“It was a dark time for the galaxy. The ancient ones were waiting for us.
They watched, and listened, hidden movements unseen by mortal eyes.
It was the calm before the storm. It was the hour of the Great War.”
Scrap of poem written after
the Second Great War.
Discovered on the Ruins of Varnus.
Inside The Great Rift
The Lambda-class shuttle emerged from hyperspace, its small, graceful body a mere speck in the massive void of deep space. The Great Rift, as it was known, lay between the main galactic disk and the shuttle’s destination, one of its spiral arms. Other arms had rifts, many going by similar names, though this one, locked within the vast depth of the Unknown Regions, was one of the widest. The rift was over a thousand light years across at this point, with hardly any star or planetary systems to offer even the briefest rest or respite. Spacefarers didn’t travel the Rift, instead choosing to move around it, going up the spiral arm from its base. The Rift was impassable, some said. Others attested to horrible space monsters, or things that would swallow a ship whole. Some stories recounted that the void between clusters was filled with black holes, and that was the reason no one had ever returned. The latter claim, at least, was true, in that no one in the known galaxy traveled the Great Rift, and of the few that did, none ever returned. Except, it seemed, the Altarin’Dakor.
Sitting idly at the controls, a man named Xar Kerensky, formerly Grand Master of the New Imperium’s Jedi Order, hunched forward in his seat, watching the navigational map as his ship ventured further and further away from known space. Odd, how it had turned out. He was far beyond even Mizar now, the furthest known system in Epsilon Sector. His own home planet of Varnus was off the map, beyond view. He thought it ironic that he was probably the only person from the New Imperium to see the shape of the Galbagos Nebula from its other side. Still, it loomed behind him like a massive wall of cloud, impenetrable.
He ran a hand back through his unkempt, dark hair, fully aware that he hadn’t been taking enough care of his hygiene since starting out. Of course, little good it would do, he figured. There was no one around to care what he looked like. Another irony, in that moving away from the fringes of known civilization, where no one should have existed, he was in fact heading toward an empire far more advanced than any he’d ever known, located on the very edge of the galaxy itself. At least, it was supposed to be there. And though he felt part of him drain away and fade as he left those he knew and the place he called home, he also felt a stab of impatience and wished that he could reach his destination faster. To him, that was the most important thing. If, of course, he even reached it at all.
He realized that the Great Rift was probably home to a veritable graveyard of ships, whether heading out for the Arm, or coming in toward the Core. It was a two-week journey at the least, even in his modified shuttle. Back during the older days of technology, fuel limits would have made such a trip impossible, and a miscalculation or delay could starve a crew that hadn’t prepared well in advance. And finally, he knew there could be any number of booby traps filling the uncharted void, from gravitational masses to rogue stars, and more. Maybe the legends of the black holes weren’t exaggerated.
At any rate, there was no turning back now. Not that he even wanted to. He supposed that the New Imperium had probably assaulted Mizar by now, and Alyx Misnera was undoubtedly trying to cope with his impromptu promotion to Grand Master. The results of either, though, he had no idea about. Might as well settle back, he told himself. You’re going to be alone for a while. Good thing you’re used to it. Of course, if his mission was successful, then maybe he’d never have to be alone again. Never, ever. That lone thought kept him going. He’d do anything to achieve that…
* * *
Varnusian Productions Presents:
He returned to consciousness slowly, his awareness growing as the blackness drained away and he was filled with breath and life once more. His eyes flickered opened slowly, meticulously, yet still the light poured its way through the openings in his eyelids, filling his vision with pink-white light from… a sun. He came awake suddenly then, and found himself staring into an incredibly gorgeous, deep purple sky devoid of the smallest cloud. He wondered at the sight of the thin line that stretched across the sky, until he realized it was a ring that encircled the planet itself, far above the atmosphere. Where am I, he thought. And, more importantly, how did I get here?
Maarek brought a hand to his head, rubbing the small spot of pain on the back of his skull. He draped his fingers across his chin, and noticed the two or three days’ worth of stubble that had grown. Has it been that long already? he wondered. Looking down, he saw that he was still in his flight suit, though it was a bit the worse for wear. Then it hit him, and he remembered. Mizar. The battle… Everything came rushing back, all the details of that horrible, bloody confrontation, the chaos, and the tragic loss. The New Imperium vessels, exploding all around him, more than he cared to count; the ambush of his squadron, the helpless deaths of Vlini and Nace and Isabi. And the attack that had hit his own fighter, throwing it into a wild spin, and the hatch on the Titan that had opened up to draw in his craft, filling his vision with blinding white light…
That was the last thing he remembered. How he’d come to be here, on this planet, lying on his back on a soft, green grassy hilltop, he had no idea whatsoever. He sat up, taking a deep breath of pure, crisp air, and took stock of his surroundings. He was indeed on a hilltop, the soft grass below gently cushioning his body. Around him was a broad grassy plain, giving way to forest some distance away. But it wasn’t a normal forest; it was beautiful, composed of trees and brush of all shapes, sizes, and even colors. He looked back up, seeing again the thin, delicate-looking ring curving across the sky, the pint-white star shining brightly down on him, warming him. It had to be one of the most serene, beautiful planets he’d ever been on. Could this possibly be the one we tried to take? he wondered. He’d not gotten a good, detailed glimpse of it from space, but still, it didn’t at all fit his assumption of what it would be like. There was no pollution, no devastation. Only serenity, and a placid quality that stilled his spirit.
Suddenly, as he heard a new sound pierce the air, he wondered if he’d thought too soon. A low-pitched rumble, like that of heavy machinery, cut through the silence, reverberating over and over, as if there were many of them. The ground began to tremble slightly, as the noise grew louder. Something was coming.
Carefully, he rose to his feet, looking down the hillock to where a broad dirt road traced its path along the bottom of the hill. There, as he watched, the machines became visible. A large hovering transport, around thirty meters long, gliding over the road with a low rumble - followed by another, and another. Military transports, judging from the heavy armor and visible gun emplacements mounted on them. The line of vehicles continued on, winding around the hill and dipping down out of sight over the lip of a valley. About a dozen of the craft passed by; then, when the last one disappeared from view, he got up and started to follow.
He descended the hill at a brisk pace, making his way onto the road as he arrived at the edge of the valley. Around him, the noise had faded; all was quiet except for the stirring of the slight breeze. The depression that extended out before him wasn’t as deep as he’d first thought. Instead, it was more shallow and broader, filled mostly with dense forest. A path had been cut through the woods where the road was, and extended down to a large clearing in the middle of the valley. Resting there, in the center, was what could only be described as a castle. It was laid out square, surrounded by walls, and made of dark stone blocks. It was fairly large, and the front quarter of it was an open, grassy courtyard. The other half of it was made of stone-built buildings that seemed connected together, the tallest of which were around five stories high. Their roofs were made of dark tiles that slanted down and extended out over the walls. It didn’t seem like an old structure, even though it was made out of stone. He could hardly believe his eyes.
Maarek shook his head, glancing back around at the vista around him. Could this be real? It seemed almost like something out of a dream… Yet everything was in incredible clarity and detail…And he could feel his own soreness and spots of pain from his recent ordeal, the battle. This had to be real.
As he moved down closer, he could see the structures in greater detail. It might have been the destination of those transports; they could have easily fit inside. The road ran right up to the front and through the courtyard. The gates were standing wide open.
Does the rat walk straight into the trap? he wondered, shaking his head in forced amusement. Could it have been any plainer than this? Nevertheless, he found himself walking down into the valley toward the gates, each step causing him to doubt his own sanity in this even more. He knew it was all a set-up; somehow, this had all been intended to bring him here. And he was fool enough to play right into it. But if they wanted to kill him, wouldn’t they have don’t it already?
Well, I don’t have anything better to do, he reconciled to himself. He was dead to the rest of the galaxy twice, now, anyway. What could once more hurt?
He finally made his way to the valley basin and approached the open gates. Inside, the place appeared to be deserted; there was no one inside, no activity at all. Another bad sign, he told himself. Yet he found himself moving on. He passed through the gates and crossed the courtyard, keeping on the cleared pathway. He had made it about halfway across when one of the doors on the other side finally opened.
The man who stepped out moved toward Stele quickly, yet non-threateningly. Maarek could see that he was dressed in a one-piece, purple garment like a robe. It was an older man, probably in his sixties, Maarek noted, and he had only a few, thin strands of hair on his head. Yet when the two finally met, the man gave a formal bow, and his gaze locked Maarek’s strongly as he made his greeting.
“Welcome, we have been expecting you,” the elderly man intoned in a strangely-accented Basic. “We thought you would arrive sooner,” he added in a more blunt tone.
“Sorry, I wasn’t in a hurry,” Maarek said casually, still wondering what in the world was going on.
The man mad a noncommittal sound, then turned and gestured back the way he’d come. “If you would follow me, please, we shall make you more comfortable.”
“…Okay,” Maarek agreed, following the aide back toward the entrance. This is getting stranger by the minute, he thought to himself. He knew he should probably get out now. But whatever it was, something was telling his instincts to go along with all this. Now he could do little but play it out and see where it would lead.
They made their way inside, and the notion that they might have been still in a castle all but vanished. The interior was simply decorated, yet definitely modern, with metal walls and an exotic style to much of the pieces of furniture, art, and other furnishings he saw placed around the corridors as they passed. When they finally reached their destination, an antechamber with a set of double doors leading further in, the man stopped and turned back to him. The aide gave him a visible once over, slightly shaking his head. “You’d have done better to wear something more appropriate, but we don’t have time for that, since you’re late. Just mind yourself and be respectful,” he advised.
“Who am I meeting with?”
“An important leader of our movement,” the elderly man replied. “He is quite eager to meet you; he thinks you could be of help to us.”
“What planet is this?” Maarek asked, realizing what a stupid question it must sound. He wasn’t sure though, especially with this strange sequence of events he’d been plunged into.
“You are on
Maarek started to ask again whom he was referring to, but the man was already gone. Shaking his head with a sigh, he moved to the double wooden doors and pushed them open.
The room inside was large and deep, carpeted in red and decked in white marble on the walls and ceiling. Several other doors lined the walls, each occupied by an aide standing next to it, dressed much like the first man. In the center of the room was rectangular table lined with chairs, yet empty except for one seat at the far end, at its head. There, seated in an elaborately carved marble seat, was the man he was supposed to see. All he could tell was that it was a man, though. The figure was draped in fine cloths of various colors, and over that was a large, broad suit of silver armor that glinted the light from the glowlamps around the room. Maarek could only guess at his features, since they were covered by a helmet/mask that covered the top half of his head, from his nose to the top of his skull. The helmet was an elaborate thing, obviously conformed to fit the man’s features, and draping out with winglike attachments on either side. Only the man’s mouth and chin were visible, and they bared a broad smile of glowing white teeth. Maarek thought he looked rather ridiculous, actually. But, considering everything else that had happened, he was prepared to play along for the moment.
“Ah, Maarek Stele,” the man pronounced in perfect, unaccented Basic. He stood, gesturing toward the seat at the foot of the table. His hands were the only other uncovered part of him. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Maarek stepped forward, eyeing the seat, then the man at the table’s head. “Who are you?” he asked.
The armored man smiled, his expression not dropping an inch. “You may call me Victor.”
“Victor, huh?” Maarek asked, arching an eyebrow. He placed his hands on the back of the chair in front of him. An odd choice for a name, and he didn’t think for a moment that it was real. “Okay, so tell me… What exactly is going on here? You all seem to be expecting me, but I don’t know who any of you are. Is there some party we’re having that I forgot about?” A masquerade party, maybe, He thought silently.
“The party is for you, my friend,” Victor smiled, apparently ignoring the snide remark. “To celebrate your harrowing escape from death.”
“I see,” Maarek conceded. “Speaking of which… The last thing I remember, I was in a space battle, and I’m pretty sure it was in orbit of this world. I got my tail fried by an AD pilot and fell out of control, heading straight for that Titan ship… Then suddenly, here I am, seemingly back in the past or something.” He forced a chuckle to lighten the comment, but it didn’t register on the other man’s face.
“Indeed. Fortunately, we had an eye on you, and were able to snag you in before you hit. And, to bring you to safety. And I assure you,” he said, holding up a hand as he sat once more, “We are not in league with those whom you were fighting with, before.”
Sitting here on the planet they’d attacked, an Altarin’Dakor world, but not in league with the Altarin’Dakor. They were celebrating his survival? Why? “All right, I’ll buy that,” Maarek nodded. “So why am I here?”
Victor smiled again, beneath his mask, as he placed his hands palm-down on the table. “I want to hire you,” he said plainly. “For a mission.”
Maarek paused, taken suddenly aback by the comment. “Excuse me?” he asked. “What for?”
“You’re not an unknown pilot, Maarek. Your exploits are quite famous, actually. It’s a wonder that, after all you’ve gone through, you’re still alive. It’s a credit to your amazing abilities.” He made a slight shrug as he leaned back in his chair. “You’re good, Stele. Better even than Altarin’Dakor pilots. You had more kills in that last battle than any other pilot.”
“You seem to know a lot about me,” Stele noticed.
“”We’ve had an eye on you. Your abilities are intriguing, and I’m eager to see what your galaxy’s best can really accomplish. I want you to fly a mission for me.”
“What’s the mission?”
“I want you to assist in an assault on an Altarin’Dakor base,” the man said. “It belongs to a Warlord known as Akargan.” He paused, but Maarek didn’t answer, so he continued. “You’ll be flying with a special team, in our most advanced new fighter. The base itself isn’t far from here; we can reach it in a few hours. Its destruction would set back Akargan’s plans for conquest in this part of the galaxy. I’m sure you can empathize with that.”
“Perhaps,” Maarek said, not really understanding anything the man was talking about. “But tell me, who are you really? And why am I needed? You have plenty of other pilots, I’m sure.”
The man’s helmeted head nodded slightly. “I am part of an… underground movement, you might say. A third faction in the conflict. My job here is to sow chaos and disruption among the enemies you face. This mission is an experiment of sorts, a joint venture between our groups. The first of its kind. As to why we need you… Call it a gesture of goodwill between us and your government.”
“I see…” Maarek said, looking down at the table as he thought about it. The situation was definitely tricky, and he didn’t trust these people to be what they claimed. Yet they had him, and probably no one knew he was alive back in the NI… Essentially he was at their mercy. And it was an opportunity to strike at the Altarin’Dakor… He looked back up at the disguised figure. “What’s the catch?” There was always a catch.
“Nothing. It’s an opportunity to achieve a mutual goal, by working together. The choice is yours. But it’s an chance to fly a ship beyond your wildest dreams. And, I know you relish the thought of striking back at the Altarin’Dakor for what happened before, in orbit.”
Maarek nodded. “True enough. What happens to me if I choose not to? If I decline?”
“We simply transport you back home, or to the planet of your choice,” Victor replied, holding his hands up in a gesture of openness. “We make no threats, here.”
“If I do it, and complete your mission, will you do the same?”
“Of course. It would be the least we could do for your aid.”
“Tell me. Why should I trust you?” There. He’d spelled it out plainly.
“Because,” Victor said, folding his hands in front of him calmly. “If we had wanted you dead, we could have killed you at any point until now. We certainly wouldn’t have saved your life during the battle. Surely you feel some measure of gratitude for that. Furthermore, you have no means of transportation off this world, or to anywhere for that matter, unless you trust us. Venturing out into the wild would find you in enemy territory. And lastly, because I will give you the opportunity to see that our motives are sincere, and explain to you everything you want to know. So. What is your decision?”
Maarek nodded again. The man’s words were true; he didn’t have much choice whether to trust these people or not. After all, they had taken him and laid him on a grassy hill outside. He hesitated a moment more. Finally he shook his head, unable believe the irony here. Flying for the enemy? “Maybe I’m crazy,” he said. “But all right. I accept, for now.”
“Excellent!” the armored man exclaimed,
smile going wide. He stood once more, gesturing to one of the servants to the
side. “I knew you would make the right decision. Meanwhile, you may stay here.
Rooms and whatever else you desire will be accommodated for you. When the time
comes, you will be briefed in full detail, before we head out.” He started to
make his way around the table, offering a hand when he got close to Maarek.
“Just one thing,” Maarek said, narrowing his eyes. “Take of your mask and show me your face.”
The other man seemed to hesitate for a moment. Then he smiled widely again. “Of course.”
Slowly his hands reached up and behind his head, making a click as the helmet unlatched. Then he pulled the front up, and finally the entire mask lifted from his head. He set it down on the table and locked his pale blue eyes with Maarek’s. “Satisfied?”
“Quite,” Stele assured him, nodding again. “Thank you.”
* * *
Grand Master’s Office
Vectur, Planet Varnus
Alyx Misnera, newly-promoted Grand Master of the New Imperium Jedi Division, sat alone in his chambers, rooms that had only days before belonged to someone else. Consequently, it still strongly held the mood of its former occupant in both mood and decorum, for one reason: he hadn’t bothered to change a thing. The room was somewhat dim, with plush furniture set in practical locations. There was a small library occupying several bookcases, many of which were real printed material, and every spare empty shelf held some kind of trinket or artifact. The room wasn’t cluttered, though; it still maintained a spartan feel to it. It wasn’t quite Alyx’s style but he hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it. Of course, under the present situation both the Division and the New Imperium was in, that was understandable.
On the large wooden desk in front of him, his computer screen flashed to life as he connected to the NI HoloNet. He headed straight for the capital, Tralaria, into the heart of the Senate headquarters. Putting in the proper requests, he sat back and waited. It didn’t take long. The screen changed into the NI Symbol, then resolved into the features of the New Imperium’s Interim Diktat, a strong, military man. A man who had been to the brink, and nearly fell into the madness within. Alyx still wasn’t sure whether that man would come away from that brink again.
“Alyx,” Arfann Dogar said on the screen. “You look well. What can I do for you?”
“Just calling to check on the situation,” Alyx replied. “How are things going over there?”
“About as expected,” the Diktat answered, his mood dropping. “I have to wonder if things would really have been better if we’d actually won. My image would have been smeared, either way. I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have the AD breathing down our backs, taking some of the internal distractions away from, well, all our disparate factions.”
Alyx nodded solemnly. Only four days had passed since the NI’s tragic loss at Mizar. An incredible portion of their combined fleet had been totally devastated, and now the various groups had ran back into their own territories to lick their wounds. The battle, the first major conflict against the invaders, the Altarin’Dakor, had really been the interim Diktat’s bane. Though the conflict was inevitable, the brunt of the decision had been placed on Dogar’s shoulders. To many of the citizens of the new peace-oriented NI mindset, the decision to spark off the counterassault had permanently branded Arfan as a warmonger, and made him personally responsible for the deaths of all the soldiers that had perished in that brutal clash. The fact that Dogar had little say in the decision, events sparked after the bloody assassination of the Diktat, Ryskar D’larit, did nothing to change those opinions. As the different NI fleets rushed madly to boost their war production and recover, many loud minority groups were clamoring for everything from the Diktat’s resignation to his permanent banishment from the New Imperium. And Dogar – a man Alyx still considered a friend – was facing his own personal demons, as well.
Ignoring the latter point, he kept his questions impersonal. “Are you saying that the Altarin’Dakor threat is the only thing really keeping us glued together?” Alyx asked. “Are we really that close to falling apart?”
“Thankfully, no,” Dogar replied, sitting
back and rubbing an ear. “On the whole, our fleets are really starting to pull
it together. The IW and the DLSF are merging, and Majere is committing all his
forces away from the
“Those with the loudest voices often get heard,” Alyx agreed.
“They’ll get their wish – me out of office – soon enough,” Dogar continued. “We decided new elections will be held within the month. I’m not running.”
“I… see,” Alyx said. He shook his head. It wasn’t right. “Dogar, it’s not your fault. The New Imperium needs you. You can’t let those idiots get their way. You’re a soldier; fight back.”
“I know all that. But my mind’s made up. Don’t try to change it, Alyx. It’ll only cause strife.”
Alyx struggled to contain his frustration with the man. It’s only been four days, he reminded himself. Dogar was still traumatized from the battle. He probably would be too, if he’d been there himself.
“That’s too bad,” was all he said. “I will of course try to be there to cast my vote. Let me know as things develop. And if you need anything… You have a friend to call,” he said, hoping to reach inside the heart of the man on the screen.
“Afraid I’m not so worthy of your support, but for what it’s worth, thanks.” The man forced a grin. “Good luck out there. Dogar out.”
“Later,” Alyx replied as the connection closed. Putting his hands flat on the desktop, he leaned forward and stood up, letting out a sigh. The Jedi assembly was about to meet, and he had to lay out some authority of his own. Under their new, more relaxed training program, the members of the Order had become too complacent and arrogant. Now he had to go out and fix the problems that Xar had dropped on him. And he was definitely not in the mood to tolerate insolence today.
Moving to the rack by the door, he gathered his cloak before stepping out into the hallway, heading for the grand assembly room.
He arrived last, as was the customary for the Grand Master at meetings. The grand assembly chamber wasn’t particularly crowded, he noted quickly. With the loss of many Jedi during the recent Mizar battle, and with most of the remaining order dispersed throughout the NI on various assignments, the palace wasn’t nearly as busy as it had been a week before. And those that remained, he knew, were divided in their opinions of how to proceed next. One side was more restrained and conservative, and consisted of most of the older Jedi and those had actually had experienced a taste of what the Altarin’Dakor had to offer. The other side was made up of the newer generation, most of the Jedi who had gone through the accelerated training program. They were arrogant, impulsive, and had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
As the Grand Master, he was supposed to somehow strike a balance between the two sides, or at least come to a decision that both groups could accept. The job was easier than it sounded, especially since Alyx wasn’t quite sure what to do, himself. A fine mess that Xar had left him. Under the conditions things were in when the man had left, Alyx wasn’t even sure what the former Grand Master might have done in this case. So, as the new leader, he had to set an example, and make sure his authority was known.
He entered the room from the back, moving around to the Grand Master’s seat on top of the raised platform. On either side of him was a wide booth area where the rest of the Council would sit, yet today only one member was present; the Warden, Vynd Archaron. Even he would probably be leaving soon, to search for their missing comrades. Xar and Nico were gone, one of his own will and one missing in action. The Deputy Grand Master, Mathis Organa, was somewhere in the Palace, but had retreated into an introspective mode ever since Varnus had been temporarily taken by the AD. Gaius Adonai was on the Stormwatch in orbit, and the House leaders were mostly at their respective bases. Gui Sun Paan, head of Special Operations, was also present. Yes, soon Alyx would have to fend for himself, holding off two angry factions split between four Houses and a loud minority living here at the palace. What joy, he thought sarcastically.
The restrained older members, led chiefly by Crusader Atridd Xoan, were on his right. Xoan was a good man, and had served with Alyx and Xar in their failed mission to Dathomir half a year earlier. Xoan’s large build, dark skin and impressive features made him a natural locus of control for the group. The brash young cluster of upstarts, smaller but with a sense of anticipation about them, were on the left. Their spokesman was a new Jedi Crusader that chose to go only by the name of Nova, though Alyx knew his real name was Ken Nandos, a native of Erebria. He was also a large man, but he was younger and less experienced.
Both groups watched Misnera as he took his seat and motioned for the assembly to begin.
“This meeting is now in session,” Warden Vynd Archaron spoke up. “Grand Master, I believe you have an announcement…?” he began.
“Forgive me for interrupting, but there is an urgent matter to discuss,” Crusader Nova broke in. Immediately, all eyes turned to him. The large man was practically trembling with anticipation for something.
“What is it?” Misnera asked.
“You have placed a hold on all new Jedi Knight trials since the battle at Mizar,” the Crusader said roughly. “I demand to know why.”
“How dare you speak to the Grand Master like that!” Xoan cut in, turning to spear Nova with a hard stare.
“Interim Grand Master,” Nova countered.
Before Xoan could cut him down again, Alyx broke though, ignoring the breach of protocol, his voice level but bringing everyone’s attention to him. “Regardless of what happens when Master Kerensky returns, I am the Grand Master right here, right now. Is that clear? Now, I have decided to re-evaluate our current system. There has been a decided slack in the Force power levels of Jedi Knights that have passed in the new system. There has also been a lack of experience and restraint. Eighty percent of our losses at Mizar were Jedi who passed under Grand Master Kerensky’s new system.”
“But those statistics had nothing to do with their abilities,” Nova argued. “It was simply a choice of which ships were destroyed. Meanwhile, while this matter is on hold, I have friends – excellent Jedi themselves – who have been denied trials without an adequate reason. There is nothing wrong with the current system.”
“That is for the Council to determine,” Xoan broke in again. “Remember your place!”
“I know my place, unlike you,” Nova shot back. “If I recall, you were Kerensky’s lapdog. We all know why you were promoted. Give me a match and I’ll prove which method is better – and who is the stronger.”
At that, Misnera saw one of the older Jedi’s hand reach beneath his robes as he went for his lightsaber. Reacting quickly, Alyx threw up a hand to stop him and shouted a warning.
“Stop this!” he said, standing up and moving down past Archaron to the rows of benches at the bottom of the dais. Stepping over to the benches in front of Nova, he fixed the tall man with a glare. “You speak of strength. Do you even know what that is?”
“Of course I do,” the man replied, the arrogance clear in his voice. “Strength is power. I am strong in the Force, as are those with whom I train. I don’t place much faith in this new measured system of power levels. I know my own strength, and I know that I can face the Altarin’Dakor.”
“Really. That sounds very sincere, very laudable,” Misnera said. “But there’s something you have to learn.” He leaned closer, gazing directly into the man’s dark eyes. “You don’t know what strength is,” he said.
With that, he opened himself to the Force, let its massive torrent flow into him, almost sweep him away. He drew it in, nearly to his maximum capacity as a Jedi Master. He clenched his teeth in anger, letting the power of the True Force fill him to bursting, enough that Nova could easily feel his strength, could barely avoid it this close. The Crusader’s shocked expression told him that Nova could feel it. But that wasn’t enough. The man had to learn. “Have you ever fought the Altarin’Dakor?” he whispered, though his voice carried across the room. “Do you know what it is to experience true pain?”
Careful not to completely overload the Crusader with his Force power, Alyx sent the thoughts of his memory into the man’s head, recalling his own experience fighting an Altarin’Dakor Jedicon. Nova’s face grimaced into a mask of pain as he experienced the memories, felt the Jedicon Turles’ fist smash across his face, shattering bones, dislodging teeth. He gasped as realized what it was like to take the Jedicon’s energy blast at point-blank range, to have his clothes ignite, his skin seared to an almost black char.
Misnera finally let the man go, and the Crusader convulsed once, then fell back to his seat with a thud. Alyx let the Force drain from him, and with it his sudden anger. Yet he kept his voice low and clear for all to understand. “That is the measure of their strength and their resolve, people. But there is more to the Force than power,” he said. “There’s more to being a true Jedi than brute strength. Xar left me to deal with this mess, but make no mistake that I am the Grand Master. That means we do things my way. I intend to fix some of the problems that have been plaguing us. We’re at each others’ throats, here. That’s not how it should be. We have a common enemy, one which we must work together to fight.” He looked down at Nova again. “And if you think what I showed you was true strength, then I guarantee you won’t survive your first encounter with a Jedicon. He’ll rip you into so many pieces that we’ll never even find your remains.”
When the shortened meeting was finished, the Grand Master walked back through the corridors in silence, Vynd following beside him. Alyx realized he’d probably been too hard on Nova. As much as he had to learn, he wasn’t an enemy. I’m becoming too much like Xar, he thought. Force won’t solve everything. In many cases, it solves nothing at all. I’ve got to be different, set an example.
After a few moments, Alyx voiced his thoughts. “What’s wrong with us, Vynd? Why are we faltering all of a sudden?”
“I don’t know, sir,” the wispy-haired man said. “It must be the enemy. I’m doing everything I can to help, but it’s like we’re suffering from some unseen disease.”
“Hmm.” Alyx considered his words. True, it seemed as if they faced more threats from within than from without, even considering Mizar. How deeply were the Altarin’Dakor involved in the internal mechanisms of the NI? The Division had been infiltrated in the past, most notably by a shape-changing Morphioni named Malphunoc. The massive, ancient planetary repulsor protruding from Varnus’ surface less than fifty kilometers from the city was strict reminder of that incident.
The sound of footsteps running behind them made Alyx turn. He watched as Gui Sun Paan slowed to a stop in front of him. “Sir,” he began.
“What’s wrong, Paan?” he asked. “Still having dreams?”
“Yes sir,” Gui Sun said. “Visions of… Master Kerensky… in some kind of terrible danger. I think it’s more than nightmares. I really believe that his search for that Warlord woman will have tragic results. She’s evil, I can almost sense it.”
Alyx shook his head as he walked back the way he’d come, dismissing the issue. “He’s chosen his own path. What happens, will happen.” They reached a crossways in the corridor, and he started right, turning back to look at the younger man. “Wait a couple more days, then tell me if these dreams persist,” he said. “In the meantime, we must continue to consolidate our resources and press onward. I’ll see you later.”
“Of course, sir,” Paan said, bowing. Then he turned and headed down the other way, leaving Alyx with Vynd and a newfound silence.
Continuing down the corridor, Alyx finally reached his destination: the Deputy Grand Master’s chambers. He hadn’t seen Mathis Organa more than a couple of times since his impromptu appointment as Grand Master. He knew that he could use some advice from an old friend, now, as well as assurance that he was doing the right thing. But the man had been virtually a recluse since Xar had left, avoiding everyone, including Alyx. It was time to find out what was wrong.
“I’ll see you later, Vynd,” he said to the man still with him. In response, Archaron nodded and continued past, obviously preferring to stay out of Alyx and Mathis’ personal business.
Alyx turned to the door and keyed it open, giving a short knock before he entered. He took a step into the room - and froze. “What’s going on?” he said immediately.
Organa was sitting behind his desk, dressed in a wrinkled Jedi robe. The man looked rough, like he hadn’t had much sleep or proper grooming lately. His long dark hair fell down unkempt, and his chin carried a scraggly short beard. But what had stopped Alyx immediately was the sight of the man busily trying to scoop something off the desk - a small box and tube, which he quickly hid somewhere off the desk. Alyx only had to see the brown, powdery substance that the man was moving to know what it was.
“Oh, Alyx… I.. wasn’t expecting you,” Mathis said quickly, folding his hands on the desk and putting on a smile.
“What’s happening to us, Mathis?” Alyx asked, walking over to the desk. He took one of the plush chairs there, turned it part way, and sat down hard, rubbing his eyes with his palms.
“Huh. You mean with the Division, the NI, or both? Entropy, I guess,” he shrugged. “The most common rule in the universe. Things loose their order, become disjointed. They grow cold and die. Unless, of course,” he added with a cynical chuckle, “things go out in a fiery demise like my home planet. Perhaps that’s what the Empire was trying to do. Maybe it’s an example we need to follow, to fight entropy. Keep ourselves together and press onward.”
Alyx shook his head, not knowing what to say. Obviously the man was out of it. He looked like the hind end of a womprat.
“Mathis,” Alyx said, suddenly feeling tired. “I can’t have a Deputy who’s addicted to spice.”
There was a long pause, in which the other man fell silent. Then he heard a faint stirring, knew the man was nodding slowly. “So you found out,” Mathis said, his voice not surprised. “It’s only Ryll. And I’m not addicted; it’s just to help me get through the long days…”
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Alyx countered.
“We all have our enjoyable pastimes,” Mathis said. “Not all are as legal as others.”
Alyx’s brow knit in frustration; he didn’t have time for this. “You can’t keep living like this, Mathis. You’ve got to find your sense of purpose again and help me out. I need your support now, especially with Xar gone. Get over it.”
That news put the man back into silence. Alyx knew how much Mathis respected and relied on Xar – he’d given his own command to him, back before House Ar’Kell had left Minos Cluster and helped found the NI. Maybe Mathis had never been cut out for command. Alyx had been there, and had been through the hardships and trials they’d all gone through since then. Not least of which was the transition to the True Force philosophy, a change that had been the hardest thing he’d ever personally done. But he’d never go back to the old way.
“I’ll do what I can, Alyx,” the man said quietly.
Alyx rubbed a hand through his own hair. “I think it’d be better if you stepped back from Deputy Grand Master for a while. You could take the position of Chancellor while you recover, save some face.” The Chancellor position was the official advisory spot on the Jedi Council, created first for former Grand Master Chandel, now vacant. It would allow Mathis to be present without having any real duties or powers per se. Right now, Alyx couldn’t trust him with anything more.
“…whatever you think is best,” Mathis sighed.
Alyx nodded. He hated to treat such an old friend like this, but he had a feeling Mathis’s recovery wasn’t going to be made overnight. “Best of luck, my friend,” he said as he got up to leave.
* * *
Bren walked aimlessly though empty city streets of Tritonia. Though it was only mid evening, the sky was dark, the distant, brown sun blotted out by the buildings that rose all around him. Tritonia’s surface was completely covered in city, enough to rival even Coruscant, if it were still filled with life. But life was not to be easily found, here. The once great city was an ancient ruin, its many spires broken halfway up, the streets below cracked, covered with dirt and rubble. But it was here that he had been drawn, and was even now walking toward his intended destination. Ever since he had left Varnus, he had let destiny and the Force guide him. Somehow, he had known where to fly, where to land on the endless cityscape. His ship was parked only blocks away, yet he feared for its safety. Though this might be a dead world, something was still alive here.
He padded quietly along the ancient streets, rustling the dark, simple Jedi robe he wore. His long blonde hair was tied back behind his head, and his dark blue eyes kept a cautious watch all around him. He passed by the ground levels of the buildings around him, their entrances gaping open like the mouths of caves. All the windows stood empty like blind eyes, any trace of glass long lost over the eons. Truly, this city had been abandoned for uncounted millennia. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
Bren passed by another thin alley, caught sight of dark movement, sleeking by in the shadows beyond his vision. Yes, something still lived here. Whether mutated descendants of the ancient inhabitants, or some unseen predator lurking just out of sight, they were there. Every time he looked down an alleyway, or deep inside one of the buildings, something moved, just barely. But they were always careful to stay out of plain sight. He fought down the chill of fear that threatened to freeze him for coming here alone, cursed himself as a fool for staying here any longer. The place was quiet, almost as silent as death. Only the sound of distant steam rising from deeper underground, or the occasional shifting of rubble broke the silence. If the surface looked this bad, he couldn’t imagine what might be lurking deeper within the ruined city.
Coming onto another crossroads, he suddenly turned left on an impulse. Down that way, a small amount of light reached the streets, possibly from the system’s dying sun, or from some other unseen source. The roadway was littered with ancient trash and rubble. Columns of steam rose from several vents along the sidewalk to either side, hissing quietly. It was an all-too familiar sight; he knew he’d found the right place.
As he stopped, he suddenly heard the sound of footsteps breaking the silence. Hard, booted steps, thudding against the hard streets, crunching trash and small pebbles beneath its heels. Growing louder, closer.
Then, a dark cloaked figure emerged from among a cloud of steam to the right, strode to the center of the street, and turned to face him. At this, Bren’s nerves steeled a little. He knew he should still fear this figure, though he also had a more certain feeling, that at least his fate rested in this man’s hands, instead of in the unseen darkness. Yet which was worse, he may yet come to find out.
Standing only ten meters across from him, Akargan slowly reached up and pulled back the hood of his cloak. In the dim light, Bren could make out his features; he was tall and strongly built, with dark hair swept back behind his head. His black mustache and goatee were trimmed sharply, and his dark eyes locked on Bren, piercing him with his ancient gaze. Bren shivered, feeling completely exposed under that glare.
“Welcome back, brother,” Akargan said, and smiled broadly, evenly.
Bren hesitated, decided to dismiss the comment. “I take it you like this kind of setting for a rendezvous,” he replied, gesturing out around him. Such a scene of ruin was familiar to him; their last meeting had taken place in the ruined sector of Vectur, the capital of Varnus. “What is this place?” he asked.
Akargan waited a moment in silence, his smile fading as his glanced at the devastated buildings around him. “An ancient relic,” he said softly, something that didn’t seem to fit his low, rough voice. “A battlefield. This planet used to be renowned across the entire galaxy. I remember hearing about its fall, during the Great War.”
“What happened to it, to its people?” Bren whispered, trying to find the tops of some of the buildings overhead, unable to comprehend how many people must have lived here once, but now were long gone.
Akargan’s gaze came back to meet Bren’s, his brief inspection over. “Unimportant,” he said. “Tell me. Why are you here, Lasitus? Have you come to accept the truth about who you are?”
“My memories are returning,” Bren said, ignoring the use of his old name. His Altarin’Dakor name. “I’ve seen what I once was. Now I need some answers. You are the only one who can help me.” He shrugged.
Akargan’s smile returned then, a twisted grin. “Help you? Did I not say as much, before? I told you that you would seek me out. You had your chance, then, to make things easy. I told you, this time it will be harder.” The threat was clear in his voice
Bren paused. He knew that his life was in this man’s hands. He’d brought no weapon, himself. It wouldn’t have done any good, if he had. “I remember,” he said. There were gaps in his memories, but he had to gamble on what he didn’t know, fill in the gaps with his guesses. And hope Akargan didn’t see through his charade. “I remember what it was like to fight for the Cause. I can still see that day, when I was defeated at Varnus. Things seemed so simple there, so clear-cut. I was a warrior, a general who loved his soldiers, and they loved me in return.” A blood-soaked general, in fact, but he didn’t say it. “Tell me, brother. Are things still like they used to be? Or has everything changed?”
The other man didn’t answer. Bren hesitated, but continued on. “Akargan, you and I were brothers in arms. We studied together under the same master. We had our differences, even went our own ways. Yes, our master favored me, gave me his weapon. And when my time came, I passed it on to you, in turn. You see? I do remember that much.” He smiled. “And I still feel the hate toward those who shamed us,” he lied. He tried to hold back any sense of that without using too much of the Force. He didn’t know what Akargan could sense from him.
Akargan smiled weakly at those words. He reached inside his robe with one hand, then slid it back out, holding a long, silvery object in his hands. “You want this back, don’t you?” he asked.
Bren gasped as he realized what the man held. It was Sha’kira, his master’s blade, the one he had sent on to Akargan. The blade had one been part of him, been like an extension of his own body. After all this time, it still existed. Though he knew the weapon as well as if it were still in his own hands, he realized that Akargan had held it much longer. “No,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “It’s rightfully yours, now. Fighting is not my way anymore, not if I can help it. I know who I once was, Akargan, and I can’t change that. But I’m just not like that anymore. I’ve changed. Life in a stasis pod can do that to someone.”
The man’s face darkened, and he slipped the handle back inside his robes. “So, I suppose you haven’t come to join me, then.”
“Are things the same way they used to be?” Bren asked again, knowing that his decision had already been made. He only needed to see Akargan’s response.
“I think you know the answer,” the man said. He snorted loudly. “I had hoped that you would join my side once more. We could have fought together, ruled together, like the old days. You would have been a powerful ally. You might have even become a Shok’Thola, even now.”
“Must the fighting continue, Akargan? Always by fighting? Is there no other way?” But he knew the man’s answer. To Akargan, war was everything. It was life.
Instead of answering, Akargan considered him openly. “You have lost your passion, brother.”
“I’m sorry,” Bren said, truly sad that he was having to turn down his onetime companion. But there was no other choice. Inside, he was fighting against himself. The person he had once been wanted to restore his comradeship with the man in front of him. The person he was now was reviled by that thought. Then his thoughts were interrupted.
“Now I need to know something, Lasitus. I need to know what side you’re on,” Akargan said evenly, moving closer toward Bren. “I cannot allow you to go on as an enemy. Don’t tell me that you won’t fight, because I know that you will. You’re still an Altarin’Dakor.” He raised his hand, pointing an accusatory finger toward Bren’s chest. “I know that inside, you are still the same. A warrior. If a man is a killer, that is what he is. Don’t tell me that it’s suddenly not in you anymore, that it’s not your nature.”
Bren held his ground, standing openly, daring to prove Akargan wrong. “Seeing what I used to be, seeing it from the perspective that I do, it’s a choice that I’ve already made,” he said.
“Ah,” Akargan, said, stopping barely five meters in front of him. “Then know. Remember, Lasitus. Remember everything.”
Then Akargan’s consciousness exploded inside Bren’s mind, ripping through like a screaming bullet. He couldn’t have resisted if he tried. Bren cried out at the violence of the assault, felt helplessly as the Warlord flew through his head, breaking down the sealed doors of his memory, opening up reservoirs that had been closed by his amnesia. A flood of thoughts and recollections stormed through his brain, what was once a trickled stream now turned into an ocean. Akargen charged through, picking things at seemingly random, sorting through his mind like searching through a pile of unwanted garbage. Bren clutched his head, felt like it was about to explode…
He stared up at the sky, his back flat against the hard pavement, gasping for breath. In the space of an instant, he had relived everything. Vast storehouses of memories were there, now. His amnesia was virtually gone. Of course, he couldn’t know if he had everything. If something else existed, some memory that was still lost to him, he wouldn’t know about it. But what he did know was enough. His plan had worked. Akargan had done for him what he couldn’t do himself. A last favor from an oldtime friend. Now the question was whether he’d live to digest what he’d learned.
“So,” Akargan’s voice came from above him. “Are you satisfied? This is what you came here for, is it not?”
Is it? He wondered, himself. His real reasons for coming had been uncertain, guided more by destiny. Was this really what he’d been after: restoration? Bren’s memories hung over him now, knowledge of all he had done in his life as an Altarin’Dakor. And one thing stood out above everything else… an incredible sense of blood. Red – everything was blood red. How many have I killed? he wondered bleakly. Somewhere in his mind, the answer sprang up of its own, recalling the thousands, tens of thousands, down to the day and time of each act. He knew it was true. He struggled to raise his head, looked back up at Akargan, the ancient one towering above him, waiting for a response. Maybe Akargan had tried to convince him by jogging his memories. If anything, the man’s plan had backfired. There was no way Bren could return to what he’d once been. He’d forgotten one thing: no matter what he remembered, the person he was now was not the person he was then.
“I will not fight,” he said, a thick resoluteness taking hold of his nerves. “For anyone, anymore. Not the Servants of Power, nor for anyone else. It is the only way I can atone for what I have done. If you want to kill me to make sure of that, then go ahead.” He knew, deep down, he deserved it.
He caught sight of a half grin forming on Akargan’s face, as the Warlord reached beneath his robes again, reproduced the silvery handle Sha’kira. He held it out for Bren to see. “So be it,” he said.
* * *
Maarek awoke from his nap as the door to his quarters slid open, filling the room with a shaft of light. A dark figure was silhouetted in the doorway. “It’s time,” the figure said.
Nodding, Stele pushed himself out of bed and activated the room’s lights. The aide left him to dress, and Maarek moved over to the wardrobe, quickly donned the trim black jumpsuit that had been afforded to him. As he zipped the one-piece all the way up to the collar, he turned to take stock of himself in the full-length mirror. In his stay of a few days with Victor’s group, he had cleaned up well. His dark hair was cut short and wasn’t grizzled, he had shaved and bathed thoroughly. The suit looked crisp and sharp on him, he thought. Lightweight and functional, it also let his skin breathe out through whatever material it was made of. A double blue line ran down the sides of his chest, continued along the pant legs, as well. Blue stripes decorated the wrist-length arms. A golden symbol rested on his left breast, a flaming sun, probably Victor’s insignia. Maarek hoped he was ready for this; he still didn’t trust the man, nor did he expect his upcoming mission to be either fun or easy.
Slipping his feet into a pair of all-purpose piloting shoes, he decided he was prepared, and went the door of his cabin. The aide was waiting for him there, a young man with straight, violet hair and wearing long, red silk robes. The boy motioned for him to follow, then started leading him through the castle corridors toward their intended destination. As they traveled the halls, they passed other inhabitants, and Maarek was shocked to realize that every one of them was human. It occurred to him that before his - capture, for lack of a better word - he’d never actually seen an Altarin’Dakor. He’d expected them to be more… alien. Certainly not humans. Suddenly they seemed more ordinary, more normal. He wasn’t sure he liked that.
Though human they were, many possessed distinctive features that struck Maarek as he saw them. These Altarin’Dakor seemed to be of a different race, having a different range of attributes than those humans he was used to. For one thing, they seemed fairer than the average human, both in physical looks and a lighter skin tone. Their eyes were more slender in shape, and were often seen in bright hues of blue, green, and even orange and violet. Just as varied were their hair colors, though whether either was natural or not, Maarek couldn’t guess.
After several minutes, they reached a large control room, and the feeling of being in the castle vanished as they emerged into an area of solid metal walls, technologically advanced computer stations, and flashing display screens. There the aide dropped him off, and Maarek was left facing the back of a tall man dressed in finely cut robes, and startlingly white, straight hair running down to his shoulders. The man turned, fixing Maarek with a pale blue-eyed gaze.
“Welcome, Maarek,” Victor said. “Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Stele replied. Of course, that didn’t mean his answer was positive. He still wasn’t sure about this.
“No point in backing out now,” Victor said as if hearing his thoughts. “Come. I have something to show you.”
Maarek found himself following the man through the control room. As they passed those manning their stations, he saw them lower their eyes as Victor passed. Obviously they had a great deal of respect for their leader. Maarek had to admit, he did have a commanding presence.
Victor took him out through the other side of the room, which led to a narrow metal corridor that turned right, then descended down a flight of stairs. They emerged in a large chamber with dim lighting, which Maarek guessed was right below the control room above. It was then that Stele decided to speak up. “You haven’t told me very much about this mission,” he said to the man in front of him.
Victor slowed to a stop, turned, and gave a slight smile. “You shouldn’t grow too fond of war, my friend. You may find this hard to believe, but I do not enjoy this conflict. I have become disillusioned with it, over the years. Unfortunately it is too late; I can do nothing else. My path is set, but you are different. You have potential. I would not want you to become like me.” His smooth voice sounded distant, calculating.
“What are you saying?” Maarek asked, confused by the man’s sudden philosophical talking.
“I needed to see what kind of person you are,” Victor said. “You are a warrior, Maarek. Yours is a simpler life than mine.”
“True, it’s why I love being a pilot,” Stele agreed. “I want to make a difference myself; I don’t want the responsibility of other people’s lives in my hands. I’ve got the deaths of enough comrades hanging over me already.”
“Yes, you do not have to make the most difficult decisions. But, in that, you lack a true purpose. You react, instead of taking things into your own hands. Thus you can only fight who you are told to fight. You really aren’t free, Maarek. Do you know who your enemy is?”
Stele hesitated. The man’s words made sense, almost as if he knew more about his life than he let on. And what he said was true. From his first enlistment in the Empire, to his escape from Thrawn to find his family; from their flight into exile from the Empire, to the accident and his joining the New Imperium… And now, this war against the Altarin’Dakor. Everything was a reaction to the events at the time. Not of his choice, but things that had been pressed onto him from outside. He chose his answer carefully. “Right now, my enemy is the Altarin’Dakor, true. But they are simply the latest threat, the newest obstacle to peace. My enemies are those who want to kill me, and those who want to disrupt true peace.”
Victor replied with a short laugh. “In that case, your battles will never end, for your enemy is destiny, and time itself. Death is always creeping up on you. Will you fight against it?”
“As long as I can, yes.”
“And true peace, do you believe there even is such a thing?”
“I don’t know,” Maarek admitted. “I think there’ll always be someone or something else trying to disrupt peace.”
Victor gave another faraway smile. “Perhaps there was an age where people gazed at the sky and dreamed of the possibilities out in space. They yearned for peace, wondering if expansion could bring advancement, and solution. But that age has passed, and ever since that time, there has been war in the universe. Don’t fight the Altarin’Dakor because they merely strive to create war. You must find your own reason, unique to your own mind. Until then, you will never reach the pinnacle of your skills.
“Come,” he said. “I will give you a guide that will show you how to live, and how to fight. I think it is what you’ve been searching for. Let us see where this experiment will lead.”
Then, turning, he produced a small remote, and tapped his thumb on its activation button. A rumble shot up within the room, coming from the wall to his left. Then suddenly the wall was moving. A vertical seam appeared down the middle, spilling light into the room. He realized it wasn’t a wall at all, but a large set of doors, which split open, widening. As the chamber was flooded with light, he saw what this new area was: the castle’s fighter bay.
And hanging down from the launch scaffolding above the deck was a gleaming fighter unlike any he’d ever seen. It was obviously of Altarin’Dakor design; it was so sleek it looked like an atmospheric ship. It hung down with its engines facing him, and he started to walk around and underneath the fighter to better take it all in. The fuselage was broad and long, and its two wide wings swept out from the sides and curved forward, instead of back, ending in points. On the back of the fuselage, two tail fins came up diagonally for atmospheric flight. The cockpit was sleek and rounded, sitting at a point slightly behind the extension of the wingtips. Four cylinders he assumed were cannon barrels extended from around the cockpit, two on each side. Two other, different barrels rested underneath the wings. The whole craft was a gleaming silver-white. To a pilot such as he, the ship was a beautiful sight to behold. The rest of the hangar held more of the ships; he counted ten in all in the large area.
“I’ve given it the name Archon,” Victor said softly. Maarek turned, noting that the man had followed alongside him as he’d made his brief inspection.
“This is the new fighter you were telling me about?” Stele asked.
Victor turned to look up at the ship with his calculating gaze. “The Archon has the ability to show you who are enemies are,” he replied. “And it will reveal whether your purpose in fighting is pure.”
“Pure?” Maarek asked. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“You will,” the man said, smiling. “But come, time is short. It is time for you two to become acquainted.”
“I’m ready,” Maarek declared, his nervous tension overcome with a strong sense of curiosity and desire to try this new ship out. He’d lived as a fighter pilot for years, including time as a test pilot, and had developed a special sense about them, their quality and abilities. And this fighter seemed to have been made for him; he could feel it calling him now, increasing his desire to get inside that cockpit. “What do I have to do?” he asked.
Turning back, Victor snapped his fingers in the air, and seconds later a technician came up with an extendible ladder, followed by another man who held what looked like a strap-in harness. The second tech gave him the harness, and he pulled it on, setting the metal breastplate over his chest and strapping it around his shoulders. The tech helped him latch the back up, as well. Meanwhile, the second technician set the ladder up, and it grew to the height of the cockpit above, curving over so that the pilot could have easier entry. The canopy rose automatically, inviting. As soon as it was up, Maarek started forward, eager to begin. But then he felt Victor’s hand on his shoulder, and stopped, turning back.
“Maarek, I sincerely hope you remember my words. War can be a beautiful thing, but only when both opponents have clearly justified their reasons for battle. That ship is not a weapon. When you learn this, you will have reached your apex, and then your combat will be glorious indeed. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I won’t,” Maarek promised.
“I will remain in contact with you,” Victor said.
Stele nodded, then turned back to the ladder. He climbed up the rungs quickly, then stopped at the top as he looked down into the sleek, dark cockpit. It looked comfortable inside. The seat looked plush, and all the control panels were small and in easy-to-see places. There were two controlling flight sticks, one set on either side of the seat, similar to the TIE Avatar’s controls. Eagerly anticipating getting inside, he stepped into the cockpit, settling himself into the couch. It felt very comfortable, conforming itself to his body.
A second later a technician was standing on the ladder beside him, and handed him his flight helmet. Maarek took it and set it in his lap as he strapped himself in, securing the harness against the clips in the pilot’s seat. The tech reached over and tapped a button on his console before climbing back down out of sight. The ship’s commlink came on with a click.
“All right, Maarek,” Victor’s voice came over his speaker. “We’re about to begin your run. This isn’t a practice mission; we’re going to proceed with the main task immediately.”
“Say what?” Maarek asked aloud, unsure if Victor could hear him or not. “How am I supposed to know how to run this thing?”
“You will know,” the man’s voice came back. “If you could don your helmet?”
Maarek picked up the object in his lap, studied it. The helmet was long and streamlined like the fighter itself, and suited it very well with its silvery metal finish. A large glass viewing area gave him plenty of sight to the front, but attached above that, sitting up on its hinges, was a metal visor shaped to cover the glass, perhaps to protect it. Maarek lifted the helmet and put it on, heard it seal itself to the harness at the base of his neck.
“Now please lean your head back against the headrest,” Victor said.
Maarek complied, tilting his head to touch the back of the seat, but couldn’t help ask, “Why am I doing this?”
There was a pause before Victor’s voice came back. When it did, it sounded neutral and placid. “We had to improve you so you could fly our craft,” he said. “Forgive me for not telling you about this before. We are still Altarin’Dakor; and all Altarin’Dakor pilots have what you might call implantations, that allow them to jack into their ships, thus increasing accuracy, reaction time, and abilities while removing the effects of inertia, spins, or pilot injuries. Right now the ship’s computer is making the proper connections to your brain implants.”
Maarek felt himself go cold at the man’s words. “You put implants in my head without asking me?”
“You won’t be complaining in a few seconds,” the other’s voice assured him. “In fact, after you fly the Archon, I’m afraid you may find it hard to fly a normal fighter ever again. They simply won’t compare.”
Maarek thought he felt a tingling sensation at the base of his skull, and he grimaced. If they really had installed the implants, he didn’t remember when it could have been. Not unless they did it in his sleep…
Then Maarek felt his anger and fear dwindle and fade, replaced by a calmness. It felt strange; suddenly he wasn’t angry at Victor anymore. The implants seemed… unimportant. “Starting the preflight sequence,” he announced, leaning forward to turn on the ship’s primary systems. What’s done is done, he thought. I can deal with it later.
“Actually, that won’t be necessary,” Victor’s voice came over the commlink. “Remember, I told you: this is no ordinary fighter. This is the next generation beyond the Altarin’Dakor designs. As sleek and advanced as the ship may be, its greatest advancement is the pilot system. Hold still and wait.”
Maarek watched through his visor as the ladder above was pulled away, and the cockpit’s canopy descended, sealing with a slight hiss. Now he was totally encased in the ship; he could hear the whine of its engines behind him, a high-pitched sound that seemed brimming with energy. He put his hands on the controls, ready to go…
“Close your safety visor, please,” Victor said.
“What?” Maarek asked aloud, not sure he heard the man right. “If the visor’s down, I won’t be able to see.”
“You don’t need to see, Maarek,” the man’s voice replied. “Not with your eyes. Your concept of a control system is about to be expanded. This is the system I was telling you about. It is your guide; it will show you your future. It will show you who your enemy is, and will give you the purpose you are seeking in battle. With it, you will become one with the fighter, and merge with its control system. You will see with its sensors and control its movements with your thoughts.”
“But how…?” Maarek began. But then he felt his restraints tighten, locking him firmly in place in his seat, and then the visor fell down over his mask bubble, plunging him into darkness.
But only for a moment. He was aware of something that moved down in front of his eyes. Were his eyes closed? Suddenly a grid appeared in front of him, and text began scrolling by, giving readout displays of the ship’s status, armaments, and more. He was no longer sure if he was seeing things with his eyes, or with his mind.
“Welcome to the Archon System,” Victor said.
Then a horizontal line split the field of his vision, then widened to fill all his sight, exploding a scene of color and motion into his eyes. He yelled out immediately at the influx of information bombarding straight into his brain, and he convulsed against the restraints, trying to escape the overload of his systems. All his other bodily feelings diminished, then vanished altogether as his brain was overwhelmed.
“Don’t fight it,” Victor’s voice said. “Open your eyes.”
Maarek tried to do as he was told, though he didn’t know if his eyes were open or shut. But suddenly as he tried it, the image split again, and suddenly…
He was looking out at the hangar in front of him, the doors of which were now sliding open. Only now there was no cockpit around him, no canopy to look through. He saw it more clearly than he ever could have with his own two eyes. But his field of vision was different, as well. He could not only see straight ahead, but he realized that full, complete view of everything was now available to him. A 360 degree view, wrapping around behind his own head, if that were possible. As he watched, a heads-up-display projected onto his vision, giving him a basic radar, targeting, and systems readout. He took it all in the space of an instant, the data entering directly into his mind. On impulse, he decided to look right. He tried, and his field of vision shifted accordingly, showing him the wall of the hangar, the people running about on the floor, and another Archon hanging down beside him. He kept turning, and he saw the back of the hangar, then continued until he faced the front again.
“Are you impressed?” Victor’s voice sounded in his ears.
“How am I doing this?” Maarek wondered aloud, realized his voice still worked. “How am I controlling this ship?”
“Look,” the voice came back. Suddenly a large window opened in his vision, and he saw a suited pilot sitting in a dark cockpit, his hands on the control sticks, his head covered up by a solid helmet. At first he didn’t believe it. It was, after all, odd looking down on yourself. The window vanished, and Stele couldn’t help but smile. “Amazing.”
“You can control the ship with your will,” Victor said. “Your body will perform the functions, but you won’t feel them happen, because you don’t need to. How are you adjusting to the amount of data?”
“It’s hard to fight against sensory overload,” Maarek admitted. “But it’s getting easier.”
“You should be used to it within a few minutes,” the voice came back. “People have usually been able to adapt quickly in the tests. But there is a danger if you remain in the system for too long… You can lose focus of reality, lose control of your body. This won’t take nearly as long, however.”
“That’s comforting,” Maarek said uncertainly.
“Now, let us begin the test,” Victor said. “I am eager to see what Archon shows you. But remember my words. A warrior without a purpose has no reason to fight, just as a war with no purpose is completely senseless. Find your true reason for fighting, and you will become more than you ever imagined.”
“And if I can’t find one?” Maarek asked.
“Then your battles are over.”
“Right…” Maarek let his voice break off, giving a half-grin. At least, as much of one as he could manage with his symbiotic mind-link with the ship.
“You may launch when ready,” Victor said. “My own ship will meet you in orbit. You will be fully briefed en route to our destination.”
You don’t have to ask twice, Maarek thought. He felt he was settling into the new system now, feeling halfway between a state of controlling the ship with his mind, and with his body. He willed things to happen, his body performed those actions, and they happened. Now, he deactivated the overhead clamps that held the fighter in place, let it hover over the hangar floor for a moment. The data from the ship streamed into his mind so fast that it seemed like he knew things before he even wanted to. He adjusted the wing attitudes on the ship; it was like flexing the fingers of his hands and feet. Sensory information of the air around him was like feeling it on his own skin. This was amazing!
“I’m launching,” he said, and with those words pushed the fighter’s engines forward hard. The ship’s whine rose upward, out of his hearing range, the other sounds settling into a deep roar. Then the ship catapulted out of the hangar. One minute he was seeing the inside of the room; the next, it was all gone, and green hills and multicolored forest were streaming by below him in a blur. He pulled the fighter up, and it responded instantly, filling his vision with a view of the deep violet sky of the planet. Laughing, he sent the fighter into a furious upward spin, the thrill of flight filling him with exhilaration. This is amazing, he thought. Finally, a ship that can keep up with me, even surpass me. Up until now, he’d felt that’d he’d reached the limit of his skills as a pilot, because there was just only so much that the hardware was capable of. But now, with this beautiful silver fighter, he felt like he could accomplish more than he’d ever dreamed possible before. He could still improve, become something even more, as Victor had said.
He realized that he wasn’t really feeling the effects and gravitational forces of his flight up to this point. Apparently the system was shielding him from those effects, as well, to make him more efficient and accurate. But Maarek was a real fighter pilot. He’d grown up racing swoops on his home planet of Kuan. He had to feel what he was doing, otherwise it wouldn’t be real to him. It gave him an edge in battle, knowing better his limitations and the risks of fighting, while his opponents sat coldly in their own fighters, their inertial compensators dialed all the way up.
Well, that’s easily fixed, he thought, and in response to that thought, the ship dialed the compensator back a bit. Almost immediately he was hit by a wash of dizziness and nausea that he hadn’t expected. He cut back on the spin and maneuvering, cruising a moment high up in the planet’s atmosphere. He quickly came up on a front of white and pink clouds, burst through them like they were nothing. The Archon soared above and sometimes through the clouds, flying by at such velocity that he could barely see any details on them. He realized he was moving at many times the speed of sound, yet the fighter felt no signs of tension or drag. Dimly he knew that the ship was made of the Altarin’Dakor’s most advanced xenotronium armor, though he didn’t know any specifics.
“I’m in the air now, Maarek,” Victor’s voice came back. “Pull up and meet me in orbit. I hope you’re not planning to run away with that thing.”
“Don’t worry,” Stele laughed. “She’s in good hands. Though I must admit the thought had occurred to me.”
“Of course. But even if you tried, you couldn’t leave this star system,” Victor replied over the link. “The Archon doesn’t have a hyperdrive, as you call them. And I doubt you know how to operate our kind of stardrive. Come to orbit.”
Maarek complied, wondering what the man meant by that. He pulled the ship up, burning for orbit, and the atmosphere quickly faded away, finally changing entirely to the darkness of space. He took a moment to admire the ring system, encircling the planet several thousand kilometers away. It was amazing, looking at it this way, without a cockpit glass and instruments in the way. Space was a bubble of vision around him. The Galbagos Nebula was also a dominating part of the sky, due to its proximity to Mizar. Its purple cloudlike texture provided a beautiful backdrop for the system. It truly was a beautiful place.
Then suddenly Maarek remembered where exactly he was. After all, this was enemy space. Only days before he’d looked down at that planet during the fiercest battle he’d ever participated in. He felt a sudden panic, even in his new fighter. For just above the planet’s event horizon he spotted the same Altarin’Dakor fleet that had defeated them, floating just as resolute as before. And one ship dominated them all, a fifty-kilometer monstrosity of black metal and death. The Cataclysm.
“Are we safe out here?” he had to ask. “Perhaps we should get going before we’re spotted by the AD.”
There was a brief laugh over the commlink from Victor. “Don’t worry. Turn fifty degrees to port. See my ship? Form up with me and we’ll be underway.”
“Understood,” Maarek said, eager to comply. He was ready to be away from here. Of course, he knew that wherever their destination was, it was even further inside Altarin’Dakor space. That thought wasn’t comforting at all…
As he formed up with Victor’s ship, a long, sleek frigate nearly 300 meters in length, he felt a sudden loss as the fighter’s controls were taken from him. He suddenly rushed back into reality, fought a rush of depression at the loss.
“I’m locking your course in with us, Maarek. I’m sorry, but we can’t allow you to know our course or destination. Though we need your help, that information must remain a secret. Now please excuse me. Your mask does have one other usefulness…
Suddenly, the world went dark, and Maarek could feel his body and other senses fully normal again. He felt a strange sensation around the ship as – he assumed – they passed into whatever form of star travel the Altarin’Dakor used. “Nice trick,” he said sarcastically. “Blasted helmet.”
“Let’s proceed with the briefing,” Victor said, and Maarek was surprised to find him still on the line. Apparently they weren’t using hyperspace, because that would have cut off their transmission lines. But if not, how were they traveling? “We’ll be there in about thirty minutes,” Victor’s voice broke in.
“That fast?” Maarek didn’t know of any unexplored star systems within even a day’s hyperspace travel from Mizar. “What exactly are we using to travel?”
“Call it… ‘ultraspace’, the rough colloquial term,” Victor answered. “But mission details. I’m going to wait out-system while we send you in, along with another squadron of our pilots. You’ll be the only pilot in an Archon, however.”
“What?” Stele asked, taken aback. “But I saw others there. You’re sending me in alone?”
“If this works, Maarek, you won’t need any help. You haven’t begun to realize the Archon’s true potential.”
Maarek just shook his head as Victor continued the briefing. This was truly going to be a wild ride.
* * *
Bren watched from his position on his back as the towering Warlord drew the hypersaber, seeming to move as if in slow motion. For a moment he thought to get up and run; but he knew that in the end he would be caught, and he would be killed. He didn’t even stand a chance against Akargan in a fight. No, better to let it end now, a less painful death.
But then, just as he was sure that Akargan was going to take Sha’kira and cut him down, the Warlord stopped, straightening up, his eyes taking a far-off look. “No,” he whispered, taking several steps backwards. Bren thought he heard the man mumble under his breath, “Not now.”
Slowly, Bren pushed himself back up with his elbows, first to a sitting position, then finally standing up on his own. He studied the Warlord’s face there, saw distraction and concern. “What is it?” he asked.
“I am being attacked,” Akargan said, spitting Bren with a withering glare. “This is most inconvenient timing. I must go.” With that, he began moving away, his focus still obviously elsewhere.
“But Akargan, what about…” Bren started, confused at the sudden change in attitude.
“You should leave,” the Warlord said darkly, waving a hand out towards him. “You got what you wanted, didn’t you? We shall meet again. Hopefully it will be under better circumstances.” Then he turned, starting to depart.
“Akargan, wait!” Bren called out after him, seeing the distraction, and even uncertainty in the man’s movements. Akargan turned back, glancing once more at his former friend.
“I won’t fight you,” Bren promised, feeling the need to give this small assurance. “This is not my war anymore. I won’t fight against you.”
The Warlord met his gaze a final time, and Bren thought he felt a sense of understanding pass between them in that instant. Then the man turned and strode away, calling out behind him as he left.
“Rest well, Lasitus. For this war will soon begin in earnest.”
Then the dark figure passed through the thick column of white steam once more, and he was gone.
* * *
Resting out near the galaxy’s edge, in a small, unassuming spiral arm, one lonely system lay, centered around a small, hot blue star. A brilliant orange and green nebula stretched across nearby space, providing a gorgeous backdrop to the area. And in one empty part of the system, a dark space station hung, its huge bulk centered around a central sphere, with two rectangular sections that extended out from opposite directions. An intricate metal framework was interlaced into the hull all around, and beacon lights stood at various points across the surface, silently shining out into the void.
But within seconds, that moment of calm was utterly shattered. The first wave of ships arrived twenty kilometers from the base, two dozen Altarin’Dakor fighters from Victor’s group moving in from one side in attack formation. Almost immediately, the station answered by launching fighters of its own, sending out an amalgam of ships, a mix ranging from light interceptors, to starfighters, to full bombers. An attack of this nature, of one Altarin’Dakor force against another, was more than serious... Though such attacks occurred frequently enough to be expected, combat between Altarin’Dakor factions was extremely fierce. The only normal reason such an attack would occur would be as a prelude to war; and in that case, this was only the beginning of a much wider conflict.
Thus, as the two fighter groups came together and met amid a flurry of missiles and beam weapons, no one even noticed the silvery eagle that appeared on the station’s other side, soaring in with the blue-white sun at its back. Any who may have seen it would have believed their eyes were tricking them. But they couldn’t have been more wrong.
Back inside the Archon’s system, Maarek watched through the multiple HUD screens in his vision, as he rapidly approached the battle scene. Nearest him was the dark station itself, with the fight raging on the other side. Curiously, he noticed that there were several other ships docked alongside the base itself. They looked like supply or transport vessels of some kind, but they were obviously of alien design. The main ship was perhaps 200 meters long, its body length round and bulbous. Wing-like sails projected from the aft of the craft, serving some unknown purpose. I wonder what they’re doing here, he thought.
Then he remembered that Victor had asked him to use his flight recorder and commlink during the battle, to record his thoughts and actions, and thus acquire better data. He turned it on, voicing his thoughts as he surveyed the area.
“I’m heading in on my attack run,” he said. “Station looks secure and isn’t fighting. There are several alien ships docked with it; not sure what those are. The fighter groups have broken into three different dogfights. I’m going to see what I can do to help out.” He noticed that Victor’s forces were currently heavily outnumbered. He’d have to remedy that so that they could get a good attack set up on the base. It was time to move in.
He goosed the throttle forward some more, coming up close to the space station and passing by on one side. Suddenly his threat indicator lit up near the base, and he watched a trio of fighters coming out of the hanger swing around and head in his direction. He’d been noticed, then. These three would be his first targets.
“Three fighters moving toward me. I’m engaging,” he said. The ships were small, rounded Altarin’Dakor light attack fighters, with a forward-sitting cockpit and two nacelles on either side that housed the thruster engines and their beam cannons. He’d fought dozens of them at Mizar, destroyed them with his Avatar. They shouldn’t be a problem at all.
The ships targeting system kept tracking locks on all three ships, counting down their ranges. Ensuring that his shields were on full, Maarek turned sharply and dove straight in toward them. When the range dropped to around three kilometers, the ships opened fire. First came a stream of mass driver shots that passed harmlessly around him, their range too great to make a precise shot. Then the fighters opened up with their beam weapons, sending yellow lances of energy from the fronts of the glowing nacelles. Maarek spun his ship up and right, the shots missing wide all around him, and let loose with his own four beam cannons for the first time. Blue-white lances shot out from either side of his cockpit with a loud noise, streaking across space toward his enemies. The Archon’s beams were much stronger than normal, incorporating the latest Altarin’Dakor technologies. Another advantage he had over these inferior ships. Thus when all four beams impacted on the top of one of the enemy fighters, its shields quickly flared up, then failed. His lances then cut through the armor at the rear of the ship and destroyed the power core. The whole back half of the fighter exploded, tearing the rest of it into shreds.
Then suddenly the remaining two ships raced past on his left, and he slowed the ship and sent it into an incredibly fast turn to port. His interface with the ship’s system totally eliminated the gravitational forces he’d normally have felt. As a result, he found himself suddenly on the tails of both ships. With near instant reflexes, thanks to the ship’s system, he acquired targeting solutions and fired immediately. His four beams shot out to connect with the closest fighter, bursting through the back of the ship and exploding it. At the same time, his auto-tracking mass drivers, mounted on each wing, sent out several shots at the second fighter. The slugs hit dead on, punching straight through the shields and ripping through the fighter. A gout of smoke came out of the back, and the left nacelle sputtered and died. The ship continued on its trajectory, adrift and helpless, breaking up as it went.
“Targets eliminated,” he reported breathlessly, turning back toward the main battle once more. Three Altarin’Dakor fighters down in a matter of seconds. Incredible. He suddenly realized how winded he was, as if that brief but violent engagement had seriously taxed his body. But no, not my body, he realized. It was more of an emotional feeling, of anxiousness and adrenaline after destroying those ships. What’s happening? Is this the ship’s system? He knew that the implants could probably control his emotional level… How much more could they control about him?
But there was no time to worry about that now. He had a job to do. He sent the Archon into a controlled spiral, bursting straight into the battle zone of one of the large dogfights. Steeling his nerves, he pulled a hard turn, coming up to speed with the rest of the ships. He spotted an enemy fighter, a broad, atmospheric-looking ship of dark metal, on the tail of one of Victor’s other ships. Victor’s ships looked atmospheric as well, though he knew they were primarily starfighters. They were moderately graceful, with a long fuselage and wings that came out from the sides near the rear. But then those wings angled up for about a meter before turning horizontal again. It was an odd design, but one that let him easily identify friend from enemy. He quickly pulled onto the pursuer ship’s tail, locking the Archon’s weapons onto it. The poor fool never knew what hit him. The four blinding beams impaled the ship like a spear, passing all the way through before the fighter finally was consumed in a blossom of fire.
Maarek turned away in time to catch another ship within his field of vision, heading up and to starboard. Establishing a targeting lock in an eyeblink, he inverted the Archon and sent a pair of missiles out from the launchers under the belly. The warheads flew out on white tails almost too fast to follow. A second later, and the enemy ship was an expanding ball of flaming gas.
Pulling back over toward the base, Stele paused long enough to see a flight of Victor’s ships making their attack run on the station. They first cut loose with mass drivers and beam weapons mounted on either side of their cockpits, punching holes in the station’s shields and cutting swatches out of her hull. Then their missiles followed up the attack, splintering off armor in the distance amid blue-hot fireballs. It was all Maarek got to see, then he was back in the action, his breath coming harder and harder. Two more enemy fighters fell to his attacks, and he realized he was starting to hyperventilate.
Suddenly his ship shuddered from a near-miss by an enemy blast. He instinctively rolled to the side, looking up to see the ship fly down past him. He turned sharply to pursue, setting a targeting lock…
And froze. Instead of seeing an enemy fighter in front of him, he saw a face. But it was a face without true form, for it constantly seemed to change, morphing from one thing to another. He knew that it was the face of his enemy, or enemies. Constantly changing identity with whomever he was told to fight on any particular mission. Not the enemy of his choosing, but only what had been given to him. Suddenly Victor’s words came back to him. You really aren’t free, Maarek. Do you know who your enemy is?
“Who is my enemy?” he asked into the air, not caring whether it was recorded or not. The face before him tried to coalesce into a dozen different incarnations, shadows of his past battles. But he dismissed all of them, knowing that they weren’t really what he was looking for. Not even the Altarin’Dakor sprung up before his mind. He felt his pulse racing, felt a wash of nausea almost overcome him. “WHO is my enemy?!”
Then finally the face took on a final form. A soft face, framed by long white hair. Victor, himself, the man who had done this to him. Without realizing it, Maarek was suddenly firing. The beams struck that face, pierced through, and was suddenly gone, replaced by the expanding explosion of the enemy fighter below him. A wave of dizziness hit him then, and his vision almost pixilated, a sudden image springing before his eyes, squares consisting of millions of different colors. It steadied again, then, but the feeling remained.
“What’s wrong with me!?” he screamed, vision going red. Gunning the throttle, he dove toward a pair of new enemy fighters, opening up with his beams at full power. His beams, two each, crossed the space where the ships were and passed clean through them, slicing both fighters in half as if they were toys cut open with a lightsaber. The pieces fell away from each other, then exploded a half second later.
But Maarek was already going after another target. The enemy fighter, a sleek winged design, seemed to notice him, and thrust away at full burn. He pulled away quickly, performing a variety of maneuvers to throw Stele off, but Maarek followed him relentlessly. The pilot might have been an ace before, but he was just child’s play to Maarek in the Archon. His beams cut through the fighter’s fuselage from cockpit to tailpipes, splitting it symmetrically. Then it exploded.
Pulling around again, Maarek slowed down, trying to get hold of his senses. He’d flown around to the station’s other side again, and he could see the alien ships docked nearby. Curious, he maneuvered over closer to them, seeing that they’d actually cut their docking locks and were trying to get away. Dimly he realized his commlink was picking up their comm traffic, as well.
“Wait a minute,” he said breathlessly as he watched the ships. “Are they enemies too? Wait, no! They’re not involved in this. They’re just weak, and confused. Aaagh!” He yelled as pain burst through his head, coursed down his body. He lurched forward, half-feeling his body in the cockpit seat again. He was losing control, he knew. The painful sensations and nausea were the system trying to take over. He’d unconsciously been fighting it. But the more it worked on him, the more focused he became, and the better he fought.
Suddenly he heard a frantically shouted command over the commlink, dimly recognized it as a call to fire. Bursts of energy leapt out from the lead alien ship, and the Archon buffeted as one hit across its forward shields. Maarek pulled the ship to one side, knitting his brow in confusion. “Wait a minute…” he said. “Are they enemies?” He continued to watch, saw the ships trying to shoot him down, and felt his indecision replaced by a cold certainty. It was then that he knew the system had taken over. Suddenly, everything was clear…
“All those who fight are my enemies!!” he declared, and pushed the Archon’s throttle to full. His fingers tightened on the firing controls, as he unleashed all four beam weapons at full power. The blue-white lances met in the center of the rapidly growing craft, pierced through. Glowing cracks appeared across the ship’s surface as its hull splintered. He dimly heard the screams of its dying crew in his mind, as the ship was destroyed, fire bursting out from that central node and spreading out to consume it from bow to stern. Maarek also dimly recognized his own scream of rage as he flew straight through the massive fireball and out again, eager for more action.
Victor sat and watched intently as the battle unfolded on the screen in front of him. All the ships he had sent into the area had sensors that allowed him to view the scene from almost any angle, but he spent most of his time with Maarek’s ship, watching the man fight. Another window showed him the man’s face from within his helmet, and he watched the man’s expressions, and his eyes especially. Wide open, the pupils dilated, a multitude of colors playing over his irises. Yes, the system was really starting to kick in, now. Stele would soon see if his reasons to fight were pure. Already his flying skills were improving, taking more advantage of the Archon’s abilities, and his tactics were becoming more ruthless every moment.
Then it was like the man snapped. His declaration of his enemy only mildly surprised Victor; he knew that it was only the shock of using the Archon System the first time. As he continued to use it, and contemplate, he would narrow his criteria a bit more. But for now, the results of his decision were going to be particularly interesting…
Stele flew through the battle like an angel of death, wiping out enemies left and right. His own sense of time had increased beyond the capacity of even Altarin’Dakor pilots. As a result, he could turn and cleave their ships from the sky in one swipe, turn and take down more even as the first ones burst into flame. Victor watched in fascination as Stele confronted a trio of enemies, their own beam shots missing harmlessly around him. Stele fired all three weapons clusters at once. The first two beams cut one of the fighters in half across its fuselage, leaving two spinning hulks in their wake. The second pair of beams pierced directly into another fighter’s power core, detonating it in a brilliant explosion. Simultaneously, the twin mass drivers auto-tracked to port and blasted the third fighter clean out of the sky.
It was purely amazing. His flying abilities were exceeding even Victor’s own expectations, as was the effect of the Archon System. The pilot and his ship were truly one now, a pure and unstoppable machine. A true warrior in action. More than even a Jedicon could easily attain, and Maarek’s bonding with the fighter was going far beyond all previous test results. Yes, this would definitely be the system needed to fight against the Jedicon pilots. After all, those pilots were trained almost from birth to use the Force in conjunction with flying, but now Victor had made a system that fully matched, if not exceeded, those advantages. It would be most useful in the future… After all, Stele’s abilities in the Force, though untapped, were not inconsiderable…
And suddenly, it seemed as if things were over. One of Victor’s fighters blew the last enemy fighter from the sky, and suddenly it was just his men, Stele, and the station. Victor panned his view out to the cloaked probe hanging over the battle area so he could see what happened next as clearly as possible.
The ships had all stopped to a slow crawl through space. Stele had turned to face the line of remaining friendly fighters. The one in the front, the pilot who had made the last kill, reported in.
“All enemy fighters eliminated. Ready to proceed with the destruction of…”
The pilot broke off as Stele suddenly accelerated toward the fighter, weapons charging up. Victor heard the man repeat his former statement with deadly certainty.
“All those who fight are my enemies!”
Over the commlink, the pilot’s frantic voice called out, “Wait, stop!”
But it was too late. The Archon’s beams pierced through the ship and lit it up like a tinderbox. Victor smiled.
Immediately the remaining fighters broke formation and tried to turn for a lock on Maarek. Several fired, but missed behind the already fast-moving fighter. The ships accelerated as well, trying to form an attack pattern against Stele. They needn’t have bothered, though; their fate had been sealed before the mission had even begun. The Archon’s beam weapons sliced their ships to ribbons just as efficiently as they had the enemy. Victor paused to check Maarek’s condition, saw the pilot staring blank-eyed inside his helmet, not even blinking. He probably wasn’t even aware of what he was doing.
The last of Victor’s fighters tried desperately to escape, dropping and performing a dazzling barrel roll with his capable fighter. But in the Archon, Maarek followed his moves exactly, lined up for the final shot… and fired. An instant later it was over.
Or not quite. Now with no one to oppose him, Stele drove straight for the space station. Pulse cannons and beams shot out toward him, but couldn’t track the super-fast Archon quickly enough. Four beams struck out and cut into the station, along with innumerable rounds from the mass driver cannons. Stele dragged the ship this way and that, cutting an opening that fell away, into which he then sent the Archon’s entire stock of missiles. They flew further inside the base before detonating, sending out blossoming fireballs out the exit hole, then more explosions that burst up all around the base’s hull. Then Stele finished the job by sending out the Archon’s twin heavy torpedoes and one last round of beam fire. The warheads flew inside the base before detonating, their massive eruption breaking the station’s deck hulls away from one another and causing a chain reaction that swept down the cylinders on both sides of the central sphere. The intense beam blasts finished the job, cutting open a long section of hull out of which fire streamed continuously.
Finally, the Archon turned around and shot away at full burn to escape the impending detonation. As the ship soared through space, its back to all the destruction it had caused that day, a line split across space behind it as the station split open and pure light burst out of it. Then the entire assembly exploded in a colossal fireball, sending out a rapidly-expanding double shockwave. Still, the Archon continued on its return, now oblivious to the massive conflagration raging behind it.
The fighter coasted into the frigate’s hangar bay, slamming down hard on its landing gear, as if the pilot didn’t have full control of the ship. Moments later, the canopy swung open, and the suited pilot staggered up and out. Without waiting for someone to bring a ladder, he tried to climb down himself. But his movements were sloppy, drunken, and he slipped of the side of the nose, falling hard to the deck, on his back.
Stele rolled over and faced toward Victor’s general direction, getting up on his knees. He tugged at the helmet, yanking it off his head, and tossed it some distance away across the floor. Then he fell to his hands and knees, vomiting violently onto the metal deck.
When he had finally finished, Victor calmly walked over to him and offered a hand. Stele took it, pulling himself up, still coughing roughly, his eyes blank and wild.
“So, did Archon show you what you expected?” Victor asked. “Did it show you your enemy?”
“I… I…” Stele broke off, a blank look in his eyes. Tears were streaming down his face intense sobs. The emotions had been overwhelming for him.
“I see,” Victor said. Reaching beneath his robes, he pulled out a hand-held Altarin’Dakor pulse blaster, held it down toward the pilot. “You want to kill me, then? Go ahead, try it.”
Stele looked up at him then, a bewildered look on his face. “No, it’s not that. I don’t understand what I saw. Is it right about me? Could this be… my destiny?”
Victor gave a vexed expression. “I suppose we shall see,” he said. Then he turned around, starting toward the exit. “Come,” he said. “It’s time to take you back.”
“Back?” Stele’s voice came from behind. “Back where?”
Victor stopped and turned to look at the pilot. “Back to the New Imperium, of course. You fulfilled your end of our bargain. Now I shall fulfill mine.”
“But…” Maarek seemed to half-protest. “What about the Archon? There’s so much more I need to learn. So much more it still has to show me. I’ve only scratched the surface with it.”
“Even after what you just did with it, you would go back and use the system again?”
“I… don’t know,” Stele admitted, raising a hand to his head. “It’s all starting to blur. I remember accomplishing my mission… Oh no. Those people!” He looked up with a horrified expression. “They were your own pilots...”
Victor gave a smirk. “Don’t worry about them… They were completely expendable. I knew what would happen to them before you ever began the mission.”
“What?! Then why did you…” Stele shook his head, his face a mask of confusion. “I don’t think I’m ready to deal with this. I just don’t know who I am right now… I…”
“I’m afraid I can’t just give you our most advanced and expensive fighter for you to take back with you,” Victor said, giving a gentle smile. “Of course, you could join me. But, I don’t think you’ll do that.”
Maarek lowered his eyes, nodded head slightly. “I have to… rejoin my friends, don’t I?” he asked. “But, if the opportunity ever rises again, I’d like to… I need to… fly the Archon again.”
“I wouldn’t give you such a taste of it, only to keep it from you,” Victor assured him. “It certainly can be addictive, can’t it? I promise you, when next we meet, you will fly the Archon again.”
Stele said nothing, just looked on in silence. He turned to the viewport, staring back out into the void, his thoughts muddled, and far away.
* * *
"I've got to say, it's good to see you again brother," the Grand Master said, the relief clear in his voice. The two Jedi walked through the corridors of one of the Palace's less-traveled wings, their Jedi robes swaying around their heels.
"Thanks, Alyx," Nico responded, rubbing his eyes with his fingers. He still looked a little worse for wear. There were rings under his eyes, and his skin was still a little pale. "It's good to even be alive. I thought I’d never see Nareni again. I… didn’t tell her anything."
"I know," Alyx said, stopping and turning to the balcony beside them. The sun was setting behind them, and already night sounds were coming out from the enclosed garden below. "I studied the logs of the Mizar battle. I know you were there as the Dark Lightning was about to go... I can't imagine what that must have been like."
"Heh. Imagine then, after that, spending a week in the company of the Altarin'Dakor. I don't envy Xar at all... I... I don't think I'm the same person anymore, Alyx."
"So how did you survive?" Alyx inquired, staring out into the fading darkness. "And what'd they do to you?"
"I can still remember that minute so clearly," Nico said, his voice distant. "The ship was coming apart all around us. I remember it all as clear as if it just happened. We activated the self-destruct. There's no delay on a Star Destroyer's destruct, you know. Then, just as the flames came for me, it was like a different person took over..." He paused, turning to look at the Grand Master. "I think I used Corporeal Translocation," he said.
"But isn't that a dark side power?" Alyx asked, arching an eyebrow. "I didn't think we'd found a True Force equivalent for that, yet..."
"I don't know," Nico answered. "I just did it. I stretched out, found a habitable spot in the remains of Mizar's second planet." He gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Not the best choice for a vacation spot."
"It was an abandoned mining base. Who knows how old. They found me there," Nico said quietly. "I don't know how, I don't know if they called me there. Everything from that point is a blur. Beings came in and out several times during the time I was there. They did some things to me... I don't remember what, it's probably better that way."
"I'm sorry, my friend," Alyx whispered, nodding. "We should have gotten to you sooner. We weren’t sure if you were alive, but… We should have tried."
"Not your fault," Nico assured him. He reached out and gripped the balcony railing. "I'm scared though, Alyx. Again, I can't remember specifically what they did to me. And I still have no clue what led me there in the first place. I think most of them were gone by the time you arrived. That Jedicon was just a guard... There was someone there, someone important... If I only remembered who..."
"It's all right, don't push yourself," Alyx said, resting a hand on his friend's arm. "I'm sure it'll come back in time. We can work on some memory restoration methods after you've rested. Which is exactly what you need to do right now."
The man nodded. "All right. But I'll eventually get inside this mental block, and we'll make the Altarin'Dakor pay... for everything they've done."
"That we will," Alyx assured him. He hesitated at what he had to say next, wondering if it was too soon. Finally, he pushed his reservations aside and spoke. “Nico, I need you to be my new Deputy Grand Master.”
The man’s astonished looked as if Alyx had just held a blaster to his head. “Me, now? But what about Mathis?”
“Mathis is going through some difficult times right now, and has chosen to step back from heavy responsibilities,” Alyx explained tactfully. “I need someone with field experience who can handle things with me. Think it over; I want you to get some rest before you decide.”
"I… see. There’s so little chance for us to rest, huh," Nico sighed. "This is so far from over... I guess we need to look for Xar, now. Again."
"Not this time," Alyx said softly, shaking his head. "I don't think he wants to be found..."
"We can't abandon him," Nico protested. "You owe him more than anyone here. You're one of his own people."
"I know that," Alyx said, clenching his jaw. "But there's a level in which you have to respect someone's own choices and decisions. I don't think we've seen the last of Xar.”
"I hope you're right, my friend," Nico nodded. He turned to look at the Grand Master, his expression serious. "Thank you for rescuing me, Alyx," he said. The room was almost dark now, bathing the two men's faces in shadow.
"Anything," Alyx nodded, giving a small grin, "for a friend."
* * *
The creature raised the goblet of wine to his lips, relishing the new sensation of the yeasty liquid pouring down his gullet as he drank. He lowered the cup, his vision swirling for a moment in front of him. He looked down at his other hand, clenched his fist. He was still getting used to having a human body. Though a pale comparison to his original form, it possessed certain new... pleasures... to discover. The creature smiled. A nearby door opened, and he turned to see the Jedicon enter, bowing his head low to the floor.
The Jedicon obeyed, pushing himself up, revealing the wicked tattoos spreading out form his eyes and mouth. His eyes remained on the floor. "My lord, our mission is complete. The outlander is back on his homeworld, as you commanded. The insertion process was perfectly initiated." His mouth twisted in the briefest of smiles. "They will suspect nothing. Everything is now prepared for your command."
"Excellent," the creature said, smiling. He rose, and moved to stand in front of the Altarin'Dakor warrior. "That mortal tried to kill me. Yet unknowingly, he freed me instead. To that, I owe him. And I will take great pleasure in his demise." The feeling of exhilaration, of once again inhabiting a body, was almost intoxicating in its sweet simplicity. "You have done well," he commended the Jedicon.
Then, reaching out with his free hand, he gripped the man by the throat and lifted him up. The sweet sound of his vertebrae cracking was music to the creature's ears, as was his sense of the man's life force and spirit as it escaped his dying body.
When the Jedicon's spasms had ended, he thrust it across the room against the wall, sad that the experience had ended so quickly. His mood darkening, he turned to make his way from the room, passing by a wall-mounted mirror as he did so. The human reflection was all but revolting to him, but it would serve his purposes well enough. The hair was growing back; the facial markings that had been burned off weren't visible anymore. He smiled again, draining the last of the goblet's contents.
Yes, the body of the former, loyal Jedicon known as Rofel would serve well enough indeed. None of the others knew of his existence. For the time being, he was an anomaly, a shadow moving through the undercurrents, subtlety altering events according to his choosing. And when the time finally came to reveal himself... Yes, that would be a glorious day indeed...
* * *
Vectur, Planet Varnus
The small transport shuttle pulled quickly up into the sky behind him, engaging its cloak even as it started to rise. Maarek watched it ascend, then lost it as it blended too well against the clear blue sky, becoming invisible. Nodding a silent farewell, he turned and started his way toward the palace entrance.
There was no one to greet him there at the large archway. On his own, he went in and began walking through the corridors without incident at all. A variety of people and aliens passed him by without so much as a comment. Of course, he knew it was understandable; he passed no one he recognized, and doubted he was well-known enough to be noticed, either. It all seemed rather anticlimactic, after the harrowing experience of the past week, and with his unscheduled drop-off back on Varnus. Still, that was something he knew would change soon. He was eventually going to meet up with someone he did know.
He decided to get it over with as fast as possible. Stopping in one of the palace’s enclosed squares, a large, bustling area that contained a small bar, a rest area, and covered by a broad glass skylight, he went over to one of the public data access terminals. Inputting his palace ID code, he asked the system for the location of Jedi Master Misnera. He thought it better to do an open search for the Grand Master; after all, one couldn’t expect him to remain in his office all day. Luckily, Maarek’s access was high enough for the computer to give the man’s commlink number. Sparked by a sudden idea, Maarek chose to leave a message instead of making a personal call. The recording was short, a simple request to meet up in a certain place. Then, logging off, Stele set out to meet up with him. He knew Alyx would be there.
The palace gardens were beautiful, enclosed in a massive glass menagerie that kept it warm inside, even though it was mid-winter outside. An incredible variety of plants and flowers were elegantly arranged along the garden’s winding paths, densely enough that it seemed almost a natural scene. It truly belied the fact that they were actually inside a massive palace, the capitol structure for the entire city, and the planet as well. Maarek was seated at one of the marble resting benches along the side of the path, where visitors could pause and spend time enjoying the scene of natural beauty. Stele did just that, taking in the vivid, yet placid atmosphere around him. Here, a thin mist rained down in certain areas, watering the ferns and flowers. Small insects flew about on rounded, multicolored wings several times the size of their tiny bodies.
Maarek looked up as he heard footsteps approaching, turned to see a figure in ceremonial dress uniform stride around the corner towards him. He smiled as he saw the familiar, yet astonished face of the man approaching him. “Hello, Alyx,” he said, standing.
The Grand Master’s face seemed more than surprised; he looked flabbergasted. “Maarek… Then it was you! You’re alive! How in the galaxy did you get here?” the man exclaimed.
“It’s a really long story,” Maarek smiled as he shook the man’s offered hand. “I thought it’d be best to go to you first.” He glanced at the man’s attire. “Have you got some time?”
“Oh, this?” Alyx asked, glancing down at his uniform. “I just attended Gui Sun Paan’s wedding. Anyway, I’ll make time for this,” Alyx replied. “Let’s walk.”
“Sure,” Maarek said, stepping alongside the Grand Master as they started down the pathway.
“Maarek, it’s been what, over two weeks since you disappeared? The whole NI thought you were dead. It still thinks you are. Where have you been?”
“Well,” Maarek began, swallowing. The truth was best, he figured. Sooner or later it would have come out anyway. He’d prepared what he was going to say. “I’ll try and keep it short for now. I got hit near the end of the battle, as you know. Just when I thought I was going to hit that Titan, a beam of light enveloped me… It must have been a tractor beam, or a transporter of some kind. The next thing I knew, I woke up on the planet itself, the one we were fighting over.”
“You were actually on the surface?”
He looked at Alyx again. The man’s face held a puzzled expression, and he looked back over at Maarek. “You’re serious? That easy?” He frowned. “Do you trust this Victor guy?”
“He seemed sincere in what he was doing,” Maarek said. “I considered his offer, and decided to believe him. Besides, I didn’t have much of a choice, in enemy space. But the ship, Alyx… It was a prototype, that I flew. An incredible ship. Intoxicating. And the mission was what he claimed; we struck at one of the Warlords’ bases. It was real.”
“Like Kronos,” Stele replied. “They’re the ultimate leaders of the Altarin’Dakor.”
“There are more… like Kronos?” Alyx asked, his face paling.
“Several, at least. The one we attacked was named Akargan.”
“I… see…” the man said. But he didn’t look like he saw it at all. His expression was a cross between disbelief, and almost… fear.
“Maarek, I’m not sure how to take this,” he said. “I’m not sensing any dishonesty from you, yet something just doesn’t feel right here. This just seems… impossible. Your standing here right now seems impossible. How can you be sure they weren’t using you, did something to you that could harm us or the New Imperium?”
Stele took a deep breath. He had to admit, he couldn’t be sure. Those implants… He’d prefer not to tell Alyx about those, if he could help it. But he couldn’t just lie to a Jedi Master. “You’re right,” he said. “I’m not sure. But you know me; I’m loyal to the NI. I won’t work for the enemy.”
“Under the circumstances, would you submit to a Force mental scan to confirm that?”
At that, Maarek pulled to a halt, involuntarily flinching at the thought of some telepath rummaging around inside his head. “I’m sorry, but no,” he said. “Even under the circumstances. I’ll tell you all you want to know about this, but there are some things that I’d rather keep to myself, about other areas of my life.” There were parts of his life that were better kept secret; things he hadn’t quite dealt with, himself.
“Of course,” Alyx said, holding up a hand. “I don’t mean it that way. It’s all right.” He shrugged. “Probably wouldn’t get decisive results anyway. We deep-scanned Nico when he got back. He’d had it much worse than it seems you have. And even then, I’m not sure we checked every possibility. A Jedi Master’s mind is harder to break telepathically than trying to pull down a ferrocrete wall with your bare hands,” he said with a laugh.
“He was alive? That’s great news!” Maarek paused.
“Yes, a mission sent to find him brought him back just a few days ago.”
Maarek shook his head in surprise, then suddenly remembered what they’d been discussing before. ”Maybe one day I’ll be okay with the scan,” Stele admitted. “But right now I’m just not ready.”
“All right. But until then, you’ll have to understand my skepticism. And you will at least have a full medical and psychological exam so we can make sure you’re all right.”
“Of course,” Maarek replied. “Alyx, how is the NI doing? The Division?”
“We’re still trying to recover from the damage done at Mizar, Maarek. Morale’s at an all-time low. Fortunately, a team brought back Nico and we beat them pretty badly at Moro. Anyway, I assume you’ll want to return to duty after this?”
Maarek nodded. “I suppose I could retire about now. Most people might. But I can’t abandon the NI in its hour of need. I’ve got to fly. It’s who I am.”
“I can empathize,” Alyx responded. “Come on. I’ll take you to Medlab.”
“Yes, sir,” Maarek said. And with that, the two started off again.
* * *
Bren had parked his shuttle
exactly where he had left it – in one of the
For a while he just wandered the streets, taking it all in, reluctant to go back inside the Palace, where life would have to resume once more. But finally he could find no reason to delay further, and in short order had made his way toward one of the entrances and was let in by security without hassle. Inside, he was surprised by the increased level of activity among the Palace’s patrons and residents. There was a heightened intensity in the atmosphere, a sense of urgent preparation going on. Bren had heard the HoloNews – he’d heard about the NI’s stunning defeat at Mizar. It was another reason he’d been reluctant to return. The enemy – his people – were closer than ever, now. But he’d really had no other place to go.
Strolling through the palace corridors, he finally made his way back to his own quarters, and found them exactly as he’d left them. Dropping his things to the floor, he sat down on his bed, wondering if anyone had even noticed that he was gone. It certainly seemed to have been beneath the Grand Master’s notice – but then again, he’d been close to Xar, and the man was still missing, and the official report did not say where he had gone. Bren had a bad feeling about it, though, and he sensed that it must have involved Altarin’Dakor somehow. But with Xar gone, who could he rely on? Who could he share his recent encounter, and epiphany, with? And, for that matter, could he bring himself to talk about it at all? He’d spent the last few days in silent meditation as he returned to Varnus, and he felt he had come to terms somewhat with all that had happened, and even all he’d remembered. His words to Akargan still stood firm: I will not fight. But then he’d realized that maybe he didn’t have to fight in order to help the NI survive the war that was looming over them all. That revelation he would have to tell to someone.
That was it; he knew just the right person he needed to talk with. Moving to his computer terminal, he brought up his personal messages, and noticed nothing but junk and unrelated messages, except… There, he had a message from the very person he wanted to talk to. She had sent him a message a week ago, concerned that she hadn’t seen him lately and that he hadn’t responded on his commlink. Settling down in his chair, he brought out his commlink, but to his disappointment, Rynn Mariel was not available. Perhaps she was out on a mission at this moment. Calling up patience he had learned when having to learn and adapt to a totally new time and culture here, he accessed his messages again and sent her a reply. She would contact him again soon enough, if she survived whatever it was she was doing right now. And then, perhaps, a new chapter would begin that would spell new hope for the NI in this conflict that threatened to consume them all…
* * *
Alyx walked out of the infirmary, where he and Paan had gone to check on Jacob “Jinx” Skipper’s condition after the retrieval of Nico and Neres Warjan, Lothair of House Castellan, from the Mizar System. After briefly debriefing his companions, including Atridd Xoan and Rynn Mariel, he had gone back to the normal patients’ area and now stood watching through the Medlab window as Maarek Stele sat on the medical bed, stripped to the waist, finishing up the tests. He was talking to Doctor Vannik now, who was personally conducting the exam. The dark-skinned, older man was the most capable physician on Varnus, and maybe even in the whole NI. Alyx felt confident that if anything was wrong with Maarek, Vannik would find it.
He felt another figure step up beside him, and saw the partial reflection of the Interim Diktat in the window. He turned and nodded at the older man. “Dogar. Glad you could make it on such short notice.”
“I came as fast as I could,” the Diktat replied. Indeed, the Diktat had left Tralaria as soon as he’d heard Maarek was alive. “How is he?”
“We’ll find out soon enough. What did you think of that story I sent you?” Alyx had sent a full copy of Stele’s report, from his meeting with Victor through his flight of the AD prototype.
“Interesting reading material,” Dogar admitted. “It just doesn’t sound like Maarek, though. I’d think he’d come straight back to the NI if he had the chance.”
“I know. Maybe he considered it more important to take the offer. Still, I guess only time will tell.”
“Yeah. What about Nico?”
Alyx shrugged uncomfortably. “He’s back on duty here in the Division. I’ve had some… problems with Deputy Organa, so I’ve appointed Nico as my Deputy Grand Master for the interim. But at the moment he’s gone to Erebria to solidify the DLSF-IW merger.” The fleet Nico had led, brought in by former Diktat Ryskar D’larit, had now been officially absorbed into the Dogar’s Intruder Wing. It had simply taken too many losses at Mizar.
“I heard Nico had it rough. How’d you find him?”
“A special Special Ops team recovered him from a small prison in the Mizar System, apparently in the ruins of the second planet. He got beaten up pretty badly. Seems normal now, but something just doesn’t smell right, like the story there isn’t over. Just like with Maarek.” He looked back over at the Diktat. “How’s the Senate?”
Dogar gave a mirthless half-smile. “We’re all in similar predicaments. I admit, for a couple days after Mizar, I thought the whole thing was going to collapse entirely. But with the threat of extinction looming over us, it’s having the effect of keeping people together, even bringing in extra aid, perhaps.”
Alyx nodded idly. It seemed that the threat of the Altarin’Dakor was bringing people together out of sheer necessity. If the theory still held true, then the more the Altarin’Dakor showed themselves, the more groups and races might continue to join in and band together. Just like what had supposedly happened before the Altarin’Dakor were defeated in ancient times. According to Icis Novitaar, the enigmatic Traveler who went by the name Novitaar, the Altarin’Dakor had been driven out before by the combined forces of virtually the whole rest of the galaxy. But if that were true, and the Altarin’Dakor had grown much stronger since that time, then how could part of one sector hope to even stand in their way?
Returning his thoughts to the present, he looked back at the man beside him. “How about the Virulence? Have you heard anything from her?”
The Diktat slowly shook his head. “No, nothing. Assuming she survived the wild jump out, she would’ve returned by now if they could keep her functional. If not, then the ship could be anywhere. Our chances of finding it would be…” he trailed off, his point well made. Alyx understood. The Virulence had been their second largest command ship, a large Star Destroyer. Burning and helpless in the battle, her crew had sent the ship into an uncharted hyperspace jump in a desperate attempt to keep her from being destroyed. They’d promised to return if they made it out alive. And they hadn’t returned. It was a big loss.
Alyx nodded, then looked back through the window as Doctor Vannik finished and started over towards them. Vannik wound his way through the various mini-labs and equipment in the facility before coming through the exit and walking up to join Alyx and Dogar. “Gentlemen,” the man nodded.
“What’s the word?” Alyx asked.
“The prognosis is very good,” Vannik replied smoothly. “He’s in excellent physical shape, but he’s quite tired. Some scrapes and bruises all over, but nothing serious. There is some evidence that he might have experienced a concussion or some other kind of trauma to the head, but whatever it was has healed up nicely.”
“Interesting,” Alyx said, glancing through the window as Maarek stood and pulled his shirt back on. The man looked over at the group, nodded, then started over to join them. Alyx turned back to Vannik, who was watching him with one eyebrow raised.
“Doc says I’m good to go,” Stele said as he walked up, grinning. “No problems.”
“Well, at least nothing that plenty of rest won’t remedy,” Vannik added in a serious tone. Maarek threw his hands up defensively, and Alyx exchanged a knowing smile with Dogar.
“So, you’re returning to Tralaria with Dogar, then?” Alyx asked.
“If that’s all right,” Stele nodded. “I need to get back to my squadron. They’ve got to be in bad shape, especially considering the losses we took.”
“Very well,” Alyx agreed. “I wish you two the best.”
“Likewise,” Dogar said, extending a hand, which Alyx took. “Keep yourself out of trouble. Let’s all try to come out of this alive.”
“Will do,” Alyx nodded.
“Definitely,” Stele said.
Smiling, Alyx watched the two head back down the corridor, presumably for the shuttle which would take them back to Tralaria. He waited till the two vanished from sight; then he let his smile fade. He turned back to Vannik, who was still standing there with him. He gave a knowing, yet apprehensive nod.
“So,” he said, staring at the doctor. “What did you really find?”
Vannik gave a wry expression, glanced around the area one more time to make sure they were alone. He put an arm up on the window, leaning against it. “It’s mostly like I said,” he reported, “except for one thing. A small scar on the base of his head, where it meets his neck. At first I thought it was an old sore, or a birthmark, but a full scan revealed…” He lowered his voice then, speaking in barely a whisper. “There’s something artificial connecting to that spot, inside his head. Its tiny, almost microscopic, but it definitely has filaments that reach into his brain.”
Alyx wasn’t prepared for the shock that hit him. He’d expected something bad, since Vannik had stayed, knew that it probably was something just for him to know, but this… It was a blow he’d neither anticipated nor could easily cope with. It was like the stuff of wild fiction coming to life, manifested in a person that he dared to call friend… “They put some kind of implant into his head?” he whispered back.
Vannik nodded slowly. “My suspicion is that it connects to an outside source through the scar. It’s probably still a fresh enough wound that it can get through.”
“But why?” Alyx asked, dazed. “To connect him to some sort of information jack? Or…” He frowned, trying to consider the possibilities. The mission Maarek had been on, flying an Altarin’Dakor spacecraft… “Maybe something to do with the fighter he flew? Do you think the AD can actually link with their ships?” He breathed the words almost in disbelief. It was a technology only just recently proposed in the galaxy, as far as Alyx knew. And assuming every AD pilot was linked with their ship, it would truly mean that they were much more advanced technologically than the New Imperium, or even the rest of the galaxy.
“That was my conclusion,” Vannik said, no real emotion behind his voice. “The question is: what do we do with what we know?”
Alyx looked back down the corridor that the two had disappeared into. He sighed, forcing himself to choose between two options, neither one a position he liked. “Even knowing that, we don’t have proof that he could be working for them, willingly or not,” he said. “I think he lied to me, or at least avoided my questioning him about it. But even so, he’s been a friend of Xar; I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Maybe this was a one-time thing. Maybe they really did let him go.” Maybe. He couldn’t believe that there was a resistance cell right under the Altarin’Dakor noses, though. But regardless, it was just one of their worries, now. Nico’s situation was just as precarious… Alyx knew there were areas of Nico’s mind that even he couldn’t penetrate, areas that might hold commands from the Altarin’Dakor. That made two of their best officers, and formerly most trusted people, into possible suspects, touched by the enemy in some unknown way. How far could they be trusted? And what about Xar, who had been touched, and now had abandoned them in his search for a woman, an enemy Warlord? Was he an example of what would happen to the others?
Turning back to Vannik, he gave the man a stern look. “What we learned here today goes no further than us,” he said. “Seal up your files on Maarek. We’ll deal with it when and if the situation arises again.”
“Understood,” Vannik said, giving a slight bow. “And for all our sakes, I hope the situation doesn’t arise, ever.”
Maarek was making his way out of the Medlab with Dogar at his side when he saw several figures exit ahead of him. All three were dressed in Jedi robes, and Maarek blinked as he saw one, a woman, with long auburn hair braided down her back as she passed through the doorway.
Wait; I’ve seen her before, he realized. That was Rynn Mariel, whom he’d met in the palace’s mess hall what seemed like an eternity earlier. As he recalled, he’d make quite a fool out of himself at that time. He quickened his pace, thinking the least he could do would be to apologize and try to set the record straight. Leaving Dogar pacing behind him, he slid out the exit and called out to the figures moving down the hallway.
“Jedi Mariel, do you have a moment, please?” He chided himself immediately – he sounded like an idiot, saying the first words that had come to his mouth. But to his surprise, she turned back, and with a word urged her companions to move on without her.
“Yes?” she asked, looking curiously at Maarek as he approached. Then her eyes widened in realization, and her expression fell. “Oh, you.”
“Yeah. I… guess you remember me,” Maarek said sheepishly. He stood there a minute, trying to figure what to say, then just decided to give up on tact altogether. “Look, I wanted to apologize for before. That was a misunderstanding, and if I came on too strongly – I didn’t mean it that way.”
She shook her head, a bemused look coming on her face. “I know who you are now, Commander Stele, and I know you are a trustworthy man and a patriot for the New Imperium’s cause. I didn’t know back then, though; I think I should apologize instead. I was a little paranoid and… impolite… at that time.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it. I’m sure I deserved it,” Maarek waved her comment off. He took in her Jedi robes, and the lightsaber dangling from her belt. “Wow. So you’re a full-fledged Jedi Knight, now, huh? Congratulations.”
“Thank you. It’s been a while, though.”
“Oh. Sorry; with all the confusion I guess we haven’t had a chance to talk.” He paused, feeling the conversation starting to drag – and feeling more awkward by the second. “Look,” he said, “I just wanted to set things right from before. And I was hoping maybe you’d give me another chance, and maybe that we could start over with a clean slate.”
“Of course; look, there’s nothing to apologize for,” she assured him. “I know your reputation around the NI has grown, and I respect you very much. I am glad for all that you’re working for in the NI. So trust, me: no hard feelings, okay?”
Maarek nodded, feeling himself smile under her green-eyed gaze. Then she glanced at something over his shoulder, and Maarek realized Dogar had walked up beside him. And he realized the conversation was over. “Well,” he said, “I’ll be heading back to Tralaria again. But, well, when we do have the chance to meet again, I’ll look forward to talking with you more.”
“And I you.” Her expression totally formal now, she nodded toward him and the Diktat beside him. “Diktat, Commander… Have a safe flight back to Tralaria.”
Parting ways, Maarek started off down the corridors again, watching the fiery-haired woman disappear down the corridor, wondering if he’d see her again or not, and wondering what that meeting might be like if it ever occurred.
Vannik left, heading back into the Medlab, and Alyx decided to move on, as well. He started through the corridors on a roundabout path to his office, intending to stop there and take care of a few things. On the way, he passed more of the semi-crowded corridors, filled with humans and aliens, all with different reasons to visit the palace this particular day. He was used to all of this by now, though: the pomp and glamour of the more commercial regions, the colorful banners and local decorations denoting Varnusian history, the crowded hallways, the occasional Novice running by in white robes, on an errand for a higher ranked Jedi… It was all a matter of course for him. In his mind, he was just hoping that he wouldn’t have to see all of this in ruins, destroyed because of a traitor in their midst. Stang, but he’d had enough to worry about already, before those three had come back.
He finally reached the upper levels, virtually devoid of passerby, and had almost made it to his office when he passed a crossroads and saw a familiar figure over to his right. At first he just caught a glance; a tall man with dark hair and a distinct look that he recognized. “Xar…?” he said, turning. Then he finally saw the man full-on, and clinched his jaw.
“I’ve been called many things in my life,” the young man said as he strolled casually up to Alyx. “But I’ve never been mistaken for my brother.”
“Rydon,” Alyx said, nodding evenly. He fully realized his error, now. Xar’s brother had a similar walk and style to Xar himself. Rydon Kerensky was close in looks to his brother, with dark hair and gray eyes, but he was somewhat thinner than his brother, and definitely younger; he was several years Xar’s junior. As such, he had more youthful vigor and arrogance; and of course, he didn’t have the discipline of years of Jedi training.
“So, you’ve finally come out of the hole you’ve been in,” Alyx said, aware that he wasn’t promoting a very friendly conversation, but feeling that he had to put this man back a step. Alyx was even more Rydon’s elder than Xar, having been in the two boys’ personal retinue as a young palace guard.
“I wouldn’t call it a hole,” Rydon said angrily. “I’ve been spending time… finding myself.”
“In some of the seediest bars in the city,” Alyx said, letting sarcasm into his voice. “I hope you like what you’ve found.” It was true; Rydon had changed since he’d returned from Mizar with Xar after the rescue. At first he’d been very quiet, obviously disillusioned to their society after all that time. Just a gnat on the wall. But now he was starting to open up, and seemed to be going to the opposite extreme. His wild lifestyle, of staying out most of the night, visiting bars, and who knew what else, had been grating on both his and Xar’s nerves. Xar had let him go, thinking he needed space, but with Xar gone now, it was Alyx’s responsibility. And he didn’t like it.
“What do you care,” the man retorted. “I’ve got nothing better to do. It’s not like I can help fight. I’ve got no skills at all. I’m useless here.”
“That’s not true,” Alyx said. “You’re a member of the Royal Family. Your people look up to you. You have to set the example, lead them. You’re going to find that…”
“Don’t give me that teacher/student crap, Jedi,” Rydon shot back, holding up a finger at Alyx. “I remember when you were just a palace guard, one of Xar’s babysitters. A nobody.”
Alyx could feel his blood starting to heat up. He clinched his fists, trying to hold down his anger and frustration. “And I remember when you were an eight year old kid running around the palace. Remember when you cut your hand that time, ran home bawling for your mother?”
“Heh. Yeah, I do. Even then, I guess people considered me a pain. They were always happy to see Xar… They always enjoyed Natasha’s company, but not mine.”
“Nonsense. You’ve tricked yourself into believing that,” Alyx said. “You were always treated well. It’s your time with them that’s changed you.”
“Yeah, I guess it can do that to you,” Rydon replied sarcastically.
“But it’s time to move on,” Alyx continued. “Get on with your life. You owe your brother that much, after all he’s done for you.”
“I don’t own Xar anything. I don’t have to respect him; he’s never done anything for me. In fact, he’s hurt me worse than anyone ever could.”
“What are you saying? He brought you back home, didn’t he?” Alyx said accusingly.
Rydon looked at him then, almost frozen in stunned silence. “That’s it. You truly must be stupid,” the man said, shaking his head. “Don’t you get it? Do you want to know the truth that’s been eating me? You took me away from paradise! Do you think I wanted to come back? I was the personal servant of one of the most powerful beings in the universe! Do you have any idea what that was like?” He broke off angrily, as if expecting an answer, then continued when he didn’t get one. “I didn’t come back because of this,” he yelled, waving an arm around. “I came because she asked me to! There’s nothing for me here… I’ve been immersed in Altarin’Dakor society for ten years; I don’t have any useful skills, here. Your technology is in the dark ages compared to what I’m used to. I can’t even use the language that I’ve spoken the past ten years. What is this Basic you call it? That’s a fitting term,” he said, shaking his head angrily.
“Rydon,” Alyx spoke, trying to cool down and talk calmly. “That life is over now. You do have to move on. As a member of the Royal Family, you can lead people. Help them out. If not for Xar, do it for them. And then you’ll at least have something when he returns. When this war is over and this world is yours again.”
To his surprise, Rydon gave a cynical laugh. “Xar’s not coming back, Alyx,” he said. “He’s going off to find Zalaria. It’s not like going to the market for a loaf of bread. He’ll either become her servant, like I was…” he broke off, swallowing, as if he could hardly bear that thought. “Or, he’ll get himself killed. One way or another we won’t be seeing him again.”
“We’ll see about that,” Alyx said, though inwardly he was afraid that the man might be right.
Rydon paused, visibly seething at something. Then he finally spitted Alyx with a baleful glare.
“Do you know what hurts so much? He left me here! He went off looking for Zalaria by himself, and he never even asked me if I wanted to go! Is that all the good I am to him? He went back to my home and he left me here, and I’ll never forgive him for it!”
Alyx shook his head in disbelief. The man truly had lost all reason. His thoughts drifted to the other person Xar had brought back from Mizar: his old fiancée, Illiana. She was still in a mental hospital under constant supervision, lest she attempt to escape and go back to the Altarin’Dakor. Her screams and cries for the Warlord Kronos had forced them to move her into isolation. First her, and now Rydon. Would Xar be next? And what of the others who had recently been in contact with the enemy? Would Alyx lose them to this madness, too?
“Good luck, Rydon,” he said dismissively. There was no use wasting his time further, here. “I hope you can clean up your life.”
“Just leave me alone,” the man retorted.
Fine, Alyx thought angrily. Do whatever you want. I’ve done all I can. Giving a sigh and a last shake of his head, he threw up his hands and turned away. He didn’t look back as he went the rest of the way to his office, all the while wondering: Will Xar ever come back?
* * *
The Great Rift
Xar was sitting quietly in the shuttle’s larger cabin, trying to study a novel he’d brought along as the ship continued on its automatic course. He’d been finding it difficult to perform his Jedi meditation techniques in order to pass the time. Instead he was trying to concentrate by reading or tinkering with a couple of lightsabers he’d brought, one of his favorite hobbies. But it was still hard not to think about Zalaria.
He realized he’d been re-reading the same page four times, and decided to set the book aside when out of nowhere the ship’s proximity alert went blaring, deafening his ears. He had only a second to react, rolling out of his bunk and bracing himself on the floor as the ship lurched violently forward and dropped out of hyperspace. Every unsecured item in the cabin went flying, and he was practically showered by small objects, from sheets of flimsy to a glass of ice water that spilled down onto his back. Muttering a curse, he pushed himself off the deck and staggered through the entrance hatch, making his way to the cockpit as the ship finally settled down and stopped vibrating.
His first thoughts had been filled with dread and fear, for he knew that only an unknown gravity well could have yanked his ship out of hyperspace like that. Harrowing thoughts of stumbling upon one of those fabled black holes, or even a rogue neutron star, sent chills down his spine. He didn’t need this; he had to get to Zalaria. There wasn’t time for any distractions!
Reaching the cockpit, he jammed the hatchway open and stumbled onto a scene out of a madman’s dreams. The death-black sky of the Rift filled space outside the viewport, with his intended destination, the spiral arm, only a hazy mist in the distance. But the immediate vicinity around his ship was filled with light… the windows and running lights of ships. Uncounted hundreds of them.
A moment’s glance made the situation fairly clear to him; for the design and make of the ships around him were as varied as different snowflakes. One look told him that they were all in the same predicament. Each of the ships was oriented slightly different, each drifting silently in the void. Many were slowly, aimlessly spinning. None moved under its own power.
It was a trap, there to stop anyone from crossing this Rift. This place was a graveyard… a graveyard for ships. Each had been caught in the gravitational field here and somehow prevented from escaping. Some of the ships had gone dark, deathly silent, as their near-inexhaustible power plants had finally given out after eons. At first he felt disbelief at happening upon this lonely region, stumbling upon this one random pathway amidst innumerable others. His second emotion was a frantic fear as he checked his hyperdrive readout. For whatever the gravity field was, whatever was causing it, hadn’t just knocked the hyperdrive off-line… The display screen didn’t show that he had a hyperdrive at all.
Sitting down at the controls, he slowed the ship’s momentum to a crawl, making sure there were no ships directly ahead in his path. He quickly set a diagnostic running to find the problem with the drive, then started to get up and check the device for himself when suddenly a communications beacon rang throughout the cockpit. He lurched back over to the controls, mashing a finger down on the accept button to play the message. He had no idea who was sending it or what the message was, but it might offer some clue as to what was going on.
To his consternation, he was greeted only by an jumbled burst of static. Putting a hand on the comm unit, he adjusted the frequency of his reception, drawing it first lower, then turning it up to the highest possible level the ship could receive. A garbled, alien tongue finally broke through, although the language was unlike anything he recognized, a series of buzzes and whistles. The ship’s translators found no match, either. Obviously this race hailed from somewhere in the Unknown Regions of space. Then suddenly their commlink seemed to crackle on their side, and within a moment a very roughly translated Basic came through, suggesting the aliens had had contact with the rest of the galaxy before. Unfortunately, their message wasn’t to be particularly cheery.
“Help. Help. Help. We are Killik. Newcomer vessel; please respond. We have been stranded in this field for two moon-cycles and cannot escape on our own. We are being held by an unknown technology that has disabled our propulsion systems. Will you lend us your assistance?
Xar took a deep breath. He couldn’t respond outright, but considering the situation, he wasn’t really ready to yet. He concentrated as more of the message came through.
Please help. Help us to escape. We cannot leave here alone…” the message broke into some static, then went on as the aliens continued to plea for help.
“Brilliant,” Xar hissed, slamming a fist down on the pilot’s chair arm in annoyance. This was not what he needed right now. “Isn’t this convenient. Where are you guys, anyway?”
No answer. Perhaps it was really a recorded message, he wondered. Nevertheless he set a track on the message’s source to try and find the ship that had sent it. A few moments later he had it. A cluster of dark, elongated ships was hovering about forty-five klicks ahead and to starboard of his position. Putting a hand on the controls, he eased the shuttle forward. He knew it could be a trap, a lure from whatever was really causing this, to bring him in closer and further debilitate his craft. It could explain why he still had some propulsion while the other ships sat still; the final element of the trap needed to be set. If so, then everyone else had fallen for it, as well.
But he hadn’t sensed any ill-will from them, and he had a feeling that what the aliens had said was true, especially since he knew next to nothing about repairing a damaged hyperdrive. So, despite his frustration at being delayed from his journey and his goal, he knew he couldn’t leave a fellow being in distress if there was a chance he could help…
Thirty minutes later he was ready to dock with the alien vessels. He’d taken plenty of time to avoid any possible traps, but there had been no sign of danger yet so far. On his way to the ships, he passed countless other derelicts, so many that he knew it was a larger graveyard than any he’d seen before. Most of the ship designs were completely unfamiliar to him, and consisted of every conceivable variation; light and dark, small and huge, rounded and polygonal. As he flew through the field of dead ships, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread and despair hanging around him. The inhabitants of these ships had died slowly, using up their food and power until they either starved or froze to death.
Xar brought the shuttle up beside the docking port of the Killiks’ bulbous ship, and the two ships attached to each other without much of a problem. Then he made his way down to the hatch and punched in the open code, wondering what would be greeting him on the other side…
As the hatch slid open, he was immediately greeted by a gust of heavy, moist, and stale air. The corridor beyond was well lit though, more than enough to illuminate the mass of chest-high insect bodies filling it. Xar felt a spark of panic and fought an urge to re-seal the port and get away. Instead, he reached out with the Force, felt no malice from the creatures whatsoever. In fact, their presence was strong in the Force, not only singular minds, but as though they were all linked together as well. Of course, many insect species have hive minds, he reminded himself.
The insects were at once all buzzing and humming at him. Stretching out with the Force, he let it flow through him, in synchronization with the humming sounds they made. Such a power wasn’t overly complex; Jedi could even learn beast languages to communicate with semi-sentient creatures. This wasn’t too much harder. But to his surprise, nothing happened. Then the insects began moving, and Xar thought they were going to grab him until they moved to slid past him and into the shuttle. Then they began to explore everything: the lounge, galley, cockpit, even moving toward his own private quarters. Several began picking up things that seemed to catch their attention and start back toward their own ship with them.
“Hey, wait a minute…!” Xar began, only to be ignored. He started to stop the aliens forcefully, but then realized that many hive-minds had no sense of personal property. Much like the Krri’Graq, he realized.
Assuming the sentiment was mutual, he proceeded through the docking hatch and into the alien ship. The air got more damp and foul-smelling, but it wasn’t the worst he’d ever smelled, either. The corridors seemed made from a substance much like many insects used to build hives and nests. One of the insects met him there and began waving its antennae at him and rubbing them across his forearms, then started to lead him away. Xar followed, slowly becoming even more aware of the insects’ presence in the Force, how alive they felt. He concentrated, using his Force skills at language translation again, even as he followed the insect on a tour of their ship.
The Killiks’ vessel was massive, but not that different from any other alien race in the galaxy. He walked along, waiting patiently for whatever was happening to let him understand what the Killiks were trying to say. After all, he had nothing better to do. An hour or two passed like that, and Xar tried to keep his patience. Then, ever so slowly, words began to form – not from his understanding of their buzzing noises, but from inside his mind. With a start he realized he had barely made contact with these aliens, and yet somehow he was being incorporated into their hive mind. Just like the Krri’Graq, the thought hit him again.
“Can you understand what I’m saying?” he asked, testing the aliens’ ability to hear Basic.
Yes, the feeling came back, and Xar gave a sigh of relief.
“Thank you. Can you explain what’s going on here?”
The insect in front of him spun around and spread its mandibles in what Xar assumed to be shock. You understand our language quickly! the thought bombarded him. Why?
“I don’t know,” Xar admitted. “But I am a Jedi. Maybe that has something…”
A Jedi! The corridor was suddenly filled with a hubbub of buzzing. “Burbburburbburu…” We know Jedi, the though came. We have contacted them… long ago.
“Look, I know you’re as eager to get out of here as I am,” Xar said to the green and yellow mantis-looking insect in front of him. “Can you explain why our hyperdrives are offline?”
A ship, the Killiks repeated. In the center of all the ships, it is holding us here with an unknown force. It has shut down all our weapons and defenses, so we cannot destroy it, nor defend ourselves. To leave, we must shut it down, but we cannot get inside. A pause. Can you help us, Jedi?
“I’ll certainly try,” Xar said. “First, lead me to the ship.”
There was a pause at the Killiks seemed to digest the information. Finally, if you will allow us to accompany you on your shuttle, we will guide you.
Xar nodded. “Sounds like a deal,” he said.
Countless starships of myriad shapes and sizes passed by the viewport as they cruised toward the center of the graveyard, all lifeless. Some looked vaguely familiar, and might have only been there a few years. Others’ markings had faded so badly that they may have been stuck there for thousands of years. Not a single other vessel hailed them nor showed a flashing light. And ever so steadily, the huge shape in the center of the field grew closer and closer, and more massive by the minute.
Though invisible in the pitch blackness of space in the Great Rift, Xar’s scanners showed the vessel to be at least a hundred kilometers in length as well as width, and about fifty kilometers thick in the center. Its hull was made of some unidentifiable metal, and it had no markings or windows that he could see. Long-range scanners showed a massive circular design in the center of the ship, like a door - but it wasn’t open. Beside him in the cockpit, a large, dark-green Killik sat in the copilot’s seat, its huge abdomen hanging off the seat in front of him. Behind them were more insects, and in fact, they filled the entire ship. Xar had no idea why they’d wanted so many, but it served to keep the mind-link they had developed strong.
The alien ship was only ten kilometers away, and filling the viewport again, when he saw it. Twenty degrees off to port, showing up only on his screens, he almost missed it. But once it caught his eye, its wedge-shaped profile was unmistakably that of a Victory-class Star Destroyer.
“What the…” he wondered aloud, running a scan over the ship. It was badly damaged, to be sure, its nose missing and its hull scarred black, pockmarked and for all appearances, lifeless. Then the sensors picked up the ship’s IFF transponder, and Xar gasped, eyes going wide in shock.
It was the VSD Triumphant, the ship that had been present during the Battle of Varnus. The battle that had killed his father and mother, turned his city into a wasteland, and sent him on a dark course that had changed his life forever. What was it doing here?
The Killiks buzzed him a question as he changed course. “Sorry,” he said. “We’ve got to take a little detour. I know that ship. And I have to find out something,” he said.
His copilot responded that it sounded very dangerous, that they should probably avoid it. Xar shook his head. “I know, but it’s a risk I’m going to take. Just give me a few minutes, then I’ll get us all out of here. But I’m not going to miss this opportunity.” He might never have a chance to see what really had happened during the battle.
It was time to deal with history.
Xar piloted the shuttle up underneath the old Victory-class Star Destroyer’s belly, angling up toward her primary hangar bay, all the while ignoring the misgivings and warnings the Killiks were trying to give around him. For some reason they were afraid of that ship, but Xar wasn’t about to let a little paranoia turn him back. Besides, his curiosity was too strong. What was the Triumphant doing here? Why had she tried to cross the Great Rift after the Battle of Varnus? There were too many unanswered questions.
The scanners showed no activity aboard the ship, and no life signs, although the main power core was still on-line. That was to be expected. The ship had gotten stranded here thirteen years ago. VSD consumable supplies wouldn’t have lasted more than a few years, even for an exploration ship like the Triumphant. After all, she had been in space a long time before even discovering the planet Varnus. But the drives could stay alive for perhaps centuries.
Telling his copilot and the others to hush down, he guided the shuttle up into the VSD’s darkened hangar. There was no force field to pass through, meaning that once he sat down, he’d still be in vacuum and have to don a spacesuit. For the moment, he guided the craft toward one of the side hangars in the aft side of the ship. If he was going to the bridge, he’d need to take the central elevators. Activating the shuttle’s piloting lights, he illuminated the interior of the hangar, which told the tale. Its TIE Fighters long since gone, there was nothing but old trash inside the large room. He set the ship down with little more than a slight bump, then secured the ship and began to move back to get his EVA suit.
The Killks immediately tried to block his way. Please! Do not go aboard this ship! Their voices were pleading. It is too dangerous!
“Don’t worry,” Xar assured them with a grin. “I’m more dangerous than anything on this ship could be.”
With that he gently pushed them aside with the Force, clearing a path back to the ready room. There he carefully donned the shuttle’s standard spacesuit over his clothes, then, ignoring the still protesting Killiks, moved into the airlock.
At least let us come with you, the Killiks offered.
“It would be better if you watch the ship,” Xar told them. “Besides, you don’t have space suits. I won’t be long. Watch the scanners, if you can, and let me know if there’s anything suspicious.”
With that he sealed the airlock and waited for the air to cycle out. Then the outer doors opened, and he pushed himself out into space. Immediately he floated straight across the deck toward the far wall, shining his head-mounted and hand-held glowlamps around. The Triumphant’s artificial gravity was off-line, as well.
He reached the far wall and then activated his magnetic boots, slowly sinking to the deck. Then he made his way over to one of the interior hatchways that would actually double as an airlock, and he stopped by the terminal outside. They were designed to withstand vacuum and the freezing temperatures of space, so if the core was on-line, it should tell him a lot about the ship.
Sure enough, when he touched the screen, it came to life. He quickly brought up a status of the ship. The core and engines were fine, but virtually all systems were off-line. Fortunately, life-support was still working, meaning there was air on the other side of the door. It would be stale and unhealthy, but with his Jedi endurance he shouldn’t have any problems for the short time he was there. The main turbolift was working, too. Time to go.
He cycled the air in the corridor on the other side, then stepped through as the hatch opened. Then he waited as the air was pumped back in. Finally, as the inside door opened and his suit gave the all-clear light, he slid the faceplate up from his helmet for better visibility. He held back a cough that tried to rise up. The air was stale. And it stank, badly. The corridor beyond had only emergency lighting, leaving it dark and foreboding. But Xar wasn’t going to let ghosts scare him. He started forward.
The rest of the corridors were just as dimly lit, and many side corridors were completely dark. Xar kept his lightsaber at the ready, hooked to his suit’s belt latch. Within moments he reached the main turbolift entrance. Immediately he noticed stains covering the floor beneath him. They were rust-colored, and fairly old looking. Again he stretched out with his senses, and felt… a rush of negative emotions seemed to surround him all at once. Fear, anguish, death. They seemed to be the residue of what the crew had felt. Shaking it off, he called the turbolift down. Within moments it opened in front of him, revealing an empty chamber into which he walked. Turning to the controls, he pressed the button for the bridge.
The turbolift ascended, pressing his weight down against the deck. He watched the levels count up until he was level with the bridge. The doors opened, revealing only darkness ahead.
A Victory Star Destroyer’s bridge sits more forward than that of the larger classes, jutting out of the bridge superstructure looking like an oversized fighter’s cockpit. Xar started forward, shining his lights ahead of him, nothing but the stark, cold floor and walls to greet him. He proceeded through the corridor and up to the main bridge doors. A single light on the panel indicated there was still power. He pressed it the button. Then the doors opened.
The massive chamber spread out before him, full of lights piercing the blackness here and there. At the far end, the viewports showed simply the blackness of the Rift instead of a starfield. None of the control screens were activated. Xar walked over and activated the bridge’s internal lighting, bracing himself for what he might see.
The lights flickered and came on, revealing a scene of damage and wear. The bridge was a mess, with many panels blown out, some obviously fixed with rudimentary repairs, its crew hoping they would last until they could reach a better destination. The battle had taken its toll on the bridge, as well.
Not wasting any time, Xar moved forward, straight to the captain’s console. Its seat was worn, its main screen replaced by one that jutted up from the console. Wondering if it would even work, he experimentally activated the control button.
Immediately he was hit by a wave in the Force, a feeling of dread, fear, and death. His head throbbed, and he staggered as he felt a backwash of all that had happened in this room in the past years. It was a mixed jumble, screaming voices, hopelessness, and more and more death. His blood seemed to chill and his skin tingled; he felt like he could almost see them there in the room. How terrible it must have been.
Shaking the vision away, he looked at the console that had activated, a simple text-based system. He typed in a command to view records, only to find that most of the system was either offline, or had been erased. There were no records after the Battle of Varnus. He called up the records, uncertain of what to find.
Then he saw it, a log of that day, of the battle itself. Fighting his own trepidation, he played the file. The old screen showed a milky view of a blue-green planet he knew as Varnus, his home. He saw the Rebel fleet sitting opposite the Imperials. And another ship he knew to be his father’s, trying desperately to mediate between the two sides. He wanted to tell his father to give up, to get out before it was too late. There would be no negotiating between these two great rivals. Then he watched in horror as the ship he knew to be Dasok Krun’s flew onscreen, sending out a pair of missiles that blew his father’s ship in half, sending its flaming debris falling toward the planet below.
Then as if that wasn’t enough, he saw Krun’s ship turn away, veering toward the Triumphant, though there was no sound from the control panel, he saw a communications window appear on the screen, a helmeted figure there conversing with the crew of the Star Destroyer. Then the Triumphant attacked, and the battle began…
He could no longer see the screen clearly. His vision had blurred, tears falling over his cheeks. There it was; proof that what Krun had said was true, and that for years Xar had lived a lie, believing it was the Rebels who had killed his family, when in fact he’d been working with the enemy the whole time.
He had just seen his father murdered. The fact that Xar had avenged him did not eliminate the pain. Xar shut off the playback, turned to leave…
Xar screamed as a blade flashed in front of his face, slashing him deeply across the cheek and sending him reeling back onto the control panel. He shrieked and held his face, then stared through his fingers at the gristly nightmare in front of him.
At least twenty sunken-faced, rail-thin men crowded toward him, their faces pale as dead men, their eyes lifeless. Tattered uniforms hung off their sickly forms. Their mouths were open, gasping, showing rotten teeth gnashing as they reached for him with daggers, with crooked fingers. Xar screamed.
The first one slashed forward with his knife again. Instinctively Xar snatched his lightsaber from his suit’s belt and activated it as he swept his arm up, cleaving off the arm from the being that could no longer be called a man. The victim howled in pain, and the arm fell to the deck, only to be picked up by one of his companions. Then several more took his place.
Xar sent them back with a push of the Force, and they stumbled to the ground. He pushed forward at a run, heading for the gap he’d made, seeing in horror the man who’d retrieved the arm sink his teeth into the bony appendage.
They eat each other! Hands groped for him, brushing his suit, and he threw his hands to the side, sending opponents down with waves of Force energy. He bolted for the exit, seeing the doors open as a throng of hungry, howling figures opened their arms to meet him.
It was too much. Raising his lightsaber, Xar struck. He lost consciousness to what he was doing, allowing the Force to use him, giving a painful end to the misery around him. All he knew was that lives ended, and he advanced. Suddenly he was in the turbolift, and with another Force shove he sent out bodies and body parts, forcing the doors closed and sending the lift back to the hangar level.
As the numbers descended, he realized he was hyperventilating. He tried to catch his breath. How had they survived out here for so many years? But then he knew, realizing what the rust-colored stain on the floor now was. Now Xar understood why they were still alive after so many years. The crew of the VSD Triumphant were cannibals, driven to insanity by their isolated prison and by what they had been forced to do. Having used up all their own consumable food, they had turned to the other ships stuck out here in the void. They had attacked each ship in turn, capturing the crew, stealing all their food and supplies. Then those supplies ran out. They had proceeded to the only other recourse for survival; eating their foes. How many years had they subsisted on the bodies of the captured species around them, even their own dead? It was a fate worse than Xar wanted to think about. He couldn’t imagine what they had gone through, but he felt no pity for them, either. They were no longer humans – they were animals. If he could, he would end their misery. But there was nothing he could do.
The doors opened, and Xar braced himself for another attack, but there was only an empty corridor ahead of him. He didn’t know how many of the crew still lived, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. Resealing his suit and deactivating his lightsaber, he dashed forward with the Force, his skin on his back tingling, feeling like someone was watching him everywhere. He made it to the airlock, passed through, and went straight back to the shuttle before he felt any kind of safety.
Then a blast came from the shuttle’s forward-mount cannon, flashing by Xar to strike somewhere behind. An answering blast passed mere centimeters from Xar’s head, striking the shuttle instead. Whipping around, he saw the body of a suited Imperial officer floating to the side, a hole blasted out of his midsection. A second officer raised his barrel, aiming for Xar. Then another blast fired, hitting the man in the chest, sending him flying backwards.
Blind idiot, you almost got yourself killed! The Killiks had just saved him! In his fear and ignorance he hadn’t even noticed. Seeing the hangar was empty of other hostiles, he turned back to the shuttle, feeling a new sense of gratitude to his insect friends…
We told you, the Killiks’ minds greeted him as he entered. All others fear the ones on this ship. They are alive, but not…
“Don’t bother me with it now,” Xar said breathlessly as he pushed by them. “You could have told me before.”
“Nevermind! We’re getting out of here!” Xar dropped into the pilot’s seat and raised the shuttle off its repulsorlifts. As he backed out of the hangar, he thought he saw figures staring out at him through the window. Just in time…
He pulled out of the Star Destroyer’s hangar and gunned the engines for all they were worth, heading toward the great darkness that was the massive ship ahead. As the Triumphant faded quickly in his screens, he reached out in the Force calling on it for peace, for calmness. How long would he have nightmares about this? He looked as his bloodstained hands, felt the sting across his cheek. He had gotten sloppy, acting stupid… It was a lesson he’d better learn, or next time he wouldn’t make it out alive…
The massive green/black doors of the vessel loomed in front of them, as the Killiks explained. This is as far as anyone has ever gone. No one knows how to open the doors.
Xar considered the situation. There was no way of contacting the ship and no opening mechanism he could see. Obviously it was a hangar, but the doors were so impossibly huge he doubted even a Super Star Destroyer’s tractor beam could even budge them. It is impossible… the Killiks thought sadly.
Xar didn’t agree. There had to be a way. Even if the aliens who had controlled this ship were long dead, there must be a way to reactivate their technology. If the interdiction field was still working, then so would other systems be.
Even more curious was the sense he was getting through the Force. This vessel felt ancient, older than anything he’d ever seen before. He could feel no life inside, but instead a sense of… readiness. But it resonated with the Force, and if that was the case, Xar could reach out to it. He did so, feeling something there, something responsive. But it was massive, like a gnat reaching out to brush a Star Destroyer. He was going to have to use more power.
“Hold on, I think I’ve found something. This could take a minute,” he told his curious companions. Then he sat back in his chair and opened himself up to the Force fully. Instantly his awareness of himself in the room faded, and he saw himself there in the tiny shuttle, next to the sleeping giant, no longer pitch-black, but rather possessing an inner glow of energy. He quickly drew in as much of the Force as he could, feeling it fill him to bursting with its life and energy. He then reached out to the vessel, felt it respond. It seemed like a question, an inquiry as to who was making this contact. He felt something there, one definite point he could push against. Could he be interacting with a mechanism? He pushed, but it didn’t budge. Frustrated, Xar tried to draw in even more Force power. The sweetness of the Force became a sting on his skin, escalating to a burning sensation inside, but still it wasn’t enough. But the vessel reacted more strongly this time. I’m almost there, Xar realized. He had to draw more power. Into his mind he fed all his frustrations at being stuck here, all his burning desire to move forward and find Zalaria, to see her and be with her. His skin began to glow as more of the Force invaded him, and he felt as if he would explode like a bright supernova. Harnessing all of this energy, he threw it against the machine. Then he felt himself break forward. Whatever it was, gave way, and suddenly he was inside, a tunnel of light surrounding him, an alien presence in his mind, filling him with otherworldly thoughts and emotions. He fought for control as it drew him in, then with shock he realized he could still see the doors in front of him. Open… he thought. Open, blast you!
Then with a gasp like that of a drowning man, he let go of the Force. His consciousness rushed back in, and he slumped in his seat, all his strength passing away in an instant. He fought for breath, fought to keep his heart beating. The Killiks surrounded him, clicking concernedly. Ever so slowly, he regained control of himself. He was exhausted; after this he would have to sleep for hours. Even worse, he could see a partial reflection of himself in the cockpit window, and saw a sunken face, as if he had aged several years. Oh well, it would go away, in time.
At first, nothing happened. Then, in the blackness, a sliver of green light appeared as seams in the door, and slowly, they began to part. A pale source of light came from within, bathing the cockpit.
You did it… Jedi… No one else could do this. The Killiks buzzed with excitement. Xar felt ready to throw up.
Instead, he pushed the throttles forward, sending the ship through the doors and into the waiting Ancient…
Xar settled the shuttle onto a massive docking floor that spread for kilometers around. Pale green light bathed the white metal inside of the ship, but he couldn’t find its source. Massive walls rose overhead, and at the far end a single, dark hole indicated an exit.
He checked the main screen as he powered the shuttle down. “There’s atmosphere in here,” he said, astonished. The massive doors, cracked open to allow the shuttle passage, still stood as they were, but somehow a vacuum had been maintained. It looked clean enough on the readout. “Looks like we won’t be needing suits.”
His ‘copilot’ buzzed. Burrburrb. We will come with you, their minds told him. Xar didn’t argue. The situation on the Triumphant had made him feel indebted to the insects; maybe this would help him return the favor. “Let’s go.”
They disembarked the shuttle and started across the floor toward the exit. The air was cold, but smelled perfectly clean to his nostrils. After the VSD and the Killiks’ ship, it was totally welcome. They approached the open exit, a yawning mouth about ten meters wide, but Xar couldn’t see within. Then, as they crossed the threshold, the entrance lit up around them, revealing a long corridor ahead lit by a string of lights all the way down. The Killiks buzzed in surprise, but quickly settled back down.
“At least there’s just one way to go,” Xar remarked, more for the Killiks than himself. They followed the corridor for a hundred meters, then it curved off to the right and went for a hundred more. Then they emerged into an even large corridor. This one lit up as well, showing a massive tunnel that spread from left to right as far as the eye could see. It was as if the running lights simply merged and… vanished. How many kilometers long was this passage, on each side? It could traverse the length of the whole ship.
“Look like we have a long walk ahead,” Xar said. The Killiks replied with a burb. Then they did something totally unexpected. Taking the lead, they started off to the left. “Hey, where are you going?” he asked, but they silently pulled away from him. He followed, struggling to keep up to their four-legged gait.
There is something familiar here, the thought came to him suddenly. He frowned, unsure what the insects meant, but he kept following. Pretty soon he saw that instead of an endless, featureless tunnel, there were side corridors to be seen. And as they approached one on the right, the Killiks walked through without saying a word.
Xar followed them into a small chamber. The room was featureless except for a curious, symmetrical pattern across the floor. The Killik Xar recognized as his would-be copilot walked up to the symbol, reached down, and stroked it with its mandibles.
Instantly, an unseen door dropped down behind Xar, sealing them in the room.
“What the…?” Xar exclaimed, whipping back to the entrance. The wall was perfectly smooth; he couldn’t even make out where it had been! “What do you think you’re doing…?”
Then he felt the floor move beneath him. It wasn’t a jerking action, merely a sense of motion, like that of floating. There was no way of knowing how fast or in which direction they were going. How in the galaxy did these Killiks know how to make this ship work?
Then the sense of motion stopped. Xar opened his mouth to ask what to do next, but he didn’t have to. Suddenly, the walls all around them simply disappeared, retracting instantly into the floor, replaced by light, and sudden warmth.
And they were standing in the biggest chamber he had ever been in his life.
He stared up at the ceiling, rising what he estimated at nearly fifty kilometers overhead. They were in a massive, circular chamber, walls gently sloping up approximately fifty kilometers away in every direction. and far above he could see clouds, hovering over the far wall, sending shadows down onto structures below he couldn’t even identify.
And in the center of it all was a glowing, yellow sun.
The blinding, glowing object overhead stood suspended by no means he could conceive, only he knew it must be artificial, less than a kilometer in diameter. It shed it’s warmth to the entire chamber, and Xar realized he was looking at a technology far beyond anything he’d ever dreamed of. The place was a biosphere. Large panels rose up every few kilometers, stretching out toward the sun, taking in its energy. It must be the power source for the whole ship – no, not a ship, a station. But this station was designed to serve the same purpose as an entire planet.
At first, the Killiks seemed to be as confused as he was. Then they suddenly buzzed excitedly. We remember. This way.
He watched them walk off the metal deck plating onto a field of grass, heading into a copse of trees he hadn’t even noticed before. Xar moved quickly to catch up. “What do you remember? What are you talking about?”
We remember a place like this. Long before we left our home on Alderaan and searched the stars. There were those of us who knew them.
Alderaan? What were they babbling about? Xar suddenly wondered if the Killiks could be insane. “Them, who?”
Then suddenly they passed through the trees, and Xar was staring at a massive piece of architecture he did recognize, only it was much larger than any other he’d ever seen. A massive cone shaped structure jutted up out of the earthen floor for maybe five kilometers, reaching up toward the sun above. Surrounding it were a dozen smaller cones, each perhaps a kilometer in length. Just like on Varnus, he realized. The huge cone that had shoved itself up from within the planet, what scientists guessed was a giant repulsor, was an exact mirror image of the device standing before them now. That device, it was conjectured, could have been used to move the entire planet where it was, as if Varnus had not come from the Varnus System at all. And now this suggested that the phenomena on his home world wasn’t unique after all…
The Celestials built Centerpoint Station, the Killiks’ thoughts invaded his mind. They built the Maw Cluster of black holes. They built… this machine.
Xar blinked at the insects as they rushed about, running their antennae over the artifacts’ bases, buzzing in an incomprehensible hubbub. Centerpoint Station? He knew of it, of the theories of the Corellian System being built by an ancient alien race. But Maw Cluster, too? And the Killiks knew them?
This device, it controls the ship’s defense system too, the Killiks told them.
Barely believing his ears, much less his eyes, Xar was almost afraid to ask. “Can you… shut it down?”
There was a pause as the insects communicated excitedly. Then, Yes.
Xar merely watched as the Killiks went to work, touching a cone this way, another that. They traversed the ground back and forth in a pattern he couldn’t even begin to follow. The suddenly a symmetrical design of light appeared in the earth in front of them. In the center, light seemed to coalesce, creating a crystalline room that grew more and more intricate within. Into that room the Killiks went, touching this, touching that. Xar looked around the massive biosphere again. Strange that it was so comfortable here, so perfectly suited for life, but he couldn’t feel any life, anywhere. Not in the Force, nor with any of his other senses. There were no birds chirping, no insects buzzing – well, except for the Killiks, that is. Where had the Celestials gone? And why did they leave this thing just sitting here?
Then he was shocked out of his thoughts as the Killiks returned. He looked back, only to see the crystal room fading away once more. It is done, they said. We should leave, now.
“You’re sure?” he asked skeptically, but in return, the Killiks merely shouldered past him into the woods. “Not so fast! Don’t you want to find out more about this place?”
Their reply was brief but struck Xar with unassailable logic. We can return here at any time. First we must see to the survival of our people. History can wait longer.
Grimacing, Xar nodded and followed behind, feeling about as helpless as he ever had. But he could feel the Bond from Zalaria tugging at him again, knowing that, just perhaps, he could leave again. For the Killiks, the longevity of their species might be the most important thing. But for Xar, nothing compared with seeing her again...
They were docked with the Killik mother-ship once more. On the way back, Xar had already seen that the shuttle’s hyperdrive was fully functional again. Whatever the Killiks had gotten out of their shared memories from so many eons ago, it had done the trick. He had simply had to fly them back to their vessel again, and now he could be out of here and on his way once more.
He looked at the group of Killiks in their ships’ ready room, fighting the heavy smell of insect that permeated the place, and fought for something productive, conclusive, to say.
“I hope we will meet again,” he offered. In response, he felt an overwhelming wave of gratitude from the creatures around him. We could not have done this without you, Jedi.
Xar nodded. They had been mutually helpful to one another. “Well then, I guess I’d better let you go…”
His words were interrupted as a blast rocked the ship, sending his knees wobbling and several Killiks to the deck. Then another hit came, and he was thrown to the side as several screens in the room shot out sparks and died.
Before he could ask, they were at the screens, zooming in on the source of their attack. Xar’s stomach froze at the sight.
It was the Triumphant.
The aged VSD was operating under half-power, shieldless, its hull tattered and scorched, but she was coming straight in, firing at them with one good, patched-up turbolaser mounted on the front of the ship. The room was abuzz with wails of outrage and terror from the Killiks.
“Get us out of here!” Xar yelled to the insects. “Get to your posts!”
They hit our main deflector shield, the Killik hive mind told him. We cannot defend.
“Then fight back! She’s wounded, we can take her down!” He inflected his words with a push of the Force, sending several of them in the right direction. Another hit came in.
Lasers and blaster cannons opened up in response, lighting up the outer hull of the VSD, but the Killiks simply didn’t have anything to match even a normal turbolaser. Whether they had procured this ancient ship from some unknown alien race, or built it themselves out of their own spitcrete, he had no idea, but as another blast hit the vessel amidships, Xar was seriously considering making a go of it in his shuttle. He might at least have a chance there… No way was he going to end up food for those crazed, half-dead animals on that ship.
Another blast hit, and the lighting went into the emergency mode. Desperately Xar began to move toward the exit, his mind racing. Maybe he could call on the Force, disable their turbolaser… But the ship was several kilometers away, and he couldn’t see the weapon’s placement. If he couldn’t find it, he couldn’t do anything.
Then he saw that he wouldn’t have to. Suddenly from all around the VSD, weapons’ fire poured in, a myriad of colors and sizes. The Killiks’ screen enhanced the image, and Xar could see countless other ships moving in from the pitch blackness of the Rift, of shapes and types he didn’t recognize, but some he’d seen before. Many ships that had seemed lifeless before were now moving in, combining all their strength to take on the larger vessel. In shock Xar realized they had been floating adrift, playing dead, and buying their time out of fear of being the Triumphant’s next victim. Now, with renewed hope of escape, they were moving, and working together.
Xar quickly saw that the VSD wouldn’t stand. Explosions blossomed across her hull, and her single turbolaser went silent. Without shields, she was easy picking for the ships surrounding her, and more blasts tore through decks along her hull and bridge superstructure. Then suddenly the explosions were coming from inside, as the damage caused chain reactions inside the ship, its reactor compromised. Several bright blossoms of fire shot out of the VSD’s long body, and the bridge was consumed by a flaming fireball. Then the core went, and a huge explosion sent pieces of the ship flying in all directions.
Xar felt little pity. In fact, it was really a kindness to the crew of the Triumphant after all they had gone through. He felt only a moment’s regret at losing the only remaining records of his father’s last moments, of his planet’s downfall. But it was time to let the past die, he realized. He had to build a new future, now, both for his world, and for the new government he had sworn to serve and protect. And with a new woman in his life. As the Killiks buzzed around him in celebration, Xar’s thoughts wandered far away… To a spiral arm lying in wait, just out of sight…
Thank you, Jedi, for saving us, and for all you have done.
Xar looked out the viewport a the retreating Killik ship. Already his awareness of their consciousness was beginning to fade with distance. “No, my friends, thank you,” he said. “We did this together. I will not forget you.”
Nor we you, the thought came back dimly. Now we will go find a new place to live. We hope to meet again someday.
“As do I,” he replied. “Good hunting. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
As their presence faded from his mind, Xar turned his attention back to his navigation screens, re-entering the coordinates he’d set to take him across the Great Rift. The hyperdrive was working perfectly again. An interesting side trip it had been, but it was time to get things moving. Zalaria was waiting. His future was ahead.
The shuttle jumped into hyperspace again, leaving behind a mystery only time could solve. A piece of the past from beyond time recorded, its secret still sealed away from prying eyes. The ancients had lain in waiting this long, now they would wait some more.
The rest of the ships still alive out in the field began to leave as well, leaving the dead hulks behind. Among them was one particularly optimistic group of insects. The Killiks, it seemed, were off to find a home in the Unknown Regions, their contact with a Jedi Master leaving a lasting impression that would stay for years to come…
* * *
Grand Master Alyx Misnera looked up as a chime sounded, indicated he had visitors. He checked the auxiliary screen and saw two familiar faces standing outside. “Come in,” he said, and opened the door remotely. He had been expecting them.
A moment later his guests made their way into his office proper. First to enter was Jedi Paladin Jacob “Jinx” Skipper, a member of Jedi House Vortigern and one of his top men in the Jedi Division. A prince of the Renastasians, a people group that had been persecuted and forced to relocate countless times throughout the galaxy, Jinx had brought his people to Epsilon Sector and joined with the NI; he had also distinguished himself as an officer in the Intruder Wing and as a Jedi in the Division. Xar had appointed him the Magistrate of the whole Moro System, so the man generally was overseeing production of ships in the system as well as the Jedi House Vortigern base on the moon of Ravick.
Entering beside Jinx was Rynn Mariel, who had just returned with Skipper from the mission to retrieve Jedi Master Nico Flygras and Neres Warjan, the Quaestor of House Castellan. “Good to see you up and about again,” Alyx told Jinx, noting that he seemed to have recovered almost completely from getting stabbed through the middle by and Altarin’Dakor during the mission.
“Good to be here in one piece, sir,” Jinx replied, saluting as they came to a stop in front of his desk.
“You two did an exemplary job at Mizar,” Alyx complimented them. “What can I do for you?
“Sir, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but this is something I felt I should bring to your attention.” Jinx glanced at Rynn as she stepped forward a little uncertainly. “I think Jedi Knight Mariel here has developed a rare talent in the Force that could be vital for the New Imperium.”
Alyx looked up at Rynn with genuine interest as she began to speak.
“It was during the mission to bring back Master Nico and Crusader Neres,” Rynn started to explain. “During the battle, when things got heated and chaotic, I could feel the Altarin’Dakor’s energy level rising. Then after the battle, I felt their power drop a bit, then it suddenly spiked, and then after that it returned back to the level it was before the whole incident began.”
Alyx blinked in momentary confusion. “I’m afraid you lost me there, Rynn. What do you mean their ‘power level spiked?’”
“Well, I can’t really explain it more than that; I could just feel it. It’s as natural as breathing, now.”
“That’s what I’m telling you, sir,” Jinx put in. “You know how we’ve started measuring our Jedi members’ Force power levels using the Scanners we recovered from the artifact trove?” Alyx nodded, and Jinx continued. “Well, sir, I believe Knight Mariel has the ability to sense enemy activity – perhaps even how much Force power they’re using – by herself. If that is the case, it could be vital in tracking their movements or predicting their actions.”
Alyx sat back in his chair, considering his words in surprise. It was the first time he’d encountered such an ability in a person, although in studying records and Holocrons in the palace he’d come across similar powers in the past. He would be very impressed indeed if Rynn had manifested that kind of ability.
“I told her not to tell anyone about this before we came to you,” Jinx continued.
Nodding, Alyx continued to study the woman in front of him. “Do you sense anything out of the Altarin’Dakor right now?” he asked.
“No, sir,” she shook her head. “Only… small ripples, undercurrents. There’s nothing major going on – I’m sure I would know if there was.”
“Rynn, I believe Jinx is right: you truly do possess a unique ability,” Alyx told her, shaking his head in wonder. “And you’re wise to keep quiet about it. There are those who would do anything they could to exploit that power – the least of which is the fact that you’d be a target if the AD found out.” He held up a hand at the worried look on her face. “But relax; I think you’re just beginning to manifest this power. I need you to spend a lot of time in Force meditation on this. Honestly, I haven’t encountered anyone with this power before, but I believe that if you focus on it, it will come to fruition more readily. You have a rare Talent, Rynn. Congratulations.”
“Thank you sir, I think,” Rynn replied. She glanced sideways at Jinx, who was nodding approvingly at her.
“Keep this quiet for now, and be sure to let me know if you feel any more spikes in energy levels,” he instructed.
“I will, sir.”
He nodded a Jinx. “Well done, both of you. We can use every edge we can get in this war.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be returning to Moro soon, so please take care of Rynn while I’m gone.”
Alyx half-grinned despite himself. Could the Jedi Paladin possibly be interested in her? Oh well; with Paan and Oriana’s wedding and Xar running off after some woman, it seemed love was in the air. “She’ll be safe here; I promise you,” he said. He saluted the two Jedi as they turned to leave; then, shaking his head ruefully, he returned to the day’s reports.
Rynn and Jinx had said their good-byes, and Jinx had invited her to have dinner together one more time before he left to return to Moro. She’d accepted, realizing she was rather excited to spend more time with the crown prince of Renastasia. He was interesting, and comforting to be around. He, more than anyone else, seemed to embody the image of Jedi as noble protector that she had sought since fleeing the Empire and joining the New Imperium. So, having scheduled their next meeting, she retired to her quarters for the afternoon.
She sat down and began to catch up on her personal messages she’d gotten in, realizing she hadn’t checked them since getting back from the Mizar mission to save Neres. She had barely begun downloading her messages when one stood out immediately – or rather, the sender’s name stood out immediately. Could Bren really be back? she wondered breathlessly. He had vanished just before the Battle of Mizar and hadn’t been heard from since!
Immediately she found herself coming Jinx once again, feeling stupid for having to call him back after just parting ways, but she knew he needed to be there, too.
“Rynn? What is it; is everything okay?” Jinx’s concerned voice came over the commlink.
“Sorry to bother you already,” Rynn apologized, “But could you come back? There’s someone I want you to meet.”
They knocked on the door to Bren’s quarters, and Rynn practically jumped when she her the “Enter,” that came from within. She opened the door – and there he was, dressed in plain Jedi robes, looking exactly as she remembered, with his long blonde hair tied behind his head with a leather strap. “So it is you,” Rynn exclaimed, leading Jinx into the room behind her. “Where have you been, Bren? I tried calling you!”
He stood to greet them, then blushed slightly at her rebuke. “I’m sorry, I was… away,” he finished. “Rynn, it’s good to see you. And this is…?”
“Jedi Paladin Jacob Skipper, also known as ‘Jinx’,” Rynn said, gesturing to the other man present.
“At your service,” Jinx added, giving a slight bow.
“Bren, where have you been? What happened to you?” Rynn asked, unable to contain her concern and curiosity. Now that she was standing before him, he felt different. He must have gone thought something recently.
In response, Bren walked over and sat back down in one of the chairs at his table, which was covered with texts, sheets of flimsiplast, and a datapad, as usual. His eyes took on a distant look, and he seemed to choose his words carefully. Rynn and Jinx moved over to take chairs opposite him.
“I had to go away for a while, Rynn. I had to find out more about myself, who I really was. I had to do something that would jog my memory back into place. It worked; I got my memories back.”
“That’s great!” Rynn exclaimed, truly happy for him. “What did you find out?”
His eyes rose to meet her then, and there was a sadness in them that made Rynn wish she could comfort him, though she didn’t really know what was wrong. “They’re not fond memories – not most of them. I’ve done terrible things, Rynn,” he confessed. “I’m… not the man I used to be.”
“Hey, cheer up,” she told him, reaching across the table to take his hand. “You’re right – you’re not like that anymore, Bren. You’re not responsible for what you did before, not anymore.”
“I realize that,” he replied. “I will not be controlled by my past. And yet, I will have to face it, sooner or later. On the way back from my trip, I thought about a lot of things. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said. “I have been working on ways that we might be able to help the cause against the Altarin’Dakor, but in non-violent ways.”
That piqued her interest immediately; that was something close to her heart, something she’s debated for many nights, once she was alone and in bed.
“What do you have in mind?” Jinx spoke up beside her, obviously as curious as she was. Bren leaned forward, strength growing in his words that wasn’t there a moment before.
“The Altarin’Dakor believe only in strength; that is their tool to dominion. If we try to fight them in the same way that they have trained for thousands of years, we are not going to defeat them. In doing so, we completely neglect other aspects of the Force that can exploit weak spots in their armor. We are not going to find them in the strength aspect.”
“So in what aspect will we find such a weak spot?” Jinx asked. Rynn continued listening in fascination. This was not something she had been taught very much in the palace.
“The Force is a very complex, multifaceted thing,” Bren explained. “You may have heard two of these aspects referred to as the Living Force, versus the Here and Now Force.” At their uncertain looks, he continued. “There is aspect that focuses on strength, and there is the aspect that focuses on the more mental and spiritual exercises. The Altarin’Dakor train themselves almost exclusively to become stronger, to fight better – they are the perfect living weapons. But doing so decreases their ability to use the Sense aspect of the Force – glimpsing the future, unifying other Force users, creating harmonies. They exclude themselves from that aspect entirely.”
“Grand Master Xar mentioned that focusing on those areas seemed like a waste of time,” Jinx pointed out. “It takes so long to develop those skills, and they are so non-violent in nature, that they would not help us when we’re already under attack.”
“But someone has to do it,” Rynn put in. “If not, the Jedi – and the Force – will be completely unbalanced.”
“True,” Skipper put in. “I’m not saying I agree with Master Kerensky’s sentiments, I’m just pointing out the facts.”
Bren leaned in closer and fixed them both with a stare. “But it is a mistake to think that focusing on the Sense aspect is useless. That is what the Altarin’Dakor believe. And that is their weakness.” He looked from one to the other, a look of triumph on his face. “I believe that we will be able to defeat them by using the art of Jedi Battle Meditation. An Altarin’Dakor Jedicon is a living weapon, perfectly in tune with the Force. But he focuses only on himself; he does not coordinate himself with the other Jedicon around him. It’s not in his nature; to an Altarin’Dakor, violence and treachery are a way of life, the way they advance. They will not meld with one another in battle; they are too individualistic. So, if we can develop our Battle Meditation, we would be able to coordinate in a way that they could not, and take them down.”
To Rynn, it was as if a light had gone off inside her head. It was like a prison door had swung open, and now she was free. “Bren, Jinx and I just went to the Grand Master to tell him about something,” she began. Then she felt Jinx’s hand on her arm.
“Rynn, do you think it’s okay to…”
“I trust Bren completely,” she told him. “He needs to know this.” Looking back to Bren, she quickly recounted the entire meeting with Misnera, including her discovery of her ability to sense the Altarin’Dakor’s energy level during the conflict. When she was done, Bren sat back slowly, a look of awe on his face.
“Misnera is right, Rynn,” he told her softly. “You do have a rare Talent. In fact, you already have the first key component in using Jedi Battle Meditation.” He shook his head slowly. “I do not believe in coincidences; there is a reason all this is coming together right now. Rynn, I have vowed that I will not take up arms again in this war; I won’t do violence to harm others, even the enemy. My reasons are my own, but I believe this is a just cause. Would you be willing to work with me, to try and find a non-violent way to help fight against the Altarin’Dakor?”
“Bren,” she said, barely able to speak the emotions that were flowing through her, “There is nothing I would like to do more. I will help you.”
Bren smiled then, and Rynn realized that when he smiled, his entire countenance changed. He looked… at peace. For the first time in a long time, she felt a sense of hope stir within her heart. Finally, she had a purpose, something she could fully devote herself to. She would study Battle Meditation with all her might, and she would master it to help the NI become the place of peace that she had envisioned it to be.
She glanced at Jinx, who was taking it all in with a very thoughtful expression on her face. “What do you think, Jacob?” she asked him. “Do you agree with us on this?”
He looked at her and grinned. “Rynn, I think this is your calling; far be it from me to try and stop you. In fact, I think this may be the key that we’ve been missing. And I think Master Misnera will agree to this, also. We need Jedi focusing on different aspects of the Force in this war, or otherwise we’ll be unbalanced, as Bren was saying.” He glanced at the other man. “I wish I could join you, myself, but I have obligations to fulfill as an officer, as well. But I want you to know I’m behind you one hundred percent.”
“Thanks, Jinx,” Rynn said, looking up at him and smiling instinctively. She had just gained a new level of respect for the man. “So, what were you thinking about?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes,” Skipper replied. “Well, I was just thinking about what Xar would think. If he comes back, that is.”
“I’m sure he’ll come to agree with us, in time,” Bren offered.
Rynn just shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. This is the right thing to do. I will focus all my energy on this.”
“Well, this makes two of us, then,” Bren added. “And I have a feeling there will be many more to come.”
“We’ll find them,” Rynn said resolutely. After all, this might be the key not only to their survival, but to the whole galaxy, as well. She reached deep down inside, holding on to that ball of hope that had come to life once more. This time, she decided, she wasn’t going to lose it.
* * *
The shuttle’s proximity alert lit up with an electronic beep, signaling that it was almost time to come out of hyperspace. Xar came out of his meditative state immediately, reached over to the controls and tripped the alarm switch. He breathed a momentary sigh of relief. Finally, this long, lonely trip was almost over. Almost a month in hyperspace could drive even a Jedi Master to the edge of his nerves. He hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything for long; his thoughts would invariably drift back to Zalaria, the sense of her and their bond driving him on, inexorably. And at this point, his impatience had almost grown to the point of anxiety, and he had found it almost impossible to summon the patience required for mediation. There had been enough setbacks already, and he wasn’t prepared to tolerate any more. The one major setback he’d had, that horrible stop that had almost cost him his life, was still something he was trying to forget about. Still, there were too many unanswered questions involved in that episode. Who were the Celestials who created the machine that had disabled everyone’s hyperdrives? Who were the strange, insectile Killiks who had helped him to escape? And even more, the things he had seen onboard the VSD Triumphant; seeing what had really happened on Varnus all those years ago. And the madness that had ensued. He reached up and scratched at the new scar cutting across the side of his face and down past his neckline. That encounter had been way too close.
Looking up from his seat in the pilot’s chair, he checked the main viewscreen and the heads-up-display there. Indeed, his shuttle was near the end of his charted path. He’d crossed the Great Rift entirely, a very long and even dreaded trip, even though it wasn’t the widest part of the rift he’d crossed. Now he was inside the far spiral arm, the only thing between Epsilon Sector and the edge of the galaxy. This arm was quite understandably part of the Unknown Regions, as it was still classified as ‘completely unexplored’. He was now in a part of the galaxy where legends spoke of, the resting place of races and wonders that had never been discovered by the denizens of the known galaxy. He knew that Ssi-Ruuk space was rumored to be in a star cluster outside Epsilon Sector… But compared to this, they might be considered locals. Of the five spiral arms in the galaxy, this was possibly the most unknown. It was frightening, yet exhilarating at the same time.
But he hardly had time to consider such things. There was a mission ahead of him. His route would put him in a random star system he’d charted from Epsilon Sector. From there, he’d have to compile a starmap and let the Force guide him where he needed to go. There were no maps of this area of the galaxy. Reaching over to the controls, he cut back the HUD, and the mapped course faded into the swirling sky of hyperspace. He put his hands on the reversion controls, watching the timer as it approached zero. When it did, he pulled back on the controls, and the sky reverted into starlines, then resolved back into stars. Ahead of him, a small white sun pulsed; the system he’d locked onto. That objective accomplished, he set the computer to compiling a working map from the starfield around them. Then he sat back to wait impatiently, starting another round of useless meditation…
He awoke to the beeping of the computer once more, signaling the completion of its task. He checked his chrono – ten hours had passed. Bringing the new map up on the display screen, he saw just how rudimentary it was. He glanced at the motley collection of multicolored stars, stretching out to the Force, and trying to sense Zalaria’s direction. The feeling of her presence had grown slightly stronger over the course of the journey, and he could almost make out her exact location. No, not the green star… The feeling grew stronger as he passed the blue one… And there. A main-sequence yellow-orange star, similar to Varnus’ sun. The feeling was strongest there. That was undoubtedly where he would find her. He felt himself growing almost giddy at the thought.
Quickly, he set the coordinates into the navicomputer, and launched the shuttle into hyperspace once more. And every second that passed, his excitement and anticipation grew all the more.
Just under twelve hours later, the shuttle dropped back into realspace again. This time, he could see the yellow-orange sun much larger in front of him, as a blue-green sphere loomed into view ahead. He studied the planet as it grew larger with his approach, set his scanners to find what they could from orbit. The world appeared very hospitable, a lush, green environment that bordered on jungle. Land and ocean both covered about half the surface that he could see. It looked like a fitting world for an Altarin’Dakor Warlord.
The planet began to loom in his view now, and he suddenly noticed something else ahead. Ships. The scanner picked up several vessels, capital size. He traced the viewport with his eyes, found the dark outlines of three long shapes, at least 3,000 meters each in length. His mind started working the moment he saw them; he knew he wouldn’t be able to reach the surface on his own. They would be able to take him out long before he made it. No, the best way would be to come straight on, in plain sight.
He put himself on a heading that would take him in right alongside the picket ships. If they didn’t notice him coming in, then they’d have to be blind, asleep, or both. As it turned out, they were neither. A second later, his commlink squealed, then crackled into life.
“Domina,” a smooth yet decidedly unfriendly voice came over the speakers. “Ka hana’te von’uas.”
Putting on a half-grin, Xar hit the commlink button to reply. He did have one thing to thank Kronos for: teaching him the language of the Altarin’Dakor. Part of that brainwashing attempt had actually done some good.
“Ne tonos anatan,” he replied, trying to sound cheerful. “Tenemba New Imperium duana Xar Kerensky. Vos…” He paused for a moment, struggling to find the words that he wanted to say. Then he sighed, speaking the only words he knew would work.
“I surrender,” he said in Altarin’Dakor.
He was taken onboard one of the ships, escorted from his shuttle by a full squad of shock troops, each clad in a mass of black and gray armor. They prodded him along menacingly with their long-barreled pulse rifles, and Xar didn’t have any doubt that they were prepared to use them. He was led though the dimly-lit corridors of the ship, until they finally emerged into a large room that seemed like a conference area. A long table occupied part of the room, lined with chairs, with a carpeted floor and rather nice furnishings. He was surprised that they hadn’t just thrown him into a cell. Apparently they were interested to know how an outlander had made it all the way to one of their inhabited worlds on his own.
A moment later, a side door opened, admitting a tall man dressed in uniform. It was his first look at a real Altarin’Dakor in a while; this man was probably the captain, judging by the elaborate uniform. His dark face was clean-shaven, and his hair was black, and slicked back against his head. But it was the two beings that entered behind him that caught Xar’s attention even more. One was a human male, in a similar yet simpler uniform, with dark hair that fell down almost to the base of his neck. The other was of a race Xar couldn’t identify, a reptilian bipedal being with a short snout, dark green scales for skin, and a head ridge that stuck up from the top of his head. Both beings wore elaborate black tattoos sprawled across their faces, and he could sense the Force strongly within both of them.
Jedicon, he realized. Now his strategy would have to change somewhat. He wouldn’t be able to manipulate the captain’s mind, convince him to take him to the surface, with the two Jedicon standing there behind him. Both of the Force-sensitive warriors had their complete focus on Xar, now, their stares cold and malicious. He didn’t think the two would be able to take him down alone. But then again, if it came to a fight, he was dead, anyway.
The captain spoke first, addressing him harshly in Altarin’Dakor. “Who are you, outlander?” he demanded. “How did you come here, and how do you know our language?”
Xar forced a smile back onto his face, tried to act as sincere as possible. He knew that if he could look comfortable, as if he was in charge of the situation, the Altarin’Dakor would be more likely to go along with him. “I told you who I am,” he retorted smoothly in fluent Altarin’Dakor. “And I do not have to answer to you. Take me down to the planet immediately. I must speak with Zalaria personally.”
If the use of Zalaria’s name provoked any emotional response within the group, they hid it too well to discern. The captain let an eyebrow raise, but he didn’t back down an inch. “What are you talking about, outlander?” he asked. “You are now a prisoner of war. You will not make demands to us.”
“I can, and I will,” Xar shot back. A thought had sparked in his head, a memory left there from his brainwashing to become Altarin’Dakor. “I invoke sha’zarad,” he announced.
This time both the captain’s and the two Jedicons’ eyes widened in surprise. They obviously hadn’t thought that he would know of such a ritual, probably even more doubted that it would apply to someone like him. The two Jedicon behind the captain exchanged wary glances; he could tell they were communicating telepathically. The Altarin’Dakor tradition of a conquered leader being granted an audience before the commander in charge was probably rarely invoked anymore, simply because the vanquished side didn’t know it existed. But even though this captain didn’t have to honor the request, it would be very out of tradition not to. Xar was amazed that such a tidbit had sprung to mind… Amazed that it had been part of his brainwashing by Kronos.
“I’m afraid you are mistaken, outlander,” the captain said. “I am in charge; therefore you already stand before the commanding officer.”
Xar could tell from his eyes that the man was testing him. He arched an eyebrow of his own. “That’s a very brash, and very dangerous lie to tell, don’t you think?” The reptilian Jedicon snarled, but Xar ignored him. “If the Shok’Thola finds out, he or she will be quite displeased, I’m sure.”
For a moment the captain seemed to hesitate, considering. It was a large decision in his hands right now. The captain had to know the lie that he was in charge would probably get him killed if his superior found out. But on the other hand, assuming he knew about Zalaria, he might be loathe to actually bother her. Then again, another of those tidbits, combined with something Icis had told him before, made him dimly remember that the vast majority of the Altarin’Dakor weren’t even aware of the Warlords’ existence. It was entirely possible this captain didn’t even know Zalaria was on the planet, only some commander-in-chief. The lives and affairs of the Warlords were far beyond the interests of the common people; they were still worshipped as mythical gods on some Altarin’Dakor worlds. If that was the case, he’d have to think of something else, and fast.
The two Jedicon seemed to exchange something telepathically again, then the long-haired human spoke. “I know no one here by the name you speak. Our Shok”Thola is the Fist of the Million Suns himself. You have come to the wrong place, outlander.”
Xar had no idea what he was talking about, but the captain’s eyes widened at that admittance. Xar continued on with his improvisation. “Nevertheless, I have invoked sha’zarad. Take me to your commander-in-chief, whoever he or she may be.” He leveled the captain with a stare.
Finally, the man came to his decision, and shook his head. “As you wish,” he said, the reluctance clear in his voice. “We will take you to the surface. But if you make any suspicious action, I promise you will not live to see tomorrow.”
“Understood,” Xar replied as the captain turned and started to leave. He gave the two Jedicon one last glance, this one full of real contempt. Amazing – they were Force users, yet as foreign to him as any alien could be. They were enemies. Their return glares were no less hostile.
The Altarin’Dakor shuttle soared down into the planet’s atmosphere, its streamlined body much faster and more graceful than the Imperial-style shuttle that Xar had been in before. He sat by one of the ship’s windows, still under guard, but with an increasing feeling of confidence mounting within him. He was sure now that he could make it to her, and once he did… Well, then these petty servants wouldn’t even matter.
Outside, he saw the surface growing much
closer, watched as they flew over a massive city which seemed to be their
destination. The city was unlike any he’d ever seen. The bright sun shone down
on massive pyramidal shapes; some kilometers wide at their bases. They sparked
another distant memory, as if he’d seen images of this city before. The huge
modern pyramids were buildings, of varying sizes, ranging from small to
massive. They reminded him somewhat of the
All around the pyramids were more traditional skyscrapers, buildings that reached 500 meters or more in height. As they passed over the city, descending as they went, he was unable to make out exactly how far it extended in area. He could probably drop in Vectur, on Varnus, and lose it in the jumble. It was, all around, a striking scene, a blend of old architecture and high technology.
Finally the shuttle slowed, dropping quickly near one of the largest structures he’d seen yet. A large palace-like structure rose nearer in his vision, as the shuttle descended onto a large landing pad area nearby.
They touched down with a soft bump, and as he rose on his own, the guards and other passengers got up to head out as well. They filed out without incident, though Xar could see the guards still had their weapons at the ready, prepared to use them at any moment.
He exited the craft into a blast of balmy wind, a sharp contrast to the cold air inside the ship. He breathed in the tropical air, looked out at the scenery around him. The landing area was enclosed by a low wall. Buildings of varying shapes and heights rose all around, mostly descending below the level of the pad itself. He figured that the pad was elevated somewhat, and the rest of the city around was connected by bridges and stairways, creating something of a maze-like environment. One singular, large palace rose nearby, the one he’s seen from inside the ship. That would be where Zalaria was. He could sense her presence much more strongly now, an almost intoxicating feeling. She was close by. There had always been a sense of the Bond they held, even when he was back in the New Imperium. But he hadn’t felt it this strongly since before they had parted last, and it was a sweet feeling indeed now that it had returned. It was like being truly alive.
A contingent of four guards took up positions around him, on orders from the commander that had been sent down with them. Then they started off, leading Xar toward the large palace. Xar followed, the growing sense of excitement and anticipation within him almost overwhelming. He wondered what she would look like, if she’d be exactly how he remembered. He’d never forget the first time he’d seen her… The moment he’d fallen madly and helplessly in love with her.
They crossed over the landing pad and reached a guarded gate at the edge of the wall, passed quickly through without any problems. They descended a long white staircase, continued along on an empty pathway to one of the palace’s side gates. There they went though a brief inspection by another set of guards, before entering the palace proper.
Inside, the palace was a beauty to behold. It seemed made of stone or marble, with white colored walls and gold trim, marble floors, and exquisite furnishings and decorations. He took all this in quickly, though, and dismissed it. He was only really concerned with finding one person. They continued on, passing along open-air balconies and walkways. The interior, instead of being heavily enclosed, was actually very open, and every new turn offered some new view of the skyline or of elaborate, exotic gardens.
They rounded one open balcony corner, started up another stairway on the side of the palace that rose higher into the structure. Suddenly, the feeling of her presence through the Bond, which had been increasing up to this point, stopped, started fading slightly. He realized that they were starting to move away… They weren’t leading him to Zalaria. He stopped walking.
Immediately the guards turned back toward him. “Why have you stopped?” one asked.
“Where are we going?” Xar said suspiciously.
“To meet our commander, of course,” the man replied roughly. “Have you realized your error? It is too late to back out now. You must live with your decision, or die with it.” They broke into laughter at that.
Slowly, Xar shook his head. They might be leading him to some lower official, but they were not taking him to Zalaria. Maybe they really didn’t know she was ultimately in charge. Either way, he wasn’t going with them any further. He turned, looked down and out across the balcony view. Yes, the feeling was stronger that way. This close, he could almost pinpoint her location exactly. Using the Force to enhance his vision, he scanned the busy walkways and balconies, the pathways and gardens, searching for her. Further off, people walked back and forth across a milling road. He let his vision drop, looking down, closer… He spotted an empty walkway. But not completely empty; there was one figure there, in a bright, shining dress of blue and white. Dark hair extended down past her shoulders. She was looking away from him, out across another balcony, and he couldn’t quite make out her features. But he knew it was her, standing there in plain view. He knew she was waiting there for him. His vision narrowed; he could only see her. Like an arrow trained on the center of its target.
Forgetting the guards, he started forward, all his thoughts now completely in focus. He moved quickly to the railing, cleared it with one jump, landing on another walkway several meters below. Springing back up, he started running again, hearing the guards dropping to the deck behind him.
“Stop!” he heard one of them shout. But he wasn’t listening. He raced along the walkway, up a short flight of steps, turned onto another, the one she was on. He was almost there. He paused briefly, mounting over another short railing.
“You cannot go over there!” the guard yelled frantically. “Stop or we will have to kill you!”
Xar looked back one last time at the man, gave him a cold, hard stare. After all the time he’d waited for this moment, there was no way he would let it be stopped. Turning, he ignored the guard and ran forward once more.
He noticed that she was still facing away from him, perhaps purposely. She had to know that he was coming, with the shouts behind him. Then, just before he reached her, she turned…
Xar ground to a halt, stopping half a meter in front of her, completely entranced. By the Core, but she was even more beautiful than he remembered. She looked slightly different than when they’d first met. Her long hair slid back and was tied behind her head, but it was the same lovely near-black as before. Her face was a vision of beauty, her skin dark and tanned. Her eyes were a deep blue, almost violet, the same eyes that now drove out all rational thought within him, threatened to swallow him whole and drive him mad with their ancient beauty. Those eyes, full of more wisdom and knowledge than he could dream of, so intelligent, able to strip his very soul bare before her gaze. This was the woman that stood before him now, a completely unreadable look on her face.
He couldn’t help himself – the impulse was too much to resist. Taking her by the arms, he leaned forward and kissed her. He kept his eyes open, staring straight into hers, sharing an intimacy that threatened to overwhelm him. At first her lips were stiff as he kissed her, yet slowly they softened, as she let him continue to kiss her. At the same time, he thought he felt her lips pressing against his, as well. He let the kiss linger as long as he dared, his head swimming. Finally, he felt her hand on his chest, pressing him away. He pulled back in compliance, breathing deeply, struggling against the rush of emotion and adrenaline running through him.
Keeping him at arm’s length with one hand, she took a breath as well, a half-astonished look on her face. Slowly, she shook her head. “Xar… You don’t know how close to death you just were.”
He felt chill bumps race over his skin as he understood her words. Ignoring the guards like that and running up behind her was probably the most dangerous thing he’d ever done. He knew what he’d done had been assuming and rude, yet he couldn’t bring himself to apologize. Somehow, he knew she didn’t need one.
Glancing behind him, he noticed that the guards were nowhere to be seen. Apparently seeing him still alive after what he’d done was enough evidence that he wasn’t an enemy.
“Xar, what are you doing here?” she asked then, taking his attention back.
“I had to come,” he said. “I had to be with you; I couldn’t stand it any longer.” It was true, from the depths of his heart.
Her eyes fell, and the barest of smiles came onto her face. His heart fluttered as he looked at her, every moment causing him to fall more deeply in love with her. He watched her every move, etching it into his memory, his very being. She was the only thing that mattered.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she said softly. “But it’s too late for that.” Turning, she started to move past him, back across the courtyard. He moved in beside her, not taking his eyes off of her. “But now that you’re here, I suppose I should make you feel welcome,” she added.
“Whatever you like,” he said. He didn’t care where she went or what she did; all he wanted to do was be by her side, at this moment. Being here, in her presence, was even better than he had imagined it would be. He felt more complete now than he’d ever felt in his life. The urgent, raging sense of loneliness that he’d been fighting was replaced with an ecstatic sense of her presence beside him.
“You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.
She must have heard him, for she smiled and glanced over at him. “The Bond,” she said, in her beautifully smooth, almost melodious voice, “is what drew you here to me. I must have tied it even more strongly that I’d intended.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The Bond is what makes you desire me so,” she said. “It has linked our minds and our spirits through the Force. We have been connected more closely than any physical joining could accomplish, in a way that is hard to understand or explain.”
“All the more reason why we should be together,” he said. “We can feel each other’s presence, each other’s mind, in a way otherwise impossible. We’re meant for each other, Zalaria.” He broke off, his breath coming short. He realized how exhilarating it actually was, talking to her at last. It was like he’d known her all his life. There was no awkwardness or indecision about what he wanted to say. Then her words cut through his thoughts.
“You’re going to have to learn to control yourself. I know this will take time.”
“But I…” he began.
“We can discuss this later,” she said, cutting his thoughts off short. She turned toward him again, gave his face a calculating look. “You’ve been busy,” she said softly. “I don’t like that on you.”
Xar started to ask what she meant, but before he could she reached up to him and brushed the side of his face with her hand. He felt an intense tingling at her touch. As she drew back, he ran his hand across where she had stroked him, the place where his scar had been, and found only smooth flesh. The wrinkles he’d obtained from intense Force use had disappeared, as well. He drew in a marveled breath.
“Meanwhile, since you’re finally here with me, there are things that you need to learn and understand.”
“All right,” he said, nodding. He understood the logic behind her words. It was hard to clear his head of the boyish thoughts running through his head, of somehow scooping her up in his arms and asking her to marry him, as if that was the only thing in the universe that mattered. A moment ago, he would have believed that it was. But now the logical part of his mind was working again, at least partially. But still, she was just so beautiful…
“This is my palace,” she said, gesturing around them. “Do you like it? You’ll be staying here for a while.”
“Yes, it’s beautiful,” he said, looking around. Indeed, he hadn’t noticed it that much before. Everything seemed perfectly placed, as if it were some artist’s rendition instead of a real place. Yet such an exquisite place existed right in the middle of the massive city. Around them, the skyline was full of buildings and ships that flew back and forth in the distance. But none seemed to fly directly overhead; it must be a safety zone, here.
Off in the near distance, he noticed a massive structure deeper within the city, dominating the rest of the skyline. It was a massive building, but at the top was a huge round sphere, held up several hundred meters in height by the trunk of the building. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing.
“Later,” she said, choosing not to answer his question. “Come inside, I’ll show you to your accommodations.”
He walked by her side as they entered the palace and continued through its corridors. There were other people about, going about their business, but none ever actually got close. They were always further on, always disappearing around a corner before they could reach them. It was as if everyone knew who Zalaria was, but they pretended not to. He decided to voice his thoughts.
“I thought that most people aren’t aware of your existence and leadership,” he said.
She gave a short nod as they continued walking. “I am here with my personal entourage,” she said. “They travel with me wherever I go. This is just a temporary residence. By the way, your command of Altarin’Dakor is exquisite.”
He smiled. Ever since he’d reached her, they’d been speaking only in the Altarin’Dakor tongue. “Thank you. Kronos taught me well, I guess.”
“Ah yes,” she said. “That. Well, I believe you’ll find your time here much more enjoyable. You’ll have quarters here in the palace, and we have a full range of amenities to keep you busy, including training rooms. In fact, I would be interested to have you tested, if you feel ready for it.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I believe you are familiar with accessing someone’s Potential in the Power – forgive me, the ‘Force’ – or in other words, the maximum amount of Force power that they can draw, using a scale of numbers?”
“Yes,” Xar answered. “We do that to a limited extend in the NI, but only we have a few devices. They’re pretty bulky and old.”
“Well, ours are a bit more advanced,” she said with a smirk. “We have miniaturized versions for field use, but to get the most accurate reading you must test within a special chamber.”
They turned into a hallway lined with doors, and she stopped next to one of them, putting a hand on the latch and opening it. “But that can wait until later,” she said. “These are your quarters. You must be tired from your long journey, so you should get some rest.”
“What?” he blurted out, dismayed. He didn’t want to leave her; he had just found her! “But I’m not tired.”
“Of course you are,” she replied smoothly. “I can feel your fatigue through the Bond.”
“Oh,” he said, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “I… guess I can’t keep anything from you, can I?”
“I would advise you never to even consider keeping secrets from me,” she said. Her tone was lighthearted, but he knew to take it seriously.
“Point taken,” he said. “But I want to stay with you.”
“I have some things to take care of Xar. I don’t think you’d be interested in them. They’re rather boring, I’m afraid.”
“Oh,” he sighed. “Well, all right. But I want to see you first thing in the morning. And could you have my things brought down from orbit? They confiscated them when they took me in.”
“You won’t need them. We’ll provide you with clothing and everything you need,” she said. “Good night, Xar.”
He hesitated, but all he could say was “Goodnight,” as the door to his quarters closed.
His rooms were large and luxurious, a massive change from the cramped shuttle’s quarters, and equipped with its own sonic shower and a real bathtub in which he took a long soak. Then, donning a robe provided, he endeavored to get some sleep. The next morning he was woken early by a robed servant who also brought him fresh clothing. He got up, took another shower and freshened up before donning his clothes and heading outside. The garments provided for him weren’t really that different from those he was used to: a plain pair of tan-colored pants and a loose white shirt, both made of light material that would serve well in the hot, humid environment outside. The servant waited for him at the entrance, and escorted him through the palace to another balcony, this one with a set table covered with food, including fresh, exotic fruits and even more interesting cuisine he couldn’t identify. Standing at the balcony was Zalaria, covered in a multicolored robe and her hair braided elaborately behind her head. As soon as she entered, she was the only thing he had eyes for.
“Good morning, Xar,” she said, turning toward him. “Did you sleep well?”
“Very,” he replied. “You look beautiful this morning.”
“You don’t have to keep saying that,” she told him, sitting down at the table.
“But I want to. I enjoy it.” He took the seat opposite her and quickly dug into the meal. He hadn’t realized how long it had been since he’d last eaten. With all his meditative waiting on the ship, food wasn’t a priority. It must have been several days since his last meal. “This is a beautiful world,” he remarked, looking up at the deep blue sky. “I don’t even know its name, though.”
“It is called Du’nitha.”
That meant ’Conqueror’ in Altarin’Dakor. “That’s an odd name for a planet,” he said.
“True,” she admitted with a condescending nod. “A little deceiving. Perhaps.”
“It is like a paradise,” he added. “Teeming with life, perfect weather…”
“Of course it is. That’s all controlled and regulated,” she said, smiling at the blank look he gave her. “Xar, there is much that you don’t know about, things that you have no idea exist. Yes, our technology may seem to be beyond your wildest dreams, but we’ve had plenty of time to perfect our society.” She took a sip of water, set it back down with a thoughtful look on her face. “In some ways, I envy your naiveté.”
She broke off as Xar set his fork down with a clang. He stared at her as a sense of déjà vu came over him. Her words were a little to coincidental, too close to something Kronos had told him. It was during one of his torture periods, where he’d been brought before the Warlord, taunted and battered…
He lay sprawled on the floor, coughing blood from the repeated kicks to his midsection. He struggled to rise, but only succeeded in falling down onto his back.
“Only serve me,” Kronos whispered fiercely. “And I shall grant you power beyond your wildest dreams. All this will end, replaced by a life of pure bliss and ecstasy.”
“Never,” Xar had shot back defiantly, foolishly. “You can offer me nothing.”
Kronos stood back, shaking his head, a bemused smile on his face. “You poor naïve fool,” he said softly. “You have no idea of the pleasures this universe has to offer you. All you would have to do is serve me, and I could give you anything you wanted.”
His eyes bore down on Xar. “Think about it. No more pain, no sadness. You could live like a god. Everything at your control, subject to your slightest whim. And yet, you would refuse this? Why?”
Xar had no real answer, could only hold on to the stubborn resistance he had ingrained in himself. Kronos seemed to be disappointed at his response, and rose his foot to kick him again…
He looked back up, seeing Zalaria once more in front of him. He shivered for an instant as the memory left, then fixed her with his gaze, unable to stop a sense of skepticism rising in him.
“Those days are passed, Xar,” she told him, obviously knowing what he’d been thinking. “I am not the same as Kronos.”
“I almost forgot that you’re an Altarin’Dakor,” he said. “And a… Warlord. So what is all this, is it just for my benefit?” He gestured toward the table, then all around them.
“You’re very clever, Xar,” she said. “But it’s not that. Allay your fears; I’ll explain things in time. Meanwhile I’m offering you the best of my hospitality. You didn’t exactly catch me at my best.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’ll talk more later,” she said. “First, you agreed to be tested, remember?”
He gave an impatient sigh. “Okay, so how do we go about that?”
“Follow me,” she said, rising as they finished their breakfast.
He stood in the center of a rounded, cylindrical chamber. The room was bare of any decoration except for the ceiling above him, from which extended a mesh of equipment apparently designed to measure his Force ability. On one side of the room was the control center, and he looked at the staff through the thick protective windows, mostly watching Zalaria, who stood inside.
“This chamber is specially designed to measure the full power of a Jedicon, without worry of collateral damage,” she said. “It will suffice just as well for you.”
“Sounds good,” he replied, his voice echoing in the circular room. “What do I have to do?”
“When you receive the signal, I want you to draw in the Power… the Force, to your maximum ability,” she instructed. “Go until you reach the point where you can’t go any further, then use your rage and frustration to reach even farther. The strongest point you can sustain, as measured by our equipment, will show us your maximum Force power.”
Her words no longer struck him as odd. Elsewhere in the galaxy, it was thought that anger and rage would lead one into the “Dark Side” of the Force, and were to be avoided especially while using the Force. But he now knew that all natural emotions were part of the same, natural Force, and ‘light’ and ‘dark’ depended more on what one did with their anger than in having it. He now used what they had termed the ‘True Force’, in the same way as the Altarin’Dakor themselves did. Of course, adjusting from a former ‘dark side’ way of learning, adjusting his thinking and philosophy more than anything, had been extremely difficult, painful, and time consuming. Thankfully Icis had been there to guide him. Now the results were well worth the effort.
Taking a deep breath, he nodded. “Ready whenever you are.”
Xar steeled his nerves, letting all emotion rush out of him as he focused on the nature of the Force. He could feel its energy all around, there if he needed it, ready to respond to his commands, as well as direct his path ahead. Touching that point where it connected to him, to all Force-sensitive beings, he felt its energy flood into him. At the same time, the man at the front console gave him the go-ahead.
Clenching his fists, Xar raised them above him, tightening all of his muscles, opening himself to every bit of the Force he could draw. The machine above him flared to life, beeping and whirring, and he saw the consoles in the control room light up, projecting a number scale onto the windows. The chart flew upwards at an incredible rate, reaching ten thousand within seconds, rising to twenty, then thirty. He could see that the operatives’ eyes were widening already, but Zalaria still stared at the screens, her expression focused. He determined himself to push all his ability to its limits, needing to impress her. As he reached his normal maximum, he strained it further, letting emotion flood through him, focusing the raw power of the True Force through the conduit that was his physical body. He concentrated his fury, listening as the numbers rose higher, passing forty thousand. He let out a low roar of effort, letting his voice increase in pitch and intensity as he strained every bit of energy he could muster. The immense power he was drawing was too much for him to contain, and it pulsed out from his body in invisible waves of energy, creating the Sphere of Projection that measured the outward personal energy of a Jedi’s power. His skin started to glow and glisten with blue energy, as well. The numbers continued to rise, but more slowly, tapering off as they rose upward less and less often. He felt like he was going to burst! If he held on much longer, it would kill him; he would truly become one with the Force. Either that or he’d burn himself out and never be able to touch it again. He strained with his last effort to maintain it, managed it for several seconds, then finally let the Force flow from him, dropping down to a point he could hold on to without straining.
All the operators looked as though they were in shock, but Zalaria only stood up, arching an eyebrow. Xar let the Force drain away from him, slowly enough that he could cope with the loss of such a river of power. Then he turned toward the room’s entrance, made his way around into the command center itself. Zalaria was waiting for him when he arrived, a somewhat pleased expression on her face.
“Not bad,” she admitted with a respectful nod. “Your Force level is 45,734. But, you could be higher. You will be, with training.”
“Yes, I know. I keep pushing myself, because I know I can keep getting stronger.”
“It is quite an accomplishment to do so,” she nodded, taking on a lecturing tone. “Fifty thousand is usually the limit for mortals such as you. And even those are legendary. Almost none on the Jedicon get close to that level, and only rarely have I ever seen it at all, except during the Great War. I think you’ll max out around that level. Amazing, actually. I’ll be interested to know exactly how you’ve done it.”
Xar kept quiet. That subject brought back other unpleasant thoughts, of his former training in the dark side of the Force, Runis’ teaching and Sith practices, and what he had done to gain a much higher level of Force ability. He hoped she wouldn’t ask about it in detail.
She didn’t. Turning, she started on her way out, and he moved to follow beside her. “So, I was wondering,” he spoke up. “What’s your Force power level?”
She looked over at him, giving a sly look. “Now that,” she said, “is something best kept secret… for now.”
* * *
He remained with Zalaria for the
next two weeks, staying there at the palace. His time was split between being
with Zalaria, and spending time in the large training area of the palace. He
worked on his own, for the most part, staying as far away from Zalaria’s
Jedicon as he could. At first he was surprised that she actually had Jedicon,
but it only made sense, he realized. She was an Altarin’Dakor Warlord, after
all. Her Jedicon didn’t seem to trust Xar any more than he did them. The
Altarin’Dakor equivalent of Jedi, he knew that they were more than a match for
their NI counterparts, and probably knew almost as many techniques as Xar
himself, if not more. After all, they were trained almost from birth for their task,
honed to be living weapons, designed for one thing: battle. Their very name –
Jedicon – meant ‘True Jedi’, and they loathed those poorly-trained ‘imitators’
who populated the galaxy at large. Luke Skywalker and his
His time with Zalaria was priceless to him, though. They would often walk together, discussing things. She proved to be more mentally apt than he in most cases, it seemed. He realized that all his experience and knowledge as a Jedi was nothing compared to what she must know.
Xar also learned that she was, in fact, an
Elerian. Though human in every other respect, Elerians had a longer natural lifespan than humans. What
was more, due to a larger and more concentrated brain capacity, along with
other factors, Elerians could remember virtually everything
they ever saw or experienced. What Icis had told him, how she had lived over a
thousand generations, since the time of the Great War and before the founding
Then one evening, they together sat on one of the palace balconies, watching the sun set slowly under the skyline. He sat close next to her, one arm around her back. He could breathe in her floral, intoxicating scent, and he realized he was the luckiest man in the universe as he leaned over and kissed her mouth, her cheeks, her neck. She leaned against him with her body, closing her eyes as he nuzzled her, seeming to savor his affections.
“I love you,” he whispered again and again, kissing her. “I can’t live without you.” He put his arms more firmly around her, stared deep into her gorgeous eyes.
Her face twisted into a sly grin, and she pushed him back, holding him at arm’s length. “You realize that if you were anyone else, this would be unthinkable,” she whispered. “I hope you’re aware of your privilege.”
“I need you,” he said softly.
To his surprise, she let out a soft laugh. “You… aren’t ready for that yet, Xar.” She put a hand up to his face, and he closed his eyes at her touch. He felt her lips softly on his as she kissed him lightly.
As he opened his eyes again, she was sitting back, gazing out across the city, a thoughtful look on her face. He wished he knew what she was thinking, but even after two weeks with her, he could only wonder. For some reason, it seemed their Bond only worked one way.
“Tell me about yourself,” he asked quietly. “What was it like, back then? Before the Republic, before everything?”
The light from the setting sun shone on her face as she gazed at it. “It was different,” she said. “Technology was less advanced than what we have now, but still far beyond that of your galaxy. But you can’t measure it in technology. The attitude of the people, of the galaxy’s populace… There was an energy in the air, a sense that anything could be accomplished. The Jedi were just forming. We weren’t the guardians of the galaxy, back then.”
“Go on,” he said, immediately intrigued. He knew that the stories she could tell, the memories she could recount, could take lifetimes to learn. He could scarcely comprehend it, yet he tried to picture it as she explained.
“We were accomplishing great things,” she said. “Discovering secrets long forgotten. Some dabbled where they shouldn’t have. The sense of possibilities naturally made some more ambitious. The Schism started with the Jedi, filtered down. The others probably don’t remember that time.”
“The other Shok’Thola,” she explained.
He nodded, sat in silence for a moment, lost in thought. He couldn’t help thinking of Icis’ vehement warning about Zalaria… That she was an evil being that wanted nothing but to kill him, or snatch him up and use him for her purposes. But neither the first time he’d met, nor now, did he get anything close to that impression. Just a sense of… mystery.
The last sliver of the sun fell below the horizon. Then the lights of the city could be seen, shining clearly in the approaching night. And that one structure, dominating the others, the massive building with the spherical top…
He turned as he heard the voice saw a uniformed man standing there, bowed low. From the decorations on his clothing, he seemed of quite a high rank. Xar wondered what he was doing here.
“Yes? What is it?” Zalaria asked, still seated.
“Mistress, I have bad news. The message was denied.”
“Sent back to us, unread,” the man said.
She paused for a moment, eyes narrowing. “That’s unfortunate,” she observed.
“Yes, Mistress. My life is yours, my lady.”
Xar frowned at the man’s words, glanced over at Zalaria’s displeased face. He had no idea what this was about, but as he looked back at the messenger, he froze inside. Suddenly he understood: this man had delivered unpleasant news and now was fully prepared to die for doing it. He looked at Zalaria, wide-eyed, his unspoken question clear.
For a moment she seemed to consider Xar there beside her. Finally she looked at the messenger. “Very well,” she said. “You are dismissed.”
The officer’s eyes widened in surprise, then he knit his brow, fighting against whatever reaction he’d had. He bowed low, turned, and started off. Xar couldn’t help but notice the disappointed look on the man’s face.
Once he was gone, Xar turned to Zalaria. “That man didn’t expect to live, did he?” he asked, glancing in the direction he’d gone. He paused, waiting.
Finally she replied, softly. “It would have been a great honor for him. Please understand.” She seemed lost in thought. Sitting back against the rail, Xar shook his head, feelings jumbling uncertainly inside him. He suddenly felt like a total stranger here – he understood nothing this culture, here. “Someone told me some things about you,” he said. “Horrible things that you and the other Warlords have done. I didn’t want to believe him, but deep down I can’t forget about it. Is it true?” He looked over at her, swallowing. “Did… did you kill all those people?” The last part came out as the barest whisper.
“Xar…” she sighed. “I was hoping I could tell you this at a better time…”
“Right now seems good to me,” he said. He had to know.
“You may not believe me.”
She turned toward him abruptly, staring at him with those eyes. “All right. What would you like to hear? I don’t know what your friend told you. Yes, I have done some many things in my lifetime, some of which you might consider wrong, or extreme. But surely you didn’t expect anything less. I’m an Altarin’Dakor Shok’Thola. I was part of the original Schism. I led armies against the people of your galaxy. And I was driven out, just as the rest were. I still remember that. But the times, they were different, then. For a long time, I lived as the others do, driven by my fickle desires and emotions. It’s a constant struggle to fight boredom, Xar. Living this long… it changes your entire outlook on the universe. Some of us, it drove insane. I did evil things, I admit. What your friend told you was probably true.
“Then, one thousand three hundred and twenty two years ago, I changed. Suddenly, without warning, something just… clicked inside of me, and I realized the horror of what I was doing.. I realized that all this was wrong, the warring, the preparation for the Return. But it’s not so easy to escape, Xar. Not for a Shok’Thola. Ever since that day I’ve been looking for a way out. I don’t know if I can redeem myself, but I want to try. That is why I saved your life.”
“What do I have to do with it?” he asked. His mind was racing; any other time, he might have dismissed her excuses as unlikely. If not for the Bond, he might have even turned away from her then. But through the Bond, he could sense her emotions, the intent behind what she was saying. And he knew it was crazy, but he believed her. He couldn’t help but believe. He thought he would probably trust anything she said.
“You have a sense of greatness around you, Xar. Critical events are going to center around you, or at least sweep you up into them. I don’t know what they may be, but I was caught up in it, too. By you. The first time I heard out about you, even before your planet was attacked… I knew that you would be my way out.”
He sat back and sighed. “I don’t understand. If you want to change, then come back with me, to the New Imperium. Help us fight against the Altarin’Dakor that want to invade.”
“Xar, it’s not that simple. I wish I could, but I am very limited in my options.” She seemed to hesitate for a moment, her face bathed in shadows. “This isn’t my world, Xar. Much like I was on Kronos’ station, I am a guest here. That is why you haven’t gone beyond the limits of the palace here; you wouldn’t be safe, protected. I don’t even have any territory in this galaxy. Virtually all my holdings are back home.”
Xar felt himself go cold at her words. “Whose planet is this, then? I mean, you could have told me about this sooner. What, is it another Warlord? Who do I have to kill this time?” he asked, only half serious.
She shook her head roughly, all mirth gone from her expression. “Don’t even joke about such things, Xar. This planet is the staging area for the Shok’Thola known as Nimrod.”
He shrugged. The name meant nothing to him, really. “And he is…?”
“He’s a Warlord, Xar. That should be enough. You guessed closely when you first arrived. That’s his tower,” she said, nodding off into the distance. Xar turned to follow her gaze, and saw the massive building with the sphere at its top, lit up by windows all around.
“He lives there? He’s been there the whole time?” he asked.
“Does he know about us? About me?”
Xar arched an eyebrow. “Then why hasn’t he done anything?”
“Like I said, you’re under my protection. He wouldn’t interfere with my business here in this safe zone. To venture into my area here would be the same as attacking my territory. It would mean war.”
“So if he can’t interfere, why can’t you leave?” Xar asked.
“Consider me to be a… forced guest,” she said. “If I try to leave without his approval, we probably wouldn’t make it out.”
“So that’s why I’m here again,” he mused, thinking he finally understood. “I’ll have to… persuade him to let us go.” He gave her a questioning look. “Like we did with Kronos?”
To his surprise, she reached out quickly and grabbed his arm. “Don’t even think it!” she said fiercely. “You don’t understand; I didn’t call you here at all. Even less would I send you up against Nimrod. He isn’t just a Shok’Thola, Xar. He’s the most feared and powerful of all of us!”
Xar blinked at that. “I don’t understand…”
“Nimrod is known as the Destroyer, the Conqueror, the Fist of a Million Suns. Because his empire contains millions of systems, Xar. He has conquered millions, and has personally eliminated thousands of entire races. His name is feared all across the whole galaxy… the Altarin’Dakor galaxy.” She frowned, shaking her head. “His reach and influence are almost unfathomable. His fleet and forces are so strong that he doesn’t even have to fight the others; the outcome is inevitable. Better for you to stay here, with me. Stay alive.”
He nodded slowly, trying to digest her words. For a moment he sat in silence, trying to imagine exactly how strong this Warlord was. It really wasn’t possible. Sometimes it was hard to grasp the full strength of a Jedi Master of his own caliber. But this was much more radical… even obscene. He couldn’t even begin to understand. There was too much that he still didn’t know.
“Okay,” he said, holding up a hand. “I’m still not clear on the Warlords. You’ve been very vague about that. How many of you are there?”
“There are twelve remaining,” she said. “Ten of us are original Warlords. That is, we became Shok’Thola before the Great War, before we were… driven out.”
“Just twelve…” he said aloud, musing. “Counting you.”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“I suppose so,” he nodded slowly. “But I still don’t see why we can’t kill him.”
“Didn’t you hear what I was saying?” she asked. “Nimrod has become more than a Warlord. He has been chosen to take Kronos’ place in leading the Return. It is from his tower, there, that he is preparing the invasion forces even as we speak. You didn’t think I could be held here by just anyone, did you? It is because of his newfound status that he has begun acting with impunity, imposing his authority on the rest of us.”
“All the more reason to take him out, isn’t it? What’s the problem? Is he stronger in the Force than Kronos?”
“Not as strong, but he augments his abilities with technology.”
“Then don’t worry. I beat Kronos, didn’t I?” he said, giving her his most dashing smile, hoping to reassure her.
Surprisingly, she leaned back and put a hand up to her forehead. He felt frustration emanating from her. “Xar…” she began. “You didn’t defeat Kronos because you were stronger or better than him. We won because of two things: the fact that Kronos was expending most of his energy powering the station’s key system – namely, releasing the Zelduk – and the element of surprise. When you failed to kill him right away, you lost the second advantage. Fortunately, Kronos had a third weakness: his arrogance. He never thought he would lose, so he gave you a fair fight. But Nimrod has none of those three weaknesses.”
“It’s all right,” Xar said, reaching out to put a hand on her shoulder. “There’s always a way.” Everyone had some weakness. He caressed her arm with his hand. “But I need to know something for sure; I need your word. If we could kill Nimrod, or escape without his interference, could you… would you really come back with me?”
For a moment she didn’t answer, only stared at the ground as he sat next to her, waiting. Then he looked up into his eyes, and nodded slowly. “Yes, I would,” she said. “I don’t know why… But I would.”
They were quite possibly the most wonderful words he’d ever heard. He struggled to contain the feeling of joy that sprang up within, for he reminded himself that even though he had her word, actually defeating Nimrod was another matter entirely. But still, it was a start. Now he had a goal. Whether or not she believed it was possible, he would find a way to defeat this ‘Nimrod’.
“I’m going to think this over,” he said, rising. He felt like he was full of energy. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“All right,” she agreed. “Just don’t do anything foolish, please.”
“Hey, don’t worry,” he assured her. “You know me.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said, turning away.
He slept restlessly that night, his mind racing constantly. His thoughts ranged from strategies he could use against a Warlord, to why Zalaria was willing to take this risk, to what kind of life they could make for themselves in the New Imperium. Assuming they made it out, would people accept her? Would they accept them together? He wondered why it was that she chose him… What could it be? She could have anyone at all that she wanted. Why would an Immortal Warlord want to spend her time with him? Was he really special, as she had hinted? He’d always felt he had a destiny, and that feeling had been growing stronger since the founding of the NI. But what were those key, important events that she’d hinted at? Sometimes he thought he might be dreaming, except he remembered that the situation wasn’t all pleasant, and he couldn’t change it at a whim. Would he be able to fight another Warlord? She had neglected to mention something else: if not for his friends showing up at the last moment, he wouldn’t have survived against Kronos. And this match could be much, much harder. He didn’t get much sleep, that night.
The next day he decided to find Zalaria early, tell her of his decision. He wanted to fight, even though it could cost him his life. He wanted to let her know he was willing to risk that for her.
Zalaria was waiting in the garden, seated on a stone bench next to the wall. She smiled as she saw him approaching, and he grinned back broadly. He slipped in beside her on the bench, opening his mouth to tell her his plan, but she held up a finger and made a shushing sound.
“Wait,” she whispered. “Let us enjoy one quiet, perfect moment together.” She pointed at the outgrowth of exotic-looking plants, and he looked that way to see what she meant. There, near one of the large, deep red flowers, a tiny bird hovered, beating its little wings furiously to stay aloft. It crept forward in the air, sliding its slender bill into the cusp of the flower, drawing out some of its sweet nectar.
“We call them Sarinar,” she said softly. “They only live a short time, perhaps a month. Yet they radiate a beauty and gracefulness that send even the wisest into silent contemplation. Why is it that the most beautiful and talented also live the briefest lives? They burn so brightly, yet burn out so quickly. Then I wonder if my existence, if the gift I have been granted, has somehow violated this fundamental rule in the universe. It is the same with all of us; we were the brightest, those with the most potential, and we have been able to cheat death. Do you think it is a crime, Xar?”
She turned to look at him, seeming genuinely interested at his response. It was then that he knew he could never again leave her side. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her, or give. He swallowed, wishing he had the talent to speak half as eloquently as she. “I think it’s a wonderful gift you have,” he said soothingly. “But it depends on how you use it. You have so much knowledge, so much you could share with others. You can either use that to benefit those around you, to serve life, or you can use it to serve yourself.”
“You’re saying that we haven’t been using our gift in the right way?”
“Yes… but there are always time to remedy that,” he answered.
Her eyes took on a distant look. “Xar, you are mistaken… Our Immortality was never meant to be shared. It was not a gift – we took it by force. Its very purpose was so we could do anything we wanted.”
He shook his head, not sure he understood what she meant. “But you can still go against that, still use your gift for good. I know you have it inside of you. I can feel it, and I saw it just now.”
“I see,” was all she said. He couldn’t read her emotions at all, now.
“Tell me about this gift…” he began. “I don’t understand it. You say Immortality. I assume you mean like Kronos. He… healed right in front of my eyes. How in the galaxy did you achieve something like that?”
She looked away from him then, and he felt distance close between them, like an invisible barrier. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you about that just yet, Xar. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come without a price.” She looked back at him and forced a smile. “Instead, why don’t you tell me what you came to talk about?”
Xar took a breath, preparing for what he wanted to say. Even as resolute as he’d been in his decision before, he realized now that he’d have made it all over again. “You said that we couldn’t leave here without Nimrod’s permission,” he began. “If we can’t get that from him, then we’ll have to either stay, or force our way out, correct?”
“That is right, basically. As long as he stands in our way, we’re trapped here.”
“Then I’ve made my decision,” he said. “I’m going to fight him.”
Her eyes widened slightly, indicating her surprise. “Are you sure? You would do that, for me?”
“I would do anything for you,” he told her, reaching out to take her hand. “I’ve got it all figured out. We arrange a meeting. I’ll head up in plain sight, while you sneak in from another way…”
“Wait, Xar,” she interrupted. “That won’t work.”
“I think it will,” he said. “Just look at this.” He brought up his hands, moving them to illustrate as he explained.
“No, Xar, you don’t understand,” she said forcefully, grabbing his wrists and pulling them down. Her eyes stared into his.
“What… What do you mean?” he asked her.
For a moment she hesitated, and he could tell that she had something important to tell him; another tidbit she must have left out. “Xar, I… You must know that I cannot help you fight Nimrod. If you do this, you will have to do it alone.” He could hear the conflict in her tone of voice, knew that this was something she couldn’t help.
“But… Why? Why can’t you help me?” he demanded, confused.
“Because…” She paused. “Nimrod is my brother,” she finished in a rush.
“Well, yeah, I know he’s a fellow Warlord and all, but…” he started to protest.
“No, Xar, you don’t understand,” she said fiercely, reaching out to grab the front of his tunic. “Nimrod is my biological brother.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but froze as the words hit home. He sat back in shock, shaking his head, almost refusing to believe what she’d said. “You mean… Your real brother?”
“I can’t fight against my brother,” she said. “It is the one measure of honor that we still possess.”
He nodded slowly, tried to find his breath again. “I’m sorry,” he began. “I had no idea... I thought you wanted me to fight him, but we can find another way…”
“No, no, it’s not that,” she corrected. “I’m not worried about him. We haven’t been close in millennia. If it comes to the point of killing him, I wouldn’t have any compunctions about his death. Still, there is an unspoken truce between us. We have never made war on each other, and our blood ensured that if alliances were ever formally drawn, we would fight together. We both knew that it could end at any moment, and yet, if we do keep our oath to one another, then at least we haven’t abandoned all morality.”
“I see,” he said, though he really didn’t see at all. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have another Warlord for a brother, especially one such as this… Nimrod.
“So you understand why I can’t fight him,” she said, lifting her eyebrows. “Because he and I both know each other too well. We know one another’s strategies and tactics, exact power levels, preferences for certain things.” She gave a sigh and shook her head. “That’s also why I’m here. He says he’s doing me a favor, letting my stay under his ‘protection’. In actuality, he’s taking over my own territory bit by bit. His appetite for power and resources is insatiable. If he comes out the victor in the end, he will do so alone; none of the others will share in his glory. I will simply be the sister he has trapped in his secret prison… One from which I’d never escape.”
“We won’t let that happen,” Xar said firmly.
“It wasn’t always like this,” she said. She adjusted her seating position, folding one leg up underneath her, and sat back down. “We used to be very close.”
“Tell me about it,” he urged. “I want to know all about you. What was it like?”
Zalaria smiled ever so faintly. “There were good times, and bad. Nimrod is my younger by five years. As you know, we are Elerians. Our home planet was Merinama, a world in what you know as the Unknown Regions. Our parents were the ruling family of the planet. As firstborn, it would have been my duty to assume leadership as heir. But such was not to be,” she broke off softly.
“What happened?” he asked, daring to ask her more. He wanted to know it all, whatever had happened.
“Our parents perished when we were still young. I was thirteen at the time. But our parents… they weren’t loved by everyone. Rival families wanted the throne for themselves, and we were seen as obstacles to their ascension. So they cast us out, left us without anything. For three years my brother and I lived as beggars, and I had to work and provide for him during that time. But then the Jedi came and saved us.”
“The Jedi?” He leaned forward, intrigued. “They took you in as apprentices?”
She nodded. “They sensed the Force Potential in both of us. From that point on, we lived with them, learning the Jedi ways, until we became Masters ourselves. By then we had forgotten what had happened to us on our homeworld. We had larger affairs to attend to. Nimrod and I were among the elite few Masters, the most powerful Jedi alive at the time. We both lived long, full Elerian lives, performing all the work a Jedi could imagine or hope to attain.”
“And this was before the Schism?” he asked. She nodded, and he knit his brow in thought. “So how did you become a Warlord?”
“You must realize, the galaxy was in its Golden Age,” she explained. “Right before the Schism was the most wondrous period in which you could have ever lived. It was an age of legends. Incredible things were accomplished in that time. Nimrod and I were among the most respected Masters of our age, old and wise.”
His mouth dropped open in shock, and she laughed at his expression. “You can’t imagine me as an old woman?” she chided. “Well, we were two of the Warlords who actually know what it’s like to be old. Many of the others were alive during that time… Kronos, Jarthanis, Kigiras, Asellus…”
“Those are other Warlords? Amazing. I wish I could have seen it.”
“There are ways,” she said. “The entire Great War was recorded in our databanks, and every major military engagement in our own galaxy, as well. But getting back to the story: everything was wonderful, until one day Sado, one of the oldest Jedi scholars, came to us with an offer we couldn’t refuse. I still can’t believe how young and arrogant we were, even then. But Immortality isn’t something you turn down lightly.”
“How did Sado offer you Immortality?” he asked, realizing it bordered on his earlier question, which she had still declined to answer.
“Because he found us a limitless source of life energy that we could tap into at will. I… can’t tell you anymore than that, right now. But I can tell you that with our newfound youth, we felt like nothing was beyond our grasp. The Schism occurred soon after, and Nimrod and I returned to the Unknown Regions, and Merinama. There we ruled our people for years… The rightful rulers after ages of leadership by the others.” She sighed then, as if regretting what came next. “But the Great War changed everything. It was a horrible time. My home planet was destroyed in that war, an innocent victim of battle. The rest, I believe you already know.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, truly meaning it. “I know what it’s like to lose a home. Varnus was devastated, too.”
“Yes. But it was a long time ago. It’s not so bad, being the last two members of your race,” she said.
“Perhaps we can use that against Nimrod,” he suggested. “I mean, perhaps we can convince him to see the light, as you have. You can’t be all that different. Maybe he can join us, too.”
She arched an eyebrow at his words, shook her head slightly. “I don’t think that would happen,” she said.
“Well then, we’ll just have to proceed with the first plan,” he said. “I’m going in, whether or not you can help me fight him. I’m not going to die here; I know it. We can’t have been brought together only to loose each other,” he said firmly.
“My dear Xar,” Zalaria smiled. “You truly believe that. It is good that you are still young enough to see the universe with such innocent eyes. Perhaps that is your advantage, the key that will allow you to win. You believe anything is possible. What do you have planned?”
“First of all, bring my shuttle down from orbit,” he said. “I’ve got some equipment inside that’ll help out. We’ll spend the rest of the day preparing, and then I’ll go after him first thing in the morning.”
“That soon?” she asked in surprise.
He nodded seriously. “No point putting it off. There’s much to be done.”
* * *
Xar stood and looked down at the equipment on the table, the best of his supplies he’d brought along on his journey. Quietly and solemnly he prepared for his mission. He wore dark paints and a black short-sleeved shirt, under which was a thin layer of Altarin’Dakor body armor that was supposedly strong enough to stop a pulse-blaster bolt. Over his shirt, he pulled on his shoulder harness and holster, then clipped his utility belt around his waist. Then, reaching down to the table, he started gathering his equipment. His personal lightsaber went to its clip at his waist. Into his belt patches his stuffed several light-darts and light-stars, each from the Division’s own weapons stock. Then, opening a small case, he pulled out his personal hand-held mass driver. A shiny chrome pistol-sized weapon – the one that hadn’t been destroyed by Turles – he knew that the Altarin’Dakor had many others like it, and even larger models. Still, this was his now, and that held a certain comfort to him. Though he didn’t believe in luck, he did feel that his gun wouldn’t let him down. He tucked it into his shoulder holster, leaving it in plain sight, then pocketed extra clips and several other things he thought he might need. He knew that his true weapon was the Force itself, and that all this equipment might not even be worth taking. But still, it made him more comfortable having his gear along.
The door to the room opened, and he turned to see Zalaria enter, a serious expression on her face, focus in her eyes.
“Do you think we’ll ever get some normal time together?” he wondered, shaking his head ruefully. She didn’t answer, and he looked back up at her. “Hey, it’s not that bad,” he said, forcing a smile.
She tried to smile in return, reached down and brought up a small white jar in her hand. “This is our tradition,” she said, opening the lid and dipping two fingers into the black substance inside. “Hold still.” Putting one hand behind his head, she reached up with her two fingers and began drawing the face paint onto his face. He stared into her eyes as she worked, focused on her task. Her fingers drew symbols onto his cheeks, connecting on his forehead. As she finished, she stepped back and offered a small smile. “Now you look like a Jedicon.”
He turned toward a small mirror mounted on the wall and saw what she’d done. “Nice,” he said. “Your symbol?” She nodded slightly. He noticed she was unusually quiet this morning, and her expression was placid, hardly betraying any emotion. She looked more worried than he’d ever seen her. He suddenly felt nervous.
“What is it?” he asked softly, reaching out and taking hold of her arm. She looked down, not meeting his eyes, and he felt a sudden sense of hopelessness. “That’s it, isn’t it,” he whispered. “I can’t beat him… can I?”
She looked up at him, visibly fighting the emotions within herself, trying to force a sad smile onto her face. “No,” she whispered back, and for the first time, he saw her eyes well up with tears.
Zalaria closed her eyes, and a single teardrop began to run down her cheek. He reached up, wiped it away with his thumb, gently caressing her face. He knew he would do anything, if he could prevent her tears from ever falling again. “That’s why I have to do this,” he said.
“You mortals have always been so foolish,” she said, her voice full of emotion. “Always risking the precious gift of life that you’ve been given. Throwing it away as if you were Immortal, yourselves.”
“I guess it’s a common flaw,” he said.
“No. An Altarin’Dakor one. You are a true Altarin’Dakor, Xar.”
“I’ll never be that, but I suppose I have the same spirit,” he said, leaning in to kiss her softly on the forehead. “I’ll make it, I promise. I’ll be back within the hour.”
“Take care,” she whispered.
He nodded, stepped back to stare into her eyes once more, burning the impression of her sight into his memory. He knew this might be his last chance. “Ka Nomas,” he said.
She nodded, then turned silently toward the door, and exited without looking back.
Xar left the palace at a brisk pace, moving onto the roadway that would take him to the stronghold of the Warlord Nimrod. He moved along purposefully, aware that he had already stepped out of Zalaria’s official protection. Beings passed by on either side of the busy street, but he ignored them all, blocked everything out but his mission ahead. He was completely focused on the task at hand, perhaps more than he’d ever been before.
He looked up at the massive command structure as he approached, its huge spherical top towering half a kilometer in the sky. Zalaria had told him a little about the Warlord. In essence, he was a technofreak, obsessed with technology, almost preferring it to Force usage. He wore a massive suit of fearsome black armor that helped augment his abilities and protect him from harm. Images of Vader swam through his head. The armor was supposedly nearly impenetrable; that was yet another problem he’d have to get around, somehow.
By now he was moving under the building’s spherical top, and he turned onto an empty side pathway that led toward the tower’s entrance. Judging from the massive ferrocrete exterior, he could only guess at what it was actually like inside.
Increasing his stride to a brisk jog, he moved quickly across the pathway toward the front of the building. From here, he could see a wide set of glass doors, not looking much different from any other skyscraper’s entrance. He also saw several figures up ahead, and he knew they were waiting for him.
He slowed to a stop as he came up on the entrance, taking a breath and looking around warily. The area in front of the doorway was populated with large square stone blocks set randomly around on the ferrocrete ground, blocks that he assumed were some kind of artwork. But the blocks weren’t what had his attention; it was the Jedicon that were sitting around on them. Six of them were there, all gathered near the entrance, all watching him intently, malevolently. Four of them had taken seats on the blocks, whereas two others stood on either side of the glass doors. Each was completely unique and striking, and totally different from any Jedicon he’d seen before. To his right, a woman was sitting up on the stone block above him, dressed in provocative clothing, her bare legs crossed. Her skin was the palest white, her long hair a deep flowing blue. Her lips and around her eyes were painted black, and her blood red eyes bore right through him. She looked at him with a gaze like that of a wild animal, enough to send chills down his spine.
To his left was a human male, a lanky yet muscular man with yellow hair that stood straight up several centimeters over his head. His bare, muscular chest was covered only by what looked like a leather jerkin. Further on, he saw another woman, this one with long blonde hair and a lithe body covered in a tight skin suit that held openings in random places: over the arms, across her stomach, part of her cleavage, and parts of her legs. Every bit of uncovered flesh held scrolling red tattoos across her skin. The others were a young-looking yet white-haired human male, and two aliens whose species he couldn’t identify, one of them a massive lizard-creature.
He looked at each of the six Jedicon in turn, mentally sizing them up, and silently assessing their threat value. The Force ran strongly within all of them, and he could tell they were all around the same power level. Which was to say, approximately equal with Xar’s. He knew that if they didn’t want him to pass, he wouldn’t make it any further. These were Nimrod’s top Jedicon, his Kodonn’Dakor.
But, instead of confronting him, they began laughing at him, softly at first, then more loudly. He started forward again, ignoring them. The woman beside the entrance fixed him with a seductive stare, calling out catlike noises at him, while the rest continued to cackle around him. Concentrating all his focus, he moved past them all, through the glass doors that slid open as he approached. One of the Jedicon by the door, the massive reptilian, growled at him menacingly as he passed. Then the doors slid closed behind him, and he was through.
The interior was completely empty. In front of him was a plain wall with one door in the center. He walked up to it, passed through the doors as they opened, and moved into the waiting lift. The doors closed again, and the lift ascended upwards at a rapid pace, though he could barely even feel it move. The level indicator sped upwards as he was taken all the way up into the sphere above.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to see.
The lift slowed to a stop, and the doors slid open soundlessly. He stepped forward, and immediately flinched as a bird flew past his head and into the foliage to the right. Turning, he looked back at the lift, but it was already sliding back down into the ground. It disappeared down the chute, then a pair of metal doors covered up the entrance. Then suddenly it wasn’t metal anymore, but soil. He stepped back, looking around in surprise. The turbolift had deposited him in the middle of a jungle. Surrounding him on all sides were leafy green trees and ferns. He looked up at the blue sky, saw the sun peeking through leaves and branches overhead. The sounds of the jungle were all around; singing birds, croaking insects, and everything in between. He knew it couldn’t be real.
Cynically, he started walking on the dirt path, moved forward until he was about to reach the wall of foliage. Without even raising his hands, he walked straight through…
And emerged in an Altarin’Dakor control center. All around him were Holoprojectors and control consoles, expanding outwards from the lift that rested in the center of the room. He turned back to see if the jungle was still there, but it was gone. Instead, a myriad of transparent lights hovered in the air. Apparently these holograms only worked from the inside; he could see several more clustered all around the room. The entire area was filled with the sounds of machinery, whirring, whining, some even almost musical.
He looked up, eyes widening as he saw the domed ceiling at least a hundred meters above his head. If he guessed correctly, he was on a level in the center of the sphere, with the walls around him the widest, and narrowing as they rose, until they finally converged at the top. On the inside of the dome, he could see ledges extending around the inside of the sphere, one for every level up until they neared the top. All the ledges were empty and dark, but he could sense another presence in the room, the feeling of a powerful Force user nearby. Involuntarily he began trembling, consciously had to fight down the fear that suddenly sprung up within him. He stilled his nerves, wondering how Nimrod managed to instill such a feeling into his enemies from a distance.
Xar quietly made his way across the floor of the massive dome, still glancing with astonishment at some of the incredible Holoprojectors spinning images around him and the entire interior. But he couldn't take in the beauty of it; he was too busy trying to hold down the unfathomable sense of fear and terror that tried to grip him.
Then, suddenly, he could feel the Warlord’s presence clearly.
"Nimrod!" he called out, determined to show no fear. If this gave away his location, so be it. He had no intention of playing hiding games.
"Welcome," a deep, massive voice boomed, seeming to come from everywhere at once. He knew it was probably amplified using speakers around the chamber, but it lay in the air heavily. It felt almost tangible, it was so impressive. He hadn’t been prepared for such a voice, and it took him aback, giving him a moment of uncertainty.
“So,” the voice continued in Basic. “You are the one who killed Kronos. You shall not fare so well with me. I know what you have done with my sister. I shall not allow you such leniency."
Xar searched the multiple levels encircling the interior of the dome above him, but the Warlord was nowhere in sight. “Listen to me,” he called out. “I’m here to make you an offer, a chance to get out of all this madness. End the bloodshed and fighting between our people. You could come with me and Zalaria and start a new life, one without the horrors of war around us.”
“Mortal. You waste your breath,” the voice came back. “I already knew that you would give me such a proposal, and I have already denied it. Speak not of things you cannot begin to comprehend.”
"That may be," Xar offered, "but I know more than you might think.” He paused, deciding to put his last card down on the table. “You know, what you're doing is no different from what happened to your own world. It's the same exact thing, the death and destruction. But you can stop it once and for all. Come with us. Zalaria has seen the right way, and I know that deep down, you must feel it, too. Join us, and work for good, not evil."
There was a brief pause, during which he felt a strange sensation. Almost as if he were being carefully considered. Then Nimrod's voice broke through over the sound of the Holoprojectors.
"That was a nice try," the voice said profoundly. "But you are the hundred and thirty-seventh person to try such a ploy. And, like all the rest, you failed."
Suddenly, up there near the railings, a shadow moved. And then Xar saw him, there on the second floor. A huge, dark figure, totally encased in some kind of night-black body armor. The shadows that he stood in seemed brighter when compared against the black of his suit. He reminded Xar of when he’d seen Darth Vader in person… only this made Vader seem like nothing. The sense of power and awe was so strong! It threatened to overwhelm him at every moment.
Xar narrowed his eyes. "Well, I had to try," he said, trying to keep his voice light. Inside he prepared to attack the dark figure above.
“Tell me, human,” the Warlord boomed. “Do you really believe everything my sister told you? How could you be so foolish as to trust a Shok’Thola?”
Xar didn’t answer; he’d had enough of talking. Obviously, there was no chance Nimrod would be convinced. And from what he’d seen, this Warlord might not be that tough… That huge set of body armor had to slow him down, even as sinister as it looked.
In the flash of an instant, Xar moved. He pulled one of the Light Stars from his belt, activated it, and in one smooth motion threw it with all his might towards the massive figure above. With the Force he propelled the weapon even faster, as it ignited a ring of light around the edges of the star-shaped device. The object sped forward a hundreds of kilometers an hour, becoming a streak across his eyes. Still, he knew it was just an opening tactic; he had others, just in case.
When the weapon reached the spot where Nimrod was standing, the Warlord simply disappeared. Evidently the image of him had been nothing but a hologram. The star struck the far wall with a clank, sending out a gout of sparks from a wire that it ruptured. Xar spun around, his eyes searching for the figure's new position.
"Where are you?" he yelled. "Stop hiding. You’re a Shok’Thola! Come out and fight me like a man!" He paused, waiting for an answer.
"Why?" the simple question came back. Xar spun towards the sound of the voice, as the dark figure stepped out of the shadows on the other side of the chamber. The Warlord held a huge barreled weapon in both hands; a black, cruel-looking device, much like the being who held it. Bringing the weapon up to bear, Nimrod opened fire. A near continuous stream of thick orange energy bolts poured out of the barrel towards Xar, many times faster than an AD pulse blaster. The rapid-fire blasts flew across the room, through the holograms, toward Xar.
With only an instant to react, he threw himself to the side, frantically erecting a Force shield and praying it would hold. He watched in slow motion as the blasts came upon him. Most passed around him, missing his body by inches; but several hit him, impacting over his Force shield. Fortunately, it held, though one blast passed by far too close for comfort, searing off part of his right sleeve and exposing the armor beneath.
He hit the floor and rolled, still hearing more bolts coming out of the barrel. He jumped further across the room, rolling again as he did so. Blasts of energy followed an instant behind him, chewing up the floor he’d been on just before, passing close by his body to rip into the wall on the far side. Hot chunks of ferrocrete blasted over him, leaving large pits in the wall and floor.
Finally he dropped down behind one of the command consoles, put his back to it, and risked taking a breath. Orange-white bolts of energy still pelted the console behind him and peppered the wall in front of him, exploding large craters in the wall that sent steaming pieces of ferrocrete onto him. Screaming out in defiance, he pushed away from the console and spun around, whipping out his mass driver as he did so. Several more bolts burst through the console itself, missing him by centimeters, and he could feel their heat as they passed. Yelling, he fired back, sending shots back through the console in the Warlord’s general direction. His shots passed effortlessly though the duraplast, filling it with holes.
As he cut off from firing, he noticed it sounded like Nimrod had paused, as well, perhaps to reload. But Xar had several shots left still. Pushing himself up, he leaned forward on the console, drawing his aim over the Warlord, now standing in the center of the room. It was then that he got his first clear look at the being in front of him. He stood well over least two meters tall, with all his dimensions dwarfing those of a regular man. Xar didn’t know if he was really that size, or whether it was caused by the armor, but he truly was an impressive figure. The armor itself was actually crafted meticulously, not just a plain bare finish, but a crosswork of varying plates that gave it sharp edges all around. A long, black cape extended from his back and made him look bigger than he actually was. But perhaps the most imposing feature was the armor’s headpiece. It was nothing like the death mask of Darth Vader. Instead it was a large cylindrical helmet with multi-pointed black wings extending from either side of his head. The faceplate was darker and sunk in, with a V shape that reminded him of Mandalorian designs. Two electronic red eyes shone from within the faceplate. Zalaria had been right; if this man was really human, then he was nothing less than a technophile. He seemed nothing like her at all. Vaguely he wondered how this could really be her brother.
Drawing his aim across the Warlord’s broad outline, he cut loose with his mass driver once more. He fired as fast as he could pull the trigger, emptying out the magazine within a couple of seconds. His shots flew on tiny spiraling trails of air, slamming into the armor with loud popping sounds and sparks of fire – and ricocheted right off into the rest of the sphere, not leaving so much as a dent in the Warlord’s armor.
As Nimrod raised his weapon once more, Xar made a quick decision. Tossing his gun aside, he crouched and leapt into the air, the first blasts of the Warlord’s weapon passing by beneath his feet. He rose into the air, flipped over as he did so, and pulled out his lightsaber, igniting it on the way down.
He never made it. An invisible wall of air hit him, and he fell downward, away from the Warlord, landing hard on his back on the floor. He rose his head and looked up, saw the black figure towering over him, barreled weapon aimed straight down at his face.
“No!” he shouted, bringing his lightsaber across, cleaving through the gun. The blade cut the weapon in two pieces amidst a shower of sparks, and Xar jumped to his feet as Nimrod dropped his useless weapon. Bringing his saber up, Xar feinted to the right, then ducked underneath the Warlord’s arms, swinging his saber across the man’s midsection with all his might. The blade connected with a crash and a blast of light, and he felt its resistance as he drew it along the armored breastplate and out. Then he spun around, backing out of reach to see what kind of damage his attack had done.
His jaw dropped open in shock as the Warlord turned to meet him, not even a scratch across his breastplate. Xar’s lightsaber was of the highest quality; few others could generate a blade as intense. And yet it had done nothing against the black tyrant’s armor.
Then Nimrod’s gauntleted fist slammed across his face with bone-crushing force. Xar felt the blow in slow motion, felt his cheekbone split first, followed by his jaw dislocating, teeth dislodging, and finally a spray of spittle and blood shot out of his mouth, along with two of his teeth. He flew through the air in the direction the blow had sent him, losing his lightsaber as he somersaulted onto one of the Holoprojectors.
Xar opened his eyes again, at first wondering where he was. He’d blacked out momentarily. That had undoubtedly been the hardest blow he’d ever taken. He spit blood down onto the top of the projector, fighting the incredible pain shooting through his skull. If not for his Force-enhanced stamina and vitality, the Warlord probably would have taken his head clean off. Even so, his head hurt so much he could hardly move at first.
Pushing himself back up, he looked over at the Warlord in shock, not at his physical strength, but at the amount of Force power he was sensing. Nimrod practically glowed with Force energy, more than Xar had ever sensed in a being in his whole life. No one else had even come close, not even Turles. He realized now that Nimrod had been playing with him before. The nifty little gun was just a fun diversion. But now it seemed that playtime was over.
“Finally you understand,” the Warlord boomed, as if sensing his thoughts. Then suddenly he moved again, flying forward so fast he was just a blur in Xar’s eyes. His massive fist rammed into Xar’s stomach, picking him up off the ground and folding him around the man’s armored arm. Xar felt several of his lower ribs crack, felt the air exploding out of both ends of his body from the blow. All his energy left him in an instant, and as the Warlord drew back, he started to collapse backward.
Reaching out casually, Nimrod took hold of Xar by the shoulder and an arm, holding him up as if inspecting a piece of clothing. “So fragile,” he said, squeezing him in a viselike grip. “What is so special about you? So tender and weak,” he mused. But Xar couldn’t answer. His feet hung in the air near the Warlord’s knee level. He coughed up blood, spitting it out in rivulets that ran down his chin onto his shirt, knowing he was injured internally. He tried to moan whatever curses came to mind, throwing them futilely out at the dark man. In two blows, the Warlord had efficiently incapacitated him. He’d never seen anything like it. The pain was intense, and from the amount of blood coming up his throat, he knew he had sustained some major internal injuries from the second blow.
Then Nimrod held him up with one arm like a rag doll, and jerked him away quickly, tossing Xar across the room as casually as swatting an insect. An instant later Xar slammed into the far wall with crushing force, hard enough to make his own indention in the ferrocrete, and he stuck there, pressed inward by an insane amount of Force power. The wall splintered and cracked from the force of his impact, and he hung there, unable to move. Again, only his clinging connection to the Force had saved him from instant death.
Xar remained plastered to the wall, his breath coming in gasps, trying with all his might to pull the gripping sense of pressure that was mashing him against the wall. But no matter what he tried, no matter how hard he attempted to push, pull, or cut that unbreakable wall of Force, he couldn’t even come close to budging it. The difference in their power was just too astronomical. He grunted under the intense pain rocking him, let it build into a scream of pain and anger, as he opened himself wide to every bit of Force power he could draw in. It quickly reached the point where it became painful, and he knew that to draw any more power would kill him. Screaming in rage and fury, he unleashed it all at once, letting it pour out of his body in waves of invisible energy. The wall gave way behind him, and the entire sphere seemed to rumble. With all his power, he sent out the wave of Force across the chamber and exploded every Holoprojector and control console at once, filling the room with fire and light. The explosions blossomed all around the Warlord, sending out showers of sparks and bolts of electricity racing through the room. The fire covered the armored figure, obscuring him from view. Then Xar pulled it all together, drew all the flame in with the Force, concentrating it down into one spot, centered directly onto the Warlord’s dark outline. The flames contracted to a smaller and smaller area, building in intensity and brightness as they did so, until he finally pulled it all into one raging inferno, twisting it into a spiraling tornado of fire. An intense wind blew through the room, scattering loose pieces of equipment and sending the spinning conflagration hotter and brighter, extending its top up nearly to the roof. The Warlord had to be immolated by now. Indeed, Xar felt the pressure relax on him, then stop, and he fell to his feet, managing to remain standing as he watched the burning pyre.
Then, as Xar watched in utter astonishment, the Warlord raised his arms and pushed them outwards, and immediately the raging tornado fell apart and scattered, instantly snuffing most of it out, and sending burning embers flying through the rest of the chamber. Nimrod had casually undone the entire attack, and what shocked Xar even more was that there still wasn’t a scratch on his armor.
“Impressive,” the Warlord admitted in his deep, melodious voice. “I see now how you defeated Kronos. But you won’t defeat me.”
Crying out in shock and desperation, Xar tried one last, futile effort. Leaning back, he rose his hands into the air and gathered all his Force energies together, pushed his hands forward, palms outward, and sent a white-hot beam of Force energy barreling straight at the Warlord. The blast streaked across the room, more than half a meter wide, igniting any piece of material it passed. But Nimrod didn’t even try to move out of the way. As the beam came up upon him, covering him with light, threatening to vaporize him, he threw out a hand and swatted the energy blast away as if it were a child’s toy. The beam immediately changed course, flying up and out towards the wall, finally boring through it amidst an explosion of fire and ferrocrete. The blast punched through the top of the dome and out, flying off into the sky.
Xar stared at the Warlord in terror, letting his hands drop slowly. That had been the last thing he could think of. It had spent virtually all of his remaining Force power.
“I hope you are finished now,” Nimrod spoke, actually sounding bored. He raised his gauntleted hand, the one he’d used to swat away Xar’s attack, and looked down at it.
Xar sensed the attack an instant before it came. Gathering what Force power he had left, he leapt to the side as an invisible blast of force slammed into the wall where he’d been, caving in the ferrocrete and sending entire sections of equipment into the hole with enough momentum to crush bone. Xar leapt toward the wall, drawing the hilt of his lightsaber to his hand as he somersaulted away. It hit his hand and he clipped it to his belt, then quickly ducked inside one of the side entrances that lined the circular chamber. Every move was agony in his ribs. He emerged in a small hallway that circled around the side of the chamber, and started off at a dead run, stumbling from a sprained ankle, not to mention dislocated shoulder. Desperation had taken him, now; he knew there was no way he could hope to defeat the Warlord. Only adrenaline and the Force kept him functioning. What little power he had left was spent trying to start the healing process on the wounds he’d already acquired. He realized that he hadn’t even been a challenge for Nimrod, not even from the beginning. And now he was at the Warlord’s mercy. That thought sent true fear through him, and he raced through the corridors all the harder.
“Why do you run, outlander?” Nimrod’s booming voice came over the loudspeakers, taunting him. “Are you afraid to die? Do you think you can escape me?”
Suddenly, fire poured in through the entrance in the hallway ahead of him, filling the corridor and rushing towards Xar. He slid to a stop, turned and ran the other way, vaulting up a flight of stairs.
“I know exactly where you are,” Nimrod said. More flames burst up in front of him on this corridor. He turned again, running back, knowing that he was being hunted like a rat in a maze. And there was nothing he could do about it.
He ran back and forth through the corridors for what seemed like an eternity, trying to avoid incineration by Nimrod’s hallway fires. Finally, he ran down a fight of stairs to what seemed like the bottom level, found another doorway to his left, and ducked through it. Inside was a fairly well furnished room, one that was probably used for meetings or communication transmissions. He moved around a counter and crouched down, hiding, trying to catch a moment’s breath and assess his options. His body screamed in protesting agony. If he kept fighting, he knew he was going to die. The only option was to try and escape somehow…
Then a chilling sense of fear shot through him, and he looked up toward the wall to his left. And there he was. The Warlord’s black armored form stood towering in front of him, coolly looking down on his victim. Xar shook his head at the being, realizing that this was, finally, the end.
Yet even then, he couldn’t give in. With one last, desperate yell, he threw himself forward at the Warlord, jumped through the air with his fists ahead of him. Nimrod stood there, as he flew closer and closer, until finally they touched…
And Xar burst through the illusion, through a glass window and flew out into open air. He saw the gardens and city streets far below him, felt himself pass all the way through the glass as he fell outside of the building. He began dropping immediately, flipping over forwards, until he was falling on his back. As he fell, he looked up at the rapidly receding window, thought he saw a dark, armored figure standing in there, watching as he dropped.
Xar flung his arms out beside him, drawing on the Force in sheer desperation, using all his power to stop his fall and levitate downward. He didn’t even bother to cry out. His fall began to slow, more and more, as he looked down to see the ground coming up sharply beneath him…
He landed with a hard thump, but softly enough to avoid further injury. Quickly he sat up, his breath coming in rasps, comprehending how close to death he’d just been – and still was. He glanced back up at the sphere overhead, but could make out nothing. Rolling over, he pushed himself up and stumbled forward, starting back toward Zalaria’s palace as fast as he could, still amazed at the one thing he couldn’t understand: Why was he was still alive?
“Xar!” Zalaria shouted as he entered. “What happened?”
He staggered forward, exhaustion draining away the last bit of energy he had, and he collapsed into her arms. She held him up, looked deeply into his eyes with her own. “I feared the worst,” she whispered, brushing a hand through his hair. “You look terrible.”
“I’ve been in worse shape,” he grunted defiantly.
“You’re missing some teeth,” she pointed out.
“Nothing… new...” he stammered. He’d had just about every tooth replaced twice already; this would make three for these two. He shrugged. “I guess I should… use stronger… adhesive next time…”
“Lie back, and I’ll work on your injuries,” Zalaria said as she pulled him over to a nearby table. He got up on it and fell to his back, every breath agonizing, and she stood over him with her hands on his chest. “You fought him yourself? He did this to you?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” he answered, shivering as he felt the healing power of the Force flowing through her hands into his body, knitting his broken ribs and internal injuries. “With his own metal fists.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” she said as she finished, moving to look down at his face. He felt even more exhausted now, though the pain was totally gone. “I received a message not five minutes ago, Xar. We are being allowed to leave. I assumed you must have been able to convince…”
“What?!” he blurted out, coming up to a seating position as he stared at her in shock. “He’s letting us go? Then why in the kriffing galaxy did he try to kill me?!”
“I don’t know… Maybe he never intended to kill you in the first place,” she offered. “Perhaps he wanted to show you his power, to teach you something.” Zalaria shrugged, looked intently at him. “But does it really matter why?”
He could have killed me at any time. Xar shook his head in response. “No, I suppose not...” He looked at her hesitantly. “Does this mean you will come back with me?”
She arched an eyebrow. “I promised to, didn’t I? But you’ll have to be patient; I can’t just follow you back to the New Imperium. We’ll have to gather what forces I can assemble here, those I brought with me to this galaxy.”
“Your forces?” Suddenly Xar realized how important this was. By vowing to join him, she hadn’t just meant herself, but everything at her disposal. There were countless others, not only in her entourage, who followed wherever she went, living and serving her. And she had a military, too. It wasn’t she could just defect to the NI. She would have to consider her own people, her forces. “What will happen to all of them?”
“Most of my subjects should be safe on their worlds,” she assured him. “They are rarely affected by things that happen at this level. But my military forces are another matter. Most are loyal only to me, and I know that they will follow me if I go. Those who do not will probably remain to guard my territory. They may fail; the other Warlords will probably descend on my territory once I leave. So, you see how large a commitment I’m really making, Xar.”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, in awe. “I can’t believe you’d do that. No matter what, I’ll stay by your side,” he promised. “I love you.”
Zalaria put on that beautiful smile that melted his heart every time she made it. “Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I just hope I was right about you, and about the prophecy. Now come. There is much that I have to show you, and we have much preparing to do. It will be several weeks before we can return. We had better get started. ”
* * *
The shuttle slowly came to a rest on the private landing pad, touching down without so much as a sound. The landing ramp descended slowly, sending out gouts of steam that rose toward the dark sky above. Out of the ship, an armored figure emerged, striding purposefully across the empty pad. His boots made a hollow clanking sound as he crossed over into the waiting alcove.
The Warlord stopped briefly there, waiting to be acknowledged. Two Kamis, genderless servants clad in white robes, were present, and bowed in respect to him. Nimrod stood impatiently, eager to proceed. It had taken several days for him to arrive; making the news that he bore several days old. It would have been faster if he hadn’t taken a shuttle, but it was the only way he could reach this place. Use of the Power was strictly forbidden anywhere near Altima, commander of all the Shok’Thola.
Finally one of the Kamis pulled the door open, and Nimrod strode past, his black cape swaying behind him. He entered immediately into the sitting room… and obviously, Altima had been waiting for him.
The room was finely decorated, with ornate scrollwork on the walls and columns, antique furniture and decorations, and a thick, colorful carpet. By itself, it wasn’t any different from similar rooms on ten million other Altarin’Dakor worlds. But the presence of one being changed all that, set this one above all the rest. At the other end of the room, the figure stood facing a brightly-lit hologram window, his back turned toward the new arrival. The being stood clad in gleaming golden armor, closely conformed to his body shape, but thickened by layer upon layer of gold plate. Much shorter than Nimrod, but even more imposing, in a much different way. At the sight of him, Nimrod crouched down on one knee, bowing as low as he could manage in his own bulky armor. “Altama,” he spoke, saying his words deeply and richly. “It is Nimrod.”
The figure turned around slowly to gaze at his visitor. “Rise,” he said, with a voice that jolted the Warlord down to the fiber of his being.
Nimrod did as he was commanded, and so looked full on at the being in front of him. It was then he saw that Altima’s helmet had folded itself back, revealing his full visage… The face of a young man, his head closely shaved and bare of any hair. His face had an almost feminine beauty about it, enhanced by the slight smile that graced the being’s expression. It was said that anyone who saw Altima’s true face did not live to tell of the encounter.
Altima stood simply, as if at complete ease, yet looked as immovable as a mountain at the same time. He spoke again, softly, yet his voice carried the weight of a thousand normal men, consuming even the most prestigious of Shok’Thola, stripping their souls bare before his baleful gaze. Nimrod’s own mechanically-enhanced voice was nothing by comparison. As Altima spoke, his eyes took on a soft glow around the whites. His very presence was nearly overwhelming. Nimrod resisted the urge to fall down weeping in front of him. “Speak,” that voice said.
“Altama, my sister and the one called Kerensky have escaped my world and are banding with the enemy. Zalaria has accumulated a portion of her fleet and officers to defect with her to the enemy region known as Epsilon Sector.” Those words still sounded impossible to his ears, yet even more what else he had to say. “As you commanded, I allowed them to escape unharmed.”
Altima’s head tilted slightly, his eyes taking a distant look. Nimrod couldn’t possibly imagine what the being was thinking, nor what hidden thoughts he contemplated when alone. “Yes,” he said.
Nimrod steeled his nerves as he asked his next question. “Altama, do you wish me to eliminate them now that they have joined the enemy?” He wouldn’t be comfortable with the task of eliminating her. True, they hadn’t been close for millennia, yet they had never openly held hostilities against one another. They were still of the same blood, the last of their race. Of course, he knew that Altima could cut her off from the source of her life energy, remove her Immortality in an instant. He may already have done so.
The being reached out with a hand gloved in golden armor, placed it on the back of one of the ornate antique chairs. “No,” he said.
Nimrod waited, the unspoken question hanging in the air. But did he dare question Altima’s motives? The golden being looked at him from across the room, as if sensing Nimrod’s desire for elaboration. He spoke.
“She is still within my will.”
Despite all of his wisdom and experience, the millennia of living as a supreme Warlord, Nimrod was truly taken aback by Altima’s words. Zalaria still fulfilled his wishes as one of the enemy. How could that even be possible? Was she really working against them? Did Altima have his own agenda? It was certainly possible. And if it was, then even the Warlords had reason to fear…
Though he didn’t voice his thoughts aloud, Altima could read them as easily as his own. He smiled thinly, his eyes glowing inside once more. He spoke again. “Do not be frightened. Everything that occurs, follows my design. Do not doubt my power.”
“Of course not,” Nimrod assured him. There was no way he could doubt Altima’s power, having seen it for himself during the Great War. The Warlords would not serve him so willingly if they didn’t know how powerful he really was.
“You are first among the Shok’Thola,” Altima reminded him, his words sending involuntary rivers of pride flowing through the Warlord. “The Return is yours to command. Do not be concerned with following my plans. Naturally, you will.”
Nimrod bowed low, distantly wondering how much exactly Altima knew, how involved he was. If everything he did was already predetermined by Altima, then his fate was already set. And not knowing what that final fate would be was what would keep all the Warlords in line.
“Return to the Front,” Altima said, turning his back to the Warlord once more. A most effective dismissal. Nimrod backed his way out until he had reached the doorway once more, then turned and left, new plans already forming in his mind…
* * *
No one in New Imperium space was remotely prepared for Zalaria and Xar’s arrival. Without warning, the Warlord’s thirty-kilometer-long Titan, christened the Nexus, de-cloaked near Varnus, along with a plethora of escorting capital ships. Their appearance triggered off every orbital alert on the planet, sending the entire system into a momentary panic. Then, from his position beside Zalaria on the bridge of her flagship, Xar sent a call through to Grand Master Alyx Misnera, choosing to announce their presence here before moving on toward the New Imperium Capital of Tralaria.
Zalaria had brought along only a portion of her fleet, headed by her own personal Titan. The Nexus was as lithe and graceful-looking as the name implied, with a long, central shaft that was a full 30 kilometers in length. The ship widened in the bow, the midsection, and the stern, and its entire surface was an elaborately textured metal hull. From around the bow, four large fins came out and jutted forward, ending in long, sinister points. Also at the aft of the ship, two more massive fins extended like sails, helping to create a ship that was both sophisticated, beautiful, and frightening all at once; much like its owner. Also along with the ship, several of Zalaria’s top generals had accompanied her, their loyalty to her much stronger than any ties to the Altarin’Dakor in general. To them, after all, she was the Altarin’Dakor. Beneath them, more commanders followed, out of loyalty to the generals. And below the commanders and captains were the soldiers, pilots, and regulars who joined, some unaware of their Warlord’s existence, instead loyal to the cause she proscribed, and convinced their superiors knew what they were doing. And, of course, her retinue of Jedicon came along as well, loyal to no one but her. It was a group that Xar knew probably wouldn’t mix well with the Jedi in the Division, nor the rest of the New Imperium, for that matter. Still, there was much to be learned from these Altarin’Dakor Force users. Though the vast majority of her forces had remained in the Altarin’Dakor galaxy to protect her territory, the defecting forces would be invaluable in helping to fight against the invasion. Not only would they now have Altarin’Dakor ships of their own, but the New Imperium’s research and development teams would be able to convert Altarin’Dakor technology into the New Imperium as a whole. This was, he thought, truly the turning point in the war.
Over the next weeks, the combined forces that Zalaria brought helped to bolster the NI fleet strength to over the level it had been before Mizar. The sense of morale that seemed to have fallen was replaced by a bustling, busy attitude of progress and preparation. And the entire NI seemed filled with a sense of tension in the air. The next few months would see the New Imperium preparing desperately for the coming storm, building up its fleet strength and defenses, and training its Jedi.
Still, Xar knew that even with everything combined, they were still no match for what Nimrod was going to throw at them. He now understood what the purpose of his confrontation had been; to teach him the unstoppable inevitability of the Warlord’s victory. The combined forces of the New Imperium would be like nothing next to the galaxy-spanning resources of the Altarin’Dakor. Xar knew that if they were going to survive, they would need more help than this. They needed allies, needed to venture into areas not yet discovered by the rest of the galaxy, to search for something, anything that would give them a chance. Already several ideas had been proposed. He just hoped that they could pull them off in time. The next few weeks and months would be crucial, to be sure. After that time, the fate of the New Imperium would be made clear. Either they would survive and prevail, or they would be wiped from the face of history. And the rest of the galaxy would soon follow behind.
It was a time of restless peace, of focused preparation, and expectation of things to come. It was the calm before the storm, the hour of the Return, and the dawning of a Second Great War.
* * *
Calvernic sat tentatively in his seat at the table, the glass of wine in front of him long since forgotten. The room was completely dark, and the long table itself was illuminated only be a single lamp suspended down seemingly from nowhere. Yet somehow that light seemed to fulfill its job admirably, revealing the entire surface of the table, yet still dim enough to mask its occupants in placid shadow. And also masking the secrets that those occupants held. He still could scarcely believe it; two meetings of the Shok’Thola in less than a standard year. And with such a large percentage of them gathered. It was a sign of the complete urgency in the times they faced, the Return rearing up like a tide all its own, now. And, of course, it was also by Altima’s bidding. He was finally taking more of a hand in things, another oddity, another annoyance. What exactly that meant, Calvernic wasn’t sure. The instructions Altima had given him had made seemingly no sense, yet of course he’d carried them out, nonetheless. He wondered if each of the other Shok’Thola had received special instructions, as well. Probably.
Speaking of the others, they were already going at one another across the table. Calvernic was sitting on Altima’s right, this time, next to the head. Beside him, taking up a massive amount of the table, was the black-armored, broad-shouldered figure of Nimrod. The darkness didn’t seem to touch him as it did the others; he seemed more to consume it with his own. The figure that usually sat beside him wasn’t present at the moment. Normally, brother and sister would be sitting side by side, yet Zalaria was nowhere to be found. And if the rumors Calvernic been hearing were true, then there was a particularly nasty explanation for her absence. He wondered if Altima knew… No, not wondered – he knew it for sure – but what had he done about it? And what would Calvernic do himself? Zalaria had a knack for taking useful people into her fold, and his own debt to her was far from paid off. This could complicate matters very much. As well as Zalaria, Mordachus hadn’t arrived yet, which was odd in itself. He was never late.
On the other side of Nimrod, a seat between them, was the enigmatic and exotic Raftina, silent as always. Of course, few words were needed from the one who claimed to be the mother of all Crinn. Calvernic had eyed her with some interest. Crinn females had always been a mystery for him, since they looked nothing like the horrendous males of the species. Their possession of a physical and facial beauty was counterbalanced by the Crinn-style spines, growths, and whatnot else, giving them an exotic kind of beauty that was almost attractive, yet repulsive at the same time. Raftina’s supple, attractive girl-like features were somewhat marred by the spines projecting around her head like a crown.
Opposite Calvernic, on the other side of the table, was Asellus, who appeared to be sulking, perhaps annoyed at being pulled away from other duties. Her suggestive dress certainly didn’t dispel that thought, nor did it ever cease to intrigue him. But then again, that was what she always wore, and he wasn’t fool enough to seek after her. She was beautiful, but any man who sought after that black widow was looking for death, or worse. Her blonde hair fell straight down, barely touching her shoulders, and her sky blue eyes seemed ready to strike up cold fire wherever she sent her baleful gaze.
On the far side of her, separated by an empty seat between them, was Kronos, newly returned and in a reconstructed body, still looking his old self. He was currently having strong words with both Nimrod and Akargan, the latter sitting on Kronos’ other side. As Asellus had predicted, he wasn’t at all happy at the loss of virtually all his territory to the black tyrant. As if there was anything he could do about it. Once Nimrod had something, it wasn’t likely to be taken away again. Kronos’ failure at Mizar had not just knocked him from the top position; he had fallen low, and he would have to struggle for millennia to make up the loss of face and territory. Beside him, the rough, bearded form of Akargan looked almost as angry as Kronos did. He claimed that his territory had been recently attacked, one of his larger bases. At the moment, he was blaming Nimrod.
At the head of the table was the shrouded figure of Altima, his golden armor glinting in spots. His helmet and mask, which could barely be seen, were facing forward, not particularly interested in either side of the conversation. He barely moved at all, in fact, and his eyes were not visible. Calvernic had figured that this meeting would consist of an update from each of the Warlords, more for each other’s benefit than for Altima himself. He doubted if anything they did escaped Altima’s knowledge.
Suddenly a door opened nearby, filling the area with a square of light before a tall figure moved into the doorway. The silhouette entered, the door closing behind him, and the being moved around the table and into the light. It was Strife. Clothed in royally-cut robes and devoid of his usual, extravagant armor, he moved around the table like he owned everyone sitting at it. His long, straight hair, white as the purest snow, fell behind his head and down his back. Calvernic could see something new in his deep blue eyes, his expression a mark of confidence and power. Pulling out a seat for himself, he plopped himself down in what was usually Mordachus’ seat, throwing an arm across the back of Asellus’ chair. She sat forward with a hiss, taking hold of her drink and taking a sip. Calvernic thought he could hear her mutter a few choice curses that made even his eyes widen.
Calvernic opened his mouth to speak, but Strife beat him to the question. “I ran into Mordachus recently,” he said, his words smooth as silk. He nearly slouched in his seat, ignoring Asellus’ protests as if she wasn’t there. “He didn’t take well to the meeting. He proved himself to be more of a blathering, cowardly fool than I had thought. So…” he said, leaning back in his seat. “He won’t be joining us for the rest of eternity.”
The room, which had already been quiet, took on deafening silence. Asellus was the first to speak up quickly.
“You killed him? Are you mad, or simply making idle boasts?” She asked, leveling her gaze at him.
“I’d have brought physical proof, if I hadn’t destroyed his remains,” the white-haired man smiled.
Inside, Calvernic felt a pang of shock and sudden uncertainty. He’d never been close to Mordachus at all, but the two had campaigned together on several occasions. They’d also been around the same age, having only been raised to Shok’Thola only around five millennia hence. But now Strife had killed Mordachus… Did this signify a new bid for power on Strife’s part? If so, it made no sense. Mordachus wasn’t strong enough to pose any threat to Strife, and the gains in forces and territory would be insignificant compared to Strife’s already-vast holdings. So why kill him? What motive could there be? The poor fool had been more in the way than anything else, a liability after his death to an outlander two hundred years ago. Unless that was the reason, itself: easy prey. Was Strife seeking to strengthen his position by wiping out the weaker Shok’thola? Proving his superiority? And if so, who was next? Calvernic was the other young Warlord, with relatively small holdings and a rather large debt to Zalaria. What about Kronos, who had just returned from his own death by an outlander? He very carefully didn’t look in Kronos’ direction.
Others, it seemed, weren’t so introspective regarding the issue. Or perhaps they simply saw things a bit differently. Calvernic listened to the others as their reactions came out.
“So it’s finally happened,” Asellus muttered loudly. “After a lull of nearly a thousand years, one Shok’Thola has killed another. A mere hairsbreadth next to our lifetimes, yet still, it was almost a record. And I thought that all this talk of the Return, all the planning, would have given us something else to do.”
Calvernic nodded in quiet agreement. The Return was the important thing; it should be bringing the Shok’Thola together, not dividing them.
“The strong wipe out the weak,” Nimrod’s booming voice dominated the table for a moment, finality in his voice. “Those who are not worthy, cannot survive. Let him cut away the dead and decaying flesh from among us,” he said, gesturing toward Strife. “It matters not, to me.”
“Nor me,” Akargan spoke up, for once agreeing with the Destroyer. “We all know that in the end, it will come down to only a few of us. The strong will survive.”
Calvernic glanced toward the head of the table, but Altima remained silent. It was as if most of them cared nothing whatsoever for Mordachus’ death. But of course, he shouldn’t have expected them to. Suddenly he realized how precarious his own position must be… Especially now, with his protection – Zalaria – gone. He opened his mouth to speak, but broke off as he saw another square of light appear, the same place Strife had come in. He turned to see who had entered…
And froze. In fact, everyone had. Even Strife had gone quiet, his cocky attitude suddenly gone. The figure in the entryway moved in slowly.
“Why the glum looks?” a scratchy, sarcastic voice asked. The figure lifted something large, thrust it forward… Calvernic flinched as the body landed on the table in front of him. It might have been human once. Now it was unrecognizable, its skin burned off, its eyes mere empty sockets. The sickening smell of burnt flesh assaulted Calvernic’s nostrils, and he grunted at the insult. He didn’t recognize the corpse; perhaps it was one of the guards or servants. Why the person had died was unknowable; likely it had simply been the newcomer’s mood to kill someone. Across from Calvernic, Asellus’ reaction was even worse. The crash had toppled her wine glass, spilling red liquid onto her dress. She looked murder up at the newcomer, muttering even harsher curses up at him.
“Don’t mind me… baby,” Velius said, grabbing an empty chair and swiveling it around to the foot of the table. Then he sat, staring for a moment across the table. Toward Altima. Incredible, his making such a flagrant display of power. He leaned forward, and his visage became clear, a picture more horrid than that of the corpse he’d left on the table. Velius was a freak; there was no question about it. He was also insane. His appearance, though, you could never be sure of; he changed it constantly. Today, his hair fell in large dreadlocks, like green and black coiled vipers. His face was a solid black, and his dead eyes, the pupils thin horizontal splits, could send terror into the heart of nearly any being. He smiled, revealing rows of glowing red fangs. They said he’d been human once, a respected scholar; he clearly was something else, now.
“Velius. At last you show yourself,” Nimrod’s thundering voice didn’t seem changed by the newcomer’s appearance. “Why have you come now? You have never been concerned with our plans.”
“Excellent perception from the renowned genius among us,” Velius said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Big news attracts me. I’m attracted, right now.” He raised his head up in the air, sniffing audibly. “I smell something. Do you smell it? It smells like… fear.” He punctuated the last word by walking over, clamping a hand on the corpse and pulling it sharply off the table and out of sight. Velius had definitely thrown the body in with brute force – no one was allowed to use the Power in Altima’s presence, and no one had dared try since Bardasius had tried – and died – over thirty-five hundred years ago.
Velius glanced at Calvernic then, who immediately tensed himself for violence, but the madman had other thoughts. “We’re missing someone,” he said. “Where’s your darling sister, Nimrod? Her distinctive feminine presence is definitely missing from this conversation… I feel so deprived.”
“She won’t be joining us,” Nimrod answered, his voice a challenge to anyone to press the issue. But Calvernic couldn’t help it; he had to know.
“So what I heard was true?” he asked. “She really joined the enemy? She defected?”
“Impossible!” Asellus shot back. “Don’t even suggest something so stupid, you fool!”
“It’s true.” Nimrod said, softly for once. “She left with the outlander who was responsible for the death of Kronos.”
Instantly, the room exploded into commotion, voices flying everywhere. Kronos and Asellus were especially yelling, the former undoubtedly screaming for vengeance, the latter unable to comprehend how a Warlord would do such a thing. Nimrod fought back, his booming voice undercutting everyone else’s. Calvernic himself sat back in silenced shock. To have the rumor confirmed… But a Shok’Thola would never leave the Altarin’Dakor. It would be completely pointless. Not only did their enemies have no chance of winning, but Altima could… He glanced at the golden figure, but it was still silent. Unbelievable. The gears in his head started working like a nanoassembler spinning together a Titan. Altima had given each of them specific instructions. A Warlord would never just join an enemy; their fate would be sealed from the moment the decision was made. Altima would know. But Nimrod didn’t seem surprised. And how did they get past him, anyway? He’d heard that Zalaria was on her brother’s world. Could Altima really be taking a hand in things? It just didn’t fit together at all…
Then, while all the bickering voices clamored throughout the room, a single cry cut them all off. Everyone turned to look at Velius, who was standing at the foot of the table, his expression unreadable. Calvernic opened his mouth to ask what he’d said, but he didn’t have to.
“All right, that’s enough,” Velius growled, a deep finality in his voice. “There’s no point in worrying about it. I’m going to go kill them both, right now.” Suddenly, with a flurry of motion, he went to the door, opened it, and was gone, leaving everyone in stunned silence.
Calvernic looked back to Altima one final time, practically begging for some response. But the golden being remained quiet. And for the rest of the meeting, he said nothing. But Calvernic thought he knew what the object of this meeting had been… And he didn’t like it at all…
* * *
Written by Joshua Ausley
As the New Imperium desperately prepares for all-out war, Nimrod is about to begin the invasion with renewed vigor. Returning to the New Imperium with Zalaria and a contingent of Altarin’Dakor forces, Xar tries to train a cadre of Jedi with which to repel the enemy. But not everything is going smoothly, and both the Jedi Division and the NI are on the verge of tearing themselves apart due to internal dissent. And amid the tension and confusion, a mysterious new group arrives to help the NI, with news of an ancient Force artifact that could completely end the threat of war. A team of Jedi assembles to locate this legendary relic, but can they make it in time? And what happens when yet another Warlord arrives searching for the same artifact? There’s no way you want to miss the biggest, boldest chapter of the Plotline ever! Stay tuned for: Harbinger.