Orfellan, Pax System

1925 Hours


The Lambda-class shuttle cut its way through the atmosphere of the planet Orfellan, air streaming off of its triple set of fins as the blue-green surface grew in size below. Oceans covered most of the world’s surface, but the several large continents were resplendent in deep hues of green. Several large cities predominated, and the shuttle was bearing down on the largest of these. Jedi Paladin Guan ‘Havoc’ Narsh, occupying the shuttle copilot’s seat, turned away from the view and checked his screens once more. Everything was in the green. He nodded to Paladin Roger Macreed in the seat next to him, then turned to the image on the comm screen above them. Waiting for his update was Jedi Grand Master Alyx Misnera, also head of NI Special Operations and the director of their current assignment. Guan turned on the audio comm.

“ETA to landing, three minutes,” he reported. “We’re all ready.”

“Good,” his superior replied from the command ship in orbit. “Remember to head for the CEO’s complex directly. He’ll be the one who’s really in charge of things; the NI Governor is just a figurehead in this system. Whatever’s going on down there, the CEO will know about it.”

“Don’t worry, boss,” Guan said. “We’ll take care of him. I just hope he doesn’t soil himself knowing seven Jedi will be breathing down his neck.”

“Just be on your guard,” Misnera admonished. “I’ll be watching over things here in orbit. If you notice anything amiss, inform me immediately. There are any number of reasons why the CEO and planetary governor would shut down communications with the rest of the New Imperium. None of them bode well.”

“Understood, sir,” Guan said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this and be back in no time.” He nodded respectfully, then reached up and shut down the connection. Glancing at a side screen, he saw the five other Jedi accompanying them in the passenger hold. They seemed fully equipped and prepared for anything.

“Let’s set her down, Roger, and give these officials a proper Jedi welcoming.”

“Sounds good to me,” Paladin Macreed said, coaxing the throttle back and veering for the center of the city below. Outside the cockpit, the sprawling main city of the pleasure-world Orfellan stretched on for untold kilometers. They approached the central area of the city where the tallest structures lay, and Macreed aimed them for the landing pad designated to them by air traffic control. Strangely, few other ships were occupying the surrounding airspace; it seemed that with the renewed AD assault, this world that thrived exclusively off of tourism was starting to see a serious recession in business.

Macreed guided the shuttle between several towering skyscrapers, dropping towards a large, wide-based structure surrounded by a massive park area. The building was several stories tall with a large dome on top, and numerous balconies spaced throughout. Obviously this wasn’t just a center for business, but for pleasure as well. Just like the rest of Orfellan.

The shuttle’s wings folded up and the landing gear extended, and the ship touched down lightly onto the assigned landing pad thanks to Macreed’s deft use of the repulsorlifts. Then the boarding ramp descended and the shuttle began powering down. Guan took one look outside the viewport and immediately felt something was wrong. “There’s no one coming out,” he noticed.

“Doesn’t look like we’re welcomed,” Macreed answered, undoing his straps and rising from his seat. Guan followed suit and fell in behind as they traveled back to the passenger hold. Five sets of Jedi eyes turned to look at them from within the spacious area. The team quickly rose from their seats, each dressed in simple robes and carrying only lightsabers at their belts.

Guan quickly took stock of their group. Aside from himself and Paladin Macreed, the remainder of the team included the Twi’lek Jedi Crusader Nial NiksaVel, former Aedile of Jedi House Aurora, and four Jedi Knights from the same House: Junor Brajo, Zine Orab, Baden Wren, and Zep Prings’nyl. Together they were a sizeable force, and he was confident they’d be able to handle anything the corporate executives here on Orfellan had planned for them. Macreed was a powerful Jedi with experience as a House leader, or Quaestor, and was currently the Aedile – second in command – of Vortigern. Guan was the former director of the Division’s defunct Special Ops subdivision, a position now headed by Adept Gui Sun Paan.

Anyway, as Guan figured it, if the CEO or Governor had hostile intentions in mind, he had vastly underestimated the abilities of the team that Master Misnera had assembled.

“Let’s go,” Macreed said, nodding to the group. “With luck, we’ll be back on Varnus before bedtime.”

“Are you sure we can’t stay here awhile, boss?” Brajo spoke up, eliciting grins from several of the other team members. “I took a long leave here last year, and believe me, this is the kind of place that can take your worries away.”

“Besides, they could use our patronage right now,” Zep added with a grin.

“Save those thoughts for after the war,” Guan broke in. “We’re Jedi. We should be thinking about others rather than ourselves. We’ve got people to protect.”

Brajo’s expression immediately became more serious. “Apologies, sir. I didn’t it mean it like that.”

“Understood. But we’ve got a serious job to do here. Member worlds of the NI don’t just cut off relations with High Command, especially in times of war. We could have a rebellion on our hands.”

Paladin Macreed nodded agreement. “And if so, we could be facing anything from the corporation’s hired guns to the planetary Stormtrooper garrison – although I doubt their support goes that far if their goal is to break away. But no matter what it is, I have confidence in all of you. Let’s get this done, so we can get back to the real war.”

A round of assents came from the five other Jedi. Macreed nodded and started for the entrance ramp. “May the Force be with us,” he said, then led the way outside.

Guan descended the ramp second, then moved beside Macreed as the others filed in behind. They were greeted by warm summer air, with a scent reminding Guan of the tropical locales on Tralaria, mixed with floral scents. Dusk was beginning to approach, and the buildings around them cast long shadows over the area. Skyscrapers rose around them on all sides, and in the distance between them he could make out countless signs and billboards declaring the multitude of locales and services available on a pleasure world such as this. Casting those thoughts quickly aside, he moved into step with Macreed as they approached the large, domed building ahead.

They’d made it just over halfway when the entrance doors finally parted open. Inside Guan could make out several figures: three robed humans and two of the bird-like Dareek native to this system. None made as if to leave the interior of the building, leaving the Jedi to approach the rest of the way.

“I don’t like the look of this,” Macreed murmured to him as they got closer. Guan nodded, then they kept silent as they reached the entrance. The five figures stood impassively, facing the seven Jedi before them. There were no formal introductions made.

“Director Tarrent, I presume?” Macreed addressed the lead figure, a middle-aged man covered in a flowing brown robe. The man had a strange look in his eyes, and his checks and eyes were sunken, either with age or lack of sleep.

“I am the CEO of the Orfellan Combined Corporations,” the robed man said, keeping his voice level. These are my subordinates. We did not ask for a New Imperium delegation here. Please leave at once.”

“I am Jedi Paladin Roger Macreed of the New Imperium Jedi Division, under the authority of Diktat Gene Rytor and Grand Master Alyx Misnera. Where is Governor Nilkin?”

“Indisposed. We are here on his behalf. Again, I ask that you leave, immediately.”

“We cannot do that,” Guan spoke up. “We are here to ascertain why you have broken off communications with the Senate. You must answer to this request.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Director Tarrent shook his head. He raised his arms slightly from his sides, and suddenly Guan saw why they hadn’t come out. Over a dozen black-armored soldiers suddenly came marching out of the side halls into the entrance, brandishing assault weapons. But it wasn’t that fact that surprised Guan, but the kind of armor they wore. These weren’t Stormtroopers. He had seen these kind of soldiers before and their bug-eyed masks, and he knew there as only one possibility: Altarin’Dakor Shocktroopers.

“I gave you ample chance to leave on your own,” the CEO continued. “But now you will have to be detained.”

Guan immediately stepped, back, letting a hand dangle close to his lightsaber. Paladin Macreed shook his head, eyes wide in disbelief. “This is treachery!” he cried.

“On the contrary, the governors of Orfellan and Pax Prime, along with a coalition of major CEOs, made a valid vote. We are now under the protection of the Altarin’Dakor government. A representative arrived several weeks ago. We have chosen to accept the future, rather than embrace suicide by resisting.”

“You actually think you can simply leave the New Imperium and join the enemy?” Macreed asked, incredulous.

“We don’t think it. We have already done it.”

“You don’t believe the AD will keep their word, do you?” NiksaVel broke in.

But the Director didn’t answer, instead shouting, “Guards, take them now!”

“Jedi, draw your lightsabers!” Macreed shouted, bringing his blade to life. Six more blades flashed into existence as the others followed Macreed’s example, and Guan brought his own crimson saber to bear in front of him.

Tarrent and his aides stepped back out of the way, and Shocktroopers moved into the fill the gap. Then they began to fire.

Blasts of energy filled the air, bouncing off sabers at nearly point-blank range and flashing back to strike the black armor of the Altarin’Dakor troops. Guan’s blade flashed at lightning speed as he instinctively blocked anything coming his way. Reflected shots panged off AD armor but did little damage, and for a moment the Jedi were completely on the defensive, seven lightsaber blades parrying shots from nearly twenty AD pulse rifles. And despite the Director’s orders, no one’s weapons were set for stun.

“Enough!” Macreed cried, throwing out a hand in between parries. A wave of Force hit the soldiers and swept a dozen off their feet onto their backs. Armored bodies crashed to the floor, weapons firing spasmodically. One of the Director’s aides was hit and went down screaming with a hole in his chest. Guan took Macreed’s example one step further, and as he raised his hand he sent small bursts of energy out at the soldiers still standing. His Force blasts burned through armor and sizzled flesh beneath, and four more troopers went down yelling in pain.

With the ambush failed, the Jedi rushed forward, not giving the downed Shocktroopers enough time to recover their wits and weapons. Macreed used the Force to rip weapons out of hands. Zine, Brajo, Baden and Zep dealt out deadly counterblows to the enemy, cutting through armor and lopping off limbs. NiksaVel sent out a wave of Force that sent two troopers crashing into the wall hard enough to leave deep impressions in it, and the soldiers slumped to the ground, unconscious or dead.

The Director was already running down the main hallway as fast as he could, his plan backfired. His remaining aide trailed on his heels, and the two Dareeks were actually flying ahead of him through the corridor.

“Stay on him!” Guan yelled, using the Force to boost his speed as he took off after the fleeing executives. The other Jedi moved in behind him, with Zine and Brajo snatching up enemy pulse blasters from their defeated enemies before following. Their footsteps quickly resounded through the corridor as they ran. Guan let his blade sing through the air next to him, anticipating the chance to finish this traitor off.

However, despite their speed, the Director made it to the large interior chamber of the complex first. Without looking back, he yelled out, “Help me!”

Guan, Macreed and the others burst into the well-lit chamber, expecting to see more Shocktroopers lined around the circular interior. Inside, there were three connecting levels, each ringing the room with a balcony and multiple side entrances. However, to Guan’s surprise, no more troops were to be seen. The room was seemingly empty, and the Director and his aide were diving toward one of the side entrances on the bottom level.

Then he felt the waves rising sharply in the Force around them. “What the…” Brajo started to say, then broke off as the large entrance doors slammed shut behind them. Then it was too late.

A pair of doors built into the center of the floor slid open, and out of the hidden hatchway six figures leapt high into the air, ignited lightsabers held high overhead. They landed almost as one in front of the Jedi, then sounds of doors and hatches bursting open erupted around them as more figures jumped down from the railings and balconies. Quickly the Jedi were outnumbered nearly two to one. Each was dressed in close-fitting, oddly decorated clothing, and each held a lightsaber. There were men, women, and aliens, with hair that was short or long, dark, light or multicolored, skin that ranged from light to dark to odd hues. But they all held one thing in common. Each had arms and face covered in black, wicked-looking tattoos, varying in number but all similar in design. They were the last thing Guan had expected to have to fight here.

“It’s a trap!” Macreed shouted. The seven Jedi quickly formed a circle as the group of enemies began to surround them, blades waving hungrily towards them. “They’re Jedicon! This is the real thing, guys!”

We’re not ready for this! Guan thought. Then there was no more time for words as their enemies struck.

The Jedicon wasted no time. A warrior barreled toward each of the Jedi, and the chamber was filled with the clash of energy blades as the Jedicon relentlessly attacked. Guan found himself under assault from a long-haired Jedicon attacking with powerful strokes of his lightsaber. The man was going all-out on offense, and Guan had to fall back to keep from being overwhelmed. He summoned up all his expertise with lightsaber combat, turning each of the Jedicon’s blows away from his body. Then, at the right moment, he blocked a downward strike and swept it to the side, then ducked and ran by his other side, sweeping his lightsaber across the man’s stomach as he passed by. His opponent fell, but was replaced immediately by another, already bringing his blade around in an attack.

Nearby, Roger Macreed was also weathering an assault from a powerful Jedicon, his blade darting in and out with deadly expertise. Macreed parried each blow due more to speed than skill, then sent a wave of Force from his hand that caught the enemy off balance and sent him reeling back. Then, turning, he sent a blast of white energy at another approaching enemy, but the Jedicon dodged quickly, diving to the side as the blast blew a large chunk out of the far wall.

The Jedicon continued advancing furiously, almost desperately, as if it they were the ones who were trapped and not the seven Jedi. Blades clashed together violently, and despite the expertise of the two Jedi Paladins, it becoming clear the AD had the advantage in skill as well as numbers.

Jedi Knight Brajo raised his pulse rifle and sent blast after blast toward an approaching Jedicon, but his opponent parried each of the rapid-fire shots with the skill of a master. He continued advancing, bolts flying off his rapidly-moving blade, until finally he lunged forward and cut the weapon’s barrel off. A second stroke caught Brajo’s blade, pushing it to the side, then the Jedicon spun in and hit him with a powerful backfist that sent Brajo down.

Guan pushed aside another Jedicon’s blade and hit him with a side kick, causing his enemy to stumble backwards. He turned, just in time to see Zine Orab take a blade straight through the gut as a Jedicon got through his defenses. Macreed gave a cry of dismay, then disengaged from his opponent and turned toward the remaining Jedi.

“Back off, fast!” he yelled. But there wasn’t time. As Baden Wren turned to make for the exit, a massive Jedicon moved to bar his way. He immediately seemed different from the others. It was an alien of the lizard-type race that the AD employed, only larger, tall and lithe with green scales and a long snout. It was covered in short-length armor, and brandished its huge lightsaber in well-muscled arms. Its tail, nearly two meters in length, lashed back and forth, almost expectantly.

Baden Wren didn’t have a chance. As he barreled toward the Jedicon, the reptilian swung his lightsaber in a powerful horizontal stroke. Baden caught it with his own blade, but he hadn’t understood how powerful this particular Jedicon was. The creature’s blow pushed Baden’s blade right out of the way, then continued on, cutting a deep swath through the man across his chest from shoulder to shoulder. Blood vapor filled the air.

Zep Prings’nyl screamed as Baden fell, dead instantly from the attack. Enraged, he rushed in after the Jedicon, crashing his blade against the alien’s with all his might. He struck furiously again and again, each time catching his opponent’s blade but not moving it a centimeter. Then, as he focused on his assault, he neglected to see the alien’s other weapon coming into play. The Jedicon’s parried one of Zep’s blows, then swept its tail out in a low arc that caught the Jedi just above the ankles, sweeping him off his feet. Zep landed on his back and rolled to the side just as the alien’s blade cut through the floor where his head had been. Then Zep was back on his feet, defending against a lightning-fast assault from the Jedicon. But he was quickly overcome by the superior speed and power of the alien, and a second later a powerful stoke of the Jedicon’s lightsaber sent Zep’s blade flying out to the side. The Jedicon continued to spin, sweeping its tail out in a blur that caught the Jedi across the face, rocking his head back and sending him down, unconscious. Before anyone else could move to save him, the alien leapt onto his body and rammed his blade straight down through the Jedi’s chest.

Guan cried out involuntarily as Zep died. But nearby, he watched as Brajo pulled himself to his feet and found himself under attack once more. A Jedicon came in with strong, fast strikes, driving him back for the far wall. Brajo parried again and again, then waited until his opponent’s blade was out of the way and leapt up into a high kick aimed at his opponent’s head. But the Jedicon was too fast, his hand coming up to catch the foot in midair. The Jedicon stepped back and yanked hard, pulling Brajo off his feet. His blade fell from his grip, and the Jedicon turned, spinning him around like a plaything by the ankle, then slammed him face-first into the wall. The Jedi slumped down to the floor, out of the fight.

Guan, Macreed, and Crusader NiksaVel quickly formed up once more at the center of the room, exchanging wary glances with one another. The four Jedi Knights were dead or unconscious, leaving the three of them surrounded by enemy Jedicon. Macreed sent each of the Jedi a look that needed no words to explain: they weren’t going to make it out of here alive. Guan nodded, then noticed NiksaVel do the same. Slowly, each came to realize this fact, and resolve himself to it.

Briefly, Guan felt a pang of anger and hopelessness at their situation. He hadn’t expected to die today, here on this mission. But, he realized, that wasn’t his decision to make. Soon he would be one with the Force. The only question was how many of the enemy he could take with him.

For a moment the room was silent except for the constant, unearthly hum of the lightsabers, then suddenly the quiet was interrupted by a high-pitched, mocking laughter. The Jedi looked up to the balcony that the voice had come from, and noticed a new figure there. A rather beautiful human female Jedicon, with long blond hair falling around her head in waves and piercing eyes was standing there watching them. She wore a tight-fitting outfit like the others, but this one left her arms exposed, and opened holes over other unusual places as well, such as her stomach and places on her legs. Anywhere flesh was exposed, scrawling red tattoos could be seen, similar to those Jedicon wore, but far more numerous. The woman looked down at the scene before her and the fallen Jedi and Jedicon, then gave an approving smile.

“Who are you?!” Macreed demanded up at her.

In response, the woman turned her gaze on him, her expression turning to one of scorn. “I am Kodonn’Dakor Cindlin,” she said in a venomously accented Basic. She glanced at the massive lizard-Jedicon “He is Kodonn’Dakor Nilka. We are servants of Nimrod. If you want to beg for life, we will listen and make your death come very quickly.” Near the entrance, the lizard-alien shut off his blade and crossed his arms in front of him.

“Jedi never surrender,” Guan shot back. “Who will be the first to die by our hands?”

The woman leaned over the railing and shook her head. “I hoped we would lure better opponents here… Kill them.”

The group of Jedicon started forward, but NiksaVel made the first move instead. Choosing one of the Jedicon in front of him, he raised his blade overhead and ran forward, yelling out a wild war cry that filled the chamber. His opponent leapt forward eagerly at the challenge, bringing his own blade up to bear.

It was over in the blink of an eye. There was no long, drawn-out battle, only two warriors who had fully committed to a single technique. Each knew they would connect, but also knew he would not come away unscathed. NiksaVel’s sweeping blow split the Jedicon in half at the waist, but the enemy’s counterstroke came down on the Jedi’s left shoulder, cleaving the whole arm and half of his left head-tail off. NiksaVel screamed and fell down beside his slain opponent’s body, then he blinked twice and lapsed into unconsciousness, the cauterized wound sizzling and sending up tufts of smoke.

Guan gaped at the scene in shock, but Macreed had a different reaction. Summoning up all his Force power, he sent out of wave that cast aside all the Jedicon in front of him, throwing them all to the floor. Then he ran forward, launching himself up toward the Jedicon Cindlin with a Force-powered leap through the air.

As he was halfway there, Cindlin gave a laugh, then straightened and raised her hands above her head. Guan felt the Force gathering around her in huge amounts, more than he’d even felt in a single person. Air and streams of light gathered around her and in between her hands, and as she continued to laugh it seemed the elements turned against her opponent. A rush of wind swept up, arresting Macreed’s motion, and the ground beneath him split open and burst up, sending stones swirling through the air. The debris flew up around Macreed, pouring over him and hitting him with objects ranging from pebbles to head-sized rocks. Lightning burst from her hands and swept across the room in sheets, raking Macreed’s body and sending him into spasms. Then it was as if a massive, invisible hand swatted him from the air, and Macreed suddenly flew back across the room. He slammed into the far wall hard enough to break fragments out of it, then he fell down to the floor on his face, unconscious.

Guan saw his friend fall, then quickly reached out with the Force and drew Macreed’s lightsaber to his other hand. It hit his palm and he held it in a reversed grip, then brought both up to bear in front of him. Quietly, he took stock of the Jedicon surrounding him, varying in appearance but one in purpose. He knew this was it, and yet he didn’t find himself afraid. This was the inevitable. “Let’s do it,” he told them.

The first Jedicon came in, saber flashing, seeking personal glory in making the kill himself. Guan made him pay. He blocked the first strike with his right blade, then parried the second down and to the side with the inverted blade. His other hand sent out an upstroke that slashed across the Jedicon’s throat and cut through bone. The man fell back, clutching his ruined throat with both hands, then collapsed to the floor.

Guan turned to face his next opponent, but this time, they all came in at once. He lunged toward the nearest one, pushing his blade aside and shouldering him out of the way. He turned again, blocking a strike from one soldier with his right, parrying another’s attack with his left. Then a third slipped in from behind, where he couldn’t guard against. The blade went in through his back, and Guan gasped as it burned through his body, protruding half a meter out of his stomach, searingly hot and yet icy cold at the same time. He glanced down at the wound and stumbled for a second, regained his footing, then a second Jedicon stepped in and drove his blade down through his chest.

Guan gave a weak yell of pain as all sensation left him. His lightsabers fell from his hands. Then the Jedicon extracted their blades from his falling body, and Guan dropped to his knees. Eyes staring overhead, he slowly slumped forward, then pitched down onto his face, the last string of breath passing out of his lungs.

“Well done, warriors,” Cindlin remarked in her native tongue, smiling as she studied the scene below her. This had been quite successful, their largest defeat of the outlanders’ so-called “Jedi” to date.

One of the Jedicon who’d killed their last warrior turned to look up at her. “What of those who are still alive?” he asked.

Cindlin thought for a moment, then gestured to the three still-breathing enemies, two by the walls and the one with the severed arm. “Let’s keep them alive for a while. They might be useful at some point. Gather them up and bring them to my ship. We report to our Master in the morning.”

* * *


Titan-class Battleship Nexus

Varnus Orbit, Varnus System

1020 Hours


Once again the main conference room onboard the Nexus was filled with voices as the New Imperium War Council sat around the huge briefing table in the center of the chamber. As the NI’s highest ranking officers assembled to decide the best tactics to use in an attempt to thwart Nimrod’s latest advance, they were leaving no source of potential insight unheard. This was why Colonel Rivian Donitz was sitting at one end of the oval table, presenting his ideas to the heads of the NI military.

At the other side of the table, Fleet Admiral Jann Percy, Commander of NI Logistics Support on the War Cabinet - acting head of the military in the absence of Sector Admiral Stan Sanders, Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai, or War Coordinator Dogar - was giving everyone a chance to voice their opinions. Seated around the rest of the table, in no certain order, were Jedi Masters Xar Kerensky and Nico Flygras, Field Marshal Rodin Kaler, CEO/Admiral Walt Amason, Nexus Commodore Awel Kylar, and of course, Zalaria, the owner of the ship itself.

“Well, Donitz, I have to admit that’s one of the simplest, and yet most potentially rewarding ideas I’ve ever heard,” Admiral Amason was saying. “But at the same time, it’s one of the craziest.”

Nearby, Jedi Master Xar Kerensky – former Grand Master, and still so in everything but name – nodded. “I agree it sounds crazy, but I like it. Do you really think a single World Devastator could take on an entire Titan?”

Donitz gently cleared his throat and opened his hands on the table in front of him. “You know the capabilities of the World Devastator better than I do, sir. There are of course many variables, but if the ship were already inside the Titan when it began to consume it, the AD would have little to assault it with. The interior would be much more vulnerable to the tractor beams, and once the Devastator got started it could spawn anything it needed to defend itself and further attack the Titan.”

“Well, you’re right on that point,” Amason answered. “My question is, how do we convince the AD to let the ship inside the hangar so it can attack?”

Before Donitz could open his mouth to speak, Field Marshal Kaler spoke up in reply. “This may not be my area of expertise, but perhaps if the ship seemed damaged and the Titan happened upon it, the ship’s commander would be curious enough to give it a close inspection. What do you think, ma’am?” he asked, turning to Zalaria.

The Warlord spared a glance in his direction, and the look in her eyes caused Kaler to pale a bit. “Do not address me in that way,” she said. Then her tone changed as she addressed his question. “As a matter of fact, inspecting a technology that we do not use – and the World Devastator is one example of this – might indeed pique a ship commodore’s curiosity. However, only a fool would take an unknown enemy technology inside his command ship.” She paused. “And one does not come to command the most prized possessions in the Altarin’Dakor military for being a fool. We are overconfident, perhaps. But not fools. They would test it somewhere far away, and safe, being suspicious of a trap. And they would eliminate any life forms aboard prior to taking it in.”

“I concur. I would never make such a decision to jeopardize my master’s personal vessel, and they would not do so to Nimrod,” Awel Kylar, the Commodore of the Nexus, added. “This way will not work.”

“What if we convinced him that it’s not a trap first?” Kaler countered.

“You’re saying it would have to look real, right?” Fleet Admiral Percy broke in. “Meaning a real battle. Lives would have to be lost to create the illusion.” His eyes took on a sad look, doubtless knowing how hard the decision to send men to their deaths would be.

Donitz seized the brief silence that followed to clear his throat. Suddenly all eyes were on him again. “Ladies and gentlemen, a seemingly derelict ship is not what I am suggesting. Nor am I pushing for any type of space battle. In fact, no lives would have to be lost at all.”

For a moment, more silence. Then, “An interesting, yet perplexing statement, Donitz. How will we manage that?” the Fleet Admiral asked. Judging from everyone’s expressions, Donitz could see that Percy spoke for all present.

“Before I can answer conclusively, Admiral, I must first ask a question,” Donitz replied. He looked over at Awel Kylar. “Can Altarin’Dakor warships be detected by other ships while they are cloaked?”

“They can, if they are in motion,” the dark-skinned man replied immediately. “Although our cloaked ships are invisible to your technology, we Altarin’Dakor developed cloak-detectors long ago to counteract the advantage that cloaked ships once held. Once a ship opens fire – or even moves close enough – she can be detected. And a Titan would be searching constantly for cloaked invaders, even here, where you would not normally possess them.”

“You said ‘close enough’. What would be the range?” Donitz pressed.

The commodore thought for a moment. “Depending on the size of the vessel and how much it moves… for a small vessel, a hundred kilometers. For another Titan, perhaps thousands.”

An audible sigh went up throughout the room. “Nice try, sending it in cloaked,” Field Marshall Kaler said. “But that’s just way too far away.”

“Maybe not,” Donitz countered. He leaned forward. “Please hear me out. Sirs, can you tell me if the Altarin’Dakor would be able to detect an Imperial cloaking device?”

There was a moment of silence as several confused faces studied him. Then Walt Amason spoke up. “No way. An Imperial cloak is totally undetectable – even by Altarin’Dakor. It cloaks everything, am I right?” He looked at the Nexus commodore, who nodded once.

“As I understand it,” the man said.

“But an Imperial cloak is useless,” Field Marshall Kaler countered. “Everybody knows it works both ways - they can’t see you and you can’t see them. Whoever’s inside is as blind as a mynock in a padded cell. They couldn’t see where they’re going.”

Around the table, Donitz could see everyone’s patience beginning to wear thin. He felt a sting of irritation – why couldn’t they see?

“Your idea has merit,” Percy spoke up, “But implementation is likely going to take more consideration. Perhaps we should…”

“It’s brilliant!”

Everyone looked to the source of the outburst – and found Walt Amason, a look a realization and awe on his face.

“What’s so brilliant? You know with an Imperial cloak we couldn’t see to navigate close to the Titan,” Kaler argued.

The man shook his head. “We don’t need to,” Amason said, his voice a whisper, “if the Devastators are being towed.” He stared at Donitz. “Towed by cloaked AD ships.”

Donitz nodded. “The thought had occurred to me.”

“You see?” Amason glanced around at those gathered. “We wait until the Titan is stationary. Then we tow the ship in from a few hundred clicks away, release it with the Imperial cloak, and the AD never see it coming!” He slapped the table for emphasis.

Suddenly the table was buzzing with conversation.

“Towed? Can a Devastator be towed?” Percy asked.

“We can rig it up a line that shouldn’t be detected at that distance, “Amason replied excitedly. “And we can install the cloaks, then attach the lines to our AD ships, if they can accommodate them.” He glanced again at the AD commodore.

“I don’t see a problem,” Kyler said.

“Can we really hit the Titan if we let the Devastators glide in from several hundred clicks away?” Jedi Master Nico, recently returned from Tralaria, asked almost in disbelief.

“With today’s navicomputers, making the calculations will be more than easy, Nico,” Amason answered. Donitz smiled. The man was taking up his train of thought, even answering questions that Donitz himself had pondered.

“What if the Titan has its shields up?” Jedi Master Kerensky asked. He looked over at the woman who was both one of the Altarin’Dakor’s ultimate authorities, an immortal Warlord – and his wife. “Do they keep their shields up all the time?”

Instead, Zalaria deferred this question to the Commodore also.

“As a general principle, a commander will lower the ship’s protective field once no threats remain. It would be too wasteful for the ship’s energy resources.”

“Then she’ll be a sitting Hutt,” Amason said, breaking into a grin. “By Kessel, I think this will work. Donitz, I like it!”

Donitz allowed himself a smile as he saw the excited faces of everyone present. “One other detail,” he added, hoping they would not lose their caution in such excitement. “We have to take into account that the Titan could move. Forwards, backwards, to port or starboard. Rather than risk everything on one shot, I suggest we rig all of our Devastators – the small ones – and send them all towards the Titan. Only one needs to make contact, and we can pick up the others later at our convenience. Even cloaked, we can calculate their positions using the trajectories we gave them.”

“Good point,” Amason replied. “I’ll have them all rigged up.”

“You’re going to use all of our Devastators on this?” Percy asked, a concerned look on his face. “That’s a lot of resources to risk on this.”

“If we don’t commit fully to this, Jann, we might as well not commit at all,” Amason said back.

“Agreed,” Kerensky spoke up. “Against the Altarin’Dakor, you have to give one hundred percent – or nothing.”

“Besides, we aren’t using them otherwise,” Amason added. “They’re too small to commit to battle by themselves. But if one makes contact, even a small Devastator can chew a Titan up from the inside.”

The Fleet Admiral leaned back in his seat, then nodded. “I will inform the War Coordinator. Unless there is something else, Donitz?”

Donitz shook his head. “Only that, as the person responsible for this plan, I would like to volunteer myself for the operation.”

Percy smilled. “I appreciate your offer, Don. But your skills are best used in the cockpit, and you know it. There’s no need for you to take sole responsibility on this. We carry one another in this.” He glanced around the table, looking for comments from the others. “Final opinions?”

“This is probably the most cost-effective plan that has been proposed so far,” Nico said. The others all nodded, then all eyes turned to Zalaria. Donitz knew that her opinion could make or break the entire operation before it got off the ground.

The Warlord’s eyes seemed to glow in anticipation – and power.

“This plan is bold, and inventive – I believe it will work,” she said. “Even Nimrod should not anticipate it. I expect he will be… more than surprised by it.”

Donitz didn’t quite hear the collective sigh of relief being breathed out from everyone else, but he knew it was there anyway. Fleet Admiral Percy gave a grin. “Very well then, consider this operation – as yet unnamed – approved. Good work, Donitz. Walt, I expect to get a timeline for rigging up our Devastators by this time tomorrow. Commodore, we will need to appropriate several of your medium-class vessels for the operation. I will get in contact with War Coordinator Dogar this afternoon and inform him that…”

Before he could elaborate further, the console in front of the Fleet Admiral began to beep. He tapped a button on his keyboard, and his face lit up in a bluish tint as the console screen came to life. “Yes?” he inquired.

“Sir, Grand Master Misnera is asking to be forwarded to the conference room. He says it’s extremely urgent,” someone said on the other end.

“Put him through,” Percy said, then hit a few keys. The Holoprojector in the table came to life, displaying a head-and-shoulders view of the Jedi Grand Master and Director of Special Operations. His face betrayed the urgency which the communications officer had hinted at.

“Alyx! What’s the matter?” Xar spoke up immediately.

“I’ve got some bad news, people,” the hologram said, his voice coming just a bare instant after his lips formed them, probably due to distance or interference. “I’m inbound from the Pax System, and I’ve got bad news. The system has just declared for the Altarin’Dakor.”

For a second, the leaders in the room sat in stunned confusion.

“Pax has been captured already?” Field Marshal Kaler blurted. Whispered comments began flying between the different officers around the table. Donitz listened with concern.

Alyx spoke up again. “No, not captured, Field Marshall. Defected. The NI Governor is nowhere to be found, and the chief CEOs of the system have announced their independence from the New Imperium and declared allegiance to the Altarin’Dakor.” His voice took on a hard edge, as if choking back emotions he didn’t want to show. “Xar, Nico… I sent a team of seven Jedi down there, including Macreed and Guan Narsh. The last I heard from them, they were under attack from AD forces the CEO had let inside the city. As far as I could tell… they were all wiped out.”

“What? They got Roger…?” Nico whispered. He put a hand over his mouth in shock.

“Are AD navy forces in the system?” Percy demanded. “Is there any fighting down on the surface?”

“We detected no ships, but the situation on Pax Prime and Orfellan is hard to determine. Something’s going on. I advise we send the fleet to shut down this rebellion before the AD can make good on the promises made by these traitors.”

The conversation at the table went silent, then. Percy cleared his throat, looking up sullenly at the hologram in their midst. “I would like nothing more than to do that right now,” he said. “However, I’m afraid we can’t. We’re a little shorthanded at the moment.”

“What do you mean?” Alyx blurted. “My men may still be alive down there, plus there are millions on Pax and Orfellan at risk of being taken prisoner by the AD!”

“And I would give anything to help, them, but we have another major problem on our hands right now,” Percy said.

“What’s happened?”

The Fleet Admiral’s expression became grim, and suddenly Donitz felt very sorry for the people of the Pax system.

“As of last night we received word that the Sigma System is under a full-scale attack by the Altarin’Dakor. Sector Admiral Gaius in en route now with nearly the entire First Fleet. And Sector Admirals Dogar and Sanders with the Second Fleet are occupied with what appear to be major enemy incursions in Naroon Quadrant and the western front. We’re simply being spread too thin.”

The hologram’s face went blank. “So they’re going after Sigma, after all.”

Percy nodded. “In fact, Gaius and the First Fleet should be arriving there imminently. We can only hope there’s enough of Sigma left worth saving.”


* * *


Varnusian Productions Presents:





En Route, Sigma System

1325 Hours


The swirling, endless blue-white tunnel of hyperspace filled the view outside Maarek Stele’s cockpit. Seated in his cockpit seat, covered in his protective NI pilot’s combat suit, Stele listened to the steady beat of music coming through his earpiece, tracks from his personal collection to help him pass the time. They helped calm his nerves lately, before going into battle. He didn’t used to have this kind of edge eating at him, but then again, the Altarin’Dakor were unlike anything he’d ever faced before. Would this be his last sortie, today? He stared out at the mottled sky with little more than disinterest – he’d seen it so many times that it no longer captivated him, no longer seemed to hold universal secrets just beyond the horizon. It was just the interim sky between battlefields.

After narrowly escaping from the planet Laan in the Talas System as Altarin’Dakor forces took control, Maarek had led Inferno Squadron back to the rendezvous on Varnus, where many of the refugees had fled out of necessity. There was just no place to go, with almost every other system in the quadrant now under enemy control. From there, some had managed to book passage deeper into NI territory, such as Erebria, Tralaria, and Kolath, while some had fled NI space entirely. It saddened Maarek; in his few years’ stint here in the NI, he’d thought that he’d finally found a place to call home. Ever since being taken from Kuan as a kid – at least, now he thought of himself that way – it had been one system after another, one ship berthing after another. The nomadic lifestyle had let him see much of the galaxy, but he was wondering if it his life would stay that way forever. Maybe it was.

At Varnus, Inferno Squadron had been temporarily berthed on the ISD-II Stormwatch, flagship of the Jedi Division, until the SSD Independence returned in-system. They’d only been there a couple of days though, and hadn’t had enough time to go planet-side. They had just settled in when word of the surprise attack at Sigma came and they found themselves escorting the Independence. Strangely enough, the Titan Nexus wasn’t with them, despite the fact that it overwhelmed an SSD in size and firepower. The only reason Maarek could think of was so it could guard against a surprise attack at Varnus, in case the AD tried a double-pronged strike. But despite the Nexus’ absence, virtually the whole rest of the First Fleet was here in hyperspace with them.

A chime in his headphones overrode his music for a moment, and in response he shut off his music player and began to prepare for re-entry into normal space. Taking a deep breath, he counted down the remaining seconds to the Sigma System, watching as the clock counted down through single digits, then finally reached zero.

The sky before him scattered into starlines that drew themselves back into stars, and a massive ball loomed into existence in front of him, bathed in the light of a glowing green sun. The Sigma System, he thought, recognizing it on sight. The pristine world of Sigma III, or Kaav’Kalkin as the natives called it, hung in space before him, covered in green where forests and jungles covered most of it, interspersed by several vast oceans and wrapped in layers of white cloud. Two moons hung above and to the right of it from Maarek’s point of view, appearing pale green in the light of their sun.

However, that was a far as his memory served him. The rest of the scene unfolding before his eyes was completely new, and totally horrifying. As Task Forces Independence and Stormwatch emerged out of hyperspace around him, it did so in the midst of a war zone. The sky between him and the planet was crisscrossed with green and red turbolaser blasts, missile trails, and continuous beams of all colors and sizes. Instantly, his commlink burst into life as the local feed came in.

“Someone help me! I can’t evade! Please assist…”

“More fighters coming in from sector twelve! There’re too many, we can’t hold this position!”

“Mayday! This is the freighter Starbeam requesting emergency evacuation!”

“All ships pull back into sector four and prepare to run the blockade! We’ll… wait, I’m reading many new contacts emerging from hyperspace. Thank the Force, it’s the Fleet!”

Maarek gave a grim smile as the last of the NI ships came out of hyperspace, and two of their Imperator-class Star Destroyers popped into existence just above and ahead of him. Immediately fighters began pouring out of the hangars in their underbellies, and on his screens, his targeting board filled with dozens of contacts as the fleet began to spread out. More fighters came into view to either side of his TIE Avatar’s cockpit as the rest of the fleet accelerated to attack speed. Taking their cue, Maarek switched to his squadron’s frequency and the eight other pilots – three-quarters the strength of his original squadron – awaiting his orders.

“This is it, Inferno Squadron. Form up on my wing and let’s get it on!”

“Two Flight is ready and waiting,” Bast Vlagen announced.

“Three Flight on your wing,” Salle Darl chimed in.

Just then another voice broke over the fleet frequency.

“This is the Independence,” said the calm, authoritative voice of Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai. “A large group of enemy ships is situated in orbit over the planet’s main continent. Our first priority is to assist the remaining Sigman ships in evacuating, then we will drive the invading force away from the planet and prevent a ground landing. Follow your Wing Commanders’ orders, shoot well, and may the Force be with us.”

Easier said than done, Maarek thought, as he took in the scene in front of him. The small Sigman force lay well ahead, little more than pebble-sized at this range. He immediately heard calls for help from the Sigmans, led by the ISD Dragon’s Claw II and the VSDs Raider and Defender. Surrounding them were a ragtag group of Strike Cruisers, Carrack Cruisers and Corvettes, and they were all being hounded by the biggest AD fleet Maarek had seen since Mizar. No, scratch that; at Mizar there had only been one Titan present, albeit a huge one. But here, there were two.

“Enemy threat assessment?” Stele spoke up on Inferno’s frequency.

“It’s sizeable,” Bast, the only pilot in the squad with more years of combat experience than Maarek, spoke up. “IFF labels the Titans as the Ascendancy and Hegemony. I believe you’ll recognize the former from Jengar.”

“All too well,” Maarek said, eyeing the two massive, elongated shapes that obscured much of the planet’s large continent from view. Like all Titans, they were each unique in their design.

The Ascendancy began with a wide nose that, halfway back, rose in a multi-tiered method across the top until it reached what he assumed was the command center. Near the back, two broad wings swept out, reminiscent of some Calamari Cruisers, but at the ends they angled down sharply. The ship was thickest at the rear, where he assumed the massive engine arrays would be located. Most interesting though was that the sides and top plates of the ship seemed covered in reflecting metal plates that caused it to gleam in the green light of Sigma’s star.

The Hegemony, on the other hand, was quite unorthodox-looking. The ship was thick but long, with rounded edges and countless viewports visible along its broad side. Colored in reds and browns, it stood out darkly against the world behind it. The ship appeared rounded somewhat at the bow and stern, and was thinnest in the center, where a strange ring-like apparatus encircled it. As he looked closer, he saw that the ring was spinning freely, not attached to the ship at all, but still part of the ship via some unknown technological advancement. And right then the ring was sending out blasts of beam energy as it spun, allowing it to fire near-continuously as the guns passing underneath cooled down.

The Titans were hanging back for the most part, while numerous cruiser and destroyer-sized vessels continued to assault the Sigman fleets with their beam weapons. Altogether he counted about twenty smaller AD capital ships.

The Ascendancy was listed at about 34,000 meters, the Hegemony at 36,400. Maarek swallowed hard. He took some solace in the NI fleet’s ten Star Destroyers, four VSDs, twelve Frigates, three Calamari Cruisers, and four Majestic-class Cruisers, all riding at his back. And, of course, the SSD Independence and the Allegiance-class SD Defiant. This one’s gonna be big, he realized.

Then he set his mind on the task ahead and went to work. All around him, NI ships and fighters were barreling forward, closing the distance between them and the enemy. Maarek kicked his TIE Avatar up to full speed and relayed an order to his squadron to follow suit.

The fleet channel opened again as Gaius broke in. “This is Independence to all fighter groups. I have received a mayday from the ISD Dragon’s Claw II, under command of Sigman Emperor Virzixl. Protect his ship and escort him to safety. After that, we’ll focus on relieving Sigma Prime. We’ve got about three billion lives at stake here, people. Let’s get to it.”

Maarek nodded and keyed in the squadron frequency. “You heard him, Infernos. Let’s live up to our name, shall we?”

As the battle scene grew visibly larger in front of them, Maarek saw the Sigman ships trying to shake a group of four AD cruisers solidly dogging them. Then, just over halfway there, he winced as the VSD Defender went up, exploding from the inside out as AD beam weapons penetrated its power core. The ship was consumed in a massive fireball, though at this distance it merely lit up the sky for a brief second.

We’re not gonna let that happen again, Maarek thought. Anger flared up in the back of his mind, but he drew it in, turned it into resolve. The Sigmans were a loyal ally, a good friend of the New Imperium. Maarek had even helped save their emperor’s life in a campaign here only months ago. Some of his own friends were down there, and even one of his squadron members was a Sigman. He wasn’t going to let them all down.

Finally, the Altarin’Dakor forces seemed to notice the massive fleet bearing down on them at top speed. While a few ships kept after the Sigmans, at least a dozen capital ships in the distance swung their bows toward the approaching NI forces, and Maarek felt a chill run down his spine as the Ascendancy and Hegemony began to move, as well.

“Orders, boss?” Rann Wosper asked through his commlink.

“Let’s lead the way,” Maarek said. “Straight in to the emperor’s flagship. Let’s get him out of there.”

“Enemy fighters approaching at ten o’clock,” Bast’s voice warned.

Maarek glanced ahead and to port, and saw his view of Sigma Prime further obscured by countless black dots, rapidly growing faster. “They’re coming in fast!” he yelled. “Break through, single pass!”

His HUD lit up with threat indicators, painting boxes around a myriad of enemy ships. Then his warning tone beeped as the enemy came into range sooner than the NI ships, thanks to the longer reach of their weapons. Beams shot into existence, flashing past into the formations of other flights. A B-Wing just ahead of Maarek exploded as a quad-burst speared it, then swept up toward Inferno. Maarek dove to the side, avoiding the blast, then pulled back in and locked two targets in for missile strikes.

“Fire at will!” he ordered, then sent a pair of advanced concussion missiles out toward each target in the enemy group. More missiles passed ahead on trails of smoke, and some were shot down by beams from enemy fighters. Enemy missiles flashed back past him at a distance, burrowing into the thick of the NI formations. Then space ahead lit up with explosions and shield flares as the NI warheads found their marks. The fighters ahead loomed into full size, breaking off toward their individual targets. Maarek saw his targets take hits, then in another instant they were past, flying by too fast to target with lasers.

Rather than turn to re-engage, he kept his fighters pointed onward, straight toward the fleeing Sigman vessels. Behind him, the AD and NI forces began to mix in a swirling cloud of metal and fire.

The Battle of Sigma had begun in earnest.


* * *


Diktat’s Office

Senate Complex

Tralaria, NI Capital

0940 Hours


Diktat Rytor shook his head in consternation as his guest entered the room. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you for two whole days.”

The entering man’s face took on a smirk. “I told you I’ve had to stay in the shadows after the attack.” He took a seat opposite the Diktat’s chair.

Rytor shrugged. “What does all the secrecy matter? Our systems are falling one after another. Have you heard that we’ve lost contact with a number of systems in Matacious Quadrant? How are we going to stop this? What are we going to do next?”

Queklain paused for a moment, then finally shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Nothing? We can’t defeat Nimrod’s forces like this. We have to take a proactive approach instead of reacting to everything,” Rytor argued.

At that, the Warlord’s patience seemed to snap like a light switch. “We can’t defeat Nimrod’s fleet at all, fool!” he chided. “All we can do is wait for the right opportunity, when either I or someone else can kill him. Then we won’t have to worry about the fleet.”

“Why not?”

“Because without their leader, they won’t have the blessing to continue the campaign. You’re an Outlander, you wouldn’t understand.”

Rytor frowned. The Warlord was right: he didn’t understand at all. Even in his years in service to Kronos in secret, he’d learned almost nothing of Altarin’Dakor beliefs and customs. Still, if they were to be a successful and powerful government – which they certainly were – then logic had to have a place, as well. “What are the chances of Nimrod making a mistake and letting us get close to him?” he asked. “You know of his reputation of being invincible.”

“The chances may be rather good, my friend. He doesn’t know about me.”

Rytor gave the Warlord a skeptical look, but said nothing more.

“What other news from the battlefront?” Queklain asked.

“Nimrod’s forces are still advancing. However, the War Cabinet is putting together a plan that should lure one of his Titan’s in where we can capture or disable it.”

Queklain frowned for a moment at that. “That is dangerous.”

Before he could answer, Rytor’s commlink beeped, and he reached over to his personal computer terminal and opened the call. The face of Quat, one of the Diktat’s most trusted aides, came onscreen.

“Reporting in as ordered, sir,” the man said.

Rytor looked down at the screen. “Have you managed to get through to the New Republic yet, Quat?” he asked.

Across from him, Queklain raised a questioning eyebrow. “You would ask them for aid?”

“Why not?” Rytor asked, muting the volume for a second. “If we can’t stop the AD, it’ll be their problem anyway.” Then he opened the sound back up.

“Sir, as you know, the Ambassador has refused further contact with us as long as hostilities continue,” the aide replied.

“They know there are no hostilities right now,” Rytor countered. “Don’t tell me they’re ignorant of the AD invasion. Are they really going to sit by and watch us be annihilated?”

“More likely they have their own problems to worry about,” Queklain mused aloud. “After all, Nimrod won’t make a distinction between you and your own enemies, or respect the petty borders you’ve drawn between yourselves. In all likelihood, he’s attacking your neighbors already.”

“Infringing into New Republic space? That would require him to battle on several fronts at once.”

Queklain smiled. “Apparently you don’t quite comprehend the might of Nimrod’s forces. Trust me, he’s more than equipped to handle all of us at once if he chooses to do so.”

Rytor looked back down at the screen. “Send the message anyway. Tell them to strengthen their borders with everything they’ve got and evacuate their outlying systems. And if possible, see if they’ll send us some support.”

The aide seemed completely dumbfounded, but nodded anyway. “I’ll… I’ll try, sir.”

“Good,” Rytor said, closing the connection.

“It won’t really matter whether they help or not.”

Rytor looked up at his master. “Why not?”

Queklain stood and stretched, then made as if to leave. Before he walked away, however, he gave Rytor a hard look. “Because Nimrod isn’t going to be defeated by armies or navies or by military might. It will have to be something direct, something he would never expect. And that is why I am here.”

And with that, the visitor left, leaving Rytor alone to contemplate his words in silence, and wonder if this Warlord was truly as powerful as he made himself out to be.

What could he possibly do against a being that had eliminated over a million inhabited systems?


* * *


Sigma System

1355 Hours


Maarek soared toward the retreating Sigman fleet at full throttle. The ISD Dragon’s Claw II loomed in front of him, flanked by the VSD Raider. He made for the ISD, and as he reached it he eased the throttle back and pulled a tight curve beneath the ship’s underside. Ugly scars had already melted and blackened the ship’s armor where AD beam weapons had penetrated the shields, and her fighter complement was completely gone at this point.

“Okay Infernos, concentrate on the cruisers. Let’s get these ships to safety,” he said.

Passing by the ship’s underside, he turned his Avatar to the foremost of the pursuing three AD cruisers, as one had broken off to engage the approaching NI forces. At about fifteen hundred meters each, they were sizeable craft. But, as he approached, the ships didn’t even turn their beam weapons toward him, doubtless considering fighters of no threat to itself. Instead, they kept pouring fire into the rear of the ISD Dragon’s Claw II, which by this time had lost its shield and was starting to take serious damage to the stern.

You’ve had this coming for a long time, Maarek thought as the body of the AD cruiser filled the cockpit canopy ahead. Satisfied he was within the vessel’s shield range, he thumbed his weapon selection over to the Avatar’s one-time, five-count rack of heavy space rockets in a special launcher on top of the fuselage.

“Lock in your targeting with mine,” he told the other Inferno members. “Let’s do some damage.”

“We’re right with you, boss,” Rann said eagerly.

Maarek grinned, then tightened his finger on the trigger. His craft jolted as the five heavy rockets blasted out of their holdings, streaming toward the side of the cruiser on trails of smoke. They were quickly followed up by launches from the rest of the squadron.

The cruiser’s pulse lasers finally opened up then, firing a defensive spray that was more visually intimidating than effective. Two of Maarek’s rockets were shot down, along with several others from the other squadron members, but his other three got through. One went slightly off course and hit the ship close to the front, merely blasting away armor in that location. But two others hit close to each other, ripping away armor and sending it cracking and splintering back out into space. Maarek pulled his fighter away but kept watching as, fortunately, one of Rann’s warheads flew into the hole Maarek’s had created and made it inside the ship. The resulting explosion blew a massive fireball out the side of the ship and left only a crater in its wake.

The other rockets from Inferno did as well in other areas. Altogether thirty of the forty-five rockets they’d launched made it in, and when they were done the side of the cruiser was barely recognizable, a crumpled mass of blackened, molten metal bleeding air and fire from countless breaches. The ship began to lag back, then started to turn away, leaking smoke and atmosphere, clearly out of the fight. Her crew would be hard-pressed to salvage her, Maarek realized.

If the quick loss of one of their cruisers didn’t intimidate the remaining two, then the volley of turbolasers from the NI’s First Fleet certainly did. Their shields lit up under countless turbolaser strikes, and ensuing missile launches from other fighters that had gotten through punched through the shields and blasted away armor. Within minutes the other two cruisers had backed off, reduced to crippled hulks, and the Sigman ships had a clear path to safety behind the approaching NI fleet.

“Well done,” Fleet Admiral Gaius’ voice came over the general channel. “We caught them by surprise there, but don’t expect the rest of this rescue mission to be so easy. The enemy fleet has regrouped and formed a blockade between us and the planet. Ground assault ships are heading in to make landings on the surface. We have to shoot down as many as possible and break the spine of this blockade. All ships, form up and attack!”

“You heard him,” Maarek said, turning his craft toward the long line of enemy ships between them and the bright green world below. “Let’s do it!”


Sector Admiral Gaius watched the approaching AD fleet, mentally counting down the distance to optimal firing range. In a secondary command chair beside him, Fleet Admiral Arden Vonture, commander of Task Force Independence and commodore of the Independence herself, gave a steady stream of orders to the bridge crew, taking care of all things pertaining to the vessel itself while Gaius concentrated on fleet-wide matters. Gaius had learned in the last battle at Moro not to try to do two things at once. Vonture had done an exemplary job on the Defiant, but protecting the NI’s flagship was the most important priority. Admiral Aaron Melvar, commander of Task Force Stormwatch, was currently onboard the ship of the same name. The Stormwatch, famous as the flagship of the Jedi Division, was lending the support of her task force to the Independence’s flanks. Together they comprised nearly the entire First Fleet, except for the Nexus and her escorts.

The two Titans sitting out there were what worried him most. He’d seen the Titans’ capabilities at Varnus, Mizar, and most recently Moro, and he knew they were extremely tough eggs to crack. This would be a long, hard battle, he knew, and one they had little chance of actually winning.

“Sir,” one of the crew reported. “The Majestic cruisers report that they are in optimal firing range. Taking up position in sector seven to port. They are requesting permission to fire on the Ascendancy.

“Proceed,” Gaius said.

In formation outside the portside viewport, the long, sleek Majestic-class cruisers Iovius, Repulse, Scimitar, and Conquest drew their firing solutions on the lead Titan and opened fire. Gaius saw no more than brief flashes of light from the giant muzzles at the ships’ bows, but he knew that the huge explosive, armor-piercing projectiles they launched were heading toward the Titan Ascendancy at near-relativistic speed. The shots passed the rest of the AD fleet by in an instant, then penetrated the Titan’s powerful force field thanks to technology brought over by Zalaria’s defected forces. When the projectiles hit the Ascendancy, he didn’t need to be close to see the damage they wrought.

Hitting in rapid succession, the four bolts slammed into the Titan’s hull on her starboard side, shattering her heavy neutronium-hybrid armor like glass and punching through multiple armored bulkheads into the interior of the ship. As soon as the blasts hit, flame began rushing back out the entry holes, ripping dozens of levels open to vacuum and sending out countless tons of debris. Such a volley was enough to destroy an AD cruiser or cripple an ISD with a single shot. However, to a Titan it was little more than a punch in her proverbial ribs. Chunks of reflective armor the size of whole starships flew off of it into the void, but the Ascendancy ignored the damage as inconsequential and opened up her own weapons in response. Massive beams of energy shot out from her gun emplacements, reaching out to connect with NI ships and play their tremendous energies across shields and hulls. The Hegemony, flying a good distance behind, still was able to fire as well, sending out a stream of energy from its rotating ring weapon system. Still other AD ships opened up, and suddenly the sky was filled with needles of bright energy, raining death down on the NI fleet. Though weakened by distance, the beams were still dangerous. The Independence and other ships began to have their shields glow blue under the onslaught.

“We are entering firing range,” an officer reported as the deck began to shake under an enemy volley.

“Fire at will,” Gaius ordered, pushing himself to his feet. “Concentrate on the Ascendancy and the forward capital ships.”

The row of NI ships opened up in answer to the enemy volley, sending out hundreds of turbolaser blasts that lit up the energy shields of the enemy like translucent balloons.

“Enemy fighter wings incoming,” the strategic officer chimed in.

“Close the blast doors,” Vonture ordered in response, and immediately the massive armored doors began to cover the viewports ahead. In their place, holographic projections appeared on the transparisteel, giving them the same view as before.

Gaius glanced at his screens and saw a cloud of enemy blips – far more than he could count even if he’d wanted to – fast approaching the NI position. He knew that enemy starfighters could be just as deadly as their big brothers when in the right numbers. He reached down and hit the commlink on his chair arm. “Gaius to all fighters,” he said. “Engage enemy fighters and provide a screen for our capital ships. This is it, people; may the Force be with us.”

Gaius watched the scene unfold over the next several minutes. The two groups of fighters met first, mixing into one very large cloud that split only to allow the largest capital ships through. The AD and NI ships continued to exchange volleys of fire, each growing more deadly as the range between them grew less. Shields were beginning to fall on both sides, and while turbolasers turned armor to slag and blasted holes into the sides of ships, the AD weapons cut and sliced their targets apart, opening longer swaths to the vacuum of space, cutting deeper and doing more internal damage. A few lucky shots penetrated the cores of their targets and sent them up in spectacular fireballs. Still others cut ships completely in half, leaving two useless hulks remaining where a combat-ready ship had been moments before.

It was the Titans’ fire that caused the latter to happen most often. Cruiser-class ships were the most vulnerable, being carved in half by the Ascendancy’s massive beam weapons. Her other turrets focused on the ISDs, weakening their shields until they could finally punch through and trace long, ugly scars across the hull of their targets.

Gaius winced as he saw the Modified Frigate Praetorian get cut in half by a well-aimed shot from the Titan, stranding the front half while leaving the back part intact. The pilots onboard wisely turned the rear of the ship around and headed it out of the fight.

Others weren’t so fortunate. The Frigate Captivator had a beam slice through its large prow, then sweep back across the rear part of the ship and cut through the engine arrays. A chain reaction swept out from the ship’s stern, consuming the rear half of the vessel. Again he determined to keep frigates, with their fragile midsections, out of the fight next time.

This is going to be the bloodiest battle since Mizar, he realized with grim certainty. Only this time, the responsibility of the NI fleet’s safety and performance was on him. Hero or Failure, which will it be, he wondered. He would find out soon enough.


Maarek piloted his TIE Avatar through a confusing jumble of capital ships, fighters, and blasts of energy passing in between them all. So far, the NI strike force had taken some heavy hits, but they’d given almost as good as they got. The main force of the NI fleet, consisting of about ten ISDs including the Allegiance-class SD Defiant, the ISD-II Stormwatch, the ISD-III Vindicator, and several others, was entangled with a group of five AD cruisers and four destroyers, and a couple hundred fighters were battling it out in the spaces between them. The Titan named the Hegemony was sitting about fifty clicks away, pumping shot after long-range shot out at the NI ships, while the Ascendancy sat much closer, dealing out more concentrated bursts of fire from its fusion beam emplacements. In return, its force field was a constant, shimmering blue bubble surrounding it as hundreds of turbolasers pelted it in a constant torrent. Rail gun blasts from the Majestic-class cruisers kept coming in as well, blasting huge, gaping holes into the side of the Titan.

Maarek ignored the sweat that had accumulated beneath his flight suit and concentrated on the AD fighter in his crosshairs. The ship was passing between an ISD and an AD cruiser, trying to shake him in the chaos, but Maarek stuck to him like glue. He got a solid tone from his targeting computer, then hit the trigger and sent out two missiles from his forward launchers. They both hit, sending the enemy fighter into a wild spin and destroying its shields. Closing the distance with it, Maarek switched over to lasers and sent a series of dual-linked bursts into the craft. The enemy fighter exploded, sending bits and pieces of debris floating out towards the planet below.

That’s another one down, he thought. About a thousand more to go.

Hauling back on the stick, he turned back toward his squadron mates, hoping to keep them together as a fighting unit. A large, highly skilled wing of enemy ships had engaged them just a few minutes ago, and Inferno and the other NI squadrons around were being hard-pressed to keep up with them.

Just then, he saw a bright explosion flare off to port, and he noted in shock that it was Salle Darl, wing leader of flight three, who had been hit.

“Salle’s hit!” Maarek yelled in dismay into the commlink.

“She went EVA,” Bast’s voice came back. “She’s okay.”

“Get a pickup ASAP,” Maarek ordered. “She won’t last long out here in this mess.”

Twisting his fighter into a dive, Maarek locked his sights onto the fighter who had shot Salle down. It was a sleek fighter looking more suited to atmospheric flying than space combat, a model the defected AD forces had called an Aggressor. He switched onto the open frequency. “This is Maarek Stele of the New Imperium’s Inferno Squadron to enemy pilot,” he said. “You’re mine.”

“This is Vos Quinlan. I accept your challenge,” a heavily accented voice came back.

The fighter turned toward him, and Maarek dove straight in. He knew the ship’s beam weapons would be deadly if they brushed him, but he didn’t intend to let that happen.

The AD fighter got lock first, and Maarek’s warning signal went off as a missile streaked out toward him. Stele kept his fighter straight on, and watched as the distance between him and the warhead counted down.

Vos Quinlan had underestimated his opponent by firing only one missile. Maarek centered his crossheads on it and fired, sending a quad-linked burst of laser fire out that struck the missile and detonated it two kilometers out. Then, sensing his opponent about to fire, Maarek pulled hard to starboard as a blast of beam fire shot through the missile’s fireball, missing him by meters. He pulled back around toward his opponent, but the Aggressor was too fast, and passed wide to Maarek’s port in an eyeblink.

He pulled his TIE Avatar around to follow, but he knew that he couldn’t match the AD ship’s maneuverability. Instead, he let the enemy slowly come around onto his tail, then dove down toward the capital ships engaged in heavy battle below. Turbolasers and beam blasts crossed the sky ahead, and he weaved an unpredictable pattern through them, Quinlan matching his every move.

He’s good, Maarek realized. No wonder Salle got hit. Maarek kept his fighter jinking and spinning, watching the enemy’s blasts from the rear pass him by mere meters, shooting on past him into the distance.

“Try this one,” Maarek muttered to himself. Leveling out for a moment, he waited until he was sure the enemy thought him finished, then cut the power to his port engine and sent his fighter into a wild spin that was his signature move. A blast flashed through the air beneath him as he spun in a seemingly uncontrollable pattern, but Maarek had done it countless times and knew exactly when to pull out of it. The Aggressor flashed ahead of him, unable to slow down in time, and Maarek kicked his port engine back in and pulled out at just the right moment. That left the enemy directly in his sights ahead.

If Quinlan realized his mistake, he didn’t have time to correct it. Maarek sent a burst of laser fire into the ship’s rear shields to weaken them, then switched to missiles and fired a dual-burst at point-blank range, not even waiting for a solid lock. The warheads hit the fighter in the rear and burst through the shields, chewing into the fuselage before detonating. Maarek dimly heard a scream over the commlink just before the fighter went up in a spectacular explosion.

As Maarek flew through the fading gas ball, he became aware of his other squad mates’ voices call out over the commlink.

Petur, watch it, you’ve picked on up!” Rann’s voice broke in.

“I know!” Petur exclaimed. “He’s good. On me tight. I can’t shake him!”

“Hold on, I’ll be right there!” Rann came back.

Following Petur’s dot marked on his radar, Maarek found the fighters in question. Petur’s Avatar was weaving in a complex evasive pattern just off the bow of the SD Defiant. Behind him was another AD Aggressor, keeping tight on Petur’s every move.

“I’m closer to you than Rann is,” Maarek called out. “I’ll be there in thirty seconds.”

“I’m not sure I have that long!” Petur’s voice came back. He sounded really frantic this time, and Maarek felt a jolt of fear. Petur was an excellent pilot, who had shown tremendous natural talent for it and had continued to grow exponentially in the months since joining Inferno. As he got closer, Maarek saw a different color pattern on the enemy Aggressor, and he suddenly realized the problem. This was the AD wing commander.

“This is Commander Maarek Stele,” he said over the open frequency. “Why don’t you break off your little joyride and face me instead? One officer to another.”

There was a moment’s pause as the fighter continued to follow Petur, but for some reason the Aggressor didn’t fire. Then, finally the AD commander spoke back to him.

“Why should I, Maarek Stele? You killed my second in command. Now I will pay you back.”

Chills ran down Maarek’s back as he realized he recognized that voice. At Jengar a pilot named Kamren Thansil had sent him a parting gift of two missiles, which Maarek had shot down. The pilot declared they would face each other again – apparently that time was now.

Petur’s Avatar continued to evade, but the AD commander stuck to him like glue. He knew Thansil could kill him at any time. “Petur, eject!” he cried out, as the feeling of dread hit him like a hammer.

It was too late. Before Petur could respond, the AD craft fired, sending a quad-linked blast of yellow energy out at the Petur’s Avatar. Though the kid had sent his ship into an evasive spin, two of the beams still caught his fighter, plowing through the shields and shearing off his port solar panel. It split off as if separated by a surgeon’s blade, leaving a melted gouge remaining in the fighter’s side. The Avatar went into a wild spin, looking more like a broken toy than a real ship.

Then Thansil finished the job with a missile that burst out of his craft and shot forward to connect with the TIE Avatar. Maarek kept waiting for Petur to eject, all the way up until the missile struck his craft, burrowed within for an instant, then exploded. The TIE Avatar broke open into a thousand fragments, scattered by a huge fireball that consumed the ion engines, the fuselage, the canopy – everything.

“PETUR!!” he heard Rann and several other members of Inferno cry out together. But their voices were dim, washed out in his ears. All Maarek could see was the enemy fighter looping around to face him.

“Now it is our turn,” Thansil said to him.

“Bring it on,” Maarek said vehemently. “Come… and die.”

With a firefight between the ISD Stormwatch and an AD cruiser in the background, Maarek dove toward his enemy at full speed. His enemy grew from a tiny speck to a small flake, his HUD painting a red box around the Aggressor-class fighter. Thansil began firing well outside of Maarek’s own range, but Maarek kept his hand loose on the stick, moving back and forth in an unpredictable pattern as they grew close to each other. Then, once he moved into range, he switched tactics. Pulling back on the stick, he let the fighter pass by his crosshairs and keep on going, but at the exact instant they lined up, he fired. His quad-burst of laser fire flashed out, missing the enemy by meters, so Maarek reversed the tactic and let the fighter scroll by again, firing as it passed. This time the enemy’s shields lit up beneath their impact. He continued this tactic, never stopping to line up a shot, but taking them at just the right moment. This kept the enemy’s beams from touching him, but allowed Maarek to send out relatively accurate shots.

By the time they were on each other, Thansil’s shields were half-gone, and Maarek hadn’t managed to make a hit. Rather than make it a point-blank engagement, the AD pilot pulled out at the last moment, and the two fighters passed each other in a blur.

Maarek immediately began pulling around in a tight loop, feeing the Gs plaster him back into this seat. Even with the inertial compensator dialed up high, he nearly blacked out.

But his Avatar wasn’t nearly a match for the AD fighter and its link to its pilot. Thansil got around first, hitting a solid lock on Maarek’s fighter and sending out a missile. Maarek’s proximity alert went wild, and he reversed direction instantly, hitting the release countermeasures button as fast as he could in rapid succession. The missile alert tone went solid, then Maarek was nearly blinded as the warhead passed right across his cockpit, missing him by about a meter. He released a breath he hadn’t known he’d held, then cut back on the throttle and sighted the missile in his crosshairs. He squeezed the trigger, sending out a blast that took the warhead square, detonating it.

He turned back to look for his opponent, and a sense of dread hit him. The enemy fighter was nowhere on his screens, which meant it could only be one place – directly behind him. He hadn’t faced anyone this good in a long time.

Snapping the Avatar on its starboard wing, he dove down toward the SD Defiant nearby. Thansil’s Aggressor matched his maneuver perfectly. He pushed his craft to full throttle, watching the massive Allegiance-class Star Destroyer loom in front of him. He juked, twisted, and threw every conventional tactic he could to shake his opponent, but nothing would get his opponent out from behind him. Only a few blinks in his rear screens even showed that he was there.

Time to roll the dice again, he thought. He leveled off for a split instant, then cut his left engine and pulled back into his signature spin. Stars and ships passed before him in a blur, and he glanced at his radar screen, seeing the enemy fighter there. He slowed to let the enemy ship past, then at just the right moment kicked his other engine back in and righted the spin.

But instead of seeing his enemy’s tail in front of him, there was merely the SD Defiant once more. His blood went cold as he saw where the enemy fighter was – directly behind him once more. His move had been anticipated, and Thansil had cut his own throttle to keep Maarek from slipping behind him.

This could be it, he realized. He’d always figured he would die in fighter combat, but he hadn’t thought it would be this soon. There was only about one thing he could do left, and that wasn’t something he’d wanted to consider until there was no other choice. Guess this is it…

Then a missile flashed in out of nowhere, passing Maarek by meters, and plowing into the side of Thansil’s Aggressor. The fighter’s shields flared up as the ship was thrown of course, just as Thansil had opened fire. His beam blast went just wide, but one still chewed through Maarek’s shields and clipped his left solar panel, sending a chunk of it flying off into the distance.

Before Maarek could ask what happened, he saw Rann Wosper’s TIE Avatar fly in from starboard at full throttle, passing by Maarek too fast to even follow. Then, the massive bulk of the SD Defiant looming ahead, Maarek cut to starboard quickly and started around the massive destroyer, seeing a bright beam of energy cutting into her hull as he turned. He checked his screens, couldn’t see Thansil’s craft anymore, and assumed the man had passed by on the ship’s other side. Maarek cut his throttle and waited for the enemy to fly past the ship’s other side.

He never did. A moment later he caught a glimpse of the AD fighter on radar, pulling away from the Defiant in a different direction. He reached for the commlink button, but the other man broke through first.

“Your comrade saved you this day, but you are a dead man, Maarek Stele. The next time we meet will be the last.”

Maarek didn’t bother answering. He was too busy catching his breath, aware of the drops of sweat running down his body beneath his flight suit. That one was close, he thought.

“What happened to Petur?” Rann’s voice came over the commlink. “Did he eject?”

Maarek didn’t answer for a moment. Instead, he forced himself to take a drink from his built-in water supply and tried to work up the words. “He didn’t eject,” he finally said, shaking his head. “I was watching. I… I don’t know why.”

“That kriffing AD butcher.”

“Yeah.” Maarek pulled into formation with the wingman, then saw the remaining members of Inferno move closer. Why’d it have to be Petur? he wondered to himself. But no answer came.

“You okay, boss? Maybe you should land, take a break. Your fighter looks like trash from that hit.”

He looked at his status display, noting his shields were out and his front upper laser mount was gone, that part of the panel having been sliced cleanly away. “No, I’m fine.” Maarek shook his head. “This battle isn’t over yet. We’ve got more work to do. Thanks for saving my life, Rann.”

That’s what a wingman’s for,” Rann’s voice came back.

We’re all with you,” Bast spoke up on the commlink. “Salle’s getting picked up, so she should be okay.”

Maarek nodded. “All right then, form up on me. It’s payback time.”

With that, he led Inferno Squadron back into the fray.


* * *


Royal Palace

Vectur, Planet Varnus

1420 Hours


Jedi Master Nico Flygras descended the shuttle’s landing ramp and quickly made his way toward the Palace’s side entrance. The air was cool, now that the early stages of fall had set in. The air was also filled with the sounds of the bustling city surrounding the palace, the capital city known as Vectur. A sprawling metropolis, it was the largest city of any planet in the New Imperium. And in the past few weeks it had swelled to dwarf any previous population estimates. Refugees from all over the quadrant had come to Varnus seeking shelter from the Altarin’Dakor onslaught. Some came because the planet hadn’t yet been attacked, while others thought the defensive force here would be enough to repel the invaders. But many came here simply because they had nowhere else to go.

Waiting for him at the entrance was Xar himself, who had come down from the Nexus about an hour previous, and Adept Kiz Thrakus, head instructor of combat.

“Welcome back, Master Nico,” Kiz said, his tone respectful but a knowing gleam in his eye. He and Nico had been friends and comrades from way back, and had even made a little bet as to who would make Jedi Master first. Obviously, Kiz had been pretty angry at losing the bet.

Xar however, being the Grand Master, simply nodded to his friend. “Glad you could get off from the planning committee,” he said, his tone harboring no love for the idea of planning strategy. “There are some matters and preparations here I think we should attend to.”

At that, they started walking through the interior of the palace. Nico immediately noticed that traffic was up, with more than just officers and servants walking around, now. Even parts of the Royal Palace had been opened up to evacuees, and the lower level living quarters were already nearly filled to capacity.

“How are we doing on numbers?” Nico asked. “Jedi, I mean.”

“I called in all Jedi to group here at Varnus,” Kiz said. “After hearing what happened to Macreed at Pax, I fully agree with Xar. We’ve got to stick together.”

Xar nodded. “We can’t afford to dwindle, especially at a time like this.”

“A lot of Jedi who have been gone or on leave have returned since we sent the word out,” Kiz put in. “I even saw Gui Sun Paan come back with his wife. He wants to speak with you when you get a chance.”

“Tell him to meet me before the meeting tonight. He’s experienced; he should be good in a fight,” Nico said.

“The question is where do we fight?” Thrakus spoke up. “We’re on a full defensive now.”

Nico sighed. “I debated sending out a rescue party after Macreed and the others, but…”

Xar shook his head sadly as they walked. “Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything we can do for them at the moment. If they’re dead, it’s too late. If they’re not, then I don’t know. I don’t imagine the AD have much use for them though. Either way, we’ll have to deal with them once the most immediate threat is dealt with. Varnus has got to be next on their list.”

“I hear NI Command wants to force a confrontation, finish this with one large battle,” Thrakus put in. “Is this the place? Would they do that here at Varnus?”

“We don’t know yet,” Xar answered. “However, we do have a plan that will soon go into effect, something to take the battle to the enemy. But right now it’s still top secret.”

“Yeah, well, plans like that usually are,” Thrakus said mock-seriously. “So why not just let us in on it like usual?”

Xar gave an apologetic smile to his old friend. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Kiz. I just don’t trust the walls in my own palace like I used to. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something to attend to. I need to meet someone, get a few questions answered.

“All right,” Nico nodded. “See you at the briefing this evening.”

Xar nodded, then turned at the next intersection and continued off in a different direction. Nico and Thrakus continued on alone.

“So what do you really think?” Thrakus said after they’d walked a few minutes in silence. “With all the conflicts, all the different opinions among the Jedi, do you think we’ll be able to pull together and fight the AD as a group?”

Nico sighed heavily, realizing he was feeling the tremendous weight of responsibility dragging on his shoulders now that he was here again. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “We’re still broken into several factions. There’s the core group – you, me, Xar, Alyx, Xoan, and the other old-timers. Then there’s the brash youngsters led by this ‘Nova’ character and the others who rose to rank quickly. And of course, those who refuse to fight anymore, like Rynn Mariel and Bren. I think it’s going to take a true test of fire to show if we can really work together. And fire has a way of proving whether a metal is really true or not. Unfortunately, I think that’s what it’s going to take to prove the NI true.”

After that, neither of them spoke again until they reached their destination.


Xar opened the door to his chambers and entered, then turned right into the study area. The room was quiet and comfortably lit by soft yellow glowlamps. The carpeting was plush and the various tables and bookcases held all sorts of artifacts from various worlds Xar had been to or dealt with. In the center of the room, behind his desk, was his wife, as he’d expected. His wife. It was still a new word for him, and he played it through his head again and again, enjoying the sound of it in his mind. Then she noticed him, looking up from the datapad she was studying.

“Something troubling you?” she asked, obviously picking up on his thoughts.

He half-smiled. She always knew when there was something on his mind. He just wished he could read her as easily as she read him. “I just keep thinking about what happened on Mies,” Xar admitted. “I keep wondering if the visions we saw were of what will be, or just of what might be.”

Zalaria frowned. “Xar. Is it time to be worrying about events past?”

“I can’t get it out of my mind,” he admitted.

She sighed and glanced down at the desk. “The depictions of the past were exactly as they unfolded, perfectly accurate. In fact, I believe that those of us who saw the past were, for that moment, physically present there, and any changes we made were changed accordingly in our world and our memories. Therefore, I have no reason to believe that the depictions of the future are not accurate as well.”

He watched her expression, trying to read more than the neutral feeling he sensed through their bond. She knew as well as he that the future was uncertain, always in motion if glimpsed through the Force. But this had been different. They had been physically there.

She held a faraway look in her eyes as he spoke up again. “I don’t like that idea very much,” he admitted. “You of all people know that the future is always in motion. Some of those visions were disturbing, even the ones I understood.” He paused. “I think I saw Mathis die, Zalaria. Will that really happen? Can I stop it?”

“Who knows?” she said simply. But through the bond, he felt doubt coming from her, almost shielded, but enough for him to recognize.

Xar shook his head, the image of his close friend still fresh in his mind, the desperation and terror that had been present on his face. “He looked older… More worn by battle. We were still fighting someone, or something.”

She took on a thoughtful expression, glancing at him with an uncertain look in her eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, then closed it and looked away.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Just… Nothing. Never mind,” she said.

He knew better than to pressure her when she’d made up her mind, so he continued with his own train of thought. “You know, seeing Mathis in that situation… It made me start to wonder… How long can we really hold out against the Altarin’Dakor? Even if we defeat Nimrod, what about the others?”

She paused for a moment. “We have two choices, Xar. The first is to run, and let the enemy gain a foothold into the rest of the galaxy. Once that happens, however, the galaxy’s chances of stopping them will be slim at best.”

“And the other choice?” he asked.

“We will have to eliminate the Shok’Thola one by one. And then hope that Altima, their true leader, does not decide to carry the fight to us himself.”

He shook his head slowly. That idea was far easier said than done. “Is Altima really that powerful?” he mused aloud.

Zalaria gave a grim smile. “You have no idea, Xar.”

“Then tell me about him,” he urged.

She shrugged. “Very well. You may want to take a seat.” He moved to the chair she proffered and sat, waiting for her to continue.

Altima means the one who is power, which of course you know.” Xar nodded; he’d been forced to learn the Altarin’Dakor by Kronos, during his own capture and imprisonment by the Warlord. Zalaria continued. “It is the term for our leader, rather than a specific name. As you know Xar, our first leader was a man named Sado. He was the one who came to us with his secret of Immortality, and tied our souls to the Entity.”

“The Entity?” Xar mused. “You’ve mentioned it before. What is it?”

“I know little more than that is a being from another universe,” she said, her words betraying no emotion. “It lives in symbiosis with us, giving an unlimited source of life and Force power from beyond this dimension, in exchange for our services. I know little more than that; we all obtained our power and Immortality from either Sado or the current Altima. One does not have to know about air and how lungs work in order to breathe,” she said, and Xar nodded, though he didn’t know if the analogy fit or not.

“But, back to Altima. During the Tribunal, what you in the galaxy called the ‘Great Schism’, Sado found another, more promising host for this power. His name was Elan Mossin, and he was the most powerful Force user ever to be discovered by the Jedi. Still young and untrained, he could not comprehend the force which Sado used to overtake his will, much less defend against it. He became the new Altima, the new leader of the Altarin’Dakor. Sado seemed to prefer this, and faded into a more supportive role. At first, during the first wars, Altima merely sat by and watched as we, the Shok’Thola, enacted our plans to conquer this galaxy. He supported us, and awarded the most faithful of us with incredible prizes. A few of the most distinguished soldiers became Shok’Thola themselves. Only a few times did he take a direct part in combat, with devastating results to our enemies.

“But, lately… He has changed, taken a more direct hand in things. He is giving orders. The Shok’Thola have become more divided, and perhaps this is the reason. However, I no longer am sure of Altima’s true motives. And that, I must admit, is a frightening concept.”

Xar nodded. “I agree. Is there any way you show me more about him? Don’t you have any records?”

“A few, perhaps, though they may not be onboard the Nexus. Altima has only ever entered battle a scant few times, and every time he completely annihilated every foe set against him. I will see what I can find.”

She sighed. “Ultimately, we cannot defeat the Altarin’Dakor unless we destroy both Altima and the source of his – and our – power: the Entity itself.” She leaned back in his chair, a note of finality in her voice. “And frankly, Xar, I do not see how we will be able to do that.”


* * *


Titan-class Battleship Ascendancy

Sigma System

1505 Hours


Kamren Thansil strode out of the hangar that serviced Black Rain Wing and started through the winding corridor leading toward the debriefing room. His surviving pilots would be waiting there, to hear how the battle was progressing and where they would be serving next. Meanwhile, the next Wing of fighters – whichever the Vox’Donn had designated – would take Black Rain’s place out in the battle.

Kamren kept the anger inside him from showing on his features. He had chosen to walk the distance to the debriefing room instead of taking the train system, so he would have more time to contemplate the situation. The loss of Vos Quinlan, his second in command, was troubling, but the fact that his killer had escaped vengeance was even more embarrassing. Every Altarin’Dakor burned with desire for vengeance against the Outlanders that had driven them from their rightful home millennia before. Now Vos’ death had added yet another name left to avenge. Kamren had to admit, this Maarek Stele Outlander was quite a pilot. He hadn’t fought such a worthy opponent in quite some time. The next time we meet in battle, only one of us shall emerge alive, he swore to himself.

Just then, at the worst possible moment Kamren could have imagined, Naguis’Voxavit Xun Fiar, Commander of Eclipse Wing, emerged in the corridor ahead and spotted Kamren. As the Qwi’pthi pilot approached him, Kamren wondered if Nimrod’s favor had turned against him this day. If so, it wouldn’t surprise him very much.

Xun Fiar wasted no time in approaching him, a conceited smirk plastered across his blue alien face. Kamren tried to keep walking straight past, but Fiar deliberately moved to block his way.

“You earned much dishonor today, Voxavit,” Fiar taunted, the feathers behind his head twitching. “You lost your second, and you yourself were almost bested. By an Outlander.”

Vos Quinlan died honorably,” Kamren retorted.

“And what of you? Your enemy lives, and yet so do you. What excuse do you offer for yourself?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Kamren said, then shouldered his way past the Qwi’pthi.

“As well it should be for a failure such as you,” Fiar said to his back. “I told you that even you couldn’t escape the consequences of failure. Now you have disgraced yourself, the fleet, and the name of the great Nimrod.”

Kamren spun around angrily at that. “Your insults go too far. I will challenge you at the conclusion of this engagement.”

“And I will refuse,” Fiar said, smirk growing ever wider. “I have no business with a warrior who has lost his honor. I have no obligation to face you.”

Kamren narrowed his eyes. “Talk all you want. Your time is almost up.”

At that, he turned and stalked back down the corridor, ignoring the sound of Fiar snickering behind him.

Continuing through the ship, Kamren went through a series of turns and sub-entrances. Pilots from other Wings and officers of a myriad of species passed by him in the crowded corridors. Finally, after about a kilometer’s total walking distance, he arrived at his destination.

The first thing he noticed as he entered the debriefing room was the presence of the ship’s Commodore, Naguis’Vox’Donn Evan Reinald. Immediately, he bowed in the presence of his superior.

“At ease,” Evan Reinald told him. “Admirable flying today, as always.”

Vox’Donn, about that…” Kamren began.

“It is of no importance,” Reinald waved him off. “Your Wing performed above the standard in any previous engagement with this ‘New Imperium’. I called you here for another purpose.”

Kamren stepped forward near the center of the room. The members of his Wing and others were seated in a circle around the central platform. Several of the task forces’ advisors and senior officers were present, as well.

“How is the battle proceeding, Vox’Donn?” he asked the Commodore.

Reinald glanced at the hologram floating above them, switching between several viewpoints of both the space and land engagements. “We have won this battle today,” the Vox’Donn said. “Our enemy just does not realize this… yet.”

“However,” he continued, “that is a problem we will rectify now. Our ground assault forces have arrived at the proper landing coordinates and are in the process of securing the main enemy base locations on the planet. And in addition to that, we are about to show the enemy why they have absolutely no hope of willing this conflict. From here you will see the conclusion of this battle and the scattering of the enemy’s fleet.”

“Yes, sir,” Kamren said, then went to take his place among the seated spectators. The holograms switched to an outside view of the ship, and Kamren felt a slight shudder in the deck plates beneath him as the massive Titan began to change positions. He watched the scene unfolding before him, and a few minutes later, he had to agree that the battle had been over before it even started.


Sector Admiral Gaius watched in trepidation as the more distant Titan, the Hegemony, began moving forward under full power, passing across the Independence’s prow and toward the edge of the engagement zone. Then it picked up speed, more quickly than any engines could have moved it, and within an eyeblink it was gone altogether, flashing across the sky like an arrow.

“The Hegemony has entered hyperspace, sir,” one of the bridge officers reported needlessly.

“Noted,” Fleet Admiral Vonture said, managing to avoid sarcasm in his tone. He turned to Gaius, looking askance. “What do you make of it, Admiral?”

“I find it hard to imagine they left because of some emergency,” Gaius said, sitting back down into the command chair behind him. He gave a heavy sigh. “Most likely they feel both Titan’s aren’t necessary to defeat us.”

Turning to another of the bridge officers, he asked, “What’s the status of the ground invasion?”

“Sir, enemy forces are breaking through the defenses at multiple locations,” the officer replied. “Veriqal is reporting a tremendous concentration of enemy forces pushing through, heading for the Sigman Imperial Grounds.”

“Any chance of our getting ships through their blockade line now?” Gaius asked.

“It could be possible, with only one Titan,” Vonture mused. “But we would have to send…”

“Sir, the Titan Ascendancy is moving!” another officer broke in. “Turning toward us and heading inbound at rapid speed!”

He needn’t have bothered. Gaius could see the massive ship beginning to loom closer right outside the forward viewports. Now the ship’s bow was facing them, instead of her starboard side, which had been pockmarked all over by hits from the Majestic-class cruisers. Even now as she moved, she released huge clouds of smoke out from that side. “All ships, concentrate firepower on the Ascendancy, Gaius ordered. “Whatever they have planned, we’ll make them pay dearly for it.”

Within moments, the Ascendancy had outpaced her escort ships and was moving in between the rest of the AD fleet and the NI starships at maximum velocity. As she did, the NI fleet gave her a tremendous pounding with missiles and turbolasers, although until the Titan moved into close range, the blasts were merely absorbed by its immense force field. Once it was close enough that the NI ships could fire through the shields, turbolaser fire began stitching across the Titan’s hull in various patterns, melting its shining armor into slag but doing little more than that for the moment.

The Majestic-class Cruisers, however, were another story. As the Ascendancy came barreling in, the cruisers fired another volley, their projectiles passing through the Titan’s shields and blasting more holes in the surface. Fire blossomed out of four large wounds, but they were not enough to slow the big ship down.

In response, the Titan opened up with all weapons at point-blank range. A couple of its turrets concentrated on the Majestic cruisers. A beam passed across the body of the Scimitar, severely hampering the shield before passing by. A second beam followed in its wake, finishing off the damage of the first beam by punching through the remaining shields and slicing through the ship like a knife. The long bow of the ship, actually the barrel for the massive rail cannon, was cut in half, both ends trailing fire and smoke in its wake. Gaius cursed at the crippling of one of their prized Majestic Cruisers, but that was just the beginning. To his dismay, the Conquest, hanging just to starboard of her crippled twin, took a double blast of fire from two more turrets, this time the beams passing through the shields near the ship’s aft. They cut through and into the main body of the ship, and Gaius turned away as the ship’s reactor went critical by the hit, sending the cruiser up in a massive fireball that spread a shockwave out all around it.

But the Ascendancy wasn’t finished there by a long shot. Its beam weapons poured fire into the NI ships, punching through shields and carving out large swaths of molten metal and penetrated hulls. The Vindicator suffered a deep cut to her port side, and flame from the ship’s internal engine housings began to seep out before the operators could finally shut the damaged areas down. One of the NI’s Victory-class Star Destroyers, the Ravager, was hit along the bridge superstructure, turning it into melted slag. The ship began to fall like a decapitated soldier.

But that was only the minor damage the Ascendancy dealt. The true danger, by moving into such close range, was revealed as huge reflective panels on either side moved aside to bring its deadly neutron cannons to bear. The huge, multi-barreled weapons spat out a near-continuous stream of tiny, blinding energy darts, like thousands of deadly needles. This kind of technology was still beyond the NI’s ability to hamper, and Gaius stomach clenched as he saw the tapes from Mizar replayed once again, only this time in real life. The streams poured out by the neutron cannons overcame shields in seconds, then cut their way through armor like it was nothing. By penetrating in thousands of tiny holes, the weapon ate its way through whole ships before they could do anything about it.

The ISD Resolute was the first to be hit, falling victim to a full barrage by a double-neutron cannon at point-blank range. Its shields flared and fell, then the energy darts ate through the hull of the ship and cut out the solar-ionization reactor inside. The ship’s reactor went off in a chain reaction that blew the ship apart, for a moment far outshining the distance green sun of Sigma. The explosion sent out a shockwave that wiped out any fighters around it and scorched other capital ships nearby. The Titan itself wasn’t spared, as the wave and ensuing fireball washed over it, wiping out all the weapons and projecting emplacements in that area and turning a large section of its shiny surface an ugly black.

But the Resolute wasn’t the only victim. Frigates and cruisers were chewed up into nothing before them. The ISD Wrath took a stream of darts to the rear, which cut through the ship’s engines and threatened to overload its reactor as well. The engine arrays flared out as the ship went into emergency shutdown, then countless escape pods blasted out of it as the cannons continued to take it apart. The Wrath wouldn’t be making any escape today.

Even the Independence wasn’t spared, as an emplacement turned its sights toward her and sent out a long stream of particles. The Super Star Destroyer’s shields flared and the bridge shook beneath Gaius’ feet, then a few of the blasts penetrated the shields and sprayed across the tough armor on the ship’s forward-port side. Armor flaked off and floated away from the ship, followed by the all-too familiar sight of flame and atmosphere venting out of the ship’s deck. The barrel traced a long arc toward the front of the ship, ending at the bow, where about twenty meters of the ship’s prow were disintegrated by the cannon’s fury.

Then another fusion blast took the Independence amidships, punching through the shield there and hitting the ship high up in the city-like expanse stretching out from the bridge. Though the blast died out a second later, it still sent off a huge detonation forward of the bridge, enough to throw several officers out of their station chairs. Several monitors in the pits below him burst out, overloaded.

“Sir, we’ve lost nearly all forward shielding,” someone cried out. “If we take another hit we’ll be totally defenseless, including the bridge.”

Gaius swore loudly, straightening himself in his seat. It’s over, he thought. He knew that the Independence was defenseless, and a repeat of the near-disaster at Mizar could be just moments away. And without the Independence the rest of the fleet couldn’t hope to match even the Ascendancy, much less the remaining support ships. If he kept fighting, they would be wiped out. Yet by leaving, he would be abandoning the countless NI citizens on Sigma to an uncertain fate.


Gaius looked up at the sound of the voice, and saw Fleet Admiral Vonture at his arm, looking down at him, sympathy for his position clear in his gaze.

“Sir, we have to retreat. Even if we stay, we can’t save Sigma. Not without more reinforcements.”

Gaius stared out the viewports, where the enemy Titan continued to rain fire out on the battered NI fleet. He finally nodded slowly. “Sound the retreat,” he said, though it broke his heart.

First Moro, now Sigma, he thought gravely. He watched in silence as the Independence turned, the other NI ships following suit, and pointing toward the coordinates to take them back to Varnus. But even as they left, he swore to himself that he would return one day, and repay the Sigmans for his loss here today. Never mind that the NI force hadn’t been large enough. This was his failure, one that he would rectify, even if it took the rest of his life.


“That’s it,” Maarek said, hearing the order to retreat coming over his commlink. “Let’s fall back. Protect the cap ships and any remaining rescue craft until we jump.”

He turned his fighter to put words to actions. Just then Bast’s voice came over the squadron frequency.

“Heads up, Lead. There goes Five.”

Glancing at his screens to see what the man was talking about, he watched in dismay as Kikitik’s fighter broke formation and started heading back towards the planet below.

“Where he going?” Gren Pabos’ voice came in. “Back to Sigma? That’s suicide!”

“Cut the chatter,” Maarek snapped, then tried to steel his nerves. “Continue escort. I’ll go get him.”

“Careful, lead,” Tanya Vinikoro replied, despite his order to be quiet. “Want some company?”

Maarek shook his head in his helmet. “I’m fine. Go on.”

With that he cut away sharply and gunned the throttle straight for Sigma Prime – and straight for the remaining Altarin’Dakor forces. Kikitik’s fighter was just ahead, its twin ion engines glowing softly in the night.

Maarek set for a tight-beam transmission that only his officer could hear. Kikitik?”

“My people!” an anguished cry filled his ears, and for a moment Maarek felt the same sorrow that the Sigman must be experiencing at abandoning his home to complete destruction.

Kikitik, we have to go,” he forced himself to say. “There’s nothing more we can…”

“I must help my people! If I die, I die with them!”

The Sigman’s usually jocular attitude was completely gone, now, and Maarek couldn’t describe the sadness seeping into his own heart as well. There were millions, if not billions, of Sigmans down there. Of course Kikitik wanted to save his race. The thought of abandoning everyone and every place you knew and loved was… Well, it reminded him of Kuan, only this was worse.

Finally, having shunted all power from weapons and shields to engines, Maarek caught up to the other’s Avatar, and he pulled along its port side. He glanced right, but couldn’t see through the fighter’s darkened cockpit window.

“Lead, you’ve got incoming,” Bast’s voice warned.

Maarek looked ahead, where the green sphere of Sigma Prime was growing ever larger, and his eyes widened as sunlight glinted off dozens of shapes lying between them and the planet. His screens showed the remaining enemy cap ships – and they were almost in firing range. Furthermore, a squadron of AD fighters had seemed to take an interest in them. Not good.

“Five, this is Lead,” he said, forcing authority into his voice. He made himself think rationally, more scientifically. The world was lost, and there was nothing they could do about it. Kikitik was a soldier, and he didn’t have the right to take NI property to his death. And like it or not, the insectile Sigmans could reproduce and reform their society, though it would take decades, if not centuries.

“Turn back, pilot,” he said sternly towards the ship at his side. “That’s an order.”

His words were met by silence. The enemy ships were getting close, now. It was do or die.

“I am your commanding officer and I am ordering you to turn back,” he said, mustering all the strength he could into his voice. “You are a pilot in the New Imperial Navy and you will obey orders, or I will shoot you down myself.” His stomach churned; could he really fire on Kikitik?

Then suddenly his commlink came to life. “This… This is Five. I am turning back.”

Immediately Kikitik’s TIE Avatar banked sharply to the right and curved back on a heading towards the fleet. Maarek matched his maneuver exactly, watching his rear screens.

“Good choice, Five,” he breathed, releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I didn’t want to shoot you.”

A pause, then a guilty-sounding voice came back. “I’m… I’m sorry, Lead.”

“Don’t bother. Let’s just get out of here,” he replied. “Lock in coordinates with the Independence. We’re jumping out with her.”

And not a moment too soon; those AD fighters were almost within range. If they’d waited a few more seconds, they wouldn’t have made it…

The stars stretched into starlines, and they left the Sigma System behind.


* * *


Imperial Palace

Sigma Prime

1545 Hours


Even as the NI Fleet was making its emergency jump to hyperspace, the Sigman army was making its last-ditch effort to hold off the Altarin’Dakor ground force attack at the Sigman Imperial Palace. The verdant green jungle, with its high canopy and city structures that blended in perfectly with their environment, were now and forever changed as raging fires produced smoke clouds that filled the sky. AD ground craft, consisting mostly of giant hovering battle platforms, crashed through the jungle with no regard for the destruction left in their wake. Trees were toppled by the dozens as the craft plowed toward the palace, their smaller fusion gun emplacements cutting through Sigman defense bunkers, cutting down whole swaths of trees, and leaving huge forest fires in their aftermath.

The Imperial Palace, the largest and tallest structure on the planet, was a large pyramidal building in the center of the jungle. Already smoking from attacks by AD fighters, the defenders inside continued to fight although they knew they had no chance of survival. Gun turrets turned down to open up on the AD battle barges emerging from the jungle, bouncing turbolaser blasts off force fields. Some got through and sent the battle platforms crashing down, but they weren’t enough to make a difference. The barges’ beams finally took the turrets down, and as they reached the gates the barges opened up, releasing hundreds of Altarin’Dakor shocktroopers clad in their large, enclosing armor and bug-eyed helmets.

Sigman soldiers and officers from the NI Stormtrooper garrison shot at them from behind walls and bunkers, and under their concentrated fire many AD soldiers fell. But taken alone, a blaster shot was little more effective against shocktrooper armor than thrown pebbles. The AD soldiers rushed forward, screaming war cries with all their might, giving little bother to the defenders putting them down by dozens. They knew they had the numerical advantage, and they had waited far too long for action on the ground like this. With their beam guns that could sweep through dozens in a single pass, and rail guns that could punch through any bunker shielding and armor, it was only a matter of time before the sheer strength and numbers of the AD were victorious.

Within moments they had overcome the outer defenders and gained access inside the palace. From his perch high up in the royal balconies, Ambassador Kaviq watched the first teams of shocktroopers enter the main gates. He knew that there was still much fighting ahead, with many hidden areas and defendable positions inside, but it would only delay the inevitable. For once, his famous sense of Sigman humor wasn’t present. Instead, he waited calmly for the enemy to penetrate the royal levels and capture or kill him.

We stopped Xantak’s rebellion just to lose Homeworld anyway, he thought, shaking his head in despair and frustration at the futility of it all. Why did it have to be them? Why had the enemy come back here, at this time? His only solace was that Emperor Virzixl had escaped alive. Someday, if the NI ever turned the tide, perhaps he could return to Sigma and rebuild their great civilization.

Unfortunately he, Ambassador Kaviq, would never know if that day had come.


* * *


Royal Palace

Vectur, Planet Varnus

1945 Hours


Nico Flygras stood in the hallway outside the Jedi meeting chamber, engaging each of the assembled Jedi in a few moments of private discussion before the meeting began. Despite his best intentions, the Jedi had still split into factions before entering, with Nova’s group on one side, Nico and Xar’s on the other, and the ones that some called “pacifists” in between.

Nico stood in a group with Xar, Zalaria, Thrakus, Jinx, and a few others. Grand Master Alyx Misnera, who would have been here with them, was away somewhere, planning, he hoped, a rescue mission for Macreed and the others, and a plan to turn the tide of this war.

“Just a few more minutes,” Jinx said, checking his wrist chrono.

“Where’s Xoan? We could use his support about now,” Nico mused aloud.

Xar turned from whispering with Zalaria to answer his question. “Atridd’s been down at Medlab for the past two days. Getting his arm fixed, I think.”

“How long does it take? We’re already short-handed as it is.”

“I’m sure he has his reasons for it,” Jinx offered.

“I thought Paan was coming here, too,” Thrakus mentioned.

“Right, I told him to… Wait, here he comes now.” Nico gave a nod as another group of Jedi were approaching their side of the hallway, bolstering his spirits for a moment. Paladins Draken Ar’Kell and Neres Warjan, Crusaders Vykk Olyronn and Sturm Brightblade, and Adepts Ralagos Akala and Gui Sun Paan were walking up the hallway toward them.

“Glad you could make it,” he told the Jedi before him, giving a slight bow of respect. He glanced toward Paan. “I heard you were looking for me.”

“Good to see you again, Master Nico,” Paan said respectfully. I just got back with Oriana and the twins yesterday.”

“We need all the help we can get,” Nico said. They had called in every Jedi, from all the worlds in the New Imperium, including the Houses’ bases and any fleets they were serving in. They needed every one they could get.

Nico smiled as the huge Togarian, Ralagos Akala, walked past and enveloped Xar in a huge hug. It’s been a long time since we were all together like this, he realized.

“Actually, I wanted to ask a favor of you, if you have time,” Paan continued to Nico. “I wanted to show you my twins. You know the Force runs strongly with them. I’d like to get them tested, see how their power rates on our scale.”

“You know it’ll only give an inherent reading?” Nico reminded him. “The actual level will increase with age and practice.”

“Right, I just meant the base level,” Paan nodded.

Nico nodded. “Of course. I’ve been hoping to see them. They are part of the new generation, after all. The ones we’re defending our homes for. If I have time, I’ll take them to be tested. Otherwise, I’m sure Kiz will take care of them.”

“My daughter Seydinl got the highest base reading to date,” Thrakus said proudly, obviously enjoying a little chiding at Paan. “Don’t get your hopes up too high for stealing that record.”

“We’ll see,” Paan shot back.

Just then, Xar cleared his throat as the doors to the meeting room began to open. “Gentlemen, I hate to interrupt, but I think it’s about time we started.”

Nico looked toward the entrance and sighed, then nodded resolutely. “Let’s get this over with.”


* * *


Atridd Xoan sat in Medlab across from Doctor Hal Vannik. Xoan had laid his newly reconstructed arm across the table between them, though he still couldn’t feel it below the elbow. Vannik had attached a new layer of skin over the arm a couple of days before, then waited to make sure its synthetic flesh would retain its shape and color. Then he’d begun the painstaking process of activating all the nerves in the arm so that he could feel just as well as he could with a real arm and hand. Each time Vannik made a connection, the new sensation in his arm would bring near excruciating pain. Xoan had eschewed using painkillers, instead relying on the Force. Now there was the last half left to fully connect. The worst half.

He stared up at the dark-skinned doctor looking askance at him. “Let’s get it over with,” he said. “The sooner I can get out of here, the better.”

“What made you change your mind about all the enhancements?” Vannik asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Other than being able to look like I have a real arm?” Xoan said, barking out a laugh. “Well, there’s another reason. I believe I’ve reached a stage in my development that all the gadgets and improvements would still be more of a hindrance in the end. This one will be stronger and more structurally sound, which will help it match up to my good arm.” He hoisted his left arm, which was still flesh and blood. “Even a bionic limb can’t match the power that the Force can give.”

“I suppose so,” the man said uncertainly. “Shall we finish this?”

Nodding, Xoan closed his eyes, bracing himself for the rush of sensation – and pain. “Do it.”

As Vannik finished connecting the last set of nerves in his clone arm, Xoan let his mind drift, absorbing the information his brain registered as new feeling in his hand and fingers, bringing brief but intense pain, and using that fuel to focus his mind for the trials and battles ahead.


* * *


Conference Room

Titan-class Battleship Nexus

Varnus System

2120 Hours Local Time


“Gentleman,” Fleet Admiral Jann Percy was saying to the planning committee gathered in the Nexus’ briefing room, “I have just returned from a Holo-conference with Sector Admiral Gaius. It is my regret to inform you that Sigma has fallen to the Altarin’Dakor.” He paused to allow murmurs and expressions of frustration and anger passing among the room’s occupants before continuing. “The First Fleet is returning here for repair and refit.”

“Then Varnus is completely cut off, now,” Walt Amason stated. “Nimrod has been herding refugees here on purpose. It’s the only thing that makes sense. He’s going to take it down next, and then he’s on the doorstep of Tralar as well.”

“Then that settles it,” Field Marshall Kaler broke in. “We’ve got to enact Operation Spear now.”

“Agreed,” CEO K’bail put in. There was a series of murmured assents from the other officers gathered at the table, as well.

“Very well,” Percy said. I will inform the Diktat and War Coordinator Dogar immediately. Though it’s risky, there’s no other choice. Upon Sector Admiral Gaius’ return to the system and his approval, we’ll do it. If it works, then Varnus will be the site of the next major battle with the enemy, the one that will make or break this war. And may posterity forgive us if we’re wrong.”


* * *


SSD Independence


1920 Ship’s Time


“…and so we commit their bodies to the void, but their sacrifices will live on in us…”

Maarek watched stoically as the cluster of small pods, each representing an officer or pilot that had lost their lives at Sigma, was slowly drawn forward by the hangar’s tractor beams and lowered down into the gaping hole in the center. The swirling vortex of hyperspace was visible beneath.

Of course, almost none of the pods held the actual remains of the dead. Petur’s definitely didn’t, he knew. Instead, he’d places a few small items into the pod, some of the boy’s personal items and trinkets he’d collected.

He allowed himself a few minutes, just this one time, to consider Petur, and how he’d lived. As a squadron commander, he knew that losing pilots was part of his job, part of his life. It had happened countless times, and Maarek knew how dangerous it was to get too personally attached to any of them, even though he had hand-picked and trained the unit himself. Still, few had died as young and full of potential as Petur Kien had…

No. He couldn’t let himself dwell on it, or he would be defeated. Despair would mark you as a dead man before you ever entered combat. Petur had been a bright, shining star, and he had lived well. He had died well, too.

You’ll be missed, he thought, allowing himself that much, as the cluster of pods slipped out of the hangar and vanished into the infinite chaos of hyperspace below them. Around Maarek, the rest of Inferno had gathered, each paying their respects to one of their own. And throughout this and every other hangar onboard, officers were lined up, seeing their fallen comrades off on their final journey.

Then Maarek turned away, automatically switching gears inside, turning off the mourning and becoming the professional pilot once more. At least, that’s what he told himself he was doing. Somehow, the heaviness in his heart was still there, refusing stubbornly to go away. Now he had to go back to his office and write the boy’s last, final report. He had to tell Petur’s family on Varnus that their son had died in combat. How would they take it? Would it help that he was one of untold thousands of others that had died that day? They would have known Petur a lot better than Maarek did. The heaviness in their hearts would surely be stronger, and last much longer.

As Maarek walked towards the nearest turbolift, he was surprised to feel the sudden wetness that appeared around his eyes.

Where was the sense of it all?


* * *


MC-120 Darkstar

Degrabo System

Galbagos Quadrant B

1450 Hours Ship’s Time


The massive Mon Calamari cruiser Darkstar, the largest of its kind ever built, sat facing the yellow main-sequence star of Degrabo. At her back was two-thirds of the New Imperium’s Second Fleet, stretched out behind over a distance of many kilometers. Its commanders had moved forward cautiously over the past week, always sending out scouts to avoid any potential ambushes ahead. But this time no scouts had come back, and the fleet was waiting.

Their wait was finally ended as a lone scout came out of hyperspace, severely damaged but intact, and headed straight for the Darkstar’s main hangar bay.

Sector Admiral Stan listened to the surviving scout’s report first thing when he came in. Then he immediately called a meeting of the Second Fleet’s commanding officers, led by none other than the War Coordinator himself. Within moments everyone was assembled.

“It’s worse than we thought, sir,” Stan told Dogar as he walked up. “Gatican and Taskar are gone.”

Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar, head of the New Imperium military, held an all too knowing look in his tired eyes. “Then we’re too late,” he sighed.

Fleet Admirals S’cill Shokfer – commander of Task Force Serpent, and Tam Eulicid – head of Task Force Darkstar and commodore of the ship proper, were on the bridge as well, and the latter spoke up quickly. “Can you apprise us of the situation, sir?”

Stan turned to the other two officers. “Certainly. According to our scout – the only surviving one, I might add – the systems were already under enemy control when the scouts arrived. Most didn’t even have time to flee, and this one made it back only because he had made a slight jump miscalculation and appeared further away from the enemy. As you can see, even then he barely made it back. And here’s the bad news.”

“You mean that wasn’t bad news?” Eulicid said in frustration.

“Not all. The scouts said there were multiple Titan-class battleships involved at Taskar and Gatican.”

The news hit them all as hard as he’d expected. Several let out a string of low curses, while Dogar simply shook his head in denial. He’d kept his voice low, so the rest of the crew on the bridge couldn’t hear. He didn’t want to start a panic, yet. The ‘western’ front of the NI was the least populated, with only a few inhabited worlds, and its resources were spread much thinner than in key quadrants like Ariel and Varnus. Then again, they’d assumed that Matacious and Enion Quadrants were also the safest, far from Mizar and the assumed Altarin’Dakor front, and will little history of conflict except for some nagging pirate clans. But this news made it clear that the AD held territory on both sides of the Galbagos nebula, and were in a position to strike the NI from two directions at once. And it also meant they had far more ships than even Stan had hoped.

“How can they have so many?” Shokfer hissed in disbelief. “How many does Nimrod have altogether?”

Stan shook his head; there was no answer to the question. He glanced at Dogar. “I hate to say this sir, but I believe Matacious Quadrant is lost. The Altarin’Dakor got here a long time ago. My guess is that they’ve been here since we lost contact with our systems over a month ago, long before they began attacking in Varnus Quadrant.”

Dogar narrowed his eyes and turned toward the Holoscreen nearby. “What do you think, Caramon?”

On the screen was the face of Fleet Admiral Caramon Majere, commander of Task Force Ravenspyre, who was currently busy fortifying key systems in Naroon Quadrant, including Rilke, Lorn, and Vol. His middle-aged face held lines of tension that extended up under the dark eye patch over one eye, and scar tissue took away one spot of his gray-haired head. His remaining good eye, however, held a spark of intelligence that hinted at his long military experience.

“Sanders is right,” Majere said, his voice carrying over the speakers. “At first I thought it was pirates, but when I sent forces to investigate, they never returned.”

Eulicid shook his head in consternation. “That means we’re being hit from two sides at once.”

“Exactly,” Majere said, narrowing his eye.

“They are going to crush us like a vice,” Shokfer added, his long Bothan eyebrows drooping down along with his tufted ears.

“Not if we can help it,” Stan countered. He looked at the War Coordinator. “We need to get moving, and fast. If we can’t help the systems in Matacious Quadrant, we at least have to face them somewhere, or Degrabo and Genotia will be next.

“And then they’ll be right into the heart of the New Imperium,” Eulicid warned.

Dogar took a moment and walked over to the huge Holographic map display of the New Imperium Territories and their current order of battle. The Second Fleet consisted of eighteen Star Destroyers of Imperator-class or above, not to mention a large number of smaller capital ships and support craft. Now, roughly half that might – Task Forces Serpent and Darkstar, to be exact – had traveled into the ‘western’ front, under the direct command of Dogar and Sanders. Was Dogar having doubts about his command ability again? Stan thrust the thoughts out of his mind – he had to trust his commander and friend, now more than ever.

“Patch me through to the Diktat’s Office on Tralaria,” Dogar ordered, raising his voice so the nearby Comm officer could hear. “I need to inform him of the situation.”

“Yes, sir,” the officer replied. He paused a moment, then looked up at the War Coordinator. “Connection established.”

Diktat Gene Rytor’s face appeared on the screen, though the man was in his casual clothes, blinking away sleep, and Stan realized it must be in the middle of the night on Tralaria.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, Diktat, but we have news,” Dogar reported. He briefly and concisely brought the Diktat up to date on what they’d learned, in a low enough voice that the rest of the bridge couldn’t hear. Stan watched over his shoulder as the Diktat took in the news in shock.

“I can’t believe this,” Rytor exclaimed. “Nimrod must truly be turning all his attention onto us. But I have no idea why. What are you going to do, Dogar?”

“It’s unlikely we’ll make it into Enion Quadrant in time to stop an enemy attack there,” Dogar said softly. “And if we go there and they pass us by, we’ll have left the heart of the New Imperium open to a direct attack. We’ll make our stand here, in Galbagos B and Naroon Quadrants.”

“We’re going to abandon Enion Quadrant to the enemy?” Rytor asked sharply.

“We have no choice, sir,” Dogar said with finality. “Enion is lost already. I need you to order the evacuation of Degrabo and Genotia immediately. We’ll travel to Rilke, rendezvous with Majere there, and try to lure the AD there to a confrontation. Majere?”

“Understood,” the man on the other Holoscreen said. “We’ll be ready.” The man hit a button off-screen, and the display winked out.

“I’m sorry about this, sir,” Dogar said apologetically as he looked toward the Diktat. “I promise you we’ll do our best.”

“I know you will, Dogar. I’ll order the evacuations. Keep me informed.” At that, the Diktat ended the connection.

Dogar turned back to Stan, and for a moment he shared a knowing, weary look with his longtime commanding officer and friend. Then suddenly the Comm officer interrupted them again.

“Sir, you have a priority transmission coming from Fleet Admiral Percy in the Varnus System.”

“Very well, onscreen.”

Stan and the others turned as Percy’s image appeared on the main viewscreen. The Head of NI Logistics looked as though he hadn’t slept in a while.

“Admiral,” Percy said, then noticing the rest of them, took them in with a nod. “I have grave news. We’ve lost Sigma.”

A cry of dismay echoed throughout the bridge, and for an instant Stan wished Dogar had taken the call privately. But it was better, he reflected, to let the men know sooner, and let them deal with it now.

Onscreen, Percy continued. “Gaius is on his way back with the First Fleet, although they’ve reportedly taken heavy losses. Sir, I’ve conferred with the other commanding officers, and we’d like to ask permission to launch Operation Spear now.”

“You’ve no real need to ask me, Jann,” Dogar said, staring up at the man on the screen. “I value your judgments as if I made them myself. Better actually,” he said, though at the end his voice dropped below the hearing of most of the bridge crew.

“How are things on your end?” Percy asked.

“Not very favorable, my friend,” Dogar said. “I’ll send out an official report to the rest of the War Cabinet shortly.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Percy replied. “Don’t worry, sir. I’m sure Spear will turn the tide of this war.”

Dogar looked up at the man and for once didn’t try to hide his tone of voice. “Let us hope Spear does its job, Percy, or we all better start packing our bags for the Core. May the Force be with you. Dogar out.”


* * *




Holding Cells

Titan-class Battleship Desolation

Pax System, Time Unknown


Paladin Roger Macreed sat in the dark. His two companions, Jedi Knight Brajo and Crusader NiksaVel, were nearby, though he couldn’t see them with his eyes. He could feel them in a sense, but not through the Force. That had been taken from them, somehow. NiksaVel was in bad shape. The Altarin’Dakor had thrown his body into the cell along with Macreed and Brajo, not even caring enough to treat his horrible wound. NiksaVel had lain there the whole time, Roger and Brajo taking turns treating the cauterized spot where his arm had been using their limited first aid packets, which had been left to them. They were both getting tired by now, without food or water and he didn’t know how much longer they could keep it up – or how much longer NiksaVel would last.

There had been no more word from their captors, either Jedicon or regular AD soldiers. They’d been given nothing. Roger didn’t know if this was meant to break them or kill them, but he was determined to resist as long as he could. They’d discussed several possible escape plans, provided there weren’t Jedicon guards just outside the door. For some reason, Roger couldn’t sense the Force at all inside the cell, and neither could the other two men. He’d never felt anything like it, but he’d heard that creatures called Ysalimiri could cause the effect. At any rate, none of their plans had proved feasible. They knew it would simply be impossible to carry NiksaVel while fighting their way out.

“How long do you think it’s been?” Brajo spoke up, breaking Roger’s thoughts.

“I don’t know. Feels like days, but I’d say maybe only a couple, if that.”

Nik doesn’t sound too well,” the man said, worry clear in his voice. “We’ve got to do something soon.”

Then they both went quiet, as NiksaVel’s breathing dropped down to a frighteningly shallow sound. There was a scuffle of motion as Brajo moved toward him, and Roger moved closer as well, memory telling him where the other men were.

“He’s going into shock again,” Brajo said, his voice frantic. “I can’t stop it this time.”

“You won’t have to worry about me. It’s… too late,” Nik managed, his voice barely more than a whisper. “Let me go. I’ll become one with the Force…”

Nik…” Roger breathed. He blinked away tears, felt wet drops running down his cheeks. “Hang in there, my old friend. We’ll find a way out of this.”

“Doesn’t… matter… about me,” the Twi’lek said. Roger reached out and grabbed his friend’s remaining hand, feeling the life fading fast from his fingers. “I only wish… I could have… made it… to see…”

He never finished the sentence. With a rush of sadness he hadn’t known in years, Roger felt the last ebb of life fade away from the Jedi’s hand, followed by a long exhale as the breath left his lungs. Roger gripped his friend’s hand tightly, but as the moments passed, it grew cooler and less real in his hand. Roger let go and clenched his fingers into a fist, the feeling of the man’s lost warmth still fresh in his memory.

“Goodbye my friend,” Roger whispered, then let the tears flow.


* * *


Senate Complex

Tralaria, NI Capital

2330 Hours


Ken Brucmack hunched over the Holonet console in the office section of the Senate Complex, not wanting to risk a transmission being traced back to his own personal terminal. The rest of the room was dark and empty around him, the other monitors all switched off for the night; only his access card as Secretary to the Diktat had allowed him in here.

Secretary to a traitor, he thought incredulously as he hurriedly typed his message out, a message exposing the horrible truth he’d learned. But who could he trust with this information? If the Diktat himself couldn’t be trusted, who could he send it to? At the moment, there was only one name he could think of that he was absolutely sure wasn’t an Altarin’Dakor spy. As the man’s former secretary when he’d been Diktat, he knew the contact address by heart.

He quickly finished the letter, putting his personal signature at the end to make sure it was authentic. Then he paused, thinking a moment before adding on a personal note at the end. Not much time to be choosy with words – he didn’t know who might be watching him. A few moments later he hit the “send” command, and then the vital message was on its way to Xar Kerensky’s personal Holonet message receiver.

His work finished, he quickly erased all record of the transfer and shut the system down. As the screen winked out, he stood and started to make his way for the entrance…

And stopped as the bulk of a dark-clad man stood in the way.

Bruc instantly knew he’d been found out. It was just a question of whether he could talk or fight his way out of it or not. He glanced up at the man’s features, and froze. A plain but harsh-looking face, close-cropped hair, and eyes filled with a malicious hatred – for him. It was the mysterious visitor he’d seen leaving the Diktat’s office, the man he’d overheard talking to Rytor about the assassination attempt, and had hid from, later. Somehow, this man knew about him after all. Bruc reached for his sidearm, which he’d started carrying around lately…


Queklain watched the Diktat’s nosy little secretary back away from him and make for his blaster. With a snort of disgust, he stepped forward, catching the man’s wrist as it came up, and twisted it violently so the man lost his grip on the weapon. Brucmack cried out in pain, a cry that was muffled as Queklain placed a hand on his throat and drove him back across the room, slamming the side of his face into the wall. He held him there, pinned with one hand on the side of his head and the other gripping his shoulder like a vice. The human grunted in pain and put his hands on the Warlord’s wrists, but he might as well have tried to budge a durasteel beam than wrestle with a Shok’Thola.

“What were you doing in here?” Queklain whispered sharply. “Answer me if you want to live.”

The man’s face was contorted with pain, yet his voice held a firm resolve. “You’re gonna kill me anyway, you piece of Jedicon trash… So why don’t you just get it over with…”

Reacting in anger, Queklain picked up the frail human’s body like a doll, turned and slammed him down onto one of the office desks behind him. The man cried out as the flat display broke beneath him and objects scattered off the tabletop. Then Queklain leaned close and stared into the man’s face. “I am no Jedicon,” he said, distaste in his mouth at the word. “I am Queklain. Remember that name, in the Afterlife.”

Looking up, he saw a nearby window with an emergency exit sticker pasted on it. Lifting the man bodily and carrying him toward it, he used the Power to trip the switch and slide the window open, at the same time binding the man’s arms and legs to the side to stop his fitful struggling. Then he held the man in front of the opening and turned him around to face the night sky.

“The New Imperium… The galaxy… will never surrender to you,” the man whispered fiercely. “We will fight you… to our dying breath…”

“So have many others, my friend,” Queklain said sharply, this time using the Power to wedge the man’s mouth shut. It wouldn’t look like a suicide if he screamed on the way down. “And we’ve destroyed all the rest, just as you will be destroyed.”

Then he shoved the man through the opening, letting all but the mouth-gag go as he watched the flailing figure drop thirty stories and finally out of sight into the darkness below. Then, satisfied the man had hit the pavement, he turned away from the scene and headed back for his usual hiding place. Another minor annoyance out of the way – unless the man had gotten a message out to someone. But then, who would believe such accusations against the Diktat himself? And even if someone else came, he would deal with them just as he had this one.

After all, they were only human…


* * *


Meditation Chambers

Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

Mizar System

2200 Hours


Nimrod’s finest Jedicon, the Kodonn’Dakor, members of his personal guard, all stood before him. Though recently reduced by two, they were still a formidable force, each comprising the finest level of Force mastery desirable. Leading them were the Kodonn’Dakor Cindlin, Nilka, Kalaran, and Nobien. Tall and lithe, and covered with red tattoos dedicated to her master, blond-haired Cindlin stood with her usual arrogant and boastful demeanor. Next to her, the giant Korobite Nilka dwarfed the smaller Jedicon, its reptilian body rippling with finely-honed muscles. To Nilka’s other side was Kalaran, who had recently returned from scouting the defenses on Varnus. Dark-eyed, with hair as white as the winter snow, he was often the most silent of Nimrod’s warriors, yet none was more ruthless in battle. To his left stood Nobien, his deadly fists the only weapon he preferred to use in combat. His dark hair, known to flay wildly in battle, was calm at the moment, but the passion in his eyes was evident as he looked up upon his master.

Behind the four of them stood another dozen Kodonn’Dakor, all at the pinnacle of their skills, earning their position through a long road of struggle where every limit had been tested and fully mastered. Nimrod looked down on them, aware of every aspect of their abilities, every thought running through their minds. They were completely loyal. Unlike some, Nimrod did not allow the ambitions of his Jedicon to reach unattainable heights. None of them held illusions that they would supplant their leader one day. Perhaps, if they served long enough, then Nimrod would sponsor them to become Shok’Thola. But they could never match him.

For a long moment, the Jedicon looked upon the dark, terrifying form of their lord, his black armor gleaming in all its beauty, yet at the same time absorbing all light around it. They watched him with a combination of awe and respect, as it should be. The room was dark and silent, his meditation chamber seemingly empty. Yet such appearances were deceiving. The room was accessible only to its owner, with resources and services that only someone of Nimrod’s power could use and control. It was a Force artifact from an age long past, a powerful command chamber that gave him access to all the fleets and capitals across his vast multi-empire.

“You have done well, my servants,” he said finally, his voice booming, piercing the silence like thunder. They bowed in unison as a response, a humble acceptance of such high praise. Of course, no one who failed would even be present at such a gathering.

“We are now approaching the end of those who defeated Kronos,” he continued, his words shaking them to their core. “It will be a great symbolic victory for our forces, and the beginning of our final vengeance, returning that which is rightfully ours. We will destroy the traitors and the fledglings together in one stroke. However, do not allow your thirst for their blood to blind you against our ultimate goal.” He clenched a gloved fist to emphasize his point. “They are but the first step. With our imminent victory over these remnants, the rest of the galaxy shall be helpless before us, and our glorious Return will have been fulfilled as prophesied.”

The Jedicon bowed as one, their eyes trained on the floor before their master. Nimrod fixed his gaze on the four in front, the most audacious and accomplished of his warriors.

“Now, go to Varnus,” he addressed them, “and do what I have commanded you.”

Again as one, the Jedicon bowed, then with eyes still to the floor, they slowly backed out of the chamber. Nimrod waited until the last of them had gone, and the door closed solidly, plunging him into darkness. Then he turned to his command chamber and brought his chamber into life. The void of space surrounded him, and before him lay all his generals and admirals, and all of his forces at hand in this sector, merely awaiting his word.

“Proceed,” he said.


The End of

Shattered Visions


Copyright New Imperium 2002

By Joshua Ausley

a.k.a. Xar “Sauron” Kerensky


Next: Fading Glory


The Altarin’Dakor have swept through New Imperium space, decimating the fleet and consuming world after world in rapid succession. Realizing they are on the brink of extinction, the NI launches a daring assault to capture an AD Titan, and enacts a plan it hopes will outwit even the seemingly unstoppable Warlord Nimrod. But Nimrod has plans of his own, and the NI’s most valuable worlds – Tralaria, Erebria and Varnus – now hang in the deadly balance! As the war rushes toward its climax, the NI must turn the tide of battle or face total annihilation…