nothing. My methods have failed, and I’m no good to the Division as a leader anymore. I’ve begun to lose interest, and more often there’s only one thing that my mind keeps coming back to. And I can push it aside no longer…” He paused, as if struggling with his decision one last time. Then, with a long sigh, he let it out. “I’m leaving to look for Zalaria.”
As the man’s words came out, they didn’t make sense at first. For an instant Icis wondered if he’d really understood the man correctly. But when he saw the man’s dead-serious expression, the words rang home, and he felt like he’d been hit between the eyes with a blaster at point-blank range. When it hit him, he must have jumped as if he’d seen Malduke himself alive and standing in front of him. He opened his mouth to speak, but at first nothing could come out but stutters. “Wha… What did you say? You can’t be serious!”
“I am, Icis. I can’t deny my feelings any longer. If I don’t find her, and see her again, it’s going to kill me.”
“But she’s evil, Xar!” Icis found himself saying, the words coming out of their own accord. “Don’t you remember what I said? She’s one of THEM!!”
“I know that!” Xar snapped back. “Or at least, I know that’s what you’ve told me. But you didn’t see her before, and you don’t know what I feel through my bond with her. So stop feeding me that!”
“I can only tell you the truth,” Icis countered. “I have seen her, long before you were born, long before this invasion. I was in their galaxy. Would you like specific details? Want to know how many innocent people she’s killed?”
“No!” Xar yelled. “I don’t!” He threw his hands up, giving an exasperated sound as he turned and moved over beside his desk. “I don’t know what to think, Icis. All I know is that ever fiber of my being is pulling me towards her. I can’t deny that, and I can’t explain it, any more than I could explain breathing.”
“It’s the Bond, Xar,” Icis rationalized, moving toward him. He was beginning to think more clearly now, though this was something he hadn’t expected – and had hoped would never occur. “It’s not genuine love, its infatuation. She controls your Bond, so you feel yourself drawn to her whim.”
“Maybe, but I can’t ignore it.” He sighed, and for a moment the two stood there, in silence.
Finally, Xar spoke up again, softly. “You know,” he said, “I caught the bouquet at Thrakus’ wedding. Somehow, I knew I was going to be the next person who would fall in love, who would find the person they wanted to spend the rest of their life with. I always knew she was waiting for me. And now I think I’ve found her. How can I not do something about that? I have to know.”
He’s talking like a child, Icis thought. What has driven him to this? Why didn’t I see it coming? With a flash of irony, he realized it was probably because he was so sure that Xar was the One, he’d looked for nothing else. “But Xar,” Icis protested. “Surely you can’t feel that way about Zalaria. You hardly know her. If you’re feeling empty, lonely, there are other people out there. What about you former fiancee, Illiana?”
Xar looked at him in exasperation. “Illy’s in a mental hospital, Icis. She doesn’t even know who I am. Every day she prays to Kronos to release her from her so-called prison here. My future with Illiana has been over for a long time. I realized that even before I saw her alive again.”
“I’m sorry, Xar,” Icis admitted, trying to understand what the man was feeling. “I didn’t know it was like that. But surely you can’t believe that you and Zalaria were meant to be together. If she wasn’t Immortal, you’d be separated by a thousand generations. How can you explain that?”
“Maybe its destiny,” Xar shrugged, ignoring Icis’ incredulous look. “But I can feel her, through our bond. I know her better than I could ever know anyone else. That’s what being a Jedi means. We’re tied together. Bonded. It’s meant to be.”
“That’s just not good reasoning, Xar. What about your brother? What does he think about this?”
“It’s none of his business,” Xar retorted. “He’s not in the same position as I am with her.”
Icis stared at the man incredulously. He could tell Xar’s mind was made up, perhaps more firmly than he’d ever seen it. He was willing to fight over this, as much as necessary. And their argument was just driving a wedge between them. But he couldn’t stop. Not when he knew the truth. “There’s nothing I can do to stop you from this, is there?”
“No, Icis, I’m afraid not. I have to find her, or die trying. Nothing else matters to me here.”
“What about the Altarin’Dakor?”
Xar shook his head. “As it is, there’s nothing more I can do. My influence wouldn’t alter the outcome. Maybe this will help, and it’s better than nothing. I’m no good to the New Imperium as I am now.”
“That’s not true!” Icis retorted. “Listen to me, Xar. If you go looking for her, if you venture into their space, you will die. There’s no doubt about that. Even the chances of making it to her are almost nothing. And what could happen if you did might be even worse. I can’t deny it, Xar. She’s a ruthless butcher. I’ve seen a lot of evil minds, a lot of killers and psychopaths in my time, believe me. And she ranks right up there with the best of them.”
“I didn’t see any evidence of that when I was with her,” Xar said in a soft tone. “Nor have I felt it through the Bond. Even if she was like that once, I don’t believe it anymore.”
“People don’t change, Xar. Not easily, and it usually takes centuries, or some life-altering event. But she’s been this way for thousands of years. The Warlords don’t change. And even if she had, would you willingly go to her, knowing what she once was?”
“I can’t say that,” Xar answered, a frustrated look on his face. “Not before seeing her. You said it: what she did was a long time ago, millennia. The times back then were different. The culture she is in is completely different.”
Icis shook his head adamantly. “No way. That’s just wishful thinking. This isn’t the same.” He paused, trying to form words to describe what he was feeling, so that he could somehow show Xar how horrible the Altarin’Dakor truly were. Xar was stubborn, all right, as stubborn as a Varnusian could be. But he didn’t believe that he would throw everything away to succumb to the power of the Lady of the Night. He’d always thought the man stronger than that.
“How many people have you killed?” Xar asked suddenly. “Or me? Or any of us?”
“Look.” Icis moved over to grip the back of one of the office chairs, staring into the flame of a glowlamp. “I’ve made mistakes in my life, and I’ve had to live with them. But I’m telling you, this is different.”
He looked back at the other man, hearing a cynical laugh. “What are you talking about, man?”
“Because…” Icis began, his voice going cold in the simplicity of his thoughts. His mind raced back to another time, another place. “She loved it. Because… she took pleasure in killing.” Thoughts wanted to well up inside of him, of times that he’d taken pleasure in killing, too. But he wasn’t about to tell Xar that. He had to dissuade the man somehow, or all was lost. But there’s no way, this time…
“You may be right, but that’s something I’m going to have to find out on my own,” Xar said, affirming his thoughts. “I’m sorry.”
Icis pressed his grip into the back of the chair, but he could contain his anger no longer. “Fine. Do what you want to, then…” He blew out a hard sigh. “That’s just great! So I’ve lost you, too, now. You’re as good as dead, and I’ve failed again. My whole purpose, everything I’ve sacrificed, is for nothing. There’s little for me to do but find some hole to hide in while the Altarin’Dakor wipe out everything.” He sighed, feeling all the frustrations that had built within him surfacing now. What did it matter, all hope was lost, now...
He turned to look at Xar, not bothering to hide his expression, and continued. “If you want to abandon everything you love and believe in for this woman, go on. Blast it, I should have known. This makes two failed hopefuls, two people that I was drawn to, that I believed could actually stop the return of the Altarin’Dakor. But I’ve lost you, too.” Unable to contain his disgust and anger at such a foolish human, he turned around and stormed toward the entrance, the chair falling over behind him. As he reached the door and pushed it open, he turned back to look at the man he’d called a friend.
“Just one more thing,” he said, his voice lowering to a serious tone. “Assuming you reach her alive, and go to her, I just want you to know…” He paused, sad to say the words that he knew were true. “You won’t want to come back, Xar. You can say this is for the good of the New Imperium now, but once you’re there, all of it won’t matter at all. The NI and everyone in it - no, the whole galaxy - can burn, for all you’ll care. You’ll just want to stay there, with Zalaria, forever. And nothing else will matter. Nothing.”
The door closed behind him, leaving Xar to his own. Icis had finally realized, now, that for all his knowledge and power, he couldn’t change the mind of someone, not really. But with Xar abandoned to an almost certain death, there was nothing left in the New Imperium for Icis Novitaar. It was time for him to be going as well…
* * *
Attrid Xoan, Jedi Crusader, sat up in his quarters as he heard the chime to his door sound. “Just a minute,” he called out in his deep, ringing voice. Tossing the magazine aside, he swung his feet off the couch and reached for his shirt. His dark-skinned torso was well-muscled, and he was still sore from his last, intense training session. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a closely-shaved head and a thin black mustache and goatee. His impressive form was enhanced by a relatively recent addition: his right arm was completely mechanical from the shoulder down, cut away in an intense battle only a few months before. The artificial limb didn’t hold skin; instead he’d opted to leave the metal casing showing through. The arm itself felt almost normal; the medical facilities on Varnus were first class. Doctor Vannik, in charge of the infirmary, had treated him well. The absence of cosmetic effect of skin didn’t decrease his feeling in the arm; he knew that either way, it was simply a series of signals sent through the nerves to his brain.
Taking the unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt, he slipped his mechanical arm through first, then eased his left in. He pulled it on firmly, but left it unbuttoned as he rose and made his way toward the door.
He was completely surprised when, as the door slid open, he saw Rynn Mariel standing there, practically in tears. He could see where she’d been crying, wet steaks running down her cheeks. He’d never seen her this shaken up before. “Rynn!” he said, leaning his head to see if anyone was in the corridor behind her. “What’s wrong?”
“Sir…” she started, then shook her head as if trying to compose herself. “I just came here… You were my mentor, I thought you’d be able to help…”
“Okay, its okay,” he soothed. “Come on in.”
He turned and walked back into the room, Rynn following him. His quarters were large, as many of the Jedi rooms were, complete with a sitting area and separate bedroom, refresher, and study area. His own quarters were at the side of the palace where it sloped down like the side of a pyramid, facing the east side. As such, he had a long window the length of the far wall, through which sunlight would bathe the room slightly in orange morning light.
“You want a drink?” he asked, moving towards one of the wooden cabinets. “Looks like you could use one.”
“Sure,” she said, coming to at a stop quietly in the center of the room.
He opened the cabinet, taking out the proper flask, and poured two glass cups of the brown liquid. Then, putting everything back, he took the glasses and walked back towards her, offering her one of them.
“Thanks,” she said, taking the glass and a sip of the drink. “I think I did need it.”
“Want to talk about it?” he asked, holding his glass lightly in hand.
“Yeah…” she answered, taking a moment longer before speaking. Finally, she gave a sigh. “I had an argument with the Grand Master.”
Xoan’s eyes widened as he listened to her relate the story. To think that she’d actually slapped him… But then, judging from the circumstances, he was inclined to agree with her action.
“He told me I could leave the Division,” she said, the pain in her voice obvious. “That’s all I mean to him. I’m nothing but a tool, completely expendable.”
“That’s not true,” he said, putting firmness in his tone. “Xar has been acting strangely lately. But he doesn’t mean it, Rynn. You aren’t going anywhere. This is where you belong.”
“I thought that,” she admitted softly. “Now I’m not so sure. This isn’t what I’d pictured at all. At first, he seemed to be so admirable and good-willed. He was everything I’d pictured a Jedi Master to be: wise, powerful, unrelenting. Mature, even though he is still young for a master. His strength was what spurred me on. But now… He’s changing. Gotten worse ever since his rescue. What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” he sighed. “We can’t imagine what he went though… He actually died, so I’ve heard, or was at least legally dead for a while. Something like that… It can change a man, Rynn. ” That seemed like a big understatement. What would it feel like to actually die?
“So what can we do?” she asked. “He seems to have lost all sense of restraint. Everything he does focuses around the threat of this… Altarin’Dakor,” she said, struggling over the strange word.
He looked around the room, his mind wondering why the whole galaxy seemed to be going wrong all of a sudden. “Look, I don’t pretend to know what it is we’re up against here. But I’ve seen what they did to us last time, and it wasn’t pretty.” He cringed at the memory of that Jedicon cleaving his arm off. “I don’t know if this new training is doing any good or not…” He paused, thinking about Xar’s words toward Rynn that she had related to him. “But you’re right,” he said resolutely. “We’ve got to do something about it. We can’t let things stay like this, or the whole Jedi Order’s going to fall apart.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “We’ve got to bring the old Xar back, somehow. So what do we do?”
His reply was cut off as a shrill alarm broke out over his commlink on the table. Moving over toward it, he set his glass down and brought his commlink up to his ear, listening. When he brought it back down, he turned to look at Rynn, who stared at him expectantly. “We’ve got a problem,” he said.
Gui Sun Paan made his way cautiously through the VIP hangar bay, trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. No one else was present; nevertheless, he slipped around the side of a small transport carefully on his way to where he knew the Grand Master was. He moved up between two more ships finally coming up to the private shuttle where Xar himself was stuffing supplies into one of the container holds. Surprisingly, the man hadn’t noticed his approach. Moving forward tentatively, he called out, “Grand Master?”
“Ouch!!” Xar yelled as he jumped in surprise, banging his head on the inside of the compartment. He pulled himself out spun around, barely holding back a furious glance. “Gui Sun… How’d you know I was here?”
“Strange things have been going on today,” Gui Sun replied. “I’ve heard how bad things are getting. Already some rumors are spreading. I wanted to follow you and see if everything was okay…” He stopped, looking around at the Grand Master’s bags and boxes of supplies. But now, it was obvious what Xar was doing. He was leaving, and from the supplies gathered, he might be gone a long time.
“There’s no need,” Xar said. “I’m fine. In fact, you won’t have to worry about me any more.”
What does that mean? Gui Sun wondered. Could he not be planning on coming back? “You’re going somewhere, master. I want to go with you,” he said sincerely.
Xar shook his head. “You don’t want to follow me where I’m going, Gui Sun.”
“But…” he began.
“I don’t want to risk any more lives,” the man replied flatly.
“Sir, if it’s too dangerous, then that’s why I should go. To help you out. And why don’t we take the Black Star? It’s much more suited for infiltration…”
Shaking his head again, Xar resumed his loading of the shuttle. “In this mission, fewer members means less risk. And I can’t take the Black Star. It’d be recognized.” Stuffing the last bag up into the hold, he threw the hatch closed and turned back to the young Crusader. “I know you want to go with me,” he acknowledged. “I’m glad that you’re one of the few loyal members left. But I’ve got to go alone. You have to stay here,” he said, putting a hand on Gui Sun’s shoulder. “You have to help the others, and your family. This will be an important job. You can’t abandon your duty in order to help me.”
“I… understand,” Gui Sun replied. Then, the two men exchanged nods, and Gui Sun obediently made his way back toward the entrance. As he left, he heard Xar call out behind him.
“You didn’t see me here,” he said. As Gui Sun turned around, he saw the Grand Master striding up the shuttle’s entry ramp, shaking his head slowly. Wherever he was going, it put a sick feeling in the Crusader’s stomach. As he watched Xar ascend the ramp into the ship, he wondered if it would be the last time he’d ever see him…
On the other side of the palace, in a lower, more commonplace hangar, Icis Novitaar toted his bags toward his personal, black-painted X-Wing, Traveler. Of course, all his ships had been named Traveler, but this was one of his favorites so far. He made his way up to the ship, noting with satisfaction that it hadn’t been tampered with. If it had been, special alarms would have noted him. Thankfully, that ever unctuous engineer, Thad Balfin, was gone, presumably to Jengar. In the battle of Varnus, Icis had tried to flee towards Jengar, only to find that Balfin had tampered with his hyperdrive. Trying to rectify the problem, Balfin had jumped past him, while Icis had stayed behind, trapped. Icis had had to fix the thing by himself; now he hoped it would work.
Securing what meager belongings he had within the X-Wing’s storage compartment, he climbed in and started the launch sequence. Moments later, his ship was ready, and as he lifted off on his repulsorlifts, he took one last look at the interior of the palace, shaking his head sadly. To think that so much hope could be scattered so quickly. It was truly, truly sad that the New Imperium was going to die. He’d rather liked it. In fact, after millennia of roaming across the reaches of space, he thought that he’d finally found a new home. Apparently, he’d been wrong.
Outside, in the cold night air of Varnus, two ships exited the palace from different directions. Each made its way for orbit, forgoing the normal flight plan and course confirmations, heading out its own path. Once outside the atmosphere, the Lambda-class shuttle turned away from the world, toward the beautiful purple Galbagos Nebula, setting its course for the galactic rim. On the other side, a black X-Wing turned coreward, in the general direction of Jengar. It passed the ISD Stormwatch and the space dock that was being rebuilt without any word. If any wondered at its occupant and course, they remained silent.
Moments later, both ships shot off hyperspace with a flash, each going their own way, toward their own destiny. And remaining silently, in the stillness of the void, was a pristine blue world, unknowing of its greater destiny in the history of this galaxy… and others.
The incessant beeping of his computer finally brought Chancellor, Jedi Master Alyx Misnera, awake. Rubbing his eyes and muttering under his breath, he got up and moved over to sit on the side of the bed. One look at the small computer screen on the desk beside him showed the source of the noise: a high-priority message was waiting for him. The chronometer reading showed 0440 hours.
“Who in the blazes would call me at this hour?” he wondered with a scowl.
Reluctantly, he brought up the message text display, entering his proper identification code. The message displayed itself on the screen:
Alyx, by the time you read this, I’ll be long gone. I wanted to let you know first, but late enough so you won’t be able to stop me. I can’t stay here any longer. The longer I remain, the more I think about her. I’m going go find Zalaria, whatever the cost. I’m leaving you in charge; Mathis will help you, but I chose you to lead because he has been acting a bit… emotional lately. Consider this an official promotion. Whether or not I make it back, you’re the Grand Master now. I wish you the best of luck.
Sorry that this is such short notice. Unfortunately, Icis is gone, also. He lost it when he heard the news. Do whatever you deem necessary to prepare the Division for the invasion.
Thank you for being such a good friend these years. Ever since you protected me as a child, and we were reunited as flight members in the Empire, our friendship hasn’t been broken. You’ve been the most loyal friend and protégé I could ever ask for. I’ll never forget you or the Division. I’ve sent others private messages, as well. Take care of the Division in my absence. I know you’ll make the best of it. Goodbye.
Before he even finished reading, Misnera’s hand was tapping in the number for Deputy Mathis Organa’s private quarters, a yell emanating from his lips as the call went through…
Outside the office, if anyone had been present to hear it, they would have heard the man’s scream of anger and frustration…
* * *
Maarek’s squadron of TIE Avatars soared through the endless tunnel of hyperspace. A sudden chime broke through the cockpit, and Maarek stopped the music he’d been listening to and checked his readouts. They were approaching their destination, fast.
Securing everything else in the cockpit, he grabbed hold of the levers and counted down the remaining seconds. When they reached zero, he pushed the controls forward, and the swirling sky of hyperspace turned into starlines, which in turn pulled back into individual stars. The system’s third planet, Tralaria, loomed into view ahead, a serene blue planet with a moderate, three-band ring system. And in orbit around the world was an entire armada of ships.
“Wow, boss…” Rann Wosper’s voice came over his headphones. “What the frizz’ goin’ on here?”
As he heard Inferno Two speak, Maarek checked his display and noted with satisfaction that his entire squadron had emerged from hyperspace together and in formation.
“Looks like they’re preparing for an invasion,” Bast Vlagen’s deep tone came in response.
Stele looked back
outside the canopy, simply to get a visual handle on the fleet assembled around
the New Imperium’s Capital. As they got closer, he could make out more and more
ships. He could see no less than a dozen dagger-shaped vessels that were
Imperial-class Star Destroyers. About as many smaller shapes, the leaner
outlines of Victory-class Star Destroyers, accompanied the fleet. And in the
center, directly in view over the main Tralarian
continent, was the broad, dark form of the New Imperium Flagship: The Super
As they drew nearer, countless smaller ships classes and support craft became visible. Maarek’s squadron of TIE Avatars passed through the formation, the blue gem of Tralaria looming to dominate most of his canopy. They passed by several of the hovering Star Destroyers, and Maarek was struck, as always, at the complexity and imposing presence that the huge vessels had on him. There was something about them; every time he flew around a Star Destroyer, it touched something deep within him.
“The Renegade, the Reaper, the Tsunami, the Diamondback…” Salle Dara, Inferno Six, called out as they passed. “These are mostly Dark Lightning Strike Fleet ships.”
“Aye, and some NI Starfleet as well,” Gren Pabos, Seven, added. “I see the Vindicator and the Virulence off to starboard.”
Maarek looked over in that direction and nodded as he saw the outlines of the ISD-III Vindicator and of the much larger, Vanquisher-class Star Destroyer. “I thought the Virulence was on some kind of ops mission monitoring Altarin’Dakor activity,” he wondered aloud.
“Looks like they may have found something,” Bast answered, his tone serious.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Maarek said. “Follow me in, everyone.”
Pushing the stick forward, he drove down for the watery world below. Behind him, his squadron followed in tight formation. Within moments they cruised down into the upper atmosphere, and the vast, tropical blue ocean spreading out below them began to rise up to meet them. Maarek led them straight on, dropping at a fairly steep angle. They blasted through the upper, wispy layers of cirrus clouds in the blink of an eye. Just when he could see the large whitecaps drawing out below him, when it seemed their screaming metal falcons would crash into the watery depths, he pulled the controls back, and the responsive Avatars immediately leveled out over the waves. Suddenly he was flying over the water at incredible speed, the crests below him blurring to a nearly-smooth landscape. The far-off shoreline appeared and grew, followed by the outlines of countless spires as the Tralarian capital city appeared on the horizon.
He slowed their speed as they passed over the coast and flew across the city, where the massive Senate building sat like a fortress, surrounded by a Tralarian-designed city that blended excellently with the coastal landscape. Buildings that seemed almost glass-like spread across the ground, elegantly curved and shaped, fashioned by non-human hands. All this he took in at a glance as they pulled a wide circle and came down toward what had been designated as their landing pad. Maarek wondered why they weren’t going to land in one of the hangars; unless there was something special planned for Inferno Squadron.
Maarek touched down first, his landing gear gently hitting the ground without a single bump. The rest of the squadron then landed on either side of him and created a half-circle, five on his right side, four on the left.
Shutting down his
primary systems, he waited until all of them were landed and ready before
un-strapping himself and popping open the canopy.
Immediately the cool cockpit air inside was drawn out, replaced by a warm
tropical breeze from outside. I’d forgotten about the change of seasons, he
thought. Thankfully, their uniform was fairly well applicable to either cool or
warm environments. Pushing himself out of his seat, he hit the button that
activated the Avatar’s automatic ladder, which fell out of a compartment beside
the cockpit and unraveled to the ground. He pulled off his helmet, set it down
inside his seat, and climbed down to the deck. As his boots hit the pavement,
he turned to see that his squadmates were descending
from their cockpits, as well. He scanned the surrounding area, taking in the
tropical feeling the planet held. Palm trees waved in the balmy wind, and as
Looking toward the building’s wide entrance, he caught sight of several uniformed figures emerging towards them. Nodding to his squadron and motioning them to follow, he started forward to meet the new group. Probably the welcoming committee, he figured.
He met the group more than halfway to the entrance, and immediately recognized their leader and gave a start. “Fleet Admiral Dogar,” he greeted, giving a sharp salute. “Good to see you again, sir. We’re honored to be greeted so personally.” Dogar had become the interim Diktat, or Speaker of the Senate, after Diktat Ryskar D’larit’s recent assassination. That subject was still too raw to touch, so Maarek didn’t mention it.
Arfann Dogar gave a broad smile and nodded. “It’s good to see you as well, Maarek. I’m glad you could make it.”
“And this is Inferno Squadron,” Maarek introduced, gesturing toward his assembled pilots. The new Diktat moved along the line, shaking hands and offering words of encouragement. One by one, in order of their position: Rann Wosper, Tanya Vinikoro, Kikitik, Bast Vlagen, Salle Dara, Gren Pabos, Kei Nomos, Vlini Makor, and Petur Kien.
“My final two pilots, Juor Nace and Macin Isabi, are here on Tralaria waiting to be picked up,” Maarek informed him.
“A fine group,” the Diktat admitted with a nod.
“So what’s going on here?” Maarek asked candidly, confident that Dogar wouldn’t take it the wrong way.
“Important events for the NI, Maarek,” the man responded. “I wish I could say I just came to greet you for social reasons, but I can’t. Please, come inside.”
The Diktat turned, and all ten pilots formed up behind and followed him into the massive structure lying in wait ahead.
Senate Complex, Capitol
Tralaria, Epsilon Sector
The War Room was a large, circular chamber buried deep within the main Senate Complex. Maarek entered on Dogar’s heels, a bit in wonder that he was even allowed into such a private meeting of the Senate War Council. Only he would be let in, though, so he’d told the rest of his squadron to hang around and see if they could find the remaining two members of the squad. The chamber itself was partially busy, filled mostly with members of the Advisory Council and military officers gathered in small clusters, engaged in small conversation. The voices didn’t lower much at the interim Diktat’s entrance, as the formal meeting hadn’t yet convened. Dogar moved over to the large round holotable in the center and turned around to speak with Maarek.
“I’ll give you the current situation before we begin,” he said. “We’ll probably need your input, as well. You likely saw the Virulence in orbit. She’s brought us some important news from the Mizar System. There’s a growing opinion throughout the NI that we should strike the Altarin’Dakor first, while they’re still hurting from our previous victories at Varnus, then again recently at Mizar itself. That’s what we’re going to discuss today.” He made a wide gesture around the table. “Just take a seat, there’s plenty for everyone. We won’t actually get into the details until later, so you’ll be able to catch on.”
“All right,” Maarek nodded. He moved up to the table, pulled back a chair, and sat down. As Dogar walked around the chamber, getting everyone ready, Maarek took the chance to glance around the room. Some of the top ranking officers he recognized from meeting before, others he’d seen on the NI Holonet news channels. Fleet Admiral Stan Sanders of the Intruder Wing was speaking quietly with Admiral and Jedi Master Nico Flygras, newly-raised commander-in-chief of the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet in D’larit’s absence. Beside Nico was Admiral S’Cill Shokfer from the Star Vipers. He also saw CEO ‘Silverfox’ K’bail, a gray-furred Trianni male, from the self-termed New Corporate Sector Authority, already at the table, engaged in low conversation with CEO Walt Amason from Phoenix Technologies and a few other officers. He also recognized numerous other Senators, Admirals and Vice Admirals speaking in various groups. All together, he felt a bit out of place, despite his own reputation and record. But then, he was never as confident on the ground as he was in the air.
“Officers,” Dogar spoke up, coming around to take another of the seats. “Let us begin.”
The room quieted, and the occupants began to take seats around the circular table. As they sat, hidden panels in the table top opened up, revealing personal computer access stations. Maarek noted with surprise that one came up at his seat as well, the NI logo appearing on the screen.
The holotable flashed to life. To Maarek’s amazement, the holo that sprang up was a 3-D map of New Imperium space so realistic that it looked as if he were actually looking down on the real thing. Each system was rendered in true color, bracketed according to territory, and labeled according to name. As he watched, the map began to slowly zoom in toward the Tralar System, near the center of NI Space.
“As you all know,” Dogar began, “It has been several weeks since our recapture of Varnus and the rescue of Jedi Master Kerensky. A new enemy has reared its head, calling themselves the Altarin’Dakor.” He stumbled a bit over the foreign-sounding word. “We don’t know much about them, but we know that they have a lot of resources to draw upon, and their technology appears to be far superior to anything we have. They appear to have made the Mizar System their stronghold, their base of operations in this sector. Judging from this information, we must assume that they come from somewhere even further out toward the Rim, in the Unknown Regions.”
That statement caused several muttered comments from around the table, although the information itself wasn’t any secret. Maarek had sensed that this was the case the first time he’d seen one of their ships, over a year ago.
continued as the map put brackets around two of the systems on the map, one
Maarek cringed inwardly at the thought of what must have happened to the poor people of Satyr. He’d gone there, with Jac Railler, and seen firsthand what condition the survivors were in. It would probably take decades for most of the settlers to recover. And those who had been taken might never be heard from again. They had to be avenged.
“Their latest attack struck at two of our primary systems,” the Diktat explained as the map drew a box around Tralar, the yellow star of Varnus, and the red star Mizar. “We know without a shadow of a doubt that they had Diktat Ryskar D’larit assassinated just weeks ago, and severely injured Admiral Caramon Majere as well. The Fleet Admiral is still recovering from his injuries now, although thankfully he is no longer in serious condition. The assassin blew himself up with a suicide bomb, and their ambassador, Moren Zein, was found dead in his own prison cell. Means of death, unknown.” That drew more heavy whispering around the room. Dogar continued direly. “The enemy then struck at Varnus, wiped out its defenses and forced the Jedi Division’s Command out of the system, abducting their leader in the process. Fortunately, luck has been on our side recently. Our counterstrike, involving much of our fleet, destroyed one of their command ships and forced the rest into retreat. Then, an elite team of Jedi was able to rescue Grand Master Kerensky from Mizar. And most importantly of all, they were able to kill one of the Altarin’Dakor Generals, and also the man who was apparently responsible for this whole leg of the invasion. His command station was destroyed, and a major part of their invasion plan was thwarted. We’ve hit them badly, and their forces are in disarray. Meanwhile, we’ve been building up our fleet in preparation for full-scale war. The question is: What do we do next? Should we press our advantage and assault Mizar directly, or do we hold back and prepare futher?” He looked around the room, obviously waiting for someone to speak.
“I think we should strike,” Fleet Admiral Stan spoke up, standing slowly. “This is their only real foothold in Epsilon Sector. Though their forces are tough, we’ve shown that we can defeat them with enough force of our own. If we can take Mizar and drive them out of the sector, it could dissuade them from attacking us any further.”
“I concur,” Nico chimed in. “There really isn’t a choice here. We all may not want this to happen, but it is, regardless. We have to deal with it.”
Dogar nodded slowly. “May I also remind everyone present that we will most likely incur losses in this operation. However, this issue must be decided by a vote. We will do so in the morning, as well as finalize the fleet deployments for the assault. I believe we all know what the result will be.” As he finished, the image over the table faded away, and the room’s normal lighting came back on. “I know that reps from the Jedi Division and Majere’s Remnant Fleet aren’t here at the moment, but at this time I’d like to take a tally of our current Order of Battle.”
Maarek sat and listened as the meeting wore on and each individual representative made their report. Inwardly, he thought about his squad mates, of how close they’d all become, and of all the training they’d gone through. This would be their ultimate test. There was no doubt that Inferno would be joining the upcoming battle; he knew they were probably the best prepared to face the AD out of any group in the NI. The question was, though, if anyone was prepared. From the things he’d seen, the experience of fighting them directly on two occasions, a cold feeling was beginning to settle into his stomach. No one is prepared for this, he thought. No one.
As the meeting concluded, he took his leave and exited the chamber, deciding to see where his squadron had gotten to. He switched his commlink back on and pushed in the code for the squadron frequency. To his surprise, the voice of Rann Wosper came through.
“Hey boss,” his wingman’s voice called. “Meeting over?”
“Yeah,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“We found Nace and Isabi down here in the bar, trading war stories. Why don’t you come join us?”
“I think I will,” Maarek said, giving a short, mirthless laugh. “I’ll be right down.”
* * *
Maarek entered the TradeWinds Bar, one of only two in the Senate Complex’s grounds. This one was located in an adjacent building on the third floor, catering mostly to off-duty officers although it was open to the public. The décor was tropical and very aquatic, in keeping with the climate on Tralaria. Maarek had been in a lot of bars and officers’ dives around the galaxy, but one of the most striking differences here was the variety of alien species here. Although some parts of the New Imperium still held some of the more traditional views of the Empire, as a whole the territories had fully embraced a multicultural, multiracial environment, and nowhere was this encouraged as much as on the Capital itself. As a result, there were humans, Tralarians, Duros, Bothans, a few Quarren, Twi’lek, and Sullustians, as well as a spattering of rarer species and those he’d never taken the time to commit to memory.
A steady mixed beat of electronic and tropical music filled the air, mixing with conversations in dozens of languages. Maarek paused as he entered, blue and green lighting covering his features as his dark eyes scanned the area for his squad mates.
There they were, he saw. Several of his officers were crowding around a large, circular table to the right, while Rann Wosper, Salle Darl and Kikitik stood by the bar talking to Maarek’s two newest members, Juor Nace and Macin Isabi. Kikitik – the poor Sigman – stood out like a sore thumb as the only insectoid being in the room – but he took it all in stride, nursing a drink just like the rest of them. Maarek made his way over there first.
Rann noticed him first, and his face split in a wide grin as he saw his commander. “Evening, sir,” he greeted. “Glad you could make it. May I present our two missing links in the chain.”
Maarek shook hands first with Nace, then with Isabi, a pale-skinned Twi’lek whose head-tails were wrapped around his head to the point that Maarek wondered how he wasn’t choking himself. Isabi and Nace had both joined the NI forces just over a year ago in the mainline Starfleet forces, but Maarek had approached each about joining his elite squadron when he’d seen both men distinguish themselves in the elimination of pirate activity in the region. Nace was a hard-faced Corellian who seemed to want to live somewhere away from the chaos engulfing the galaxy, while Isabi had joined to advance his own career as a starfighter pilot. Still, both men had shown their loyalty to the NI’s cause, and they greeted their commanding officer with respect.
Kikitik handed him a drink, then, something blue and fizzy, and Maarek took the drink on faith that the Sigman hadn’t sabotaged the drink with some practical joke ingredient for the sport of it. Actually, as long as the beverage was digestible by humans, he’d be happy enough. He’d already fallen to the alien’s pranks a few times, including having a bucket of gungo syrup poured over his head as he entered the simulation room one time. Kikitik was a relative of the Sigman Ambassador to the NI Senate, Kaviq. Though how the insects bred or actually considered family ties was beyond Maarek’s realm of knowledge.
Rann grinned broadly as Maarek took a drink and his eyes widened at the bubbles frothing inside his mouth, then his subordinate turned and moved on toward the dance floor, where a few people were trying to show off their skills at this hour. He’d probably spotted some cute female up there; Rann often hung out with women but never really seemed to engage in anything serious or long-lasting. But that was his character, after all, and he was still young.
After speaking to the newest members for a few moments, Stele decided to join his other members at the large table nearby, so he jostled his way through the crowd – growing larger by the moment, after hours – and sat down at one of the empty chairs. The other six figures sitting at the table greeted him warmly in return. Tanya Vinikoro was sitting beside him, the only person there without a drink in front of her. Very much business-at-hand, it made it hard for Maarek to know her deeply so far, suggesting it might be difficult for her to open up about her past. Her training on Byss definitely gave her the most Imperialistic personality of the squadron members, but she never let opinions get in the way of orders.
Opposite her was Bast Vlagen, with Petur Kien sitting next to the older, fellow Varnusian. Bast was just finishing up an old war story, which the younger pilots took in with huge interest. The more experienced Vlagen had a wife and two children waiting back on Varnus, and Maarek was sure he wanted to get back to them soon. After the devastation of Varnus he’d joined the Empire, like many Varnusians, and served until the Emperor’s death, then returned to Varnus and joined the defense forces and quickly became a leader. When the NI moved into the sector he joined up and Grand Master Xar noticed him quickly, recommending him to Maarek’s squadron before anyone else. Petur, on the other hand, had been a farmer before the NI moved into the sector, living on a farm with his large family, no one ever suspecting the talent he had for flying. When the NI came in, he joined the planetary defense force and was noticed by Bast Vlagen, thus the sense of connection and camaraderie between the two.
Also at the table were Gren Pabos, Kei Nomos, and Vlini Makor, the Sullustian. As Maarek finished taking stock of his pilots, Bast finished his story with a dramatic gesture. “…and the next thing I knew, we had bacta accidentally installed instead of the missile propellant, and the Thyferrans confiscated all our weapons on suspicion of smuggling!” The table burst into laughter, and Maarek felt left out for being the only one still silent – well, actually there were two; beside him, Tanya only allowed herself a small grin.
Gren was the first to speak up after the break in conversation. “How did the meeting go, sir? Hope your ears didn’t asphyxiate from the lack of worthwhile sensory input from the politicians.”
“It went well; they’ll decide more within the next couple of days,” Maarek waved him off, not wanting to spoil the mood with serious conversation. “Did I miss anything here?”
“Just seeing Kikitik and Wosper put a laughing pill into Vlini’s drink, here,” Petur replied jovially. “I thought the whole place was going to crack up.” The Sullustian shook his head and mumbled something about different species’ senses of humor. Maarek noticed with sympathy that his off-duty clothes were stained with something liquid, and shook his head. He’d never seen a Sullustian fall-out laughing before.
Suddenly a hand reached out for the chair beside Maarek, and he turned to see Rann Wosper sitting down beside him. “So, boss, when are we gonna see some real action?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Whenever the Senate decides to pick a spot and push the button,” he countered, taking a sip from his drink.
“Well, I’m guess I’m just getting jittery not letting everyone in on what a true ace looks like,” the man replied.
“Ace, huh?” Kei Nomos’ eyes went wide across the table from Wosper. “As I recall when we flew the trials on Laan, we had to fish your T-16 out from between two columns down in the canyons.”
“Hey, that was months ago; I’ve got those things mastered now, I promise,” Rann shot back. Maarek shook his head; no one could expect to best Kei at her own game down in the canyons of Laan, her home planet.
“Pilots love to talk about their flying skills, don’t they?” Gren Pabos spoke up, grinning. “Just remember we’re a team now, okay?” As he spoke, Kei glanced up at him with a big grin, and Maarek noticed how close she was sitting next to him. It was pretty much common knowledge around the squadron that the two were seeing each other, now. It was something Maarek wasn’t totally decided on as yet, but had decided to allow for now. Until he saw ill effects from it, he saw no reason to deny them the right, within reason.
“Oh, perfect,” Gren continued as Kikitik showed back up and placed a tray of fresh drinks on the table. “On me, boys and girls and… others,” he said jokingly – or rather, his translator said jokingly. Then the Sigman tapped Rann on the shoulder and pointed back toward the dance floor. “Care to join me in a little more fun? There’s a very furry Bothan over there and I have a can of temporary coloring spray…”
“You kids,” Bast shook his head in bemusement as the two of them started for the other side of the room.
Maarek turned away, preferring not to know what was going on over there, as he continued talking with his remaining members and just trying to relax and catch the feel of the atmosphere. He could use a little distraction from what was going on in the outside world.
After a couple more drinks, however, he decided he’d better turn in. Tomorrow would start early and likely be eventful, and he didn’t want to be dealing with a headache. “I think I’d better be getting back to my quarters,” he said, feeling a little sheepish. He heard a crash and glanced behind him to the dance floor, where a large Weequay had stumbled and fallen onto another patron’s table. “Things are getting a… little too wild for my tastes. You guys enjoy the rest of the night.”
“Oh, come on Commander, just one more drink?” Kei spoke up, reaching out for his hand.
“Yeah, sir, this one’s on me,” Gren added, grinning widely. “They’re about to start the techno dance.”
“Oh boy, I wouldn’t want to miss that one, would I?” Maarek said, rolling his eyes. Then, seeing the pleading look in his members’ eyes, he reluctantly agreed. “All right, I’ll stick around a bit longer. I know I’m going to regret this, though.”
“That’s the spirit, sir,” Gren laughed. Maarek shook his head and chuckled back. Oh well, what could it hurt?
* * *
Interim Diktat Arfann Dogar sat at his terminal and nodded at the image that appeared on the screen. “Hello, Caramon. It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you as well, Arfann old friend,” the gray-haired man in the white Admiral’s uniform gave a pained smile back. “In fact, it’s good to be able to see anything at all.” The smile stretched scar tissue that traced up his cheek to the black eyepatch covering his right eye. From the view on the screen, Dogar could see the man’s right arm, which ended just a few centimeters below his shoulder and had not yet been replaced by a prosthetic. Caramon Majere was commander one of the largest of the NI’s member fleets, having led a group of Remnant Imperials from Byss shortly after Grand Admiral Thrawn’s death. But he had been spending the last few weeks in critical condition in the Senate hospital, after the assassin who had killed former Diktat Ryskar D’larit had detonated a suicide bomb rather than be captured. Majere, who had pursued the assassin doggedly, had been caught in the explosion, and had lost an arm, an eye, and a lung in the process. Dogar was relieved to see that the Admiral was going to make it, although seeing the damage done by the attack made his blood boil all the more against the Altarin’Dakor.
“I heard that the Diktat’s assassin was finally identified,” Majere said, askance in his voice. “A former Jedi Division member named Sarok.”
Dogar nodded gravely. “He defected to the NI with the rest of House Ar’Kell, but he came in contact with a strange alien species during on of their missions prior to coming here. We now believe that they were a precursor force of Altarin’Dakor sent to spy on us.”
“So this Sarok was convinced to join them?”
“Brainwashed, more likely, from what I’ve heard,” Dogar corrected. “Seems the Division didn’t trust him much after that. But how he got here, into the Senate Complex, no one knows. Obviously he’d been heavily influenced by the enemy’s control.”
“I guess we’ll never know,” Majere said. “Security was lax all across the board. We can’t pin the blame on any one person or organization.”
Dogar nodded at that. “Caramon, I trust that you’re making a smooth recovery?” he asked concernedly.
“Quite well. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the conference personally, but recent events in here in Naroon Quadrant are tying me down at the moment,” Majere chuckled with some effort. “Some things rather fell apart in my absence.”
“I sympathize with that,” Dogar said. “Is the fleet still holding up?
“As well as can be expected. I heard you’re looking for support, though. A counterattack against the enemy?”
Dogar nodded. “This is the big one, my friend. A full-scale invasion of Mizar, to take the enemy stronghold there.”
The older man sighed visibly. “Honestly, I’m not much for that idea, Arfann, as you know. I will of course go with whatever decision the War Council makes, but it just feels wrong at this time. We need to know more about them first, get better intelligence.”
“Agreed, but that’s proving difficult, and the longer we wait, the longer we risk more enemy reinforcements coming in,” Dogar countered.
his good eye and nodded. “I know you’ve been through all this with the Council.
And I promise we’ll help however we can. Unfortunately, with trying to hold Vol and Vonsam securely, I’m
afraid that we can’t really spare many ships for the assault. We’ve already
devoted a number of ships in that area to keep the supply
lines open.” Caramon Majere’s
fleet had been the most actively engaged group that had been fighting against
Inwardly, Dogar nodded. He hadn’t expected Majere to be able to contribute, but he’d still held out some small hope. They’d already committed several capital ships to the Varnus relief effort, and it was impossible to ask for more. Thanks to a short but intense campaign involving combined NI forces, most of the supply convoys to Varnus had gone through intact, and a facet of the Clan Panther pirate organization had been squashed. He sighed, realizing again that as long as the NI was comprised of separate fleets, those fleets had the right to govern themselves as they saw fit. But perhaps that would change soon enough.
“Caramon, I’ve always been candid with you,” he told the man on the screen. “I haven’t told many people, but I’m not really for this thing either. I know that its people’s lives that are at stake here. But whether I like it or not, there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I’m not in a good position. Whether I go through with it or not, there will be those that will turn it to my disadvantage, all because I am, for now, the Diktat. But we’ve created a storm we cannot stop, here.”
“How true, my friend,” Majere said in a sad tone.
“What is the status of your fleet? Can I expect any reinforcements from your end?”
The other man shook his head slightly. “I’ll send what I can. But we’ve had a big new insurgence into our space. We’re not sure who yet, but we assume the pirates. Well equipped though, since we haven’t heard back from any survivors from the places they’ve hit, yet. We’re worried. I’m having to pull back the command ship and several other ships from Vol to help quash this threat.”
“Blast it,” Dogar
muttered, feeling his frustration rising. “Perfect timing for
that bunch of pillaging mercenaries. I thought we’d beaten them back.
With your forces tied up, the only command ships I have now are the Virulence,
Darkstar, and the
He paused, and for a moment the two sat quietly, each contemplating their own thoughts. Dogar scratched idly at his chin as he tried to think of a solution. Finally it was Majere who spoke up first.
“You’ve already got what ships we’ve deployed. Unfortunately I can’t spare any command ships, so I’d prefer the Nemesis not participate in the battle…” Dogar started to respond, but he held up a hand and went on. “However, I realize the state of things here, and I’m not going to let the New Imperium down. Again, I’ll go with whatever decision the War Council makes. I’ll send Admiral Eulicid over there immediately, as our representative. He’ll be our spokesman, and he’ll command what ships we’ll be able to send. Good enough?”
“Good enough,” Dogar nodded. “Thanks, my friend… You’ve already sacrificed much for the New Imperium. We owe you a debt we can never fully repay.”
“”Not so,” Caramon countered. “I committed to this thing in the beginning, just like the rest of us. I’ll see it through to the end.”
“As will we all. I wish you the best, and a speedy recovery,” Dogar said.
“May the Force be with you. Be careful out there, Arfann…”
Dogar nodded and closed the link. The screen faded, and he sat forward, sighing. He was getting a bad feeling about this…
Maarek had just made it back to his quarters in time to catch the call coming in over his terminal.
Wearily he stumbled over to the flashing screen, trying to push away the still-fresh images of two humans, a Sigman, and a Twi’lek dancing on top of a bar counter. The damage fees alone were going to cut his squadron’s budget in half…
“This is Stele,” he said as he slapped the receive button. “Go ahead.”
To his surprise, the face of Diktat Dogar jumped onto the screen. He immediately tried to straighten his posture and look at attention, but he could tell the Diktat had noticed his laxness. “Sorry sir, I was just…”
“It’s all right, Maarek,” Dogar smiled. “You don’t look any worse than I feel. Getting an invasion started isn’t as easy as it sounds.”
“I’ll bet,” Maarek admitted. “What’s the current situation?”
“Well, we’re on a bit of a tight schedule,” the Diktat answered. “The vote will be held tomorrow, but the outcome is obvious. Therefore, everyone’s trying to assemble all the forces they can to get ready. With something on this scale, it’s hard to take your enemy by surprise, but we’ll do the best we can. That’s why I called you.” He paused, and Maarek nodded for him to continue.
“I’ve received some rather odd news,” Dogar told him. “Jedi Master Alyx Misnera is on his way here to represent the Jedi Division. The reason Xar isn’t coming is, apparently, because he’s run off. Again. And he’s left Misnera in charge…”
“What?” Maarek broke in, unable to help himself. “Xar’s gone again?” They had just gone through the rancor’s teeth to rescue the man!
“Unfortunately. And this time it looks it might be a little more permanent. Misnera is coming here to help, and he’s managed to scrap a few ships together from the Jedi houses to help out. Not much, but we’ll take what we can get. He’s left Deputy Organa in charge while he’s away.” He paused and made a face, and scratched behind one ear. “Apparently when Xar took off, that other character, Icis Novitaar, left as well. You may not know him, but he’s the one that’s been giving us a lot of the information we have on the Altarin’Dakor. With both of them gone now, things won’t be as easy.”
“I can’t believe Xar would leave at a time like this,” Maarek said, shaking his head.
“I know. But this means that we’ll need everyone we can get that has firsthand experience of the enemy.”
Maarek looked up to meet the Diktat’s eyes, knowing what was coming. “You’re asking me if I’m in, right?”
“To put it bluntly, yes,” the other admitted. “But I won’t force you to come along. It’s optional…”
“Don’t worry,” Maarek was saying even before the Diktat finished. “I’m in. All of Inferno squad is. There’s no way I’m backing out in the New Imperium’s greatest need.”
“I’m glad of that,” Dogar admitted, the relief showing on his face. “I knew you wouldn’t let us down.”
“Don’t think it for a minute,” Maarek assured him. “I’ve pledged myself to the NI. I’ll keep my promises.”
“Then I’ll see you at the meeting, in the morning,” Dogar said, nodding.
“Yes sir. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Good night, Maarek,” the Diktat smiled.
* * *
NI War Room
Senate Complex, Tralaria
Arfann Dogar called the War Council into session with a tap of his gavel on the table. All the Representatives were here this morning, though some had to almost burn their engines out to make it to Tralaria in time. Stan Sanders, Nico Flygras, Silverfox K’bail, Walt Amason, S’cill Shokfer, Tam Eulicid, and Alyx Misnera were all present and accounted for.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Today we are here to decide upon the resolution to attack the Altarin’Dakor in the Mizar system, thereby initiating a full state of war with their government. Under the circumstances, and since everyone seems to have made their statements and intentions clear on this, I’ve opted to skip the formalities of procedure, here. I’m going to let this go through without wasting any time. Are there any motions on the floor?”
“Motion to vote on the issue,” Stan spoke up.
“Very well. Is there a second?”
“The Dark Lightning Strike Fleet seconds,” Nico chimed in.
“Any objections?” Dogar looked around the table. “Seeing none, we are now voting on the declaration of war. How does the Intruder Wing vote?”
“The Intruder Wing votes yes,” Stan answered.
“The Dark Lightning Strike Fleet?”
“The DLSF also votes yes,” Nico chimed in.
“The Star Vipers?”
“Yes,” Shokfer’s voice scratched.
There was a short pause, as heads swiveled toward the spokesman. Eulicid seemed to hesitate, then spoke out. “The Remnant abstains.”
Nodding, Dogar called out, “The Jedi Division?”
“The Division also abstains at this time,” Misnera said reluctantly.
Eying the man with some surprise, Dogar called out the final member group. “The New Corporate Sector Authority?”
“The nCSA votes yes,” K’bail replied, with Walt Amason nodding beside him, and an audible sigh passed through the room as the motion passed.
“Very well,” Dogar called out. “Seeing four yes and two abstentions, the motion passes. The New Imperium is now in a state of war with the Altarin’Dakor.”
The whole room seemed to burst into conversation then, and Dogar had to bang the gavel on the table loud enough to gain everyone’s attention. “All right everyone. We’re prepared to move on to the next phase of planning. As this is a joint effort, each group will be committing a certain number of resources and/or ships. Is anyone here not prepared to make a fleet status report?”
The room was
quiet as the Diktat looked around the table. “Good. I’m sure we all know what
is at stake here. This isn’t just another sortie against the border or against
pirates. Our enemy here has proven itself to be technologically, numerically
and strategically superior to us. Our only chance may lie in a single, quick
strike in sufficient numbers, like our success in driving them away from Varnus
before. The more ships we can bring into this, the better. With that in mind,
I’ve committed virtually the entire NI Starfleet to this operation. At the head
of the fleet are the
The question was unnecessary, only a queue for the rest to speak up. Nico did so first. He certainly had enough reason.
“The DLSF has totally committed itself to achieving our objectives at Mizar,” he said. “We’ve devoted ninety percent of our ships. Fourteen of our Star Destroyers are in orbit now, and eight VSDs. They’ll be led by our flagship, the ISD-II Dark Lightning.”
“By far the majority of ships will be from the DLSF. The New Imperium will owe a great debt to you for this,” Dogar said.
“No, it’s the least we can do to show our devotion to our cause and what we stand for,” Nico replied adamantly. “And to pay them back for what they did to the Diktat, Ryskar D’larit.”
The room was silent for a moment in respect to that statement. There wasn’t a single person present who didn’t feel the sting of losing their elected leader right before their very eyes. And there wasn’t a being present who didn’t want revenge for what they had done.
“Very well,” Dogar said at last. “Yes, Stan?” he said, nodding to where the Admiral sat with his hand up.
“Far be it from us to make less of a sacrifice than the DLSF,” he said, nodding toward Nico. “Dogar, you can count on us. I’ll be there personally with the Darkstar and all her escorts.” That elicited a round of murmuring throughout the chamber. Dogar could feel the heat rising in the room as such bold moves created a new sense of unity among the commanders.
“Stang. If we’re going to do this, we might as well do it right,” spoke a new voice, and Dogar looked over to see Silverfox leaning over the table, with CEOs Kasei and Amason beside him. “You can count us in, too. I’ll pull out all the new equipment we’ve got here. Any advantage we have will be useful.”
“Absolutely,” Kasei agreed, nodding. “I’m committing the Star’s End to this battle. I’ll be there myself, and her advanced technologies should give the AD quite a surprise.”
“Excellent,” Dogar smiled. “Who else? Admiral Eulicid, what about your fleet?”
The man leaned forward and put his hands on the table. “We are committing you 4 Dreadnaught-class heavy cruisers, 4 Strike cruisers and up to 50 Carrack class cruisers from the Lorn Home Guard.” Maarek whistled. That was more than he had expected.
“Great, we’ll take all of them,” Dogar said curtly. “Master Misnera, I believe you had something special to add, as well?”
“I did,” Alyx Misnera, the newly promoted leader of the Jedi Order, stood. “We don’t have the largest fleet or resources, since we’re still recovering from before. However, besides the ships I arrived with, I have another idea that might help us out. I’d like to place at least one Jedi, of Jedi Knight level of above, on as many of our capital ships as possible.”
“The reason being?” Stan spoke up.
“To hamper the enemy’s abilities,” Misnera answered. “They’ll be able to distract enemy pilots long enough for us to shoot them down… They might even be able to affect the enemy enough to make them think there are more of us than there really are.”
“Interesting,” the other replied. “Not the most honest way of fighting, but we shouldn’t expect anything less from the enemy. I like it,” Stan replied.
“And it’s a large commitment, considering how few Jedi we actually have around,” Nico put in. He, in addition to leading the DLSF, was one of the Jedi Council members and a Master. The Jedi resources that the NI currently held were not unlimited.
“We’ll go with it, then. And just for the record, I’ll be personally leading
and coordinating our forces from the bridge of the
He looked around the room, daring anyone to defy him. None did. Nodding levelly, he took up his gavel and tapped it on the tabletop. “I’m now calling a recess while we prepare the formal briefing and while the Fleet Commanders make the necessary preparations. A call will be made to each one of you when we reconvene. Keep your commlinks on. We are now in a recess…”
Maarek rose from his seat and stood among the group of moving bodies heading for the exit. He managed to get in the line and to be swept along with the others, brushing against uniforms of all cuts and colors, all with the NI insignia. It was then, looking around the group of officers, that he caught sight of a vaguely familiar face. It belonged to a man he recognized from somewhere, but he’d never met personally. What caught his attention most, though, was the eyes. The cold something that was in them, something that only a pilot that had flown in TIEs for a long time possessed, was all too visible in this man’s eyes. That look came from flying in those death traps, no ejection seat, no atmosphere, and no shields. Watching comrades die with no chance of escape. That was what created the look. And this man must have been flying for years, judging by the coldness his eyes held as they moved around the room. His uniform boasted the insignia of a Colonel in Majere’s Remnant. It was then that Stele was sure of the man’s identity.
Moving over closer through the dwindling throng of people, he approached the man. He wore a standard duty uniform, was of about medium size, and his dark hair fell rather straight across his forehead. He noticed Maarek as he came up and gave a nod of greeting.
“Are you Rivian Donitz?” Maarek asked.
“I am. And you are?”
“Commander Maarek Stele, Inferno Squadron,” Stele offered cordially, extending a hand. The man took it and gave a firm handshake.
“A pleasure. I’ve heard of you, of course.”
“And I you. My congratulations on your
excellent work in the recent conflicts in Vol and Vonsam. You sent the
“Something like that,” the man said with a half-grin. “Your reputation precedes you some distance, as well. Your service record in the Empire has been flawless. Except, of course, for when you left Thrawn. But that works to your advantage here, I suppose.”
“Well, I like it here,” Maarek responded. “It has a homey feel, more personal than the old Empire.”
“The old Empire
is gone, but we can revive it by sweeping out the farce they now call the
“I didn’t think the New Imperium’s goal was to be like the old Empire,” Maarek countered, suddenly feeling defensive. He knew some of Majere’s fleet were still very Imperialistic-minded, even as far as having prejudices against aliens, but he’d assumed it would pass in time.
“Goals change in time, for some,” the man replied cryptically.
“Well, first we’ve got a different problem to worry about,” Maarek reminded. “The AD – the Altarin’Dakor. That’s what I wanted to ask you about. Let’s face it: just about everyone says you’re the best in the NI, with the possible exception of me…”
“Possibly,” the man agreed in a neutral tone.
“So are you going to participate in the battle?” Maarek asked. “I’m just curious. I’m flying Inferno Squadron, but I know that someone of your caliber would really help the NI out, and we can use all the help we can get.”
“I don’t know,” Donitz shrugged. “I’m willing to fight. It’s a bit inconvenient in terms of timing, but this threat has to be eliminated before we can move on. Any threat to the Empire is a cause worth fighting for. However, I’m not a free agent like you are. I’ll have to clear it with the proper… authorities, before I can commit for certain,” he finished with a hint of a grin.
“Well, do what you have to,” Maarek said. “Together we’ll add a lot of piloting muscle to the fray out there. And, I dare say, a bit of a morale boost for the rest.”
“That’s true,” the man agreed. “My… Our… reputations as pilots have been well earned.”
Maarek nodded. “Yes, and I wanted to say that I respect you and what you’ve done for the NI.”
“As I respect you,” Donitz agreed. “But I will have to clear it first, before I can let you know for certain. I can’t go with your forces without an okay from the Admiral. So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll see about that.”
“No problem,” Maarek said, checking down at his wrist chronometer. “I need to go and eat some breakfast anyway, before the meeting starts again. Mind if I tag along?”
Donitz gave a low chuckle. “Why not. Let’s go, and just ignore the low-tone conversations that people make around us. It’s normal.”
* * *
“Rivian! What an unexpected pleasure,” the image smiled. Maarek noticed immediately the distinctive qualities in the attractive young woman on the screen, the most prominent of which was her relatively short-cut, purple-colored hair. She stood slightly favoring on side, and he arched an eyebrow at the conspicuous-looking bottle resting on the table behind her. Still, her warm smile took in the Vice Admiral and seemed to turn the normally apathetic pilot into a living being once more. The brightening of his features was certainly an improvement.
“Hello, Sayra,” he said with a grin. “How are things on the Stardream?”
“Pretty hectic right now,” the woman sighed. “We haven’t heard back from those systems hit by the new wave of pirates. I’ve been itching to hit them hard and shut them down once and for all.”
“I know the feeling,” Donitz admitted. “When I get back, we’ll do that together. But meanwhile, things are starting to heat up here.”
“The attack’s proceeding as planned?”
Donitz nodded. “We’ll be attacking soon, and that’s why I wanted to contact you. My services have been requested in the battle. Not for the fleet, but for the whole New Imperium…”
Sayra stopped for a moment and seemed to hesitate. “Are you planning on going?”
“With everything the enemy’s done to the NI, I’m eager for some payback,” Donitz admitted. “But no matter what the case, I wouldn’t leave if anything required my presence on the Stardream, to protect you.”
Sayra glanced away, giving a twist of her mouth. She looked back at the screen and shrugged. “There’s nothing going on here, Rivian. Nothing that needs you here. If it’s my permission you want to participate in the battle, then you’ve got it.”
“But you don’t want me to go?” The man seemed tense, cautious. Maarek didn’t doubt that Sayra’s decision would determine Donitz’s role in the upcoming fight.
“It’s not that…” she replied. “Just be careful, Rivian. You know I don’t usually worry about your safety when you fly. There’s no doubt. But I’ve got a feeling about these AD, whoever they are…” She leaned forward a bit, her eyes looking into those of the Colonel. “I don’t have to tell you what to do. I’ve been a pilot, and I know what’ll be going on. Just come back in one piece, got it?”
“Absolutely, ma’am,” Donitz smiled broadly, giving a crisp salute in the process. “Trust me, I intend to stay as alive as I can out there.”
“I’m sure,” she replied. “Kill a bunch of them for me, too.”
“That I will, of a certainty.”
“In that case, farewell, Rivian,” she said, a look of hidden restrain in her eyes. Maarek could see she was worried, but she covered it up almost perfectly. He glanced at Donitz, then back at her, and gave a slight nod of amusement.
“Until then,” Donitz said smoothly, giving a curt bow. As he raised, the connection closed, turning the screen black.
Rivian Donitz turned back toward Stele with a tiny smile of what Maarek thought might almost be smug.
“Just ‘the Admiral’, huh?” Maarek wondered aloud, looking at the man. “Looked a bit more than that, to me.”
“I’m her bodyguard,” Donitz replied with an exceptionally neutral expression. “My service is pledged to her, above all other… duties.”
“Ah.” Maarek nodded with a grin. “Well then, mister bodyguard, I’m glad to have you aboard, whatever the circumstances.”
“As am I,” Donitz agreed. “It’s strange, but somehow I think I’m going to enjoy this…”
* * *
The officers shuffled quickly into the room, Maarek including, all of them wondering what had brought them back in such a hurry. The Diktat and all the Fleet Commanders were already at the table waiting for them. Maarek decided to cut the formalities and quietly slipped into one of the seats. The rest of the room began to settle down, and everyone at the table sat except for Dogar and Eulicid.
“Sorry to bring everyone back so quickly,” Dogar addressed them, tapping a pointer on the tabletop. “But we have some important news that pertains to our current operation. Admiral?”
Eulicid nodded, as the holotable sprang to life once more. The Epsilon Sector map reappeared then began to zoom in until it focused on the pink-white star near the nebula designated Mizar. “We’ve just received some important news from the Nemesis, which has still been patrolling the area around the system, monitoring enemy activity. At approximately 1430 hours our time, she encountered a flight of Altarin’Dakor scout fighters on the outskirts of the system. She rallied her fighters and was able to destroy the enemy group, and she’s now moved closer in-system to gain recon for us.” The holograph split its image, showing the Nemesis on one side and a long-range view of a bluish planet in the other. “What you’re seeing now is a fairly current image of the system. They were able to acquire some useful strategic information for us, as well.”
“She’s done a fine job,” Dogar said, “But I think it’s time to pull the Nemesis back for her own safety. Besides, we don’t want to tip them off to our attack. The loss of a scouting detail might make them a bit suspicious.”
“We’ll do it,” Eulicid nodded, and as he sat back down to study his screen, the room erupted in mixed conversation. Maarek shook his head in wonderment. It was good that they’d been able to defeat the AD fighters, but he knew that if the Nemesis could see inside the system, then the enemy had to be able to see her. And since they weren’t doing anything about that, there must be some reason. A cold feeling was beginning to settle in his stomach.
Several of the military commanders were standing, offering their advice and trepidations at this new development. Some seemed to be echoing Maarek’s thoughts, while others argued that this would be the perfect time to strike. Dogar nodded, motioning for them to sit, then called out loudly to the rest of the room to begin the briefing. “All right, listen up everyone!”
The holographic image changed to a strategic display of the Mizar System. “There are three planets in the Mizar System.” The image highlighted each as he labeled them. “The first is a lifeless rock, of little use. The second was where the Warlord’s base was, and where Kerensky had been held. Half of it’s been completely obliterated. The third planet is our target. We don’t know what it’s called, but it appears to be a terran-type world much like Varnus or Erebria.” The image zoomed to the world, showing a beautiful blue and green planet surrounded by a moderately thick ring system composed of multicolored rocks. Also painted on the screen were the wireframe outlines of ships, representing the Altarin’Dakor fleet. The models weren’t accurate; they were only representations. And one of them was huge, spanning many times the length and width of the largest of the other ships. “No ship’s ever gotten close enough for a detailed scan without being destroyed, but we know enough from the recordings taken after Kerensky’ rescue and the Nemesis’ new pictures. Thus, we have good news and bad news. The fleet there isn’t overly large. Our attacking force should outnumber it. They do, however, have a command ship there. The good news is that it’s only one. However, the bad news is that it’s of the larger variety, and we don’t know where the other two ‘Titans’ we spotted before are, presently. This one ship may be up to fifty kilometers in length.”
A buzz of disbelief went through the room, and Dogar had to raise his hands to counteract it. “Gentlemen, please remain calm. Our strike will focus on the main command ship. Destroying it should shatter the morale of their forces even more, compounding the problems of their leaders’ deaths and the loss of the other Titan. The actual mission plan will be formulated and passed on to each individual group en route. Are there any questions?”
“Any idea of the final count on our side?” Stan inquired.
“Only an approximate figure at the moment,” the Diktat replied. “However, it’s enough to make any enemy cringe, I’d say. Over two dozen Star Destroyers, three command ships, and hundreds of smaller capital ships and support craft. We’ll have several dozen Wings. That’s thousands of fighters…” He gave a short sigh. “It might well be the largest space battle in recorded history. At least as far as I’ve heard of…”
“What about that World Devastator we’ve got?” Amason asked. “That’d add a lot of firepower on our side.”
“True,” Dogar agreed, “But the Pillager-9 is on another assignment that should help us even more against the enemy. The thing’s already grown to over five kilometers in length, and now we’re using her to construct smaller Devastators, at least one per fleet. Then each one of those will grow into a large Devastator, and spawn others like it.”
“And in time we’ll have a whole fleet of the things,” Amason nodded. “That’s a great idea. If you need any of our equipment to supplement the weaponry onboard them, we’ll be happy to supply.”
“We’d be most appreciative,” Dogar said. “Speaking of which, we’ll be using out latest and most advanced equipment in this battle. In a way, it’s going to be the ultimate testing ground to see what works and what doesn’t. Of course, we aren’t going to put too much reliability in any of these systems, since they aren’t fully tested yet. Any advantage they can give us will be a bonus for us.
“And since we’ve established the ship presence committed to the battle, we should probably cover the other aspect: our starfighters. Commander Stele, do you have any input for us on that level? You’ve fought them more than anyone else here.”
The words took Maarek by surprise, but he quickly gathered his thoughts and stood. “That’s true,” he said. “I’ve fought them before, and though I still hardly know what they’re like, I do know what it’s like to stare down their cannons. So, since we’ve committed to this, my squadron and I are going to devote everything we have toward it. I think I have some information and tactics that I can offer to the rest of our pilots, things that might help prepare them and give us a bit on an advantage.”
“Good,” Dogar said. “Anything else?”
“Well, though I know our resources are limited, I’d recommend that we don’t commit any ships that don’t have shields. These aren’t like fighting pirates or standard duty pilots. Their starfighter pilots are good, as good as the fighters they fly. It’ll take a lot to beat them. Putting our guys in an unshielded craft will be killing them outright; even shielded ships don’t seem to be able to take a direct hit from their beams. Oh, and one more thing. I’d also recommend putting our forces through some positive psychology training or something before we arrive.”
“Why is that?” Eulicid asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” Stele answered, trying to find the right words to describe the feeling. “When you fight their forces, their ships… It’s like they exude some kind of fear effect, just by being there. It’s not their technology or skill or power. It’s like… a scream of evil, of wrongness, tearing through your soul as you look at them…” he broke off, his memories going back to his first vision of the Altarin’Dakor, of the massive black Titan the blotted out the sky above him…And later, at Varnus, when three of them had appeared out of nowhere, wiping out their newest capital ship as they entered like it was nothing but a gnat. “I still remember when they attacked Varnus,” he spoke aloud. “It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen. We’ve got to be ready for them, this time.”
Dogar nodded grimly as the room quieted after Maarek’s words. “Understood. If it’s anything like you say, we’ll make preparations to counteract that.”
“It’s most likely a Force-induced effect,” Jedi Master Alyx Misnera, recently and newly-appointed Grand Master, spoke up. “That’s another reason we’ll have Jedi on as many ships as possible, to fight back.”
“Very well,” Dogar said. “Anyone else have anything to add?” he asked as Stele sat back down. No one else responded. The room had gone relatively quiet, as if Maarek’s words had really hit home to its occupants, showing that this was no game they were getting involved in.
“In that case,
this will be our last formal meeting,” Dogar informed everyone. “When the fleet
is fully assembled, the command briefing will be sent down the ranks. We’ll be
on our way as soon as possible; we’ll only have a couple more days to prepare,
if this goes right. I want everyone to realize how serious this is. We’ll be
sending over a million New Imperium officers into battle. We’ll be facing a
very dangerous enemy, and considering the disarray the
* * *
The room was completely black. None of its dimensions could be seen. Only one single light hanging down from above, shaded so that its white beam shone on the long, rectangular table, provided illumination. At the head of the table, shrouded in darkness outside the reach of that light, was a lone figure, his golden armor glinting dimly. He was watching, and with good reason. Eight of the remaining Shok’Thola were gathered around the table, engaged in discussion. Rarely had so many met at once. Only an issue of the utmost importance would bring them together without killing one another. This was one such occasion. With the recent events delaying the Return – namely, Kronos’ demise – the other Shok’Thola had gotten quite restless. Around the table they all sat: Raftina, Strife, Akargan, Asellus, Mordachus, Calvernic, Zalaria, and Nimrod. Three were missing, although those three could be the most dangerous of all…
“I still can’t believe Kronos was defeated by a mere outlander,” Calvernic spoke up from his position near the opposite end. Across from him, Mordachus nodded. The two were often in logical agreement; after all, they were the newest Warlords to be chosen, and after all these years a Warlord’s age was one of the most distinct marks of the hierarchy. They had been raised shortly after rebelling against their own Warlord five thousand years before, pulling a brilliant coup – with the help of Zalaria. Calvernic had spent most of his existence sheltered in her territory, having been taken in as Zalaria’s protégé. Of course, his position wasn’t exactly voluntary. Calvernic was still unproven, never having lived outside their current host galaxy. As such, he would have been a prime target by one of the older Warlords, had he not received Zalaria’s protection in exchange for certain… concessions.
Mordachus, on the other hand, had little room to speak. He had been killed by an outlander two hundred years before, in a foolish and unsanctioned act of invasion. His position as a Warlord was currently precarious, at best. Only the golden figure knew the reason why he was still a Shok’Thola.
“The fool,” Asellus snapped from her position beside Mordachus, causing the younger Warlord to flinch. She was one of the more intense and indulgent Warlords, with straight blond hair falling to her shoulders, piercing blue eyes, and a wild air that hung about her. Her sneer twisted a face that, the golden being supposed, was as beautiful as Zalaria’s. That is, if he was interested in such things. Asellus spoke with bravado and confidence only borne of antiquity. “Kronos was a pathetic weakling. Still, he isn’t going to be very happy when he gets back.” The blond-headed woman gave a sardonic grin as she looked across the table at the two silent figures there. “Especially when he finds his territory raped and plundered by his most hated rival.”
From his position at the head of the table, the golden-armored being continued his survey of those gathered around. Sitting quietly across from Asellus was the woman’s own rival: Zalaria. The dark-haired woman, one of the oldest of the Warlords, hadn’t spoken much about Kronos’ demise, probably to keep attention away from herself. Of course, the golden being knew the truth: She’d had Kronos killed, using as the instrument the very mortal they were discussing. Such was obvious to the leader of the Shok’Thola. He knew everything about his Warlords, knew them even better than they knew themselves. It was through him that they gained their power, their Immortality. Nothing they did was hidden from him; every move they made fit into his will and plan. Even this.
However, it wasn’t Zalaria who answered the question, but the figure beside her. Where stillness had been a moment before, the darkness moved, revealing a figure cloaked in such hideous black armor that it seemed to absorb the night itself. Known by many names, there was one that men feared above all others: Nimrod. He was, in many ways, the most feared and dreaded of all the Warlords. His forged black helmet covered his features, but not the glowing red eyes that glared from within the darkness. When he spoke, it was as if thunder rippled throughout the room.
“Kronos failed in his mission,” the dark being spoke. His biting words made everything he uttered seem completely absolute. “He will pay the price for his failure, as have others who have failed.”
His words were strong, too strong for one Warlord to speak about another. But Nimrod had become something more than a Warlord. The golden being looked on him with pride. He and Kronos had been the main rivals for the top hierarchical position among the Shok’Thola. Kronos had been snatched from that competition, and now there was only one left. Time would soon tell.
“That may be,” the voice across from Nimrod spoke up. “But that doesn’t mean you’ll take his territory.” The source of the voice was a rough-looking man with long, curly dark hair and a short mustache and goatee. Being somewhat a latecomer, Akargan was determined to rise to the top of the Shok’Thola. His life centered around combat; he wanted nothing more than to be the greatest warrior in history. He was the only one, it seemed, with the courage – or perhaps foolishness – to contest Nimrod’s dominance over Kronos’ space. Asellus had been right in her comment. Currently, Nimrod and Akargan were fighting over control of Kronos’ former territory. Nimrod’s unchecked ambition and the might of his forces enabled him to act almost with impunity against the other Warlords. Most of them, at least. Akargan, one of the younger Warlords with less territory, had challenged the Destroyer almost out of necessity. But the outcome of their little war was already determined, inevitable. Nimrod had more territory and military power than any of the others. His brilliant strategies and tactics had never been defeated in battle. Though their forces were currently engaged in fighting, the outcome wouldn’t be decided militarily. Such would be a waste of resources that were better spent elsewhere.
“You cannot stop me,” Nimrod thundered. “Save your resources and let the fittest take command.”
“We’ll prove who is fittest,” Akargan countered, his voice containing barely-restrained rage. Though angry as he was, he wouldn’t actually draw on the Power. Not in the golden being’s presence. To do so would mean instant death.
Beside Akargan, another figure interrupted the argument with an annoyed sigh. “Stop this foolish bickering,” Strife spoke up smoothly. “That isn’t the point of this meeting. We have more important matters to discuss.”
The man’s very presence, though externally relaxed, spoke of deadly grace and power. He wore a broad silver armor adorned with fine cloth. His white hair fell straight down, shoulder length, though his face was as young as any of the other Warlords’. His cold blue eyes studied those around him for any sign of weakness. Strife was well known as very vain and confident, though his confidence was well founded. Anyone who underestimated him, or thought him weak because of it, was a dead man. The very word strife had been created from this man, because of what he had induced into the galaxy. Beside him, Raftina nodded. She didn’t speak much, but her presence was not to be underestimated. The presence of a Crinn was never to be taken lightly, especially the Queen Mother of all them …
“I agree,” Asellus spoke up. “Specifically, who is to lead the invasion now that Kronos has been beaten?” She looked suspiciously around the table. Clearly, she expected to be the one.
“This could take
some time,” Calvernic offered,
his voice soft. “We chose Kronos because of his unique skills and his
usefulness to the situation. Deciding all over again could be a precarious and
time-consuming task.” He used the word “we” as though pretending he held some
power for himself. Yet he was tool, like all the rest.
“I’m more concerned that some of us are not here for this meeting,” Mordachus said. “Why are some of us missing?”
“This was all we could have expected, under the circumstances,” Zalaria answered smoothly. She was right, of course. Sado was a recluse now, almost a legend even among the Shok’Thola. His presence might have complicated things too much. And none of them should have expected Velius; it was the same with him. In truth, they’d probably hoped that he wouldn’t show up at all. And it was obvious that the Star Dragon wouldn’t have come. He never came.
“Then how will we decide who leads the new invasion? I think…” Mordachus continued.
“Silence,” Nimrod boomed, cutting him off. “Enough time has been wasted already. There will be no trials this time. I will send my forces through and sweep away anything in my path.”
“Not you again,” Akargan countered, his voice turning hostile once more. “You have no more right than the rest of us…” he started.
Suddenly Asellus leaned forward and slammed her palm on the table with a crack. “No. This time we will all go forward. I don’t care what decision we make, I have my own plans and I will carry them out.”
Inwardly, the golden being nodded. Her conclusion was the most obvious. Each of the Warlords had their own agendas, of course. Strife working secretly with Sado, Zalaria’s underhanded plots with the outlanders, Akargan’s visits within the New Imperium... This time he knew that whomever led the frontal assault, all of them would move. And this, of course, was exactly what he wanted.
Suddenly, as all the Warlords seemed to be yelling at once, Altima began speaking softly.
Instantly, the room went silent.
All eyes turned to the one whose name itself meant absolute power, he who held complete control over the Warlords and everything they did. As they listened, suddenly very attentive, he began relaying his instructions. Though he knew that they would all embark on their own personal plots, they would never dare disobey a direct order he had given to them. So they listened, as he told them exactly what they were going to do. By the time he finished, all were in staunch favor of his plans…
* * *
Pilot’s Briefing Room
up, pilots,” Maarek said firmly, addressing not only the room full of pilots,
but also many others via transmission. He hadn’t particularly wanted to brief
so many pilots; he would have preferred a private session with his own
squadron. But, his combat experience with the Altarin’Dakor made it necessary.
As it was, Inferno’s members sat in the front of the room, and behind them were
the other two Wings of pilots onboard the
“Here’s out attack plan for the battle of Mizar,” he told everyone. The flat-screen on the wall provided a strategic image of the third planet, as well as the friendly and enemy ships. “Our task force will arrive together at approximately 1800. We’re going to keep it tight, to offer the most firepower against the enemy. Our fighter wings will launch in two groups,” he said, showing to the map with a long pointer. “The first group will consist of our attack fighters and interceptors, and will play space superiority. This group includes myself and Inferno Squadron, and all of you flying interceptors and heavy fighters. Our job will be to engage enemy units and keep them busy – that means away from the capital ships and the bombers. The second group will be comprised of our bombers and a fighter escort. Their job will be to sweep around on a different heading, skirting the battle area, and attacking the enemy capital ships directly. Their job is crucial; the enemy capships must be weakened for the rest of the fleet to make an effective attack. If we’re going to win this, we’ve got to completely destroy this enemy. Once the bombers have done a sufficient job, our own capital ships will move en masse, hopefully completing the assault.” He stood back, looking at the battle plan with a short sigh. “It’s relatively simple, especially for such a large engagement. But since we’re bested in most areas against them, we have to stick together and concentrate our firepower. Our main target, of course, is the Titan. However, our fighters have little chance of causing any real damage against it, so we’re to lay back and keep our distance if we can. Understood?”
A throng of affirmatives came back to him. “Well, that’s pretty much it. I hope you’ve been practicing the tactics I displayed; they may keep you alive out there, and take some of the enemy with you. Remember, from our preliminary engagements, it seems that their hangars are pretty much wide open, and vulnerable to attack; just don’t get too close to them. Always keep your craft moving, even if lining up for a missile shot. And remember that their fighters will probably take at least three of our missiles to take down, so stay on them until they’re dead.” He set the pointer on the table beside him and switched off the briefing map. “Oh, and also… Now’s a good time to take that medicine that was passed around. It should keep your nerves more steady and keep the fear effect to a minimum,” he reminded.
He paused, struggling with what he wanted to say. “I know that this isn’t what most of you envisioned when you joined the NI. But I’m telling you, this fight is more vital than any other we’ve faced. We aren’t fighting to justify our viewpoint or to reestablish some empire; we’re fighting for our very survival. This enemy holds no remorse over killing every man, woman, and child in our space, and in the entire galaxy. We must win, if we are to continue our very existence... I won’t sweeten this up for you, pilots. I’ll just give you the cold facts, and you shouldn’t be surprised by what I’m saying... A lot of you aren’t going to make it back from this mission. That may include me, as well as everyone else here. In this type of situation, luck counts almost as much as skill. There’ll be more ships than you can possibly shoot at. But, when you do fight, fight for the safety and the future of the people you love; your friends, family, loved ones… even for the very galaxy as we know it. Anything less will make all our sacrifices in vain.” He broke off then, not knowing what else to say. He wasn’t that eloquent a speaker, anyway. All he could do was look at the briefing map, and sigh. Will any of us make it back? he thought.
* * *
Bren tossed about on the bed, restlessly dreaming again… but they weren’t dreams… In his unconscious mind, his past rose up, clearer than ever before, leaving traces and nuances that would remain when he awoke.
The battle was won; his forces were victorious. A great celebration had taken place to commemorate their stand on Varnus, and to honor those who had fallen in combat. Lasitus celebrated as hard as anyone. Someone had even found the head of Delavous, the Jedi leader, and set it up on a pike behind his place at the table. Individual stories from the battle had been passed around and around the tables, each member sharing in the glory of the others. For they had proven, beyond any doubt, that they could prevail. That they could be victorious. The Jedi knew this too, now. The Altarin’Dakor were far from defeated; they had won. His forces had justified their right to exist in the galaxy, and proven the superiority of their way. The wonderful celebration dragged on past the night, into the next day, and the next, and the next… Filled with wine and song, and beautiful native women from Varnus…
Then they’d received word that an even larger enemy force was approaching the planet. The spirit of celebration was suddenly and unexpectedly broken, replaced by a mute silence.
Their victory was unstained, of course. Nothing the Jedi could do could make up for that battle. Each man there was more than willing to die for the glory of the Altarin’Dakor; there was no doubt of that. But the only sadness was that their victory would never be known to the rest of their people. Not unless…
“My trusted, loyal friend,” Lasitus said, placing his hands on the broad shoulders of his general. They’d cast simple lots to determine who was to escape. It wasn’t a privilege, in the least; the winner was the unlucky one, in this case. The only part that was worth it would be the honor of relating the story, and of bearing their forces’ most valuable treasure.
“I will serve your wishes unquestioningly, of course, master,” Goath said, a fierceness in his eyes. “I only wish I could remain with you, to take scores of Jedi with me. If you choose to leave instead, I would gladly change places with you…”
“Yes, master,” Starnek agreed. “We would rather you escape. You are more important than any of us…”
“Nonsense. Do not dishonor me, Goath, Starnek,” Lasitus replied. “I know you would gladly do such a thing, to stay here and give your life. But Goath, your mission is most important. My life is no different than any foot soldier here. The important task is with you. Getting the news of our fate here is secondary to the gift you will carry. It is more valuable than all our lives here. It can never fall into the hands of the enemy.”
“I will destroy it and myself before I let it happen,” Goath answered loyally.
“I know you shall,” Lasitus nodded. He reached into his robes and gently pulled out Sha’kira, the ancient weapon that had been given to him by his master. “Take this, and find Akargan,” he instructed. “This belongs to him, now. It is his turn to carry on the lineage.” They’d both been under the same master. Lasitus, as best student, had received the honor of bearing the master’s own blade. Now that his own life was about to end, it would pass onto the next best suited to bear it.
“I shall do as you command, master,” Goath said, an almost mad gleam in his eyes as he took the hilt and hid it under his robes.
“Excellent. Now go, and do not look back upon this place.”
Immediately Goath swiveled around in response and started off. Lasitus watched him leave, offering a prayer through the Force for his safety. As he watched the General board one of their remaining ships and leave, he felt a weight leave his shoulders, replaced by a sense of freedom and wonder that he’d never felt before. The line had been passed on, and now he could finally live and die as a true Altarin’Dakor warrior. He may not have made the coveted goal of Shok’Thola - perhaps Akargan would gain it, now – but this fate was suddenly and immensely pleasing to him. He would be remembered. And in this way, at least, he would become Immortal...
The images flooded through his mind… Thousands and thousands, with no clear sense of order or structure. Pure chaos. He saw the ensuing battle in the flash of an instant, a blink in time that seemed to stretch on to forever. The enemy filled the skies, covered the ground like grass. His warriors fought as they’d never fought before, each taking scores of the enemy with them. Every last one of them fought to the very end, to the death, until their numbers shrank smaller and smaller. He made his own last stand on a broad hilltop, inside a circle of his best soldiers, as the Jedi made their final assault. They wanted to capture him, to take what they believed he held. Their dead bodies formed mountains about them, yet they kept coming. Finally, the last of his men fell, and they moved in to take him and Starnek as prisoners. But his faithful general was not to be captured. In a brilliant sacrifice, he feigned surrender, and as a score of Jedi moved in to cover him, he destroyed himself and all of them in one bright flash of light. The rest of the Jedi, enraged and dismayed, moved in to take Lasitus himself. He tried to duplicate Starnek’s brave maneuver, but before he was able to, the Jedi had him, shielded and captured. It was only then that they found him empty handed. Goath was long gone with the prize. And yet their wrath was far from abated. Instead of killing him, they had chosen a fate far more painful and horrible. A stasis field was brought down and he was forced inside, to live the rest of eternity frozen in timelessness, unable to know of his people’s fate or anything of his galaxy around him. In silence and darkness he was condemned to remain, a never-ending prison from which he could not escape, and even if he did, everything he knew and loved would be gone. He was placed inside, and the chamber sealed around him. Then nothing but blackness, as the man he had been was slowly erased, replaced by a new person, with no knowledge of what had come before…
Bren’s eyes flickered open, and he stared at the ceiling, finally coming to the realization of the truth. The man I was is gone… replaced by me, by Bren. I’ve begun anew, yet the Altarin’Dakor inside of me is screaming to get out… I understand now that what I am is not what I was before. Can I live with that? Can I stave off this raving madman much longer? Nothing but silence answered him back, quiet like before… He hated it. It was too much like when he’d slept all that time, as the ages of the galaxy passed him by. Now, his world was changed, gone, and he was a new man. Yet like his inner conscious, some part of his world existed, hidden away and trying to get out. It was, of course, the returning of his people. How ironic that they both were fated to come forth at the same time. If the Altarin’Dakor won, his world would return. And if that happened, what would become of him? Would he become Lasitus once more? In the time that he’d slept, everything he’d known had changed, except – perhaps – for one thing. Only one part of what he once knew still remained… His former friend, who had passed the ages by, awake and active. Akargan. Could answers come from there? Would he be able to take that chance?
There’s only one way to find out, he thought.
The man named Bren left the palace quietly in the night, easily slipping past the guards and moving out into the streets of Vectur. He’d find a transport somehow, soon enough. His things were gathered in a small bag that hung over his shoulder, and his new lightsaber hung from its clip at his belt. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he’d arrive where he was supposed to be.
He never saw the lone figure, standing silently on top of the palace wall, watching him walk off into the shadows…
* * *
Epsilon Sector, Unknown Regions
The fleet cruised in toward the shiny blue planet, passing through space like a living steel serpent. At their backs hung a massive purple and blue curtain, the billowing cotton, cloud-like Galbagos Nebula. First, a stream of uncountable fighters flew past, each engine playing its own tune. The high-pitched whines of the twin ion engines; the deeper roar of Rebel-based craft... And following them, the entire Starfleet of the New Imperium, their ships’ massive engines eliciting a deep, inaudible rumble that seemed to shake the very space around them with their power. The bodies of the ships clustered near and around the three massive vessels leading the fleet, their dark metal outlines ripping the fragile peace of space around them.
Ahead of them, a virgin world hung suspended in the void of space. Its surface, ranging from deep blues and greens and browns and grays, covered in places by the white of purest clouds. Surrounding the planet was a ring system, presenting the narrowest of disks at this distance, encircling the planet. And in front of the planet, visible even to the approaching armada, were tiny dark spots representing the larger of the enemy ships. They hovered over the world’s beautiful surface, some glinting sunlight reflected from the pink-white star of Mizar. And in the center of that fleet, one vessel hung, stretching so long that the other ships seemed like specks of dirt in comparison. Its dark outline sat like a foreboding, shadowy dagger, its mere presence a warning and deterrent to all outsiders. It was pointed at both ends, as if it were a javelin to be thrust into the heart of its enemy. Its very sight stirred an instinctive, innate repulsion in those who saw it, as if its very presence were a perversion of reality, a defiant cry against all that was right. As the ships approached, their occupants, over a million strong, could feel that cry, that scream, deep within their souls. And despite all their preparation, none of them were untouched by the instinctive pang of fear that gripped men’s hearts.
and interim Diktat Arfann Dogar stared through the
He was finally able to come out of the trance and look away, and snapped his bridge back to attention with a harsh shout. “Give me a status report!” he barked. His crew, fully awake now, busied themselves at their stations with guilty looks on their faces. Even though they knew that the Diktat had been as hypnotized as they’d been…
“All ships are reporting in,” the strategic officer announced. “We had a temporary lag problem with communications, but it seems to be settled now.”
Good cover, Dogar noted. “What else?”
“All our forces have arrived,” the man went on. “Our fighter groups are in position, riding out in front of us. We are moving toward the system’s third planet at cruising speed.”
Dogar announced. He looked back at Admiral Varrel, the
“Go to red alert, activate all weapons and defense systems,” he ordered. “We’ll continue as planned. Details on enemy presence?” As he spoke, he could see the Super Star Destroyer’s shields rising in the main display, as well as the huge armored protective doors in front of the bridge as they began to slide closed. As their view to the outside was cut off, the holoscreens painted onto the viewports activated.
“Enemy presence is lighter than expected,” the officer at tactical called out. “I’m reading the main Titan and eighteen other capital ships of roughly ISD size.”
“Anything on the other two Titans?” Dogar asked. They weren’t expecting them, and the operation was basically based on the premise that they were elsewhere and couldn’t arrive in time to interfere. If they did, the New Imperium’s fleet would be turning around, fast.
“No sign of them, sir.”
Dogar leaned forward, squinting at the ships enhanced on the viewscreen. Not only did he not see the Titans, but he didn’t see any motion on the enemy’s part. “Are they doing anything?” he asked. “Launching fighters?”
“Not yet, sir. No fighters detected.”
Not good, he thought. Too easy. Suddenly he got a bad thought. “Quick, pick up rear scanning. Look behind us for enemy presence.”
The conversation paused for a moment as the officer followed his orders, and he could see the rear scanners come online in one of the display screens. The glowing purple nebula was all that appeared behind them.
“No sign of enemy presence behind us, sir,” the officer said.
Most peculiar, he thought.
“Sir, a report from our other ships,” came a voice to his right. He looked over and recognized the officer at the communications console.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m getting a signal from ships all over the fleet,” the man said. “Even us. It’s regarding the Jedi we placed onboard.” He paused, as Dogar scratched his chin in confusion.
“I’m getting reports of Jedi going down all over the fleet. Some kind of sickness,” the officer went on finally. “They must have just started. Reports of intense headaches, stomach sickness, and so on.” He looked up at the Diktat, still holding his earpiece up to his ear with one hand.
“All at once?” Dogar asked, swiveling around tapping a command into the keyboard on his chair arm. A small side screen showed incoming reports from all over the fleet. Brief, short messages as the Jedi collapsed or fainted due to some kind of illness. “What does that mean? Patch them through, get me their leader,” Dogar ordered in a frustrated tone.
“One moment, sir.” Dogar waited impatiently as the officer tied him in. Suddenly part of the viewscreen changed, and Dogar was surprised to see the image of Admiral Nico on the screen. Surprised in more ways than one. The man didn’t look good at all. He was partly hunched over, and his face had become a pallid color. “I’m the ranking Jedi here, Arfann. I’m in charge of them,” the man said, a hint of weakness in his voice.
“What’s going on here, Nico?”
“I don’t know, Dogar,” the man said, shaking his head and straightening. “Some kind of psychic backlash, I think. I’m having to tone down my Force abilities to keep it bearable,” he said.
“What’s caused it? Something to do with our attack? With the AD?” Dogar asked. Of course, what other possibility could there be?
“It must be,” the man replied, straightening. “I’m afraid we won’t be of much use to us as long as this keeps up,” he said. “I’m sorry…”
“No, no… it’s all right,” Dogar said, inwardly cursing at the situation. Something else had gone wrong, and they hadn’t even started the attack yet!
“I think I might be able to help out some, though,” Nico said.
“What do you mean?” Dogar asked.
“Well, I encountered one of the Altarin’Dakor on a special Division mission about a year ago,” the man said. “It was there that I discovered I have a special talent for deciphering written language. In fact, I was reading Altarin’Dakor when it developed.”
“So what do you mean? You know Altarin’Dakor?”
“I think I can read their language, I just don’t know if I can understand it vocally,” Nico said, eliciting a short laugh. “Don’t ask my why, it’s a Force talent.”
“Well, unless we can catch their transmissions and decode it into writing, I’m afraid that won’t do us much good,” Dogar said with a sigh.
“True, but I did find something interesting. When looking at a close-up of the Titan, I noticed its name was burned into the side. It’s the same one Xar said was here… It’s called the Cataclysm.”
“Thanks for that information,” Dogar said cynically. “Look, I don’t want your men getting hurt, so just play it easy. We didn’t count on the Jedi thing too much, so we’re prepared to go without it, right?”
“Right,” Nico agreed. “My forces are ready to move in at any time.”
“Good. Dogar out,” he said.
For a moment, he sat back in the command chair, suddenly struck with a decision that he hadn’t wanted to make. Before, everything was fine… Whether they’d expected it or not, each of them had at least been hoping for everything to run smoothly. And now, with all the pieces on the table at last, he had to make the final order for them to proceed, and start this war. He hadn’t thought it would be so hard to do. But it was, harder than anything one man should have to decide. The lives of all those in the fleet, a million New Imperium citizens, were in his immediate hands.
“Sir,” the strategic officer chimed in. “All our ships are in position, and we’re fast approaching the enemy forces. Do we have the official order to proceed?”
Dogar didn’t answer. He looked over to Admiral Varrel, but the other’s face held an unreadable expression. He turned back to look out the viewscreen, idly rubbing his chin. Thoughts ran through his head: fears, doubts. He knew most of them were probably caused by whatever had sent that chilling fear through his men. Being here in person, things were different. Uncertainties developed.
“Sir, we’re approaching the staging area quickly,” the man continued incessantly. “If we don’t launch soon, we won’t be able to time the attacks right.”
I know that, Dogar thought to himself. Yet still, he looked forward, caught in the breadth of an instant, all the possibilities passing before his eyes. He tried to steel his nerves, to put away his emotions so he could calmly order over a million people to their fate. Could he do that? Make the single most important and momentous statement of his life? Only a simple phrase, yet with so much attached to it. What an amazing irony.
“Sir, time’s almost up! What are your orders? We need to…”
“I know!” Dogar interrupted him harshly. He stared at the growing blue orb in front of him, forcing down all his doubts, trepidations, and fears. He took one last, deep breath, praying he’d made the right decision.
“Launch the attack,” he said.
“That’s it, boss, we’ve got the word! Time to go!” Rann Wosper’s voice rang in Maarek’s ears. The eagerness in his voice was almost palpable.
Maarek gave a grim smile and nodded. He switched over to the general frequency. “All right, you heard ‘em, pilots! Stay in formation, let’s move!”
Placing both hands on the controls, he shot the craft forward, accelerating to attack speed. He quickly began to pull away from the rest of the fleet, the TIE Avatars of Inferno Squadron coming into a tight formation around his craft. Taking a moment to glance to either side of him, he could see the rest of the NI assault force moving forward as well, coming into something of a loose wall formation. There were more fighters than he could count. Thousands were out there, he knew. Almost every ship class he could imagine was represented here. Even TIE Interceptors and Bombers had been refitted with shields for this mission. They truly had thrown everything they had into this. And they had to make it count.
Ahead of the canopy, he could see the pristine blue planet growing larger. The enemy ships were all visible now, arrayed in a large battle group and in no particular order. And in the center was the largest ship he’d ever seen. It stretched across space so far that at first it didn’t even seem real.
“Look at the size of that thing!” Petur Kien exclaimed over the channel. “My screens show it’s at least fifty kilometers long!”
“Quiet, ten,” Maarek ordered. “Stele to NI forces, any sign of enemy response? Fighters?”
“I’ve got nothing, One,” the voice of Bast Vlagen, head of Flight Two, answered. Similarly, he got other reports from some of the other squadrons, reporting no sign of enemy contact. His own sensors showed nothing, as well.
Something wasn’t right. Here they were, a force of over a thousand fighters boring closer and closer to the Altarin’Dakor fleet, and the enemy did nothing. No one in their right mind would calmly sit by and wait…
Suddenly a cold feeling hit him in his stomach, and he felt the hairs on his neck rising, a sense born only after years of piloting experience. He turned around in his seat, looking back…
Just in time to see space ripple as uncountable enemy ships de-cloaked behind them. Simultaneously, his warning alarms went blaring.
“Break! Break, pilots!” he screamed into the comm. “Go evasive!”
Then the enemy ships opened fire, and death exploded around them.
Maarek slammed his fighter to the left just as a mass driver shot half the size of his cockpit blasted through the space he’d just been. He jammed the stick back against his thigh, pulling a maneuver so sharp he almost blacked out from the gravitational forces. Turning around to face back the other way, he saw the awful sight: The sky behind them was filled with enemy fighters, quickly picking off the targets they’d been following. Space was thick with yellow, red and green beams of energy, rail-gun shots, and bright missiles. Explosions blossomed everywhere as NI fighters were taken down, their pilots dead before they even knew what hit them. His fighter shook from the shockwave of a nearby friendly ship detonating in a bright flash.
Continuing his loop, he pulled back around on their original heading, dodging as several enemy fighters shot past overhead of him. After the surprise first attack, the two groups were beginning to meld in a mass brawl, as confusing to one side as to the other. His radar was a chaotic, indecipherable jumble of colors; he realized he’d have to rely on his visual abilities. He could make out at least a dozen different shapes of ships, mostly conventional-looking, with swept-back wings suited to atmospheric flight as well. Then he shot back out of the thick of it, the enemy fleet and planet ahead of him again. TIE Avatars came down to flank him on either side, and he noted with pride that most of the squadron had duplicated his maneuver.
He opened his mouth to order them to attack, when his words froze in his throat.
“Two! Boss, we’ve got big time incoming, straight ahead!” Rann’s voice announced. He needn’t have bothered. Maarek could well see the wall of enemy ships suddenly approaching from the direction of the enemy fleet.
“Where did they come from?!” Seven’s voice rasped over the line.
“Stow it, people!” he yelled, thumbing his targeting over to missiles. “Just shoot the friggin’ fighters!” Almost immediately his reticule flashed red over a dark enemy outline, and he pulled the trigger in response, sending two advanced concussion missiles out on bright streaks of smoke. Both warheads hit the target a second later, flaring its shields up and sending it spiraling to the side, where it crashed into another enemy fighter, throwing them both off course. Then a wave of missiles shot past him from the remaining NI ships on course, lighting the sky up with a hundred different detonations. In response, the enemy fired back, sending streaking beams of energy all around him. More explosions and shockwaves, closer this time, and then the enemy fighters shot past him in the blink of an eye. Slamming a foot on the right rudder pedal, he pulled his Avatar into a hard turn, heading back to get on the enemy’s tail and reenter the fray.
“Sir! We’ve got enemy ships appearing between us and the fighters!” the tactical officer yelled. As he spoke Dogar saw the first shots of the enemy streak out and detonate ship after ship, causing a myriad of disparaging explosions that filled the air in front of them. Then more fighters quickly de-cloaked from in front of the fleet, moving in to squash their fighters from the other side. Within seconds, he could tell neither friend nor foe in the swirling torrent of fighters.
Dogged looked at the maelstrom outside the viewports, unable to move or take his eyes away from the destruction. “By the Core…” he whispered. “What have we done?”
“I’m getting multiple losses all across the board,” the officer announced, his voice becoming more shaky. “Unknown number of enemy ships has engaged our fighters…”
“It’s a trap!” someone one the bridge shouted frantically.
“Proceed with the plan,” Dogar ordered, making his voice cold and precise. Regardless of whatever happened, they couldn’t back out. The critical decision of two minutes ago was gone. It was too late to turn back now. “Send group two forward as planned. Objective: Enemy capital vessels. All fleet ships, accelerate to attack speed.”
He waited as his
orders were carried out, gripping his armrest with one hand, rubbing his chin
anxiously with the other. The fleet began to pick up speed, and he watched the
cluster of warring fighters begin to drift off to port as the battle moved that
way, fortunately opening up a pathway for their capital ships to make their
run. He looked at the viewscreens, seeing the Star Destroyers and Cruisers
Suddenly he was aware of Admiral Varrel’s hand on his arm. “Sir,” the Commodore said quietly. “With the present situation, I would suggest you change to the auxiliary bridge.”
“What?” Dogar asked, looking over at the man. “I’m not going to retreat. I belong on this bridge.”
“You can still command from the interior command room,” Varrel said. “But it’s too dangerous up here. For the sake of the New Imperuim, we can’t let anything happen to you.”
“I’ve no reason to place myself before any of you,” Dogar protested, gesturing around the room.
“We’re all willing to stay here, sir,” the strategic officer turned around to face him. “This is our post; it’s what we live for.”
“And there’s more at stake than your own life,” Varrel reminded. “If not for yourself or your position, do it for our men. Losing you would destroy our forces’ morale. Please, sir. Relocate to the interior auxiliary bridge. It will serve your purposes just as well.”
Dogar paused, considering those words, as he looked at the conflict raging outside the viewscreens. From a purely logical standpoint, the officers were right. But that didn’t mean he had to like it. “All right,” he announced with a sigh. “I’ll be moving to the auxiliary bridge now and the crew there. Admiral Varrel, you have the bridge.” He stood up and saluted the officer, then turned and did the same to the entire room. “Give it your best up here. Don’t let the NI down.”
“It’s been an honor serving with you, sir,” the man at tactical nodded. Dogar suddenly wished he’d remembered all their names, now. A brave lot, willing to sacrifice their lives for the New Imperium’s cause if necessary.
“Farewell,” he managed, then turned around and slowly walked toward the turbolifts at the rear of the bridge.
“Group Two is moving in now,” Admiral Jingo Yatai, Commodore of the Darkstar, announced. Beside him on the bridge of the Intruder Wing’s flagship, Fleet Admiral Stan Sandars looked up from his station at the forward viewscreen. Another long line of fighters was just shooting past the bridge, heading off for the enemy battle group on a different heading. This one was composed mostly of bombers: B-Wings, Missile Boats, refitted TIE Bombers, K-Wings, and even Assault Gunboats. More fighters, X-Wings, TIE Avengers, and the like, hung closely around the group to fend off any attacks against the slower ships. If the plan went right, this attack would soften the enemy fleet enough so that the NI’s own starships could cause some real damage.
Their forward sensors kept a close view of the fighter group as it flew toward its target. As they approached, some of the enemy fighters that had hung back moved in the way to stop them. The three dozen or so enemy ships opened up with coruscating beams of energy that cut into the NI fighters, causing blossoming explosions among their line. Fortunately, though, numbers were on the NI’s side, as most of the AD fighters had engaged the main fighter body. A wave of missiles from the escorts chewed into the fighters, finally collapsing their shields and ripping them apart. Then, suddenly the second group was through, with nothing between them and their targets. Stan watched in tense anticipation as the fighters approached…
“Enemy in range now!” Major Ferndand, Commander of the IW’s Nightmare Squadron, announced, his HUD giving him a positive lock on the nearest of the AD’s cruiser-sized capital ships. Squeezing the trigger, he sent a pair of heavy space rockets streaking out of his Missile Boat toward the ship, followed by a volley from the rest of the fighters, the warheads spreading out against the nearest several enemy vessels. He watched his own leading missiles flying ahead, reaching out toward the enemy ship’s hull, eagerly waiting to see the rockets tear into the hull of the cruiser…
They never made it. A hundred meters from the cruiser, the warheads impacted against an invisible shield and exploded, flaring up a huge bluish globe in place around the enemy ship. His jaw dropped in shock; it lowered even more as the azure shielding of the other capital ships flashed into being, every one of their warheads impacting prematurely. No damage.
“What the blazes is this?!” He shouted to no one in particular. He’d been flying fighters for years, and he’d never seen anything like this before… His own scopes showed nothing on the enemy ship as far as shield strength, yet there was some kind of field preventing them from even touching their ships. This was neither energy nor particle shielding… this was something else…
Then space in front of them lit up with bright fire as the vessels returned fire, each of the dozens of turrets sending out a near continuous, pulsing volley of energy bolts out at their attacking force. They were unimpeded by the shields. He saw one volley hit the commander of Flight Two, Captain Jekel, in his B-Wing off to the left and detonate the craft instantaneously in a huge explosion. At that, he pulled back hard on the stick, throwing his fighter into evasive…
Suddenly his commlink crackled, and a strained voice spoke quickly to the group of fighters. “This is Fleet Admiral Sanders. You’re going to have to get through that shielding to cause any damage. Don’t waste your shots, just try and get inside them.”
Hearing the commanding voice of the Fleet Admiral quieted Fernando’s strained nerves somewhat and he pulled his fighter back around to face the enemy ships once more. He hit the comm button for the Wing’s frequency. “Concentrate firepower, pilots. Let’s try and punch a hold in those shields.”
Several fighters were already trying just that. A K-Wing, Assault Gunboat and another Missile Boat were already launching rapid volleys of rockets out at one of the cruisers. The clusters of warheads hit the shields with tremendous force, causing an explosion so bright that his canopy dimmed in response. The cruiser’s shields flared once more, this time causing a huge ripple effect that spread around the impact area around behind the ship. But, to his dismay, the shields didn’t fall. And all their effort was rewarded by a barrage of pulse laser fire that blew all three ships out of the sky.
We’re dead, Fernando thought.
Dogar hit the auxiliary bridge just in time to see the second group’s valiant – and disappointing – assault. He threw himself into the command seat with a grunt of utter disbelief. How could everything be going so wrong? They’d defeated the AD before, at Varnus, and they’d seen nothing like this. “How can we beat them when we can’t even hit them?” he asked aloud. The new bridge crew didn’t answer; only a few turned to look at him at all.
Suddenly his comm beeped, and he activated the secondary screen, which changed to reveal the image of Fleet Admiral Sanders. “What’s going on, Stan?” he said.
“Nothing we’re trying is penetrating those shields,” the man said, his expression dark. “Even our fighters are being treated like our warheads, they can’t get through. They just aren’t large enough.” As he spoke, Dogar saw one of their fighters get too close to an enemy cruiser and explode as it hit the shield.
“Then what do we do?” Dogar demanded frustratingly. “We can’t…”
“Hold on, sir,” Stan said, a tense edge to his voice. “I think we can break those shields up, by moving our own fleet ahead as planned and engaging them… ship-to-ship.”
“They’re fully armored,” Dogar reminded him. “Group two hasn’t done its mission yet.”
“They can once we bring their shields down,” Stan persisted. “Those shields extend about a hundred meters out. We’ll move within that range and with the combined pressure of our firepower and shields the strain will blow their shields out, leaving them completely vulnerable. I don’t think they have anything other than that.”
“It’s a bold move. And it’ll put out own capital ships right in the fray. We’ll take some major damage.”
“Either that or retreat, sir,” Stan said flatly.
Dogar nodded slowly. We’ve started this; we’ve got to see it through. Like he’d said, it was too late to back out now. “Let’s do it,” he said finally.
The signs of battle were already filling the air. The spiraling swarm of fighters marked the incredibly intense dogfight in which hundreds of fighters were engaged in their deadly game. Lights from explosions and stray blasts played over the hulls of the New Imperium ships as they pushed forward, accelerating toward the enemy fleet. The huge Star Destroyers and command ships they surrounded drove forward like massive edged weapons, surrounded by uncountable support craft: Frigates, Carrack and Strike Cruisers, and clusters of Corvettes.
Dogar watched with steeled nerves at the enemy grew larger on their screens.
“Two hundred kilometers to target,” one officer called out, reporting their distance to the massive Titan Cataclysm. Clustered around the gigantic ship, the other ships of the Altarin’Dakor had begun moving forward, eager to engage the New Imperium’s capital vessels.
On one of the primary screens, Dogar could see Admiral Varrel on the main bridge above, calmly giving final instruction to the fleet. “All defense systems to maximum readiness, full power to the front,” Varrel ordered. “Set all weapons to maximum power, fire only on my command.”
The officer continued to count down the distance as Dogar watched and waited. If the encounter at Varnus was a true indication, then they were already within the enemy’s striking range. He knew they could attack at any moment.
But despite knowing this, he still gave a jolt of surprise when the attack did come.
As the Altarin’Dakor ships cruised through space toward them, growing close by the second, one of them finally opened up, firing its forward beam cannon, a bright flash reaching out to connect with the first of the NI ships. As if by a signal, it was followed as all the other enemy ships opened fire at once.
blinding beams of energy, the larger cousins of the fighters’ weapons, flashed
into being; the Titan alone unleashed over two dozen massive beams over fifty
meters thick. The sky was at once lit up brighter than Mizar’s
sun, and the viewports automatically dimmed as the beams reached out to connect
with the NI ships. The multicolored blasts hit the fleet with incredible power,
lighting shields up everywhere. Smaller ships were consumed within seconds;
others, such as Star Destroyers, held stronger shields that were able to hold
back the attack a moment longer. Then the beams bored through the holes they’d
made, playing across the thick hulls, turning durasteel armor plating first to
a thick, glowing liquid, then vaporizing it. Large globs of glowing metal
expanded out between the ships, propelled outward by explosions rippling across
the hulls of the NI capital ships. Dogar winced as several beams struck the
body of the
The first blasts died, and the fleet drove on, plowing through the tattered remains of the smaller craft that had simply been disintegrated by the enemy’s violent assault. Already long black scars were visible along several of the larger ships. Then the officer called out again, a sound that was like music to Dogar’s ears.
“Enemy within range!” he exclaimed excitedly. “Turbolasers locked on target!”
“Fire,” Dogar whispered.
“Fire!” Varrel exclaimed at the same instant.
In response, tens
of thousands of green needles struck out across space, every one of the
shots flashed across space and slammed into the shields of the enemy, their
azure fields glowing to life, the glowing green-white shots sending ripples
across the surface of their shielding, casting the ships in green light. Dogar
watched as the
We’re not getting through! he thought angrily. Even all that power wasn’t enough to take down the enemy shields.
The first waves of turbolaser fire were followed quickly by countless torpedoes and missiles sent from the NI capital ships’ launchers. Advanced Torpedoes, Heavy Space Rockets, and much larger ship torpedoes followed the energy assault, the warheads crashing into the shielding as well, filling the sky with huge blossoms of fire.
The NI ships were much closer now, almost at the outer exterior of the Titan’s shielding itself. Dogar swallowed hard, knowing what they were about to do. Engaging the Altarin’Dakor starships at point blank range wasn’t exactly something he was looking forward to. And nothing could prepare him for what was coming ahead.
The enemy ships
opened up again just before they made it, sending another round of beam energy
pouring into the hulls of the front line of Imperial Star Destroyers. More,
closer hits on the
The group of Star Destroyers brushed the layer of shielding itself. Instantly, the AD ships were enveloped in bright light as the shields tried to compensate for the power of the ships’ shields combined with all the firepower pouring into them. The force fields pushed back in on the NI ships, destroying their own shields, crushing hull plates, and distorting the spines of some of the Cruisers. But finally, one by one, the shielding fell away to nothing, leaving the AD ships just as exposed as those of the New Imperium Starfleet.
His view was
obscured as the
Then, as quickly as it began, the flash of light vanished, showing him the wide vista that was the Titan’s hull looming before them, filling the viewports. They were through the shields, he realized with a bit of shock. He allowed himself a hint of a smile. Now they would repay the damage they’d taken… repay it tenfold.
“Break hard right, now!” Maarek shouted to Rann, and the pilot complied, barely avoiding an oncoming enemy fighter just in time. The ship flew straight at Maarek now, and as Stele pulled his fighter away he sent a missile out that took the fighter in the cockpit, vaporizing it and sending the body of the craft on like a decapitated person. He slewed his ship back around, juking constantly to avoid getting hit. Sweat had actually began to run down his face from the strain of staying alive out here, something he’d rarely had to worry about. The danger wasn’t just of getting shot, of course; it was trying to avoid running into somebody. Fighters filled the sky everywhere he turned, moving in and out and in all directions. The kills he’d made seemed pitifully insignificant compared to the number of enemy fighters left. On his scopes, the red dots representing NI ships were vanishing by the dozens. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before…
“Geez!” he shouted, turning just in time to avoid an huge explosion as two ships collided head on right in front of him. Pieces of the ships pinged off his shields with hissing noises. “This is insane!”
“Seven. You’ve got a tail, lead!” Gren shouted.
Maarek looked at his radar screen, eyes going wide. Amidst all the confusion there, one dot was growing much larger. He couldn’t even see the enemy ship, but instinctively he cut his thrusters to one side, slammed a foot on the rudder pedal and threw the stick to the side, spiraling his ship in a seemingly wild, uncontrollable maneuver. But he was in control; it was his own personal move, one he’d used many times. A move that put him right back on his opponents tail. A squeeze of the trigger sent two concussion missiles into both the ship’s tailpipes, blowing the fighter out of the sky.
Good thing a lot of these ships are already weakened, he thought. “Thanks, Seven.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got a serious problem here, Lead. Check the main comm.”
Pulling out of the thick of it for a moment, Maarek switched over to the main battle frequency to see what Gren was talking about. Immediately, he was flooded by the utter chaos of battle.
“Nine, pull up, he’s on your tail!”
“I’ve got this one. Take that, sucker!”
“Help me! Ejector’s out! Oh, I’m burning, I’m burning! Aaaah!!!”
“Phantom Five here, requesting reinforcements! A single flight of ships has taken out our whole freaking wing over here!!”
Pushing away the horrible reality of battle, Maarek concentrated on that last message. Scouring the chaotic cloud of fighters, he caught the outline of the ship that had transmitted, a TIE Defender, a box painted around it on the HUD. He dove down toward it, catching a glimpse of the sleek fighters on its tail. Fighters he hadn’t seen before. These were obviously shaped for space combat, with multiple projecting surfaces which held at least six different beam cannons.
“Phantom Five, this is Inferno One,” he spoke into the commlink. “We’re on our way.”
“Help me out here! Nothing I can do can shake them, they know what I’m gonna do before I do it!!”
Maarek drove straight in, flanked by Gren, Rann, and Tanya. More fighters flashed by in front of him, temporarily obscuring his view before the Defender he sought became visible again. Two of the four enemy fighters, arranged in pairs, flew smoothly after the ship as gracefully as a falcon. He settled down behind them, a chill settling into his blood as he put his crosshairs over the enemy craft.
“Break to port, now,” he instructed.
In response, the pilot immediately pulled his fighter hard to the left, as Maarek fired a missile directly at the enemy fighter. The ploy should have worked. A second later, he could hardly believe his eyes, as if reality had suddenly changed The instant he’d spoken, the Altarin’Dakor fighter had slipped to the left, just enough that Maarek’s missile slipped harmlessly past, and it opened up with its beam weapons ahead of Phantom Five’s Defender. The NI ship ran directly into the beams, detonating instantly in a cloud of incandescent gas. The pilot’s scream came over the still-open channel, then faded into static.
The Force save us, he thought, speechless in shock. They’re Jedi... And we’re dead.
As if in response to his thoughts, he saw a trio of NI fighters, two X-Wings and a TIE Avenger, flew past underneath him, one of the special-designed ships in pursuit. Three quick, precise shots turned the three ships into expanding balls of flame.
Wrenching the stick to the side, he pulled away from the enemy ships - whether in fear or shock, he didn’t know. He started back toward the fleet, realizing that they had only one chance.
“Where’re we going, boss?” Rann asked, keeping up behind in his Avatar.
“I didn’t want to do this, but it’s our only choice,” Maarek said, a cold feeling settling over him. “We’ll just get killed out here. This whole deal’s about to get a lot messier.”
Rivian Donitz flew a long spiral around the bulk of an NI Assault Frigate, lining up a shot on one of the AD fighters trying to pick off ships from their bomber group. He fired twice in rapid succession, sending out two concussion missiles from his TIE Defender. The first hit the shielding over the fighter’s starboard engine; an instant later, the second punched through the small hole the first had made and detonated inside the thruster housing. The explosion destroyed the engine and sent the fighter spinning away uncontrollably, trailing a spiraling smoke trail behind it.. He watched it fall away from view, heading somewhere toward the planet below, then forgot about it. There were others to attend to.
“All right, pilots!” he heard the commander of the bomber group speak up. “They’ve got the shields down for us, now it’s our turn to dish out some damage!”
Sporting a half grin inside his flight helmet, Donitz pulled down toward the group of heavier fighters, his job at the moment to eliminate any opposition they might have heading for their objective. He watched as over a hundred fighters, arranged in clustered formations, bore in on the enemy capital vessels. Advanced Torpedoes and Space Rockets shot out from the B-Wings, K-Wings, and Missile Boats, streaking out toward a cluster of AD ships on trails of smoke. Donitz clenched his teeth in anticipation, hoping this would finally work…
As the missiles approached, the capital ships erupted in pulse-laser fire, filling the air with rapid blasts of energy as they tried to take out the incoming warheads. Several dozen explosions erupted as they succeeded partially, yet the vast majority of them got through and hit their targets.
A smaller enemy frigate was hit first, consumed in a wash of flame as it was hit by dozens of warheads. Countless other missiles sped past the erupting explosion, colliding with the larger ships, obscuring them in explosions as they impacted against their armored hulls. Donitz couldn’t resist a wicked smile.
“That’s it!” the commander yelled, elated. “Pour it on!”
Donitz accelerated to fly cover for the bombers as they unloaded again, sending a fresh wave of warheads out toward the enemy. He was fast coming up on one of the cruisers, flying after the Commander’s flight as they ran head on toward the huge ship. At the last second they fired once more, sending a cluster of heavy space bombs into the air as they pulled away at the last second. The bombs floated on, striking with massive force against the hull, exploding in huge blossoms of flame, rending huge craters into the side of the ship. Splits appeared in the hard armor, running out and away from the impact. The breached hull began leaking atmosphere and flame from the huge openings that had been carved into its side.
Suddenly Donitz’s proximity alert flashed out, alerting him to a positive lock on his craft. Reacting instantly, he turned away from the flashing globe on his radar, pulling close toward the enemy cruiser. He flew through one of the huge columns of fire erupting from the side of the vessel, then pulled around hard, coming back toward the fighter that had launched the missile. He finally caught sight of the glowing warhead, now heading straight for him. Only an instant to react. And only his nerves of steel guided his instincts. Just when the missile seemed to reach out to embrace him, he opened up with a quad blast from his laser cannons. The green bursts hit the missile dead on, detonating it in a huge explosion. He flew straight into it, enveloping his fighter in the flames. When he burst out of it, he had the Altarin’Dakor fighter dead in his sights.
He opened up with all six of his cannons, covering the surprised enemy in megajoules of energy. Though his blasts didn’t penetrate the shields, his missile that followed them up did. It hit the fighter in the wing, blowing half of it apart and sending the craft into an uncontrollable spin. Donitz watched it flash past him and then continue on out of control, slamming into the enemy cruiser behind him.
“Half-trained children,” he muttered angrily. “Give me a real challenge.”
His words were answered as a warning beep from his commlink told him to turn back toward the fleet engagement unfolding back in the center of battle. He turned back to see what was going on, and his eyes widened in surprise. His wish was about to be answered…
More air-shattering beams of energy shot from the Titan’s massive turrets, ripping across the hull of the ISD Strong Arm. In its wake was a deep furrow of melted deck levels and an expanding gas cloud of vaporized durasteel. Nico watched in complete dismay as the DLSF starship was taken apart with the beams like a surgeon’s blade. Another beam separated the bridge superstructure from the body of the ship, cutting it clean away and enveloping the command tower in an explosion of fire. A third shot poured into the gap created by the first blast, reaching deep inside the ship into it’s heart: the solar-ionization reactor.
He turned away as the Star Destroyer exploded like a miniature nova, sending out a massive shockwave that nearly shook the rivets from the Star Destroyer Dark Lightning’s walls. Warning systems blared throughout the bridge as the shields were blown away, and he could feel the jarring impact of large hull fragments crashing into the armor of his ship.
Thirty-five thousand people just died, he thought in utter astonishment. This can’t be real.
He turned to look back out the viewports, seeing the surface of the Titan glowing with flame from the constant bombarding of heavy turbolaser fire. But apparently the Altarin’Dakor ships were made to take more of a pounding. So far, little more than the armor had suffered any real damage.
The plan of point-blank engaging was taking its toll, he realized. Even under the constant pounding of the NI starships, the beams still swept out, cleaving Corvettes and Carrack Cruisers in half with a single cut. Strike Cruisers were dealt with a crippling, horizontal swipe that consumed half the entire ship and left the rest a dying hulk. Even their MC80s and Star Destroyers could take only a limited number of shots without becoming severely hampered.
“Keep firing,” he ordered tersely, knowing that their own weapons were beginning to overheat from the constant shooting.
In response, the officer at the secondary console turned back toward him, a haunting expression on his face. “Sir, you need to get off this bridge,” he spoke up roughly. “Off the whole ship. At this rate, we’re not going to last long.”
“I’m not leaving!” Nico shot back, feeling a rush of anger that turned his vision red. “Follow my orders!”
The officer gave a visible shake, as if barely containing his rage, but complied with the order. Such insolence couldn’t be helped at the moment; he realized just what the toll was that the enemy’s invisible power, that of intimidation, had caused. Nico looked out the viewports with an almost mad gleam in his eye. If they were all going to die, they’d at least cause some damage on the way out. Despite the headache pulsing through his brain, he opened himself back up to the Force, to rip into the minds of the enemy pilots and gunners, and tear their psyches out like tender fruits…
But before he could, his attention was diverted as someone yelled out a warning. “We’ve got incoming!”
Nico followed his pointing hand, flinching as a swarm of fighters suddenly flashed by the viewports, followed by more crossing the hull, leaving smoke trails in their wake. Glancing over at the tactical display, he noted the situation with a growing dread. The wild swarm of fighters had been heading their way, and now both fights had merged into one, resulting in a massive jumble of ships. Things were really about to fall into chaos, now.
Maarek pulled his Avatar over the hull of one Star Destroyer, then ducked down underneath the
prow of a Nebulon-B Frigate, silently cursing at what had happened. The situation was declining rapidly, with fighters and capital ships now mixed in one huge brawl. All organized battle plans had flown out the window, now. It was a massive jumble, with hardly enough time to dogfight while trying to avoid slamming into either some fighter, a carrier, or even a huge chunk of debris.
A massive cluster of fighters suddenly flashed past his cockpit, and he pulled a sharp downward angle away from the chaotic zone, turning back underneath one of the NI Star Destroyers. Glancing up, he shook his head slightly in awe. Above him was the huge hangar of the ISD, the backdrop of several dogfights happening above him. But beyond that ship itself was a larger one, the massive tan and gray hull of the Cataclysm, its bulk dwarfing the size of the smaller NI ship. He’d always been impressed at the sight of an Imperial-class Star Destroyer. This… this was just unreal. He fought the pang of fear that tried to grip him as he looked at the Titan.
“Two. More company, boss,” Rann’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Coming in low to port.”
Glancing down and to his left, he saw the glowing weapons emplacements of the trio of approaching fighters. “Flight, Maneuver Nine, left,” he called out, assigning them to one of the ploys he’d devised. In order to make them work more seamlessly as a unit, he’d developed certain tactical maneuvers that they’d constantly drilled at. In a battle such as this one, working in tandem was integral to their survival.
At his word, Tanya and Gren – Infernos Three and Seven, respectively – pulled up and away from him. Maarek and Rann drove straight forward, directly at the approaching enemy fighters. With a quick glance Stele checked his status display. Shields at seventy-five percent. Only four missiles left, he noted. He’d have to rearm soon, if that were possible in this frenzy.
Ahead, the fighters were growing closer, now. Abruptly one of them broke off and flew upwards, toward Tanya’s ship, leaving two to face Rann and Maarek. An even match, he thought coldly.
By now, he could easily see them, and they were growing larger by the second. Using his Avatar’s advanced targeting system, he acquired lock on both of the fighters and fired two missiles from the launcher, one heading toward each of the approaching enemy. The warheads sped out on trails of smoke, flashing out to cover the distance between them in a second.
Just before the missiles reached their targets, the ships opened fire, their beams intercepting the warheads and detonating them early. As the explosions lit up in front of him, Maarek pulled up sharply on the stick and inverted, using the enemies’ brief distraction to gain a high angle of attack on them. Rann’s ship pulled down and away in the opposite direction.
As the fighters burst through the smoke clouds, Maarek pulled back on the stick, coming straight down toward one of the fighters, and activated his beam weapon. The tractor beam attached the two ships, hooking Maarek’s fighter onto the other and pulled him down onto the ship’s tail as if on a wire. The enemy ship tried to pull up and away as Maarek rained hot laser fire down upon it, pounding its shields down bit by bit. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the other ship flying out and coming around in a wide circle. Rann must have missed, he thought. But it was too late to worry about the other fighter. Firing one last quad laser burst the finished off the enemy’s shield, he let loose with his final two missiles. One streaked right on and hit the ship’s broad fuselage, punching inside before exploding outward. The second hit slightly behind, nearer the engines, and its ensuing explosion caused a chain reaction that blew the fighter into a thousand fragments.
Shutting off the beam, Maarek tried to pull away just as the other ship finished pulling around ahead of him, coming in for the kill. Then suddenly the ship skewed halfway to the side, and a pair of missiles hit the craft amidships, blowing the fighter in half.
“Good work, Rann,” he called, noting the pilot’s use of the tractor beam and missiles in tandem.
“I lost him for a second, but he couldn’t escape me,” the pilot called back. “Where’s the other one?”
Pulling his fighter around, he caught sight of it, Tanya and Gren’s Avatars hot in pursuit of the last fighter as it tried to escape. A trio of missiles hit the craft in the rear, and then it was obscured from view by a huge explosion.
“Nice shooting, Seven and Three,” he called out.
“He was good, One,” Tanya called out, her and Gren’s fighters circling back around toward them. “He put a shot into my fuselage, burned up some armor pretty badly. I can still make it, though.”
“Be careful, Three,” he called out, a bit concerned. As strong as the enemy was, one shot could do serious damage and even destroy one of their ships. “Try and form up with the rest of the squad, I’m sure we all need to rearm.” And then head back into the fray, he thought. So far we’ve all managed to make it. I wonder how long it’ll last?
“Get closer, closer to the Titan!” Dogar shouted at the crew. The swarm of fighters had compounded the problem, fighting a smaller scale fight that seemed insignificant compared to the deadly dance of capital ships. They now had to avoid hitting their own fighters, a task that seemed impossible with hundreds flying about everywhere. Apparently the enemy had no such compunction, however. Each sweeping fusion beam fired at one of their capital ships consumed several dozen fighters, friendly and hostile, as collateral damage.
Dogar’s eyes were growing wider at the horrible vista
unfolding in front of him. The close combat was now beginning to show its
bloody toll. The
But the NI’s flagship was still in one of the best conditions compared with some of the others. The Virulence, hovering over the Titan off to port, was getting hit hard. More and more of their capital ships were dying by the moment. His former words about getting closer hung in his throat as he saw the ISD Bludgeon cruising over the Titan’s planet-like surface, pouring down turbolaser fire oblivious to its own safety. No, he thought toward the vessel, its firepower hardly more effective than an insignificant insect.
The Titans’ answer was hard and brutal. He tried to reach for the commlink to warn them of the massive twin turret turning toward them, but he didn’t even have half the time he needed. A new weapon, something that opened up with what looked like millions of bright orange needles, tore into the ship. The shields failed instantly under the assault, and the spears of energy poured into the hull of the vessel, igniting explosions that burst out of the ship’s body. There was a flash as the core went, and the command tower was incinerated by a gout of flame that shot up over it. Then the whole Star Destroyer erupted in flame, consumed by a chain reaction of massive explosions that threw debris in all direction and expanded outward, covering the side of the Titan with a wall of fire.
Dogar swallowed hard, feeling a chill creep through his body. He’d never seen an ISD taken out so fast. In seconds. They hadn’t even had time to react.
We’re finished, he thought, a dread feeling of finality coming into his thoughts. There’s no way we can win this. We’ve got to pull out, save what we can.
Maarek watched the enemy fighter as it flew in toward him, its lights glinting across the cockpit canopy. Watched, and waited edgily for the rearming sequence to complete. The Combat Utility Vehicle he was docked with, close underneath the Star Destroyer Tsunami’s hangar for safety, was loading the last set of concussion missiles into his banks. The sleet AD fighter was coming in fast; this was going to be close. Those in the CUV had to know it, too; but even still, they’d decided to keep their duty at the cost of their own lives.
“Sequence complete”, the crew of the CUV called out. “Your craft is rearmed and ready to go!”
Not a moment too soon, Maarek thought as he wrenched the controls to the side and goosed the throttle. He slammed the controls forward in a wild maneuver, barely avoiding the quad beams of energy that shot past his craft and hit the CUV dead on her underside. The beams cut through the bottom of her hull as Maarek strained to get away before the ammunition onboard the craft went up.
The CUV exploded behind him as all the warheads it carried detonated simultaneously, creating a massive wall of fire that spread out to fill the sky and washed over the hull of the ISD above.
Yelling, Maarek twisted his fighter back around, coming in high over the enemy ship, and let loose with a series of quad laser blasts. The sizzling green beams played over the enemy’s shields, but didn’t penetrate. Thumbing over to missiles, he activated the Avatar’s tractor beam, managing to snare the two fighters and connect them just long enough to acquire solid lock. As the tone went solid, he sent two missiles streaking out toward the enemy. Both hit dead on target, blowing away the top hull of the ship and sending a bright flash of fire out of the craft. He let it go with the tractor beam and watched as it spun away helplessly, then was vaporized by a blast from the Star Destroyer’s turbolasers.
“Good shot, boss. Another one down,” Rann’s cheerful voice called out, taking pleasure in each small victory they made. Maarek gave a mirthless grin. Inferno had managed to come back together in the same approximate area, which was a good thing. Unfortunately, the enemy was everywhere. NI ships were flying about all over, engaging enemy ships wherever he looked. Huge gouts of flame erupted from more capital ships by the second, filling the air with smoke and debris. His squadron would help where they could, but it seemed so insignificant compared with the amount of destruction being unleashed all around them.
“Five. Look to your starboard, Commander,” Bast’s calm, professional voice toned in. “What’s that? Some new craft?”
Maarek looked in the specified direction and caught a glimpse of several elongated, oval-shaped craft flying by, their design distinctly AD in origin. Probably about thirty meters in length, they were pointed in the front and sped by on broad engines.
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen those before,” he called back.
“They look maybe like boarding transports,” Petur Kien spoke up. “There’s some weird equipment in the front.”
“Looks like they’re headed for the ISD Corruptor,” Bast called out.
Well, whatever they are, they’re the enemy, and that means we take them out, Maarek thought.
He never got to call out the order. Suddenly his proximity warning blared, indicating a solid missile lock on his craft, then the tone went solid. Incoming missile! he thought frantically, goosing the throttle and wrenching the stick to the side. He kept an eye on the rear radar, counting down the distance between him and the enemy warhead. At the last second, he launched a chaff package and threw his ship the other way as hard as he could. The gravitational forces slammed him to the side as he pulled away, and he caught a glimpse of the missile streaking past his canopy as it missed, continuing off into the distance.
He continued his turn, pulling his ship around hard so he could come back to face his unseen attacker. He caught a glimpse of the craft flying by in the distance, turning to face him, as well. Switching over to lasers, Maarek brought his crosshairs over the craft, his finger tightening over the trigger…
Then suddenly the ship exploded as two missiles flashed in from nowhere, taking the ship in the engines and detonating its core in a huge fireball.
“This is Inferno One,” Maarek called out. “Who is that pilot?”
“I was hoping you’d notice me by the sheer artfulness of the kill,” a familiar voice came back. He caught a glimpse of a TIE Defender flashing past the explosion, its distinctive triple solar panels reflecting the fiery light.
“Donitz,” Maarek said, shaking his head. “I didn’t think you were in this part of the fight.”
“I fight where I’m needed,” the man responded coolly. “And there’s a lot more targets out here to take care of. Maybe you and your squadron can turn it up a notch instead of sitting around. That is, if you can keep up with me in those patched-together uglies you’re flying.”
“Uglies?” Maarek felt a shot of anger creep up at the insult of their Avatars’ origins. It might be built of what was essentially a Missile Boat fuselage and cockpit and the solar panels of an Avenger, but he knew his ship could run rings around a TIE Defender. “Well take that challenge! Inferno, form up!”
“I hope those toys won’t fly apart if you push them too ha…rd….” Suddenly the line went silent as the man’s voice broke off. “By the Sith…” he whispered.
Maarek didn’t have to ask what he meant. He turned back toward the thick of the battle, where ships on both sides were clustered around the Titan-class Battleship. And everywhere, explosions were flaring up, consuming whole ships with flame. The battered NI fleet, having been engaged with the enemy for nearly half an hour, had been pushed beyond the breaking point. As he watched, a MC-80 began cracking open like an egg, spilling out blue-white flame that consumed the ship from the inside out. Further on in the distance a Victory Star Destroyer, having been cut in half by a massive fusion beam, was going up in a chain reaction. And everywhere in between, their own pilots were being killed, their fighters turned into balls of incandescent gas. He couldn’t even count how many at once, but he could hear. Having switched from the squadron frequency to the main line, he heard the awful sounds of people pleading for help, screaming, dying. He’d tried to shelter himself from what was happening, focus on the job at hand, but this was simply too much. Never in his life had he seen anything remotely like this… “We’re dying…” he breathed, his own voice filled with disbelief.
“Pull all ships back to rally position one!” Admiral Varrel shouted at the crew, knowing they were already doing the best that they could. But there just wasn’t enough time. Every second that passed, more people died. Outside the viewports, their own ships were being obliterated as the Altarin’Dakor capital ships moved forward for the kill, spreading out among their own fleet, engaging the NI ship to ship. He watched as one beam cut a Nebulon Frigate in half amidships, where it was the most fragile and thin. That simple attack rendered the whole craft completely incapacitated, ripe for the picking as the enemy poured more fire into each severed half.
“Sir! Message from the ISD Corruptor!” the communications officer called out.
“Put it on,” Varrel ordered.
“This is the Corruptor,” a frantic voice called over the speakers. “We’ve been boarded by the enemy! They hit us right in the command tower with some strange assault ships! We’re doing everything we can to hold them off, but they’re too strong, they’re killing our own Stormtrooper units!”
“Hang on, Corruptor!” Varrel shouted. “Fight them off, we’ll get you support as soon as we can…”
“It’s too late!” the man shouted, his voice rose in pitch and intensity. “We can’t hold out any longer. They’ve got these death black creatures…like spiders! I won’t let them take this ship! Even if I have to destroy it!”
“No! Don’t do it!” Varrel shouted. But the comm signal had already faded out to static, then went silent. Dead.
“Signal the Corruptor!” he shouted. “Send our ships to take out the enemy boarding ships!”
“Sir! The Virulence!!” another crewman shouted.
Turning his head in disbelief, Varrel looked into the viewscreen, seeing the other command ship, the Vanquisher-class Star Destroyer Virulence, coasting off in the distance above the Titan’s hull. It was burning. “No…” he whispered as he saw two massive beams streak out, striking the super Star Destroyer on the underside and punching all the way through the ship. The beams burst out the top of the hull, accompanied by massive explosions of flame that shot up out of the exit holes. The Virulence was about to fall…
“Admiral! Incoming enemy fighters!” someone yelled out.
“This can’t be!” Varrel shouted, slamming a fist down on the command chair’s armrest. “Maximize firing patterns! Activate bridge defenses!”
He watched as the
viewscreens gave him a forward view of the action in front of the
He watched on,
transfixed, as a trio of fighters broke off and headed toward the bridge
itself. The quad heavy turbolaser emplacements on either side of the bridge
opened up in response, raining green death down on the attacking vessels. One
was blown into a thousand fragments instantly; another was hit in the wing and
flew off course, impacting against the
The ship’s quad beams struck the reinforced durasteel hull that sealed off the bridge viewports, liquefying hull metal and sending fragments exploding outward. Varrel flinched as the screens went white, then dropped back again. The fighter finally flew within the defense cannons’ own minimum range, where they could no longer hit, leaving the bridge completely vulnerable.
The fighter fired one more time just before it crashed into the bridge shielding and exploded, covering the exposed part in fire. The interior of the bridge shook violently, throwing Varrel back over his chair and onto the floor. Computer consoles and screens blew out, sending sparks and flame spilling out into the room. Varrel pushed himself up, looking toward the viewport just in time to see a broad crack appear in the transparisteel.
Thankfully, the crack didn’t widen. The shaking stopped, and Varrel ran over to help one of the fallen bridge crew. He was aware of the Diktat’s voice yelling over the speakers, but he couldn’t make out the words. His ears were still ringing from the sound of the crash. “Get a medical crew here!” he shouted. “Get to your stations, we’ve got to seal off that crack and contact the fleet! Pull us out of here!”
Things settled in again momentarily, as the crew pulled themselves to their feet and put out the fires burning in the bridge interior. More officers ran in from the back, rushing to help the wounded and to get something together to patch the viewport long enough for them to pull away and escape.
Varrel sat down in the chair and finally brought up the Diktat’s image from the auxiliary bridge. “We’re all right!” he said breathlessly, recalling how close they’d all just come. “I think we’d better pull out!”
“You’ve got that
right!” Dogar practically snarled into the screen. “We can’t take anymore of
this. You were almost killed! The
The rest of the Diktat’s words were lost upon Admiral Varrel. If the man continued speaking, he didn’t hear him. All Varrel could do was stare out the viewport at the Titan, sitting implacably in front of them, filling the entire viewscreen with its mass. And his eyes were fixed upon the one glowing spot, the powering up of the fusion beam aimed right at them.
Then the ship fired, and the last thing he saw was the awesome, piercing light…
look at the
The beam tore
into the command tower dead center, the blast itself wider than the
This can’t be real. That as all Maarek could think as he saw the impossible scene unfolding before his eyes. Horrible images of the battle of Endor sprang up in his mind, memories of the historical battle he’d watched and memorized over and over. The same thing, the tower, bursting into flame, the ship falling, dead, like a decapitated body, its brain separated from the rest of its vital organs. The turbolasers ceased firing; the remaining shields dropped.
“The Diktat’s dead,” he breathed softly in disbelief, barely able to hear his own words. “He’s dead…”
And, just as in those horrible memories, the ship slowly began to fall, its prow angling down as its engines pushed it forward, without control. The battered Super Star Destroyer, flagship of the New Imperium, was sinking downward, like a dagger dropped from the hand that held and guided it. Explosions blossomed out on her hull as she took more hits. Then beside her, the ISD Corruptor exploded as its crew activated the ship’s self-destruct rather than fall to the enemy.
But even this
event was not without its ironies. The Flagship tilted as if fell, dropping too
fast for some ships to escape from under it in time. Fighters and smaller craft
were swiped out of the sky as the massive craft crashed into them. And finally,
in a dramatic final plunge, the edge of the ship crashed into the center of one
of the Altarin’Dakor destroyer-sized cruisers, all of its bulk and kinetic
force falling onto the mid-point of the ship. The force
behind the blow drove the edge of the
“I can’t believe what just happened,” Rann’s voice spoke in his ear. For once, there was no mirth in it.
“Look…” Maarek whispered, watching as the movement of the ship seemed to slow. In fact, it was slowing. The engines were coming back under control. The shields began to rebuild themselves.
“Dogar’s alive!” Donitz shouted, as emotional as Maarek had heard him.
Indeed, as if on cue, the fleet-wide commlink crackled.
Sector Admiral Dogar to all New Imperium vessels. Command has been restored to
Retreat. The word echoed throughout Maarek’s mind. How many people have died already? Then a thought hit him, clearer than anything he’d felt before. “This is real,” he said aloud. “This isn’t a game. It’s real.” Funny how that word seemed to have so much more meaning, now. Before, this had been just another mission. He’d known that they would win, that he and the others would come back alive. Even against such odds, he’d known that. Now all that had been shattered. The careless attitude that had lurked beneath his demeanor had vanished as quickly as the obliterated enemy cruiser. The Altarin’Dakor realize this, he thought. They know it’s real… REAL. That’s why they’re so intense, so ruthless. And, he realized, that for them to have a chance, they had to be just as ruthless. Even more so, for they were outmatched in every field imaginable.
“Now it begins,” he said, a stillness in his voice that had never existed before. His name had taken on a new meaning for him. He was Maarek Stele… and his will was hard as his namesake. “Let’s show them what we’re made of.”
“Stan, can you read me?” Dogar spoke into the commlink, trying to manage a dozen different tasks at once. The man’s face appeared on the screen, the bridge of the Intruder Wing’s flagship behind him. When the connection established, he could hear a round of cheering from the crew on the other ship.
“By the Core,
sir, it’s good to see your face,” Stan’s
image gave a wide smile. “We feared the worst when we saw the
“Never mind about that,” Dogar interrupted. “I’m calling a fleet-wide retreat. We can’t stay out here any longer, Stan. We’ve lost half the fleet and hardly scratched their forces…”
“Right,” the other man nodded seriously. “What do you want us to do?”
“No problem!” Stan assured him. He turned to the side, his expression deadly serious. “Jingo! Set us a course, we’re going to get the Diktat out of here!” He turned back to the screen, glancing down at a display. “I’ll have the ISDs Fang, Reaper, Red Horizon, and Revenant move up to help cover your retreat.”
“Excellent,” Dogar answered. It was good just to know they had that many ships left. “I’m calling all our pilots back to handle enemy fighters as well. If we’re lucky, we might actually get out of here alive. I’d love to see sunset on Tralaria one more time…”
“So would I, sir. And for both of us, I promise you, we will.”
Dogar turned back to the auxiliary screen that showed the exterior of the ship, and the now nonexistent bridge superstructure. It was too late for Admiral Varrel. He might see sunset on Tralaria, but Varrel never would again.
“That’s it, guys,” Maarek called out over the squadron channel. “We’ve got an official order to begin an organized retreat. Our job is to cover NI ships, taking care of enemy fighters. Pretty much what we’ve been doing all along. Let’s move!”
With that, he
pushed the throttle forward, moving his ship out across the hull of the
“Hey boss,” Rann called out. “Looks like we’re going to have a generous portion of those enemy fighters coming in.”
Glancing at the radar, Maarek noticed the large number of enemy blips ahead of them. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” he said, an edge creeping into his voice. “We can’t take them all out, but I think we can draw their fire away from our ships. You guys ready for this?”
“All the way,” Rann said.
“This is why we joined Inferno Squadron,” Vlini Makor, leader of Flight Three, chimed in. “We’ll fight to the end.” Similar responses came from the rest of his squadron.
“Then follow me,” he said, pushing the stick forward and diving down toward the Titan below.
His squadron forming up behind, his Avatar shot forward, the hull of the massive ship growing in front of him. And in between them, he could see the Altarin’Dakor fighters coming up to meet him.
“This is Commander Stele to all NI pilots. Break and attack!” he ordered.
As he spoke, several missiles streaked by on tails of smoke, moving ahead to strike the enemy fighters first. Several resulting explosions threw a number of the distant craft off course, their shields flaring up. But they managed to right themselves in time, the damage insufficient to eliminate the technologically-superior ships. Then, within seconds, the two fighter groups were in range of each other.
Maarek lined his crosshairs over the outline of one of the fighters, chosen randomly, and thumbed over to missiles. The tone beeped as the computer obtained a targeting solution, then went solid as he acquired lock. He hit the trigger, sending out an advanced concussion missile, then flinched away instinctively as a quad blast from one of the enemy ships obliterated a TIE Avenger that had been flying beside him on the left. He reflexively pulled his craft to the right, managing to regain sight of his missile as it streaked out and hit the front of its assigned target. The ship spun away, its shields glowing, then Maarek lost view of it as he rolled the ship to pass between the line of enemy ships. In a flash, the ships were upon them, and then past, and he pulled around hard to port, using the rudder pedals to turn faster. He dropped his crosshairs back over the body of his former target, which was just coming out of its spin. Clenching the trigger, he sent a hail of laser bolts out that pelted the ship from above, then he quickly fire linked his weapons and sent a quad burst into the top of the ship that blew the fighter apart.
“All right,” he spoke up over the din of voices and comm messages coming in. “Start moving out to the rally position. We’ve got to get out of here before… Whoa!” he shouted as another Star Destroyer exploded nearby, its shockwave causing a massive tremor through the bridge of the Darkstar. “We’re getting ripped to pieces! Pull all ships forward, full speed ahead!”
He glanced out through the glowing remains of the ISD-II Illustrious, back toward the cluster of enemy ships. Their own fighters were out there, trying to buy them enough time by causing as much damage as they could. Flashes of light were erupting everywhere as ships exploded, the number of NI ships dwindling by the minute. He realized that this would probably be their only chance at a run out of here. If we don’t make it out in a few minutes, there’ll be nothing left to save, he thought, a growing dread appearing in his stomach.
Suddenly a new voice sounded over the ship’s commlink. This is the Virulence!” a voice yelled frantically. “We’ve sustained critical damage!”
“Virulence!” Stan shouted, slamming a hand down on the commlink. “We’re pulling out! Fall back to position one and form up with the fleet!”
“Too… late…” the voice came back, interrupted by sporadic bursts of static. “We can’t make it that far. We’re going to initiate an emergency jump…”
“What?! That’s crazy!” Stan shot back. “Without a proper navicomputer calculation you could end up anywhere! You could run into anything out there!”
“Not… likely… Not many stars out here in the Rim… If we make it… we’ll see you… at Tralaria…”
Stan watched helplessly as the burning hulk of the Virulence began to move forward. Then, in the flash of an eye blink, the vessel seemed to elongate, distorted, and in an instant the ship was gone. Countless fighters, friendlies and enemies alike, were obliterated in its wake.
“Maarek, what’s that coming toward us?” Bast called out, an edge to his voice. Maarek pulled his fighter around to see what Bast was referring to, and he caught a glimpse of something dark moving against the blackness of space. They were in the thick of it, now, with enemy capital ships surrounding them on all sides, and the mass of the Titan behind them. At this point, space was thick with smoke from all the explosions of the battle, and instead of clear space, they were fighting in what reminded Maarek of a cloudy nebula. Fighters streaked by in front of him, then were obscured by more smoky clouds. He struggled to see what Bast had indicated, but only an opaque layer of gray fog filled his vision…
Then in the blink of an eye, it happened. Something flew out of the cloud on a spiraling trail of smoke and slammed into an NI fighter, tearing it to shreds and detonating the craft. Then, out of the clouds, a dark form emerged, black as night, causing his heart to jump in his chest. It looked like it was made of rock, its surface uneven and craggy, and several long projections extending forward from its sides. At least fifty meters wide, is came straight at him, its horrible visage like something straight out of the darkest myth.
“What kind of demon is that?” Rann’s voice broke into his thoughts.
I’ve seen ships like that, Maarek thought in shock. It wasn’t the only one that he’d glimpsed in the battle, but he’d seen them only at a long distance. In training to fight the Altarin’Dakor, he’d heard about Crinn craft. Though rare, since the majority of the race had remained in the galaxy after the AD left, Maarek had heard that the Crinn were trying to run from the AD, to escape the same kind of enslavement that they’d endeared before…
Suddenly his instincts took over as he sensed the enemy take notice of him. He pulled his ship hard to the side as another solid blast shot past his craft. Mass drivers, he thought. The Crinn’s specialty. Though a long outdated technology according to galactic standards, the Crinn had developed the technology religiously, creating weapons that shot faster and larger objects than any before, shield-piercing blasts large enough to strike a fighter from the sky in one blow.
“Get out of there, sir!” Rann’s voice called desperately over the commlink.
“Inferno, form on me!” he yelled, pushing the throttle forward and heading for the Titan’s hull. “Push it! Maximum speed!”
Somehow, the Crinn vessel was able to keep up with them as their squadron formed up, speeding over the massive hull of the Titan like the surface of a planet. The black ship moved in toward them relentlessly, firing its projectiles from six different emplacements at the tiny NI starfighters. Maarek and his squadron flashed across the hull so fast that all its features began to blur. Glancing at his instruments, he noted that they were near the Avatar’s maximum velocity, and the Crinn ship was right behind them.
Fire poured out of the enemy ship all around them, in some cases missing them by meters. The shots blasted past them and slammed instead into the surface of the Titan itself, crumpling and splitting armor and flying through viewports. But obviously, the pilots of the craft didn’t care. They continued firing again and again at the weaving fighters, shots blowing into the sides of the Cataclysm, ripping long gouts of flame out of the ship that blasted up behind the fighters.
“They’re doing more damage to the blasted Titan than they are to us,” Maarek muttered. Suddenly, as if keyed by his words, one of the huge turrets ahead of them turned their way. Before he could react, the turret fired, and a beam of lancing yellow energy swept out across the enemy ship, blowing the Crinn vessel clean out of the sky in an fiery explosion that filled space behind them.
“Man, this is nuts!” Rann screamed from his position beside him. They pulled up as they passed over a section of the hull that was elevated like a cityscape. Tall spires flashed past, then suddenly fell flat again, as if there were no real pattern in the design of the Titan.
“It’s about to get worse,” Bast’s voice interrupted. “More fighters coming in.”
“Hold them off,” Maarek said. “I’m going to try something.”
As his squadron broke off above, he continued straight on, noting again what he’d seen fast approaching them. He pulled up over a high ridge, then suddenly he was out over one of the Titan’s massive kilometer-wide hangars. He caught a brief glimpse of the interior, bright lights lining the corridor to the inside, dozens of fighters parked along the deck, uncountable other objects, some he could identify, some he couldn’t, all in the blink of an eye. Cutting the throttle, he hit the left rudder pedal, swiveling around to face the interior as he passed, and fired the five special heavy rockets from the launcher above the cockpit. With a series of violent jolts, the five warheads blasted out of the launcher and sped away on improved engines, their high-yield payloads arming as they sped into the hangar.
He hadn’t had time to aim, only relying on luck and, possibly, the Force to guide the rockets. One hit the bottom of the deck and exploded, blowing a huge crater into the floor and sending huge chunks into the air. Another hit one of the enemy fighters, obliterating it in a massive explosion that consumed several of its brethren, continuing on in a chain reaction along one side of the hangar. The third warhead was shot down by the internal defenses, but the other two made it through as well. One hit the far side, where a series of crates and fuel pods were resting, igniting them in flame and lighting up the interior. The final warhead sped in deeply, hitting a long, wide cable near the back. Maarek’s eyes went wide as he saw the white-hot explosion followed by more as the whole hangar seemed to ignite in front of him. Desperately he turned back around and punched the throttle, crossing past the edge of the hangar as fire poured out of the huge chasm behind him.
The massive explosion was just a tiny speck of light on the side of the Titan, an otherwise amazing feat rendered completely insignificant on the larger scale.
“Sir, those look like boarding ships coming in!”
Fleet Admiral Sandars looked toward the starboard viewscreen in the direction the tactical officer was pointing. Three oblong vessels, shining silvery purple light from Mizar’s sun, were coming in just to the starboard flank of the Darkstar. An escort of a dozen fighters were guiding them in, picking off any NI fighters that tried to get in the way.
“Those are the same kind of ships that took out the Corruptor,” Stan exclaimed. “We can’t let them board this ship! Redirect all available batteries toward the incoming!”
He watched as a dozen turbolasers flashed red blasts of destruction at the incoming, wiping out several of the lead fighters and scoring hits across the shielding of the enemy vessels. But they were coming in fast, much faster than their own class of assault transports.
“Estimate thirty seconds until contact!” the officer shouted.
The rightmost transport finally succumbed to the Darkstar’s concentrated fire, the blasts burning through its tough outer skin and into the meat of the vessel and the troops there. A second later the ship blew apart like a flaming balloon.
The transports were getting closer, which meant that fewer of the MC-120’s batteries could focus on them. The transport on the left lost its shields, and hits began scoring marks across her hull, leaking her atmosphere and sending gouts of flame out of the vessel. It listed heavily to the side, thrown off course, leaking gouts of flame, smoke, and a river of bodies that were visible even from this distance.
“Ten second’s until contact! There’s no more time!”
“Where are they headed?” Stan asked.
“Looks like Sector Twelve, sir!”
Near engineering. Just perfect. “Get a strike team down there to intercept at once!” he commanded.
“On it, sir!”
As the officer counted down the remaining seconds, Stan prayed for the last transport’s shields to drop, but to no avail. It had moved inside the range of the Darkstar’s turbolasers.
“Five…four…three…two…one… Impact! They’re cutting through the hull now!”
“Get every available trooper down there,” Stan said. “We won’t let what happened to the Corruptor happen to us!”
From his station in the back of the bridge, Sturm Brightblade, the Jedi assigned to assist the Darkstar, spoke up from behind Stan. “I’ll go down there too, sir. It’s time to do my part.”
Stan turned toward the man and nodded. “May the Force be with you.”
Then he watched on the auxiliary screen as soldiers rushed down the corridors toward Sector Twelve. Now it was just a matter of watching the battle unfold, and wait. He had no idea what was going to come out of that transport. But he had his sidearm, just in case it came to that. The Darkstar wasn’t going to fall as long as he was alive…
A massive square of sparks and melted metal appeared a second before the bulkhead blew away in a shower of fragments. Seconds later the cutaway section cooled, then Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers poured out of the hole, soldiers in silver and black armor with large, slanted back faceplates, carrying large two-handed weapons held under their arms. The troops began running headlong, wordless roars emanating from inside their helmets as they sought their hated enemy.
With no initial opposition, the shocktroopers fanned out and began moving down the corridors of the Darkstar, the largest band emerging into an open area and moving to take cover behind crates and consoles as the proceeded. A few New Imperium stormtroopers, unaware of the enemy’s advance in their rush to intercept, ran out of a side corridor headlong into the zone of fire the Altarin’Dakor were setting up. Instantly handheld rifles fired beams of white and red energy or supersonic mass driver shots that caught the stormtroopers dead on. Blasts flew through white armor like sheets of flimsy, passing through soldiers’ bodies like butter, blowing them off their feet. Beams took stormtroopers in the chest and passed straight through into the next warrior, or severed arms and legs as they strafed the corridor from where they emerged. Pulse blasters lit the air with rapid-fire shots, sending a dozen more soldiers to the deck.
Finally, seeing their efforts futile, the rest of the approaching defenders stopped their march into the zone of death, reversing course and running back up the hallways in search of better cover, places to ambush the AD troops later on.
Stepping over the fallen bodies of dozens of NI troops, the shocktroopers proceeded. Then, behind them, more troops came in, bearing with them floating cages of blue energy, each holding a man-sized, spider-like creature as black as night. Setting the cages up in the holding area, the AD commanding officer activated the energy collars that would prod them in the right direction, toward the fleeing NI forces. Then, with a flick of his remote, he released the Zelduk warriors, who with a screech like that of grinding metal made their way down the corridor, searching for their prey.
Nico gripped the arm of his command chair as the Dark Lightning took more hits, causing the bulkheads to shake and sending sparks flying from yet another console.
“Direct hit to sector two,” an officer reported. “Fires raging out of control down there.”
“Send as many emergency personnel you can spare,” Nico ordered, watching the viewscreens as several battling NI and enemy fighters passed by the bridge ahead of them. “And concentrate all available firepower on those two cruisers closing in behind us.”
A beam of energy reached out and hit the back of the bridge superstructure, cutting a path upward and carving a deep gash into the back of the ship before it went out. The bridge shuddered heavily, and an officer was thrown from his station it overloaded and exploded. He fell to the deck, his body heavily charred, and didn’t get up.
“Medics! Get over there!” Nico shouted, then turned away as another officer called for his attention.
“Sir, enemy fighters have moved into the main hangar! We’re taking direct hits!”
Nico glanced at his auxiliary screen. Indeed, several fighters had launched missiles into the Star Destroyer’s gaping hangar bay. The few remaining ships inside exploded as they were hit, and the internal atmosphere controls were damaged, as well. Nico watched in dismay as the hangar lost pressure, and countless objects and people were sucked out into the void.
“The force field has been compromised, sir! We’ve lost all access to the main hangar!”
Nico nodded grimly. Now their escape route was gone, as well. They wouldn’t be able to launch any ships from there, and using the escape pods were out of the question in this mess. The Dark Lightning was in serious trouble.
“Those enemy cruisers are coming up fast behind us, sir. Engines taking hits and failing… Now down to sixty percent.”
We’re not going to make it out of here, Nico realized, fighting a surge of panic. He buried it with Jedi resolve. He would see this through to the end, as much as it were possible. But he needed to let the others know. “See if you can open a channel to Diktat Dogar,” he ordered. He would have some bad news to tell.
“Maarek,” Rann called out as he pulled back into the rear of his squadron’s formation. “We’re in trouble.”
“What is it?”
“Remember those weird new fighters we saw earlier?”
A feeling of dread shot through Maarek, a chill spreading over his body. He glanced at the radar, noticing the blips fast approaching them from the rear. By the Core… “Pull out!” he shouted. “Get out of here now!!”
He was too late. The ships were on them in an instant, and as they fired, all rational thought left him.
The beams passed by him and struck an enemy cruiser as they passed between it and the Titan. An explosion ripped out in front of them, filling their path with smoke and debris. Flight Three, lead by Vlini, was in the front, directly in the path of the flying debris.
“NO!” he shouted as a long steel beam crossed in front of the ships. Juor Nace never knew what hit him as the beam split his ship in half, sending pieces flying to either side before the ion engines detonated. Flight three scattered, and he watched in continued horror as Twelve’s ship pulled up out of the way, only to be speared by a pair of beams coming through the smoke from the other side. Macen Isabi’s fighter detonated in a brilliant fireball. The Twi’lek pilot was gone.
“Scatter!” he screamed, cutting the throttle and spinning his ship around as the rest of the squadron did the same, and suddenly the enemy was among them, all the ships combining in a mass dogfight.
“Vlini! You’ve picked up one!” he heard Petur shout. Maarek saw their ships flash past, then turned to engage his own enemy. Remembering what had happened before, he felt a calm feeling settle though him for once. His men were dying, and he was probably going to die, but all he could think of was taking as many of the enemy with them as they could. Lining his crosshairs over one ship, he fired without lock, his instincts taking over. The missiles hit dead on, their proximity too close for the enemy to react. The force sent the ship spiraling off, and it crashed into the other cruiser just before Maarek turned away.
“I can’t shake him,” the Sullustian’s voice called out frantically. “He anticipates every move I make! Help me!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” he shouted, coming back around to see the enemy fighter hot on the Avatar’s tail. Suddenly a beam flashed out, and time seemed to slow as one of the fighter’s shots cleaved off Three’s port solar panel. The ship immediately fell out of control, spinning away. The fighter flashed past, then pulled hard around to come back at the helpless ship. He couldn’t see Petur’s ship nearby. Throwing the throttle forward Maarek strained to reach his pilot in time, knowing he couldn’t make it…
“Bail out!” he shouted at the pilot as the enemy ship let off a missile that began to quickly close.
“Maarek?” The last words he heard Vlini utter was his name as the missile hit the fuselage of the TIE Avatar and blew it apart. He saw the cockpit shatter as it was consumed with fire, pieces of the canopy flying away through space. There was no way the pilot had survived.
Suddenly his ears were filled by an ear-piercing scream from Petur Kien.
“No! They’re gone! My whole flight’s gone!” he shouted. “I’ve had enough of you!”
To his amazement, time continued to slowly unfold, as he caught sight of Petur’s Avatar coming in on the enemy.
“DIE!!” the young man screamed, latching onto the enemy craft with his tractor beam and unleashing the heavy rockets from his overhead launcher. The first shot hit the enemy dead on, blowing the fighter out of the sky in a huge conflagration. The second burst through the flames and hit the enemy cruiser, blowing a huge crater into its side.
“All your faaauuult!” Kien continued, spinning his ship around and snagging another fighter from the air. The rest of his rockets punched through the ship, blowing it out of the sky as well.
“Petur!” Maarek yelled, trying to get through to the man, yet at the same time hardly believing the skill that the pilot was showing. “This is Commander Stele to Inferno Squadron, all ships break off and retreat now!!”
Following his own orders, he pulled his ship around hard, passing over the surface of the Titan once more. He never noticed the ship that opened fire behind him. All he saw was a bright flash of light that vaporized his port solar panel and sent his view spinning wildly ahead.
“Mayday!” he yelled. “I’m hit, I’m hit!” The last thing he remembered seeing was something on the Titan glowing in front of him, its light growing, expanding to consume his field of vision. He reached for the ejector switch…
Then blackness enveloped him.
In the narrow corridors of the Darkstar, an intense battle raged. Pulse blasts and beams of energy, interspersed with mass driver projectiles and blaster shots, filled the air with light and death. A cadre of Intruder Wing troops had raised a barricade, concentrating their fire on the approaching enemy.
Their combined shots ripped into the body of the approaching Zelduk warrior, blasting off limbs and taking it in the head and thorax. Still, it took a dozen shots before its natural body armor was pierced, and the creature finally fell, sliding across the deck to stop meters from the crates and tables the soldiers were taking cover behind.
But no sooner had the last spider fell than a swarm of Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers filled the corridor, rushing forward with wordless roars. More blaster shots flashed out, but the heavy armor of the troops reflected or absorbed the brunt of the assault. Concentrated fire took a few warriors down, and another shot took a shocktrooper in the face, blasting through his faceplate and sending him flying to his back.
Then more troops were coming, from a side corridor. A thermal detonator bounced down the hall and exploded in front of the troops, buying them some time. Then return fire from the AD troops ripped into the barricade, igniting crates and tables, punching through them to tear into the soldiers behind.
Another officer raised a thermal detonator high, activating it with his thumb. “Take this!” he shouted, reaching back to hurl it at the enemy. Then a projectile from a handheld rail gun took him in the midsection, and he flew backwards, the grenade falling from his fingers into the middle of the NI troops’ formation. There was a brief moment of panic and confusion as the soldiers dove for the live detonator, raising cries of dismay above the din of weapon blasts. Then the device went off.
An explosion ripped down the corridor, engulfing the NI officers in fire and death, rushing out toward the approaching Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers. They passed the remains of the obliterated defenders without a misstep, proceeding further into the bowels of the ship.
At another large holding room, this one actually in Engineering itself, held another NI ambush. Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers went down under fire from repeating blasters and concentrated shots from stormtroopers’ carbines. Then suddenly out of nowhere a bar of light appeared amongst the AD troops. Blaster shots sent its way were bounced back toward their sources. Several troops went down, propelled backwards by an invisible force.
“They’ve got a Jedi!” someone shouted. Beside him, a stormtrooper readied a thermal detonator and threw it into the mass of approaching enemy. But just as suddenly the grenade reversed course, flying back through the air to detonate between two of the NI repeating blasters. They were blown to smithereens, opening the way for a renewed AD assault.
“Fall back! We can’t stop them like this!” another stormtrooper cried out, and suddenly the NI forces were retreating again.
Then, just as they turned back toward the exit corridor, another shaft of light suddenly appeared, held aloft by a robed figure, mouth open in a war cry.
Jedi Crusader Sturm Brightblade burst into the room, sending a dozen shocktroopers reeling backwards with a Force Push, parrying several pulse blasts away from their intended targets and back toward the enemy. Formerly stationed on the bridge of the Darkstar, yet feeling helpless at being able to do nothing due to the enemy’s Force assault, he was more than eager to make up for his lack of participation. He reached out with a free hand, and a blast of Force energy erupted from his hand, taking a group of approaching troops head on, blowing them backwards in an explosion of armor and flesh.
Then he could no longer concentrate on the swarm of enemy around them. For another figure bearing a lightsaber, that of the enemy, suddenly emerged from a split in the AD forces. A short-haired warrior in close-fitting body armor fast approached him, and for a moment Sturm was mesmerized by the scrolling black tattoos all over his face and bare forearms. Then instinct took over as the enemy raised his orange blade and struck toward Sturm’s blue. Their weapons met, the enemy driving into him with a shocking amount of strength that Sturm had been unprepared to face. Instantly he knew this would be the deciding fight over whether the enemy took the Darkstar’s vital Engineering section or not.
Suddenly the AD shocktroopers were upon the NI forces, all amongst them. In too close quarters to fire weapons, an intense fight broke out, soldiers using their weapons as clubs, drawing vibroblades and knives, using their fists. Armor cracked against armor as warriors pounded each other, crashes resounding through the air as troops went down. The bloody fight continued, a mass of soldiers filling the room, the Altarin’Dakor attacking fiercely, the New Imperials giving as good as they got.
And in the center of it all, two figures dueled, their sabers crashing against each other with a ferocity born of sheer desperation. The Altarin’Dakor drove Sturm back toward the far bulkhead, striking with all his might, his eyes mad with rage. Sturm fought back, struggling to think, to use his head to outwit his opponent. But there was no time; it was a matter of pure speed.
In a moment it was over. There was no time to think or defend as both warriors put their all into their attacks. Neither could expect to emerge unscathed. Sturm surged forward and to his right, pivoting and swinging down diagonally in one motion. The enemy, not anticipating the move, swept out with a horizontal strike toward Sturm’s ribs. Their blades didn’t meet. Sturm watched as his blade passed through the enemy’s shoulder and cut away half his torso on the way out, then cried out in pain as the enemy’s blade cut a furrow out of his own left side in a spray of blood vapor. Fire and pain exploded in his side.
His enemy fell to the deck, dead instantly, as Sturm dropped his weapon and stumbled back, his energy suddenly gone. He hit the bulkhead behind him and slid down to the floor, gasping for breath as the pain shot all over him. He grabbed his side, crying in pain as he touched the cauterized wound, forcing his eyes down to check the damage. The cut was maybe five centimeters deep, serious, but survivable. That was, if he could get to Sickbay in time. The battle still raged all around him, soldiers leaping over his fallen body. He forced himself to breathe and to keep his eyes open, trying to fight shock and keep from feinting from the pain. He tried his best to call upon a Jedi calming technique, his vision blurring, watching the stamping feet of friend and enemy soldiers all around.
“Sir, are you okay?” a voice called out from above. Sturm looked up, but the figure was too blurry to make out.
“It’s all right, sir! I’ll get you to Medical. Just hold on a few more minutes. We’re driving them back, thanks to you!”
Wearily, Sturm let his head fall back down, too drained to even respond. He hoped he could last those few minutes.
“Maarek!” Donitz yelled as he saw the fighter disappear behind the bulk of an AD cruiser, replaced by a bright flash of white light. “Maarek!”
Instead of Maarek, the surviving members of Inferno squadron flew over the cruiser and toward him, a unit of enemy fighters hot on their tails. Another Avatar trying to escape detonated as their beams cut through it, a woman’s scream piercing the air over the general comm. Switching to missiles, Donitz fired two warheads that streaked out and took the pursuing enemy in the front, destroying first the cockpit, then the rest of the fighter.
“We lost him!” one of the pilots yelled out. “Oh man, he’s gone!”
“Get to rally position one!” Donitz ordered, pulling around to join the fleeing ships. “The fleet’s almost there, we have to leave now!”
they had could back up to the line of NI ships in retreat. There were
noticeably fewer than there had been several moments
before, when he’d left to find Maarek and his squadron. In their place were
large spheres of gas, smoke and debris that drifted backwards as the ships
pulled away. There were few NI fighters left, fewer than the enemy fighters
that swarmed around the NI capital vessels. The
The Modified ISD-II Dark Lightning wasn’t in good condition. The ship limped along near the back of the line, its hull scarred black, gaping holes leaking fire and atmosphere from its sides. Fighters were following behind it, pouring fire into its engines as they strained beyond their capacity to get the ship out in time. Behind it, the two Altarin’Dakor cruisers were following side by side, eager to finish off their prey.
Finally the Dark Lightning’s central drive overloaded and went out, sending out a blast of flame behind the craft.
The viewscreens changed on the bridge of the
“Dogar,” Nico’s image smiled. “Good to see you well. Looks like this is it”
“Nico!” the Diktat shouted, noticing the condition of the Fleet Commander’s ship. It had begun to fall behind, its engines no longer keeping the ship moving forward, succumbing to enemy tractor beams. “What’s wrong?”
“We aren’t going to make it,” Nico said sadly. “Main engine’s out, we’re being drawn in.” Strangely, his mouth was curled upward in a slight smile. “Don’t worry about me. Just get the rest of the fleet to safety. We’ll cut off your immediate pursuit.”
A feeling of shock and dread hit Dogar as he realized what the man meant. “Nico, don’t! You can still get out of there! Please, don’t do it!”
“No other choice,” the man said softly. “We’re activating the self-destruct now.”
“Say goodbye to Nareni for me,” Nico whispered, a sad, distant look in his eyes. “Tell her I’ll always love her.”
Dogar opened his mouth to scream, but the comm link closed. Instead he saw an image of the dying Star Destroyer, its hull being consumed little by little by the flames dancing over its surface. The enemy cruisers were even with it now, sending beams into her hull as they passed.
Then, suddenly a brighter light, like that of a sun, began to shine out from the center of the ship. It grew, expanding to consume the body of the hull. Then, with one final flash, the solar-ionization reactor went supernova, completely obliterating the ship in an explosion that filled the space behind the fleet for kilometers. The other cruisers were enveloped in light, the shockwave of the blast tearing through them. As the first detonation began to fade, one of the cruisers went up in a massive explosion, its own core pushed past critical by the intense shockwave. The second cruiser wobbled to the side, off course and critical, flames bursting out of it on all sides.
Dogar only watched in horror, unaware of the tears streaming uncontrollably down his cheeks. Nico was gone. Gone! He and his crew had sacrificed everything to cover their retreat. His friend was gone. No! It wasn’t supposed to end like this!
Guilt and regret and shock and shame came over him in wave after wave. Countless lives had been lost this day, his friends, and people he didn’t even know, but were loyal to the Diktat and their cause. Nico and Varrel and countless others had given their lives… All because of his one simple decision. He gripped his head in his hands, fighting the shock that threatened to incapacitate him.
“Dogar, are you all right?” Fleet Admiral Sanders’ voice came over the link. “We were boarded by enemy troops, but we’ve managed to fight them off. I’ve got a lot of injured though. I’m ordering the jump to hyperspace now!”
Dogar didn’t respond, didn’t even look towards the man on the viewscreen. The shock was too heavy. How can one decision do so much damage? he asked himself. How?
He heard Sanders
give the order to make the jump. He didn’t look up as the tattered remnants of
the New Imperium star fleet made the jump to hyperspace. First the
Behind them, still in orbit of the third planet in the Mizar System, was the implacable fleet of the Altarin’Dakor, many of their ships in the same condition they’d been in before the start of the battle. Merely a quarter of their ships had been destroyed or damaged beyond repair, while another quarter had taken damage that would be repairable. Barely an hour and a half had passed since the inception of the battle. Surrounding them were the broken and tattered remains of their victims, destroyed or in the process of being captured by the enemy. And in the center of them all was one ship, dwarfing all the others, its massive bulk filling an impossible measure of space, a defiant cry to those who would oppose the Altarin’Dakor, the Servants of Power.
* * *
New Imperium Holonet News Report
Two days following the attack at Mizar
NI Starfleet Suffers Devastating Loss at Mizar
A New Imperium task force sent to launch a preemptive strike against the still relatively unknown aggressors known as the Altarin’Dakor has suffered a massive defeat in what has been described the biggest tragedy in New Imperium history. In what was described by fleet strategists as an unexpected ambush, the New Imperium forces took a heavy assault from enemy fighters and capital ships. The Dark Lightning Strike Fleet was hit the hardest, reportedly losing or seeing incapacitated seventy percent of its active star fleet. Also taking heavy damage was the Intruder Wing, with losses to at least thirty percent of its forces. Furthermore, Admiral Nico Flygras, commanding officer of the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet, is currently listed as missing in action, as is NI Wing Commander Maarek Stele. Also among the losses were Admiral Varrel, commodore of the Flagship Independence, and the Star Destroyer Virulence is still listed as missing and most likely lost with all aboard. The Jedi Division is also reported as taking heavy losses to the Jedi who were placed aboard New Imperium starships. While it is still too early to determine, sources say the Dark Lightning Strike Fleet may be forced to disband or be assimilated by one of the other member fleets. Interim Diktat Arfann Dogar, who was present during the battle, had no official comment to make, but unofficial sources say he has not been seen outside his office and may be considering retirement.
Morale throughout the New Imperium has reached an all-time low, as the leaders of the member fleets and organizations try to pull their resources together to rebound from the attack. While no word has come from the enemy, it is expected that most of the Mizar task force will be rendered inoperable until repairs can be completed, which could take several months.
* * *
“Any word from the Grand Master?”
“None at all.”
“What about Deputy Organa?”
“He’s been acting very strange lately, since Xar disappeared again.” The voice paused. “Frankly, I don’t know if I can trust him.”
Sturm Brightblade’s eyes fluttered open, forcing light into his vision from some source overhead. His head throbbed with the intensity. He looked down, towards his feet. He was lying down. Two figures stood there, blurred, unrecognizable.
One of the figures turned toward him. Sturm could make out little more than a round blob representing a face.
“Sturm, how do you feel? Do you recognize me?”
He recognized the voice, if nothing else. “Master Misnera,” he said, surprised his voice sounded stronger than he expected.
“You’re going to be all right, Sturm,” the man assured him. “We’re back on Varnus, now. You’re lucky to be alive. We found you in pretty bad condition. Still, you probably saved the Darkstar from falling to the enemy.
The news hit Sturm as a shock. He, of all people, had saved the ship? He barely remembered what he had done, fighting the enemy more with instinct than anything else. “I…” he began, but words failed him.
“Just hang in there,” Misnera’s voice assured him. “Doctor Vannik says you’ll be out of here and training again in less than two weeks. I’ll need to debrief you when you feel up to it. But for now, just get some rest.”
Sturm let his head rest back on the pillow again and tried to nod. He closed his eyes again. He was alive. That in itself was good news. He’d live to fight another day. Until next time, at least. Moments later, sleep came…
Bast Vlagen stared down at the younger officers gathered in front of him, thinking of some way to make them stay calm. Petur, especially, his eyes sunken pits, seemed still on edge more than the others. After losing all the other members of his flight, Bast could empathize. But compounding the pain they all felt was the death of Kei Nomos, one of the only two female squadron members, and an excellent pilot. Her budding romance with Gren Pabos had not gone unnoticed, either. Bast thought the tough Renastatian could take it, but only time would tell.
“What are we going to do now?” Petur asked pleadingly. “Without Commander Stele, how can Inferno continue? We…”
“It will continue as long as I have breath,” Bast cut him off sternly. “For now, I’m in charge of this squadron, and you will do as I say.”
“We lost five pilots! We’re not even a squadron anymore,” Petur countered.
“Stow it, pilot!” Bast barked. “You’re a Varnusian, a survivor! Act like one! We pick up the pieces and move on. You know that.”
Satisfied at the young man’s shameful expression, he turned to the rest of the squad. “I want you all dressed and in the ready room for a full debriefing within the hour. Then we’ll get working on how to rebuild this thing. Inferno isn’t over any more than the New Imperium is. Now move out!”
Finally with a clear direction at their backs, the members scattered into action. Rann and Kikitik trudged away, all their air of jovialness gone, now. Gren especially seemed on the edge of tears. Bast turned away, trying to hide the uncertainty he was feeling, himself. Indeed, without Maarek, what were they going to do? Should he turn Inferno back to the jurisdiction of the Jedi Division? Or should he ask the Diktat to assign them to an NI Starfleet unit? Too many questions for him to deal with right now. He needed to follow his own advice. The future would see to itself. He was a Varnusian, and like he said, he would persevere. All the way until his days were done, and he went to rest with his ancestors. That was the way of it.
Turning, he strode off down the corridor, making plans. First of all he had to call his wife and tell her that he’d made it out alive. He didn’t want to think about how few other women in the NI were as fortunate; a lot of bad news was being delivered to families, to husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, this day. It was a dark day, indeed.
Senate Complex, Planet Tralaria
Five Days Later
Interim Diktat Arfann Dogar sat solemnly at his desk, hardly noticing as the door opened and Fleet Admiral Sanders walked in. He was considering. Again.
“Arfann…” Stan began, then broke off. He’d entered at just the wrong moment.
Dogar looked up at his friend with a questioning look.
“What’s that for?” the man asked pointedly, glaring at the small hand blaster lying on top of the desk.
Dogar shrugged. They both knew what it was for.
“Don’t do it, sir. You know better than that.” Sanders’ eyes bore through him like lasers. He looked ready to stop Dogar physically, if necessary.
“I know. Just… considering. They blame me, you know.”
“They’re wrong. It isn’t your fault, Arfann,” the other man said adamantly. “You had no other choice than to do what you did. Everyone was pushing for the attack. Even if you hadn’t, someone else would.”
“Does it matter?” Dogar shot back. “People died for me. Varrel. Nico Flygras. Maarek Stele. The media’s all over me. People are clamoring for my resignation.”
“They won’t get it.”
Arfann shrugged again.
“Have you heard the news?” Stan asked, changing the subject.
“There’s been no word from Grand Master Xar.”
Dogar sighed, closing his computer screen and taking hold of the gun. Before Stan could mistake him, he placed it into a nearby drawer. There, just in case he needed it. “Incredibly ironic, wouldn’t you say?” he asked. “How can everything just happen at once?”
“Morale is going to be at an all-time low,” Stan nodded. “The DLSF is ravaged. They’re talking about merging with the IW.”
“They’ve lost Ryskar and Nico… There are no command officers left,” Dogar pointed out glumly.
“That’s the other bit of news,” Stan spoke up, his expression lightening. “I talked with Grand Master Misnera. He said he doesn’t think Nico is dead.”
Dogar looked back up at the man, crinkling his brow skeptically. “How’d he figure that?”
“Alyx said he could have felt him die through the Force, since all of the Council, especially those from old Ar’Kell, were particularly in tune with one another.” The man shrugged. “I don’t really know anything about it; I’m just quoting what he said. But it gives me heart. If Nico survived, then maybe Maarek…”
Dogar nodded slowly. “Maybe. There’s always hope. But we’ve lost countless others because of this. It’s going to take a long time to recover.”
“People are coming out from everywhere,” Stan said. “Amason and Trident have proposed a new ship design, and the guys at Moro have promised that they can rebuild our fleet, and they’ve got the Devastator Plan well underway.”
“Any word from the Virulence?”
The man shook his head. “None. That’s disturbing.”
“We have to find it,” Dogar said firmly. “I know they got out; we can’t afford to lose her.”
Stan nodded. “We’ll get on it. At least the AD haven’t pressed the attack. For whatever reason, they’re sitting still. Otherwise we’d be in really big trouble.” He shook his head. “Anyway, I’ve got some news that might pull you out of that chair. Admiral Majere is here. He wants to know if you can make it to the conference room. He’s got some news, and a new proposal he says he wants you to hear.”
Dogar sat for a moment, considering. He couldn’t very well ignore his problems until they went away. “Very well, I’m all ears,” Dogar spoke, rising from his seat. “Let’s go.”
Later that evening, the two men stood at the West balcony of the Senate complex, facing the endlessly rolling waves of the ocean, glinting the orange light of the sunset. As the sun fell to meet the horizon, the two of them wondered if this somehow signified the end of an era for the New Imperium. To them, it definitely meant the end of the fragile peace that they had briefly experienced. War was beginning again, the dawn of a new war. As one era ended, and another began, only the future would bring the answers they sought. A future of unknown experiences, of uncharted territories and possibilities. A future in which not everyone was safe anymore…
The End of
Next, read The Return to Mizar, the sixth installment of the NI Runon Stories, which details events occurring directly after Tides of War and running concurrently with Ancients Waiting. This story details the attempt to find and rescue Jedi Master Nico Flygras, who was lost and presumed dead in the Battle of Mizar, and also contains a few new surprises…
Also, don’t miss the exciting side stories Unwanted Reunion and Traveler on Trial, which occur simultaneously with the events in Ancients Waiting and follow Icis Novitaar, the Traveler, as he flees from Varnus, is found by his own people, his fellow Travelers, and is captured and taken to his home planet to be placed on trial for the crime of helping the New Imperium…
And then: Ancients Waiting
As the New Imperium licks it wounds from the tragic loss at Mizar, Xar arrives in Altarin’Dakor space to find the ancient Warlord Zalaria. But what will happen to him once he arrives? Bren’s search for Akargan turns up unexpected results, and Maarek Stele awakens on a mysterious new world, and ahead of him is the greatest challenge of his life…
By Joshua Ausley
Copyright New Imperium 2000