Tralaria, NI Capital
He knew the attack would come soon. Before even the early risers were up, before they could see something suspicious and sound the alarm. Not that it would matter, once it was done. No one on Tralaria would be able to stop these assassins – no one but him, at least. He could prevent it from happening at all.
Queklain moved silently through the darkened corridors, passing by the useless hall guards by using the simplest of techniques to cloud their minds and render himself invisible. Starting at the sub-level where he was working under the guise of a humble janitor, he ascended the well-guarded stairwell up to level 21, emerging on the diplomatic floor where the Diktat’s quarters were located. This part of the complex was quiet as well, with only a few security guards present. The Diktat’s chambers were actually some distance away, through several locked sub-hallways and a short, private turbolift ride upstairs. But this was the main hallway, and if the assassin or assassins were going to strike, they would have to come through this corridor.
They were good, that much was certain already. Their Masks kept them invisible even to him, and he had the immense energies and sensing abilities of a Shok’Thola within his unassuming form. He didn’t know exactly who would come; he wasn’t familiar with any of Nimrod’s current bodyguards or top Kodonn’Dakor Jedicon. Whoever they were, they could be right on top of him before he sensed them. He begrudged them some small respect for that, even though their mission was destined to failure.
Queklain stepped into a small alcove down the hall from the chamber’s entrance and hunkered down to wait. He realized that he was actually looking forward to this. It had been too long since he’d seen personal battle, which was why he’d chosen to confront them here, by himself. His only passing regret was at the loss of valuable Jedicon. These would certainly be completely loyal to their master, impossible to turn.
They did not keep him waiting much longer. Abruptly he was able to feel them, their presence sending small ripples through the Power similar to that of a leaf falling onto a lake surface. There were two Jedicon, closely approaching this level and already inside the building. Impressive. They were quite powerful, even for Kodonn’Dakor. Perhaps they expected Jedi to be guarding the Diktat, or even some of Zalaria’s own best Jedicon. But they could never have suspected what Queklain was.
He continued to crouch in utter silence, his own Force Mask impervious to their senses. Finally, as they rounded a corner and came stealthily into the main hallway, he decided it was time. He slowly stood and then calmly stepped out of the alcove, turning to face them in the middle of the carpeted hallway. None of the guards were around; the three of them were alone in the dark corridor. If they were surprised, they didn’t show it. Instead, they kept walking purposefully toward him.
Even in the darkness, with his enhanced sight he could distinguish their features. One was a tall, muscular human male, dressed only in leggings and a light vest that hung over his bare chest. His blond hair stood perhaps ten centimeters straight up over his head, and his features were marked by two simple tattoos across his cheeks and several circular earrings piercing his earlobes.
The second was a woman, perhaps human, though not of normal stock. Her skin was so white that she looked like an apparition, and her hair fell around her in dark, flowing waves of darkest blue. Her eyes were a fierce maroon, with raging passion glowing behind them. She really was quite beautiful; he began to entertain the notion of having some fun with her before he killed her. Though covered by a dark uniform, her body was quite supple and desirable.
“Naumas,” he said, calling out for their names in Altarin’Dakor. His voice broke the dead silence like a thunderclap. In response, the two came to a stop half a dozen meters in front of him, finally taking him into serious consideration.
“Ssarlathia, Kodonn’Dakor to Shok’Thola Nimrod,” the female said, her eyes practically glowing. Yes, she was quite attractive. Most definitely one of Nimrod’s top servants.
“Yunn,” the man said. He bore no more formalities.
“Who are you?” the woman asked blatantly.
“I was once known as Queklain,” he said, keeping his voice level. When neither Jedicon reacted to the name, he was not surprised. He’d been dead a thousand generations before either of them had been born. Still, he felt no need to explain himself further.
“Kill him, Yunn, and let us be done with this,” Ssarlathia said, impatience in her tone.
Yunn’s eyes narrowed, and he nodded curtly. Then his lips began to curl into a broad smile. He clenched his fists, and his muscles contracted visibly as he dropped his Mask and began to focus his energies. Yes, they were quite considerable, for a Jedicon.
“You underestimate me,” Queklain said. “I am no mere Jedicon.”
“It matters not,” Ssarlathia said, her voice dripping venom. Queklain couldn’t help but grin at the strength of her fervor. He decided he would kill Yunn quickly, but serve this Ssarlathia a more fitting demise, one that would break that ferocious glare from her eyes.
Finally, Yunn was ready, his presence glowing with the Power and his body tensed for combat. He crouched low, eager to attack, and Ssarlathia leaned close to him. “Make it quick,” she whispered.
“I will,” Queklain promised with a smile.
Yunn leapt towards him like a lion, arms outstretched as he flew across the intervening space. Doubtless he expected to surprise his opponent with his sheer speed, far too fast for a normal human to match. Queklain waited until Yunn was almost upon him, then at the last instant drew in more than enough power to deal with the mistaken Jedicon.
Queklain stepped forward, deftly slipping past the man’s arms and catching Yunn in midair with a palm to the solar plexus. The Jedicon’s momentum was arrested fully, and gave a grunt of pain as the sound of cracking ribs split the silence. Yunn stumbled back and clutched at his midsection, and Queklain took advantage of the opening and experimentally drove a fist into his face, crushing his face and nose and knocking teeth loose.
Yunn staggered back, clutching his broken face. Then, staring in utter shock, he came in again, shunting away the pain and driving the attack once more.
“What are you?!” the man cried out as he came in. He brought his hands up into a guard position and began raining blows out toward his enemy’s head, but Queklain had assumed far too much speed, and dodged the attacks with ease. None of the Jedicon’s blows made contact.
Queklain pushed aside one of the punches with one hand and reached out with his other hand and grabbed the Jedicon’s throat. He squeezed, crushing the man’s windpipe. Yunn managed a garbled choking sound as he lost the ability to breathe, then Queklain abruptly pushed harder and drove Yunn into the wall on the left side. The thick material gave way like flimsiplast before the amount of power they were using, and Queklain drove his enemy through into the next room. A desk and bookcase shattered around them, and then their movement was arrested as Yunn’s body slammed into the floor and sank into a man-sized crater. Yunn’s face contorted in pain and he choked pathetically as Queklain continued to press him down into the floor.
Then the Warlord let a surge of the Power flow from his palm, and the Jedicon disappeared beneath him, a boom reverberating through the room as he passed through the floor below.
Straightening, Queklain slowly walked back across the devastated room and through the hole in the wall, emerging in the hallway once more. He noted quickly that Ssarlathia was no fool; in the split-second battle between him and Yunn, she had flown across the hallway and was even now pushing through the sealed outer doors to the Diktat’s chamber. The doors had crumpled beneath her blows and she had already begun to move inside when Queklain caught up to her, snatching her by the wrist and pulling her back. Her shoulder dislocated with an audible pop, and with a whip of his arm he flung her back into the hallway and against the far wall, where she crashed halfway through before stopping. The sound pierced the air like a miniature explosion, and Queklain wondered when someone would notice and activate the alarm.
Ssarlathia pulled herself from the rubble, then reached over with her good hand and pulled her other arm back down into place. Her face betrayed no pain, only a rage that had no bounds, and her eyes glowed like lasers. “Tell me who you are!” she demanded. Then she drew deeply on the Power, no doubt conjuring up some trick to use against him.
Then his danger sense flared and he ducked instinctively, as she threw her hands forward and a flash of lightning erupted from her palms. The attack passed over his head and sliced deeply into the wall, and then he realized it wasn’t lightning at all, but some kind of Force-wrought energy whip. The move caught him by surprise – he knew of no such power, meaning it must have been developed and taught to the Jedicon after the Great War. After an entire age in captivity, his skills had apparently fallen behind the times.
Still, her knowledge and skill could not make up for the immense difference in their speed and power. Queklain drew in the power of a Warlord, and her movements seemed to slow to a crawl. He dodged the lashes of her energy whip with ease, then slid in closer and inside her reach.
Instantly he reached out and gripped her by the neck, choking off further words and lifting her off her feet. He slipped a Shield around her with the deft practice of a Shok’Thola, cutting her off from further attacking him. The energy whips disappeared, and he took a moment to study her carefully. Beneath the dark tattoos, her rounded features really were quite nice.
“You are a fine specimen,” he mused. “I think I’ll take you as one of my pets for a while.”
“Zin’duth!” she cursed madly at him, kicking and struggling to escape his grasp. But without Force-enhanced strength, she could no more move a mountain than a Shok’Thola.
“You will enjoy it,” he promised her, his mouth twisting into a grin. Then he noticed a subtle change in her eyes as she glanced at something to her right.
Queklain turned to see a battered and broken Yunn standing there, one arm held out in front of him as he summoned up a blast of Force energy.
Before the Jedicon could move, Queklain threw out his other hand and sent a ball of energy straight at the man’s face. As fast as Yunn could gather power, he was no match for the speed of a Warlord. The man died without even a scream as his whole body was cremated where it stood. His ashes spread throughout the hallway behind.
“Now, where were we?” Queklain said, turning his attention back to the Jedicon held up at arm’s length. The woman had stopped struggling, and her eyes were wide as she looked down at him.
Then, warning klaxons began blaring throughout the whole level. Apparently, someone had finally woken up downstairs and tripped the alarm. Queklain looked up at his new prize and arched an eyebrow. “It’s time to leave,” he said.
Slowly, the fire in the woman’s eyes began to fade, and Queklain thought she might actually have accepted her fate. Then her lips parted in a barely audible whisper.
“Undia Nimrod,” she said, reaching down and flipping open a hidden latch in her uniform at waist level. A high-pitched whine started emitting from the hidden panel in her side.
With a loud curse, Queklain turned and threw her down the hall with all his might, sending a blast of force to propel her body away as fast as possible. Ssarlathia crashed through the far wall a split instant later, flying through the rest of the level and almost completely outside the Senate Complex, just before the explosive device went off with enough force to turn the whole west side of the Senate Complex into a consuming fireball…
* * *
Varnusian Productions Presents:
The Second Great War 2:
Dead Ends Bar
Planet Laan, Talas System
Maarek Stele drained the last contents from his glass and shook his head. “I’m telling you,” he said to the barkeep. “Even the new Mark IV Pulse Ion Cannons wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. Jengar couldn’t be saved. It was hopeless.”
“Watch what you’re saying, jock. You flyboys never can get your facts straight with a little juice in your stomach.” The bartender, a middle-aged man with a thick growth of beard and a rounded gut, shook his head and snatched the bottle off the counter before Maarek could refill his glass. “Those Mark Fours pack enough punch to knock out a frigate’s shields with one shot.”
“You’re just not listening to reality,” Maarek said with disgust. “I’ve gotta get some air.” Swiveling around in his seat, he glanced across the rowdy, clamorous interior, spotting his squadron mates scattered around their own tables. “I’m going out,” he practically had to yell, then took off briskly toward the entrance without looking back. He grabbed his thick coat off the wall rack and pushed open the door.
Outside, a blast of cold, dry air immediately assaulted him, stirring his coat’s lapels and his unkempt mop of dark hair. The thin air, typical of mountain climates, contained too little oxygen for Maarek’s tastes, and his nostrils burned with its dry chillness. Laan was an arid and barren world covered by a continuous series of mountain ranges and high plateaus. The colonies and cities here were built atop the plateaus, sometimes towering kilometers above the rocky surface below. The surface itself was usually shrouded by a thick layer of cloud and fog that hung just above the surface, giving the illusion that the plateaus were massive columns floating in the sky. It made for a deadly illusion for any unfortunate ship venturing below the cloud layer, but it was a prime training ground for fighter pilots, testing their reflexes and situational awareness to their limits. Maarek had used this treacherous series of canyons as a training ground for pilots for about a year now, having first used it to teach the Jedi Division pilots, and later his elite Inferno Squadron. Now, after the panicked escape from Jengar, it was to Laan they had been assigned, to oversee evacuations here, too. He had the feeling that this was just another step in a long series of them, with maybe no end in sight.
He glanced up at the pale gray sky, streaked with thin, wispy cirrus clouds. The thin gray band of the planet’s ring system barely be made out from here, as well. A steady stream of small and medium-sized vessels were already making for orbit, continuing the evacuation of yet another New Imperium colony world. Though less populated than even Jengar, there still weren’t enough ships to get everyone off Laan quickly. Of course, there were always those who did not believe an attack would come, and those who chose to stay with their homes no matter what happened. Most of the refugees would be fleeing deeper into NI territory, to worlds at Pax, Tralar, Kolath, and others. Some were probably leaving NI space entirely, abandoning the New Imperium’s chances of survival as hopeless in the face of the Altarin’Dakor assault. And surprisingly, some were even heading to Varnus, the best protected and most populated planet in the quadrant. The fact that Varnus had been bypassed so far hadn’t been missed by many, and some had taken it to mean the world would be spared. But Maarek didn’t have any such hopes; in fact, a much darker thought was lurking in the back of his mind, and he was too afraid to bring it into full consideration.
The fleeing convoy of ships were piercing the upper regions of the atmosphere, after which they would pass by Laan’s small defense and trading outpost, located close to the planet’s ring system. Consisting of two space platforms and a lone Golan-II, the defenses probably wouldn’t even slow down an AD strike force, and the automated defense turrets hidden away in the ring system could simply be bypassed. If an attack came, Laan would fall quickly. Maarek knew that Inferno Squadron’s presence here was little more than a formality. Still, after Jengar, they had regained at least a measure of respect, and they had been sent here next for a reason. He would see to it that Inferno did its duty to protect New Imperial citizens.
The cold was beginning to seep through him now, causing his left knee joint to ache, the result of an old injury. On top of that, the thin air was making him breathless, and he’d need to don a breath mask like most of the residents if he stayed out here much longer. “That’s my cue to head inside,” he murmured to himself. Turning, he trudged back to the Dead Ends’ entrance. Like most buildings in the colony, it was a plain gray structure, with a dome-shaped roof to protect it from the occasional high windstorms. He passed through the insulated double doors and back into the noisy interior.
When his eyes adjusted to the difference in lighting, he noticed Rann Wosper waving him over to the twin tables where the eight other members of Inferno Squadron were gathered. Maarek crossed the room and pulled up another chair from an empty table, sitting down beside his wingman. Also at his table were Salle Darl and Petur Kien, Infernos Seven and Eight, respectively. The other five members were gathered around the other table, and seemed to be enjoying a friendly game of sabacc to pass the time.
“So, what’s on your mind?” Maarek spoke up, addressing the three pilots around him.
“Oh, lots of things,” Rann said, idly rolling his empty glass between his hands. “The war, mainly.”
“We’re starting to wonder if we’re going to survive this thing,” Salle added in a low tone. “Winning seems out of the question, but survival… maybe…”
“Don’t talk like that,” Petur said, the resilient spirit of the Varnusian people in his youthful voice. “If we think that we’ll lose, then we definitely will. All we can do is trust our leaders and do our best.”
Maarek suppressed a grim smile. Petur might still be young in some ways, but he’d had to mature faster than anyone should have. At first a bright, talented new addition to the squadron, he had been severely tempered by the deaths of several squadron mates, blown to bits before his very eyes in the Battle of Mizar. Still, despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation, Maarek was inclined to agree with him – to a point.
“Petur’s right,” he said. “A negative attitude could get us killed out there, and others with us. Things may be desperate, but the NI is far from defeated.”
“We’re expecting an attack on Talas at any time,” Salle pointed out. “Laan will definitely fall if that happens. But what about our major worlds like Moro, Varnus, and Sigma?”
“The Navy is doing it’s best to safeguard our key systems,” Maarek answered. “And we should be doing our best to evacuate who we can. Maybe we shouldn’t be hanging around a place like this when we could be doing some good, even if we are on break.”
“I agree,” Petur added softly.
Rann’s usually jovial mood seemed to darken even further. He pushed his chair back and turned toward the other members’ table. “Hey Gren! What do you think?”
“About what?” the Renastatian pilot said, pausing his turn to look back.
“Think we’re just wasting our time here?”
Gren’s grimaced and shook his head. “Why are you asking me? You know what I think. Stang, before I came here, all I knew was the life of a refugee from one dangerous territory to another. It doesn’t matter.” He turned back to the game, but the other pilots at his table seemed to take up the conversation in low voices.
“What’s wrong, Rann?” Maarek asked, sensing there must be a reason for his friend’s extraordinarily bad mood.
“It’s just… This whole thing. It feels wrong, you know? I mean, don’t you think it’s just a big convenient that the AD are attacking now? Just when the NI finally established its hold on this sector, and just when everything seemed right for us… It’s the worst possible time that this could happen.”
Or the perfect time, Maarek thought to himself. “I understand how you feel,” he said. “Although I wasn’t here when it first got started – I was a latecomer in that, I guess – the last thing I expected to face here was the galaxy’s most dangerous threat ever, returning from millennia-long hibernation.” He reached out and put a hand on the blond man’s shoulder, feeling his duty not just as squadron commander, but as a leader and encourager. “But we’ll make it through this, Rann. And the reason is because we’re not fighting for ourselves in this war. The AD are just out for personal gain, but we’re fighting to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”
“That sounds a lot like the Jedi code that they’ve been preaching on Varnus,” Rann remarked.
“You may not be far off with that idea,” Maarek agreed.
The sabacc game at the other table ended with a round of disgusted sighs and a triumphant, insectile Sigman jumping upright with arms raised. “Another victory for me!” Kikitik’s translator shouted enthusiastically.
“That does it for me, ladies and gentlemen,” Bast Vlagen announced, rising. “I’m heading back to base for a shower and some rest. I suggest you all do the same, soon.” Then with a respectful nod toward Maarek, the flight leader took his leave.
“Bast is right,” Maarek said, standing. “I’ll expect to see you back at quarters by 1930. With the evacuation in full-swing now, we’ll be in the air double-time.”
He slid by the other table, noting a sullen-looking Narm Greyrunner counting his remaining credit chips. “You okay?” he asked the Abregado-born pilot, the only Inferno pilot besides Bast who was a bit older than Maarek.
“Oh, nothing,” Narm said, a somewhat wistful smile crossing his lips. “Was just thinking of someone I lost a long time ago. Maybe I’ll get to see her again someday soon.”
“The AD will be all too glad to oblige you on that,” Maarek said seriously. “But I think you’ll have to wait a while yet.”
The man nodded slowly. “That I already know, somehow.”
“I’ll see you at the base,” Maarek said, then turned to leave.
* * *
Maarek woke to the sound of a shrill alarm blaring through the base’s hallways. For a brief moment, he forgot where he was, and he began to re-live that moment on Kuan when the Imperials had attacked and taken him and his mother captive. But as his hand fumbled for the light switch and his personal quarters on Laan lit up around him, a different kind of fear came over him as he realized where he was. They’re here already, he thought with mixed alarm and resignation. It was testing time again.
He was in his jumpsuit and out the door within thirty seconds, shaking his head to clear away the last vestiges of sleep. He nearly ran into Bast Vlagen’s larger form going by in the corridor, then he fell in behind the flight leader, jogging down the corridors. The footsteps of other Inferno members echoed behind them as they ran.
“Who was on watch?” he asked as they turned a corner and neared the yawning entrance to the hangar.
“Kien and Darl,” Bast answered, keeping his voice steady. Then they emerged into the bay, which was already bustling with tech crews and workers running around and prepping fighters for launch. Rann had made it there just ahead of them, and Petur Kien and Salle Darl were running in from the other side. The other members were filing in behind.
“What’s the word? How many?” Maarek spoke up over the increasing din.
“It’s bad,” Salle said, her voice grim. “An AD fleet has just entered inside Laan’s orbit. Dalius advance warning system didn’t detect them first because they bypassed them and jumped in practically on top of us. So far they’ve counted three cruiser-sized vessels and multiple destroyers. No Titans, but there’s already about a hundred fighters coming our way.”
“Emergency evacuation protocols have been activated,” Petur added. “Planetary defense is scrambling, but it won’t be enough.”
“We didn’t expect it to be,” Bast said. “Have we been assigned an objective?”
Salle nodded. “We’re to try and divert some of the enemy forces while planetary defense escorts the remaining evacuees.”
The nine members all gathered now exchanged skeptical glances. Maarek shook his head. He had to clear the mood, inject some energy into everyone. “Well, it’s a good thing creating diversions is our specialty,” he said enthusiastically. “How far out are they?”
“Depending on how fast they eliminate the orbital defenses, from ten to thirty minutes,” Petur said.
“We’ll bet on ten then,” Maarek said. “Let’s get in the air, people. Call in when you’re in atmosphere.”
With that, the group broke up and everyone began running toward their respective fighters, which were already being lowered down from the TIE racks above them. Maarek hit the steps and bounded up them two at a time, quickly coming up to the scaffold level where his fighter was waiting. The TIE Avatar was a striking ship, with its two reversed TIE Avenger solar panels and the streamlined body resembling a missile boat’s. Some might refer to the ship as an “ugly”, such as those horrible amalgamations combining TIEs, X and Y-Wings, and a multitude of other fighters. But unlike those, this particular combination yielded a ship nearly as deadly as the legendary TIE Defender, yet far cheaper to produce. If any fighter in the NI was able to match an AD ship, it was this one.
His tech waved him forward and crouched down beside the open cockpit hatch. Maarek snatched his helmet from the rack and pulled it over his head, then climbed down into the interior of the craft. As the tech sealed the canopy above him, he settled into his seat and began attaching the restraints and various hoses that would provide and monitor his life support. Then he began the preflight sequence and power-up. Outside the cockpit canopy he saw another squadron’s X-Wings launching out of the hangar and into the open. Reaching down, he opened up the comm system and switched to the planetary defense frequency. What he heard coming off the channel wasn’t good.
“…and they just keep coming in,” a frantic voice was saying. “The Golan 2 has just been destroyed, and they’re moving onto the platform and supply depot. A wing of enemy fighters has already broken past the blockade and is heading into the atmosphere. Repeat: a wing of enemy fighters is already heading your way…”
Maarek switched back to the squadron frequency and shook his head. They needed to be out there, now. He watched the remaining seconds of the countdown on his screen, until finally all his systems were in the green. Then he activated both the repulsorlifts and the clamp release, and his fighter dropped a couple of meters to float quietly above the deck. Putting a hand on the throttle, he pushed it forward, and the engines roared into life. The hangar’s features sped past him as he rocketed toward the entrance, and then just as suddenly he was outside and gaining altitude fast.
He pulled the TIE Avatar into a slow, spiraling climb, watching the city and the plateau on which it was built recede below him. He counted several more Avatars exiting the hangar as he continued his wide turn. His fighter burst through a thin layer of wispy cirrus clouds as he activated his long range scanners to assess the situation.
“This is Lead,” he said into the commlink. “Report in as you reach formation.”
Within a few moments all eight other members of his squadron had checked in, and the three flight groups of Inferno Squadron were cruising through the upper atmosphere. Stele kept an eye on the sensors, noticing a large wave of red growing closer by the second.
“There almost here, boss,” Rann spoke up. “What’s the order?”
Maarek led the squadron for another pass over the city. All the other fighters allotted for Laan’s defense were either about to engage the enemy or assisting the last few transports in their escape. The bright flares of the transports’ engine drives could be seen lifting off the far side of the main plateau, running out on a heading that should let them escape the main invasion route. But even as he realized this, a wave of red blips broke off from the main group on an intercept course. There was no way the transports could make it off in time alone.
“Enemy fighters are going for the transports. We’re going to intercept,” Maarek announced. Mentally he shook away thoughts of Jengar, where they had just recently done the same thing. There had still been some losses. Not this time, he thought.
“Accelerate to attack speed and choose targets,” he said. “We’re going in.”
The wispy clouds streaked by to either side as he pushed the Avatar to high speed, making for a point between the transports and incoming fighters. Within a minute the red blips began to materialize into individual triangular shapes, and shortly after that his HUD painted tiny holographic images over each ship’s location. He selected the two lead targets and armed his advanced concussion missiles. The rest of his squadron were following suit, and a few seconds later the targeted fighters began pulling early evasive maneuvers, while the rest continued toward their targets. There seemed to be about thirty fighters heading for the transports. The dozen escorts for the evacuees pulled out and moved to intercept as well.
“In range now,” Bast announced. “Here they come.”
The lead fighters began turning to intercept Inferno Squadron just as Maarek’s targeting reticule confirmed missile lock on his two targets. He squeezed the firing trigger, sending two concussion missiles streaking out toward each target, the warheads flashing through the air on trails of smoke. A host of other missiles followed as the rest of his squadron opened up, then the air ahead was lit up by dozens of detonations.
Most of the oncoming fighters passed through the flames undaunted and continued in, fast. Maarek’s targets came into visible range, their shields still holding up. He would only have time to hit one of them. Switching over to the Avatar’s quad lasers, he set them for double-fire and brought the reticule over the enemy to the left. Then the space between Inferno and the enemy fighters was crossed by dozens of energy beams sent out by the AD fighters. Maarek’s fighters broke formation, evading the blasts and trying to angle back on their targets. Bringing his crosshairs over his chosen enemy, Maarek hit the trigger, sending dual-linked bursts out toward the oncoming fighter. Green laser blasts broke through the last of the enemy’s shields and cut into the fighter’s fuselage. His first target exploded less than a kilometer away, then Maarek pulled up and into an evasive roll. Inferno and the AD craft crossed in a head-on pass, and he could make out the sleek atmospheric lines of the enemy craft just before they flashed by.
“I counted six down,” Rann spoke up on the commlink. “Another dozen coming around behind us.”
“Flights Two and Three turn and engage. Cover us while we head off the remaining aggressors,” Maarek ordered. Then he goosed the throttle and pulled into a climb, heading for the transports that were already in high atmosphere. Explosions blossomed against the gray sky as the escorts engaged the enemy.
The enemy fighters were well within visible range, now. Maarek quickly cycled to the nearest target making a run on the transports and sent a missile streaking up towards it. The enemy fighter broke off its run and sent out a cloud of chaff, and the missile missed wide, sweeping an arc back down towards the surface. Undaunted, Stele hit the trigger again, sending another missile out at the rapidly growing target. This one came in too close to avoid, and it detonated against the fighter’s shields, sending it into a wild spin but not destroying it. Maarek cut back on the throttle, inverted and pulled back down into the enemy’s six. Switching over to quad-linked lasers, he squeezed the trigger, pouring out blast after blast into the enemy’s shields. A couple seconds later its defenses fell, and another quad blast sheared the craft’s starboard wing clean away. The fighter pitched wildly down toward the surface, out of control. Maarek let it go and pulled around to look for another target.
“Watch your six, lead,” Tanya’s voice broke through the comm chatter just before Maarek’s missile alert went off. He quickly glanced at his sensors and saw the warhead, launched from a pursuing fighter only a few kilometers back. He watched as the numbers steadily rolled down, then at the right moment he rolled to starboard and pulled into a high-g turn, slapping the chaff button as rapidly as he could.
His proximity alert went off, and for an instant Maarek winced in anticipation of the inevitable. But then a flash of light crossed in front of him as the warhead missed by meters, soaring away into the sky ahead.
Maarek regained his composure quickly and pulled his fighter around for a run on his pursuer. As he pulled his loop, he saw a dozen dogfights still raging in the distance, the thin atmosphere crossed by laser blast and energy beams. A transport exploded brilliantly off to starboard as several enemy warheads hit it, and Maarek swore in frustration and anger. Then his HUD painted a box around the incoming fighter only a couple kilometers away, taking Maarek’s attention.
His targeting computer acquired lock immediately, and Maarek sent a missile out from his right starboard rack. A second later, however, the enemy’s beam lasers opened up, catching the warhead straight ahead. An explosion erupted between them, and Maarek used the diversion to juke starboard and get out of the enemy’s path. The AD fighter rolled to port and began cutting over as well, its beams searching hungrily for the Avatar’s fuselage. Maarek raked his crosshairs over the enemy and sent several blasts toward his target, but saw only a couple of hits before he had to go evasive. The two fighters passed in a head-on run only meters apart, and Maarek fought the stick as he flew through the other fighter’s backwash. Then he pulled the throttle back and drew up into a tight loop.
Through the top of the canopy he could see the other fighter doing the same, coming back around for another head-to-head. The other pilot knew he had the advantage in such an exchange. Instead of obliging him, Maarek pulled out of his loop early and traced a slow arc to port, then hit his rudder pedal to turn quickly back to starboard. His craft shook violently against the atmospheric forces tearing at him, but he was able to bring it around. Then a quad-beam blast pierced the air, missing him by meters, and he realized his enemy had anticipated the move. He spotted the target rising to starboard, then pulled the Avatar right and into a complex barrel roll. The enemy passed by again without getting another shot off.
This time Maarek dialed his inertial compensator way up and pulled a turn so tight he feared his solar panels would fly off. Spots appeared before his eyes, and he could feel his insides being pressed back against his seat. But as he let out of the turn, he saw it had done the trick. The other fighter was still turning in front of him. Lining up his crosshairs, Maarek sent out a near continuous series of fire from his wingtip-mounted lasers, peppering the enemy fighter’s shields. Then, just as the fighter was almost back around, he switched to concussion missiles and sent out a shot from his port rack. The warhead crossed the space almost instantly and caught the fighter just behind the cockpit, splitting the fighter in half. Then it detonated, consuming the ship in an expanding ball of fire.
“Looks like that one gave you some trouble,” Rann’s voice said in his ear.
“Not really,” Maarek said, forcing a wry grin. He leveled off for a moment, flexing his sweaty hands and taking a sip from his helmet’s water supply.
“All enemies from the first wave are down,” his wingman continued. “Half the escort fighters are gone, though, and we lost two medium transports.”
Maarek cursed again under his breath. “We’ll pay them back,” he promised.
“Lead, this is Four,” Bast Vlagen’s steady voice cut through amidst a burst of static. “Remains of first enemy wing are making strafing runs on the city. And another wing is inbound.”
Looking down and to starboard, Maarek saw a dozen columns of smoke rising from the plateau already. The city’s turbolaser emplacements were busy sending green light up at the enemy, and several clouds of smoke marked where their shots had been successful. But the remaining fighters were sweeping their beam weapons down into the city with frightening fervor. Fire blossomed wherever they touched.
“This is looking pretty bad,” Maarek said. “Can the transports make it out before the second wave hits?”
“Not likely,” Bast said. “At rough estimate, they’ll be just short of the hyperspace point when they arrive.”
“Then we’ve got to buy them some time. Let’s make that diversion.” Stele took a breath to collect his thoughts. “Okay. I want Flights Two and Three to join the escorts and get the transports to safety. Flight One, you’re with me again.”
“Roger,” Salle and Bast echoed in together.
“Where we headed, boss?” Rann asked.
Maarek looked back down at the scene covering the plateau, then up at the gray sky, where the thin rings of Laan could be seen spreading across the horizon above. More fighters would be coming in at any moment. “We give them a new target to follow,” he said. “Form up.”
He increased to attack speed and began pulling up on an intercept course with the approaching enemy wave. Rann and Tanya pulled in with him on either side.
“Um, are we doing what I think we’re doing?” Rann asked dubiously.
“Affirmative,” Maarek said.
“Well, with all due respect, are we going up there just to piss some of them off? That’s your plan?”
“Got a better one?” Despite the severity of the situation, Maarek couldn’t suppress a grin. He was about to see exactly how far his luck would hold.
“We won’t last long,” Tanya pointed out. “Do we want them to follow us somewhere?”
“Good observation,” Stele said, nodding to himself. “We’ve got our escape route. We draw them off, then lead them down into the canyons where we used to practice.”
It took a second for Rann to reply. When he did, his voice held an incredulous tone. “The canyon runs? This isn’t Kalidor, you know. Doan died on that run, and so did a lot of other pilots!”
“Still, it’s our best bet,” Maarek said, his tone firm. “We’re going to take the Path of Fury. Follow me?”
“Affirmative, boss,” Rann said, offering no further argument.
“Well, let’s get to it then, because here they come!” Tanya shouted.
Maarek’s eyes widened in alarm at the amount of blips suddenly appearing on his screens. The HUD painted more targets than he could mentally keep track of, and they were getting closer, rapidly. “Okay, we’re going to make this quick, people,” he said. “Let’s draw off all that we can.”
The enemy forces had definitely noticed the presence of the three lone fighters approaching them. They were all coming towards the NI trio, now. Maarek locked onto two fighters and sent out a missile toward each, then lined up a third for a strafing run. Six missiles altogether shot out from the Avatars toward the enemy group, and though they were all shot out of the sky prematurely, they definitely attracted some attention. Beam weapons began lancing through the air on either side, too far out of range to target correctly, but becoming more accurate by the second. Maarek let loose a barrage of laser fire, taking potshots and whoever his crosshairs found, then when the lead ships had closed to within a few kilometers, he hit his commlink switch. “Let’s get out of here!” he ordered.
Wrenching the stick back, he pulled right and down into a steep dive, aiming back for the plateau. The g-forces slammed him back into his seat. Beams cut through the air around him, and he sent his Avatar through a series of harrowing maneuvers borne out of sheer reflex. Tanya and Rann stayed with him, as the plateau and city began to get closer, fast.
“How many did we pick up?” he asked, still juking his craft left and right.
“Looks like at least a dozen,” Tanya’s strained voice answered. “I think it’s enough to… Uh oh, I’m hit!”
Maarek twisted around in surprise as a beam flashed dangerously close, and he saw Tanya’s craft juke right, trailing smoke from the edge of her left solar panel. “You okay?!” he said.
“Yeah, shields are out, but I’m just singed a bit,” came her terse reply.
Maarek nodded. “Bring it in low over the city, folks. We’re going in!”
The fighters zoomed across the plateau’s surface at full throttle, piercing thick, rising columns of smoke. All the turbolaser turrets had gone silent by this point. A number of running forms were visible down there, and Maarek offered a silent prayer for them as he flashed by overhead. Some other AD fighters noticed the ruckus and took a few potshots that missed wide, and a couple even turned to follow, but the main concern was the dozen or so sleek craft following in the Avatars’ wake.
The training grounds were below the plateau’s west face, Maarek remembered. As they quickly approached the edge of the city, he called out to his companions. “Get ready to drop throttle and dive on my mark. Three… two… one… now!”
As the edge of the city gave way to open air, he cut his forward thrust and shoved the stick. He was thrown forward in his seat as his fighter turned down into a nosedive, and all he could see was the thick layer of stratus fog concealing the true surface below. The walls of the plateau sped by below him, and on his screens he could see the AD fighters pulling down to continue the pursuit. They were fully committed, now. “Time to see if we’ve still got what it takes,” he said under his breath.
The cloud layer was approaching fast, and they were still gaining speed. Maarek’s fighter began to buck and jolt as they continued their descent. “Air’s getting thicker,” he said. “How’s that wing, Tanya?”
“It’s holding,” she replied, her voice shaking with her fighter.
“Get ready to pull up as soon as we hit the cloud cover,” he announced.
Then the layer of white rose up to meet them, and all sense of motion vanished as visibility fell to zero. Maarek watched his altimeter, although the terrain map was an incoherent jumble and the distance to ground kept fluctuating. To say the surface was uneven was a grave understatement. “Pull up!” he shouted, suiting actions to words.
As he reared back on the stick, the whiteness around him vanished just as quickly as it had come, and suddenly he was staring at the rocky peak of a dark mountain less than a hundred meters in front of him. He wrenched the joystick back with all his might and kicked in the repulsorlifts, hoping he’d have just enough room. The mountain grew so close he could make out individual rocks before he finally arrested his downward motion and cleared it by about ten meters. Rocks flew into the air in his wake.
“With me?!” he blurted out to his comrades, following the steep slope of the mountain down and into a wide ravine that spread out before him. He got two quick confirmation clicks on the commlink as his reply, and he focused ahead again. Dark, craggy mountains and cliffs were all he could see out to the horizon, and the ravine was opening up to swallow them whole.
The Altarin’Dakor fighters weren’t so fortunate. Although they’d been aware of the altitude change, they weren’t prepared for the great disparity in the jagged peaks and cliffs around them. Fighters pulled up wildly behind them, and the dark mountain behind him was colored with blooming fireballs as three of the enemy fighters came in too fast to pull out. The rest made the turn and fell into pursuit.
“All right, we’re in. Time to push the envelope and get some distance. Remember this is the same course we always practiced, so we should be fine.”
The ravine quickly narrowed into a canyon around them, then grew even smaller as they passed through a fissure in the canyon wall only about forty meters wide. They began passing through the remains of an ancient riverbed, the water long since dried up, and jagged, craggy walls sped by on either side. On his screens he saw the AD ships enter behind him, actually gaining some ground. Now that they’d come this far, apparently they weren’t going to give up. But coming in at those speeds was utter folly; they had no idea of the terrain ahead beyond their scanners’ range. This was exactly what Maarek had been hoping for.
He guided his TIE Avatar through the narrow canyon with a light hand on the stick, making small adjustments and avoiding rash, sudden moves. Turning too far could get you in a fatal situation impossible to control. Keeping an eye on his rear screens, he noticed the AD fighters holding pursuit, and still gaining. Though there were small curves every few seconds, pretty soon they’d be close enough to take shots on the straighter sections. And the real challenging part wouldn’t come for another minute or so.
“You two take the lead,” he said to his wingmates. “Create some distractions if need be. This is a determined bunch, but they don’t know the path. If we fly cleanly, the canyon will do our work for us.”
His words were punctuated as they passed underneath a broad natural archway connecting the canyon walls overhead. He adjusted altitude slightly to pass beneath it, when he saw the first yellow flash of energy pass by from behind. They’re in range, he realized. He held the stick gently, never keeping a straight path. Beams shot by sporadically as the enemy tried to score a hit, but they never got enough time for a solid lock. Blasts flew by and struck the walls around him, exploding rock and sending showers of pebbled down toward the bottom of the canyon.
“First big turn up ahead, boss,” Rann said. “Distraction time?”
“Definitely,” Stele replied. “Arm missiles.”
Then he angled his ship on the starboard wing and began to follow the natural arc of the canyon, an easy turn at first, but quickly tightening, until he had to cut throttle a bit and fight the stick to avoid the wall. At that point, he saw Infernos Two and Three launch concussion missiles into the far side of the wall. They detonated just as Maarek passed by, sending gouts of flame and smoke to fill the canyon and spraying large boulders out into the air.
As the fighters came out of the turn, the Altarin’Dakor craft passed through the same area, unaware of the obstacles that had been placed in their path. The first fighter through the curve hit the debris dead on, sending its shields wildly fluctuating and throwing the fighter off course. Out of control, it slammed into the canyon wall and crashed brilliantly. The remaining fighters passed through the explosion, but another one misjudged the angle of the curve after passing through the smoke and clipped the other side, sending it lurching in the opposite direction. Another explosion marked the death of the second fighter.
Maarek saw this only on his tactical display screen while still navigating the increasingly treacherous canyon. Now, large boulders and natural columns were jutting up from the floor, providing obstacles if one flew too low, and more and more archways were forcing them to stay at lower altitude. Now’s where it gets rough, he knew. “How’s your ordinance holding up?” he asked the two pilots ahead of him.
“I just ran out,” Rann reported sullenly.
“I still have two missiles,” Tanya said.
Maarek glanced at his own display. Two left for me, as well. “Use them at your discretion,” he said. “We’ll lead them to the end of the canyon. I still count six behind us, so let’s push it.”
Rock formations of varying size and shape were passing by now, and Maarek was having to devote more and more time into navigation instead of watching his pursuers. Every few seconds a wild blast from a beam weapon would pass nearby, striking the wall or a rocky outcropping, but nothing life-threatening. The course through the canyon was far more deadly at the moment, as sharp, quick turns came more and more frequently.
The three TIE Avatars continued through the treacherous pathway in single file, with Rann in front and Maarek bringing up the rear. As the passage widened suddenly, presenting an area scattered with columns jutting high enough to present obstacles, Tanya sent her remaining two missiles into one of the central formations, exploding rock and dust into the canyon. Another AD fighter went down as debris impacted its shields and threw it off course, sending it into another nearby column. The canyon was filled with flame behind, as the remaining Altarin’Dakor pressed forward relentlessly.
“We’re coming up on the part where everyone buys it,” Rann announced from half a kilometer ahead.
The Corridor of Thorns, Maarek thought to himself, a name that pilots refused to mention because of the supposed bad luck it brought. Still, he was hoping the AD would suffer some of the canyon’s misfortune even though they didn’t know its name.
The passage abruptly narrowed even further, and the walls rose higher, until they were at least two hundred meters above. Then the actual texture of the canyon changed, from dark, craggy rocks to a series of sharp, jagged edges and stalagmite-looking structures. Hence the namesake, he knew. Then matters became more complicated as a series of archways crossed the canyon at varying levels, not just at the surface anymore. Maarek found himself pulling up over one, then diving quickly down to avoid another, careful not to brush the thorns on the canyon floor. Another AD fighter suffered from poor reflexes and hit one of the crisscrossing arches, detonating against the rock. The one behind him pulled down too low in its attempt to avoid the debris, and brushed against the spikes near the bottom. The fighter was literally torn to shreds in an instant.
That leaves three, Maarek thought. But there were only a few more kilometers left before the end of the course. He’d have to make a decision soon about how to deal with the survivors. They were too good to be fooled by any more of the canyon’s tricks. Already it was lessening in intensity. He opened the commlink to the others.
“Okay, listen up. Once we hit the end of the run, I want you two to pull up and out. I’ll deal with the remaining bogeys.”
“What? How are you planning to do that, boss?” Rann spoke up.
“I’ll see if I can’t shake them at the end, and if not, there’s a nearby tunnel I know about.”
“Tunnel? You mean that tunnel?” Tanya asked in a worried tone. “It’s not a tunnel, it’s a cave. In case you don’t know, there’s no exit!”
“Exactly,” Stele said, taking a breath to steady his nerves.
“Boss, with all due respect…”
“Cut the chatter, Two,” Maarek ordered. “Now isn’t the time to voice your opinions. That was an order.”
After a moment’s pause, both pilots quietly acknowledged their acceptance – just before a missile came out of nowhere behind Maarek and hit the wall next to him. The cliff exploded beside him, and something hit his port shield, sending him careening to the right. He wrenched the controls back with a tight hand, barely missing a fatal brush with the wall, and sighed an indrawn breath as he settled back into the center of the course. On his screen, he saw the bad news – the enemy had made it through the worst part of the course and were gaining on him, close enough to take shots at him with missiles. Maarek began juking his fighter once more, as energy beams shot through the air around him. He checked his distance indicator and realized that they were almost at the end.
“Time to pull out,” he told the other two.
Half a kilometer ahead, Rann and Tanya reached the cliff face that marked the end of the training course and pulled up, making for the sky. Maarek kept his pursuers low to the ground, hoping they wouldn’t notice the abrupt wall that was about to jut straight up in front of them. Maarek started around the final right-hand turn, armed his missiles, and squeezed the trigger as soon as the turn leveled out. Then he was pulling back on the stick as hard as he could.
His fighter cleared the wall by mere meters as his missiles impacted against the rocky surface, sending an explosion fire and rock back down toward the pursuers. The first two fighters pulled up in time, blasting through the debris and into the air, but the third wasn’t as maneuverable. The fighter hit the wall on the way up, obliterating itself as it hit the wall at hundreds of kilometers an hour.
As soon as he cleared the wall, Maarek dove back down into another canyon on the opposite side, hoping his pursuers would choose to follow him instead of his comrades. They both did. In this wider, safer ravine, they knew they would be able to target Maarek’s craft more easily. Stele only hoped he could hold them off long enough to show them the surprise coming up. And hopefully he wouldn’t go out with them.
He kept his Avatar moving constantly as blasts began passing by on all sides. He passed beneath a massive arch that put them in shadows for a moment, then back into the open. Maarek’s fighter lurched as a lucky brushed hit the rear of his craft, and warning signals began playing across his displays. Shields out, he realized. Just a little more.
He goosed the fighter’s throttle up to full attack speed, the sides of the canyon passing by in such a blur he couldn’t make out any detail. The AD fighters stayed right with him. As he zoomed over the surface, dust and pebbles blew everywhere in the wake of his passing. Another archway structure appeared, only it wasn’t an archway, but a real tunnel. It was like a mountain sat directly in the pathway, and a yawning cave mouth grew up to swallow all three fighters. Maarek kept the throttle at full as he blasted through the brief interior and through a slight left curve, the enemy behind him all the way. More blasts passed by too close for comfort, cutting into the walls ahead of him. This is it, he thought. I’ve only been here once, myself. Let’s hope this works.
A second cave mouth appeared ahead, larger than the first. With any luck, they would assume that with Maarek heading in at such speed, it would be another tunnel just like the first. Stele hoped to keep that impression, driving toward it at full speed.
Maarek fought down a sudden surge of fear and claustrophobia, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. The dark mouth began to swallow them, and he waited until the last instant, until the fighter raced through the opening and was enveloped in blackness. Then he hit the reverse thrusters at full power.
The two enemy craft passed by him at a blur, and Maarek winced, hoping he could slow down enough in time. The other two fighters didn’t have a chance.
Then all he could see ahead was fire, as both fighters hit the dead-end at full speed and sent an explosion racing back through the corridor. His fighter shuddered violently as he brought it to a near-stop, using the repulsorlifts to keep it hovering in the air. He watched the burning wreckage ahead for another moment, then turned and led his fighter back out of the cave entrance.
“I’m clear,” he said as he pulled up and away from the canyon.
“That was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen you do,” Rann’s voice chided him over the commlink. “You know, we could have taken the two or three that were left.”
“Yeah, but we might have called down more after us,” Stele countered. He brought his fighter up in a rising arc, heading into formation with his wingmen. Sweat was rolling off him beneath his flight suit, and he drank greedily from the built-in water supply. “Anyway,” he said after catching his breath, “This way they don’t know what happened to us. We’ll fly around to the other side of the planet and escape from the alternate hyperspace rally point.”
“Will we be able to join up with the rest of the squadron?” Tanya asked.
“I’m sure they got the transports out already,” he said. “We’ll meet up with them at the rendezvous point.”
“Where’s that?” Rann asked.
“The designated safe zone for these refugees,” Maarek answered. “Varnus.”
* * *
Training Room 3
Royal Palace, Vectur
The lightsabers came together again, blue and red blades meeting with a flash of light and an unmistakable clash of sound. Then with a grunt of effort, the Jedicon pushed Vykk Olyronn off balance and down onto his back on the matted floor.
“That’s enough. Well done, Paladin,” Adept Kiz Thrakus said, giving a nod of approval toward Vykk. “You did well. A little more and you would’ve had him.”
The Jedicon Kuvar smiled and let his crimson blade die out. “A Jedicon is much easier to defeat when he is restricted.”
Vykk looked over to the group of senior Jedi lined up along one side of the mat. Jedi Master Xar Kerensky was there, along with Adept Kiz Thrakus, the Kensai and Head Instructor of Jedi combat. Also present were Adept Atridd Xoan and Crusaders Rynn Mariel and Neres Warjan. From his spot at the left end of the line, Xar took a step forward and gave a wry smile toward Vykk.
“He’s right; Kuvar was pulling his attacks, making sure he wouldn’t kill you if you missed a block. As much as I hate to admit it, you’d be dead if the situation were real,” Xar said.
Vykk switched off the training lightsaber and pushed himself to his feet. He suppressed a sigh of exasperation and anger at his failure. Even though few Jedi in the New Imperium could take on a good Jedicon one on one, he expected more of himself. “Understood, sir. I’ll be ready for that, next time.”
Xar exchanged a glance with Kiz and then nodded toward the Jedicon, one of Zalaria’s more skilled servants, here specifically to help train Jedi. “Remember this most of all,” Xar said clearly. “A Jedicon will not stop or back down from you, even if he’s severely injured. All his focus will be on you, committed to every single attack. Unless you are equally committed, you won’t be able to defeat him.”
“That’s why we train so hard and so meticulously,” Thrakus added. “Our goal is to have both superior attitude and superior technique. If you have those, you will win.”
“I understand,” Vykk said, giving a low bow to his superiors. “Thank you for the lesson.”
Xar and Kiz exchanged a few more comments in a whisper, then Xar turned to Vykk once more. “Come with me if you will,” he said. “There’s something I’d like to discuss. I want Kiz and Rynn with me as well. Atridd, you and Neres are sparring with Kuvar next, right?”
“Yes, and looking forward to it,” Xoan said with a wide grin. He flexed his fingers together in front of him, the servos in his artificial right arm whirring softly. “I’ve got to put this arm to the test. At least until Vannik gets all the kinks worked out for the new version.”
“Did you decide to have it covered?” Rynn spoke up, brought out of her usual reverie.
“Yeah,” Xoan nodded. “Doc says it may take another week to get it just right, but it’ll look better than this hunk of metal any day. I’ll miss the nifty attachments I made to it though,” he said, flexing his arm and patting the spot where his biceps should be. “The skin will cover them all up.”
“I’m sure it’ll be a welcome change,” Xar offered. Then he took in Rynn, Kiz and Vykk with a glance. “Ready to go?”
In response, the three Jedi fell in behind the former Grand Master as he led them outside the training room and into the adjacent hallway.
“How is your training proceeding with Bren?” Xar asked as they walked, glancing at the red-haired woman alongside Vykk.
“We’re making progress,” Rynn said, “though it's a bit slower than we’d hoped. I definitely think we’re onto something, though.”
“Good,” Xar said somewhat absently. Vykk knew that Rynn adhered to a slightly different philosophy about using the Force. Instead of focusing on combat and increasing her power level in the face of the Altarin’Dakor assault, she and a few others were focusing inwardly, on feeling and sensing the Force and it’s “will”. While it was true that a Jedi focusing too much on the moment and the aspect of power lost the ability to see well into the future and develop abilities such as danger sensing, the majority of the Jedi didn’t see those abilities and qualities as necessary when involved in a war. Grand Master Xar didn't seem to, either.
“How about the special trait you discovered that you had?” Xar asked.
“Oh, that! It’s amazing!” Rynn exclaimed, excitement returning to her voice. “Bren has helped me a lot with it. I didn’t know that everyone had special talents and predispositions toward certain Force powers. Actually, it was Jinx who pointed mine out to me. Will he be returning soon? I’d like to ask him more about it.”
“He’s been in overall charge of Moro for a few months, and right now he’s overseeing the planned evacuation,” Xar said quickly. “But I share your sentiments; you seem to have developed a truly unique ability in this conflict that could give us new insights into the enemy. I hope you’ll cultivate your talents as much as you possibly can.”
“I will,” she said.
Vykk narrowed his eyes in confusion. “I’m a bit confused. What power is it she discovered?”
He saw Xar exchange hurried glances with Rynn and Thrakus. “Actually, the fewer people who know, the better. She discovered something back when the AD attacked Moro last, something that could be of some good use if she’s able to develop and control it. But for the sake of her safety we’re keeping it as quiet as possible.” He gave Vykk an apologetic look.
Vykk shrugged and nodded. In short, he was being told that he didn’t need to know. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that in his military career.
As they reached the main levels, they saw more and more traffic, until eventually the corridors were filled with people walking this way and that on a myriad of different tasks. The palace was a much different place than it had been months before. Varnus’ major cities were filled almost to overflowing with refugees now, so many that camps were being set up in the countryside around Vectur and the other largest areas. Even the Royal Palace had been opened up, since most of the hundreds of rooms it held had still been unoccupied. Varnus was definitely a massive melting pot, full of racial and ethnic diversity and variety. Vykk didn’t know how the planetary leaders, including Xar, were keeping all the ensuing problems in check.
They were just entering the main hall when Vykk noticed the increase in background noise, broken by a few screams and cries of shock. People were moving faster, hustling toward this or that location. “Something’s happened,” Kiz observed. He reached out and flagged down a Novice who was running by.
The young man came over, huffing from the sprint he’d been taking through the corridors. He stopped before the four Jedi and bowed low.
“What happened?” Xar asked, dispensing with formalities.
The Novice’s eyes went wide, then he managed to get control of himself and calm down, but his voice still betrayed the urgency he felt. “You must not have heard yet,” he said, his breath coming quickly. “Word just came in that the Talas System has fallen. The AD have taken Laan!”
Rynn put a hand over her mouth in surprise, and Kiz shook his head sadly. Vykk himself felt as shocked as Rynn looked. Talas had fallen already? It had just been a few days since they'd heard about Danube! “They’re moving faster than we thought,” Xar said, betraying little emotion.
The Novice searched his superiors with a desperate look in his eyes. “Sir, with all due respect, doesn’t that mean Varnus is cut off now? I mean, almost? Moro’s the last one, and when they take it, we’ll be surrounded! What about all the people here?”
“We’ve anticipated this and planned ahead. Don’t worry. We figured there would be this kind of reaction when NI worlds started falling,” Xar said flatly. “It’s just a matter of getting word out to the main populace. Varnus is the most heavily-defended world in the quadrant. We do have supply line concerns, but we’re in no danger at the moment.”
The Novice nodded, and at Xar's dismissal returned to the throng of people milling to and fro. Vykk kept an eye on the Grand Master, wondering if he really felt as confident as he sounded.
Turning to his three companions, Xar bowed slightly and gave a sigh. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go to command and control right away. I’ll talk to you about that issue another time. I have a feeling that once the current crisis subsides, we’ll need to discuss some tactics and strategies to use in the upcoming engagements.”
“You're right,” Thrakus said, nodding. “The important thing right now is to calm these people down and assess the situation. And then we’ll figure out how to make the AD pay for all this.”
Xar gave him an intense stare. “That we will, Kiz. Count on it.” Then he turned and took off down the main hall at a jog.
* * *
Bridge, Titan-Class Battleship Nexus
Tralaria Orbit, Tralar System
Sector Admiral Stan Sanders watched the holoscreen with growing bewilderment. The news that Talas had fallen had been all but pushed aside by the focus on the failed assassination of the Diktat. The media was busy scrutinizing the recent attempt to kill the NI’s leader, and images of the Senate Complex’s west wing in rubble were all over the Holos. Nevertheless, what exactly had happened was still a mystery. All anyone knew was that a bomb had gone off in the west wing and there was internal damage to the complex as well. Repairs could take months. Whoever the would-be assassins were, they could still be at large, for all anyone knew.
With the touch of a few buttons, not only was the entire NI Network available at his fingertips, but the most of the Galactic HoloNet as well. Well, what was left of the HoloNet at this point, anyway. Thanks to the never-ending war between the New Republic and Imperial remnants, there wasn’t much left. But the AD-level technology onboard the Titan-class Battleship Nexus gave him instant access to almost anything he could imagine. He didn’t claim to understand it in the least; he just appreciated having the use of it.
He switched to a strategic overhead map of the entire New Imperium Territories and turned to his colleague nearby. “What do you make of it, Gaius? They say as many as fifteen million could still be in enemy hands on Laan. Apparently all the evacuees didn’t make it to Varnus or Pax.”
Fleet Admiral Gaius Adonai swiveled around in the command chair and shook his head. His light-colored hair held a few streaks of gray, showing ahead of their time. “As much as I hate to say it, the situation can’t be helped,” Gaius said. “All our resources have been poured into the evacuation of Moro. As for Varnus… The Force knows what’ll happen if the AD launch a full-scale offensive there now. We’re not ready to launch the operation yet.”
The two Fleet Commanders regarded each other for a moment. Together they commanded both components of the New Imperial Starfleet – Gaius the First Fleet, Stan the Second. While Stan’s contingent consisted of the bulk of their forces and was based out of Kolath, Gaius commanded the heaviest hitters and was based out of Tralar. Stan’s job was to guard the “western” half of the New Imperium while Gaius was charged with the “eastern”, the area with the most populous worlds and the one currently under heaviest attack. Stan had long experience as a fleet commander, having led the former Intruder Wing, but this was Gaius’ first time commanding a fleet of this scale, and he was taking the job very seriously. Here, on board Zalaria’s flagship Nexus in the Tralar system, they had been developing the strategy that would hopefully turn the tide against the Altarin’Dakor onslaught. But it would take time to enact, and time was one resource that was becoming most precious.
“With the fall of Talas, our key systems in Varnus Quadrant have been isolated,” Gaius said. “Sigma, Moro, Varnus, and Pax are in grave danger. I believe I know Nimrod’s general idea here, but despite my best efforts to curtail it, things are happening exactly as I fear. Refugees are flocking to Varnus. Soon the planet will be overrun and our supply lines to it will be cut off. What then?”
“We can’t let that happen. If you want, we can combine our forces, sacrifice some of the out lier systems…” Stan offered.
Gaius shook his head abruptly. “No, I’m sure that’s what he expects us to do. We have to get this operation going in time, or we should all start relocating towards the Core.”
Stan opened his mouth to comment when the lift at the back of the bridge abruptly settled down to the floor and a tall, olive-skinned woman stepped off the pad. She quickly crossed the fifty or so meters across the massive bridge to the front panel array where the Fleet Commanders sat. She was dressed in a regal-looking uniform and held herself upright in a haughty yet aggressive posture. Her multi-locked hair swung behind her as she walked. The bridge seemed to snap into action at her presence; whereas the crew and officers had simply been ignoring the two foreign Admirals onboard, they now respectfully turned to their stations and worked diligently, not daring to look upon their Shok’Thola, as the Altarin’Dakor called their supreme leaders. Stan watched as Zalaria crossed to the front of the bridge and approached the captain’s chair. Naguis’Vox’Donn Awel Kylar, who had also been keeping separate from Gaius and Stan’s conversation, rose and bowed low before his master.
Instead, Zalaria turned and faced the two New Imperial officers. “Have you decided your course of action?” she asked, an edge of impatience evident in her voice. She hadn’t liked using the Nexus as the base for the NI War Council’s conferences. “I plan to take the Nexus to Varnus, imminently.”
“I am aware of that,” Gaius said, turning toward her but remaining seated. “But this ship is still under my jurisdiction as part of the First Fleet. Please remember that.”
“How could I forget?” Zalaria said with mock sincerity. Stan knew that her race had virtually perpetual memories. “You make it more apparent every moment you remain on my ship.”
Gaius made a half-grin, obviously unperturbed by her words. He was a Jedi Master, far more adept at using the Force than most Jedi Stan knew, but still he was as nothing compared with Zalaria. He had a lot of courage not to be intimidated by her. “But I digress; we have indeed made our decision,” Gaius said. “I need to travel to Moro. Please prepare a shuttle to take me to the Independence at once.”
“Already done,” Zalaria said, lifting a finger slightly. Near the back of the room, two officers moved toward them, ready to lead the two Fleet Commanders to the correct docking bays. At over thirty kilometers, the Nexus was an easy ship to get lost in, and Stan had only been to a few of its many sub-sections.
“I’m returning to the Darkstar,” Stan spoke up. Then he looked over at Gaius. “If you’re going to oversee the evacuations personally, I would still like to offer my assistance.”
“I risk no less than anyone else at Moro,” Gaius answered. “And both sides of the NI are equally important.”
“Very well,” Stan said, giving in with a small shrug. “Just be careful. It’s a delicate situation. We have to hurry, but we don’t want to tip Nimrod off to what we’re planning.”
Zalaria gave a wry smile at that. “I would count on his finding out. I hope your true plan is buried deeply enough behind the false one.”
“Don’t worry, it is,” Gaius said. “That’s why I’m going to Moro. And if it isn’t safe, then Varnus is all the more in danger.”
“I’ll keep an eye on Varnus,” she said, her eyes narrowing.
“Task Force Independence will be overseeing the evacuation of Moro,” Gaius added. “If the AD keep acting as they have, it should be enough to hold them off.”
Stan pushed himself up from his chair and swept his gaze across the Titan’s massive command bridge. All around them was a panoramic view of space offered by the holographic wall panels surrounding the Titan’s bridge, making it seem like they were literally hovering over the ringed planet of Tralaria below. Even beneath the protruding bridge were viewports, showing the vast seas below. Funny, Stan knew the ship proper was beneath them, yet their holographic technology was so advanced he couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. The rest of the room was a disorienting array of holographic displays and oddly-shaped control panels. Futuristic was the main word he thought to describe it. Everyone was working at their stations with the utmost seriousness. This in microcosm represented what the NI was facing: a relentless, dedicated force armed with mysterious, advanced technology. We’re fighting a losing battle, he thought. But we can’t quit. If we fall, the galaxy falls with us. We have to draw the line here.
He nodded to his guide as the Altarin’Dakor officers walked up beside him. Then he turned to Gaius and Zalaria. “I wish you both the best in the upcoming operations.”
“May the Force be with all of us,” Gaius said, shaking Stan’s offered hand. Stan nodded, then turned to leave.
* * *
1805 Hours Local Time
Kodonn’Dakor Nobien turned to his subordinates with an impatient scowl. In the darkness of the station’s supply room, their faces were barely visible. “Have you finished placing the charges in Section D yet?”
“We have just finished,” one of the servants reported with a bow. “We are at seventy percent of our objective.”
“Move faster,” Nobien ordered, suppressing the urge to backhand the man for his incompetence. They had to keep up appearances, and they already might seem suspicious walking around Moro’s most vital shipyards and stardocks. They had been here for two days already, placing the devices where they would be most effective. Most of them held the appearance of normal human workers, although Nobien hadn’t been willing to risk using defected Outlanders in this task. As for himself, staying inconspicuous was a bit harder. Despite being dressed in civilian-style clothing, with a simple vest covering his jumpsuit, his wildly unkempt brown hair and the two small tattoos on his left cheek marked him as different from the normal shipyard traffickers. He also had to hide his considerable Force strength with a Mask to keep away pesky New Imperial “Jedi”. But not for much longer.
“Time is growing short,” he said. “I expect results within the next two hours.”
Nobien turned to the other demolitions experts with him, disguised as normal technicians. “You will accompany me to Stardock One. Then I will go down to the surface and attend to the final matter.”
They all nodded acceptance to his plan, and the Jedicon eyed them with a stare that said he would allow for no mistakes. “Yunn and Ssarlathia may have failed, but we will not. Their defeat shames them, but we will bring glory to the Altarin’Dakor and to Lord Nimrod.”
A round of whispered pledges cut through the silence, and within another moment the room was empty once more.
* * *
Platform Gateway III
Orbit, Moro II
“Well, look what the Sith dragged in!”
Colonel Rivian Donitz looked up from the table as he heard the voice and raised an eyebrow. “Jacob Skipper. Or should I call you Jinx? It’s been a long time.”
“Indeed it has.” Skipper, dressed in plain Jedi robes, crossed the sparsely populated tapcafe where Donitz was on break. Outside the nearby window, the ongoing evacuation of Moro could be seen in real-time, as hundreds of ships traveled along their flight paths, ranging in size from the smallest starfighters to Imperator-class Star Destroyers.
As Skipper came to stand beside his table, Donitz noticed a tiredness in his eyes and a slight paleness to his features, evidence of lack of sleep that even Jedi meditation techniques couldn’t quite counteract. The last Donitz had heard, the man was basically in charge of the whole evacuation to date. His condition was quite understandable, considering the circumstances.
Skipper made a half-grin as Donitz consumed the last bite of his meal and drained the contents of his glass. “So, what are you doing here? Isn’t this just a little beneath the notice of someone like you?”
“What do you mean?” Donitz asked, feeling a bit wary at the man’s tone.
“Well, I wouldn’t expect to see you here babysitting an evacuation like this.”
“Speak for yourself. I serve where I am needed,” Donitz replied matter-of-factly. “This is the most strategically important objective the Altarin’Dakor will have in this quadrant.”
“Ah yes… I should have known you’d follow the most militarily sound path.” Skipper rolled his eyes.
“Do I detect a bit of sarcasm in your voice?” Donitz challenged. “Is military logic now out in favor of some new way to wage war?”
His own sarcasm apparently wasn’t lost on the man. Skipper shook his head. “Your thinking is almost too ‘logical’, as you put it. Never mind the millions of civilians that have gotten caught up in this, or the thousands of refugees crowding each other nearly to death in order to get off Moro. This is the most strategically important target because our major shipyards is here, along with a large amount of our supplies.”
Donitz nodded. “Of course. My job is to protect our resources so that we can continue to defend ourselves, not obsess over how our evacuees are feeling right now. If our people get caught up on that emotional aspect, then our fighting capacity will drop to negligible levels.” He took in the Jedi with a quick, assessing gaze. “We both have the same objective – to stop the enemy. We’re two aspects of the same force, and we simply do our jobs in different ways.”
Skipper smiled and nodded. “Well, you haven’t changed a bit, at least. However you find a way to keep things together, I suppose its good enough.” He turned to glance out the tapcafe window, where a continuous stream of transports and freighters could be seen passing the checkpoint at about twenty klicks out.
“I heard that you had to evacuate your people again,” Donitz said, letting a touch of sympathy into his tone. “It must be hard for them.”
“They’re used to it, at this point,” Skipper said. “Renastatians are tougher than Varnusians in that respect. Staying on Ravick with Jedi House Vortigern was just another temporary respite for them.”
“Where are they moving now? Varnus?”
“They’ve gone to Varnus along with most of the refugees until another haven can be set up. Which, in light of current events, could be a while. We can’t be certain which worlds are still going to be in the New Imperium within the next month, much less a year. Even though Varnus is heavily defended, it’s getting cut off from the rest of the NI. We’re practically giving them Moro now, so things are becoming even worse. I don’t like it more than anyone else.” He turned back to look down at him.
Donitz shrugged. “Well, I’m not going to start talking like Kerensky, or Rytor, or any of the other politicians or people with delusions of grandeur. I don’t let blind optimism hide the truth from what I say. The way we’re running this war, there is no way we can win.”
Skipper’s eyes narrowed and Donitz sensed a twinge of anger from him. “Well then, what do you suggest?” Skipper demanded. “Evacuating the NI is not an option. Not after all we’ve gone through to get this far. Where could we go?”
“If we must fight, then we have to turn things to our advantage. Capitalize on our opportunities and take advantage of the ways in which we’re stronger than the enemy.”
“So, you have some ideas? Something specific?” Skipper asked, seeming halfway between sarcasm and genuine interest.
“Call them observations,” Donitz replied, pushing his finished meal aside and folding his hands on the table. “Some may be useful, others may not.”
Skipper glanced around the room, as if checking to make sure no one was listening in on them. Then he slid into the chair opposite Donitz and lowered his voice. “Well then, maybe you should tell them to someone. Gaius is arriving with the Independence at any moment. After this phase is completed we’ll have a chance to see how things went and plan ahead from there. I’m sure he’d be willing to listen to your observations.”
“Then set it up,” Donitz said. “But later; I have to fly again within the hour.”
Skipper nodded. “See what I can do. I’ll keep in touch.” He stood up, sliding his chair back. “I’ll see you on the other side of this.”
Command Ship Independence
Two Hours Later
Jinx stood attentively as the doors to the ready room opened, admitting his commanding officer, a middle-aged man dressed in the finest New Imperial Admiral’s uniform.
“Welcome aboard the Independence, Jacob,” Fleet Admiral Gaius Adonai said with a slight bow, appropriate for a Master to an Adept. “It looks like you’ve done an admirable job here so far.”
Jinx returned the bow, then reached out to shake the Fleet Commander’s hand. “It’s good to see you again, sir. Our duties keep old comrades apart for too long. Where’s Fleet Admiral Vonture?” he asked, referring to the actual commander of Task Force Independence.
“During the duration of this mission he’s on the Defiant. No need to have two commanding officers on one bridge,” Gaius responded tartly. As head of the First Fleet, he’d pulled rank to get actual command of a ship this time. Besides, Jinx knew Vonture was a wise and capable commander, and would do well coordinating from the other command ship.
“Probably wise, that,” Jinx noted.
“Indeed Jacob, it’s been a while. I hope you’ll have a drink with me to remember old times,” Gaius' smile brought tired wrinkles at the edges of his eyes.
Jinx shook his head. “Actually, I’m afraid I’ll have to request a postponing of that drink,” he said apologetically. “I have a scheduled trip to the surface of Moro to oversee the status of the Krri’Graq preparations. Since they won’t all be leaving with us, they’ll need to bunker in as well as they can.”
The Fleet Commander gave a knowing nod. “It’s all right, I fully understand. Then, while you’re here, can you update me on the status of the evacuation?”
“Of course, sir,” Jinx replied, going into formal mode. “We’re about eighty percent through with the primary evacuation of citizens, supplies, and operational starships. Our ships are heading deeper into NI space, to Erebria, Tralar and Kolath, as planned. The refugees are going to several assigned locations, including Varnus, Pax, Tralar, and Erebria as well.”
“Any problems with the evacuation process?” the Admiral asked.
Jinx inclined his head in a slight nod. “Some, but nothing major. As always there are some who refuse to leave and would rather take their chances alone. We’ve actually had a shortage of transport vessels, which might seem unlikely for Moro, but there’s just so much we have to move in such a small time…” He sighed. “Also, a huge freighter hauling supplies and equipment broke down this morning on the way out. A coolant leak in the engine room, as I understand. We’ve got tugs and repair ships out there working on it, but it could be tomorrow before it’s ready to move again.”
Gaius nodded. “Just make sure she’s well-protected.”
“She is, and I’ve ordered extra escorts for the other transports as well.”
“Good. What about the incomplete ships and those in dry dock… as we anticipated?”
“Yes, they’ll be much harder if not impossible to move in time, which is why we’re leaving them behind,” Jinx said. “It’ll cost untold millions in credits, but it may just make it look like we’re still here. Hopefully the AD will take the bait, since we haven’t seen any sign of the enemy yet.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure we will soon enough,” Gaius said. “And when they do, we’ll have our forces in place to strike right at their flanks.”
“Aye, sir. Oh,” he added, just remembering. “Colonel Rivian Donitz wants to talk to you too, at your convenience.”
“Donitz, huh? Sounds interesting. I’ll get around to it,” Gaius said, a thoughtful look on his face.
Jinx reached up and rubbed at his eyes. They were wanting to close more frequently of late. Gaius apparently picked up on his growing fatigue. “How long has it been since you slept?” the admiral asked.
“Not sure. Just a few days,” Jinx said, blinking away the blurriness in his vision and reaching inwardly to employ a Jedi refreshing technique. The ache in his back subsided, and his tired muscles felt temporarily restored to normal.
“Oh, is that all?” Gaius asked sarcastically. He reached out and put a hand on Jinx’s shoulder. “Get some rest, man. There’s still some time before the evacuation is complete. Things are sure to be hectic after that.”
“I wish I could, Gaius, but I can’t,” Jinx shook his head. “From here I’ve got to visit the surface of Moro III and assess the Krri’Graq readiness. The Queen will be a big factor in helping trigger our surprise.”
Gaius nodded slowly. “Very well, but promise me you’ll get some sleep after that. A leader does have to be on top of things and support those under him, but he’s only a burden if he becomes too tired to perform his duties at full alertness.”
“I know, sir,” Jinx said. “Then if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a shuttle to catch.”
“Understood. May the Force be with you.”
* * *
Krri’Graq Command Hive
Moro III, Moro System
Kodonn’Dakor Nobien moved quickly but inconspicuously through the massive hive corridors, his simple disguise as a common soldier hiding his true identity and intentions. His safety helmet and breath mask hid most of his distinguishing facial features. The tunnels around him were plain and sparsely populated in this section, a maze of interlocking passageways burrowed deep inside a mountain. The only illumination was a strange organic light source spaced every so often in the tunnels.
As he passed through the simple mud and rock construction of the Krri’Graq main hive, he occasionally passed by one or two of the huge bug creatures, crawling around on their six hind legs, their long abdomens occupying most of their body space, and a short thorax and large, wedge-shaped head making them about two meters in total height.
The heat in the corridors was sweltering, but Nobien paid it no heed. He began to see fewer and fewer humans as he continued deeper into the hive, moving ever closer to the Queen’s chamber. The Krri’Graq drones that passed didn’t even seem to notice him, as their sole purpose was to fulfill the Queen’s orders. She controlled them through a powerful telepathic Force link, and she in turn was kept in check by two Jedi constantly with her in the chamber. Threats of destruction from the New Imperium government if she didn’t comply weren’t quite enough for the bugs. In order to ensure her cooperation as head of the Krri’Graq – and all the productivity they’d given the NI as a result – she was closely watched at all times. It would almost be a challenge for one of Nimrod’s Kodonn’Dakor. But not quite.
He made his way quickly and purposefully to the Queen’s chamber, having memorized the route in and out already. He paused just outside the chamber’s large entrance, where two large battle drones were standing guard. There were old, darkened bloodstains on the floor and walls – evidence of previous battles. Nobien supposed that those were considered great wars, earning much honor to the queen. Maybe they were even from the tough battle the NI had fought to take control of this planet. But they were like children’s brawls compared to what was coming. Nobien smiled. If he was a typical Altarin’Dakor Jedicon, he’d probably rush in, declare himself, and challenge his enemies to a straight duel and wipe them all out gloriously. Unfortunately for them, he wasn’t such a brash warrior; he’d already earned more than enough honor for his name. Their deaths would come much more unexpectedly.
Pulling his sleeve back, he raised his right hand in front of his face and clenched it into a tight fist, dropping his Mask and drawing in his Force power. His wrist veins pulsed and his muscles contracted, and a haze surrounded his hand as his energies coalesced into physical form.
He was finally ready. With his Force Mask gone, the Jedi guards would undoubtedly be sensing him now and moving to intercept, but they would not have time. Drawing upon speed only possible with the Force, he pushed away from the wall and flew around the corner in an instant, coming up on the Krri’Graq guards just as they turned to look at him with multi-faceted eyes. They never knew what hit them. His fist barreled through one, exploding its head like a fruit, and continued past it into the second, burrowing shoulder deep through the alien’s face. His hand burst out the back of its head, and he withdrew his arm slowly as the creature slumped lifelessly to the ground.
By now he was standing at the threshold of the main chamber, and several things happened at once. Two figures clad in Jedi robes had been standing together on the left side of the room, not far from the Queen’s sunken pit from where she reigned. Those two had turned toward the entrance and were running toward Nobien now, hands reaching down to pull out their Jedi lightsabers. Two more drones, situated at either side of the room, also witnessed the death of the first two guards and turned toward him with hungry-looking faces. Finally, the Queen had emerged from semi-consciousness at the noise and, seeing the intruder in her main chamber, let out an unearthly, guttural scream.
He turned to the Jedi first. Throwing out his blood-soaked hand, he sent an invisible blast of Force energy at them that slammed into them like a durasteel wall, blasting them off their feet and back against the far wall. One crumpled to the ground while the other, a large man, kept his feet, actually bringing up and igniting his lightsaber. A mistake. Nobien reached out with an unbreakable Force grip and flipped the blade back out of his hands, splitting the Jedi in half with his own weapon.
Then, collecting his energies into his other fist, he stepped forward and sent blasts of Force energy at his remaining enemies. The two other drones collapsed as they ran, smoking holes burned through their thoraxes. The remaining Jedi began to rise just in time to take the blast full in the face, silencing him forever.
The battle won, Nobien slowly crossed the chamber, assessing his handiwork. A bit messier than he’d planned, but the whole thing had lasted less than fifteen seconds. As he approached the Queen, she continued to roar, her screams rising in pitch and volume. He could also feel her Force power expanding, tentatively reaching out past the barriers that had vanished with the two Jedi guards. Nobien smiled, then reached out with the Force to remove the final barrier to her freedom. The generator of the force field surrounding her exploded nearby, and with a burst of visible static the shield fell.
“Ta nomas,” he told the massive, raving Krri’Graq Queen. “Enjoy your freedom, while it lasts.”
He turned to leave, quickly taking the route he’d memorized that would carry him out the hive’s main side entrance. As he left, he could hear the Queen’s roars continuing in the background, changing from a sense of anger and outrage to one of satisfaction and victory. And then, something else… a war cry.
* * *
Command Ship Independence
“I think we have a problem, sir.”
Fleet Admiral Gaius turned toward the sound of the voice, and saw the officer at the main communications terminal looking at him. A feeling of dread began to creep into his stomach, a hint of something wrong in the Force. “Yes?”
The man cleared his throat before speaking. “Sir, we have received a report that the Krri’Graq Queen has escaped confinement. Apparently she was freed in an attack by an unknown source. The Krri’Graq and Jedi guards in the room are all dead.”
Gaius swore under his breath, trying to keep a calm exterior for his subordinates. Inside, he felt a pang of frustration at the loss of the two valuable Jedi Knights who had been guarding the Krri’Graq matriarch. “What is the Queen doing now?” he asked.
“Information is still coming in, but apparently she is summoning all the Krri’Graq she can toward her,” the officer said, his face a mask of worry.
“She wants protection so she won’t be captured again,” Gaius mused aloud. “This is no coincidence; she was freed on purpose. Have they found the person responsible for her escape? It couldn’t have been a Krri’Graq.”
The officer touched his earpiece for a moment, listening to someone on the line. “No sir,” he said aloud. “But the guards were torn up pretty badly. One Jedi and two of the drones have large burn holes and two of the others have had their heads completely smashed…”
“A Jedicon,” Gaius said without hesitation. “I thought I felt increased Force activity on the surface.” He thought for a moment, then spitted the man with a direct stare. “Director Skipper is en route to the surface as we speak, isn’t he?”
“Contact him at once and advise him of the situation. Tell him to be prepared for a fight. I want this would-be rescuer captured alive if possible. As for the Queen, he should use his discretion, considering the circumstances.” He shook his head. It would be difficult to recapture the Queen, now. And besides, they had little time. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble if the Altarin’Dakor attacked now. They might have to leave her to her own devices.
The officer nodded and turned to relay his orders. A few more minutes passed in silence, as he waited to hear an update on Skipper’s status.
Then suddenly a crewwoman nearby stood up as a warning chime sounded on her screens.
“What is it now?” Gaius addressed the officer.
“Admiral, there’s a situation developing on Shipyard Alpha-Four. Some of the crew report that they’ve found what appears to be an explosive device hidden in the power plant area.”
“A bomb?” Gaius said, the sinking feeling in his gut growing far worse.
“Security is confirming that,” she said. She paused, listening, then nodded. “It’s an explosive, sir. They are working to defuse it now.”
This time Gaius didn’t bother to muffle his curse, and he pushed himself up out of his chair. “Belay that. Tell them to get out at once. We’ve been sabotaged. I want all our shipyards, star docks and platforms evacuated at once. This is an emergency evacuation order.”
“Yes sir!” the officer blurted, turning to her controls. The communications pit became a buzz of frenzied activity as everyone hurriedly relayed the evacuation notice. The tension in the air was becoming thick.
Gaius strode away from the command chair and walked toward the long bridge viewports ahead. Outside, he could see the greenish-brown surface of Moro III rotating ever so ponderously below. In the interim space, he could see the dozens of platforms, star docks, and shipyards where much of the NI’s fleet had been reconstructed after Mizar. From the planet and the line of shipyards, a steady stream of ships could barely be seen moving out, carrying refugees and supplies. Far off in the distance, he could make out the massive damaged freighter that Jinx had spoken of, drifting slowly through empty space.
Had they been outwitted already? Was this all one big trap they had been led into? If so, then they had seriously underestimated how deeply the NI had been infiltrated.
He stared at the viewport itself, a heavily reinforced transparisteel layer between him and vacuum. This very bridge had been pierced by a beam weapon from the Titan Cataclysm in the Battle of Mizar, causing the death of the crew and everyone in the bridge superstructure, including the commodore, Admiral Varrel.
I won’t let this happen again, he swore to himself. He realized now how they’d gone wrong, assuming the enemy wouldn’t anticipate their plans to evacuate and deceive the Altarin'Dakor with the remaining, empty ships and shipyards. Now there was no way of knowing how many of their facilities had been sabotaged.
“Go to red alert,” he ordered, turning to the tactical officer pit. “Signal to all the ships in the area; I want all fighters launched immediately to provide escort for fleeing ships. Expect an Altarin’Dakor attack imminently. And call in the rest of Task Force Independence from Ravick. The action will be happening here, today.”
* * *
Jinx bounded out of the shuttle’s hatchway as soon as the landing gear touched the ground, not even waiting for the boarding ramp to fully descend. In his ear, the commlink was still blaring the news about the Krri’Graq Queen’s escape. He was starting to get a bad feeling about this. The timing of her escape was too convenient, and he had a sinking feeling that the true Battle of Moro was just about to begin.
Ripping his lightsaber handle from his belt, he urged his companion, Jedi Knight Sutel Cloake, to hurry up behind him. He quickly adjusted his breath mask as he jogged along. If the Queen had escaped, then the drones were under her full control, and she certainly wouldn’t want two Jedi coming back down to capture her. There was a fight ahead, and if the amount of Force activity he sensed inside was real, it could be a tough fight indeed. He took calming breaths as he moved, hoping he was ready to face a Jedicon yet again. The last fight, and the feeling of that warrior's blade sinking into his midsection, were still fresh in his mind. For what seemed like the tenth time, he wished he'd Commed Rynn before this had all started. After all, he might not make it out alive, this time.
“Let’s go, Sutel,” he shouted as the shuttle lifted off and started over toward the actual landing pads. The force of the engines sent dust whirling through the air around them. As the Jedi Knight caught up to his side, Jinx set off toward the side entrance at a dead run. There was no time to lose.
Donitz walked through the corridors of Platform Gateway III, two other officers - Cousner Nibiuri and Siadare Burson - and a handful of techs accompanying him. After the last short escort mission, he’d brought his squadron back to refuel and check the systems once more. And just moments ago he’d heard the announcement of the Queen’s escape and the Fleet Admiral’s evacuation order. Now, all pilots were ordered into space as soon as they could climb into their fighters.
“Well, that makes a good eighty percent of our space-worthy forces,” Cousner was saying as they jogged through the corridor. “We’re almost there.”
“Except for the unfinished and dry-docked ships, which are supposed to stay here to enact this diversion,” Donitz put in.
“Of course. Assuming it works. None of our patrols have encountered any enemy ships though. Things are looking pretty suspicious to me.”
“Maybe they aren’t coming?” the Siadare offered.
“Don’t count on it. I can practically smell them already,” Donitz said gruffly.
They passed by a long transparisteel window looking out toward Moro and the dozens of shipyards and star docks floating in space. Ships were still flying everywhere, moving much more hectically now. Donitz paused for a moment to take in the current status of things. Then his words were given life as space lit up around them with the flare of explosions.
Stardock One was the first to go, exploding in a brilliant series of blossoming fireballs that burst out all across her hull. The fires expanded, merging with one another and gaining intensity until the entire visible area of the structure was consumed. Massive pieces of debris – docking rigs, cranes, bulkheads, and unfinished ships – floated out of the fireball, reduced to melted chunks of wreckage.
The fires hadn’t completely been smothered out by the vacuum of space before Stardock Two went up in a similar fashion, and then it was like a chain reaction, a conflagration bursting out along the entire planetary equator line. One platform burst open like an egg, white-hot flame pouring out of it as its reactor went critical. The shockwave blasted out through space, laying waste to tugs and derelict support craft around it, then expanding to lash at passing transports and other straggling craft. Not all of the victim ships were empty. Donitz saw scores of manned ships, still taking on last-minute supplies or refugees, consumed in the blasts. Large pieces of debris were sent sailing into incomplete corvettes, frigates, and cruisers. Then more explosions lit up in the shipyards area, fireballs ripping out of hulls and expanding out to consume unfinished and damaged craft in dry-dock. Far off in the distance, a shipyard designed to accommodate Star Destroyers went up in a brilliant fireball, consuming the half-completed ship resting within its metal tendrils.
In the corridor where Donitz saw all this, the silence erupted into screams of panic and trampling footsteps as people ran in sudden terror. “What the frizz is going on?!” Cousner screamed.
Unbelievable, Donitz thought, shaking his head as he watched the devastation unfolding outside. To think they could set up a sabotage of this scale, right under our noses! Someone is going to pay dearly for their blind incompetence. He turned to the two officers and seized them by the shoulders roughly. “Quit standing there gaping and get to your ships!” he shouted. “For all we know this platform could’ve been planted with a bomb, too. It could go up at any moment!”
That stirred them out of their shock. Turning to him wide-eyed, they nodded and took off at a run toward the hangar. Donitz followed suit, realizing that something of this magnitude could only be a prelude to one thing: a full-scale attack.
Jinx ran through the corridors of the Krri’Graq Hive, Jedi Knight Sutel Cloake at his side as they descended from the entrance into the interior of the massive structure. Their footsteps thudded quietly on the packed earthen floor, and their Jedi cloaks flapped wildly behind them as they ran. So far Jinx hadn’t spotted any warriors, but he knew the Queen was summoning all the Krri’Graq nearby to her side. They also had her unknown liberator to worry about, as well. He winced, thinking again of the last time he’d fought a Jedicon. Not many of the Division’s Jedi had experienced what it was like, so far. He’d have to watch out for Sutel.
As the neared a tunnel intersection, the passageway widened around them, offering much more room for Krri’Graq to pass through in larger numbers. That was where they saw the first two warriors, their large, six-legged bodies moving through the intersection. They weren’t armed, but as they saw the two humans running through the corridor toward them, they turned and bared their fighting claws, hissing loudly.
Jinx traded a glance with Sutel and nodded toward the Jedi Knight. Then they split up, each heading toward a different warrior as they pulled their lightsabers from their belts. Jinx barreled toward his opponent as his blade snapped into life. Then, just as the warrior lurched forward and swung at him with both arms, he threw himself into a slide, passing mere centimeters beneath the insectoid’s grasp. He slid across the rough ground, stopping just beneath where the warrior’s thorax met its abdomen. He slashed up and across in one swift movement, then rolled to the side as body fluids began pouring out onto the ground. The warrior collapsed in a heap, and Jinx rose beside it and finished the job with another slice to the back of its neck.
His opponent down, he turned to see how Sutel had fared. The younger Jedi wasn’t quite so experienced with the Krri’Graq, and he still stood facing his enemy, although the warrior’s right forearm had been severed at the joint and lay smoking beside it on the ground. Sutel faked a step to his right, then dove to the left as the warrior lunged in that direction. He severed the alien’s right foreleg with one stroke, and as the creature fell to the ground disoriented, he ended the fight with two quick swings of his saber into the creature’s thorax.
“Good work,” Jinx nodded. “Let’s keep moving.”
They took off running down the wider corridor once more, still sloping further and further down. They came to another corridor when he saw them, a moving mass of insect bodies filing through one of the largest corridors ahead, angling down. There were hundreds of them, far too many to take on. Quickly arresting Sutel’s forward motion with a hand, he led them back the way they’d come and down another corridor before they could be spotted.
Jinx saw no more warriors for the next minute or so, and he began to wonder if the Queen had something else planned than what they’d anticipated.
Then, as they rounded a right-hand turn in the tunnel, he spotted another figure running up the other way, toward them. He was human, unarmed, and it was clear from his demeanor that he was trying to escape.
Jinx brought them to a halt and began to call out to the man, but then hesitated. Something was different about him; he was no worker or hive guard. As he approached to within ten meters, he slowed to a stop in front of the Jedi and pulled off the helmet covering his face. That’s when Jinx noticed the tattoos on his left cheek, two jagged lines of green that began at the cheekbone and continued back to his ear. His brown hair flayed wildly out around his head as his helmet came off. The man stared at them with piercing eyes, then his mouth twisted into a sneer.
A Jedicon, Jinx thought, feeling a jolt of both fear and excitement. It had been a while. “We’ll take him together,” he told Sutel, though not taking his eyes from the enemy.
“Understood,” the Jedi Knight replied, bringing his lightsaber to life in front of him. Jinx held back, unsure of how the fight would progress. There could be any number of styles he would have to combat against.
He didn’t have to wait. The man’s sneer widened into a grin of pleasure, and he raised his hands in front of him. Then his right hand slowly clenched into a fist, and with it Jinx felt a surge of power in the man through the Force. The air around his fist seemed to ripple, and his hair stood up straight over his head. Jinx’s eyes widened as he felt the power spike rise like a beacon through the Force. This is no ordinary Jedicon, he realized. We may only get once chance at him.
“Now!” he shouted, pulling out his lightsaber and running forward. Sutel matched him stride for stride as the Jedicon grew closer before them. The man remained standing, waiting for them to come. Jinx ignited his blade with a snap-hiss that cut the air like a knife.
Then the Jedicon stepped forward and thrust his hand out toward Jinx. Three strides from his opponent Jinx was hit by a wall of Force like he’d never felt before, completely overwhelming his defenses. He felt himself flying backwards off his feet, as if a giant hand had simply swept him away. His body flew through the air, until suddenly all he could feel was the wall of the corridor slamming up against him, crushing him for a split second. He cried out in pain, only his Force strength saving him from being knocked unconscious from the force of the blow. Then he fell forward, pebbles and dust raining over him from the impression his body had made in the wall.
He raised his head just in time to see Sutel face off with the enemy. Desperately Jinx cried out for the Jedi Knight to stop, but it was too late. Sutel came in with a powerful swing of his lightsaber, but the Jedicon was far too fast. He ducked beneath the blow and struck the man’s weapon hand, sending the weapon flying away. He stepped in, slamming one palm up into Sutel’s solar plexus, then released his other hand and brought his fist crashing across the man’s face with tremendous impact. Jinx heard the Knight’s neck snap under the impact as his head jolted wildly to the side, then his body reeled back and skidded across the ground.
Fighting tears of anger and loss that suddenly tried to well up, Jinx forced himself upright. He would not give in. The Jedicon spun around to face him and set his stance once more. Jinx forced himself to grin back at his enemy. He’d faced worse than this before. He’d even faced Mordachus, back before he’d even known how to use the Force. This time it would be different.
Leaving his saber unlit in his right hand, he slowly advanced on his enemy, drawing in all the Force power he could manage to increase his speed and defense. His wild-haired opponent seemed to realize this strategy, and he moved forward as well.
“Come on. Let’s see what you’ve got,” Jinx taunted. “That is, if you can even speak Basic.”
“I speak a little,” the Jedicon said in heavily accented Basic, with a low, rough voice. His body language exuded complete confidence, and his eyes were full of obvious contempt for Jinx as he continued striding forward.
“Well then, understand this: I defeated the Warlord Mordachus once. So what chance do you think you have?” Jinx asked, putting as much arrogance into his voice as he could. He knew bravado was probably the only thing a Jedicon respected, or feared. Maybe he could shake just a bit of his enemy’s arrogance.
But instead of replying, the Jedicon lunged forward suddenly, his fist flying out so fast it was almost a complete blur. Jinx lurched to the side, and the man’s punch missed wide on the left side. Jinx side-stepped, planted his stance and then leapt, aiming a round-kick toward the man’s head with all his strength. But the Jedicon rose his other arm, catching the powerful kick on his forearm without even budging. Then he turned and drove his other fist into Jinx’s midsection. The blow felt like a durasteel ball hitting him at a hundred klicks per hour, the wind exploding out of him as Jinx found himself flying backwards. He hit the wall again and slid down to his knees.
Jinx clutched his middle, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come. Pain was exploding in his chest and stomach, but he used the Force to shunt away the sensation. He’s too fast with his fists, he thought. That’s his specialty. I can’t expect to fight him like that, on his own terms. Gotta change the rules.
He pushed himself up and forced a breath into his lungs, the Jedicon still watching him expectantly, silently. After catching a much-needed moment of air, Jinx brought his lightsaber up in his hand once more. “Try this on for size,” he gasped. The blade shot into life in front of him and he barreled forward once more. Halfway there the Jedicon reached toward him, and Jinx felt an incredible pressure on his wrists, his opponent trying to turn his blade back toward him and kill Jinx with his own weapon. But the Jedi Adept drove all his power into steadying those hands, and they remained still as he ran forward. The Jedicon’s eyes widened at his failure, and then he thrust his hand out to the side. Sutel Cloake’s blade leapt into his palm and the blue-white blade ignited.
Jinx came in without mercy, raining powerful blows down on his enemy. The Jedicon brought his blade up to parry the attacks, and the sabers slammed into each other with tremendous impact, their clashes exploding with light and sound through the air. Jinx struck in a series of complicated attacks, and his opponent barely brought his weapon up in time to block each, doing so more through speed than skill. It was obvious he was primarily an empty-hand fighter. Jinx used this to his own advantage, his attacks keeping the Jedicon on the complete defensive. Then, at the right moment he pushed his opponent’s blade up, stepped to the side, and brought the Jedicon’s saber around in a circular motion, sliding his blade down toward the enemy’s hands and saber handle.
The Jedicon let go of his blade, and Sutel’s lightsaber was swept aside out of his reach. Jinx reversed his swing in a blow to finish his opponent, but the man had already expected it, jumping above the strike and pulling a back-flip to land several meters away. He leapt back, clearly on the defensive now. Jinx dropped his saber and thrust his hands in front of him, gathering the Force and releasing a blast of Force Destruction from his hands. The Jedicon jumped to the side, landing on his hands and pushing off again as Jinx’s blast exploded the ground where he’d been. Jinx fired again, this time missing the man by about a meter and driving him further back. Dust and smoke filled the air as the explosions ripped the floor apart.
The Jedicon regained his footing and then looked down on Jinx. They’d reversed positions now, with the Jedicon higher up the tunnel toward the exit. Reaching out with his own hands, the Jedicon sent a rain of Force blasts down on the Jedi, and it was Jinx’s turn to leap out of the way. Blasts hit the floor and walls all around him, but none made contact. Then he heard the Jedicon’s voice cry out through the dust and explosions.
“You fight well, but I have no time. We will finish later!”
Realizing his mistake in letting his enemy get further up the passageway, Jinx started forward, but suddenly he felt a massive surge in the Force, and an invisible blast of energy hit the tunnel ceiling above him. Rock and dirt exploded down between him and his opponent, filling it with falling boulders and dust. Jinx stumbled back, pushing the hazardous debris away from him with a Force shield, but he knew it was too late to stop the Jedicon now. By the time the dust had settled, which was several moments later, he was nowhere to be found.
Shaking his head in disgust, Jinx walked over and retrieved the two lightsabers, then moved over to collect Sutel’s body. Failure, he thought miserably. The mere fact that he’d survived combat with the Jedicon was probably something to be proud of, he absently thought. At rough estimate the Jedicon had probably been between forty and fifty thousand on the scale. But however he thought of it, he couldn’t escape the fact that he’d let the enemy get away. Their chances of learning how deeply the NI had been penetrated were probably gone, now.
Picking up his comrade’s body, he glanced deeper down the tunnel, contemplating whether or not he should go after the Queen. To do so alone would be difficult, but not impossible. Yet, by now he knew an Altarin’Dakor attack was imminent. Recapturing the Queen would be pointless, since the whole system would be in enemy hands soon. If she could mount a sizeable defense to protect Moro, then all the better. Maybe she’d take a few of the enemy with her.
He didn't have time to take Sutel's body back, as it would slow him down too much, and he couldn't be sure he wouldn't run into a dozen more Krri'Graq warriors at any moment. Resignedly, Jinx turned back toward the tunnel entrance and began making his way toward the surface once more. He had a new Jedi casualty to report, and a failed capture assignment. He only hoped the whole system wasn’t going up in flames. If it was, then maybe he should take his chances here instead of facing Gaius again. Either way, this wasn’t shaping up to be a very good day for the New Imperium.
* * *
Gaius watched the devastation outside the bridge viewports in stunned silence. All our carefully-laid plans, gone in an instant, he thought. He understood that no plan survived first contact with the enemy; but this time, they hadn’t even known contact had occurred until it was too late. The strategy had been to evacuate the working ships and personnel while leaving the unfinished and damaged ships behind to attract the enemy. Then, when the attack came, the First Fleet would hit them hard from behind, then run if things got too dangerous. Now, the shipyards and star docks were in flames and melted debris, and the evacuation wasn’t even completed yet. Thousands of workers had just died out there, consumed by explosions and flames even as they tried to evacuate personnel and equipment. Other ships full of people, unable to get clear of their docks in time, were torn apart or disabled by the massive detonations. Their loss felt like a fist gripping his heart in his chest.
In between the damaged and destroyed stations and ships, he could see fighters flying hurried escort for fleeing transports, and the huge line of refugee ships was making double-time for the safety of the fleet’s main line.
Suddenly the communications officer spoke up. “Sir, we’re receiving a transmission from Director Skipper. He’s asking to speak with you, sir.”
“Put him on,” Gaius said, tapping the private comm line in the command chair. Jinx’s face filled the small screen set into the arm. His face was covered in dust, and his expression was far from cheerful. “Are you okay, Jacob?” he asked.
Onscreen, the man wiped at his face with one hand, but his face came away even dirtier. “Sir, I regret to report that the Jedicon got away. He was strong, way above my level. He freed the Queen and killed Sutel Cloake, too.”
Gaius closed his eyes for a moment, feeling a pang of loss at another Jedi down. Then he stared down at the screen again. “Where are you now?”
“I just reached the shuttle. We’re on our way up. The Jedicon must have already left. They picked up an unidentified shuttle lifting off from the surface, then it suddenly vanished. Probably cloaked.”
“An Altarin’Dakor ship right under our noses. Well, you’d better get back up here. The whole system's going up in flames. Rendevous with the Independence immediately. We’re expecting an attack at any moment.”
“Understood, sir. I’ll be there as soon as I can. My apologies.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” Gaius said, sighing. “We should have known Nimrod would send some of his best against us. Just get up here as quickly as you can. Gaius out.”
He closed the connection and then sat back with a sigh. The thought of how well they’d been penetrated unnerved him. The past couple of months had seen strict, thorough investigations into all levels of the NI military and government in an attempt to root out spies and agents. But apparently the Altarin’Dakor were specialists at subterfuge.
Gaius turned his attention back to the scene unfolding outside the viewports. For the next several minutes he sat there, listening to reports from bridge officers and monitoring the status of the evacuation. As ships reached the fleet line, they were given clearance to jump out-system, and engine trails shot past the Super-Star Destroyer Independence as the freighters and transports went into hyperspace.
Then, mere moments later, a warning siren beeped over the speakers, and console lights began flashing all over the bridge. Gaius turned to tactical, knowing that it could only mean new contacts had entered the system. The chief tactical officer spoke up immediately.
“Admiral, we are picking up a Titan-class Battleship exiting hyperspace inside Moro Prime’s gravity well. She appears to be at approximately thirty-five kilometers in length. Escorts are advancing, also; we’re picking up numerous cruiser and destroyer-sized vessels and many support ships.”
“Perfect timing,” Gaius muttered under his breath. This was it. They'd sent one of their big guns.
“Enemy ships are launching fighters,” another officer announced. “Some are coming towards us, others are heading for the remaining shipyards and transport lanes.”
“Launch any remaining fighters. Send out everything we’ve got,” Gaius ordered, raising his voice over the growing din. “All ships ahead at full attack speed. Send fighter groups three and four to protect the transports, but don’t bother trying to save the shipyards or platforms. All non-military craft are to evacuate the system at once!”
As the crew hurried to relay his orders, he watched the scene unfolding in front of him. Just off the Independence’s prow he could see their first fighter groups rushing forward to engage the enemy. We can’t win this fight. All we can do is damage them as much as possible and hold them off for all the evacuees to escape, he reminded himself.
“Admiral, our Altarin’Dakor analysts are identifying the Titan as the Desolation, in service to the Warlord Nimrod. She was reportedly involved in the attack on Jengar also,” the tactical officer reported.
“Very well,” Gaius said. “See if they can identify weak points or anything we can use to our advantage.” They weren’t likely to find anything, though. The things were marvels of spaceship construction, and he knew they hadn’t survived for millennia for nothing.
“Task Force Independence now exiting hyperspace, entering orbit,” someone reported. “Moving to form up with us.”
“Get me an attack solution on the Titan,” Gaius ordered. “I want to hit her with everything we’ve got, so make sure all ships get in position.”
“Aye sir,” the comm officer responded.
Gaius watched as a tactical display came up on his command screen. It confirmed that most of Task Force Independence had arrived, minus their force of World Devastators and a few support ships. The Allegiance-class Star Destroyer Defiant, backed by the ISD-III Vindicator, was quickly moving in, spearheading an assault from the polar orbit of Moro III. About twenty clicks to their port were three ISD-2s, or Imp Deuces as the New Republic called them. The Resolute, Trident, and Phantom were all moving forward, each releasing her full wing of starfighters.
Also, off on the Independence’s other side, the MC-90 Courageous and the MC-80s Retribution and Firestorm were exiting hyperspace, flanked by the Assault Frigates Fireblade, Greymoon, Starsail, and Sunfire. They were moving into position to further cover the fleeing transports and other craft. And rounding out Task Force Independence’s firepower were the four active Majestic-class Cruisers, the Scimitar, Iovius, Repulse, and Conquest. Each of the sleek vessels, though smaller than a standard ISD, had a weapon designed purely to penetrate the shields of and cripple the largest Altarin’Dakor vessels. The whole ship was essentially built around a massive mass driver, capable of launching shield-piercing rounds that, when the four of them were combined, could wipe out an AD cruiser in a single volley. Gaius felt much more confident with the Majestic cruisers backing up the Independence, as well as the rest of the task force. He was fairly confident they could give the Desolation a run for her money, and make her think twice about stopping Moro’s evacuation attempt.
The prospect of seriously hurting one of their prized Titans made Gaius feel giddy. It would be a good trade for the damage their shipyards had suffered. “Get me that targeting solution and bring us in closer to the Titan,” he ordered.
“How close, sir?” the navigation officer asked.
“I want to look through their viewports and see the sweat roll off her captain’s forehead,” he shot back. “Bring in the rest of the task force and get our fighters on bombing runs, concentrating on the Titan. Tell the Majestic cruisers to stand ready for continuous firing.” This Titan shouldn't be as tough; it wasn't nearly the size the Cataclysm had been at Mizar.
“Weapons, once in range lay down a cover fire against the Titan’s shields. Then once the Majestic cruisers hit her, we’ll concentrate our fire through any openings to eliminate shields and weapons systems. We must clear a way for the bombers.”
“Aye, sir,” came from several positions in the weapons crew pit.
Gaius sat forward in his chair, watching expectantly as the Titan began to grow outside the viewports. It was still a large black thing, silhouetted only against the stars, but already he could get an idea of its massive size. At this angle, he could only see the blunt-nosed front of the ship and two sweeping wing-like projections extending far out to each side. It was the kind of ship that could blot out the sun and send an enemy fleeing in terror. But Gaius had seen what these things were capable of, and while their destructive potential was awesome, he knew they were not invincible. We’ll take you down, he thought.
“In firing range now, sir,” the chief weapons officer announced.
“Open fire with the forward batteries,” he ordered. Ahead, the Titan was about the size of a fist held at arm’s length, turned straight to face the Independence. Now, other Altarin’Dakor warships were visible around her as well, ranging from large cruisers to destroyers and smaller corvettes. “Redirect all shield power to front,” he added. He knew that if their heavy turbolasers were in range, so were the Titan’s most powerful beam weapons.
Then the Independence’s forward guns opened up, her heavy turbolasers unleashing a storm of green bolts out toward the enemy vessel. The Desolation’s protective force field lit up a dim bluish-green as the energy assault impacted against it, raining down in near-continuous streams and causing rippling effects all along the shield’s surface.
In response, four of the massive beam emplacements on the Titan’s bow lit up, and giant beams of blue energy streaked toward them, unhampered by the Titan’s own shields. One beam went slightly wide and skimmed the Independence’s port shield, while the other three struck the front of the super Star Destroyer full-on. Gaius held onto his chair arms for support as the ship shuddered under the impact, her shields lighting a bright blue and straining to absorb the intense energies pouring into them. The blasts continued for several long seconds, and warning lights began to flash across the bridge before the first volley died out. The shuddering subsided, and Gaius gave a sigh of relief. The Independence’s turbolasers hadn’t ceased firing during the exchange, and continued assaulting the front of the ship.
“Damage report,” he called out.
“No major reports; shields holding at seventy percent,” came the report.
“Close the bridge blast doors,” Gaius ordered. “Arrest forward motion; this is close enough. Don’t let her get a broadside on us. What’s the status of our Majestic cruisers?”
“Acquiring a firing solution now, sir,” a tactical officer reported. A few seconds passed. “Ready to fire on your command, Admiral.”
Gaius nodded quickly. “Get the rest of the task force here at once, and send our fighters on their attack runs.” He paused, counting a few more seconds mentally as the Independence continued to assail her opponent. “Fire now,” he said.
Behind the Independence’s position, the four sleek cruisers powered up their rail cannon systems, the countless magnetic devices along her central spine accelerating their special projectiles to speeds no missile or warhead could hope to match. The huge shots blasted out of their tubes, one from each of the four Majestic-class Cruisers. They flew through space far faster than anyone could follow, passing by the SSD Independence in an instant. Then the Desolation’s shields lit briefly as the built-in shield piercing capabilities sent the projectiles flying through unhindered. Then they made impact.
The front hull of the Titan erupted in four huge explosions nearly half a kilometer wide each. The four separate projectiles had each planted itself into the thick, seemingly indestructible hull of the Titan, the sheer kinetic energy of their impact shattering the exotic metal like glass. Long, jagged cracks split across her hull, and then the explosions themselves ripped out of the impact crater, eating into the ship and sending flame rushing out into space.
“Well done,” Gaius said. “Continue firing as fast as they can cycle. Now concentrate firepower on the forward shield generators.” Assuming we know where they are, he added to himself.
The Independence’s blasts became more concentrated now, focusing across the front of the Titan’s bow. Then the tactical officer spoke up. “The rest of the task force is in firing range, sir.”
“All ships open fire,” he ordered. His words were followed by hundreds more turbolasers pelting the Titan on the front and port side, and her shields began to fluctuate wildly.
“Some of our shots are getting through,” an officer reported. “Picking up hits on the hull and damage to the shielding systems.”
“Send in our fighter groups now,” Gaius said, barely able to stay in his seat. This might just work. But even as he thought that, he saw on the viewscreens the Titan’s huge beam emplacements lighting up once more, taking aim on all the NI craft. Then they fired, along with the escorts, reminding him that this battle would be far from easily won.
Donitz guided his TIE Defender through a chaotic inferno. Some of the shipyards were still in flames and venting atmosphere as space erupted with hundreds of turbolaser blasts, pounding the Titan Desolation’s shields into submission. The return fire from the Altarin’Dakor ships was equally devastating. The cruisers and destroyers were concentrating on the NI Star Destroyers for the most part, although the huge Allegiance-class SD Defiant was holding against them with near impunity.
The Titan’s weapons, however, were in a class by themselves. Its blasts were several times thicker than any of the others, and all its forward batteries were pouring energy into the Independence’s front shields. Meanwhile, its port and starboard guns were cutting through the remaining shipyards and fleeing NI transports, cutting through the bases like a vibroblade though flimsiplast and destroying the freighters and transports in single volleys. The line of evacuating ships was losing its order now, as their pilots broke frantically out onto their own escape vectors.
Donitz flew with his squadron alongside one of the bomber wings. The Desolation’s mass was growing larger by the second in front of them. He checked his instruments, noting their distance to firing proximity. Two more klicks.
“Enemy fighters incoming,” someone reported over the channel in alarm. “Coming out of the Titan and the AD cap ships. There must be several hundred of them!”
“Stay cool, pilots. Stay with your escorts,” the bombers’ wing leader ordered. “Reaching firing distance now. Enemy shields appear to be down. I repeat: shields are down. Fire at will!”
Donitz watched as several dozen B-Wings, Missile Boats, X-Wings, and shielded TIE Bombers unleashed their first volleys of warheads. Space ahead was filled with bright points of light as their proton torpedoes and heavy rockets shot forward on trails of smoke. The warheads continued ahead, pulling away from the fighter group and shrinking in his sight as they neared the enemy vessel. Then, once they reached close range, the Titan’s pulse lasers opened up on them, sending out rapid-firing blasts about the strength of an average turbolaser. About half the incoming missiles were shot down, exploding before they reached their targets. The other half made it past their range and impacted successfully. The massive hull of the Titan was lit up by dozens of explosions. Though hard to tell from this distance, he could see more shards of armor breaking off and atmosphere venting from multiple decks.
Then he had to turn his attention elsewhere, as a wall of enemy fighters crossed between them and the Titan. He keyed his squadron commlink channel. “Engage enemy fighters now,” he ordered.
Space lit up with missile flares and lancing beams sent out by the AD fighters. The first line of NI ships was hit hard, Imperial and Republic model fighters both vanishing in expanding balls of incandescent gas ahead. Donitz pulled away from the group to pursue a group of fighters coming in on the closest bombers. He locked one into his targeting computer and sent two advanced concussion missiles out toward it, then switched to a second and engaged with his lasers. The first fighter took the hit and was blown off course, while Donitz sent out quad-linked blasts across the second’s shields. The enemy fighter’s shields lit up under the assault, and its pilot turned the ship into the attack to engage Donitz’s Defender. However, every new laser volley brought his shields down just a bit lower, and before he was able to line up his weapons on the NI ship, his shields failed and a set of blasts tore through his port shield, shearing the wing away. The ship went into a spin, and Donitz’s next volley punched through the fuselage and detonated the ship in a brilliant fireball.
Donitz flew past the expanding debris and pulled into the tail of his first target. The ship was trying to line up on the bombers again, but noticing the NI ship behind him he broke off and went evasive. Donitz pushed the throttle to full as the enemy accelerated, and while faster than the Defender, he wasn’t good enough to evade Donitz’ dead-on aim. He calmly sent blast after blast into the enemy’s weakened shield, finally punching through them and bursting open the engine housing. The fighter exploded off in the distance, and Donitz turned away to find another target.
Another volley of missiles was just hitting the Titan’s bow, chewing up the armor further and sending globules of melted slag out into space. The Titan’s smaller beam turrets were targeting fighters now though, cleaving them from the sky with uncanny precision. If the bombers didn’t pull out and get more distance, they were in trouble. Throughout the battle zone, the firefights were expanding to encompass a wider area around the AD and NI capital ships. The Independence continued to pelt the Titan’s hull with fire, while the Desolation’s return volleys began to penetrate the command ship's shields. With one final volley, a set of blasts made it through. One of the tower-like emplacements on the SSD's surface exploded as a blast raked across it, and several other beams swept across the underside of her hull, leaving it a smoldering red in their wake.
Donitz pulled his fighter back toward the swarm of dogfighting ships. In the distance, another group of fighters were making short work of the last few platforms and shipyards, while the main group was occupied with the NI fighters and in pursuing the fleeing evacuees. Several ships had apparently noticed the damaged freighter that had been left by itself about twenty klicks out. A squadron of AD craft now swooped down onto their prey, unleashing their weapons into it with furious vigor. Tugs and escape pods scattered everywhere as the beams cut through her hull, starting at the stern and working their way forward. Flame shot out in their wake, and within moments the ship was coming apart at the seams as her reactor went critical. The freighter exploded in a massive fireball off in the distance.
Meanwhile, Donitz kept his fighter on the tail of his latest target, a sleek, triangle-shaped craft doing its best to avoid his uncanny aim. The fighter pulled into a steep dive, and Donitz cut back on his own throttle, turning inside the other’s arc, and concentrated his fire just in front of where the enemy fighter was heading. Blast after blast chewed through the enemy’s shields, then a final quad-linked blast finished the job, blowing away the rear half of the fighter and sending the burning remains flying wildly through space.
As he lined up onto another target, he saw one of the AD cruisers going up under concentrated fire from the Defiant and the Vindicator. The ship exploded, sending a shockwave reaching out to buffet the starboard hull of the Desolation. However, as the explosion faded, the Titan showed little sign of damage other than blackened hull. Donitz had to admit he was impressed with the durability of these things. They seemed better armored and compartmentalized than even Mon Calamari Cruisers, which meant they probably weren’t going to be taken down in a conventional battle. It would take some ingenuity to defeat the AD’s most powerful ships.
“Form up on me,” he called to his squadron on the commlink. “More enemy fighters are heading toward the transports. We’re going to support.”
As his wingmen moved to comply, he watched the Independence and the rest of the task force continue to square off against the Titan. He knew the NI forces couldn’t continue the fight much longer without risking major damage. Once their shields fell completely the enemy beam weapons would cut through them like flimsiplast.
Then, a flash of light erupted behind the Desolation as a new ship exited hyperspace practically on top of the battle. Donitz suddenly realized Task Force Independence would be pulling out even sooner than he’d thought.
Fleet Admiral Gaius watched tensely as the battle progressed. The damage was racking up on the Titan’s front hull, but they were paying a heavy price for it in bombers. The Independence continued to face off with the massive vessel at a good distance. Their AD analysts had advised him about the Neutron cannons located just behind the bow on either side, and he wasn’t about to bring his ship anywhere near those ship killers.
He saw the Defiant and Vindicator score a kill on one of the AD cruisers beside the Titan, and another round of blasts from the Majestic-class cruisers chewed further into the bow of the AD command ship. Gaius felt a moment of elation, but it was quickly stifled as the Desolation opened fire with its forward batteries, this time targeting the Assault Frigate Greymoon. Concentrated fire from two of its largest beam weapons overwhelmed the Greymoon’s shield and cut through her hull, consuming the inner decks in a torrent of energy. The Assault Frigate exploded in a series of expanding fireballs, sending large pieces of debris floating out all around the detonation. The ship was gone in a single blast.
“Keep pouring fire into the Titan’s bow,” he said. “See if you can destroy or disable those main guns. We’ll show them they can’t do that to us without a price.”
Just then the warning alerts blared throughout the bridge once more, and a sinking feeling took hold in his stomach. The starfield above the Desolation disappeared as another massive vessel dropped out of hyperspace. The crew began shouting out the new contact at once.
“Admiral, we’re reading a second Titan entering the fray, sir! They’re tagging her as the Annihilator, and she’s over thirty klicks as well!”
Now it’s bad, he thought, fighting a surge of fear and desperation. Kriffing bad luck. The Altarin'Dakor had sent in reinforcements. The attack run on the Desolation would have to be called off early. The task force had to escape, and quickly. Now wasn’t the time for a full-scale engagement with the main AD task force.
“Keep concentrating on the Desolation’s bow,” he ordered. “Tell our fighters to release one more volley of their ordinance and return to base immediately. Prepare for an organized retreat; we can’t take on two of them at once.”
The crew rushed to comply, and he watched as the new contact drew in closer. The Annihilator had popped out of hyperspace practically on top of the Desolation, offering a new, sleeker visage shaped like that of a wickedly sharp dagger. Her captain must be insane to have risked the ships colliding like that. But either the AD were very lucky or had unbelievable navigation ability, because the new Titan was now in a perfect position to cover its sister ship. Though of comparable size, the Annihilator was vastly different in appearance. The rear half of the ship was wide and fat, with four projecting fins sticking out at diagonal angles. The front part was split into two long segments, like a giant ‘V’ projecting from the front of the ship. While mostly a silvery color, the centerline of the ship was painted red. Gaius had no idea why such a design had been chosen for it, but the dark object resting in the cusp of the ‘V’ looked too much like a weapon for his tastes, and he didn’t want to stay around to find out if it really was.
The new Titan’s beam weapons opened up in support of its ally, effectively doubling the fire going out toward the NI task force. Beams penetrated the forward shields of the Resolute, cutting a deep furrow into the front midline of the Star Destroyer. Another blast hit the Defiant’s underside, leaving a patch of glowing, molten armor in its wake.
Then, as he watched, the Annihilator shifted course slightly, crossing overtop the Desolation’s hull and angling down to present itself between that Titan and the Independence. Seeing two vessels of such extreme size and mass maneuver like this sent chills up his spine. Then he saw another reason the Annihilator had done so, as the weapon resting between its forward projections lit up in a blinding flash of light, just for a brief instant. Realization of what he was seeing hit Gaius as the invisible blast of energy traveled through space in an instant, leaving a trail of explosions to mark its wake as NI and AD fighters alike exploded in its path. For a second the Independence's screens blacked out, simply overloaded. Then the blast converged on its intended target, the MC-80 Firestorm, and the ship simply exploded. All 1300 meters of the ship were consumed in a massive detonation that sent a shockwave expanding outward all around it.
The entire bridge was silent for a moment, then someone from the tactical pit called out frantically. “The Firestorm has just been destroyed, sir! We’ve confirmed a Mauler-class energy cannon on board the Annihilator!”
Gaius fought the shock of seeing one of his ships destroyed in a single attack, and he struggled to bring his voice under control. The bridge was a hubbub of shocked exclamations and expressions of disbelief. “All right, that’s it,” he said. “Get control, everyone! Break off attack and signal full retreat at once! We’re not going to stay around for them to hit the Independence with that.”
The room was filled with affirmations as the crew jumped back to their stations. The Independence’s engines rose in pitch as she went into full reverse, angling her bow away from the two Titans in front of her. Gaius held on to the arms of his chair, watching and hoping they could make it out before suffering even worse casualties. The Independence shuddered again as another blast from the Desolation hit her bottom side, and officers began calling out damage reports from all over the ship.
“Hangar bay two has been hit,” one officer reported. “Reporting damage to the flight deck. They may not be able to take in our fighters.”
“Feed our destination coordinates to those with hyperdrives. Redirect the others to the Defiant and the Vindicator, along with any remaining fighters from the Firestorm,” Gaius ordered.
Just then he heard the bridge turbolift doors open, and he glanced behind him to see Jinx enter, still dressed in his Jedi robes and covered in brown dirt and dust. “About time you made it,” he told the man.
Skipper crossed the walkway towards the command chair quickly, but kept his distance. “My apologies. How are things…”
Gaius gestured toward the main viewscreens just as the deck shook again under their feet. On the screens he could see dozens of fighters shooting into hyperspace ahead of them. “Hopefully we’ll be out of here in another minute,” he said.
Jinx nodded, then glanced down at the floor. “Sir, I’m sorry about…”
“Save it for later,” Gaius waved him off. “Right now just get yourself strapped down for the jump.”
Jinx nodded and moved toward one of the few empty station seats. Past him, on the Independence’s starboard side, the Modified Frigate Starsail was cut in half by a well-placed energy beam, rendering the ship dead in space, and Gaius swore loudly enough for the whole bridge to hear.
“Admiral, the ISDs Resolute, Trident, and Phantom have entered hyperspace,” another officer reported.
“Good. Get us out of here next,” Gaius said, punching up the tactical situation again on his display. He watched as the symbols representing the Courageous, Retribution, and the two remaining Assault Frigates winked out of existence as they also entered hyperspace. A few moments later, the four Majestic-class Cruisers were gone, as well.
“Report coming in from Colonel Donitz on the Star Destroyer Vindicator,” the comm officer spoke up. “He says all remaining fighters are accounted for.”
“Excellent. Are we being pursued?” he asked, noting several enemy blips following them as they burned at full speed away from the battle zone.
“Only by the cruisers and destroyers,” came the report. “The Titans are holding back.”
Gaius gave a sigh of relief at that. Hopefully they wouldn’t have to worry about a parting shot from the Annihilator, then. “Prepare to jump on my mark,” he said.
“Defiant and Vindicator have entered hyperspace,” the Nav officer said.
“Very well.” He checked his screens one last time, counting the seconds until their course to Varnus was set in.
Then the stars ahead stretched to starlines, and they left the doomed planet of Moro III behind…
* * *
Titan-class Battleship Desolation
Kodonn’Dakor Nobien emerged onto the command center of the Titan-class Battleship Desolation. The bridge was filled with activity as crew called out damage and repair assessments, reported the status of the retreating enemy forces, and did a myriad of other tasks necessary after the completion of battle. Nobien strode across the bridge casually, ignoring the petty officers and underlings around him. He made directly for the command platform in the forward center of the bridge, where the command officers of the Desolation as well as the leaders of the task force were engaged in low conversation.
Nobien ascended the stairway and stood for a moment with arms crossed, studying the various figures gathered there. He fixed his gaze on the admiral of the task force and commodore of the Desolation, Naguis’Vox’Donn Gerim Chothas.
Gerim Chothas turned to face him and frowned. Tall and late of age, he was known as a very controlling and independent admiral, and didn’t care much for the intervention of Nimrod’s top Jedicon. However, Nobien was a Kodonn’Dakor, one of the Warlord’s personal servants, one step below the Shok’Thola himself. In effect, he acted with Nimrod’s full authority, even if it meant making or breaking his best military officers.
Chothas signaled the officers around him to wait and spitted the Jedicon with a dark stare. “We are conducting important operations here. I did not invite you to the bridge. If I want your input, I will summon you.”
Nobien waved his comments off with a hand. “You allowed the outlanders to cause too much damage to the ship,” he told the Admiral. He glanced at the damage assessment displays, which showed the entire bow of the ship as a jagged, cracked and blackened husk. Two of the main beam emplacements had been destroyed, as well. “Perhaps you underestimated them, as many others have. That reflects poorly on your command abilities.”
“Don’t lecture me. I will report my actions to Lord Nimrod. I don’t need your opinions,” Chothas retorted.
“You forget: I speak directly for Lord Nimrod,” Nobien reminded him sternly, narrowing his eyes. “His words are my words. His voice is my voice.”
That apparently took the Admiral back just a bit. He cleared his throat, stepping out of his circle of advisors and coordinators. “We did not expect their new cruisers to be present. Intelligence should have been better; however, we will not make the same error again. Your suggestions are appreciated, but unnecessary.”
“I hope so,” Nobien said. He turned to stare out the main viewscreen, where the green and brown mottled surface of Moro III stretched silently below them. Even he wouldn’t berate the admiral too much in front of his peers and subordinates. Jedicon weren’t completely invincible, nor were they stupid enough to make enemies of powerful figures in the military. “Congratulations on another battle won,” he said. “Have you decided the most appropriate fate for the insects?”
Chothas scowled and turned toward weapons control. “They are of no use to us. Simply obstacles in the path to our rightful inheritance; their fate is already sealed. Begin the launch!”
The crew quickly complied, running through the last few calculations and safety checks. On the screens, he quickly read what the Admiral had prepared. “Good,” he said. “I didn’t like them much, anyway. They die far too easily for my tastes.”
Nobien watched the screens as the massive warhead launched out of the Desolation’s main tube, quickly igniting its engines and barreling down on its course toward Moro III. Another screen showed the Krri’Graq alien Hive, where even now their Queen was pulling all her warriors together in anticipation of a ground assault. But, unbeknownst to their matriarch, there would be no ground assault of Moro III. The planet was useless to them, its resources long since depleted by her native race. And the Krri’Graq themselves were not deemed a race useful for incorporating into Altarin’Dakor society as the NI had, as a slave or otherwise. No, he thought. Their story ends now.
Then, in the space of an instant, the massive warhead struck its target. At first the missile burrowed itself down through the hard, crusted outer shell of the Hive, then it detonated. The antimatter charges inside went active, setting off a reaction of unfathomable proportion. The Hive was vaporized as the explosion erupted and expanded, glowing like the sun even from orbit. A shockwave expanded from the blast area, tearing across the land and collapsing countless underground tunnels. The explosion reached high into the atmosphere and deep into the crust of the planet, causing magma to blast upwards from the mantle below and scattering the air and clouds in a bubble of vacuum. In moments a crater many kilometers wide had been formed, and the land around it had collapsed and split into ravines and canyons as the surface was reshaped.
Nobien watched the explosion blossom and expand, until finally everything was obscured by a thick layer of dusk and smoke, slowly spreading outward to cover the whole continent below. Very few Krri’Graq were likely to remain alive on Moro III after the fires died and the dust settled. Thus was the fate of inferior races of no use to the Return.
He turned back to Gerim Chothas and smiled. “My work here is done. I will be leaving Moro, and will report personally to Lord Nimrod the situation.”
Chothas’ eyes widened considerably as he turned to look back at him. “Lord Nimrod is in the sector already?”
Nobien nodded. “He will be in this Quadrant by tomorrow. He is assuming Mizar as his new base of operations.”
“Is this section of space so important to him? Our victories to date have been easily won. These are hardly adversaries worthy of his attention.”
Nobien shrugged. “For whatever reason, Lord Nimrod has decided to turn his personal attention to this sector. I suggest, then, you take better care of his ship in the future.”
This time, Chothas seemed to take the hint. He nodded, a sense of respect finally showing in his attitude. “I will do so. Tell Lord Nimrod that I look forward to reporting to him personally once more. Fighting under him in battle is an honor I have longed to have again.”
“Good. Then make sure you displease him no further,” Nobien said. Then he turned to leave, leaving the warning to hang in the air behind him.
* * *
Titan-class Battleship Nexus
Varnus Orbit, Varnus System
The doors to the main briefing room opened, and Rivian Donitz entered into a milling crowd of high ranking New Imperium officers. Everyone from the commanders of the First and Second Fleets to members of the Jedi Division were gathered. He even saw Maarek Stele there, clutching a beverage and trying to look inconspicuous in the corner. In the center of the room was the Commodore of the Nexus, Naguis’Vox’Donn Awel Kylar. Beside him and taking up all of his attention was, of course, Zalaria. Other members of the NI War Council and high ranking officers were gathered around also, including Gaius, Kerensky, Misnera, and others. About the only member of the War Council not present was War Coordinator Dogar.
The briefing began as Gaius Adonai and Stan Sanders stepped forward to the holopad in the center of the room, flanked by Zalaria and Admiral Kylar. The others gathered closely around to listen. Fleet Admiral Stan began.
“Officers of the New Imperium, good evening. We’ve assembled here to pool our minds and develop a strategy to begin combating and turning back our enemy. Morale is falling lower every time we are defeated or forced to run away. Well, we’re getting tired of running away. It’s time to strike back. I’ve heard that several of you have ideas that could help us. Speculation, insights, other bits of knowledge that we could use to fight this opponent. Hopefully together we can combine our knowledge and skills into a useful battle plan. Otherwise, I’m afraid we all better start packing our bags for the Core.”
A chorus of murmurs ran through the room, from affirmations to low discussions between individual officers. Stan paused a moment to let the noise die down, then continued. “Therefore, Grand Master Misnera, Field Marshall Kayler, Jedi Master Kerensky, Zalaria, Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai and I will be conducting meetings this evening and tomorrow. We will be seeing the rest of you in groups or individually to develop ideas and strategies we can use. Are there any questions?”
“What if the AD find out about this?” someone spoke up from the other side of the room. “There are probably fifty of us here. Information is almost certain to leak out, and that could negate all we’re trying to accomplish here.”
“True,” Gaius replied, “But that’s why a small group of us are coordinating events and meeting everyone individually. We are the only ones who will know everything, and then each division will receive individual orders or advice as to what course of action we should take.”
Beside him, Xar raised his voice to add, “We have assembled the most trusted and loyal officers of the New Imperium in this room. It’s unlikely that we have spies among us, but in case of that unlikely event security here will be at its maximum. And we’ve taken precautions to avoid spreading the information out too widely.”
Gaius glanced around the room, awaiting further comments, and when none came, he spoke again. “If there are no more questions, then we’ll take a short break before starting. You may discuss whatever you like while here, but we ask that you don’t take anything pertaining to this meeting outside the room.”
With that, the council members began to disperse, and the rest of the crowd turned to a low din of conversation once more. Donitz moved to the refreshment table and chose a small beverage, nursing it thoughtfully. He’d expected a session where officers such as he could give their insights and ideas to the Fleet Commanders, but this was far too large and open a setting for his tastes. The issue of information leak was paramount here, as the other officer had pointed out. And if the top brass was looking for a viable strategy to defeat the AD at this late juncture, the NI was in worse trouble than he’d thought. At any rate, he would give them his advice and let them do with it what they would.
Donitz’s thoughts were interrupted as someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind. He turned to face Fleet Commander Gaius, and snapped a respectful salute in greeting.
“No need for that,” Gaius said, reaching out a hand. Donitz took it with a nod. “Good work out there the other day, Colonel.”
“Thank you sir,” Donitz replied. “We did fairly well, under the circumstances, considering we didn’t have a chance. Those Titans made short work of us – we’ll need a new strategy for dealing with them. Conventional methods won’t work,” he finished matter-of-factly.
“I’m glad to hear an honest assessment for once,” Gaius said, giving him a grateful look. “I was getting tired of the flattery that some give me just to win favor. We lost, plain and simple. The only good thing is that our losses weren’t higher.”
Donitz shrugged. “I just try to see things realistically. It seems the best way to come to a clear, decisive decision about things.”
“Agreed,” the Fleet Admiral nodded. “Speaking of which, I understand you had some ideas of your own that might be useful against the AD. I’m interested in hearing them.”
“Always willing to give advice, sir,” Donitz said.
“Well then, maybe you’re at the wrong station. Instead of flying fighters I should have you on my staff,” he said with a grin. “Of course, no one can deny your piloting skills and the service you’ve done for the New Imperium. Maybe you should stay where you are.”
“I am most comfortable in the cockpit,” Donitz nodded.
“I empathize fully,” Gaius said. “Then, perhaps you can give me your ideas at tomorrow’s briefing?”
“I’ll be happy to participate, if you’re willing to listen. In the past, people haven’t always been so eager for my advice.”
“We have to hear all sides of an argument,” Gaius said. “You’ll get a fair chance this time. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Looking forward to it.” With that, he gave another salute and stepped back, noticing a new figure coming up to the Fleet Commander from behind.
Gaius turned around as Jacob Skipper approached him, a dead-serious expression on the latter’s face. “What can I do for you, Jinx?” he asked.
“Sir,” Skipper spoke up formally, “Congratulations on your promotion to Sector Admiral.”
Gaius gave a mirthless smile, and tired lines touched the edges of his eyes. “Would that it would be earned in better times, my friend. It’s good to see you alive too, Jacob.”
“Yes sir. Well, I wanted to take the time now to apologize again, in person, for what happened on Moro. I feel it’s my personal responsibility.”
“Nonsense. You did as good a job as anyone could, far better than I would have asked for or expected.”
“Nevertheless, I can’t forget the fact that thousands died yesterday, and I was in charge of them. I’m no stranger to leading or losing lives in battle, but I’ve been through it enough with my own people. I’ve no wish to continue when my concern over the Renastatians could be clouding my judgment in other matters. Therefore I must tender my…”
“That’s enough,” Gaius cut him off before he could finish his sentence. “I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of talk. You are one of the best officers under my command. I can’t afford to lose you. If you have a personal issue in this, you’ll have to deal with it. But your duties come first.”
Skipper hesitated, then finally bowed his head in respectful acknowledgment. “Of… Of course, sir. I’m sorry, I know this isn’t the time. I won’t abandon my responsibility to the people of the New Imperium.” Then he looked up and met his superior’s gaze. “But Gaius, there is one request that I need to make. We’re both Jedi, so I think you should be able to understand me on this. I am an officer of the New Imperium and I do have a responsibility to the Navy, but I also am a Jedi and sworn to protect the people as a Jedi. I oversaw Moro for months, and now I’m strongly feeling the need to stay here on Varnus and continue my service as a Jedi. And I need to see for the care of my people.”
Gaius stood there for a moment, studying him, as if testing the weight of his words against his usefulness in the fleet. Then, after a long moment, he nodded. “As a Jedi, I do understand where you’re coming from. I too feel as you do sometimes, as if by focusing on my duties in the Navy I am somehow abandoning my calling as a Jedi. I’ve learned to reconcile that within myself. However, each person has his own path he must follow. I won’t hold you back if you truly feel this is what you must do.”
“It is, sir.”
“In that case, I will miss having you under me,” Gaius said, reaching out to shake Skipper’s hand warmly. “I hope you give Xar and Alyx just as much trouble as you’ve given me,” he added with a smile.
Donitz turned away from the conversation with a cynical grin of his own. Jedi were so peculiar in situations like this. For him, the question where his true loyalties lay were never even in question. Service in the NI was his duty, but it was only a means to an end. Like all governments, it would eventually come to an end, by means of the Altarin’Dakor or some other force. And like so many times before, he would live on and continue his own journey. For him, there was no question, not even any doubt.
Tomorrow, then. With that thought, he turned back toward the door, letting the rest of the staff work out the details for the meeting. There was still much he didn’t know about these Titans, and not much time to find out…
NI Senate Complex
Tralaria, Tralar System
Diktat Gene Rytor looked up as his visitor came through the entrance to his quarters without announcement, and he bit off the stiff remark he’d been about to make. “You. I’ve been waiting for three days! Do you know how on edge I’ve been?”
Queklain stopped and gazed across at him with contempt. “Don’t act like a frightened child, Rytor. If you’d been in any danger, you would have known it.”
“I was woken in the middle of the night when the whole building started coming down,” Rytor whispered fiercely. “I had no idea what was going on; I expected to die at any moment! I’ve been waiting to hear word from you.”
“Then you wasted your time. There was nothing Nimrod could send that I couldn’t handle,” the Warlord said confidently.
“Well. Couldn’t you have stopped them in a more… neat manner? The news is all over the HoloNet, the sense of security here at the Complex is gone, and the damage itself will take months to rebuild!”
Queklain shrugged off his comments lightly as he strode up to the desk. “So I’m a little out of practice after a thousand generations without a body. I wasn’t able to train and refine myself in the interim as the others have. But the results have accomplished quite the effect I’d intended.”
“Not the one I had,” Rytor argued, though careful to keep his voice down for fear of eavesdroppers. “People are asking awkward questions, such as who exactly saved me from that Jedicon attack.”
“I’m sure you’ll come up with adequate answers. That’s why you’re sitting up there and I’m hiding here in the shadows,” Queklain said, assuming a mirthless grin.
“I think I have the worst of the deal,” Rytor said.
“Don’t get too snug in your position, my friend. Granted, the damage was more than anticipated, and because of that I’ve had to keep my distance the past few days. Would you rather me expose everything?”
Rytor stared at him for a moment, but said nothing more.
“Mind your tongue from now on, Outlander,” Queklain said, a threatening tone entering his voice. “Don’t forget who I am, and that my services are not to be taken for granted. Is that the way you thank me for saving your life?”
The words sent a chill through Rytor’s spine, and he shook his head in acquiescence. “I am most grateful,” he intoned. The last thing he wanted was to anger Queklain or to lose his protection. He just wanted more freedom. He didn’t think the Warlord would kill him outright, he was too useful for that – but he was certain that Queklain would use him in whatever ways he deemed beneficial to himself.
“So what’s next?” he asked, deciding to test the Warlord’s motives a little.
“Just continue on with your current operations,” Queklain replied stiffly. “I am content to thwart Nimrod’s plans, for the moment. Don’t worry, in time I’ll reveal to you my plans.”
“What if Nimrod sends another attempt now that his first one has failed?” Rytor asked.
“Then that attack will be dealt with, as well.”
“And what of the invasion? Nimrod is coming down on us like a tidal wave. If he hits us on the western front as well…”
“He already has, Rytor.”
Rytor pushed back from his desk in shock. “Then we’ve got to deploy the Second Fleet! We have to…”
“Nimrod will be the least of your worries, soon,” Queklain cut him off, raising his voice menacingly. “Far more terrifying things are to come, my slave. Obey me, or else you will find yourself on the wrong side of the coming wrath.” The Warlord’s eyes actually glowed, then, and Rytor felt a shiver run across his skin at the power and wisdom bearing upon him. There was nothing else he could do but submit.
“I hear and obey, my lord,” he said, bowing his head. “I will carry on, and await your next commands.”
As the Warlord left, Rytor shook his head and opened his computer access terminal once again. It was time to start making contingency plans. Things had gone so much better under Kronos, when he’d had the freedom to do as he wanted with the NI. Unfortunately there had been a change of command in his world, but that wasn’t to say another change might not be in order. There were ways of dealing even with a Shok’Thola…
Ken Brucmack pulled his ear away from the door and dove down behind the secretary’s desk just in time, before the door to the Diktat’s quarters whisked open and the visitor left. He waited until the man’s soft footsteps padded past him on the carpet, his heart pounding in his own ears. Then the far doors opened, and the man was gone.
Rather than get up, Bruc sat up and leaned against the side of the desk, shaking his head in denial. For the past week, ever since seeing the mysterious visitor in the Diktat’s office, he hadn’t been able to keep the incident off his mind. Now the Diktat was using Quat, his assistant, more than his own official Secretary to the Diktat, and Bruc had grown more curious about the stranger every day. After the assassination attempt he’d spent every available moment attending to the Diktat outside his office, wondering if something would come of his suspicions. But he’d never expected to find something like this.
The Diktat was an Altarin’Dakor spy. A traitor. It was absolutely impossible! Or at best, he was under the control of an Altarin’Dakor Jedicon. How was he going to get word out? Who was he going to talk to? He’d trusted Rytor implicitly – the man had run NI Intelligence, for frizz’s sake! But if Rytor – the Diktat himself – couldn’t be trusted, could anyone on the NI War Cabinet be, either?
No, don’t let your imagination run wild, he chided himself. He had to think this through calmly and logically. Perhaps he would approach the Diktat about this discreetly, in a non-invasive way. Perhaps Rytor would tell him the truth. Either way, he had to get to the bottom of this. But should he expose Rytor now, or wait until he’d learned more about this stranger? Could the AD spy be used against them? A former admiral in the DLSF he might have been, but these weren’t decisions to be made by the Secretary alone. He had to find someone he could trust, soon, or else the NI truly was doomed.
And if there was no one left to trust, then the New Imperium was doomed already.
by Joshua Ausley
a.k.a. Xar “Sauron” Kerensky
Copyright New Imperium 2002
Next: Shattered Visions
The New Imperium is being driven back before the unstoppable onslaught of the Altarin’Dakor. One world after another is falling to the enemy. Desperately the NI focuses its efforts to devise a plan to halt their inexorable advance, even while treachery has its grip on the highest levels of NI government. The enemy turns it sights next to the prime, valuable worlds of Sigma and Pax, while Varnus continues to be encircled and the Jedi try to hold on to their most fragile hopes. Can the tide be turned?