Conference Room

            Titan-class Battleship Nexus

            Varnus System, 0900 Hours


            Fleet Admiral Jann Percy looked around at his colleagues. “Gentlemen, we’re down to the wire here. Are we going to do this or not?”

     Assembled around the conference table were the members of the NI War Cabinet not currently occupied elsewhere: CEO ‘SilverfoxK’bail, Field Marshall Rodin Kaler, Fleet Admiral Arden Vonture, Admiral Aaron Melvar, and Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai. At the head of the table were Nexus Commodore Awel Kylar, Grand Master Xar Kerensky, and Zalaria. These days Kerensky seemed to identify more with the Altarin’Dakor present rather than the NI’s own command staff, Percy noted.

    He glanced at the other members gathered, wondering how much longer they were going to debate putting Operation Spear into action. War Coordinator Dogar had already given the go-ahead; all that was left had been making necessary preparations to the NI’s stock of World Devastators, the cloaking devices, and the Altarin’Dakor support craft. Now everything was ready, and Percy was getting a little impatient at waiting for CEO/Admiral Walt Amason, who was in charge of the project, to show up.

    Across the table from him, Field Marshal Kaler folded his hands over his belly and shook his head. “I still can’t say I’m comfortable with using all our Devastators in this way. It’s taken us a couple of years to spawn this many. Think of the production capacity they’re capable of. We need every factory we can get our hands on, now.”

     A few officers nodded their agreement. Percy knew it was true; with the loss of Moro and now Sigma, the two highest-production worlds in the entire New Imperium had fallen to the enemy. Without them, there weren’t likely to be any new capital ships added to the NI Order of Battle anytime soon. In short, they weren’t getting any stronger, and more ships were being lost in every engagement. Meanwhile, the AD fleet still seemed to be at near full strength according to Intelligence estimates.

     Sector Admiral Gaius still had a haunted look on his face. After losing Sigma, homeworld of the NI’s staunch Kaav’Klan allies and one of the most highly populated worlds in NI space, the commander of the First Fleet must be feeling a tremendous burden of responsibility on his shoulders. Percy felt sorry for him, and had no desire to vacate his spot as Logistics Officer and take the man’s place.

     His thoughts were brought back to the present as Fleet Admiral Arden Vonture spoke up. “We are stretching our resources thin, for sure. But if Operation Spear is successful then it will be more than worth the cost. CEO Amason has assured us that…”

     He was interrupted as the main doors to the conference room slid open and the man in question appeared. CEO/Admiral Walt Amason, only a couple of years Percy’s junior, strode into the room, looking crisp and ready.

     “Ah, just the man we hoped to see,” Kaler spoke up, motioning for the man to sit in the one empty seat remaining.

     Amason, instead, opted to stand, and quickly spoke up as he stopped beside the table. “My apologies for the delay, but there were some complications linking up the ships through the tow-cable systems. That issue has now been resolved.”

     “Good news,” Percy spoke up, looking up at the CEO. “So we’re ready to go?”

     “As ready as we’ll ever be.”

     “And have you found a suitable target for Operation Spear?” asked Admiral Aaron Melvar, seated near Percy at the end of the table opposite the AD delegates.

     Amason turned to look at him, then included everyone in a sweeping gaze. “We have found the perfect location and target for the strike,” he said. “However, for security reasons, I can’t reveal the location at this time. Suffice it to say it’s close enough, and we’ll find out within a couple of days whether or not this thing will work.”

     “Very good, Walt,” Xar Kerensky spoke up from the table’s head. “I think I speak for all of us when we say ‘may the Force be with you’.”

     “Thank you,” Amason nodded. “I…”

     He was interrupted as the doors swooshed open again, this time admitting a dark-haired, dark-robed individual who came purposefully right up to the conference table. Several sets of eyes widened as they saw him, and Percy was surprised as well. It was Alyx Misnera, the Jedi Division’s other Grand Master and the head of NI Special Operations. They hadn’t heard much from him since he’d lost several Jedi in the Pax System on a special mission. He had looked really torn up about it, and that had been before the attack on Sigma, so no one had been able to spare any ships for rescue. Percy wondered what the man wanted to say now.

     “Excuse me, everyone,” Misnera said as he came to a halt next to Amason. “I regret missing the full briefing, but I have been working on an operation I strongly believe we should consider running concurrently with Operation Spear.”

     That elicited several raised eyebrows, and Percy watched the man with growing surprise. Another mission, at this short notice? He might be Head of Operations, but this was quite irregular.

    “Please, allow me to speak before you render judgment,” Misnera said. He met the gaze of everyone in turn, lingering a moment longer on that of Master Xar Kerensky.

     “As you know,” he continued, “the key to stopping the advance of Nimrod, and to ensure our survival here on Varnus, is the elimination or neutralization of his Titan battleships. While Operation Spear is taking place, I want to propose a mission to take out another Titan, at the same time. Only this one we don’t destroy – we’re going to capture it and turn it against the enemy.”

     “That would be quite difficult,” the room’s only female occupant cut in. Percy glanced at Zalaria, feeling that somehow her words weighed more heavily in the air than anyone else who had spoken. He guessed everyone else felt the same way.

     “A Titan is very self-sufficient and has many redundant systems,” she continued. “Even if the bridge were taken – which is next to impossible considering the security – the ship’s command could simply be rerouted to another location.” She shook her head, much to Misnera’s obvious chagrin. “Much wiser to try capturing a cruiser or destroyer, not a Titan. These ships have hundreds if not thousands of generations in service. That does not simply occur by happenstance.”

       Nevertheless, Misnera was not to be dissuaded so easily. He held up a hand. "Please hear me out. I have a crack team of Jedi standing by and ready to go. This could be our only chance to eliminate two Titans at the same time," he said adamantly. "Imagine depleting Nimrod's fleet by not just one Titan, but two!"

   "How exactly do you propose infiltrating one of the Altarin'Dakor's most technologically advanced and heavily protected battleships?"  asked Vonture.

    Misnera turned to look at him, and Percy could see the determination and fervor in his eyes. “I have a plan that will get us in. All we have to do is to commandeer an enemy shuttle or corvette. Then we can convince them that we’re one of them.”

    Commodore Awel Kylar shook his head slowly. "The transponder codes would be nearly impossible to forge."

    "It wouldn't be as easy as when the Rebellion sneaked an Imperial shuttle onto Endor," Kerensky added.

    "Then perhaps if the ship came in damaged..." Misnera offered.

    Zalaria spoke up before he could finish. "If the proper codes were not transmitted, they would never let the ship onboard. Titan commanders, especially, are very distrustful. They are trained to be quite paranoid in regards to potential enemy tactics. They would blow your ship out of the sky."

    "Well there has to be some way," Misnera countered. "I believe this will work!"

    "What makes you so sure?" Kerensky asked, brow furrowed in a quizzical expression. "Something in the Force?"

    "There is... a glimmer of something yes," Misnera answered.

    Percy didn't know what the man might mean. Whenever the Force came into the conversation, or the Jedi started 'sensing' whatever it was they sensed, he naturally distanced himself emotionally. He wasn't interested in using any data that couldn't actually be substantiated. And right now, he had to have hard facts, some real chance of success, before he could warrant such a mission.

    "I think this idea has some merit," Walt Amason put in then, and all eyes turned to him. "Perhaps we could come up with some alternative ways to get you onboard..."

    "Like what?" Kerensky asked.

    "For instance..." Amason paused, obviously straining mentally to find a way. Percy figured if anyone could make something up, it would be Walt. If not for he and Donitz, Operation Spear would never have been conceived. Of course, it was still yet to be seen if it would succeed or fail.

    "What if we forget the shuttle idea?" Misnera offered. "Get a team in another way. Maybe we could hide away in something the AD would want to capture. "

    "That idea was dropped when we discussed sending in a Devastator, K'bail spoke up. "We said the AD would destroy something unknown before actually capturing it." A low growl emanated from his throat.

    "We could disguise you as a piece of flotsam, floating around," Amason said, though he didn't seem convinced himself as he glanced at the others around the table.

    "That's too dangerous," Kerensky said flatly.

    "Besides... What will you do once you're onboard?" Vonture spoke up then. "Assuming you make it in, that is."

    "We'll hide our presence in the Force," Misnera answered. "Or perhaps we won't even have to. There will be Jedicon everywhere, after all. Our team will break into two groups, one going for the bridge, the other for the engine room. That way we'll have control of both elements."

    "Alyx, I don't think this is the time," Kerensky cut in suddenly. All eyes turned toward Xar, who had a serious expression on his face. "Taking a Titan isn't like assaulting a Star Destroyer or something. Once they know something's amiss, they will come after you relentlessly. And don't forget, a Titan is much more compartmentalized. There will be ways to bypass you and take control of the ship again."

    "Nevertheless," Misnera countered, "I think we should still find a way..."

    "It's too much of a long shot," Kerensky interrupted him, his voice gaining a stern edge. "It's too dangerous to risk losing you and some of our best Jedi. You're the Grand Master."

    "Xar," Misnera shot back, "As many crazy missions you've sent us on that you've led personally..."

    "We have to defend Varnus!" Kerensky practically shouted at him. Percy winced, and the room suddenly felt much smaller, and a lot more dangerous. He definitely didn't want to find himself stuck in a shouting match between two Jedi Masters. Who knew how much control they had over their arcane powers, anyway?

     After staring intensely for another moment, Kerensky finally seemed to relax, and his voice took a softer edge. "Alyx, I know you feel responsible for the loss of Macreed, Narsh, and the team, and I know you want to rescue them... if they're still alive." He shook his head slowly. "But that's just it: we don't know if they're alive, much less what ship they may have been taken prisoner on. I can't justify sending more Jedi out on a mission with such a low chance of success."

    Misnera seemed ready to argue further, obviously convinced of his plan.

    "Please," Kerensky said, firmly.

    Amason, standing next to Misnera, moved closer and laid a hand on his arm. "We'll figure out a way to save your men," he offered. "Let's get Operation Spear out there and hit them hard for what they've done to us."

    Finally, Misnera nodded compliance.

    "Very well," Percy said, deciding the conversation had pretty much run its course. It was time to get things moving. "Walt, are you ready to leave?"

    "Ready and waiting," he replied.

    "Then let's do it. We'll adjourn for now and the rest of the command staff will meet again this evening to discuss the defense plans for Varnus."

    With that, everyone stood up, and Percy followed Amason as he headed towards the exit and the hangar deck.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Alyx was one of the last to exit the conference room. He gathered his datapad and notes, then strode out the door and made his way down the hall towards the turbolift. Mentally he was reviewing the conversation, and the sense of frustration was building inside of him.

     Xar's lost it, he realized. The man was focusing so much on building his power level and combating the Altarin'Dakor, he had completely lost his ability to sense the will of the Force and its flow. All he cared about now was protecting Varnus, so focused on the forest he couldn't see the trees. Alyx's plan was to help stop the AD before they even attacked the planet, but all Xar saw was wasted resources, not worth spending on a gamble, even one that might have a tremendous payoff. Not to mention abandoning Roger and the team. Alyx had lost men in combat before, but somehow this felt different. This time it has been a personal assignment, and they had close comrades. He couldn't help but feel an extra pang of losing them. But to Xar, their main value was in being Jedi, weapons necessary to the war effort. Alyx didn't want to think of them like that. Xar was becoming colder, and taking more control now that things were revolving around his own home world. Well, Alyx was a Varnusian, too. He loved his home, and he would do whatever was necessary to defend it.

     But Xar had pulled rank, making the final decision for him despite their both holding the title and position of Grand Master. If the man didn't trust him, why had he given Alyx his job in the first place?

     He rounded the corner, coming to the turbolift entrance... and there she was.

     Zalaria stood there in all her glory and dread beauty. Her olive skin, dark, almond-shaped eyes, and her locks of hair. And she was looking right at him as he ground to a halt in front of her, a chill creeping up his spine. He didn’t have to be afraid of her, he reminded himself.

     "Tell me," she said, staring straight into - or maybe through - him. "Are you serious about infiltrating one of my brother's Titans?"

     Alyx was immediately taken aback. It was the last thing he expected to hear from Xar's own wife. What should he say? He tried to recall why so many in the Division and the NI resented her and her forces. They had, after all, come in uninvited and were tromping around the palace – and the NI – as if they owned the place. And because of her, Xar wasn’t the same man he once knew. "Did I look like I was kidding?" he asked her testily.

     Her eyes narrowed. "I have... resources. Contacts within my brother's military."

     "Spies?" he asked. Was she seriously offering him...?

     "We all have agents in one another's territory," she explained with a condescending look. "I can get you onboard one of my brother's ships. My agents there will contact you and guide you through security and into the essential parts of the ship. The rest will be up to you. It doesn't guarantee success, but it does help. Are you interested?"

     He had been listening to her words with a growing sense of disbelief. Zalaria, herself an Altarin'Dakor Warlord, was actually offering him her assistance to infiltrate Nimrod's forces. But why was she doing it like this, in private instead of at the meeting? Why had she kept silent about it before?

     “Are you serious?” he asked in spite of himself. When she didn’t respond, he decided to pursue a different question. “Why… Why should I trust you to help me like this?”

     She gave a smirk then, and her expression showed that she didn’t really care whether he trusted her or not. “I am offering you a choice, plain and simple. If I have given you any reason to doubt my motives since I have been here, then go ahead and refuse if you like.”

     “But what about Xar?” he added, pushing further. The man had been adamantly against Alyx’s plan. There was no way she had his approval in this. “When he finds out…”

     “Leave that to me,” she said. “He is my husband. I will convince him.”

     He still didn’t know if he believed her. But… did it matter? Whatever her reasons were, could he refuse, now? This was the only chance he might have. Before he realized it, his lips were already moving. "Okay," he said, "I am interested." After all, she could make this job a whole lot easier.

     "Very well," she replied. "Assemble your team. I will contact you again soon."

     With that, she turned and stepped inside a turbolift door that was just opening. As the doors closed, Alyx was left alone, wondering just what this indicated between Xar and the NI Command and Zalaria's own, mysterious forces.

     But what else could he do?


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Hangar Bay 4-B

            Titan-class Battleship Nexus

            Varnus System, 0925 Hours


            Jann Percy stood in the Titan’s massive hangar bay and took stock of his friend in front of him. “Be careful out there, Walt,” he said.

     “I’ll be back before you know it,” Amason replied curtly, standing before the entrance ramp of the hundred-meter long Altarin’Dakor corvette resting on the deck behind him. “It should be a quick in and out, and if we’re lucky, the payoff is going to be more than worth the risk.”

     “Never been much of a gambling man,” Percy admitted, “but I’m with you on this one. If I was a Jedi, I suppose I might say ‘may the Force be with you’.”

     The other man just grinned. “I get enough of that from the Jedi in the Division. Anyway, I’m looking forward to doing something proactive in this war.”

    Percy understood well; they had been fighting a reactionary war for long enough. Unless they took the offensive, they wouldn’t have a chance. And this plan was audacious enough that it just might put a dent in the enemy’s seemingly unshakeable morale.

     “By the way,” he added, curious about one question still on his mind. “I know you didn’t want to say it in front of everyone – security and all – but where exactly are going on this mission?”

     It took less than a second of hesitation before the man answered. “I figure we’ve got to stay on top of the invasion. The Titans will be where the new systems fall. Yesterday we received a distress call from the Eridani System.”

     Percy nodded, mentally filling in the blanks that Walt didn’t say. Poor Eridanians. The system was only lightly defended, and everyone had been ordered to evacuate some time ago. If there were any left, he sure didn’t want to think about what they were going through. “Stick it to ‘em where it hurts,” he told Walt. “This one’s for all of us.”

     “I’ll see you on the other side of this,” Amason replied. Then, with that, he turned and started up the entrance ramp to the AD ship awaiting his command. Percy watched until he disappeared inside and the ramp retracted, then the ship slowly rose on its repulsorlifts and pulled clear of the Nexus’ main hangar bay.


                                    *                                  *                                  *



Varnusian Productions Presents:



            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1130 Hours


            Maarek Stele piloted his TIE Avatar into the hangar, his canopy reflecting the sharp contrast of light as he passed out of the bright sun into the tan stonework and marble interior of the palace bay. Gliding in gently on his repulsorlifts, he edged the sleek machine into the rear of the chamber, swiveled right, then came forward to a halt as the grapples took hold and secured him into the dock. The other two wingmen in his flight pulled their craft alongside his and guided their craft into the berths at either side.

     Another escort mission completed. And just about a thousand more to go, he thought dourly. It was one of those mundane, ordinary missions that comprised ninety-five percent of a pilot’s flying time, in which nothing out of the ordinary occurred. The other five percent, the utter chaos of battle with death and explosions all around, might fill one’s imagination of a fighter pilot’s life, one full of heroism and romance. But that wasn’t today. This was just another round baby-sitting some large freighters to the system jump-out point and swinging back in.

     Maarek adjusted his seat back and popped the access hatch so he could climb out vertically, rather than open the canopy and try to climb down the five-meter drop to the floor below. He disconnected his suit from the craft’s life support systems, popped off his TIE Fighter-style helmet, and squeezed himself out of the hatch and onto the hanging walkway above. The hatches of the other Avatars popped open and Rann Wosper and Tanya Vinikoro climbed out in their flight suits, as well.

     “Things are getting busier up in the air, aren’t they boss?” said Rann as he stepped into stride behind Maarek and Tanya. From somewhere in his suit he produced his ubiquitous grooming comb and began brushing his blond hair back over his head, seemingly unconscious about what he was doing. “The defense preparations are on double time and the space around the Nexus is crazy.”

     “Yeah, I noticed,” Maarek replied, remembering seeing several shuttles launch out of the Titan’s hangar and pass his Avatar like it was sitting still on their way to the jump point.

     “The AD ships seem to come and go without regard to NI aerospace authorization, nor traffic patterns,” Tanya added. She shook her head, sending her black hair, cut at half-neck length, swinging. “They are disrupting our operations with near impunity.”

     “That’s a nice way of saying they don’t give a nerf’s backside about us,” Maarek added, guiding them through an opening in the wall and into the hangar’s upper level corridors. They turned toward the changing rooms, where Tanya went through the women’s portal while Maarek and Rann entered the men’s side. Once there, they quickly found their respective lockers and, after a quick shower, started changing into their off-duty clothing. Inferno Squadron was off for the rest of the day, and the other two flights had already finished their runs.

    “Hey boss, got any plans tonight?” Rann asked sometime later as he pulled a fresh shirt over his head.

    Maarek shook his head as he slid on a comfortable pair of lightweight walking boots. He really didn’t have much planned; this was the first actual downtime he’d had in what seemed like weeks. He was probably getting behind on checking his personal mail, but that was about it. With all the preparations for defense and refugee ships coming and going, he’d been flying extra time, partly to take his mind off the battle at Sigma and all that had happened there. “I… might catch a Holo or something,” he replied.

    “Aw, come on. I’ll give you something better to do. Me and the rest of the squad are meeting up in the palace for dinner around nineteen hundred. You know, that restaurant up in the tower there? Why don’t you join us?”

    Maarek arched an eyebrow quizzically. That was fairly odd; usually the squadron spent so much time together they all entertained their various hobbies while on leave. “What’s the matter, Rann?” he eyed the other man. “No date lined up tonight? This must be the first time in what, a year?”

     The blond-haired man grinned widely back at him as he pulled on a dark vest, then reached up to brush his hair back again. “You don’t believe I’d put our beloved commander before one of the lovely ladies, do you? Boss, I’m hurt.”

     Maarek grinned in spite of himself. It seemed wrong to do so when there was so much loss around, but he had to get over it, he reminded himself. He’d been through scrapes just as bad, before.

     “Okay, I’ll be there,” he said finally. “What time?”


            Freshly showered and changed, Maarek made his way towards the personal quarters that had been appropriated for him in the Royal Palace, bustling and shouldering his way through the crowds that filled the main civilian-access corridors. This is crazy, he thought, sliding around a massive Kitonak standing in the crossway looking lost, then turning right into a lesser-trafficked zone. There were just too many beings in the palace, now. Refugees were pouring into Varnus from all over the Quadrant, driven from their homes by the relentless wave of AD attacks. First they had filled up virtually every empty living space in Vectur, and now finally even the palace had been opened up, giving quarters to thousands of beings that had been driven homeless, turning the place into one gigantic melting pot. But what if Varnus were attacked, too, like Command seemed to think? How could they defend this place when it was crawling with bodies of every shape, size and color?

     A small group of Sigmans stood in an alcove, swaying their antennae and chattering sadly to one another. Maarek swallowed hard and stepped by them quickly. Guilt over their loss at Sigma kept trying to well up in him from time to time, and he knew it was especially hard for Kikitik, in Flight Two. He tried to console him whenever he could.

     He checked his datapad, which gave him a running update of the situation on-planet and in orbit, and saw that he had new messages waiting for him. That was fine, he’d take them in his quarters, he decided. The readout also showed him that Inferno’s TIEs would be undergoing scheduled maintenance until 0800 the following morning. It looked like he’d be free to join the squadron’s get-together after all.

     Following the curve of the hallway, he reached a security checkpoint on the left and entered a wing set aside for military personnel.

     Moments later he had arrived, and the door to his personal quarters slid closed behind him, offering blessed peace and quiet from the outside. His rooms were small but more than enough for one man, and furnished well enough for an admiral. Cool bluish lighting shone throughout the inlaid shelves and in the refresher, helping him to relax as soon as he entered. He dropped his bag onto the plush sofa against the wall and sat down beside it, grabbing the remote and activating the holoscreen on the low table across from him.

     He quickly bypassed the news feed, which was showing all the refugees trying to pile their way into the city, and the weather forecast, which showed a clear, early autumn week ahead, and accessed his personal mailbox. There was little of the junk-mail that occasionally plagued the military servers; they seemed to be on top of things lately. He perused through several messages left from contacts in the navy, mostly fleet and squadron status updates and logistical refinements made. No luck on the off-hand hope of messages from his family, either. Then his gaze fell on one item and he froze as a chill ran down his spine – it was a reply from the family of Petur Kien.

     His heart immediately started thumping, and he reached up with a shaky hand and opened the message. It was a reply to the personal message Maarek had sent upon Petur’s death. Inside were the words of the parents of the youngest and most potential-filled pilot that Maarek had ever trained during his years. In the message, short and respectful, they offered their sincere thanks to him for training their son, and for leading him into combat where he could give his life in service to Varnus and in protecting the innocent. There was no outcry at the senselessness of his death, no call for revenge, no angry or anguished epitaph for the fallen pilot. There was only pride and honor at their son’s sacrifice. But their sense of composure for some reason did not parallel the flood of grief and despair that tried to grip his heart. And there was something else there, too, and Maarek could barely admit to himself – fear.

     For the first time in a very long time, he had met someone in battle who was a better pilot than himself. And if not for Rann’s last-instant save, Kamren Thansil would have killed Maarek, too. The Altarin’Dakor wing commander had him dead in his sights and would have blown him out of the sky. Hard as it was, Maarek had to be true enough to himself to admit that.

     Now he faced the prospect of flying against Thansil once again, and this time the curse of self-doubt had added itself to the equation. Would Maarek, even learning from his mistakes, be able to overcome his fear and take on the enemy commander? Fear could cripple him and give the enemy an even greater edge. Any hesitation, anything but total confidence and composure, was a certain death warrant should the two face off once again. Secretly a part of him wished they wouldn’t meet again at all.

     But then, with almost relief, he realized that another part of him wanted to settle the score and avenge Petur’s death. And, he realized, he did want to find out who was truly the better pilot. It was the endless struggle of humanity, to compare oneself against another and try to come out the superior man. Part of him had to know, and that meant that he had not given in completely to despair. There was hope.

     Forcing himself to move on, he scanned quickly through the rest of the mail he’d received, and then spotted another name that immediately caught his attention – a message from Jac Railler. He remembered Jac fondly, having met the man from Haven after the AD attack there and helping him to rescue some of the victims still left on the surface. The last he’d heard, Jac had been recruited by Xar to help train the palace defense platoon, and he was apparently staying somewhere in the palace. He scanned the mail. It read:

     Stele, how are things? I’m back in the palace, helping get the troops ready. Looks like something big is going down here, soon. Would like to meet up if it is convenient for you. Give me a call.

     Maarek jotted down the number and saved it into his datapad. He’s call Railler a bit later to set up a meeting, maybe a lunch or dinner or something.

     He almost closed out the mailbox, but before he hit the button another mail popped into being at the top of the list, flashing an urgent priority message from Navy Command. He opened it and quickly read its contents.

     Fleet Communiqué from Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar

     Officers of the New Imperium Military:

     Command has received intelligence reports that indicate further Altarin’Dakor attacks are occurring outside of New Imperium sovereign space. In addition to attacking systems across the border into the New Republic, a series of distress signals has been received from systems located within Delta Sector. One of the signals was sent from a fleet belonging to rogue former Admiral Emil Beli, who had settled several systems in Delta Sector. It appears that those forces have been completely nullified.

     However, an even more disturbing report has come out of Ssi-Ruuvi space. There have been reports of widespread devastation among the Ssi-Ruuk Empire, loss of fleet assets as well as numerous member worlds. These reports have been passed down from escaped members of Ssi-Ruuvi slave races, however the reports appear to have a measure of truth in them. If this is true, it indicates that the Altarin’Dakor are striking on multiple fronts and may have a much larger force than we originally anticipated. It is imperative that we make all efforts to defend core New Imperium worlds and turn the battle against the enemy on our front. Please be aware this may involve additional patrols for our fighter squadrons in order to remain on full alert in case of new enemy incursions. Further updates will be made when more intelligence is received.

     Stay alert for further updates.

     The message ended there, and Maarek closed out the mailbox and leaned back into the couch, feeling a new weight settle itself onto his shoulders. The news about Beli’s fleet was understandable; as far as he was aware the admiral had settled just outside of NI space, only one or two quadrants over. But to hear that the Ssi-Ruuk had been crushed, too… Maarek had no idea how powerful their empire was, but surely in the years since Bakura they would’ve been able to grow quite powerful again. To think that the AD had advanced that far – or rather, that they were attacking across such a wide front – the news was astounding. How powerful were the AD, really? Who was leading them? How were they able to coordinate attacks across such a massive area of space?

     Of course, this put the dilemma in Varnus Quadrant in a whole new light. Did it even matter if the NI stopped the AD here? Apparently they could just keep pushing along a different front, further out in the Unknown Regions, and still make it into the rest of the galaxy. Then they could literally surround the entire NI, and it would only be a matter of time. Were the Altarin’Dakor really unstoppable, like people where whispering behind Command’s back? Was everything they were doing even making a difference at all?

     He shook his head to clear it. Down that line of thought lay only one thing: hopelessness. If people gave into despair, the NI was finished. Soldiers would abandon their posts, the civilians would flee, and anarchy would reign. No, he couldn’t dwell on such thoughts. He had enough emotional turmoil to handle already. He had to get it dealt with before the next battle came, wherever it would be.

     The screen returned to the live news feed, which hadn’t yet reported the new findings. That was all right; pretty soon it would be out al over the NI. Not enough to incite a panic – after all, it didn’t really affect the NI – but it would get people thinking. Suddenly feeling the need to do something, Maarek turned off the screen and got up, heading for the door and towards the chaotic jumble of bodies once more.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Office of the Diktat

            NI Senate Complex


            1030 Hours


            Gene Rytor sat behind his opulent desk in the massive, circular office of the Diktat. Beneath him a plush, round blue carpet emblazoned with the symbol of the New Imperium covered most of the floor. His visitor, pacing back and forth on it in front of him, looked on the surface like a regular human, but inside a far more powerful and ancient conscious lurked. Rytor was still unsure what exactly it was that had taken over the body in front of him. But he knew without at doubt that it was, indeed, an Altarin'Dakor Shok'Thola, and because of that, it commanded his obedience.

     “This is disturbing news,” Queklain said, still pacing as a holographic star chart of Epsilon and Delta Sectors floated above him. “I do not believe that Nimrod would stretch his resources so thin and attack so many fronts at once. It’s too audacious, even for him.”

     Rytor just watched him. He was, of course, referring to the recent news of attacks in Delta Sector, and especially the damage incurred by the Ssi-Ruuk. The map showed the current areas that were confirmed taken by Nimrod: large swaths of NI space had been cut out, and Varnus was now completely surrounded with the loss of Eridani. But now, also, there was a large wave of color that had moved into the territory ‘east’ of NI space, deep into Delta Sector, as well. A question mark over there the Ssi-Ruuk Empire was thought to be was currently shaded in Altarin’Dakor colors.

     Queklain stopped in front of the desk once more and turned to match gazes with the Diktat. “The others are moving, as well.”

     “The others?” Rytor asked. “You mean the other Shok’Thola?”

     Queklain just glared at him as if the answer were obvious.

     Rytor raised his eyebrows. “What makes you so sure?”

     Instead of replying, Queklain strode over to the desk and tapped a few buttons on Rytor’s terminal. A new holographic window opened in place of the map, showing a dark, somewhat grainy video – an eyewitness view of AD activity in Ssi-Ruuvi space not made available to the public.

     Queklain pointed to a large shape moving slowly in the image. It was definitely a Titan; it was long and black, and only the front of the ship was visible, although several scythe-looking projections extended for what must be kilometers out from the bow of the vessel. “I have seen this ship before,” Queklain said, pointing at the image. “It has existed since the original Great War, and unless Nimrod has expanded further than I think and has taken over her empire, this Titan is the Nightlord, and belongs to the Shok’Thola Asellus.”

     Rytor silently mouthed the name – he hadn’t heard of that particular Warlord before. But then, he didn’t know how many Shok’Thola there were, in total. “Still,” he surmised, “this activity is hardly close to New Imperium space. Our main focus right now is how to stop Nimrod from destroying us.”

     “If the other Shok’Thola are moving, then Nimrod is only one enemy we must face,” Queklain warned.

     Rytor shook his head, daring to disagree with the Warlord in front of him. After all, he was the Diktat. “Defending the New Imperium is our top priority. If the rest of the galaxy burns, I will still have this be a stronghold of peace and justice.”

     “You are delusional if you think you can stand alone against the Altarin’Dakor.”

     “We will, or die trying. I built this little empire, behind the scenes, and I won’t let it fall so easily.”

     “Don’t think too highly of yourself,” Queklain snapped. “You are but one man. People will still follow no matter what face is there to lead them.”

     Rytor smirked. He felt more confident in his position lately, more comfortable in his relationship with the Warlord. He was more immune to the Warlord’s small threats. Queklain could kill him easily, true – but if he did, how would he maintain his control over the NI Government? There were no other agents as highly placed as Rytor, and he couldn’t just place an unknown in Rytor’s position instead. Even if the Warlord used the Force to mask his own physical appearance as Rytor’s, he would eventually be found out. The personality and subtle habits would not be so easily duplicated.

     And anyway, that brought them to the heart of the matter, the reason Rytor had asked him to this meeting. “Speaking of removing those in office,” he said, letting a dark tone into his voice. “Did you kill my secretary?”

     A flash of something came into the Warlord’s eyes, and Rytor knew it was true. Sudden anger flared up in him then, and he slammed a fist down onto the desk with a thunk.

     “I didn’t want him dead!” Rytor nearly shouted at him.

     “He found out about you,” Queklain said flatly. “He was trying to send a message to someone when I found him and took care of him.”

     Anger quickly subsided into a pang of fear. “Was he successful?”

     “I could not tell. I do not have the access codes to the network in the command room.”

     Rytor digested that news, thinking silently for a moment. It was unlikely that Brucmack had gotten out a successful message, because he’d heard nothing since the man’s reported suicide. There was no public outcry, no media scoop, no politicians or military officers demanding his arrest. It seemed his position was still safe.

     “Calm down,” Queklain said, probably reading his thoughts with the Force. “No one would believe such an accusation, anyway.”

     Rytor continued to consider that in silence for a moment.

     “The man was unimportant,” Queklain continued, taking on a more authoritative voice. “Don’t get distracted by petty details.”

     Rytor dismissed his words with a wave of his hand. He wasn’t going to be lectured like some schoolboy. “Speaking of details, I do have some things to take care of,” he told the Warlord.

     “Do not forget to contact the one named Nico,” Queklain reminded him. “He has returned to Varnus to be with the other so-called Jedi.”

     “I am aware of that,” Rytor replied.

     “You should not have let him out of your sight. He isn’t like you. His mind is still… volatile. He could be dangerous.”

     “I am keeping a close eye on him,” Rytor countered tersely. “I…”

     Just then his desk commlink beeped, and Rytor held up a hand to forestall any further comment. He touched the button to receive, and his remaining aide Quat’s face appeared on the screen.

     “Diktat, Emperor Virzixl has arrived to see you,” the thin man spoke softly.

     “Ah, good,” Rytor replied. “I have been looking forward to receiving him. Send him in.”

     No sooner had he closed the connection than Queklain spoke up again in his lecturing tone.

     “Why concern yourself with a defeated race, Rytor? They are insignificant, now.”

     “Don’t underestimate them,” Rytor retorted.

     “You’re wasting your time.”

     Abruptly standing, Rytor touched a button that shut off the holographic images floating above their heads, then gestured a hand towards the main doorway out of the office. “If you please,” he intoned to the Warlord. “I do have a few things to take care of.”

     “Very well. Just remember my words.” With that Queklain turned and strode quickly from the room.

     Barely a moment later, the doors parted open again, and a small troupe of Sigmans ambled in, led by one in the center with a more leathered, crimson-colored carapace. The Sigman emperor wore a black robe, which Rytor knew symbolized the mourning he was going through over his people. It was still unknown how many Sigmans were still trapped on their homeworld, and whether the Altarin’Dakor had taken them hostage, or simply wiped them out like they had the Krri’Graq.

     “Dear emperor,” Rytor greeting him solemnly, feeling a true burden of sadness for what the Sigmans had lost. “My deepest condolences. I’m afraid words just don’t suffice at this moment.”

     Virzixl raised an arm, and the rest of his retinue held back while he strode closer to the Diktat’s desk. He spoke then, his vocal translator speaking in a melancholy tone.

     “Greetings to you, Diktat. We Sigmans wanted to thank you personally for doing everything you could to save our people.”

     “I just wish we could have done more,” Rytor said sincerely. “I assure you; as soon as possible we will mount a counteroffensive and retake your home.”

     “We look forward to that day. But first we must protect our other worlds, so that our brothers and sisters in the New Imperium do not share in the fate that has come to our people.” Virzixl swayed his antennae back and forth, slowly. “I only regret being unable to save more of my people as we fled the battle. It is unfair for me to survive while so many have suffered.”

     “Nonsense. You are the leader of your people.” Rytor knew that while the Sigmans shared a sense of the hive-mind that most insectile races in the galaxy seemed to have, it was much weaker than in races like the Krri’Graq or the Verpine. The Sigmans still retained a strong sense of individuality, which meant that if their leader fell, there was no one else who could quite fill his role in exactly the same way.

     “Please,” he told the Sigman leader, “Make full use of the accommodations we’ve set aside for you and your staff here in the Senate Complex. I hope you can take some comfort here and allow us to serve whatever needs you may have.”

     Virzixl bowed his head and was silent for a moment before replying. “We… are most appreciative,” he said. “You continue to prove your friendship and trust to our people.”

     “As do you,” Rytor replied. “Please make yourselves at home here.”

     “Thank you again, Diktat.” With a final bow, Virzixl turned and led his group out through the doors. Rytor sat back down in his chair, silently contemplating the emperor’s last comments for several moments.

     Then, the day’s previous concerns coming back once more, he leaned forward and activated his terminal to call Senator and Jedi Master Nico Flygras. Despite his confidence in their secrecy, his still meant what he’d said to Queklain. The man did have to be kept up with. Otherwise, the Force only knew what he would be getting himself into before long…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Nexus

            In Orbit, Varnus

            1900 Hours


            Alyx stood in the Nexus' massive hangar bay and took stock of the team he had hastily gathered for the mission. Paladin Vykk Olyronn, Crusaders Colin Moore and Jontaar Domi, and Knights Mrax Satai and Rilke Darcunter had all volunteered for this mission; he hadn't forced anyone to come along.  They all stood in front of the sleek Altarin'Dakor corvette that had been appropriated for them by Zalaria.

     The Warlord had been cryptic and brief during their meeting less than an hour before. Zalaria had given him this corvette and crew, which would be transmitting Nimrod’s fleet’s codes, and told that when they boarded the Titan Desolation, they would be met by a Myrkos Rothran, one of her agents onboard who was also an assistant engineering chief. He would get them into a secure location onboard the Titan where they could proceed with the mission. However, aside from getting them initial access to the bridge and engine rooms, there was little else Zalaria’s spies would be able to do to help. The rest was up to Alyx and the team, but he wasn’t panicked. He’d faced sticky situations before, and he knew that if you didn’t play the odds, you’d never win big.

     He nodded at the four Jedi with him, each knowing they risked not only their lives on this mission, but also their reputation in the Order – and in Xar’s eyes. Alyx had the feeling that Zalaria hadn’t told Xar about it yet; she was probably waiting until after they left. But as he’d taken the time to meditate on the Force, Alyx had received a level of certainty he’d rarely had before. This mission had to succeed, or when the AD attacked Varnus there would be nothing but carnage and death. They could win or lose based on this.

     “Thank you all for coming,” he spoke to the gathered members. “Last chance: anyone want to stay onboard?”

     All he got in reply were four silent grins, and he nodded. “All right then. This way.”

    He turned and led the way up the gangway and into the AD vessel. Only a skeleton crew was onboard, as the ship was supposed to have been damaged in an NI attack. Real damage had been inflicted onto the vessel’s hull, even affecting some of her internal systems – no simple cosmetic job was going to fool the best scanners in the Altarin’Dakor military.

     One AD officer closed the hatch behind them, and they passed only a couple more on the way to the ship’s small bridge. They all kept carefully reserved faces, and Alyx sensed a sense of… distance… which they projected between themselves and the Jedi. It wasn’t outright hostility, but then again, at least some sense of amiability would’ve been nice. This mission would be complicated enough without having to worry about his own crew. If this was the most NI-friendly crew the woman had to offer, then the New Imperium was in trouble.

     They reached the bridge without incident, only to find a single pilot starting the preflight sequence. Alyx decided to give him the benefit of the doubt; maybe one person could fly the whole ship. After all, it was an Altarin’Dakor craft.

     “Are you ready to leave?” the pilot asked in passable Basic.

     Alyx slid into the copilot’s seat beside him, nodding for the rest of the team to sit down at the other stations around the cabin. “As ready as we’ll ever be,” he said, turning back to the pilot.

     Within a moment the craft lifted off the deck and pushed out into space. Alyx watched the hull of the Nexus scroll by, with the blue/green orb of Varnus floating somewhere off to starboard.

      “Here we go,” Vykk said from somewhere behind him. “Can I rethink this?”

      “I… think I forgot my shaver,” Domi’s voice chimed in.

     Alyx swiveled around in the plush seat he was in and flashed the others a mock-cruel smile. “It’s the Desolation or bust now, guys.”

     “Let’s hope for not bust, then,” Mrax Satai added from the other side.

     “We have reached the jump point,” the pilot reported mechanically.

     The stars stretched into starlines, and the assault team was on their way.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


MC-120 Darkstar

Rilke System

1700 Hours

Another system lost.

     Sector Admiral and War Coordinator Arfann Dogar stood looking out the viewport of his command ship, towards a distant star, a system that a day before had been free, but was now under the control of the Altarin'Dakor. Degrabo and Genotia had been mostly evacuated in time before they fell; this time, however, the NI colonists on Rilke hadn't had enough time to get out. And neither was the Second Fleet without casualties.

     In the span of the last few hours, four Titan-class Battleships had exited hyperspace virtually on top of their position. In desperation Arfann and Stan had launched everything they had in an attempt to buy the evacuees some time. Instead, all it had earned them was a bloodbath. The four Titans had launched some five thousand fighters against them, plus dozens of other capital ships, and after losing three ISDs, five VSDs and nearly half their smaller capital ships, Dogar had ordered a hasty, disorganized retreat. It was estimated over eighty percent of the evacuees had either been captured or destroyed trying to escape. Now, again Dogar felt responsible for thousands of lost lives.
     Intelligence had pinned the Titans as belonging to the Warlord Nimrod: the Fall of Light, the Right of Conquest, the Subjugation, and the Havoc. Each were over thirty kilometers in length, and they were traveling together, taking over system after system while their support forces came in to occupy each world behind them. The Second Fleet simply could not stand against such a powerful assault. Once again they were being forced back, and there was nothing they could do about it.

     Stoically he turned away from the scene, restraining the emotions roiling inside of him from showing on his face. “Damage report,” he called out. “Have they sealed off those decks yet?”

     The Darkstar herself hadn’t escaped the battle unscathed. A huge hole had been blown into the side mid-ships by one of the Titan’s beam cannons, and dozen decks had been exposed to hard vacuum. Thousands were dead. Furthermore, they had been stuck here, unable to risk sending the ship into a long-distance hyperspace jump without making sure the areas had been secured. The other task forces, led by Fleet Admirals Caramon Majere and S’cill Shokfer, had already made the jump to Lorn out-system ahead of them. Task Force Darkstar had to catch up, and hopefully before the AD noticed they were still in the fringes of the system.

     Sector Admiral Stan Sanders and Fleet Admiral Tam Eulicid had been standing just behind him, and Eulicid stepped over and consulted the station officer’s screen and slowly nodded. “Force fields are in place and atmospheric pressure has been restored,” he reported. “The marine barracks is gone, and hangar two will have to stay closed until we can affect repairs at a star dock. Structural integrity is at eighty-one percent.” He looked back up at the Dogar. “Stable enough to make the jump.”

     “Get us out of here, then,” Dogar said immediately. He shivered slightly in spite of trying not to, thinking of how deep and large a hole had been eaten into the side of the ship. That beam could have easily hit the bridge, and there would be nothing left of them. They would’ve ended up just like Admiral Varrel

     “Where to, sir?” Eulicid’s question interrupted his thoughts.

     “Take us to Lorn,” Dogar snapped. “We have to start the evacuations there next.”

     “That’s likely the AD’s next target,” Stan pointed out, looking askance at him. “What do we do then?”

     “Then we’ll move on to Gracchus, and Vol, and all the way to Kolath or Tralaria if we have to,” Doger replied tersely. “We can’t stop an attack on the scale they hit Rilke with. We weren’t ready at all.”

     “Still, we can’t evacuate everyone on those worlds,” Stan countered. “You know we do eventually have to make our stand somewhere…”

     “We don’t have a chance of stopping them, Stan,” Dogar shot back, shaking his head. “Not while they’re all together like that. The only chance is to hope they separate and pick them off one by one.” He wouldn’t – couldn’t – send the whole fleet to their deaths like that. Not again.

     “Whatever you say, sir,” Stan replied. He was clearly uncomfortable with how the War Coordinator was acting, taking such a direct command of things. But what could he expect? Dogar was in the task force. Success – and especially failure – would be pinned on him. I should have stayed on Tralaria, he realized. Or just retired, like I intended to.

     He looked past them, at Commodore/Admiral Jingo Yatai the rest of the bridge crew. They looked ready. Dogar knew they had been through a lot, and he was proud of them. They knew they might not survive this, and yet they performed their duty efficiently and without complaint. It was all he could ask for in a crew.

     “Make the jump,” Yatai ordered, speaking loud enough for the whole bridge to hear. Lorn System.”

     “Aye, sir,” the Navigations Officer came back.

     Dogar exchanged glances with Stan and Eulicid again as the starfield began to shift outside the viewports. “We may need to contact the Diktat,” he suggested, knowing that Rytor wouldn’t be happy to hear how powerful the AD on the ‘western’ front were. It would take both fleets together to stop either threat, and the fleet attacking Varnus Quadrant even now was even closer to Tralaria than this one. NI space was shrinking, fast.

     He knew that if they didn’t do something about it soon, not only would NI space cease to exist, but the rest of the galaxy, as well.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Observation Lounge

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            Planet Varnus

            1925 Hours


            The sun was just starting its trek toward the horizon, bathing the sky in hues of purple fading to orange, when Maarek entered the revolving restaurant in the observation lounge of the Royal Palace. It was only his second time in the in the tower, which offered a 360-degree glass-windowed view of the capital city of Vectur. It was a great vantage point, since the palace was virtually in the center of the city, but at only 100 meters above the palace proper, it wasn't nearly as tall as most of the surrounding skyscrapers to the south and east.
  Maarek quickly found the table where most of the squadron was gathered and joined them at a round table near the windows. Almost everyone was there: Rann Wosper and Tanya Vinikoro, of Flight One;  Bast Vlagen, Gren Pabos and Kikitik, of Flight Two; and Salle Darl and Narm Greyrunner of Flight Three. Each was nursing a drink and talking quietly, but no one was eating just yet. "Sorry I'm late," he said.
     "Glad you could make it, boss," Rann spoke up jovially as Maarek took a seat reserved for him.
     Sitting, Maarek quickly took in each member present. It was a group he'd gotten close to over the last couple of years. Rann Wosper, from Varnus, slim and blond-haired, still enjoyed making pranks and dating women, although he tended to be far better at the first than the second. Tanya, with her short-cut black hair and pale Coruscanti features, had opened up a little more since they'd started the squadron, though her staunch Imperial background and service on Byss had kept her hard-edged and business-at-hand. Maarek still hadn't gotten to know her too deeply, as she had never opened up about her past. Her attitude was naturally more Imperialistic than some of the others, especially Salle Darl, who had been with the Rebel Alliance before signing onto the NI. She never let her opinions get in the way of others, though, nor did she ever let things get personal.
     Bast Vlagen still held the mentor-like persona among the group, as its oldest member. Also a Varnusian and a former Imperial pilot, he had retired after the war to continue civilian life with his wife and two children. Fate, however, had seen different, and when the NI came to Varnus, Bast had naturally signed on to help protect his home. He looked out for the other pilots, especially Gren Pabos, who sat beside him. Gren had been going through a series of tough times lately, first after the loss of fellow squad member Kei Nomos, with whom he had developed a romantic interest, and now since his people, the Renastatians, had been driven from their refuge on Ravick in the Moro System and were now temporarily stationed here on Varnus. Maarek had done his part to console him, as well, though he was somewhat concerned about his emotional state affecting his piloting skills. But still, he wasn't as worried about him as he was about Kikitik, the Sigman pilot in Flight Two, who had lost his own homeworld just a few days before to the Altarin'Dakor attack. He'd also lost his relative, Kaviq, who had been the Sigman ambassador to the NI, and Maarek knew he felt even more responsible since he'd been viewed as a hero among his own people. Kikitik hadn't spoken much since witnessing the attack, and it was sad to see how his antennae drooped and how his normally jocular attitude was simply gone.
     Finishing up the table were Salle Darl and Narm Greyrunner of Flight Three. Salle had consistently gotten better and better as a pilot, and had integrated herself as a member of the team much more tightly in the last year or so. A native of nearby Kolath, she was good-natured and friendly, with dark hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes. Formerly a crack pilot with the Rebel Alliance – turned New Republic, she had joined the NI much as others had: to make a new start and a life of peace out here near the Unknown Regions. Their ideals, after all, weren’t that different. Her history had not held her down in the squadron, rather they had fully embraced her and the diversity that her presence represented in the New Imperium. Salle’s ideals differed a lot from Tanya’s but the two never let things get personal or affect their performance. Beside her Narm Greyrunner, the most recent addition to the squadron from Majere’s fleet, was a longtime pilot from Abregado-rae. Though he seemed to have had quite a few tragedies hit in his lifetime, he was still amiable and had proven himself as a capable member of the squadron, so Maarek was pleased to have him along.
     “We were waiting for you to get started,” Narm nodded toward him with a grin. “Lead on, Commander. Shall we order?”

     Within moments the whole squadron was wolfing down a delectable selection of native Varnusian cuisine, a five-course meal complete with side dishes and a generous portion from each food group. Braised meats, steamed vegetables, and piping hot bread and rice were all consumed with fervor; the squadron rarely ate this extravagantly, and there were few words exchanged until everyone was finished. It was delicious, exemplary of a high-class restaurant such as the one rising above the Royal Palace. Maarek thoroughly enjoyed it.

     After about an hour, everyone was stuffed. Then caf was brought in, and they each began sipping their drinks contentedly as the sun dipped below the horizon. The lights of Vectur’s skyscrapers offered a superb night view as the restaurant slowly made its circular journey.

     “Actually,” Rann spoke up, finally breaking the silence, “There is a reason that we’ve come to a place like this.”

     Maarek looked at him curiously, wondering what he meant, when he felt the presence of someone else just behind him. All the other members were staring at him expectantly.

     He turned, and saw a waiter standing there with an extravagantly-decorated white cake, complete with burning candles sticking out of the top.

     “Happy birthday!” Rann exclaimed.

     Maarek turned back to them, staring in shock as the whole squadron applauded him. He shook his head, bewildered. “What do you mean guys? My birthday isn’t for almost two weeks. You’re early.”

     “We know that,” Bast replied as the waiter placed the cake down in front of them and began to cut slices out of it. “But we wanted to do it now, just in case we didn’t have a chance later, on the day itself.”

     Maarek understood what he meant; it seemed likely the AD would attack at any time. Still, he was touched that the whole squadron had come together like this for him. “I don’t know what to say,” he admitted. “I’m flattered.”

     “We just wanted to show you our gratitude for all you’ve done for us,” Salle spoke up, eliciting nods from the others. “You’re the best squadron commander we could ever have hoped for, and we’re honored to be able to fly with you, sir.”

     Rann reached over and slapped the commander on the shoulder. “Congratulations! You’re an honorary Varnusian, now!”

     Maarek was truly moved at their display of kindness, and he felt himself blushing. To cover it up, he leaned forward and blew the candles out. Then the server began placing large squares of cake on each person’s plate, accompanied by fresh refills of caf.

     The table erupted in conversation from that point, as the cake was consumed along with warm drink, and quite a few stories were exchanged, including fond and funny memories about their beloved squadron commander. Maarek laughed along with them, although he wished Petur and the others had been here, and part of him silently mourned the fact that they were gone. Maarek knew he had gotten emotionally attached to his squadron, something that hadn’t been allowed during his Imperial days. This was something different, a new way of thinking, and he liked it, although he knew that there was always the chance he would pay the price for it later. Like with Petur. But these pilots were good, and they had beaten the odds for the most part. They had killed more AD pilots than they’d lost squadron mates, and that said a lot.

    But he couldn’t think of such things for long, as the conversation was lively and he was too busy recounting stories with the others. One popular topic, as always, were Rann’s various love interests.

     “So Rann, I guess you didn’t have a date tonight?” Narm asked with a wink. “We just can’t imagine you missing out on a night on the town, even on our dear leader’s birthday.”

     “My dear Narm, I’m hurt,” Rann said mock-seriously. He made a grand display of pulling out his comb and running it through his slick hair. “You know this is a special case, and I keep our commander close to heart.” He grinned widely. “I had to push tonight’s back and do a double date tomorrow.”

     That elicited chuckles from all around, though Tanya rolled her eyes dramatically. Maarek shook his head.

     “Watch it,” Salle put in, “Wasn’t the last time you tried that, the dates actually met, and they were two races that had a blood feud going on at the time?”

     “It wasn’t like that at all,” Rann waved her off. “Things get embellished over time.” He glanced at Maarek, who was still working his way through his piece of cake. “Speaking of romantic interests, by the way… Hey boss, how about yourself? When are you going to find somebody to settle down with?”

     Suddenly put on the spot, Maarek took a sip of caf while he thought of a response. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “There’s no time for that now, I suppose.” Truth be told, there was someone he’d been thinking about when the chaos of the war wasn’t taking his undivided attention. There was a slim, red-haired Jedi named Rynn Mariel he’d met soon after coming here. Rynn had come to Varnus shortly after Maarek himself had joined up, and she had risen through the ranks quickly. Their first meeting hadn’t quite gone as smooth as he’d hoped, however. Since then they hadn’t spoken much. Maybe I’ll give her a call, he thought. If he did, he’d better do it before things really got crazy around here.

     Soon after that, the conversation shifted courses, and Maarek continued to sip his caf as the talk, inevitably, made its way back around to the topic that was always lurking around somewhere – the war.

     “So they say that the AD might make their move anytime,” Gren Pabos said, breaking a short silence. “I wonder what they’re waiting for.”

     “I don’t know, but it’s giving us more time to prepare,” Rann put in. “I’ve never seen fleet traffic so heavy in orbit.”

     “Why are we just holding up here, anyway,” Salle asked, gaining everyone’s attention. “Why aren’t we trying to evacuate people, like we’ve been doing on all the other worlds? Instead, more and more people are coming here.”

     “Because this is Varnus,” Bast pointed out, answering for all of them. “This is one of the core NI worlds, much more populated than any other world until now. We have to make our stand somewhere. This is where we draw the line.”

     “Besides,” Rann added, “Varnusians aren’t going anywhere. We’ve been through hell before, and we will again if we have to. But we’re not leaving.”

     Maarek nodded. He’d begun to understand the Varnusian resilience the more he’d lived here. The whole planet had been devastated years before, but a new, stronger society had risen from the ashes of the old one. So it had done for millennia, it was said.

     “This will be all or nothing,” Kikitik chimed in, swiveling his head to take in each of them. “But the enemy has us surrounded now. Everything is riding on the next battle.”

     “It really is a brilliant strategy they are following,” Tanya mused aloud. “Flawless, even.”

     Across from her, Salle gave her an incredulous look as soon as Tanya had made the comment. “How can you say that?” she asked accusingly. “They’ve killed countless innocent civilians. They’ve herded countless more here, where they’ve trapped us in and are just waiting to wipe us all out. Do you admire that?”

          “I admire their expertise,” the other woman answered. “So far they had defeated us with superior strategy rather than simply by strength.”

     “They’re merciless killers,” Salle countered. “They have no sense of right or wrong.”

     “I was not commenting on the moral character of their methods, only the logic of their actions themselves.”

     “Still, I can’t believe you would admire what they’ve done. They’ve forced all the populations here so they can wipe us all out with one blow. It will demoralize the entire rest of the NI.”

     “A very effective strategy. Isn’t that what you would do if you were them?”

     Salle glared back at the cool dark-haired woman. “No, I wouldn’t. And we’re not them. We should act better than them, or we’re no better than they are.”

     Maarek was worried that Salle might get up in disgust, so he held up his hands to forestall any further argument. “That’s enough, pilots,” he ordered. “Just relax. I’m sure Tanya doesn’t approve of their methods, like she said.” He looked at her, and she quickly nodded.

     “I was just speaking from a strategic viewpoint, trying to understand how they think,” Tanya replied. “I’m sorry if I offended.”

     “You have a valid point,” Bast put in. “We should try to think like our enemy, sometimes. As long as we remember who we are.”

     “I understand,” Salle said, glancing between him and Tanya. “I’m sorry too. It’s your birthday, Commander.”

     “Don’t worry about it,” Maarek said dismissively. He pushed his chair back, signaling it was about time to go down and call it a night. “Thank you all for such a wonderful night.”

     “Our pleasure,” Rann said, rising with Maarek. “Don’t worry; we’ve got the bill.”

     Maarek and several others chuckled at that.

     “I don’t know about you all,” Narm said with a sly expression, “But I think I’ll head downstairs and hit the sabacc tables for a while. Anyone with me?”

     “I’m in,” Gren replied. “Don’t have anything else to do.”

     “Hmm. I wouldn’t mind a bit of that, myself,” Bast put in. That was somewhat rare; Bast was usually the more mature leader of the group, but he did enjoy himself, sometimes.

     “Commander?” Rann arched an eyebrow at him.

     “No thanks. It’s getting close to my bedtime,” Maarek said jovially.

     “All right, suit yourself. See you in the morning.” Rann turned and nodded to the other two men. “What say we go try and win back this meal, shall we?”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            2355 Hours


            Mathis Organa entered his quarters and heaved a sigh of relief as privacy returned once more. Things were just too busy outside, now, with so many people about. He preferred peace and quiet, and it was hardly worth going out into all that hassle to do any errands. Besides, it wasn’t like there was much he had to do, anyway.

     Moving over to the couch, he spent a few moments watching the day’s news on the holoscreen. He had only a few messages, most of them inconsequential. Nobody paid much attention to him these days, and he had little in the way of duties. Most of the time he just felt like one big burden on everyone’s shoulders. Especially Xar’s.

     Xar had paid him little attention since getting married to that Altarin’Dakor woman. He was stricken with her, and it had to be more than just infatuation. He had changed, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it was him making the decisions, or her doing it through him.

     Truth be told, though, Xar had grown distant long before then. Mathis hadn’t been able to take the stress of taking care of the man. Now he was removed to a figurehead ‘Chancellor’ position, where he was theoretically supposed to take care of the palace, but with Xar here running everything personally, there was little for Mathis to do.

     What had happened to their friendship? Was there anything Mathis could do to reestablish the connection they’d once had?

     Stang, it was calling him again, now. What should he do? He knew he should just ignore it and go to sleep. He’d manage to do it for what, now, a week? But there it was, like an itch demanding to be scratched, and it just wouldn’t go away. Bloody, kriffing stang…

     He quickly sat up and turned around, pulling up one of the seat cushions. Underneath was a small compartment area which held a small wooden box. Mathis pulled it out, replaced the cushion, and stared at the box for a moment. Surely just looking wouldn’t hurt, right? He hadn’t given in yet.

     The box sat on his lap for a long moment, while he stared at it. The itch was getting stronger. Stang it all, he’d just take a look, maybe study it for a little while. He picked up the box and took it to his small desk in his sleeping area, then sat down in front of it and carefully opened the small box.

     Inside were a number of small compartments suitable for storing anything from jewelry to credits or datachips. Instead, out of one he procured a smaller, shiny metal box, and out of that he drew a plastic bag that held a fine powder, colored a deep, rich brown.

     Exquisite. Even from here he could smell its pleasant fragrance. It was Ryll.

     Mathis was no connoisseur, but it had cost him a lot to obtain it at this quality. His thoughts raced, salivating in anticipation of consuming such a delicacy. It was just a relaxing way to end the day, he reminded himself. The truth was, sometimes it was his sole companion.

     Stang. It was there again, the need. The need! Not satiated with mere imagining. Very well, a little more, then. Pulling out a waxy sheet of flimsy from the box, he laid it on the table and ticked out a line of rich brown powder onto it, a couple of centimeters long perhaps. Too much? Not enough? Why stop now? It was calling him.

     Also out of the box he produced a thin plastic tube. How to take it? There were many ways that the spice could be enjoyed. Some let it enter the bloodstream faster than others. Tonight he was feeling a bit worse than normal. He needed a salve, a balm for his worries. The spice would allay all his fears.

     A taste, then, just a drop on the tongue. Oh, it was magnificent! The spice! It flavored his palette with joyous harmony. But it was only a foreshadowing of the real thing. Again, no satisfaction. It was incomplete.

     Well, no flaming use in waiting any longer, was it? Just get it over with; it wouldn’t hurt anyone after all, would it? Stang, but the itch was strong. Just fulfill it this one more time. Maybe this would be the last time.

     He leaned down, placing the tube carefully up into one nostril. Then, touching the other to the end of the line of brown loveliness, he drew it in, slowly.

     It hit immediately. The spice worked its way through the conduit and became one with him in a flurry of chemical absorption. His eyes began to water. Just a little more! He couldn’t stop it! Desperately he drew the rest in, working his way all the way until the end. He felt lightheaded. It was gone! All within him, now. Stang, but it burned!

    A final sniff, the tube discarded, and he raised his head as the fire spread out, behind his eyes, down his throat. It felt like his sinuses were being eaten away! Bloody frak, the pain! It burned!

     What an idiot! What had he done? So stupid… After all that trouble of avoiding it… He hadn’t wanted to! It was too late, now… Hadn’t he tried to stop, before? How much longer would he succumb? Oh stang, he wanted to stop, he had to stop, he wanted to stop, he had to stop, he…

     The thought was gone. A sense of peace was suddenly there, the anxiety forgotten in an instant. Somewhere inside, a rational thought remained. It was taking, he knew. He stumbled to his feet, the world whirling around him. Somehow he found his bed.

     He fell down upon it, his eyes staring towards the ceiling above. Or beneath. Or whatever it was in front of him.

     Oh, never bloody mind. He relaxed and gave into it as the floodwaters of ecstasy broke free and washed over him…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            0945 Hours


            The sun was well up in the morning sky as Rynn Mariel made it to the tapcafe on the eastern side. It was a bustling place, with well-lit tables as being gathered for breakfast and to read or watch the morning news. The smell of fresh caf wafted throughout the café. Rynn had herself a cup and was sitting near the window, finishing a morning pastry. She’d gotten a message last night from Maarek Stele, and though it had been a long time since they’d last spoken, she respected him enough to give him some time and see what he wanted. He’d said he wanted to meet and discuss a few things, and because of her busy schedule, this happened to be one of the only free moments she had this week.

     She checked her wrist chrono and noted the time. Later in the morning she had another session scheduled with Bren. They were still working to perfect their Battle Meditation techniques – with only Bren’s foggy memories and old texts to guide them, and not very many volunteers willing to try the technique, it was slower going than she’d hoped. Still, it gave them something to do that was progressing at least somewhat, and it was a nonviolent way to deal with the Altarin’Dakor threat, which she welcomed readily. In her opinion, there had been enough blood shed, and some of it by her own hands.

     Rynn didn’t have to wait long. Commander Stele showed up in his off-duty uniform and took a seat across from her.

     “Good morning, Commander,” she spoke up first, giving him a nod.

     “Morning.” He sat down across from her.

     “Anything to eat?”

     “No thanks,” he replied. “I don’t usually have much except a protein bar or something.”

     “I see. Must be how you keep your figure,” she replied with a smile.

     They chatted for a few moments, making mainly small talk, as she finished her caf.

Then, after tossing a few credits onto the table for the caf, she walked with him out into the corridors. They continued through the crowded sections until they exited the interior and found a quieter spot along the wall lining one of the courtyards below. He didn’t say much until then. Rynn could feel a sense of unease about him, or perhaps nervousness, radiating towards her through the Force.

     “Thanks for meeting with me,” he said finally, as they came to a stop near a bench.

     He paused for a moment, staring out towards the city. Finally he spoke again.

     "Did you hear the news? Rilke has been captured."
     "Yeah. I heard,” she said.
     "They say the Second Fleet suffered heavy casualties in the battle."

     “You okay?” she asked him.

     Maarek shook his head slowly. “Yeah. I… lost another one of my pilots the other day.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that.”

     “Why’d it have to be Petur?” he asked, voicing his thoughts aloud. “He was so young... He had so much potential.”

     Rynn sighed. “It seems illogical, arbitrary. War takes our best and brightest, oftentimes.”

     “That’s a mature thing to say. But it’s still hard to go through it.” Maarek gave her a funny look, then. “Doing your Jedi thing again, I guess. Reading my mind, right? It’s what you all do, isn’t it?”

     “It doesn’t work quite like that,” Rynn explained. “We can pick up people’s emotions, how they’re feeling, that sort of thing. It helps tell whether or not someone’s being truthful. But we can’t read minds, not just like that.”

     “I see.”

     He looked down for a second, then back up at her. “Anyway,” he continued, “I know that we got off to something of a rocky start. I wanted you to know that I’m not always like that.”

     “Hey, it’s okay,” she assured him, curious as to why he was bringing this up now. “We already discussed that.” She smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. “I respect you a lot, Commander. You’re a hero to the people of the New Imperium, a title I know you deserve.”

     “Thanks,” he continued as she removed her hand. “Look… I’ve thought a lot about you, and I was wondering… Once this next thing is over, I’d like to get to know you better. If you’re interested, that is.”

     Rynn blinked and stared at him in surprise. So that was what he was nervous about? She had had no idea; she realized that she still had more training to do in actually deciphering the feelings that people gave off. This was unexpected – and a bit awkward, indeed.

     “I’m honored,” she admitted candidly. “But Commander, I think it’d be best if we pursue a more… friendly approach right now.”

     She felt a twinge of disappointment in him, and his face fell slightly, despite his obvious attempt not to let it show. “I… see. I guess you’re seeing someone right now?”

     “I… I think so,” she said, her mind wandering to the jumble of emotions and thoughts that were associated with Jacob “Jinx” Skipper. Were they really seeing each other? She certainly felt an attraction to him; he was an amazing person, had a great personality and was a natural leader. But there were still a lot of things that needed to be worked out. She wasn’t completely sure how Jinx felt, either. Anyway, she felt bad for disappointing Maarek. “It’s complicated,” she admitted.

     “Hey, it’s okay,” Maarek replied, a more formal note entering his voice. “I understand, Crusader Mariel. I would be honored to call you a friend.

     “Maarek, I’m sorry…”

     “No, no need.” He shook his head and waved her off. “There’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot I have to do, anyway.”

     He made as if to leave, but she reached out and took him by the arm, then looked him in the eye as he glanced at her.


     He arched an eyebrow at her, and she smiled and shook her head as a sudden insight came to her.

     “Maarek, you need to be as confident on the ground as you are… up there.” She glanced upward, and his gaze followed hers. Then he nodded.

     “Thanks for the advice.” He considered for a second, and she still felt the residue left by his disappointment. Perhaps he was disappointed in himself, as well. But she meant what she’d said. Maarek was totally in control when he was flying; it was his life. But he needed a life down here, too. She hoped he would be able to find it, and in doing so, find a fuller measure of happiness in his life.

     He made as if to speak again, but just as his mouth opened, a sudden sense of overwhelming dread came over her, so strongly she nearly collapsed. It was back! The feeling she’d felt when the Altarin’Dakor had massed at Mizar, a sudden sense of something building up in the Force, hit her totally by surprise. It was stronger this time, a sense of something she’d rarely felt before and hadn’t had time to familiarize herself with. Nevertheless, it felt like the whole sky was about to fall down on top of her.

     “What is it?” Maarek asked, his face instantly concerned. “Are you okay?”

     He tried to reach for her, as if worried she was going to fall down, but Rynn had gained her legs again, and while the sensation remained, she had adjusted to it. She waved him off, shaking her head a negative. “No, I’m fine,” she explained, “But something’s happening. I have to go.”

     Maarek stood up straight again, though he still looked worried about her. “If you say so. What is it?”

     “I… don’t know yet,” she admitted. “But I have to see someone. Something big is about to happen. I’ll talk to you later!”

     At that she turned away, unable to wait and make a proper goodbye. She felt sorry for him, but this was too urgent to waste time with. She had to see the Grand Master, immediately. Though there was no specific sense of what exactly was taking place, she was sure that it meant one thing: the Altarin’Dakor were amassing their strength for a tremendous strike. The only question was when and where the hammer would fall next.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Royal Palace
            Vectur, Varnus
            1030 Hours

            "I don't believe it, Icis," Xar said, staring down at the screen on his desk.
     "Believe what?"
     "Ken Brucmack would never have committed suicide."
     Icis, standing behind one of the other chairs, frowned slightly. "Wasn't he having trouble with his wife?"
     "No, they were getting back together, last I heard. He was a good man; he had a lot to look forward to."
     Xar sighed. The news of Bruc's death had been a shock, and Xar felt a pang of loss and outrage at hearing about it. After all, when Xar had been Diktat, Brucmack had once been his secretary, too. Unfortunately the news had been overshadowed by other events in the war, especially the recent fall of the Rilke System. It had barely been covered in the news; everyone assumed there were personal issues, or perhaps the impending threat of capture or death by the AD. But he knew, he felt in his gut, that this was important.
     "First an assassination attempt on the Diktat outside his own quarters, and now his secretary is dead." He shook his head.  "This should be a murder investigation. We need to find out who's behind this." He fixed Icis with a stare. "Who would want to kill the Senate Secretary? What's their motive?"
     "Well, we could start with the Diktat himself, perhaps."
     Xar arched an eyebrow. "I doubt it. It was his own secretary. Besides, I know Rytor. I worked with him when I was Diktat and he ran his intelligence network."
     "A network that is still in place, I'm sure," Icis added in. "Just because he changed titles doesn't mean he lost his resources.”
     "Granted. But I've never found anything to suggest that Rytor could be a traitor," Xar added honestly.
     "Maybe Brucmack knew too much about something?"
     "That's his job. He's supposed to know everything."
     "Very well," Icis conceded. "What about other possibilities?"
     "How about the failed assassins outside the Diktat's chambers?"
     "Weren't they killed?"
     "No evidence was ever uncovered," Xar explained. "I suppose first we must answer this question: is this someone inside the NI, or is it the AD?"
     "Almost certainly Altarin'Dakor," Icis mused. "Perhaps along with an agent working within the Senate Complex."
     "We've rooted out every spy we could find, and tightened security about as high as it can go. I don't know how they keep infiltrating us like they did at Moro."

     “They’ve got a lot of years of practice on you, for one thing,” Icis pointed out.

     “I can’t believe my people could have missed so many. Something else is going on here, and we’ve got to find out what it is. Something the AD are doing that we haven’t anticipated.”

     “Nimrod’s strategic abilities aren’t legendary for nothing, Xar.”

     Xar shook his head. “No one is unbeatable.”

     "Just because you cannot see something, it does not mean that it isn't there. Remember, I used to be invisible."
     "A habit I'm glad to see you've dropped," Xar said. "You're too paranoid. Why do you always have to be so suspicious of people?"
     The other man shrugged. "It's what's kept me alive for five thousand years," he said simply. "I never trusted anybody, even in my own circle."
     "Little wonder why it's now defunct," Xar replied.
     "Just downsized. And I'm still alive, so that speaks for itself."
     "Do you trust me?" Xar asked on a whim.
     "That depends on what you mean by trust."
     Xar's stared at the man in surprise, but before he could respond, his office commlink beeped.
     He strode around back behind the desk and tapped the receive button on the desk. "What is it, Nadia?"
     Nadia Ispen's face appeared on the screen. She was watching the entrance to Xar's office today - each member of his so-called 'posse' took turns as bodyguard, rotating once a day. Nadia was one of his most loyal comrades. Born to a rich Coruscanti family, she'd had to hide her latent Force abilities until after the Emperor's death, after which she had joined the rogue Force users called the Jensaari. After 8 years with them and rising to a respected position, she had discovered the NI and, upon meeting with Xar, he had convinced her to join the Division. She’d served fiercely, helping him hunt down Altarin'Dakor spies within the NI. She was good-looking, and striking with her close-cut hair dyed pure white that shone in the light, and brown eyes.
     At the moment, however, Nadia didn't seem too pleased, judging by her expression. Xar soon found out why.
     "Master, Crusader Mariel is here to see you," she said, her voice betraying no emotion. She didn't get along with Rynn very well. The two women were too diametrically opposed in their thinking: Nadia with a strict Imperial background, Rynn having had her whole family killed by the Empire and living as a refugee on the run.
     "Send her in," he ordered.
     Rynn didn't come to see him often, so he figured it must be something important. Icis remained where he was standing. When the doors to his office parted and Rynn strode in, she was dressed in comfortable-looking tan trousers and brown jacket, her long auburn hair tied back in a ponytail that swayed behind her. Few Jedi in the Division wore robes anymore. Mariel wasn't even wearing her lightsaber, which Xar had given her himself, the one he'd taken from Dasok Krun. He surmised it was related to her non-violent philosophy of using the Force. It was too bad; she had shown so much potential as a fighter. But he was willing to indulge her simply due to the amount of talent she had.
     Still, he could instantly tell something was bothering her this time. She felt... disheveled. There was definite anxiety radiating from her through the Force. "Grand Master..." She glanced at Icis standing there in his dark clothing, then turned back to Xar.

     "I'm sorry to barge in on you," she said. "I tried to find Grand Master Misnera…”
     "I have no idea where he is," Xar said frankly. "Probably thinking up some crazy new mission."
     She hesitated a moment, but if she were perturbed by his words, she continued on in a rush anyway. "Sir, the AD are up to something. Something big. I felt their energy spike shortly ago and it hasn't dropped since."
     "You felt?" he repeated. She must be referring to the latent power that had manifested itself in her after the Battle of Mizar. It was a mystery, even to him - and he'd studied just about every piece of Force lore there was out there to read. But she had definitely felt the AD move when they hit Moro the first time. Since then her senses had been seemingly sporadic; they didn't happen every time the AD attacked in this or that location. But when they did come, Xar trusted that they accurately meant something was happening. The only problem was that he didn't know where.
     "Is it just like before?" he asked her. "Any sense of where or when? Any detail at all?"
     "No sir. Only this time, the feeling is still there. Maybe even increasing."
     Xar glanced at Icis. "Do you think this is it?" he asked. This could be the cusp of what they'd been dreading - the full-on strike against Varnus itself. Xar didn't feel they were ready yet; but of course, they could never prepare completely enough. He stared at Icis for a moment, until the other man just shrugged.
     Rynn was still watching him somewhat warily. Xar thought for a moment, then realized what must be troubling her. She hadn't told anyone about her power, and as far as he knew, he and Alyx, Jinx, and perhaps Bren were the only ones who knew about it. "Relax," he told her. "I trust Icis with all my secrets. I'm sure he can handle yours, too." Icis’ presence shouldn’t have phased her – she was used to him enough by now, anyway.
     She flushed, and he knew he'd guessed right. Then she gave a nervous smile and looked at Icis. "Sorry, I'm, just... you know. No offense meant."
     "None taken. I never tell anyone my secrets," Icis said with a wink.
     Xar grinned. He knew Rynn - along with everyone else in the Division - had no idea about Icis' identity as one of the ancient Travelers. He shook his head ruefully. At least, it didn't seem the AD were pouncing on their heads at this exact moment. He gestured to the other empty seat in front of the desk. "Have a seat," he told her. "Let's see if we can analyze exactly how this power of yours works..."
     Just then his commlink beeped again. Exasperated, Xar went around to the other side of the desk again, then realized that it was his belt commlink that was beeping. Then suddenly, Icis' commlink went off, too. Exchanging wary looks with the other man, Xar reached down and brought his comm in front of him. "Go ahead."
     The face of Vynd Archaron appeared on the small screen in his hand. "Xar! Get on the NI HoloNet right away! Erebria has fallen!"
     "What?!" Glancing at Rynn as she gasped in surprise beside him, he tossed the comm onto the desk and hit the button to activate the holoscreen on the wall.
     The NI's Tralarian News Network was already on the screen. A reporter was speaking, and beside her were the words 'Erebria taken by surprise Altarin'Dakor attack'.
     "This isn't good,” Icis whispered.

     The news report quickly recapped what had just happened: A fleet of AD ships had pounced right out of the nebula, where they’d been impossible to detect, and quickly overwhelmed the planetary defense forces on Erebria itself. With Task Force Darkstar now formed up with the Second Fleet and seeing action in Naroon Quadrant, the defense forces at Erebria hadn’t stood a chance. So far though, it seemed no Titans had been involved. What was disturbing, however, was that just as the AD attacked the planet, all of Erebria’s planetary shield generators had simultaneously failed.

     “Sabotage,” Xar said immediately, eliciting a nod from Icis. He turned to look at the Traveler. “How can they keep doing this to us? How in the galaxy did they not just get agents on Erebria, but sabotage all the shields, too?”

     Icis arched an eyebrow at him. “You were saying something about rooting out spies?”

     “They popped right out of the nebula. We knew there was AD activity in there, but we didn’t think they would coordinate to hit us right in the heart, so close to Tralaria…”

     Xar shook his head in disbelief. “This is insane.” He reached over to switch off the display. “Varnus will be next if we don’t do something about this. We’ve got to get all our people outside, double security on our shield generators and everywhere else.”

     Xar grabbed a jacket from the couch nearby and motioned the two of them to follow. As they started out the door, Icis was shaking his head, voicing what Xar already feared was true in his heart.

     “It’s probably already too late, Xar,” Icis said.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Diktat’s Office

            Senate Complex


            1320 Hours


            Sector Admiral Arfann Dogar’s face appeared on the screen, and Gene Rytor gave him a crisp nod before getting straight to the point. On a second holoscreen was Fleet Admiral Jann Percy and Sector Admiral Gaius Adonai, heading the First Fleet and the forces guarding Varnus. All of them were interconnected in a three-way holo-conference.

     “I’ve decided to call the Second Fleet away from the battle theater in Naroon Quadrant, primarily to support the First Fleet and to safeguard Tralaria,” Rytor told them.

     “So we’re simply abandoning those worlds in Naroon Quadrant to the AD?” Percy asked.

     Rytor shook his head. “At this point, I hate to say, it’s simple mathematics. Our most populous worlds by far are here in Galbagos B and Varnus Quadrants. If we fall here, the New Imperium is finished.”

     “But what about all the populations in Naroon Quadrant? Lorn, Gracchus, and Vol?”

     Dogar’s reply was almost frantic. “Erebria has fallen, Jann. Tralaria could be next, and Varnus certainly will be! We have to make our stand now or there will be no one left standing at all. The colonists are in the process of evacuating, but frankly we all know it’s Tralaria and Varnus they want most of all. Once they have them, it’s all over.”

     Rytor nodded sadly. He knew Dogar must be hit hard by the news – as were they all. But Dogar had based his Intruder Wing out of Erebria, and had lived there for years. It was like losing home. At the same time, Tralaria was just a proverbial stone’s throw from Erebria – or Eridani, for that matter. Both systems had fallen within the last couple of days. Nimrod’s forces were advancing faster, and they were nearly to the point where they had to make a last stand – even though the odds against them favored almost certain destruction. Rytor had no idea what hope they had of winning; even Queklain’s aura of confidence seemed inadequate in the face of this.  They had to choose: fight, and try to somehow stop the near-invincible might of Nimrod, or abandon the NI altogether and get out as fast and as far away as they could go.

     “Recall the fleet, and get here as fast as you can,” Rytor said finally, and Dogar nodded his acceptance of the order. Then, as the War Coordinator closed the connection, Rytor turned to Percy.

     “This is the end, isn’t it?” Percy asked, an ashen look on his face. “It’s our last chance. I mean, I have to admit: the thought of retreating does seem like a viable alternative to all of us dying out here.”

     Rytor immediately fixed Percy’s image with a glare. “We’re not just abandoning the NI,” he said sternly. “Not while there’s still fight left in us. If we don’t protect those we swore to protect, then everything we’ve built, everything we’ve lived for, is a sham.”

     “But what chance do we have of defeating them?” The other man shook his head. “There are too many Titans!”

     “You tell me,” Rytor retorted. “At this point, we have two hopes: Zalaria and her forces pulling off something amazing, and our special operations. Perhaps we’ll stand a better chance if they don’t have as many of those Titans. What news of Operation Spear?”

     At that, the Logistics Officer perked back to attention, assuming the calm, professional military demeanor that Rytor knew him for. “Amason should be arriving any time,” he said. “Before long, we should find out what happened.”

     “Then let us hope it is good news,” Rytor said. “Because this may be our only chance.”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Eridani System

            1700 Hours


            Space was silent and seemingly empty as the Titan Annihilator sat in orbit over Epsilon Eridani, the fourth planet in the system of the same name. Walt Amason watched it as his task force approached, a fleet of ten cloaked Altarin’Dakor light cruisers towing five Imperial-cloaked World Devastators. The AD medium corvette he commanded – also cloaked, of course – led the way in. So far so good, he thought. They hadn’t been detected entering the system, which was to be expected this, far out.

     The Titan sat in orbit of the dust-colored world, the pale yellow star Eridani illuminating only half the surface from this angle. With its image-magnification turned way up, he could make out the ship and its numerous escorts hovering over the planet.

     The Annihilator was over thirty kilometers long, and shaped like a wicked, double-edged dagger, thick at the rear and drawing down to twin points at the end. Her hull was silver and shiny, with a crimson-red section carved like a blood groove straight down the center amidships.

     “What’s the status of the planet?” he asked aloud.

     One of the mixed NI/AD crew members onboard answered him. “”The battle is long over, sir. There’s a lot of wreckage in the general vicinity of the Altarin’Dakor vessels.” The image zoomed in and painted boxes over the debris of a frigate and other, less identifiable craft. “As for Epsilon Eridani, there are signs of orbital bombardment in the major cities, and there is no activity on the ground that I can pick up.”

     “Wiped out,” Walt said, suppressing a sigh. The forces here had put up only a token defense; they hadn’t had a chance. Thankfully, most of the inhabitants on the ground had been evacuated before it happened, and most were either on Varnus, Tralaria or Kolath, or else on their way to the Core. He didn’t know what may have happened to those who’d stayed, but he didn’t hold out much hope for them.

     “What about the Titan?” he asked.

     “Still in geostationary orbit over the largest city, sir,” replied the officer.

     For a moment Walt just stood there staring at the Annihilator, feeling a thrill, a rush of adrenaline run through him. This was it. The knowledge that they were actually staring at part of the Altarin’Dakor fleet was somehow surreal. Here they were, just watching, and the AD weren’t trying to blow them out of the sky. Amason shook his head in awe.

     The Titan was gigantic. It was probably more massive than all the ships in the NI Navy combined. The thought that they were going up against that, with only several vessels only a few hundred meters long! It was unthinkable, the stuff of legend.

     But he couldn’t stand here gawking forever. This was exactly what they’d hoped for, finding the Titan still sitting there quietly. It was the perfect opportunity, one they couldn’t gamble on having again. He turned to the ship’s commodore, Vox’Donn Surim Uvras. “The Titan is stationary,” he said.

     Uvras, a tall, nearly black-skinned human, nodded. “The planet was attacked recently,” he replied in passable Basic. “They are coordinating their ground operation.”

     “Sounds like this is the perfect opportunity,” Walt offered.

     The other man nodded. “Yes. We should attack now.”

     “Very well, then. Begin the operation,” he ordered, turning to the rest of the bridge crew.

     And began it did. All around them, the AD light cruisers moved forward, their close range and tight-beam link enabling Walt to pick them out on the advanced ship’s tactical screens. Behind them trailed sets of near-invisible tow cables, and at the other end of each was a seemingly empty spot in space, actually a medium-sized World Devastator wrapped in an Imperial-era cloaking device.

     Walt’s main concern was whether they could get the calculations right. With the Titan following the planet’s orbit, they had to drag the Devastators in and then set them adrift while still hundreds of kilometers away, then hope they’d been on target enough to actually strike the Titan. If they were lucky they might even hit one of the ship’s side hangar bays, though he knew the odds of that were next to impossible.

     The ships were pulling far ahead into the distance now, and still they had not been detected. So far, so good, Amason thought. He felt a chill run up his spine, knowing that if they were caught, they wouldn’t have a choice but to flee for their lives.

     “Status report?” he asked eagerly, impatient to hear some news. The ships were keeping complete radio silence except for the slightest of transmissions through the tight-beam link.

     “Approaching drop point,” an officer reported. “Calculations seem good.”

     Amason nodded and watched ahead once more. The Titan still rested ahead, with about a dozen escorts around it, mostly cruisers and destroyers. Those could pose a problem, he realized. Infiltrating and neutralizing the Titan was the main goal, but even if successful, Amason’s fleet couldn’t match the Titan’s escorts. Still, hopefully they wouldn’t be able to disrupt the operation, and they wouldn’t matter as long as the Titan was destroyed. They didn’t have to worry about messages getting out; in fact, hopefully this would spread all through the AD fleet and affect their morale as well as their strength. At least, it should make them angry, and angry officers could make mistakes.

     Finally, after what seemed like forever, the officer spoke up again.

     “Tow cables have been released,” the report came. “The World Devastators are on their way. Escorts are turning back now.”

     Amason let out a long-drawn breath, his vision glued to the tactical display. This was it; there was no going back, now. The WD’s would drift along like asteroids toward their target. Of course, they hadn’t all been aimed at the same spot. To increase the chances of hitting it with at least one Devastator, they had been set on courses that would take one ship each just above and below the Titan’s vertical axis, with another at the stern and bow to cover forward and backwards motion in case the Titan moved. The final Devastator had been aimed dead-center. Now it was only a matter of waiting.

     The Devastators were beyond his control, now. Unless they dropped their cloaks, Amason didn’t even know how far away from the Titan they were. So he just waited, along with everyone else, as the timer estimate continued to drop lower and lower.

     Then, just as he hoped that this mission would go off exactly as they’d planned, an urgent beeping suddenly sounded from the operations and navigation station. Amason turned to look at the officer there, his stomach sinking.

     “Sir!” the officer reported. “The Annihilator is moving!”

     Amason swore, using a curse he’d picked up in another part of the galaxy. He knew it was too good to be true. “What’s it doing?” he demanded.

     “Beginning to roll to port, sir,” came the reply.

     “It looks like they’re turning to jump out-system,” Uvras spoke up nearby. “Their mission must have been accomplished.”

     “Are they still within the area covered by our Devastators?” Amason asked anxiously.

     “Hard to say, sir,” the operations officer replied. “The more she turns, the smaller the profile will be. The odds are getting smaller by the second.”

     “What do we do now?” Walt asked, dismayed that the whole plan was unraveling right before their eyes. The Titan was moving in exactly the one way they hadn’t anticipated – orienting itself in a new direction. Amason cursed himself a fool for such an oversight. All it took was one, simple miscalculation and the whole mission was rendered hopeless. What grated on him the most was the fact that it was completely unintentional. The AD didn't even know they were there; it was just a one huge spat of bad timing.

     “We’ll have to wait until the Titan leaves, then go back and collect the Devastators later,” he said, sighing in disgust.

     “Perhaps one of the Devastators will still hit,” Uvras replied, his voice sounding optimistic. “It will take them time to move.”

     Walt continued to study the screen, hoping to see word of an impact at any time. But despite his best hopes, a moment later they got even worse news.

     “Sir, the Annihilator has raised her shields,” the officer reported. “They are now at full strength.”

     Amason clenched his teeth in frustration. That was it; the Titan would raise its shields before making a jump. “It’s too late,” he hissed. “We’ll never penetrate their shields, now.” The Devastators didn’t have the mass or energy to push through.

     The Commodore turned and fixed him with a stare. “We won’t get another chance like this,” he said flatly. “When they discover our tactic, they will increase their defense to match it. That is the way that Altarin’Dakor work.”

     “But there’s nothing we can do, now,” Walt countered, his hopes dying. “I…”

     Suddenly there was another beep at the comm.. Then the officer at that station spoke up, as well.

     “Sir, a message from the cruiser commanded by Vox’Donn Treyan Numos, via tight-beam transmission.”

     “Put it on the viewport,” Amason said.

     The view of the Titan was replaced by the head and uniformed torso of an Altarin’Dakor commodore, tall and tan-skinned with close-cropped hair and determined eyes. Amason faced him on the screen and nodded, feeling Uvras’ presence beside him as they waited to see what the man had to say.

     Glaciek Altarin’Dakor,” the man began, raising a hand palm-up to them.

     Uvras returned the gesture, echoing the words. Glaciek Altarin’Dakor, Vox’Donn Numos.”

     Walt had no idea what they were saying; he only caught the words ‘Altarin’Dakor’ and the commodore’s name. At any rate, after that the man on the screen addressed him in Basic.

     “Sir, we are sorry. We did not anticipate the Annihilator would turn as she is.”

     Amason quickly shook his head. “No, no, the fault is mine. I made the miscalculation.”

     “Sir, if we do not act now, the mission will be lost,” the man said, his voice urgent.

     “It’s lost already. You did your best, but I’m afraid there is nothing we can do.”

     “There is something,” Numos countered. “My ships will jump to the Annihilator and hold her in place until the strike is successful.”

     “It will take a strong assault to convince them to change course,” Uvras replied.

     “We will be able to do it,” Numos assured him.

     The truth of what they were discussing hit Walt like a hammer. He stared at the man in shock, realizing his jaw had dropped open. “That’s crazy! You won’t stand a chance against the Titan.”

     “That is true, but we can divert its attention. It will have to face us, and we can try to maneuver it on target.”

     “This is a good plan,” Uvras spoke up beside him. “You will earn much honor from this, Vox’Donn.

     “You’ll earn death, that’s all you’ll earn!” Amason countered, staring at Uvras in disbelief. “You want them to go through with this? This is a suicide mission!”

     “They know that, Admiral!Uvras snapped back at him, and Amason took an involuntary step back. There was an intensity, something nearly primal, behind his gaze. Like all Altarin’Dakor have, he realized.

     “Time is running out. We have to go now,” Numos spoke up, cutting the disagreement short.

     Amason turned to look back up at him, trying to burn the man’s face into his memory. He knew that Numos would not be coming back. But still, Numas knew he was going to his death, and he stood there unflinching, almost as if he was looking forward to it.

     “Good luck out there, Vox’Donn,” he said, cutting the man his best salute. It seemed a painfully inadequate thing to do or say in the face of the sacrifice they were about to make. Their whole escort was going out to commit suicide just to try and buy the mission a better chance of success.

     Then Uvras stepped forward, staring at the screen. “Fly well, and may your enemies all fall at your feet until the Return is complete.”

     Numos raised his hand again as he made one final, intense outburst. “We fly with honor, Vox’Donn. Undia Zalaria!

     Undia Zalaria!” shouted Uvras and every other Altarin’Dakor in the room. Amason looked around and noticed everyone was standing, facing the man on the screen with faces full of respect and admiration. Amason suddenly felt very much a foreigner aboard this ship.

     Then the image disappeared, returning to a view of the Titan, which was still turning towards them. Walt could see on the tactical display that their escorts were pulling away from them.

     Amason couldn't believe this was happening. Some part of him, thinking logically, at the hypothetical level, understood and agreed with the concept: the sacrifice of a handful in order to save many. A few warriors lost sounded well worth the gain of an enemy command ship with maybe a million foes onboard. After all, the needs to the many outweighed those of the few, or so the saying went. But at a deeper, guttural level, his stomach churned into almost panic at the idea. Wasn't there any other way? They were all going to die! How could he stand here and let that happen? How could he deal with the knowledge that they had perished for the sake of his mission?
     Beside him, Ulvas must have noticed his internal distress, for he stepped closer, almost touching Amason's shoulder. "This is the Altarin'Dakor way," he said in a low voice. "It is a great honor for them. Now we must ensure their deaths are not in vain."
     Those words brought Walt out of his reflection. There was work to do. He had to make sure at least one Devastator hit, otherwise they would all die in vain. He turned and quickly strode over to the operations command console, watching over the shoulder of the officer there.

     Numos and the other cruisers are preparing to jump,” another officer reported.

     This is it, Amason thought. Then the ships disappeared from the screen, and they were gone.


            The Annihilator continued its lazy turn, moving in a general heading away from Epsilon Eridani’s gravity well. It was just starting forward when the attack came, swiftly and out of nowhere.

     Along both sides of the Titan, spears of energy appeared out of the blackness, raining down to impact against the ship's shields. The shields lit up all across the ship, painting the hull in a wash of blue light, rippling as they withstood the impact. The light cruisers, still cloaked, continued to fire, always moving so that the enemy couldn't pinpoint their location.
     Almost instantly, the Titan responded. At first, thousands of small pulse lasersfilled the air, attempting to gain a lucky hit and reveal the ships' locations. Then, giant beams of energy swept out, scanning space for a chance strike. The Titan's escorts opened up as well, firing randomly into the space around the Titan. The whole area had gone from a serene starscape to a firezone in the space of a few seconds.
     More fire poured in from the light cruisers, groups of missiles supplemented by more energy beams. The warheads sent rippling effects across the shields and the beams struck down, trying to penetrate, but the Titan's shields soaked up the near-continuous barrage.
     Still, it looked like the attack was working. The Annihilator turned from its initial heading, swinging further to port, as if concerned what else could be waiting out there, cloaked. Amason bit his lip in anticipation. Was it enough?
     Then a lucky shot from the Titan found its mark. A giant yellow beam swept through the sky where a blast had come before, and suddenly an explosion blossomed in the sky. The cruiser immediately became visible again, and the beam continued its work, cutting the elegant-looking craft nearly in half before the explosion blew the ship apart.
     Where are those Devastators? Amason wondered frantically. The Annihilator continued its turn, firing out wildly in all directions, as the remaining nine cruisers' firepower continued to light up her shields. Still, it looked like the cruisers were giving her a run for her credits, as they continued to evade most of the fire.
     Then finally, it looked like the Titan had had enough. Suddenly, the shields seemed to expand outwards, first slowly, then finally in a flash. Amason blinked. What had happened? The Titan's shields were down!

     But the wave of expanding energy had caused another effect; All around the Titan, the light cruisers’ cloaking fields dropped amid sprays of lightning bolts. The Annihilator’s crew had purposefully overloaded the shields, disrupting any energy field within the general vicinity. The cruisers were visible, now.

     Now the Titan’s weapons struck out with a vengeance, finding their targets at last. The cruisers continued firing though, their missiles and beams impacting on the bare hull of the Annihilator, now. Unfortunately, their effect was minimal compared to the sweeping destruction caused by the Titan’s beam weapons. The cruisers took major hits, beams cutting deeply into them and ripping ships apart in a collection of expanding fireballs.

     Amason watched the scene in utter dismay. The surviving light cruisers had gone evasive, now, though at their close range the Titan was still scoring hits. The other escorts, cruisers and destroyers, were firing on the ships, as well. As he’d feared, the attack had been no more than a diversion. Everyone out there was dying, and unless the plan worked, their deaths would all be in vain.

     He had to find those Devastators. Leaning over to the command board, he desperately searched for the command override to drop the cloaks on the World Devastators.

     Just then, something hit one of the Altarin’Dakor destroyers. A fireball blew into it amidships, and the craft that had hit it, now visible, bored its way through, sending both ships up in an expanding ball of flame. Of all the chances, one of the Devastatators had collided with an enemy ship, only it was the wrong one. Stang it all!

     That was it; he could wait no longer. He hit the command override button, and suddenly, close around the Titans, four more ships became visible. There they were! The remaining Devastators were just making their passes, but they were all going to miss!

     Two of them had already passed over the Titan’s hull, while another went by underneath. But another one was just starting to pass by the ship’s port side. This could be it!

     Throwing himself at the controls, he activated the remote control for that particular Devastator. Camera views from the ship appeared on the screen, and as he found the ship’s orientation to the Titan, he punched in commands to cause it to make a hard turn to port.

     There! Just on the side of the ship was a hangar, its outline in bright lights. He hit the reverse thrusters on the Devastator and pulled it in left and low, hoping against hope that he could make it. The Titan’s beam weapons opened up, but the ship was already too close; they swept behind it harmlessly. Its pulse lasers peppered the front of the World Devastator, but weren’t enough to get through. The hangar’s external defenses themselves fired also, but it was too late.

     The Devastator barreled into the hangar mouth with plenty of room to spare, though a slight miscalculation caused it to graze the top of the opening on the way in. The defense cannons were obliterated as the ship flew in, reverse thrusters on full. It hit the deck hard and chewed up the metal like a grinding machine, wiping out fighters that were lined up along the hangar floor. Fire blossomed wherever it touched, and only external cameras showed Walt what was happening as the ship slid all the way to the back of the hangar and came to a halt at the back wall.

     Smoke and fire filled the whole expanse, as Altarin’Dakor pilots, techs, and soldiers found their footing and took in the large vessel that had just invaded their hangar. Now that it was inside, the ship’s AI took over, operating on its mission protocols.

     The Devastator’s shields came online in a flash, easily repelling the small-arms fire coming from AD soldiers in the hangar around it. Its own blaster cannons popped out of their hidden slots, returning fire. Then the internal bays opened up, and a score of battle droids and droidekas, procured from the Corporate Sector, fell out and started blasting away at AD shocktroopers. The AD troops used smaller hand-held beam cannons and mass drivers to blow droids to pieces. Their return blasts were not so effective alone, but concentrated together burned through even AD armor and sent the soldiers scattering.

     Then another wave of energy expanded from somewhere within the Titan’s hangar. All around the Devastator, AD workers and soldiers fell to the deck, dead instantly. The NI’s droids, however, were still standing, and the Devastator was still operating as normal. Amason looked on in confusion for a moment before it hit him. The AD had used some kind of anti-biological weapon, intending to kill all the crew of the ship and stop its internal assault. However, they didn’t’ realize that the ships had been rigged to operate with droid pilots and an upgraded central computer system. They’d have to use ion cannons to disable it, and with the Devastator’s shields up, that would be impossible.

     As if seeming to realize this, fighters launched out of the Annihilator’s other hangars and began to swing around the diameter of the ship. Amason realized they would try to destroy the ship inside the hangar and accept whatever losses within the Titan that might occur. The sheer ruthlessness of it chilled him to the bone.

     By now, the last of the light cruisers had been blown from the sky, becoming little more than debris pulled into orbit over Epsilon Eridani. Seeing that some distraction might be needed, Amason punched in commands to the other three World Devastators, which had passed now a couple of hundred kilometers on the other side of the Titan. He turned those ships around, hoping they would be able to distract the enemy a bit more. And besides, if he could penetrate the Titan with another one, all the better.

     It worked, at least to a point. In response, most of the Titan’s escorts turned and began an intercept course, while the fighters swung around to make their attack runs on the hangar.

     Fortunately, they had been prepared for this, as well. In response, dozens of TIE Droid fighters burst out of the Devastator’s storage bays, screaming out into the hangar and towards the opening, moving to engage the AD fighters.

     Then the Devastator’s mighty internal factories finally came online. The ship rose slightly on its repulsorlifts and began aiming its tractor beams at different objects around the hangar, including the floor, walls, and ceiling. Under their tremendous force, bulkheads and large sheets of metal were ripped free and drawn into the Devastator’s hungry, yawning furnaces. Even the hangar floor itself was peeled back and drawn up to act as a shield between the Devastator and the outside, where the fighters were just beginning to meet.

     The exchange was quick and violent. The AD fighters attacked with precision, blasting the weaker TIE Droids out of the sky as they exited the hanger. However, the sheer numbers and combination of firepower made the TIEs deadly, as well. Green energy blasts flew out by the hundreds and concentrated on groups of AD craft, overwhelming their shields and destroying them one by one. The droids acted under a hive-mind controller, while the AD pilots were more apt to act independently and for personal glory. As a result, the attackers were kept clear of the hangar.

     And as everything – bodies, supplies, broken fighters, and bulkheads – made its way into the Devastator’s gaping maw, those factories worked overtime, producing whatever materials the ship needed to use in its assault next. Right now that meant fighters, and soon a steady stream of more were pouring out of the ship, moving to join their brothers. For every TIE Droid shot down, two more filled its place. The AD fighters were soon overwhelmed.

     Amason watched with a growing sense of elation. It was working! They had successfully fended off the attack, and now it was just a matter of time until they ate that Titan from the inside out. Reaching over, he reactivated the cloaking devices on the other Devastators to protect them from the advancing AD capital ships. One by one they vanished again, drifting on whatever course they had been heading on. The AD ships, however, probably didn’t know that, and so it would also help to confuse them a bit more as to their intentions. At last, he thought wearily. It felt good to finally gain the upper hand in this conflict.


            Naguis’Vox’Donn Xantar Gornen watched the conflict unfold on the bridge of the Annihilator, the atmosphere of the room becoming more confused by the minute. What was this new weapon the NI had used against them? The ship seemed to be running all by itself, and it was employing some unknown technology to actually eat its way through his ship. His ship! This beautiful yet ancient relic was being gutted from the inside out by these barbarians! He could not let this be!

     He turned to his command officers and began snapping out orders, and questions. To his knowledge, no other commodore had faced ships such as these before, which probably meant they’d been holding them back in secret until just such a time as this. They had to find out what these ships were, and devise a strategy to eliminate them.

     “Where is it now?” he demanded, glancing around the command room. All officers were anxiously staring at their control displays, and he knew they were as baffled as he. They were trying diligently, he knew. Everyone knew that the price of failure at a time like this would be a swift end to their careers, as well as their lives.

     “The enemy ship has penetrated the hangar wall and is starting to move aft,” someone reported.

     “How is it moving through this ship?!” Gornen demanded angrily. “Quickly, summon one of our escorts. Tell them to blast the hangar and destroy it before it gets out of range!”

     Reacting obediently, the officer sent out the message, and Gornen turned to the main screen and watched in anticipation.


            Amason watched as one of the AD destroyers maneuvered around, lining itself up with the hangar. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. First they had sent a pulse that killed every biological organism within the hangar – an attack that had killed only their own men – and now they were going to attack their own ship and try to surgically remove the Devastator like a doctor cutting away a parasite inside a patient’s body.

     Would the Devastator get out of the way in time? He considered taking their own corvette closer and making an attack run on the destroyer. He glanced at Ulvas, who was watching the battle intently. They had already moved much closer to the Titan in order to get a better view. Still, he realized that they had little chance of doing more than annoying the destroyer, and would likely only get themselves killed in the process. He would have to watch and wait, and hope things turned out all right.

     Then suddenly the destroyer’s forward beam weapons opened up, stabbing straight into the hangar. They hit the layer of raised deck plates and burned through, reaching into the rear of the opening. Then flame burst out of the hangar mouth, obscuring the view of the inside completely.

     Amason checked his screens; the Devastator was still alive! Well, proverbially speaking, at least. It had made its way deeper into the ship, eating its way through the interior levels of the Titan. Now it would be virtually impossible to dislodge, unless they were willing to destroy half their own ship in the process.

     Unbelievably, it seemed that was exactly what they were willing to do. Slowly, the rest of the Titan’s escorts formed back up, moving over the Titan’s surface, as if trying to find the right place to fire and cut out the Devastator. To that end, Amason knew the ship would be digging as deeply as it could. They would have to blast through kilometers of hull if they wanted to reach it.

     Now the waiting began, he knew. It would take a long time for the Devastator to destroy the Titan, even unopposed now as it was. The massive ships were superbly built, and very redundant; it could take hours until it finally reached the engine sections and rendered the ship completely helpless. At that point, the NI fleet could jump in and finish it at their leisure, or even better, capture the craft and use it to their advantage. 

     Breathing a sigh of relief at last, he settled back to wait.


            Naguis’Vox’Donn Xantar Gornen watched as his escorts fired into the hull again and again, burning through countless levels in an attempt to destroy the invader. They weren’t moving fast enough. The enemy was chewing its way through the Titan’s guts like a rabid piranha beetle. He was still waiting for his analysts to come up with some new tactic for removing this pest.

     Titan-class battleships were built extremely tough, but unfortunately that toughness was meant to repel invaders from the outside. It was unthinkable that an enemy could actually penetrate inside and gain the upper hand. To that end, there were no internal defenses capable of stopping the enemy, and his own ships were taking far too long to penetrate the Annihilator’s tough hull to be effective.

     Then the lights went out.

     Emergency lighting came on immediately, and Gornen turned to his officers in annoyance and, even more so, disbelief. “What happened?” he asked.

     “The main power conduit has been severed,” the report came back. “Auxiliary power will be restored momentarily.”

     True enough, a few seconds later the bridge returned to full power, as alternate systems that bypassed the main conduit rerouted power from the engines. Titans were very resilient, with many backup systems, enough to keep her alive and fighting long after other ships would have gone dead and silent.

     Still, it was only a matter of time, now. Their power would continue to be disrupted, eaten away until the ship could not travel under its own power or even defend herself. Gornen looked at the ship’s scanners, searching the space around them. He knew there was another enemy ship out there, controlling all this. It was the only explanation; there were no more living beings on the invading ship, so how was it operating? All by remote control? Or was it the machines that these barbarians loved to employ so much, as the rumors stated? Gornen couldn’t understand why one would use a machine when there were so many viable slaves around.

     Still, he didn’t know if the enemy ship out there was a small corvette, or the Nexus, the enemy’s most powerful ship. Reports said she was at Varnus, but if it was her out there, then the Annihilator, in her crippled state, would not be able to defeat her. Neither Gornen nor his men had the expertise to defeat this enemy within them. There was only one thing left he could do. He hated it – the very thought of it sent a stab of fear into his heart – but he had no choice, now.

      Striding from the bridge, he entered his private command chambers adjacent to the bridge itself. Walking to his desk control panel, he carefully sealed the room off from outsiders and eavesdropping devices, then activated the communications system. He was one of only a few on the ship, or even in the fleet, who knew exactly who it was they ultimately served. Their society was structured on a need-to-know basis, and the lower ranks operated just fine under the assumption that there were powerful admirals and even emperors in charge. That was all well and good, but as Naguis’Vox’Donn, Gornen had to know the truth.

     He activated the device.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Mizar System

            1910 Hours


            The Warlord sat in near-darkness, his command chamber around him providing all the information on all the ships and worlds of his vast multi-empire. The battlefront along New Imperium space was proceeding well; in a few days they would be completely destroyed. Then he could move on to more enticing targets. Indeed, he already had bypassed the small government’s territory, striking into the space of the government currently dominant in this galaxy, known as the New Republic.

     The ultimate plan of conquest was already laid out; the whole galaxy would be his within a year. Only a few minor adjustments, here and there, were necessary, and took only a small part of his attention.

     But right now, a small matter to attend to. One of his commanding officers had made a grave error, underestimating the cunning of the New Imperium’s forces, now that they had Zalaria to guide them. Now the holographic projection of Gornen appeared before him as a hand-sized image, bowing near-prostrated in front of him. On the other end, the man would see the Warlord as a huge image that filled the whole room and made him seem like the insignificant mortal that he was.

     “What has happened?” Nimrod demanded, his voice betraying no emotion, only a ruthless demand for the truth – one that could not be denied.

     “Great Lord,” the man said, not daring to look up at the deity that filled the air in front of him. “I must report a problem onboard the Annihilator. The enemy has used an unknown technology to penetrate the ship. It is consuming us from the inside, and using those resources to build new ships and weapons against us.”

     Nimrod did not reply. For a moment, he contemplated the Vox’Donn’s fate, and that of his ship. It was a valuable part of his fleet – every Titan was. But it took only an instant to assess the situation. Meanwhile, the bowed man continued.

     “We have attempted to destroy the ship using our escorts, but our efforts have been unsuccessful,” the man reported. “We do not know this enemy technology, and have been unable to see a way to remove the ship without causing great damage to our own.”

     Nimrod still did not answer; he thought about this new ‘technology’ that the man spoke of. Most likely one that Nimrod himself had seen, or developed himself eons ago, and had rejected due to its limitations. Still, it was interesting that the enemy has used it so cunningly. Almost surprising, even. They had outsmarted his forces, and he had taken a loss. It angered him. Now there would have to be retribution.

     “What should we do now, Great Lord?” the Vox’Donn asked, daring to look up, panic drawn across his face as he realized the hopelessness of their situation.

     “You die,” he said, and closed the connection.

     Slowly, he turned to the great artifact that was spread out before him, extending down into the bowels of his flagship, the Grand Crusader. A low murmur escaped from his lips as he reached deep within the Power, channeling it through the massive focusing crystals deep within the ship.

     The loss of the Annihilator was infuriating, but it was that fury that fueled his power, now. His stroke of revenge would begin here, and it would end with complete dominion over his enemy’s capital worlds in just a few days. No one who toyed with him survived!

     As the Power built to a crescendo within him, he focused it, channeling it through the artifact built into the ship beneath him. Only a few like it existed; there were stories of a few that had survived here in this galaxy, in weaker form. However, he was certain that the power to destroy a star was his alone, now.

     Finally he unleashed the full fury of his pent-up energies, reaching silently across space, ripping into the star called Eridani and causing its core to collapse in on itself. It was done.

     Releasing the Power with a sigh, he turned his attention elsewhere once more. He needed a replacement for his lost Titan, and here in the Mizar System, conveniently lying in waiting ever since he’d arrived, was the perfect supplement to his fleet.

     Reaching through his command module once more, he reached out with the Power, calling out to the command center of the Titan in orbit of Arcadia. The dark ship flared to life once more, her command crew receiving new orders, ones that would form them up with his fleet for the key assault to come.

     The Cataclysm began to move, turning away from orbit to form up with his own command ship, poised to strike at the enemy’s core and finish them in one decisive blow.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Amason watched as the Devastator worked its way through the Annihilator, heading ever aft. A couple of hours had passed, and surely by now the AD knew they had no hope. They hadn’t given up, however. The escorts continued to burn holes in the Titan’s hull, effectively doing the NI’s job for them. But pretty soon they would reach the engine section, and that would be it. The escorts would have to either leave, or remain and try to defend the ship against a final assault.

     Walt was pleased; the attack had been successful. The losses hurt, though. But at least those men hadn’t died in vain.

     Suddenly a warning blared up from one of the consoles, and the officer there turned to them, his expression going wide-eyed.

     “Sir! Vox’Donn!” he shouted, addressing both of them.

     “What is it?” Amason asked, moving closer. Ulvas was right behind him.

     “Strange readings from the star Eridani!” the man said. He looked back at his screens, and his voice went from alarmed to panicked. “The star has gone nova, sir!”

     “What?!” Amason blurted.

     Ulvas reacted instantly. “Set a course out of here at once!” he barked, addressing the navigations console. “I don’t care where, jump as soon as you get clearance!”

     Amason stared at him, wide-eyed, then looked back at the other console where the report had come from and swallowed hard. Not just nova, he realized in horror. Supernova. A diagram showed an expanding shockwave rushing out from the star itself. Though the light from the sun still looked like nothing was wrong, their sensors told the ugly truth; the Eridani system was finished.

     The star brightened abruptly, and the ship’s viewports faded as the starfield swam in front of them. The ship was facing away from it, now. They had to jump now, or it was all over.

     “The other Devastators!” He realized in shock. They were out there somewhere! But no, there was no time! “It’s too late! Get us out of here, now!” he shouted.

     The stars became starlines.


            The shockwave followed the flash of light by mere seconds. Impossibly huge and bright, it reached out and swatted everything in its path out of the way like specks of dust. All the remaining Devastators and escorts, followed by the thirty-kilometer Titan, were blown to their constituent atoms in an instant. Then the wave hit Epsilon Eridani itself. The surface of the world was churned up like a wave splashing into a pool, wiping out every city, every standing structure, and every remaining life form in the blink of an eye.

     Then Epsilon Eridani itself exploded, blown along by the unstoppable stellar wave, reduced to the dust from which it was made.

     The wave continued on unabated, heading for the outer planets. Eridani was no more.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Pax System

            Approaching Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            1749 Hours Ship’s Time


            "There she is," Alyx said, staring at the Titan growing closer and closer out the front viewport. It was a massive ship, a floating city over thirty kilometers long, and colored gunmetal gray. Two broad wings swept out along the Desolation's sides, and smaller projections covered the central body of the ship, revealing countless windows that shone in the night. Though he couldn't see it at this angle, Alyx knew that the ship's nose was blackened and cracked and that most of its forward weapons were gone, the results of heavy assaults by the NI First Fleet. Still, though the Desolation had probably suffered the most damage of any of the invading Titans so far, she was still a powerful force to be reckoned with. The rest of the ship was still fully functional, giving it more than enough firepower to lay waste to whole fleets just by itself.
     The ship grew to the point that nothing else could be seen, just a wall of metal rushing towards them. Alyx took a deep breath. Beside him, the Altarin'Dakor pilot was conversing with someone onboard the Desolation, trying to get them clearance to land. They had been waiting for several tense moments, now. They all knew that if something went wrong, they were in too close to make it back out alive.
     Finally he heard a voice speak into the pilot's headset, and the silver-haired man turned to Alyx and nodded. They were clear to land.
     "All right, here we go," Alyx told the other team members gathered in the forward cockpit. So far, so good. Now they were going to actually set foot inside an enemy Titan-class battleship. As much as he tried to steel his nerves, the thought of doing this was almost paralyzing. He couldn't afford to draw on the Force for calming techniques; until they got onboard, they couldn't risk the chance of someone knowing there were Jedi coming. Instead, he practiced a breathing exercise, focusing his mind on the sheer necessity of this mission - and of the Force vision that had driven him this far. Xar might think him mad, but he knew that if they didn't do something to take out some of Nimrod's Titan's, not only would the New Imperium fall, but the rest of the galaxy, as well.
     The pilot steered them towards one of the yawning hangar bays in the Titan's side, and the bright opening continued to grow larger and larger. Their escorts peeled off, making flybys over and under their corvette as they approached. Then the tractor beams had them, and they were heading in.

     At first the interior seemed blindingly bright, but his eyes quickly adjusted. The whole hangar, and especially the ebony-colored floor, was highly polished, and held quite a surprisingly artistic design value more than other command ships Alyx had been on before. But it didn’t matter; he had to remind himself that this was the enemy they were dealing with.

     The corvette, now powering itself down, was pulled into the rear of the hangar and finally set down onto the deck without so much as a bump. Alyx looked around to the rest of his team: Vykk Olyronn, Colin Moore, Jontaar Domi, Mrax Satai, and Rilke Darcunter. He nodded, and then they started aft while the pilot shut the ship down completely.


            The Jedi team emerged from the craft and walked down the gangway to the deck, trying not to appear as nervous as they all felt. Very few crewmembers had come with them onboard the corvette; now only one guide, dressed as a technician, guided them out of the vessel. Alyx and the others were dressed in jumpsuit uniforms like those commonly used by AD scouts. Their story, that they had been in the advance scouting platoon and had suffered damage to their ship – actually intentional, of course – seemed to be paying off. Maybe too well, though; there was no one else around them in this part of the hangar.

     “Something doesn’t feel right,” Vykk spoke up, voicing Alyx’s own thoughts.

     “At least there’s no one here trying to blast us,” Colin Moore said more amiably.

     Alyx turned to their guide, who was walking beside them. “What did you tell them?”

     “We said a reactor leak makes the area around the ship dangerous,” the man replied.

     “That’s a great one. Don’t all invading parties use that line?” Domi asked, rolling his eyes.

     “Someone is coming to meet us,” the guide retorted, then gestured at the far wall.

     Alyx turned that way, seeing another pair of men walking towards them. They were dressed in what looked like decontamination suits. Alyx held himself still, ready for anything. After all, these newcomers had come from inside the Titan. As they got close though, the guide stepped forward and made introductions.

     “Your contacts,” he explained. “They will escort you through the ship.”

     The foremost newcomer reached up and removed his helmet, revealing a fair-skinned, middle-aged face that had seen quite its share of scars. “I am Myrkos Rothran,” he said nodding to Alyx and the team. “Don’t worry; the security cameras have been disabled.”

     “That’s good to know,” Vykk spoke up beside Alyx.

     Alyx nodded. “You’re the one we are supposed to meet. You’re an engineer of some sort?”

     Rothran looked from one Jedi to the other, then gave a smirk and turned to lead them deeper into the ship. “I will take you to a safe room, where we can change and rest,” he said. “After that I will guide you to whatever section you want to go.”

     “Thank you,” Alyx said, falling into step behind the man, a bit perturbed by his briskness. Curiously enough, the other agent stayed behind, and the pilot, as well. Perhaps they had some kind of message to deliver. Alyx wondered at it, but kept quiet. This wasn’t exactly the sneaking-around type of mission he’d had in mind, and he began to wonder just how far Zalaria’s forces had penetrated Nimrod’s own. Still, fortune had decided to shine on them so far. Now, if they could get to the safe room successfully, they would be able to start the real mission objectives: capturing or disabling the Desolation completely.

     He still had his fears, but so far Zalaria had been as good as her word. Now the real test would begin. He had no idea whether or not they could pose as normal crew onboard such a massive and advanced ship. But it was too late to worry, now. They had to try, or otherwise none of them would be making it back out anytime soon.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1646 Hours


            They were all gathered in the lounge, which Rynn took as a rather different place to be holding a meeting. The room was in the interior section of the VIP area, meaning they were away from the bustle of the lower levels, but there were no windows. There was also no table, but instead several plush couches lined the walls, along with several tall species of potted plants.

      Even more unusual were the people Xar had gathered here. She sat on one of the couches along one wall, to the left of Paladins Amleth Uiara, Quaestor of House Vortigern, and Draken Ar’Kell, Aedile of Ar’Kell. Sitting across from them were white-haired Crusader Nadia Ispen and dark-skinned Adept Atridd Xoan, her former mentor. The first she tolerated uncomfortably – she just didn’t have to feel friendly, that was all. The second was a friend and counselor to her, but in the present company she needed to stay as professionally distant as possible.

     On another couch beside them were Dathomiri Templar Melia Tai and, surprisingly, Paladin Ken ‘Nova’ Nandos, Aedile of Castellan. The latter, tanned, well-muscled and stone-faced, sat there staring down at his hands, rubbing them occasionally and generally giving off an air of impatience.

     Sitting on the floor between them all was Togorian Adept Ralagos Akala, one of Xar’s closest companions, who sat there breathing slowly with his eyes half-closed. Running back and forth between the massive, furred alien and Rynn was eleven-year-old Derek. He had grown a lot in the three years since he’d been brought to Varnus. He’d lost some of that childlike innocence and wonder, though with Derek it seemed impossible to do away with completely. He was taller and a thinner, but his still had his dark hair that always tended to sweep down in front of his eyes. She needed to give him a haircut again, soon. Derek walked around seemingly oblivious to the political atmosphere in the room, though in reality he most likely was aware of everything that happened. With such a group gathered, including most of the Jedi he liked to hang around with, the boy had been impossible to leave behind. He was also very close to Xar, which was why Rynn suspected he was here, anyway.

     Finally, standing on the other side of Amleth and leaning against the wall was Adept Jacob “Jinx” Skipper, former Quaestor of Vortigern, former Magistrate of Moro and the leader of the Renastatian refugees, who were currently on Varnus. He stood there nonchalantly, pointedly ignoring Nova on the other side. His brown hair divided by one solid white lock and his good looks made him a striking figure, though Rynn didn’t glance at him for long at any one time. They had chosen not to sit together, obviously to avoid sending the wrong message to everyone else here. Besides, he was officially in Xar’s ‘cadre’, while she was with those who eschewed to use the Force for violent combat.

     It was a volatile group, to say the least. Glancing around at everyone, she wondered why Xar had assembled them all here. This was virtually all the leaders of the different factions among the Jedi Division. Why Xar had summoned them all here in this one room was the question she knew was on everyone’s mind. Each had not been told of the others’ invitation until they arrived, which had created quite a few awkward moments regarding where each was to sit. Finally they had reached an agreement of sorts, though that certainly hadn’t stopped the debate of words from filling the time until Xar got here. The chief players – Atridd and the ‘cadre’, Nova and his ‘renegades’, Amleth and the Houses, and Rynn and her so-called ‘pacifists’ – were still locked in their perpetual argument, although of late it had seemed to take a more anxious turn. With the threat of invasion hanging over all their heads, the issues between them seemed more… immediate.

     “Grand Master Misnera says that training only to increase your Force power level to the maximum is ultimately crippling,” Amleth was saying, responding to Nova’s comments that Rynn and the others were wasting their time studying ‘pacifist’ methods. “If you only try to get stronger,” he continued, “Your focusing on the strength aspect decreases your ability to sense the will of the Force.”

     “Do I look like I care about the ‘will of the Force’?” Nova retorted. “How’s that going to help me with a Jedicon breathing down my back?”

     “It is more practical, when you consider the circumstances we’re in,” Nadia cut in, apparently agreeing with Nova, which didn’t surprise Rynn much. “This is a war, and our first priority is survival.”

     “Survival, but not at the expense of an ends-justifies-the-means attitude,” Jinx cut in.

     “The Jedicon train constantly for power, and they’re ruthless,” Nadia argued back. “I’m just saying we should fight fire with fire.”

     “I’d rather fight it with water,” Jinx shot back.

     “You two have been training with Zalaria’s Jedicon,” Atridd spoke up beside Nova, looking him and Nadia. “You saw how superior technique can defeat raw strength. Power isn’t everything, Ken.”

     The younger man shook his dark-haired head, saying nothing for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed.

     “Power is something you have to take in your own hands,” Nova said, staring down at his palm. Slowly, he clenched his fingers into a fist.

     Rynn watched him with a growing sense of worry, and she noticed Atridd and Jinx doing the same.

     Abruptly the doors at the far end of the lounge swooshed open, and Grand Master Xar Kerensky walked in, followed on his heels as always by Icis Novitaar.

     “Greetings, everyone,” Xar said, taking them all in with his gaze. “I’ve called you all here for an important meeting, but first I have some news. I just received a call from Walt Amason. The news is both good and bad. First, Operation Spear is a success; the enemy Titan Annihilator has been destroyed. Unfortunately, so has the whole Eridani star system.”

     The general elation over the first news gave way to utter shock and dismay over the second. Voices spoke up excitedly, clamoring for attention. “What happened?” Jinx asked over the din, staring wide-eyed at the Grand Master.

     Xar shook his head, as if uncertain, himself. “There’s only one possibility – Nimrod did it.”

     “That’s crazy! No one is that powerful!” blurted Nova.

     Xar started pacing on the ornate rug covering the floor in front of Rynn and the others, ignoring their further outcries of disbelief. Rynn herself was in shock; it felt like an icy hand had gripped her heart as a hundred questions ran through her mind. What about all those people in the Eridani system? Were the AD really that powerful? That evil? It was as bad as the what Empire had done! But no – in her heart of hearts, she knew that the Altarin’Dakor were more ruthless than the Empire ever could be. She sat there in disbelief, feeling the same emotion radiating from Amleth beside her.

     “How could he destroy a star?” Xar whispered finally.

     Standing near the couch against the opposite wall, Icis Novitaar spoke up, addressing all of them thoughtfully.

     “We know that in the old days, even during the Sith War, dark Jedi used machines that augmented Force abilities and could generate enough power to collapse a star,” he explained. “Dark Lord Naga Sadow had one such device, according to legend.”

     “I can’t believe Nimrod is capable of that!” Amleth whispered fiercely.

     Rynn nodded, unable to comprehend it, herself. How could anyone be that powerful? And if it were true, how could they possibly stop such a monster?

     “How do we know he won’t destroy Varnus next?” Atridd spoke up frankly from the other couch.

     Xar shook his head, still pacing back and forth. “I don’t think he’ll use it on us.”

     “Why not?” asked Nova. Atridd glanced at him, as if surprised they both agreed in their concern.

     Icis answered instead. “Varnus would be a great symbolic victory to the Altarin’Dakor, because it was the site of a huge loss for them back during the Great War. They would rather take it intact than completely destroy it.

     “On the other hand,” he added solemnly, “He very well might use such a power on Tralaria.”

     Before everyone could voice their obvious concern, Xar waved them off. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I am fairly confident Nimrod will try to defeat us conventionally. Zalaria has assured me of that, as well.”

     And you trust her? Rynn wondered. But it was obvious he did, regardless of what the rest of them thought about it.

     “Besides,” Icis added, “Nimrod doesn’t need to use his power to defeat us. His fleet is more than capable of that.”

     “Then what are you saying? That he’s just toying with us?” Jinx spoke up. Rynn could sense his frustration mounting; the man didn’t like to fight when in his heart he already knew he’d lost.

     Xar shook his head. “It’s his pride. Nimrod could’ve sent his whole fleet against us all at once, and we wouldn’t have stood a chance. But he’s kept things relatively equal, or at least not completely one-sided. That way it seems more fair; it’s conceivable we could come up with something like Operation Spear to defeat him.”

     He nodded, looking deep in thought. “I think he enjoys a challenge. He’s lived for so long without one that he actually wants to make this interesting.”

     “It doesn’t look like that’s helping us very much,” Amleth added sullenly.

     “I just hope you’re right,” Atridd said. “The stakes are awfully high to be betting on this one.”

     Rynn nodded her agreement. There were billions on Varnus, now. The sudden thought that they could all die at any moment, with virtually no warning, was enough to put anyone on serious edge.

     “Anyway, we have other things to worry about,” Xar cut in. “By the way, has anyone seen Alyx lately?”

     As he glanced at each in turn, all he got were quick negatives and Jedi shaking their heads. Rynn hadn’t heard anything from the other Grand Master in a few days. Everyone just assumed that he was on another mission, or else had left for Tralaria. But Xar’s question had just revealed that he didn’t know where Misnera was, either. Rynn didn’t like the sound of that. If Xar didn’t know, then maybe no one did.

     Xar let out a deep breath, obviously frustrated. He glanced around the room before speaking again. “Where’s Bren?” he asked, facing Rynn this time. His eyes narrowed, and he looked upset at the absence. “I asked him to be here.”

     “I last saw him in the library,” she spoke up, hoping to cover for him. It was true; Bren spent most of his time down there. He said it gave him peace and helped him think more clearly. The truth was, though, that he hated arguing, and he’d wanted to avoid a clashing debate about his philosophy at all costs.

     “I’ll have to pay him a visit later,” Xar replied darkly. He didn’t seem in the mood for disappointments today, though it looked like that was all he was getting. He could be quite ornery when things didn’t go quite like he’d planned. Rynn wondered what he had to say to all of them.

     She didn’t have to wait much longer. Finally Xar spoke again, addressing them all.

     “I called you here because you are all in leadership positions, like it or not,” he began. “We all have our differences, but the time to worry about those things is over, now. We have to pull together, and I’m going to need all your help to get Varnus ready for an Altarin’Dakor attack.”

     He started pacing again before continuing. "We can't afford to bicker any more,” he said sharply. “An attack could come here at any time. I can feel it brewing, like a storm about to pour down on all of us." He looked around, meeting each of them eye to eye. "I need all of you. This may be our biggest battle yet."
     "What do you want us to do, Master?" Nadia Ispen asked, looking up at Xar expectantly. Her expression was transfixed; Rynn knew she was completely devoted to her Grand Master. It made Rynn want to shudder; the woman looked like a docile pet eager to please its owner. Sometimes she wondered if Ispen ever actually thought for herself, or just accepted whatever he said without question. But then again, her ideals matched with his philosophy so well, there probably wasn't a time when she did disagree.
     Xar looked back and forth between the two sides, finally resting his gaze on Akala. "First of all, I want you to tell everyone to have unity. Inform all your subordinates, House members, comrades - whomever. Tell them what we're talking about here. I need all of you in this."
     Rynn glanced at each person's face, wondering how they took his words. She could see the sense in them, although Xar seemed to be missing the point that was he who had caused a lot of the dissent in the first place. He had so polarized the Division that different groups had originated based upon how far they took his ideals. But anyway, at the moment everyone seemed in agreement that they needed unity, at least, although it was clearly going to be a tough road to get there. But then, no one wanted to go into battle without the assurance that your teammate would guard your back if you were attacked.
     "Secondly," Xar continued, "I want you to start herding people into the shelters. We don't need thousands of people flooding the hallways when mass panic strikes. We have to get them into safe zones right now. The palace is too crowded. Spread the word to the other members that they need to start moving."
     "Food," Xoan spoke up, playing the pragmatist. "If those people stay in the shelters for long, they're going to get really hungry."
     "We should have enough to last a couple of weeks," Xar replied.
     "They're not going to like being cooped up like that," Jinx pointed out.
     "They'll live."
     Does he think an attack will really come that soon? Rynn wondered. She again watched the guarded expressions of everyone gathered. It was hard to tell who agreed and who didn't; they were too accustomed to just taking orders, and then later – some of them, at least – interpreting those orders as they saw necessary.
     "With all due respect, Master," Nova spoke up, saying the title with more deign than respect. "This should have been done long ago. My men and I can't afford to spend our time baby sitting civilians, not now."
     "Your men?" Xar's voice took on a hard edge as he speared the man with his gaze. The upstart Paladin was being even more insolent than usual, today. Rynn knew that Nova had attracted quite a following among the younger members. But he had taken Xar's sometimes cavalier attitude and turned it into full-blown brazenness.
     "You will do it, Nova,” Xar glared. "In fact, I'm putting you in charge of the operation."
     The younger man's eyes went wide, and he looked about to protest adamantly against the order. Then he apparently thought for a moment and shook his head. "Fine. I'll enlist Railler and the Palace guard, then."
     "Do it however you want, as long as it gets done,” Xar said flatly.
     And that was how it always was, Rynn knew.
     Xar had already moved on, and was pacing around in front of each of them, now. "All right, now for the rest of you," he continued. "Atridd, Nadia, Ralagos, I want you with me. Jinx, I want you to get your Renastatians ready. Same thing as the rest of the civilians.”

     “My men can fight,” Jinx pointed out. “We don’t mind earning our keep, here.”
     “Fine. Give them someplace to guard,” Xar said, still pacing back and forth. “Just make sure you get back to the palace soon. I’ll want you here if anything happens.”

     Rynn watched Jinx’s expression, but if he felt any chagrin, he hid it too well. She wondered what it was like to be responsible for a whole race of people like that. Of course, Xar saw himself that way, too. It must be what was driving him on like this so relentlessly.

     “House leaders, get your members ready to fight,” Xar ordered, glancing at Amleth and Draken. “Also have them clear our all our training facilities; we don’t want all that equipment getting in the way. Have them empty by tomorrow.”

     “What about our training?” Amleth asked.

     “It’s over,” Xar told him. “What little more we can do won’t do much good, now.”

     Finally he looked around, his gaze settling on the only unassigned person in the room so far. “Melia, I want you to take a few other stealthy members and set up camp near the city’s shield generator. I want you to look for and root out any AD spies you can. I’m not going to let them surprise Varnus like they did Erebria.”   

     “I understand, Master,” the woman replied fervently.

     “Recruit whomever you need to make sure the generator has adequate defense,” he added. “I’ve already tripled the guard there with troops from our garrison.”

     He took one final look around, meeting everyone’s eyes again, settling on Rynn before nodding and ending the meeting.
     "All right, then. That will be all," Xar concluded. "Make sure those refugees start moving right away, Nova; I'm stepping up defense preparations for the palace, as well as the downtown area. Move fast.”

     The man didn’t reply; he just tapped something into his datapad and rose quickly from the couch.
     "Oh, and somebody find Alyx," Xar added, as people started getting up to leave. Nova himself was the first one out, as Rynn might have expected. Then the others followed suit, breaking into smaller conversations based on affiliation as they walked out. Rynn started to rise and follow; she wanted to talk to Jinx before he got dragged off into something. They still had a dinner planned for the night, after all.

     “Rynn, stay,” Xar said, holding up a hand as she was getting up. Then he turned back to Icis, who had remained, and continued their whispered conversation.

     She sat back obediently. Derek stood in front of her, watching everyone leave, then turned to her and took hold of one of her hands in his.

     “Miss Mariel, can I stay too?” he asked, looking at her hopefully.

     She knew that she was one of the people that Derek loved staying around – aside from Xar and Ralagos Akala – but her instincts told her that Xar wanted to talk to her privately this time. Although he was as close to the boy as a father, she had a hunch that this conversation would involve Derek, somehow, and it would be better if the boy didn’t hear directly what Xar wanted to say.

     “Well, I think the Grand Master needs a little privacy this time,” she told him. She looked around as the last few members exited the doorway. Then Xar stopped as he saw Derek standing there, staring up at him expectantly.
     "Master, isn't there something I can do to help?" Derek asked, his voice insistent and desperate.
     Xar looked down at him intently. "Derek, the best thing you can do for me is take care of yourself and the other kids and the civilians with you. You're too important."
     "But you're always telling me that," the boy retorted. "If I'm important, then I should be able to do something!"
     "You do have an important role," Xar said, kneeling down to meet the boy at eye-level and placing his hands on his shoulders. "I know you can fight. But I need you to take care of the others. And remember," he said with a knowing grin, "You have to watch after our treasures. We have a lot of artifacts we can't let the enemy get their hands on."
     "Okay. I will," Derek replied faithfully.
     "In the future, you're going to be far more powerful and influential than I could ever be. I have to prepare you for that time."
     "I... I understand."
     "Good man," Xar said, patting him on the shoulder. “I knew I could count on you.”

     Rynn knew that if there was one person in the galaxy who could melt Xar’s heart, it was the young boy. He loved him as though he was his own son, and she’d never known a time when Xar was too busy to give Derek some of his time. In all that, she had to ruefully admit, he wasn’t all bad. Deep inside there was still a tenderhearted, loving person in there. He just didn’t come out all that often.

     Then Derek turned back to her, and she leaned down as he threw his arms around her neck and hugged her. She held on to him, reminding herself that these were the ones they were fighting for; it was innocents like Derek that she had become a Jedi to protect. She swore that she would do whatever it took to keep him safe.

     She leaned back then, and out of habit rustled his thick hair with one hand. “Go on, Jinx will take you back. I’ll see you later,” she told him softly.

     The boy looked disappointed, but even at his age he was mature enough to obey without complaint. He went to Jinx, who offered him a hand, but the boy just darted ahead of him and ran out the door. “Mister Novitaar!” he shouted, calling to the tall man, who had just left a few seconds before.

     Jinx, before leaving, turned back and raised his eyebrows. “Everything okay?”

     “I’m sure it’s fine,” she said, nodding her head.

     “Umm… If you can’t make it this evening…” he began.

     “No, I’ll be there,” she assured him. “Don’t worry; I wouldn’t think of missing it.”

     At that he smiled, and she realized again just how handsome he looked when he did that.

     “Come on, Mister Jinx!” Derek yelled from the door, interrupting them.

     “Okay, I’m coming!” With a last rueful grin, Jinx turned and followed the ever-energetic Derek out.

     Rynn watched them go, unable to contain a smile as she shook her head. Boys, she thought.

     Once everyone had left, Xar sat down on the couch opposite her and looked at her thoughtfully. “A couple of things, then I won’t hold you any longer,” he said.

     She nodded.

     “First, how is the Battle Meditation coming? Can I rely on it in battle?”

     “We haven’t tested it in actual combat yet,” she admitted. “But we are getting more coordinated. There are times – like when I can sense ours and the enemy’s energy levels, for instance – in those times it’s like I can really reach out and connect to them. It becomes much easier, then.”

     Xar nodded. “I suspect you have a natural affinity for the Battle Meditation that is still dormant within you – it comes out at certain times. When it happens, you become super-attuned to it, enabling you to do far more than a normal Jedi ever could. Too bad it’s still sporadic.” He seemed to consider that for a moment, then shook his head. “No matter, then.”

     Suddenly the doors parted open again, and a new visitor entered. He was wearing robes that looked just worn enough to have been slept in, and his shoulder-length hair was curly and unkempt. Rynn watched him enter in surprise; it wasn’t often that she saw Master Mathis Organa walking around, these days.

     “Xar!” Mathis said, glancing around the room and locking eyes with Rynn for a second as he entered. “I needed to see you.”

     “Mathis.” Xar came to his feet and pinned the man with a skeptical stare. “I don’t really have time to talk about your problem right now.”

     Undaunted, Organa strode right up to him. “Xar, it’s not about that. I need to go somewhere. A change of scenery… just something different.”

     “We can’t run from our problems.” Xar seemed completely fed up with the long-haired man. She had heard rumors about Organa, but wasn’t the type to spread them. She preferred to assume the best about people until there was irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

      Anyway, Mathis didn’t take the bait; rather he just stood there for a moment, looking desperate. Finally Xar sighed and threw up his hands.

     “What do you want me to do?” he demanded.

     “I need something to do, Xar. An assignment. Something to keep me busy. I can still do some bloody good! Don’t just let me sit here while the AD breathe down our necks.”

     Xar didn’t reply; he just looked down at the floor. He didn’t look very convinced.

     “I won’t get in the way,” Mathis nearly pleaded. “Just give me a chance to make myself useful. I need this! I can’t just keep sitting here doing bloody nothing!”

     Suddenly something changed in Xar’s expression, and as he looked up at Mathis again, Rynn thought she saw genuine pity in his eyes. “Okay,” he agreed. “What do you want to do?”

     “Let me berth on the Stormwatch,” Mathis offered. “Isn’t she doing scouting around the system right now? That would give us something to do, and maybe I could sense any danger coming our way.”

     Xar considered that, and Rynn felt the tension in the air as Organa waited expectantly. She remained seated, trying to make herself as unobtrusive as possible.

     Finally Xar spoke again. “I… suppose there’s nothing to be lost by your going there. Very well.” He looked Mathis in the eye, then. “Mathis, you have to deal with this. I still think you should see counseling, but… I hope this will help, anyway. For both our sakes.”

     “I know. It will,” Mathis said.

     “Trust me on this.”

     “Thanks, Xar.”

     Then Mathis turned and left without further word. Xar stood there, watching him leave, a thoughtful expression on his face. He seemed focused on something far away.

     He finally turned back to Rynn, but hesitated, as if searching for the right words to say. “Listen, Rynn. If… If we are attacked, I want you, Bren, and the other women – Lorien Kal and the others – to take Derek and the other children to the safe zones. Your top priority is to protect them. Do you hear me?”

     She could feel the intensity in his gray eyes as they stared into her. “Yes, sir,” she said.

     “I know that you probably won’t fight, and that’s fine with me,” he continued as if thinking aloud. “Just protect our kids. They’re our future. Especially Derek. Remember what I told you about him.”

     Rynn nodded. She remembered Xar telling her of his suspicions about Derek – that he might have no limit to the amount of Force power he could use someday. If that were true, then it would mean Derek was something more than a normal Jedi – perhaps something different entirely.

     “Take care of them, protect them at all costs,” Xar ordered. “Then, secondarily, if a battle is going on here and you have a chance to help us with your Battle Meditation, do what you can. We’re going to need all the help we can get, and I don’t want to lose any more men.”

     “I understand, sir,” she answered. At that, he nodded and seemed to relax, and she stood up slowly.

     “Do you think it will come to that?” she asked.

     “Rynn, we’re surrounded. We have to prepare for the worst,” he said. “Come on.”

     He started for the door, and she had no choice but to follow him out.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Palace Terrace

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            2045 Hours


            The city lights shone brightly like stars as night settled over Vectur. The skyscrapers, the flashing, neon signs and towering spires all loomed far higher than the palace, like a massive wall jutting up from the south and east. Jinx glanced at it every few moments, admitting that he and Rynn had an incredible view as they sat in The Terrace, the palace’s luxury restaurant looking out on the city around them. Speeders flew around and between structures as late-workers made their way home, while others moved into the city depths to enjoy its celebrated nightlife.
     The buildings varied in style as much as in height. Some ended in flat rooftops, while others sported tall spires and brilliant searchlights that shone up into the darkness. Down the center of the city itself ran a massive, brightly-lit broadway that joined a huge park at one end and the Royal Palace at the other. The palace itself was the centerpiece of all of Vectur.
     This restaurant was one of the finest in the palace, and he’d had to make a reservation a couple of weeks in advance to get them a seat here. They had their own private alcove, hedged by tropical plants and flowers, and a candlelit table upon which a sumptuous seven-course meal was being brought out. Rynn sat across from him, wearing a stylish dark green dress that matched well with her auburn hair, which fell in a thick braid down her back.

     She was beautiful.

     "The view is wonderful up here," she admitted, taking a sip of wine as she glanced out at the city. "And the food is delicious, too."
     Jinx watched her as they sat, noticing how the light reflected into her eyes as she spoke. There was a spark in them, one of intelligence and compassion and all sorts of other things mixed in. In all, he had to admit; watching her speak like this to him was nothing short of… captivating.

     Every once in a while he would carefully scoop up some of the thick curry smoking in its bowl in front of him, then meticulously spoon it onto a thin bread wafer and pop it into his mouth. It was spicy and flavorful - a fine example of the more exotic cuisine from Varnus' southern hemisphere. He was careful not to spill any on his clothing though - Jinx himself was wearing a crisp, dark military-style suit tonight, albeit without any markings or insignia.

     Over the last couple of years, he had come to know more and more of Rynn’s personality and past, in bits and pieces. She had grown up in a fairly affluent family on a technologically advanced planet named Kryos. Her parents had been zoologists, and Rynn had always held a love of animals and wildlife since she was small. In school she studied biology and sociology, and had always had an affinity with wildlife due to her latent Force abilities, which her family kept a guarded secret from the Empire.

     She’d helped in her parents’ scientific research until they were killed by the Imperials, due to their vocal protesting against the Empire. Her father arranged for Rynn and her brother Jen to escape, and for a year they’d lived on the run. Then the Imperials caught up to them and killed Jen, as well. Just before he died, Rynn promised him she would use her powers to become a Jedi, a guardian and defender of the galaxy. That road eventually led her to the New Imperium’s Jedi Division, which helped her fulfill the cause she believed in.

     Unfortunately, recent events – especially the threat of the Altarin’Dakor changing everything around them – had caused her to question that loyalty. He knew enough to keep quiet and let her speak, vetting all the tensions that had inevitably built up during the day.
     "What did you think of the meeting?" he asked, knowing that something about it was irking her this evening.
    She stirred her food a bit and shrugged. “I saw more of the same type of politicking that always goes on. Xar is very purposeful now, though." She paused to take another bite. "I suppose his orders make sense. But I couldn't help but wonder why none of the Council members were present."
     Jinx nodded. He'd noticed that, himself. "Grand Master Misnera wasn't there, either."
     "I know. I guess – and I'm just being honest, Jacob – I'm just worried about him doing things on his own like this. Almost like he doesn't have – or even need – the Council's permission on things. And that's disturbing because I'm afraid he'll do anything to win, no matter who gets hurt in the process."

     “That’s true. But he believes he’s doing the right thing,” Jinx pointed out. “I don’t think his motives are selfish.”

     “No, I know that,” she nodded, then paused to take another bite before she continued, chewing thoughtfully. “I believe there is good in him, deep down. It just… doesn’t come out sometimes.”

     Jinx nodded, content to let her simply voice her frustrations.

     “I feel sometimes,” she continued, “Like there’s this bright spot inside him, but most of the time it’s obscured by a darker, outer shell or something. Not like the dark side, of course. Just… something different.”

     “He does open up around Derek,” Jinx pointed out.

     “I know, it’s amazing.” She smiled at his mention of the boy, which made her look all the lovelier. “He loves Derek like he’s his own son. He always brightens up around him.”

     “Maybe Derek just has that kind of effect on people,” Jinx offered.

     “It’s more than that – Xar is almost obsessed with the idea that Derek is some kind of prodigy… A child of destiny, maybe.”

     Jinx nodded. He had seen Derek effortlessly do things with the Force that no one else had been able to do, controlling and manipulating in what could only be latent talent. And his Force power level had continually been growing ever since arriving. Jinx privately speculated that the boy may have surpassed everyone else in the Order, including Xar himself.

     “Still, I’m sorry that he hasn’t had the chance to enjoy life as a normal boy,” Rynn said with a sigh. “It’s sad.”

     “I guess not everyone has that luxury,” Jinx said thoughtfully. “I can empathize with being thrown into something much bigger than you think you can handle.”

     “That’s right,” Rynn said, looking at him in wide-eyed interest. “You’ve been responsible for your people most all your life. I can’t imagine what it must be like.”

     “Anything can come to feel normal after you do it long enough,” he said with a rueful smile.

     “How many Renastatians are there, anyway?”

     Jinx shrugged, considering. “Millions, at least. But we’re spread out all through the galaxy now; mostly it’s based on ancestry and family lineage,” he explained. “The core group is here with me, yes. But that doesn’t mean every Renastatian is under my jurisdiction.”

     He paused and sighed. “At least if we’re wiped out, the Renastatians will live on,” he finished quietly.

     “I’m sure it won’t come to that, Jacob,” she reassured him, reaching over to put her hand on his. “Everything will turn out fine for your people. I know it. They love you – and with good reason, too. You take good care of them. You’re an amazing leader.”

     He studied her hand resting on his, then looked up into her eyes once more. “You believe that?” he asked.

     “With all of my heart,” she answered with a smile.

     Jinx smiled, too. If she believed in him, then he knew that he could, as well.


            Half an hour later after the conclusion of dinner, topped off with a scrumptious dessert, they found themselves walking along the top of the Palace’s outer wall, the city lights rising even closer and higher above them, now. The sounds of the metropolis echoed through the air around them, though Jinx barely noticed as they walked together. Her hand had found his, and together they slowly made a circuit of the palace grounds, speaking softly to one another, sharing small personal details about their life and experiences.

     “How is your son?” she asked, stepping along in stride beside him.

     He smiled, thinking of Berefin, his first and only son. He’d shared with Rynn his own past, as well. “He’s wonderful. Very curious and energetic, now – a typical five-year-old. His grandparents say he’s getting a little mischievous lately. I guess he takes after his dad.”

     She laughed softly at his joke, then her voice grew more serious. “I know you miss him a lot. It must have been hard for you, to lose your wife, and then not be able to see your son, too.”

     Jinx nodded, his mind flashing back to the days before the NI had moved into Epsilon Sector. Cayla had been the light of his life, before the Alliance attack had taken her life in front of his own eyes. It had taken time to get over that, and he knew that he would always love her, and that she would always remain a part of him.

     Still, that didn’t mean he could never move on. With the long lifespan of his family genus, it would be a lonely life indeed if he never remarried. And he knew that it was what Cayla would want for him, as well.

     And now he had fallen in love with someone else.

     “So, where do we go from here?” Rynn asked. They had come to a stop at one end of the wall, but he knew that she was referring to more than just their physical location, now.

     Jinx had seen too many years to trip over himself trying to make a romantic confession. He knew now that things didn’t work out perfectly as they did in the holodramas. There was nervousness in him, but it was subdued. To have none would be unnatural; still, this was reality. There was a war going on, and the enemy was literally at their doorstep. He knew that Rynn wouldn’t want some vague or fantastical promises. Better to be upfront and honest with her. He knew she could sense his intentions, anyway.

     “Look. Life with a Renastatian… it’s not easy,” he said. “We have no home – not permanently anyway. We’re always on the run, always moving. I mean, look at Ravick. We thought we had a safe place there. The AD almost wiped us out this time. Now everyone’s fled here.” He turned towards her then, so they were facing each other.

“I don’t know if that’s the kind of life you might want, Rynn.”

     His unspoken question hung in the air. She looked down, and for a while didn’t speak. He watched her to see what reaction she might have, looking for any sense of what she made of his words. He knew he’d spoken bluntly, and she might not be ready for such a strong statement. Had he assumed too much? She, of course, had the right to choose for herself. He didn’t know if she was willing to leave everything, just for him.

     “I’m sorry if this is too sudden…” he began.

     “No, it’s okay,” she interrupted. She shook her head slowly, thoughtfully. “I’ve been on the run for years, now. I’m pretty used to it by now.”

     She looked up at him then, and her eyes met his. “I think I’d rather run with someone… than run alone.”

     Jinx stood there for a second, staring at her face. He felt a smile begin to spread across his face, as he felt inside a growing sense of amazement and relief.

     He looked at her for a moment, then laid it out plainly for her. “I am in love with you,” he said unashamedly. “And if the opportunity arises, I want to marry you.”

     She glanced away again and took a deep breath before replying. He knew it was a huge decision for her. But at least now everything was clear.

     Finally she looked back up at him. “I… feel the same way, Jacob. I think I do. When all this is over… Maybe then we can make that decision.”

     “I understand. Take all the time you need,” he assured her.

     “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

     Her eyes shone up into his, reflecting starlight. Then she raised her head, and her lips met his.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Private Library

            Royal Palace, Vectur

            2200 Hours


Xar pushed both doors open to the library and stormed in, seeing the subject of his search exactly where he’d expected to find him. “Why weren’t you at the meeting? And what’s this I hear about you not helping in the battle?” he demanded.

     Bren looked up at him with a calm eye from the table he was sitting at. He wore simple Jedi robes, and his long hair fell down behind his head, stabilized by a thin headband running across his forehead.

     “Xar. I am sorry, but I cannot participate in the battle. I cannot use the Force to kill another. Not anymore.”

     Xar exhaled in frustration, and a blossom of anger rose up in him as he stopped in front of the man’s table. “Then what use are you here? You’re just cannon fodder like all the civilians crammed inside the palace! You’re a Jedi, for Varnus’ sake! Act like one!”

     The other man pushed himself back from his chair and stood up, a look of hurt in his eyes.

     “No! I told you, I cannot! You have to understand.”

     Xar shook his head, exasperated with the man. What was there to understand? This was life or death – it was not the time for philosophical meanderings. The former Jedicon had completely changed. Before, he had been eager to learn, and had actually helped on the mission that had ended up recovering Derek and the so-called Kaiburr Crystal. Now he’d become more pacifist even than Rynn, and although he’d promised to help by learning Battle Meditation, the latest rumors had Bren swearing not to even use that against the enemy. Anything that would condone or lead to violence had to be completely avoided, or so he’d heard.

     “But why, Bren? You fought with us before, against Turles on Kajarna…” He broke off as the other man looked away, and for a moment silence filled the room, full of dusty shelves lined with real printed books. He knew Bren was torn, struggling with the memory of who he had once been. But he couldn’t let that hold him back forever. Surely if an attack came here, a little bit of that Altarin’Dakor warrior drive would help them. What was wrong with that?

     “That was… before.” Bren shook his head. “A few months ago, my memory was… unlocked. I know full well what I was, now. I know that I was a murderer. I’ve killed so many people I could not possibly count them all. Men, women, children. All of them.”

     “So have I,” Xar countered pointedly. “So have we all, in this business.”

     “I enjoyed it, Xar!” the man nearly shouted. He fixed Xar with a glare. “I am afraid that if I do fight, I will turn back into what I was before… The thing I hate worse than anything!”

     “You won’t become who you were before, Bren,” Xar tried to reassure him. “You’ve changed. You’re different, now.”

     “I can’t take that chance! Do you understand? I don’t know what is truly inside myself.”

     “You’re not like that anymore. Get over it.”

     “I’m telling you – I cannot take the risk that I would become that man again!”

     “Then of what benefit are you to the Jedi, or the New Imperium?” Xar stared at him pointedly. “If you’re not helping us, you might as well be fighting for the enemy yourself.”

     “I am doing what I can to help our cause,” Bren countered, conviction in his voice. “I do not want the Altarin’Dakor to win this war. I know what kind of a galaxy they will make it, if they do.” His eyes became hard. “I am trying to use the Force’s Living aspect to find us a way to win. Progress is slow, I admit, but that does not make it worthless. But no matter what, I know that in battle, I could not bring myself to slay another man, nor to help one kill another.”

     So the rumors were true. “The Altarin’Dakor will have no such compunctions,” Xar reminded him. “They will kill you where you stand, whether you attempt to surrender or not.”

     “I am well aware of that, Master Kerensky. But I cannot change who I am now. Please… Please understand that.”

     Xar fought the surge of anger that wanted to well up inside him. Instead he shook his head and started to turn away. It was obvious the man wasn’t changing his mind. “First Rynn, now you,” he sighed. “Soon the whole Order will be going pacifist on me. Fine, so be it.” He glanced at the man once more, realizing he shouldn’t really let their exchange end on a note of enmity. He wasn’t an enemy, after all. Just a noncombatant, now.

     “Take care of yourself, Bren. Stay in your quarters and out of the way, all right?”

     Bren nodded, so he continued. “I’ve asked Rynn to watch out for Derek and some of the other kids. Likewise, I expect you to take care of things down here, make sure everything stays safe.”

     “I will do my best,” Bren promised.

     “Very well.” With effort he gave the man a small salute, then turned and strode from the library.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            1625 Hours


Their guide, Myrkos Rothran, continued to lead Alyx and the team deeper into the bowels of the Desolation. They were currently riding a transit car running down the length of the ship, carrying them several kilometers away from the hangar from which they'd entered. Alyx still could barely believe the size of these Titans. At such great lengths, walking from one section to another was simply not feasible, especially during a battle. They were literally on a floating city in space, and he'd learned that many Titans carried as many as a million beings or more onboard. It had been easier to imagine the plan in his head and think of things more abstractly. But actually being here was another thing entirely.  How they could ever hope to gain control of a ship of this size? It felt more and more like an impossible task, but it was too late to back out, now.
     Bars of light flashed by in the tunnel as they passed, illuminating their faces brightly every few seconds, along with the other passengers in the car - Altarin'Dakor soldiers and crew members. The NI team was still dressed in their AD scout uniforms, and so far they had apparently blended in well enough to avoid detection. Still, they were all careful not to speak to one another.  They hadn't heard a word of Basic since coming onboard, and it would be impossible if someone called them out to explain why none of them could speak Altarin'Dakor.
     The transit car came to a stop at the next area. Some of the passengers disembarked; others got on. No one seemed to so much as glance in their direction, which was good news. They traveled for another minute, passing through a couple more stops, then as the car slowed to a halt again, Rothran stood up. Alyx and the rest of the team followed suit, and as the doors slid open, they followed him into another brightly-lit corridor.
     They walked for several more minutes, past doorway-lined passages wide enough for many being to walk abreast. Countless beings - mostly humans, to his surprise - passed by them in the corridor. Alyx was beginning to lose the sense that they were even on a ship. There was no sense of movement, no viewports, no dull roar from the ship's distant engines - nothing. They might not even be in the Pax system anymore. More and more he was coming to realize what a war machine this was, and why the AD had been able to subjugate an entire galaxy – at least according to what they'd heard.
     Finally, after he was sure that he and everyone else was lost, Rothran turned a corner and stopped in front of a portal. Something on the guide's body or clothing must have automatically triggered an access code, because a beep sounded and the door slid open sideways as soon as he made as if to enter.
     They emerged into a small room lined with a few counters and pieces of equipment, but otherwise empty. It looked like an unused storage room. Rothran waited until they had all entered and the door slid closed again before risking speaking to them.
     "We are now located just behind the bridge area of the ship," he explained. "This room will be a safe place of operations for us. It does not currently serve any function."
     Alyx nodded as everyone else seemed to relax. He hadn't noticed how tense he'd felt, either. "Good. I've been thinking, we may need to take this more slowly and carefully than I'd anticipated."
     "What do you want to do, sir?" asked Moore.
     Alyx studied his team members. They had been able to conceal their lightsabers by disassembling them and storing the pieces in their utility belts, but otherwise had nothing had no equipment but their datapad. They would have to find the resources they needed onboard, as well as plan their specific route to access the bridge. "I think we need to plan," he said.
     "I will go and retrieve you schematics for the ship," Rothran said.
     The guide started to leave when Domi interjected. "Wait! What if somebody else comes in here?"
     Rothran glanced back at him. "That is not likely. I told you this room is not in use. But if you are worried, I will seal the door."
     Alyx nodded toward the man. "Thanks."
     Then, after he had gone, he turned back to the rest of his team. "First, let's get our lightsabers put back together. Then we'll think about tactics to neutralize the bridge."
     As they worked, suggestions started coming forth. Alyx could tell they were nervous.
     "Can we get some of their weapons?" Vykk asked.
     "We'll have to ask Rothran," Alyx replied. "What are you thinking?"
     "I don't know... Maybe we could gas the bridge, put them all to sleep..."
     There were a few murmurs of assent at that, but Alyx felt skeptical. "Sounds tough," he said. "We'd need masks, and we'd have to hope their air scrubbers couldn't clean the air in time. What else?"
     "Trick them into leaving?" Domi asked as he worked.
     "What, like a diversion?" Alyx asked.
     The man nodded, but then he paused and looked doubtful. "It would have to be something they couldn't just send troops to, though."
     "At this point, we don't know what that is," Alyx said. It seemed a difficult task, no matter how they chose to handle it.
     "Well, we could always rush in and try to take it by force," Moore added.
     Alyx nodded inwardly. "That's what I'm afraid it may come to," he admitted.
     A few minutes later they had gotten their weapons back in one piece again and settled down to wait for Rothran to return. Alyx had to admit that he felt better with his lightsaber in his hand. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d gotten them all into something that was far, far over their heads…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            2330 Hours


            Xar sat at his desk, mulling over the day’s accomplishments. It was late, and he and Icis were still there, trying to get as much accomplished as they could. Zalaria would be spending the night on the Nexus, and wasn't scheduled to return until sometime the next morning. That left Xar alone for the night, and he had a lot to consider. He was still frustrated with Bren for his refusal to fight, but not surprised. The man had virtually founded the 'pacifist' group in the Order – inadvertently or not. Xar was also frustrated that the Battle Meditation's reliability was spotty, at best. It wasn't something Altarin'Dakor deemed necessary in battle.
     It was a shame; Bren had so much potential. His power and Force knowledge surpassed any other Jedicon he knew of. After all, he had fought in the Great War. It had to be one of life's ironies that such a great general would eschew combat forever.
     "We'll put Bren in the Treasury along with the young ones and women," Xar mused, flipping through the notes he'd made in his datapad. "It's the safest place in the palace. Maybe he and Rynn can do some good from there, plus defend it if attacked."
     “Are you sure that’s wise?" Icis asked, pacing back and forth opposite the desk. "Entrusting him with the children's safety?”
     "What makes you say that?" Xar arched an eyebrow.
     "He has a history of instability, to say the least."
     Xar shook his head. "I don't think we need to worry about that. He's over it."
     “If you say so.” Icis didn’t look completely convinced.
     "Now," Xar said, "We need to designate areas in front, around and inside the palace as bunker areas for our troops."

     Thrakus can handle that,” Icis suggested.

     Xar nodded. “Agreed. I’ll tell him to get on it right away.”

     He perused through the different planning schematics on his datapad. “Our first line of defense, of course, is the First Fleet and our fighter corps. If we’re fortunate we won’t even have to fight them on the ground. Too bad there are only a few of the refitted Avatars around; they’re almost ready. Another few weeks.” He sighed. “Anyway, we’ll throw everything we’ve got at them and try to keep drop-ships from landing. If they do get through, however, I want to be ready.” He paused, musing. “I wonder how big a fleet they’ll hit us with.”

     The other man shook his head as he paced. “I don’t know, but we should expect the worst. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nimrod sends everything he has. This is essentially the last step he needs to finish off the NI completely.”

     Xar nodded. “Like it or not, we’re in this all the way.”

     “You sound like you’re running the whole NI again,” Icis pointed out.

     “As far as I’m concerned, Varnus is the NI,” Xar said. “This is my world, so while they’re here, they’ll do as I say. Anyway, logistics. Once we get the bunkers in place, I want to allocate our Jedi, spread them out so they can assist our squads and throw mayhem into enemy troops if they land.”

     “What if they have Jedicon with them?” Icis asked.
     "We’ll use our own. I'm thinking of placing our shock-troops down Star Way," Xar said, tapping the long road stretching from the palace entrance to the park. "Our Jedicon will act as the front line of defense, helping guard the palace from direct assault."
     He waited for a response, but there was nothing but silence. Wondering if he'd been heard, Xar looked up at Icis, expecting the man to be lost in thought or some such.
     Instead, Icis just stared at him, looking dumbfounded.
     "What?" Xar asked.
     "You're putting her forces in charge of the palace defense?"
     Xar arched an eyebrow at him. "Why not?"
     "They're Altarin'Dakor soldiers."
     "So, what?"
     "They're the same as Nimrod's forces!" Icis said incredulously. "From the moment they're born they are taught that their destiny is to conquer our galaxy. You're going to trust them with Varnus, your own home? They very nearly took over this world during the Great War. Tell me, in the heat of battle, who do you think they'll side with? Us, whom they obviously hate, or their own kind?"

     "Zalaria has more control over them than that," Xar assured him. "Her forces aren't ignorant of who they're really serving. They won't disobey her."
     "That's not what I'm worried about," Icis countered. At Xar's curious look, he continued. "You're resting everything on Zalaria instead of the NI.”

     “She’s our most powerful ally. She’s worth a thousand other Jedi.”

     “This will be our most crucial moment, Xar - the most advantageous position for her. We can't take the risk that she might have another plan."
     Xar sighed in exasperation, shaking his head. "We've been through all this before, Icis. Hasn't she proved herself to you by now? Look at all she's done for us."
     "There must be another motive," Icis countered adamantly. "There always is."
     Xar looked at the man in disbelief. After all this time, he still didn't trust Xar's own wife. Ever since Xar had come back from his original meeting with her, Icis had tried to keep him away from her. He still insisted that she was evil, somehow. Xar knew that she'd had a dark past - all the Warlords did - but he was certain now that she had changed. She'd told him, in her own words. And Xar believed her.
     "You still don't like her," he stated.
     Icis shook his head. "You may trust her, but I never will," he said coldly.
     "What do you have against her?" Xar demanded, anger creeping up in his stomach. This was his wife they were talking about. It was Xar's job to defend her and trust her – after all, he'd married her, so he was closer to her than anyone else.
     "I told you before," Icis answered. "People don't change completely. I can’t forgive her for what she's done. I saw it with my own eyes."
     "But that was millennia ago. Times are different. Judge her by what she’s done here, not from the past."
     "You're only seeing what you want to see, Xar."
     "Don't patronize me, Icis! There's no logical basis for your attitude towards her."
     "She's a murderer!"
     "So am I!" Xar shot back. "So are you! You've killed a lot of people too, Icis!"
     "Not nearly as many as her!"
She's my wife!" Xar yelled, slamming a fist down onto the desk in front of him. He'd had enough of the man's childish rationalizations and his senseless hatred towards Zalaria! He'd never found any legitimate reason, only a vague-sounding mistrust. Icis of all people should be the last person to feel bigoted towards someone different. "Leave her alone," he warned, pointing at Icis. "At least you didn't have your whole race wiped out like she did. What kind of justification did you have?"
     Icis opened his mouth to respond, but suddenly froze. He just stood there for a moment, looking confused. Xar wondered what was wrong with the man, now.

     "You mean... she didn’t tell you?" Icis finally whispered, a look of surprise on his face.
     “Tell me what?” Xar asked warily. “What’s wrong with you today?”
     It took a moment for Icis to respond, during which Xar sat with a cold feeling settling over him.
     “Xar…” Icis looked away, shaking his head slowly. “Her home planet, Merinama, wasn’t destroyed in the war." He shrugged helplessly. "She and Nimrod… They did it themselves.”
     It took a moment for his words to register. “What did you say…?” Xar breathed.
     “They wiped out every single living being on the whole planet. Ruthlessly. They spared no one. Not the women. Not the children. No one, Xar.”
     Xar shook his head in disbelief. "I've seen no such record."
     “It's in the Travelers’ records! Believe it or not, it’s the truth.”
     “That’s impossible.” Xar shook his head. It couldn't be true… “You’re lying,” he said flatly.
     “Why would I?”

     “Because you hate her!”

     Xar, look inside yourself. Use the Force,” Icis countered, staring at him. “You know it’s true.”
     He stepped closer. Xar suddenly felt like the room was closing in around him. Icis had never lied to him before, true. But the man had this cold, irrational hatred towards her - could he really be lying, this time?
     And yet... He knew of her past, how she had done horrible things long with the other Warlords. Wiped out races. How easy would it have been for her to remove records of what happened a thousand generations ago? Who besides she would remember? All she had to do was conveniently neglect to mention it, and it was like it had never happened.
     He dimly heard Icis speaking in the background, but within his thoughts the words barely registered. "I know it's hard," the man was saying. "I don't know why she didn't tell you. She probably wanted to shield you from knowing too much."
     But she's my wife! countered an angry voice inside him. He knew that she had secrets she’d kept from him, always telling him it was better he didn't know. He had kept nothing from her - he could keep nothing. Her Force abilities dwarfed his into insignificance, and the Bond they shared unveiled every emotion inside. He'd hoped that over time, things would change. Perhaps they would, eventually. How could he feel like a leader, the head of his family, otherwise?
     Up until now he'd always trusted that she had a good reason to keep things from him. But this had been a lie - or at least a half-truth. Could he extend that trust here, too? There could be a viable reason for her not telling him. Didn't he owe her the chance to explain?

     He felt like a fool, now. When he’d faced Nimrod for the first time, he’d used the slaughter of their people as an argument against what Nimrod was doing. Ignorantly, he had used the example to try and draw Nimrod back from the path of destruction. What an idiot I’ve been. No wonder Nimrod had so casually rejected him! The Warlord knew the truth; he’d done it himself!
     "Xar?" Icis repeated.
     He held up a hand to forestall further word. "I'm… all… right," he said, slowly and deliberately.
     "It was not my intention to hurt you," Icis said. "Please understand that I'm here for your good."
     Xar couldn't help but give a cynical grin at that. The man had always said that, swearing he was here to help, not harm him. And it was true; Xar owed him his life, now twice over. Even from the beginning, he'd gone on spouting crazy ideas about Xar being the one he'd been searching for, that he was some prophesied hero destined to defeat the Altarin'Dakor. He told Xar he had a destiny. Now Xar believed it; he did have a destiny. And that destiny had kept him alive through unbelievable situations to bring him where he was now.
     "Even still..." he began, thinking quietly.
     Still, this was between Zalaria and Xar, now. She'd said that she had changed. And if he couldn't believe that, then all was lost. "Why do you hate her so much?" he wondered offhandedly, not really addressing the man.
     To his surprise, Icis looked away abruptly. "I'd rather not talk about it now. One shock is enough for tonight."
     Intrigued by his words, Xar put his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "What are you saying? You're not keeping something from me, too," he said darkly. “Not tonight.”
     "Just tell me, Icis."
     Finally the man sighed and settled himself into one of the chairs on the other side of the desk, facing Xar.  "I was assigned to the Altarin'Dakor galaxy by the Travelers," he said, speaking slowly and deliberately. "Zalaria... eventually caught me."
     He paused, and Xar watched expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

     "I was her prisoner,” he said. “She… tortured me, trying to find out what I was. When she was finished, I became her slave."
     Icis looked up at Xar, and there was an unmistakable haunted look in those eyes.
     "I was her slave for three hundred and fifty years," he whispered.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            1713 Hours


Something's wrong.
     The thought popped into his head out of nowhere; he instantly recognized it as his Danger Sense flaring. He cut everyone's conversation off with a swipe of his hand, turning towards the entrance to the room. The room went silent as Alyx and the others turned to look at the door. The feeling was growing stronger; the others had picked up on it too, now. Alyx was almost sure what it was even before he saw it, he felt a feeling of dread claw its way into his stomach.

     Then the portal hatchway opened and an Altarin’Dakor shock trooper entered and slid to the side against the wall. Followed by another. And another.

     There were too many. They filed into the room, along with lean, muscular fighters with black tattoos scrawling across their faces and lightsabers held de-ignited in their hands. Jedicon.

     Alyx stood in shock, as the rest of the team waited behind him for some signal of what to do. Finally, after a dozen or more enemy units had entered, Rothran himself came, barring the entrance with his body and staring impassively at the dumbfounded Jedi gathered in the back of the room.
     "They betrayed us!" Vykk exclaimed in anger and outrage. He reached for his lightsaber, but before he could produce it, Alyx lunged forward and arrested the man's hand with his own. Vykk looked back up at him, eyes wide.
     "This isn't the time to die," Alyx warned.
     Vykk was right; they had been betrayed. But not by these men. He shook his head in anger and denial. How had he been so foolish?
     He looked at Rothran's face, one that showed no hint at all of remorse or guilt at what he’d done.
     Yes, Alyx knew exactly who had betrayed them.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


             Vectur, Varnus

            1020 Hours Local Time


“So this is Varnus,” Cindlin mused as she took in the tall skyline in front of them.   “Much different from the rural farmlands in our historical archives.”

     “Things change,” Kalaran said, his face twisting into a half-grin. He gripped the bridge’s parapets in front of him, gray eyes taking in the view of buildings filling the horizon. His hair was cut short and was completely white, and his age-lined face held a scar that traced from his forehead down across his right eye to his nose. Life as Nimrod’s premier hand-servant hadn’t been easy, but it had been rewarding beyond imagination. He sniffed at the air, breathing in the smell of the city and of the beings that lived there. He didn’t often get to visit a stable world. Unfortunate that it wouldn’t remain so for long.

     Vectur was a city doomed to fall within a matter of days.

     They were just on the city outskirts – the two of them, plus Nobien and a score of other Kodonn’Dakor Jedicon. Not all in one spot, of course – that would be too noticeable – but spread out here and there, in this shop or on that street corner. Cloaks with hoods up and faces disguised so as to hide their facial markings, they blended in with the rest of the refugees here in the city suburbs. Even Kalaran was surprised how easy it had been to infiltrate.

     The three of them had all successfully completed the tasks their master had assigned. Nobien had successfully sabotaged the Moro System's shipyards, leading to its fall, and Cindlin had coerced the residents of the Pax System into defecting. But it was Kalaran who had delivered the Erebria System to Lord Nimrod when he'd instigated the failure of the planetary shields. He had been chosen to lead in the assault, and so they would do it his way, here.

     “According to our contact’s map, the entrance should be close by,” Cindlin said, the ends of her golden hair spilling out from her hood. Extensive makeup covered the red lines that marked her face as one of Nimrod’s chosen.

     Standing behind them as they studied the datapad’s map, Nobien gave a snort of skepticism. His wild hair was hidden beneath his hood, as well. “If he hasn’t betrayed us,” he said.

     “I am confident in him,” Kalaran said, cutting off any further comment. He glanced behind them and down at the river bank, covered by tall grasses and littered sporadically with garbage. A short distance away a sewer grate extended from the ground, leading towards the city proper. “Down there,” he said.

     Moments later they had descended, making their way down to the bank of the small river and in front of the sewer entrance, just large enough to stand in without hunching.

     “Tell Nilka that we are on the move,” he ordered. “We will meet him in the palace once the shields have fallen.”

     With that, he reached out with his cutter and sliced the locks free from their housings, then pulled the grate open just enough for them to slide by in single file. He slipped in first and activated his torch, followed by the other two. His other Kodonn’Dakor would be following them down, one at a time.

     Water splashed around their boots as they made their way down the tunnel, lights held in front of them. For a while it seemed just an ordinary sewer they were exploring, and the tunnel continued in a straight line for at least the first kilometer. But then it changed, and Kalaran became confident that their informant had been telling the truth. The normal sewer branched off to the right, light spilling down in some places from street level, but another passageway led down and was dry thanks to a ledge keeping the water out. Kalaran led the way, grinning at their fortune.

     They had entered the catacombs, an extensive underground network of tunnels that lay beneath the entire city of Vectur and beyond, centralizing beneath the Royal Palace, in the center of the city. They had been constructed in ancient times, perhaps even before the city was built. Kalaran wasn’t sure, but he did know one thing: this was their access into the heart of the enemy’s territory.

     They moved more quickly now, confident that the map was leading them in the right direction. Other passageways branched off at either side, but they kept on course, following the one tunnel the instructions provided for them.

     A short while after they started, they heard a scurrying sound in front of them. Kalaran brought them to a halt, and just as they stopped a large rodent burst into the light before them, running towards them in a rabid frenzy. Before it could reach them, however, Nobien reached out with the Power and caught it. Then, as Kalaran and Cindlin watched, Nobien crushed the creature into a ball of fur and blood, tossing it aside with a derisive laugh.

     Kalaran, however, turned towards the wild-haired man, unimpressed.

     “Limit your use of the Power,” he reminded the man. “The closer we get, the more likely they will detect our presence.”

     Without further word they continued, the passage gradually going deeper, until finally the tunnel widened into a veritable corridor. They passed columned atriums with ancient, non-working glowlamps set into the walls, and sometimes strange paintings or carvings adorned the walls and floor. Still, they pressed on.

     Within a few hours, they had passed beneath the city center, and Kalaran knew they were close to the Palace. His suspicious were confirmed when the corridor became a dead end, obstructed by boulders and debris that had collapsed down from the ceiling and sealed off this tunnel from the catacombs beneath the palace. It may have been intentional, to keep out intruders. But any other would-be invaders from the past would pale in comparison to the resources of the Altarin’Dakor.

     There was one small hole in the blockage, and walking up to it, Kalaran carefully held his lamp up to it, flashing it off and on in a simple yet deliberate pattern. Then he waited.

     A few seconds later, a similar flashing pattern of light came out of the hole from the other side. Kalaran nodded. Content that they had arrived, he stood back to wait.

     Then abruptly one of the boulders at the top shifted and moved, much more easily than a giant rock should. It was, of course, a fake, placed there to ward off intruders but to allow access to certain individuals with the right knowledge.

     When the rock had been moved sufficiently aside, Kalaran led the way up the pile of debris and through the hole. He had to slide head-first through the last bit, then dropped through to his feet on the other side. His companions were close behind.

     This side of the barrier, the glowlamps were still lit, revealing a large chamber built from regular blocks of stone, with columns joining in archways above their heads and regal-looking pictograms on the floor beneath them.

     Standing there, waiting for them, was their contact.

     “Welcome,” said Kurt, “To the Royal Palace of Varnus.”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Grand Crusader

            Mizar System


            The stars spread out before him, a curtain of total blackness frosted with gems of solid light. Everything was in readiness, proceeding exactly according to his design. The loss of one command ship had been compensated with another. The enemy had been reduced to their last, most desperate worlds. Another assault, aimed at the Desolation, had been thwarted, and he had several of the enemy’s valuable Jedi as his prisoners.

     Now the next phase of his plan would be two-pronged: bypassing the other, less important systems, he would crush both Varnus and Tralaria, simultaneously. And that would be the end of the pathetic New Imperium.

     Even now they were in a chaotic scramble to prepare, but it wouldn’t be enough, nor in time. Leaving a few systems unconquered left them an escape route; a cornered enemy always fought the hardest, but now their forces would be considering abandoning their posts, fleeing to safer worlds, or even mutiny to save their own lives. Their morale was at their lowest point, and they would easily break before his unstoppable onslaught.

     Half his task force at Varnus, the other at Tralaria. The enemy would have to split theirs as well, to counter his. Outgunned and outmanned, they would be wiped out without mercy. His most powerful Kodonn’Dakor were in position on Varnus. He would not underestimate the enemy as others had. There would be no room left for error.

     Up until now he had treated them relatively lightly, gradually increasing the strength and complexity of his attacks. This time he would hold nothing back.

     Another command entered, and a new holographic window appeared before him, depicting a dark, crimson-lit ship’s bridge in the background, and standing before it a black-scaled creature with spiked projections protruding at various points on its body, with two massive sets of arms and a forward-set head set with dead-white eyes and razor-sharp fangs. This one had a crown of protruding spikes angled backwards from its cranium.

     “Master…” the Crinn Supreme Commander spoke in its native tongue. “We await your orders…”

     The Warlord spoke, intoning several commands in the Crinn language, himself. Their forces would act as forward scouts and later as assault troops. Though he was loathe in releasing the Crinn onto the surface itself for fear of an uncontrolled slaughter, he intended to put them to full use in boarding enemy craft and rendering them helpless. Besides, he wouldn’t need them on the surface.

     The Supreme Commander bowed low in acknowledgement, and Nimrod cut the connection. It had begun, then. Soon the rest of his forces would enter the Varnus System, and he would accompany them himself, this time. Some battles were glorious enough to witness personally.

     There was another reason for his presence, the one questionable factor in the imminent conflict.

     It was his sister.

     How deeply would she involve herself in the battle? Would she take action directly? In the past she had always deferred to him, out of sheer necessity. Though she might surpass him in raw strength, his strategies had enabled him to take position as first among equals in the Shok’Thola. Had Kronos not won the right of Spearhead, the New Imperium and half the galaxy would already be his.

     But that was irrelevant. Zalaria had everything to lose by fighting personally. Her latest actions seemed to contradict everything she had once been. Was it genuine, or was this part of some new, elaborate strategy of hers? If it was, then he was impressed by how much she’d grown. Taking such a risk was more daring than he’d been willing to be in millennia. And as with any risk, the awards could potentially be great. Perhaps she sought to be First among the Shok’Thola, herself.

     No matter. If Zalaria involved herself, then he would be there himself to counter her. He was absolutely confident he would be victorious – she lacked the true courage needed to face her own brother.

     Even with all the unknowns, this was only mildly interesting. He hadn’t had a true challenge in at least five thousand years.

     With a final set of commands, he set his fleets into motion.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1130 Hours


            Jedi Master Nico Flygras walked back into the palace from the outside east gate. It was a bright, sunny day – albeit a little chilly – and he had taken it upon himself to assess the status of moving people and resources to the shelters. It was something like organized chaos out there, trying to steer a plethora of individuals from different species into an orderly line into the shelters in the East Quarter. Still, it was getting done, and their ground troops were doing an exemplary job. Meanwhile, he could see barricades and bunkers being set up in the broad square that lay in front of the palace's main gate. Traffic was waning, as well, as the bustle of commercial enterprise gave way to the imminent military threat hanging over them.
     The corridors were bustling with people, some refugees heading for the shelters, novices running errands, troops and Jedi clearing out rooms and carrying supplies for the bunkers. Some even walked about as though nothing was wrong. Nico shook his head and trudged his way through the hallways as best he could. He was still getting used to being called back to Varnus after serving for months as its senator on Tralaria. Now he was Deputy Grand Master again, which technically put him second-in-command of the Order, except that now there were two Grand Masters.

     But just days before, Alyx had disappeared somewhere and Xar was running everything by himself. He hadn't given Nico anything to do except to assist him in whatever way necessary, but therein lay the problem: the Deputy Grand Master didn't really do anything.

     His robes swooshed as he strode along the corridor, eventually emerging into the main entrance foyer, where different beings bustled in and out through the huge open double doors. The royal Varnusian insignia, a huge sunburst, lay inscribed into the floor. Nico took one of the two wide staircases at either side and ascended to the second floor. Then he entered one of the corridors heading further back, pausing at a military checkpoint at another set of stairs that would take him up to the private levels.

     Once there, the traffic faded significantly, until there were only a few people he passed as he walked down the corridors toward his destination. He found himself lost in thought, trying to think about anything but the meeting ahead. Nico didn’t know why Zalaria had summoned him to one of the briefing rooms for a private meeting, but he just wanted it over as quickly as possible. She was not a woman he felt comfortable around, that was for sure. Then again, no one seemed to except for Xar. Both she and her escorts were a constant reminder of the threat that they were all facing.

     The Altarin’Dakor attack was growing imminent indeed, and he had heard the news about the AD striking in Delta Sector as well as here in Epsilon. Truth be told, he was worried about Nareni. He hoped Valtare hadn’t been hit, and he decided he should give her a call when he got to his rooms. They hadn’t spoken in quite some time, but he still had feelings for her. He hoped she was okay; he didn’t know what he would do if something bad had happened to her.

     He finally approached a large open doorway leading to the scheduled briefing room. Nervousness crept up in his stomach and made walking feel awkward. He was surprised; few people had that effect on him anymore, but it was very strong, this time. He couldn’t help it; he’d only seen Zalaria twice since she’d come to the NI, and had barely spoken more than a passing word with her. Nico had spent most of his time on Tralaria liaising with the NI Senate, so matters on Varnus had been separate and distant from him.

     He started to enter the room, but caught himself as he heard the unmistakable sound of Altarin’Dakor being spoken inside. Pausing, he peeked through the doorway and was surprised to see Zalaria herself surrounded by a group of her Jedicon, obviously in some kind of briefing. His knowledge of their language was still rudimentary, but he could tell they were talking about where their forces were to be placed in the city. There was a large holomap projected onto the wall behind her.

     Unfortunately his little observation didn’t go unnoticed. Zalaria’s eyes flicked to the doorway and found him. She said a few final words to the Jedicon, and they bowed low to her and began to file out.

     “Deputy,” she said, as the Jedicon started coming his way. “Do come in.”

     Suddenly feeling very exposed, Nico slid into the room and moved to the side as over a dozen Jedicon filed past him, barely glancing at him as they went by. Nico swallowed hard. There were way too many unsupervised AD in the room for his tastes.

     Once they had gone, he walked across to where she was standing, leaning back against a table. He wondered what she wanted from him, and why Xar wasn’t in there with them.

     Zalaria stood there, watching him. She didn’t say a word. Nico, feeling more awkward by the minute, wondered if he was supposed to break the silence. “You… wanted to see me?” he

     “Come here,” Zalaria commanded.

     For a moment he considered defying her, just turning around and walking out. He had no idea why she wanted to see him alone like this. They’d never even formally met – it didn’t make any sense.

     Instead, he stepped forward and looked at her expectantly. The silence was very uncomfortable.

     “I want to Scan you,” she said finally.

     “Excuse me?”

     She gave a brief smile, one that didn’t touch her eyes. “I want to probe your mind with the Force to make sure you haven’t been compromised by the enemy.”

     The words took a moment to register, and Nico stared at her, confused. “What? What’s do you mean?”

     “You were captured by the enemy at Mizar, were you not? You were held for some days before being rescued, correct?”

     “That’s right,” he said, growing suspicious. “Then Jinx and a bunch of other guys got me out of there.”

     “And how exactly did you survive the destruction of your flagship?” she asked.

     “It had to be Corporeal Translocation. Look, I already filed a full report about all this.”

     “And were you tested for evidence of mental subversion by a qualified Altarin’Dakor specialist when you returned?”

     “You mean brainwashing?” he asked, incredulous.

     “Something like that.”

     “Why should I? Nothing like that happened, believe me. I’ve been back for a year and a half since then.”

     “So you weren’t tested,” she repeated. “More specifically, I did not test you yet.”

     “Is that why you called me here?” he demanded. “To see if I’ve been brainwashed after all this time?”

     “I never had the chance. You only just returned from Tralaria.”

     “If this was so important why didn’t you see me there?”

     She sighed, obviously growing impatient. “Suffice it to say it only just occurred to me. Now, can we proceed?”

     “What? Are you serious?” he blurted. This was ridiculous!

     She crossed her arms under her breasts. “Do I look like I am joking?”

     “I… No, I don’t think so,” he countered, then corrected himself. “I mean, I don’t like the idea of doing that, especially without anyone else around. Sorry.”

     She pushed off of the desk and took a step closer. He realized she was just as tall as he was. He took an involuntary step back.

     “Look, Deputy. This needs to be done. I’ve searched everywhere for information leaks. We have to try all possible avenues, even unpleasant ones. This is not a request.”

     He felt her touch his mind with the Force, then, and he reeled back in surprise and disgust.

     “With all due respect, stay out of my mind,” he told her sharply. “I’m lodging a formal complaint with Xar about this. I’m leaving.”

     He turned to go, but suddenly her hand was on his arm, holding him back. He turned and saw her staring straight through him.

     “This will only take a moment. I just have to send the right feeler signals.”

     Her mind hit his again, this time overwhelmingly powerful. He immediately resisted, but to his shock his defenses were swept aside as easily as one might push away a child. He gasped, turned and tried to jerk his arm free from her grip, but to no avail.

     She was in his mind, now. How could she so easily overcome him? It was crazy; he’d never felt anything so powerful! He’ heard the rumors – was this what they truly meant about an Altarin’Dakor Warlord’s power? He hadn’t dared believe them, but now he knew – they were true.

     “You appear to be clean,” she said suddenly.

     “W… What?” he stammered.

     “I have tried all the current methods of detecting the use subversive agents,” she said, explaining as calmly as if she were teaching a school lesson. “There is no evidence of use from any of them.”

     “Well, good…” he began.

     “Wait.” She shook her head. “There is an older technique that I haven’t searched for. It’s virtually unheard of now, but just to be sure…”

     He tried to pull away as her mind entered his again. He felt… something… echoing in his subconscious as though a thought were bouncing around inside his head. He tried to resist, but despite his best efforts, there was nothing he could do to stop her. It felt like… an invasion.

     “There’s something there,” he heard her say.

     “Huh?” He turned his attention back to her face.

     “Something is different about you,” she said. Her eyes bore into his.

     “Like what?” he asked, confused at her sudden attention. Could it just be the new fragrance he had been wearing lately?

     But Zalaria looked dead serious. “Something is familiar,” she murmured, as though talking more to herself than to him. "I've felt this imprint before... long ago."

     He felt her push at him through the Force, reaching into his mind and his emotions again. He opened his mouth, ready to yell out some kind of alarm. She might be high ranking, but that didn’t give her the right to mind probe him without his permission.

     “Someone, help me!” he began to shout. He turned towards the doorway, trying to escape her grip and get away.

     “That’s it!” Her voice cut through his protests. Nico felt himself being pulled around, until his back was against the far wall away from the entrance. Zalaria’s eyes had gone wide.

    “This can’t be. Who did this to you?”

     “Who did wha

     His words were cut off as she grabbed him by the front of his cloak and pushed him against the wall, holding him there bodily with one hand.

     “What have you told them!?” she demanded.

     Nico stared into those unforgiving eyes, and fear shot through him like a bolt of lightning. “What do you mean?” he exclaimed.

     “You have been spying for the enemy!”

     “What!? No!” he shouted as the pressure increased, pinning him tightly against the wall. He held onto her arm and twisted, but her grip was like a steel vice. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

      “Someone has used Compulsion on you, you fool!” she said, her words cold enough to freeze his insides. “You have no idea, do you? They’ve taken control of you and you don’t even know it.”

     “No, that’s impossible!” He shook his head in fierce denial. It couldn’t be; no one had done anything to him! “I… I don’t remember anything happening to me, I swear!”

     “It doesn’t matter,” she said disdainfully. “Aware of it or not, you have been compromised. All this time you may have been providing information to the enemy. You are a liability to us.”

     “Look… Just let me go,” he argued. “We can talk about this. We’ll figure it out! I’m sure there’s been a mistake! And even if not, there must be a way to fix it.”

    “I’m afraid not,” she said, her face twisting into a hard grimace. “Not without serious repercussions to your mind. Come… Let me show you what I saw.”

    “W… wait!”                                                                     

    He felt her brush the edge of his consciousness, pressing on his mind like a weight, and he blinked. Images of himself lying on a table, strapped down, flashed through his head. There was the Jedicon’s face, the one who had kept him after he’d been captured at Mizar. She was extracting those memories from him! But nothing else had happened, had it?

     “There must have been someone else there,” Zalaria’s voice broke though. “Someone powerful enough to do this to you. Who was it? A skilled one; he’s covered his trail very well. Could it have been a Shok’Thola?”

     The sense flared again, pressing harder against his mind. He saw himself in a room, talking to others, reciting words without even thinking about them. But he couldn’t identify anyone else in the room. What was he saying? The words he formed – repetitions of what the others were telling him. This was crazy; he didn’t remember this at all! There were definitely two other people in the room that he was talking to, and panic shot through him as he realized what she was saying was true – he’d been brainwashed and he didn’t even remember what had been done to him.

     “Who was it? Tell me!” she demanded, pushing harder.

     “I don’t know! I’m sorry!” he cried.

     Her grip was crushing; it was becoming hard to breath from the pressure against the wall. He drew on the Force as much as he could, trying to resist her probing, attempting to pull her hand back just a little. A useless gesture. It was like trying to move a mountain. He was totally helpless before her all-searching eyes. Panic gripped his heart.

     She’s going to kill me, he realized.

     Then suddenly the pressure on his mind increased exponentially, as she reached up and placed a hand over his forehead.

     “There is only one way to free you from this, my friend. I’m afraid I will have to purge your mind of every trace of Compulsion I can find. I… don’t expect it to feel pleasant,” she said forebodingly.

     “Please, no!” he yelled.

     Too late. Her consciousness exploded into his mind, burning into his thoughts like a blinding supernova. Everything he knew, all he could see and all he was, flashed into nothingness before that horrible, blinding light. He wished he could have seen Nareni one more time.

     Then he screamed like he’d never screamed before in his life.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Beneath the Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1145 Hours


            Once everyone had gathered, Kalaran was ready to proceed with the plan. He turned to their guide, nodding toward another passage that broke off to their left. “This will lead me beneath the city shield generator?” he asked.

     “That’s right,” Kurt replied in passable Altarin’Dakor. “About four kilometers’ walk will put you directly under it.”

     “And there will be no traps set for invaders?”

     “The catacombs are mostly unexplored and avoided,” the man explained. “Only the Wardens – myself and my successors – and perhaps a few others really even know how to get around down here.”

     “Good.” Kalaran turned to the group of other Kodonn’Dakor waiting expectantly behind him. Surrounding him were Nimrod's finest Jedicon, those that had distinguished themselves through a lifetime of flawless service. It was a powerful force to be reckoned with, far more than would normally be sent to defeat an enemy. But this was no simple conflict against a rival Altarin'Dakor faction; they were finally going to face the so-called Jedi from this galaxy in combat. And, though Kalaran didn't expect to find much of a challenge in them, he found he was looking forward to it, after all these years.

     “Come with me,” he ordered, choosing three other elite Kodonn’Dakor standing nearby. “Our mission is the generator. The rest of you: do not strike until I give the order. We wait on Lord Nimrod.”

     The entire room voiced their assent, and Cindlin and Nobien rounded up the remaining Jedicon to lead them up into the passages beneath the palace. Cindlin took the time to withdraw a cloth from her pouch and remove the makeup obscuring her true self in all its glory.

     “You had better leave now,” Kalaran said, turning to their informant. “Soon things will not be good for Outlander Jedi on this world.”

     “My work here is finished,” Kurt said, saluting and stepping back towards the barrier through which they’d entered.

     Kalaran turned to the rest of the Jedicon, feeling the excitement of the coming battle fill his veins with fire and power. Everything was ready; all they had to do was wait for Lord Nimrod’s command. Glaciek Altarin’Dakor,” he said.Undia Nimrod.”

     The chorus was taken up and repeated for a long moment, then the two groups split up and were gone.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1201 Hours


            The sound drew him off at once; he could hear the yelling even from another section of the palace. Immediately Xar dropped his conversation with Thrakus and shot off down the hallway, using the Force to enhance his speed. Kiz’s questioning voice faded behind him as he left the man behind.

     He flew up a flight of stairs, slid around a corner, and then barreled through the doorway from which the bloodcurdling screams were emanating from.

     Then he skid to a halt at the nightmarish scene in front of him.

     Nico Flygras was there, lying at Zalaria’s feet, his body twitching, eyes rolled back and tears streaming down his face. Xar’s wife stood above his body, whispering.

     “Who was it…” he heard her say.

     “Nico!” Xar said, running forward.

     Nico’s body heaved and fell again as Zalaria turned away from him, holding a palm out towards Xar. “Wait, Xar.”

     “What the kriff are you doing!?” Xar yelled.

     “Extracting information from a spy,” she replied coldly, turning to look down at Nico again.

     “You’re killing him!” Xar yelled.

     “He has betrayed us!” she glared back at him. “He’s working for the enemy.”

     “Nico?” Xar shook his head in disbelief. “That’s crazy!”

     “Someone has used Compulsion on him, Xar. Say the right words and he’ll do anything you ask.”

     The thought sent a jolt of fear into him. He knew Nico had been captured by the enemy, before. But could it really have happened to him? He’d been acting completely normal ever since returning; they had run very careful tests. “I can’t believe Nico would do that!” he said.

     “He’s told them everything by now,” she continued, her fury unabated. “All our plans have been compromised. We have to start all over!”

     “We don’t know that!” Xar countered. He looked down at Nico, lying helplessly on the floor, tears streaming down his cheeks and incoherent words streaming out of his mouth. “What did you do to him?”

     “Their programming was very good,” she said. “I couldn’t find who was responsible, but I eliminated any trace of the Sleeper inside his mind. He has been purged.”

     “What do you mean, purged?”

     “Anything that his controller tampered with has been eliminated,” she said. “Wiped clean. Still, he was good; there could be something I haven’t found. We should probably make sure.” She turned and looked down at him again, moving as if to touch the writhing form below her again.

     “I said leave him alone!” Xar yelled, running towards where Nico lay.

     She snorted and turned away from him as he neared. “As you wish. But we need to talk about this, later.”

     At the moment, he didn’t really care what she said or where she went. He saw her walk away, then he dropped to his knees in front of his fallen comrade.

     The man was barely moving, lying at an odd angle against the wall. Xar reached out to brace him, then, tentatively, reached into the man’s mind with the Force. But instead of finding the reassuring presence of his friend, there was only a jumble of mixed emotional states, phasing from one to another in an animalistic fashion, a semi-consciousness cobbled together piecemeal without any sense of reason or order. It didn’t even feel like a man inside.

     His friend was gone.

     NICO!” he screamed.

     Desperately he reached for his commlink; with shaky fingers he typed the code to call Medical. He messed it up the number twice before he got it right.

     “Medical, get Doctor Vannik now, this is a medical emergency!”

     He heard the nurse reply, then there was a scuffling sound on the other line. They had to hurry!

     Vannik, get a team up here right now!”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Titan-class Command Ship Ascendancy

            Outside the Varnus System

            1330 Hours Ship’s Time


            Kamren Thansil sat in the briefing room along with all other commanding officers onboard the Ascendancy. Naguis'Vox'Donn Evan Reinal, commodore of the Ascendancy, was speaking at the podium, laying out the plan for the upcoming attack on Varnus, one of the New Imperium’s most prized worlds.

     Kamren was looking forward to this. Finally, a full-scale battle between the two fleets. In the engagements they’d had until now, the enemy had fled time and again like the cowards they were. But there would be nowhere else to run, this time. Finally he would see the challenge that he’d been waiting for.

     “We will be moving in with the other command ships in the fleet,” the Commodore said to the hundred or so high-ranking officers gathered. “The Ascendancy has been tasked with a vitally important role. We will spearhead the assault into the heart of the enemy formation and attack the planet’s capital city itself. We will combine orbital bombardment with ground and fighter assaults while the Ascendancy drives a wedge inside the enemy fleet and allows us to strike from both sides. There will be no holding back,” he said, looking with pride around the room. “This will be a glorious moment addition to our honored ship’s illustrious career. And our crew has the glory of playing such a part. Our own Naguis’Voxavit Gornen Siph will command the ground forces that will penetrate their city’s defenses. Naguis’Voxavit Kamren Thansil, you will command the fighter squadrons in the atmosphere. Your mission will be to destroy their defensive emplacements, eliminate their fighter cover, and escort our assault platforms. Naguis’Voxavit Xun Fiar, you will eliminate enemy fighters in orbit and protect the Ascendancy.”

     Naguis’Vox’Donn! I must protest!” interjected a livid Fiar, commander of Eclipse Wing and Thansil’s greatest rival onboard the Ascendancy. Kamren could have guess this was coming; Fiar had been going after Kamren’s favored position of top ace on the ship for years. His voice was raspy and full of hate as he pointed at Kamren. “With all respect, Voxavit Thansil is unfit to lead such a vital part of the assault. His supposedly ‘elite’ squadron had suffered heavy losses in the engagements already.”

     “Silence!” Reinal’s voice boomed over the ensuing din. “He has also acquired more enemy kills than you. Our decision has been made. You overstep your place, Naguis’Voxavit!”

     Kamren glanced at Fiar, who was chafing under the reprimand, obviously feeling the eyes of everyone present. He turned to his second, Misot’Voxavit Xinan Chorth, speaking a few words to the dark-purple-skinned Kurathian. Fiar had taken a huge step near insubordination by openly challenging the decision; that was how much he apparently hated Kamren. Now the Qwi’pthi had suffered a loss of face in front of everyone here; he was bound to seek revenge on Kamren at some point. Kamren would have to be cautious. He’d promised to challenge him to an honor duel after the campaign was over; now he wondered if the challenge might not come from Fiar, sooner than that.

     Naguis’Voxavit Thansil, you will be present at the tactical briefing in three hours, where you will brief all fighter wings on their roles in the operation.”

     “Understood,” Kamren spoke up crisply.

     “Very well. That is all. We will maintain a constant state of readiness until the final order to deploy is received. That is all.”

     The meeting adjourned, officers began filing out. Kamren rose, as well, wishing that Vos were still here to share this honor and to plan tactics with. No one congratulated him as he followed the crowd out. Any one of them would welcome the chance to take his place if he failed or died in combat.

     All the better; it was why they were superior to the outlanders of this galaxy. And it was why the Altarin’Dakor would wipe out the last remnants of the New Imperium at Varnus.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1640 Hours


            Xar finally returned to their quarters, knowing that was where Zalaria would be waiting for him. He’d spent the last few hours in Medlab with Doctor Vannik, watching over Nico’s condition. Unfortunately, the man was still in a comatose state. Vannik didn’t know what else to do with him, except monitor his life signs and wait to see if he could pull himself back together. Nico’s wounds weren’t physical.

     The Bond told him even before he arrived that she was here. Sure enough, as soon as he entered, he saw Zalaria standing by the windows, watching the traffic outside and waiting. He closed the door behind him and then stopped on the plush rug several paces away from the window, watching warily.

     Nico’s in bad shape,” he said finally, staring at her.

     She turned to face him, her expression neutral. “I am sorry to hear that.”

     “I want you to fix him,” he demanded.

     She gave a small shrug and looked away. “I am sorry, but I can’t. I cannot reconstruct something I have no knowledge of. I don’t know what was in his mind or his memories. They may be irrecoverable.”

     “You healed me. I was virtually dead!”

     “Restructuring the human body physically and restoring someone’s mind and memories are completely different things, Xar.”

     “He was my friend! I want you to fix him!”

     “He was a spy for the enemy!” she said derisively. Her eyes bored holes through him as she glared back at him. “You’ve grown soft, Xar. War requires us to do hard things when it affects those we care about. You know that to defeat Nimrod, we have to be as ruthless as he is.”

     Xar froze. Those words, coming from her, reminded him of exactly the type of thing he’d been saying himself, lately. But was that really true? Not everyone believed so. And if they did exactly what Nimrod did, would they not in the end become just like Nimrod? It was something he’d never bothered thinking about before. Had that mindset come from within himself, or from the woman standing in front of him now?

     “Maybe he’s right. You haven’t changed,” he thought to himself, his voice barely a whisper.

     A pause. Then Zalaria blinked in surprise. “What did you say?”

     Instead of answering, he locked eyes with hers. It was time. He had to know for sure.

     “Did you really do it?” he asked quietly. “Did you… kill all your own people?”

     Her eyes narrowed immediately. “Who told you that?”

     “Just answer the question,” he said.

     She hesitated for a moment. Then her mouth twisted. “Ah. It was Novitaar, wasn’t it? I told you, Xar; the times were different, then. I was different. I changed. You believed me before. Does this knowledge change that belief?”

     “I’m not sure what to believe anymore,” he replied softly. “Why didn’t you tell me he was your slave?”

     “It was for your own good. And his.”

     “How can I know that?”

     For a moment, there was only silence. Xar stood in silent contemplation. There was much to think about, and for once, he wasn’t sure he could handle the information that he’d been faced with over the last couple of days.

     “What did you do to him?” he whispered.

     She let out a sigh and turned to stare out the window for a long moment.

     “What do you want to hear?” she asked finally. “About all the horrible things I did to him? About how I broke him?” She glanced back at him. “He did break, Xar. He served me with all his heart, for a time. But what else do you want me to say? These things are long past. They do not matter anymore.”

     “I think I’ll have to decide that for myself,” Xar said softly. He felt like he was about to vomit. He needed to get away.

     “Xar, I have something else I want to tell you,” she said finally.

     “Save it,” he cut her off, turning away. “Not now. I need some time alone.”

     He stared out the window for a moment, feeling like the whole world had suddenly turned on him. He needed to think, to come to grips with this. It was too much to try and sort out, right now. He needed time to work it out, get it clear so he could plan how to defend his city.

     He turned and strode from the room. Zalaria didn’t try and stop him. He felt her gaze on his back all the way until he passed through the entrance and out into the hallway.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Zalaria watched him go. Strangely, she felt emotions conflicting within her, something she hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. There was frustration at him, but also sadness. And something else… it couldn’t be guilt, could it? Why should she feel guilty?

     He was angry at her now, of course. Surely given time he would calm down and see things more rationally. Icis Novitaar had undoubtedly told him the truth. But had he said more? She couldn’t let Xar turn against him. Too much was riding on this, and now she had committed. Even though she knew he would eventually come around, an urgent sense within her wanted him back, now. Part of her didn’t want to wait. She had almost stopped him on the way out, to tell him. But she knew it wasn’t the right time. Not in his current emotional state. How could she tell him, as long as he distanced himself from her? What would his reaction even be, if he knew the truth?
     What would he say if she told him she was pregnant?


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Torinn’Vinn Envirodeck

Titan-class Command Ship Ascendancy

            Outside the Varnus System

            1549 Hours Ship’s Time


            Kamren Thansil relaxed again on the massage table, his muscles feeling refreshed after his latest session with the skilled Kurathian masseuse. She had left him now, to let him relax, and he planned to top his session off with a soak in the artificial hot springs sheltered in the tropical foliage off to his left.

     Few other beings populated the Envirodeck at this time, just before the cusp of battle, but he preferred to do so. It helped him relax, focus his energy for the upcoming task.
     He lay there for a moment, breathing in the herbal-infused, moist air around him, his eyes only half-closed. That was what saved his life.
     A shadow flashed across his field of vision. His mind barely had time to register it, but his body reacted instinctively. He rolled around, facing upwards and throwing up an arm, seeing a blur of motion as the knife flashed down at him.
     His arm hit someone else's, enough to throw the blade hand off course. The dagger hit the table just beside his head with a thunk. He immediately rolled right, away from his attacker, but not quite fast enough. The blade pulled free, and he gasped as it slashed again, cutting deep into his left arm just below the shoulder. He spun to his feet and backed away, standing there naked, gripping his bleeding wound with his right hand and glaring at his assailant across the table. Xun Fiar stood there, a ceremonial dagger in hand, glaring at him in hate.
     Kamren hadn't expected this. Assassinations weren't uncommon among the Altarin'Dakor, but rarely would they happen on the eve of an important mission. It would mean a last-minute change of command. Superiors would strongly frown upon the chaos such an act would thrust upon the troops. But obviously, Xun Fiar didn't care.
     "You always had a weakness for such pleasures!" Fiar shouted. Then he lunged across the table again.
     This time Kamren caught the blade hand in mid-air, but the Qwi'pthi's body rammed into his, pushing them both back. They stumbled across the stone floor for a moment, Fiar backing Kamren until they stood at the hot spring's edge. Kamren focused more of his strength on keeping the blade away from him, and not slipping on the wet stones beneath him.
     Then Fiar gave a high-pitched cry and rammed his head into Kamren's face. Thansil threw his head back as Fiar's head hit him, the alien's small beak slashing his cheek but doing little else. But the force of his opponent's weight threw him off balance, and just at that moment he slipped, falling backwards.  As he fell he continued to grip Fiar's arms with all his might, and with a splash they both fell into the steaming waters.
     The struggle continued underwater as they fought in the near-scalding spring. Kamren twisted back and forth violently, thrusting Fiar's arm out towards the rocks at the side. Fiar's hand hit, and he felt the alien's grip go slack as the dagger fell from his hand. However, his complete focus on the knife hand allowed Fiar to slide out of his grip. A hand lashed out and clawed Kamren across the face; then the Qwi'pthi spun around to Kamren's rear, and he felt a thin feathered arm slide around his neck, holding him down. With a panic Kamren realized he was being drowned, and he hadn't taken a breath since falling in. He kicked out at the rocks beneath him, but Fiar tangled his legs with his, keeping Kamren from getting a good stance. He thrashed back and forth, feeling his body using up the little remaining oxygen he still held. His lungs began to burn. Desperately he reached up and tried to scratch and pry Fiar's hands off him, but the Qwi'pthi's feathers were too oily and slick.
     Kamren knew he didn't have much time left. He opened his eyes, the burning sensation from the hot water almost unbearable. All his air was gone, now, expelled in the struggle. He cast about on the bottom, searching desperately for the knife that had fallen just moments before. It felt like he'd been underwater for minutes, now. His eyes burned! He couldn't see anything!
     He began to relax his struggles, knowing that he was weakening and that it wouldn't do any good. If he feigned death, perhaps Fiar would let him go. His lungs burned desperately for air, and resisted the urge to gasp desperately, knowing that if he did, he would drown. Darkness crept in at the edges of his vision. He waved his free hand across the stones one more time, feeling his hope vanishing beneath the churning waters.
     This his fingers touched a thin metal cylinder. The hilt.
     Gripping the handle, he lurched forward and thrust the knife past his side. He felt resistance as the blade passed into Fiar's body behind him. The grip around his neck slackened.
     Finding his footing, he pushed upwards with the last of his strength. Fiar fell away behind him as his head broke water, and he gasped for air, refilling his starving lungs.
     He spun, splashing water, and saw Fiar gripping the handle of the blade in his side. Reacting quickly, Kamren clamped his hand down on Fiar's, holding the blade in place, then gripped the alien's head feathers with his other hand and slammed his forehead into Fiar's face.
     The Qwi'pithi cried out, and the distraction was enough for Kamren to gain the edge. He kicked out with his left foot, catching Fiar at the knees, and with all his might thrust alien's head down into the water.
     Now it was Kamren's turn. Fiar flailed and splashed beneath him, but Kamren held him down with powerful arm muscles, despite the slash on his left arm that trailed blood into the water. A Qwi'pthi was lithe and fast, but no match for a human's strength, and the dagger in his side, which Kamren kept him from removing, sapped his strength more quickly. Fiar's struggles continued for another half minute, gradually weakening and slowing. Blood from his wound poured into the water, turning it a milky red all around them.

     Kamren kept him down mercilessly, holding him down patiently until Fiar's struggles finally ceased entirely, then waiting another full minute. He wasn't taking any chances. He waited until there was no chance his enemy could be faking, standing there naked in the bloody water. Finally he let go, letting Fiar's body bob up face-down on the surface.
     He moved to the spring's edge and lifted himself out of the water, his legs nearly shaking from fatigue. He stood there a moment, dripping onto the stones, looking around the holodeck for any sign of further threats. There was no one around, not even servants or his former masseuse. Their duel had been given a wide berth, but apparently Fiar had come alone.
     His arm ached, still bleeding profusely due to its immersion in the hot water. The dagger had torn through his muscle and hit bone. It would affect his performance in the upcoming battle. The thought angered him, filling him with hate for the jealous Qwi'pthi now lying dead in the water behind him. His foolishness had nearly ended Kamren Thansil's illustrious career. But in the end, the superior officer had been victorious.
     Kamren strode from the room, heading to the showers to wash his enemy's blood off. After that he would have to visit sickbay and attend to his wounds. Then, once that was taken care of, he had a briefing to make.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            ISD Stormwatch

            Outskirts, Varnus System

            2010 Hours


            If Mathis had been too bored within the walls of the palace, looking for something to do, then being cooped up in a starship on patrol wasn't all that much better, he reflected. Granted, it was a starship eighteen hundred meters long, but there was still only so much one could do. And it wasn't like he had any specific duties to perform. He tried to keep his senses attuned around the ship, which would hopefully help them detect enemies entering the system, but he didn't know. Besides, it was monotonous work.
     At least the Stormwatch - flagship of the Jedi Division - was outfitted quite differently from other Mark-II Imperator-class Star Destroyers. First Mathis had enjoyed the Stormwatch's leisure deck, which essentially held a full-sized shopping mall that had once been a big tourist attraction for Varnusians to visit. Even with many of the stores temporarily closed due to the war, he'd found a few things to do. He'd taken in a few holo-vids at the theater to pass the time, and watched the fighter squadrons coming and going on their daily patrols. Now he was back in his room, and found himself bloody bored once more.
     So he sat in his plush VIP quarters, hands folded on top of his desk, upon which sat his convenient little wooden box. Despite his best intentions to the contrary, he had brought the flaming thing along. Now it sat there, just calling to him. It was the same bloody thing over and over again. He shook his head in utter disgust.
     His comm beeped, and the screen over the desk indicated that he had an incoming call from the bridge. Admiral Aaron Melvar was the commodore of the Stormwatch, and he had been more than hospitable and careful to include Mathis on any command-level decisions taking place on the ship. Currently the Stormwatch was skirting the outer edges of the Varnus System, on the lookout for any sign of the enemy. At this point they all knew it wasn't a matter of if the AD struck, but when.
     He hit the button to open the channel, and saw Melvar's dark-skinned, bald head appear on the screen.
     "Master Organa," the Admiral said with a respectful nod. "I just wanted to inform you that we've emerged from hyperspace at the aleph-zero point and are holding here. Patrol craft will be launching shortly should you wish to oversee the operation."
     "Thank you for the update, Admiral," Mathis replied, "But I think I'll sit this one out."
     "Not a problem. Enjoy your evening," Melvar said, then reached down and ended the transmission.
     Sliding the box to the side and trying to put it out of his mind, he changed the display screen over to the local holovids. The news was, at this point, just a reiteration of the day's events, which he'd already seen twice today. Instead he flipped it over to some Coruscanti series he remembered growing up with, a noir-esque drama about a street detective trying to stamp out crime in the galaxy’s most famous ecumenopolis.
     He'd gotten engrossed and was about an hour into it when his comm beeped again. No, wait. It wasn't his comm; it was the ship-wide warning system. A claxon sounded twice, then, and a female announcer's voice came over the speakers.
     "Attention. Patrols have encountered unidentified enemy forces. The Stormwatch will move to intercept. All crews to action stations. Civilians are advised to relocate to emergency shelters until further notice is given. This is not a drill."
     The message repeated, then went silent. A knot of fear clenched in Mathis' stomach. This sounded like the real thing. He quickly changed his display back to comm mode and called the bridge. He stared at the 'waiting' screen for what felt like an eternity before Admiral Melvar returned.
     "Master Organa, sorry for the delay," a disheveled-looking Melvar said, turning towards the Mathis.
     "What's going on, Admiral? Is it the AD?"
     "It looks like it," Melvin said, his voice grave. "We've lost our whole forward patrol already. All fighters are launching and we're moving to intercept." Behind him, Mathis could see the bridge's blast doors closing over the forward viewports, to protect the bridge from direct hits.

     Melvar continued, looking grim. "We haven't encountered ships like this before. They barely show up on our screens at all; they're small, black, and whatever they're hitting us with, it's going right through our shields."
     The man's words sent another shiver down Mathis' spine. "Sounds like you're describing Crinn ships with their mass drivers," he said.
     "I don't know. Brace yourself; I'll patch you through to the main holocams. I've got to go."
     At that Melvin reached down again, and the display switched to the starfield resting out in front of the Star Destroyer. The camera angle zoomed and shifted, as Mathis watched whatever the bridge crew were looking at. Before long he could see light barely reflecting off a dark, rocklike shape. But it was contoured and aerodynamic, definitely a starship. They were Crinn, all right. This wasn’t good.
     Mathis sat back and waited, watching as much as he could the battle unfold. The lights dimmed slightly, and he thought he heard the muffled sounds of the Stormwatch's turbolasers opening up.
     Moments later, he heard another sound - a metallic clang, and the thump that resulted when decks suffered decompression as they were exposed to vacuum. The ship began to shake, slightly.
     The screen's display revealed little; what it did wasn't good news. Explosions flared briefly, and black ships flashed across the field of view and were gone again. The battle was getting intense.
     He suddenly felt fear, worse than he'd remembered feeling in previous battles. At first it bewildered him; after all, he'd served in the Imperial Remnant for years before joining the NI, and then he'd always fought with intensity and anticipation - almost joy. His ubiquitous grin would grow wider than ever when he was in personal combat. Maybe his unease was because he was trapped inside, with nothing to do. He couldn't sense anything through the Force but a jumbled sense of emotions, and people dying.
     But this was real fear, and not just because they were Crinn. Lately, even the thought of life and death combat was enough to give him the shivers. Deep down in his gut, he had to admit he knew what was causing this.

     It was ever since he'd encountered Velius. It was then that he’d learned what true terror was.
     Bloody stang, he thought. The spice was calling him, now, at the worst time possible. He glanced at his wooden box. It was just sitting there, waiting for him. The urge grew stronger with each passing second. What could it hurt? He was useless cooped up in here, anyway. And it was the only sure-fire way to escape from the fear that tried to engulf him.

     That was it, wasn’t it? The spice was freedom, a release from whatever emotional state he was trapped inside. Why not use it? It gave him mastery over his emotions. Then he would feel invincible.

     The muffled explosions continued. Mathis knew that the Stormwatch probably wasn’t a match for a concerted Crinn attack. How many ships were out there?

     The ship’s claxon sounded again, then the comm system kicked in.

     “Attention. Hull breaches in sectors twenty-five through thirty-eight, Alpha. Shields at forty-seven percent. All personnel please advance to emergency shelters.”

     Mathis glanced at the screen again. There were flashes where a few enemy ships were destroyed; the Stormwatch was a formidable ship, tougher than most ISDs. She had heavy turbolasers and flak turrets set up along her port and starboard sides, plus another pair to either side of the bridge to pick off approaching fighters. She could last a long time, but not forever.

     The ship shuddered again, and the lights flickered off and on again, briefly. Another jolt of panic tried to slide up his spine. I didn’t come out here to die! his emotional mind yelled.

     The comm system came on again. This time it was Admiral Varrel’s strained voice.

     “Red alert! The main hangar bay has been breached by enemy forces! Repeat: enemy forces are onboard and in the main hangar bay! I need all military personnel down there immediately; get them out of there!”

     Now full-blown panic shot through him. This is it. We’re dead, Mathis thought. If there were Crinn on the ship, then most likely they were going to try and capture her instead of blowing her out of the sky. Instead of being vaporized or exposed to vacuum, they would be killed one by one, as the Crinn came through in a merciless bloodbath.

     Even now soldiers would be flooding into the hangar, but Mathis knew their odds were slim; the Crinn were bred to be killers, with natural body armor that let them shrug off most blaster bolts. Plus, they carried handheld versions of their mass drivers. If Mathis went down there, he would only get himself killed.

     The box full of Ryll called out to him again, too strongly to resist anymore. Whether or not he went down to the hangar to help, this would probably be his last day alive.

     Well, if I’m going to die today… might as well go out high, he thought. He reached over and opened the box, quickly withdrawing the smaller metal container within. He opened it and produced the bag of Ryll, along with the other equipment he used to consume it. He needn’t bother being careful this time. He quickly dumped most of the brown powder onto the table, catching its flavorful scent as it settled onto the surface in front of him.

     He reached for his pipe tube, but before he could lean over and begin, he felt as if someone just reached out and slapped him in the face.

     What in the name of Alderaan’s grave am I doing? He stood there, stupefied, staring down at the spice, the substance that symbolized everything he hated about himself. What did he think he was doing? People were dying down there, and all he could do was sit here feeling sorry for himself!

     Anger began to well up in him. This wasn’t what Bobarus and Billaries would have done! Coward, he could almost hear them yelling. How could he dishonor their memory, and the fact that he had survived when everyone on Alderaan had died, by facing death in such a pathetic way?

     No! This wasn’t him at all! And it was all because of this garbage in front of him! He hated it! That’s enough, he thought. It was bloody enough!

     Growling in outrage, he pushed himself away from the table and ran over to the closet where he kept his bags. Fishing around inside, he found what he was looking for. He quickly unfolded his Jedi robe and threw it around his shoulders, then gripped his lightsaber handle in one hand. Anger at how he’d been living all these months and years grew to overwhelming rage. Enough!

     Walking over to the table, he ignited his lightsaber, its red blade flashing to life in his hands, and he struck. He hit the pile of spice dead on, igniting it in a puff of smoke, then slicing straight through the table beneath it. Far from satiated, he chopped again and again, slicing the wooden box and metal container into pieces, cutting chunks even into the floor. Then in a rage, he ran over to the door, punching the controls to make it open. Opening himself to the Force as strongly as he could, he ran for the turbolift as fast as his enhanced legs would carry him.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            There were Crinn everywhere.

     The black-armored creatures were all over the hangar’s interior as the doors opened, spilling Mathis into the fray. There were half a dozen of the monsters between him and the main hangar opening, which fell away after some distance into open space. Other groups of Crinn were making their way up on either side. Each carried those shiny mass drivers they loved to use – some holding massive cannon-like guns that they carried with three or four arms, others sporting more compact guns that fired smaller automatic rounds.

     There were bodies, too. Probably over a hundred stormtroopers, techs and other personnel lay lifeless on the floor, missing limbs or even heads, their still-fresh blood slicking across the polished metal deck. The main battle was already over; he’d been too late to save them.

     Guilt tried to fill him, but he grabbed hold of it, turning into further rage. It was just him, now. Only enemies filled the massive hangar bay around him. The Crinn had slaughtered everyone, leaving no prisoners. His anger boiled beyond his ability to contain it. They didn’t deserve to live! These… abominations… had been created for one reason: to kill. They took pleasure in it. Their very existence was a perversion of nature. Well, he would see how they liked the same kind of justice applied to them!

     Mathis Organa would go out in a blaze of glory, fighting to his dying breath. It was as it should be.

     His smile returned.

     The closest Crinn warrior wasn’t looking towards him when he leapt out of the turbolift. Mathis flew over in a Force-enhanced blur, moving into range before his enemy could even complete his turn. In one motion he slid underneath the black creature and swung his saber with all his might. The blade sliced deep through the warrior’s body, dropping him in a spray of blood vapor.

     The creature fell, but halfway on top of Mathis, which helped shield him from view of the other Crinn in the hangar, which just began to notice the commotion and run towards him. Deactivating his lightsaber, Mathis instead reached for the massive rail cannon the Crinn had been holding. It was almost half as big as he was, and shone like chrome, centered around a massive barrel over ten centimeters wide. The rear of the weapon was huge and complex, with two massive magazines that held its ammunition. It was far too heavy for a normal man to lift unaided.

     With Force enhanced strength, Mathis hefted the weapon in his hands, pushing the dead Crinn’s body off of him. He rose to his feet and spun towards the enemy, advancing upon him now that they saw it was a lone man they faced.

     Screaming, Mathis unleashed all his fury on the advancing enemies. His finger tightened on the trigger, and death spat from his barrel.

     His shots were unfocused at first, eliciting small sonic booms as the projectiles launched out on streams of air. They hit crates, exploding them into pieces, and resting containers holding fuel and other flammables, sending them up in explosions that blew nearby warriors off their feet.

     Then he gained control of his weapon and began raining death upon them. To his left, warriors were hit in the chest and abdomen, blowing holes through them that sent black blood flying out to splatter the walls behind them. Their bodies followed, propelled into the air by the hypersonic force of the projectiles.

     His enemies returned fire. Shots flashed out at him as he spun towards the next group of enemies, and he heard the sound as shots the size of his face flashed past him and hit the walls with a deafening roar. Another shot hit the deck beside him, exploding fragments of metal into the air behind him. Smaller projectiles whipped past his face and legs, ripping holes in his cloak. Somehow, he went unscathed.

     His kept pouring shots out. A bolt hit an opponent’s weapon, sending shattered fragments bursting through his armored carapace. Another had a leg blown off, pitching it forward only to take a second shot in the head, blowing a clean hole all the way through its body. Another lost two arms to a single shot, sending them careening away, then another punched through his midsection, throwing him backwards.

     Crinn warriors fell in bloody heaps, sliding across the floor. Some were blown over the edge of the hangar and into the yawning chasm of space below, their weapons following them down. Then, in their place, something came up into the hangar.

     Mathis immediately saw the Crinn fighter as it rose into the air parallel to the deck. It was facing him, and inside he could see dark bodies moving, coming to inspect the disruption in the hangar. He gave them no time to react.

     Trigger still depressed all the way, he turned his spinning barrel towards the fighter. His shots tore through armor that wasn’t designed to stop its own mass projectiles, chewing their way over to the cockpit, where they punched straight through the craft’s viewports. The pilots inside were blown apart by the hypersonic blasts, and the craft pitched violently downwards, flame spilling out of it.

     It dropped at just the right moment. The fighter plunged as a second Crinn troop transport tried to rise into the hangar, and plowed straight into the transport amidships. The force tore into the interior of the larger ship, then the fighter exploded. The blast ripped through the transport, sending Crinn body parts flying everywhere, and caught both vessels in an explosion that ripped them apart and sent flames roaring up into the hangar.

     Bathed in yellow light from the flames, Mathis crouched on the deck, watching as the debris from the collision fell out into space below. The last of the enemy invaders fell to the floor nearby and stopped twitching. No more projectiles shot from his weapon; the gun’s barrel spun pointlessly, ammunition expended. Smoke poured from the device from overheating. With a final burst of effort Mathis threw the thing away, and it crashed to the deck with a deafening crunch.

     He looked all around him, surveying the carnage. The hangar was empty, now. There were no more crew alive. There were no more Crinn alive. There was only him. Mathis Organa the survivor.

     Mathis sank to his knees, exhausted, and felt tears pour down his cheeks.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Varnus System

            0410 Hours


The ISD-II Stormwatch popped out of hyperspace practically at Varnus’ doorstep, appearing suddenly in the space just outside of the NI First Fleet’s perimeter. Her hull was blackened in multiple places, with a few gaping holes in the front and sides, but she was in one piece. The NI fleet immediately responded, sending out ships to intercept. A full wing of Altarin'Dakor fighters from the Nexus flew into escort position, on alert just in case the enemy followed her in for a full-scale attack. But no pursuers appeared, and for the moment it seemed that the Stormwatch was safe.
     During the Stormwatch’s absence the entire First Fleet had arrived at Varnus and was waiting in orbit in anticipation of attack. Numerous Star Destroyers, Mon Calamari cruisers, and other capital ships and support craft now hovered in a geostationary orbit over the capital of Vectur, covering the region like a blanket. Leading them were the Super Star Destroyer Independence, the Allegiance-class Star Destroyer Defiant, and the Titan-class battleship Nexus, belonging to Zalaria's forces. There were six other ISDs, four VSDs, three Mon Cals, four remaining Majestic cruisers, and a host of other support craft. It wasn’t a large fleet. Recent battles at Moro and Sigma had whittled it down. The Second Fleet was much larger, but for the time being had been relocated to Tralaria, to guard the capital. For now, this was all that they had to defend Varnus.
     As the Stormwatch moved into formation, medical transports and personnel shuttles began running back and forth, ferrying beings and crew to and fro. Slowly they made sense of the chaos, as what had happened to the ship became clear.
     Apparently the Crinn had arrived in advance of Nimrod’s main force, intending to scout and possibly lead the forward assault onto Varnus. But on the way in they’d run into the Stormwatch, which by a lucky break had been scouting directly in the enemy's path. The ensuing scuffle had effectively revealed the enemy's plan and knocked them a serious setback. Local rumors said that Jedi Master Mathis Organa himself had stood against nearly a hundred Crinn warriors and had driven them out of the ship’s hangar. Now the Stormwatch was moved to a safer location and commanders both in the fleet and on the surface were abuzz about what had happened, holding last-minute meetings and briefings to prepare everyone for the impending attack.

     The fleet was abuzz with speculation over what would happen next, but overall there was a growing sense of dread and worry. Everyone knew that this was their last chance; if Varnus and Tralaria fell, the New Imperium would be finished.

     As frantic preparations were taking place in orbit and on the planet, final briefings were just about to begin. And in the distance, the first Altarin’Dakor command ships began to exit hyperspace, not bothering to hide their arrival, marching with impunity towards their ultimate target…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            1440 Hours


Maarek had finally been able to snatch enough time to meet with Jac Railler, the impromptu trainer and commander of the Royal Palace Guard. He hadn’t had much time with the man since they’d gone back to Haven to rescue refugees. Jac had done well since then, living on a small plot of land outside Vectur where he enjoyed farming. But with the invasion, he’d been called in again. Now Jac was dressed in a military officer’s uniform, and had just finished a round of inspections in preparation for the major briefing by Grand Master Xar Kerensky.

     Maarek found Jac up on the main wall surrounding one of the largest courtyards on the south side, near the primary entrance. A wall of skyscrapers made a backdrop behind him as Maarek caught up to him and gave a relaxed salute.

     “How are things?” he asked as he slowed to a halt. Railler, a few years Maarek’s senior, held a scraggly beard that was showing its first signs of gray. His prominent scar ran down from his eyebrow and across his nose to his cheek. Maarek still wondered where he’d gotten it from.

     “Commander Stele,” Jac greeted him warmly, exchanging handshakes. “I’m glad we could catch up before the action starts.”

     “Looks like you’ve done a good job with the men,” Maarek said.

     “Thanks,” Jac said. “And you, with your fighter squadron.”

     “Wish I could agree,” Maarek said. “I’ve lost a lot of pilots.”

     “It’s not your fault. We see a lot of losses in our positions. We can’t let it affect us.”

     “I know,” Maarek said. “I just need time. I’m dealing with a few things, right now.”

     The loss of Petur still panged inside, fostering Maarek’s insecurities about being able to protect the squadron in the future. And of course, Rynn’s rejection of him hadn’t done anything to help lighten his mood.

     “How are the Haveners?” he asked, changing the subject.

     Jac paused before replying, then sighed. “Some have left, Maarek. Others are still here, but it’s hard to reintegrate in a new society. Everything’s on hold as long as the AD are here.” Railler shook his head, glancing toward the city with a faraway look in his eyes.

     “It’s an unfair galaxy, Maarek,” he continued. “It’s ironic that when you try to avoid what you always were, fate has a way of dragging you right back into it and laying it all bare again. I wonder if we’ll ever stop knowing war.”

     Inwardly, Maarek felt the same way. He’d always been a pilot, and years in the military had trained him to think that it was all that life had to offer. Still, he knew the vast majority of beings in the galaxy were civilians, just trying to live their lives as best they could. It was their job to protect them. “If war ever dies out, we’ll be out of a job,” he said, trying to make a light comment.

     Jac was too introspective for that today, though. “I just want it to be over, Maarek,” he said, a sincere look in his eyes. “There’s more to life than war. I’m ready to find out what that means for my own life.”

     “I’m sure you’ll be around to find out,” Maarek said, trying to encourage him.

     Jac didn’t reply. Instead he glanced back out at the city, where speeders zoomed back and forth in their skylanes. Maarek let the silence play out for a moment, the decided to change the subject. There was more he wanted to know about Jac, anyway.
     "So what role are you playing in this, Jac?" he asked.
     "I'm with the troops in front of the palace main entrance," Jac answered, inclining his head in that direction. "Front line of defense. Xar... He asked me to."
     "And you're just going to do it? Because he asked you to?" Maarek countered. These days he couldn't imagine himself just blindly doing whatever the man said. Xar was just too unpredictable…
     "It has nothing to do with my opinion of the Grand Master," Jac said, breaking through Maarek's thoughts. "I trained those men and I can fight, so that's where I'll be. Besides, Haven was my home, and it was taken from me. Now Varnus is my home, and I don't want to lose it, too."
     Maarek nodded, conceding the argument.
     After a moment had passed, Maarek broke in with another question that had been eating him ever since he’d met the man. “You never told me how you came to Epsilon Sector. Didn’t you say you’ve lived here for only a few years?”

     Jac was silent for a moment. Then he smiled slightly.
     "I might as well tell you," he said, scratching at his half-grown beard. "The name Jac Railler is just an alias. My real name is Kir Kanos."
     At Maarek's curious expression, he added, "You may not have heard of me as well as I've heard of you. I was one of the Emperor's elite Sovereign Protectors. After his death I helped bring down Carnor Jax and his so-called 'Crimson Empire'."
     "I heard about that," Maarek nodded. "You slaughtered the whole Imperial Ruling Council, didn’t you?"
     "Most of them," Kanos said matter-of-factly. "Maarek," he said, suddenly growing serious. "I have a favor to ask of you."
     "Anything. What is it?"
     "If I don't make it out of this alive, there's someone I want you to contact."
     "What makes you think I'll live through this, either?" Maarek asked.
     "Call it insurance if you want. The more people that know - people I trust, at least - the more chance it'll get out. Hopefully you won't have to concern yourself with it."
     "Who do you want me to contact?"
     "Her name is Mirith Sinn."
     "A romantic interest?"
Something like that."
     "Well..." Maarek hesitated; he wasn't used to being a courier of personal information. "What should I say?"
     Kanos glanced down at the floor before continuing. "Just... Tell her I am sorry. She was right; I shouldn't have left. My... obsessive quest wasn't worth what it cost me. I should have stayed with her."
     Maarek just stood there, listening. This was obviously an emotional subject for Kanos.
     "Also... Tell her thank you for me. Thank you for helping me to change, for showing me I could change. I love her, and if I cannot be there for her when this is all over... I wish the best for her life."
     He broke off then, nodding softly to himself. Maarek could tell that he was torn by grief. He didn't know the details, but he knew regret when he saw it.
     "Go back to her," he said.
     "I don't know. Maybe when this is all over."
      They stood there then, sharing a moment of silence, as they watched the buildings of Vectur rise into the sky in front of them. After just a moment, Kanos pulled his chrono out of his pocket and gestured with it to Maarek.

     “The briefing is about to begin. We should get going.”

     Maarek nodded, and soon found himself following the other man through the crowded corridors once more.

                                    *                                  *                                  *


The main palace conference room was packed. Not only were all the Jedi in the Division present, but so were most commanding officers of the First Fleet, as well as planetary defense. It struck Maarek that this would be a horrible moment for the enemy to strike, with everyone gathered in one place.
     Xar stood at the podium behind the tables set up at the back of the room. To his right and left were the only three members of the Jedi Council still able to be present – Adepts Gui Sun Paan, Vynd Archaron, and Kiz Thrakus. There were no more Masters – Gaius Adonai and Mathis Organa were in orbit, Nico Flygras was in Medlab, and Grand Master Misnera was still unaccounted for. It didn’t bode well for strong leadership in the Division.

     Spread out among the rows of seats in the room were the Jedi, and even Maarek knew enough to see that the same people always sat near each other. There were the Jedi Houses - Ar'Kell, Vortigern, Aurora, and Castellan - then there was Xar's ‘cadre’, and a large group that represented the younger upstarts that didn't fit in with anyone but themselves. The Jedi might be united in purpose, but there were major differences within them.
     He looked around the room for Rynn, and his eyes widened in surprise when he saw her sitting next to Jinx Skipper.

     So that was how it was. He'd heard rumors.
     Maarek himself stood with Jac Railler - no, Kir Kanos, he reminded himself - near the back of the room. They hadn't been the last to arrive, but Maarek still felt a little aloof from the Jedi. They used powers he didn't understand, even though he knew it was because of his lack of interest. He had come to accept that he was Force-Sensitive, but he had turned down Xar's offer to teach him how to use it. He'd always assumed that once he started down that path, the Jedi would never leave him alone until he had a robe on his shoulders and a lightsaber in his hand. Maarek preferred fighter combat to personal conflict. Still, there were times, he had to admit, that he wished he had that edge in a dogfight, to know what his opponent was going to do before he did it. He hadn't used to think that way, but that was before he’d flown against a Jedicon. That feeling of helplessness... It sent cold fear into his gut. But it was too late to do anything about it now.  Xar had begun to speak, and he turned his attention to the Grand Master of the Jedi Division and regent of the planet they were defending.
     Xar looked out on everyone and took a deep breath, a grave look on his face. Even from this distance Maarek could see that the man was undergoing some kind of extreme stress. He looked so very tired, and on edge. The pressure of leading in the face of this attack must be affecting him more than Maarek had thought.
     "First of all, I wanted to inform everyone that our long-range scanners have spotted a Titan-class battleship on the fringes of the system, moving our way,” Xar began.
     A ripple of surprise-laden comments spread throughout the crowd, and Maarek swallowed, steeling his nerves. So it had begun.
     "I've just returned from the command briefing on the Nexus with Sector Admiral Gaius, Fleet Admiral Percy, and Zalaria's forces," Xar continued. "The First Fleet is in orbit and we have detailed our strategy for the upcoming attack.
     "The planetary shields here should hold against any bombardment, as well as prevent a ground landing. Our strategy, then, is for the First Fleet and its squadrons to hit the enemy as hard as we can to try and deter them from pressing on with the attack. We'll punch through their fighter screen and hit their main Titans with everything we've got. Our planetary forces will stand by to prevent anything from attacking our shield generators. Should the shields fall, our forces will fall back to stop a troop landing and to engage any forces on the ground."
     He nodded toward a dark-haired, straight-backed man in the front row dressed in a crisp ceremonial uniform. "Colonel Rivian Donitz has been selected to lead the First Fleet's fighter squadrons in orbit, in the attack."
     Maarek felt his jaw drop in shock. Donitz had been chosen? What was Xar thinking...?
     His thoughts were interrupted as Xar looked up over the crowd and locked eyes with him, continuing. "Commander Maarek Stele, you are in charge of planetary fighter defense; your task is to protect the capital at all costs."
     "Understood, sir," Maarek heard himself say, an automatic reaction. He felt like he'd been punched in the gut, and his face flushed warm with the anger of betrayal. So Xar wanted him to babysit, did he? Planetary shields were strong - Xar was effectively keeping Maarek out of the fight.

     Things had definitely changed. Gradually, a wall had grown up between him and his former friend. Now a line had been crossed. In his gut he felt it - Xar didn't trust him anymore.
     "Our Jedi will provide the palace and surrounding city with its last line of defense. However, if the opportunity arises, I intend to use our most elite forces in an attempt to infiltrate enemy command ships."

     “Sir, does that mean that none of our Jedi will be piloting fighters in the battle?” asked one member of the Jedi group. Maarek recognized the Duros as Val Ricaud.

     “That is correct,” Xar replied curtly. “Our top priority is to defend the Palace District against assault, and to face any enemy Jedicon.”

     Maarek heard a murmur pass through the crowd at that. The Jedi were, quite understandably, worried about facing actual Jedicon in combat, just as much as Maarek was afraid to face them in a dogfight. After all, the Altarin’Dakor version of the Jedi – Jedicon meant ‘True Jedi’ – had consistently and thoroughly defeated the Division’s own members in combat practice. If the Jedi could face them two or more at a time, then they could gain the upper hand. Unfortunately, Maarek didn’t think that the NI’s Jedi would be having the advantage of numbers in this particular engagement.

     He glanced around the room one more time, wondering if this would be the last time any of them saw one another. The odds were stacked against them. No matter how well they had prepared, if Nimrod threw the bulk of his forces against them – and it seemed he had plenty to spare – then it was only a matter of time. He hoped that they could find some way to win; maybe some weakness could still be found.

     If not, then this would be the final conference ever held in this room.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


"From this point on," Xar continued on once the noise had died down, "The Palace District and Greater Vectur are under a state of martial law. Since we do not know when the enemy will attack, and there has been no contact with them, we must be in a constant state of readiness."
     Jinx watched Xar speak from the third row of seats. Rynn sat beside him on his right, and Atridd Xoan was seated on her other side, all three of them watching Xar speak.
     "Curfews will be in place until further notice, which means no one goes out on the streets at night without authorization. Beginning tonight we will begin landing walkers and hovertanks, and also troops transports. New Imperium Army brigades will be moving in to supplement our defenses. Be in a state of alert. Individual orders will be passed down through the chain of command."

     “Sir, will our ally Jedicon be assisting us in the defense here?” asked a tentative Amleth Uiara off to Jinx’s left.
     “Negative,” the Grand Master replied. “The current plan is that they will remain on the Nexus and participate in the orbital engagement.”

     That was news to Jinx. Only a day or so before he’d heard Xar mention bringing the Jedicon down to help guard the palace. What had changed his mind?

     Listen everyone,” Xar said then, his voice turning grave. “This is a pivotal moment in history. The future of the New Imperium and all the lives within it are hinging on what happens here. I sense that this will be the direst fight we’ve had yet. Some of us – perhaps many of us – are not going to make it through to the end. There will be casualties; we need to face that fact. I suggest each of you take this evening and tonight and get your affairs in order.”

     Jinx took a deep breath and felt the rest of the room collectively do the same. It was as close to a prediction of doom as he’d ever heard Xar say. Indeed, they all knew that this could be their last stand, a suicide mission. But this was their job, their whole lives. They had nothing else to live for. For Jinx it certainly was true. His people were all here, now.

      “That said,” Xar said, straightening, “I want you to know that I have the utmost pride in each and every one of you. Each of us has come out different situations, leaving our old lives behind to unite here behind one purpose. I am thankful to all of you for being a part of this. No matter what has happened or will happen, you are all my family. It is my greatest honor to have built this thing with you all.”

     Jinx watched the man step back from the podium as not a few members gathered in the room wiped moist eyes. They’d all sensed sincere emotion in Xar’s words, and Jinx had no doubt they were real. Despite how hard he could be at times, Xar truly did care about them all. And if he didn’t always show it overtly – well, it was a father’s job to discipline his children as he saw fit, right?

     The meeting quickly concluded, and everyone stood up and began to mingle. There was a sense of vital importance to their conversations, now. It felt as if they knew each conversation with a particular person could be their last. Jinx stood as well, exchanging a glance with Rynn.

     They followed the crowd out of the conference room and into one of the side corridors. Jinx strode alongside Rynn, glancing at her every few moments. She wasn't acting like her normal, focused self. In fact, she looked ill.
     "How are you feeling?" he asked her.
     She shook her head in dismissal.
     Jinx went out on a limb. "It's your ability, isn't it?" he asked.
     Finally, she nodded slightly. "I can sense their power level constantly," she said. "It spiked about a day ago and it hasn't stopped since. It's... overwhelming..."
     She put a hand to her forehead, and suddenly she stopped and slumped over against the wall. Jinx moved closer and put an arm around her to steady her, his concern rising. "Hey, take it easy," he said.
     "It's crazy. I don't understand it. This is different from anything I've felt before," she said.
     "What do you mean?"
     "I can feel them all around us," she said, her voice sounding more troubled by the minute. "It's like they're not only above us, up there... It feels like they're beneath us, too."
     "What do you mean, ‘beneath us’? As in, underneath our feet, right now?"

     "Yes!” she replied. “I know it sounds crazy. I can't even think straight; the feeling is so strong."
     Jinx was immediately concerned. Rynn had never mentioned anything directional before in her senses. He firmly believed that she was starting to understand and even control her power a little more, but if that was true, then she certainly shouldn't be feeling anything below them. Maybe she was sensing the whole planet in danger. After all, the Altarin'Dakor had obliterated every standing structure on Moro and poisoned the waters on Danube. The entire Eridani system had been wiped out by a supernova. When the AD attacked, whole worlds were in jeopardy. Jinx realized he should get the guard to double-check security on the lower levels, just in case.
     Still, Rynn was obviously in pain from the exertion of using her powers. "Maybe you should relax," he offered. "Don't keep trying to sense them all the time. You did a great job, Rynn." He stood with his arm around her, oblivious to the traffic passing by them in the hallway. "Come on, we should probably go ahead and take the children to the Treasury now. I'll help you. Let's go find Bren."
     She nodded, and a moment later removed her hand from her forehead, and with his help, she straightened.
     Then someone bumped Jinx's shoulder on his way past.
     Jinx turned to see who it was. He found Maarek Stele turning back and staring at him.
     "Commander," he said with a slight nod.
     "Sorry. I didn't mean to disrupt you two." Stele's tone was dark. Jinx could sense the sarcasm in his words, and perhaps... was there jealously there, too?
     But of course. Rynn had told him about Maarek's confession. Apparently the man hadn't taken her response that well. Jinx could understand his position, but there was nothing to be done about it.
     "I guess Jedi take after their own, don't they?"
     "That has nothing to do with it," Jinx countered, annoyed that Stele would be childish enough to bring this up now. He was a professional; he should know enough to look at the situation analytically and move on. "I'm sorry," he said. "But things like this happen. Feelings don't always run mutual. I'm sure you understand."
     "Easy enough for you to say."
I hope there won't be any hard feelings," Jinx said.
     Stele gave a smirk. "I don't have time for hard feelings. I was just passing through." He gave a slight nod toward each of them. "Skipper. Mariel." Then he turned and strode quickly away. Jinx watched him pick up his pace as Xar appeared out of a doorway down the hall.
     "Sorry about that," Jinx said, glancing at Rynn.
     "It's okay," she said. "You handled it... nobly. He's a good man; he's just... going through a lot, lately."
     "Tell me about it," Jinx said. "Shall we go down to see Bren now?"
     She nodded, falling into step beside him as they headed for the nearest stairway.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Maarek had forced his way through the crowd, desperate to catch Xar on his way out, when he’d run into Jinx by accident. The rejection by Rynn, and then seeing her with Jinx’s arm around her, had been too much. He'd acted like an idiot. His stress and dissatisfaction at everything had flown out, and he’d childishly tried to get back at Jinx and Rynn for something that wasn't their fault. Jinx didn't deserve that, and Rynn was the last person he wanted to insult. He blew out a deep breath in frustration.

     Xar was already walking away ahead of him, and Maarek had to run to catch up. It might be his last chance to talk. Pushing through a last group of conversing Jedi Knights, Maarek jogged up behind him, catching him in a relatively un-crowded spot just before the man disappeared around a corner.
    “Xar, wait!” he called out.
     Kerensky paused, turning back to look at him questioningly.
     “Why did you choose Donitz to lead the wing?” Maarek blurted out. It wasn’t that he hated the man, but he needed to know, stang it! “Wasn’t that what you originally recruited me for?”
     Xar arched an eyebrow at the question. "That was a long time ago. You have your own squadron now, don't you?"
     "Yeah, but I live here too; I have for several years, now. I want to defend Varnus."
     “You will be. I thought you’d be happy, Maarek. Donitz has to worry about hundreds or thousands of fighters out there. You don’t want that much responsibility on your head, do you?”
     Xar's words were right; deep down, Maarek had to admit that he much preferred leading a small group rather than coordinating on a large scale. But anger and frustration still boiled within him. What was it that made him feel like this? It had to be Donitz. Despite everything, the man had always kept one step ahead. In his whole career, Maarek had never been in this kind of position. He'd always been the one on top, but now their positions were reversed.
     “But why him?" he demanded finally.
     “Why Donitz? He’s more than qualified, Maarek. He has more AD kills than anyone in the fleet.”
     Maarek nodded slowly, but he still didn’t buy it. It just felt like there was something else there, between he and Xar that hadn't been worked out. He had to ask the question at the forefront of his thoughts. “Haven't I proved myself? Do you think I'll do something stupid?” he said. "We're friends. I thought you trusted me."
     Xar sighed, raising his hands in exasperation. “You are a loose cannon, Maarek.” 
     At Maarek’s disbelieving expression, he continued.
     “Look, you’re an incredible pilot; no one can deny that. But there are other issues here, some of them political, and you’ve done a few crazy things since you’ve been here. Look at some of the incidents that have happened. You’ve changed since you first came here. Before, you were reliable and always by the book. Now, no one’s so sure about that anymore.”
     He gave Maarek one last apologetic look. “I’m sorry. But you’ll make a greater impact down here, in the atmosphere. You don’t need to be distracted worrying about everything else going on. I promise you'll get your chance. You'll do fine.” At that he turned and began striding away.
     “Guess I’m not the only one who’s changed,” Maarek said at the man’s back as he walked away down the corridor.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            2020 Hours


            Evening settled slowly over Vectur, covering the tall spires of the city with shadows that worked their way inexorably upwards. Lights shown out from windows in the dimness, though not as many as there would usually be. Speeder traffic fell off, dwindling to a trickle. It was as if the city was shutting down, going into hibernation in anticipation for winter. There was a sense of anticipation, and foreboding. Martial law was in effect. Everyone knew what was coming.

     Varnus’ early warning system had picked up another Titan-class Battleship entering the system only a few hours before. It was compelling evidence that an attack would come soon.
     Grand Master Xar Kerensky had followed the general briefing by making a public, citywide announcement: all civilians were to make their way to shelters in preparation for attack. All businesses would be closed the next day and would remain so indefinitely until the conflict was resolved. With martial law in place, the buildings and city streets were to be cleared – safety was now the top priority.
     There were no night parties; most bars and clubs didn't even bother opening for the night. It was as though everyone knew this was the time to focus on what was truly important. It might be the last night they ever spent with their friends, their family and their loved ones.
     In the Royal Palace, beings clustered together in quiet groups, enjoying the simple pleasure of one another's company. Spouses spent time together privately, while others spent time with squadron mates, House members or other friends. The atmosphere was subdued, with a sense of change permeating the air. Things would soon be different.
     Sturm Brightblade stood on watch in the Palace Control Room, watching the reports stream in while keeping an eye on the nightly news. Most citizens had been successfully moved to safe zones. It was especially important to keep the downtown area clear, as any sort of disturbance - energy or projectile weapons or even debris - could send those skyscrapers tumbling down.
     During the night, more defense forces would be making their landings in the city streets, setting up guard posts and defensive positions. A series of heavy barricades was being built in front of the palace's main entrance, as well. Overall, the preparations were going as planned, but he wondered if it would be enough to stop the Altarin'Dakor.
     What disturbed him more at the moment was in the missing members of his House tally. When the Ar'Kell members had gathered in their House wing, there had been several notable absences, including his own second-in-command, Aedile Vykk Olyronn. Also missing were several of the other commanding staff, including Crusaders Domi and Moore. It was unlike them, especially Vykk, to vanish without telling anyone. He had a hunch that they might be on a mission somewhere, but there were no missions going on that he knew of. Besides, how could there be, with Varnus itself about to be attacked? Their disappearance was most disturbing. He wondered if it was related to the absence of Grand Master Misnera, as well. It could explain a lot. He just hoped that they had a good reason to be gone at a time like this.
     Things had happened at a breakneck pace the last few days. He had only just gotten back from a last-minute mission himself, taking a team of Jedi back to Jengar to rescue its would-be mayor, a technician named Thad Balfin. That mission certainly didn't go quite as expected, he thought. He was sure that Neres, Draken, Varanus, and Yarna had needed just as much rest as he had, coming back. At least everyone had gotten out of it alive, and the discovery they'd made just might hold enough importance to make an effect on this war.

     Assuming, of course, they all survived the next few days.
     He turned slightly as the doors opened, admitting a lithe woman with curled hair that fell down almost to her shoulders. Melia Tai had foregone her Dathomiri attire in favor of a form-fitting combat uniform, her lightsaber dangling from a utility belt at her waist. Sturm ran a hand through his wispy, snow-white hair, attempting to bring it under control as she came to a stop in front of him.
     "Crusader, what can I do for you?" he asked.
     Melia's tone was formal - she hadn't quite adjusted to the more laid-back style that predominated within the Jedi Division. She was also probably brimming with pride inside because Xar had just promoted her to Crusader.
      “Quaestor Brightblade, the Grand Master has tasked me with guarding the main city shield generator. Others are helping me on rotation. Today Quaestor Neres gave me his assistance, and I was wondering if you might know someone interested in volunteering for tomorrow's watch."
     Sturm grinned. He knew a challenge when he heard one, veiled though it might be. He let her stand there for a moment, all prim and proper, then he grinned again. “Well, we can’t let old Neres outdo us Ar’Kellians, can we?”
     "Sir?" she asked, looking perplexed.
     "It's all right, lass," he assured her. "I'll help you guard the shield generator tomorrow."
     "Quaestor, I did not mean to offend. I am not implying that you should go yourself..."
     "No offense taken," he said, waving the comment away. "It would be my honor to volunteer. What time does the shift begin?"
     "Templar Rocanon is doing the night shift, which will end tomorrow at 0800 hours."
     "0800 it is, then," Sturm said with a curt nod. "I finish here at 2200, so that'll give me just enough sleep to start fresh."
     "I am honored, Quaestor. Thank you," Melia said, and actually smiled. She glanced at the holoscreens spaced around the command center, then back at Sturm. “Well, I’m sure you have a lot to attend to. I’ll see if I can find a few other volunteers to help tomorrow. Command seems to think an attack is likely.”

     “Then we’ll have to be ready,” Sturm said.
     He gave her a nod, and then she turned and left, leaving Sturm to continue his nightly vigil and ensure that all the transports made it down successfully…


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Gui Sun Paan held his wife, Oriana, as they shared a seat on the couch in his quarters. She leaned against him, resplendent in a white gown, and he was reminded again just how much he loved her – and why he married her.

     She was worried tonight, but so were they all. Word was, the Altarin’Dakor were in orbit, and the attack could come at any moment. In the face of that, he knew where his priorities lay. The most important thing he could do to prepare was to spend time with his wife.

     “Do you think the kids will be safe in the Treasury?” she asked, quietly.

     “I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he reassured her.

     “I don’t know, Gui Sun. I have a bad feeling about this one.”

     “It’s the safest place in the palace.”

     She shook her head softly. “I’m not talking about just them. It’s you and the others. There’s really no way out, this time. We could all die here on Varnus.”

     He pulled her a little closer, leaning his head against hers as they stared at the window, watching the blinking city lights as they reached up towards the stars above. “Don’t say things like that,” he whispered. “What must happen… will happen. It’s not our place to worry. We’ll just do our best.” He smiled slightly. “It’s a better place to spend your last days than Tatooine.”

     “I’d rather have years, Gui Sun.”

     “If the Force wills it.”

     She glanced over at him with a wry expression. “You’ve always been like that, Gui Sun. Always trusting the Force. Everything finds its purpose within its bounds, doesn’t it?”

     “That’s what we’re taught,” he said. He smiled down at her. “It’s comforting to know that even if our bodies perish, there’s something else to look forward to. There’s more to life than just our physical forms.”

     “You… aren’t afraid, are you?” She studied his face for a moment, then finally smiled softly. “You’re the bravest man I’ve ever met, Gui Sun. That’s why I love you. That’s why I married you.”

     “I’m not so brave,” he replied gently, leaning close to kiss her on the lips. “Not so much as my wife.”

     They held one another for a long moment, finally leaning back to lie there together, intertwined, simply enjoying one another’s presence, wishing the moment would last forever.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Amleth Uiara sat in the sofa in his office, a holoscreen with the volume turned down showing the nightly news brief. As Quaestor of Vortigern, he’d been appropriated enough room for any senator or ambassador might have been.
     At this hour he would normally be alone in the office, but tonight his best friend, Knight Varnanus Templar of House Ar’Kell, had come to spend time with him. They both knew an attack was imminent, and it had been some time since they’d been able to simply chat together. Amleth’s trusty R2 unit, Ozie, sat over in the corner, as well, soaking in their conversation. Maybe at least the information stored in his databanks would be left to posterity.
     Amleth had originally recruited Varanus into the Jedi Division. Though they had served in different houses - Ar'Kell and Vortigern - the two had always remained close.
     Varanus sat on the plush rug covering most of the floor, leaning back against the wall and toying with his lightsaber handle in his hand. He’d come to see Amleth when the rest of Vortigern was either hanging out with other friends or already sleeping. They had spent a good deal of time catching up with each other’s latest happenings, but the conversation was becoming more and more subdued as time progressed. The seriousness of the situation eventually won out, creating a mood of… sadness, and perhaps even finality.  

     "You ever think about going back home?” Varanus asked suddenly. “To Sinorel? I mean, the New Republic gave your people their freedom, right? Drove that guy, Tains, out of power for good. We saw them move in the last time we were there."

     Amleth thought back to that particular mission, when he’d been a bit younger, and much more foolish. He’d disobeyed orders and put him, Varanus, and two other Jedi in danger. Grand Master Kerensky had been lenient on him.

     He sighed. "Yeah, Tains is gone. But I don't know if he's still alive or not. Still, why would I want to go back? What's there for me? This is my home now." Even Sheona had turned on him. The only thing his world reminded him of was betrayal and loss.

     “I suppose you’re right,” Varanus said. “Still, you wouldn’t be here right now, sitting right in the path of destruction.”

     Amleth shook his head, resolutely. “There’s no other place I’d rather be than here. How about you, Varanus? Not having second thoughts?”

     “Never,” Varanus said. “I’m with you all the way.”

     Amleth smiled, thanking his friend for his sense of loyalty. They had both grown a lot since that foolhardy return to Sinorel, and now he could look back on that mission with a sense of closure, despite what that had happened there

     Suddenly Varanus spoke up again, his voice growing soft, distant. “This… It’s all about to change, isn’t it?”

     “What do you mean?” Amleth asked.

     “Think about it. In another month or year – or maybe even a day – Varnus and maybe the whole NI won’t be the same. I can’t believe it. Already we’ve lost so much. Jengar, Moro, Sigma… So many friends are gone. Pretty soon… We won’t all be here, together. All the Houses are here under one roof. We’ve done so much training together to prepare for this thing. Exploring the palace, hanging out with my best friends – Vynd, you and Brightblade.” He paused, staring at his lightsaber hilt as he slowly twisted it in his hands. “I… I like the way things are, Amleth. The House, the Palace, the Division, the whole NI. I don’t want them to change.”

     “I… know how you feel,” Amleth admitted. It was true; the sense of camaraderie, of family, had been strong in the Division, despite the factions that had sprung up in recent months.

     “Sometimes I think our best days have already passed. There are so many good memories here. I don’t want things to change for the worse.”

     “They might change for the better,” Amleth offered. “You have to have a little faith.”

     “But what if some of us don’t make it through this?” Varanus asked. “I mean, some people are going to die.”

     “We’ve all taken that risk,” Amleth said. “It’s part of what we do. We don’t run from it. It just… is.”

     “I know.”

     “Are you all right?” Amleth asked his friend.

     Varanus looked up at him again, and this time there was something else in his eyes… determination. “Like I said, I’m in this all the way with you. Let’s give the AD a little payback, okay?”

     Amleth smiled, reaching over to turn off the holoscreen. “Sounds good to me. We’d better get some rest. It may be a very busy day tomorrow.”


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Kiz Thrakus sat in his private quarters, dressed down to his undergarments, relaxing on the bed beside his beautiful wife Lorien Kal, of the Singing Mountain Clan. Their daughter, Seydinl, lay between them, nearly a year and a half old now, playing between the two of them.

     Kiz watched with a sense of wonder as his daughter happily sat there, oblivious to what was happening in the world around her. Thrakus and Lorien were always careful to repress any negative emotions around Seydinl – the daughter of two Force-Sensitives, she was highly attuned to the Force. He knew that one day she would become a powerful Jedi – one whom he hoped would surpass him in every way.

     “I don’t have to tell you to be careful out there tomorrow,” Lorien spoke up, her tone of voice light. But Kiz caught the meaning in her words. She would be worried, but not overly so. Danger was something that Dathomiri were used to, and they had been through a lot together already.

     “Nothing to worry about, my love,” he said, matching her positive tone. Thrakus knew how to take care of himself. The worst was still a possibility – but it wasn’t something he deemed worth thinking about. There was a job to be done, plain and simple. And when it was over, he would return home to his wife and daughter, and the simple, unconditional love that they would always hold for him, no matter what.

     The next morning he would have to escort the two of them down to the Treasury, where they would stay with Rynn Mariel until the resolution of the conflict. He knew they would be safest there, and their safety would free him up to do what was necessary in the upcoming battle. Thrakus reflected on all the things he had learned since coming to Varnus and joining the Division, and how much he had grown. He was older, wiser, and stronger. He had a wonderful wife and daughter. Everything was going right. It was the perfect time in his life.

     Kiz leaned over to his wife, her beauty still as captivating as it had been the first time he’d met her. “I love you,” he whispered.

     “I love you too, Kiz.”

     For a moment, he looked down at Seydinl. She was asleep now, peacefully resting between her two loving parents, and time suddenly seemed to slow to a stop. At that moment Thrakus felt happiness and peace more than he’d ever felt in his life. Looking at his daughter’s face, all his worries melted away.

     “Sing me a song again?” he asked his wife suddenly.

     “Certainly, my love.” She smiled then, glancing up at him. “Thank you.”

     “For what?” he asked.

     “For never letting me forget who I am.”

     Then she leaned over and put her head on his shoulder, and began to sing.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


As Xar slept fitfully alone in his bed, he was wracked by haunted dreams, or perhaps visions, of Altarin'Dakor. Turles beat him into a bloody pulp all over again. He relived his torture under Kronos, where for day after day he'd been brought to within an inch of his life, then healed, only to repeat the process over and over again. He heard Kronos' whispered promises of immortality and power beyond his dreams, and he felt the undeniable, inexorable power of the Warlord sweeping over him. He relived the moment when Kronos had burst his heart open, making him clinically dead before Zalaria arrived to revive him. He remembered facing Nimrod for the first time, and feeling the overwhelming sense of dread and fear that the Warlord exuded. Nimrod's fist crashed across his face again, and the he relived the fear of the Warlord chasing him through that maze of tunnels, finally catching him and sending pure terror into his heart. He saw Velius again, mercilessly assaulting his wife, and he could do nothing but stand by and watch it happen.
     Yet somehow, he'd survived it all. Icis had always told him he had a destiny. Surely his survival was compelling evidence that those prophetic statements were true. Xar was the Chosen One, destined to bring down the Altarin'Dakor and save the galaxy – even to restore the balance that had been lost since the first Schism, long before the founding of the Republic. It was him – he was sure of it. Somehow, he would weather this latest assault by Nimrod's overwhelming forces. They would find some way to emerge victorious, and then they would take the fight back to the AD. His destiny was always there, lying just beyond his field of vision, just beyond reach. Someday, he would grasp it. Then, finally, the galaxy would return to normal. Sometimes, in the dead of night, that was the only thing he had left to hold on to.
     As he tossed and turned, the screen in his adjoining office flashed new messages as they arrived into his mail box. A whole group of them were stacked there, unread. Xar hadn't had time to bother with such trivialities in the last few days, and he probably wouldn't until this was all over.
     Suddenly, a priority message appeared among the group. In its subject was a note, reading, Time-delayed message: the following message was delayed due to re-routing through a secondary server. We apologize for the delay.
     The sender was marked as Ken Brucmack. The body contained incriminating evidence that the Diktat of the New Imperium was an Altarin'Dakor agent.
     The message joined a hundred others grouped there on the screen, waiting inconspicuously, unread as their recipient drifted into deeper sleep.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


Jinx could hardly sleep all night. Rynn's words kept coming back to him, about how she'd felt the Altarin'Dakor all around them, and especially beneath them.  He caught sleep in spurts of an hour or less at a time. How could it be? Something was bothering him, eating at his nerves, but he couldn't figure out what it was. He had checked; security had found everything normal in the lower levels, where much of the Jedi training had been done. Still, worry nagged at him.
     Slowly, dawn came, and daylight broke its way through the shaded windows of his room. Jinx rose early, knowing that everyone else would, too. He doubted anyone had gotten much sleep during the night. He quickly showered and dressed, then went down to the Veranda Tapcafe on the upper floors of the East Wing in search of some protein, carbs and caf.
     The feeling was still there as he ate breakfast, waiting in the back of his mind like a mystery to be solved. He watched the tapcafe's other patrons come and go, many of whom he knew and recognized. He'd been right; virtually everyone was out and about at this early hour, and the tapcafe was packed with representatives of a dozen different races. He saw Quaestor Amleth Uiara having breakfast with Sian Rocanon and Vern 'Merlin' Mavrik. He noticed Quaestor Neres Warjan sipping caf with Varanus Templar and Lyn Cousto. He watched Vynd Archaron, the Warden, walk in, grab a caf to take away, and walk back out.
     The answer hit him in a full-blown rush of horror.
     He was on his feet in an instant, pushing his way through the other patrons and eliciting cries of protest, but he ignored them and was out the door in a second.
     "Deewun!" he called out to the retreating form, passing through rays of morning sunlight that lit the hallway orange.
     Vynd turned around in mid-sip, looking back at Jinx as he skidded to a stop in front of him.
     The Warden swallowed, then asked, "Good morning to you. And what can I do for you, my good man?"
     Jinx had no time for pleasantries. "Deewun, do the catacombs underneath the palace still connect to the basement archives, like they used to?"
     Vynd took another sip and looked at him thoughtfully. "As far as I know. I haven't checked in a while. Why, did someone move them without telling me?"
     Jinx blinked in confusion for a moment. Then he shook his head. "Do the catacombs have exits in other parts of the city? Would it be possible for someone to enter the palace by using them?"
     "We never found any other entrances," Vynd said. "The tunnels go on forever.  It's dark and dangerous down there, so we never fully explored it. I don't know if there's any way in – er, out – or not."
     "Would you be willing to stake your life on it?"
     Vynd frowned. "What do you mean?"
     "I think the Altarin'Dakor are using the tunnels to infiltrate the Royal Palace!"
     "I don't think that's possible," Vynd mused, though he didn't sound convinced. "How would they know their way around? It's easy to get lost. Besides, there's a security door leading from the basement to the catacombs."
     "You think that would stop them from getting in? I need to check. How do I get through that door?" Jinx asked.
     "I set a password on it, so no one will accidentally wander around down there."
     "What's the code?"
     Vynd sighed. "Well, that's the thing. I deliberately forgot it. You see, I got lost down there a couple of years ago and didn't find my way back out for three days."
     Jinx's jaw dropped. "So... nobody can get down there?"
     "Now hold on, I didn't say that," Vynd said, raising a hand. "I wrote it down somewhere. Here, hold this."
     Jinx found himself with Vynd's cup of caf in his hand, watching as the man searched through his robes for his pouch. He finally procured it, then took out his wallet and began flipping through some business cards inside.
     "Hmm, let's see here. I wrote it on the back of one of these. Mer-Sonn Industries - nope. Arakyd Missiles - not there. The Daystar Casino on Ahakista - nothing. Kitharik's Fun-filled World of Sigman Comedies, Live - negative." A pause. "Ah, here it is, on the back of Fenora's brother's Rancor Riding Rampage. Hey, what do you know? It's the same as all my other passwords. One, two, three, four, five. That's funny."
     He reached back for his cup of caf, but Jinx had already taken off down the corridor the other way.


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Titan-class Battleship Desolation

            System, Time Unknown


Alyx sat in the dark, knowing the other members of his team were there, but not seeing them. Vykk, Moore, Domi, Satai and Darcunter - the whole team - had been thrown in here with him all at once.
     He was hungry – they hadn't been fed for more than a day, he figured – but he ignored the pangs. Worse by far was not being able to sense the Force. It just simply wasn't there. He'd experienced what it felt like to be around a Null Sphere before, using one of the few artifacts the Division had stored within the Varnusian Palace treasury. Then he had been able to turn the device back off at will, restoring the refreshing, life-giving sense of the Force around him. Now, he understood just how hopeless it felt to be an unwilling prisoner of the device's power.
     "What do you think they'll do with us?" Vykk asked from somewhere in the distance. The room was unpadded metal bulkhead, so voices echoed around. He couldn't sense Vykk; he could only guess the man was somewhere to his right.
     "They might use us as bargaining chips," Colin Moore's voice came from behind him.
     "Or worse, as human shields," Rilke Darcunter added.
     "Maybe they're just waiting to execute us," Domi said hopelessly.
     "Calm down," Alyx ordered. He tried to suit actions to words, using a Jedi meditation technique even though he had no Force to draw on. It was like near-total sensory depravation in here - only touch and sound prevailed.
      "We have to be ready for whatever it is," Alyx continued. He paused, again pushing back the sense of guilt that wanted to overwhelm him. "Guys," he said quietly. "I'm sorry..."
     "No need for that, Grand Master," Domi's voice cut in, only to be joined by agreement from the other four people present.
     Alyx accepted their forgiveness, but he still struggled to forgive himself. How could have rushed in so blindly, so rashly? He had condemned them all. Varnus itself might be under attack by now, and they were sitting here, uselessly.
     How had he been foolish enough to trust her?
     Suddenly the door slid open, spilling blinding light into the room. Two shadowed figures were shoved into the room, where they collapsed in the pool of light. Then the door closed again just as quickly as it had opened.
     Alyx heard groans coming from where the men lay. He sat there quietly, wondering if they had something to be worried about from the newcomers. Their silhouettes had looked human.
     "Who's there?" one of the newcomers called out. Alyx's interest perked up; the man spoke Basic too fluently to be an Altarin'Dakor. He had to be a prisoner from this galaxy.
     "There are six of us in here," Alyx said, speaking softly so as not to alarm them. "Please tell us your names."
     "Glad to hear an accent I can understand," a second, familiar voice spoke up. "I am Roger Macreed, and this is Brajo..."
     "Roger?" Alyx immediately found himself scrambling toward the sound of the voice. "Is it really you? It's Alyx!"
     "I... Master Misnera?"
     His hand touched an arm, and Alyx embraced the man in a fierce hug. Then another body was there - Brajo's - and Alyx was able to put an arm on each man's shoulders. "Roger, Brajo... I can't believe it," he breathed.
     The room erupted into a cacophony of elated voices as everyone moved closer together.
     "We thought you were dead!" Vykk's voice came from somewhere behind. Then suddenly he was there, too, embracing them.
     "Sir..." Macreed's voice seemed on the verge of breaking. "You've been captured? This is awful..."
     "Nevermind that," Alyx said. Both men's bodies felt almost sickeningly thin beneath his hands. "What happened to you? Where are the others?"
     "They're... They're dead," Brajo whispered.
     "We were ambushed by Jedicon on Pax," Macreed explained gravely. "They cut us down, took three of us prisoner. NiksaVel was the last one to go. He was injured... They didn't even treat his wounds."
     "Kriffing murderers..." Moore whispered in the darkness.
     Alyx hung his head at the news of his men's death. It had been his team; he was responsible for them. He had failed them. He could not fail again.
     "They don't feed us much," Brajo said. "Just enough to keep us alive."
     "Why did they throw you both in here with us?" Mrax Satai asked from somewhere in the back.
     For a moment they all sat in silence and blackness. Then Macreed spoke up.
     "I... think they're making room for more prisoners," he said. "We saw them moving others around while we were out."
     Alyx looked around the room, but in the pitch-blackness he couldn't make out anyone else's face. "It must be Varnus," he said finally. "They're getting ready to attack."


                                    *                                  *                                  *


            Catacombs beneath the Royal Palace

            Vectur, Varnus

            0945 Hours


            Jinx stepped down into the darkness.

     He emerged into the low-ceiling passageways of the Catacombs, deep below the Royal Palace. Vynd’s code had worked, and from the old archives he’d traced the steps down into the abandoned underground tunnel network, whose purpose had been forgotten long ago along with its creators.

     It was pitch black; for some reason the lights were not on. Maybe because no one came down here. Jinx had only been down here once before, and wasn’t very confident he knew his way around. He felt around through the Force for any sign of activity, and found none. But that didn’t really mean anything – all Division members were taught how to use a Force Mask, so the Altarin’Dakor obviously knew how to use it, too.

     He knew enough of the general layout that there should be an access power switch somewhere nearby. At some point in the past electricity had been installed down here, and it would make it easier to take a look around than having to use a glowrod. He didn’t want to be down here for any longer than necessary.

     Jinx felt along the right-hand wall for the switch, sweeping his hand up and down. There it was. He flipped the switch, and a faint hum sounded in the tunnel. Then the lights flickered to life, and he could finally see down the tunnel ahead of him. He looked in that direction, and suddenly knew everything was about to change.

     Scores of Jedicon filled the corridor, less than ten meters in front of him.

     It was on.



The End of

Fading Glory


Written by Joshua Ausley

Copyright 2008

New Imperium


Next: Destiny


The Warlord Nimrod's plan of conquest is nearing completion, and the NI retains only a fraction of its former territory. The Warlord's forces have surrounded Varnus and are also poised to attack Tralaria, the NI Capital. With Varnus flooded with refugees, and the Jedi and NI forces hunkered down, the stage is set for a showdown on Varnus, a battle the likes of which haven't been seen since ancient times. If the NI loses, then Nimrod's forces will march straight on to an unsuspecting galaxy ripe for the taking. This is the critical hour, where heroes are made, lives are ended, and futures decided. And in the end, an unexpected revelation that may change everything...